I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Oughties. Worth a damn? No. 2

Education, Education, Etc - Ex-PM

Shortish short story (1037 words)

Yesterday’s used towels lay neglected and Christine fed several loads into the washer. In between she polished mirrors and swept the salon floor. For intellectual comfort she dwelt on Planck’s Constant, notably the factor, ten to the power of minus 34. “Truly small,” her physics teacher had said. Not forgetting the Berlin plaque:  In diese Hause lehrte Max Planck, der Entdecker des Elementaren Wirkungquantums, h, von 1889 – 1928.

“Eh there, Deafie. You working here or not?”

“Sorry, Jody.”

“A latte for Mrs Thwaites. Get me an expresso.”

Could used coffee grounds cause allergies? Having spotted Christine’s timid approach to the Gaggia Jody had condemned her to work the machine. Steam now shrieked through the tubes.

With the floor hair-free Christine’s broom was temporarily retired, leaving her unemployed but not at rest. She stood three-quarters-rear, a metre away from the customers. “No leaning against the walls,” Jody had said. “That’s for sluts.”

Mrs Thwaites and a second customer, an hour behind, were both being permed. Jody overlapped them, switching from one to the other. When frail Miss Elsworth called in for a set (“A funeral. I hate to be a fuss.”) Jody had only attached half the curlers to Mrs Thwaites’ head.

“A shampoo for Miss Elsworth,” Jody said sharply

A trusting face, old beyond telling, looked up at Christine from the wash basin. White hair set brilliantly against black porcelain. “You’re new here aren’t you dearie? It’s a good salon.”

“I’m learning a lot,” said Christine.

THAT EVENING Mrs Bowland’s uncertain hands received the library book from Christine. “Rose Tremain. I loved The Colour. You were lucky picking this off the shelves.”

Christine slumped on the couch beside the button-controlled chair that supported her mother. “Lucky be blowed. I put in a card.”

“I never used cards. Thrill of the chase, I suppose. No fun for you.” Mrs Bowland indicated the pan. “I managed the potatoes. Took time but they’re properly peeled.”

“Could we eat a little later? I need a zizz. Last night I nodded off over the computer. Mind you it was statistical thermodynamics.”

“I’m not really hungry these days.”

THE SALON’S two dustbins were kept in a yard at the rear. It being Monday Christine had taken them out to the pavement, then retrieved them. Now they needed to be cleaned. “Filthy as a nigger’s bottom,” said Jody. “Use the hose.” A pizza segment had to be scraped off with folded cardboard.

The pizza smell stayed with Christine and her sandwiches remained untouched. Lacking customers at lunch-break they stood at the picture window and watched events. A mother and child emerged from Bevin Close in the council estate opposite and crossed to the salon. Jody sniffed. “A Childcare case, I bet you.” The boy’s curls clung dankly and Christine was graciously allowed the cutting. The mother asked if Christine did adults. Jody sniffed again.

We’re called beauticians, Christine reflected

IT WAS dark as she opened the lounge door and Mrs Bowland’s face, lit only by a streetlamp, appeared translucent. “Dear ma. Are you all right?”

“No better, no worse. Comforted this afternoon by Ms Tremain. How about you? I find it hard to imagine…”

“The two-week course did the job. I can handle the work and I’ll get better. No problem fitting in you and OU physics. But the salon’s depressing. Perhaps because I’m a snob. “

“Christine, my dear…”

TUESDAY, a day they both later remembered. He came in telling his mobile: “I’m getting it cut now.” Then switched to Christine, Jody and Mrs Jobard being henna-ed. “Who can do me? Quickly. TV cameras waiting.”

Jody said, “You’re drunk.”

“Freely admitted. A larger tip?”

“We’re busy.”

He glanced around. “I see one customer and two friseuses.”

“Chrissie’s not fully qualified.”

“But you wouldn’t butcher me, would you, Chrissie?”

Jody shrugged.

Sitting at Christine’s chair, he asked, “Are we going to chat?”

She could smell the drink. Posh drink. “I’m told I’ve got no small talk.”

He liked that. “Big talk then.”

“How big?” Comb forward, comb back, trap the fringe, listen as scissor blades crunched through hair. Already a routine, amazing really.

 “Who do you read?”

“Van Vliet, Hoffentlich, Bergarian, le Couille.”

“Did you think you’d mystify me, a drunk? Fact is I'm a media man and, as a tribe, we know a little about a lot. Bergarian's the new man on the quantum block?”

She nodded.

“So why’re you here snipping?  Not at uni?”

She explained her mother, living at home, the economics of the Open University.

Afterwards, he bent short-sightedly towards the mirror. “You didn’t butcher me. Why work here for peanuts? Set up on your own. Beat the uni debt problem.”

At the till Jody quoted fifteen pounds, five more than usual for men. He gave her thirty and left. Mrs Jobard had gone too. Just the two of them. Jody said, “Take these notes and bugger off. For good” Christine stared hard at Jody.

Walking away Christine reconstructed what she’d stared at. A blonde bob, multi-striped. Subtly varying. Expert colours that would never enhance the sharp-nosed malnourished face they surrounded. Ironic, really. She stopped, turned back.

Jody sat in a customer seat looking into space. Christine held out the notes: “I want to work here. I’ll beg if necessary.”

Jody smiled unpleasantly. “So I can make your life a misery?”

“It needn’t be like that.”

“What then?”

“We’d make money. You know we would.”

“Then you’d be off.”

Christine flapped the notes. “After three years. By then you’d have a place in the city. Assistants.”

“Dream on.”

“You’re good. And I learn quickly.”

Silence for one minute, two.

Jody said, “Keep the cash. Call in tomorrow. See if I’ve changed my mind.”

“Jody, change your mind now.”

“What are you up to?”

“You took me on; I was grateful. Take me on again.”

“I’m not sure I like you.”

“You don’t know me. You think I’m hoity-toity, I’m not. We’re much the same. You planned your future, I’m doing the same. Most just float. Not you and I.”

“I lick arses in the beauty business. You could be on telly.”

“Come on Jody. You know that’s just an accident.”

“For Christ’s sake, sit down. You must have legs of iron.”

“Just the assistant you need.”

NOTE: About 20% rewritten. Fifty-six words grudgingly added. Both necessary.


  1. I found this too disjointed with too many moves from scene to scene, and too much location interpretation needed by me even after reading twice. E.gs: Boy coming out of house, then suddenly having haircut, Christine sat on roadside bench followed by next paragraph now back in salon with no clue about time elapsed etc., the mystery guy coming in for haircut is really just a device.

    The basic idea of Christine's dilemma is strong and interesting, but the story would have been better for me if longer with more character development. It is too compressed at the moment.

  2. Sir Hugh: Finger on the button. Congratulations. It was 200 words over my nominal 1000-word target; reducing it by 15% shows. It is possible to get away without indicating elapsed time (a boring practical detail) but the "jump" needs to be well engineered and unequivocal. I'll revise and flag the fact that I have.

  3. I did like it but agree with most of Brother Hugh's points.

    Christine's physics erudition seems to me a bit overdone, as if you were wary of making her too conventionally bright - eg 'merely' an English Lit student?

    And if she suddenly becomes keen on going into the hairdressing business could it mean that deep down she's getting bored with Planck et al?

  4. Natalie: Being bored by Planck? Not her and not me. Why else would she memorise the words on the plaque at the Berlin university other than to honour one of physics greats? Sure she fell asleep doing statistical thermodynamics but that's because it's hard.

    Look I left school at 15 and am not really qualified to speak authoritatively about advanced education. Even so I've always had my doubts that anyone who reckons themselves to be half civilised needs an eng-lit degree. It never seemed to be something one studied, rather something one picked up in the course of reading books. Look at me; I write novels and sonnets, I've read Proust three times and Ulysses four times. I'm not boasting any more than I would about a stamp collection. I am also passionate (albeit a rank amateur) about physics but don't find that remarkable either - merely a lay interest in how the world works, nothing exotic.

    OK, the short story is too oblique, too abrupt, too hard to follow (and it must have been worse since you've read the improved version which attempts to set right the defects Sir Hugh pointed out). But here's what it's trying to do.

    Christine was good at physics at school and if her situation were better she'd have gone on to uni. But her mother's an invalid and needs looking after. Christine is therefore doing an Open University physics degree (ie, online, at home) and has simultaneously to find a way of making money. She's taken a quick hairdressing course and now works in Jody's salon. Jody persecutes her and Christine fears it's because Jody sees her as "superior". When Jody fires her Christine is made aware of the resemblance between her life and Jody's (struggling against bad education, bad upbringing, making her own way in life) and undergoes a Damascene moment of understanding and affection.

    That's a lot to get into a thousand words, perhaps impossible. But I liked the characters of Christine and Jody and felt I had to try. Why a thousand words? Because it's a discipline and forty-four years of journalism taught me that I write better under restricted rather than open-ended circumstances. That limitations force me to question what I'm doing. And that writing is a craft not an art (whatever that over-used word means). OK I didn't pull it off. Well there's always tomorrow.

  5. A big improvement. It's surprising how such small changes can make such a large difference.

    I liked the bit of pizza stuck to the cardboard, ugh! Also your engineering in a few words of the implied future relationship, and I would have been further gratified by some similarly sparse words to hint at the background to the guy's familiarity with academic physics.

  6. Sir Hugh: Not stuck to the cardboard, removed from the bin bottom with a piece of carboard.

    However, I'm twice pleased - by your original (factual) comment and that I've been able to make the story more readable with the addition of so few words.

    As to Mr Mystery, I added a few words to render his knowledge more plausible. My initial reaction was to make him a journalist since journalists tend to know tiny bits about a wide range of stuff. But I'm cutting down on journalistic references and the substution I've used works equall well I think.

  7. The story is not at all hard to follow and I grasped all of those points on first reading. It did seem to me that it was perhaps out of character for Christine to suddenly make that radical change, especially if she was as passionate about physics as implied, but your explanation makes sense.

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