The Blue Dress

This week I thought I’d dig out a short story I wrote a few years ago, inspired by a writing prompt from Morgen Bailey on her site. A very short story. I was really into Flash Fiction at the time, although this one was special for me and I have often been tempted to write more about this character. This story was included in a compilation of work that was briefly available (it wasn’t popular!) under the title (I think it was partly the title that killed it 🙂 ) of The Commuter’s Friend. So here it is, I hope you like it.

The Blue Dress

“They’ve found something, sir.” A young policeman addressed him through the car window. Inspector Smith heaved himself forward on the seat and got out of the car. Seemed like these days he was always tired. Time to quit, go fishing, get away from all this. He’d given them thirty-five years, they’d had enough.

“Is he still alive?” he asked the constable. He looked too young to be a copper. Looked like he should still be in the Scouts. They all did, with their degrees in Criminology or Psychology, and their fresh faces, still with acne, some of them. The constable shrugged.

“The paramedics are still working on him. It doesn’t look too good, sir.”

Inside the funeral parlour, the assistant who had raised the alarm watched as a couple of paramedics laboured over the undertaker. The scrawny white chest was bared for the use of the defibrillator. Smith turned away, the image frozen, a moment in time, imprinted on his mind—a few greying hairs in the middle of the chest, the prominent ribs supporting the pale skin.

“How did you know this wasn’t just a routine call?” The constable was at his side, and the question was a welcome distraction. As Smith responded, they turned about and headed for the rear door. “I mean, we were called out to a robbery gone wrong, and straightaway, you knew. It was like magic, sir.”

Smith halted in the doorway and looked at the youngster.

“There’s no magic in this game, son. As soon as we went into the flat upstairs, I saw the dress.”

“I saw it too, sir, but it didn’t ring any warning bells with me.”

Smith looked at him. “You didn’t find it a bit odd that an elderly bachelor should have a blue dress hanging on a mannequin in his bedroom? A blue dress that clearly dated from the 1950s, and was the size of a girl of about 12 to 14 years of age? It didn’t make you wonder if the undertaker had a secret? You didn’t find any of that at all unusual, constable?”

The constable flushed, and looked down at his feet. “Well, I suppose…”

They headed into the back garden. There was a concrete area set aside for client parking. Beyond that a tall hedge enclosed a private garden. Some men in plastic all-in-ones had dug up a small patio area surrounded by climbing roses. In any other time or place, it would have been simply a beautiful bower of contemplation. One of the men got to his feet and beckoned the police officers over. He pointed into the shallow pit.

Smith looked. A cold hand clutched momentarily at his heart. He nodded and turned away. The constable was at his elbow like an eager puppy. “Sir? Do you know who it is, sir?”

Smith nodded again. He sighed.

“Jessie Flynn. 13 years of age. Missing since 1958. The owner of that blue dress.”

***

Once Upon A Time…

I know I’d promised to talk about toilets this week – (!) but I’m doing last minute proofreading and panic-tidying/tweaking of The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5 at the moment, ahead of its release on the 30th November. I needed to think of something quick so I didn’t ignore my blog altogether, but without it throwing my schedule off the rails.

So I thought I’d tell you a story: it’s not a very new one, some regular readers might have seen it before, but hopefully it’s interesting enough to get your attention. It’s a short story loosely based on a real news report (!) from a local paper a few years back. In fact it made the nationals. When the old hospital in the village of Shardlow was demolished, workmen reported strange goings-on and a paranormal specialist was called in to investigate. Yes really! It’s just occurred to me I should have put this on at Hallowe’en. Epic fail.

The story is called:

Leaving Shardlow.

Henry was puking into a sink. The world around him rocked and dipped. He gripped the edge of the sink, closing his eyes, afraid to let go. Bile rose in his throat and he bent to puke again, strings of mucus dragging from his chin to the backs of his white-knuckled hands. He retched again then again.

‘I’m not well, you know.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ said a voice behind him. ‘This is obviously a terrible shock. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. But if you don’t take my advice and Cross Over, then I’m afraid I just don’t know what else to suggest.’

‘I love Shardlow. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve been in this hospital for years, it’s like a home to me. I know every nook and cranny.’ Henry took a few deep breaths to steady himself, trying to breathe through his mouth so he wouldn’t catch too much of his own stench. He wiped his face on his sleeve and turned stiffly to face the man.

‘You’re the bloody psychic. If you can’t help me, who can?’

The man had been about to speak but was pre-empted by a third person, a workman in faded overalls.

‘What’s he saying now? Tell me what’s going on!’

The psychic fought the urge to roll his eyes heavenward and kept his voice polite.

‘Well, Henry’s still being ill, and he wants to know what we can do to help him.’ He resisted the urge to add, duh! The workman kept touching his cigarette as if to check it was still there behind his ear. Clearly he felt it was time for a short break.

There was a knock on the door and another workman, twenty years slimmer, put his head around the door.

‘Here, Guv, that bird from the paper’s here with a photographer.’

‘All right, Kendall, show them in.’

The journalist marched into the room. She wore a dark power suit and smart blouse, and her high-heels tapped loudly as she took a turn about the room looking around carefully for several minutes before she finally looked at the two men she could see.

‘Hmm. Are any of Them in here right now?’

‘Yes, over there, in the corner. He’s by a sink, keeps being sick, poor chap. I can see him, though you probably… He’s wearing pyjamas, obviously, as he’s a patient in the hospital, and a dressing gown and slippers.’

‘Can’t see anything myself.’ She gestured the cameraman forward. ‘Just do a general pan across the room, and then close in on that corner—apparently there’s supposed to be something going on there.’ She turned a brittle smile on the older workman. ‘So you think there is actually something to these rumours, then?’

The workman bristled a little, shuffled his feet and reassured himself that his cigarette was lit.

‘Well, we’re just ordinary blokes, been on lots of jobs like this, demolitions, rebuilds, the like, and never had anything like this. Noises and cold mists and whatnot. Tools flying through the air. We’re just ordinary chaps, not a fanciful bunch, not much call for imagination in the demolition business…’

‘In my experience there’s nothing so suggestible as a bunch of hairy-arsed workmen with barely one GCSE between them. A couple of pints at lunchtime, and you’re all seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden. Please tell me there’s more to this than someone feeling a bit queasy and a couple of strange noises. No? God! Why would they want to stay in this hole anyway? I mean it’s cold, dirty and—forgive me for stating the obvious but they are dead aren’t they—why does it matter where they—er—live?’

The workman grew a little red in the face, and the psychic stepped forward, just in case. But just as the workman was about to express his views in a forthright manner, Claire slid through the wall and came over to Henry and his precious sink.

‘What’s happening?’ she asked him.

Henry gestured towards the journalist.

‘She’s from The Daily Sceptic and she’s just upset Banksey by suggesting he imagined us, and that’s the photographer—he’s hoping to capture us on film, which will be a miracle because he sure as hell can’t see us with his eyes.’

‘Right! Normal Monday morning then! I see old Smelly Feet is still here.’

‘Yes, I am,’ said the psychic, ‘and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m the one who is trying to help you as well as being the only one that can see—and hear—you!’

‘Ah!’ she fell silent, then changed the subject. ‘Henry, Mrs Jarvis wanted me to let you know that the vicar’s here with his holy water and stuff. Mr Jarvis is keeping an eye on everything from the Castle North Ward staircase. Apparently we’re expecting a medium, a rabbi and a man from the environmental health. Must get back, I do so love a party.’

She vanished through the wall once again whilst Henry, feeling unwell, abruptly turned back to his sink. The psychic turned to tell everyone what was happening. The journalist and the photographer rushed off to welcome the new arrivals, and Banksey came to lean on the same piece of wall as the psychic. He took down his cigarette and turned it over between his fingers.

‘So what effect will that lot have then? A vicar, a rabbi and a bloke from the environmental? Sounds like the start of a joke like we used to tell before everyone got all PC.’

The psychic smiled then sighed as he thought it over. He shook his head.

‘I don’t know to be honest. I mean usually the only ones who take this kind of thing seriously are blokes like you and me. What do you think, Henry? Will they be wasting their breath, or does it spell disaster? Henry?’

But Henry wasn’t there. He was halfway down the main stairs, and when he reached the ninth step, he passed right through the man from the environmental health. The man halted on the tread, looked about him and pulled up the collar of his jacket, remarking to the chap in the dog-collar that it was a bit parky in these old, empty buildings. The man in the dog-collar frowned at him thoughtfully but said nothing.

By the time Henry had found the Jarvises, Claire, old Mr Wainwright and Miss Siddals, the man in the dog-collar was unscrewing the lid of a small bottle and smiling complacently at the psychic.

‘Really, Malcolm, I don’t know why you look so perturbed. I thought you didn’t believe in this sort of thing, or so you said on Richard and Judy. I thought you put your faith in psychic energy and channelling.’

‘I do,’ the psychic snapped. ‘But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any feelings about your inquisitorial methods.’ He would have said more, but at that moment the door was opened and a tall thin young man in a smart dark suit came in, followed by the journalist and the photographer. It opened again and they were joined by Banksey and Kendall. The tall young man turned out to be the rabbi, and he apologised for being a little late.

‘Two poltergeists in Matlock and a tree spirit out at Chesterfield already this morning. Don’t you just hate Mondays!’ The man from the environmental health made the introductions then they all looked at each other to see whose turn it was to go first. The vicar stepped forward and spread a pale pink fluffy bathmat on the floor.

‘What does that do?’ the journalist queried. The vicar looked at her as if she was daft.

‘It stops my trousers getting dusty,’ he said and hitching them at the thighs, knelt down carefully, and closed his eyes and put his hands neatly together.

The psychic found another convenient wall to lean against, and with an inward sigh, settled back arms folded, to see what would happen. Banksey was still fondling his yearned-for cigarette, whilst Kendall was trying to position himself so that if the journalist moved he could see either up her skirt or down her blouse. The photographer was searching his pockets and holdall for a spare camera battery, and swearing a good deal under his breath, unaware of the vicar glaring at him with Anglican tolerance. The journalist was trying to straighten her hair, smooth down her skirt, lick a smidge of lipstick from her teeth and find a notebook, and the rabbi, looking a little battle-weary, stationed himself by the window facing into the room. The environmental man, caught uncertainly between the roles of Master of Ceremonies and chief coat-holder at a duel, hovered by the door.

Henry appeared with his entourage just as the vicar began to whisper confidentially to his fingers, his eyes screwed shut in earnest concentration.

‘It’s started,’ Mr Jarvis pointed out, somewhat unnecessarily. They stood by the wall, watching and waiting. Henry, ignoring a growling in his stomach that indicated it would be better to find himself a nice sink, whisked across the room to the psychic’s side.

‘Shardlow is such a nice little village. Even the gravel pit’s quite pretty now. Fifty-nine houses they’re going to build here, you know.’

‘I know.’

‘It’s not a very big plot.’

‘No, not especially.’

‘So they won’t be very big houses.’

‘No I don’t suppose they will.’

‘I hate all these pokey little modern places, tiny little rooms, no garden to speak of. And the developers make a fortune. We got here first, we should have some rights, at least. You know, like squatters.’

‘You did say you didn’t want to cross over. So there wasn’t much else I could do. I told you they wouldn’t let matters rest.’

‘I didn’t have time to think it over. If you could just buy us some time—I mean, this is all a bit drastic.’

‘I agree, but it’s out of my hands now. Sorry, Henry.’

Do you Mind!’ thundered the voice of the Reverend Milward. The psychic muttered an apology, his face reddening.

‘What’s he going to do then?’

The psychic didn’t reply, afraid of further censure.

‘Ooh, I feel all queer!’ Mrs Jarvis wailed, and her husband took her arm and lowered her into a chair that was no longer there.

‘Don’t you take any notice, Hetty, my girl, just pretend it’s a Sunday service. Just remember not to say Amen as that’s effectively agreeing to whatever demands he makes.’

‘You ought to do something to stop him.’ Henry said, ‘I mean it’s just not fair! That’s what you’re here for isn’t it?’

‘Actually I’m here to advise the company how to get rid of you, not to stick up for you. After all this place has been condemned, you know.’

Before Henry could reply, the rabbi prostrated himself on the floor careless of his beautiful suit, and began to worship loudly. The man from the environmental unrolled a large wodge of paper and began to read out statutes and by-laws, and the photographer, out of battery packs, swore viciously and threw his camera on the floor as the journalist turned on her little tape recorder and bent to hold it close to the rabbi, causing Kendall to see quite a lot of naked thigh and in all this commotion Banksey accidentally squashed his last cigarette.

‘Bugger this for a game of soldiers,’ said Henry, ‘come on you lot, there’s no point in going on with this—we can’t win this one. Let’s call it a day and move on.’

‘But where will we go?’ Claire was wringing her hands in distress. ‘I’ve been here so long, Shardlow’s all I know!’

‘I know, Duck, but face it—this lot’ll have us turfed out in no time, so we might as well jump as be pushed.’

The ghosts stood in the centre of the room, frightened and upset. Henry was paler than usual and shaking, but his resolve held and so did the contents of his stomach. He patted Claire’s arm awkwardly.

‘Come on, Old Girl, brace up. We’ll think of something.’

The psychic came to a decision, and took a step forward.

‘You can all come back to my place. It might be a bit of a squash in the van though.’

They left before the rabbi could dust off his knees.

 

Six months later.

 

‘Hurry up, Henry, the Ghost Whisperer is on!’

‘Ooh goody, I like her, she’s so sweet!’

There was the sound of a toilet flushing and moments later, they heard gargling. Claire and Mr and Mrs Jarvis were wedged in comfortably on one sofa, and on an adjacent sofa, Henry rushed in to flop down between Miss Siddals and Malcolm the psychic. Mr Wainwright had an armchair all to himself.

‘Turn it up, Malcolm, we can’t hear!’ Mrs Jarvis complained.

‘Pass the biscuits,’ Henry said.

‘Shh! Shh, it’s starting!’

Henry fidgeted a bit more to get comfortable. He sighed.

‘It’s the perfect night in,’ he said.

 

*

The retrospective, full-on, face-to-face purchasing experience.

This is a rather satirical short story looking at the future of our globalised, centralised shopping malls that adorn our city centres. I hope you like it. (smirky-smirk)

March 15th 2078

I’m taking yet another group of tourists around the Shopping Mall Museum. It’s all a bit dull. ‘Come and see how our parents (or grandparents, depending on the age of the tourist) used to go about the business of acquiring new items for their home or person,’ I say. You know the thing. How it was in the ‘old days’. Same old speak, day in day out.

Why do they get so excited? I know when I go on holiday, it’s the last thing I want to see. I just want to rest somewhere sunward and drink a nice beverage. This walking around the Old Mall for hours, it wears you out.

I always have to tell them not to touch any of the exhibits apart from the ones in the gift shop. They don’t understand. But we can’t have all those old relics falling apart in their hands, can we? It’s not like we have great warehouses full of replacement stuff, is it, smirky-smirk.

I must admit, it is very funful to take them to the gift shop experience. The children look on with round-eyed wonder when I show them the little plastic cards and explain that for only 200 credits, they can get a charged mock-charger-card and can go over to the shelves and rails in the mockstore and choose a purchase before moving to the register for a face-to-face transaction with a human store assistant, just like they did only fifty years ago on this very spot. Even the adults get a bit misty-eyed thinking of about their parents doing this almost on a daily basis.

There’s always one funster at the back who wants to know why the Shopping Mall experience came to an end. But usually there’s an elder on hand to tell everyone how bad it was back then, all the queuing, and carrying of items, and the long, long selection process. ‘Imagine,’ says the oldster, ‘imagine having to select everything you want. Not just one or two things like you do here in the mockstore, but everything you need. Imagine choosing it all, how long it must have taken to pay for it, and that’s even before you try to get it home.’

Everyone nods at the oldster’s wisdom, and it makes so much sense. They gasp when I tell them it wasn’t uncommon for people of all ages and abilities to queue for as much as three to four minutes to make their purchase. They shake their heads as they go. ‘No one’s got that kind of time,’ they say. ‘How patient, they must have been. How much they must have suffered.’

When we leave, everyone feels a little sadder, a little wiser, more enlightened. Even those clutching a mock-shopper containing their Purchase seem a little wary of what they have done. It’s as if they know they have entered into a transaction with the past and it has changed them forever. It’s easily two minutes before anyone says smirky-smirk or grabs a self-snap. It makes me realise how important it is to keep this knowledge of the old ways alive. It makes me feel so humble.

***

The Sweater

I am hugely indebted to Morgen Bailey for the inspiration to write this story from one of her excellent writing competitions. She also posts brilliant writing prompts every day – I recommend these to help any writer loosen up their writing muscles. You could enter January’s 100-word story competition, find out more here: Morgen Bailey’s site

The Sweater

I don’t know whether to keep it or chuck it away. I hold it to my nose, my eyes flickering closed in rapture. It’s still warm, and floral-scented, soft and yielding like her. Whenever I think of her, in my dreams, my imagination, she wears this sweater. I picture her as she was tonight, smiling over her shoulder at me, a beckoning look, challenging. As if asking me, ‘Have you got what it takes?’ I have. It hurts to walk away and leave her to be discovered. But the sweater is a fitting memorial covering her face.

***

Nomads like us, or, I like it here.

 

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Back in the mists of time, before cities were built, before the towns and the offices and the shopping centres, before ports were built to allow boats to dock, before anyone thought of issuing a passport or a visa, there were humans. People. They spoke all sorts of languages and didn’t always understand one another. Disputes were settled in a variety of ways. I might give you a goat or sheep from my flocks in reparation for any damage you received at my hands. Or I might whack you with a big rock, and possibly face the dire consequences if my actions were discovered and your people didn’t like it. Or I might marry one of your relatives and we would just get over it.

That is what people do. Have always done. Once upon a time, we didn’t understand about borders and governments and territorial rights. We followed the herds. The herds migrated, to find pasture that didn’t die back in winter or get covered by twenty feet of snow, or they migrated to reproduce in more favourable climates, or, who knows, maybe they just got bored.

But wherever they went, we went after them. The herds, of any kind of deer or any kind of cattle, or I don’t know, maybe gigantic sweeping herds of emu or ostrich, or chickens the size of buffalo, they were everything to us. They were our food, our tools, our clothing, our lighting, even, later, our power and status. So we always had to be near the herds, and when they migrated, so did we.

But migrating for both herds and humans took its toll. There was always the potential for disaster, for predators to take advantage of the migrants, for climactic events to cause disruption and problems. For humans, it meant people with children travelling huge distances and arriving in a maybe less fabulous place than expected. sometime there was a terrible storm or hurricane, or there might have been a wildfire, or flooding. The elderly sickened and died, babies were born on the trail, and babies and mothers alike struggled to deal with the demands of the journey.

So one day, a character who was probably a national hero, gifted with foresight, radical and willing to take a huge risk, embracing blue-sky, out-of-the-box thinking, looked at all his or her community members as they packed the moose ready for the journey, and he or she thought to themselves, ‘Stuff that, I’m not going through all that again. Remember last time, when Granny got sick and she almost died? And she was barely 35!’

Or maybe they thought, last year’s place was too far from fresh water, and although the herds were strong, they were hard to catch on that uneven land. This place is nice. The water’s right there a stone’s throw from the tent, I can see for miles over these lovely rolling hills, the hills protect the land, so that summer leaves late and spring arrives early. I’m staying right here.

So they used some of their animal sinews and their flax or plant stem ropes, and they whittled a bunch of stakes, and they roped in some of those herds, and there they stayed. And when everyone came back next spring, lo and behold, there they were still, fat and sleek and healthy, and not totally exhausted from the long journey. So the following year, a few more crazy people decided to follow suit. Their wives and children and old people flourished, their flocks and herds produced young, and numbers multiplied.

I’m not a historian – as you can no doubt tell – and yes, this is probably hopelessly idealised and unrealistic. But my point is this: territorial borders are man-made and arbitrary. We do not – contrary to what many believe – own the land on which we were born or where we live. We are just there. I don’t normally post a political message. And I don’t want to debate endlessly. I just want to point out that in my own view, we are all immigrants. We are all nomads.

***

Short story: Martin Kaminski Comes Home.

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“Goodbye sir. Thank you for travelling United International. Have a nice day.”

Martin Kaminski smiled politely at the hostess and stepped through the door of the plane, through the ribbed connection-way and onto the sticky neutral carpet that led into the arrivals lounge.

He felt a vague sense of incompletion. As if he had forgotten something, though he knew he hadn’t. He had everything with him: a raincoat over his arm, a plastic carrier that contained the cigars for his brother Robert and the two bottles of expensive French perfume, one for Robert’s wife Sarah, and one for his own wife Julia.

At the desk he showed his passport and exchanged smiles and thanks with the official.

At the next desk, a young woman politely asked to look into his plastic carrier and Martin was happy to oblige. She parted the packages with hands swathed in thin-film gloves.

“Ooh! I love that perfume!” she smiled. He smiled back.

“Don’t all women? One’s for my wife, the other for my sister-in-law.”

“I’m sure they’ll be very happy.”

“Hope so! Thanks a lot.”

“Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

Martin moved on, still smiling. People were so friendly, so welcoming. It was good to be back.

But he halted in the lounge, watching as his fellow arrivals were greeted by loved ones with hugs and kisses, or by smartly dressed young men holding placards that said things like ‘Mr & Mrs Yushi’ or ‘Bradford party from Des Moines’.

Again Martin was aware of that strange sensation of something not quite right. He bit his lip, looking around him, trying to decide what to do.

There was a coffee shop, not too busy at the moment. Martin walked over, draped his coat and plastic bag on a chair at an empty table and stepped up to the counter to place his order.

No sooner had he sat down, however, than he heard his name called over the PA. He was wanted at the information desk. Puzzled, he got to his feet. At that moment, the smiling barista came over with his latte. Martin explained and the barista nodded.

“That’s okay. You go see what they want, and I’ll leave your latte here for when you come back. I can keep an eye on your stuff from the counter, save you taking it with you.”

Martin thanked her profusely, retrieved his passport, phone and wallet from his raincoat pocket, and walked across the concourse in the direction of the huge sign offering ‘Information’.

It was almost a minute before the clerk was free, having shown an elderly couple how to find their car using a map of the car park.

Martin smiled. “Hello. My name is Martin Kaminski. I heard the message.”

“Oh yes, Mr Kaminski. Thank you for responding so quickly. Um – do you have any ID with you?”

“Yes.” Martin held out his passport. The clerk glanced at it, handed it back. He gave Martin a grin.

“Forgotten something, sir?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe. Why?”

The clerk, built like a body-builder trying out for a new action movie, bent and hauled a massive suitcase out from under the counter. He dragged it around the side and did a ‘hey presto’ wave of the hand. He gave Martin a huge grin.

“Ring any bells yet?”

Martin couldn’t help smiling. He shook his head.

“Sorry, that’s not mine.”

“Well, it has your name on it.” The clerk flipped the tag to show MARTIN KAMINSKI written in black capitals. Martin shook his head.

“That’s very strange. There must be a mistake. I didn’t have any luggage with me today.”

“But sir, it has your name on the tag!”

“I can see that, but I’m telling you this is not mine.”

“You have just arrived from Paris?”

“Yes.”

“On flight CG772?”

“Yes.”

“And you are Martin Kaminski?”

“Yes, but…”

“Then this is your luggage, sir.”

“But…”

An elderly woman with extreme-blonde hair and a permatan butted in.

“Excuse me, I really need to know where the first aid is, my husband is sick and we left his medication on the airplane.”

She indicated an old man in red chinos and a nautical shirt. He leaned on a walking stick, grey-faced and wheezing.

“Oh my God!” the clerk exclaimed. He rushed over to usher the man into the desk chair and immediately began dialling whilst telling the elderly pair over his shoulder the doctor would be there right away.

The woman began to unbutton her husband’s collar and loosen his belt, telling him in a high scratchy voice not to worry, the medics were on their way. He told her he had heard, he wasn’t deaf, and told her to stop fussing.

Martin was forgotten. He looked at the suitcase. He thought about his coffee. With great difficulty he hauled the suitcase over to the café and sat down to his rapidly cooling latte.

What should he do? He sipped the latte. It was still warm, but not so warm as he would have liked.

He thought for a moment. He still had that nagging feeling, that forgotten-something sensation still nagging away at the back of his mind. And now he was annoyed and puzzled too.

He checked the tag again. Yes. It still had his name in bold print. No address, just the flight number.

It seemed unlikely that there could have been another man with the same name travelling on the same flight. But the tag…

Martin finished his drink. He continued to think, and eventually he came to a decision. The suitcase was on wheels but it was still so heavy and hard to manoeuvre. What could be in this thing? It felt like gold bars or a ton of books. He set off across the concourse once more. Halfway over, he was forced to re-evaluate his plan – the same man was still on duty at the information desk, and besides that, there were at least half a dozen people waiting to speak to him.

Martin looked around. He spotted the United International desk, so he headed for that. He was feeling the strain of hauling the heavy suitcase around. If anything, it seemed to be getting heavier. He had to get himself into shape before his blood pressure hit the roof.

A bored-looking, uniformed clerk looked up. He didn’t speak, just raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve got this suitcase,” Martin began.

“Excellent. I’m very glad for you. You have a nice day, now.” The clerk turned away to look at his computer screen. Martin moved to stand in front of the man again.

“No, you don’t understand. It’s not mine.”

“Not yours? Did you take it in mistake for your own? Or did you find it?”

“Well, no, actually the clerk at the information desk gave it to me.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because it has my name on it. But…”

“So it is yours?”

“No…”

“But you just said it has your name on it.”

“Yes, but there’s been a mistake, it’s not mine.”

“You’ve been given someone else’s luggage?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“So they have taken yours by mistake?”

“No, I didn’t have any luggage.”

The clerk gave him a strange look. Clearly he thought this guy with the suitcase was drunk or something. The clerk came round the desk to take a look at the suitcase. He glanced at the tag.

“It says Martin Kaminski. Off flight CG772.”

“Yes.”

“Are you Mr Kaminski?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any ID with you, Mr Kaminski?”

Feeling like everything was going in circles, Martin reached into his pocket for his passport. He wasn’t surprised to see his hand shaking as he held it out to the clerk.

“It says here you are Martin Kaminski,” said the clerk. There was a hint of accusation in his voice.

“Yes, I told you…”

“Then this is your luggage.”

“No, it’s not…”

“It has your name on the tag.”

Martin was in danger of losing his temper. He shoved his clenched fists into his trouser pockets and forced himself to calm down. He spoke quietly and clearly.

“Yes, I told you. But I didn’t bring any luggage with me.”

“You went all the way to…” the clerk checked the tag again “…Paris, France and back with no luggage?”

“That’s right. Look, I can explain…” Martin began, but the clerk had waved an arm at a security guard fifty feet away. The guard spoke into his radio and he and two others began to close in on the counter.

Martin felt alarmed.

“Look, I haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve been given this suitcase, and it isn’t mine and I’m trying to give it back so you can make sure it gets back to its rightful owner.”

“And this isn’t your suitcase?” the security guard asked.

“No, for the hundredth time, this is not my suitcase!”

“Easy sir, there’s no need to be aggressive,” the security guard told him, placing a hand on Martin’s chest. For a second, Martin was going to slap the hand away and plant his fist in the centre of the guard’s face, but he took a calming breath and forced a smile.

“Sorry. I’m a little tired, I guess.”

“Understandable sir.”

“But it has his name on the tag,” the clerk pointed out. The four of them exchanged a look, eyebrows raised. One man nudged the suitcase.

“Feels heavy.”

Another guard stepped forward.

“Sir, would you please open the suitcase.”

Martin couldn’t believe it. Maybe he should just walk away and leave them to it. His wife would be waiting out front. He passed a shaking hand over his forehead.

“Look,” he began, but got no further.

“Just open it, please, sir.”

The security guards all took a step forward, the clerk a step back. Martin lost his temper now. He began pulling items out of his pockets and slamming them down on the counter-top.

“Okay! Okay! If it will make you happy, I’ll turn out my pockets and you’ll see that there is no key, because as I keep telling you, this suitcase is not mine!”

There was a key. It lay there glinting in the light, between his wallet and his neatly folded handkerchief. Martin stared.

“Well, I…how did that get there?”

“Just open the case, Mr Kaminski.” The security guard nearest drew out his nightstick, but Martin hardly noticed. He picked up the key and with trembling fingers, pushed it into the lock and turned it. Then he turned the key in the second lock and without thinking about it pocketed the key, and one of the guards lay the case down on its side and flipped the catches. The lid bounced up.

Martin stared into his own sightless blue eyes.

Nothing happened for five seconds. Then whilst one guard felt for a pulse, the other two wrestled Martin to the ground and cuffed his hands behind his back. Somewhere nearby a lady screamed and a guard told the clerk to call the emergency services. Another guard, satisfied Martin was going nowhere, spoke into his radio.

After a moment, a guard spoke to Martin.

“Do you mind telling me, Mr Kaminski, just who is that in your suitcase?”

Martin shook his head as best he could from his position on the ground. He thought he was going to be sick. His head was swimming and he could hear his own heart pounding in his ears.

“I told you, it’s not my…”

“Oh that’s right. It’s not your suitcase. I forgot you said that,” the guard’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Well then I guess we’ll have this little misunderstanding cleared up in no time.”

Martin looked past the guard’s legs.

His own hair, his own blue eyes, his nose, his mouth, his chin, his clothes, inside the suitcase, all neatly folded. Martin Kaminski.

***

 

The Postcard – a short story

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‘Have you typed up that contract yet?’

My manager’s voice cut into my little lonely bubble and made me jump half out of my skin. He glowered a bit, angry with me for being startled, but he was somewhat mollified when I told him I only had two more pages to go out of the original 19.

‘By lunchtime, yeah?’ he reminded me as he moved away to pester someone else.

I can’t stand it here. I’ve been here a month but it feels like a life-sentence. A weekend is just not enough parole time for the working week that precedes it.

I stared at the postcard my predecessor left pinned to the hessian wall of the cubicle. It shows a ramshackle cottage on a beach, an empty beach, with palm trees and golden sand that seems to stretch on for miles, lapped by blue, blue water. And nothing else. No one else.

The cottage wasn’t really a cottage, it was more like a shed or a hut. The roof looks like it would blow away in a hurricane. And this looks like the kind of place where they actually have hurricanes. And the walls don’t exactly look sound. There are cracks between the boards—I can imagine all kinds of creepy crawlies getting in through those. And there’s only one small window, partially boarded over. There’s a wonky railing around what appears to be a microscopic veranda.

But all the same…The card seems to call to me. Wish you were here? Oh yes, I most certainly do.

With each passing day I look at it more and more. My eyes are drawn to it.

On Monday, after a tense weekend of knowing what awaits me once Sunday is over, I return to my cell, turn on my computer, and take my first look of the week at the card. Then work begins, I get my head down and get on with things. And quite often, I hardly look up from my desk until half an hour after I should have gone home. That’s Monday madness.

Tuesday is not a lot better, though I quite often get a lunch break and I usually leave more or less on time. I glance at the picture several times on a Tuesday.

Wednesday is easier—the lull before the end-of-the-week storm. Usually I catch up on some filing or photocopying, both of which keep me away from my desk for a while—so I often forget all about the little hut.

Thursday things start to get crazy again—contracts to type, documents to chase, people to phone, emails, faxes, and yet more phone calls. It’s manic but still only a dress rehearsal for Frantic Friday. It’s a bit like grocery shopping the last weekend before Christmas—total chaos with everyone grabbing haphazardly at things just in case they never get any food again.

Friday. So close to the weekend but such a horror to live through week after week. That’s when I seek refuge the most often, gazing at the picture, really drinking in that impossibly blue sky, reflected in the improbably blue water, the wide expanse of deserted beach. As if by the sheer force of my concentration I can transport myself there. I can almost hear the soft sound of the water washing up onto the shore.

The office is huge. And we are all tucked away in our little cells—our cubicles which accommodate our desk, chairs, computer, phone and trays upon trays of paperwork. I remember once years ago people used to say that using computer systems would make most administration processes redundant, and that there would be a huge reduction in paperwork. The strange, alluring legend of the paperless office. There are 86 of us on this floor. 86 computers all warming the heavy recycled air with their hot little components. 86 chairs on rollers that don’t quite roll. 86 miserable people kept in little squares like veal calves or stray dogs waiting to be adopted or euthanised, housed temporarily until either retirement or death claims us—either one is good at the moment.

They play the radio over the PA system—to ‘keep up morale’. The problem is, there is only one radio, and 86 tastes in music. I find it so stressful to listen to boy bands and rock chicks and divas all day long. It’s mentally exhausting.

Then there’s the constant toing and froing of the workers—like being on some crowded stairs—figures bustling back and forth, not friends, not visitors, just milling about.

I bet that doesn’t happen on that little beach. I bet it’s quiet all the time. If I sat on that little veranda, I bet all I would hear if I closed my eyes would be the soft rustling of the palm trees, the sound of the occasional bird overhead, the sound of the waves and my own calm breath, moving in and out and washing away my tension.

I bet no one ever yells out ‘what the hell has happened to the accounting software updates?’ I bet if people ever came to that hut they would bring a small gift—some fruit, perhaps or maybe some flowers. And I’d make tea, and we could sit on that veranda and look at the water. We could talk if we wanted to, but I wouldn’t mind if we didn’t.

‘What happened to that blue folder marked ‘urgent’?’ My manager barks in my ear suddenly, and I accidentally type half a dozen letter Ys on the screen as I jerk round to look at him. He glares at me again. ‘Daydreaming again? For God’s sake, keep you mind on your work. Then maybe folders wouldn’t keep disappearing.’

He’s gone again and I’m fighting back tears. It seems so unfair that I’m here in this place when there are places like the one on the postcard on the wall. I know people say we all have bad days, you’ll feel better tomorrow. But this dread, this slow, cold death has been going on for decades. What if it’s not how I feel in a passing moment of self-pity but it’s the length and breadth of my whole existence?

This is all I’ve ever known. All I’m likely to know until I retire. It’s no good telling me that when I retire I can do all the things I’ve dreamed of, like travelling. Why do I have to wait until my life is almost over to begin enjoying it? I don’t just need a holiday, I need a whole change of life.

I’m hardly thinking. I reach out and grab the postcard off the wall. I lean down under the desk to pull out my handbag. I thrust the postcard inside and put my bag under my arm. I turn and look around me. I see nothing that is mine. I get up, and walk away down the aisle to the lift.

At the lift door, I wait impatiently. When it arrives and the door opens, I feel a sense of excitement, of doing something terribly naughty yet wonderful. I step inside before anyone tries to stop me. As the doors close, I realise no one has even noticed me leave my desk, and as the lift drops towards the ground, I wonder how long it will be before they realise I’ve gone.

No one even sees me walk out of the big double doors. No one. I’m nothing to them. As I hurry down the hill towards the railway station, so aware of the precious cargo in my bag, I feel a slight pang of guilt.

Perhaps I should have left the postcard to brighten the day of the next poor sap that occupies my cubicle.

**

 

The Footballer Interview

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‘The new striker for United is here for the interview,’ came the message. Sue sighed and dragged herself to the reception area. Another inarticulate footballer with a repertoire that consisted of three phrases: ‘the lads done good’, ‘we’re training hard’ and ‘it’s a game of two halves’. Great! It wasn’t exactly the hard-hitting journalism she’d dreamed of as a student.

In the reception the footballer looked up from FHM to see her approaching and unfolded himself from the seat in the waiting area. He was tall, he was blond, he sported a diamond stud in one ear. He wore an expensive suit as if it were a cardboard box and he was the gift inside. Ho hum, Sue thought, but she slapped a smile in her face as she stepped forward to greet him, her hand outstretched.

‘Hi, Justin, so lovely to meet you, sorry to keep you waiting,’ she said. Her hand was grasped firmly and released. No sweaty palm, no prolonged contact, he wasn’t even staring at her boobs. That alone surprised her. A good start, she was forced to acknowledge.

‘I’m so grateful to you for sparing me some time today,’ he began in a smooth, public-school voice, ‘I realise you have a somewhat hectic schedule and I was fully prepared to have to wait a few days but as I’m sure you’re aware, the publicity is always very welcome.’

She blinked at him. ‘Oh – er – well, it’s – er…’

He smiled. Sexily. Gorgeously. White even teeth, good skin – not as orange as celebs usually were, and he didn’t appear to be hungover. She led him into her office, invited him to sit. And he sat. Not lolling, but actually sitting, ninety per cent upright at least. Amazing. She positioned her dictating machine and with a smile, indicated they were beginning.

‘Well, er – Justin – perhaps you can tell me a little more about your move to United.’

He smiled again. It suddenly struck her he was here alone – no entourage, no agent, no coach, no WAG. Just Him. Wow.

‘Well Sue, I hope you don’t mind me calling you Sue? I saw this as an excellent opportunity to further my career by playing for a high profile, high status club, but at the same time I really believe it is good for the club too, because I’m confident I can bring an element to the team’s game which has been a little lacking in the last season or two.’

‘And have you met your new teammates yet?’

‘Yes, we’ve had two practice sessions together, and of course, I’m researching the footage available. I have great faith in my colleagues – they’re all keen and talented athletes, and I feel that this move will be mutually advantageous. I intend to work very hard to justify the manager’s faith in me and the huge transfer fee they have invested.’

She caught a whiff of his designer cologne as he leaned forward to take a sip of water. ‘Tell me about team tactics,’ she suggested.

‘One thing I really believe is that the game can be won or lost in the mind as well as on the pitch. I think it’s a wise man who comes out of the dressing room after half-time and views the second half as a new game, a fresh opportunity to test himself.’

Quite so, Sue thought. It was two hours before she realised he’d said what they all say: ‘we’re training hard’, and ‘it’s a game of two halves’ and ‘the lads done good’. He’d just said it in a posh voice with big words and a nice smile.

***

Flash Fiction – The Scarf

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 In my dreams, she stares back at me.

Her face, her expression are imprinted on my inner eye. I can revisit these pictures any time I like. They will always be there, waiting. And it won’t matter where I am, I can see her anywhere, any time. Not just her, either, but all the others. I have one to suit each and every mood.

This morning I was in the ladieswear department. I held a scarf loosely between my fingers, and, as there were so few people around, I even closed my eyes for a few moments and allowed the soft, silken fabric to play gently across my fingers. I knew it was exactly right, it would be strong enough. It would be perfect.

I opened my eyes to find the sales assistant staring at me. She approached, and I told myself there was no need to feel nervous. I smiled.

‘May I help you?’ She asked. Her mouth smiled but her lovely eyes told me she thought I was a creep. I put on my apologetic face.

‘Sorry, I guess that looked a little creepy,’ I said, and already she was softening. ‘Thing is, I need to buy a little gift for my aunt. Nothing, you know, too lavish, just something nice, something thoughtful. She practically raised us kids after our Dad left, and my Mum got sick, and she’s getting older and her eyesight’s not so good now she’s over eighty. And now she’s got to give up her home and go into sheltered housing.’

I could see she was hooked, she was nodding along and making concerned faces.

‘I was just trying to imagine how this might feel to her when she unwraps the package. Do you think she’ll know it’s silk? I don’t want her to think I don’t care enough to send her something nice.’

The sales assistant, Hayley, according to her badge, put out a hand and did just what I had done, played the fabric through her fingers, eyes closed. I could have done it there and then. But there’ll be cameras, and there were still a few people dotted around. But I really wanted to do it.

‘I never thought about it before, but you can tell, just from the feel of the fabric. It’ll be perfect.’

‘Then I’ll take it. Thanks for all your help.’ I smiled.

She rang the sale up and I handed over the cash. She smiled at me a little mistily as I turned to leave.

‘I hope your aunt enjoys the gift.’

It’s time to create more memories. I sat in my car until all the staff left the store. It wasn’t too difficult to trail her through the traffic. Now I’m parked across the street from her house.

I’m holding the scarf and playing with its softness as I stare across at the house. I imagine how it will look around her neck, the soft fabric, the soft skin of her throat. Once the lights go out, I’ll make my move.

The Bad Reference – a flash fiction shortie

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Am I too old?

I’m fifty-two, short, fat, my eyesight’s bad and my hearing’s worse. I’ve got no money and I get fed-up with idiots really quickly. And, due to a terminal lessening of patience, almost everyone seems like an idiot to me these days. I’m the original grumpy old woman.

And in addition to all these, I’m now out of work. Laid off. Redundant.

I’ve looked in the small ads in the local paper. I’ve looked in the agencies and the job centre. Not really seen anything I fancy.

I’ve got a little car, so I can get almost anywhere within, say, a forty to forty-five minute radius of where I live. And I’ve got great computer skills and ‘a flexible approach to work’. Oh yes, and I’m a good team player, although I can work on my own initiative and meet targets and deadlines. In addition to my lengthy ‘life-experience’, I’ve also got a degree.

And I try to be nice. I smile and try to look interested. When they talk about their sick child or dog, I make all the right sympathetic noises.

So why don’t they want me?

My reference from my old job probably wasn’t exactly glowing. If I’m honest, it’s possible I didn’t give my best performance towards the end of my time with GrippaCables.

But that was because my boss, Jonathan Gripp, was having an affair with that young woman in Sales Support. Steffi.

And it wasn’t just that his lust for her was so obvious and unrestrained, but after all I saw him first.

Possibly I shouldn’t have shredded all the sales documents for the last quarter. That probably gave everyone a bit of a headache, trying to fathom out who’d ordered what and when and if they’d paid.

It’s true that I poured a cup of hot sweet tea into the new photocopier, but I was very upset when I saw Jonathan and Steffi leave for lunch together.

I may have been rather rude to some callers.

And I certainly made my feelings plain during the video-conference with the Glasgow office. With hindsight, I see it may have been wiser to keep my clothes on for that.

I wish I hadn’t slashed his tyres or keyed both sides of her Clio. Or put black paint on the handset of his phone or superglue on her chair, or programmed her computer to make a fart noise every time she pressed a key, or filed all reports under X, or arranged to have all the business stationery reprinted to show the company name as CrappaCables.

It may not have been necessary to rebook their honeymoon destination from Corfu to Coventry. You’d think they’d be able to see the funny side, laugh it off, be a bit adult about it. Don’t know why she had to cry and wail and scream down the phone at me. There was certainly no need for that kind of language.

So now they’ve decided to be petty about it by giving me a lukewarm reference. After all I’ve done for them! You’d think any firm would be glad to have me with my admin skills.