Thursday, 13 July 2017

Reddit Writing Prompt - Soldier Soldier

So I saw a writing prompt on Reddit suggesting using the first and last lines of a nursery rhyme to write a story. I chose Soldier, Soldier, won't you marry me as it was a favourite to sing to #2 daughter when she was little.

‘Soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me?’
Karen heard the old song running through her mind as she opened the door to Jeff. Always, her heart leapt at the sight of the handsome man on her doorstep, in full dress uniform, medals glittering on his breast. She ushered him in and did what she always did, gave him everything she and her home had to offer. Ever she hoped those magic words would finally come. Instead she heard;
“My best coat got ripped yesterday. I don’t suppose…?”
He knew, she knew, and off she went to the attic, flinging back the lid of her grandfather’s military chest. His beautifully preserved camel hair coat lay on top of many mementoes and Karen wondered, fleetingly, if he minded her giving away his things. She doubted it. He’d always been one for living in the now, not clinging to past glories. She closed the chest, gave away the coat and watched it walk away on the back of her soldier. Without the words.

A couple of months passed. She wondered. Should she let him go, say goodbye to the last shreds of hope? Give herself a chance at someone new, at full happiness? She had almost decided to do so when the knock came at the door. He chatted carelessly about some dinner dance being held at the barracks. He did not ask for her, but for grandpa’s top hat and kid gloves. He tipped the hat to her, did a Gene Kelly dance in and out of the gutter as he disappeared into the rain-sodden evening.

Next leave rolled around and he came with it. The routine remained unchanged, her hope perhaps a little faded, but still bright. She could loathe herself for the skip in her chest whenever his mouth opened, but it was beyond her control. She loved him with everything she had. Preparing to return to barracks, Jeff changed into his uniform, shoved a foot into his boot and tutted. A heel hung forlornly, flapping back and forth as he swung his foot. 

She was gone almost before the mute appeal in his eyes met hers. The chest gave up old, but still serviceable, boots, the last shine grandpa had given them reflecting the faint haunted look behind her gaze. She offered them, smiled when he admired his well turned-out self in the hall mirror and tried not to feel disappointment when he waved himself away.

She ran after him, caught him in the street, stared up into his confused frown;
“Won’t you marry me?”
He put her from him, gently, firmly, shook his head.
“I thought you understood what we have. I cannot marry you for I have a wife of my own.”
He hugged her briefly, set off once more.
Karen returned to the house, to the chest, took out a final item, ran after him, aimed, fired.
‘Soldier, soldier, you won’t marry me, and I have a gun of my own.’ She whispered, sinking to her knees in the downpour, watching his blood dribble into the gutter.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Short Story - Take Your Chances

 For Lynne Brown, who gave me the inspiration ;)

Emily cycled up to the junction, her heart in her mouth. It was the same every day; either pedal like crazy and hope the cars missed you or sit, and wait, possibly until you were retirement age.  The council kept saying they would install lights, had been for six, years now, but the promise had attained the stuff of legend. And so the accidents happened, the injuries and deaths mounted.

And the residents of the four villages fastened their seatbelts, put the pedal to the metal and did the suicide run morning and night. In 3 years of travelling to the rural museum, where she worked reception, Emily had never seen anyone willingly let some else through. It was always a battle to the death, cars skirting around the edges of disaster daily. For cyclists it was worse.

Emily put her head down, sent a prayer to whoever was listening and shot into traffic. The usual choir of horns and curses buffeted her on all sides, but she weaved her way through and shot out onto the narrow lane which paralleled the road to Winterhalt. She put a foot to the ground, let out her held breath and relaxed. Eight hours before she had to run the gauntlet again. Pushing off she noticed the square bulk of a sofa cushion, in delightful shades of grandma’s floral curtains, plonked by the hedge which marked the end of the lane. She sighed, silently cursing fly-tippers and headed to work.

A couple of days later, aquaplaning through a puddle at the lane entrance, Emily noted the cushion had been joined by another in a vastly unattractive shade of vomit yellow. Well yes, she could understand not wanting that monstrosity in the house, but why were they collecting at the lane entrance? Mentally taking a note to call the council and report the rubbish, she hurried on.

Another working week rolled around and Emily felt momentary hope when she saw a council van hurtling across the junction, but alas. In fact the original plump pair had been joined by a third in electric orange. Fine, if the council wouldn’t do anything, she would. Come the weekend those eyesores were going to the community dump.

Saturday dawned and Emily set out early, a borrowed wheelbarrow from a friend’s allotment and a great deal of determination getting her out of bed at the unearthly hour of 5am. She figured that would be early enough to avoid the worst of suicide canyon. She trusted so because if the roads were treacherous for bikes they would be lethal for a walker with an unwieldy barrow!

She dodged a single car and turned onto the lane, and stopped dead. Seated on the sofa cushions was a trio of men. They were dressed in pinstripe suits, replete with bowler hats and furled umbrellas. They sat cross-legged, holding clipboards and pens poised. Uncertain how to proceed, Emily cleared her throat. The man nearest looked at her and she couldn’t help thinking of a train full of quintessentially British men heading to the City. Whatever they were, they made her brain squirm and her skin itch.
“Yes?” Clipped tones, Oxford essence.
“Erm, can I ask? Do those cushions belong to you?”

The man looked away, clearly assuming they were finished. Emily edged nearer and the man looked back.
“I want to take them to the dump.”
“You can’t, we’re using them.”

Again, he assumed finality, but Emily was beginning to be slightly annoyed and very intrigued. At which point the sound of a car engine began to grow in the direction of Lower Muslip. As one, the men clicked their pens, rested clipboards on knees and took something from their breast pockets. The sound of knuckles hitting board followed, and Emily watched three bright silver dice roll on three clipboards.
‘5’, ‘1’, ‘2’
The men called their rolls and marked their clipboards. The car sailed through the junction and Emily gave up. She rolled the barrow under a hedge and took up a position behind the men, who roundly ignored her.

A van, scoring 5, and a tractor racking up 9 followed before Emily could hold it in no longer.
“What are you actually doing?” she asked in a respectful whisper. The van which had headed out, made the return trip, its driver furiously yelling into a mobile as he hit the junction.
‘5’, ‘5’, ‘2’!
Scratch of pens and then a shattering bang. A tyre blew on the van and it fish-tailed, swinging right through the junction and ending up backed into a streetlight. The driver stumbled out, shaken but unharmed. The trio rose, tucked pens in breast pockets and looked ready to leave. Emily stepped in front of them.

“Wait. Just wait. What are you doing? Who are you?”
Two of the men walked off and Emily was pretty sure they just winked out of existence at the road bend, but there was a lot of foliage there. The third man paused, seemed to consider and then spoke.
“It is our game. There are six of us. Three deposit the cushions for us to sit on. The other three must find the cushions and watch. They are always at roadsides. This junction is a particularly fine one.  Lots of potential.”
“Potential for what?”
“Disaster. We watch, we roll and if the dice total more than ten we are allowed to play. The higher the amount, the greater the disaster. Twenty is rare but oh so delicious.”
He scooped up the cushions and walked away, smiling.
“We must find somewhere else for them, but we will be back. This one is our favourite.”
Emily sagged into the hedge, wondering when the next twenty was due and if she would be there.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Short story - Clean-up On I80

Carl drove away from the flooded quarry, humming quietly to himself. His fingers drummed on the steering wheel, head bobbing to the beat pouring from the radio. Empty road, WKMF All Rock Radio, and a new job tomorrow; life could be good. He glanced at the bright red stiletto hanging from the rear view mirror by its shredded strap and grinned.
An hour later, halfway between back there and up ahead, he caressed the shoe a final time, and then hurled it out the passenger window. It cartwheeled a couple of times, dropped and was lost in the weedy depths of the verge. He drove on, power ballads winging him to another nameless backwater.
Andy headed out around ten. Dark car, dark clothes, dark purpose. A couple of hours later he parked up, walked along the highway verge, scanning with a flashlight. A glint in the weeds. A shoe buckle? Yep. He retrieved the red stiletto and headed back to his car. He drove to the intersection, pulled an illegal turn and headed back. Guessing when he was roughly opposite the original site, He parked up, flashers on, and located a phone pole. He smiled, took aim and launched.
Glancing in his mirror as he drove away, he caught a final glimpse of two red stilettoes dangling by a rope from the phone lines.

Carl sauntered away from the open grave, his work buried beneath a couple of feet of grave dirt. Tomorrow it would be obscured forever under Grandpa Williams, unbeknownst to his grieving family and friends. He hopped in his car, headed out to the highway and tuned to Classics Forever. He was in the mood for some powerful emotions and Thursday was Wagner night. His hand brushed the loafer in his lap as he headed for the highway. Back to there.
He hadn’t planned to return so soon but you went where the work was. Bit risky really, only a couple of days after. Ah well, he could test the waters, see if there was any fuss. He soothed the suede on the loafer; such a cool texture. Nice. He hooked it out into the night, saw it bounce, roll and settle on the white line, drove on.
He almost missed them, happened to look up at a sign as he went under the phone lines. What the… Red stilettoes, two. Not just one, the pair. Couldn’t be anything to do with him, right? He felt a whisper of cold unease in his spine and pulled over, giving the finger to a passing trucker who almost mowed him down at the sudden stop.
He got out, walked back and looked up. He wanted to use his phone, get some flashlight on those shoes, but he was exposed enough already. Another truck trundled by and its headlights gave off enough glow for Carl to see a single shredded strap. He ran for the car, slammed himself inside and drove.
Andy gave it a day, then he retrieved the loafer, paired it with the one in his trunk and made his way to the Starvale Motel. On the outskirts of town it was the last resort of junkies, working girls and families with no options. The lot was littered with takeout cartons and broken glass. Andy parked on the road outside, didn’t want to risk his tyres. He flipped up his hood, stuck his hands deep in his pockets, secured the brown paper parcel under his arm and walked over to the ‘No Vacancies’ sign half alight in the lobby window.
Stepping inside he found reception empty. No surprise there. What the owner didn’t see in the wee small hours, the owner couldn’t be forced to tell. Still Andy needed a body. He rapped on the partition glass, aware of faint tv sounds through the partially open door to the back rooms.
“Hey, customer here.” He yelled and caught faint shuffling and grunts from within.
“No rooms.”
“Didn’t say I wanted one.”
Andy found that slightly obscure answers had a wonderful habit of bringing people to him and this was the case. A dishevelled man in his 50’s balding, pyjama glad and trailing smoke and booze fumes, staggered into the slip of an office behind the glass and frowned.
“Wha’ya want?”
  “Parcel delivery.” He indicated the brown paper lump on the desk between them.
“Find a mailman.”
The dude started to leave and Andy shrugged, opening his fist to reveal the handful of notes.
“Guess I was wrong and you can’t use any of this, huh?”
The guy came about smartly, his hand reaching for the cash with speed belying his appearance. Andy let it go and shoved the parcel forward.
“Guy with the ’92 Ford, silver stripe. Make sure he gets it when he leaves, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.”
The parcel was dumped on a chair, but Andy tapped gently on the glass, got the bloodshot eyes really looking at him.
“Don’t make me come back to check.”
The eye of the gun gazed at the man and he nodded, swallowed hard.
“Sure, man, no sweat.”
Satisfied, Andy left.
Carl ambled to his car. Didn’t seem to be any heat. Not sure the girl was even missed yet. He was fine for another job. He tried to pretend his heart didn’t leap when the dumb old man who did night reception croaked across the lot at him.
“Parcel for ya.”
A what? Who the f-ing hell was leaving him parcels? When no-one should know where he was? He sprinted across the lot, grabbed both parcel and man.
“Who left it?” he barked and felt the man shake from head to toe. He also wasn’t about to get labelled a grass around these parts and just shook his head.
“You better tell me.” Carl bellowed, instantly aware he was a spectacle to several bleary-eyed kids and a couple of skanky girls smoking on the corner wall, even as he slammed the guy against the building.
“Dunno. I swear.” He whined.
Carl gave up an already bad job, dumping the guy and marching to his ride. He flung the package on the passenger seat and tore out of the lot. Minutes later he sat in the train yard, concealed by mouldering piles of rusty track and disused railway sleepers, breathing hard and fingering the parcel in his lap. He was almost sure he knew what was in there. Ripping the paper open he glared down at the loafers. Two of them.
A man of few words, Carl was pretty near dumbstruck, his silent accusers laying in the gravel at his feet. They’d landed there after he had thrown himself out of the car, kicked it and several other things and then simply dropped them. Someone knew. How, there wasn’t a clue, but he has to sort it or his days were numbered.
It had been a sort of joke. He’d watched enough tv to know the cops liked a mystery, liked to have a wrinkle, something unique to each perp. The one shoe thing had been his. Why he’d decided to litter the highway verges with single shoes hadn’t been any clearer to him then than it was now. He’d just decided to do it, maybe hoping someday the cops, after Carl was long gone, would find the shoe, match the DNA, define the victim, but never find anything more than the single shoe.
Right about now it seemed like the dumbest thing he’d ever chosen to do. He kicked a few more sleepers, punched the roof of his car, cursed for a while, then got in and drove off. Whatever, right? One for the road and then he’d be done.
It had been sheer chance which had put Andy onto the shoe flinger. Andy had his own business, and he’d been finishing off a job that night. On the far side of the gravel pit watching a filled bin liner slip under the surface, Andy had spotted movement on the far shore. Crouching behind the hulk of a burned out car, he’d watched, seen the dark figure bend, mess with something and then kick that thing into the water. He hadn’t waited to be sure – Andy always did, just in case. He was a careful worker – just turning and striding back to his car. Curious, his own work done, Andy had followed, racing round to his ride and then hanging back, shadowing the man up the highway, until the shoe.
It had come flying out of the window like an empty cup.  Just so much trash to be disposed of.  Andy had wrestled with following longer but decided to take a look at the shoe, but not before noting the license. He considered highway I80 his particular piece of work, and it had bothered him for a long time; all those single shoes on the verges. He reckoned it up as he crossed to the white pump, and guessed he had a collection of 35 in his trunk. Andy kept lots of souvenirs, all different. A tie here, a ring there, even a couple of cats who’d been travelling with their owner on one unfortunate ride; he loved cats and he smiled at the thought of them waiting for him at home. But this was different. This was what the police liked to call a signature and he didn’t want any mangy interloper stamping his signature on Andy’s ground, or worse, on his work.
He’d placed the shoe in the in the trunk and headed back to the quarry.  ‘Sloppy work’ he’d muttered, contemplating the platinum blonde in the little lacy wedding dress, floating serenely on the surface of the lake. He’d taken the second shoe, added weight and a new bag and consigned her to the depths. He felt oddly dirty, as if handling someone else’s work had contaminated him. He’d spent extra clean-up time that night.
Now he was ready. Tired of following Carl, retrieving his half-hidden work, the single shoes. Time to take back his territory.
Carl parked right on the driveway. He knew the husband was away, that there were no kids, no yapping dogs and the neighbours were safely screened behind high walls and hedges. Brazen, he sauntered up the drive, up the porch steps. Every footfall helped him batten down the unease which roiled in his belly, gnawed at his mind. No, he was going to enjoy this one. Then he’d move on, vanish, no looking back.
He plastered a smile on his face, and knocked. Who was gonna feel threatened by a 5 foot nothing string bean, right? No-one so far and this girl was no different, barely hiding her amusement as she was forced to look down to talk to him.
“Can I help you?”
“Sorry ma’am. I hate to disturb you this late but it’s about your husband.” Instant fear, wide eyes, slight gasp, not really looking at the badge he flashed, “May I come in?”
She stood back, let him pass, followed him into the lounge, sat beside him on the couch, waiting.
“I’m so sorry to be the bearer of bad news, ma’am, but there was an accident, out on I85.”
He didn’t get any further. She let out an ear-shattering wail and buried her head in his shoulder. He immediately offered her a hanky, liberally doused of course, and watched her wipe, cry and pass out.
At which point he felt a presence, but too late.
Andy clamped his enormous hand over Carl’s mouth, clocked him on the temple and felt him slump. He secured the little man’s hands with a double pull tie and then checked on the girl. She was out, but alive. He hefted Carl up, exited the house; just two guys, one maybe drunk, heading home. Depositing Carl in the trunk of his car, Andy locked it and returned to the house briefly. He took the phone off the hook, dialled emergency services and left the receiver on the hall table, the door wide open. Someone would come, see to her.
He drove to the quarry, stuck Carl with paralysing agent – from his personal stock which would soon need replenishing – and dumped him out on the damp earth beside a second car. Andy liked to have a spare and it gave him some satisfaction that Carl had made a mistake in that department, always using the same car. Hadn’t even changed the plates. Andy checked inside the cherry-red four-door, grinned and gave his attention to Carl.
Huge eyes stared back at him, filled with realisation. No way to move, no escape, this time he was the victim and he would know how it felt.
“Hello, Carl” Andy smiled, his voice light, “I’ve wanted to meet you for the longest time. Sadly, our friendship will be short.”
He bent lifted the smaller man and drew himself up to his full six and a half feet, Carl’s feet fluttering above the floor. He grunted, but the duct tape silenced him well enough.
“No Carl, there is no discussion. You see, I am done with you littering my highway. I don’t like your sloppy methods or your silly attempt to create a cop-pleasing style. It’s time you went on a long vacation, little man.”
He carried Carl to the car, opened a cherry red door and let him look inside, briefly, before flinging him inside with 36 shoes all neatly hanging from the roof, bumping and swaying with Carl’s entrance. Andy took a moment to enjoy the wide-eyed horror on Carl’s face and then closed the door. He wiggled his fingers in farewell and used his great weight to shove the car into the quarry.
As a mark of respect to a fellow professional – no matter how inept – he waited to be sure the car sank completely before going home to his cats, and his wife.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Flash Fiction - The Monument

In autumn she came. She sat beneath the falling leaves, feared her memories would wither and fade with them. She gathered crumbling foliage to her, sympathised with their dried out existence, their willingness to release the world. Would she go with them? Did she have the nerve? The world was a husk without him. 

In winter she came. She circled the monument, round and round, pacing out the minutes in a whirl of ephemeral flakes. She watched them melt on her hands, on her coat. Felt the stinging, fleeting touches on her cheeks. Would she ever leave the cold, the frozen silence? Could she melt and meld with the warmth of the world once more? Without him?

In spring she came. Pale light, tentative warmth urging blossoms forth. Undercurrents of renewal, returning to the world after restorative sleep. Light breezes stirred her hair, crowned her with shed petals . Drifts piled around her feet. She kicked at the past blossoms, scattering them to the winds, tucked a sprig behind her ear. Walked on… without him.

In summer she came. Bright eyed, lithe, quick to laugh when gazing into blue eyes, so new and unexpected, healing to her soul. They circled the monument, read the poem, inhaled the scent of roses and walked on, hand in hand… without him.

This picture was taken in my local park (Bathurst Park in Lydney). Around the top of the monument runs the 4th verse of Gods Garden by Dorothy Frances Gurney (link) and each side marks a season. The poem means a lot to me because it was the verse written in my leaving book by 'that teacher'. You know the one, the teacher who inspired you when you needed it most. Mr Lee encouraged my writing and I have never forgotten his kindness to a rather lost 10 year old.