Category Archives: Short stories

Christmas in Prague

 

Wetherspoons at Gatwick was trying hard to be festive three days before Christmas but Eve was too tired to appreciate it. Her eyes felt sore and gritty as she screwed them up to peer vacantly at the departure screen. Prague flight delayed by 90 minutes. Hell, now she wouldn’t arrive before midnight and the trams would have finished by then.
She hadn’t wanted to spend Christmas in Prague but sadly it was the best alternative. Her beloved and only son Mark had recently married a young Czech girl who was adamant that they must spend their first Christmas together as a married couple in her own country. Eve let out a deep sigh for sadly, adamant and must described Alexa, her new daughter-in-law only too well. She had tried to tempt them with a traditional all singing and dancing Christmas in England but to no avail. In fact, Alexa’s response to her latest entreaty had been ‘Oh no, Eve he’s mine now.’ Boy had that stung.
She sent Mark a text about the delay and settled down in the spirit of endurance, ramming the headphones of her MP3 player into her ears and closing her tired eyes. She’d just have to get a taxi to their flat – it was no problem.
Her spirits lifted when the taxi passed Charles Bridge; the bridge was always beautiful at night and especially so in the festive season. She’d not been to their new flat but it was a delightful surprise. Enormous wooden doors, allowing entrance to the old four storey building, stood at both the front and the rear. Eve could picture carriages driving through those doors enabling the well-heeled residents of times gone by to alight at the magnificently ornate marble staircase. The flat itself was high-ceilinged with carved woodwork and stained glass in the skylight windows.
She hugged them both.
‘This is so charming’, she declared.
In the sitting room, a Christmas tree stood in the corner by the huge window. The tree was weighed down by an extravagant number of, in Eve’s opinion, rather gaudily decorated gold baubles. There were bowls of traditional Czech crescent shaped almond biscuits on the table. She bit into one expecting it to be hard and dry but it was soft and deliciously buttery.
Next day, Alexa was clear that she didn’t need or want any help with the preparations so Eve took the tram to the centre. They agreed to meet up in Wenseslas Square, in the afternoon, to have a look round the Christmas market.
The market took her breath away. Mark linked arms with his declared two favourite ladies as they wandered past stalls selling traditional carved wooden figures and homemade sweets. They bought mulled wine and hot pastries, eating them to a background of Christmas music and traditional dances. Then, Mark led them back to the main road where he treated them to a carriage ride. The light was fading and the beautiful city was at its most beguiling.
Next day was Christmas Eve and the most important day. Eve slept well, rose early and wandered, in an unexpectedly serene state, to the bathroom. Her screams caused both Mark and Alexa to rush to her side. Wordlessly, Eve pointed to the creature splashing frenetically in the half-filled bath tub – she had no words. Her horrified expression caused Mark to bend double helpless with laughter while Alexa looked disdainfully at her mother-in-law.
‘It’s Czech tradition to have carp for dinner on Christmas Eve and the fresher the better,’ she declared haughtily.
The carp wasn’t the first tradition to come Eve’s way but it was the cause of the first discontent between her young hosts. Dispatching said beast was clearly no easy task and was delegated to poor Mark. Tempers frayed and Alexa’s nagging reached a crescendo only abating once the deed was finally done.
The nagging continued throughout the day. Eve’s offer of help was firmly rejected yet Alexa who was clearly overwhelmed moaned, whined and belittled her son thus allowing the atmosphere to become increasingly tense.
Eve was puzzled to see the table laid for four guests.
‘I didn’t know we were expecting company,’ she declared in her brightest fashion.
‘We’re not.’ Alexa gave her a withering look. ‘Here, we believe that an odd number such as three will bring bad luck or even death,’ she added dramatically.
She then decided to invoke another tradition that no lights be lit in the flat until the first star came out allowing dinner to be served and was then disgruntled when the sky was found to be leaden and overcast.
They ate the traditional mushroom soup which Eve found surprisingly tasty then finally, and accompanied by a beaming Alexa smile, the festive carp appeared in pride of place at the table. As Eve lifted her plate to be served. Eve noticed, somewhat grotesquely, a round and shining fish scale left behind on her placemat. Deftly, and hoping that no one would notice, she flicked said article to the floor.
‘Eve, what are you doing?’ Alexa’s horrified voice echoed around the room. ‘The fish scale is to bring wealth for the next year and now’…. she looked round dramatically. ‘Bad fortune will follow.’ She lowered her beautiful brown eyes and shook her head. ‘Oh Mark’ she sighed.
Eve fought the part of her that wanted to say ‘ Oh, for heaven’s sake, stop being such a drama queen.’
She held no truck with old wives’ tales. Nevertheless, they came thick and fast. It was true she had wondered about the bowl of garlic under the table.
‘For strength and protection’ Alexa declared. ‘And this..’ She lifted a pot of honey. ‘This is to guard us against evil’. She looked pointedly at Eve. ‘Perhaps it will make up for the fish scale’.
By now thoroughly bewildered, Eve looked at her son for reassurance. But Mark was a wise boy who judged it was better to upset his mother than his volatile bride. Besides, typical man, he’d not actually picked up on many of his wife’ barbed little comments.
The fried carp was accompanied by potato salad.
’It’s very bad luck not to eat everything on your plate,’ Alexa informed them just as Eve was struggling with a mouthful of what appeared to be wallpaper paste mixed with fish bones. She smiled feebly.
‘I’ll do my best, dear.’
Thankfully, pudding was good. Vanocka turned out to be a gold coloured, sweet Christmas bread with raisins inside the brioche like folds. Hoping it was diplomatic to do so, Eve added a little honey in the spirit of warding off evil.
Once the meal was over, Alexa sank, in exhausted fashion, onto the settee whilst Eve and Mark tackled the take-your-breath-away mountain of washing up. At least it gave Eve a chance to speak to her son alone.
A bell rang before they had accomplished their mission of washing up completion.
‘Time for presents,’ Alexa trilled in her heavy accent and pointed to the Christmas tree.
At least Eve’s gift of a pretty silk scarf was well received.
Then, the rested Alexa got her second wind and organised yet more Czech traditions. She appeared with a bowl of water containing empty walnut shells each filled with a tiny lit candle.
‘If your candle reaches the other side of the dish you will have a long and healthy life. Should it sink that would be very bad luck.’
Eve knew, she just knew, that her chosen shell – unstable from the outset, would not make the other side.
Longing for a gin and tonic, Eve, nobly in her view, participated in the next game. Alexa, with her straight black hair and pale face looked strikingly like Snow White as she appeared with three shiny red apples. She grasped her apple by the stem.
‘Cut your apple in half, like this,’ she demonstrated.
‘What’s the pointy of this one,’ Mark had the temerity to enquire.
Accompanied by a dark look, Alexa informed them that if your apple core was star-shaped it meant that everyone will get together next year in health and happiness. But if it was a four-pointed cross this was a bad omen and someone at the table would fall ill or even die in the next twelve months.
‘That’s not a very cheerful thought, dear.’ Eve couldn’t resist the comment.
At last the time arrived when it was acceptable to go to bed. Eve sank into the cool, white and surprisingly crisp sheets. Christmas, if not exactly enjoyable had at least been different and Alexa had worked hard – she’d give her that.
Next day, however, things really kicked off. Alexa went ballistic at the sight of the carp poo and sundry scales which still lurked in the bath. Her anger was further fuelled when she discovered that Eve and Mark had failed to finish the washing up.
Eve could hear the row from her room.
‘I can’t do everything Mark, it’s just not fair.’ This was followed by tears and further recriminations. They were relentless, her voice rising between the audible sobs.
Eve listened through gritted teeth. Mark can you help with this? Mark can you? can you ? had been yesterday’s theme. Surely Alexa could see that her placid son had done his best.
By the time she reached the kitchen, Alexa, wild-eyed and screaming abuse was hitting Mark in the chest
‘Whatever’s going on? Stop it, Alexandra; for goodness sake get a grip of yourself.’
Mother-in-laws, as she very well knew, should never, ever interfere and Alexa flounced off to her bedroom, accompanied by a furious torrent of Czech. The exasperated Mark took himself off for a walk whilst Eve tidied the kitchen. Mission accomplished, she tried reading her book but found it hard to concentrate. Where was Mark? He’d been gone a long time.
Eventually, a red-eyed Alexa appeared.
‘Where can Mark be?’ She enquired in a small voice
Mark, her sensitive son, distraught and distracted had apparently been run over by a tram and was now in the hospital with a head injury. The doctors were unable or unwilling to tell them whether he would suffer any long-term brain damage.
The two women who loved him held each other close and in the weeks that followed, despite Eve’s initial fears that Alexa would be put her own needs first; instead she witnessed a deep love and dedication. Yes, Alexa, he’s yours now.

 

Half a thumbprint

Alec pressed the pad of his right thumb onto the glass of the small window.

‘Half a thumbprint,’ he declared.  ‘That’s all they need to identify a man.’

A deep, uncontrollable sigh made his chest heave with the familiar dull ache. Dejected, he squatted down on his heels and, in one slow, deliberate gesture, wiped the grimy sweat from his hands on his once white cotton trousers. Every movement now, every gesture, seemed deliberate as though his world had slowed right down with any notion of spontaneity lost

He slumped against the rough, stone wall, grateful for its coolness through his thin shirt. Who would come to identify him?  Was that how it would end – with a thumbprint on a dusty window?

As so often before, unbidden tears trickled and mingled with his grey black beard. His fingers clenched around a handful of gravel and brick rubble from the concrete floor and he hurled it at the small window. He had done this many times before. He knew it served no purpose; no one ever heard the rattling stones on the glass, nor did it relieve his mind-numbing frustration, it was merely something to do.

The window was too high to see out and too small to climb through but he could touch it; make his mark. Now, as in the daytime, a tea brown light filtered through, illuminating the darkest corners of his so familiar room.

At a certain point, in the middle of the day, when the light caught the window at just the right angle, the harsh Lebanese sun would shine directly into the room, allowing Alec the opportunity of inspecting the ever-increasing number of festering sores on his emaciated legs.

Today however, his attention was drawn, in fascination, to the patterns formed on the window by the combination of dust, cobweb and fingerprint. Reaching up slowly, he added more prints in the dust. Spitting on his thumb, he rubbed it in the brick dust, delighting in the reddy-brown smears as he added to his canvas. More purposeful now, no longer deliberate, his right arm aching from working above his head. Standing back, he folded his arms and surveyed the results. Today, he had created; he had made his own landscape – a world beyond his Beirut cell.

As the room slowly returned to its tea like gloom, Alex smiled. Tomorrow he could change the world.  Tomorrow…

Frances

 

Standing by the side of the lake was so familiar to Frances. As a child, she loved to balance and twirl on the stone walls and to run her hand lovingly over the terracotta lions that she named Sampson and Delilah. Sometimes, Frances and her sister Bella rode astride the lions, having pretend races, mock duels or imagining they were taking off, flying high in the sky to a magic lion land. They would squat beside the water, dropping pebbles into the still, darkness and watching the spreading ripples distort their reflected images. Often, they squabbled fiercely over whose was the uglier face.

There were darker, sharper memories too but Frances quickly dealt with those as she had learned to do. Today, the weather was tranquil. It felt cool and restful beneath the old sycamore tree. She knew she must stay calm; stay in control. There had been times recently, too many times, when she feared that she was going mad. Her own reality sometimes, teasingly, slipped from her grasp, eluding her. At those moments, she felt frighteningly alone and vulnerable, isolated from her loved ones.

Frances was twenty-three with that pale ethereal look so currently fashionable. Her long, blonde hair hung wispily around slender shoulders and her large, pale-blue eyes gazed wistfully out at the smooth water, seeking her own reflection. Frances had done this many times over the years – she knew it wouldn’t be there. At first, she had become frantic, feeling her face to reassure herself, waving her arms wildly, but the lake would give nothing back to her.

She knew if she bent low and concentrated hard she would be there, still and grey in the dark, secretive waters, her eyes wide and staring up at her. Frances shivered and turned away back to the house.

In the summer the family often ate lunch on the terrace overlooking the lake. Frances realised that she was hungry and was pleased to see signs of lunch under way. She smiled at the array of rustic crockery. Since her mother’s last holiday in Provence, she was obsessed with all things French and the old, oak table was piled with earthenware bowls and platters. Frances frowned slightly – only four, she wondered which of the family would not be joining them for lunch.

She loved this house; the thick, stone walls made it cool but light and airy in the summer. Frances loved light. Dark shadows scared her and she tried to stay away from them. She stepped lightly through the open French doors to see if she could help. She called out in greeting to avoid alarming her mother.

‘Hi where are you mum, can I help?’ she formed the words clearly in her brain, shaped the sounds perfectly with mouth and tongue but there was no sound although she could clearly hear her mother in the kitchen. She tried again – nothing. Frances, shaking, looked down at her hands but there was just cool, light space. Sobbing, petulant and childlike now, she ran swiftly back to the lake and knelt on the damp grass. She kept very still, concentrating hard on counting her shallow breaths. She was desperate to see her image and reassure herself that she did exist and was not going mad.

Behind her, she could hear the family gathering for lunch. Unseen in the shadows, she kept her lonely vigil. At last, she saw it, blurry at first; breathless with the effort of stillness and concentration, the image came in sharper focus, that crucifyingly awful image that Frances craved, yet dreaded. Tangled, blonde hair fanning out from a hideous, grey, bloated face, blue eyes dead and staring straight up at her.

‘See I do exist, it’s me Frances,’ she called soundlessly.

Then as at other times she would remember. Remember that terrible day.

It had started well enough; it was mid-June and the days were long and sunny. It was her brother, Tom’s 13th birthday. Frances was eight and Bella six. Several of Tom’s school friends were having a barbecue on the terrace. Bored with waiting for the food to be ready, the children wandered into the fields behind of the house to play.

Tom was ‘it’ first, choosing an old log as base. The others scattered to hide and Frances found herself with two of Tom’s friends, crouching unseen behind a hawthorn bush. She didn’t like these two; they had teased her rudely all day, taking every opportunity for a sly unkind remark. One of the boys was sat too close making Frances feel hot and uncomfortable. The boy winked at his friend and gave a sneer. To her horror, Frances saw that he had unzipped his flies and was rubbing his hand up and down his thing. His friend began to do the same, grunting and panting. The boy near to her stared at Frances with a hostile smirk and made a flicking movement with his tongue.

Horrified and burning with embarrassment, Frances scrambled to her feet but he was too quick for her; he dragged her to the ground, his sweaty hands reaching under her skirt.

‘You love it don’t you?’ he breathed into her ear. ‘Dirty little girls like you can’t get enough of it.’

Frances shuddered as the boy opposite groaned and the creamy fluid shot from him. She retched violently but hatred made her strong. She shook herself free, scrambling over the rough, stony ground, stumbling and sobbing through the thick heather that scratched her bare legs.  She didn’t have the breath to cry out; she just ran.

She could see the house now but she daren’t look round to see if the boys were chasing her. Where was Tom?

Nearly at the house now, she ran towards the lake, but her sandal turned over on a wobbly stone slab, made green and slippery under the shade of the tree.  Unable to save herself, she slipped, feet-first, into the lake, striking her head on the stone surround.  The cold, dark water closed over her; already her limbs felt cold and dead as she floated on her back below the surface. She felt strangely calm; they would find her soon; Daddy would see her from the terrace and pull her out dripping and cold but safe. They would come soon she was sure of that.

Bridget Branches Out

Inspired by the Bridget Jones stories and seeking a new angle for a short story for my writing group, I updated Bridget. No longer is she obsessively dialling 1471 – oh no! Nowadays, she trawls internet dating sites, winking at those who are even remote possibilities as potential partners. My story is entitled ‘Bridget Jones OAP’.  I had great fun writing it and many and varied people have laughed out loud on hearing it and I hope you will too.

Here is an extract – actually the first page. If you like what you read please follow my very new and as yet very amateur website.

Bridget Jones- OAP

Monday 8pm

Make very big decision to do internet dating. Very Best Friend recommends the Guardian site aptly entitled Soulmates where apparently you get a ‘nicer class of person’.

Right,  I’m logged on. Deep breath as I search for my ideal man. Age – 58+ perhaps? I don’t want someone too young. Who wouldn’t love a toy boy but anyone younger and you do increase the geek/perv potential. Next question – how old? -65? That’s not too geriatric – should hopefully have all faculties, own teeth etc. may even be up for a bit of rumpy pumpy. Next, how far away should they live – 20 miles? Could be a bit limiting on the other hand 40 miles is a bit far. A girl does like to be spontaneous.

Ok submit – such bravery!

Messaged immediately – 63 men meet my criteria. Pour large glass of pinot grigot and settle down to explore said profiles. One claims he’s ‘orotund’ – what the fuck does that mean? Or is it merely a typo and he’s actually fat – looks pretty good in his photo but Very Best Friend tells me that men both lie and use out-of-date photos so who knows? Now he’s telling me he’s gonzo – am I missing something here? Decide not to add the Orotund Gonzo to my favourites.

Right, page 2 of 7. Some can’t spell. Shouldn’t be off-putting but it somehow is and I fight the urge to correct.

Shallow, me, never! Shakes head and continues to dismiss photos that don’t instantly appeal. Ah! here’s Mr Pink Shirt – collar  up on a 60 year old man, I don’t think so.  Large glug of pinot – still worrying about orotund so click online dictionary – orotund – pompous and bombastic – a joke perhaps or merely brutal honesty? I’m beginning to warm to this guy. Another slurp and click – I have declared him to be one of my favourites.

Some don’t include a photo. It could be they are just plain ugly or so I’m told (naturally be Very Best Friend) high profile men never put up a public photo – you apparently have to be invited to view once they’ve checked you out – huh!

Bit tiddly with all the wine – must go to bed