Reunion

reindeer

Rudolph called order, shouting to be heard above the discontented grumblings of his fellow reindeer. This was the inaugural meeting of Reunion, the newly formed reindeer union, and someone had already mentioned going on strike.

The reason for this talk about industrial action was Father Christmas’s recent behaviour; Nick, as he urged everyone to call him, had become an entrepreneur. Tired of having to fly around the world on Christmas Eve, delivering presents to children and eating more mince pies than were healthy for a man with his cholesterol level, Nick had decided that Father Christmas should become a franchise.

Santa plc would sell franchises to portly, white-bearded, ruddy-cheeked men with their own reindeer, provide them with presents to deliver to their town and they would earn money by doing personal appearances in department stores during December. Nick thought this was a genius idea as he would be able to stay at the North Pole drinking a lovely bottle of Shiraz instead of all that horrible sherry.

The only thing he hadn’t considered was militant reindeer. If Nick had his feet up on Christmas Eve what was going to happen to them? Either they would be made redundant and put out to pasture or they would have to be sold to another Father Christmas©. If this happened, would their current terms and conditions be honoured? Out of this uncertainty, Reunion was formed.

Rudolph, as newly elected “grotto steward”, approached Nick with a list of conditions and if he failed to meet them, the reindeer would go on strike for twenty four hours beginning at 6pm on Christmas Eve. As Nick read the list, he become more and more red in the face until Rudolph feared his head would explode.

An hour later, Nick was starting to come round to seeing things from the reindeers’ point of view. He agreed to ensure their terms and conditions were retained if they were transferred and offered a reasonable redundancy package if they were let go. The one thing they couldn’t agree on was whether the reindeer should be given double the amount of carrots they currently received as they worked the night shift on a bank holiday. Rudolph and Nick carried on arguing long into the snowy night.

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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.

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.

Scary Dialogue

I’d been writing for a while before I realised that I’d been avoiding dialogue and that was because it scared me. I suggested an exercise at my creative writing group that was all dialogue so I couldn’t escape it and I actually enjoyed it. I now find dialogue a lot less daunting but still don’t use it as often as I should.

The Telephone Call

“Hi Dad, it’s Neil.”

“Hello son, I’ll get your Mum.”

“Wait a sec, can’t we …”

Too late as I hear the thud of the receiver on the telephone table and there’s a pause as he shuffles from the hall into the sitting room to fetch Mum. I fiddle with the phone cord then notice my palms are sweating so wipe them dry on my jeans.

“Neil, darling, how are you?”

“Fine, Mum, I need to speak to…”

“Did you hear about Mildred next door? You know Sparky, her Jack Russell? Remember he bit you when you were twelve? Well, he’s taken to sleeping at the bottom of the stairs and she tripped over him in the middle of the night. She broke her leg and is hobbling around on crutches. Bad break by all accounts and she’s complaining terribly of the pain.”

“No I hadn’t heard. Mum, I need to tell you…”

“What about Joan and Norman’s daughter Chloe getting into university? Durham they said. That’s up near you isn’t it?”

“Not really. I’m in Manchester about 100 miles away.”

“Silly me! I never was any good at geography, especially nowhere “oop north”. What a shame you’re not closer to each other. You always got on so well as children. Chloe has just split up with her boyfriend, you know. Of course, a pretty girl like that will get snapped up again in no time. She’s always had a lot of admirers. When are you coming home again?”

“Not until Christmas, I told you that last time we spoke.”

“Such a pity. She’ll probably have found another boyfriend by then.”

“Mum, there’s something …”

“I’m sure it was Durham or was it York? I always get the two mixed up because of the Vikings. Is York closer to you?”

“Yes, Mum, but I have something important to tell you.”

“What’s that, dear?”

Now’s my moment so I take a deep breath.

“You know how much you love those Doris Day and Rock Hudson films and were really sad when he died?”

“Yes dear, but what’s …”

“Well, you know how surprised you were when you found out he was gay but that didn’t stop you enjoying his films?”

“I couldn’t believe it! What a waste of a handsome man.”

“Well, the reason Chloe and I never got together is because I’m gay too.”

There’s a pause and a muffled thump which I hope is Mum sitting down on the stairs.

“You’re gay?”

“Yes, Mum.”

“Like Rock Hudson?”

“Yes, Mum.”

“How long have you been, you know…?”

“I think I’ve always known.”

She whispers, “Did you used to dress up in my clothes?”

“Mum, I’m gay not a drag queen!”

“I don’t know! This is all a big shock to me.”

“Sorry Mum. But no, I didn’t dress up in your clothes or wear your makeup.”

“I need some time to get used to this, Neil, but I’m glad you told me. Why did you decide to tell me now?”

“Well, I’ve met someone. It’s early days but I think it could be serious so I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not anymore.”

“I need a cup of tea so I’ll pass you over to your Dad. Bye, love.”

I wasn’t expecting this and am frozen like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

“Hello son. Your Mum says you want to tell me something?”

“She didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

I take a deep breath. “Dad, I’m gay.”

“Well, I knew that. Your Mum may not notice what goes on under her own nose, but I do. This friend of yours, will you be bringing him home for Christmas?”