Pre-Wedding Jitters. (Winner of Trophy in December 2016)
Josh swore on his mother’s grave but then he swore on just about everything these days. Mostly soft, blasphemous curses. He couldn’t help it. The big day loomed and his insides coiled with nerves at the thought of Mia, waiting at the altar. He imagined her red hair, curled beneath the ivory veil and her hazel eyes would look at him, expectant and hopeful. The whole of their futures spread before them, pivotal to the promises they made to each other on this big day: their wedding day. He kept finding himself visiting the church, where he would get married and where his mother’s gravestone rested. He wished his mum was here. She would know what to do.
The following Saturday and it was his Stag do at Woodland Adventures.
Josh’s tanned boot wobbled on the rope as he pulled his weight from the ground, his fingers searching for the next piece of rope to hold onto to steady his body, climbing, climbing upwards.
Concentrate hard, stay in the moment.
The rush of a flock of birds scattering with a squawk of feather and wings, brought his eyes upwards to the grey skyline above him.
God, how high up am I!
The rope rocked beneath his weight. He mustn’t look down.
Sam, his friend had already reached the top, fastening his harness onto the clip of the zip wire.
‘Hey, Sam, can you…’
The whistle of the zip wire sliding through the air and an excited, ‘Yeah, man!’ echoed around the tall trees like a phantom call.
‘Thanks, mate,’ Josh muttered, wondering why he had agreed to a Stag party at Woodland Adventures when he had an almighty fear of heights. He liked to think some perverse part of him thought that if he could face one of his worst fears and succeed, then the wedding would be a walk in the park because he would be, quite literally – fearless.
Josh reached the top. The green leaves of the pines faced him. He focused on their spiny features and the carved, cracked grooves in the bark of the trunks as he fiddled with the clasp of his harness. The click of metal attaching and he could feel the forest closing in, listening to his heartbeat, rocking at full volume and with a thrust of his legs, he stopped thinking and went, scrunching his eyes close, the friction of speed and wind forcing his body back to the ground. Adrenalin kicked through his body and with a scream, he landed.
‘Fecking ace, man,’ shouted Sam, high-fiving him.
‘I need beer,’ puffed Josh, exhaling air. ‘The rest of the guys are meeting us at the Dog and Bone.’
‘Dog and Bone, it is!’ Sam screeched, throwing his arms high and howling like a banshee. ‘First rounds on you?’ instructed Sam, slapping him on the back.
The fearlessness stayed with Josh and so when he saw Mia the next day, Sunday, slightly – no, majorly hung-over, he felt invincible like nothing or nobody could stop him so he decided to tell her the truth. He didn’t lead up to it or anything, he blurted his fear out loud, prompted by her knocking at his jean-clad legs, crossed on top of the coffee table.
‘You know, I hate feet on the table,’ Mia began.
Pain sliced through his head and he really couldn’t do with the whine in her voice so he cut her moan off. ‘I don’t think we should get married.’
‘Josh, I love you,’ her hazel eyes met his.
‘I love you too but,’ Josh started.
‘Josh, is it because it’s in church? I know you didn’t want a big church wedding.’
Thinking it might be easier to agree with her, Josh nodded. ‘A big affair isn’t me, Mia,’ he was about to add that maybe they should postpone the date but really would he have changed his mind in a few month’s time. Best to pull the plaster off their relationship today, minimal damage. ‘I can let my family and friends know and you can…,’ Josh stopped because Mia wasn’t listening.
She had pulled a travel brochure from her satchel and was flicking through the glossy pages. ‘Here,’ she pointed at an exotic beach resort, with pale sand and turquoise water: paradise. ‘This is where we can elope, just the two of us and the church service could be a blessing. This way, we won’t disappoint anybody.’
Josh leaned forward, the exorbitant price of the resort printed in small black ink at the bottom of the page. He could see his credit card bill statement looming and his voice – he couldn’t form the words.
‘I’ll book this and we can be gone Friday, Josh,’ Mia beamed. ‘Oh, I’m marrying a genius. Wait until I tell mummy and daddy how generous my future hubby is!’ and with a blast of noisy kisses plastered on his mouth, she left with the promise to pick him up on Friday, ready to take him to the airport – to their dream destination.
Mia’s pink mini tooted outside Josh’s house. Friday had arrived. The start of their week long adventure on the crystal shores of The Maldives. Josh swung his solitary man-bag into the boot of the car and joined Mia in the passenger seat.
‘Is that all you’ve brought?’ she asked, swinging into reverse.
‘All I need,’ Josh answered, squeezing her knee.
‘Josh, just think all of the food and drink we can have and we could even treat ourselves to some designer clothes,’ she said, glancing in the driver’s mirror at her perfectly made-up reflection.
All on my credit card, Josh thought. Could he face a life-time of this? Debts and the endless spending.
‘Petal, could you pull over a moment?’ Josh asked, spotting the perfect stopping place hidden along the quiet country lane.
Mia pulled over, a tiny frown burrowing her forehead, marring the perfection. ‘What is it?’ she snapped, the designer hands of her watch twinkling the time. ‘We can’t be late. I’ve booked us into the executive waiting lounge.’
Josh popped open the boot, unzipping his man-bag: plastic sheet, wrench, cloth and gloves. He returned to the side of the car, crouching down on his haunches, he opened Mia’s door.
‘Josh! What happened to your face?’ she gasped, eyeing the blood dripping down his face with horror.
‘A little accident,’ he explained, weighing the wrench in his gloved hands. ‘Just a tragic pre-wedding accident.’
Karen Rodgers © 2016
Bluebell Palace (winner in July 2016) “a well rounded tale set in the 1940s. This story really does have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is told with a gentleness that fits the subject perfectly.” ( Sallyann Sheridan, our judge)
Recently, everything had changed, in her small sea-side town, Peggy thought. The procession of khaki uniforms and strange alien accents that cat-called to each other – with strange sounding words: Howdie, Hi, you guys.
The first time Peggy saw him was when he visited ‘The Regent.’ It was a common occurrence since the Americans had arrived and pitched their camp at the top of the town, to see the soldiers around. The sea of blue washed in with the sea of green, of the troops as they marched around on official business.
The queue for the new film, snaked its way down the hill. Peggy joined the line, suddenly feeling shy in her own town as the heightened voices of the soldiers anticipated the entertainment ahead.
‘Hey, pretty face,’ said a baby-faced Private, looping his arm around her waist.
She stepped away and smiled. She didn’t want to cause offence. Neither, did she want to encourage his attention.
‘Leave her be, Danny,’ came a voice filled with quiet authority from behind.
She turned towards the beautiful voice. ‘Thank you.’
‘You’re welcome. I’m Xavier.’
Xavier took a cigarette from his case and lit up. He extended a cigarette towards her. She shook her head. He smoked – a faraway expression in his eyes and she wondered what he was thinking about.
He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. She understood that feeling. Most of her friends, had moved further away, helping in hospitals, doing their part for the war effort.
Peggy hadn’t gone. She was needed here, to care for her Dad. Although, he encouraged her to spread her wings, she knew her place was with him. They were a team. With Billy, her brother off fighting, they were the only family left.
‘He fancies you,’ said Beryl, her friend, giving her a nudge.
‘Sh! He might hear you.’ She could feel her cheeks heat.
‘That’s the idea,’ replied Beryl, with no remorse. Her eyes seeking out a soldier in front and treating him to a saucy wink.
Peggy wasn’t here for the men.
She entered the cinema taking her metal token and followed the usherette’s torch beam as she led them to their seats.
The auditorium filled, the patriotic tinkle of the piano played in preparation for the feature, cheery voices joining in with the singing as people found their seats.
The latest Ingrid Bergman film had been advertised in the shop window. Saturday was when she usually met up with Beryl. The escape to the cinema, a highlight in her week.
There was a general buzz about the place, despite the light trickle of snow starting to fall. Peggy pulled her coat tighter around her waist, joining the line. It looked like another sell-out. She moved forward, her foot catching and sliding across the uneven surface.
‘Ow!’ She let out an involuntary cry of pain, falling to the ground, her leg snapping beneath her. She tested the strength of her ankle by circling it slowly.
‘How is it?’
Peggy looked up to find concerned hazel eyes assessing her ankle in the dim winter light. The soldier from last time – Xavier. She wondered if she would see him again. His fingers probed her skin gently.
‘It’s fine. A little tender.’ Because how could she complain about an ankle when the boys were out fighting for their country.
He offered her his hand.
‘Hey, nice and steady,’ he advised, as he took her weight, linking his arm around her waist for support.
‘In superet Glacies frondeat atque Nives.’
‘That sounds beautiful. What does it mean?’
He glanced at the ground. ‘Freshness springs from the ice and snow. You look all fresh with your rosy cheeks.’
‘Freezing cold.’ She shivered. ‘You speak Latin?’
He shrugged. ‘A little for fun, back home.’
She liked how he didn’t brag about being clever or knowledgeable.
‘Are you alright, Peggy?’ asked Mr Hardwick, the manager, standing outside the cinema ready to greet his guests, his cheeks flushed from the cold wind.
‘A little bump, Harry, nothing serious,’ she reassured him.
‘I’ll look after her,’ said Xavier, a silent question in his eyes, asking her permission whether she wanted his company.
‘Thank you, Xavier. I would like that.’
They sat next to each other waiting for the black and white talkie to begin. The stale smell of smoke and body odour permeated the air but as he leaned in to whisper something in her ear, she caught the rich sharp tang of soap. She smiled as he pointed out how well the Allies were doing in their fight against Hitler. The troops liked the morale- raising news reel, cheering as the Brits won.
In here, with the doors heavily screened to adhere to blackout regulations, it was possible to believe anything. The harsh truth of the war interrupted by the humming of the projector lighting up the single screen with the story being acted out.
The intimacy of his body next to hers made it difficult for her to concentrate, aware of every shallow breath she was taking, of every small move he made. If someone asked her what Casablanca had been about, she wouldn’t have been able to tell them.
‘Can I walk you, ladies home?’ Xavier asked, when the film had finished.
‘Tom’s going to walk me home,’ said Beryl. ‘Have fun,’ she called, linking Tom’s arm and giving Peggy a warm smile and a thumbs up.
The streets were dimly lit. Xavier placed a hand in the palm of her back. ‘These streets are pretty icy.’
They passed the pub, filled with soldiers drinking beer like it was soda, singing songs, happy to be alive.
‘This is my house,’ she said stopping outside.
He leaned across and pecked her cheek. ‘Goodnight, Peggy. Can I see you again?’
She nodded. ‘Yes, I would like that.’
She touched her cheek, stroking the spot where he had kissed her as she watched him walk away.
They continued to meet up every week at the cinema, enjoying each other’s company. She didn’t think beyond each week. Every moment with Xavier, a precious gift. Six months had passed since the American soldiers had arrived and they were beginning to feel like a permanent fixture in the town. Then, at the end of May, Peggy knew something had changed when she met up with Xavier. There was a quiet distraction about him.
‘What is it?’ Peggy asked, taking his hand, feeling the strength of his fingers wrap around her hand, as they sat on the bench overlooking the sea-front.
Xavier stared out to sea. ‘There’s an assignment. We should be leaving soon.’ He tapped his cigarette on his case.
‘Right,’ she swallowed the gulp of tears bubbling at the base of her throat. She would be strong for him. ‘You’re well-prepared?’
‘We’ve had plenty of practice.’ He paused. ‘Peggy, this time spent with you in our own picture palace…I want you to know, it’s been swell.’
Their own picture palace, the building behind them playing out features to the public continually entertaining. While, in front of them the sea. The threat of the enemy awaiting on the endless blue mass.
She hugged him, pressing a token in his hand.
He looked at the knitted bluebell in his outstretched palm.
‘For good luck. Will you come back?’
‘I promise,’ he said, his voice muffled in the collar of her blouse. He placed the bluebell in his breast pocket, next to his heart.
It had been over a year since Peggy had last seen Xavier, although he was often in her thoughts. She hadn’t heard from him again. She had read with interest the success of the Allies defeating the Germans on the Normandy shores – D-day, they had called it. She had scanned the list of fatalities and casualities in Ohama, never finding his name, hoping he had returned home to his beloved farm to be with his family.
Peggy strung the ‘Swing Band Night’ banner around the lamppost, outside the cinema. In honour of the American soldiers, she thought, who had shown the town such vibrancy and fun but in her heart, she had organised tonight, to honour the memory of Xavier who had brought such colour and light into her life at such a dark time.
Harry Hardwick, the manager had let her use the cinema hall to host the Swing Night. They were aiming to raise money for all those soldiers who had come home, unable to work or provide for their family.
‘All set?’ Peggy asked Beryl.
‘Look at Billy, all at home, behind the drums,’ said Beryl.
Billy had returned home – changed from a boy to a man. He had found a new love for playing the drums and anything that made her brother smile was alright by her.
The drum beat out it’s rhythm, flooding the hall to the accompaniment of the band. The full flavour of swing music bringing the hall to life. The music building an intoxicating rhythm in which to dance to. Her hips started swaying.
‘Can I have this dance, miss?’ The melodious voice Peggy had imagined in her dreams – a thousand times.
A few faint lines around his eyes and a couple of harsh lines around his mouth, lifting as he smiled at her. Those friendly hazel eyes sparkling, the dark shadows lifting, as she took his arm.
‘It’s been too long.’ She stepped forward, crushing her arms around him, savouring the feeling of holding him, being in his arms, the reassuring scent of his soap tingling her nostrils.
‘This is for you. It kept me safe.’ He pressed a soft piece of material into her hand – the knitted bluebell: faded and slightly torn.
‘We can go and pick some fresh flowers,’ she said.
He smiled: warm and welcoming.
‘I’d like that, ma’am,’ he teased. ‘Now, about that dance?’
At last, she was home.
Safe in his arms.
©Karen Rodgers 2016
Taking Flight by Karen
Ava fastened her seat-belt. The click-clack of metal chaining her into the seat. Her eyes darting around her fellow passengers. She placed her two feet firmly on the ground focusing her attention forward. It would be over soon. Well, if you could call seven hours a short time.
‘Excuse me, can I pass?’
A man stood at her side waiting.
Would nudging her knees to the side give him enough room to get through? No, she would definitely have to move. His six-foot frame cast a shadow as she released her belt and scrambled to her feet clutching the back of the seat for support as she stood up to make space for him.
He passed, a sharp scent of bathroom soap assaulted her senses. Good, the toilets were up ahead. She could taste the bitter tang of nausea in her mouth and wondered if she was going to be sick.
He moved silently buckled his belt and extracted a book from his bag and began to read. He didn’t look like the book type with his sharp tailored business suit and military style hair-cut. Great, no conversation from that quarter. She popped a mint in her mouth, the sweet taste calming her nerves. She needed something to occupy her busy mind.
With shaking fingers, she grasped the flight card from the pocket of the chair focusing her attention on the pictures of what looked like people in a variety of life-threatening incidents; one picture of a man on a rubber dinghy abandoned in the middle of the ocean, how long would he last? It would either likely be too hot or too cold before he could be rescued. Breathe, Ava. Flying was a perfectly safe mode of transport. Birds did it every day. Mind you, they didn’t have the threat of a terrorist wanting to strap a bomb on their back and blowing themselves and their flock to kingdom come. Or what about that pilot who decided to go on a suicide mission flying his entire plane into the top of a mountain.
A glint of black caught her eye. The title of the book embossed in red letters delivering the words: The Cold Killer. Who reads those type of books on planes? Obviously, the guy sat next to her!
‘Wotcha!’ The seat next to her bounced as a man dressed in pink with Daz’s stag do emblazed across the front sat down.
Seeing her clock his T-shirt, he thumbed to his friends sat in the row across from them. ‘We’re off to the city that never sleeps. Party, party, party. Before, old Dazza here gets tied to the ball and chain. Isn’t that right Dazza?’ He bellowed, presumably to be heard across the aisle when in truth he probably could already be heard in New York. His greeting met by a chorus of grunts from his fellow stags. He punched the air, a stale swift scent of sweat sailed across.
She pressed her body as far away as politely possible.
‘How lovely!’ She injected enthusiasm in her voice. He wouldn’t notice the slight tremble that warned her she was on the verge of tears. Wedged between Mr Silent and Mr Loud, she wondered if she could ask to be moved. Did they make special allowances for nervous passengers?
‘What was that?’ A roar sounding like a loud explosion thundered through the plane.
‘The engine, love. We’re on our way, our way, our way,’ Mr Stag sang, broken only by a loud, beery burp.
Where were her paracetomal? She needed them or perhaps something stronger like a sleeping pill to knock her out so this whole nightmare would vanish and she could wake up in New York, in her Aunt’s apartment with no recollection of how she got there.
‘Miss, I’ll have to ask you to put that away.’ The fight-attendant shot a filthy look at the handbag perched on her lap.
‘I’m just looking for…’
He snatched the handle of her bag. ‘We’re about to take off, madam. Bags need to be under your seat or in the overhead locker.’
‘I can put it under my…’
Too late, the click of the over-head locker and a triumphant up turn of his nose and he sauntered down the aisle, her bag safely deposited along with her paracetomal.
‘I need my bag.’
The man next to her spoke. ‘If you have something you desperately want, I can get it down for you. I won’t tell, if you don’t.’
‘It can wait but thank you.’
The lurch of wheels rolling across tarmac made her feel like she was on one of those sick-making roller-coaster rides. She searched for the exit sign? Would they stop the plane if she made a run for it? Grey tarmac and green grass slid by in a blur as she chartered the progress of the plane on the ground through the narrow window.
‘Is it that obvious?’
‘Only to a seasoned flyer. I’m Luke. Nice to meet you.’
‘Ava.’ Oh please, make it stop. The plane tilted at an unnatural angle throwing her head back, she could feel the wheel slot into place with an awful grinding noise as they left the safety of land.
‘Hey, you did it.’
Sure enough an expanse of blue sky filtered through. She had done it. She had taken flight.
‘Grab me another lager,’ demanded Mr Stag, as the air-hostess wheeled her trolley through stopping at their row to offer beverages.
Psst. She released the liquid pouring it into a plastic container.
‘I don’t need that. Real men drink from the can.’ He made a grab for the tin knocking the air-hostess. Amber foam fizzed all over Ava’s lap as she dived too late from the onslaught of split lager.
‘Sorry,’ she gasped, her arms flying into Luke’s space.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said.
Hands fumbled on her lap as napkins were pressed into her front by Mr Stag who grinned at her.
‘I’ve got this.’ She snatched the wet paper from his meaty paws. She smelt like a brewery and she had no change of clothes but that was the least of her worries.
‘I don’t mind helping, sweetie.’
‘You heard the lady.’
‘What’s it got to do with you? None of your business is it?’
‘I’m making it my business.’
‘I’ll go to the toilets to clean up.’ She bolted upright practically running to the toilet. Had she seen what she had thought?
In the cosy cubicle she splashed cold water on her face. Her reflection stared back at her. It couldn’t be. She was letting her imagination run wild. For one awful moment when her hands had invaded Luke’s space, nudging his jacket she thought she had seen something cold, hard with a metallic grey sheen which had suspiciously looked like a gun.
Who sat on a plane with a gun for company? A terrorist?
It couldn’t be. All the air-port security, the mad frisking of people, the machines detecting suspicious packages. Hadn’t she had her expensive hand-lotion confiscated? She should tell someone. She would definitely tell someone, right this minute.
She unlocked the door to find Mr Handbag snatcher flight-attendant fiddling with some drawers on his dolly trolley.
‘Excuse me, I need to speak to someone.’
‘Madam, the seat-belt signs are on. Can you return to your seat?’
‘We’ve hit some turbulence.’
Sure enough the rocking sensation of her feet swaying on the ground made her feel decidedly unsteady and sick.
‘There’s a man next to me…’
‘This way, madam.’ He interrupted giving her no chance to speak. He led the way forcefully directing her to her place. ‘Now, buckle up. You’re in for a choppy ride.’
Luke was positioned in her chair. ‘It’s a bit damp. Thought you might be more comfortable near the window.’
A thoughtful maniac. She smiled. Best to keep him on side. She didn’t want him to flip do anything rash with that gun of his. Someone should warn Mr Stag.
‘Oh, we’re all going to die.’
Did he know? Had he seen the gun too?
Mr Stag sat hands white-knuckled on the arm-rests. ‘I’m so scared.’
‘Not cool.’ Luke threw her an apologetic look.
Oh, he was taking the mickey out of her. She softened the release of her tight fists and flattened them on her lap. The jerky bumpety bumps jolting her body into a tight line of tension.
‘I’ve got a bomb and I’m not afraid to use it!’ Mr Stag stood up flashing a silver pointed instrument. A knife?
It happened so fast. Frozen in abject terror, she watched Luke lunge from his seat with super-man strength wrestling Mr Stag to the floor, he whipped hand-cuffs from his back-pocket and snapped them around Mr Stag’s wrists. He barrelled Mr Stag through the curtains with another man who had appeared and then they were gone.
She bit back the plethora of swear words surging in her head.
‘Oh, thank goodness for the Air Marshals.’ A woman from behind said. Cheers and a round of applause erupted through the cabin.
Left alone, flanked by two empty seats she stretched her arms. Which film should she watch? The theme tune Survivor, the new must-see film rang through her headphones.
She snuggled down into her seat, a soft smile playing on her lips.
Yes, she thought. I am a survivor. Today, I faced my fears.
Wait until she landed and told Aunt Joan. She would never believe the drama of her own in-flight tale!
© Karen Rodgers 2016
Sandcastle Hotel by Karen (Winner of the Trophy in April 2016)
Ten Years ago…
The soles of my flip flops slap against the steaming heat of the asphalt in rhythmic timing. I study the butter yellow exterior of the hotel unable to believe how lucky I am to be on holiday by the sea-side. The gentle rolls of waves break on the shore line, a soothing chorus to the throbbing pain attacking my head. The two paracetomal I shuffled down earlier with my gin and tonic have made no indent into the headache threatening to erupt like a storm on a sunny day.
The strum of the guitar beats its magic rhythm around the hall. I concentrate on the spotty dated carpet, my fingers remembering the set as I continue to play by memory.
Outside I can hear the excited yelps of children playing in the pool competing against my practice.
I lay the guitar into the case and watch the children frolic, climb the floats splashing and having fun.
I remove my hands from my short pockets. Fun. A concept I had forgotten. The heavy weight of responsibility presses down on me. My phone pings. A text message appears. A figure flashes back so enormous I think I might be sick.
Never mind, I would be dead by sunset. My guitar set won’t make that sum of money unless I happen to impress some millionaire who by some miracle appears in the audience.
The pool beckons. I strip off my top the blazing heat sealing wafts of warm air around, comforting like a blanket.
I jump into the pool, my inner child spears into a scissor shape. My head disappears under the surface of blue. I kick upwards, the bright sun blazes shimmering diamond light dancing across the surface. I squint. I really should have packed my sunglasses. Too late now.
Too late to stop my legs from being incinerated in a burner when the thugs catch up with me and catch up with me they would.
‘Help. My brother.’
The screams focus my attention. At the other end, two boys bob up and down in the water.
I spring into forward stroke, my arms thrusting through the water.
A girl appears at the edge of the pool.
‘Here, grab hold of this.’
She passes a rectangular object to me. I lay it horizontal in the water.
‘Stick your fingers around the corners. Use it as a float,’ I instruct the boys.
‘Mister, I’m scared.’
‘Tez, do what he says.’
The float shifts to the stairs and the boys scramble to safety.
‘Baz, I told you not to let Tez go in the pool,’ their mum scolds.
‘No thanks, then.’ She shakes her head at the retreating figure. ‘I’m Hayley.’
‘Aaron.’ I take the stretched hand and haul the body from the pool. ‘Nice piece of equipment.’ I nod at the float, turning it around to see it is an oil painting.
‘It’s the first item, that came to hand. Will they miss the artistic interpretation of a bowl of fruit? She passes me a towel.
‘Thanks.’ I examine the painting. ‘It looks an old style.’ I shake the beads of water from the glistening oil.
‘Do you think it can be salvaged?’ She peers over to point at a piece of brown paper peeling from the back.
I uncurl the triangle. ‘A bit of glue will fix it. Good as new.’
I turn the picture around imagining how it would look on the wall. A slip of paper flutters to the ground.
‘Ooh! Treasure,’ squeals Hayley.
‘Probably an old receipt.’
‘It’s a love letter.’
‘Go on share.’
I read the letter:
When I will see you again, I do not know. Accept this painting as a token of my affection.
How many times did we stare across the table over a bowl of fruit hoping for some alone time?
Now, when you look at this picture, you can know I am thinking of you.
Dreaming of the time when we can be together again.
‘Can you believe it?’
Personally I had expected her to react like that. Girls did, didn’t they? Love all the gushy, romantic stuff.
Her painted coral nail taps the bottom corner of the picture, bringing my attention to the signature scrolled in white – Arnold Taylor.
‘A famous painter before the war broke out.’
‘How do you know that?’
She flashes her phone at me. ‘The power of the internet.’ She continues to browse. ‘He painted a few rare pieces. A find like this…’ Her voice trails off.
‘What is it worth something?’ Excitement licks at me.
‘Could be. I’ve got a friend who can value it. Possibly buy it from us if he’s interested.’ Her hand runs over my arm. Awareness shivers through me. It could be my lucky day in more ways than one.
‘And split the profits two ways?’
‘Absolutely. I’m not saying he’ll buy it.’ She tucks the painting under her arm. ‘I’ll have to take it with me. Meet you here tomorrow.’ She leans over, a floral scent assaults my senses as she lands a kiss on my lips. She slips her hand in my short pocket. ‘My number,’ she winks.
We arranged a time. As I played that night, my fortune on my way, the debt collectors about to be off my case, I thanked my lucky stars.
The next day I wait by the statue of Aphrodite. My eyes dart the crowd in search of Hayley. I can’t see her. I have tried her number and it keeps going to voicemail. I glance at my watch. She is half an hour late. Did I get the wrong time? Two egg-shape bald heads glisten like yellow jewels in the sun. Ernie and Pete. They are not late and they want their money.
I start to run.
I run for my life.
© Karen Rodgers 2016
The Lone Wolf by Karen (winner of the trophy in Sept)
The hiss of the spray can invaded the wall in crude, large, green letters. The vandal stepped back to admire his work. He rocked the paint in his hand ready to add his tag to complete his work.
When all at once, his hand was twisted hard behind his back the pain so intense, he cried out and fell to his knees. He opened his mouth the scream dying on his lips as he eyed the beast before him. What was it?
The glassy eyes held his and his breathing stilled as he eyed the hairy creature. He winced as a rancid smell spread over his face in a billow of breath. A croaky, barky voice ripped out of the monster.
‘You ruin our wonderful city with your graffiti. Stop or there will be consequences!’
The graffiti artist nodded in assent to show he understood the message.
‘He works by himself that one,’ murmured Ted, tutting slightly as he watched his younger more sprightly colleague collect three boxes in his ample hands compared to his one. ‘Bloody show off,’ he said loud enough for Jack to hear in passing.
Jack carried on with his load pretending he hadn’t heard. There was nothing wrong with being conscientious in your work. He added his cargo to the back of the truck waited for Ted to catch up and when everything was in, he tapped the back of the lorry to indicate he could go earning him a sharp dirty look from Ted. He repressed a laugh. You couldn’t please some people he thought.
Jack treated himself to a rare pint after work and on impulse he ordered a pie and chips from the bar menu. There was no-one to rush home to and he needed the innocuous chatter compared to the eerie silence of his flat.
He settled into a booth, oozing gravy spilling from his steak pie as he took a generous bite. Heaven! This was what he missed since moving to the big city. Home comforts.
From his vantage point in the booth he could see Ted surrounded by a group of men he recognised from work. He took a slug of his beer, the warmth filling the emptiness inside him.
One pint led to another buoying his confidence to go over and join the men from work although he had never been invited to any of the after work drinks.
He stood on the periphery of the group.
‘Anyone fancy a drink?’ he offered.
‘Oh go on then lad,’ said Barney his hand extending out to Jack with his empty glass.
‘You not drinking with the rest of us then, Barney,’ said Ted, his meaning clear. If he wanted to drink with the runt, he wouldn’t be welcome to drink with them.
Barney retrieved his glass from Jack’s limp fingers, his eyes sending a silent message of apology.
The rain dripped from the overflow pipe ahead. He stood hidden in the shadows, the occasional pool of orange light illuminating a path at the doorway as customers spilled out into the night.
‘I’ll see you boys at work tomorrow,’ Ted slurred, his feet zigzagging along the pavement.
Jack followed at a distance, formulating in his head the words he would say to Ted when he stopped.
They were heading into the rougher side of the city which surprised Jack. He assumed Ted would live in the more affluent quarter of the city.
Up ahead he could hear the rattle of a can. From his vantage point he could see two figures tussling. It looked like some kind of fight and he wondered briefly if he should make his presence known.
He ground his teeth with indecision but before he could make up his mind, the second figure had disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. Jack drew a line of dirt with his Converse shoe. With all the palaver, he hadn’t noticed where Ted had gone and now he had lost the opportunity to confront the old timer. The conversation would have to wait until tomorrow which was just as well, Jack decided as his head swam with the slight intoxication of the alcohol he had consumed.
He staggered along holding onto the wall for support. Suddenly he felt like he had consumed more than a few pints. His head ached, swirling so it was difficult to focus, to place one foot in front of the other. His teeth shuddered with the effort of trying to keep his mouth shut. His two front molars penetrated the front of his lip. He licked his lip and tasted blood. He ran his finger along his tooth, jilting his finger away in shock and pain at the sharpness. He could feel a gash in the fleshy part of his finger, cold air hitting the cut. He shot out a gasp of pain. What was happening to him?
His whole face started to burn like his face was on fire. His hands went to his face in a desperate urge to scratch his skin. He keeled over as a new stretch of pain overcame him. He fell to his knees and offered his mouth and howled to the sky and wailed like an animal in pain. Fiery heat flooded his entire body and he looked down in horror at his fingernails – no longer polished and pink – but long, hooked yellow nails which looked like they would be better suited to an animal.
The pain subsided and he remained on all fours shivering in the night air.
‘Here, put this on.’
He lifted his head, the effort of the gesture costing him making him feel like he had a heavy dose of the flu.
‘What are you doing here?’ He recognised Ted’s gruff voice and although the coat wrapped around his body like a warm oasis. Ted was the last person he wanted to see. How much had he witnessed?
‘Good job I am here,’ Ted commented.
‘You’ve transcended, lad.’
‘Excuse me?’ It hurt to move his body but he refused to remain in this position in front of his nemesis who was now sprouting nonsense about transcending, being able to change his bodily form. Maybe he was having some kind of nightmare? A drunken hallucination?
‘Into a wolf.’
Cor, if he was drunk, Ted was stark raving mad. The bloke had never liked him and now he was pulling his leg, making out he was a creature of the night. If he was high on alcohol, then Ted was high on something else entirely.
Ted reached out his meaty paw and Jack realised he wanted him to shake it.
‘Welcome to the pack, son.’
Son? Ted was now acting like his pal. Not the bloke who systematically made his working life a living hell by making sure him and his friends stayed away from him.
‘No thanks,’ Jack attempted to remove his hand. ‘Let go!’ Jack demanded.
Ted released his hold, pity in his eyes.
‘I tried to make you stay away. I knew as soon as I clapped eyes on you, you were one of us. If only you hadn’t been in the vicinity when I was teaching that punk a lesson, you would never have turned.’ Ted turned his head. ‘Inevitable, I suppose you would turn into your true state eventually. It would have been better for you, if you’d remained the lone wolf at work. Now, you’re a wolf bound by your nature to protect the city against the things that irritate you. Unfortunately for you, I can’t abide graffiti. It makes me so angry. Avoid getting angry if you can or you’ll turn.’
Jack couldn’t believe he was hearing this. He was definitely having some kind of a bad dream. If he got angry he would turn into a wolf designed to seek justice for the citizens of this beautiful city.
‘What gets your wolf, son?’ asked Ted.
‘Bullies,’ replied Jack, baring his long angular teeth.
October’s trophy Winning Story by Karen:
The Longest Journey.
I don’t remember important life events like family so the nurses whisper in my ear as they tuck me into bed at night. Occasionally, a face will flicker into view. A look of hope etched in their eyes and I know I should remember – that this person is significant.
They are a jigsaw piece essential to my muddled life which I no longer understand or feel involved with. I live in a hospice, waiting for, I’m not sure what? I don’t feel ill so why I am here is beyond me!
I have had to leave my beloved house where I have lived my entire life with my husband, Sam. I worry about my garden. Who is looking after it now? Sam and I share our special time there tending to our shrubs, experimenting with different plant life to enhance the garden and make a splendid splash of colour that nature would be proud of. It makes me sad to think my garden is sitting unloved. At least Sam will be there looking after our patch of land. He is probably so busy with the garden and our business. That would explain why he hasn’t been here to visit me. I wish he would. I miss him more than anything else in the world.
‘Do you think she’s ready?’ sniffed the middle-aged woman, a tissue pressed tightly in her hand, the damp simpering into my skin. The man behind pats the woman on her shoulder in a consoling gesture.
‘She won’t know any different. It’s like she’s left us already. You have to accept it, lovely. All that’s left of mum is a shell.’
‘Don’t say that!’ The woman’s eyes flicker between the man and me. I can’t bear the look of uncontrollable pain evident in her eyes, the tight lines drawn around her mouth in grief. I close my eyes. I wish they would go away. Leave me to my dreams of a hall, playing ballroom music, firm steady arms wrapped lovingly around my waist, twirling me round and round like I’m on a merry go round. So fast, I almost feel sick but I don’t want this wild feeling of exhilaration beating in my chest to ever end.
I spin meeting laughing blue eyes – so gentle and kind. I have seen these eyes. I flutter open my lids.
The man by my bed takes my hand.
‘I’m here. I’m here,’ he assures me.
‘She thinks you’re Dad. I can’t bear it,’ stutters the woman and leaves the room.
I ignore her words. They say I am confused! I know those eyes anywhere. They’re my Sam’s. I hold onto the soft texture of his hands – artists fingers. I don’t want to break contact, in case he should disappear.
‘Sleep now,’ soft lips brush my cheek, cinnamon scent washing over me.
‘I don’t want to sleep.’ I fight the heaviness in my eyes forcing them to stay open with sheer will-power. If you want something hard enough it will happen. ‘Tell me about our garden. Have you planted those seeds?’
He proceeds to tell me about all the flowers growing. The way he describes it, I can picture every colour, imagine the scent and I feel alive. The wild poppies that have sprung up in the earth and how Lottie, the cat insists on sleeping in the muddy patch, flattening the plants so she can feel the warm ray of sun on her fur.
I listen to the lilt in his voice thinking he has the most beautiful intonation enchanting me with his stories.
‘Lottie!’ I squeal, pushing my hands into the mattress to hoist my body into a sitting position.
‘Mum!’ The spell is broken by the admonishment. He stands up fluffing the pillows, his strong hands lifting my weight so I can comfortably sit.
‘Yes, mum,’ he says with a solemn nod.
‘My handsome son.’
I jump as a weight lands on my bed. ‘Lottie?’ I look at my son for confirmation wondering if he has brought in our cat as a treat. I do miss her! I am surprised; they take health and safety so seriously here.
‘This is Ollie – the cat belongs to the hospice, he loves to visit patients.’
‘Has he visited before?’ I ask, accepting the nudge of my hand with his head, stroking the side of his cheeks. My gesture is met with a hearty purr churning at full throttle.
The door slides open. My daughter stands there, an uncertain expression on her face.
‘Claire.’ I beckon her inside, pointing excitedly to the cat kneading his paws up and down on the blanket. ‘Meet Ollie,’ I introduce. ‘Doesn’t she look like Lottie?’
‘It’s the spitting image, mum.’ She cuddles me, her hand firm around my shoulders like she is reluctant to break contact. I let her stay there. I can feel her love feeding me flowing through my veins. I’m so lucky to have two such wonderful children.
‘Tell me your news.’ I half-listen: her words washing over me. It feels so good to hear her voice. Her giddy, racy way she skips over her words at speed like she is being timed and is scared she won’t get everything in. When she was a little girl, she was the same, always in a rush.
I get the gist, noisy neighbour, teacher-parent meeting, swimming gala and I nod in the right places, the cat settling further into my lap in contentment, his eyes screwed shut and his purr setting a rhythmic pace in time to my hand petting him.
I am happy.
Happy to be in the moment.
With my daughter and my son.
And my cat – Lottie.
I don’t answer. I don’t recognise the voice. Am I a mum? I ponder the question, flip it over in my mind, visualise it in white letters against a black background but however hard I search for the answer, I don’t know because I have already forgotten the question.
Hands move between my knees. A sharp prick needles my thigh.
‘Lottie,’ I exclaim. The pinched face lady is cradling my cat!
‘Put her back!’ I demand.
‘Mum, sit back. Don’t tire yourself,’ insists the man.
‘Mum,’ I yell. ‘I’m not your mother. Stop calling me that!’ And I am ashamed to say tears stream down my face. I push my hands forward, desperate for Lottie to be back with me.
The cat squirms; it’s trying to get back to me, her eyes widen with all the commotion.
‘One last hug,’ I implore. A nurse’s crisp blue uniform has joined the congregation of people around my bed.
‘Ollie will give her peace,’ says the soft-spoken nurse. ‘It can do no harm.’
Reluctantly Lottie is returned to my bed. I snuggle down. She lets me wrap my arms around her like a teddy bear, the throttle of her purr a comforting companion.
The only sound left, after the room is cleared.
I close my eyes and dream. Lottie’s black and white patched fur is tummy bound towards the sun as she rubs her back up and down in the earth.
‘Watch my poppies,’ laughs Sam, pretending to poke the cat with the rake. He turns to me. ‘How do you like your garden, my darling?’
I eye the splendid colours of the flowers and sink into my Sam’s arms enjoying the sensation of his touch, anchoring me, keeping me safe. How much I have missed this!
‘It’s like heaven.’ I reply truthfully. Finally, feeling like I have returned home to find the missing jigsaw of myself.
‘She’s gone, hasn’t she?’ said Claire, to no-one in particular. The evidence of her mum’s passing clear, by the peaceful serene look pasted on her face by a smile so big and mum-like, it brought a well of emotion blocking her throat stopping her from speaking the words: It’s like our old mum is back, out loud.
By old mum, she meant the person who remembered them before the awful disease gripped hold of her brain and her memories.
‘She remembered us at the end,’ said Andrew. ‘The cat helped; brought her back to us, for a while.’
The nurse stepped forward picking up the sleeping animal. ‘People say she’s a spirit cat,’ said Beryl, the nurse.
‘He comes to visit those on their death bed.’ Sensing the sceptical looks winging her way, she informed them with authority. ‘He comes to see a patient and the patient passes over to the other side. Some believe he helps take them there.’
Andrew huffed with a sound of disbelief.
‘He made mum happy, in the end. That’s what counts,’ said Claire.
‘Our own spirit cat,’ whispers Beryl into the crux of Ollie’s neck as she carried him from the room. ‘Our magical beast,’ she said with pride, knowing he had helped this lady and her family with the knowledge of a happy passing.
‘Just don’t visit me, any time soon,’ chuckles Beryl letting him outside into the hospice garden.
© Karen Rodgers 2015