This is my writing blog, where I will be shamelessly posting my work. Poems, short stories, flash fiction, extracts from novels...they'll all be here. And if you don't like any of that, just play with the tiger.

Friday, 21 December 2007

A Christmas tale

Well, that time of year is upon us again. In honour of the season, there follows a Christmassy short story.
I'd just like to wish everyone the very merriest of Christmases. I know it's a bit early, but I'm now off to listen craftily for the jingle of sleigh bells...who knows, I might see him this year!

It was the egg and cress sandwich that started it all. Patience scurried into the bakery at the station on her way to being late for her train (which, as it turned out, didn’t matter because the train was late for Patience); she wanted a nice pasty to warm her during the journey. However, the shop’s three remaining pasties looked exhausted and their innards were seeping out and congealing on the hotplate. Discouraged, Patience looked in the chiller cabinet, deciding that a cold sandwich would have to do as sustenance instead. There were two sandwiches left. Gagging at the prospect of brie and cranberry relish, Patience harvested the egg and watercress, and stood drumming her fingers against her side while the thin-lipped, thin-armed assistant counted each coin of her change individually. She ensconced the sandwich in a paper bag as if wrapping the most precious Christmas gift.
‘Thank you!’ Patience called over her shoulder as she dropped the sandwich into one of her larger carrier bags, jostled them all into position, and scooted out of the shop towards the platform. She tried to ignore the voice in her head that told her to slow down. It wouldn’t exactly be a disaster if she missed the train, would it? Would Clarissa even notice?
Patience McDowall! She scolded herself. She didn’t have to invite you; the least you can do is show willing. Patience hurried her pace accordingly, and got to her platform just in time to spend quarter of an hour peering tetchily into the middle distance with the other passengers.
Once the train limped into the station, Patience joined the general stampede to be the first on board and rejoiced at securing herself a window seat. Her bags, their foil-papered contents rustling, set up a determined occupation of the seat next to her. Just let anyone dare to try and sit there. Luckily, the train wasn’t full, and the bags were allowed to ride in comfort. As the train loitered at the platform so as to be increasingly late at each subsequent station, Patience fished in her handbag and removed a magazine before extracting the egg and cress sandwich from its carrier bag. It had gone to hide at the bottom, and Patience’s rummaging inevitably disturbed the sellotape on one or two of the parcels, allowing the presents inside to peep out. She glowered at them, and busied herself with magazine and snack.
Finally succeeding in gouging a fingernail through the cellophane, Patience bit off a corner of the sandwich. The watercress, tired by a long day in the chiller cabinet, resigned itself at once to being devoured whole. Its peppery stems and leaves went limp and resistant to teeth, so as Patience bit off her mouthful a whole system of cress slid out from the bread and dangled listlessly against her chin. She had no option but to mechanically work the whole thing into her mouth like a snake despatching a leafy mouse-tail. In the middle of the process Patience happened to look up, and saw that a small, bespectacled boy was observing her with silent mirth. She turned crimson, and hid behind the pages of her magazine. The boy looked terrible. His cropped hair and unashamed stare immediately marked him out as a reprobate of the highest order, and if that weren’t enough, he was wearing a pale blue hoodie. He didn’t look much more than five years old, but Patience guessed he had started early on the road to thuggery.
Patience sneaked a look over a cocked page to see who accompanied the boy in the opposite window seat. She had been so busy wrestling with sandwich cellophane that she hadn’t noticed anyone sit down, but there was indeed a figure there. A woman. Possibly the thug’s mother, or, at an outside guess, his parole officer.
‘Don’t stare,’ said the woman in a tired, faded voice.
Patience ducked as far behind her pages as she could, hotly ashamed that she had been caught spying, until the mini thug piped up.
‘Mum! I wasn’t staring. I wanted to say hello.’
Patience emerged. ‘Hello,’ she said, with all the frosty aloofness she could muster.
‘Hello!’ piped the child, beaming as if pretending to be a little cherub. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Patience,’ conceded Patience.
‘Leave the lady alone,’ said the mother’s faded voice.
Patience sneaked a crafty peek at her. She was perhaps thirty years old, and her appearance matched her voice. Her bleached hair looked dead and dried, her skin was pale, and the tired greyness of her eyes blended perfectly with the heavy bags that underlined them. She wore a pale pink velour tracksuit beneath a Puffa jacket that may once have aspired to whiteness but was now a fatigued off-grey. Patience inwardly shook her head at the woman and tutted silently.
‘But I’m bored,’ snivelled the child. Patience wondered how rude it would be if she were to change seats.
‘Here, then!’ The mother rummaged in a bag down at her feet and brought out an unexpected handful of drinking straws.
The boy began to arrange them into patterns, and immediately fell silent. In spite of herself, Patience smiled at the way his tongue wormed out of one corner of his mouth as he concentrated. She went back to her magazine, but couldn’t absorb the articles on how to have the perfect family Christmas. She wallowed in a vague dissatisfaction; she had spent the festive season at Clarissa’s place enough times now to know that the days ahead would be more like a military exercise than a time of relaxation and jollity.
‘Do you want a drink, Stephen?’ The mother’s voice interrupted Patience’s mental wanderings, and she stole another glance out from behind her pages.
The child, absorbed with his straws, hadn’t uttered a sound. He looked up as his mother proffered the carton of blackcurrant juice, uttered a quiet thank you, and went back to his task.
Stephen. Patience was surprised. She had expected the boy to be named Preston or Kyle or Tyler. She was nonplussed; and began to scold herself. She still recalled the hoot of laughter, and the whole-body shudder that succeeded it, when her stepdaughter Clarissa had announced with a perfectly straight face that she would be christening her child Dolce. It was nearly six years ago, but Patience still grimaced at the name and raised up thankful prayers that Dolce hadn’t yet been followed by a little Gabbana or Moschino. It wasn’t that Clarissa was a – what was the word – a chav. She was as far removed from chavdom as anyone could be, with her immaculate house and exorbitantly paid nannies, and she had somehow convinced herself that Dolce was a name of the highest sophistication.
Patience and Clarissa both privately knew that the Christmas invite was purely for Dolce’s sake. Malcolm, Patience’s husband and Clarissa’s father, had died some ten years ago, and before the birth of the child the two women had very little to do with each other. There was no animosity; they simply had nothing in common. They hadn’t when Patience found herself bemusedly trying to raise the infant Clarissa, and nothing had changed over the years until a new generation, in the wailing form of Dolce, made Clarissa suddenly conscientious of the importance of family. And so, Christmas in London.
The first few times had almost been fun, but over recent Christmases Patience observed that Dolce was turning into a perfect replica of her mother. She had eyed last year’s dolly with lofty disdain, and asked Patience if she could have a new mobile phone instead. Patience trembled at the reception this year’s offering – a traditional jointed teddy bear – would receive, but she refused to be a party to indulging the child’s whims. Mulishly steeling herself against the rebukes, Patience rummaged in her handbag once more and withdrew a packet of wine gums, as if they could provide Dutch courage for the looming ordeal.
‘No, Stephen!’ the faded woman’s voice quietly interrupted Patience again, and she looked over the parapet of her magazine. The child was ogling the sweet packet.
Feeling martyred and generous, Patience offered him the packet, and the boy glanced at his mother as if seeking permission.
‘Go ahead, dear,’ said Patience. ‘As long as you won’t spoil your tea.’
Stephen took the first sweet that came to hand, and didn’t even look too disappointed that it was a green one. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered before popping it into his mouth.
‘I’m so sorry,’ added his mother. ‘He’s not normally so cheeky. I think he’s a bit bored on the train; it’s been a long day.’
‘Have you far to go?’ Patience asked in spite of herself.
‘Birmingham. We went up to Manchester this morning to visit Stephen’s dad, and now we’re heading home.’
Patience had a sudden vision of the dad in question: a slavering Neanderthal trolling around Strangeways.
‘Do you see him often?’ Somehow she felt herself growing increasingly interested in the shabby little pair. Beneath her bleach and velour, the woman seemed quiet and sad, and was ever mindful of her boy’s behaviour.
‘Not really. It’s hard, with the fares. But at Christmas the police benevolent fund usually helps us out.’
Patience mouthed the words ‘benevolent fund’ to herself in puzzlement.
‘He was in the force himself,’ Stephen’s mother explained. ‘He was stabbed and killed in a raid three years ago.’
‘Oh my goodness!’ Patience’s hand flew to her mouth. ‘I’m so sorry. How terrible. For you both.’ And she looked with mistier eyes at the boy, who was once again absorbed with his straws. He had methodically constructed an elaborate star pattern on the table.
‘Thank you,’ said the woman. ‘Some people think it’s ghoulish, taking Stephen to his grave, but I don’t want him to forget his dad.’
‘Daddy’s a hero,’ Stephen chipped in, briefly glancing up at Patience.
‘I’m sure he’d be very proud of you, pet,’ Patience smiled at him. ‘Aren’t you clever with your straws?’
Stephen nodded happily, as if a denial would be nothing but false modesty.
‘He has to be,’ his mother said quietly to Patience. ‘I mean, there’s compensation and his pension, but it doesn’t always go that far, you know?’
Patience nodded, remembering her own struggles to get by after Malcolm’s death.
‘Trisha,’ said the woman suddenly, extending her hand. ‘Thanks. Thanks for being nice to him.’
‘Patience,’ said Patience, forgetting she had already introduced herself. ‘He’s a lovely boy.’ And, despite her earlier misgivings, she was beginning to believe it.
‘Going somewhere nice for Christmas, Patience?’
Patience folded her magazine and confined it to her bag.
‘London. Stepdaughter. Keeping up appearances, really. They don’t need me there.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true!’
‘Oh, it is. I don’t say it to whine, but I don’t fit in. They’re not really my sort of people, you know? They don’t need me there. It’s my job to sit in the rocking chair and fall asleep after a couple of sherries. That’s all they do, you know. Play Scrabble and ply me with sherry. I’d never even had sherry outside of a trifle before I went there, but Clarissa said it’s the done thing so that’s what I do.’ Patience paused over a fond memory. ‘You should have seen their faces the first time I went and offered to make bacon butties all round on Christmas morning. Clarissa couldn’t get her Tupperware tub of muesli on the table fast enough!’
Both women laughed, and Stephen looked up at them.
‘What do you want from Father Christmas, dear?’ Patience asked, kicking herself as soon as the words came out. Could Trisha afford anything for him?
‘Don’t mind,’ said the boy. ‘I like toys.’
Patience felt an idea bloom in her head. She rummaged in a carrier bag.
‘Well. I saw Father Christmas earlier, and he asked me to pass this on to anybody who might like it.’ She handed a parcel over to the boy. ‘Go on, open it.’
Stephen’s eyes gaped wide and he stared at his mother. ‘Mum! Look!’
‘No, really, you can’t…’ Trisha began, but Stephen could and did.
‘Thank you! Thanks, Father Christmas!’ And he tore off the paper. It was the jointed teddy bear. He gasped in delight and hugged it to him. ‘I’m going to call him Edward!’
Trisha moved forward as if to speak, but she couldn’t. There were tears in her eyes.
‘Don’t,’ said Patience, touching Trisha’s arm. ‘He’ll get more out of it than my granddaughter. I’ll stop off somewhere and get her Harvey Nichols vouchers, or something.’
Trisha mouthed a silent, but no less heartfelt, thank you. Stephen was back in his childhood world, looking as if he and the bear had been companions since birth.
‘Can Edward have turkey at Christmas?’ he asked suddenly. ‘Teddies like turkey.’
‘Oh, Stephen, we’ve been through this. We’re having chicken. It’s silly getting a turkey just for two of us. All right, three of us,’ Trisha added as the boy brandished the bear in her face.
‘Okay,’ he muttered, going back to his game. Then he grinned, raised his head and flashed his spectacles at Patience and Trisha in quick succession. ‘What if there’s four of us? Is it silly then?’
Trisha blushed and beamed at the same time. ‘Maybe not as silly, but…’ she trailed off and looked shyly at Patience, who was also beaming. ‘I haven’t got any sherry, you know.’
Patience touched her arm again. ‘Sounds like the perfect Christmas to me.’

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Award! Award!

Many thanks to the lovely Carenza at LightlyDone for awarding me the rather splendid Roar Award (see left). I now get to nominate five other blogs, so I'm off to do some concerted surfing. Of course, I'm supposed to be writing an essay now, but one must have one's priorities...

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Tyrone writes again

Once again, I've had to turn to my old buddy Tyrone Butler to help me out of a flash fiction hole. Mr B, the floor is yours...

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
The hot whisper, the breathless quaking rush of words nearly makes me change my mind. Nearly. She glimpses up at me, her eyes wide and brilliant despite the three a.m. murk of the room. As I catch her eye, she whips her face away and whispers into clasped hands.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women…
Well whaddya know. I never realised she was Catholic.
Come on, I tell her. It’ll be easy.
She whimpers and retreats further into herself. I am the resurrection, and
I tell her to can it. This ends now. She crucifies me with her eyes; they’re all dumb terror and hideous knowledge at once. I smile, flatly, and she gives up any hope; she recognizes the look of death on my face.
I begin to type.
You’re not God, Tyrone, she hisses. Our Father, which art
I look away from her face and go on typing. In three sentences, she is dead. On a wing, and a prayer.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Stuck for that perfect Christmas gift..?

Then look no further than Amazon. Don't be put off by the fact that I'm in this book - it contains some truly brilliant writing by a lovely bunch of people. Go on, buy one. You deserve a treat.

With thanks to Graeme