Stranded

Stranded.

Wouldn’t you love to be cast away on a desert island, to bask on the pristine sands of a palm-fringed beach, lulled by waves lapping your feet, a gentle breeze swishing the trees, far from the madness, with nothing to do. You think you would like that, don’t you?

It happened to me.

Not long before the invention of mobile phones, I lived for four years in Papua New Guinea. We were miles from the coast, but occasionally, my husband’s work took him to a town by the sea, and I always went with him. On one of our earliest visits, I was sitting in a café when a man approached me.

‘Me Simon,’ he said.

He told me he had a boat, and offered trips round some nearby islands, including an uninhabited one on which we could spend a few hours and snorkel around its coral reef. We would have to give him money for the fuel, that was all.

It sounded a pretty good deal to me. I said I would come on the following Saturday, and bring Tom, my husband.

We packed a picnic of sandwiches, pineapple slices and lots of water, threw in our snorkeling gear, towels, sun-cream and a couple of books, then we headed for the shore. Simon was waiting for us with his boat, along with another young couple from America.

‘America, him where? Him belong Australia?’ Simon asked them, but he didn’t wait for an answer. ‘Americans, em good fellas, em fight em Japs. Dis fellas, em no good true, em cut down all sugarcane belong me fellas.’

Simon opened a can of beer, he started up his Suzuki outboard motor and we set off.

When we came to the first island our escort slowed his engine to a purr. ‘Dis fellas, em no good,’ he said, pointing to the shore. ‘Em rubbish people. Em buggerrup place belong em.  Too much rubbish.’ He tossed his empty beer can into the sea and thrust the motor into full speed.

The second island we visited was Simon’s own. His large extended family ran down to meet us with laughter and whoops of delight, and pulled our boat ashore.

‘Now wait,’ Simon said, stepping out. ‘Me like show you fellas something.’ He ran up the beach, disappeared inside a grass hut, then re-emerged with a gold-plated picture-frame. Behind the glass was a letter. ‘Dis come long man belong Mrs. Queen, Prince Philip,’ he explained. ‘Him come long time before, long big fella boat belong him. Him he must blow up coral reef long bring boat long beach. An’ him sit down long beach an’ him story story me fellas all day. Me fellas happy true. Then him go, an’ him send dis fella letter belong say thank you thank you, an’ 400 Kina. Big fella money. Him good fella true.

‘A’right, you me go long island he got no people, now. Him he got plenty good coral. You fellas can go snorkelling.’ We set off again.

The island was as beautiful as anyone could wish for. A magnificent sweep of pure white sand lay between a turquoise bay and a palm-fringed rainforest. Beneath the clear blue water was the promised coral reef. We had arrived in Paradise.

The four of us paddled ashore, and Simon left us there for the afternoon.

We ate our picnic, then plunged into the lovely water and swam over the reef.

What a spectacular sight it was! Coral was not new to me, but it never ceased to astound me. Not even Disney could dream up the glorious Technicolor of this watery wonderland: the zinging lemons of the angel fish, the electric blue flashes of the neon damselfish, the comical orange stripes of the clown fish, weaving their ways through the fingers of coral.

We stayed in the water until our skins shrivelled. Then we stretched ourselves out on our towels. Tom started discussing American politics with the other couple, but I didn’t want to listen, not in Paradise. I picked up my towel and moved a slight distance away. I laid back and relaxed to the rhythm of the waves washing the shore.

I woke to a tender skin and a parched mouth. I reached for my water bottle and drank greedily until there wasn’t much left. The white glare of the midday sun had softened into a gentler yellow light. I looked at my watch: quarter to five. That was good timing; Simon would be back soon. It had been lovely but I would be ready to leave. Tom was sleeping. I didn’t disturb him, but took one more quick dip to cool down. Then I came out and got our things together.

‘Hi, is it that time already?’ Tom asked, drowsily. ‘Where’s my water?’

I was feeling hot again already, so I ambled up the beach to find some shade in the trees. It was cooler there, but there was nowhere comfortable to sit. Army ants were everywhere. I noticed the Americans had strung up a hammock between two branches. They were all right, Jack. I went back to the beach, sat on my towel and got out my book.

‘Simon’s late,’ I called out to Tom, who seemed to be transfixed by the waves. ‘It’s after five.’

‘No, he isn’t, not by Papua New Guinea time.’

He was right, of course. No one was in a hurry in this country. I still wasn’t used to it. Yet here was an excellent opportunity to chill out and take in the timeless beauty of this Paradise that we were so lucky to find ourselves in. I had to make the most of it. After all, I used to dream this very dream as I sat at my boring old job in Britain.

A soft band of gold had settled on the horizon. The Americans emerged from the trees. They had packed up their hammock.

‘Hi, it’s been gorgeous here, hasn’t it?’ I called over to them.

‘It sure has,’ they answered, sitting down at the water’s edge to wait.

I was feeling thirsty and there wasn’t much water left. I wondered how much longer Simon would be. I decided to get up and look for a coconut. If I could find one that had fallen recently, with luck there would still be milk inside. I searched the high tide line where the beach met the trees, but all I found were dry cracked shells. It was the green coconuts that contained milk, now that I thought about it, and you had to climb up and pick those. Little boys here could scale palms like monkeys. But I knew I never could, nor Tom, and probably not those Americans either. And even if we did manage, how would we get into the coconut? It took quite a bit of hacking to crack open a shell with a bush knife. Did we even have a penknife between us?

I returned to my towel. The gold on the horizon had intensified and some red had crept in beside it. Shadows were getting longer. My watch said ten to six. The sun would set at six, and then we would have dusk – for some minutes – it gets dark quickly in the tropics. Where was Simon? No one was expressing concern yet. Was that because they weren’t worried, or because they didn’t want to appear worried? Or did no one want to be the first to admit we had a problem?

What if Simon didn’t come back that night? OK, we’d sleep on the beach. Or at least, Tom and I would. The Americans had their hammock, lucky sods. At least it wouldn’t be cold, but the sand was not that comfortable, and what about wild animals? And what would we drink?  We had to collect rainwater – except that it probably wouldn’t rain.

We would get hungry too. Before we left Britain, a friend had said he envied us but he would miss Bounty Bars. I thought that a pretty stupid remark at the time. Why would you want a Bounty Bar when you could have the real thing?

I would have welcomed a Bounty Bar just then. And a cup of coffee. Even machine coffee would do – in a plastic cup; I wouldn’t mind. I used to complain about it at work. What had I been thinking about?

What if Simon never came back at all? How long would it take them to find us? Did anyone know where to look? I supposed we could make a boat, or a raft, but what with? It was all right for Robinson Crusoe; he had a ship’s worth of supplies. We wouldn’t know which way to go either. There was no other land in sight. That ruled out swimming; that and the sharks.

I looked over at the American couple. They had told us they were Peace Corps volunteers, here to show Papua New Guineans how to grow vegetables. As if they needed to know. There again, we might.

Perhaps this was going to be more like ‘Lord of the Flies’.

For a minute, the sky turned a fiery red, then the sun slipped through a cluster of silhouetted palms across the bay, and left us in a violet dusk. It should have been lovely.

No one had said anything yet, but Tom was biting his nails. In a minute I would go and sit beside him. We would have to face facts: we were stranded. But first, I needed to calm down and gather my thoughts.

Please Simon, come please! I didn’t just want to return to the mainland. I wanted to go home, to boring, but safe and predictable Britain. I wanted my old job back, and I would never complain about anything ever again. If only I could get away from there…

Silly me! What a worrier I was! There was the boat rounding the promontory and  chugging steadily towards us. Simon had come back, as we always knew he would. We waded out to meet him.

He laughed. ‘Me forget what island you fellas on.’

As we climbed in he passed round beers from a copious crate, already half empty. So that’s where the petrol money had gone. I drank my beer in one go. Aahh, I needed that.

‘You like island a’right?’

‘Yes, thank you, Simon, it was wonderful.’

There was just enough light left to guide us back to the mainland.

‘Do you know what I feel like right now?’ I said, as we stepped out of the boat. ‘A nice cup of tea, British style!’

‘Let’s go to that place over there,’ said Tom, pointing to the café where I had first met Simon. It was now a mere shadow against the blackening sky, but lights twinkled along its verandah, as if to welcome us back.

As I pushed open the door I saw a notice hanging next to it, which I hadn’t seen before. It said, ‘ON NO ACCOUNT SHOULD YOU GO WITH SIMON IN HIS BOAT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!’

*****

(1844 words)

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Northern Rock

A long way up north and far out to sea, at the very tip of an archipelago, there was a tiny island called the Northern Rock. The few families who lived on this island were prosperous fishing folk. They nearly always came home with huge catches. Then, everyone would enjoy an enormous feast of herring, halibut, mackerel, capelin, cod, and best of all, swordfish. The islanders enjoyed so much fish that they had grown fat and contented, and so had their cats. The cats had grown in number too, and sometimes it seemed that all those fat cats ate more fish than the people did themselves. And the more fat cats there were, the more fish the islanders had to catch to feed them all.

This meant going further out to sea where the fish were more numerous. They were most plentiful in an area called the Outer Bank, an underwater plateau where cold and warm currents met, bringing thousands of fish to the surface. It was an extremely stormy part of the sea, and the fishermen felt very brave going there, but they consistently returned with such bountiful catches that they believed the almighty sea god, Nix was rewarding them for their courage. So successful they were despite the terrible storms, that they felt that Nix has blessed them and would protect them always.

Nix had watched over men of the Northern Rock as they had built their fishing boat.
‘That boat is as solid as the ground we’re standing on,’ said Andy, the island chief when it was finished. ‘We’ll call it Northern Rock.’

The women of Northern Rock were more worried than their men. It was true that they came back with ever bigger catches but it seemed that the waters they were venturing into were becoming stormier and stormier. Each time the men went out, the wives felt less certain that they would return safely.

‘Call it off, tomorrow,’ pleaded Andy’s wife, Bess, as they sat mending nets. ‘There’s a storm brewing, for sure.’ The warning signs were there. It had been a hot muggy day and ominous gusts of wind were blowing in from the west.
‘Don’t be daft, woman. We never miss a trip.’
‘I wish you would, when it’s bad. I worry about you.’
‘Oh, you women! We would never go out if you got your way. Then what would you eat? You like your fish suppers a’right, don’t you?’
Bess had to concede that she did. But surely they didn’t have to take such terrible risks. She kept thinking about the terrible accident that had happened years ago to the fishermen on the nearest island, Overthere. They got caught in a storm and never came back. Their widows vowed they would never let anyone go out ever again, and from that time on no-one from Overthere ever did.
‘They get by a’right,’ said Bess, pointing across to the other island.
‘Aye, but what do they eat? Beans!’
‘And other vegetables… and they collect mussels…’
‘Mussels! Don’t make me laugh, woman! She’d have you eating mussels, Kitty,’ he said to the fat cat at his feet. ‘What do you think of that?’ He heaved the obese animal onto his lap. It answered him with a look of disdain and turned its back.
Bess persisted. ‘Not just mussels you find all kind of things in rock pools fish even. In fact, couldn’t we you know breed fish in the rock pools, then you’d never need to…’
‘Don’t be daft, woman!’ Andy laughed, shaking his head. ‘Now, get on with the mending, ye old trout.’
Bess took this as a compliment, knowing the high regard her husband had for the fish. But it didn’t stop her worrying.

The women watched from the beach as their men set sail in the choppy water towards the rising sun. They waited until the ‘Northern Rock’ had rolled and wobbled over the horizon, and they prayed to Nix, to look after their husbands. Then they trudged silently back to their cottages, to feed their children and the cats.

The storm came quickly. All day long the rain battered on the roofs and the wind rattled the shutters. Bess rocked in her chair and cuddled her children and her cats, and tried not to think about the fishing boat being thrown about in the heaving waves.

By late afternoon the storm had subsided, and the women and children came out of their cottages, and peered out to sea. Perhaps the boat would come home early.

But the boat did not come home early. Shadows grew longer and the sun dipped into the sea and still the boat did not come home. Some of the women paced back and forth along the beach, stopping every few seconds to scan the horizon. Some of them muttered prayers to the almighty Nix. Then the children, tired of playing, joined the vigil. They became clingy and some started to whimper. Then some of the women began to whimper too, and still the boat did not return. As the sun slipped below the horizon the whimpers turned to moans, then the moans turned to wails. They knew the boat would not come back now. Nix had betrayed them. All was lost: their men, their boat, their livelihood. The wives and children collapsed in a heap and wailed all night long.

‘Ma!’
No-one responded to the boy. The bereaved islanders had remained in a huddle on the shore all night long, wailing and moaning, and now they were exhausted.
‘Ma! There’s a boat!’
They all sat up promptly and looked out to sea. And sure enough, in the shimmering path of the rising sun a boat was coming towards them. They could hardly believe it. Was it a mirage?
‘I knew it!’ called one of the women. ‘I knew they would come back safely. Nix would not betray us.’
But the woman’s cries were met with silence as the others strained their eyes and peered into the sun. It was not their boat.

They could see more clearly now. It was a small rowing boat and it was coming from Overthere. The islanders watched motionless as the vessel came ashore, six female figures disembarked and walked up the beach towards them. Five of them carried heavy-looking cans and the sixth had a large basket. No-one said a word as they approached.

‘We heard your cries.’
‘Your boat your men they haven’t come back, have they?’
‘We’re so sorry for you.’
‘We’ve brought you food.’
The exhausted women, who had not risen from the ground, stared up at their visitors, then down at the cans they had put in front of them. They contained bean stew.

No-one had thought about food. Now, suddenly they were hungry.
‘Run and fetch some bowls,’ said Bess to her boy.

They supped in silence. It was a modest meal. It was not fish, but they were grateful; they weren’t going to turn their noses up at the offering. The beans, flavoured with garlic and herbs, were surprisingly tasty.

The cats did turn their noses up at the beans, but when nothing better came their way, one by one they realised they would have to go scavenging.

When the beans were finished the visitors passed the basket around. It was full of honey oatcakes. The children’s eyes lit up when they saw them and made to grab what they could.
‘Only one each, sorry,’ warned an Overthere woman. ‘That way there will be enough for everybody.’
They all complied. The honey oatcakes were delicious. They never made them on Northern Rock. Growing oats and keeping bees was too much work for too little reward.

When Bess had finished eating she looked up at the visitors. ‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘You’re good friends.’
‘Aye,’ one of them replied. ‘We all need friends.’

Revived by the meal, some children went down to play on the beach. The mothers watched their boys as they collected flotsam. Their eyes were soft with love for their sons, grateful that Nix had at least spared those who were still too young to go fishing.

The boys seemed to be fashioning bits of driftwood into a boat. The women turned to each other and shook their heads. They could not articulate their thoughts, but they each knew they were all thinking the same thing: life was full of uncertainties but some things were still predictable.

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When the Fighting’s Over

Jenny loved dancing. On Saturday night in her blue taffeta frock and high-heeled shoes she foxtrotted round the Cavendish Ballroom floor. The gilt-framed mirrors shone back her happiness.

Frankie liked dancing, too, especially once he’d spotted the bonny lass in blue with the beautiful smile. Soon they were dancing together, and before long they were inseparable.

After the dance Frankie would foxtrot Jenny home. Click, click, clack-clack-clack went the shoes of the two carefree lovebirds along the cobbled streets.

One night, Frankie seemed subdued.

‘What’s the matter, Frankie?’

‘Well, Jenny. Haven’t you heard? We’ve declared war on Germany.’

‘Oh, that. But that’s in Belgium, isn’t it? What’s that got to do with us?’

‘They need good soldiers, of course. Lots of lads are signing up. I’m thinking about it myself, in fact.’

Jenny stared at him. ‘What for?’

‘To do the right thing for my country.’

‘No! You can’t!’ Jenny gripped Frankie’s hand.

‘Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll be over by Christmas.’

Tears ran down Jenny’s cheeks. ‘Don’t leave me, Frankie.’ She buried her face in his chest.

Frankie bent down to be level with her face. ‘Tell you what, Jenny, m’darling. How about you and me getting married before I go? Then you’ll know I’ll never leave you. I’ll be yours forever.’

Now Jenny was weeping tears of joy. ‘And I’ll be yours,’ she choked.

Three weeks later, Frankie and Jenny took their marriage vows. The day after that, Frankie strode off to sign up.

He came back furious. He flung his coat across the room. ‘They said to come back when I’m nineteen. As if I was a kid!’

It was hard for Jenny to feign sympathy. She put her arms around her strong handsome husband. ‘Of course you are. But Frankie, now we’ve got another year together. Isn’t that lovely?’ She caressed his cheek with her lips and Frankie had to admit she was right.

In that first year Frankie and Jenny were wrapped in marital bliss. They set up home in a two-roomed flat and a baby was soon on the way. The war had not ended by Christmas, but to Jenny it seemed very far away. But Frankie walked past posters every day, reminding him that his country needed him. Most of his pals had already answered the call.

He also heard reports of local boys dying in action. The news was always shocking, but it made Frankie even more resolute; he had to help defend his country.

Shortly after the baby was born, Frankie’s nineteenth birthday arrived at last. Jenny was barely awake when he returned from the recruiting station beaming.

‘That’s it, Jenny. I’ve signed up and I’m off on Monday.’

Jenny’s jaw dropped. ‘Are you leaving me alone with the baby? What will I do?’

‘Don’t worry m’dear. We’ll sort out the Hun in double quick time now.’

Jenny burst into tears after she waved her husband off. Her neighbour Lizzie took her in for a cup of tea. ‘I know it’s hard, hen.’ Her man, Billy had signed up some months earlier. ‘But they’re only doing their bit. You should be proud of them. They’d be cowards if they didn’t go, now, wouldn’t they?’

Jenny missed her husband terribly at first. Everyone told her to be brave; but still she couldn’t understand why he had to go and fight. So when he turned up at the door one night without warning, she was overcome with joy.

‘Frankie! You’re back! Oh, what a lovely surprise!’ She rushed up, flung her arms around his waist and burst into tears. ‘Oh Frankie, I’ve been missing you so much. Have you changed your mind?’

Frankie pushed Jenny away. She nearly fell over with the force of his thrust. She stared at him, open-mouthed.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, woman! I’m a fully-trained soldier now. Soldiers don’t change their minds. I’ve got two days leave then I’m going to the Front. So don’t just stand there. Get me my dinner!’

‘F-f-frankie – I wasn’t expecting you –  there’s nothing to eat – I’ll run next door and borrow some potatoes…’

‘Potatoes!’ Frankie bellowed. ‘I want more than potatoes. I’m a soldier. Soldiers eat beef. What have you been spending my allowance on if there’s no food in the house?’

‘Frankie, it’s not very much…’

‘Oh it’s not enough for you, is it not? Not good enough for you, am I? And what have you been up to, you slut?’ Frankie picked up a cup and hurled it at his wife. Jenny shrieked. The baby woke up and screamed.

‘And shut that brat up! And get me hot water. I need to wash!’

Trembling, Jenny put the kettle on, picked up the baby and ran next door.

When Frankie finally slammed the door on Monday morning Jenny ran through to Lizzie’s and broke out in sobs. ‘He was horrible to me, called me names. He was drunk. He kept swearing and saying I didn’t know anything. He said, ‘Do you think you’re my one and only? Well, I’ve got new pals now.’ And he wouldn’t look at the bairn. It just wasn’t like him. I can’t understand it.’

‘Ah, don’t worry, hen. He’ll be a bit nervous about going to the Front. They tell the new lads terrible stories, Billy says, like soldiers getting blown to bits…’

‘Wh-what?’

‘But it’s not true. They’re only teasing. The Hun’s no match against our boys, like they said.’

Jenny was not consoled. She remained baffled and distressed, and looking after the baby took all her strength. She never heard from Frankie. It seemed he hated her, but why? Sometimes she hated him back, but then sadness, guilt and confusion would overcome her. Was he in danger? Did she care? She didn’t know.

Then one morning she got a postcard. ‘I am well. Frankie.’ That was all it said. Jenny stared at it, turning it round and round. What could it mean? Finally, she showed it to Lizzie.

‘It means what it says, Jenny. He’s all right. They haven’t got time to write much out there.’

Jenny carried on staring at the postcard, shaking her head.

Eventually, Lizzie took the card from her. ‘Come on, Jenny. We’re going dancing. Your man’s all right. We can celebrate.’

It was good to be dancing again, just like old times. Jenny soon forgot her woes as she and Lizzie spun round the floor. No use waiting to be asked up; no point in asking where all the young men had gone.

One young man was watching them. They caught sight of his dark mop and wide brow in the mirror. Soon he was over asking Jenny to dance.

It felt nice to be held by a young man again. His name was Len, a clockmaker, he said.

‘Tick tock,’ smiled Jenny. ‘You must be clever, then.’

But he was working in the coalmines while the war lasted.

After the dance Len walked Jenny and Lizzie home.

‘Why are you not away fighting?’ Lizzie asked him.

‘I couldn’t kill anybody,’ he said.

‘Oh! You’re a conscientious objector, then,’ said Jenny.

‘A conchie!’ said Lizzie. ‘You’d better watch out. You’ll get a white feather.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘Don’t you think you should do you bit, like all the other men?’ said Lizzie.

‘No. I think they’re stupid.’

‘Stupid, are they? Those men are laying down their lives!’ Lizzie retorted.

‘That’s my point.’

‘Don’t mind Lizzie,’ said Jenny. ‘She’s only teasing.’

Wartime gloom soon gripped Jenny again. She waited in vain to hear from Frankie. Other women got letters. Sometimes one would get a telegraph, shocking the whole neighbourhood. Every woman became fearful for her own man. Life was dreary. Would the war ever end?

Jenny lived for Saturday nights, when she would get together with Lizzie and Len at the ballroom. After the dance they walked home together, Lizzie teasing Len about shirking his duty. He just shrugged.

Jenny heard Lizzie screaming through the wall. She ran next door and immediately knew why.

Lizzie held out the telegram. ‘What have I to do? Where do I have to go?’

The neighbours heard the screams and ran to fetch her family. They all came into her kitchen and stood, passing round the telegram and shaking their heads.

‘What do I have to do now?’ shrieked Lizzie.

‘There’s nothing you need to do, Lizzie. There’s nothing you can do.’

All day, Jenny sat rocking the baby and listening to Lizzie’s muffled sobs. What if it had been Frankie? To her shame she realised she had hardly thought about him recently. Now dread engulfed her. How was he? He never wrote. Did he hate her still? What was she to think? Would he ever come back? What then?

That evening Len was at the door. His head hung. ‘I suppose I’d better join up, then.’

‘You will not! You can’t! I need you!’ Jenny pulled him inside. ‘What’s the matter? It’s a white feather, isn’t it?’

Len nodded, without showing his face.

‘You mustn’t go, Len. I couldn’t bear it.’ She put her lips to his wet cheeks and led him into the bedroom.

‘Are you sure, Jenny? You’re a married woman.’

‘Just this one night. We need each other, don’t we?’

Len stayed every night after that. He was a great comfort to Jenny in these grim times.

Len was less comfortable. ‘I shouldn’t stay, Jenny. Your man will be back. Tell me when to go.’

Jenny stared into the darkness. When? She felt the swell of her belly. She would have to tell him soon. ‘When the fighting’s over,’ she said.

Frankie jumped when the train pulled out of the station. He was always jittery, since…. He hobbled up the road. His feet hurt terribly, swollen and pussed with always being wet – hadn’t stop him being ordered over the top, though. Dunked in disinfectant, bandaged up and sent back to the mud. Keep them dry, they had said. The mustard gas burns too. Week in casualty, another in camp, then back to the trenches. And the trembling. Could hardly hold his gun but still he had to go. And the retching, and the nightmares. A toff would be sent to casualty then home to convalesce. But in the ranks you were just being a coward. So, off you go, over the top. Not till his hand was blown off and he couldn’t fire his gun was he discharged. No use then. He’d lasted six long months. That was a miracle. Most of his pals hadn’t lasted six weeks. Had to leave them where they dropped, except those that didn’t – like Alfie – wee Alfie – strewn all over the barbed wire, his head away… Frankie stopped to retch. If only he hadn’t seen his face, he might never have known. Now he couldn’t stop seeing him, even in his sleep – especially in his sleep. Sixteen years old! Had they believed him when he said he was nineteen?

Frankie pulled himself up and staggered on. Now the war was over for him at least.

‘I’m coming home, Jenny. I’ll be so pleased to see you, and the bairn. It’s been so long. I wasn’t very nice to you. Please understand what I was going through and forgive me. I never wrote – I couldn’t. It’s been terrible, Jenny. But now it’s over, and you’ll make everything all right, won’t you? I’m not the man I was. You’ll hardly recognise me – not strong or handsome any more – these weals over my eyes, that was the mustard gas, and my feet – one’s gone yellow; I fear the worse, and my hand off – but I’m alive, Jenny. You don’t know how lucky I am.’

Frankie badly needed another rest but he pushed on. He was nearly home. He could hardly wait till he fell into his wife’s loving arms. At last he reached his own front door.

‘Here I am, Jenny!’

His remaining hand trembled as he lifted the latch and stepped in.

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Our Own Affairs

The family at the other side of the dining room were probably wondering about me as much as I was about them. They would be right to. I felt as out of place here as they looked in place. No, they were not  quite in place either.
I was meant to be camping and hitching around Turkey with my boyfriend, Jimbo, but he had chickened out at the last minute, saying he couldn’t afford it. Anyway, he would have found excuses to stay in expensive hotels, then begged to go home early due to the expense
I refused to forego my holiday. I had graduated the year before and now in a boring job I was missing the university’s long vac. I had doubts about hitching around Turkey alone, so I went to the travel agent.
‘You’ll be lucky,’ they said. ‘It’s August. Torremolinos? Rimini?…’
‘No thanks,’ I said, and took the first train out of Paddington.
It was dark when the train hit the coast, so I got off at the next station. I tried several hotels before finding one that wasn’t booked up.
‘We’re only doing weekly deals, full board,’ the landlady said.
I hesitated, then sighed, ‘I’ll take it.’

I woke to the bustle of guests getting up and went to join them for breakfast. I didn’t feel awkward about being on my own; I exchanged pleasantries across tables, but I also had the leisure to peruse my fellow diners, especially that family. There was something unsettling about them.
They clearly were a family: an older couple who must been the parents of the two young adults beside them. The young man was about my age, twenty-two, the girl slightly younger. He was tall, well-built and wore spectacles with fashionable frames, features which make me assume intellect and high esteem. The girl was rather plain and about a stone overweight. She seemed bored. It was clear they were siblings, not a couple; they looked alike, both with fair hair gone mousey and the same opaque complexion. They didn’t seem interested in  each other.
I didn’t know why they intrigued me. Why would two young adults come with their parents to a very ordinary British seaside resort? For all kinds of reasons, I assured myself. Wasn’t I just feeling uncomfortable because I was on my own.
The other guests didn’t unsettle me. Most were middle-aged couples. Younger couples were here too: the sort who wore grey suits the rest of the year, commuted along grey motorways to grey offices and could no longer imagine any colour in their lives, or what to do with themselves on holiday. That was why they were here. Like myself, perhaps. Now, that was unsettling.
Over the hum of conversation I couldn’t make out what was said, but the father was relating a tale, rather boorishly, to the people at the next table. His wife nodded and smiled. Sometimes she turned to the girl who might listlessly add a comment. Her more animated brother would interject with some cynicism or contradiction. As brothers often did. But his voice was making me squirm. I didn’t know why.

After breakfast I headed for the sea. The beach was not bad: sand and shingle, backed by one-time fishermen’s cottages which had been turned into cafés and ice-cream parlours. Behind them a once-flourishing Regency resort had gone to seed.
It was really too cold but I went for a swim. I was determined to enjoy my holiday. The waves were exhilarating, their steady rhythm also calming. It was what I needed to unwind after my stroppy departure from Jimbo. He’d known better than to plead with me to spend the holiday in London, but I felt guilty, and annoyed that I felt guilty.
I rubbed my shivering body dry and went for extensive walks along the shore in both directions.

Back at the hotel the family had aligned themselves on high stools along the bar and were watching Police Academy.
The mother beckoned me over. ‘Hello, dear. Come and sit with us. I’m Kirsty, that’s my husband Ray, and these are our two, Matthew and Joy.’
‘Hi! I’m Melanie,’ I called out along the bar.
Matthew and Joy half-turned and nodded, then turned back to the television.
Kirsty smiled apologetically. ‘What you doing  here by yourself, dear?’
I summarised my situation.
‘Ah, that’s a shame,’ she said, and turned to relay it to Matthew and Joy. Matthew nodded again. He looked at my chest.
‘I live in London,’ I offered. ‘I work at Mortality Assurance Inc.’
‘Your future is in our hands.’ He was quoting the firm’s TV slogan.
‘That’s them,’ I said, and noticed I hadn’t said ‘us’.
‘What about you?’ I said after a silence.
‘Pratchett & Grimbex, Leics.’
I was none the wiser, but as Matthew had turned back to the television I left it at that.

After dinner I went out. The main thoroughfare was lively. I walked past trashy souvenir shops, rowdy pubs and amusement arcades until I came across a quieter alleyway and turned into it. As the street noise faded acoustic guitar music became apparent. Following the sound up the alley I came to a pub: the 12-Blues Bar, said a sign above the door.
I went in. It was empty apart from two  bleached-haired, bronzed guitarists and a few scattered customers. I bought a lager and sat near the players. They performed well; it was my kind of music. Soon I was singing along. ‘Hey Mr Tambourine man—-‘
In the break the musicians introduced themselves: Oz and Al. ‘We’re busking and surfing the summer along the coast towards Land’s End.
‘Cool!’
‘Come with us.’
That was far too fast.  ‘Sorry, I’ve got a life to get back to.’ My words felt flat.

Al walked me back to the hotel.
‘Inviting me up?’
I shook my head. I was not free to do that. ‘Goodnight.’
Before going inside I turned to see him grinning, and just then the family emerged from the car park. Joy was staring at me wide-eyed.

Next morning I awoke to knocking, not at my door but my neighbour’s. Then a man’s voice, low but urgent. ‘Joy!’
I realised then that I had heard Matthew there the first morning too. He tapped again. There was no sound from the room. Matthew was persistent.
It became annoying. Joy was clearly more difficult to wake than me. Were we late for breakfast? No, it was only seven-thirty. Pulling my pillow over my ear, I heard Joy’s door open and close. Then all went quiet. Perhaps they went to church or something.
At breakfast I caught Joy’s eye across the room. She looked bored, or disgruntled. Why had she come with her family when she so obviously didn’t enjoy their company?  What kind of life did she lead? I got the feeling she could have fared better. I felt I needed to befriend her.
When her family got up to leave, I followed. ‘Hi, Joy! Doing anything special today?’
‘We’re going in the car somewhere.’
‘Oh, nice!’
Joy didn’t elaborate. Anxious not to appear to be fishing for an invitation I added, ‘I’m going for a swim.’
‘Have a nice time, then,’ she said, and followed her family upstairs.

The sea was bracing. A vigorous breeze whipped up the waves. I ran along water’s edge to keep warm, the previous night’s music still in my head.
‘… to dance beneath the diamond sky….’  I felt euphoric, wild and free.
Again I walked extensively along the shore. I meant to phone Jimbo, but I didn’t get round to it.

That evening I noticed Joy was dressed the way I had been the day before, in a denim miniskirt, matching waistcoat and white cheesecloth blouse. She looked my way but I failed to catch her eye. I wouldn’t push it. It had been arrogant of me to think she was in need of rescue.
After dinner I went back to the 12-Blues Bar. Al and Oz were there again and I passed another very pleasant evening.

‘Joy!’ Tap, tap, tap … ‘Joy! Open up. I know you’re in there.’ Tap, tap, tap.
What was it about Joy? Was she a wayward child, much younger than she looked? Why was it always Matthew who got her up, and never one of her parents? Why did she never reply? Or protest?
At breakfast, I noticed again that Joy had on clothes like mine the day before; this time jeans and a black/white striped tee-shirt. I felt the family was avoiding me, however. I didn’t mind. I didn’t need them.

My days were getting into a routine: swim, walk, sleep, dinner, 12-Blues Bar, where every evening Oz and Al would say, ’We’re leaving tomorrow. Come with us,’ and I would reply, ‘I can’t.’
As the week wore on this sounded increasingly hollow. I was getting all too used to the unfettered life, with nobody to please but myself, a luxury I hadn’t enjoyed since – well, since I started that job, nor even since, come to think of it, I met Jimbo. For too long, I had been living according to other people’s agendas.

‘Joy!’ Tap, tap, tap. ‘Come on!’ Tap, tap, tap. ‘Joy! Open up!’
I wanted to ask Matthew where they went before breakfast. I got up and opened my door. But Joy had opened hers and I just glimpsed Matthew slipping inside.
So they weren’t going anywhere. But why the silence? I stood pondering.
Then I heard Joy’s bed creak and Matthew groan, and finally I got it.
I felt sick. I wanted out of there. I ran down to the sea and willed the salty spray to wash away my disgust.
I couldn’t face breakfast that morning. But what was I to do? Wasn’t it illegal? Should I tell the police? Wouldn’t they say it was a family affair? Should I tell the parents, then? Did they really not know? Why did Joy let him? Clearly she didn’t want it. Did she feel she had no choice? Surely someone should interfere.

Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Without giving myself time to think I leapt out of bed and opened the door. ‘Leave her alone,’ I said.
‘What?’ Matthew would not meet my gaze.
I raised my voice. ‘I said, leave her alone. She doesn’t want it.’
Matthew pulled himself up to his full height and stepped forward.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise this had anything to do with you.’ He looked down at my unmade-up face and unsexy nightdress.
‘It hasn’t but…’
‘Then perhaps we should look to our own affairs. Had a tiff with our boyfriend, have we?’
My blood pressure rose. ‘Leave your sister alone,’ I shouted, but it was to Matthew’s back. Joy had opened the door and let him in. He slammed it shut.
‘Please! Keep your voices down!’ The landlady appeared from the lift. ‘What’s the matter!’
‘HE’S FUCKING HIS SISTER! THAT’S THE MATTER!’ I bellowed down the corridor.
The landlady stood with her mouth open, fists clenched. ‘You’ll disturb the other guests!’
‘MAYBE THEY SHOULD BE DISTURBED!’ I shouted, but she had retreated.
I dressed quickly and headed for the beach.
I felt so embarrassed. Matthew had been right. I had no idea what Joy wanted. I should look to my own affairs, sort out my own life.
I ran along the shore. The waves drenched me but I didn’t care. I was a wretched, washed up wreck.
‘Hey! What’s the matter? Look at you! It was Al. I collapsed on the beach. He sat next to me and dried me with his towel while I told him everything.
‘What a nerve I had, when my own life is heading for a vortex! I can’t go back to the hotel now.’
Al shook his head. ‘Course you can. You’ve brought the whole sordid business to the surface. You should be proud. Hey, go back and get your breakfast.’

He was right, of course. I held my head high when I walked back in. Some of the guests gave embarrassed smiles but most would not meet my eye. The landlady made herself scarce. The family didn’t appear, and I never saw any of them again. I could do nothing more for Joy. She would have to sort out her own life.

I had to sort out my own life too. For too long I had been living according to other people’s agendas. I phoned Jimbo. ‘I’m not coming back,’ I told him.
He was dismayed. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s for the best, Jimbo. We’re not right for each other.’
‘What about your job?’
‘I’m packing it in.’
I phoned my work and persuaded them to forego the month’s notice. Then I checked out of the hotel. ‘Bye, then,’ the landlady smiled tightly.

Al and Oz were still at the 12-Blues Bar when I got there. ‘I’m coming with you,’ I told them.
‘To Land’s End? Great! We were waiting for you.’

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Curtains

‘One day, lad, all this will be yours!
What, the curtains?
No, not the curtains, lad.  All that you can see!’

That scene in The Holy Grail, that Monty Python film, keeps coming into me ‘ead. You see, I’m standing ‘ere in this dead posh house looking at all this lovely furniture, and it’s the curtains that I like the best. They’re lovely – a sort of heavy silk brocade in a really nice pink – dead classy. The house belongs to Hugo’s mother and it’s all dead posh. Lovely settees in a plushy velvety material, and chandeliers and all that. It must be worth a bit. I keep thinking, when Hugo and me are married and we’ve inherited this place, and I invite me mum and me aunties over and they see all this… Well, they’ll probably think the curtains are inside-out because down our way they hang the curtains nice-side-out to show them off, but I’ll have to explain this is how it’s done proper. Anyway, they’ll be dead jealous. OK, I’m getting ahead of meself here – he hasn’t popped the question yet, but he’s brought me to meet his mum. That’s a start, innit? It’s quite exciting, really.
I’ll tell you what, I’m hanging on to this one. Hugo is dropdead gorgeous. And rich, obviously! Well, he’s got this fab house coming to him when his mum dies. I can hardly believe my luck. I wonder how old she is.
She’ll be here anytime now. I’m quite nervous, actually. I wish I’d put on something smarter than this pavement-princess get-up, but Hugo said it would be fine. I’m not so sure now.

Hugo
I can’t wait to see my mother’s face when I introduce Mandy to her. ‘No, you have never heard of her before, mother, and no, she is not one of us, and yes, she was brought up in a council flat and yes, she even went to a comprehensive school.’
My point is: I am sick of people trying to steer my life. My mother blatantly assumes that I am going to marry Camilla, my cousin, because we have been friends since childhood. And of course, because she is the right sort of girl. And I get all those other women running after me, just because I am the son of a f**king duke, and they think I will approve of them because they went to some jumped-up school. They don’t seem to realise how ridiculous their one-up-man-ship games are.
I loved it when I brought Mandy to Leticia’s party. The girls were appalled. They simply couldn’t understand why I would want to get mixed up with someone so common. She turned up in exactly the right outfit: a really tarty miniskirt and ripped stockings and dreadful plastic shoes. It was wonderful. Of course, no-one can tell one’s social standing from the clothes one wears nowadays – anything can be fashionable, but one can always tell, anyway, and she just wasn’t someone anyone knew – as if that invalidated one as a person! And Mandy, bless her, she was so sweet in her innocence; she doesn’t begin to understand what a cat-fight it is to get the alpha-male.
The whole thing is emblematic of our sick, class-ridden society with its outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society. The have-nots are jealous and discontent, while the haves feel guilty and threatened. And the scramble to the top brings out the worst in people.
I defy all of it. When my parents’ estate is bestowed upon me I will give the whole lot to charity and live a pure and simple life, like the Buddha. I will want for nothing. And whoever lusts after me then will want me for myself alone.

Sarah.
So, I am about to meet my son’s new girlfriend, Mandy Miller. I can’t say I have heard of her. I do hope she is a nice girl. I was surprised to hear that Hugo is not seeing Camilla any more. But he’s young. I expect he is just going through a rebellious phase. I trust he’ll come back to her eventually. Well, I hope so. The matter is rather delicate. I hardly dare tell Hugo that we have horrendous debts and practically everything we own will have to be sold when I eventually go. Poor Hugo. He’ll be lucky to be left with a pair of curtains. That’s why it is so important for him to marry Camilla.

Camilla.
I haven’t seen Hugo in years. Leticia tells me he’s seeing some awful girl who went to a comprehensive school. She tells me she was frightfully-badly dressed: ripped stockings and plastic shoes. Shouldn’t someone tell her these things aren’t fashionable any more? I can’t think what’s got into Hugo. We have been lifelong friends. Everyone assumed we would marry. Well, I wasn’t going to wait around forever. He’s going to get a shock when he finds out that I’m going to marry someone else. And who? Wait for it – Gob-Eye! Yes, THE Gob-Eye, the great rock-star! It’s so exciting! I love walking down Portobello Road with him and hoards of teenage girls come running up to us. They look so envious. And he’s all mine! And I’m having his baby!

Gob-Eye.
I suppose you think it must be terrific being a rock-star, but to be honest, I can’t be αrsed with it anymore. The music biz – it’s just a big money-machine, and I’m just a cog in it, OK, a lynchpin, but I’m going to crack up laughing when I pull out and see the whole set-up collapse around me. I’m p1ssed-off being a puppet. So I’m gonna retire. To the country.
To tell you the truth, I’m a wreck, these days. Between the cocaine and the mandies, and the various other uppers and downers, I’m all shake, rattle n’roll, and I’m not talking about a musical genre. And I haven’t even started telling you about the needle-work. I suppose I ought to go into re-hab again, but I can’t face it, frankly. Not yet. But doing drugs Gob-Eye-style is expensive. Especially when you factor in the bribe money (we won’t go into the details). My bank account might look healthy but it’s running down fast.
Just as well I’m marrying Camilla. She’s got a pile or two coming to her. With a nice bit out the back: 12,345 acres, to be precise. Well, I might have to sell off the odd patch to finance my lifestyle, but with Gob-Eye Junior coming along, I trust she’ll be pre-occupied and won’t notice. Unfortunately, with the financial crisis and price of land going through the floor, it might have to be more than the odd patch.

Mandy.
Well, I met Hugo’s mum. She was right nice. I was quite nervous when I shook her hand. It threw me a bit with her being so posh. I think I even did a little curtsy! That was a bit daft. But I haven’t been feeling my same old self recently.
Anyway, I think she liked me! She just gave me a big warm smile and looked at me directly in the face and she never looked down at my clothes or anything. Then I thought the tea was going to be dead formal, like, but we just went down to the kitchen and had a cuppa there. Then she was asking me all about my family and all but it wasn’t like an interrogation – just like she was interested, like.
She didn’t look like she was about to peg out any minute, though. She’s got another thirty years in her, at least. I shouldn’t really talk like that. It’s not very nice to wish someone dead, is it? It’s just that I can’t wait to get my hands on all that lovely stuff.
But I expect they’ve got another pile somewhere else. I know Hugo hasn’t popped the question yet, but we will have to get married, anyhow. He doesn’t know it yet but he’s got me up the stick, you see.

Sarah.
Well, thank goodness, for that. Mandy is a very sweet girl but of course Hugo can’t possibly be serious about her. I think she must have gone to a comprehensive school. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I feel quite certain that it won’t last between them. I must tell Hugo to slip her some money. It’s such a pity when one can’t afford to dress properly.

Hugo.
Oh Lord, Mandy was so embarrassing! She curtsied to my mother! What got into her? Did she realise how ridiculous she would look? The whole point was to shock my mother, not to grovel. Mother simply found it amusing. I think she even liked Mandy. I’ve gone right off the girl. She looked pathetic. I think she’s a hypocrite. She’s probably a little gold-digger, at heart. I will need to make myself scarce. I wonder what Camilla is doing nowadays. I haven’t seen her in years.

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Sneezy’s Story (not for children)

I suppose they’ll spin you a fairy-tale, the other six. They’ll have to. No way can they tell you what really happened to poor Snow-White.

It started out good and well. Of course, we were delighted when the girl came knocking at our door, asking for food and shelter. Our eyes were popping out. A princess! And such a beauty! Of course she could come in.

We all fell in love with her straightaway. We grovelled and scraped. Take our food. Have the best bed.

She was grateful that first night. She must have been tired and hungry enough. She ate our broth and fell into Doc’s bed that night without a complaint. (He calls himself Doc; we call him Sleazy behind his back.)

The fleas must have liked Snow-White’s pure white skin, because she kept waking up with a yelp. I didn’t get too much sleep that night either, because Sleazy took Grumpy’s bed, Grumpy Happy’s, Happy Bashful’s, Bashful Sleepy’s, Sleepy mine, and I had to get in beside Dopey who smells, snores and itches. So I knew what Snow-White felt like in the morning.

‘Where are the silk sheets?’ she demanded.

‘But I must have silk sheets. I cannot possibly sleep another night without them,’ she said, when we shook our heads in apology.

‘What’s shilk sheets?’ Dopey asked, but we ignored him, and brought out the honey to make up for our inadequacy.

But we gagged when we saw the great dollops she was ladling onto her porridge.

‘That’s got to last us all winter,’ said Grumpy.

‘Sssh,’ said Sleazy.

They’ll probably tell you that she took up a brush and had the cottage spic and span, and the supper cooked and the table set by the time we came home for work. Don’t you believe it.

‘Work?’ she said, as if she’d never heard of it. ‘Are you going to leave me all alone? Then, remember to bring back silk sheets.’

‘Snow-White, your Highness,’ pleaded Sleazy, ‘we must go and work in the mine. We cannot bring back silk sheets. We are so sorry.’

She was afraid her wicked stepmother would send hunters out for her, so before we went out we locked the door and windows and told her to answer to no-one.

She was bored stiff when we got back, but it hadn’t crossed her mind to get supper ready. Not that we expected her to. We gave her the very best bits of meat in her broth, but it wasn’t good enough.

‘This meat is so gristly. Is there nothing better?’ she asked in dismay.

‘Have mine, Snow-White,’ Sleazy said. ‘I’ll cut off the gristle.’ Then Grumpy felt obliged to give Sleazy his share, Happy gave his to Grumpy, and so on down the pecking order to Dopey who got the gristle from Snow-White’s meat. He was too thick to notice, but some of us felt the sacrifice.

Let me explain. We dwarfs who work in the mines have a hard life. We’re not proper dwarfs like you see at the travelling shows. We’re just small. Some folks say it’s because we don’t get enough light to grow. I say it’s because we don’t get enough to eat.

I’ve been going down the mines since I was nine years old, or thereabouts. We get up at dawn, eat our porridge, pick up our axes, and walk up the mountain to the mine. Then it’s down, down, down. The tunnel is small. We keep banging our heads. That’s why we wear pads under our hats. Folk laugh at our high pointy hats, but that’s why they’re like that. We have to bend down all the way, and we stay that way all day. It soon gets to the point you can’t straighten up when you come out.

It’s dark, of course, and we take candles, and it’s hot and stuffy and dusty. We miners cough all the time. It makes us hoarse and breathless and wheezy and gives us chest pains. Eventually, it gets so bad you can’t go to work any more. Then maybe you start coughing up blood. Then you know you haven’t got long to go. It happened to my brother, Wheezy. It must have been a relief, in the end. It was a relief to the rest of us, I can tell you. I’m really more wheezy, too, than sneezy, but they had to call me something different.

Anyway, we work in the mine all day, hacking at the rocks, and in the evening we haul up the copper and gold. The boss takes it away and pays us our pittance, and we go home, knackered. Then we make our supper, and maybe play cards over a few beers. Then we go to bed.

That’s our life, except for Sundays. In winter that’s the only time we see daylight. We go to church, then to the pub, pick up the gossip, try to pick up a woman (and fail), buy food for the week and go home. That’s our life.

So it was really special when Snow-White came. We kept it secret from everyone, although we had to keep reminding Dopey not to tell. He nearly did once, in the pub, after the palace made an announcement that the princess was missing. He beamed round. ‘We know where she aaaaaaagh!’ Several of us had kicked him.

We carried on being good to Snow-White, although some felt she was pushing her luck. She was taking too much honey and more than her fair share of meat, and she never did anything to help. I kept reminding the others she was a princess and too delicate for work and anyway she wouldn’t know how.

It all turned quite suddenly. One night we got home very late because a stretch of tunnel had collapsed and we had to dig our way out. It took ages, we were more wrecked than ever and our tempers were short by the time we got home.

‘You’re late!’ said Snow-White. ‘I’m so hungry!’

Maybe the servants at the palace were used to being talked to like that but we thought it a bit unfair. ‘We’re hungry, too, Snow-White. You could have made the supper, yourself,’ said Sleazy.

I suppose Snow-White didn’t expect humble dwarfs to talk to her like that. Her mouth dropped open. ‘But – but – I’m a princess.’

That did it for Grumpy. He bawled at her. ‘You might be a fxxxing princes but it’s high time you pulled your weight. Now get cooking!’

Snow-White jumped up in alarm and picked up the big iron pot. But it was too heavy for her and she dropped it on her foot. Then she went into hysterics. ‘Oh look what you’ve made me do! You’re so cruel! I hate you all!’ She kept on shrieking.

It was all too much for Grumpy. He lunged at her, clamped his hand over her jaw and pushed her against the wall. Snow-White thrashed out. Grumpy banged her head on the wall this time. Snow-White kicked and screamed. Sleazy came to help Grumpy pin her down. Happy joined in the fray. Between the three of them, they managed to get the struggling girl upstairs, and by the sounds of it, I think they each gave her a seeing to. By the time they were finished with her, her protests were reduced to a whimper.

Poor Snow-White. I don’t think she deserved that. She wept all night. I would have gone over to comfort her but those three would have beaten me up.

She tried to leave in the morning but the door and windows were locked and Sleazy had the key. ‘You don’t want to go out there or your wicked stepmother will get you. Now be a good girl and have our supper ready when we get home.’

‘And lay the table.’

‘And sweep the floor.’

‘And scrub it.’

‘And bake some bread.’

‘And brew some beer.’

‘And warm our beds.’

We locked the door when we left.

We must have scared her rotten because she did have our supper ready that night and the house was nice and clean.

Really they should have left it at that.  The arrangement would have suited us perfectly. But oh no. Grumpy, Happy and Sleazy were on a roll now. They had bedded Snow-White and they would do it again. And again and again. The other four of us didn’t get a look in, but it was already bad enough for Snow-White. Those three were quite rough with her.

They’ll probably make out the wicked stepmother came and poisoned Snow-White, maybe by disguising herself and handing her an apple through the window.

But I don’t think so. I’d been lying sick in bed upstairs for a whole week and I never heard anyone at the window. They had ordered her to keep the shutters closed and had put iron bars over the windows, just in case. I did hear something fall to the floor but I never thought anything of it.

They panicked when they came home and found her lying there.

‘She’s covered in bruises.’

‘How did she get them?’

‘That’s where you…’

‘Shurrup, Dopey!’

‘It won’t look good at the inquest.’

‘We’ll have to bury her.’

‘It’ll take too long. What if they find us first?’

‘Let’s get out of here!’

And that’s what they did. They went without locking the door this time, but, alas, too late for Snow-White. They left her lying on the floor and me upstairs in bed.

I staggered downstairs and gaped at her. She was whiter than ever. She looked so beautiful, and peaceful now. Her life hadn’t been worth living of late. Every day I had lain upstairs and listened to her weeping, but there was nothing I could do.

She had been good to me; she had looked after me while I lay coughing and wheezing. She had brought me food and medicine.

I should never have said anything. ‘Go easy on the arsenic, now. No more than a tiny bit, or it’s lethal,’ I told her. I must have given her ideas. The jar was left on the table, uncorked; she must have taken some, then bitten into an apple to get rid of the taste. The apple lay on the floor beside her.

Oh Snow-White! Her cheeks were no longer rosy, but her face was so white and pure and even more beautiful than ever. I stared at her through glassy eyes until my hot tears spilled over her icy face. I lay down beside her, her coolness a comfort to my fevered body. My princess. At last she was mine, to love and to cherish, until –

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t do anything disgusting. I couldn’t even try. I had no energy at all.

After a couple of days she didn’t seem so pure and I heaved her outside. I really wanted to bury her but I didn’t have the strength.

They found her not long afterwards. The prince from over the valley came. He looked grief-stricken. Some say he’d had his eyes on Snow-White. If he married her he’d get her father’s kingdom when he died. No wonder the stepmother wanted rid of her!

His people came back for her and put her in a shiny wooden box – glazed, I think they call it. I watched through a crack in the shutter.

I’m waiting for them to come back and get me. Obviously, I’ll have to take the blame. But I’m coughing up blood now; my time’s nearly up. It hasn’t been much of a life. They can take me if they want; there is nothing more for me in this life.

But I believe in the everlasting. I’ve got a feeling there’s a future for Snow-White and us dwarfs.

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The Wrong Number

It was not that Margaret was superstitious; but thirteen was quite simply the wrong number.

Twelve would have been right. Twelve was six times two and two lots of six, three times four, and four sets of three. And most crucially, it was seven plus five, because her car took five and David’s took seven.

Margaret was a systems designer and programmer and she knew the value of forward planning. She had organised a weekend party for her friends, and she had it all worked out, right down to the last detail.

There were six double bedrooms in her cousin’s weekend cottage: one for each of the five couples and a sixth for herself and Sarah who was also single.

For Saturday morning she had reserved twelve horses at the stables and for the afternoon two sailboats each for six people.  For Sunday morning she had booked twelve mountain bikes, for the afternoon, twelve canoes, and for lunch, a restaurant table for the same number. She had bought twelve fish fillets for Friday’s supper, twelve chicken cordon bleus for Saturday’s, two dozen eggs and twenty-four rashers of bacon for the two breakfasts, six bottles of wine, two gateaux and an appropriate quantity of vegetables.

She was aware people called her a control-freak. Some even suggested she had a phobia about losing control, but she thought that unkind. She was proud of her organisational skills and she did all she could to make sure things ran smoothly. She knew how easily it would all unravel if she let anything slip.

Anthony announced at the last minute that he had split up with Lorraine and she was not coming, but that was all right because Margaret could deal with contingencies. She promptly invited Claire, who, she reasoned, could share with Sarah, while she herself could move in with Anthony. He would be lonely after the split-up, and she did find him very congenial.

But Anthony made up with Lorraine and turned up at the train station with her after all.

Now there were thirteen of them and her carefully-made plans were being thrown into disarray.  They were one too many for everything. In the evening they would no longer be able to play the game she had devised requiring four teams of three, they could no longer make three bridge tables, she would now have to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room, and catastrophically, thirteen people would not fit into the two cars.

It also upset the catering. Thirteen into twelve simply didn’t go. And how did one cut a gateau into thirteen equal slices without a protractor?

‘What’s lacking in food can be made up for with drink,’ said Jamie on the Friday evening, opening the fourth bottle, which Margaret had really meant for Saturday. Sarah had just announced she was not very hungry and would only have vegetables. This made things simpler, but the after-dinner games were the problem.

‘Never mind, we can play charades, instead,’ said David.

That irritated Margaret. ‘No. I have a better idea,’ she said quickly. ‘Let’s make up a story. I’ll say the first sentence and each person in turn has to supply the next sentence.’

She took a breath. She had it worked out already. ‘Once there were thirteen people who got together for the weekend in a country cottage.’ She gestured that Sarah should continue.

Sarah giggled. She had drunk a lot of wine. ‘They were all going to have a lovely time, because the one who had organised it had it all worked out because she was very good at organising people.’

‘Unfortunately,’ continued David, slurring slightly, because he was also drunk, ‘some of the people didn’t like being organised….’

Nervous titters went round the room…

Margaret got up. ‘Oh, I see! You’re talking about me.’ She went through to the kitchen and started the washing up.

‘Come back, Margaret, we were only joking,’ called Anthony.

She came back through, but only to pick up the empty glasses.

‘Oh, I’m so tired,’ she yawned. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to evict you all now. I want to go to bed and I’m sleeping on the sofa.’

‘Oh, but we haven’t discussed tomorrow,’ said Naomi. ‘What are we going to do?’

‘You can all go without me. Take my car. I’ll stay behind.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Margaret, we can’t leave you….’

‘I insist! Anyway, I have something else to do. I’ll have the evening meal ready for you when you get back.’

Margaret refused to listen to any further protest and when the sitting room had been vacated and the last plate had been put away she made up her bed on the sofa and fell asleep promptly.

 

All was quiet when she awoke the next morning. The others had already gone. She got up. She would need to walk down to the village and buy more food. She’d had to miss out on the day’s activities but she would lay on a lovely meal. The others would be grateful.

Just as she was ready to leave the doorbell rang.

‘Hello,’ she said, staring at a young man, a backpacker…

‘Hi!’

Margaret waited but he seemed at a loss for further words. Young, thin, long dark curly hair, faded jeans, designer tear, scruffy boots, tanned skin, piercing, designer stubble.

‘Er – you’re number thirteen, right?’ he said eventually.

‘You could say that, yes.’ How did he know?

‘Er – so, this is the Jacksons’ house?’

‘Oh, I see! You’re looking for house number thirteen. You’ve got the wrong number. This is a hundred and thirty. Thirteen must be near the top of the hill.’

She led him back to the gate where she saw that the zero had fallen off the gatepost leaving numbers one and three. She shrugged, and smiled at him.

He grinned back and she took in his liquid, dark chocolate eyes, his silky long lashes, and his collarless neck, bare and vulnerable.

‘I’ll come up with you. I’m Margaret, by the way.’

‘Nick.’ He too had come for the weekend.

 

‘But you can’t possibly stay in that!’ They were staring at number thirteen. It was a chicken shack.

‘No, it’s cool. A place to put my head. I’ll be all right.’

‘But there’s no furniture!’ Nick had now opened the door and they were staring inside.

‘I’ve got my camping mat and sleeping bag, there’s a roof and a floor, running water, sanitation, and, hey, electricity!’ Nick flicked a light-switch but nothing happened.

Margaret exhaled at the impossibility of it all. She looked questioningly at this happy-go-lucky young man. Then she inhaled at the possibilities.

‘What will you do about eating?’

‘I’ll get something.’

‘Why don’t you eat with us? I have to buy food at the village first.’

They walked down the road together and into the village.

Who was he? Where did he come from? What did he do? And how old was he? He must have been a good ten years younger than her thirty-five. She asked him.

Here and there, this and that, and nineteen and a half, he told her.

’I can see I’m not going to get a straight answer out of you.’

‘My name is mud,’ she explained in turn. ‘They complained I organise them too much, so I’ve spared them my company.’

‘Their freedom and yours.’

The sun was unusually strong for late September, and it made them hot and thirsty. The village inn beckoned.

‘Can I invite you to a cup of tea?’ she asked him.

 

‘Actually, I’d rather have cider,’ said Nick, as they sat down at an old oak table.

‘Cider. There’s not much alcohol in that, is there?

‘Well, just a bit.’

‘Then I had better not,’ she said automatically. ‘Of course –  I’m not driving – ‘.

‘Maggie, you may,’ said Nick.

Margaret smiled at his boldness. No one called her Maggie.

 

The shops had already closed by the time they lurched along the street.

‘Oh, drat! I forgot! Shaturday’s a half day. What on earth shall I do? – Oh well, they got to go riding and sailing and I didn’t.’

‘Hey, we could go riding, too.’

‘Now, what ARE you shuggeshting?’ she giggled.

‘Look!’

He was pointing to a pack of white horses galloping in a circle in slow motion, to barrel-organ music. It was a carousel. He pulled her over to it.

‘Oh, don’t be sho shilly! This is for children.’

Nick mounted a horse and pulled Margaret on behind him.

Round and round, they went, up and down. The world flashed past them in a blur. The horse was a Pegasus; it flew to the sky. Wild and free, they raced mares’ tails, their hair and the horse’s mane billowing in the breeze. Margaret’s arms hugged Nick’s waist, her thighs, his hips.

Then they landed. But her head still spun. They got off giggling.

‘Oh, that was wonderful, but now I’m so hot.’

‘Let’s cool down in the river,’ said Nick, pulling her down the bank of the stream.

‘Oh, don’t be sho shilly,’ she said, tumbling down after him.

‘All right, I suppose I can put my feet in… .’

Margaret screamed as Nick pulled her right in. She slithered on pebbles as she tried to get out. She screamed and laughed, screamed and laughed.

‘Oh, now what are we going to do? Our clothes are soaking!’ Margaret cried, horrified yet ecstatic.

‘We’ll dry them at the launderette,’ said Nick.

And so they did, taking turns to shield the other’s naked body from curious spectators.

 

It was dark when they staggered up the road. Margaret decided that the others could sort out their own meal, and they carried on past number 130 to the chicken-shack at number 13 where they fell into each others arms.

 

‘Wake up, Maggie, I really got something to say to you / It’s late September an’ I really should be back at school…’

‘Oh, you are so silly,’ murmured Margaret, and she turned to put her arm around Nick who was now beside her on the sofa at her own cottage. Then she went back to sleep.

 

When she woke up again she was alone. Nick was gone, and so were the others, she realised, when she saw that both cars were gone. She thought it rather rude of them to go off without saying anything. The plans for Sunday had not been renegotiated. She dressed quickly and went to look for Nick.

Margaret paced several times between the buildings numbered eleven and fifteen. All three, including the one distinctly numbered thirteen, were modern blocks of flats. Not a chicken-shack in sight. Bewildered, she grabbed her mobile and called Anthony.

‘Hello, I haven’t seen you for a long time.’

‘Must be all of twenty minutes,’ replied Anthony.

‘You left without me.’

‘Well, you did insist. We didn’t want to disturb you this morning. You were sleeping soundly.’

‘Was Nick still there?’

‘Who?’

‘The boy – beside me on the sofa?’

‘No, I didn’t see a boy. Been having sweet dreams?’

Margaret kicked herself. ‘Oh, well,’ she said quickly. ‘Have a nice time without me.’

‘You want to come after all, don’t you? We’ll come back for you. We’ll squeeze you in. And you can have a horse. Lorraine doesn’t want one.’

‘No, you can’t possibly! And what do you mean ‘horse’. The riding was yesterday. Today’s Sunday. It’s mountain bikes today.’

‘Today is Saturday, Margaret. We’re going horse-riding.’

Margaret snatched her mobile from her ear to check the display. It was Saturday.

She sat down on the garden wall behind her and stared, stunned, into space. A pale grey dove fluttered to the ground beside her, pecked around for titbits at her feet, and then flew off again.

‘Maggie?’ Anthony shouted through her mobile.

‘Hello?’

‘We’re coming back to get you, OK?’

‘Whatever you like, Anthony.’

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