By Marion Clarke
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.