Working Girl (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 9, 2007 at 10:02 am (Short Stories) (, )

Working Girl

Working Girl

It’s about more than just the money – there are a million ways of making a quick buck that would be easier, more pleasant, but they don’t all let you work unusual hours. Anyway, just so you know, it isn’t just the money – it’s more about being in control of my own life. When you need time to study and attend classes but don’t come from a home where Daddy can afford to pay your rent, your bills and your tuition fees, you find a job that fits in with your new world.

I get funny looks when people find out what I do. Their features crumple into incredulity as they ask, “How can you do that? Don’t you find it a bit disgusting?” As it happens, yes, sometimes I do find it a bit distasteful, but that comes with the job. I know they think it strange and that many of them could never bring themselves to work in such a place. You need a good sense of humour too – if you don’t know how to laugh, you’d soon learn how to cry, but you just can’t let it get to you. You carry on and you deal with it. Eventually, people come round and mostly they end up looking at me with a certain degree of respect. I get a kick out of knowing not everyone could do this job – it takes a special kind of person; a special talent, and that’s something I have.

Nakedness has never bothered me; it’s the occasional leering face and the cold, clammy hands that get to me most often, but not the nakedness. I mean, it’s not like they can hurt me in any way, but sometimes it gives me the creeps when I look into their staring eyes. What is it about naked flesh that bothers people anyway? It’s the body in its natural state. All right, not everyone can have a beautiful body; one that’s pleasing to the eye, but we all end up the same way.

In this business, measurements are all-important: Everything examined in close-up, nothing missed and nothing skimped over. Each and every inch of the body is on display, there are no secrets here – all is revealed. I suppose that makes many feel vulnerable, but you get used to it very quickly. You have to, or you won’t last long.

Of course, the pay is pretty good too. You get used to being able to afford little luxuries like a roof over your head and groceries in your cupboard and it’s hard to resign yourself to something that doesn’t pay so much, even if it does mean you won’t have to walk into that big, open room and do your thing. Like I say, it’s not about the money and it’s not even about enjoying the job, but I do get a sense of satisfaction at the end of the night.

In case you’re wondering, I have no plans to give this up any time soon. It’ll get me through college and then keep me going until I find a job that suits my qualifications, although I know that it’s going to be tough to do that, but at least I have something to tide me over until that happens.

And of course, it’s the source of some pretty interesting stories – after all, it’s amazing what you get to see working the night shift at the morgue.

Kell Smurthwaite, 2006 ©

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Going Up (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 9, 2007 at 9:58 am (Short Stories) (, )

Going Up

Going Up

The sun reflected sharply against the windows of the office high-rise and Jay Driscoll pulled his designer aviator shades out of his briefcase and slipped them onto the bridge of his nose before stepping out of the black sedan. He unfolded himself to his full height of six feet four, and smoothed the front of his exquisitely tailored suit jacket and trousers as the car pulled away from the curb with a slow swoosh. A discrete chirrup alerted him to an incoming call and he reached into his breast pocket for his ultra-slim mobile phone – it was the very latest style and so small that not even a vague outline had shown through the pocket lining to mar the perfect lines of his grey pinstriped suit.

“Driscoll,” he barked as he flipped it open and held it to his ear. A brief pause, then, “Yes, I’m right outside. I’ll be there in a few minutes.” He ended the call without the pleasantry of a “goodbye” and just as he was returning it to his pocket, it gave a shrill peep.

Flipping it open once more, he squinted over the top of his sunglasses and frowned. The battery was almost completely dead. Jay was sure he’d recharged it overnight, but he must have neglected to flip the switch on the socket, so that it instead ran itself flat. With a low growl, he switched it off to conserve what little power remained and prevent it beeping during his business meeting. Returning it to his pocket, he strode purposefully towards the glass and brass of the revolving door.

Inside the foyer was cool, courtesy of the state-of-the-art air conditioning system that constantly churned the air, removing any hint of the clammy heat that seemed permanently resident in the city streets. A perky receptionist with peroxide blonde hair pulled back and piled on top of her head glanced up to greet this new arrival. Coyly, she brushed a stray strand from her forehead and artfully tucked it behind her left ear as she flashed him a brilliant white, toothpaste-commercial smile.

“Good morning, and welcome to Palmer, Hunter and Smythe. How may I help you?” she trilled.

Jay casually removed his shades with one practiced smooth movement and looked her straight in the eye, causing her to catch her breath, glance down towards her desk and blush beautifully before returning her gaze, her rosy lips slightly parted and pouting. He had this effect on a certain type of woman without even trying, and with a little effort, he could extend that to most of the rest of the female population, as well as some of the men.

With a sinful half-smile, he drawled, “Driscoll. I’m here to see Pete Palmer. My colleague, Alan Ingram, is already here.”

Still captured by his chocolate-dark eyes, she started slightly as she replied, “Oh, yes, Mr Ingram went up just a few minutes ago. I’ll let Mr Palmer know you’ve arrived.”

She turned her attention to the telephone and tapped an extension number, her manicured talons quietly clicking on the keys. Pressing the receiver to her ear, she risked glancing back at Jay and he rakishly winked at her, almost causing her to drop the phone and fluff her line as her call was answered.

“Oh, um, yes, Mr Palmer, sir. There’s a Mr Driscoll in reception to see you… Yes, sir… Right away, sir.”

She cradled the receiver and bravely lifted her pointed chin till her eyes met Driscoll’s once more and almost whispered, “You can go right up to the thirteenth floor, Mr Driscoll. Mr Palmer is ready for you in the conference suite.”

“Thank you…” He left the sentence hanging, waiting for her to speak.

“Oh, Polly… It’s Polly,” she breathed.

“Polly,” he repeated, rolling the name round his mouth as though tasting it. “Thank you, Polly.”

Jay turned towards the elevators and then smiled to himself as he heard Polly’s almost-silent sigh float after him. He thought of those pale blue eyes fixed on his retreating form, taking in his broad shoulders, long legs and confident gait. Extending a single finger, he punched it into the call button, and glanced to the display above the mirrored doors to see that the elevator was only one floor above him and would arrive in seconds. Checking his reflection, he noticed that Polly still watched from her perch behind the panelled oak reception desk and as the doors slid open, he turned and graced her with another of his trademark half-smiles while giving a small wave which she returned, her face flushing again at being caught watching him. He continued holding her captive in his sights as the doors slowly moved together till only a narrow strip remained with her at the centre, then nothing.

Immediately after the doors closed, Jay almost lost his cool composure as the highly polished interior reflected him into infinity; his mirror images were split at waist height by a metal bar, dissecting him as effectively as a magician might a scantily clad assistant. Huffing out his breath, he pressed the silver button ornately marked with a 13, lighting it from behind with a golden glow, and then adjusted his slate grey silk tie, tautening his jaw as he manoeuvred it from side to side till the knot was perfectly central.

The smooth movement of the elevator was barely perceptible as it climbed, the digital screen above the doors displaying the floors as they were passed. Jay grimaced and checked his teeth between floors, turning his face slightly to the left, then the right, ensuring his pearly whites were, as expected, pearly white. Running his tongue along the outer edge of his upper teeth, he felt the only tiny imperfection, where the childhood retainer hadn’t quite brought his left canine into alignment; it was barely noticeable, but this tiny flaw always irked him.

By the time he was gliding past the eighth floor, Jay had moved onto his hair. The mirrors gave him a panoramic view and he took advantage of it by worrying at a few stray strands of sable hair at the nape of his neck that were just brushing his collar – at least he wasn’t thinning on top, no, his hair was thick and lustrous soft without looking feminine – then smoothed his eyebrows into place before moving onto his tidily trimmed goatee.

Ten, eleven, twelve; he took a few deep breaths and brushed an imaginary piece of lint from the lapel of his jacket, then almost stumbled as the elevator juddered to a halt. After such a smooth ride, the jolt was unexpected – was there something wrong with the braking gear? He made a mental note to mention to someone that they should really have the machinery checked, then moved expectantly towards the doors.

They failed to open.

Jay glanced up at the display. It was blank.

Pressing the door hold button, he glared at the doors, willing them to part, but there was no response. He was caught between the twelfth floor and unlucky thirteen.

Great.

Repeated jabbing at the button for the thirteenth floor resulted in no movement.

Terrific.

He pulled his cell phone from his breast pocket and pressed the power button. It gave a quiet jingling tone, then abruptly gave a piercing beep and shut itself off again. The battery was completely dead.

Wonderful.

Jay now turned his attention to the columned buttons, looking for a handset to connect him to reception so that he could alert Polly at reception of his predicament. Next to them was the fine, rectangular outline of an almost invisible panel with no handle evident. Gingerly, he pressed his fingertips to an edge, leaving opaque prints on the glossy surface, then, as it popped open, realised he’d been holding his breath in anticipation. He eased open the small door and heaved a small sigh of relief when his eyes alighted on the smooth black handset within. A smile spread across his handsome face as he reached for it.

There were no buttons in evidence, so he assumed it must automatically connect, but there was no tone, no slight hissing buzz to indicate any kind of connection.

“Hello?” he ventured. No reply.

“Hello? Is there anyone there? The lift appears to be stuck.”

Still, he was greeted by silence.

Jay was suddenly aware that his mouth was feeling dry and he flicked his tongue momentarily over his lips, and then tried to produce some saliva to wet his throat. No need to panic, there would always be the alarm button…

Beneath the dual columns of numbered buttons was one bearing a bell icon and he prodded it firmly. He couldn’t hear anything, so he jammed his finger onto it again; once, twice, three times. Still no sound. Perhaps it sounded in reception and Polly would be picking up the phone that would allow her to speak to him in his glass prison. He reached for the handset once more and joyfully spoke into it.

“Hello? Polly?”

There was still no sound.

Jay replaced it in its nook and set his brief case down on the black marble floor that was polished to a sheen almost as reflective as the mirrors all around him. Now his palms were feeling slightly clammy and he flicked open his case to retrieve a handkerchief from one of the inner pockets and dry them off.

He was being silly, he knew. There was no reason to loose his cool.

But still, only a few minutes into his captivity, he was beginning to feel fingers of fear stretching around him, beginning their slow squeeze. He gulped again, this time to rid his mouth of the excess saliva that was suddenly flowing.

He’d never liked enclosed places. It was his secret phobia. Mostly he had it under control, but he hated the feeling of being compressed into a confined, finite space with little room for movement and in particular he had always loathed lifts. They were a necessary and unavoidable evil in his life – many of his meetings were conducted in penthouse offices, making it impossible for him to use the stairs, and so he’d learned to distract himself either with his own appearance, or by observing those who joined him temporarily in his journey up or down.

Now, Jay was alone; the lift had not made a single stop and now he wished some other poor soul was with him to distract him from his mounting terror. No, he wished someone else were here instead of him – he didn’t want to be here at all!

His stomach was beginning to churn and already he could detect the beginnings of dampness under his arms and an invisible band tightening around his head, making him feel dizzy and slightly nauseous. He swept his hand up over his furrowed brow and backwards through his hair, raking his scalp with his fingers. Think, think, think; there must be something he could do? Surely?

Eyes clamped shut in an attempt to clear his blurring vision, Jay’s head fell back, and when his eyes opened, he found himself peering at a perfect square in the ceiling of the box imprisoning him between floors, between worlds – the real world out there and this cramped, ever-decreasing world, this personal hell, in the elevator.

For a few seconds, he did nothing but stare at the fine, dark outline of the hatch. Could it really be so simple? Could he really escape his confinement by clambering through this small door into the other world, like Alice in Wonderland? It was worth a try.

Bracing his brogue-clad foot against the metal railing, Jay’s knee was forced right up to his chest as he reached over to the smooth rail at ninety degrees and balanced precariously, both feet on this narrow ledge, like a circus contortionist, facing his twin, while countless other versions of himself disappeared into the distance behind him. He noted, with some slight annoyance, that his skin now had a waxy sheen where perspiration had readily sprung to the surface only minutes before. Holding his position a brief second to find his equilibrium, he then slowly edged his feet closer together, and his left hand along the pane of glass before him, without relinquishing his grasp on the polished steel gripped in his right. Squeezing his shoulder through the gap between body and wall, his left hand joined its partner, and he switched his feet over so that now his darkened reflection peered up at him from the floor. Bending double as he brought his feet closer to the corner, Jay let got of the railing and positioned his hands directly on the mirrored surface, smearing it with sweat that made his hands stick slightly to it as he walked them up the wall.

Straightening up, Jay now had a foot on either edge of the right angled railing and was spread-eagled in the corner, jamming his shoulders against the walls to keep from tipping forward before he felt more sure of his balance.

A few deep, steadying breaths before moving and he reached out to the edge of the ceiling hatch. There was no handle evident, so obviously he just needed to push it up and it would swing outwards, providing an escape route he now desperately needed – if he could get on top of the lift, he could easily reach the doors leading to the floor above and perhaps force them open so he could pull himself out. His height would be an advantage there, he knew.

Jay gently pushed at the hatch’s corner, but it didn’t move. Shoving it harder produced no movement either. Repeated hammering on its surface did absolutely no good. There must be a handle on the outside, but there was no way out from in here.

He was trapped.

His increasingly violent blows to the hatch unbalanced him and his foot slipped from its precarious perch, sending him sprawling down on the hard floor, winding him as he landed with an audible smack. Now panic was setting in and his breath grew short – panting gasps that caused his mind to reel as he scooted into the corner and hugged his knees to his chest. The walls seemed to close in, inching closer to him with every breath. Jay was sure that while his eye was on one wall, another was edging its way in, squeezing the air out of the shrinking metal box.

He felt chilled; goose bumps standing up on his flesh, yet he was sweating; his shirt now clinging to his sides and back where before it had only skimmed his skin. This dampness was intolerable to him and suddenly he felt much too hot, it was like a sauna, leaving him sticky and uncomfortable as he ripped off his jacket – one button pinging free to skitter and clatter across the floor, coming to rest kissing its own reflection at the opposite corner. His tie was next; torn from his throat where Jay felt it had been restricting his laboured breath. Then the top two buttons of his shirt were wrenched free and he lowered his head onto his knees, scrunching his eyes closed to shut out the myriad mocking versions of himself as he let out a quiet whimper.

Jay knew he’d lost all control over himself – some small part of him, deep inside, was peering out, trying to reassure this outer shell that there was nothing to worry about, but the irrational fear had already taken over and reason had abandoned him to its clutches. He was trapped inside his own body as surely as in this small suspended space. Sliding his back further down the wall, he keeled over to one side and curled up into a tiny ball, trying to make the space around him seem larger by comparison.

Still the mirrored walls seems to slide ever closer to his body as he dulled the floor with the misty huff of his breath, and now his skull seemed to be pressing in on his brain; an organic version of his man-made prison, crushing his thoughts to one, sharp pinpoint. Only one word repeatedly flashed itself through his mind – ESCAPE. ESCAPE. ESCAPE.

Suddenly he was no longer in the elevator; he was in the coal cellar and mother was yelling that this time she’d never let him out, that he was a disgusting, dirty boy who deserved to be punished, shouldn’t play with girls, shouldn’t get in fights, shouldn’t bunk off from Sunday School, shouldn’t this, that or the other. Jay’s ears rang with her tormenting tirade and he squeezed his eyes shut once more, whispering over and over again, “I’ll be a good boy, I’ll be a good boy, I promise.” A mantra to the monster within.

The mechanic whir barely registered. Jay felt his body pressed slightly to the floor as the elevator resumed its ascent, but he could not move. In his corner, he remained wrapped up in himself, arms hugging chest, reaching round to shoulder, knees bent into cramped angles with his heels digging into the back of his thighs. It could not possibly be that this box was moving, that he might possibly be taken from this hell and returned to life. He could not dare to hope, lest it be dashed and send him hurtling deeper into a madness from which he could never escape.

A gentle jolt signalled the end of this journey and the slow, sibilant swish of the doors revealed the tangled wreck of Jay Driscoll. Three figures, looking almost angelic, backlit by a picture window that bathed them in golden white, stood before the open door.

“Oh, my God! Jay! Are you alright?”

The voice seemed distant, echoing, ethereal. Jay blinked and took a deep breath, blinked again, then whispered, “The lift was stuck.”

Alan Ingram stepped into the lift and stopped to his friend’s side. Gently touching Jay’s shoulder, he said, “It was only twenty minutes – I hoped you could hold on till then. We got the technician onto it right away. Come on, Jay. Time to get up. I’ll help you.”

Jay allowed himself to be supported by Alan, the shorter man showing surprising strength, and at last, Jay found himself in a wide, spacious hallway, looking out on a brightly-lit vista of office high-rises and, far below, the bustling city streets. Suddenly he could breath again and the adrenalin drained out of his system as quickly as it had pumped into it. Here, in an open space, he could begin to feel like himself again.

Embarrassed by his loss of composure, he glanced around sheepishly and caught sight of the two other witnesses to his state – one a short, wiry lad in a generic navy suit and blue shirt, both slightly too large for his frame, with tousled hair and grease under his fingernails; the other a stately, white-haired man in a refined, soft-grey double-breasted jacket, with a polished air of professionalism. This must be Pete Palmer, senior partner of the company and legend of the business world.

“I must apologise, Mr Palmer,” Jay stammered. “Small spaces… lifts… I’m sorry…”

“Not at all, Mr. Driscoll,” he replied with kindly smiling eyes. “Alan explained everything to me, but I completely understand. It’s spiders for me – can’t stand them. I get jelly-kneed if I spy one on the wall, large or small. We all have our weaknesses. It’s what makes us human.”

A few minutes later, Jay emerged from the bathroom, almost completely calm and collected, and joined his partner in the luxurious conference suite. Palmer greeted him warmly and shook him by the hand.

“I’ve been looking forward to this meeting, Mr Driscoll. I think that the staff of Palmer, Hunter and Smythe could benefit greatly from your services. Your series of lectures and seminars on performance management and positive thinking have been spoken of as groundbreaking and innovative – that’s just what we need here.”

As Palmer continued, Driscoll found he was slipping back into normality and all thoughts of his brief imprisonment were fading fast. Relieved that his predicament perhaps hadn’t cost Alan and himself this appointment.

“… I’m particularly interested in the ‘Overcoming Fears and Obstacles’ talk…”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Palmer,” interjected Jay, “That particular section is currently under review, but we’d be happy to work out a complete programme particularly tailored to the needs of your company.”

Palmer nodded and smiled.

“That’s absolutely fine. I’ll look forward to it immensely.”

Yes, the “Overcoming Fears and Obstacles” seminar would need more work, Jay thought to himself. As would his ability to put it into practice. In the meantime, he’d be using the stairs.

Kell Smurthwaite, 2007 ©

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End of the Line (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 9, 2007 at 9:39 am (Short Stories) (, )

End of the Line

End of the Line

The woman had been wittering into her cell phone the entire journey, complaining of her lover’s neglect of her to some long-suffering friend on the end of the line. It was obvious he’d never leave his wife for her – how could any man stand such whining, nasal tones? And such sharp features – her knife-blade nose bisected her face with an unpleasant ridge that was crowded on either side by her close-set eyes.

Tiny flecks of spittal gathered at the corners of her wide, lipsticked mouth as she continued her tirade and Sukie wondered what it was the woman had to keep this man. Was it the thought of something forbidden? Something slightly out of reach? If he were free, would he still want her?

The train was pulling into the station – last stop – end of the line. Edging out of her seat, Sukie took her place behind the whining woman and waited for the doors to open. Following her into the car park, she waited till the telephone was returned to the oversized handbag and French manicured fingers searched for keys.

Now was her chance.

Steeling herself, Sukie tapped the other woman’s shoulder and glared into the heavily made-up eyes.

The woman turned and looked down the full length of her hideous nose at Sukie.

“What do you want?”

“I want you to leave Mike alone. He’ll never leave me – not for you.”

Panic on her face, a smile on Sukie’s. Mike would never leave.

End of the line.

Kell Smurthwaite, 2007 ©

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First Christmas (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 9, 2007 at 9:37 am (Short Stories) (, )

First Christmas

First Christmas

 

There was no escaping it – Christmas was a catastrophe beyond saving. All that careful preparation gone to waste.

Cassidy’s shoulders slumped as she waved a wisp of steam-dampened hair from her forehead. What on earth was she supposed to do? Everyone would be arriving soon – her brother, Mike, his wife, Anne with their twin daughters, Ruby and Emerald in tow; Great Aunt Mabel who never left home without her vile toy poodle, Max; Uncle Joe and his partner, Jim, who were as camp as a row of pink tents; and worst of all “The In-Laws”.

In her head, Cassidy capitalised the phrase. This would be her first Christmas as hostess and she had been out to impress everyone with her kitchen prowess, not least Dan’s parents, Kenneth and Mildred. Mildred – the very name inspired dread and caused Cassidy’s heart to sink into her stomach as she contemplated the arrival of Dan’s beloved mother, who was always perfectly turned out and had a reputation as one of the most gracious and capable hostesses in the town – her supper parties were legendary and Cassidy knew that there was no way she could compete.

Not now.

Not with the turkey dry as a bone, the mashed potatoes like wallpaper paste, roasters like rocks, and various vegetables that had melted into mush. The gelatinous gravy glooped at her from its jug and the cranberry sauce looked neon-bright, wobbling under the garish strip-light of the kitchen.

Ding-dong!

“Time’s up!” thought Cassidy, as Dan peeked through the window and joyfully announced “They’re here!” leaping up like a lad of six or seven to answer the door in a rush of excitement. Cassidy felt the sharp pricking at the back of her nose and behind her eyes and knew she’d have to fight the tears as her throat clenched with the effort to keep from screaming.

It was all ruined. She couldn’t possibly serve this dinner to her guests. Humiliated, Cassidy wiped her hands on her apron before untying it and pulled it over her head, stalling a few moments before facing everyone to announce that Christmas was cancelled.

“Cassidy? Cassidy, darling, where on earth are you?” Mildred’s crisp, clear voice rang through the hallway as she approached the kitchen and Cassidy braced herself against this invasion of her own personal space. Stealing herself, she drew herself up to her full height; standing tall, ready to face the music. If her Mother-in-law was going to witness her failure, then Cassidy would be defiant to the last – she would not fall to the enemy!

“Oh, Cassidy, what happened here?” Mildred’s eagle eyes took in the scene of devastation – pans piled higgledy-piggledy on the stove, bowls and utensils flung down in desperation, cream curdling and butter melting unattended on the counters, and then fell on the face of the cook herself.

Cassidy couldn’t hold it any longer and she dissolved into a puddle of tears, sobs shaking her body as she clutched at the sink to hold herself upright.

“Sweetheart, you have got yourself into a state, haven’t you?” Gently, Mildred reached out to Cassidy and laid a friendly hand on her shoulder. “Come here, dear, not to worry, things are never as bad as they seem.”

“But everything was supposed to be perfect!” Cassidy wailed. “Everything was arranged, I thought I had it all sorted and it was going to be the perfect Christmas. Now it’s ruined – we have nothing to eat and everyone is here…” She couldn’t continue. Instead, she just collapsed into Mildred’s arms.

“You know, I remember my first Christmas with Kenneth,” whispered Mildred. “His mother was such a wonderful cook that he went on and on about how spectacular her Christmas dinners were, and I was determined to impress her, but I forgot to light the stove and there was nothing cooked when the guests arrived. I was devastated at the time, but I can laugh about it now and you will too. Now, dry your eyes and let’s see what can be done…”

She tugged a monogrammed lace handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at Cassidy’s eyes. “There, now, that’s better. Come on, chin up – let’s get to work!”

Together, they cleared away the pots and pans, dumped the vegetables and poured the gravy down the plughole. “You know, this gravy’s nowhere near as bad as mine was my second Christmas…”

Half an hour later, fresh vegetables had been chopped; onions, mushrooms, courgettes and chickpeas; yoghurt and spices had been added to the salvaged bird that now simmered in a pot; rice and saffron in another. The scent was heavenly.

Taking her daughter-in-law’s hand in hers, Mildred spoke again. “That first Christmas, I thought I’d die of embarrassment, but Ken’s Mum turned out to be a darling. She told me something I’m going to share with you now. It doesn’t matter if the dinner is burned or the cake sinks in the middle; it doesn’t matter whether you serve turkey with all the trimmings or turn it into a giant curry; it doesn’t matter if the sky is falling, just so long as you’re with people you love. That’s what Christmas is all about in the end.”

Smiling at each other, Mildred and Cassidy carried the huge bowls of rice and curry into the dining room and set it before the family before tucking in.

Crackers were pulled, hats were worn, jokes were told, glasses were clinked and wine was drunk. Ruby and Emerald divided up the cracker prizes between them and fussed over Max, Great Aunt Mabel drank too much sherry and asked Uncle Joe and Jim when they were going to make it official and get married, Mike and Anne complimented Cassidy on the delicious meal and declared that next year it was their turn to play host, and Kenneth and Mildred danced to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in the living room. The house was filled with warmth and laughter.

And afterwards, everyone agreed, it had been a proper Christmas.

Kell Smurthwaite, 2006 ©

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Let it be ugly (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 9, 2007 at 9:32 am (Short Stories) (, )

Let it be ugly

Let it be ugly

Kerry’s foot pedalled harder, the wheel whirring and purring like a contented cat as she scooped water onto the platform with her cupped hands. Getting into a steady rhythm, she scraped up a handful of clay and paused, just for a moment, feeling the heft of the cool, dampness nestled in her palm, willing it to speak to her as she closed her eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath, filling her lungs to capacity, then letting it all out with a whoosh.

It had been a while – the clay wouldn’t speak to her, so she had shunned it for weeks, locking the door to her studio and turning her back on dirty, blackened fingernails and splatters on her face and hair – but this morning she’d woken with a peculiar longing to return and so she found herself turning the key in the lock and sitting down on her old, wooden stool with the cracked leather padding of faded brown.

Now that she was here, she couldn’t find her inspiration. Where was her muse? Her foot slowed, then stilled, as her eyes fell upon vases, pots and sculptures – delicate works of intricate craftsmanship that had all come from her own imagination, from her own hands – willing each item to fill her with fresh ideas, to infuse her with their beauty so that she could create again.

Where to begin? How to begin? Kerry’s heart sank as she realised she felt nothing, heard nothing, and her eyes fell to the grey lump squishing slightly between her fingers as she unwittingly asserted pressure. She would have to get to work soon, before the clay started drying and became more difficult to manipulate, before she gave up. She would just begin and to hell with the outcome – she had to get back into the swing of things. Something simple, perhaps? Let’s go right back to the beginning.

Treading again, the wheel picked up speed and more water was splashed on, sending dull droplets flying from the edges of its hypnotic spinning as she expertly dropped the clay into the centre and began moulding it.

Without thinking, without looking, her fingers exerted an even pressure. More treading, more water, thumbs pressing down into the centre from above, creating a hollow. More treading, more water, palms gliding, fingers guiding, drawing it upwards. More treading, more water, pinching it in a little near the top; pulling it out again into a curved lip. Slower, slower, stop.

More clay… Shape it, press it, score it, seal it with slip. Repeat – another and another and another. Misshapen lumps becoming deformed features – bulbous eyes, flattened nose, fat lips, protruding tongue, and heavy brow. Rolling a section between her palms in to a thick sausage, pressing it flat with dextrous fingers, bending, pressing, scoring and sealing with slip that oozed and gleamed in the golden light filtering thr0ugh the picture window.

And then it was finished. So basic – a mug with a malformed face, such as a small child might present to a proud parent. Looking at it squatting on the wheel, she felt a mild shudder of disgust at this misshaped mask with its lopsided grin, but felt compelled to grin in return.

“Let it be ugly,” she thought to herself. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Gently, she worked her palette knife under the base to free it from the wheel and set the monstrous mug on a board to dry, unable and unwilling to let go of her smile. It might not be beautiful, but it was a start. And after all, there would always be tomorrow.

Kell Smurthwaite, 2006 ©

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Punctuality and Posie (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 9, 2007 at 9:26 am (Short Stories) (, )

Punctuality and Posies

Punctuality and Posies

10:23am

Aidan checked his watch for what must have been the twentieth time in half as many minutes, it’s face glared balefully back at him showing the time as exactly 10:23am. There was no escaping it – he was going to be late.

If there was anything Aidan Van de Ruit really couldn’t stand, it was the thought that he might be late for anything – his heart would pound, his stomach would clench and his temples would begin to throb. His hands were already clammy and that was just the start of it. On any other occasion it would be acceptable to be tardy by a few minutes – friends and family understand that things crop up and generally don’t mind waiting an extra minute or two, but Aidan was cursed with an utter terror of ever being even a few seconds late. No matter what the occasion, he was always the first to arrive, always the one waiting for everyone else and wondering what kept them when they didn’t show up bang on time.

10:24am

Why, why, why? Why was the bus going so slowly? Why did there have to be road works today of all days? They were already on a route diversion, but why on earth would the powers-that-be choose an alternative road that was as blocked as the original? Aidan’s hands shook as he checked his watch again. This was an important interview and he couldn’t afford to have anything go wrong – not today of all days! He drew the brief letter out of his breast pocket to read again, hoping it would distract him from time ticking by…

Dear Mr Van de Ruit,

I will be pleased to meet you at 10:30am sharp on Monday 30 October.

Yours sincerely,

Thomas Clark
Manager

There it was, in black and white – “10:30am sharp”. There was no way he was ever going to get there at this rate – the traffic had slowed to a crawl that could have been outrun by an asthmatic snail.

10:32am

How had that happened? Aidan put his ear to his watch to hear the steady tick-tick-tick of fine Swiss clockwork. Eight whole minutes had flown by like seconds and now he was beginning to feel like Alice’s White Rabbit (I’m late! I’m late!).

Finally, the bus turned the corner onto the high street and Aidan hastily pressed the buzzer to alert the driver as he bolted from his seat. There were still several stops to go. But he would be faster on foot.

The bus dragged itself to the kerb and the doors swooshed open. Making his exit, Aidan’s foot was plunged, ankle-deep, into an over-flowing gutter. Oh, yes, he was going to make such an impression when he arrived.

10:36am

Racing down the High Street, Aidan dodged pedestrians in a high-speed dance. He was almost there, just one more block to go…

Crash! A group of spotty teenaged lads rounded the corner and Aiden launched headfirst into them, caught himself on a shouldered bag and was sent sprawling to the ground. His ears rang with their raucous laughter and he turned his head to witness them pointing at him – their mouths gaping wide and their heads thrown back, mocking his predicament. Now in addition to the soaked shoe and trousers, he had a dark, gritty smear down the front of his jacket, coal-black knees and he’d scuffed the heels of both hands, not to mention the complete loss of dignity. He looked and felt a mess.

10:40am

Ten minutes late. He felt sick with the knowledge as he approached Bloomin’ Beautiful. Blanching at his reflection in the window, he noted his ragged appearance and his heart sank. How could he possibly make a good impression now? He looked terrible! Still, an appointment must be kept. Resigned to the fact that this wasn’t going to turn out as planned, he took in the rainbow-hued window display; tasteful arrangements of elegant lilies, orchids, ferns and variegated greenery in tall glass vases, bouquets of blossoms loosely tied with raffia, and long-stemmed roses of velvety blood red. He couldn’t delay any longer – he knew it was time to face the music.

10:42am

The light tinkle of the bell above the door caused the willowy assistant, who’s name plate bore the name “Rosa” surrounded by tiny rosebuds, to look up from her array of freesias – her face was a sweet and heavenly as the scent filling the small shop – and grinned at him.

“You look like you’ve had one of those mornings!”

Aidan smiled apologetically and replied, “You could say that. I’m sorry I’m late; I’ve come to see… ” He broke off as a tall figure emerged from the back room.

“Oh, you must be Aidan – you’re early!”

Aidan’s brow crinkled in confusion as he checked his watch again. “Early? I’m twelve minutes late. I can’t apologise enough! I had a bit of bother getting here, you see,” he gestured towards his marred jacket, “I’m so sorry, Mr. Clark – I always pride myself on my punctuality and I promise I don’t usually come out looking such a state.”

Now it was the turn of the gentleman to look confused. “What on earth are you talking about? You’re early – the clocks went back this weekend! Come through the back and let’s get you cleaned up a bit, then you can tell me what happened.”

Heaving a sigh of relief, Aidan followed Mr. Clark through the arched doorway, into the shadowy room beyond, leaving Rosa humming under breath as she tied the freesias with satin ribbon.

10:11am (proper time)

Aidan stepped out of the office, closely followed by a bespectacled Mr. Thomas, and Rosa looked up from her magazine expectantly, searching their faces for a sign of what had passed between them.

“Well, Rosa, you picked a good lad, here. I’d be honoured to have him as a son-in-law!”

Rosa shrieked with delight and threw herself at Aidan, wrapping her arms around his neck and raining kisses on his face.

“You see,” she cried, “I told you Dad would love you just as much as I do!”

A Cheshire Cat grin split Aidan’s face from ear to ear, as his prospective father-in-law spoke, “Well, I’ve always liked punctuality in people.”

Kell Smurthwaite, 2006©

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Silver in the Sky (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 9, 2007 at 9:19 am (Short Stories) (, )

 

Silver in the Sky

Silver in the Sky

Though she had spent the early evening showing off in shining splendour, the moon grew suddenly shy and coy; covering herself with an inky cloak of cloud and allowing only occasional brief glimpses of her heavenly body as the darkness deepened around her. Below, in the damp, dank streets, the perpetual orange glow of the street lamps was reflected, weakened, on the rain-slicked road; their mirror-image rippled and fractured in puddles as cars crashed through them, sending up an oily shower of grey to splatter further onto the pavement.

In the alley, a battle-hardened tomcat with torn ears and truncated tail scavenged through an overturned dustbin for leftover chicken bones and morsels of chip-shop fish still in their wrappers. At the sound of a bottle skittering across the stones, the cat was jolted from its feast and, fast as lightning, zigzagged its escape, gracefully leaping atop the wall and disappearing with a backward glare of golden eyes and a disgruntled yowl.

With a shuffling gait, a huddled figure edged its way between the flattened cardboard boxes stacked against the wall and the row of overflowing bins remaining upright. Stooping, he grasped the greasy rim of their fallen comrade and methodically returned the refuse to its rightful place, carefully picking through the discarded food packages, newspapers, bottles, jars and cans, and straightened up the bin. Eyes searching, he located the lid and jammed it on top, closing off the sweet-sour odour of decay with an air of finality, and pushed it back against the wall to rejoin the ranks standing to attention.

Mission accomplished, he stepped back before pulling his frayed coat collar closer around his throat and his mottled cap lower on his brow, bracing himself against the chill of the night air. Then he threw back his head and gazed up at window of sky above him, hemmed in by brick walls on either side. Here, the harsh glow of city lights barely touched the dark expanse above, and as he watched with watery eyes, the lid of clouds lifted and the night sky revealed a tumble of flickering stars and the silver pupil of the moon winked at him.

For a moment, they remained, smiling at each other, man and moon, and then, lowering his face, he spied, glinting in the moonlight, a coin. Crouching low, he crooked his fingers around it, then polished it against his sleeve, wiping away the grime of the alley till it shone; a golden replica of the silver circle above him. Glancing upwards once more, he raised his prize in salute to the moon, which was already retreating behind a bank of clouds, leaving misty rainbowed hues to mark her place.

The coin safely deposited in his pocket, he picked up his feet once more and emerged into the suddenly noisy street, weaving past couples and parked cars to the café on the corner, to buy a cup of coffee and cut through the cold. There, sitting at his table in the window, hands wrapped around the crackle-glazed mug, he gazed out at the night and smiled; searching for the silver in the sky.

Kell Smurthwaite, 2006 ©

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The True and Completely Accurate Tale of Hansel and Gretel (a re-worked fairytale by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 8, 2007 at 7:42 am (Short Stories) (, )

The True and Completely Accurate Tale of Hansel and Gretel

 

The True and Completely Accurate Tale of Hansel and Gretel

Once upon a time…

So many stories begin that way and it’s a sure-fire bet that whatever you’re about to be told has as little to do with the truth as rice pudding has to do with computers. In short, if it begins with “Once upon a time”, you’re being lied to, or at least not being told the whole story, but only one side of it. You will all have heard of poor little Hansel and Gretel; of how they were led into the forest and left there by their Wicked Stepmother; threatened with cannibalism by an equally Wicked Witch who lived in a Gingerbread Cottage; of their daring escape with hidden riches that restored their family’s fortune and they all lived “Happily Ever After”.

That’s another tip-off by the way – nobody ever lives “Happily Ever After” in real life. So in this story, there’ll be no “Once Upon a Time” or “Happily Ever After”. It begins, instead, with a wedding…

The day was sunny and bright – perfect wedding weather; not too hot and not to cold, everyone was happy – except a boy called Hansel and his sister, Gretel. They were sullen, moody and crotchety – like most teenagers, actually. The reason they were so miffed is that their father was remarrying that day and it meant disruption to their lives and another adult to boss them around – this time one that wasn’t even related to them.

Their father wasn’t marrying for love, but for money – his new wife was young and pretty and came with a considerable amount of money on which he hoped to get his hands. She, being blinded by love, was silly enough to let him have access to her accounts and he soon frittered it away on booze, gambling and other women – yes, he was a philandering, greedy git, but she hadn’t realised that when she said “I Do”.

The truth of it is, she wasn’t a wicked woman. In fact, she was sweet and kind and tried her hardest to fit in with her new family, but she hadn’t expected to be faced with such a handful as her new step children turned out to be. Hansel was lazy and Gretel was sly and neither one of them could be trusted with any kind of responsibility.

The day came when the money ran out and the father was forced to try and find work (not that he had much luck, as he was every bit as lazy as his children – it was easy to see who their role model had been all these years) while the step mother tried to keep the house in order and work within a very tight budget to feed a family which included two teens with bottomless pits instead of stomachs!

One morning, after pleading with them to tidy their rooms and begging them to help around the house (they, of course, refused), she, now exasperated and at her wits’ end, sent them out into the woods to pick berries so they would at least have something to eat come dinner time (not to mention getting them out from under her feet so she could get things done). Dragging their heels, they made their way into the woods… and this is where everything started to go terribly wrong.

Both bickered and argued their way along the path, complaining of the terrible abuse they suffered at the hands of their horribly Wicked Stepmother and how it was such a terrible hardship to be actually asked to contribute to the household in any meaningful way. And as they wandered, they picked some berries and ate them, rather than filling their baskets as they had been asked.

As the day wore on, they grew drowsy and with their bellies filled with fruit, they thought it would be nice to have a little rest, so they lay in the shade of a willow tree and dozed off.

They woke, hours later and chilled to the bone in the fast-darkening forest and immediately realised that there would be hell to pay if they came home now with empty baskets (their father never disciplined them, but their new stepmother surely would punish them in some way – perhaps even sending them to bed without any supper and this simply would not do!) and so they hatched a plan – they would run away!

At home, their stepmother was frantic with worry – Hansel and Gretel had been missing all day and had not returned – whatever would she tell her husband? And so she fretted and paced back and forth in the tiny kitchen, gnawing her nails down to the quick, before sitting herself down and crying her eyes out (she was a compassionate soul who always put others before herself and could not bear the thought of her husband’s grief when he came home and found his children gone).

In the woods, Hansel and Gretel found their stomachs complaining loudly at the fact that they’d had nothing but berries all day long and it wasn’t long before their noses detected the heavenly scent of freshly baked gingerbread. They picked their way through the undergrowth, well off the beaten track and found themselves standing by a little wooden gate. The gate was set in a pretty picket fence running round a lush garden full of herbs and vegetables, and there, resting on an open windowsill to cool, was a tray of gingerbread.

It was more than the children could stand to see and smell the goodness before them and they crept into the garden till they were directly under the sill. Slowly, sneakily, Hansel reached up to take the tray…

“Ouch!” he yelled, and dropped the still-hot tray to the ground with a loud clatter – gingerbread flying everywhere. A golden-haired head popped out the window, looked down and saw Hansel and Gretel huddled together, nursing the blister that was fast appearing on the palm of Hansel’s hand.

“That’s quite a burn you have there, laddie, you’d best come inside so I can see to it, or it may get infected,” she said and bustled round to the front door to undo the latch.

In case you haven’t guessed, this is the so-called Wicked Witch of which you’ve heard so much. What will come to pass now will prove that tale to be nothing short of slander!

She was young and had a face as fresh as a daisy and a smile that lit up a room like the sun – she was no Witch, but she was certainly clever in the healing arts! Ushering the children into her little house, she sat them down in the kitchen while she gathered together her supplies.

“Help yourself to some cake, dearie,” she smiled at Gretel, “You look so hungry I’d bet you could eat a horse!”

She cleaned Hansel’s hand and applied a salve that cooled the wound and soothed the pain, so that he would never have known he’d burned it at all.

“How about telling me what two young’uns are doing wandering round the forest at this time of night, eh?”

This is where the lying began. Hansel and Gretel spun such a tale of woe it almost broke the young woman’s heart! They told of their Wicked Stepmother who had bewitched their poor, hard-working father with her beauty and treated them like slaves, sometimes withholding food for days at a time and beating them soundly for no reason, and how she had led them deep into the forest and left them there to be eaten by wild animals.

So touched was she by their story that she opened her heart and home to them both and invited them to stay a while with her. Her husband would be returning from business abroad in a few days and he had contacts in Social Services who could see that their stepmother would never harm them again.

She gave them a wonderful supper of homemade crumpets and cheese and honey and all kinds of goodies before tucking them into a warm bed in the spare room with soft blankets and fluffy pillows, and reassured them that she would help in any way she could and they quickly drifted off to a dreamless sleep, untroubled by guilty consciences.

Over the next few days, they were fussed over and generally treated like royalty, but despite all the kindness shown to them, they did not lift a finger to help around the house, nor even offer to do so. Instead, they helped themselves to food whenever they felt like it and lay about sunning themselves in the garden.

During this time, they began to realise that when her husband returned home, they would be taken to the authorities and there their lies would be discovered and they would be in a world of trouble! It was obvious that they could not allow themselves to be taken into custody and yet they could not return home. Whatever could they do?

It was now they turned their minds to robbery…

In the morning, their hostess announced that today her husband would be returning from abroad and would be able to help them. Hansel and Gretel knew that had to act quickly!

From several days of spoaching and spying, they had discovered the combination of the safe in the floor of the pantry. They crept in and turned the dial carefully – three to the right, two to the left, one right, four left, et voila! The door swung open and they were greeted with the sight of sparkling jewellery and money – more than they had ever seen in one place in their entire lives – this lady and her husband were obviously doing rather well for themselves!

They were stuffing their pockets with valuables when their benefactor came in from the garden. The look of shock and hurt on her face would have broken their hearts – if they’d had any!

Quickly, they grabbed her and stuffed her into the pantry, locking it from the outside so that all they heard as they made their escape was her banging and waling and yelling to be let out!

Running as hard and as fast as they could, Hansel and Gretel soon found their way back to familiar places and made their way through the woods, huffing and puffing fit to burst.

And then they stopped to rest and get their story straight. They would spin a story to cover their own backs, explain both their long absence and their new stash of goods, and ensure their welcome back into the family home once more.

After much discussion (and arguing, shouting and complaining, of course) they decided exactly what they would say and made their way back to their little house on the edge of the forest.

When they got there, they found the police with their father and stepmother and felt a moment of abject terror as they wondered if they had already been found out, but the policemen were only there to tell their parents that no trace had yet been found of poor, missing Hansel and Gretel, despite all the man-hours expended in searching for them.

Their stepmother cried tears of relief when she saw them walk through the door, their father was snoozing with his head on the kitchen table, having drank an entire bottle of whisky the night before – when he woke he’d have the very devil of a hangover!

Now, however, they were forced to tell their tale to the boys in blue, as well as their stepmother, of how they had been captured by a Wicked Witch who lived in an Enchanted Gingerbread Cottage filled with Riches, and No, they didn’t know the way back there, sorry. Of how the Witch had locked them up and tried to fatten them for the cooking pot and how they’d had to push her into her own oven to make their daring escape.

Nobody thought anything in their story was suspicious or remotely unusual; after all, Witches usually live in edible houses to lure children away and wasn’t there that case just last year that made the front page of all the newspapers?

It seemed like they had got away with it all. They could relax, enjoy their newfound wealth and be treated like heroes.

But then their father drank and gambled it all away and soon they were back to square one, only this time, they knew exactly where they could find more money… they would return to the scene of their crime!

I need not tell of their midnight trek through the woods to the little house; how they snuck in by picking the lock on the back door; how they were caught in the act by the husband who had returned from his business trip and freed his lovely wife from the pantry where she hadn’t exactly starved or been in all that much discomfort, but had lost all sense of trust in other people; how they ran off into the night and escaped with nothing but the pocket knife they’d used to pick the lock; how their misdeeds and descriptions were reported to the police the very next morning.

Hansel and Gretel are still at large. They are considered armed and dangerous and should not be approached under any circumstances. If you see them, please contact the police as quickly as possible so that they can be apprehended.

Maybe then we can all have a “Happily Ever After” once they’ve accounted for their crimes!

Kell Smurthwaite, 2006©

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Mallory Christie (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 8, 2007 at 7:37 am (Short Stories) (, )

Mallory Christie


Mallory Christie

Fist… knife… dodge… jab… slash… scream…

Captain Christie started awake with a cry of alarm. “Jeez, get a grip, Mal,” he murmured to himself, running his fingers roughly through his cropped, brown hair as he pulled himself upright and hugged his knees gently to his chest. After a few moments to steady his breathing, he kicked his legs free of the clammy sheets and set his naked feet on the threadbare carpet. Easing his body upright, he was instantly assailed by a cacophony of aches and pains as he straightened his spine; stretching his arms above his head, he winced and brought his elbows sharply down to his sides once more.

In the half-light, he could see his shady reflection in the mottled mirror fixed above the cracked sink – the purple bruises were dark across his abdomen, disappearing beneath the bandages across his ribs, and the livid scar that completed its own vanishing act under the eye patch. Mallory thought he’d probably lose the sight in his left eye, even if the eye itself was saved. He didn’t mind the patch so much – it lent him a rakish air that, combined with the scar, would probably attract the kind of woman who liked her men a little dangerous.

Fist… knife… dodge… jab… slash…

It all came flooding back and Mallory felt his knees go weak. Grabbing the edge of the sink to steady himself, his gaze fell from his sullen reflection. What did he care how he looked now? What did it matter whether or not any woman found him attractive? There had only ever been one woman for him and she was untouchable – his brother’s wife.

Even if there had been no code of honour in the army, he could never have made a play for Cecily: From the very beginning, she was out of his reach, because Craig met her first and Craig was the world to him. Despite the eight-year age difference, Mal and Craig had always been close, even as boys, after all, there was only the two of them left with their strict father. Mother had left when Mal was only six months old after Jessica died – unable to cope with the loss of her Downs Syndrome daughter – the older sister that Mal had never known and Craig rarely mentioned. The three of them lived together in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in the rough end of town. Even then, it was Craig who had looked after young Mal, as Pop was drunk more often than not, and had a mean temper on him that would cause him to lash out at the boys for the slightest infraction. It had almost been a relief when Pop died of liver failure when Mal was only eleven years old, and Craig had taken on the responsibility of being legal guardian to his younger brother, despite the fact that he was yet to reach his twentieth birthday.

They may have struggled to make ends meet, but Craig never once complained about the arrangement – Mallory was basically a good kid, despite getting into the odd lad-ish scrape now and then – and when Mallory decided to join the army, no father could have been more proud than Craig Christie.

When Mallory returned two years later, he was introduced to Cecily and everything changed. She and Craig had already been together for seven months and the diamond that sparkled on the fourth finger of her left hand couldn’t compare to the shine of her eyes or the gloss of her hair – Mallory immediately knew that there could never be anyone else for him and that he could never have her – she could never know.

Fist… knife… dodge… jab…

His knuckles were still raw and he flexed his fingers gingerly before picking up his toothbrush and rinsing it under the faucet. Unscrewing the cap of the toothpaste, his fingers slipped and it tumbled to the floor. Retrieving it would be more pain than it was worth, so he watched it bounce and roll to a stop by the wall before starting to brush his teeth, taking extra care not to aggravate the swollen cut on his lip and the empty socket of gum where a tooth was freshly missing. Not trusting the murky plastic tooth-mug, he stiffly bent his head to the faucet, filling his mouth with cold water to swirl inside his cheeks before spitting it directly down the drain – at least it was no longer tinged pink with blood. Attempting to wake himself properly, he cupped running water in his palms and gently splashed his face, making sure to keep the eye patch dry, then, rather than use the grubby towel, he used the hem of his T-shirt to dry off.

He glared at the man in the mirror once more and cursed himself as a fool. What had he been thinking? Leaving the base, going AWOL, buying a train ticket to take him to his home town? All because he believed his brother needed him.

Well, he had well and truly failed Craig – and failed Cecily too.

Fist… knife… dodge…

Cecily wasn’t the type to use the phone. Unlike the stereotype, she hated nothing more than gossiping into a handset and preferred to write letters. In this day and age of e-mail and instant messaging, it had always struck Mallory as slightly old-fashioned, but he didn’t care – he had kept every one of her notes, long and rambling, keeping him up to date with everything that happened in the lives of the only two people he could call family. Somehow Cecily had understood that this was the most important thing in the world to him – every month without fail, an envelope addressed to Captain M. Christie would arrive at the base, and every month he would wait till he was alone to slit it open, slowly savouring the lingering scent of her perfume as he read her words; hearing her soft tones as though she were in the room talking to him. They were always signed the same, “All our love, Craig and Cecily,” but he knew that, given the choice, Craig would only make a cursory call every now and then whenever there was news of importance. This way Mallory felt involved in his family… and his love for Cecily grew stronger, even over the distance, with every line.

When the harsh tone of the telephone in his office had disturbed him from his reports, he had initially been annoyed and ready to rebuke the caller, but when noted the incoming number, he knew it had to be Craig and this thoughts softened.

“Mallory? It’s Craig…” His voice sounded ragged and his breathing was harsh and laboured. “I don’t know what to do… It’s Cecily… Oh-my-God, it’s Cecily…”

The phone went dead. Frantically, Mal hit the recall button, but got a busy signal – the phone was off the hook.

Something was terribly wrong and he knew he had to reach Craig, but he also knew that he would never be granted leave at the moment and certainly not at such short notice. The classified report scowled up at him – there was no way his superiors could possibly spare him now, but he had to go. After gathering his papers together and locking them into his drawer, he’d stood, grabbed his overcoat and left the office without a word.

Fist… knife…

He’d bundled himself into a taxi from the train station. The journey so far had passed in a blur of whizzing scenery and fading light – time seemed to have no meaning. The driver had tried to engage Mallory in some chirpy chatter, but quickly abandoned his banter when it became clear that his passenger was intent only on brooding till he reached his destination. When they pulled up outside the house in the cul-de-sac, Mal paid the fare, tipping generously, and stepped out of the cab. He was already at the door by the time the car pulled away.

The house seemed deserted. No lights burning, no answer to the repeated ring of the bell or rap on the door. Waiting only a few moments, Mallory made his way round the back and lifted the flowerpot by the kitchen door where the spare key was concealed. Years of training kept Mal calm as he slotted the key into the lock, turned it, pressed down the handle and stepped through the doorway into the shadowy gloom of the dining kitchen.

An overturned chair caught his eye, alerting his to the fact that all may not be well. His suspicions were confirmed seconds later by a smear of blood down the side of the counter and the pool that had collected at the base. His first reaction was to exit the way he came in and call the police, but his brother could be in trouble – there was no way he could leave without first checking that Craig – and Cecily, oh God! Cecily! – were either gone or, at least, uninjured…

Creeping into the corridor, he carefully eased open the door to the lounge, praying that it wouldn’t creak and give him away, but the room was empty; the only eyes looking at him gazed from framed photographs on the walls and mantel – countless happy scenes smiling at the camera. After a cursory check of the room, he retreated to the hallways once more.

A soft moan drew his eyes upwards towards the ceiling – there was someone upstairs. He darted back into the lounge, looking for a plausible weapon to use for protection and settled on the iron poker by the fireplace. Its weight felt reassuring in his right hand as he approached the stairs. With his back to the wall, he edged his way up the steps. A smudged scarlet handprint marred the creamy wallpaper and another streaked the banister – the sharp, copper tang of blood filled his nostrils, causing the hairs at the nape of his neck to stand on end. Suppressing a shudder, he pressed on, mentally preparing himself for the worst.

The moan subsided into a lurching sob and Mallory saw through the open door to the master bedroom, a crouched figure, slowly rocking back and forwards. With a cry of his own, Mal realised it was Craig.

Flicking the light switch, the room was suddenly awash with a golden glow, revealing the full horror. Craig was hunched over on the bed- the duvet stained crimson – clutching the limp body of Cecily to his chest, whispering to her and whimpering like a frightened child. Her blood had soaked through in patches on Craig’s shirt and another smear showed on the unhooked telephone next to the bed, it’s muffled beep-beep-beep sounding over and over as a subdued alarm. Craig had been here, all this time, holding his wife close, for more than five hours now, since calling his brother’s office.

Mal felt his knees buckle and he steadied himself against the wall, his eyes wide, mirroring the shock on Craig’s face. Even if Cecily had still been alive when Craig called, there was no chance that she could have held on this long, after losing such an amount of blood. Lurching over to his brother’s side, he dropped the poker with a clatter.

“What happened? Craig? What happened here?”

At first Craig’s reply was an almost-silent whisper, muffled as his face was buried in his wife’s neck, but it was repeated, over and over, as the volume increased, till finally Craig was shouting at the top of his voice.

“It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!”

Suddenly, Mallory found himself faced with a brother full of rage. Craig catapulted himself off the bed and threw himself at Mal, barrelling headfirst into his stomach, still screaming his mantra. Bent double by the force, Mal’s face crashed into the open door – he felt his lower lip burst and as he spat out a stream of stringy blood, he felt one of his teeth escape with it.

Mal grabbed at his brother, then, as he dodged back too late, felt a sharp brand of fire flash across his ribs. Crying out, he gripped Craig’s wrist like a vice, but the knife stayed in his clenched fist. Mal’s fingers slipped on the blood and the knife whipped round, slashing across his face, sending a searing arc of pain through him as it’s crossed his left eye. Fighting the panic, Mal shoved Craig as hard as he could, sending him reeling back across the room where his toe caught on the throw rug, sending him sprawling down with a loud crack as his head hit the bedpost.

With his left hand clamped over his eye and his right reaching round to the wound on his ribs, Mal cautiously approached the prone figure on the floor. There was no movement, not even the slightest indication of breath being drawn. A dark trickle snaked it’s way from Craig’s left nostril, coursing down his cheek in a stream towards the dent at his temple and joining the slowly spreading puddle beneath his head, his mouth slack and his eyes blank and staring at some random spot on the ceiling.

Mal’s legs failed him and he crumpled beside his brother. Questions raced through his brain at lightning speed – what on earth could have caused Craig to attack him like that? What had happened here? What did Craig mean that it was all Mal’s fault? What was Mal’s fault?

He painfully dragged himself onto the bed where Cecily still lay, her face turned towards the window as though she were gazing out at the street. Her cheek was marred by a livid red mark, her golden curls were matted to the side of her head and her pale hand was gloved by the drying rust and resting on the ruby gash on her stomach. He smoothed the flaxen tangle from her forehead before closing her eyes forever. Gently, almost reverently, he kissed her cold cheek as a tear escaped and ran down his own.

Reaching for the telephone, his hand alighted on a crumpled sheet of writing paper and he turned away from Cecily. Smoothing it out, he recognised Cecily’s flowing script and began to read…

Fist…

Tears blurred his eyes as he pounded the wall with his fist, over and over and over, barely registering the pain as skin shredded over bone, painting a smudged rose on the now dented plaster of the wall. This was why Craig blamed him – the terrible truth was too much for him to bear and he finally sank to the soft carpet, burying his head in his hands, sobbing unashamedly. In one fell swoop his family – his whole world – was gone.

When his tears were spent he picked himself up– he had to think clearly now. Still supporting himself against the wall, he moved to the en-suite and switched on the light. In an almost somnambulant haze, he took the first aid kit from the bathroom cabinet and set it on the cistern while he filled the sink with warm water. Glaring at his reflection, he cleaned his wounds, the blood becoming pale swirls as it was diluted; gradually deepening as the ratio of blood-to-water changed. The gash on his ribs wasn’t deep, but it was long, and he wadded a pad of gauze against it before taping it in place. The slash on his face was no deeper, but his eyelid was slit and the eye damaged – he would have to see a doctor, but there would be time for that later – another wad was taped in place and covered with an eye patch.

His shirt was ruined – patches of russet already beginning to dry at the edges. Taking the medical kit with him, he returned to the bedroom and left it on the end of the bed while he opened the closet, pulling out an overnight bag and some clothes. Several shirts were stuffed into the canvas hold-all and he carefully drew on an old, black T-shirt – at least if his wound started seeping, the blood wouldn’t show. Mallory unbuckled his belt and stripped off his trousers, exchanging them for a faded pair of blue jeans. He was all set.

Wincing his way down the staircase, clutching the bag, he picked up Craig’s car keys from the kitchen counter before he left, locking the door behind him. In the driveway, Craig’s battered Ford waited…

… The motel wasn’t fancy – it was barely even basic – but the room had a bed, however moth-eaten the covers, and they didn’t ask for ID at the front desk. Exhausted, Mallory had descended swiftly into a fitful sleep that had left him barely rested.

There was a soft mewing and muffled scratch at the door and Mal opened it to be find a small tabby gazing up at him, its head cocked to one side as it regarded him thoughtfully before sauntering into room like it owned the place. It leapt onto the bed and then swished its tail around its haunches as it sat on the pillow. Closing the door against the dawn, he approached the cat and took up a spot next to it. Mal rubbed his fingers behind its ears, eliciting a contented purr from its throat before it daintily stepped onto his lap. Holding it close, he buried his face in the warm fur, ignoring the irritation building at the back of his nose and throat, and felt the rumbling purr reverberate through his own body, comforting him.

He reached for the antiquated turn-dial phone, still fondling the chin of the cat with his free hand, and tucked the handset into the crook of his neck while he dialled.

“Hello, could I have the police please? This is Captain Mallory Christie. I need to report a murder…”

He calmly gave the details requested then cradled the receiver. As he waited, he picked up the crumpled letter from the bedside table to read once more…

Dear Craig,

This is the most difficult letter I’ve ever had to write. I don’t know how else to say it but to come right out with the truth – you deserve that much at least. There is no easy way to tell you I’m leaving – I know there must be a million questions, but there’s only really one answer – I’m in love with someone else and it’s just not fair to either of us if I stay; that would be living a lie and I couldn’t bear to do that because, you see, I do still care about you. Please don’t think that I’m leaving you for another man, though – he doesn’t know how much I love him, but even if he did, he’s far to honourable to do anything about it. You see, for the longest time I’ve known that I married the wrong brother, but I know that I could never come between you and destroy your relationship. So I have to go – I have to go far away where I won’t hurt either of you any more.

I’m so sorry.
Cecily.

The waiting wasn’t the hard part – it was knowing that he’d never have the chance to tell Cecily he loved her and that she never had the chance to say she loved him too. Resigned to his fate, Captain Mallory Christie lay back against the pillow, silently stroking the silky-soft coat of the cat and waiting to hear the wail of sirens.

Kell Smurthwaite, 2006©

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