Category Archives: Fiction

Pre-loved*

 

Of course, it’s unusual to think about love when you’re getting ready for a car boot sale.

But in houses a mile or so apart, two people are spending a drizzly pre-dawn doing just that.

 

Gemma needs space. And money. She’s clearing out clothes and ornaments and with them, memories. She wonders how much anyone would pay for this empty picture frame, for that unlit candle.

 

David’s dad was a hoarder; he’s the opposite. He gets rid of things regularly on the basis it will be less for others to clear out when he’s dead. He has no idea who it might be doing the clearing out.

 

Gemma has done the work of clearing a house, sifting through the detritus of a life. She’s amassed these trinkets as a result, trying to keep pieces of the people who have gone, a parent and then a partner, shadows of them made out of porcelain and glass. A grief counsellor told her, when she got overwhelmed by all the stuff, to think about what she’d really like to keep rather than what she should throw away. So this is what’s guiding her as she makes her two piles: sell, and keep. White elephants, and treasured mementoes.

 

David categorises his disappointments. He has a spreadsheet to help him do this accurately. There are weightings for different elements.

He’s had five break-ups, well not break-ups exactly, more like let-downs. He gets close to people and they always leave him for the bad boys, the ones who knock them about or just play games, then they come and complain to him about it.

He takes out a black T-shirt from a drawer full of black T-shirts. Black jeans. Black lace-up boots. Life is just easier when everything matches.

David thinks if he does ever go on a date again, he probably shouldn’t mention the spreadsheet.

 

Gemma is thinking about mistakes, and exes, too. After Andy died, in time, she tried to ‘put herself out there’, she really did. But she got mad that you can have what you think is a connection with someone, bond over music, talk about Joy Division and Editors until dawn, but he’ll go all the way with the one who has tight abs, the outdoorsy type who plays hockey and always looks sun-kissed.

The boxes are ready now so she turns to herself. She hates herself for putting on mascara at 6am just to go to the car boot. Why is physical attraction so important anyway? It exists in a weird curve: it grows the more you fall for someone – she distinctly remembers waking up next to Andy, the first time, and ranking him a 7 out of 10; six months later he was 9.5 and pretty much her physical ideal, the blueprint by which all future men would be measured – then over time, it plateaus as you get used to each other and with familiarity their face fails to hold the same fascination. If she could have his face in front of her again, just for a second, she wouldn’t take it for granted.

 

They both pile their boxes, David’s tightly ordered, Gemma’s chaotic, into their boots and drive off, half-watching the sun come up over the farmer’s fields on David’s left, Gemma’s right.

 

****

 

Gemma has been warned what the car boot sale is like – a friend described it as brutal – but she’s unprepared for people swooping like buzzards and fingering her stuff before she’s even got it out of the boxes.

Someone actually tries to buy her flask, even though the cup is right next to it full of what is quite clearly hot coffee. She’s come prepared, because she’s used to all the things you have to do when you’re alone. Like you can’t just wander off and buy a drink, or your belongings will be stolen.

Later, she’ll reflect that she probably should have just taken the money for the flask.

 

David first notices her because she gives a loud ‘Hey!’, which is followed by a yelp from the old man whose hand she has just slapped. ‘You have iPad? iPhone?’ someone is jabbering in David’s ear, and he shakes his head distractedly, as the old man walks by muttering and rubbing the back of his hand. David watches the girl struggle with her folding table.

 

He could bloody well help me, she thinks, instead of just staring. She’s sweating. She isn’t cut out for this kind of crap. She never even usually wears trainers. She likes pretty dresses and proper shoes. She likes 1950s style and she’d hoped her little sale would be a classy affair with a vintage tea-party feel, but she can see as she lays it all out on the camping table with the wonky leg, hurriedly covered with an Emma Bridgewater tablecloth, that it is a pretty sad collection.

The boy – not a boy, she chides herself, stop thinking of them as boys, he’s a man for goodness’ sake – he’s far cooler, she thinks. He’s not looking at her any more. His stuff is neatly labeled in boxes: BOOKS. CDs. DVDs. GAMES. Everything is square or rectangular, the kind of things that are easy to wrap at Christmas. No soft edges or frills.

 

It’s David’s first time at one of these things and he has decided quickly that it will be his last. Obviously he hasn’t come to buy anything. So why exactly does he find himself standing at this girl’s stall, flicking through her books and CDs? (Phil Collins? Ugh. On the other hand, she’s getting rid of it, so…)

He jumps when she appears from behind her car and says ‘Hi!’ He drops No Jacket Required like he was looking at a dirty magazine and his mum just walked in. Not that that ever happened.

‘Er…hi,’ he says. Er…hi? goes his inner voice. Real smooth. She’s got really pretty eyes.

‘Having a good day?’ she nods towards his neat little pile of soon to be ex-belongings, marginally depleted. He shrugs, feels that bored expression take over his face that always makes him hate himself a little bit.

‘It’s alright,’ he mutters, ‘Not my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning.’

‘Did you want to buy any of these?’ she motions to the CDs, which a hand-written poster announces are ‘Only £1 each!’, in flowery letters. Her voice is still bright but he can tell she’s thinking he’s an asshole.

‘God, no,’ he says, and her face falls. ‘I mean. No offence, but…they’re just not my style.’

‘Well, they’re not mine. I mean, they don’t belong to me, not exactly.’

‘How come you’re selling them, then?’ The words are out before he can stop them. Now I’m a rude, nosey asshole, he thinks. ‘Sorry.’

‘No, that’s alright.’ She sighs and picks up her flask. ‘Fancy a coffee?’

 

David. His name is David. That’s about all Gemma has managed to find out about him, but that’s probably because she’s been rabbiting on about herself. She always does that when she’s nervous. He doesn’t really look at her. Is he shy, or just rude? And can she be bothered to work it out, she wonders. Then again, he did come over to her first, and he did go and buy her a coffee when the flask ran dry, asking her to watch his stuff, though he didn’t seem overly concerned about whether it sold, or got stolen, or disappeared into thin air.

She likes him. She hates how she starts liking guys straight away, starts envisaging far-fetched scenes involving long country walks, city breaks, a proposal, a wedding…but usually does nothing to make those things happen.

The initial flow of people has died down and Gemma wonders if there will be another surge or if it’s time to pack up. She looks sadly at her little collection of bric-a-brac. She doesn’t like the idea of taking it back to the house.

‘I think I’m done,’ David says, to somewhere just over the top of her head. ‘I’ll probably just take the rest of it to Oxfam.’

‘Right. Good idea.’ She turns away and tips her remaining items into the largest box, hearing something clatter and smash as it falls in.

 

It’s been a long time since David asked anyone out. On, like, a date. But he likes this girl. Woman, he corrects himself, she’s a woman, come on idiot. Gemma. She talks a lot but she’s honest and sweet and kind of funny. And she really does have nice eyes. And a great smile.

His remaining CDs are all messed up. He doesn’t bother to sort them; he’s suddenly self-conscious and needs to get away. He places them carefully in the box alongside the books he didn’t manage to sell: a guide to the flags of the world, and some cod philosophy book an ex-girlfriend bought him, called ‘Happiness’ (the book, not the girlfriend). He sighs, catches sight of his reflection in the car window. Ageing, balding Goth, he supposes is how you’d describe his look. What would someone like Gemma see in him, anyway?

 

They both sit in their cars. There’s a queue to get out of the field. Gemma glances in her rearview mirror, catches David’s eye, and the first time, he smiles. The second time, he looks away. Neither of them really knows why he does this, what it means.

When he gets home, David will start to reorganize his CDs into alphabetical order and find one that doesn’t belong there. Phil Collins – No Jacket Required. When he picks it up, a piece of paper will flutter out: a phone number.

When Gemma gets home, she will just wait.

 

 

 

 

*First published on writers-online.co.uk

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Bells

I don’t suppose my mother and father had bells at their wedding. You didn’t, at a registry office in the early 1970s. My mother didn’t wear white; she wore a cream pant suit with a brown satin blouse, an elaborate pussy bow at the collar. She didn’t carry flowers.

Our first telephone was blood red, with a curly wire and a plastic dial. It was positioned on a sideboard in the hall. My mother sat on the stairs, muttering ‘Ring, ring,’ under her breath. Eventually it did, and her own mother’s voice came crackling through the line. Unsurprising really, since she was the only other person we knew who had a phone, but the delight on Mum’s face was tangible.

There were only two other items that lived on that sideboard: a framed photograph from the wedding, their serious faces gazing out at the lives that lay ahead of them, and a bell-shaped bottle.

Bell’s whisky. A ceramic decanter, in colours of brown and cream, enhanced with gold. As a child I would pick it up, listen to the sloshing of the liquid within, and wait for a chime, a ring, that never came. I still considered it the height of sophistication, and the only alcohol I ever saw in the house apart from Mateus rose at Christmas, in bottles that were also saved and later used as candle holders.

Just because I didn’t see it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Just because there was always liquid in the bell doesn’t mean that it wasn’t often emptied, and refilled. Mum became a near-permanent fixture on the stairs, telephone in one hand, glass in the other. The phone her connection to the outside world, the whisky her way of going inside.

There will be bells at the funeral.

th-3

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Coffee

 

Today I poured cold water on my coffee before hot, and it made me think of you.

It stops it burning, you told me. You had lots of tips like this: chill glasses before white wine, sweat onions slowly.

‘These things take time,’ you said.

Like leaving your wife, I suppose. I believe that’s still in progress.

Brown floaters rose to the top of the cup and wouldn’t dissolve however much I stirred. The romance was short-lived. I poured it down the sink.

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The Wrong Presents

It was the end of term, the day before Christmas Eve, and it was so cold that the teacher, Miss Melly, was wearing her hat and scarf indoors. She put all the children’s paintings and projects in piles for them to take home, and called their names in alphabetical order.

‘Josh Datchit!’ A small boy stepped forward, shivering in his threadbare jumper. Miss Melly smiled at him as she handed him his things.

‘Harry Dooge!’ Harry was a boy with a cross-looking face and heavy shoes he’d chosen especially for stomping and kicking.

‘Bye, Miss Smelly,’ he muttered under his breath. The teacher sighed, pretending not to hear.

‘Merry Christmas everyone,’ she cried, opening the door to a whoosh of icy air and dead leaves, ‘Don’t forget to send your letters to Santa!’

 

Josh Datchit and Harry Dooge both lived on Peabody Street, just four doors apart. Josh walked home as quickly as he could, but he soon heard Harry’s wet footsteps dragging through the slush behind him.

Oof! The bigger boy slammed into his back, knocking the papers out of his hands, and sending the painting Josh had made for his mum sailing face down into the grey-brown snow-dirt.

‘Oh, sor-ry,’ Harry bellowed in Josh’s ear, ‘I slipped.’ With that he laughed and tore past him down the street.

 

That night, both boys wrote letters to Santa. Harry didn’t believe that Santa cared whether children had been naughty or nice, so he demanded a lot of presents. He asked for an Xbox, a TV, a skateboard, every superhero figure he could think of, and much more, until it hurt his hand to write.

Four doors down, Josh chewed his pencil, trying to think about the things he really needed.

‘Don’t forget to ask for something to play with,’ his mum murmured, ruffling his hair. ‘Not all presents have to be useful.’ She went into the kitchen and sellotaped the Christmas painting (which she had rescued with her hairdryer) onto the fridge.

Josh nodded. In the end, he put three things on his list: a scooter (to get him down Peabody St, and away from Harry Dooge, a little faster); a toy robot; and a box of chocolates.

 

On Christmas morning, all the children on Peabody St woke early. The sky was still dark, everything quiet apart from the sleepy houses as they came creakily to life, their pipes filling with hot water.

Harry Dooge bounded down the stairs, flung open the door to the living room, and cried: ‘What?’

Four doors away, Josh Datchit bounded down the stairs, flung open the door to the living room, and cried: ‘What?’

Harry was horrified. Under the tree with its twinkling lights, even though the rest of the room was still gloomy, he could clearly make out…only…three presents. He stood stock still in his pyjamas, scratching his head, and counted again. One…two…three. ‘That’s it?’ he yelled. And then with a terrific stamp of his feet, his face bright red, he boomed: ‘Noooo!’

 

Harry opened the presents, of course. It didn’t take long. A scooter, a toy robot, and a box of chocolates.

‘NONE of these are what I asked for!’ he shouted. His parents were huddled in the doorway, muttering to each other. ‘There is obviously something WRONG with Santa. Stupid, stupid Santa.’

 

‘Santa must have got it wrong,’ Josh was saying, looking at the dozens of presents that surrounded him.

‘Well,’ said his mum, quietly, ‘you have been especially good this year’; but even she was puzzled, because truthfully, Josh was good every year and Christmas morning had never looked like this. ‘You’d better start opening them,’ she added, ‘It might take all day.’

 

Later that morning, boiling with anger, Harry jumped to his feet. ‘I’ve got it!’ he cried, ‘I know what’s happened here. There’s only one boy who would be LAME enough to only ask for three presents. It’s Datchit! Santa has given me his presents by mistake!’ He snatched up the scooter and the robot (he had already eaten all the chocolates, of course), headed out into the snow and marched off down Peabody St. His parents didn’t notice he’d gone.

 

He stood outside Josh’s house, ready to hammer on the door. But something made him peer in the window first, and when he did, his fist fell to his side.

What he saw was a living room very like his own: the same size and shape. But something was different.

In the centre of the room were Josh, and his mum, and his brother and sister, playing a board game. They were laughing, their voices ringing through the window like a song. The presents – his presents– were in the corner, some opened, some still wrapped. Harry noticed that they had been split into three piles. Every now and again Josh, or his brother or sister, would pause in the game and open a present. Harry watched the superheroes he had put on his list emerge from the shiny paper. Iron Man. Hulk. Thor.

He realised Josh was sharing.

And they all looked so happy.

The snow pricked Harry’s eyes. That could be the only reason they were watering. Harry Dooge never cried. He turned to walk away, but there was a tap on the window from inside the house. Josh was waving, his mum standing behind him.

Then the front door opened and four faces appeared, wearing matching wide smiles.

Josh spoke first. ‘Hi, Harry,’ he said. ‘Would you…would you like to come in and play for a bit?’

‘No, thanks,’ said Harry, kicking the snow with his boot. But before they could go back in, he looked up and quickly said, ‘Santa brought me a scooter.’ He held it up. ‘I thought…I thought you might like it.’

Josh grinned. ‘Hey, that’s really cool.’ He paused. ‘He brought me a skateboard. Wanna swap?’

 

And as Harry walked towards Josh’s door, both boys thought they heard the jingle of bells and a merry, tinkling laugh.

 

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The Curse of Time

One particular October, it was decided that an extra hour would be added to every day.

At first there was a lot of excitement about this. Haven’t we all been saying for ages, the people cried, that we need more hours in the day? And now we’ve got it! Everyone agreed that the government were really very clever to come up with this.

For a while the people used the hour really well. They did the things they’d always said they didn’t have time for: they read books, went for walks, called their mothers. An hour isn’t very long, it’s difficult to squeeze in anything too life-changing but it did seem as though the world was becoming a bit of a nicer place. Well done us, people said.

Eventually, of course, the novelty wore off. The extra hour became not extra at all, but just part of the twenty-five that people took for granted every day. The people started having more lie-ins. It’s okay, they would say, hitting snooze and rolling over, we have plenty of time. And for all the people who had used their hour to call their mothers, there were also people who took their hour in the dead of night and used it to mug, fight, or murder. There were a whole seven hours a week in which to be unkind, intolerant, and greedy.

In no time at all it seemed the world was becoming a bit less nice again. It’s all the government’s fault, the people said. They should never have given us that extra hour. They should have known we couldn’t be trusted with it.

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The Sweetest Thing

I’ve bought 5lbs of modeling chocolate. I’ve got something important to make.

 

I always loved chocolate, and was rarely allowed it. Mum locked the cupboards. Chocolate was a treat or a reward, and had to be earned. The next day she would make me stand on the scales and show me my shame in numbers.

 

As soon as I left home, I was free to eat all I wanted but it seemed I was never full. I buried myself in layer on layer of comfort. Mum said I was a disgrace.

 

‘I don’t care,’ I said, ‘I’m done trying to please you.’ But it wasn’t true. Her approval and her disgust were all mixed up in my head.

 

I met a girl. I thought she saw the real me under the folds of my disguise. We were friends. Until one night I misread her kindness and tried to kiss her. She recoiled.

 

I immediately saw my advance for what it was: the clumsy lurch of a greedy child. I tried to apologise but the words got stuck in my teeth.

 

It was later that the anger took root. It was when I saw her moving around, unaffected, still smiling and existing, as though I’d never touched her. Hot rage grew in me like a gnawing hunger.

 

It has to be chocolate. You can’t easily make the same kinds of shapes with buttercream, marzipan, or fondant. You can’t mould a person.

 

I make her beautiful. I carve her hair, shape the curves of her body, pinprick her eyes. I don’t give her a mouth, so she can’t tell me I’m not good enough. She can’t tell me no.

 

I stand her on the kitchen counter and look at her a while.

 

Then I smash her, and swallow her piece by piece.

 

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Ashley at the the zoo

I took my nephew Ashley to the zoo the day his parents divorced.

His mother, my sister, was celebrating her officially-recognised freedom by taking a plane to St Lucia with the photocopier repair man from her office.

I helped Ashley climb up onto the viewing platform so he could stand eye-to-eye with the giraffes. His little face was pink and streaked with snot, and utterly serious.

‘You are very tall indeed,’ he told the animal lumbering towards him, and held out his chubby hand to be sniffed.

I thought of his mother, on the beach by now, strawberry daiquiri in hand, and hugged Ashley to me as we watched the gathering clouds.

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