2019 Short Story Runners-up

One Man’s Meat  by John Gallagher
Mother had accepted it was time to leave. Numbers had grown and food was in short supply. It was summer and one of their sources of water had dried up. She could taste the heightened levels of tension in the air. Neighbours were biting and scratching each other. Without their daily access to water, rats were doomed.
The last of her young were now independent and three of the females would soon have their own pups and kittens. It was possible some of Mother’s progeny might still survive. Nature would have to take its course.
Mother too was again pregnant. Her last male partner had not favoured her over others. Nevertheless, it was his strong scent she now followed, scurrying over the huddle of warm bodies and moving upwards, into the dank tunnels. His urgent movements told her everything she needed to know. He would find a safe place and she would join him there. There would be food to forage and an ample supply of water. It remained a mystery how she knew these things. She hurried in his wake. She had a nest to build.
On a warm Sunday morning in August, a portly Frederick Parsons, sporting his best blazer and grey flannels, surveyed the Italian patio and the garden which stretched beyond. His lounge windows permitted a perfect view of the manicured lawns leading to an ornamental pond and fountain. On either side, vegetable plots with regimented rows of canes and trellises. Undoubtedly it was keeping their gardener busy although Frederick wasn’t convinced, he needed three days a week to complete the work. Frederick planned to have words with him about time-wasting.
True, the garden makeover had cost him plenty but worth it just to put the Committee in their place. He wouldn’t lose out, though. There were always ways of increasing your profits in a butcher’s shop. Pies and sausages were cases in point. They both had room for adjustment in size and quality. More breadcrumbs, less meat.
However, the real money spinner was the side of beef or pork which was dropped off after dark. The carcase went initially into the ham drying store in the back yard before being slipped in with the legitimate meat in the shop’s cold store. No paperwork, of course. All cash in hand – no need to worry the tax man.
Frederick was Chair elect of the Village Garden Association. His tenure had been bought with rump steaks and hocks of ham handed to key members of the committee.
His wife, Doris was really behind it all after her nose had been put out of joint. Was that a butcher’s term? Whatever, she had felt slighted when her offer to run the village Open Garden Trail had been turned down, in favour of the newly arrived, Angela Prentice. That decision needed to be changed or else Frederick would continue to endure more weeks of cold shoulder. Not the tastiest of dishes. Hence his outlay of goodwill and the pulling in of favours given.
With that in mind he heard someone at the back door. He knew it would be Bob Goddard, even before the bold head came into view. He was a short, collar and tie man, in a wrinkled suit. He pulled a less-than-white handkerchief from his trouser pocket and dabbed at damp patches on his face and neck.
“Morning, Mr Parsons. A lovely day for it, too. See you have a bit of a spread going out on the patio. Some of that special ham making an appearance? My wife loves it.”
“Right Bob, I’m a bit pressed this morning, can’t chat. Anyway, your lad from the office made that unannounced visit last month, as per your phone call. We were a week preparing for him and with all the extra cleaning, hardly had time to sell any meat!”
“It’s the law, Mr Parsons. But, rest assured, you’ll have no more inspections these next twelve months.”
“Let’s hope not, otherwise…” Frederick allowed a cold slab of a threat to hang between them, just long enough for Bob to search for his handkerchief once more.
Finally, Frederick pulled an envelope from his blazer and passed it over, wordlessly. Bob pocketed it with practised agility. Frederick suppressed a laugh. Once they were in your pocket, you had ‘em for life.
“You get off now, Bob, before my guests get here. There’s a small parcel in the kitchen for you; a little something for your Sunday tea. Back door, if you don’t mind.”
Bob retreated from the room and Frederick shook his head. The people I have to deal with just to make a decent living.
With that, the front door bell chimed. The early guests, no doubt having missed breakfast, to ensure they had a good appetite. That suited Frederick‘s plan of action.
I’ll get everyone fed and sherried up, before the vote putting Doris in charge of their silly Garden Trail. She can show me her thanks later.
He put on his best meet and greet face and wished Doris had not given up her yoga and Zumba classes. Those activities had kept her out of his hair at least. He was fast losing the energy to deal with all her whims and scheming. If it wasn’t that she did such a magnificent job of manipulating the accounts each year… He was beginning to understand why the largely male committee had been won over by the attractions of Angela Prentice. Such a pity she was a bloody vegetarian. He wrestled with more lascivious what-ifs before Frederick, brimming with false bonhomie, took centre stage.
The tunnel entrance was under the shed. Mother would soon have her babies there and she had prepared the nest well. There had been lots of cardboard and packing material scattered around the garden when the landscaping was being done. Her nocturnal scavenging had always born fruit. Food was in abundance and there was always the reassuring sound of running water beyond the hedge.
Her nightly trail usually brought her around the shed and down the garden borders where she searched amongst the bins and kitchen waste. That was until three weeks previously when the pungent scent of blood had been carried by the warm breeze of a summer’s night. She had waited until all human noise was gone and then, her body quivering with expectation, she allowed herself to be drawn to the source of a fresh kill. Cloaked in darkness, she followed the scent under a steel gate stopping finally by an old drain entry at the back of the brick building. The crumbling cement and old plastic pipework were no match for Mother’s teeth and claws once she had determined there was a prize to be had. And when her teeth broke through into the space, she was not disappointed. Ignoring the flanks of the great beasts which were hung there, she had made for the exposed stomach of each, sliding into the warmer fatty areas where she feasted until she could eat no more. Then she left the way she had come.
Anyone who searched carefully would eventually have seen the small hole under the broken sink. But no one thought of looking and as much of the comings and goings in this place took place by torch light, Mother’s visits went undetected.
Sunday had been a success, with committee members having little choice but to side with Frederick. Doris would get her way. Angela would be informed by letter of the Committee’s revised decision. Frederick might even take it round personally. Who knows, perhaps they might get better acquainted. He liked the sound of that.
Doris had been disinclined to show her gratitude the previous night, claiming she felt a bit off colour. She had said he should sleep in the spare room for a further night. She really is pushing it, he thought as he finished off some ham in a sandwich for breakfast. Doris had failed to appear and he had decided not to disturb her as she was always cranky as hell in the mornings.
Monday was Frederick’s day for opening the shop. Had he been fitter he might have had a skip in his step. His ample figure and his continued love of pork and ham pies did not allow for such displays of vigour. So, he walked steadily enjoying his own company and thoughts of a future dalliance with Angela.
Two things caught his eye as he arrived near his shop. Firstly, there was a vaguely familiar figure standing by the entrance. At the same time, as he passed the opening to the back alley, his eyes registered a blur of brown, as a large rat, hugging the morning shadows, disappeared into one of the back gardens. He played the scene back again in his head. What was that in its mouth?
Once at his door, he recognised Bob Goddard’s young assistant, presumably hoping to get something on the shirt tails of his boss.
“We’re not open, you’ll have to come back at nine. No exceptions.” Frederick felt there was only so much greasing of palms he could entertain in one week.
“I’m not here to shop, Mr Parsons. I need to inspect your premises before you open, whenever that might be.”
Backing tape was removed from a notice in the officer’s hand and before Frederick could object a “Premises Closed until Further Notice” was being stuck to the door.
“If you know what’s good for you, you’d better unstick that. I’m ringing your boss now.”
Red-faced with anger, Frederick fumbled his mobile into his shaking hand.
“No point in trying to contact him. He and his wife are in hospital. So far Salmonellosis and the Streptobacillus bacteria have been identified.”
“What? In hospital?” Frederick bit his lip. “But what has this to do with my shop?” Frederick had begun to sweat. He’d seen a bloody great rat run away from his back gate.
“Well, I understand you gave him a joint of ham yesterday. Bob seemed to think it was off.”
“Off? My ham’s never off. I’ve had some this morning. I’m not in hospital, am I? You gave my shop a clean bill of health last month. Remember?”
“That’s as maybe but the facts speak for themselves. The hospital has admitted three further people with similar symptoms and it appears they all attended a function at your house yesterday. An isolation ward has now been set up. Other people from your gathering have contacted NHS direct so it’s likely hospital admissions will increase.”
Frederick felt faint and he was gripped by a terrible sickness in his stomach.
“Shall we go in, Mr Parsons? The major incident team is on the way; they will check drains and outbuildings. You may have a vermin problem. Let’s start with your traceability paperwork, shall we? Don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of it.”
The certainty of what would be discovered, left Frederick speechless.
His mobile chirped. It was Sally, his daily help, who now spoke in a hushed whisper to him.
“Mr Parsons, sorry to disturb you; I wanted to know, am I needed today seeing as Mrs Parsons is busy with the police? “
“The police?” Suddenly, holding the phone was an effort. His neck and arms ached.
“She’s been sick all night and says, you’ve been poisoning her, so you can have someone called Angela. You wouldn’t do that, would you, Mr Parsons?”
Frederick’s mind was struggling with an image of a large rodent, sitting heavily on his torso. He was finding it hard to breathe.
“Oh, and she’s told them you’re fiddling your taxes and other stuff about dodgy meat. She sounds very upset.”
The phone dropped from Frederick’s grasp. He clutched wildly at his chest before his legs gave way. His last earthly thoughts were of a brown, coarse-haired, creature observing him with its two pink eyes; in its mouth, what Frederick took to be a choice cut of his special ham.

 

 

A Time Before Google by Frances Nugent
When I saw the name Cressida Campbell pop up on a news website I recognised it straightaway.
In the mid-nineties Cressida had been one of the inmates of my student house, in the days before bespoke flats with a personal en suite became the norm. At that time you could be allocated a room in a house with miscellaneous strangers who were forced to rub along together, particularly in the fridge department, where milk was jealously labelled and occasionally booby-trapped. Squabbles over cutlery and baked beans were a daily occurrence, and there were constant rows with housemates who played heavy metal or banged doors in the middle of the night.
Cressida never stooped to take part in these petty bust-ups. She sailed into our lives a couple of days after the beginning of term, arriving in a taxi with a set of leather suitcases, not the battered holdalls and rucksacks the rest of us possessed.
Cressida Campbell of Ashton Grange, Ashton Parva, Shropshire. Not her ancestral home, she told us, but her father was something big in the City and he had bought the Jacobean ruin and restored it to its former glory. We didn’t question it, because all her stuff was high-end: cashmere coat and expensive handbags, even one of those primitive phones. While the rest of us had jobs waiting on tables in the Christmas vac, she went skiing in Val d’Isère. Naturally blonde and slim, she was never short of a date, and the men she seemed to attract were all sophisticated types with sports cars, not humble students.
My background was the opposite of hers. If there hadn’t been a grant I could never have hoped to go to university. Dad was a miner before the strikes and he’d been on the dole ever since. Mum worked in a supermarket, and she encouraged me to continue my studies, but there was never much money about. The only time I’d been abroad was on a school exchange to Germany, paid for by a bursary for disadvantaged children.
I was disadvantaged in other ways too, with a lumpy figure and poor skin. My A levels might have been as good as anyone else’s, but I was never going to be glamorous and popular like Cressida. On a Friday night I’d be at home watching Friends, not out on the town. It had never bothered me before, but now envy started to eat away at me. Cressida’s life was perfect. Why should she have everything, while I had nothing?
At first I began to copy her, since imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery. I offered to go running with her when she couldn’t find anyone else to turn out at seven in the morning. She always came back looking as cool as a cucumber, while I stumbled along, sweating profusely in my ancient jogging bottoms. We had the same diet going as well: fruit, yogurt, organic chicken, soya milk. Pies and pizzas went out of the window. No more Kit-Kats. We were quite pally then, or at least I thought we were. But Cressida treated me like a skivvy. I carried her gym bag; I did her shopping if she didn’t have time. She even got me to pay for her taxis sometimes when she didn’t have change. Stupidly, I put up with it, just to catch a glimpse of a world I could never aspire to. But however hard I tried to please her, she never invited me to meet any of her posh mates.
Then one day before Easter I overheard her talking in the kitchen.
‘I’d ask her to visit,’ she was saying, ‘but I don’t think Mummy would take to her. That accent! And she would never fit in with my brother’s friends.’
After that I hated her. I pulled her white linen trousers off the washing line and rubbed them in the mud in rage. If one of her boyfriends rang the house with a message I said something rude down the phone. We stopped running and mostly ignored each other, but it obviously didn’t bother her at all.
Still I couldn’t get her out of my mind. One night when she was out I went into her room and rifled through her wardrobe. There was a satin gown hanging there, ready for the summer ball. There were cream leather boots. And jewels! Those earrings were real diamonds, even I could see that. For the first time I began to wonder – how could a student, even one from an affluent family, afford all this? And how did she meet all those flashy men that drew up in their cars but never came into the house?
I never found out because after the summer vacation we never saw her again. Some said she’d got kicked out for not doing any work; others said she’d just left of her own accord – and good riddance.
Eventually I forgot about her. I didn’t need to envy anyone any more. I got a good degree, and after a couple of years in the Far East, I started my own company marketing Asian ceramics. I kept up the diet and the exercise, and by now I was reasonably presentable – one thing to thank Cressida for, anyway. I had no idea that the name of Cressida Campbell lived on in the gossip columns of the tabloids and the glossy magazines as a minor celebrity. I don’t read any of that, even at the dentist’s, and I’ve never bothered with Facebook.
The well-known socialite Cressida Campbell has today been arrested for fraud. Three years ago she set up a bogus company selling exotic holidays. While many of the holidays either did not exist, or were far inferior to what was offered, it is alleged that she creamed off at least a million pounds from the business. An investigation by the police has ascertained that Ms Campbell has been involved in half a dozen similar scams over the years, enabling her to live a celebrity lifestyle. Cressida Campbell – not her real name – was born in inner-city Birmingham …
Not her real name! I breathed deeply. Had we really been so completely taken in? Quickly I Googled Ashton Grange, Ashton Parva, and within ten seconds found there was no such place. What if we’d been able to do that back in the nineties? We would have seen straight through her and she would never have been able to get away with any of it.
Or would she? Nowadays she would probably have created a perfect profile on Instagram, taking selfies in front of some obscure stately home, without mentioning where she lived. And maybe we would still have believed her.
Funnily enough, I stole those diamond earrings and they paid for my first flight to Singapore. But unlike her I never got caught.#