My microfiction story, Oxford summer, has been selected to appear in the June issue of The Simple Things magazine.
A little thing but it helps motivate me to keep writing!
My microfiction story, Oxford summer, has been selected to appear in the June issue of The Simple Things magazine.
A little thing but it helps motivate me to keep writing!
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.
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…
People are not simple. They are full of complexities and contradictions. As writers we must be careful to create characters that are not cardboard cut-outs or stereotypes. We must make our characters come alive and appear real. We want our readers to be engaged, to believe in them. They may not like them but they must be willing to invest time and interest in them. After all, our main aim is to keep our readers reading.
How do writers do this? How do we reveal our characters in ways which make them seem true to life? There are many techniques we can use. We can provide a physical description of the character: how do they move, look, smell, how does the way they look affect the things they do? We can write about the character’s behaviour in their world: how they interact with others; any habits they have; how they react to external forces. We can use dialogue: what the character says; any speech patterns or phrases; what the character doesn’t say. We can think about the character’s back story: how this made them into the person they are. We can reveal the character’s inner life and thought processes.
As writers, we must be observant of people in our everyday lives. We must notice the ways they behave, the things they say, how they react to each other and their environment. We must remember to use our notebooks and keep a record of what we see and hear. These life experiences will help us develop our characters.
We must be readers too. We must study the way other writers portray characters. Do we believe in the character we are reading about? What techniques is the writer using? What works well and what doesn’t? We can keep notes on character portrayals that we find useful or particularly good.
Before we begin to write a story, we can make a character profile. This can include: the character’s looks, relationships, behaviours, habits, likes, dislikes, back story and motivations. This will help us make our characters well-rounded, fully developed people. Not forgetting, of course, that sometimes people can behave ‘out of character’. We are not straightforward after all and cannot be put into neat boxes. That’s what makes being a writer so interesting.
How do you develop characters in your stories? Do you write character profiles before you begin?
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:
I can’t stand living like this any longer. I want something better and I’ve gone to find it. I’m sorry.
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.
“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!
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!
Once upon a time, in the Land of Dolls, there lived a ragdoll called Rosie. She was a grubby, tatty little thing as she loved to play outside in the cool, fresh air. Her calico body was covered in darnings and mendings where it had been torn by branches, worn on rocks and caught on fences during her many explorations of the trees, insects and animals in her world. Her red woolly hair was tangled with leaves and twigs. Her plain dungarees were covered in many patches, obscuring the original pattern.
“Oh, Rosie, why can’t you be a bit more lady-like?” sighed her mother as she sewed another split in Rosie’s arm with her needle and thread.
But Rosie ignored her mother. She did not care about such things. After she completed her daily chores, she would escape from the house. She wanted to be out of doors under the wide, blue sky where she could breathe and dream. She wanted to sit beneath the pale moon, where she could think and wish. She wanted to lay her head on the dusty earth and listen to the beating pulse of living things. For Rosie had a secret desire, hidden deep within her heart. Rosie wanted, more than anything in her world, to be a real girl.
A sharp north wind blew across the Land of Dolls, the weather was turning cold. Soon, it would be Christmas. Preparations were taking place in Rosie’s home for the special day. Rosie worked hard alongside her mother and brothers to make the house clean and tidy. She swept the floors, dusted the corners and polished the furniture. She helped with baking the rich, fruity cake and sweet, sticky pies, without once licking the spoon or smearing batter down her front. She went out with her brothers to find the biggest, bushiest fir tree in the woods. She cut holly boughs to decorate the mantelpiece and put candles in every window to welcome visitors with their warm glow.
Rosie worked hard for a purpose. In fact, she had worked hard and without complaint all the past year. This was because at Christmas in the Land of Dolls, a miracle might take place. On Christmas Eve at midnight, the Spirit of Christmas would look down upon the Land of Dolls. The Spirit of Christmas would gaze on every doll asleep in bed, or lying awake in anxious anticipation, and make a judgement. The Spirit of Christmas would decide which doll deserved the reward of becoming real. No doll really knew for certain how or why the Spirit of Christmas made the decision but the story was that, sometimes, a doll would disappear into the Land of the Living. In a puff of smoke, or flutter of stars, or flash of light, a doll known to be of hard-working character and high morals, vanished. Rosie hoped this year she would be that doll.
On Christmas Eve, after a pleasant family meal and songs around the fire, Rosie and her family climbed the narrow stairs to bed. They hugged each other tight and said a fond good night as it was possible this was the last time they would see their loved ones. With her tummy bubbling with excited nerves, Rosie snuggled under the covers and waited. She whispered a prayer to the Spirit of Christmas as she lay alert and apprehensive on the pillows.
“Dear Spirit of Christmas, please pick me this year. I am a doll of good morals and diligent nature. I have happily completed my chores all year. I am kind and caring. I love to be out of doors with the living things. I wish I was alive too.”
Rosie listened to the gentle patter of new snow beginning to fall on the roof. She could hear no other sound. The night felt interminably long. It seemed eerily silent and dark and empty. Eventually, her eyelids grew heavy and she fell asleep.
Back in the Land of the Living, Helen sat at the breakfast bar eating another mince pie. Whenever she felt depressed or unhappy, she turned to food. It was a source of comfort to her. What did it matter if she got fat now anyway? There was no baby. There would be no baby. She need not worry about her health. The results had come that morning. Another failure. Their third round of IVF treatment and their last. They could not afford any more attempts. She and Tom had agreed that three was the limit. Now they would have to consider adoption or forget about having children altogether. A miserable time to find out. Christmas Eve. Helen wished that Christmas was over and done with. She did not feel like celebrating; did not want to pretend that everything was good and she was happy and having fun.
Tom had asked her yesterday what she would like for Christmas. He was off buying her a present now. Last minute as usual. He seemed to think a present would make a difference. She wanted a baby for Christmas. She wanted a baby all the time. Helen wanted, more than anything in her world, to have a baby. The longing gnawed at her stomach, a great emptiness waiting to be filled. She bit into a fourth mince pie as if to plug the hole. She understood that there were lots of wonderful children out there deserving a home and parents. But why couldn’t she have a baby of her own? Other women were allowed to get pregnant, feel their babies kick and grow inside them, have their babies suckling at their breasts. She wanted those things too. Some of those women didn’t even want to be mothers. She wanted to be a mother. She was a good person, she had worked hard, got qualifications, made a career as a teacher. A popular, successful teacher. She had spent too long looking after other people’s children, that was the problem. Now it was time for her to have a child of her own and it was too late.
She heard Tom’s key jiggling in the lock and he came bustling into the kitchen, arms full of bags.
“Went a bit mad, I’m afraid.” He shrugged. “Shall I put the kettle on or pour us a glass of wine? Christmas begins now!”
Poor Tom. He was trying hard to be cheerful, to make things right. Helen felt guilty. It was difficult for him as well. He wanted to be a father. She had to make an effort. She forced a smile.
“I hope you bought some more mince pies.”
After dinner, they wrapped presents and put them under the tree, then sat together on the sofa sipping mulled wine and watching cheesy Christmas films on the telly. Helen’s mobile buzzed. She picked it up from the coffee table, looked at the screen, switched it off and stuffed it down the cushions beside her.
“What was that all about?” Tom asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Just Mum. I don’t want to deal with it now. Not at Christmas.” Helen’s eyes misted. Tom took her hand in his, entwined fingers and squeezed.
“Shall I get the scrabble out? We’ve got a few hours yet to wait up if we’re going to see Christmas in.”
Helen yawned. “To be honest Tom, I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go to bed.”
They switched off the twinkling lights and climbed the carpeted stairs to bed. Tom held Helen close under the covers and kissed her good night.
“I love you, darling.” he said, “Let’s just have a really good Christmas.”
“Love you. Night, Tom.”
Helen turned away from him to attempt sleep. She did not want to hurt Tom. She would try to have a good Christmas, whatever that was supposed to mean. She would try not to think about the constant yearning inside her, tearing at her heart and mind. She would try to hide the constant pain. She whispered a prayer to whomever was listening on this magical night, this time of miracles, as she lay alert and apprehensive on the pillows.
“Please let me have a baby of my own. I’m a kind and caring person with good morals. I would be a good mum.”
She listened to the gentle patter of new snow beginning to fall on the roof. Other than Tom’s gentle breathing, she could hear no other sound; the traffic and city noises were subdued. The night felt interminably long. It seemed eerily silent and dark and empty. Eventually, her eyelids grew heavy and she fell asleep.
The Spirit of Christmas looked down upon her lands that Christmas Eve. She gazed on every doll and every human asleep in bed, or lying awake in anxious anticipation. She heard the prayers of dolls wishing to be real. She heard the prayers of humans in need. She had difficult judgements to make. There were many, many dolls in the Land of Dolls that were kind and good and hard-working. There were many, many humans in the Land of the Living that suffered. The Spirit of Christmas had to find ways to connect the souls of these dolls and these humans. To find balance. To create happy endings.
The Spirit of Christmas looked down upon the soul of Rosie the ragdoll who was desperate to be a real girl. The Spirit of Christmas looked down upon the soul of Helen who was desperate to be a mother.
“I wonder…” said The Spirit of Christmas.
Tom wiped the sweat from Helen’s brow and kissed her on the forehead.
“I’m so proud of you darling.” he said.
It had been a long, difficult birth but Helen felt elated as she snuggled the tiny girl. She studied the unexpected fuzz of red hair and the strange birth marks, a maze of lines, on her baby’s arms and legs. Where had they come from? She and Tom had ordinary brown hair and not a birthmark on them. Tom said they must both have recessive ginger genes and the doctor had reassured them the marks would fade with time. Helen did not care. She finally had the child she wanted. A healthy, beautiful girl.
“She’s amazing.” Tom smiled, “And a tough little thing. She didn’t give up through all that and neither did you. I was scared once or twice, I must admit.”
“We’re fine, Tom. I’m so happy. I can’t believe she’s ours.” Helen whispered, “We did it. We actually did it.”
“What are we going to call her?” Tom gently stroked the baby’s head.
“You know, I think there’s only one name that suits her.” Helen said, “It popped into my mind the moment she was born.”
“What’s that?” Tom asked.
A very moving story to make us think on this important day.
‘How old are you, son?’
Stan straightened his spine and stretched his shoulders back, looking beyond the man to the recruitment poster of Lord Kitchener, on the wall. ‘Eighteen, sir.’
‘Hmm. Date of birth?’ The captain studied Stan.
‘October 3rd, 1896, sir.’
‘Okay, lad, you’re in. Report to the sergeant over there.’ He dismissed Stan by shouting, ‘Next!’
Stan grinned and gave the thumbs up to his mate, Ernest Sharp who stood, behind him. He turned and marched as best he could to the other side of the room to the serveant.
‘If that’s the best you can do as a march lad, I’ve got some work cut out for me.’ But the recruiting sergeant, tall and moustached, gave Stan a grin. ‘Welcome to the East Lancashire Regiment. ‘He winked. ‘We’re doin’ well; you’re the tenth recruit today, so that’s ten half-crowns we’ve earned. We’ll be ‘aving a few pints…
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Recently, I have returned to a childhood favourite, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My copy is tatty and falling to pieces as I’ve read it many, many times over the years. I remember receiving it for Christmas when I was ten, and being very excited. It was my best present that year. As a child, I devoured books and was always in need of something new to read. Both my children enjoyed the book as their bedtime story when they were small, so it is special to me and my family.
Revisiting The Secret Garden is like being wrapped in a warm blanket. I know the story so well I can relax completely into it; comforted in the familiar. I meet up with old friends and reacquaint myself with their personalities. There is Mary, spoilt and selfish, with a tragic past. There is Martha, with her sunny disposition and optimistic outlook. There is Ben Weatherstaff, grumpy and cross, with a hidden, soft heart. There is Colin, crippled by his heart-broken father’s rejection. There is the bright, beady-eyed robin, intelligent and all-seeing. Finally, there is Dickon, a breath of fresh, untamed air, bringing nature and wild things with him.
For an ordinary girl, living on a dreary council estate in the 1970s, an isolated manor house set on a beautiful, unpredictable moor provided the perfect backdrop for the story. The idea of a secret, walled garden opened exciting, romantic possibilities. My own life, with worries about school and growing up, could be forgotten for a while. I think I fell a little bit in love with Dickon.
Now, turning the yellow pages of my ageing book, I am reminded of days sitting reading for hours, immersed deeply in the story, unaware of anything going on around me. Although I still read as much as possible and get lost in other worlds, it is rare for me to abandon reality in the carefree way I did as a child.
Which old favourites from childhood do you enjoy revisiting? Do they stir any memories?
Ben stood in the dark hallway of the large, stone house. Outside the air was hot but here it was cool. Removal men bumped and strained around him. He was a forlorn six-year-old lost and forgotten in the chaos. Normally, he bubbled with curiosity and adventure. He liked to explore the natural world. He loved to be in the open air. Now, he stood uncertain. Moving to this new house with its enormous, verdant garden terrified him. He had left everything he had ever known. The security of the home where he was born. His bedroom with its pale, green paintwork and dinosaur border. The safety of his Grandma whom he loved best of all. He would miss her gentle, laughing voice. Her silly stories. Her funny songs. He would miss her cuddling him close and the warm smell of her rose-perfumed cardigan.
A new home meant a new school. His stomach gripped tight when he thought of it. He would have to talk to new children. Make friends. He was happiest in the company of adults. He could find interesting things to tell them; about animals, plants and insects. Grown-ups listened, asked you questions, wanted to know. Children were rough and tumble. They shouted, tugged at you, talked nonsense.
‘Ben darling,’ Mum called him softly, ‘Why don’t we go and look at your new room?’
‘All right,’ he said, reluctantly leaving his corner.
He followed Mum upstairs, along a bright landing and into a large comfortable looking room. His bed was there and boxes full of his things.
‘It will soon be your room – just like the old house,’ Mum smiled, ‘Why don’t you start unpacking? I have to make the workers some tea but I’ll come back in a bit.’
Ben went over to the window. A spider skittered wildly across the glass. His nose wrinkled in concentration. As he watched, he whispered to himself under his breath. He looked out at the garden. On the lawn sat a little white dog gazing up at him. It seemed friendly. Wagging tail, shaggy hair and beady, black eyes. Ben ran out of his bedroom, down the stairs and into the garden. The dog still sat on the grass.
‘Hello little dog,’ he said holding out his hand carefully.
The dog eyed him excitedly, pink tongue lolling to the side of his mouth. Ben thought he was smiling. He knelt down on the springy grass.
‘Come here,’ he said tapping his knees, ‘Come to me little dog!’
The dog ran to Ben and barked invitingly. The two new companions played in the garden all afternoon.
When Ben returned to the house, face flushed with exercise and excitement, his parents smiled knowingly at one another.
‘I see you’ve been enjoying the garden,’ Dad said, ruffling his butter-coloured hair.
‘I enjoyed playing with the little dog,’ Ben said, his intelligent brown eyes alight, ‘We found lots of insects and a pond with frogs.’
‘Must be a neighbour’s dog,’ Mum said. ‘Just think, you’ve got the whole holiday to play. But now…it’s tea, bath and bed for you. You’re filthy!’
Ben played outside every day, little dog at his heels. One afternoon, they were investigating a different corner of the garden. It was shady and overgrown; weeds reached up to Ben’s waist. Nearing a stone wall, the dog began to whine, pawing at the ground and cowering in the damp undergrowth.
‘What’s wrong little dog?’ Ben asked, screwing up his nose in thought, ‘Nothing to be scared of…we’ll look after each other.’
He picked up a narrow branch and thrashed at the long grass. The dog did not move. Ben pulled away the vegetation, clearing an area next to the wall.
‘This is hard work…just move this…oh…what’s that?’ he muttered to himself as he worked.
Ben knelt on the soft ground. He saw a small headstone, worn and green with age. He could not see any writing on it. He turned to show the little dog but he was gone.
At bedtime, Ben told Mum about his discovery.
‘This is an old house,’ she said, ‘…must be someone’s much loved pet, buried in the garden.’ She kissed him goodnight. Ben fell asleep thinking about who might have lived there before.
All summer, Ben played with the little dog. They became best friends, sharing fears and worries. He began to love the house and garden. He missed his Grandma but, with the dog by his side, he felt he could cope with anything. Even starting a new school.
The holidays were nearing an end. Ben stood at the window, waiting. He was excited. His nose rumpled with anticipation.
‘Soon be here…won’t be long now…,’ he chattered happily to himself.
Dad’s car pulled up the drive.
‘She’s here!’ Ben shouted. He watched his Grandma walk up the path carrying a large box.
Grandma came into the hall. She put the box gently on the floor.
‘Hello my boy,’ she said, eyes sparkling. She bent and kissed Ben’s curly mop.
‘Grandma…’ he hugged her tight, breathing in the smell of flowers.
‘I’ve got a present for you,’ Grandma said. She passed him the box, ‘Open it carefully.’
Ben could hear a snuffling, scratching sound from inside. He lifted the flaps cautiously. A small puppy pushed out its head. Bright eyes, wet nose, black and white fur.
‘Thought you might like one of your own…’ Grandma smiled, ‘He can walk with you to school.’
‘Oh…’ Ben gasped. He delicately picked up the dog and held it close. It smelt warm and safe.
‘Thank you Grandma,’ he said.
Ben loved his puppy. He ran out to find the little dog. It would be fun to explore – all three together.
‘Little dog!’ he called but there was no response.
Ben knotted his forehead. Holding his pup to his chest, he searched for the little dog in every corner of the garden. There was no sign of him.
Every day Ben played in the garden with his puppy but he never saw the little dog again.