All Posts By

Liz Losty

Short story - Crime, Short story - Mystery, Short story - Suspense

The Runner – Part Four

He walked swiftly and purposefully, his navy Italian suit and crisp white shirt allowing him to blend in easily with the crowd spilling out of the tube station. Strongly built, mid-30s, with close-cropped hair and a neatly trimmed beard, he fitted right in with the thirty-something bankers and businessmen walking round the City. Their expensive suits and inflated sense of status belied the precariousness of their jobs. It was Friday lunchtime, everyone winding down for the weekend, leaving their desks and screens to reward themselves in the expensive bars and restaurants near their offices. The heavy traffic was at a standstill so he crossed the main road, walking quickly between cars and vans: he knew his route and the area well. Checking his watch, he turned left towards the busy shopping area filled with outdoor cafés: thirty minutes early. He sat at the nearest free table and ordered an espresso.

Two smiling girls, laden with backpacks and brandishing an open map, approached him. ‘Excuse me, could you show us how to find our way to the nearest tube? We are so lost.’ As one girl pushed some loose strands of golden hair behind her ears and smiled at him, her dark-haired companion attempted to spread a map on his table. He put out his arm to block her and the map, his eyes never leaving the blonde girl’s face. ‘It would be great if you could just . . . ’ The words faded away as the smile started to falter. His arm remained outstretched and the dark-haired girl looked hesitantly at her companion, waiting for a cue. Still he said nothing but just stared, knowing she would break first. She scowled and swore at him under her breath, then nudged her companion.

They roughly bundled up the map and turned to leave, mingling back into the crowds of shoppers. He watched them approach a group of smartly dressed businessman sitting at the café opposite, their large table strewn with empty wine glasses and half-eaten plates of food. They were only too happy to give directions, flirting and smiling, unaware that when the girls left they would be missing two mobile phones and a laptop bag.

Checking his watch again, he threw some coins on the table then made his back on to the main thoroughfare. Crossing in to a side street, he walked past smaller shops and fewer people then turned right into an alleyway. Halfway down was a metal door with a buzzer and pad. He tapped in a six-digit code and pulled the door. It didn’t open. He frowned and re-entered the number, more slowly this time. Again, the door didn’t open. A prickle of fear crept up his neck. Hesitating for a moment, he knew he had no choice but to go ahead. The cameras would be on; they would know he was there. He buzzed and, after a moment, the door opened with a click.

He blinked in the darkness of the stairwell. Glancing up, his hand instinctively reached inside his jacket but he saw no one looking down at him. He straightened his shoulders and climbed the two flights of stairs quickly, feeling a damp sheen of sweat starting to collect under his shirt.

When he reached the unmarked black door he tried the handle, half-expecting it to be barred too. It swung open and he stepped into a dark, bare room, the unwashed windows on the far side covered with grime and dimming the daylight. It looked like an old office space, the business it once housed long gone. The walls were shaded, the wood chipped and marks on the paint showed where notice boards and shelving had once hung. The room was almost empty except for a cheap old wooden desk, a couple of mismatched plastic chairs and a man who put the fear of God into Gibbs.

Grey was on the phone, his back to the door. He didn’t look round or acknowledge Gibbs’ entrance but there was no doubt he knew who was standing there, waiting. Grey paced slowly, listening intently to whoever was on the phone as he walked over to look out of the grimy window. His tone was quiet, controlled and, though there was no sound except the distant hum of traffic, Gibbs couldn’t make out anything Grey was saying other than his final words: ‘Do it now.’ The call finished, but still Grey didn’t turn round or acknowledge Gibbs. It was an unnerving and effective way of setting the tone of the meeting.

‘So. What went wrong?’ Grey asked, slowly: only then did he turn to look at Gibbs. The newcomer stood straight and tall, his broad shoulders and athletic build perfectly clad in the expensive wool suit under the arms of which sweat patches were creeping. Grey knew at a glance that Gibbs was desperately trying to hold his nerve.

‘She has proved to be more resilient than I thought but I am confident we will get her,’ Gibbs replied.

‘More resilient than you thought? You were the one who recruited her. You brought her in. You bloody well vouched for her. Have you any idea what a screw-up this is? She could bring the whole thing down around us. She’s leaving a trail of dead people behind her and is starting to attract the wrong kind of attention.’ He spoke with a quiet menace, not even raising his voice. He didn’t need to.

‘This is your mess. I am calling everyone else off. You brought her in and you can get rid of her. You worked with her and you trained with her, so you must know how she thinks. You’ve got a week to close this off.’ Grey stared at Gibbs intently, reading in his face every nuance that Gibbs was desperately trying to blank out.

‘Don’t have any misplaced loyalties on this one, Gibbs. Either she dies or you die. It’s the only way you can save yourself. You have one week. Go.’ Grey turned away, signalling Gibbs’ dismissal. After hesitating for a moment, Gibbs realised there was nothing more to be said and left the room. He ran down the stairs, two at a time, and went through the heavy door into the alleyway. He stretched his fingers then clenched his fists, repeating the exercise until he felt his heart rate normalise. He started walking, slowly, running his fingers around the inside of his shirt collar then pulling down his cuffs and straightening his jacket to release some of the heat from his back and neck. It calmed him while he allowed his mind to pause, briefly.

His thoughts started to come together as he walked through the crowds, passing four or five tube stations. The pace of his steps picked up as his mind started speeding through the possibilities and the consequences.

She’d saved his life once. She had the strength and stamina of men twice her size. He had trusted her. She was the first person he thought of when Grey told him a position had opened up on the team.

The one thing he hadn’t factored in was the strength of her integrity; it was her greatest weakness where this operation had been concerned. Why couldn’t she have just taken the money and left her conscience behind, like the rest of the team?

He had dreaded it coming down to this. But he knew it was inevitable when he had heard Jackson had been found dead, dumped in a hotel skip.

She was feral when she was cornered, completely ruthless. Gibbs needed to get to her before she realised who her pursuer was.

To be continued

With grateful thanks to Lesley Close – Editor

© 2017 LIZ LOSTY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Short story - Crime, Short story - Mystery, Short story - Suspense

The Runner – Part Three

She drove north on the motorway for about two hours, using the time in the car to think, to take stock. She knew they would be looking for him; it would only be a matter of time before they realised something had gone wrong. But how was he going to contact them, what was their procedure? Would he have used the mobile phone that she had dumped down the grating? It must have been a pay-as-you-go, nothing to tie the phone or number to anyone except calls made and received. It would only have been used a couple of times on this one job, then destroyed.

She knew she had taken a risk by stealing the car, but the priority had been to get off scene as quickly as possible in case he had support positioned nearby. She instinctively knew the number plates would be fake. How clean was the car? What other risks had she taken?

She signalled to turn into a service station and parked the car away from the main forecourt to avoid being caught on camera. She got out and casually looked around. There was no obvious tail: it was a good two minutes before the next vehicle, a school minibus, pulled in to get petrol. She opened the boot and ran her hands quickly and expertly around every seam, fixture and crevice. Nothing. Closing the boot, she opened the rear door. Leaning in, she ran through the same careful inspection process before moving to the front seats. She slid the passenger seat as far back as she could then, angling her body, she sat in the footwell and looked under the dashboard. Her heart sank, even though she had known all along she would find it somewhere. Sitting back, she started to think. Just fix this problem first before planning anything else. And don’t ever assume you will only find one. She checked the rest of the car and the engine, but found no other trackers.

She looked over at the minibus, a bunch of excited kids on their way to a football tournament. Some of them spilled out of the shop, loaded with sweets and fizzy drinks and shouting excitedly to those waiting on the bus. They looked so young, so happy. Some were already dressed in their team kit even though it was now dark and the only football they would see tonight would be on TV. She looked away. She couldn’t do it; her conscience wouldn’t let her.

‘Alright darling? Lost something?’ The man’s voice made her jump, even though she had seen him in her peripheral vision. She had assumed he would walk past her towards the shop. ‘No! Thanks. Actually, I was just trying to find a pen. Could you lend me one? Just need to write down a number while I remember.’ She had already scanned him and knew he was no threat, given his weight, laboured walk and food-stained clothing. She turned her full-on smile at him, knowing the effect it would have on a fat, lonely, middle-aged trucker.

‘Yes, sure sweetheart. Always happy to help a damsel in distress. Come with me back to my wagon and let’s see what I can do for you.’ He chuckled suggestively.

‘I’ll follow you over. Just let me grab my bag.’

She turned back to car and watched in the mirror as he reached the door of his wagon and lumbered up to the driver’s seat. Sprinting as fast as she could from the car to the wagon, she jumped up the step to the cab then slipped and fell into his lap.

‘Oi! You’re keen aren’t you?’ he laughed, making to grab her round the waist.

She immediately straightened up and moved away from him, appearing flustered. ‘Gosh, so sorry. Lost my footing there. Is that the pen? Do you mind if I have it?’ It was a cheap biro and, as quickly as he nodded agreement, she was gone. Running back to the car she gunned the ignition, leaving a puzzled and disappointed trucker staring after the rear lights of the BMW as it shot off to re-join the motorway.

Checking the rear view mirror a moment later and seeing no vehicle behind her, she finally allowed herself to let out a long, steadying breath. Where to now, what was the best strategy? She knew the fact that she didn’t have a settled plan or a fixed destination made it harder for them to predict her next move. They had bargained on her winning the fight against whoever they had sent in the BMW: that was why they had planted the tracker. But what would they think now?

It wouldn’t take them long to work out that the hit had gone wrong. He would have had to send some sort of coded confirmation to them so, when they didn’t get that, they would have been relying on the tracker. They would catch up with the trucker pretty soon, no doubt flashing badges, using blue lights and giving official warnings to force him to pull over. Checking, just in case, but knowing the tracker had been switched over.

She needed to sleep and eat, to keep her energy up and her mind functioning. After another hour of taking exits, joining new roads and zigzagging, she pulled into a layby where there was a mobile canteen. She bought a bacon sandwich and tea as well as extra bottles of water and some small snacks. After another hour’s driving she pulled into a picnic area and switched off the engine. A couple of hours’ sleep, then let’s see what first light brings. But the inevitable question kept going around in her mind – how long could she keep running?

The only answer was As long as they keep coming after me.

Short story - Crime

The runner: part two

It was only when she was on the coach and safely out of the city that she realised she didn’t know where she was heading. The tourists on the bus seemed to be mainly American with a few German and Italians thrown into the mix. No suitcases or luggage were loaded on board so they were obviously on a day trip to the city. They were all chattering away and showing off to each other, parading the presents and souvenirs they had bought, laughing and joking about the expensive t-shirts with the cheap slogans and an endless array of tea towels. They were oblivious to her quiet presence. After a while they all settled down and a few nodded off.

She knew it would draw attention if she asked anyone where they were heading, so she pulled her hat down over her forehead and feigned sleep to give herself space to think. It didn’t really matter where she was going, the further away the better. Not that the distance would make her feel any safer but at least the journey gave her some time to plan the next few days. That was as far into the future as she dared to think, and she really needed a clear head now. She was adept at breaking any situation down and compartmentalising it. Her training allowed her to assess the overall position, then address each problem sequentially.

Come up with a plan to address the first problem before you start worrying about the next one. That’s the only way to stay safe and sane. She’d had that drummed into her from the start. It just never occurred to her then that this would be how she would end up using those skills.

Somewhere to lie low where she wouldn’t be noticed, cash to buy her way out if she was, multiple escape routes planned, trust no-one, involve no-one, and have one other weapon apart from your hands, your feet and your brain. She normally chose a knife – it had obvious advantages.

The coach headed up the motorway at a steady pace, surrounded by rush-hour commuters making their long way home. She resisted the urge to scan from the window – she didn’t want to draw attention in case they had already had a car tailing her.

Eventually the coach pulled up outside a smart town-centre hotel. The hiss of brakes and doors opening woke up those still asleep, and everyone gathered up their shopping bags and belongings and began to file wearily off the coach. She got up and smiled politely as she pushed her way into the middle of the queue to get off. She pulled off her dark hoodie and hat, revealing a white t-shirt and letting her hair down so it fell around her face.

‘Do you need a hand with those?’ she asked the elderly lady in front, who was trying to move sideways down the narrow aisle while dragging shopping bags in both hands.

‘Oh that would be wonderful, thank you.’ The lady looked down at the bags, trying to decide which would be the easiest to hand over.

‘Don’t worry I can take all of them. I’ll be right behind you, careful down the steps, now.’ She smiled confidently and the lady gratefully handed over the bags, slowly stepping down onto the pavement before turning, uncertainly. ‘No, don’t worry. I’ll carry them inside for you. It would be a pleasure.’

They joined the large crowd trying to squeeze through the one revolving door. She stole a few glances to her left and right but was surrounded by the tourists from the coach. They eventually made their way into the busy hotel reception and she instinctively checked the position of all the exits. She carefully placed the bags down beside their owner and smiled in acknowledgement at her grateful thanks. Then she swiftly melted back into the crowd and turned towards the corridor leading away from the reception, following the signs to the dining room. There were a few waiting-staff milling around, polishing glasses and adding the last few place settings. They looked bored before the evening sitting had even begun. She walked purposefully and didn’t make eye contact, quickly reaching out one hand to pick up a steak knife from the sideboard. She didn’t miss a step, sliding the knife down inside the waistband of her jeans. She kept walking until, hearing the clattering of pans and bad-tempered exchanges behind double doors, she went into the kitchen.

‘Can I help you?’ A sweaty and harassed-looking chef carrying a heavy tureen of soup was blocking her path. ‘No thank you.’ She side-stepped around him and kept walking, passing the bemused kitchen staff who were enjoying this challenge to their boss. The chef turned and shouted angrily after her. ‘You! Hey you! You’ve no right to be here, this is my kitchen…’ but she was already out the back door. A couple of kitchen porters were idly leaning against the outside wall, dragging out the last from the butt end of their cigarettes. One of them arched an eyebrow as she wrapped her hoodie around the long thin chef’s knife she was holding. He had his own problems with the law and immediately blanked the incident from his mind, turning to go back into the kitchen and the hell pit of abuse that was the dinner shift.

She turned the corner away from the kitchen, walking along down an alley littered with takeaway cartons, beer cans and bins, and found herself back out on the main street on one side of the main hotel entrance. The coach was still there, engine running, the driver patiently trying to help an elderly couple who were struggling with the steep steps. She quickly took a step back into the alley and checked the area around the hotel, the buildings opposite, the parked cars.

The arm around her throat pulled so tightly she was lifted off her feet, the surprise causing her to gasp and lose breath. She tried to donkey-kick but didn’t make contact with her attacker. She was choking, gasping for air, her arms flailing, trying instinctively to pull the arm away and release the pressure from her windpipe. She pushed back with all her strength and they both landed heavily against the rough brick wall but his grip didn’t loosen. She felt her face pulse with blood, her eyes bulging as her lungs screamed for air. She swung again but he pulled her back, using the wall to brace himself as he tightened the pressure on her neck. She reached up again, not to pull the arm off this time but further and faster to where she knew his face was, and jabbed both thumbs as hard as she could into his eyes. He had tried to pull back but couldn’t without loosening his grip. He grunted in pain and tried to turn his head but she made a vicious well-aimed lunge with her fingers and gouged into his eyes again. His arm dropped as he yelped in pain and his hands momentarily covered his eyes. She dropped the hoodie from her hand, revealing the chef’s knife, and lunged forward. He didn’t see the blow coming and he may not even have felt it as she plunged the blade into his chest at an angle, forcing it left and right once she had buried it in his chest, ensuring his heart was sliced and death instant. He dropped to his knees and then fell sideways, his hands still covering his eyes. She pulled the knife from his chest and dropped it to the ground. Her mind was rushing. Stop, think. What’s the first problem? Fix that, then the next.

She was panting heavily, the metallic taste of blood in her throat, adrenaline making her shake. She had to think quickly now. Was there anyone else? Did anyone see or hear? The alley appeared empty apart from the large dumpster bins with the hotel’s name on them. She flipped one open – it was half full of large black refuse sacks. She hauled them all out then grabbed the body under the shoulders and dragged it to over to the bin. She checked the pockets and removed car keys and cash, tossed the mobile phone down a nearby grate. There was no wallet or ID – no surprise. The body was heavy but she was strong and knew the technique. She lifted him onto her shoulder then stood up and flipped it backwards into the refuse bin before immediately turning to throw all the rubbish sacks on top, moving one or two from where they settled to ensure the body was covered. She closed the lid and looked around, still no sign of anyone. She looked at her hands. There was some blood, but her white t-shirt was soaked red from where she had dragged and carried him. She tore it off and wrapped the knife in it, then picked up the dark hoodie she had dropped and put that on. She checked the area around the bin to ensure she had cleaned up properly. She checked the waist band of her jeans and the small steak knife was still there. Satisfied, she moved swiftly back down the alley to the main street then paused to check again before turning right and walking away from the hotel, down the main street, the white t-shirt tightly bundled in her fist. She passed a bin marked for dog waste and discarded the t-shirt and knife there, knowing that no-one would pause to check what was there before dropping in more dog waste.

She kept walking past the shops and cafes until she got to a pub, busy with evening drinkers. Walking in, she saw the sign for the Ladies and prayed it would be empty. She was in luck, washing her hands thoroughly, the sticky blood clinging to her nails. She splashed her face and smoothed down her hair. Dark blue bruising was already appearing around her throat. How to get out of here? She went into the cubicle and checked what she had taken from the dead guy. Car keys with a BMW logo, cash, a knife. He wouldn’t have had the keys if someone was waiting for him. They would have kept them for a quick getaway when he returned from doing the job. It was a risk, but then what wasn’t? She walked back towards the hotel, scanning the whole time. The keys hidden in her pocket, she passed a red BMW. No joy. Walking on, she turned left past the hotel onto a quieter road, mainly offices rather than shops. There were plenty of parked cars, all empty, all quiet, apart from the black BMW parked at the end of the road whose lights flashed when she pressed the key in her pocket. She jumped in quickly and started the engine. The tank was half full, the radio was off and the car was completely empty, not even a log book or a sweet wrapper.

She pulled away, not yet knowing where she was going. The plan was to just keep running and, if they kept coming after her, then she had no other option. In her mind it was self-defence – who knew what a judge would say? But this was one case that would never end up in any court of law. There was too much at stake and the risks were too high. They would all go down if she ended up in court.

That’s how she knew they wanted her dead.

 

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 10 – Mary: Lisnagroob, 1946

Mary Scanlon scrubbed the soft dry earth off the last of the potatoes, only satisfied when they looked like clean little sun freckled faces, then she dropped them with a satisfying plop into the large pot gently simmering on the stove top.

They would take at least an hour without having a fierce boil, then she would drain them and leave them to steam in their heat, so their new skin cracked open to reveal the snowy soft potato inside. With a good quarter pound of fresh butter to soak into them and the left-over ham, it would be a simple supper and all the more satisfying for it.

Her father was not due home until six at the earliest. He had a meeting with Local Education Board in Ennis. He was determined they should allow his small village school to expand so the local families would not have to send their older children all the way into Ennis for their senior school education. The local farming families backed his plans, and more importantly, so did Father Flynn. So Sean Scanlon was half way there with his campaign. It wasn’t just his ambition to be the Head Master of a bigger school, or the standing that would bring him in the village; his campaign was also a welcome distraction from his loneliness as a widower of twelve years.

Mary didn’t remember her mother; she was so young when she died. And she did love her father, after all there was only the two of them, but she was sick of the hearing the debate about schooling that she herself had finished with, and she was bored at the thought of the long summer holidays lying ahead of her with little to interest her in the sleepy village.  It was the only reason why she had agreed to help out Bridget O’Hanlon who was ‘struggling’ and sure the babies would be fun to play with for a while.

At least she would get paid and could act the lady in Ennis on a Saturday with all the scarves and make up she could buy from Skillen’s. Bridget was an odd one, so quiet and remote; she hardly spoke. It was Bridget’s husband Stephen who did all the talking. He seemed to sense her nervousness. He was so friendly and welcoming.

For the first time she felt as if she was being talked to like she was a grown up and not a school girl. He had even smiled and shaken her hand when they first met; his grip was warm, dry and soft. Not the hand of a farmer at all.

Mary went to her room and flopped heavily onto her bed, pulling out the dog-eared copy of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier from under her pillow.  She longed for the life of beautiful clothes, jewels, glamorous parties and afternoon tea trays creaking under the weight of fairy cakes and chocolate éclairs.  But most of all she longed for the older, richer more knowing Maxim de Winter.  The village boys with their gawky smiles and uncouth ways were but children in her eyes compared to handsome, worldly Maxim.

She let the book drop to her chest and stared out the window, sighing wistfully.

Short story - Humour

Parental guidance required

There are a lot of things they don’t tell you about becoming a parent. Maybe that’s for the better; a collective wisdom passed down through the generations that allows the human race to continue. Because if you really knew what was involved, you wouldn’t have the courage to sign up. And if you had to formally apply for the job, your lack of qualifications and experience would mean you would never get past the first interview anyway.

One of the most terrifying moments of my entire life was as a new mother, with a new baby, walking back into my own house and putting the most precious gift in the world in his clean, new and lovingly assembled cot. He looked up at me and I looked down at him and smiled nervously. And my first thought was ‘God help him, he is completely dependent on me for his very existence.’ And I am pretty sure he was looking up at me thinking ‘God help me, I am completely dependent on her for my very existence, and she ain’t filling me with confidence here, judging by that nervous smile on her face.’

One of the first qualifications you realise you wish you had as a parent, and that you really should have studied for, is that of advanced midwifery specialising in antenatal care. That way you would be licensed and capable of looking after a precious new-born baby whose only hope of survival lies totally in your hands. Because now, without any prior training or qualifications, you need to feed, bathe, love and care for them, as well as get them off to sleep with a confidence that ensures they will sleep soundly and safely for hours and you retain your sanity. I failed at the first hurdle.

I couldn’t even put a vest on my baby for fear I was going to break his arms or dislocate his elbow. I tried a few times, I could only ease the vest gently over his head. Then he would look up at me, with a baby vest bunched around his neck like a gigantic white scarf. And his frank, open gaze could only hold one meaning ‘I really hope you know what you’re doing, and if you don’t get this thing off my neck I’m going to have to start screaming until someone with a bit more sense turns up.’

I would lift one precious little baby arm and try to gently bend and push it through the tiny armhole of the baby vest, but somehow it just wouldn’t bend in the right direction, and I would panic, and he would scream. And there is nothing on this earth designed to reduce you to a sweating heap of fear quicker than the sound of your baby screaming. In the end I just took to wrapping him in extra blankets to make sure he was warm. We both found the whole baby vest thing too stressful and decided to skip it until he was a bit more pliable and lot less delicate.

That’s the thing about parenting, you have basically signed up to some sort of life-long apprenticeship scheme. You get to learn on the job, but the job will never be finished and you don’t get the choice of retiring. This is for life, and there is a lot of learning to do!

And as long as you don’t mess up too much you won’t get the sack. You just have to keep on trying to get better at the job. Except the job keeps changing.

You go from midwife, to sleep expert, to paediatrician to child psychologist to nutritionist to teacher to IT expert, to detective, to teenage behaviourist and so it keeps going until you get to the advanced level, if you ever do.

However, there are loads of benefits to your long-term apprenticeship; not least the job satisfaction that comes with finally getting a baby vest on a four-month-old baby without having a panic attack (you or them!) And through a fug of sleepless nights, weaning, pureeing food only for it to be spat out, teething toys, wobbling, falling, first steps, walking, bumped heads, scraped knees, tantrums and tears, you eventually move to the next big life stage – the first day of school.

And no one tells you how it really feels to be walking with that little hand in yours, that trusting little soul by your side, taking hesitant steps all the way up to the school gates and the new class and the smiling teacher. And here you are, wishing and hoping with your heart and soul that they will have fun and make friends on their first day at school, while also hoping secretly, guiltily that they will be a little upset because they love you so much they don’t want you to leave.

I think I was more nervous than he was. I bravely smiled and held back tears as I waved him off into the classroom on his first day, and felt a mixture of pride and sadness as he marched into the cloakroom without a backward glance. That’s another thing about parenting, it can be very bittersweet sometimes.

So now the real challenge, the mind games, the brinkmanship and power games really kick in when they start school. Because before long, you are in a state of psychological warfare known more commonly as ‘Homework’. And the one piece of homework that really brought out the worst in both of us was spelling. The delaying tactics, the tears, the tantrums, the sulks. And he could be just as bad sometimes.

Then there are the new set of social skills you have to learn and then teach them, a whole new social code around play dates, fall outs, making up and playground rules, and most importantly, teaching right from wrong. And that’s where you are in a whole new landscape.

So there we were one day, walking home from school, sitting down for a snack and talking about his day in this whole other world he is in from 9am to 3pm and for once he is unusually quiet. Time for the amateur psychology skills to kick in.

‘What’s wrong, you look a bit sad. Did you have a good day at school?’

‘Yes, it was ok.’

‘Is there anything wrong, something you want to tell me?’

‘Well…’ He hesitated and broke off, his chubby little face looking up at me with a serious expression. My heart tightened, something was worrying him. What could it be, what happened today that will result in him lying on a psychiatrist couch twenty years from now because his useless mother didn’t know how to help him that day he came home from school. As someone wiser than me once said ‘You don’t know the meaning of the word worry, until you become a parent.’

‘Ok, do you want to tell what’s wrong?’ I gently probed, keeping the panic out of my voice.

‘I learnt a bad word today at school and I know you are going to be cross,’ he said, looking up at me with a worried expression clouding his sweet little face. My heart tightened even more. What was the bad word? What had he learned? And from whom? Oh the loss of innocence, the pain, the letting go. Like I said, you never knew the meaning of the word worry until you become a parent.

‘Ok, so do you want to tell me what the bad word was?’ I asked a bit nervously.

He nodded but then said ‘I don’t want you to be cross so I don’t want to say it out loud.’

‘Ok’, I said. ‘Well, let’s see if we can work this out.’ I was already forming the lecture in my mind, remembering what the Nuns from my school days had said: ‘Profanity is an idle mind trying to sound forceful.’ Hang on, that might not work, he’s five years of age, how would he know what profanity meant?

‘Probably best if we start with how many letters there are in this bad word. Why don’t you tell me that bit first?’ I asked.

He looked thoughtful for a moment and then counted out on his chubby fingers stained from finger painting at school. ‘There are four letters in the bad word,’ he said. My heart sank. I only knew a few bad words with four letters, and they were the really bad words.

‘Oh dear, well maybe now you could tell me what letter the bad word started with?’ I asked nervously.

‘No. You are going to be really cross with me, I know you will.’ He looked really worried, time for me to reassure.

‘I promise I won’t be really cross, I just need to know what the bad word is and then maybe we can talk about why it is wrong to say it.’

‘Are you sure?’ he asked nervously.

‘Yes absolutely. I promise you that, no matter what letter the bad word starts with, I won’t be cross. We just need to sort this out now.’

He looked up at me, obviously weighing up if he could trust me, in the end he decided to chance it. ‘Ok, it’s a bad word, with four letters,’ he repeated.

‘Yes we’ve got that bit, what letter does it start with?’

‘It’s a bad word, with four letters, and the first letter is R.’

He looked at me nervously. I looked back at him with a puzzled expression. That one stumped me. I didn’t know any bad words beginning with R, never mind a four-letter one. Curiosity got the better of me.

‘A bad, word? Four letters, beginning with R? I don’t think I know any – honestly I really don’t think I do. I think you are going to have to tell me the word. Just whisper it in my ear.’ By now I really was keen to learn this one.

This time it was his turn to look intrigued, and a little more confident because he knew something Mummy didn’t know.

His little face leaned over and he cupped his hands round my ear and leant in. ‘Mummy,’ he whispered. ‘The bad word with four letters beginning with the letter R. It’s the word Arse.’

I was stumped. Then shocked. Then I burst out laughing. He was delighted even though he didn’t fully understand the joke.

He wasn’t laughing ten minutes later when I made him write out the word Arse ten times correctly.

If you are going to use bad words, then you should at least know how to spell them correctly was my flawed intellectual stance. That’s probably why it took me so long to work out what ‘WTF’ stood for when he got his first mobile phone and started texting.

Short story - Romance

Love at First Sight

I can remember the first time I met him.

I hadn’t really been looking, I guess that was the irony of it. You’re not even looking for that special someone but that’s when you meet them.  There you were, happy, settled, in a routine and life is good. You don’t feel the need to share your life. You wonder if you really want to rock the boat, or have the energy to invest in a new relationship. Do you really long for someone and for them to want you in return, or feel the need to be needed? Then you hear your friends talk about how happy they are, how much their lives have changed and you think ‘Well maybe I need that too’.

I just remember walking into the room. I didn’t see him straight away but when I looked around I realised his eyes were fixed on mine. He didn’t look away; he wasn’t shy or embarrassed at being caught staring at me.  There were others there too, milling about the room, coming in and out, but somehow it just seemed like there was only him and I there.  He watched me as I walked across the room, I knew it, I could feel it.  And when I turned round to check, there he was, still staring. And then I smiled and he got up and came over to me. And that was it I guess, I fell in love, just like that.

And more importantly, and I suppose this was the real clincher, I felt him fall in love with me. And there is something so wonderful about that beautiful, uncomplicated, devoted love. The fact that he was so handsome, with his soft brown eyes and thick wavy hair was a bonus, but it was his complete love for me that really swept me away.

He was younger than me when we met. He was still living at home with his family, and I used to visit them until we decided the time was right and we took the big step, and he moved in with me. I spent ages getting the house ready, trying to anticipate his every need, buying a new bed, towels, the kind of food he liked, so he would feel happy, welcome and at home. I didn’t want him to feel out of place, or doubt my love or feel that it was too big a step.  My worst fear was that he wouldn’t be happy with me. But that is the anxiety that often accompanies such a deep and compelling love.

So now, here we are, still living together two years later. I love him so much. I never thought it possible but I love him more with every passing day, I feel my heart will burst, and I know he loves me. It is in his every movement, his every gesture, the way he looks at me.  He is so loving and caring, and very protective of me but not in a controlling or suffocating way, only with kindness and concern.

We share a lot of the same interests which helps.  He loves the garden too, and we love long walks in the country, visiting pubs, meeting up with friends or just sitting and cuddling on the sofa.  And the best bit of all is how we know each other so well, we really can read each other minds, we are so attuned to each other.

Sometimes I don’t even have to say anything, I just look at him and smile while putting on my coat and he jumps up immediately from whatever he is doing and races to get his lead. I don’t even need to tell him; he just knows. It’s time for walkies!

Short story - Crime

The runner: part one

He was standing quite still. He was some distance away, but it was definitely him, looking straight at her, and she knew then that he had been following her all the time, watching her.

He must have tracked her as she left the safe house that morning; he had been there all along, watching, waiting for her to make a move. She had changed her whole routine; no meet-ups, no contact, not even a morning run or grabbing a coffee, she had gone into total lockdown.  She was only a few days in, so she still hadn’t worked out a long-term plan, she was just lying low, regrouping. But still he had found her, he had been patiently biding his time, waiting.

She realised he must have been following her as soon as she broke cover. She shouldn’t have left; she had been warned never to leave unless she had her next move planned. Things just hadn’t worked out. But she had thought she was safe, that they didn’t know where to find her.

She had been careful as she left the house, not taking an obvious route, doubling back on herself. She had gone into shops, browsing books, looking at ready meals, reading magazines while all the time scanning the other customers, the street outside, anything out of place, anyone who might be following her. When she thought she was clear she relaxed a little, and walked further along the streets, through the suburbs and towards the city, taking no particular or predictable route, just walking and thinking. Then she saw the park, heard the sound of chatter, laughter, children playing. She impulsively turned around and walked towards the park gates. She saw the groups of people brought out by the sunny weather, some having picnics, some with young children, dogs, friends, families. So many normal, happy people, and she saw safety and maybe a way out. She walked along the pathway that divided the lush parkland and, with an almost imperceptible movement, scanned the faces as she walked past, noting the position of every group.

Then she saw him. Her stride halted for a split second then she walked on, faster, with renewed purpose. She realised then that they had really meant it. She would not be safe until she completed the job, maybe they would never let her go. He had meant for her to see him.

She felt again in her jacket pocket – the syringe was still there, pre-loaded and ready. She held it tight, frightened it might discharge in her pocket, in her thigh, and then it would be over.

She walked through the park purposefully, looking for the exit, knowing he was following. She left through the main gates and crossed the busy road that ran alongside the park, dodging through the slow-moving traffic. She turned right at the junction and down the main avenue, walking amongst the rich tourists and slow shoppers, blending in, unobserved, except by him, until she arrived at the hotel entrance. She had been told that the target would be there, staying all week, and that he would be expecting a visitor.  She reached inside her jacket for the baseball cap and pulled it tightly on her head, then walked through the main entrance and across the lobby with her head tilted down and her hands in her pockets.  She glanced at the reception desk to see if she had been noticed, but they were too busy checking-in a large group of Japanese tourists. She deftly moved around the large crowd and their luggage, heading for the stairs rather than the lift and hoping her presence would appear on as few security cameras as possible.

Once in the stairwell she pulled on gloves and took the stairs two at a time until she arrived at the third floor. She paused.  She was sure she had heard someone in the stairwell below and knew he was still following her.  Moving silently along the corridor she got to room 307 and knocked.

‘Just a minute.’ The man’s voice was cautious. ‘Who is it?’

‘It’s a special delivery, the gift you ordered from Mason,’ she replied calmly, glancing around to check that no one was in the corridor. She felt a sudden surge of adrenaline as she heard the bolt and chain slide back and the heavy hotel door swung open. He looked at her, his hair still damp from the shower, his hotel bathrobe hanging loosely open at his chest. He was older than he had appeared in his photos, unfit, his lifestyle had finally caught up with him. He looked at her quizzically for a second, as if he might recognise her from somewhere. She moved fast, shoving him back into the room with a force that knocked him off balance and kicked the door closed behind her.

He swung a fist to her face but missed; she had anticipated it and stepped deftly to the side. Then in one swift movement she turned and plunged the syringe hard into his chest with practised force, knowing as his eyes widened in shock that she had hit his heart first time. He tried to grab her but she stepped back, just out of reach, and watched him as he gasped in pain, his arms clutched across his chest as he dropped heavily to the floor, his body jerking and fitting, his face contorted in pain. She stood over him for a few seconds longer, just to be sure it was done, before pulling out the syringe and putting it back in her coat pocket.

She turned, opened the door and stepped into the corridor, checking it was clear of any guests or staff before closing it softly behind her. She walked swiftly towards the lift area, opened the door that led to the stairs and ran down them, quickly and silently, exiting into the lobby and walking calmly across the plush carpets and through the milling guests, scanning all the time.

He was sitting in one of the armchairs, reading a paper. He looked up at her and she gave an almost imperceptible nod as she walked through the door. The busy street was filled with shoppers and tourists and she disappeared into the crowd. As she peeled off the gloves and stuffed them into her pocket, her pace quickened. She knew he would be following her. She walked past the first few shops, looking far ahead for the right one, then suddenly turned and disappeared into the entrance of a large department store.  Without stopping, she grabbed a smart dark blue jacket and put it on before taking a summer scarf from another display and wrapping it over her hair. She dropped to her knees, as if to tie a shoelace, and crouched, silently watching the entrance. Then he walked in.

She stayed low as she saw him walk briskly past, feeling his intensity, his focus. Then she got up and walked quickly back to the entrance, flinging the jacket and scarf onto a rail before she left. She started walking faster, weaving among the crowds of shoppers and tourists. She passed a group of well-dressed ladies, talking loudly and animatedly, their expensive jewellery glinting in the sunlight. She bumped into the group and caused one of them to stumble, then smiled her apologies and walked swiftly on. She slipped the expensive Hermes purse into her jacket before going into the next pub she saw and walking into the toilet.  She locked herself in a cubicle, hid the syringe in the toilet cistern and checked the purse. Some high-end credit cards but no chance to use them. There was a wad of notes, enough cash to get her through the next few days.

She left the pub and walked towards the main square, filled with outdoor cafes and tables. At the far end a tour bus was parked up in a side street, waiting for the final members of its cargo of tourists to return. The engine was running, but the driver was pacing around a few feet in front of the bus, checking his watch and puffing furiously on a cigarette.

She smiled confidently at him and jumped on to the coach, taking an empty seat. The last few stragglers arrived apologetically with sheepish smiles, dragging full shopping bags.  The driver stubbed out his cigarette on the cobbles and climbed aboard. The brakes hissed, the bus roared into life and started to pull away.  She slowly let out a breath and sank deep in her seat.  She wasn’t sure if she had lost them, but at least she had bought herself some time to come up with a plan. Her heart sank with the knowledge that she would never be free of them now.

Then the realisation dawned on her; there was only one way out.

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.

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 story - Family saga, Short story - Humour

The day I learnt…

The day I learnt my Mother didn’t care, my Father couldn’t count, but my baby brother could say my name.

It was a hot, lazy summer, full of blue skies, buzzing insects and inertia. That incessant heat, and our listless boredom, meant we spent a lot of time squabbling. And since there were eight children in the family, that was a lot of bored, squabbling kids for my mother to deal with.

So my parents decided we needed a change of scene to break the mood. They agreed to make a weekend of it, which to us was a full summer holiday, and so we were all thrown into the Datsun Sunny estate and headed off to Dublin. The fact that there were ten of us in a car that was a five-seater mattered not a jot in those days. There was no such thing as health and safety, or seatbelts, or even rules about how many children you could put in a car boot for that matter. It was more a case of sit there and shut up. And we did, because my mother was extremely agile, she could deliver a sharp slap on a bare knee without even having to turn around from her luxurious position in the front passenger seat.

After a fun-filled weekend in Dublin, which we spent mainly in the hotel swimming pool, it was time to head home. My parents decided that, rather than drive straight back home on the Sunday, we should visit somewhere on the way. It sounded pretty boring to us but, as it meant delaying the sardine-like trip home in the car, we gave in and agreed to spend some time touring the gardens and stately home of Powerscourt, just outside Dublin.

We all piled out of the car and hurtled off in different directions, with threats of grievous consequences ringing in our ears from Mum and Dad whose constant fear was us breaking something they couldn’t afford to pay for.

But after a while of wandering, I grew bored looking at flowerbeds, so spent most of my time throwing gravel into expensive fountains and counting the willies on the bronze statues of naked Greek men. I got to ten willies before getting bored with that too.

It was a relief when my parents, with the skill of experienced shepherds, started to round us up, count us in and channel us towards the car park and my father’s pride and joy, the bright orange Datsun Sunny estate.

As I was the first one to arrive I stood by the car, hanging onto the car door handle in the gesture which clearly signalled first come, first served, first choice is a window seat. As boredom overcame sibling rivalry, I looked idly around and saw that there was a tiny gift shop nearby. That was when I remembered I still had a ten-pence piece in my pocket, saved and not yet spent.

‘Mummy, can I go to the sweet shop please while we’re waiting?’ I begged. She was distracted, scanning the horizon for the rest of the tribe, while muttering under her breath. She always said they weren’t bad words, they were prayers. From what I could tell, her favourites – Jesus, Mary and St Joseph – always got a mention. So I promised to be quick, and scattered gravel under my feet as I sped off.

I blinked in the gloomy darkness of the shop which was in stark contrast to the bright summer’s day outside and, as my eyes adjusted, I saw some bags of sweets in amongst a dusty display of leather bookmarks, wind-up Virgin Marys and alcoholic-looking leprechauns.

So I grabbed my favourite Tiger Tots sweets, which I knew cost ten pence, and stuffed them into my jeans’ pocket while planning how I could secretly eat them in the car going home without anyone finding out and forcing me to share.

I came out into the bright sunshine and had to blink and cover my eyes from the cloud of gravel dust coming up from some car wheels that sped past. ‘They’re in a hurry,’ I thought. A few seconds later I opened my eyes again and blinked away the dust, just in time to see a bright orange Datsun exiting the main gates at the other side of the park.

‘Well,’ I thought. ‘Dad was right and Mum was wrong. Bright orange must be the new colour for cars, seems there’s a few of them about.”

It was only when I turned back into the now-empty car park that I realised it was our car and my family that I had seen drive out of the gates like a bat out of hell.

A quick stab of panic was quickly replaced by the quiet confidence that, any minute now, they would realise their mistake and come tearing back, full of anxiety and remorse, resulting in a tearful reunion and possibly me even getting to sit up front with Mum. So I sat on a fence where I could see the gates. Ah how my family’s faces would be filled with smiles of relief and hot tears of love on seeing me sitting there and knowing I was safe.

In fact it took them over two hours and a sharp U-turn in Dundalk on their part, with ten sets of the rosary and red eyes cried out of tears on my part, before they did eventually screech back in a spray of gravel.

They didn’t even get out of the car. Just the back door swung open and my Mum shouted to me to get in the car and that I’d already made them late. That’s when I realised I did have a few more tears left.

In between gasping sobs, I managed to stutter out what I thought were the key questions: “W-w-why did it take so l-l-long for you to realise I was l-l-lost? W-w-weren’t you worried? Did nobody notice I wasn’t there?’ I stammered, while smearing hot tears and snot around my face.

‘We didn’t realise you were lost. It was Baby David who noticed, asking where you were. We kept telling him to be quiet and go to sleep,’ came the tart reply from my mother. This resentment was echoed by the rest of the family, who muttered and grumbled darkly about the journey now taking twice as long as it should have.

‘W-w-w-what? You didn’t even notice I was missing? There’s nine of you in the car and only Baby David noticed?’ My relief at being found turned to shocked indignance that only Baby David had missed me.

My heart was broken by their cruel dismissal as I looked around at the disinterested faces turned away from me. Until I looked at Baby David, who smiled his little dimpled smile at me and reached out a chubby hand for his reward – a Tiger Tot sweet. He has always been my favourite ever since.