Monthly Archives

March 2018

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The Legacy – Chapter 1 by Angela Haward

It wasn’t a day for dying. It was early spring and hope was in the air. Birdsong was reaching a crescendo and new growth was everywhere, above and below. Cloistered in a musty bedroom on the first floor of a north London care home, Marina was aware of creation in all its abundance beyond the window. But in the room with her, a life was now extinguished. Death is no respecter of sunshine or seasons. Aunt Ludmila lay in the bed, gaunt and still, while in the corridor outside voices were hushed as carers continued to go about their duties. Marina felt very alone in her vigil as she awaited the arrival of the undertakers. She hoped they would be able to restore Ludmila to something of her former beauty with their makeup and prosthetics. She wanted her aunt to look like the Russian aristocrat she had been as she went to meet her maker.

Marina glanced round the room. After paying fortnightly visits for the last three years it was as familiar as her own sitting room, although small and rather dingy. The staff had made an effort to brighten it with paintings which once hung in Ludmila’s apartment. There was the small watercolour of fur-robed skaters, two of whom looked very like Romanovs. And there was the much bigger oil painting of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, on a winter’s morning, dwarfed by an ornately heavy gold frame. St Petersburg – Ludmila’s home, though one she had fled as a small child, secreted away by her parents as the Bolsheviks closed in on the city. They had arrived in London via Scandinavia with little more than the clothes on their backs, leaving their daughter’s inheritance for the mob to plunder.

The only other ornament was a large cross on the chest of drawers. It was a Russian Orthodox design, with large and small cross pieces and an angled footplate lower on the vertical. Richly decorated in vibrant colour and gold leaf, it exuded the wealth and opulence of the Russian elite and seemed out of place in the stark little bedroom.

In an effort to distract herself from the her aunt’s remains, Marina rose and went over to have a closer look at the cross. It was heavy, made from a dense, blackened wood, with a box-like base.

She turned it upside down to see if there was any hint as to its age on the base and noticed a small, deliberately carved groove along one edge. Marina hesitated for a moment – but, after all, everything in this room was now hers, she supposed, and the compartment was crying out to be opened. In the end, she had to use the edge of her key as a lever. A piece of folded paper fell to the floor. Instinctively, she bent to retrieve it, unfolding it carefully as it was brown and tattered with age. The writing on it was faint and spidery, written in haste, and Marina moved to the window to see it more clearly. The script was Cyrillic, so it took her several minutes to decipher. She silently thanked her mother for the early lessons she had so resented at the time. Ludmila’s sister had been determined her daughter should never forget her heritage.

Raking her memory, she found it helpful to read the words aloud as she had to her mother forty years before. “The Bolsheviks are very close now. We have to leave tonight but we can’t take it all with us. Too . . . dangerous. Pyotr has hidden Catherine’s gift. We will return when the dust has settled. I have read Andersen’s work and I have left a trail of breadcrumbs, for I cannot let those murderers touch her legacy. Here is the start of the trail – Christ’s blood redeems us. His saints smile upon us. We are not worthy to gather the crumbs from beneath their table. We are crushed beneath their heels.”

“I’m so sorry to disturb you, Mrs Jordan. The undertakers are here.” Marina jumped as the carer put her head round the door. She thrust the paper, guiltily, in to her pocket as she dragged her imagination back from St Petersburg on the eve of the Bolshevik onslaught. Her grandmother must have written that note, and her terror was palpable. But the practicalities of the moment intervened. She would think about it later.

“Thank you, Eva,” she replied. “We are ready.”

The Legacy - 48 hours to help solve the mystery

The legacy – a Just Write collaborative serial

Just Write is at it again! We are writing a new collaborative serial for publication on this website. Each author is writing one chapter and has 48 hours to write their section (roughly 500 words) and send it to the other writers. The next writer gets an additional clue to help them take the story forward.

The story is called The Legacy. It starts when Ludmila dies and her niece discovers something intriguing in the room she had occupied…

The last chapter will be published on Easter Sunday and the first will appear tomorrow, Friday 23rd March. Enjoy, and do give us feedback!

Short stories on International Women's Day

The dress – a collaborative story by Lesley and Liz

It was only after her father was imprisoned that Amber felt confident enough to wear The Dress. At best he would have told her to take it off, at worst he would have ripped it off her, shreds of red silk flying everywhere as her mother’s beautiful gown was reduced to tatters.

But the dress had avoided that fate, staying locked up in mother’s suitcase until her father was locked up following mother’s court case.

Amber opened the suitcase on the first day of her father’s prison sentence. The dress’s crimson folds were wrapped in layers of white tissue, reminding Amber of seeing her mother’s bloodstained body lying in a grotesquely distorted pose on the bed. She took a deep breath and plunged her hands into the fine fabric, feeling the soft silk fold and slide over her skin. The sensation took her breath away for a moment, and she found herself shuddering. When had her mother last worn the dress? Had she been happy then or had her father already started the campaign of destruction that ended so cruelly.

She took the dress into the front bedroom which was flooded with light from the bright afternoon sunshine pouring through the large bay windows. Shaking and rustling the dress gently so the folds of silk fell in natural cascades she held it up to her face, breathing in the faint memory of her mother’s perfume. She felt tears sting the corner of her eyes and drew in a quick breath to hold them there. She knew if she allowed the tears to flow they would not stop and, no matter how many tears she shed, the well of sadness within her remained as full as the day she found her mother’s broken and lifeless body.

The dress hung in her hands and she shook herself back into the present, then gently laid the dress on the bed while she tugged off her jeans and tee shirt. She picked the dress up and let it fall gently to the floor to form a puddle of red silk. She stepped carefully into the centre of it and slid the dress up over her body, tugging the bodice into place. A smile curved gently around her mouth as she realised that the dress fitted her perfectly. She had the same feminine curves and height as her beautiful mother and the dress was testament to that.

She reached around and carefully guided the zip up her back, feeling the rich and expensive silk fold in around her, then took a few steps over to the window to stand in front of the full length mirror positioned there to catch the best light. She gasped in surprise at her own reflection. She looked beautiful, ladylike, elegant, serene.  All the things a 20-year-old cider-swigging student like her could never be – and yet she was. She blushed with pride, realising her own beauty for the first time. Empowered by her transformation she moved towards her mother’s dressing table, undid her long auburn hair and used her mother’s brush to sweep her hair into soft waves. She opened the drawers of the dressing table and found all her mother’s makeup still there as though, any minute, she would walk in from her bath to sit and gaze at her reflection before enhancing it with her art.  Amber reached for the gold-capped lipstick then the eyeliner, checking her reflection while she worked, Finally she reached into her mother’s black, leather-bound jewellery box and put on a pair of her favourite diamond stud earrings.

She stood up, walked back to the full length mirror and started to sway and move in front of it while the rich silk skirt of the dress rustled and whispered around her.

Amber was lost in memories, entranced by her own reflection, empowered by her transformation. She now understood why the dress had driven her father mad with jealousy. It was perfect, and would now be both her revenge and her escape.



Short stories on International Women's Day

Stars in my eyes – a collaborative story by Liz, Lesley and Debbie

Saturday mornings always followed the same route when I was a kid. Jam on toast for breakfast, then Mum would shout downstairs for you to come up for your bath, which involved Niagra-like quantities of water being poured over your head from a cracked plastic jug and copious amounts of shampoo suds stinging your eyes. The bath rota was always a hotly debated depending on who needed to be where and by what time on a Saturday. Apart from the dog, who got slung into the bath when the last child hopped out.

Once your hair was rinsed you could escape. A cursory dry with a rough towel then on with the jeans, sweat shirt, quick comb of the hair, then stage 2 Saturday morning – present yourself, washed and dressed, to Dad who gave you 20p pocket money. That was the start of the fun.

I would race down the hill to the corner shop, buy a quarter of lemon sherbets, then back home, telly on and settle in for kids’ Saturday morning TV. There were no cable channels then. There weren’t even kids’ channels. So Saturday morning was a real treat to have back-to-back TV shows just for kids. The Banana Splits, the Double Decker’s, Swap Shop and then it always finished with a vintage Laurel and Hardy show. We loved it and the best bit was it was the only time Dad would sit and watch TV with us. We all learnt the words of ‘On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ off by heart and sang at the top of our voices.

I loved the words of those songs, and that was what made me I start writing poetry. I’d been given a note book for my birthday and I’d drawn a few pictures in it, the feint lines of the pages becoming entangled with the image I was creating – a park bench, railway lines, telephone wires. Words were easier, sitting neatly on the lines rather than fighting with them for space on the page. Space – that’s what I wrote about. I love the sci-fi programmes on TV then – Dr Who was always my favourite and Star Trek. I dreamt of boldly going where no girl had ever gone before, and I wrote my dreams as poems. We’d read some poetry in school so I had an idea that it needed to rhyme but space was a tough word at the end of a line – pace, face, disgrace…err… so I decided to put it nearer the start of the lines.

Then I decided it didn’t need to be mentioned if I ‘alluded’ to space and use simile and metaphor instead. I was so pleased with myself for knowing those words! And then I discovered that poetry didn’t need to rhyme after all, so the s-word made its way back in to my verses. Here are some examples – remember I was only eight!

I look at stars up in the sky
And the only question I ask is ‘why?’
Why are we here? And what is life?
Is it happiness – or is it strife?

I was quite pleased with that one and thought I should add another verse so that I could enter my poem in to the school poetry competition. I took my note book and some chocolate in to the garden, lay down on the grass, which gave a pleasing tickle to my back, and contemplated the vast expanse of dark sky above me. One hour and three chocolate bars later:

Stars are the fireworks made by God
The sun is the match He uses
The moon is the magnet of mankind
And the galaxy makes the fuses.

To this day I can’t understand why I didn’t win any prizes.

Short stories on International Women's Day

Future imperfect – a collaborative story by Emma, Angela and Lesley

I woke up and stretched. There was that half a second when everything seemed alright with the world, until I remembered our specialist’s voice saying, ‘Many couples have very happy lives without children. It can make couples become closer.’

Dan and I had agreed to give IVF one more try. We did, and it did not work so that was that. We also agreed that we were not going to be one of those couples whose whole happiness depended on something they could not have.

I smelt the coffee Dan was making. He always pampered me on Sunday mornings. Was this how it was going to be? Would we grow closer? I didn’t think we could get any closer. We always knew what the other was thinking, we did not always need words. Sometimes Dan would hand me the thing I needed without saying anything. Was it a tiny bit of relief?

I’d visited my sister on Sunday. The house was strewn with toys – so many you barely noticed she hadn’t vacuumed for three weeks. The baby refused to sleep and both Sarah and Gareth looked permanently exhausted. I couldn’t remember the last time they had a night out, and I’d noticed the terse replies, the pursed lips, the irritating cracks widening into valleys. The two older boys scrapped all the time and the domestic atmosphere was riven with cries of, ‘Muuum . . . He hit me.’ ‘He started it!’ and the snappish response, ‘I don’t care who started it. You can both go to separate rooms . . .’ If this was the future denied us, then I reckoned we could definitely make coupledom work.

Dan appeared at the bedroom door, looking a little anxious. ‘I just looked in my diary and we booked that photographer’s appointment at 10. It’s 9:15 now.’

I’d completely forgotten! We’d booked a wedding anniversary portrait session at the old studio in the village. The morning went in to overdrive.

Hastily applying lipstick as we pulled up outside studio with a couple of minutes to spare, I noticed a child hanging about outside the door. He was of mixed race, about nine years old, and he grinned broadly as he approached us.

‘Spare a pound for the guy?’ he asked, cheekily.

‘But it’s only September,’ Dan challenged him. ‘Aren’t you a bit early?’ The boy scuffed at the ground with one shoe, twisting his hips as he tried to come up with a response. ‘And where’s your guy?’ Dan added.

‘That’s what the pound’s for,’ the boy said, finding the answer to his dilemma in Dan’s words.

His skin was beautiful, golden and smooth, and his dark eyes shone with the confidence of youth. Dan grinned back at him. ‘Maybe later,’ he said as he pushed the studio door open.

‘I see you’ve met my grandson.’ The photographer was smiling as he held out his hand in greeting. ‘Did he try his “penny for the guy” con on you?’

Fearing that Dan was going to mention the inflation in the boy’s demand, I spoke. ‘He’s a cheeky boy, that’s for sure. Is he staying with you?’

‘No. He’s my . . . well, my ward, I suppose. His parents died when he was very little and my wife and I took him in. But she died earlier this year and he’s a bit too much of a handful for me, as you can tell.’

I looked at Dan: his face bore the same expression as mine but neither of us dared to speak, yet . . .

Short stories on International Women's Day

Doors – a collaborative story by Carol, Debbie and Angela

I’ll never forget those doors. They are imprinted on my soul. They are the doors that I walked through, heavily pregnant and scared to death, and the doors that I walked out of, my belly flat and my arms empty.

It was the priest who told my distraught mother about the place. “Let me take her there,” he had said, putting a pastoral arm around her and offering her a creased handkerchief from the pocket of his cassock. “No-one will know that she’s sinned and the nuns will take good care of her.”

They didn’t, of course. The so-called ‘taking care’ amounted to feeding me and my fellow sinners and providing a bed. The rest of their time was taken up with telling us how many ways God would show us that we were sinners and how we had ruined our lives and would never find a man willing to marry us. I hated it there.

Things improved a little after my son was born. I loved him with a passion I could not have imagined. He was part of me and I would hurry through my ‘household duties’ with exemplary obedience so I could spend every spare minute in the nursery – until he’d learned to smile. That morning, he beamed at me before I left him and I couldn’t wait to see that smile again at the end of the day. But on my return, the crib was empty and the nuns met my hysteria and pleading with a silence which branded my soul.

I met Bill at work about five years later. We shared a bit of banter over an illicit cigarette and he asked me to go with him to the pictures. By that time, I had wrapped the void in my heart and sealed it. He never knew for certain, though I think he suspected I was hiding something. I had developed an unconquerable fear of religious statues, and my first pregnancy with Bill’s child was tortured by an irrational terror and a ferocious protectiveness for the baby inside me.

“Let’s get married in our local Church,” he’d said, only a couple of months into our relationship. “I don’t think I could handle telling my mother it’s going to be a registry office.”

But I told him it was me he was marrying, not his mother, and there was no way I was going to stand in a church reciting vows like a hypocrite. Of course, he gave in – because he loved me. I couldn’t help his disappointment – or his mother’s. Somewhere in my heart was a chamber of lead which even he couldn’t melt.

I tried to forget – I truly did. Bill and I had the girls, and I immersed myself in their upbringing. But the guilt was always there, lurking in dark corners, waiting to spring out and choke me. Where had they sent my little son? I didn’t even know if my tiny boy had survived. I used to celebrate his birthday every year, though Bill never cottoned on. On 18th May, I would book a trip to the theatre or the cinema for the whole family, and I would indulge my fantasy that I had reserved five seats instead of four.

I lost Bill last year. The emptiness I had hidden for thirty years became a vacuum in my heart, and a compulsion to find my child rose through the void. That’s how I find myself here once again, outside the convent, hand poised over the doorbell, frozen in a time warp. The answer is in the ledger somewhere inside.

Short stories on International Women's Day

Coming home – a collaborative story by Debbie, Carol and Emma

He could hear her voice as he ran. ‘Breathe,’ she said. ‘Breathe.’ She was the only one he would listen to. Her voice echoed through his head as he ran from the room, his throat tightening. He loosened his tie, but still he could feel the invisible noose clutching at his throat. He stumbled as he ran up the stairs.

‘Curse this house for being so big,’ he thought. Panic was beginning to invade his body. If he didn’t reach that room soon it would be too late. They would have won, and even she wouldn’t be able to help him. It was an effort now to put one foot in front of the other. ‘Concentrate,’ he thought. ‘Breathe.’ At last he found the door and, with the sigh of a condemned man pardoned at the eleventh hour, fell into the room.

It was calm, serene. He could feel his pulse, which had been bursting in his head, start to slow down. He was safe at last. He fell to the floor and rested his back against the book shelves. He remembered her advice and, as he took some slow deep breaths, he felt the invisible grip on his throat start to loosen.

She would follow him, of course. She would wait a few moments and then she would come to check that he was ok, that he was coping. She always did. He had to start coping. He couldn’t carry on like this or he would find himself back in hospital. He couldn’t face that again.

Then suddenly he saw her, but this time she was a younger, more beautiful version of herself. She had a wide smile and her hair was curled and fell over one shoulder. ‘What am I so afraid of?’ he thought. ‘She does not mean me any harm.’

Then she spoke in her quiet voice. ‘Come into the light, come to me, come home, come and rest. Take my hand.’

All the strength went out of him as he took her hand and went into the light.

Short stories on International Women's Day

New collaborative stories for International Women’s Day

Unusually, we were all women at our latest writing class and our teacher for the night, Nicki, presented us with sheets of paper on which she had printed pictures of a person, an object and a location. Each of us took a set of images and wrote the start of a story based on one or more of those pictures. We then passed that beginning to another member of the group who wrote the second part, again integrating one or more of the pictures. The story was passed on again to another member of the group to write the conclusion. We hope you enjoy the resulting stories, but please bear in mind that this spontaneous collaborative writing was all achieved in under an hour!

We don’t intend to identify where the different women took over and we challenge you to spot the joins…