Stormy Down

Chalk_Stone,_South_Downs_Way_-_Simon Carey wikimedia commons

Photo: chalk boulder on the South Downs Way, by Simon Carey from Wikimedia Commons.

Some years ago I wrote a short story inspired by my memories of walking the South Downs Way. I’m thinking of including it in an upcoming short story collection, but I’m no longer sure it’s good enough.

Let me know what you think.

Stormy Down

Simon’s breath hissed between his teeth as he climbed the steep, chalky path to the downland meadow. His calf muscles ached and clenched as he trudged his way upwards. Today’s leg had already been a long one, and he had to make a fair way further before night fall if he was to reach the end of the South Downs Way in time to meet Max and Tamsin. If he missed the car he’d be stuck with a long, complicated and needlessly expensive train journey, so he looked down at his feet and plodded on.

Pushing down on his knees at each climbing step, Simon forced himself up the last few feet of the climb and straightened up onto level ground. For a moment his vision faded into redness, and he could hear his heart thudding in his ears, its slightly irregular beat quickening with every indrawn breath, then settling back with the breath out.

He licked his dry lips, trying to stir a little saliva to moisten his mouth, which tasted of very stale chewing gum. Unclipping a bottle from his belt, he took a warm plastic-flavoured mouthful and swilled it round his mouth. Swallowing a second mouthful, he put the bottle away and looked around.

As heart rate steadied and vision cleared, he saw a broad upland field of thin chalky soil, sparsely covered with a sward closely-cropped grass. Stony outcroppings were scattered across the field, gleaming whitely in alternating patches of sunshine and shade as the wind swept clouds across the landscape. The grass was longer nearest the boulders, and seed heads nodded in the wind. There was no sign of any living thing, although trimmed grass suggested sheep and a yellowing bone by his feet supported this supposition.

The air was heavy with the threat of rain, and faint rumbles of thunder muttered constantly in the distance. His untidy hair, damp with sweat, clung to his face and he pushed it away with one hand, smoothing it back behind his ears.

The view trembled slightly as the heat of summer escaped the earth. Roiling black clouds moved steadily in from the east, and the sun gleamed through the shimmering air, bathing everything before him in a strange, brassy radiance. An uncanny feeling crept over Simon and he startled, feeling for a moment as if someone was standing right behind him. He turned, but there was no-one there.

He shivered and, shouldering his pack more squarely, moved slowly forwards, crossing the field diagonally. Chalk pebbles crumbled underfoot and the crunchy sound of his footsteps seemed loud in his ears although their echo was swallowed instantly in the heavy, deadened air. A shimmer of lightning illuminated the cloudbank ahead, and a loud roll of thunder indicated the storm’s approach.

Simon swallowed with difficulty, his tongue dry in his mouth. His skin prickled, and on his forearms all the hairs stood on end. Again, Simon felt he was being watched, and a light breeze signed across his skin, soft as a caress. He shivered again, more violently, and instantly a patch of goose bumps appeared on his left arm. He rubbed the spot, which felt hot and itchy, though his hands and legs were cold and shaking.

Eyeing the sky watchfully he continued to move forwards, feeling with every step a rise in tension. The meadow fell into semi-darkness as the fitful sunlight faded under the storm’s shadow. He felt his energy being sapped with every step, and his footsteps steadily slowed until he came to a halt. Head hanging, he let the pack slip from his back and fall to the ground. It had become very hard to breather, and Simon panted as he lifted his head and pressed a hand to his chest.

Suddenly, a great bolt of lightning smote the edge of the field. As its awesome power whited-out his eyesight, Simon could see imprinted on his vision a pattern of chalk fragments thrown up from the boulder that had been hit. A blast of almost palpable sound swept across the field and struck him where he stood.  He fell to his knees and grovelled as the deafening concussion swept over him. Strike after strike hit the field in quick succession, shaking the ground like an earthquake, and Simon curled up on the bony soil, wrapping his arms around his ears and tightly closing his eyes. He sobbed.

Simon lay at the centre of the great storm, shuddering as successive lightning charges earthed around him, deafened by the continual subsonic book of shock waves passing over him. His fear climaxed and passed over into a fatalistic calm: a steady and forthright acceptance. As his mind cleared, so silence fell upon the chalky field. Simon dared to open his eyes, defying the brilliance that played upon his clenched eyelids. His eyes widened. He stared.

All about him, lightning coruscated, sending multiple bolts from cloud to earth, earth to sky, as if in slow motion. The earth no longer heaved in protest, but tossed gently, cradling him with a rhythmic rocking motion.

Above his head, silver lights coalesced to form a shimmering vapour. It roiled and stirred, sending forth a glowing pseudopod to touch his face. Startled, he flinched and the light withdrew, returning to slide down his cheek and neck. Cool and silken, like water in a skin of light, it touched him and he shook.

Unable to move his heavy limbs, Simon lay and watched. Silently, a face materialised n the silver mist. Great lion’s eyes, lit with a topaz glow, fringed with a mane of light, stared at him solemnly. A shining face, ageless and innocent, looked down upon him. She smiled, and Simon felt his heart stop.

Colder and colder he was becoming, leaving the dense, earthly flesh behind. Gradually, he raised himself to meet her, and his body began to settle back and cool into darkness. She frowned. For a moment Simon felt uneasy, and strove to reach her. The silken mouth opened, and he felt her cool breath wash over him. An immense weight struck him in the chest, and its astonishing power swept him into oblivion.

Simon lay quietly, blinking slightly as the water ran into his eyes. He focused slowly on a streamlet of bubbling water, frothing over the white path into the mists. He could hear it chuckling below his resting place, at the edge of the field, where the ground fell away. A droplet of rain glimmering on a seedhead of rye captured his attention and he gazed at it solemnly.

As he came back to himself, he realised he was completely sodden and water from his hair was dripping into his eyes. Simon rolled slightly onto his side and raised his left hand to smooth the hair off his face. He winced at the initial movement, then gasped as pain gripped him. He felt as though giants had danced on his chest. Every muscle ached and tightened, as if he had run a marathon in his sleep.

Groaning, he rolled over and eased himself onto hands and knees. As he hung there a moment, marshalling his strength, he noticed his pack on the ground beside him. The straps were intact, but the waistbelt had been burned away and a great scorchmark marred the side pocket. Like Simon, it was now soaked and smelt odd.

Simon struggled to his feet, breathing carefully, and shouldered his pack. Wincing, he slowly straightened and looked out across the vale. Mist filled every valley, but above the clouds were clearing and a pale sun shone.

Far off to the north-west the dark clouds retreated, making their way to some other hilltop. A brief flicker of lightning teased at the edge of vision, and a strange expression passed over Simon’s face.

Carefully, he stepped onto the downward path, now a chalky rivulet, and began his descent. As he did so a thin rumble of thunder reached his ears and a breath of wind, soft as silk, caressed his face once before passing on, to set the grasses dancing.

©YMarjot

 

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Norah’s Ark

Here’s a short story for a wet Sunday. I donated it to the anthology ‘Writing for Rescue’, which is raising money for an animal protection initiative in Romania.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Rescue-Karen-Taylor-ebook/dp/B00QZEI4GC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1460907620&sr=8-1&keywords=writing+for+rescue

writing for rescue

Norah’s Ark

“Come on, kids, the water’s nearly up to the doorstep.”

Norah balanced the twins on either hip as she wedged one foot and then the other into her Wellingtons. She wobbled as Japh made a grab for her earring, and then stepped off into the water sloshing past her front doorstep. Fortunately the 4-by-4 sat high on its massive tires, well above the water level in the road. At the rate the flood was rising, though, it wouldn’t be long before it was too dangerous to leave.

Sulie pushed past her and wriggled into the middle spot between the two car seats. She deftly buckled herself in, and helped Norah to secure the twins. Jemmy squeaked as his harness clicked shut, then giggled as Sulie tickled his tummy. Norah could feel the pressure of the water flowing down the road. It pushed against the back of her boots. She looked round to see if other neighbours were also evacuating, but all the doors down the street were tight shut. Perhaps they’d left already.

She took a quick head count. In the back of the vehicle Spot and Merry whined in unison, and she could hear the guinea pigs scratching in their travel basket. The lorikeets’ cage was safely stowed on the floor in front of the passenger seat, with plenty of room for Sam’s legs.

Sam. Where was he? A frown creased her face as she worked her way through her worry list. Food – check. Spare clothes – check. Pet supplies – check. Dogs – guineas – lories – rat…

Rats. That’s where Sam would be. She plunged back into the house, not bothering to remove her wellies. Give it an hour and the water would be through the whole lower storey anyway. This weather! She hadn’t seen anything like it in all the years they’d lived in Shottom-by-the-River. For the first time she realised what ‘by-the-River’ could actually mean.

Sam was upstairs, trying to secure the door of the rats’ cage. Pinky and Poppy were huddled together in a pile of straw, staring at him. It was as if they understood what was coming. Norah brushed the hair out of her face wearily before she spoke to him, trying to keep exasperation out of her voice.

“Sam, I thought we were going to leave the rats. There’s no room in the car. With plenty of food and water they can easily last a week.”

“No, I can’t leave them to drown.”

“Oh, honey, the water’s not going to come up this far.”

She injected a note of jolly confidence into her words, but to be honest her heart was with Sam on this one. Who knew what tomorrow might bring, or how high the waters might rise? He looked up at her, white-faced, one hand stubbornly wrapped around the handle of the cage.

“Come on, then. I’ll bring the cage and you carry their blanket.”

Sam stood on the doorstep as Norah waded to the car and deposited the rats on the driver’s seat. Then she carried Sam to the passenger side and decanted him carefully into the seat. “You’re a weight, my boy,” she said, hiding her fears under a joke, as she so often did. “Get yourself strapped in and I’ll give you the rats to hold.” Carefully she made her way back to the driver’s side. The water was already above the tops of her boots, and they had filled with water, the weight of them dragging at her as she walked.

She cast one look back at her front door. There seemed no point in closing it; the water was already lapping at the sill. She perched on the edge of her seat and pulled off her wellies. She tipped them upside-down, adding their contents to the ever-increasing volume of water sweeping down the lane. She shoved them under the seat, along with her soaked socks, and applied her bare feet to the pedals. As she snapped her seatbelt shut she made one final check that Sam’s seatbelt was done up, and the three in the back seat were ready to go. Sam draped the blanket over the cage on his lap, and the silent agitation of the rats calmed.

Norah resisted the urge to watch her house in the rear-view mirror as they drove slowly along the lane. It was only a house. All the important things were right here with her in the car – all but one. The 4-wheel-drive vehicle made short work of the two feet of water in the lane, and surged forwards as they gained the higher ground at the far end of the village. Ahead, perched on the top of the hill, she could see their destination.

‘The Ark and Courage’ had been a pub from time immemorial. No-one knew how it had come by its peculiar name. It was familiar ground to Norah, because before the kids were born she’d been the barmaid there, and then the proprietor’s wife. Now she came to him, bringing all the things that he cared most about in the world. “My wife, my kids, my animals. That’s what matters. Anything else is just window-dressing. You’re what matters to me.”

For the first time that day, Norah began to feel calm. She’d done what she needed to do, and now she wouldn’t have to cope on her own any more. If anyone knew what to do in this situation, Philip Noah would know.

He was there in the doorway as she pulled into the pub car park, striding forward to help Sam with the rats. Norah climbed out and went to open the back doors, but was delayed briefly by his hand on her arm and the warmth of his kiss. She smiled in relief at his kind, wonderful, utterly reliable face. “There you are, Mrs Noah,” he said. “What about this British summer, eh?”

Let’s talk about love, #2

Source: Let’s talk about love, #2

Here’s a taste of real life to add spice to my fiction. I think after forty years I can stand to reveal this much.

A Study in Rojo Brillante

A bit of fun from my writing course – an exercise that was never presented to the class, since the video conference link went down. The brief was to imagine ‘what if’ the Spanish Armada had succeeded. What would Britain be like? Fast forward to the beginning of the twentieth century…

A Study in Rojo Brillante

The sturdy figure making its way through the darkened streets turned its collar against the damp cold seeping up from the river. As he turned into Calle Panadero he heard a faint thread of music, perhaps from one of the basement clubs, and smelled the fresh scent of coffee from the tapas bar across the road. The bartender stood outside the club, smoking a foul smelling cheroot whose smoke mingled with the river fog and the spicy aroma of the tapas bar to produce a fug of smog and smell that was the very essence of London.

“Buenas noches, Doctor Juan,” the bartender said, wafting a cloud of smoke across the street. The man crossed the road and peered into the bar. The evening was young, and as yet there were no patrons.

“Buenas noches, Manuel. How’s business?”

The bartender’s lugubrious face fell further. “Terrible,” he said. “Just terrible. This weather is so bad – if it isn’t raining then it’s smoggy, and no-one wants to sit at my nice kerbside tables and eat tapas in the fog.”

A further strain of sound swam into the street, and the man raised his eyes to the upper flat opposite. “And our friend?” he asked. “How has he been?”

“Terrible, also,” Manuel replied morosely. “He has been playing the flamenco again.”
The sound emanating from the house opposite definitely bore some resemblance to flamenco, with its driving rhythm and throbbing strings, but it would have proved difficult to dance to, as its melody swooped and faltered by turns, occasionally dying off altogether when an infelicitous conjunction of chords occurred. The two men standing in the street could clearly hear the wickedest of swear words interspersed with these flurries of sound. The man raised an eyebrow. “I see what you mean,” he said.

The bartender stepped into the bar and returned a moment later with two mugs of thick, black coffee, liberally sweetened in the case of the doctor, and presented them with a slight bow. With the coffees came a bag of fardelejos, small pastries redolent of almonds and lemon oil, still warm from the oven.

“Gracias. He needs all the sweetening he can get.”

“How is the case? Is it not going well?”

“The trouble is that there is no case. If I don’t find him a good mystery soon, I can’t be held responsible for the consequences. All I can say is that they will be much worse than a bad attempt at flamenco. Remember the incident of the matador?”

The bartender winced. He patted the doctor’s arm. “He is lucky to have such a good friend,” he said. “You will find him what he needs.”

“I sincerely hope so.” The doctor crossed the street, pausing halfway as a small two-wheeled carriage rushed past, drawn by a shaggy pony whose mane was the same colour as its driver’s evil looking moustache. The driver leered at the doctor and spat impressively, but missed as his vehicle thundered past. The doctor gained the safety of the opposite pavement and paused to readjust the coffee cups before pressing the latch and entering his house. The door clicked closed behind him, and as the bartender ducked back into his establishment the streetlights came on, illuminating the number plate beside the door latch, which read, in large brass letters, 221B.

Aurora in Tatters, an alternative fairy tale

My writing friend Kim Walker https://nutsandcrisps.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/my-lovely-blog-hop/ has tagged me in this blog hop. My current work-in-progress is a novel with fairy tale aspects, so I thought it might be nice to post this short story, also based an a traditional story that we all know.

Aurora in Tatters

(A well-known fairytale in new clothes)

Deep in the long-ago, when days were long and the rivers were full of fish, there lived a reindeer herder, who spent the days running with his herd over the wide tundra. The joy of his life was his wife, Anushka, and their baby daughter, Aurora, named for the flickering curtains of light that hung in the midwinter sky.

In the summer, Anushka rode alongside her husband and shared the work, and the baby was wrapped in richly embroidered garments and lashed to her cradle, which hung from the back of the largest reindeer, so that her earliest memories were of snow and trees and the yellow grass and tiny flowers of the tundra, all swaying and moving in a rhythm of hoofbeats punctuated by the sound of harness bells. But one day, when Aurora was still a young girl, Anushka sickened and died. A reindeer herder cannot manage his herd alone, so Aurora’s father took another wife: a strong woman with half-grown daughters of her own.

The woman was a good worker, and handled the reindeer well, although she preferred not to sully her hands with domestic work. Her daughters were spoilt and idle, and the lazy girls would beat and pinch Aurora until she agreed to do all their chores for them. When Aurora tried to speak up, her stepmother scolded her for her wicked lies. Her father looked at her with sad eyes and said, “Aurora, it’s not like you to complain,” and for his sake she tried not to respond to her sisters’ spite.

Not long after, Aurora’s father also died and she was left alone in the world apart from the stepmother and the wicked stepsisters. Now the work really began. There was mending and weaving to be done, and the dense, colourful woollen embroideries of the Sami, until her fingers bled and ached. There was cooking, and collecting fuel, to keep her sisters warm and fed while they lay before the fire and gossiped about this one, or that one who had caught their fancy. And of course there were always the reindeer. Aurora’s strong, young fingers were ideal for teasing out burrs in manes and coats, for reaching deep into straining bodies to ease the birth of calves, or just as a comfort for youngsters to suck on when they were first weaned.

The mother could not run the herd alone, and the sisters had learned nothing about the beasts, so it was for Aurora to check hooves and antlers, soothe sore joints and groom hides, comfort the weanlings and gut and strip the carcasses of mothers that had not made it through the dangerous hours of birthing.

There was no new clothing for Aurora, no footwear when her feet grew, no rich, decorated holiday coat or fur-lined hood to comfort her days. Her clothing grew grey and ragged with use, and her breath froze on the lining of her hood, so that on winter days the icicles jangled and rattled against her face. The sisters spoke of nothing but the coming summer gathering, when all the herds come together and there is feasting and dancing. This year the son of the most powerful herder would choose his bride at the solstice celebration. There would be a great dance, all day and all night, to find out which of the young women had the strength of body and will to make the best match, and both sisters fancied themselves as the chosen one.

Come the day, Aurora was exhausted. She had been up all night, sewing through the long, long hours of midsummer half-light, and had completed her sisters’ festival coats with moments to spare. They had shown their thanks with a pinch and a kick as they left the tent, swept away by their mother to enjoy the day. Aurora lay on the floor, too tired to move, and closed her eyes – just for a moment. Her eyes shot open again at the sound of a voice. She scrambled to her feet and turned to face the woman who had just pulled open the flap.

Her figure said she was young, but her face was lined and full of experience. She was dressed from head-to-toe in embroidered finery, white on white, and the absence of colour was somehow more beautiful than the colourful work Aurora had spent her best talents on that morning. Her mukluks and hood were made of a sumptuous, buttery-white fur. Her eyes were black, and bright. Aurora had never seen her before.

She held out her hand and Aurora took it, bemused. “I am Anelka,” she said, “and you are my sister-daughter. I have come to bid you join the dance.”

“No, no,” Aurora protested. “I can’t go to the dance. I have nothing to wear.” She pulled her rags around herself and hung her head.

Anelka gestured to a bag that lay at her feet. “I had thought you younger,” she said, “but you are thin enough. I think these will fit.”

Aurora upended the bag and out poured the most gorgeous embroidered garments, made of finest wool and bearing her own family’s sigils and designs – the narwhal, the tundra lily and the great ice bear. The clothing fitted her perfectly. At the end her aunt slid her own feet out of the beautiful ice-bear fur mukluks and passed them over to Aurora, along with the bear fur hood. Aurora’s fingers, tired to the bone, ached as she tried to tie the laces and her hands shook.

Anelka knelt and tied the laces for her. Then she handed Aurora an otterskin bottle. “Drink it,” she said. “It will help.”

Aurora tipped the bottle to her lips. She tasted lichen, herbs and the strong, harsh spirit the reindeer herders brewed, distilled over ice in the bitter winter nights. She drank. The concoction worked like magic – dispelling her fatigue and filling her with confidence. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes brightened. Throwing her arms around her aunt, she hugged her hard, then ran as fast as her legs could carry her to join the dancing.

It took half the night for her to work her way in to the central group. All round her, the older members of the gathering were failing, one by one, and settling down to drink, and talk, and watch the young ones dance on. At around midnight, her elder stepsister gave in, stumbling to the side and sinking to the ground. Groaning, she clutched her ankle and moaned, “if only I had not worked so hard today. I am sure I could have lasted the night.” Her sibling lasted scant moments longer. Her complaint: “I am sure the ungrateful child has made my mukluks with a wrinkle in the sole, and now I have a blister.”

Aurora danced on, blissfully unaware, shaking out her plaits and stamping the ground down under her strong, long, never-tiring legs, shedding her layers of beautiful clothing as the hot summer night wore on. As dawn fluttered across the sky, the half-light broadening into the golden glow of a new day, she raised her head and at last everyone could see her face as she met the eyes of the man for whom they were all in competition. They were the only dancers still standing. He was tall, not a youth but in the first strength of his manhood. His grey eyes warmed as he looked on her, and he held out his hand. “So, it is to be you,” he said as he lifted Aurora’s hand above her head and turned her in a full circle, so that all the people could see her.

Aurora dipped and twirled in this final step of the dance, but as the drums thudded into silence and the singers’ voices fell she stepped away. Her voice rang out clearly over the heads of the gathered crowd, although her words were directed to the man who stood before her.

“I thank you for this dance – I will always remember it. I am sure you would make a wonderful husband, but I am not ready to marry. I am going with my aunt into the deep north to hunt the great ice bears. Perhaps when I come back we can dance the summer dance again, and we will see who has the strength to finish.”

Her partner gave no sign that he was disappointed. His face was grave as he bowed his head to her, although a smile quirked the corner of his lips. “I shall look forward to it,” he said. His hand rested, briefly warm, in the small of her back as he escorted her to Anelka’s side, and he bent and scooped up the pile of her discarded clothing and handed it to her.

His father joined him, and the two reindeer herders, old and young, stood and watched the women walk away. They moved lightly, like wild animals themselves, through the reindeer and the herds closed around them. As they disappeared from sight, the younger man bent to pick up something lying at his feet. He laughed. In his hand he held one, beautiful, ivory-coloured bear-fur mukluk.

TCC cover art front_MG_4463 edited

Making the Best of Things – Part 5.

Making the Most of Things

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas

Part 5 – Christmas Day

Yawning, Annette throws back the bedclothes and puts her feet out onto the mat. It has been snowing most of the night. She opens the curtains and peers out into the morning twilight. A few flakes are swirling in the air outside her window, and the clouds are low and sullen, with a yellowish tinge that presages more snow to come. She hopes it won’t spoil their lunch plans.
Saf is well settled in her corner. During the night she’d pulled part of her fleece blanket over herself, and now peers from under a tartan counterpane. Annette shuffles out to the kitchen and makes a cup of tea. She leans against the kitchen bench while she drinks it, watching the light gradually increase outside and the snow flurries come and go. Everything is coated in white, and the houses and yards of the town are softened by snow. It’s a picture-perfect Christmas scene. The Bartholomew kids are out in their back yard, trying to roll the snow up into a snowman-sized lump, but its consistency is slightly too wet and it keeps collapsing. They give it up and begin to throw snowballs instead.
Saf emerges, grumbling, and eats breakfast, while Annette pulls on her clothes, and hunts out a warmer scarf. Just one visit this morning; then she can settle in to a good book, before it’s time for lunch.
Aggie’s already opening the door before they reach the end of the path. Behind her, two black noses poke into the cold air, twitching like fury as they read messages on the wind. Saf whines a greeting, and they reply with yips. Max sits back on his haunches and scratches behind an ear, and Aggie steps to the side to allow Saf to enter.
“Greetings of the season and all that,” she says, as Annette makes her way into the hall and pulls off her hat and mitts.
“You too.” Annette hugs her friend, briefly. It’s about as much affection as Aggie can stand. “All set for the day? What time do you think Malkie will emerge?” Aggie’s brother is not known for his early rising habits.
“He’s not here.” Aggie’s comment is short, and clipped back, as if there’s more she’d like to say but she’s resisting the urge to say it.
“What happened? Is he okay?”
“What happened is that he phoned me at nearly midnight last night, merry as Old Nick, and told me he was staying with a mate in Glasgow. “Sorry, Ags, got a better offer. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy whotsit etcetera etcetera.”
“Oh, Aggie. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not. Better off without him, the little git.”
“So, you can come out to lunch with us, then?”
“No, I’ve made my plans. I intend to stick with them. There’s no point in letting all that food go to waste.”
“Oh, Aggie. Don’t spend the day on your own. Come out and enjoy yourself with us. The food will keep until tomorrow.”
“No. I’ve made up my mind.” Aggie’s expression is obdurate. Annette knows that face well. She’s pushed things as far as she can. The best move now is to back down and walk away quietly, leave Aggie to mull things over on her own. She breaks the tension of the moment by pushing a parcel into Aggie’s hands. “You shouldn’t have.” Aggie stumps into the living room and picks up a package from under the tree, beautifully wrapped with a handmade card. Like everything Aggie does, this parcel has been thought out and planned over, to the last curl of ribbon.
She sees her friend to the door, Saf following without demur. Annette sets off down the path, holding her hand up in front of her face to waft away the snow, which is already falling more thickly. At the gate she turns and looks back, but Aggie’s already closed the door and gone back in.


Outside, the pub looks the same as always, or perhaps a little cleaner on account of its coating of snow. The street lights are orange halos in the greyness of the afternoon, the light already beginning to fade out of the sky and the snow clouds thicker than ever. Annette’s pleased she decided to leave Saf at home. It wouldn’t have been fair to make her sit in the cold porch while she was inside enjoying herself. The dog is happy enough tucked up in bed with a bone to gnaw.
In a corner of the porch, half-hidden under the coats on the rack, is a wire cage with a dog bed inside it. Sugar sits there, wearing a fetching tartan coat with a sprig of artificial holly hanging off her collar. She’s pleased enough to see Annette, and comes forward for a tickle around the gills, but she soon settles back into her cosy spot. Her spot is well sheltered from the draught, and she seems quite content to sit and wait for Sara’s return.
As Annette pushes open the door into the bar, a warm fug of hearth fire, whisky and dinner wafts out to meet her. Sara’s there, tucked in at the head of the table, and seated with their backs to her are Val and Chantelle. Their party is set up at one end of a solid wooden table that could easily seat ten. Annette sinks into the seat opposite Val and waves her hand at Michael, who is waiting on the adjacent table.
“Hi Mum. What’ll you have?”
“Blackcurrant schnapps for me. What will you have, ladies?”
“We’ve ordered our own,” says Val. “We talked it over before you arrived and decided we’d each keep our own tab.”
“Fine.” Michael bends down and kisses her cheek, and she reaches up to stroke his arm. “Happy Birthday, Mike.” He swans off to fetch her order, detouring to a woman on the far side of the room who has her hand up. The room is almost full. Their table is the only one that could possibly fit in another party, and Annette hopes selfishly that no-one else will be joining them. It’s nice to have the table to themselves.
The appetiser is a shared plate of titbits, both hot and cold, and by the time the four of them have cleared it up the blackcurrant schnapps has made a warm pocket in Annette’s tummy. She pours herself a few centimetres of wine from Val’s bottle, and sits back to await the main course. Turkey trad with all the trimmings is how Michael had described it, so she’s not expecting any surprises, but she’s looking forward to it nonetheless. Half the pleasure of eating out, anyway, is not having to do the cooking yourself. She doesn’t mind how mundane the meal turns out to be.
The lights dim and Michael appears, holding back the swing door from the kitchen. A procession of people emerges, bearing serving dishes. The other diners ooh and ah as the procession passes them: both waitresses, the sous chef, and Donald himself, followed up by Michael with a bottle of claret and a corkscrew in one hand, and a gravy boat in the other. Donald carries the largest dish, on which rests a resplendent roast goose. The others carry a small ham, studded with cloves and an assortment of roasted and steamed vegetables.
With a flourish, Donald places the goose in front of Annette, and gestures to his staff to set down the other dishes. The four women are agog; Val’s grinning from ear to ear. “Donald, you’ve done yourself proud,” she says, reaching out to snag a chestnut.
“Not my doing, Missus.”
A small, cold draught crosses the room as the outer door is opened and shut, and a moment later Aggie Matchum slides into the seat next to Annette’s. Michael is there, ready to lay out her cutlery, and offers her the claret to sample. She nods her thanks at him, and he fills her glass and sets the bottle down on the table.
Aggie pulls a little, ruby pot of cranberry sauce from her pocket and plonks it down on the table, then looks round at the faces of her friends. “What?” she says. “It’s not like I could eat it all myself.”

Making the Best of Things – Part 4

Daisy

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas

Part 4 – Christmas Eve

Val sets the phone back on its charger and sinks down on the chair in the hall. A fat tear rolls down her nose and drips onto the floor as she puts her head in her hands. That’s it, then. All her family Christmas calls over and done with.
She didn’t at all mind turning down the invitations from her eldest children. Their houses, and their lives, are cold and unwelcoming to her. Neither chick nor child between them – two arid marriages focused around work and money. She’s sorry not to be seeing Anne, though. That home is warm and welcoming, an untidy clutter of children and domestic disorder that’s somehow comforting.
Of course, she can visit Anne anytime, and will probably see her early in the spring, but it isn’t the same as seeing the kids at Christmas. At least she doesn’t need to worry about the gifts – she’d sent money to Anne, to buy what the wee ones most needed. They’ll get their presents tomorrow, all gathered together with Anne’s parents-in-law, who live next door.
Chatting to Anne today, and hearing the children’s voices down the phone, has reminded her how lonely it’s going to be tomorrow, waking up to Christmas alone. Still, it’s far too late to change her mind now. Besides, there’s lunch to look forward too, and the company of her friends. It could be far, far worse.
Pulling herself together, she takes her coat down from its hook and calls Karma. A walk will serve to clear the cobwebs away.

It’s dank and bleak up on the hill, and the women’s breaths puff white in the cold air. The weather is still and calm, though thick, yellowish cloud on the horizon promises fouler weather to come. Four of them stand, conversing quietly, in a tangle of dogs and leads, as Aggie forges up the hill towards them.
She’ s holding both leads in one hand, and a plastic shopping bag in the other. Just for a change, Max and Fliss are not barging each other or jostling for attention. They trot side by side, tonges lolling, all their attention focused on their mistress. They are so interested in the bag she is carrying that they pay no attention to the other dogs, even when Karma lets off a ghastly howl.
As they come abreast of the group, all the dogs begin to show interest in the bag. Aggie holds it high as Sugar leaps at it.
“Oh, no you don’t. This is for your Mum. You don’t get it till later.” Pulling open the bag, she distributes four Christmas parcels, wrapped in brightly coloured paper and labelled with the names of the dogs. She distracts the dogs by offering each of them a treat in turn, and they line up obediently to receive it.
All except Karma – who takes advantage of the other dogs’ absence to lunge at his owner. Val jerks back, but Karma has managed to get his teeth into the parcel. He pulls away and begins to growl as he worries at the parcel, shaking it fiercely.
The parcel breaks open, and its contents fly into the air. A confetti of bone-shaped treats scatters over the roadway, and the pack of dogs descends on it, gulping the treats down before anyone can stop them.
Moments later, the road is clean, and six very happy dogs are sitting at their owners’ feet, bright-eyed and satisfied. Karma wears a doggy grin the size of Christmas. Val shrugs. “Oh, well, I suppose that’s one way of handing them out!”

Saf comes bounding in from the garden, and pokes her freezing wet nose into Annette’s palm. She runs her fingers through the dog’s ruff and, feeling wetness, grabs the dog towel and gives her a quick pummelling. Saf leans against her and huffs in pleasure.
As she straightens up, Annette looks out the doorway at the gathering darkness. Streetlights and Christmas lights punctuate the night, but the sky is low and heavy without any stars. There’s a wet smell on the wind, and she wonders what the weather will bring tomorrow. Surely those are snowflakes swirling in the garden?
Later, in the deep, small hours of the morning, Michael rises quietly and sets off to work. A cold curl of wind enters the house as he leaves and disturbs Annette’s sleep, but she only rolls over and begins to snore again. Snow deposits a coating of white on his shoulders as he begins his walk down the road towards the harbour.

Making the Best of Things – Part 3

Karma and Saf

Part of the Christmas with the Crooked Cats season. https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas

Part 3 – 16th December

“Halloo…” The voice rings in the crisp, still air. Val stops mid-sentence and turns to look. Behind them, Chantelle is striding up the road, dragging a reluctant Daisy at the end of her chain. Daisy wants to stop and sniff things. Everything.
“Hello, Ladies. May I join you?” Chantelle is pink-cheeked and breathless. She wears a multi-coloured woollen helmet that looks as though it belongs to one of her kids. Her tiny feet are encased in purple, knee-length boots and she wears purple gloves and a navy raincoat. Wisps of auburn hair escaping from the hat frame her face. She makes the other women feel old and frumpy.
“Sure.” Aggie’s gesture encompasses her friends. “The more the merrier.”
Daisy introduces herself to the other canine members of the group, by bounding over to them and licking each in turn. The dogs sort out their complex, scent-based pecking order with a minimum of fuss, apart from Karma, whose contribution to the communication web seems to consist mostly of howling. Saf nips him on the ear in a minatory fashion and he subsides, tongue lolling.
Today’s walk takes them up round the top of the old cemetery. Beyond its lichen-painted walls a wide, empty pasture stretches away to the skyline. The dogs are happy to slip their leashes and run, gambolling and frolicking in the December twilight. The women talk quietly among themselves. Daisy rushes back to nuzzle Chantelle’s fingers, hoping for a treat, and stays to have her ears ruffled and flanks patted. She walks at heel, without instruction, copying Saf who has stuck close to her mistress’s legs, uninterested in cow pats and rabbits.
Fliss, Max and Karma have chased off the rabbits, but they’ve worked out that at least one is hiding in the warren on the edge of the hill. Karma is beside himself with excitement, and keeps rushing at the hole, in the hopes of flushing some game. The rabbits are having none of it. They know exactly what to do when dogs as big and stupid as this are about: you sit still and wait. The dogs will get bored soon enough. It’s the little ones that a rabbit needs to watch out for: terriers and the like; dogs that are bred to go down a rabbit hole and haul out whatever they find there. These dogs are no problem.
Aggie whistles and shakes her bag of tricks. Fliss and Max respond instantly, charging down the hill to arrive, skidding into place in a tangle of legs and muzzles, precisely at Aggie’s toes. Saf is already there, eyes focused on the bag, and Daisy is quick to spot the opportunity of free food. Aggie makes her two wait while she feeds the others: one treat each, and Fliss and Max have to beg for it. They know what’s expected of them, and perform perfectly. Karma is still up at the warren.
Aggie shakes the bag again, just as Val calls. “Come, Karma. Come.” Neither action elicits any response, but Saf barks suddenly, and Karma’s head goes up to listen. One more shake of the bag and Karma finally gets the message, inhaling his treat as Val clips the lead back onto his collar.
As they round the top of the cemetery and approach the road again, a figure is seen to be waiting by the lych gate. Sara smiles shyly as the others come abreast of her, and Karma lunges at Sugar. The two dogs go into a paroxysm of mutual delight as Val takes charge.
“This is my friend Sara. I invited her to join us, because she’s trying to build up her walking each day. We met at a …thing… we both go to.”
Annette and Chantelle are too polite to say anything, but Aggie has no such compunctions. She snorts. “Weightwatchers, you mean.” A flicker of irritation crosses Val’s face. Everyone in the group has heard about that ‘last five pounds I just can’t shift’, but the truth is that the weekly Weightwatcher’s meeting is a fixture in Val’s diary. She loves to meet her friends, gossip about their week, and commiserate with those who, like her, have once again failed to shift a single pound.
Sara’s been doing better. She’s losing a regular one or two pounds a week, and she’s already succeeded in walking to the bus stop and back without a break. Her aim is to get to the point where she can walk right down the town to the shops, and back again. Val’s taken Sara under her wing – there’s only so much mothering Karma can take, and there’s plenty more where that came from. It’s Val’s idea to introduce Sara to the group, and she’s quite nervous about it. She walks along quietly at the back of the group, as Val propounds her latest Christmas plan.
Annette interrupts. “What is everyone doing for Christmas, anyway. We know Val’s going on a Portuguese coach tour, but what about the rest of us?”
Aggie snorts, as Val retorts. “I only mentioned that as a possibility. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“I’m fine,” says Aggie. “I’ll be doing Christmas dinner for Malcolm, then he’ll go down the pub and I’ll take our four-footed kids for their walk. He can do the dishes.”
“I’m on my own this year,” volunteers Chantelle. “All my kids are going to my ex’s house, and he says he’s taking the dog too. I won’t know what to do with myself.” She falls silent as the truth of this washes over her. She can’t remember a Christmas that wasn’t full of kids, and husband, and work. What will she do with herself?
“It’ll just be me,” says Annette. “Michael’s around, but he’s working all day, and then he’s going to stay over at his boyfriend’s place. Saf’ll be there. We’re used to our own company. I did have an idea, though.”
Aggie interrupts. “What about you, Sara?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Come on, what will you be doing on the day? Got any romantic plans?” Annette winces at Aggie’s lack of tact, but it seems to suit Sara. She squares her shoulders and answers more confidently. “As a matter of fact, I’ll be by myself on Christmas Day. I was thinking about eating out.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking.” Annette grins at Sara, who smiles back, suddenly feeling more welcome. “I think we should all go out together for Christmas lunch. Who’s with me?”
“I’ll join you,” says Chantelle. “It sounds like a great idea.”
Val’s less certain. “I might not be here,” she points out. “But I’ll do it if I decide not to go away. What about you, Sara?”
“I’d love to. If that’s okay with everyone.”
“Of course it is.” Val blithely speaks for everyone. “What about you, Aggie?”
“I’ve already told you, I’ll be feeding Malcolm and walking the dogs. You can join me for a walk in the afternoon if you want. Go ahead and eat together – it’s no skin off my nose.”

“Hello, may I speak to Michael, please?”
“Who is this calling?”
“It’s his mother.”
“One moment.”
Saf bumps Annette’s leg and she strokes the dog absently, waiting for Michael to come to the phone. She doesn’t like to call him at work. You never know what urgent task you might be interrupting. However, two in the afternoon is a fairly safe time – midway between the busy points of lunch and dinner.
“Mum, how are you?”
“I’m fine, Michael. Listen, I’m hoping you can help me with something. Is Donald opening up on Christmas Day?”
“Yes, just from one to three in the afternoon. Late lunch. Christmas trad with all the trimmings.”
“Does he have many bookings?”
“Only two so far, I think.”
“Good. Could you pencil me in for a party of four. No, better make that five. Will you join us? It is your birthday, after all.”
“No thanks, Mum. I’ll be pretty busy. Donald needs me, and anyway it’s a good day to get tips.”
“Please yourself. I’m sure you can spare your old mother five minutes for a birthday kiss. So – a table for five.”
“Care to share?”
“Oh, just an idea I’ve got. Tell Donald I’ll let him know by the end of the week if the booking’s definite.”
“Will do. Love you, Mum.”
“Love you too. Bye now.”
Annette walks back into the living room and sinks into an armchair, positioned by the window looking out over the bay. Her hands run slowly through Saf’s coat, over and over again. It might just work. The others are mostly on board already. Aggie’s likely to be the most difficult. As always. Aggie will resist just for the sake of it. Perhaps the best approach is for Annette to pretend that she doesn’t care whether her friend joins the party or not: a bit of reverse psychology.
If she really thinks they don’t care, she’ll be moving her plans to make sure she is included. Aggie can’t bear to think she might be missing out. Annette grins to herself. You are a wicked witch, Annette Miller. The sun goes down behind the hills across the harbour, and the clouds glow crimson and gold as she stirs herself into action. Time for tea.

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas. Part 2 – 5th December

Sugar

Here’s part 2. Page down to read part 1 of my Christmas story, or sign up to https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/ for Christmas with the Crooked Cats, a seasonal fest of stories from my fellow authors at Crooked Cat Publishing. I’ll post the rest of this 5-part story over the course of today. Enjoy.

“And then Lionel says to me, ‘it’s all sorted. You’re to stay with Anne on Christmas Eve, and either I or Liz will have you on Christmas Day, and the other one on Boxing Day. The only thing you have to arrange is your Travelodge on the journey, and tell Anne what time you’ll arrive.’ It’s typical.”
Val has been in full flight for ten minutes, long enough to walk up the lane and cross into the road that runs past the church. Annette’s beside her, listening, with an occasional sympathetic grunt to let Val know she’s still being listened to. Not that Val would notice if she stopped responding.
“I know exactly what the problem is. None of them want me. Christmas is ‘family time’. As if I’m not family. Anne must have got in quick and volunteered to do Christmas Eve, and now Liz and Lionel have to slug it out to see who has to have Mother on Christmas Day. I’ve a good mind to book a package holiday in the sun and tell them I’m not coming. That would serve them right.”
All the time that Val is talking, Karma pulls ahead, at the full stretch of his lead. His eyes bulge as he wheezes, trying to get one more centimetre of stretch out of his collar. Every now and again he makes ugly choking noises and Val releases another inch or two of the extendable lead, but he’s almost at the limit of it now. Saf is trotting beside him. Like a worried mother escorting a fractious toddler, she nudges him occasionally to break his stride. The distraction causes Karma to stop pulling for a moment, and gives him the chance to catch a much needed breath before he starts to choke himself again.
“I thought I might go to New Zealand. It’s supposed to be gorgeous there at this time of year. But you should see the prices they’re charging for air fares. Daylight robbery. I can’t believe they’re allowed to charge that much money for shoving you into a tiny seat, between a screaming kid and a shoebomber. Have you seen how many people they get into one of those 747s? Criminal. Anyway, I can’t afford it. I’ll be lucky if I can afford Portugal, the way things are going, that is if I still have a job in the New Year. Gone are the days when you put up with low Council wages for the job security. Nothing’s secure anymore.”
Behind the two women, Aggie strides up the hill, flanked by twin, white, bullet-shaped figures, each trying to veer in a different direction. They wear full harnesses, so pull as they might there’s no risk of choking. All that happens is that every now and again Max pulls a bit hard and Aggie yanks him back into line, momentarily lifting him off his feet. Each time this happens, Fliss barks at him. This ever-repeating scenario forms a percussive backdrop to the endless drone of Val’s voice. Aggie moves a bit closer and interrupts.
“Didn’t I see Sara Fraser at the bus stop with you again?”
Val takes no notice, but Annette turns her head while continuing to walk.
“Yes. That wee white dog is her Sugar.”
“West Highland Terrier, isn’t it?”
“That’s right. She’s a little darling. Bit jumpy and yappy for me, though. I prefer a big dog.” Annette looks complacently at Saf, who hasn’t needed a lead for years. On rare occasions when one is required (such as when walking at a beach or park adorned with notices specifying that ‘dogs must be on the lead’) she puts the lead on Saf and then gives her the end of it to hold in her mouth. Saf is perfectly happy to lead herself, and if anyone comments (as busybodies sometimes feel they have the right to do) Annette can point out that her dog is clearly on the lead, and the law has been complied with, to the letter.
Val is still talking. “I might just as well stay at home. At least then I wouldn’t need to worry about Karma. He doesn’t travel well, and I’m not sure kennels are the right place for him. They don’t appreciate his needs.” Karma pauses in his relentless struggle with the lead, to sniff an interesting deposit in the road before eating it. Saf sits on her haunches and looks at Annette. Eating another dog’s poo is definitely beyond the pale, as far as she’s concerned. Karma wags his tail and looks pleased with himself. Another successful foraging expedition. His face smiles as he pants, tongue lolling, and waits for them all to catch up.

Sara runs the duster over the glass shelf above the TV. She lifts the ornaments one by one, wipes and replaces them. Wafting the cloth over the bookshelf exhausts her and she sinks onto the sofa and picks up the remote control. Flicking through the channels, she leans back into her seat. Sugar whines hopefully and jumps into her lap.
With the dog draped across her knees, Sara settles down to watch. The other day she saw a pretty sapphire necklace she really wanted. Maybe today there’ll be something else she likes. Maybe today she’ll phone the number on the screen and order one. She knows she won’t, though. What would be the point of buying pretty things to wrap round such an ugly body?
Sara knows she’s ugly because her husband told her so, many times, before he died five years ago, still complaining. Before marriage, it had been her mother who told her what a disappointment she was. Now that her girls have grown up and left home, there doesn’t seem to be any point in trying to stay strong. She’s free to wallow.
On screen now, a massively obese woman is walking across a park accompanied by a fit looking man in shorts and a vest. Whatever he’s saying to the woman is drowned out by the little voice in the back of Sara’s head. “Pull yourself together, girl. How do you expect to find a man looking like that?” I got one, she thinks to herself. I got one all by myself. But she can hear Paul’s voice too, never satisfied, always wanting to improve her. “If you lost thirty pounds you’d be a goddess.”
Instead, she put the weight on, more and more of it, and now it’s a struggle to haul herself out of the chair and get back on her feet again. She does it: the program’s crap, and anyway she needs a cup of tea. On the way to the kitchen she takes one chocolate from the bowl in the corner. It’s only one. That doesn’t count.
While the kettle’s boiling she washes up the dishes from last night’s dinner. This is good. She’s in control of her life. Sugar sits adoringly at her feet, eyes fixed on her face, head moving to follow every movement. Sugar loves her. If it wasn’t for Sugar she thinks she might have just laid down and died when Kelsie left home.
Merys and Kelsie are Sara’s wee girls. Not so wee, these days: Merys is living in Dubai with her business consultant husband, and Kelsie’s at university in Glasgow. Kelsie’s going to spend Christmas with her boyfriend’s family in Aberdeen. They’re getting on with their lives. She’s glad of that: it proves she was a good mother. Neither of them is making the mistakes she did.
It’s lonely, though, now they’re gone. Some days it hardly seems worth getting out of bed, except for Sugar. With a sudden burst of energy, Sara gets the collar and lead and pushes her feet into her boots. It’s not fair on Sugar to keep her shut up at home. She needs a walk. Today Sara’s determined to make it all the way to the bus stop and back. There’s a flip-up seat in the bus shelter, so she can take a rest before heading up the hill to home again. She can do this. She’s doing it for Sugar.

Making the Best of Things – Part 1

Here at last, and only a little bit later than planned, is the first instalment in my Christmas story. Come over to https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/?ref=ts&fref=ts and join us for a season of stories – and read the rest of this one, to be published here and on Facebook on 27th December 2014.

Fliss and Max

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas

Part 1 – 27th November

“Fliss! Fliss! Put that child down and come here.”
“Aww, Missus Matchum, don’t be mean. She’s lovely. I think she might follow me home.”
“From your mouth to God’s ear, son. Fliss’ll follow anyone home, if she thinks there might be food or a cuddle in it. Get over here, ye daft bitch. Heel.” The white bulldog trots reluctantly back to Agatha Matchum’s side as the child runs off down a side street.
“Did you win, then?” Annette is curious. Surely the name issue has already been settled, and not in Aggie’s favour.
“Win what?” Aggie flicks her iron grey bob behind her ears and hauls at the leads, positioning one bull terrier on each side of her. The dogs eye one another round the swing of her tweed skirt and leather boots and elect to behave. For now.
“The Royal versus Fliss argument.”
“Argument? There is no argument. He says, okay, Max is my dog, but the female is his, and he wants to call her Royal. I say: if I’m the one walking her, then I’m the one naming her. She got her shots last week. It says Fliss Matchum on the bill, and I don’t notice him rushing to pay it.” Aggie’s brother Malcolm lives with her, in between stints on the oil rigs. Hardy souls have been known to remark that he’s worked his way through a series of careers, each of which takes him further away from his sister. More charitable (or cynical) types note that he always comes home again.
Aggie puts the dogs in gear and marches forward. Annette’s shepherd bitch, Saf, falls obediently into line and the two women set off uphill towards the bus stop. Annette is dark and plump, and wears her hair in a braid. She’s fond of loose, comfortable clothing in flower prints and bright colours, which conceal her figure and make her look like the ageing flower child she is. She finds Aggie brash and overbearing, and they make an odd couple, but nonetheless they’re best friends. Annette can’t imagine life without her. Ahead of the two women a howling arises, interspersed with yips. The dogs pant and strain at their leashes. Company is waiting.
Near the top of the hill two women are huddled together in the bus shelter, trying to keep out of the wind. In front of the shelter a small, white bundle jumps up and down excitedly, yapping at the top of its voice. Above its head a worn leather lead juts horizontally into the street. One end is attached to the collar of a beautiful samoyed, gleaming white, lovingly brushed and frothing with the effort of pulling against the lead. Inside the shelter Val Collins braces herself against her dog’s pull as she carries on her conversation. Every now and again her voice floats out over the sound of barking.
“Sit, Karma. Sit now, there’s a dear.”
Her voice has no effect on the dog, whose eyes are bulging as it chokes itself against its own collar. Fortunately, Aggie and Annette reach the others just before Karma collapses from asphyxia. The dogs mill round together, sniffing each other’s bottoms and tangling the leads. Karma collapses into a white, hairy pile in the roadway and pants ferociously, saliva dripping from his tongue. Sugar finally ceases yapping and piles into the fray, whining and nipping at the larger dogs. Saf bears her patiently, shouldering her away from time to time, while Max and Fliss ignore her altogether. They are too busy licking up the pools of Karma’s saliva from the gutter.
Eventually, the women get the leads sorted out and start off along the ridge.

Chantelle closes the oven door and straightens, rubbing the small of her back. Steam has condensed on her fringe and it hangs limply in front of her eyes. She pushes it back behind her ears and shouts. “Jared? It’s your turn to walk the dog.”
There’s no response from upstairs, but the rocker on the floor under the kitchen table begins to wail softly. Chantelle reaches out one foot and pushes the rocker into motion again. The baby quiets, while she continues preparing the dinner.
“Jared?” It’s no use. It looks as though she’ll be walking the dog again. Funny how ‘family dog’ inevitably becomes ‘Mum’s dog’ when it comes to exercise. The potatoes come to the boil and she turns them down to simmer. She decants a pile of chopped green beans into the pot with the carrots and pushes the hair out of her eyes again. With luck there’ll be just enough time to change Alice, feed the dog and persuade the twins to lay the table before serving up. Daisy’s walk will have to wait until after bedtime, as usual.
Chantelle sighs. Things seem to be getting harder every day. It’s at times like this that she really misses having another adult around the place – even though he’d been pretty useless when it came to household chores. She misses having someone to keep an eye on the baby while she nips out to get the washing in, or to take the chicken out of the oven when the timer goes (and stop the dog from eating it) while she rounds up the troops.
Sometimes she feels it needs the skills of a Sergeant Major to keep five kids and a dog in line. That was another of Gary’s complaints. “You’re always telling me what to do. You’re so grumpy all the time.”
“You just try keeping a household of seven (plus dog) in order by yourself, Gary MacEwan, she mutters, kicking the table leg. Bloody coward. He’d been fine in the early days – caring and helpful during her pregnancies, patient and loving afterwards – and there’s no doubt at all that he loves the kids, especially Jared once he’d become old enough to be interesting – but somewhere along the line the spark had gone out of their marriage, and he hadn’t cared enough to help her keep it alight.
It’s understandable, she thinks. After all, by the time they had four children she’d been pretty well exhausted, and the work is hard. There isn’t much room for romance in her life. But right now, with ten year old Jared, eight year old Georgie, twins Tim and Luke (six) and the baby, she really can’t do it all on her own.
She smiles down at Alice. She’d been the baby that Chantelle had hoped would restart their marriage, and bond them all together. It hadn’t worked out that way. Instead, by the twenty-week antenatal check she’d been doing it all on her own, while Gary was away across town in his new house, with his new girlfriend and soon enough his brand new baby. Little Molly is a model baby with yellow curls who never cries, or keeps her parents awake all night with colic. To add insult to injury, she is  two weeks older than Alice – a fact that causes Chantelle to fantasize about scratching Gary’s eyes out whenever she remembers it.
The front door opens and closes again, sending a cold draught down the hallway and banging the kitchen door shut. It opens, and a pretty girl with brown hair in braids peers round the doorway.
“Hello Georgie, how was Guides?”
“Really good. I’m nearly ready to sit my First Aid badge.”
“That’s great.” Chantelle unbuckles the baby’s safety strap and lifts her, releasing a distinctive smell of dirty nappy.
“Give her to me, Mum. I know what to do.”
“Georgie, you’re a star. What would I do without you?”
Georgie takes the baby to the bathroom, and Chantelle drags the twins away from their computer game, to screams of anguish as the screen goes black. With identical scowls they stomp around the kitchen, slamming plates down on the table and pretending to stab one another with forks. One stands on Daisy’s paw and she yelps, jumping out from under the table, and taking refuge in the utility room, coincidentally ending up right next to her food bowl. Chantelle takes the hint and feeds her, closing the door to shut the dog away from the family dinner. The chicken ought to be about ready by now.

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