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.
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* One exception: short stories.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Oughties. Worth a damn? 5

Love in Sheffield
Shortish short story (989 words)

OVER the hob the sleeve of his dressing gown caught the flame and the synthetic material flared. He smothered the threat with a quick dish-cloth, pleased by his calmness.

Tea mashed in the brown pot. An egg crisping round the edges, fried bread ready to be turned. Beyond the kitchen, the newspaper dropped – plok! – on the hall linoleum and he went to pick it up. To place it at the end of the table with the muesli and the peppermint tea bags. Where it would lie unviolated, ready for her to read.

Now quick-stepping heels rapped in the hall. She stopped at the kitchen door, shining with make-up, sniffing. “What’s burning?”

“Dressing gown caught the gas ring. No problem.”

Plugging in the electric kettle she said, “You should be more careful. I can’t think why you wear that shabby old thing.”

“It was a present from Ma. Aren’t mornings the right time?”

“A dressing gown. I don’t know. It seems defeatist.”

Ignoring the muesli she sipped aromatic, nearly colourless liquid from a china cup, flipping through the Mail for the columnist she approved of.

Forewarned he laid the egg on the fried bread to cut through both in one pass. Thus the yolk became a form of glue and prevented hard, friable corners from flying off, who knew where. Ma had said it was ignorant to read at table (“You wouldn’t want to be a scruff.”) so he concentrated on the soft waves his wife had imposed on her brown hair, bent over the newspaper. Elegant, seductive even, but oh the time it took. She rose almost an hour before him.

Mint tea finished, she dropped the paper as if impatient with it. “I must be off. We’ll meet at Morrisons. Six. Sharp. Give us a kiss.”

Forewarned again he wiped his eggy mouth with a paper napkin, one of her earliest rules. Kissed her sharply outlined lips. Given the risks to her make-up he’d been surprised she still insisted. Then realised it was mark of office: she was a wife and wives were kissed. For his own part he was grateful. Old Adam stirred.

Stirred again as she seemed disposed to linger, her arms still round his neck. “What will you do today, you poor thing?”

“First stop, the library. The Intelligencer comes out on Fridays.”

“We aren’t that poor. We could have it delivered.”

Meaning, of course, she wasn’t that poor. He said, “The library helps break up the day.”

“I suppose so. And after that?”

“Over to the park. Watch the bowls.” He pronounced it bowels.

“Bowls!” It was almost a cry. “Oh Dek, it’s all so bloody unfair.” And now her lips were pressing firmly, her breasts easing left to right. Would the whole sequence of her departure dissipate in wild undressing? Followed by a phone call from him, implying women’s trouble.

“Kell, Kell. You’d better go. Shit.”

He sat down at the table to the sounds of the car inexpertly reversed down the driveway. Looked at the remaining fragments of egg and fried bread. Ate them cold. Mashed a new pot of tea. Wondered what were the signs; when might one neglect the rules of employment? Give in. Live privately and illicitly for half a day.

MORRISONS was an early evening maelstrom of couples - customers returning from work, snatching at groceries, waiting angrily in blocked aisles, twisting at their trolley handles. She was unrecognisable from this morning; flushed, hair awry, unable to make quick decisions. He bore her growing anger, thinking she at least was adding to the country’s GDP. But she wore him down and he started shouting back. At the check-out they avoided each other’s faces. In the car park he took the keys, saying her bad temper put the car at risk; then he scraped a bollard.

They returned home with the monthly big buy and an hour passed before the freezer drawers were satisfactorily packed. Exhausted they heated a made-up lasagne, had a bottle sparsely labelled Chilean Red. Together on the couch, listening to a Radio 4 adaptation of an old Eric Ambler novel, their hands touched accidentally and they drew together, awkward in their movements nevertheless.

They made love as mutual apology but the awkwardness between them continued. At one in the morning he woke to hear her quietly sobbing. Held her and listened. There’d been a meeting to prepare her department for redundancies; the fear in her body was palpable.

On Saturday morning he urged her to lie in, saying he would bring her breakfast in bed. In the kitchen he could still smell burnt dressing gown. He sat down and considered the task he faced.

Ma had warned him. “She’ll never amount to ‘owt.”

Yet Kelly had all the gifts, a better education, solid middle-class parents, looks that caused jealousy. A better job, too, as deputy head of borough planning while he had managed a foundry chronically short of investment. Despite all this his mother’s prediction had started to come true. Kelly lacked confidence - pathologically; they never invited anyone to dinner, children were unthinkable, holidays were spent at home, driving lessons terrified her. Two years of incomplete marriage.

And then a miracle, eight months ago. Since then she’d got her licence and they’d holidayed in Devon. Now she read the Mail, took up strange diets, and booked the salon. Silencing Ma with her radiance.

When he lost his job he lost authority; it's what happens up north. Taking over terrified her at first but then she started financing the decisions. Pork not beef ("too dear"). Then, not always pork; why not a veggie? A bloody revolution.

He agreed. He too could adapt. He deliberately free-wheeled through an interview then told her he hadn't got the job. Go straight to bed, she said. Adding mischievously: I'll join you in a minute. Perhaps she knew or perhaps she didn't. Never mind, he knew. That he, unemployed, had added value.

A foundry wasn’t a vocation.

He filled the electric kettle and remembered her quiet sobs. Knew he’d do anything for her. Borrow from Ma and cede the high ground. Keep his mouth shut. Watch bowls until eternity. Anything.


  1. Absolutely beautiful. You're as reliable as The New Yorker.

  2. The enigma here is what was the "miracle"? Had she met somebody else, or was it just securing a fulfilling job? Dramatic changes in a character in real life are unusual, although not unheard of. The story is strong and leaves me wondering about all sorts of possibilities which is how it should be.

    I wonder about them taking an hour to put the shopping away, a job that is top of my hate list.

  3. MikeM: I hope you still think so. Since Sir Hugh misread the story I have rewritten the fourth and third last paras - trying to be elliptical nevertheless.

    Sir Hugh: I had hoped it was obvious. Try it now.

  4. Yes, I think it is fine. I did not copy the earlier draft, so could not remember it precisely. I recognize "added value" as substituted for something along the lines of "....worth more to her unemployed than...", and the dietary decision making paragraph seemed quite new. That Kell thrived under load, "the story", occurred of course, but I was mainly taken with the atmosphere, which I don't think you've harmed in the least.

  5. MikeM: That's pretty good remembering. And I'm also pleased about what you took away from the story first time round, atmosphere, etc. One conclusion I've arrived at with short stories is that it's as important to travel interestingly as to arrive. There can be no room for banal exchanges ("Hi, how are you?" - "Good, how are you?"

    I may still tinker with with these new additions but only to make them more felicitous. A mere nothing in the context of this story. I don't think I've ever revised such a short piece so thoroughly.

    As I've said before, I appreciate your interest - including the parsing stuff.

  6. There is so much here. The shifts from Ma to Kell and back again are tidal. Multiple shifts in authority, and the introduction of "vocation" (surely the denouement) in the context of what it was not. I'm relieved somehow to know that you've worked hard at this.