Friday 28 January 2011

Home Comfort

By Marion Clarke
Dark Mocha
Barbara cradled a warm mug of tea at the kitchen table and swept a crumb of toast from the gingham tablecloth. She smiled, then sniffed, as she remembered the meals she’d shared there with her husband and son over the years. Baby tears misted her vision but she blinked them away. At least Ben had been some company for her once his father had gone. She remembered how the click of his key in the lock, followed by the shout of, 'Mum, I’m starving,' had been her signal to heat up the pan. She hugged herself at the memory of a time when she’d felt needed.

But then Ben had gone to college, and then to....God knows. Barbara shuddered. She still lived in hope of his return. Since their argument about his ‘girlfriend’, she’d worried endlessly. How could he afford the rent? – to eat, even?

She tutted and began to clear the table. Oh well, his choice. His loss, she thought.

In the hall, she tugged on her raincoat, checked her reflection and stepped outside. She had arranged to catch up for coffee with an old friend from school before going Christmas shopping.

In the cafe, teaspoons clinked, and the low tones of customers’ voices floated on the aroma of dark coffee beans.

'Ben?' Barbara beamed her reply. 'Oh, he went up north to study. He’s doing really well. Works in ICT, you know. Recently promoted to business manager, in fact.'

'Really? You must be so proud of him.'

Barbara smiled and flicked her hair from her face. 'Yes, I am. Is your Lily still hairdressing?'

'Uh huh, still gallivanting with the stars.' Jennie looked down. 'Always on tour, they are, so I hardly ever get to see her.'

Barbara frowned. 'That must be so difficult. Well, are we all finished up here?'

'Yes, that was lovely, Barbara.' She cupped her ear with her hand. 'But hark, the shops are calling to us now.' They laughed together as they got up.

Outside the coffee shop, Jennie grasped her friend’s arm. She’d tripped over the bottom of a grubby sleeping bag that was sticking out of a doorway.

'Oops, I’m sorry!' she said, steadying herself.
The doorway dweller inched down a black bin liner bedspread to reveal a headful of dull dreadlocks and sad, grey eyes. The eyebrows arched in recognition and the eyes lit up in a smile. A weak voice whispered, 'Mum?

Barbara remained stonefaced. She snorted. 'Me? Don’t be silly! Come on, Jennie, let's go shopping. The boy’s obviously on drugs.'

Marion has had technical articles and features on many subjects published in the UK trade press over the years. On returning to her native Northern Ireland, she began writing fiction more recently after winning a short story competition. Another story was selected last year for Bridgehouse Publishing’s anthology Devils, Demons and Werewolves.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Tour and Duty

By Rebecca Emin,
mochaccino - it's gritty and rich at the same time.

I spent five months as part of a special tour with my unit. Five months in a cave in the middle of the Afghan desert with no running water, no mains power and only my unit for company. We were never sure if we would be discovered by the search parties that knew we were hiding but weren’t sure where. If they found us, that day would have been our last.
We learned to take pleasure in simple things, for fear that we would never feel pleasure again. We were reduced to being grateful for bars of soap and packets of sweets donated by kind strangers who had read of our situation and filled shoe boxes to send to us via our BFPO address. We had an old Playstation in our kit which we wired up to an old TV screen. How the TV got to our rock, out in the middle of the barren desert, goodness only knows, but it was left by a previous unit. The word must have got home, as suddenly we began to receive DVDs in the shoe boxes. It was good to see images of the outside world again. It reminded us that there was life back at home and outside of our unit; another life where people were carrying on with the daily routine while we were absent.
We finished up our tour and were transported home. We never get enough notice to let anyone back home know dates and arrival times, but the official word always gets back before we do. We were greeted on arrival by families and friends in a vague attempt at a hero’s welcome. It is always a shock to the system to come back from somewhere so bleak and isolated, to the developed world with networks of roads, fully working communications and running water, not to mention electricity as well as gas. It takes a while to adjust.
I go for a medical a week after my return. It’s a routine thing, but I mention something that has been bothering me. After investigations I am given a prescription, and I walk out of the office with the form in my hand and a feeling of despair in my heart. I can be forgiven for being away for so long, and for missing birthdays, anniversaries and sometimes even Christmas, but this? As the doctor said ‘You and your fiancé must both take a course of this and it will clear it up,’ I knew that “What happens on tour stays on tour” wasn’t going to be accurate this time.
If only I hadn’t been quite so fearful of death. If only I hadn’t resorted to seeing human comfort during my time over there. If only I hadn’t got such a feeling of relief from it that I had found it impossible to give it up once I had started. It wasn’t as if they meant anything to me, other that being part of my team, it just seemed to be the only way to cope with the situation. For a fleeting second I think of the people that shared in this outlet, the ones who came home to their families, and Williams and Morrison, who left our camp one morning for a routine patrol, and came back to England much like a jigsaw puzzle pieced together inside matching wooden boxes draped with patriotic fabric.
Cars hoot and belch out exhaust fumes next to me as I walk up the main shopping street in the city and wonder what to do. I feel dirty inside and out. I can’t avoid the revelation of what has happened now that we both have to take the medication. It’s stalemate.
I finally give in and return home. As I approach the home that we created together I wonder if it will cave in on us after I explain what is wrong.
I hand the medication over first. I take a breath to explain, but a gentle finger on my lips makes me pause. I look into deep blue eyes, and see a gentle shake of his head.
There is silence as I fill two glasses with water. We take our medication and I feel arms around me. I lean into the hug.
‘Don’t tell me,’ he says, ‘I don’t need to know details. You’re home now and that is all that counts.’
I am so relieved. Telling him would make our plans unravel. The plans for a future together that we created when we discovered that my womb was barren and I needed to focus on something else instead of my dream of one day giving birth and holding my own child in my arms. He is my rock in this world, and he understood that I needed to have a purpose for a while, and to reconcile myself to the truth.
As I relax in his arms, I am glad that I did what I had to do, but that my final tour of duty is over.
We are free.