Thursday, 31 May 2012

31: History Boy

There aren’t too many young people browse in our bookshop, unless they fancy a latte on their way into town and get sidetracked.  But this one looks like she’s come here specially and hasn’t even looked at the coffees.  I wish I could carry off red hair like that.  Look at it glinting in the sun, ruby and copper, auburn and golds setting off her greeny eyes and pale skin. 

She looks rather serious though, perhaps a little too much like I was at that age.  I wonder if she has hopes of escaping this town, moving to a big city, marrying a handsome doctor, just as I had.  I hope she isn’t disappointed too.  It’s worked out OK here, but not exactly what I’d planned for my life.  I wonder what a 16-year-old me would say to this 45-year old me.  Tell me not to give up so easily?  Or that I did the right thing sticking with Mother and Father?

The girl walks over to the shelves of the special collection and I see her tilt her head to the side, reading names on spines.  She glances from one to the next quickly until her gaze stops on a book, in the history section it looks from here.  She removes it from the shelf and holds it carefully in both hands.  I may be wrong but I think she just inhaled the old books smell.

She approaches the counter and I look away, wiping a spill so she won’t know I’ve been watching her. 
“Can I get a coffee and read this for a while?” she asks.  I smile back and she asks for black, no sugar, fair trade, so I tell her all our coffee is fair-trade.

“It’s for my boyfriend,” she nods at the book.  “He’s in college with me, studying history.  I think this might have some of the people he’s mentioned in.  I’m not really good with that kind of thing.” 

I can’t imagine her being not good at anything she put her mind too, but I don’t tell her so.  “Take your time,” I say.  “Maybe something will jump out at you.  But we have plenty of modern history books if you’d prefer those.”  I point out the shelves for her.

“No,” she says.  “One like this.  A special one.  He’d prefer that.”

I know what she means and I’m sure she’s right.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

30: The Last Batch of Brownies

Grendel loved brownies, so his mother liked to rustle him up a batch whenever she could. 

Like most dreadful monsters he had a huge appetite.  Because she was so busy fighting marauding hoards and because preparing three dozen brownies took quite some time, his mother saved them as a treat for him.

One night mother found she only had 4 brownies ready for Grendel’s tea.  She searched the forest and the town, the beach and the mountain, but wasn’t able to make the batch any bigger.  He wouldn’t be happy.

“Here you are, dear,” she said, handing him the plate.

“Why so few?” he asked, smushing the 4 brownies into his mouth with one hand.   Bits fell out between his teeth as he chewed and he gathered them up off the floor.

“It’s so hard to get them these days.  Word has got round that you like them so much, and packs have disbanded everywhere,” said Grendel’s mother.  “Try these, dear.  They shouldn’t be much different.”

Grendel took a handful, sniffed and stuffed the contents into his mouth.

“Not bad,” he said.  “What is it?”

“Scouts,” said his mother.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

29: Late Night Walk Home

It didn’t matter that she lived almost four miles from my house.  It didn’t matter that to get in for my curfew after I’d walked her home I had to run most of those four miles.  All that mattered was that she was safe and that she was mine.

We met in the lunch queue at the Sixth Form College that we both attend.  I was the gangly geek making Darth Vader noises for his friends.  She was the petite redhead asking whether the eggs were locally sourced and responsibly farmed.  She received a vacant look in reply and I was lost for words for the first of many times over the following months.

Anna was her name and she wasn’t in any of my classes.  She was a sciences student aiming for medical school, and despite my geeky leanings, I was a diehard historian.  In my mind she was Maid Marion and I dreamed of her with garlands of woodland flowers in her hair.  My mate Mark was in her chemistry group so I started to hang round outside the lab at the end of their lessons, waiting for him.

Then we went to a Halloween party and she was there.  I’d had a few drinks by the time I saw her, so I walked over, said hi and told her I liked her.  Mark and the others just stood there then started clapping.  I took her arm and steered her towards the drinks table before they could put her off and then we went outside to talk.

We have been together almost six months now and it’s great.  I never imagined someone like her would look at me.  She’s smart and funny and ethical and beautiful, and I do impressions of Star Wars characters.  Perhaps it’s true opposites attract.

She is so special I’d walk her home even if it was twice as far and I’d just run faster after.

Monday, 28 May 2012

28: Spare Cheese

It had started in Tiverton but the problem was now national.  It was expected to be global by Christmas.  Everyone had too much cheese and there was no space to put the spare.

In time it would be resolvable, if cheese production was cut down or even banned temporarily.  But quotas and bans on cheese making didn’t sit well with buyers and producers alike and it didn’t solve the problem of excess cheese facing the British government now.

School children were the first to be targeted as a solution.  Instead of bringing back free school milk, ministers authorized free school cheese.  Every school child was entitled to 50g of cheese daily.  This was scaled back from the original 100g after janitors complained about the mess made by sickly pupils in PE lessons.

Next was the older generation.  Post offices stocked up and everyone in receipt of a state pension was presented with a large block of cheese in lieu of some of their weekly money.  Care homes received deliveries in bulk and menus were revamped to include a minimum of 1 cheese-based dish every day.

Cheese mountains slowly reduced but there was a still a stubborn amount of spare cheese, particularly in rural areas and Clacton, although nobody knew why that should be so.

Fondue set ownership became compulsory and sales of both cocktail sticks and pineapple chunks were excellent.

Top government scientists finally announced they had come up with a solution.  Everyone knew the moon wasn’t really made of cheese, but why not store all the spare cheese on the moon they said, so in future it really could be.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

27: The Prince’s Jet Ski

Once upon a time there was a wise king and a beautiful queen and they had a son who was the most perfectly behaved prince ever.  He was kind and thoughtful and polite and everybody loved him.  Being a prince, he wanted for nothing in a palace that was full of toys and games and electronics.  So when he was 21 the king and queen didn’t know what to buy him for a special birthday present. 

They asked the prime minister and he suggested a jet ski.  “All the young men have them now, sir,” he said.  “I’ve even been on one myself.  They are such fun.”  A jet ski it would be then.

On the day of his birthday the king and queen had the jet ski wrapped and delivered on the lawn outside the prince’s bedroom.  He was as delighted as a child on Christmas morning, knowing as he unwrapped it that it couldn’t be a bike, but as excited as if it was.  The engine gleamed and the petrol tank shone piano black in the sunlight. 

The king handed him the key and said, “There you are my boy, take her for a spin.”

“Thank you Father,” said the prince.  “But this is Berkshire and it’s rather a long way to the sea.”

“Oh can I tell him?” squealed the queen.  “The rest of your present is beyond the lower field.  We built you a lake to play with it on.  Grandpapa is waiting there now.”

“Thank you Father, thank you Mother,” he said, shaking his father’s hand and kissing his mother on the cheek.  “This really is too much.”  And they all made their way to the new lake, with the butler and some of the other staff.

Once the jet ski had been lowered into the water the prince stepped aboard and put the key in the ignition.  He glanced round and made a quick salute before turning the key, opening the throttle and roaring off across the lake. 

“Does he think he’s some sort of sailor?” muttered his grandfather.

The prince drove round and round the lake, getting faster with every turn.  He drove close to the small crowd watching him and splashed them, before driving round again and drenching them on the second passing.

“I say,” said the king, “what on earth is he doing?  Somebody ring the prime minister and find out what’s wrong.”

Meanwhile the prince pulled up at the bank, turned the jet ski off and walked towards the crowd.  “Hey Pops,” he said, “that’s bear cool.  You should take her for a spin.  Might get you some action, know what I mean?”  He winked, tossed the keys to the king and sauntered off in the direction of the palace.

“Sir, I’ve reached the prime minister,” said the butler.  “It’s not good I’m afraid.”

“Well, what is it?” said the king.

“He says he forgot to mention that owning a jet ski turns anyone, even the nicest person imaginable, into a total cock.”

Saturday, 26 May 2012

26: Cow Springtime

The drive to work normally took Derek 30 minutes, 25 minutes on a good day.  Sometimes snow blocked the lanes and he couldn’t leave the cottage for days, so he worked at home.  He liked quoting for insurance cover whilst wearing pyjamas on those days.  He kept promising himself a quilted purple smoking jacket to complete the look, but never found quite what he had in mind.

His journey to Derby city took him past miles of waterways whose levels rose and fell during the seasons, but that seemed a little lower overall each year.  Over stony bridges that relied on a give-and-take system, increasingly fragile as younger commuters, less willing to give way, became more a feature in village life.

Derek dreaded cow season.  In the winter, cows were kept close to the barns and short daylight hours meant fewer moves were possible.  Farmers were well known for moving their stock from field to field, and over time a gentle truce had been achieved.  Farmers waited until after morning commute to move the beasts and local drivers waited patiently for a herd at other times in return.

The Audi A3 and BMW X5 drivers didn’t want to wait patiently for a herd of cows.  They didn’t want a hold up at all on their way to the office and the Rotary Club lunch and the golf course.  So they sat and honked and beeped horns and scared the cows.  And the farmers got angry.

So now there was a warlike situation in the back lanes of Derby.  Farmers took their cows to fields across the lanes whenever they felt like and they usually felt like it about 8am.  Derek mostly took over an hour to get to work, leaving early every day to try and avoid the cows.  Locals still waited with relative good grace and some thought the farmers moved cows a little quicker if there wasn’t any beeping and honking to be heard.

Derek spent his lunchtimes Googling quilted smoking jackets and wondered if maybe green would do instead.

Friday, 25 May 2012

25 Herculean Task

We have many notable clients, some of whom would not like it publicly known that their facial hair is attended by a moustache barber.  Perhaps the most famous of all is Mr Poirot, who visits us three times per week.

We wax his tips and in return he is working to undermine the apparent resistance of the Handlebar Club to our patented Tash Snoods, from the inside.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

24: 6 Things You Can Recycle

Wise words from grandma, redressed in your modern language, but the same good sense decades later.

The smile of a stranger on the street, friend or lover, the delight never diminishing even if it travelled round the world a thousand times.

Laughter, of children finding something to make them giggle, across continents, despite hardships and regardless of education, infectious and inspiring.

Friendship, shared between few or many, carrying people through dark times and providing scaffolding to the lives of so many of us.

Kindness, perfect for self-perpetuating, even the smallest act rendering the hardest heart glad and a little less cynical about our world.

Love, need I say more?  Without love, life is a pencil sketch of the oil masterpiece it should be.  Receive love wherever it is offered to you and forward it indiscriminately, especially to those who don’t have enough already and those who think they don’t need it.  They need it most.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

23: If This Isn’t Nice

“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Connor screwed up his face.  “Do I have to?”

“Yes.  It’s important.”

“OK.  If this isn’t nice what is.  Better?”

“No, you didn’t say it like you meant it.  You didn’t even say it properly.”  Marie meant it and said it like she meant it.

Connor thumped his pint onto the wooden table, slopping froth down the side of the glass.  “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is.”  He picked his drink up again, taking a big gulp, then another.  He let out a throaty ‘ahhh’.

He put his glass down again, matching the bottom to the ring the froth had made on the table.  Outside the beer garden, traffic on the man road was sparse and birds twittered in the lull.  Leaves patted each other as branches and twigs danced in puffs of breeze.  Patterns of shade and sun shimmered on the patio.
Connor stretched his arms wide and wriggled more comfortably in his seat, resting his feet up on the bench in front.

“Yeah, it is nice.”

Cold sweat beads rang down the pint glasses like raindrops and Connor linked one to the next in growing rivulets.  He lifted the glass to his mouth, tasting the malty liquor with his tongue, swirling it round his cheeks.  He laughed as a trickle escaped his lips and ran towards his chin, scooping it with his finger before it could splash onto his shirt.

A ladybird landed on the table and walked an inch or two before unfurling black wings and flying off once again.  Connor watched it fly until he could no longer be sure what was bug and what was bush.  Bees buzzed in and out of blossoms and fragranced air reached his nose in waves.  He inhaled and held it in his lungs for a long time.

Connor reached for Marie’s hand and took it in his, stroking the freckled back with his fingertips.  He interlaced his fingers with hers and carried on stroking with his thumb, eyes closed and head back, face upturned to the sun.

“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is,” he said.

Inspiration Knowing What's Nice by Kurt Vonnegut

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

22: Cliffs and Ditches

Nell:       What sort of time do you call this?
Penny:    Ah.  Hello.  Sorry.
Nell:       You were supposed to be home over an hour ago.  You know I can’t sleep unless I know you’re in.
Penny:    Sorry, I just didn’t notice the time.
Nell:       But you always say that.  What about that nice watch you’ve got?  The one Nan gave you for Christmas.
Penny:    It looks too much like a Nan watch.
Nell:       Charming.  Don’t you let her hear you say that or she’ll have you.
Penny:    Well it is.  But I’m here now.
Nell:       So how was the film?
Penny:    Good, yeah.  Long.
Nell:       That why you’re late?
Penny:    That and chatting after.  Gary was telling us about his new bike.
Nell:       Just telling?
Penny:    Yeah, course.
Nell:       So you didn’t have a ride?  Just watched the others have a spin?
Penny:    It was only round the car park.  Everyone else was having a go.
Nell:       If everyone else...
Penny:    No, I wouldn’t put my hand in the fire.  Or jump off a cliff.  And he had a spare helmet.
Nell:       I don’t care if he did.  What if you’d have fallen off and landed dead in a ditch.
Penny:    They don’t have ditches in the cinema car park.
Nell:       Well I’m off to bed.  I can see you’re in one of those moods, so I’ll leave you to it.  Lock up when you come up will you.  Don’t forget.
Penny:    OK, night love.  Oh and Nell?
Nell:       Yes Mum?
Penny:    Gary’s picking me up at 7.30 tomorrow.  Do you fancy a ride?

Monday, 21 May 2012

21: Light in the Box

In a clearing in a wood sits a light in the box.  Not everyone can see a light in the box, only the very lucky or the very unlucky.  Sometimes they are one and the same and nobody knows which they are until judgement time.

The legend is that a light in the box is a tiny wish made by a baby and whispered into the ear of an angel.  A happy wish and a sad wish and an angry wish all look the same but the box looks different depending on the wish lighting it.  The louder the glow, the happier the wish inside.

Any time the petal of a flower or the leaf of a tree or the kiss of a butterfly should fall into the box the wish becomes louder and happier.  If there was enough nature left, every light in the box wish in the world could become happy.  People won’t let there be enough nature for all the wishes to be happy and sometimes babies make sadder wishes these days anyway.

When mothers who sing to their babies before they are born they help to make light in the box wishes louder.  Fathers who sing too make them louder still.  Babies who hear no singing at all have sad wishes that hurt the angels’ ears.  Mothers and fathers sometimes forget the singing they heard as babies or maybe they also did not hear any singing.

Petals and leaves and butterflies can teach us the songs to sing.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

20 Deirdre’s Lie

Deirdre’s lie had got out of hand somewhere between a conference in Rome and lying in a coma.  She could barely remember why she started it at all now.  When she began her new job she should just have told the girls she was between men or something.  That was almost the truth, wasn’t it?  So what if it had been 4 years since the last one and there was no likelihood of the next one being any sooner.  Especially now.

Making up your husband certainly cramps your style.

Deirdre invented Ken.  They laughed over the similarity to her favourite soap but it helped Deirdre keep track of him.  She never volunteered information about Ken, but spent hours making notes and researching so he sounded authentic.  Imagine if she made him an architect but said he worked for a firm of solicitors.  She stuck with simple and ambiguous.  And uncheckable.

Ken worked for the Inland Revenue, drove a silver Ford supplied by his employer and investigated fraud cases.  He was average height, average weight, average age.  He liked bitter, read classics and operetta.  He didn’t like football, because Deirdre couldn’t face trolling through fixtures and results every week so she could report back on Ken’s happiness or despondency, depending on the team she picked for him.

It started, she thought, so she didn’t feel left out.  When the girls moaned about how hopeless their husbands were, she smiled knowingly and added little titbits about Ken.  He never had to be asked to take the rubbish out, only sometimes put darks into the light basket and usually remembered to put the seat down.  The girls often said she was lucky then, and she’d say yes, he was a lucky find.

Gatherings with partners were always a problem and Deirdre had to find new and inventive reasons for Ken to miss everything.  Work was a good one and she used it regularly.  The conference to Rome almost caused a problem when Irene asked why a Northampton taxman needed to go to Italy.  But she bluffed about some new European regulations she didn’t understand and they seemed satisfied.  She stocked up on second-hand men’s things from Oxfam after Penny called round unexpectedly.  She came to collect Deirdre for a cinema trip and on seeing no men’s coat on the rack in the hall, asked if Ken was at work this late every day.

When Pat’s daughter announced her wedding, Pat invited everyone to the evening disco.  She took Deirdre to one side and handed her an invite for the ceremony and reception too.  “I can’t invite everyone but I’d love it if you and Ken could come along.  It would be so nice to meet him at long last.”  Deirdre smiled, thanked Pat and decided it was time to get rid of Ken.

The wedding was 4 months away so there was plenty of time to make plans.  Now Deirdre wished she’d just gone with Ken leaving her for a blond called Karen in billing.  Instead she decided that Ken would leave her for Karen in billing, but after a tragic car accident, a worrying period in a coma and a luckily-not-so-deathbed confession of infidelity, where he could lie to her no more.  She had Ken travelling a lot more regularly and waited for a convenient motorway pileup.

Everyone marvelled at how well Deirdre was coping with the horror of the accident and insisted she shouldn’t be working at a time like this.  She felt guilty about missing work but used the time to read all of the Colin Dexter novels, sat in the canteen of the hospital.  She told her friends he wasn’t up to other visitors but kept them up-to-date most evenings by text.  Most days she texted “No change” but then “His eyelids flickered,” and “He moved his finger,” and at last, “He’s awake!”

Pat didn’t expect her to come to the wedding in the midst of it all, but she’d been shopping for a lovely new Per Una outfit as soon as she received the invite, so Deirdre was determined to go.  On the morning, she dressed up taking care of her hair and clothes, but repeatedly rubbed her eyes to make them red and watery.  She slipped into the back of the church once the bride had entered and didn’t catch Pat’s eye until the photos outside.  Pat came up to her, hugged her and asked after Ken.  Deirdre whispered her bedside drama from behind a hankie then said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

“I’m not surprised,” said Pat.  “I bet you wish you’d never met him.”

“I wish he’d never even existed,” said Deirdre.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

19 Getaway

Colin’s mates said he was the best getaway driver around and he liked to think they were right. “It’s about being prepared,” he told them. 

He scoped out every job for weeks, running journeys at all times of the day and night. He knew bus timetables better than bus drivers did. He learned back streets and side alleys, escape routes and places to avoid. That’s what made him the best. That’s what made him so in demand.

Colin also knew his cars. Anyone planning a job came to him first and set him the task of finding the motor that would get them all away afterwards. He’d usually gone for sporty but older. In this area anything newer than a 55 plate stood out and even admiring attention was a total no-no on these jobs.

His favourite was when he had to get a few vehicles, the sort the others could arrive in and cause a diversion or a hold up. He’d done white vans with fake plumbers details painted on a few times.  Once there was a Post Office van, complete with mail bags and postie on a bike. Colin’s proudest moment was when that police car had pulled up and the gang had taken a bit of convincing it was his, not the real Old Bill.

It was on regular car journeys that Colin wasn’t so good. His wife took over looking after their Escort after it ran out of petrol for a third time, on the roundabout at the top end of Ipswich High Street. Although Linda reminded him regularly that the engine was making a funny noise and had almost cut out on a hill start, Colin never quite got the servicing sorted out.

The gang decided on a barbeque in the sunshine to discuss last minute details, so Colin planned to drop Linda at her mother’s house for her afternoon visit, then make his escape. His mother-in-law was sat in a deckchair on the front lawn and waved as they drove up. He ushered Linda out, sticking the car in first gear. In his side mirror he could see the old lady get up and start walking down the path. As he tried to drive off, the engine choked and stalled.  He turned the key repeatedly, trying to spark the Ford into life whilst Linda’s mother bore down on him.

“I haven’t seen you for so long, Colin dear,” she said. She opened his car door and pulling his arm said, “Come on in just for a little chat. I have some of that cake you like.” With the car still refusing to move, Colin had little choice. It took 2 hours of Battenberg before the recovery people got there. It was another hour before they’d towed him to a garage and he could go to meet the guys. When he arrived, the coals had gone cold and there was only warm beer left.

And so it was on a hot afternoon in June that Colin was taught the importance of giving as much attention to your wife’s nags as to your gang’s blueprints, by an elderly lady and no sausages.

Friday, 18 May 2012

18: Safety Training

I admit it, I’m a bit of an ambulance chaser.  The work is regular, it pays well and the good old British public have developed a real taste for litigation.  I know some of them aren’t strictly accurate claims but my job isn’t to judge.  That’s for the actual judge to do, if the other side don’t settle beforehand that is.

And some of the best ones make great dinner party stories.  Since I’ve started taking no win no fee cases I’ve heard some incredible stories, and I mean that in the literal sense, but I’m not one to turn down an invite to someone else’s sirloin and Merlot.

The best one ever was the traffic warden who sued her employer for damages after she unknowingly ticketed a transformer.  I got her a bundle and even more for myself.  Bought this watch with the proceeds.  See how the dial and face come apart and look like a little man? 

Anyway, it was all down to the training.  Or lack of, more like.  Her induction included irate drivers, irate passengers, irate pedestrians, avoiding moving vehicles (low and high speed) and even how to minimize the risk of blisters.  They provided wet weather gear, comfortable shoes and a mobile for emergencies.

What they didn’t cover in their Health and Safety was how to deal with cars and vans that are really intergalactic robots hiding on Earth and who don’t appreciate having things stuck on their disguised faces.

Luckily she wasn’t badly hurt though.  She probably would have gone to someone else if she had been, so that’s good news all round.  It was an unheard of event see, so we could pretty much name our price in the settlement.  The council were keen to hush it all up, worried that house prices would fall if it came out that they might find inter-species warfare happening on the front lawn.  So we cleaned up.

She was happy because she made enough to ensure she never has to walk those miles of streets ever again.

And I’m setting about a new career advising public bodies on the legal implications of the judgement and how to train your staff properly to deal with transformer rage.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

17: The Amazing Onion

The amazing onion mix-up that led to Boris Johnson appearing to cry as he apologized to the inhabitants of a Northern town, may not have been an accident.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

16: How I Met Your Mother

The first time I met your mother, she was on the checkout at Booth’s Supermarket and she served me as I bought Blue Nun, breath mints and a 12pack of condoms. 
“Want to join me?” I said, going for hilarious, sexy and the right amount of earnest.
“ID?” she said.

The second time I met your mother, I didn’t recognize her in the crowd.  I fancied my chances with her all over again, earlier memories of a blonde checkout girl blurred by Guinness and the thrill of the chase.
“Hey,” I said.
“What time's your mum picking you up?” she said.

The third time I met your mother, we were both collecting our children from the school gate.  Your brother Jamie played in the sandpit with my Lucy nearly every day.  Sometimes they played shops.  She sold him plastic potatoes and he would cook her dinner.

The next time I met your mother, she had taken Jamie to live in a flat above a shop without telling her husband where she was.  I was flat hunting too, somewhere with room for Lucy to visit at weekends.

The best time I met your mother, she was struggling upstairs at the Housing Office, shopping in one hand and Jamie’s balled up fist in the other.  The handle of a carrier bag broke and tins tumbled over the landing as I hurried past to a meeting.  I chased the beans Jamie had kicked down the stairs and helped repack the bags.

I met your mother for coffee next day and then most days after.  I met Jamie – properly – and she met Lucy in the ball pit at McDonalds.  The estate agent met us at the house, but one at a time as we took turns to babysit.

We met you together.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

15: Office Life

It started with Jim hiding my stapler and ended with me dangling him out of a 6th floor window by his ankles.

Jim was really popular when he started at Thompsons.  New employees often take a while to warm up in our industry, but he was make coffees, chasing down leads and offering his opinion on everything within the first week.  He joined us in the Mariner after work that first Friday, our usual haunt after a hard week.

“Budge up Kev,” he said, forcing a chair between me and Ceri.  I’d been working my way up to ask her out for a few weeks and this was the closest I’d been, so I wasn’t best pleased.  I moved and he slid into the circle, angling his chair facing towards Ceri and his back to me.

After the weekend, I found he had moved desks to the one facing mine.  “Much better view, Kev” he said, winking at me and nodding his head towards Ceri who sat to my left.  She was on a call, but I saw her cheeks flush, but whether with delight or embarrassment I wasn’t sure.  “And I’m overlooking the river too.”
And it all went downhill from there.

Tuesday, I discovered my stapler had been hidden in the bottom of the bin.  I spent 15 minutes looking for it before asking to use Ceri’s, and only discovered it when I kicked my bin in frustration.  Jim made that noise of trying-not-to-laugh-and-sounding-like-a-snort as I fished it out and returned it to my desk.

Wednesday, I found my files had been rearranged from alphabetical-according-to-the-alphabet to alphabetical-according-to-the-middle-letter of the road the head office was on.

Thursday, the lids of my markers pens were all swapped about.  It might not sound like much, but the whole system for automatic reordering in the South-West region is based on using the right shade and thickness of pen for the right product and frequency of reorder.  Friday’s regular order of 3 boxes for Samson’s came perilously close to being rolled over into fortnightly.

I knew that on Friday Jim had a meeting on-site first thing, so I came in early and taped the phone receiver to its base, winding 15 layers of tape round for safety.  Then Jim came in with Gareth from Area, who wanted to make a call to confirm sales targets.  Jim handed him his mobile and said “Use this whilst I just free this up,” then proceeded to unwind my tape, muttering about saving it for fingerprinting.

I arrived at the pub to see Jim already cosying up to Ceri, touching her knee as he told her jokes to which she laughed politely.  I left without ordering, feeling a head coming on.

Monday was quiet but Tuesday was stapler day again.  This week I arrived to find it set into a raspberry jelly.  Apparently the idea came from a tv show, although that time it was a lime jelly.  I’m not sure the colour is the point really.  Any jelly will surely hasten breakdown of the often temperamental joints of a stapler?

That evening I locked my drawers and took all my marker pens home, just to be safe.

When I arrived this morning, nobody greeted me with their normal “Hello Kev.”  I stopped saying good morning myself after the fourth person seemed to urgently remember something they had to find in their drawers.  I arrived at our desks and saw most of Jim’s possessions covered in sticky tape, joined together or stuck to the desk itself.  Even his chair was covered, long strips wrapped from arm rest to arm rest so the seat was unusable.

I could see Jim in the boss’s office, the pair of them talking, conspiratorial, looking over at me then back to each other and back to me.  Ceri refused to meet my eye but looked really cross.  Jim headed for me and she hurried towards him, placing a concerned hand on his arm.

“Mr Thompson said would you go in his office for a word, Kevin.”  He wasn’t so matey now, using my Sunday name.  Then I saw the picture window overlooking the view of the river he’d liked so much.

So in just over 2 weeks, like I said, staplers to dangling him out of the window.  And I’m starting to lose my grip.

Monday, 14 May 2012

14: Coffee in Venice

The last time Marla had seen Bernice she’d ripped the pages from her diary and let them blow on the wind across the tennis courts of St Winifred’s School for Girls.  Year 11 girls watched on as her secrets and dreams carried up into trees and bushes, landed in muddy puddles and flew out into the main streets of Guildford.  Some girls chased after paper, jumping and reaching like butterfly hunting without nets, hoping to learn Bernice’s hopes and fears whilst praying the same never happened to them.

But then, maybe Bernice should have known better than to bring something so precious in to school and let it fall into Marla’s hands.  The others wouldn’t have fallen for that trick, not in a million years.

So now, five years later and on a gap year between university and starting work in a London Law firm, Bernice sees Marla walking across St Mark’s Square, heading straight for her.  Her palms prickle with sweat and she looks side to side.  Bernice lowers her head and shrinks a few inches into her neck.  She spins round and heads into the closest hotel, taking a seat at the window and planning a coffee.

Bernice looks out into the Square, searching the thick crowd for her nemesis.  She still thinks of Marla in that way, particularly on dark nights when sleep won’t come.  She remembers the sound of her laughter cackling, set against the hush of the rest of her year group, the tear of the paper and the rustle on the breeze. 

Bernice shifts in her seat and still can’t see Marla in the crowd outside.  She relaxes and checks the menu.  8 Euros for a latte, just so she can hide.  She senses rather than sees a waitress at her elbow and orders without looking up, in excellent Italian.

The reply comes in broken Italian and she looks up to see Marla, in waiting uniform with a little black piny, standing in front of her.

“Hi Bernice,” she says.  “I’ll just get your order.”  Marla walks to the bar, less confident than Bernice remembers her.  She makes a latte, adds an Amaretto biscuit to the saucer, and returns to the table.

“Your latte,” says Marla.  She looks unsure as to whether to add ‘Madam’ at the end.  “Can I get you anything else?”

“No.  Thanks,” replies Bernice.  She takes a sip as Marla turns and starts to walk back to her place behind the bar.

“You make nice coffee,” adds Bernice.  And smiles.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

13: Brenda

Brenda had a friend, a guy who always tried to bend her to what he wanted her to be.

Weekly she saw him, meekly agreeing to try this, do that, say the other.  She looked bleakly at her future.

Changing was hard, rearranging her wardrobe and her diction, exchanging this Brenda she liked for one she wasn’t quite so sure about.

New Brenda was different, eschewed her old friends and the things that she loved and she knew, to be the person he wanted her to be.

Did he like Brenda more, this kid she did it all for?  Why did he forbid her to see anyone unless he says it’s OK?  Wasn’t he glad?

So hard she tries to discard the new old Brenda, he’s marred all she did and he tells her she’s fat and nobody would want her anyway.

Depressed by his words, she’s usually dressed in a shapeless sack that covers her up but she’s always distressed when she looks in the mirror and sees that he’s right.

But he made her this way, put these ideas in her head, made her want to cut deep into her arms and her thighs to make the pain stop from her lack of control.

Hitting her most days, splitting her lip and her will to be free, she’s gritting her teeth to get through another visit from him.

Brenda wakes up one day, another agenda lodged in her head and tries to mend a bridge or two she’s recently trashed, thanks to him.

Reaching out to old friends, her eyes are beseeching but inside she’s screeching ‘Help me to get away from him, please?”

When he called they were waiting, then they surround Brenda, again and again tell him to leave her alone.

Slyly he says he’ll go then, highly certain Brenda will stop him, shyly say come back, I don’t mean it.  But she tells him to fuck off.

Brenda is a girl you’d spend lots of time with and like her.  A true friend and you’d help when she needs you too.

She doesn’t need changing.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

12: Alliteration

This guitar would be special.  Fifty years of craft as a luthier led to this moment, to this instrument.  I’d planned it for years, ever since my father first showed me how to string a neck, how to ridge a fret board, how to soak the side panels so they conform to the flow of the mould.  I was nine years old and mesmerized.

I tried playing, but my ability clearly lay in building this most beautiful of instruments.  Father gave me lessons on Saturday evenings, sat beside the fire in the kitchen.  He would pluck and strum the strings, coaxing bold tunes, delicate airs and dutiful hymns from the wooden body.

“If you ever use those modern plectrum things, I will snap your fingers,” he said.  I never did.

He built my first instrument and I decided right then to create the perfect piece for my own son.  I had four daughters, each preferring The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to the classics and playing music themselves.
So I practiced for more years and saved this for my first grandson.  It is the most wonderful instrument I have ever created.  There is a pomegranate sunburst on the walnut body, a myriad of cut out stars around the sound hole, striated edging in black and gold travels every edge and joint.

My daughter calls it Baby Ben’s Banjo.  One day, Benjamin will appreciate the love and dedication that went into building it just for him.  I dream that he will cherish it, coaxing magic from it like my father did from his.  That he will know I spent these years honing my skills to make this one exquisite item.  And that he might, just sometimes, use a plectrum to play his mother’s favourite Beatles song, on Grandpa’s Glorious Gift.

Friday, 11 May 2012

11: Kerrford’s Bakery

At the end of our street was Kerrford’s Bakery and the scent of bread baking always takes me back to growing up in the East End.  Mr Kerrford rose at 3am every day to make the loaves and rolls and Mrs Kerrford opened the shop at 8am to sell them.  If she had errands that couldn’t wait, sometimes she would ask Ma to mind the shop for an hour.  My brother and me would follow her and wait outside, breathing in the soft air whenever customers came and went.  Sometimes we would follow them in but Ma would shoo us outside again and give our legs a slap.

When she got back, Mrs Kerrford would usually give Ma something from the shelves, a batch or a dusty bloomer, for helping her out.  If we were lucky she would give us a crusty end to share, but in return she’d ruffle my brother’s darling curls and pinch my chubby cheeks.  Neither of us laughed at the other, bound together in silence by embarrassment.  But those days we always knew tea would be special.  Mr Kerrford’s bread was the best in London they said. 

The first day we would have it warm, sliced thickly and spread with a little butter.  The next day it would be sliced more thinly for jam sandwiches.  The third day it was best toasted.  Quite often Mrs Kerrford wanted Ma to watch the shop again by then.  If she didn’t, it would be day-old, unsold loaf for us, because that was only a penny and fresh bread was two pennies.  We ate toast quite often, growing up.

When I turned 12, Mr Kerrford let me help with deliveries before school.  He would pack the basket on his bike with orders for the local hotel, fitting them in like jigsaw pieces, before covering it with a clean towel, tucked in.  Morning goods, he told me they were.  Rolls for breakfast for the guests, so they had to be at the hotel by 6am every day, he said.  The order was for 3 baker’s dozens, but Mr Kerrford said 40 was easier to pack and that I could have the extra one for breakfast, but not until I was riding back.  The ride back, munching on a warm, crusty roll that I didn’t have to share with anybody, was the happiest part of my day.

I did my National Service and signed on for 3 extra years.  When I was demobbed, I came home to find Mr Kerrford was too ill to work and Mrs Kerrford had closed the shop to look after him.  They had a son, Jimmy, but he wanted to mend cars not bake bread.  A job with a future, he said.  It’s not that I wanted to do deliveries anymore, but  when I wake at 5am I still think I can smell the bread.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

10: The Thing About Me

So she says, “The thing about me is I’ve always been someone people turn to in difficult times.  You can tell me anything.”  She smiles, pats my hand and looks at me, waiting.

Well, the thing about me is my mother is having an affair with the Geography teacher and they both think I don’t know.  But I do.

The thing about me is I know he’s looking at me in lessons, trying to work out if I suspect anything.  He never catches my eye, always looks away just at the right time.

The thing about me is I saw them together once, hurrying into the store cupboard in R block, checking there was nobody about to see them.   They didn’t see me though and when they came out again 15 minutes later, Mum’s cardigan had the label on the outside.

The thing about me is nobody likes me much and this would give them another thing to tease me about.  Why couldn’t she pick someone from a different school?  Or even the Sports teacher.  At least he’s tall and doesn’t have elbow patches.

The thing about me is my Dad left us when I was 9 and I like how it is at home, just me and Mum.  What if one day I come home and Mr Gregory is sat on our sofa?  Would I have to call him ‘sir’ in my own house?

The thing about me is I don’t want to share her with him.  Or anyone.  What if they have a baby and I have to share her with them both?  Everyone in my class would know they’ve done it.

The thing about me is I want it to be how it used to be, when we lived in the house on Wimpole Street.  Before Dad met the Trollop and I went to a new school.

The thing about me is my Mum is the Maths teacher.  Nobody likes Maths teachers.

“No, I’m fine thanks,” I say.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

9: Cat Protection League

Cats, cats, cats everywhere, then out of the crowd walked a single crab.  He had been hidden within the tangle of furry bodies that moved as a single unit down the dirty alleyways of Manhattan.  They’d stopped outside the rear exit of Tommy’s Bar on 35th St and mewled until Tommy himself came outside to investigate the noise.

By the time he realized it was Mr Stix and his gang, it was too late.  A tabby had stepped behind him and slammed the door shut.  A pair of Siamese slipped either side of him and hustled him forward to meet Mr Stix.

“Well Tommy,” he said, leaving the words to hang in the air.  He twitched his pincers like a boxer flexing his abs.  “Tommy.”

The cats moved into a circle surrounding Tommy and Stix, two deep, and began to purr.  The sound swelled, bouncing off the alley walls.  Stix stared at Tommy, watching him fidget, glance side to side and behind to his bar, hoping to catch someone’s eye.  Nobody was watching.  Stix clicked his claws once and the purring stopped dead.

“Now, what about our arrangement, hmm?  We agreed you would pay me every week and I wouldn’t have to come and see you like this.  Jinxy here tells me you didn’t have enough for him this week.  That so, Jinxy?”

Jinxy padded over to a trash can, bared his claws and drew them down the dented metal.  The slow shrieking scratch answered for him.  Then he sat, flicking his tail back and forth at the very tip.

“I’m sorry, Mr Stix,” said Tommy words tumbling over themselves.  “Business hasn’t been good lately and I needed the money to pay for repairs and stock so I could try and get new customers.  If they don’t come in, I don’t have any money for either of us.”  Tommy raised his eyebrows and after a minute, looked away.

“So, your plan working Tommy?  You got more customers yet?”

“Oh yes, Mr Stix, taking are up 20% already.”  Tommy stopped talking, eyes wide.  “I mean, I think so.”

“Tell you what I’ll do Tommy.”  Stix sidled up to Tommy and placed a claw on the man’s shoulder, as the flanks of felines narrowed in on them both.  “You have my money for me by 5 o’clock and we’ll say no more about it, hey?  Then from now on, we’ll have a little increase in business to celebrate your expansion plans.  Let’s say an extra 30%.  Give you a bit of incentive to continue growing.” 

Stix reached up and placed a claw just below Tommy’s crotch.  He clipped it shut, saying “You have a loose thread.”   As it fell to his shoe, the cats moved forwards, enclosing Stix in their midst once more.

The clowder slunk back along the alley, Jinxy calling back, “5 o’clock, Tommy.”

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

8: A Lid Left Up

Gail’s mother Grace had been dead for almost 6 months before Gail found out.  She had been travelling to “find herself”.  Gail visited the cemetery and all she could see was a small headstone marking the grave, her mother’s brother thinking she would want to arrange a more permanent memorial herself.  He claimed he couldn't locate her in Asia, but she was never more than a few days away from email contact. 

When grief should have been beginning to diminish, Gail was caught in its sharpest grip.  There was nobody to help her clear the house which had stood empty since the night the ambulance drove Grace away.  Dishes sat on the draining board, left to air dry and never put away.  Mail piled up behind the front door, mostly flyers and electioneering leaflets for councillors chasing every extra vote.  Gail wondered if they had knocked at the door to enquire whether they could offer Mrs Burton a lift to the polling station, not noticing that the curtains never moved and inside a layer of thick dust was building up on everything.

Her father had bought them an upright piano when Gail started lessons in 1979.  Her own interest barely lasted into the 80s, whilst her mother discovered she had a musical ear nobody else in the family shared.  Grace took lessons for several years and kept the piano in her lounge even after Gail left home.  The lid was up and the keys coated with dust.  She knew her mother always kept the lid down when she wasn’t playing, so had she been sitting on the piano stool when the chest pains struck?  Or simply distracted by the phone or doorbell and forgotten to lower it?

Gail pulled out the stool and sat, placing her fingers over the notes.  She traced out the notes of childhood songs she could remember, lifting dust away with her fingertips.  Her mother had loved Ravel and taught Gail Bolero when it became popular in the 1984 Winter Olympics.  Gail picked out the first few notes on the keys, finding her way around the keyboard slowly then with more confidence.  She closed her eyes, feeling the music flow and imagined Torville and Dean gliding across the ice to perfect sixes whilst her mother listened from her favourite chair.

 Tonight's prompt was a picture from 1000words on Pinterest

Monday, 7 May 2012

7: A Little Ditty

Mom and Dad met and married 30 years ago and tonight is their anniversary party.  Corey has booked us all a table at Cougar’s and I’ve promised not to mention his cheap wife or his drinking if he doesn’t mention how butch my girlfriend looks or that I still haven’t managed to hold down a job for longer than 3 months.  So what could go wrong?

“Maryanne! Over here.” I can see Mom jump up and wave as soon as I get into the restaurant.  “Beth not with you?” she asks as I kiss her cheek.

“No Mom, Corey said family only.  She’s at home.”

“Corey.  You know Beth’s as good as part of the family.  We’d have liked her to be here, wouldn’t we Jack?” Mom looks at Dad.  “Jack!  Stop looking at that girl and answer me.”

“C’mon Diane, as if I would look at anyone but you.  Her ass is kinda cute though don’t cha think?”  Mom elbows him in the ribs, that place she usually finds first time and that is quite often bruised.  “Hey, I’m just playing with you.  Your ass is better than hers now and back in the day, I was scared to let you walk out alone in case somebody made a play for you, you were so fine.”

Dad always knows what to say to Mom, but we all know he will go right back to watching the waitresses even on his wedding anniversary.  He never forgets he was an 80s football star in school and might have gone all the way is it wasn’t for that injury when he started college.  He thinks he’s still that buff guy, not a used car salesman with a paunch and hair like Jimmy Carter.  Mom puts up with it but I think she gets really upset.  Or she did until she started tennis lessons at the club and she doesn’t seem so bothered now.

I’m surprised when we all order and eat with a delicate truce holding, like no one wants to be the cause of yet another family row.  We talk about nothing really but skim dangerously close to me working, until Mom asks Corey when he’s going to make her a Grandmom.  That shuts him up better than anything I could say and she doesn’t even mean to.  He drinks so much I doubt he could father a child if he wanted to.

At 9.30 my phone rings and it’s Beth, just like we planned.  “Hi babe, you ok?” I ask her.

“Everything is fine but I miss you,” Beth says.

“Oh no, she’s really that sick?”  I glance around the table then give my full attention back to the call.  “Can you take her to the ER on your own?”

“I’ll pop the wine as soon as you leave.”

“That bloody car of yours,” I say.  “When your Mom is better we’ll go to see my Dad and he’ll fix you up with something more reliable.”  My old man nods his help, still chewing his steak.  “Look as soon as we finish up here I’ll be...”

“Go now,” Mom says.  “We’ll be fine and Beth needs you.  Go on.”

“I’m on my way, babe.  Tell your Mom to hang on and we’ll have her looked over real soon.”  I get up to leave, kissing Mom and Dad before I go, and head for the door.

Outside, I ring Beth back.  “Get the glasses honey, I’m all yours.”

Sunday, 6 May 2012

6: Bright Red

Albert looked at his wife’s lips and had never seen them so red.  The colour was bleeding outwards into fine lines all round her mouth.  Funny, he’d never noticed them before.  He reached into his pocket for a tissue and began to wipe away the lipstick.  She would never have worn something so gawdy, so like a trollop.  It made her look like those young women he sometimes saw in the back bar of The Ship, so much flesh on show they left nothing to wonder about.  There were no young women like that when they were young.  You didn’t dare dress tarty, he remembered Alice saying, not if you wanted a husband.  Tarty girls were for fun, not for taking home to your mother. 

He smiled, thinking about that day.  Alice was terrified of meeting Ma Johnson.  He collected her from her house to walk her round to theirs.  He thought she was so beautiful.  Her red hair was pinned up at both sides, ringlets falling to her shoulders.  She wore a tea dress he knew she’d made herself from a remnant of material his uncle fetched for her from a market somewhere in Kent.  She said she looked handmade but he saw a girl comparable to any one of the Hollywood starlets.  Alice didn’t wear a scrap of make-up, not that day and not even on their wedding day 2 years later.  To Albert, she couldn’t improve on perfection.

They both wanted children so much and Albert never knew quite how to comfort Alice when month upon month turned into year upon year.  She hid her tears, he knew, but he came home early one day when there was a power cut at the factory, to find her huddled in a ball, rocking back and forth.  She wanted to look into fostering and he wanted to make her happy.  For almost twenty years a regular stream of lost, needy, lonely and frightened children came through their door and Alice loved them back to life.  Albert didn’t want to share her but he had never seen her glow quite so much as when they hugged her back for the first time, so he was content with the Alice he had.  Maybe some of them would be here later.

Alice had a series of small strokes which put an end to their fostering but so many of those children kept in touch over the years that their family was larger than if they had managed to have children of their own.  Albert took early retirement to look after her and he found he enjoyed cooking and making the house nice for her.  The chaps in The Ship all teased each other about helping out at home but it was less being a modern man and more necessity for most of them.

When she started to call him Da, he took her to a specialist.  They told Albert she could go any time, but she lasted for 7 more years.  Alice didn’t, just her shell.  Alice was almost gone by then already but he loved her like she was still in there.  He hoped for a flash of recognition, of his old girl and although they came along at first, they became fewer and fewer.  Albert bathed her, cared for her and talked to her even when she showed no sign of knowing anyone was there at all.

“Do I look handmade?” she said to him when he helped her into bed.  “Will your mother like me?”

“You look like a picture.  How could she fail to love you as much as I do?” he said into the darkness, head turned so she couldn’t see his face.

“I so hope she likes me, Da.  Then we can get married.”

She didn’t wake again and now he was scrubbing the only red lipstick she ever wore from her lips so he could kiss her for the last time.

“I love you Alice.  I’ll be along soon.”

Saturday, 5 May 2012

5: Mervin

Tabitha was having one of those days.  The rain was so heavy it bounced six inches back upwards, but she was out of milk and tangleweed so she had no option but to go out.  Mervin was hungry and last time she’d run out of his food he’d eaten her slipper, two bonsai trees and A-Ke in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

“Come on, Mervin,” she said, pulling on his collar and saddle.  “I’m not going on my own.  You can give me a ride.”  Mervin flared his nostril.  “What?  This is for your benefit.”

“When did you last hear of a unicorn adding milk to their tea?” he asked.  “You know our species take tea with lemon, so it must be for you.  For that cereal rubbish you eat, I dare say.”

“Well I don’t eat tangleweed , do I?” she said.

“Did I ask to be born?  Did I make you buy me from that male with the vinyl windcheater and slip-on hooves?  You should have bought a canine if you wanted a pet that cared.”  He settled his withers into a stubborn set and faced the wall.

Mervin had just turned 125 and as hormones raged through his body his behaviour grew more cranky and condescending by the day.  Tabitha took a deep breath, counted to ten, then to another six, and headed to the front door, tugging Mervin’s reigns.

He let her mount his back as normal, but sniffed every nettle, licked every silver car and scratched his ears on every fence post between home and 24hr Quadruped on Derby Road.  Tabitha dismounted and as she tethered Mervin to the post outside the shop, caught sight of her reflection in the window.  Her hair managed to be plastered to her head and frizzy at the same time.  As she lifted it from her cheeks a cold drip ran down her neck.  She stood close to Mervin and shook herself like a golden retriever, then went in the shop.

By the time she had chosen what she needed and reached the pay desk, a small crowd had gathered outside the door.  Tabitha peered out, worried that even though he thought he was tough, Mervin might be unsettled by the growing group.  There was a loud thump and the people cleared, running in all directions.  She could see Mervin, eyes wide and backing into a corner as far as he could, facing two men with a hacksaw.  They wanted his horn.

Tabitha dropped her shopping and was outside in a second.  “Get away from him,” she said, putting herself between the men and the unicorn.  “He’s only young and his horn isn’t worth much.  You wouldn’t get more than £200 for it.”

One sneered and said “Well that’s £200 more than we have now,” and tried to grab past Tabitha.  She pushed him and he fell into the other, knocking the hacksaw to the floor.  Tabitha kicked it away, into the road and as the men rushed for it, she jumped up onto Mervin’s back.  She leant over to untie his reigns and said “We need to run for it, Merv.  Think you can do it?”

“But they’re big.  And that saw.  What if they catch me?  I’d die without my horn,” he said.

Tabitha leant down and patted his flank.  “They’re big, but we’re bigger.  Together we can do it.  I’m with you, boy.  Just run.”

Mervin shook his head side to side and flicked his ears.  As the men retrieved their weapon and turned back to him again, Mervin kicked off with his back legs, barrelling through them.  He headed for home, ignoring posts, cars and greenery, and outran them both, guided down side streets to throw a false trail.

Later, when there was no tangleweed for Mervin and no milk for Tabitha, she took her tea with lemon and he had a slipper and Kh-Tu for supper.

Friday, 4 May 2012

4: Seeing

Annie stood in front of her mirror, looking.  She looked like she normally did but today she wanted to see.  Not just five foot six, light tan from a cheap winter break to Egypt and brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.  Not just chewed finger nails, a cheap watch and a waistband beginning to strain.  She had just been interviewed for promotion.  What did they see that she no longer did?

She stood back and looked at herself as she would appear on a first impression walking into the interview room.  Smart, colour coordinated, dressed as a woman in her position should be.  The suit was just for today but maybe if she wore it every day they might think she was more committed to progressing into management.  Her boss wore a suit everyday so what if she did too?  It rather cut into her sides and she couldn’t wait to slip the skirt off and back on the hanger.  She’d need a new suit, maybe a few.  But then, without a pay rise she couldn’t afford more than low end High Street.

Stepping closer to the glass, she examined her hair.  Annie had once heard girls with swingy ponytails don’t get depressed.  She swung her hair like a shampoo advert but she still didn’t sleep well at nights and had stopped bowling with the girls.  It just wasn’t fun anymore.  Annie pulled the band from her hair, letting it fall to her shoulders and recalled her 6th Form chemistry teacher’s admonishment that you never know what you might swish your hair into a Bunsen burner.  She tucked it behind her ears, as a compromise.

Annie stepped closer still until her nose was almost touching its reflection.  She lifted her hands to her face and stroked her cheek.  She pinched the skin on her eyelids up and pulled it taut so her eyes opened up more.  Then she lifted her lips, top and bottom, exposing her teeth and gums.  She wobbled the bit under her chin.  There wasn’t too much movement but more than there used to be.  Annie was quite pleased, were she asked and had answered honestly.  If women of a certain age get to choose between being thin and having no wrinkles, she was balancing the line quite well.  Her tan gave her healthy look she didn’t always feel was justified but it saved putting on quite as much make-up and she could use those few minutes to queue a little longer at traffic lights.

She heard the front door open and her husband called out to her.  She fixed her smile in place.

“Coming Dan.”

Thursday, 3 May 2012

3: Wet Tent

Thunder woke us and we could see lightning brighten up the sky, even through the canvas.  The first few drops of rain bounced off the taut material, slow at first then faster, heavier, until individual splatters were no longer discernible.  Our tent had a built-in floor, so we were laid on a nylon flysheet rather than mud and grass.  It felt like a safe place, somewhere nothing could get us and we could pretend. 

The tent wasn’t very far from everyday life, pitched as it was in our back garden.  We pleaded with Dad to let us spend a night on the Rec or in the forest, but he said no, it wasn’t safe on our own and he couldn’t stand Josie’s snoring all night to come with us himself.  So the garden it was.

I think it rained most nights that summer.  Mum had a rule, no going out if it was wet before we went to bed, but if it started overnight we could stay outside.  If we got wet, even a bit, we’d never dry off in the tent, she said.  Josie stuck her head out one night, right out into the dark, and got her hair all wet on purpose.  It was cold she said, but that was all.  And when we woke up in the morning, it had dried, just a bit frizzier than usual.

By the time we were going back to school, we were both ready to move back indoors.  Neither of us wanted to admit it.  Dad said we couldn’t sleep outside on school nights and it would be too cold soon anyway, so after a pathetic show of resistance we agreed.  Dad knew the score and said we could have crumpets for supper to make up for it and if we missed it too much, we could have sleeping bags on the floor of our bedroom.

Rain on glass doesn’t hold the same affection for me as rain on the material of a tent roof.  For days I didn’t sleep well after we came inside.  The rain was soothing and I still find it calming 20 years on.  Josie said she it just made her want a wee.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

2: Sweet Temptation

Emily gets off the bus every morning outside Brighton’s most aspirational boutiques.  Hands forced deep into pockets, she hurries past windows showcasing glitter and spangles, leather and velvet and chiffon and linen, bags, belts, watches and jewellery, other people’s lives.  Emily prefers practical, comfortable clothes from M&S, like her mum suggested when she started at that office 8 years ago.

Emily can’t walk in heels higher than 2 inches and even then, not for all day.  If she is to be on her feet a lot, she slips those little fold-up ballet shoes into her handbag and changes into them underneath her desk.  Her wardrobe is totally colour coordinated, so her shoes are always black and always go with everything.

So Emily is taken by surprise when she finds herself drawn to a pair of patent red stilettos in the window of Karma, one Tuesday in November.  There is no price tag and only 3 pairs of shoes make up the entire display.  She hurries on to work, but thinks about the shoes in idle moments during the day.  It’s dark when she goes home but she sees them the next morning, and the next, each day holding her attention for a little longer.  Standing next to her boss, she wonders what it would be like to tower over him which she never does over anyone when she is wearing her flats.

On Friday morning, she catches a later bus so that the shop is open when she arrives at her usual stop.  She gets off the bus and walks to the door, pushing it open before her conscious mind has chance to stop her.  Emily looks at the window display and sees the shoes without a glass barrier for the first time.  They are even more beautiful close to.  As she lingers, a svelte girl appears at her side and asks if she can help.  Emily points to the shoes.  “Can I try them please?” she asks.

There are 2 pairs left in the shop, size 4 and size 7, but Emily wears a 5.  She says the 4s please and sits to take off her black, low-heeled court shoes.  The leather is so shiny you could lift fingerprints from its surface.  Inside is suede with tiny golden letters, discrete Calibri branding and a burst of stars so realistic they might come off on the foot.  Emily turns them over in her hands, enjoying the opulence before trying them on when she expects the spell will break.

“They do run slightly large,” says the girl and Emily hopes just maybe they will fit.  They don’t quite, but they give Emily a sculpted calf and ankle to make Victorians blush.  Her toes don’t look too squashed.  She can even stand up and take a few steps.  She decides they will be perfect sitting down shoes and says she will take them.  Knowing the maxim ‘if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it’ and being aware she can’t afford them even if the price were in 3 inch letters, she doesn’t ask, just hands over her card.

Emily hurries on to work and has used only 30 minutes’ flexitime to spend 47 hours’ salary.  She takes off her court shoes under the desk and changes to another pair as usual.  It’s only when she passes to visit the bathroom that some people notice she isn’t wearing her fold-up ballerina pumps today.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

1: Bookshop

They don’t feel the same, these new books.  No craftsmanship and loving touches, no gilt edges or risk of foxing.  Progress isn’t always a good thing, is it?

When my father had this shop, there was a delicious musty air to the place.  Sunbeams cut across the shelves and my brother and I used to open the Welsh bible then slam it shut, very fast, to see the dancing dust whorl up and out, sparking in the light.  Father would chuckle but Mother would tut and hurry us off upstairs for bread and butter or bread and jam, but never both.  It was her family bible and she’d say her ancestors could feel the slamming though their bones. 

The main stock was new but Father’s favourite section was ‘Pre-Loved’ which he kept in a corner near the back of the shop.  Anyone could browse the main shelves but Father insisted on hovering behind anyone looking at his special selection.  Whenever he sold one of these books he would handle it with respect, giving it a dignity of its own.  He would stroke the cover, open the pages and inspect the index or chapter list, then close it and smile as if he were giving away one of his children.  Sometimes I thought he might find that easier.

I never intended working here to be anything other than a Saturday job, to pay for trips to the cinema and American Tan tights so I could be like the other girls.  My plan was to become a nurse, maybe for children.  I dreamt of working in Great Ormond Street, starting a brilliant career and escaping Sheffield bookselling in one step.  I’d probably marry a handsome doctor, have two beautiful children and live a rich and fulfilling life in a London suburb.   But things don’t always turn out as you intend.

Mother developed MS and only Father could do for her.  On her good days he could spend hours in the shop, chatting with customers and suggesting holiday reading for them, advising on books suitable for learning new things and nodding ‘Good choice,’ to those who picked from his special shelves.  When the pain got too much for her, he spent whole days beside her bed, holding her hand and reading to her from whatever book he could find that might reach her.  There was no question of leaving at that point.  My brother had already left for university in Bristol so it was up to me help out.  And it would only be for a while, then I could go nursing.

Mother lingered for far too long.  In the end it was a relief that she went.  A clichéd relief that nobody was proud of, but there it was.  Then the big chains started eyeing us up for a takeover, so I couldn’t leave Father to deal with it alone.  By then we’d modernized and even had some of our books on tables that customers could walk round all four sides of.  The offers were good and I think Father would have sold up had Mother still needed him.  With her gone he had nothing else to fill his day so we refused the initial amount and the two increases after that.  We heard later that they had made offers on another shop close by and when they accepted, they decided to leave us alone.

Business got harder and harder and when Father retired I put in a little coffee shop.  Only a few small tables and chairs that looked much more stylish than they were comfortable, so people didn’t stay too long reading the stock instead of buying it.  I secured a small franchise agreement with a national coffee chain and we started doing takeouts which have been more popular than anything else we’ve tried.  I think it’s being just past the bus stop and that new office complex opening just up the road.  Rents are cheaper at this end of town.

Now I have to decide what to do next to keep us going.  I’ve gone more specialized so that people looking for particular books will come to us and we have a growing reputation for political books.  By that I mean left-wing books, I wouldn’t have any right-wing nonsense in here.  I might have to get it in especially for my customers I suppose.  You can’t turn things down these days.  And I’ve expanded Father’s special collection into rare and antiquarian books of all kinds.  My own favourites are first editions of early female writers but they don’t come through my hands very often.

Now people come in and ask about electronic books.  I’ve looked into stocking e-readers but the mark-up isn’t good.  You can get them in supermarkets these days and we couldn’t stock the range for customers to choose between more than one or two.  I think it’s the e-books themselves we need to move into.   I’m going to put links up on our website but it takes such a long time to load up each individual title.  I don’t have the web design team of a large chain so I’m starting with the newest releases.

Father still comes in sometimes but he has to be fetched in by his helpers.  I sit him at a table closest to his favourite shelf and he points at a volume that catches his eye.  I fetch it and he opens it, checking the index and stroking the page. He slams the pages shut and dust dances in the light.  I wonder if Mother can feel it in her bones.

Introduction by Calum Kerr

Hello, and welcome to Mrs flash365 by Kath Lloyd, where Kath will be picking up my baton and posting a new flash-fiction every day for a year. You thought I was insane? Seems that I'm not alone!

But before I say anything more, let me declare my interest. Yes, Kath is my fiancée, partner, and future (for real) Mrs Flash365. So, yes, I will be around when these stories are being written (two ends of the same sofa, most probably) and I will be the one making the tea she drinks as she writes. But that's where my influence ends. This is not a thinly veiled way for me to do another year (God forbid!) but will be all her own work.

Why she's decided to take this on, only Kath can tell you. I hope it's because, despite the trials I went through in writing a story a day for a year, she saw that I really enjoyed writing the stories, got a lot out of both doing them and receiving your feedback, and because at the end of the year I reckon I am a much better writer than I was at the beginning.

That said, I already love her writing, and I'm sure you will too!

Anyway, that's enough from me. I just thought I'd say hi and wish Kath well in this endeavour. There will be no more from me. It's over to her now..

Kath? The stage is yours....