Enjoy this night

 

Lizzie Barker scrubbed the shirt hard against the washboard until her elbows ached. She looked down at her hands, scaly and sore from many hours spent in hot water. A loose lock fell from her auburn hair and she brushed it clumsily behind her ear. Once again, her thoughts turned to Nathaniel. There had been no recent news from the front. No letters full of cheerful, empty words, darkness hidden between the lines. She wondered what he was doing at that moment; prayed he was safe.

Lizzie had taken on Squire Middleton’s laundry to bring in a few shillings. It kept her and the babe going. She glanced across to the basket sitting a short distance from her in the long grass. The small, red head and tiny hands clasped together on the blanket in contented sleep. Such a beautiful, happy little girl. Almost eight months old and Nat had never yet seen her.

Lizzie rose from bending over her washtub and stretched; her muscles drawn tight over her shoulder blades. She wiped her hands on her apron and massaged her taut neck. It was a perfect spring morning. A sweet-scented breeze lifted the hair from her face. Daffodils bobbed joyous heads in her small garden. Across the lane, banks of primroses shone in the warm sunshine. Lambs skipped and hopped in the fields; their mothers’ admonishing cries filling the valley.

Lizzie lifted the shirt, twisted it to wring out the water and placed it in a basket with the others. She carried the basket over to the mangle. She enjoyed this part of wash day. Something seemed to relax in her as she fed the cloth through the runners and turned the handle to squeeze out the remaining water. She was glad for the powerful machine. Without it, she could never wring out the clothes so surely. On a day like today, they would be dry in no time.

Nat was a strong, powerful man. A good-looker, with his nut-brown skin and fair curls. Her friends had been jealous when he chose her at the annual country dance. The best labourer on the farm. Everyone joked that he never tired. Certainly, he did the work of two men. When he told her he was joining up, Lizzie had been afraid they would lose the cottage but Squire Middleton said he would let them keep it for Nat’s return.

“We need more soldiers to get this war finished,” Nat said.

“We need farmers and food too.” Lizzie replied, biting her lip in anxiety.

“I’ll be home soon, Lizzie.”  He laughed, putting his arm around her narrow waist. “Don’t worry so.”

She joined the other women watching husbands and sons march off to war. The young men of the village, laughing and waving; proud to serve their country. As she crunched home through the snow, Lizzie felt an empty sadness. She saw nothing to be proud about.

Lizzie stretched up to peg the shirts on the line. They rippled in the breeze. She breathed in the fresh, clean smell. A soft mewling came from the basket in the grass. The babe was stirring; hungry for a feed. She picked up the basket and carried it inside.

 

Lizzie sat under the candlelight with her darning. The babe had been bathed and settled in her cradle. The cottage was still. The bright, warm day had turned into a clear, chilly night and she was glad of the glowing range. She sighed; her eyes were growing tired in the dim light. Soon she would take the rickety stairs to their tiny bedroom. Although exhausted, she prolonged the moment. She hated going to bed alone. It felt cold and empty without Nat. When she closed her eyes, the dark and quiet seemed to gather inwards, pressing her down as if to suffocate her.

A knock at the door made Lizzie start and drop the stocking she held. It was late for a visitor. She picked up the candle and went to the door.

“Who’s there?” she called. In reply, there came another, more urgent rap.

Lizzie slid back the bolt and opened the door a slit. She peered into the darkness. A large, black figure stood in the shadows cast by a pale moon. She lifted her candle higher, better to see, and gasped in surprise.

“Nat?”

“I’m home Lizzie.” Nat’s voice returned across the darkness; thin and fragile like gauze.

“Oh, my love. Come in.” Lizzie opened the door wide.

Nat stumbled into the cottage. He looked smaller standing at the fireplace; shrunken, diminished. His eyes dark; full of exhaustion and pain. His face pale as milk.

“You must be tired and hungry.” Lizzie took his arm, made him sit in the armchair, “I’ll get you food, something to drink.”

She fussed at the kitchen table, slicing bread, cutting a hunk of cheese. She put the kettle on the range and stoked the coals. Nat sat in silence, staring at nothing. He was in the room but distant; somewhere a long way from the cottage.

As Nat ate his bread and cheese, Lizzie examined him; his sunken face, his dusty cropped hair, his dirty khaki uniform, his bony hands that shook. He wanted very little food or drink.

“You’re not hungry. I expect your appetite will come back with good, country air.” she said, “How long are you home for?”

“I’m here now,” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.”

From the cradle in the corner, there was a muffled moan. Nat turned noticing the baby for the first time.

“Our daughter, Nat.” Lizzie explained.

“Daughter…” Nat repeated.

“Yes, our beautiful little girl. Did you not get my letters? You left me with child.”

“With child…” Nat whispered, his eyes filled with tears.

Lizzie smiled. “Do you want to meet her?”

He nodded. Lizzie brought the babe to him and settled her into his arms. He held her tenderly, awkwardly, as if frightened he might break her. Wet lines streaked his hollow cheeks and tears dripped on to the baby’s blanket.

“You’ll make her all wet.” Lizzie wiped Nat’s face with her palms. “It’s all right, my love.”

“An angel.” he said.

“I haven’t named her, Nat. I was waiting for you to come home. What should we call her?”

“An angel…” he said again.

“Angel. Yes, that’s perfect.” Lizzie agreed, “Our very own Angel.” She put the sleeping baby back in her cradle. Nat watched her.

“Do you have to go back, Nat?” Lizzie asked, “When will this awful war be over?”

She sat at his feet and put her head on his knee.

“I’m here now, Lizzie.” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.” He stroked her thick hair.

“You’re filthy.” Lizzie said, “I’ll boil more water. Give you a wash down.”

Nat sat gazing into the unknown while Lizzie got water, filled the kettle and set it to boil. ‘Where are you, my love?’ Lizzie thought, ‘What is it you see?’ She poured hot water into a large bowl. She gathered a wash cloth, towel and Nat’s nightgown.

“Let me help you with your clothes,” she touched his arm and he flinched like a terrified child, “I’m here, my love, don’t be afraid, I’ll look after you.”

She undressed Nat. A slow, arduous process. His limbs were heavy and stiff. He made little effort on his own but followed her instructions like an automaton. She bathed his wasted body. She caressed his bruised, sore-ridden skin. Burning tears threatened in her eyes but she forced them back. This stranger was her husband. Her strong, handsome, lively Nat was gone.

“Oh, my love, what have they done to you?”

When she had dried him, she pulled his old nightgown over his head and led him up the narrow stairs to bed.

“I love you, Nat.” Lizzie held him close under the blankets, as if to prevent him from ever leaving again, “I wish you could stay forever.”

Nat only repeated the same words in his tired, thin voice, “I’m here now. Let’s enjoy this night.” She kissed him gently.

 

The next morning, Lizzie woke to early pale sunlight trickling through the flowery curtains. She turned to embrace Nat but the bed was empty. His place cold. Perhaps he is feeling better this morning, she thought. He was an early riser and liked to bring her a cup of tea. She listened but the cottage was quiet. Quickly, she got out of bed and crept downstairs. The kitchen was empty. Angel still slept peacefully in the corner.

Lizzie slipped her feet into clogs and wrapped a woollen shawl around her shoulders. She opened the back door to the garden. Nat often enjoyed early morning walks. He may have needed air to clear his head; make him feel better. She looked up and down the deserted lane. She scanned the misty fields and distant hillsides. Angel began to cry. Lizzie ran inside. It was time for her morning feed. She settled in the armchair cradling Angel to her breast. Nat could not have gone far. He would not have left without saying goodbye. Soon he would be home, hungry from his walk, and she would make them a hearty breakfast.

Angel suckled happily until she was full. Lizzie propped her in the basket.

“You are a good girl, my Angel,” she said, “Dada will be home in a minute and you will see what a handsome man he is. Last night, you were too sleepy to say hello but, this morning, your Dada will be so proud of you.”

There was a brisk knock at the door.

“Nat?” Lizzie called, “Just come in, my love. You don’t need to go knocking.”

Another tap, louder and more insistent. Lizzie went to open the door. Mr Jackson, the old postman stood on the step. His face drawn and anxious.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Barker.” He handed her a small, brown envelope.

Lizzie took the telegram with shaking hands.

Happily ever after

“Mummy.” Emily’s voice was urgent as I bent to switch off the bedside lamp, “Please leave the light on. I’m scared of the fairies.”

“The fairies?” I sat back down on the bed, “You don’t need to be frightened of fairies. They’re sweet little creatures that grant you wishes and leave a pound coin under your pillow when you lose a tooth.”

“Not these fairies.” Emily opened her eyes wide in fear and gripped me round the shoulders, pulling me close.

“They live in the walls…” she whispered close to my ear. Hot tears trickled down my neck.

“Oh, darling.” I kissed her damp cheek, “Have you been having bad dreams?”

“It’s not dreams, Mummy. I hear them scratching and laughing behind the headboard. They hate me. They say I’m ugly. They want to…kill…me.” The last words disintegrated into violent blubbing.

I scooped her into my arms, breathed in her clean just-bathed skin, “It’s all right, my love. Mummy’s got you. I think you can hear the mice. It’s an old house and there are loads about.”

“Mice don’t talk, Mummy.” she spluttered.

“The light can stay on, darling, and I’ll lie with you until you’re asleep.”

We snuggled under the covers and I put my arm around Emily, held her tight, felt the shock-waves of her sobs through my jumper. With my free hand, I stroked her soft hair, golden in the lamplight.

“Sing me the lamb one, Mummy.” she said, when her crying finally subsided.

By the time I finished my rendition of The Skye Boat song, Emily was asleep, her little body exhausted. I stayed where I was, not wanting to disturb her. It worried me to see her so afraid. I wondered if she was being bullied at school. It had been a tough move for her, dragging her away from her Grandparents and friends, from the bright modern nursery class, to this remote old place in the middle of nowhere, with its austere grey primary school. The house was full of groans and creaks in the night. Many times, I had heard scuttling behind the skirting while I lay in bed. I told Phil we needed to get some traps. “And you a vegetarian,” he had laughed.

With great care, I extricated myself from the warm, sleeping bundle and crept out into the hall and downstairs.

“That took a long while. Everything OK?” Phil looked up from his book, concerned lines across his dark eyebrows.

“Emily was terrified tonight. She said there are fairies living in the walls. They hate her and want to kill her.” I sat down on the sofa, next to him.

He put his book down and cuddled me close. It was reassuring to feel his warmth seep into my skin and the weight of his arm across my shoulders.

“Just dreams, I expect,” he said. “Fairies are pretty bloody scary though, if you ask me. It’s all the fairy tales you read her. Those Brothers Grimm were a right pair of miserable bastards.”

“Thanks for that. I told her it’s probably the mice.”

“I know, I know. I haven’t got on with getting the traps yet. I’ll sort it tomorrow, I promise.” Phil kissed me on the forehead, “Don’t worry. Kids do get scared, you know. It’s part of growing up.”

“But what if it’s school?” I said, “She might be being bullied and this is her way of telling us. It’s been a big change.”

“For all of us.” Phil smiled, “Don’t go jumping to conclusions, Jess. Give it some time. See how things go.”

“I suppose…” I sighed, “I just want Emily to be happy here.”

“That’s what we both want. Look, I’ll pour us a glass of wine and we’ll settle down in front of that sloppy film you’ve been trying to persuade me to watch.”

 

The next morning, we went for a lovely family walk along the river in the crisp autumn sunshine. Emily kicked up mounds of brilliant jewelled leaves, filling her wellies until they overflowed and she collapsed in a giggling heap. I pulled them off her and snuck up behind Phil, emptying them over his head. Emily burst into raucous laughter as he chased me down the path.

Walking back towards her, Phil took my hand and whispered, “She seems fine today.”

On the way home, we stopped at the farm store to buy mouse traps.

“Will they hurt the mice, Daddy?” Emily asked as we returned to the car.

“Well, my lovely, I’m afraid they will kill the mice but it will be quick, so it won’t hurt them at all.” Phil reassured her, “We can’t have mice running around the house scaring my little girl, can we?”

“It’s not…” Emily began but Phil lifted her up over his shoulders and the rest was lost in hysterical screeches.

Back home, we set traps all over the house. Emily helped cut cubes of cheese.

“The mice will go after the cheese, won’t they Mummy, and the trap will come down…snap.” She clapped her hands. “Daddy says it won’t hurt the mice.”

“No, it will be fast.” I agreed, surprised at her apparent change of heart.

“Do fairies like cheese, Mummy?” she asked, a hopeful expression on her pretty, round face.

“I’m not sure. I expect they might.”

She clenched her fists, “I hope so.”

“Let’s take Daddy the cheese, then.” I said, passing Emily the bowl.

 

Over the next few days, every piece of cheese disappeared but not one mouse was found dead. We refilled the traps, all the cheese went, still no mouse got caught. Every night, I lay listening to scrabbling behind the walls. The mice seemed to be taunting us. Phil joked we must have the most well-fed rodents in the country. Emily became more restless in bed, waking up three or four times a night; wet with sweat and shaking in fear. Her light had to stay on; the bedroom door open. She grew pale and ill-looking; her eyes ringed with dark circles. Even Phil failed to bring a smile to her thin, sad lips.

“The fairies don’t like cheese, Mummy…” she whispered at bedtime on the third night, “They are angry about the traps.”

I slept with her that night, holding her until her breath relaxed and slowed. Then the scampering and scuttling began; movement right behind my head. I tensed, trying to work out where the mice were coming from and going to. They seemed to be running up and down the walls, crossing the ceiling, then returning back behind the headboard. I banged the wall with my fist and the noise stopped.  Emily stirred beside me.

“Sssh, it’s all right.” I soothed.

 

I started awake. My heart beat against my rib cage, so loud I worried it might wake Emily. Something had woken me. I listened hard. In the black stillness, I thought I heard sniggering.

“Don’t be stupid, Jess.” I said, rubbing my eyes, “Wake up, you’re dreaming.”

“It’s the fairies.” Emily grasped my hand.

We lay together as the scurrying began again.

“Try to sleep, Emily.” I said, “It’s only the mice. Tomorrow, I’m getting a cat. That will fix them.”

 

After dropping Emily at school, I set off on the thirty-mile trek, down a series of narrow winding lanes, to the nearest animal sanctuary. During breakfast, I had completed a frantic google search and found the perfect place. Emily cheered up as I showed her photos of the fluffy felines in need of forever homes.

“I like that one, Mummy,” she said, pointing to a large ginger tom. “He looks brave.”

“He does look a big, strong cat, doesn’t he?” I agreed. “Well, I can’t promise he’ll be the one we get but I’ll do my best.”

It was good to leave Emily at school looking bright and happy.

I spent an hour chatting to the sanctuary owner about our needs and examining the different cats on show. It was a difficult decision choosing which puss to take away. I felt guilty thinking about the ones left behind, who would still be without a loving family. Finally, I settled on a pretty black and white female with a silky coat, pale green eyes and thick, lush tail. She had an intelligent face and attacked her toy mouse with agility and gusto. I thought Emily would enjoy stroking and brushing her. She would be a lovely pet as well as a rodent murderer.

Emily was thrilled with the cat when she got home.

“What’s her name?” she asked as the cat rubbed against her legs.

“I thought that could be your job.” I said.

“Princess.” Emily bent down and ran her hand along the cat’s back. “You like that, don’t you? You are a beautiful Princess.”

“Oh,” said Phil, “I thought we’d call her Killer.”

Emily laughed for the first time in days.

 

Within a week, Princess got down to work, leaving several bloody parcels on the kitchen floor for us to find at breakfast time.

“Good cat.” Emily cuddled Princess before going to school.

She had slept peacefully the last few nights with Princess at her feet. The walls had gone quiet. The mice were retreating; escaping from the sharp claws of our clever new pet.

 

On Sunday, we decided to celebrate our success with a long, late lunch at the local pub, an hour’s stroll through the woods. Emily kissed Princess and settled her in the cat basket near the kitchen Rayburn.

“I love you.” she whispered.

Phil and I smiled at each other, relieved to get our happy, little girl back.

“Come on, monkey.” Phil said picking Emily up, “You can ride on my back some of the way, if you like.”

“Yes.” Emily squealed. “And can I have chips and ice-cream at the pub?”

“What, both together? You’ll be sick.” Phil joked.

 

After a relaxing meal, we headed home, taking the long walk slowly, our tummies full and legs sleepy with all the food we had enjoyed. The sun was sinking behind fluffy, grey clouds as we reached the house. In the gloomy light, it looked forlorn and unfriendly.

“I think we’ll need a fire tonight.” Phil shivered, “It’s getting chilly.”

Inside, the rooms felt icy and musty. Our high spirits dampened.

“Princess!” Emily called, “Where is she, Mummy? She’s not in her bed.”

“Give her a chance, I expect she’s hunting mice upstairs.” I said.

Emily took the stairs two at a time calling for her cat as she went. Phil began to make the fire and I went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. A piercing scream sent us both racing to find Emily. She was kneeling on her bedroom floor, violent sobs wracking her small body. In her arms she held something limp, like a furry rag doll. It took me a moment to realize it was Princess.

“Emily, let me see, darling,” I knelt beside her.

She clung to the cat, her face buried in the dark hair.

“Emily…” I put my arms around her, “Let me see Princess.”

“They killed her…” the words burst from her trembling lips.

I took the cat and placed her gently on the floor in front of my knees. She was frigid; her unseeing eyes glazed wide open. She must have been dead for a few hours.

“I’m so sorry, my love.” I cuddled Emily, pulled her onto my lap.

Phil bent down and picked up Princess.

“Daddy will take her and wrap her in a blanket. Tomorrow, we can bury her in the garden. OK Emily?”

Emily nodded and began to sob again.

I held her for a long time, rocking her back and forth on her bedroom floor, until she cried herself to sleep. Then I placed her carefully in her bed and covered her with the duvet.

Downstairs, Phil was in the kitchen. He had covered Princess in a blanket and put her in the cat bed.

“This is a nightmare…” I said, “I can’t believe it. She loved that cat. What are we going to do, Phil?”

“We could get another cat…I don’t know.” Phil shrugged his shoulders.

“Why did she have to go and die? She seemed so fit and healthy.”

Phil sighed, “I don’t know how to tell you this…it’s the oddest thing.”

“What is?” I did not like the look on his face.

“I checked her over, just now, to see if I could find out what killed her. I noticed her mouth, it was gaping…so I looked closer and…” he hesitated.

“And what? Tell me, Phil.”

“I could see something stuck in there, in her mouth. I put my finger in a bit to see what it was. Her whole mouth was gummed up…I could tell her throat was stuffed full too. It was horrible.”

“Stuffed full of what?” I asked, an uneasy feeling rose in my stomach.

“Cheese, Jess. Cubes of moulding cheese.” He shook his head.

“Cheese? The cheese we cut up and put in the traps?” A finger of fear ran along my spine, “But how can that be possible?”

“I suppose Princess found the place where the mice store their food. Perhaps they collected it up for the winter. She must have been too greedy, she ate it all and choked on it.”

“Do mice do that…store food?” The pulse in my temples throbbed.

“Well, they must do, Jess, because that’s how Princess died.”

“But it seems so implausible. Emily said the fairies were angry. They hated the traps and the cheese. She said they killed Princess. The fairies…”

“And that’s a far more plausible explanation, of course. For Christ’s sake Jess, talk sense. Emily was upset, that’s all.”

“I don’t know how she’ll get over this.” I said.

“Kids do get over things but we don’t mention the cheese.” Phil gave me a warning stare.

“What do you think I am?” I said, “We’ll explain Princess had an illness the sanctuary didn’t know about.”

 

Phil booked the morning off work and we buried Princess under Emily’s favourite rosebush. The one with the sweet-scented, blush-pink flowers she had enjoyed picking in the summer when we first moved in. That seemed an age ago, when Emily was a different child. Now she was pale and silent. Not a word had passed her lips since the previous evening. She communicated with barely perceptible nods and shakes of the head. She refused to eat breakfast. After the burial, she sat on the sofa, staring at the wall with blank eyes.

“Emily needs some time away from here.” I told Phil that evening when he returned from work.

“What about school?”

“She’s in no state for school, Phil. She’s miserable. She won’t speak or eat. If we don’t do something she’ll be a very ill little girl. I’m frightened, Phil. I think she should go and stay with my mum. Have a holiday.”

“Maybe.” Phil said.

“She misses her Grandma. It will do her good.” I insisted, “I’m driving her there tomorrow.”

“Well, thanks a lot for arranging it all without me.” Phil stormed out of the room.

That night, I lay beside Emily while she slept, listening to the scratching in the walls, louder and more insistent now Princess was gone. I prayed Emily would be all right.

 

When I got back from my mum’s, Phil was making dinner.

“You OK?” he asked sheepishly.

“Yeah, bit tired. The motorway was jam-packed. Five hours in slow traffic’s not much fun…”

“Poor love.” He pulled me close, “I’m sorry I lost my temper. It’s just…well, Emily’s my daughter too. I do care about her.”

“I know.”

“How was she when you left?”

“Still quiet but I think she was relieved to be away.” I shrugged, “Phil, do you think we made a mistake coming here?”

“No, I don’t. This is our dream. A lovely old house in the country. Peace and quiet. Home-grown veg and a few chickens. It’s bliss.”

“I’m not so sure. If Emily’s going to be unhappy…”

“It’ll be fine. Everything will settle. We’ve gone through a rough patch, that’s all.”

I chewed my lip, “I’m thinking perhaps we should sell up, move away.”

“Sell up? Jesus Jess, because we have a mouse problem and our cat died? Bit extreme, don’t you think?” Phil kissed me on the top of my head, “Anyway, I’ve thought of a solution. While you were away today, I booked a pest control man. He’s busy until next week but he reckons he’ll soon finish the buggers. Now, sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Dinner’s nearly ready. Try to relax, love. We’ll sort this, I promise.”

 

The blankets grew heavy on my restless legs. Blood gushed in my ears. A pinprick of pain pulsed behind my eyes. I looked at the bedside clock; quarter past one. Phil snuffled deep in sleep beside me. The room seemed unusually quiet, no scuffling came from inside the walls. I got out of bed and edged my way through the darkness to the door. On the landing, the moon shone a guiding beam of light. I made my way to the bathroom for a paracetamol and glass of water.

On the return journey, I stopped at Emily’s room. A faint scrambling came from behind the door. I opened it and switched on the light, scanning the floor for evidence of mice. In the sudden glare, the room looked unreal and exposed. I went and sat on Emily’s bed, smoothed her pillows, bent down and breathed in her smell. Around me, the scratching started up again.

I stood up and put my ear to the cool wall. It sounded like an army of mice on patrol in there. I tapped my fingers and the noise stopped for a moment, then carried on as before. Above my hand, I noticed a dark, bulging patch. I prodded it and my finger nail sank into soft, damp plaster. I pushed deeper, causing a large piece to flake off. I picked away at the indentation until a small hole formed. It was too high for me to examine easily, so I searched for something to stand on. My eye found the toy box standing at the bottom of Emily’s bed. It was heavy but, little by little, I pushed and pulled it into position. Standing on the box, I put my eye to the hole. It was too dark and tiny to see anything. I set to work picking at the plaster. I needed to see what was making all the noise; to know what was upsetting Emily.

It took some time to make a decent-sized opening. When it was about the size of my fist, I stopped and put my ear to the gap. The walls had fallen silent. Emily kept a torch in her bedside drawer. I went to collect it. Shining the beam into the hole, I peered in. I could see a space between two layers of stonework. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. A stale, clinging smell filled my nostrils. I waited noiselessly for the mice to appear. I waited for a long time, fingers and toes turning numb. Eventually, I heard a faint scuffling and murmuring, to my sleep-deprived brain like distant voices speaking a strange, foreign language. The scratching and shuffling grew nearer, the whispering sound got louder. Furious, guttural voices, cursing and mocking, gathering at some point in the wall then moving on towards the gap where I waited. A shadow began to form at the edge of the torchlight, stretching and growing on the stony surface. A clawed shape, elongated out, gnarled and bony, like fingers reaching from the darkness. I sensed hatred, a malevolent force, directed at me. My heart tightened and blood throbbed under my ribs.

“Jess, what the fuck are you doing?”

The torch fell with a clatter and banged my knee as I stumbled in shock. Phil grabbed my arm to steady me.

“You scared me. I didn’t realize you were there.”

“Your hands…they’re bleeding. It’s all over the wall…” Phil lifted me down from the toy box.

I looked at my fingers, the skin red and raw, the nails ragged and bloody, “I didn’t feel it.”

“What the hell were doing? You’ve made a big hole…”

“I was looking for the mice, Phil. I heard them…but it sounded like talking.”

“Christ Almighty Jess, let me get you cleaned up. I think you must have had a nightmare, or something. Maybe you were sleep walking.”

A sudden swimming in my brain caused me to totter against Phil, “I don’t know…perhaps it was a dream.”

“Let’s get you back to bed.” Phil took my arm and led me out of Emily’s room.

 

The next morning, I slept late. When I woke, my head was heavy, like it was squashed into an enormous helmet. My fingertips were sore and bruised. I looked at them in disbelief; what had I been thinking last night? Phil had gone to work but a note was posted on the fridge: ‘Take it easy today. I’ll ring at lunchtime. Love you.’ I didn’t feel hungry so I made a pot of tea and rang to check on Emily. It was good to hear she was eating breakfast and chatting to mum’s dogs.

After the phone call, I went up to Emily’s room to survey the mess. The hole was bigger than I remembered; the size of my head, smeared with dry, rust-coloured blood. I picked up the torch from where I had dropped it, stood on the toy box and examined the opening. The fetid smell reached my nostrils again. Somewhere in the depths, I heard a scraping and chattering. The mice never seemed to rest, roll on next week and the exterminator’s visit.

 

When Phil came home, I was sitting at my sewing machine, busy at work in Emily’s bedroom.

“What are you up to in here?” he asked, “Did you not hear the phone when I rang earlier? I thought I told you to take it easy today.”

“I’m fine.” I said, “I’m feeling much better.”

“Thank goodness. I won’t pretend that I haven’t been worried.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” I smiled, “The fairies say everything will be all right now.”

“The fairies? What are you going on about, Jess? Don’t mess about, I’m not in the mood.” Phil came to take a closer look at my sewing.

“I’ve seen them today, Phil. Emily was right. They were very angry with us for moving here, disturbing them, setting traps and bringing in a cat.  They thought we wanted to harm them. But I can make everything better. They are naked Phil, and cold. They need clothes and I am making them. Then they will be warm for the winter. Then they will be happy and they will let us live here in peace.”

“Jess, please, stop this. You’re scaring me. I think you are ill, love. You’ve been under a lot of stress, worried about Emily and stuff…”

“No, Phil. I’m not ill. I understand now, don’t you see? The fairies have explained everything. I have to do this so we can live happily ever after.”

“Jess, come with me. Let’s go downstairs. Sort this out. I can call the doctor, get you help.”

“Please don’t say things like that, Phil. You are making the fairies angry again. I think you better leave.” I stood up and pointed to the door.

Phil stayed where he was, “Jess…”

“Go now, Phil.”

“Christ Jess.” He ran his hands through his hair.

“Go.”

He left. I shut and locked the door behind him. There was a lot of sewing to do. I worked through the night, cutting and stitching, adding buttons and ribbons. Suit after suit, until I had enough for an army of fairies. By midnight, I was finished. I laid the outfits in neat rows on the floor, then collapsed on Emily’s bed exhausted.

 

After Jess slammed and locked the door on me, I paced the house, wringing my hands, uncertain what to do. I picked up the phone to ring the doctor but put it back in its cradle. I didn’t want her to be sectioned or carried off to some loony bin. As soon as I put the phone down, I lifted it again thinking I would ring her mum but decided she had enough on her plate looking after Emily for us. All the while I could hear the snip of scissors and the whir of the sewing machine. It went on hour, after hour, after hour. Eventually, I sat at the top of the stairs in anxious vigil, watching the door, gnawing at my finger nails, listening and waiting. Waiting for the morning. Hoping Jess would somehow be better by then. Hoping things wouldn’t seem so awful in the light of day.

Pale autumn sunshine woke me, slumped over the top step, aching and stiff. My watch showed seven o’clock. The house was quiet. Jess must have gone to sleep, thank God. I tried the bedroom door but it was still locked. I didn’t want to wake her, she needed rest. In films, whenever a character needs access to a locked room, they do a trick where they push the key out of the lock onto a piece of paper and slide it under the door so they can retrieve the key. I went to find some paper.

In the end, I broke the door down in fear and frustration. It was too quiet in that room. The sewing machine and materials were packed tidily away. There was no sign of the miniature clothes. Jess lay on the bed. Her eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. Her mouth drawn up in an uncanny grin.

“Jess love, are you OK?” I touched her hand and recoiled in terror. I fell to my knees; my stomach clenched convulsively and I retched. She was frozen, rigid, lifeless. My Jess, dead. I couldn’t believe it.

I took a deep breath and looked at her beautiful face, “What have they done to you?”

Across her eyelids and over her lips, pinning her features into gruesome shape, were rows of tiny, neat stitches. I put my head in my hands and screamed.

In the walls, a scratching, scrabbling sound began.

Memories of summer

This is my microfiction story Oxford Summer as featured in The Simple Things magazine in June 2018.

 

The long, hot summer before you left, days stretched like elastic; tense with waiting. Too tired to move, we lay naked on the floor; limbs outstretched, fingertips touching. Mouths parched, the awkward words stuck in our throats. Your bedsit tidied into neat boxes, there was nothing to drink. And I hated the tap water, stale on my tongue. We stole powdered milk; mixed it with guilt in the tiny kitchen. Barely palatable, we gulped it down along with our foreboding.

The last goodbye arrived; a hurried kiss under burning sun, engine running. And I noticed your hands were shaking.

 

The wardrobe

The wardrobe towered over the cheap hotel room; a citadel keeping watch on those below. Elaine felt uncomfortable under its scrutiny. A grand piece of furniture like that – imposing in its finery of polished walnut, carved lintels and shiny brass handles – had no place in such a small, shabby room; the best she could afford in her haste to escape their disapproving faces. She fidgeted on the pillows wondering how anyone managed to manoeuvre the wardrobe through the narrow doorway. It must have been an exhausting feat of strength and endurance. She was certain the wardrobe must have done its best to prevent its arrival into this unsavoury situation.

Now, it commandeered the back wall encroaching an intimidating distance across the drab and grubby carpet. Elaine could not settle under its reproachful gaze. The wardrobe stood, austere and unfriendly, in admonishment; it was clear it did not belong in that room. She, tiny and unimportant, fitted perfectly in the miserable gloom of the place but the wardrobe, oh no, it was too good for its surroundings; beautifully crafted, made for higher purpose.

Elaine turned her back to it and switched off the lamp. Sleep would be difficult with the monstrous wardrobe mocking her from the shadows. In the dim light, she was aware it looked down on her in a superior, knowing fashion. She closed her eyes tight, tried to forget its presence. The flesh on her back began to creep. It was worse with the huge thing leering behind her. Elaine turned again; she would meet it face to face. It would not beat her into supplication.

In the darkness, the wardrobe sneered. It recognized she was unworthy of its attention, a nothing, a disappointment. It knew everyone expected more and she had let them down. It was no surprise she had ended up in this dismal place. The wardrobe wanted nothing to do with her. To be crammed into a lowly hovel was insult enough, it would stoop no lower. It would not share space with a pathetic individual. The wardrobe seemed to grow larger. It pressed against the walls and ceiling. Elaine slid to the far side of the bed until she reached the cool, far edge. She pulled the covers tighter, making herself a small ball; giving the wardrobe further territory. It was going to crush her, suffocate her; it would be master.

In panic, Elaine lunged for the light switch. The wardrobe loomed above her in the dusty glow. Its polished surface reflected loathing and disgust. It knew she had failed. Failed to get a degree. Failed to be a good wife. Failed to make her parents proud. The wardrobe filled the room, squeezing out the air. Elaine’s chest constricted. She tried to catch her breath but only managed quick, rasping gasps. She could no longer bear to see the wardrobe; to feel the weight of its scorn. In desperation, she covered her face with shaking hands and submitted to the cold, hard wood, smooth against skin as it smothered her.

 

 

 

This story is what my imagination does when I spend the night in an unfamiliar room with a large piece of furniture! Have you ever slept in a room where you have felt unsettled?

 

 

 

Like strangers do

This quirky piece of flash fiction is loosely based on a true story.

 

“Well, you know what men are like.” Mum turned to me, broad smile on her wrinkled face.

After half an hour of silence, the remark made me slurp my tea. Somewhat bemused, I scratched at my greying beard, “Do I?”

She nodded knowingly, “Yes, of course you do. They have needs…”

“Mum.” I put my cup down, picked up a newspaper from the shiny coffee table, flicked through it trying to think of a response.

“Take my Tom…” she giggled, eyes twinkling with mischief.

“What…Dad?” I squeaked in surprise.

“My Tom, I said.” Mum’s eyebrows knitted in exasperation, “He has needs…”

“I really don’t think…” I breathed deeply, taking the smell of wax polish into my lungs.

She leaned towards me conspiratorially, “He always likes me to tie his hands together. You know, when we’re in bed.”

The walls of the communal lounge crowded inwards. The chatter of other residents and their visitors hushed. My neck flushed with heat.

“What are you saying, Mum? You’re not talking about Dad, are you?” I saw my father sitting at the kitchen table, balding and plump, working on The Times crossword puzzle, “He’s not here anymore, is he? You must be confused.”

“I’m fed up of people telling me I’m confused. I know what I’m talking about.” Mum shouted, “Who are you to say I don’t?”

She pushed her cup of tea away, milky brown liquid slopping onto the saucer and perfectly vacuumed floral carpet. Embarrassed, I looked down, noticed the pale band of skin on my newly naked ring finger.

“It’s all right, Mum. Don’t get upset.” I reached across to pat her veined hand but she withdrew it in disgust.

“Don’t touch me…” she spat, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s strangers touching me.”

“I know, Mum.”

I sipped at my cold tea. Perhaps I should shave this beard off, I thought, it might make me look younger.

 

 

Twenty-four hours from Tumble

His hands slide around my waist…

Don’t. Don’t think about it…concentrate on driving. Hands gripping steering wheel, foot on accelerator, wipers cutting through rain thick like treacle down glass.

His skin smells bitter-sweet in my hair, on my body; cologne and sweat…

Rhys will notice. Shower soon as I’m home. Pizza night. Half an hour with a gin and tonic selecting toppings…another half hour deciding which film to watch.

His voice whispers in my ear, lips touching lobe, tingle reaching to toes…

Think about mundane stuff. Rubbish needs putting out. Is it black bag week? Rotten job in this weather. Do it before my shower…bound to get drips down back of my neck…bloody trees. Still waiting for Rhys to get his chainsaw out.

P1010328

It’s hammering down…curtain of rain hiding the road…What’s he playing at? Idiot! Showing off in his fancy car. Overtaking in this…must have a death wish. Rhys will be worrying. Long drive in a downpour. Not used to me being away…coping alone. Hope he managed to feed himself. Did I remind him to defrost his lasagne? Must have…gave him a list as long as his arm.

‘You’re beautiful…don’t go home yet.’

Don’t want to go home. To face Rhys with this knowledge festering away inside me like a wound…What’s going on? Bright lights a few cars behind me. Pulling over…let it come past. Flashing, piercing blue…that noise goes right through me…pounding behind my eyes. Giving me a headache. Guilt that is. Deserve a headache…gut-wrenching, vomit-inducing migraine.

Wonder what poor bugger needs an ambulance? Maybe that guy in the sports car…that nightmare junction up ahead. There’ll be a hold up if it’s an accident. Must get in the shower before Rhys gets home. Put my clothes on a hot wash. Get rid of this stink.

Rhys was so pleased for me. Getting my place on the conference…posh hotel in Cardiff…encouraged me to go. Something I’d always wanted to do. This is your time, he said, all those years looking after me and Eleri. You go for it. One trip, one flattering remark and my head turns. From faithful wife to push-over fling in the time it took to down two bottles of wine. Nasty crossroad’s just coming up now…no ambulance, no hold up. Not far to go…I’ll be in good time.

Rhys will know. Never could hide a thing from him. Can read you like a book, he says. He saw through me when I pretended some fool had backed into the car while I did the weekly shop. How can I hide an enormous betrayal like this? It’ll be a cancer eating me away.

His kisses burn on my neck…

Heart’s escaping through my throat. Only a couple of miles to go…Think I’m going to be sick. Find a lay-by. Got to park up. Get out of this car…need air…Breathe. Like when I was giving birth. Deep breaths in, count to ten, slowly breathe out. I’m shaking…knees turned to liquid.

Eleri was such a sweet baby. Round and cuddly. I just watched her…sleeping…couldn’t take my eyes off her. She’s the best thing I’ve ever done. So proud of her…getting her place at Oxford. Never imagined she’d grow up to be a mathematician. Rhys’s influence. I’m all airy-fairy natural therapies and herbal remedies. Old hippy, he calls me. Don’t half miss her…her easy conversation and funny ways. It’s like I’ve had an arm cut off…no longer complete. Lost my purpose, I suppose. This was the beginning of my new life; career as an alternative practitioner. What a joke…me helping others find peace amongst the chaos of their lives…can’t even keep my own life in order.

His eyes take a last, longing look…

Stop. Just stop…Haven’t felt longed for in ages…not desired or wanted. I’ve felt comfortable and safe. Nothing wrong with that. We’re happy. Our silver wedding last summer. Barbeque and drinks in the garden. Friends and family, presents and laughter. Lovely day amongst the pretty flower borders. Spent years nurturing those.

Rhys made me promise, we’d never keep secrets. Father was a serial adulterer…watched it destroy his Mam. We agreed we’d always be honest. Well, if we felt the need for an affair, something was seriously wrong with our marriage. Except, it wasn’t…isn’t. We’re doing fine. So, why spend the night with a stranger? Why derail our marriage, send my cosy existence hurtling down some unknown path? Risk everything for a moment of…what…passion or madness? Stupid fool.

He smiles; lopsided like some cad in a Victorian melodrama…

I can’t act as if everything’s normal. As if nothing’s happened. Won’t be able to live happily with a lie between us. I’ll have to tell him. Before he realizes for himself. God…oh, God…just this corner and I’m home. Skull’s squeezing my brain…I’m going to pass out. I can’t do this…This will be the end. Rhys will never forgive me. I’ll turn around…drive away…keep going and never come back.

What’s this now? People in the road…gathered round…the ambulance is here. Not poor Mrs Thomas again, I hope. Another stroke would be the end of her. No…not her…I think…no, it can’t be…the ambulance…it’s outside our house…

Death by chocolate

Some time ago, I wrote this odd little story for a competition in a local free paper. We had to include three random words: dream, chocolate and glasses. The competition was cancelled, so I thought I’d share it here:

 

Two glasses sat smeared and grimy on the coffee table; dregs of cheap red wine congealing. Greasy entrails of foil tubs spilt over the chipped woodwork. Stale aromas of spice mingled with cigarette smoke. An alcoholic fug filled the room. Weak sunlight struggled to reach dusty corners. A low moan rumbled from the tatty sofa.

‘Oh…’ a deep voice rasped,’…my head…’

A shadowy hump rose slowly from its resting place.

‘What a night…think we overdid it…’ the hump said staggering across the floor transforming into a man.

The man stared into a smudgy mirror. He rubbed his stubbly cheeks vigorously.

‘Ugh…’ he said to his dishevelled reflection.

He looked around the unkempt room.

‘Sandy!’ he called gruffly. No reply. Where was his wife?

The man picked his way gingerly out of the lounge, through the cluttered hallway and into the musty, dark bedroom. Sandy liked a lay-in on Saturdays. Her only chance for one. The rumpled bed was empty. He sat heavily on the lumpy mattress. Was Sandy there last night? It wasn’t her late shift at the factory. Yes, he remembered her coming home from her cleaning job at the hospital. She’d found him asleep in the kitchen. He’d woken with a start when she banged her bag down on the table. She’d glared with contempt at the sink full of oily dishes, the grubby work surfaces and basket of dirty laundry sitting shamefully by the washing machine. All as she had left them.

‘I see you’ve been busy,’ she’d said; voice quiet and hard.

He hadn’t been shopping or prepared the evening meal either. Since being made redundant two years ago, a dull laziness had seeped into his bones. Lethargy he could not shift.

‘Sorry love…’ he’d simpered, ‘We can go to the supermarket now…get some bottles…a takeaway…treat for you…’

Sandy had driven them to the supermarket. She’d tutted as he put two extra wine bottles in the trolley. They had picked up a Chinese then come back to the flat in bitter silence. The rest of the evening was blurred.

The man rubbed his hands over his distended stomach. His skin taut, firm and tender to the touch. They – well he – had overdone it last night. He let out a bilious belch which left a bitter sweet tang at the back of his throat. Chocolate; rich and dark. The sensation relit a memory. Something odd. A dream. Last night…

He was sitting on the sofa with Sandy. She was quiet; still angry with him. The air simmered with rage. He turned to speak to her, to apologize. He couldn’t bear the atmosphere any longer. Sandy sat immobile. Glossy, brilliantly tempered. A perfect impression made from delicious, luscious chocolate. He touched her gently. She felt cool and smooth. He breathed in the exotic, sweet smell. His mouth watered, taste buds tingling. He put out his tongue and licked her statuesque face. She tasted good. A high quality chocolate from a posh shop. He wondered if he could risk a nibble. A small bite. Of her ear. He couldn’t resist. The flavour was divine. He began to gobble greedily. Gorging himself on the chocolate. It melted and dripped from his lips. Soon he had devoured his wife with big, hungry mouthfuls. He felt a sickly burn in his throat. His stomach felt swollen and sore. He slept.

The man looked down at his enormous belly.

‘Oh my God…’ he moaned, panic fluttering in his chest, ’I can’t have…it’s not possible…’

He rose from the bed and stumbled into the hall. Frantically, he began to search the house. Pushing, smashing and renting furniture, ornaments and clothing as he went. He shouted and wailed for his wife, his voice tense and hoarse. He tore at his hair in desperation. Silence surrounded him. Fear filling his lungs so he could hardly breath, he surveyed the wreckage of his home. He collapsed on a kitchen chair and swept the table free of clutter in frustration. Putting his head in his hands, he sobbed convulsively.

‘No…What have I done?’ he wept.

Underneath the table, hidden amongst the carnage, sat a pristine square of paper. On it, in neat script, was written:

Dear Rob,

I can’t stand living like this any longer. I want something better and I’ve gone to find it. I’m sorry.

Goodbye,

Sandra

 

 

 

Tea with friends

Sue sat looking over the neat rows of flowers and sharp-edged lawns. It was hot inside so she had flung the windows wide. Cool air soothed her softly-lined skin. She looked down at her veined, wrinkled hands; spun her wedding ring round with her fingertips. Bill would have liked this garden; orderly and easy to care for. He’d always moaned about their place. The hedges, orchard and meadow were unkempt; difficult to control. He would have liked this small, tidy flat too. Less to maintain than the old, sprawling farmhouse they’d bought when first married. Forty-eight years they had spent there, not all of them happy. Sometimes Bill had reminded her of their home and garden, uncontrollable and wild. His depression, his drinking, his temper.

There had been good times. The early days when the children were small. Raising a family in the countryside. Cricket and badminton on the meadow. Hide and seek in the orchard. Apple and plum pie. Busy, happy times with people around. As the children grew up, moved on, made their own lives, things got difficult. Bill became introverted, quiet. He drank lots then. He shouted at her; impatient and irritated. The names were cruel; meant to cut, to cause pain. A flying fist could hurt too. Not often but enough for her to be afraid; to become a child, a mouse. Bill was certainly able to control her.

Still, she missed him. This flat was too silent. The days ached with empty hours. She tried to find things to do, to fill the spaces. She cleaned, read, went for walks, watched TV, spent hours staring out of the window. Everything seemed pointless on your own. The other residents were friendly but so, old. They spent their days in the communal lounge gossiping; discussing the comings and goings. She wasn’t ready for that life yet.

Sue sighed. When Bill died of liver disease, she’d discovered there were debts. Their savings were gone. The profits Bill had made from selling his building firm had gone too. She’d found herself without the home she loved; sold to pay everything off. Lucky to keep enough to rent this retirement flat. Not the place she’d envisaged for her final days. She was a young seventy; fit and trim. Years ahead of her, all being well. She shouldn’t be stuck in this home for the elderly. She should be in her farmhouse; her family around her. She wanted to move nearer to the children, but there had been nothing she could afford. Mark regretted he had no space for her. Five kids in a three-bedroomed house. Sarah had just started a family. She didn’t expect to move in with her and a new baby. No, she never wanted to be a nuisance.

A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. Sue rose in a daze from her chair. She glanced at the clock. It would be Fred, her next door neighbour. A sweet man who loved gardening. He looked after the communal gardens. Three days a week he knocked at eleven. Brought her flowers cut from the beds; chrysanthemums, dahlias or sweet peas. She loved brightening the flat with their colour and scent. Sometimes he stayed for a cup of tea. Not always. He took some persuading. Sue had come to rely on these meetings. An unexpected friendship had developed over a cup of the aromatic, amber liquid. On the days when Fred was too busy, or too shy, to come in she felt disappointed. Today she would insist he stayed. She hurried to open the door.

 

Another day had passed without visitors. Sue sipped her tea and nibbled at a garibaldi. Crumbs fell on the table and her knees. Brushing them off carelessly, she sighed into the hushed emptiness. She picked up the red leather case hiding quietly under the pile of newspapers. The tablet Mark had bought her.

“We’ll be able to talk face to face, Mum,” he said, guilty about how rarely he could visit, “It’ll be as if we’re actually here in the room.”

“That sounds great,” she replied, “but will I be able to use it?”

“Of course, it’s easy. I’ll teach you.”

Sue had agreed to keep him happy. Now she talked to her family several times a week. At other times, the tablet sat mute and forgotten. The grandchildren had shown her how to play games and search the internet. She couldn’t muster any enthusiasm. Sarah had even joked about online dating.

“About time you found someone to care for you…all those years you put up with Dad,” she hugged Sue tight.

“Don’t be daft. I’m too old for all that!” Sue shrugged.

“You’re the one being daft, Mum,” Sarah admonished, “You’re still a very attractive woman. A great catch. What about your neighbour? Fred, isn’t it?”

“Now you are being silly…he’s not my type…we’re friends, that’s all.”

She’d seen an advert for a dating site on the television. Beautiful blue-eyed blonde with a handsomely dark man. With looks like that you wouldn’t need help finding someone. Bill was a good-looking man. Broad and strong. Those painfully deep eyes. Troubled eyes. She could almost see his soul. She remembered how he had made her feel that first meeting. Bill walked in the pub; assured, confident.  Her legs jellified. Happy in his skin, he was then.

“That’s the girl I’m going to marry,” he had announced to her best friend, Janet.

Arrogant sod. Anyway, that was past. Bill was gone. She was alone. Lonely. Maybe she should try a dating site. Start thinking about the present. The future. She typed ‘dating for old people’ on the touch pad.

 

Sue opened the front door. Fred stood; sweet peas clasped in front of his chest. He was a short, round man with bald head, rosy cheeks and kind, blue eyes behind his spectacles.

“Hello Fred.”

“Good morning,” Fred said, holding the bunch out to her.

“Thank you, my favourites,” Sue smiled, taking the flowers, “better get these in water. Will you come in for a cuppa?”

Fred’s cheeks reddened further, “Well…I don’t want to put you to any bother…”

“It’s no bother. We haven’t shared a cup of tea for a while. Come in, I’ve got custard creams,” Sue insisted.

Fred wiped his feet briskly on the mat and followed Sue inside. He looked around the small lounge and nodded with satisfaction.

“You display them so well,” he said.

Sue studied her flat. It was like an indoor garden with vases of cut flowers on every surface. She smiled broadly. Bill wouldn’t have liked it; dropped petals and pollen, vases gathering dust, damp rings on the furniture. But this was her home and she could do what she wanted.

“I’ll just get these sorted and put the kettle on. Make yourself at home,” Sue pointed vaguely towards the table and went into the kitchen.

Fred pulled out a chair and sat quietly down, folding his hands in his lap. He could hear the chime and tinkle of tea things being prepared. Earl Grey; their favourite. In a teapot, sugar bowl, milk jug and two pretty bone china cups with saucers, very civilized. Sue made the perfect cuppa. His favourite times of the week. At least, when he found the confidence to come in. He sat still and silent, wracking his brain for things to say. It had been a couple of weeks since they’d last had tea together. He’d missed their chats. He must have some news for her.

Sue entered carrying the tray. She put it on the table and sat down opposite Fred.

“So, what have you been up to?” she asked.

“Well, not a lot…been busy in the garden. The veg patch is going well. They’ve agreed I can sell any surplus in the common room,” Fred said, blushing with the effort.

“That’s wonderful,” Sue enthused, “I knew you’d been too busy to share a cuppa but I’d no idea.”

“You haven’t been walking in the garden lately,” Fred said, “so, you wouldn’t have seen…”

Sue poured the tea and offered the plate of biscuits. She felt a little ashamed. Embarrassed. She hadn’t been walking much lately. She’d hardly been out of the flat. Fred’s reticence had been her excuse for not asking him in. Poor friend she had been. Too busy setting up her online dating account, scrolling through possible matches, making lists of pros and cons, arranging meetings. Her first date was tomorrow. Whatever would Bill think of her? Silly tart probably. A hot flash swamped her body. He was dead. She had to stop being a child, a mouse. She had to start living her life.

Fred noticed her reddening, “I didn’t mean to…”.

He slurped his tea quickly to cover his awkwardness.

“Fred, you haven’t offended me…I’m the one who’s sorry,” Sue apologized, “I’ve been busy. I’ve missed the garden. I’ll make sure to come and see your patch soon.”

“That would be lovely,” Fred smiled, “I hope everything’s…all right?”

She seemed distracted. He was worried. Sue saw his discomfort; felt he deserved an explanation.

“Well, to be honest…. I’ve been feeling rather lonely. I miss Bill. His company. I suppose.” Sue explained, “I haven’t adjusted to being on my own.”

“Course not, these things take time.” Fred agreed, “When Anne died, it took me a good two years to feel…like I was managing.”

“I’m not managing, not…happy,” Sue said, “Anyway, Sarah suggested a dating site and I’m giving it a go. My first date is tomorrow night, Charles, his name is. He’s a bachelor, sixty-eight, plays tennis, likes fine dining, does amateur operatics, looks handsome in his photo…”

She tailed off. Fred was far away. In a different place. He didn’t know what to say. He felt sad, as if he’d lost something.

“That’s lovely. He sounds an interesting man. Just right for an active, attractive woman like you.”

“It’s only a first date. You’ll have me getting married next!” Sue laughed, half-heartedly, “I’m… not sure I’m doing the right thing. Seems disloyal to Bill.”

She fiddled with her wedding ring.

“Bill is gone. You deserve some happiness.”

Fred removed his glasses, wiped them, put them on, sipped his tea. He looked around the room. A rabbit searching for a bolt hole.

“Thanks, Fred. You’re a good friend,” Sue leant forward, patted his hand.

Fred rose, swept crumbs from his trousers.

“Must be going. Thanks for the tea…Good luck for tomorrow.”

He left hastily, no backward glance or wave.

“Poor Fred,” Sue smiled to herself, “I’ve embarrassed him, baring my soul like that.”

She began clearing the tea things.

 

The room was a shambles. Dirty plates and glasses smeared the coffee table. Newspapers and books sprawled over the sofa and floor. A pile of laundry, of unknown cleanliness, hunched in a corner. She hadn’t expected this. They’d had a lovely evening. Fancy Italian restaurant; wine, roses, music. Charles, immaculate and handsome in a pinstripe suit. They had talked and laughed. She’d readily agreed to come back for a drink. To think he lived in this mess.

“I was in a rush tonight,” Charles said with explanatory shrug, “Please sit down, I’ll make us coffee.”

“Tea for me, please,” Sue said, “Earl Grey if you have it.”

“Afraid I don’t, coffee man myself…may have some English Breakfast hiding in the cupboard somewhere.” Charles said, “Will that do? No pot I’m afraid…have to make it in a mug.”

Oh dear, that was not ideal.

“Yes, that’ll be…fine,” she said politely.

Charles disappeared into the kitchen. Sue surveyed the seating and decided the armchair looked the safest. Pushing magazines and clothing aside, she perched elegantly on the cushion edge. Bill would have had forty fits. The muddle, the chaos, the grime. Wouldn’t have stayed for one moment. His body aching and twitching from desperation to clean up. Life was chaotic too. Bill couldn’t cope when things didn’t run smoothly. A black mood would smother him. Then he would drink to forget. Hiding under an alcoholic blanket. Anyway, Charles seemed a nice man. They’d had fun. More important things than a tidy home.

A shriek brought her back to the room; dreadful wailing from the kitchen.

“Everything all right in there, Charles?” Sue called in concerned tones.

“Marvellous.” Charles replied returning with two steaming mugs, “My part in the Mikado…must keep practising. I do love to sing…can’t help myself…all day long.”

Goodness, Sue wasn’t sure she could put up with that racket.

“Lovely…” she said as she took the mug of tea, “Thank you.”

She tasted the dark, murky liquid. Awful; bitter and strong. He must have squeezed the teabag. This wouldn’t do. Couldn’t work. She’d laugh about it with Fred, over a delicious pot of Earl Grey in the morning.

 

Sue was worried. Anxiously, she checked the clock again. Half twelve. Fred should have knocked ages ago. She wondered what could have happened. He never missed his days. Always on the dot, she didn’t know how he did it. She sipped at her teacup. Fragrant, delicate…and cold. Something was wrong. Quickly she rose, slipped on her cardigan, checked for her door key and left the flat. Two doors down, she knocked decisively. Silence answered.

“Fred!” she called, “Are you there?”

There was no reply.

She hurried down the stairs to the communal lounge. Old folk sat comfortably around the room edges. The buzz of chatter ebbed and flowed like road traffic. Quiet settled when they noticed Sue. Unusual for her to come in here, kept herself to herself.

“Hello dear,” said Mrs Jackson peering over her knitting.

“Hello…” said Sue distractedly, “I’m looking for Fred…”

“Oh, haven’t you heard?” Mrs Jackson’s face lit up with gossip, “Last night, he had a nasty fall…in the bath, think it was.”

“A fall?” Sue interrupted, “Is he all right? Poor Fred…”

“Ambulance came. He went into hospital…” Mrs Jackson continued, a nodding hum of agreement rippled from the chairs.

“Sit down dear. Have a cup of tea. You’ve gone very pale…” Mr Francis hobbled out of his seat; offered his place.

“No, no thanks…I’m fine,” Sue said, backing out of the lounge.

 

She found herself in the garden. Fred’s haven; where he worked so hard. Alone. His vegetable patch looked calm and organized. Sue’s insides were in chaos. Dear Fred, such a reliable friend. Always there for a cuppa and a chat. His pleasant face and quiet conversation reassured and supported her. Without him, her life would feel empty, be empty. Fear pushed tightly in her chest. If Fred was to…She didn’t know how she’d carry on.

How shallow and stupid she had been in her loneliness. Online dating, looking for a new partner, someone distinguished like Charles. A disappointing let down. Someone tall and handsome like Bill. An abusive drunk. She hadn’t noticed what she had. A good, kind man. She walked through Fred’s flower beds. Bright dahlias danced in the sun. The scent of sweet peas filled her nostrils. Sue smiled. She wasn’t a child or a mouse. She knew what she must do.

 

The hospital smelt of disinfectant and stale food. Fred was in Green Ward, just off Yellow Suite. Sue was reminded of diarrhoea and sickness. Whoever chose such colours? She clasped her bouquet nervously. The nurse had told her Fred’s condition wasn’t too serious. She edged her way along the ward, glancing at each bed; examining the inmates shyly. There was Fred, thank goodness. Lying still and quiet, thoughtful expression on his face.  Leg raised in plaster, empty teacup on the bedside table.

“Hello Fred,” Sue said.

Fred turned to face her. A smile spread across his features.

“Sue…how lovely to see you,” his cheeks coloured, “fancy ending up in here. I’ve been an old fool.”

“I’ve been the fool…” Sue said presenting the bouquet, “Now, it’s my turn to bring you flowers.”

Fred looked at the dahlias, chrysanthemums and sweet peas.

“From my garden?” he asked.

“Our garden.” Sue said, “From now on, we’ll care for it together.”

“Together?” Fred’s eyes wore a question mark.

Sue took Fred’s hand.

“Yes. Together.” She smiled, “Now, how about a nice cup of tea?”

 

 

It’s never too late to find true love. I hope you have some romance in your lives on this Valentine’s Day!

A little Christmas magic

Claire never forgave me for spoiling Christmas. When she got to eleven years old and still believed in Santa Claus, I told her the truth.

“You said it was wrong to tell a lie…but you’ve been lying all this time!”

“It’s part of making Christmas magical…” I tried to explain.

“You’re just a liar!”

She ran up to her room, slamming the door, making the light fittings rattle. I sat, shaken and bereft, thinking I was a terrible mother.

Christmas was never the same after that. Claire never looked forward to it with the excitement and wonder of before. She never put the tinsel fairy on the tree or licked the paper strips for the bright chains to hang around the ceilings. She never joined in with carol singing or stirring the pudding. If I suggested a trip to see Santa’s Grotto at the local shopping centre, she would storm off in tears of frustrated rage. Christmas became a low-key event with little preparation or fuss. The presents under the tree seemed pointless and shallow. The magic had gone.

I waited for the time when Claire had children of her own. I hoped that with grandchildren things would be different.

“Don’t think I’ll lie to my kids like you did to me.” Claire said when this thought popped out of my mouth the day she told me she was expecting.

“Well you know, Christmas isn’t the same for children without Santa.”

Claire tutted and the conversation ended. In my heart though, I hoped she would soften once the baby was old enough to understand about Christmas.

 

It was Christmas Eve. I bubbled with excitement because Claire and her family were coming to stay. I couldn’t wait to see little George. When Claire explained they were moving to the Scottish Highlands, I was upset at the thought of rarely seeing my grandson. It had been over a year since I had visited them in their new home. He had grown into a happy, curious four-year-old. This was our first Christmas together so I had made enormous effort. I didn’t care whether George believed in Santa Claus or not, I wanted it to be special.

The doorbell rang just as I took the final batch of mince pies from the oven. The house filled with their sweet, spicy scent.

“Merry Christmas!” I said as I opened the door.

“Grandma, Merry Christmas!” George replied; his voice musical with its Scottish lilt.

“Hi, Mum.” Claire looked flustered from the journey. She held out a bag of presents, as if it contained something distasteful. “Dan’s got the luggage.”

We settled down to a pot of tea and mince pies in front of the fire. George looked around, admiring the decorations. He stood by the Christmas tree; the twinkling lights cast patterns on his smooth cheeks.

“It’s pretty, Grandma. Mummy doesn’t decorate our house.” George shrugged his shoulders in disappointment.

“You know what I’ve told you, George. Christmas is an old-fashioned tradition. Not everyone celebrates it. We don’t.” Claire said patiently.

“But we are this year, aren’t we Grandma?” George hopped up and down in excitement.

 

That evening, after a warming meal of squash soup and crusty home-made bread, George helped me put the presents under the tree. He jumped with joy and satisfaction as he carefully placed each gift.

“This one’s important, Grandma…” he said putting it at the front, “It’s for you.”

“Oh, thank you George. I look forward to opening that tomorrow.”

I passed him another present, “Where shall we put this one?”

“Who’s it for?” George asked, his brow furrowing in concentration.

“Oh…I don’t know. The label’s fallen off.” I said.

“That one must be from Santa Claus, then. I’ll put it next to yours ‘cos it’s special.”

“From Santa Claus?” I said.

“Yes, he never puts a label on.” George stated, in a matter-of-fact manner.

“So, you believe in Santa Clause then?” I asked, a slight flutter in my stomach.

George looked towards the kitchen, where Claire and Dan chattered happily as they did the washing up. “Yes, I do…but don’t tell Mummy. It’s a secret. She doesn’t believe in Santa Clause, you know.”

I gave George a hug.

“You’re a good little helper.” I smiled.

The magic had returned.

 

 

I hope you have enjoyed my Christmas stories. Thank you to everyone who has read my blog this year. Have a very, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!