A #ShortStorySeptember tale for a new year. Freshly sharpened pencils, new notebooks and all that. It’s also for anyone embarking on a brand new life at University or emerging, blinking in the light, from their cocoon as Lockdown opens up.
I thought a black coffee would be the cheapest, and as it was a universally unquestioned drink, I would always have a legitimate and innocent reason why I didn’t know the difference between a latte and a cortado. But why did the barista give me a little bowl of candy floss?
Mum was right, £12 a day wasn’t nearly enough for food. Getting into a good school was one thing, actually being accepted beyond a pity pet project was another. I’d noticed every small detail between us. I’d read the books and seen the films, but some considered my life still to belong below stairs. I couldn’t absorb, only observe. If I bought the same bag it wouldn’t have the rich patina of their experiences. How could I possibly know if I had “summered well”? At least my nickname of ‘Tom Ripley’ hadn’t followed me here. Well, not yet, but it’s a small world.
The waitress in me made me sit at a table for two, and I faced the door, so my new friend could see me when she entered. I watched her through the window as she embraced each of the couple in turn then smothered their baby in mwah mwahs. Then she looked up and waved at me. The bell above the door of the coffee shop dinged as she entered.
“Sorry I’m late. I bumped into some old friends and got chatting. You know how it is. They have the fattest, most edible baby I’ve ever seen. Anyway, Happy Birthday!”
She unravelled herself from her hand knitted, cashmere scarf, then peeled off various layers until she was down to a t-shirt and a pair of cords. I wished I’d picked a bigger table. She piled her coat, scarf and jumper onto her chair and then fumbled around in her bag for her purse. I spotted a small turquoise box wrapped with white ribbon in her bag.
Her necklace cost more than my rent, her watch worth more than my car. A shabby leather strap on a vintage Omega. Two Cartier Love bangles jangled on her wrist, and although she once claimed they were fakes, I very much doubted that was true.
“Is it me or is it hot in here? Do you want anything? Ooh, they do those little Portuguese custard tarts in here that I like.” she said while fanning her face. She stuck out her chin and tried to blow air upwards towards her hairline.
“Could you get me some sugar please?” I said.
She cocked her head, raised her eyebrows and studied me for a second. Then she pinched a bit of the pink candyfloss and popped it into her mouth. Clawing up the rest of the nest, she dumped it into my cup. It dissolved immediately to nothing.
I looked up to see her perfect, high ponytail flick a spin. Her dancer’s body turned first, then her head. Muscle memory.
SHORT STORY SEPTEMBER FESTIVAL
I’m dead chuffed to be part of the Short Story September Festival event on Saturday 25th September 2021. Although I won’t be reading, I am part of the ‘A Brief Pause’ Writers Showcase, and have a short story included in the anthology, ‘Small Good Things’, which is published by Dahlia Books on the same day. You can order it here.
Dangles a carrot of a 2-hour Kathy Fish flash fiction workshop.
It’s an odd feeling (pride, fear, gratitude), just before a story is released into the world. I know every word so well, the plot inside out. It’s finished, tidied, polished with a bow on top and now out of my hands or control. If you want to read a bit more about how I was inspired to write my weird fairy tale, then click here.
Here’s one of my favourite songs. ‘Maps’ by Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. It’s been viewed over 69 million times on youtube and I just love Karen’s vibe in it.
Do you have an artificial friend? If so, then you may like this book. I did.
Modern sc-fi (like ‘Black Mirror’ or ‘Never let Me Go’) is one of my little obsessions in life.
“Mummy’s going to pick you up from nursery today,” said Violet, as she smoothed down her niece’s hair. Gently cupping the child’s face, she turned it upwards towards her own, and smiled. “Ooh. how I want to eat these little cheeks!” she said. The girl squealed with delight, as her face was showered with “mwah, mwah, mwahs and nom, nom, noms”.
The moment the front door closed, Rosemary burst into tears. Her sister, Violet was leaving today, so she couldn’t put it off any longer. She clapped her hands together, then raised her clasped hands to her mouth, pausing as if in contemplation or prayer. Breathing in deeply, she sighed then walked over to look out of the window. She could see her daughter skipping down the street hand-in-hand with her Aunt. They stopped as the girl pointed to a rainbow in the sky. It’s true what people said. Children were so resilient and a great comfort at times like these. Rosemary pressed play for the company of the radio, then began to busy herself.
It took over four hours to shower, dress, change the master bed, and put on two loads of washing.
Picking out the remaining flowers from several wilting bunches, she created smaller posies that fitted perfectly into two children’s drinking glasses. One for each bedside. She took a picture of one of these floral arrangements, with a slightly blurred family photograph deliberately in view behind. Then she posted it to all of her social media accounts and added the caption “Taking it one day at a time.” There was no way she could reply to all of the well-wishers and notifications right now, but if people saw this picture, at least they’d know she was doing ok.
Rosemary poured the cloudy water from the vases down the kitchen sink, picked out the slimy leaf debris from the plughole and looked at the grubby kitchen sponge. It needed to be thrown away but it was something he’d touched. Was it too soon to get rid of his toothbrush? Then she remembered she’d just washed some of his clothes. She went back into the bathroom and picked up his deodorant, shaving cream, razor, moisturiser and toothbrush and put them in his underwear drawer. There was still so much to do.
At around two o’clock, Rosemary decided to go to the Convenience Store down the road to get something easy and nice for tea. Pizza and ice-cream. Her sister had been so good to stay with them, but she had to go to work tomorrow and life had to get back into some sort of routine. The thought of speaking to her own colleagues made her clutch her stomach. ‘Not fit for work’ was written in spidery Dr handwriting on the sick note, so why did her boss keep ringing her on the pretence of checking whether she was ok, as a cover to ask her work questions? She’d had enough of people saying “how are you coping” and the endless platitudes of “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” without anyone actually offering something tangible that might make her life easier. Like the ironing or cooking a meal. This tired and angry person she was right now would be unprofessional at work, but it was too soon to fake it until she made it. No, a few more weeks away from people was what she needed. She had to face the parents and staff at nursery today. That was enough for now.
Living inside her own head, Rosemary had forgotten just how loud and busy this street was. Double glazing really does dampen down the noise. Hopefully, she wouldn’t see anyone she knew at this time of day. She approached the Convenience Store at the same time as a woman wearing a yellow jacket, who seemed to be in a hurry. “After you,” Rosemary said, then stepped back. The other woman nodded a thanks and walked through the sliding doors. Just then, Rosemary noticed a tiny white feather floating from the sky, right in front of her face.
A few minutes earlier, Patricia (the woman in the yellow coat) was leaving an almost-identical block of flats on the other side of the same street. She too was preoccupied with troubles of her own. Her phone buzzed and there was a brief flicker of hope that this call was from her boyfriend – her ex-boyfriend – but it was her mother. She double-pressed the button at the side of her phone and lowered her arm. Stepping down onto the pavement, a man on a bicycle whizzed past, missing her by millimetres. She shouted “Oy you! Watch where you’re going!” Further along the pavement, the same cyclist grabbed a phone from a woman’s hand then rode away. Patricia stared as the woman tried to run after him, then she faltered when she realised it was futile.
Patricia turned to hear a woman swearing at a man who was trying to stifle a laugh. Apparently a bird had pooped down the back of the collar of the woman’s blouse, between the fabric and her skin. “I can feel it sliding down my back!” That poor woman was stood in the exact spot where Patricia would have been if she’d not spent the last ten seconds watching a brazen daylight robbery. Reaching into her pocket she felt for a couple of coffee shop napkins and handed them to the couple, saying “there you go. Sorry. It’s not much.”
She briefly considered joining the group of people who were hurriedly crossing the road but thought better of it as the green man was flashing. What did her dad used to say? “First in this queue instead of last in that.” She pressed the button and waited for the cars to pass and the green man to appear again. Just as she put a foot forward into the road, a man grabbed her and pulled her backwards away from the kerb, out of the path of a speeding van that had jumped the lights.
A homeless man sat on the ground a few meters away from the shop doorway. “Spare any change please, Miss?” he asked hopefully. “Sorry, mate, no,” she said, then changed her mind and fumbled around in her bag. She brought out half a packet of cigarettes and offered them to him. “You can have these. I’ve given up.”
“Thank you Miss. Good luck to you, Miss,” he replied. Here was a man with nothing, who was kinder to her than her own boyfriend – her ex-boyfriend. Strangers cared more about her than her ex boyfriend did. Her arm suddenly prickled with goosebumps as if someone had lightly stroked it, but there was no-one there. It was exactly like the secret pang of joy when you think of a new lover. Her eye caught sight of a white feather slowly zig-zagging down, then it gently settled on her right shoulder.
Hurrying into the Convenience Store, Patricia asked for a lottery ticket but changed her mind at the last moment and spent the money on a scratchcard. In a nearby coffee shop toilet, she rubbed off the silver coating on the instant win ticket with a 2p coin. One four-leaf clover emerged. Two. Three. Four.
No way! She’d only won ten thousand pounds!
She put her hand out onto the wall to steady herself as she felt her knees buckle. Brushing the bits of silver, then blowing them away, she checked the card again. She tried to read the back of the card for details of how to claim, but it was difficult because of the low-level lighting in there, designed to discourage drug-taking.
The woman in the post office seemed genuinely pleased for her and wished her well. Patricia noticed that the woman’s hand was shaking as she slid the cheque through the little window slot. In the bank, she was taken into a side room, which made Patricia feel special, until she realised it was a sales talk about investments and upgrading her account. She made her excuses and left. Next was coffee – although what she really wanted was a proper drink to steady her nerves. Caffeine wasn’t going to help her racing heart. Her apologies for using the loo without buying anything weren’t necessary, as the barista claimed not have noticed her earlier. While she sipped her perfect coffee, Patricia made an appointment to view a flat the next morning, and booked a hotel room for two nights. She needed time to think. This was a second chance so she literally couldn’t blow it.
A few days later, the local paper ran a story about a young widow who’d scooped the double rollover lottery jackpot. “I’ve always felt that I had a guardian angel watching over me. My husband said he’d always look after us. When I saw that white feather, I knew it was a sign from him. We might have lost him but he’s still with us in spirit and in our hearts. I feel so blessed.”
Meanwhile, the occupants of one of the flats above the branch of Tesco that sold the winning tickets, were still finding tiny feathers from a split pillow. Duck down was so light and impossible to catch, clogging up the vacuum cleaner. Even opening a door in the flat was enough to puff up the delicate feathers into the air where they would drift out of the window into the street below.
All Sofie wanted was to get out of this lay-by of a town as soon as she could. It was stifling, a predictable, cookie-cutter, Edward Scissorhands estate where everyone was a clone or a drone. They all bragged about how much their house was worth but how little they spent on food from the local European mega-hypermarket. Their disposable, mass-produced, bland uniforms bought from the giant dazzling, car park shrine to Arcadia.
The only thing her mother said after child body parts were found in oversized plant pots in the dentist’s house round the corner, was “you never know what goes on behind closed doors”. Neighbours tutted about how it “affected the resale value” and that they could hardly believe it was true because “he was such a lovely man,” but they never once said anything about the girl. Yeah, middle-class people were such proper aspirational role-models. They didn’t drink or abuse their own kids did they? Some dinner parties were code for swingers. More pills and coke than a rock band’s dressing room. They’d still elbow their own mothers out of the way for a place at the local Catholic high school.
When her sister Jade, came back from a gap year of backpacking round Asia, she was in a black trouser suit almost before her nose-ring had been taken out. A few net curtains twitched as she walked up the drive in her billowing patchwork pantaloon trousers. Never fear, they went straight into in the dustbin. Dreadlocks off to reveal a cute pixie crop. It was as if everyone was allowed a year away from ‘normality’ and was then neutralised back to generic acceptability. Don’t even think about putting your bins out whilst still in your pyjamas.
Their parents tried the same trick again with Sofie but she wasn’t having any of it. “After you’ve done your Masters, we’ll pay for you to go travelling or buy you a car. Your choice.” The only caveat was that she had to live at home and go to one of the local Universities. Sofie thought the point of higher education was to the chance to live independently and experience life with people from all different backgrounds, not as the primary way to get a higher income as fast as possible.
One family said nothing about their offspring’s University aspirations then nonchalantly dropped the bombshell of “Oh, our son is at Yale.” You could sense the seething resentment bubbling at that dinner party like a thumb over a hosepipe.
Why couldn’t here be like it was in Denmark? People didn’t actually all need their own tiny square of green. If the gardens were all joined together, kids could actually play outside again. People would sit and chat. Be neighbourly. Look out for each other. Grow veg. Have barbeques. Form a cross-generational community. Obesity and loneliness obliterated. Sort of like the intent of London gated gardens in Kensington. They might share the same cleaners but they were well-paid enough to be loyal, crucially remaining tight-lipped about the contents of other people’s knicker drawers. If someone gossips to you, the chances are that they are also talking about your life to someone else behind your back.
No matter how big the driveways were, some people would always park on the road, usually at the exact spot where children wanted to naturally cross it. Pedestrians and cyclists seemed to be an afterthought in this plan. There was no point even trying to discuss it. People’s entitlement extended to the public road immediately in front their front gates. It was an unforgiveable sin to park your car outside someone else’s house. Don’t even get me started on the pitfalls of driving a works van.
A neighbour, Stan, with a blue-eyed, Siberian Husky named Rula, was pressured into muzzling his dog whenever he took it for a walk, just to placate the neighbours. When he discovered sympathetic Polish graffiti on the side of his garage. Nie wywołuj wilka z lasu (translates as ‘do not call the wolf out of the woods’ or ‘let sleeping dogs lie’) he left it, and it would still be there today if some unknown person had not painted over it when he was on holiday.
Heaven help anyone who wanted to tinker with a motorbike outside their OWN property on a sunny afternoon, with the radio on low, or who didn’t water or cut their front lawn often enough. Failing to deadhead flowers or having the wrong kind of patio chair was punishable by being ostracised from the PTA. You might find an influx of dead snails on your path, all with smashed shells, that had been tossed over the fence during the night in frustration, because your lack of local pride was showing up their impeccable, efforts. Having an argument within earshot of the neighbours rendered you invisible and people always claimed they “never heard anything”. They wanted to know why an ambulance with flashing blue lights was outside your house at 2am, but they would never actually be the one to call the police about a ‘domestic’. They’re not getting involved.
Some of the best one-upmanship efforts ever displayed were at Christmas. Most people wouldn’t be stupid enough to display the packaging from their gifts of electronic gadgets and children’s toys for fear of opportunist burglars, but here, it seemed to be mandatory. How on earth could everyone possibly keep up with the competition but still stay in their own lane?
The final straw was when some neighbours won the lottery. They didn’t want to move. They would build an extension. If that wasn’t enough, one of their teenagers bought a drum kit and VW camper van. Clearly obvious deliberate provocation designed only to put ideas into the heads of the other kids on the estate.
Sofie decided that the invitation to spend the summer in Cornwall with her childhood friend was a brilliant way to get out of Dodge. She could practice her guitar and get a job as a waitress, whilst he surfed, and maybe, their band would get good enough to even play some gigs.