© Brian L
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These are three unconnected short stories, which makes marking them by applying the 8-point scale difficult, since this site is geared to marking only one continuous piece. I suggest you read all three - won’t take up too much of your time - then settle on one for marking purpose. In your textual criticism please feel free to comment on as many as you like. Thanks for your co-operation.
The children's holiday in Mortlake
After a woman admitted drink driving in Chiswick, she claimed that there had been special reasons for driving and the case was adjourned to a later date. Angela Julie Stewart, 32, of Vineyard Heights, Mortlake High Street, Mortlake, appeared in Feltham court last week and admitted drink driving in Chiswick on August 12. Magistrates were told that evidence would have to be called to show that there had been an emergency and this would be based on the evidence of two police officers, the reason for the emergency and the shortness of the distance travelled. The case was adjourned until October 14 and she was allowed unconditional bail.
The Brentford, Chiswick and Isleworth Times 26 August 2005
To start with, Angela Julie Stewart is not thirty-two, She is much closer to forty. And her real name is Molly Brown. She doesn't live in Mortlake either. She lives in Manchester. With me. I know all this because I am her husband. We have three children.
When Molly agreed to marry me all those years ago I was overjoyed. She was not a particularly pretty girl. I have to be honest about this. In fact she was fleshy. There are other words I could use, but fleshy is the best. Face, neck, shoulders, limbs, torso - all fleshy. If you are a man, you will know what I am talking about and, according to a recent survey, 90% of you will know why I was attracted to her. She was certainly something to get hold of. Wherever.
That fleshiness gave us both (I like to think) great joy in our early years. Before the drink took over. That part of the newspaper report was right. Drink has been her weakness for many years now.
When she left me, taking the three children, I really didn't understand why. I had not been unfaithful. I didn’t knock her about. My own intake of alcohol was modest compared with hers. I did not keep her short of money. And she had her own job as an assistant librarian in Didsbury. Some kind of mid-life crisis, perhaps. I am pretty sure she'll be back and when she does I have resolved not to crow or sneer. She certainly will be back, because the children are due at school in September.
It's her sister Deborah who lives in Vineyard Heights, Mortlake, and that's where she went. I know because Deborah rang me.
"Don't follow her, Geoff. She needs a bit of time to sort herself out. The kids are fine."
"She knows school restarts in September?"
"Of course, she does."
"If it's money ... "
"No, don't send any money, Geoff. I'll look after her. Just leave her alone for the time being."
"Are you sure? I could easily ... "
"No, Geoff, no. Think of it as her summer holiday."
"She didn't leave a note, you know."
"I'm not surprised. What I mean is, you know, it was a bit of an impulse thing."
She rang me again a few days later.
"No, no," she said quickly when I asked if anything was wrong. "Nothing's wrong. There's been a bit of trouble involving the police, that's all. A pure misunderstanding. Nothing at all to worry about, but it may mean that she will have to stay here a bit longer."
I had to ask Deborah the same question several times before she cut short the reassurances and told me.
"She was out in my car. She'd had a few and got stopped by the police. For some reason she panicked and didn't give her real name. Told them she was somebody whose name she'd seen on a gravestone."
"On a gravestone?"
"Well, she was in Chiswick cemetery at the time."
"Molly was drink driving in a cemetery?"
"She hadn't travelled very far. There aren't many long roads in West London cemeteries."
"She didn't knock anyone down?"
"At two o'clock in the morning? In a cemetery? You must be joking."
"What were the police doing in a cemetery at ... "
"Oh, God, I knew this would happen. Listen, Geoff, I'll make this brief. She didn't mean to drive into the cemetery. She took a wrong turning, distracted by the bright lights."
Deborah speeded up her delivery to avoid interruption.
"The police were already in the cemetery. They were exhuming a body. There were lots of cars - grave-diggers, pathologists, local council officials, people from the coroner's office. They were doing it at night to avoid the media. So there were spotlights and torches and so on. God, I don't know, it must have looked like a bloody football match. Anyway, she drove in and rammed a police van. Then some idiot thought that this was some kind of terrorist attack and in next to no time there were people with guns and body armour all over the place, fire engines, ambulances and Lord knows what else."
"What the hell was Molly doing out of bed at that time of night?"
"I'd lent her the car to go to a party. Life is pretty dull here. I thought it would cheer her up. I'd told her to go easy on the booze, but, well, you know what she's like."
"Is she OK?"
"Well, the police are pretty pissed off with her. They don't know who she really is yet, so I suppose there'll be more trouble when they find out."
"Look, I'd better come down."
"No, Geoff. Molly wants you to keep you out of this. She knows she's been very stupid."
"Well, OK, if that's what she wants."
"I'm afraid it'll be in the papers. I'll send you a cutting. The kids are fine. They know something's going on but not the details. Don't worry, we can handle this."
I've respected my wife's wishes, because she is a very independent woman and likes to handle her own affairs. I do hope that this won't delay her return, though. The kids are due to start school again in a couple of weeks. And the neighbours are beginning to suspect that something's wrong.
… The end …
FLOWERS FOR DAD
The leaves had started to shrivel and drop off the stem and the petals of the lilies were starting to turn brown and sag, but the smell was as strong as ever. He had moved the vase out of the kitchen because of the overpowering smell. Lilies were associated with death, of course, so it was inevitable that their odour, as they faded, would summon up visions of decay, decomposition, rotting.
Why had she sent lilies? The card which came with them was cheerful enough: Happy Seventy-Fifth birthday, Dad. Have a lovely day. Had lilies been chosen as a kind of hint, either that he was or ought to be at death’s door?
He didn’t feel close to death and when people learnt his age - he didn’t go round boasting about it - they would say flattering things like You must be joking or I don’t believe you or No, seriously, how old are you really? Politeness, that’s what it was. He’d done it himself with every indication of sincerity. He’d sometimes thought of saying: Is that all? You look about a hundred! or And the rest!
He tried to concentrate on the matter in hand. To bin or not to bin, that was the question. Two weeks is long enough. The powder in the packet which came with them, he supposed, could have helped. He could keep some bits for a couple more days but then it would look pretty obvious. No, the whole lot had to go.
The glass vase was certainly worth keeping, though they were probably made by the thousand and distributed free to florists in return for something or other. But he ought not to be thinking on these lines.
It was the thought that counted, wasn’t it?
What was that thought?
Was it: Let’s try and cheer the old bugger up. He leads such a lonely, miserable life these days? Or: We really should go and see him, you know. Christ, is it that long?? Or: Can you remember the address, dear? I know it’s somewhere in West London. Hammersmith, perhaps?
Unworthy thoughts. Ungracious, cynical thoughts.
Had he treated his own parents like this? He searched his conscience. Parents would always put their children first, before their own parents. This was a natural instinct. The old, the injured, the weak went to the wall. The duty of care led downwards and forward, not upwards and backwards. Care of the elderly was a political and social, not a biological thing. A truly civilised society would arrange for people of a certain age to be put down. Painlessly, lovingly, of course. After an initial uproar lasting one or two generations, things would settle down. Religions would accept the situation and scholars would find biblical, koranic or other persuasive justification for it. Children would be taught from an early age that the natural span of human life was X years, a figure that would be reviewed every five years or so by an international body so that it could be raised or lowered in accordance with agreed social and economic criteria.
He started. It all seemed so sensible, logical, natural. A world full of old people, people whose purpose had been achieved, burdening their children and grandchildren was contrary to natural law. Whatever wisdom or guidance the old could provide had long been available in books - probably nowadays on the internet, not that it had ever helped anyone. Mankind was incapable of learning collectively from its mistakes.
He started again. All this from looking at a smelly vase of flowers.
The front doorbell rang imperiously several times. He frowned at the interruption and was half-minded to ignore it. Probably bad news of some kind. It rang again.
As he opened the door a cheer rang out. Several small grandchildren ran past him. His two daughters and his son with their partners queued up to hug and kiss him. His started to speak but a daughter put a finger to her lips.
“I know what you’re going to say, Dad, so I’ll say it for you. What a wonderful surprise! How lovely to see you all! This has really made my day! What have I done to deserve such a wonderful family! Come in, come in!"
There was a warning look on her face. Then she smiled and looked a question at him.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “Do come in.”
His children were busy divesting themselves of top clothes and hurrying into the kitchen with foodstuffs.
“It’s party time, Dad. A bit late, I’m afraid, but getting us all together at the same time takes a lot of organising. Now go upstairs, have a shave, put a suit and some shoes on and prepare to enjoy yourself.”
“The place is a bit of a mess,” he started to say, but he was cut short and waved upstairs. The children had been pushed into the garden in the charge of the men.
He climbed the stairs more quickly than he had done for some time.
He couldn’t remember what he had been in the middle of doing when they arrived. It would probably come back to him later.
… The End …
If it hadn’t been for that telephone call, Gerald’s life would have continued undisturbed and who can say when or how it might have ended? It has to be admitted that the prospects were hardly auspicious.
He had a rather unusual way of answering his telephone. He would pick up and say Warrington Wire-Pullers Union or Lord Derby’s Stables or The Jewish Gymnastic Society or some such.
One Monday morning he said:
“Elderberry, Brook and Bustard, Commissioners for Oaths and Notaries Public”.
A woman’s voice said:
“Can I speak to Mr Elderberry, please.”
He paused for only a fraction of a second.
“Elderberry speaking. Who is this?”
“I’m afraid the name doesn’t ring a bell, Ms Honiton.”
“Am I speaking to Ernest Elderberry?”
“No, this is his son Donald. My father died three years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I really had no idea.”
“Can I help you, Ms Honiton? Were you one of my father’s clients?”
“I was in a manner of speaking, but I wanted to speak to him on a personal level. It seems that won’t be possible. I’m sorry to have taken up your time. Good-bye, Mr Elderberry.”
“Good-bye, Ms Honiton.”
As Gerald put the phone down, he felt a warm glow. Something akin to what Robinson Crusoe must have experienced on discovering another’s footprint in the sand. He felt both thrilled and intrigued. He used call-back to reconnect.
“Gillingham Patent Office.”
“Could I speak to Grace Honiton, please?”
”We do not have anyone here of that name. If you have a patent application reference number I can connect you with the officer dealing with it.”
“No, thanks. I think I must have misdialled.”
He hung up.
The phone rang about the same time the following morning.
“Downside Abbey Information Service,” said Gerald. “Can I help you?”
“This is The Beekeepers’ Federation. Is Father Dellick available, please?”
He covered the mouthpiece and thought for a moment. The voice was that of Grace Honiton. He deepened and slowed down his own voice as he spoke.
“Father Dellick here. Can I help you?”
“Hello, Father. You don’t know me, but I know you from your articles in The Tablet. I am the secretary of The Beekeepers’ Federation and I am ringing to ask if you would be interested in writing an article for our Beekeepers World, a monthly journal with a very large circulation covering many countries.”
“On what subject? I know nothing about bees.”
“Don’t worry about that, Father. We have a lot of people here who know a great deal about bees. Look, I can see that you are not altogether hostile to the idea, so I would like, if I may, to continue this conversation when we both have more time. I will ring you again tomorrow. Good-bye for the present. And thank you.”
The phone went dead.
As Gerald rang the call-back number he wondered why so many people believed that the art of conversation is dead.
“Lost Property, British Museum.”
The voice could have been male or female. There was an attractive Scottish lilt to it. He cleared his throat into the mouthpiece.
“Mr Dunbar, please.”
“He’s on leave at the moment. Anyone else do?”
“Mrs Dunbar, perhaps?”
“Look, if this is some kind of joke, I’m going to ring off right now. Do you want Lost Property or don’t you?”
The belligerence came across loud and clear. Gerald stifled a chuckle of admiration.
“I do want Lost Property and I do want Mr Dunbar.”
“Well, you’re out of luck. I’ve told you he’s not here. Anything else? Or shall I put you through to the supervisor?”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary.”
Impetuously he added:
“We must meet. Ring me tomorrow morning.” He put the phone down.
Gerald spent a sleepless night. He didn’t know why he had suggested a meeting. He didn’t like meeting strangers. Truth to tell, he didn’t like meeting anyone at all. He rarely came face to face with anyone other than shop assistants, girls on the check-out, meter readers, postmen. There didn’t seem much point.
The telephone didn’t ring at all the next day. The following day it rang shortly after breakfast. He hesitated before picking up. His voice was not as confident as usual.
“Larry Grayson Fan Club. Dennis speaking. If you let me have your membership number, I’ll get your details on the screen.”
There was a pause and then a peal of laughter.
“Larry Grayson Fan Club. I like that. It’s the best yet.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. If you let me have your name and address I’ll send you an application form.”
There was a pause. Then:
“Do you really want to meet me? I don’t go out much.”
“Neither do I.”
“We won’t know what to say to each other, will we?”
“We’ve been talking to each other almost daily for some time now. We could have one of those conversations, if you like.”
“They’re telephone conversations. They’re not real.”
“Are we real?”
“I ... don’t ... know. Perhaps if we meet we’ll find out. If I ring tomorrow, who will I be speaking to?”
“Tomorrow? I don’t know. It’s usually a spur of the moment thing. Let’s say The Temperance League of Great Britain.”
“The TLGB it is then. You have a Miss Adelaide Norris there, I believe. Got an MBE in the last honours list, if I remember rightly.“
“Right, I’ll see that she’s here.”
He put down the phone. He had a lot to think about.
Gerald was sitting by the phone the next morning when it rang. In fact he had been in the same position for about half an hour.
“Temperance League of Great Britain,” he said. “I very much hope you’ll ask for Miss Norris whose award of an MBE was recently announced in the honours list.”
“Please don’t hang up,” whispered Gerald, the note of desperation clearly detectable in his voice. “I really would like to meet you.”
“Where?” asked the woman he knew as Grace Honiton.
“Anywhere you like. I live in London. And you?”
Yet more silence. Not quite so frightening this time.
“Piccadilly then,” said Gerald, adding with a nervous laugh, “Seems pretty central, wouldn’t you say?”
That was the point when things became easier. Date, time, precise venue were quickly agreed.
“How will we know each other?”
“I can carry a copy of the Central London Yellow Pages, if you like,” said Gerald. “Very appropriate given our - er -circumstances.”
“All right. We won’t try to contact each other before then. Agreed?”
Gerald suddenly felt himself on much safer ground.
“Shall I give Miss Norris a message then?”
“Just tell her … “
“On second thoughts, let’s keep this conversation between ourselves, shall we?”
“Probably the wisest course. She’s a very jealous woman, you know. Might not understand.”
“Quite right. Thank you for calling.”
Gerald hung up and stared thoughtfully ahead for some minutes. Then he walked into the bedroom and opened his wardrobe. Perhaps the time had come to invest in something a bit more fashionable.
… The End …