City Life – long version

In ‘Friday Fictioneers’ last week, I posted “City Life”, a story about a young girl who has grown up in rural India, and come to Kolkata to live with her Aunt. As I wrote, I realised that the material from which I was drawing had huge potential. So when several people commented that they would like to read more, I was only too pleased to promise a fuller version. I promised to try to post it on Monday (yesterday).

I failed! Please accept my apologies.

However, I have now finished the first part of the longer story. It’s about 2000 words, and it covers the period when Makshirani is still in the village, up to the time she leaves it.

I hope you enjoy it.

The girl who went to Kolkata 180417

Here are a few notes for a couple of details that may be unfamiliar to readers in Europe and the USA.

American and UK readers should note that in India you shake your head to indicate assent, and nod to dissent. Note, too, that this is only approximately correct, and the gestures seem to be used more flexibly than our simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

‘Tharra’ is a very potent illicit liquor.

The girl who went to Kolkata

It was already hot. A hen scratched in the patch of scrub that had grown where the village water pump dribbled after every use. The older women of the village had used the pump in the cool of the early morning; now it was the turn of the girls.

“Makshirani – could you read my letter to me?”

Shama looked imploringly at her friend.

Makshirani nodded her head.

“I’m sorry, Shama, I promised mami I would be home quickly with the water.”

“I’ll carry your water if you like, and you can read as we walk. It’s only a short letter.” Shama held up a single sheet of paper. Makshirani glanced at it. It didn’t look too hard; she might be able to read it.

“Alright, I’ll try. But you mustn’t dawdle.”

Shama beamed.

“It’s from my brother. See! There’s his name – Abhoy! I can read that!”

Makshirani hid her agitation. She took the page and handed her five gallon plastic container to Shama. “Fill it nice and full now,” she said.

Makshirani read slowly, spelling the words out in her head before saying them out loud.

“Dear Father and Mother, and dear sister Shama,”

Shama clapped her hands with glee. “He’s written to me too!”

“Keep pumping, Shama. I mustn’t be late home,” Makshirani chided.

“I am living with Uncle Pinkesh. He takes…” Makshirani stumbled over the next word, “exce… excelle… excellent care of me. I work in the factory for…” Makshirani stopped again. “I don’t understand these words. I think perhaps it’s the name of the business?”

“Go on,” said Shama.

“We make clothes for the British ‘Topshop’. It is hard work, but it pays well. I have expenses, but there is some money left so I am sending you 1,000 rupees. I hope I will be able to send more next month.

Your ever-loving son and brother,

Abhoy”

“Thank you, dear Makshirani! I felt as though I could hear my brother’s voice!”  Shama stopped pumping. “There. All done.”

Makshirani handed back the letter. “It was only short. I shall be in time. It’s alright, Shama, I’ll carry the water.” She picked up the container. “Ai! It’s heavy!”

The container bumped against her thigh as she carried it through the village to the small farm her parents owned. She switched it from hand to hand as her arms tired. As she passed Pralay’s house, she lowered her gaze. There was something about him that frightened her, that left her feeling soiled when she knew he had been looking at her. And yet he was a rich man. He had a tractor to pull his plough rather than a water buffalo. For a girl without a dowry, like herself, he would be a fantastic match. Even the thought made her feel sick.

In the early evening, the quiet time of the day, she and her mother were preparing the family meal.

“Mami,” she said. “I heard today that Shama’s family received some money from Abhoy. A thousand rupees it was. And he’s going to send them more next month too!”

Her mother, Joti, smiled at her.

“They are fortunate. Perhaps they will buy some hens and sell the eggs.”

“Mami! Don’t make fun of me. It’s surely a good thing when a son earns money for his family?”

“Oh, yes.”

Joti chopped onions, garlic, tomatoes.

“Pay attention, girl. Stir the dahl before it burns. What are you thinking of?”

“I was thinking that a daughter could go to the city and earn money too.”

Joti nodded her head.

“The city is a place of loose morals. No place for a well brought up girl.”

“Aunt Abhilasha lives in Kolkata.”

“She is rich. It is different for the rich. Do you remember the taxi that brought her from the station when she visited us? What a fine car!”

“Dark red, and shiny. And the driver was cross because it got dusty from driving the road that comes to the village.”

They looked at each other and giggled.

“Aunt Abhilasha might look after me if I went to live in Kolkata?”

Joti stretched out her hand and stroked Makshirani’s shoulder.

“Dear daughter,” she said quietly, and sighed. She remembered how she had needed to fight her husband’s family to keep Makshirani when she had been born. ‘What good is a girl?’ they had yelled. ‘We have no money for a girl. Who will she marry with no dowry?’ She had fought like a tigress until they had let her keep the baby.

“How will you make a marriage in the city? Pralay will make you a fine husband, and he has said over and over that he wants no dowry. You can live like a queen!”

A tear rolled down Makshirani’s cheek.

“Mami. I don’t like Pralay. He makes me feel…” She shuddered. “I would rather die.”

“He’s not a bad man, little honey bee. His mother is well-liked and respectable too.”

“Respectable!”

“Stir the dahl, little one, or I’ll give you the burnt crust from the bottom of the pot for your meal.” Joti pretended to make a fierce face at Makshirani. In spite of herself, the girl giggled.

“Just in time. I can hear the men coming.” Joti hugged her tightly, then pushed her away.

As she slept, Makshirani was half-aware of raised voices. ‘Why is mami shouting at papa?’ she wondered, in the space between dreams, before sinking back into darkness and peace.

Joti worked Makshirani hard next morning.

“Come on, girl, you are slow, slow, slow!”

Makshirani bit her tongue and tried her hardest. When Joti was in this mood it was the only sensible thing to do. But at last Joti said, “Enough! Let’s have something to eat.”

They sat down under the shade of the tree next to the house, each with a piece of bread and the scrapings from the previous night’s dahl, and a beaker of water. Joti sat close to Makshirani, pressed against her. Makshirani sighed and leaned her head against Joti’s shoulder. Little stirred in the noontide heat. There was silence except for the buzzing of insects and the rasping of the goat’s teeth as she grazed nearby. Makshirani wrinkled her nose at the strong smell of the goat.

“You can read a little, can’t you?” asked Joti.

Makshirani blushed.

“Just a little bit, Mami. I hope you don’t disapprove?”

Joti nodded, and sat up straighter.

“Times change. Maybe girls need to be able to read nowadays. You aren’t content with the old ways, and why should you be?”

She turned to Makshirani and looked at her intently.

“After lunch, I want you to go to the teacher’s house. He will give you a half hour reading lesson and a half hour English lesson. You must do this every day. I have made an arrangement with him. But you must promise me you will work hard, even harder than you’ve worked this morning.”

Makshirani sat still for several seconds.

“But, Mami, how can we afford it?”

“It’s the last of my dowry, little one. I had thought to keep it in case one of us was sick, but – well, it wouldn’t go far in paying for a doctor. This seems the right way to spend it.”

“I will work harder than I have ever worked, Mami. Thank you so much!” Makshirani squealed with excitement.

For the next four weeks Makshirani studied as often as she could. Her father scowled when she took out her school books in the evening, but her brother sat down with her and they worked through the exercises together. Even when the rice was sprouting in the paddies and Makshirani had to hoe in the fields all day, she found time to practise her lessons.

It was while she was hoeing near the edge of a paddy that she noticed movement near the ditch. She moved a little away, slowly, cautiously.

“Stand still!” The voice was her father’s.

Makshirani froze. A sinuous head rose above the crop, looking at her. It seemed to rise and rise until its eyes seemed almost on a level with her own. It had a hood that was puffed out. Makshirani stayed very still and silent, despite the panic that filled her until her hands and feet tingled with the suppressed urge to run. It was a king cobra. If it bit her…

Then the snake lowered itself and disappeared back into the ditch.

Makshirani released her breath, a long, quiet sigh of relief. Her arms and legs felt weak and started to shake.

“To see such a snake, that is a good sign,” said her father, “A very auspicious sign. Maybe your mother is right after all. Now, away to your lessons!”

Makshirani ran, stumbling, over the clods of earth, legs still clumsy with fright.

That evening, her father and mother sent her brother out and talked to her.

“Your mother tells me you will not do as we wish and marry Pralay. Is that true?”

“Papa, if you wish, I shall obey. But I dread what it will be like.”

“It would mean prosperity for your family. It would mean a respectable life for you.” He fidgeted. “If you refuse, you won’t have another offer. You will live life alone and childless. Folk will look down on you. Pralay will be angry. He may decide to ruin me in revenge.”

Makshirani hung her head. Silent tears trickled from her eyes.

“I will do what you say, Papa. If I must marry him, then I must.”

Joti glanced at her husband and took Makshirani’s hand.

“You are a good obedient daughter,” she said.

Makshirani’s father cleared his throat.

“Your mother has another plan. I have said ‘No’ to her, until today. But maybe she is right. To see that cobra look at you and then depart, that is a very good omen. To ignore it would be to risk the wrath of Naga, even mighty Shiva himself, maybe.”

He gestured to Joti that she should speak.

Joti stroked Makshirani’s hand that she was holding.

“We have exchanged letters with Aunt Abhilasha, and she has agreed to be your guardian if you go to Kolkata. She will arrange work for you, and you will live in her house. You must do as she tells you, just as you would do as we tell you. Will you do this?”

“Me go and live in the city? Away from you, Mami?”

“I shall miss you my beautiful girl, my busy little honey bee. But it will be good for you, and when you are settled perhaps you may send some money home.”

“Will it be forever, Mami?”

“Forever is a long time, little one. Who knows what the gods will send? But this will be better for you than marriage to Pralay. A marriage where love is impossible is no marriage at all. You will be safer away, even in the city.”

Makshirani’s father sighed.

“It is a pity,” he began, only to fall silent as Joti glared at him.

“You must go to Kolkata as soon as possible, the day after tomorrow, before anybody realises. I will take you to the train station, and Aunt Abhilasha will send someone to meet you when you arrive.”

Makshirani thought. A little tingle of excitement began. The city! What might happen there? Maybe she could even study, if she worked hard enough.

“Why must I go so soon, Papa?”

He waved away the question. “Your mami will tell you. I must see to the animals.”

He went out of the room. They heard him pick up the bottle of tharra from the shelf by the door as he left.

“Makshirani, dearest daughter. We are afraid that if Pralay learns you are going, he may try to make you his wife by force. If he did that, you would have to marry him, or be disgraced for ever. Do you understand? So you must tell no-one that you are going.”

“Not even Shama?”

“Not even Shama.”

The last thing Makshirani heard before she slept that night was her father stumbling in, dragging his feet, his breathing stertorous.

The last thing she thought was “I’m going to live in Kolkata!”

 

 

 

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Maureen

This short story started life as a writing exercise – those of you who have read Stephen King’s “On Writing; a memoir of the craft” may recognise it. It’s a little over 4,000 words long, and takes 10 – 15 minutes to read. It’s pretty dark, so if dark isn’t your thing, look away now!

Maureen black pickup 181026

Maureen

Rob sipped bourbon as he sat in the bar revising his quarterly sales report. Every so often he was distracted by shrieks of laughter from across the room and he glanced over. ‘Girls’ night out,” he murmured to himself.

One girl in particular, a quiet girl, caught his attention. She had placed herself in the corner, under a light fitting. She smiled rather than laughed, and she was attractive rather than beautiful. Her sleek brown hair shone; her blue eyes sparkled like sapphires displayed in a jeweller’s window.

Rob was packing up his laptop as the girls started to leave. The quiet girl went to the bar. Rob saw the barman frown and ask her something. She responded merrily, and the barman served her a measure of spirits, but the frown didn’t leave his face.

Rob went to the bar, ordered bourbon. He jerked his head in the direction of the quiet girl. The barman shrugged.

“That’s her last. She’s had enough. Don’t want her getting into trouble on the way home.”

Rob nodded. “Should I offer her a lift do you think, Sam?”

“Wouldn’t hurt. Takes a while to get a cab this time of night.”

“Ah, another night owl,” exclaimed the girl as Rob approached. He smiled.

“Not really. But I felt like some company. My name’s Rob, by the way, Rob Carter.”

“Nice to meet you, Rob.” She offered her hand. Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “I’m Maureen.”

They didn’t date often before Rob proposed marriage. Maureen had caught her man.

Rob’s family and friends were delighted.

When he told his mom, she squeezed his arm hard and her eyes moistened.

“She’ll take good care of you, I can tell. I’ve worried about you, Rob, trying to look after yourself all on your own in that house.”

“I don’t do that bad, Ma! Besides, I’m hardly expecting Maureen to have my slippers warming and my dinner on the table; it doesn’t work like that these days.”

His dad winked.

“Good looking girl you got, son. Well done!” He leered at Rob, took another six-pack out the fridge and handed a can to him. “Cheers!”

Maureen told her mother in the kitchen of their pokey apartment.

“He seems nice enough, I s’pose. So did your father when I married him. Ha! Men!” Her mouth hardened. “Move over, gal, I wanna mop that bit o’ floor.”

Maureen bit her lip. Dad had vanished when she was fourteen. Her mom had never explained where he’d gone, or why.

Rob and Maureen were happy during the first few months of their marriage. Rob enjoyed being cosseted; Maureen enjoyed their affluence. They went to plays and concerts, and they dined in good restaurants. Maureen always left the choice to Rob.

“I love going out with you,” she said once to Rob, “but these places are so different from anything I’m used to. Please – you choose for me. Look after me, Rob.” And she clung on his arm and looked at him with glowing eyes.

Rob liked to finish these evenings with love-making, but to his surprise it was anti-climactic. It wasn’t that Maureen was unwilling; far from it, she was eager and she tried hard. And Rob could tell that she was trying. If he held back for long enough, she would ‘climax’; she was faking.

Still, there’s more to marriage than four bare legs in a bed. Rob may have worked a little later in the evening; Maureen may have started drinking a little earlier in the day; but they would have said they were happy together.

It was shortly after their anniversary that they had their first real row.

“Why are you late?”

It had been a brutal day in the office. Rob had faced criticism from his boss and moaning from his subordinates.

“Why are you drunk?” he countered.

They had shouted. Half concealed resentments spilled out, and, as the quarrel escalated, disappointments became vocal.

“And you’re frigid!”

Everything went quiet.

Then Maureen picked up the bottle of wine with which she’d been entertaining herself, and lashed out.

Fortunately for Rob – and for Maureen, come to that – he was quick, and took the bottle on his shoulder rather than his temple.

What followed was technically rape, in that it was non-consensual.

Afterwards, they sat amid torn clothing, arms around each other, kissing, touching tenderly.

“You climaxed.”

Maureen shuddered.

“I did,” she said. Tears oozed from under bruised lids. “Do it again.”

They went to bed. Rob soon fell asleep. As Maureen lay on her back, listening to his breathing become regular and gentle, images of her father drifted into her mind. She shook as she remembered his whisky-breath, the way he punched and kicked her mother. She sought sanctuary in earlier memories. Holding his hand, sitting on his lap. She remembered his voice telling her stories. She slept.

Maureen couldn’t believe it when she missed a period. She didn’t know what she wanted to do. Should she use the ‘morning after’ pill, or welcome the child? She’d never thought of having children, and Rob had never said anything.

When Maureen missed a second period, she told Rob. He was thrilled. Within a fortnight the spare bedroom had been transformed by a design consultancy. The walls were delicate cream, with a frieze of animals. The carpet was soft green. The Moses basket was natural varnished wood, hanging from an elegant stand.

“I know you’ll want to breastfeed,” Rob said, “but I hope you’ll let me join in and bottle-feed sometimes. Perhaps we could share the night shift?”

“I’m not dead set on breastfeeding. Of course you can join in.”

Together they chose a chair for the nursery, a high-backed wooden chair with upholstered arms and seat, and they stood it in the corner, close to the cot. Rob imagined himself sitting there with the baby crooked in his arm, enjoying the closeness of this new life that he had helped to create.

“Should we be spending all this money on the house?” Maureen spoke sharply.

Rob raised an eyebrow.

“It’s not a problem, you know. This quarter’s bonus will cover it.”

“Will we still be able to afford the Bahamas in May? You know how much I want to go.”

Rob did some rapid mental arithmetic.

“Don’t worry, Maureen. Your vacation’s safe!”

“It had better be.”

After dinner, Rob retired to his study. Perhaps he should get out his trade directories and look for some new prospects?

As the weeks passed, Maureen’s moods swung wildly between tenderness and violence. At home Rob spoke less often, for fear of saying the wrong thing and prompting an outburst. At work, though, the prospect of becoming a father had energised him. He’d identified several possible large accounts and was chasing them enthusiastically.

“I’m going to be late this evening, darling,” he said to Maureen. “That company – Harrisons, you know, the one I told you about?”

“Mm-hm?”

“I’m entertaining their Purchasing VP to dinner.”

Maureen had thinned her lips.

“What’s his name?”

“The VP’s a woman, darling. I told you, remember? Jenny Lightfoot. She’s fifty, with a cast-iron permanent wave and she uses her handbag like an offensive weapon.” He chuckled. Maureen did not.

Jenny had proved to have a formidable head for bourbon, but by eleven o’clock the deal was done. A contract for a full year with an option on two more years, a total of three million bucks. Rob was humming as he climbed into the cab.

The lights were off in his house.

“Better be quiet,” he muttered, even as he wondered whether Maureen would be awake. He would love to tell her the good news. A deal like this would enable them to travel somewhere really exciting once the baby was a little older. He fumbled cheerfully with the key and stumbled inside.

He didn’t know it was a rolling pin that hit him, just that it hurt. He lunged forwards, taking two more blows, the second and more painful on his collarbone.

“You bastard! I can smell her perfume on you. You low-life scum, you’re no better than the rest of them!”

He struggled with her, trying not to hurt their unborn child, and eventually pulled the rolling pin from her.

“It’s bourbon you can smell, you stupid bitch.”

The slap to his cheek made him cry out and clutch his face.

“Never, ever call me that again!”

He slumped against the wall, struggling to clear the whisky fog, listening to her footsteps steadily climbing the stairs. He felt too exhausted to follow. The bedroom door slammed. After a while, carefully and quietly he went to the nursery and sat in the new chair.

What the hell was he going to do?

Next day, Maureen refused to discuss the fight. She talked brightly through breakfast. Rob would have wondered whether he’d dreamed it, if it weren’t for the large bruises on his arms and collarbone, and the gash on his cheek from Maureen’s ring.

For the next few months, until the baby was born, Rob was extremely careful. He scheduled no evening meetings, and he showed Maureen the email from his boss that confirmed the dates when he would be away for the sales conference. Indeed, he gave her details of the hotel so she could ring them and check that he was there, and not with another woman.

And when their daughter was born, Rob suggested they named her Irene. He didn’t care whether Maureen got the point or not.

Perhaps she did. At all events, there were no more fights for a few months. There was no more sex, either.

Irene was four months old when Rob met Charlene. It was just a physical thing. No commitment either way. The relief was tremendous.

They took to meeting once a week, on Tuesday afternoons, in a hotel. It was fun. Rob didn’t dare imagine the consequences if Charlene ever demanded more than fun; or if Maureen were to find out.

But Maureen didn’t feel any need for proof. Suspicion was justification. One Tuesday Rob came back cheerful and relaxed.

“Did you pick up those holiday brochures? We might plan our European trip tonight if you like. It’s going to be a great bonus this quarter!”

“No. Sorry. I’ll look on line – there’s more choice there anyway.” She wandered across to him. “What’s that odd sweet smell?”

“I can’t smell anything. Perhaps it’s the chemical plant I went to this morning?” Rob was surprised Maureen could smell anything above the eau de parfum that she always wore.

Maureen wrinkled her nose but said no more while Rob prepared a bottle of formula for Irene. As he sat down, cradling Irene in the crook of his left arm, and offering her the bottle with his right, Maureen said, “You’ve been with another woman, haven’t you?”

Without waiting for an answer, she picked up a half-full bottle of wine, stamped across the room and swung it viciously at Rob’s head. It caught him a glancing blow, stunning him briefly. Irene released the teat from her mouth and wailed. Panic-stricken, Rob looked around for somewhere he could safely place her.

As Rob tried to stand, Maureen hit him on the left shin. The bottle broke. The pain was intense, disabling. Rob cradled Irene in his lap and curled his body over her. He cringed at the thought that the next blow would be to his head, and then Irene would be defenceless.

“Look at you!” exclaimed Maureen. “You’re pathetic!” She slammed the jagged end of the broken bottle hard onto Rob’s right hand, and left him to whimper, to look after himself and Irene as best he could.

The next day, limping and with his hand bandaged, he consulted a lawyer.

“Hm. You want a divorce with custody of the child. That’s not common, you know. Has your wife been unfaithful?”

“No. At least I don’t think so.”

“Have you been unfaithful to her?”

Rob coloured and kept silent. The lawyer shook his head.

“You’d have a mountain to climb, an absolute mountain. We could try, but it would be very expensive and the chance of success – what, one percent maybe?”

As Rob left the office, the lawyer tutted to himself. ‘You meet some selfish bastards,’ he thought. ‘Wants to have his floozy and keep the baby too. I don’t know.’

Rob was frightened as he opened his front door that evening, but Maureen greeted him tenderly. She took his coat, poured him a bourbon, gave him a quarter hour to relax, and then suggested he might enjoy feeding Irene.

Irene was in her sweetest mood. After drinking half the bottle of formula, she was much more interested in playing. She reached out her little arms to Rob and smiled and dribbled and blew milky bubbles.

Maureen came and stood behind Rob. He tensed, expecting a blow, but Maureen massaged his neck.

At last she said, “I’m sorry about yesterday. It won’t happen again.”

Of course, she wasn’t telling the truth.

Of course, Rob believed her.

He and Charlene continued to meet for sex on Tuesdays but it was becoming less frenetic. Increasingly there was gentleness, even tenderness. One afternoon, as Rob left the bed to get dressed, Charlene said “Would you mind talking for a bit? I know you’ve got to get back to work; I won’t take long. Promise!”

Rob smiled at her and climbed back into bed.

“I can’t help noticing the bruises – and sometimes the cuts – on your body, Rob. I know you don’t play sports, so what’s going on?”

Rob’s pulse beat loudly in his ears. He felt chilled. He sat silent.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Rob. I want to help you.”

“You can’t. Nobody can.” Tears squeezed from Rob’s eyes, and he started to sob. Charlene gentled him.

“It’s alright to cry, Rob. It’s okay, everything’s okay. You can tell me.”

So he did. He told her everything, and she was okay with that. There was no horror, no emotional storm – no violence – just calm, lucid acceptance. And when he’d finished he wept again, this time for relief.

It took twelve difficult months for the divorce to come through. Rob found it almost impossible to testify about Maureen’s violence, but Charlene and the lawyer made it clear that he had no choice. If he didn’t testify, he would not get custody of Irene. He testified.

Maureen denied it. Perhaps she was too shrill, or perhaps Charlene’s testimony about the injuries on Rob’s body swung it, but he was awarded custody.

For the first time in a year, Rob entered his own house. Maureen had packed. Irene sat in her pushchair in the hall.

“I’ll give you one last chance,” said Maureen. “You let me stay, and I’ll say no more about all this.”

Rob gestured at the door.

“Get out of my house.”

“You’ll regret this.” She hissed the words, then spat at him. Irene started to cry.

An old black pick-up juddered round the corner, Maureen’s mother at the wheel. Stony-faced, she climbed out. She was holding a shotgun, pointing it at Rob.

“I oughter blow your brains out, runnin’ out on my Maureen. And if you ever come near her again, that’s just what I’ll do.”

The two women threw suitcases into the trunk, and zigzagged away in the pick-up.

The letters started soon afterwards.

The first was a single word.

“Adulterer”

Rob gazed at it. Should he do anything about it? Was there, indeed, anything he could do about it? After a momentary hesitation, he screwed it up and threw it in the bin.

“Wife-beater,” said the next, and, “Child-stealer” the third.

The fourth read “You’ll burn”. Rob frowned as he pulled out the accompanying newspaper cutting. It was a photograph of a recent fatal fire. He took it to the police. They weren’t helpful. Rob pulled strings in City Hall, and the police ‘investigated’ which is to say they dusted the fourth letter for prints. There were none. Surprise, surprise, the sender had worn gloves.

Perhaps the police were right not to be concerned because there were no more letters.

“Is something the matter, Rob?” asked Charlene, as they enjoyed spring sunshine in Central Park one Saturday afternoon.

“No. That is, did you notice that woman over by Bow Bridge?”

“The one in the head-scarf? Can’t say I did. Do you know her?”

“No.” He pulled a face. “Did you think she was a bit like Maureen?”

“Same height and build, I suppose, but she was a much older woman, Rob.” She slipped her arm in his. “That’s all over, Rob. You’re free now. You can focus on your lovely little girl, and I shall stand by you for as long as you want me.”

“I think I want you beside me forever,” said Rob.

“I don’t think you know that yet, Rob. There’s no rush.” She seemed about to kiss him, when Irene, in her buggy, blew a raspberry.

They laughed and strolled on, content.

Spring passed inexorably to the heat of summer. The day was breathless. Rob was collecting Irene from Seedlings Academic Playschool, fastening her into her car seat. He heard running feet approaching, just as he latched her harness, and then he felt a shattering pain in his hip.

Half in, half out of the car he fought to climb out, to slam the door, to protect Irene. Another blow struck the same leg as he made it outside. He scarcely recognised Maureen, snarling, malevolent, wielding a baseball bat. The next blow was aimed at his head. He flung himself sideways. The bat struck the car, denting the roof.

“I’m going to get you!” Maureen was gleeful. She twirled the bat like a drum major’s mace. Rob hobbled to place himself between Maureen and the car door. Maureen swung viciously, and the bat smashed into Rob’s chest. He dropped.

He couldn’t say how long the blackness lasted. Later he remembered a few seconds where the sound of a siren drowned his efforts to tell the paramedic about Irene in the car, before the blackness again.

He opened his eyes to sunlight. A monitor beeped rhythmically beside him. Saline solution dripped into a cannula in his wrist. His chest felt tight, but he realised he was breathing okay. His left leg felt numb. The door opened softly.

Charlene walked across to the bed and put her hand on his. “Thank God,” she said, and then “Irene’s okay, she’s fine.”  Rob did his best to smile as the blackness took him again.

In fact, the actual damage could have been worse. A half dozen broken ribs, a punctured lung and some dramatic bruising to his left leg was the extent of the injuries. He had been lucky. The security guard at the playschool had restrained Maureen, and the school’s administrator had re-started Rob’s heart before the paramedics arrived.

Rob was discharged from hospital five days later, two days after Maureen was committed to Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center. The news of her incarceration was a profound relief.

Irene had become very clingy after the attack on Rob; “Goodness knows how much she saw and understood,” said Rob to his mother. She shuddered.

“I nearly lost my boy. I always said Maureen was a nasty piece of work. I hope Irene doesn’t inherit her viciousness.”

“Of course she won’t, Mom. She’ll inherit your sweetness of nature through me.”

Rob’s mom smiled at him. “You must stay with us until you’re properly better.”

Gradually the pain of the injuries eased.

“You should get out and take some exercise, son.”

Rob felt his pulse skip a beat. He hadn’t been outside on his own since the attack. OK, so Maureen was under lock and key, but there was still her mom and that shotgun. He felt cowardly, but he couldn’t face it, not yet, not now. Perhaps if he weren’t on his own?

“How about you join me, Dad? Walk off some of that beer belly.”

Rob’s dad caught the hesitation, and the look of apprehension.

“Yeah! Great idea! Shall we do it straight away?”

Rob was pre-occupied throughout the walk. He felt as though somebody had tied a target on his back. He ached between his shoulder blades.

“Could we go back to the car now? I’m feeling tired. First time out; big day! But not much energy, I’m afraid.”

“Do it again tomorrow, son?”

“You gotta date, mate.”

As his dad drove them home, Rob kept looking in the door mirror. Was that Maureen’s mother’s old black pick-up he could see? It was lurching and weaving through the traffic. He flinched and stared straight ahead as it pulled level with them at some traffic lights. When the lights changed, the pick-up turned right.

Gradually the fear eased, but it didn’t disappear. Still, after a few more days he found he could go outside on his own.

Three weeks after the attack, he returned to work. “Just half-days for the first week,” instructed his boss, “and if you’re finding it too tough, take another week. We can’t afford to have you keel over. You’re the only person Harrisons are really happy to deal with.”

At noon he took a cab back to his house. As he put the key into the lock, he noticed that the door knocker was tarnished. “I’ll have a coffee then come and clean that,” he thought. He didn’t have the energy to tackle even such a small task without a sit-down first.

The house felt dirty; everything was covered with dust. He was going to have to find a cleaner. Maureen had organised that during their marriage. It was odd. Despite the divorce and the attack, she still felt present in the house. She’d arranged the pictures. She’d chosen the wallpaper for the living room. Rob sighed. Her touch was on everything. Perhaps he should just have the house deep-cleaned, the decoration refreshed and then sell it. Buy somewhere else. Start again with Charlene.

He picked up the bourbon, then put it down again, instead making a black coffee, and sitting down in front of the TV. He flicked channels and was just in time to catch the local news.

“Breaking news from the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center!” The journalist stood outside the secure hospital. “Fire broke out in the wing holding the most dangerous patients. Twelve appliances and eighty crew are fighting the blaze, and more are on their way. There is an unconfirmed report that some patients escaped in the confusion. The Center have refused to confirm or deny this report.”

A roiling plume of smoke could be seen in the background.

“The Center have, however, told us that the evacuation of staff and patients proceeded in an orderly fashion with only minor injuries. A further bulletin will be issued at one thirty this afternoon, and we will be covering that. In the meantime, it’s back to Arnold in the studio.”

Rob switched off the TV. His skin crawled. It wasn’t the pictures or the wallpaper. It wasn’t the evidence of her choices in the furniture. They weren’t what had made him feel she was present. It was her perfume. Subtle, understated, elegant. He could smell it. He could smell it right now. Surely it wouldn’t have clung to the furniture over a period of months?

But she was in Kirby Forensic. Unless the report was right, and she’d escaped.

No. That would be too unlikely. The TV company were probably misinformed. Besides, even if she’d escaped, how the hell would she have laid her hands on that perfume in the Center? Unless…

Had there been a bottle of it on her dressing table? He hadn’t been sleeping in the main bedroom since returning to his house after the divorce.

He thought, “I should go and look. Set my mind at rest” but he didn’t move. His legs felt drained of strength. He looked at the fire-irons; he could take the poker. And yet he didn’t move, he couldn’t move. His breathing came fast, his pulse raced. He was shaking too much to stand.

He heard footsteps, her footsteps steadily descending the stairs. Still he sat. He heard splashing. Maureen’s perfume became overlaid with the stench of gasoline.

Her footsteps were quiet on the living room carpet.

At last he moved. He sprang to his feet and turned towards her. She dripped gasoline from her sodden clothes. She splashed gasoline from the five gallon jerrycan she carried.

She put down the can, and she smiled at Rob.

“Time to burn, Rob,” she said.

The click of her lighter was the loudest noise Rob had ever heard.

 

 

 

 

 

Pillars of the Community – back story

Last Wednesday I wrote a piece of flash fiction for Friday Fictioneers that I titled “Pillars of the Community”. People were kind enough to show an interest in what had happened to cause three very respectable women to keep a secret for fifty years, surrounding it with ritual and a dread oath. I promised to publish the back story – and here it is!

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Pillars of the Community – back story

Diane. Abigail. Susan.

They were inseparable.

When Diane was four, she had insisted on going to see Abigail and Susan to show them her Christmas present – on Christmas day – before lunch.

When Susan was five, she had demanded that Diane and Abigail should come on holiday with her family and had thrown multiple tantrums when this didn’t happen.

And Abigail always had to have the same things as Diane; if Diane had a pink hair-slide, then so must Abigail; if Diane read ‘Bunty’ then so must Abigail.

They all joined the Brownies on the same day. They moved up to the guides on the same day. They went to the same school, and when Diane had said “I want to do Ten Tors,” the other two had said “Great!” and “What a good idea!” even though Susan normally shunned strenuous activity, and Abigail was scared to death if she was ever alone outside after dark.

The training was tough. For their first outing on Dartmoor, Mr Johnson took them six miles on a rough track, allowed them thirty minutes to eat lunch and then marched them the six miles back on the same track. “A nice gentle stroll” was his description of the day. Susan slept in the minibus all the way back to school.

“What do you think of Mr Johnson?” Abigail asked Diane the next day.

“He’s okay.” Diane thought for a minute or two. “What did you think of him?”

“I think he’s creepy.” She looked at the ground. “Didn’t you mind when he put his arm around you?”

Diane flushed.

“Not really.” She studied the expression on her friend’s face. “I suppose I was a bit surprised.”

A few weeks later, they were practising packing their kit properly when Diane noticed that Abigail had disappeared – and so had Mr Johnson. A few moments later Abigail was back, scarlet and breathing heavily.

“Are you alright?”

Abigail nodded, but Diane could see the tracks of tears on her face.

“Here, let me help you,” she said.

Abigail sniffled; she never had a handkerchief. Diane passed over her own.

During the lunch-break, Diane said to Abigail, “Do you want to tell us about it?” Abigail’s face puckered, and she shook her head.

“I can’t,” she said.

“One for all, and all for one,” said Susan.

“No, I really can’t.”

“Was it Johnson?”

“He told me not to tell anybody,” wept Abigail.

“Yeah, well we’re your friends. You know you can trust us.”

“He kissed me. I said not to but he did anyway.”

Diane and Susan looked at each other. Susan put an arm round Abigail.

Diane was indignant. “I’ll find him after school and tell him he’s out of order.”

“No! No, please don’t, Di, or he’ll know I’ve told.”

“Somebody ought to say something, Abi, otherwise he’ll think he’s got away with it, and can try again.”

“You said I could trust you…” wailed Abigail.

“Yes, you can, of course you can, pet. Di won’t say anything, will you, Di?”

“Not if Abi doesn’t want it, of course I won’t. But Abi, I really think we should say something.”

Abigail’s tears were slowing. She shook her head.

“I’d much rather not,” she said.

A week or so later, Diane and Susan were waiting at the school gate for Abigail, who was coming from the private study classroom.

Diane glanced at her watch. “Where on earth can she be? She’s usually here before us. Shall we look for her, Sue?”

“We might miss her. She’s probably had to run an errand for the Head Mistress or something.”

Just then, they saw Abigail, trudging, dragging her feet. As she approached, they could see she was ashen.

Susan hugged her and held her close.

“Was it Johnson again?” demanded Diane. “What did he do?”

“I don’t want to say,” muttered Abigail.

Susan looked at Diane, and held her finger to her lips.

“You don’t need to say anything, Abi, dear. We understand. You’re alright now, you’re with us. We’ll take care of you.” She looked at Diane, who was fidgeting in her anxiety to say something. “Shut up, Di! Now is not the time.”

They set off home in silence. When they came to the bridge over the river, they stopped. They often did, for the river was beautiful in all seasons and at all times of the day.

Abigail leant over the parapet. Her feet left the pavement. Diane took hold of her arm.

“Don’t do that,” she said. Abigail sighed and put her feet back on the ground.

“He kissed me again. Then he tried to…to feel me, you know. I pushed his hand away but he’s so strong.” Her face was no longer pallid, but fiery red with shame. “It felt…it felt…” She couldn’t finish.

“What a bastard!”

“Really, Diane! You don’t need to swear!” Susan was indignant.

Diane took hold of Abigail’s shoulders. “Abi. Listen to me. We’ve got to tell someone now. Will you let us all go and talk to the Head Mistress tomorrow morning?”

Abigail pondered for a long moment, then, “Alright,” she said.

Next day it was Diane who took the lead, Diane who made an appointment with the Head Mistress, Diane who cajoled Abigail to speak.

The Head Mistress listened carefully. These were trustworthy girls. She would have believed them about almost anything. Why, she was hoping that Abigail would win a scholarship to Cambridge in a few years time!

And yet, Mr Johnson was a highly respected teacher. There had never been a hint of scandal about him. He was highly qualified and his pupils did well. Surely he would have shown signs of this sort of weakness before?

“Did he leave any marks on you, Abigail?”

“No, Miss Carter.”

“Did he expose himself to you?”

“No, Miss Carter.”

Miss Carter folded her hands on the desk. Any hint of this would end Mr Johnson’s career. There wasn’t enough evidence to report to the police. She couldn’t, she really couldn’t take action. She cleared her throat.

“Now, girls. You’ve come to me and made a most serious accusation against a senior member of my staff. If I believed for one moment that you were motivated by malice, I would punish you all; you would be facing expulsion from the school.”

She paused.

“Diane and Susan, neither of you witnessed any impropriety. Your testimony is that you saw your friend badly upset, and she told you about an assault that she said had been made on her. Abigail. You tell me that you have been assaulted, but there is no physical evidence of an assault having been made. Is that a fair summary of the situation?”

“Yes, Miss Carter,” they mumbled. Even Diane didn’t dare to contradict.

“I believe that all three of you are truthful girls. I can only conclude that you, Abigail, must have misunderstood an ambiguous situation. The matter must stop here. All of you understand, please, that you must say nothing about this outside this office. I will treat any slander against Mr Johnson with great severity.”

She looked at each of them in turn. One by one they dropped their eyes.

“You are dismissed.”

The three girls slunk out. As they walked down the corridor, Diane whispered, “I’m sorry, Abi. You were right. We shouldn’t have said anything.”

In her office, the Head Mistress worried for the entire morning as to what she should do.

Abigail became very quiet. As far as possible she avoided being anywhere near Johnson. She changed her private study group on the pretext that she needed to work in the library to be able to use reference books. Susan and Diane became expert at spotting when something had happened. Without questioning, they just offered support, love and encouragement.

“Are you sure you want to come on the overnight camp, Abigail?” said Susan.

“I can’t do the Ten Tors if I don’t, and then the rest of you in the Patrol would miss the event too.”

“You’re very brave,” said Susan, hugging her tightly.

“We’ll look after you,” said Diane, fiercely. “He’d jolly well better not try anything.”

They camped near the Mires.

“Don’t stray out of your tents tonight! One false step into the Mires, and it’s down you go, never to be seen again!” Johnson laughed ghoulishly and rubbed his hands.

He took Abigail with him to fetch water for the evening meal. When they returned she was shivering.

“Are you alright, Abi?”

“Yes. Just a bit cold.”

The six girls of the Patrol bedded down in two three-person tents. Susan and Diane slept in sleeping bags either side of Abigail, whose head was by the entrance to the tent. She lay there, stiff with fright.

Minutes passed. Diane fell asleep first. Susan turned over several times, but then her breathing became regular. She snored, gently but noticeably. Abigail waited a few minutes longer, and then, as quietly as she could, wriggled out of her sleeping bag. As though hypnotised she undid the tent flaps and walked into the night.

Diane stirred. Something was wrong. Her eyes opened. She felt the chill air of the moor. She saw the open flaps of the tent. Abigail was missing.

“Quick, Sue! Abi’s gone!”

Susan stretched, then sat up abruptly.

“What do you mean, gone?”

Diane pointed to the empty sleeping bag and the open tent. Susan scrambled out of her bag and started scrabbling for her trousers.

“Come on! We haven’t got time for that!”

Diane led the way outside. There was torchlight in Johnson’s tent, and noises. They could hear Abigail, sobbing, protesting.

Diane picked up a heavy stone.

The two girls ran to the tent and tore open the door. Johnson was lying on Abigail, who was struggling, weeping, trying to push him away. Her legs were spread, and Johnson, trousers around ankles, lay between them. He looked up – and Diane hit him with the stone, hard. He slumped.

There was quiet.

There was silence.

“He’s not breathing,” whispered Susan.

“You’ve killed him,” whispered Abigail.

“It’s my fault. I’ll have to take the consequences.” Diane breathed heavily as she thought of the implications. Prison, not university. Disgrace. Shame for her parents.

“One for all, and all for one.” Susan and Abigail spoke simultaneously.

“No. I can’t let you,” began Diane.

“Let’s put the body in the Mires,” said Susan.

They looked at each other.

One for all and all for one.

They hauled the body out of the tent, tidied the interior and tied back the entrance, so it would look as though Johnson had walked out.

“Lucky there’s no blood,” said Susan.

They lifted the body as best they could, and carried it to the edge of the path.

“We’ll swing it like we were giving him the bumps,” declared Susan.

The body splashed into the water about five feet from the path and started to sink immediately. The girls watched. Was the corpse going to disappear entirely? It was submerged to the waist, then to the chest, then to the neck.

And then the eyes flickered open. A look of terror flashed across Johnson’s face, and the girls recoiled. A whispered “Help me” came from his mouth. Susan seized a stone and threw it at the distorted face. There was silence once again, and then bubbles as the head went under.

“Good riddance,” said Susan.

 

 

 

In the Keukenhof Gardens

This story is a fictionalised account of an actual experience I had in the Keukenhof Gardens. These gardens are in Holland, close to Amsterdam. They are absolutely magnificent, and are open to the public for eight weeks every year, a ‘must see’ if you’re visiting Amsterdam.  You can read and see more about the gardens here: https://keukenhof.nl/en/discover-the-park/open-2018/

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In the Keukenhof Gardens

Orange, scarlet and golden blooms sing softly beside the dark lake. Silver light reflects peacefully from ripples in the lake’s waters. The scent of thousands of flowers glows in the air.

I walk, slowly, along curved paths. Gravel scrapes under my feet. April sunshine lies warm and weightless across my shoulders. A gentle breeze strokes me, like feathers, like silk, like the tender fingertips of a lover.

Faint and distant music hangs like wood-smoke in the air, tickling, teasing, and I follow. The tuneless tune allures, rousing me, and I follow. The tone becomes harsher. There are others on the path. Still I follow.

The path broadens, the music loud now, raucous dance-music on a mechanical organ rasping out the joys and sorrows of the world. People talk, laugh, shout, and the dance sweeps up their voices into harmonious dissonance. It booms in my head like brass and tinkles like crystalline snowflakes.

All the emotion in all the world shrills through those organ pipes, crashes with those cymbals, the drum beats driving the dance before me and after me. I sing beside the deep waters; I dance beside the orange and scarlet blooms. Silver tears ripple silently down my cheeks as I see my part in the dance – and rejoice that it holds so much of the gold of love.

Short Story – First Meeting

Not flash fiction this time, but a short story. It’s about 600 words long, so it won’t take long to read! I welcome constructive criticism, so if you have suggestions as to how I could improve it I would be very grateful if you would comment.

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First Meeting

The cobbles were wet and slippery.

Susan skirted the edge of the market and paused at the butcher’s stall. She wondered whether she could afford their bargain offer of two rump steaks for £8. She shook her head. No. Too much Christmas shopping still to do and not enough money.

She was completely unprepared for the sudden shove and went flying, arms flailing, scattering packages all around.

“Oh, gosh! I’m terribly sorry. Are you alright?”

He was tall, about thirty, slim and dark-haired.

Susan sat on the cobbles and rubbed her right arm, wincing.

“Can you move it? I mean, is it broken?”

Susan flexed it gingerly, and grimaced.

“Just bruised, I think.” She glared at him and started to pick up her packages, ramming them into her bags. She stood up and tried, unsuccessfully, to carry all the bags with her left hand.

“Do you live close?”

“About a mile.”

He hailed a taxi, talked briefly to the driver, handed over cash.

“Give the driver the address. Once again, I’m really sorry.”

All she wanted now was a cup of tea.

It wasn’t until she was at home waiting for the kettle to boil that she realised her pendant was missing.

Sunday came. Jonathan wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but he woke early, the weather was fine, and it was, after all, nearly Christmas.

The sun brightened the east window and cast patches of light on the stonework above the choir stalls. Jonathan thought of how the light had gleamed from the corn-gold hair of the woman he had so unfortunately barged into on Friday. She had worn it in braids wrapped around her head. The colour was that of a schoolgirl; the style that of an elegant woman; but she was neither.

And he had her pendant, which was a lovely piece. How could he return it? He’d found the taxi that had taken her home, but the driver ‘couldn’t remember’ the address. Jonathan had the unpleasant feeling that the man had thought he was a stalker.

He’d probably never see her again.

He sighed, stood up – and there she was, right arm in a sling, hair covered by a headscarf. Her eyes opened wide. Jonathan suddenly realised how very much he wanted to know her better.

“Oh. You.” she said.

Jonathan looked at the sling.

“I’m so sorry. Was it broken after all?”

“Yes.” She looked hostile.

Jonathan fished in his pocket.

“I found this under the market stall. Is it yours?”

She reached out and grasped it. She pressed it to her cheek.

“I suppose I should say thank you,” she rasped.

“My pleasure,” murmured Jonathan.

He hesitated – and walked away.

Even though it was Sunday, the Christmas market was open. As he left the church, Jonathan could hear the mechanical organ of the carousel. He mooched, hands in pockets, towards it.

What on earth had possessed him last Friday? The raucous music had stirred him, lured him onto the ride, set his feet dancing as he dismounted – and sent him spinning into a young woman with golden hair and grey-blue eyes, knocking her headlong.

And now he knew that the accident had broken her arm. It was hardly surprising that she didn’t want to see him again.

He watched as the brightly painted horses, with their gilded manes, raced in endless, futile pursuit. There was no exhilaration left in the day. The sun had disappeared and a fine drizzle was slowly soaking him.

He felt a tap on his shoulder.

She stood, looking apologetic.

“I’m sorry I snubbed you in the church. You took me by surprise – not that that’s an excuse! I’m Susan, by the way.”

“I’m Jonathan”. He smiled. “Shall we have coffee together?”

Susan smiled back. “I’d like that. Thank you!”

 

 

 

The Greater Good – long version

The Greater Good – long version

Sometimes I find that a flash fiction prompt leads me to a story that needs to be expanded. This is one of those occasions. Including the notes, this story weighs in at about 1000 words.

Notes

In 1968, the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was steadily liberalising. The leaders of the Soviet Union saw this as a serious threat and on 21 August 1968 200,000 troops, mostly Russian, invaded Czechoslovakia.

There was considerable non-violent resistance. On 16 January 1969 Jan Palach went to Wenceslas Square and burned himself alive in protest at the Soviet occupation. On 25 February 1969 Jan Zajic did likewise. It is believed that there were others whose deaths were concealed by the Soviet authorities.

It is likely that Jan Palach’s sacrifice was a catalyst contributing to the eventual fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

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Photo is of the Jan Palach memorial in Wenceslas Square, Prague, courtesy of Pixabay

The Greater Good – long version

April 1969, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

The audience arrived in ones and twos at the Restaurace u Tomáše, as though they were merely passing a casual Friday evening. They bought coffee or beer and slipped discreetly into the back room, a room whose wooden panels were stained with nicotine.

You never knew who was watching, who was taking notes.

Andrej knew everyone in the smoke-filled room and shook hands with each as he led his lover Irena to the last vacant seat.

The speaker for the evening mounted an improvised rostrum. He spoke of Russian aggression, the dismissal of academics and the imprisonment of those who protested. He spoke of torture. His audience started to murmur. Then the speaker pulled out a pistol. He held it high.

“This is what the Russians will listen to! When we, the Czech people, take up arms, we will never be defeated! The free peoples of the world will march to stand with us.”

There was a growl of approval. The speaker placed his forefinger on his lips. “Ssshh! Who knows who is listening?” He allowed indignation to flood his face. “Should we Czechs have to creep and hide in terror for being patriots? I say – NEVER! Who is with me?”

Irena held tightly on to Andrej’s hand as a dozen young men scrambled forward to pledge themselves to the armed struggle.

“No, Andrej, no! He’s wrong! Fighting them won’t work.” She grasped him roughly by his jacket, and stared earnestly into his face. “Jan Palach knew killing Russians was no good. That’s why he burned himself in Wenceslas Square. I beg you, don’t dishonour the beacon of hope he gave us.”

“Irena, dearest. I must join the struggle.”

“Andrej! No! You mustn’t kill!”

“How can I do otherwise? I‘m not a coward.”

They stared at each other. Andrej made a move to shake off Irena’s grasp, but she held firm.

“If you take up arms, I shall follow Jan Palach.”

Andrej froze.

“No!” His horror rapidly changed to anger. “That’s emotional blackmail!”

“I am not a coward either, Andrej.”

Slowly she unwound her fingers from his jacket. He stood still, looking intently at her. For fully thirty heartbeats they were motionless, then Andrej turned and walked to the rostrum.

Irena crossed herself. “Mary, Mother of God, guide me,” she murmured.

A match flared as the man in front of her lit a cigarette, and Irena’s face went ashen.

*       *       *

The next week was busy for both of them. They both had preparations to make.

They saw each other, of course; they were, after all, lovers. They fought over the choices they’d made at the meeting. Bitter words were spoken. Eventually they talked no longer of what was to come, only of their shared past, hugging the twilight of memory since the dawn of the future was denied them.

Irena spent many hours with her mother.

“You seem sad, kočička.”

“I’m alright, mami.” Irena tried to smile, but only succeeded in looking sadder. Her mother raised an eyebrow. Irena sighed.

“I missed a period; well, two actually.”

Irena’s mother laid a sympathetic hand on her daughter’s shoulder. She’d heard Irena retching in the morning for several days now.

“Things have been difficult with Andrej, haven’t they?”

Irena nodded, and a tear trickled down her left cheek.

“I’m so afraid for him, mami.”

Her mother was silent for a few seconds; she had guessed something of Andrej’s purpose. Then she said, “Sometimes men have to fight, Irena. Your dad fought the Germans before you were born. And I’m glad he did; he was a hero.”

“But this is different, mami.”

Irena’s mother resumed her work in the kitchen.

“We’ll take you to the doctor this afternoon and make sure everything’s going well. In the meantime, you could peel some potatoes rather than moping.”

*       *       *

The doorbell rang while Andrej was squashing the last of his kit into a rucksack. He wanted everything as ready as possible for his departure next day.

“Andrej! Irena’s here!” His mother’s voice held a sharp note of concern. Andrej ran down the stairs.

Irena stood pasty-faced and swaying in the dimly lit hall. Andrej moved to embrace her but she edged away.

A great fear swept through Andrej.

“No! You mustn’t do it!”

Irena shook her head.

“No, it’s not that. I’ve just come from the doctor.”

She swallowed hard.

“I’m carrying your child.”

Andrej reeled.

“What?”

“I’m pregnant. The baby’s yours.”

Andrej crossed himself. He sat down abruptly on the stairs.

“I’m sorry, Andrej. Now I know about the baby, I can’t – do what I said I would. Can you forgive me for being weak?”

“Forgive you? There’s nothing to forgive. Of course you must put our child first.”

“Andrej? If you think it’s right, you must fight.”

“Do you think I should put the baby first?”

“I know you’re not a coward, Andrej.” She slipped her hand into his.

“Oh, God, I love you so much, Irena. I hated the idea of leaving you. I won’t leave my child without a father.”

“We’ll still protest, Andrej?”

“Yes, but without violence.”

They kissed gently. The first smile for days blossomed on Irena’s face.

“Shall we go and tell my mother?” asked Andrej, beaming.

Behind closed doors

This story is about 1600 words long, and will take about ten minutes to read.

Behind closed doors

Making a break for it 180220

Milly enjoyed housework, even ironing. She especially liked cooking. It was how she nurtured her husband and her daughter. The thought that she was providing what they needed was almost as good as the cuddles that she longed for so much. Still, she was luckier than some of the women she used to know, who were divorced, or never married. No man to take care of them. She looked at her rings: the engagement ring with its large sapphire set between two diamonds – “Each diamond is a whole carat,” Gideon had boasted, “You’re a lucky woman” – and the thick band of twenty-two carat gold that was her wedding ring.

She polished the dining table first, so that Gideon wouldn’t notice the smell of lavender and beeswax at dinner; he was fussy about that. She gazed at the mirror finish with satisfaction. Even Gideon would struggle to find fault, she thought.

Before going into the lounge to dust it, she trotted upstairs, and rummaged in the chest where she kept spare pillows. There, at the bottom, was a photograph of Abigail in last year’s school play. Milly’s breath came fast, and her face flushed as she took the photo into the living room.

She hesitated a moment at the door, looking at the picture currently in pride of place at the centre of the mantelpiece. It was a professional portrait of Gideon standing very tall between Abigail and Milly. She slid it to one side, and set the battered frame holding Abigail’s picture in its place. It would have to be hidden away again before Gideon returned, of course.

Over her bread and cheese lunch, she pulled out a much-folded letter from the school, an invitation for Abigail to visit Italy in the summer. They planned to rehearse a play for performance in Milan. Milly looked again at how much it would cost.

“£750,” she murmured.

She had no idea how much Gideon earned, but she thought they could probably afford to send Abi. So why had Gideon been so much against the trip?

Milly had quaked when she had rung the school and made an appointment for a meeting with the Head of Drama. She had known Gideon wouldn’t be happy.

He hadn’t been.

“You stupid woman. Of course she can’t go. She’s far too young. That teacher probably wants to take advantage of her when she’s vulnerable, and we won’t be able to do anything to stop him.”

Greatly daring, she had ventured, “Is that really likely, dear?”

Gideon’s eyes had narrowed.

“I hope you’re not questioning my judgement, Milly. You know where that leads.”

He frowned.

“We’ll have to go, of course, now you’ve made the appointment. It would be discourteous if we didn’t. But you must tell him that we’re concerned that she’s too young, and we’ve decided that she would be better not going.”

“The Head of Drama’s a lady teacher, dear.”

Gideon raised his hand. Milly flinched.

“Just do as you’re told. And try not to get tongue-tied. I know you’re not the sharpest knife in the box, but there’s no need to show us both up.”

As Milly turned the school’s letter over and over, she thought carefully about what she would say. Gideon was right; she did stumble over her words; she got all worried and flustered, and somehow what she wanted to say just wouldn’t come out. She blushed as she remembered one occasion when all she’d been able to manage was “Er…er…er.” How scathing Gideon had been! This time, she had to be clear – for Abi’s sake if not for her own.

She was thinking about Abi and the meeting all afternoon, as she washed clothes, scrubbed floors and prepared dinner. She didn’t forget to remove Abi’s photo and hide it, but before returning it to its place in the chest she kissed it and hugged it to her bosom.

“Whatever’s best for you, my darling,” she whispered, “no matter what.”

The Head of Drama was tall. Her hair was dark and cut long, with a fringe. Mid-thirties, she looked somehow anachronistic, a hippy from the sixties perhaps.

“Good evening, Mr and Mrs Sharpe. I’m Cathy Thomson, the Head of Drama. I’m glad you were able to come in to talk about Abigail. She’s so very talented! I hope she’ll be able to come on the trip – it would be so good for her.” She looked from Gideon to Milly and back again.

Milly cleared her throat. “We, that is, I, um.” She slithered to a halt, clenched her fists, and tried again.

“Could you tell us a little more about the trip, please?”

Gideon looked at Milly with hard eyes.

Cathy was only too happy to share details of the trip; it was her initiative, and she felt that Abi would benefit enormously.

“What are you…are you doing…to make sure the children are safe?”

Gideon gave a tiny nod of approval. A few more minutes, and he could draw matters to a close. The teacher would know that Abi’s absence from the course was down to her parents’ natural concern for her welfare.

Cathy carefully explained the safeguarding procedures.

“Well, that sounds fine,” said Milly. Somehow the words came out clear and positive. “I think Abigail should go, don’t you dear?”

Gideon jerked in his seat, and glowered at Milly.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he began.

“It’s not as if we can’t afford it, after all. And the safeguarding sounds fine to me.”

“You’ve no idea what you’re talking about!”

Gideon turned to Cathy.

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid Milly has let herself be carried away. We won’t be allowing Abigail on the trip. That’s settled. I’m sorry.”

Cathy stared at him, and then turned to Milly.

“Is everything alright, Mrs Sharpe?”

“Yes, yes. F…fine.” Her lower lip trembled, but she held her head high.

There was silence in the car on the way home.

Later that night, when Abigail was sound asleep, Gideon thrashed Milly. Tight-lipped with fury he struck her over and over again. Desperately she fought to stay silent. This time she was in the right; Abi should go on the trip. She wasn’t going to cry out, or beg. She bit the pillow. Her fingers clawed at the bed covers.

“Don’t you ever disobey me like that again!” snarled Gideon, eventually. He slammed the door of the spare bedroom behind him.

Eventually, stifling a groan, Milly pushed herself up from the bed. She turned on the light on the bedside table, and looked at herself. Her clothes were bloody; they’d have to be soaked straight away or they’d stain. She stripped, took them into the en-suite bathroom and dumped them in cold water. She sponged herself with warm water. It stung.

Reaction had set in. She was shaking. She swallowed two paracetamol tablets and huddled under the duvet.

She woke early next morning, and crept down to the kitchen in her dressing gown. She made a cup of tea and took it up to Gideon.

“Don’t let Abigail see you like that,” was all he said. Her wounds stung as though with acid as he watched her dress.

She cooked him breakfast, and sat with him while he ate it, and then, by seven o’clock, he had left the house.

Milly sat at the kitchen table. She felt exhausted. The door creaked.

“Mum, can I have a cup of tea, please?”

Milly stood up. Her legs buckled, and she sat down with a bump.

“Are you alright, Mum?”

As Milly slumped back in the chair, Abigail ran over to her.

“Mum!”

Milly opened her eyes with difficulty. “I’m alright, love. Just a bit under the weather.”

“I’ll make us both that cup of tea shall I, Mum?”

Abigail put a mug of tea in front of Milly. It was the mug with a picture of a giraffe on it; her favourite. She smiled, and took a sip. A few more sips and she was starting to feel stronger.

Suddenly, Abigail said, “There’s dark red marks on your blouse, Mum. What are they?” Then she leaned forward and pulled up Milly’s sleeve. There was a gash and a long purple-black bruise right up her forearm. Abigail looked up at her mother, concern and horror mixed on her face.

Milly looked back, half defiant, half relieved.

“Your dad didn’t like what I said at the school last night.”

“What?”

“Your dad hit me last night.”

“No. He can’t have! I mean, he’s Dad, he doesn’t hit people.”

Milly pointed to the bruise on her arm.

“He did that, and more on my back.”

Abigail gazed in silence at Milly. Great tears welled up.

“That’s awful!”

Milly held her close and let her weep for several minutes. Then Abigail pulled away.

“What are we going to do, Mum?”

“What can we do, dearest? This is just how things are. It’s not like this most of the time.”

“Well, I don’t think we should stay here. He shouldn’t hurt you like that.”

They stared at each. Slowly resolution crystallised between them.

“I want you to go to the same school.”

“Mum, I don’t need to if we have to go far away so he…” Abigail stumbled over the words, but pressed on, “so he can’t find us.”

“We could go and stay with my brother for a few days.”

Abigail nodded.

“Good idea. And we’ll go to the police.”

“The police?”

“Yes. Look what he’s done to you. That must be against the law.”

“Well, I suppose so, but he’s your dad, Abigail.”

“He shouldn’t have hurt you like that. It’s alright, Mum, I’ll come with you and give you moral support.”

Milly looked at her left hand. She pulled off her rings and looked at Abigail. Abigail looked back. Tentatively, tremulously, they smiled at each other, the first smiles of their new life of freedom.

“I shall sell the engagement ring,” declared Milly.