The New Mattress

This is a work of fiction. A short story of 1390 words.

Val and Terry were watching a late-night film, when they saw the advertisement in the commercial break.

A free mattress, any size, delivered to your door within two days. Nothing to pay at all, and free to return if you were not happy with it. The company are looking for testers for their new design, so giving them away free, to anyone who applied. Just call the number on the screen, and leave your details.

Terry snorted. “That has to be a con, I guarantee it. Who gives away anything these days?”

Val nodded. “True, but we could certainly do with a new mattress. Our one is ten years old, and it’s going flat on my side.”

“Well I for one am not falling for it”. Terry settled his feet on the sofa as the film came back on, having already forgotten the ‘free offer’.

The next afternoon, Val arrived home from her part-time job at 2 pm. She made a cup of tea, and settled down in front of the TV to watch her favourite quiz programme. During the break, she saw the advertisement again. This time, she not only noted down the telephone number, but also the website details. After the quiz, she checked the website on her laptop. It seemed genuine enough to her, like any normal site. There were the usual reviews from happy customers, and just the occasional moaner, talking about how they wouldn’t take away the old mattress, when they delivered the free one. But nobody even suggested it was a con, and not one said they had been asked for any money. You could apply for the free mattress online too, just choose the size, and how firm you wanted it. Val bookmarked the site, then closed her laptop, and went into the kitchen to start preparing dinner.

As they were eating later that evening, Terry suddenly looked up, seeming to remember something. “Oh, you know that bloke Don, from the warehouse? I’ve mentioned him before, always talks too much. Well, it seems like he got one of those free mattresses. Says it’s great, a king-size, well made, and very comfortable. Only trouble is, he is now stuck with the old one, as they don’t take them away.”

Val smiled. “So, not a con then? Did they ask Don for any money, anything at all.”
Terry shrugged. “Seems not. Don says it’s for testing purposes, but you get to keep it, which is just as well, as they could hardly sell it after. All you have to do is fill in a survey they send you. Don says he knows loads of people who have got them already. They even do small ones for kids, single size, all sorts.”
“I looked at the website today”, Val said after swallowing a mouthful of meat pie. “Seemed OK to me. What do you reckon, shall we order one while they’re still available?”
Terry put down his knife and fork, his plate almost clean. “Might as well, I suppose.”

Within a week, everyone they knew had a new free mattress. The delivery lorry was always around, and all their friends, family and neighbours were talking about the crazy new offer. It didn’t seem possible how any company could give away all those mattresses without going broke. There were now so many old ones needing collection, that men with pick-up trucks were knocking on doors, offering to take them to the dump, for a modest fee. It made the national news, such was the excitement. The company attracted the attention of an investigative reporter, who was sure it was a scam. But after being invited to tour the factory, and being granted an interview with the respectable grey-haired managing director, he could find nothing to criticise. The man was adamant that the free testing would establish the reputation of his company, and enable them to become the market leader, They had factored in the losses, and decided to use this unusual marketing strategy.

The fuss soon died down of course. Everyone in the town stopped talking about their new mattresses, all except the woman opposite Val and Terry, Mrs Noakes. She couldn’t believe her bad luck. Just one week before the advertisement appeared on television, she had taken delivery of a new mattress that she had paid over £1,000 for. She was probably the only person who hadn’t taken up the offer of a free one. She was not about to get rid of her expensive purchase, after all.

Val loved the new mattress, and went on about how comfortable it was, and why she liked it so much more than the old one. Terry was unimpressed though. “Just a mattress, what’s the big deal?” He was secretly pleased to have got it for nothing though.

Three months went by, and Terry began to notice something lumpy on his side of the mattress. Val found him pushing against it one night. “There’s something not right here, Val. I can definitely feel a lump, when I turn over. I reckon a spring’s gone or something. So much for the free offer.”
Val sighed, and walked around to push it, to see for herself. “It’s just settling in love, I don’t know what you are going on about.” Val had felt something, but she wasn’t sure what it was, and not about to give her husband the satisfaction of being right.

It was almost six months to the day it had been delivered, when Val finally had to admit to herself that there was something wrong with the mattress. When she had woken up that morning, she could feel something sharp digging into her side. After she wiggled around for a while, it had gone, and she got up to get ready for work. Waiting for the bus, she felt unsettled. Maybe Terry was right, and the offer had been too good to be true. She would check in the bank to see how their savings were doing, and perhaps order a replacement from Bedmaster, that big shop on the new trading estate. When that survey form finally arrived in the post, she would give the free mattress a bad review, that’s for sure.

When Terry got home from work that evening, he looked smug. “Told you that free offer was rubbish. Don and all the blokes from work are complaining about the beds feeling lumpy or sharp. Everyone’s moaning, you want to hear it. And to think we paid someone £15 to get rid of a perfectly good one.”
Val didn’t really want to tell him, but it was the same at her company too. “Rachel has phoned the mattress company, and they suggested turning the mattress over, and sleeping on the other side.”
“Terry stood up. “OK then, lets do that, give it one last chance.”

It was much heavier than they had both imagined, and it took the two of them all their effort to get the thing off the bed, and over on one side. The bedroom wasn’t large, and they had to do an awkward shuffle to tip it over, and get the reverse side into position. Once it was slid back onto the base, Terry pointed at the uneven surface. “See, no better on that side.”

Val heard a ripping sound, followed by a piercing scream the like she could never have imagined. The scream was coming from Terry. Something had burst out of the mattress, something shiny and blue-black, half man, half insect. Huge pincer-like jaws were clamped around Terry’s neck, and a hissing sound was coming from the creature, like steam escaping from a pot that was boiling over. Blood was pouring down over Terry’s chest, and six claw-like arms held him tight. Val ran for the door, and almost fell down the stairs, she was moving so fast. Her heart was beating rapidly, and her brain whirring, as she tried to take in the scene she had just witnessed. She burst through the street door in her stockinged feet, running into the middle of the road, her mouth opening and closing with the repetitive scream.

All around, similar cries and screams could be heard coming from every house. All except one.
Looking across to Mrs Noakes’, Val could see her at the window, smiling.
Standing next to her, was a respectable grey haired man.

Sonia

This is a work of fiction. A short story of 1160 words.

Sonia brushed her teeth for the full two minutes. She had an app on her mobile phone that connected to the electric toothbrush by bluetooth, and told her exactly when to stop. After brushing, she reached for the spray can of cleaner, and a disposable cloth. The sink was then cleaned thoroughly, before being dried with a second cloth. She then cleaned the toothbrush with a third cloth, before replacing it on the charging unit. Brush head facing out, of course.

Sonia planned to go out today. That had meant getting up very early, to allow plenty of time to prepare.

In the kitchen, the long row of switches by the sockets were all switched off. She switched one of them down to turn it on, then picked up the kettle, preparing to boil some water for her morning coffee. Running the water at the sink for just long enough to be sure it was clear of any pipe residue, she filled it to the quarter mark, as shown by the gauge at the side. Then she swirled the water around inside, and emptied it out, repeating the process before switching it on. She checked that the blue light had come on, so she knew it was beginning to boil.

Filling the kettle had caused some tiny droplets to splash onto the stainless steel surround of the sink. Sonia took a cloth from the cupboard underneath, carefully rubbing at the marks, until the surface gleamed once again. When the kettle boiled, she made her cup of instant coffee, standing at the sink to drink it slowly, rather than create the chance of any spills on the floor. It took a long time for the coffee to cool, and she drank it down quickly as soon as she could. She then washed the spoon and cup, dried them on a kitchen towel, and replaced them in the correct sections of her unit. The kettle had to be emptied of course, then shaken carefully, to remove all drops of water left inside. That done, she reached over to the socket switch, and clicked it to off.

On her way up to the bedroom to get dressed, she suddenly stopped. Turning to go back into the kitchen, she looked along the row of switches once again. She flicked each one down to on, them slowly pushed each one back to off. With no chance of leaving one accidentally activated, she was happy to continue with getting dressed for the day.

In the bedroom, she examined the clothing options. The dresses and jackets, skirts and tops. On the right hand side of the large double wardrobe, she looked at the black and grey selection. Darkest on the left, going down to light grey at the far right. The left hand side held the lighter coloured clothes, running from pure white on the inside rail, through to beige and brown at the front. Sonia decided that a grey dress and jacket would be in order this morning, taking out a matching combination, before closing the door, and locking it carefully with the small chrome key. Walking over to a tall chest of drawers, she opened the top one, where she knew the black underwear would be found. Bras on the right, panties on the left. Each matching pair laid side by side of course, to avoid having to put on any that didn’t go together. Underwear chosen, she laid the dress and jacket on the bed, before walking across to a low cupboard on the far side of the room.

Inside, her shoes were stored carefully, each pair in its own shoe bag. A small plastic window in each provided a view of the shoes inside, to save opening each bag to check. She decided on some matt-black flats. Taking them from the bag, she reached inside the left shoe to find the microfibre cloth she knew would be there. Using it to buff the shoes free of any dust, she replaced it in the bag, zipped it up, and put it back into the cupboard. Sliding out a fitted drawer above the shoes, she inspected the tightly rolled pairs of tights, each in a small box section of the drawer. They were arranged in colour order, the darkest pairs at the front, light colours at the back. Then each colour was arranged by thickness. Warm woolen tights further back, then ribbed or opaques, moving to sheer at the front. Sonia selected some barely black tights, and took some white cotton gloves from their own section. She would wear those when putting on the tights, to avoid getting any runs or snags.

Finally dressed and ready, she checked the contents of her small shoulder bag. She yawned as she did so. It already seemed like a long day, and she still hadn’t left the house. Examining the inside of the bag, she mentally ticked off the contents. Wallet and cards, mobile phone, tissues, compact mirror and lipstick, folding hairbrush, a ballpoint pen, just in case, and the house keys. She wan’t sure, so emptied out the bag onto the bed, and carefully replaced every item in order. When the bag was full, she checked through again. Just to be certain.

Sonia looked at her reflection in the hallway mirror, adjusting the shoulder strap of the bag so it sat just right above her left arm. She had one last look around the house, and turned to open the door. Once outside, she retrieved the keys from the bag, and began to lock up. The main lock had to turn twice to the right, with a secondary lower lock requiring just one turn, from the larger of the two keys. She used the larger key first, listening for the click as the lock secured. Changing to the normal door-key, she rotated it twice in the lock. Once both were done, she pushed hard against the door, just to make sure it was secure.

She was sure there was some give in it, so had no option but to unlock both, and repeat the process. Finally satisfied, she turned to walk along the path to the gate. But as her hand touched the latch, a frown came over her face. Something was niggling in the back of her mind. Sonia turned around, and unlocking both locks once more, she walked back into the house, carefully hanging her bag on a hook in the hallway. Back in the kitchen, she checked the row of socket switches. They all seemed to be off, but just to make sure, she switched them all on again, before turning off each one individually. She then noticed a water droplet at the side of the sink, and reached for a disposable cloth to mop it up.

Standing in her kitchen, Sonia blew out her cheeks. It was going to be a long day indeed.

Gilbert and the grizzly

This is a work of fiction, a short story of 1319 words.

Gilbert St.John-Henderson was a proud hunter. His trophies adorned the walls of the large country house that had been his family home for generations. Framed photographs of him standing triumphantly over his kills were arranged neatly on the grand piano in the music room, all carefully dusted daily by the skittish Mary, one of the housemaids.

His father, Gilbert senior, had taken him hunting almost as soon as he could hold a rifle. Stags in Scotland, Wild Boar in Germany, Alpine Ibex in Switzerland. When the older Gilbert died relatively young, he left his son well provided for financially, along with a collection of weapons that had been the envy of hunters all over the world. Gilbert was unconcerned about the businesses, and left managers to worry about them, as he took ship to India. He was also unconcerned about continuing the family line, as he really couldn’t be bothered with the silly young debutantes that sought his fortune. With his mother, Maude, safely locked away in an asylum since he was a child, he had no concerns in his homeland. So, he was off to lay waste to the fauna in far-away lands.

After tigers and elephants in India, he took the voyage back to Africa, arranging for the stuffed heads of his victims to be prepared, and sent back to the manor house to await his return. Africa was just the place for a type like Gilbert. If it could move, he shot it. Lion, leopard, cheetah, hippo, bull elephant, and even a crocodile. Filling in between the larger beasts, he whiled away the time with assorted antelope and gazelle, as well as warthog, wildebeest, water buffalo, and even a large baboon.

After more than a year on safari, Gilbert was running out of new things to kill. The trophies were arriving at his house, packed in crates filled with straw, and he sent written instruction to Fitzroy, the butler, as to how they should be displayed. He had decided to winter in Mombasa that year, and avoid the cold and snow of his home county. But a chance meeting with an American hunter caused him to change his plans unexpectedly.

He met Abraham W. Pike over drinks in a Nairobi hotel. Gilbert generally avoided the brash and uncouth Americans, but good manners would not permit him to decline a seat in the bar to the tall American. He guessed Pike to be close to sixty. His weathered face and unusually long white hair gave him the look of the outdoors. But a well-tailored suit, and a gentlemanly manner suggested wealth too.
“I hear tell you’re a hunting man, mind if I sit down?”. Pike was not pushy, and waited patiently for a reply. Gilbert pointed at the chair. “By all means”. They were soon chatting amicably. It transpired that Pike had arrived in Africa very recently, determined to hunt for an elephant, the biggest his guide could find for him.

Gilbert was all too ready to boast of his own kills, reeling off the list of slaughtered animals like his cook ordering meat from the local butcher. Pike nodded appreciatively, occasionally asking about which calibre of bullet was used, or what kind of rifle was preferred for each animal. The American seemed pleased with the information, going so far as to take notes on a small pad, using a tiny pencil wrapped in a silver case. Gilbert caught the eye of a passing waiter, and waving his hand over their empty glasses, indicated that a refill was required.

When the fresh drinks arrived, Abraham leaned forward in his chair. “Tell me Gilbert, have you ever hunted bear?” The Englishman scoffed. “Hunted bear? Why I have hunted black bear in many countries, and brown bear in even more. One day, I intend to travel onto the ice, and get myself a polar bear”. Abraham rubbed his chin, before replying. “But have you ever taken a grizzly?” Gilbert was a little put out. He had to admit that so far, he had never travelled to Canada or America, so was unlikely to have had the chance. The American finished his drink in one swallow, before suddenly standing, extending a hand. “I will say goodnight, and thanks for the conversation. Believe me young fella, you haven’t lived, ’til you’ve hunted for grizzly”.

Gilbert abandoned the idea of wintering in Mombasa. Instead, he arranged to take a ship back to England, to return home and make plans for a trip to America. After checking on the placement of his trophies, and arranging his photographs, he sat down to study the habitat and behaviour of the grizzly bear. He would have to wait until the spring, before making the long journey by ship and train to Montana, where he was assured he would find a good specimen. He travelled to his gunsmith in London, and ordered a .50-calibre rifle, the one most favoured by the hunters he had read about. Then he wrote to a man mentioned in a book he had read, someone who might know a guide to employ, when he arrived. The winter was long and dull, and the staff in the house learned to avoid their bad-tempered master.

The sea voyage to America was pleasant enough. Gilbert treated himself to a first-class cabin, and the company was tolerable. Even the long train trip was enjoyable, and he found the rich Americans he met to be jolly company, most interested in his travels and exploits. The journey by horseback into the mountainous region was less appealing, mainly due to the company of his guide. The sullen man had a skin resembling tanned leather, and he seemed to Gilbert to be far too old for such an occupation. After introducing himself as Trapper Hicks, he offered no real forename for familiarity. He called Gilbert Mister, and asked for his payment in advance. Even during an overnight camp, he hardly spoke, except to reply to questions, and the so-called food he served tasted of grease and slime, as far as Gilbert could tell.

Early the next morning, they tied up the horses, and walked down into a vast woodland area. Hicks had said that they needed to find the bear’s lair, as it would soon be leaving hibernation. “You wait in front, it will be an easy shot”. That’s hardly a hunt, thought Gilbert, but he complied, as he was in unfamiliar territory. After walking for an hour, Hicks touched Gilbert’s shoulder, then put a finger to his lips, indicating silence. On the other side of a small clearing, a pile of earth indicated the winter dwelling of a bear. Hicks leaned in close, whispering. “You set down here, I will go around, and cover the left”. Unwrapping the .50 calibre, Gilbert quickly loaded one of the huge bullets into the breech. He sat down on the firm ground, bracing himself by crossing one leg behind the other, looking down the long barrel until the sight was level with the entrance to the mound. Glancing to his left, he couldn’t see Hicks at all.

He could smell it before he saw it, a strong odour on the breeze from his right. Turning slowly, he watched in fascination as the huge bear bore down on him. It was moving so fast. Did bears really run that fast? Even as he swung the rifle, he knew it was too late.

The bear sat next to what was left of Gilbert. Still ravenous after that kill. Not enough fat, when you have been starving all winter. But it would give him the energy to move on that morning, hopefully find something other than sour berries, far from ripe. He licked a huge bloodied paw, and wiped the side of his head. A head that would never grace a wall in Gilbert’s manor house.

The steps to the bridge

Bridge steps

This is a work of fiction, a short story of 1670 words.

Steve liked to sit in the gap at the side of the steps. The spot gave him some protection from the wind, and the slight overhang above kept off the worst of the rain too. People hurried back and forth to and from this access to the bridge, and paid him no heed. The police rarely appeared, and it seemed that there was nobody to complain about him sleeping there. A small opening under the old stone steps provided the perfect place for him to store his sheets of cardboard, and the rolled-up sleeping bag. For almost a year now, this had been his small oasis, in a city full of rough sleepers. The sound of the traffic on the bridge above lulled him to sleep, and the subdued lighting along the riverside path was not too intrusive.

Steve noticed her red shoes first. Bright, poppy-red, against the dark grey worn stonework. His back against the wall, he watched as the colourful flowery dress appeared, a bright contrast against the dull evening gloom. Her hair was jet black, and shining in the reflections from the lamps by the river. The shoulder bag matched her shoes, swinging gently as she walked off along the path. The scent of her perfume came to him on the stiff breeze, as her heels clicked on the cobbles, like the sound of a horse trotting in the distance. A woman dressed for summer, in late November. Steve retrieved his bedding from the opening, and prepared to settle down for the night.

It must have been two nights later, perhaps three, when Steve heard that distinctive sound again. Muffled by the fog lingering over the Thames, it was hard to make out where it was coming from. He leaned forward, turning his head to look up the steps. But she appeared from the mist right in front of him, facing him this time; heading for the steps, not away from them. He was startled, and felt silly at his alarm. The same colourful dress, shoulder bag, and shoes. The perfume now overwhelming, close up. Steve smiled as she came closer, chancing a friendly nod too. But she carried on as if she couldn’t see him, and headed up the steps without hesitating.

Rolling a cigarette, Steve stretched his legs out inside the tattered sleeping bag. Thinking of the woman, he suddenly realised that he hadn’t been able to make out her face. Was she young, or old? Pretty or plain? Pale skinned, or swarthy? Perhaps it was the fog, or the unexpected speed of her approach, but he had no memory of a single feature. One thing was certain. She must have been cold, wearing that summer dress.

As the winter arrived in earnest, Steve dreaded the coming Christmas season. Revellers walking along the embankment, other people heading to the train stations in the capital, off to spend time with family and friends. He had manged to get hold of two extra heavy coats, and would wear them both at night. At least he would be warm enough, as long as the rain held off.

The familiar sound woke him from a troubled sleep. The click-clack of heels, coming down the steps this time. Sure enough, he could make out the red shoes in the gloom, and soon got a whiff of that heavy perfume. As the familiar dress appeared, he did something out of character. Quickly struggling with the zip of the sleeping bag, he freed himself from the bedding, and stood up. He felt an overwhelming need to follow her, although he didn’t know why. By the time he started walking, he could no longer see her in the distance. But he could make out the sound of the heels on the cobbled surface. He quickened his pace, and finally caught sight of her up ahead, walking purposefully next to the riverside wall. He got close enough to see her hair, wavy and deliberately styled, still shining as before. He walked faster, wondering what to say to her, watching his arm extend to touch her shoulder, as if doing so of its own accord.

Then she was gone. As his arm reached out, she just vanished into the gloom, the sound of the heels stopping, the smell of the perfume not lingering in the air. Steve looked around. There was no other path, nowhere to turn off to, no seat to sit on, or steps leading up to the street above. He grinned, feeling silly again. It must have been his imagination, that was the only explanation.

Over the next few days, leading up to the dismal prospect of the 25th, he found himself waiting for her. Arriving early at his spot, he listened for every sound of clicking heels, his neck craning up the steps, hoping to see those red shoes, and colourful dress. But there were no red shoes, no strong perfume, and no shining black wavy hair. Steve knew a place where he could get a nice dinner on the day. The same charity provided a seasonal meal for people like him every year. They would sing carols, give out paper hats, and even small gifts of warm socks and hats. Like last year, he would go there again. A few hours in society would be just enough, and the hot food would be welcome.

Back under the steps, he felt full for the first time in ages. He had a new hat, and they had filled his flask with tea before he left. A kindly old lady had told him he could stay if he wished, they had mattresses on the floor. Steve had thanked her, telling her he had somewhere he had to be. Christmas night by the river, the area deserted and peaceful, cold and clear.

For some reason, he decided not to get into the sleeping bag. He had a strange feeling that he couldn’t put his finger on, and he was soon proved right. She was walking straight at him this time, and he was sure she would notice him. He would say something. ‘Merry Christmas’ would be acceptable, given the time of year. Her lipstick was as bright as her shoes, her face pale, from what looked like an application of heavy powder. The wavy hair obscured one eye, but above the other one, the eyebrow was thin, and darkly outlined. The bright dress was longer than he remembered, and as she mounted the first step, he could see that she was wearing old-style stockings, the kind with a seam up the back. Steve stood up.
“Merry Christmas”.

She carried on walking up the steps without replying. She hadn’t even looked in his direction, or acknowledged his presence. For a moment, he was crestfallen. But what had he expected? Why would this woman have bothered to enter into conversation with a shabby homeless man anyway? The perfume pricked his nostrils, and he started off up the steps after her, still unsure what to say when he caught up.

At the top of the steps, the bridge seemed unusually busy. He twisted and turned to avoid the people walking along in both directions, and noticed the cars and buses in the long line of static traffic. There were lots of old cars, and the buses looked different too. Perhaps they were filming something? Steve got over against the balustrade of the bridge away from the bustle on the pavement. Looking right and left, he spotted the woman standing at the far end. She was lighting a cigarette, and casting around as if expecting someone. Could she be waiting for me? Steve thought that was unlikely. It was unusually warm on the bridge, and he unzipped the heavy top coat, before pulling off the woolen hat. A man walked past in a short-sleeved shirt, holding the hand of a small boy, who was wearing shorts.

Taking off the second coat, he walked in the direction of the woman. His shoes felt suddenly tight, and looking down, he didn’t recognise the smart black lace-ups on his feet. He felt very hot, and ran a finger around his neck, amazed to discover that he was wearing a collar and tie. That stopped him in his tracks. Where had his clothes gone? The track suit trousers he had been wearing were now smartly pressed khaki, and the matching jacket tightly buttoned, with a leather belt around the waist. On the left hand side of his jacket, a medal glinted in the light from the lamps on the bridge. Steve found it hard to breathe. He ran a hand through his hair, dislodging a smart cap, with a shiny black peak. His hair was no longer long and unkempt, but neatly trimmed, with something oily in it. He stood still, transfixed on the moment.

Her voice was louder than he had expected it to be, and her smile wider than he could have imagined. Her accent was harsh, local, very London. “Where you been? I’ve been waiting for you I have. I don’t know, keeping a girl waiting. I thought you was a gentleman”. She leaned forward and kissed him, smelling of that same perfume, and tasting of tobacco. It was a perfect kiss.

The two men in yellow jackets were wandering along the embankment. One of them was pushing a large open cart, and the other was throwing things into it. Discarded water bottles, sheets of cardboard, empty cider and wine bottles. Every now and again, the council cleaned up the area, especially when the Christmas holidays gave them the chance to work unhindered by pedestrians. The man pushing the cart pointed at a small opening by the gap under the stairs to the bridge. His overweight and tired-looking colleague reached in, removing a tattered sleeping bag, a shiny chrome flask, and three large sheets of cardboard. He threw the rubbish into the cart, and they carried on walking.

My thanks to Sarah Vernon for the prompt, and the photo.

https://firstnightdesign.wordpress.com/

 

Have you seen this girl?

This is a work of fiction, a short story of 1100 words.

Sandy was dreaming again.

As usual, the people were nice. The man had a thick jumper on, and it felt good to snuggle under his arm. The lady stroked her hair, and kissed her head. She smelled good, a mixture of perfume and soap. The lady was wiping her lips with a tissue, something like ice cream or frosting on them, Sandy thought. They were happy, heading home after being out somewhere, wrapped up against the cold air of the early evening.
That was the good dream.

The bad dream was more like a memory than a dream, because she sometimes got that one when she was awake.

She was sleeping, cuddling Mildred tight to her chest. The elephant toy was made of corduroy, and had huge ears, with tiny soft tusks, and a trunk that was sewn onto its face. Sandy called her Mildred, and she felt just right. Then there was the cold. It was suddenly cold, and the light wasn’t on in her bedroom. Something over her face, held tight, no time to cry out. Lifted from the bed by someone strong, as if she weighed nothing at all, wrapped in something that smelled like it had been outside, cold and damp. There must have been two of them, because one held her close in the back of the van, and the other one drove.

But this was the good dream, and she didn’t want to wake from it. She didn’t want to leave those nice kind people, the ones she was sure must have been her Mom and Dad. But wake she did.

Sandy climbed off of the mattress, and squatted over the large bucket in the corner of her room. When she had finished, she walked across to the mattress again, and picked Mildred up from the floor, placing her carefully back onto the pillows. If the light came on, she knew he would be coming soon. He always put the light on just before he opened the door. She crossed to the small sink, and turned on the tap. She didn’t need any extra light, as she had become used to the darkness, over time. She felt for the washcloth and ran the water over it. When she had washed, she pumped some toothpaste from the dispenser onto the brush, and cleaned her teeth.

She had to always be clean when he came, he insisted on that. If she wasn’t clean, he would leave. He would turn the light out, and just leave. No food, no magazine to look at, and no time with the light on. That was the punishment for not being clean. Sandy had learned to be clean.

She had no real idea how long it had been. She thought she might have been five or six when they took her, but couldn’t be sure. There was no calendar, no TV, no radio, and no windows. She had never learned to read other than some easy books, and didn’t know how to tell the time before it happened. Her only sense of time was when the light came on, and then went off again. Her life was ruled by a naked bulb, in a light fixture on the ceiling. When her hair got long, he would cut it. Not neatly of course, but Sandy never knew what it looked like anyway, as there were no mirrors. He did the same with her fingernails and toenails too. Sat her down, and told her to sit still as he worked quickly.

Her body was changing, she could sense that. Her chest was developing, and her feet getting bigger. She sensed getting taller by her legs moving further down the bed, and having to bend at the sink. When her clothes didn’t fit, he brought different ones. They were not new ones, she could tell that, just different ones. They were crumpled, and smelled of the ground. The magazines were mostly just for the photos. Sometimes, they were animals, and strange people. She could make out some of the words, but not enough to read the captions. Other times, they were picture stories, young girls in nice dresses, riding ponies, or shopping with friends. She so loved those magazines, and looked at them over and over.

At first, she had cried. Then she screamed for as long as she could. An old woman came, and slapped her until she stopped. Then she hugged her, and told her to be a good girl. She let Sandy keep Mildred, as long as she behaved. When she had problems with her teeth, she gave her tablets to make her sleep, and when she woke, up her tongue would feel the gaps where the teeth had been. Once, she had a fever, and the old woman gave her some syrup, and slept with her on the mattress, holding her until she felt better. The food came twice a day, and the old woman emptied her bucket as she ate, bringing it back washed and clean, leaving it in the corner, with the plastic lid on top. Back then, there were picture books; Fairies, Princesses, animals that could talk. The magazines came later.

Sandy didn’t like the man. He came for the first time when she was a little older, bringing her first magazine. He didn’t smell good, and spoke very loudly. When he took his clothes off, Sandy looked away, but he turned her head with his hands, and made her look. He told her to undress too, and when she didn’t, he slapped her until she did. Then he made her get under the covers, and when she screamed, he slapped her until she stopped screaming. After that, he was always the one who came. He brought the food and the magazines, turned the light on, and emptied her bucket. They never spoke now, as Sandy had learned fast what she had to do. And the quicker she did it, the sooner he would leave. If she was lucky, she had time to look at her magazine, before the light went out.

Just twenty-three miles away, a tired-looking housewife drove her car along a street in the direction of her house. On the lamp posts, old paper leaflets fluttered, each bearing a photo of a pretty young child. If you looked carefully at the faded print, you could just make out the header, “Have you seen this girl?” The woman pulled up on her driveway, dreading walking through her door to face the routine of the evening.

She smelled good, a mixture of perfume and soap.

Merlot time

This is a work of fiction. A short story of 1340 words.

Adrian closed the door and threw his keys into the elaborate glass dish on the hall-stand.
There were no shoes underneath it, so he guessed that Fiona was late home from work. Again. He couldn’t be bothered to remove his suit jacket, but pulled his tie loose, and opened the neck of his shirt. Wandering into the open plan apartment, he headed for the kitchen area.

He took a large glass from the clear cabinet, and slid a bottle of wine from the built-in wine rack underneath. He had to buy the wine these days. Ever since Fiona had decided to stop drinking, she had made such a song and dance about the shopping bill, he had agreed to buy his own wine. Shopping bill. That was laughable. They never went shopping anymore. Fiona now ate a healthy lunch near to where she worked, so didn’t see the need to have much in the house. “We shouldn’t eat so late. A good lunch should be enough to see us through.” How many times had he heard that?

It was alright for her. Five feet tall, and a tiny size six. A few mouthfuls of organic hummus and an apple would fill her up. Adrian thought about the good days. Those times when they went for a nice Italian meal after work, or ordered in pizza and watched a DVD. Can it have only been three years? It felt like another life. He cracked the screw top on the wine, wondering why she still insisted it had to be in the wine rack. She had sneered at his £5 a bottle supermarket Merlot. “Please don’t ever offer that stuff to our friends, whatever you do.” The soft Edinburgh accent that had once been music to his ears now sounded like someone dragging a crowbar down a metal fence. She paid more than that for her sparkling Swedish piss-water that probably came out of a tap on an industrial estate in Stockholm.

Filling the glass almost to the top, he walked over and collapsed into one of the god-awful designer chairs that she had insisted on buying. They looked like something made from discarded parachute harness attached to an old bike frame. But each one had cost almost a month’s salary. Adrian let his eyes fall on the sofa opposite. No arms, tiny chrome feet, and a lime-green covering that looked like sick. About as comfortable as sitting at a bus stop.

The apartment was very smart and trendy of course, Fiona would have wanted nothing less. Still flushed with lust and love, Adrian had agreed to buy it, even though the mortgage was almost half of their joint income. Not long after moving in, he was less enamoured with having the bedroom in the living room, and a bathroom that was only separated by a wall of glass bricks. Not a single place for privacy, despite the huge square footage. At least it had a great view of the river over the Juliet balcony, but the lack of outside space of any kind soon made him feel housebound. And once she had her nest in the city, Fiona started to become a very different person indeed.

She openly admitted that she had selected him from the many available on the up-market dating site. Tall, athletic build, good teeth, and a steady job, he fitted the bill perfectly. Adrian could now see behind those superficial reasons. He had few friends to bother her, and although he was educated, his degree was not a patch on her double first. On top of that, her salary was almost twice as much as his, and she never let him forget that. The tiny woman wore the trousers in their relationship, though not literally, as she spent her life in expensive dresses, and shoes that cost even more. Tied into the purchase, afraid of failure, he had tolerated her decision-making. The holidays in exclusive villas in Tuscany, the work colleagues who hardly acknowledged his presence at functions, and the gradual process of moulding his life into hers, until it was really just hers.

A promotion had made her even worse. Spending stupid amounts on things like tiny kettles, or a huge coffee machine that dominated the worktop. “You don’t even drink coffee!” He had said, with a wry smile. “But it will be there for guests.” She always said that, but they never had guests. One thing about this huge apartment, it had nowhere for guests to stay. Just ‘pieces’, as she called them, dotted around to imply good taste and high income, eschewing comfort, or the feel of home. Not that it was a home, at least not for Fiona. She worked later and later, and was constantly out after work too. It was all so important of course, and had to be done. “Networking, don’t you see?” Driving home the point that he could be home by six, because he just had an ordinary job.

Much later, he was aware of the door opening, and the clatter of shoes dropping onto the wood floor in the hall. The summer evening meant it was still light as she walked through into the living area, and perched on that repulsive sofa. She had spotted the empty bottle, and stared across at him, slumped in the parachute webbing chair. “I see you started drinking early again. Did you eat anything?” He grinned, and shook his head. When he had glanced into the huge refrigerator that took up half the kitchen, he saw it contained a half-empty box of Mediterranean couscous, two lemons, and six bottles of Swedish water. The irony was that the thing was connected to an Internet app. That had made him laugh out loud.

Fiona stretched out her legs until her tiny feet made contact with the acrylic coffee table. That table had once adorned a house in the 1970s, and even then was horrible to look at. She had bought that at an auction, during her shabby-chic period last year. She reached forward, plucking at the shiny sheer tights that covered her toes. The seams on the reinforced sections had become twisted in her shoes, and she carefully adjusted them back into place. He looked at the feet that he had once lovingly kissed and caressed, the perfectly even toes wiggling under the mesh. They now seemed disgusting to him, like her voice, and the ribs that showed along the sides of her body.

“I had a late meeting with Sanjay, and we went for some Tapas after. If you are not going to talk, and just sit there, I might as well go for my shower, and have an early night.” Her tone was businesslike, non-confrontational. He hated the lack of emotion, the resistance to anger. If you never had an argument, how could you enjoy making up later? Adrian stood suddenly, wobbling a little as he walked over to the cupboard. When she heard him slide the second bottle of wine from the rack, he saw her disapproving shake of the head. “Really? Another bottle?” Still a flat monotone. She didn’t even bother to turn around to admonish him, just addressed his empty chair.

Enjoying his second glass of Merlot from that bottle, Adrian once again marvelled at the fact that it had not smashed when he had hit her with it. A full swing with his strong right arm had delivered the blow with considerable force too. Enough to knock her sideways off of the sofa, onto the floor. She hadn’t seen it coming of course. No time to cry out, or move. Topping up his glass, he thought it strange that there was no blood. She hadn’t moved since it happened, and after a while, he realised that she wasn’t going to. Her half-open eyes stared through the railings of the balcony, appearing to be watching a party boat making its way down the river; bright lights, and noisy revellers.

He raised the glass in her direction. “Cheers!”

A Magazine Photoshoot

When I received the copies of the latest Longshot Island magazine containing my published story, Daniel suggested I might like to take some photos of the magazines in unusual places. As the sun came out today, I decided to do just that. This is the first of two parts.

All photos can be enlarged for detail by clicking on them.

Ollie found a relaxing riverside bench on which to enjoy reading his copy of Longshot Island. It was a warm day though, and he went into the river for a drink. When he came out, he had forgotten where he had left that precious periodical, so rushed off so fast in search of it, he blurred the photo!

Over on Hoe Rough, we saw this sign warning of Private Property behind the fence. However, this copy of Longshot Island was so determined to show how good its contents are, it tried to jump the wire.

Further on, I was delighted to find a rare example of a Longshot Island magazine tree. The previous issue had already fallen to the ground, as it was over-ripe. However, the new editions are just right for picking now.

Nearby, I was excited to see a rabbit reading my own story in the very latest edition of Longshot Island. I approached him to see what he thought, but he was scared of Ollie, so ran off down his rabbit-hole.

Part two follows soon!