Categories
Members Free Fiction

Such a Long Time Coming

Effie Merryl

I had always planned to take refuge in the lavatory. My initial delight when I realised she’d chosen a first-class carriage waned rapidly with the reality of having to wait inside the tiny disgusting box. The stench of slopped urine and railway-issue soap clogged up my nose as I chugged this way and that, my body forced to weave along with the beast manoeuvring the tracks.

I thought of her sitting out there in the carriage, head lolling to one side. I imagined her tongue hanging out, a red slab of raw meat on the verge of turning purple, her eyes bulging like a bull-frog. I watched my hands squeeze her throat, tight, tight, a little tighter … and snap!

However, I was better prepared than that, than to use my own hands, and had a different plan. I smiled, rinsed my new teeth with a slug of cider from a can and sat back to wait. The heat was rising, my back sticky. The thump of my heart pumping hard inside my chest was strong, rising up my neck. I felt it in my head, behind my eyes, and also in my trousers. I was finally close enough. I was going to do this. I’d waited long, so very long. Nine years is such a long time.   

****

Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock. The huge clock on the wall behind the dock ticks, tick-tocks. I hear the click clack of the thin black hands as the battery-operated clock tick-tocks. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.                                                                                      

The foreman stands, the elected member of the twelve, a small balding man, nervous, frightened, though a respectable man, one would presume. Somebody’s husband. Somebody’s son. Somebody’s dad. A granddad. Executioner.

Every face turns to look at him. Many pairs of eyes stare black, dark beads of anticipation, as the clock tick-tocks. The judge, the barristers, the clerks, the press, the police, the public in the gallery … and me, the defendant. Every eye turns to look upon me. No lashes flick. No eye blind. Then back to the foreman. He turns the small rectangle of paper in his hand, nervous fingers with an imperceptible twitch, a slight shake he doesn’t want anyone to see. He folds the slip, creases it, opens it, and looks down.

I know the judge already knows what it says when the foreman looks at him, searching for his eye, his acknowledgment, some understanding. He does not look at me. He doesn’t look anywhere near the dock. It is then that I know my fate.            

Tick. Tock.                                                                                                                 

Guilty.                                                                                                                                    

I am guilty. Convicted of many assaults, my hands on boys. They have thrown in the perverting the course of justice, of course they have, perversion.

I turn and look at her. I see my snarl rather than feel it as my upper lip peels back. I show her the fleshy bits of my gum, the bright red lumpy bumps rich with blood pounding through them so hot I think they are going to burst, blood red splattering and spouting across the court room. They don’t explode so I expose my teeth, dull sock-grey and little, like a teenage anorexic, only I’m no longer a teenager.

I pretend to snap, give a little whoop-woof like I’m Austin Powers doing the soul bossa nova. I remind myself of a dog my uncle once kept. A bit thin, a bit scabby, a bit rabid, a bit mad.  

The jury members, once twelve good people and true, raise their eyebrows at the shot of drama. Mellow drama. I stay in the dock. I raise my arm as if to dance, my other arm poised.

‘You,’ I whisper as I point at her, properly snarl. It’s nothing. I’m impotent really. They look but don’t want to see, yet can’t control themselves. I laugh. Ha. Haha. Hahaha. It is so funny.

She shifts her bottom along the wooden bench, as my finger remains pointing. I spy the thin wedge of black beneath my nail. In that instant we are the only two people in the courtroom and the world stops tick-tocking. My life stands in the silence between us.     The judge, the barristers, the clerks, the jury, the watchers, the congregation, they all stare, watching me like I am a court jester they don’t want to notice, look at, or laugh at. An elephant taking up too much room. They do nothing but gawp.

The judge is used to such actions, such reactions, especially from bitter convicts angry at perceived justice. At injustice.  Everyone of them angry, especially to the police. Especially to a woman, a woman in man’s clothing who aided and abetted in my conviction. It was her conviction that did for me.

I see them, the jury, looking at me, but they don’t linger because they are the ones who have condemned me to an indeterminable sentence. They don’t want that dirty-horned nail that looks like it belongs to Satan pointing anywhere near them so in turn, they look at her, her, that detective with the grim face and podgy ankles.                                                            

I see two of the jury give a sly flick of an eye back in my direction. I imagine myself as Hannibal Lector and slurp my tongue and flash them a grin. My barrister makes his case, my case, for leniency as I protest my innocence yet again, calling for my barrister to lodge an appeal.

He ignores me and continues his monologue in monotone, black and white words, up and down like a boring piano chord. He again misses off the bit about my previous good character because I don’t have one. It’s a tell tale sign for the jury, should they know to look for it. Maybe some did and maybe some didn’t when they did their condemning.

The jury listens as the barrister for the prosecution reveals my dirty secrets. A young woman on the backbench cries, sobbing into a paper handkerchief, her with a perfect life that has vanilla candles in the bathroom as she soaks her aching back and soothes her troubled mind. Vanilla candles in her lonely bedroom too. I see it all. A middle-aged man hangs his head. Perhaps he’s guilty, too? One in twelve, they say, so it could be him. Some look away. Others stare ahead. Nobody speaks when the judge addresses me, the guilty one.            

The Lord Justice Hootenanny Flubberguts, as I’ve named him, doesn’t linger over words as he sentences me. Fifteen years imprisonment. No deliberation. No pause. Straight to jail. Do not pause, collect, just go.

It matters not. I won’t do fifteen. Might not even to five. I know what to do, how to play the game, how to bide my time. I’ll get fit. Get fatter, bulk up. Get my teeth fixed. And I’ll clean my nails. I’ll be a good inmate for the judge. I’ll be a reformed character.                               

The jury are dismissed. They file out into the safety of a warm room laden with fresh espresso coffee, curled up sandwiches, and comfortable round cakes. They are excused from further service at the court and they will take that pass with relish and relief as they collect the expenses form handed out to thank them for conducting their civic duty.               

As I’m taken down from the dock and led through the back door of the courtroom in handcuffs, I cast a backward glance in the instant before the door clangs shut. Her eye catches mine and the deal is done, whether she knows it or not. It could take a long time but that’s something I have a lot of. Time.                                                                               

Tick. Tock.     

***     

A seven year stretch, that’s what I had to do before they would release me, like an itch, it was time to scratch, to move on. Like a spring, they expect me to bounce back. I reckon the elastic might snap this time.

I’d been a good prisoner, done everything they asked – the counselling sessions talking to some pretty girl shrink who teased with her stocking tops – only she was fat and ugly and the only stocking should have been over her head. I had to pretend to myself that she was a pretty one though, just to get through the rubbish I was expected to spout. I did the kitchen duties and the gutsy jobs nobody else wanted. I did things for the screws and in turn, they did things for me. Like turning the other way when I needed them to. That sort of thing. Play the game, poker-face. Lady Haha.

Like all convicted sex offenders I was subject to conditions. Silly thing but when they locked me up I didn’t know how to use the Internet or a computer so there were no specific terms in my order, but I learned a lot inside. About search engines. Cookies. Internet footprints. Canny, eh?

When I got out, Probation found me a flat in Leeds. I didn’t care where it was. Anywhere would do. With a computer the world was open and free and fresh and mine. It didn’t take me long to find her. Social networking. The more people do it, they less they can resist it, and the less cautious they become, until finally, Google becomes their name.                         

It took less than six months for me to find out which street she lived on, where she went on holiday, the names of her children, and what colour underwear she wore last Sunday. It was that easy. Twitter. Facebook. Tik-Tok.

I followed her every tweet without her even knowing of my existence. I’d been onto her for months and she didn’t even know. I never tweeted to her but had she come across me she would see I’d invented an online persona of my own. Male/female/ambiguous. I sent random tweets to celebrities who never replied and a few random folk who did. Nothing suspicious, nothing to raise a concern, me, a casual follower she didn’t know existed, anonymous in the mêlée that was Twitter.          

I took my time. I had plenty of it. Patience is my best virtue and I let it fester until I could hold back no longer. Last Thursday I was watching Question Time with one eye on Twitter when I saw it flash, that little blue bird squawked, and I caught it before it disappeared down the plughole of tweets. She would be in Paddington train station on Saturday. It was a book day and she was meeting other bibliophiles. She would be joining ‘her tribe’ after a few days in the city looking at universities for her son. He must be a big boy by now, Guy, her eldest. I know a lot about him, too. The bubble inside me bred, doubling, tripling, popping and fizzing until I was frothing, chomping at the bit.                    

She was going all the way to her home in Aberglendinny, to a remote cottage she’d moved into with her family to escape their busy life, their past. What she hadn’t realised was a small place is no place to hide and everyone knows your name. What they don’t know, they make up. I could have told her that, had she wanted to listen to me. Unlike a book, you cannot tear a single page from your life, not on the internet.

There was only one train going from London to Aberglendinny on Saturday afternoon. It went every afternoon at three o’clock. I prepared well, packed my rucksack like I was going climbing – change of clothing, rope, knife, flask, bandages, bin-bags. Gum. Gun. Tick!

My phone was charged. My body likewise. My soul was willing. I sat with a cardboard coffee outside the burger bar in the station. She wouldn’t recognise me. Not now. Not fast-forward all these years. Not with my mousy wig, dark glasses, teeth fixed, and body beefed with prime muscle, the skinny-minny long gone. It had been such a very long time that I knew I was right out of context and far away from her zone. She never expected me to be part of her life again. I’d given her false security. I doubt she even remembered my name. The walls were closing in, the ladder shrinking. No way out.                                                                                         

I spotted her instantly. She was trailing a little rose gold suitcase down the ramp from one of the swarming platforms. She propped the case against the counter of a posh coffee stall and ordered something fancy, just as she would. I saw her through the crowd as she took a seat at table filled with middle aged women and student types. I watched her manipulate the screen of her smart phone. I reached for my own, head down. Bingo! Two fat ladies, eighty-eight.

Twitter. Every time, Twitter. She was chatting in full view to some woman who wrote proper books the like of which she could only fantasise about. I followed their conversation. This writer, a popular children’s author, was going to be on her train too but going to Oxford, not Wales, like her. In the same carriage, M. For First Class. M for mine, all mine, for me. For Murder. She told the writer her seat was 55A. She, the sycophant, told the author she’d read her work to her lovely boys when they were young. I remember reading them to my lovely boys too, back when I had them, before she had taken them away from me, made them tell terrible lies. I’d only ever loved them. All of them. She would never understand that.         

I finished my cardboard tasting coffee. When the train snaked in I was ready, poised a few feet away. I knew she wouldn’t notice me, too busy looking out for her pseudo-famous pal to see me loitering. I watched her, full fat ankles as she climbed aboard. She waved like an excited kite let loose, and wore a flabby fish-mouth smile as she spotted her buddy.

I smiled a little laugh, quiet, unheard. Oh yes, she was happy now. And so was I.

I held my rucksack tight to my belly. I wasn’t leaving it on any old luggage shelf to be picked up by a stranger. It was mine, all mine, like she would be so very soon.    

The carriage was filled with cloying warm bodies and sour freebie gin given to the first-class carriage only. There were more people than I’d imagined travelling in first-class. I pretended to look for my seat, clocking the destinations on the reservation tickets as I passed them. Most would be leaving well before Aberglendinny. I selected a vacant seat travelling backwards, only I wasn’t going that way. It might as well have had my name on it. She sat a few feet behind me, at a table with all four spaces occupied. She was facing forward but she wouldn’t see me coming. Not that I would have sat with her should there have been a vacancy. Oh no. I’d be waiting in the lavatory, biding time, hiding until the time was right.

As we weaved out of London, I browsed the net. Nothing much of interest. My guts twisted like the train. I had to anticipate her and it was too tense. I could smell her behind me. I took a trip to the lav, clicked the lock and sat down, closed my eyes and saw her, fat red tongue lolling down, thick and lush. I shook my head, cross with myself. That was a sexually motivated crime and that would never do. As much as I’d love to squeeze the life from her, squash out her last breath, I know how it must be done.             

I checked my watch. Tick-tock. On a mid-autumn day like this it would be dark at the right time. There will be but me and her, waiting for departure. Her departure. She’d have to come to the lavatory at some point, what with all that coffee she drank. And the gin.

***

Done. Dead. Shot in the head. Quiet. Clean. A revenge killing. These days I make sure I don’t let my fingernails get dirty. I walk down the train through almost empty carriages, all the way to G. Or F. Or maybe D? Somewhere where the second-class people sit, where they slumber, read, and get drunk. When the train stops, I alight and disappear into the night somewhere remote, not caring where. Who would suspect me, a mediocre middle-aged woman on a mission, incognito, invisible. Ignored.

Well, when I say done, it is, sort of. I hadn’t banked on her alighting at Oxford with her pal. I couldn’t let the chance pass though, could I? I was always partial to teenage boys. When she left hers on the train, discarded and motherless, to continue the journey to the end of the line, to their escape home, haha, she hadn’t banked on there being no escape. Nor banked on me. I recognised him straightaway once she was gone and he sat alone. Her Facebook party photos meant I knew all her family.

I didn’t know he was travelling with her. I wouldn’t have come had I known. I would have waited for another time but things have a way of working out. He didn’t know me, so wasn’t prepared. Me, a harmless hag, nondescript. I looked him in the eye as I took him away from her.

Perhaps it’s better this way?                            

Categories
Members Free Fiction

BLIND LOVE

A Flash Fiction piece by Louise Mangos

You learn to adapt when it happens at an early age. You memorise every wall of your flat and each corner of your furniture. Light switches are redundant when he’s not at home.

You hear when he’s a hundred yards from the door. His keys jangle like tiny cathedral bells. His guilt gusts in on the evening chill. She wears no perfume when he’s been with her, but there’s no hiding the musky odour of passion.

You know where all the buttons are on the stove. The radio helps you keep track of time. You smell the oil when it’s ready for frying. At the back of the fridge is a chicken breast, forgotten for a number of weeks. Slathered in your coriander and harissa sauce, you gauge the meat in the pan by the suppleness at your fingertips.

Revenge is best served half-cooked.

Winner of the Crimefest Flash Bang competition in 2017

Copyright Louise Mangos

Categories
Members Free Fiction

Driving Home for Christmas

Roxie Key

I slam the boot shut on the third attempt. It’s jam-packed full of Christmas presents; I’d gone overboard as usual. Maybe even more so this year. With Aiden gone, I need to make it up to Tammy. She doesn’t understand; she’s only two. The least I can do is give her a nice Christmas. I check my phone. We’re fifteen minutes late. I roll my eyes at the thought of mum getting in a tizz, my perfect bloody sister who’d have arrived an hour early, done the washing up and set the flipping table by now. I hoist Tammy into her car seat, checking the straps three times. My phone bleeps. Low battery. I glance at the boot. Somewhere, amongst the glittering gifts and weekend bags, is my phone charger. I glance at Tammy, who is giving her undivided attention to a packet of chocolate buttons, and whip into the house for the spare charger. I’m in and out in thirty seconds. Door locked. I step towards the car, then dash back to check again, as if by some miracle it had unlocked itself. Definitely locked. I slide into the driver’s seat and tuck my phone under my right leg, as I always do. You never know what might happen.

‘Hi.’ As I pull onto the main road, I hear Tammy’s little voice, thick with milky chocolate.

‘Hey, sweetie.’ I smile into the rear-view mirror, but she’s not looking at me.

She’s looking behind me.

Pain blooms around my throat as my head is pinned violently to the head rest. I reach a hand to my neck, and there’s a belt or strap digging into my throat.

‘What the fuck?’

I feel hot breath in my ear. ‘Keep driving.’ A woman’s voice, deadly quiet. 

‘What do you want? Money?’

‘Shut the fuck up. Keep driving. M1 northbound. Go.’

I swallow, my throat dry and sticky. ‘Please,’ I rasp. ‘Who are you?’

I reach out to adjust my rear-view mirror, and I see her face. Heavy with anguish. Shadows under piercing blue eyes. A face I recognise. But from where?

‘Does Jenny Hurst mean anything to you?

Why do I know that name?

‘Tammy, are you okay sweetheart?’ I keep my voice light, hoping she hasn’t picked up on what’s going on.

‘She’s fine. And she will be if you do what I say.’ I see the glint of a knife.

‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Okay. Jenny? Are you Jenny? How do I know you?’

‘You were on the jury.’

My world tilts. Jenny fucking Hurst. Five years ago, I’d been the forewoman on her GBH trial. The one who delivered Jenny’s fate. Now, here she was. In my car. Threatening my daughter’s life. My sweet, innocent Tammy.

I steel myself as we join the M1. ‘I’m sorry. It was a unanimous decision. It wasn’t my personal decision.’

Jenny sits back, absent-mindedly twirling the leg of Tammy’s toy monkey around her finger.

I bristle, but try to keep my voice steady. ‘What do you want? Where are you making me go?’

We’re getting further away from mum. From my sister. From anyone who can help.

‘You’ll see.’

‘Why are you doing this?’

She leans sideways, dangling the monkey in front of my daughter’s face. Tammy makes a grab for it with sticky starfish-shaped hands, but Jenny swings it out of the way. She repeats this several times, and Tammy’s face screws up in confusion. She’s never been taunted like this before.

‘Jenny.’

Our eyes connect in the mirror. ‘I spent two years locked up. My husband left me. He took my kids. I have nothing.’

‘I can help you.’ I grasp at straws, prepared to say anything to save my daughter. ‘I can pay for you to get a lawyer–’

‘Oh, enough!’ She slams my headrest with a fist and my head jolts forward.

‘I couldn’t believe my luck when I passed you in Tesco. I’ve been watching you ever since. With your perfect little life.’

‘If you think my life’s perfect–’

‘Will you just. Stop. Talking.’ Her hand grips the top of Tammy’s car seat, inches from my daughter’s beautiful head.

The roaring of tyres and the blood rushing in my ears are the only sounds I can hear.

Jenny’s eyes drift to the window. I dread to think what she’s daydreaming about.

A vibration under my leg reminds me that my phone is within reaching distance. I glance in the mirror again, and Jenny is still preoccupied, one hand still grasping the thing around my neck. Whilst trying to keep my head impossibly still and my eyes pinned to the road, I slide the phone out. On the fourth attempt, I unlock it. What now? My eyes flit to Jenny, then to the phone resting on my leg. I tap on the WhatsApp icon. It opens on our family group chat. I can barely see what I’m typing… I try to type HELP and share my live location. I pray to a god I don’t believe in that I’ve done both these things properly.

‘What are you doing?’ A sharp voice slices into my thoughts.

‘Nothing.’ My eyes fix firmly on the road.

‘What’s in your lap?’

‘Nothing. I had an itch.’ I let the phone slip in between my knees, out of sight.

She narrows her eyes. ‘Just fucking drive.’ The thing around my neck is pulled tighter.

I do the maths in my head. I’ve been driving for five minutes. That means I’m ten minutes from mum’s house. If they pick up my message straight away, they could be just ten minutes behind me. The way my sister drives, it could even be seven.

I scrabble around in my head for an idea of how to attract attention. As I pass a speed camera, a thought occurs. Glancing in the mirror, I see that Jenny is staring at Tammy with a funny look on her face. A desperate yearning. My jaw sets, and I press down gently on the accelerator. Not enough for her to notice. Slowly, gradually, I increase the speed. 75. 80. 85. Fast enough to be pulled over by the police.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Her voice slices through the silence and my whole body fizzes with dread. ‘Slow the fuck down.’

‘Sorry,’ I stammer. ‘I didn’t realise I was speeding.’

‘Like fuck you didn’t. Don’t you dare try attracting attention.’

I drive in silence, my heart hammering against my ribs. I take deep breaths. I can’t lose my shit. Not today.

‘Turn off here,’ she says sharply.

I indicate without question, panic spiking in my chest. I drive on for what feels like miles, Jenny barking directions, all the while gripping onto the belt around my neck. I’m going as slow as I can. Buying myself some time.

And then I see the sign that says ‘quarry’.

‘Turn in there.’

‘Why are we here?’ I’m shaking. I can’t stop.

‘Just drive in there, where the fence is broken.’

I manoeuvre the car over the bumpy grass and through the broken part of the fence. ‘What are you going to do?’

Jenny’s eyes meet mine. ‘I’m going to take Tammy out of the car now. And you’re going to drive over the edge of the quarry.’ Her voice is devoid of emotion. And so much emotion is erupting inside me. I want to scream as she reaches over and unclips Tammy’s car seat, pulling my daughter into her lap and reaching for the door handle. She still holds the knife in her left hand.

‘Please,’ I beg. ‘There must be another way around this.’

She shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.’

Tammy is crying now, reaching for me. But she’s pinned to Jenny, as I am to my seat.

‘If you won’t drive yourself into the quarry, it’s no problem. You’re going to end up in there either way.’ She points the knife at me. ‘I’m getting out now.’

‘Wait!’ I shout. What can I do to stall her?

Her eyes slide back to mine, waiting to hear what I have to say.

But I’m frozen.

Something steals her focus; her head snaps to one side. I twist painfully. It’s another car.

‘Fucking hell.’ Jenny’s face contorts in anger as she stares at the approaching vehicle, the knife still hovering in the air by my face. This isn’t part of her plan.

Taking advantage of her distraction, I make a grab for the knife, the blade slicing into the soft skin of my palm, and plunge it behind me, into her thigh; the only part of her I can reach.

For a split second, I’m paralysed with fear that I’ve missed her and hit my daughter instead, but then Jenny screams out, flinging Tammy to one side, freeing up her hands to yank the blade out and stem the blood flow. My fingers, slippery with her blood mixed with mine, fumble around behind the headrest to release the strap. The pressure on my neck makes me dizzy, but I manage to free myself. I reach for my daughter and pull her into the front seat.

What happens next isn’t my plan but makes perfect logical sense in the heat of the moment. I release the handbrake. Apply the child locks. Stumble out of the car. Slam the door shut. Shove the car over the edge of the quarry.

I collapse to the ground with Tammy clinging onto me like a koala, as the approaching car pulls to a stop beside us. My sister tumbles out, her face twisted in horror at the sight of us both covered in blood at the edge of a quarry on Christmas Eve.

But we are okay. And Jenny’s gone now.

Copyright 2020 Roxie Key

Categories
Members Free Fiction

3 Flash Fiction

Rob Scragg

Bad Samaritan

“My whole life was in that purse.” She blinked, fighting back tears. “Phone, keys, diary….Could’ve been worse.” She smiled weakly. “Don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t chased him off. I can’t thank you enough for the lift, or for calling the locksmith.”

“Did you get a look at their face?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, he was wearing a hoodie.” Fresh snakes of mascara marked her meandering tear tracks.

She noticed a light on upstairs as they approached her house; must have left it on this morning.

She approached the door. It was open, just a crack, but open. As she pushed he followed behind her and shoved, fast, hard, sending her sprawling.

A dark figure in a familiar hoodie, his partner, emerged from the shadows, knife glinting by its side

“Took your time brother.” it said. “I’m ready for her upstairs now.”

Wrong Place, Right Time

Three glasses of Prosecco later, she wrote him off as a no-show and headed home for a hastily concocted Plan B – Friday night chick-flick and Camomile tea. So much for the ‘Prince Charming’ claims on his profile.

Three days later, the headlines stopped her mid-crouch Monday morning as she snatched the newspaper from her doormat.

Local man charged with murder

The face. Prince Charming.

Her brain processed one word in four, scanning furiously.

Anna Hutton, twenty-seven, last seen leaving Porter’s Wine Bar.

A grainy CCTV picture. His face. No doubt, it was him.

The woman – red dress, dark hair. Could be her sister.

Porters – the same chain she’d been stood up at. Different venue, half a mile away.

She had stood him up, albeit unintentionally – not the other way around. Wrong bar!

She sank to the floor, relief and horror attacking her simultaneously.

Could’ve been me. Should’ve been me.

A Mother’s Love 

A sombre sea of black surrounds the grave, but they part like ripples on a pond as I approach. I feel their stares, like scalpels trying to peel away my layers and expose my pain. The coffin begins its snails-pace descent, and the parallel universe I’ve lived in this past week is crushed under the weight of reality. 

This is actually happening. 

He…Is…Gone. 

I press a handkerchief against the black mascara snakes on each cheek, and the gesture is met with sympathetic smiles all round. How different their expressions would be if they knew they were tears of relief, not grief. 

I feel an urge to confess, a Bond Villain revealing their plans for world domination. 

I did this! I stopped him! 

But where’s the glory in that? My baby’s safe. No-one can hurt her now. Not even her own father. 

Categories
Members Free Fiction

I Survived!

Danny Marshall

Ok that’s not really a spoiler, since I’m now writing about the most terrifying night of my life. My therapist told me to start a journal, she says it’ll help me keep perspective after what happened. She’ll never read it, but she reckons just getting things out of my head and onto paper is a great coping mechanism.

So I’ll kick off this journal with me hiding behind the shower curtain (cliché, I know, bear with). I was at Lori’s place, in her bathroom, and I wasn’t alone in the house.

Footsteps creaked down the hallway. Only it wasn’t Lori — I knew that for a fact because the last time I’d seen her she’d been lying on the bedroom floor with a bloody great kitchen knife sticking out of her neck.

Since we’d been disturbed right in the middle of enjoying ourselves I was naked, vulnerable. The footsteps crept closer, the stranger was taking his time, relishing his hunt.

I watch all the horror films. Slashers, video nasties, so I know what you’re thinking. Hiding in the bath? First place he’ll look! Maybe, but trust me, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, bollock naked with no weapons, you’d do the same.

Timbers groaned, his breaths came deep and hoarse, I shrank back against the tiles with the music from Psycho stuck in my head.

I thought back to the newspaper on Lori’s coffee table – specifically, the headline that’d knocked the Falklands off the front page, locally at least. Masked Serial Killer stalks Halifax. It was only last year Sutcliffe was sent down and now everyone was talking about this, with the papers blaming everything from video nasties to Nintendo.

It made for great news.

Not so great on the receiving end, and I’d no intention of ending up dead.

Next door had buggered off to the Costa Brava, nearest civilisation was The Slaughtered Lamb, the pub down the lane, so it was just me and him. I slowly pushed my head round the plastic curtain. From here I could see the empty landing, stairs leading down to freedom. I guess the video nasties got it wrong, the shower wasn’t the first place he looked.

A crash echoed round the house. He was in the spare room, looking for me; it was the chance I needed.

I crept along the landing, sweeping up my jeans. Down the stairs, another smash masking my steps as I grabbed the rest of the clothes that I’d discarded on our way up to the bedroom earlier.

Wood splintered as he continued to take his rage out on the furniture.

I ran to the front door. Locked. I looked around but couldn’t spot the key. More banging upstairs, screaming now too. Into the kitchen, I dropped my clothes to the floor, pulled my jeans on. As I did I glanced at the novelty Garfield phone, its curly wire tail trailing down the wall. Sadly I knew the line was dead, it was the first thing I’d checked (I told you, I watch a lot of scary movies).

I could still smell the pre-pub Bolognese Lori had cooked earlier. Plates and cutlery stacked next to the sink, couple of Babycham bottles; banal reminders of normality, the house didn’t care there was a serial killer on the loose.

I pulled my T-shirt over my head and just like that, I didn’t feel quite so vulnerable. Which was good, because the footsteps were coming again.

I looked at the back door, the garden beyond. The garden was safety. Where the hell are Lori’s keys?

I patted my jeans, felt my own car keys. I’d left the Capri down the pub – a ten minute drunken stagger but at least it gave me something to aim for.

Noises were amplified in the darkness, the stairs protesting under someone much bigger and scarier than me.

I poked my head round the kitchen door in time to see a filthy boot descend, followed by workman’s trousers, dark overalls. I looked at my trainers on the mat, too late, nowhere to go, I slid off the floor onto the worktop, squashing up behind the door.

The sounds dragged closer, agonisingly slowly, finally he stood in the doorway, a nightmare shadow stretched across the tiles, long legs and wide body bending up the cupboards. I held my breath.

He didn’t. I could hear him rasping on the other side of the door, an inch of plywood separating us. A blade appeared round the door, a faint red smear streaked the wood. The knife that’d killed Lori. What an idiot I was, ignoring the first rule of scary movies – grab a weapon. The knife block stood at the other end of the kitchen, well out of reach.

He lurched into the kitchen. I pulled my knees right up under my chin, looking at the back of his head, lank mullet, huge shoulders, huge knife. He took another step forward, sniffing the air, feral. The blade flashed centimetres from my toes.

I was screwed; any second now he’d turn to see me cowering behind the door. I made a snap decision, one that saved my life.

I straightened my leg, foot out in one fluid motion, heel outstretched. Perfection; I got him right at the base of his big granite skull, that pit where your spine goes up into your brain. He flew at the door, arms out, unfortunately for him it was glazed, his hands disappeared with a smash. He staggered, swayed, I jumped down and aimed a kick into his belly, he slumped with a growl, legs thrashing. I backed away, feeling for the doorway, my slim advantage evaporating.

I ran blindly into the dining room, where thin curtains billowed across a carpet littered with broken glass. Classic horror film entry point. I winced at the jagged edges round the frame, but it’d have to do.

I dived through, slicing myself a few times but at least I was out, free, in the sticky summer night.

The grass was damp with morning dew. I looked over at the woods I knew so well; normally I’d be able to lose someone in there but not in the dark, and especially not without my shoes.

A crash of glass on tiles pulled my eyes to the back door. No shape, thin trickles of blood on the doorframe were all that remained. I sprinted round the side of the house, down the lane, heading for safety.

My feet slapped worn cobbles as I ran across the front of the house. As I approached the front door an alarm triggered in my mind, something amiss; too late I registered the black space where the door should have been.

He launched from the open doorway.

Shining teeth, a furious snarl, we collided, crashing to the ground, rolling into the damp weeds.

Getting to my car was no longer an option, hiding or running no longer an option; I needed to finish this. I swung my right arm up, his nose exploded against my elbow. I tried to throw up my left arm but for some reason it refused to move.

He pulled his hands to his face, blood streaming between his fingers, mingling with the blood from his torn wrists, dripping onto my chest. I tried to move but he pushed his weight down. I strained, again my left arm refused to move. I turned my head, cried in pain. The kitchen knife was embedded in my shoulder.

He grinned, teeth glowing in the moonlight as he panted like an animal. Fat fingers encircled my throat, I struggled but he was too big, too powerful.

His teeth stopped glowing, my vision dimmed, the world gained a fuzzy border, creeping inwards until all I could see was that grin. I had just seconds left.

I reached across my chest, gripped the handle of the kitchen knife still embedded in my shoulder. He either didn’t notice or care. In one movement I slid the knife out, pulled it down to my stomach, thrust upwards. I twisted, the effect was instantaneous. He roared, rolling away, clutching between his legs as if that would reattach things. I climbed on top, bringing the knife in hard against his neck.

I knelt on top of him, catching my breath as he spluttered, losing his. I yanked the knife out of his neck and watched his life pump out in little rivers between the ancient cobbles.

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply for what seemed like ages, feeling the air filling my lungs right up, savouring life. When I opened my eyes the sky seemed a little brighter, darkness had lost, trees were full of song, the air was thick with that warm damp smell of a summer dawn.

I’d survived!

I looked down at the lifeless body beneath me, didn’t recognise the guy from round here.

Which is really odd, because I’d been watching Lori’s house from the woods most of the day. Just like all the others; nice and remote, easily cut phone lines, no neighbours to hear the screams.

I pulled off my Thatcher mask, let it drop it to the cobbles. This must have been the boyfriend I’d overheard Lori talking about in the pub, probably works shifts or something, he’d returned in the middle of the night before I could finish with his girlfriend.

As I collected my shoes and wiped the place down I decided this was good – I’d taken on this brute, this monster, and I’d triumphed. If I can do that, I can do anything!

Thanks therapist, you were right; writing it down really is helping me get perspective.

In fact, I might branch out to a whole family when my arm’s better.

Copyright 2020 Danny Marshall

Categories
Members Free Fiction

Death of a Diva – Opening 3 Chapters

Derek Farrell

Chapter One

The crowd were getting restless. It was well past midnight, and my star turn should have been on stage at eleven thirty.

She’s a Diva; I said to myself as I climbed the stairs, this is what they do: They keep their audience waiting till the rooms at fever pitch.

From below me, I could hear the chant beginning again. “Ly-ra! Ly-ra!” Coupled with a tuneless version of: “Why are we waiting?”

She’s a has-been, I answered myself. She should be happy to be working. I was angry. But I was a little frightened too: everything I had in the world, plus everything I was likely to have for the next ten years was invested in tonight, and I couldn’t afford for this to screw up. I needed a big opening act, and getting Lyra Day had been a godsend.

But that was before I’d met her. The woman, put simply, was a monster. She hadn’t said anything since her arrival this afternoon that hadn’t been steeped in vitriol.

More than once, I’d wanted to tell her to take her collection of ratty looking wigs and her rack of too-tight sequinned mini dresses, and fuck right back to obscurity; I’d hire a drag queen instead.

But each time I’d stomped back down to the bar, where Ali and the ASBO twins were filling the shelves and fridges with the stock I’d used my old man’s credit card to purchase, the sound system was blasting Ms Lyra Day’s greatest Hits; classic tunes like ‘Love in the dark,’ and ‘Highway Lover.’ Then, from her inadvertently camp Country album Lyra in Nashville, the hilariously overblown ‘I hope you’re happy (But I wish that you were dead’), and I knew that there wasn’t a drag queen around that would draw the crowds the way that Lyra Day would. So I’d bitten my tongue, kept my peace, and taken it like a man.

And now the bitch was just taking the piss.

Ly-Ra! Ly-Ra!” The crowd were getting louder, and I could feel a trickle of sweat running down my back as I stood at the top of the stairs, looking down the landing to the door of the dressing room.

The landing stretched out before me, the threadbare carpet like some grimy trail to doom. Follow the crappy brown road, I heard my inner munchkin voice, and realised that I was close to becoming hysterical.

The newly painted walls already looked grimy in the dull yellow light from the single unshaded bulb, which hung halfway down the landing, and under which I stopped and listened.

Apart from the crowd downstairs, and the thumping of my own heart, I couldn’t hear a sound. Foster should be doing this, I thought, cursing her husband/manager as a useless turd: The sort of manager who didn’t so much manage as acquiesce.

And that’s when I heard the sound of smashing glass. In most bars on a Saturday night, you’ll hear, at one time or another, the sound of breaking glass. But this wasn’t any bar, and this wasn’t any Saturday night. This was the Marquess of Queensberry Public House, and this was the opening Night under my management, and this was my bar, and it was about to be demolished by a crazed bunch of pissed-up homos because this raddled old tart couldn’t get her act together, get her arse downstairs on time, mime to her twenty minute set, smile at the queens and collect her money.

And now, I was furious. I stalked towards the dressing room door.

“Lyra,” I said, loud enough for her to hear me, “If you don’t get your arse on stage and sing those fucking songs now, I’ll murder you!”

But, of course, she couldn’t hear me, she couldn’t get her arse on stage, and she would never be singing any of those songs again. Because someone had beaten me to it.

The door swung open at my touch, and I stepped into the room; there were several lamps dotted around the space, and each light was on. The curtains were drawn, and the rack of tacky looking dresses stood in one corner, the sequins shimmering inside the plastic cocoons. Beside the door, and reflected in the mirror of a dressing table positioned directly across the room, a small portable T.V. was turned on and playing, with the sound turned down, some mid 80’s action movie: Jean Claude van Damme flexed his muscles, and, when he opened his mouth, no sound came out. I’d had some boyfriends who might have been longer on the scene if they, too, had had that skill.

And at the dressing table, wearing a towering, curl infested wig and a tight fitting, mother of pearl coloured silk gown, with her head laying on the table surrounded by what I at first thought was powdered foundation, was Lyra Day.

Or, more correctly, the late Lyra Day.

Chapter Two

            I guess my world, really, changed when I found Robert shagging the window cleaner.

The day hadn’t started too well, to be honest. We’d been together, Robert and I, for about seven years, and I’d been working at Glamrag for twelve.

Robert was a lawyer at Fitzgerald-Parker, the city law firm. They’d been brought in when the magazine was going through one of its periodic takeover battles.  We’d met, got on, dated, and the next thing I know, he’s asking me to move in with him.

Robert was from money – his parents had had it, and his grandparents had had it. His great grandparents probably employed some of my Irish relatives on my mother’s side as parlour maids and gamekeepers on their estates. I was from debt – my great grandparents had had it, my grandparents had had it, and my mother had borrowed the money for the ticket on the mail boat that brought her, eventually, to South London.

So I moved in to the house in Windsor and tried to cover the fact that I felt alien, lost, like I was always waiting for Robert to realise I’d put out the wrong fish knives, and, with a look of horror on his face, announce “Good Gad, man! You’re a prole! Leave my house this instant!

But he didn’t, and I eventually settled into my life, and into my love – and it was love.

And I got used to the fact that he earned much more than I ever would, and that he paid for the first class flights to Sydney for Mardi Gras, that he owned the apartment in Miami where we spent most Christmases, that it was his money that paid for the rented cottage in Provence in September each year.

But I wasn’t a leech; I’ve always lived by my grandfather’s motto “From each according to their ability to each according to their need.” Okay, so maybe my granddad stole that one from Marx, but that Karl was a very wise man, though I always thought it a shame he never went into the family act. He’d have been a lot funnier than the one with the horn.

I paid for the groceries, I paid for the cleaning woman, and I paid, once a week, for the window cleaner.

And I did this from my meagre earnings as a senior Correspondence co-ordinator (A.K.A. Mailroom boy) at a magazine that seemed always to be on the edge of bankruptcy, which meant, frankly, that I was always in debt.

But I was happy, and I was in love.

So all was well with the world.

And then, on the morning in question, I rose from my bed, stepped into the wet room, showered, dressed, and went off to work.

And, at 10:15, was informed that, due to “Budget restrictions,” and “The reduction in physical mail generated by our move onto the information superhighway,” I was being made redundant.

But I shouldn’t feel too bad about it, I was told, because “Lots of departments are getting chopped. They’re getting the bullet left right and centre, Dan. I swear, it’s a bloody massacre.”

I fixed the biddy from HR with my best impersonation of Robert’s patrician stare, wondered what made her think that joking about the pain of others would reduce my pain at that point, debated asking her why she had that ever-so-slightly triumphant smirk on her face, searched for something cutting and clever with which to express my contempt, came up with “Go fuck yourself, you dried up old bitch,” and was dragged, ranting, from the building by two rather butch security guards, who had obviously been hired on a day rate for just such an eventuality.

Picking myself up from the pavement, I dusted myself down, and made my way back to Windsor, where I was surprised to see Robert’s Audi still in the driveway. Must be working from home, I thought, little realising just what sort of work he was undertaking.

Having peeped into his study, and found it empty, I stood miserably in the hallway, and that was when I heard the noises from upstairs.

This, of course, led me to mounting the stairs and discovering something horrible at the end of the hallway (not the last time that would happen to me).

There they were – Robert and Andy, he of the emerald green eyes and button nose – on the Ralph Lauren sheets, the duvet thrown to one side.

There was a moment – one of those split seconds of silence that seems to stretch into infinity, then:

“You’re home early,” Robert said.

And I stood there, my mouth moving, but no sounds coming out, looking, for all the world, like Posh Spice doing mental arithmetic, and the silence stretched.

While Robert continued to do to Andy what he’d been doing when I first opened the bedroom door.

“Jesus, Danny,” he finally said, “either get your kit off and join in, or make us a cup of tea.”

And that’s when the mist descended, your honour. I swear, until I came to covered in blood with the two bodies in the back of Robert’s Audi, I had no idea what was happening.

Well, that’s how it could have gone. But it didn’t. I stood staring down on the two of them, still entangled in each other’s arms, thinking I wondered why those conservatory windows hadn’t been done in weeks: Filthy they were, whilst trying to remember whether Andy took sugar or not.

And then he grinned at me. Andy – he of the emerald green eyes and button nose – grinned at me, and he actually fucking winked.

Which was how I found myself – as if in a trance – turning my back on them, walking down the stairs, along the hallway, out the door, and back up the drive – as Robert hung out of the cleanest bedroom windows in Windsor and called after me to come back; that we could talk about it; that I shouldn’t be such a stupid boy.

And I realised that all I had left in the whole wide world was my travel card, twelve pounds fifty in change, an overdrawn bank account.

And my pride.

I kept on walking.

Chapter Three

            “Well this doesn’t look too good.”

            I jumped – literally jumped – like a scalded  cat, my hand flying to my neck as though I were a duchess clutching her pearls.

            Before me lay the strangled figure of Lyra Day, her stupid bloody wig surrounded by what, on closer inspection, turned out to be sparkly white powder. Powder I was willing to bet would numb the gums and have the heart racing in no time at all. If her heart hadn’t been stopped permanently.

            Powder that had been the cause of an argument the last time I’d spoken to her. An argument caused by her refusal to perform unless I provided cocaine, and my absolute refusal to provide the said substance.

            “You’ll get your arse on that stage, woman, and you’ll perform, or I’ll personally wring your bloody neck,” had been the last words I’d spoken to her.

            And behind me, stood Caz – or, to give her full name, Lady Caroline Victoria Genevieve Jane De Montfort, only daughter of the thirteenth Earl of Holloway.

            “Lord, how much has she had?” Caz stepped past me and inspected the prone figure on the dressing table. “Calm down, tiger; we’ll bring her round, slip a couple of brandies down her throat – bugger Rehab, this is an emergency – and shove her out on stage.”

            I glanced at the table, at the sparkling powder, the disturbed perfumes and potions, at the little clear baggies scattered haphazardly amongst the chaos of the dressing table, each one printed with a picture of a snowflake, and knew that the only way Lyra Day was going anywhere was on a stretcher.

            Still, Caz kept on going: “Nobody will be any the wiser. What?”

            She’d caught sight of something – the look of sheer horror on my face, perhaps – and frowned, glancing back down at the dressing table.

            “What’s up,” she asked, stepping closer to Lyra, and reaching a hand out to her.

            “Stop!” I called, but it was too late; she’d touched my star turn.

            Caz frowned, reached another hand forward, felt for a pulse on the neck, glanced at me, raised an immaculately waxed eyebrow in what I suppose was a show of surprise and concern, and reached out to raise the head by pulling on the hair.

            This, since it was a wig, allowed traction only so far, before separating from the scalp, whereupon the Late Ms Day’s head flopped forward, and she head-butted the table.

            “Jesus, Danny,” Caz now had both eyebrows raised, “What have you done?”

            “Me?” I grabbed, once again, at the theoretical pearls. “I just found her. She was like that already.”

            “Well it’s going to take more than a few Redbulls and Brandies to get her on stage.”

            “Is she…” I asked.

            “Afraid so. Bald as a billiard ball. Oh, and dead too. And more than likely, based on that smack she just got, the victim of a post-mortem broken nose.”

            “Shit.”

            “They’ll burn the place to the ground,” she said, nodding a head towards the sound of the increasingly restive crowd.

            “Do me a favour,” I answered, “Leave me in it. I’m dead anyways. Might as well save on the crematorium fees.”

            “How’d this happen,” Caz asked, her eyes roving around the room.

            “Well I’m no expert,” I said, pointing at the dark bruises on the ex-Diva’s neck, “But I’d guess someone put their hands around her throat and squeezed till she stopped breathing. Question is: Who could have wanted to kill her?”

            “Oh, Daniel,” Caz fixed me with the sort of pitying glance she usually reserves for those people who try to pair a Top Shop bag with a pair of Prada pumps. “Who wouldn’t have wanted to: The woman was a black belt bitch.”

            I was raised by a mother who was very strong on the whole never speak ill of the dead thing. Still, even I had to admit that Caz might have had a point; since her arrival at the bar that morning, Lyra Day had managed to sow unrest, ill-feeling, upset and downright hatred faster than a fourteen year old sweatshop worker on piece rates could sew sequins on a couture dress.

            And now she was lying, face down, dead and bald in the dressing room of the pub I managed, whilst underneath me a mini riot looked likely. There was only one thing for it.

            From the Vuitton bag she never let leave her side, Caz produced a bottle of Tanqueray ten, unscrewed the lid, took a deep and slow swig, and handed the bottle to me.

            “Brazil’s nice at this time of year,” she said as I felt the sting of the gin hit the back of my throat. “You know; in case you need to make a run for it.”

“Not funny, Caz,” I gasped, taking another swig. “What am I gonna do?”

            “Well, the first thing you’re not going to do,” she said, wrestling the bottle back from me, recapping it and stowing it in the deep recesses of the Gladstone, “Is panic. You’re an innocent man. There’s no need to panic.”

            “Right; cos innocent men never end up in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.”

            “Oh grow up, Danny: You’ve been downstairs all night. I can vouch for you. No: We need to be calm and controlled about this.”

            Caz – as a child of the gentry – was never required to attend the state-funded comprehensive school system. Not for her a curriculum of text-speak English, lessons on how to safely reheat a Tesco ready meal, how to make your own crack pipe from a discarded Stella can, and ways to avoid unwanted teen pregnancies. Instead, in several highly respected and hugely expensive private establishments, Lady Caroline learned the skills that the upper class female has required since Gladstone was in bloomers: Poise in the face of peril; detachment in the face of disaster; an ability to remain fragrant when your husband’s been caught in flagrante, and, above all, the ability to avoid disaster with deceit.

            “We could roll her up in that thing,” she said, gesturing at a muted rag rug, “Dump her in a skip a few streets over, and say that, when you came to collect her, she’d done a runner.”

            “Gimme the gin,” I demanded, reaching a hand out for the bottle, uncapping it, swigging deeply, and handing it back to her.

            Only then did I speak: “Are you seriously suggesting we disturb a crime scene, tip a corpse in a dumpster, and throw away the most expensive piece of furnishing in this room?”

            “Did you say dumpster so you’d sound like you were in a CSI?” she asked.

            “Possibly,” I answered, realising, as the first lot of gin made my cheeks go numb, that I hadn’t eaten all day.

            “Well done. But back to the point: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. Do you have any better ideas?”

            “Call the law,” I said. “It’s what usually happens when someone gets murdered.

            “Even though half the pub heard you threaten to do to her what – you claim – some mysterious third party has subsequently done?”

            “But I’m innocent; you said you’d give me an alibi.”

            “Oh sweetie, that was just to calm you down. I’ve been on the sauce since lunchtime. Ray Charles could see through any alibi I’d give you. And as you so rightly pointed out, the prisons are filled with innocent men. Haven’t you ever seen Les miserables?”

            “Years ago, but I don’t recall it centred on the disposal of the corpse of a bitchy disco chanteuse.”

            Caz snorted. The sound was almost identical to the noise a pedigreed pony might make when presented with inferior oats. “Chanteuse? Belter, more like. Talking of which: There’s more than one or two people downstairs who’d quite happily have belted – let alone throttled – her. You might get away with it, you know.”

            “There’s nothing to get away with!” I almost shrieked. “I didn’t kill her!”

            “Of course you didn’t,” she said, the look on her face expressing horror that I could even have suggested such a thing. “You’re the most honest man I know. You’ve never been in trouble. Apart from that day you tried to strangle poor old Brenda.”

            “I did not try to strangle Brenda. I was merely very upset at being fired from the mag.”

            “As was I, dear; but I didn’t try squeezing the life out of the directress of HR. Yes, I’m afraid only one of us was forcibly dragged from the building that day. Was it true you were foaming at the mouth? Only I heard you were, and, of course, I denied it. He’d never foam, I said. Froth, possibly, but that’s a far more luxe type of insanity. “

            “Caz, really, what am I gonna do? I’m fucked.”

            “No you’re not. As I said, this doesn’t look good. But you’re not fucked. You have me, and where there’s Caz, there’s hope.” She pulled her mobile from the bag, along with two miniatures of Jack Daniels, passed one to me, unscrewed the other with her teeth, whilst dialling, and, having swigged the bottle dry in one go, lifted the phone to her ear her tone becoming perceptibly more cut glass. “Hello? Police, please. I’d like to report a murder…”

            And that’s when we heard the sirens.

Copyright Derek Farrell

Categories
Members Free Fiction

Doorstepped

Russ Thomas

Ida was opening the front door when the buzzer rang.

‘Crikey!’ she said, clutching her chest. ‘You gave me a fright.’

The young man standing on the doorstep grinned at her. ‘Sorry, love.’ The grin widened to show a few more teeth. ‘Ah didn’t mean to scare yer.’ She didn’t recognise the accent. Something Northern, she thought. He was a pretty young lad though.

‘I’ve got a few things I’m selling, you know?’ He held up an enormous kit bag that must weigh a ton. ‘Household stuff, that sort of thing. Thought you might be interested. It’s all cheaper than the shops and I’m only here for the day…’ The young man rattled on with his spiel but by now, Ida thought she had the gist.

‘I don’t think –’

‘Only, ah was talking to your neighbour up a ways, and she thought you might be interested. She buys stuff off me all the time, like?’

‘You mean Shirley?’ Ida didn’t know many of the neighbours anymore. It wasn’t like it used to be in the old days, everyone in and out of each other’s houses. Of course, you could leave your doors open back then, with no fear of the consequences. It wasn’t like that now. But Shirley looked out for her. And having Gary next door was a great comfort as well. She glanced at the elaborate chain Gary had fixed to the front door a few weeks back. ‘You can never be too careful, Ida, love,’ he’d told her. Yes, it was nice to have someone she could rely on and she knew Gary felt the same, especially since the divorce. He helped out with a bit of maintenance, that sort of thing, and in return she popped round while he was at work and fed the cat, did a few household chores.

‘Ah haven’t got long,’ the young man said, somehow managing to make it sound like an apology. ‘Ah’ve got a lovely set of kitchen knives, like on the telly, only cheaper?’

Ida frowned at him. ‘It’s very kind of you but I was just on my way out. You see this –’

The man interrupted her again. ‘Look, love,’ he began, placing a foot on the doorstep and his hand on the door. ‘Ah’m in a bit of a hurry, myself. Ah’ve got other people to see, you know? People, ah’ve promised stuff to.’

Ida really wasn’t sure. She shouldn’t let a stranger in; Gary would be ever so cross with her. And he had a right temper on him, did Gary, when you got him riled up. It’s one of the things about him that reminded her of her Stan. On the other hand, where was the harm? This was just a young lad trying to make his way in the world. ‘Well, I suppose it’ll be alright, as long as you’re not too…’ The lad was pushing past her and on his way into the house before she’d finished her sentence.

By the time Ida had caught up to him, he had half the contents of his bag already laid out on the living room carpet. ‘What did you say your name was, again?’

‘Er… Matty. So, these are the knives. You’ve got your paring knife, Chef’s knife, bread knife…’ And so it went on.

There was a veritable treasure trove of goods in the bag. The knives, of course; an electric cheese grater – easier for arthritis sufferers; an egg-cup shaped like a penguin – the grandkids’ll love that; oven mitts with kittens on; a set of old-fashioned weighing scales with all the weights. How he’d managed to carry all this was anyone’s guess!

‘You’d be doing me a favour, love. You really would.’

Dusters, cleaning cloths, Hoover bags. Allsorts. All designed to make her life easier in ways she didn’t even realise were possible. And all of it, so much cheaper than the shops.

Before long Matty had thrown together an irregular-shaped pile of goods that he thought Ida might be interested in. It was a much bigger pile than the pile of things he thought she wouldn’t be interested in.

‘Right then,’ he said, finally running out of items to pull from the bag. ‘Ah’ll just tot this lot up, eh? See what the damage is?’

She couldn’t remember saying that she was actually going to buy anything. ‘I’m not sure if I can stretch to –’

‘Ah don’t suppose there’s any chance of a cuppa, is there? It’s thirsty work this, you know?’ He grinned again. He did have a pretty face. And a lovely smile.

*            *            *

When Ida got back with the tea, Matty was looking at the photos on the windowsill. ‘These the grandkids are they?’

‘Well, no…’ She glanced down at the kit bag which Matty had moved nearer to the hallway. It seemed a little bulkier than she remembered, but perhaps that was just her imagination. Or maybe, he’d put some of the items back, although, looking at the pile of items still on the carpet, she didn’t think so.

‘Ah bet you’re right proud of them, aren’t yer?’

‘Well, they’re lovely kids but they’re actually –’

‘Ah ‘spect you spoil them rotten, eh? Oh, thanks love.’ Matty took a large slurp of tea, wincing a little at the heat. ‘Anyway, Ah’ve added up what you owe me and I thought we’d call it a round ton.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘A hundred should cover it.’

‘A hundred pounds? Oh… I didn’t realise it was going to come to that much.’

‘Ah’ve done you a good deal there, love. The knife set for half price, and I haven’t even charged you for the marigolds.’

‘That is good of you but… I really haven’t got that sort of money.’

Matty’s face began to harden.

‘Not here, anyway. I was just on my way to the shops when you arrived. I’ve not taken any money out yet.’

Matty’s face softened again. ‘Don’t you worry about it, love. Ah tell you what, why don’t I come with you to the bank while you get the money out? I can even help you carry your shopping back.’

That was very sweet of him, she thought. A nice touch. ‘Would you? That’s very kind. But didn’t you say you were in a hurry? I wouldn’t want to put you out.’

‘Don’t you worry about it, love, it’s no trouble.’

As she shrugged back into her coat she saw Matty reaching for his bag. ‘Oh, you might as well leave that, dear. You can pick it up when you get back. Save those shoulders of yours.’

‘But I –’

‘You did say you’d help me with the shopping?’

Matty let the bag slip back to the floor with a clink. ‘Sure,’ he said.

*            *            *

She made sure she locked the front door as they left. You just couldn’t be too careful these days. It was a nice afternoon and she enjoyed the walk in Matty’s company, although he seemed much quieter than before, almost as though he was worried about something. It didn’t matter. It was nice just to have some company. And handsome company, at that. She took his arm and found herself telling him about Stan, about their life together. But she got the distinct impression he wasn’t all that interested. Hardly listened at all. Still, that was the young for you. Always thinking they invented everything.

They were passing the mini-market when Ida stopped short. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘I haven’t done my shop yet; I’ll have nothing for my tea.’

‘We can get it on the way back.’

‘Oh, but they’ll be closing soon. I’ll just nip in now.’ She turned to go and then stopped again. ‘I forgot, I haven’t taken any money out yet.’

‘What about your card?’

‘Oh, I don’t use them. I like to keep track. I’m sorry, your visit’s thrown me out today. I’m all at sixes and sevens.’ She smiled sweetly at the young man. ‘I don’t suppose… well I realise it’s an imposition but perhaps I could borrow a little money and we can add it on to what I owe you?’

Matty hesitated, then sighed and pulled out his wallet. ‘Ah’ve only got a fifty,’ he said.

‘That’ll be fine,’ Ida said, snatching the note from his fingers. ‘Shan’t be long.’

*            *            *

Shortly after Ida got home she heard a huge commotion outside. It seemed to be coming from next door. She inched back the net curtains to have a look and saw Gary arguing with someone on his doorstep.

‘But… she owes me money! And all me stuff!’

It had been good of Mr Abdalla to let her out the back door of the mini-mart. She wondered how long Matty had waited for her. Long enough for her to get home and nip back round to Gary’s to collect all her new gear. It had taken her three trips too, to carry all that stuff. She’d put Gary’s belongings back first, of course. You didn’t widdle on your own doorstep. Stan had taught her that.

She almost felt sorry for the poor boy, but if he’d stopped to listen to her for two minutes he’d have known it wasn’t her house. It hadn’t been a bad con but the lad still had a lot to learn. If she was a few years younger she might have taken him under her wing. Just like she had Stan all those years ago. But those days were long gone. She’d settle for fifty quid and whatever the crap in the bag got her on eBay.

‘Look, mate,’ Gary said. ‘I’m telling you for the last time, there ain’t no old lady lives here. It’s just me, the kids, and me cat. Now piss off out of it!’

The argument went on a bit longer but, inevitably, Gary lost his temper. He was a good man, Gary, but he didn’t half have a short fuse. Poor boy, Ida thought as she drew back the curtain. Not such a pretty face now.

Copyright 2020 Russ Thomas

Categories
Members Free Fiction

A Very Special Preview of ‘Safe and Sound’

Philippa East

Chapter One

Before I started in this job, I used to picture bailiffs bashing in people’s doors and dragging furniture out into the street.

Of course, it isn’t like that really. We’ve sent this tenant a letter to let her know we’re coming, all correct protocol with the London Housing Association that I work for. I have two bailiffs with me but, really, all we want to do today is to ensure that this tenant, Ms Jones, knows about her debts, and hopefully sort out a means for her to pay them. That’s why I’m here: as her Housing Manager. Hopefully, I can agree a payment plan with her, something to help her out of this mess.

The bailiff with the kind face takes a deep breath and knocks hard on the door. ‘Ms Jones? Ms Jones, we are here about your unpaid rent.’

I think I can make out voices coming from inside the flat, but as I lean closer I hear someone saying Capital FM!, and I realise it’s just the radio playing. If the radio is on though, I can be pretty sure she’s in there.

The bailiff knocks again, thump thump.

A song comes on a moment later: ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac. We’ll keep knocking and hope that eventually she will come to the door, even if she doesn’t open it. She has a right not to open it to us, but I really hope we can speak to her today. That way I have a chance to help. We can let things go for a while – the longest I can remember was four months – but we can’t just let it go on forever. Ms Jones is already three months behind. We’ve sent half a dozen letters already, but she didn’t reply to any of them, so now it’s come to this. If we can’t arrange some kind of payment schedule today, the next step is an eviction notice and I would really hate for it to come to that.

‘Ms Jones?’ the bailiff calls again.

There are footsteps on the stairs above. I step back and look up to see who’s coming. A neighbour from upstairs, nobody that I recognise, a black woman, smartly dressed, probably on her way out to work. There are dozens of people living in this block but now I wonder how many of them speak to each other or even know their neighbours’ names. But she must pass this way at least, most days. ‘Excuse me,’ I call out to her. ‘Do you know the tenant in this flat? Is she usually home at this time?’

The woman comes down the last few stairs.

‘She’s got the radio on,’ I say. ‘We’re assuming she’s in.’

The woman pauses next to us and shrugs. ‘Her radio is always on,’ she says. ‘I hear it every time I go by.’

She loiters for another moment between the staircase and the doors to the outside, sizing us up. But she is busy, she has her own life to be getting on with, and no doubt she’s learnt that it’s best in a big city like this not to get involved. ‘Sorry,’ she offers as she hitches her handbag more securely onto her shoulder and makes her way through the heavy door to the lobby.

We turn back to the flat and the other bailiff knocks this time, his fist bigger, his knock that bit louder. I look down at the file of papers I am still holding against my chest. I’ve been in this flat before; I checked the last tenant out. I can still picture it: the tiny apartment is only a bedsit really, tucked away on the ground floor, hidden under the stairs so you could quite easily miss it. The living room and bedroom are one and the same, the sofa tucked behind the front door doubling as a bed, and there is a kitchen, but only an archway divides the two, so you could hardly even call them separate rooms. There’s a tiny toilet, with a shower attachment that hangs, a little bit crooked, above a plastic bath. And that’s it.

The last tenant, I remember, only stayed a few months. They complained about the commercial waste bins that always somehow ended up against the rear wall of this block, even though they belonged to the restaurant twenty yards away. Then the flat was empty for a good while, until this tenant moved in a year ago. Into this flat, now allocated to me.

The song has flipped over and it’s another tune that’s playing now. I recognise this one too: ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2. Out of nowhere I get a sort of roiling feeling in my stomach and a prickling up the base of my spine. I hand my file of papers to the bailiff with the plain, kind face and walk right up to the door. I bend my knees so that my eyes are level with the letterbox and lift up the flap. With my cheek against the flaky wood of the door I look through the slat of a gap that has opened up.

I see all the post, a slithering pile of it silting up the floor on the other side of the door. No doubt the letters we sent are among it. The strangest smell reaches me in thin wisps from inside, and suddenly I find myself thinking back to last year and the annual inspection I was supposed to carry out. I let the flap of the letterbox fall and straighten back up. My chest has gone tight. I can’t seem to speak.

Now both bailiffs are looking at me, but I can’t find a way to tell them what’s wrong. The older one leans down, copying what I have just done and sees for himself what’s through that narrow space.

He puts a palm on the door, as though to steady himself.

He manages to say something and he says: ‘Oh my God.’

Copyright 2020 Philippa East

Categories
Members Free Fiction

WILLESDEN JUNCTION

Luke Deckard

My feet are just over the yellow line at Willesden Junction Station. I ignore the order to get behind it. Why get behind the line? There’s a foot of ribbed pavement and half-a-foot-wide white stripe between me and the platform’s edge. The red face of the train charges towards the station. I wonder how painful it would be if the train clipped someone’s head? Would it kill them? Or turn them into a vegetable? 

The blur of blue, off-white, and flashes of red pass. The cars are mostly empty. Thank fuck. The air is humid and my back is drenched from lugging this godforsaken backpack with the Mac, 200page notebook, and a Carl Jung psychoanalysis tome.

My phone vibrates in my pocket and I pull it out.

Jo: We need to talk ASAP.  The text says.

My stomach twists, not this again.

I reply: Don’t want to talk. Stop texting or I’m going to block you.

The phone vibrates again.

Jo: Please. I know you don’t want to talk, but I have to talk to you. Meet me, please? It’s about the other night.

My left foot taps like I’m Thumper.

It was just bad night, can’t we forget it? I flash to Jo walking me up—wondering what happened that night. Each time Jo gets blackout drunk it always follows with a goddamned panic attack. I have too much to focus on right now—

I reply: I have to finish my dissertation. I need space. Leave me alone.

The tube stops. There’s a beep, a hiss and then the chipped red door starts to open. Trepidation squeezes my insides as the morning after bubbles to the front of my mind. Jo swore the BBQ stain on my top was blood, the drugs and booze doesn’t do Jo’s ridiculous hyper-active imagination a lick of good. The half-eaten BBQ chicken pizza on the kitchen counter didn’t ease anything. Jo swore something happened… Sian did recall yelling at one point… but that’s it… yelling. Why can’t Jo just leave it alone? It was a bad end to a night out… no one was hurt. Well, except me—I’m the one who woke up missing my Oyster card and one of my favourite fucking Barbarosa shoes from Irregular Choice. I don’t want to deal with this shit. I drop the phone to my side—I’m not going to reply.

I grab the backpack off of the ground and step aside from the open doors. A man with dark brown skin and muscular arms, wearing a grey tank top and blue track pants rushes out first. He bolts towards the stairs. Two pale preteen girls, with ponytails and too much makeup, exit, and then an extraordinarily thin, short woman, with a blocky nose and sharp cheekbones, reverses out with a stroller. She power-walks away.

I sit on an end seat. Should I text Sian? Say that Jo’s losing it?

Another text.

Jo:  You can’t avoid me!

I look away from the text and shake my head. Three seats down is a man with a potbelly. His tight shirt is soaked through. A woman, in a yellow linen dress, sits opposite me. Her fake-mocha-coloured legs are crossed and she bounces her foot as she waves a bamboo fan in her face. Her red lips are fat with filler, her eyelashes are a mile long, and her Louis Vuitton bag takes up the entire seat beside her. The bag is a good idea. I dump my frumpy backpack in the seat next to me.

Another text.

Jo: I know you’re on your way to the British Library. I’ll be in the courtyard by the King’s Library Café.

“Shit,” I whisper under my breath.

I wipe my brow with the back of my hand. It’s as hot as an oven in here. The doors beep, hiss, and then shut. There’s a sticker on the inside of the door that catches my attention. It’s of a stick-figure humping the word “it.”

At Queen’s Park the doors open. A stampede of crotches pile into the near-empty car. It’s too hot for public transport, I wish I could afford Übers. The woman in yellow intensely scrolls on her phone. Her red lips are pressed firmly together and her fake eyelashes bat like a hummingbird’s wings.

I stare at Jo’s text — pressure builds in my head. Just leave it alone. Leave me alone. I have so much work I have to do…I’m behind on my dissertation… I worry I’ll fail. I can’t deal with this drama. Sian thinks Jo tried to kiss me— it’s possible, it happened before on drunken nights. I just ignore it—Jo can’t.

A crotch is in my face. If I don’t look up, if I don’t make eye-contact.

“Excuse me…” a man says.

Hell.

I look up.

He wears a faded Doctor Who T-shirt and tan-cargo shorts and points at my backpack to say: “Move it.” I force a smile and place the backpack into my lap. Hell, this is heavy. The Doctor Who fan sits and spreads his legs wide, like he’s got something to prove. Big dicks watch Doctor Who? His hairy, clammy leg clings to mine. I inch away and press my body into the plexiglass. I guess the woman in yellow was too intimidating to ask her to move that giant-ass Louis Vuitton bag. Most of the seats are taken up, but no one’s asked her to move that bag. She just scrolls on the phone, like the rest of the world doesn’t exist around her. She’s a pro. I need to get better at natural intimidation. I glance at the Doctor Who fan. So cliché: his line of vision goes right to the woman’s bare legs. They’re nice legs, sure, even with the fake tan. But he doesn’t have a snowballs chance in hell with her. Fucking men.

A text.

Jo: Know this isn’t easy for me.

I flip my phone over and shut my eyes. In my mind, I scream: FUCK!

*

I walk through the courtyard of the British Library. My backpack is slung over my right shoulder and a pain twists above my shoulder blade. Next time I’m ditching the Jung book.

Jo is sat at outside the King’s Library Café, there are two takeaway coffee cups on the table. Transfixed on the phone that lays flat on the silver table, Jo taps the screen, and then looks around nervously, before tapping at the phone again. More of that morning after surfaces. “That’s blood on you!” Jo said. “That’s not BBQ sauce! I need you to tell me what happened! Tell me. I need to know if I did something…” It was too much… it was too fucking much. It’s always too much; like the time Jo thought we stole a rickshaw on Regents Street. We paid for it. This paranoia is out of control.

My phone vibrates.

Jo: If you’re inside I’ll just come find you…

My entire body sags. I can’t have Jo make a scene inside.

I pick my feet up and slug my way to the café. Jo looks up.

“What the hell is this?” I say, standing over Jo.

“Remy, hi.” Jo shoots up out of the chair. It scrapes over the brick. “I got you a coffee…” Jo picks up one of the two cups and moves it closer to the empty chair. “Will you sit?”

“I’d rather not,” I say.

“Rem…”

“What, Jo?” I snap and step closer. Jo leans back, like I might take a swing. This fucking paranoia. I’ve never hit anyone, but Jo cowers like I’m about too? “We agreed, Jo. We fucking agreed. I need space.” My back is sweating heavily from the heat and anger. My moist hand on the shoulder-strap starts to slide.

“I know, Remy, I know. P-please just s-sit the hell down and let me talk to you.”

My puffed chest recedes and I slide the backpack off my shoulder. I scan the courtyard. Two Japanese girl sit on the steps and talk, their long black hair shines in the sun. An old man in a tweed suit and fedora walks towards the British Library entrance where a flock of school kids in red hats and yellow high-vis jackets are being counted by two teachers.

I yank the empty chair away from the table and drop myself down. The metal chair is hot on my legs and arms from the direct sunlight. Perfect, the hot seat.

Jo takes a drink of coffee. I take the cup in front of me – it’s lukewarm in my hand. Condensation is visible under the thin, plastic lid. I sip. There’s a cinnamony hint. Jo taps a passcode into the mobile phone which is then spun around and slide in front of me.

“Look at this, Remy.”

A BBC news article is up on the screen and a video.

“Watch it,” Jo says.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Just watch.” Jo hits play.

Is that… My skin turns hot, I want to be sick. My left knee bounces.

The CCTV footage shows Jo, me, and Sian in Camden Town sometime after midnight last Saturday. The footage is blurry and jumpy, but it’s us. The night flashes in my mind. We drank at Lockside… ate at Shaka Zulu… I had the Cajun Salmon. We drank more, popped pills, and danced at the Electric Ball Room… and then… then… I woke up missing my Oyster and the right Barbarosa shoe, the left was still on my foot, and BBQ on my top.

The footage on the screens plays out the lost memories. 

Sian slaps a guy outside The Underworld. He rushes her, but Jo stands in the way. Furious, the guy grabs and shoves Jo aside. The man points a finger at Sian. They argue—what about? I can’t remember. His arms wave frantically at Sian, who cowers. I throw my right Barbarosa at his head and he twists and turns and flips me off. Sian goes to push him for flipping me off, and he shoves back. I come up and crack the bottle of wine that’s in my hand over the guy’s head. He sways and falls into the road. I drop the bottle and we start to run. The CCTV footage freezes on our blurred faces, before a black cab runs over the guy’s head as he lies unconscious in the street.

I tremble. Blood roars in my ears. Fuck, fuck, fuck. My heart has never pounded so fast.

“I… I…” My head spins and my mouths dries out. “Is he?”

“Dead.” Jo nods.

“I k-killed him… I killed that man…”

I want to stand up, but I can’t feel my body. I want to run, but my legs are jelly. My vision narrows and all I see is the phone – the paused scene of the black cab and the body in the street and me running with my hands over my mouth. It was defence, right? I was protecting Sian? Why did Sian yell at him? I can’t remember… I don’t want to remember. Why did I hit him? I want to go back in time, I want to stop myself, I want to stop Sian, I want to re-do the night. This can’t be real, this didn’t happen. This has to be a dream! How did I get here? How do I get away? I want a Time Machine. I want Mummy and Daddy and my old room, my toys, be ten years old again, and careless far-far-far away from this.

“What do I do?” I ask the Universe.

“Remy Hardcastle?”

I turn. A  brown woman in blue trousers, a white blouse and a blue blazer approaches. The sunlight is in her eyes, she squints. Her brow glistens. Her black hair is frizzy from the humidity. I catch a glimpse of the badge hooked to her belt. A pale man, a bit taller than the woman, in a grey suit, follows behind. A pair of Ray-bans shield his eyes. I turn to Jo who slides the phone away and looks down. This is why Jo wanted to see me. My head spins and the world goes black.

Copyright 2020 Luke Deckard

Categories
Members Free Fiction

Doorstepped – Russ Thomas

Ida was opening the front door when the buzzer rang.

‘Crikey!’ she said, clutching her chest. ‘You gave me a fright.’

The young man standing on the doorstep grinned at her. ‘Sorry, love.’ The grin widened to show a few more teeth. ‘Ah didn’t mean to scare yer.’ She didn’t recognise the accent. Something Northern, she thought. He was a pretty young lad though.

‘I’ve got a few things I’m selling, you know?’ He held up an enormous kit bag that must weigh a ton. ‘Household stuff, that sort of thing. Thought you might be interested. It’s all cheaper than the shops and I’m only here for the day…’ The young man rattled on with his spiel but by now, Ida thought she had the gist.

‘I don’t think –’

‘Only, ah was talking to your neighbour up a ways, and she thought you might be interested. She buys stuff off me all the time, like?’

‘You mean Shirley?’ Ida didn’t know many of the neighbours anymore. It wasn’t like it used to be in the old days, everyone in and out of each other’s houses. Of course, you could leave your doors open back then, with no fear of the consequences. It wasn’t like that now. But Shirley looked out for her. And having Gary next door was a great comfort as well. She glanced at the elaborate chain Gary had fixed to the front door a few weeks back. ‘You can never be too careful, Ida, love,’ he’d told her. Yes, it was nice to have someone she could rely on and she knew Gary felt the same, especially since the divorce. He helped out with a bit of maintenance, that sort of thing, and in return she popped round while he was at work and fed the cat, did a few household chores.

‘Ah haven’t got long,’ the young man said, somehow managing to make it sound like an apology. ‘Ah’ve got a lovely set of kitchen knives, like on the telly, only cheaper?’

Ida frowned at him. ‘It’s very kind of you but I was just on my way out. You see this –’

The man interrupted her again. ‘Look, love,’ he began, placing a foot on the doorstep and his hand on the door. ‘Ah’m in a bit of a hurry, myself. Ah’ve got other people to see, you know? People, ah’ve promised stuff to.’

Ida really wasn’t sure. She shouldn’t let a stranger in; Gary would be ever so cross with her. And he had a right temper on him, did Gary, when you got him riled up. It’s one of the things about him that reminded her of her Stan. On the other hand, where was the harm? This was just a young lad trying to make his way in the world. ‘Well, I suppose it’ll be alright, as long as you’re not too…’ The lad was pushing past her and on his way into the house before she’d finished her sentence.

By the time Ida had caught up to him, he had half the contents of his bag already laid out on the living room carpet. ‘What did you say your name was, again?’

‘Er… Matty. So, these are the knives. You’ve got your paring knife, Chef’s knife, bread knife…’ And so it went on.

There was a veritable treasure trove of goods in the bag. The knives, of course; an electric cheese grater – easier for arthritis sufferers; an egg-cup shaped like a penguin – the grandkids’ll love that; oven mitts with kittens on; a set of old-fashioned weighing scales with all the weights. How he’d managed to carry all this was anyone’s guess!

‘You’d be doing me a favour, love. You really would.’

Dusters, cleaning cloths, Hoover bags. Allsorts. All designed to make her life easier in ways she didn’t even realise were possible. And all of it, so much cheaper than the shops.

Before long Matty had thrown together an irregular-shaped pile of goods that he thought Ida might be interested in. It was a much bigger pile than the pile of things he thought she wouldn’t be interested in.

‘Right then,’ he said, finally running out of items to pull from the bag. ‘Ah’ll just tot this lot up, eh? See what the damage is?’

She couldn’t remember saying that she was actually going to buy anything. ‘I’m not sure if I can stretch to –’

‘Ah don’t suppose there’s any chance of a cuppa, is there? It’s thirsty work this, you know?’ He grinned again. He did have a pretty face. And a lovely smile.

*            *            *

When Ida got back with the tea, Matty was looking at the photos on the windowsill. ‘These the grandkids are they?’

‘Well, no…’ She glanced down at the kit bag which Matty had moved nearer to the hallway. It seemed a little bulkier than she remembered, but perhaps that was just her imagination. Or maybe, he’d put some of the items back, although, looking at the pile of items still on the carpet, she didn’t think so.

‘Ah bet you’re right proud of them, aren’t yer?’

‘Well, they’re lovely kids but they’re actually –’

‘Ah ‘spect you spoil them rotten, eh? Oh, thanks love.’ Matty took a large slurp of tea, wincing a little at the heat. ‘Anyway, Ah’ve added up what you owe me and I thought we’d call it a round ton.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘A hundred should cover it.’

‘A hundred pounds? Oh… I didn’t realise it was going to come to that much.’

‘Ah’ve done you a good deal there, love. The knife set for half price, and I haven’t even charged you for the marigolds.’

‘That is good of you but… I really haven’t got that sort of money.’

Matty’s face began to harden.

‘Not here, anyway. I was just on my way to the shops when you arrived. I’ve not taken any money out yet.’

Matty’s face softened again. ‘Don’t you worry about it, love. Ah tell you what, why don’t I come with you to the bank while you get the money out? I can even help you carry your shopping back.’

That was very sweet of him, she thought. A nice touch. ‘Would you? That’s very kind. But didn’t you say you were in a hurry? I wouldn’t want to put you out.’

‘Don’t you worry about it, love, it’s no trouble.’

As she shrugged back into her coat she saw Matty reaching for his bag. ‘Oh, you might as well leave that, dear. You can pick it up when you get back. Save those shoulders of yours.’

‘But I –’

‘You did say you’d help me with the shopping?’

Matty let the bag slip back to the floor with a clink. ‘Sure,’ he said.

*            *            *

She made sure she locked the front door as they left. You just couldn’t be too careful these days. It was a nice afternoon and she enjoyed the walk in Matty’s company, although he seemed much quieter than before, almost as though he was worried about something. It didn’t matter. It was nice just to have some company. And handsome company, at that. She took his arm and found herself telling him about Stan, about their life together. But she got the distinct impression he wasn’t all that interested. Hardly listened at all. Still, that was the young for you. Always thinking they invented everything.

They were passing the mini-market when Ida stopped short. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘I haven’t done my shop yet; I’ll have nothing for my tea.’

‘We can get it on the way back.’

‘Oh, but they’ll be closing soon. I’ll just nip in now.’ She turned to go and then stopped again. ‘I forgot, I haven’t taken any money out yet.’

‘What about your card?’

‘Oh, I don’t use them. I like to keep track. I’m sorry, your visit’s thrown me out today. I’m all at sixes and sevens.’ She smiled sweetly at the young man. ‘I don’t suppose… well I realise it’s an imposition but perhaps I could borrow a little money and we can add it on to what I owe you?’

Matty hesitated, then sighed and pulled out his wallet. ‘Ah’ve only got a fifty,’ he said.

‘That’ll be fine,’ Ida said, snatching the note from his fingers. ‘Shan’t be long.’

*            *            *

Shortly after Ida got home she heard a huge commotion outside. It seemed to be coming from next door. She inched back the net curtains to have a look and saw Gary arguing with someone on his doorstep.

‘But… she owes me money! And all me stuff!’

It had been good of Mr Abdalla to let her out the back door of the mini-mart. She wondered how long Matty had waited for her. Long enough for her to get home and nip back round to Gary’s to collect all her new gear. It had taken her three trips too, to carry all that stuff. She’d put Gary’s belongings back first, of course. You didn’t widdle on your own doorstep. Stan had taught her that.

She almost felt sorry for the poor boy, but if he’d stopped to listen to her for two minutes he’d have known it wasn’t her house. It hadn’t been a bad con but the lad still had a lot to learn. If she was a few years younger she might have taken him under her wing. Just like she had Stan all those years ago. But those days were long gone. She’d settle for fifty quid and whatever the crap in the bag got her on eBay.

‘Look, mate,’ Gary said. ‘I’m telling you for the last time, there ain’t no old lady lives here. It’s just me, the kids, and me cat. Now piss off out of it!’

The argument went on a bit longer but, inevitably, Gary lost his temper. He was a good man, Gary, but he didn’t half have a short fuse. Poor boy, Ida thought as she drew back the curtain. Not such a pretty face now.

@copyright 2020 Russ Thomas.