Category Archives: Stories and short pieces

Black Widows

Backforth House is an unlikely care home that hides at the end of a residential road, its side butting against a scrubby, rubbishy mound of railway embankment. From the pavement, if you ignore the gawking residents, it is exactly like the rest of the Victorian, terraced street: three houses knocked inappropriately into one, higgledy-piggledy home.

Margaret Lewis, a stalwart volunteer, tries with her mid-life hearing, to catch what’s being said in the lounge as she passes, dragged towards a window in the next room by Caroline, a beloved resident. This excited woman-child wants to share something impossible to articulate. As Margaret’s portly body sweeps past an anxiously huddled group of staff she can catch only a few grave words from Matron, but the words are enough to fill her with dread.

‘The bank has refused…’

Margaret’s head lags behind, her neck craning and her arms stretched to their limit, while her legs run the course of Caroline’s desired route, but she can catch no more. Eventually, captor and captive, arrive at a tall sash window. Its frames are bolted together to prevent any ‘unfortunate’ accidents, and layers of paint almost obliterate the crack that once allowed the top and bottom to slide independently and give the stuffy room access to fragrant, fresh air.

Grunting, Caroline presses her forehead to the glass, putting her arm round Margaret’s neck to force her attention to the view. With her cheek uncomfortably distorted against Caroline’s shoulder Margaret contemplates the garden and thinks, not for the first time, how regrettable is the state of it. She’s been hatching a plan to recruit her two best friends, Celia and Marion, to tidy it up. There are some lovely trees and shrubs; it would only take a couple of weekends’ solid work to make it right then they could all sit out there on sunny days. The residents would love that, especially Caroline.

Caroline’s greatest interest, apart from an insatiable desire to steal other people’s food, is to watch the birds that swoop in the air, or peck and bob in the garden. On outings, Caroline’s attention must be diverted from the sky or progress is almost impossible.

The object of current exuberance is a Raven. It sits on a waving branch a few feet from the window. Suddenly Caroline releases Margaret and launches herself back into the lounge, galloping round the room excitedly. Margaret straightens her hair and blouse while the raven takes off in alarm.

If the ravens leave….

***

In a tearoom in town, three middle-aged widows, Margaret amongst them, are taking tea.

‘Bloody bureaucracy.’ Marion stretches a slender arm for the teapot and drains the last of it into her cup. She opens her mouth, revealing a set of cream coloured teeth which she deploys to remove a large chunk from her slice of Victoria sponge. She chews crossly.

Margaret would have liked a cup of tea too – and a cake. Marion is so lucky, she can eat whatever she likes. Margaret screws round in her seat hoping to catch the eye of a waitress. Why do they always look the other way when you want them?

She returns her attention to her companions.

‘Well, there’s not much we can do. If the bank won’t lend them the money then that’s it. End of story.’

‘How much do they need?’ Marion sucks crumbs from her fingertips with lips that put Margaret in mind of the bit of a balloon that shrivels round the knot.

‘£150,000, I believe.’

The small tea room clatters and murmurs. Margaret tries again to find a waitress. Her neck begins to ache and she turns back again, massaging it.

‘D’you think we could raise it?’

‘I’ve always wanted to do a sky dive.’ The two women stare at the third member of their trio.

‘A sky dive, Celia; with your condition?’

Margaret takes a worried breath. Powerful emotions usually invoke in catalectic Celia, the instant collapse of her supporting muscles, as though someone has pushed up her base. A sky dive would probably have the same effect; if the narcolepsy didn’t get her first.

Celia’s face begins to droop.

‘I’ve got her.’ Marion leaps to the back of Celia’s chair and catches her friend by the armpits. ‘I’ve got you Celia, don’t worry.’ She leans closer to Celia’s ear,

‘Sorry.’

Celia slurs,

”Sokay.’

While they wait for Celia to recover, Margaret thinks about the residents in Backforth House. Apart from Caroline, her favourite because she is so funny and happy in her own little world, there’s plump Michael who won’t speak to anyone but shouts at the television, and Louise who sits and rocks in a corner, her hands clenched in perpetual prayer. None of them are visited by families; the only people to care about them are the staff, and Margaret.

Margaret started going to the home when her daughter Charlotte was offered a place there. Charlotte was born 30 years ago with every complication imaginable. When they realised they couldn’t give Charlotte everything she needed, Margaret and her husband, Gerald, dejectedly visited dozens of unsuitable care homes across the county and beyond. As soon as they stepped into Backforth House, though, they knew it was the right place.

Gerald and Charlotte are both gone now but Margaret still visits. Backforth House is her second home and the residents and staff, her family.

‘I don’t think a sky dive would raise enough money, anyway. We need a campaign, something to invoke indignation across the country,’ she says.

‘We cd wite soo Bill Gates.’ Celia is coming round, sluggishly.

‘Is it his sort of thing? I’ll check on the internet when I get home.’ Marion is a bit of a whiz on the computer, if somewhat gungho.

‘Let’s sleep on it.’ Margaret doesn’t hold out much hope.

***

The phone is ringing. Margaret drags herself from profound slumber and fumbles for her glasses.

‘Hello?’ She squints at the clock: 2.30am.

‘Maggy, it’s Marion.’

‘Marion. It’s 2.30. What’s wrong?’ Margaret’s voice is husky with sleep.

‘Nothing, nothing,’ the voice is impatient, ‘I’ve had an idea.’

Margaret yawns. ‘Couldn’t it wait ’til morning?’ She reaches for her water and knocks it over – damn, and pulls out a handful of tissues to dab at the puddle.

‘Let’s rob the bank. You know? The one that refused the money.’

Margaret’s hand freezes in mid-air,

‘Don’t be ridiculous. We can’t do that.’

‘Yes – we can. Who would suspect three middle-aged, middle class ladies of robbing a bank?

‘Go back to sleep, Marion, you’re bonkers.’

***

Celia is slumped over Marion’s kitchen table.

‘Look, how could she rob a bank? You just suggested it and she’s gone!’ Margaret ducks her head at Celia.

‘Well, we’ll need someone to drive the getaway vehicle.’

‘No, Marion. If it’s to be done, we’ll have to do it alone.’ What is she saying?

‘So you’ll do it?’

Margaret pictures Caroline, galloping round the room. ‘Maybe.’

Marion becomes business-like. ‘I’ve thought of everything. We’re going to need disguises, built-up shoes, replica guns and recording equipment. Oh, and we need to steal a car.’

***

In the drive of a suburban house somewhere far from home, Margaret is shivering beside a darkly gleaming Ford Mondeo.

‘How on earth do you know all this Marion?’ she whispers.

It is pitch dark. 2am again as a matter of fact. The two women are dressed in black. Short, wide Margaret sports a natty black track suit and bobble hat while tall, slender Celia manages to be elegant even in criminal camouflage.

‘OK, just a small hole here.’ Ignoring her co-conspiritor’s question, Marion dips her head to aim the beam of her head torch onto the spot, and places the tip of her drill just below the door lock. The tool shrieks in the night silence and Margaret looks around wildly, but all is peaceful.

‘And pull the handle’ Marion’s voice is calm as the car door opens revealing deep shadows within. ‘That worked.’ She draws a can of stuff from her rucksack and passes it to Margaret. ‘Spray this on the number plates; it’ll make them unreadable by cameras.’

With a pounding pulse Margaret obeys, while Marion climbs into the driver’s seat and begins to fumble behind the dashboard. As Margaret climbs in beside her the engine thrums into life.

‘The wonders of the internet,’ Marion’s face breaks into a wicked grin.

Cruising along empty roads Margaret starts to laugh. Marion explodes into giggles and they snort hysterically for several minutes.

‘Stop!’ Marion begs, ‘I’m going to wet myself!’

‘Don’t do that, you’ll leave forensic evidence on the seat.’

They hoot again and continue to giggle on and off until they get to Celia’s house. The garage is open and they roll in, pull the door closed from inside and step into Celia’s hallway via the adjoining entrance.

Celia is in the lotus position in the middle of the kitchen floor. She stops her humming for a moment.

‘Please don’t tell me about it. Is the car in the garage? Ommmmm’

They nod.

‘OK, good night.’ Celia resumes the hum; her eyes are closed.

Margaret and Marion start along the hall.

As they reach the front door Celia calls after them.

‘Night,’ then, after a slight pause, ‘I did want to do a sky dive though. Ommmmmm.’

***

Bank clerk William Child, known ironically as Billy the Kid, is hungry. A cheese and pickle sandwich and bag of salt and vinegar crisps await his attention in the staff room downstairs.

His two fellow cashiers are hauling bags of recently delivered coins and notes downstairs to the vault, while Billy counts the cash in his till.

There’s movement at the front door and Billy raises his eyes. A couple of slightly weird looking men have entered. Billy’s stomach gurgles like a faulty radiator, and he tries not to think of food.

One of the men, wide, with long legs and a bushy beard, approaches the till with a shambling bearing. Billy smiles unenthusiastically as the fellow’s hirsute visage looms before him through the glass.

‘Reach for the sta-a-ars.’ The voice of Woody, from Toy Story, escapes from somewhere about the body of the bearded man and to Billy’s further alarm and disbelief, a gun appears from deep within the enormous coat, it’s nozzle directed at his head.

A loud bang causes Billy’s heart to pump and his arms to shoot, without argument, towards the ceiling. Once he is sure that he is alive, though, he observes with a mixture of relief and trepidation that the explosive noise has come from the slamming front door. Billy’s errant stomach rumbles again and his bladder is suddenly unbearably full.

There’s an alarm button under his counter but Billy, his arms still aloft, has no intention of pressing it.

The bearded man holds up a large holdall and gestures to Billy to take it. Billy lowers his hands to unlock his security window, and shakily takes the bag.

An American man’s voice, later he will earn that is the voice of Rythm and Blues singer, Johnny Gill, announces, ‘One hundred and fifty thousand.’

‘You want £150,000?’

The man nods.

The second man jiggles from foot to foot beside the closed front door.

Billy begins, in accordance with his training, to load the smallest denominations into the bag first. The gun waves threateningly and Billy’s hand shoots to the £50 notes.

‘I’m not sure how much I’ve got in here,’ he wavers.

The American voice repeats, ‘One hundred and fifty thousand.’

‘OK, OK.’ He loads in fifties, twenties, tens and fives. There is actually quite a lot of cash in his till because Mason’s, the jeweller, and Partridges mini-market, have just paid in. Behind him the remains of the Securicor delivery sits waiting for his colleagues to return. The gun points to a bag of notes and Billy adds it to the haul and passes the bag of loot towards the gloved hands of the strange man.

The second man opens the door and they both hobble out. As they leave Billy could swear he hears the voice of Tommy Cooper saying,

‘Thank you very much.’

Billy’s colleagues come clumping noisily up the stairs, discussing football. Billy presses the alarm.

A few moments later, two middle-aged ladies emerge from the gents in Victoria Park. They giggle a bit, looking embarrassed that they have gone in the wrong loo. A young man twinkles at them sympathetically then forgets them in his urgency.

The sound of sirens comes from the High Street but the ladies, who have arrived in a blue Mondeo, climb into a Fiat Cinquecento and drive demurely away.

***

‘The thieving bastards! If you can’t trust a bank to give you the right money then who can you trust?’ Marion glares at the piles of cash lined up on the coffee table in Celia’s living room. They are £2,305 short.

‘Well, he did say he wasn’t sure how much he had.’ Margaret defended the young man, who had nice eyes and wavy hair that reminded her of Gerald when he was young.

‘Well I’m not robbing another bank…’ explodes Marion.

***

They are dressed in overalls. The harnesses weigh heavy on their backs.

Margaret is chanting a mantra to herself,

‘it’s safer than crossing the road. It’s safer than crossing the road.’

Three instructors wearing khaki siren suits, sit opposite them looking relaxed and amused.

‘OK, ladies, it’s time to get ready.’

Margaret pauses her chanting to swallow.

‘I can’t believe I’m doing this!’

‘Me neither.’ Marion nods down the tiny gangway. ‘Just look at her.’ Celia is slumped on her knees with her bottom in the air and her forehead resting on the floor. It’s been quite a battle to persuade the sky diving company to let Celia come along. The friends had to sign disclaimers and Marion flirted despicably with the paunchy and bespectacled manager.

The instructors stand up and Margaret and Marion follow suit. It feels wobbly underfoot. Margaret and Marion heave the drooping body of Celia upright and between them all they manage to strap her onto one of the men. Their harnesses are yanked and tightened, and Celia is attached to her solid and youthful professional.

Below them – very far below, the entire staff and residents of Backforth House can be seen in the bright sunshine. A tiny Caroline is galloping round the edge of the group with a nurse in pursuit. Flags wave and the faint sound of the brass band wafts up to them over the drone of the small plane.

‘Ready then? Marion is grinning at Margaret.

‘I can’t believe I’m actually…’

‘Shut up Maggy and jump. 1, 2, 3 Geronimo-o-o!’

I am Wonder Woman

I am Wonder Woman. It’s a secret. Nobody knows but me. My family thinks I am the domestic help and my friends, well, they only get fleeting views of me as I fly around ‘Wondering’.

Let me set the scene. Picture me: a manic, middle-aged matriarch, glasses at nose tip, in a cluttered, kid-stroke-cat filled kitchen (that’s stroke as in punctuation not caress), ‘phone clamped between shoulder and ear, stirring a pot of something aromatic and discussing the finances of the local youth club. With diminishing hormones I battle with a large house, career driven husband, teenage and seven-year-old daughters, a string of hobbies and an enthusiastic involvement in village organisations.

…It was not always thus. I was once a child, in an orderly and happy home. My mother organised, arranged and cleaned with a huge amount of energy, love and personality. And she cooked. And she taught me to cook. Family life was punctuated by meals: home cooked, delicious, comforting, stodgy, mainly soft and absolutely enormous. Mother came from the war time school of thought: eat lots, don’t waste anything, the more cholesterol the better, boil the vegetables to a pulp and never cut the fat off the meat, it’s the best bit. Meals were accompanied by lively debate about the quality of the meat, the crispness of the crackling or the shortness of the pastry.

Food marked all occasions. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries and achievements of all kinds were celebrated with a feast. These ceremonies would comprise several courses cooked with and accompanied by quantities of butter, cream and alcohol. Outside the home some of our greatest treats were had in the company of my paternal Grandparents. Grandpa liked to live the high life. He and Grandma had foods we never had at home: Ruby red Ribena to drink, brown bread sandwiches spread with unsalted Dutch butter and filled with silky smooth smoked salmon from Harrods’ Food Hall, gleaming strawberries with sugar and cakes exploding with whipped cream. On their coffee table Grandma and Grandpa always had a fruit bowl topped with a bunch of sweet and juicy black grapes, a great treat. Surrounding the fruit bowl were little dishes of crystallised fruits and chocolates in which, after we left, were to be found my brother’s tooth marks, evidence of the centres that hadn’t matched his hopes.

My mother’s parents were less profligate. Nanna grew tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse and I would often go with her into its tropical, leafy interior, fragrant with the smell of warm tomatoes, to pick the best cucumber for tea. We would laugh at the bendy ones and at the strangely shaped tomatoes with lumps and carbuncles which would later provide the ingredients for her home made tomato juice. Bampy was the outdoor gardener. He grew marrows, potatoes, carrots and runner beans which, again, we would ‘help’ to pick. Nanna’s meals were slowly cooked and delicious and I remember stewed leg of lamb with caper sauce and roast beef with drool inducing gravy.

Meanwhile in the 21st Century, as you can imagine from the above, modern Wonder Woman does not have quite the physique of her 1940’s, comic strip namesake. Waging a battle between healthy eating and fine dining, my aim is to cook, in equal balance, delicious, healthy and quick meals. Delicious because food should always be delicious, even if it’s cheese on toast, healthy so that I may keep what is left of my figure and quick, to leave time for my many other interests: I write a blog, I paint and sing in a choir, I am Treasurer to the Youth Club and Editor of the Village magazine, I walk every day and I even have some friends! To give myself time for these activities I appear, unconsciously to have devised for myself some quite effective kitchen policies.

Kitchen policies one and two: Never do one thing when you can do six and always have home cooked food in the freezer. This may be why the kitchen is often an area of frenzied activity. As well as children, washing, emails, music practise, homework and philosophical debate there are often multiple cooking projects on the go. There may well be stock simmering in the slow cooker; the oven may be full of casserole to be portion up later for the freezer. There could be a huge pan of lamb curry or split pea dhal or a soup using up the left over vegetables, and dinner might be cooking as well.

I once had a friend whom I admired enormously for the relaxed and efficient way she ran her home. She and I had an outside catering business for a couple of years and she taught me a massive amount, but the thing that impressed me most was her freezer. In it were stacks of home baked sponge cake layers, about 20 of each flavour. If she was expecting a visitor she would simply select two matching disks: chocolate, Victoria, orange or lemon and whip up an appropriate filling. I dream of having a freezer filled with sponge cake layers but in fact mine is full of other home made goodies. I have tomato sauce, cooked rice, home made pastry, curry, stock, soup and other dishes ready prepared for a fast get away.

Kitchen policy number three: Don’t use a recipe book use your imagination and experience. A lifetime of cooking has left me with a bookcase full of recipe books which I hardly read. How much more exciting and creative it is to devise recipes. Lovely Fennel and Butternut squash soup; Fennel, slightly sweet and aniseedy combined with aromatic spices and smooth, sweet butternut squash. Delicious! The house will smell divine after roasting the spices and as family members come home from school or work you will be rewarded with their enthusiastic appreciation and anticipation of a feast to come.

Of course there must be a good stock to begin with: use a supermarket turkey drumstick roasted until brown or a left over chicken carcass and simmer for a about 4 hours with celery, leek, whole onion and carrot with bay leaves and black peppercorns. Take the lid off after 3 hours and reduce the liquid to a nice concentrated stock. Taste it to be sure you have the flavour right. The stock should be drained and then chilled to a jelly and the fat removed from the top. For the soup fry a teaspoon of cumin seeds and two of fennel seeds and the seeds from three cardamom pods in a little olive oil until they start to jump about or they are getting dark in colour. Throw in a diced onion and half a chopped chilli, with the pith and seeds removed and stir the vegetables over a medium heat until the onions are transparent and very slightly browned. Add a large chopped bulb of fennel and a big toe sized piece of peeled, grated root ginger. Season with plenty of salt and some black pepper and keep stirring for a few more minutes before pouring on about a litre of stock. Bring the soup to the boil and simmer, covered for about 20 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Meanwhile bake a small sliced butternut squash, without the seeds, in the oven. When the flesh is soft and the edges are toffee coloured, remove it from the oven and set aside. Once the fennel and onion are tender add the butternut squash and puree the soup until smooth then pass it through a sieve to get rid of the bits of spice and any black bits of squash. Tip in a 400ml can of low fat coconut milk and bring back to a simmer. Serve your soup topped with the feathery leaves from the fennel bulb; yummy!

Back to the policies. Kitchen policy number four: Use the best ingredients you can afford. Local suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables can be extremely good, especially of locally grown produce. I get mine delivered by a local organic supplier of boxes which also saves time and is quite exciting as I never know quite what I will get. Local isn’t always a byword for good though, especially for meat. Don’t forget that supermarkets now sell organic and farm reared meat and the quality is always consistent

Kitchen policy number five: Don’t be precious. If there is a gadget that will make it quicker or easier, then get it. A ‘liquidizer on a stick’ is invaluable for soup and I have something called a Sauciere which makes effortless Hollandaise sauce. Food doesn’t have to be prepared with a wooden spoon and a cook’s knife to be called home cooking.

And finally, here is the most important one of all. Kitchen policy number six: Don’t spend your whole life in the kitchen. When you’ve created your scrumptious food and everyone has polished it off, give the kids a craft project, give the old man a DIY job, kick the cupboard doors shut, set the dishwasher to spin, eat up, clean up, dress up and get out. After all, did you ever see Wonder Woman toiling in the kitchen wearing a pinny?