Friday 18 January 2013

First Prize winner in Greenacre Writers short story competition

A Perfect World  by Veronica Bright

Nought to sixty in 5.5 seconds.
Thomas loves the feeling, cruising in the third lane, checking the mirror for the ‘nee-naws’, as his daughter calls them. Everything’s hunky-dory, and he’s alone in a perfect world.
Hunky-dory. That was always one of his mother’s favourite words. He passes a lorry, and sighs. He remembers why this journey north is so difficult.
He hasn’t been there for… how long? Guilt rides in the car with him. Harriet is nearly three, and he’s never taken her there. His mother’s been up to London of course. The house is small so she has to stay in a hotel. Meg said they could make room, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Thomas pulls into a service station for a coffee. The menu advertises those pancakes Harriet loves so much. Thomas wishes he had more time for his family. He often has to bring work home. The pay’s good though, and he is able to buy Harriet all kinds of treats, cherry pancakes with ice cream being one of them. He really should make more time for family outings.
And yet……he’s never really happy unless he’s alone, is he? There are times when he longs to be all those things he imagines the perfect parent to be: patient, interested, kind. He knows he is generous. His own parents gave him expensive presents, didn’t they? He sips his coffee, and remembers the bike they bought him for his fifth birthday. It was superb, the envy of the neighbourhood children. But he’d done something so bad, his parents had put the bike into the loft for three months, and when it came out again, it didn’t seem so wonderful after all.
Has it shrunk?” he wanted to know.
It’s an illusion.”
He frowned, puzzling over this new grown up word.
You’ve grown somewhat during the school holidays, that is all,” his mother said.
He has a sudden urge to go back to that first house. He had a climbing frame in the garden. Once, at the park, he’d pushed that prissy dark-haired girl off a swing. He’d wanted a go himself, and that seemed the best way to solve his problem at the time. Now he remembers his mother’s exasperation. Why wouldn’t he share? Take turns?
I don’t understand you,” she said.
In Thomas’ mind he can see their former house clearly, set in a quiet cul-de-sac. That bike was something else. He used to take it outside and the crowd would gather, small eyes looking at it longingly, little fingers stroking it, somebody squeezing the hooter. He used to laugh, push their hands away, and ride off along the pavement shouting, “Can’t catch me!” No way would he let that lot have a go on his bike.
Thomas drains the last of his coffee, sets down the cup, resumes his journey.
Nought to sixty in 5.5 seconds. Again he experiences the satisfaction of speed, of driving away from problems, cruising fast and free. His mobile rings and he ignores it. He’s made up his mind.
He detours to go and park outside the house where his childhood began. He gets out of the car, and presses the key fob switch. The locking system gives a satisfying clunk.
The front door is the same, polished oak. He rings the bell. He hears some-one coming; prepares a charming smile.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I used to live here,” he says.
The woman turns her head slightly, peers at him.
My name’s Thomas Dawson. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Well!” The woman breaks into a smile. “We bought the house from the Dawsons…… Must be thirty years ago.”
She calls her husband who emerges to say hello. They invite him in.
Thomas steps over the doorstep, into the past. Immediately he feels frustrated, oppressed. He fights a desire to escape. He follows the couple into the lounge; looks around.
“It’s very different,” he says.
“I know,” says the woman. “We’ve brought up three children here, so our furniture had to be pretty sturdy.” She smiles. “Your parents had some beautiful things.” Then she sighs, and shakes her head. “Those cabinets full of exquisite pieces!”
Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, etcetera,” says Thomas. He can almost see them again, cold behind the glass.
And that gorgeous pale carpet! We inherited it, you know, but I’m afraid we had to replace it after a few years. The children, you know. And their friends.”
I was never allowed to play in here,” says Thomas. The old resentment eats into him.
The man makes Thomas a cup of tea while the woman continues to talk, leading the way into the dining room. The polished table has gone, of course. Suddenly he remembers why they took his bike away from him. He’d been banging on that magnificent table with his fork. He had screamed at them in frustration, thumping his fork down, on and on, bang, bang, bang, leaving rows of tiny holes in the virgin wood. He wouldn’t stop till they forced him out of the room, banished him from their sight.
Then he has a flash-back to last week, when he’d hollered at Harriet for a similar misdemeanour.
“I don’t know how your parents managed to keep such a beautiful home with a youngster and his friends tearing around,” says the woman.
I wasn’t allowed to have children in,” says Thomas, and his mother’s words echo in his ears. “No-one wants to play with a naughty boy like you.”
He clenches his fists, and then straightens his hands again, a habitual gesture as he tries to remain calm. He feels uncomfortable. He wants to leave, to speed away.
The woman is pointing out at the garden, where Thomas had his climbing frame. Now there’s a toddler’s swing.
For my grand-daughter.” She picks up a photograph. “There’s nothing like the blessing of grand-children. Mind you, sometimes you need the patience of a saint.”
Again Thomas thinks of his mother and Harriet.
Believe me,” says the man, coming in with the tray. “Children are another species.”
Back in the car, Thomas forces himself to concentrate. Only half an hour and he’ll be there. It’s not so easy to sit in a cosy nought to sixty bubble on these country roads. Besides, new thoughts crowd his head with every bend. The memory of his mother persists. There she is, neat and tidy, polishing the brasses, wiping sticky fingerprints off the walls. Why oh why had she always wanted everything to be so clean and sparkling? So perfect. She’d have been better off with a nice quiet girl, he thinks; a girl to match the pale pink carpet, bows in her hair, and pretty manners. Instead of which she had a boy, certainly not a docile, do-as-you’re-told one.
He slows to take a double bend. The light in the sky is changing. Surely there was nothing wrong with asking questions? He wasn’t worse than any of the other boys who lived in the cul-de-sac, was he? His mother, his bossy, fussing mother, had no idea what children were really like. The words of the man back at the house return to him. Children are a different species.
How many times has he been frustrated with Harriet? Too exhausted and irritable to listen to Meg? He sees that perhaps he is just like his father was, always busy, a responsible job making too many demands, taking its toll. Thomas admits he leans heavily upon Meg for solace. Kind, calm Meg.
When did he last make Meg a cup of tea?
Perhaps the expensive gifts Thomas received as a child were an apology for the time his father spent away from him. Perhaps his mother resented having a small child she hadn’t asked for. Now Thomas finds life so hectic, he has barely any time for Harriet. No wonder Meg wants them to give it all up and move to the country.
That’s impossible Meg,” he’d said. “What would I do in the country?”
People find jobs in the country as well as here,” she’d replied. “Or they commute. A train journey can be quite relaxing, you know.”
She’d said she’d like to see Harriet running across the fields, finding wild flowers, feeding ducks.
We have ducks in London, Meg,” he’d said, “in the park.”
I’d like another baby, Tom.” Then she’d gone on quickly. “And I want to grow vegetables, maybe keep chickens...”
Chickens, Meg. Are you out of your mind?”
He pulls into his mother’s drive.
The live-in carer opens the door, and leads the way into the drawing room. The same antique cabinets are full of the same beautiful things. Thomas’ mother reclines on a chaise longue, a blanket over her knees.
Hello Mother.”
You came alone then?”
Meg couldn’t get the time off…” His voice tails away. He feels five years old again, a naughty boy.
I’ll make some tea,” says the carer.
Do sit down, Thomas; you’re making the place untidy.”
I always did that Mother,” says Thomas, almost savagely. Then he stops. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long journey.”
His mother is silent. She looks tired. Thomas takes his case upstairs. Do we all end up stuck in some dreadful caricature of ourselves, he wonders, unable to break free.
He goes downstairs to where his mother waits. Her hair is beautifully styled; her make-up is tasteful. Thomas sees the effort she has made for his visit. Yet the illness is winning. She looks terrible.
The carer brings in a tray. She gives no hint of disapproval that he hasn’t visited for months.
Thomas attempts to speak calmly of Harriet, and Meg. From the distant kitchen come the sounds of a meal being prepared, a song on the radio.
A silence falls between them. Shadows gather in the room.
I went back to our first house today, Mother,” he says.
He tells her about the people who moved in after they left, the people who stayed for thirty years.
You hid my bike from me. Do you remember that?”
Thomas watches as his mother shuts her eyes.
“I found you such a difficult child, Thomas,” she says. He strains his ears to hear her. “I didn’t understand you.”
He thinks of Harriet. He doesn’t understand her, not at all. She’s so… alive, yes, that’s the word, alive.
“I do love you, Thomas.”
The words spill into the gloom of the impeccable room, as if his mother has to say it while there is still time.
I wanted to be the perfect parent,” she says.
A log shifts in the fire. The clock ticks. From the kitchen the six o’clock pips announce the news
“I wish…”
“What do you wish, Mother?”
“That I could have another go at it all. But as they say, life isn’t a rehearsal.”
Thomas needs to do something, anything, to prevent the anguish and guilt and the
desire to weep.
I’ll pull the curtains, shall I?”
He stands beside the window, looks out at the darkening sky. The first star gives a gentle welcome to the night.
Mother.” He tries hard to see things from her point of view. He walks over to her, and takes her hand.
“Growing up in the country was good,” he says. “I don’t really care about the bike, you know.”
I’m so tired,” is all she says.
Later, in the bedroom that overlooks the hills, Thomas has time to think. He has a future, God willing. It’s time to be the person he wants to be. He imagines Harriet playing in a sunny garden; Meg picking flowers, growing vegetables, her weary frown long gone. Maybe feeding chickens. Maybe another child on the way.
No. Alive. He will be alive, like Harriet. And Meg.
Everything will be all right.
Soon it will be tomorrow, and he’ll head for London. He may well be singing. Yes. Probably one of Harriet’s funny little songs.
Nought to sixty in 5.5 seconds. Not escaping, but going home.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Second prize winner in Greenacre Writers short story competition 2012

God the Homeless by Simon Farnham

‘Thanks lady, have a good day,’ said the man as a fifty pence piece landed in the baseball cap set before his crossed legs. He had messed up yet again. Christmas was just a few days away and here he was, out of work, out of luck and begging in an underpass next to Waitrose in Sheffield. He could have kept his job in Wickes if only he had kept his mouth shut. As the damp hiss of the traffic funnelled in through both ends of the twenty foot tunnel his mind wandered back to his last day in store.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the man thought to himself as the store manager rattled on at him.

‘You see the thing is, here at Wickes we have systems, and they have to be adhered to, otherwise we’d be in chaos, and chaos doesn’t hit targets.’

The manager’s voice drifted into insignificance as the man looked around the drab office with pieces of paper, Post-it notes, and order forms stuck to the grey walls and covering the flat surfaces of the grey desk and grey filing cabinets. There was not a hint of personalisation anywhere. It was truly a drab office for an undoubtedly drabber man.

As the man registered some finger-pointing coming in his direction, words again started to fill the manager’s moving mouth.

‘In the short time you’ve been with us we’ve seen you’ve got a lot of potential, and at your time of life, how old are you now, thirty?’

‘Yes, I’ve always been thirty,’ the man replied to the rhetorical question as he contemplated the scuffs on his Toetector safety boots. He didn’t see his boss’s puzzled expression which quickly changed to one of annoyance. There was a pause before the manager decided to change tack.

‘The thing is you always think you know best, but…’

‘But the thing is Brian,’ the man cut in, ‘I do know best. I’m God!’

And with that yet another job was gone.

It had always been like this. In all his time on Earth he had been surrounded by idiots. He just could not resist the temptation to let them know who was boss. The trouble was they were all so stupid that no one believes you when you tell them who you are. They will sack you, ostracise you, put you in a lunatic asylum or sometimes all three. However, tell them you are the son of God and people start flocking around you like gulls round a trawler. 

He remembered how back in the day he had followed Jesus and that bunch of sycophants around Judea like some crank hounding a politician on the election trail. He had screamed in disbelief at the crowds as they had hailed Jesus for bringing Lazarus back from the dead. 

‘He was breathing,’ he cried. ‘I put my cheek to his mouth and he was breathing!’

But no one listened, or at least cared to listen. Judas had given him a dirty look but that did not bother him. No one had ever had very much good to say about Judas.

No, the Earth was fine. It was these fools he had populated it with that were the problem. It had all seemed like such a good idea when he was floating around in nothingness. He was everything back then, quite literally the Alpha and the Omega.

The trouble was he had too many ideas. He could never concentrate on anything for more than a minute or so before another option or completely different idea jumped into his head. That was how people had started, with too many ideas sprinkled with loneliness. He had gone through all sorts of permutations beforehand. 

The dinosaurs had been rubbish, almost childlike in their conception. The same could be said for nearly all of the animals. They were all way too fancy and rather limited. The thumb had changed everything. He had been proud of that one, and after a few prototypes, apes, Neanderthals and such like, he had hit upon something he really could work with: people.

At least he thought he could work with them. They could not do a bloody thing for themselves at first. However, it was after he had shown them how to harness fire and been lifted to deity status in the community he was in, that he realised he would have to use proxies for his ideas before his cover was blown. The wheel had been another good one but that was it really. After that the brainwaves had simply dried up.

‘You see the problem with creating everything…’ he was now telling a dishevelled, cider-drinking woman who had sat herself beside him, ‘…is that it leaves you with nothing. No magic, no powers, no special skills, nothing. I’m doomed to be one of you lot making the same mistakes time and time again.’

‘That’s nice. You got any booze Luv?’ slurred the Yorkshire woman as she let her empty can drop out of her hand and onto the underpass floor with a tinny clank that echoed out of the tunnel and into the cold December evening air beyond.

He considered the illegible graffiti on the multicoloured tiled wall for a few seconds before his mind found its way back to his present predicament. This really was all there was and he was destined to see it out to its very end until the sun went out, or exploded. He was never really sure which. He had never understood all that high science. 

‘Just because I was physics doesn’t mean I have to understand physics,’ he said rather too loudly to the woman, allowing a young student couple to overhear him, providing them with a catalyst for youthful laughter.

He had always admired the scientists’ intelligence but not the end results of their ideas. Nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry had been the nadir of their achievements. Of course there was no way someone like him could have got near the likes of Einstein, Oppenheimer and Co to have a word in their ears. The nearest he had come was going on a couple of marches with CND in the eighties. He certainly understood how Oppenheimer had felt when after watching the first atomic explosion in the Nevada Desert he had declared: ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’. It was like being punched in the guts to create something the trajectory of which you immediately realised was completely out of your control.

‘Where’re you staying Luv?’ asked the woman as she put her left hand on his right. He looked down at the dirty fingernails and a homemade tattoo on the back of her hand that said ‘kieron 4ever’. He wondered who Kieron was as he looked up at her face. There was a scar about an inch long over her left eye. He felt sure both these indelible marks were Kieron’s handiwork.

The woman had hard life etched all over her face. It was always tricky to tell how old someone like this was. Abuse, self and otherwise, was a great ager. She was probably about thirty-three. Her hair was brown, greasy and tied up in a bun with matted bangs coming down over her eyes and ears. Despite this, and the dirt, there was still an innate attractiveness that somehow managed to shine through. 

‘I’m not staying anywhere at the moment,’ he eventually replied. ‘I did have a room in Woodseats but I got chucked out after I couldn’t pay my rent. I thought about the Salvation Army hostel but all those God squadders freak me out. I’d rather be cold, a bit hungry and free, than have the Bible and economy sausages shoved down my throat.’

The woman squeezed his hand and gave him a needy smile. He looked into her bloodshot and slightly vacant eyes which lit up as he lifted the edge of his sleeping bag to reveal a four-pack of Tennents Super. She was impressed. He was resigned.

As soon as he came he regretted it. Why oh why did he do things like this? He rolled off and laid on his back looking at the devastation of a life that surrounded him. Empty cans and plastic bottles that once contained cheap alcohol littered the floor. Dog-ends of cigarettes, both tailor-made and rolled-up, had been stubbed out on almost every surface. 

There was a giant black and white poster of Frank Zappa on the wall opposite the bed, and beneath it, on top of a battered chest of drawers, a well-used crack pipe and the ashy detritus of what looked like a thousand rocks.

‘Can I ‘ave me money now?’ asked the woman as she picked through the dog-ends on top of her bedside cabinet looking for one that might have a puff or two left in it.

‘Your money?’ he asked in astonishment.

‘Yeah, it’s twenty quid for that. You’re lucky. I normally charge more for where you put it.’

He stared at her, his mouth wide open with shock. He really had hit a new low. He thought he had done some horrible things in 97 as he had worked his way across Europe as an illegal immigrant coming back from a jaunt in the Middle East, but this, being duped into sleeping with a crackwhore, really was scraping the barrel of life.

‘You better pay me or I’ll call me fella,’ she warned as she sat up in the bed holding the grimy sheets around her to preserve her faux modesty.

‘Call who you want,’ he said as he put his jeans on, ‘You’re not getting a penny out of me.’

‘Kieron, he won’t pay me,’ screamed the woman.

The bedroom door burst open and there stood Kieron, a skinny six-foot rasta with bloodshot eyes, greying dreadlocks and a carving knife.

He felt no fear as he calmly pushed past Kieron and walked towards the front door beyond. He heard Kieron come at him from behind, but before steel could penetrate skin he turned and caught his attacker cleanly on the jaw with a peach of a right uppercut. As the rastaman crumpled into unconsciousness on the bedroom threshold the woman began to shriek hysterically. He looked at her and shook his head in disbelief, not really at her, but more at himself for getting into such a situation in the first place.

She lived in a council block just around the corner from Waitrose so in a couple of minutes he was back there. The Salvation Army band were playing Oh Little Town of Bethlehem as middle class families exited with trolleys full of Christmas goodies and threw coins into the festively decorated bucket to assuage any guilt they might be feeling at this time of year.

Despite the layers of clothing he was wearing under his puffer jacket, the wet winter chill was making its way through to his body, lowering his mood as well as his temperature. He walked towards the main road where the cars and lorries went by at breakneck speed before jerking to a halt at the roundabout. He had had enough. Enough of bosses telling him what to do, psychiatrists telling him he had this disorder and that. He had had enough of people and life in general.

He ran into the road and threw himself under the wheels of a Warburtons bread delivery lorry. It screeched and hissed to a halt as the air brakes plied their trade. The shocked driver sat motionless for a second before jumping out of his cab and looking on in amazement as the man who had disappeared under the front of his vehicle with a crunch, crawled out, unharmed, from the undercarriage.

‘Sorry about that,’ he said to the driver as he got to his feet and began to walk off, ‘it never works.’ 

It never did.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Third prize winner in Greenacre Writers short story competition 2012

The Art of Being Late by Julie Swan

Well, I can sit back and relax for once. Jim’s not responsible for getting me there today. I was picked up with plenty of time to spare — nice car too — and he’s being driven there by someone else.
You know, it feels so wonderful not to have to worry about being punctual for once. Today it’s someone else’s problem and I know I’m going to get there on time. All my married life seems to have been spent chivvying Jim along. His timekeeping’s always been appalling and I hate being late to anything.
Is that blue flashing lights up ahead? Oh dear. I wonder what the problem is.
Oh, that looks really nasty. I hope no one’s badly hurt. Police cars, ambulances, even a fire engine. That blue car’s really badly bent and just look at that lorry on its side. Its load’s all over the place; the road’s totally blocked.
Well, we obviously won’t get through that way for a while. We’d better go round past the college and the football ground. Do you know that way?
It’s a bit awkward turning here. Oh, that nice policeman’s letting us through, that’s kind of him. Doesn’t he look young? I’d be surprised if he’s shaving yet.
Now what was I saying? Oh yes, Jim’s timekeeping. Well, Jim’s always had being late down to a fine art. Of course, if it’s something he wants to do, a film he wants to see or something, he’ll be on time, early even sometimes. But for everything else, when it’s important to me but not to him, he’s almost always late.
He’s never ready when it’s time to go out. Even after all these years, he assumes that I won’t be able to get ready on time so he goes off and starts some job or other and when I am ready, dead on time I might add, he isn’t and I end up waiting for him. They never learn, do they? Even after forty years.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve made arrangements to go somewhere, you know, to the cinema or meeting friends, and he’ll be late home from work
There am I, getting more and more agitated with every minute that passes, knowing he’s probably late as usual but wondering if it’s the one time that something awful’s happened. Well you do, don’t you? You can’t help it. Then he turns up with a grin saying “Plenty of time, plenty of time.”
There’s only plenty of time if there are no problems on the way. I keep telling him ‘You can’t legislate for idiots’. How does he know the road’s not up somewhere or there hasn’t been an accident or something? But there hardly ever is. Of course, by the time we’re on our way all my enthusiasm has been drowned in irritation. I never get to anything in the right frame of mind. I always arrive flapping and flustered.
Do you know, sometimes he’s even left me standing somewhere waiting to be picked up while he’s off in his own little dream world. He’s sailed right past me more than once, not even realising. A couple of times he’s actually reached home, wondered why I wasn’t there and then remembered he was supposed to meet me and had to come back to get me.
Well, I can relax today.
I should have known really. When we got married, I organised most of it myself. My parents had already died, you see. The only thing I left to Jim was the honeymoon and the car and a week before the wedding, he hadn’t done anything about either.
Four days before the wedding, he did manage to book a Rolls Royce. I told him that he had to be there when it arrived at the Registry Office, otherwise I’d tell the driver to drive me straight home again.
Now what’s this idiot doing? You can’t do a three point turn here. It’s not nearly wide enough. Oh, he’s holding up all the traffic, the silly old duffer. And he’s leaving so much space; obviously doesn’t know the size of his own car. Look, a couple of people have got out to help, make sure he doesn’t hit anything. Maybe that’ll speed things up a bit. No, he’s not paying any attention to them, just blundering on blindly.
Finally, a 53 point turn. What an idiot. It’s a good job we left in plenty of time.
Where was I? Oh yes, our wedding. Well, the car arrived for me and the chauffeur left when he thought it would get us to the Registry Office on time. He did say afterwards that he’d never had an easier drive; straight out at every junction, straight onto every roundabout and all the traffic lights were green. Unfortunately, at the last set of lights, Jim was in the first car coming the other way, stuck on red.
Well, as the Rolls pulled up at the Registry Office I could hear these peculiar noises behind us. When I looked out of the rear window, there was Jim running helter-skelter across the car park. He’d got out at the traffic lights and run all the way. He dived up the steps and turned with a beaming smile to look down at me still sat in the car. He says he hasn’t stopped running since.
All this retrospection — or is it introspection? — well, something spection, it’s probably not a good idea. Ought to be in the right frame of mind, today of all days.
What’s this now? Temporary traffic lights. I didn’t know they were digging this road up this week. There haven’t been any signs. Typical of this council. Oh no, not four way lights? We’ll be here for ages. There’s such a queue. I don’t think we’ll get through in one go. No, I don’t think there is another route from here, not without going miles out of our way. Oh dear, we’ll just have to wait.
Yes, Jim’s always been useless at timekeeping. I’ve always said ‘Early for an appointment, late for an invitation’. Only slightly of course. That’s the polite way to behave, isn’t it? And when it’s just me, that’s how I do things and everything’s fine. But Jim’s just late for everything.
And it’s not just when we’re going somewhere you know. It’s everything. If he says a job’s going to take a couple of hours it’ll take the whole day. Sometimes more. There’s always been half finished jobs all round the house because he under estimated how long they would take.
Well, at least we’re through those lights. Not long now till we get there. I understand they’re quite busy nowadays. Won’t wait for long if you’re not on time.
That’s the way of things nowadays, isn’t it? Everything’s so busy, busy, busy. No time for anything. What’s that poem? ‘No time to stand and stare’?
Oh no, the level crossing lights are flashing. We’ll be here for ages now. Once the first train’s gone through they leave the barriers down until the one going the other way’s gone too. Do you know, there’s only four trains an hour but the number of times I’ve been caught, well, almost every time I come along here, I think. I used to play I spy with the kids, it took so long. Plenty of time to stop and stare now.
That’s it, the second train. The barriers will go up in a minute.
On our way again. Yes, my life with Jim has been spent trying to get him to fit into the real world instead of listening to that different drummer.
Well, we’re here, we’ve made it. Fifteen minutes late though. I just want to giggle. Not the right thing to do at all.
I always knew it. I told him a million times, ‘You’ll be late for your own funeral’.
And he is.