Monthly Archives

March 2016

Short story - Love and loss

Loss

It is always in the wee small hours of the morning that I wake,  and then think of you. Sometimes I think it is because I dream of you, and the dream seems so real that I reach out for you. My arms rise up from their heavy slumber and stretch out to touch you. That movement, that need to touch you must be what wakes me.  And suddenly I am jarred into consciousness, with a start I am alert and my eyes open wide.  I stare wildly into the darkness of my room, panicked, trying to focus, trying to find you, desperately searching for you, because I am so sure that you must be there somewhere, in the shadows. I know you are there because I felt you there, it was so real. I knew you were there beside me.  And I blame myself for waking, because if I had stayed asleep you would have stayed there with me.

I lie back and the sadness falls heavily over my soul, there is no room for any other feeling. Just the heavy weight of longing that will never go away. I was once told that grief is like a huge rock you have been forced to carry. At first you can’t even hold it, it crushes you under its weight. But you know you have to carry it because you must go on living.

And so you pull at the huge rock with your sore hands until you eventually get it off the ground, and you heave it up, scraping and cutting your skin, stretching every tendon, sinew and muscle, and carry it on your chest and then on your shoulders or on your back until eventually you find a way to move, to carry it. And you start to shuffle forward, and then you start to walk. And then you get used to the heaviness, the burden. It becomes part of you. And though you will always have it with you, this grief, this huge sadness in your life, this unbearable weight, you eventually start to join the living again, until someday you even forget you are carrying it. That is what they keep telling me.

I am still lying on the ground, still crushed. I cannot see how I can ever get up. I cannot understand why anyone would ever want to get up, to lift that weight, to start walking again. It is easier to lie here and wait to be taken, to slip away.

I turn over in my bed so that my face is buried in the hot dampness of my pillow. I must have been crying again. I look at the clock; it is only 2:30am. Too early to get up. I can’t pretend I decided to get up early at this time of the morning. They will know. I push my crushed damp pillow off the bed so it lands with a soft thud on the floor. I kick off the covers and lie star shaped on the bed, letting the cool air comfort my skin. I have learnt to do this. Eventually I start to shiver and get cold, then I grab the covers and drag them back up over me, hugging them to me. I turn over again so I am twisted into a warm knot and wait for sleep to take me away again.

I wake again, it is 5:30am. I didn’t dream of you again, I feel sad, disappointed. I had hoped you would come to me, be with me again. It is my only comfort.

I get out of bed and pull back the curtains. The sun is starting to rise, cutting through the mist and dampness hanging over the garden. It is yet another day. I see a bird, a little robin, flitting from branch to branch in the magnolia tree, trying to get to the bird feeder. He is so tiny. I watch him hop and then he cocks his head and turns to look straight at me, almost quizzically. I hold his gaze until he starts and flits away. He knows something, saw something.

I turn back from the window and look at my rock, waiting for me.  Maybe today, just for a moment, I could try to pick it up for the first time, and see how strong I am.

Writing news

Just Write session with Chiltern Writers

On 10th March Just Write (JW) gave their first talk as a group to members of the Wendover-based group Chiltern Writers (CW). Two members of JW are also members of CW, so this was no co-incidence!

Lesley and Angela did most of the talking with Stuart explaining his role, the production and printing of the group’s two books Spilling the Beans and Delayed Reaction. Linda read the same extract from her Spilling the Beans story Freddolatte that Nick Coffer had enjoyed so much on BBC Three Counties Radio just over a week earlier, and Phil read from his Delayed Reaction story Connection. Angela read from her Delayed Reaction story Run Rabbit Run and Lesley followed up with the same scene from Debbie’s perspective, as told in I’ll be there. (Debbie was absent at a family wedding…)

Angela had created an exercise to give CW members an idea of the decisions JW had to make when writing the books. The CW members came up with some really great scenarios and characters. JW took part in their own exercise but their idea wasn’t as good as some the others came up with: does it count as plagiarism if you just pinch the germ of the idea? Only joking!

Nicki also attended, flitting between audience and the JW table for the exercise and taking notes during the Q&A session afterwards. JW thoroughly enjoyed the evening and, judging by comments received at the time and the Tweets posted afterwards, CW members also enjoyed it. Thank you very much for inviting us to speak.

The photo, taken by the camera-shy Phil, shows Stuart being diverted from concentrating on what he will say later, Angela discovering the joys of Programme Organiser Debbie Clarke’s delicious vegan, gluten-free cake, Lesley nervously grinning like a Cheshire cat (as always) and Linda being her usual sensible smiling self.

Short stories on International Women's Day

How far have we come?

There are so many national holidays, public holidays, events, theme weeks and anniversaries to celebrate. Some of them have more merit than others. For example, St Patrick’s Day is on 17th March, not long to wait now!  I am already stocking up on Guinness and Tayto Cheese and Onion crisps.  It is a day for songs, shamrocks, socialising and celebrating all that Ireland has to offer the world – starting with Saints and Scholars and working forward from there!

So what about International Women’s Day? What does that stand for? What are we celebrating?  The key theme this year is to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. So that got me thinking, what changes and progress have I seen women achieve?

What social, economic, cultural and political achievements have I got to show for myself? What have I seen change and how have I marked my time marked on this planet?

Well socially, I feel I am on track! I am at a time and place in my life where my social life revolves around those who bring joy, peace and positive challenges to my life and I can hopefully bring the same to theirs. And if that involves a good glass of wine in the mix, then all to the good.

Economically, well my earnings have fluctuated severely over the years. A seemingly good salary became paltry once I became a mother, and returning to work meant having to organise and pay for childcare. There came a point where I was trying to work out if I was breaking even between the salary coming in and the childcare payments going out.

In the UK we have some of the highest childcare costs in Europe. Then add to that mix the fact that the gender gap in the UK currently stands at 14.2%.  So as women we work the same hours, in the same role, and yet in many of those roles we are getting paid less than our male colleagues. Then to top it all, out of that unfairly depleted salary we have to pay some of the most expensive childcare costs in the UK.

The good news is the wake-up siren coming from those in the 16-25 age group, who are better informed in this digital information age than ever before. It was heartening to see the reaction of my teenage son and daughter when we discussed equal pay. The fact that women could be employed in the same role as men, do the same hours, perform the same tasks and still receive less pay for the same job was greeted by them with incomprehension and then outrage. That’s the thing about teenagers, they generally have a much more heightened sense of what is fair and equitable because they are not yet disillusioned by life’s experiences and long may that last.

What about culturally, how much have women achieved in this arena? We are all conditioned to accept the older male actor with the young actress as the norm on screen, but rarely do we see a movie starring an older actress with a young actor. In fact that would be the key discussion point of the film should it happen.

And I find it depressing to see successful actresses metamorphosise into tight-faced, puffy-lipped, cosmetically altered versions of themselves.

However, there are some powerful cultural role models for women to look up to in all cultural fields. But one recent comment caused me to think. It was when I was watching the Breakfast News in a hotel reception area. At one point there were two main presenters on screen, alongside a sports reporter and two guests.  Nothing unusual in that, except for the fact that a man sitting near me stared at the screen and then commented ‘Look at that, five people all talking about the news and four of them are women!’  I wonder if he would have even noticed or commented if it had been four men and one woman chatting to us about world events from a TV studio.  Perhaps if it had been a fashion or magazine show, then thought would not have crossed his mind, nor the comment pass his lips?

When I was studying Politics as an undergraduate, only 5% of MPs were women and that was when we had our first women Prime Minister. How did that particular glass ceiling not get smashed then? Did Margaret Thatcher slam it shut on the way up?  At least we are moving in the right direction.  The latest figures show that women now account for 29% of all MPs.  While women are still proportionally under-represented in government and politics, the fact that 29% of MPs are women represents a record high.  So we are moving in the right direction. Maybe we should focus on not just more women MPs, but women MPs of all ages with all of life’s energy and experiences to bring to bear. They could fix the political imbalance, the economic gender gap, and if they could sing, paint or act as well throw a great party, then we would have the social and cultural boxes ticked too!

Short stories on International Women's Day

My Susan

This story was entered into Writing Magazine’s 750-word short story competition in 2015 and went on to win first prize.

She came to see me again yesterday. That nice woman.  She keeps telling me her name but I can’t remember it.  I think she’s one of those do-gooders.  She’s really kind though, comes twice a week to see me, reads to me, brings me chocolate and magazines.  I wish I could remember her name…

I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I keep asking them, the nurses, but I forget what they say.  I should write things down.  I think it must be at least a year because the Christmas decorations are up again, like they were when I first came here.  Or could it be two years?  I’m not sure.  When you get to my age, Christmases all merge into one.

It was different when I was young. Oh, yes, Christmas was a magical time then, especially when my Fred was still alive and our Susan was little.

Ah, Susan! My lovely daughter.  I wonder what’s happened to her.  Haven’t seen her in months.  She used to be such a good daughter.  Maybe she’s moved away and forgotten to tell me.  Or perhaps she did tell me and it’s slipped my mind – I really must start writing things down.  Perhaps her car’s broken down and she can’t get here. Yes, that’ll be it.  But she could get a bus, couldn’t she?  They stop right outside the door of this place.  I can see the bus stop from my window.  Sometimes I spend hours watching people getting on and getting off the bus.

When she came to see me yesterday, that nice woman, she seemed a bit sad. Kept holding my hand and looking concerned.  I said to her, my daughter Susan used to look at me like that sometimes, like there was something on her mind that she didn’t want to talk about.

In my day, girls looked after their mums. I certainly did.  My mum eventually went into one of those awful nursing home places.  I can still remember the sound your footsteps made on the lino and the stench of cabbage and disinfectant.  You wouldn’t catch me in a place like that, full of old people drinking weak tea and shuffling about in cardigans and slippers!  I visited my mum every day, sat with her, sometimes washed her hair, even did her laundry – well, there’s no way I was having her knickers washed with everyone else’s!  No, I looked after her until the day she died.  Bless her.

But not my Susan. She’s obviously got better things to do than to visit her old mum once in a while.  I do miss her.

I said to that nice woman yesterday – you know, the one who visits me – I said, you remind me of my daughter Susan. Same smile, same hair.  My Susan has lovely hair, thick and shiny.  Doesn’t get it from me with my lanky locks!  There’s a young girl who runs the hairdressers in town, comes in on a Tuesday to do my hair.  I think it’s Tuesday, or is it Thursday?  I don’t like the way she does it – she puts the curlers in too tight – but I don’t say anything, I don’t want to hurt her feelings.

When my Susan was little, I used to love doing her hair. On bath nights, I used to wash it for her, then plait it, so when she woke up the next morning and untied the plaits she released this golden cascade of curls.  Beautiful it was!

She was only seven when her dad died. Got knocked off his bike on his way home from work.  Susan was inconsolable.  I should have re-married really – a girl needs a father – but instead we just clung together and tried to get on with life, just the two of us.  We were close, though, always very close.  I do miss her.

That nice woman who visits me told me she lost her father when she was young, too. Oh, I said, just like my Susan.

She looked so sad…

Oh, I’ve just remembered! It’s the nice woman’s birthday next week.  That kind nurse, the fat one, reminded me this morning.  I must get her a birthday card and give it to her when she next visits.  But I can’t remember her name!  Oh, what is it, what is it?

Ah yes, I remember it now. It’s… Susan.

Short stories on International Women's Day

The reunion

Lucy tore the invitation into small pieces and dropped it in the waste paper basket. She hesitated a moment, before grabbing the basket and marching out to the dustbin, where she emptied it with a violent shake and slammed the lid. She wouldn’t go. She could just picture the halted conversations as she walked in, the embarrassed smiles, the veiled condemnation.

And she could picture Andrew. He would be standing by the bar, of course, beer in hand – probably wearing that ancient leather jacket with the patched elbows. Would he have some grey in his hair now? Would he have grown that beard which was always allowed to emerge for a day or two before she complained? Would he look at her with that same nonchalant smile playing round the corners of his mouth – or would he stare into his beer as if he hadn’t even noticed her arrival?

She’d had the invitation pinned to her notice board for the last two weeks. Every morning, she had tried not to look at it as she made her cup of coffee. Every morning, she had pushed away the need to decide.

She knew it off by heart anyway. Class of ’96 – it’s been 20 years. Join us in The Queen’s Head, by Brighton Pavilion on Saturday 5th May at 12.30 for an afternoon of reunion and reminiscence. Bring your photos.

She wanted to go – she so wanted to go. But how could she? How could she look him in the eye again after what she had done? How could she look at any of them?

She’d been back in her home for three months now and she had heard nothing – not from her old friends. Not from Andrew. And how could she blame them? Of course, she had a lot of counselling before they released her. They told her the hardest thing would be seeing her old acquaintances. She still saw the psychotherapist every four weeks but they’d stopped talking about the past now and were trying to concentrate on the future.

As she did every morning, she wandered upstairs and turned the key in the first door on the right, opening it with great care. Picking up the pink rabbit from the cot and laying it to her cheek, she closed her eyes against the familiar wave of pain and guilt. They had never managed to excise that. Then, closing the door very softly behind her, as if trying not to waken any memories, she made an effort to plan her day so that she would be very busy at 12.30 and for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe she’d visit her Mum. There’d be plenty to do there.

The morning dragged though. Even the clamour of the vacuum cleaner followed by the vigorous cleaning of the bathroom didn’t drown out the tiny voice which whispered There’s still time…

She was just changing the sheets on her bed, swathed in an apron and sporting pink Marigolds, when the doorbell rang. She wondered if it was in her head, as no-one ever called since she got back. Then it rang again.

She almost didn’t go – it was probably just the man to read the gas meter or something. But it wasn’t. It was Andrew. Andrew wearing a new jacket, clean shaven – and entirely grey-haired. Her body emptied, leaving a great hollow in her middle. She reached out to steady herself on the wall as his hand came out to support her.

“Lucy.”

Words deserted her. She gestured to him to come in, but he stood awkwardly in the hall.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t visit you.”

He was apologising to her!

“I didn’t…” The words caught in her throat. “I just wish…” She couldn’t say it.

“I was so angry.” He spoke over her, gabbling as if he feared his courage would desert him. “It hurt – I can’t tell you. But I’ve had some help – you know… bereavement counselling – and I think I’ve finally begun to understand about what you had – the depression, after the birth. I know she cried all the time, and I know it was the colic – and I was never there. I was too wrapped up in the job and – well, I could escape from the crying, but you couldn’t. I left you on your own…” He stopped and swallowed.

Lucy covered her face. So many tears over the last five years but the well was bottomless. She felt Andrew’s hand on her shoulder. His touch burned into her skin like a branding. She didn’t move.

His voice had regained control as he went on, “I knew if I went to that reunion, I would spend the afternoon looking at the door in case you came through it. And you wouldn’t. So – well – I decided we should spend the time together instead, maybe – if you’d like to? Please?”

Lucy felt her whole body trembling as he led her unresisting into the kitchen and sat her down while he filled the kettle and laid out a couple of mugs. It felt so normal that he should do this, as if the last four horrendous years had been nothing but a hiccup in their joint destiny.

Finally, handing her a mug of tea, he spoke again, with more confidence than before.

“It wasn’t just your fault, Lucy. By my very absence, it was mine too. We both killed her – we both did.”

Lucy looked up at him at last, and recognised a lingering memory of hope.

Leo Reynolds - Lion Brass Door Knocker
Short stories on International Women's Day

Mary doesn’t live here anymore

Captain James Marsh stood at the top of the drive and looked down at the grand four-bedroom detached house with its manicured lawn and regimented flower beds. It had taken him two years but he had finally found where he thought his birth parents lived – or, at least, he thought his birth mother lived there.

He paused to run his leather-gloved hands down his uniform tunic. Satisfied that he looked as smart as he could, he took a deep breath and marched briskly down the drive. Once he reached the front door he took another deep breath and raised his hand to beat out a sharp tattoo with the heavy brass door knocker that gleamed in the bright sunlight.

He stood and waited, with his cap tucked smartly under his arm, fighting the urge to turn tail and run away like a child playing dolly knocker. Was there no-one there?

Finally he heard the clatter of the chain being removed, the door creaked open and he saw a well-dressed middle-aged woman standing in the doorway. Was this the moment he would meet her? She looked about the right age and she had hazel eyes just like his. “Hello. Can I help you?” she asked.

James started as he realised he needed to answer her question instead of just staring at her. “I am very sorry to bother you, Ma’am. I wondered if you know a Mary Reeves. I would very much like to talk to her,” James replied, while Please let it be you. Please let it be you repeated in his head as a constant refrain.

“I’m sorry,” came the kind reply, “but Mary moved away. We bought the house from her two years ago. Can I help?”

“Who is it? If they are selling something tell them we don’t want it, whatever it is,” came a gruff voice from inside.

“It’s no-one,” called out the kind-faced woman. “I’ll be back in a minute.” She turned back to James and smiled. “I am sorry, Mary doesn’t live here anymore.”

James tried to hide his dejection by smiling as brightly as he could. “Well, thank you anyway. I am sorry to have bothered you,” he said a touch too loudly.

“No problem, I hope you find her,” she replied, closing the door quietly. James found himself standing on the doorstep looking at the highly polished door knocker once more.

Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore… he thought sadly to himself as he turned and walked away.

Mary stood behind the door, surreptitiously lifted the corner of the stark white net curtain and wistfully watched James walk away.

Short stories on International Women's Day

Flight of fancy

It wasn’t a big lie, as lies go, just a small one. And it wasn’t told out of malice or anything other than possibly a rather large inferiority complex.

Whilst filling in the form, at the part which asked for my name, I put Alexandrine Verity le Marr instead of Ann Crump. Whether or not I thought this would get me the job I wasn’t certain, but I just didn’t fancy being Ann Crump anymore. Then I wondered whether I should say that I lived in Camden instead of the Archway Road but, if they ever wrote to me, I wouldn’t get the letter so I decided it was better to own up to where I actually lived.

I posted my form back to them that very same day – better to be keen, I thought. On second thoughts I wondered if I had been too keen – the form had only arrived that morning and, by 1:30 pm, it was in the post back to them. I really wanted this job. Well, to be honest, I wanted any job. It had been six long months since I had had any gainful employment and money was running out at a rate of knots. I began to think maybe I should sign on and face the indignity of some spotty youth in the benefits’ office trying to place me in a situation of work that wouldn’t appeal to me at all.

No, this job was the one. It was all I ever wanted, it was the one I had dreamt about, the one that would offer me opportunities beyond belief, the one that would open doors to the kind of life I had always wanted. The only problem was I hated flying, but I would probably get used to it after the first few flights. I just needed to build my confidence up a bit. “Air hostesses, we urgently need you”, the ad had said. “Come and work for British Airways and go that little bit further.” That was me. I needed to go further, but did I have the qualifications? The answer to that was definitely not. They asked for English and Maths GCSEs. I had neither, having had to leave school at fifteen, or rather having been asked to leave school owing to behaviour which made me blush now I thought about it. How hard can it be just walking up and down the aisle of an airplane offering drinks and food? Why would English and Maths even come into it?

I would lie about that too. I would award myself nine GCSEs, two of which would be English and Maths, and no one would be any the wiser. After all, no one ever checked so what harm could it do?

I waited patiently for a week to see if my form had been approved, pacing the floor each time the post was due. Then one wonderful day, just after I had given up ever hearing from them, there it was. I had been awarded an interview. I was to go to the offices at Heathrow and ask for Ms Gwen Mathers who would conduct the interview.

Then began the serious business of what should I wear? I wanted to be sophisticated and stylish, surely just the perfect balance for an air hostess. Not overdone, rather more understated with a hint of Meryl Streep accepting a film award before going onto a neighbour’s barbecue straight afterwards, so casual as well.

I searched the shops for days then came up with the perfect outfit. This perfect outfit also took the rest of the money I had saved for a rainy day, but what the hell? It was an investment.

The great day dawned, my excitement was in overdrive. I had rehearsed the journey so knew just how long it would take to get there. Of course, when the great day dawned it was pouring with rain. Just my luck – I would arrive with a frizzy mass of hair from the damp, but I wouldn’t let this worry me. I had to have this job so I would pretend that this frizzy look was totally intended and anyone with straight neat hair was so last season.

There were a lot of us girls there, all eyeing each other up to see who had the most potential. I noticed that several of them were incredibly smart and really looked the part. On the other hand, some looked not the part at all. I felt I could be in with a chance.

At last my turn came. “Alexandrine Verity le Marr – please come this way.” I didn’t budge. “Alexandrine Verity…” Suddenly I was jolted into realisation.

“Oh sorry,” I stuttered. “That’s me.” I was forgetting that I had changed my name. I followed the incredibly well turned-out woman who had come to fetch me.

I don’t know what I expected. Just one woman I think, this Gwen person that the letter had said would be interviewing me. In fact there were four people behind a long desk. I was ushered to a chair and, one by one, they started firing questions at me. Why did I think this job would suit me? Had I had any experience in this field before? and a million others which I couldn’t remember afterwards as my mind had gone totally blank as it is prone to do in situations of great stress.

The woman on the far left looked long and hard at me before she asked, “And which GCSEs did you obtain?”

“Oh,” I said airily. “Maths, English, French, Geography, English Lit, Chemistry, Spanish, History and Science.”

The woman looked long and hard at me. “You look vaguely familiar,” she said. I peered at her. Yes of course I was vaguely familiar. We had sat next to each other in school for four years until I had got expelled.

I felt my face redden. “Do I? I’m not sure why.”

The woman leaned over her desk. “Excuse me,” she said, “but did you attend Tollington High? It’s not on your CV.”

“Err, no,” I replied. “Where is that?”

“Near the Holloway Road. Bit rough, but a good enough school,” the woman replied.

“No. I went to Channing, as you can see by my CV,” I said. This was another lie. Just a little one, no harm done.

The woman leant back in her chair. “I could have sworn you were Ann Crump, same sort of hair.” I cursed the rain for my all-too-familiar frizzy mop – everyone recognised me by that. “But it says here that you are Alexandrine Verity le Marr… Funny, you are the image of someone I used to know.”

I laughed heartily, maybe a little too heartily, and she kept peering at me with a strange look on her face while the other people were questioning me.

Just then the door opened and a small blonde woman appeared offering coffee or tea to all. When she came to me, she gasped in amazement.

“Bloody hell! It’s Ann Crump! How are you? How lovely to see you. What are you doing here?” I gazed at the small blonde woman with a vague look of surprise on my face, as if to say Do I know you?

My face went a strange puce sort of colour. The small blonde person, who I now recognised as Marie Ellis, was rattling on about what a coincidence it was and she hoped I got whatever job I was applying for. But of course I now didn’t stand a chance for the simple reason that this small blonde woman was none other than the person whose dinner money I had stolen, along with Simon Ellis’s. And not for the first time, she had reiterated to anyone who would listen. And it was obvious that, once she realised who I was and how she knew me and what I had done, she would be offering her own views as to why I must definitely not be employed.

One could argue that, of course, that was a very long time ago and people change, if one wanted to be fair. But when was life ever fair? One could also argue that a coffee-making person was not high up enough in the company to make her views felt but, by her relaxed attitude towards all, it was obvious that this was untrue and she was obviously very comfortable in her position. I found out afterwards that she was in fact PA to the Chairman and was only making coffee and tea that day because the person who normally carried out this service had the flu.

The game was up. I was not offered the job, probably because my cover had been blown and possibly because they all now knew I had been expelled because I had stolen some of my class mates’ dinner money, not just once but several times. And getting pregnant didn’t help, although that had been sorted out thankfully. As luck would have it all these people would also know that I had got no GCSEs at all owing to the fact that I had been booted out of school at fifteen.

It’s funny, but if I had remained Ann Crump I may have got away with it. I could have pretended that I had turned my life around, realised that a life of crime was not for me and that I had been doing voluntary work for many years because I wanted to put something back into the community. I may even have been able to blag my way out of having to leave school but, because I had tried to embellish my very miserable existence by romanticising my name and my credentials, they explained to me that I was not deemed trustworthy or at all suitable and that this was not part of the British Airways philosophy. They had all nodded hard at this part.

”Honesty at all times,” they quoted at me as I slunk out of the room, and I must admit it would have been a lot less embarrassing, if I had stuck to this advice at the beginning of the interview.

Short stories on International Women's Day

Snowbound

Last night I dreamt about snow. The odd-looking flakes were very clear and shiny, flying away from me.

When I got up, the satnav I found on the verge yesterday was fully re-charged. Nearby a tree had been smashed to the ground. At the side of the road there was some car-related plastic debris and a pile of glass square fragments from a broken windscreen. Because there were no people or cars in sight, I didn’t worry about picking it up.

It was late when I got home. I found the right cable and the satnav turned itself on, so I left it charging overnight. That’s when I dreamed of snow. It was hard to sleep on such a hot night. Maybe the dream of snow was my body’s way of trying to cool down?

I woke with a start. What was that noise? I listened but heard nothing. I tried to remember the sound but it was like an echo, distorted by the passage of time. I closed my eyes and dozed: the dream of glittering snowflakes returned.

After a breakfast of coffee – the heat affecting my appetite too – I turned on the fully charged satnav. It was a good one: maybe I could sell it online or at a boot sale. Would that be so wrong? I don’t have any money, and it just came into my hands like a gift. But maybe the owner had been in the car that hit the tree. Should I try to find them?

The lit-up screen asked me ‘Where to?’ That made me wonder: would the owner’s address be in it? I knew that ‘Home’ would be one of the choices. Where would that be? I hesitated, wondering about clearing its memory before doing anything else, but I’d need the manual.

I couldn’t decide what to do so I turned it off and went for a walk. Unlike yesterday when I found myself on hot tarmac, I headed for the cool woods. I avoided the path where beams of sunlight streamed down like white-hot knives. Instead, I made my way to the centre of the wood where a huge pit was the subject of many local stories. Had farmers dug it for lime to spread on their fields? Or had a stray German bomber needed to get rid of its deadly cargo before returning home? I’d heard about a man who came here to end his life: his body had been found hanging from a sturdy beech tree overhanging the pit…

I’d always felt serene sitting here before but today the place felt sinister, unwelcoming. I heard a sound above me and looked up – a huge branch was starting to fall, tearing away from the trunk and descending, almost in slow motion, towards me. I stepped back, feeling the rush of air as the leaf-laden twigs passed inches from my face.

Shaken, I listened as the great weight of the bough settled on the ground. Twigs snapped with the burden and it took several moments for the sound to completely die away. Afterwards, I felt like I’d woken in the night: there was no sound and no echo, but there was a disturbing memory of a sound. I decided to go home.

The satnav was sitting on the table so I turned it on and the ‘Where to?’ screen appeared. I pressed the icon and the word ‘Home’ was one of the options. I pressed it and the screen said ‘Acquiring satellites…’ Of course – it needed to ‘see the sky’. Out onto the balcony I put it on the ledge, placing it carefully so it didn’t drop into the garden below. The screen showed a map with a flashing question mark and a voice with an American accent spoke. ‘Calculating’ it said, twice, then ‘Arriving at home, on right.’ The satnav’s owner must live nearby. I really should try to find them. Maybe I’d get a reward for taking it back, although I’d get more if I sold it… How could I find out where ‘Home’ was? I took it back indoors and pressed the ‘Back’ arrow. There was another icon saying ‘Settings’ – maybe that was where you defined ‘Home’. I pressed it and worked through the screens until I found the owner’s postcode. It was familiar, because it only applied to this block of six flats.

One of my neighbours must have had a crash. I went through the possibilities. The Grants on the ground floor don’t have a car, and Wendy – I’d seen her car when I set off walking and it looked fine. Derek and Jean on my floor are on holiday in France and took their car when they left a week ago: I would have heard if they had been in an accident. Above me lived Jim: he was a keen cyclist and ‘disliked motor vehicles’ as he put it. That left Amelia and Sean: I looked out of the window but I couldn’t see their car in their allocated parking space. Was it them? I ran upstairs but nobody answered their door: they both worked full time so…

I looked at the car park again. Hey – where’s mine? I’d left it in my corner space as usual, but there was no sign of it there. Had it been stolen? I looked for my mobile to ring the police but couldn’t find it and I’d had the house phone disconnected to save money when I got the mobile. I ran downstairs and looked around: maybe I had left it somewhere else yesterday? When I tried to picture parking the car I couldn’t remember getting home. I was a bit surprised – I know it’s a routine thing to do, but I thought I’d remember.

Back in the flat I went into the satnav’s ‘Home’ settings more deeply. And found my address. That’s when I understood the dream about sharply glittering snow that flew past me: it was windscreen glass shattering. And the falling branch made the sound that woke me and it was connected to the flattened tree. As the realisation sank in, the satnav dropped through my disappearing hands.

Short story - Humour

Dead funny

Death is not funny, least of all (I glumly envisage) my own. But just sometimes…

Some forty years ago, I worked as a rotary shift hospital porter. Most of my colleagues were gnarled old car workers for whom work at the hospital delayed the penury of old age and funded their hobbies and holidays. We all wore grey nylon coats over white shirts and ties, and were expected to know our place in the hierarchy. Below us there was nothing. Above us stretched a ladder which disappeared into the Olympian heights of the consultants, whose names appeared on the operation lists each day.

Stan, our Head Porter, was separated from us by the blue serge uniform he wore, which made him look like an old-fashioned policeman. An imposing heavy jowled man with luxurious dark eyebrows and Brilliantined hair, he had his own office next to the Porters’ Lodge from which we would hear his gravelly voice booming out in a rural Oxfordshire accent. Fastidious to a fault, he insisted the Lodge should be swept and mopped four times a day and the ash trays emptied and wiped. He liked to stroll around the hospital, keeping his relations with all the ward sisters in good working order, and exuding an air of ponderous good humour. We resented and respected him in equal measure.

The rotary shifts involved a week of earlies (7-3); a week of lates (3-11) and a week of nights (11-7). The early shift was done with pretty much a full Lodge of porters, the late shift was undertaken by a team of two and the night shift by one porter on his own. The night shift porter had various routine tasks, collecting up meal requests from the wards, patrolling the grounds, locking up the Nurses’ Home with the matron (on hand in case any illegal boyfriends were discovered), escorting tipsy nurses to the Home if they arrived after hours (usually decanted from a taxi, fresh from a disco) and locking the canteen early in the morning.

None of these tasks were especially demanding but there were two requests I dreaded. One was an emergency call to bring the resuscitation trolley – which had four wheels, all inclined to go in different directions, and on which it was impossible to practice “driving” (in case there was a real emergency). I had no idea how I would cope on my own, if indeed I would cope at all. I imagined careering off the walkway or crashing into something while a patient’s life ebbed away. Not nice. At all.

The other was a request for ‘the mortuary case’. This was a small brown case, kept in a cupboard in the Lodge and containing the accoutrements necessary to prepare a dead person for the mortuary. I only once saw the inside and glimpsed a pair of scissors and a white cotton garment, but the very words ‘mortuary case’ sent a shiver through my soul, because the first request would, in time, give way to a second request for the mortuary trolley to be brought to the ward as discreetly as possible. What happened thereafter I preferred not to think about. Whenever that little brown case appeared in the Lodge, I looked at it with barely contained repulsion, as if death itself had appeared among us.

Even the mortuary filled me with apprehension. It was situated below a bridge leading from a rheumatology ward to X-Ray and Pathology and, when ‘occupied’, the light was always left on and a pair of purple curtains drawn. When I walked across the bridge in the middle of a night shift, I would look down and quicken my step if I saw the drawn curtains There was a poorly lit stairwell leading down to it and, if nobody else was around, I broke into a trot in case some bandaged wraith in a white hospital shroud should float out of it and bar my way.

I worked for almost a year at the hospital and until my last month, the worst that had happened was a request for the mortuary case just as my shift was coming to an end, leaving the aftermath for the incoming porters. But, on a grey Sunday afternoon in my very last month, a terse message was left on the answering machine. “Mortuary case to Mayfair please.” I had just arrived on my shift. I asked one of the other porters how long it normally took for a body to be ready for removal to the mortuary. “Couple of hours at most, mate,” he observed casually. “But what if there are complications?” I asked weakly. “Like what?” “Wouldn’t the next of kin need to come in to see their loved one,” I gently suggested. “Sleeping peacefully, as it were?” He looked at me disdainfully. “Get that bloody case to the ward before Sister Lyndsey phones up to ask where the hell it is.” I seized the case and scuttled out of the Lodge. Normally I would go along the back road, but this time I walked at a dignified pace up the corridor and onto the covered pathway which ran by the wards. On the way, nurses, cleaners and other porters looked at the case and then at me. I was the Grim Reaper’s accomplice with the case and not to be trifled with. Respect.

It being the afternoon shift, and a Sunday, there were only two of us on, me and Fred, an old Cockney with a ridiculous toupée which managed to mock rather than mask his baldness. Fred smoked non-stop and talked endlessly about bowls matches and his trips to Eastbourne with “Nan”, whom I assumed was his wife. He somehow managed to make it all sound rather louche and risqué, as if all those rolling balls and white trousers went with a culture of dissipation and gentle debauchery. I wasn’t buying that but it certainly made old age seem more interesting.

Sunday afternoons were usually a leisurely shift. There were no operations or admissions, so things just ticked over and Stan had us clean windows in Reception and the Porters’ Lodge to keep us busy. As the more experienced porter Fred carried the emergency bleeper, which was probably not good news for anybody needing the trolley as Fred was incapable of hurrying (and probably would have had a cardiac himself if he had tried). I made a grand job of cleaning the windows in Reception, as if spinning the job out could defer the dreadful moment when we would be summoned back to Mayfair Ward. An hour passed, and then another, and I roused Fred from the Lodge where he had nodded off, with an inch of un-smoked ash on his cigarette, to help me collect the food trolleys for the wards.

“’Ere,” he said, the cigarette stub glued to his lip. “You take the trolley to Mayfair and ask when they want us to move the stiff.”

I gulped. The last thing I wanted to do was to suggest any impatience on our part. A few more hours and the night porter could deal with it. When I got to Mayfair, a ward for private patients at one end of the hospital, I parked the trolley in the normal place and was about to slip away when one of the nurses, a short stocky girl with large calves and a big behind, came out of a room and shut the door behind her.

“He’s in there,” she said. “We’ll be done after supper.”

“Who’s in there?” I asked blankly.

She looked at me impatiently, moved closer to me and whispered “Him. Mr Morden. He died,” she added helpfully.

“Ah,” I muttered knowingly. Now he had a name. I wondered whether I might actually have delivered something to his room recently.

“We have to be discreet,” she hissed. “Not good for patient morale to know we’ve lost one…”

I nodded sagely. Of course not. People came into an orthopaedic hospital with a reasonable expectation of walking out, with their brand new knees and hips, especially when they had paid a lot of money for the privilege. Death was not part of the deal.

An hour later, after we had returned the food trolleys to the kitchens and were enjoying a quiet cigarette in the Lodge (Fred a Woodbine, me a Rothmans – was the difference more generational than social?) the phone rang and we heard a message being dictated. (We hardly ever picked up the phone.)

“Two porters to Mayfair with mortuary trolley.”

Damn. Blast. The moment of truth had arrived. We stubbed out our cigarettes and walked purposefully to the mortuary, which Fred unlocked. I sniffed a faint aroma of formaldehyde and saw a mop in a bucket in the corner, which alarmed me: surely we were not meant to clean out the mortuary too? And there was the mortuary trolley, basically a metal stretcher on wheels with a lid which came over like the cover of a gas-fired barbecue. Very tasteful. We gingerly wheeled it out and Fred locked up again.

“Good job there’s nobody in there. Can be an ’orrible smell when they’ve been there a few days,” Fred observed laconically, and then proceeded to tell me a gruesome story of how Frank, the deputy Head Porter, had had to clean up a body in the mortuary which had been bleeding. Oh my God, I thought. What if Mr Morden starts to leak?

We had to lift the trolley over a few kerbs and potholes en route to Mayfair, taking a back path which was out of view of any of the wards. It was very light so manoeuvring it was no problem, and in a jiffy we were quietly wheeling it into the ward. The sister tapped on Mr Morden’s door and we were just pushing the trolley into his room when a patient in a wheelchair was pushed past by a relative. Fred neatly stepped back to block the view within.

“What’s that?” asked the relative, referring to the trolley.

“Nothing,” says Fred as calm as you like. “Just some blood and stuff. You have to keep it cool, you know.” Before they could respond he slipped into the room and shut the door. “Blimey, that was a close one,” he exclaimed.

A nurse called Fiona was in the room: I remembered escorting her, accompanied by a heady aroma of vodka and perfume, to the Nurses’ Home after midnight on my last night duty. She giggled then covered her mouth as her whole body began to shake. It wasn’t that funny, I thought, then I looked at the white-shrouded figure on the bed and the glass of orange squash on the bedside table with a banana, a newspaper and a pair of glasses. These signs of the life he had so recently left alarmed me. Could death really come so abruptly, so unexpectedly, that you could be reading the Daily Mail one minute, and be dead the next minute without even having time to eat one last banana?

“Right,” said the nurse, recovering her equanimity. We need to lift him onto the trolley. If you could get either side of the bed…”

“No, that won’t work at all,” interjected Fred. “There’s a trick to this. I’ll take his head and shoulders and you, young Richard, take the bottom half, and you, nurse, stand by the trolley to stop it skedaddling away.”

We took our assigned positions.

“Right, on the count of three. One… Two… Three.”

We lifted – and nothing happened. The corpse on the bed felt as though its blood had turned to lead.

“Christ,” Fred muttered. “He weighs a fucking ton…”

We ceased straining and looked at each other. Was he tied to the bed or something?

“Dead weight,” Fred explained. “Always heavier than alive.” A self-evident truth.

We decided the nurse would have to lend a hand. She glanced at Fred with a look of distrust as if to say “You’re just too old,” but Fred simply swivelled his toupée, which had become slightly dislodged, and we returned to the fray. Nurse Fiona was to take his feet, I was to somehow get my hands and arms underneath the mute Mr Morden, and Fred would lift him by the shoulders. The trouble was there wasn’t much to grab as he was all wrapped up. And it wasn’t the kind of thing anybody ever told you about in advance.

Fred pushed him forward and I got my hands under his back and his legs, which were slightly raised. Mr Morden felt cool and hard underneath the shroud, and very unalive. On the count of three we heaved again, and this time had lift off. With Fred and Fiona trying to keep up, I staggered backwards towards the trolley – and bumped into it. The trolley rolled away and one end hit the door with a hollow thud. Now we were between the bed and the trolley, and our knees were beginning to sag with the effort.

“Put him back on the bed,” Fred gasped, and with a thump we dropped him onto the bed. A moment longer and he probably would have been on the floor. Fred was now sweating and breathing heavily. Ominously. I wondered how we would cope, how I would cope, if Fred expired on the spot. One death in a private ward was bad enough, but two? But I knew the reaction to Fred’s death would be entirely different. He was only a porter.

The problem, we decided once Fred had recovered his breath, was that if we lifted Mr Morden from the bed we would somehow have to swing him round 180 degrees to be facing the trolley. There simply wasn’t room. You couldn’t swing a cat, let alone a corpse. Better to get the trolley by the bed and somehow slide or roll him onto it. Which is what we did, without too much of a struggle. Mr Morden was now lying on his side, on the trolley, with some bedclothes underneath him. Fred stuffed the bedclothes on top of him and closed the lid.

“That’ll do,” he said. “No point breaking our backs just so he can lie on his back. ’E won’t give a damn anyway.”

Our troubles, for the time being, seemed over. The nurse delicately opened the door a few inches and looked into the corridor. There was silence, apart from the burble of TVs behind closed doors and the voice of the sister on the telephone. Seizing the moment, we pushed the trolley out of the ward, down the smooth asphalt of the covered way and onto the path which led to the mortuary.

To begin with, dignity prevailed. We wanted to make Mr Morden’s final journey (well, one of them) as smooth as a hearse driving to the crem.

“Nice and slow,” said Fred in a low voice.

“That’s right,” said Fiona, simpering. “Home James.”

Her hair was beginning to unravel from her nurse’s cap, so we paused while she attached a hair clip, and Fred touched his toupée to make sure it hadn’t shifted again.

“Right ho,” he said. “Off we go.”

The rhyme was stupid but we all tittered rather feebly and set off again, looking around warily. The trolley suddenly thudded to a halt, with one wheel stuck in a pothole. And there was an almighty thump from within as some part of Mr Morden cannoned into the front end of the trolley.

“Bleeding hell,” said Fred. “’Ow did that ’appen?”

“We’ll have to lift it out,” I said, pointing to the front wheel.

“If he wasn’t dead, he must be now!” said Fiona, and started to giggle.

I frowned at her and, together, we heaved the trolley up and out of the offending pothole and resumed our progress. The path now became full of small ruts and bumps and holes, and the trolley started to rattle and lurch. Mr Morden started to rumble within as he was flung from side to side.

“’E’s restless,” Fred muttered, at which point the trolley leaned to one side and started to teeter like a listing ship. Fred moved sharply to block its fall while I pulled from the other side, clutching the handle on the lid. As the trolley banged back onto the level, I somehow nudged the handle. The lid half-opened and Mr Morden’s shrouded legs swung out.

“Oh God,” I shouted. “He’s coming out…”

Fred seemed stunned. I knew what I had to do but somehow could not bring myself to touch the corpse.

“Everything alright?” a jocular voice of indeterminate gender boomed. We looked up, startled, and the avuncular figure of the Night Matron hove into view in her sensible shoes and brown tights. Matron James had an Amazonian physique, only slightly gone to fat, and the physical aura of an ice hockey player.

Nurse Fiona sidled in front of the lolling legs as Fred answered.

“Yes, fine, we were just taking… taking some plaster casts to the workshop…”

Matron James frowned. “In the mortuary trolley?”

“We’re short. Very short, Matron, and the plaster casts are needed urgently…”

She paused, furrowed her brows and looked at Nurse Fiona and at the white something she could see protruding from the trolley. Then she looked at each of us in turn as if remembering the scene of a crime.

“It’s inappropriate,” she snapped, “but if you have to improvise, I suppose you must. But get the trolley back to the mortuary quickly. You never know when we may need it.” With which she marched off, swinging her arms athletically.

When she was out of earshot, I turned on Fred. “Great. She’s on her way to Mayfair and the first thing they’ll say is a patient has died and he’s been taken to the morgue. And then we’re stuffed.”

“Don’t panic, young Richard,” Fred replied, placing a fresh fag in his mouth. “We take ’im there quick as you like, and then take the trolley down the workshop just to cover ourselves.”

“And what do we say to Ernie?” I asked, bridling at Fred’s reference to “young Richard”. Dammit, I was twenty-two, a grown man, and not to be patronised by an old Cockney. I also worried what Ernie, the irascible plaster man, would say. He was cross enough when there was nothing to be cross about, so God knows how he would respond to our appearance with the mortuary trolley.

“Don’t you worry about Ernie,” Fred said dismissively. “We’ll say we’ve come to pick him up…”

Ha bloody ha, I thought, but buttoned my lip. We needed to get Mr Morden safely stowed in the mortuary.

While all this had been going on, Nurse Fiona had actually been doing something useful and bundled Mr Morden’s wandering legs back inside. I slammed the lid shut again and we resumed our journey.

Somehow, we reached the mortuary with no more alarms. Mr Morden still thumped within, like an angry rabbit, as the trolley rattled and careered along the pathway. But we met nobody else and, as far as we could tell, were unseen and unheard.

Once inside, we cautiously opened the lid to find Mr Morden curled foetally with the blankets tied around him. It seemed as if he had composed himself into this position rather than having been composed by the motions of the trolley. We looked at him doubtfully, all thinking but not daring to articulate the same thought. What if he was not dead?

We somehow rolled him onto the mortuary bed. Mr Morden sighed. Definitely. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising, like a cat’s. But Fred and Fiona said nothing and I thought I must have dreamed it. The complications of his sitting up, Lazarus-like, to berate us for our behaviour was too much to bear. It would make a lot of trouble for a lot of people, way beyond our pay grade. So we simply laid him on his back, turned on the light and closed the curtains. Then we locked the mortuary and left with the trolley for the plaster workshop. Nurse Fiona did not have to be there, but insisted on coming along for the ride.

We then trundled down to the workshop. Half-way there, Fiona suddenly yelped and crouched on her knees.

“Stand in front of me. It’s Matron. She’ll kill me if she finds me here…”

I looked back from where we had come and saw Matron bustling towards us.

“’Ere,” said Fred. “’Op in, sharpish!” and he drew up the lid. To my astonishment, Nurse Fiona clambered inside, and Fred closed it.

“I’m looking for Nurse Seaton,” Matron called, stopping twenty yards away.

“She’s gone to the Pharmacy, then she was going back to the ward,” Fred said authoritatively.

“Good. I thought she might have wandered off to the workshops to see that gormless boyfriend.”

“Bitch,” I heard Nurse Fiona say from inside the trolley.

“Shut up,” said Fred. “She’s turning back.”

I assumed we would then stop to let her out, but Fred stayed my arm. “No, leave ’er in there.”

So on we went, with much bad language from within the trolley which I won’t bore you with. I thought porters swore a lot, but Nurse Fiona was something else.

When we got to the workshop, Ernie was sitting in his brown workshop coat with white smudges of plaster, his feet on a chair, sucking on a pipe and reading a Model Railway Magazine. A short man with a balding head and large glasses, he looked a bit like a miniature Eric Morecambe, as he was often reminded.

“What the fuck are you lot doing here?” he asked acerbically. And then, eyeing the mortuary trolley, “And why the fuck have you brought that bloody trolley?”

“We’ve got a stiff inside. Sister asked if you could remove the plaster before we put ’im in the mortuary.” Fred replied laconically.

“I suppose you think you’re being funny,” Ernie responded menacingly, sending a large plume of pipe smoke towards us. “Coming ’ere, wasting my precious time. I’ve a good mind to report you two wankers to Stan.”

“Yeah, we can see you’re busy,” Fred said.

“Piss off,” Ernie said, and resumed reading his magazine, licking his thumb to turn the pages.

At this point, there was a tapping from within the trolley.

“Stop knocking that fucking trolley,” Ernie said.

“We ain’t touching it,” Fred said. We both moved back from the trolley, held up our hands and assumed a suitable expression of mute astonishment.

Again there was a tapping. Ernie lay his pipe in the ash tray and dropped his magazine, revealing another magazine within, all bums and tits. His hands were trembling.

“Let me out,” Fiona intoned in a low voice.

“I’m off…” Ernie shouted and shot out of the workshop, running as fast as his little legs would carry him.

We kept straight faces until he was out of earshot and then let rip. Fred laughed so much he started coughing, and then went so red I had to slap him on the back, which sent his toupée flying. Recovering himself, he snatched it off the floor, and restored it to his bald head.

“Right. Time to get a move on before ’e comes back,” he said, normality restored.

Fiona hopped out and made her own way back to Mayfair Ward. We returned to the mortuary, parked up the trolley, took a brief look at Mr Morden – who, to our relief, was in exactly the same position in which we had left him – and returned to the Lodge.

Back at the Lodge, I made an entry in the Log Book: 8.15 Mayfair. Call for Mortuary Trolley. To ward to lift patient into trolley and convey to mortuary with nurse. Nothing to report.

A month later I left the Hospital to resume my university studies, and never returned. I hope Mr Morden had a decent funeral… As for Fred and Ernie and Stan, they must be long dead now, bless them.

Short story - Family saga

Musn’t grumble

I’d always fancied a cruise. Even as a little girl, I used to gaze in wonder at films on the television of big ocean liners leaving port, their passengers crowding the balconies, waving excitedly at someone or no-one in particular on the shore. I would dream that one day, I’d be on a ship like that, sailing off to somewhere warm and exotic.

Of course, my parents could barely afford to take my brothers and me on a week’s holiday in a caravan in north Wales. The closest we ever got to cruising was hiring a pedalo and bumping up and down on the waves at Llandudno.

As a teenager, I dreamed of meeting an older man who would fall passionately in love with me and whisk me off on a Mediterranean cruise, where we’d spend a week or two being pampered and indulged on the high seas. How exciting, I thought. How romantic, how sexy that would be!

I did eventually meet my ‘older man’. Ken, his name was. Lived a few doors away with his mum. I’d known him all my life but had never really spoken to him until that fateful day when the tyre on my bike had a puncture. He was standing on his doorstep smoking a cigarette and saw me pushing it home. He came out to help me, intercepting me half-way up the street. After he’d expertly fixed the puncture, I was so grateful I asked him what I could do in return and he said, bold as brass, ‘Come to the pictures with me tonight!’

I was just twenty. He was nearly thirty. We married the following year.

I didn’t mind that he wouldn’t let me work. He said it was a man’s job to earn the money. I kept myself busy in the little house we were renting, keeping it clean and tidy, the way Ken liked it. I couldn’t grumble. Money was tight though. Ken gave me a notebook, with instructions to write down everything I spent. It was a ritual we followed every Friday night: Ken would look at the notebook and ask me questions about what I’d spent, giving me tips on how to make the money go further. Then he would ceremoniously hand over next week’s housekeeping allowance. He gave me what he thought I needed to run the house and pocketed the rest. I never saw his wage packet, never knew how much he earned.

I asked him about it once, but you’d have thought by the look on his face that I was asking him if he was having an affair! I never asked again.

When the babies started coming, things got even tougher. He still gave me the same amount of money each week and still expected me to account for every penny. I had to ask him for money when I needed clothes or a hair-do. He never actually refused me, so I couldn’t grumble, but he always handed it over grudgingly, as if he was disappointed with me.

Just after our youngest started school, Ken got a promotion at work. ‘Well done,’ I said to him, anticipating a nice increase in my housekeeping. It didn’t happen. He claimed that there was no extra pay with the new job, just the glory of having a supervisory role. I didn’t believe him.

We had a quiet life together, no dramas or upsets. Ken never messed around with other women like some of my friends’ husbands did. And he never raised his voice or his hand to me. I couldn’t grumble. But there was little passion or excitement and no prospect of the cruise I’d always yearned for. ‘Waste of money,’ he’d say if I mentioned it. ‘And you’d only get sea-sick.’

No, Ken’s only passion in life was stamp collecting. The only time I ever saw him animated was when one of his precious First Day Covers arrived. His face used to light up like a child’s on Christmas morning. I didn’t understand it – ‘Postage Porn’, I used to call it. Ken wasn’t amused.

He kept all of his stamps in a tin box under the bed. He forbade everyone in the house from touching it, even our little Philip who was showing some interest in his father’s hobby and longed to share it with him.

When the kids grew up and left us, I was bereft. Ken didn’t seem to notice that the kids had gone, let alone that I was grieving. He continued to keep me short of money but he had by now at least dropped the weekly expenditure audit, so I suppose I couldn’t grumble.

I often paused to wonder what he spent his money on. He wasn’t a profligate man. Apart from his love of stamps, he didn’t smoke, hardly drank and never gambled, as far as I knew. No, I couldn’t grumble. There were worse husbands in the world.

I was only fifty-five when he died. He was just sixty-five and a few weeks away from retiring. He got up one morning, walked to the bathroom and collapsed, calling my name as he crumbled onto the cold, hard floor. Massive heart attack the doctors said. Went out like a light. It was such a shock, though I suppose I couldn’t grumble – at least I didn’t have to nurse him through some terrible disease that took him slowly and painfully away.

I cried when I saw his tin stamp box under the bed some months later, when I was feeling strong enough to start clearing out his things. I opened the box and carefully lifted out album after album of his beloved stamps. I couldn’t believe how many he’d collected over the years, bless him.

I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. I couldn’t just throw them away. My son Philip suggested I take them to a dealer to be valued. He said some of them looked like they might be worth something.

The dealer, Mr Ellis, said he had not seen such a fine collection in years. Yes, I thought, I went without all my married life so that he could waste his money on small squares of paper that he hid under the bed! Anyway, Mr Ellis told me that some of the stamps were very valuable and one of them – he told me to sit down before he said this – was worth a small fortune…

***

A glass of chilled champagne in my hand, I look around my stateroom, taking in the large bed, the flat-screen TV, the glass doors opening onto the private balcony. And beyond that, the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean.

No, I can’t grumble.

Writing news

World book day: what’s your favourite?

If there’s something that unites all of us here at Just Write (other than writing, obviously) then it’s a love of books. So, as it’s World Book Day, we thought we’d share a few of our favourites.

I should stress that this really is just a few our favourites: there were enough suggestions to fill several posts!

Lesley currently recommends “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton. She loved it and found it utterly gripping in its vivid portrait of life in The Netherlands in the 17th century. However, Lesley was at pains to point out that pinning down her favourite book was a near impossible task and it will almost certainly have changed by next month.

Linda is a big fan of David Nicholls for his capacity to write beautifully about relationships and included both “One Day” and “Us” amongst her choices. She also picked out Elizabeth Noble’s “Things I Want My Daughters To Know”: a dying mother leaving letters for her daughters, written from the heart with great, believable characters.

Emma’s favourite book at the moment is “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion, just because it’s the funniest thing she’s ever read…

…whereas Nicki’s go-to funny book is Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim”. However, her all time favourites amongst a list that spanned Susan Cooper, Agatha Christie, Stephen King, and Simon Hawke, are “The Moonstone” and “The Woman In White” by Wilkie Collins. Great villains and unexpected twists.

Phil (who doesn’t usually write himself in the third person) is a big, big fan of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey. It’s obviously a fine film as well but favourite movies is a whole different post. The last book he read was “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept” by Elizabeth Smart. Published in 1945, it’s a sublime piece of prose poetry which uses extraordinary language and imagery to conjure a hugely evocative expression of falling in love.

Angela also struggled to pick out a single book. However, as sagas with plenty of romance go, she couldn’t top “Gone With The Wind”Margaret Mitchell’s tour de force. Scarlett O’Hara is the ultimate flawed heroine and Rhett Butler is the irresistably attractive villain. Mitchell paints the vast panorama of the American Civil War with a broad brush, but still manages to define the impact it had on the diverse lives of her characters. Angela also had special mention for “Wuthering Heights” and Bronte’s masterly uses of the forces of nature to illustrate her themes.

Chris flew the flag for Canada with two Margaret Atwood books: “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Cat’s Eye”. The former offers a glimpse of dystopia that feels easier and easier to imagine happening as society automates and individuals lose control. She also picked out Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”, with a slight sense of awe that it was her first book, as her favourite novel. The horror of the story and the psychological games involved stay with the reader for a long time after the final page turns.

One of Carol’s favourite recent reads is “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey.  It is a beautifully written, deeply touching debut novel about an old lady with dementia trying to make sense of the world. She also loved “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters – completely unputdownable. But her all time favourite book is “Tess of the D’Urbevilles” by Thomas Hardy which she first read when she was sixteen. She cried for a week afterwards.

And finally Liz picked out a really broad range of her favourites, including a number of classics from Dickens, Twain and Joyce. She loves “What Katy Did” by Susan Collidge because Katy was a tomboy, as was she! Conan Doyle’s plotting is wonderfully clever in “A Study In Scarlet”, Wodehouse makes her laugh out loud in “The Code Of The Woosters”, and Ian McEwan’s tangled web in “Atonement” is heartbreaking. And then there was De Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong” and…

…and we really, really love books and could go on for hours. Not just on World Book Day.

Hope you find something here that inspires you. We’d love to be inspired by what you’ve read recently. What are your favourites?

Writing news

Just Write on the radio

Linda and Lesley were invited to BBC Three Counties Radio in Dunstable to talk to Nick Coffer about the success of Just Write. Linda read an extract from her story Freddolatte and was almost signed up on the spot by the presenter! The two women thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and Nick was a very good interviewer. Lesley knew in advance that there would be 60,000 listeners but didn’t tell Linda until afterwards – what did the audience make of it? Your comments are very welcome…

Listen to the interview  

 

 

 

Short story - Family saga

Mr Johnson – an extract

When Johnson arrived his mother, Mavis, was in the lounge, staring at the black and white TV. She looked up as he stooped to kiss her on the forehead, then resumed watching. It was an old cowboy film.

“D’you want me to change the channel?” he asked.

She made no reply apart from a fleeting frown. He looked at her eyes, and realized they were quite still. Whatever held her attention, it was not the ancient cowboys with their neat 1950s haircuts and white teeth.

He sat down in an armchair opposite her and waited for her to pay him some attention. Then he got up to turn the sound down. The theme music began to play and the credits came up. The episode came to a close with a final trumpeted flourish.

“Tea,” she said, quietly. And, in a harsher voice, “Want some tea. Thirsty. Nobody brings me my tea any more. You get it.”

She looked angrily at him, as if he had been denying her plaintive requests.

“OK, Mum, I’ll go and make you a nice cup of tea,” he said, trying to mask his irritation.

“If it’s too much bother, dear, a glass of water will do…” He winced at the sarcasm. She had always had a waspish tongue, unhoneyed by age.

He disappeared into the kitchen and put the kettle on the gas stove. He sniffed the milk in the fridge and ate a greying sugar lump. The TV had got louder again.

“Two sugars, remember,” she shouted over the blare of an advert. “You always forget the sugar – and make sure it’s hot!”

There was an old tin of tea in the cupboard. Fortnum and Mason’s. The gold letters were flecked with rust. An old Christmas present, he thought. The tea smelled musty when he opened the tin.

“How much longer you going to be?” Mavis shouted again. “Make sure you use the tea bags. Can’t stand bloody tea leaves in the bottom of the cup.”

The kettle whistled. He poured the boiling water into the teapot and whisked it round with the spoon, something she strictly forbade.

“It’s mashing,” he shouted back. “I’ll be with you in a mo. Do you want a biscuit?”

She did not reply. A new burst of music signalled the lunchtime news. Well, it would be something to watch.

After a few minutes he appeared in the lounge holding a tray aloft, rather theatrically, like a waiter in a high class restaurant. With a flourish he placed it on the coffee table in front of her. She eyed the contents beadily.

“What about the biscuits? And the sugar?” Grunting, he ambled back to the kitchen.

When they had settled, and he had once again turned down the volume on the TV, he smiled at her sweetly.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Mum. I’m a bit short again…”

She raised her tea cup to her lips with her little finger raised, and gulped. “Short of what? You know I haven’t got much to live on…”

“I’ve had some big bills recently. The car failed its MOT, and they’ve cut Carol’s hours.”

“I’m not surprised,” she snorted derisively. “She’s lucky to have a job at all, the way she carries on…” Johnson ignored this last remark. He could not afford an argument.

“It would really help, if you could tide me over with…” he paused, wondering where to pitch it. Too low and she would think he could rustle the money up elsewhere; too much and she would think he was being greedy.

“Go on, spit it out,” she rasped.

“A few thousand,” he said, feeling suddenly brave.

The doorbell rang. Mavis smiled triumphantly. “That’ll be Dean, come to do the garden. Go and let him in…”

Johnson stood up, and then paused. “Say yes first…”

Her eyes narrowed. “Not now, dear,” and then, raising her voice, “Come round the back, Dean. It’s not locked.”

He could hear Dean wheeling his lawn mower on the concrete path to the side of the house, a grinding metallic noise. The noise of defeat.

Dean appeared at the kitchen door, a wiry man in his 40s with thinning hair, a tattoo on each arm and a suntanned face. He was wearing shorts.

“What can I do for her ladyship? A bit of mowing? Some pruning? A bit of digging here and there?” He grinned, as if talking in sexual code.

Mavis looked at Dean’s legs admiringly. “You really look after yourself, don’t you Dean? I hope the little wife realizes just how lucky she is…” Mavis’s tongue flicked back and forth along her lower lip.

“There’s too much of me for her,” Dean said. “And a man needs his freedom.” He looked at Johnson, expecting some male support, but Johnson said nothing.

When Dean was working, Mavis insisted on moving to a chair by the window so she could watch him.

“He doesn’t understand plants, dear. He pulled up my sweet peas last week. Best to keep an eye on him. I don’t get many pleasures in life.”

Johnson wondered whether to broach the subject of money again, but decided to wait until Dean had gone.

Dean was in no hurry. He strolled up and down the lawn, stopping every few minutes to empty the grass cuttings onto the compost heap. After a while, Mavis knocked on the window as the lawnmower rumbled into range.

“Feeling thirsty, sweetheart? Would you like a coffee and biccy?”

“OK, darling. That’ll do nicely…” Dean shouted over the noise of the mower. He turned it off, rolled himself a cigarette and blew long plumes of smoke into the crisp autumn air.

“I always liked a man who smokes,” Mavis said pensively. “Like Bogart in Casablanca. Makes me feel all tingly.”

“Daddy never smoked,” Johnson observed.

“No, he wouldn’t. Liked to count the pennies, did your father. Always kept me short.” Mavis tutted disapprovingly. Her husband had left her comfortably off but that didn’t make up for all the holidays not had, the dresses not bought, the smart car never owned.

“Well, at least you’re not short now, Mum. You’ve no financial worries.”

“How would you know?” Mavis said, still watching Dean. “It’s not cheap living here, keeping everything together. And the shares aren’t worth half what they used to be.”

She paused, and turned to look at Johnson. She gazed into his eyes unflinchingly. “Course if you were careful, like Daddy, you’d manage on what you’ve got.”

“Muuuum…” Johnson whined. “You know I don’t earn much.”

“And why might that be? ’Cos you’ve never tried to better yourself. With all that education, you could have followed Daddy into the City. You wouldn’t be asking for my money then…”

Johnson sighed. It was the same old record. But he knew that, if he could endure it, she might soften.

She looked at him bleakly. He felt like a mongrel in a dog shelter, being looked over and found wanting. She despised the sadness in his eyes.

He cleared his throat. “Teaching is an honourable profession,” he said with a rhetorical rotundity. “It changes lives…”

“Well, them as makes their bed must lie on it.” She cut in before he could launch into a paragraph, and resumed gazing at Dean as he stamped his cigarette butt into the grass and fired up the mower again.

“I want to be alone now. You can go. There’s a few notes in the tin. Help yourself. I don’t know why you bother to ask. But leave enough for me to pay Dean. And make him a cup of tea before you go.”

Johnson kissed her on the forehead, and squeezed her wrist. He made Dean a mug of strong tea with four sugars, just how he liked it; then reached up to a silver coffee tin on the upper shelf and counted out £500 in crisp £50 notes. That left £50 for Dean, which was more than enough.

As he opened the front door to leave, Missy the black cat sidled past him and strolled into the lounge.

“Where have you been, you little rascal? Mummy’s been calling for you…”

Short story - Humour

Goring Towers

This story was shortlisted for the October 2015 Writing Magazine subscribers’ competition “One thing after another”.

Come in Miss Wood – Julia then. Welcome to Goring Towers. No need to use the title, just call me Peregrine.

So, according to my assistant you want to write an article about us for your magazine, Country Matters, I think? The lighter side of running a stately home, you say. Well, I don’t know I’ll be able to give you anything funny to write about; running a listed Victorian pile like Goring Towers is a very serious business. My life is full of worries. If it’s not English Heritage on my back about restoration and conservation, it’s the local council about Health and Safety or the Home Office about new employment regulations for employees from outside the EU.

Quite frankly, Julia, I was horrified when I inherited this place. I wanted to pull it down. I had ideas for building a luxury gated community. You know the sort of private estate in Surrey for oligarchs with billions in the bank who want ten bedrooms, indoor swimming pools, home cinemas, games rooms, good security etc.

Why didn’t I? Well I did make a start. Architects had drawn up the plans and we started to pull down the East wing as that was in the worst state of repair. Dry rot, wet rot, rising damp, beetle – you name it was in there – so we started to pull it down. We’d moved out all the valuable furniture and paintings. Then, drat them, English Heritage found out what was going on and slapped all sorts of orders on me and I was forced to stop. What’s more they told me I had to rebuild what I’d already pulled down.

I tell you, Julia, I may look rich but all the money is tied up in the property and land – there’s very little ready cash. As you say, I suppose I could have sold the blocks of mansion flats in Knightsbridge to pay for the repairs but the property market was depressed at the time and since then they’ve risen dramatically in price so my money is much better left in the property.

Yes, wasn’t it a good thing the East wing burnt down? It certainly saved my bacon I can tell you. How did it happen? We were due to give a dinner party for some very important people. No, I can’t tell you who but I don’t think I’m giving away too much if I say Royalty was involved. I’d employed a new chef and we thought a trial run would be a good idea. He was using the old kitchen in the basement of the East wing which was still in use. It was the usual story. He left a pan of fat on the hot stove, the fat caught fire; he panicked and flung the pan in the sink and poured water on it which of course spread the flames everywhere. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt and had the sense to rush out and leave it to burn while he ran to warn me. I was in the library in the centre of the house entertaining a few friends who I’d invited to sample the trial dinner.

Of course by the time the fire brigade arrived there was nothing they could do to save the East wing so they concentrated on containing the blaze and saved the rest of the house. Fire extinguisher? There was one in the kitchen but the chef lost his head and forgot all about it. Yes, it was strange it should have happened to such an experienced chef. You’d like to interview him? I’m afraid he’s not here. He went back to Russia afterwards to recover from his ordeal. No, I don’t think it odd to employ a Russian chef. He had trained in Paris and came with very good references. So, I was off the hook after that as it was too difficult to re-build.

The greenhouses? You’re right I was ordered to restore them to their former glory. They’d been built by some chap who’s been involved with the one at that other place – can’t just think of his name. It was lucky that I’d inherited some money and could afford to do the repairs. My wife left me quite a bit when she died just after the fire. No it wasn’t the shock which killed her. The police said it was a tragic accident. She was trapped in the ice house and froze to death before we found her.

Tragic, tragic – it still upsets me to talk about it. Thank you, I don’t need a break, I’m fine to continue. It was a day before we realised my wife was missing. She had said she might go to London and when she wasn’t at dinner I just assumed she’d gone. We didn’t keep tabs on each other – tended to do our own thing. She never came down for breakfast so it wasn’t unusual that she wasn’t there. No, we didn’t share a bedroom – that’s very ‘non-u’, to coin a phrase, to do that. It was only when she wasn’t at dinner the following evening that I wondered where she was and when the servants said they hadn’t seen her either I started to worry.

We searched the house but it was too dark to search the grounds and anyway there are acres of them. The police came the next day and about a week later someone had the idea of checking the ice house. No-one knew why she’d gone there. At the post mortem they said there was a large amount of alcohol in her blood but that was all – absolutely tragic. Yes, Julia, I suppose to someone like you she would have seemed very rich. Yes, I did inherit everything.

Can you see the greenhouses? Sadly, no, they blew down in that dreadful storm. Yes, I know the Met Office said it only hit the West country but I can assure you, Julia, it did reach this far. Well, I can’t answer for what the Met Office said. Maybe it was some freak local weather condition but the glass was all destroyed and the cast iron supports came down.

I agree, Julia, you would have thought that cast iron would have remained standing but there you are, just shows what a powerful force nature can be.

Excuse me Julia; I’d better take this phone call. It’s Harry the restaurant manager.

Yes, Harry… Oh dear… Are you sure she’s just unconscious and not dead?… Oh good. Why did the chef hit her with a rolling pin?… She complained she couldn’t get the scone with cream and jam in her mouth?… She didn’t cut the scone in half first! No-one could get a whole scone with cream and jam on top in their mouth. You have to cut the scone in half. I’m not surprised the chef took a rolling pin to her. I’d be on his side except I’m thinking of all the paper work I have to do now not to mention the bad publicity. Does our public liability cover this?

Where’s the chef?… Stop him! I can’t have him running amok in the restaurant smashing everything in sight. Just think of the compensation all the customers will be demanding… Who’s got him pinioned with a pitchfork?… What on earth are Gurkhas doing with a pitchfork?… I’d forgotten about the display of farming implements. Just make sure they don’t harm him. Goodness knows how much paperwork and compensation that would involve. Do try, Harry, to get the situation under some sort of control. I’m busy doing an interview at the moment… A journalist.

Sorry Julia, where were we? No I don’t think you should go to the restaurant and interview them all. Now, what else can I tell you about running the estate?

I’ll have to take this call, Julia, sorry.

George – everything OK?… Can’t the estate manager deal with that, I’m rather busy?… Oh, is he alright? How did the car manage to run over him?… The car backed into the Portaloo?   Was John in the Portaloo?… A Gurkha was. How was John run over then?… The car backed into the loo and dragged the loo behind it as it accelerated away, then knocked John down when John tried to stop the car. What about the Gurkha?… As I understand it, as long as the kukri is sheathed that’s OK. It’s only if it is unsheathed that they have to draw blood… It’s unsheathed. Then I suggest you run like hell and call the army and the police… What do you expect me to do? I’m no match for an annoyed Gurkha… If you think his CO is around then find him. He’ll be able to calm the man down. I’ll leave it with you.

My apologies again, Julia, things like this don’t normally happen round here but at least you can see the difficulties there are in running a stately home. No, I can’t allow you to interview the Gurkha or write about it.

In fact, I’ve changed my mind. I think it would be better if we forgot about this interview – destroy your notes and we’ll cancel the whole thing and have a cup of tea or something stronger instead.

Hey, Julia, come back. Be careful there’s a loose step on the stair… Are you alright Julia?… You want an ambulance?… Have you broken anything?… No I’m sure you don’t want to sue, Julia. I’m sure we can come to some arrangement…

Short story - Humour

Eight ounces of flour

Right, here we go: flour, butter, eggs, one teaspoon baking powder, caster sugar… Hang on, I need four eggs and I’ve only got two.

I get in my car, and drive to the local convenience store. “Hi. Have you got any large eggs?”

“Large eggs,” says the assistant. “No, don’t think so. Got some medium.”

“No,” I say, in the manner of someone asking for a shot of methadone. “I need large ones.” He sucks his teeth in, shakes his head, and wanders off to the back of the store, where he triumphantly produces a box of six large eggs.

“Just found these for you,” he says, looking for my approval. I thank him profusely, and drive home again. Once back in my kitchen I see that three of the eggs are cracked, but what the hell: I only need two more anyway.

OK, here I go again. Eight ounces of flour, eight ounces of butter, four eggs, one teaspoon baking powder, eight ounces caster sugar. Everything is in place, baking trays at the ready, mixer lined up, and off I go. I put the radio on to LBC and James O’Brien – he will help me through the next hour while I create my masterpiece. Then the phone goes.

“Hello darling,” says my Mum. “You ok?” She doesn’t even wait for an answer. “Just thought I’d let you know there’s been a bomb scare at Marble Arch.” Mum, always the harbinger of doom, with the latest news story that she just has to share with me.

“Well, OK, Mum but I’m not going to Marble Arch today. I’m actually trying to bake a cake. Can I speak to you later?”

“Well, just make sure you don’t go there. You don’t want to make things worse.”

“Don’t worry. I’m in my kitchen, miles away from Marble Arch. They won’t get me here, Mum.” She rings off. Mum seems to think that I, and I alone, am responsible for most of the problems in the world today. She is convinced that I started the war in Iraq, and nothing I can do or say will convince her otherwise.

I get back to my baking. Eight ounces of flour, eight ounces of butter – the doorbell rings, catching me in a fright.

I drop the bag of flour and it goes all over the floor and all over me. A fine white powder is floating round the kitchen draping itself over everything. I rush to open the door. “Parcel for you, love. Sign here. Blimey, have you seen a ghost?”

I catch sight of myself in the hall mirror, and I am in fact white all over. “No,” I say haughtily. “I’ve just dropped a bag of flour.”

“Oh well,” he says. “You could always audition for a part in A Christmas Carol. You’d make a fabulous Marley’s Ghost,” and he goes off down the path, laughing hysterically to himself at his own joke. I close the door quickly, swearing to myself silently.

Back to the kitchen. Four eggs, eight ounces of flour – a new bag has now been opened – one teaspoon baking powder. The phone goes again.

This time it’s my friend Susan, with yet more tales of her errant husband who has designs on the woman across the road. “Actually, Sue,” I say, before she can carry on. “I’m just in the middle of trying to bake a cake. Can I call you back?”

“Baking a cake?” she says in disgust. “Haven’t you heard of Sainsbury’s? They’ve got dozens of cakes.”

“Yes, I know, but I wanted to bake one myself.” She puts the phone down in disgust as if I’ve just told her I’m boiling the cat.

I go back to the kitchen. Eight ounces flour, four eggs, eight ounces sugar, blah blah blah. I start to weigh out the sugar and the flour, and that’s when the phone rings again.

“Linda, it’s Mum. I forgot to tell you that Roger and I are thinking of taking up ballroom dancing.” Roger is Mum’s latest boyfriend and, at 86 looks like he can’t even get out of the armchair.

“That’s great,” I say. “But actually, Mum, I’m trying to bake a cake.”

“Well! I thought you’d be pleased for us,” she says.

“Yes, I’m very pleased, but I can’t actually express my pleasure at this moment because I’m busy. Can we talk about it later?” She rings off.

Eight ounces flour, sugar, butter – hang on, have I added the sugar yet? I look in the bowl. The flour is definitely there but I can’t see the sugar. Must have done. I’ll take a chance, I say to myself. I start to add the four eggs. Two go in and, as I’m about to put the third one in, there is a rapping at my back door. It’s my neighbour, Karen.

“Hi, sorry to be a nuisance. Just locked myself out of my house! Could I borrow my spare key?” Karen and her family are always locking themselves out of their house so they have deposited a spare key with us. They seem to use it with irritating regularity. I locate the key and see Karen happily on her way. I get back to the kitchen.

Now, how many eggs did I put in? Was it two or three? I can’t remember. I have a stab at three, then find two more lurking behind the bowl. One neatly deposits itself on the floor with a splat, adding to the flour. It occurs to me that, if I throw some milk on the floor, I could make a giant Yorkshire pudding. I ignore the mess, take another egg out the fridge and plop it in with the others. As I switch on the mixer and start to make the cake, I smile happily. James O’Brien tells me it is ten o’clock and I suddenly remember I have a dental appointment.

I quickly oil my tins and cut the parchment paper into expert rounds just as Mary Berry told me to do. And here I have a bit of a guilt trip: I have been faithful to Delia Smith for many, many years but, just lately, I must admit I have been having a bit of a fling with Mary Berry. I just hope Delia never finds out. I have even considered buying a little string of pearls to wear round my neck so I can look like my heroine, but haven’t yet got round to buying any.

At last everything is ready and, with a flourish, I pop the cakes in the oven so they’ll be cooked on my return. I step over the giant Yorkshire pudding, and rush to the dentist. As I approach the reception desk, the girl behind it looks at me in a troubled sort of way. “Blimey,” she says. “Have you just seen a ghost?”

Not you as well, I think, not another comedian. I now realise that I should not have left the house in such a hurry, and I definitely should have washed my face before I came out. “No,” I reply wearily. “I’ve been baking.”

I wait for the smart reply, but to my delight she says, “Oh, a proper little Mary Berry aren’t you!

My heart swells with pride. “Yes!” I say. “But please don’t tell Delia.”