Thursday, 28 September 2023

The Last Ripple by Robin Wrigely, black coffee


When Maurice climbed up into the attic the first thing, he noticed was the smell – what on earth was it?

            ‘Have you been cleaning with some weird detergent?’ he yelled over his shoulder hoping that Phyllis could hear him below in the bedroom.

            ‘Christ Maurice. What did I say before you went up there?’

            ‘No, what did you say?’

            ‘Use your bloody eyes, Maurice, can’t you?’

            ‘Oh yes, I can see now you mention it you’ve obviously cleaned Nigel’s rocking horse. It’s come up quite good, hasn’t it?’

            Accepting the conversation had finished he proceeded to look for the particular box of photos he was after. As he dusted off the lid hoping it contained the ones he sought, it now came to him just how long it had been since he was last up here.

            It was Nigel’s untimely death that the attic became the closest place they had as their son’s burial ground. He was scuba diving in the Red Sea in Egypt with a French diving company. In a freak accident he was missed in the headcount at the end of the dive and the boat returned to the port without him. By the time he was actually missed he was posted missing presumed drowned.

            There was a huge cover up between the Egyptian authorities and the Frenchman  who owned and ran the company without the correct registration papers. As far as Maurice was able to ascertain when he visited Cairo a month after the event the Frenchman had left the country and there was no actual evidence that Nigel was even on the dive. The only piece of evidence Maurice had was a phone call from Nigel saying he was in Egypt and planning to go on a diving course in the Red Sea. Try as he might the disappearance of the owner of the company having fled the country, aided, and abetted by the Egyptian authorities stonewalling him and the British embassy being worse than useless Maurice was beside himself with impotent fury.

            He spent three long weeks chasing his tail. He made many phone calls to his wife who simply couldn’t believe her ears. He just knew that failing to find out what had happened would be put it down to his incompetence. The one thing he was quite sure of was he would end up being blamed for not solving the mystery of what really happened.

            He came home cap in hand and didn’t want to talk about it because nobody, and certainly not his wife would believe him. He approached a couple of national newspapers, but his evidence was so scant no-one was prepared to run with the story.

            Recently, the news coverage of the diving capsule seeking to view the wreck of the Titanic and the suspense of the fate of the sub brought it all back to him. How he and Phyllis had scoured any and all news involving Egypt back then. Now he knew why she had been cleaning the rocking horse. Though they both commented on it neither of them acknowledged the fact that the recent news reminded them of that day they realised their son was lost. It was quite obvious to him now, why Phyllis had been up here polishing Nigel’s old rocking horse. But why the hell didn’t she say so? Yet again the silence spun round in Maurice’s mind. Just why could they never talk about it? The number of times he tried to bring it up she was always so quick to shut him up.

            ‘Maurice don’t bring it up. The boy’s lost and we will never see him again. That’s final. Understand, I don’t want to talk about it. I’m going for a walk now.’ That was it. He never tried again. Whenever it was Nigel’s birthday, he noticed that Phyllis went on one of her long walks. The ones that he was never invited on and having offered to join her once, he was turned down the same way he was always refused when he asked her if she wanted to dance at various functions.

            ‘No thank you Maurice, not now,’ she would answer him without even bothering to look in his direction. Not now? he thought in his mind. Not now? Just when in hell would they? The answer came to him without being spoken. Never! That’s when. Bloody never.

He started to look lovingly at all the photos they had collected of their son at the same time reaching in his pocket for his handkerchief even though he knew the tears would never come.

            Neither of them had ever cried. He felt he was never allowed to join his wife in a proper sharing of grief and, opening the page of the main photo album he knew they never would. But, for the first time the tears did come, and he sobbed as quietly as he could.

            ‘You alright up there Maurice?’ Phyllis called into the loft hatch. ‘Yes, I think that stuff you used to clean Nigel’s horse overcame me. Sorry’, He wiped his face and closed the album and put everything back into place and swore he’d never come up here again. It wasn’t just Nigel who had died. The whole bloody family had, and he should have left years ago back when Phyllis went into herself. It was too late though. Not for the first time he wished he could join his son. But it was Friday the night he met his very old friend Brian Reynolds at the British Legion.

            ‘Right, I’m off dear,’ Maurice called from the hallway as he pulled on his car-coat and reached for the keys before letting himself out. He made as if to go by car but changed his mind and walked to his rendezvous with his friend Brian. Once again there was a time before Nigel’s death that he would have given her a kiss before leaving but he saw no point in such devotion anymore.

            Seated in their usual corner of the member’s lounge of the British Legion, Maurice sucked the head off his pint of Guinness and exhaled loudly to the room.

            ‘Ah Brian, Guinness might not make women disappear but by golly it tastes good.’

            Brian replied with a withering smile and said, ‘You really go on about your other half mate. Has she done something to annoy you?’

            ‘Other than breathing no, not particularly.’ Maurice took another swig of the stout and closed his eyes for a moment as though to shut his world out.

            ‘Oh, Come on Mauri, Phyllis isn’t that bad. Let’s face it she’s put up with you all these years.’ With that Maurice’s best friend drained his glass and urged Maurice to follow his example which he did, glaring slightly at Brian. Having purchased a refill of their glasses he put Maurice’s Guinness down in front of him and took a large sip out of his own pint of bitter before taking his seat and grabbing his friend’s knee playfully, but Maurice pushed his hand away rather brusquely.

            ‘You don’t know half of it Brian, you really don’t, or you wouldn’t have said that.’ He took a deep draught of his new pint.

            ‘Sorry mate, you are alright, aren’t you, I mean you and the missus, aren’t you?’

            ‘What d’you mean all right? Do I shag her? Is that what you mean by all right? Because if so, why can’t you say so in plain language Brian why do you have to be so bloody polite? You should have joined the bloody BBC or the fucking church.’

            Shocked at this outburst Brian looked around the bar in the vain hope that nobody was earwigging their conversation. Fortunately, the bar was reasonably quiet and there was only one lady with her husband in the far corner. There were a couple of men standing at the bar who, while probably enjoying Maurice’s outburst, passed the odd remark between each other in hushed tones.

            Brian was stunned into an embarrassing silence as though he had made a random pin prick and hit a main artery. ‘I’m truly sorry Mauri I really am I had no idea I really hadn’t.’

            ‘Oh, don’t worry about it Brian it isn’t your fault it’s mine. I’ve stuck with Phyllis ‘cos I didn’t have the guts to leave when Nigel disappeared.’

            Brian sat back against the bench support in silence for a moment thinking carefully before he next spoke, ‘Nigel’s death? What’s all that got to do with you and Phyllis? It was hardly your fault either, was it?’

            ‘No, it bloody wasn’t. If anyone is to blame it was my son who left this earth without a single clue on where he was. Have you any idea what it was like dragging my arse around bloody Cairo looking for traces of what happened to him? I mean a big fat bastard Egyptian General actually had the bleeding audacity to ask me if I had seen his body.’

            Maurice took a drink from his glass and looked around the room in silence. He was trying to answer the most difficult question he had ever faced. He picked up his Guinness and said to Brian, ‘Drink up Brian we’re going.’ With that he emptied his pint and Brian followed suit without a single question. He knew his friend well or thought he did so and he obeyed in silence.

            Outside it was starting to rain, and they bowed their heads as they buttoned their raincoats.

            ‘D’you mind telling me what’s happening?’ Brian broke the silence wondering what was going on in his friend’s mind. If he was honest with himself, he was quite worried.

            ‘Certainly’, Maurice looked left and right then taking Brian’s arm turned him to the left and started to walk briskly. ‘We’re going to the Coach and Horses for a real drink.’

            ‘Why, whatever for Maurice; neither of us have been in there since we were youngsters?’

            ‘Because Brian I’m never going to drink in the Legion again. Do you know why we’ve been going there after all these years?’

            ‘Well, now you mention it was your idea and I was pleasantly surprised when you called me that night and suggested we meet up there.’

            ‘And you never wondered why I did?’

            ‘I rather thought it was in respect to Nigel’s death.’

            They were now outside the Coach and Horses a rather up market pub that had been recently renovated.  Maurice stepped into the revolving doors and Brian followed him into the lounge bar on the right hand side where they both took off their raincoats and hung them on the wooden hat stand inside the room.

            ‘Find us a seat Brian and I’ll get the drinks.’ He walked to the bar and ordered a pint of best bitter, a pint of Guinness and two double malt whiskies. He made two journeys to Brian’s table and sat opposite him.

            ‘Cheers,’ Maurice said and the pair of them took large draughts from their beer glasses. ‘You’ve been a good friend to me Brian, you really have. You never ever questioned why I asked you to the Legion that night and every week since. You were right, it was about the loss of Nigel but today up in our bloody attic I cried for the first time. Nigel is bloody dead and Phyllis and I have got to learn to accept it because we’ve only been pretending.’




The following morning Phyllis was sitting at their breakfast table in the kitchen when Maurice came down after taking a shower.

            ‘You were late coming home last night, weren’t you?’ Phyllis said quietly not looking in his direction sipping her tea, her forehead furrowed in a frown.

            ‘I suppose I might have been later than usual. Brian and I went on to the Coach and Horses for a special occasion.’

            ‘A special occasion?’ Phyllis put her cup down and looked up at her husband as disapprovingly as she could muster. ‘What special occasion, did he propose to you? You two spend so much time together I often wondered there was something strange about your relationship. There’s a lot of it about in the papers.’

            Maurice stood both his hands gripping the back of his chair with all the strength he could muster and waited until she had finished and was taking another sip of her tea. She turned her stare away from him and looked down towards the corner of the room.

            ‘Are you tempted to cry Phyllis?’

            She put her cup down and glared up at him. ‘Me cry? Don’t be so damned stupid you foolish man. It would take a lot more than the thought of losing you to bring me to tears I might tell you.’ There was a venomous passion in her voice that he had not heard in years when they used to argue about money.

            He stood quietly after that last outburst and let her settle. After what could only be described as an embarrassing silence, he took his hands off the chair back and calmly folded his arms across his chest.

            ‘Well, I did yesterday when I was up in the attic, and I can tell you it did me the world of good. For the first time in however many years it is since Nigel died. Yes, you did hear me say it, Nigel died! That is what I was celebrating last night with my best friend, I could say my only friend because you’ve made it plain enough that you and I ain’t friends. Are we? How would you describe our relationship, Phyllis?’

            She sat motionless her cup back on the table half full still. Her face contorted somewhere in between a smile and grimace. It was quite obvious that she was close to tears. She stood up pushing her chair back with one hand, walked out of the room bent in silence and climbed the stairs. He heard her close the bathroom door and was sure he could hear her sobbing.

            Maurice climbed the stairs gingerly making sure he could hear her crying, tapped the bathroom door, and entered. Phyllis was sitting on the toilet sobbing into her hands.

            ‘Go away please Maurice will you, please? Can’t you see how you’ve upset me?’ She spoke at the floor, but he ignored her plea and walked up to her and gently lifted her by her elbows and once she was upright, they hugged one another warmly.

            ‘I’ve been such a damned fool Maurice. Can you ever forgive me?’ He held her at arm’s length, kissed her on the forehead and said, ‘Course I can, consider it done.’ With that he pulled her towards him, and they stood clung to one another for what seemed like an eternity until he gently separated himself from her and said, ‘have a shower love and get dressed, we’ve got some shopping to do not just you or me, but us.’ He then left her and went downstairs.

            Once there he  poured himself a cup from the pot, added milk and took his usual seat at the table. ‘Let me see. Waitrose first and a nice bottle of Cote du Rhone and soft Camembert; looks like it could be a long weekend.’ He said to the room sitting down and taking his first sip from the cup. ‘I might have just returned to a marriage.’


About the author

Robin short stories have appeared in CafeLit both on line and in print on a regular basis. He has also entered various writing competitions but has yet to get past being short listed. 


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Wednesday, 27 September 2023

DEAD FISH by Sally Zigmond, S Pellegrino with ice

 Emma looks down at the plate the waiter has just put down in front of her. A fish; a dead fish. Well 

 obviously it’s dead. She wouldn’t expect it to dance a jig on its bed of rocket. Rocket.?What a daft 

name for a load of limp leaves. A vision of a fish hopping about and a rocket whooshing up to the 

gilded chandeliers makes her giggle.

‘What’s so funny?’ asks her dad.

‘Nothing.’ A wall of silence builds, brick by brick, as they tackle their food. Emma picks at her lettuce without enthusiasm although she feels queasy.

‘So what are they teaching you at that school? What’s your favourite subject?’

            ‘Um . . .’

            ‘I see it didn’t do very well in the latest league tables.’

            ‘No. I like English best and our teacher, Mrs Onwaladi, says . . .’

            ‘What are her qualifications to teach English at a secondary school?’

            Careful not to annoy her father, with his plain Tory blue tie, Emma places her fork and knife at precisely half-past-six and sits up straight.    ‘Mrs Onwaladi is actually a vicar’s daughter from Kent. She has short fair hair and blue eyes and rides a bicycle with a basket on the front like you see on Miss Marple.’ So there, she is tempted to add but refrains. ‘It’s her husband who’s African, Kenyan actually and he’s a KC.’ What she doesn’t say is that he defends asylum seekers threatened with deportation and usually wins.

She looks down at the dead fish on its bed of rocket staring back at her. It is disappointed  with her for eating in this posh restaurant and for wearing a skirt and tights instead of her usual jeans and sweatshirt with a political slogan about oil, global warming or animal welfare. Eye to eye with the poor fish she decides there and then to go fully vegan.

The waiter glides up to her and removes her plate with a conspiratorial wink. Her father is too busy wrestling with his animal flesh to notice, giving her time to scan the other tables. She’s the youngest person by far. Most of those seated at the tables are Young Conservatives all with smug expressions.

‘That was quick,’ her dad says as he notices, at last, her plate has gone. ‘Did you enjoy it?’

‘Delicious, thank you, Dad’ she lies.‘Thank you for bringing me here. It’s very expensive, isn’t it?’

He blushes; something Emma has never seen him do before. ‘Actually, I won it in a raffle at a charity ball when I drank too much. This isn’t really our sort of place, is it? Cecilia says she wouldn’t be seen dead in here ...’

He blushes again. How’s he going to get out of that one, Emma thinks. Cecilia is the woman he left Mum for. ‘Um … I was thinking, Cecilia, well she prefers, her second name, Isabel or Izzy, actually, would like to meet you. Only if your mother agrees, of course.’ Emma watches him squirm and drop his bloody fork on the floor, twisting his white linen napkin with both hands and has a way he used to make origami swans and flowers with her when she was little as well as lifting her onto his shoulders until she felt on top of the world. I’ll ask Mum. She actually wants me to and Mrs Onwaladi tells me I should.

 About the author

Sally Zigmond has been writing and publishing fiction, both long and short for over 30 years. She is grateful to Gill James for her kindness, encouragement and, most of all, sharp editing. 

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Tuesday, 26 September 2023

Making Granny’s Tea by Gerald Byron, tea

My mother’s mother was coming to visit us in our wee flat in 9 Hydepark Street.

I was afraid of her. She seemed too fierce to be a granny.

But I’d learned to make tea.

So Mum decided, I should make Granny’s tea when she arrived.

To impress her.

So Granny Balfour arrived, and settled herself in her favourite chair in our house. I politely asked her if she took milk and sugar, and made a mental note of her answers.

I poured tea from the teapot into a cup, then added the sugar and milk, as requested.

Finally, I very carefully carried the cuppa over to Granny and set it down before her.

‘That’s not making tea, that’s pouring tea’ said Granny.

‘He’s not allowed to pour from the kettle yet’ explained Mum.

I nodded a Granny. She ignored me.

‘It’s not the same, just pouring tea. It’s not making tea’. Granny was sticking to her guns.

The argument batted back and forth between Mum and Granny. They really irked each other.

My heart sank.

I hadn’t impressed Granny at all. And now she was arguing with my Mum.

I felt, even as a very small boy, that Granny was just – well just a tiny bit, ungrateful.

I decided, right there and then, to never, ever, EVER make Granny a cup of tea, for the rest of my life.

And do you know what?

I never did.


About the author

Gerald writes film scripts as well as prose fiction. He is currently converting distant memories from early childhood into short stories. This item is based on a childhood memory circa 1962 in an Anderston room and kitchen. 


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Monday, 25 September 2023

Bags of Room by Janet Howson, squash

 The instructions were clear. One cabin bag and one carrier bag of food. There were five of us so that was the maximum that could be squeezed into a Nissen Micra. I had laughed at first at the concept of cramming my belongings into one tiny suitcase. Then there was the food bag.  What would I need for three days?

The big day arrived. I had finally shrunk my belonging down to the absolute minimum. The rest of the group had hopefully done the same although a couple of sleeping bags a folding beach chair and a rucksack had materialised. We had convinced Ruth she couldn’t bring her Rottweiler with her even though her daughter had let her down on the dog sitting.

At first we all stood round the heap of luggage contemplating the enormity of the task. Would all of that fit in? With five in the car we couldn’t use the back seats.  Kayleigh had always meant to get a roof rack. First we tried the random method of just ramming everything in one by one. This left us with Laura’s case still on the drive and none of the food bags in. We took everything out and decided to think logically about it.

Ruth, we decided unanimously, was the most practical. “You did erect the tent very efficiently last year in that field in Suffolk,” Jessie pointed out.

“That came with instructions though,” Ruth replied.

“Okay, let’s step back and work it out, all cases in first then we will fit everything else around them,” Paula suggested.

That sounded sensible so I tucked mine in first and the others followed. The first step had been achieved. Only five food bags, the chair, the sleeping bags and rucksacks to go. We decided to start with the food bags. These varied in capacity. Kayleigh had brought more but she excused this as she was the driver and anyway it was her car.

On the second attempt we managed everything but two of the food bags which we cracked on the third attempt but that still left the extra items.

“Before you suggest the rucksack I will wear mine on my back.”

“I can sit on my sleeping bag,”

“… and I can wrap my sleeping bag around me.”

“The chair can go along the floor in the back seat?

With this in mind we clambered in. Jane sat with Kayleigh at the front as she suffered from car sickness and the other three squeezed up together in the back seat. They quickly had to get out again as Paula needed a final toilet trip and waited until she returned, not quickly enough for Kayleigh who said they were  in danger of hitting the rush hour .

Jessie got out her mobile phone, “Just ringing Graham to say we are on our way.” Groans from the others nearly disguised her opening comment. “Hi, love. You were wrong. We got everything into Kayleigh’s car. There was bags of room.”

About the author

Janet Howson taught English and Drama for thirty five years and didn't take up writing until she retired. She has had three novellas published, 'Charitable Thoughts', 'Dramatic Episodes' and 'A Cue For Murder' as well as having short stories published in anthologies, including 'Best of CafeLit 8,9 and 10. 


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Sunday, 24 September 2023

Sunday Serial: The Story Weaver and other tales by Sally Zigmond, SHE SELLS SEA SHELLS, spring water,




I am a curiosity. Whispers follow me, shadow me down the Church Cliffs and Black Ven; they swirl around me, then are snatched by the wind that sweeps Lyme Bay where I work, hammer in hand.  Sniggers are hidden in pocket handkerchiefs, muffled by bonnets, stifled like the squeals of unwanted puppies and kittens stuffed into sacks and hurled from the Cobb at high-tide at midnight. 

Winter squats on the thatch, drips through the eaves, runs down the walls where black mould trickles. Outside, the sun is metal-bright but the wind howls down the chimney, sneaks through the latch. Outside the church clock is stuck, time frozen between its hands. Inside, Mother hugs the fire, bundled in shawls, her back curved away from me.

‘So another gentleman slips through your net.’ She nods to the newspaper that lies between us. She spits into the flames. They hiss but I say nothing. I write my notes, read my books. The candle writhes and gutters. I blow on my fingers.

‘Thought you were off to London.’

I throw down my pen. My rage will not be confined. It needs space to roar.

This morning I saw the newspaper, its torn wings flapping in the gutter. I picked it up. It was a month old, frayed at the edges, beer-stained, well-thumbed by greasy fingers. I took it home to enjoy at my leisure until Mother snatched it from me, poked a bony finger at the illustration. ‘Isn’t that your young man, Mary? Such a handsome fellow. All girls were in a flutter when he was here.’

‘Not me, Mother.’

‘So, why’s he in the papers, Mary? Tell me. He must have done something special.’ She can out-talk and out-drink sailors, utter more profanities than the King’s troopers and beat any Excise man in a sneering contest but can neither read nor write. Never taught herself as I did from newsprint wrapped round fish-heads or washed up at high-tide jumbled with rope and rotted timber, old bottles and lamp-oil.  Waste of time. What’s the use of book-learning? You’ve been touched by the sun, Mary. You’re not right in the head.

Now it is afternoon. The light is all but gone but his eyes pierce the darkness from the page and my mother’s taunts are as sharp as a crab’s pinch.

I pull my cloak and bag from the peg. ‘And shut the door behind you,’ she screams, matching the wind that flows in to take my place. I take the hammer from my bag. The sea doesn’t stop revealing its secrets just because there’s no-one to see it. We are nothing to the rocks that mark our passing. Philip said that millions of years hence our bones would be discovered on a mountain’s summit. They will call them snakestones, devil’s fingers, verteberries, cupid’s wings. That’s what the visitors call them. That’s what they’ll be wanting when the spring comes. Curiosities.

What do they do with them, these fragments of Genesis; relics from the Flood? Lock them under glass domes on their mantelpieces for their maids to dust?

When he came it was summer and my table was piled high with curiosities; snakestones that are ammonites; belemnites they call the devil’s fingers.  I made a tidy sum that season although money is poor recompense. I am thankful for the meat that feeds my belly and the coal that nourishes the fire. It is my mind that starves.

Now it is winter; the table is bare and my heart is stone; the fossilized remains of hope buried deep in the earth, scoured by the tides of a thousand oceans, shattered by a thousand frosts; blasted by a thousand winds. A curiosity.

I wasn’t the first Mary my mother bore. She toddled into the fire when she was two. I inherited the name but neither her looks nor her sunny disposition as Mother is often wont to remind me. I am benighted, a child of the elements, who did not speak until a freak bolt of lightning skewered me to the earth. The next day, I found my very first ammonite, as round as a cart-wheel. A lady bought it for half a crown. A fortune to me until my first true find earned me twenty sovereigns. The clever men pored and picked over every bone and decided it was something new but centuries old. A paradox that calls the Bible into question. A mystery. A challenge. And I found it, over yonder see? Where that buttress of shale extends a nervous toe into the icy foam.  It is now preserved behind glass, sleepy, drowsy with beeswax and curious eyes stare and do not understand even though it now has a name.  Teleosaurus chapmani; named after the man who bought it from me and told the world he’d found it. 

Today the shore is as cold and hard as stone and I am here alone. Do not pity me for I relish my solitude.  Today the sun dazzles a crystalline sky and the cliffs are glazed and fissured, battered by the high, relentless waves. On softer days when clouds bulge like soot-filled sacks and the shore is ink-black, a shaft of light will break free and strike one facet of the rock I have seen a hundred times. Yet in that second, there it is, as clear as blown crystal, the skeleton of a new beast and I am the first to see it since the day it died and sank into the mud of a tropical sea and began to turn to stone.

       In early spring, when the sun is young and the tide is high, the sea is kittenish and licks the shale from the foot of the cliff. The breeze is soft on my cheeks and swells my skirts like sails. The sun is on my back and my bare feet curl around warmed pebbles and tepid pools. I fly from rock to rock but my eye never wavers. In summer, others share the shoreline with me, turning over rocks, raking the pools, but they haven’t my eye. That’s why they all need me, these clever men. That’s why he clung to me and I was glad. His grateful smile cradled me in its warmth.

       Mother fussed about him when he first came; pushed him into the inglenook and forced a jug of ale on him. He couldn’t be held. He was coiled tight with curiosity and ambition. He was young, broad-shouldered as a plough-boy, as tanned as a sailor.

       I led him down to the shore. The path zigzags back on itself as it clings to the cliff. Uneven slabs of stone tip this way and that, worn like old teeth by the tramp of cocklewomen, foragers and fishermen and slick with gull-shit.

He was not the first gentleman to seek me out. They wash in and out like dead crabs on the tide. But of all the men who have betrayed me, it is his brains I would take most pleasure in splattering across the rocks. His name was Philip Field. A soft name, as soft as his fair hair that fell to his shoulders and streamed in the wind like a banner. He was forever brushing it from his face. I can see him now, the sun proud behind him, laughing at what we had found. Laughing because in our triumph we were as one in our joy.

       He was a chattering magpie by nature, I taught him silence. When one visit became three, then five and he and I were focused on our task, he never uttered a word but shared my eyes as I scanned for recent slips and slides and picked out a fresh slice of exposed bluff, raw as flesh.  We walked for hours, days. The weeks were strung like shining beads along a silver skein. We waded the waves, jumped the clefts careless of the water boiling beneath us. We tramped the sands, skirted the cliffs, climbing up, clambering, bouldering, falling and laughing, scrambling in the mud, sliding down, catching and crawling, up and across and down and over until the sun grew bored and left us to the stars. Our backs and legs ached, our arms were heavy, our eyes stinging with scouring the miles of rock, most times dun, sometimes blue, most times grey, seeking the slightest alteration in the contours in the hard light of sea and sky, the salt, the tin-foil flash of the birds above our head, reflected in the wet sand puddled around our feet.

       From time to time he stopped, caught my arm and pointed. ‘Look! There! Can you see?’ And I would shake my head and his eyes would fade from blue to grey to disappointment and on we plodded. My head ached to please him, to see the blue return.

       One day a sudden storm roared in from the Channel and caught us in its fury. The birds fled. The waves roared and hurled themselves at the cliffs like dogs at the end of their chains. The wind ripped the shale from the slopes. It rattled like gunfire. The rain sliced our cheeks and soaked our clothes.

As we clung together to withstand the onslaught, a slab of the eastern headland collapsed. It began with a rumble which he thought was thunder. He gripped my hand. It was strong but as softly warm in my palm as a dog’s muzzle. We stood in silent awe as the slab, as wide as the harbour wall, subsided like a lady’s curtsey and settled at the foot of the cliff in a flurry of flounces and lace. That’s how he described it later but I didn’t see what he meant, not knowing of ladies’ curtseys, lace or flounces.

We waited, too terrified to breathe, our clothes plastered to our limbs, hair dripping like kelp. The storm passed. The sun peered through the streaming tatters of retreating cloud and the birds returned to feast on the flapping fishes gasping on the sand. Then he whispered, his mouth touching my ear. ‘Do you think? Could there possibly be?’

.      I looked and truth to say I prayed, although I know that God is man’s invention for what he doesn’t understand. 

He was so close to me he felt my body stiffen. ‘What, where?’ he cried, ‘I can’t see.’ The wind grew as impatient with him as I and once more began its torments, tugging at his coat tails, tearing his hat from his hand and giving it wings. He brushed his hair from his face in the way that was no as familiar to me as my own hand. He looked like a child who had lost his mother.

My feet were drowning in my boots. ‘We must go,’ I said, ‘Before the tide cuts us off.’ I urged him back to the town.

‘You’ve seen something. I know you have,’ he said, dancing like the boy who has found his mother, all his fear forgotten in her angry face.

       I didn’t tell him what I had seen. Not then. One word too soon and every fool is out with his pickaxe. This was mine and it would stay mine.

       ‘Meet me at low tide tomorrow,’ I said before we parted in the street. I saw curious eyes. I didn’t care.

       God still smiled on me then for the next day we had the shore to ourselves. I felt his breath close to mine as we laboured to release the beast from its rocky cage. We touched a rib, a toe bone and a long snout. We trembled with the newness of it, that we alone in all the world could see it and learn its secrets. When our hands and arms were too weak to dig further, we fashioned the beast on paper, took measurements, made notes. Fingers numb, wrapped in cloth, we worked. He is university-taught and his pen is fine. His drawings are exquisite, shaded with unsurpassed delicacy to give shape and form but retain clarity. I peered over his shoulder to learn his craft. That night I toiled, copying his simple lines until the fire was out and dawn came. His sketches are published; his notes in print. Mine are under my bed, curling at the edges, rotting.

       Day after day we returned. I took care to take my bag and bring it back brimming with the usual fare; the verteberries and the snake-stones to keep the fire burning and curious tongues still.

       On the hottest day of that summer we had dug and scraped, teased and coaxed all morning until exhaustion overcame us and we lay on the beach, our faces to the sky our backs to the hot sand. The silence was companionable; the seagulls’ cries a lullaby. When I woke he was sitting up and making more sketches in his fine leather-bound journal. ‘I am so excited, Mary,’ he said, his breath coming in short rasps. ‘It’s something completely new,’ he added, his pen scratching the paper, his knuckles white as he wrestled with the wind for its possession. ‘Can you see,’ he said, as if I hadn’t seen it first, ‘the line of the jaw, the way the front limb articulates, the uneven number of teeth? Do you think we can lift it soon? Do you think we can do it without help?’ He was anxious, his body a jangling wire, his head turning this way and that. ‘I don’t want a soul to know. It’s only you I trust.’

       ‘We cannot lift it alone,’ I said, hugging his faith in me close lest it fly away. ‘But I know a man who will not talk.’

       ‘Oh, Mary,’ he cheered. ‘You are a wonderful. What would I do without . . .’ He paused and the greedy wind snatched the words from his mouth and tossed them into the sea where they drowned. Too late for I had heard them. As quick as mercury, he caught me in his arms. And it was good and warmer than summer and I trembled with the newness of it. And he took my face in his hands and kissed me, murmuring, ‘I will never forget this moment. Never. I will blow the world apart with my discovery!’

       I pushed him away, seized his pen from the sand and hurled it in the air where it landed, nib down, in a pool.  He grabbed me by the waist. ‘Oh you tease! You wanton woman!’ he cried his head back, bloated with laughter.

       ‘It’s our discovery!’ I cried. In one beat of my heart I saw grey steel sharpen his eyes before the blue returned and he twirled me round and round until I was dizzy. Was this flirtation? If it was, then it was not what I desired. I pulled away.

       Ours,’ I said.

       His face softened. He caught my face in my hand and stroked my salty cheek with the back of his finger. ‘Of course. Mary. Our discovery,’ he whispered. Then he kissed me again. Hard. Harder. I felt his weight on my shoulder, urging me to the soft sand. ‘Mary, Mary,’ he groaned. His lips teased mine and I began to see why the other girls long for the touch and smell of a man. I softened, my knees melted and he filled me with his beauty.

       ‘Ours,’ screeched a gull arcing above us. ‘Ours!’

       I know what you’re thinking. That I am no better than the others, my head turned by a man’s easy attention. But that is not what made my knees melt and released my soul to the heavens. Aye, I believed in Heaven at that moment. It was our Heaven and we had made it. Together we had made a great discovery and the world was about to open for us like a flower after rain.

       What a fool; a greater fool than Becky White who was left belly full after she’d crowed that her sea-captain was taking her back to his Russian palace. Her laughter died when the black ship left without her and she was brought to bed in the Poor House. Even though she was married off to Tom Fowler, loudmouthed and loathsome, free with his fists but tight with his pennies, even she tilts her nose at me as she shuffles by, another child grizzling in her arms, four more clinging to her muddy petticoats.

       Even she knows; knows that our discovery now has a name. Teleosaurus Fielderi. The newspaper is burned but the words will never leave me.  ‘Discovered on the Dorset coast by the distinguished geologist, Mr Philip Field.’  The eyes that looked up from the page were as bright as ever but his face was drawn inward beneath a new-grown beard as befits a celebrated and learned fellow of the Royal Geological Society.

       ‘Mr Philip Field accepted the accolades of his fellows at a special dinner held in his honour in London last week. This popular young man was, in his gracious and elegantly expressed reply, fulsome in his praise of his fellow learned gentlemen who had seen fit to elevate him to their illustrious ranks. He then held his audience in thrall as he related how, after days of solitary toil, his keen eye discovered this most curious of creatures.’

I wander back along the foreshore, plucking a snakestone here, an angel’s wing there. I will slice some salt pork and boil potatoes for supper and prepare Mother for bed. I will read my books until my candle dies and then, come dawn, will take my hammer and bag to the shore. In spring I will once more set up my table of curiosities outside our door. Day will follow day until my bones are laid in the ground and someone else digs them up. They will preserve me behind glass and put someone else’s name beneath my fossilized remains. People will flock to visit me. A strange, rare and interesting object. A curiosity.

Saturday, 23 September 2023

Saturday Sample: A Gallery for Nick by Gill James, still water,


Chapter 1

“There you go.” Mr Fletcher carefully swung Nick into the wheelchair. Barney shifted from foot to foot. He never knew whether he should offer to help when Mr Fletcher was getting Nick out of the car. He always wanted to do something. But it was clear that Mr Fletcher knew what he was doing. 

“You can wheel him in if you like,” said Mr Fletcher.

“Oh no he can’t,” shouted Nick. He pulled the lever in the arm of the wheelchair and it whizzed forward. Barney went to open the front door. But he was too late. Nick somehow managed to drive straight at the door, so that it was flung open. Barney winced as it crashed back into the chair. Nick took no notice. He jiggled the controls again. He was frowning slightly and his tongue was poking out a little way between his teeth. Then the chair jerked forward so that it pushed the door again. He accelerated through.

“Come, on, what’s keeping you?” shouted Nick through the now closed door. Barney shook his head and grinned. Then he walked slowly in.

The wheelchair whirred along. Nick was already at the end of the long corridor when Barney got to the other side of the door.  Barney watched his friend stop the chair and then jiggle the controls on the arm rest. The chair pivoted to face the door to Nick’s room, and then Nick did the trick with the door again. This time, though, the door stayed open. The magnet on the wall held it in place. Barney stood and stared for a moment. How did he manage it?

“Are you coming then?” shouted Nick. "Come on."

Barney shook his head and then made his way into Nick’s room. Nick was already nudging the edge of the drawers with his wheelchair.

“In there,” he said, nodding his head towards the top drawer. “Close the door will you? I don’t want anyone else to know.”

Barney opened the drawer. He took the sketch book out and the small tin of water colours.

“Get the water,” commanded Nick.

Barney pushed Nick up to his desk. He spread the plastic sheet out for him and arranged the latest picture so that Nick could get to it easily. He unscrewed the tube of white and then opened the lid of the tin.

“Hurry up with that water, man!” Nick’s face was going red. That always happened when he got frustrated.

Barney hurried over to the sink with the jar. He had just filled it and carried it back, when there was a knock on the door. Barney covered the picture with a sheet of kitchen paper. He opened the door. Mrs Fletcher was standing there with a tray of drinks and biscuits.

“Thank you, Barney,” she said.

Nick sighed.

“Mum. Do you mind? Barney and I have got things to do.”

“You need to drink, love,” Mrs Fletcher replied, quietly. “Barney, do you think …”

“Yes, it’s all right, Mrs Fletcher. Really.”

Mrs Fletcher nodded and smiled. Nick pulled a face. "I grew out of baby cups a long time ago," he said, pointing to the invalid cup.

Barney walked over to the tray and took the cup. "Don't let it get to you," he said. 

Nick didn’t resist as Barney held the cup up to his lips. He even managed to lift his hand up so that it looked as if he was actually holding the cup. Barney tipped a little of the fluid into Nick’s mouth and then straightened the cup up as he waited to hear Nick’s laboured swallow. At last it came. Then he was able to tip a little more into Nick’s mouth. Slowly, slowly, the cup emptied. Barney took a few sips of his own drink to keep Nick company.

Then Nick seemed to be struggling. There was a strange rasping noise in his throat. He was trying to swallow and couldn’t. He rolled his head from side to side in frustration. Barney pushed him forward and thumped his back.

"Come on now," he shouted. "Swallow."

Barney’s heart started beating really fast.  This was happening more and more often now. One day … No that didn’t bear thinking about. Then all at once, Nick hiccoughed and he was breathing freely again. He giggled.

“Stop doing that, you monkey,” said Barney, cuffing him on the arm.

Nick giggled again.

“Want a biscuit?” Barney asked.

Nick nodded. Barney broke a piece off one of the soft shortcakes.

“Here,” he said, placing it in Nick’s mouth. “Chew it properly.”

“Yeah,” mumbled Nick.

Barney moved the kitchen paper back from picture. He stared at the small boats which seemed to bob up and down in the wind swept harbour. How could someone like Nick do something as clever? In fact, how could anyone?

“Did you take the memory card out?” Nick asked.

“Yes, said Barney. “I’ll take it home and Photoshop the pictures for you. I’ll try to get them to you tomorrow?” 

“Fine,” said Nick. “But make them high res.”