Category Archives: fiction

In the Pink

in the pink

You hate the smell of the place. The sickly stench of cheap air freshener, rather than neutralising the compacted odour of aged bodies, urine-soaked furnishings, and stale cooking, highlights it. You loathe sight of the magnolia walls, the  poorly reproduced generic prints of countryside scenes, the institutional, mint-green, dralon seats. You pity your grandfather’s baggy frame, his wrinkled incapacity, his silent distance. When he doesn’t recognise your voice, it makes you want to cry.

You wonder why he smiles so freely, at the walls, and towards the fluttering, fading curtains.

You think his restless flitting eyes are nigh on blind, but he sees sights to which you are not privy.

He sits at a dinner table, relishing shepherd’s pie with home grown potatoes and carrots. The sun’s rays fall onto a dark green mantlepiece on which sit several crinolined ladies, fashioned in porcelain. Monochrome photos of two young heroes who have yet to die for Britain, shoulder their rifles, proud uncles eager to do their bit. A third photo shows  a shy couple, frowning as the camera clicks. The man wears baggy corduroys and a tweed cap. In his hand he holds a shepherds crook. The woman cradles a baby wrapped in a woollen shawl.

The three white plates are scraped clean, knives and forks placed neatly together, glasses emptied of water. His father sighs contentedly, leans back in his chair, and tamps down tobacco in the bowl of his pipe.

His mother sends him out to play, safe in the knowledge that this rural farm is far from the danger of bomb attacks. He skips down gritty lanes, grabbing at plumes of meadowsweet, stripping off the sweet, creamy blooms, flinging them in the air, watching them fall like confetti. Grinning to himself he thinks how much better life is for a child than a man. He wants to stay forever in this perfect time – never to grow up, never to have the responsibilities of a job and family. He wants his days to be a constant round of  romping in the fields, soaking in the summer sun, returning home when his stomach tells him it is dinner time, enjoying board games with his parents in the evening, or helping his tin soldiers to defeat Hitler’s armies, and bring everlasting peace.

His eyelids sink, and you think he’s asleep, but his head slants just so, and an expression of ecstasy floods his face.

He hears a recording of Vera Lynn’s voice, drifting through a cottage window.

“There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover,”

but you are too far in his future to hear the music. All you hear is the traffic roaring along the busy road outside. You reach for his wizened hand. His smile widens.

You can’t understand what reason he could possibly have to smile. Living in this place, you’d think he would want to die. You don’t realise that in his mind, he is in the pink, having the time of his life.

“Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after.
Tomorrow, when the world is free,”

The ghost of a squeeze makes your hand tingle. His old bones feel so tiny, so fragile.

His lips lips part. His voice is no more than a whisper:

“Mummy.”

A chill goes through you, and lodges in your heart.

“Grandad,” you say, your voice urgent, “Grandad Jimmy!”

He can’t hear you, your voice is too far away.

Vera Lynn has such a beautiful voice. He knows – has always known – that she sings her song just for him.

“The shepherd will tend his sheep.
The valley will bloom again.
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again.
There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.”

With horror, you notice your hand is tightly gripping his, crushing his fingers together. You think you’re hurting him. You let go, and his hand flops. He sinks sideways, the beatific smile frozen on his face.

Outside, the light has a pink hue. A blue bird flies past, swooping and soaring, up, up high into the sky. You watch until it is out of sight.

blue-bird

.

.

.

.

The Daily Post #Pink

©Jane Paterson Basil

Damn your eyes

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I don’t miss your inane conversation,
or the way you make me wait to spit out each short sentence,
which you rarely let me finish in your impatience
to tell me the next pointless thing;
I don’t miss your inadequate wit,
which insults my ethics with its short-sighted prejudice;
I don’t miss your self-obsessed assumption that I will be interested
in your irritating and unwholesome hobbies

if you had the intelligence to pay the slightest attention
you would have wondered at my fascination for one
so limited in every way.

It’s your eyes, damn it;
I miss your eyes,
which said such different things
than those futile words which spilled from your lips.

©Jane Paterson Basil

The virus that saved the world

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When the virus first hit, nobody knew what was going on. The characters of certain hard-nosed bankers and ultra-right wing politicians changed overnight. One of the early “victims” was Nigel Farage, who opened his house to a family of vulnerably-housed immigrants, suggesting they invite their friends to stay.

Office workers and shop assistants who’d previously turned their morning faces away from the homeless men and women sleeping in doorways, dashed to the cafes to buy them breakfast in a bun, thrust Lattes in cardboard cups into their dirt caked hands, and pulled little packages of sugar of of their pockets, asking “Do you…?”

The country was thown into chaos – those who had not yet been infected struggled to maintain the status quo, while their families, friends, neighbours and colleagues, were carrying out uncharacteristically good works. If they were rich, they ran around giving their shares to the poor, and their money to good causes. If they were poor they invited those even more unfortunate than themselves around for dinner and hugged strangers in the street.

As you can imagine, the economy collapsed, but it didn’t matter, because the movers and shakers who were infected – and there were more of them every day – lost interest in amassing yet more truckloads of money, insread turning their attention to taking care of the populance. The richest and the most intelligent got together to finally make the country work. All our services improved dramatically, and the nation became happy again – happy as they had never been before. Crime ceased to exist, hatred became extinct, and anger became a rare emotion which was easily dispelled.

Everybody in the country had caught the pandemic, and it’s currently spreading around the world. Donald Trump kicked up a fuss, screaming that an antidote needed to be found quickly. Naturally, as soon as he contracted it, he changed his tone. Now that there’s no need for a President he keeps himself busy carrying out charitable works in developing countries. It’s rumoured that he’s currently working with orphans somewhere in Africa, but nobody seems to know for sure. These days he’s a modest man who likes to keep a low profile.

Who would have thought that compassion was a virus? And who would have thought that a virus could save the planet?

Written for The Sandbox Writing Challenge #49. This week Calen says “Imagine yourself floating among these clouds in harmony with everyone and everything. What can you do to make that happen?” My answer is that I can try to create a compassion virus which is so virulant it’ll infect everyone on the planet.

I’ll need  a chemistry set…

©Jane Paterson Basil

The adventurer and the teacher

The Adventurer speaks:

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You always stayed on dry land, swimming through arid sand. Never got your feet wet. Salt sweat sticking to your vest, grit chafing your delicate creases, sun peeling your blistered body.

You feared the lick of the waves. You though they may may like the taste of you, and, wanting more, slip through your cringing lips, invade your lungs, steal your breath away, replace it with filthy brine bitterly flavoured with the flesh of a million stinking fish and thickened with slivers of ancient shipwrecks.

You feared the towering breakers may crash over your head and drag you to the bottom of the sea . The ocean may feed you to sharks and the sharks may eat you.

“Swim where you will, but leave me be. I will not live my life in peril,” you said.

So I leapt, alone, into the sea.

I cannot say the sea was kind, but it was real. Oft-times I had to fight its sudden moods,
struggle to survive its angry storms. Though battered by its rage, I knew I was alive, and as I age, memories of every rising dawn; when calm seas were lit with sun, will ease my mind, and cheer me as I prepare to fall asleep that final time.

And where will you be? Dried to a husk, with nothing but memories of an empty life
to haunt you through eternity.

<> <> <>

The teacher replies:

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You were always digging for thrills, wading through weirs to find the eye of the hurricane, scrambling up crumbling cliffs, potholing without a rope, gazing into volcanoes to watch them erupt.

You said “What is life without excitement? Share my adventure. Let us rescue damsels, slay dragons, conquer swashbuckling pirates.

“Let us find danger. We will fight with teeth and fists and knives, and seek out many lovers, leaving every last one of them aching for our fickle embrace, while we hasten to the next city; the next castle or port; the next victory.

“Come with me.”

I said “I see more interest in a grain of sand than in the life you recommend to me.”

I watched you go. While you supped – and often choked upon – your chosen flavour of freedom, I read, finding the world weighed so little I could hold it in my hands. I leafed through it and found:

a platoon of long-dead soldiers in obsolete uniforms, saluting me;

an oak tree describing its seasons;

an amoeba magnified several millionfold;

the city of Rome in all its ancient glory, and the remains which stand today.

Fascinated, I studied further. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with learning. I selected a subject in which to specialise. I married a kind, intelligent woman, fathered a daughter and a son, and took pleasure in domestic life. I enjoyed a job in education, and I was successful – inasmuch as the majority if my students liked my lessons, quite a few used what they learnt from me to their advantage, and I was enriched by the experience.

I ate healthy food, had the occasional glass of good wine, and when I holidayed with my family, we stayed in average hotels in Germany and Spain. We walked well beaten paths, but they were new to us, and therefore interesting. In my younger days I played squash, but in recent years I’ve switched to bowls.

I often grumble, I have had a few misfortunes, but I have been happy.

My lifestyle fitted the type of ordinary orderliness that you dispise, but I chose it and delighted in it. It suited me, and has served me well. I will be sorry to die.

Most of your adventures were viewed through the distorted bottom of an ale bottle. You lie in a hospital bed, paralysed since that last inglorious drunken street brawl. You lived your life in fantasy, never accepting that knights have been consigned to history books, and highwaymen hung up their spurs long before you or I were ever born. There are no pirates, and dragons only breathed fire in fairy tales.

You have no family. I am your only friend, and you don’t like me. Will you be sorry to die?

©Jane Paterson Basil

The Mandrake of Harfinsain

Once it had been called the Old Man of Drake Lane, then the name was shortened to Drake Man, but these days the shrugging youth of the village of Harfinsain call it the Mandrake.

Some locals have different ideas, but many of us believe it was damaged in the wake of some long gone storm, which left it looking for all the world like a man turned to wood. The top eighteen inches of what is left of the trunk are torn into the macabre facsimile of a tortured man, his head thrown back, his nose pointing towards the horizon, his mouth agape as if screaming out to an unlistening God, his eyes screwed up in misery. Beneath that, two branches stretch upwards like arms, as if in supplication. The human look is finished off by the lower part of the trunk, which has a vertical groove in the centre, giving the impression of two narrower trunks fused together by time and growth – or of two legs pressed together. There are two knots in the area where knees would be, and at the base the roots give have the eerie appearance of feet.

Nobody can identify what kind of tree it is. It is claimed that experts have examined it, taking away small samples, but been mystified. It appears not to be related to any known tree in the world, and the age it had reached when it died cannot be calculated, as the rings are blurred, or perhaps non-existent. Rumour and mystery surround it, giving it an air of dark  glamour which attracts the children and young adults who live hereabouts.

From where it stands it offers an excellent view of the sunset, and sometimes a boy will entice a girl to sit with him, next to the tree, in the twilight. As the light fades and the sky turns to navy, he may tell an elaborate story of an evil man whose pleasure was to devour young, female flesh, and who was turned into a tree by an angry fairy. At this point in the tale, his voice may lower to a whisper, as he explains that the fairy added an extra cruelty to his punishment – that for one hour every year he would become human again, and have the ability to roam the villlage, but when that hour was up, he would be pulled by magnetic force back to his roots, and become a tree again. He would never be able to relax into his tree state – the longing to be human would torture him for evermore. After an eerie pause the boy will ask the girl what the date is. This he will whisper , as if suddenly unnerved – frightened, even. On hearing her response he will stammer while he tell her that he’s not sure, but he thinks it this is the day of the year when the tree becomes a monstrous flesh eating human…

The girl nearly always falls for it, which gives the boy’s friends – who are hiding behind the hedge – no end of entertainment. From time to time someone comes up with a more imaginative version of the story, and the friends behind the hedge are employed to add sound effects. Young men were ever this way, and a certain kind of young woman can always be relied on to be gullible and easily frightened.

Edie Penrhyn is the oldest woman in the village. A nimble lady of a hundred and two, she is often to be seen, walking-stick grasped firmly in both hands, angrily thrashing nettles in the garden beside the village hall. She has no more objection to the nettles than anything else which has the temerity to push through the ground in that area – many years ago the garden was a mass of colour, spilling over with roses, lavender and a profusion of lovely flowers, but she thrashed them into extinction. While this has nothing to do with my story, I mention it because it is just one example of her many eccentricities. It is those eccentricities which cause neighbours to doubt her tales of folk-lore.

Her favourite tale involves the Mandrake. Being so far from even the smallest town or place of interest, we get few visitors around these parts, but occasionally someone takes a wrong turn and and finds themself in the village. Often this someone will go to the Post Office in the hope of buying a postcard (postcards of the village are available, and they looked very pretty twenty years ago, but they rarely sell, so now they lie faded and forgotten in a corner, stuffed into an old toast rack, scuffed and curling at the edges), or wander into the village shop looking for a Mars Bar (79p) or a quaint souvenier (no chance). At such times, Edie almost always happens to be in the vicinity, as she is today, when a tinkling bell in the back room announces the presence of a new customer in the shop.

Edie has been installed in the shop for the past two hours, trying to choose a birthday card for herself, as her birthday is only eleven months away. This is not a vanity on her part, but a reminder for the proprietor, who generously allows customers a free sniff of her smelling salts on their birthdays.  Edie’s eyes light up at the sight of new blood. She abandons her search for greetings cards and prances over to the new customer, her grey side-ponytail bobbing and prancing like the item after which it is named, her thin lips grinning. Her old brown cardigan fails to conceal – and is loudly upsage by – a nineteen twenties chiffon flapper dress of faded emerald – replete with ragged swathes of sequins which have seen many, many better days, and striped over-the knee-socks in bright shades of pink, purple and orange cover her legs. Her choice of footwear is strictly ruled by the day of the week – on Wednesdays and Saturdays she wears no shoes unless it is also the first day of the month. The first day of the month is riding boots day. Today is a Monday, so she is wearing one green wellington, and one black one.

Edie says that if you lead with the feet, the bowels will follow. Don’t ask her what she means, it infuriates her not to be understood. She will scream at you “If you maintain regular habits with your footwear, your bottom won’t take you by surprise at incommodious times,” and she will smack you across the behind with her stick.

But I digress. Where was I? Ah, yes, Edie has just sighted a victim and is dashing full-pelt towards him, tail flying and tiny sequins tinkling across the floor. She accosts him with a torrent of nonsense.

“Yer, you over there, you wi’ the noo plastic an wet tarmac ‘smell o’ the city on yer kaks.’Tis a bit o’ luck you run inta me. Come on, I’ll show ‘ee summin inter’sting.”

(just a quick note at this point: unless addressing a stranger she speaks in a rather refined accent – her fake rural accent is for the benefit of unlucky tourists – but after a few minutes of her barrage, she generally slips back to her natural way of speaking, as she feels that if they have stayed to listen to her for that long, they deserve to be considered naturalised)

Having made a suitable introduction to her quest to educate him in a small portion of the history of the village, she grabs his arm and pulls the protesting man out of the shop – showing herself to have a remarkably firm grip – to the general laughter of all around, except the shopkeeper, who was hoping to aquire 79p from the sale of a (three years out of date) Mars Bar.

For a woman of a hundred and two, Edie sets a fast pace. She’s a diminutive four-foot ten inches in height and she’s inadvertantly pulling his arm in a downward direction, so he’s stooping, staggering  and almost falling over at times. As they dash along the road, people are coming out of their houses and following behind, making a procession. They know when there is entertainment to be had.

Down past the church she drags him, past the old house that is said to be haunted by a ghostly giraffe (though some think it is more likely to be a pair of Armadillos), beyond the pond which only fills up when there is a drought, and down Drakes Lane, situated opposite the invisible football pitch (which some claim doesn’t actually exist. I haven’t managed to work out their reasoning). The Mandrake is towards the end of the lane, on the left hand side, or the right hand side if you are walking backwards.

By this time Edie’s unwilling companion is shaking with terror. The Lane is regularly used by the villagers, as its purpose is to provide access to a wall. This wall is the width of the lane, twelve feet high. The locals do not like to be in the shadow of a twelve-foot wall, but unless they stand beneath it they cannot escape it, as it is impossible to escape something which isn’t there in the first place. It gives us peace of mind to know we have escaped the shadow of the twelve foot wall, so most of us go and stand beneath it every day, and then walk (or run) away. But the poor stranger knows nothing of our customs. Between the people who are in the process of escaping the shadow of the twelve foot wall, and the procession behind him, all he sees is a huge gang of locals who appear to be planning a lynching, and at this point he wishes he’d had a chance to pay for the Mars Bar. To be hanged for a debt of 79p is humiliating, to say the least.

Edie stands in front of the tree, and points up at it’s twin branches.

“See ‘e there,” she says, and then realises her new companion has spent almost eight minutes in her presence,so she drops the accent and starts again:

“Now, my good man, what do you think this is?” she asks him.

His eyes stare. He tries to think of an escape plan, but nothing comes to mind. He is frozen to the spot.

“Well?” she asks, a crease on her forehead forming something that for all the world looks like a question mark.

“A… a… g-gallows tree…” This is a statement, not a question. The stranger is too frightened to notice that no rope hangs from it.

“Why do they all say that?” Edie mutters, shaking her head, (thinking, these foreigners are so peculiar – what horrors they must have witnessed.)

Edie turns to her audience “Tell the gentleman what this is,” she says.

A young man tells the story of the flesh eating man who was turned into a tree.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffs Edie.

A woman in her fifties says that it is true that the tree was once a man, but he had committed no crime. It was he who had built the wall, but as stood at the top of the ladder, finishing the top course, his wife came along to give him some lunch. She was carrying their new baby, and he didn’t hear them approach. They were under the ladder when the baby let out a sudden wail, alarming him. He fell off the ladder, killing both wife and child, andwas so grief stricken that he was unable to move. His feet took root, and he turned into a tree.

“That’s just plain silly,” says Edie. “This tree is over twenty feet from the wall. If he took root where he landed, he would be closer to the wall.”

Nobody notices the stranger as he walks away, feeling rather embarassed but no longer afraid. It had become obvious that these people, though a little peculiar, were harmless. Life in a village such as this would probably be a riot of fun. He would have stayed longer, but he had urgent matters to attend to.

The young man speaks up again.

“My grandma told it to me, and her grandma told it to her. My story is true, and what’s more, she said he buried the bones of all those girls he killed, right there, beneath where the tree stands. We know why are there no female children in the village. It’s because as soon as one is born, the family move away. They don’t want to lose their daughter to the monster.”

Some people laugh, others feel the hairs on the backs of their necks rise. A few come up with increasing outlandish theories, but all of them have been heard before, like a favourite play attended once too often. People get bored and begin to wander off. The insistant young man remembers another detail told to him by his grandma, and somebody else recalls being told about a seven-year old girl who disappeared in the night over thirty years ago, and a toddler who was lost just a few years before that.

Edie becomes increasingly impatient, declaring it to be no more than a dead tree, leading me to wonder, as oft times before, why she dragged another stranger down Drakes Lane to look at what she averred was no more than a dead tree  – but as I said before, she is eccentric – and that is the signal for the party to break up.

As the last of the villagers turn away from the tree, and walk down the lane to go home, if anyone cared to listen, they would hear strange creaking sounds coming from the tree. If they turned back to look, they would see its eyes open, showing otherworldly twin stars that twinkle red in the waning light, and the gaping mouth widen into a cruelly mocking smile, as the jagged shard that resembles a nose twitches, sniffing the air, and smelling something. Something young and sweet. Something delicious. The earth around him shudders as he shuffles his roots,stroking and carresssing, wrapping them possessively around small, perfectly preserved bones, counting each one.

Beyond the invisible football pitch; beyond the pond that only fills up when there is a drought; beyond the house that is said to be haunted – either by a giraffe or a pair of armadillos; beyond the church and the Harfisain village shop, there is a thatched cottage with clematis growing up the wall. In front of this cottage is a removal van. The stranger helps the removal men to carry furniture into his new home. In the kitchen his wife pulls a kettle, some teabags, sugar and mugs out of a box. She fills the kettle with water. She stops and listens. Her face lights up with love, and she smiles softly. Her eighteen month old daughter is stirring. She has woken from her nap.

©Jane Paterson Basil

Broken dreams

Sometimes when I look down from my window, onto the street below, I see Poppy unexpectedly, and I don’t immediately recognise her. She’s thirty-five, and even now she seems to glide a centimetre above the pavement, as she did when she was sixteen, her long hair rippling as if a balmy breeze is riffling through it, a faraway look in her eyes.

When she is walking with the two girls the three of them are enclosed in a bubble of love – gliding in a bubble of love – and I find it hard to believe that my matriarchy has resulted in such love, such loveliness.

I’ve suffered with her through all the bad times, and my soul has rejoiced when things have gone well for her, but I never felt that she had the life she deserved. Her school’s refusal to diagnose or even to admit the possiblility of her dyslexia – because they didn’t wish to waste the effort and expense – meant that she didn’t have a good education. When she found she couldn’t keep up she thought she was stupid, and her lowered self-esteem caused her to rebel, and stop making any effort to do what she felt she would humiliatingly fail at.

Poppy had her children while she was still in her teens – conceived by default, she wanted them anyway, and she has been an adoring and attentive mother, always patient, always doing the best she can for both Alexis and Lizzie.

Because she left school with no qualifications, the only work she has ever done has been menial, but she has always excelled within her limited sphere.

I think of my brilliant daughter, who has so much to give, and I wonder if she ever had dreams, and if so, what they were. She has never told me, and I have never asked. Maybe her pathetic education crushed all hope that she would ever do anything – be anything – but although she is not a consultant gyneacologist, or a big shot lawyer, or a star of the silver screen, she is something – something wonderful.

Poppy is coming up the path now. I let her in, and make a pot of tea. We talk about Alexis, who is currently rehearsing for the lead part in a school play, She tells me how pleased Lizzie’s English teacher is with her. I feel the familiar thrill of pride, in my daughter and my two grand-daughters.

There’s a moment’s silence. I take a deep breath, and she looks at me expectantly. She can tell I want to say something.

“What were your dreams? I ask her. “When you were a child, what did you want to do with your life?”

She looks out of the window, and I know she’s not seeing the cars going by, or the paint peeling from the Victorian house opposite. She’s staring straight into her dreams. She glances at my face and then away again.

“I always dreamed of being the mother of two lovely daughters, and my dreams came true” she says.

“Really?” I ask her incredulously. “That’s it?”

This time she looks unwaveringly into my eyes as she replies:

“Yes, really. I have all I ever wanted.”

That’s the thing about Poppy – she will lie rather than cause unnecessary pain to those she loves. My daughter will never speak to me of her broken dreams.

©Jane Paterson Basil

Reunion

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She was putting up the ornaments. Some of them they’d bought together back then. Most of the ones they purchased in that little shop in that little lane were long gone. So was he. The tree used to be bigger back then, but so was the house she shared with him and the kids. The kids… They would be here soon. Carefully she picked another ornament, making sure she wouldn’t drop it.

It was Christmas day, but there had been no point in putting up the tree until now. She only did it for the girls. As soon as they left she’d pack it away again, ready for next year’s few hours of glory.

Her fingers, swollen from arthritis, had become clumsy. These days it took longer than it should to decorate her little artificial tree, but eventually all the baubles were hung, and twinkled in the bright daylight. She stood back, admiring the effect and telling herself that the lack of fairy lights made little difference. There were just three presents beneath it, one for each of the girls, and one for both of them to share, because it was her tradition to do so.

A rich aroma from the oven told her that dinner was almost ready. The tiny dining table was set for three. There was something wrong; an uneasy feeling, but she couldn’t quite bring her mind to focus on it. She hoped the girls wouldn’t mind the paper napkins, but she had searched everywhere and been unable to find her red linen ones, or the silver-plate napkin rings which only came out at Christmas. So many things seemed to have disappeared.

A shiver ran through her, as she recalled the nightmare. Wracking sobs had woken her in the middle of the night. She couldn’t remember when she had first experienced it, but for years it had recurred whenever her children were due to visit. In her dream the girls were young, still in primary school, and Ernie hadn’t left her. It was night-time and she was outside the house. One of the windows had just exploded outwards, and fire raged out of it. The front door was wide open and acrid black smoke smoke billowed into the cold air. She could hear screaming coming from deep inside her. A dark figure staggered out of the burning building, carrying someone. It was Ernie, with Marie in his arms. She rushed forwards and held out her arms, taking the soot covered child from him. He turned instantly and ran back into the house to save Juliette. She heard the approach of screaming sirens, and then nothing; a blank absence within the dream. When awareness returned the choking tears came with it, and she woke to a wildly hammering heart.

Her children were adults now, living their own lives, and Ernie, well, she couldn’t remember what had happened to her husband, but they no longer lived together.

A cold winter sun exposed the dust on the wine glasses. She thought back to the days when they shared sparkling apple juice, letting the children drink from these very glasses, and pretend it was wine. Again she felt a dip of unease, and shook her head to clear it. Today was a happy occasion; there was no room for dark shadows. Because there was nobody to disapprove, she picked the glasses up, one at a time, and wiped them on her cotton skirt. Ernie always used to hate it when she did that. She felt a pang of guilt; she should miss him, but she was glad he’d gone. Apart from his filthy smoking habit and his tendency to fall asleep in the sitting room after downing a few cans of beer, he had been a model husband, so she knew of no reason for feeling this way.

She heard footsteps in the hall and the door opened. Eagerly she rushed towards the sound, but it wasn’t her children. Standing in front of her was a blousey woman in her thirties, wearing green trousers. Her plump breasts strained as if in an effort to force their way through her white top, and made her pocket, embroidered with black words, look small and foolish as it perched on one bosom.

“Afternoon Doreen my lovey, how are we feeling today?” The booming voice was full of cheer, and without pausing for an answer, she went on “Ooh I say, your tree does look beautiful, what a shame no-one else can see it.”

Doreen opened her mouth to demand an explanation the rude intrusion, but before she had a chance to speak, the woman looked with dismay at the beautifully decorated table and carried on talking.

“Oh, Doreen, sweetie, what are you doing? I just came up to fetch you for your Christmas dinner. You won’t be eating up here. Everyone is dining in the hall. You’ll have such a lovely time. We’ve got crackers to pull and everything; and Maggie is down there saving you a seat next to her.”

Doreen was furious. Who was this ghastly woman, waltzing into her home unannounced, and what was she talking about? With dignity, she pulled herself up to her full height and walked towards the open door.

“I don’t know how you found out my name, but you’re at the wrong house,” she said. “I have to ask you to leave now. My daughters are coming for Christmas dinner, and I don’t want the day ruined.”

A look of pity crossed the woman’s face. She stepped close to her and tried to take Doreen’s hand. Doreen snatched it away.

“Sweetie, we’ve been through this before. I’m Roisin, and I work here. We’ve known each other for years. Please try to remember.” she said gently.

Doreen’s confidence fell away, and she felt an inexplicable moment of déjà vu. She tried to grab at a fleeting image, but it passed her by.

“Please, you’re upsetting me. Please just go away. I have to drain the vegetables and make the gravy. My children will be here any moment, and I want to be able to give them my full attention,” she begged.

Roisin tried to put her hand on Doreen’s shoulder, but she shrugged it off.

“But you haven’t got any vegetables lovey. You haven’t even got a kitchen. This is a care home. There are no children. They passed away fifteen years ago, but you have a happy life here, and lots of friends who are waiting downstairs to wish you a happy Christmas.”

Roisin wasn’t very bright, and she didn’t always say the right thing, but with Doreen she tried. Her mother always said she wouldn’t amount to anything, and she was right. She paid lip-service to her menial job, because she cared little for the residents and less for her employers. Doreen was the only exception. Some days she believed that Roisin was her daughter, and on those days love rained down upon her from Doreen’s lips. Other days Doreen didn’t know her, and had forgotten that both of her children had died in a raging house fire caused by a dropped cigarette, and that her husband had disappeared into the moonlight after failing to rescue Marie and Juliette.

She watched Doreen’s face crumple as she remembered, and she told herself again that she couldn’t bear to do this one more time. She should look for another job, but she knew she couldn’t leave Doreen.

She put her arms around Doreen. “We all love you.” she said, adding in a whisper “I love you.”

Written for Finish It 42. Thanks go to Donna for drawing my attention to this fun challenge.

©Jane Paterson Basil