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

120. Mixed Signals

Photo by Harry Grout on Unsplash

I can still remember the last moment we were a happy family, before I ruined it all. It was the Easter holidays, and I was six. I was busy drawing a picture at the kitchen table and Eileen, my baby sister, was asleep upstairs. My mother was washing up when my father came home early from work. Seeing his face appear at the window startled her, so she pretended to flick suds at him. 

“Hello Treacle,” he said to me, and kissed the top of my head.

“You’re home early love,” said my Mother. He put his arms around her waist, kissed the side of her neck and dabbled his dirty hands in the dishwater. After he had dried them, he flicked the teatowel on her backside, which made her squeal, then she turned around, cupped his face with her soapy hands and he bent her back right over to kiss her like they did in the films. Then they both laughed. 

“You might squeeze a cup out of that pot,” she said, so he took a mug from the draining board. He pretended to look down the spout of the teapot to check, which I thought was silly, then he poured a little bit more water from the kettle into it. While he was waiting for his brew, he sat down, lit a cigarette, took a drag and scratched his head. “We have to go onto short time, or some of us will be let go,” he said.

“Oh Fred,” sighed my mother, “We’ll manage. We always do.” She looked at me and smiled. “Don’t worry, Cyn, we could always sell some of your drawings. You’re quite the little artist.”

“She is that indeed. Let me see?” said my father. I held up my latest drawing. “You can sell some of my pictures but you can’t sell this one. It’s a present for Mummy’s friend, Mr Turner.” I said.

I never slept in my own bed again.

Photo by Max Harlynking on Unsplash

When I was fourteen, I fell in love with the paper boy. We’d said fewer than ten words to each other in the six months that he’d been delivering Mr Crane’s newspaper, but I knew that I wanted to marry him. One Friday morning, I got up early to watch out for his bike, and I opened the front door just as he was about to post the newspaper through the letterbox. I grabbed it off him, pushed a letter into his hand and closed the door in his face. I was so embarrassed that I barely even glanced at him.

He was there outside the bakers at 11 o’clock the next day, just like I’d asked him to be in my letter. I could see he had made a real effort. Polished shoes, a neat parting and smelling of coal tar soap. His name was Brian and he was also fourteen. He said he wanted to work on the railways when he left school, so that’s where we went for our walk to find a nice picnic spot. I’d brought cheese and cucumber sandwiches and two apples. Our shoes soon got dusty from walking alongside the tracks and as it was a hot day, he decided to open the bottle of cherryade that he’d brought. Then he needed to pee. The other girls in the Home had warned me never to be alone with a boy or a man if he got his cock out. They told me that he would try to get me to touch it and if I did then I might have a baby, but if I didn’t, then I was frigid and was going to become a nun. I didn’t like the sound of either of those things, so I ran away from him.

I clomped up the wooden stairs of the signal box and opened the door. There was nobody in there. Three of the walls were made up of windows. It was stiflingly hot and smelled of BO and stale cigarettes. One long shelf at my eye level was full of polished wooden boxes and shiny bells that looked like the ones on a hotel reception desk, and there were a dozen big levers sticking out of the floor. In the corner there was a desk with two office chairs on wheels and two telephones. One black and one red. The wireless was playing music quietly. I rang one of the bells and it dinged, then I pressed the top of another bell but its ring sounded different to the first one, so I tried another, which sounded out an even higher note. They reminded me of when the Campanology Club was practising in church.  I turned a handle sticking out of one of the wooden boxes and tried to pull one of the levers, but I couldn’t do it because it was so stiff.

I heard Brian say, “you’re not supposed to be in here”.

Suddenly, the signalman started shouting at us. “What are you two doing in here?”, “I heard those bells. You better not have bloody touched anything. You could cause a crash,” then, “can’t a man have five minutes peace to go for a shit?” and “what did you touch?”.

When he had finished shouting, I pointed at the bells and told the signalman that I’d pressed those and turned that handle, but Brian said, “she moved one of those levers as well. I saw her do it.”

“No, I didn’t you liar!” I shouted back at him.

The signalman said, “You’re a cheeky little bitch, aren’t you? What’s your name?”

“Cynthia Archer,” I said. He said nothing but studied me for a moment, then said, “I know you. You’re Fred Archer’s girl. Do you give it away too just like your mother did? I bet you do. They all do in that Home. My mate wouldn’t be in prison now if she wasn’t such a dirty slut.”

“Don’t you talk like that about my mother!” I shouted back at him, and some of my spit landed on his jacket.

“Filthy little…” he began but was interrupted by one of the bells ringing on its own. “Oh shit. Get out, the both of you or you’ll feel the back of my hand. Go on, bugger off.”

The next morning, after church, I had to go to Mrs Crane’s office. “I have received a telephone call from a gentleman who says that he caught you and a boy up to no good in the signal box near to the top end of town. Is this true?”

“I was there with him but…”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. I’m tired of your stories. This is a serious matter. You were trespassing on private property. Your actions could have caused a train crash. People could have died. Not only that but you were out alone with a boy. What were you thinking? The reputation of our Home is at stake.”

“Yes, Mrs Crane.”

“I am going to give you a choice. You can either help to clean the church for an hour every morning and evening for the next month or work in the laundry. So, you will have plenty of time to consider what you have done and what could have happened. You will also not be attending the fete next week and you going on the school trip to Whitby is absolutely out of the question. You will not see that boy again, or any other boy for that matter, as long as you are living under this roof. I am shocked that one of my girls is writing letters to boys and spitting on British Rail employees. That boy no longer delivers newspapers and I understand that his father gave him a good hiding. We do not condone corporal punishment here, but if we did, I would not hesitate. Do you understand how lucky you are?”

Photo by Krisztina Papp on Unsplash

After I saw my father kill my mother, he washed his hands in the bowl of still-warm water and told me that I had to be a good girl and go next door to tell Mrs Bailey to phone the police, and that I was to stay there and not come back. She made me a boiled egg, toast and Ovaltine for my tea and I thought I was going to have it in my new eggcup that I got with my easter egg, but I didn’t. Mrs Bailey gave me an a teddy bear that she said used to be her daughter’s and asked me to look after it, then a nice police lady took me to the Girls Home. My new bed was next to the window and there was a nightdress on the pillow. I liked it in summer because the window was open, but in winter I had to be careful not to burn myself on the radiator. I stayed there until the day after my 16th birthday, which was the earliest date I was permitted to leave. Mrs Crane told me that my sister was adopted straight away by a nice family who couldn’t have children of their own so this was really quite the blessing. 

After Eileen grew up, she found me with help from the Salvation Army and a woman at the Citizens Advice Bureau, and we finally met when I was 36. We have different accents but everyone can tell that we have the same mother. I’m still quite good at drawing but I’d never let anyone see them, and I sometimes drive past the Girls Home on my way home from work. It’s a hotel now. I haven’t been inside since it was refurbished, but I’ve seen the brochure that they have for weddings. The room I used to sleep in with five other girls is now the bridal suite.

Me? No, I never married.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

118. Family Matters

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

This is a story I wrote specifically for the brief of ‘GLASS’ for a competition, but it was not longlisted.

Some things that people assume are fragile, are often the most resilient, because they have to be to survive. If I’d never tapped that screen, then I wouldn’t know what happened and Mum would still be here.

When I was little, I stood on a chair, climbed under the net curtains and tiptoed precariously on the window ledge, between the photographs. I remember stretching up my arms like an angel. That window was bigger than I was. Mum was so happy to see me waiting for her, that she forgot to tell me off.

In my first year, almost everything I made broke, so I reused the smashed shards in my other work. By year four, I instinctively sensed how glass flowed. I could control my breath and feel the stresses and tensions. There was always a risk that kiln shock might crack a piece, but that was part of the process. People only saw the results, not the work leading up to it. Failure to produce or anticipate the market, meant I couldn’t pay my bills. It was all or nothing.

As the car drew up to what was left of Mum’s house, molten lead dripped into my stomach, and fizzed. I howled like a dog left home alone. A flapping stripy ribbon was the only barrier keeping strangers out.

I knew we would bicker over the scraps. His wife never appreciated the sentiment of unfashionable stem crystal, kept safe for best in a velvet-lined box, but she didn’t want me to have them either. I pretended that a new dandelion clock paperweight was Mum’s pride and joy and reluctantly gave it up for the wine glasses. If they had ever visited my shop, then they would know that the bowl they loved was one from my ‘Empty Vessel’ collection.

I hadn’t been a little sister for years but I still needed my big brother. This may as well have been a closed visit with a 6mm invisible barrier between us. I tried to reach out but I still couldn’t touch him. I think we both knew this would be the last time we didn’t speak.

He poured Mum’s ashes onto the sand. I picked up a muted, green pebble from the shoreline and sucked it like a travel sweet. Mum used to call these ‘mermaid’s tears’. Everything that fused us together was gone. I looked at the frosted, weathered sea glass nugget and wondered what it once was. I think I’ll make it into a pendant and wear it next to my heart.

When I got home, I wrote him a letter and pushed it into a bottle. I thought about throwing it into the sea, to be with Mum, but decided to slump it in the kiln. Flat bottles were always my best-sellers.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash