Short Story: Every Little Helps.

You can’t get a signal for a mobile in Margaret’s local supermarket and she tended to think that this wasn’t by chance. A person could get lost in there and never come out, stuck in a time warp where they couldn’t decide which biscuits to buy. An unwary person could be tricked into spending a fortune. There was a lot of reading to keep them busy and discourage them from going home: posters showing smiling people holding out plates of food with recipe leaflets underneath them, tiny samples of food to try, offers to work out and best of all a row of clear plastic bins telling you about local good causes where you could drop in a blue token they gave you at the till to support them. Of course Margaret didn’t know any of the people in the photographs above the bins which were supposed to help her choose but she used her common sense and it made her feel as though she was part of something. Carrier bag charge money paid for it, or so they said. It was all very surprising. It couldn’t amount to very much money really these days. You hardly ever saw people taking a plastic bag. Margaret herself had a rather nice brown canvas bag with a row of badgers on it which even went in the washing machine and a trolley with cow markings on it for her weekend shop. Sorted. People should think ahead.

Choosing the things that she wanted to buy was the bit that she enjoyed most. Now that Jack was no longer trailing behind her, making unwanted suggestions and getting in the way she could choose anything that she liked. The reduced section was her favourite part of her shop and that was always where she started, in case someone else got in first. Once she had found a whole lot of chicken drumsticks in a big tray for thirty five pence and gone straight home and cooked them all at once. She had lived off them for three days. She could take her time now and there were all kinds of things on the shelves to puzzle her. Things like Half Spoon which allowed a person to put a whole spoonful of “sugar” in their tea while consuming only half the calories and thin gossamer sheets to put in the drum of your tumble dryer to stop your clean washing smelling bad. In reality Margaret almost always bought the same things but she liked to look at the items that she might buy one day and wonder what you were supposed to do with them. In her young days a salad had been lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes with a blob of salad cream. Nowadays you could spend a fortune on things that looked a bit like a lettuce, but weren’t, and people seemed to have completely forgotten how to chop things up for themselves. Someone else miles and miles away did it for them and sent it back in a plastic tub costing twice as much as it had done to start with. Madness.

Negotiating the tills was the difficult part. She had once picked out some mushrooms from a big box, nice ones, ones that she had chosen specially, and when she got to the till it refused to allow her to buy them. The assistant said that they had gone “off sale” and they were taken away from her. Ten minutes later she had watched the whole big box being taken from the veg section and carried through the plastic swing doors in shame to be dumped in the store room. The till bell had been rung and another assistant had been sent to fetch her a small plastic pack of shrink wrapped mushrooms as a replacement. They were not the same but if she had said so she would have had no mushrooms so she didn’t cause a fuss. The girl was only trying to help and she had learned that, when you reached a certain age, you were expected to knuckle down, just get on with stuff and avoid being a nuisance at all costs. Of course she must never mention what that certain age was, or not until she was so old that she became a national treasure…. or at least she would become a national treasure if anyone ever knew who she was. Young people could faff around as much as they wanted to of course. They didn’t get judged. Not like she was. An old person was judged by how much like a young person they could still manage to be. It was hard work. She had stopped using the self service tills now, even though she didn’t want to talk to anybody, because she was never fast enough. She knew exactly what to do but she was just never fast enough and the person guarding the tills insisted on helping her the moment they saw her hesitate. Once, when she had poked the wrong picture on the screen by accident she had been been carefully shown a picture of an apple by the assistant as though she had never seen one before. For a dreadful moment she had seen herself as they saw her. A little grey haired old woman who needed help. Vulnerable. Well she didn’t need help. Certainly not. She just wanted to be left in peace to do what she needed to do. So much talking. So much repetition There were only so many times you could explain that the trolley standing next to you meant that you didn’t need a bag and yes you were capable of packing it for yourself. The worst days were the ones when there were a whole lot of strangers with buckets wanting you to give money in exchange for mauling your food about and packing it in a way that you didn’t want it packed. It was like a hold up. On those days she did use the self service tills as they were the lesser of two evils.

The day when something surprising happened had begun well. Margaret had picked out a can of dog food to donate to the poor dogs who lived in concrete kennels and found king prawns in the reduced section- the ones with garlic and coriander that Jack wouldn’t eat and she really liked. She had reached the bread section and she was staring at the empty chute where the ciabatta rolls should be when she realised that there was an elderly gentleman right next to her, standing far too close. He was smart and bright eyed, with a nattily trimmed moustache. His shock of white hair was combed back neatly and he had dressed for the occasion in a tartan tie and a tweed jacket. He was having a day out among the aisles and he was looking at her curiously. So curiously in fact that, even though she never talked to people, she told him what was the matter.
“There are none of the bread rolls I like left.”
He looked at the empty plastic box where they would have been calmly.
“Oh dear.”
“I don’t like any of the others.”
The last time this kind of thing had happened to Margaret there had been a bit of an incident in the bakery which had ended in a very nice young man having to cheer her up and wish her a nice day. She didn’t want any more trouble. The man smiled at her.
“You need to ask them. They will have some in the back, they always do.”
Margaret didn’t want to ask them and she didn’t want to be given advice by a man. Men of his age did come into supermarkets but they were usually sad broken figures trailing behind a domineering wife who pointed at things and ordered them about. They didn’t know what they were doing basically. If she asked about the rolls she might have to talk to the woman who had once come out to get another loaf, a replacement for the one that Margaret had given her to be sliced, after there had been a loud roaring noise. She had claimed that the machine had “ate it” and Margaret hadn’t been sure what to think. The loaf had still been warm and both of them should have known better. The nice young man might not be there to fend her off this time. The old gentleman (and he was most definitely a gentleman to his fingertips) thought that she was hesitating because she didn’t believe him.
“I know what goes on in here you see. I have come in here for a couple of hours every single day since my dear wife died in 2011, to fetch my bit of shopping, and I don’t miss much. My wife always did the shopping and I had a lot to learn. I know everything that goes on.”
Margaret tried to work out how many hours two hours every day for over seven years would add up to. Too many. It was a wonder she had never seen him but it was a big place and she knew from experience how easy it was to disappear in the aisles. It was an ability that she sometimes found very useful. A superpower. Not the kind of dramatic superpower that her grandson admired, throwing thunderbolts and shinning up buildings, but useful nonetheless. A quiet superpower, Very suitable for old age, so long as you could keep your mouth shut, which some people couldn’t. You were able to stand by and watch while people made complete fools of themselves right in front of you.
“Thank you very much.”
He looked at her expectantly. Margaret went over to ask the woman if they had any more rolls and she said that there would be some more in about ten minutes. He nodded encouragingly. She gave him a thin smile in return and wandered listlessly back towards the salad section, filling in time, trying to remember how many bananas there were left at home and how brown they might be, when she realised that he had followed her. He was standing by her right shoulder looking anxious.
“Excuse me. They said that they were bringing some out for you.”
She tried not to look irritated. He meant well.
“Yes, I know, but they said it would be in ten minutes.”
He shook his head and held his basket in front of him defensively.
“They will have put some out for you by now.”
“Thank you.”
He walked away, still shaking his head. In the distance Margaret could just about see that the empty plastic box had been filled with ciabatta rolls. When she went to get some they were only just baked through. It was annoying.

That was just the first day. For the next few days they nodded to each other. By the end of the first week Margaret knew that the man’s name was Harry and they had shown each other what was in their baskets. Exactly one month later they had a cup of tea together in the supermarket cafe and she found out that he liked prawns and would only ever use Fairy liquid. From then on they did their whole shop together each week, pointing out good offers and suggesting things for each other. Of course once they were married Margaret never allowed him to set foot in the supermarket again.

Short Story: Best Mates.

Carly held out the chips to Suzanne. It wasn’t fair. Suzanne always said she wanted some and then changed her mind.
“I’m not eating them all.”
Suzanne shrugged. She liked watching people eat. Carly chose one of the biggest chips and threw it at a seagull.
“I forgot my mother would be working. We should have gone to Wally Whalers.”
“She’s all right your mum.”
“She bloody isn’t. You don’t live with her.”
“Look, at least she’s not like mine. God she is a total embarrassment. She went out in one of my skirts last weekend. I was like, you cannot do that.”
There wasn’t a lot Suzanne could say to that. Carly’s mother really was an embarrassment. She had bleached blonde hair, wore tops that showed her stomach and high heels she couldn’t walk in. Every two weeks she spent a fortune on pointless manicures, and insisted that they call her Fiona. Not what you really wanted from a mother. Carly had told Suzanne before how she would borrow her clothes, even though they only just fitted her, and sometimes if Suzanne was round Carly’s and they wanted her ipad, Suzanne would have to fetch it from downstairs because her mum had borrowed it.
“That is pretty sad, wearing your stuff,” Suzanne admitted.
“I think she’s after another bloke as well,” Carly said gloomily. Suzanne groaned.
“No! She’s not bringing him home and stuff is she?”
“Not yet. Not while I’m there anyway.”
They walked round onto the seafront and ate the chips huddled onto one of the benches in the wooden shelter at the end of the Valley Gardens. It was getting chilly so they soon finished them and let the two seagulls who were across the road glaring at them have the scraps. The birds flung themselves onto them angrily, beating each other off with threats and open beaks.
“Those chips were crap.”
“What do you expect? I told you we should have gone to Wally Whalers.”
Suzanne began to hunt in her bag for her phone.
“I’d better text Jack.”
Carly rolled her eyes and sighed. Any time that she was out with Suzanne she ended up being forced to watch her texting Jack. Just because she could. Sometimes she would read the texts out loud and want to know what Carly thought about them. Then if Jack replied she would be forced to look at the message- usually something sick making- and put up with the sight of Suzanne’s fat face being smug. Well not today. She wasn’t going to give her the chance. Carly was fed up. The shelter smelled of wee, there were no lads about, and she was well hacked off. She hurled the polystyrene tray into the bin and dug her hands into her pockets.
“Right I’m off then. See you.”
Suzanne didn’t even ask why. She just nodded and fiddled with her mobile without looking up. She was texting Jack. Well for once she wasn’t going to have an audience.
“Call for you tomorrow?”
Suzanne nodded again, her face lit up by the blue light of her phone screen.
“If you like. Take care.”
Carly shrugged and walked off across the darkening grass.
When Carly felt like this she usually went to see Breezer, and that was what she did now. Breezer was one of the beach donkeys. She had been helping Matty and Dot for nearly four years now. It had started off because being with the donkeys calmed her down when her mother had a go at her. They had still quiet faces, and soft ears, and they just stood there on the sands with their eyes half closed until they were asked to walk up and down. She knew all their names, and which ones were the stubborn ones. Breezer was her favourite donkey. He was almost all brown, with a few white markings on his face and legs, and he was the most awkward of the lot. Carly had to watch him if some kid screamed out or poked him, and if you let him get in front of Miss Molly he would kick out. Miss Molly had nipped him once and, like Carly, he didn’t forget. He was up at the top of the field, but when she shouted for him and clapped her hands he came down, ambling slowly, tearing at the grass, taking his time.
“Now lad.”
He lifted his nose end to see what she had. Carly stroked the dark line on his back and pulled gently at the bristly hairs on his mane. He snuffled damply, and nudged her wrist.
“I haven’t got any,” Carly told him. He was after carrots. She generally begged some that were starting to go soft from one of the fruit and veg shops, but not today.
“You’re a monster you are.”
She pulled some of the good grass from over the fence where he couldn’t reach it and held it out on the flat of her hand. He took it gently, using his lips to get as much as he could.
As she watched him eat, Carly thought that she could easily go on one of the daytime talk shows her mother liked. She began making up the strap lines they could run along the bottom of the screen while she was being interviewed, and telling them to Breezer.
That was true as well. She didn’t even care that she got loads of stick at school about it. Stuff them. Simon Cooknell had once called her donkey face in front of his mates and she had told him the donkeys had a bloody sight more sense than he had. It had shut him up.
That would make them switch up the volume and listen all right. She could imagine the cose ups of her mother, sitting there backstage, crying and shaking her head, while she, Carly, told them of her years of torment. Well, not torment to be honest- but indifference definitely. As for her dad his contribution would have to be a two minute phone link. They’d never get him to leave his circuit diagrams for longer than that. Carly wasn’t exactly sure what her dad did, but she knew that it took a hell of a long time, and you couldn’t try to talk to him while he was doing it or you got some serious grief.
Matthew Perriman. What had she been thinking about? What was she still thinking about? He had been hanging around in the farthest park shelter with Jenna Maxwell for weeks now. He wasn’t exactly breaking his heart was he? He didn’t even have the guts to dump her face to face. Bastard. Bastard was a good word. Carly said it loudly several times as she wobbled Breezer’s left ear.
“You know what Breezer? If donkeys lived as long as humans I’d swap places with you. I would, honestly.”
He looked at her, chewing calmly. She wondered if donkeys ever dumped each other. Probably not. She could imagine some horses she had seen dumping each other- highly strung thoroughbreds or something like that maybe- but not donkeys. Donkeys were good at putting up with stuff. She had seen donkeys abroad, on television, carrying huge loads on their backs through five lanes of traffic and never once giving up, never once saying sod this for a lark, I’ve had enough. If you were going to be with someone, learning to put up with stuff was more important than anything else. She had seen enough of her mum and dad as she grew up to know that. God, they could be foul to each other. Carly had watched them carefully, and decided several years before that she wasn’t going to put up with anything like that, ever. She was going to run a wildlife reserve on an island somewhere, where nobody was ever allowed to come. There would be a few cows, chickens, and pigs, and donkeys. A small herd of donkeys who would be able to roam anywhere they wanted to find the best grass, and never have to carry anything on their backs ever. She would have her supplies, the ones she couldn’t grow herself, dropped by helicopter once a month, and she would have a gun. Just in case.
Carly watched Breezer’s nostrils rising and falling. It was a real shame she wasn’t on that island now.
“Would you come with me Breezer?”
He turned slowly round and wandered back across the field.
“Oh, thanks.”

Short Story: The Adoption.

It had been the usual quiet, airless afternoon in Brenda’s sitting room; tea and chocolate digestives set out on a tiny side table, the television blinking silently and the fresh air of the outside world held at bay by window locks and net curtains. Joan had pottered her way across the road, as she did every Thursday, with her nice scarf and her best skirt on and they were sitting together in comfort, rehearsing the same conversation, until “their” programme came on at four o’clock. That was the part they looked forward to most, when they could sit up straight and give opinions about the contestants. You were supposed to want everybody to win, but they didn’t. Not always. That was what happened on Thursday afternoons and that was exactly how they liked it. Familiarity was something to cling to, a comfort late in life, when the world was filled with loss and change, but this afternoon was going to be different. Joan had been thinking, and she had decided it was time to come out with her secret.
“Did I ever tell you I was adopted?”
Brenda blinked anxiously. The truth was she couldn’t remember whether Joan had told her that or not, but if she said so that would be rude. She forgot all sorts of things these days but surely not something like that. What if Joan had already told her about it? It often happened. They both liked to repeat themselves and if Joan had told her before it was not the sort of thing you were supposed to forget. That would be rude. It would look as though she wasn’t bothered……… or senile.
“Adopted? I don’t think so.”
Joan nodded.
“I thought not. Yes, adopted.”
There was a silence. The china dogs on the fireplace stared.
“Go on then.”
“I was in Dr Barnado’s to start with, until just before I was four, then after that I was fostered with Aunty Margaret and Uncle Fred. Then this one morning they fetched me into the front room- where we never usually went- and there were these two women there. It was the day before my sixth birthday so I thought it was something to do with that. A surprise. Well I got a surprise all right. I’d never seen either of them before but they knew all sorts about me. They knew my name, Millicent-”
“Yes, that’s who I am really- Millicent. They told me I had to be Joan. So that’s what I’ve been all these years- Joan.”
The last word was spat out.
“You’d rather have been Millicent then?”
Joan took no notice. Of course she would rather have been who she really was. Wasn’t that obvious? Her voice grew in confidence as she carried on talking, using a quite different tone to the one she used when she was talking about the shortcomings of the neighbours. When she had mentioned being adopted to her other friend, three doors down, she had been told to “put it behind her” and that wasn’t right. Sixty five years was nothing. Nothing at all. She wasn’t going to let Brenda do the same thing. She had something to say and she was going to say it.
“Anyway these two women were there and one of them turned out to be my mam-
“Your mam?”
“Well not my real mam, the woman who I ended up calling mam and my Auntie Jean. They took me away on a bus. We went ever so far. My things had all been packed without telling me- my teddy and everything. They showed him to me so I knew where he was. The bus windows were mucky and I tried to look out but I couldn’t see where we were properly, then it started to rain. Eventually the bus stopped at the bottom of a big hill, Weathersley hill in Stanshaw-”
“I know where that is.”
“You would do. Right next to where I was going to go to school only I didn’t know that then- I walked up and down that hill every day for years. We got off the bus. I just held on tight to her hand- the one with the nice hat on, in case I got lost and the one I called mam later on carried my bag. I didn’t even know I was stopping for good. Not till later on.
We went in the front door of number thirty six and straight into the kitchen. There was this man standing there. I can tell you just where he was standing. You remember those kitchen units with sliding doors and table parts you could pull down?”
Brenda did remember.
“We had one of those. Light blue it was.”
“Well this one was pale yellow and he was standing right next to it. The table part was pulled down and he was standing there with his cap on inside the house. Just looking at me. Then he held out his hand and gave me half a crown. they made me walk towards him like a little dog and say thank you. It was the only time he ever gave me money. I only found out he was my real dad years later. I don’t know if anybody else even knew that to start with. There was nothing on the birth certificate.”
Brenda looked down and shook her head. How could you not know your real dad when he was standing in front of you? What would it be like to be right next to him without knowing? She wondered whether to offer another cup of tea. The clock ticked. Joan went on talking.
“I had to give all my wages to my mam right up until I was eighteen. When I wanted to get married they said I couldn’t because they needed my wages. All those years paying for my keep and more. As if they were doing me a favour. I didn’t ask to be there. I kept wanting to go back home.”
“You did get married though. You married Jack.”
“Well they couldn’t stop me in the end. Not once I was twenty one. It was when I was fourteen I found the letter.”
“What letter?”
“One from Aunty Margaret asking me how I was.”
“That’s nice.”
“They’d told me they were both dead.”
“To shut me up I suppose. He came in and saw me with the letter. Grabbed it off me and said it would go straight into my adoption file.”
It was addressed to me.”
This was wrong. They were both big believers in the royal mail and liked to talk about the post even though they hardly got any, so they knew that. Brenda shook her head.
“Course they’ll all be dead now.”
Neither of them could quite bring themselves to say out loud that this was a very good thing but they both thought it.
“They never hit me.”
Brenda’s father had hit her but only when she deserved it. She had been loved. Not the way that kids got loved- spoiled- nowadays. Endless treats, dressing up as princesses, having their photograph taken every time they came back in the room. She frowned.
“I should think not!”
“Anyway it didn’t matter. I’d taken note of the address while I was standing there. I got my friend to go with me and when we got there I remembered it all- I took her straight there. Just knocked on the door. This strange woman answered it, looked straight at me and said, “you’re Millicent aren’t you?” I said “yes”. Nobody had called me that for years. I’d only seen it written down.”
“Your Auntie Margaret.”
“No, I never did find out who that woman was or how she knew. Aunty Margaret must have talked about me. They’d moved three doors down. They were that pleased to see me.”
“They would be.”
“I used to go back and see them every so often after that. I never told anybody- not even years later.”
Joan was staring straight at her and Brenda knew that she was waiting for her to say something, but what could she say? She had a feeling that this was a conversation that was only going to happen once- unlike most of what they said to each other- and she had to be sure to say the right thing. Margaret had brought all the sadness and anger that she had held in from years back and placed it squarely in the middle of her sitting room. The hurt was seeping out, souring the still air and spoiling everything. It made her feel like opening a window to let it out. Of course it wasn’t Joan’s fault and she couldn’t ask her to go home, certainly not just before their programme.
“That’s nice that you kept in touch.”
Joan wondered if Brenda had really listened. Never mind. It had been said.
“Are you going to switch the sound up?”
Brenda smiled.
“Right you are, Millicent.”


Short Story: Pretty Ladies.

Hannah waited for the surprise that always remained a surprise no matter how many times you drove down the driveway to her favourite house. Speke Hall comes at you when you least expect it. A glorious Tudor manor house left behind by time on the edge of Liverpool, stranded in the middle of an urban landscape right next to an airport. Hannah had been there plenty of times but her daughter had only just turned six and it was the first time she had risked bringing her. She was old enough now to build a den in the woods next to the hall if she got bored and sit at a table in the little cafe properly to have some cake.
“Shall we have some cake later on?”
Keira wrinkled her nose.
“What sort?”
“Whatever you like. There’s one called Wet Nelly.”
There was a snort from the back seat.
“There is not.”
“There is too. I’ll show you. You can eat some.”
“Wet Nelly. Urgghhh.”
“It’s yummy. I promise.”
This was a lie. Her daughter would definitely not like it, Keira hated fruit cake but she might not realise what it was until it was in her mouth.
“You can have a bite of mine.”
The car filled with laughter as they swung into a parking space. This was going to be a good day.

It was touch and go getting Keira to walk straight to the house when she saw the piles of sticks and logs, all ready to play with, as they made their way through the woods but they finally stood in the little queue at the front door ready to be allowed in and she was happy. She allowed her mother to tell her how the house was built and nodded wisely.
“It’s a Hansel and Gretel house, only it’s wood not gingerbread. Made from sticks.”
Hannah smiled. Speke hall was like something from a fairytale, a carefully constructed pile of interlocking patterns, sloping eaves, high chimneys and dark mullioned windows. It was a house built with flair, imagination and love. A confident house for people who knew their worth.
Keira was thrilled that only a little part in the corner of the huge heavy front door was opened up and the grown ups had to duck their heads. She bounced through into the central courtyard straight away and stood there jumping up and down.
“There are trees mummy- big trees. And more house!”
Hannah followed her quickly. She didn’t want any trouble. Sometimes people who began by thinking that Keira was cute could change their minds very quickly.
“Don’t start pulling at the trees.”
Keira looked at her mother in disgust, as though she had never been known to do anything like that.
They walked around the trees, peering into the windows and finding patterns in the house walls.
“The trees would have been a lot smaller when they were planted.”
Keira rolled her eyes.
“I know that.”
“They have names.”
“I don’t know one’s like these.”
“Not just what kind of tree they are. They are yew trees but they have their own names as well. Can you guess what?”
“Like people?”
“Boys or girls?”
“One of each.”
Keira bit her lip and pointed.
“That one is called Jack and the one over there is called Sarah.”
“Nearly. They are called Adam and Eve.”
“Which is which?”
“I don’t know.
“That’s no good.”
“But I do know how old they are.”
“Older than you?”
“Much older. Five hundred years old.”
“That’s a lot of years.”
“There’s something else to show you- over here.”
Hannah took Keira’s hand, ignoring the pull away, and led her to the other side of the courtyard.
“See up there? Can you see a spyhole?”
It took a while but finally Keira did. She jumped up and down on the spot shouting. People stared.
When you first came to the house in the olden days they had a special man inside the house and he looked through that to see if you were allowed in.”
“Are we allowed in?”
“Well we paid, so yes. You can look through it yourself later on.”
“Oh wow!”

Now that she knew about the spy hole Keira had completely lost interest in the courtyard and the trees so there was no alternative but to take her straight on into the house itself. Hannah had been dreading this part. There were a million and one things that her daughter might pick up and wave around, bounce on, or sit on without permission.
“Be good. You mustn’t touch anything- all right?”
She always said that to start with. Before she got bored.
The beds were the biggest hit- except for the fact that she couldn’t crawl up and bounce on them. She looked at the faces in the carved wood and the flowers on the counterpanes and announced that her bed was boring in comparison but that she liked her Moanna duvet cover better.
“I wish I had a roof on my bed.”
“When this house was built a lot of people didn’t have a proper bed at all.”
“Homeless, ” Keira said instantly, without really understanding what that meant.
“Not homeless- just without a bed.”
“That’s stupid.”
Keira ran on ahead and her mum sped up to keep her in sight.

By the time they reached the billiard room Keira was in full flow and Hannah’s patience was wearing thin. The kitchen had been pronounced “boring” and there had been too many rooms, too many “brown paintings”. She was thankful there was nobody else in there. The row of settees at the end of the room were empty. The house guide who was guarding the billiard table smiled at them. He was having a slow day.
“Would you like to play a game?”
Keira frowned at him, used to being told no.
“Am I allowed?”
“Of course you are. I’ll show you.”
She darted a look of triumph at her mum and Hannah sat down wearily to watch, thankful to be given a few minutes off. He fetched a step stool for Keira to stand on and showed her what to do, allowing her to roll the balls towards the pockets by hand when the cue proved too unwieldy and giving her a round of applause each time one went in. By the time ten minutes had gone by he knew Keira’s name, how old she was, where she lived, how often she saw her dad, what she was having for her tea, that bananas were yucky and more about Disney princesses than he probably wanted to- especially Moanna. It was the undivided attention that Keira needed and couldn’t always get and both of them were enjoying themselves. He smiled at her mother.
“It’s a lovely age, six. I have a granddaughter the same age.”
Hannah smiled back, it was good to be envied rather than pitied. When she was with other mothers she so often seemed to be kept on the back foot, sneered at without words.
“Thank you for being patient. She’s very full on. Let me know when you’ve had enough.”
Hannah amused herself by looking at the information sheet for the room. It had been very elegant in its day. There was a painting by Whistler on it showing the room full of wealthy, fashionable people whiling away the time in elegant clothes after dinner, sitting around watching the game, flirting and gossiping. Lots of flirting. The billiard table had been made by Gillows of Lancaster- it would have cost a small fortune and no novices would ever have been allowed to risk that baize top back then- let alone children. They would find it strange now to see a parade of strangers coming through the room to gawp at what remained of their lives, allowed to poke around a delicate skeleton which had once been fleshed out with their hopes and dreams, now emptied of warmth and joy. It was just as well that they couldn’t see the room now, however beautiful it still was.
The last ball slipped down into a pocket and Keira straightened up to receive her final round of applause. It was time to move on- quit while you are ahead. He had been very patient.
“There- you enjoyed that didn’t you?”
Keira jumped down from the stool.
“Say thank you.”
“Thank you.”
“My pleasure.”
She pulled at her mum’s arm.
“Can I build dens now?”
“What about cake?”
So dens it was. Hannah sat deep in thought, and very hungry, while her daughter made herself thoroughly hot and grubby, dragging branches around and putting them in piles. By the time they were ready to eat cake the cafe was almost closing.
Keira could recognise fruit cake whatever name it had been given so they shared a large piece of chocolate cake and both had some lemonade while Keira chattered happily about what she had seen.
“Who were the pretty ladies?”
“Which pretty ladies?”
Keira frowned.
“The ones watching me play on the big table. In the long dresses. They wouldn’t smile at me.”
Keira had a vivid imagination and Hannah had learned not to contradict her when she made things up. It was best to play along, humour her.
“I don’t know sweetheart.”
Keira took a big bite of cake.
“Maybe they were fed up.”
“A bit bored maybe, just watching.”
Then Hannah remembered the painting on the fact sheet. Perhaps there was nothing to contradict.

Whistler and the Leyland Family in the Billiard Room, Speke Hall by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Short Story: Customer Service.

This wasn’t how Daniel had expected his life to work out. School had been easy. He was tall, dark haired and confident- the kind of lad that the girls noticed and the teachers indulged. He had always known what to say and never worried too much about whether it was true or not. People liked him. He had done as little work as possible and smiled his way out of trouble. So how had he ended up here? “Here” being a Cornish pasty shop on a draughty city railway station. Full time. Watching people come and go, watching the pigeons up in the iron railings of the roof, watching the ornate station clock count down the minutes of his shift, listening to the rush of trains speeding away to London or Edinburgh, the snatches of conversation, hellos and goodbyes. He was marooned, alone in the centre of things. Everyone was going somewhere and he was left behind, telling customers what the pasty of the day was, bagging it up and asking them if that was all. Sometimes when people said yes it didn’t sound like they meant they only wanted a pasty. Sometimes he watched them walk out and he knew how they felt. This was not where he should be.
“You going to sort out that trolley or what?”
He froze for a few seconds when he heard her voice, leaving the customer holding out her hand with a five pound note in it. Debbie didn’t like Daniel. She was thick set and middle aged- the kind of woman he had never noticed- and she stared at him when they weren’t busy. She liked telling him what to do and unfortunately he couldn’t stop her as she was in charge. He put down the pasty that he had just bagged on the counter and walked slowly, just slowly enough to make his point but not slowly enough to be rude, out of the serving area and towards the trolley, without asking the customer whether she wanted to order the meal deal. He was obeying orders. Debbie couldn’t complain about that. Let her work the coffee machine. He hated that bloody thing. It snorted and hissed at the back of the shop like some kind of giant alien being, spewing hot water and milk everywhere and demanding a constant round of wiping and polishing. It was dangerous. You had to watch your hands all the time.
The customer ordered her coffee and waited calmly for Debbie to make it for her. She was another older woman- even older than Debbie- and she did the same staring at him as he wheeled the trolley towards her. She was in his way. He stood still, looked her in the eyes and spread his arms out. She moved. The two women raised their eyebrows at each other as money changed hands. They didn’t need to say anything. They just knew.
After the next short rush Debbie turned to him.
“You were rude to that customer.”
“What customer?”
He knew what customer of course. They both realised that.
“You’ve no idea about customer service.”
The fact was that life had taught Daniel that he didn’t need to bother about customer service. Everything had come easily to him, people, things, experiences. So easily that he had never noticed his chances slipping by. There was always a distraction, always someone ready to give praise or suggest an easy option to fall for, and it had led him here.

When she first saw Daniel, Debbie had known straight away that giving him a job had been a bad idea. If she had been manager at the time it would never have happened. She had seen it all coming. The looking at his own reflection in the shining stainless steel of the coffee machine, the way that he would stare straight through her when she had to ask him to do something, the teenage girls taking hours to eat their pasties while they giggled in the corner and stared at him, the absences. It used to matter how well you did your job, now it only seemed to matter how good you looked while you were doing it. And he did look good. She even caught herself staring at him sometimes. It was embarrassing. She just couldn’t dislike him- and she had tried. Time passed more quickly when he was in a good mood, he would tease her, flatter her and teach her fast rhythmic song lyrics that made no sense to her at all. When she asked about the tune he would shrug his shoulders and grin. Other times he just didn’t want to be there and he made that very obvious. Well she didn’t want to be there either. It hadn’t been her life’s ambition to stand on her bad ankle in a pasty shop for hours every day being polite to people. She had been young once, had ideas, and it didn’t seem that long ago. She could still remember. Daniel was lucky. He was young now and he still had choices. He didn’t have to be here. When he finally woke up and realised that the world didn’t owe him a living he probably wouldn’t be. The drop dead gorgeous young woman who had just walked in might cheer him up a bit- that was about the only thing that did. This one would get some decent customer service all right.

Louise wondered afterwards why she had decided to have a pasty on her way to the train. It wasn’t like her to eat pastry- she hadn’t stayed this slim by accident. Maybe it was the meal deal advertised on the board outside. Her mind had rushed ahead to later in the day, when she would be on show so it was a shock to see someone she knew looking back at her from the other side of the counter when she looked up, ready to order. Dishy Dan from school. Everybody’s favourite clown. Her first crush.
“Dan! What are you doing here?”
She could see the thoughts racing across his face as he tried to work out who she was. He wasn’t the first to wonder. No glasses, almost two stone lost, a flattering new hair colour and better skin. Well she certainly had his attention now, and it felt good. Money and effort well spent. At least she was dressed for the meeting in her best heels. It was going to be painfully boring but he wasn’t to know that. She smiled at him.
“It’s Louise- we were at school together.”
“Oh right.”
He still looked confused. She wanted to show off about her new job but she didn’t. It might be tactless. Of course there were all kinds of reasons why you might end up selling pasties on a railway station, but still. Best not.
“How are you doing?”
“Oh you know, getting by.”
So he didn’t want to tell her. and he wasn’t going to ask. She smiled briefly.
“Aren’t we all?”
“You’re looking good.”
“Thank you.”
They stood there, staring at each other. Finally he spoke.
“You haven’t ordered.”
“What’s the pasty of the day?”
“Chicken and chorizo. It always is.”
“OK then. I’ll have the meal deal.”
He flashed her a dazzling smile and suddenly she was fifteen again. Damn. She watched as the middle aged woman waiting by a tower of disposable coffee cups caught his eye, stood to one side with some ceremony and held out her arm towards the coffee machine. What was that all about? It didn’t take long- he was fast.
“There you go.”
She gave him the cash, making sure not to touch his hand.
“I’m due a break in fifteen minutes if you fancy a chat.”
She picked up her bag.
“Train to catch I’m afraid. Another time.”
That would never happen. She was not likely to eat another pasty in a hurry. As she turned and walked out she could feel him watching her leave.
His loss.

And so the day wore on, a day like any other. People came and went as the light changed and the trains whipped by, following their predictable paths. Restless corridors of mystery, carrying people on journeys of all kinds- exciting, mundane, unique, routine. The hands on the station clock clicked round and the electronic displays flickered and rolled across radiant screens, full of possibilities. Four hundred and twenty six cups of coffee were sold in the pasty shop. The stuff of life. Our lives.

Generation Y.

Megan knew that she was beautiful- although she would never have said so- but she still hadn’t got used to being looked at. When people stared at her she usually thought that there might be something wrong. It took a long time in her bedroom sorting out hair, eyebrows- especially eyebrows- skin and make up to try to reduce the possibility of something wrong being noticed next time. It never dawned on her that a newly minted sixteen year old girl, stick thin with long legs and a drift of long polished hair, dark eyes and a shy way of looking at strangers was always going to attract attention. It wasn’t that she didn’t like attention, or not usually anyway, she just didn’t know how to react to it. Especially if it was a man. Boys her own age were no problem- they were just stupid. They went around with their shirts hanging out and the laces of their dirty trainers trailing in the mud. So long as they had a Superdry logo across their top they were happy. They shouldn’t have been, but they were. When men looked at her it was different. They were checking her out and it made her feel grubby. The man at the bus stop was doing that now. She looked round anxiously for her friend Katie.

Finally there was Katie, waving frantically from the other side of the road.
Arms flew into a hug.
“Stop it Katie. People will look.”
Katie didn’t mind people looking. She always wore variations on the same outfit. A flimsy dress, covered with a shapeless cardie or a long coat in winter, leggings and Doc Marten boots. Mostly black. Her dark hair was dyed an even deeper shade of black and cut very short. When she went out at night she wore a corset top. She didn’t look like anybody else and she didn’t want to. You must never, ever say that she was a Goth because that would mean she had joined in with something. Megan was in awe of her. Katie could outstare any man who looked at her and she said that she was an anarchist. She had already had sex once and announced that she didn’t like it much. Katie was exciting. She didn’t know how to look good in school uniform but give her a bit of freedom and she knew exactly how to stand out. She looked at Megan critically, taking in her outfit in a glance.
“Are you not rebelling then?”
Megan shrugged.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to look awful while I’m rebelling.”
“You are killing it!”
“My hair though.”
Katie waved her head from side to side and dropped her jaw..
Megan fiddled anxiously with the two strands of hair that she had carefully teased out to frame her face. The rest floated gently down her back in a perfectly ordered, shining, pale brown cascade. Katie rolled her eyes.
“Your hair is perfect.”
“It is so not.”
Megan had not told her mother that they were going on a demo. Sixteen was almost old enough to do as you liked but not quite. Her mother had been a punk- now that r

eally was going around rebelling and looking awful- and that should have helped her to understand but that was a very long time ago now. Apart from a tendency to play Blondie very loudly in the afternoons while she was ironing and a few grubby photo booth portraits with her tongue hanging out you would never know.

When the bus reached the city centre people were already gathering amidst a forest of placards. Most of them said variations on “Hands off our NHS” but some were quite funny. There was a young woman in a white doctors coat carrying one that said, “this sign would look better if I hadn’t worked a seventy hour week” and a lot more children than Megan had expected. One tiny boy was being held up by his mum clutching a sign that said, “toddlers against the cuts”. It was like a party- not dangerous at all. People were happy to be there, all thinking the same thing. One voice. She started to relax. Katie ran across to a man who was giving out small blue “save our NHS” placards and brought two back.
“There you go. All ready.”
Slowly the crowd thickened, found its purpose and moved off. Katie looked at Megan anxiously.
“Sure you’ll be OK?”
Megan nodded, too full of emotion to speak. She wasn’t sure. Three months ago she wouldn’t have been. Six months ago she would have been lying in intensive care after having her rib cage cracked open and her heart cut into. The team who had replaced her defective heart valve, looked after her and brought a body who expected to die back to life were her heroes now. There were dozens of them. People from all over the world, brought together to give her a new start. From the Spanish surgeon, who had just smiled at her quietly when she thanked him, to the small woman with long dark hair who had brought warm, carefully buttered toast with a piece of kitchen roll over it to her bedside each morning for the first few days. All of them. She slipped her spare hand inside her coat to feel her heart beating. The surgeon had told her that he had given her “a good valve”. When everything was silent she could hear it ticking. Her mum had been promised that she was going to have a quiet sit down in a coffee shop with Katie. They would do that afterwards. It wasn’t a lie. She would be fine. The crowd was moving slowly and the city square where the speeches would be happening wasn’t far away.
Katie grabbed her hand.
“Good girl.”
Megan took a deep breath, filled her lungs right up, as the physiotherapists had taught her and shouted.
“Hands off our NHS! Hands off our NHS!”


Short Story: Never Alone.

It began as a presence. There was nothing to see or hear, nothing to feel even, yet she knew that it was there. She was being watched. When other people were around her she found it harder to sense, but as soon as she was alone again it was there. Watching. Listening. For a time she could shake it off by turning her head to reassure herself that there was nothing there, and she could carry on with what she was doing, but slowly the conviction grew in her that the presence was waiting for a response. It wanted her to say something. She told nobody, if her mind was wandering then it was best kept to herself, so she went to work, cooked, met friends, did the school run, slept, and told herself that nothing was wrong. After all, if she could see nothing, hear nothing, what could possibly be wrong? She would get over it.

Strangely, when the presence turned into a pale shadow on the kitchen wall and she could see it for the first time it was almost a relief. There was something there after all. She was not losing her mind. It was real. She simply turned her head after switching the kettle on, as she had done so many times before and instead of seeing nothing, this time she found herself looking at a shadow. It was not being made by sunlight from the window and there were no electric lights switched on in the middle of the day. There was no reason for it to be there……other than force of will. The question was, whose?

The shadow began to prey on her mind. Every time she went into the kitchen she could look at nothing else. It had to go. She waited until she was sure that she would be alone in the house for a few hours, locked the doors, then fetched the pot of white emulsion paint from the cupboard under the stairs and started to paint furiously. Three coats were not enough to erase the shadow. After five coats she realised that she was wasting her time, any number of coats would not be enough. If anything the shadow had darkened, gained power and confidence. The only thing that had changed was the smell of paint filling the kitchen- they would be asking about that when they all came home. For the first time she was truly afraid.

From that moment on the shadow didn’t just stay in the kitchen. It moved around the house with her, settling onto a wall close by her, waiting. She never saw it move, it just remained with her wherever she was. Nobody else in the house mentioned it. She kept watching their faces to see if they showed any sign that they could see it, afraid to ask. Either they would say that they could, and a torrent of pent up feelings and emotions would be unleashed, or they would say that they couldn’t and wonder what was the matter with her. Whichever it might be she didn’t want to hear it. This was something which she had to deal with alone. It belonged to her.

As the weeks passed the shadow darkened and its edges became clearer, more distinct. She got into the habit of drinking her coffee in front of it while she watched to see if she could catch this process happening, trying to guess what it might be. It was something, she was sure of that now. Whichever wall it settled on, whatever the time of day, the shape was the same but the depth of the darkness in it no longer changed. It was now the deep, velvet black of a hole in space, reflecting nothing and drawing her in towards it. As she went about her daily life it held out a promise of glorious, unending, dangerous emptiness- it knew that she would come when called. It became an escape that she reached towards, a chasm that she would be thankful to fall into. It became her friend.

After many hours of sitting and looking into the darkness she finally decided that she must talk to it. It took a long time to gather enough courage- what if it answered?- but one early morning, at first light, she managed, very quietly, to say something. It was the obvious question.
“What do you want?”
She would never know whether the voice that she heard next came from the depths of the shadow or from inside her own head. Perhaps it didn’t matter. Perhaps it was the same thing.
“Your forgiveness.”
It was not the answer that she had expected.
“Forgiveness? For what?”
“For leaving you alone. For letting you down.”
She watched as the shadow slowly formed itself into a familiar, beloved shape- why had she not recognised it before?
“I am angry.”
“I know.”
Fear clutched at her heart. This was what she had longed for more than anything else, but it shouldn’t be happening. Jonathan shouldn’t be here. This should not be happening. She waited in silence, hands shaking. The shadow spoke again, the voice familiar, reassuring.
“I will always be with you.”
“No. You died.”
She spat the words out, channeling her fear into a shard of rage that reached deep into the darkness of the shadow.
“You died!”

“Mum? Are you OK? I heard shouting.”
She turned away from the shadow to see her daughter standing at the door.
“It’s nothing. Go back to bed.”
“Is it dad?”
She nodded, unable to speak.
“Oh mum…….”
“I’m fine.”
“Mum- look at me- dad will always be with us- so long as we remember him. He’s not gone.”
As she heard the words of the shadow repeated and reinforced by the warmth of a hug the tears that she had been unable to cry finally came. When she released herself and looked back at the wall the shadow was gone.