Saturday 9 December 2023

Gloria by Judith Skilleter, mulled wine



It is Christmas Eve. Gloria hates Christmas Eve, in fact she hates any part of the bloody festive season as it was five years ago on Christmas Eve that her husband, Ken, left her. Technically he didn’t leave her, he just didn’t come home from the pub.

On that night, Gloria had gone to bed feeling very satisfied with her evening’s work. The turkey crown was ready to go in the oven, the sprouts and stuffing were sitting waiting in the fridge and the Yorkshire pudding mix, yes Yorkshire puddings because Gloria and Ken believed that Yorkshire puddings went with any roasted meat, was ready to be poured into hot sizzling fat.  Gloria had long since stopped making her own Christmas pudding but the microwaveable pudding would be just as good – with custard of course.

When Gloria woke up on Christmas day five years ago Ken’s side of the bed had not been slept in. At first Gloria was unconcerned, she knew that Ken would snore a lot after too many pints of beer and she expected to find him in the spare bedroom or on the sofa downstairs out of consideration for her. But he was in neither of these places. Instead there was a note that had been pushed through the letter box.

It said “I’m sorry Gloria, I won’t be back this time. I have found true love and happiness with someone else. Take care and Merry Christmas. Ken xxx.”

Gloria thought this was a huge joke first of all but then it sunk in that perhaps Ken had gone for good.  She re-read “I won’t be back this time.” He had disappeared for a few days, once for six weeks, a few times during their marriage, but he always came back with lots of apologies, promises not to do it ever again and an expensive piece of jewellery. And Gloria always took him back – because she loved him.

But this was different. Ken did not come back. She heard that he was with the barmaid from their local, The Dog and Duck, who had finished work on Christmas Eve to return to her family in Glasgow and Ken had gone with her.

It was a huge loss for Gloria despite Ken’s history. It was textbook stuff – denial then anger then bargaining then depression then acceptance.  “I don’t believe this. He surely will come back soon” followed by “I’ll kill him, I hate him, why did I ever marry such a selfish git?” followed by “If he comes back I’ll be a better wife so he (and his hands) don’t need to wander” followed by “My life might as well be over, I’m a nobody” followed by “Life goes on I suppose, I have to make the best of it.”

Thank you Elizabeth Kubler-Ross – Gloria had done a course on loss and bereavement the last but one time he had disappeared.

But Ken did not return to his wife and their marital bed. Sadly and slowly Gloria adjusted to and accepted what was the biggest loss in her life.  Despite Ken’s reputation the feelings of her loss had been long-lasting and painful and even embarrassing, as if she was slowly cottoning on to what others had known or suspected for years. She had loved him – totally and absolutely. But slowly over time the pain became less, she began to make a new life and she gave herself permission to have new relationships. Since Ken’s departure five years ago the only contact from him had been birthday cards, usually with a piece of jewellery which Gloria figured was his way of hedging his bets, keeping the door open  for when he chose to return home. “I hope he does come home” was eventually replaced by “He will be shown the door, the other side of it, if he comes back here.”

So Gloria gradually got used to being on her own and eventually she even enjoyed it.  Life was good. Life was far less problematic not having a husband who had a reputation for wandering eyes and hands and, most likely, other wandering parts of his body. Anyway she had a boyfriend who was a delight.  Who needed people like Ken?

But this Christmas was different. That morning. Christmas Eve morning, she had received a letter from a solicitor in Glasgow. Ken wanted a divorce as soon as possible, he was getting married – but not to the barmaid from The Dog and Duck. And now she and Ken had been separated for five years he did not need her acceptance that their marriage was over or her agreement to a divorce. He was asking that she employ a solicitor and arrange for the house to be sold so he could have his half in the divorce settlement. He was happy for her to have the contents of their home, half of the proceeds of the sale of the house would be all he was asking for. Furthermore he hoped that this could be completed as soon as possible and with as little ill-feeling as possible.

Gloria chuckled. Whatever love she had had for Ken had long gone. But she had a secret. Their house was neither her house nor their house. It had been bought for her by her father, a successful business man and an early lottery winner, and it had remained in his, her father’s, name. It was Gloria’s dad’s house.  Gloria’s dad had never liked or trusted Ken. He couldn’t articulate why he felt this way but he confided to his wife, Gloria’s mum, that their daughter had married a slimy toad, a smarmy git and a total good-for-nothing. His initial intention to transfer the title deeds to the house to both Gloria and Ken on their wedding day had therefore never materialised. He bought them cutlery instead.

For the years before her marriage and the ten years of her marriage Gloria, and then Gloria and Ken, had therefore been living rent free in someone else’s house. And Ken didn’t know. Ken had never asked. He just assumed that the house was Gloria’s. He was never asked to contribute to a mortgage and he just figured that those payments were coming out of Gloria’s bank account. His assumption that he would be entitled to half of its value after their marriage broke down was quite reasonable had the house in fact been Gloria’s. But it wasn’t Gloria’s.

Gloria fell on to the floor. She was laughing too much to keep upright, she had a pain due to laughing too much and she needed a hanky to dry her tears of amusement. She thought, “Oh to be a fly on the wall when he hears the news that he is entitled to nothing. Oh to be a fly on the wall when his current fiancé gives him the elbow when she discovers he has nothing.”

Yes she would take up Ken’s suggestion. After Boxing Day she would see a solicitor and together they would reply to Ken’s solicitor with a full explanation of the financial intricacies – and disappointments as far as Ken was concerned - of her and Ken’s marriage.  She wondered if she could put in a claim for a contribution towards the rent during the past five years. That would scare him.

As for now she had to get ready. Bill was taking her out for a Christmas meal in a very posh restaurant and after New Year they were going on a cruise. Life was good, in fact life was very good.

About the author

Judith Skilleter is new to writing fiction after a long career in social work and teaching. Her first children's novel The April Rebellion, has recently been published. Judith is a Geordie, who settled in East Yorkshire forty-five years ago and is married with nearly four grandchildren 


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Friday 8 December 2023

Cavalier Ruminations by LA Carson, Lone Star beer

His eyes drift from the game on the big screen to the corner room, lit in fading winter sun, where his wife busies herself with a canvas and watercolors. She's unaware of her husband's preoccupation with another woman.


            Damned car is to blame, he reckons, recalling the white junker that nearly t-boned him in the liquor store parking lot this morning. The jolt triggered the onslaught, dredging up decade-old recollections; the two of them in the two door coupe, her blond hair flying wild across her face, the Cavalier's V-6 hum, Son Volt loud from dual Pioneers, neither of them anticipating the speed trap.


            "Hey ref, how much they paying you for that fucking bullshit call?"

            Tonight, from the couch next to him, his Pops cusses out the refs with the same mouth that will deliver the scripture reading in church tomorrow. The old man belches, helps himself to more nachos as his sweaty Pabst leaves a ring mark on the table. Momma hunches beside him, crocheting doilies for the church bazaar. He shifts uncomfortably in his recliner, imagining the hell to pay if his parents had found out. He increases the TV volume, drowning any attempts at conversation, and surrenders his thoughts to different penalties.


            He's conjures himself at eighteen, the blue and gold letter jacket, used car payment responsibilities and a spine not fully developed. A jock attitude that matched his ride's name. He sees her, the incandescent smile, the homecoming queen tiara sparkling in football field floodlights. Thin red lines on tiny test strips turned worlds upside down. He remembers the frigid December morning, snowflakes as big as half dollars, blowing sideways in the wind. Driving her to the clinic in the hushed, white Cavalier, he searched for words beyond his vocabulary and came up empty. Despite the cold, his palms were sweaty on the steering wheel, her knee nervously bobbing, innocence disappearing in the rear view mirror. She walked into the room alone, slim shoulders in an oversized white t-shirt, slumped with burdens for three.


            Pops hollers at the screen, celebrating the touchdown with both arms hoisted straight up like goalposts, before turning his attention to his son. "That could've been you! You could've played college ball if you hadn't had your head up your ass your senior year."


            His hand white knuckles the arm of the recliner. He drains his bottle, swallows a rebuttal, refusing to meet the old man's eyes. Replenishing the beer supply is a convenient excuse, so he heads to the garage.


            A carton of Christmas lights sits in his path, a reminder of neglected chores. He kicks the box, frustrated by the season that encourages the flashbacks. He pulls a single bottle from the garage refrigerator. In no hurry to return to the living room, he takes a chug, then runs a hand alongside the parked Toyota. He can almost hear her throaty laugh. She'd think the SUV was a funny sell-out for the Cavalier.


            He leans against the Toyota, rehearsing his half of the imagined dialogue, if there were one more conversation on the front seat of that old Chevy. He'd tell her about the Christmas Eve, after her family moved away, when he'd found her hair ribbon under the passenger seat and he'd cried. He'd say how he lingered outside the church, staring at the nativity, seeing Mary with new eyes, before ditching the candlelight service and never going back. He'd confess he still sees her in dreams, sometimes she's wearing the blue prom dress, sometimes she's wearing the hollow face she wore at the clinic when it was over. He'd take her hands in his, beg for unearned mercy, whisper the delinquent 'thank you', apologize for being a scared eighteen-year-old when she'd needed a man. In the frosty solitude of the garage, the words come easy.


            Returning to the living room, he hands his old man a cold one and slumps back into his recliner. Snow falls outside the window, flakes the size of half dollars blow sideways in the wind.  Come morning, a heavy blanket will cover the ground, like the weighty silence that covers the secret. He downs the last of his Lone Star, wondering if she ever told anyone. Lord knows she had the right. He likes to pretend she found someone worthy, someone who soothes her if the ache comes.


            His wife looks up from her canvas. Even at a distance, she recognizes his brooding expression. She sets aside her paint brush, assured of the only remedy that reliably cures his unexplained distraction.


            "Look Daddy!" The five-year-old voice interrupts his guilty ruminating. Outstretched arms deliver her finger-painted masterpiece as his daughter clambers into his lap. Kissing the top of her head, he adjusts the ribbon in her hair. Grateful for second chances, beholden to an unpaid debt, he silently repeats the unspoken apology. 


About the author

LA Carson is a writer whose work has appeared in Thirty West Afterimages, ScribesMICRO, Bristol Noir and others. LA lives and writes in southern California. 


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Thursday 7 December 2023

The Wreath by Jim Bates, mocha

The old man pulled back the curtain and peered into his front yard. It was covered with dirty snow, the stalks of forgotten annuals bent and frozen. He frowned. Should have pulled them last October. Who cared anyway? He let the curtain fall back and made his way to his worn armchair. He sank wearily into the cushion, grabbed his ever-present glass of whiskey, flipped on the television, and gazed at the flickering image of Miracle on 34th Street. After a while he fell asleep, thankful for the escape. His wife Abby had died that summer, and he lived alone in their home full of memories. All he wanted was to somehow make it through the holidays. Was that asking too much?

Rrrrrring! Rrrrring! The doorbell startled him awake. What the…? The house was dark except for the image on the television. He looked toward the front door. Rrrrring! Rrrring! Damn. Outside, he heard singing. “Joy to the world. The Lord is come.” Shit. That was the last thing he needed. Carolers singing songs of peace and joy.

He stumbled to the door, yanked it open, and yelled, “Get out of here!” He caught only a glimpse of a bundled-up group of neighborhood parents and children before slamming it shut. He leaned against the door, hand on his heart, panting. Then he turned the lights off and went back to his whiskey and television. He raised his glass in a toast to the season. “Here’s to nothing.” Then he passed out.

When he awoke in the morning, something made him get up from his chair and go to the front window. He pulled back the curtain and gasped. The world outside had been magically transformed by freshly fallen snow. He noticed a red cardinal and its mate flitting in nearby bushes. Out on the street, a man and a woman wearing matching red and green stocking caps were jauntily walking their black and white terrier. The sun made the snow sparkle like jeweled crystals.

A tear suddenly formed and rolled down his cheek. It was the kind of day Abby would have loved. She would have made a thick beef and barley soup while he was outside shoveling the sidewalk. Then they would have gone for a walk together. Oh, my, how he missed her.

He went to the front door for the newspaper. As he opened it, he noticed a wreath. It was made of balsam fir and had a red bow tied to it. “Merry Christmas,” the tag said. There was a set of small footprints in the snow. He didn’t have to think, but knew instinctively they were from one of his neighbor’s children. He couldn’t help it. He started to cry.

That night, he turned the outdoor light on. When the carolers came to the door, he opened it wide. “Merry Christmas!” he called out and began to sing with them. A little girl stepped forward and took his hand. “Merry Christmas,” she said.


About the author


Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. He loves to write! His stories and poems have appeared in nearly 500 online and print publications. To learn more and to see all of his work, check out his blog at: Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

Wednesday 6 December 2023

The First Christmas Without Mum by Angela Fitzpatrick, spiked hot chocolate

Zoe looked up from her journal as the front door opened, bringing in a blast of icy air and a small swirl of snow. Zach, Zoe’s twin brother, stamped his feet on the coir mat and dumped a canvas kit bag on the floor before turning to close the door.

She put down the book and stood. ‘You came then.’

Zach remained standing near the door. ‘You asked me.’

Zoe nodded. ‘Come in. Have you eaten?’

‘Couple of burgers before I got on the train.’

She glanced at the wall clock. ‘I bought cheese and biscuits in case you were hungry. Or we can get fish and chips on the way back.’

‘Back from where?’

‘There’s a thing at the Community Hall. I’ve got us tickets.’

‘I’m knackered. You go without me. I’ll watch telly.’

‘No really. You’ll want to see this. It’ll be worth it, I promise.’

Zach shrugged. ‘Whatever.’

‘But we really need to go now.’ Zoe slipped her feet into a pair of wellies by the front door and pulled on her coat. ‘Can you put your bag by the sofa? We’ll make up the bed when we get back.’ She paused. ‘Sorry, did you want to change before we go?’

Zach looked down at his camouflage fatigues. ‘I’ve not really got anything else to wear.’

‘You’re not staying long, then?’

He shook his head. ‘I’ve just got a 48-hour pass.’

Zoe turned away and pursed her lips as she thought, ‘that’s convenient.’


She locked the front door behind them, and they set off, trudging through the snow in the dark. A fresh fall had coated the refrozen slush and Zoe put out her arms for balance.

‘Come here.’ Zach grabbed her arm and pulled her in to lean against him, making over-sized steps in his black army boots. Zoe laughed, then her throat tightened, and she swallowed.

‘I’m sorry you couldn’t make it…you know.’

Zach shrugged. ‘I was in Somalia. I didn’t get your text till days after.’

‘I had to give up the house; you weren’t on the lease.’

‘I didn’t want the house.’

‘I…I’m sorry but I couldn’t keep all your stuff for you – you know how tiny my house is. I tried to save the most important things. There’s two boxes in my bedroom.’

‘I don’t have anywhere…’

‘It’s okay. They can stay where they are. I’ll put a cloth over and pretend it’s a table. There’s a little money, too. Not a lot, but….’

‘I don’t want any money.’

They walked on in silence for a few moments.

Zoe cleared her throat. ‘The charity shop came and cleared everything.’

Zach didn’t answer. They crossed the road and joined a small procession of people walking in the same direction. As they overtook an elderly lady, she held up a hand. ‘Hello Zoe.’

‘Oh, hi. Are you going to the concert?’

‘My granddaughter is playing the guitar. I’m sorry to hear about your mum.’

‘Thanks. This is my brother Zach; he’s come to visit.’

‘Hello Zach, nice to meet you. I can see the family resemblance.’

Zach nodded but didn’t make eye contact.

‘You kids go ahead. I’ll see you in there.’

When they were out of earshot, Zoe said quietly, ‘Sorry I couldn’t introduce you. She comes in the café, and I think she was in the gardening club with Mum.’

Zach shrugged again.

‘So, how are things in the army? Do you know where they’re sending you next?’

Zach stopped walking. ‘You don’t have to, you know.’


‘Take over. Step into Mum’s shoes.’

‘That’s not what I’m…’

‘Don’t deny it.’ He shook his arm free of Zoe’s and walked off.

‘Wait!’ Zoe followed, but he was a few inches taller and had a long, military stride. She caught up to him outside the community hall, where she had to weave through parked cars. Zach had his hands in his pockets and was looking at a poster taped to the inside of the window.

‘Is this what we’re here for?’

‘It’s raising money to send disadvantaged kids on holiday. It’s a good cause.’

‘We never got holidays. Talking of which, have you let Dad know?

Zoe shook her head. ‘I thought about it. Come on, let’s get in the warm. Here, take this.’

He read the ticket. ‘It cost twenty quid? Bloody hell!’

‘Trust me, it’ll be worth it.’

Zoe bought a programme. Zach mumbled about another waste of money. They sat just as the lights went down and a disembodied voice announced, ‘Please welcome the first performance, the choir of St Joseph’s Primary.’ The curtain opened to reveal two dozen small children in jeans and rainbow-coloured shirts. They sang a selection of Bob Marley songs, and Zoe found her foot tapping to Three Little Birds.

At the end of the act, a few dads cheered, and the audience applauded. Except for Zach. He stared toward the back of the stage, frowning. He didn’t move.

The announcer said, ‘Now, please welcome the orchestra from Ferry Lane School.’

The audience applauded at the start and again at the end. 

A woman in the row behind them said to her neighbour, ‘That’s my grandson, third from the left, on violin.’

Zoe imagined everyone looking at Zach and disapproving. She whispered, ‘Would it kill you to clap?’

‘They don’t deserve my applause.’

‘Oh, please! They’re small children.’

‘The kids can’t see if I’m applauding or not.’

Zoe pinched her lips between her teeth.

Bayshore Academy were followed by Meadows Grammar, then a row of tiny girls in tutus pirouetted for Greenland’s Kindergarten. Still Zach sat with his hands palm down, on his thighs. Zoe folded her arms and wished they hadn’t come.

Zach leaned forward as if to stand. ‘I can’t take any more of this.’

‘Please.’ Zoe grabbed his arm. ‘Look.’ She pointed to the programme and Zach followed her finger.

‘Matt Kensen? Don’t be ridiculous.’ Zach sat down. ‘He’d never be seen dead in a place like this.’

Zoe couldn’t keep the spite out of her voice. ‘Actually, his grandson goes to St Thomas’, and they live in the next village.’

‘You know him, then?’

‘He comes into the café. Brings the kid for ice cream. He’s quite an old man now.’

‘Well.’ Zach leaned back in his chair. ‘Who’d have believed it? Nice one sis.’

‘And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, the final act of the evening, please welcome Mr Matt Kensen.’

The rest of the audience applauded politely, but Zach was on his feet, cheering before the curtains opened.

Zoe tugged his jacket to make him sit.

Matt Kensen walked onto the stage, microphone gripped between both hands, as a backing track played the intro to his most successful chart hit.

Zoe smiled, watching her brother’s face, remembering how they’d fought over the poster in Smash Hits magazine. Mum had threatened to burn it, so Zoe’d agreed to give it up rather than see it destroyed. And when she’d cleared out Mum’s house, had found the poster safely preserved in a cardboard tube at the back of Zach’s bookcase.

Zach glanced at Zoe and pursed his lips. ‘You’re doing it again.’


‘Trying to be like Mum. Looking like her.’

‘This is my face. I can’t help it!’

‘Poor you!’

They both laughed and Zach nudged Zoe with his shoulder, then they began to sing along to the chorus of their favourite song, swaying from side to side.

When they applauded at the end, Zoe felt a tear track down her cheek. She glanced sideways and saw Zach’s eyes were shining too.


Previously published as Family Christmas in – Why Would You Go Through There - Mar 2023 Short Story Anthology


About the author 

Angela mostly writes short stories and has been published in Cafe Lit, Backstory Journal as well as shortlisted in various competitions. She is currently working on her debut novel having recently completed an MLitt in Creative Writing with University of Glasgow. 


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