Rules of Engagement
Emily accepted the little box from Gerald and smiled. It was beautiful, the dark green velvet contrasting with the perfect linen, red roses and elegant Champagne flutes on the table.
This then was the moment.
Nearer seventy than sixty, Emily had waited a long time for Mr Right, but here he finally was and certainly worth the wait.
Mr Wright, the wealthy audiological consultant and businessman.
His lips moved. Although she missed the words, as so often these days, she whispered “yes” and expectantly opened the box.
Nestled on a little foam cushion, was a pair of prototype hearing aids.
The skier rode the chairlift alone. At the top he turned away and ducked under the rope. Nobody had travelled this way since the last snowfall. His secret slope, spotted from the lifts across the valley, was still untouched, pristine.
A tentative first turn was followed by beautiful, bounding curves through the powder.
Finally pausing, he admired his elegant signature. Hollering with delight he set off again.
He didn’t hear the roar of the avalanche approaching, engulfing him. It churned and tumbled, slowed, stopped and was still.
Peace returned to the mountain; by morning a blizzard had healed the scars.
They are touching up her make-up, perfecting her glamorous public face one more time, only the foundation layer different, denser, heavier than usual. They have selected the flirtatious, figure-hugging, flattering much-photographed Alexander McQueen gown from her final Oscar triumph.
The journey is brief, the black car sliding to a halt before the respectful crowd.
Eventually, she arrives on stage, her song re-orchestrated for the event. She is joined by stars, family and friends. Kind words are said, gushing tributes paid. The audience cries, laughs, cries again. The atmosphere quietens, subdues.
The velvet curtains slowly draw together.
Finally, she is free.
The aspiring author was sound asleep, snoring, oblivious to the Muse’s scheduled arrival.
Irritated, the muse began without waking the man. Building his story, his voice resonated, rising, peaking, eventually disturbing the slumbering man.
The aspiring author awoke with another new and vivid idea bursting from his imagination. Grabbing the ever present pen and notebook he scribbled feverishly.
By dawn the structure was near completion, he took pride in an unexpectedly twisting conclusion. Yet frustratingly, the opening few scenes eluded him. How to begin?
Sighing, the aspiring author added the incomplete story to the stack of endings beside his bed.
Lining up, this is my last chance of glory. Next time I will be too old.
The crowd is cheering. I glimpse my parents and want to make them proud. Today is for them. Butterflies dance in my stomach.
We stop milling as the starter calls us to order. The spectators fall silent; anticipation mounts.
Bang! We are off. My start is fast, long legs propelling me away from the field. The finishing line is close; I can win this. Excited, concentration is lost, I stumble. No! The crowd gasps in dismay.
I have dropped the egg from my spoon.
The morning sun flames the mountain peaks as the boys pull over to fit snow chains.
“Need a hand?” They laugh.
We park right beside the piste and get kitted up. I am fearful, excited. I love my skiing, the speed, thrill, fresh tracks. Will I still be able to do it?
We start steadily, a blue run, weaving around ski school crocodiles. Confidence grows, faster, steeper, deeper, through the trees, snow pluming behind me. Just like old times. I whoop and laugh with the thrill I thought I’d lost.
“That was fantastic.” I pat the sit-ski. “Who needs legs?”
My baby sleeps beneath the gently turning mobile, one arm thrown up, blue eyes covered by flickering eyelids, blond curls across the pillow. Rabbit in his velvet trousers is tightly hugged.
Goodnight my love, my child. Sleep well. Sleep long.
Another day. Another place. Another bed.
Tubes intrude everywhere, machines hum and beep, your bruised eyes covered by unmoving lids. Your head is enrobed, the unspeakable damage hidden. Hugging Rabbit tightly, I calmly nod to the doctors. The machines are stopped, silenced.
One driver. One lapse. One text. One life lost.
Goodbye my love, my child. Sleep well. Sleep long.
Working from Home
Annabelle returned to work this morning, leaving a chores list. Bit of an insult, I thought.
Laundry. In the machine, at least. But which programme, how hot, spin?
Clean Bathroom. The toilet brush is still in the pan with the green squirty stuff. Inconvenient.
Vacuum. Keep tripping over the blessed thing, stretched on the stairs.
Dishwasher. Polenta is now baked onto the best wine glasses.
Prepare Dinner. With the kitchen like this? Takeaway?
Shopping. Only two miles but four difficult, embarrassing hours with screaming twins.
My list. Begin autobiography. Title?
Diary of a House Husband: How hard can it be?
The cat leaves my lap to sit by the garden door. Opening it results in that typical blank cat expression. She ambles over to the kitchen door. Knowing this game I resume my reading.
She paws at the door. Sighing, I rise and open it.
She leaves, but appears outside the garden door, which I open and she ignores.
Close the door. She paws. In weakness I open it again and then follow her waving tail back through to the kitchen door. I open it as she paws.
Satisfied, she disappears off on her social rounds, training completed for today.
Morning. The best time of the day.
Fresh awake and watching the sunlight just moving into view, creeping across the ceiling. She lies absolutely still relishing this moment, at peace. Soon the alarm will sound, she’ll have to move and the nightmare will return.
Movement provokes breath-stopping pain in the inflamed joints. A day without movement is not possible, wouldn’t be tolerable.
Perhaps today it will leave her alone, it has happened before, for a day, a week, even. But rarely now; she expects to be disappointed.
She lies still and remembers a time before the pain. She is content.
The first house was on a hill; boy racers chased each other up and down. The next place was better. A village, quiet, but, inevitably, the local youth had no respect for the speed limit.
The next house had a park at the back but a main road at the front. Then a railway line at the bottom of the garden was swapped for a busy city bypass.
And now here.
The village road has two, maybe three cars an hour. On ours, you pause, stare as the occasional vehicle goes by.
That peaceful lane claimed our cat’s ninth life.May 2013
He’s patient, running a few errands, doing odd chores before his motorbike ride.
The bike’s ready. Swinging into the saddle, swagger and confidence, he tweaks the throttle, gives it a few beans.
First corner, he’s out of the saddle, knee down like a pro, despite the reluctance of the ancient twin to tip into the bend. Racing from corner to corner he’s at one with the machine.
But all too soon it’s over.
“Go on, Mum, ‘nother go.”
“Not now love, we’ve gotta get the shopping home.”
She lifts him from the bike and into the trolley before heading out.
After another morning in the loathsome vegetable garden, today planting leeks, Claudia’s back was murderous. Respite came when her husband appeared to remind her it was lunchtime; he was hungry.
He pottered all day, admiring and dead-heading his beloved roses, pausing occasionally to adjust the radio. Mustn’t miss Test Match Special.
Claudia soon regretted marrying a man twenty years her senior, even though a manor house and walled garden were part of the package.
“I’ve prepared the Bordeaux Mixture so you can spray the roses, avoid the black spot.” She smiled, sweetly.
He didn’t notice the glyphosate beside the tap.
Bella awoke abruptly.
It came again, a strange noise in the dark beyond the door. She crept silently from her bed, eyes wide, heart thundering.
Breathing. She could hear something breathing just outside. The scratching of nails against the wood was almost too much. She was quivering all over.
The door was being opened, a darker line of shadow in the gloom. A face appeared, evil pointy teeth, a drooling mouth.
She took a flying leap for the dresser and landed, hissing as the terrier from next door shoved his way through the cat flap and began scoffing her food.
He hesitated, despite his destiny culminating in the room beyond.
Sometimes he envied those who’d kicked over the traces of their upbringing, refused to be third generation farmers or labourers or assembly line workers. Or drug users. Miners who chose to dance, mechanics who taught, teenage mums who climbed mountains. Courageous people.
He’d not managed that. The same school friends were now the people he worked with, socialised with, married and played around with.
He sighed. Things could have been so different if he’d selected his own path.
Entering the room, they rose to greet him.
“Good morning, Prime Minister.”
“Come and see my veg patch, Granddad.”
“Terrible aphids on your broad beans, Ellie - want them spraying?”
“No thanks. Look - ladybirds and hoverflies will get them under control.”
“Huge caterpillars destroying that fennel”
“Never mind. They’ll be beautiful swallowtail butterflies, soon.”
“Blackbird’s making a right mess of all those grass clippings amongst the cabbages.”
“He’s finding slugs in the mulch and feeding them to his fledglings.”
“These aquilegia will seed everywhere if you leave them.”
“I hope so, Granddad.”
They sit together, enveloped in bird song and insect buzz.
“I love your garden, Ellie. So full of life.”
Albert awoke with a start, his heart thundering in his chest, disturbed by unnaturally loud wheezing breaths, close at hand. Fearing for his wife he tried to turn to her but his body was rigid, stuck fast. Only the uneven and now intolerable thundering of his heart. The gasping rattle became louder. It was him, his breathing.
His wife switched on the light, yet he remained in darkness.
His chest lay still, screaming in silent agony. His brain panicked, terrified, understanding what was happening. Unprepared
He could hear his wife, on the phone, “Yes, peacefully, in his sleep.”
My bird-loving brother and I are fiercely competitive and the annual garden bird count was no exception. So, on the day of the count I was up early, filling up the array of feeders, even hanging a bone to swing in the breeze.
Back inside, paper and pencil in hand, I waited, poised. The garden was alive with the blur of wings and flying feathers. What if it is mostly sparrows, it’s the quantity that counts.
The clock chimed, the count began and the birds promptly disappeared. A single sparrowhawk settled on the bird table. Damn my brother, the falconer.
I put my finger on what was odd about the place after nine months. We had been raising a glass with the entire village in honour of the pub landlord’s wife, buried that morning in a graveyard full of wives.
Peter naturally was totally oblivious, engrossed with his new chums, drinking, playing bridge or golf.
Seeking reassurance from my GP for inexplicable pains, lethargy and breathlessness, I found her missing, unwell. The strange man behind her desk just smiled thinly and patted my hand, assuring me it was all in my mind.
And then Peter’s treacherous car failed to start.
Something was very wrong at home.
Opening the front door, the dog hit him squarely in the chest as normal, before running off, yelping. Cautiously stepping inside, the chemical weapons designer instantly recognised the signs of an attack. What noxious revenge was being brought upon his family?
Eyes watering, nose and throat burning, a popping noise drew him to the kitchen. Inside was a scene of devastation, his wife slumped over the table, breath rasping, a cloth to her face. Another metallic pop came from a row of jars.
“First batch of Bhut Jolokia chilli sauce,” she croaked. “Bit hot!”
He paced, watching the sparrows flitting beyond the high window, until his roommate grumbled. He tried sleeping again, day-dreaming of the world beyond this place. His adventurous life had telescoped into eating, sleeping and pacing this room. He was warm, well fed, comfortable, and despaired of feeling the sun on his back again.
He ignored the sound of the door opening, any escape plans long since abandoned. She always caught him, cuddled and loved him, assured him he was safest inside. He just wanted to climb, hunt and scratch the earth, be outside. He wanted to be a cat again.
“Slow down, Honey, I think we might have reached our next viewpoint.”
“Yup, look, over there. What does the guidebook say, again?”
“Pause in your journey to enjoy the spectacular scenery, most notably stunning blue waters, verdant greens of forests and plains, contrasting with magnificent snowy peaks, and everywhere teeming with varied and abundant life. The isolated locals are unused to visitors.”
“This feels very wrong. I can only see an empty brown wasteland! How old is that Guide?”
“2016, only a little over a hundred years! Hard to believe one species could destroy its own blue-green planet so carelessly.”
An Uncertain Future
For now we relax on the terrace we laid, shaded by the vines we planted to scramble over the pergola we built, and share our neighbour’s wine. He compliments us on the house we designed, the garden we created.
We planted a walnut tree for posterity, scattering my father’s ashes beneath. There or the compost, he’d asked, knowing he was dying and wouldn’t see the life we’ve made.Abandoning this would break my heart, driven out by another’s political will, but it is nothing
compared to the misery in those lines of refugees. Thankfully we would not be fleeing bombs.
All in the Timing
Our cat climbs languidly to his feet, stretches fore and aft and leaves the comfort of his basket on the terrace for a pre-dinner amble around his estate.
Nearby, a young blackbird wobbles precariously on the edge of his nest, wings flapping ferociously. Unexpectedly, he becomes airborne, flies briefly before crash landing inelegantly onto the terrace table and finally toppling beak-first into the cat basket. Squawking with indignation, an ungainly run-flap propels the juvenile to the sanctuary of the hedge.
Next door’s tabby appears on the terrace, stretches and brazenly settles down for an illicit snooze in the vacated basket.
Leaving before dawn, they chatter during the ten mile walk. Their husbands work away, the meagre flower farm wages buying an education, a future for their children. The first well downstream of the farm is still dry, so they continue to the second, fill and balance the water pots before turning for home. It is a monotonous task, but clean water is essential.
Lisa drops the kids at school and heads for the supermarket, the roadworks make the ten mile drive interminable. She loads the boot with a few essentials, wine, mineral water, and flowers to brighten a winter’s day.
You can read more about the origins of this short form of fiction here.