May 2021

May’s meeting saw us looking at main protagonists whether they are heroes or villains. To write them as full characters requires good detail and a mixture of qualities. We also discussed First Person Narrator and the possibility of an Unreliable Narrator. For our work at home, the group was asked to take a well known character from a novel, play or film and to write as if you were a minor character in that story meeting with the central character. What would you say about her/him? Would there be a personal bias? Examples follow:

 The Nurse 

I cannot see my lady Juliet disappointed.   She’s been all my care from the day she was born, sweet little thing as she was. Our wishes are as one.

What though Juliet’s beloved be a Montague? It would be good to see that family bury their differences with the Capulets and make Verona happy again. I’ll see to it that Juliet gets her heart’s desire, young Romeo. For her sake I’ll make bold to seek him out.  It’s time we knocked some heads together and let love prevail.

Sweet kid! She’ll be so thrilled to wed him. And Romeo sounds to have proved himself, squaring it with Friar Lawrence.  Good luck to them say I!  Though Lady Capulet in her day was a young bride too, she’s hardened her heart now. Only I can help Juliet, and though ‘tis pity I’ll not get to give my old legs a jig at their wedding, her happiness is all I ask.

I’ll away now, though the day be hot, and it be some danger to me, to find yon lovelorn Romeo and learn what he intends,

Sarah

Harriet

It’s so kind of Miss Woodhouse – Emma – to keep inviting me to Hartfield. It’s such a beautiful house, presented with every care. I’m sure I’ve done little to merit her gracious smiles and it certainly isn’t that she knows my parentage. She is generosity itself. I must do all I can to be worthy of her friendship. I could never have hoped to be so preferred. Her kind looks and helpful remarks are opening up opportunities I never thought to have.

So many people have been good to me despite the obscurity of my birth. I think of the Martin family, in particular, though Emma dismisses my visits to Abbey Mill Farm. I see now, with her guidance, that they are not suitable friends, though Mr Robert Martin does seem to have a soft spot for me. He lacks reading and manner which are so important.  He’s a yeoman maybe, but not a gentleman it seems, and beneath Emma’s interest.  Oh dear I did so like him, and I sometimes wonder if he plans his walks in hope of meeting me.

Miss Woodhouse has put me right. I’m so lucky to benefit from her wisdom and experience. Now that I spend time with her I must be careful not to compromise her interest by continuing this previous acquaintance!

Sarah

 Footsteps in the Snow

‘Through the eyes of Owl’

I can’t believe I’m seeing this or hearing such rubbish. Disturbing my sleep on the higher branches. Below me sits Christopher Robin who is watching that half witted bear, Winnie the Pooh. He is walking round and round the tree, looking at his footsteps in the snow and appearing very worried.

Now Piglet his friend has joined him. They both walk round the tree looking at their footsteps, even counting them.

I can hear their voices getting louder. Pooh is worried that they may be followed or even joined by a Woosel. This frightens Piglet and he is making all sorts of excuses to leave this increasingly tense situation. Pooh seems to want him to stay. He looks at the sun to check the time and sees Christopher Robin. Piglet scurries off.

Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin examine the footsteps, lots of them now, and I hear Christopher Robin explain to Pooh that, in fact, the footsteps belong to him and Piglet. I feel almost sorry for this foolish bear as he has to admit” I am a bear of very small brain”.

Christopher Robin seems to love Winnie the Pooh and they go off happily together.

Now I can go back to sleep.

Jenny


NURSERY RHYMES

I follow these two around most days. You’d think they were twins the way they carry on but they are actually brother and sister. He’s so much taller and looks a lot older than her. I’m watching them now as they struggle to hold the handle of that old metal bucket as they walk slowly on. I wonder if they know that it has now got a small hole in it. They’re trudging up that steep hill to fetch a pail of water.

 Oh dear, Jack’s fallen down. He’s landed on his head and has had to release the bucket. Jill has also toppled over and the bucket is now rolling back down the hill with water spilling out everywhere. Jack’s got back on his feet and is rushing back home leaving Jill to fend for herself. Why does she always go everywhere with him? You’d have thought she would have more sense and realise that her brother makes her do most of his work. She needs to be much more assertive and stand up for herself!

As I now peep through the window of their cottage, I see that Jack has gone to bed with what smells like a poultice of vinegar and brown paper wrapped round his head. Typical male- his bump wasn’t that bad that he needs to spend the rest of his day in bed. Jill’s fall was far worse but she’s gone off now to clean out the cow shed which is really Jack’s job to do anyway.

What a day! I must move off this branch and fly over to see what Miss Muffet is up to. She too needs to be more assertive and overcome her fear of spiders.

Margaret

Out in a blaze of glory?

‘Where shall I go? What shall I do?’ she cried.

I had just cleaned my whiskers, after finishing off the crumbs from a blueberry pie, when I heard her. The response from him was immediate.

‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’

I sat back on my hind legs and waited for the hysterics. Well of course she didn’t deserve him, did she? Led him right up the garden for years. There she was in tears but all too late. I could see he was finally leaving. I had only lived in this great house for two years, but my late mother had told me all about Scarlett. Her fancy dresses, which mum often liked to chew, and her liking for men, even if they belonged to someone else. She had everything and was so pretty but like they say you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Just when I was about to doze off, I heard her shout.

 I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back! After all, tomorrow is another day!’

Julia

Mr. Collins meets the Bennet family as seen through the eyes of the middle sister, Mary. (Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’)

At dinner we had intellectual conversation. What a delightful and stimulating change from the usual level of giggles and gossip; especially from Kitty and Lydia. Are they not aware that not all of us are interested in the militia, balls, and hat decorations?

Father’s heir, our cousin, Mr. William Collins, is staying with us for a sennight. What a delight! I shall be able to discuss all manner of topics with him. For example, this evening he read to us from Fordyce’s sermons; so extremely appropriate as Mr. Collins is, himself, a man of the cloth. He has told us already about his parish and his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh who, I admit, sounds a magnificent, imposing, and devout member of the aristocracy. I so agree with him that he is an extremely fortuitous man to have her permission to visit us.

The pleasant evening was spoilt by the embarrassing behaviour of my sisters. Lydia and Kitty did not sit still for half an hour before they made some excuse and retreated to their room. Of course, Mama made no effort to stop them. I could hear them laughing after they closed the parlour door; however, I do not think our cousin was aware of their insulting behaviour as he kept reading without any indication of disruption.

Sadly, Father brought the reading to an end just as I was making a note in my pocketbook of a question I wished to ask my cousin on the subject of ‘Gratitude’. Mr. Collins appeared somewhat vexed but, as a true gentleman, he acknowledged that it was late and that there were many evenings ahead in which to finish the sermons. I could not take an oath on it, but I am sure I heard a groan from Elizabeth.

I thoroughly approve of Mr. William Collins. I know he is a bachelor and I also know he is seeking a wife; supported in this quest by Lady Catherine. I would consider it an honour to be seen as a possibility. I declare, the role of a clergyman’s wife would suit me. I may be young, but I have the qualities for which he is looking.

Helen

DC Chloe Bishop on Superintendent Ted Hastings in Line of Duty

If I hear him say ‘Mother of God’ again, I’ll swear to God myself and put one in him. I could use the little semi-automatic hidden in the ladies. Unnecessary tho’, as all his foolishness has removed him from the investigation.  Even so, he deserves to be put out of his misery but orders is orders. He’s fallen for all the crumbs the OCG have fed him, much of it by my hand, as it happens. You’ve missed the bigger picture, ‘Fella.’  How I ‘d loved to say that to him. Listen to him now with trying to open up Buckles. His righteous clap-trap, won’t wash with him. ‘The letter of the law’ is spelt with a capital C for cash. Buckles knows that.  No matter how neatly turned out you look, Superintendent, your oh-so-smart uniform has also been stained with the colour of money. Steve and wonder woman Kate are not the only ones who know about the £50,000 you’ve nicked.  We know you’re weak especially around some women. We’ll use that. You’ll end up working for us, just like …. ah, I mustn’t even say the name to myself . Don’t want to end up like Dot!

John

A Friend

I stare at her in amazement. It was only last week that we had sat and had a serious conversation about her relationship with Mike. I can’t believe she feels able to forgive him yet again. Sarah and I are good friends, but she is so gullible, even so I will never understand why she is still with Mike.

I know Mike tell lies, I have proof he is unfaithful, and he is so unreliable. Yet I see Sarah forgive him, she can do better. Earlier during lunch, we spoke about the fault on the door lock, the result was she had to endure a lonely night stuck in the bathroom in a strange house. So, the party was no fun for her, and no Mike either.

I watch Mike get close and whisper in her ear. How do I let go of this frustration?

I begin to laugh out loud and see them turn to look at me. They think I am mad. Perhaps I am.

Erica

Buttons and Cinderella

I feel sorry for Cinderella, I wish I could run away with her. It’s eight pm and the poor girl is still holding a duster in her hand. She’s been up since dawn, cleaning, washing, cooking. I see her sadness and despair, her enthusiasm for life is draining away. Her two stepsisters are cruel, spiteful and mean. They are always trying to hurt her.

I have no spare money, little to offer, so I will always be just a friend. We enjoy a walk, pick berries then listen to the chirping birds. On these occasions I feel my heart beat fast, even my knees shake.

I hold out my trembling hand, I am resigned we will always be like a brother and sister. She’s in love with Prince Charming.

Erica

Mrs Clay in Persuasion by Jane Austen. On being told she can accompany Sir Walter Elliot and his daughter to Bath.

I shall have to stop using such vulgar expressions, but honestly it’s one in the eye for Miss Anne Elliot! I can hardly believe the honour – an invitation from Sir Walter and Elizabeth begging me to accompany them to Bath, while she – the daughter of the house – is obliged to stay behind in the country with that peevish sister of hers.

Sir Walter may be excessively proud, and I realise he’s been forced to retrench financially, but he still has a great estate. Flatter him, compliment him – he’ll lap it up. Even though I’m no acclaimed beauty, a man that age is always susceptible. Who knows what could happen when we’re thrown together in Camden Place? If I’m cunning enough he might even be persuaded to marry me. Particularly if I find myself in an interesting condition. The whole world knows that he desires a male heir above everything.

I’m below him in rank, to be sure, though a title doesn’t necessarily confer sensibility and discernment. Just the opposite from what I’ve observed. I can act a fine lady if I choose to. And I will!

Frances

Baroness von Schraeder in The Sound of Music when she realises the Captain is in love with Maria.

He’s a good-looking man, certainly, a naval hero, and in Vienna he’s always surrounded by a sophisticated set, though to be honest I’ve always felt he was a little afraid of me. He’s gallant in public, but in private he’s hardly passionate. Now I understand why. He doesn’t want an experienced lover, only a mother for his children. Seven of them! Can you imagine? And they never seem to stop singing.

What makes it more humiliating is that my rival is a young convent girl with cropped hair and a home-made floral dress straight out of the Brothers Grimm. What an insult!  I’ve been a fool, though I’ll die before I let him know how furious I am. Rather I mean to be dignified and serene. Maria won’t fail to notice that I’m wearing my diamond earrings and a draped satin gown from a famous couturier.

Luckily, my heart is far from broken. There’s another gentleman of my acquaintance, a high-ranking officer in the German army, who I know will appreciate my charms. I’ve definitely had a lucky escape.

Frances

I

Out in a blaze of glory?

‘Where shall I go? What shall I do?’ she cried.

I had just cleaned my whiskers, after finishing off the crumbs from a blueberry pie, when I heard her. The response from him was immediate.

‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’

I sat back on my hind legs and waited for the hysterics. Well of course she didn’t deserve him, did she? Led him right up the garden for years. There she was in tears but all too late. I could see he was finally leaving. I had only lived in this great house for two years, but my late mother had told me all about Scarlett. Her fancy dresses, which mum often liked to chew, and her liking for men, even if they belonged to someone else. She had everything and was so pretty but like they say you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Just when I was about to doze off, I heard her shout.

 I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back! After all, tomorrow is another day!’

Julia

Mr. Collins meets the Bennet family as seen through the eyes of the middle sister, Mary. (Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’)

At dinner we had intellectual conversation. What a delightful and stimulating change from the usual level of giggles and gossip; especially from Kitty and Lydia. Are they not aware that not all of us are interested in the militia, balls, and hat decorations?

Father’s heir, our cousin, Mr. William Collins, is staying with us for a sennight. What a delight! I shall be able to discuss all manner of topics with him. For example, this evening he read to us from Fordyce’s sermons; so extremely appropriate as Mr. Collins is, himself, a man of the cloth. He has told us already about his parish and his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh who, I admit, sounds a magnificent, imposing, and devout member of the aristocracy. I so agree with him that he is an extremely fortuitous man to have her permission to visit us.

The pleasant evening was spoilt by the embarrassing behaviour of my sisters. Lydia and Kitty did not sit still for half an hour before they made some excuse and retreated to their room. Of course, Mama made no effort to stop them. I could hear them laughing after they closed the parlour door; however, I do not think our cousin was aware of their insulting behaviour as he kept reading without any indication of disruption.

Sadly, Father brought the reading to an end just as I was making a note in my pocketbook of a question I wished to ask my cousin on the subject of ‘Gratitude’. Mr. Collins appeared somewhat vexed but, as a true gentleman, he acknowledged that it was late and that there were many evenings ahead in which to finish the sermons. I could not take an oath on it, but I am sure I heard a groan from Elizabeth.

I thoroughly approve of Mr. William Collins. I know he is a bachelor and I also know he is seeking a wife; supported in this quest by Lady Catherine. I would consider it an honour to be seen as a possibility. I declare, the role of a clergyman’s wife would suit me. I may be young, but I have the qualities for which he is looking.

Helen

DC Chloe Bishop on Superintendent Ted Hastings in Line of Duty

If I hear him say ‘Mother of God’ again, I’ll swear to God myself and put one in him. I could use the little semi-automatic hidden in the ladies. Unnecessary tho’, as all his foolishness has removed him from the investigation.  Even so, he deserves to be put out of his misery but orders is orders. He’s fallen for all the crumbs the OCG have fed him, much of it by my hand, as it happens. You’ve missed the bigger picture, ‘Fella.’  How I ‘d loved to say that to him. Listen to him now with trying to open up Buckles. His righteous clap-trap, won’t wash with him. ‘The letter of the law’ is spelt with a capital C for cash. Buckles knows that.  No matter how neatly turned out you look, Superintendent, your oh-so-smart uniform has also been stained with the colour of money. Steve and wonder woman Kate are not the only ones who know about the £50,000 you’ve nicked.  We know you’re weak especially around some women. We’ll use that. You’ll end up working for us, just like …. ah, I mustn’t even say the name to myself . Don’t want to end up like Dot!

John

A Friend

I stare at her in amazement. It was only last week that we had sat and had a serious conversation about her relationship with Mike. I can’t believe she feels able to forgive him yet again. Sarah and I are good friends, but she is so gullible, even so I will never understand why she is still with Mike.

I know Mike tell lies, I have proof he is unfaithful, and he is so unreliable. Yet I see Sarah forgive him, she can do better. Earlier during lunch, we spoke about the fault on the door lock, the result was she had to endure a lonely night stuck in the bathroom in a strange house. So, the party was no fun for her, and no Mike either.

I watch Mike get close and whisper in her ear. How do I let go of this frustration?

I begin to laugh out loud and see them turn to look at me. They think I am mad. Perhaps I am.

Erica

Buttons and Cinderella

I feel sorry for Cinderella, I wish I could run away with her. It’s eight pm and the poor girl is still holding a duster in her hand. She’s been up since dawn, cleaning, washing, cooking. I see her sadness and despair, her enthusiasm for life is draining away. Her two stepsisters are cruel, spiteful and mean. They are always trying to hurt her.

I have no spare money, little to offer, so I will always be just a friend. We enjoy a walk, pick berries then listen to the chirping birds. On these occasions I feel my heart beat fast, even my knees shake.

I hold out my trembling hand, I am resigned we will always be like a brother and sister. She’s in love with Prince Charming.

Erica

Mrs Clay in Persuasion by Jane Austen. On being told she can accompany Sir Walter Elliot and his daughter to Bath.

I shall have to stop using such vulgar expressions, but honestly it’s one in the eye for Miss Anne Elliot! I can hardly believe the honour – an invitation from Sir Walter and Elizabeth begging me to accompany them to Bath, while she – the daughter of the house – is obliged to stay behind in the country with that peevish sister of hers.

Sir Walter may be excessively proud, and I realise he’s been forced to retrench financially, but he still has a great estate. Flatter him, compliment him – he’ll lap it up. Even though I’m no acclaimed beauty, a man that age is always susceptible. Who knows what could happen when we’re thrown together in Camden Place? If I’m cunning enough he might even be persuaded to marry me. Particularly if I find myself in an interesting condition. The whole world knows that he desires a male heir above everything.

I’m below him in rank, to be sure, though a title doesn’t necessarily confer sensibility and discernment. Just the opposite from what I’ve observed. I can act a fine lady if I choose to. And I will!

Frances

Baroness von Schraeder in The Sound of Music when she realises the Captain is in love with Maria.

He’s a good-looking man, certainly, a naval hero, and in Vienna he’s always surrounded by a sophisticated set, though to be honest I’ve always felt he was a little afraid of me. He’s gallant in public, but in private he’s hardly passionate. Now I understand why. He doesn’t want an experienced lover, only a mother for his children. Seven of them! Can you imagine? And they never seem to stop singing.

What makes it more humiliating is that my rival is a young convent girl with cropped hair and a home-made floral dress straight out of the Brothers Grimm. What an insult!  I’ve been a fool, though I’ll die before I let him know how furious I am. Rather I mean to be dignified and serene. Maria won’t fail to notice that I’m wearing my diamond earrings and a draped satin gown from a famous couturier.

Luckily, my heart is far from broken. There’s another gentleman of my acquaintance, a high-ranking officer in the German army, who I know will appreciate my charms. I’ve definitely had a lucky escape.

Frances

After April’s meeting where we discussed the positives and drawbacks of collaborative writing, it was agreed to give it another go. This time, everyone was given the same starter to see how different the stories could become. The starting sentences are in bold and the stories follow:

Monday morning’s post was usually a mixture of holiday brochures, flyers advertising garden services and brown envelopes addressed to ‘The Homeowner’.  Today, though, it was different for amongst the recyclable material was one long, cream envelope. The paper was thickly expensive and the address immaculately and correctly typed.

The Adoption 

Monday morning’s post was usually a mixture of holiday brochures, flyers advertising garden services and brown envelopes addressed to ‘The Homeowner’. Today, though it was different for amongst the recyclable material was one long, cream envelope. The paper was thickly expensive and the address immaculately and correctly typed.

Which was weird because I hadn’t been Miss Amy Charlton for twenty-five years.

‘So, what do we have here?’ I asked the dog who was sitting at my feet hoping for toast to fall from the sky.

I slit the envelope open with a knife. Inside were two folded sheets of the same expensive stationery. I spread them out on the table and read the words, ‘To my darling niece who was ripped from our family when you were only six weeks old.’

‘What the hell?’

The dog barked, obviously sensing my change of mood from breakfast happy to astounded as I read on.

‘It has taken me many years to find you. I hope now that I have, you will read to the end of this letter so you can finally know the truth of who you are and where you belong in this world.’

I did read on and when I’d finished, I went over it again and again, expecting any moment to find out it was an elaborate scam designed to part me from my money, or some carefully orchestrated plot to get me to join some ancestry website.

I ignored my toast and let my coffee go cold, and by the time I finally dropped the pages back onto the table, I was forced to accept that I wasn’t the person I thought I was, and that my life would never be the same again.

To calm my nerves, I took the dog for a walk, but I couldn’t stop the thoughts swirling round my head. The word ‘ripped’ pierced me, and I wondered who had done this ripping? Surely not my darling Dad, taken from us so early by a heart attack and still mourned for his sweet nature and his perennial optimism. Or my Mum, now in a care home, but previously a devout churchgoer who had cared from us – me and my sister – so selflessly. My sister! Was she even my sister anymore?

I’d always thought it was strange how tall I was, when even Dad was only about five foot eight; how my hair was darker than all three of them and how my nose turned up at the end, when theirs were all straight as pokers.

I felt alone. There was no way I could confront my Mum with this in the frail state she was in. These days she was like a shadow that a puff of wind could blow away, not to mention her fading memory. The only one left was my sister/not- sister. Had she ever had an inkling?

Susan was as practical as Mum used to be. As I poured out my feelings to her that evening at her kitchen table, she listened carefully to my story, then read the letter.

‘I’m younger than you, remember? Even if all this is true, I wasn’t even there. The only thing we can do is get a DNA test and take it from there.

I agreed.  I just had to know the truth, so the next morning I made some enquiries and found plenty of information on the internet.

Apparently, I needed an ‘Heritage DNA test’.  The process was simple; visit a government sanctioned testing facility; provide the required DNA test samples, including those from other ‘family members’, after which genealogy and medical tests would be undertaken; the DNA test results would be explained later, and counselling thereafter is ‘strongly recommended’.

So, I needed to have other ‘family members’ tested too, i.e. my mother and my sister. 

Then that it occurred to me that I would also need a test sample from the writer of the letter.  But I didn’t know them.  This person was not from the family I’d grown up with!  And this letter provided no evidence of my paternity, just a story that I’d been ‘ripped away’!

It’s silly, but I remember the writer starting the letter ‘To my darling niece’, but I couldn’t recall who had signed the letter, nor whether there was an address at the top, and hopefully a phone number too.

I needed to know more.  For example, I needed to know whether the letter writer was an uncle or aunt; whether they were a paternal or maternal uncle and aunt; and whether they were my blood related uncle or aunt, or the spouse of my blood relative.  I certainly needed to talk to the letter writer!

I got the letter out of my handbag and looked at the signature.  It simply said ‘Lots of love, Pat.’

‘Damn.’ I thought, ‘a gender-neutral diminution of a name!’  I looked at the top of the letter.  There was no phone number, but there was an address, and it was only about 30 miles from here, and with a direct train service.

I rang Susan and explained everything to her.  She agreed.  We needed to know who the writer was.  We could write and ask to come and see them, or we could just go there together and see whomever it was and take a chance on them being in. 

We decided on the surprise visit, so I went and purchased the train tickets.  Departure, 10am the following morning!

I hardly slept that night! My whole world had been turned upside down.  Susan must have felt the same because her face was white and drawn when we got together at the station at 9.45 the next day. Without discussing it, we had both dressed down in fleece and trousers. I suppose we didn’t want to reveal too much about ourselves until we knew more about the mystery relative. Perhaps he/she wouldn’t be at home anyway and we’d be left quizzing the neighbours. I’d brought a writing pad in case we needed to put a note through the door.

When we reached the address after a short walk from the station, I knew I couldn’t back off. My whole identity was on the line. The house was a neat semi-detached, with a pretty garden and my favourite Wisteria surrounding the front door. I already felt a connection.

Hands trembling, I pressed the doorbell whilst Susan stood tactfully to the side. The wait seemed endless. After shuffles inside, the door slowly opened.

“Pat?”  I gasped out to the tall woman with greying hair and a turned-up nose who stood before me.

“You came!” She pulled me to her in a warm embrace, “I hardly dare believe it, my darling girl!”

Afterwards, over a cup of tea in the front room, she told us her story:

Pregnant as a young teenager, she had no choice about keeping me, her baby. The father, having taken advantage of her inexperience, had scarpered.  Her parents had been pole-axed with shame, intent on expunging this blot on the family name. Her brother, older than her and recently married, had stepped up to claim me, on condition that she, Pat, made no further contact with me. She was too young to get any say in the matter, though she never got over it.

He and his wife moved away and severed contact with Pat and his parents. They never heard of Susan’s birth.  The cruel cover-up was complete – until the adult Pat’s investigations eventually bore fruit.

‘Forgive me, Pat,’ I tentatively said, ‘but you are my biological mother and not my aunt? It’s only that, in the original letter, you describe me as your “darling niece,”’ and I held out the correspondence to her and pointed to the relevant section.

‘Honestly, I didn’t know your circumstances when I wrote. I wasn’t aware that my brother had died, nor that Kathy, my sister-in-law, was in a home – thank you for breaking it to me so gently. For all I knew, you didn’t want me turning up in your life. I thought, describing myself as an aunt would be less dramatic. Didn’t quite work though, did it?’

I hugged this woman who looked so much like me. ’We have so much to talk about, to catch up with each other’s lives but now is not the time. I must tell you, though, I had a happy childhood and Susan is my sister and always will be even if, biologically, she is my cousin!’ Susan smiled at me. ‘But there is a place in my life for you and I am so pleased you reached out to me.’

This was a new chapter in my life, and I was looking forward to discovering it.

Mars, Frances, Bob, Sarah, Helen.

The Invitation.

Monday morning’s post was usually a mixture of holiday brochures, flyers advertising garden services and brown envelopes addressed to ‘The Home Owner’. Today, though, it was different, for amongst the recyclable material was one long cream envelope. The paper was thickly expensive and the address immaculately and correctly typed.

Jane slunk into the kitchen and sat down opposite her husband. Not that he noticed, she thought, but therein lies another story. Fingers suddenly all thumbs, she eased back the envelope flap and extracted a beautiful sheet of cream A4 paper carrying the same impressive print.

It was an invitation to the opening of a new beauty shop in the centre of Nottingham, but personally addressed and signed at the bottom ‘Andrea di Laslo’.

A handwritten note at the bottom said,

‘Remember me from school, Mrs Jones? I know you despaired of me, so I’d like to show you what I’ve achieved. I do hope you’ll be able to come.’

The invitation was for two weeks’ time at 10.30 in the morning. Jane was full of curiosity and determined to attend. It looked as though these shops were part of a small national chain. Andrea had certainly made good! The ‘di Laslo’ bit was new though. Perhaps she’d married money.

Jane would find out if she attended, and there would certainly be other perks. Perhaps there would be other people from school there too. She had deliberately left her teaching career well behind her, hoping to enjoy her retirement, but now she felt curious.

‘You look pleased with yourself,’ said her husband over the top of his newspaper.

‘Yes, I am,’ Jane beamed. ‘What do you think I should wear for a big opening day? Is it worth a new outfit?’

Her husband grunted quietly, returning to his newspaper, but Jane’s mind was conjuring up visions of a glamorous occasion. She had to get this right.

First stop, the best dress shop in town. It was called Modern Modiste which Jane thought was an old-fashioned name but it sold the type of clothes she was looking for.

‘Hi,’ she said to the smiling assistant. ‘I’d like an outfit for a grand opening.’

‘Of course. Let me say I think something in the pink range would compliment your colouring.’

‘I’ve never worn pink.’

‘It’s the best colour for your skin tone. Please follow me.’

Once in the changing rooms, Jane was soon in a whirl of chiffon, crepe, delicate cottons, lingerie, lace, sparkling necklaces and high heeled shoes. As she looked at her reflection in the mirror, she realised how dowdy she’d become over the years.

‘Why did I let myself go so much,’ she thought as she twisted first one way then the other, feeling the soft fabric swirl around her legs. The high heeled shoes made her legs look longer and more shapely, the top with its almost daring V neckline made her feel sexy.

‘Your husband will be delighted in the new you,’ gushed the assistant.

My husband.

In that moment, all the euphoria drained out of her. She’d have to take all this home and explain why she’d spent so much money on an outfit for a single occasion.

‘If you’d like me to,’ the assistant was saying, ‘I have a hairdresser friend who might be able to fit you in. You know, to complete the makeover.’

Jane looked into the mirror again and instead of seeing herself as she really was, she could imagine what she’d look like with a new hairstyle, walking into the opening of the salon an equal to everyone else there.

With a newfound confidence, she decided she didn’t care what Philip thought. She was going to make the most of her opportunity to get out of the house and do something exciting.

Of course, there was no hiding the new hairstyle from Philip. Usually, he was engrossed in his own interests – golf and gardening mostly – and ignored her. They didn’t do much together. Even when Jane spent two days a week babysitting the grandchildren, he wasn’t inclined to help. Too much noise, too much mess. He couldn’t stand it.

But when she returned from the hairdresser with a new short gamine look, her usual mousey blonde replaced by silver, he couldn’t help but notice.

‘What the hell have you done to yourself?’ he asked, eyebrows raised.

As always, faced by her husband’s disapproval, Jane was defensive.

‘I wanted a different style, that’s all. Don’t you like it?’

He glared. ‘You’re a bit old to start drawing attention to yourself like that. You’re not twenty-five. Let’s face it, you’re not even fifty-five.’

‘Don’t you ever say anything nice?’ she blurted out, near to tears. Before it became a full-blown row, she escaped upstairs.

That evening it was the silent treatment. She served his dinner, he ate it. She washed up; he watched some lengthy TV programme he knew she wasn’t interested in. When he came up to bed, she pretended to be asleep.

On the day of the opening, she was banking on him going to golf as usual, but his partner cried off at the last minute. So, there he was, stomping around the kitchen, bad-tempered, complaining. How was she going to get past him in her new outfit?

She yelled downstairs. ‘Philip, there’s some pigeons helping themselves to your seedlings!’

A minute later she could see him storming down towards the veg patch and she ran down to the front door, if you could call teetering on those brand-new heels running.

She was on her way!

Jane parked her car as close to the new salon as possible. Thank goodness she had defied Philip’s suggestion to ‘downsize’ to the one vehicle. A little domestic rebellion that had paid off; imagine catching a bus in this outfit? The car wasn’t new but at least it was hers.

The coloured balloons and the blaring music, both revealed her destination. With her invite clutched in her hand she took a deep breath and walked confidently into the shop. A glass of something bubbly was supplied and, at the same time, her invitation was discreetly checked.

Taking a sip of her drink, after all, she was driving, Jane looked around the room. It was a riot of white, gold and turquoise; expensive lotions in classy bottles lined the walls and were reflected in full length mirrors. There must have been twenty or thirty guests crowded into the space; mostly young women looking as if they had just left their yachts on the river Trent. Tight, white trousers and colourful tops complemented their tanned skin and bronzed features. Joan felt suddenly old and far too over-dressed. What had she been thinking buying a ‘mother-of-the-bride ‘outfit?

She turned to flee Andrea’s salon without even seeing her host but as she neared the door, she was too upset to hear a voice crying above the music, ‘Mrs. Jones, don’t go! There’s someone I want you to meet.’  So, she was unprepared when a hand stopped her from exiting the salon.

‘Mrs. Jones, it’s me, Andrea. I’m so delighted you’ve come. Retirement must suit you as you look wonderful!’

Jane smiled at her former pupil, ‘You have done really well for yourself, Andrea. Congratulations.’

‘Look, I want you to meet someone very special to me, my dad. If you were wondering, he’s the ‘di Laslo’ in my name.’

‘Surely you weren’t called that at school. Andrews, wasn’t it?’

‘They were divorced, and I lived with my mother; that was her name. Anyway, do come and meet him as I’ve told him so much about how you stuck up for me when I went through my rebellious stage!’

Jane followed Andrea to the back of the salon, where Mr di Laslo was sitting on an antique sofa talking to a stunningly beautiful woman.  Andrea explained that the woman was her mother, Maria, and that her parents had stayed friends after their divorce, and both had been very supportive throughout her life.

Excuse me father, excuse me mother,’ said Andrea, ‘may I introduce my old school teacher Jane, whom I’ve told you so much about?’

Then Andrea blushed and looked embarrassed.

I’m sorry Mrs Jones.’ she said, ‘I didn’t mean to be rude.  I should have introduced you as my ‘former school teacher, not my old one!’

Jane laughed politely and said, ‘Well at least I wasn’t your English teacher!’

Everybody looked at each other, then simultaneously burst out laughing, and the ice was broken, and any awkwardness dissipated.

Mr di Laslo rose from the sofa, took Jane’s hand and kissed it.

            ‘What a pleasure and an honour it is to meet you at last Mrs Jones.’  he said, ‘Andrea and has told me so much about you, and how you were so inspirational to her just  at the time when she needed someone, besides her parents, to believe in her.   She has often told me that the help and advice that you gave her, have stayed with her all of her life, and have helped and motivated her on many occasions, particularly when life became challenging.  I guess there must be many examples of teachers doing something similar, but you are the teacher that helped my daughter and therefore you are special, not only to her, but to me and Maria too.  We thank you most sincerely from the bottom of our hearts.’

Jane was moved by Mr di Laslo’s words.

‘Come,’ said Mr di Laslo, ‘allow me to introduce you to some of our friends.

Thank you, Mr di Laslo.’ said Jane.

‘Call me Fabio. Please!’ he replied.

Andrea’s father was very good looking, the archetypical tall, slim Italian, with swarthy skin and jet-black hair.  His teeth were brilliant white, and his smile was warm and tender, and he was certainly considered as first-class eye candy by many in the room.  Jane felt rather special when he offered his arm, which she took, before they started mingling with the other guests, and there were a few surprises waiting for her as they sallied forth. 

After some polite chat with some dignitaries and local business people, she came across two more of her former pupils.  The first was ‘Jack the lad Roper’, who winked at her just as he had always done at school – Jane could never stop him no matter how heavily she chastised him – and they had a lovely long chat.  He had become a record producer and had produced some big hits, and Jane was almost tempted to ask for his autograph, but she desisted.

As she moved away from Jack she was approached by a gorgeous young girl, whom she did not recognise.

Hullo Mrs Jones!  Lovely to see you again after all these years.  How are you?’ said the young lady.

Jane politely acknowledged the greeting, whilst trying to figure out who this young lady might be.  She looked rather familiar, but Jane couldn’t quite place her, so she said,

‘I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t quite remember your name.

The young lady blushed and smiled and said. ‘Of course, Mrs Jones!  I understand.  I’m Sandy Evans.  I’ve matured a bit since you last saw me, and I’ve had a few bits and bobs altered here and there to help with my modelling career.’

The word ‘modelling’ immediately triggered a memory in Jane’s mind.  She suddenly recognised this woman, but not as a former pupil. 

‘Aren’t you Sandy George, the famous model?’ Jane asked.

Sandy blushed again and confirmed that she was, and then went on to tell Jane just how she had got into modelling with ‘Pretty Polly Hosiery’ and how her career blossomed into what it was today.

At this point Fabio excused himself and went over to talk to his daughter and his wife.  They chatted for a moment and then Fabio tinkled a spoon against a champagne glass until the room became silent.

Fabio spoke.  He thanked all the guests for coming, and for their friendships and support over the years.  He mentioned a few special friends and acquaintances, and toasted Andrea’s success and wished her well with the new super-sized hairdressing and beauty salon she was about to open.

Then he paused.

‘I have one more honour to perform tonight.’ he announced.  ‘We have, in our presence, a most wonderful person.  This person has played a silent, but critical, role in the success of my daughter.  When Andrea was going through a very difficult time in her young life, this person listened, empathised, advised, cajoled and supported her, and gave her all the confidence in herself that she would ever need.  Andrea, her mother, and I would like to express our gratitude to this person, by offering her free beauty and hair treatments for the rest of her life.  Please come forward, former school teacher ‘Mrs Jane Jones!”

Everyone applauded, and Jack wolf whistled!

Jane was astonished and a little mortified, but delighted too, and went up to join Fabio, Andrea, and her mother, to accept their offer and say a few words of thanks.

As soon as she had finished Fabio announced that a light pasta meal would be served at the long table set up at the side of the salon, and Jane was ushered to a seat next to Fabio, and Maria and Andrea joined them. 

The evening got better and better.  There was good conversation, laughter, reminiscences, and growing friendships, and the combined with excellent food, and a small glass of delicious wine, the whole evening helped to make Jane feel like a valued human being once more.

The evening passed quickly and the time to leave came too soon for Jane.  She said her goodbyes to her newfound friends and thanked them for a most enjoyable evening.  Then she drove home. 

When she arrived Philip was soundly asleep, so she quickly and quietly took off her ‘special’ gown and put it away before he could see it and start an argument.

The next morning Jane got up a little later than usual, and after a restorative shower, she went down to the kitchen for her breakfast.  Philip was already sat at the kitchen table reading his newspaper.

He glanced up at Jane.  ‘You look tired,’ he said, then after a longer second look, he added, ‘and you look different too.  What is it? What’s different about you?’  he paused and studied her for another moment.  ‘Ah yes, I’ve got it! ‘, he continued, ‘You look tired, but you also look… happy?  Just what did you get up to last night at the opening of Nottingham’s grand new salon?’ he said in a rather disparaging tone.

Before Jane could answer the doorbell rang.

‘I’ll go.’ said Jane and got up and went to the front door.

A few moments later she came back into the kitchen carrying a magnificent bouquet of flowers, which was so large it hid her from view.

‘Who are they from?’ said Philip.

‘I don’t know!’ said Jane, ‘Is there a card on your side?’

‘Ah, yes there is! I see it!’ said Philip.

‘Then read it!’  said Jane angrily, ‘before I drop these flowers!’

He took the little envelope from the bouquet and pulled out the card.

‘Well, what does it say?’ demanded Jane impatiently.

Philip hesitated, then said, ‘Please accept these flowers from a grumpy old husband who still loves you very much.  Philip.’

There was a pause.

Jane looked at him with tears in her eyes.

When you left for the salon opening last night I caught a glimpse of you out of the front window as you got into your car.  You looked so beautiful in your new dress and with your new hairstyle, and I was reminded that I am a very lucky man.  So I immediately ordered these flowers!  Now put them down and come and give me a hug!’

Sarah, Mars, Frances, Helen, Bob.

Blackmail

Monday morning’s post was usually a mixture of holiday brochures, flyers advertising garden services and brown envelopes addressed to ‘The Homeowner’.  Today, though, it was different for amongst the recyclable material was one long, cream envelope. The paper was thickly expensive and the address immaculately and correctly typed.

Stella was in a rush. She had just grabbed the mail from the postman on her way out to an important meeting. Quickly glancing at the envelope, she stuffed the mail into her Mulberry tote and dived into her BMW.

Traffic was bad again on the motorway. Stella knew she should leave home earlier but those extra minutes in the shower and the buzz of that first coffee gave her the impetus to face the day.

On arrival at the office Stella made straight for the ladies’ room to check her appearance before entering the meeting. Rummaging in her bag for a hairbrush she spotted the letter. No time for that now, she thought. Must get on.

By 11-30 all was done and dusted, and Stella breathed a sigh of relief. Another contract won!  Rob, one of her colleagues suggested a celebratory drink over lunch at the local bistro.

Feeling replete and rather pleased with herself Stella sipped her wine. Rob had gone to chat with a friend who was sitting at a table on the other side of the room. The envelope, she thought, now I have time to open it. Carefully she pulled out the contents. A gilt-edged invitation.

When Rob reappeared Stella seemed to be in a trance. She had lost the colour from her cheeks and was holding what appeared to be some sort of card in her hand.

‘Everything ok love?’

‘What? Oh, er yes, yes of course. We should make a move.’

The card was hastily replaced in its envelope and returned to Stella’s bag. Whatever was in it, thought Rob, had certainly rattled the unflappable Stella.

Stella had seen the way Rob had been looking at her.  He never misses anything, she thought despite his having down the best part of a bottle of a Dom Perignon 2010.   She’d have to be a bit more careful around that young man. ‘Never show a weakness’ – the mantra had served her well and help bring her the wealth and position she now enjoyed.

It would also provide the enthusiasm of a younger man in bed tonight if she so wished. Rob was lining himself up as the current likely candidate, but in the circumstances, she would decline and honestly, she considered Rob needed to be put in his place.

‘Everything OK, love’, indeed!  And had he been laughing at her? That was the convincer. She made the decision. Rob had outlived his usefulness. In the morning she’d have him moved to running the mail room. A boss’s daughter can do that.

As she slipped into the rear seat of the black Mercedes, sent to collect her, Stella thought about the invitation.  She smiled grimly to herself, annoyed at her own initial reaction to it. She could not and would not allow the mask to slip tonight.  

Of course, invitation in this context was a misnomer. There was no question of her declining this invite.  Everything has a price. Her debt was now due. This time, however, she was prepared. She could put an end to it.

By 7.00 that night, Stella was stone-cold sober. She looked at herself in the full-sized mirror. Her outfit was stunning without being sexy; just the look she required. Her hand shook as she withdrew the invite from her evening bag for one last glimpse as if the words were not seared on her mind already.

Tonight, 8.00. For an evening’s entertainment. Flat 5, Buckingham Square. Damien.

‘Damien’ – a person she would not and could not forget. It had all happened last summer whilst she was spending a few days in Nice having been to the South of France on business for the company. Stella had treated herself to a stay at the Negresco Hotel and on the first morning, descending in the lift, she had been alone apart from an attractive male in his mid-forties. At the reception level he had stood back for her and with an ‘After you,’ she had realised he was English.

‘Are you on holiday or is it business?’’ she said smilingly.

‘It’s always business for me.  Occasionally I mix the two and I grab any opportunity I can to do so.’

‘And today?’

‘Today I’ve met an extremely charming and attractive young woman and I’m going to ask her to dine with me this evening.’

That was how they had met. On reflection, Stella knew it was a pick-up but spending an evening with such a dish of a man was far preferrable than being on her own.

The evening had been a tremendous success. He was cultured and witty and Stella had no fear of inviting him to her room for a final drink. It did not take long before both sets of clothes were on the floor and they were exploring each other’s bodies. In between consuming copious amounts of champagne and snorting coke Stella was not aware that an extra person had entered the room. Suddenly, the sex was more exciting and erotic, and she abandoned herself to its sensual pleasures.

When Stella finally woke up the next morning the curtains were still drawn, and she was lying naked on top of the bed. Her whole body ached, and her head throbbed. There was no sign of Damien but propped up next to the light on the bed-side table was an old-fashioned Polaroid photograph. Picking it up she could make out that it showed her naked with a stranger indulging in pornographic sexual positions. There was no doubting that the face, contorted in erotic pleasure, was hers. As she went to shred the photo into pieces her mobile phone pinged. A text message read, ‘Plenty more where that came from. I’m sure Daddy wouldn’t be pleased. I’ll contact you later and we’ll sort something out. Great evening but everything has its price. Damien X’

Now she was summoned to meet up with her blackmailer.

Buckingham Square was not what she’d expected. The tall narrow houses were mostly divided into flats and had an unloved look. Rows of bins stood by the front doors and bicycles were chained to the railings of basement areas. At the centre of the square was a patch of neglected, litter-strewn ground which had once been a garden. She found number five and scanned the names below the doorbells. The lowest one read ‘Damien Clarke, Garden Flat.’ Stella knew what that denoted.

She rang the bell and soon the door opened. ‘Welcome,’ said Damien. ‘So pleased you could come.’ Stella wondered how she could ever have been attracted to this slimy character, but of course, alcohol and exotic surroundings can affect anyone’s judgement, and he had been in a crisp white shirt and smart business suit, very different to the scruffy tee-shirt and ripped jeans he was wearing now.

She followed him down a flight of narrow stairs to the basement. At the door of his flat, he did not bother to stand aside and let her enter first, as he would have done on their first meeting, but marched straight in, sat down, and nodded towards a grubby armchair.

‘Let’s start with a drink,’ he said, picking up a bottle of whisky.

‘No thank you,’ Stella replied. ‘And why are there three glasses on the coffee table?’

“Oh, I’m expecting one more guest. A photographer friend who’ll be here any moment. He’ll provide the entertainment I mentioned. He has a fascinating video to show you.’

‘I don’t want to see it! Just tell me what you’re after and let’s get this done with.’

‘My friend will be very disappointed if you don’t watch it’’ said Damien, filling his glass. ‘He values it highly. At a quarter of a million pounds, in fact.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous! I’m not paying that!’

‘Well, if you won’t, perhaps Daddy will.’

‘You wouldn’t dare!’ said Stella. But she knew he would.

At that moment, the doorbell rang.

‘Ah, that will be my friend,’ said Damien, rising. He left the room and Stella heard his footsteps ascending the stairs. Then angry voices reached her from the front door. Shouting, scuffling, followed by a man’s footsteps hurrying down the stairs. But the figure who appeared in the doorway was not Damien. It was a man in a suit, who flashed a police badge at her.

‘Detective-sergeant Baker, CID. Are you Stella Harman?’ he said. ‘Damien Clarke is on his way to the police station, under arrest. I’d like you to tell me what you know about him if you will.’

When Stella woke next morning, she turned to the sleeping figure beside her and kissed his cheek.

‘I can’t thank you enough,’ Rob she said. ‘If you hadn’t seen how upset I was and persuaded me to show you that card, no-one would have known I was there.’

‘That man was dangerous. I hate to think what might have happened to you,’ said Rob. ‘He’s well-known to the police. As soon as I mentioned his name and address, their ears pricked up.’

Stella put her arms round him and pulled him close to her.

‘You deserve a reward,’ she said.

‘You gave me my reward last night, Stella.’

“Well today, you’re getting another one. I’ve decided to make you my Practice Manager.

Julia, John, Helen, Peter H.

The Letter.

The envelope stood in the centre of the kitchen table. Ann had seen it as soon as she came downstairs. It had dropped through the letterbox and sat on the mat, creamy white and legal looking, among the usual leaflets. Her heart had started beating fast then, not from excitement but fear of what it might contain. Not daring to open it, she skirted around the table where she had placed it, looking, trying to convince herself that it wasn’t the letter she had been dreading. Memories of the life she had spent with her husband, Robert, flooded into her head. They were only young when they married having met at the local Grammar school. Bob, as she soon called him had come with his mum, dad and sister to live next door to Anne’s family. It wasn’t long before they all became friends. Soon they were spending time at the tennis club and going to the leisure centre together. Later, after finishing College, Bob and Ann’s friendship blossomed and they became close. It didn’t take long for them to realize they were in love and soon they married. Ann felt her eyes prickling with tears as she recalled those days. They had been so happy then. It was when babies didn’t come along that things began to change. Nevertheless, they lived in hope.

She walked to the garden wiping away her tears, fondly looking at the few rose bushes, they had once planted together. After three failed IVF treatments, they had tried counselling to no avail. Eventually they came to the conclusion, they had reached the end of the road, and the debt was building. She shuddered thinking about it all, she felt lonely and the whole house was quiet. Friends still phoned, however she felt they weren’t really interested in listening to her story, so she began to keep her feelings locked inside herself. After an hour of thinking, and not actually achieving anything, Ann once more sat at the table staring at the letter. How she wished it hadn’t dropped onto the hall mat earlier. She knew she needed a solicitor to help her unravel and deal with Bob’s unreasonable behaviour. Her fingers fumbled with the envelope, then she began to read the letter. Overwhelmed, she began to cry.

It was just as she had feared- a Solicitor’s letter dated January 2022 informing her that her husband was asking for a ‘no fault divorce’ as they had been separated for over two years. This was a fairly newly accepted ‘cause’ for divorce that had been implemented in the autumn of 2021. It allowed people to end a marriage without having to blame each other for the breakdown of their relationship. An application could be made jointly or by a sole applicant. The option of contesting the divorce would be removed.

Tears were streaming down Ann’s face as she read and re-read the details. She was full of remorse and she blamed herself. She remembered how she had persuaded a reluctant Bob that a third attempt at IVF treatment might work even though they could ill afford it and he was totally against it. How could she really have wanted a baby so badly hoping that it would bring them back closer to one another for they had seemed to be constantly bickering with each other?

She glanced at the letter again and re-read the words….’There would be a period of reflection for twenty weeks from the application being made to when a conditional order can be made. This provides a period of reflection for the parties to consider the decision and resolve financial matters.’

They were very occasionally in contact with one another by phone or text, usually regarding household matters. Could she possibly persuade him that she still loved him and desperately wanted the marriage to continue, irrespective of not having any children?

Meanwhile Bob, in his cosy flat the other side of town thought briefly about Ann and her probable reaction to the solicitor’s letter. She shouldn’t be too surprised, he thought. Any feelings of guilt and compassion dwindled as he remembered his years of misery with Ann, her obsession to get pregnant, those expensive IVF treatments. If she could only have got out a bit more, find a job, smarten herself up a bit. When we first got married, he thought, we had a lot of fun, but she had changed so soon.

He stroked his girlfriend’s hair as they talked about their baby and all their plans.

Meanwhile Ann in her empty house re read the letter. She thought, We had a lot of fun when we first got married. We can try again. and she started making plans.

Sylvia,Erica,Margaret,Jenny

“The Post”

Monday morning’s post was usually a mixture of holiday brochures, flyers advertising garden services and brown envelopes addressed to ‘The Homeowner’.  Today though, it was different, for amongst the recyclable material was one long, cream envelope. The paper was thickly expensive and the address immaculately and correctly typed.

Joseph took a second, furtive look over his shoulder before picking up the letter. He turned it over, all the time feeling its bulk before, finally, running his fingers over the embossed logo of Nightingale and Jones. Google had confirmed who they were two years previously. Solicitors, with offices in London, New York, and a host of other capitals. No doubt about it, this letter just like the others, was correctly addressed but who the heck was Phillipa Jenkins?

The noise of dishes being set on the table and microwaving pinging stopped, and Joseph turned towards the silence. Not good. He dropped the letter and used his foot to push it under today’s junk mail. He closed the porch door quietly and quickly retraced his steps to the foot of the stairs. His mother stepped into the hall pulling on that mac of hers which had seen better days.

“It’s on the table for you. I’m out this morning doing Mrs. Edward’s, so I won’t be back ‘til early afternoon.” She stretched up to give him a kiss on the cheek.

“None of that when we’re out, mum” After all, he was going to be eighteen in three days.

His mother smiled,” Seeing as it’s your holidays, it would be nice if you could do a few things ‘round the house… tidy your room, for a start …. In between all that revision, of course!”

She was already in the porch; her back was towards him as she bent over. He tried to peer round her body and see what she did, with no luck whatsoever.

“Anything in the post today, mum?”  Joseph had been practising saying that for the last five days, not knowing exactly when the letter would arrive. Today it sounded less casual than he had intended.

The rustling of paper stopped. His mother stood and looked at him. “No,” shaking her head,” just the usual rubbish. Your first job, bin this lot, would you? Bye love.”

Then, the outer door was closed, and his mother was gone. Joseph’s cue to return to the pile of papers on the floor. Unsurprisingly, the letter from Nightingale and Jones was no longer there.

With the remaining papers in his hand, Joseph made his way to the kitchen and took his breakfast from the microwave. He sat staring at his plate, with two mysteries preying on his mind. Who was Phillipa Jenkins, and why was his mother keeping a secret from him? These letters were clearly important, so she would not have destroyed the earlier ones. They must be somewhere in the house, so perhaps he should search for them while she was out.

No! he told himself firmly. Search through my mother’s private things? That wouldn’t be right. He looked through the door into the living room and saw, on the opposite wall, the old-fashioned writing bureau, where she kept treasured possessions. Would she have hidden them in there? He rose and picked up the morning’s junk mail, intending to take it to the recycling bin, but his legs took him in a different direction, and instead, he found himself in front of the bureau.

The writing flap creaked, as it dropped open and the pigeon-holes inside were packed with papers. Joseph pulled up a chair and sat down. After going through numerous faded postcards, letters from long-forgotten friends, and ancient receipts, he was about to give up, when something stopped him in his tracks. Inside an envelope with a hand-written address and a foreign stamp, was a collection of photographs. He tipped them out and began to examine them.

Joseph had felt guilty sorting through his Mum’s papers; however he couldn’t stop thinking about the letters from Nightingale and Jones, that regularly dropped through their letterbox. He first discovered a letter from the firm two years ago, and ever since then one dropped on their doormat every three months, but not always on the same date.

As he now glanced through the old photographs, he suddenly realised he was the baby staring up at him. Why would his Mum hide these photographs? Who is the young woman holding him tenderly in her arms? It certainly wasn’t Mum. He stared at the woman in the photograph, he didn’t know her, but somehow she looked familiar. They both had the same fair hair and big hazel-coloured eyes.

He closed his eyes to try and think, his thoughts were becoming muddled. He felt out of his depth, every minute things were becoming more complicated. He had so many unanswered questions.  He decided to make himself a cup of tea, the cup shook in his hands. After sitting quietly for almost an hour Joseph decided to keep one of the photographs and pushed it into his pocket. He had a strange feeling that the mysterious young woman was his real Mother, and he didn’t know what to do.

Mrs. Edwards eyed her cleaning lady as she polished the silverware with more than the usual amount of gusto.

‘Everything alright dear?’

Alice paused and stared into space.

‘Yes, just a few things I need to remember to sort out when I get home. Thanks for asking.’

Mrs. Edwards was not fooled. She knew something was troubling Alice, but she could see there was no point in interrogating her.

‘Cup of coffee, dear?’

‘Lovely Mrs. Edwards. Then I’ll get on and do the lounge.’

Joseph had been half-heartedly tidying his room. He had made himself beans on toast at lunchtime and then did a bit of revision, but nothing stuck in his mind. He couldn’t stop thinking about the photo in his pocket and those letters. He needed to get to the bottom of this and the sooner the better.

As the day wore on Alice tried to take her mind off the contents of the letter. She knew it was time to act but how should she go about it without upsetting the whole apple cart?

Still preoccupied as she made her way to the bus stop Alice failed to see the oncoming car as she crossed the road. Everything suddenly went black.

Joseph heard the doorbell and immediately thought it was his mum because she must have left her key at home. However, when he opened the door, it wasn’t his mum but a policewoman.

She informed Joseph that his mother had been involved in a car accident and was likely to be in hospital for several days with a badly broken leg. Once Alice was back home Joseph felt obliged to help his mother out much more than usual and Alice now had plenty of time to think about those solicitor’s letters which had been arriving at regular intervals for about two years.

This latest letter notified her that once Joseph reached eighteen, Phillipa Jenkins intended contacting Joseph through an officially approved intermediary, as recommended by their company, to say that if he wished, he could now legally contact his birth mother. In all of his eighteen years Alice had never told her son that he was adopted although she had thought about doing so many times in the past. However, this most recent letter from Nightingale and Jones enclosed a copy of a letter that Phillipa Jenkins had sent to the solicitors. In it she had explained that Joseph was born when she and her boyfriend were at university, aged only eighteen and twenty and both sets of their parents had encouraged them to have the baby adopted, which they reluctantly did. The young couple were very much in love with one another and in fact some years later married and went on to have two daughters.  The letter explained that Phillipa’s husband died three years ago aged only thirty-eight as he had suffered from Huntingdon’s disease.  As Mrs. Jenkins knew that there was a one in two chance of Joseph also succumbing to this inherited genetic condition, although it doesn’t usually show itself until people are over the age of thirty, she had felt that she must trace Alice to inform her of what Jacob’s birth father had suffered from and of the possible risk for Joseph.  Phillipa Jenkins had involved this firm of solicitors as they had dealt so sympathetically with all of her affairs after her husband’s death.

Alice read this last letter from the solicitors with horror.  Poor Joseph, not only had she not told him he was adopted but now he will have to learn that his father has died very young and worse still, of a disease which Joseph had a 50-50 chance of inheriting.

The doorbell rang.  Alice staggered to the door on her crutches.  “Oh poor Alice,” said Mrs. Edwards holding a large and beautiful bouquet.  “How are you?”   Noticing Alice’s wan expression, she asked if she could put the flowers in water for her.  

Over a cup of tea made by the kind and efficient Mrs. Edwards who couldn’t ignore Alice’s agonised expression, “Is anything wrong?” she asked kindly.  

Alice’s chin wobbled and to her horror she wasn’t able to stop her tears.  Between the sobs she told Mrs. Edwards everything.  “I wish that I had told Joseph that I had adopted him”.

“So do I” thought Mrs. Edwards.

Mrs. Edwards discussed the situation with the distraught Alice, and they formulated a plan.  When Joseph came home from school his mum said they needed to have a chat after tea.  

“She’s going to tell me I’m adopted” thought Joseph.  “I’ll have to act surprised/shocked/grateful”.  He decided on ‘surprised’ and ‘contented’.  

All went well.  Mum was relieved that Joseph was so accepting.  “We’ll have a little party for your birthday,” she said and she thought she’d give him the envelopes which had been arriving for the last two years.  “That’ll please him,” she smiled.

A couple of weeks later, Joseph and his mum went to see the solicitor at Nightingale and Jones.  Afterwards at home, Joseph’s mind spun, there was so much to take in.  Who to talk to?  

There was another way, a way that had worked for him for years.  He opened his Chemistry book and started writing notes.  On his phone his Spotify playlist ran through his favourite well-worn tracks.  His room became familiar again and his mind refocused on the things in his life he could control, his exams and his next chapter.

Group story John Peter H Erica Julia Margaret Jenny

A TASK BASED ON APRIL BUT COMPLETED FOR MAY!

Here is the picture for the month of April:

  1. Your story must include this setting at some point.
  2. Because it is April, your story must include the following ‘APR’ words.

APRICOT, APRAXIA, APRON, APRĒS-SKI (or plurals or variations of these words).

  • Your story must start with some dialogue.
  • Your story should be no longer than 400 words.

Good luck!

Helen

Hindsight

‘A friend of mine has offered us his private plane. What do you say?’

She laughed. It sounded ridiculously decadent, but at that moment anything seemed possible.

They’d come to Venice in early April last year, driving south from Innsbruck to Italy over Alpine roads fringed with pines, gradually leaving winter far behind. By the time they reached Verona the blossom trees were flowering in hues from pure white to apricot and cherry pink.

She’d met Hugo in London on New Year’s Eve.

In a taxi!

Yes, she knew it was stupid, but it was three o’clock in the morning, taxis were few and far between, and sharing seemed the only way to get home. She’d had too much Prosecco and felt a bit sick. In the event, Hugo had been a perfect gentleman, escorting her safely to her flat. Next day he was standing on her doorstep again with a bunch of roses.

Being made redundant from a top Swiss bank (over the hill at 40!) had knocked her self-esteem, so when Hugo suggested a trip to the ski-slopes she had been free and in the mood for adventure. It was only when they arrived at his luxury apartment that she realised how wealthy he seemed to be. Ski or après-ski, money seemed no object. They’d enjoyed February in Val d’Isère, going on to the Austrian slopes in March.

His wife had died, he told her. He had a disabled son who was in residential care. Some sort of apraxia – she didn’t understand the details. She felt profoundly sorry for him, as well as a ripening love.

Venice had been wonderful – the sun, the opera, the food and wine, the galleries. Then home by private jet, just as he’d promised.

Except they didn’t quite make it. As they were about to board, the Italian police met them on the apron and Hugo was arrested. Wanted in several countries, the officer explained in his broken English. Hugo wasn’t even his real name.

So here she was back in Venice, a witness at his fraud trial. Not the romantic, blue-sky, carefree Venice of last spring, but a modern, down-to-earth city, with snow on the ground and an icy wind off the Adriatic. 

She put her head in her hands and began to sob.

Frances

Venetian Snow

‘I don’t believe it,’ exclaimed Drew as he stood at the Venetian hotel bedroom window, hand on hips.

‘You sound like Victor Meldrew,’ said Lara who was still half-asleep.

‘It’s snowing!’

‘What!’

She threw off the bedcovers and they both stared down at the canal that last night had looked so normal but today was a dark, gloomy green. Snow-covered boats bobbed on its ruffled surface and the pavements were covered in white stuff. A few people were walking about, huddled into thick winter jackets.

‘Oh, no,’ wailed Lara. ‘We were supposed to have a gondola ride today.’

‘Maybe we can still go.’

‘No thanks, I’ll freeze. I didn’t bring enough warm clothes with me.’

‘Don’t worry. We find something else to do.’

‘Like what? Everything we wanted to see is outside. The Grand Canal, Bridge of Sighs, St Mark’s Square.’

‘How about a museum?’

‘They’re all booked. I tried online.’

Drew rifled through the leaflets on the table.

‘How about a cookery course? At least that’ll be in the warm.’

Which is how they came to be standing in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant with six other tourists, wearing aprons and studious expressions as the chef demonstrated how to prepare fish stuffed with apricots.

The second course – lemon gelato – was already made and whirring in the ice cream machine, the low hum a background sound as they cooked the main course.

Lara raised her eyebrows as Drew expertly tossed salad leaves in the dressing.

‘You’ve always told me you can’t cook.’

‘I know.’

‘You said it was because of your apraxia, that you couldn’t follow even the simplest of written instructions.’

‘I know,’ he repeated. ‘But you’re such a fabulous cook, I didn’t want to show myself up.  I always wash up and clean the kitchen.’

‘When we get home, things will change.’

The meal was superb. They sat round the big wooden table enjoying the food and wine, and applauded when the big bowl of gelato was put in the middle.

‘Always remember,’ the chef smiled. ‘Best Sicilian lemons make best gelato. Enjoy.’

Eventually they had to go back out in the cold. The snow was still falling and they had to hang on to each other to avoid slipping over.

‘What shall we do now?’ said Drew.

‘Go shopping. I need something to wear for the après ski.’

‘We haven’t been skiing.’

‘Yet.’

Monday morning’s post was usually a mixture of holiday brochures, flyers advertising garden services and brown envelopes addressed to ‘The Homeowner’.  Today, though, it was different for amongst the recyclable material was one long, cream envelope. The paper was thickly expensive and the address immaculately and correctly typed.

The Invitation.

Monday morning’s post was usually a mixture of holiday brochures, flyers advertising garden services and brown envelopes addressed to ‘The Home Owner’. Today, though, it was different, for amongst the recyclable material was one long cream envelope. The paper was thickly expensive and the address immaculately and correctly typed.

Jane slunk into the kitchen and sat down opposite her husband. Not that he noticed, she thought, but therein lies another story. Fingers suddenly all thumbs, she eased back the envelope flap and extracted a beautiful sheet of cream A4 paper carrying the same impressive print.

It was an invitation to the opening of a new beauty shop in the centre of Nottingham, but personally addressed and signed at the bottom ‘Andrea di Laslo’.

A handwritten note at the bottom said,

‘Remember me from school, Mrs Jones? I know you despaired of me, so I’d like to show you what I’ve achieved. I do hope you’ll be able to come.’

The invitation was for two weeks’ time at 10.30 in the morning. Jane was full of curiosity and determined to attend. It looked as though these shops were part of a small national chain. Andrea had certainly made good! The ‘di Laslo’ bit was new though. Perhaps she’d married money.

Jane would find out if she attended, and there would certainly be other perks. Perhaps there would be other people from school there too. She had deliberately left her teaching career well behind her, hoping to enjoy her retirement, but now she felt curious.

‘You look pleased with yourself,’ said her husband over the top of his newspaper.

‘Yes, I am,’ Jane beamed. ‘What do you think I should wear for a big opening day? Is it worth a new outfit?’

Her husband grunted quietly, returning to his newspaper, but Jane’s mind was conjuring up visions of a glamorous occasion. She had to get this right.

First stop, the best dress shop in town. It was called Modern Modiste which Jane thought was an old-fashioned name but it sold the type of clothes she was looking for.

‘Hi,’ she said to the smiling assistant. ‘I’d like an outfit for a grand opening.’

‘Of course. Let me say I think something in the pink range would compliment your colouring.’

‘I’ve never worn pink.’

‘It’s the best colour for your skin tone. Please follow me.’

Once in the changing rooms, Jane was soon in a whirl of chiffon, crepe, delicate cottons, lingerie, lace, sparkling necklaces and high heeled shoes. As she looked at her reflection in the mirror, she realised how dowdy she’d become over the years.

‘Why did I let myself go so much,’ she thought as she twisted first one way then the other, feeling the soft fabric swirl around her legs. The high heeled shoes made her legs look longer and more shapely, the top with its almost daring V neckline made her feel sexy.

‘Your husband will be delighted in the new you,’ gushed the assistant.

My husband.

In that moment, all the euphoria drained out of her. She’d have to take all this home and explain why she’d spent so much money on an outfit for a single occasion.

‘If you’d like me to,’ the assistant was saying, ‘I have a hairdresser friend who might be able to fit you in. You know, to complete the makeover.’

Jane looked into the mirror again and instead of seeing herself as she really was, she could imagine what she’d look like with a new hairstyle, walking into the opening of the salon an equal to everyone else there.

With a newfound confidence, she decided she didn’t care what Philip thought. She was going to make the most of her opportunity to get out of the house and do something exciting.

Of course, there was no hiding the new hairstyle from Philip. Usually, he was engrossed in his own interests – golf and gardening mostly – and ignored her. They didn’t do much together. Even when Jane spent two days a week babysitting the grandchildren, he wasn’t inclined to help. Too much noise, too much mess. He couldn’t stand it.

But when she returned from the hairdresser with a new short gamine look, her usual mousey blonde replaced by silver, he couldn’t help but notice.

‘What the hell have you done to yourself?’ he asked, eyebrows raised.

As always, faced by her husband’s disapproval, Jane was defensive.

‘I wanted a different style, that’s all. Don’t you like it?’

He glared. ‘You’re a bit old to start drawing attention to yourself like that. You’re not twenty-five. Let’s face it, you’re not even fifty-five.’

‘Don’t you ever say anything nice?’ she blurted out, near to tears. Before it became a full-blown row, she escaped upstairs.

That evening it was the silent treatment. She served his dinner, he ate it. She washed up; he watched some lengthy TV programme he knew she wasn’t interested in. When he came up to bed, she pretended to be asleep.

On the day of the opening, she was banking on him going to golf as usual, but his partner cried off at the last minute. So, there he was, stomping around the kitchen, bad-tempered, complaining. How was she going to get past him in her new outfit?

She yelled downstairs. ‘Philip, there’s some pigeons helping themselves to your seedlings!’

A minute later she could see him storming down towards the veg patch and she ran down to the front door, if you could call teetering on those brand-new heels running.

She was on her way!

Jane parked her car as close to the new salon as possible. Thank goodness she had defied Philip’s suggestion to ‘downsize’ to the one vehicle. A little domestic rebellion that had paid off; imagine catching a bus in this outfit? The car wasn’t new but at least it was hers.

The coloured balloons and the blaring music, both revealed her destination. With her invite clutched in her hand she took a deep breath and walked confidently into the shop. A glass of something bubbly was supplied and, at the same time, her invitation was discreetly checked.

Taking a sip of her drink, after all, she was driving, Jane looked around the room. It was a riot of white, gold and turquoise; expensive lotions in classy bottles lined the walls and were reflected in full length mirrors. There must have been twenty or thirty guests crowded into the space; mostly young women looking as if they had just left their yachts on the river Trent. Tight, white trousers and colourful tops complemented their tanned skin and bronzed features. Joan felt suddenly old and far too over-dressed. What had she been thinking buying a ‘mother-of-the-bride ‘outfit?

She turned to flee Andrea’s salon without even seeing her host but as she neared the door, she was too upset to hear a voice crying above the music, ‘Mrs. Jones, don’t go! There’s someone I want you to meet.’  So, she was unprepared when a hand stopped her from exiting the salon.

‘Mrs. Jones, it’s me, Andrea. I’m so delighted you’ve come. Retirement must suit you as you look wonderful!’

Jane smiled at her former pupil, ‘You have done really well for yourself, Andrea. Congratulations.’

‘Look, I want you to meet someone very special to me, my dad. If you were wondering, he’s the ‘di Laslo’ in my name.’

‘Surely you weren’t called that at school. Andrews, wasn’t it?’

‘They were divorced, and I lived with my mother; that was her name. Anyway, do come and meet him as I’ve told him so much about how you stuck up for me when I went through my rebellious stage!’

Jane followed Andrea to the back of the salon, where Mr di Laslo was sitting on an antique sofa talking to a stunningly beautiful woman.  Andrea explained that the woman was her mother, Maria, and that her parents had stayed friends after their divorce, and both had been very supportive throughout her life.

Excuse me father, excuse me mother,’ said Andrea, ‘may I introduce my old school teacher Jane, whom I’ve told you so much about?’

Then Andrea blushed and looked embarrassed.

I’m sorry Mrs Jones.’ she said, ‘I didn’t mean to be rude.  I should have introduced you as my ‘former school teacher, not my old one!’

Jane laughed politely and said, ‘Well at least I wasn’t your English teacher!’

Everybody looked at each other, then simultaneously burst out laughing, and the ice was broken, and any awkwardness dissipated.

Mr di Laslo rose from the sofa, took Jane’s hand and kissed it.

            ‘What a pleasure and an honour it is to meet you at last Mrs Jones.’  he said, ‘Andrea and has told me so much about you, and how you were so inspirational to her just  at the time when she needed someone, besides her parents, to believe in her.   She has often told me that the help and advice that you gave her, have stayed with her all of her life, and have helped and motivated her on many occasions, particularly when life became challenging.  I guess there must be many examples of teachers doing something similar, but you are the teacher that helped my daughter and therefore you are special, not only to her, but to me and Maria too.  We thank you most sincerely from the bottom of our hearts.’

Jane was moved by Mr di Laslo’s words.

‘Come,’ said Mr di Laslo, ‘allow me to introduce you to some of our friends.

Thank you, Mr di Laslo.’ said Jane.

‘Call me Fabio. Please!’ he replied.

Andrea’s father was very good looking, the archetypical tall, slim Italian, with swarthy skin and jet-black hair.  His teeth were brilliant white, and his smile was warm and tender, and he was certainly considered as first-class eye candy by many in the room.  Jane felt rather special when he offered his arm, which she took, before they started mingling with the other guests, and there were a few surprises waiting for her as they sallied forth. 

After some polite chat with some dignitaries and local business people, she came across two more of her former pupils.  The first was ‘Jack the lad Roper’, who winked at her just as he had always done at school – Jane could never stop him no matter how heavily she chastised him – and they had a lovely long chat.  He had become a record producer and had produced some big hits, and Jane was almost tempted to ask for his autograph, but she desisted.

As she moved away from Jack she was approached by a gorgeous young girl, whom she did not recognise.

Hullo Mrs Jones!  Lovely to see you again after all these years.  How are you?’ said the young lady.

Jane politely acknowledged the greeting, whilst trying to figure out who this young lady might be.  She looked rather familiar, but Jane couldn’t quite place her, so she said,

‘I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t quite remember your name.

The young lady blushed and smiled and said. ‘Of course, Mrs Jones!  I understand.  I’m Sandy Evans.  I’ve matured a bit since you last saw me, and I’ve had a few bits and bobs altered here and there to help with my modelling career.’

The word ‘modelling’ immediately triggered a memory in Jane’s mind.  She suddenly recognised this woman, but not as a former pupil. 

‘Aren’t you Sandy George, the famous model?’ Jane asked.

Sandy blushed again and confirmed that she was, and then went on to tell Jane just how she had got into modelling with ‘Pretty Polly Hosiery’ and how her career blossomed into what it was today.

At this point Fabio excused himself and went over to talk to his daughter and his wife.  They chatted for a moment and then Fabio tinkled a spoon against a champagne glass until the room became silent.

Fabio spoke.  He thanked all the guests for coming, and for their friendships and support over the years.  He mentioned a few special friends and acquaintances, and toasted Andrea’s success and wished her well with the new super-sized hairdressing and beauty salon she was about to open.

Then he paused.

‘I have one more honour to perform tonight.’ he announced.  ‘We have, in our presence, a most wonderful person.  This person has played a silent, but critical, role in the success of my daughter.  When Andrea was going through a very difficult time in her young life, this person listened, empathised, advised, cajoled and supported her, and gave her all the confidence in herself that she would ever need.  Andrea, her mother, and I would like to express our gratitude to this person, by offering her free beauty and hair treatments for the rest of her life.  Please come forward, former school teacher ‘Mrs Jane Jones!”

Everyone applauded, and Jack wolf whistled!

Jane was astonished and a little mortified, but delighted too, and went up to join Fabio, Andrea, and her mother, to accept their offer and say a few words of thanks.

As soon as she had finished Fabio announced that a light pasta meal would be served at the long table set up at the side of the salon, and Jane was ushered to a seat next to Fabio, and Maria and Andrea joined them. 

The evening got better and better.  There was good conversation, laughter, reminiscences, and growing friendships, and the combined with excellent food, and a small glass of delicious wine, the whole evening helped to make Jane feel like a valued human being once more.

The evening passed quickly and the time to leave came too soon for Jane.  She said her goodbyes to her newfound friends and thanked them for a most enjoyable evening.  Then she drove home. 

When she arrived Philip was soundly asleep, so she quickly and quietly took off her ‘special’ gown and put it away before he could see it and start an argument.

The next morning Jane got up a little later than usual, and after a restorative shower, she went down to the kitchen for her breakfast.  Philip was already sat at the kitchen table reading his newspaper.

He glanced up at Jane.  ‘You look tired,’ he said, then after a longer second look, he added, ‘and you look different too.  What is it? What’s different about you?’  he paused and studied her for another moment.  ‘Ah yes, I’ve got it! ‘, he continued, ‘You look tired, but you also look… happy?  Just what did you get up to last night at the opening of Nottingham’s grand new salon?’ he said in a rather disparaging tone.

Before Jane could answer the doorbell rang.

‘I’ll go.’ said Jane and got up and went to the front door.

A few moments later she came back into the kitchen carrying a magnificent bouquet of flowers, which was so large it hid her from view.

‘Who are they from?’ said Philip.

‘I don’t know!’ said Jane, ‘Is there a card on your side?’

‘Ah, yes there is! I see it!’ said Philip.

‘Then read it!’  said Jane angrily, ‘before I drop these flowers!’

He took the little envelope from the bouquet and pulled out the card.

‘Well, what does it say?’ demanded Jane impatiently.

Philip hesitated, then said, ‘Please accept these flowers from a grumpy old husband who still loves you very much.  Philip.’

There was a pause.

Jane looked at him with tears in her eyes.

When you left for the salon opening last night I caught a glimpse of you out of the front window as you got into your car.  You looked so beautiful in your new dress and with your new hairstyle, and I was reminded that I am a very lucky man.  So I immediately ordered these flowers!  Now put them down and come and give me a hug!’

Sarah, Mars, Frances, Helen, Bob.

Blackmail

Monday morning’s post was usually a mixture of holiday brochures, flyers advertising garden services and brown envelopes addressed to ‘The Homeowner’.  Today, though, it was different for amongst the recyclable material was one long, cream envelope. The paper was thickly expensive and the address immaculately and correctly typed.

Stella was in a rush. She had just grabbed the mail from the postman on her way out to an important meeting. Quickly glancing at the envelope, she stuffed the mail into her Mulberry tote and dived into her BMW.

Traffic was bad again on the motorway. Stella knew she should leave home earlier but those extra minutes in the shower and the buzz of that first coffee gave her the impetus to face the day.

On arrival at the office Stella made straight for the ladies’ room to check her appearance before entering the meeting. Rummaging in her bag for a hairbrush she spotted the letter. No time for that now, she thought. Must get on.

By 11-30 all was done and dusted, and Stella breathed a sigh of relief. Another contract won!  Rob, one of her colleagues suggested a celebratory drink over lunch at the local bistro.

Feeling replete and rather pleased with herself Stella sipped her wine. Rob had gone to chat with a friend who was sitting at a table on the other side of the room. The envelope, she thought, now I have time to open it. Carefully she pulled out the contents. A gilt-edged invitation.

When Rob reappeared Stella seemed to be in a trance. She had lost the colour from her cheeks and was holding what appeared to be some sort of card in her hand.

‘Everything ok love?’

‘What? Oh, er yes, yes of course. We should make a move.’

The card was hastily replaced in its envelope and returned to Stella’s bag. Whatever was in it, thought Rob, had certainly rattled the unflappable Stella.

Stella had seen the way Rob had been looking at her.  He never misses anything, she thought despite his having down the best part of a bottle of a Dom Perignon 2010.   She’d have to be a bit more careful around that young man. ‘Never show a weakness’ – the mantra had served her well and help bring her the wealth and position she now enjoyed.

It would also provide the enthusiasm of a younger man in bed tonight if she so wished. Rob was lining himself up as the current likely candidate, but in the circumstances, she would decline and honestly, she considered Rob needed to be put in his place.

‘Everything OK, love’, indeed!  And had he been laughing at her? That was the convincer. She made the decision. Rob had outlived his usefulness. In the morning she’d have him moved to running the mail room. A boss’s daughter can do that.

As she slipped into the rear seat of the black Mercedes, sent to collect her, Stella thought about the invitation.  She smiled grimly to herself, annoyed at her own initial reaction to it. She could not and would not allow the mask to slip tonight.  

Of course, invitation in this context was a misnomer. There was no question of her declining this invite.  Everything has a price. Her debt was now due. This time, however, she was prepared. She could put an end to it.

By 7.00 that night, Stella was stone-cold sober. She looked at herself in the full-sized mirror. Her outfit was stunning without being sexy; just the look she required. Her hand shook as she withdrew the invite from her evening bag for one last glimpse as if the words were not seared on her mind already.

Tonight, 8.00. For an evening’s entertainment. Flat 5, Buckingham Square. Damien.

‘Damien’ – a person she would not and could not forget. It had all happened last summer whilst she was spending a few days in Nice having been to the South of France on business for the company. Stella had treated herself to a stay at the Negresco Hotel and on the first morning, descending in the lift, she had been alone apart from an attractive male in his mid-forties. At the reception level he had stood back for her and with an ‘After you,’ she had realised he was English.

‘Are you on holiday or is it business?’’ she said smilingly.

‘It’s always business for me.  Occasionally I mix the two and I grab any opportunity I can to do so.’

‘And today?’

‘Today I’ve met an extremely charming and attractive young woman and I’m going to ask her to dine with me this evening.’

That was how they had met. On reflection, Stella knew it was a pick-up but spending an evening with such a dish of a man was far preferrable than being on her own.

The evening had been a tremendous success. He was cultured and witty and Stella had no fear of inviting him to her room for a final drink. It did not take long before both sets of clothes were on the floor and they were exploring each other’s bodies. In between consuming copious amounts of champagne and snorting coke Stella was not aware that an extra person had entered the room. Suddenly, the sex was more exciting and erotic, and she abandoned herself to its sensual pleasures.

When Stella finally woke up the next morning the curtains were still drawn, and she was lying naked on top of the bed. Her whole body ached, and her head throbbed. There was no sign of Damien but propped up next to the light on the bed-side table was an old-fashioned Polaroid photograph. Picking it up she could make out that it showed her naked with a stranger indulging in pornographic sexual positions. There was no doubting that the face, contorted in erotic pleasure, was hers. As she went to shred the photo into pieces her mobile phone pinged. A text message read, ‘Plenty more where that came from. I’m sure Daddy wouldn’t be pleased. I’ll contact you later and we’ll sort something out. Great evening but everything has its price. Damien X’

Now she was summoned to meet up with her blackmailer.

Buckingham Square was not what she’d expected. The tall narrow houses were mostly divided into flats and had an unloved look. Rows of bins stood by the front doors and bicycles were chained to the railings of basement areas. At the centre of the square was a patch of neglected, litter-strewn ground which had once been a garden. She found number five and scanned the names below the doorbells. The lowest one read ‘Damien Clarke, Garden Flat.’ Stella knew what that denoted.

She rang the bell and soon the door opened. ‘Welcome,’ said Damien. ‘So pleased you could come.’ Stella wondered how she could ever have been attracted to this slimy character, but of course, alcohol and exotic surroundings can affect anyone’s judgement, and he had been in a crisp white shirt and smart business suit, very different to the scruffy tee-shirt and ripped jeans he was wearing now.

She followed him down a flight of narrow stairs to the basement. At the door of his flat, he did not bother to stand aside and let her enter first, as he would have done on their first meeting, but marched straight in, sat down, and nodded towards a grubby armchair.

‘Let’s start with a drink,’ he said, picking up a bottle of whisky.

‘No thank you,’ Stella replied. ‘And why are there three glasses on the coffee table?’

“Oh, I’m expecting one more guest. A photographer friend who’ll be here any moment. He’ll provide the entertainment I mentioned. He has a fascinating video to show you.’

‘I don’t want to see it! Just tell me what you’re after and let’s get this done with.’

‘My friend will be very disappointed if you don’t watch it’’ said Damien, filling his glass. ‘He values it highly. At a quarter of a million pounds, in fact.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous! I’m not paying that!’

‘Well, if you won’t, perhaps Daddy will.’

‘You wouldn’t dare!’ said Stella. But she knew he would.

At that moment, the doorbell rang.

‘Ah, that will be my friend,’ said Damien, rising. He left the room and Stella heard his footsteps ascending the stairs. Then angry voices reached her from the front door. Shouting, scuffling, followed by a man’s footsteps hurrying down the stairs. But the figure who appeared in the doorway was not Damien. It was a man in a suit, who flashed a police badge at her.

‘Detective-sergeant Baker, CID. Are you Stella Harman?’ he said. ‘Damien Clarke is on his way to the police station, under arrest. I’d like you to tell me what you know about him if you will.’

When Stella woke next morning, she turned to the sleeping figure beside her and kissed his cheek.

‘I can’t thank you enough,’ Rob she said. ‘If you hadn’t seen how upset I was and persuaded me to show you that card, no-one would have known I was there.’

‘That man was dangerous. I hate to think what might have happened to you,’ said Rob. ‘He’s well-known to the police. As soon as I mentioned his name and address, their ears pricked up.’

Stella put her arms round him and pulled him close to her.

‘You deserve a reward,’ she said.

‘You gave me my reward last night, Stella.’

“Well today, you’re getting another one. I’ve decided to make you my Practice Manager.

Julia, John, Helen, Peter H.

The Letter.

The envelope stood in the centre of the kitchen table. Ann had seen it as soon as she came downstairs. It had dropped through the letterbox and sat on the mat, creamy white and legal looking, among the usual leaflets. Her heart had started beating fast then, not from excitement but fear of what it might contain. Not daring to open it, she skirted around the table where she had placed it, looking, trying to convince herself that it wasn’t the letter she had been dreading. Memories of the life she had spent with her husband, Robert, flooded into her head. They were only young when they married having met at the local Grammar school. Bob, as she soon called him had come with his mum, dad and sister to live next door to Anne’s family. It wasn’t long before they all became friends. Soon they were spending time at the tennis club and going to the leisure centre together. Later, after finishing College, Bob and Ann’s friendship blossomed and they became close. It didn’t take long for them to realize they were in love and soon they married. Ann felt her eyes prickling with tears as she recalled those days. They had been so happy then. It was when babies didn’t come along that things began to change. Nevertheless, they lived in hope.

She walked to the garden wiping away her tears, fondly looking at the few rose bushes, they had once planted together. After three failed IVF treatments, they had tried counselling to no avail. Eventually they came to the conclusion, they had reached the end of the road, and the debt was building. She shuddered thinking about it all, she felt lonely and the whole house was quiet. Friends still phoned, however she felt they weren’t really interested in listening to her story, so she began to keep her feelings locked inside herself. After an hour of thinking, and not actually achieving anything, Ann once more sat at the table staring at the letter. How she wished it hadn’t dropped onto the hall mat earlier. She knew she needed a solicitor to help her unravel and deal with Bob’s unreasonable behaviour. Her fingers fumbled with the envelope, then she began to read the letter. Overwhelmed, she began to cry.

It was just as she had feared- a Solicitor’s letter dated January 2022 informing her that her husband was asking for a ‘no fault divorce’ as they had been separated for over two years. This was a fairly newly accepted ‘cause’ for divorce that had been implemented in the autumn of 2021. It allowed people to end a marriage without having to blame each other for the breakdown of their relationship. An application could be made jointly or by a sole applicant. The option of contesting the divorce would be removed.

Tears were streaming down Ann’s face as she read and re-read the details. She was full of remorse and she blamed herself. She remembered how she had persuaded a reluctant Bob that a third attempt at IVF treatment might work even though they could ill afford it and he was totally against it. How could she really have wanted a baby so badly hoping that it would bring them back closer to one another for they had seemed to be constantly bickering with each other?

She glanced at the letter again and re-read the words….’There would be a period of reflection for twenty weeks from the application being made to when a conditional order can be made. This provides a period of reflection for the parties to consider the decision and resolve financial matters.’

They were very occasionally in contact with one another by phone or text, usually regarding household matters. Could she possibly persuade him that she still loved him and desperately wanted the marriage to continue, irrespective of not having any children?

Meanwhile Bob, in his cosy flat the other side of town thought briefly about Ann and her probable reaction to the solicitor’s letter. She shouldn’t be too surprised, he thought. Any feelings of guilt and compassion dwindled as he remembered his years of misery with Ann, her obsession to get pregnant, those expensive IVF treatments. If she could only have got out a bit more, find a job, smarten herself up a bit. When we first got married, he thought, we had a lot of fun, but she had changed so soon.

He stroked his girlfriend’s hair as they talked about their baby and all their plans.

Meanwhile Ann in her empty house re read the letter. She thought, We had a lot of fun when we first got married. We can try again. and she started making plans.

Sylvia,Erica,Margaret,Jenny

“The Post”

Monday morning’s post was usually a mixture of holiday brochures, flyers advertising garden services and brown envelopes addressed to ‘The Homeowner’.  Today though, it was different, for amongst the recyclable material was one long, cream envelope. The paper was thickly expensive and the address immaculately and correctly typed.

Joseph took a second, furtive look over his shoulder before picking up the letter. He turned it over, all the time feeling its bulk before, finally, running his fingers over the embossed logo of Nightingale and Jones. Google had confirmed who they were two years previously. Solicitors, with offices in London, New York, and a host of other capitals. No doubt about it, this letter just like the others, was correctly addressed but who the heck was Phillipa Jenkins?

The noise of dishes being set on the table and microwaving pinging stopped, and Joseph turned towards the silence. Not good. He dropped the letter and used his foot to push it under today’s junk mail. He closed the porch door quietly and quickly retraced his steps to the foot of the stairs. His mother stepped into the hall pulling on that mac of hers which had seen better days.

“It’s on the table for you. I’m out this morning doing Mrs. Edward’s, so I won’t be back ‘til early afternoon.” She stretched up to give him a kiss on the cheek.

“None of that when we’re out, mum” After all, he was going to be eighteen in three days.

His mother smiled,” Seeing as it’s your holidays, it would be nice if you could do a few things ‘round the house… tidy your room, for a start …. In between all that revision, of course!”

She was already in the porch; her back was towards him as she bent over. He tried to peer round her body and see what she did, with no luck whatsoever.

“Anything in the post today, mum?”  Joseph had been practising saying that for the last five days, not knowing exactly when the letter would arrive. Today it sounded less casual than he had intended.

The rustling of paper stopped. His mother stood and looked at him. “No,” shaking her head,” just the usual rubbish. Your first job, bin this lot, would you? Bye love.”

Then, the outer door was closed, and his mother was gone. Joseph’s cue to return to the pile of papers on the floor. Unsurprisingly, the letter from Nightingale and Jones was no longer there.

With the remaining papers in his hand, Joseph made his way to the kitchen and took his breakfast from the microwave. He sat staring at his plate, with two mysteries preying on his mind. Who was Phillipa Jenkins, and why was his mother keeping a secret from him? These letters were clearly important, so she would not have destroyed the earlier ones. They must be somewhere in the house, so perhaps he should search for them while she was out.

No! he told himself firmly. Search through my mother’s private things? That wouldn’t be right. He looked through the door into the living room and saw, on the opposite wall, the old-fashioned writing bureau, where she kept treasured possessions. Would she have hidden them in there? He rose and picked up the morning’s junk mail, intending to take it to the recycling bin, but his legs took him in a different direction, and instead, he found himself in front of the bureau.

The writing flap creaked, as it dropped open and the pigeon-holes inside were packed with papers. Joseph pulled up a chair and sat down. After going through numerous faded postcards, letters from long-forgotten friends, and ancient receipts, he was about to give up, when something stopped him in his tracks. Inside an envelope with a hand-written address and a foreign stamp, was a collection of photographs. He tipped them out and began to examine them.

Joseph had felt guilty sorting through his Mum’s papers; however he couldn’t stop thinking about the letters from Nightingale and Jones, that regularly dropped through their letterbox. He first discovered a letter from the firm two years ago, and ever since then one dropped on their doormat every three months, but not always on the same date.

As he now glanced through the old photographs, he suddenly realised he was the baby staring up at him. Why would his Mum hide these photographs? Who is the young woman holding him tenderly in her arms? It certainly wasn’t Mum. He stared at the woman in the photograph, he didn’t know her, but somehow she looked familiar. They both had the same fair hair and big hazel-coloured eyes.

He closed his eyes to try and think, his thoughts were becoming muddled. He felt out of his depth, every minute things were becoming more complicated. He had so many unanswered questions.  He decided to make himself a cup of tea, the cup shook in his hands. After sitting quietly for almost an hour Joseph decided to keep one of the photographs and pushed it into his pocket. He had a strange feeling that the mysterious young woman was his real Mother, and he didn’t know what to do.

Mrs. Edwards eyed her cleaning lady as she polished the silverware with more than the usual amount of gusto.

‘Everything alright dear?’

Alice paused and stared into space.

‘Yes, just a few things I need to remember to sort out when I get home. Thanks for asking.’

Mrs. Edwards was not fooled. She knew something was troubling Alice, but she could see there was no point in interrogating her.

‘Cup of coffee, dear?’

‘Lovely Mrs. Edwards. Then I’ll get on and do the lounge.’

Joseph had been half-heartedly tidying his room. He had made himself beans on toast at lunchtime and then did a bit of revision, but nothing stuck in his mind. He couldn’t stop thinking about the photo in his pocket and those letters. He needed to get to the bottom of this and the sooner the better.

As the day wore on Alice tried to take her mind off the contents of the letter. She knew it was time to act but how should she go about it without upsetting the whole apple cart?

Still preoccupied as she made her way to the bus stop Alice failed to see the oncoming car as she crossed the road. Everything suddenly went black.

Joseph heard the doorbell and immediately thought it was his mum because she must have left her key at home. However, when he opened the door, it wasn’t his mum but a policewoman.

She informed Joseph that his mother had been involved in a car accident and was likely to be in hospital for several days with a badly broken leg. Once Alice was back home Joseph felt obliged to help his mother out much more than usual and Alice now had plenty of time to think about those solicitor’s letters which had been arriving at regular intervals for about two years.

This latest letter notified her that once Joseph reached eighteen, Phillipa Jenkins intended contacting Joseph through an officially approved intermediary, as recommended by their company, to say that if he wished, he could now legally contact his birth mother. In all of his eighteen years Alice had never told her son that he was adopted although she had thought about doing so many times in the past. However, this most recent letter from Nightingale and Jones enclosed a copy of a letter that Phillipa Jenkins had sent to the solicitors. In it she had explained that Joseph was born when she and her boyfriend were at university, aged only eighteen and twenty and both sets of their parents had encouraged them to have the baby adopted, which they reluctantly did. The young couple were very much in love with one another and in fact some years later married and went on to have two daughters.  The letter explained that Phillipa’s husband died three years ago aged only thirty-eight as he had suffered from Huntingdon’s disease.  As Mrs. Jenkins knew that there was a one in two chance of Joseph also succumbing to this inherited genetic condition, although it doesn’t usually show itself until people are over the age of thirty, she had felt that she must trace Alice to inform her of what Jacob’s birth father had suffered from and of the possible risk for Joseph.  Phillipa Jenkins had involved this firm of solicitors as they had dealt so sympathetically with all of her affairs after her husband’s death.

Alice read this last letter from the solicitors with horror.  Poor Joseph, not only had she not told him he was adopted but now he will have to learn that his father has died very young and worse still, of a disease which Joseph had a 50-50 chance of inheriting.

The doorbell rang.  Alice staggered to the door on her crutches.  “Oh poor Alice,” said Mrs. Edwards holding a large and beautiful bouquet.  “How are you?”   Noticing Alice’s wan expression, she asked if she could put the flowers in water for her.  

Over a cup of tea made by the kind and efficient Mrs. Edwards who couldn’t ignore Alice’s agonised expression, “Is anything wrong?” she asked kindly.  

Alice’s chin wobbled and to her horror she wasn’t able to stop her tears.  Between the sobs she told Mrs. Edwards everything.  “I wish that I had told Joseph that I had adopted him”.

“So do I” thought Mrs. Edwards.

Mrs. Edwards discussed the situation with the distraught Alice, and they formulated a plan.  When Joseph came home from school his mum said they needed to have a chat after tea.  

“She’s going to tell me I’m adopted” thought Joseph.  “I’ll have to act surprised/shocked/grateful”.  He decided on ‘surprised’ and ‘contented’.  

All went well.  Mum was relieved that Joseph was so accepting.  “We’ll have a little party for your birthday,” she said and she thought she’d give him the envelopes which had been arriving for the last two years.  “That’ll please him,” she smiled.

A couple of weeks later, Joseph and his mum went to see the solicitor at Nightingale and Jones.  Afterwards at home, Joseph’s mind spun, there was so much to take in.  Who to talk to?  

There was another way, a way that had worked for him for years.  He opened his Chemistry book and started writing notes.  On his phone his Spotify playlist ran through his favourite well-worn tracks.  His room became familiar again and his mind refocused on the things in his life he could control, his exams and his next chapter.

Group story John Peter H Erica Julia Margaret Jenny

A TASK BASED ON APRIL BUT COMPLETED FOR MAY!

Here is the picture for the month of April:

  1. Your story must include this setting at some point.
  2. Because it is April, your story must include the following ‘APR’ words.

APRICOT, APRAXIA, APRON, APRĒS-SKI (or plurals or variations of these words).

  • Your story must start with some dialogue.
  • Your story should be no longer than 400 words.

Good luck!

Helen

Hindsight

‘A friend of mine has offered us his private plane. What do you say?’

She laughed. It sounded ridiculously decadent, but at that moment anything seemed possible.

They’d come to Venice in early April last year, driving south from Innsbruck to Italy over Alpine roads fringed with pines, gradually leaving winter far behind. By the time they reached Verona the blossom trees were flowering in hues from pure white to apricot and cherry pink.

She’d met Hugo in London on New Year’s Eve.

In a taxi!

Yes, she knew it was stupid, but it was three o’clock in the morning, taxis were few and far between, and sharing seemed the only way to get home. She’d had too much Prosecco and felt a bit sick. In the event, Hugo had been a perfect gentleman, escorting her safely to her flat. Next day he was standing on her doorstep again with a bunch of roses.

Being made redundant from a top Swiss bank (over the hill at 40!) had knocked her self-esteem, so when Hugo suggested a trip to the ski-slopes she had been free and in the mood for adventure. It was only when they arrived at his luxury apartment that she realised how wealthy he seemed to be. Ski or après-ski, money seemed no object. They’d enjoyed February in Val d’Isère, going on to the Austrian slopes in March.

His wife had died, he told her. He had a disabled son who was in residential care. Some sort of apraxia – she didn’t understand the details. She felt profoundly sorry for him, as well as a ripening love.

Venice had been wonderful – the sun, the opera, the food and wine, the galleries. Then home by private jet, just as he’d promised.

Except they didn’t quite make it. As they were about to board, the Italian police met them on the apron and Hugo was arrested. Wanted in several countries, the officer explained in his broken English. Hugo wasn’t even his real name.

So here she was back in Venice, a witness at his fraud trial. Not the romantic, blue-sky, carefree Venice of last spring, but a modern, down-to-earth city, with snow on the ground and an icy wind off the Adriatic. 

She put her head in her hands and began to sob.

Frances

Venetian Snow

‘I don’t believe it,’ exclaimed Drew as he stood at the Venetian hotel bedroom window, hand on hips.

‘You sound like Victor Meldrew,’ said Lara who was still half-asleep.

‘It’s snowing!’

‘What!’

She threw off the bedcovers and they both stared down at the canal that last night had looked so normal but today was a dark, gloomy green. Snow-covered boats bobbed on its ruffled surface and the pavements were covered in white stuff. A few people were walking about, huddled into thick winter jackets.

‘Oh, no,’ wailed Lara. ‘We were supposed to have a gondola ride today.’

‘Maybe we can still go.’

‘No thanks, I’ll freeze. I didn’t bring enough warm clothes with me.’

‘Don’t worry. We find something else to do.’

‘Like what? Everything we wanted to see is outside. The Grand Canal, Bridge of Sighs, St Mark’s Square.’

‘How about a museum?’

‘They’re all booked. I tried online.’

Drew rifled through the leaflets on the table.

‘How about a cookery course? At least that’ll be in the warm.’

Which is how they came to be standing in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant with six other tourists, wearing aprons and studious expressions as the chef demonstrated how to prepare fish stuffed with apricots.

The second course – lemon gelato – was already made and whirring in the ice cream machine, the low hum a background sound as they cooked the main course.

Lara raised her eyebrows as Drew expertly tossed salad leaves in the dressing.

‘You’ve always told me you can’t cook.’

‘I know.’

‘You said it was because of your apraxia, that you couldn’t follow even the simplest of written instructions.’

‘I know,’ he repeated. ‘But you’re such a fabulous cook, I didn’t want to show myself up.  I always wash up and clean the kitchen.’

‘When we get home, things will change.’

The meal was superb. They sat round the big wooden table enjoying the food and wine, and applauded when the big bowl of gelato was put in the middle.

‘Always remember,’ the chef smiled. ‘Best Sicilian lemons make best gelato. Enjoy.’

Eventually they had to go back out in the cold. The snow was still falling and they had to hang on to each other to avoid slipping over.

‘What shall we do now?’ said Drew.

‘Go shopping. I need something to wear for the après ski.’

‘We haven’t been skiing.’

‘Yet.’