The Story of the Month

THE FULL DELUXE TREATMENT

©Val Vassay, 26 February 2020

It’s never wise to become emotionally involved with a client. I know that, of course, and I always try not to, but I can’t always resist. It’s a bit of an addiction, I admit, but what to do? You can’t chomp a piece of chewing gum and the urge goes away. I wish you could – sometimes.

  I was just about to shower before popping out for lunch the day the boss came in with her.                “The full deluxe treatment for this little lady, George,” he said. “But she has an appointment at 4 o’clock, so no time to waste, OK?”

  I looked at the clock on the wall – 2 o’clock. Plenty of time.

  My God, she was exquisite – that angelic, heart-shaped, little face under that mop of black hair. Her lips were so inviting I struggled to resist kissing her.

  I’d seen her many times, whizzing around Edinburgh in her black Porsche, but I’d never been up close to her before. No, but now that I was, I was going to make the most of it. I couldn’t wait to make her up and style her hair. I’d make her spectacular for her special day.

  “It’ll take about an hour-and-a-half to do everything, darling, but you’re not in a hurry, are you, and I want you to be looking your best for the party. So, just relax and leave everything to me. I’ll start with your make-up, then your hair, then your nails last.”

  I chose a rose-tinted make-up for her – it would contrast beautifully with the black hair. It had to be Guerlain, of course – nothing but the best for my loveliest client.

  I covered the slight shadows around her eyes with concealer, then stood back to have another look at her. Funny how some people look serene and beautiful no matter what, while others look as if they have all the problems of the world stamped on their faces; she looked heavenly.

  As always, I chatted away as I worked, telling her a few bits and bobs about my latest holiday and my new motorbike and how I thought she’d look terrific with her hair pulled back off her lovely face and tied into a tiny bun on top of her head – a bit like a geisha.

  By the time I’d finished I felt as if we were friends – me and the beauty. I stood back once again to take in the full picture: perfect hair; beautiful, rose-petal face; shocking pink lips and deep pink fingernails.

  “You look wonderful, you really do. You’re my most beautiful client yet. I’d love to make love to you. Don’t suppose you’d agree to that, though, would you?”

  When she didn’t answer, I took that as consent and was soon making mad, passionate love to the most wonderful girl I’d ever met. I had to have two fags, not just the usual one, to calm down afterwards. Whew! That really had been mind-blowing!

  “George, are you done yet?” It was the boss, hammering on the door. “It’s quarter to four – they’ll be arriving soon. Hurry up and open this door.”

  He was as pleased with my work as I was, and complimented me and her. Then the boss and I lifted her gently into the oak coffin and wheeled her into the viewing room next-door, where her family and friends would be gathering in a few minutes to have a last look at their beautiful princess before taking her to her final resting place in the graveyard nearby.

  It wasn’t until the next day that the boss told me she’d been a high-class call-girl in London, with loads of rich Middle-Eastern clients. Sadly, as well as getting lots of money from them, she’d also got Hepatitis C, which in her case wasn’t responding to drugs, and had brought on severe clinical depression. The Coroner’s report called it “Death by Careless Driving” but no-one knew whether it was careless or deliberate. I’ve an appointment at the Western General Hospital tomorrow.                                                                                                

A RELATIONSHIP OF CONVENIENCE

© a short story by Susan Widdicombe – 29 January 2020

This boxer puppy named Joe was put into the cage with me this morning and he knows nothing, but absolutely NOTHING, about how the world works. First they came to take his picture for the refuge website and he was almost screaming in panic, hiding in his kennel and refusing to come out so that they had to come and fetch him. I had to explain to him very patiently that he needed to smile and look playful or soulful, one or the other.

This afternoon there will be visitors. I’ll have to give Joe a crash course in what to do. One way or the other, I hope I can get out of here soon. This will be the third time I’ve had to share my knowledge with a cage mate. The first one, who looked like a little bundle of joy but would have been at your throat if you forgot to give him a treat, was adopted last week. Then there was Hector who was moved into the vet’s surgery for biting that idiot Hans who brought his food. I had thought of biting Hans myself just to wake him up – he’s so DUMB. But around here, if you bite someone, you’ve more or less had it. There are rumours that you’re dragged to the vet’s surgery through the front door and carted out in a dustbin bag through the back door twenty minutes later. I don’t believe that though. That’s just some cat watching too much television.

“Now, Joe, listen to me. We have to prepare for the visits this afternoon”, I began.

“I wanna play! I wanna play!” squealed Joe, hanging on my ear.

“SHUT UP! And if you don’t let go of my ear, I’ll make absolutely sure you’re adopted by a farmer”, I snapped.

Well, that shut him up. He sat there with his head on one side.

“What’s a farmer?” he asked, all curious.

“You’ll see”, and I started to give him his instructions.

At about three o’clock, the visitors started filing through, pointing and chattering and rattling the cages. There were about a dozen in all, with a smattering of small children wearing bobble hats and Michelin-man jackets with the gloves hanging out of the sleeves on cords.

“Mum! Mum! Dad! Can I have that one? I definitely want that one! Or wait, no, no, that one. With the patch on his eye!”

“Look how well they’re treated here. They’re almost all smiling, do you see that, darling?”

We’re bribed, of course, bribed by life. If we don’t smile, we don’t get a look-in. AND according to local gossip, these people can return you to the refuge if they aren’t satisfied. So you actually have to get used to giving a rigour mortis smile just about any time your new owners look your way.

As the clutch of children approached, I warned Joe, “Be careful! If you go to a family with human pups, they’ll be all over you all day, pulling your ears, your tail…”  Oops, gaffe. His tail was cut off at birth and he only has a stump now.

But Joe just couldn’t help himself. He was Chubby Checker in dog form, twisting this way and that and smiling for all he was worth. The children were in love with him, sticking their grubby little fingers through the wire for him to lick. Joe was a natural, I’ll say that for him. Within half an hour, we said our tearful goodbyes as Joe was hauled off with his new family. He probably forgot all about me as soon as he turned the corner. I just knew he was going to wee all over those children in the back seat as soon as they were underway.

Another couple of families came by and I scowled. I don’t want to go to a family. I knew the profile of owner I was looking for and it certainly wasn’t one with a houseful of caterwauling kids. And it wasn’t this guy either – a farmer, you could see from his muddy boots and little green canvas hat. The thing about farmers was, I had been told by a former cage-mate, they tended to chain their dogs up to bark into the wind, without any company or freedom. And the dogs had to sleep outside. That wasn’t what I had in mind at all. And you could forget the treats with a farmer. They just didn’t know anything about how to treat their dogs.

At last, just as I was giving up for yet another afternoon of visits, I saw my mark approaching. First I saw the nicely shod feet picking their way over the uneven cobbles and mud of the path, then the longish jacket topped by a kind, grey-haired face and a flowered headscarf. The woman looked a little anxious, perhaps afraid that she, too, wouldn’t find what she was looking for.

I composed myself. She looked just the thing. So as she approached, I stood quite still at the wire, smiled for all I was worth and tried to look soulful by pushing my eyebrows up in the middle and eliminating all cynicism from my gaze. She stopped at my cage to read my name card that said “Max. Two years old, pedigree uncertain, found abandoned at a picnic site”. I backed away a step or two, respectfully, and to show that I was docile and painfully in need of affection, having been possibly maltreated in my mysterious past. (In fact, I hadn’t been abandoned – I’d simply run away since my family at the time didn’t really suit me).

The woman looked at me long and hard. I looked back like an advertisement for Soulfulness. She stuck her fingers through the wire and I approached, servile and cringing, and licked, all the time taking care not to break eye contact and ensuring that my body language intimated to her my humble, devoted, obedient nature. She stroked my nose and smiled. “How would you like to come home with me, Max?” she whispered.

And it was in the bag! After about twenty minutes, they came to fetch me and lead me to the woman’s car. I swaggered off in front of the other howling refuge inmates, very pleased with myself. A woman alone was the perfect mark. She would feed me copiously, pass me a snack every time I smiled, take me for easy walks and let me sleep on the sofa the rest of the time. I might even be allowed to sleep on her bed! Our evenings would be spent watching TV while she stroked my ears… Oh, I had really hit the jackpot this time.

There was a blanket on the back seat of her car and I jumped in obediently. But then I had a rude awakening. The woman slid into the passenger seat in front. In fact, there was a man in the driver’s seat. He twisted around to look at me then, as he faced forward again and started the engine, I saw he was wearing muddy boots and a green canvas hat sat on the dashboard. Fuck!

 


“The Gift”

by Eddie Calder © 30 November 2019

His chosen seat at the window was less than comfortable for someone his size, but he was resolute. He held the small box between thumb and forefinger of his right hand, as he would a treasure. Rubbing the paper wrapping with the thumb of his left, he avoided the label and less than delicate satin bow on top.   His grubby, chewed fingernails gently caressed the small, pink puppies adorning the paper, as they had done for the last few hours. The factory’s canteen was unusually quiet, his extended presence not considered conducive to an enjoyable tea break by his workmates. He was one of “ those people”. Those best not to engage.

 His cleaning shift finished at 8am, almost three hours ago. His focus on the canteen door was occasionally broken, only by his concern that the decorative paper may need replaced if she didn’t come in soon. The supervisor’s concern was manifest. She approached the mannish boy with caution.

“Hi Matty, what’s keeping you here this long. You’re usually well gone by this time. No home to go to?” Knowing her way around a block or two, she had radar, borne from experience that could sense tension in a closed environment. She recognised Matty as a person who could intimidate others without actually being aware of it. He owned an innate capacity to unsettle, to threaten aggression without tangency, but it hung on him just the same.

He kept his eyes on the door, ever hopeful. “I’m waiting for Hayley.  I’ll have another pot of tea. Hot. ”

Not best pleased, she huffed her way to behind the counter and made him a pot of tea; her annoyance making sure the steam valve drew the water from the bowels of hell. Returning a few moments later, she placed the pot of scalding tea and clean mug in front of him. He never acknowledged her gentle touch on his shoulder. She was worried for him, but didn’t quite know why.

Matty had known Hayley all his remembered life. They had even started school on the same day.  But Matty was moved to another school after a couple of school terms. His parents told him it was especially built for him and other children like him.

He stopped rubbing the paper as his thoughts floated back to the previous day at work. He recalled how Barry, the General Manager, had cornered Hayley at the Loading Bay exit when she was on her own. He was always in work early.

He had put his arms around her, but not in a good way. Her laughter could only have been because she was nervous. Embarrassed, probably. Matty knew her too well to think otherwise. Barry seemed to be getting too close, too personal. The man was married, after all, so it didn’t seem right that he should disrespect Hayley, and his wife, that way.

“Hayley!! Are you alright?” Matty had shouted as he’d moved towards the couple, almost tripping on his mop and bucket. “Do you need any help?” 

Hayley blushed and told Matty that everything was alright, not to worry and that she was fine. She slid from under the man’s arms, straightening her overall as she hurried to her workplace. Barry’s leering gaze followed her until she was out of sight. He turned to face Matty. He grinned, and then winked at him, his right eye spitting ridicule.

“You shouldn’t look at her that way.” Matty’s voice quavered.  “Please don’t do it again.“

Take it easy big man, and mind your own business. I know you want some of that squeeze too, but you’ve no chance. So get over it. I’m off tomorrow, and I expect this place to be spotless when I get back. Got it?” Barry laughed as he swaggered away and left Matty to his own thoughts.

Now, in the canteen Matty resumed rubbing on the paper. “She better hurry or I’ll need to wrap it again, “his soft voice talking to no one.  The tea had cooled to a safe drinking temperature and Matty took a gulp of the strong liquid. He thought back to their childhood and Sunday mornings at Bible Studies, knee to knee with Hayley on the crowded, low, wooden benches. She helped him understand, as he didn’t always translate the readings accurately. Literacy didn’t come easily to him. Twelve years old, drinking pale, diluted orange juice and eating stale buns after class, the musty smell of old books in his nose and on his fingers. He was still unsure what his feelings were then, or now. But he had enjoyed Bible Studies, and spending time with Hayley. That, he knew.

Finally, the double door swung open as Hayley arrived to start her break. Matty waved at her, shouting as he held up the small box in his huge hand.

“  Hi Hayley, come and have a look. I have something, especially for you. “

She smiled at the sight of him, as she always did, and walked over to his table by the window. “That’s lovely, Matty. You shouldn’t have. What is it? “

Gently, he placed the box in the palm of her hand. “I’m sorry if it’s a bit wet at the bottom, the paper is quite thin. “

Hayley only just managed to make out the childlike scrawl on the label. It said, “Matthew Chapter 5, Verse 29”.   

Just before she screamed, she too remembered their Bible Studies. “If the right eye offends thee, pluck it out…..”

 

The Award.                                   ©Anita Harrison. 24/04/2019.

 

Daniel drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. He hated LA traffic.  Like most therapists, he was a stickler for time. Today he would be 15 minutes late starting his first session, meaning that he would be running late with all his patients. Damn the traffic, which seemed to get worse every year.

But if he was honest with himself, he couldn´t blame it on the back to back cars creeping along Coldwater Canyon. He had to admit that it had been unwise to nag his husband, Brian, just before leaving for work. He thought back on their row.

” Brian, I´m not saying this as a therapist, but as someone who loves you –  you know this happens like clockwork, every year, the day after the Oscars. You go into a deep depression. Can´t you see the pattern? I hate to say it, but I don´t think it´s working for you as an actor.  I really think it´s time you considered changing professions.  Why don´t you discuss it with your therapist and your –?” He was going to say “and your agent”, but Brian´s agent hadn´t returned his calls for months

Brian, predictably, exploded, throwing his avocado toast across the kitchen, followed by a grapefruit. ” You don´t understand, Daniel, acting is the only thing I have ever wanted to do. It´s my life. For a therapist you are remarkably lacking in empathy and downright cruel”

Daniel immediately felt terrible and tried to repair the damage, but everything he said fell on deaf ears. Brian gave him the silent treatment. When Daniel went to kiss him goodbye, Brian turned away.

 

So now Daniel was not only late, but feeling angry and guilty at the same time. He resented being the only breadwinner, but knew he had no right to ask Brian to abandon his dream of being an actor. He tried to put all this aside as he opened the waiting room door.

” Good morning, Gino. I´m sorry I´m late. Please come in”

Gino threw himself into the chair opposite Daniel, but within seconds he was up and pacing back and forth

” Did you see them last night?”

” Did I see what?”

” Jesus, the Oscars! – are you the only one in this town who doesn´t watch them?”

” Yes, I did see them” Daniel said quietly, trying to calm the rage that was building in Gino

“Did you see that arsehole, Robert De Bloody Niro? An Oscar for THAT performance? That wasn´t acting, that´s what he does in every movie. Did I tell you that he stayed on my sofa in New York, when I was on Broadway and he was nobody, NOBODY!”

“Yes I believe you have mentioned it before” – said Daniel.

“I should have been in that movie. I´m not saying in the De Niro part, but my god the whole movie was Italian American actors. Who is more Italian than me? Look at my face – Isn´t this pure gangster?” Gino was yelling and if steam could have come out of his ears, it would have.

Daniel recalled that Gino had been asked to meet the director of the film, but had lost the part, when he had refused to read for it. “How dare they ask me to read, how dare they?”

Daniel knew that many actors more famous than Gino had to read for parts, but he thought it would be counterproductive to point this out and decided he would see if he could get to the feelings of hurt underneath Gino´s volcanic anger.

“It must be very upsetting for you to see De Niro praised to the skies, when you started out together. Does it remind you of how your father favored your brothers over you?”

“Oh well done, Sigmund – go to the top of the class” Gino fumed “De Niro could at least have put in a word for me with the director. He really is a narcissistic cocksucker”

Daniel sighed. He knew he would get nowhere with Gino today. Maybe more luck next week.

 

With no time for a pee, or a coffee between sessions because he was running so late, Daniel ushered Jenny into his office.

The minute she sat down, she reached for a Kleenex and dabbed at her eyes.

“Did you watch the Oscars?” she said

“Yes, I did.”

Daniel waited, wondering why this dental hygienist, who had no connection to the business, was feeling so emotional.

“Did you hear what Meryl Streep said?” Daniel could not remember much about her acceptance speech, it had been too late in the evening and he had by that time lost interest.

Jenny continued in between sobs “She thanked her mother, her dead mother. Said she could not have done any of it without her support and love.” Jenny paused. Daniel knew what was coming. “Why couldn´t I have had a mother like that? My mother didn´t care if I lived or died”

Jenny cried for the rest of her session and though it was always difficult to see someone suffer, Daniel knew it was a breakthrough for her.

 

The next 4 patients all had strong emotional reactions to the Oscars. From rage, to jealousy, to hurt, to shame. In his training he had been taught that holidays, anniversaries and birthdays triggered deep feelings, but no-one had warned him about this awards ceremony. 

 

He drove home, exhausted, but this time he welcomed the heavy rush-hour traffic. It gave him time to think about his patients and examine his own feelings. He was having his own mini-crisis, exacerbated by last night´s show. The truth was he felt under-appreciated by his husband. He wouldn´t resent carrying the financial load, if he felt he was special to Brian. He didn´t look forward to this evening´s inevitable post-mortem.

As he pulled into the driveway, he was surprised to see Brian standing at the bottom of the front steps, holding a bouquet of roses, with a huge grin on his face. He was not someone who had ever apologised. As Daniel got out of his car, Brian burst out:

“I´m sorry about this morning, forgive me. And guess what – I have an audition on Wednesday for the Julia Robert´s movie. They asked specifically for ME. These are for you” He gave the flowers to Daniel and kissed him tenderly on the cheek.

” I also got you this” From behind his back, he pulled out a replica, chocolate Oscar statuette.

Daniel´s eyes got watery. ” Thank you, the perfect gift. Everyone needs an Oscar, now and then”

Heart of Stone © Eddie Calder

It was always a shock, the violence. John never understood why.  It was, after all, an evolutionary reaction to threat or danger. And it always amazed him that humans are the only animals that, by nature, seek revenge. Nevertheless, he still, after all these years, had difficulty reconciling the ledger with his volcanic brutality on one column and his almost paralysing sensitivity on the other. No doubt a therapist would have concluded that the root cause stemmed from his childhood and the undulating dichotomy of overt tenderness shown by one parent, being suddenly replaced by unwarranted physical abuse by the other. But as he was never referred, he counselled himself.

 He recalled his mother gently wiping his crying eyes with her handkerchief after he had been beaten by his father. “John, don’t allow violence to become the vocabulary of the ignorant.” she had whispered as she flattened his tousled hair with gentle fingers. He looked up into her brown eyes, seeking his mother’s loving smile.  Instead, she slapped him hard on his cheek. “ But you shouldn’t upset your father John , he’s a weak man. ”

 In that moment of shock and confusion, the die was cast for what the ten year old John Stone would become.

In the years between then and now, John Stone learned to adapt, to read the signs, and to survive. He looked after himself from the age of sixteen, as soon as he was of legal age to leave home.  At school, and early working life, he had tried hard to blend in, join in with the crowd. It soon became apparent however, that he was, at heart, a loner. The more people he met, the more disappointment he experienced. Trust no one, believe nothing, became his mantra. By the age of twenty five, his reputation as an individual who wasn’t hamstrung by morality or adherence to the law of the land made him perfect for the role of enforcer for the biggest crime family in Birmingham. And he was good at his job. He was known by his Guv’nor as “the world’s only living heart donor.”  

Now, as he stood in the kitchen of the man he had been sent to “take care of”, he looked at the half empty bottle of Rioja on the granite worktop and the two full glasses containing the other half.

 Sammy Brooks was the family accountant and had recently been discovered skimming funds for his own ends. John smiled at the errant money man and raised one of the glasses in his direction, “ Here’s to your good health Sammy, “ and then sipped  the smooth liquid “ Ah, lovely. Perfect temperature. I’d ask you to join me but as you’re cable tied to your chair, that’s a non-starter, right?”

Sammy‘s heart raced and his bladder leaked.  He was well aware of John’s capabilities and now that his employer had discovered his deceit, he was sure only one outcome was guaranteed. But he had to try. “Please John, I’ll sort it out, honest I will. I’ll have the 40k back by Monday latest. I’ll take the beating and I know an example needs to be made but please John, Alice needs me right now. You know she’s been diagnosed with Stage 3 and her chemo started last month, she’s wrecked already and it’ll only get worse, please John, she can’t be left to fight it alone. She needs me. I only took the money to try and get the best care for her. ” Sammy made no reference to his significant gambling debts, but then, neither did John Stone.

John took another drink before setting the glass down. His face had the look of the unremarkable.  “There’s still a price to pay Sammy, you know that, right?”  

To Sammy’s surprise, John Stone lowered his head and began to cry, gentle tears, as if searching for the difference between meaning and purpose.  

After several long minutes, John stopped crying, and carefully took a carving knife from the kitchen drawer. Sammy finally wet himself as John approached him, sure that his time had come.

John knelt in front of Sammy’s chair, pointed the knife towards his wrists and cut each of the cable ties with just a touch from the razor sharp steel. For the first time in his working life, John Stone questioned the wisdom of his actions, and cursed his childhood legacy.

John lifted his glass and gulped down the rest of the wine. “Christ Sammy, you’re sweating like a whore in church, and poor Alice will struggle to get that piss stain out the cushion.” He said, after wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He handed Sammy the other glass of wine and despite his shaking hand, the ashen faced accountant gulped it down in one, spilling a little down his damp white shirt.

Sammy was stammering more than talking now, the adrenaline and near death experience still very much in play..“ But how will you sort this John? The Guv’nor will want, he’ll expect, retribution, a heavy message, that’s a given. How?”

John wasn’t sure of the answer at that moment but assured Sammy that he would be around to help support Alice through the battle ahead, regardless of the outcome or how hard things would be. Sammy breathed a big sigh of relief more than gratitude, and hugged John hard enough to embarrass both of them. The 40k plus another 10k in interest was returned to the family account before midnight on the Sunday and there wasn’t a mark on Sammy. Apparently John had somehow squared it with the Guvnor, and a grateful Sammy didn’t care how.

Just before sunrise, almost a year to the day that Sammy was given his reprieve, John Stone stood beside him at a quiet stretch of the Coventry Canal.” It was a lovely service yesterday Sammy, the Rabbi got it bang on.  Alice put up a brave fight and you were there beside her on her journey, supporting her all the way.”

Sammy’s eyes were glistening in the darkness of the night. “That was all thanks to you John, you’ll never know how much I’m in your debt. And you throwing in 10 k of your own money to ease the Guvnor, well that was way beyond John, way beyond.”

John looked at Sammy and smiled softly. “Loss is a powerful thing, Sammy, yet another fragment broken off our reason for living. No repairing the damage, no going back. Alice was your reason for living, wasn’t she Sammy?”

Sammy Brooks just smiled and nodded gently, but he knew there were no more words to be said. He closed his eyes an instant before the bullet entered his right temple and his world went black.

John put the pistol in Sammy’s lifeless right hand and fired a second shot into the muddy water of the canal then walked slowly into the darkness. He hit speed dial and it was answered on the second ring.

 “ It’s taken care of”. He said into the silence, before ending the call.

———————————————————————————————-

 ELIZABETH                                                      ©Anita Harrison. December 2018.

Small children nearly always think their mother is pretty. That can sometimes be far from the truth. You only have to look at the comments section on Facebook, to know that people have a warped sense of beauty. Or they lie. Your ugly friend is suddenly beautiful and gorgeous.

My mother however was a real stunner. Everyone tells me so. A dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor, they say. It’s a story told at every family gathering that mother was once stopped on the street in Santa Monica and offered the job of Elizabeth’s stand-in on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, no auditioning, not even a meeting with the director, an instant offer. But my mother was perhaps unique in Los Angeles – she had no show business aspirations.

She just wanted to stay home and mother her 3 kids. And what a loving, beautiful mother she was. I don’t have too many memories of her. I was 5 when she died. But I remember the sparkling laughter. Her kisses and the sweet smell of her. I remember that I was the only one allowed to sleep in her bed when I was scared. She would hold me close as I cried, nestled into her body. The wonderful soft feel of her nightdress against my skin. I would caress it, feeling her heart beat through the material. 

 I felt loved and safe.

In the years after my mother’s death,  I came to confuse her with Elizabeth Taylor.  My mother was gone, but Elizabeth was everywhere. In movies, in magazines, on tv. I knew she was not really my mother, but sometimes I let myself think she was. This helped me through my grief or maybe it just helped me to avoid it.

Today is 50 years since my beloved mother gave birth to me.  I am going to make some major changes in my life. Nothing like a significant birthday, the big five O , to finally push you over the edge.

I could have done the first part online, but that would have seemed cowardly for such a big step. So here I am on Hollywood Boulevard, a street I have always hated with a passion. Nothing but hookers and drug-dealers. And coach loads of dumb tourists, searching for Michael Jackson´s star on the pavement.

I start to sweat as I get near the shop. The sign flashes in enormous pink neon letters – The Ultimate Woman. I stare in amazement. How can they show such outrageous underwear in the window? Who on earth would wear such ridiculous stuff? Myself I have always preferred to keep everything simple – all white underwear, jeans and a t-shirt. My every day uniform.

I hesitate in the doorway of this abomination of a shop, losing my resolve, but then do a kind of awkward shuffle, trip and practically fall across the threshold.  Immediately I am approached by a pretty, young woman with purple hair and a stud in her nose.

– That was quite an entrance. Hi, my name is Randi, how can I help you ?

She’s chewing gum, how unprofessional is that for a salesperson, but strangely it puts me at ease.

-I´m not here for underwear, I saw online that you have Elizabeth Taylor stuff

-Yes of course we have everyone, you can even get a copy of Judy’s red slippers if you like.

I’m only interested in ElizabethTaylor items, thanks.

Come this way.

Randi leads me to a rack at the back of the shop

-Here we go. We have copies of nearly everything she ever wore in a movie. Are you interested in anything in particular?

-Cat On A Hot Tin Roof?

-No problemo. Aha here it is – the slip she wore in the scene with Paul Newman, well a copy of course, but of the finest quality and I’m sure we have your size, -she says, giving me the once over.

-Would you like to try it on?

-Can I?

No problemo

If she says that one more time I may scream. But I follow her quietly to the changing room. Randi leaves me to get the item in my size. I notice that I am trembling slightly. Is it fear or anticipation – maybe both. Randi returns with the slip in my size and leaves the changing room again. At last, what I have longed for, for years. I hold the slip to my cheek, it feels beautiful.

Just as I manage to wriggle into it, Randi reappears, startling me.

-Don’t worry dear, I have seen everything. Let me help you adjust the straps, it’s a little long. 

I am deeply embarrassed, but Randi plows on.

I thought you might want to try this too – the white bathing suit from Suddenly Last Summer. A copy of course. Boy did Liz look beautiful in this.

10 minutes later, I go to pay. 900 dollars for the 2. I didn’t expect to fork out that much but hey, it’s my birthday and the first day of my new life.

-Cash or card?, says Randi

I hand her my credit card. She glances at it and says

I hope you don’t mind my saying this Allan, but you look very good in the bathing suit. It really suits you, forgive the pun.

I blush, ashamed but also pleased.

I can’t believe I am blurting this out to this stranger.

Randi, now I have to go home and tell my wife about, er … this. Telling her could change my life forever. I don’t want to lose her. We have been together for 22 years.   I don’t want to be a woman, I just want to be Elizabeth Taylor – on occasion.

Don’t worry Allan. It’s surprising how many wives are accepting of cross-dressing. I should know, a lot of them come in here with their husbands. Help them pick the weirdest things. As I said, I’ve seen it all. You looked really good in the bathing suit. Your wife might even want to borrow it off you too. All things are possible.

I feel the tears starting at Randi´s reassuring words

On impulse I pull her towards me and give her a long hug.

When I get outside I feel better than I have in years and even Hollywood Boulevard looks dazzling in the sun.I stop and take some deep breaths. It´s done. I did it.

 I look down and see that I am standing on Elizabeth Taylor’s star.

———————————————————————————————-

THE LIFE COACH

© Susan Widdicombe – 22 March 2017

“This is the Life Coach”, the old man said to me as we scrambled aboard. “The others are doomed”. There were too many of us for the space and we had to take turns sitting down. I managed to push up against the wooden slats on the side so that I could turn my back on the others and look out.

We trundled past green fields with black and white cows that stared as we passed. There were lines of trees and sometimes the peaked roofs of wooden farmhouses and barns, the sun glinting off windows. Dogs barked and the smell of spring was in the air.

We shared the little food we had and passed round water bottles but by the second day the water was all but finished. “It won’t be long now,” people reassured each other. They starting singing old traditional songs to keep their spirits up. A gaunt man with a little boy on his shoulders sobbed while the boy in a blue and white striped T-shirt laughed and clapped his hands.

It grew hotter and hotter. Soon, the singing petered out and the stench of sweat and human detritus was difficult to bear. People clawed at my back, trying to reach the apertures and I made room for the man with the boy on his shoulders. I sniffed the fresh air and held my place.

The hunger was bad but the thirst was worse. On the third day, we passed through a station and stopped for a moment. Soldiers milled around the platform. Suddenly a guard came by with a hosepipe and sprayed water at us through the slats. I opened my mouth and a few icy golden drops landed there. Then there was shouting and the guard was frog-marched off while his hosepipe just lay there, gushing water onto the ungrateful ground.

A solder in a tin helmet materialised, beating at the open slats and our clutching hands with the bolt of his rifle. People moaned but I held on, even though my hands were bleeding and one of my fingers might have been broken. The pain helped me focus and stopped me from falling.

The train shuddered and heaved into motion again and we were on our way, Poles and gypsies and Jews. No one spoke now. Mouths were too dry.

Then the haggard man passed the boy onto my shoulders, pleading with his eyes as he started sinking. As he vanished below my line of sight, another immediately took his place like water filling a vacuum.

“Look,” I said to the boy. A horse pulled a plough in a distant field, a man trudging behind.

The boy clutched my hair and said nothing.

Another night and another day went by. We passed the odd village but the train didn’t stop again and the odd people on the platforms averted their gaze as we clattered inexorably onwards.

Finally, we seemed to be slowing down and there were soldiers standing around with their rifles over their shoulders, smoking and watching, their eyes unreadable. The moaning grew louder as we creaked to a halt alongside the station platform. I could see a great arched gateway stark against the bright blue sky. But there was a strange smell in the air, a smell that reminded me of a pile of old tyres that had caught fire in a vacant lot in the town where I was born.

We heard the clang of bolts being shot back one by one and people waited expectantly, then it was our turn. We stumbled to the ground, the boy as dry and light as a twig on my shoulders. And looking back, I saw the old man who had told me about the Life Coach, lying inert, his body like a melted wax candle on the filthy seething floor.

We staggered in the direction of the giant gateway, herded by soldiers. Apart from the shuffling of our feet, the silence was eerie. Then I noticed a pale plume of smoke twisting up from a tall red-brick chimney and realised, with no feeling at all, that we had not been in the right car, the Life Coach, after all.

But I made it through and out the other side and, many decades later, I still see the little boy’s laughing face and blue striped T-shirt in my dreams. He claps his hands and the noise gradually but unstoppably mutates into the rhythm of that train: it’s happening again, it’s happening again, it’s happening again… and I wake up in a sweat.

The Story for November 2016

Buying Lilacs

© Sally Beall

 

Few people knew where the big flower shop in the train station was, let alone that it was open on Sundays. You actually had to follow a remote hall toward an outdoor parking lot to find it. Sarah-Eve liked to go in and be uplifted by sweet wafting smells of gardenias, jasmine, and lilacs, often feeling as if she had the shop to herself. That morning, she was surprised to see people of all ages milling around, but perhaps its being Easter Sunday as well as Mother’s Day explained the crowd of last-minuters searching for a bouquet for the mother who would inevitably be preparing family dinner for both occasions at the same time.

Sarah-Eve was looking for forsythia which was in bloom all over the countryside. Forsythia bushes had lined the drive of her family home when she was child. Rather than doing her homework, she used stare at them from her bedroom window for days, waiting for the sunny flower to burst into blossom. When they were living in France, her husband had liked the plant so much he transplanted bushes from their yard to his native village in northern Spain.

Buckets of red, orange, pink, purple, and even black roses and tulips caught her eye, especially because they were in a section marked “natural colours”. Looking carefully at a black rose she saw it was, in fact, deep crimson and the black tulip was really dark purple.

“May I help you madam?”  The florist was about 18 with short red curls and a rose-bud month making her look like a little flower herself.

Sarah-Eve explained she wanted some forsythia. She was told that the last branch had just been sold.

“What else would be appropriate,” she said half to herself. She chose lilacs. When the girl started putting paper around them, Sarah-Eve took a big whiff and said she just wanted some twine to hold the sprigs together so she could smell them.

Not being in a hurry, Sarah-Eve browsed, marvelling at the numerous colourful flowers she couldn’t name. Among the white flowers, the strong cloying odour of Easter lilies dominated the air. She sneezed and fled to the far corner of the shop where there was a sunny outdoor patio crammed with potted plants and trees.

The patio was almost like a tiny botanical garden green house without exotic plants, but overgrown with green branches everywhere high and low. Some plants had overwhelmed their pots and Sarah-Eve wondered how people would get them home.

“OH! You’ve come back”, she said to a man standing behind a good-sized bonsai tree on top of a pedestal. She stared at the bonsai. “That’s huge for a miniature”.

“It is,” he replied.

She paused a second, “I knew you’d return. You must have followed me in here. The little kids can’t believe you left. Come closer. Let me look at you. You’re relaxed and happy, glowing like a candle or a bright star in the black night, the way you were when we met. Remember, at the swimming pool, I asked you in abominable Spanish to dive some more off the 10-meter platform. And you said, ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ with a sweet little smile. I thought you were so debonair and European.”

She leaned toward him. “Ah, I can touch you. I thought my hand would go right through. I’ve hardly ever believed in continuation, but here you are. It’s impossible.”

He smiled, “There have been many others; it’s just that few people are open enough to perceive us.” A ball of yellow light engulfed him making him shine brighter.

There was a silence, then Sarah-Eve continued, “When we heard you’d disappeared, we left at 1 am and drove 10 hours through the night without stopping. We were devastated and Aurelia said we must only focus on how you would want us to react, not on our own feelings. I forced myself to be cheerful, talking about the good times because Aurelia was driving fast and I was scared. We realized how we would find you. It was the worst night of my life.”

He spoke very softly, “You didn’t have to cry. I’ve been beside you all the time.”

“There are still many things to tell you.” Sarah-Eve’s voice caught, “When you saved me from the heartbreak of my young fiancé’s tragic death with your serenity; it enabled me to transform my life. You taught me to repair things and to stop riding the clutch when I drive. I can even make holes in the wall to hang paintings thanks to the little drill you gave me. We raised our family with me basking in your protection and tenderness, but I never acknowledged it. Granted, you weren’t always easy with your hot-temper, but your selflessness was greater. This past year, I wanted to apologize for my egotism, for often being blind to your innate generosity and goodness, and to say how lucky I was, but the words never came. Then your heart began to bleed and you had that monstrous operation. I’m at least partly at fault.

He held up his hand, “No one’s to blame. I always knew your feelings for me.”

Other people on the patio were looking at potted trees and potted daffodil bulbs on the floor and on pedestals. The daffodils had burst into flower, adding yellow all around.

Sarah-Eve quickly put her i-pod ear buds in, so she looked as if she were on the phone and continued talking as the florist walked toward them.

“The forsythia you planted blossomed again this year. I’ve never seen so many bushes around the edge of your village park.  I’m going to plant these lilacs at your old family place.

Do you recall that I once tried to explain some lines from Walt Whitman?

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

And the great star early dropped in the western sky in the night,

I mourned – and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”

He laughed and whispered almost imperceptibly, “I remember all our discussions, especially about light and darkness, but I never understood American literature.”.

Buckets of jonquils behind him beamed in the direct sunlight, but his glow began to dim.

“When will you come again?” Sarah-Eve watched him fade faster.

“One more thing”, she asked anxiously, “did you find the light?”

“It found me.”

And he was gone (1068)

The Story for October

Joe

© Conal O’Rafferty 10 Oct. 2016

Life is full of surprises, good and bad, great and small. Pleasant surprises divert and enrich us. Small ones offer a ready topic of conversation the next day with such phrases as “You’ll never guess who I ran into yesterday” or “Do you know something interesting I discovered last week”.  These events are largely ephemeral – hot news one day, forgotten the next. But then there are those surprises which we recall all our life. They enrich us, and when recounted, enrich the listeners.

I had one of those great surprises many years ago while I was working in New York. I had finished work for the day, and had a couple of hours to kill before going to a production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. I decided to drop into our office local – Domenicos on 38th and Lex. Many of the regulars were already at the bar – Arthur, Kevin, Pat, John, and several others whose names I have forgotten.

Arthur greeted me first. “What can I get you, Mike?”

“A bottle of Bud, Arthur”, I replied.

Joe, our elderly barman poured me my Bud.

“How are you keeping, Mike?” Joe enquired.

“Can’t complain Joe.”

Joe had been barman at Domenicos as long as I could remember. He was a quiet, courteous gentle sort of guy, but I don’t think any of us knew much about him.

Arthur, picking up the conversation turned to me and said “Any plans for the weekend Mike?”

“Nothing much”, I responded. “I might go for a hike on Sunday if the weather is reasonable. Actually, I forgot, I’m going to the theatre this evening with some friends. A spot of Shakespeare. “As you Like It”, over at St Clement’s Theatre on the west side. Should be enjoyable.”

Overhearing us, Kevin, who fancied himself as a bit of an intellectual, interjected. “Isn’t that the play about the seven ages of man?”

“It is Kevin”, I responded.

All the world’s a stage” he began.

And all the men and women merely players” I added.

This got John’s attention and he chimed in.

They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages”.

This generated a mocking, self-satisfied, self-congratulatory applause from the gang.

I smiled “Well if any of you were any good, you would continue”. At that juncture, I took a piece of paper from my pocket, and handed it to Arthur. The paper contained the full extract from the play.

Arthur read “At first the infant mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”. He paused “Ok, guys, give me the next bit”, he added with a grin.

After a moment’s silence we heard the words, “Then the schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face creeping like snail unwillingly to school”. The words were coming from our barman, Joe. He continued with the rest of the speech perfectly, as Arthur looked at the words on the paper, and all conversation stopped in the bar. When Joe finished with the last line “Sens teeth, sens eyes, sens taste, sens everything”, there was a round of applause in the bar the likes of which was never heard before.

Then Arthur asked Joe the question on everyone’s lips. “Holy Moses Joe, where did that come from?”

The whole bar awaited his answer.

“I was shot down over Frankfurt in 1943, and ended up in a prisoner of war camp for the rest of the war. It was a tough time with long days of boredom. Red Cross parcels arrived intermittently, and we all looked forward to them. One day, one parcel included a book which turned out to be “As You Like It”. I had done a bit of amateur acting, and to pass the time, I put together a production of the play in the camp, with me playing the part of Jacques, and that’s how I came to learn the seven ages of man piece. It all came back to me now when I overhead you.”

To say the bar clientele was stunned, was to put it mildly.

Arthur spoke. “Joe, that was fifty years ago.”

I cannot recall the detail of subsequent discussions in the bar that evening, but I do remember that there was quite a sober conversation on how little we know about others, how everyone can make a contribution in society, and how wonderful a gift memory is.

I left New York some months later, and lost touch with the gang at Domenicos until I had a call from Arthur over twenty years later announcing he was in Dublin for a few days business, and would I be free for lunch.

An hour later we were sitting in one of the finest clubs in Dublin, with a few others enjoying lunch and discussing the forthcoming Brexit referendum. Towards the end of lunch I enquired of Arthur.

“Do you ever go to Domenicos any more? Is old Joe still there?”

He looked at me. “I’m afraid both are gone. Domenicos closed a few years ago, and Joe died some years earlier. You know, after that famous Shakespeare evening, I became really friendly with Joe, probably the only barman I ever became friendly with. I even kept in touch with him after he retired. Soon after his retirement, he became ill, and I visited him in hospital. Other than myself, I’m not sure if he had any friends. We both knew he was dying, and on the spur of the moment I asked him if there was anything at all I could get him, or do for him. He knew I was relatively wealthy, and after some hesitation he said, “I’d like to go home to Sicily.”

“He was quite emotional, and as you might imagine I felt myself hit by a wave of emotion, also. Ultimately, I arranged a trip for us both to Sicily, where we met various relatives. A hell of an experience, let me tell you. We returned to New York, and poor Joe died about a month later.”

I was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Arthur, I have to hand it to you – that’s the best conclusion I have ever heard to the seven ages of man”.

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