Poppy Day

This is a re-post of a fictional short story, from 2016
It is in honour of Armistice Day, the 11th of November
Many of you will remember it, so this is for the benefit of new followers.

This is a work of fiction, a short story of 1700 words.

Paula operated the hydraulic platform at the back of the converted car. Once it was safely down, Darren wheeled himself out into the car park. She handed him the trays of paper poppies to rest on his lap, then removed the folding table and the two collecting boxes.

Once they had set up inside the entrance to the supermarket, Paula told him that she would be back some time after four to pick him up. She made sure that he had his flask of tea and the sandwich safely stowed in the small pack hanging from the handles of the chair. Waving goodbye, she walked back the short distance to the car.

She had been a great friend to Darren over the last few years. A soldier’s widow herself, she had taken the edge off of her grief by becoming heavily involved in helping others. Darren really loved her, but not like that. There would never be anymore ‘like that’ for him. Poppy Day was on a Friday this year, so a nice busy day in the supermarket looked promising for his collection. Of course many would have already bought their poppies, but selling them on the actual day always managed to catch the last of the stragglers, or those who had avoided them until now. Paula had set up his table in the gap between the entrance and exit. It was prominent enough to be seen, without affecting anyone getting in and out with their trolleys.

Darren backed his wheelchair into position next to the table, and put the extra boxes behind the open one on display. He held on to one of the collecting tins, then placed the other at the front, where it couldn’t be missed. There was no doubt that he cut a smart figure, even sitting down. He wore his beret and shiny cap-badge, a black blazer with his regimental cloth emblem, and his row of medals on the left. The military tie looked nice over a crisp white shirt too.
Below the waist, the story was somewhat different. Elasticated joggers covered him there, the legs pinned up so that they did not dangle beneath the travel rug that was wrapped around his waist, stopping just short of the footplates that he would never need to use. If he didn’t move around too much, nobody would notice the urine-collection bag that hung alongside, connected by a tube that went into his body.

When he left school, it had been a lot harder to get a job than he had expected. Despite some reasonable exam results, there was nothing much on offer. He had settled for being an assistant at the garden centre, and made the best of the low wages, and lack of prospects. But despite working hard and managing to actually enjoy the job, falling sales meant cuts, and he had been one of the first to be laid off. After a pointless summer, he decided to join the army, overcoming the concerns of his parents. Army life seemed to suit him from the start. He liked being outdoors a lot of the time, and didn’t mind the routine that bored so many of his fellow recruits. By the time the war against Iraq came along, he felt ready. And once he got to Basra, he discovered that he was.

By the time his regiment was sent to Helmand Province some years later, he had made sergeant. Despite his youth, the young officers relied on his experience to sort out the company, and on his cool head when it came to the fighting. But Afghanistan was a very different war to the one he had known in Iraq. Although those at home may not have been aware, it was a hard fight. Darren found he was feeling jumpy and edgy, and wondering who he could rely on. Long days in the compound dodging rockets, and fighting boredom, as well as the Taliban. These were followed by intense fire-fights, and nervy patrols, where everyone you saw seemed like the enemy. The company had its worse day ever there, four killed and seven injured. After that, they got leave, and returned to the garrison in the UK.

Mum pleaded with him not to go back. Dad told him to get out of the army. Old school-friends said it was a pointless war, and they were doing no good being there. Darren didn’t argue with them, as he knew that they would never understand. You fought for your mates, the blokes next to you. The reasons didn’t concern you. You were there, and that was all there was to it. So you stuck together, and looked after each other as best as you could. When the time came to go back, he felt almost relieved. Life at home was too strange now. He had been gone too long.

The second patrol of that tour started off the same as most of the others. Wandering along a dusty track bordered by fields, heading for a mud-walled compound about a mile further on. Private Cobb was on point duty, and the Lieutenant was behind Darren. He was saying something into the radio, probably a report to headquarters. Cobb stopped and held up his hand. He had seen something he wasn’t happy with. The old trailer was overturned against the side of the track, and had a large pile of rocks stacked under it. When Darren got up to Cobb’s position, he agreed with the Private that it seemed out of place, and suggested they turn back.

Then there was the sound of air rushing past. Darren felt as if he was flying through the air, in a cloud of choking dust. And he was. He couldn’t remember the impact as he connected with the ground. It knocked the breath out of him, and he was aware that he couldn’t hear anything. He could see the young Lieutenant’s face, and he appeared to be screaming, but made no noise. At least none that Darren could hear. Twisting his head around, he could see what he presumed was Cobby, lying crumpled in the field to his right. There wasn’t enough of him left to fill a rucksack. Darren’s first thought was of Cobb’s chubby young wife, and the toddler back home who would never remember his Dad, despite being shown the photos. He tried to get up and help the Lieutenant, but was unable to stand.

Back where he had been standing, he could see some legs lying in the road, still wearing their boots. His eyes were obscured by blood, so he rubbed at them to clear his vision. The left side of his face was wet, and when he couldn’t make things any better, he looked down along his body instead. Most of his left hand was gone, at least three fingers, anyway. He tried to move his legs again, but the left one didn’t seem to be there, and what remained of the right one refused to respond. But he couldn’t take it in. There was no pain. Why was there no pain? That would come later.

The rest was a blur. Medics, morphine, stretchers, and finally, a helicopter. Base hospital became home for a while, as he tried to understand that he had no left leg, not much left of his right one, and only half a left hand. His left eye had been removed, and his left ear was mostly gone. Things didn’t seem right between his legs either, and when he found out that most of his manhood had been taken by the blast, he pleaded with the medical officer to let him die. They wouldn’t do that of course. He knew that all too well, but kept asking anyway. The Padre came to visit, and informed him that his parents had been given the news that he was wounded. He would be flown home to a hospital in England, as soon as there was space available. He confirmed that Cobby was dead, and that the officer had sustained a severe head injury. Some of the platoon came to see him, but from their expressions, he could tell just how bad he looked.

The hard work started once he got home. Seven operations in less than two years. More pain than he could ever have imagined. He gave up on a glass eye, preferring to wear a patch to cover the gaping hole. Nothing could be done with the left leg, but they might have been able to fit a prosthetic to the right one. Darren told them not to bother. He would get used to a wheelchair instead. Despite the injuries, the worst thing was having to live back at home. To see his parents’ faces every time they looked at him. Learning to cope on benefits, using a disabled toilet and shower specially adapted for him. Changing the bag attached to the tube between his legs, and taking all the tablets lined up for him every day, all too aware that this would be for the rest of his life.

He did all the usual stuff. Sat alone for hours, drank too much alcohol, and contemplated suicide. His Mum and Dad were being dragged down with him, and his old friends soon stopped coming round. After a while, he started to get used to it. Then he decided to help where he could. Charity collections, talking to other wounded soldiers, speaking to schoolchildren, he was up for anything they asked of him. Once he met Paula, he was inspired to do even more. He told the doctors that he wasn’t going to have any more operations, and they could forget the plastic surgery on his ear, and trying to reconstruct his hand. This was him now, and he would just get on with it.

The supermarket lobby was a bit draughty, but Darren didn’t mind. He spotted a couple coming his way, and raised the collecting tin as they drew close. The man was young and fit, reminding Darren of how he once looked himself. The girl avoided looking at the disfigured man in the wheelchair, but the shaking of the collecting tin attracted her partner’s attention. He paused for a second, patting his pockets. A sheepish grin appeared on his face as he spoke.

“Sorry mate, no change.”

Photo Prompt Story: KoolChat

This is a fictional short story, in 1600 words. It was prompted by the above photo, on Fraggle’s blog. https://fragglesotherplace.com/

Kenny loved KoolChat. He had heard his daughter talking about it when her friends were round, and went upstairs to check it out on his phone. With Viv working nights in the care home, he had a lot of free time once the kids were in bed. What went on there made his eyes pop. Hard to believe such young girls were so graphic; with the sex references, and even photos of them starkers. He set up a profile using a false name and location, but didn’t try to disguise his age. Very soon, he was part of a big group in the nearest city, only twenty minutes away by car.

It became addictive, he had to admit that. He had run his phone battery down so many times, he had to make sure it was plugged in, once he logged on to KoolChat. The kids called it ‘K.C.’, and he soon picked up the strange language they chatted in, and the references they used to cover up blatant descriptions of body parts, and sex acts. Sometimes, he was still scrolling through the group feed when it started to get light, and he couldn’t stop yawning all day at work.

It was almost two months before he got the first invitation to meet up, and he gulped as he read how explicit it was. Her site name was ‘BeeGirl’, and she couldn’t have been older than thirteen. The photo she sent showed her with her T-shirt lifted up, and the words ‘Want This?’ written in lipstick on her stomach, above her panties. He felt his face flushing, and he couldn’t sit still.

Once Viv had left for work, he called his daughter down from her room. “I have to go out and meet a mate. Can I trust you to look after your brother, and not do anything stupid?” She shrugged, twisting strands of her hair into her mouth. Kenny took that as a yes, and picked up the keys to his car. “I won’t be late”.

She was waiting where she said she would be, and walked straight over to his car as he stopped. A quick look through the window seemed to satisfy her that there was nobody else in the car, and that Kenny was the same as his profile photo. She looked even younger in real life, and he felt his nerve slipping. BeeGirl was incredibly cool and collected. Not bothering with the seat belt, she pointed through the windscreen. “Carry on down here straight, then take the second on the left”. As he drove where she told him, he could smell her body spray, and hear the squeak of her trainers on the rubber mats. The street she had told him to turn into was a dead end, leading to the gate that once accessed an old factory, closed down long ago.

As soon as he stopped the car, she was out and in the back before had switched off the engine. As he got out and walked to the door, she pulled off her trainers without undoing the laces, then lifted her skinny legs and slid down the grey leggings covering them. He climbed in next to her, and she spoke in a matter-of-fact way. “You have to use a condom. Or if you don’t want to, that’s extra”. Kenny’s heart sank. She expected him to pay. “I didn’t bring cash, I didn’t know about that”. She reached over and started to unbuckle his belt. “That’s alright, you can go to a cash-point in town. I will need dropping off there anyway”.

He hadn’t lasted long. Not that he had expected to, in that situation. And she had only asked for thirty, which seemed reasonable. When she got out of the car, she leaned in and kissed his forehead. “See you on K.C., Foureyes”. That was his site name. He couldn’t see a thing without his glasses, and he had got in the mild insult before anyone else did. On the way home, Kenny took a deep pull on his vape. The Cool Blueberry flavour sweetened his mouth, and the rush of nicotine was soothing, after what he had just been doing. Viv wouldn’t let him use it around the kids. She had a thing about smoking, and had made him give up cigarettes after Jake was born.

As he got ready for bed, he thought about BeeGirl, and her painfully thin body. It had been exciting, but ultimately shallow. It hadn’t occurred to him that anyone on K.C. would want money. He felt pretty stupid, and had trouble sleeping that night.

After that, he chose his contacts more carefully. The lonely girls, the chubby ones with a poor self-image, or the unhappy confused ones who claimed that they just wanted a friend to talk to. Sometimes, they didn’t turn up to the arranged meeting, sending rambling direct messages on K.C. later, apologising and asking for another chance. Kenny got very good at working out who was worth the effort, although his daughter Chloe became increasingly pissed off about his visits to ‘mates’ that left her having to watch her little brother. Eventually, she would say something to Viv, he was sure of it. He had to stay home for a while, let things cool down.

The three weeks seemed like a year. He logged on every night, and watched the constant interaction with increasing frustration. When the kids were in bed, he would walk down into the kitchen, and smoke his vape as he checked the phone. Then one night, he got a new direct message. She was called schoolgirl06, and said she liked him because he wore glasses, and used the name Foureyes. She had bad eyes, and was teased about the thick lenses in her own glasses. She had no friends, and her Mum was out at the pub most nights. She sent a photo of herself, a respectable one, in her school uniform. He guessed that the 06 referred to the year she was born. So many of them used such numbers on K.C.

Over the next few nights, he sent her friendly chat messages. Compliments on her looks, and saying he thought the glasses suited her, and didn’t bother him at all. Over the weekend, with Viv home, he had to leave it alone, and they went to the cinema to see the latest Disney blockbuster, so Jake could come too. After that, they had dinner at Pizza Hut, then went over to see Viv’s parents on the Sunday. On Monday evening as the kids were watching some crap on TV, Kenny walked into the kitchen and sent schoolgirl06 a message. He asked her to send him a ‘good photo’. Everyone on K.C. knew what that meant. Something explicit, or at least revealing.

She didn’t reply until he was already in bed. The photo was pretty tame. Her in her school uniform, with the skirt lifted up around her waist. Disappointed, Kenny turned down the duvet, and took a photo between his legs. He sent it to her with the message ‘I meant one like this’, adding six big red hearts. Her reply was almost immediate. ‘Oh wow!Yes! I want that! Can we meet up, foureyes?’ The arrangement was made for the next evening. She picked quite an early time, and he didn’t know the place she suggested, a small park in a street he had never heard of. But he checked it on Google Maps, and it existed.

Chloe was promised that she could have some extra piercings in her ears. She had asked for a tattoo, and Kenny had laughed at that. “You’re only fifteen, they won’t do a tattoo on you at your age, pet”. She settled for the additional ear-piercing, and some earrings that looked like skulls dangling from a cross. He told her she would get them on Saturday, but she had to look after Jake tonight, and not go blabbing to her Mum. He walked out to his car, and checked the phone. No cancellation from the girl, and plenty of time to get to the park.

She had said she would meet him by the old bandstand, but as he approached the shabby structure, with its rusting railings and peeling paint, there was no sign of her. Ignoring an old man walking a dog who nodded at him, Kenny went and stood by the steps of the bandstand, as arranged. He was exactly on time, so maybe she was having trouble getting out. He would give it fifteen minutes, then check his phone.

The sound of running feet attracted his attention. But by then it was too late. A heavy fist crashed into the side of his head, and as he fell to the ground, the weight of someone falling on top of him pushed the wind out of his chest. There were two of them, and the one still standing was kicking him in the side. The man on top of him had a shaved head, and his breath smelled of beer and cigarettes. The face appeared in front of him, ugly and twisted, the expression a mixture of triumph and disgust.

“So you thought you would come here for sex with a young girl did you, you sick bastard? Well you can forget that, the police are on their way”.

The vape in his pocket had been smashed in the fall, and he could feel the fluid leaking out onto his hip. And one of the lenses in his glasses was badly cracked.

That was hardly going to matter now.

A New Friend

This is a fictional short story, in 415 words.

It was still cold and wet, and he shivered as he squeezed into the side of the wall for protection from some of the north wind. There was puddle-water to drink at least, but no food in the metal bowl that he had licked to a shiny clean. The feeling in his stomach was more of an ache than a pain, and the last meal was just a memory.

But there was pain around his neck. Pain where the tight, rusty chain had worn away the skin as he struggled to get free of it. That hadn’t worked, but even if it had, there was the high fence and locked gate to deal with. It had been light and dark many times since he had last seen anyone in the yard. How long that was was a mystery, but his stomach was telling him it was too long.

No point making a noise anymore. That hadn’t made any difference. Nobody had responded to his cries and wails. It was time to turn around again, take the pressure off the sores on one side. The rough concrete was hard to rest on, and moving around too much caused chafing and more pain. At least he could lie down. Just about.

Sleep was the only release. But you could only sleep for so long.

A noise, sounds. Heavy footsteps, and a strange smell. He tried to get up, but the pain from the sores made it hard.

“This looks like the place. I can see it from the fence, chained up by the wall”. The man tried the old lock on the gate, rattling it hard.
“Get the cutter from the van, I can’t shift this”.

He could see him now. Big, all in black, and smelling of cats, and other dogs.
A loud clang.

Kind hands ruffled his neck. The snapping noise as the chain was cut free.

“Come on boy. We’re going to look after you. Clean you up, get some food inside you”.

He allowed the big man to scoop him up in strong arms.
Trusting, but why not? There was nothing to lose.

The cage inside the van was roomy, and there was a soft rug to curl up on.

The man closed the cage door. He was showing his teeth, in a good way.

“We will take care of you, boy”.

He closed the outer door, and it was dark and warm inside.

“With any luck, we will find you a new friend soon”.

Playtime

This is a fictional short story, in 1170 words.

Little Roy didn’t have many friends. Being called Little Roy didn’t help much, even though he would be the first to admit he was smaller than all the others in his class. When they went out to play in the break, he never got picked for any of the teams. Standing at the side watching got boring after a while, so he would retreat into his own fantasy world, one where Royston Hill was the most popular boy in school. A world where he had so many friends, they used to trail behind him, waiting for him to say or do something great.

Mum insisted on walking him to school, and waiting for him at the end of the day too. You couldn’t fail to notice that she was older than any of the other mums waiting at the gate. A lot older. When she tried to chat to the other parents, even Little Roy could sense their awkwardness.

Then there had been the awful embarrassment of his eighth birthday. Mum bought some fancy invitations, and handed them out at the school gate. She prepared loads of food, and made dad hire a bouncy castle, and a big canvas gazebo, in case it rained. The house was decked out in bunting, and she put a sign on the front gate. It read ‘PARTY HERE’, and had a big arrow pointing at their street door.

Nobody came.

After that, he had been able to munch his way through all the sweets in thirty party bags, and play with the tiny toys inside them too. He had to have a serious talk with her, on the way to school that Monday. “Please, mum. No more parties”.
She nodded. He was happy that she understood.

That summer, the long holiday was going to be pretty dull for Little Roy. He spent some time over at the unfinished building site, getting in easily through a broken wire fence at the back. He had no idea why it had never been finished, but the half-built houses that had fallen victim to a depression in the housing market provided the perfect playground for a lonely boy.

Roy created a world in miniature; walking the streets that he named, and sitting inside roofless houses pretending he owned them all. The piles of unused bricks and wood had been scavenged by some enterprising local men, but there were enough left for him to build an assortment of dens and hiding places. Inside those, he imagined he was a special forces soldier, or a mysterious hermit. He spent those first couple of weeks in ‘Hill Town’, mum complaining that he was dusty and scruffy when he came home in time for dinner.

He told her he was out playing with his gang of friends.
It was what she wanted to believe.

In the best and most complete house, he created a sort of furniture from planks and bricks. He took books from home, and bottles of lemonade, as well as packets of crisps. By the third week, he was up at the site by nine every morning, and stayed until the time mum had decreed he had to be home. Then one morning, he was startled to see someone in his house.
Number One Royston Street, as he knew it.

She was sitting on one of his brick and plank sofas, reading one of his old comics. An empty packet of crisps was between her feet, and one of the big bottles of lemonade was half-empty next to it. He expected her to jump up and apologise, before running away to wherever she came from.
But she didn’t.

Her name was Samantha, but she said he should call her Sam. She said she was ten, so a fair bit older than him. He asked her where she lived, and what school she went to, but she said he had to guess. And after six guesses, he still didn’t get it right.

When he had given her a tour of his kingdom, she seemed to be impressed. Lost in thought for a moment, she suddenly looked up. “I will be your friend, if you want. And this will be our town from now on”. Despite feeling reluctant to give away half of his creation, the thought of someone to share it with was too tempting. “Okay, Sam. That’s a deal”.

Her imagination was almost a match for his own. She arranged things in the various houses, pretended to cook meals, and told him to wait outside and imagine that he was coming home from work. She brought things too, household things. They soon had a collection of pots and pans, some chipped mugs, and even a knife and fork each. They would sit at a table made from plasterboard and bricks, and Sam would serve up pretend meals of sausages and chips, or burgers and beans. If it rained, they sat under a plank roof in one of his dens, and talked about how they would one day live in one of the houses for real, once they were finished.

Sam said they would always be together, as soon as they were old enough.

Mum complained about the scuffs on his shoes, and the dust on his shorts. But she wasn’t really angry, as she was secretly happy that he had friends to play with.

Then one day, Sam wasn’t there. Roy wandered over the whole site, and looked inside all his dens. There was no sign of her anywhere. For the next five days he had to get used to being alone again, and made the best of it by extending what he had already built, and making Number One into something resembling a real home.

On Saturday morning, she appeared just before eleven. Though not remotely apologetic, she told him that her dad had arrived, and taken her and her young brother for a few days away at a caravan park. That was all she was prepared to say, and she didn’t even mention all the hard work he had done on the house. They slipped back into their routine, with her telling him that he should mow the lawn soon. He looked out at the rubble-strewn back garden, and nodded. “Yes, that grass is getting a bit too long”.

That morning, mum gave him some pocket money, and said he could get a sausage roll and a cake to eat at lunchtime. He headed off to the site, not bothering to stop at the bakers. He had lots to do, and Sam would be waiting.

He moved the pile of planks that she was under, and waved his hands at the flies covering the congealed blood on her face. Propping her up on some bricks in the corner, he smiled at her glassy eyes, and matted hair.

“I thought I would build some bookshelves and a TV stand today, Sam. Is that okay with you?”

She wasn’t going to reply of course. Serve her right for leaving him last week.

Afternoon Double Feature

(This is a fictional short story, in 1230 words.)

There was nothing quite like an afternoon double-feature on a weekday. Hardly anyone in the cinema, no queues for the ice-cream lady, and if the films were good, you could sit through them again for the next showing, no questions asked. Fair enough, the first film would be average at best, but the main film would almost always be worth seeing. In between, there would be a newsreel, then perhaps even a few cartoons.

The shorter Easter holiday was always boring for Nigel. For one thing, the weather was often awful, so the usual walk around the seafront was out of the question. Mum was at work until almost six, so he wandered around with his door key hidden under his shirt, suspended from some itchy string. And there was nothing on the television until the evening, but then Mum always decided what to watch anyway.

Stuck in his room reading encyclopedias, world maps, or old comics could only be tolerated for so long. So when Mum gave him his pocket money on a Monday, he knew what he wanted to spend it on, even if that meant having hardly anything left for the rest of the week.

The old Roxy had seen better days, that was for sure. It could do with a coat of paint, and some of the seats were as hard as a park bench. But it was only a ten-minute walk from home, and the interior still retained some of the grandeur of when it opened, in 1926. Almost forty years later, it was showing its age in more ways than one. The projector made a ticking sound as the film was playing, and four decades of tobacco smoke had turned the once pristine plaster-work ceiling a strange shade of orange.

Still, two films, an ice cream, and some small change from his pocket money. That was worth it.

He was outside the doors before they opened. One middle-aged lady stood in the queue ahead of him, her bag stuffed with knitting. It was obvious that she would be whiling away her time knitting a jumper or something, as the films played out in front of her. A man came and stood behind him. He was smoking a pipe, and looking straight ahead. Nigel made a mental note to avoid both of them when it came to choosing a seat. The knitting needle clicking would drive him mad, and the clouds of smoke from the pipe would choke him.

Just as the doors opened, a teenage couple turned up at the end of the short queue. The girl was giggling, and Nigel knew for sure that they would be spending their time snogging in the back row. They probably wouldn’t even remember the films. The uniformed commissionaire looked like a sergeant-major, his grim nod signifying that they could go in. As he stood behind the knitting lady at the cash desk, Nigel was hoping that Pamela would be taking the money. She lived a couple of streets away, and though she must have been at least thirty, she was so glamorous. Like one of the film stars on the screen where she worked.

He was happy when he got to the desk, and saw her big lipstick-covered smile. That meant she would be selling the small tubs of ice cream in the intermission, and he would get to see her again.

Inside, the lights were still on, and Nigel chose a seat at the end of a row, halfway up. Before the first film began, around a dozen more people turned up, coughing and rustling bags of sweets bought in the foyer. Just as the lights dimmed, a thin man came and sat right next to him, placing a musty-smelling overcoat across his knees as he sat down. Nigel had spent enough time in the cinema to know that this didn’t bode well. In an almost deserted afternoon showing, there was usually only one reason why an older man on his own would sit next to an an unaccompanied twelve year-old boy.

As soon as they started to show the coming attractions of next week’s big film, he quickly moved seats, right across to the small single row on the far side. If the man followed him over there, he would have to resort to going outside to tell the commissionaire. Fortunately, the thin man got the message, and stayed put.

The first film was a western. Nigel could take or leave those as a rule, but this one was quite good, especially for the B-film. And it was in colour too. He had checked the poster outside, and noticed the film was called ‘Geronimo’. It starred Chuck Connors as the famous Apache chief, not someone he had ever heard of. But he certainly looked the part, and there was just enough action, between the boring stuff set on the reservation. Still, it certainly didn’t escape his notice that Chuck was not a real Indian, but some other familiar faces made it feel good enough.

Once the lights were on again, Nigel was waiting with his cash, hoping to be the first to spot Pamela arriving with her tray of ice creams and drinks. She usually picked a spot in the middle, on one side, but if nobody walked down to her, she wandered around the aisles in case anyone called her over. On afternoon screenings, business was slow, and by the time she arrived, the lights were going down for the newsreel. So she switched on the small light that illuminated her tray, and the bottom part of her face.

Nigel was the only one who bothered to go and give her some trade. He smiled at her and politely asked, “Vanilla tub, please”. He could smell her perfume, and as she handed him the small tub and wooden spoon, he liked the way her nail polish caught the light from her tray. When she handed over his change, her fingers felt warm, and she gave him a brief smile, the lipstick appearing to be rather congealed on her mouth.

How many times he had imagined kissing those lips.

The ice cream was gone before the main film started, and he dropped the paper tub and spoon on the floor. As the opening credits rolled, he naturally recognised the name of the star, Dirk Bogarde. It was a black and white film, which felt rather flat after the bright colours of ‘Geronimo’, but as it was a world war two film, he was sure he would like it. And it was called ‘The Password Is Courage’, so he was certain it would be full of action The smoke from the cigarettes and pipes of the adults was rising and swirling. Nigel watched as it passed though the beam of the projector, creating a blue haze.

But despite being about the war, and starring the famous Dirk, the film was a disappointment. It was about a soldier who keeps escaping from German POW camps, and Nigel started to wonder if it was supposed to be a comedy. He felt cheated by the title, and even thought about leaving before the end. But he stuck it out.

Walking out into the dark of a dull and chilly evening, he pulled up the small collar of his jacket against the cold. Thinking about next week, he managed a smile.

They were showing ‘The Longest Day’ at The Roxy, and that looked really good.

Photo Prompt Story: Table For Two

This is a fictional short story, in 2320 words.

It was prompted by a photo taken by Sue Judd, and featured on her blog. https://suejudd.com/

Losing her mother at such a young age had greatly affected Veronica’s life. Just at the time when she was looking forward to moving away from home and going to university, the shock was compounded by her sense of duty to stay and keep Dad company, as well as help out around the house. Not that he ever expected it, or asked her to. In fact, he tried to insist that she carry on with her plans, adding that Mum would never have wanted her to stick around just to look after him. But she would not be shaken in her resolve. She left school that summer with good exam results, and started working for the City Council just one month later.

She had asked herself if she was being self-sacrificing to prove a point, or even to compensate for what she saw as her own inadequacies. But she never truly faced the reality that she was just scared. Scared of a new city, scared of meeting new people, and scared of not making a go of it three years later. Mum’s unexpected death had actually provided her with a means of escape from all that fear and stress, but to acknowledge that would be unthinkable.

The new job meant starting at the bottom, but the prospects were good, and her skill with figures would prove its worth in the buying department. Most of the others in the office were older, and seemed to get some satisfaction from telling her what to do, and giving her all the repetitive, mundane tasks. Her below-average looks and decidedly above-average height meant that she didn’t attract the attention of any of the office Lotharios, and she was left alone to get on with her work. Home life with Dad worked out well too. He was in for dinner most evenings, appreciative of her efforts with the housework and cooking. And was always ready with the car when she needed a lift, or to go shopping on Saturdays.

She spent a lot of time in her room though, as she was secretly studying for professional qualifications. It never occurred to her to miss the few girl friends she used to hang out with. Most had gone off to university anyway, and made new lives in different towns and cities. Without worrying too much about it, she soon realised that she was turning into a version of her own mother. Life went on, and it seemed like a blink of an eye when she celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. Where had those seven years gone? But as a bonus, great results in the exams meant she was next on the list for promotion at work, and now had the eye of the head of department. She was given the deputy job three weeks before her thirtieth birthday, and Dad beamed with pride when she told him.

The years passed without too much notice. By the time she was forty, Dad had started to cough a lot. He had never been what people thought of as a smoker, but had enjoyed a few cigars most weeks, and the odd glass of malt whisky. Approaching his seventieth birthday, his breathing began to give some concern. The doctor told him his x-rays were not good, and he had to give up the cigars, and take things easy. Veronica kept an eye on him. A low fat diet, no cigars anymore, and whisky only at the weekend. Some years later, she hardly remembered how many now, she had to go on a seminar for work, as it was implied that she would soon be the new department head, with the impending retirement of her boss. Dad would be alright, as she had arranged for some neighbours to check on him.

The guest speaker was no less than entrancing. Julio worked in the huge city of Los Angeles, and had vast experience in urban planning, and how to buy products from suppliers. He noticed her sitting at the front, and Veronica was sure that he was smiling just at her. Never having had a boyfriend, she had no real idea what to make of it. But when he sought her out at the wine and nibbles reception later, she could only feel flattered. He was younger than her, undoubtedly, and his Latin charm overwhelmed her. He listened to her, that alone was something unusual. When he suggested they go on somewhere, she agreed without hesitation. He held her coat, stood up when she came back from the toilet, and opened the door of the taxi for her. His manners were impeccable. She found herself relaxed in his company; he was easy to talk to, and making her feel rather girlish with his compliments.

At the end of the evening, he escorted her back to her nice London hotel, and kissed her briefly on the cheek. Never suggestive, never pushy. In many ways, Veronica regretted his restraint. She laughed to herself as the lift took her up to her room. He would never know how close he had been to deflowering the oldest virgin he had ever met.

Back home, she settled for fond memories of Julio. He was back in America, pursuing his consultancy business, and had no doubt forgotten her by now. Dad was getting worse though. The hospital tests confirmed their greatest fear, lung cancer. He went into a downward spiral, refusing some treatments and medication, and ultimately declining surgery that might give him nine more months. He couldn’t see the point, and Veronica had to agree with him. The end wasn’t pleasant, and she had to use up all her goodwill at work, and most of her annual leave, to see him into the next world.

The funeral was on the same day as her fifty-fifth birthday, and Veronica made a decision, after everyone had gone home. She would sell the large house, and downsize to a smart apartment in the city centre. After all, she needed no more than one bedroom, and the new place would be close to shops, restaurants, and some vestige of life. And it was time to give up work. She had been the department head for a long time, and now had thirty-seven years of service with the city council. Her pension had topped out at thirty years, and was not far short of her salary for still working. On top of that, the difference in equity from selling the house and buying her new apartment for cash left her very well off. By some standards, she could in fact claim to be a rich woman. She tendered her resignation, and reluctantly agreed to attend a mercifully short retirement party, where she declined to make a speech.

But life in the new place was surprisingly lonely. It occurred to her that this was the only time in her life she had been alone, and she didn’t even have the daily routine of work to break up the seemingly endless weeks. One night, she screwed back the top on the bottle of white wine she had become accustomed to drinking, and decided to do something out of character. Taking Julio’s card from a compartment in her purse, she used her new Apple Mac Pro to send him an email, hoping he would still have the same contact address. She was still only fifty-five, presentable, and whilst not attractive perhaps, far from ugly.

Despite the time difference meaning it was very early in the morning for him, the reply was almost immediate. Veronica tingled. He did remember her. He had never forgotten her. He always thought of her, and regretted not taking things further that night in London. He didn’t care about the sixteen year age difference, and he thought she was an elegant and attractive lady. She found herself breathing much faster than she was used to. Replying quickly, she told him that she would be very happy to meet him again, the next time he was in London, or anywhere in England. Failing that, she was now in a position to fly out to America to see him. He could even show her around Los Angeles, if he so wished. Her heart was fluttering as she sent that reply, She had a good feeling about the future, at last.

A long time passed until he sent another email. She opened the wine again, and finished the bottle as she stared at the computer screen, waiting.

Oh, he was so sorry. The consultancy business was in trouble. He had debts, and could never afford to fly to England, let alone expect Veronica to entertain him while he was there. And he was now living in a shabby apartment, on the wrong side of the city. He would be too ashamed to invite her there, and was too poor to even be able to show her around. He really had no idea what the future held for him, and couldn’t imagine when he could ever get back to England, or be able to show her a good time in his home city. He still thought about her every day, but had to sadly accept that nothing could ever come of it.

Halfway through the second bottle of wine, Veronica made a decision. She emailed Julio again, offering to send him two thousand dollars to cover the cost of a return ticket to London. He could stay at her new apartment, and eat with her. She would never mention his situation, or his lack of money. She promised faithfully that her intentions were only good ones, and assured him that she was now wealthy enough to fund his trip, after the death of her father. She sent the email with her fingers actually crossed, then went to bed, where she found it hard to get to sleep.

At seven the next morning, Veronica checked her email. dismayed to find that Julio had rejected her kind offer. He had debts of over fifty thousand dollars to settle because of his business, and could not dream of leaving America while that was hanging over him. On top of that, he was about to lose his lease car, due to missed payments amounting to six thousand dollars, and he currently owed over two thousand dollars in rent on his small apartment. He wasn’t about to worry Veronica about his problems, although he missed her, and wanted to see her again, really badly. She hardly hesitated, sending an email asking for money transfer details. She would send him seventy thousand dollars, which would solve all his immediate problems, and allow him to get plane tickets to visit her. If things turned out well, maybe she could even go back with him, and start a new life in America.

He refused of course. Too proud, too ashamed. He couldn’t possibly accept her generous offer. But she kept on insisting. After her third email that morning, he accepted with thanks, as long as he could pay her back one day, when his business improved. He sent bank transfer details, and Veronica sent the money from her account immediately. She felt relaxed and happy, and composed a reply, outlining her plan for their first day together in the city.

There was a nice restaurant just at the bottom of the steps leading up to her apartment. As soon as she knew his date and time of arrival, she would book a table for lunch, and send him the address of the restaurant. He could get a taxi from the airport, and meet her at their table for two. After lunch, they could walk up to her place, and discuss what to do with the rest of their lives. Less than one hour later, she received an email with the flight number, and the arrival time. Only three days to wait, and Julio would be joining her at the restaurant. She rang down, and booked a table for two, for twelve forty-five on Friday.

Veronica had never followed fashion. But she knew how to dress well for her age, and always bought quite expensive clothes, of good quality. She went out and bought a white linen top, a nice flowing skirt in yellow, and matching shoes. The ensemble was finished off with a navy cashmere cardigan, and a tan leather handbag that was twice as much as she would normally ever pay for a bag. She had her hair cut a little shorter, more suitable than the shoulder length it had been, and decided on some auburn highlights too.

On the day, she made sure to arrive at twelve-thirty. The young waiter was friendly, and showed her to an outside table, on that sunny and warm morning. Veronica ordered some still water, and a large glass of white wine. She told him that she was expecting company, and would see the menus once the gentleman arrived. Just after one-fifteen, the waiter hovered, asking if she needed anything. She smiled, sipping more of her wine. “Perhaps another glass of the same”. He nodded professionally, and returned with the wine soon after. Twenty minutes later, Veronica took out her smartphone, and checked the flight arrival online. It had landed on time, no delays. She scrolled down to Julio’s number, and rang it. The constant beeping confused her. Was it engaged, or unavailable?

At two-twenty, the waiter returned with menus. He leaned forward, speaking quietly. “We are of course open all day, madam. But if you want the lunch menu, I am afraid you are supposed to order by two-thirty”. Veronica ordered the first main course on the daily specials. “The salmon fillet, with salad please”. The food arrived quickly, and she nodded her thanks. Picking at it, she was distracted, constantly checking her phone. The afternoon was becoming warmer. Taking off the cardigan, Veronica wrapped it around her waist. Just before four-thirty, she waved a hand at the waiter, indicating he should bring the bill. Her face flushed as she paid, leaving a generous tip.

The walk back up the stairs to her apartment was strangely arduous.

New Shoes

This is a fictional short story, in 1040 words.

Melvin had decided. He would go into the city, and try on those new shoes. No point ordering them online, as they were possibly not going to fit well, or feel right. No way was he going to pay that sort of money, then have to mess around sending them back by courier if he wasn’t happy with them. It would take around an hour to get to one of the car parks, but only a few minutes later, and he would be in the shop.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had bought new shoes. He was happy enough with his work boots, and they were provided. At other times, he wore the cheap trainers easily available from the local street market. As far as he was concerned, they looked no different to the fashionable ones that sold for three times as as much in the big sports shops. Then there were the old black leather slip-ons that had served him well for many years. But with Angela’s wedding coming up next month, it was time to get some new smart shoes for the occasion. He was only invited to the evening reception, and even though he had no ‘plus one’, he wanted to look his best. After all, you never knew who you might meet at a wedding.

The car was a mare to start. He didn’t need to use it that much, as he could walk to work. Sitting idle on the street, the battery wasn’t getting charged up, and he was relieved when it finally coughed into life. By the time he got going, it was a lot later than he had anticipated. The early afternoon traffic was beginning to build up as he approached the exit off the ring road in the direction of the main car park. The big LED sign was flashing ‘No Spaces’. That meant doing the whole circuit again, and diverting off to the George Street car park.

Pulling out into the stream of traffic was a nightmare, as nobody was inclined to give way to let him back in. The school runs were probably starting, and it was beginning to get bumper to bumper around the three lanes. Melvin finally managed to bully his way in front of a bus, then indicating constantly, he got back into the third lane that would take him round again. His hands banging the wheel with frustration, it took a full twenty minutes to go around again, before he was able to pull into the entrance of George Street car park. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the sign read ‘Spaces’. Taking the ticket to open the barrier, he drove up to level one, and started to look around. As he craned his neck to see if there were any spaces further down, the driver of the car behind started to sound his horn. So Melvin carried on up to the next level, furious when he saw that car slip into a space at the far end of where he had just been.

By the time he got up to the roof, there hadn’t been a single space on all four previous levels. The open-air roof area looked to be full too, but he crept along slowly, just in case. Spotting a gap between the tops of two parked cars, he accelerated before anyone could get up behind him. Finally, a space. Swinging the car into it, he stopped dead. There was a motor bike parked sideways across the end. Melvin was furious. “Who takes up a full car space with a bloody motorbike?” He was shouting inside the car. Not like him at all. He had no alternative but to drive all the way back down the circular ramps, and head for the exit.

There was no attendant in the small cabin next to the barrier, so nobody to explain to that he had not actually been able to find a spot. He put the ticket into the machine, but a red light came on. The ticket was slid back out, and the barrier didn’t lift. Craning his neck to see if the attendant was anywhere to be seen, he spotted a sign fixed to the bottom of the small cabin.
PAY BEFORE LEAVING
PAY MACHINES ARE SITUATED ON LEVEL ONE

There was no option but to leave his car next to the barrier, and run back up to level one. He wasn’t about to try to reverse, knowing full well a car might come down behind him, and then they would both be stuck. Locking the car, he jogged up the concrete ramp. On level one, he spotted a sign with an arrow pointing to the pay machines. They were all the way across on the far side.

When he got to them, people were already queuing at all three machines. He hovered around, waiting for the first one to become free, then pushed in the ticket. In the electronic window, a message appeared. ‘Flat fee 4 pm until midnight £5’. Checking his watch, he could see it was just a few seconds past four. With no alternative, he grabbed a five pound note from his wallet, and slid it into the slot. The note was sucked in, as if grabbed by an unseen hand, and the ticket reappeared. Huffing and puffing his way back down to the barrier, the blaring of car horns was already becoming deafening. Four cars were stuck behind his, and people were walking around, waving their hands about. One man was even crouched down at the window of his car, peering inside as if he might discover the driver hiding in the back.

A red-faced Melvin hurried past them all, mumbling “Sorry” as he passed the line of shaking heads and drivers shouting abuse. Struggling into his car past the angry man who had been crouching next to it, he reached over to put the ticket into the machine as he started the engine. When the barrier lifted he had never felt so relieved, and drove hurriedly out of the car park, almost colliding with a taxi. At the roundabout, he took the direction home.

Maybe he wouldn’t bother with those new shoes after all.

Angela was unlikely to notice.