© Pam Howes
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A SHORT STORY WRITTEN WITH THE WOMAN’S WEEKLY/PEOPLE’S FRIEND TYPE, BRITISH MAGAZINE MARKET IN MIND. PS: This story was awarded mini-crits last month and this month for being a top-tenner and due to tt longevity will be "pensioned off" into Best Sellers shortly. I've implented the changes as advised by the editors. Does it read okay? Comments will be much appreciated please as I want to submit it next month. Thanks. Pam. :-)
Laura dashed through the house, checking she’d left nothing behind. Her third move in as many years. She hoped she was doing the right thing, but since her landlord had doubled her rent from the end of March, she’d no choice. Her ex half-jokingly suggested she buy a caravan and join a band of gypsies. He’d always had a warped sense of humour.
‘Well, too late now, I’m off – and hopefully for the final time,’ she muttered and bent to pick up the last of the boxes. The furniture had gone yesterday in her brother’s van and was already at her new home. She popped the box into the boot of her laden car and dropped the house-keys through the letterbox.
Her new place, in a two-storey council block, wasn’t the classiest address, but by far the cheapest. The clerk at the housing office sympathised with her plight, but said that being neither a single mum nor a senior citizen, she wasn’t a priority. So when he offered her accommodation in an area of Manchester, that at one time, she would never have considered, she decided the least she could do was view.
The block stood in well-tended, shared gardens in an area of regeneration. On her initial visit, Laura had wandered from room to room, picking off peeling wallpaper. To her surprise, the ground floor flat was quite spacious. The lounge and kitchen windows looked out over the back garden. The council had promised new kitchen cupboards to replace the ones hanging off the walls. It was all in need of a good redecoration, but she liked a challenge and at only one quarter of her current rent, it was a gem. She'd busied herself measuring the windows and the floor area.
Outside, Laura surveyed the rear garden, silently cursing her ex for his affairs, for gambling away their lovely home, and for landing her in this mess. An elderly woman had come out and looked her up and down. The woman's faded, cross-over apron reminded Laura of the pinafores her late granny used to wear. Her feet were encased in furry slippers that might once have been pink. She carried a plastic carrier bag and a broom. She dropped the bag into a dustbin and smiled.
‘Good morning,’ Laura ventured.
‘Morning, love,' the woman said. She introduced herself as Mrs Winifred Hennessy. ‘You come about that leaky guttering?’
‘Guttering?’ Laura frowned. ‘Er, no, I’m Laura, your new neighbour. I’m hoping to move in next month. I’ve been looking round and taking measurements.’ She inclined her head at the clipboard she was holding.
‘Ahh, I see. I thought you were from the council. It's with you being dolled up in that posh suit and blouse and your hair all fancy.'
Laura smiled, feeling flattered. She was only wearing her everyday work clothes. Her long, dark hair fastened up in a big slide. ‘I’ve popped in on my way home from work,’ she said.
Mrs Hennessy nodded. ‘So - you’ve been measuring up? You’re having all new then? Very nice.’ Without waiting for a reply, she gave Laura an informed description of the tenants in the block.
‘There’s another young lady like you, goes off to work in a nice suit. There’s a fellow we can’t quite decide about, y’know, whether he’s one way inclined or the other! He ignores us when we try and talk to him.’
Laura chuckled as Mrs Hennessy rolled her eyes. It was years since she’d been called a young lady and at forty-four last birthday, she rather liked it.
Leaning on the broom handle Mrs Hennessy was in full flow. ‘There’s a couple of widow women like me, and…’ She drew herself up to her full height, looked around in a shifty fashion, as though making sure no one was listening, and pursed her lips. ‘There’s the Hell’s Angel! Rides a great big bike. Looks fierce in all them black leathers and plays loud music. You wouldn’t want to meet him down a dark alley at night, love, I can tell you!’ She drew breath and carried on.
‘Can’t understand why the council housed him with all us refined folk! Comes in at all hours, he does. But I’m not one to gossip so you’ll have to make up your own mind.’ She said goodbye and turned her attention to sweeping the path.
Laura sighed as she walked back to her car, heart sinking at the thought of a noisy Hell’s Angel neighbour. Still, she could try and avoid him, and buy earplugs with money she’d save on the rent.
As she pulled out of the cul-de-sac a magnificent black and chrome Harley Davidson cut the corner and just missed her car’s offside wing. She slammed on the brakes and turned her head. The leather-clad rider waved an angry fist. Well, that’s a fine start, but she wasn’t about to change her mind. She would take the tenancy; she couldn’t afford not to. Any problems could be faced later.
Monday morning, a month on, Laura was ready to move in.
Her stomach did a loop at the sight of the Harley Davidson parked in the middle of the residents’ car park. She still hadn’t encountered either of her male neighbours. She’d been aware of their presence by the sound of footsteps on the stairs, muffled exchanges of conversation, doors banging shut and thumping music on days spent decorating. One afternoon she’d hammered bravely on the flat door where the music appeared to be coming from. She was ready with a polite request to please turn down the volume, but her knock had been ignored.
She propped the back-door open with a stone from the rockery and trekked back and forth across the garden, carrying packages and boxes until her car was almost empty. She'd slept bady last night and was tired, hot and sweaty and knew she should take a break, but was determined to finish unloading before she awarded herself a mug of coffee and a long soak in a hot bubble bath. She hoisted the final box into her arms and locked the boot. The bottom began to sag. Praying she’d manage to carry it indoors before it gave way completely - she'd already dropped and broken her favourite vase today - she made it across the threshhold as the box burst open and spilled its contents in the communal hallway.
‘Oh no!’ she cried as books and papers scattered everywhere. ‘That's the last straw. I hate Mondays. I knew I shouldn’t have moved today.’ She could feel tears welling as she sank onto the bottom stair.
‘Need some help?’ A voice, with an attractive lilt, spoke softly above her head. ‘I heard you cursing Mondays!’
‘That's because nothing good ever happens to me on a Monday.’ It was early in her marriage, and following a Monday night-school class, that she’d walked in on her ex seducing their teenage baby-sitter. And an icy February Monday when the bailiffs had repossessed their home.
She ran her hand over her cheeks to wipe away tears and looked up into concerned eyes. The man had a friendly smile. She wondered if he was that gay chap Mrs Hennessy had mentioned. He was by her side in seconds. He picked up the scattered books and papers and placed them in a neat pile on the stair beside her.
‘Hey, now come on, nothing can be that bad.’ He offered her a spotless white handkerchief and she noted his clean hands and neat nails. ‘Tell me where you’d like this lot and I’ll carry them inside for you.’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Anywhere you can find the space.’
‘On the sofa all right?’ he asked as she followed him down the narrow hall.
‘Please. I’d offer you a coffee but I don’t know where the kettle is.’
‘You've enough on your plate,’ he said. ‘Come and have coffee with me. I’d just put the kettle on when I spotted you through the window, struggling with that box. I was on my way to help when it exploded.’
‘Thank you, that would be lovely, err…’
‘Laura.’ She shook his hand. His skin was smooth and cool, his smile wide and kind and she felt instantly at ease with him.
‘How long have you lived here?’ She followed Sean upstairs into his comfortably furnished flat. He made two mugs of coffee and gestured for her to sit on the sofa.
‘Just over a year,’ he replied. ‘I’m still getting to grips with things, like trying to decorate and unpack the rest of my stuff. I never seem to have time, what with my shift work at the hospital and one thing and another.’ His gaze rested on a framed photograph of two girls.
‘Your nieces?’ Laura asked.
‘My granddaughters,’ he said, taking her by surprise. ‘I look after them occasionally while my daughter works. They’re five and seven.’
He handed her the photograph. She stared at the pretty little girls who looked just like him. Dark hair and stunning green eyes. ‘They’re adorable. You’re very lucky, but you don’t look old enough to be a grandad!’ She took a sip of coffee, her mind doing overtime.
‘Everyone says that.’ He smiled proudly. ‘I’m forty-two. Started young, you see, as did Lizzie, my daughter.’
‘Ah - me too,’ Laura said. Sean was only a couple of years younger than she. But this was puzzling. Why did Mrs Hennessy assume he was gay? His gentle manner and Irish accent were charming and might be misconstrued, but apart from his nice, soft hands, which maybe meant he wasn’t a manual worker, there were no other signs she could see from the short time she’d spent with him.
‘So - how many children have you got, Laura?’ Sean’s voice broke into her thoughts.
‘Two boys. They married and left the nest a few years ago. I’ve no grandchildren yet though. Is Lizzie your only child?’
‘She is,’ he replied softly. ‘My wife died when Lizzie was just four. Hit and run as she walked home from a night-shift. I brought Lizzie up alone. She, her husband and the girls were sharing my home. Rather than moving them out, I decided it made more sense for me to give them space.’
He took a sip of coffee and continued, ‘I’m a nurse, as was my wife. This place is handy for the hospital. Lizzie calls me the re-cycled teenager, what with my bachelor pad and dream bike! Riding it is great fun,’ he added, smiling. ‘Except when crazy women do their best to try and knock me off! Although I reckon it was probably my fault for cutting the corner that day.’
Laura stared at him and tried to suppress her laughter. The comings and goings at all hours! Sean wasn’t gay. He was the biker. A nurse working shifts.
‘Oh, dear!’ She held her sides, laughing helplessly while he looked on in amusement. ‘I feel such a fool! I thought you were the gay neighbour Mrs Hennessy told me about.’
‘Me - gay?’ He joined in with her laughter. ‘It’s Charlie across the landing who’s gay. He’s a great bloke. You’ll really like him. But be warned, he plays his music very loud. He’s deaf as a post. Keeps losing his hearing-aids!’
'I was ready to do battle about the music, your bike and the comings and goings,' Laura said. 'You should tell Mrs Hennessy you’re a nurse and that’s why you come in late sometimes. She’s convinced you’re a Hell’s Angel, up to no good.'
‘What, and spoil her fun?’ he said, grinning. ‘She’ll have no one to complain about if she thinks I’m harmless. And believe me, I’m no angel, Hell’s or otherwise. But I’m really good at lifting heavy boxes. I’ll help you get straight if you’ll do me a favour in return.’
‘What’s that?’ she asked, intrigued by what he was about to say.
‘Share a takeaway and a bottle of wine with me tonight! We’ll try and put this bad Monday to rest. Start a trend - good Monday’s only from now on.’
‘It’s a deal,’ she said. 'I've a feeling I'm really going to enjoy living here.'
PS: I've been asked where this is leading. Answer: IT ISN'T. It's a SHORT story written for a specific market (no blood and guts) like it says on the label. It's complete in itself! ;-)