Great Rules of Writing

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.

~William Safire, “Great Rules of Writing”

Getting Over Summer

bertie

bertie (Photo credit: miner)

Yet another unfinished novel! About half done as usual, but …still, one day! I’d be grateful for any constructive critique though…? 

 

Getting Over Summer.

‘…I used to have a life. And a lover. I am on my own now. Still.
If, when I was born, a good fairy had shown me a chart of the life I would live, then given me the choice of whether I wanted to follow it or not, what would I have done? Maybe, if no other choice were available, even seeing the horrors spread out in front of me, I would still have chosen to live me. I don’t think my good fairy would have offered me alternatives, the life of someone else born at the same moment as me, whose own fairy gifted more favourable life plans. No, I think it would have been my life or a return to the nothingness I came from. At this moment, that seems preferable.’

She snapped her journal shut and decided that recording her innermost thoughts didn’t make her feel better, as the advice columns in the magazines at the hairdressers suggested, it actually made her feel a whole lot worse. She put it on the kitchen table next to the letter, the letter which had lain undisturbed since she had opened it four days ago. Katie gave it uneasy glances as she crept past to weigh the natural bran she mixed with cottage cheese for her packed lunch. Finally, aware that ignoring it would not make it somehow disappear, she resolved to take it to work with her and ask Leo what he thought.
She smiled as she thought of her boss and how he had frightened her witless when she started working for him almost twenty years ago. Now she practically ran Parkins Pet Supplies for him. He had long since lost interest in the company, and on the rare occasions he was in the office more than two days running, he sat quietly in his room doodling and dreaming of the pictures he longed to paint. Kate had worried about him since she’d realised, with surprise that he could only be ten years older than her at the most. She’d tried persuading him to go out and enjoy himself. In a ‘tweed jacket’ way, he was very attractive and she knew at least three divorcees who would love to give him a run for his money.
She’d once introduced him to her best friend Rhia and still regretted it. He’d been taken aback by her vivacity and business suits. She hadn’t seen Leo as a person, only as someone who must have lots of county friends who’d come clamouring to book her company’s expertise, once she had demonstrated just how ‘haute’ her ‘cuisine’ was. Rhia had suggested a dinner date, he’d stammered but accepted, and she said she would ring when she had a ‘window’. Leo waited in vain for her call. It put Katie in an awful position.
She noticed she was running late and hastily put a dish of water outside the back door for Bertie, her elderly cross bred dogwho was nowhere to be seen as usual. It was a secret source of embarrassment to Katie that almost every litter of unwanted puppies born in the village bore an uncanny resemblance to Bertie. She comforted herself with the thought that when a puppy actually appeared on her doorstep requesting a DNA test, she would whip Bertie to the vets so quickly his paws wouldn’t touch the ground. Until then it seemed heartless to tinker with his tackle and besides, at his age, it was probably only a last-ditch attempt to impress the pampered dogs that arrived in German cars to weekend at their owners’ country retreats.
She rammed the letter into her bag and, after locking her door, headed towards her ancient Citroen, praying that today she wouldn’t have to suffer a display of its Gallic contrariness. It didn’t surprise her that the car refused to start and, after kicking the driver’s door shut, she grabbed her bicycle.
“Cochon!” she snarled at the car as she passed it. She was sure the rusting CV5, gangly on its narrow tyres, sneered as she pedalled furiously up the lane.
At least the weather was on her side. A dew-kissed spring morning glistened around her and the sun, full and golden as a corn fed-egg, promised a beautiful day. It was difficult to stay in a bad mood and she laughed softly as she surprised a trio of baby rabbits on the verge of the quiet lane. Too young to be frightened, they merely sat and looked at her looking at them as she cycled past, her floral, bought-at-Oxfam, Laura Ashley billowing behind her as she approached the main road.
She heard a sharp ‘beep, beep’, the horn of a work-worn Bedford van coming over the crest of the hill and realised she was in luck.
‘Lift, ma’am?’ the driver asked, as he pulled alongside her.
‘Oh, Kev, I’m glad to see you! The car wouldn’t start and, typically, today is the only day this week I have to be at work on time. I’ve got a nine fifteen appointment,’ Katie explained as she helped him load her bike into the back of his van. ‘The poor man is travelling miles to demonstrate a rabbit sexing device, so I can’t be late.’ She pushed empty cement sacks and several stained and dusty tools to the floor, making enough room to sit comfortably.
‘Your old banger lets you down so often, I’m thinking of investing in a chauffeur’s uniform.’
‘That would be great. A peaked cap for a ‘nearly-white’ van man!’ Kate laughed at the idea and, ignoring the clattering of her bike and building equipment rolling around in the back of the van, settled back to enjoy the ride.
She had known Kevin all her life. He had moved out of the village but his parents still lived next door to her. His business didn’t leave him a lot of spare time, but when he was able to visit his mum and dad, he usually popped round and he and Katie would sit outside in her sheltered garden and sip white wine and talk quietly, until late in the evening.
She loved Kev’s mum and dad. They had become family to her since her own parents died, and she often wondered why she didn’t fancy Kevin. Well, not since she’d grown up anyway. Apart from their names sounding ridiculous together (a fact she’d discovered after spending most of her third year at school scribbling them on her exercise books, entwined in an arrow-pierced heart) she supposed that it was because they just knew each other too well

Chapter 2

Rhia lay in bed smoking her first cigarette of the day and thought again about the expensive wrap dress she had been admiring for a fortnight. She’d actually got as far as trying it on, and admired the way it clung to her body. She loved the daring neckline, the way the cross over bodice accentuated her curves, the tantalising glimpse of thigh as she slowly walked around the mirror-lined cubicle. And then the sales assistant had ruined it.
‘Does that feel alright?’ she enquired, ‘Would you like to try the next size up?’
Rhia had suddenly seen herself through the assistant’s eyes and noticed, for the first time, the bulges above her waist where the wrap dress fastened. There were rolls of fat on her back above and below her bra strap and, dear God, she appeared to be trying to force four unruly bosoms into a bra designed to take only two. She’d fled the shop, ignoring the perplexed gaze of the assistant who was bearing down on her, almost hidden behind an armful of dresses, some of which looked big enough to accommodate Billy Smart’s Circus, as well as a pair of performing poodles.
A stray drop of last night’s rain squelched through the Venetian blind behind her and splattered onto her cigarette, almost extinguishing it. She stretched to douse it in the upturned lid of a porcelain trinket box.
She rose and walked slowly into her bathroom, thinking about her date last night with Ewan. She turned on the tap and slowly dripped bath oil into the hot running water. As the perfumed steam misted around her, she realised she’d used the same oil last night in preparation for her evening out. With little effect. She tossed the nearly full bottle of oil into the waste bin under the sink.
She’d been optimistic about Ewan, even though he’d made her uneasy on their first date. He’d taken her to a Burns Night celebration and spent most of the evening waving around his skeean do, as if he were the only man present who had one. It unnerved her that it nestled casually in the top of his knee-high sock and that it didn’t even require a sheath. She wished she hadn’t ignored her instincts in February; she could have saved herself the months of misgivings which culminated in his telling her last night that she wasn’t his type! What was wrong with her? Would she ever be anybody’s type?
She lay back in the tub and admitted to herself that there had been a long list of ‘Ewans’ over the past few years. Something had to change!
As she got out of the bath, she determined to think no more about the past and to concentrate on the future. She would ring Katie and see if she had any ideas. Towelling herself vigorously, she tried hard not to look in the full-length mirror.
‘Oh hell!’ she muttered, as it cleared in random patches and allowed her fleeting glimpses of a dimpled rear she would rather not see. In fact, all she could see was a future of speed dating and slimming clubs.

Rhia opened her wardrobe door and surveyed her sharply cut suits, and behind them, the rail of floating gossamer dresses she never wore. She put on a black trouser suit and a low-cut cream top, and glumly checked her appearance. She knew she should buy pantalets to shape her hips, bum and tum. With a sigh she gathered bag, phone and keys, locked the door behind her as she left for the office.
As she passed the reception desk at the entrance to her apartment building, the janitor handed her an envelope.
‘It arrived early this morning; I was just about to bring it up to you.’
‘Thank you, Andy. Isn’t it a lovely day?’ she smiled over her shoulder as she waited for the lift to take her to the basement where her car was parked. Idly, she looked at the letter. Her mail usually went to the office and so, intrigued, she opened it.

Dear Rhiannon,
How are you? I know you’ll be surprised to hear from me, but I’m writing to you in the hope that you will be interested in attending a school re-union I have been asked to organise. Won’t it be exciting to meet up again after all this time?
I got your address from Alice Brent; apparently her brother installed your spa bath. You’d also done a ‘thing’ for his in-laws, their Ruby Wedding, or something. Who’d have thought you would end up a professional cook, although you always did like food as I recall. No offence!
I’ve enclosed a full list of people I’ve yet to track down and as you will see, Katherine Jackson is on it. Are you still in touch with her and if so, will you pass on the details? Thank you so much.
Look forward to seeing you,

Isobel Harvey-Brown (nee Harrison)

A hundred well-scrubbed schoolgirl faces flashed through Rhia’s head, until she placed Isobel. Of course! Isobel, who always insisted on being known as Isobel, never Izzy, or Belle, and who always insisted on calling everyone else by their full name, however much they detested it.
‘How many years is it since someone called me Rhiannon?’ mused Rhia, already dialling Katie’s number on her mobile.
Katie barely had time to say, ‘Parkins Pet…’ before Rhia interrupted her.
‘You’ll never guess what. I’ve had a letter!’
‘You’ve had a letter?’ murmured Kate.
‘From Isobel Harrison. Well, she’s double-barrelled now but I didn’t expect anything less. It’s a school reunion Kate! Katie?’
‘I’m sorry, Rhia, I’ve got to go. I’ll speak to you later.’
Katie hung up abruptly, leaving her puzzled friend staring at her mobile phone.

Although Rhia had anticipated a long girlie chat with Katie about Isobel Harvey-Brown’s letter, she didn’t have much time to ponder on it as her working day unfolded.
Her senior waitress, Emma, had called in to help get ready for the evening’s booking and had slipped while carrying a stack of china platters to the van, injuring her wrist.
‘But it’s so sore!’ she blubbered, as Rhia impatiently bound it in a crepe bandage.
‘If you had been concentrating on what you were doing, instead of straining to see who was ringing your mobile, it would never have happened,’ she’d snapped. Now, driving Emma to hospital, Rhia admitted it did indeed look nasty. It had swollen up to twice its size and the bruising made it look as if Emma was wearing a camouflaged glove. Perhaps an X-ray was a good idea, though she hadn’t a clue how she was going to catch up on everything she had to do today. Better not to think about the dinner party for twelve she was catering for tonight. Who could she pull in to cover for Emma at such short notice? Perhaps Henry, her chef, would know of someone.
Oh hell! She had promised Henry that she would be at their kitchens, on the industrial unit on the outskirts of town by ten at the latest, to approve his menus, and it was almost eleven o’clock. He would be furious. He’d threaten to walk out or sulk or, even worse, he would drink all afternoon. Moreover, he wouldn’t even try to find a stand-in for Emma. No, he would gloat at seeing Rhia following his orders whilst wearing the ill-fitting polyester uniform she insisted all her staff wore and sweating over steaming dinner plates, up to her armpits in dirty dish water and scraping slops into the bin! It didn’t bear thinking about, her expensively polished image ruined. Bloody chefs!
Rhia, doing at least ten miles above the speed limit, hit a speed bump.
‘Slow down, Rhia. It’s excruciating when you throw me around,’ Emma cried ‘I feel like a broken biscuit rattling around in a carrier bag.’
‘Stop whining, it’s probably not even broken. I’ve got so much to do today and this is not helping.’
‘Oh, please forgive me for being in agony,’ huffed Emma. Chastened, Rhia slowed down a little. Then, with fresh panic, another thought assailed her.
‘Did you remember to post that cheque to the insurance company last month?’
‘I hate you, Rhia! How can you think about employer’s liability at a time like this?’
‘I didn’t mean it like that!’ Rhia protested. But she did.

Chapter 3

Katie replaced the receiver after abruptly terminating Rhia’s call. She stared dubiously at the implement on her desk. The sales rep. had demonstrated it several times, albeit not on a rabbit, but despite printed instruction sheets, Katie was still unsure how to use it. She also had reservations about whether her customers would find it as invaluable as the sales rep. had argued. She pushed the sexing device to one side as she heard footsteps in the passageway.
‘What on earth has happened? You’re as white as a ghost, Katie.’ Leo stood in the doorway looking at her with concern.
‘Oh, it’s just Rhia.’ she said. She wanted to confide in him, not about Rhia’s stupid letter but about the one she’d been trying to come to terms with for over four days. But didn’t know how to. ‘She’s had a letter. Some school reunion or something.’
She looked up at him, blinking away unshed tears as she searched for something that would deflect his attention away from her.
‘What do you make of this?’ She held the sexing device toward him. He took it and examined it curiously.
‘Well, I’d say it was a very large pair of sugar tongs.’
She giggled. She knew Leo was still wondering what had upset her so much, but she also knew he would wait to see if she wanted to confide in him. ‘No, you’re not even warm. I’m going for lunch now and if you haven’t guessed by the time I get back, you’re making the tea this afternoon!’

She walked across the busy main road to the Memorial Gardens and sat in her usual spot, upon the flattened gravestone of Gladys Nuttall, to eat her packed lunch. The inscription on the stone -She died with a sigh but didn’t say goodbye- failed to lift Katie’s mood as it usually did and, to make matters worse, the four teaspoons of bran, mixed with cottage cheese that morning, had expanded like the polystyrene stuff from the DIY store she had once used to fill the cracks in her bedroom ceiling.
She put her lunch box to one side and idly watched people entering and leaving the pub on the other side of the street. Groups of youngish women, probably office staff from County Hall since the garden was on the wrong side of town for the factory women, mingled with groups of men as they went up the steps into the pub. Laughing, so carefree. A few latecomers shouted to attract the attention of four young girls sitting on a bench under the pub’s bay window, drinking cooling shandies or lagers and lime. Almost immediately, the girls leapt up to be hugged or kissed or teased affectionately before they made their way inside. Katie wondered at their easy friendship; the casual closeness and careless intimacy. She envied them, and wondered how they found it all so uncomplicated.
The tinkle of glasses, the distant hum of a lawn mower, happy laughter and the low murmur of conversation. The buzz of sun-sodden bees which fed from flowers near her head all conspired to make her feel unexpectedly sad. Silent tears slid down her face as she shook her head to clear it. She unfolded the crumpled letter from her bag.

Dear Katie,
I hope you don’t mind me contacting you in this way but my daughter has, for several years now, been expressing a strong desire to meet you, or at least establish contact in some way that’s acceptable to you both. If you feel able to speak to me, please ring me on the above number any time during the day, but please don’t leave any messages on the machine. If you don’t want to speak, I hope you will at least be able to answer this letter.
Yours,

Sarah Jane Lomax

She put the letter and envelope back into her bag and, as she rose, startled a thrush on the headstone next to her.
‘It didn’t even see me.’ Her smile faded as she looked down at her flowered dress.
‘No wonder’ she thought ruefully ‘I look like a well-kept grave!’
She thought maybe it was a sign from above that she should treat herself to some new clothes, but not from the charity shops she usually went to. She would go shopping properly; not in the designer boutiques Rhia frequented, but surely she could manage ‘Dorothy Perkins’?
Picking up her belongings, she hurried from the Memorial Gardens back to the office to bury herself under piles of outstanding paperwork in a vain attempt to switch off the problems swimming around in her head. She would remain at her desk until five o’clock then leave half an hour early. Finally at home, as a solitary evening stretched endlessly before her, she would wonder why she bothered.

Chapter 4

Henry had been a pig all day and despite having lavish praise heaped on his menu, Rhia hadn’t managed to placate him. She suspected she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She knew Henry was gloating at her dilemma and couldn’t wait for her to don her nasty, itchy polyester two-piece and dance to his tune. She was also aware that he would be leaving as soon as the final crème brulee hit the table. Never mind any offers of assistance, clearing up and transporting everything back to base, or even driving the waitresses home. She’d be on her own and even worse, she’d be shiny with sweat, her hair like an oil slick. She’d have water-reddened hands and her waterproof mascara was sure to smudge and run until she looked like she slept in it after a vodka-laden night on the town. She could already feel the static from her two-piece building up and sending little electric shocks to people she brushed against, and she hadn’t even got it on yet.
She unpacked the cool bags and hampers from the back of the van, praying that the wine had arrived and been dealt with, and that the florist had been. Struggling up the flight of steps to the elegant Victorian front door, she was almost floored by a tall blonde girl struggling down the same steps carrying several large plastic containers and an improbably large salon hairdryer.
‘God help you if you’re going in there. It’s a mad house!’ the girl muttered by way of greeting.
As Lizzie stared after her, the door opened.
‘You’re cutting it a bit fine, Ms. Peters,’ Mrs. Gordon’s voice sliced the air like a whip, ‘and I think your chef is drunk!’ she concluded icily.
Lizzie decided that the best way of dealing with this was to treat it as a joke.
‘Ha, ha,’ she giggled feebly ‘I’m not late at all Mrs. Gordon. Loads of time! You go in to the drawing room and relax before you dress, and I’ll pop along with a dry sherry for you as soon as I’ve got the stuff into the kitchen. .Perhaps a few canapés?’
Mrs. Gordon thawed and made for the drawing room, much to Rhia’s relief, as she rushed in to the kitchen laden with Tupperware containers,
‘Henry,’ she hissed ‘where the bloody hell are you?’
She found her chef snoring softly, slumped against a cold frame at the entrance to the kitchen garden. It seemed as though he had knelt to snip some fresh chives, or perhaps some basil, then collapsed where he was, suddenly overcome with heat or tiredness. Well, that’s how she would explain it to Mrs. Gordon who, at that moment, was not where Rhia had fondly imagined her, reclining on a sofa waiting to gorge on caviar-heaped blinis, but was instead anxiously twitching at the drawing room drapes.
‘A touch too much sun!’ Rhia shouted to her cheerfully, pulling Henry to his feet.
‘Get up, Henry! God, I hate you! How could you do this to me?’
‘Gerroffme. Wanna sleep. Leave me alone!’
‘You are not going to sleep; you are going straight to a cold tap where I swear I will drown you if you don’t pull yourself together. Come on!’
She pulled and pushed him towards the back door and into the utility area next to the kitchen, turned on the cold tap over the Belfast sink, and ruthlessly shoved his head under the icy jet of water. His shouts of protest were cut short as the cold water hit the back of his neck and head and shocked him into silence. When Rhia heard him begin to whimper, she turned off the tap and glowered at him as she handed him a towel.
‘In the kitchen and cooking in two minutes or you’re dead meat, Henry!’
As Rhia unpacked the starters, individual seared tuna and dilled melon filo parcels, ready to put in the oven, Henry sheepishly came up behind her to take the tray of filet mignon.
‘Can you do that without messing it up?’ she enquired testily.
Henry was shaking badly but seemed willing, if not able, to make amends. She tried very hard to concentrate on what she was doing and not to notice the stainless steel Sabbatiers flailing dangerously around the immediate vicinity. It reminded her of a Cossack, sabre dancing.
She was glad of the distraction when her waitresses arrived, pleased to see them until she noticed Sara’s appearance.
‘Dear God, how many times? Get that nail varnish off and tie your hair back. Don’t take all night either, the first course is going out in forty minutes and you’ve got the aperitifs and appetizers to serve yet. On second thoughts, let Hayley do that, I don’t want ‘eau de varnish remover’ tainting the canapés. As soon as you’re ready, go and help Charlotte with the dining room; and for heavens sake keep out of Mrs. Gordon’s way. Keep an eye on the time and be back in here ten minutes before the guests sit down. Now, move it!’
‘Henry? How are we doing on the fillet?’
‘Don’t panic; everything’s OK. Shouldn’t you be changing?’
Rhia snapped her head around but Henry was bending and putting trays in the oven, his face turned away from her. She was sure she could see his shoulders shaking, but felt only relief that he appeared to be considerably more sober and in control. Taking her waitress uniform, she headed for the utility room where she changed out of her ‘whites’.
She would never admit it to Henry, but she got a real buzz out of being in the kitchen. She knew that she was as good a chef as anyone she had ever employed, but she hated the drudgery of the prep. work and clearing up, even more. No, her role was definitely ‘front of house’, the polished, professional face of cordon bleu catering. She ran the office, got the clients, did the buying and banked the cheques. If not actually on hand during the dinner parties, she was always accessible -often no more than five minutes away at the nearest wine bar. All in all, she was very satisfied with her business and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Apart from not working at all, that is. She had a recurrent fantasy of moving from one five star hotel to another, her every whim pandered to by nubile young men with oil-polished torsos, who found her totally irresistible. She wondered why, even in her wildest flights of fantasy, she never quite managed to reach the stage where she was choosing a Stella McCartney wedding dress.
The polyester outfit was every bit as bad as she feared, and she scrutinised Henry to catch even the ghost of a grin on his face. The girls returned to the kitchen and assured her everything was perfect in the dining room, that all twelve guests had arrived and Mrs. Gordon was happy for dinner to be announced at eight thirty.
Rhia asked the girls to wash the few dishes used in the preparation of the first course and then left Henry in charge and slipped into the garden for a cigarette. She drew on it deeply, relishing the few moment’s cool peace and quiet before she had to return to work.
It was so long since she had been involved in the practical side of a dinner party that she was surprised how quickly the evening charged towards its climax. Mrs. Gordon wafted into the kitchen, relaxed by copious amounts of pink gin, and effusively praised Rhia and the girls. She edged cautiously around Henry to hand little envelopes containing a small gratuity to Hayley, Sara and Charlotte.
‘Absolutely tremendous! Cyril, that’s Cyril Harpendon, of Harpendon, Harpendon, Harpendon and Sons, was so impressed he’s asked for your number! He was upset he may have offended you, but you must admit your outfit doesn’t exactly suggest you’re the boss!” she trilled. “He was so apologetic when he realised his little mistake. Oh, he did laugh!’
Rhia fought the angry blush she felt creeping across her cheeks and bit her lip to stop herself giving the stinging reply she knew was totally justified, but which would probably lose her business. She’d felt murderous when Cyril Harpendon of Harpendon, Harpendon and bloody Harpendon had spoken to her as though she was a servant, and that was before he’d clutched her buttock and made a double-edged remark about ‘sparks’ between them and was it ‘desire or cheap polyester fabrics?’
‘My pleasure.’ she murmured, her face frozen in a polite smile. She was pleased when, as he made a move to leave for the evening, Henry frightened Mrs. Gordon away. Rhia was grateful to see that most of the clearing away had been done and that Henry had arranged a taxi to take the girls home. He must be feeling contrite.

The chatter of young sparrows nesting in the eaves above her bedroom window woke Katie. It was still very early but she anticipated enjoying her breakfast in the garden, with the sun dappling through the silver birch tree on to her table.
She kicked her legs out of bed, disturbing Bertie, and giggled as she followed him downstairs. After a disdainful sniff he stood, head slung low, staring at the back door.
‘Hang on a minute Bertie.’ she told him ‘Wait until I’ve locked the gate. You are staying at home today, not carousing around the neighbourhood. I’ve hardly seen you all week.’
As Katie emptied and refilled her kettle with filtered water from the fridge, she watched as Bertie, secured in the garden, gazed wistfully at the garden gate denying him entrance to carnal doggy heaven and then peed wearily against the birch tree. He flopped in a disgusted heap near the garden table where the sun was especially warm.
Smiling, she gathered her breakfast tray and joined Bertie in the sunshine. She loved the solitude of her garden. She only had neighbours on one side, Kev’s parents, but the high Victorian brick wall meant she was never disturbed unless she wanted to be.
It would be possible to sunbathe topless, as Rhia had pointed out when they were both about fifteen.
‘What if Kevin can see us?’ Kate asked fearfully
‘Now that would make it worthwhile!’ she had giggled.

Plaiting Fog

Plaiting Fog

We’re in Starbucks trying to heal our week with skinny Lattes and putting off going back to one-bed flats and microwaved meals in the suburbs. It’s Friday after work. Ros is talking. She’s a copy writer; she knows how to use words.
“…I knew him less than a year and took my child, two suitcases, and closed the door on my marriage. Can you believe that?”
I nod and drops of rain caught in my hair, splatter, and stain the table’s polished surface.
It only took Max three weeks…Twenty-one days to wipe out our marriage and throw his lot in with his secretary of three months.
I may not be the right person for Ros to confide in.
“Nearly thirty years I’ve known him,” she says, “but I haven’t seen him for twenty five.”
“Did you leave for him?” I say.
I’m not sure I want to hear her answer. Since Max walked out on me a year ago I find it difficult empathising with marriage wreckers.
“No; because of, but not for. I didn’t know when I left if he would come for me, but he did.”
“So no regrets; about leaving I mean?”
“None. And now I know I’ll see him again, I feel like a hibernating animal waking up.”
Did Max ever feel like that about me? Does he feel like that about the new Ms ‘500-words-a-minute’?
“So, why didn’t you marry him?”
“Lots of things… There wasn’t just me, remember, but a toddler as well. Jamie used to call us his ‘Blue Peter’ family; one that someone had made earlier…, but there were other things as well.”
I’m surprised she’s telling me all this. We don’t normally ‘share’; it’s usually just office gossip. A quick coffee once a week.

The untouched Lattes cool in front of us. She stares through the rain trickling down the café window; the blurred headlights of cars passing outside highlight her cheek bones and darken her eyes. Behind her face, just for a second, I glimpse the young woman he must have known.

I think she’s going to stop talking and I don’t want her to.
“Well, did he meet someone who didn’t have kids?” I prompt.
“No. It was me who finished it. Things happened that changed me…” her voice trails off.
I’ve never seen her look like this. Her face seems tight; folded in around itself as if it’s hiding. It’s disconcerting. Since Max left me, I rely on Ros to cheer me up.
“Changed you?”
“My ex turned up out of the blue, took my daughter out for the day and didn’t come back.”
“You mean…?”
“I mean he snatched her. Said I wasn’t a fit mother. Said I only cared for Jamie, put him before my daughter. Ironic really, it was the first time we’d seen him for years. I never realised how bitter he was about me leaving him.
“He said Jamie’s type would never take on another man’s child. And if I didn’t believe him, give Jamie an ultimatum…”
Who would know to look at her that she had a story like this to tell? She was older than me, but you had to look closely to tell. Well turned out. Under her Chloe trench, she was wearing a silk man-cut shirt and her skirt was fabulous; tight, but conservative-until you saw the thigh-high slit; office, but sexy.
“And your little girl? Did you get her back?”
“Yes, a few days later, but something had shifted inside me. I was terrified my ex would do it again, so I wrote to Jamie and finished with him.”
I think of me and Max. And of pride, loss, need, love, fear…
“Why didn’t you tell Jamie? Give him the ultimatum?” I ask.
“If he wanted us, he’d look for us, but I’d moved house, you see. A fresh start,” she says. “Really, I didn’t give him a chance.”
I know exactly what she means.
“And you haven’t seen him since?”
“Not for want of trying,” she answers.
She’s like a swan; it’s all going on beneath the surface.
“Did you marry again?”
“Years later…It didn’t last.”

She stares beyond me. I can see the little pain lines etching her face. I look away and busy myself stirring my cold Latte, as though I’m about to drink it.

I didn’t know that she’d been married twice? She likes a challenge!
Ros starts talking again, almost as if she doesn’t want to.
“I made sure that no one would ever again be able to accuse me of putting anybody before my child. I got remarried for security, though I was fond of my husband. I thought that would be enough, but…
“So I concentrated on my career. Maybe too much; I burnt out, got sick. Years of living a lie, I suppose. I had a breakdown. Quite severe. Hospitalised. Stupid really…”
I don’t know what to say. It’s quiet in here today. The kids behind the counter are ignoring us, which means they’re probably hanging onto our every word. I wait for Ros to speak.
“I felt an overwhelming sense of loss… failure…” she continues. “Anyway, I packed the two suitcases and left…Again,” she says and grimaces. “I decided I wasn’t cut out for relationships.”
“And did you stay single?” I ask.
“Didn’t seem much point in setting myself up to fail again,” she says. “I stayed single”

I think about this as I go to the counter for two more coffees – there is no way either of us is going home just yet. I pick up two Danish for good measure.

“So, how did you find him?” I ask as I sit down.
“Friends Reunited. Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
I wonder whether to tell Ros about Max, but…I decide to let her tell her story.
“Are you trying to tell me that you still love Jamie?”
“I never stopped.”

She picks icing covered currants from her pastry and lines them up along the edge of her plate.

“What makes you think he feels the same about you, Ros?”
She doesn’t answer. She merely wipes her fingers.

“Did he look for you?” I eventually ask her.
“He looked; even after he married.”
Whoa! All my ‘wronged-party’ views are returning. Married? You don’t mess with married men.
“Then how can you…?”
The loudness of my voice makes Ros jump.
My friend the stranger.
“And you still want him? Even though..?” I can’t help asking.
I wonder just how much pain she’s willing to cause.
“Even though,” she answers.
Women don’t hurt each other. Men do that for us.

She rubs pieces of the sticky serviette between her fingers until little balls form. I watch her flicking them on to the floor.

“I don’t know how not to want him,” she continues. “I’ve loved him over half my life. I don’t care if he’s married, I deserve him …” Her voice trails away.
“And her… What about his wife?” I ask. “How long has she loved him? What does she deserve?”
“Don’t,” she says staring me straight in the eye, “don’t judge me.”
I look away.

“You told me once, years ago, that you met Max at work.”
It’s my turn to be quiet.
“And when you thought Max was being unfaithful you threw him out. You maybe fought with him, but did you fight for him? Or did you treat it as though it was inevitable, a pattern repeating itself?”
She looks directly at me.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that you were that secretary, the first time around, you know…”
And it’s true. I perch very precariously on the moral high ground.
“Do you know what it’s like to wake alone on your 50th birthday and the only card you get wishes you a happy birthday and invites you for a mammogram?” she finishes.
Something else I didn’t know about her.
I wonder if my eyes fill up for her or me. I wish I could promise her a happy-ever-after with this man she’s loved for so long.
“Don’t do what I did. Don’t run away,” she says. “Life’s for now, not forever.”
You know when you’ve heard the same phrase or saying, or a variation of it, so many times that you stop listening to it? Well, Ros’ words hit me like an assassin’s bullet.
She’s right when she says ‘suspect’ about Max’s affair; I was judge and jury to an offence that may never have taken place. I have ruined the best thing that ever happened to me; and for what? What was I doing? I used to worry that he would leave me, go back to his wife…, but then I told him to go?

We sit watching the pastries hardening on a plate in front of us.

“So, will you meet him?” I ask.
“Truthfully? I think yes…And then I get scared…”
“You mean you won’t?” I interrupt
“But then I think about the next twenty five years without him…” she continues. “When I first came in to meet you, I would have crawled over broken glass to be with him, but now…You think I’m wrong to see him again, don’t you?”
What can I say? That I understand? That sorting my own life out, let alone anyone else’s, is like plaiting fog? That I’m in the same boat; so scared of being hurt, that I’m hurting myself? That she’s made me realise I’ve been busy pulling drawbridges up behind myself just like she has…
What if she and Jamie get together and then he leaves her and goes back to his wife?
I suppose, it’s a risk she’ll have to take. Like me.
Ros is right; life is for now, not forever.
I reach out and take her hand in mine.
“Don’t let anything I’ve said put you off, Ros. Don’t let his anything stand in the way. Let’s face it; if he was happy he wouldn’t be looking, would he?”
I can hardly believe the words that are pushing and shoving to get out of my mouth. Soon I’ll have to admit I didn’t make Max happy. Speak of my raw ache to have children, my resentment of his.
Max was only putting his kids first, giving them breathing space to get used to us. It wasn’t because he didn’t want me to have his children; I only had to wait a while.
I look up and see Ros intently watching me, but she doesn’t ask what I’m thinking about.
And I could have waited; I had a few years left on my biological clock. Instead, I sulked him through the door and he had a sleepover with his secretary.
He may have bedded her, he may have spent all night talking to her; I don’t know. I never let him explain. When he came home the next day I was out and his things were in the hall. I’m nothing if not efficient, he used to say, his dream secretary. I’d left a note giving my solicitors name… I’ve not seen him since.

She stands and takes a ten pound note out of her purse and puts it on the table.
“Same time next week?” she says. The door closes behind her

The staff are keen to finish their day. A girl with full lips, the colour of Ashes of Roses, is checking her eye makeup in the mirror behind the counter.
“Have I got panda eyes?” she asks a boy who’s wiping a cloth over the coffee machine’s steel casing with one hand, as he punches a text message into his phone with the other.
“Shall we do the floor now, or leave it until tomorrow morning?” she says
“Tomorrow. I’ve got places to go…”
“…people to see!” she finishes for him and laughs.
Weekend fever. I take pity on them and leave.

It’s still raining. I like the way the lights shining from the shop windows are diffused by the drizzle.
On the corner of the street I see Ros getting into a taxi. Her patent stilettos gleam; if she was closer, I know that I’d see little balls of rolled up serviette sticking to them. As the car pulls away I see the hem of her trench-coat trapped in the door.
I try to remember when she is supposed to meet Jamie and wonder whether she will. I hope she does. I realise I am happy for her.
I decide to walk home.
Supper. Chicken or fish? How long it is since I’ve tasted any difference between the frozen meals I buy. I should be better organised and batch-bake or something.
I try to compose a mental shopping list that will result in my freezer bursting with healthy, wholesome food. It defeats me. I’m only avoiding thinking about the things we talked about tonight. And the things we didn’t.
Puddles reflect the street’s flashing neon signs; cerise, lime green, Daytona yellow and electric blue, orange from the street lamps.
Rain, in perfect rhythm with the tap, tap, tap of my heels on the pavement, drips from my hair down the back of my neck. I know that tomorrow, when I look in the mirror, I will regret walking, but for now I enjoy it.
The closer I get to home the quieter it becomes.
I can see the flats from here. None of the windows glow warmly. Wheelie-bins still stand where they were left for emptying three days ago. A car’s lights pin point the diamond brightness of the eyes of a bedraggled cat sheltering under our overgrown privet hedge.
Someone has left the front door open. It will mean silver slug trails on the mat tomorrow morning.
Why don’t people ever treat flats like proper homes? It’s all right for those who are just pausing before they take up their real lives; become couples, with children maybe, and pets, in houses like Max and I once lived in. Some of us are not just passing through.
I close my door behind me, pleased to be home. I kick off my heels and throw my coat over a chair.
I like the effect; it’s always too tidy in here.
A flashing red light on the phone teases. Voicemail. I resist listening and go into the bathroom. I uncap some Arpege and watch as it trickles under steaming taps.

A glass of wine, I think.

I lie back in the fragrant water and start to soak the week from my head. The condensation on my glass reminds me of the café windows. And the tears that we both pretended hadn’t trickled from our eyes.

The little red light tempts. I still resist.

If it’s Max he’ll ring back.

Or maybe he’ll…

I quickly tuck my cotton pyjamas back into the drawer and take the peach silk nightdress and wrap from the armoire. They smell of happiness when I press them to my face. Traces of a velvet summer evening, Sancerre and anniversary food.
Aftershave.
©theeditoffice 2013

NaWriPoMo To my beautiful daughter (and her’s)

154403_3908662007494_1796519880_n

To Nicola

 

I still wear the touch

of your skinny arm

snaking round my neck;

indelible.

 

My cheek is still embossed

with kisses

from lashes

fluttering

like hummingbird wings.

 

I can still smell

the bath-time scent of you –

Johnson’s baby shampoo,

Pears soap –

the steamy sweetness

like ripened apples

in a summer orchard.

Now the tiny arms

around my neck,

belong to your children.

We bathe them;

polish them

until they glisten.

 

Making new memories.

 

 

©theeditoffice 2013

Wonderland – Short Story (No more poems today, just prose)

Wonderland

The door is open.
The sick feeling festers in her stomach. She tries breathing deeply.

In…out…in…out… in…out…

“Mum, Dad!” she calls as she enters.
From the front room she hears the television quietly entertaining itself.
“Mum?” Alice says softly. Her mother is sitting on the sofa looking out of the window.
One of these days, she thinks, I’m going to call and she’s not going to answer.

In…out…in…out…in…out…

“Why is the door open?”
Her mother doesn’t reply. Alice stands a moment watching her. Her mother looks vulnerable, childlike. The sun plays across her face, making her blue eyes paler. Her hair, punk-proud at the crown, flat elsewhere, needs perming. Apart from the slightest rise and fall of her chest she is perfectly still. Even her hands are not worrying the gold chain at her neck.
Alice sits on the arm of the sofa and lays her hand on her mother’s shoulder.
“Hello, darling, I didn’t hear you come in.” The sweetness of her mother’s smile makes her want to cry.

In…out…in…out…in…out…

“Mum, why is the back door open?”
“I don’t know. Is it? It shouldn’t be.”
“Where’s Dad?” Alice tries nonchalance.
“In bed I think, dear.”
“Have you been up to check on him since you got up?”
“No. Of course not.”
“You should, mum; it’s nearly lunch-time.”
“He always sleeps late. You know that, Alice.”
“Don’t you think you should go and check, mum?”
“No. I don’t go into his bedroom any more in the mornings.” There is something evasive in her tone, all vulnerability gone. “I haven’t since…” her voice fades.
“Why?”
“He may be dead.”
Alice doesn’t ask. She doubts anyone has the answers.
“The door’s open, mum. He could have wandered off.”
“Well, in that case he can’t be dead can he?” Reassured her mother walks into the hall.
“Jack,” she calls. “Are you getting up?”
“I’ll put the kettle on,” says Alice.

In…out…in…out…

“Did you do the crossword this week?” she asks from the kitchen as she spoons coffee into mugs. Souvenir mugs bought on holidays which her parents no longer remember.
“Yes, but the magazine has got the clues wrong again. Nothing fits in properly.”
Alice grins, “Couldn’t be your spelling could it?”
Her mother giggles as she comes back into the room; the child again.
“Possibly,” she concedes.
Alice is proud of her. Since the stroke she’s fought her way back to be able to do a Sunday crossword puzzle. She knows that when she looks, her mother will have answered every question correctly and printed them neatly on a piece of paper; all fabulously misspelled. No wonder nothing fitted!
The floorboards creak above their heads. Her mother’s eyes follow the sounds of her husband’s progress across the room above. The footsteps stop on the landing.
“Are you there, Evie?” Jack calls downstairs.
“No, I’ve gone ice skating. Why does he ask stupid questions?”
“What is it, dad?” Alice asks.
“My pants don’t fit.”
“Underpants?” shouts her mother.
“Shall I go up?” asks Alice putting down her drink.
“You never know what you’re going to find, dear,” and then louder “I said underpants or over pants?”
“I don’t know… They’re grey.”
Alice follows her mother to the door. “I’ll go up, mum.”
Her mother looks up the stairs.
“He’s decent.”
Alice finds him sitting on the floor, looking with disappointment at his clothes.
“No wonder they don’t fit. You’ve got your pyjama bottoms on as well. And you’re trying to force both of your legs down one of the trouser legs!”
“I thought something was wrong.” He appears relieved. She waves the empty leg at him and laughs.
“What are you saving this one for, dad?” And then, checking, “Have you got any underpants on under your pyjamas?”
“Oh, two pairs,” he says proudly.
She feeds his legs into the proper openings.
Alice remembers him doing the same for her when she was a child. She swallows hard and wonders when she became their parent.

Only last week, I told the woman from Social Services we can manage a little longer, she thinks, that my mother definitely wouldn’t want my father going into care. Mum can’t make decisions like that, I said, she’s not well enough. Thanks, but no thanks. We’ll cope…Only last week.

They’re all sitting around the kitchen table.
“That thing in your bag was playing, Alice.”
“It’s a phone, mum.” She checks it. “It’s only the office”
“How do they know you’re here?”
Alice looks up grinning and then down again quickly when she realises her mother isn’t.

In…out…in…out…

“Mum,” she starts, “did a woman come about dad…”
“Who’s she?” her father asks, pointing at Alice
“Alice, don’t fuss. It’s all taken care of,” her mother answers. “It’s Alice, Jack,” she tells him.
“All taken care of? You mean…”
“I mean that Social Services have arranged for dad to go to one of these places to see if he likes it, haven’t they Jack? And if he does…”
“And you’ll go, dad?”
“I don’t care who it is; she can’t just walk in off the street and drink our coffee,” Jack says. “Tell her, Evie.”
His eyes close.
“Of course he’ll go, won’t you darling?”
Her mother hasn’t heard the soft snores that tell Alice he’s asleep. She’s watching him, doesn’t see her mother’s tears.
“It’s only for a little holiday, isn’t it, Jack?”

In…out…in…out…

Alice feels her own tears welling up.
“Don’t, Alice. I’ve decided. Please don’t cry,” says her mother.
“Oh, mum. We don’t need…” her voice trails away. They do need. And the decision isn’t hers to make; it never was.

Her mother stares through the window, sipping cold coffee.
“It’ll have to be moved,” she says pointing at a Japanese maple. “It’s old and not as hardy as it used to be. Don’t want to lose it.”

Ctheeditoffice2013

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