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Short story – Humour

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 - Humour

The ghost’s story

Dear Mr and Mrs Willis,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short story - Humour

Living with a…

I’ve decided to allot myself a time limit to write this ‘brief’ as all the good articles on creative writing say that’s the best way to operate – and the guaranteed way to avoid writers’ block. And I’m a bit of an enthusiast for methods that work… So that’s what I’m going to do. Complete this in ten minutes…

Right, so the brief for our writing is ‘Living with A…’ – I’ve got loads of good ideas for this theme. I’ll just type the heading nicely first: ‘Living with A…

Hmmm… Not sure I like that font – doesn’t seem to do the subject justice somehow. It’s not too bad in bold – and let’s try it in italics. What would it look like in Times Roman – no, too boring. It’s amazing how many fonts there are these days. Let’s try this one: oh yes! Looks quite kinky in ar darling… ‘AR Darling’ – whoever heard of writing called AR Darling? No, scrap that… Doesn’t look as if I’m taking the subject seriously in that font… I’ll go back to Calibri.

Right… ‘Living with A…’ (in Calibri). Oh lord, the dog’s barking… Suppose I’d better let her out. Come on dog, out we go. The garden’s looking quite nice in the sun – though there are quite a few weeds around after that rain and the grass has gone mad… There, that bed looks much smarter now I’ve taken those weeds out… And the garden looks so much nicer with the lawn mown. Alan Titchmarsh would be proud. And the dog smells wonderful after her bath.

Right back to the brief. Where was I? Oh yes, I’ve done the heading: ‘Living with A…’ (still in Calibri, typing with grass-stained fingers smelling of dog shampoo). All that mowing has made me thirsty. I’ll just get a cup of coffee before I start as caffeine’s good for the brain, not too much caffeine, but the odd couple of cups a day can’t hurt. Shouldn’t have made that water so hot… My tongue’s lost all its feeling. While I wait for the coffee to cool down I’ll just wash up these few breakfast things… There, the kitchen looks so much better now I’ve tidied it, and that Febreze stuff has definitely worked on the curtains. I really do think I prefer the walls in this light shade… Should have painted them long ago… Took a while to get that paint stain off the floor though.

Right… Settle down now… ‘Living with A…’ (in Calibri, typing with Febreze- and dog shampoo-smelling, grass- and paint-stained fingers). Yes I know exactly what I’m going to write – ideas are flowing through my brain like water through a sieve. Ooh sieve – that reminds me. Must take the chicken out of the freezer for dinner. Why would a sieve remind me of dinner? Isn’t it funny how the brain makes random connections?

‘Living with A’ (in Calibri bold and italicised, typing with Febreze- and dog shampoo-smelling, paint- and grass-stained frozen fingers). That freezer took longer to defrost and clean than I thought it would. Never tried typing with numb fingers before. It’s more difficult than one might think. That ice had really built up in the freezer. Surely it wasn’t that long ago since I last did it?

Right – I think that heading looks quite good in Segoe Script – quite artistic. Is that how it’s pronounced – SeeGo? Segooi?

Living with A…’ (in Segoe script)… Oh no, there’s the phone… Just when I was getting in the zone… I’ll ignore it… All those writing articles insist on ignoring distractions – no, can’t do that, it might be important… Too late… They’ve rung off. I’ll just take a peak and see if there’s a message. Yep there is – it’s that lady from the WI… What’s she saying? ‘Could I give my ‘Time Management’ workshop to the Amersham ladies next week? Oh bother it… I’ll have to call her back. I’ll write this ‘Living with a… Procrastination Expert’ tomorrow.

Short story - Humour

Dead funny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s in there?” I asked blankly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Two porters to Mayfair with mortuary trolley.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We took our assigned positions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right ho,” he said. “Off we go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matron James frowned. “In the mortuary trolley?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop knocking that fucking trolley,” Ernie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short story - Humour

Goring Towers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short story - Humour

Eight ounces of flour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Short story - Humour

I hear music

St Francis Hospice Short Story Competition 2013.

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

Dear Mr Adams,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Hornblower (Mrs)