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Lesley Close

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 4 – Bridget and Michael: New York, 22 October 2001, 11:45am

Aileen stopped looking at the unfinished paintings and knelt alongside the envelopes. She picked up an airmail one, shakily addressed in soft pencil to MICHAEL SHEEHAN, BALLINLOUGH HOUSE, LISNAGROOB, IRELAND, and unfolded the single sheet of ruled paper inside it. The handwriting was on alternate lines, the letters carefully formed.

Dear Michael, Aileen starting reading. We’ll look after Bridget, don’t worry. It’ll take her a while to settle in after all the trouble. Tell her to bring plenty of warm clothes for little Aileen and the boys. We’ll find some things for the baby before it arrives…

Collum glanced up from the box he was rummaging through. ‘Who’s the letter from?’

Aileen turned the sheet over. ‘It’s from Great Aunt Sarah. It must be to Granda Sheenan – he was Michael. It’s dated 1951. That’s when we sailed, and the baby Mother was carrying was you!’

‘So what trouble does she mean?’ asked Collum, sitting beside his sister. ‘Carry on reading.’

‘There’s nothing more about it here. There might be another letter from Sarah.’ Aileen and Collum started to tidy the envelopes. ‘It’ll be airmail, 1951 or earlier. Here! 1950, same pencil handwriting.’ She unfolded the two-sheet letter and started to read. Dear Michael, I’m awful sorry to hear about Bridget and Stephen. I always said those O’Hanlons were a bad lot. It’s a terrible thing when a man lets his wife down that way. And that Mary, supposed to be the mother’s help and all. It’s disgusting. What will Bridget do with the little ones? She can’t stay in her half of your house, even though she’d be near you. She could come here to live with us, get a new start away from the gossip. Talk to her about it but whatever she does that dirty woman must move out of the back cottage…

Collum interrupted. ‘Wow! Who was that ‘dirty woman’? Is that the back cottage?’ He pointed at one of the paintings which showed a third, distant building.

‘I know Mother had help with us children from a woman called Mary. She lived in for a few years. Could it be her?’ Aileen looked troubled. ‘And what was Father up to with her?’ Collum’s mischievous grin suggested that he had an idea. ‘I don’t even want to think about it now,’ she said, carefully re-folding the paper and replacing the letter on the tidy but somehow ominous pile of envelopes. ‘It’s funny to think of Father, Mother and us children in that house with Granda reading these letters.’

‘Wasn’t the sky always grey when you were a kid?’ Even though Collum knew exactly what Aileen would say in reply to his next question, he asked it just to hear her say the words. ‘And did it always rain in Ireland, like they say?’

As he knew she would, Aileen slipped into her mother’s faint trace of a brogue when she replied. ‘Agh, be away with you! And even if it does rain, sure and isn’t that the price you have to pay for an emerald isle?’

Collum smiled: that ‘emerald isle’ thing was a joke of their mother’s, so often repeated that had become a family saying. Like ‘that dirty woman’ might now become…

Short story - Humour

The ghost’s story

Dear Mr and Mrs Willis,

If you have seen me around your house, you may have recognised me from a 2014 edition of Most Haunted. I was the one they captured on camera in the village library. Yes – that blurry image was me enjoying my five minutes of fame!

In case you’re wondering, it’s hard work being a ghost. Okay, so it’s partly my own fault for choosing to be a Class I HGV but that’s the most fun. HGV? Hair-raising Ghostly Vision, and the Class I is the full skeleton and chains standard.

A full skeleton is hard to come by these days with the increasing popularity of – nay, the need for – cremation. You can’t rattle a pile of pulverised bones. And chains aren’t ten a penny anymore. I don’t know why they are considered an essential feature of the best-dressed ghost’s outfit. Very few people die in chains these days, if they ever did…

The worst part is definitely the move to zero-hours contracts. They might suit people who like to stay in bed all night but some of us like to feel useful. My friend James is the opposite of me. He doesn’t need the money and rarely gets up before sunrise. Why he bothers going out then I don’t know – nobody can see him during the day.

Being a ghost is a lifestyle – should that be deathstyle? – choice. Not everyone wants to do it, and most people choose to stay dead. But I’ve always enjoyed interacting with people so I chose this way of life – sorry, of death. I couldn’t use my own bones as my body had been cremated, so I did a deal with another ghost. He wanted to get into the disembodied voice line of work, so his bones were surplus to requirements.

I used to think I’d go out even if I wasn’t on a contract. I loved seeing those terrified faces and hearing the screams. Then along came the nonsense of Monsters Inc. That made a big difference to what people will scream at. It takes a lot of effort to raise a proper blood-curdling scream these days, but it’s very rewarding when you do get one. My favourite trick is to levitate, seeming to appear out of the ground in front of someone. It’s an easy stunt to pull off, if you can find a low stone or fallen tree trunk to hide behind. Not being constrained by skin, tendons and muscles, I can collapse in to an apparently disarticulated heap only to rise with everything in the correct order.

I say ‘everything’, but not all my bones came from the disembodied-voice guy and I don’t actually have a full skeleton. Most people don’t even notice the missing bones, which are mainly the tiny ones in wrist and ankle joints. My right leg is longer than my left because my donor was an above-the-knee amputee and the only left leg I could get was from a much shorter woman. The same accident that took away his leg also destroyed his right hand, but I make good use of that by replacing the bones with scary-looking (but blunt) knife blades. Yes, I do know about Edward Scissorhands – where do you think I got the idea from?

Anyway, I’ve got a problem and I’m hoping you can help me solve it. I’ve got to pass the Scaring Standard Test next week and my heart’s not in it. If I ever had a mojo, I think I’ve lost it. Would you be prepared to scream even if I don’t manage to scare you? You won’t see the examiner – they always discorporate before attending the test. I believe you normally go to bed quite early – could you stay up a bit later next Tuesday? Do you think you could make sure to still be awake at 22:00? That’s the appointment I’ve been given and I’m in enough trouble for cancelling the last test. After the last time, I can’t cancel again or I’ll lose my accreditation. I don’t want to wake you up and really scare you – you seem like such nice people, what with your cat and the pictures of your grandchildren on the piano. I’ve heard you play, by the way, Mr Willis, and I really like that Chopin Nocturne you play so well.

I promise not to be too disruptive and I won’t damage anything valuable. Maybe you could leave out some things you won’t mind being thrown about – soft toys, plastic tableware, paper from the recycling bin. That sort of thing looks messy but doesn’t do any damage if it hits you. I’ll try not to hit you, of course, but if the examiner looks stern I might have to chuck things around a bit harder than I’d like.

If it’s going to be impossible, perhaps you could let me know and I’ll find another venue for the test. Luckily the examiner doesn’t need to know the postcode until a few hours beforehand. I’ll say this for the Academy – they understand the problem of finding a suitable host for the test.

With warm hugs and gentle kisses – well, that’s my ideal ‘goodbye’, and I know that it actually comes across as a sharply pointed grip and a smack of bones.

Frederika Johnson, widow of Flt Lt Pete Johnson and full-time ghost

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

I hear music

St Francis Hospice Short Story Competition 2013.

This story was placed third, which was thrilling as it was the first contest I had entered after joining Sally’s writing class a few months earlier! And, having now learned the song, I know that I made a mistake – it’s actually called I hear singing!

Dear Mr Adams,

Thank you for interviewing me today for the job of chambermaid: I am delighted to accept your offer and, as agreed, will start work next Monday.

I’m happy to explain the problem I told you about. You may have heard of synaesthesia in which people associate certain words or objects with colours or textures (to put it simply): I have a rare variation of this in which I hear music (or single notes) when I look at people, to paraphrase the beautiful song by Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II.

This has no practical implications for my job, except that I sometimes burst into song when I meet someone. My singing teacher (who makes me want to sing All the things you are) says that my voice is pleasant so you needn’t worry about me introducing an unwelcome tuneless noise into your peaceful hotel.

The work of a chambermaid suits me because I seldom come into contact with guests. Imagine if I worked on the reception desk: it would be like a one-person Karaoke bar! I think I startled your receptionist when I sang Isn’t this a lovely day to be caught in the rain to her, but she quickly recovered her composure and carried on dealing with the guest who was booking-in. His song, Purcell’s Mad Bess, was in my head while I sang aloud: I can do that quite easily – sing one song aloud while another plays in my head – but I try to avoid crowds as multiple songs can be difficult to manage. School was a nightmare, a cacophony!

My previous job as chambermaid lasted four years and was enjoyable for all concerned. I only left because my husband’s company relocated to Berkhamsted. (His song is I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts and his Cheshire boss’s was Yellow submarine.) You might like to know that yours is the very lovely lute song When first I saw your face and that your PA’s is Waltzing Matilda. Is he Australian? I didn’t detect an accent.

I cannot promise to keep my singing to the unoccupied bedrooms in which I work: indeed, working alone, that is unlikely. If I meet someone in the corridor I may sing to them but the housekeeper you introduced me to (whose association was with a single tone of B flat, played on a flute) seemed unfazed when I hummed one note for the first few seconds she was talking to me.

My own song? I seldom hear it these days, only when I look in a mirror so I avoid doing that. It is the end of the Beatles’ classic A day in the life – the bit where the orchestra is playing apparently at random and the sounds build to a crescendo before stopping suddenly – my sound is what follows, a ringing silence that leaves me shocked, stunned, almost deafened.

I look forward to seeing (and hearing) you on Monday,

Jessica Hornblower (Mrs)