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.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A Northern despatch

Lister's Mill, Bradford. Local legend said you could drive a coach and pair round the chimney top. Few tried.

West Riding strange
Short story, 982 words

Gladys’s mother turned at the door: “I’ll say good-night to you both.”

I bid her good-night.

“Night, mum,” Gladys called from the kitchen.

The door closed behind Mrs Baxter. I said, “Was your mother’s ‘you both’ significant?”

Gladys came in from the kitchen casually holding a tea-towel, she being too magnificent for such an accessory.  “I’m thirty-one. My mother thinks I'm near dead as a woman. She’d match me with the milkman. Not that he isn’t ruddy-cheeked; not that he hasn’t got designs.”

“Ruddy-cheeked? Better looking?”

“Than you? No.”

A judgment delivered dismissively. But then Gladys could do that.

I asked, “Is that your mother’s opinion?”

“This week she asked about the age difference between you and me. Could it be overlooked? I kidded her; said you were already doing that.”

An unlikely image arose; she statuesque on my arm, walking down the aisle of a Noncomformist church in, say, Wyke. The image faded. Out of pure mischief she might take that walk. What was unlikely was the sequel.

She tossed the tea-towel into the kitchen, let it fall where it might. “All that walking. I’m knackered. And for no great reward. I was out of place along the canal towpath.”

“It was the towpath that was out of place."

She smiled. “Clever with your la-di-dahs.”

“You inspire me. Why not stretch out on the couch.”

“I might doze off,” she said.

“No you won’t.” I said. “I’ll see to that.”

She liked me to be ambiguous; hated direct references to her looks. As a reward she sat on the couch and tucked up her feet.

I said, “Can I slide this chair nearer? Your hair fascinates me, always has. I need to work out how you do it.”

“You’ve had plenty of time. All those bus trips up from Forster Square. Peering like a schoolboy.”

“I’ve never been this close.”

She turned her head from side to side to show the arrangement. Said, “I could never understand why it took you so long to ask. It’s not as if you haven’t the gift of the gab.”

“I think you’re a looker, you don’t. But there’s a point where your sort of looks go contrary and become forbidding.” She opened her mouth but I was ahead. “Ironically you’re not remote. You just hate being bored.”

She nodded and had the hair to do it well - as high as the crown the Queen wore for her coronation. Tall yet dignified.

“Have you worked out how?” she asked.

“I might have. Your hair’s pretty long; you probably let it down in the evening. Too spiffy for a solicitor’s office, hence the upsweep. But there’s none of those tight plaits German women used to go in for. You brush it as a vertical column, give it two loose twists, then coil it using pins.”

“One partner said it was too seductive. Having it long.” she said, po-faced.

“Not surprised. Might pervert the cause of justice. It took time to realise you use a very fine net. Even more surprising, the net itself – or rather, its effect – is also stunning.”

“Really!” Her eyebrows rose.

“A reassurance. That the hairdo will survive.”

“You’ve earned yourself a finger-tip tour.” She took my hand and touched it against the side of her head. “You may be surprised.”

“It’s so thick, so springy.”

We were alarmingly close, I could feel her breath. “You consider yourself intelligent,” she murmured. “You’re only inches away. Ask me something else.”

“That pale pink lipstick.”

“Any idea why?”

It was a privilege to be so close. “The shape of your lips. Too much colour and you’d be gilding the lily.”

“Congratulations. But there’s one other question. An oddity.”

Giving me licence to rove the contours. The heavy bones and square chin she so detested, the earlobes with their tiny studs “I’ve always thought…” I broke off, not wanting to find fault.

“Go on. You’re on t’ right track.”

“A lot of make-up?”

She squeezed my hand. “How clever. The price I pay for being brought up close to Lister’s Mill. Underneath, my complexion isn’t anything to boast about.”

“You didn’t have to tell me.”

“I did.”

“But why?”

“Your last opportunity to show how clever you are.”

It wasn’t a mocking smile – my first reaction - it was an expression  of affection. I moved fractionally nearer; her lips parted, her head tilted back. I drew away and bowed down.

“Nay then,” she whispered, slipping back into Bradfordian.

“I’ve teased, played the joker, tried to be what you want. But I’m still one of the extras, no star.”

She raised my chin. “You remember seeing me on the bus? Of course you do. Always on the upper deck. Pretty horrible up there, it’s where the smokers went. My mother told me to stop smoking, it made me look like a man. My knobbly face. She made me cry and I don’t often do that.”

I could smell her perfume, I touched her hair again, knowing I was entitled to that, at least.

“It’s not knobbly,” I said.

“Then what is it?”

“Strong. Capable. The way women need to be in the West Riding. Noble even.”

We both straightened up, apart now. She smiled lopsidedly. “There are admirers;  most irritate me. They can’t choose their words. I’m not beautiful, certainly not pretty. Perhaps I’m sexy but that’s a condition, not a description. Only you tried.”

She stroked my cheek as if she were my mother. “That thing about the canal bank. You have the feel for what touches me.”

“It’s what touches me.”

“There! You did it again. But…”

“Aye, there’s always a but.”

She kissed me on the cheek - the first time and I knew I’d have to make it the last. She said, “I’m twelve years older and it feels strange.”

“West Riding strange?”

“Aye love, West Riding strange.”

READER'S NOTE. The woman (name unknown) existed, as did her hairdo. So did the bus trips she took. I existed, albeit two years younger. The rest is fantasy. Nothing happened before or since.


  1. For me it hinges here:
    "I moved fractionally nearer; her lips parted and tilted back."

    Her lips tilted back? I can't make sense of this. Is she invitational or non? Who initiates the "no"? A deliberate mystery?

  2. MikeM: Two small alterations; one in the sentence you query, the second in the sentence that follows. The love affair (if it qualifies as such) is doomed, each prolongs the break-up, tiny gestures are exchanged, each departs with a crumb of comfort. She knows about departures (though not for this reason) whereas I am on the very threshold of adulthood. The story is I fear intentionally ambiguous: an attempt to find out how little one can admit to and still have a story. For better or for worse I am trying not to be explicit. As you might expect, this aim is fraught with misunderstanding. Not helped by my need to use the first person singular. Probably c-minus for the story, b for fragments of technique.

  3. It could be a C on the RR scale, I suppose, but then that's a different scale. While I'm sure I miss vital details and clues on the first read (and second too), it is, deciphered, a very interesting exchange. You've created an atmosphere almost completely with dialog. I questioned who was older until the twelve years was mentioned toward the end...hard to admit having now recognized how many clues you left. I suspect this is something you spent a good deal of time on, and it's good. It requires several readings for me to grasp, but I'm not sure that's a weakness in the writing, which in any case compels me to re-read. Freshly home from work it is difficult to slow down and let myself be immersed. I'm eager and read quickly. It's such good writing though that I return, wanting to reap all I can from it. A in my book.

  4. MikeM: I appreciate the attention you give to these fictional exercises. I'm not sure whether any writer is entitled to the readings and re-readings you lavish on this stuff but I am grateful. One thing I have noticed is that limiting the story length and switching the subject flow (often quite abruptly) between sentences and paras causes a new style to emerge. And not just a rat-a-tat machine-gun style that might be expected. The story can seem longer than it is, almost as if the omitted material were somehow "understood". A fanciful idea but I have to say that there are parts where certain effects appear to have arrived quite unplanned, eg:

    "... match me with the milkman. Not that he isn’t ruddy-cheeked; not that he hasn’t got designs."

    Making me seem cleverer than I deserve. Well, I'm not turning away any gift horses.

  5. Hmm, unrequited love, a favourite theme but here you can't tell who is "unrequiting" whom which makes it very clever. Either that or I am not being very clever. I have only ever watched one film straight through again as soon as it had finished - this story made me do just that. I would give it full marks for story and for the touch of mystery. Other (maybe lazier) readers might not want to work so hard at understanding it.

  6. Unplanned perhaps, but your dialog often hints at other directions, other worlds, the complicated nature of being. Whether this is more nature, a gift, or nurture, the lifetime you've spent listening, observing and writing, I can't say. Rich stuff though. BT is onto it as well.

  7. Such a rhyme and rhythm to this one. Wow! I very much like the line, "Tall yet dignified."

  8. All: As I said to MikeM this story is deliberately obscure and I'm grateful that you all persisted. Why deliberately? you ask. Why such fragmented and jumpy dialogue? It's an attempt - probably too difficult for me - to show that although we might see these two people as a couple, the idea of a couple is simply a convention. We may be married, have a partner or be friends with someone but we remain, in the end, separate and individual even when we are seemingly attending to each other.

  9. The style, which is that of a camera rather than self-indulgent narrator, makes for a type of difficulty for the reader. Yet it is a good type of difficulty, like seeing a film that only makes sense when we wake up and remember it the next day. I like the way that the story seems to be about not only how the two characters relate to each other but how they react to their own reactions within themselves.

  10. Lucas: Thank you for being generous despite being "experimented on". One embarks on a project like this not knowing all the aims, let alone how these aims will be articulated. Of course revision follows but there is a limit: one usually revises to make things clearer but overdoing clarification runs the risk of turning the story into a linear statement instead of (for example) something akin to a four-part fugue. Resulting in dangerously pretentious excuses as I have just wrought.