Quick Reads

Quick reads are very short stories, one or two thousand words. I’ve noted when they were written and added and what genre the stories are. Just click on the title to go directly to the story you’d like to read.

CONTENTS:

Title                                          Genre         Written            Added

Business and Pleasure        Fantasy        2011                    Jan 2013

Taking Flight                          General        2012                    Jan 2013

Tick Tock                                General        2013                    Apr 2013

The Music Man                      Fantasy       2012                    Feb 2013

Tresspass                                 Mystery      2012                    Feb 2013

With One Stone                      Mystery      2008                   Feb 2013

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Added 17th Apr 2013

This has been rattling around my head for the last couple of months. It finally gelled tonight after a day or so of thinking about his name. t’s sort and sharp, I hope it’s effective.

Tick Tock

By Karen Leslie

2013

Tick tock.

Clocks on every wall, mostly wooden, some carved, some plastic animals with eyes twitching in time with the tick tock tick tock of every clock.

His name is Byron but it really doesn’t suit him and he never corrects anyone who assumes the duller Brian or Ron by mistake. Mostly people avoid calling him by name since any one they use is patently wrong. He gives off waves of wrongness, but he is very good at fixing gears and cogs and escapements and hands. People also avoid shaking his hand. There is something very wrong about his clean clammy hairless hands.

His wife doesn’t have a name at all. There was one on her birth certificate, but it faded from disuse, she had been called ‘mother’ for a while, but Byron calls her ‘dear’ in a dusty grey voice and she has almost forgotten there was ever a third option. She calls him ‘dear’ too; it doesn’t get confusing since no-one else shares their conversations.

And the clocks fill up the long silences in their home. Tick tock. They own a television but seldom turn it on. Byron sometimes listens to the radio, but he disagrees with the talk back and the music is in the wrong rhythm and clashes with the tick tock.

Slam.

The door closes behind her; she is pink with adventure and wind. Byron does not like it but does not say anything. The gutted clock on the table is safer than his wife and he gives it his full attention.

“I saw her.”

Byron says nothing in reply. This is worse than going out, or coming back and slamming the door. This is worse than pink from the wind.

“She was at the shops. We went for tea at the bakery.” She carries bags through to the kitchen, and begins unloading groceries, stacking cans on the bench.

Byron realises with alarm that she had been shopping. He does not need to check his wallet; where else would she have found money? He can see from the dining room table that she has bought a new brand of baked beans, a different brand of peaches, the wrong soup.

“She is a prostitute now.” She calmly keeps stacking tins for a few moments, then adds,”She sleeps with men for money.”

Another few moments and the tin in her hand leaves it in an arc across the kitchen and dining room to stop forever one of the tick tocking clocks.

And now tins fly from her hands, each one finding a target helplessly hanging on the walls, the crashes keep time with the tick tock as she windmills the tins from the bench to the air to the walls around them both. Her aim is deadly accurate and Byron cowers beneath the table.

Soon she is exhausted, she is not used to exercise or strong emotion. Her arms fall and she falls to the ground. Sobbing, she stretches across the lino. Her fingers reach for one final rolling tin that escapes her. As their daughter escaped.

Byron listens to the sobbing and the accusations and waits until they fade to incoherence. Of course the girl is servicing men, he thinks, women either marry or sell themselves and he has said often enough that she is not a pretty girl, who would want to marry that?. At least his wife has not damaged the clock on the table, it’s the only job he has in hand this month and it’s valuable. No real harm done.

He leaves the safety of the table and walks over to his wife on the kitchen floor. He offers a hand and gently raises her to her feet. She is still sobbing hysterically so he calmly and forcefully slaps her across the face. “Time you made dinner, dear?”

She reaches for one of the tins and Byron waits till it is in her hand before he slaps her again, harder. “Don’t steal from me again, alright dear?” he says in his dusty grey voice.

He turns his back on her, without even waiting to see her reach for the can opener, and tut tuts over the damaged goods that line the walls. It is in time with the tick tock from the few remaining clocks.

Tick tock, tut tut.

 

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Added 25 Feb 2013

I wrote this while posting to a now defunct (or renamed or both) website. A group of us had fun writing and critiquing and I’ll probably add some more stories from there. I’d been reading a fair bit of Agatha Christie and this was my attempt to imitate the master. It’s needed very little editing since I first wrote it, which I usually think of as a good sign in a story.

With One Stone

By Karen Leslie

2008

 “Well done, Chaz, good chap.” Colonel Braden rewarded his student with a scrap of pheasant. Chaz chewed the meat tidily before looking to the Colonel with alert interest, hoping for more scraps, knowing not to beg.

Mrs Braden made a moue of disapproval, her blue eyes heavy under kohled lids. “Really, darling, one isn’t supposed to train cats, and he is supposed to be my pet.” She laid knife and fork neatly, leaning back without acknowledging the butler’s removal of her plate.

“Burmese!” announced the Colonel. “Bred for hunting, retrievers! Bred to be trained. Damned intelligent beast – unlike that fool he’s named for.”

“Just as pretty though.” Mrs Braden smiled through the whispered words. “Aren’t you my sweet Charley-warley-woo?”

“Dammit, what?” The Colonel demanded. “Speak up – oh tosh! Now look what you’ve done!”

The cat had forsaken lessons for petting. He wove between his mistress’ legs, bumping his head against her hand at each circuit.

Despite her protests, he leapt into her arms and purred.

Mrs Braden looked at her husband with cool amusement. “I just said that Charles will be coming up with some friends this afternoon. We received a wire.”

The cat pawed at the heart-shaped brooch at her throat, avoiding her hands until bodily pushed away. He landed with a heavy thump and returned to his master.

The Colonel huffed and puffed through his moustache, but like the cat, knew better than to beg.  “How long will these interlopers be staying, eh? Can we put them off until after the hunt at least?”

Her smile grew wider. “Of course not, darling, they’ll have already boarded the train.”

She smiled just as widely when the Colonel returned from the hunt. He thwacked his riding crop against his boot at the sight of pretty young things arrayed around a tray of his drinks. His wife was the jewel in the center of their tawdry glitter.

“Any luck, sir?” Charles asked cheerfully, bouncing up from his casual perch on a balustrade. “Bag that blighter, did you?” His affected tones caused his friends to laugh and Mrs Braden permitted herself a smile.

“Harrumph!” The Colonel said, and repeated as he noted the empty decanter.

“Now, let’s be cheerful.” His wife admonished. “I’ll fetch you a drink.” She rose from her chair, the heart shaped brooch flashed and a darker flash arrowed towards it. Mrs Braden staggered back with a gasp.

Charles was by her side in a moment, hauling the cat away into his firm embrace. “Good god what a brute!” he said, then laughed merrily. “Is this the same scrap of a kitten I gave you last year? He weighs a good stone or more now. What do you want, beast?”

The cat burrowed into the crook of his arm, seeking escape.

It was the Colonel who held his wife and she sprang away from him with an alarmed cry, “My brooch!” Her dress was ripped, nothing scandalous, merely the lace collar, but her brooch was gone.

“He has stolen your heart.” Charles said archly. Sure enough, a scrap of lace dangled from the cat’s jaw, held firmly, with the brooch swinging gently from it. “But see, now I have it.” He eased the material from the cat’s toothy grip and held out the jewel.

Mrs Braden recovered her composure and purred in satisfaction as she recovered her property. “Ah, sweetie, only I decide who has my heart.”

The Colonel harrumphed once more and went in search of his forgotten drink.

The cat, when lowered to the ground, padded around his audience, twining himself between legs, accepting jibes and praise with equal composure.

It was noted at the inquest that Mrs Braden wore her heart at dinner.

The Colonel had been visiting a neighbour and was absent throughout the meal and entertainments of the evening. The cat sat sedately on his mistress’ lap with no more than a rumbling purr to offer. The butler noted that the guests and his mistress had retired before his master came home and removed to his library.

An open and shut case.

The other guests had all heard.

“Oh Charley, no!” Mrs Braden had screamed. They’d heard her falling down the stairs. They’d come out of their rooms to find Charles himself, already robed, by the door of his room at the head of the stairs, cool as a cucumber and asking what the noise was about.

The Colonel arrived below and clutched his wife’s broken form to his chest, fierce in his mourning.

Even the cat had approached his master with reverence, pushing his head beneath his master’s hand. The Colonel had swiftly stood, hands fisted, held tightly at his side, staring up at the guests on the landing above, seeking out one face.

“You!” He said, meeting Charles’ horrified gaze.

A plate of partridges nested amongst the luncheon. Colonel Braden read the paper. The cat sat at attention beside an empty dish at his feet.

Of course there was scandal but a common one, only the barest facts reported, no naming the innocent. The young wife of a military man, head turned by a dandy.

Blackmail.

When she told her lover that she had no access to the Colonel’s money, he’d killed her in a fit of frustration. Tried to blame the cat!

Her husband had found a stolen jewel in the blackguard’s robe pocket, the heart-shaped brooch her lover had joked of possessing that very afternoon. His hanging was a foregone conclusion and the only print-worthy news of the day.

The Colonel harrumphed and forked a partridge onto the dish. The cat sat straighter, ignoring the succulent offering and watching his master through narrowed eyes.

“Yes, quite right.” The Colonel stabbed another bird and lifted the brooch from the table with his other hand. He held the jewel out, hid it in his hand with a flick of motion and showed it again. Holding the sparkling gem aloft, he laughed abruptly as the animal leapt. He pulled back his hand and the cat landed with a heavy thump, tail lashing at having missed his shot. The Colonel tossed the gem across the floor and the Burmese chased after it, bringing it back to butt at his master’s hand.

“Well done, Chaz.” Said the Colonel, dropping the second partridge beside its mate. “Two birds, indeed. Good chap.”

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Added on 10th Feb 2013

This was for a quickfire writing competition on SDMB, we were given a photo, three words and 60 hours to come up with a completed story up to 2000 words. They’re great fun. I used to write for a local paper and I love the feeling of an impending deadline.

The Music Man

Karen Leslie Oct 2012

“Comrade Doctor!” The orderlies were worried, almost as much over disturbing my lunch as whatever had caused them to burst into my office. The smaller of the two glanced at his companion, but didn’t receive the assuring look or comment he’d hoped for. He turned back to me, “Madame – Mistress – Doctor-“

“Comrade is fine.” I said, dabbing the corners of my mouth with a napkin. “What is the problem?” But the orderly had exhausted his bravery.  I hadn’t been at the facility long enough to learn all their names and they weren’t sure of my nature. All they had were the rumours of my previous work and the new patients in their care. They were used to ailments of a more physical nature.

Gregor, the larger of the two, rolled his eyes up and left, nodding towards the secure section. “He hef anodder tattoo.” When I’d first met him, I’d thought Gregor was impaired. He was just from the extreme Northwest, a Baltic fishing village upbringing leaving his accent almost Norwegian.

“Thank you Gregor, I shall attend.” They waited, unsure, until I added. “You may go about your duties.”  It was always a jolt, leaving my office, entering the industrial green of the main facility. I took my time, also wanting to observe.

The orderlies were already some distance away. They wore rubber soled shoes which squeaked arrhythmically on the linoleum, not upstairs but towards the staff cafeteria. Gregor appeared to be singing to his companion. “Go ahead and yoomp, yoomp!” He gave a short hah of laughter and hopped and danced his way down the corridor. His ungainly gyrating did not amuse his workmate.

I turned and found my way to the stairs and the secure wing. Comrade Matron and Comrade Physician were arguing heatedly and quietly outside the nurses’ station.

“I’m telling you, none of my staff would leave a needle behind.” Matron insisted.

My subordinate tried to soothe her. “These people are very cunning, I’ve seen prisoners making ink out of-“

Prisoners, Comrade?” Matron asked, half a beat before I would have. “This is a hospital.”

“Of course.” He replied smoothly, with a smile that said he was merely humouring her. “A hospital.”

I stepped forward, letting them become aware of my presence. “A facility.” I corrected. “Our duty is to neither imprison, nor treat, merely to observe and report.”

Neither of them dared argue. The matron bobbed a curtsey, the physician nodded curtly. They had both argued against my department coming into their … facility. Most of their patients had been moved on to other hospitals before my people had been moved in. Except for the one man who had been there all along, the man we were in fact discussing. Matron still looked ready to argue, so I assured her. “He doesn’t need to steal things. I am sure that these ‘tattoos’ are merely hysterical stigmata.”

“More sedation, then?”  Asked the physician to Matron’s scorn.

“The drugs don’t work, they just make it worse.” There was a moment where we both stared at the woman. She obviously did not realise that she had spoken rhythmically. She turned on her heel and strode away. If the man beside me noticed that she walked with the same beat as her words, he didn’t say so.

I thought I heard her humming, but it may have been the heating coming on.

Comrade Physician frowned briefly and dismissed her from existence with a shrug. “So, Madame Comrade, you believe he thinks these pictures onto himself?” The look he turned on me was trying hard to portray honest enquiry.

It almost succeeded. After years of testing and training and hoping, all the psychic phenomena had been officially debunked. Comrade Physician believed in the party line more than he believed in the proof of his eyes.

“I have read the reports.” I said. “He had left my old facility long before I arrived.”  Most of the staff had been infected and would not report. “The experiments we used to conduct were not … scrupulously controlled.” I had to be careful; criticism from me would be reported even if the matron were safe to rave. “We were competing with the Americans, of course.”

He nodded, and I could see that this old chestnut had crumbled his reservations.

“So, we took people we thought showed psychic ability and we tried to develop that. Drugs, electroshock, sensory deprivation and overload. Many were damaged.”

“And now we care for them.” He said quickly.

“Of course.” I smiled without a trace of warmth. “The results seemed promising at the start. Remote viewing was especially well received by the authorities, but ultimately …” If the viewing were of the past, was that not just memory? If the future, pure guesswork?”

Despite his official cynicism he was disappointed. “Nothing?” Like so many men of science, he wanted to believe in something more.

“Nothing useful.” Even if something seemed accurate, it would be uselessly after the fact before we could verify it. And there was always the danger of confirmation bias, that we confirmed things because they fit the viewing rather than because they specifically had been seen. “Much we cannot explain.” Much we would not explain since the explanation was gross cruelty or negligence on our part. I sighed deeply, my assuring, confident manner all used up.

“Like him.”

“Yes. We can guess, but we do not know.“

At the other facility, even the most damaged of the others feared him. It was believed that isolation was the key. Perhaps that was correct, but it had been decided far too late. We could now trace his influence in a great spiral of echoing contact. Some of the staff at the previous facility had recovered, but most were beyond any help. That’s why we’d moved everything here – stable doors and bolting horses.

There were no further reasons to delay. I walked into the ward with a professional smile. “What can I do for you today, Mr Lernov?”

The walls in this room were cream coloured, washable surfaces. This was the worst part of the whole place for me. To know that they expected blood, vomitus, fecal matter and worse, to be smeared, sprayed and flung. A single cot with a rubber sheet, to complete the humiliation of a man who had never been less than fastidious in his habits.

“Give me hope, Johanna.” He was the only person here who used my name. I found myself wishing he meant it. “Please help me, I’m falling.” Indeed, he staggered. An ancient, bald, harmless man. I steadied him, noting again how the signs of a youthful vigour were still apparent on the aged remains. He was still barrel-chested, still clear of eye and if his skin sagged, well he had the years to justify that.

“I know the last one.” I said. “It’s from an American, Hank something.” It had come over the airwaves, scratchy and wavering. The latest thing from the forbidden broadcasts.

He smiled and kept hold of me, not really interested. We had long ago confirmed that the tunes and words were real, sooner or later. “I have a new picture.”

“I heard. Do you think it is from now, or the past?” I kept to the long established policy that there were no other options. “May I see it?”

He smiled once more. Both of us ignored the orderlies as they came into the room and stood discreetly by the door. Comrade Physician stood closer, I could see his reflection in the walls. Lernov removed his shirt, raising his arms so I could see the newest face. “He looks like a sailor, with that hat.” I observed.

Lernov shook his head. “Imagine.” Then he mimed someone shooting a gun. “Not yet, he’s in Hamburg.”

“He is a  German?”

“No, English.” He sighed. “But he will die in America.” He sighed hugely. “So much that I do not understand.”

Whatever he experienced – whatever we caused him to experience was changing. The older tattoos were more detailed, though blurred and distorted with age. One of the first, a crown covering his lower back from hip to hip, was rich in complexity. “Like his music.” Lernov had said, though no amount of research had discovered a musician called Mercury and ‘Queen” was hardly a name to bandy about in the post-imperialist state.

Now the pictures were mere outlines, a few features sketched in, but none of the elaborate detail. His health was failing and I could do no more than ease his passing. Officially of course.  “My dear, who may as well jump?” I asked. The pictures appeared rarely, usually heralding another outbreak in the people around him. And the people around them and so on.

“Hah, we will both be gone long before them.”

I leaned close, whispering. “The large orderly and the matron, but not the physician or the small man. Why?” They would sing their lives, becoming less politically acceptable, harbouring dangerous ideas and dangerous ideologies.

He took me into a dancing pose, waltzed me around the room and whispered back. “They have no song in their heart.”

“And what will happen to those who do?” He spiralled me out to arm’s length and spun me back close all in perfect ¾ time.

“Slave to the rhythm. Freedom.” He shrugged, making it seem a part of the dance. “Do you like the music?”

It was a Stravinsky waltz, long declared bourgeois.  From the moment he’d taken me in his arms, I’d heard the swelling strings, my feet had moved to the one two three. I had no more control than Gregor or Comrade Matron. “I like all of it.”

“It needs a  channel.” He said, looking at me with exhaustion, grief and resignation.

“Ah.” I gripped his hand. I could hear echoes of other tunes behind the waltz. I understood words that talked of history long gone, and yet to be made. Love and sex and loss and joy.

He smiled and the energy of the dance became too much. One surprising, ungainly step and I held his full weight. The orderlies sprang forward, guiding Lernov to the cot, while I kept hold of his hands, assuring him that there would be no medications, no shocks to the chest that would keep him in this world one moment longer.

His smile was blissful. “Voulez vous?”

“Uh huh.” I ignored the questions looked at me from the others. Lernov’s grip loosened, the beating of his heart slowed and stopped. I snapped my fingers until someone thought to hand me the discarded shirt and I could cover his face.

Back in the haven of my office, I hummed the waltz. There was a dark spot on the back of my wrist, perhaps the beginning of a semi-quaver.

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Added on 5th Feb 2013

This dark little tale started out as a 500 word exercise. I may not be finished with Father Gerald, he’s such a fun character.

Trespass

Karen Leslie 2012

Fitzwilliam opened the door, light haloed behind him. He kept touching his badge as he spoke to me, as if to reassure himself of his right to be in that house. “Oh, I am glad you’ve arrived sir.” He gripped the frame of the door until I all but pushed past him to get out of the biting  wind. “He’s in the kitchen. It’s a mess, sure enough.”

And sure enough it was. His Lordship lay sprawled, well past any earthly concern. Although his lordship’s dying had not been quick, it had been thorough. No Viaticum and Penance would be part of his Last Rites, not even Extreme Unction would suffice. Far, far too late. I said the appropriate blessing, mindful of Fitzwilliam’s request not to disturb the scene.

“Such a shame, and him newly married.” I said, more to myself than young constable Fitzwilliam. I remembered when His Lordship had broached the subject with me, asking if she were a woman of good character, were those children of hers biddable? No fool for love, His Lordship. A practical, Godly man who knew himself to be an example to the locals. Though the miller’s widow was not of my parish, I knew her well enough to assure His Lordship that they were all of good standing and reputation. As soon as the vows were spoken and his new family moved in, the girls had joined my own church and attended Sunday school. All starched dresses, much finer than they’d been used to.

But this was not giving comfort to the grief stricken household.

“Their mother?”  I asked, and had to remind myself that Fitzwilliam had not heard my thoughts change from the man to his adopted children. “Her Ladyship?”

“She’s up in her rooms, not that we’ll be getting much sense from her.” He seemed at a loss, not knowing the courtesies of a dead man’s household. “The cook’s with her, trying to calm her down.”

I walked gratefully into the hall, pleased to be away from the horror. With a final glance to ensure there had been no distruption of clues, Fitzwilliam closed the kitchen door behind me, shutting out the sight of the dead man. His movements were sure and respectful while he dealt with the dead and it came to me that it was only the living that caused him discomfort. But that was my métier, after all. “She’ll be in shock, poor woman. We don’t expect this sort of thing here.” In fact, this was the only violent crime I’d heard of in my thirty-year ministry. Oh, we had the usual run of thieves, adulterers and blasphemers. Even the occasional husband too quick with his fists against a wife too quick with her tongue could be found without effort. But nothing like this. This was trespass against a man’s life in the very hearth of his home. “I should see the girls.”

Fitzwilliam nodded his agreement and came to himself enough to lead me towards the library. “He wasn’t a pleasant man, but she liked him well enough. Enough to marry -.” He stopped. Had he realised he’d spoken ill of the dead? Or that he’d just given a motive? “She liked him well, Father.” He added with an apologetic glance.

I nodded. There weren’t many men that would have taken on the children as well as a wife quite far past her youth. Her gratitude had been evident to everyone. And the girls were fine young things, their  presence had added a calming influence to the Sunday lessons, they stood for none of the nonsense that the other children tended to.

I took the lesson myself when it was time to discuss the Lord’s Prayer. Too much chance of mischief amongst the children and Mrs Magill would take on so. I expected some comment on the first line, for the girls’ father was indeed in heaven this last year and more, but they let this pass and quelled young Patrick’s chortle with a double stare of disapproval. Nine years old, and didn’t even laugh when Sally had (almost certainly deliberately) misquoted; “Harold be his name.”

My Lord forgive me, but I liked the girls more than I should. Perhaps it had been His Lordship’s question that made me think of them as almost daughters rather than young parishoners. I took them under my wing and answered their solemn questions. They seemed to return the affection, I’d heard the tone of their whispers often enough, if not the words, to understand they’d been told not to waste my time with their chatter.

Fitzwilliam hesitated halfway down the hall. “Father-” He did not want to go on and had to force the words out. “Sarah and Caroline say there was no-one else in the house. Their mother was in the town with Cook when their … His Lordship …” his voice tailed off and he looked like my second-eldest altarboy when I caught him at the sacramental wine.

“Ghosties is it?” The quip did nothing to ease his strained expression so I gave him a smile and a pat on the shoulder. Poor lad would need to grow up a fair bit or the locals would have him dancing a merry tune.

“No, sir.” he said shamefully. “It’s not ghosties. I don’t know what I should do, Father.” The look of him worried me a little, and I stepped back, away from the library door. This brought him to himself and he waved me on. “Best you talk to them, Father. They’ll need you.” I liked his look even less as he said that but he opened the library door.

“Father! Father Gerald!” Both girls greeted me enthusiastically as I entered the library. They looked angelic in the soft light of lamp and fireplace, blonde hair tumbling in curls to narrow shoulders, blues eyes bright in the dim light.

Someone had tried to clean them, but their hands and clothes were still smudged and streaked. The poor mites might have been alone with their step-father for hours. “We’re so glad you’re here.” They threw themselve into my embrace, finishing each other’s thoughts and sentences the way the twins do so often do.

“We needed to talk to you – about our step-father- who art in heaven.”

It would have been Caroline who added the last, she had a sly humour beyond her years. I gave her a hard look and both girls backed away to hold hands before me. “He is in heaven, isn’t he?”

“Of course.” But I could not hold the lie, not even for children in grief.  I hadn’t been able to hear his final confession. I had not received his penance, nor granted absolution. “As long as he has confessed and been forgiven his sins.” To my surprise, this seemed to reassure them.

“Oh, yes, all that” Caroline said earnestly.

“Ah then Father, God will make our mummy be happy until she joins him in heaven.” Susan said with satisfaction.

“She’ll join them both, won’t she, Father?”Caroline asked, not quite innocently. “Won’t she still be married to Daddy as well?”

I smiled, this was one thing that I had the answer to. “God sees and understands all. He shall set things right as He sees them.”

Caroline smiled, as completely satisfied now as her sister. “Good.” She and Sarah shared a brief, fierce hug. “God saw what he was doing to us.”

Sarah sighed with relief and looked to her sister for approval as she finished. “And we did what you told us in Sunday school Father, we forgave him his trespasses.”

Caroline smiled like an Angel on high as she added; “As we trespassed against him.”

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Added 31st Jan 2013

Rebecca is loosely based on a wonderful lady who taught me that sometimes you have to accept the inevitable – but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.

 Business and Pleasure

 Karen Leslie 2011

China clinked and rattled, the sound slightly muffled on its journey from the kitchen past the overstuffed furniture in the lounge to the sunny window. “I know you’re busy,” she said with a lack of concern I found charming, “but would you indulge an old lady?”

“Of course. My day is yours.” I replied, watching her slow progress carefully, keeping myself out of her way. She was right of course, I am always busy and I can always make time.

“I’d enjoy a game.” Rebecca’s smile was guileless and sweet. White ducks with neckerchiefs marched around the borders and flicked not a feather as the tray met the table more forcefully than usual. The whole room was infested with animals, painted, printed, stitched and appliquéd onto every surface that could take them.

An elderly man shuffled past, all angles, following the path from the letterboxes towards the depths of the retirement village. He spared a complicated salute for my companion, but ignored me. She must have watched him inching painfully down the path, long before he’d come into my view,

People mostly do. My profession is not popular, though often a relief for my clients and their families. I’m old fashioned enough to miss the courtesies but one must move with the times.

“How long do you think he’ll live?” Rebecca asked with a nod to the slowly retreating man. She gave a small laugh and added, “I know you shouldn’t say, probably against rules and regulations.” Her steady gaze told me that this was the game she wanted to play.

“He’s healthy enough to see in his century.” I said. “He’s lonely though.” I didn’t say that he had a bottles of pills hoarded against that loneliness. That he counted them each night as sure as he brushed his sparse hair and took his white teeth out to clean them.

Rebecca harrumphed. “He’s a good Christian.” Had she guessed?  “Plenty of charming widows to spend a Sunday with.” Perhaps not.

Her finger jabbed out with glee – “Her!”

“Rebecca, this is hardly fitting. For me, I mean.”

She stopped herself just short of patting my arm in encouragement and conspiracy “Oh go on, I won’t tell.” The she grinned widely, she had just enough of her own teeth to avoid the grotesque. Her voice was arch with mischief “Live a little.”

I had to laugh with her. And followed her direction to the competent, matronly figure striding across the lawn to assist the old man. And we passed a pleasant visit, playing the game of Who Shall Die When, until I made the mistake of spotting an un-played character trimming his roses. “No!” Rebecca cried. Her teacup rattled in its saucer. She hastily replaced the chinaware on the tray and used the act of pouring herself another cup to calm herself. “No.”

It had been her idea to begin with, but I could certainly understand why she no longer found our game amusing. “Your friend?” I felt too hot by the window, but I make allowances for the elderly. I let them host my visits as they feel fit and I let them believe they have secrets, even from me.

“Not a friend.” She said with a lack of clues. Her frown turned into a sly look as she sat in the opposite wicker chair to mine. “Can’t you tell?” She swirled the tea in the pot and offered to pour for me. I declined, my cup was still full and my biscuit lay crumbled but uneaten on the plate. Rebecca waited.

I shook my head and she took that as an answer while I mulled over the fact that the man she’d asked about had been her best friend’s lover. Why she should be angry at even the idea of his dying I could not tell. Perhaps she’d been jealous of her friend, perhaps she hadn’t approved. Love and hurt together can live forever. As I watched the old woman pour tea and add milk and sugar, the certainty rose in me that the man had chosen the friend who’d loved him less.

“Do you miss it?” she asked suddenly. “The pomp and circumstance? It used to be all incense and last rights, confessions and ceremony.”

“Do you want to confess?” I asked in surprise. Strictly speaking, that’s not my territory but I did like the old woman. People have odd expectations of me. I do try to accommodate.

“Good Grief, confess? Me?” She laughed then, her spirits quite restored at the idea of my taking her confession, granting absolution. “I bet you would have looked rather dishy in a robe.”

I shook my head again, letting her make her own questions and answers from that.

“My old friend Maria, she had it all planned.” Rebecca grew wistful at the memory of her friend. “We go from our houses to these villages, she used to say, then to the main building, then to the hospital wing and then we go out in a box. Once we leave a place, she’d say to me, we don’t come back again, we just go on.” Rebecca threw a sigh into the stuffy air of the room. “I’m sure it must have been better when people stayed at home.”

I am old fashioned, not falsely romantic. Too many people alone in their homes, unable to care for themselves, unable to seek help. “The old days are gone. I’d rather see you cared for.”

If she took that ‘you’ on the personal level rather than the general, well who was I to disabuse her? I merely enjoyed her company.

Rebecca reached out, just short of grasping my arm. “What about her?” she asked with malicious interest.

A fat, cheerful old woman made slow progress towards the bank of letter boxes. Her face was wet and ruddy in the sun. Unlike the earlier man, it wasn’t arthritic joints that slowed her, but a snaggle-toothed cat, winding through her every step. I looked from her to Rebecca, checking that the game was truly acceptable once more. “Another twenty years. Aneurysm, very sudden”

“No! She’s nearly eighty now!” Rebecca fumed, then she laughed and added, “Her daughter will be disappointed.” She took a long sip of her tea. “And this one?” as another woman walked passed the unit. Although ancient, this one was full of energy, posture perfect, as were her clothes and make up. “Mrs Wonderful Westwood, example to us all.”

“Now she is definitely not your friend.”

“No.”

So you’d think that Rebecca would be pleased to know that Mrs Westwood’s funeral was to be held a bare half hour after her own. That she’d be happy there were to be less flowers at the second ceremony, and no out of season tulips at all.

“You’ll be in a hurry then.” Rebecca sniffed, “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your business with her.”

“I can always make time.” I assured her. “It’s my pleasure.”

But all she said was, “Well, you’d better not drink tea at her place, you old slattern.” And she took my hand firmly in her own. Her final breath rattled no more than the teacups on their tray as she slid from her chair.

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Added 31st Jan 2013

Didn’t we all once dream of flying?  The gunman on the hill was real.

Taking Flight

 Karen Leslie 2012

 Samantha’s chair was perfectly placed on the narrow wooden veranda, in the sun and out of the wind. No one could see her but she could see the hand reaching over to grip the handrail. The hand was followed by a forearm and elbow before being joined by its mate and their owner’s face appeared between the ends of the ladder.

“Are you ready for a cup of tea?” Samantha asked.

“You’re a life saver, Missus.” Mike hauled himself up and over the railing to step on the wooden decking. “That wind knocks it out of you.” He pulled a rag from his pocket and scrubbed the dust from his hands. There was a bottle amongst the boxes stacked against the parapet and he dampened the cloth to give his hands a final clean. “It wants to take me off flying today, it’s that strong.”

He didn’t drag a chair up to the table, but lifted and placed it with care. She’d made tea for him morning, noon and after, the whole time he’d been working on the outer cladding. They were both comfortable with the routine. Although he was decades older than Samantha, he’d taken on board her niceties like an uncle playing at tea party.

Samantha poured tea, sure of the sugar, certain of the milk. “We never used to worry much about the wind before. There were too many trees in the way.” Before the month of rains had slid the trees away, leaving an uninterrupted view of the sea.  She nudged forward a plate of biscuits and smiled when Mike took one. “No more surprises?” she asked.

Mike shrugged. “There’s been no more movement. The engineer’s report says there shouldn’t be a problem.” He alternated bites and sips till the biscuit and tea were gone. Samantha could tell he was thinking things through before he spoke again. “The foundations of the house were always safe. You know I secured the veranda the other week or you wouldn’t be out here.” They shared a brief conspiratorial smile. “Has your husband said something? Is he worried?”

“No, I’m the worrier in the family.” Samantha said softly. She reassured Mike that she was only checking because he’d done such a good job. She had discovered the joy of sitting in sunlight. “I can see so much. It’s beautiful.”

“Well then, I’d better get back down and finish the job.” Mike said. He stood and stretched, arching his back like a cat. Then he turned and ran up the stacked boxes like they were stairs. He stood silhouetted against the sky before turning and stepping down onto his ladder, giving Samantha a final wink as a disappeared from sight.

It took a minute of two for Samantha’s heart to stop racing. She’d thought he’d been about to leap off the veranda; there had been nothing between him and her view of the bay. But she hadn’t been afraid for him, her heart had been racing with excitement.

“As long as Jimmy Anderson doesn’t find out.” She murmured to herself. She surprised herself by saying it, since it was only the second time she’d thought of his name in twenty years.

The first had been during the siege, when one man had held off the police for a whole weekend. Chaucer Road was on the other side and other end of the hill, but her husband still complained of the disruption. Samantha had thought of Jimmy, the way his gaze had slid past her, not recognising a human being. She thought the gunman must see his neighbours like that – things to be removed from his path. He wouldn’t think of that police officer’s family, or the children who walked down that road to the Intermediate.

Jimmy Anderson never had a high-powered rifle, he hadn’t needed a gun to destroy people. But at that time, Samantha couldn’t even remember what he’d done that left her afraid when his gaze passed over her without settling.

The siege had ended with a single shot in the early hours of morning. The reporters left town, the children dawdled their way to school and Samantha looked up the name Jimmy (Jim, James) Anderson on the Internet. There were so many, she didn’t even know if he were still in the Bay. There was one in a matchmaker’s site that looked a little like him, but so did the plumber and the lawyer, though they looked nothing like each other. Samantha had to admit that she didn’t really know his face at all, not even his eyes. She only had the memory of feeling afraid.

“I have been free of him since Primary School.” She discovered with surprise. “I’m not a scared little girl, I’m a married woman.”

She’d tried to explain it to her husband, but Geoffrey didn’t understand. He’d never been bullied as a child. If she had taken flight from any kind of risk since, well then, he could only be pleased that she’d flown to him. He told her she looked happier and more beautiful that he had ever seen her before and was both surprised and gratified when she initiated sex that night.

The next day, he’d been a little worried. Samantha saw it in his mouth when he finished his coffee and kissed her goodbye. She wondered if he thought she was leaving him. Or if she’d taken a lover who awakened appetites he could not fulfil. She wondered if he thought she was crazy for feeling so happy about so very little.

“I’ve got a good life.” She said to the breakfast dishes.

“My husband loves me.” She advised the washing basket with satisfaction.

“I’m free.” She told the sheets as she laid them over the mattress protector.

Months went by and the spark of joy grew slowly. Like spring in her soul pushing tendrils towards the sun.

Months went by and Geoffrey no longer worried. He did bring home flowers sometimes, but it wasn’t because he doubted her loyalty. He’d always known himself to be a rather dull man, and having an excited, exciting wife reflected light in interesting ways.

Months went by and it began to rain. Pouring enough for a whole retirement village of old men snoring, joked Geoffrey.

He wasn’t joking the next morning when he opened the curtains to find their windscreen of trees had gone. Slid down the hill in a slurry and flurry of mud.

Samantha stood back from the glass double doors, stunned with fear. There was nothing between her and the far hills beyond the bay but air over the overlapping wooden railing of the veranda.  Geoffrey walked around the house and called an engineer. The foundations of the house were safe enough, Samantha’s weren’t so sure.

Various tradesmen had been hired to make their section bearable. Mike was the last of these men. He was the one who waited out on the veranda, rather than tracking filthy boots through her home. He was the one who treated her with such an avuncular mix of respect and humour, that the tea ceremonies outweighed her fear. Without even noticing, Samantha grew to love her place on the veranda.

And then he stood on the railing and looked like he was about to fall, or take flight.

Samantha remembered.

It had been a long-planned trip. The bus took a long time to get up the winding hill road and Tracey from Room 7 threw up. The wind was a huge beast at the top of the hill. The children raised their puffer jackets up behind their heads and let the beast grab and sail them around the car park.

There was a gap in the chain link fence. Some of the boys crept through and over to the edge, looking down to the river valley so very far below. Where had the teachers been? Wondered the adult Samantha, but her childhood self hadn’t noticed as she and Mary crawled through the hole in the fence and sat with their backs to it.

Samantha had gloried in the view. “Wouldn’t it be great to do that.” she’d said, seeing a hawk cruising below them. They got onto their knees to get a better look and glided their arms, outstretched,  through the same turns as the bird.

“I dream about flying,” confided Samantha, “all the time.” She could feel the memory of wind beneath her body, the power of the turns and thrill of the stalls. She sat back on her heels. “One time I even dreamed that I was awake when I did it. Just down the stairs at home.” All she’d needed was the absolute certainty that when she leaned over the edge, she would not fall. When she’d woken up for real, she’d stood at the top of those same stairs for half an hour, waiting for that certainty. Her mother called her down for breakfast instead and Samantha had put it out of her mind.

Coming back to her present self, Samantha heard Mike clambering back up the ladder. She realised from the sun that hours had passed and she swiftly gathered up the tea tray and took it inside.

“All done for the day, Missus.” Mike called cheerfully. “Tomorrow should see it finished, if the weather holds.”

“Thank you, Mike.” She was out of sorts, other memories were crowding in on her now. Jimmy Anderson’s hand gripped on her collar, the yawning gap below her feet.

“I can pack up some of this gear tonight if you like.”

“No. Please.” She wanted him gone, not back and forth. “Please, it’s no bother where it is.”

He gave her a joking salute and made a show of scrubbing his shoes clean on the mat before walking through the lounge and out.

“Fly.” Jimmy wasn’t angry, wasn’t cheerful, wasn’t even curious. He looked over at his friends bunched by the fence. “She said she could, I heard her.” They laughed nervously and Jimmy shook her, making her feet slip against the edge of the cliff. “You gonna fly, little girl?” He was bigger than Samantha, one of the Room 10 boys. She knew his name because everyone did. He didn’t know hers.

She was too terrified to even beg for her life. She stared into his eyes and saw, contempt? No, she’d seen that he didn’t care. She could beg, she could fight, she could even take of soaring like the hawk and he wouldn’t care. The valley floor was so far away and she knew she would not fly, but tumble down, over and over until she hit the rocks.

There was a warning cry from one of his friends and he hauled Samantha back onto solid ground as easily as he’d held her over the edge.

Mary towed the teacher up to the fence and all the children got in trouble for being there.

“We were only joking around, Miss.” Jimmy said. “She was playing too.”

The teacher looked a question at her and Samantha nodded, ashamed for some reason she couldn’t explain.

They had to all get on the bus until everyone else was finished their lunch and it was Samantha’s fault, they said. Not even Mary would speak to her.

Jimmy never looked at her. Sometimes his gaze would slide across the space she occupied, but it only reminded her that she was beneath notice. He never looked or spoke to her that day or any other until the end of year when he went moved on to a new school. His face left her memory, even his name until the siege reminded her. All she’d had was the loss and shame.

She never dreamt of flying again.

“I am not a little girl.” Samantha whispered to the tea tray on the bench. She heard Mike’s van start up and rattle its way around the little streets towards town.

“He can’t ever frighten me again.” Samantha said to the carpet and wallpaper. She went to the glass double doors out to the veranda and watched the setting sun lighting up a path from its perch on the hills right to her feet. Stacked in the corner were Mike’s boxes, making steps up to the railing.

“I am free.” Samantha said as she ran the length of the decking. She had never felt more certain of anything in her life as she ran up the makeshift stairs, and leapt.

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