Monday 16 August 2021

Val Cast as Courtney


by Janet Howson

a mug of decaffeinated coffee

Val sat on the edge of her settee, her hands clasped together. She had put on her coat and shoes ready to go out. She had no make-up on and her hair was unwashed and un-styled. Her eyes looked blank and red from crying. So much crying, that filled her empty days and sleepless nights. She had forgotten to put the heating on and the room was cold and uninviting.

A click made her start; something being posted through the door? She glanced up at the clock. Ten thirty. Who could be posting letters at this time of night? It was sure to be yet another condolence card to be added to all the others she had stacked in a pile in the kitchen. She couldn’t bear to display them. Just another blatant reminder of her daughter’s tragic death. A death she knew she would never get over. Not ever, she said out loud.

If only Graham and his new wife Chantelle hadn’t arrived at the sports centre that night. If only they hadn’t argued about Becky’s future, if only Becky hadn’t finished her swimming class early and overheard them and if only that lorry hadn’t been driving so fast. So many ‘if onlys.’

She sighed. She couldn’t sit here all night; she was starting to feel cold, even with her coat on. She struggled to stand, she must have got stiff sitting for so long. She pulled her boots off. Standing in her bare feet she contemplated putting the kettle on to make herself a hot drink to warm herself up. How long had she been sitting there? Two hours? Three hours? She had no concept of time. Just a blankness filling her thoughts and a pain she couldn’t describe.

Again a noise startled her. It was her mobile phone ringing. She didn’t even know where she had left it and didn’t really care. She didn’t want to talk to anyone at the moment; if ever. All they would talk about was how sorry they were and how they knew how she felt. No they didn’t; how could they.

They had all been very understanding at work but she just couldn’t face the confined space of an office with people whispering behind her back, shaking their heads, tutting in sympathy. She knew they would all mean well. What she really wanted to do was to stay in bed all day and pull the duvet over her head. At least she might dream of the good days. The wonderful days she spent with Becky. Then, of course, she would have to wake up and the sharp shock of the truth would hit her. The doctor had prescribed sleeping tablets. She didn’t like taking them but they blanked the awful feelings out. She would take a couple now.  She couldn’t lie there tossing and turning all night.

She shuffled into the kitchen in her stocking feet. The cold tiles made her toes curl but she couldn’t be bothered to find her slippers, the ones with the puppy heads, the ones that Becky bought last Christmas. Christmas; what would she do this year? It had always been just her and Becky since Graham left. They preferred it that way. Graham had invited her over to his flat a couple of times . Becky wouldn’t go on Christmas day but Val would persuade her to see him on Boxing Day. She never enjoyed it, coming home as soon as she could. She would have tales of Graham and his latest woman. They would laugh about it together.

What had she gone into the kitchen for? Oh yes, the sleeping tablets. She might as well make herself a mug of decaffeinated coffee whilst she was there. It was pointless to have caffeine if she was taking sleeping tablets. She found the unopened box of pills and pushed two of them, with difficulty, out of the splinter pack. Why did the manufacturers have to make it as hard as possible to get to the pills? At last she managed it, not before sending one spinning across the floor. She couldn’t see it so she gave up looking. It’ll turn up, they always do she told herself.

Val leant on the sink drainer and looked out of the window. Nothing but a blank emptiness stared back at her, similar to the way she was feeling. Her mind skipped to the days she would be preparing food in the kitchen keeping an eye on Becky who would be running up the slide rather than use the steps then sliding down backwards head first. Nothing frightened her. She would sometimes run in for a plaster if she had cut her knees, but she never made a fuss. Val admired that. She had always been very independent and her adoptive parents found her hard to handle. She had never felt loved so she always vowed from the day Becky was born that she would tell he she loved her every day. Now she had no one to say that too.

She filled the kettle and watched it boil. She could hear the water bubbling and then the click as it reached boiling point and switched off. She spooned the coffee into her mug. It always stood beside Becky’s mug, next to the kettle and the jar that had sugar written on it and contained Val’s sweeteners. She had bought Becky a Snow White mug when she was little and she would never drink out of anything else. Hers was a Lady of the House mug with a picture of a rich lady in a fur coat, with a poodle on her lap. Becky had bought her that one Christmas and she had loved it. She realised she had automatically spooned coffee into Becky’s mug as well. This hit her hard. She leaned over the sink and cried.

Again the sound of her mobile phone brought her back to the present. Who was so insistent that they kept ringing? Perhaps it was important. She couldn’t think of anyone who would need to contact her at this time of night. She made her coffee and wandered back to the living room. The phone was flashing a message. She didn’t want to read it. She didn’t want to have to think of anything but Becky. Nothing else should come in the way. She turned the phone off and clutching her coffee and pills she wandered out into her hall to climb the stairs to her bedroom.

When she turned the hall light on Val saw the envelope. She picked it up instinctively but didn’t want to open it. This was not a condolence card though. It was an A3 envelope with just ‘Val cast as Courtney’ written in black ink on the front. She stared at it. The writing was familiar. Of course it was Shirley. She must have dropped off her script after the read through she had meant to go to. She sighed. She had let everyone down after all the trouble Shirley had gone to making sure she had a part in the next production, The Murder Mystery Evening. She had told Val that there wouldn’t be too much to learn and how lovely it would be for them all to see her again. Val had wanted to go, she really did. Of all the people in her life she felt the closest to the drama group. She had not been able to perform her part for Midsummer Night’s Dream as it was so soon after Becky’s death but everyone rallied round and Shirley had played her role for her.

She put her mug down, opened the envelope and pulled out the neatly stapled sheets of paper. The cast list was on the top with her name against Courtney. She was the lover of the murdered man, Joseph. Sean was playing Joseph and they got on really well. She wanted to look forward to all the rehearsals, the chatter, the banter and then the Murder Mystery Evening itself at Lauren’s golf club. It was always a good evening and appreciated by the members. After the performance they got a free meal and a drink. What was there not to like?  Yet Val couldn’t bear the thought of enjoying herself with her daughter cold in the ground. She shivered despite the fact she was still wearing her coat. She must go to bed and get warm. She picked up her coffee and swallowed the pills she still had in her hand. She pushed the script back in the envelope but it hit something else preventing it fitting properly and when Val looked she saw a small white envelope. She pulled it out, reinserted the script and made her way to bed.

Val couldn’t be bothered to wash her face, she hadn’t worn any make up all day or eaten anything so she didn’t clean her teeth either. She put the envelope on the bedside table to read tomorrow and climbed between the covers, still in her coat. She lay facing the ceiling waiting for the sleeping tablets to work. Is this what her life was going to be like from now on? Being unable to go anywhere or talk to anyone? She might as well be dead. She brushed that thought quickly out of her mind. However bad she felt, she wasn’t suicidal.

She woke in the middle of the night in a sweat. She couldn’t work out why then realised she was in her coat and clothes. She pushed the bedcovers aside sending an envelope flying across the room. What was that? Then she remembered the script that had arrived through the door, with the envelope inside as well. She took her coat and clothes off and managed to find her pyjamas, the stripy ones that Becky had said made her look like a prison inmate. She experienced that awful wrench whenever she realised she was dead. She retrieved the envelope and put it back on the bedside table. She glanced at the clock; three am. At least she had managed a few hours sleep, so the sleeping tablets had worked. She got back in bed again. I might as well open the envelope and get it over with, she thought. Tearing it open she saw a short hand written note, she read the words out loud.

Though your heart is breaking

Though your future seems bleak

Though the days seem pointless

It’s a comfort to speak.

Whenever you are ready, we are all here for you. We miss you so much. Shirley x

Val read the note a few times then put it aside. She then pulled the script out of the envelope and read through all three scenes. She at first assumed it would be the wife Fiona, played by Shirley, who murdered her errant husband but it turned out to be her devoted friend Richard, played by Jordan. What a good twist. There was something vaguely familiar about this relationship. It was common knowledge that Jordon was devoted to Shirley and he had written the play. Perhaps she was reading too much into it.

She knew she wouldn’t go back to sleep so she went downstairs to the kitchen for a drink. She hadn’t finished her coffee last night and was starting to feel dehydrated. She had left her mug upstairs so she used Becky’s. It was a good feeling to fill her mug up like she used to do. A sound made her turn round. Her mobile was flashing missed messages and phone calls. Reluctantly she picked it up. There were various missed calls from Shirley as well as Patrick and Sean. There were three texts as well, one from Shirley, one from Patrick and one from Jean.

I have just posted your script through the door. If you want a chat I will sit here for fifteen minutes and wait for a text. If not, no problem. I will see you when you are ready.

Shirley xxx

Hey, where were you tonight? I so missed you babe. Who can I tell my awful jokes to?   Please don’t leave it too long.


Hi, Val. I know this might be a bit early for you yet but I go to a therapy session for my depression and this includes bereavement. All I can say is that it has helped me through my bad times. If you are interested I would love to introduce you to the group.

Jean x

Val reread the note and the messages several times. She felt tears welling up in her eyes, but this time it wasn’t because she was thinking of Becky but because she felt that there were people out there who really cared. She might have been left with no immediate family but this group of people where like a family to her. If she was to survive this it would be because of them.

She sat on the settee with her coffee, wrapped the throw around her and answered the texts. When she had finished she climbed back up the stairs and at four o clock in the morning, Val started to learn the lines of her script allowing herself a brief smile; these were not just lines, they were life lines.


 About the Author

Janet Howson was born in Rochdale but moved to the South of England when she was seventeen. She loved writing and reading from an early age and wrote poetry and plays. She joined an amateur drama group when she was eighteen and her love of the theatre began. She trained to be a teacher and her two subjects were English and Drama. She then went on to teach for thirty-five years in Comprehensive schools in Redbridge, Havering and Essex. During this time, she wrote and directed plays for the pupils, ran drama clubs, worked with pupils from special schools, involving them in productions, worked with Chicken Shed after school and continued to be involved in amateur drama both as a performer and a director. Now she is retired, Janet has joined two writing groups and with the help and advice she has received from the other members, has started to write short stories and her first novel, ‘Charitable Thoughts’ has now been published. She intends to continue writing both novels and stories, adapting some of them into theatre scripts and radio plays.


Published Work:

Dramatic Episodes   The prequel to this series 

The Best of CafeLit 8 an anthology published by Chapletown Books 2019

Stories included: Marking Time & Induction Day.

Nativity an anthology published by Bridge House 2019

Story included: Solution.

Charitable Thoughts a novella published by Austin Macauley

Can be found on Amazon Books

It happened in Essex tall tales from the Basildon Writers’ Group

Can be found on Amazon books




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