Just a Point
Kent waved the letter at his wife. “It’s the valuation.” He ripped it open. Rupert watched carefully.
“You can’t be thinking of selling it.” Alison said. “It’s been in your family for generations.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “And you know painting is haunted. Look what happened last time it was sent for cleaning.” Rupert nodded. At least someone else was paying attention.
“Those sort of accidents are normal for a house of this age.” Kent looked uneasily over his shoulder. “And we have to face reality. We are in a Grade I listed English Stately Home with a leaking roof. We can’t just get any old tiles from the local builder’s yard and get the cheapest quote plus scaffolding. Did you see how much the only firm I could track down wanted? We need the money.”
“Do you want to sell it?” Alison asked as Kent pulled the letter out of it’s rich, cream envelope.
Kent shrugged. “No, I don’t. It’s part of the place, I was fascinated by the old man in the picture as a child. But sentiment won’t patch the roof.” He absently straightened out the letter. “I wish we didn’t have to.” He straightened his shoulders. “And if I’m not getting a good enough offer, I’m keeping it. There are grants, after all.”
Jenkins stuck his head round the door. “It’s Soames about his business proposition. He’s in the study, sir.”
Rupert waited until Kent and Alison had left the room and inspected the letter. He concentrated. Kent would certainly sell for £350,000 but while the figure was flattering, he could not let the portrait go. It took some work to manipulate it but by the time Kent got back the offer was £35,000, take it or leave it. The old ghost knew that Kent would never settle for that. The portrait would be safe for now. Rupert tapped his ghostly finger on the polished mantle. Now how could he help with this business idea?
Originally posted February 3rd 2014
“I’m sorry, darling.” Darren smiled nervously at me. “But it is only twice a year, and it is only from Thursday to Tuesday.”
I took a deep breath. “Of course, I know. Your mother and I don’t see eye to eye, but that’s okay. She’s your mother and we both love you. That’s why I’ve got the day off to get the house all set up for her.”
Darren winced. “I’ll pick her up from the airport. I’ll pick up a takeaway on my way back.”
“Absolutely not.” I said firmly. “I’ll make a lovely casserole and that way it doesn’t matter if you are a little late.”
“Thank you, darling, I do appreciate it.” Darren gave me a quick kiss and hurried off to work.
Pamela, my mother-in-law, did only visit twice a year, the first weekend after the Christmas break and the first weekend in July. It was some awful ritual where a demon was unleashed twice a year. They could make a Nicholas Cage movie out of it. As for the takeaway, I was not falling for that again. Four years ago I had made the mistake of allowing Darren to pick up a pizza on the way back. For the last four years I had been hearing about how a proper wife made her husband meals, no matter what the circumstances.
I slouched into the kitchen. I had never felt less like being a domestic goddess. It was all so humiliating. I was far too particular, according to my friends, and wasted far too much time cleaning. According to Pamela, I was a slattern. Every inch of this house would be scrutinised. Last time I thought I had her. There was no dust on the top of the kitchen cupboards and the walls had been washed down. I had put brand new bedding on her bed and I had dusted behind every stick of furniture. I had had the oven professionally cleaned and steamed the carpets. The old witch had actually taken the drawers out of her dresser and found dust on the inside of the frame. She had been so smug, sitting opposite me in my kitchen, eating my food which I had cooked, while Darren sat between us, twitching.
I looked around my lovely, clean kitchen. Not only would she go over the room like a forensic detective but she would also sigh and complain that it looked too bare. “It’s a shame you don’t have any knickknacks around,” she had said last time. “Of course, not everyone has a flair for decorating. Perhaps it is just as well that you haven’t tried.” She had smiled a wide, fake smile and patted my arm. “I’ll bring you some nice things next time I come. Then you won’t have to worry about getting it wrong.”
The old trout had great taste – for 1972! I knew that she would have a suitcase full of cheap tat when she turned up, and that it would have to be in the same place she left it when she returned six months later – and she would know if the plastic grot had been moved an inch. I swear the old bat had a photographic memory.
I threw together a boeuf bourguignon and put it on slow. I’d already taken out every removable drawer in the house and cleaned behind them. All the carpets, curtains and rugs had been steamed last week. Not only was the bedding in her room new but so were the curtains. I’d cleaned all the lampshades yesterday and dusted all the lightbulbs. I sighed and started to pull out the fridge. Then I paused.
Why was I playing her game? Why was I running round in circles trying to get her to like me when nothing short of a sharp blow to the head would ever make her accept the woman who stole away her baby boy? I’d been doing it wrong for years. If she ran out of things to check I swear she would pull up the floorboards. Okay, if she wanted something different, she could have something different.
By the time Darren’s car pulled into the drive I was finished. I ached with the efforts, and I had had to get a few friends to help out. It had been entirely worth it. I looked around as I heard Darren carefully reversing into the garage. The kitchen was smeared with jam and I had done my best to give a greasy feel by spraying the wall with the oil spray I used in cooking. I had found some kitchen curtains in a skip which were now drooping at the window. I had gone to every friend and neighbour and scrounged the contents of their vacuum cleaners. After some trial I found that a light mist of water helped the dust of a dozen homes cling to walls, sink and bath. I had put a mouse trap at the back of her dresser, just where it would get her if she checked, and I put the contents of four dryer filters under her bed.
The trip to the charity shop had been the most fun. The house was awash with ‘accents’. Our house was now a temple to the worse taste that ever landed on an Oxfam donation table. There was plastic everywhere. I had also got some extremely washed bedding from the charity shop and begged some curtains for Pamela’s room that they were going to send to the rag man and rubbed damp instant coffee granules along the edges for an added artistic touch. I had had fun, and so had my friends. Everyone had got photos.
I turned round as Darren unlocked the door. “Darling, my mother’s plane has been delayed and she has decided not to come until the Christmas break after all…” He stopped as he walked in to the kitchen. There was a long pause. “Darling, would you like a drink?”
Originally posted May 15th 2016
Not as it Seems
Jeff kept his professional smile as he showed the couple around the car dealership.
“It’s a very reasonable price,” he said. The Ford Fusion gleamed. “Very low mileage and we include a full service before delivery.”
India’s lips were pressed together so hard that you couldn’t see her lipstick. “I don’t see why I have to pay out for that kid.”
“Sweetheart, it’s my godson. He’s seventeen, he has a hobby…”
“He’s a spoiled brat.” She turned back to Jeff. “The kid is just going to take it to pieces. He hasn’t even got his licence yet…”
“He’s got his test booked…” Jason said helplessly, taking a swift mouthful out of a small flask as India turned back to Jeff.
India hadn’t noticed the flask. “I have to scrape by and make do, but when it comes to the kid he can’t say no.”
“His name’s Oliver.” Jason muttered.
India shrugged then turned to Jeff. “Honestly, something a little cheaper.”
“He should have been called Nancy.” Jason mumbled.
“Oliver can see it as a project. What have you got that needs work?”
“I wouldn’t let them call him Bill.” Jason managed another crafty mouthful from the flask.
“You’re making less sense than usual.” India looked at Jeff. “Anything?”
Jeff smiled. “Between you and me, there’s one vehicle we weren’t thinking of selling at this moment,”he said with absolute truth. It was booked for the scrapyard. “It’s a fixer upper, but at a very good price.”
“What do you mean?” India followed Jeff to where the wrecks were stored.
“It’s a nice little car.” Jeff waved a hand at the wreck in front of them. “Once it’s done up it could be quite desirable. Is the lad handy?”
“He’s a good lad.” Jason said quietly. “Good with his hands. I was thinking of taking him on as an apprentice.”
Jeff watched India’s hands clench into fists and then slowly unclench. Then her shoulders slumped. She nodded. “We’ll take it.”
“Why don’t you look it over while I sort out the paperwork.” Jeff didn’t like leaving people alone, but today was an exception. “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
Jason slumped against the Toyota, shielding India as she knelt next to the wheel arch and quickly felt inside. She looked up. “Keep talking to cover me,” she whispered.
“She could have called him Sikes,” Jason said, his voice getting a little louder. “She never called him after me.”
“Hang on.” The woman struggled a little then nodded. “I’ve got it.” She pulled out a small, tightly wrapped package. “Okay, let’s stage the argument and get out of here.”
Jeff was shuffling the paperwork on the when he heard them shouting.
“What do you mean, he’s your son?” India yelled. “I can’t believe it. After all these years!” She stormed over to their car and threw herself into the driver’s seat.
“Sweetheart…” Jason scrambled into the passenger side as the car rattled out of the yard and screeched around the corner onto the main road.
Jeff shrugged. He may have lost a sale, but at least he didn’t have a headache.
Originally published June 5th 2017
“I miss him.” Geoff said, looking around the hall.
“So do I, but I hate admitting it.” Stephanie took off her Chanel coat and hesitated for a moment before hanging it on the peg next to Uncle Jeremiah’s dusty jacket. “He never approved of me.”
“Or me.” Geoff took off his own faded jacket. He thought it was quite a spectrum as he hung his jacket up next to his wife’s fuchsia model. Uncle Jeremiah’s old jacket was probably older than most vintage cars. Stephanie’s up to the minute coat was probably worth more than most vintage cars and was absolutely right for a top flight barrister. His own humble raincoat was not as old as Uncle Jeremiah’s but was far more battered and had been bought only with practicality in mind.
“I looked over the will. It’s not worth contesting, but what was his solicitor thinking?” Stephanie ran a finger over a dusty table and shuddered. “I mean, the house is signed over to us, all the bank accounts are closed and the estate is considered settled. But there is still around a million pounds unaccounted for.”
“It’s not unaccounted for, according to Colin.” Geoff had not had a good opinion of the solicitor. “It’s hidden in the house.”
“To be precise, the whereabouts is hidden in this house.” Stephanie sighed and got out her phone. I suppose I had better start making a list.”
“What do you mean?” Geoff opened the door into the sitting room and wandered in.
“Well, a list of what we need to do.” Stephanie followed him, automatically straightening some sagging cushions. “It all needs a deep clean and we should probably redecorate. This is a beautifully sized room with a great view of the garden and we could strip out all these bookcases and go for something more minimalist.” Stephanie trailed off as she checked the side table and adjusted an ornament on the mantelpiece.
“It wouldn’t be the same.” Geoff said. He stood motionless in the centre of the room, an older, greying man with a nondescript sweater and faded jeans as his curated, blonde wife darted around the room, unable to stay still.
Stephanie paused. “No, it wouldn’t. I can’t imagine it changing. It would be like losing another member of the family.”
“It needs a good clean,” Geoff said, “And perhaps a lick of paint, but I can’t imagine it ever changing. There has always been a sofa at that angle, so that you can watch the birds in the apple tree outside.”
Stephanie tested the sofa with a cautious hand. “Do you know how hard it is to get hold of a decent upholsterer these days? But it’s sound.” She checked the small bookcase in the corner. “I mean, I can imagine replacing the sofa but putting the new one in the same place. I can imagine different books in the bookcase, but I there always has to be a bookcase here.” She sat down suddenly. “I wish we had seen more of Uncle Jeremiah in the last few years.”
“My nerves couldn’t stand it.” Geoff said, sitting next to her and taking her hand. “He would be arguing that you should be at home in the house and why wasn’t I in the London office. You would be arguing that he was an old fossil and when was he going to get out of the nineteenth century. He would be complaining about how much you spent on handbags and you would be complaining that he hadn’t replaced his wreck of a car. It would be murder.”
“He didn’t understand us.” Stephanie looked around. “But he was always there.”
“I know, my dear.” Geoff said. “The problem was, he was always there with an argument. And then your career took off and I was busy with the kids. There was never the time.”
“At least you called him.” Stephanie’s thin fingers clung to Geoff’s sturdy hand.
“I rang for a listen at least twice a week.” Geoff agreed and smiled. “Come on, let’s look around. According to Colin, we need to have a grave insight.”
Stephanie snorted. “I suppose we need to look out for stone crosses.”
“That would fit Uncle Jeremiah’s sense of humour.” Geoff helped his wife up and they wandered back into the hall.
It was hard, going from room to room. Every room had a ghost of an argument and a swathe of happy memories. The study was the hardest. It seemed to have become Uncle Jeremiah’s living space, with a tray for his meals sat on a table near the door with a salt cellar perched in the corner. Photographs were everywhere you looked.
“Look, do you remember this?” Stephanie picked up a picture. “It was the summer after we married.”
Geoff looked over her shoulder. They looked so young in their dated clothing, sprawled on the unkempt lawn at the back and filled with joy. “I remember. We had the most amazing time. We had most of our meals in the garden, played cards for matchsticks every night and you and he had a ding dong battle about the Children’s Act.”
Stephanie shrugged and put down the picture, wiping her dusty fingers on a tissue as she wandered around the room. “Geoff, come and have a look at this.”
Geoff followed her to a dim corner. “That’s a lovely picture, and it’s full of graves. Perhaps it’s a clue.”
Stephanie looked hard at the painting. It looked nineteenth century, with dark, small leaved trees and sprawling shadows. Graves framed the path to a ruined church and it pulled you in to its sombre centre. “If Uncle Jeremiah was here, we would be having an argument right now about Romanticism versus Classicism and I would be quoting Byron and he would be talking about Tchaikovsky.” She swallowed a lump in her throat.
Geoff leant forward. “I bet this is the clue. This tells us where the money has been stashed.”
“I suppose so.” Stephanie straightened the picture. “It’s got graves on it. Perhaps we need to count them or something.”
“At least it doesn’t refer to his grave.” Geoff said, his head to one side as he studied the picture. “He was cremated and his ashes scatted at sea.”
“He said he was going to do that so I couldn’t dance on his grave.” Stephanie took a deep breath. Hardened barristers did not cry.
Geoff frowned. “It’s not a very good clue. I mean, shouldn’t it have a map or a motto or something?”
“You are a genius with numbers, my darling, but you never worked out how Uncle Jeremiah’s mind worked. The grave is a red herring.” Stephanie lifted the picture down. It was surprisingly light and left dust marks across the sleeves of her silk blouse. “He would never give us a plain clue.” She turned the painting over. On the back was a small key and a nondescript envelope taped to the corner. She laid the picture face down on the desk and picked at the tape holding the key as Geoff worked the envelope free.
“It’s numbers.” Geoff said, spreading out the slip of paper.
Stephanie wasn’t paying full attention. The key was small but well made. She looked around the room and the large, mahogany desk had keyholes in its drawers. She found which lock the key fitted on the third attempt.
“At least, it’s numbers but I don’t think it’s about the numbers.” Geoff said.
Stephanie turned the key in the oiled lock and pulled open the drawer. It held a handbag, a beautiful, Hermes Birkin bag, in her favourite fuchsia pink. She picked it up and stroked the immaculate surface. The clasp moved easily under her fingers and nestled inside the perfect lining was a note addressed to her in Uncle Jeremiah’s spiky handwriting.
“It’s a bank account number. I’m pretty sure it’s international.” Geoff said but Stephanie wasn’t paying attention. She unfolded the note.
Dearest Stephanie, Over the years I’ve come to appreciate more and more that while you may not be my idea of a good wife, you are perfect for Geoff and an asset to the legal profession. Please forgive an old man his mistakes. And don’t go spending all the money on handbags. This one should be enough. Jx
Behind her, Geoff was checking his phone. “It’s a Swiss account. We’ve found the money. Stephanie, we’ve found the money!” But she couldn’t answer. All she could do was choke back the tears as she hugged the bag.
I am defined by coffee.
So long ago as I rushed back from college and whirled into the kitchen before whirling out again I scooped the instant granules and boiled the kettle and added a slurp of milk from the fridge as I shocked my mother with my latest stories.
Then it was the cafetiere, feeling sophisticated as I took my one treat, the slowly savoured french blend, mild roast with warmed milk as my darlings napped.
I remembered how grown up I felt, sitting at the dinner parties, discussing the different pods to the machines and lacing my frothed cup with brandy to keep me numb.
I got the fancy machine and stack of pods in the divorce, but I threw them out. Now I look down at my solitary cup, custom roast and slow dripped, encased in elegant china and wonder what I am defining.
Sometimes You Lose
I tried everything, using every trick in the book. He never saw me cross or demanding and I was always, always attentive. I made him the centre of my universe in the stolen moments he could get away.
I lived for those moments, when he kept one eye on the clock and one foot on the floor as we snatched some tenderness. He brought me perfume and a gold chain that I wear always.
I never faltered. I kept myself just for him, curled up on the comfy sofa with the soft cushions, desperate for the rushed phone call or hurried text. Why would I go out when everything else was ashen compared to his vital passion?
Then she found out and he chose. I heard him telling her how little I meant to him as he dashed off back to the perfect wife. He left me behind with his spare razor and a coat and hat he forgot in the rush. I keep them hanging near the door and sometimes I spray them with his cologne. He is still the centre of my world, and I am empty without him, but there is nothing I can do. Because sometimes you lose.
I Never Knew Her Name
I never knew her name.
Retirement hit hard. For the first three months I don’t think I moved far beyond my flat. I wasn’t completely cut off. I would do my little bit of shopping, speak to my daughter, speak to my daughter-in-law and sometimes I would call in at the local community centre coffee mornings, but mostly I stayed in.
Thank goodness, after three months of slowly settling into place, I decided I was not going to come to a stop. I started with a morning walk. I would wait until the school run had finished and then I would walk the five minutes to my local park, half an hour around the paths, and then sit and overlook the small lake while I drank a flask of coffee. And that’s when I met her.
She looked the same age as me and had the same air of striving to find a purpose. I saw her every morning, and after a week or so I smiled in recognition, and she smiled back. We were two old ladies sitting in the park, and we recognised the fight against drifting slowly into the sunset.
A smile grew into a timid, ‘Good morning,’ and then a comment on the weather, and a little chat about the day, and suddenly we were friends.
It was only ever that half an hour, between 9.45am and 10.15am, that we met. I brought enough coffee for two and she brought biscuits. We talked about our children, and their partners. Her son was finding being a parent hard. I talked about my worries over my daughter-in-law’s job. She told me about her volunteer work at the library and I shared jokes about my time helping in a charity shop. Then we would dust the crumbs off and set off in different directions to go back to our lives, a little energised and encouraged by that touch of contact with someone who understood.
We managed to meet up in all sorts of weather. If it was raining she brought a huge golf umbrella that we wedged between us and I had an old picnic blanket to put on the damp bench. We used the umbrella for shade if it was too hot and I brought iced coffee. I brought back sweets from my holiday to pass on to her grandson and she gave me cuttings from her scented geranium that flourished on my windowsill.
But we never exchanged names. That would have been ‘odd’. We had talked about the weather and stray chitchat for so long without names that it would almost be bad manners to ask about names now. I knew her son-in-law’s name, and the place where her daughter worked, but not her name. And she knew where my daughter lived and my grandson’s school, but no name. It was an unspoken taboo. After so long, how could we bring it up now?
Then she stopped coming. I was worried, of course, but what could I do? I didn’t have a name or a telephone number. It would be intrusive to try call her son-in-law or ask those regular dog walkers that greeted her every morning as we sat and talked. One week turned into two weeks, and then it was a month. I started bringing my own biscuits to have with my coffee. But I didn’t dare miss a day in case my friend, my dear friend, suddenly was able to make it one more time.
Then, after too many weeks, one of the dog walkers stopped as she walked passed. “It’s so sad about Gwen, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“Gwen,” he said, gesturing at the empty space beside me on the bench. “It was so sudden, and the family are devastated. I didn’t see you at the funeral?”
I withdrew a little at the small but definite hook for gossip. “I’m afraid I didn’t know.” A cold wave ran through me. “What happened?”
“A heart attack in her sleep, they said. It was very peaceful.” The dog walker leaned over me. “Are you okay?”
“It’s just a shock.” I said. “I’m glad it was peaceful.”
“Would you like me to take you home?” The dog walker said, tugging her dog back to her.
“No, I’m fine.” I said, lying, my hands trembling as I clutched my plastic cup of coffee.
“It’s no trouble at all.” The dog walker said firmly. “Come on, let’s get moving. I’m Rachel, by the way, and this mutt is Bruno.”
I managed a smile at the beautiful dog. “He’s very handsome.” I said, as Rachel helped me to my feet. “I’m Sarah.”
“He’s a bit of a mix.” Rachel said, and chatted about nothing as she guided me home and made sure I was safe in a chair with a fresh coffee. “And I hope I see you tomorrow on that bench. And if you bring the coffee, I’ll bring the biscuits.”
Rachel is a good friend now, and I have her name, and her phone number and I am always glad to dog sit, but I still miss Gwen. Gwen understood. Funnily enough, I didn’t know her name, but I knew her birthday, after all our conversations. So today, after Rachel has left with Bruno, I can leave some flowers for my friend, with a name on the card, before I go home to the quiet.
Jessica looked at me. “You know about plants.” She thrust her phone at me. “What is this? I need to get it now!”
I looked. “I think it’s a butterfly palm. It’s a nice plant. Why are you getting a plant. Plants die just by looking at you.” I had know Jessica for years and she is the only person I knew who could kill a spider plant. She could kill anything green. She always swore that lettuce wilted faster around her.
“But my mother is coming to visit.” Jessica said. “And last time she was here, she gave me this plant.”
Mrs Ford, Jessica’s mum, was an avid gardener. She even wrote the gardening column in the church magazine. “So what happened to the plant. It looks pretty healthy and it must have been hard even for you to kill.”
Jessica winced. “I hate plants. Mum was always so obsessed over them and knew all their Latin names and everything. It put me off them for life. As soon as she was on the train back, I took it to a charity shop.”
I looked at the luxuriant plant in the picture. “Next time donate it to me. That looks beautiful, and they can be expensive.”
“What am I going to do?” Jessica said. “Mum is bound to ask questions.” Her shoulders slumped. “I feel such a disappointment.”
“She’s not disappointed in you.” I said firmly. “You two just have different skills. You know how she always gets you to check the bills and she can never cope with numbers.” Jessica stayed downcast. I gave her a quick hug. “I’ll take you shopping for plants tomorrow. We’ll pick up a nice butterfly palm, put it in a dark corner and keep her distracted with your knitting.” Mrs Ford loved Jessica’s knitting.
The next morning I was regretting my offer. Jessica was hopeless around plants. “This one looks great,” I said, picking it up.
“Hang on,” Jessica said. “We can’t get one too healthy or mum will suspect something.”
“How about this?” I found I sad specimen in the corner, heavily marked down.
“Mum would have a fit if she thought I had neglected her plant so much. You know what she’s like – they’re her babies.”
“What about this?” I picked up a slightly wilted one from near the heating duct.”
“Mmmm” Jessica was undecided. “Do you think it is the right size? I mean, it’s a little bigger than the picture.”
“Your mum was last here six months ago.” I said. “You always visit her, remember. The plant should have grown.”
Jessica looked the plant over, turning it this way and that. “It looks too nice to take to my house.” She ran a finger over the leaves.
“Which is why you are giving me that plant as soon as your mum is on the train and I’ll keep it safe for you. You can even tell your mum that I asked for it.” I said. “Come on, let’s pay for this and get it home. Your mum will be here in an hour.”
Jessica picked her mum up at the station while I finished the finishing touches on Jessica’s flat. It was a bright, sunny afternoon but the unsparing sunshine couldn’t find a speck of dust or scrap of lint anywhere. I made the coffee and put out some biscuits as I heard Jessica’s car draw up outside.
Mrs Ford came in and gave me a warm smile and a hug. “Mandy, it’s good to see you again. How are you doing? Still with Dan?”
“Dan who?” I grinned. “I’ll get you a coffee Mrs Ford.”
“Hmm, let me see, was it Kai? Or Jude? Or wasn’t there a Jason?” Mrs Ford teased as she slipped out of her jacket and looked around the room. She spotted the plant and walked over to pick it up. “That is a beautiful plant.”
Jessica rushed over as her mother expertly checked the dryness of the soil. “I bet you didn’t think I could keep a house plant alive all this time, but I did. I think I’ve done okay, actually. I call her ‘Gertie'”
“Jessica, I love you dearly, but I do wish you wouldn’t panic and fib.” Mrs Ford sighed. “I gave you a house plant last time because I thought the room looked bare without something green, but I know you very well.” She shook a sorrowful head at her daughter. “The plant I left with you was artificial.”
Today was the day. I would open the new notebook and write the first page of my novel. I wouldn’t put it off for another moment.
I carefully set out my desk. There was the large cup of coffee next to the notebook, the supportive chair and the scented candle in the background. Now, which pencil should I start with? The HB pencil looked too prosaic but the softer pencil smudged. I looked through the pencils. Perhaps I could try the purple one – I got it as part of a set at Christmas and I had never really used it. I tested it on a scrap of paper, but it was far too scratchy. The scented one felt sticky and the glitter pencil kept breaking. The phone rang.
“Hello, I’m Adam and I’m calling from Windows Support Services. Our information shows that you have a virus on your computer…”
“I haven’t got a computer,” I lied as I quickly flicked over the tabs open on my laptop. “I won’t allow a computer in my house. They are all possessed by demons.”
I glanced up at the clock. It was already 10.30 and the morning was almost over. I grabbed my favourite pencil. Right, where to start. I took a mouthful of coffee. It was cold. How could I write a world-shattering novel with cold coffee? I put the kettle on. I should be having one of those fancy coffees in a small cup instead of supermarket instant. What sort of writer has instant coffee? I opened the cupboard, then remembered I’d just used the last of the jar. I looked at the clock again. I had to start my novel. I had been trying and trying and now I had the perfect notebook and a great pencil and I just needed a cup of coffee before the morning was over. I got a new jar out of the cupboard under the stairs and made myself a coffee and then sat down at my desk.
It was just after 11am and I had to get started. I took a breath. ‘It was the first caress of summer…’ I picked up my pencil and then stopped. Should I try, ‘It started last summer…’ Or how about, ‘Summer was always the start of things…’ Did that last one make sense? I was desperate to write this novel. It was nagging at me like a hangnail and now I had the perfect notebook, the perfect pencil and a hot cup of coffee. I couldn’t let anything else stop me. There was a knock on the door.
I raged all the way to the door. Why today? Why now? How could I be interrupted like this? I flung open the door with a dramatic flourish.
It was Lucy. Her face was pale and her eyes red. She flinched. “I’m sorry if I’ve come at a bad time, I can come back later…”
“He’s left you again, hasn’t he?” I asked. She nodded. I held the door wide for her. “Come on in and I’ll make you a coffee. I’m not doing anything important.”
This is my response to this week’s writing challenge
“Thanks again, Lynne.” I took the notes and handed over the bags of loose change. “You’re a life saver.”
“It helps me out as well.” Lynne said. “We have to pay to get change from the bank now.”
I hurried out of the corner shop and managed to hand over the money for the school trip as the school bus approached the stop. “Don’t leave it to the last minute next time!” I snapped, knowing that whatever I said would have no effect. Teenagers seemed to have selective hearing.
I went back inside and sat at my desk. I had a stack of emails building up and in fifteen minutes the phone would start ringing. However, first things first. I pulled over my only two indulgences – good quality writing paper and a nice fountain pen. I pushed aside the cheap ball point I used for work and started writing.
I laid it out beautifully. I used my finest copperplate script to inscribe my address, date and her name. It was an old fashioned usage, but it was elegant and stylish and continuing in the finest copperplate I poured out my fury. That thanks to her adultery I had to scrabble for pennies in the bottom of bags and pockets. That thanks to her selfishness I had to scrape and budget for the basics, like school bags and their haircuts. That I skipped my own necessities and once again had padded to the corner shop in shoes with holes in because all my money went on the kids that her adultery had left struggling in a broken home. It should never have been like this, but because of her selfishness, my kids suffered.
Then I let the ink dry as I addressed the letter to my errant wife. I used the calligraphy she had always adored, that she insisted should be used on all birthday cards and present tags, with exactly the right flourish. Then I folded the letter, slid it into the envelope and sealed it. I took a few deep breaths and then threw it into the drawer where the other letters lay in a drift. Now I could turn my attention to work.
Reading the Label
My grandmother’s funeral was three years ago, but I still missed her. We were very close. Mum and dad had been caught up in their careers and while that meant I went home to a lovely, large house with every comfort, I spent more time with Gran.
Gran was as driven as my parents. You did not dawdle around or dither. You decided what you wanted to happen and then went out and happened. She had given up work the week before my mother was born, and was soon on every school board and committee in the area. As a result, she knew everyone, she knew their parents and she knew what they had been up to behind the supermarket. She was a force of nature.
And that is how I came to spend most of my Saturday mornings at The Grange. It had been the old vicarage, and the last vicar to use the big house had bequeathed his collections to the parish as an educational facility. For a few years it had taken off. People donated fossils and relics found on travels. There were unnaturally posed stuffed animals donated by a bankrupt taxidermist. A few Roman coins, an alleged Neolithic axe and a selection of postcards filled up other cases.
But now The Grange was closing amidst council cuts and restructuring, and the donors were being contacted to claim the dusty contents before the council disposed of the leavings.
Gran had donated the pieces of Goss china inadvertently won at the Dutch auction in aid of the local donkey sanctuary, only at the suggestion of the curator. Poor Vicky did her best, and she was trying to get a china exhibit together to fit around the miscellaneous donations. I remembered Gran writing the labels as she commented with acid precision on ‘museum quality’ china and cheap knickknacks and why someone styling themselves a curator should know the difference. I had been around five years old and I perched on the chair next to her, swinging my legs, as she wrote label after label in her immaculate copperplate for fake Spode, dubious Wedgewood and what she dismissed as cheap fairings.
The back room had a forlorn look. “You’ve come for your Grandmother’s donation?” Vicky managed a tired smile.
“Sort of.” I said. “You know what Gran was like.”
Vicky’s eyes flashed for a moment with the shell-shocked gaze of someone who had tried to manage Gran. “I remember. Anyway, here’s your little cache.”
For a moment my throat closed over as a wave of longing for my Gran. She would have organised this a lot better, I thought, and would have had a lot to say. I swallowed, managed a smile, and rummaged in my bag. “I know what she would have wanted.” I said, my voice husky, and snipped off the labels. Blinking back tears, I hurried out of there, clutching the labels and leaving the china behind.
That Old Chestnut
“Look what I got!” Phil walked in with a large paper bag in his hands. “Chestnuts.”
“Why?” Mica asked.
“What do you mean, why?” Phil said. “It’s autumn, it’s October. We can roast chestnuts on an open fire and tell fortunes from how they roast.”
“We haven’t got an open fire.” Mica said. “We’ve got gas.”
Phil frowned. “I’m not sure how you can tell the future from a chestnut. I’ll just check.” He got out his phone.
“I suppose we could try the frying pan.” Mica said. “I’ll have a look.”
“I’m not getting anything about telling the future with chestnuts.” Phil said, sitting down at the kitchen table and flicking through his phone.
“The frying pan looks a bit scary.” Mica said, flicking through her phone. “Do they taste nice?”
“What?” Phil asked.
“Chestnuts. Do they taste nice?”
“I don’t know.” Phil said, still checking his phone. “Apparently you can roast them in the microwave, but I can’t see how that would help.”
“You can’t tell the future from a microwave.” Mica said. “Not unless you’ve left the tuna in the tin. Then you can tell that you will need a new microwave.”
Phil looked embarassed. “It’s the sort of mistake anyone could make.” He said. “But I’m sure I heard about chestnuts and Halloween.”
“There’s a nice recipe here for soup.” Mica said. “I’ve got everything else in. We could try that.”
“It’s not quite the same as fortune telling by an open fire.” Phil said.
“We still don’t have an open fire.” Mica said. “But we can have nice soup by the gas fire and then some wine and a film.” She smiled. “We can have candles.”
Phil looked at his wife and smiled. “It will do.” He said, and gave her a hug. “Candles it is. We can make our own traditions.”
A Little Push
“It was a stupid idea to hold a séance.” Jan said.
“You didn’t have a better idea.” Izzy said.
“Just keep the circle together.” Rhys frowned as he concentrated. “Auntie Vivienne, are you there?”
I watched from the corner. Did they have any idea how tough it was for a spirit to communicate? A lot of my ideas about ghosts had undergone a change since I died, and I was ready to admit defeat. But my nieces and nephew had always been dear to me.
“I don’t know what you are expecting.” Jan said. “She left a fortune to us as it was. It seems a little greedy to go looking for more.”
I had always had a soft spot for Jan. She was always so determined to do the right thing. I never understood why she tolerated an old reprobate like me, but she had always been very sweet, especially when I was dying.”
“I just get a feeling that she wanted us to have something else.” Izzy said. “And we’ve all had those phone calls asking about Auntie Viv’s legacy.”
Izzy always had her wits about her. She would make sure no-one took advantage of Jan, and she wouldn’t let Jan’s scruples get in the way, either.
“Will you all shut up!” Rhys snapped.
And Rhys, youngest and brightest. He always had a very clear view of his end goal and ignored distractions. His engineering firm could do with an injection of cash. I focused and pushed.
Rhys visibly jumped. “What was that?”
“It came from the cupboard.” Jan said. “It could be a mouse.”
“We have to look.” Izzy nervously pulled her hands away from her brother and sister and went to the built-in cupboard in the corner. She swallowed and then opened the door. “The back of the cupboard has fallen off.” She opened the door wider. “Hang on, there’s something… Pass me my phone.”
Jan passed Izzy the phone, the torch already switched on, and peered over her shoulder. “Rhys, you need to see this. It’s a false back.”
Rhys squeezed past his sisters. “Auntie Viv kept this a hiding place – for these?” He picked up the rolls of film. “I don’t even know where we could get them developed.” He said.
Somewhere discreet, I hoped. There was the roll with the pictures of the upright, no-nonsense cabinet minister, who revelled in her role as a respectable wife and mother, being outrageously chastised by a lady. Then there were the pictures of the accounts of a church leader who ought to have known better than to siphon off so much from the building fund. And there were some very sweet pictures of them when they were kids, and Auntie Viv could always be relied on for sweeties and fun fairs, mixed in with the senior judge with his shady mistress. Good memories, blackmail material and insurance. It was up to them now. I could rest.
A Special Home
Jenny really missed Granny. She pulled up outside the cottage and her five year old car looked shiny and new against Granny’s overgrown home and garden. In the grey, November light, it all looked so faded.
Jenny pulled out the keys and went around to the porch. It needed painting, but the hardest thing was the locked door. It had never been locked when Granny was alive. The paint may have been peeling a little as Granny faded, but there had always been a fire in the stove in the kitchen, and tea in the pot, and if Granny knew you were coming she would have baked scones, soft and fluffy and full of sultanas.
The lock was stiff, but Jenny managed to turn it and go into the cold kitchen. She’d been in a few times to air the place out, but it wasn’t the same. The crocheted throw on the little nursing chair that had been Granny’s favourite was damp and grey with dust. The curtains sagged and cobwebs straggled around the window frames.
Jenny took a breath. It was hers now, to the utter fury of her stepmother. Granny had pottered along, seemingly ageless, until she had a fall, which took her to hospital, and she had never come out. After the funeral, Jenny was shocked to find that Granny had owned a lot more than the cottage and had been quietly collecting rents on the fields around for many years. There was plenty of money for renovations and updates, though Jenny kept that away from her stepmother.
Granny had told her, before she fell into her final sleep, “You need to do it up, my girl. Get some new curtains, and that sofa has had its day. I daresay the stove will do a bit longer, but the bed is on its last legs and the carpets are almost threads. You get what you want, love, but be careful in the garden.”
Jenny paused by the window. Damp was speckling at the corners and the panes were cold to touch. The garden had been Granny’s pride and joy. Jenny had spent many happy, sunlit hours alongside her as they weeded, planted, pruned, pricked out and harvested. They had pulled caterpillars off the cabbages and fed them to Granny’s hens, placed pots of mint among the tomatoes and sage between the cabbages and sprayed soapy water over the aphids. In the rambling, purposeful garden, only one spot stayed immune from Granny. “You leave that bit alone, my girl.” Granny had warned. “Never touch it, never prune it. That’s the heart of the garden and it minds itself.”
Jenny had been fascinated by the small stand of hazel and wild rose near the gate, mingling with overgrown hawthorn from the hedge and quite impenetrable. She had never gone near it, though. It had been important to Granny, and, besides, Jenny had always been so busy. There had been the hens to feed, the garden to tend, the stove to clean, firewood and coal to stack up, cakes to bake, and, best of all, sitting in the shade of the garden, with Granny, listening to her stories while they knitted. Sometimes Granny would tell stories of years ago, like when the old lord had a manor here and he lost a bet with the local smith and had to pay a wagon of hay to every farmer. Sometimes it would be gossip about Him Down the Road and what he said at the Post Office and who had punched him for it. Sometimes it would be stories of fairies and goblins and why it was a good thing to have the swathes of honeysuckle that tumbled over the wall in heaped drifts.
Jenny was shaken out of her memories by a car pulling up. It was large, black and shiny and the man who got out was unfamiliar. He was slim, slightly balding and his cold eyes had an unnerving air of assurance. She made sure she had her phone with her as she went out onto the porch.
“Miss Smith? I’m Richard Simpson. I believe you refused our offer for the cottage and the land surrounding.”
“I don’t want to sell.” Jenny said quietly.
“May I come in?” Richard asked.
Jenny shook her head. “I don’t want to waste your time.”
A flicker of irritation crossed Richard’s face. “This is not a place for a young girl.” He said. “It needs thousands spending on the house to make it up to code. You do know that I could call in inspectors to check whether everything is as it should be, don’t you? I daresay that place hasn’t had its wiring checked since…”
“It’s fine.” Jenny said.
“And if there are issues with drainage, or the correct licensing on the fields, you could find yourself with extremely large fines.” Richard waved his hands towards the Thompson farm. “And you would be responsible for anything amiss on your tenants’ land.”
Jenny was fairly sure that the Thompsons were up to no good. They were always up to no good, and Granny had warned her never to ask questions as long as they paid their rent on time. “I’m sure it’s all under control.”
“Right now we have a very reasonable offer on the table, but it’s reducing all the time, and, in the end, it may not cover all the fines that may be pinned on you.” Richard smiled. “Why don’t I come inside and we can discuss things reasonably.” He looked around. “It may have all your memories but keeping a place like this takes a lot more work than you would believe, and it would be a shame to see it all fall apart. The memories would be there, but then you would have the memories of the garden being overgrown or the house falling down and draining the little money you have.” He would have patted Jenny’s shoulder paternally but she flinched back. “Why don’t we just talk?”
“Please leave.” Jenny said, hating how her voice sounded small and frightened.
Richard shook his head. “If you feel this nervous about a respectable businessman visiting in broad daylight, imagine how you would feel when it’s dark and there is an unexpected knock on the door. It could be tricky for a young girl out here on her own. Have you really thought this through?”
Jenny swallowed. “I think…” Her voice cracked and she tried to clear it. She had to be assertive. There was no-one else around.
There was a rustle from the hazel trees and a young man strode out. His dark hair was tousled and unkempt and the rough trousers with the collarless shirt and waistcoat looked out of place, but his clear grey eyes were sparking fire and he strode up to Richard without hesitation. “The lady said you should leave. So leave now.”
“I don’t know who you are, but this young woman and I…”
“She’s a lady. And she told you to leave. Last warning, you heed my words!”
“This is my business, not yours.” Richard said.
The stranger grabbed Richard by the front of his expensive shirt and stared hard into his eyes. “I can see all your little secrets, all your dark places, all your fears.” He grinned wickedly. “Which should I release first?” He let go and Richard stumbled back.
Jenny watched, horrified, as all the colour drained from Richard’s face. He shook his head. “I paid them off. It’s all over. No-one knows.”
The stranger stepped forward. “I know. And I could keep it my little secret, or I could tell the world. What do you think? Are you going to leave like the lady asked?”
They watched as Richard jumped into his car, spun around and raced up the track, swaying wildly.
The stranger looked at Jenny. “You can call me Rob.” He grinned. “It’s not my name, but it will do. Your Granny told us about you. She said you’d take over and look after us.” He looked around the little patch. “We owe her. She found a few of us in a poacher’s trap made of iron and she set us free, without asking anything for it.”
“She always had a kind heart.” Jenny smiled sadly. “And she would never ask anything for helping someone.”
“So we owe her, and we promised we would look after her and hers.” Rob said. “As long as you stay kind.”
Jenny remembered all the stories Granny told her. “I’ll stay away from your home.” She said. “And I’ll let you know the news, and if I’m making changes.”
Rob had a devilish smile. “Your Granny said you would have to do a lot of building if you were going to stay. We won’t interfere too much. And if you’re planning on staying, you’ll want to settle down.” He nodded to a farm worker coming up from Holly Farm to see what the car was about. “He should do you pretty well. And don’t forget – keep the honeysuckle.” And he laughed, walking backwards towards the hazel, until suddenly he was part of it, fading and twisting, and then he was gone.
“Seriously, just stay there.” Ben glared at his wife.
Helen looked shifty. “It’s driving me nuts.”
“You cannot come in and rearrange the pictures.” Ben said. “We hardly ever visit Aunt Violet, the least we can do is be good company.”
“Those pictures make my eyeballs itch.” Helen said.
“She’ll be back in a second.” Ben said. “She’s just nipped out to get your favourite brand of tea. She’s an old woman. Let her have her way.”
“But they’re not straight!”
“It doesn’t matter. Look out the window instead.”
“Have you seen the state of that garden?” Helen said. “She can afford a gardener, I’m sure.”
“We don’t know that she has any money.” Ben said. “She’s my aunt, not yours, and for all I know she hasn’t a spare penny. But she was really kind to me when I was a kid.”
Helen fidgeted on the dusty sofa for a moment. “Perhaps I could come over a couple of times a week and do the garden. I remember it being really nice.”
Ben looked out of the window at the weedy flowerbeds. “She’d like the company.”
“And I could give her a hand with the pictures.” Helen said.
“Will you forget about the pictures.” Ben snapped. “It’s not doing you any harm.”
“But they aren’t straight!” Helen wailed. “I can’t bear it.” She jumped up and adjusted the dull print at the bottom.
The picture swung a little on its cord and settled straight for a second. Then, in front of Ben and Helen’s appalled stare, the picture sagged and pulled the nail right out of the plaster. As the picture fell, glass and frame shattering on the wooden boards left bare by the antique carpet square, the dry plaster behind the picture hook cracked and gave. Slowly, like snow sliding from a steep roof, shard after shard of the plaster fell, in widening sections, bringing down the pictures with it. As the dust settled gently over the remains, the coving at the top sagged.
“No,” Ben said, shaking his head. “No!”
With inexorable slowness, the plaster coving pulled away from the wall and slid majestically down, crashing into the furniture as it fell.
Helen looked at what had once looked like an antique drum table but now looked like kindling and the cut flowers that had been placed on it strewn among the wreckage of the glass vase. “I think I’ll give Aunt Violet a hand with the house over the next few weeks.” She winced as another chunk of plaster slid down the wall. “Or as long as it takes.”
Ben shook his head. “The whole house probably needs replastering and redecorating, and goodness knows what else.” He turned to his wife. “But I suppose you can make sure that the pictures are straight then!”
This is my happy cupboard. Well, it’s not really a cupboard, more a corner of a shelf in a cupboard, but it’s mine, and it makes me happy and I’ll take that.
It’s not always easy. We all have times when it feels like you are barely catching your breath before the next big thing hits. Sometimes it’s excitement, like the bustle getting ready for Christmas. Sometimes it’s not so exciting, when you are frantically running around hospital visiting and trying to keep it all going. Sometimes you are just numb as you plan a funeral and sorted the loved one’s last belongings.
I hold on to my happy cupboard. This small packet is lemon and ginger tea. I remember first trying it at college as I tried to be a rebel. Of course, half the cafeteria was drinking herbal teas, just to be different from their parents, but that wasn’t the point. I drank it without any sweetener and thought myself alternative.
This packet is the brand of tea I discovered in my second year at college. It’s Irish Breakfast tea and an obscure stall on the market was the only place that sold it. It brewed dark, and strong and kept me awake through the hours of studying. It reminds me of the friends I had there and the good times – and sometimes it even reminds me of the facts I painfully learned.
This is green tea. I bought when I started work. I was trying to balance insane hours with healthy living. Switching brands felt like I was doing something when I was just adding a few pennies onto my grocery bill as a patch over too much fast food and alcohol. It always reminds me of the time the boss found what we had put in what he thought was his secret whiskey drawer.
They all have memories. This is camomile tea which I drank on my first holiday to France and I fell in love with my husband. This is a small tub of spicy chai tea bags, the same sort we drank during the caravan holiday on the East Coast where we couldn’t get warm and my husband proposed, blurting it all out after leaving the ring at home. This is peppermint tea which was all I could manage to drink when I was pregnant with my darling son – it was the only dratted liquid I could keep down. And this is a small box of loose Earl Grey because it reminds me of the first cup of proper tea I drank while I watched my newborn son sleep through his first morning.
This packet of tea in my hands, though, is a deliberate choice. Tomorrow is my son’s first day of school. I have everything laid out already, with the forms completed and the uniform ironed and named. And as I rush through tomorrow morning, I will have a cup of jasmine tea and make another memory for my happy cupboard.
“I can’t find my book.” Stella pulled up the cushions on the sofa.
“We’ve been through this before.” Tim said. “The therapist said you don’t need the book. Just take a breath and carry on.”
“I need my book!” Stella snapped. “I’m lost without it.”
“We’ve discussed this.” Tim said. “You can manage fine. It’s just your obsession getting out of hand.”
“But what am I going to do without my notebook?” Stella stood up and turned on the spot, searching frantically for a sign of the plain blue notebook.
“What do you need it for right now?” Tim said.
“What am I supposed to be doing?” Stella checked behind the clock on the mantelpiece, but still no notebook.
“The therapist told me that I wasn’t supposed to help you, but think about it. It’s six in the evening. Shouldn’t we start making dinner?”
“I’m the cook.” Stella said firmly. “You never cut the carrots right.”
Tim sighed. “So why don’t you look for the book after dinner?”
“What am I making?” Stella opened the drawer in the coffee table and started rummaging frantically.
“It’s on the whiteboard in the kitchen.” Tim said. “So I know what to pick up when I’m shopping?”
“I hate it when you shop.” Stella grumbled, pulling the drawer entirely out and tipping it over. She scrabbled through the contents piled high on the carpet, but still found nothing.
“You have to let go of all this nonsense.” Tim said. “It’s affecting Chloe.”
“How am I supposed to know what she needs for school. She has exams coming up.”
“It’s in her planner and on the school website, and, if you really want to do the best for Chloe, you can ask her. She needs to learn to do things for herself.” Tim knelt next to Stella and started putting the stuff back in the drawer.
“She’s only fifteen.” Stella struggled to put the drawer back in. “That’s far too young. And what about the phone numbers?”
“You back your phone up to the cloud every evening before bed and we have an address book on the shelf by the front door.” Tim stood in front of Stella. “Stop.”
“But what about dinner tomorrow? How about when I need to sort out the MOT? I can’t remember when I need to wash the windows!”
“Remember what the therapist said.” Tim caught Stella’s hands. “We need to do the breathing exercises. Okay, breathe in through your nose…” He watched Stella’s expression change and all colour drain from her face. “Stella, what’s the matter.” He followed her appalled gaze and turned around to look out of the window. He felt the weight of the oncoming breakdown settle heavily on his shoulders.
“Do you see that?” Stella swayed but resisted as Tim tried to guide her into a chair.
“It will be fine.” Tim said, hoping he was right as he looked back at his daughter standing defiantly in the garden next to the firepit where Stella’s notebook was brightly burning.
“I’ve come to collect my inheritance.” Rhys said. He looked at his cousin coldly. “Our grandfather deliberately left me something in his will.”
“Yes, Grandad left you something so you couldn’t contest it.” Sarah said. “He knew what you were like, and how you took all that money from Gran.”
“Our grandmother may have been generous, but I did nothing wrong.” Rhys said. “So, where is it?”
Sarah sighed. “I knew you would be here, even before the funeral.” She glared at her cousin. “Don’t bother coming to the service. Everyone has had enough of your drama, and if you never bothered with Grandad alive, I don’t see why you should bother with him dead.”
“I wouldn’t like to upset anyone at a difficult time.” Rhys said. “Now, the scrapbook.”
“I knew you would want it as soon as Grandad died.” Sarah said. “You should really wait for the will to go through probate, but Grandad talked about it with me and mum, and we all thought you should have it straight away.” Sarah walked into the living room but came back into the hall before her cousin could follow her. “Here you are.”
Rhys took the bag from her and carefully pulled out the bulging scrapbook. The battered cardboard book was stuffed with cuttings and prints, overflowing and expanding, with strips dangling like tendrils from the faded covers. He slowly opened the book. “You know this is very precious to me. It contains a lot of memories.”
“You were always very precise in your speech.” Sarah said. “Please, just go now. We are all mourning here.”
Rhys flicked through a few prints slipped between the pages and paused at a poem clipped long ago from a newspaper. “It appears to be all here.”
“Sign this.” Sarah said. She held out a formal letter on solicitor’s notepaper.
Rhys read through the letter slowly. “It says I have examined the scrapbook and accept it.” He shrugged. “Do you have a pen?”
Sarah picked a pen up from the hall table and handed it to him.
“There you are.” Rhys handed the paper back to her.
“Can I have the pen back as well, please.” Sarah held out her hand.
Rhys reluctantly handed back the pen. “I don’t suppose we will meet again.”
“I don’t think so.” Sarah said. She watched him turn and walk out of the house. As he reached the small gate, she called after him. “Just so you know, Grandad noticed that you had swapped the print in the scrapbook for the original. He swapped it back the week before he died. But at least he left you something.” And she closed the door firmly.
Ned grabbed the envelope, tipped out the special offers and opened the envelope fully, spreading it out on the dining table. “Chloe, have you got a pen?”
“What sort of pen?” Chloe stuck her head out of the kitchen. “I’m in the middle of making dinner.”
“Just a pen – one that writes.” Ned grabbed that morning’s newspaper.
“The cupboard on your left, top drawer on the right.” Chloe said. “No, your other left. I’m not coming in there. My hands are covered in onion.”
Ned pulled out the drawer and grunted. “Is this what you spend my money on?”
“My money, I think, until you find a job.” Chloe shouted from the kitchen. “I’m making curry.”
Ned looked at the neatly arranged drawer with small trays separating the pens and pencils, all lined up with the stack of pretty notebooks. “What a waste of time.”
“You’re the one who wanted a pen.” Chloe shouted.
Ned ignored the chopping from the other room, grabbed a plain black biro and sat down again with the envelope and the newspaper. The trick was to pick the angle. “Chloe, have you got a ruler?”
“Second drawer down.” Chloe called from the kitchen.
Ned got back up and checked. “I can’t believe you have all this stuff. You can’t need it all.” He looked down at the layers of protractors, rulers and set squares.
“You are the one who needs a ruler right now.” Chloe said. “It’s my quilting stuff. Anyway, I don’t need a ruler to cook dinner.” Ned pretended not to hear her muttered, “Just some peace and quiet.”
Ned sat back down. Monday was the day when the deliveries were made to the bank opposite the museum. There was a huge van, full of guards and security, which made them comfortable parking right against the CCTV that covered the side door into the museum. There was always so much coming and going that slipping in unnoticed would be a breeze. Ever since he had found that they were working on some rare Iron Age finds in the prep room, including gold arm rings, and that it was stashed with some immaculate and very valuable Roman coins, he knew that if he could just get in there unnoticed, he could grab the gear, stuff it in his pockets and slip out with a nice little nest egg. If it was going to be any time, though, it had to be this week as they were moving the finds down to London by Friday. He sat down and laboured with the ruler, his memory of the street, the picture in the paper and the dregs of his maths teacher’s lessons. “I might be going into town tomorrow.”
“That’ll be nice.” Chloe stuck her head back into the dining room. “Do you want rice or chips with the curry. Anyway, at least it will be easy to park.”
“It’s never easy to park in town.” Ned said. “I was thinking of parking outside and walking in.”
“No, there’ll be loads of space.” Chloe said. “It’s a bank holiday tomorrow. Everywhere will be shut, except places like the museum, of course. I’ll make chips.” She dived back into the kitchen.
“It can’t be a bank holiday!” Ned said. “How do you know it’s a bank holiday?”
“It’s in the diary, third drawer down.” Chloe called from the kitchen. “But don’t tell me, I shouldn’t waste my time checking it” She laughed and Ned could hear her clattering the pans.
Ned pulled out the diary. He needed another plan, and this time he need to check it all.
“I really don’t know about this.” I said. “I know I always bake for work events, and no-one ever complains, but this is going to be judged.”
Anna looked at me and shook her head.
“Yes, I know Nicki from accounts judges everything, but she’s been okay with everything I’ve brought in.”
Anna looked at the display of cakes in front of her.
“Nicki is always going to be nice to me because I sort out her printer for her.” I followed Anna’s gaze. “This is a village show, and it’s going to be judged by people who don’t know me. They all look a little…” I trailed off. “They look a little pathetic.”
Anna looked up at me in shock.
“They are nothing like you the ones you see in supermarkets. To be honest, I’m not sure what half of them are supposed to look like.”
Anna looked at the carefully crafted selection on the tray between us and then back up at me. She took a breath as she looked at my shelf of cookbooks, searching for words.
“Illustrations don’t count.” I said. “And I don’t even know who will be judging. They asked the vicar, but she couldn’t make it.”
Anna was studying the old fashioned seed cake but looked up, surprised.
“I know. I thought it was part of a vicar’s job to judge shows, but she has a Christening and two funerals.” I thought about what sort of day that meant. “Perhaps I should take some cakes round to cheer her up. I’ve loads left over. These are all the best ones.”
Anna looked over to the kitchen counter. I jumped to my feet.
“Sorry, I meant to get it earlier. Here’s a box for you and the men.” I brought back a large Tupperware cake box. “It should keep them going for a while. And this is for you.”
Anna’s face lit up as I handed over the small box of delicate macarons. They had turned out better than I had expected and it was great to give something to Anna. She had been there for me through thick and thin, and it was the least I could do.
“Don’t share these with the lads.” I said. I looked down at the assortment between us. The macarons were the stars of the selection, but the dainty coffee cakes and piped eclairs were also looking good. “Are you sure that it’s worth me entering?”
Anna sighed and shook her head as she took a delicate bite from a pink macaron. I watched bliss spread across her face.
“You’re not just saying that because you’re my friend, are you?” I asked anxiously. I caught Anna taking a surreptitious glance at the kitchen clock. I followed her gaze. “You’re going to be late!”
Anna crammed the last of the macaron into her mouth, scooped up her boxes, and raced for the door.
“Are you sure I should enter the show?” I shouted after her.
Anna turned around, her mouth full of macaron, and pointed firmly at the cakes on the table before dashing out of the door.
I looked at my cakes, took a deep breath and started packing them ready to take them down to the Village Hall, reassured by my friend. Good old Anna, she always knew exactly what to say.
I flicked through the vintage knitting patterns, but nothing really caught my eye. The junk shop in the corner of the neglected market hall was overflowing with trash and treasure and it was hard to sort the good from the bad in the dim and dusty light.
“I have some lovely ivory knitting needles.” The owner loomed out of the shadows. “They are quite rare these days, but I am lucky enough to have some in stock.”
I reluctantly took the needles he pushed into my hand. They were obviously plastic, with seam marks from the moulds still evident. “I don’t feel comfortable with ivory.” I said, with perfect truth, handing them back.
“I have a lot of vintage needlework items.” The elderly man shuffled around the heaped table and nearer to me. “There are some lovely things, you know, it’s a shame to part with them sometimes. You don’t get the craftsmanship these days.”
I struggled to keep my mouth shut. I had just come from a craft fair where the stalls could easily beat the ragged tat on offer here. “There are some beautiful things.” I murmured tactfully.
“How much for this print?” Ed asked.
I love my husband deeply, but he does have a habit of buying stuff. So far he had been lucky and had turned a profit with his car boot finds, more or less, but my heart sank at the thought of what he could find here. “We don’t need any more art.”
“That’s more than art, you know.” The owner shuffled towards my husband. “There’s a story about that.”
“Really?” Ed settled down to listen and I resigned myself to another picture on the wall.
“Oh yes, it’s quite a rare print, you see, but the value is in what the picture shows.” The owner leaned into Ed with a conspiratorial air. “The story goes that Prince Leopold, the one who was the son of Queen Victoria of blessed memory, well he gave the engraver a beautiful, solid gold chess set. But when the engraver sadly passed away, it was nowhere to be found and in his last will and testament he said that the set would go to the one who could find it. This print could be worth a lot more than I’m charging to anyone who can solve the clues.”
I tuned out of the rest of the conversation, ignoring references to Freemasonry and the Illuminati, and picked up an exquisite Tonbridgeware needle case that had been caught between two skeins of dusty yarn. Ed, of course, left with the print.
“Do you think it’s worth a lot more?” I asked as we strolled back to the car. “I mean, do you think you will be able to work out the clues?”
“They aren’t even clues, just details in the picture.” Ed couldn’t stop grinning. “But I’m pretty sure that I just picked up an original David Roberts print in a contemporary mother of pearl frame – worth thousands – for fifty quid. I think you could say that I found treasure.”
“Excuse me, I’m here to see Ms Carruthers.”
I looked up at the young lad holding a flower arrangement and almost vibrating with nerves. “I’m…”
“Sorry, I should give you my name. I’m Tom.” He smiled at me, humour showing despite his nerves. “I’m here for the job interview, and I’m a little bit early.” He looked around. “Have you sent many in to her?”
“No, that is…”
“The agency said that she didn’t ask for many candidates, so I should have a good chance.” Tom took a breath. “I’m sorry, I can’t stop talking. It’s nerves. Where should I put the flowers for her?”
“You could leave them here,” I managed to insert a few words. “But…”
“It would look better if I took them in, wouldn’t it, though?” Tom said thoughtfully. “Is she nice? I mean, have you been her secretary long?”
I struggled to find the right words. “I’m not her secretary, I’m…”
Tom blushed. “I’m so sorry. I know these are hired offices. Mum said it was cheap hiring an office for a few hours, but dad said it made sense rather than trekking all the way out to the main warehouse. But we live close enough so I could walk there if I got the job. It must be fun seeing all the different businesses come and go.” He looked around the well appointed foyer. “What is she like? I’ve only really found stuff about the business. But I saw a piece where she said she wasn’t fond of roses, so I got her these.” He placed the arrangement carefully on the reception desk. “But all the branding is pink, so I guess she likes pink. At least for the brand.”
“Pink is a lovely colour,” I said, “And the thing is…”
“I’ve checked the branding all across the different fronts.” Tom said. “It’s brilliant the way that it keeps the same palette and font but has subtle differences.” He looked a little uncomfortable. “I can think of some ideas to freshen them up. Mum said I should say stuff in the interview, but dad said I should hold it in reserve.” He shifted uncomfortably. “What do you think?”
“I think it shows you have initiative.” I said. “Listen…”
“I really want this job.” I could see the hunger in Tom’s eyes. “It’s not just a job. I love all this stuff. The detail is amazing. I know I’m general IT, but the subjects she covers are fascinating – I’ve been following her twitter since it was set up and there’s always something going on. I’ve always wanted a job like this.” He looked at me with pleading eyes. “Do you think I have a chance?”
I took a breath but I was interrupted by the office receptionist rushing back from the bathroom.
“Sorry about that, Ms Carruthers. I see you have your papers. If you go through to the Regina Suite, I’ll send the first candidate in.” She smiled professionally at Tom. “Can I help you?”
Tom lost every trace of colour as he realised he had mistaken his prospective employer for a secretary. “I’m really sorry, Ms Carruthers,” He mumbled. “I guess I don’t have a chance now, but please keep the flowers.” His shoulders slumped.
“Tom, isn’t it?” I said firmly. “You’re hired. I’d be mad to miss anyone willing and able to research to that detail.” I turned and smiled nicely at the receptionist. “Could you cancel all the other candidates, please. I’ve got the one I want.”
Jane stared out of the window. The rain lashed relentlessly, filling the gutters and running in rivers down the street. What a day for a first day at work. And she had to look good. Her interviewer, Matt, had emphasised that her appearance was part of job performance. “We are a design firm, Jane, and we have to look like appearance matters. And you need to change your name for work hours. Have you thought about Styria?” He grimaced. “You are the best applicant for the job but ‘Jane’ is a little, well, plain.”
This needed a little lateral thinking. There was no way any hairstyle would survive, even in the car, so she could wrap her hair in a boho scarf. Jane looked at the little honda sitting forlornly outside. She would get her feet soaked in the few yards from her door. That meant she wore boots to the car but changed at work. In fact, she could get completely changed at work. Jane hesitated. As long as they didn’t mind her diving in looking like a fisherman before she got changed. She swallowed. This was the perfect job and she had been craving something like this since school. She had to make a good impression.
The drive to work was one of the worst she had ever done, peering through the sheets of water as she swooshed into the carpark of the elegant and modernistic building, water spraying as she turned. The race from car to office was equally challenging and she dripped over the expensive marble floor as she ran to the bathrooms.
Thank goodness she had left plenty of time, Jane thought, as she looked at herself in the mirror. She definitely looked ‘boho’ with her hair quickly dried and wrapped in the tie dye scarf, and the flowing skirt and blouse that had survived the car journey uncreased echoed the bright colours. She swallowed. Did she look right? Had she hit the right note with what seemed more like partywear than the severe business suit of the last job. She took a breath and left the bathroom, almost colliding with a tall, elegant blonde with well cut, dripping hair and soaked, fashionable clothes. She stared at Jane for a long minute.
“A headscarf! Why didn’t I think of that? It’s genius!” She smiled warmly at Jane. “You must be Jane, or Styria. I’m Mel, but if you get calls for Cytheria, that’s me.” She shook her head. “I don’t know where Matt gets his ideas. I’ll meet you at your desk in a minute, once I’ve dried myself off.” She dived past Jane, trailing a cloud of expensive scent.
Jane hung up her coat on the coat pegs in the office and stashed her bags under the desk with a place card with her name on in beautiful copperplate. Everything looked so styled. The office furniture gleamed, abstract prints hung on the walls and even the pot plants seemed chosen for effect.
“Good morning Jane, or Styria.” Matt came over. “I’ll give you the tour in a moment, but I think you should have this first on such a morning.” He set down a cup next to her. Jane looked at the carefully constructed, uncomfortable looking mug. “The boss doesn’t normally make drinks for the staff, but today is definitely a day for a nice cup of cocoa.” He smiled and went to hand another, similar mug to Mel.
Jane picked the cup up with care and took a tentative sip. It was perfect – warming, soothing, old-fashioned cocoa. She was going to like it here.
“Is it definitely this way?” I was sure I had stepped in something squishy.
“Hmm?” Charles walked forward a little. “Yes, the man in the shop said it was along here.”
The man in the shop was fine with Charles but never seemed to take to me. Conversations paused as I walked in and he asked me if I wanted any ‘special orders, like them olives?’ and looked somewhat disappointed at my purchase of potatoes and carrots. “Did he say how far?” It felt like I had walked miles.
“Not far.” Charles looked around and took a happy breath. “That’s wild garlic over there. We could cook with it.”
I stumbled over a lump in the path. “Only if we get it away from where people walk their dogs.”
Charles laughed. “You wait until I get the garden sorted.”
That was the deal. He sorted out the garden, I dealt with the house. We had moved in too fast. Really the whole place needed to be gutted. The wallpaper was older than me and I didn’t like to speculate about the plumbing. “It’ll be great.”
“Look, it’s just down here.” Charles strode ahead.
I waved away the midges from my face and followed. The dim green tunnel of the lane opened up and then I was in the sunlight and looking over the incredible view. Woodland mixed with patchwork fields and the sun slanted down on the glowing, late spring landscape. I glanced at Charles and the delight on his face was as strong as the sunshine as he took a deep, refreshing breath of country air. The tension in his shoulders had gone and there was a sparkle in his eyes. Moving to the country was definitely worth it.
I reluctantly answered the phone. Kay was my best friend, but I knew what she would say. “Hi.”
“Thank goodness you are safe.” Kay sighed. “One day you will look before you leap. There could have been anything waiting for you.”
“I’m fine.” I said. “And I did a lot of research.”
Kay snorted. “Looking on Google maps isn’t research.”
“It’s just as I expected.” I leaned back against a packing case. “The rented house needs a major clean, the library I’m supposed to sort out is a mess and my employer is sort of a sweetie but hasn’t a clue.”
Kay laughed. “Trust you to fall on your feet. How you have got through life in one piece is a mystery. You just charge at things without ever considering what might go wrong and somehow find things working out.”
“There are some amazing books in the library.” I said. “There’s some volumes that are so rare and antique that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a catalogue. I’m going to be busy for a while, and the pay is great.”
“I’m really pleased for you.” Kay said. “Anyway, the reason I called was your housewarming present. I know it’s only rental, but it’s a new home. If you look in your blue case, tucked into the top corner, you’ll find a package. Go and get it. And when you find it, please be sensible!”
I found the blue case on the bottom of the pile, of course, and found the small packet Kay had tucked there for a surprise. Wrapped in blue paper, with a long list of safety precautions, was a candle with my favourite scent. I set it on a sturdy packing case, lit it with the matches Kay had included, and sat back. The uncertainty and homesickness slipped away and I spent a few moments appreciating Kay’s kindness before getting on with the cleaning – taking due precautions around the lit candle, of course.
Clare looked at her aunt. “I told you, I’m starting a new job next week. I’ll be able to help out on weekends, but I need the money.”
Sheila shook her head. “I know I didn’t pay you a full wage. But this business will be yours one day.”
“What about your kids?” Clare thought about her cousins. It seemed unfair that they should be left out. They worked just as hard as her, and she had long suspected that they had been given the same promises.
“They have their own lives,” Sheila said quickly. “Come and have a look at this. I thought we could open for the breakfast crowd. It wouldn’t be too much extra effort.” She thrust a large basket of lemons into Clara’s hands. “Bring these with you.”
It wouldn’t be too much extra effort for her, Clara thought resentfully as she trailed after her aunt. “I’ve promised them I’ll start on Monday, and I’m looking forward to it. I know it’s just a receptionist’s job, but…” Clara trailed off. “What is this?”
“It’s a concept.” Sheila said. “Look!” She flung open the door to the tables with a flourish.
“What is this?” Clara stared at the assortment of ingredients on the tables.”
“Like I said, it’s a concept.” Sheila looked smug. “Assemble your own breakfast, or have it created for you for a nominal extra charge.”
Clara’s heart sank. “What are the lemons for?”
“We can’t have Eggs Benedict without hollandaise sauce, and you’ll need lemons for that.”
Clara stared at the scattered assortment on the tables. When she had been unwillingly dragged into this business, her aunt had served bacon butties and strong tea. It had been Clara’s hard work that had added fresh baked cakes and proper fry ups to the menu, with some decent home made soups and more than just tea on the drinks board. It had given Clara immense satisfaction and she had thought for so long that if they just turned a corner, if they just got the extra tables, if they just opened a few hours more then she would get her reward. She turned and looked at her aunt who was watching her with a calculating eye. Life was giving her lemons, and she was damned if she was going to make hollandaise sauce at 6.30am with them. “I’m not coming back,” she said softly. “Goodbye.” She picked up some lemons on the way out, ignoring her aunt’s outraged protests. When life gives you lemons, you make lemon meringue pie.
I loathed shopping with my Aunt Harriet. She always wanted a bargain and she always wanted the best of everything. I had flinched as she swept into the secondhand bookshop. I knew what was coming.
“I’m only interested in First Editions,” she announced. “Of good, classic works.”
“I do have a few select copies.” The bookseller led the way to the back of the shop. I could see him mentally adding a ‘difficult customer’ surcharge. “Perhaps madam would be interested in this? It’s a first edition copy of An Expedition to Patagonia. The illustrations are exquisite.”
I glanced over Aunt Harriet’s shoulder. The faded line drawings and water colours looked insipid, but I never claimed to be a judge. “It’s very nice.”
“It’s a find my dear.” Aunt Harriet announced. “So many of these have been sadly pulled apart and the illustrations sold separately as prints for profit.”
“Indeed,” the bookseller agreed, resigned to the fate of the book.
“But these marks are unacceptable,” Aunt Harriet said. “I was looking for an elegant copy.”
“Marks occur on books of that age,” the bookseller said. “It is a natural process.”
I wandered away towards the bargain bin. I didn’t want to be drawn into Aunt Harriet’s haggling. There were the usual contents. I found a copy of the Da Vinci Code, a battered cookbook with the soup section missing, a very dated road atlas and – a treasure.
I checked and checked again. It was Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier and perhaps my favourite book in all the libraries. The price was pencilled on the inside. My hands shook and I had to check yet again. I glanced across at the bookseller who was holding his own against Aunt Hattie and keeping the price firm. I looked again. This was a first edition and he only wanted ‘Clearance 50p’. I’d seen it online for hundreds of pounds.
“I’ll just get this,” I called over to Aunt Harriet.
Aunt Harriet ignored me and pointed to an infinitesimal mark on the spine. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that were mildew. I don’t know how you could charge so much for a damaged copy.”
“It’s described as ‘slightly foxed’ in the catalogues and there has been some interest from abroad.” The bookseller was refusing to budge on the price.
I edged across and tried to play it cool as the assistant rang up the find, too distracted by Aunt Harriet’s antics to pay much attention. “I’m sorry about my aunt,” I said. “She likes a good haggle.”
The assistant grinned. “It’s great seeing my boss finally meet his match.” He looked over to the combatants. “It looks like they may be some time.”
I called over. “I’ll just wait in the coffee shop across the road.” And, leaving my aunt engrossed in her bargaining, I escaped with my prize.
And Another Book
I was exhausted. I’d spent all day unpacking in my new flat and I was just about done. I had hefted the last wedge of packing paper down to the recycling and now there was just one thing left to put away – my moving in gifts.
Dad had grinned as he had handed over the box, his gift of a small tool kit on the top. “I tried to tell them, but they didn’t listen.” The tools were neatly stowed in the bottom kitchen drawer, but now I had to find a place for the rest.
I sighed. I had thanked everyone and smiled and looked grateful. I didn’t feel grateful. Even though I had been cooking for my parents for years, they seemed to think I needed a little help. I started slotting the books on the shelf.
This cookbook was from Mum; she was worried about healthy eating. This cookbook was from Auntie Joan; she loved Spanish food and thought I should try it more. This cookbook was from my sister, Clare; she could burn a pan of water and had given me a beginner’s book. This cookbook was from Marge next door; she had always loved handing out her homemade cakes, so she gave book about baking. This cookbook was from Uncle Steve; he didn’t approve of all this ‘modern rubbish’ and had given me a reprint of a Victorian cooking manual. Even my boss had given me a cookbook for meals in minutes.
I smiled. The recipes may never be used, but they are a wonderful reminder of their donors. A set of mugs or some tea towels may have been more practical but would never make me smile and think of the giver. I slotted the last book into the shelf and rang for a pizza.
It had been a tough week. In the space of three days I had left my boyfriend, moved right across the country to a new home and started a new job in a different industry. I didn’t know if I was on my head or my heels.
I stepped outside my back door. Than was something else I needed to work on. For the first time in my life I had a garden. I had always lived in flats, but when I saw this house on sale within my budget and five minutes walk from my new job, I went for it. Now I was regretting it. What was I supposed to do with a garden? I didn’t know a plant from a weed.
I slowly stepped forward onto the unmown lawn. At least I could recognise the daisies flourishing across the grass. It was sort of sad. Someone had really loved this garden, but I didn’t know where to start. I suppose I should start by buying a lawn mower.
“Hello,” a voice said across the overgrown hedge.
I peered over. “Hi, I’m Kate. I’ve just moved in.”
“I’m Rick. I’ve lived here a few years. I knew Mrs Carr, the old lady who lived here.” The tall man behind the hedge nodded politely. “She died you know, in hospital.”
“I’m sorry.” I said.
“She was very fond of her garden,” Rick said. “We used to talk about plants a lot.”
“I don’t know anything about gardening,” I admitted.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to keep up the garden,” Rick said with breezy confidence. “It’s low maintenance. I spend a little more time on my plot.”
I walked along to the gap in the sagging fence. “It looks very nice,” I said uncertainly. The manicured rows of plants marched in rows, ruthlessly pruned and trimmed and without a leaf out of place.
“Those are the shallots,” Rick said, “I’m looking forward to pickling those later. Of course I’ll add some of the chilis from there. That’s the brassicas. I’ve got chard, perpetual spinach, cabbage, kale and some tender stalk broccoli. I’ve got some sprouts coming in the greenhouse.”
“That sounds nice,” I said.
“I’ve been having trouble with the onions, so I’ve tried the old trick of planting with parsley and that seems to be working. And I have rosemary with the tomatoes over there.”
“Mmm,” I said, trying to look intelligent.
“Tomatoes can be tricky, and I’m having a spot of trouble with blight. The cherry tomatoes seem to be okay, and the yellow tomatoes in the corner, but the heritage varieties don’t really stand up to it. It’s only to be expected.” Rich’s eyes were alight with his passion.
I nodded, as if I had a clue as he raced on about planning for parsnips and the issues with carrots but I was distracted. Just next to the gap in the fence was an untidy drift of white flowers that looked out of place among the regimented beds. “What are those?”
Rick paused in his account of his flourishing garlic plants and looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know. They self seed and I like the way they look. Mrs Carr always used to say that they looked joyful.”
“I think you’re going to have to give me some advice on my garden,” I said, “But keep it in the same way as Mrs Carr left it.”
Rick nodded, smiling. “I’d like that.”
After all the hurry and dashing around over the last month, with all the tension and worry, something inside me relaxed. It was going to be alright.
A Small Sprig
“I don’t know why people press flowers in books,” Ken said as he dusted down another stack of hardbacks. “It’s awful for the books and it doesn’t do much for the flower. Why don’t they use blotting paper and then put it in a frame?” He sighed and tipped out another sprig of faded leaves. “At least this one hasn’t stained the pages too much.”
Lynn looked around the crowded room. “Do we really need to go through all these books now? Perhaps we could go for a walk and get some fresh air. It’s a lovely day.”
“It will take more than a day to get through these,” Ken said. “And don’t forget, we have another shipment coming at the weekend.”
Lynn stood up and dusted off her jeans. “I’ll make us a cup of tea,” she said as she picked her way through the towers of stacked books.
The kitchen was just as full. Her late uncle had left her everything. The exasperated landlord had piled the hoarded contents of Uncle Tim’s house into storage and sent Lynn the bill and now the contents of the storage units were being sent down by instalments from Scotland to their Bristol town house. Boxes and boxes of junk were travelling hundreds of miles to pass under Ken’s inspection.
Lynn poured boiling water on the teabags and looked around the kitchen. It was crammed. Uncle Tim had collected some beautiful enamelware and Lynn had suggested that they throw out the mismatched utensil pots and the tea and coffee tins that had come free with her saucepans and use the lovely, warm cream pots and jugs, but Ken was talking about how much the enamelware would fetch and thought that they should keep the old stuff. She added sugar to Ken’s mug and then topped up both drinks with milk. She didn’t want the money. She wanted Uncle Tim back. She carried the drinks back to the living room.
The books were dusty, mainly from Uncle Tim’s house, and Ken had dark smears on his face and shirt. “Thanks for the tea. It’s dry work. I’ve tossed the flowers I’ve found so far into the bin, but some of them have still stained the books. It’ll affect their resale value.”
“What? Some of those were put there by mum! I remember her putting them there.” Lynn stared at him.
Ken shifted awkwardly. “Well your mum’s been gone for a bit now. I don’t suppose she minds now that she’s in a better place.”
“I could have planted any seeds on her grave,” Lynn said. “Why did you do that?”
“I said that it will give a better resale value. We could get enough for a wedding if we sell this lot and get a good price for the enamelware, and perhaps we could get a better car for me, depending on what else is sent down. At least the landlord seems to have been honest. It doesn’t look like he kept back anything valuable. This is a first edition by Hemingway novel. I’ve found the same copy is over £7000 online.”
Lynn looked at him and then back at the book. “I remember Uncle Tim reading that story. He kept that copy for best and read and re-read paperback versions. He loved his Hemingway.”
“Lucky for us he did,” Ken said, making a note in a notebook and putting it to one side. “We could sell this place and get something a little nicer under both of our names. Something with a bigger garden.”
“You hate gardening,” Lynn pointed out as she stared at her partner. He’d been in her life for eighteen months now. Why had she not seen him clearly before? The house was hers, the car was hers, and all these treasures from Uncle Tim belonged to her. Ken didn’t even share the bills. He just paid for the Sports Channels that he had insisted on. At least she had held out for that. She didn’t even remember inviting him to stay. He had been living with his mother and after a while the nights he had stayed over had merged until he never left.
“But it will be nice to relax in a garden,” Ken said. “We can have a quiet glass of wine at the end of the day, perhaps with a barbecue.”
Lynn looked around and started sorting through the books. She was sure it would be here somewhere. “I’m very happy here,” she said. “And the neighbours are lovely.”
“I know that you’re close with the neighbours, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t visit,” Ken said. “You know, now and again.”
He had never liked her friends, Lynn remembered. She hardly seemed to see them nowadays. There always seemed to be something else happening. She shifted a stack of books and found what she was looking for – Pride and Prejudice. She had been holding it as she had excitedly told Uncle Tim about Ken, how they had met on a walk and how he seemed absolutely perfect. Uncle Tim had insisted that she picked a spray of borage from the border and preserve it, as a memory, so that she could look back one day and remember the excitement. She shook the pages carefully and caught the brittle fragment as it fell.
“That looks newer,” Ken said. “I wonder who put that there.”
“I did,” Lynn said. She tossed the small sprig into the bin. “And I’m not moving. But you are.”
Light up the Night
“They always go over the top.” Dad turned away from the lounge window. “I don’t know who they think they’re impressing.”
“There must be yards and yards of the things,” Mum said. “Or metres or whatever. They’re not cheap, you know, not even in Aldi.”
Sandra drifted over to the window. The family across the street had swathed their house liberally with fairy lights – inside and out. The colours twinkled as they changed, spinning around the door and window frames and the miniature conifers in the front garden.
“Look at the way that they change,” Dad said. “That’s technology, that is.”
“It’s an app,” Sandra said, staring at the lights. They swirled and danced, echoed by their reflections in the cars parked in the drive and cast coloured shadows on the snow.
“They must have money to burn,” Mum said. “Those apps are expensive. And you need the phone to go with it.”
Sandra didn’t answer but instead watched the sequence chasing over the porch and across to the fuschias.
“I wonder what it does to their electric,” Dad said. “It must put the bill up something fierce. He frowned. “You won’t catch me wasting money like that, not for a few days when there are other things you can be spending on.”
“Or just putting the money away,” Mum said. “You never know when it would come in useful.”
Sandra looked around. As usual, her parents had only decorated the lounge, and the dusty paper streamers hung, sagging, across the ceiling. Faded tinsel wound around the miniature artificial Christmas tree. It was older than Sandra and beginning to show its age as the tinsel dropped. “You’ll need a new Christmas tree next year,” she said.
“No, it will do,” Dad said. “It’s not like you’re a little kid anymore. You’re moving out next week, for your fancy new job. I hope you’ve thought of all the expenses. You won’t be able to waste money, you know, not when you’re starting out.”
Mum nodded. “We’ve always been careful with the decorations, and it hasn’t hurt us. Some of these decorations are older than you. And there’s nothing wrong with them.”
Sandra thought of her skint friend, with the bright bells made of egg boxes and foil, the snowflake wreaths from thin sandwich bags and the newspaper garlands wound with cheap, bright tinsel. She looked back at the lights across the road. Their generous sparkle lit up the entire section of the street. “I’ll be careful.”
“Anyway, you’ll be back for Christmas next year, at least,” Dad said. “You’ll miss us.”
The lights across the road were reflected in cars on both sides of the street. The neighbours on either side had their lights reflecting with them, and mingled with the fireworks over head as they marked the New Year. The bright chaos made her smile. “I’ll be celebrating in the new flat,” Sandra said. “And I’ll have every room filled with fairy lights.”
Just One Day
It’s just one day.
Getting ready in this household is never a calm, ordered procedure. I don’t know anyone with organised mornings, and they’re certainly chaotic here. But finding the missing school book and digging out the car keys seem to float past me this morning. I don’t say anything – it wouldn’t be fair. I just carry on as usual.
It’s just one day.
I’ve done the school run so many times, that it’s on autopilot. Even the the frankly erratic driving of the vans and the chaos of the roadworks seem somehow muffled, like the teenage texting happening next to me.
It’s just one day.
And I’ve washing to do, dinner to make, errands to run, and it’s all in the same quiet bubble. I remember to pick up the small cake, just like last year, but keep it quiet. I don’t want to make a fuss. I don’t want to upset anyone. It’s personal, and private to me.
It’s just one day.
And now the hustle and bustle of the day has passed, and I have a few moments alone, I can look at that cake. Your cake. Your birthday cake. I lost you, my baby, far too early to know whether to get a pink cake or a blue cake. I never saw a smile or heard a giggle. I never soothed you or comforted you. You left before you arrived. Today, if you stuck to the due date (and babies never do) would be your birthday.
It’s just one day.
And, though you normally rest quietly in the shadows, today I remember. Just one day to think of what could have been. Then I leave you once again to rest until next year. I love you, my darling.
Eggs for Breakfast
“These are hard,” my mother said. “You should make some new ones.”
“Sorry, I’ll get them done now,” I said.
“I don’t know why you can’t them right first time,” Mother complained. “It’s not like you never cook eggs.”
“Sorry,” I said as I put the pan back on the heat. “Maybe I should get the pan hotter first.”
“You never think!” Mother said. “You’re going to have to have them. I can’t have them going to waste. And what about dinner? I suppose you haven’t thought about that?”
“I’ve got some chicken out of the freezer,” I lied, knowing what would come next.
“I don’t fancy chicken,” Mother said. “I think that we eat too much chicken. Is that toast fresh?”
“Yes, it’s just come out,” I said as I buttered it quickly and slid it on to the plate. I pushed it over to her and cracked two more eggs into the pan.
“You could have at least cut the toast for me,” Mother said. “I have to do everything. You have no consideration for me. I’ve had such a bad night.”
“Sorry,” I repeated, as I quickly poured tea into her mug. “Here, this will help.”
Mother took a sip. “Is this milk okay?”
“It’s fine,” said, turning the eggs. “I had some in my tea when I got up earlier.”
“It tastes off,” Mother said. “Could you open a fresh carton?”
“It’s the last carton,” I said. “I usually pick it up after work, but there was that after work meeting, remember, and I didn’t have time before getting home to cook dinner.” I slid the new eggs onto her warmed plate and pushed the toast nearer.
“You’ll have to pick up some tonight, and some eggs. We seem to go through so many eggs with you wasting them.” Mother shook her head sadly. “So what are we going to have for dinner if we can’t have chicken?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You should know!” Mother exclaimed. “You are the one in charge of the kitchen, you should know what we have. We’ll just have to order pizza. I know you say you don’t like it, but you should have thought of that before getting the chicken out. And today of all days! You know I’m out for the day with Mrs Timmins and you didn’t even press the blue dress.”
“What blue dress?” I asked, bewildered.
“The one in the wardrobe. It’s been there so long that it was looking sad. I’ve had to put on this pink one. Of course, if you took me out more, it wouldn’t matter so much.”
“But you know I work,” I said wearily and took a bite of the eggs she’d rejected. They tasted fine.
“I keep telling you that you should give up work and get carer’s allowance. You and me could be quite cosy, just the two of us here,” Mother said. “I don’t know what you need your job for. They only pay a pittance.” She looked out of the window. “There’s Mrs Timmins – I have to go! Where have you put my bag?”
I watched her leave, sipping my tea as she glared one last time at me through the window as she climbed into Mrs Timmins’ car, then breathed out. Finally she was gone. I dumped my unwashed plate and mug into the sink and raced upstairs to grab my one remaining bag. My job paid extremely well, thank goodness, though she never knew, more than enough for the very reasonable rent on a tiny flat near work. The down payment had cleared, I’d picked up the keys and today was the day I moved away from Mother and into my own home. And what was more, I thought, as I shut the door and pushed the keys back through the letterbox, I would never, ever have to eat eggs for breakfast again.
“I don’t know why you’re so fascinated by that picture,” Freddie said. “It’s nothing special. My mother was an art student once. She painted a few pictures.”
Alice continued to stare at the painting. “Why?” she asked. “Every time I see that picture I ask myself, why? Why did she frame it like that?”
“I don’t know,” Freddie said impatiently. “You know what my mother was like. She probably found a cheap frame.”
“But it’s a shame. It should be mounted properly, with a proper matte backing and a larger frame, perhaps a darker one, and a decent amount of wood, not those skinny sticks.”
“Well, it’s all ours now, so take it and reframe it.” Freddie looked around his late mother’s flat. “All of this is ours now. What a mess.”
“You keep saying that your mother had money, and the will said that she left it to you and to not waste what you’re given, but there’s nothing really here.” Alice stared at the painting. “Except this painting.”
“It’s just something she did as an art student.” Freddie frowned and checked the piece of paper in his hand. “The solicitor said that she talked about having planted the money in the flat.”
“Planted…” Alice murmured, still staring at the picture. “Mind you, I don’t think she had two pennies to rub together. Look at the state of this flat.”
“She was careful with her money,” Freddie said. “And she liked a bargain.” He glanced at his expensively dressed wife. “You could have learned a thing or two.”
Alice ignored him and looked around the tousled flat. “That sofa is older than I am! And that side table is scratched to bits.”
Freddie slowly lowered himself onto the sofa and relaxed. “I remember this sofa. It’s one of the comfiest I’ve ever sat on. Mind you, it needs a new cover.” He looked at the side table, cluttered with dirty cups and dried up houseplants. “Though the table isn’t fit for anything. It was only cheap chipboard to begin with.”
Alice turned back to the picture. “Planted. Your mother really liked this painting, didn’t she?”
“Hmm?” Freddie settled himself in a corner of the sofa and looked around again.
“I mean, it’s so striking, and in such a central place.” Alice leaned over. “I bet that’s where she put her savings book. Behind the picture. Or perhaps there’s a safe.”
“She liked the picture because she already had it and it took up enough wall to make it look decorated,” Freddie said dispassionately. He looked around again. “I remember those mugs from when I was a kid. She got them as a free gift.”
“How much money did your mother leave?” Alice asked. “I mean, just a savings book with a hundred pounds or so wouldn’t take up much room.” She grasped the picture and, after a quick struggle, lifted it down.
“The solicitor who handled it all has already paid the inheritance tax and that was a fortune,” Freddie said. “It’s more than a small savings account.” He frowned, then sighed. “She did love her plants. I suppose she wanted us to take care of them, but they died before we got the news.” He reluctantly pulled himself out of the comfy corner of the sofa. “What are you doing?” he asked Alice.
“The information – it’s behind the picture!” Alice said as she wrestled with the painting. “Look, it’s about plants, and everyone knows that you can keep papers behind pictures in frames.”
Freddie shook his head and started lifting the houseplants. “You need to take that picture, reframe it, hang it where you like and then forget about it.” He lifted a formerly magnificent specimen of philodendron. Between the pot and the pot stand was a key. “The safe deposit box key. Mother was never that complicated.”
“The flowers are late!” I rushed into the kitchen, my wedding dress bunched around my waist and my veil askew. I looked at my husband-to-be. “I knew we shouldn’t have trusted that florist.” I took a deep breath. “And I knew we shouldn’t have got ready together. It’s supposed to be unlucky.”
Tim sighed. “It’s just nothing. It’s probably meant to allow the bride a little peace to get ready without the groom asking a lot of questions and causing fuss. We aren’t doing all the fuss.”
It made a sort of sense, but I was still frantic. “What about the flowers?”
“Can’t your little friends help out with that?” Tim asked.
“You know I don’t like you calling them that,” I said. I manouevred my skirt over a stool and sank down. “They’re the fair folk – if you have to talk about them at all.”
Tim walked over to me, put his hands on my shoulders and kissed me gently on the forehead. “Well, whoever they are took a lot of getting used to. I’m still not sure they approve of me. But I love you, friends and all, and don’t worry.” Tim grinned, that crooked grin that I loved so much. “Besides, they’re more like family, really, and we all have awkward family. I mean, you’ve met my Auntie Violet. She is far worse than misplaced car keys and iffy reception for the radio.”
I smiled back for a moment. “Lots of people call this house haunted, but it isn’t really. I just have friends.” My face fell. “But no flowers – and you know that the minister said he wouldn’t go ahead if we were late. We can’t wait around for the dratted florist. What are we going to do?”
Tim took my hands and gently squeezed them. “My darling, we agreed that this is about the marriage that we are going to have for the rest of our lives, not one day. We agreed that we would remember the things that went wrong as fun stories and not as awful events.” He grew serious. “I wish my mum was able to come, but we lost her last year. I wish your family was still here. I wish that your bridesmaid hadn’t eloped with my best man a week before it was all due to happen. I wish all sorts of things. The flowers, well, it’s just another story. As long as we get married, that’s all that matters. I love you.”
I smiled back. “I love you too.” I sighed. “I hope the fair ones are happy. They haven’t interfered so far, which is a good sign.” I disentangled my voluminous skirt from the stool and stood up. “They mean a lot to me.” I pulled myself up and settled my veil. “They’re the last of my family. Come on, we can’t be late. We can do without the flowers. Let’s go and get married.”
Tim led me outside ready to drive to the church, then stopped. I almost fell over as I bumped into him and then stared. A small bundle of wild flowers lay across the boot of the rental car.
Tim picked them up tenderly and looked around. “Thank you for this,” he said to the empty air. “An amazing gift on our wedding day.” He turned to me. “Your family have given their blessing. Let’s go and get married.” He looked around again. “And I’ll save you some cake!”
A Date and a Church
“How are you going to find a decent husband if you don’t go to the right places?” My mother was almost incandescent. “History walk! What a lot of nonsense. All there will be is the unemployed and pensioners.”
“It’s not all about getting a husband,” I said. “I run my business, I take care of you and dad, I have my hobbies…”
“Your hobby should be finding a husband!” Mum waved her hands in exasperation. “And look at you. I know how much you are earning these days – and an unmarried woman at that! – but you don’t look it. You should go to a decent stylist, perhaps, and dress a little better.”
“I dress fine in the office,” I said wearily as I dragged my coat on. “And there’s nothing wrong with what I wear.”
“I want grandchildren,” Mum snapped. “And with a nice young man, not some old fogey that’s older than me. Why won’t you meet with Darren Sharp? He’s a barrister and I’ve known his mother for years!” I let her voice trail into the distance as I dashed out.
I had been looking forward to the history walk for months. It took me a few minutes, but I managed to shake off my mother’s mood and join the group. I had not been allowed to forget that I was nearly thirty and had been single for over a year. Today I was going to put all that behind me. I had been fascinated by the old church for years and I wasn’t going to miss the chance. I had had enough of my mother’s complaints.
I was one of the last to arrive and found myself next to the only one in the group who was near my age. He was a quiet looking man, perhaps two or three years older than me, with dark, short hair and an athletic build under his hoodie and jeans. He smiled wryly as I stood next to him. “Thank goodness I’m not the only pensioner here.”
I chuckled quietly as I looked at the rest of the group. I guessed that most of them were thirty or forty years older than me. I knew a few of them, and they were great fun, but I agreed, it was fun to have a contemporary around.
“Listen up, everyone,” an elderly man at the front called out. “I’m Vivian, and I’m the guide for today. Can everyone hear me at the back?” He looked around carefully and then, with some ceremony, pulled out some handwritten notes. “Right, thank you for coming to this guided walk. I’m sure that you all will find it educating and entertaining. I’m Vivian and I have been the churchwarden here for forty three years. Let me introduce you to this beautiful building. St Cuthbert’s church has been standing on this site since the Anglo Saxons, but the current building was erected on this site later, starting in the reign of King John, the one who signed the Magna Carta in 1223.”
“1215,” I muttered automatically, then glanced, embarrassed at my companion.
He nodded. “John died in 1216, before the church was started.” We grinned at each other.
Vivian cleared his throat and gave us a dark look. “As I was saying, the church was started 1223 with money from the local lord, Lord Robert, during the reign of King John, son of the famous Richard the Lionheart.”
“Brother,” I murmured. “John was Richard’s brother.”
“Hasn’t he even seen the Disney cartoon?” my companion said.
We hushed quickly after catching Vivian’s expression, and trailed after him as we passed through the lych gate and up towards the church porch.
We deliberately fell behind. As an architect, I could talk easily about the building, and he was wonderfully knowledgeable about the religious side. We could hear Vivian butchering history but let it drift over us as we marvelled together at the beautiful late Anglo Norman stonework and the Victorian stained glass. Time seemed to fly by as we talked and talked, and we had to hustle as Vivian led the rest of the group back to the church door and waved his keys pointedly.
We walked back to the car park. He raised an eyebrow at my Range Rover. “Nice car.”
“I’m not always in the office. I do site visits and I need something reliable.”
He nodded. “I’m always in an office, so I just go for comfort,” he said, as he waved a hand at the Volvo parked next to me. He smiled. “I’m glad you were here. I think I would have murdered the churchwarden if I’d had to listen to him.”
I nodded. “He meant well,” I said, “But he missed so much.”
“I’m going to a talk on Medieval Crosses next Tuesday evening,” he said. “Would you like to come? I’ll even buy you dinner afterwards.”
He had a lovely smile, and I smiled back. “I’d love to. I’d better give you my contact details, just in case.” I pulled out a business card. “I’m Kylie Brenner.”
He stared at me. “Kylie Brenner? Kylie Brenner the architect? The one who’s mother is a great friend of Imelda Sharp?”
I nodded slowly. “That’s right.”
He grinned. “I’m Darren Sharp. I’ve been hiding from you for months.”
I laughed. “I can’t believe it. Well, despite all the efforts of my mother, I would still love to come to the talk and dinner,” I said. “But perhaps we shouldn’t tell our mothers.”
“Perhaps not,” he agreed.
Don’t Forget the Flowers
I had nearly forgotten the date. I had to rush out and pick up the flowers from the nearest florist in a hurry. I never wanted to miss the flowers on this day of all days.
“Promise me you will buy flowers on my birthday,” my aunt had said. Her fingers had been like claws as they clung onto me. I had stared at the dying woman, in the borrowed hospital bed in her bedroom. The nurse had stared sympathetically at me as the light faded with my aunt and the scent of disinfectant filled the air. “Promise me, every birthday, you buy flowers.” She had broken off, coughing.
I had nodded. “I promise, Aunt Carol. I’ll buy them every year.”
“I should have changed my will,” she had gasped. “I should have made you earn it.”
“Don’t make yourself poorly, auntie,” I had said. “I can get the solicitor in any time.” I had ignored the tiny shake of the nurse’s head. We both had known that my aunt had hours left, but there was no point in upsetting her.
“Flowers on my birthday, keep the house the same, no men, and no foreign food. Remember.” Aunt Carol had coughed and gasped and then fallen back on the pillows, exhausted. They were the last words she ever said.
That was three years ago. Aunt Carol had taken me in when I had lost my parents at the age of fourteen. She had terrorised me, gouged every penny of support for herself and sabotaged any chance I had to make a life away from her. I had cleaned her sparse and spartan house, ran her errands and survived. I even gave up my job to nurse her at the end. I had done my duty. All the money she had clawed from my trust fund, along with all the other money that she had hoarded, was left to me. She had never found a way of adding the clauses that she wanted, so she had just insisted, expecting me to be the good, obedient child that I had always been.
Today would have been her birthday. So I ran out and bought a huge bunch of tulips, a flower that she had loathed. I would put them among the cosy throws and knickknacks that she had hated. And later my gorgeous boyfriend would call, and he would bring a curry.