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-”
“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.”
“No!”
“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.”
“Wicked.”
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.”
“Yes.”
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.”
“Nooooooo!”
“Yes!”
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.
“Mummy!”
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?”
“Yes.”
“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.
“YES! YES! YES!”
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?”
“Ye-es.”
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?”
“Dens!”
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.
“Mummy…….”
“Yes.”
“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.”
“Thanks.”
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.
“Megan!”
Arms flew into a hug.
“Stop it Katie. People will look.”
“So?”
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..
“WHAT?”
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.”
“Whatever.”
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 really 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!”
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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.

Short Story: Behave Geoffrey!

Geoffrey is worried. His small, bright eyes stare out from his wrecked body as it lies, stretched out painfully, in his hospital bed. He isn’t sure why he is here. His legs hurt and they keep doing things to him, moving them about when he doesn’t want them to. He wants them to leave him alone, except that he is worried and he needs to talk to someone. He is in trouble and it is upsetting him because he has never done anything wrong before……. and now this. He is worried about the insurance people who are going to come after him. He needs to ask someone about it but they just keep walking past the end of his bed. People he hasn’t seen before. Strangers. So many of them. When he tries to talk to them they keep walking. If he can’t persuade someone to listen to him, the next person who walks past might be someone from the insurance. It might be one of the people coming to get him because he is in trouble. They will find out where he is. They will know. He grabs at his bed sheet. He should hide. He is going to get out of bed before they find him.
“Behave Geoffrey!”
One of the women in a white uniform who does things to him is putting his legs back in bed. It hurts. He shouts. She covers his legs up under the bed sheet and walks on before he can explain about the people who are coming. He doesn’t have the energy to lift himself up again so he just watches, his lips moving silently. Sometimes the people walking past are carrying documents, even pushing trolleys full of them. Words. Evidence. There is a file at the end of his bed that they keep writing in. More evidence. All waiting for the insurance people to find. All they have to do is walk past, pick it up and look. It isn’t locked away or anything.
“Excuse me?”
The person walking past doesn’t stop. He doesn’t even glance across. He is going somewhere else. Busy. They are all going somewhere else but Geoffrey doesn’t know where. The person sitting by the next bed turns round and looks at him.
“Are you all right?”
Geoffrey fixes his eyes on her. She seems kind, she has been there for a long time and she is not wearing a uniform. She has a bright red scarf and she is smiling at him. He dares to ask her a question.
“Excuse me. Can you tell me why I am here?”
She frowns. He tries again.
“I don’t know why I am here.”
“You’re here to be looked after. To get better.”
Geoffrey tries to take this in. It doesn’t feel like he is being looked after. Not at all. His family know that he is here and they don’t seem to mind but he does. Where are they?
“Thank you. Can you tell me who all these people are? I don’t know who they are.”
This is a difficult question and it makes her think. He waits patiently.
“Well, it’s visiting time. They have come to see the other poorly people who are being looked after- people like you.”
“I see.”
Geoffrey doesn’t see, not really, but she wants him to say something so he does, just as he did when people used to listen to him.
“And there are doctors and nurses- it’s very busy.”
He isn’t convinced. The woman doesn’t know about the people looking for him. She does seem sorry though and she is looking him in the eye. She is kind. She is not one of those people. He gives a slight nod, trying to take in what she has just said.
“Will your family be coming to see you?”
This is something that Geoffrey is sure about.
“Oh yes. We’re very close.”
He has told his family about the insurance people and Peter said that he would deal with it but Geoffrey doesn’t trust Peter any more. Peter was the one who brought him in here and left him among all these strangers. Anyway Peter gets things wrong. Peter is busy like those people walking past. He will forget.
The woman is still smiling at him.
“That’s good.”
The woman’s big smile brings the words tumbling out of him a rush. He needs her to know.
“I need to tell you something. I am in trouble. There are people coming to see me about it. Insurance people. I have never done anything wrong before.”
He tries to tell her more, as best he can, saying that they will want him to go with them and they will stand him up in a court of law to explain things that he doesn’t understand, but worry scrambles his words.The woman listens. She can see that Geoffrey is- or has been- a good, clever man and she is sorry. She tells him that everything will be sorted out, there is nothing to worry about, that he is safe, comfortable, protected, he is here to get better. He fixes his eyes on her and listens and for those few moments he does feel better and his mind is stilled. The people will not come. At least not yet.

Short Story: A Walk to the Shops.

When Margaret had first bought her seaside bungalow, after Bill’s death, it had seemed like a very good choice. It was on a nice estate, well maintained, close enough to a doctor and a small supermarket, and there were no memories. A fresh start. A safe choice. The kind of choice that she had been making all her life. Her daughters were pleased- perhaps that was because they wanted her to be happy or perhaps they were just pleased that she was carefully parked in a place where she would need little help. Accessible but not too accessible. She wasn’t sure. Probably both. Luckily she was used to her own company- Bill had never said much- and she had always kept herself to herself as her mother had told her to, years ago. It took her a while to realise that she was being watched.

Of course she didn’t let that stop her going to the shops. Today she needed milk, the soft bread rolls with seeds on top and pork chops, so she put her coat on and strode out with her bag, keeping her head up and her face closed. No trolley dragging behind her. That was the thin edge of the wedge that led to mobility scooters and slow decline. When she was asked how her daughter was getting on by someone who she had only seen from the other side of the road, a woman whose name she didn’t know, she was taken aback. Especially when the conversation started with her own name, carefully used to claim the right of asking. She was so taken aback that she answered straight away without thinking and ended up with a conversation that she didn’t want and far more information about the other woman than she was ever going to need. It was difficult to get away. In fact she came dangerously close to accepting an invitation for coffee at the local library. She walked away frowning, wondering how the woman had known that Ruth had been in hospital. It was only after she had reached the turn in the road that led to the town centre that she remembered mentioning it in the butchers. Nowhere else. Just the butchers. They were talking about her. This was the kind of place where people sat around waiting for something to happen. It didn’t matter what it was- gas vans, ambulances, the little town bus, district nurses, a strange car parked up, you name it. Anything that moved was watched. Anything unknown was wondered about. If a pair of curtains opened at the wrong time- or worse still didn’t open- the worst was assumed. If they stayed closed whispers would begin to go round. There was much fear beneath the well ordered lawns and rose beds. These people were waiting for the worst to happen to them and they were afraid. They were sitting there, quietly watching Pointless and Tipping Point on their big televisions, waiting for their world to be blown apart. They were old enough to have seen it happen to others- it would soon be their turn. Nobody stayed lucky forever. This could not be spoken of out loud, so instead they watched other people as a defence, looking for signs that the static, airless world of their cul de sac was being disturbed. The comfort blanket of neighbourliness and care which hid this fear couldn’t quite prevent it from seeping out from under the edges along with the spite.

Margaret didn’t tell her daughter any of this of course. Nobody did. One of the sentences heard more than any other on the estate was “they’ve got their own lives”. These lives excused adult children from phone calls, shortened their visits, and provided a chance for those whose lives were no longer noticed to boast quietly about someone else. Someone who was still out there, making themselves count, living on their behalf. Smiling photos were sent through the post to take their place, objects of veneration which sat there unchanging in their frames, pointed out proudly to anyone who saw them- as though absence could be excused by an image. Mind you, when it came to Jessica, her oldest daughter, an unmoving, smiling photograph often came as something of a relief after a visit from the real thing. She might have a PhD but she wasn’t as clever as she thought she was and it was a nuisance having to hide the Daily Mail.

The butcher was his usual cheerful self.
“Hello love. What can I get you?”
Margaret wanted to tell him that she was not his love but she kept her lips closed. After all if she wouldn’t tell him her name what did she expect. She smiled politely.
“Two pork chops please.”
“Two?”
“Yes please.”
Yes two, Margaret thought- that surprised you didn’t it- and I’m not going to tell you why. The chops were shown to her and then wrapped up carefully. Jessica liked pork chops and she would be here in a few hours. She would braise them in a nice sauce made from white wine, a little bit of vegetable stock cube, chopped up apple, half a leek and a drop of cream. Not too much cream or Jessica would scrape off the sauce and say she was allergic. That was nonsense of course- Jessica had eaten cream for years- but you couldn’t tell her. Thinking about it she had better get some more cream in case the tub in the fridge had gone off.
“Is that all?”
“Yes, that’s all.”
She held out £3.25 towards the butcher’s outstretched hand and they both said thank you all over again. So much gratitude for two simple pork chops. Silly really.
She was glad to get out of there.

The town was quiet now that the summer visitors were gone. Familiar faces had reappeared after being lost in the crowds for a while. The saying that you had to summer and winter a place before you could think of yourself as properly settled in was never more true than here. This place was used to comings and goings. It was somewhere you could disappear. People got used to seeing you about but they didn’t think about it for very long. Plenty of people passed through, and many of them soon moved on. A face would be seen on the street for a few weeks or months, and then it would be gone. No reason why. The visitors, the retired folk on the estates who went on long cheerful rambles with the walking club, the elderly whose families deposited them in one of the large hotels on the front which had been turned into nursing homes, the visitors from the tin boxes filling the fields on the edge of the town, the day trippers who filled up the grassy car parks on the cliff top, and the students who came out of nowhere to do the seasonal work each summer, they would all leave sooner or later. This place was used to strangers and they could feel comfortable there. Or at least some of them could. At least the supermarket would be more bearable now.

They had over-baked all the seeded rolls that she liked. Again. The woman at the customer service desk was not as sorry about it as she tried to sound.
“I’ll make sure that your message gets passed on.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed just a tiny bit.
“I’ll let them know.”
“Thank you.”
Gratitude again. For what? And if “them” was the woman with the long face behind the bread display, who had a habit of mangling warm loaves of bread inside the slicing machine, she might as well not bother.
At least the cream was sitting there, ready to be bought without incident, and she remembered to reach to the back to get a better sell by date. Small victories. Sometimes she liked to go to the checkout aisle where the cheerful woman sat on the till- she always found something to laugh about and you could hear her at the other side of the store- but not today. She crept out via the self service till and allowed the disembodied voice to thank her for buying a tub of cream and a pack of six rolls that she didn’t really want. Jessica would be here soon. With little Jake.

Jake was the one human being- probably the one thing on the entire planet- that Margaret did not have mixed feelings about. Her first grandchild- two years and five months old- had proved himself utterly perfect in every way, outstripping with ease any other grandchild that anyone else might have, ever. Jake was an unexpected gift to her in late middle age, after Jessica had finally found someone to settle down with who could keep her under control and he was just……. well perfect. There was nothing else to say. When his mother complained about him Margaret had learned to sit there and answer back in her own head- usually “shut up he’s perfect”- while letting her daughter talk. It wasn’t easy being a mother. Sometimes when she listened to Jessica talking to Jake she could hear herself, over thirty years ago, and it made her cringe. She had not been a bad mother….. had she?……. but she certainly could have been a better one.

Margaret kept a box of toys in a special cupboard all ready for Jake’s visits. She liked to add something small as a surprise each time he came and she knew which biscuits and sweets he liked best. Jessica didn’t like him having too much sugar and she talked about “spoiling” but once every few weeks didn’t harm and if his gran couldn’t spoil him, who could? He ran it all off anyway. She hugged her shopping bag close as she walked back down the road, thinking of his face as the cupboard door opened and his tiny birdlike voice shouting “nan nan”. Nobody else in the whole world would ever call her that.

A young mother walked by with her own toddler, sitting bolt upright in her pushchair. They had such elaborate pushchairs these days- more like formula one racing cars than things you would take a baby out in. Not pushchairs…… what did Jessica insist they were called? Travel systems. That was it. And they cost a fortune. As if wheeling your child a few hundred yards down the road was the same as crossing the sahara. Such nonsense. There were no children living on the estate, you had to walk into town to see them. Just one more silence in a silent world of waiting.

As her bungalow came into sight Margaret’s feet sped up and her heart lifted. Not long now. Jake brought the future singing along with him each time he ran across the lawn to the house, a promise of good things ahead. She remembered her grandmother looking down at baby Jessica when she was laid on her knee for the first time- one of only three times she ever saw her- and saying, “she’s got her whole life ahead of her”. Back then she had just smiled and thought, of course she has, but now, when she looked at Jake, she was able to read her grandmother’s thoughts and understand what was being said. It was his world now. His tiny hands were carrying the remains of her life forward and what was left of her hopes had been passed down to him. All she could do was watch and marvel.