Our latest story prompt to start off the New Year for 2016 was ‘new beginnings’ and gave us all a chance to stretch our writing limbs after being all wrapped up (see what we did there?) for Christmas. We hope you enjoy this selection from Mike, Richard and Stephen.
All Most New, by Michael Bailey
I held a fortune, enough to buy a house, a big house, in my hands, these hands. For a few minutes it was almost mine. I could weep. It was in the Town Hall Tuesday Antique fair. They call it antiques but it’s more of a bric a brac market. Old books, pottery and glass and jewellery, well not so old but not new. I was in for a nose around and I noticed this picture. It was behind dirty glass in a scruffy frame, the glass was cracked right across the middle. It gave me quite a jolt but I didn’t pick it up immediately because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I wanted time to think. The drawing looked very fine, I mean confident and precise lines drawn in single strokes, and the hand was instantly recognisable, could it really be?
When I say hand, I mean that the drawn hand was so distinctive that is shouted out the drawing hand of the artist. Long thin fingers with bulging knuckles. Each splayed finger separated from the next by a flat U shape like the profile of a coffee mug, not by the V you or I might draw. The finger nails were gloriously shaped. I knew, I was sure this was his work and not a copy even though there was no signature. It was from 1909 or 1910, the early artistic years of his all too brief life. I held my breath and looked away unable to believe my luck, a twentieth century master, right here for a few pounds. As casually as I could I wandered around the rest of the paltry stalls, picking up this piece of silver plated tat, turning over that grubby plate until I could bear to look again.
At second look it was even more difficult to remain calm. I could feel my hand tremble as I reached out to shift the brash, ugly stone that blocked access to the picture frame. The stone was heavy, some sort of marble with a freshly cut relief of a religious scene. A ridiculous reproduction of Byzantine style. I had seen enough of those when I lived in Jerusalem where they turn them out by the lorry load to sell to tourists. I turned it face down and leaned across to lift the picture as casually as I could.
I blew on the cracked glass to remove some of the dust and smeared the dirty surface with the palm of my hand, wiping an arc of glass slightly cleaner. A short glance, turning the frame this way and that confirmed to me that this was not a print. The pencil line was real pencil, the wash of gouache, real paint, nearly a hundred years old. I turned down the corners of my mouth, propped the picture back against the wall and wiped my hands ostentatiously on my outdoor coat in a show of removing the grime transferred by the brief contact with the dirty picture. Next I lifted the fresh stone relief back into place, pushing it even closer to the picture.
I avoided making any eye contact with the old lady who was minding the stall. It wasn’t hard to do as she sat slumped over her knitting with her thermos of tea and a Tupperware bowl of cakes at her elbow. I didn’t want to look too interested. I didn’t want to look interested at all. Well you don’t, do you.
I fumbled in my pockets and realised that, stupidly, I had come out without any money. My wallet was back at home, less than five minutes away. I had went into the High Street, quickening my pace as I got nearer to home but keeping my calm. I needn’t have bothered because as soon as I got through the door a storm of hysteria hit me. My aged mother was screaming and crying, standing in the middle of the living room waving her walking stick like a flail in front of her.
“A rat, a rat”. she had screamed. ”The cat brought a rat in and dropped it and now it is under the book case. Get it out, Get it out”. I had to calm her down, unblock the hollow base of the bookcase that she had barricaded with heavy Bibles, open the back door and use her walking stick to chase the rat from its hiding place and out into the garden.
That took some time and once done I had to make her tea to calm her down and clear up the mess from the vase of flowers that she had knocked to the ground and smashed in her panic.
I didn’t run back to the Town Hall with my wallet, I walked. When I got there the stall was gone and the place where the picture had been propped was empty. I was so upset my throat burned with acid indigestion so badly I choked. I almost cried. Never mind, I told myself, the Antique Fair is here every week.
The next week the stall wasn’t there. I asked one of the other stall holders, a chap in a baggy cardigan, why the old lady and her table of bits and bobs wasn’t there. Oh he said, hadn’t I heard. She died of a heart attack. It was the shock, he explained, the shock when she saw something she had sold reported on the news the next day. Headline news because it had been worth a fortune, more than a million pounds, he said. I had a vague recollection of something in the news a few days ago but I had been busy with my mother and another of her crises and hadn’t taken any notice. It was a carving of Christ from the first century, he said, two thousand years old yet so well preserved it looked brand new.
A Clean Break, by Stephen Pellow
Two more boxes to stack along the wall to the right of the front door with the others and that should be everything. Martin knew he didn’t have a lot of possessions, but to see everything he owned taking up a total space of 8 square feet in just 10 boxes depressed him slightly. Broken down it was 50 percent clothing and 50 percent books. Probably more of a 48/52 split in favour of the books.
The flat was rented out with a few furnishings. Martin didn’t have any furniture to call his own, save a small and flimsy flat packed desk and a plant pot for decoration his mother had given him as a housewarming present. That left a bed and dresser in the bedroom, and a couple of settees and a coffee table in the living room. The kitchen, while small, still contained an electric oven, fridge freezer and a washing machine.
Built into the base of the cordless telephone, which sat on a low table inside the front door at the start of the waiting line of boxes, was an answering machine. The light wasn’t blinking but the digital number said the last message had been saved rather than erased. He tapped the button and after the introduction, options and time stamp had been spoken by the synthesised voice of the machine, the message from weeks ago began playing.
“Hi, it’s me. By the time you play this message it will be apparent I am already gone and I recommend you leave and find somewhere else as soon as possible. This place… it’s poisoned now and for both of us to move on we need to be as clear of it as possible. Neither of us is at fault but we are both to blame. I don’t hate you, I hate us. At first it was great. It was new. You bought me something every week. Sometimes more than once a week. Who wouldn’t love someone spoiling them? Then we moved in together and were supposed to be a partnership. But you still felt compelled to buy me things all the time. It became cheap, no matter the money spent. Spring rolled round, as it inevitably does, I got tired of this town, and you bought me another fucking party frock…”
The voice on the machine cracked and paused.
“I’m sorry. Maybe I should have said something but I figured you buying me all those things should be making at least one of us happy. I’m not materialistic but perhaps you thought I was. Oh, you just made it all such hard work. Hard, hard work. I’m so tired of this town. This is a moment we both knew was coming. I feel I’ve been standing here before but this time… I ran out of faith long before I ran out of patience. The rent has been paid up until the end of the month and everything has been sorted with the landlady. She knows where to forward my mail but she won’t tell you. Maybe when time has passed I’ll try and get in touch, but the way I feel now I can’t see that happening. Good bye.”
The recording was digital, but Martin imagined the spools of a tape spinning for the ten seconds of silence that left the words hanging in the hallway before the beep cut it off.
“Right, that’s all yours done.” The synthesised voice had returned with more options but was interrupted by a softer, warmer one that made the hallway cosier and less cavernous than it had moments earlier.
Abi had arrived with Martin’s final two boxes. “I’ve just been chatting to the neighbours. They seem a cautious lot.” She placed the boxes on top of the ones closest to the door. “Just have to go pick up mine now. Martin? Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” Martin replied with his gaze still on the telephone. “Just… someone left a message on the answering machine. It doesn’t sound like things here ended happily.”
“Well, new beginnings for us here now. We’ll make this place home in no time.” She looked at the boxes. “Crikey, you don’t have much do you? I think I’ve got more things with what you’ve bought me alone than all of that put together!”
Martin released a low guttural groan of uncertainty. His finger rested on the base of the telephone. “When he left here, he still couldn’t let her go.”
“Can I listen?”
He tapped the button once more.
“You have one saved message.”
“Nah, not worth it.”
He stabbed the button before prompted.
Stop, by Richard Foreman
He stands on the patio, looking over the garden. Winter’s bruising is starting to heal. An acre or so of lawn is beginning to grow again, less waterlogged by the day. Clusters of daffs in the flower beds are blooming, crocuses preparing to do the same. He’s dispensed with the services of the gardener. This year and after, it’s up to him. From now on, it’s only this kind of challenge he wants.
On the whole, people don’t call him mad to his face, but he’s seen a lot of raised eyebrows in the past few months. In the ornate board rooms, as he’s proffered resignations; in teak and leather garnished offices as he’s given terms of notice. He’s heard too many expressing their deepest regrets, while he can see something quite different in their eyes – minds racing to grasp any promotional opportunity that this rather unexpected development presents. It’s not so hard, he has realised, to say goodbye to all that.
Regret was more genuine amongst his consultancy clients. There were even one or two pleas. “Oh, come on, Charlie. You’ll need something to occupy your mind.” Too bad. Charles did not believe in half measures.
And Janet? He likes to think she’d have been with him on this one. Even in thirty seven years of married life, he’d never quite been sure what nestled within those mental nooks and crannies of hers. But that had been the spice. She had never ceased to be interesting, until Johnny Tumour came to take her away. No. Surely she’d have revelled in this. He can almost hear that familiar gurgle of her laughter. “Oh Charlie! How splendid! The boats will be rocking in the harbour!”
And so they were. Especially amongst the next gen, whose reactions were altogether more predictable. Anthony aghast, shock horror, expecting no doubt that family coffers should continue to expand until the old man dropped. “But dad, you’re nowhere near retirement age! And this… I mean, what on earth do you think you’re doing?” Tamsin’s concerns of a more beneficent nature, but with a somewhat nagging quality to them. “Dad, are you sure? Are you really sure? You used to say you loved the complexity of it all. The gambits. The white knuckle ride. Do you really want to turn your back on all of that?”
But that was exactly it. He did. Enough was enough. Money was not a problem. When the time came there would be plenty in the pot for both Anthony, Tams and their now expanding families. So why wait any longer?
It had come to him one afternoon. He’d been getting over some unpleasant peptic symptoms and had taken rare time off. Feeling a little brighter, he’d gone for a walk through the elegant suburbs that surrounded his home. It was around 3.30. He was surprised by the amount of traffic on the normally quiet roads. Curious as to the reason for this, he’d pieced it together on approaching the neighbourhood primary school. Pieced it together and realised that here was a whole drape of the tapestry that he had never observed, a slice of life he’d never been a part of. Most of the children, of course in such a neighbourhood, were being bundled into four by fours, hatchbacks and saloons. But some, accompanied or not by adults, were walking still, and though too far to pick up the content, he could hear the tone and timbre of their talk and laughter. It charmed him.
When he discovered the need, in a local newspaper, his whimsy of that leisurely afternoon became a plan. The plan. Anthony was wrong. This was nothing to do with retirement. This was a new beginning. A life change. All the raised eyebrows in the world could not divert Charles now. And in fact, given his status and suitability – as both parent and grandparent – the steps he needed to take were surprisingly easy. As was the training.
He looks at his Rollex. He has spent long enough in reverie, he realises, and returns to the house, locking the french windows behind him.
In the large cloakroom at the front of the building, he puts on the long, yellow, reflective coat and the peaked cap that were both issued to him on commencement. At the door he grabs the black and yellow metal pole with its circular sign at top. ‘Stop’, it says. It’s 8am. Time to go to work again.