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 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!”

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.”
“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.

Short Story: Small Children are Boring!

“Is that all he does?”
Baby Liam lay back quietly in his baby seat, eyes half closed, clenching and unclenching his fists adorably. Amanda looked at her friend, startled that her little bundle of joy, whose name she never mentioned without an admiring adjective shining out in front of it, was not getting the unqualified adulation that he deserved. I mean, he was perfect! Wasn’t he?
“He tried to sit up yesterday.”
There was a short, heavy silence. Holly had tried for the right enthusiastic tone but she hadn’t quite managed it.
“No, I mean it is, brilliant. Almost sitting up. Wow!”
Amanda allowed herself a smug smile.
“He shouldn’t be doing that for another two weeks.”
Holly imagined a roomful of university students settling into freshers week and getting to know each other for the first time, comparing baby milestones.
“When did you first sit up then?”
“Two and a half weeks.”
“Bloody hell, that was early. Have a beer!”
“See him over there- he rolled over onto his side for the first time a full two weeks earlier than anyone else in his mother and toddler group. He’s a sure bet for a first.”
Baby Liam blinked and made a made a little noise a bit like a cat’s mew. Amanda picked him up and squidged his mouth into a pout, grinning at Holly in delight.
“So funny. Little chubster.”
Holly smiled back and clapped her hands at him. They were all just babies, that was the thing. All of them- just babies. Of course you couldn’t tell their mothers that, especially when you had none of your own, but the truth was that they were no different to baby lambs. Their mothers and doting grandmas could tell the difference between them but everyone else just had to pretend. Babies all looked the same. The big secret about tiny children- especially other people’s tiny children- was that they were boring. Really boring.
Amanda put her head on one side and held Liam out towards Holly.
“Do you want to hold him?”
This was a question with only one answer. Holly nodded. Liam was passed over to her with exaggerated care. He stared up at the new face. She put her tongue out at him and wrinkled her nose. He really was quite cute.
Amanda smiled.
“One day.”
“One day what?”
“One day it might be you.”
Here we go. Holly looked down and gave a tiny shake of her head.
“Don’t you want children? You love Liam.”
Holly froze. She did not love Liam. She had never said that. She had never thought it. Amanda had no idea.
“He’s very sweet.”
“Well then.”
It was going to have to be said.
“I can’t have children.”
Amanda frowned. She looked like she wanted to take Liam back.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s OK.”
You could say that it was OK as often as you liked but nobody ever believed it. Especially if they were a mother.
“You could always adopt.”
There was a long silence while Holly remembered all the people who had said those words to her before Amanda, starting with her mother. It was the quickest way that people could find to get themselves out of an awkward situation and make things right. Except it didn’t make things right. It was presumptious and patronising. You must want what I have. You must put right the shameful inadequacy of infertility and find a way to be normal. They would tell you that you were “childfree” but they didn’t mean it. You were childless, a leper who walked the world ringing a bell of emptiness and that void had to be filled- by force if necessary. It was nonsense of course but they believed it and that was what mattered. Perhaps it was how they coped with the fact that their lives had been completely taken over by someone else’s needs and would never be the same again.
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
That was a lie but telling the truth would have felt like slapping baby Liam in the face. Please don’t let her mention IVF.
“Have you thought about IVF?”
“I have no eggs.”
That emptiness again.
Usually that shut people up but Amanda opened her mouth as though she was going to say something else. Holly got in first.
“It wouldn’t be my child- if it was someone else’s egg. And before you mention my sister, just don’t. That would be a complete nightmare.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Amanda reached out a hand. Holly bit her lip. How had she managed to be pitied about the lack of something that she didn’t even want in the first place?
“It’s fine.”
“I know. Sorry.”
Liam started to grizzle. Holly gave him back to his mum and stared into space. At school they had been best friends, then part of a small. close group who went clubbing and ate pizzas together. One by one the members of the group had fallen by the wayside, hijacked by motherhood. Only she and Amanda had hung on. All that had changed after Liam was born. They had only met up three times since then and it had been all about Amanda’s meet ups with “post natal mums”, tiny glass bottles of expensive sludge, marauding health visitors, useless dads, calpol, sugar free juice, baby led weaning, and disposable nappies. Hundreds and hundreds of God awful disposable nappies. They had hardly seen each other.
“Try not to get down about it.”
“I’m not down. I’m bored if you must know,.”
“I could do with a change at work. The new manager is a real pain and I have to share an office now. Nobody even asked me. I was just-”
Suddenly baby Liam’s face changed and an enormous roar came out of his tiny mouth. Amanda’s attention was gone in a heartbeat and the words that had been coming out of Holly’s mouth trailed away into silence.
“Oh baby! He’s starting teething already.”
Liam was hugged, comforted, soothed. His bottom gum was rubbed and he was given a plastic ring to suck on.
Holly watched as Amanda looked at her baby- it was a look that she would never share.
“So clever.”
Holly sighed. Amanda pulled a face at her.
“I know. Poor boy!”
Holly nodded and Amanda turned her attention back to Liam, satisfied that a mutual bond had been demonstrated.
“I can’t wait for him to be big enough to fit in the swings.”
That was why they had to come to the park. It was where all the mums congregated to compare buggies, baby outfits and waistlines. Holly was an interloper. The mothers had sailed off together in a flotilla of self congratulation and obsession, powered by love and guilt. She shouldn’t be here. She didn’t belong. She had been left waving them off from the cliff top.
“What were you saying about your work?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just office politics. Nothing interesting.”
“Oh right.”
Amanda really didn’t want to know. She got out a baby wipe and cleaned Liam’s face all over again.
“He’s got milk down his front as well- messy pup.”
She held him up in the air in front of her and they giggled at each other.
“Whatchou been doing?”
His baby gro had I LOVE MY MUMMY printed on it in big blue letters. Holly looked at it with dislike. There was really no need for that.
When Amanda decided that Liam wanted to go home Holly said goodbye with lots of hugs (snuggles for Liam snugglebug) and then walked alone across the grass until she reached the far side of the park, away from the playground. A group of ducks were feeding, flipping up their tail ends and shaking the water from their beaks while a little row of ducklings followed in their mother’s slipstream. That was the other thing you did here if you had children, fed the ducks. A small voice piped up behind her.
“You don’t give them bread.”
A little girl with a tiny blonde top knot on her head and pink glasses came to stand next to her.
“It makes them fat.”
“It’s all right- I haven’t got any.”
“I’ve got some barley.”
“Good. They like that do they?”
“Yes. Look.”
A tiny hand delved into the brown paper bag that she was carrying and she splayed out her fingers and sent a spray of grain out towards the ducks. They scattered to go after it, in waves of excitement, quacking loudly, sending the baby ducks rocking in their slipstream. The little girl made a tiny jump and clapped her hands, sending more barley onto the mud at the edge of the pond.
“Who told you about the bread?”
“My mummy.”
“My mummy” was hurrying across the grass towards them.
“Evie- I told you to wait for me. Come here.”
She didn’t say “I told you not to talk to strangers”, but she would do as soon as Holly was out of earshot.
“Sorry- is she bothering you?”
That was code for keep your hands off my daughter.
“No, it’s fine.”
Evie was pulled away to a safe distance and her cardigan was straightened. “My mummy” kept glancing back as though there had been some kind of incident. It was hard for Holly not to stare back and give her more evidence. Well perhaps she should remove all doubt. She stood up, stretched herself and sent a shout ricocheting across the water towards them, scattering the ducks.
It was deeply satisfying.

Short Story: A Dog’s Life.

The dog was good at working things out. He had to be. The two people he lived with made a lot of noises that he couldn’t understand. He could catch the odd word or phrase, especially if it related to him, but a lot of the time the sounds they made were just a blur. Usually when they were making sounds that was a good sign. It was only if the tone of the sounds changed that he might start to worry, especially if they got louder. Then he would go to his bed. Nothing had ever hurt him while he was in his bed. Sometimes when he did that, they would look at him, the tone of the noise would change and the bad sounds would stop. He had learned to watch. Movements, patterns of behaviour, reactions- a lot of what they did was predictable. He liked that. He could use it to his own advantage, be in the right place at the right time, sometimes even get food that wasn’t in his bowl. They were always good to him, they meant well, but it didn’t hurt to give them a nudge, just to speed them up a bit if what he wanted wasn’t happening fast enough. If he could just get eye contact with them, make them look at him, that helped. Their faces were so far away. Mostly things worked well, life was good, but this morning when he had gone to his bed the bad noises hadn’t stopped. Something was wrong. Very wrong. He slumped down in his bed to watch and wait.The woman was sorting out some food on the kitchen table. Cutting a roll in half, getting ham from the fridge, squeezing mayonnaise. She wasn’t being very careful. He shifted slightly so that he could see if anything dropped on the floor. She might bring a bit of ham to his bed for him when she had finished- sometimes she did that. He gave a small whine to remind her that he was there. She didn’t bring any.

Sarah had wondered whether she should bother to make James a sandwich but she had ended up getting the ham and the margarine out of the fridge as she always did. No cheese- because she would have to ask him about that. When he was in a bad mood it was best to lie low, just make the sandwich, leave it on the table, bagged up in the way that he liked it, and then keep well away. She did this quietly and calmly before allowing herself the satisfaction of throwing the knife into the sink from a distance. He could hear that and make of it what he liked. There were times when James just wouldn’t budge, wouldn’t explain, and she needed him to.

The dog’s ears twitched when he heard the metallic bang of the knife hitting the sink. He looked carefully at the woman’s face, showing the whites of his eyes, and beat the very end of his tail. It was fine, the woman was not angry and she was not looking at him. There was a whirring sound from upstairs but that didn’t matter- he didn’t know what it was but he had heard it plenty of times before. He kept very still for a few seconds just to make sure that nothing else was going to happen then laid his head back down with a small sigh.

James stared at himself grimly in the mirror as he shaved. The razor buzzed over his chin, comforting, reassuring, exact. If he stood here for long enough his chin would be perfectly shaved. This was something that he could get right. Dealing with Sarah was difficult sometimes. She rushed at things that he had said and made them mean things that he hadn’t expected. It was confusing. Why should you have to explain away something that you hadn’t meant in the first place? Mostly he just wanted to be left alone to get on with things in his own way and talk about them when he was ready. If he could just be allowed to do that it would all be fine. Sarah was always on her phone talking to her friends for what seemed like hours, texting people he didn’t know. That was worrying. What did she find to say? What did she say about him?

When the dog heard footsteps coming down the stairs he shifted himself into position so that he could move quickly if he had to. He was perfectly still, but ready to bolt. There was always a chance that he might be going out through the front door. It wasn’t likely at this time, especially when the man was carrying a bag, but any time the door was going to open it could happen. If not, then this was one of the times when he absolutely had to stay in his bed. He watched and waited.

Sarah was not afraid of James. Of course she wasn’t. He was in the kitchen for all of five seconds. A fierce burst of energy. Just long enough to stuff the sandwich in the front compartment of his bag and say thank you without meaning it. She watched him leave and listened for the bang of the front door. He was gone. Gone, taking all his anger and his grievances with him. She sat down at the kitchen table, breathing in the still air and giving herself space.

The dog came to stand beside the chair that Sarah was sitting on, lowering his bum and wriggling. He wanted a hug. She looked down at him stretching out a lazy arm. Once he had eye contact he felt brave. He put his front paws up onto the chair seat and stretched out his neck, demanding attention now, not asking. Slowly he felt her warm arms curve round his neck and her face was right next to his. He shivered slightly, licking and pushing, glancing slyly sideways to see if there was anything to eat on the table.
“Good dog.”
Copy of Fern - 2008 01 07 - 001