Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

A work in progress that I started this morning – as my mind started racing… I need to work through it and correct all the discrepancies between past and present tense:

It wasn’t that Harold hated children, no – hate would be a marginal step too far. It would however be accurate to say that he couldn’t quite see what purpose children now served. It was no longer like the good old days in Harold’s mind – when children could be put to work sweeping chimneys or clearing out the gathering rubbish between the looms – days when a child’s place was to be seen and not heard. Not, however, that Harry had actually lived through Victorian Britain.

No – but Harold felt children nowadays just seemed to be little tearaways that were governed by no rules and had no sense of respect for their elders. Children of modern Britain seemed to have all the rights and get away with all the wrongs that would surely have resulted, in Harold’s youth, of finding a child on the receiving end of a quick clip around the ear or a proper thrashing with a cane.

It was on days like these, when the wind and rain had Harold pulling the collar on his Mack up to his neck and pulling his flat-cap down tightly onto his head, that Harold rued the demise of society.

“Just look at that will you” Harold said, slightly under his breath – but just loud enough for Herbert to hear.

Herbert, or just Bert to those who knew him, leaned forward and peered across at the group of youngsters gathered at the far end of the bus shelter. They were screaming and shouting in glee as they took it in turns to swing on the canopy – kicking the pane of glass at the back.

“Harrumph – schnnz” Herbert grunted – followed by his customary drawing of air between his teeth.

Herbert also bemoaned the way children of today were, in his interminable opinion, ‘renk’. When Herbert was a young child he would not have dreamt of carrying on the way he saw children behaving now. No – when Herbert was a young boy, growing up in his parents’ house in Bridgetown, Barbados – Herbert knew that a backhand from his mother was none too far away if he should ever find himself stepping out of line.

Not too many years ago – when Herbert and Harold were still working on the buses, they would probably have felt a little more confident in putting the group of kids in their place. Now however, they wouldn’t dare approach them for fear of being physically assaulted by the little ruffians.

“Remember how we used to deal with them?” Harold asked Herbert.

“Yes siree – I remember that well” Herbert said. “You would be up front, sat in your lickle cab. Me back there collecting the fares and keeping the people dem entertained. We did run that bus like clockwork” Herbert reminisced.

“Yes we did! Never late. Never needing to be turned around by the inspector. And you never did let any of them scallys get away without paying their fare – haha”. Harold allowed himself a short chuckle as he thought back on how Herbert would patrol the isle of his bus like a Bobby on the beat – ensuring every child paid their fair, no matter how cunning they had been in their attempts to evade the inevitable.

“Remember that lad who fell off..” Harold started.

“Yes man! Yes!” Herbert clapped his hands together, as he picked up on Harold’s train of thought. “The one that did nearly end up underneath the car!?! Lord what a piece a shame that was.”

Both Harold and Herbert remembered the incident well. The route they had worked on together had been the No. 37 that ran between Peckham and Putney, or Hounslow. They had loved that old Routemaster bus – with its iconic design of having the driver separated from the main body of the bus, housed within his isolated cabin that perched to the right of the engine block. Harold had sat up front, king of his own personal castle – whilst Herbert had patrolled the realm like the sheriff of Nottingham – collecting taxes, fares, from the myriad passengers that would stream on and off throughout the day.

The incident that they were musing over happened one particular morning – just after they had stopped to let off a group of school-children at the bus-stop just opposite North Dulwich train station. This particular bus-stop was a new addition to the route and had been placed as a specific response to the antics of the children that would ride the bus to and from school.

You see, the majority of the children that rode the No. 37 during the day went to William Penn Secondary School. The school, which is no longer there, had sat at the top of Dog Kennel Hill – North Dulwich, and was a short 300 to 400 yard walk from the train station. Children on their way to school had a choice of two stops they could disembark the bus from. One stop – just before the bus would turn into Dog Kennel Hill, meant a long walk from the bottom of the hill up past the train station and then on to the school that was a further climb to the top of the hill. The second stop meant getting off the bus after it had climbed halfway up Dog Kennel Hill, passed over the rise of the train bridge the station was built on and had turned left into Half Moon Lane. Once turned onto Half Moon Lane the bus would pick up speed and drive the 500 to 600 yards to the next bus-stop – meaning a long walk back to the school in the opposite direction.

Day after day, week after week and month after month of the school term – children would elect to forego boarding or disembarking the bus at either of the two stops, on either side of the road at either of these locations. Instead – the children would take their lives into their own hands, as they excitedly jumped off the bus on the apex of the corner into Half Moon Lane, on their way to school – or would jump on the bus, as the bus pulled out of Half Moon Lane back on to Dog Kennel Hill, at the end of the day – as they headed home from school.

The sight of this frantic bustling of children trying to shave two minutes off their journey to school or home each day gave both Harold and Herbert the frights of their lives. In fact – every driver and conductor pairing that worked on the route would make countless complaints to the bus company, begging that they did something before there was a horrendous accident or loss of life.

It was therefore to everyone’s relief that the bus company heard their pleas and chose to erect the bus-stop opposite the train station – thus giving the children the opportunity to get off the bus that 200 hundred yards closer to school.

So on the day of the incident the children, who had no idea a new bus-stop had been erected during the half-term, again chose not to get off the bus at the bottom of the hill. Instead, they waited for the rush of bodies that would signal that it was time to stand on the landing at the back of the bus, and jostle for position.

Anticipating this surge, Herbert had rung the bell once, as the bus climbed the hill, signalling to Harold that there were passengers who wished to get off the bus at the newly placed stop halfway up.

“Dog Kennel Hill!” Herbert had called out, as the bus came to a stop. The bemused children gathered at the back of the bus had looked shocked and confused in equal measure. “Me said, come off the bus.” Herbert had punctuated – ruefully smiling and content that the children had not known of the surprise that had been in store for them.

The group of kids had slowly ambled off the bus, not quite sure what had happened to their customary morning escapade. That is – all but a select few of the children. A small group, who had planned on carrying on until the next stop, were still sat at the front of the bus.

As Herbert rang the bell twice, signalling for Harold to pull off, this second group of kids had seen their chance to experience the morning ritual of stepping off the bus. This was an opportunity that had not been afforded to them before, as they had not been quite cool enough, not quite big enough to ever have pushed their way to the front of the landing. So as the bus approached the corner they had quickly stood up from their seats and rushed towards the back.

As the bus swung around the corner Herbert had looked on in unrestrained horror as one of the kids got his coordination completely wrong. You see – there had been a knack, learnt over time, that the other kids had perfected for this ‘stepping off’ ritual. It had involved planting their left foot on the pavement, as the bus accelerated from the apex, whilst lifting their right foot off the platform mere moments later. It was, Herbert had once admitted to Harold, poetry in motion – a perfect exercise in timing. But on that day the poor child, who had been attempting it for the first time, got the timing dangerously wrong.

As the bus started to speed up as it left the corner, the child had placed his left foot on the pavement but had kept his right foot firmly planted on the platform of the bus. As Harold had driven away from the corner he had been blissfully unaware of the chaos taking place behind him. Herbert however, had a ringside view as the child held onto the pole on the platform for dear life – as the forward momentum of the bus, where his right foot had taken root, and the stationary pavement, which was in contact with his left, proceeded to pull the young boys stance apart in some freakish version of the splits.

“LORD JESUS CHRIST!” Herbert had exclaimed – as he had frantically rung the bell, over and over again, in the agreed signal to the driver to commence an emergency stop. His heart had raced as he watched the young boy ultimately slip off the platform and fall into the road. The boy had kept hold of the pole the entire time and was subsequently dragged behind the No. 37 like a collection of cans dragged behind a bride.

Herbert recalled that, as the bus came to a halt, he had looked on in horror as the child’s legs had momentarily dragged just in front of the car that had been following the bus around the corner.

“Lord have mercy, lord have mercy – you is trying to kill yourself child!?!” Herbert had screamed at the young boy, as he bent down to pick him up out of the road. The look of mortification on the child’s face had been enough to quell Herbert’s fear though and make him focus on the perilous situation the boy had so fortunately escaped.

By this time Harold had appeared at the back of the bus, flushed and with a puzzled look on his face. “What the hell’s the ruckus all about Bert?” He had asked. “You rang that bell like Elvis himself wanted to get on.”

“It’s this dyam fool picne here so”, Herbert had gestured to the shell-shocked child. “Him nearly done kill himself.”

Herbert had then gone on to explain the entire episode to Harold – as they had stood and watched the quivering child dust himself off and wander off to school – a gaggle of taunting kids following behind him.

The passengers on the bus that day had all agreed with Herbert’s condemnation – offering the occasional ‘children these days’ as he walked up and down the bus – collecting fares. It was an experience he had known he would never forget.

As Herbert pulled himself back from his reverie, he noticed the bus he and Harold were waiting for approach.

“Children these days. Harrumpf – schnnz”, he exclaimed – gazing back over at the children swinging on the bus shelter.

“Yep. Children these days indeed.” Harold agreed.

As their bus approached the shelter, and Harold and Herbert rose from their seats, one of the swinging kids lost his grip – barely avoiding falling into the road and thus into the path of the slowing bus.

“LORD JESUS!!!” Herbert exclaimed to Harold – as a sickening sense of déjà vu came over him. “Them no learn a dyam thing – not a dyam thing me tell you. The picne still looking for new ways to kill themselves.”

They looked on as the child picked himself up, swore in the direction of his friends, and then bundled his way past Harold and Herbert as he boarded the bus.

As they climbed aboard the bus themselves, fishing out their passes – they overheard the driver mutter to himself, “children these days.”

Family Tree

Posted: February 14, 2011 in Short Stories
Tags: , , , , , ,

Family Tree


Outline:
It never ceases to amaze me that children find it so easy to discuss matters that would give any adult pause for thought…


“Are you my family?” Jaia asked Warren the question with a touch of innocence that could only come from one so young. Her small face was screwed up just a little, as she pondered over the question.

“Sorry sweetheart?” Warren replied, pausing, his hands submerged in a sink full of dirty dishes. “What do you mean?”

“Well I’m doing my homework for Mrs. Roberts’ class and we have to do a family tree. I was just wondering what you were to me again,” Jaia said. Her tongue was pushed firmly into her cheek as she concentrated all of her efforts on the sheet of paper in front of her.

“I’m your godfather Jaia, you know that,” Warren said – glancing across at the seven-year old girl perched at the kitchen table. She was holding a pencil in her hand as though her life depended on it. Her left hand searched out a strand of hair that had escaped one of her pink butterfly style hair clips.

“Yes, I know that, but where do I put you on this family tree – I can’t figure it out?”

This situation had never occurred to Warren before. He had been in and around Jaia’s life from the day that she had been born. Her mother, Dawn, had not hesitated when it had come to asking her best friend to be godfather to her first-born child. Whilst Warren had always accepted that Jaia was an essential part of his life, just like a daughter in fact, he had not prepared himself for the time when Jaia would be pondering the question of how Warren fitted into her life.

“I’m not sure where you would put me sweetheart, I don’t know if godparents go on family trees.” Warren spoke to Jaia as he carefully got on with the task of washing the greasy dinner dishes.

“Mrs. Roberts says that I should put all of my family on the tree though, doesn’t that mean you should be on there?” Jaia said, a little frustrated, not allowing the issue to drop so easily.

“Mrs. Roberts said that I should put all of my family…” Warren corrected.

“What?” Jaia asked, not picking up on the fact that Warren was correcting her grammar.

“It’s a past tense sweetheart, so it is said, not says.” Warren explained.

“Oh.” Jaia said, rolling her eyes, not entirely impressed by the unwanted lesson. “Mrs. Roberts said that I should put all of my family on the family tree, all the family that I could remember.” As Jaia spoke each word it was accompanied by a precocious rock of her head from side to side.

“Well, who do you have on there so far?” Warren asked, moving across to where Jaia was perched on the edge of her seat. Picking up a dishcloth, Warren dried his hands, to make sure that he did not drop water on to Jaia’s homework.

“I have granddad and nana, mum and dad, aunty Rachel and I am going to put uncle Martin on there as well,” Jaia said – looking extremely pleased with what she had accomplished so far.

“Well that looks pretty comprehensive to me,” Warren said – tracing his finger along the branches of the family tree.

“What does compre… comp… com-pre-hens-if mean?” Jaia asked, struggling to put the word together.

“Um, it means that you have put a lot of work into your homework and that I am very proud of you,” Warren said – smiling.

“Do you have a mum?” Jaia asked. The question came like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky.

“Yes, we’ve talked about this before Jaia. My mum lives a long way away.” Warren forced himself to remember that he was speaking with a seven year-old child and that this sometimes meant that she understood far less than she appeared to. Jaia often asked where Warren’s mum was, finding it difficult to keep track of the fact that she could not remember ever meeting her.

“Have I met your mum?” Jaia asked, twisting her head from side to side, as she thought about making a change to her family tree.

“You met her when you were a little baby,” Warren answered. “You were wrapped up warm in your pushchair, all cute and quiet. Your mum had brought you round for a visit.”

“Oh.” Jaia said. “Do you miss your mum?”

Conversations such as this were a regular event with Jaia – she always had one hundred and one questions to ask and no time to wait for the answers.

“What’s with all the questions sweetheart? Don’t you have to get this finished before bedtime?” Warren attempted to move the conversation back onto the topic of homework – even though he knew avoiding the issue was not going to be successful at all. Jaia was an extremely curious child – one who loved to find out all there was to know about anything that caught her attention. “Come on, mummy will be calling you for bed any minute now.”

“You never finish answering my questions,” Jaia said, squinting her eyes half closed. “No-one ever lets me talk.” Jaia managed to make her bottom lip droop and quiver in a way that always got her the result she was looking for. Jaia was well aware of the fact that people were afraid to make her cry – at least, she believed they were afraid.

“Don’t get upset. It’s just that we have to make sure that you aren’t up too late, you know how grumpy it makes you in the morning,” Warren said – giving Jaia a gentle tap on the end of her lip.

“Don’t do that!” Jaia said – folding her arms across her chest in an attempt to stop the slow smile spreading across her face.

“Tell you what, how about I help you finish this tomorrow?” Warren asked, noticing that the time was quickly approaching Jaia’s bedtime.

“Promise?” Jaia asked.
“I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die.” Warren answered.

“Ok then. Will you read me a bedtime story before you go?” Jaia asked – her eyes brightening at the thought of having another chapter of her favourite bedtime story read to her.

“That depends on how fast you can get changed, brush your teeth and jump into bed,” Warren answered her. “Come, let me help you put away your homework.”

As Jaia climbed the stairs, making her way to her bedroom, Warren went into the front room to speak with Jaia’s mum.

“You should have been in the kitchen,” Warren said as he sat down next to Jaia’s mum.

“Why, what did I miss?” Dawn asked.

“It was so sweet. Jaia was asking me whether or not I was her family and if she should put me on her homework project,” Warren said – his mind running over the conversation he had just had with little Jaia.

“That doesn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Jaia’s mum replied. “She is always telling people about her ‘uncle Warren’, you would be surprised to see how often your name comes up in her school work.”

Warren took a moment to think about how much little Jaia had grown up over the years. He thought back to the times when she was so small and vulnerable that she could be cradled and rocked to sleep on a dark night. Warren thought of the times that Jaia had fallen and scraped her knees, and the times when she had been unable to feed herself properly – and smiled.

“Do you know that she always includes you whenever she is telling anyone about her family. Every school project and piece of homework has you mentioned somewhere.” Dawn was saying, “you play a very important role in her life, she wouldn’t know what to do if you weren’t around.”

“I know, she means the world to me as well,” Warren said – appreciating just how special Jaia was and just how much she meant to him.

“Let me show you something,” Dawn said – reaching for Jaia’s school bag. “I know it’s in here somewhere,” she was saying to herself as she searched through the small satchel. “Here it is.” She said triumphantly. “This is a picture of her family, she had to do it for class last week.”

Warren took the picture in his hands and looked closely. Jaia had drawn her mum, her dad, Jaia’s dog and standing right next to her she had sketched her uncle Warren.

“I don’t know what to say,” Warren said.

“You don’t have to say anything, not to me,” Dawn replied. “Just realize that as far as Jaia is concerned you are an important part of her family.”

“I’m going to bed now,” Jaia called from the top of the stairs. “Uncle Warren, you said you would read me a bedtime story before you went.”

“A promise is a promise,” Dawn said as she looked across at Warren.

“A promise is a promise,” Warren repeated.

As he climbed the stairs Warren called out to Jaia, “you better pick a story before I get there”.

“I picked Sleeping Beauty,” Jaia said – her small fingers leafing through the pages of the storybook. Sleeping Beauty had always been Jaia’s favourite story.

“Good choice.” Warren said – pulling a chair up to the side of the bed.

“Once upon a time…” Warren began to read as Jaia looked up with a look of anticipation on her face.

Warren didn’t get to the end of the story, he never did. Jaia was starting to fall asleep.

“Uncle Warren?” Jaia said through a stifled yawn.

“Yes sweetheart”.

“Love you”.

Josie & Beryl – Part II


Outline:
This is the rest of that chapter…


Part I

 

“I don’t suppose it would have been easy for you – ‘specially with a father like yours,” said Beryl, helping herself to the last Rich Tea from the plate. Beryl held back a sneeze, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

“I will not have her running around like a little slut, shagging every bleedin’ stray dog she can find!” Said Josie. “That’s what dad screamed at mum when I finally managed to suck up the courage to tell him.” By now Josie was jabbing her finger at Beryl across the table, furrowing her brow in simulated consternation, imitating the expression that had been on her father’s face that day. “No way am I having her bring shame on this house [Josie’s index finger now jabbing the table to punctuate each word] by littering it with a pack of fatherless brats!”

Beryl couldn’t help but sympathise as Josie explained how she had tried to talk to Mick. How she had tried to speak to him before telling her father – and how he had been so cold to her, so callous.

“‘Sweetheart, it ain’t my problem,’ he had said to me,” Josie explained. “I was holding on to his arm, tears running down my face, trying desperately to stop him from walking away from me.” Josie rose from her chair and stood over the kitchen sink, her gaze focused on some distant point outside the window. “Two hours I waited for him outside that pub. I knew that he would be there at some point.”

The memories were flooding Josie’s mind now, unlocked by the brandy that Beryl kept adding to her cup. Josie wasn’t sure if the sensations she was feeling were due to her emotional state or the warm alcohol that was now coursing through her veins. “I asked him why he was treating me that way. I said ‘I thought you loved me, I thought we could talk about it, sort something out.’ How pathetic I must have looked,” Josie said, snorting derisively.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Beryl said, moving from her seat to place a comforting hand on Josie’s shoulder. “You were only a kid at the time. A scared little girl who just found out her knight in shining armour had a bad case of rust.”

“‘Sort it out yourself’, he said.” Josie said, ignoring Beryl’s attempt to bring some humour to the moment. Beryl always thought that you could laugh of any situation – no matter how tense or strained it might be. In fact – Josie was surprised that Beryl hadn’t taken the opportunity to tell jokes at the funeral. She could normally be counted on to do so after her third or fourth drink, what with her inability to hold her liquor.

Beryl had taken up her position in front of the oven again – not wishing to wander too far from its comforting warmth. She was certain that she was coming down with pneumonia. “Got any more fags?” She asked, discarding the empty packet that was lying on the table.

“Uh? Um, yeah,” replied Josie. “I’ve got those knock off ones our Terry gets. Hold on a sec.” Josie stooped to search the back of the cupboard beneath the sink. Moving cleaning fluids, cloths and all sorts, out of the way until she came across the lavishly coloured carton of cigarettes she kept stashed from sight.

“I’m not too keen on those – but beggars and choosers and all that,” Beryl said – taking the offered packet. As she lit up another cigarette, Beryl, wafting smoke from here eyes, prompted Josie to get back to her tale. Josie didn’t watch much television, even though she had one of the biggest flippin’ sets that Beryl had ever set eyes on, so it meant that Beryl was missing out on her daytime TV. Josie’s story, therefore, was going to have to be her fix for that morning.

“Huh?” Josie asked.

“I said ‘what made him change his mind then?'” Beryl repeated.

“Oh – well I had gone home, wiping the tears away from my eyes, lost and pretty much bewildered. I told mum first – knowing that I would need her onside.”

“Your dad was pretty fierce if I remember right,” Beryl stated – her cigarette perched between her lips and dancing with each word she spoke.

“I had never been as scared as I was that day. At least, not since the day I got sick as a child and mum thought I was going to die.” Josie turned her back to the sink and rested her weight against it. “The look on his face had been one of pure disgust. I honestly thought that he was going to…” Josie’s voiced trailed of as she raised one hand tentatively to her cheek – recalling the smarting blow her father had dealt her with the back of his hand. “The wedding was arranged quick smart. No matter how much bravado Mick had been able to display when speaking to me, a vulnerable 17-year old girl, and I can see now that I had still been a little girl, he had been unable to muster the tiniest iota of courage when dad took me and went looking for him.

Josie unwittingly rubbed the top of her arm as she recalled her father dragging her round to Mick’s. “You’re going to do right by my little girl, so help!” That was all that her father had said. It was all that needed to be said. Mick had seen the barely restrained fury that had been simmering behind her father’s eyes. He had seen the rage and realized that he had better make a wise decision right there and then.

It had been a registry office affair. Josie’s cousins had been drafted in as bridesmaids. Aunts, uncles and family friends were all in attendance. Josie recalled how she had turned to throw the bouquet and had caught a glimpse of Mick appraising one of the bridesmaids with satisfaction. The ink had not yet been dry on the license and Mick Bannister’s eye had already wandered. The bouquet wasn’t caught by anyone that day It fell…unclaimed to the floor – in much the same way as Josie’s hopes and dreams.

“When I gave birth to our little Mickey, I remember hoping that it would rekindle some of Mick’s feelings for me. Instead his birth only seemed to remind Mick of the trap that he said I’d set for him.” Josie went to work using one fingernail to clean out the dirt that was trapped beneath another. “After Mickey, I gave birth to our Terry. Precious little Terry. As you know, complications with the birth caused the poor mite to limp when he finally started walking.” Josie remembered how Mick had seemed to resent the birth of Terry even more than she had expected him to.

“You see! You’re so rotten inside that you can’t even give birth to a normal kid.” Mick had said one night after returning, drunk, from a night out with whoever it was that had entertained him that evening. He had forced himself upon her that night. She remembered how he had stumbled into the bedroom that night, fumbling with his belt buckle – looking at her with disgust and feral lust in equal measures.

Josie remembered how, no matter how much Mick resented being with her, he had been unable to resist the love that grew inside of him for his firstborn son. “I always thought that Mick had seen in Mickey a chance for him to reclaim his life, you know, by making ‘his Mickey’ the best he could possibly be.”

Beryl could see the pang of sadness this thought brought to Josie’s heart – as she knew that Josie had felt isolated and cut out of their lives. Mick had spent all his time with Mickey, as the bond between father and son had grown stronger. That was something everyone had been able to see.

“That’s what made me really want a girl. I wanted a little girl so bad Beryl – so bad.” The tears were welling up again. The alcohol was adding to Josie’s feeling of melancholy, intensifying her emotions. “I would have been able to share things with her – dress her up in pretty clothes and do her hair.” Josie remembered that she had actually started to encourage her husband to sleep with her more often, flattering him whenever she thought he was susceptible, fixing her hair into the style she had worn when he had first taken a fancy to her.

That was how she managed to conceive the baby girl that she would ultimately lose. Josie had never confided in anyone else the feelings that she had endured at that time, not even Beryl. She had lain in her hospital bed thinking that god had taken the baby to punish her for her selfish desires and the measures she had taken to achieve them.

Josie remembered how long it had taken her to recover from that ordeal. How long it had been before she had fallen pregnant again. That time she had not planned it. She hadn’t even known herself. Mick had been furious. She had just thought that she was late because she was run down and had been working extremely hard. It wasn’t until she had collapsed in excruciating pain that she had realized something was wrong.

“I… I’ll go and get a doctor.” Mick had said. Funny – Josie thought – Mick had actually sounded genuinely concerned that day. She must have looked in a bad way if it had resulted in dragging some semblance of concern out of Mick. It hadn’t lasted long though. No… it lasted right up until he found out the cause of her pain. That was when the Mick she had grown accustomed to had come back to the fore.

That was also the time when Josie recalled giving up on life. Nowadays, Josie was sure, she would have been diagnosed as suffering from a nervous breakdown. Either that, or she would have ended up as a guest on one of those useless talk shows Beryl was always bleating on about. “I Remember spending the night in hospital, having surgery, and the next week in a world of my own,” she said. “The doctors told me that it was highly unlikely that I would ever have another kid – not with going through an ectopic pregnancy and all that.”

Beryl looked at her friend, aware that there was probably a lot more pain going on in Josie’s mind than she was telling her, and thanked god for the small mercies she had received. Beryl didn’t have any children of her own – instead she always saw herself as a kind of surrogate aunt to the boys that Josie had raised. “Your Jimmy must have been a blessing,” she said.

“More like a bloody miracle,” said Josie – exhaling a stream of smoke towards Beryl. “A bloody miracle.”

“He always has been a right sensitive kid, Jimmy has,” Beryl said – adding, “always makes time to come see his aunty Beryl.”

“Yeah – he always makes a fuss on mothers day as well, from the time he was old enough to make me a card himself.” Josie still had that first card. She had kept it pressed into the front of her favourite photo album.

“It was a real shame that he hasn’t found himself a nice wench to settle down with – a damned shame. I can’t begin to imagine why he hasn’t been…” Beryl didn’t finish the sentence – noticing that her hand was searching out for biscuits on an empty plate.

“Come on,” Beryl said, jolting Josie from her reverie. Getting up out of her chair, cigarette attached to her lips as though it had taken root, Beryl pushed the chairs under the table and said, “Get your coat, enough of this hanging around maudlin and drinking. Let’s see if we can get lucky on the bingo.”

Josie cleared the table and made her way into the hall. She stopped at the mirror and noticed the state of her make-up. “Josie Bannister,” she said to her reflection, “what do you look like?” Wiping away the smears with the tips of her fingers, grabbing her coat from the rack, she called out to Beryl who was still in the kitchen. “Come on then, what you doing in there?”

“We can’t go without taking a little something with us,” she said – showing Josie the bottle of brandy she had taken from the cupboard. “I’ve got a couple of them plastic cups you had in the cupboard. We can stick them in me bag – no one is going to notice.”

As she closed the door behind her Josie noticed that the rain had temporarily ceased. “Let’s be off then,” she said – leading Beryl to her car.

***

Josie & Beryl


Outline:
This was a work in progress; the first part of a chapter of an attempt on writing a novel for charity, in collaboration with Helena Slater & Debby Fraser..


***
Beryl stood on the doorstep, shook the excess water from her umbrella, and directed a curse towards the sky. The falling rain appeared to be very wet today – wet and extremely cold. “Thank god it was dry yesterday.” She uttered to no one but herself. Reaching out a gloved hand Beryl pressed the doorbell button.
The chime interrupted Josie just as she filled the kettle. Placing it on the side, she made her way to the front door. As she passed through the hallway she checked her appearance in a mirror. With everything in place, hair, makeup, she proceeded to open the door.

“Bloody hell Beryl! You look like a drowned cat” Josie said. ”Get yourself inside and put the bleedin’ kettle on, I’ll take care of your coat.” Josie took Beryl’s coat from her and, taking care not to get her rings caught in its threadbare fibbers, hung it on the rack in the hallway.

As she made her way to the kitchen Josie double-checked her appearance. She paused just long enough to note there was no mistaking time had left its mark etched into her features, no denying the evidence of its passage at all.

Upon entering the kitchen Josie noticed Beryl shiver. “I’ll stick the oven on and get some heat in the place,” she said – not wanting Beryl to come down with a cold. Josie usually left the central heating off during the day, preferring to use the oven to keep warm instead – an old habit that just wouldn’t die.

“Good – because it’s so cold in here I can feel icicles forming on me nipples,” said Beryl.

Beryl was Josie’s oldest and dearest friend. Beryl had never felt the need to stand on ceremony or put on airs and felt in no way self-conscious of the fact that she was not as ‘well off’ as her more finely dressed friend. “I have to say Josie, your boys sure did you proud with that funeral yesterday. Everything in its place and not one hitch along the way.”

“Yes they did, didn’t they?” Josie replied, whilst positioning two chairs in front of the open oven door. As she reached over Beryl’s shoulder, to retrieve two cups from the cupboard, Josie paused and added, “Not that the miserable git deserved it.”

“No. I don’t suppose he did really,” Beryl replied somewhat pensively. “However,” she continued with gusto, flicking the switch on the electric kettle, “it was a nice ceremony all the same.” Beryl had always enjoyed a good funeral: the gathering of old friends and relatives being an ideal opportunity to pick up some new and juicy gossip – not that Beryl would ever admit she engaged in such pursuits. No, Beryl would always maintain it was ‘only right that everyone got a good send off.’

Josie always insisted on a proper cup of tea, none of that rubbish messing around with tea bags. Satisfied that all was as it should be, Beryl placed the pot in the centre of the kitchen table.

“Did you see your Mickey? Oh – didn’t he just look so damned handsome standing there in all his finery? No wonder none of his ladies can ever say no to him,” said Beryl, with a mischievous wink thrown in for good measure.

“Our Mickey always has been one for the ladies,” Josie replied, as she opened a packet of Rich Tea biscuits onto a plate, “gets that from his father.”

“Too right – that and his looks. Some days I forget just how much he resembles your Mick when he was his age. Then there are those days when I look at him and – bang it’s 1970 all over again,” Beryl stated – as she unceremoniously shovelled an entire Rich Tea into her mouth. As she chased a clump of biscuit down the side of her chin Beryl looked up and noticed the distant look on Josie’s face. “Jose?” What is it? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”

“1970.” Josie said, reaching out to her handbag so that she could retrieve her packet of cigarettes. “That was the year…” she lit the end of the cigarette and inhaled deeply, “that was the year I lost my Lynn.”

“Oh god, oh god Josie I can’t believe I forgot.” Beryl was slightly distraught. Usually she was none-too-fussed to discover that she had put her foot in it, in fact it happened on such a regular occurrence that Beryl barely took any notice of people’s reactions when she did. This time however, she was mortified that she could have wrenched up such a painful memory for her dearest friend.

“It’s alright,” Josie responded – an errant tear appearing at the corner of her eye. As she blinked the tear escaped and made its lonely way down towards her chin, its path marked by a dark line of mascara. “There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t stop to think of her at least once,” Josie said. “I suppose I’ve managed to find a way to come to terms with it over the years.” Josie rubbed her legs as the heat from the fire started to bring out the colour in them.

Beryl took that moment to search out the bottle of brandy that she knew Josie kept behind the flour bin. “Stick a drop of this in there,” she said – adding a nip of brandy to Josie’s cup. “I suppose you have to find a way to get over something like that.”

“Oh, I’ll never get over it Beryl. Not as long as I live.” Her gaze became a little more distant as she pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Yesterday was particularly hard.”

“I guess it was,” replied Beryl, “putting your old man to rest would be hard on anyone.” Beryl helped herself to one of Josie’s cigarettes as she added a healthy measure of brandy to her own cup.

“Him?” Josie questioned. “You think I could give a damn about burying that worthless sack of shit?” Josie’s nostrils flared with anger, an anger that seemed to draw up fresh tears of hurt and pain. “I sat there. I sat there looking at all the beautiful flowers, the expensive casket, all of the guests offering their condolences. I saw them all looking at me, the grieving widow, and saying things like, ‘poor Josie, the pain must be unbearable.’ Well it was unbearable Beryl.

The pain was suffocating the life out of me. But it wasn’t because of him, not really, it was because of my Lynn.”

Beryl reached across the gap between them and touched Josie on the hand. “You really hated him – didn’t you?” Beryl said – slowly withdrawing her hand and adjusting her skirt to expose a little more of her leg to the heat. “He hurt you really badly didn’t he?”

“For all he did to me Beryl – I hope that the bastard burns in hell.”
“I suppose if anyone deserved that he probably deserved it more than most,” Beryl agreed. Beryl felt a pang of guilt as she recalled the fact that she had been with Mick at least once whilst he was married to Josie. It hadn’t been anything serious, nothing at all really, just a grope and a cuddle one night after drinking a little too much. It had never developed into anything more than that, nothing like the countless affairs Beryl knew Mick had enjoyed whilst Josie had been working hard to raise his kids.

“You’re sweet,” Josie said – taking the expression on Beryl’s face as a sign of sympathy. “It’s just so hard to accept that the boys gave him a brilliant send off, yet he let the hospital cremate our baby without a second thought for a proper funeral.” Josie topped up both of their cups with fresh tea, adding another measure of brandy at the same time. “Did I ever tell you what he said to me that night – the night that I lay there in that hospital bed after giving birth to my stillborn baby?”

“No. I don’t think you ever did.”

“Well – the doctor had just left the room. They had stuck me back on the maternity ward you see, with all those screaming babies. They were explaining all of the different ways that you could lose a baby,” she drew in a lung-full from her cigarette, the tip a precarious mound of ash, “as if any of it was going to make a difference.”

“It must have been awful for you.”

“I couldn’t hear anything other than those wailing babies, then he comes up and says ‘it’s all taken care of.’ What’s taken care of? I said.” Josie swiped at her tears, smearing her carefully applied make-up. “He had only gone and agreed to let the hospital take care of the funeral. They cremated her there and then, just like yesterday’s rubbish.”

”Oh Josie,” Beryl said, touching the tips of her fingers to her mouth.

”It gets better,” Josie said through a cloud of blue smoke, bitterness hanging on every word, ”he did it because he said it would save him having to fork out for it.” The tears now forming in Josie’s eyes burned, as they blurred her vision of the present with that of the past.

Josie had always felt that a part of her soul had been taken from her that day – as surely as the unformed foetus had been removed from her womb. Oh how Josie would love to have had the chance to be able to choose a casket for her darling baby.

She had always remembered that day for two reasons. First, and foremost, it was the day that she suffered her first miscarriage. Second, it was the day that Josie realized that she hated Mick Bannister. She hated him with a passion equal to the love that she had felt for him when they were first married.

It was amazing to Josie that fate could be so cruel. She had starting seeing Mick
Bannister when she was no more than seventeen years old. She had been a somewhat precocious seventeen-year old; a girl, who by her own admission, could have had just about any lad that she fancied. Josie by no means considered herself to have been a tart, but she would freely admit to anyone who bothered to take an interest that she had been, ‘popular.’

Mick Bannister had been dashing. He had been everything that other boys of his age had not. His good looks had been enough to melt the hearts of every girl within a hundred mile radius. His strong shoulders and powerful arms had looked as though they could sweep her up off her feet.

”I still remember all the spots that he used to take me to.” Josie said, flicking the ash column into the saucer that she had moved between Beryl and herself.

“Mick always knew where to take a girl for an exciting night out on the town,” Beryl agreed – dipping a biscuit into her cup.

“I remember how I would sneak out of the house in my most glamorous dress; make up applied in all the right places and quantities; a generous splash of perfume behind each knee. I would meet Mick and we would go out and enjoy ourselves as though we hadn’t had a care in the world.”

An appreciative smile played across Beryl’s face as she became interested in Josie’s tale.

“I recall this one night that turned into a passionate encounter up against a brick wall,” Josie said – Beryl’s eyes positively gleaming at the prospect of hearing more. “I can still remember where that wall is to this day,” she said – remembering how Mick had taken her and supported her slight weight on his hips as he entered her. “I had to keep the grazes on my back out of mother’s sight for days,” she said – lighting another cigarette with the stub of her first. ”Days that I spent with a satisfied smile spread across my face I might add.” An inner warmth filled Josie momentarily, as she recalled how satisfied she had felt that day – how happy she had been that day.

One detail that Beryl was already aware of was the fact that Mick had been Josie’s first. Although many believed otherwise, Beryl knew that Josie had lost her virginity to Mick Bannister that night – and her heart.

“That smile had lasted less than a fortnight,” Josie said, remembering her terror when she had realized that she had been late. “I had never been late before in my entire life. The thought of being pregnant froze the blood in my veins.” Telling her mother had been out of the question. She had truly believed that allowing her father to find out would have resulted in him beating the unborn child out of her.

(Cont.)