Thomas and the newspaper

BridlewayJust a bit of fun: this story was created in three stages, as responses to writing prompts at thewritepractice.com  – (1) write about a crime, (2) write about money and (3) write about a character experimenting with a new identity. This has no connection with my WIP!

The bell on the door tinkled as Thomas pushed it open. Two boys on the inside, eager to escape with their purchases of sticky sugar, almost pushed him over as they rushed out to the street. No patience, that’s the trouble with youngsters today. No patience and no respect.

He shuffled over to the newspaper section. Piles of each of the national titles stood on a shelf at ankle level. This meant bending over to pick one up, he would have to be careful not to fall over again. He read the headlines and didn’t understand any of them. References to people he’d never heard of, words he didn’t know. Huge pictures of death or flesh that meant nothing.

Still, he had to have his morning paper. He usually bought the Express, but the pile was especially low today, he didn’t think he could reach that far. The Mail would do, and there were more of them, so he picked one up. Now, what else did he want today? There was definitely something else he meant to buy, what might it be?

Thomas tried to remember, and pretty soon had forgotten that he was even supposed to be trying to remember something. This was no good. The nice girl at the drop-in centre had talked to him about this a few days ago; she had tried to give him some tips for managing in situations like this. What had she said?

Oh yes, that was it. Retrace your steps to the beginning. Go back to where you were when the thought first came to you, and see if something comes to mind. He went back towards the door of the shop and stood there for a moment next to the lottery display. It was covered with bright colours and patterns and invitations to win millions. Thomas didn’t understand the lottery, either. He had bought a ticket once, when it was new, but didn’t know what to do with it. The ticket was probably still at home, in the kitchen drawer along with all the other unexplained pieces of paper.

He was standing at the door of the shop, where was he supposed to go now? He looked at the paper in his hand. Ah, yes, that must be it, he’d bought his paper and now it was time to go home. He pulled the handle, the bell tinkled again. Why does it ring when you are leaving, surely it’s only to let them know that someone has just come in?

Thomas had just stepped onto the street when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. “Not so fast, mate. You’ve not paid for that.”

He turned, and saw that it was the shopkeeper, a burly man who didn’t look like he was about to take any prisoners.

“I’m very sorry,” Thomas said. “I didn’t mean to leave without paying, but I forget sometimes…”

“That’s OK, just come inside and we’ll get sorted out, shall we?” The man ushered Thomas back to the counter in the cool of the shop. “Fifty-five pence, please.”

Thomas reached for his purse, which was always in the right pocket of his jacket. His daughter teased him whenever she saw him wearing a jacket and tie even on a hot day like today, but he had standards to maintain and he wasn’t going to let them drop now. Besides, he would feel naked walking down the street without his tie, and a tie without a jacket just looks silly, like some office junior who’s been sent out to buy lunch.

Now, where was he? His hand was in an empty pocket, and for a moment he didn’t know why. Then he saw the expectant face of the shopkeeper, and the hand reaching out for something. Oh, yes, money. There was none in his right pocket, how about the left? He started to tap all of his pockets in turn, but could find nothing of any value.

The shopkeeper lowered his hand.

“Could I bring the money tomorrow?” Thomas asked.

“Sorry, no credit. Not that I don’t trust you personally, but if I let you then off I’d have to let everyone out without paying. Perhaps you could pop home and come back later?”

Thomas’s head dropped. There was no way he was going to manage the journey twice in one day, but he couldn’t argue. He put the paper on the counter, and shuffled back to the door. No news today, then.

A fit young man might have managed the journey home in five or ten minutes. For Thomas, it took thirty, and by the time he reached his front door he was exhausted and hurting. Even his aches had pains of their own.

He fumbled in his pocket for the key and let himself in. Once inside the familiar surroundings of his hallway, he was able to relax for a moment. He rested his hands on the console table, and felt the strength return. It flowed from the very fabric of the house, through the stout solid oak of the table, and along his arms.

Wrinkles smoothed. Pains disappeared. Muscles, long since withered, were reborn. His stooping posture was replaced by an upright position, his chest thrust outward and his biceps rippled.

He was no longer Thomas, the old man at number 72.

He was ElderMan.

The newborn hero reached into the coat cupboard, retrieved his cape and mask, and put them on. He retreated to the small garden at the back of his house, where he could not be overlooked by nosey neighbours, and soared high into the sky, seeking justice and vengeance on behalf of old people everywhere.

First stop was the newsagent.

When Thomas pushed the door open this time, it didn’t so much tinkle as chime with the power of Big Ben. The door smashed into the lottery stand behind it, and two small boys ran for cover. Thomas marched up to the counter, where the man who just a few minutes earlier had refused him fifty-five pence of credit was cowering, wondering whether to reach for the baseball bat that he kept under the till.

“Don’t even think about it,” boomed Thomas. “I can see that bat with my X-Ray vision and it wouldn’t even put a crease in my cape.”

“W-w-what can I do for you, sir?”

“You can stop being so damned rude to your older customers, that’s what you can do. Show them some respect. Next time a regular customer leaves his cash at home, you let him take the paper and pay you the next day. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir, of course, sir, sorry, sir…”

His first mission for the day complete, Thomas returned to the door with a single bound. He listened, carefully, for any signs of distress in the vicinity. What was that? Mrs Tobbs having trouble crossing the road? He leaped over the row of shops opposite and landed in the next street, where the exceedingly frail Mrs Tobbs was indeed stuck.

Thomas was having none of this. He picked her up and, in less than a flash, had her on the other side of the road. “Oh, thank you, thank you,” she said.

Pausing only to rescue Mrs Johnson’s cat from one tree and to retrieve Mr Wall’s hat from the next, Thomas zoomed back to the wood behind his house where he could safely remove his costume without being identified.

Just another day for ElderMan.

In Maputo

dog_0381wHere’s a little piece following a collective challenge from friends in my local writing group: I had to write 250 words to include “five feet tall”, “Interviewing children in Mozambique”, and “Shakespeare – especially Hamlet”

The plane touched down, bounced and eventually settled on the runway. “Welcome to Maputo, where the local time is …” Maria couldn’t focus on the rest, her head was still swimming from the free alcohol. When the seatbelts sign went out, there was a mad scramble as everyone stretched up for their bags and duty free: Maria, as usual, couldn’t reach that high and had to ask the man next to her in the aisle to help.

He smiled and passed her suitcase down to her. “Your first time in Mozambique?” he asked.

Was it that obvious? “Yes,” she said, “just here for a couple of weeks.”

As they navigated immigration, luggage retrieval, and customs together, she shared everything with this handsome stranger. “I’m here to run a Shakespeare project with local students,” she said. He smiled, but said nothing about himself.

He offered to share a taxi into town: it would have seemed rude to refuse. They travelled along the shiny new road from the airport, a black artery of modernity running through a desert of poverty and decay. She saw the hotel from a distance, reaching up into the sky and looking down upon the dilapidation around it.

Her companion spoke to the driver, in a language she did not know. He looked back at them both in his mirror, and nodded. Just before they reached the hotel, the car turned off into a side alley, and stopped: the driver got out.

The rest is silence.

Who’s been eating my dinner?

PondHere’s a little practice I first posted at http://thewritepractice.com/classics-revisited/

It had been another hard day in the woods. Mama and Papa had been shouting at each other a lot, and it makes me very sad when that happens. I’m sure they don’t mean it, but I’m afraid that one of them is going to hit the other a bit harder than they should, and then we would be in big trouble.

We went to the usual places where we might expect to find food, but there wasn’t very much there: the birds had beaten us to all the fresh berries, and Mama had to stop me from grabbing some unusual ones that she said would make me very ill if I ate them.

So, with light starting to fail, we went back to our house. It’s not much, but there is just enough room for the three of us, and we can make it very cosy during the winter. Without having found any fresh food, Mama had to make do with what she could find in the store. I knew this wasn’t good news: the food in the store was intended for when winter meant that there was no food at all, and by having some now we were using up our precious reserves. Papa grumbled, but he knew we had no choice – it was either that, or go hungry.

When Mama had prepared the dinner, she suggested we go for one last scout outside to see if there was anything tasty to be found, perhaps something sweet to have for pudding. So we trudged out, Papa going first to look for danger, then me, then Mama making sure I didn’t get left behind.

I didn’t think we’d been gone all that long, but when we got back we could see straightaway that something wasn’t right. The food, which Mama had carefully set out for us to eat when we returned, had been raided by an intruder. Some of it had just been messed about with, but mine was all gone. I cried when I saw that, but Mama comforted me and said that of course I could have some of hers and Papas. It wasn’t right, though.

We needed to be sure that the intruder wasn’t still around – they might attack us in our sleep, and it would be a dreadful thing to have that happen. Again, Mama tried to tell me that everything would be all right, but I insisted that Papa search the house properly before we did anything else.

The rest of the living area was clear, so we followed Papa into the sleeping quarters. His bed had been disturbed, but there was no-one there. We went to Mama’s bed and that too was not as she had left it. Then we went into the last room, which is where I sleep.

There was the intruder! A little girl, asleep in my bed! She must have heard us coming in, because she woke up and screamed, which I thought was a bit of a cheek considering that she’d broken into our house in the first place.

Of course, the rules of the forest apply in our house just the same as everywhere else, so Papa killed the little girl with one swipe of his paw, and we had a really great dinner instead of that awful porridge.

No Sign of You

Photo of posterI really did see this note: the story is my attempt to explain it.

The one o’clock news had already started when Kathy finally got out of the house, and she ran all the way to the end of Caldicote Lane, about five minutes late. She looked all around, but couldn’t see Helen anywhere. Then a flash of colour caught her eye – bright pink, just at her eye level, on a telegraph pole on the other side of the road: she had to go and see.

It was a piece of art paper, solid colour on one side, white on the other, folded and pinned to the wood. On the face that was showing, beautifully inscribed, there were just a few words in black ink: “No Sign of You.”

There was no name, either of addressee or author, but Kathy knew it was for her, and shivered.

***

It was just after 8.45 when Kathy and Harry arrived at the school gates that morning and entered the playground. Technically, they were late, but today it didn’t seem to matter as the place was filled with parents and children, no-one entering at all.

Kathy went up to the nearest mum that she knew. “What’s going on, Jenny?” she asked. “Why aren’t they going in?”

“Apparently there’s a problem with the boiler or something, we’ve been asked to wait for five minutes while they decide whether they’ll be able to open the school,” her friend said.

Kathy looked around, and saw a face she thought she recognised: a woman, standing on the grass bank well back from everyone else, small boy by her side, both completely still and silent.

There was something about her that made Kathy want to talk, so she wandered over. The woman was wearing a headscarf and dark glasses, even though it was a dull day, and flinched as Kathy moved alongside.

“Helen, is that you? We’ve not spoken for ages, how are you?” Kathy asked, trying to see through the black lenses to the face behind. “It is Helen, isn’t it?”

The woman nodded, but said nothing. Her boy – Jake? – pushed himself closer to his mother’s side, holding on to her hand with both of his.

“Are you all right?” Kathy asked. “Is something the matter?”

Helen nodded, and then shook her head, not sure which of the questions she was answering. Finally she spoke, her soft voice almost lost among the hubbub from the nearby crowd. “I’m OK, thanks. I just need to get home. Do you know what time it is?”

Kathy looked at her watch. “It’s five to, hopefully we’ll be able to go soon, with or without children. Are you working now?”

“No, it’s just that Joe expects me home, he doesn’t like it if I’m late.”

“Well, I’m sure he’ll understand, and it’s only a few minutes, isn’t it? What’s the problem?” Kathy asked. “Anyway, won’t he be at work himself?”

“He works from home now. So I can look after him. But I can’t be late, I mustn’t be late.” Helen was shaking as she said this, and her son responded by hugging even tighter.

“But what will happen if you’re ten minutes late back from school, for heaven’s sake?”

Helen looked down and said nothing. Kathy leaned forward, so she was just inches from her old friend’s face, and could see the little bit of skin peeping around the side of the glasses. Purple and black flesh, silently accusing.

“Oh, Helen, what has happened to you?  Look, why don’t you stay and talk to me, come back to mine for some tea, you can bring Jake if the school is closed – “

“No!”

There was a silence.

“Look, it’s kind of you to offer,” Helen said, “but you don’t understand. I must get back as soon as they let us go from here, I must.”

“Can we talk later?” Kathy asked. “On the phone? Let me give you my mobile number, you give me yours – “

“I don’t have a mobile, I’m not allowed, and you can’t call me at home,” Helen said, pulling Jake even closer to her side so that he almost disappeared in the folds of her long skirt.

“What do you mean, you’re not allowed? What century does he think this is?” Kathy’s suffragette ancestors were starting to spin in their graves. “Surely there’s some time when he’s out, we can at least talk?”

“Well, he goes to the pub at lunchtime, just for an hour. If the school opens then I suppose we could – “

“All right. Why don’t we meet at the end of Caldicote Lane? What’s a good time – one?” Kathy asked.

Helen just had time to nod before there was a kerfuffle as the school doors were opened: the children were being let in. Jake and Harry set off together. As soon as they were safely inside, Helen turned to go. “OK, one o’clock, but promise you won’t be late? I really can’t be there for long.”

“One o’clock, I promise,” Kathy said. “Shall I walk back with you now?”

“No, he’ll be watching, he won’t like it if he sees me talking to anyone. Just go, I’ll see you later, OK?” And with that, Helen was gone, half walking, half running down the street towards her home.

***

Kathy looked at her watch again: ten past one. The pink note fluttered in the wind, its author whisked away by an unseen hand.

Unless they’d moved, she knew where Helen and Joe’s house was, Harry had been there enough times when they were smaller. She walked off in that direction, still not sure what she was doing or why. As she turned the last corner, she could see a pickup truck parked at a crazy angle across their driveway and front lawn, the passenger door left wide open.

Kathy drew level with the house: should she intervene? Would it make matters worse? Helen had begged her not to interfere, who was she to pass judgement on another person’s life? The momentum of her steps kept her moving forward, on past the house, all the time looking straight forward, as if afraid of what she might see if she allowed her gaze to wander.

Behind, she thought she heard a scream.

She turned around.

Memories are Made of This

221-Memorial-SWJane arrived early at the restaurant, and selected a table where she would have a good view of the entrance: she wanted to make sure that she saw Lizzie first, and didn’t want there to be any mistakes or confusion.

As she had expected, Lizzie was late: about ten minutes after one, she rolled up at the greeter’s desk, shopping bags in hand. Older, and possibly a little more substantially built than when they’d last met, but she’d have recognised that hair anywhere. “Frizzy Lizzie”, she’d been, and still was.

“Over here,” Jane called, waving and half-standing in the way that you do when you’re trapped behind a cast iron table that refuses to move. Lizzie waved back and came over to join her.

Initial greetings over, they got down to the serious business of catching up on over twenty years apart. Yes, Lizzie was married, two teenagers at home. No, Jane wasn’t any more, it hadn’t worked out, fortunately there were no kids.

“All those years gone by,” Lizzie said with a sigh. “Whatever happened to them?”

“Do you remember,” Jane said, sitting forward, “those dreadful English lessons with, what was her name, Miss Cartwright?”

“Miss Carter, I think, but yes, those ridiculous essays she made us write, and the way she made us laugh with her silly stories,” Lizzie said.

Jane frowned: “I don’t remember laughing very much, her jokes were just stupid. But you’re right, it was Carter, didn’t we call her ‘Miss Farter’?”

“You know, I think we did, aren’t teenagers dreadful? And what about that gorgeous Physics teacher, Mr Johnson? Didn’t we all have such a crush on him? I remember, one day, gazing into the distance while he was trying to demonstrate something, daydreaming about lying on a golden beach with him in a thoroughly indecent way, when he woke me up by asking me to explain what he’d been on about! I got into such a mess, I’m sure it put me off science for life.”

“I remember him,” Jane said, “he was a real creep. Kept looking at us like he was trying to undress us in his head, didn’t he get into trouble for messing about with one of the other girls, Millie or someone?”

“I’m not sure about that, I think Millie had a big thing for him and made something out of nothing,” Lizzie said.

At this point they were diverted by the arrival of their food and the rituals that occur between waiter and waitee, and they both took a moment to lose themselves in their plates.

It was Jane that surfaced first. “While I was waiting for you, I was trying to remember exactly when it was that we last met. Can you think when that was?”

Lizzie chewed on a piece of chicken for a moment, took a drink, and looked at her friend. “Do you really not remember?”

“I’m not sure. Was it a party or something?”

“We were at the pub,” Lizzie said. “A whole bunch of us, back from Uni for the Easter holiday. The King’s Head, it was then, I think it’s a Starbucks now.”

Jane screwed up her face, trying to bring back the image. “So who would have been there, then? Jo, Millie, Steve, Mike and Annie, Phil?”

“Not Millie, no, she’d moved away by then. But yes to the others, plus Ed, of course.”

“Oh, God, yes, I remember now. Ed was really nice, I fancied him something rotten, but he never took the hint,” Jane said. “Hang on a minute, wasn’t that the night that you got into some sort of trouble?”

“You could say that,” Lizzie said. “There were some squaddies in the other bar who got a bit above themselves when I went to the ladies. Ed had to come and rescue me, it all got a bit out of hand.”

Jane was still struggling to recall the details. “Now wait a minute, it’s coming back to me. That was the evening when I made a big play for Ed, and he just went off and left me, never came back. Didn’t even have the grace to say no, he just chickened out and disappeared. I was pretty miffed, I think. Bloody men, all the same – one sniff of a relationship and they’re off.”

Lizzie smiled. “You really didn’t get it, did you? He hadn’t run out on you, he was busy rescuing me. By the time we’d got it all sorted out, you’d pushed off and he thought he’d misread the signs from you. What made you go like that?”

“I don’t really remember, to be honest,” Jane said. “But I think it might have been that I was pissed off because he abandoned me while he did his knight-in-shining-armour thing for you. That’s been pretty much my experience of men – before and since.”

“He did try to get in touch with you, though. Didn’t you want to talk to him?” Lizzie asked.

“Maybe, but if some bloke had come pestering me after running off like that, I would probably have told him to get lost. You can’t trust them, you really can’t. Anyway, how come you know all this?” Jane asked.

“He was pretty cut up about it, missing out on you like that, especially when you wouldn’t return his calls. He blamed me for a while, then he blamed himself, then he finally got round to blaming the squaddies.”

“And then?”

“You can ask him yourself, he’ll be here in a minute,” Lizzie said.

Jane looked blank. “You mean…”

“That’s right,” Lizzie said with a grin, displaying the rings on her left hand.

PTDD

This is a piece of micro-fiction I wrote recently, just a bit of fun really. It has no connection with my Work in Progress!

Lisa put the finishing touches to her makeup, and fetched the beautiful new red dress. She slipped it over her head, wriggled carefully into place, and stood in front of the mirror to make the final adjustments, straightening lacy straps and smoothing silky wrinkles.

There was an impatient toot from the taxi outside. She took a cream pashmina to keep her shoulders warm, and the bag and shoes that she had bought that morning. “Gorgeous,” she thought, making one last check in the hallway mirror, and hoped that Peter would agree. She went outside and closed the door behind her.

Approaching the theatre, the taxi slowed to a crawl: there was an obstruction, no-one was moving. After several minutes of little progress, she saw the lights of their destination fifty yards ahead, and a knot of cars and taxis gnarled up in the street outside.

The cabbie turned to face Lisa: “Sorry, love, this might be as close as I can get. Are you ok to walk from here?”

She paid the fare, and stepped between parked cars onto the pavement, outside a building that was being renovated. Scaffolding reached far up into the night, and the wind whistled through the alleyway formed by builder’s boards.

High above her head, there were signs the workmen had left in a hurry. A pile of unused bricks, a bucket of water, a loose scaffolding pole.

There was a sudden gust of wind: the pole slipped onto the bricks, the bricks hit the bucket, and the bucket crashed to the level below. Here its descent was halted, but the water continued, a great gobbet of filthy slime that fell towards the ground. And Lisa.

She screamed, a howl of anguish that was heard all the way down the street at the theatre. Peter, who had just arrived, thought there was something familiar in that dreadful wail, and rushed to investigate.

And then he saw her: Lisa, the ruined red dress, and the tears that were beginning to carve a path through the mud that covered her face.

“My dear,” he said. “I see the problem.”

“You’re suffering from Post Traumatic Dress Disorder.”