Mud, mud, glorious mud

So this is it, the first instalment…

It’s part one of the short story that won me that prize, but more importantly let me begin to believe in myself. The competition judge was author Alexander McCall Smith and when the doubts begin to creep back in I re-read his comments and tell myself “you did that.”


Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud – part one

abstract-21769_1280There were plenty of seats on the tube. At least that was one good thing about leaving the office at ten o’clock in the morning.

Leaving the office for good, carrying a cardboard box. One small box, was that really all he had to show for five years of his life? One small box and the smallest redundancy payment the bank could get away with.

Charlie knew the recession had begun to bite, even in his rather obscure corner of the City, and if they were going to make people redundant, he was always going to be right up there at the top of the list. Charles (as he was known in the office) had never been what you would call a high flier. He knew, and they knew, that he was only really there because his father had been a senior partner back in the day. He  wasn’t cut out for the ruthless wheeling and dealing, he was just too nice. Now that Charles senior had retired, the bank had no reason to keep him.

Charlie sat down in the half empty carriage, put his box on his knees and closed his eyes. His first thoughts were of his father. How on earth was he going to tell his parents that he was a failure, yet again. He’d already failed his eleven plus, failed to get into the first fifteen and failed to follow his brothers up to Cambridge. He opened his eyes and gazed down glumly at his feet.

There was mud on his shiny black shoes from when he’d scuttled across the scruffy park between his office and the Underground. He stared at it, suddenly fascinated. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been muddy. He used to love playing outside as a child, sneaking through the gate at the bottom of the garden and into the fields and woods beyond. Now his only playground was the wine bar on a Friday night, and he couldn’t go back there. The friends he’d always suspected of laughing at him behind his back wouldn’t bother to hide their contempt if he showed his face there now.

The automated announcement interrupted his thoughts:

“The next station is Kings Cross. Change here for mainline rail services”

Mainline rail, brilliant, he’d catch a train. He couldn’t face going back to his dingy flat and he didn’t even like London particularly.

Charlie’s heart was beating faster now and he felt a shiver run through him that could be fear or excitement, he wasn’t sure which. He got off the tube and made his way up the escalator, still clutching his box. It was awkward getting it through the ticket barrier, and when he reached the station concourse he peered into it with fresh eyes. Did he really need the leather bound desk diary or crystal paperweight?

He spotted a young lad sitting on the ground with a dirty hat containing a few coins laid out optimistically in front of him.

“Here you are,” Charlie gave the startled youth the box, and then his BlackBerry vibrated in his pocket.

“Hang on a sec,” he struggled with bitten nails to pull the phone apart and extract the SIM card, “you might as well have this too.” He tossed the phone into the box.

“Cheers mate,” the lad grinned at Charlie who walked off happily unencumbered.


Stay tuned for the next episode…

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Elsie’s Magic Carpet – the end

narcissus-1299777_1280The next day was Saturday so Rob wasn’t working at The Lawns, and Mrs Evans from the local charity shop had called – she always rang him when any old records were donated. This week there’d been two boxes, buried in a huge pile of stuff dumped outside the shop by some hot shot city type whose elderly aunt had passed away. Rob jumped in his car enjoying the delightful anticipation that the boxes might contain a rare Deanna gem or something else to add to his collection. He’d sell the rest online as usual, for more money than they’d ever get in the shop, and pass on the proceeds to Mrs Evans.

But instead of Deanna he’d found himself holding a young and beautiful Elsie in his hands. It didn’t take much research to find out that Nurse Campbell had been right. Elspeth St John had suddenly abandoned a promising career leaving a handful of recordings and just one film – Springtime Review. Unlike Deanna though, there were no fan clubs or societies keeping her memory alive, just a passing mention on a couple of websites.

On Monday Rob wrapped the record in a bag and took it with him to The Lawns. He spent most of the morning checking in the final consignment of plants and talking on the phone to the nursery trying to sort out the inevitable mistakes. As soon as he could he slipped away from the planting and made his way to Elsie’s room. He knocked at the door but there was no response and hesitantly he turned the handle. The room was empty and the bed had not been slept in. Feeling slightly sick he went straight to the canteen. Nurse Campbell wasn’t there, she was working nights this week, so he had to ask one of the others.

“Excuse me, has something happened to Elsie Crawford?”

“Why do you want to know?” This nurse was not so chatty.

“I have something for her” Rob held up the bag.

“She had a fall. For some reason she decided to take her first ever walk in the garden yesterday morning and she slipped on the wet grass.”

“Is she alright?”

“Oh yes,” the nurse sounded kinder now, sensing Rob’s concern, “they took her up to the hospital as a precaution but she’ll be back on Wednesday.”

“Right. Thanks.”

Rob retreated and took the record back to his van. He felt terrible, what if it was his telling her all about the new gardens that had prompted her to go outside and fall.

He returned to work, but he was distracted –  there had to be some way to make amends. Then his phone rang, it was the nursery about redelivering the missing plants, and suddenly Rob knew exactly what he was going to do.

 

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, for the second night in a row, Nurse Campbell made two mugs of tea, and then looked carefully around before taking one of them outside. She smiled to herself, she was going to need a lot more tea to keep her going tonight if she wanted to stay awake until Elsie returned.

At half past ten the nurse wheeled the elderly lady from the ambulance back to her room where the bedside light glowed and the curtains were closed. Rob had told her what to do and when she’d settled Elsie in the chair by the window she turned to the strange looking box standing on the chest of drawers. Gingerly she lifted the lid and peered inside at the delicate mechanism. Her hands were shaking but she remembered what he’d shown her just before dawn.

As the crackling sound filled the small room Nurse Campbell opened the curtains and said, “look outside Elsie, this is all for you.”

“The daffodils are blooming

And spring is on its way…”

And Elsie looked out onto a magical carpet of yellow, covering the lawn beneath her window, and for the first time in sixty years heard her own voice singing of springtime. The heart she thought had died a long time ago filled with joy, and she turned shining blue eyes first to the nurse and then to the diffident young man who stood shyly in the doorway.

“Robert,” she whispered, “thank you.”


 

Elsie’s Magic Carpet – part two

deanna

Rob had first seen Elsie almost as soon as he’d started working up at The Lawns, a slight figure gazing out of a ground floor window. It was a big contract, landscaping and replanting the grounds of a sheltered housing complex and it would take at least six weeks his boss said, getting the place looking nice before spring. Rob enjoyed jobs like this, staying in one place for a while and seeing the transformation at the end of it.

His first task had been clearing the ground in front of one of the accommodation blocks, and when he’d straightened up from digging to stretch out his back she’d been there, watching. Her bright scarf had caught his eye even through the glass, and when he looked more closely he could see that all her clothes were unusual, an exotic array of rich colours and fabrics. He was no expert, but it wasn’t the drab skirt and cardigan that most of the other old ladies seemed to wear. And nor did the other ladies wear jewellery like that, or have a cloud of long white hair.

Rob only ever saw her at that same window though, she was never walking in the grounds, or sitting in the lounge when he went inside to the canteen for a coffee. After a week or so he asked one of the staff about the lady in the window.

“Oh that’ll be Elsie” the nurse smiled, “amazing clothes and dripping with jewels?”

“Yes that’s right,” Rob sipped his drink, “what’s her story? She’s always at that window but I never see her anywhere else..”

“She hardly ever leaves her room, and do you know she never speaks?”

“What, never?”

The nurse put down her own coffee cup, glad of the chance to tell the tale.

“Well I’ve been here five years and never heard her say a word. She was a theatrical type, singing on the stage, and even made a couple of films I heard. Apparently,” she leaned in towards Rob and lowered her voice for full effect, “she got married, her husband made her give it all up and then not long after he dropped down dead. She came here about eight years ago.”

Rob began to make a point of walking past Elsie’s window, even though he was now working on the other side of the grounds. Feeling rather foolish he would smile at her and even give a little wave. Somehow he felt sure she was watching for him, even though she never gave any sign of recognition.

The days started to lengthen and winter’s chill was fading. They had taken delivery of a mountain of new plants from the local nursery and there were only the last finishing touches of landscaping work to go.

Rob couldn’t really say why, but the silent lady was still in his thoughts. There were parallels with his beloved Deanna of course. She had disappeared from public view after her marriage and moved to France, but somehow that always seemed a happy outcome while Elsie looked so sad.

He had a kind heart, and he couldn’t stand to think of Elsie alone, the only resident who never had a visitor according to his informant. Nurse Campbell now sought him out at coffee time, happy to have someone new to talk to, until finally Rob asked her if he could visit Elsie. Later that same afternoon Rob took two mugs of tea into the day room and approached the small table where the old lady was sitting, taken there by Nurse Campbell after lunch. She watched him silently with still bright eyes as he put down a plate of chocolate biscuits.

“Help yourself,” he said, but she didn’t move.

“My name is Robert,” he began awkwardly. He began to feel as if he was intruding, but he decided to put aside his misgivings and sitting down opposite Elsie he began to chat.

He told her about the gardening work, the new footpaths and flowerbeds he was creating, but she didn’t seem to hear him, staring unseeing into the middle distance. Then he tried something different.

“I hear you were a singer Mrs Crawford, back in the days when there were proper singers, not like nowadays.” Still nothing but he persevered.

“Deanna Durbin’s my favourite. I’ve loved her since I was twelve,” Rob frowned at the table, picking at a sticky mark with his thumbnail, “I used to imagine I was Franchot Tone…”

He tailed off into embarrassed silence and then looked up. Two bright blue eyes were now fixed on his. She was listening, he was sure of it.

Rob carried on talking, about his favourite films and songs, his Gran, and his record collection. Eventually he’d drunk his tea and eaten most of the biscuits. Elsie had touched neither, but her gaze had not wavered until a member of staff suddenly bustled past rattling a tray of crockery. Then she immediately seemed to retreat back into herself and the blue eyes looked vacant again, but Rob knew he’d got through to her.


Final instalment next week…

Elsie’s Magic Carpet – wistful or woeful?

narcissus-1299777_1280Fuelled by my success in the competition, I decided that the short story was the way to go. I put the novel on the back burner and had an idea that I thought would be ideal for a magazine such as Women’s Weekly or The People’s Friend, two titles that still include short fiction. Unfortunately my effort was the wrong length for one, while the other refused it as being “too sad” for their readers. I had it down as wistful, I didn’t mean to upset them. See what you think, here’s the first instalment.

Elsie’s Magic Carpet

 “The daffodils are blooming

And spring is on its way…”

The old 78 was so scratched there was more crackle than song, but Rob didn’t mind. He smiled as he gently lifted the needle and swung the arm back into place. Once the record stopped turning he picked it up and slid it into the paper sleeve, taking care not to touch the fragile surface. Then he looked again at the faded picture on the cover, a pretty face smiling in soft focus above the words “Elspeth St John in Springtime Review 1946.” It had to be her, it had to be Elsie.

He didn’t tell many people about his hobby, his passion for old musicals from the thirties and forties. He collected film posters and photographs of the stars, but the records were his real love. He had hundreds, all carefully arranged on purpose built shelves covering three walls of what had been the dining room in his small house. Two ancient phonographs were set up to play them and to Rob there was nothing finer than listening to a record and being transported back to the very moment when the orchestra played and the song was sung.

It had all started with Deanna. He blamed his Gran, if blame was the right word – he’d lived with her years ago after his Mum died and Dad was struggling to cope. Gran would make popcorn and draw the curtains for their matinee afternoons. They’d sit on the sofa watching videos of the old musicals and soon he was hooked. Deanna Durbin was his first love, and first love never truly fades.

Rob made his living as a landscape gardener. He’d never get rich, but he loved the time spent outdoors with the smell of the earth and the certainty that came from the ever changing seasons. And it was his job that had brought him to Elsie Crawford.

Part two coming soon…

George sneaks away

spitfire-1252722_1280The full moon shone briefly through a gap in the clouds and ahead of him George saw the forbidding shape of Lancing College Chapel silhouetted against the sky. Full of posh boys Jack had said, but not at the moment – requisitioned by the Admiralty it was now full of sailors. George wondered what they’d done with all the boys, but for now the school was a vital landmark on his mission.

As long as he kept the chapel on his right, and the lazy stream of the Adur on his left, he’d soon reach his target. He pressed on, disturbing lots of dozy rabbits as he pushed the bicycle awkwardly across the field to the lane. He’d thought about walking from the village but it would have taken too long so he’d borrowed the delivery bike from outside the butcher’s.

At last he came to the perimeter of the airfield, and he followed it all the way round to the far side. He hid the bicycle in some bushes by the railway embankment and crept back towards the fence. Jack said that opposite the railway, in line with the big conker tree, there was a place where you could lift it up and squeeze underneath. He said he’d done it loads of times, but now in the soft darkness of the summer night, George began to have his doubts. Had Jack really gone to all this effort just to see the planes, when he didn’t even like them that much, not like he did. George could tell a Spitfire from a Blenheim by the noise as they went over, and ever since he’d heard that the fighter pilots were using Shoreham in emergencies, he’d been ready and waiting.

And then today he’d heard Mr Johnson saying that they were here again, landing short of fuel after fighting the Germans in the skies over the Channel. So tonight was the night, and at last he’d found that loose bit of fence – a quick wriggle and he was through. He kept low to the ground, heart pounding, imagining himself behind enemy lines as he crept across to the terminal building, its handsome art deco profile disguised with camouflage. He pressed his back to the wall and found the stairs that led up the outside to the roof.

Finally he reached his target, the edge of the viewing gallery. Gingerly he leaned over the parapet and looked down at the air strip. There they were, even better than he’d imagined, four Spitfires and a Hurricane. He gazed down enraptured, and began to breathe more easily, his heart slowing. From inside the building the sound of a wireless drifted upwards through an open window. He could hear music, and laughter, and snatches of conversation. It was the pilots joking with relief about how Shoreham was “bloody handy” after “Jerry got a bit of a hit.”

George grinned to himself, he’d remember this night. Now all he had to do was get back home before anyone missed him, or the bicycle.

Introducing George…

jack russellGeorge, aged 11, living in Sussex during the war. He’s one of the characters that is still more in my head than down on paper, but he’s ready to fly, in every sense of the word. He has to be next to appear, even though there isn’t much to say. All there is so far is a couple of snippets, but you’ll get the idea. And soon, George, I promise, you’ll get your wings.

Morning call

George wrapped one skinny arm even tighter round the soft velvety body and used the other to hold the thin pillow over his head in the darkness. A cool nose soon snuffled its way in and he felt a reassuring lick on his cheek.

“It’s alright Lucky, don’t worry.”

The familiar sound of raised voices and banging pots from downstairs wasn’t worrying the small Jack Russell, but the tears running down his master’s cheeks were. He gave another lick and a small whimper to try and comfort the boy.

Now that he could no longer make out what they were yelling, George relaxed slightly, and soothed by his dog he soon fell asleep again.

Early next morning, as he drifted between waking and sleeping, George let his mind roam free in the land of adventures he’d built for himself and Lucky. They could be the sole survivors of a U-boat attack, steering their life raft from sunken warship to a desert island where they would live like Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps they’d be with the army in France, Lucky sniffing out mines and being hailed a hero. Or the best adventure of all: they were parachuted behind enemy lines, leading a daring rescue of captured airmen, including Jim who’d be so amazed and proud to see them.

But the reality of course was no adventures and no Jim, just Mum and Gran arguing. George didn’t want to hear their rows. It was usually about him, and of course ‘that wretched animal.’

“Get that wretched animal off those sheets.”

“Morning Gran, how are you feeling? Is your leg better today?” George poked his head out from under the eiderdown and felt an icy blast of morning air against his cheeks.

“Out-out-out!”

Lucky knew the drill and jumped out of the bed, ran past Gran and shot down the stairs.

“That creature should be out ratting, not in there with you like a silly teddy bear.”

She tugged the heavy curtains open and then stomped out of the room, limping only slightly George was relieved to see. He’d worked out that the likelihood of his getting through the day without a clip round the ear was directly related to how much The Leg was playing up.

He managed to put on most of his clothes before fully emerging from under the covers and stepping gingerly onto the cold wooden floor. Finally he pulled on his prized possession, a battered old leather flying hat and paused at the top of the stairs.

“Chocks away” he whispered.

 

Mud, mud… the end

Mud, mud, glorious mud – part three

sheep-193821_1280Charlie found the bus he needed outside the railway station, an elderly double decker with an equally elderly driver. He was the only passenger in a three piece suit and brogues, and he got some strange looks as he boarded. He sat by the window and waited to see what would happen.

The bus swayed alarmingly as it pulled out of the station. Charlie settled back to watch the foreign world of dark stone buildings and dramatic hills unfolding outside the scratched glass. He soon became aware that he himself was being watched. A small boy in the seat in front had turned around and fixed him with a solemn gaze. Charlie gazed back, then felt in his pocket, and extracted a half-eaten packet of Polos. He offered one to the boy who grinned and quickly put it in his mouth. Charlie worried he’d done the wrong thing when the boy’s mother turned her head, but she just smiled and made her son say thank you.

The gaps between stops grew longer and the bus was heading up onto the moors. Just when it felt like the engine must surely expire with the strain of the climb they reached the top of the pass and Charlie stared out, entranced. The hills stretched on forever, green and brown and purple under the leaden sky, and the bus began to descend again.

The next stop was a stone shelter seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but the woman and her child looked like they were getting off. She stood the boy in the aisle as she gathered up her shopping but he did not follow her to the door. Instead he took his thumb out of his mouth and held out his hand to Charlie.

“Come on mister,” he said, so Charlie took the sticky hand and went. The boy jumped from the bus and pulled Charlie down with him, so that he stumbled untidily at the woman’s feet.

She put down her bags and looked at him with eyebrows raised.

“Is this Holmfirth?” Charlie ventured hopefully. All he could see around him was moorland, sheep and a long low dry stone wall with an open gate set into it.

“Not quite.” She pointed past the rapidly receding bus towards the valley several miles away.

“Oh.”

The little boy tugged at his sleeve. “We live down there,” he said.

Charlie looked through the gate down a muddy track to a cluster of small farm buildings. An old man emerged from a barn and stomped up the track towards them. The wooden gate had the words Top Farm carved into it, and propped up against it was a handwritten sign that said simply “help wanted”.

“Grandad!” the boy smiled happily as the man reached the gate. He picked up the shopping and then turned to Charlie, looking him up and down but saying nothing.

Charlie took a deep breath and then stepped forwards. He sank ankle deep into glorious, rich mud which oozed over his shiny shoes and silk socks. He grinned at the stunned farmer and stretched out his hand:

“My name is Charlie, I’m here about the job.”

THE END