134. My Extraordinary Friend

Hello, internet friends,

I have decided to pause this blog for a bit. I think it’s run its course. I’m working on a novel, which is taking up a lot of thinking time. I’ll continue to add guest posts and news of things I’ve had published, and you never know, I might be back in a month with a new story.

Nicola x


This story was inspired by the Duran Duran song, “Ordinary World”. It’s always been a song that was guaranteed to bring a tear to my eye.

A paramedic colleague told me that they often find people curled up in the foetal position. 

The council had given me a week, but I hadn’t had a chance to get around to doing it until today. That’s what I tell everyone. My lack of decision weighs heavily on me for two reasons. I know she’s definitely gone, but this won’t be her flat any more. If I’d have cleared it out the day after she died, then that homeless family would be living here now. I hate that I’ve prolonged their worry.

I’m glad that I bought eight death certificates, because everyone I’ve contacted so far will only accept an original. Their standard line is, “it’s policy”. As if I’m going to go to all the effort of making something like that up just to cancel her mobile phone contract. Am I going to cancel her contract? It’s the closest thing to her I have left. I want to listen to her playlists, see her photographs, read her newsletter emails, and answer her texts with “I have some sad news to tell you.” Do people go to the hospital or morgue to get the thumbprint that unlocks a phone? 

The woman from the council was trying to be sympathetic, but she said there was a desperate need for a two-bedroomed flat round here, and that some people had been living in a B&B for nearly a year. The decorators and gas man were due tomorrow, and the locksmith the day after that. There was a charity that needed confirmation of when to deliver a fridge freezer, washing machine, some wardrobes, chests of drawers, beds and a dining table and chairs. She’d already told one of her service users that that would be moving in by the weekend. I know she’s right; life goes on. I try to imagine how delighted those two little girls will be to finally have their own proper home. They won’t know why a flat has unexpectedly become available. Even though this new family doesn’t have any furniture, I’m not allowed to leave anything because of health and safety, and I’ll be fined if I do. I hope they don’t think I’m taking the lightbulbs out of spite. They’re the Alexa ones that can be voice-activated ones and are really expensive. The woman from the council gave me the number of a charity that collects unwanted furniture. It’s the same one that’s refurbishing the flat.

So many people have said that they can’t imagine what I’m going through, and I don’t even know myself anymore. I’m half-asleep and compressing myself slowly into a ball so I can roll away and hide under the sideboard. There is no guide or map through this fog. It’s as if I’m  trying to keep her here as long as possible before she dissolves completely. Sometimes, I find a hand to steady me for a while, but mostly I’m on my own. 

Is it wrong that I’m relieved that she died in her sleep? Am I being selfish because I can’t bear the thought of all of those people who were always too busy, now wishing they’d been able to say goodbye? Tomorrow evening, her order of service card would go into their bureaus and desk drawers where she will remain, quietly resting amongst the other paper clutter of unwon lottery tickets, birthday cards and hospital appointment letters. 

I took a photo of Becky’s fridge door and posted it to my Instagram with the words “Sleep tight”. Whenever we used to go out for the day, she’d always buy a fridge magnet and I’d always get a tea towel. I’ve still got enough pencils from school trips to various industrial museums or art galleries to last me for the rest of my days. Those artists and writers who were never recognised in their own lifetimes are now memorialised on posters and tote bags in gift shops everywhere. Did the Brontës even have a fridge back then?  

As I popped a tea bag into a mug I said “Alexa, play,” and the speaker resumed the last song that Becky had listened to. “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran. My head began to tingle like it did when she used to tease me with that picture of lots of differently-shaped holes. She thought it was ridiculous that I was scared of baked beans. I took a deep breath and held it, pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth, then I let out the air with a soft, slow whooshing noise. Amongst the pile of boxes, black sacks and spray cleaning products I’d brought with me, I had some of those fancy tissues with lotion, so I wouldn’t get a chapped nose. It was going to be a long day today.  An even longer one tomorrow.

I sniffed the milk. It was still in-date. Becky always bought food with a long shelf-life. “I never know if my condition is going to flare up, so if I can’t get out for a few days, I need to know I’m prepared.”

Inside the fridge was a plastic tub of home-made curry, a bottle of pinot grigio, a jar of mustard, a brown paper bag of red splitting tomatoes, a few wrinkled radishes and a small, bobbly cucumber. There was a cardboard carton with three eggs in it, some spring onions, a block of cheddar, a tub of double cream and two bars of 70% dark chocolate. “Tea is on you tonight then,” I thought, knowing full well none of it would get eaten, but I raised the milk in a cheers gesture to no-one in particular anyway. Even with just those two ingredients, her truffles always tasted better than mine.

Just then the doorbell rang.  “I thought it was you, my dear,” said Becky’s neighbour, Bilan, “I’m sorry about your friend.”

“Thank you. Actually, I was just on my way round to see you.”

She held out the brown parcel with the distinctive smiley arrow on it.

“It got delivered a few days ago, but there hasn’t been anyone here since….” Her voice trailed off, and she put her hand up to her mouth as she lowered her head. I reached out and lightly touched her forearm.

“Come in, come in,” I said. “I’m packing everything up. There’s those few bits of furniture and kitchen stuff that I told you about. I thought they’d be alright for your son, or one of his student friends. Anyway, I’ve not long boiled that kettle.”

“Go on then, if you’re sure I’m not disturbing you” she said.

“I’ll have to find a new parking spot now” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “I can’t park in the disabled space any more when I come and see you.”

I put the cardboard package into the plastic tub that contained all of Becky’s paperwork, her photograph albums, mobile phone, jewellery box, perfume and unopened letters. 

About half an hour later, Bilan’s son and his friend arrived. They graciously took whatever I offered. Furniture, pots, pans, crockery, bath towels, book cases, the ironing board and iron, fridge freezer, including its contents, microwave and even a massive potted palm. Bilal said they were too young to remember moving here with only the clothes on their back, but she does, and was overwhelmed at the time by the kindness of strangers. Her family knew people who had nothing so these things would really help them out. She tried to persuade me to come round for some food later, but I said I had to go home and get myself organised for the funeral. Seeing the flat emptied so quickly set me off again, but I didn’t have time then to give in or wallow. I still had stuff to do.

My crammed car could have been a teenager’s leaving for University. Clothes, books, cushions, telly and black sacks. A laptop and carrier bag full of leads. A clothes airer and duvet. I couldn’t fit the vacuum cleaner into the car, so I knocked for Bilal again. This time I didn’t refuse the plastic box of Bariis that she pressed into my hands. We both knew this small gesture was a welcome kindness. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten anything decent, but I no longer knew hunger. “Running on fumes” as my mother would say.

When I got home, all I wanted was a hot shower then bed, but I still had to iron my dress. I felt that familiar bone,  tearful melancholic emptiness of a 2am shift, when it’s too late for caffeine. All this not sleeping properly for the past few nights had made me feel a bit run down, and I kept tonguing the start of a mouth ulcer. Fully clothed, I lay on the bed, and buried my face into Becky’s duvet to be near to her a bit longer. To remember all those nights when we squashed up in bed together, whispering about boys, or years later, when one of us was too drunk to go home. 

I must have nodded off, as it was dark when I woke to the sound of a lock turning. I heard the clink of keys in the bowl and the crinkle of shopping bags. Then, footsteps on the stairs. I was sitting on the edge of the bed emerging from the cocoon of the duvet, when he slowly opened the bedroom door.  “Hello, sorry, did I wake you? I thought I’d make us steak, creamed spinach and jacket potatoes for tea. To get your strength up for tomorrow,” said my husband, “If you get out your shoes, I’ll polish them for you and iron your clothes.”

Reaching into my pocket, I felt a flat, smooth, square object. It was one of those overpriced theme-park fridge magnet photographs of me and Becky, arms up, mouths wide open with joy, taken about half a second before we were drenched at the log flume last year for her thirtieth birthday. 

When I’m sixty, she will still be thirty.

Photo by Markus Spiske

133. What We Leave Behind

This short story was inspired by a writing prompt in a recent ‘Writing on the Wall’ Zoom class.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on Unsplash

“Alright Linda, girl, I nearly missed you.”

“Hiya Mel,” said Linda. Then she burst into tears.

“Ay c’mere girl. It’s alright.” He put his arm around her shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

She let out a heavy sigh and said “I just need to um… just pop to the ladies.”

Linda had lost count of how many times she’d practised the expression she would have on her face and the things she would say if she ever saw her ex-husband again. But it was too late for all that now.

A couple of minutes later, she emerged from the ladies room, with tissue in hand and freshly applied lipstick.

“Now or never,” she said and looked at Mel, but her smile didn’t reach the corners of her glistening eyes.

“We’d best get a move on, I’ve only got another 8 minutes on the car,” said Mel.

She took off her coat and gently threw it on the back seat. There was a small, slightly deflated football and an action figure toy in the seatwell.

“You got kids then?” asked Linda.

“Yeah, two grown up and three grandchildren. All boys. Me missus, Claire said she would have loved to have had a girl. You?”

There was a beat of silence and then he said, “Sorry, Lin girl, I didn’t think.”

“No it’s alright, it was a long time ago now. We were only kids ourselves then. Me and Ronnie have got just the one, Simone. She’s training to be a dental hygienist. Says she’s not having any children” said Linda.

“Can’t fault her. It’s expensive these days. Me missus Claire, says you’re married to a schoolteacher?”

“Yeah, Ronnie. He’s a Special Needs teacher. He would have come with me today but teachers can’t get time off, and he’s got Scouts tonight and I said I didn’t know what time I’d be back.”

“It’s good of you to come you know. I know you didn’t have to, but Stewart kept asking for you and then one of me lads found you on Facebook and I couldn’t just leave it like that without knowing.”

“How is he?” said Linda.

“He’s only got days left now but he’s not in any pain. One of us is up there almost all the time. They’re really good with visiting hours up there.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

They drove the few miles through a city she’d once loved, past the old football stadium, the hospital and the park. A big Tesco now stood on the ground where her old school used to be. That dodgy council estate where she grew up in was now considered desirable real estate, with its larger than average houses and big gardens that were not found in modern builds.

There was a car already outside the house so Mel parked behind it.

She remained sitting in the car for a moment or two, breathing deeply to compose herself. She looked into the garden and watched a man she used to know, slowly move a long-handled tool up and down at the edge of the lawn. There was a small boy chasing and grabbing at bubbles as they floated away. The boy saw her, ran to the gate and peered over the top of it. She smiled at him and Mel unlatched the gate.

Photo by Ben Griffiths on Unsplash

“Hi Dad. Hello Trouble,” said Mel, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You remember Linda, don’t you Dad?”

“Hello, Derek,” said Linda. “Still keeping a lovely garden I see. I’m sorry about your Stewart.”

“Thanks love. You look well. Janey’s inside. She’s been looking forward to seeing you,” said the man.

Mel fumbled in his pocket for his phone.

“Are you that lady who used to be married to me Grandad Stewart?” asked the boy.

“Yes, love. I am,” she said and stroked the boy’s upturned face.

The boy slipped his hand inside hers and they began to walk towards the house. Behind her, she heard the gate close. Then Mel said, “Dad, that was the hospice. He’s gone.”

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

119. Sour Dough

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Part I

Rule 1. It is exclusive.

Hushed rumours of a new restaurant were circulating on the message boards. Apparently, you had to sign up to a mailing list to get an invitation for the website address link.

Rule 2. You do as you’re told.

Everyone at the entire table had to have the full tasting menu. No exceptions. No substitutions. The menu changed slightly every day, and completely each season. Two hours after the first reviews on Food Cube, the website crashed. Bookings from then on were taken three months in advance on a rolling basis. At 10am on the first Monday of every month, fixed slots opened up for three months later. Friday and Saturday evening bookings were often sold out within thirty seconds, and it was rare for there to be a table still available by the afternoon of the day the bookings were released. Food critics and celebrities had to take their chances with the rest of the hoi polloi. No special treatment. 

The website had specific instructions with the requirements for booking a table.

We cannot accommodate food intolerances, allergies, vegetarians or vegans.

It is strongly recommended that patrons do not drive a vehicle or operate heavy machinery for at least 8 hours after dining. We can provide a courtesy car to pick you up and return you to a local hotel. Please indicate when booking your table if you require this complementary service. Driver gratuities are at your discretion.

A non-refundable deposit of £150 per person is required when booking a table.

We cannot cater for parties of over six people.

Persons under 18 are not allowed in the restaurant.

Please allow 3 hours for your meal. 

No party will be seated until all guests are present. Please arrive promptly. It is at the discretion of chef patron whether latecomers can be admitted. 

All guests must provide legal, photographic identification upon arrival. No guest may dine in the restaurant on more than one occasion. Bookings are non-transferrable. Should this occur, then the management reserves the right to cancel the entire reservation.

No recording devices of any kind are permitted in the restaurant, including cameras. Lockers are provided for mobile telephones.

Rule 3. You eat what you’re given.

This is a copy of one of the actual menus.

  • Corpse reviver cocktail (contains absinthe)
  • Vegan mushroom faux gras mousse with sorrel (and a microdose of Psilocybin.)
  • Spherified olive, pickled juniper berries and cucumber.
  • House pumpernickel sourdough bread with virgin lava bread butter. (70 year old starter, smuggled from behind the Iron Curtain)
  • Three-cheese profiteroles, sprinkled with chive dust. (Grown from the oldest variety of chives on earth.)
  • Pea and ham hock shot, with pork crackling infused foam and micro leaves. (Endangered rare breed British Landrace Pig.)
  • Quail egg with asparagus and (million year old) pink himalayan salt. 
  • Langoustine ravioli in a clear broth.
  • 50 year old Crab in an avocado shell, topped with trout roe, dusted with dehydrated miso.
  • Smoked eel, pickled radish, with celery powder.
  • Corn Fed chicken with monkfish liver and onion cream.
  • Tomato consomme. Served poured from a silver teapot into 17th century vintage teacups.
  • Salt marsh lamb with samphire, kale, mashed heritage roots and port reduction.
  • A quad of desserts.
  • Wild strawberries, meringue shards, lime basil, lemon curd, frozen goats cheese.
  • Home-made chocolate hazelnut spread on toast. 
  • A shot of frangelico. 
  • Ricotta, honeycomb and pistachio ice-cream.
  • Coffee or tea (exclusive, single-sourced estate)
  • Customers were also given a little bag of goodies (to take home for later) which contained soft tangy rhubarb and creamy custard sweets. Three jelly gummy bears, (each containing 25mg of CBD oil) and a tiny wrapped walnut brownie. (All of these sweets were clearly marked as not suitable for children due to the cannabis content).

Rule 4. Keep them wanting more.

A fragment of one of the first reviews on the home page of Pumpernickel’s website stated  “this meal heals. I felt soothed, comforted, nourished. There is an enviable depth and complexity of such simple ingredients. It’s elemental. I hugged the maître d’ as I left.” Another simply stated “I sold my soul tonight and it was worth it.”

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Part II

Brian and Laura Jones considered themselves to be innovators whose entire existence relied on being ahead of the curve.  By the time their friends heard about something, they had already done it or were booked to do it next weekend. Front row of the circle concert tickets of the next big thing. Eco-tourism. That new tv show. They’d ticked off the bucket list of things to do before you’re forty, well before that half-decade.

A day or so after dining at Pumpernickel, basking in the smug know-it-all glow, trying not to boast, thinking of the casual remarks they would enjoy dropping, to let those who know, know, that they had already been-there-done-that, their teenage son tragically died while skateboarding in the street. At his funeral, (no flowers please, but donations to a child hunger charity were welcomed) whenever someone asked which university Joel would have attended in a few weeks, the word “Yale” now seemed a hollow victory. Even Mrs Jones’ funeral dress was an advance, bespoke, pre-season exclusive and her Italian sunglasses frames were made from a prototype material.

The post-mortem revealed that Joel had cannabis in his system which may have impaired his judgment, and an accidental death verdict given. 

Neither Brian nor Laura ever mentioned that their son had eaten their take-home sweets. They let people believe that he smoked a few joints, as teenagers were prone to do.

The authorities deemed that no further action was taken against the woman driving the car that killed the youth, but she never got over it. She changed her name, then moved house because of the scandal, and vowed to never get behind the wheel ever again. Her depression prevented her returning to work, and she soon lost her job. Her sedentary lifestyle at home and ruminations contributed to insomnia, back pain and an apathetic low mood. To try to lift her spirits, her husband booked a special treat for them both. After months of trying, he had managed to get them a table at Pumpernickel, the restaurant that everyone was talking about.

Photo by shawn henry on Unsplash