NaPoWriMo Day 2

Today’s brief was to write a poem about a specific place. I’ve chosen my local park, which is on my road, but it’s more of a comment on what the park is currently like due to self-isolation/quarantine. Without intending to, I found that I’d written the first verse with an interesting rhyme scheme of abaca, with the fifth line being only two syllables long, so I decided to make that a feature of each verse – okay, I cheated a little by taking two of the syllables from line 5 in verses 2 and 3 and adding them onto line 4, thereby altering my nice 8 syllable rhythm into a more jarring 10 syllable one instead – and then I thought, Why not? I’ll say it’s symbolic of how unsettled we all feel in this current situation. Finally, my two line epigram at the end is a rhyming couplet where, again, I cheated, using the American term ‘fall’ instead of ‘autumn’ to fit the rhyme – I felt the rhyme was important because it makes the poem end on an almost banal note.

Overall, I hope this poem conveys not just a few impressions of the changed landscape of the park but the general unease and discomfort of a world struggling to comprehend how life is currently distorted.

Parklife

Beds of wilting crocus lie

abandoned due to Covid scares –

“Surely that should be croci?”

a helpful voice now interjects.

I sigh.

Along the road, just fifty feet

or more, the park of Cotteridge

abandoned lies. Nor warmth nor heat

can tempt outdoors the residents of this

our street.

Abandoned lie the swings, the slide;

the benches too are now bereft

of chatting parents; far and wide

the void spreads out almost as if someone

had died.

A graveyard quiet descends on all:

will isolation last ’til fall?

NaPoWriMo Day 1

For anyone who doesn’t know, National Poetry Writing Month begins today. Participants are encouraged to write a poem every day and post it on their blog/webpage/social media so others can see what they have written. I’m currently not ‘in the zone’ for poetry, having spent the best part of my day ‘working from home’ in teacher mode, creating power points for September and beyond on the importance of studying MFL in secondary school and how to create effective GCSE revision flash cards – and I’m relaxing by writing the next instalment of what was originally a 5000 words self- contained short story in the vein of D H Lawrence (think 1930s mining community, Yorkshire dialect, repressed women and lots of symbolism) but which has continued into four chapters so far and could end up being a full length novel.

So, since I’m probably enjoying the fiction more than the school work, I’m going to take inspiration from D H Lawrence and attempt a poem that resonates with the story I’m currently writing.

Heat

Sunlight colours him,

shading his skin

the colour of warm honey,

burnishing his hair

with glints of gold.

He is earth and earthiness,

bursting

with life.

She watches him silently,

her skin alabaster, as cool

to the touch as the heart

inside her.

She is a lifeless

statue:

watching,

waiting –

oh, so unsure.

She watches him toil –

watches the honey coloured

muscles

stand out in stark

relief.

Inside her, a longing for

something she doesn’t know yet

catches a little, like a

match that will not light.

Later, she makes him tea,

her fingers trembling

as the gas will not light.

Gently, he takes the match from

her fingers,

lights the spark,

brings her to life.

Honey coloured flesh and

white alabaster

entangle.

The Last Loo Roll

In these uncertain times, no one is really sure how things are going to play out or how long quarantine/isolation will last. As a teacher, currently working from home, I’m spending a lot of my time writing lessons for when we return to normality and doing on-line professional development courses, so there seems to be little time to do what I want and just write. I am indebted to a writer friend who posted four prompts this week to encourage members of the writing group we’re in to practise mindfulness by sitting and taking the time to indulge in a little creative thinking. One of her prompts was a toilet roll, and that has inspired the following story. Enjoy.

The Last Loo Roll

Gavin gazed at the exhibit with a puzzled expression. “What is it?” he asked.

The guide pointed to the plaque that was screwed to the triple enforced, fully alarmed, glass case. “Toilet roll, circa 2021,” Gavin read carefully. He turned his eyes to the guard. “I still don’t get it – what was it for?”

 Beside him, Jude shoved her elbow into his ribs. She hated it when her boyfriend displayed his ignorance about anything pre-2070. “It was for wiping yourself clean,” she hissed. “You know … when you’ve been.”

“Didn’t they know about the three seashells?” someone muttered in the background.

He was still looking clueless, so Jude elaborated. “Look, Gav, you know how these days, everyone’s used to toilets that do the job properly – once you’ve finished, you press a button and brushes and jets of water effectively scrub the posterior, ‘leaving it lemon-fresh and odour-free’,” she began.

“Well, yes, but …”

“In the Dark Ages,” Jude continued, getting into her stride – she had specialised in 21st Century History for her online Advanced Learner Certificate and loved having the chance to lecture people –“in the Dark Ages, toilets were just holes you sat on and they sucked the rubbish away at the end and that was it.”

Gavin stared at her in disbelief. “You mean they didn’t do anything else?” he whispered, trying to imagine such a backward world.

“It was Dyson who patented the first modern toilet,” chimed in the guide. He thrust a pamphlet under Gavin’s nose. Skimming the article, Gavin picked out the key phrases: ‘Blah … blah … 2022 … flushed with the success of his hand dryers …’ (No one seemed to see realise the irony of the metaphor, he thought idly.)

Meanwhile, Jude was engaged in animated discussion with the guide – if you could call a one-sided lecture a discussion, that was. Still, the guide didn’t seem to mind being talked at, and so far Jude hadn’t fried his circuits like she had with the droid in the art gallery. Perhaps this one was a more resilient model.

He drifted back into the conversation. Jude was expounding on the days of the Toilet Paper Wars. “When the first wave of Corona virus hit the world in 2020,” she droned earnestly, “a toilet paper pandemic ensued as people flooded the streets, ignoring isolation rules. So many shops were raided that the government was forced to place police patrols on the street and officers were given permission to arrest anyone with more than one roll. In the USA, it was even worse: cops there had the power to stop and shoot anyone even suspected of marketeering. Despite the order to ‘stay at home’, secret toilet roll bars were set up, reminiscent of the speak-easies almost a century earlier. When policing on both sides of the Atlantic was revealed to be ineffective, the armies were drafted in to quash the riots.”

His grandad had mentioned something about all of this, Gavin remembered. At the time, the call to self-isolate had been seen as Draconian – and needless; and thousands of people had disobeyed government directives only to die horribly a few weeks later. Scientists had even trialled a way of genetically coding the rolls so that each one could only be used by the person who had bought it as part of the monthly allocation of groceries, but that idea had been scrapped quickly once they realised some people has secret stashes of the stuff that had never been marked.

Grandad had also told him about the ‘cat cull’ of 2020 – the furry felines thought it was acceptable to shred the precious paper; and some families found their entire store wiped out in an afternoon. However, when Larry, the Downing Street cat, was discovered to have decimated a whole room full of aloe-vera infused quilted tissue, the Prime Minister’s fury had known no bounds and Larry and the rest of Britain’s eleven million cats had been swiftly rounded up and disposed of. Gavin often thought he’d like to have seen a cat, but they were as rare as dragons and dodos these days.

Jude was still going strong as he dragged his mind back to the present. “Post-Covid 19, those who had secretly hoarded loo roll were overnight millionaires,” she told the startled guide. “Houses in the north of England exchanged hands for ten rolls, but a bumper pack of 24 in London would only buy you a studio flat  – and then scientists made the shock discovery that the toilet tissue had caused the virus in the first place. Suddenly, you couldn’t give the stuff away. Firms ceased manufacture; and when Covid-20 rolled round the following year, Dyson had already applied for a patent for his ‘All-in-One Personal Waste Disposal Unit’.”

“So what did they do with all of the toilet rolls, then?” Gavin asked.

“Burnt,” Jude said solemnly. “The government built huge camps and then incinerated the lot of them. We’re still breathing in bits of the smoke now, fifty years later.”

“But if they got rid of them because they were evil,” he was still trying to get his head round this one, “then why on earth is the last toilet roll in the world on display here? Aren’t we all putting ourselves at risk of Covid-69? I mean, I know it’s behind armour-plated glass and all that, but …”

“Oh, it’s not real, lad,” the guide reassured him. “It’s a digital copy – see?”

“Then why is it here?” Gavin almost screamed with frustration. “If it’s not real, and if the real thing caused the first outbreak of the Corona virus …”

He looked to Jude for an answer; but for once, she was strangely quiet.

A tiny tapping sound drew his attention. The guide’s pointer was indicating a single sentence at the bottom of the plaque: ‘Lest we forget.’

“Forget what?” Gavin asked petulantly. “Forget that we were once savages who had to scrub ourselves clean with bits of paper? Forget that we were once so selfish that we fought over a roll of tissue in the streets?”

The guide’s view-cam looked suddenly sad – almost, Gavin thought, as if it were capable of feeling …

“No, lad,” it said brokenly, “lest you forget that you’re all human.”

Colder Than Snow

Nobody, Jess thinks morosely, should be forced to sit in a car with the boy you’d had a crush on in high school and his wife – especially when the three of you were going to a funeral.

Even now, she can’t quite believe how this had all happened. She’d planned the day meticulously: leave at nine, drive a hundred miles to the venue, arrive in plenty of time to park and get a good seat in the church, leave at three, straight after the buffet and back in time to watch the next episode of that new thriller she’d been getting into. That was before she’d realised that her car wouldn’t start. She’d rung her mother in desperation, hoping to borrow her car for the day, only to find that Lily had plans of her own – plans that could not be executed without a set of wheels.

“Why don’t you try that nice couple on your road?” her mother had suggested brightly. “He seemed ever so charming when I called round last week. You were at school together, weren’t you? Isn’t he going to the funeral?”

From his position at the wheel, Robin turns his head slightly. “You sure you’re okay on your own in the back? Maggie can swap seats if you like.”

“I’m fine, thanks.” Her guilt is keeping her company for the time being.

“It’s a good job I gave your mother that business card the other week,” Robin continues chattily, “or she wouldn’t have been able to let me know you needed a lift.”

Maggie looks less enthused than her husband by this.

“It was really kind of you to offer,” Jess says desperately. Please stop talking, Robin, her mind begs.

Meanwhile, Maggie adjusts the volume on the car radio. The sound of synthetic pop blasts out of the speakers, surrounding the three of them in lyrics that are almost more painful than the previous silence.

*

A week earlier.

“I didn’t expect you to call round today,” Jess said, greeting her mother with a hug as she entered.

“I’ve been baking,” Lily explained. She deposited a Tupperware container on the kitchen counter. “I didn’t know you had company,” she said as her eyes flicked over Robin.

“I live down the street,” Robin explained, offering his hand. “My wife and I moved in about a month ago. It’s a small world – Jess and I were at high school together.”

Lily’s face fell at the mention of a wife. Jess knew that her mother had been viewing Robin as a potential son-in-law and felt irrationally irritated. There was nothing wrong in being a single woman in your thirties.

“So, Robin, what do you do?”

“I’m in insurance,” he said, handing her a card. “In fact, I was just talking to Jess about getting her a better deal than her current policy.”

Lily beamed. “That’s what good neighbours are for,” she said happily. “Now, Jess, what about a cup of tea?”

*

They’ve been driving for almost forty minutes when the snow starts: great, feathery flakes that settle on the windscreen, nudging the automatic wipers into a frenzy of activity. Robin swears. “Can’t see a bloody thing!” he complains.

“Didn’t you check the weather forecast before setting off?” Maggie’s voice sounds brittle, as if Robin’s inadequacy as a husband runs to many volumes.

“We’ll be fine,” he assures her.

Maggie taps away at her smartphone. “The M6 is completely blocked from the next junction,” she reports. “We could be stuck in traffic for hours.”

Robin swears again. “Sorry,” he says a moment later. Jess wonders who his apology is meant for.

“That’s it, then,” Maggie says as the car grinds to a standstill only minutes later. Vehicles surround them on every side and the snow continues to fall. Jess looks at the blizzard outside – but it isn’t the snow that’s making her feel trapped.

*

Six weeks earlier.

“Jessica? Jessica Landry?”

Jess spun round at the sound of her name. A good-looking man in his mid-thirties was staring at her across the vegetable aisle.

“It’s me, Robin. Robin Brookes.”

Her old high school crush. She’d fallen for him at the age of twelve and loved him hopelessly for the next four and a half years, but he’d never known she existed.

“What are you doing here?” she asked stupidly.

He waved a hand at the produce. “Shopping?”

“No, I mean here, in Little Chidford. I thought you lived further north these days.”

“Been stalking me on Facebook, have you?” he teased.

She blushed, unwilling to admit that he’d guessed right. Well, not stalking exactly, but from time to time, she’d clicked on his name, just to see what he was up to.

“I moved back recently,” he told her. “Grant and Foster gave me a promotion. I’m back where I started, but this time, I’m running the office.”

“Congratulations,” she said automatically, noting that his eyes had been undressing her since he’d said hello.

“You look good,” he said softly; and that was how it all started.

*

They’ve been sitting there for close on an hour now, the tension in the car almost unbearable. To begin with, Maggie had sniped at Robin, blaming him for this fiasco. She didn’t go as far as claiming he’d caused the weather, but she found fault with just about everything else he’d done – not just today but within ten years of marriage.

“If you’d checked the weather before setting off – like I told you to …” and

“This is just typical of you Robin: I ask and ask, and you always promise to do things, but they never get done.”

Now she looks at her husband, her face etched in hatred. “I don’t know why we’re even going to this funeral. You’ve never mentioned this guy before. Oh, wait a minute – you didn’t ask me to go, did you? Well, I know exactly what goes on every time you go away ‘on your own’. There’s always some tart involved …”

“Maggie!” Robin pleads whilst Jess sits there uncomfortably, “You’re embarrassing Jess.”

“Am I, Jessica?” Maggie demands. “Am I embarrassing you by talking about my husband’s infidelity?”

”I …” Jess begins.

“Or would you prefer me to come straight out with it and ask you when you started sleeping with him?”

*

Five weeks earlier.

Jess stared at her phone screen. “Maggie says would you like to come for dinner?”

She should never have given Robin her mobile number, but she’d been blindsided by seeing him so unexpectedly – in her local supermarket of all places; so when he’d asked, she’d acquiesced, telling herself it was all fairly innocent – after all, he was married.

She hadn’t expected him to contact her immediately for ‘coffee and a catch up’, but she’d gone anyway, despite his wife, because he was Robin Brookes and she’d had a crush on him for years at school. It seemed poetic justice, somehow, to let him lust after her for a change, knowing that nothing would ever happen.

They’d flirted with each other of course, but it hadn’t gone any further. She wasn’t a marriage wrecker – it was just nice to know a man found you attractive.

Now she stared at the text, wondering how to reply. Did she really want to meet Maggie? She’d seen her rival on Facebook: she was a dark-haired woman who was slightly overweight and had a rather long-suffering expression. But it would be the grown-up thing to accept, wouldn’t it? And it would certainly make sure that nothing untoward happened with her and Robin.

*

Jess stares at Maggie in shock.

“I beg your pardon?” she says at last.

“Oh, don’t play the innocent with me!” Maggie snarls as Robin simultaneously bursts out with, “Maggie! How can you say something like that?”

“Well?” Maggie stares pointedly at Jess.

Jess says nothing.

“I’ve seen the texts,” Maggie continues, her voice ominously quiet. “There aren’t any names, of course, but I know he sent them to you. The number’s the same as the message you sent me a few weeks ago. The one that thanked me for inviting you over for dinner.”

Jess inwardly curses herself for her good manners.

“It’s not what you think,” Robin begins nervously. “I admit we’ve been messaging each other and some of the texts have been a bit flirty, but …”

“A bit flirty?” Maggie sounds as if she can’t believe what she’s just heard. “Let’s just have a listen to some of them, shall we?” She begins reading in a detached tone. “Every time I think of you, I find a smile on my face. Just the memory of being inside you is making me hard again.”

Robin’s face freezes with horror. Jess buries her head in her hands.

*

Four weeks earlier.

“More wine, Jess?” Robin topped up her glass liberally before doing the same to his own.

“Robin!” Maggie’s voice was harsh and shrill.  “You’ve got a long drive tomorrow. Don’t overdo it now.”

“Where are you off to?” Jess asked, although she already knew.

“I’ve got a conference in Brighton.” He was avoiding her gaze and she knew why. “It happens around this time every year, but now I’m heading up the office, I’m expected to give a presentation. It’s going to be hell.”

“In the past, you’ve taken me with you.” Maggie sounded aggrieved.

“In the past, I haven’t had to sit up until silly o’clock making sure my speech is okay,” he told her. “You know I’d take you with me if I could.”

“I suppose I’d better be going.” Jess got to her feet. “If you’ve got to be up early tomorrow …” Her words tailed off. “Thanks for a lovely meal, Maggie,” she added as Robin rose with her.

“I’ll walk you back to your front door,” he said. “Might clear my head a bit. That okay with you, Maggie?”

His wife grunted. “I’ll tidy up on my own, then, shall I?” she said pointedly.

“I’ll load the dishwasher when I get back,” he promised. “You ready, Jess?”

*

“You weren’t the first, you know.” Maggie’s voice sounds weary, as if this is a speech she has made many times over. Perhaps she has.

Robin’s hands grip the steering wheel as he stares straight ahead. Outsides, flakes continue to whirl and swirl. Maggie’s accusations flutter in synchronicity.

“The first one I knew about was the night before our second wedding anniversary. You remember, don’t you, Robin? That was another ‘conference’, but it wasn’t Brighton that time, was it?”

At this moment, Jess wishes desperately that she was anywhere else but in this car. She’s sure the temperature would be warmer outside, away from the biting cold of Maggie’s allegations. Are they still allegations if they’re true? She wants to rewrite the past, to go back in time and do things differently; but she can’t.

*

Four weeks earlier.

The stars were out, the air crisp and cold as the two of them strolled along, awkwardness keeping them a respectable distance apart.

Robin spoke first. “Well, have you thought about it?”

“You’re a married man,” Jess said automatically. “I can’t.”

They had reached her front door.

“You know I always fancied you at school,” he said softly, turning towards her under the light of the nearby lamp post.

She thought this unlikely: Robin had been out with some of the most popular girls in their year group, at a time when Jess had been just a little girl with braces and skinny legs. He was rewriting history to make it tie in with the present.

Nevertheless, when his lips met hers, she didn’t pull away.

*

“I caught him in the act.” Maggie’s voice is unnaturally calm, as if she’s reciting a shopping list and not a catalogue of infidelity. She corrects herself. “Well, not quite in the act. You were just zipping up your trousers, weren’t you?”

Robin doesn’t try to defend himself.

“And then we went home together as if nothing was wrong, and I asked you whether this was the first time, and you told me about the others. And I forgave you because I still loved you then.”

Then. Not now. Robin had told her that the spark had gone out of the marriage, but Jess has a feeling she knows whose fault it is that their relationship’s colder than snow.

*

Four weeks earlier.

“Come with me to Brighton.”

Their kiss was over, and she was still reeling from its potency.

“Please,” he begged. “I’ve wanted you since I saw you in the vegetable aisle.”

And she’d wanted him since the age of twelve. Their schooldays were a lifetime ago, but she finally had the chance to be one of the cool kids and be with the boy she’d dreamed about for years.

“I’m not going to sleep with you,” she warned.

But she did.

*

“You’re probably wondering why I’m still with him,” Maggie continues bitterly. “Anyone else would have divorced him for adultery years ago.”

Jess realises Maggie is right. Her marriage died years ago, so why is she still clinging on to the corpse?

*

Three weeks earlier.

“We can’t keep on doing this,” she said as he started unbuttoning her blouse. “It’s not fair on Maggie.”

“It’s not a proper marriage,” he told her, sliding her skirt down over her hips. “There’s no spark anymore. But the first time I kissed you, it was electric.”

So far, neither of them had used the L word. Robin wanted her; he needed her; he couldn’t get enough of her – but they’d never tried to disguise their adultery by pretending it was anything more than a sordid little affair.

Later, as they lay still in the afterglow of a very strenuous session, she broached the subject again. “I mean it, Robin. I feel guilty every time I think about Maggie.”

“Then don’t think about her,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “I don’t – when I’m with you.”

*

“I told him eighteen month ago that it was over.” Maggie’s staring straight ahead: like her husband, she’s gazing through the windscreen, seeing nothing. “I got as far as seeing a solicitor, and then Robin begged me not to go through with it. He said I was the only woman he’d ever loved, that all the rest were just stupid mistakes.” Her voice cracks before she continues. “Three weeks later, I found a text from another woman on his phone.”

Jess finds her heart lurching in sympathy. It’s no wonder the spark’s gone, she thinks now, finally seeing Robin for what he truly is. He’s a serial adulterer: a man with an Everest complex. (“Why did you sleep with her, Robin?” “Because she was there.”)

*

A week earlier.

 “We can’t do this again,” Jess said, watching as Robin pulled on his trousers and began slowly buttoning his shirt.

By way of response, he sat down on the bed and looked into her eyes. “We should have done this years ago,” he said. “I could have married you instead of Maggie.”

But his voice sounded insincere in the wake of all of the adulterous excitement.

“We’re not a proper couple, Robin. You’re with Maggie; and I’m …”

“Alone?” he finished.

“Ending it,” she said.

*

“Do you know what the really stupid thing is?” Maggie doesn’t wait for a reply to her question. “In his own way, I think he does love me. It’s just that ‘fidelity’ isn’t part of his vocabulary.”

“Maggie …” The raw pain in Robin’s voice is unmistakeable.

“And that’s the tragedy,” she continues, still in the same flat voice. “He loves me, but all I can feel now is indifference. I know he’ll never be faithful, but I just don’t care anymore. I’m too old to start again, so I may as well stay put – at least that way I’m financially secure. And we don’t have children, so that’s one less thing to worry about.”

A single tear rolls down Jess’s cheek. It’s better being on her own, she thinks, than being locked inside a relationship as miserable as this.

*

A week earlier.

“You’re not serious,” he said. “What we have together is –“

“Wrong.” She opened the bedroom door and ushered him downstairs. “I can’t do this anymore, Robin. All this sneaking about and having sex in secret. I don’t like who I am at the moment. That’s why it has to stop.”

“You’ll always be very special, you know that,” he said softly as he sat down at the kitchen table and started to put his shoes back on.

But not special enough, she thought sadly, knowing he would never leave his wife; knowing she would never want him to. They’d both been chasing a dream – trying to recapture lost youth – and now it was time to be grown-ups once more.

“We can’t see each other again,” she said.

And then the doorbell rang.

*

Jess opens the car door. A blast of icy air enters but she welcomes its chilly embrace. She doesn’t deserve to be sitting in the car, an awkward third person in another couple’s relationship. It’s not her fault that Robin strayed: if she hadn’t said yes, he would have found someone else in Brighton; she knew that at the time; but she’s certainly not an innocent party in all of this.

She half expects Robin or Maggie to call her back, to ask her where she’s going; but they seem unaware of her departure, too busy exhuming the hurt of a marriage that was buried long ago. Maybe they’ll be able to piece something back together: it depends how much they both want it.

As for herself … Jess is alone again, a single, solitary snowflake caught up in the blizzard of life. She catches one of the crystalline shapes on her sleeve, admiring its beauty, then lets it slowly melt.

I’ll Call You

The room is hot and crowded with far too many people, some of whom she knows but mostly strangers – friends of Beth’s from university. Alice takes another sip from the glass that was thrust into her hand when she arrived ten minutes ago, wondering why she is here instead of celebrating the new year – the new millennium – with her family.

“Because Beth’s your best friend,” she whispers to herself. “Always has been.”

But she knows that’s not true anymore: the confident girl who’s knocking back shots almost as fast as a comedian delivering non-stop one-liners is not the Beth she met at pre-school: the little four year old who wet herself in the sandpit because she was too scared to tell anyone she needed the toilet is now happily the centre of attention, leaving Alice a mere onlooker.

A guy in a ridiculously over the top shirt looks up and catches her eye. He rolls his eyes in Beth’s direction almost as if he’s heard Alice’s thoughts. Extricating himself from the gaggle of admirers, he walks over and holds out his hand. “I’m Ben,” he says. “That guy Chris over there and I share a flat with Beth and two other girls. And you are?”

“Alice. Alice Horton. Beth and I are best friends. I mean, we used to be. We were at school together.”

“So, what’s changed, Alice Alice Horton? Why the use of the past tense?”

Despite his jokey way of deliberately mimicking her by using her first name twice, she senses that he’s genuinely interested, so she tries to explain.

“People change when they go off to uni, don’t they? I mean, it’s a chance for a fresh start: you can reinvent yourself, be whoever you want to be.”

“Is that what you’ve done too?”

He’s now close enough for her to see that what she’d thought of as random colourful blobs on his shirt are actually beautifully arranged geometrical patterns: swirling fractals in blues and pinks and yellows that repeat ad infinitum. It’s not a shirt for the fainthearted. 

“I didn’t go to uni,” she mutters, her eyes still mesmerised by Ben, her brain wondering whether she is captivated by him or his shirt.

He raises a questioning eyebrow and she feels irrationally compelled to tell him the truth.

“I was going to go – I had a place at Leeds, to study English; but then I found I was pregnant, so I had to put my plans on hold.”

“I see.” The look on his face is compassionate. “That must have been hard for you,” he says gently.

She’s not used to kindness. Her mother advised her to have an abortion; the rest of her family followed suit. Even Beth thought she was mad to be sacrificing her future for a cluster of cells that wasn’t even viable yet.

“Is the father still on the scene?” he asks next, and she shakes her head. Rob hadn’t wanted to know; had insisted it couldn’t be his, even though he was the only person she’d ever slept with.

To her horror, she finds tears forming in her eyes. She’s been over-emotional ever since Chloe was born four and a half months ago, crying at the silliest of things, like Disney films and the news, or, more recently, how cute Chloe looked in her Christmas outfit.

Ben grabs her hand. “Let’s find somewhere quiet to talk,” he says, leading her away from the crowded living room and out into the garden. The air is crisp but not too cold, and stars are twinkling in an impossibly clear sky. No one else is out here: the silence is for them alone.

And so, they sit and talk. She finds herself telling him about Rob, about the constant pressure she felt under to sleep with him, about the way he sulked when she said she wanted to wait and then about the disastrous evening after drinking too much at one of Beth’s parties. Somehow, in the course of the telling, his arm slips around her shoulders so that he’s holding her close as she narrates the shock of discovering she was pregnant and the pain of Rob’s abandonment of her.

By the time she finishes her tale, she’s emotionally drained, feeling as if she’s been put through a mangle until every hurt of the past eighteen months has been squeezed out of her. He won’t want her now: she’s damaged goods, an eighteen-year old single mother; but instead of pushing her away, he pulls her closer, holds her tighter, almost as if wanting to atone for the sins of his sex.

“You’ve had a rough time,” he says at last, “but not all men are bastards. I want you to believe that.”

And when he kisses her gently, she starts to believe him.

*

It’s only much later, after they’ve kissed and talked and kissed again, that the sound of revellers counting down to midnight reminds them that they’re not the only people in the universe. By now, she knows all about him: that he’s the youngest of three brothers; that he hates spinach but loves Dickens; that his eyes are the darkest brown she’s ever seen and his lips as soft as whipped cream. They’ve bonded over a shared enthusiasm for Shakespeare; but she has to confess to never having heard of the obscure bands he’s into. “I’ll burn you a CD of some of their best songs,” he tells her, “and then you’ll know what I’m on about when I start referencing their lyrics the next time we see each other.”

The next time … She likes the sound of that.

“Ten … nine … eight …”

They should really go inside and join everyone else for the big “Happy New Year!” but neither of them wants to make a move. Intimacy wraps itself around them, cocooning them in their own little world. It’s like something out of a Hollywood rom com, she thinks dreamily as his lips meet hers on the count of three and stay locked in place until well after all the shouting and cheering.

“You were the last person I kissed in the old millennium,” he tells her softly as he reluctantly pulls away, “and the first in the new one.”

She’s not sure, but she thinks she hears the swell of violins.

*

And so that’s why his next move seems totally inexplicable when he kisses the top of her head and tells her he has to go. If this were a real fairy story, she’d be the one leaving on the stroke of midnight; but her parents are babysitting Chloe and have told her it doesn’t matter how late she gets back.

“I have to go,” he tells her regretfully. “It’s my dad’s birthday tomorrow – today – and there’s a big family party. If I leave now, I can be back just after three and still fit in a few hours’ sleep before the rest of the relatives start arriving.” Noting the concern in her eyes, he adds, “Don’t worry – I haven’t touched any alcohol – I never do when I’m driving.”

Uncertainty hovers in the air between them. This night has been special – but is it a one-off, or the start of something more permanent?

“Give me your number,” he tells her, whipping a Nokia out of his back pocket. “I’ll call you when I get home and we can talk about when we want to see each other again.”

She retrieves her own phone and reads out her number to him, watching as he punches it in to his address book.

“I won’t ring as soon as I get in“ – he gives her a lopsided grin – “I don’t want to wake you or your baby. But as soon as I wake up, I’ll call.”

Part of her wants to ask if he’ll drop her back home – just so she can prolong this magical evening a little further. But it’s a three hours’ drive to Surrey, even on New Year’s Eve when the roads should be clear, so she smiles like a grown up and says she’s looking forward to hearing from him before watching him say goodbye to Beth and stride out of the house.

*

She leaves herself soon after that – there isn’t really any point in sticking around. Ben has her number and he’s promised to call; the new millennium is off to a good start.

For once, Chloe doesn’t wake her up at the crack of dawn; and when she finally begins to stir, just after seven, she’s content to feed and then go back to sleep. Alice can’t sleep herself, though: she’s too busy counting down the hours, waiting for Ben’s call.

She’s still waiting when midnight comes around again. It must have been one hell of a party, she thinks as she wearily switches off the light, for him to forget his promise to her so easily.

*

Ben doesn’t ring the next day, nor the next. She wonders if he’s lost her number, then remembers that he stored it in his phone. The glow of optimism that’s surrounded her for the past few days is beginning to fray at the edges. Should she call Beth, she wonders, and ask for Ben’s number? She must have it if they’re flatmates in term time.

Her fingers hover hesitantly over the keypad of her phone until she pushes it away with a sigh. If Ben really wanted to see her again, he would have called by now. But he’d seemed so sincere, so genuine when he took her number … Perhaps he’d meant it at the time, but then he’d woken up to the reality of her having a baby and how that would complicate things. Let’s face it – Rob hadn’t wanted to know, and he was Chloe’s father!

Her mind wanders back and forth for the next hour or so; analysing, speculating, tying herself in knots as she tries to second-guess him. He hasn’t rung yet, but that doesn’t mean he never will. It’s a slender thread of hope; nevertheless, she manages to use it to weave an elaborate fantasy in which Ben turns up on her doorstep, having lost her number but knowing he has to see her again. It’s the fairy-tale film ending, but reality is more prosaic; and, six months later, she resigns herself to the fact that their one perfect night will never be replicated.

*

She doesn’t really see Beth at all over the next few years. Her former best friend has a bar-job and a boyfriend, both of which conspire to keep her in Hull for the Easter and summer holidays. Not that it would have made much difference: the two of them had begun drifting apart long before Beth went off to university and left Alice behind. She’d said as much to Ben during their lengthy conversation under the stars: “You’ve no idea how lonely it can be when you’re pregnant and the rest of your friends are still drinking and partying like there’s no tomorrow.”

At that, he’d kissed her hair and stroked the side of her cheek. “I was never that into partying and getting drunk,” he’d told her. “I’d rather have a night in with someone I care about than a night out with a crowd of people I hardly know.”

From time to time, as she watches Chloe grow from a little bean bag to a crawler then a toddler, she thinks of Ben’s words and the promises he made, and wonders if he too regrets their evening together now.

*

When September comes and she finds herself off to Leeds, a year later than originally planned, baby in tow, she’s far too busy to mope about Ben. Leeds and Hull aren’t far apart, but she knows it’s a journey she’ll never make. For the next three years, she juggles essays and assignments with parenting a lively little girl, too exhausted by her full-on lifestyle to think about romance. Once a year, on New Year’s Eve, she sips a glass of Lambrusco and remembers the chance meeting that gave her hope for a while. 2000 slips into 2001; and then, before she knows it, it’s 2003 and Chloe is off to school, barely a few weeks after her fourth birthday, while Alice herself is starting teacher training. (She’ll be glad of the school holidays as she won’t need to arrange childcare.)

She enjoys her first teaching practice, despite the rough area the school’s situated in. In fact, when a post becomes vacant, she applies straight away, even though she’s not fully qualified yet. Her first year of teaching is much harder than she’d expected, but the older teachers are generally kind to her, especially John – a divorced maths teacher in his mid-thirties.

Somehow, she finds herself drifting into a semi-relationship, spending most of her weekends with John and his eight-year old daughter who adores Chloe. John’s nice enough, but he isn’t Ben – and then she scolds herself for still hankering after someone who never wanted her enough to call her, in spite of his kisses.

There’s a new site on the internet that claims to enable users to get in touch with people they know. She joins Facebook and searches for Beth Jenkins, thinking that Ben might pop up on her ‘friends’ list. He isn’t there, but Alice doesn’t stop looking. How can she work out how she feels about John when she hasn’t been able to achieve closure with Ben? All she needs to know, she reasons, is why he didn’t call her back like he said he would. Was it the single mum thing; or did he just meet someone else he liked better?

*

She’s been seeing John for six months when a new science teacher starts at the school. Chatting in the staffroom, she finds out that Ruth went to Hull too and that she and Beth were on the same chemistry course. They both marvel at what a small world it is, and Alice tells Ruth how she and Beth lost touch once they were both at different universities.

“It’s no one’s fault really,” she says thoughtfully – “it’s just that we were both living different lives. Once she went off to uni, she found a new circle of friends; and with a baby, I just didn’t fit in.”

“I don’t think it’s a simple as that.” Ruth’s words surprise her. “She was absolutely devastated when her flatmate died – what was his name? Something beginning with B …”

“Ben,” Alice says automatically, hoping that Ruth will contradict her and say, No, not Ben, Brad; but Ruth nods, sighing that it was all very tragic and that she understood completely when Beth cut herself off from all her friends for the next couple of months. “I think that’s how she and Chris got together,” she says now. “They’d both lost a flatmate and they bonded over that.”

Alice doesn’t hear the rest of the conversation: her mind’s in shock, reeling from the announcement of Ben’s death. His words echo in her memory: “You were the last person I kissed in the old millennium, and the first in the new one.”

*

Over the weeks that follow, she gradually pieces together the story: Ben was driving home after Beth’s party when his car was hit by another that veered into his lane on the motorway. The driver was over the limit: he and all his passengers had been out drinking in the new millennium.

Briefly, she wonders if Ben’s life flashed before him in the moments before he died: whether he saw himself talking to her again at the party, kissing her as one year merged into the next. And then she feels ashamed at her own selfishness at wanting to know whether she mattered to him. And she wonders, yet again, how different her life might have been if he had called her like he promised.

Anthology News

If you are someone who likes to write, then joining a writers’ group can be an invaluable experience since it gives you the opportunity to do a number of things:

firstly, it enables you to meet with other writers and gain advice on publishing, editing and all the other technical aspects of getting your work out into the world of readers;

secondly, it’s a safe space to receive constructive criticism on your work – some groups have the facility for writers to submit their work anonymously for feedback, which can be a lot less scary than everyone knowing it’s your story in the first place;

thirdly, it gives you an opportunity to see your work in print as most writers’ groups these days also publish members’ work – either on a website or in the form of a printed anthology. For people who may be struggling to complete the first novel they’ve been working on for years, this is a good way to introduce your writing to the general public in short story form.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had six short stories accepted by various anthologies over the past few months. (I’ve also had several rejected, but we won’t dwell on those.) The first one to be published is ‘City of Hope’, the second anthology from the Birmingham Writers’ Group, available from Amazon. (I’d add the link, but for some reason, I can only find the French and Spanish Amazon links and not the UK one.)

I’ve already bought my copy and it’s just as exciting and inspiring to see the stories of the people I’ve known since I joined the group in March this year as it is to see my own. A number of the writers have also published, or are set to publish, full length novels, so I would recommend buying this anthology and deciding which authors you’d like to read more of. If you’re having trouble locating the book, type in ‘City of Hope’ and David Croser (one of the editors) and you should be fine.

To summarise: if you’re someone who enjoys writing or would like to start writing, join a local writers’ group; and check out the Birmingham Writers’ Group anthologies (last year’s offering was called ‘City of Night’) on Amazon.

Happy reading!

The Fairest of Them All

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written a lot of short stories, most of them in response to various writing competitions or open calls for anthologies or magazines. However, most of these stipulate that the work must be unpublished, which includes posting it on a blog like this one, so I haven’t been able to share my work on this page. Reedsy.com is a website for writers which posts free writing prompts every Friday and encourages aspiring authors to produce a piece of writing between 1000 and 3000 words based on one of these prompts. They’ve just started publishing all the entries each week on their website, and I have to admit some of the entries are pretty good.

Of course, there will be weeks when none of the prompts inspire, but I had an idea straightaway for an entry based on their Week 2 set of prompts, so the link to the page is here – https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/2/ – and my story is below. If you like my story, please go on the reedsy website and like it there too; if you don’t like it, why not leave a comment, suggesting ways in which it could be improved.

I’m not quite sure how to define this one: is it a Gothic fairy tale, or steampunk, or magic realism? Does it actually matter? The story is below:

The Fairest Of Them All

It was evening when I first saw her, but her beauty lit up the cottage like a blazing lantern. The seven of us were dirty and sweaty from toiling all day in the mine – tired too: it takes it out of you after a while – but our fatigue vanished when we beheld this lovely creature, curled up across several of our beds, dark hair fanned out over the pillow.

Jon was the first to say anything. “A fairy – in our ‘ouse!” he breathed. Poor soul – he was dropped when he was a baby and he’s been a bit simple ever since.

“Don’t ‘ee talk daft!” Gort chided, cuffing him round the head as he usually did. “Whoever ‘eard of a fairy goin’ ter sleep on a ‘uman bed?”

It must have been our voices that woke her, for the next moment, she sat bolt upright, looking for all the world like a frightened fawn. A pretty little thing she was – not much more than fifteen summers, I would say – and my heart was lost from the moment she turned those big brown eyes on me.

“Who are you?” She sounded scared, but she still had her manners because she added politely, “I’m so sorry to have intruded. I knocked, but there was no reply.”

“Don’t ‘ee fret.” That was Gort again. Because he’s the oldest, he always thinks he’s in charge. “You’m ‘aven’t done no ‘arm, from what I can see. But where ‘ave ‘ee come from? There ain’t another cottage for miles about.”

She lowered her gaze then, looking out at us all from under downcast lashes. Finally, “The Castle,” she whispered.

That was when I knew we couldn’t keep her. If she was from The Castle, they’d no doubt be out looking for her by now. I studied her clothes – ragged and dirty they were, and torn as if she’d run through brambles; but her face wasn’t that of a serving girl and her bearing was – well, regal somehow.

“Will they be lookin’ for ‘ee?” Marn broke in. I wondered if he was thinking of a reward.

Her face clouded. “They will if the Huntsman returns and tells them I escaped. He was supposed to kill me, but …” Her lip trembled and she buried her face in her hands. “He tried to do something worse, and that’s when I managed to escape – while he was unbuttoning his breeches –“ 

I think at that moment that everyone of us felt an anger so strong we would have torn that huntsman limb from limb if he’d stood before us. How could anyone hurt such an innocent child? I thought in wonder.

She looked up once more, her eyes brimming with tears. “Can I stay here? I’d feel safe with all of you looking after me.”

Not a brother among us could have denied her. She was bewitchingly beautiful, you see – all snow white skin and ruby red lips and coal black hair. She wasn’t much more than a child, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to put my arms about her and hold her safe for the rest of her life. Love – if that’s what love is – but nothing sinful. My feelings for her were as chaste as the lily flowers that grew outside the window, and as pure as the mountain stream that flowed through our garden. My love was true – but alas! that’s more than could be said of my brethren.

*

It was but a day or two later when the first disaster occurred. Marn and Besil were working a seam together – we thought there might be diamonds buried deep within its veins – when Besil’s pick slipped and went clean through our brother’s skull. That was the story Besil told, but I was uneasy. I’d seen the way he looked at Marn that morning when the girl smiled at him: venom in his eyes that put me in mind of one of those snakes in the forest; and a part of me couldn’t help wondering if it really had been an accident. Besil was pale and shaken, as well he ought to be – but I detected something else in his face: a sort of slyness that had no right to be there.

And after that, it seemed like our family was cursed. Gort went to fetch water from the stream and never came back. We found him hours later, face downward in the water. Ruan thought he must have caught his foot on something and fallen, catching his head on a rock so that he died quickly and painlessly, but …

Poor Lily – that’s what I called her in my mind, on account of how pure and beautiful she was, although she never did tell us her given name – was inconsolable over both the deaths. The tears she shed – more precious than any of the diamonds we’d discovered over the years – showed her gentle heart. She could have been our sister, the way she wept.

That’s what made the next incident so terrible. After Gort’s drowning, Lily had begged us never to venture out on our own again – couldn’t bear to lose another one of us, she said. There were five of us left now, so Besil and Ruan went to fetch water whilst Hult and I gathered mushrooms, leaving Jon with Lily lest she feel afeared by herself. We had a basketful of mushrooms when we heard the shouting. Running in the direction of the noise, I saw Besil and Ruan in the stream, struggling with each other. “She be mine, I tell ‘ee!” Besil was hollering, and, “She don’t love ‘ee like she do me. I be going to marry ‘er, I tell ‘ee!” from Ruan.

And then the world stood still as I saw my own beloved brother, Ruan, grab a rock and hit Besil over the head so that he fell into the water and didn’t move again. Ruan looked up and saw us, and a queer look crossed his face. “She be mine!” he muttered, unwittingly repeating Besil’s words.

For a moment, I just stood there, staring in shock, unable to comprehend what had happened. What madness had driven Ruan to act in this way? Hult started to run towards the stream and I nearly went after him, not wanting Ruan to attack him too, but something held me back.

I saw Hult moving towards Ruan, as determined as a wolf stalking its prey. Then he was on him, grappling with him. I thought at first that he was trying to knock some sense into him: it was only as I approached that I realised my brothers were fighting to the death.

I began to run myself, calling out to both of them to stop this insanity. We were all brothers and Lily was as a sister to us, but they heeded me not. As I neared the stream, I saw that Hult had Ruan in his grip, twisting his head and neck with such force that something suddenly popped. Ruan’s head lolled back lifelessly, his dead eyes wide and staring. I felt the bile rise in my throat and tried to understand what could have driven gentle Hult to act in such a way.

He watched me now, wary like a bird caught in a trap. “Step away, Tom.” His voice escaped in a hoarse croak. “She be mine.”

I was silent then, remembering how Lily had kissed me goodbye as I left the cottage – not a sisterly kiss, but one that spoke of other things, igniting longing and desire within me so that the thoughts I now had of my sweet innocent Lily were anything but pure.

“No,” I told him. “She be mine.”

And then, like Ruan before me, I grabbed a rock and dashed my brother’s brains out.

*

How long I sat there, I do not know, only that the sky darkened and the stream ran red with blood. Eventually, I stood up and walked back to the cottage, a strange excitement buzzing in my ears. Tonight, I would take my angel to my bed and lie with her as if she were already my wife. My loins burned as I thought of her – my sweet little Lily, my love.

The cottage door stood slightly ajar. I pushed it open and peered inside. Lily sat by the hearth, sobbing as if her heart would break. I was at her side instantly, my lust dissipated by her distress.

“What be the matter, child?” I asked her gently.

She turned her tear-stained face to mine, and only now did I notice that her bodice was torn and her shoulder bare.

“Jon …” She struggled to get the words out. “I … I don’t think he wanted to hurt me. He asked for a kiss, and then …”

“Where be he now?” I surprised myself with the roughness of my voice.

“Asleep. He fell asleep after he’d taken what he wanted.”

Anger grew in me then. He had deflowered my Lily, my pure, innocent bride to be, and he would have to pay.

 Ignoring the girl’s pleas, I strode from the room, making my way towards the sleeping chamber at the back of the house. Jon lay asleep on his bed, looking as guileless as a new-born babe, but I knew what he had done. He slept on as I held a pillow over his face. I held it there until his chest ceased to rise and fall, all the while my heartbeat hammering with exultation. My brothers were gone, but I had something far more precious in this fairy creature who would fill our cottage with love and laughter and babies.

*

A noise at the back of me made me turn around. She stood there, trembling – so helpless and pitiful that I could no longer contain myself. Drawing her to me, I kissed her long and hard on the mouth. She looked up at me, eyes wide with uncertainty, and I thought of Jon and what he had done to her, and I made myself pull away from her lest she thought I would hurt her.

She was breathing heavily, her breast swelling against the torn blouse. Lust flamed within me again, and then I noticed the pure white stone that hung in the hollow of her neck and shame washed over me. How could I contemplate despoiling something so innocent?

Her fingers slipped into mine. “Let’s get away from this place,” she said simply. “It reeks of death.”

I followed her into the forest and it seemed fitting somehow that we would lie amongst the bracken and listen to the song of birds as we came together.

But before we had found a fit place to stop, my foot caught against something hidden under a pile of leaves and a disembodied voice crackled out of nowhere: “I repeat: the prisoner is dangerous. If seen, do not approach, but call for backup.”

My mind whirled. What fell magic was this? Hastily, I kicked away the leaves to discover the source of the invisible stranger. The body that lay there was stiff and cold, his face blue. Bits of him were already beginning to rot. I stared again, noting his strange black clothing with The Castle insignia, the metal box at his belt still spewing out meaningless words.

“It now seems that Jenkins was able to escape by using a homemade variation of a glamour-stone, by which he convinced officers on duty that they wanted to help him. He was accompanied by one of the Huntsmen on duty at the time, who is now regarded as an accomplice. If you see either of these men, I repeat: do not approach, but call for backup.”

The voice faded away. Lily looked at me and shrugged. “Oops,” she murmured.

I still did not understand as she came towards me, brandishing a blade that had appeared out of nowhere. “I thought you worked at The Castle,” I said stupidly. We never ventured as far as the village, but we knew The Castle was a bad place, full of cells containing crazy people. I wasn’t surprised she’d decided to run away, but I wanted to know why the Huntsman she’d claimed had attacked her was lying under the leaves.

She was approaching slowly, her eyes more luminous than ever. I stood transfixed, mesmerised by her haunting beauty; but as she reached towards me, for a second something flickered and the merest impression of something twisted and cruel contorted her face.

Startled, I stepped back, throwing up my hands to defend myself from the knife she was jabbing at me. My fingers caught in the stone at her throat, and as the chain snapped, the glamour around her melted away and I saw my precious Lily for what she really was: a misshapen, hunchback of a man with features sharp as those of a ferret.

I was still struggling to make sense of it all as the blade slit my throat …