PUBLISHED SHORT STORIES

ON THIS PAGE, YOU CAN READ EXTRACTS OF SOME OF MY MORE RECENTLY PUBLISHED SHORT STORIES





ENGLISH NATIONAL COSTUME

Winner of the Wells lit festival Short Story Prize 
and published subsequently in Scribble Magazine 2008 edition.

Mother was obsessed by what might go missing when we moved house. 
       Before we left, she ushered the two removal men through the hollow rooms, checking for overlooked items. This was not because she imagined they’d forgotten anything, but because she believed they would, somewhere in transit, slip items they fancied into a pocket or behind a dark blanket. She would undertake this same procedure at the other end, walking with them into the emptied van to register its vacuity. I knew this mannered dance would take place because it had done so on our last move, and the one before that. All the moves, in fact, those I could and could not recall.
But this move was different. My father was not there. He never interfered with Mum’s organisational skills, but his absence was tangible.
     I was told to sit in the back of the van. Hitched up onto the table I’d played under when young, I could just see out of the small rear window. I dangled thin, blue legs from the shaking table in a precarious way that would be thought perilous in the risk conscious world of today. 
       My mother, nervy and preoccupied, was in the front. I presumed she was uneasy because she was squashed between Bert and Trevor, the removal men. Strangely, I never once equated her mood with the loss of her house, or even the loss of her mate.

‘And what are your hobbies?’ 
         I wriggled in my chair. This was a question I could readily answer. ‘I make dolls and dress them in national costume.’
        The Headmaster of the Grammar had a lacquered-eyed look. I was one of a stream of 11 plus kids he had to interview. I’d expected this to be a routine procedure; that my place here next September was secured. My mother had told me this, or at least implied it. But now, I remembered with a jolt that I’d only ‘almost’ passed the 11 plus. I had to convince this man I was worthy of the Grammar system.
I described my dolls - Austria, Japan, Lapland. Wales and Scotland, naturally. Exotic Sri Lanka and Peru. Holland, with the sherry-cork clogs. Spain, gaudy Andalusian dancer that used up a silky, scarlet slip of my mothers, although I didn’t go to that extent of detail. Nine dolls to date, with a Sioux warrior almost done, just waiting for a few more feathers. 
         I saw the Headmaster’s interest faintly shift. The glaze cleared and his eyes sharply focussed on me. I explained how I’d tried flesh coloured stockings for the bodies and how this was useless, as they stuffed lumpily and the colour of the stuffing showed through. Now, I explained, I used old sheets, cutting to a template from a library book. I had shocking white flannelette, and thinning fawn cotton, which had to do for the browner bodies. I had all the trimmings ready for a Zulu and an Indian dancing lady, but needed the right fabric.
Only England proved problematic. Morris Dancer, the library book recommended. 
Beefeater, my mother’s suggestion. I thought those were cheats. What was the ancient costume 
of my native land? What did the English walk out in before fashion took her butterfly hold?
      I wanted something far more ancient than 19th century dance costumes. Why could I find
stunning and inventive costumes in every other country but mine?

I peered through the little rear window of the removal van, and instantly recognised there was something badly wrong with my retreating home, something new and different about the outlines of the house I loved so well. I didn't at that moment think of loss of vision. I assumed that the replacement of sharp outline with fussy edge was related to the fact I was seeing the building for the last time. As if, in moving house, my sight must also move away, or in part, be left behind.
‘Don't things look funny when you're leaving them?’ I called through the body of the van in a loud voice. ‘As if they’re waving goodbye.’ …


THE LIBRARY AT ALEXANDRIA
From
UNCHAINED; An Anthology of Bristol Women Writers
celebrating the 400th anniversary of Bristol Library.


‘So that’s the core point of my research,’ said Emmitt. ‘Did the library at Alexandria ever really burn down?’
‘Burn down?’ said Rachel. ‘What, arson?’
 ‘Of course not arson. This is the fourth century BCE. Idiots didn’t go round with cans of petrol in those days.’ Or did they, he wondered. How did he know that some unknown serf with a grudge might not want to set a blaze going, for the sake of watching something he’d never understand burn to the ground? ‘We’re talking about a wonder of the world, here; the great library that contained all knowledge and learning in ancient times.’
‘I guess it could have been accidental. I mean…books burn fast, don’t they?’
‘They didn’t have books. It wasn’t books at all.’
‘A library? Without books?’
Emmitt shook his head. He felt his hair shift as his neck jerked back and forth. Before meeting Rachel for this date he’d promised himself two things; to visit the barbers and to not get over-passionate about the library at Alexandria. A haircut had been forfeit to finishing his essay, and within the time it had taken to order the meal, here he was, practically rising from his seat with emotion. Talk to her, he told himself. The girl you’re taking out. Ask her about herself.
‘Have you ever been to Alexandria?’
‘Don’t think so. Where the heck is it?’
They were served with a starter of hand-dived scallops on a seaweed bed. Emmitt had chosen the food because Rachel was just staring at the menu with a panicked look in her eye, but if he was honest, he wasn’t all that used to the fine dining experience himself. He was trying to look more at home than Rachel, nodding to the waiter that the wine was not corked, and choosing from the menu with confidence. After all, he’d picked Bell’s Diner, with its off-piste location. He’d wanted to impress her. But now she was staring down at the uneaten scallops and turning the amber ring on her right hand round and round.
It was inconceivable that his search for Hypatia would fail because he’d taken his date to he wrong restaurant.
 
In portraits, Hypatia wore her hair swept up, contained by a thin band, and held her chin slightly down as if in contemplation. Seated on marble, inside the library precincts, she’d have students at her feet, and their chins would be raised, their eyes trained on her calm face. Emmitt knew her voice would be like a clear note on a flute; not too high and never raised in exasperation at a student’s foolishness. There were tiny lines at either side of her eyes, because she smiled whenever she could, but he didn’t ever imagining her laughing out loud, not a big, rollicking laugh. Her thoughts were too controlled for outright merriment. Men came from all over the word to hear her speak. Not for her beauty or the elegance of her carriage, but because she held the secrets of mathematics, philosophy and astronomy.  All those years ago, her voice raised and fluting, dressed in flowing white, she lectured on geometry and number theory, on the tables of stars and planets and the philosophies of Plato. She held tight to a world that was slipping away.
From the moment Emmitt had seen Rachel on the Queen’s Road, bouncing towards him on stilt-tall heels, he has wanted her to be his Hypatia. The black shine of her eyes, rimmed with kohl, caught his attention. She had thighs that concaved under the pressure of her skinny Levis, and her top half was obscured by a sort of floaty, swirly thing in tribal colours. Her black hair was piled on top her hair, secured with a thin plastic band.
Emmit had turned as she’d passed by and followed her bum down the road, until she’d swerved up the steps of the Student’s Union. He’d winkled her out from her shell of friends and bought her a rum and coke. She’d giggled at his name, but wouldn’t say why, insisting she hated her own. ‘Good,’ he’d said, without meaning to. It was too early to explain that Rachel would not be her name.
He would take a white pashmina and drape it over her dark hair and once around her neck and utter three times; Hypatia, Hypatia, Hypatia. They might have to work on her voice. And that giggle. He wanted her to be his underlining, the greatest influence on his work.
Rachel laid her cutlery over her starter to signify she’d done with it. She’d barely nibbling the edge of a scallop and had pushed the seaweed to one side. He struggled not to tell her that her starter alone had cost him a tenner of the scholarship money he had to survive on. He nudged his own plate away. Watching Rachel play with the scallops had robbed him of his usual relish.
‘Egypt,’ he said, and coughed on a morsel of food.
“What?’
‘Egypt. Is where Alexandria is.’
‘Yeah? I’ve been to Egypt and I’ve never heard of it.’
‘That’s because it’s nowhere near Sharm El Sheikh.’ He hadn’t meant to sound waspish, but he was terrified that she was turning out to be dim. He’d thought she have some semblance of intellect because she’d had a bag full of books in a shoulder bag, when he seen her on Queen’s Road. Over the rum and coke, he’d asked her what she was studying. ‘Life, Emmit. Yeah. Life. In all its suffering and remorse.’



THE ILLUMINATED BACK

PUBLISHED IN CHUFFEDBUFF BOOKS ANTHOLOGY 'YOU, ME AND A LITTLE BIT OF WE'



Skin is the story of our life. From the moment we hit air and bawl, it absorbs everything first, long before we digest it inwardly. New love, new hope, shattered dreams, burning hate. The rooms we pass through, the landscapes we breath, the touch of each person we meet. All this enters first through our skin. No wonder our skin starts out so soft and full of moisture, then dries up as the years pass, until it is as flaky as an old pasty, and as thin as silk, barely covering the blood vessels below.
I wanted to be an aromatherapist so much; it was the first job I felt proud of. I was fed up of calling myself bar assistant, shop assistant, care assistant. I was fed up of being asked for non-existent GCSE’s in maths and English. The only certificate I had was my Decree Nisi. But after the Holistic Massage course, I had diplomas hanging on the walls all round my room. People make an appointment, do as I suggest, respect my opinion. Sometimes I put my cheek against the towels, just to feel their spongy whiteness and take in the faint aroma of scented oils. I don’t want to give up this job, but the touch of skin is wearing me down. I don’t sleep anymore and when I do I dream of the layers of the skin...prickle, granular, clear and horn.

For a man of thirty-six, Jordon Brown had weathered skin. His hair was a razor-cut and he wore fatigue trousers with pockets covering every centimetre. Small pockets on top larger pockets. A chain running from the belt to a pocket. A belt studded like a Doberman’s collar. He sat on the client’s chair with his legs splayed, trouser hems ruckled into boots. The boots would’ve kept him stable on the moon. 
I ask if there are any underlying conditions I should know about…heart problems? Diabetes? Daft questions. You couldn’t wear those boots if your heart was weak.
‘I’m fit,’ he said. ‘I’m fit, all right. I just fancied a massage.’
‘Good. You booked in for aromatherapy, so I’ll be using some strongly scented oils. Is that okay for you?’ Good butch smells, is what I’m hinting He dipped his chin – a monosyllabic nod as if to prove his masculinity.
‘That’s fine then. Perhaps you’d like to get undressed and pop onto the couch?’ He was out of his zipped and buttoned trousers in seconds. ‘Just lie on your tummy and stay warm under the towels.’ 
I flipped the play button and the faint echoes of a harp’s circular tune against distant birdsong floated across the room. I blended cedar with bergamot and a little frankincense. They would be good for those fit muscles, they’d help him relax.  They’d help me relax. I used grapeseed as a carrier. It’s lighter, and I like a lot of slip when I massage. I blended the oils by shaking them in a clean blue glass bottle. I warmed them by standing the bottle in a little tub of hot water.
I peeled the towel from Jordon’s back....





CLEAN ROUND THE BEND

PUBLISHED IN SCRIPTOR 9; 2012


When I was tiny, my grandmother’s winter windows had an early morning frosting of leaves and stars, skeletal, tough as diamonds. It hurt the inside of your nail to scratch at it.
My back door window has a Jack Frost pattern of leaves and stars, so realistic you think it will be icy to touch. My cheek is so close to the glass, I expect it to chill. It feels cool, but that’s all. It’s only glass.
Oscar scratches at the pattern now, with his nails. He is outside. I am a centimetre away, inside. I examine the snowflake edge of each leaf. I try not to imagine that Oscar will hurt the insides of his nails.
‘Mummy…’
I can hear my breath, louder even than his toddler cry. 
Above his head, Petra knocks on the pane. Her knuckles are raining tiny blows that resemble the sound of a glockenspiel. Her cry holds far more punch than her fist.
‘I want my Daddeee!’
I turn away. The garden is a safe place for them. Safer, much safer than the house.

It began when Oscar was ten or eleven months old. Such a messy baby. Adrian and I used to laugh at the havoc he was able to wreck. He’d beetle on his knees across a room compiling breakages, emptying cupboards, chewing up documents. We used to laugh about it.
Petra on the other hand, was orderliness personified. She could be relied upon to keep her pretty dresses crisp. Her knees, unlike Oscars, were always pink. She loved to wash her hands, having learnt very early that micro-organisms are invisible. She was out of nappies by eighteen months and I was so proud of her. It didn’t last, of course and I blame myself entirely for that. When I began to find little lumpy piles behind the doors, and saturated knickers stuffed down the sides of chairs, I never once remonstrated with the child. I knew it was my fault, the early successes had been wrongly won.
It began, then, when Petra was just three and Oscar nearly one. I was clearing up another pile of excreta hidden behind the back of the sofa, when I spotted a cobweb clinging to the corner of the skirting board.
I came back with a soapy sponge and washed the cobweb away. Then I noticed that the bit I’d washed was far cleaner than the rest. So I washed all the paintwork in the living room. ...






D.V.D.

PUBLISHED IN SCRIPTOR 9; 2012


I am late for the viewing. The letting agent is waiting outside, as if he’s nervous of stepping over thresholds alone. 
Megan Pagget, I say, holding out my hand, trying out my new name, the name I began life with and have not used for twenty years.
Top floor flat, he says, as we circle round the everlasting stairwell. I think you’ll like it.
I don’t respond. There’s no reason to tell him how much I’m going to hate this move.
He opens the door to cheaply painted living room
If I lift my chin when I look out of the window, I can see the river – a thin silver-grey line.
Why is the rent so reasonable, I ask.
He stumbles over words…market forces…position…I can’t afford to dig deeper so I tell him I’ll take it.
Thomas stays the first couple of nights. He’s let me have all the furniture from our flat – the sofa, the plasma screen TV, the bed that’s as wide as it’s deep. What else can we do with any of it, he says. I want to continue to watch you move among it.
Continue? I snap back. He looks down at the oatmeal cord carpet.
On the third day, he can’t leave. 
Go, I tell him. You made the right decision. We both know it. His mobile is going off every fifteen minutes. Patsy’s calling you, I say. His look is full of pain. I meant it as a cruel remark. 

I have to learn to like my new home. But to sleep in the wide bed that smells of our love, which we shared in our own place that should’ve been ours forever, is impossible. 
After work, I visit the rental shop. They do this offer – three DVD’s for the price of two. I choose long movies…six hours of oblivion. I nod off on the sofa halfway though the third one.
I wake up with a start. I dreamed an eerie cry. Not human. Not baby. Not even any domestic animal that I recognise. I can’t have heard such a cry. It was part of my dream. It was my heart crying.
I crawl from sofa to bed and sleep so deeply that I’m late for work, which is not a good idea. I’ve never needed a job before, but I need this one – the rent isn’t that reasonable.

Thomas phones. He sounds bad. This was a mistake, he says.
No it wasn’t. I’m fine, I lie. I want him with me so much. Your children need 
you. This was our decision, that you should go back.
Patsy’s a child compared to you, he says. Shallow, trite. And so, so, smug.
She’s the mother of your girls, I tell him.
I hate this. It’s like watching a scene from a DVD over and over, time and again, until you can remember every word.

I wake feeling drugged. The TV is hissing its white noise and telling me it’s 6 a.m. Too late to crawl into bed if I want to be on time for work. 
As I’m putting on the kettle, I hear the cry again. My skin crawls. I did not dream it. Below me, footsteps pace, the sounds rising. A low murmuring. I remember the way we began to row before the end. It had always been harder for him, with kids of three and six. They didn’t understand, and neither of us could see why they should. And Tom was wretched without them.
Well, now he’s wretched with them.
Yesterday, he emailed me at work…If I leave Patsy, we can  get our flat back. The lease has one more week – no one’s taken it.
I can’t believe that. It was such a beautiful home. Don’t be an asshole, I email back. We decided.
Thomas and I have developed different ways of dealing with this split. Each tiny contact is balm to his wound, where for me, it’s a pouring of salt. 
I may have to block his email address.

Thursday evening, I meet Geoff at the Anchor. If I want my boys to visit, then Geoff must be sweetened first. They listen to his opinion, which is that I am an alley-cat with deadly demon eyes. All three of them think I’m in the grip of madness.
I slip my new address across the table to Geoff. His face is incredulous.
You’re going to live on your own.
I shrug.
He’s going back to his wife, he shouts across the table. People look round. Can’t you see it was all a stupid mistake? You have to come home with me now.
I shrug again, and with the shrug, observe how things have changed. Before Thomas, I did all the talking, and Geoff did all the shrugging.
He asks me if I want a divorce, his voice full of command. He expects the question to throw me, to set off tears.
Not yet, I say. The boys still come back between semesters. I don’t want to slice up our assets.
Geoff tosses back the last of his lager. You’re crazy, d’you know that? I thought you were crazy before. Now I know you are.

The cry wakes me. My heart is hammering. I make a resolution not to rent any more horror. This joins my earlier resolution not to rent any weepy romances. 
A wail floats up. A raised, male voice. Murmurs. Silence. It’s 5 a.m. on my first Saturday without Thomas. I have no work to distract me and sleep seems like something I did in another life. It takes me an hour to clean the whole flat. I go back over it, poking into nooks and crannies, sorting out cupboards, cleaning windows. Even this only takes until 10 am. 
I sit with a milky coffee in the bay of the window. I can’t see the river unless I stand and tilt my chin, but I know it’s there. 
If I phoned Geoff now, I could be back in our five-bedroom, redbrick house, in less than an hour.  Geoff would even carry my cases up the front path to the burnt oak plaque saying Bilberry Cottage, though the manicured garden is altogether lacking in bilberries. The picture is so clear in my mind, that as I follow Geoff and my cases, I can hear the snide remarks he’s passing over his shoulder. 
A shiver of release passes through me. The routine of work, the tiny living space, the mind-emptying movies. Things are simple, and at the moment, that’s simply enough....







ROUTINES IN A BEDROOM

Published 2010 in Scriptor 8. 2010

I lie on my back in my neat bed, soft as eider above and below. My head is on a pillow of pink roses and my hands are by my sides, ankles together under the hem of the white cotton nightie.  
This is how I lie in my bed.
I bought three of these nighties from the covered market, the stall that sold embroidered waistcoats, second-hand hats and billowing scarves. The woman told me they were taken from a Victorian design. They all have prim shirred cuffs that hug my wrists, but each has its own particular detail at the neck; broderie anglaise, smocking, and this one, my favourite, cascades of soft, white lace smothering the bodice. They’re a perfect fit, but Maurice says I’m nowhere near finished growing anyway. 
‘Make the sigh, for me Tacye...’
‘Aaah....’
Maurice thinks I’m still growing, but that’s only my skin, my bones, not my mind. I haven’t thought like a child for ages. Not since Mummy died. But I keep the grown-up-ish thoughts to myself. He doesn’t even know I call him Maurice.
‘...Put your arms...that's right...make the little sigh...’
‘Aaah...’
When I was tiny, I loved to lie, curled like a shrimp, and listen to the distant murmur of my parents’ voices. I didn’t try to understand their adult conversation, I just enjoyed the shush of the sounds, the rise and fall of dialogue, the high pitch of my mother’s speech in contrast to the growl of my father’s, the gentle chuff of shared laughter. 
Tonight, the distant murmur of the radio reminds me of those times.
It’s almost two a.m., but Maurice hasn’t gone to bed. Sometimes, he sits for hours at night, the World Service down low, his hand over the page of a book, a neat Scotch at his elbow. 
I lie up here, listening to the shush, eyes closed, hands by my side, thumbs just touching the skin of my thighs through the cotton of my nightie....

.


SEA GOD




Published 2011 in Ways of Falling (Earlyworks anthology)


Ari zipped up her jeans. Skin against denim from hip bone to hip bone, tight as a drum, best feeling in fashion-land. Zip flying up, button popping nice’n’easy. 
No way could she let this change. Graphic pictures in her biology text book. A jelly bean, then a fish, then...then jeans to the back of the wardrobe. She threw on her coat and pushed her feet into black boots. 
Outside, wintry air hit her face. The leaves on the row of trees were spinning, hitting the ground and blowing along it like remote-controlled toys. She looked up at the golden branches. ‘Easy, ain’t it?’ she taunted. ‘Easy to drop ‘em. If you’re a fucking tree.
More like a fish than a leaf. A shrimpy thing you could see right through, swimming in a plastic bucket of seawater. Both hands over the top. Keep it safe.
Ari took the bus past the Next, past Wallis. She got off at the big Boots, two floors of make-up, beauty products and assorted gifts. She joined the queue for the pharmacy. It was long. It was always long in the big Boots. Long equalled anonymous. She was well known in her local chemist, Sally’d been there since GCSE’s.
‘I want the Morning After Pill, please.’
A woman took her into a little cubicle which smelt of people’s feet.
She didn’t go into Virgin. Ryan would be at the Pay Here, and one look at her face…she could’t risk it.
Besides she had to go home and swallow up this bad boy packet. Teach her to think ahead. Responsibility was something grow-ups did. I am a grown-up, she reminded herself. She half believed it. She knew what she wanted. Good exam results – very good. An escape – different...what did careers call it? Prospects. Someone smart, in a suit, eventually. Not a mother. Fuck it; mother’s were like…her mother…unsmart. No suits. Little lives for years, nagging fathers to mow lawns and hitch up caravans until you didn’t care anymore....






THE ULTRAMARINE DRESS

2nd Prize winner and published in Tees Valley Writer magazine

Matthew hoed between geometric rows of crops. His sweat dripped into the soil. The hoe travelled swift and firm along its weedless way, as if he’d been given a penitential exercise for an unknown sin.
He had come to the allotment to harvest the produce they would use during the week; the end product of previous sweat-dripped work. Lettuce, carrots, potatoes, beans and sweet round beets had been sliced through with the yellow bone-handled knife and placed in the boot of the old Vauxhall, placed to lie in careful compliment of shape texture and colour.
The spare tyre made good staging. He’d taken a thoughtful step back to survey his still life. It was more than just food; it looked spiritually appetising. He would paint his harvest this afternoon, before it saw Joanne’s sharp kitchen tools.
And then, he hoed. Matthew could see weeds that others could not. Tiny, embryonic, but threatening.  Even in a heat wave, they had to be removed. His plot would shimmer with symmetry from 1,000 feet up.
Yes, he thought, his breath coming fast, yes, he’d position a bottle of the homemade red between the cabbage and the spuds and call it Still Life before Lunch.
Between the flowers and foliage of the runner bean poles, Matthew first glimpsed the girl – an impression of colour, nothing else - perfect blue seen through scarlet and green. 
He paused in his weeding. His shoulder was up against the huge wall of his beanstalks. The curtain of vines parted and Matthew gazed through, eager to find the source of pastel that had illuminated him for a few seconds.
It was a girl, hurrying along the road that bordered the allotments. Her cotton dress glowed in the mid-day sunshine. As she moved, the skirt wrapped itself around her thighs and they, too glowed with pure colour.


Pure ultramarine, thought Matthew....