Short Story: A Perfect Baby Boy.

He was perfect. A perfect baby boy. They had told her that at the hospital and he really was. Not a mistake. Not a sign of a wasted life. Not something to be ashamed of or wished away like her mother had told her in the beginning. It was different now of course, now mam had seen him, but she hadn’t known that then when she was being shouted at and being sick every morning. People had said “Your mam will come round” and she had. She had come round as soon as she looked at him. It had been hard to start with. She had been frightened of everything, frightened he’d choke when she was feeding him, frightened he’d put dirty fingers in his mouth, frightened she’d hurt him when she was putting his nappy on- God knows how she’d thought she was going to do that- just scared stiff all the time basically. So many choices to make, so much rubbish advice, and so much hate. Not that people said much to her face, but there was always somebody to make sure it got back to her, and it hurt. Why couldn’t they see what she saw? Of course it had been a hard year, bloody hard, but she had done it. She had done it on her own and it was so worth it. What else was she ever going to have in her life that was perfect?

Sam didn’t have a dad. He had a father, course he had, but that wasn’t the same thing. She had run out of words to describe him. If it had been left to him Sam wouldn’t even be here. He had told her to “get rid” of him and no matter how much she had cried and said no he had kept saying it. That had gone on for two weeks and it had been worse than anything. Then he had shut up. No messages, no visits, nothing. When she saw him at sixth form he had blanked her. They weren’t doing the same courses so it had been easy. Some of his mates had smirked a bit when she walked past to start with but she had a big mouth on her when she chose to use it so they hadn’t smirked for long. These days she didn’t see any of them. They were just stupid kids anyway. They knew nothing about real life. A baby was the most real thing she had ever known. When Sam needed something he needed it now and there was only one person to do it for him. That was real and it mattered. The stuff they wasted their time on didn’t. Talking about Sam’s father was the only thing that still caused trouble with her mam. Her mam kept on about the CSA and how he should be made to look after his own. Well he had no right to go anywhere near a perfect little boy who he had wanted dead. She didn’t want his money, even if he had had some. Sam’s smiles were for her. When he took his first steps she would be the one to see it and she was going to make bloody sure his first word wasn’t dada. She could give him everything that he needed. All the love, everything. She had got her A levels out of the way, when they said she wouldn’t, and she would work as hard as it took to make a life for them both, do a degree by post or something when he was a bit older. Sam would know that she had done it for him. It would all be for him.

Of course Sam didn’t know that yet. He was sitting up in his stroller seat sucking the ear of his rabbit. His eyes were on her, big blue and still. She always put him where he could see what she was doing and he always watched. It made even boring stuff more interesting when he was watching her and she could tell him about it. She waved a bunch of socks at him.
Shall we put these on the radiator then? Shall we?”
He just looked.
Good boy.”
He liked being called a good boy. She could tell. He waved his rabbit in the air and dropped it on the floor. She made her silly voice and wrinkled her nose, putting her face right next to his.
What you done now?”
He chuckled.
She was just about to undo the clasp and get him out of his seat for a snuggle when the doorbell buzzed. They both stopped dead. It wouldn’t be her mam. She wasn’t coming until later on. She crept to the door of the flat and looked through the spyhole.
Shit.
It was Sam’s dad. He still had the same crummy jacket on. Suddenly his face lurched towards the spyhole and there was another loud knock that made her jump back from the door, heart beating fast. For a few seconds she felt like hiding away but she hadn’t hidden from anything in the last year and she wasn’t going to start hiding now, especially from a useless toerag like that. She decided to tell him to fuck off. For Sam.
When she opened the door he just stood there. She waited. He still stood there.
What?”
She didn’t say fuck off yet. She wanted to see him squirm.
He looked at the ground.
I just wondered how you were, like. And the kid.”
The kid? Of course he wouldn’t know would he- she’d refused to tell him. He’d only have forgotten anyway.
He’s got a name Ryan. Not that you need to know it.”
Give us a break will you Shell?”
You’ve not come near us. Not once. You knew he was born and you’ve not come near. Your kid and you couldn’t give a shit.”
That’s not fair.”
True though. Isn’t it?”
Suppose.”
Shell looked at him carefully. He was just a kid. Even now. He couldn’t even be bothered to fasten his trainers up and he still needed his mam to do his washing. He wasn’t even a bloke yet, let alone a dad.
Clueless. That’s what he was. Clueless.
What have you come for? I’ve nothing to say to you.”
Can I see Sam?”
So he did know Sam’s name then. Shell wondered how he’d found that out. She’d be having words with whoever told him if she found out who it was. Now was the time to say it, and she did. Very calmly.
Fuck off.”
She didn’t swear, ever, and he knew it.

Come on Shell.”
You heard.”
I’ve a right to see him.”
She shook her head very very slowly.
I have. I’m his dad.”
Since when? It takes more than getting a lass pregnant to be a dad.”
You won’t let me near.”
You’ve not tried.”
I’m trying now. Just gve us a chance eh? Let me see him.”
Wondering what on earth she was doing, Shell stood to one side and let him walk past. She followed him into the kitchen. Sam’s eyes widened as he noticed the stranger.
Don’t you touch him. I mean it. Go and sit in the living room and I’ll bring him through.”

Shell took Sam out of his seat and sat him on the edge of the kitchen table to brush his hair and straighten his socks. There was some goo round his mouth from sucking the rabbit so she wiped his mouth and tucked his collar in. There he was. Perfect. She carried him through and sat down with him perched on her knee. She flinched when she saw Ryan’s face light up as he looked at him.
He looks like me.”
Get lost. He doesn’t.”
He did though. He was the image of his father. Sam had the same mop of soft brown curls and the same rounded chin and now that the two of them were smiling at each other (that meant nothing of course- Sam smiled at everybody) she could see that they had the same slightly crooked smile.
“How is he?”

Shell frowned. Was he trying to say she couldn’t look after Sam? Cheek.
He’s got everything he needs. Everything.”
You’re managing then?”
Shell wasn’t having that.
Of course I am. I had no choice did I? I’m a good mother. Ask anybody.”
He was taken aback at that.
I didn’t mean to say you weren’t. I was just asking.”
Well don’t bother.”
There was a long silence. They both watched intently while Sam pulled off his socks and put them in his mouth.
Everything goes in his mouth.”
They both smiled, but at Sam, not at each other.
He’s a little chubster.”
I don’t let him eat crap.”
Shell had had enough grief from the health visitor about that. Sam was just fine. Perfect.
Can I hold him?”
No.”
She caught sight of Ryan’s face.
No. Sorry. I can’t let you. You’ll drop him.”
He wouldn’t drop him, Shell knew that, but Ryan wasn’t going to get the chance.
I’m not stupid.”
Right.”
I’m not.”
Well you wanted to see him. You’ve seen him now.”
Ryan started to talk quietly, mumbling his words and looking at his feet.

I wanted to come before, only I didn’t know what to say. I’ve no money, not yet, nothing I can give you, and I knew you wanted rid of me. You’d never have listened. I’d no idea what to say. My mates were saying all sorts and it was doing my head in. I wanted to come.”
Shell cradled Sam in her arms as he dropped off to sleep and stared at Ryan calmly.
You wanted Sam dead.”
I didn’t.”
Oh you did. Get rid of it you told me. It.”
I didn’t know what I was saying.”
“Seemed clear enough to me. Look at him Ryan. You wanted this little boy dead.”
“I didn’t.”

Sorry?”
“I’d no idea……. it wasn’t like seeing him now. I was panicking. Everybody was talking stuff at me, your mother, my mother, mates, everybody. I just wanted to run.”

And you did.”
I could only see one way out.”
And so could I. Only it wasn’t the same one.”
You’ve no idea what it was like.”
Nor have you.”
Can I come and see him again?”
“Maybe. But not here.”

Ryan’s face cleared a little and he leaned forward. We could take him out maybe?”
We? There was no we. Or at least only with Sam.
Ryan I don’t know. I’ve Sam to think about. I don’t want him upset. We’re all right together, we’re more than all right. There are things I want to do. We’re better on our own me and Sam, just the two of us. You’ll have to go now. It’s time for him to go down for his nap. I don’t want hassle.”
Is that what I’d be then? Hassle?”
It’s what I’ve seen so far.”
“I just want to see him that’s all, help out when I can. I won’t get in the way. I’m his dad.”

You’re his father. You’ve a long way to go before you’re his dad.”
I can try.”
Is my mobile number still on your phone?”
He nodded. Shell frowned. Well at least that was something. She had deleted his number from hers long ago.
Send me a text.”

Short Story: Bistro Rage.

To start with Louise had been just a little bit suspicious when her son announced that he was going to take her out to dinner before he went back to uni. This was understandable given that she had never even heard him use the phrase, “take you out to dinner”. However, he obviously knew what it meant as they were now sitting in the tiny bistro down in town, pasta had been ordered and there were two large glasses of red wine already sitting on the scrubbed pine table. This was where his father had told her that he was leaving, but Matthew wouldn’t know that. It was all very strange. She wondered if he realised that when you offered to take someone out that usually meant that you paid. He was still wearing his grey hoodie and his t shirt which had once been bright blue until the colour washed out, so at least that was reassuring. She wondered what to say to him. What she wanted to say was, “are you going to have a haircut before you go back?”, but that would be unwise. Unlike his sister Matthew didn’t really do talking. Nor did Louise come to that, not when it came to Matthew. She had lost count of the conversations where she had smiled and bitten her tongue while friends waxed lyrical about their kids. It wasn’t very promising. He didn’t look as though he wanted to be there. Nor did she.
“So. What’s your news?”
“Dunno really.”
“You all ready to go back?”
“Suppose.”
He wasn’t. Louise knew that. A few hours before she was due to drive him back up the M1 the chaos would start. There would be noise, questions and complaints and she would end up finding an excuse to walk down the road to the shop, just to get away from it. If she offered help she would be rejected and if she didn’t she would just sit there listening to the sound of his frustration and hoping that he didn’t break anything. When they eventually set off, a lot later than expected, meaning that she would have to drive back in the dark, she would have to keep her mouth shut. If she didn’t she would be told that it was her fault because she should have helped. Louise adored her son and he took advantage of that fact mercilessly. Things came easily to him, they always had.
“Did you get all your work done?”
It was a stupid question. Louise knew that the instant it was out of her mouth. He hadn’t done his work. He never did until there was absolutely no alternative. When was she going to stop doing the worrying for him? He was very bright, he had always scraped through, and one day when he found something that really fired him up he would do a lot better than that. Like his father had.
He looked at her warily.
“I got an extension for my essay.”
Louise decided to be positive. This didn’t usually work with Matthew, but there was always a first time and anyway, what were they supposed to do? Sit there in silence looking at each other?
“That’s good then. This is really nice isn’t it, some time together?”
“Yeah.”
“I always like coming here.”
He nodded. Louise smiled at him. God it was hard work. He smiled back and for a few seconds she could see his father. Damn.
“What are you having again?”
“Spaghetti carbonara.”
They both knew that she hadn’t forgotten.
Finally the food arrived. They got on with eating it, relieved to have a distraction.
“Is your pasta all right?”
”It’s ok.”
“You sure you don’t want some garlic bread?”
He gave her a pitying look as though wanting garlic bread was the stupidest thing in the whole world, ever. Louise sighed. When he was small it had always been the only thing he would eat when they came in here. Rachel would be happy to wolf down anything that was put in front of her and he would just sit there, nibbling at a single triangle of bread and staring onto space. If it wasn’t McDonalds he wasn’t interested.
“Sorry. You’d said.”
“Chill out mum.”
Chill out? It sometimes seemed as if chilling out was the only thing her son ever did. What Matthew didn’t realise was that the only reason he could indulge in so much bloody chilling out was because Louise ran around after him, quietly keeping everything in the house under control. Of course he could chill out, so long as she made sure the fridge was full, his clothes were clean and he was ferried wherever he needed to go. She placed a piece of chicken carefully in her mouth before she said something that she would regret.
“I wanted to ask you something.”
“Oh right. What?”
Louise did her best to sound unconcerned, even though Matthew asking her about something usually ended badly.
“It’s about my student loan.”
“What about it? I thought you had sorted all that out?”
Her voice rose slightly and he heard the panic in it.
“I did. It’s fine. Only I don’t think its going to last.”
Louise put down her fork and spoon. The panic inside her was straining like an over excited pair of dogs on the end of a thin leash. She forced herself to speak slowly and quietly.
“How do you mean, not going to last?”
“Well I’ve had to buy clothes and books and stuff.”
Clothes? What clothes? He only ever wore that grey hoodie.
“I told you to put aside what you needed for food and rent and bus fares. You have to budget.”
“I can’t budget if I don’t have enough money.”
“You do have enough money. You’re going to need to get a job over the summer. Surely you can manage until then?”
Matthew shrugged.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I was wondering if you’d be able to lend me a bit. Just to tide me over.”
“A bit?”
“A few hundred should be enough.”
Another few hundred to add to the few hundred that had been put in his bank account to “get him through to Christmas” and the endless small handouts, unnoticed and unappreciated, the credit which had been put on his phone, the huge shops at Sainsbury’s each time he went back to uni and the new winter boots. All right, those boots had never been off his feet since he walked out of the shop but that wasn’t the point. Responsibility was the point, and every bit of that still seemed to be down to Louise. Perhaps it was her fault. She had been too soft on him, too ready to give in. Some of the mothers who cooed happily over the fact that their children were back at home after they had finished their degree would probably think that she should be glad to do it. They even boasted about it. You never stop being a mother they would say. Well you know what, perhaps you should. Exactly how long was it before your children left home? He should be asking his father to chip in. The father who could do no wrong in Matthew’s eyes just because he made sure he never had to say no to anything. Since he left he had turned up once a fortnight over the years to take Matt out, and when he didn’t turn up it had been Louise who had to deal with the tears. Lately there had been no tears, just paint-balling, the Top Gear Roadshow, and that ridiculous park where there were tanks they could drive. Male bonding they had called it. More like a vain attempt to make up for the fact that, in day to day terms, Matthew’s father had done almost nothing to help for years. It all cost money, and that money could have gone towards Matthew’s living expenses. Louise wouldn’t have minded driving a tank of her own so long as she could direct it exactly where she wanted. Had Matthew asked his father for money? Was he contributing anything extra now? Of course he wasn’t.
At the thought of Matthew’s father, the thin leash which had been holding the panicking dogs of Helens mind back for almost nineteen years snapped without warning, and in seconds they were charging around out of control, right in the middle of a crowded bistro, worrying everything in sight, slobbering and knocking things over. Or to put it another way, Louise lost it. “You selfish little toad! Exactly how much more do you want out of me? Nearly eighteen God forsaken years I’ve spoon fed you every damn thing you wanted. Everything. Whatever you asked for, you got. No questions asked and no thanks. Well you know what? I’m questioning it right now. I’m questioning the fact that I seem to have brought up a self obsessed bundle of entitlement who thinks that the world revolves around him. Who do you think paid the price for the fact that you’re sitting there now, making demands and expecting to get just what you want yet again? It certainly wasn’t you. Well there will be no more bail outs. No free rides. From now on you can stand on your own two feet. You’ll find them on the ends of your legs and it’s about time you used them. You may think that your mother owes you a living but the world sure as hell doesn’t so the sooner you get used to that the better.”
She sat there, out of breath shaking slightly, amazed at her own daring.
“Are you all right mum? You’re not saying much.”
“What?”
It was only when she heard Matthew’s voice that she realised her right arm had swept her bowl of pasta off the table and she was standing up. It had smashed on the floor and shattered into a dozen pieces spreading tiny dots of tomato based sauce over the elderly couple on the next table. Louise hadn’t even seen it. She had been too busy making noise inside her own head. If they could have heard her thoughts the perfect loving mother scam which she had been operating for all these years would have been blown right out of the water for good and there would have been no going back. There were a few moments of tense silence followed by a rush of eager chatter as people went back to eating their meals, discussing the floor show. The elderly couple were being very nice about it, too nice really, and the mess was already being cleared. Doctors were being mentioned. A few people looked down at their plates in embarrassment. One woman in the far corner started to clap and had to be hastily shut up by her husband. It was the single most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to her in her entire life. The inside of her head felt like the exploding pattern of tomato sauce on the floor which was now being quickly erased by a mop. She wondered whether she should try to help. The head waiter rushed over. People stopped eating again and watched, hoping for act two.
“Is there anything I can do for you madam? I see you’ve had an accident.”
Helen smiled quietly.
“No. I’m fine thank you. Absolutely fine. We’re about to leave. You can give the bill to my son. He’s paying. And you can add the cost of a new bowl and a large tip to the waitress who has to clear up the mess.”
She stood up, gave her son a single pleading glance, waved her fingers and swept out, alone, into the cool night air with all eyes on her. The tiny bell fixed to the top of the door tinkled happily in the silence after the sound of the slam.
Matthew caught the eye of the head waiter.
“I’m afraid my mum has just gone off with my bank card and I haven’t got any cash. What do I do?”

Short Story: A Marvellous Party.

“Oh my God he’s brought the Ferrari.”
Delia half closed her eyes and waved an arm towards the drive. Everyone in the room stared through the open patio doors and across the garden towards the far end of the driveway. If she hadn’t pointed it out nobody would even have registered the colour of the car let alone the make.
“I told him not to.”
At least half of those listening immediately thought “I bet you did” but none of them said it. They should have done, Rachel thought sourly. Somebody needed to break through the web of self justifying twaddle which Delia had been spinning around herself all night. She wasn’t consistent, that was the annoying thing, she contradicted herself all the time, yet nobody ever picked her up on it. She was allowed to say what she liked, claim what she liked, and fill the room with hot air about herself. Why were some people allowed to do that and others not? The woman wasn’t fooling anybody. Every single person at this party knew that most of what she said was a giant web of candy floss with just enough truth in it to help it cling onto the stick. Nothing more. All right, people would be telling each other as much later, but just this once it would be good if that happened right now.
Derek, Delia’s husband, had crossed the lawn and he was making his way loudly across the room, heading towards the drinks table. You would need to point out the Ferrari if you were married to someone like Derek. He needed more hair, less paunch and an honest friend to tell him that he should never, ever, put those trousers on again. He grabbed a glass and poured himself a large whisky from the bottle he was carrying while his wife watched sourly.
“Bloody hell. Looks like I’ll be driving home.”
He shook his head.
“In the Ferrari? You must be joking.”
She smiled thinly.
“Whatever.”
Rachel walked over to the table and refilled her glass of red wine. Derek looked her up and down, decided that she was of no interest, and wandered off, leaving her standing so close to Delia that she was going to have to say something.
“Good party.”
Delia rolled her eyes.
“Oh yes. Lara always pushes the boat out.”
That was why Delia had been cranking up the volume on the showing off of course. Lara and her husband had money, plenty of it, and they liked to make the point very loudly each time that they had a party. Not with words, that would have been vulgar, but with tangible objects that drew attention to themselves quite easily on their own. Objects like a pair of hallmarked silver salad servers thrown artlessly into a heap of rocket and watercress, a little Bernard Leach bowl filled with kumquats, and the kind of wine that was never, ever, on offer for a fiver a bottle in a supermarket. Kumquats………….. who the hell ate kumquats? The only time that Lara had ever needed to blow her own trumpet was when she had picked up a little Chinese blue and white bowl with a crack in it and explained to Rachel that it had been dredged up from the bottom of the sea as part of the Nanking cargo, worried that it might look as if she were serving crisps in a cracked old bowl. She hadn’t been too pleased when Rachel had known what the Nanking cargo was. Oh well, she had better say something to Delia.
“You look very nice.”
“Thank you. So do you.”
Delia passed back the compliment quickly and looked down at her plum coloured, crushed velvet dress. She had lost a bit of weight, the long slim skirt now hung perfectly, and she would have liked to be told so.
“This is vintage of course. Ossie Clark.”
“Really.”
“It was a present. I’d have preferred one of his trouser suits at the time but what can you say? Lovely, lovely man.”
Rachel shook her head. What can you say? Absolutely nothing in the face of a blatant lie. Clearly she was expected to take in the hint that it had been given by the designer himself and say nothing more. That wasn’t going to happen this time.
“How did you get to know Ossie Clark then?”
Rachel waited, enjoying the moment of panic as it flashed across Delia’s face. Her bluff had been called. Oh she might have seen him at some event or other in her modelling days, maybe even spoken to him, but that was all.
“Oh, you know, around.”
She gave Rachel the benefit of a bright empty smile.
“As you do.”
“Yes.”
Rachel looked at her sharply.
“He’s been dead for a while now.”
Delia frowned, trying to work out whether this was an indication that Rachel didn’t believe what she had just said. If she tried to justify herself it would mean admitting that she was indeed old enough to claim acquaintance in her youth with someone who had been dead for maybe fifteen years. She didn’t want to go there.
Rachel enjoyed her moment then let her off the hook, enjoying toying with her and seeing the half hidden relief.
“I’ve no memory for dates.”
“Quite.”
Things were going well. Rachel decided that it was time to play her trump card.
“How is Hugo?”
She was almost ashamed of herself. Almost. It was too easy a hit.
“Oh he’s doing very well. He’s starting his own business down in Southampton. So proud of him.”
“Excellent.”
There was a short silence. It wasn’t excellent of course. If it had been then Delia would have been offering up more details. The fact that Hugo was hanging around a port town made Rachel wonder if this new business might be along the same lines as the last one. It had taken some very clever editing from Delia to make that debacle sound like a success.
“Miranda is out in the Gambia at the moment. Doing VSO.”
“How brave. So difficult for them to get a start in life these days isn’t it.”
Delia had effortlessly managed to turn a gap year before going up to Oxford to study law into a sign of failure. How did she do that?
“She’s loving it.”
“I thought she was applying to university?”
Big mistake there Delia, do your research, Rachel thought sourly. This one is going straight into the back of the net.
“She goes up to Oxford next October. Newnham college. On a scholarship.”
Delia stared down into her glass of wine.
“Very good.”
“Isn’t it. We’re so pleased.”
They beamed at each other sending out waves of fake goodwill and mutual congratulations.
“Of course Hugo could have gone up to Durham. If he’d worked.”
“I’m sure he could.”
It was unlikely. Years of prep school followed by an expensive minor public school which Delia and Derek could ill afford had failed to uncover any evidence of serious potential in Hugo. Both of the women knew that very well, even as they were nodding earnestly at each other. Delia looked over Rachel’s shoulder. She could see Derek talking to a young blonde woman in the far corner of the room. He was standing too close and she was laughing.
“Well, nice to catch up. Better circulate.”
“Yes. Speak soon.”
Rachel picked up a small piece of toast with pate and cucumber on it and looked around wearily.  All over the house and garden it was the same. As she wandered around idly, nursing her glass, she could hear snatches of conversation.
“It’s a wonderful house. Jacobean encased in Georgian.”
“Of course I’m glad we went out there when we did. You wouldn’t want to holiday there now.”
“We’ve been given a backstage pass. Which is nice.”
“I don’t know where she gets it from. It’s certainly not from me.”
“Yes, walking already. Unbelievable.”
So many perfect lives. So many perfect people. An endlessly shifting kaleidoscope of carefully edited existence. Words glittered out, advertising themselves, sending out their signals of success like a turning twisting lighthouse blinking out across an empty darkened sea. No reality. No depth. No honesty. It was time to leave. Rachel picked out Lara’s dark chignon across the room and went over to say goodbye.
“I must go I’m afraid. Have to be up early in the morning.”
Lara turned and held out her arms for a hug.
“Oh, such a shame.”
Rachel accepted the hug and drew away.
“Thank you so much.”
“Oh it’s a pleasure. Thank you for coming. I hope you’ve enjoyed it- even without Jonathan. So sorry he couldn’t be with us.”
Jonathan had refused point blank to get up from the computer and leave the house. The word wanker had been mentioned in connection with Lara’s husband.
“Oh it’s just a twenty four hour bug. I’m sure he’ll be fine soon.”
“Give him our love.”
“I will.”
“And you haven’t been too lonely?”
Lara made a concerned face and put her head on one side. Rachel shook her head.
“Oh no. It’s been marvellous. Really.”

Short story: Past Perfect.

Elizabeth recognised Luke straight away, even after twenty years, even in a crowded café. He was sitting in the corner, the ghost of the beautiful young man who had broken her heart all those years ago, waiting quietly and looking at a copy of the Yorkshire Post which he had taken from the counter. She knew that’s where he had probably got it from because she did the same herself every Thursday when she came in for lunch with her friend Julie. He was sitting at the same table that she had sat at with him all those years ago. She wondered if he remembered that. She stood still for a moment to give herself a chance to have a good look at him. He had changed, of course, more flesh, less hair and the beginnings of a double chin. That skinny suppleness which she had admired had gone and the shine on the hair which had once been dark brown was no longer there, but she could still see him as he had been in spite of that. She could still feel the same irresistible pull of his charm. She hadn’t expected that. God help her when he put down the newspaper and directed it at her. She gave a quick sigh, braced her shoulders and walked up to the table. It was the cricket report that he was looking at. Well it would be, wouldn’t it.
“Hi. Sorry I’m late.”
She wasn’t late, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say. He put down the newspaper and grinned at her.
“Hi. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine.”
“Great to see you after all this time.”
“I know. Can’t believe it.”
They told each other that they were looking well. Elizabeth sat down opposite him quickly, avoiding the possibility of a welcoming hug, and smiled back. She wondered how they could get past the meaningless pleasantries and prevent this meeting from becoming a dreadful mistake. She had told herself that after so long, since they both had families of their own, it was just going to be just a harmless piece of nostalgia but now that Luke was sitting in front of her she realised that she wanted more than that. There was unfinished business. Even after all this time.
Their three years together were still vivid in her memory, a time full of light and colour. She had never managed to live her life with that kind of intensity since. The simplest things had mattered just because he was there. She wanted to ask him about it, wanted to reassure herself that he remembered too, but instead she looked at the menu. She knew exactly what was on it but she gripped the piece of laminated card tightly and stared at the familiar list, giving herself time to breathe.
“What are you going to have?”
“Ham and cheese toastie and a cappuchino.”
He had answered very quickly. Elizabeth wondered how long he had been sitting there.
“I’ll have a bacon muffin and a latte. You have to order at the counter.”
He got up, stretching his back.
“I know. I remember. I’ll get this.”

She looked at his back as he waited for the order, wondering if she would have recognised him from that angle. Probably not, but she would still have known the loose easy going stride as he walked over to the counter. Suddenly she could see a scruffy young guy leaning carelessly against a bus stop, waiting for her to pick him up, a freeze frame of a moment from twenty years ago which had been waiting, locked inside her head, to jump out at her and reduce her to a quivering young woman of twenty three again. Where had that come from?

When he sat down again the real talking started. They began with families. This was safe ground, a way of finding connections and demonstrating the fact that they had made separate lives, lives which had survived each other. They had a lot in common. Two sons who were both heading off to university in three months time, a love of Nick Hornby’s books, a delight in gardening which they would both have found ridiculous twenty years ago and the same trouble with builders. They had both finally managed to make that trip to Morocco….. just not together. It was easy to find things to talk about because she remembered exactly what he liked. She remembered everything.
He picked up his toastie. She had always liked the uninhibited way that he enjoyed his food. She watched as he bit into it. He saw her looking and grinned.
“They still do OK sandwiches here then.”
“They do.”
Elizabeth remembered the first thing that she had ever cooked for him. She was a good cook now, a very good one, but twenty years ago it had been quite different. She had made some God awful potato salad- I mean  how could you get that wrong?- and he had eaten it all. A few weeks later he had admitted that he didn’t even like mayonnaise.
“Do you still come in here then?”
“Every Thursday.”
That must sound sad. Mind you he’d ended up in Milton Keynes. Still she felt as though she should have done more, been somewhere. She wanted to impress him. She could tell him about John of course, but women who went on and on about their husbands were annoying. You ought to have something to say about yourself, not your husband and she hadn’t, not really. There were plenty of other things that she could have said. She wanted him to know what it had felt like after he walked out, how long it had taken her to get back on her feet, how much it had hurt. She wanted him to know that after she had smiled and waved at him from her car that day, returning his greeting, she had gone back to her flat and fallen apart. She wanted him to know that she had never stopped loving him.
He smiled at her.
“That’s nice. With John? That’s your husbands name isn’t it?”
“Yes, I mean no, that is his name but I come here to meet a friend.”
“Cool.”
He still said that then…………
“Of course John and I do go out together, meals and things.”
Elizabeth didn’t want him to think she wasn’t happy. She was happy, of course she was. She wondered if Luke was happy with his partner. There had just been one thing that he said in the email………
“That’s the best thing about the kids getting older isn’t it? You get your life back.”
“I suppose you do. Miss those days though. They’re soon gone.”
She would have liked to have children with Luke, not that she would change her own children now of course, and John had been a great dad, but there would have been something very special about sharing that with Luke. Back then they had been too young. It had never been mentioned and she hadn’t suggested it, afraid that the answer might have been no. Not a no to having children obviously, since he’d had two since, but a no to having children with her. She had seen the end coming right from the start, looking back. Her eyes had been wide open.
“Miss them? Not sure I do miss them being small myself, but I try not to admit that. It was hard work.”
“You will do. Wait till your Jack goes off to Uni. I’m dreading the day our Simon leaves.”
“Suppose.”
Elizabeth frowned. Something about that word suppose reminded her what a complete waste of space Luke could be.
“How are they?”
“Oh they’re fine. I just try not to get in the way. Let their mother sort it out.”
Yes, Elizabeth thought. I bet you do.
“Why did you suggest meeting?”
“Oh, curiosity, old times sake. You know. Does there have to be a reason?”
“After twenty years? I think there probably does.”
“Well why did you come?”
She had come because she had wanted to see him again, to be in the same room, breathe the same air. She had come because he had made her feel like nobody else ever had, or ever would, but there was no point frightening him to death by telling him that. Also she had her pride. She wasn’t having him going back to his beloved in Milton Keynes thinking that she had wasted the last twenty years sighing over him. Anyway- she hadn’t, or not very often anyway.
“Just curiosity, like you said. Catch up. See how you were doing.”
He smiled at her. Elizabeth looked down, avoiding his eyes.
“We’ve done all right. Both of us.”
She wished that he wouldn’t say us like that. They hadn’t been “us” for a very long time.
“Yes we have. We’ve both done very well, considering.”
“Considering what?”
She had let the word slip out without thinking. Yes she had done well considering that she had sworn never to get hurt like that again. She had done well to be brave enough to trust someone else. Someone who meant what he said.
“Well when you get to our age you see people facing all kinds of stuff that you never think about in your twenties.”
She noticed the way he flinched at the words “our age”. He obviously still had delusions of youth. He really shouldn’t be wearing that jacket. He wasn’t the kind of man who was going to age well. Middle age was all about coping when life got all too real and earnest, not skating over its surface and pretending that you were never going to fall over.
“You sound like the wife.”
That was what finally made up her mind. The wife. A person reduced to a useful appendage. A convenience.
“She has a name.”
“I know. Use it all the time.”
He thought that was funny. She smiled tightly back at him while he laughed. Bad jokes were much more palatable coming out of the mouth of a rather gorgeous twenty three year old than when you heard them coming from the mouth of someone who really should have spent the intervening years learning better.
“Very funny. Anyway, I had better get going. Lovely to see you again. Thank you for lunch.”
She leaned forward as he stood up and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“Send me that facebook friend request sometime.”
Elizabeth took one last long look at his face as she pulled away from him and the ghost of the rather gorgeous twenty three year old faded back into the past leaving only an ordinary middle aged man, a man like any other. She realised that she had got what she came for.

Short story: The Biscuit Police.

She had just finished clearing the breakfast things into the dishwasher when he came back down the stairs sooner than she had expected. He grabbed an apple, pushed it down into his bag and caught her eye. She didn’t say anything, she knew better, but he recognised her look.
“What?”
“Where are you going?”
“Out.”
He turned away and she glared at his back. That wasn’t enough information. He knew that. All he had to do was offer a few crumbs of information to keep her quiet but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“Just out.”
Two could play at that game. She knew exactly what to say to wind him up, so she said it.
“Can you bring back some milk, if you go near a shop?”
There was no reply, just a few quick footsteps down the hall, the slam of a door and he was gone. The house breathed a sigh of relief and so did she. His presence was overwhelming, charging the air around him with frustration and uncertainty. She could do without it.

At least now she could have a biscuit. She took a Sainsbury’s double chocolate chip cookie out of the packet and laid it carefully on the table, placing it on a piece of kitchen roll. If there was nothing to wash up afterwards it would feel less like she’d eaten one. She allowed herself to savour it very slowly with the last of the breakfast coffee, while the clock on the cooker ticked over the minutes and thought about the end of her marriage. The thought had been a long time coming and her husband wasn’t going to like it. He might behave like marriage was nothing more than an annoying inconvenience but that wasn’t how he felt. She had always known that it was her love and attention that kept him going, however little he managed to show it. Two things had put the thought into her mind. The first was a quiet authoritative voice on the radio an hour earlier informing her that sixty eight per cent of divorces were now initiated by women. It had been more than she had expected, and apparently plenty of them were middle aged. Many of them had happy lives afterwards too and never looked back. It made it seem possible, more than that it made it seem like a good idea. She found herself thinking about the wedding portrait in the front room. Every time she had looked at it over the years, or picked it up to dust it, the young woman in the ivory satin dress with perfect hair (hair that had never looked that before or since) had seemed to slip further and further away into the past until she now almost seemed like someone else. She wondered whether that distant young woman would have been happy with the life that she had ended up with- ended up with, not chosen- and she was only able to shake her head and frown. She didn’t know, and somehow not knowing was no longer good enough.

She put the bag of biscuits back into the biscuit barrel, folding the top over carefully so that it looked exactly the same as it had done. There were two left. If there hadn’t been two left she wouldn’t have been brave enough to eat one. She had done that once before and been called selfish and greedy. He had bought them himself and so he thought of them as his personal property to be given or withheld as the mood took him, unlike the rest of the food which she brought home day after day, week after week, food which he could take whenever he wanted to.
She sat back down at the table quietly, rehearsing sentences in her head.
“We need to talk.”
No good. Everybody said that, almost every soap character she could think of had said it at some point. She had never watched that kind of vacant television drama and she was damned if she was going to take part in one. Anyway he would think that she wanted to talk about something practical, plumbing or something, and he would tell her that it could wait.
“Now that the children have left home.”
No. He would think that she was going to suggest a holiday and object to spending the money, and it was five years since Jonathan had left home. A bit late to be mentioning that.
“I’m very unhappy.”
He already knew that, or he should do. It didn’t seem to make much difference. There was no point telling him what he should be able to see with his own eyes.
“I’m leaving you.”
That was better. It was definite and factual and it sounded authoritative, a clear statement of intent. Later that day she would try that one out. See what he had to say. It was about time he said something.

She was upstairs when she heard the bang of the door that told her he was back home. Dinner was in the oven, after all you had to eat whatever happened and the pork chops had been bought. The table was set, there was nothing to tell him that there was anything wrong. When she came back into the kitchen he was already opening the biscuit barrel.
“Your dinner’s ready.”
“I’m having a biscuit.”
“Yes.”
“You’ve had one.”
“What are you? The biscuit police?”
There had been a time when that would have made him laugh. They would have built up a whole story together, inventing sentencing guidelines and imagining ginger hobnobs wearing tiny policeman’s helmets and waving truncheons. It would have been fun and she would have loved him for it. He looked at her blankly.
“What’s the matter with you? It’s a bloody biscuit.”
Dinner was put on the table and eaten in silence, mainly because there was only one thing that she felt like saying and now that he was sitting in front of her she couldn’t quite bring herself to say it. Several times her lips opened to form the word I and her lips began to form the shape of a m sound but the breath wouldn’t come. Once those words were said, flying free in the still air of the kitchen, there would be no going back. Once they were spoken there might be nothing left but pain. The weight of tightness in her chest belonged to someone carrying an explosive secret, someone who was about to blow apart two peoples lives with three simple words.

She took a deep breath and detonated the charge.

Short Story: The Plain Truth.

Kate knew that she was plain. Her legs were not quite long enough, her hair was fairly dull, and she was just a bit more solid around the middle than she should be. Even if she bought herself a pack of hair dye, ate celery for a month, and learned to walk in heels she would still be plain. She knew that because she had tried it, and when she looked at herself in the mirror all that she had seen was a plain woman who had done her best to disguise the fact. Plainness seemed to run right through her as if she were a stick of rock. It no longer worried her, perhaps it never had, but it seemed to worry other people if she mentioned it, especially women. She only had to mention her plainness to unleash a torrent of criticism. She would be told to “sort herself out” “stop putting herself down” or “get a grip”. Then they would offer to take her shopping, help her with her make up or henna her hair, which just proved that they could see what she saw after all. They just didn’t like it being mentioned. So Kate learned to keep quiet. In this way her plainness had become a well kept secret, shared only with her mirror. Until now.

“Now” was a bit of a problem, because Kate was about to be married and all that anyone seemed to want to talk about was what she was going to look like, especially the dress. The first decision that she had made had been easy. Forty eight year olds without waists didn’t wear white meringues. They didn’t wear anything white at all if it were visible. So that was decided. Her first instinct had been to wear black, as she usually did, but sadly the one colour you were most definitely not allowed to walk down the aisle in, even if it were only the woefully short aisle of a city registry office, was black. Black was fine for any other occasion, any other day, but not your wedding day. So she had fretted.They had kept telling her not to worry, that every bride looks beautiful on her big day, but she didn’t believe them. She had a nasty feeling that she might be the first to buck the trend. Finally she had been persuaded into a wedding shop and a dress had been chosen and altered. Considerably altered. You could probably make a whole new dress from what they had hacked off the bottom. It was meant to be for a bridesmaid but she didn’t care. It was chosen. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to see it again, let alone put it on, but in less than an hour she was going to be staring at herself in a full length mirror and she would be wearing it.

John wouldn’t mind what she wore. He would just be grateful that she was there on the day, walking towards him. Kate had thought something was wrong with him on the night that he had proposed. He had sat opposite her in the restaurant, miserable and monosyllabic. She had kept asking him if the food was all right and in the end he had snapped at her. Finally, in the middle of the car park he had come out with it and she had said yes. In the middle of a dark December car park at quarter past eleven the sun had suddenly come out, dazzling the stars and it had seemed like endless summer. No, John would say that she looked nice, and unlike a lot of the others who would say that, he would mean it.

The bridal shop was up a steep flight of stairs so by the time that Kate arrived at the top, out of breath and slightly red in the face, the smarmily condescending sales assistant already had a head start.
“Take a seat for a moment. I’ll bring your dress out. There was quite a lot to do on it, wasn’t there, but this is your final fitting so I think you’ll find it’s all as it should be now.”
She turned back towards a young woman with long shiny black hair and a waist that a wasp would envy who was wearing an ivory pile of beaded cream silk organza which skimmed the ground and high satin heels. She was trying on a veil and the assistant was enjoying herself, flattering and preening.
“Perfect! It could have been made for you.”
Kate watched, trying to enjoy the young woman’s pleasure as she swung round to see a side view of her dress in the mirror. It was perfect. They wouldn’t be hacking any bits out of that one. There wasn’t a breath of air anywhere between the young woman’s body and that dress and not a single bulge. If only.
A few minutes later her own dress was fetched out, hidden under a plastic sheet, the deep dark blue of the thin velvet just visible.
“Would you like to go through and slip it on.”
Kate nodded and walked through the archway into the changing area. The dark haired young woman rushed past her with her friend, smiling radiantly. She had had a wonderful time.
Grim faced Kate pulled her own dress over her head and started to struggle with the tiny buttons down the back. Dear God, please let it fit this time.
“Let me help you madam.”
Madam. She hadn’t called the last customer madam. Kate allowed the woman’s carefully manicured scarlet tipped hands to finish buttoning the dress before being directed back outside, towards the mirror. For a short moment she put her head down and closed her eyes. When she opened them the woman’s face was a fixed parody of admiration.
“You look stunning!”
Yeah right. Kate copied the woman’s smile half heartedly. The dress did look better than she had feared. She definitely looked better than she usually looked. Most women might hope for more than that on their wedding day but as a piece of damage limitation the dress was a minor miracle. It was a good choice. She knew that she was expected to say thank you now, so she did. The woman looked a little disappointed. There was a game to be played here and Kate wasn’t helping her.
“You must be so happy. How long is it to go now?”
“Two and a half weeks.”
“How exciting!”
Kate examined herself blankly in the mirror.
“Yes it is.”
“You must be thrilled after…………….”
The assistant’s voice tailed off. Kate realised that the woman had no idea how to finish the sentence that she had started. What had she been going to say? ……..after all this time?” “…..after having such a difficult time finding something that would suit you?” ……..”after  thinking you’d missed the boat?”
“Yes I am. Absolutely thrilled. Shall I take this off now?”
The woman’s face fell. She had wanted more ceremony, more ritual, more relish.
“Of course.”
Instantly Kate’s eyes left the mirror and she escaped into the changing room. In no time she was back in her soft cord jeans and loose top and feeling like herself again. She walked back into the room full of empty glamour, ready to take back her dress and her pride and get out of there. The card was zapped, the dress handed over in a smart stiff bag, and with a final quick thank you that left the woman in the shop dissatisfied and disappointed she was out of there.

She flung herself down onto a concrete seat in the middle of the main street to catch her breath, clinging onto her bag and already regretting the massive hole that its contents had made in her current account. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why did a wedding make you buy into a lot of stuff that you had ridiculed and outgrown years before? It was the middle of lunchtime and there were people everywhere. She watched them carefully as they ate, talked, ran, pushed or dawdled their way past. The whole magnificent spectacle of humanity. It was all there. All ages, all shapes, all sizes. And most of it wasn’t pretty. A man whose tee shirt struggled to cover his hairy belly dashed out of MacDonalds already biting into his Quarter pounder with cheese. An elderly woman struggled past whose feet were swollen and biting painfully into the tops of her shoes. A thin pale young woman pulling a crying child along by the hand bit her lip anxiously. Not one of them would have looked right smiling out of the pages of a wedding magazine. Not one. Where did they find these people with their plastic smiles and bodies that looked like they had been shaped by a scalpel?  Maybe they only existed within the private halls of Cinderella’s palace. Maybe they only existed in the fevered brain of a picture editor and his image enhancements. Maybe they didn’t exist at all. In front of her was the real world where she had to live and work every day, and these were the people who lived in it. A rich tapestry of human life who were imperfect, just like her. Flawed, insecure, vulnerable, but getting out there and living their lives with as much love and courage as they could manage to find on any given day. Maybe she could manage to get through her big day after all. Maybe she could even manage to enjoy it. She got up, swinging her bag into the air, and headed towards Cooplands to buy John a sultana scone. He liked those.

Short story: The Ham Sandwich.

The dog sat in the safety of her bed, shivering slightly, watching the man. Usually she knew exactly what to expect, but not this time. She could feel that he was best left alone, best avoided even. She knew that there was a ham sandwich on the kitchen table. She wasn’t quite tall enough to see it, but she knew that it was there. She had watched the woman making it, putting every bit of it together with care. The bread roll had been cut with the long knife, the margarine and mayonnaise had been spread over it and the ham had been taken from the fridge and placed on top of the bread. She had watched the small pile of ham being saved for her while the best bits went into the bread roll. She had concentrated on this process carefully, never taking her eyes off that pile of ham, until she had been given her share. She knew that there would be more for her. All that the man had to do was notice that the sandwich was there. As soon as he had picked it up and eaten it by the window he would give her the last mouthful. He didn’t always make sure that there was still a bit of ham in it the way that the woman did but it was still worth waiting for. The bread would be nice and soft and the margarine would stick to her chops, ready to lick off. There might be cheese.  After that had happened she would have a sleep. He should have eaten the sandwich already; it was what he did, but not this time. She didn’t know why. He paced up and down, seeming to see nothing. The dog stared hard at his straight stiff back, willing him to turn and look at the sandwich, even move towards it.

Footsteps came down the stairs. The dog flicked her eyes towards the door, and her tail trembled warily. The woman might make him notice the food. The woman walked in and the reassuring eye contact which the dog was waiting for wasn’t there. Her ears went back. The woman looked straight at the sandwich and then towards the man. The dogs tail trembled faster.
“I made you a sandwich.”
“I saw it.”
“Don’t you want it?”
The man grabbed at the sandwich and frowned at the woman.
“Give it here. I’ll eat the bloody thing.”
The dog drew back a little, sinking into her bed. The man’s voice was hard and brittle, the same voice that he used when she went into the stagnant water in the ditch behind the hedge. She didn’t know why he was sounding like that now. The woman was talking at him, in a soft, whining, cajoling voice. The man wasn’t looking at her. The dog laid her nose on the edge of the bed and watched him as he stuffed a piece of the ham sandwich into his mouth angrily, wondering if he might forget her and eat it all. She wanted some. The woman was still talking.
“I don’t know why you’re angry with me. I haven’t done anything.”
“Well maybe you should think about that.”
“What?”
“Never mind.”
“Well tell me.”
“I shouldn’t have to.”
“What have I done?”
“Look, just leave it will you. I’m eating my sandwich. I could do with a bit of peace.”
“I just want to know what’s wrong.”
“Leave it will you!”
The dog recognised the two words ‘leave it’. Both the man and the woman said it to her regularly. Sometimes the people outside with other dogs said it as well, when they walked past and came too close. It was never meant kindly. It meant stay very still and don’t touch whatever it was you were going to go near, or something bad might happen to you. She concentrated very hard on the ham sandwich in the man’s hand. There was still some left. Still the woman talked.
“I just want to know what’s wrong.”
The man was glaring hard now. He was going to shout. He might hit out. The dog wondered why the woman didn’t run away. She kept talking.
“I’ve done nothing wrong. You just get like this and I’ve no idea why.”
The words went on and on. This was bad. If you did that to the man you didn’t get anything. The dog knew that. Why didn’t the woman know? If you wanted him to do something you had to pick the right time, then he would pat you, or even give you a treat. You waited until his face looked right. His face didn’t look right just now. The dog stiffened as he turned on the woman. Finally the woman did what the dog knew she should do. She stopped talking and became very still. The man made a lot of noise.
“Will you get yourself out of this sodding kitchen and give me some peace!”
What was left of the ham sandwich rocketed across the kitchen and hit the floor near the door. The dog shot across the kitchen, grabbed it and thundered up the stairs to the landing to eat it. There was a lot more than usual.