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Short stories on International Women’s Day

Short stories on International Women's Day

How far have we come?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short stories on International Women's Day

My Susan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked so sad…

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

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

Short stories on International Women's Day

The reunion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lucy.”

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

“I’m so sorry I didn’t visit you.”

He was apologising to her!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary doesn’t live here anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short stories on International Women's Day

Flight of fancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short stories on International Women's Day

Snowbound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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