The Holly Bears a Berry

Merry Christmas to all and many thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and follow my blog this year and for all the helpful comments. I’m hoping to devote more time to reading and writing in 2017, especially once my youngest starts school in September. What are your writing plans for the New Year?

I wrote this story inspired by the festive season. I was planning to submit it somewhere in the hope of getting it published but never got around to it in time for Christmas! So today seems an appropriate day to post it here. Enjoy! Would love to hear your thoughts.

The Holly Bears a Berry

The sight of blood when not expected is always a shock. Marjorie coughed again; a further spattering of crimson appeared on the snow-white porcelain. Her face in the mirror was pale and insipid, as if she had been through too many wash cycles and her colours had faded. She felt a sudden lightness and tightened her grip on the side of the basin. She had always been squeamish about bodily fluids, even her own. She wiped away a smear of blood from her lower lip with trembling fingers and splashed her face with water. It felt as cold as meltwater from the snow which lay thickly outside, muting and shrouding the lane in its chilly embrace.

The water brought a little colour back to her face. She took care to remove all traces of blood from the sink and patted her face dry with the hand towel. It was the dark red one with embroidered holly leaves she only took out from the big chest at this time of year. The panic she had felt was beginning to subside. It was Christmas Day. No time to think now. There were jobs to do, cooking to get started. She must put on a smile for Monica, Steve and the children. Yes, that was what she must do. Get through Christmas first. Christmas was about family, not about yourself. That’s what mother had always told her.

Padding through the hallway in slippered feet, she went into the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil. It was almost too heavy for her to lift. She could hear the voices of the children in their bedroom laughing and shrieking as they opened up their stockings. The soft murmuring from the other room told her that Monica and Steve were awake too- she would take them tea in bed. They deserved to have a lie in today. In the pantry, the pale lifeless form of the turkey sat on the marble shelf. There was a trickle of blood collecting on the serving platter beneath it. She touched the pimpled flesh with her fingertips and felt a wash of nausea. The urge to cough returned and she reached for the handkerchief in her dressing gown pocket. Blood again, but only a little.

As the kettle boiled, Marjorie looked out of the window. A robin sat in the hedge opposite, its red breast feathers puffed up against the cold. A blackbird landed nearby and began plucking berries from the holly, gobbling them down eagerly and sending small flurries of snow down to the ground as it did so. Marjorie got out the bread sauce recipe and turned on the oven, deciding to set aside the crusts to feed the birds later. They needed help in weather like this. She wrapped her dressing gown tighter around herself, glad of the comforts of home. The tea tray was set out with china cups and saucers, a little jug of milk and a miniature Christmas napkin and mince pice for each of them. It pleased her to add these little touches to what was after all, a special day. She took it in to them and wished them a ‘Happy Christmas’ before returning to her room to dress for the day.

The green mohair cardigan was on the armchair where she had laid it out the evening before. She put it on, remembering the trip to Sweden when Joe had bought it for her. “It’s too expensive,” she’d whispered, turning over the price tag in the shop. But he had insisted, saying it was perfect for her, that shade of green suited her, and she’d had to agree. Now she kept it for special occasions, washing it by hand in tepid water, so as to preserve it for as long as possible. She smoothed the soft fabric over her breasts, cupping them as she did so. Was there something she had missed? Maybe there was something about the density that was different but she couldn’t be sure. It had been almost seventeen years since her operation. She’d never forgotten, but it had become something she thought about less often in recent years. Other things had taken over, drawn her attention away from the familiar threat that still lurked in the background, waiting for her guard to drop.

Marjorie touched the framed photograph of herself and Joe on the dressing table. It had been taken on their wedding anniversary at their local pub. They had hired the back room and Monica had made a cake with red flowers and leaves and ‘Happy Ruby Wedding Mum & Dad’ perfectly piped. She was good at things like that. All the children and grandchildren had been there. They had been happy. “Help me get through today Joe,” she whispered. She pressed her eyelids together and took a deep breath.

*

All day, it was as if the colour red was taunting Marjorie. It was Christmas, everything was red of course, you couldn’t get away from it. The red and gold lights twinkled on the tree, the red-ribboned gifts and paper hats, the flush in her daughter’s cheeks after she had consumed a few glasses of red wine. Marjorie herself drank more than usual. Nobody commented; it was a day for letting go, for relaxing and indulging. The children tore open their gifts and filled the room with heaps of brightly coloured paper and packaging. Marjorie sat back in her chair by the fire, until the urge to cough came back again, and she escaped to the kitchen.

The blood was there again. More so than before. She washed her mouth out at the kitchen sink then put on her coat to take the bread crusts out to the birds before it got dark. The robin was on the garden path, hopping towards the gate leaving perfect footprints in the snow. Marjorie threw him some crumbs and stood to watch as he pecked at them, the tiny black eyes darting back and forth, keeping her at a safe distance. She thrust her hands deep into her coat pockets and clenched her fingers around her handkerchief. The cold air seemed to knock the breath from her, she felt weak again, as if she could collapse and lie down, right there on the snow-covered lawn. Best to stand still until it passes, she thought. Soon she would have to go back inside. She coughed some more, turning away from the robin who seemed not to notice.

“Are you coming in Mum?” Monica was standing at the door shivering, with a large scarf draped over her shoulders. “You’ve been ages, come in, it’s freezing!”

Marjorie turned slowly, conscious of not making any sudden movements. Her daughter was smiling at her like she thought she was mad. Perhaps I am, she thought. “Yes. I’m coming now,” she coughed.

“That’s a nasty cough Mum, how long have you had that?”

“Oh, a little while.”

“You ought to see someone about that you know. Can’t have you getting bronchitis or something.” The two women linked arms and headed back to the warmth of the kitchen.

“Yes. I’ll go and see the Doctor next week. After the Bank Holiday. Now, who’s for a game of charades?”

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.

More Office Antics

For those of you who enjoyed my previous post Calm featuring Eric who had mislaid his prawn sandwich, you can now read a longer story, ‘Workplace Harmony’ featuring him here at Literally Stories

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I made myself chuckle writing it. All feedback gratefully received as ever.

Disclaimer: Any resemblances to office colleagues I may have worked with past or present are purely coincidental!

Guilty Secret

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Another non-winning Ad Hoc Flash Fiction entry from last week! Thought I would share it here…

Late again. She swerved into the driveway, stopping sharply. She scanned her appearance in the mirror for anything out of place, smoothed her hair and took a deep breath. Affecting what she hoped would pass for an air of nonchalance, she walked slowly into the house.

She needn’t have bothered; he was engrossed in a sport documentary and barely registered her entrance. Relieved, she hung up her coat.

‘I was going to order a takeaway,’ he said without looking at her. ‘You’ve had a hard day. Chinese okay?’

‘Yeah, sure. That sounds nice. Shall I fetch it?’

‘No, I’ll go. You sit down.’

She leaned back against the soft cushions and closed her eyes, relaxing for the first time that day. The bang of the front door woke her with a jolt.

‘I know your secret.’

She froze; speechless. He tossed the empty jelly bean packet at her and winked.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7259030@N07/445455563″>jely bellies</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

The Salt Cellar

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This is not meant to be the next in a series of object related posts… It is pure coincidence that an object plays a part in this story and it felt like the right title!

I would love any feedback as usual, any issue no matter how small. Thanks for reading.

‘Just. Eat. It.’

Her tone was low and menacing. She glared across the table; arms folded but fists tightly clenched, the knuckles whitening against her green woollen cardigan. He knew she was on the verge of totally losing it; he’d seen her like this before. A special type of anger she seemed to reserve just for him. His sister never seemed to trigger these outbursts. She just seemed to sail through, never putting a foot wrong.

‘I’m trying!’

He pushed the lump around the edge of the plate with his fork. The anticipation of another mouthful of dry, chewy meat sickened him. Taking a deep breath he shoved it in, chewed rapidly, then attempted the swallow. He gagged, but managed to keep from regurgitating his entire meal, just.

‘For goodness sake, you’re pathetic!’ The salt cellar came flying towards him, crashed onto his plate and covered the remaining food with a thick layer of salt. Now he knew his problems were just beginning. He knew she would still make him eat the whole lot. And she did.

Just thinking back over the incident now, twenty-five years later, he felt an almost irrational anger gathering up inside himself. Jonathan stared at the salt cellar in front of him, it’s cut glass surface reflecting the bright sunlight that poured in through the glass doors of his mother’s dining room. He looked down at his plate. The same portmeirion china that she had collected all of his life. He doubted she would even recall the incident if challenged; just one of many insignificant dinner table battles. But to Jonathan, it represented much more. Lately he had been thinking over his own childhood in considerable detail. What sort of parent did that?

This time it was vegetable lasagne, a safe option. She had made it with Maria in mind, who was a vegetarian. That was kind of her, he conceded. Even though they lived the other side of the same city, it was rare that they all got together for a meal. He reached out his hand and placed it on Maria’s thigh underneath the blue linen tablecloth. She turned to him and smiled, before turning back to her food, oblivious to his inner conflict.

He glanced across the table; his mother and step-father were equally absorbed in the task at hand. Geoff’s calloused hands and worn shirt looked out of place against the formal tableware. His mother wore a white blouse under a cashmere sweater, a string of semi-precious stones around her pale neck. He’d often wondered what on earth they saw in each other as a couple; they seemed so different in their outlook. But then he never had understood the inner workings of his mother’s mind; getting older hadn’t changed that. He moved his water glass in front of the salt cellar and picked up his cutlery.

‘So. Have you two looked at any more houses yet? You’ve not got long now you know.’ Her gaze shifted rapidly between them both, demanding a response. Maria looked to Jonathan to answer.

‘Not really.’ He reached for a slice of bread from the basket and began to butter it on his side plate.

‘Well, there’s a really nice 1930’s semi on Hazel Drive. Needs quite a lot of work doing but it’s mainly cosmetic. We could go and have a look at it, together if you like?’

‘Mum, we can’t afford anything round here. I’ve told you that already.’ He wiped the edge of his plate with the bread, knowing she would be watching him and disapproving of his table manners.

‘I think you’d be surprised. They might take an offer, you never know. Anyway, you’ll be glad to have us close by when the baby comes.’ She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin.

‘Well, we were thinking that it probably wasn’t worth moving now, we may as well just stay where we are for the time being. We don’t want to add moving house to the stress of having a baby.’

At this, she sent her cutlery clattering on to her plate and tossed her napkin aside. ‘This is exactly why I told you to start looking early! It will be so much harder for you to move once you’ve got the baby here. You’ll never get around to it.’

‘I’m sure we will Mum, plenty of other people do! We just haven’t decided exactly what we want yet, okay?’

‘Well you need to start organising yourselves a bit better if you ask me.’ We didn’t, he thought to himself.

‘And have you thought about what you’ll do when Maria goes back to work yet?’

‘No Mum, the baby hasn’t even been born yet, we don’t need to plan everything with military precision!’ Jonathan was beginning to regret accepting his mother’s Sunday lunch invitation. Somehow it always seemed to turn out like this, with Maria and Geoff looking meekly on while his mother lambasted him about something or other. He determined to finish his food as quickly as possible and get the hell out of there. He shovelled his food down in quick gulps, and drained his sparkling grape juice.

‘Well just give it some thought will you? Geoff would help you out with the renovations, wouldn’t you Geoff?’ she said nudging him viciously, stirring him from his stupor. Jonathan noticed that Geoff had emptied the last of the red wine from the bottle and was making inroads into a second.

‘Yeah, sure. Course,’ he mumbled into his beard.

‘You know, you could always put your place on the market and then move in with us for a while, until the right place comes up. That way, I could look after you all and help out with the baby.’ Geoff raised his eyebrows slightly at this suggestion, then settled back into his chair, cradling the bowl of his glass in his hand.

‘Mum. Thanks. That’s kind. But we’re happy where we are right now, aren’t we?’ He turned to Maria, feeling the need for some back-up, and squeezed her knee gently. Moving back in with his mother was the last thing he would ever consider. Why would he go back to the place he had yearned to escape from for so long?

‘Yes, yes.’ She was picking at the aubergines, she’d never liked them.

‘Fine. Now, who’s for lemon meringue pie?’

Over-catering was her forte. After the pudding and coffee, Jonathan excused himself to the lounge, then to the garden on the pretext of helping Geoff prune a fruit tree that was overhanging the driveway. He felt a pang of guilt leaving Maria to make small talk with his mother but decided she could handle herself. They could talk about pregnancy and labour; his mother would be in her element, imparting her wisdom on the feeding of infants no doubt. He’d heard it all before; she loved to be the expert and Maria would sweetly soak it all up.

By the time the men came back into the house, the atmosphere seemed to have dispersed somewhat. Jonathan’s mother was unloading the dishwasher and Maria was reclining on the armchair in the dining room, her feet propped up on a foot stool. Jonathan went over to her and gently stroked her hair. She seemed peaceful, content. He wondered if he had over-reacted earlier. He couldn’t expect Maria to understand, but something told him that he couldn’t let his mother get too close to them. He wouldn’t let her take over, the way he knew she wanted to.

‘Tea, anyone?’

Jonathan looked at Maria. She looked exhausted, her pregnant belly bulging over her maternity jeans, her eyes closed. She hadn’t been sleeping well recently; the baby was pressing against her ribs. He hated to disturb her.

‘Okay, just a quick one Mum, we’ve got a few things to get done at home before work tomorrow.’

As they sat sipping their tea, Jonathan reflected that family was family. He must make an effort to maintain relations for the sake of his child; his children. He exchanged some idle chat with his mother about local people and events then stood as if to begin a move towards the hallway.

‘Wait, I’ve got something for you. Might as well give it to you now, don’t know when we might see you again.’ Just when he’d thought she had let it go, she had to slip in one of her barbed comments. She just couldn’t help herself. He sighed and sat back down by the window, gazing longingly at his car.

His mother reappeared shortly with a paper package, which she placed into his open hands. He looked up at her, expectantly.

‘It’s a Christening gown. The one you wore, and your father wore too. Your Nana Clara made it.’

‘Thanks Mum. But, I think I told you, we’re not sure about getting the baby christened, neither of us is religious, you know?’

‘Well it’s important to me. It’s tradition.’

‘Okay, we’ll think about that. I’ll put it somewhere safe.’ Where I will never find it again, he thought, seething.

As they gathered up their things to leave, Jonathan picked up the salt cellar from the sideboard and palmed it into his jacket pocket. On the way out, he hurled it under the high beech hedge that bordered the neighbour’s property and smiled to himself. A small act of rebellion but it made him feel better. He vowed not to come back here before the birth, maybe not even before Christmas. Baby’s first Christmas; now there was another battle to be had.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/51035739227@N01/8357719625″>Week 2 (2013) – 5-12 Jan – Backlight</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Point of Entry

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Continuing on the object theme, as promised here is a story about a door. Do let me know what you think.

Nearly eighty years I’ve stood here; guardian and protector of the entrance to number 86. I’ve seen many feet pass over my threshold, and I’ve had many owners. They come and go but I remain constant. I’ve been a witness to emotional goodbyes and poignant reunions. The conduit of countless comings and goings. Right now I’m a royal blue colour, that’s my personal favourite, but I’ve been other colours too: red, green, black, blue again. Whatever takes people’s fancy at the time. They like to make their mark when they move in.

I’ve seen some things I can tell you.

Like the first couple who lived here for thirty-odd years. Mr and Mrs Clough was their name.They were so proud when they bought this place- it was their first home together. He carried her, giggling over the threshold the day they moved in. Mrs Clough used to polish my brass fixtures and wash down the step on a weekly basis. That was the thing to do back then. Nobody has washed my step in years now. I saw their children too. They grew up and left. Little Harry would stand for hours looking through my letterbox. He would open and close his little window to the world; fat fingers probing my recesses ever so gently, before slamming it shut whenever someone came up the path. He liked to feel the breeze on his face. I like to think he felt safe behind me; shielded from the dangers of the outside world.

Like Miss Hargreaves. She bought me and the house with her inheritance. She took good care of me too. She had me painted a beautiful forest green and would adorn me with a wreath of holly at Christmas. I do like to look my best at Christmas. Mr Clough used to hang mistletoe. Miss Hargreaves didn’t have much in the way of family; just a succession of small dogs who would dart about in the hallway, their little claws clicking on the tiles. Jumping up and scratching at me whenever anyone rang my bell. That King Charles spaniel, he was the worst for that. I don’t know where she went when she sold this house but I was glad to be rid of those dogs. Once I slammed shut on one of their tails- that tickled me. I blamed the wind.

Like all those students who came and went at all hours of the day and night during the eighties and nineties. Shouting through my letterbox like the drunken idiots they were when they were locked out. Fumbling around with their keys in the dark, trying desperately to gain entry. Of course I didn’t make it easy for them; my favourite trick was to wait until they were leaning against me in a semi-conscious state, and then swing open sending them sprawling and cursing. Ha! Once one even passed out in the hallway, his feet hanging over the step, and left me open all night. Those were the times I longed for a nice respectable family again.

This area has gone downhill in recent years. The type of tenants I see now would make Mrs Clough turn in her grave. I’m one of the few remaining original doors on this street and proud of it. I know its probably only a matter of time before the landlord decides to replace me with something cheap and made of UPVC; easier to maintain and more suited to modern tastes. My days are probably numbered, but I think I’ve done my job pretty well, all things considered.

The current chap who lives here is very quiet. I hardly see him at all in fact. When he does go out he must use the back door; I know I’ve not been opened in weeks. It’s not good really, I like to stretch my hinges and get some exercise. It feels like I’m not doing my job properly. Strange men come and go at night with packages. Back and forth through the shared gennel that leads to the yards out back. He doesn’t even answer if someone comes knocking in the daytime, even though I know he’s in. I don’t know why he needs a house like this all to himself. Maybe he’s waiting for his family to join him. Maybe he’s just very shy. I wonder..

Oh, there’s a couple of blokes standing here now; what time do they think it is? Hang on, these aren’t his usual visitors. And there are more of them coming out of that van down the road, all in black the same, slinking across the road like spiders. How long has that been parked there? I didn’t even notice them arriving, must have been totally lost in my own world. Something doesn’t feel right to me.What’s that he’s got there now?

A flash of red and he hits me full force in my middle with something hard, metallic. Again, and the force of the impact shakes my fittings; I can feel the wood splintering and my grip loosening. He’s going to have me off my hinges in a matter of moments. Well, this is it, there’s no point in prolonging the agony. I brace myself for the blow, relinquish my grip and let them in. My job here is done.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/21532476@N00/3432362102″>Terraced houses</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

The Toaster

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I’ve been writing one or two longer stories, none of which I feel confident enough about to post here, so as an aside I’ve felt inspired to write a piece based on this blog that I came across:

https://awordofsubstance.wordpress.com/

All the pieces are based on photographs of objects that people email to the writer.

The Toaster

I’m woken again by the harsh glare of the halogen bulbs overhead. Thankfully I have a few minutes to come to my senses as she always reaches for the kettle first. The morning is my busiest time of day; I have to work hard, but that’s what I’m good at. I take pride in toasting evenly on both sides, churning out round after round of hot breakfast items on demand.

It must be nearly Easter. The tall lady is loading me with hot cross buns. I hate hot cross buns, and teacakes, fruit loaf. They’re all the same to me. Those sultanas always fall off and get burned into hard black pebble-like obstructions that wedge themselves into my filaments and clutter my crumb tray with their charred corpses. Then they end up setting off the smoke alarms and everyone blames me! She’ll have me upside down over the sink, shaking me for all I’m worth. I’m not designed to cope with that sort of abuse. It’s demanding living with a family of four. Give me a nice retired couple who prefer Weetabix any day.

She shows me some affection from time to time. Once a week she rinses my crumb tray and polishes my reflective chrome sides. She likes to make sure there are no smears, no grease splatters. Not like him. He’s always in a hurry. Once he dropped his car keys into me on his way out to work- I’ve never heard such language. I released them as quickly as I could in response to his vigorous prodding at my innards with a table knife. He’ll be the death of me one day.

The Babysitter

I submitted a very much shorter version of this story for the ‘ginger’ prompt in the Ad Hoc Flash Fiction competition recently and felt I wanted to extend it.  I’m trying to improve my use of dialogue too, and also use less adverbs! All comments gratefully received.

Robbie’s Mum was going out. Robbie always knew when she going somewhere because she had makeup on and the bathroom smelled of hairspray. She had also been nagging Robbie about picking up his lego from the living room carpet and she never usually bothered. Alicia Johnson from the next street was coming to babysit. Alicia was seventeen and had a perm and a boyfriend. She smelled of cigarettes. She was supposed to arrive at eight but was always late. Robbie knew her younger brother Sam; he was in the year above at school and sometimes tried to steal Robbie’s crisps at playtime.

‘Now Robbie, listen to me. I don’t want any playing up for Alicia. You are to be on your best behaviour, do you understand me?’ Robbie squirmed in his seat, trying his best to evade Mum’s eye contact. ‘You are to be in bed by nine o’clock at the latest, the very latest alright?’ Now she was pinning him down by his shoulders into the sofa, shouting at him like he was a little child. ‘I don’t want to hear that you’ve been playing up again or there’ll be no pocket money this week, d’you hear?’

‘Alright, alright! I know. Can I watch my Star Wars video now?’

‘Yes, just keep quiet while I get ready.’ Robbie’s Mum began dabbing at her eyeshadow in the fireplace mirror with a long-handled brush.

Robbie raced upstairs and got into his striped pyjamas before settling down on the rug with his video. He had just fast-forwarded it to his favourite bit when when the doorbell rang.

‘Oh God, he’s here already. Where’s Alicia?’ said Mum, her eyes darting around the room before she located her handbag beside the telephone seat.

Andrew had a thick ginger beard and bushy hair. Robbie thought he looked like a Viking or a troll and couldn’t imagine why Mum would want to go out with him. He seemed alright otherwise though.

‘Alright there kiddo?’ he said, ruffling Robbie’s hair with his large hand. His hands were hard and rough, with oil in the deep cracks. He was a mechanic at the garage where Mum took her car from time to time. Seeing him here in the living room, standing on the worn brown carpet, seemed strange somehow to Robbie. He looked awkward, out of place. Maybe it was because he wasn’t wearing greasy overalls or carrying a spanner. He looked like he’d made a bit more of an effort, which was nice Robbie supposed. He didn’t acknowledge the greeting and turned straight back to Luke Skywalker. His Mum was faffing around in the kitchen, putting food down for Smokey.

‘The babysitter isn’t here yet. Sorry.’ Mum paused, glancing at the kitchen clock, ‘Do you want a drink?’

‘I’ll have one!’

‘Not you Robbie!’

‘Well, the table’s booked for half eight and it’ll take half an hour to walk, unless you want to jog there!’ Andrew joked. Mum didn’t seem to see the funny side.

‘Ooh, where are you going?’ Robbie asked.

‘None of your business, that’s where!’ Mum snapped. ‘Look, she’s always a bit late, let’s just get going. She’ll be here soon anyway I’m sure. Robbie, if she isn’t here in fifteen minutes, ring Mrs. Johnson, okay?’

Robbie wasn’t sure he liked that idea but knew that disagreeing at this stage would not be a good move. ‘Okay’ he said, pressing play on the video remote.

Mum and Andrew hurried each other out of the door, banging the door behind them.

Alicia never did turn up that night. They never found any trace of her. The police came round to talk to Robbie’s Mum but she couldn’t tell them anything. Robbie could tell she felt bad about leaving him on his own, she had been especially nice to him the next few days and didn’t even tell him off about not phoning Mrs. Johnson. Robbie didn’t mind; he had stayed up until ten thirty and eaten three slices of bread and honey.