“Wheelie Bin Collection Day”

For 11 July the writing group was asked to write 500 words, or fewer, about Wheelie-bin Collection Day.

“Wheelie-bin Collection Day”

 “Shh.  Shh, be still.

There, that’s better.  Didn’t help to struggle, did it?  Nice and tidy.  See,  practice makes perfect.

I didn’t mean the first one.  I was sleeping rough under a flyover in London; some tosser came at me with a knife over a can of ‘Special Brew’.  Must’ve thought I’d be easy, being small like.  Ridiculous thing to die for really, only a mouthful left in it.  It wasn’t much of a scrap, two tours in Afghan saw to that; training kicked in, like his head.   There was this row of big bins, so I thought “why not?”  ‘Course I didn’t hang about afterwards.  I was three weeks and a hundred miles away when he was found.  No I.D, I’d made sure of that.  Nobody missed him, so the police didn’t try too hard.  To be honest I got a buzz out of recycling the man-trash he was and getting away with it.

Now, where’s that plastic sheet?  Ah, here we are.

Then there was Marcia.  I found her crying in a park; she was having trouble with her boyfriend, beating her up and that.  She wanted him out of her basement flat, and I wanted somewhere off the street for the winter: seemed like a fair trade.  She got him well drunk, and took a bit of a bashing doing it, but after he passed out I put a plastic bag over his head and fixed it on with this Duck tape.

Good and tight.

There was a skip two streets down, roof extension just started, so we heaved him in there under some old carpet.  You know what it’s like with skips; sat for a month with other people filling it up, then someone set fire to it.  ‘Course, she had to go too when I left in the spring; couldn’t risk her grassing me up.  She went under the floor boards.  Bare earth, so easy dig even for me, but a bit tricky ‘cause the joists were close together and she wasn’t exactly a size 12, if you get me.  It’s an Asda now.  They didn’t find her so I think she’s still there; maybe under cold meats, eh?

Last bit now.

I still had my passport, and a few quid from Marcia, so I bought a flight here.  Did a bit of bar work round the iron ore mines.  It was OK for a while.  ‘Course it was illegal, no work visa, and very blokey, but they liked having a pretty face around.  Good money, mind, but too dirty and hot for me, even after Afghan.  And the flies! Jesus! Like flying raisins, bloody millions of ‘em!  How did you cope?   That’s why I came into Perth.  Found you and your lovely clean bathroom.  It’s a bit more anonymous in a city too, lots of transients, and more wheelie bins.

There, all done.

It’s a good job you had air con isn’t it?  Silly me, I forgot to ask when your collection day is.”

Andrew Gold©

11 July 2014

500 words

 

PS After I had written the first draft of this story I discovered that disposing of bodies, victims of murder usually, in this  way is not at all uncommon!

  •  1991 – Transgender killer dumps former lover in bin – funds foreign travel on stolen cards
  • December 1994 – Glasgow man thrown from a window and dumped in a wheelie bin.
  • March 2006 – Manchester 11 year old killed by 15 year old – dumped in wheelie bin in park.
  • October 2008 – Edinburgh man kills father – body found in bin 7 weeks later.
  • June 2009 –  Couple murder man’s girlfriend – body in wheelie bin for 3 weeks.
  • June 2011 –  Woman murders on/off lover – helped by friend to dump in a wheelie bin.
  • March 2012 – Man killed in Wigan – dumped in wheelie bin.
  • November 2012 – Southampton man murdered and dumped in wheelie bin.  Killers arrested trying to move body to a skip.
  • March 2013 – Cambridgeshire serial killer dumps first of 3 victims in wheelie bin.
  • March 2014 – Man killed in south London – dumped in wheelie bin and bin set on fire.
  • July 2014 – Man killed in Northern Ireland – body found in wheelie bin.
  •  Several cases in Australia, including a lesbian ‘triangle’.

 

 

“It was the best of times”

The writing group task for this week was to write 500 words including, or inspired by, the Dickens opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.  I took the instruction fairly loosely, choosing to write 500 words of dialogue, as follows:

It was the best of times…

Pass me the make-up remover, will you.  God, look at me, I’m a wreck: mascara everywhere.  I look like Morticia Addams.”

“Here.  I know you’re upset now, but it was the best of times, wasn’t it?”

“Hah!  For you, maybe; it was the worst of times for me.”

“That’s not fair, we had great times.”

You had great times with your fans and record deals.  I was barely hanging on, picking up the crumbs when you could be bothered to look my way, but you didn’t notice.” 

“What about that weekend in New York then?  That was a blast for both of us, I know you had a good time there.”

“Yes, a good time, pretending to be Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan up the Empire State.  The rest of that weekend I spent in the hotel suite watching TV while you did, well, whatever it was you did.  Even the bellboy took pity on me and tried it on.  Cheeky young sod.  You know, I worked it out: an hour and a half out of 48 for us.  Our ships never even got a chance to pass in the night, I was tied up in dry dock while you roamed the wild main.  Pass the moisturiser.”   

“I had no idea you were feeling that way.  You’re right.  I’m sorry.  Sorry’s a bit lame isn’t it, but I am sorry.  I suppose it’s too late to say that, anyway.”

“I think we’re way, way past sorry.  We’re in self-harming territory here.  Why do you think I got tangled up with Ricky, it’s not as if he’s really my type.  All spray tan and white teeth.  There, that’s more presentable, the mirror’s all yours.”

“Thanks.  Well, why did you?”

“It wasn’t sex, if that’s what you think.  Well, not all of it.  And it wasn’t to make you jealous, you couldn’t be made jealous because you didn’t care enough.  He just showed me some affection, that’s all; some comfort when I needed it.  You were off on another one of your promo tours, I was stuck here looking after the house and the dog.  If it hadn’t been him then it would’ve been someone else, eventually.  We were already not we any more.”

 “I was going to choose a new sofa for us today.  I tweeted about it.  You should see how many re-tweets there were.  I s’pose I’ll have to tweet about the split too now, before the press come doorstepping; they seem to hear about this sort of stuff before it’s happened.

“How can you do that?  Isn’t ‘OK’ magazine enough?  Most of our life is public property already, why tweet about this?”

“So what do you want to do, move out?  Are you moving in with him?”

“No, that’s finished.   Never started really.  I’ll pack some stuff tomorrow and move in with my mum until I can get set up with another flat.  She’ll be happy having a man about the place again, even if he is gay. 

Andrew Gold©

500 words

29 May 2014

 

“The Sound of the Siren Split the Silence”

The following two 500 word stories were responses to writing group homework set against the above title.

Siren Sound # 1

 “I’m asleep when it starts, I think.

WAH WAH WAH.

I’m awake now, but confused like.  I can’t remember what room I’m in, even what house.

WAH WAH WAH.

My eyes won’t focus but there’s light shining round the edges of the blinds and I see the clock.  It’s half-past three. I’ve been waiting for it to happen, dreading it.  I try to shake my wife awake, but she’s been sleeping badly so she’s had a couple of drinks; she’s snoring.  I can’t rouse her.

WAH WAH WAH.

I try to put my slippers on but get them on the wrong feet and I fall against the chest of drawers, banging my head. I swear and that wakes my wife.

She says “What’s that siren?” Is it a fire?”

I’m really angry.  I think I say “It’s the baby, that’s what it is. I can’t take much more of this”, something like that anyway.  Maybe I just think it.  I have to get up for work in three hours but she’s sleeping through everything.  She mumbles “What baby, I haven’t got a baby”, then rolls over and snores again.

The next thing I know I’m standing over the cot holding the baby really tight and she’s not crying any more, so I put her down again and go back to bed.

Then the alarm goes off and I get up, put the kettle on and go into the bathroom, like I usually do.  Then my wife gets up and looks in on the baby.  She calls down that there’s something wrong with her and to ‘phone for the doctor.

Then I’m in the police station, and they’re saying what about the bruises and that I killed our baby.  That’s it.  But I didn’t do it did I?”

“No, you didn’t.  It’s not unusual to have such dreams, especially with a baby that’s crying a lot.  It’s just frustration.  How long has this been going on?”

“Well, let’s see.  She was very colicky as a small baby, and a difficult feeder, up three or four times a night we were.  Then there was the teething, what a nightmare that was, and then the terrible twos; I suppose nearly three years, so far.”

“That amount of sleep loss would stress anyone, but don’t worry they are just dreams: you won’t kill your baby, but you do need more rest.  I’ll give you a prescription for something to help you sleep; perhaps I should see your wife too.”

WAH WAH WAH.

I was already awake.  I couldn’t get back to sleep.  I was annoyed, it wasn’t my turn, see, but my husband had taken a pill so he didn’t wake up.  I was at my wits end, so tired, so tired, and the neighbours were complaining too.  I only put my hand on her mouth, to shut her up a bit, you know, it was just a short while, to quieten her down.  Oh God. I didn’t mean it.

 

496 Words

Andrew Gold ©

06 May 2014

Siren Sound #2

Kevin and Georghe are sitting in the dark, at the foot of the rectory garden wall.  The tinkling of the van’s engine cooling down clicked off the minutes while they wait to be sure it is all clear.  Then the van’s back door creaks on a rusted hinge, sounding like the massive oak door to the sacristy adjacent, and they unload.

“Right, we’re in.  Hold the ladder, will yer Gheorghe?”

“I holding ladder already”.

“Not there, you Bulgarian berk, hold the bottom while I climb up.”

“I not Bulgarian. I told you Romanian, RO-MAY-NIAN”

“Okay, Romanian, Bulgarian, whatever, but shut up and let me get on the ladder, will yers.”

“You not very nice mans, Kevin.  I thought Irishes very nice mans.  You not nice”.

“Alright, I’m not nice, but this isn’t a popularity contest.  Now pass me up the crowbar.”

“What is crowbar?”

The crowbar, the long bit of metal with a bent end”

“Can let go of ladder?”

“What for?”

“Crowbar in bag.  Bag in van”.

“Holy Mary, mother of Jaysus. Why didn’t yer bring it over the wall with yer?”

“You not say bring bag, you say bring ladder.”

“Never mind, you Balkan eejit, I’ll get it meeself”

“Infaci au!”

“SSHHHHH.  What now?”

“You stand on my fingres”

“Well, move yer feckin fingers out of the way”.

“I can’t”.

Why not?

“You still on my hand”.

“I’ll kill him.  There, is that better?”

Tank you, yes.  Can let go of ladder now.”

There is a muffled exclamation, a thud and a resigned sigh.

“Why you fall in bush, make lot of noise? You say I not make noise.”

“Well, here’s the thing, I think you may have let go of the ladder a touch too soon.  Help me up, and mind them prickles. Oh Jaysus  Oh, look at the state of me.  Now wait here, an’ be quiet.  Don’t be touchin’ anything alright?  I’ll go over and get the bag.”

Still muttering about being landed with a linguistically, as well as criminally, challenged accomplice, Kevin re-joins Gheorghe at the foot of the ladder.

“Right.  We’ll start again.  Now, hold the ladder, an’ when I get to the top pass me up the bag. Okay?  Have yer got that?

“I take crowbar out of bag first?”

“Oh help me God!  Why did we ever let them in the feckin EU?  No, Georghe.  Leave the feckin crowbar in the feckin bag and pass it all up at the same time.  Eejit.”

But, his bulk once more perched at the top, face buried in ivy, Kevin makes another discovery.

“Shit”

“What matter, Kevin”

“It’s the wrong window.  This one has shutters.”

But, before they can regroup, the sound of a siren splits the silence.

“Oh jayz.  Watch out I’m comin’ down.  Hold the ladder steady for us, Gheorghe.  Gheorghe?  Are ye there Gheorghe?”   But it isn’t Georghe at the bottom.

 

“Good evening, sir, can I hold the ladder for you.”

 

 

Andrew Gold©

13 May 2014

497 words

 

 

The Nine Loves of Henrietta the Great (and six other stories)

This leading story is one of eight I submitted to a Reader’s Digest 100 Word Story competition.  The stories had to be EXACTLY 100 words. It was published on their website – I suppose a sort-of commendation.  If you like it, six others are added below.

The 9 Loves of Henrietta the Great

Anthony was mooning, tentative, and no match for a captain of netball: he gave her mumps. 

Hardeep, life after A levels already mapped by his parents, gave her self-determination.

At University, Viktor was exciting and dangerous: he gave her causes.

Alan, unsure of his sexuality, and Nigel (sure enough to become Nigella) gave her self-awareness, but dear Daniel (dearest, it transpired, to Mary) gave her anorexia.

Johnny, challenging – especially to his probation officer – and Pierre, charming, sophisticated, and married, gave her resilience.

But Lionel, who knew the art of compromise, just gave and, in return, Henrietta finally gave herself.

A small thing

It was just a bent coin, prized from a slot machine by a boy with his penknife.  He paid for chocolate with it. The newsagent passed it to  a commuter in too much of a hurry to check his change.  At lunchtime it helped pay for his chicken baguette and passed, again in change, to Veronica.  Homeward bound, she jammed the only ticket machine in the station: the surging crowd baulked, then backed up into the street, toppling Mr Jenner under the 49 bus.

“Good day?” Dylan’s mum asked.  “Nah, Nothing special. Found some money though. Got some cheap sweets.”

Flight of Fancy

Ellen flicked toast crumbs off her nightdress as she read the engagement notices.  Of course he had a fiancée.  “Pity,” she sighed.

The idea had taken root long before she noticed: a seed drifting through her autumn garden.  It was just a thought.  She had not encouraged it, but neither did she uproot it; she liked the way it teased.  It wasn’t a weed, just something unexpected: a bit of welcome chaos in the ordered rows.  She had never even met him.

Later, admiring earrings she pretended he had bought for her, she thought “Still, I’m not bad for fifty.”

Click

He counted every grain the scorpion flicked against his eyelid.  It was drinking his sweat.  Moving, to check that his rifle was still concealed, startled the visitor and it scuttled away. How he hated desert training: searing days, freezing nights, flies, snakes and scorpions, but especially scorpions.  Along the wadi an engine coughed and camels growled good morning.  His target would be coming soon. Sand dribbled again; his visitor was back.  The cold hard metal pressed behind his ear signalled otherwise.  “You plonker,” he thought.  “Sorry Sarge,” he said.”  But, looking up, it was not Sarge.  “Allah hu akbar.”  Click.

Oops

 Holed by bad decisions, failed marriages, and plain bad luck, John’s life had run aground. 

He grasped the idea of disappearance with uncharacteristic energy, scanning the news for opportunities.  And then it came: a storm had sunk a ferry only 10 miles up the coast, and a suitcase containing some personal items, if found on the shore, would identify him as one of the lost.  Then he could start again.

Returning home to complete his plan he found the storm had cut the power.  He struck a match but, in his haste to disappear, he had left the gas on.

Food for thought

The birds systematically emptying the nut feeders were suddenly absent.  Speculating where they had gone Steve thought out loud, “I expect they’ve knocked off for lunch.”  Elaine laughed at the absurdity, but at two o’clock exactly back they came.  He wondered.

That evening, following the chattering chaffinches into the woods, he found thousands of them queuing by a “Global Bird Foods” van collecting, exchanging, tiny packets of seed.  In the morning they found his bloodstained clothes, shredded, pecked: nothing else.  Think about it next time you’re buying fat balls: what are they made of exactly? After all, it’s big business. 

98, 99, Coming

 “They’ll never find me here, in the dark” she thought.  She could hear them coming, giggling, scuffling.  “I’ll sit still as a statue.”  The door creaked open and two small faces peeped in.

“Ready or not, here we come.  Are you in here, mummy?” and then triumphantly “Got you!”  Soft skin pressed up against hers, smooth arms that smelled of chocolate and marzipan.  “Tell us a story.”   But she was tired. “Not now, off you go and play some more”. 

Outside, matron comforted them.  “Don’t upset yourselves.  She’s happy, but doesn’t really know you’re here: it takes some like that.”

Riding the Buses #1 & #2

It seems strange after a few years of being, first, in a group based at Eden Court Theatre (Inverness) and then a founder member of what is now, rather grandly, called  The Highland Literary Salon (HLS) to be moving on.  That should not be taken to infer anything other than support and respect for the HLS, and I still receive their splendid newsletter every month.  More power to their collective  elbows.  The thing is that I have moved to a new part of the country and I’ve finally been obliged to join a new writing group.   My first meeting, attended by only two other men in an otherwise female and, it has to be said, “older” group, had been set a task to write up to 500 words on the topic “Riding the Buses”.  I wrote two – here they are.

Riding the Buses (#1)

It had been a year already; a year of avoiding spaces where Danny had been.  A year in which Maureen still half-expected to tidy up things he’d lost interest in or plain forgotten about: a year of making allowances for a presence no longer there; a year of an absence tangible as a presence. 

Most of all he was absent from the No 52, one of the buses they took to the start of their country walks which, despite his inexorable terminal decline, he enjoyed with enthusiasm. Almost to the end he had insisted on dragging himself to the top deck, and right to the front, from where he could see the world as if he owned it, clinging to the possibility he could, would, still do anything he chose.  A denial, of course.  In that last winter she had even had to wipe the condensation from the window, so that the breath from his open, dribbling, mouth did not obscure the view.  Some other passengers, who did not see his innocence and childlike pleasure in the journey, were repelled.  She even heard them say, in hushed tones calculated to be overheard, “they oughtn’t allow them on buses in that condition”. They did not have a Danny in their lives.

Alone she still walked, mostly to please her doctor, but his loss had made travelling by bus almost unbearable.  For a long time Maureen had shunned buses completely, often arranging lifts with friends, even if it meant walking somewhere she disliked, or taking shorter routes, but when that was impossible she chose walks served only by single-deckers.  Then she would sit at the back, and in a window seat, though even that felt odd as if it were really his by right.  But slowly, almost imperceptibly, this new view of the world, less lofty, less detached, brought her back; she saw the view herself, not obstructed by Danny’s matted black hair and head pressed against the glass.

Over the following months Maureen was able to look on others walking together, with less pain and more fondness until, one summers day, stepping off the bus she suddenly knew she was ready to move on: perhaps not a big dog like Danny, when fit he was almost too much for her.  Perhaps a spaniel?  Yes, a spaniel.  Then she would ride the top deck again.

Andrew Gold©

March 2014

393 words

 

Riding the Buses (#2)

 

It wasn’t an entirely routine accident, but Superintendent Nelson still didn’t bother to look up; “You’re the detective, Fry, so detect. But hurry up, we need the road re-opened for the school run, and take young Nixon with you.” 

Sergeant John Fry stood in the half-dawn, unwrapped a toffee and sucked.  He stared at the road, the bridge, the dark stain under the arch, and thought “detect what?  This is for traffic division, or uniform, not C.I.D.”

But the young body had suffered a massive head injury, yet there was no sign of an accident: no skid marks, no broken glass or plastic, no oil or water, no soil from under the crumpled wing of a car – nothing.  All the damage was above the waist; if he’d been hit by a car he would have had leg injuries but even the trainers had been unmarked.

“Well, Nixon, it appears it’s not one for traffic after all.  The ‘super’ said “Detect”, so let’s detect.  Tell me how a kid gets killed at 4 in the morning on a quiet suburban road, leaving no trace, and nobody hears anything?  There must have been a helluva bang.”

“I don’t know guv. Could he have jumped off the bridge, do you think?”

“Suicide? Why? Poor kid was clean, well dressed, obviously cared for, money in his pocket.  He was wearing school uniform, apart from the trainers – his proper school shoes were in a back pack with books and a sandwich; it’s as if he was running to school, but 4 hours early.  Anyhow, he was at St. Joseph’s, a catholic, so not likely a suicide.”

“Pushed?”

“What, from a railway bridge, by who?”  

“OK, thrown from a train, then?”

“Maybe.  I don’t really see that, though: he’d have to have gone clean over the parapet and come down head first.  You can check the times of trains later, but start on the blue tape and re-open the road. Oh, and see if you can find his phone; you’re all glued to ‘phones these days but we didn’t find one on him.  I’m going up on the bridge.”

By the parapet, with the smell of diesel drifting in the cold wind, Fry unwrapped another toffee and looked down at the street, his foot unconsciously probing at trackside rubbish.  The first house lights were coming on, other families were getting up, other kids packing their school lunches. What was he doing here?  Judging by his address, it wasn’t even on the route to his school, so why here?  His toe moved something solid. “Well, someone’s been up here, several someone’s by the looks, and recently”.  Amongst the pile of crisp packets, juice bottles and cans he found a mobile ‘phone, still on. It was the boy’s and it had been recording video: happy, mischievous, conspiratorial ‘selfies’, normal teen stuff – except the last one.  Presumably taken by his friends, it was of a boy surfing the roof of the first bus of the day.

Andrew Gold ©

500 Words

29 March 2014

QUEEN WEI’ME AND THE WELL OF HAPPINESS

Somewhere in the middle of a blue, blue, sea was a group of eight islands: the Wei archipelago.  Western Wei had six islands and Eastern Wei had two.  The islands were always ruled by Queens, not Kings, but the Queens took consorts whom they called ‘King’.  Queen Wei’me XXV, who lived in a palace on the main island, Wen, had married King Wei’nat.  The King was joyful, strong and handsome, and the Queen, who was rather plain and sickly, always felt beholden to him for marrying her.  However the King loved his Queen very much and, over the years, she bore him several children:  the princesses Wei’wei, Wei’nau and Wei’dem; the princes Wei’wauri, Wei’bodda, Wei’wok.  The seventh, and youngest, child had been sent away, for reasons that will become clear, to a different group of islands to be brought up.  She was called Wei’natme (after both her father and mother).

Sadly, after many battles, the King died and Queen Wei’me had continued controlling the islands alone and, without the loving hand of her dear husband to moderate her, bringing up her children with fierce authority.  She became an increasingly sad and fearsome ruler.

Like their father, King Wei’nat, the princes had a carefree attitude to life, preferring to enjoy whatever the new day would bring and go to bed each night thankful for life and eager for tomorrow.  The princesses, on the other hand, were like their mother:  always looking back at the hour before, jealous of each other and generally discontented.  Over time, as they each came of age, Queen Wei’me’s children went away to live in their own islands, in other archipelagos, where they married and had children; some were so afraid of the Queen’s fierceness that they went far away, almost to other seas entirely.

After many years the old Queen became frail and, as she expected to be soon reunited with her beloved King, she called for a council of her children to see who would become the next ruler of the whole Wei archipelago.  However none of the princes and princesses would come; Princess Wei’nau thought that there were more pressing things at home, and could come to see her mother ‘nearer the time’; Princess Wei’dem was sure that it wouldn’t be her that was made ruler, as it (whatever ‘it’ was) always happened to benefit somebody else; poor Wei’wei could never get beyond the nagging doubt that she had forgotten something more important than the thing right under her nose and, consequently, never left her palace.  The Princes would never rule anyway, so Wei’wauri and Wei’bodda were on permanent holiday and could not be contacted.  The other prince, Wei’wok, had formed a successful little federation of his own with some other islands and was too busy.  But, most of all, they were all still afraid of the Queen, and agreed it would be best to send an emissary to represent them at the dowager’s bedside: so they sent for Princess Wei’natme.

Wei’natme was also still afraid of the Queen but wanted to please her brothers and sisters, and perhaps return to the body of her family, so she agreed.  Having been brought up without the influence of either King Wei’nat or Queen Wei’me, Wei’natme was, in many ways, quite unlike either of them.  She was gentle and pretty but, unlike her mother, unconcerned about her looks.  She was quite brave and carefree but, unlike her father, diligent.  She had married a commoner and had only one child, a daughter, but lived an independent and fulfilling life as a teacher.

The old Queen Wei’me was both happy and sad, and perhaps a little guilty, on seeing Princess Wei’natme.  The years of separation, and her memories, had led her to assume all kinds of things about her daughter, things about her beliefs, her attitudes, her likes and abilities.  For her part, Wei’natme assumed only one thing: that her mother did not love her because she had sent her away.   The Queen hid her happiness on seeing her daughter, even though she reminded her of her beloved husband.  Instead of saying “Hello, how are you?”, she said “Why have you come, I called for the others?” and, instead of saying how nicely she had turned out, she said “I preferred you when your hair was shorter”.   Wei’natme was hurt at first, and then angry, for it seemed as if the Queen had, indeed, not loved her – and still did not love her.  But she had learned from teaching that not everyone knows how to say what they really want to say.  She supposed that the Queen could not acknowledge her daughter’s beauty because it was a painful reminder of her handsome lost husband, and she could not say “I love you” because it was too painful to face up to having exiled her.

The Queen, in her anger and loneliness, found it easier to fulfil her fear that her child hated her by antagonising her.  And she preferred to be proved unhappily right than happily wrong because, in sole control of her children and her islands, being right had always been the one thing she could be sure of.  She brooked neither disobedience nor contrary opinion.  They stood in silence for a while as they wondered how to bridge the gulf between them.  Wei’natme spoke first.

“I have come because my brothers and sisters would not, or could not – perhaps you should ask them, rather than me, why they are not here.  I am as I am, and I please myself, and my husband, with how I look and what I wear.  Since you seem to dislike me so, perhaps I should go away again?”   Queen Wei’me was shocked by her daughter’s directness, for it had been years since anyone had dared speak their mind to her.  “Disobedient child!  How dare you speak to me like that – I am your Queen and your M….”  She stopped, as the word ‘mother’ was stayed by Wei’natme’s gentle hand on hers.  “Yes,” said Wei’natme, “you are my mother, but not my Queen any longer – remember I live far away from Wei, where you sent me.  And as for ‘disobedient child’, I am grown and married with a child of my own.  Perhaps we can agree on ‘respect’ as a place to start?”  The old Queen rose from her throne, with such pain and difficulty that Wei’natme moved to steady her but was brushed away.  “I am tired”, said the Queen, “come again tomorrow and we’ll talk about your respect then.”  And with that, she went to her chambers.

The next day Wei’natme was by the harbour, arranging for a boat to take a message to her husband, and buying some cloth for a child’s dress, when the Queen’s secretary found her.  He stayed only long enough to announce “Her Royal Highness, the Queen Wei’me, commands that you attend her at once – come with me”, before turning on his heel and marching stiffly away.  Wei’natme finished her purchase and sent her message before following, through the cool palms, to the summer palace where the Queen sat in the sun, by a well, reading.  She was grandly announced by the secretary, “Her Most Royal Highness The Princess Wei’natme”, before he withdrew, bowing so low that his billowing sleeves trailed in the dust. For a long time the Queen did not acknowledge her daughter’s presence, instead she continued to read several more chapters before finally closing her book and looking up.  “You wanted to talk about respect” and, roughly dismissing the servant who was fanning her, “then why did you keep me waiting – is that the kind of respect you mean?”

Wei’natme, trying to not embarrass the Queen, waited until the servant was out of earshot before replying.  “No, Your Majesty, I meant mutual respect.  I might ask why you kept me waiting?  After all it was you who had me commanded to appear ‘at once’, when I was occupied doing something for my husband and my daughter, but you continue to read while I stand before you in the hot sun.  And why were you so rude to your servant, she was only trying to help keep you cool?”   The Queen hurled the book at Wei’natme, but her arm was weak and her aim poor, so it fell into the well instead.  The well was all but dry, and Wei’natme retrieved the book and handed the muddy parcel back to the Queen, the ink running black onto her hands. “There, see what your anger achieves – you’ve destroyed something important to you”.  The Queen tossed the book onto the ground saying, “I don’t care, it wasn’t very good anyway and I’ve plenty of other books…..and servants.” before tottering off into the shade and slumping, gratefully, into one of two elaborate cane chairs by a hibiscus bush.  Wei’natme followed and, without being invited, took the other chair.

Wei’natme broke the awkward silence.  “I like hibiscus, don’t you?  The blooms are so vivid, and yet so temporary: here one moment and then gone.”  “Rather like children,” said the Queen, with a contemplative voice that surprised Wei’natme with its sad and unexpected insight.  But she took her chance and said “Then, why did you send me away?”  Without showing any regret, the Queen said “I suppose I feared that your father favoured you over the other children and, if truth be told, over me.  You were different: pretty and wilful.  I worried that my place, as matriarch, would be threatened if you came to be Queen one day.  And yet, of all of my children, here you are.”   “Yes.  Here I am. But if you were jealous of father’s affection, why were you so fierce with us after he died?  I was so afraid of you that, had I not been sent away, I would have left as soon as I could anyway, just like the others.”

“I only treated you as I had been treated by my own mother and father.”  Wei’natme was puzzled by this.  “And did you enjoy being treated like that?”  The Queen’s eyes were misted by tears, the first Wei’natme had ever seen from her mother, as she said “No, I hated it.  But I was afraid, of my mother especially.  She could be cruel and spiteful if you disobeyed her.  But it was necessary, I realised that.  The world is a bad place, fighting and danger everywhere.  She taught me that no child has a right to an opinion about its upbringing.  You are still headstrong – had you remained at court you would have learned that obedience is everything, whether it be your subjects or your children, otherwise there is only chaos and disintegration.  Perhaps I should have kept you here.  Obedience has held the islands together all these years.”   Wei’natme, though filled with compassion for the pain of her mother, could not allow her to escape.  “Compliance without respect, or reason, is not obedience – it is fear.  Since father died your islands, your people, and your children, have been bound together only by fear, not obedience.   They had respect for father because he showed them that life was for living, not controlling.  You taught them only fear.  And as for your servants, they may make your life tolerable, but you abuse them so that I am surprised any of them stay with you.  If they had any choice I imagine you would be quite alone here.”

The old Queen stood up, as if to make an escape from the awful answers to the awful questions that confronted her, but she was frozen.  The only parts to move were her eyes as they searched in vain around the courtyard, the sky, and the ground before her feet, for a way out.  Wei’natme continued.  “And what of love?  Did you respect, obey and love father, or only fear him?”  The Queen, her face no longer frozen, spoke through her sobs.  “I do not know.  I was not taught to love by my parents, so how could I know?  When he asked me to marry him, I supposed my mother and father would be pleased that somebody would take me.  I was still afraid: afraid to say no, afraid to disobey.  Perhaps it was love, perhaps dependence, perhaps companionship, perhaps escape; and then there were so many children there was no time to find out.”

Wei’natme also stood, and held her mother warmly, but feeling only her stiffness and emptiness through the fine clothes, she stepped away.  “I feel sorrow for you, mother, but not love.  You cannot disguise your fierceness and brutality as a necessary lesson in obedience.  It was only anger.  You visited your anger with your parents, for treating you so badly, on us your own children.  You were angry with us for preventing you from discovering yourself.  You still are angry with us – perhaps now because we are there, while father is not.  I believe that, if you had the power to turn the tides, you would prefer it if we had not existed.  We’ll, I can cease to exist for you.  I can return to my island and my husband and child.  I can leave you here with your poor servants, your ‘obedience’ and your other books.”  And, with that, she turned and strode toward the gate but, as her hand reached for the latch she heard the sound of her mother in her own flailing, angry, voice and stopped.   Across the courtyard she saw, not a figure of hate but only a joyless old woman.  Unlike her, she did not know love; unlike her, she feared the power of her own emotion and, unlike her, she stared down an empty well of happiness.  For Wai’natme had learned love from her father, had recognised it in her husband and given it to her child.  Her well of happiness was full, and always replenished.  She had learned that the more love she gave, the more she received.  Wei’natme returned to the Queen’s side.  “I cannot pretend that I love you as a daughter ought to love her mother, but neither can I ignore my compassion.  I will return to my brothers and sisters and tell them what has happened here, and then come again.  Perhaps, by then, you will have thought more about respect.  But know now that, when I return, I will not submit to any more of your anger or spite.”  Queen Wei’me watched her go, still with a little anger, some pride at her daughter’s assurance but, mostly, sadness at being reminded of her lost husband by, despite her banishment, how very much like her father she was.

Wei’natme travelled around the other islands, visiting her brothers and sisters, bringing the news of the Queen’s health and trying to explain why her mother had been so harsh with them all.  It was very hard for Wei’natme to be even-handed, for she too was still angry, and also sad at being reminded of her lost father.  Yet she was proud of what the Queen had achieved as ruler.  The princes and princesses were all still angry too, but more concerned for themselves and Wei’natme.  They told her that she should return to her husband and daughter and forget her mother entirely.  The Princes Wei’wokwok and Wei’bodda, and the husband of Princess Wei’wei were the most outspoken.  “Why should we go to her now; it was her beatings, that drove me away as soon as I was old enough to leave?  Let her face the consequences alone!”  “She made Wei’wei’s life a misery and tried to stop our marriage, let her rot!”  “Let her physicians and courtiers tend her, I still feel the scars of tongue whippings as if they were from a real lash.  I’m not going anywhere near her.”  The princesses, made meek and uncertain by years of being ordered what to think, did not know what to say.  Wei’natme, however, had seen the terror in her mother’s eyes and could not forget it:  she returned to Wen island, the capital, and her mother.

Queen Wei’me was happy to see her daughter again, but could not help herself and, instead of greeting her with affection, scowled and scolded her.  “What a poor dress!  You may live as a commoner but you don’t have to come here dressed like one”, and commanded “ go and see the court dressmaker before you come next time!”  Wei’natme felt the pain of years, as if her ear was still being twisted or her mother’s knuckles were still being rubbed into the top of her head.  She backed away, and blazed through her tears:  “Next time?  NEXT TIME?  Why should there have even been a this time?  I wish you could hear yourself, mother.” and she ran away.  The Queen’s secretary found her, weeping, by the harbour.  “Madam, the Queen is feeling unwell.  She has asked me to find you and plead with you to come back to the palace.  She sends this dress as a gift.”  Wei’natme accepted the dress (for, in truth, her own dress was a little shabby) but refused to return, saying that, though she thanked the Queen for her present, if she was really unwell she should send for her physician.  She would come again in a month, but only provided the Queen promised to be more civil, and with that she boarded the boat for home.

A month later the inter-island ferry was delayed by bad weather and Wei’natme had been terribly sea-sick, staining her new dress.  The Secretary had been too afraid to relay all of Wei’natme’s message, especially the part about promising to be more civil, so the Queen, who knew nothing of weather and it’s effects on the lives of commoners, scolded Wei’natme again.  “You’re late.  And what a state you are in.  I would never have dared let my mother see me like that.”  But then, with a little more softness in her voice, she added “But, tell me, how is my grand-daughter?”  Controlling her urge to respond to her mother’s criticism, or to run away again, Wei’natme replied “She is well, thank you,” and after a pause which she hoped the Queen would fill, but did not, “ as am I and my husband.”  She took a cloth and cleaned her dress by the fountain, before siting down by the Queen’s chaise longue and asking, in return, “And, how are you today?

The old Queen, unused to the niceties of conversation between equals, or genuine enquiries for her health, could not measure her reply; she unleashed a torrent of complaint and, for good measure, some unconcealed jealousy:  “How do you think I am… I am old and sick….and nobody comes to talk to me…..you’re young and pretty….and you still have a husband.  How do you think I feel – how would you feel?”   “Mother!” Wei’natme recoiled, ducking mentally under the distant memory of a slap to the head.  “STOP!  I only enquired about your well-being!  If it is true that nobody comes to talk to you, why do you imagine that is?  If you behave like this with everyone, you must frighten away all those who might come to see you – it is hardly a pleasant experience.  As for me being young and pretty, and not old and sick: I expect my turn will come.  Yes, I have a husband and a lovely child: it is the natural order of living things that mothers and fathers pass on to the other world before their children.  Until that happens I mean to show my love for them every day, as they love me, not thrash around like a wounded animal at bay, spitting anger and frustration like you.  Now, tell me again, how are you?”           

The Queen subsided, her angry turmoil giving way to sadness, but did not know how to apologise.  “You are right of course.  I am tired and in pain.  I eat little and my eyes are failing.  It will soon be my time.  You might think that I would be impatient to be free of pain and to see your father again – but I am frightened.  I know, in my heart, that I treated him as I have treated all of you.  He may not want to receive me in the next life.  I cannot bear the thought of eternal loneliness.”  Wei’natme comforted her mother but her kindly reply was firmly given.  “Father loved you, even though you treated him badly.  I am sure he will be pleased to see you, have no fear.  Now, ask me how I am – and listen to my answer.”  The Queen did as she was asked, and Wei’natme went on.  “I had a terrible journey, and was very sick.  My husband has no work and we struggle to buy bread and clothes on my teacher’s salary.  My beautiful daughter has to work in the fields to pay for her own schooling and it costs a great deal to travel here: my brothers and sisters have paid my fare.  You see, others have problems too.”  The old Queen seemed, at last, to understand a little and together they walked slowly around the courtyard garden talking of ordinary things like flowers and the weather, until it was time for Wei’natme to return to the ferry boat and home.  “Please come again – I enjoyed our talk” called out the Queen as Wei’natme left “and, perhaps bring my grand-daughter?”

Wei’natme conferred with her brothers and sisters, telling them of the Queen’s changing attitude.  In spite of her own fear and difficulties, Wei’natme knew the power of love and tried to tell them that they, too, might benefit from seeing the Queen again.  A month later, on her next visit to Wen Island, Wei’natme was accompanied by her own daughter, Poppy.  The Queen looked sternly over her pince-nez (which she found more ‘regal’ than spectacles, even though it was difficult to see clearly with them):  “Come closer child, let me see your face.”  Poppy, who knew no fear, advanced right to the Queen’s feet and jumped up on her lap.  “There granny” she said cheekily, “Is that close enough?  What are those funny things on your face, they make you look like a … frog”  “Silence!” ordered the Queen.  “How dare you speak to me like that?”  Poppy did not know that rhetorical questions required no answer.  “But you’re my granny, how should I speak to you – you’re funny!” and she slipped from the royal knees and skipped away to investigate the garden.  Once the Queen had recovered her composure, she was secretly amused by the bright little girl who inquisitively flitted around her courtyard with the butterflies, like them never settling for long in any one place.  “You see how a childhood without fear can be, mother?” said Wei’natme before Poppy returned with a Hibiscus bloom which she thrust under the Queen’s nose.  “What’s this called?  It’s very pretty isn’t it – but this is the only kind of flower in the garden, why is that?”   The Queen looked at the brilliant bloom and smiled at Poppy.  “Not enough water in the well.  But it does not look beautiful for long, child, – they quickly fade.  And it has no smell, well, not a flowery one anyway.  It should have a nice smell, shouldn’t it?”

“Well, I think it is lovely enough without a perfume, Granny”, said Poppy.  “not everything in a garden has a perfume that we can smell you know, but everything has its place:  the butterflies and the birds seem to like different things, don’t they?”  The rest of their visit passed in rare gentleness and good humour but, after Wei’natme and Poppy had gone, the Queen sat alone watching the butterflies and the hummingbirds that had joined them.  She thought to herself.  “The child is right.  Even though I cannot smell the Hibiscus bloom, the hummingbirds and butterflies are drawn to it.  Everything does have its place and a purpose.”

And so it was that, over succeeding months, Wei’natme brought her brothers and sisters, one by one.  With each visit, and especially those from Poppy, the Queen’s temper grew more even.  The other princes and princesses shed some, though not all, of their fear and, with it, their envy of each other.  In time, although she never quite got over being most important, and still barked at her servants sometimes, the Queen was more accepting.  The well in the courtyard was less empty, the garden had more flowers and the matter of succession seemed, somehow, less important.  And she thought that, one day, Poppy would be Queen – but only if she wanted.

© Andrew Gold

August 2002, revised January 2012

School Dinner

School Dinner

It is a hot June afternoon, the last-but-one lunch of term, and the dinner queue is impatient for playtime and the holidays.

She fidgets from foot to foot, scraping at the worn wooden floor and absent-mindedly teasing the torn edge of her dinner ticket while she looks for her friends.  Jackie is nearer the front and calls to her “Marion, come on, it’s sausage and mash and chocolate pudding,” and she half wonders about jumping the queue to join her, but Billy, Vanessa and Christine are in front of her.  Billy, held back from the previous year, is the oldest and biggest in the class and Vanessa and Christine hang doe-eyed at his elbow.  She thinks they are silly but together they are a formidable trio and, as they will all be going to the seniors together in September, she decides to wait.

The queue shuffles forwards but she is captivated by lazy motes of dust that drift across the high Victorian windows.  They speak to her of summer, more than ice cream and thin cotton dresses ever have. While she drifts with them she does not notice that the queue has moved on, or that Wilf has moved to fill the gap between her and Billy.  Billy’s crushing fist comes down on the hapless interloper, knocking him to the ground:  he glowers over him.  “That’ll learn yer to wait yer turn, come on Marion” and he grabs at her hand to pull her past the prostrate form.

She moves but, like everything else, now in slow motion.  The smell of fried onion mixes with floor polish; the dust motes, made briefly frantic by the turbulence, seem to hang, somehow brighter in the shafts of sunlight.  A circle of children is mouthing “Fight, Fight” but the chanting is drowned by a buzzing sound; even the rushing dinner ladies, wielding flashing fish slices, seem to be standing still.  Her dinner ticket slips from her fingers, fluttering down, and then she is moving away from them all, faster and faster into warm, wet, darkness.

When the light returns the nurse is gently sponging her legs, with water that slops from a chipped enamel basin. “No more school for you today, poor little lamb.”  She does not know that this will be the last time someone calls her that.  Her mother, somehow different too, brings a long coat for her, even though it is hot.

Now it is the last day of term and she stands apart in the dinner queue; there is a gap behind her and one in front that no-one moves to fill.  Everyone is looking at her, or so she thinks; some in awe and some disgusted.  Vanessa and Christine are whispering behind their hands as if she cannot see, as if she isn’t even there.    Billy, who might understand what it is to be different, is not there: suspended for his last day.  Only Jackie saves a place for her at the table, and she is a child for one more hour: “Roast beef and gravy, and semolina with jam for afters!  Don’t you just love school dinners?”

 

© Andrew Gold June 2009

The Nine Loves of Henrietta

Anthony was mooning, tentative, and no match for a captain of netball: he gave her mumps.

Hardeep, life after A levels already mapped by his parents, gave her self-determination.

At University, Viktor was exciting and dangerous: he gave her causes.

Alan, unsure of his sexuality, and Nigel (sure enough to become Nigella) gave her self-awareness, but dear Daniel (dearest, it transpired, to Mary) gave her anorexia.

Johnny, challenging – especially to his probation officer – and Pierre, charming, sophisticated, and married, gave her resilience.

But Lionel, who knew the art of compromise, just gave and, in return, Henrietta finally gave herself.

 

Andrew Gold 2012

(reproduced with permission of Readers Digest 100 Word Story Competition)

Tantalus

Ellen sipped at her coffee, flicking toast crumbs off her dressing gown as she re-read the engagement notices in the morning paper.  It was not hard to believe he had a fiancée.  “Pity,” she sighed to herself before moving on to the arts review.

The idea of an affair with him had taken root long before she noticed it: a little seed drifting on an autumn breeze that ruffled her serenity.  She had done nothing to encourage it, but neither did she uproot it; she liked the way it teased her from the corner of her vision as she tended her life. It wasn’t a weed, just something wild and unexpected, even quite pretty: a tiny bit of chaos in the ordered rows.  There was nothing profound about it; it was just an idea: she had never even met him.

A year before she would have ripped it out with a violence borne of self-loathing.  A year before she wouldn’t have even considered it possible.  But that was before ‘Weight-Watchers’: she was turning heads again.  Later, looking at herself in the mirror to see the new earrings she pretended he had bought her, she thought “Still, not bad for fifty-one.”

 

© Andrew Gold 2009

Catriona

Catriona

She had been watching him from the kitchen window.  The ‘goose-bumps’ and fluttering of her stomach surprised her: after 17 years of marriage, and four children, she did not expect to be stirred.

The water seeping into her Marigolds brought Catriona back to the present and she made to empty the sink.  As she felt the taut resistance of the plug-chain, she looked out again and realised that Murdo was no longer there, and that she was no longer roused, but flustered.  She jerked at the chain and, suddenly, more than dirty water was draining away, the fluttering was a different kind of emotion, panic.

She was still in free-fall when Murdo came in to wash the smell of drains from his hands.  Did it show?  How could he not notice her turmoil, her burning face, her bright eyes.  Why didn’t he say something? He spoke over his shoulder, “I’ll send the bill to Allan.”

“He doesn’t even see me”, she thought “I’m part of the background, another kitchen appliance, another broken drain: an adjunct to another man’s life. A wife.”  She screamed silently, “Why not me, send the bill to me, this is MY house, I’m here, see ME”.   She said, “Fine” and handed him the towel, but held onto it so that, at least, he would have to stand facing her.

Later, the shipping forecast incanting in the next room, Catriona sat on the edge their bed, re-running her life for a sign that she was mistaken, hysterical, hormonal.  Allan would say that.  Anyone would say that.  Everyone WILL say that.   But there was no sign, only a bottomless void where certainty once was, and that was what thrilled her.  She was at the top of the roller coaster, too late to get off, arms raised in exultation and shouting in excited terror.  She was in love, but not with Murdo or her husband: she was in love with the feeling of being in love again.

How could she tell kind, steady Allan, safe Allan, reliable, predictable boring Allan, that she felt smothered, most of all by his compulsion to plan every last drop of spontaneity from their lives – from her life.

How could she tell him?  How could she not?

 

© Andrew Gold