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Kate Woodward is telling tales again

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short story

This Time Next Week

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Tuesday: Post Office, then Boardman’s for a large white loaf and four slices of ox-tongue. Pay for the papers, one quarter pound of boiled sweets – nothing liquorice. Then the chippy: two small fish, two peas, one large chips. Home by 12.15, kettle on, bread buttered.

‘How’s your fish?’

‘It’s all batter; half of it’s empty. Look!’ Derek pushes his knife under the batter and shows me the absence of cod.

‘Do you want to swop?’ I say. ‘This one’s alright.’

‘No, it’ll do. Besides, you’ve eaten more than I have. Any more tea in that pot?’

He falls asleep in the chair after dinner. His mouth drops open and his false set clicks against his palate as he breathes in and out. He has had that cardigan for seventeen years and the blasted thing still hasn’t worn out.

I wash up slowly, taking longer in the kitchen than I need to, staring out from the window at the flaking whitewash on the backyard walls. The flakes make patterns, sometimes I can see faces. It might be just the light but, sometimes, I can see a Japanese woman, with high-piled hair and odd, flat features.

The crossword, the word search and then a short look through the paper. More asylum seekers, some arguments over energy prices and the world’s tallest dog. Free quotes for a stair-lift and impossibly glamorous living in a new retirement village. The clicking stops as Derek wakes up. ‘Must have needed it. Shall we have a brew? No, you sit down. I’ll make it.’

‘There’s a bit of that cake, if you fancy it: the lemon one.’

There’s the banging of cupboard doors before he shouts from the kitchen, ‘Where the ruddy hell ‘ave you hidden it?’

I shoo him out of the way. Cut two slick slices of cake and rinse the knife at the sink. ‘Hello,’ I whisper. ‘Hello my little Tokyo friend.’

There’s a quiz show. Sausage and egg for tea. Then I phone our Carole and remind her about Paul’s birthday. I don’t say anything to Carole about the tests he’s been going for. Later I fall asleep during Holby, wake up and complain about the gas fire. I sit on the side of the bed and rub Atrixo into my hands, read three pages, turn out the light and listen to the heating pipes contracting.

Wednesday: Upstairs: bedroom, back bedroom. Bleach down the loo. Empty the Hoover bag, dust down the stairs. Butchers: four small cutlets – daylight bloody robbery – and half a pound of lamb’s liver. New potatoes – Cheshire earlies – should be lovely. Call and pick up Derek’s prescription.

The sun comes out. I walk rather than getting the bus. It’s only three or four stops anyway, and I don’t know why I don’t always do it. I get talking to Hilda who’s out with that stupid dog of hers. Have to listen for twenty minutes about Australia and her Kenneth and how she’s going again next year, and how travel broadens the mind. Broadens the arse more like. How many seats on the plane did they make her pay for?

Tongue with a little mustard. A tomato on the side, sliced with pepper and a splash – just a splash, mind – of vinegar. Scrub the spuds for later. I decide to sort that drawer full of photographs and to write some names on the backs while I can still remember who’s who. Derek gets cross because he’s trying to read the paper and I keep making him lose his place. ‘Where was this Derek? Was it Bridlington or Scarborough?’

I peg out a few bits later – they might dry, you never know – and look for my Japanese lady, but the light or the angle is wrong. I can see a dog. A large curling flake casts its own round shadow.

Cutlets, boiled potatoes and peas, with a small glass of wine: the left-overs from Sunday. Well, I can’t tell the difference and it’s a shame to throw it down the sink. Nowt on the telly.

Thursday: Put the towels on a hot wash. Catch the ten-past-ten and meet Margaret for a latte and a toasted teacake. Remember the good old days when we could order a coffee and not have to give it some fancy foreign name. Have a quick look round the shops. Almost buy Derek a new cardigan: I stand in the queue at the cash desk until I feel like swearing and walk out of the shop, leaving the cardigan hanging on a rack of superhero pyjamas.

Walk past the travel agents on the way to the bus station. Go inside and get pounced on by a skinny girl in stupid shoes with false eyelashes – the girl that is, not the shoes. Get a brochure of coach trips in Yorkshire, when what I really wanted was the one for tours to the Far East. Leave the brochure on the bus in case it gives Derek ideas.

Run out of toilet roll. Put a box of tissues in the bathroom. Leave Derek to fathom it for himself. He starts talking about newspaper and the outside loo we had when we first got wed, and I fall asleep because it saves having to listen.

Friday: Big shop. Derek drives me in the Civic, drops me by the door and then drives to the far, quiet end of the car park, where “no bugger’s going to scratch my paintwork with a trolley”. Load up on loo roll, tea, Jaffa cakes, Shredded Wheat, spuds and tin foil. Try and work out if the three for two is worth it. A bunch of lilies with fat green pods, and then a quick wander around the magazines for a Woman’s Own and a Real Travel magazine. Pay using Derek’s bank card – mine doesn’t work for some reason and tuck the holiday mag firmly inside the Woman’s Own. Call Derek on the mobile and get him to drive 100 yards to pick me up because the trolley’s got a wonky wheel.

Cheating bought quiche and a bag of salad; cream horns for afters – lovely!

Call Paul about his test results. Curse the NHS and then admit that it’s marvellous really and we shouldn’t complain. Send my love to Matty and Lottie. Ask when they are coming for tea.

Iron the towels and put them away. Hide the holiday mag at the back of the airing cupboard until Derek’s gone down to the club – he borrows a twenty out of my purse, but it’s worth it for the peace and quiet. Watch three episodes of Escape to the Country back to back. The Sky box keeps recording them – I’m sure I never set that up.

Wake up with Derek breathing beer in my face and turn over. He follows me as I move across the mattress and I end up teetering on the edge half the night.

Saturday: Bring two mugs of tea back to bed. Leave Derek asleep and then get cross because he’s let his tea get cold. The boiler sounds funny. Wonder which costs more: a new boiler or a trip to Mount Fuji? Breakfast before getting dressed: shredded wheat with warm milk, half a slice of toast, two cod-liver oils, because I can’t remember if I’ve had one or not. Water the houseplants with a too small, but very pretty, novelty watering can which drips all over the windowsills. Mop up the drips with the corner of my dressing gown. Switch off the boiler. Switch it on again – sounds fine. Read small ads in the paper for tours on the Panoramic Express.

Call on Lily. Tell her that her chest sounds better although it doesn’t. Fetch her a glass of water, two mint imperials and some tissues. Lily says her brasses need polishing; I say they’ll do. Freshen up the water in the flowers I brought last week. Ask about Stephen. Ask about the twins. Ask if there’s anything else she wants. She mentions the brasses. Next week, I say, hoping she’ll forget.

Home, then a quick run round with the Hoover. The sun’s showing the dust on everything. Take a pile of newspapers out to the recycling bin. Nice in the yard: suntrap. Nose around the pots, see if anything’s showing yet. Something that looks like an eggshell on the black, winter soil. It’s a large flake of whitewash. Go back indoors, put my old coat on, and get the outhouse key. Attack the wall with a stiff yard brush, sweeping the flaking whitewash furiously, big flakes falling to the floor, tiny ones floating in the air like cherry blossom and settling in my hair and all over my glasses. Try and brush up. Yell at Derek to come and make himself useful and hold the shovel.

‘That’s pretty bad dandruff you’ve got there,’ he says.

‘Bugger off.’

‘I thought you wanted me to help.’

‘I do. Hold the ruddy shovel, will you.’

‘You’ll have to paint it all now. It looks a right mess. It’s all patchy.’

‘Yeah, well.’

‘Anyroad, I thought you’d be starting the tea. It’s gone five.’

‘You know where the kitchen is as well as I do.’

He’s making a hash of things when I get back inside, everything out of the cupboards. I tell him to leave it, which is what he wanted anyway.

Start watching a film and remember I’ve seen it after about twenty minutes. Suggest turning over but Derek says that I’m wrong, I haven’t seen it – but I have, I remember the bit with the boat and the chap with the mask.

Sunday: Proper breakfast: bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried egg, fried bread, toast and marmalade; Sunday paper with the colour magazine. Listen as Derek tells me all the scores from yesterday’s matches. Have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

Phone Carole. Check what time we’re expected. Ask if we can bring anything. Spend time on the phone talking about stuff that we could talk about for free later on. Consider asking Derek to drive me to the DIY place for some whitewash. Decide that I’ll end up painting if I do. Look at the damage I’ve done: big brush marks on the wall, bricks flaking, and tiny white specs like snow on the black soil. I can’t find my Japanese lady. “Sorry” I whisper, “so sorry”.

Make Derek a nice coffee and give him a Mr Kipling Battenberg. When he say’s “Oh, that’s grand” ask him if he fancies a little holiday.

‘What for?’ he says. ‘We’re alright as we are, aren’t we?’

‘I just fancied a bit of a change,’

He looks at me as if I am ill. ‘What’s up? There’s nothing up is there?’

‘No. It’s just, well, we’re not getting any younger, and you know, I’ve never been abroad.’

‘Ah, well, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Dangerous in some places; downright smelly in others and it’s too ruddy hot. No. We’re better off over here. We’ll do Great Yarmouth again, I think; September, when the schools have gone back. Grand, Great Yarmouth.’

I walk out. Pick up the car keys even though I rarely drive these days, put on my coat and tell Misery Arse I’m just popping out for half an hour. Don’t tell him I’m taking the car. Drive to the DIY place. Buy whitewash, and a multipack of economy jumbo sponges.

Derek’s in a tizz when I get back. Drop the car keys in his hand and ignore him. Put the whitewash in the outhouse. Brush my hair, stick a bit of powder on my nose and tell Derek that if the clock’s right, it’s about time we were setting off for Carole’s.

Eat too much. Don’t speak to Derek. I’m not sure if he notices. Mark everyone’s height on the doorframe. Look through four catalogues of kitchen units and compare four identical kitchens all staged for the photographs in rooms bigger than anybody’s real houses. Say that I like at least two of them best.

Monday: Strip the bed, and bundle everything into the machine. Dust and hoover downstairs. Spotting with rain, fold the wet sheets and hang them on the airer. Library books returned and swapped. Pick two thrillers for Derek, at least one of which I know he’s read before – serves him right, miserable git – and a tour guide to Japan that is small enough to slip into my handbag. Pick up two meat and potato pies for dinner.
When Derek’s having a nap, go back into the yard. Redraw the Japanese lady, in pencil, onto the red brick wall. Clouds have blown over, peg out the sheets. Get the whitewash and do one coat, carefully working around my pencil marks, sheets whipping about my earholes.

Derek says, ‘You’ve missed a bit.’

‘Yeah,’ I say ‘I’ll sort it out. It’s going to need a second coat anyway.’

‘You all right?’ He asks.

‘Fine,’ I say.

Salad for tea – Derek’s not happy, but he can stuff off: I’ve opened a big tin of red salmon and that doesn’t come cheap. Besides, how does he think I can whitewash the yard and have a hot meal on the table at six o’clock?

Margaret phones. Lily’s been taken into hospital. Fallen, apparently, trying to get the Brasso down off the top shelf, balanced on a chair. Just bruised they think, but they’re keeping her in. It’s marvellous, really, the NHS, and the ambulance men, ever so good they were with her. Ever so good.

Derek says he’s still hungry. I pass him a banana from the fruit bowl and he gets up grumbling and goes into the kitchen. ‘If this is all about that daft holiday idea, you can pack in sulking now,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing wrong with Great Yarmouth. There’s loads of folks would love to have a holiday there.’

Go to bed early. Don’t bother with the Atrixo. I rub my hands together and listen to how rough they are.

Tuesday: Post Office, then Boardman’s for a large white loaf and four slices of ox-tongue. Pay for the papers, one quarter pound of boiled sweets – nothing liquorice. Then the chippy: two small fish, two peas, one large chips. Home by 12.10, kettle on, bread buttered.

A Love Story, Manc Style

OK, this chap says, go and take a photo, come back and write about it. So I did.
If you don’t like bad language, stop right now, thank you.

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Sometime between midnight and 4:00 a.m., Simon formed a significant new relationship. He would be hard-pressed to be more specific about the time, but he’d looked at his watch just before twelve in the ‘Spoons and his arrest record showed that the officers of Greater Manchester Police detained him at 0400 hours. In the intervening period, he fell in love with a traffic bollard.
What surprised Simon most was not the adoration he had for an item of plastic street furniture, but rather the fact that the bollard appeared to be male. He was not good at reading upside-down, upside-down and drunk was pushing things too far. But, fighting for focus, he could see the bollard’s name printed across its base. ‘Hello Peter,’ he said, ‘pleased to meet you.’
Peter was delightful. He glowed. He was warm and cosy and shone like the sun. Peter had a lovely white arrow, beautifully set-off by a pretty, sky-blue background that pointed, helpfully, to the left. Peter – oh, dear – had crude, black vinyl letters defacing his lovely round belly. And Peter, poor Peter, was fastened – nay, bolted – to a crumbling pedestrian refuge.
It was too much. Simon imagined passers-by, buffeting Peter with swinging bags. He imagined cars, veering of course, mounting the pavement. He imagined late-night drunks – oh, the indignity of it – leaning on Peter. ‘Darling,’ he said, ‘let me take you away from all this.’
He loosened the first two bolts easily. The third – cross threaded – was cursed, kicked and jumped on. It gave, finally, when Simon attacked it with a window box he had borrowed from the Midland Hotel. Peter rocked on his plinth, but bolt four was holding firm. Bolt four wasn’t giving way. Bolt four was hanging, for grim death, onto the love of Simon’s life. Bolt four was a bastard. Bolt four was an effing twatting, effing bastard, effing twatting c__!
And that was what Simon was shouting, when he was disturbed by a young woman, dressed like his beloved, in yellow and blue. It wasn’t his arrest that bothered Simon, it was the parting. He wept in the police van, and carried on weeping until, with the dawn, he began to sober up. And then, he couldn’t believe how stupid he’d been. What a complete and utter tit! He recalled the events of the night with horror. What had he been thinking?
He walked out of the nick into a thin drizzle. He needed a good breakfast: bacon, eggs, toast, lots of toast, and tea, gallons of it. Then he needed an angle grinder, a power supply, and a can of WD40. Poor Peter was not going to spend another night on those vicious streets. Not if Simon could help it.

Dan’s Desperate

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The car has been running on fumes for ten miles. If he can make it to the top of the hill, he can coast down into town. He’ll bum a tenner off Nev, stick a couple of gallons in the tank and kiss goodbye to this shit hole forever.
As plans go, leaving home in a stolen, twenty-year-old Peugeot with a fifteen-year-old girl stuffed in the boot isn’t his best. It has possibilities though, which is more than can be said about his job, flipping crud-burgers, at Banner’s. He’s been there all summer and asked for one lousy half day off, just a half day, and Banner—the bastard—had offered him the sack. Okay, maybe that isn’t quite the whole story, but right now, with an empty tank and another two miles of hill to climb, Dan’s got other stuff to be worrying about.
The way he sees it, he’s got two choices: leave her in the boot and set off walking, or let the little bitch out and get her to push. The trouble with plan B is that he can’t see her sticking to her side of the bargain.
She’s real pretty, but she’s a dirty little tart and he half hates her for that. She’s screwed Jordan—according to Jordan; she’d gone out back with Simmy at that party, and everyone knows about her and that student teacher. And Dan? Well, he reckons it’s his turn.
He can hear her kicking her feet against the back of the seats. She’s not screaming but she’s not happy. Jumped in quick enough when he said he’d get her out of school and promised a few days on their own at his mate’s cottage. So what if the cottage is a skanky caravan in the corner of a boggy field? It’s not gonna bother him is it? He’s got weed, he’s got cider and, out there, however loud she screams, and Simmy says she’s a screamer, no one’s gonna notice.
He’s almost at the top, almost ready to push this stinking shit heap into neutral, almost home free and the fumes give out. It doesn’t matter how hard he pumps the gas, he’s slowing down and there’s still two hundred yards to go and it might as well be two hundred miles. And the stupid little bitch is shouting now and, fuck me, isn’t there always an old git, at the bus stop, craning his nosey old fuckin’ beak in, just where it’s not wanted. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!
‘Shut up,’ he snarls through clenched teeth, ‘shut the fuck up.’ But she keeps on kicking and the next thing, the old bloke, all bent forward, is knocking on the nearside window and mouthing something he can’t make out. Dan manages to hiss another warning towards the rear of the car, before leaning across and winding the window down a couple of inches. The daft old git asks the bleedin’ obvious. ‘Problem with the motor, is it, Son?’
‘Nah, I think it’s just out of petrol.’
‘Won’t be that, Son. I heard knocking. From round the back end. You must have something loose.’
He’s walking round the back, trying to crouch, trying to get them fuckin’ ancient bones down low enough to look under the car.
Dan’s desperate. ‘Just a push, Mate, that’s all I need, just a little shove, if I can get to the top of the hill, I can easy coast into town.’
The old fella’s not having it. ‘Not with my back, Son. But, if you want to push, I’ll get in and steer.’
He’s walked round, got his hand on the door handle and yes, Dan knows it’s the most brainless thing he’s ever done, but the little bitch has gone quiet and they really do need to get up this fuckin’ hill. He switches places with the old git and starts shoving and after a bit of shit over whether the handbrake’s still on, he’s finally getting, yard by yard to the top of the bastard, bloody hill.
And it’s there, at the summit, when he should be ready to ride this crazy wave back into town that Dan decides it would be an even bigger laugh to leave the old git with a bootful of trouble.
He pauses and then gives the Peugeot one hell of a shove before turning and walking back the way he’d just come.

Death of an ordinary man

There, just across the square, sitting with two small boys and a bottle blonde wife – who’s washing down nachos with a jug of sangria – sits an ordinary looking man. He’s the normal age for a man with two boys, wearing the normal holiday shorts with the usual blue-checked, short-sleeved shirt. He’s clean shaven with a regular haircut; an unremarkable height and weight. There’s nothing, at all, to set him apart from the crowd. Unless, that is, you count the red dot of the laser sight that plays, sometimes on the left, breast pocket of that unremarkable shirt and sometimes, smack in the middle of that plain forehead.
Now you’ve seen it, nothing is normal. You toy for a while with the notion that one of the boys, in their long navy T-shirts, has borrowed, from Dad, the little gadget he uses when he’s making his PowerPoint presentations; but the boys are at some other game involving paper napkins, cruets and the lining up of knives and forks. You turn to the wife, but she’s somewhere, far away, enjoying her sangria fuelled fantasy. You start to look at the other diners, the black-shirted waiters and finally, you look around the shuttered windows that surround you at first and second floor height. All seems normal there too; until a moment of movement, west to your south. A first floor window opens – just enough inches for a nose and lips, and an index finger, held vertically against those lips. Now you’re silenced. The shutter closes, almost completely, leaving just enough space for the barrel of a weapon. Your ordinary man, in his ordinary shirt, slumps, only a little, in his seat, as his wife stares into her dreams and the boys continue their game.
A few seconds pass, maybe a minute, until returning from her brief sojourn, the wife spots the trickle of blood that runs from the hole in her husband’s skull and screams. The police are called, an ambulance. The boys are huddled away. A small crowd gathers, some peering over shoulders, some shaking heads before sneaking away. And just before the police seal off the square, with hastily called in officers and blue and white tape, you too slip away leaving a payment for your meal tucked under a half drunk bottle of Rioja.
You stroll back to your, efficiently small, hire car, making make a mental note to check the newspapers tomorrow: to blunder through the incomprehensible words of the Spanish press, until you find the couple of column inches that describe the unexplained shooting at 11.00 p.m. in the evening of the Day of the Festival of St James of tourist X, who was dining, at the time, with his beloved wife and twin sons at the Café Murada in the Placeta des Verdures. As you pull away from the kerb in the neat little car, that’s when you see, as your hands break the beam, the small red dot that plays across your chest.

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