Lest We Forget

trench

I entered this story into an Isle of Wight Library Service short story competition to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. To my huge surprise I won and I share it with you exactly 100 years from the start of The Great War.

Night Watch

Jimmy Cartwright sat smoking a cigarette, whilst the others slept. He relished those quiet times and would always volunteer for the least popular shift in the dead of night. His comrades thought he was strange but didn’t make a fuss as it meant they didn’t have to rouse from their beds at an unearthly hour. He took another drag, inhaling acrid smoke deep into his lungs. Jimmy didn’t care what anyone else thought; he needed this time to think. It was impossible during the day, knee deep in mud and under bombardment from Fritz. Those few dark, silent hours kept him sane.

He thought about all the friends he’d lost, especially Jack who he’d joined up with at the start of the war. He remembered how excited they had been when they went down to the recruiting office, full of vim and vigour, so eager to take the King’s shilling and show the Hun what for. They joined the Salford Pals battalion, alongside fellow workers from the cotton mill and former schoolmates. He had never felt as proud as when they’d marched out, resplendent in their new uniforms, and everyone had cheered them on their way. The generals and majors had thought that serving shoulder to shoulder with men from your home town would increase morale. Instead, it had decimated a generation of young men from industrial towns and cities.

Jack was killed in ’15; not in a heroic act but as he slept. A cowardly chlorine gas attack claimed him and 150 others. Most had died quickly, but Jack and a dozen others lingered for several days. Jimmy was given leave to visit him in the field hospital but instead of his friend who he’d grown up with, he found a pale, blue lipped creature clawing at his throat, unable to draw breath. Jack couldn’t sleep in his gas mask so had stopped wearing it at night and paid the ultimate price. This nightmarish image had replaced that of his lanky friend with the lopsided grin and it was one of Jimmy’s eternal regrets.

Jimmy shook his head as if to clear the morbid thoughts and took another long draw on his cigarette. Instead, he turned his contemplation to Florrie, his beautiful girl who he would one day wed. She wrote to him in her childish script, with cartoons illustrating that week’s news. One showed Father Strong giving one of his interminable sermons while his congregation snoozed and little zeds floated up towards heaven. Another depicted Mr Threlfall, the butcher, chasing a dog out of his shop that had pinched a link of sausages. Her letters were the highlight of his week and he would keep the most recent one in his shirt pocket and read it so many times it would become creased and tattered within days.

They met at Weatherall’s mill where Jimmy was a warehouseman and Florrie worked the bobbin winding machine. Florrie had caught Jimmy’s eye when, as they were leaving one night, she released her curly, dark blonde hair from the confines of the pins that secured it and he watched, mesmerised, as it cascaded down her back. She had smiled at something her friend had said and two dimples formed on her cheeks; from that moment on, Jimmy was smitten.

Jimmy courted Florrie slowly, mainly because her father was a strict disciplinarian and would not allow them to meet unchaperoned. Florrie’s younger sister, Myrtle, followed them like a bad smell and relished reporting any wrongdoing to their father. They were allowed one chaste kiss at the end of each meeting, although they would sometimes hold hands in the picture house when Myrtle was engrossed in the latest Mary Pickford film.

Jimmy loved Florrie with all his heart and he was certain that she felt the same way about him. It was his love for her that had prevented him from proposing before he signed up as he did not want her to feel obliged to marry him if he returned from war an injured man. He imagined them living in a small terraced house with half a dozen tow-headed children, while he would grow vegetables on an allotment and whittle toys for them out of wood. If the war was over by Christmas, as everyone said it would be, they could marry next spring and Florrie could have primroses and daffodils in her bouquet.

Jack’s mother, Mrs Lewis, sometimes wrote to him since she was now on her own. The same year she lost Jack, her husband suffered a stroke and died several months later. Both only children, Jack and Jimmy had grown up as close as brothers so Mrs Lewis considered him one of her own. Jimmy made sure he made no mention of the death, boredom or rats that plagued the trenches but instead kept his letters light-hearted, telling tales of camaraderie amongst his fellow soldiers, so that she wouldn’t worry. Anything else wouldn’t have made it through the censors anyway. He’d heard tell of letters which had arrived at their destination looking like paper doilies, there’d been that many words removed.

Jimmy shifted slightly to make himself more comfortable and lit another cigarette. He was staring at the black velvet sky and noticed that a sliver of moon had risen and the first hint of light could be detected at the horizon. He was so engrossed that he didn’t notice a movement at the end of the trench.

“Jimmy, is that you love?”

“Mam?”

“Of course it’s me love. Who else would it be?”

“What are you doing here, Mam?

“I had to make sure my boy was safe and sound, didn’t I? Come over here, Jimmy, I can’t see you properly.”

Too gobsmacked to argue, Jimmy dropped his cigarette and walked towards the sound of his mother’s voice. As he reached where she had been, Jimmy heard a high pitched whistle and an ear-splitting explosion as a shell landed where he’d been sitting moments before.

Jimmy levered himself out the mud where he’d been thrown and waggled his index fingers in his ears to try and stop the ringing. He moved slowly towards the dugout, avoiding the sharp splinters of wood, some of which were smouldering from the heat of the impact. As he approached, Jimmy realised that no-one could have survived such a direct hit and they’d probably never find their bodies either.

Jimmy came to the conclusion that he must have fallen asleep and dreamt that his mother had appeared, although it hadn’t felt like a dream and he wasn’t prone to sleepwalking. For several days he was concerned that he might face a court martial for dereliction of duty but his CO believed him when he said he’d left his post to relieve himself just before the shell hit.

He wrote to his mother explaining that he’d had a near miss and her reply shook him to the core. His mother wrote that one of her close friends had received a telegram informing her that her son had died so Mrs Cartwright had prayed for Jimmy until the early hours of the morning. When she had finally dozed off, she dreamt that she had visited Jimmy in the trenches, just to make sure he was safe and sound.

The War to End All Wars

copyright Concept Art

To mark 100 years since the start of World War 1, the Isle of Wight Library Service held a short story competition recently. This is the flash fiction story I submitted and hoped that no-one else would choose the same unusual subject matter. Flash fiction stories are very short and this is exactly 250 words long.

No Man’s Land

It is early morning, not long after the sun has risen. The air is crisp, the sky is cerulean blue and I’m flying over the trenches with a very important cargo.

Troops are sleeping fitfully below me and all is quiet. I’ve made journeys like this many times before and the trick is not to get complacent. Stay alert and keep your eyes peeled.

Out of the corner of my eye I see him; an enemy fighter closing in. I take evasive action by veering to the right but he’s on my tail. Although he’s faster than me, if I swerve and jink enough I can out-manoeuvre him. Even as I dodge and weave, I realise he’s gaining on me. If I fail, the mission is lost and so is my life.

Changing tactics I fly over No Man’s Land, that godforsaken sea of mud, razor wire and blasted trees, hoping to disorient him. Diving low, I’m so close to the ground that I can see puddles rimed with ice and disembodied limbs strewn about the minefield.

I still haven’t managed to shake him off so I swoop back over the trenches but this time snipers start firing on the enemy. They miss their target but I’ve almost reached headquarters so flap my wings with all my might. I reach the sanctuary of the pigeon loft just as the peregrine falcon makes his final strike. He wheels away, screaming in frustration, grasping nothing but my tail feathers in his talons.

One … Two … Three

1_2_3

Story ideas are strange things. Sometimes they just pop into your head, fully formed and all you have to do is write them down.This is one of those and it is possibly the weirdest story I’ve written. I don’t know what it means but I do like the ending.

The Trio

I was working late at my laboratory when I heard a knock at the door. I felt so close to a breakthrough that I begrudged any interruption, especially as I was due to go on holiday with my family the following day. Sighing, I opened the door to three hirsute men, one of whom wore round, dark glasses. They were so similar in appearance, they must surely be related.

“Can I help you?” I asked rather brusquely, keen to get back to my work.

“Dear sir, it is we who can help you,” replied the man who stood forward of his comrades. “Please let us in and I can assure you that it will be worth your while.” As he spoke, the man on his left used sign language to interpret to the third man what was being said.

“I’m very busy and have no wish to buy anything. Good night.” With this comment I made to close the door only to find that the man had wedged his foot between door and frame, preventing its closure.

“How dare …”

“Really sir, I promise that you won’t regret it,” interrupted the man as he pushed open the door and walked through, guided by one of his companions.

I closed the door and followed them into the laboratory, taking a deep breath as I went.

“Please allow me to introduce myself,” said the man with dark glasses. “I am C N Weevil, Esquire and these are my brothers,” he gestured in their direction and the two men nodded slowly in unison.

“Make it quick, I am engaged in important work.”

“Sir, I understand that you are a medical man working on finding an anti-bacterial?”

“Yes, yes,” I replied impatiently.

“Well, we would like to show you medical equipment that will be invaluable to your research.”

I didn’t even attempt to keep the anger from my voice, “I said I was busy and was in no mood to buy anything from you. Please leave. Now.”

“But sir, we have some very high quality merchandise to show you.”

“I’m not interested. Get out!”

As I moved to usher them out, I brushed against some Petri dishes which I’d piled on the corner of a bench, causing them to topple like dominoes. The signing man reached out and started to gather them up.

“Leave them!” I shouted. “Just get out.”

I pushed the Weevil brothers out of the door and slammed it behind them.

I was shaking with anger as I collected the glass dishes. Luckily none were broken, but I was concerned about cross-contamination if I had replaced the lids incorrectly. I stacked them more carefully this time and, after giving the bench a cursory tidy, departed for home.

In early September, I returned from my holiday refreshed and keen to resume my research.

After spending a few hours going through my correspondence I turned my attention to the Petri dishes I had left a month ago. The first few I inspected showed no change then I noticed that a fungus had contaminated one of the dishes. I was about to discard the culture when I realised that the colonies of staphylococci bacteria had been eradicated where the fungus grew. Peering closer I saw that the fungus was shaped like an oval, exactly the same size and shape as a thumbprint.

“The Nobel Prize for Medicine is awarded to Dr Alexander Fleming for his discovery of penicillin.”

As I make my way up the steps to the podium, I glance out around the audience and see the Weevil brothers sitting in the front row. C N Weevil Esquire’s hands cover his dark glasses, the signer has covered his mouth and the remaining brother has his hands over his ears.

Love and Marriage

wedding day

What could I write on the subject of weddings that hadn’t already been said? I had an idea to write from the point of view of a bride who was about to be married in very unusual circumstances…

The Wedding Day

My name is Park Hye-jin and today is my wedding day. I woke early, my stomach full of butterflies and opened the curtains in the hotel to be greeted by a city cloaked in smog. No matter, I thought, as I won’t be outside much today anyway. I unzipped the cover on my wedding dress and admired the intricate beading around the bodice and the simple lines of the dress. It is beautiful and suits me perfectly. A mischievous idea not my own pops into my mind, “What a shame you won’t be noticed today of all days.” I shake my head as if to dislodge the thought. It is my special day and I am more than happy to share it with my brothers and sisters.

I met my fiance two days ago in the hotel lobby. The True Mother has selected him as my husband and I trust her judgement in all things. We were chaperoned by one of the True Mother’s marriage representatives as she was too busy organizing the wedding day. My fiance’s name is Rodrigo and he is Brazilian. He has shoulder length dark hair, a nice smile and smells of coconut. I do not speak Portuguese and he cannot speak Korean so we smiled and nodded, not understanding a word of what was being said. Our chaperone was Japanese, with a few words of my language, so I was able to comprehend more than Rodrigo about the details of our wedding day. As the Church doesn’t advocate marrying someone you’ve never met before, we have spent some time together, with the chaperone keeping a discreet distance. From Rodrigo’s biography, I know that he was an insurance salesman but now works for the Church in Sao Paolo. He plays the guitar and writes songs in his spare time. Rodrigo will know that I worked for a fashion house before converting and I now work in the Church’s marketing department in Seoul. What my biography won’t tell him is that my parents were unhappy with my choice and have not spoken to me in three years. I am not sad about this as the Church is my family now and it has given me a new life and a handsome husband.

Our happy day will be tinged with sadness in that the True Father will not be with us to celebrate our union. It is almost six months since he passed and I miss him every day. He was the Messiah and the reason why so many of us joined the Church, giving us purpose after being lost in a lonely wilderness for so long.

I apply my make-up and arrange my hair simply but elegantly, then carefully step in my wedding dress. I place the silk scarf around my neck and flex my fingers in the lace gloves I slip onto my hands. I stand in front of the floor length mirror and smile shyly at the virginal bride who returns my gaze.

On the cab ride to the wedding venue, I fiddle with the bouquet, my palms clammy from the humidity and nerves. I will meet Rodrigo there and calm myself by thinking of his kind smile and wondering if he will write a song for me as a wedding gift.

The cab drops me a the stadium and there are so many people waiting outside. I have arranged to meet Rodrigo by the southern entrance so make my way there. My heart leaps as I spot him looking so handsome in his tuxedo. I rush up to him and he kisses me on the cheek. Then he holds my hands and steps back to regard me properly. “Beleza!”, he says, grinning and showing his fine, white teeth, so I know this is a good word and he is pleased with me.

We wait in a large room and I grasp Rodrigo’s hand to help settle my nerves. All of a sudden there is movement and we are ushered through a tunnel which leads into the stadium where we are met by rapturous applause. This is the first mass wedding ceremony since the True Father, Reverend Moon, passed and seven thousand people of all nationalities have travelled here to be joined together as man and wife in the eyes of the Unification Church. We will honor him by being happy, working hard to make our marriage last and raising our children in the True Faith.

Beardy Weirdy

Image

Beards. Love them or hate them, they’re everywhere at the moment. Achingly fashionable hipsters have them so they must be cool. Damn, even George Clooney has been seen wearing face fuzz! This story is about an unusual phobia, the fear of facial hair.

Pogonophobia

My name is Claire and I have an irrational fear of beards. There I’ve said it, now go ahead and laugh like everyone else. I know it’s peculiar but that’s the thing about phobias; you can’t explain where they come from.

Growing up in the 70s was difficult when long hair was fashionable and if a man didn’t have a beard, he’d at least have a porn star moustache or huge mutton chop sideburns. To this day I can’t hear “I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day” without feeling a little panicky remembering Roy Wood’s long, frazzled beard on the Christmas Top of the Pops. I don’t recall what he actually looked like but that beard haunts my dreams around the festive season.

I’ve pondered at length about where the fear might have originated. Was I spooked by a hirsute well-wisher looming over my pram? Did I confuse bearded men with the Big Bad Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood? Certainly when I watched the film Company of Wolves when I was a teenager, I became very distrustful of men whose eyebrows met in the middle. I’m sure that’s why I’ve never fancied Liam Gallagher.

The 80s weren’t much better for someone with my unusual phobia. Beards weren’t fashionable but designer stubble was. As well as suit jacket sleeves rolled up to the elbow and eye-searingly bright colours, cultivating a time-consuming unshaven look was considered cool. Just think George Michael. My first few halting encounters with the opposite sex were marred by prickly facial hair (theirs, not mine, I hasten to add) and I tried to persuade myself that they weren’t really beards but who was I trying to kid?

Halcyon years followed as beards became unfashionable again. Goatees threatened to become popular until everyone realised how ridiculous they looked. I had my pick of clean-shaven men, fell in love and married one of them and settled down to live happily ever after. Sadly, a fairytale ending wasn’t to be when I discovered that my husband didn’t believe in monogamy and was still sowing his wild oats far and wide.

This left me not-so-young, free and single in my late thirties. It was extremely daunting getting back in the dating saddle, so to speak, but there were still some men out there. Older, not necessarily wiser, and with a lot more emotional baggage but they were willing to keep playing the dating game. Then disaster struck and it was all Jeremy Paxman’s fault.

Paxo grew a beard and it was all over social media. He was even nominated for “Beard of the Year” by the Beard Liberation Front, if you can believe such a thing. Although he is about as far away from being a style icon as you can get, this act of laziness seems to have been the catalyst for other men to follow suit. I knew I was in trouble when I noticed that young, bearded men were being used to advertise stuff on TV as if it was perfectly normal! Beards were suddenly everywhere just as I was taking the first tentative steps in my search for love.

I was invited to a dinner party by my old friend, Sarah. She explained that her husband’s friend, Matt, would be there to make up numbers but it wasn’t a set-up. Not at all. I laughingly accepted, looking forward to an evening of good food and wicked gossip.

I arrived at Sarah and Dave’s promptly and could hear laughter as I rang the doorbell. Dave answered the door and ushered me through to the lounge. There stood Matt, tall and good looking but for one major flaw. He had a beard. As the evening progressed I realised I liked him. A lot. He was funny and had a lovely smile. He would have been perfect if not for the facial hair.

Matt and I exchanged numbers at the end of the evening and I spent a couple of days alternating between hoping that he would and wouldn’t call. On the one hand he was attractive, funny and charming and on the other hand he had a beard! He eventually did make contact and we arranged to go out for dinner. I decided that I would be honest and explain about my phobia as early as possible and address the issue.

We’d chosen to meet at a curry house, both trying to pretend this wasn’t a “date” date and that we hadn’t made such an obvious connection. I was shown to a table where someone was already sitting. I turned to the waiter in confusion, about to explain that there’d been a mistake, when Matt stood up and greeted me warmly. I did a double take; the beard had gone! I stood open mouthed as Matt explained, “When Sarah said you didn’t like beards, I didn’t realise that meant you have a phobia of them.” I realised that my goldfish impersonation made me look like the village idiot so closed my mouth. “I fancied a change and I’m sure those new fangled moisturisers will help me cope with the shaving rash.” He smiled his lovely, non-beardy smile.

Better the Devil You Know

Image

What’s in a name? I had fun with this one finding alternative names for you know who, some are familiar but most are not.

Is It Done?

My name is Pazal and I’m a devil. Not in a Jack-the-lad, wrong side of the tracks, euphemistic kind of way but a real life demon; one of Hell’s foot soldiers. If Old Nick is the Godfather, then I’m one of the Goodfellas.

Being a lowly fiend, my workload is quite run-of-the-mill and involves collecting souls from those humans who have signed a pact with Mephistopheles. This isn’t as easy as it sounds as the rich and famous are used to getting their own way and think they can wriggle out of the deal in their dying moments. My job is to make sure they don’t escape and to drag them to Hell, literally kicking and screaming if that’s what it takes.

The excuses have to be heard to be believed, but the lamest, most used one is mistaken identity. “You’ve got the wrong man”, they cry. “I’d never sign my soul away for fame and fortune”, wail untalented pop stars whose vocals sound like mating foxes. “I’d never risk an opportunity to get to heaven”, this from people who choose underage groupies for their sexual gratification. Then the tears start and that’s my favourite bit; unnaturally perfect faces become blotchy and smeared with snot. Why they think emotional blackmail will work on a demon, I’ll never know.

I was called into Beelzebub’s office the other day, hoping for promotion but fearing admonition as he can be a tad mercurial. I’ve been escorting bartered souls for hundreds of years and have a hankering to be elevated to incubus. On the other hand, I don’t want to be torturing souls for all eternity. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of opportunity for invention but I’d miss being topside. Humans have such capacity for love but spend so much time discovering ways to make each other miserable. Their lives are over in the blink of an eye so you’d have thought they’d forget about being petty and enjoy themselves. It’s all so entertaining.

“Ah, Pazal. Come on in.” I approached the ebony desk and stood before the Lord of the Flies. “You’ve been doing sterling work capturing souls but I thought it was high time you had a chance to flex your muscles and show me what you’re really made of.” I unfurled my wings slightly and stood up straighter. Promotion here I come.

Well, that really wasn’t what I was expecting. Not at all. The Prince of Darkness has asked me to accompany him on a mission, to be his wingman you could say. He has thousands of followers, most of whom he has little time for, disdainfully calling them goat killers. The way they take themselves so seriously, performing Black Masses and invoking his name, really makes him chuckle. However, one group has piqued his interest and that’s where I come in. Lucifer has always had an eye for the ladies and in a change from the usual arrangement, someone has offered his wife in exchange for fame and fortune. Cowardly and caddish is something we like down here so a deal was struck.

Now, the wife is an innocent and unaware of this pact. She’s also very beautiful which no doubt sweetened the deal for the Fallen Angel, bearing in mind it’s not her soul he’s after, if you catch my drift.

The chosen night arrives and we sit quietly in the Son of Perdition’s office while the ceremony is performed, waiting for the moment when we’ll go above ground. Belial is a handsome man but he likes to conform to human expectations, so is sporting his Satan™ look; think Tim Curry in Legend, except his horns are bigger.

The Satanists have just sacrificed a goat so the floor is crimson and sticky with blood everywhere. That’s our cue. The Lord of the Flies materialises in front of his congregation, towering above them, glowing red with a backdrop of fire and dry ice. He is a magnificent showman and most people look terrified, a few of them faint and one even soils himself. An excellent result and I’d expect nothing less.

All eyes are on Abaddon so no-one notices as I move towards the unconscious woman. She is classically beautiful with a pink flush to her cheeks and perfect bone structure. My lord and master has chosen well for the mother of his child. As I gaze upon her perfect countenance, her eyelids flicker and open and I am looking into the most mesmerising blue eyes I’ve ever seen. “Who the hell are you?” she demands, struggling to sit upright and breaking my reverie. This wasn’t supposed to happen and I’m a little dumbstruck. I cast a glance over my shoulder and am relieved that no-one has noticed us yet.

“I’m Pazal and you are guest of honour tonight. You must sleep, don’t you feel tired?” I say, wondering why the drug her neighbours administered hasn’t worked. “Minnie gave me a drink but I don’t remember anything else until I woke up just now. What’s going on over there?” I block her view as she tries to look past me but she gives me a shove and her eyes widen in her porcelain face as she beholds El Diablo. “Is this some sort of fancy dress party? Your outfit is very good.” She reaches out to pull what she thinks is a mask and tweaks my nose instead. “First class prosthetics. I have a friend who does make-up on films and she’d be very impressed.” She hops off the bed and moves around me, nodding appreciatively at my wings and running her fingers along my tail.

“So, what’s the occasion? Why is everyone dressed up?” I notice that the rumbling sound you didn’t so much hear as feel deep in your chest has stopped and, without turning, know that everyone is looking at us.

“WHY IS SHE AWAKE?” the Father of Lies demands in his booming voice.

“Oh, is that an animatronic? It’s very convincing. Who’s doing the voice? Are they behind a curtain like the Great and Powerful Oz?” She approaches the King of Tyrus and tugs at his hoof. “Wow, someone has spent a pretty penny on this lot! Is it a really cool graduation party?”

“Rosie, don’t you understand, this is all for you,” Minnie says as she tries to pull her away from behind Samael’s robe. “But it’s not my birthday,” exclaims Rosie as a tiny frown creases her alabaster brow.

“No, you’ve been selected to be the mother of a very special child,” Minnie explains in soft tones.

“Oh, but I’m not ready to have kids yet. I’ve only been married a short while.”

“Guy has made a pact with the Devil and in return for him becoming a famous movie star, you will become the mother to the Antichrist.”

“I don’t think so,” splutters Rosie.

“But you don’t have a choice, Rosemary, the pact has been signed in blood and is now binding,” Minnie’s tone is becoming harsher.

“I should have listened to my mother, she said never trust an actor. Handsome he may be but he’s as vain as the day is long. How dare he do this to me!” Rosie turns to address the Evil One, “Now you listen to me.”

“YOU CAN’T …”

“No interruptions, Mister. This pact isn’t between you and me, it’s between you and the scumbag I married and as you haven’t made him famous yet, as far as I see it you can’t hold me to anything.”

“BUT …”

“As I have no intention of going through with this then you’ll need to discuss it with my worthless, low-life weasel of a husband.”

“WAIT …”

Rosie turns on her heel, strides across the room and out of the Castavet’s apartment.

“Is it done?” asks one of the Satanists who fainted and has just come round. His question is greeted with a resounding silence and some very bemused looks.

Choices, choices

daffodil

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We all know the feeling; to snooze or not to snooze? That gave me the idea for this story which is about how one decision can make all the difference to a single day …

Two April Mornings

Chris Evans shocked Sian awake at 6.50am. She’d been having a lovely dream involving Bradley Cooper on a beach but it slipped away as she started to surfaced. Wondering how someone who must get up in the middle of the night to present the breakfast show could sound so cheerful, she hit the snooze button and rolled over. The forecast was for another cold, rainy day so ten more minutes in her warm bed wouldn’t make any difference.

 

A shaft of sunlight crept across Sian’s pillow and shone directly into her eyes. Not used to being woken naturally, she lay for a moment listening to the dawn chorus and picked out a robin’s liquid song. Peering at the clock she read the time as 6.03am. Too early but now wide awake, she couldn’t think of any reason not to get up. She hopped out of bed then felt around with her toes for the flip flops she used as slippers, shrugged her dressing gown on and, with a large flourish, opened the curtains. The sun had only just risen but she could tell it was going to be a beautiful spring day.

 

Ian Broudie’s vocals woke Sian from her slumber a second time. She liked the Lightning Seeds so decided she would definitely get up once this song had finished. Perversely, she always set her alarm early to factor in several snoozes, as she really wasn’t a morning person. Sian made a deal with herself that when Chris Evans started talking again she’d get up, but he’d probably gone for a “comfort break”, as the Americans coyly phrase it, as Sense morphed seamlessly into Heaven. She loved this one so extended her pact and sang along with Emeli Sande in her head, really going for it on the chorus.

 

Afforded extra time by such an early start, Sian decided to make proper coffee, usually only a weekend treat. As the percolator burbled and gurgled to itself, she checked her phone and answered a couple of emails while absentmindedly putting bread in the toaster. The smell of cinnamon from the flavoured coffee wafted around the small, brightly lit kitchen as her black and white cat weaved and threaded himself around Sian’s ankles. Only when Bertie reached up and embedded his claws in her thigh, did she put the phone aside to feed him. Taking a moment to marvel at how he could purr and inhale food simultaneously, she then turned her attention to the recently ejected toast and, slathering it with butter and orange marmalade, sat down to eat.

 

After a record three favourite songs in a row, Sian was now running late. She trotted barefoot to the bathroom, closing the door on Bertie who scratched at the carpet in hungry frustration. Not having time to dry her hair, she scraped it into a severe bun then dressed quickly in a white shirt and charcoal grey trouser suit. Pausing only to feed Bertie and down a glass of water, she grabbed her coat and umbrella, slammed the door to her flat and dashed out into the grey morning.

 

Savouring the last of her coffee, Sian stood at the sink and looked out at the pristine day. The recent wet spell had washed everything clean, grass glowed with a vitality only seen at this time of year and the early morning light made everything sparkle. Uplifted by the prospect of a perfect day, Sian flip-flopped to the bathroom, joined by Bertie who sat on the toilet seat and kept her company while she showered. She exfoliated using a range of expensive, delicately scented products then washed her hair with an exotic guava and lime shampoo. Wearing a towel turban, Sian padded back to her bedroom where she rubbed fruit fragranced body butter into her shower-soft skin, then dried her dark hair and, on a whim, curled it into ringlets. A summer dress with tiny violets scattered across it were matched with mauve ballet pumps and the ensemble was completed by a pair of oversized sunglasses and a lightweight cardigan. Sian left for work earlier than she ever had before, humming Tom’s Diner which had been the last song of that morning’s hat trick.

 

Struggling to keep her umbrella from turning inside out, Sian hurried to the bus stop. As she reached the end of her road, she saw the number 6 glide past. Just her luck that it hadn’t been delayed by a few too many red traffic lights today. Decision time. Wait another twenty minutes for the next bus, walk the whole way and get to work looking like a drowned rat or try and hail a taxi. Just then the number 3 pulled up at her stop and she quickly calculated that she could take it as far as the city centre and hop off before it disappeared off towards the hospital. She climbed aboard trying not to spray the driver with raindrops as she folded her umbrella while also fumbling for her bus pass.

 

With time on her side, Sian decided to walk along the river and savour the dazzling morning. Daffodils bobbed their heads in the light breeze and ducks sat in small groups on the riverbank, keeping a beady eye out for danger. Weeping willows were coming into bud, daisies raised their little faces to the sun and catkins trembled. New life burgeoned everywhere she looked, from bumblebees collecting pollen to a moorhen sitting on her nest. Despite ambling as slowly as possible and pausing frequently to soak it all in, Sian still reached the gallery far too quickly.

 

Sian pressed the bell as they approached her stop and the bus halted abruptly, almost making her lose her balance. As the doors opened, a gust of wind propelled rain in her face and she decided against trying to open her umbrella as she wasn’t sure she’d win the battle. Head down, shoulders hunched and fists jammed into her coat pockets, Sian walked briskly towards the gallery.

 

As Sian unlocked the door and entered the gallery, a bell tinkled above her head. Her first job was to put the kettle on then check emails to see if there were any changes to today’s plans. Half an hour later Angus arrived, rushed up to her and put a hand on her brow, “My dear, are you alright? I was worried that you might be feverish.”

“No, I’m fine thanks.”

“It’s just I’ve never known you be this early before.”

“Ha ha, very funny. My ribs are aching from laughing so much,” Sian deadpanned. “Would you like a coffee?” she called over her shoulder as she headed to the kitchen.

“You must be delirious, my dear. In early and offering me a hot beverage.”

“You may own this gallery but that doesn’t give you an excuse to be rude to me.”

“Rude, my dear? Never! Only pulling your leg a teeny bit. A little gentle joshing between comrades. Merely a spot of idle banter to liven the day.”

 

Sian rushed through the door and the bell jangled to announce her arrival.

“Late again, my dear. If I was a proper boss, I’d be obliged to give you a warning or dock your pay or something equally tedious,” Angus said, without looking up from the laptop.

“Sorry Angus, it won’t happen again.”

“Don’t be silly, my girl, it happens at least twice a week. Now, your penance is to venture forth and procure two large lattes and a selection of delectable sweetmeats in an attempt and lift our spirits on such a dreary day. Your treat.”

Sian gave him a tight smile, turned on her heel and walked back out into the rain.

 

Putting his mug of coffee in front of him, Sian broke the news, “John Barber isn’t coming in this afternoon.”

“Oh, how tiresome. Now when are we supposed to find time to organise his exhibition?” Angus clicked on the calendar icon on the laptop and started scrolling through dates.

“No, he’s coming in this morning as he’s travelling to Rotterdam later.”

“Naughty girl,” Angus admonished. “Don’t shock me like that, it’s unkind.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

“What time should we expect him?”

“He was a bit vague but definitely before lunch.”

 

Sian backed into the gallery, holding the coffees and with a bag of Danish dangling from her arm.

“My dear, where have you been? Mr Barber and I have been waiting an age for refreshments.”

“I’m sorry, the queue was horrendous. It must be the weather.”

As Angus approached her to relieve her of the coffee, Sian hissed, “I didn’t think he was due until this afternoon?”

“Change of plan, my dear. Put those pastries on a plate, if you would be so kind.”

Angus handed one of the cardboard cups to a fair haired man and started to sip from the other. They moved out of her earshot so she picked up the phone to chase the stationery order which should have arrived yesterday.

 

The bell tinkled and Sian stepped out of the kitchen just in time to see John Barber, artist of the moment, framed in the doorway with a halo of sunlight around him. With tousled blond hair and rather short in stature, he wasn’t conventionally handsome but had an undeniable sex appeal which he wore like a casual jacket.

“Hello, Mr Barber, very pleased to meet you. I’ll just introduce you to Angus Rutherford.”

“Hello, and you are …?”

“I’m Sian, we spoke on the phone. I don’t want to sound like a stalker but I’m a huge fan of your work.”

Having conducted introductions, Sian made a move towards the kitchen to make coffee.

“Please, wait a mo. Angus, do you mind if Sian joins us? I’d like her opinion as she’s an expert on my work, apparently,” John winked at her.

Angus paused, “Well, I don’t see why not. The girl must have gleaned something in her short time here. My dear, go and fetch the photocopies of the exhibition paintings and you can enlighten us as to what should go where.”