All posts by adrian

Short Story – 14 – A SLIGHT FOG

A rather apt story for these times, maybe

There was a slight fog up ahead.  The sun, still hidden below the horizon, was barely lightening up the sky as dawn approached.  This wasn’t the usual December fog which blankets the valleys and low-lying fields with dense clouds that lay in drifts almost like snow – but perhaps a suspicion of a fog, a hazy ghost of a fog, always hundreds of metres ahead but dissolving into clear air as the car approached.  Just as well, I thought, hating those thick rolling clouds which can be so treacherous on my early morning runs into Perigeuex.  As you leave Campsegret the trees surround you like a cloak and you are almost in a tunnel, then as you crest a hill and the windey road twists and turns, especially in this early morning half-light the road can be deceptive at the best of times.  No traffic at all for miles today; too early for the lorries trundling down to Spain, and only a smattering of cars occasionally passing by on their way into Bergerac. 

After a couple of kilometres though the road straightens out and you can see it rising and falling up ahead.  The fog had practically disappeared now, the sun peeping over the Eastern horizon, but up ahead there was still a patch on an upward sloping section of the straight road ahead.  Strangely, as I got nearer it seemed just as dense, just as white.  I slipped into a dip and lost sight of it, then as I rounded the next hill, there it was still ahead and just as white, just as dense.  I wondered if it were some sort of optical illusion, a reflection of the bright morning sunshine perhaps.  The nearer I got I expected it to thin out and dissolve, but no; it was still there even at just a hundred metres away, and to my eyes just as dense, just as in-penetrable. I slowed down and stopped maybe twenty metres from the strange gently swirling white mass.  It certainly looked like fog, but almost the densest I had ever seen.  And there had hardly been a trace before; it wasn’t as if this were just a slightly heavier mist hanging in some valley, besides it was half-way up a slight incline.  I sat for a few moments wondering if I should just drive through it.  I had seen no cars coming the other way for some time but assumed the few I had seen earlier must have passed safely through this strange mysterious bank of fog.  I started the engine up again and drove slowly towards it.  Even on the edge it seemed just as thick and I was a bit nervous as the car and I both slipped silently into this shroud-like mystery. 

Everything went dark as I became enveloped in this dense white cloud, and silent too; I couldn’t even hear the purr of my Citroen’s engine.  It was the strangest feeling, almost like flying, when you take off and are suddenly wrapped in thick clouds, a surreal feeling comes over you as your senses adjust to this nothingness, then suddenly you burst out and are looking down upon fields of snowy cloud rather than up at them.  In a couple of minutes I was out of the dense foggy cloud and back into sunshine; looking back in the mirror this strange cloud still sat on the road like a fat white toad, squatting, waiting, so surreal – yet only too real.

Well, I thought – how strange.  As I rounded the next hill, I looked back but couldn’t see the misty apparition at all; maybe the slope of the hill it was sitting on had obscured it.  When I got to Perigeuex I asked everyone I met for a couple of days if they too had witnessed the strange bank of dense white fog.  But no, nobody had seen it or even heard of it, same with the radio and the local Sud-Ouest, no mention of it at all.  After a couple of days I let it go, and wondered if I had been imagining it anyway – but it had been so dense, so white, and yet dark within, that it had to have been real. 

Two weeks later and a sunny Sunday morning, I decided to wash the car.  Passing the sponge over the roof I noticed small flakes of red paint in the water.  I looked more closely and there was definitely blistering on the bonnet and the roof.  Very small blisters and the undercoat was bleeding through in a few patches.  Damn, I thought, the car wasn’t that old.  And didn’t they say that cars nowadays will never need a re-spray.  A bit peeved I took it my local garage. 

“Acide”, old Antoine declared “You must have sprayed some acid on the car, quite strong too” he said. ”Look here, and here too, the bare steel is showing through”

“No Antoine”, I replied.  “I have not put acid on my car, why would I do that?”

“Maybe someone, some, how you say – Vandale? has sprayed something corrosif on your car.  But it looks like everywhere.  I am sorry mon ami, but this needs a complete stripping down and re-painting.  Leave it with me and I will get it done in a week or two.”

He kicked the front tyre “This need replacing too, look the tread is almost gone” he walked around the car “Same with all of them.  Didn’t you have new tyres last year?  Must have been a bad batch, I will check.”

Frustrated and quite worried I drove home in the old Renault Antoine let me borrow while he fixed my Citroen.  I was feeling pretty wretched as it was; I’d been suffering a bad dose of diarrhoea, and the headaches I had suffered with as a teenager had returned now in my late fifties.  I went to bed but couldn’t sleep; my skin felt as if it were on fire, I was itching all night.  I rung in sick the next day and took myself off to see Doctor Leonarde.  He said I was rundown; and gave me some ointment for my sore skin.  Complete rest he prescribed.  And I was all too happy to agree. 

I took to my bed, which I haven’t left since.  The car is actually a complete write off.  Antoine phoned and said he had resprayed it, but it was still blistering even through the new paint. 

They are taking me in for tests for cancer later today, I have lost two stone in weight and my skin is peeling so badly I am bleeding in several places, I even have blisters bursting through blisters.  So painful.  And my vision is completely blurred; my headache is now a perputual hammering in my brain, I just want to sleep all the time.  I am really quite ill.  I can’t help feeling it must have been that strange bank of white fog.  Maybe it wasn’t fog at all – but what else could it have been?  There are no chemical factories anywhere around and no-one else seems to have even seen it.  Whatever it was, it is the only explanation I can come up with.   Why else would my car have corroded so badly?  Why else would I have been struck down with this sickness so quickly.  Maybe it was just co-incidence, but I don’t really believe in co-incidence.  It is possible I have been carrying this peculiar cancer for a few years and it has only just shown itself – but how do you explain the car; even after a respray the paint is still peeling.  So, what could it have possibly been, that patch of fog?  No-one else has seen it or been affected – a complete mystery.  But more urgent is my constant pain, I really hope they find a cure soon, I cannot take much more of this. 

I am almost carried into the ambulance car by the paramedics, I am so weak I can barely walk.  Doctor Leonarde is extremely worried, he has never seen anything quite like it; he doesn’t think it is cancer but wants me to see the Specialists in Perigeuex. 

I nod off in the back but wake as the car brakes slightly and I hear the driver mutter in French “What is that just ahead, it looks like a cloud of white fog, but it is such a clear day, how strange.”  The other paramedic says “Ah Emile, it is only a slight fog, nothing to worry about.  Drive on.”

I try to knock on the glass dividing panel to warn them, I raise my arm to the glass.  But I am too weak.  I slump back exhausted. The car drives on and suddenly everything goes dark.  I doze off once more.     

Short Story – 13 – WHY

Patricia Gwendolene Joy Connolly was born on the 13th of July 1933.  We would have to consult an almanac to discover if this was a Friday; but for all the luck she had in her first few years it might as well have been.   She was a twin – though this would come as a surprise to her, because she couldn’t remember a sister, let alone a twin sister.  She had learned not to remember anything; not to remember her sister, not to remember her mother, the sainted Vera and learned also not to remember her father.  But that may not be quite right either, because maybe her father was never hers to remember at all.

And she was never told why?  Why was she separated from her sister, her twin sister? Why, at six years old, was she sent by train to a town she didn’t know?  Why was she met by a strange man who said he was her uncle?  And maybe she learnt also how not to ask the very question, why?

This is an exercise in remembering; piecing together what you were never told or have learned to forget, leaves gaps.  And you are never quite sure if you really remember what happened, or if you are remembering what you were told happened.  Such is the nature of our hesitant tread on this earth that even the heaviest footsteps get washed away by successive waves of time. And the core of stories handed down the generations gets smaller and smaller with each retelling until you are simply passing on the shadow of a baton in this long-distance relay-race.   So I am indulging here and there in a bit of fiction, a dab of decorative infill, if you will.   And who knows anyway if this version of events is any nearer the truth than anyone else’s.  We all, each in our way, have our own version of the past, which we cling to… for without it what are we indeed, but figments of someone else’s imagination.

We have to travel back, way back, into the life of Vera, Patricia’s mother, to begin to understand things.  Vera was my grandmother – and yet never my grandmother at all.  She was the only biological grandparent I would ever know.  Yet she was the one I rejected.  And for good reason too; I already had a Nana who I loved – and who loved me, unconditionally.  When Vera came along with her Astrakhan fur, and a heavy cloying reek of cigarettes and cheap cologne, and told me she was my real grandmother and that she had always loved me, she might as well have been speaking a foreign language.  Well, she had a funny accent, (Northern, I later discovered) and we were Suffolk born and bred; people from Norfolk were strangers to us, let alone from Wigan.

But who was this Vera, and is she the villain of this little piece or just another victim?

We have to go back even further to Grandma Allard.  That is my mother’s Grandma, Vera’s mother and my biological great grandmother, to find out anything about Vera.  I knew Grandma Allard, but not very well, not like my Dad’s mum, my real Nana.  This Grandma was old and crotchety, and she was ill, though I never realised this at the time.  She used to lie on an old sofa, or it might have been a chaise-longue, in the gloomy dark living room at Ipswich Road.  And she had long thin hair which she used to wind up in a plait round and round her head.  She died in 1959 when I was only 8.

This was not the house my mother was born into.  She knew nothing of its existence, or that she had a Grandma at all, or even a sister.  The first she knew was when as a thin and scrawny six-year old she was collected at Stowmarket railway station by Uncle Albert, the second youngest of Grandma Allard’s ten children, and only one of two surviving brothers, both still living at home.  If she was six, this must have been 1939, and Albert would have only been twenty-four himself.   She was perched on the crossbar of his bike and gripping the handlebars to balance herself was pedalled through the strange small town to Grandma Allard’s.

But why was she there?  Why did she not know her Grandma, or even her twin sister?   We will never know.  These secrets are buried with Vera.  My mother never asked her own mother these questions, even as she visited her every week when decades later Vera was dying of cancer.  Maybe my mother had learnt long ago not to ask.  But what we can surmise from what we know of Vera, is that, saint or victim, it was probably a result of the man she was with at the time.  Vera married four men in her life, but there were undoubtedly more.  We have a record that the first husband, Thomas Connolly, died in 1930; three years before the twins were born, though my mother was named a Connolly. So husband number two, Jack Cookson, was not on the scene yet.  Or if he was around he wasn’t acknowledged as my mother’s father.  Respectability at all costs.

The twins were born in the summer of 1933 in Southend, not so far, but far enough, away from Stowmarket.  And all of Grandma Allard’s other children had settled either in or around the town, so why did Vera move away?  But Vera was always different.  When she made contact many years later (she had been living in Wigan for years) she was as different as chalk from cheese.  And she would certainly have considered herself the cheese…so very superior to the chalky relatives she left behind.

But here is where the story gets really complicated.  Twins were born, and for reasons unknown they were separated, either at birth, or very early on.  Neither was told of the existence of the other.  But back then children were never told – no-one would have considered that appropriate at all.  One, my mother, stayed with her own mother and whatever man she was with at the time, who may or may not have been her father.  Her twin sister, Pamela, went to live with Grandma Allard.  Isn’t this peculiar, even given the quite careless way with children back then, when Aunts and Uncles routinely brought up other people’s children as their own, or you discovered that your older sister was really your mother. 

Why were the girls separated?  And the separation must have been meant to be permanent, because neither Patricia nor Pamela knew of each other’s existence.  Had there been some massive family row?  Had Vera been somehow expelled, ex-communicated, shoved away from the family.  Or was it Vera, who had for whatever reason deposited one half of the twins with her mother and then disappeared from sight with the other, Patricia?  And she didn’t see them for years; we have to wonder if she ever wrote to enquire about Pamela, and later about the other twin she had abandoned or if she just left them, only to turn up years later, like an undoubted bad penny.    

When Grandma Allard died in 1959, Uncle Albert, who now, if not earlier, had taken over the role of guardian of the family, showed my mother an old newspaper clipping which Grandma Allard had saved.  It was from the News of the World, and my mother had been featured as ‘the girl in the cupboard’. 

She had been kept in a cupboard.  And been rescued and placed in a Dr. Barnado’s home.  How long she was in the cupboard we do not know.  Or by whom?  Was it Vera’s man or Vera herself?  Unless we find the newspaper report we will never know, and of course even if we do it may not tell us much more than we already know. 

It doesn’t really matter.  I like to blame Vera, maybe because I never liked her, despite her being my blood relative, but possibly she was just a victim of someone else’s cruelty.  But she must have known, and why didn’t she stop him?  Why didn’t Vera take my mother out of the cupboard?  I cannot help thinking she must have had a particularly selfish and callous streak; firstly to have agreed to the separation of the girls, and secondly to have either commissioned, or sanctioned this cruelty inflicted on her little girl.

And why is my mother’s only memory of that time one of darkness and a card with a rose on it?  The darkness is easy – this would be the cupboard, maybe an under-stairs cupboard, or, worse to imagine, a small kitchen cupboard.  The darkness and the cramped conditions and the smells, maybe of old coats, or tins of paint, or polish, or just tired dirty air, and the sounds all muffled, and maybe the worst sound of all.  The sound of someone opening the cupboard door may have been the most dreaded sound of all.  But what is intriguing is the card with the rose on it.  Because she remembers darkness we must assume that the cupboard had no light, but maybe just enough managed to creep in through the cracks or under the door to lighten her little prison cell enough to see a few hazy shapes.  And what she saw was the card with the rose on it.  Maybe a Valentine from one of Vera’s admirer’s, or maybe just a nice picture which Vera had kept and put away in the cupboard, along with all the other things Vera wished she could forget about.  

And we will never know why.  Why was my mother separated from her twin?  Why was she kept in a cupboard?  Vera is long gone and Uncle Albert of course, and my mother’s sister Pamela died a few years ago.  My mother says she has forgotten all about these early years, she only remembers living with her Grandma.  And so I have written this little piece these many years later.  And I am no nearer knowing why either.

Short Story – 12 – THE TEA PARTY

And now for a spot of humour – inspired by Viv Stanshall

Florid and flaxen-fair, fleetingly floating, filmy and flimsy as a fluttering fritillary, Felicity Cholmondley-Brown, fragrant and flighty at forty-five, with features like finely threaded filigree, ‘fol-de-roled’ her fleet-footed and faltering way through the flowery fronds and front lawn of Cholmondly-Bottom, ancestral fiefdom of the feudal Cholmondlys for four hundred and forty years. 

Her mind, as usual, was miles away – re-living her student days in the early Nineties in Paris; dark basement cafes on the Left Bank, sinking into the silky embrace of some Alain Delon look-a-like, smoking Sobrainie cigarettes and listening as yet another budding Jacques Brel plucks discordant chords from an out-of-tune guitar.  ‘Ah well, never mind,’ she thought, ‘those wonderful days are over now.  I must hurry and gather these blooms, for it is almost four and guests will soon be arriving for the tea party.’

Meanwhile, in brown tweed plus-fours in his equally brown study, Sir Cheriton Cholmondley-Brown, eighty and invariably inebriated, was ripping up Pizza Delivery leaflets with barely supressed glee. “Why the buggers should have the audacity to walk up my mile-long drive and deliver them I’ll never know.  If I want a ‘pizza’ I get my charwallah, RamJam, to make me a nice Rogan Josh stuffed Nan.” Sadly, he had missed the actual delivers as he was occupied in chasing two Jehovah Witnesses round the estate, pausing only to refill his shotgun.  Sir Cheriton, known colloquially as Cherry-Chum, had brought his manservant and cook back from his time in India, but had never bothered to ask the ‘brown-blighter’ his name, merely referring to him as ‘RamJam.’

The door-bell rang and old Scrotum, wrinkled retainer, faithful factotum and general dogsbody, wheezed his way to the door.  It was Major and Mrs Honiton and their son Raiph, closely followed and almost overshadowed by, Winifred Sloane; a large lady of even larger opinions.  As she sat, or rather, collapsed, into an ornate antique armchair, the springs groaned, as did Sir Cheriton.  She exhaled, and suddenly her voluminous breasts broke free from their ill-fitting and cantilevered brassiere – like exploding airbags.  They descended, swinging pendulously inside her semi-transparent blouse.  Turning his gaze away reluctantly, Sir Cheriton glanced outside at his small herd of prize Freisian dairy cows.  Cherry trusted nobody to milk these but himself, and his hands were already twitching rhythmically as he murmured to himself “I’d love to get my hands on those udders.”

His wife was chattering away like some infernal songbird to the guests.  Cherry, deaf to almost all entreaty, managed to filter out her squeaky voice – ‘At least she isn’t one of those niggly-moaning old nags like my first wife.’ he reminisced.  ‘Had to have her put away in that asylum in the end, cost a few bob, but worth it to silence the wretched woman.’  He had really had her committed because of her incessant sex-drive, ‘Why, the woman wanted me to impregnate her more than once a month.  What did she think I was?  I was barely sober even then, a miracle I could raise another glass let alone anything else.’

Eventually, he had resorted to having RamJam sleep on her bedroom floor to stop her nightly pestering’s.  He could never quite understand how it took three and a half years since he last ‘invaded her underwear’, for his beautiful dark-haired and olive-skinned daughter Laetitia to be born.  He had some idea it was supposed to only be nine months, or was that elephants?  ‘Biology, never a strong suit.’  He glanced over at his dusky daughter who sat, simply cross-legged on the floor, a look of benign pleasure and inner knowledge spreading across her placid features, occasionally broken by her deep uttering of “Ohm” “Ohm”.   ‘Lord knows what she sees in that’ Cherry thought to himself, ‘Give me a pint of gin any day – if it’s ‘O-bloody-blivion’ you are seeking.’

Sir Cheriton’s slightly confused musings were broken by the arrival of the twin girls by his marriage to Felicity.  Jenny and Gwenny, just 16 and giggling uncontrollably after consuming a litre of vodka in their bedroom, flounced into the parlour.  Their mother smiled and asked how their Art lesson had gone that day – their Rastafarian Art teacher, Moses (nickname of Legs) Akimbo, having left an hour earlier.  “Oh, great fun” said Jenny.  “Yes, we had a wonderful time” said Gwenny, giving her sister a conspiratorial wink.  Sir Cheriton couldn’t understand why Felicity had ever ‘let that Blackie into the house’, but times were changing, he had to regret – though Cherry’s politics, being slightly to the right of Attilla the Hun, he still hankered after Empire.  “Look what we gave India” he declared “Civilisation, Gentlemen’s clubs, Gin, er, Gin Rummy and, well… lots of stuff.  All they ever gave us was flies and syphilis.”  This reminded him that he really must renew his season ticket with the local VD clinic.

“I suppose you call that Art” he said, pointing at the huge abstract canvas propped up against the sideboard. “I can’t see what it’s supposed to be at all; you might as well all three of you have rolled around naked in the paint for all the skill I can see in it.” 

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous Daddy” said Jenny.  “Really Daddy, what sort of girls do you think we are?” joined in Gwenny, tugging furiously and rather belatedly at her mini-skirt, which, riding up her shapely thighs, revealed a few multicoloured daubs and a thong not much bigger than a postage stamp.

“What-ho, Cherry old Chum” said the Major.

“What?” replied Sir Cheriton.  “Oh Yes, What-ho Major”

Felicity called Scrotum over and asked him what he had been doing that afternoon, as he was still in his farm clothes.  “Well ma’am, I’se been helpin’ old Ben the Boar with the Sows.  He be gettin a bit old now and can’t quite get his corkscrew into the cork these days, so he needs a helpin’ hand like.”

“In that case, before handing round the Sandwiches would you like to….wash your hands?”

“Oh, I already done that Ma’am, up aginst a tree in the yard.”

Suddenly, Sir Cheriton leapt from his chair and yelled “Good Lord, there are two simpering Nancy-boys on the lawn.  Scrotum, get my gun and make sure both barrels are loaded.”

Felicity ran to his side and re-assured Cherry that it was simply the new Vicar and his young Curate, both, gaily dressed in striped blazers, white flannels and wide floral ties as, straw boaters askew, they minced their way to the house. ‘Vicar? Well I’ll be buggered’ thought Cherry, ‘or probably will be if I ever go to that church again.’  He simply muttered “What’s the matter with them, anyone would think they were still at Eton, dressed up all girlie like that.  Should have outgrown that nonsense years ago, like I had to.” 

“What?” queried the Major.

“What ho Major” replied Cherry with a wave of his hand, this sufficing for them both as conversation.  He glanced over at the spread of delicacies and spotted a large bowl of curried quails eggs in lime pickle.  He had been blocked up for a week now and his eyes were watering at the sight. “That’ll shift things I should think, give me the right liquorice.” he muttered “knock a few balls round the billiard table on their way out too, I expect.”  Sir Cheriton daily spent an inordinate amount of time in his private lavatory, equipped as it was with a small freezer for his toilet rolls. 

Winifred Sloane waddled across the room like some oversized hippopotamus to greet the two churchmen.  “So nice to have a young and civilised vicar and your handsome curate as well, it has saved the parish money too, as you are both living at the vicarage. Single young men, so vibrant, so colourful, and no girlfriends either. What joy.”

“Scrotum” bellowed Sir Cheriton, “Have you been helping yourself to my barrel of gin in the cellar, damn thing’s nearly empty, the tanker only filled it up last week.”

“No Sir,” hacked old Scrotum, “Me doesn’t like the stuff.  Gives me the right colly-wobbles. I’se a scrumpy man meself.  Oh yes, scrumpy-dumpy for me.”. as he danced deliriously on the spot.

“More tea Major, or Mrs Honiton?” asked Felicity.

“Actually.” Mrs Honiton, a small bird-like creature tweeted, “I’m not sure where Raiph, our son has got to.”

“Oh, the girls are just showing him their art-work upstairs in the studio, nothing to worry about.”

“But he is so impressionable” she chirruped “he really knows nothing about Art, or anything really. Such an innocent boy.”

The conversation subsided, Winifred Sloane was showing the two brightly clad ecclesiasts Sir Cheriton’s large collection of stuffed hunting trophies; she, leaning slightly back to counterbalance the weight of her enormous mammalian protuberances threatening to pull her over.  “Look at the size of that horn” said the vicar. “Mmmm, yeeeess” smirked the curate, rather enviously.  Cherry, having finished off the entire bowl of devilled quails eggs, excused himself and scurried upstairs in somewhat of a panic.

Felicity looked around, the room almost deserted, the remaining sandwiches already curling at the edges and the chocolate cake barely touched – the only sound, a deep occasional “Ohm” from Leatitia still seated sphinx-like on the floor.

The major and his wife rose muttering “Great success Mrs Cherry, great success.  Now where is that boy, Raiph?”

A scurrying sound and a few loud bangs accompanied by raucous laughter came from the staircase, and Raiph eventually emerged, red-faced but smiling, his lipstick smudged shirt-tail flapping ominously outside his trousers. 

As Sir Cheriton belched, grunted, and reached for another frozen toilet roll, the sound of his stentorian farting could be heard half-way down the mile-long drive.

Felicity wandered out again, her mind drifting gently back to Montmatre meanderings, moules et frites and moustachioed, muscle-bound Monsieurs, tall, dark and have-some.  ‘Still’ she thought, ‘everyone seems to have enjoyed themselves – which is really the secret of a successful tea-party. Till next week then.’

Short Story – 11 – ANYWHERE’S A BETTER PLACE TO BE

This is the second letter from Harriet to Jane

March 1969.

My dear Jane,

So sorry I haven’t written for a while – letter writing was never my strength; besides, as sisters we have hardly ever been apart, so there was never any need before.  I still can’t get our parting out of my mind.  That windy railway platform, when you thought I was going back to Uni, to Leeds – but really, I had already decided to leave all that behind, and start a new life for myself here in London.  And I never got the chance to talk to you about it, or maybe I just felt that we had drifted apart a bit; what with me away and only coming back to Suffolk occasionally.  It felt, to me at least anyway, that what we once had – that special closeness – was slipping from our grasp.  Somehow our growing up that last year had also seen us growing apart. 

Oh, I do hope not.  Our relationship was always more than just being sisters.  It was far more than that.  As you know our mother had always seemed, well – away with the fairies, I suppose.  She never seemed that interested in us, especially when we were little.  And I sort of filled the gap and became like a mother, if only two years older, to my little girl.  Do you remember how I used to read to you; I could just about read when I was only five, I can’t really remember who taught me – but I always picked things up easily.  And each week we would cut out the outfits for Bunty together, you cackhandedly hacking away with the scissors and me waiting patiently for you to finish.  Ah, how we loved those little outfits, dressing our cardboard backed Bunty with new clothes every week. 

Seems a long time ago now Jane.  In fact, it all seems a long time ago; Suffolk, school, growing up – though so many happy memories, where I struggle to recall much of my one year at Leeds.  In some ways the less you know about Leeds the better.  I wish I’d never gone.  You see, I suddenly felt lost there.  Back in school I was kingpin, head girl, popular without really trying, top of the class at nearly everything – it all seemed to come so easily to me.  And then – suddenly I was nobody, surrounded by all these seemingly far cleverer people than me.  And I stupidly got in with a bad crowd and in my naivety thought that smoking dope and taking pills was so cool; what the groovy people were doing; and if I did it too, I would become one of them.  That I would be free of all convention, that I could escape the mundane life I had lived so far. I never realised until too late that it was never escaping, never freedom; it was just as much a trap as I thought I was slipping into in our back-water little town. 

Listen, you may not have heard it – but there is a song by a guy called Harry Chapin.  “Anywhere’s a better place to be” and it’s about being so lonely that ‘anything’, ‘anywhere’ is better than the life you are leading.  Really, you have to hear it to truly understand.  But I felt, the more I listened to it, that Harry was singing directly to me – that the words were actually about me.  And I never felt so lonely, surrounded by all these so-called cool people, in my life.  Everything seemed to close in on me, and it was only drugs that lifted me out of that tunnel of loneliness.  When I was ‘high’ I couldn’t care less, nothing mattered except the music, drinking and having a good time.  But when the drugs wore off, I was far further down than before. 

And I knew I had to escape.  The song was telling me – ‘Anywhere’s a better place to be’, and somewhere, anywhere, else seemed to be the answer. And really without a lot of thought I just ran away.  From home, from Uni, from the friends who weren’t really friends at all – and from the desperate need for dope, for pills and all that rubbish.  But sadly, I left you too Jane.  And that is what I regret most of all. 

But just a few months ago London seemed to be the answer.  I felt I just had to get away from everyone I knew. I craved anonymity.  I was looking for oblivion really, sweet o-bloody-blivion.  You know, when you hear nothing and see nothing and best of all feel nothing.  I just had to find a way of blocking out all the bad things in my life.  I had thought that drugs were the answer, but of course they were just another wrong turn.  Maybe I had to make those wrong turns in order to find my true way; in order to find myself.  Who knows?  Anyway, I drew out all the money in my little Post Office Savings Account – you know all those Prince Charles stamps we had stuck in as children.  It was a few hundred pounds actually; lots of birthday gifts which Dad made me save rather than spend on sweets or toys. 

I thought I would make it in London.  You know, become someone, a face maybe, get into a band, become a model or something.  But I had no idea where to start.  I went into shop after shop down the Kings Road, into Biba, into the crazy ‘boutiques’ in Carnaby Street – but no-one wanted to know me.  The shop girls seemed to be laughing at this gawky country girl.  They all looked down their long lashes at me.  And I gave up after a while.  I ended up just sitting in my little bedsit and letting the days drift by.  Listening to the radio, popping out to buy milk and bread and fish-fingers and cigarettes.  And I watched my little pile of money dwindle too.  And I sunk into a kind of stupor, for the first time in my life there was nothing to get up for, no lessons, no lectures, nobody wanting me for anything.  In fact, nothing at all.  And in that nothingness I discovered that that sweet oblivion I had sought was emptier than anything I could ever have imagined.   And then that song kept coming back into my head “Anywhere’s a better place to be.” 

And slowly it began to dawn on me – that it wasn’t the place that was the problem.  It wasn’t the ‘anywhere’ I found myself; it was actually me that was the problem. And I was the one who had to find the calm place in my own head, nowhere else, that was the better place to be.

And so, I have decided to come back home.  In a week or two I expect.  And I want you to tell Mum and Dad, to prepare them, to try maybe to explain to them, ‘cos I know they are furious with me about giving up Uni.

Yes, I am coming home; to Suffolk.  Because on reflection it wasn’t that bad was it.  And I will get a job locally, maybe working in a bank – you know I was always brilliant at maths.  I have managed to kick the craving for drugs now too, and even the ciggies taste flat. I’ll try to stop those too. I miss all the old friends we used to have, and the Mikado coffee bar where we could sit for hours over a coffee and listen to the songs on the Jukebox together.  But most of all Jane – I miss you. I miss someone I could really talk to; you know, about stuff that matters – and stuff that doesn’t matter too.  And Jane, you never criticised me.  Ever.  I mean I can’t remember you ever saying ‘no’ to me.  Maybe you should have.  No, I don’t really mean that either.  I just need you.  I need you, my little sister, to help me, your big sister, finally grow up.  And even now I can hear that song in my head; ‘Anywhere’s a better place to be’ – even our crumby little town in Suffolk.

So, Jane – I’ll let you know the day and the train I’ll be coming home on.  Promise you will meet me on the platform and walk home with me.  I don’t think I could do it without you.

Love – and sorry for all the craziness – Harriet.

Short Story – 10 – THE LAST TIME I SAW RICHARD

This was my Victorian Gothic Horror attempt

 “The last time I saw Richard, I mean the deceased – Mr. Harker, I was most distressed.  I had seen him barely three weeks before, but I was shocked by the change in his appearance.  He seemed thinner, gaunt, pale and sickly; and strangely disturbed.  He was almost rambling, and appeared distracted, nervous and jumpy, constantly glancing at the window and though it was pitch black outside it was as though he were seeing something in that darkness, or trying I would say, to discern some thing or some person outside.”

“And how long ago, or rather, how near to his death, would this be?”

“About a week.  Yes, it was the Tuesday and he died I believe, or at least his body was found, a week Wednesday after that.”

“And you say you were a great friend of his? How many years had you known him?”

“Oh at least twenty; we were at College together and have kept in touch ever since.”

“Have you anything else you wish to tell the Coroner?”

“Yes.  As I was leaving he pressed into my hand a small leather bound book.  He said he had been keeping some sort of a journal over the last few weeks and he gave it me – for safekeeping.”

“Safekeeping?  Did he indicate that he was in some sort of danger?”

“No, but he insisted that I keep it.  He implored me not to read it unless I heard some bad news concerning himself.”

“And did you indeed succumb to temptation and read this ‘journal’?”

“Not until I read in the papers that he had been discovered dead and naked on that island in the middle of the Thames.”

“Was this ‘journal’, for want of a better term, of any relevance do you think?  Or would you be wasting the court’s time in enlightening us as to its contents?”

“I am not sure sir.  I have it with me if you wish to read it.  It all seems highly improbable to me, almost the ravings of a madman.  Not like the Richard Harker I knew – a most level-headed man I can assure you.”

“I think we would be abusing everyone’s time if you read the whole journal out loud, could you possibly precis the contents, or at least give us some idea of what he had written.”

“Yes.  I have read it a few times and I still find it quite inconsistent with the man I knew so well.”

“Very well then, in your own words please give us a flavour of these ‘ravings’ as you have described them.”

“He talks about having met a stranger in a tavern not far from his home, of accompanying this man to his nearby abode.  He says he was drawn to this man.  He described feeling almost hypnotised by him.  I must beg the courts pardon but he talks of feelings of attraction and strange desires I would rather not describe.  I must insist that I knew Richard Harker very well, and I would not wish his memory to be sullied by any rumours of immoral or undesirable behaviour.  He was married, and although he and his wife have chosen to live apart, I can assure the Court that he was normal in every sense of the word.  But in addition to feeling attracted to this man he was somewhat scared of him, fearful of the power he exerted.  He talks of his life being in some sort of peril if he continued seeing him. The last entries, though his handwriting was erratic by now, refer to a boat and deep dark waters.  The more I think about it these thoughts must have been a symptom of the mental fatigue he was obviously labouring under.  I think that, if anything can be gleaned from this ‘journal’, it is that his mind was indeed deranged shortly before his death.”

“Thankyou.  May we hear from the Doctor?

                                                  *  * *

“You attended Mr. Harker shortly before his death I believe?”

“Yes, I was asked to see him by the previous witness and examined him four days before he died.”

“And what was your opinion of his health, especially his mental well-being, at that time?”

“Physically, I would say he was exhausted and possibly suffering from anaemia. His heart was weak and so was his pulse.  I recommended complete bed-rest for at least a week and prescribed Laudanum.  Mentally he was certainly confused and slightly delirious, but anything more serious it would be hard to say.”

“I believe you also attended the Autopsy of the deceased?”

“Yes.  Professor Bellamy is an old friend of mine and invited me to attend.”

“Have you anything you wish to add to his report?”

“No, not really – except I was surprised at how little blood was in his system, and no obvious wounds.  I agree that his death was due to drowning.”

“Anything else unusual in your experience?”

“No.  Oh, except one small detail which the good Professor hasn’t recorded. There were two small puncture marks on his neck, I suppose he must have cut himself shaving, but they were raised and had some bruising around them.  I had never seen anything quite like them, though the Professor thought they were of little consequence.”

                                                  *  * *

“Thankyou.  Your Honour, I think we can safely conclude that the cause of death was drowning brought about by a deranged mind, possibly the result of some undiagnosed illness.  The deceased was, as we have heard, a respectable gentleman; I am sure we would not wish to record a verdict of suicide in this case – I would suggest death by misadventure.”

“Agreed.  Death by misadventure it is then. 

Now, I think we should adjourn for luncheon.  Would you care to join me?  Butler’s chop house is nearby and they do rather an excellent fore-rib; a good hearty steak and a pint of claret will fairly satisfy me.  For some reason this case has rather whetted my appetite.”

Short Story – 9 – LOST IN THE WILD

Lost in the wild tangle of emotions I cannot sleep.  I toss and turn, throw the duvet off and instantly retrieve it, turn the pillows over, discard one then bring it back with a thump under my head.  Sleep still evades me.  My hand wanders over to the empty half of the bed, your empty and cold half of the bed – and the nightmare thoughts flood back, overwhelming me like some freak wave.  I am wide awake; blinking back the salty tears.  I glance over at the clock – 2.30, and still you are out.  Out there somewhere.  Drinking in some late-night den, laughing, smiling into someone else’s eyes.  Or worse, in his bed.  Oh God, the thoughts simply won’t go away. 

It isn’t even jealousy.  I am long past jealousy.  It is the longing, the desperate yearning that keeps tormenting me.  I long for her touch, her smile even – but all I get is her scorn, her sarcasm, her evil taunting of me, comparing me to him.  And yet…. still I love her.  I plead with her, I cry, I weep in front of her, begging for forgiveness.  Forgiveness for whatever I might have done, or not have done, for my inadequacy, for letting her down, for forcing her to reject me.  And none of it has any effect, she simply brushes past me, in her new red high-heel shoes and that little black velvet dress I bought last year for her birthday.  And as she sweeps past I have to admit that she looks incredible.  So stunningly beautiful, there is no denying that she is becoming a real beauty.  Even at five months pregnant she looks wonderful, radiant, and with her slightly pouting belly and rounded breasts she looks splendid.  For all the good that does me.  It makes it all far far worse, of course.

I think back to when I first met her, she was slightly plump then, a five-foot-two chubby teenager with spots and glasses, and lank slightly greasy hair.  But I loved her. It was love at first sight; her with her blinking eyes and long fringe that kept falling over her face.  I loved her back then when she was just sixteen and shy.  Oh, how shy she was.  I worked so hard to open her up to even my kisses.

No good thinking back though to that time of innocence.  We are long past innocence.  I suppose I stole her innocence.  Yes, you could say that.  But I was barely two years older than her.  She was my first, my only girlfriend.  The only girl I have ever loved.  Of course, we – well, I, was stupid and she got pregnant so soon, and twice at that.  And now she has shredded that love, torn it up and tossed it like so much wasted confetti into my face.  Confetti? We had no confetti at our wedding, and barely any guests.  It was a sad affair, the registry office cold and dismal.  Her parents refused to come, as did mine.  And even then, I knew I was losing her; that fervour in her kisses was missing by now, too often she would turn her face away and stare vacantly at the wall when we made love.

And we had had to fight so hard for everything.  When she was first pregnant she begged me to take her away; from her mother, from her father and his drunken rages. We fled to Scotland where we heard you could get married at sixteen.  All that bus journey, as she slept soundly beside me, her head on my shoulder – I stared out of the window at the rainy night sky, as the town signs drifted by, Cambridge, Lincoln, York, Newcastle.  I was scared and alone; I had mucked up yet again.  All I had was this sleeping beauty beside me and the treasure she carried.  My very own family, after the one I had rejected a year earlier when I too had fled the life I felt trapped in – for a new life and a new start in London.  And now I realised I was messing up again, and not only my own life but hers too.  This was just another trap I was tumbling into. It was dawn as the bus pulled into Edinburgh.  I trudged up steep streets and found a tenement with a sign ‘Room to Let’.  Five floors up and I can still recall the stone staircase and each step hollowed out by millions of tired feet.  I went out to find a job and came back elated that I had found some temporary bar work.  She was suddenly smiling.  She had phoned her mother and gained a degree of forgiveness.  ‘We have to go back, it’s alright’ she said ‘My Mum said we can have the baby and live with her.  My Dad is sort of okay about it too.’  I had spent almost all of my money, just enough for the bus fare back.  And as the bus wound its long journey back and the towns drifted by in reverse order, she slept soundly on my shoulder and I stared out all night at the bleak rainy darkness.  It rained and rained and I kept wiping the condensation from the window with the side of my hand, and still all I could see was rain.

Sometimes I feel it hasn’t stopped raining since.  Her father kicked us out six months after the baby was born. We ended up in a homeless hostel, and then in a temporary ground floor of a house waiting to be demolished.  It was here that she fell pregnant again, but worse than that she started going out with the woman upstairs.  Drinking in pubs down the Holloway Road, while I stayed in looking after the baby. 

And now she stays out until the early hours, and I lay awake, occasionally rocking the baby’s cradle, listening for the sound of a car pulling up and her drunken giggle and the click-clack of those red high-heels as she stumbles up our steps.  Which is worse, the waiting or her arrival?  I really don’t know.  I dread her not coming back, and I dread her coming in and taunting me with how good a lover he is, and how useless I am.  And still I put up with it, I stay and look after the baby, changing his nappy, making his food, washing his clothes, and worrying what the hell my sometimes wife is getting up to.  Hoping against hope that she will tire of him, of her ‘freedom’, that she will realise that he is simply offering her another trap.  That she will give him up and come back to me.

The months roll on and it gets no better.  Then the baby is due and we go together to the Hospital.  She holds my hand, digging her nails in as her contractions come one by one.  I am nervous, apprehensive. Desperately hoping that things have changed, that she still loves me.  But hope is all I have.  Hope is all I have ever had.

Six weeks later and she has gone.  With him.  She has taken the new baby, but has left me with the other one, now just 18 months old.  And this child, who smiles through everything and knows nothing of the turmoil we have been through; the desperate nights, the hours of lonely waiting were nothing to him.  He smiled though it all.  And as I drop the good-bye note and pick him up I realise that he probably has saved my life. 

We start again; I paint the rooms, I find him a nursery, I buy some better second-hand furniture. We move into a GLC flat in Hackney.  I begin to get over her.  But I will never forget those nights, lying awake, listening for the click-clack of her heels, the drunken giggle, the fumble of her key in the lock. 

I grow stronger, I will fall in love again, I will have more children.  But I will never forget her, her shy smile, those blinking eyes, that little black velvet dress and how beautiful she looked.  I will forgive her, maybe I had always forgiven her – but I cannot forget those wild nights, when I was lost in the tangle of my emotions.  When I wasn’t sure if I still loved her, or just the memory of her, when all I knew was that I was losing her.  I was lost in those wild times, and sometimes I am not sure I have ever recovered, if I ever found my way home – or if I am still wandering, still tossing and turning in my frantic search for some peace.   Still somewhere inside, there is a little bit of me that still loves her, even if she smiled as she twisted her high heeled shoe in the space in my heart I’d laid open for her.  

Such is love. 

Short Story – 8 – THE HOST

Well, a different style and a different sort of story

“Come in.”  The host smiles, glances round the porch and shepherds her in. “What a terrible evening.”   The heavy front door glides silently shut. “Such unseasonal weather, you must be soaked.” 

“Yes, but I’m not that wet.” She replies. “I came by taxi actually; it seemed more sensible.  I’ve heard the Gendarmes round here are hot on drink-driving.  Not that I intend to drink much, of course.”

“Here, let me take your coat.”   He holds his hands up like two pegs at shoulder level.  She instinctively turns her back to him while he lifts her suede coat.  As it slides away from her arms she has the strangest feeling, an almost imperceptible suspicion, that he is leaning in just a touch too close.  She chides herself for being suspicious and turns to meet his knowing smile.

“Let me guess” he says nodding, “Samsara?  Yes?”

“Yes, it is” she says, comprehending ‘why the closeness’. “How did you know?”

“Oh, it’s just a little hobby of mine.  Perfumes. Well, the classic ones anyway.  It is actually – quite a late fragrance, by Geurlain, as, of course, you must be aware.  1989 – if memory serves, but a classic none the less.  Sadly, almost everything since the Sixties is synthetic and smells like it too.  Samsara…mmm – don’t you just love it?  Very Eastern, ylang-ylang and jasmine, with hints, but not too much, thank goodness, of sandalwood.  Very refreshing.  And so rewarding that some women of today are still wearing it.”

“It was a present.  From my husband.  Many years ago now.  But – I still wear it occasionally.  Am I the first to arrive?”  she looks round the large deserted room, a couple of white sofas, matching armchairs, a round black rug, a glass coffee-table, and very little else.

“Yes,” he drawls, “I expect it’s the weather.”

“I hope I am not too early?” she tentatively queries.

“Oh no.” he reassures her, “I too am a stickler for punctuality; such a pity others are not.  Some people think it is actually polite to turn up at least an hour late.  I am sure the others will be here soon.”

“Tell me, who else is invited?  It is just drinks, isn’t it?  I’ve eaten already.”

“Oh just a few old friends.  I have a little soiree every year around this time, just as people are coming back from the Easter break.  I invited you because you are new to the village.  Everyone is nosey really, I suppose.  A single woman in her, let me guess – early forties? moving into our little community.  Quite intriguing really.  Tell me about yourself.”

“Well, what do you want to know?”

“First names would be a start.  I hate formality.  I am Edward.  Ed to my friends, which I hope I can count on you becoming.”

“Angela, actually.  My husband…my…late husband…always wanted to retire here.  He had holidayed as a boy.  Sadly, he passed away a year ago.  I bought the house here for him really.  Silly, as he isn’t here to enjoy it, but still.  I am not sure if I will live here or just use it for holidays.  I stopped working when he passed away, but I have a reasonable income and a house in London.  That’s all really.”

“Fascinating” he languidly lets out, and, for the briefest of moments, she has an image of Leslie Phillips eyeing up some piece of totty in a Sixties romp. She reminds herself to be on her guard – but then – tells herself not to be so silly.

“What would you like to drink?”

                                             *  * *

And they drink one and then two, or is it three, glasses of a rather good red wine.  Her mind is veering between a growing nervousness, like a monkey squatting on her shoulder, and a comforting warmth seeping through her as the wine slinks its way into her brain. 

“Where is everyone?” she is trying to sound nonchalant, as if she is mildly surprised, but deep down there is this nagging concern.  She has never met her host before, the invitation had been sitting on her doormat two days ago when she came in from the market.  Here she was, to all intents and purposes, a single woman – and yet – she wasn’t really single.  She still loves and yearns for her late husband, for the comfort of his, often silent, presence, for the warmth from his side of the bed.  She is having trouble sleeping. Or – rather – she wakes in the early hours feeling desolate, abandoned, alone and cold.  She thumps the pillow in frustration, turns over, tries to read, watches some television even, but sleep refuses to draw her in, to safely harbour her.

It is only as dawn creeps through the slats of the shutters that she can close her eyes and drift towards shore. 

And she is still unsure of her host.  His urbane charm, his obvious intellect, his repartee, his dazzling smile – all serve to both soothe and alarm her by turns.  He is sprawled lazily on his sofa, one leg on the floor, one stretched out full length, his fingers idly stroking the neck of his glass.  She sits opposite him, her knees, in what she now suspects was a ‘too-short’ skirt, firmly clamped together, only too aware that she must not send him confusing signals.

“I really must be going” she suddenly says, forcing herself to break the spell.  She reaches for her phone scanning recent calls for the taxi company.  She phones but the beeps ring out unheeded into the empty void.  He notices her slight panic.  “No answer?  I expect they have given up for the night.  Just like our other guests, I imagine.  Just listen to that wind, and the rain is pelting the windows like fury.  I am afraid you may be forced to stay the night.”

“What?  What are you suggesting?  I…I have to get home.” She looks across at him in alarm; he is smiling; a beaming Cheshire Cat of a smile, a self-satisfied job-done, smirk of a smile. 

“My dear woman, there is no way I could have planned this, I am simply offering you the best solution.  I do live here – alone – but have two guest bedrooms ready and made up.  And despite your obvious charms I can assure you I am a gentleman.  Or, if you prefer, you can try and walk the two kilometres home.  That suede coat of yours will offer scant protection though; and will be ruined in this weather.”

“But I don’t even know you.” She protests.  “I…I don’t know what to do.”

“Relax,” he almost leers at her. “Have another glass of wine.  You are in France, we do things slowly here.  Honestly, I am your perfect host, my only desire is to make you comfortable.”

“But this is ridiculous.” She is now, really, quite frightened.  “Whatever sort of woman you think I am, I can assure you…” and then her words dry up, her mouth dries up, her brain seizes up, she reaches for the glass her host has silently re-filled.  “I don’t know what to do.  I’ve had too much wine already.  I don’t know what to think.  Please…”

“Please what?” he smiles strangely at her.  “Look, you are new here.  This is not quite what it seems.”  Her heart is pounding, she thinks she might be having a panic attack.  She wasn’t ready for dating, for even thinking about another man.  Another relationship?  The thought horrifies her.  It feels like betrayal.  Surely, it hasn’t come to this. She only buried her husband a year ago.  Not so soon, surely – not so soon.  Could she say no?  Of course; she has to say no.  But suddenly she feels desperately lonely.  Her whole life is lonely.  She nursed her husband for four years.  Four long years.  Five now, with no loving, no touch of gentleness, no passion at all.  Surely, this isn’t how the evening is destined to end.  Why, oh why had she come?  Why had she had so much to drink?  Confused, lonely, scared, wary of her host, and yet, and yet….

“Listen, one thing you are obviously not aware of.  I do love the company of women.  I have always worshipped them; their beauty, their elegance, the way their perfume melds with their own smell.  But….”

“Oh please….” She almost cries, “what are you trying to say?”

“My dear.  Much as I can see how splendid you are, how, I almost said, desirable.  The simple truth is – that I am not attracted to women.  Not in that way, anyway.  I am, what you might call a passive gay.  I only desire my own sex; though I have rarely actually consummated my fantasies.  I prefer to remain sublimely celibate.”

She breathes an audible sigh of relief.  “Oh, how silly of me.  You must think me so rude.  You have been the perfect host, I must admit.  It must just be the wine making me so jumpy.  I am truly sorry.”  She almost laughs, embarrassed at her own stupidity, of course he was gay, it was obvious, all that perfume nonsense – and takes another gulp of wine.  “Perhaps I had better stay the night after all.  I’m feeling quite tipsy. Would you kindly show me my room – If that it is okay?  I mean, I am so sorry I misjudged the situation.”

“Please don’t apologise, it’s an easy mistake.” putting his glass down beside her empty one.  “let me show you the way.”

As he opens the door to her bedroom the host leans in for one more heady draught of Samsara while his right hand slides down and gently caresses her

Short Story – 7 – I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye

This was a continuation (of sorts) or an extra if you like to a book I tortured nyself with for a few years….I loved the story and the characters, just couldn’t get the format right.  But I wrote this coda a few years later…it is 1

I know you’ll be surprised, shocked even, to receive this letter Jane, but though it was only two days ago, I really can’t remember if we said goodbye.  I left in a terrible mood.  I’d just had the usual row with those two imposters who call themselves our parents.  Though, as you must know Jane, it was always just us; the two of us, Jane and Harriet.  The two of us against the World.  Our parents were so useless; or wrapped up in their own lives that they gave us maybe too much space, too much freedom. 

I know that we have grown slightly apart since I went to University, shit-hole that it is, but I have always cared about you.  Remember what I used to say when we were little girls. “Jane, I am your guardian angel.  You cannot always see me, but I am there, hovering in the sky and looking down on you, protecting you, watching out for you wherever you go.”  And I meant it then and I mean it even more now.  I will always be there for you. 

I am writing this on the train back to London, and by the time you read it I will be starting my new life.  But not in University.  I am packing all that crap in.  I have had enough.  Oh, don’t worry – I have some money.  That was why I came back today when none of you expected me.  I sneaked back into the house while you were all out, picked up a few clothes and my Post-Office savings book – you know the one with all the stamps of Prince Charles in.  Well, it is over £500 actually.  I used to often count it up when Dad was out of the house and secretly plan how I would spend it.  I am packing up this stupid course at Uni.  I mean, History….durgh!!!  Why on earth did I choose, or allow my teachers to choose, History for me?  I simply have to start living, little Sis.  I can’t do this crap any more.  I am in the centre of swinging London, it is 1968 after all. And yet I have seen nothing. These stupid rules in the Halls of Residence.  There are all-nighters at this club in Soho called the Enchanted Garden, where bands play till dawn.  I’ve never been, of course, but I’ve heard.  And, by the way, they have the best dope there too, not like the rubbish we had in Suffolk.  Jane, I am nineteen and I haven’t lived yet.  I’m going to get a job and start living.

Sitting on this train looking out of the window; the factories and the fields and the stupid little houses with neat little gardens.  That isn’t for me.  My God, what short-sighted lives they lead.  As I pass the familiar buildings, the train building up a little speed, the railway footbridge where we used to watch the few remaining steam trains chuffing underneath, drenching us in hot sticky smoke, past the streets and houses huddled so close to the railway line, as if they were too scared to breathe, the very streets we  tramped round as kids, it only seems days ago when it was years really, past the old iron foundry where they make the lawnmowers now, past the paint factory and the fertilizer plant with the big blue and orange drums of chemicals stacked up in rows, past the nursery greenhouses all mildewed and yellow glass, and then the fields with the cows chewing the cud and staring up at me and the train whooshing by, their tails swishing at flies on their rumps, past the little copses where we, little Jane and her big sister Harriet, used to take our picnic basket when the sun seemed to shine all day, past the little farms and outhouses, the very barns where we played when our Mum took us fruit picking, the tiny lives lived out here with such narrow horizons, such dark and dismal skies, such limited imaginations, such tiny ambitions, to live and die here in these little houses, to be born and die in the same place, never having lived your life to the full, never having done anything, never achieving your potential, never realizing you had potential to achieve even.  No, not for me, this country life, getting married to your childhood boyfriend, the first boy who kisses you, the boy from the same village, the same school, who knows your parents, who is probably even related to you a couple of generations back, to get yourself stupidly pregnant, to have to get married, to bring up your snotty-nosed kids in these same stupid houses, wiping the shit off their arses until you have the next one, and the next one, and you become fat with flabby arms and legs like tree-trunks and stop enjoying sex because it is always the same and worse still – the same man, until you are there crying at your daughter’s wedding as she too marries a local boy and is probably already up the duff herself and you watch as she has your grandchildren and they grow up in the same little houses and mean streets and none of them will ever do anything with their pathetic little lives at all.  No, Jane, I am different.  I am better than that.  I am going to be someone. I am not like them, these ordinary people, I am different.

But Jane.  I haven’t forgotten you.  No, I will never do that.  Listen – this is my plan.  I’m going to get a flat, or maybe just a room to start with.  And then a job.  Anything will do to begin with, a waitress or a shop girl.  I’ll try all the boutiques in Carnaby Street and the Kings Road.  Maybe I’ll become a model – or join a band.  I could always sing; the best in the school choir, wasn’t I?  And I’m going to see all the new groups and go to parties and meet all the best people.  I can do it Jane, I know I can. But I will come back for you Jane; I promise.  Once I get myself together, you know. 

Hey Sis, you remember that song by The Beatles – “She’s leaving Home.”  I always thought it was me they were singing about – though sod the man from the motor trade – I don’t need any man at all.  Well, maybe one for laughs or to go to parties with. 

Truth is, though Jane, I am scared.  It is a huge decision; I’ve been thinking about it for ages though – this isn’t just some impulsive thing.  I am scared of the future, of maybe not being famous, of not being someone, or of screwing things up in some way.  Mostly though I am scared of failing, of returning home with my tail between my legs, like some lame animal, begging our parents to take me back.  No.  That isn’t going to happen.  But I am gonna come back for you Jane.  We were always together, weren’t we?  At parties, at Youth Club, we were inseparable – The Wilkinson girls.  I will come back for you Jane.  And if you dare, you can come and live with me in my groovy flat in London. 

But I am so sorry it has to be like this Jane.  A stupid letter, when I should have told you face to face. It’s just that I thought you might not understand, you might have tried to stop me, to make me see sense – as you would say.  You were always the sensible one with her feet on the ground while I was flying miles above you.  And so, I didn’t tell you, did I?  And I can’t even remember if we said goodbye.  I think I just called out ‘See you’ or something like that.   But that doesn’t really mean anything, does it? 

Oh God, I’ve smudged this letter now.  It must have been a few drops of this glass of water and the train jolting and that.  But you know that’s not true don’t you Jane.  I am crying.  Here I am, your big sister Harriet blubbing like a baby.  I’m crying for the times we had, the love we felt for each other.  I’m crying for you Jane, and I’m crying for me Harriet.  I’m crying for us both you see, Jane. That’s why I didn’t say goodbye. Cos’ I would have burst out crying and that would have started you off, and then I might not have had the courage to go through with it, after all.

Anyway, the train’s pulling into Liverpool Street.  I’m gonna stuff this letter in the envelope, it’s already written and stamped and I’m gonna shove it in the first letter box I can find.  Love you Jane.

Don’t forget me….your big sister, Harriet.

Short Story – 6 – The Writing Group

This was my attempt to write in the style of one of my old favourite writers

She looked up at the big station clock.  Five to twelve…oh dear.  Only five minutes to get her ticket to Lewes.  What a bore, there was bound to be a queue.  And, of course, a part of her didn’t really want to go.  If only she had the nerve to have said “No”. But she never seemed brave enough to say what she really wanted, besides Leonard loved these weekends away.  She decided not to rush, ducking into the Corner House she ordered a cup of tea; she would take a later train. 

She just needed a little time on her own, time to think, time to be herself.  Because she was never herself these days, never simply Virginia. Virginia Stephens?   Where had that little girl gone – and of course since her marriage never would she be Stephens again.  She longed sometimes simply to be a single woman, to be on her own again.  It wasn’t that she didn’t love her husband; of course she did, but had she really have had a choice she might have dared to remain single.  But how could one simply be a single woman of thirty or so, here in the Nineteen-Twenties? Simply impossible, and even more confusing and complicated, she suspected, than this strange state of being married. 

And these weekends loomed over her like some swaying sword of Damocles.  Oh, the nonsense of it all; the kow-towing to everyone else, the pretence that they were doing something remarkable, something different – when more and more she felt they were simply treading water.  Never really achieving anything; simply living on past glories.  And the group, this almost famous group, which she had always thought of as a writer’s group was being taken over by dabblers, by dilettantes, by adventurers and even, she feared, womanisers.  Oh, if only it had stayed simple – just a few friends and fellow writers meeting at home to discuss books and the love of writing itself. 

And her secret hope, trying to find a new form of writing, an open-hearted honest post-war way of putting into words what truly mattered, what one really felt.  But now they had painters and an economist and even a sculptor joining them.  No longer simply a writing group, more some sort of semi-debauched, slightly notorious, society; because they were already being talked about; put down by the straight-laced; and revered by those who considered themselves as somehow ‘modern’.  The newspapers were even calling them a ‘set’ – whatever that is supposed to mean.  Something not very nice at all, she suspects.

And all she wanted to do, all she had ever wanted to do, was to write; to express herself, to describe things.  And not just pretty flowers or landscapes, but people, and especially women.  She longed to tell her story, all her stories, the ones that had crowded her mind since she could ever remember.  She wanted to let people know that you could talk about feelings, love and passion and ecstasy and sadness and desolation, the whole range of emotions; fears, loves and hates, without being ridiculed, without being censored by male publishers.

“Now Virginia, this is all very well, and of course it goes without saying -brilliantly written – but really, you must think of the consequences.  Is this quite what the public wants to read?  And as I say to all my writers ‘Will it sell, my dear, will it sell?’”. 

The sad-eyed and weary looking nippy brought the tea, a hideous yellowy brown with just enough hint of scum to put you off, in an awful thick white cup, with the tiniest lump of sugar precariously perched on the saucer like the meagre comfort it represented.  Really, did no-one know how to make a decent cup of tea these days.  And service?  You might as well forget that, ever since the war the whole concept of service had disappeared.  Surliness, sheer rudery everywhere.  It wasn’t that one wanted servitude – just a smile would do.

Oh well.  I suspect her life is pretty hideous too.  At least mine is comfortable I suppose, but little real comfort that gives me.  I am as trapped in my petticoats as she in her pinny; I wonder if she reflects on her pointless life as I do.  Oh, why am I never really happy?  Always far too self-conscious to let myself go and simply enjoy the moment.  Happiness?  That most elusive of states; it is almost as if the realisation of happiness is also its destroyer.  As soon as one feels that one might be actually ‘happy’ – the spell is broken and one’s mind is swamped by those bad thoughts again.  Oh, my bad-dog thoughts, these horrendous harbingers constantly circling my poor tired mind – if only I could dispel them for a few moments.  Just to sit in the sun somewhere with no thoughts at all – how wonderful that might be. 

But I never seem to have enough time on my own.  There is always so much to see to; the house, the wretched servants, the bills to be paid.  I was never cut out to be a wife.  All I ever wanted was to be left alone, to have somewhere I could retreat to, a room really – that’s all I have ever wanted.  Somewhere, maybe with a window – a view, a garden to drift into when the words won’t come, a desk, a chair; a vase with a few hand-picked daisies, a handful of books.   And paper.  Of course, heaps, reams of fresh white virgin paper, and my trusty Parker pen.  Just leave me, bolt the door and lock me here for days if you must – but just let me write

I need to get it all down before it is lost, every passing thought, each delicate whimsical recollection, it is all valuable.  It is all me, all this ‘nonsense whirling around in my head’ – as Leonard smilingly dismisses it – I must find a new way of writing, of capturing what it is to be alive, to be a woman, to be thirty, to have never had and never wanted a child.  But to be an equal to men, a reflection, a counter-balance, not better or worse or superior or subservient – but equal. 

Vanessa says that’s all poppycock; but then Vanessa is a painter.  Can anyone tell the sex of the artist from the finished work, are the brush strokes more delicate, the colours more vivid?  But writing – oh those publishers simply label you as a woman’s writer; only fit for other women to read.  But I want everyone to read. Women to know that someone understands us, and has managed to encapsulate how we are – and men to marvel, to wonder at the world we inhabit.

But truly, the group is too large, too many distractions, too much drinking, too much flirting, too little real attempt to create something new.  Maybe I shall simply not go this time, stay home in Bloomsbury; telegram to say I was feeling poorly.  But not too poorly, I don’t want Leonard rushing back and making sure I see a Doctor.  It isn’t a Doctor I need; it is aloneness, it is solitude I crave. 

Goodness is that the time.  Must rush, or I will be late.  And the gorgeous Vita will be there this weekend.  I haven’t seen the Sackville-Wests for ages.  My, Vita really is such a beauty.  So vivacious, so outre, so scrumptious.  Why – if I were a man – I could barely resist her.  The way she half-smiles at you, you could just eat her.  Mustn’t think like that though, far too dangerous.  The group is outrageous enough without that sort of thing. 

You can never see the nippy when you want her. I’ll just leave tuppence here next to my cup and dash off.  I wonder what we will talk about this time?  Will Lytton be there, with his florid curlicue style, or Forster – just back from India.  I do hope so.  Despite what I sometimes think I do love them all really.  My scatty sister Vanessa and her husband Clive – always predictable Clive.  Dear mad Lytton of course, Keynes the sly old dog and Roger, of course lovely Roger, and my dear long-suffering Leonard.   And the weather is so warm maybe we can spend a few hours on the beach this time. 

My, what a difficult and complicated old World.  All these wonderful friends, the special writing group – and yet still I crave a little space, a room even to just sit and write in.

Quick, I must run for the train. and I really cannot face another horrid tea or the sad face of that tired little nippy again.  I must remember her – pop her into a story somewhere.  That downcast little face. Ah here she is.

“Don’t I know you?” the nippy asks, clearing away the crockery “Ain’t I seen your face in the papers?”

“You might have.  I am Virginia, Virginia Woolf.  I am a writer.  Maybe you have read one of my novels.”

“Naah.  Sorry. Never ‘eard of yer.  Must have muddled you up with someone famous”

Short Story – 5 – A Most Amazing Experience – A True Story

I hated the title at first and got round it by sort of ignoring it…

Well, let me begin by saying that all stories are true – it’s just that some of them haven’t actually happened – so, if you don’t mind. I will leave you guessing. 

The first time that anything happens is usually pretty amazing – and not always for the right reasons, but new experiences seldom fail to leave their mark.  That first hesitant kiss, the soft almost not-there touch of her lips, the guilty look in your eyes, you glance sideways to see if she has read your thoughts – but no, her eyes are closed in blissful anticipation so you move in and let the gliding edge of your tongue slide over her gorgeous plump lips. 

Ah, enough of this mundane stuff – we have all kissed – but I suspect none of you can quite remember that first time.  Anyway, not in the graphic detail I can.

And that of course has always been my problem.  I remember everything.  Each falling leaf as it begins its downward spiral to earth is captured in my memory.  Each handful of silvery sand I let slip through my fingers – just like the women I discarded; so many fallen petals, faded flowers, wilting and clogging up the drains after rain.  All there – my memories; lined up in their little white boxes, sublime treasure-chests of remembrance, just waiting for the lid to be prised open and re-lived.

Just like the first time I killed a woman.  Oh, I had no intention before it happened.  This was not pre-meditated.  Honestly.  Thoughts of death had never crossed my mind.  Seduction, persuasion, a little light tussle maybe – but not killing.  Besides this was my first time; my very own virgin murder and I was hardly prepared.   For anything, I might add. 

The blood – of course.  And how could anything, any degree of premeditation prepare you for the blood, that metallic aroma that fills your nostrils, the bright red pulsing colour of it, the stickiness – no matter how you try to wipe it away it clings to your fingers; you glance in the mirror and there are spots on your face, your glasses splattered, it even gets in your hair.  Your clothes are ruined, of course; they will have to be burned – and if you are stupid enough to kill her in your own rooms you have to use gallons of bleach to eradicate the stains that seem to lurk, like shadowy reminders of the woman she once was.  And the screams, those piercing high-pitched screams go right through you, yet in a way they simply encourage you to keep on stabbing, to stifle, to silence her, to extinguish the very air in her lungs.  And then the body limp and collapsing around you; as you reach for an arm her leg flops out of your grasp.  The weight of them too, who would have thought something so light on its toes, so sprightly, so energetic one moment – could be so unresponsive, so inert, so – well, dead, to put it bluntly.  And the disposal of the now completely distasteful body presents a whole new set of problems.  And I mean it when I say distasteful.  Please do not mistake me for some sort of pervert.  A dead thing is simply that, there is no sexual attraction in a corpse, even less than in a living being I might add.

But like everything in life, I have found, the first time is always the hardest.  After a while you develop strategies for dealing with these issues. 

But the first time was I must admit quite an amazing experience.  As I said I had no idea of killing the woman at all.  It had all started so innocently; a date – innocuous in itself, though I am sure a suspicion must have been lurking somewhere in her consciousness.  Surely, she must have known that my intentions were not exactly honourable.  Possibly she knew all along that we would end up entwined in a passionate embrace.  Isn’t that what the game is about, after all?

Anyway. Let us not preach semantics.  How we got there is unimportant suffice to say – there we are wrapped in each other’s arms and kissing, quite torridly as I recall.  Then, all of a sudden she pushes me away saying “No.  I really shouldn’t be doing this.  I have a boyfriend already.  I have to leave.”

How irrational, I can’t help but think.  I feel like saying “My dear, if you were already committed to someone else what the hell were you doing with your tongue halfway down my throat?”   But of course, you only think of these witticisms after the event – never at the time.  In fact, as well as being completely taken by surprise I am actually quite annoyed.  I had not forced her to come back to my squalid little bedsit, I had not even plied her with drink, my usual desperate ploy.  She had seemed quite keen.  And yet, unbelievably here she is protesting some sort of innocence.  I couldn’t quite believe how stupid she must think me.  Stupid enough to just smile and order her a cab I suppose.  No – my lovely, no cab for you tonight, you are going nowhere.

I push her back on the sofa and grab both her wrists in my left hand while my right undoes my belt.  She is kicking quite furiously now and screaming at me.  This only serves to make me angry – and yet, even despite the initial rage, a strange calmness descends on me. I tie her hands and reach for her cardigan (discarded, just like her morals, on the floor).  I manage to get her legs tied too, and then a tea-towel wrapped over her obscene mouth.  I can barely believe the filthy words spilling out of her. “Shut up woman.”  I command, but she stupidly continues, her body bucking under my strong grip.  Suddenly I feel I have had enough of this nonsense.  You see, I simply want her to stop screaming and shouting at me.  If she had stopped her foul-mouthed abuse none of what followed would have been necessary. 

It was in every way an amazing experience.  Looking down at her, I can picture her now, writhing like some captured beast, or a fish hauled out of the river and squirming on the bank.  I was disgusted both at her and at my own ridiculous desire.  How could I have ever found her attractive.

Suddenly I know I have to kill her, to bring both of us out of this ridiculous situation.  I mean, I can hardly simply untie her, apologise, and let her go.  Things will not end there; no doubt she will involve the Police, or worse still her boyfriend, if indeed he exists (she may well have made him up just to satisfy her own guilty conscience). I can see no alternative but to kill her.

I grab a cushion and try to suffocate her, but no matter now hard I press against it she still manages to turn her face away, and despite the gag to gasp for air.  This was taking far too long, so I reach for a kitchen knife.  There is a little resistance I must admit, though that may be the layers of fabric around her chest, but eventually the knife sinks in all the way to the hilt.  She stops her writhing and stares at me, as if in disbelief.  I will never forget that look, pleading and helpless, and yet defiant at the same time.  I pull the knife out and am covered in huge spurts of blood.  She is gushing like a fountain.  So, I stab her again a few more times and the flow of blood slows to a trickle and then a slow ooze.  But oh, how good I feel, how completely in control at last.  ‘That will teach you a lesson you little minx’, I think, ‘You won’t be teasing another man like that for a while, will you?  In fact, you won’t be teasing anyone ever again.’

Okay, so now I had to get rid of the body.  But a second-hand rug and a tarpaulin and she is stuffed at three in the morning into the boot of my car, then down to the coast and off the end of the pier.  And no-one ever suspected me.  It had been a blind date, she hadn’t told any of her friends.  It was a couple of weeks before her body was washed up.  Another unsolved murder I am afraid.  

An amazing experience – to have killed someone, to have felt the life seep out of them. And best of all to have gotten away with it.  It felt like a drug, and I must admit I had dabbled with those too in my dubious past.  And just like drugs it is so amazing you want to try it – again and again. 

As I said at the beginning all stories are true – it is just that some haven’t actually happened.  I should have completed the sentence though.  All stories are true – it is just that some simply haven’t actually happened…. yet.