Thursday 20 November 2014

The Girl in the Photograph

The Girl in the Photograph

Jan Baynham

an enamelled tin mug of strong tea

©Jan Baynham

A treasured photograph of the author’s own mother
Included here with kind permission from the family

'It won’t be long now, Bet. I’m on my way.’
I kissed the smiling face in the photograph and imagined that she could hear me hundreds of miles away. With care, I placed the photo back in the slim gilt cigarette case she’d given me as a present the Christmas before I left. It was safe and dry there.

‘Talking to yerself again, boy,’ bellowed Sergeant Thomas. He seemed unable to speak in a voice with normal volume but we’d all found out that he’d got a soft side over the last few months when we’d been in his command.
I patted the left hand breast pocket of my khaki uniform as I had done so many times over the months I’d been away. We’d all been so frightened when we’d left for the front – though we’d never admit it, most of us were only boys really. Bet’s photograph reassured me, protected me, kept me safe. It was the first thing I looked at when I woke up and the last thing I checked before I went to sleep. It had seen me through so much lately.
‘Why’s the sand lumpy, Reg?’ I said to my mate, trying to keep my balance in the water when we’d landed in France. The water was freezing and I could hear the sound of my teeth chattering above all that was going on around us.
‘Don’t look down, Frank. Them’s the boys that got here before us. Dead in the water. Not so lucky as us, eh?’
That was when the horror dawned on me.
And then there was the time when Reg had been fatally shot alongside me. We’d started training on the same day, at the same barracks and had been posted together. Nothing could have prepared me for the utter despair I felt. One minute we were stalking along a ridge ready to attack the enemy when a shot rang out past my ear and Reg slumped to the ground, blood pouring from a wound in his chest.
‘You, OK, Reg?’
I knew he wasn’t but I pulled him upright and started gabbling nonsense at him.
‘Answer me, Reg, mate!’
It was no use. I wondered if I’d be next. Would I ever hold Bet again? Afterwards, that photo of her seemed to speak to me through the times of guilt when I questioned why I was the one to have survived and Reg hadn’t.
‘It wasn’t your fault, Frank. You couldn’t have saved him. Poor Reg’s luck ran out, that’s all.’

All through those dark days, Bet was at my side – her ‘Midnight in Paris’ scent, her laugh, her smile. It was my favourite photo of her. When I’d been lonely, especially at night time, I only had to look at that brown and white picture with the inscription ‘All my sincere love, Bet xx’ and I was transported back to our cottage in Church Road, our first real home together. I remembered as if it were yesterday. I couldn’t bear to leave her and I know that’s why she’d given me the photo.

‘I want you to keep it with you all the time,’ she said, biting back the tears. ‘That way, you won’t forget me.’
‘You daft thing. As if I would ever…’ The kiss was to reassure her. ‘There’ll never be anyone else.’
She tilted her head to one side. ‘Well, I’ve heard that those French girls are very beautiful…’
Her hazel green eyes looked up at me and we kissed one more time.
I’d shown the photograph to Reg once.
‘Corr, she’s a looker. You’re one lucky geezer to have a missus like that, Frank – looks just like Margaret Lockwood she does!’
‘All that’s missing is the beauty spot,’ I said, joking.

Ten days later, he was dead. I felt an utter numbness and emptiness that I’d not known before. It was as if a lead stone filled my chest cavity and I found it difficult to breathe. That’s when I found out that Sergeant Thomas had a bark that was far worse than his bite. He’d been kind to me then, allowing me to talk to him about my friend. He chose me to send a letter to Reg’s wife. I wrote that Reg often told me how much she and the kids meant to him. At that time, too, I actually started talking to the photograph, telling Bet all about Reg. I told her how we’d got on so well even though we were from opposite ends of the country, me from the back of beyond and him from the East End. His kids had been evacuated out our way and now they were fatherless. Talking to her photograph just seemed to be natural thing to do, as if I was back in our small kitchen talking away like we used to do when I came in from working at the garage and with her cooking my tea.

We were away from home a long time and in our free time we sometimes used to wander into the local villages. Over time, I met a few of the French girls that Bet was so worried about but they couldn’t hold a candle to my girl. They were no match for the beauty in my photograph. The elation we soldiers all felt at the news of victory was unbelievable. Everything was worth it – the horror, the hardship, heartache, even losing mates some said– but at last the country was going to be free. Finally, we were going home. We had survived and were going home in victory. I would be reunited with my favourite girl in the photograph.


The small black and white building I called home loomed into view. It looked just the same as it did when I’d left. My insides started to churn as I got nearer and I wondered if Bet would look the same too, the same as the girl in the photograph. But, I needn’t have worried. As soon as I opened the gate, the door of the cottage flung open and Bet ran down the path into my arms. We both had tears streaming down our faces.
‘I thought I’d never see you again,’ she said, stifling a sob.
‘Oh I saw you every night,’ I replied.
‘Don’t be daft. I dreamt about you, too, if that’s what you mean.’
‘No. I mean. I saw you every night,’ I said, ‘thanks to this.’
I fumbled inside the jacket pocket of my de-mob suit and handed her back the photo, albeit a little dog-eared.
‘Let me look at you,’ I said, standing back to drink in the view I’d waited for months to see.

The dark brown hair was fashionably waved just as it was in the photo but there, back at home; it was soft and silky to touch. Her eyes seemed even greener than I remembered them and they sparkled when she talked nineteen to the dozen, catching up on months of absence. Her cheeks were flushed and that sepia photograph could never capture the real thing. I was happy to return it now to the cream parchment album where it belonged. I was home with my girl and I was home to stay.

About the author

A writer living in Cardiff, Jan joined a writers' group three years ago and began writing for her own enjoyment. It wasn’t until she joined a university writing class taught by a published author that she began to submit stories for publication. Currently, she is compiling a collection of themed short stories and attempting to write her first novel.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

The Sage of Bogborough Green

The Sage of Bogborough Green

Ross Clandon

Tea Leaves

‘Why did I ever agree to this?’ Rachel asked herself as she waited for the fête to begin. ‘This isn’t me at all. Besides, I’m sure there’s a law against this kind of thing.’     
Her mother’s power of persuasion had held sway against Rachel’s better judgement and here she was, seated at a little round table that was covered in Grandma’s red velveteen for-company-only tablecloth and, on it, an upturned goldfish bowl.
She had hoped for a quiet few days in her home town of Bogborough. Instead, her break from the stresses and demands of an executive life was to be punctuated by this nonsense. It was her fault, her mother had said, for showing some psychic ability from time to time. This would be brought into play at St Mark’s summer fête on The Green. The renovation of the church’s roof demanded that every effort must be exerted if future congregations were not to be rendered unconscious by falling debris – or worse.
Rachel had refused absolutely to take on an authentic gypsy appearance. Her mother had, however, insisted on a suggestion of it to avoid disappointing customers who would surely expect it, and so ‘Madam Ramona’ was sitting in her little cubicle, created by partitioning,  with a tartan car rug around her shoulders, a red scarf masking the lower half of her face, and a floor-length black evening skirt. Maternal concessions were: no dangly earrings, no chunky jewellery, and no spotted hanky over her head.
Never normally stuck for words, Rachel did wonder how she would keep going verbally if customers were numerous. It was probably a matter of making a quick assessment of each person, before providing them with generalisms and telling them only the good predictions that came into her head. Yes, that was it, she decided. Tell them what they wanted to hear? H’m.
She could hear Reverend West, beyond the partition, beginning his speech to open proceedings. She rose to be a member of his audience just before her mother poked her head around the edge of the booth. ‘What are you doing, Rachel?’
‘I should be around there to appear interested.’
‘What? No – I was coming to tell you. Stay there until everything starts. Appearing now would destroy your mystique.’
The forbidding expression on her face stopped Rachel in her tracks. A grown woman she may be but her mother’s face still had the power to do that.
‘What mystique? For heaven’s sake, Mum, it’s only pretend!’
‘Can’t you go with me for once? I want people to be surprised to see you.’
‘They’ll be that all right.’

Within seconds of the minister’s closing words, Rachel’s first customer appeared. A grinning middle-aged man was allowed in by her mother, who then stood guard outside the partitioning, ensuring that entry was controlled.
‘Good afternoon, Sir. Please cross my palm with a pound coin, then be seated.’
‘Ah – straight down to business, eh?’ said the man. ‘Here you are, Madam Ramona,’ he added, handing her the payment. ‘Aren’t you Megan from the newsagents?’ 
Rachel couldn’t bear the idiotic grin on his face as he assumed he had scored a direct hit. ‘No, I’m Madam Ramona from a mysterious world beyond time.’
‘Really? Well, if you’re not Megan, you’re from the Council site at Gulpington – but you are Megan, aren’t you?’
‘Please sit down,’ said Rachel, refusing to be drawn.
‘I can see you’re a no-nonsense type of person,’ he said, obeying then holding out his palm.
This was unnecessary, since Rachel was already gazing into the goldfish bowl. It took her hardly any time at all to decide what to say.
‘I see you’re a man of many abilities, one of them being an uncanny tendency to absolute conviction. You have the ability to see into the truth of everything and stick to your ideas come what may, whatever evidence you may be given to the contrary.’
‘Er – is that a compliment?’
‘You are the star of the pub on Friday nights, as you attempt to retain the attention of those around you.’
‘And I usually succeed – but how did you know?’
‘Madam Ramona knows all.’
‘What’s going to happen, though? That’s what I came to hear. Please – no could or might.
‘Certainly. As you leave this fête, you will encounter a tall woman with long blonde hair. You will be attracted to her and, naturally, she will fall for you. How could she not? She will be a divorcée and, therefore, desperate for a man in her life. Naturally, you will be that man. She will be a woman of the utmost discretion, so your wife will never know but, when she leaves you, your wallet will be empty. Let that be a lesson to you.’
‘What? What sort of prediction is that?’
‘The sort you des—’ began Rachel, stopping herself just in time. Realising that she might have gone too far, she sought to repair the damage, whilst not abandoning her urge to ridicule. At the same time she would protect her charitable position for that day. If word circulated that her predictions weren’t the pleasing kind that people wanted to hear, prospective lucre would fail to materialise and her mother would want to know why. The forthright mood would have to be curbed. ‘In the aftermath of this episode, you will, however, see better fortune. You are sometimes too generous for your own good, I think?’
‘Oh, definitely,’ answered the man, somewhat mollified.
‘Well, you will reap the reward. After checking your lottery ticket next week, you will find that you will win as much as you deserve. This will take you to Bouche de Bourne for the weekend.’
‘Oh, is that in the south of France?’
‘It’s in the south, yes.’
For a few minutes, Rachel continued in this fashion, until her fertile brain became suddenly barren. Declaring that the future in the crystal had become clouded over, she closed the consultation and the man left, with a satisfied grin.

The stream of clients seemed never-ending that afternoon. Only once did Rachel have the opportunity to see that her booth was the star attraction and that was when a brief tea break caused a discreet departure and she saw the queue, which her mother was keeping valiantly in order. Not even the cake stall was as popular.
Warming to her role, she continued with her original aim. All types of people, from an annoying schoolboy to the Vicar’s wife came in, making persistent demands on her powers of diplomacy and invention.  Most seemed to take things in a light-hearted vein but there were a few who were obviously looking for something more serious, even after setting eyes on ‘Madam Ramona’.
One such client was a man in his late fifties, who entered the makeshift booth toward the end of the afternoon. He seemed hauntingly familiar to Rachel as he seated himself slowly and with a downcast expression opposite her. Slightly overweight and balding, he seemed a little hesitant.
‘Good afternoon, Sir. Please cross my palm with a pound coin and I shall look into your future.’
He produced the coin and said, ‘Do you know, you’re the first person I’ve spoken to all week.’
‘Really? I’ll try to make it worth your while.’
‘I came out for some fresh air and wandered into the church hall for want of something better to do. I didn’t know there’d be a fortune teller.’
With her face half hidden under the scarf, Rachel involuntarily opened her eyes a little wider as realisation dawned. This was Mr Greenwood, her old English teacher, who obviously had no idea who she was.
She remembered him well from fifteen years before – and with affection. He was that kind of teacher who has probably existed since education began: he had all the qualifications and intelligence for his demanding work, but without the strength to back up his authority. She had sat in on many a lesson where unruliness had taken hold, due to his inability to threaten punishment and actually deliver it. She couldn’t remember a single occasion when his threat to send a pupil to the Head had been carried out. The result had been many chaotic classes. Having taken part in one or two episodes of the unruliness herself, she felt a pang of guilt as he sat in front of her, in clear dejection. It was obvious that life had not been kind to him.
‘You may have come in here on a by-chance basis but my abilities are better than you might expect from a church fête. I might surprise you.’
‘You can’t be less reliable than the Head who told me my job was safe one week and gave me a redundancy notice the next.’
Ah – so that was the root of it.
‘I’m sorry to hear that Mr – Sir.’
‘How could I be redundant when he’s replaced me? Oh, but that isn’t your problem. Please do start.’
‘Well, now, I’d like to begin by giving you a bit of advice, if you don’t mind. It’s for you to decide if it’s worth taking notice of.
‘You can cope with the effects of misfortune in two ways: you can wait for your fairy godmother to wave her magic wand, or you can work out a mechanism for dealing with it yourself. It’s the only way you’ll feel better. The most important thing to take care of in any situation is the state of your mind so, in milder cases of dejection or anxiety, you can do that old thing of asking yourself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ In almost every case, you’ll find the worst isn’t that bad. Another way to get through a crisis or an impending unwelcome event is to give yourself a reward. Say to yourself: “right, when I’ve come through this, or when I’ve done that, I’ll reward myself for enduring it” – any small thing from a bar of chocolate, a meal out, a short holiday; anything that you can then focus on instead of the unpleasant thing. It’ll help you to get through it.
‘In really trying times keep your sanity by doing what I call worry rationing. If you really can’t get something off your mind, tell yourself; “I can’t help worrying about this but I won’t do it now. I’ll do it at, say, three o’clock this afternoon.” In the meantime, when you find yourself thinking about whatever the problem is, just tell yourself, “No, not now; three o’clock this afternoon.” When that time comes, worry as much as you like – for fifteen minutes, then stop and make the next time seven o’clock. Keep on like that for two days then widen the length of time between worrying. You’ll reach a point where you forget to worry.  You’ll no longer be at the mercy of the problem. You’re back in control.’
Rachel watched Mr Greenwood’s features as she came to a verbal halt. His gaze was direct and his mouth was half open in surprise.
‘Well,’ he responded after a moment, ‘that all sounds very sage advice and it probably isn’t something that I would have thought of myself. Do you know, I think you might have something.’
‘I’ve found those ways work for me – but you probably expected predictions.’
‘Well, yes.’ He almost sounded reluctant for her to carry on with them but carry on she did.
The rest of her session with her former teacher was spent in a résumé of his forthcoming fortunes, about which she felt an honest optimism. He would fill the gap in his life with new social and creative activities and greater contentment would follow.
After a longer session than most of Madam Ramona’s clients, he rose with a smile and gave her a hearty handshake.
‘Thank you so much. I’ll bear in mind what you’ve said. You’re more sensible than you look.’
‘I can guarantee that.’
He left a brighter man. Rachel would have liked to end her stint as a fortune teller on this uplifting note but had to go through two more clients before the booth was closed as the fête wound down.
‘Well, we made a handy little profit for the church fund,’ said Rachel’s mother as they walked home. ‘Perhaps we can resurrect Madam Ramona next year. Did you enjoy it?’
‘I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed your spag. bol. Last night.’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’

About the Author

Ross Clandon is Lancashire-born and now lives in Middlesex. His earlier fiction is very different and this is the only short story. Life in general, including admin work in numerous companies, has widened his understanding of human nature, inspiring work that is character-driven.

Monday 17 November 2014

The Tornado

The Tornado

Sue Cross

Iced Tea

The room I lived in for the first fifteen years of my life had no windows.
My only glimpse into the outside world was through the books that lined the walls, the only concession to freedom that I was allowed. For this I am grateful.

My mother’s name is Miranda Jackson. She is a small woman with brown hair that she wears in a thick plait, which hangs half way down her back. It was my father, Jonathan Steadman, who kidnapped her on her way home from school in Los Angeles when she was fifteen. I was born a year later.
Apart from the books, the only comforts in that incarceration were a bed, a toilet and a washbasin. The only sounds were of crying and occasionally shouts and desperate screams. The smells, apart from cooking, were unpleasant and sour. It’s only now that I can compare such things.

My mother named me Annie, after her favourite doll, because she told me that I was like a little doll when I was born. I arrived on the kitchen floor with only my father to assist her. Apart from what I read in books, it was my mother who taught me about love. I did not understand about hope and freedom.
But I understood that my father was a wretch and I hated him. I hated the terror he brought when he visited me alone. I hated the smell of sweat and lust that he left behind, and which lingered on my body hours after his visits and which washing never seemed to remove, no matter how hard I scrubbed my skin. Somehow feeling that it was my fault, I never told my mother about what happened.

Mother was locked into my room each day when my father went to work. It was here that she taught me to read and write. She told me that, with the passing of time, her hopes of being found faded, even though the house in which she was brought up was only five blocks away. Her eyes became dull when she talked of lost hopes and dreams and it was then that I tried to distract her.
‘Let’s read a book, Mother,’ I coaxed.
‘Yes, what shall we read today?’ And she smiled; her eyes back in the present – back with me again. We would drink our iced tea and find a modicum of escape.

When the tornado hit, my life changed with the wind. One minute I was reading and the next, one half of the house was blown down. The rest is a blur. I remember Mother rushing into my room, grabbing me and then running onto the street. The light pierced my eyes like knives and my mother’s hand gripped me so hard that it hurt.
‘Help us. Someone help us!’ Mother yelled.
We were taken to hospital and then the police arrived to question us. They told us that my father had been killed in the tornado, crushed by falling debris, and I was pleased. Justice was borne on the wind that day. When we left the hospital a line of beautiful people with cameras was waiting for us. The nurses too were beautiful and so were the police.

This new world I live in is too big for me. I am gradually growing into it, but it is not easy. The psychologists have explained that I may always struggle with normal life. But I don’t know what normal is. My body is free but my mind is forever trapped within the walls of my fear. Fear of crowds, fear of noise, fear of traffic, fear of what people think of us. And still I fear the nightmares that remind me of my old prison.
Those beautiful people, the first people that I saw upon leaving the hospital, are journalists. I don’t think of them as beautiful friends anymore. They are a threatening intrusion and a menace.

I still live with my mother, escaping the press by hiding away in a remote part of Virginia. We own a small farmhouse, which overlooks fields and huge, endless skies. Even in winter, I open my bedroom window each day and taste the pure, sweet air. In summer I listen to birdsong and watch the wild flowers nod in the breeze. We keep chickens, grow vegetables and rarely leave the farm.
My only refuge is my writing. And my books, of course. They are not windows now, but comforts and friends.

About the Author

Sue Cross has published two novels, Tea at Sam’s and Making Scents. She likes to draw on her travel experiences when writing. You can visit her on her website