Parting Gift

The following post was written in response to the Creative Ink Writing Prompt on 15 Dec:

The present sat, unopened, for weeks. As if preserving its integrity would bring him back, somehow make it all un-happen. But it wouldn’t, obviously, she knew that.  They all did. But nonetheless they had formed a tacit agreement that the gift would not be touched, nor moved from its place on the living room floor, despite the tree and all its fallen needles having long since been cleared out.

And so they carried on with life, or at least some semblance of it; Matt going to school, Abi to her part time job to make some cash for uni. Philippa painted on her face and cooked them dinner each night. But she spent her days wandering the heath with Barney the dog; bare faced and aimless. She kept it together for the children, thanks to the prescription drugs she had tearfully begged her doctor for. They blurred the edges, made the pain a little less acute. But when they started to wear off reality crept back in, and she was faced once more with the abject terror of being alone, in an empty bed. And an empty life.

He had been a healthy man. An active man. And yet. Cancer could be so indiscriminate. Sometimes no amount of spinach smoothies and early morning workouts could stave it off. When it’s your time, it’s your time. That’s what he’d always said. What a tragedy that his time had come so soon. Just past the post of fifty, the milestone Philippa had dreaded for years. But not him. He was ever the optimist. And now he, and all his optimism, had gone.

Today the children were both out; Philippa couldn’t remember where although she knew they would have told her. She made a cup of coffee, her brain on autopilot, and carried it through to the living room. As much as she wanted to avoid looking at the present, her eyes were drawn to it like magnets. He had known, when he bought it, that the time he had left was short. She knew he had made peace with that in a way she couldn’t imagine herself ever doing. After twenty years of marriage, losing him was like losing the use of her limbs. They had so much still to do, so much still to see. How could she do any of it without him?

Their big plan, once both kids had left home, was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They had talked about it often, sat at the kitchen table late into the night, drinking Malbec and plotting out the route they would take. Philippa couldn’t imagine herself climbing a mountain, but with him by her side she knew she could do it. With him by her side she could do anything.

She was on the floor now, kneeling with the present on her lap. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, splashed onto the Christmas wrapping paper. Whatever was inside would, she knew, break her heart. But it was time. For the kids’ sake she had to move past this. It was part of the process. So she steeled herself and started to peel back the layers. Inside was a head torch, a pair of hiking socks and the Dr Seuss book they had read to the kids when they were little. He had marked one of the pages with a yellow sticky note. Philippa opened it on that page and laughed aloud when she read the rhyme:

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!

As sad as she felt, the pain that had held her in its thrall since his parting loosened its grip just a little. She took a deep breath and exhaled. With his parting gift, he had set her free.

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Chasing Sunset

I wrote this for the Creative Ink Writing Prompt, but also for a special friend, my twin soul, who is forever chasing summer, and who turns 30 tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Twin xx

She had always loved sunset; the romanticism of one day coming to a close, with the promise of another soon to follow. Flying at sunset was the best, that feeling of cheating time. But it was all too fleeting. You could never cheat time, not really. And that was why she had to leave.

Liv’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She slipped her hand inside and pressed down on the power button until she was sure she had killed it. She couldn’t risk the onset of unwanted emotion. The only way out of this was cold stoicism. And when she got there, well, then she could deal with things once and for all. It would be over.

She didn’t know how long she had been asleep, but the red-rimmed sky had finally succumbed to the blackness of night. Liv rolled her neck from side to side, wincing as she cricked it back into place. The cabin was dark, save for occasional spotlights beaming down onto insomniac passengers like alien spacecraft.

Something brushed her hand, making her jump. It was the little girl sitting across the aisle. By Liv’s estimation she was four, maybe five. Tight black curls and fresh pink lips. Cherubic. Liv looked across at the girl’s mother. She too was beautiful, or at least she would have been were it not for the trail of dribble descending from her open mouth.

“Hi,” the girl whispered.

“Hi,” Liv whispered back, ignoring the tightness in her chest. Her heart.

“I’m Becky. What’s your name?”

“Liv.”

The girl regarded her with such a look of scrutiny that Liv felt unnerved. Of course she didn’t know her secret, she couldn’t know it. And yet.

“Can we be friends?”

Liv smiled. “Of course.”

Becky’s face shone from the inside out. Her lips parted to reveal a gap-toothed smile. Liv wondered if she was perhaps older than her original estimation. She watched as the girl reached into the pocket of her pinafore dress, screwing her face up in concentration as she tried to retrieve something. Eventually she pulled her hand out with a flourish, extended her arm and unfolded her fingers. In the centre of her palm was a turquoise stone. “Take it,” she said.

Liv picked up the stone and ran her finger along its surface. It was smooth and round, and though it was dark she could make out flecks of glitter in its swirling pattern. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It’s yours,” the girl replied.

“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly…” She offered the stone back to the girl, but she shook her head and refused to take it.

The girl’s mother stirred beside her, opened her eyes and looked down at her daughter. She followed her gaze to Liv, and when her eyes alighted on the stone in Liv’s hand her breath caught in her throat. “Becky, darling,” she said, her voice measured but tense. “Why did you give this lady your stone? Don’t you want it?”

The little girl looked up at her mother and shook her head. Her mother smiled as if this meant something momentous, but Liv had no idea what. “Thank you,” she said to the girl. “I will treasure it forever. Truly.” The girl’s mother smiled, and Liv noticed she had tears in her eyes. She blinked and looked away. Nothing more was said.

When they had touched down and were waiting to disembark the plane, Liv found the courage to turn on her phone. It buzzed immediately. She had known it would. Before she looked at the message she went through the motions of passport control and baggage reclaim. As she stood at belt six, there was a tap on her arm. It was the girl’s mother. The little girl was playing with a doll several feet away, lost in her fantasy. “I wanted to explain what happened on the plane,” the woman said. “It must have seemed strange.” Before Liv could reply, the woman spoke again. “You see, Becky lost her twin a year ago. In a car accident.”

Liv felt her lungs deflate. “I’m so sorry. How terrible for you both.”

Despite her brightly coloured and expertly applied makeup, the woman’s grief was obvious. But Liv sensed something else behind the sadness, maybe a spark of hope? “It’s been the hardest year of my life,” she said. “And for Becky, well, it’s hard to imagine how deeply this has affected her. She’s only five, and the two of them were thick as thieves.” She looked over at her daughter. “The thing is, that stone she gave you on the flight. It belonged to her sister.”

Liv pulled the stone out of her pocket. “Please, take it back. I would never have taken it if I’d known.”

The woman smiled. “But that’s the thing. She wanted you to have it. For a year she’s carried it around with her everywhere, desperate not to let it out of her sight. Her therapist said it was part of the grieving process, that she would let go of it when she had turned a corner. And now, well, now it seems she has. I just wanted you to know. Whatever you said or did on that plane, thank you.”

The woman called her daughter and they turned to leave. As they walked away Liv heard the woman ask why she had given the stone to the lady on the plane. The girl replied: “She needs it more than me Mummy. Turquoise is for strength, she has to be strong for her daughter.”

The arrivals hall began to spin. Liv steadied herself on her trolley. She put a hand to her tummy and stroked it. How had the girl known? She couldn’t have known. Remembering the message on her phone, Liv took it out and read it. It was from Mark, of course. Just seeing his name on the screen choked her up.

Seven words.

The best she had ever seen:

I KNOW. I LOVE YOU. COME HOME. X

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Drive

As he drove, his hands clenched tighter on the wheel, his feet pushing harder down onto the pedals. Sixty, seventy, eighty. His very own white knuckle ride. Ninety, a hundred, a hundred and ten. Sweat pooled at the base of his spine, seeping through his linen shorts. Could he really do this? Why not? Now he had nothing to lose. One hundred and twenty, thirty…STOP. Feet slamming on brakes, autopilot mode engaged. Swerving, nearly not quite hitting. Her. Standing in the middle of the road. Wearing just a cotton sundress. Carrying a rose. The car span around and around, almost not quite tipping. Silence spun a web around him. Finally, finally the car came to a halt, nosing the shrubbery at the side of the highway.

He coughed. Shifted in his seat. Lifted one hand, then the other. Patted himself down. No obvious sign of damage. Cuts and grazes at most. Surely a miracle. If he believed in them.

She was beside the car now. Porcelain skin, fair hair, eyes wide with shock. “Hey, are you okay?” Biting her lip. Standing girlish.

“Fine,” he said, as if this was quite normal. “You?”

“Fine,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “I’m sorry, that was my fault. I could have killed you.”

He smiled. “I could have killed myself.”

He climbed out of the car. They stood a while in sun-soaked silence as the tarmac baked beside them.

“Where you heading?” he asked.

She looked down at the rose cupped in her hand. “Anywhere,” she said. She raised her head; blinked away tears.”You?”

“Same.”

A current of knowing flowed between them. He broke it to observe the car. “It doesn’t look so bad. I think I can fix it.”

She sat down on the bare earth and watched him as he worked. From time to time he cast a sideways glance, noticing her bare feet. Slim wrists. The tattoo on her ankle.

When he was done, he closed the bonnet, slid into the driver’s seat and tested the engine. It sputtered into life. He looked at her. “Lift?” She smiled, torch-eyed. Climbed into the car beside him. As he pulled onto the road he paused. “Your rose,” he said, pointing to the dusty patch of earth on which it lay.

“I don’t need it,” she said with a shrug. “Not anymore.”

He put his foot down on the pedal. And drove.

Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink photo prompt 20th October 2016

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Writing Prompt: The Dying of the Light

My entry for the Creative Writing Ink Image Prompt Competition from w/c 6th October 2016, inspired by this picture:

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The light was dying, and the fire had gone out. Without Brin’s firelighting skills she wouldn’t be able to relight it; she was too little and she didn’t have the skills. The valley looked idyllic now, with its alluring carpet of grass, but come morning it would all be frozen stiff. As would she, if her brother didn’t return. Rowena’s jaw set in determination. She couldn’t just give in. What would her Mama say? And her Papa? She was only five, but she was smart. Everyone said so. Before the flood took them away. She gulped her grief deep down inside and tried to focus. Her empty belly rumbled. In response, she did the only thing she could think of to do: sprang up from her haunches and ran, as far and as fast as her legs could carry her.

Some twenty minutes later, when she reached the towering valley walls, she found a thicket of small trees. Not thinking of the bears that might be lurking there, nor of the fate of her brother (who she knew should have been back hours ago with food for their dinner) Rowena strode purposefully into the thicket and began to gather wood.

When she returned to the camp it was almost dark, but the full moon helped her find her way. She hunkered down over the burnt out embers with the small bits of dry wood and kindling she had found, and set to work. She concentrated hard on setting the sticks at the right angle, carefully arranging the kindling in the crook of the bottom piece of wood she had partially hollowed and laid out, just as she had seen Brin and Papa do many times, but never tried herself. Until now. And now, she knew, failure would almost certainly mean death.

Brin walked slowly across the valley floor, dragging his badly wounded leg behind him. He had, he knew, been lucky in his stand-off with the bear. His wounds would heal – he would survive – but that didn’t make his return to camp any less painful. Or diminish his growing concern about his sister’s welfare. He’d had no choice to leave her, but what would his father have said? “Protect her, Brin, to your dying breath”, were his dying words. And Brin would protect Rowena, of course he would. But to protect her he must also bring her food. Otherwise they would both starve. As he walked he felt the weight of the dead rabbit over his shoulder. Hold on little one, he willed. Hold on.

The smoke reached his nostrils before the light from the flames. He stopped and rubbed his eyes, incredulous. As he grew nearer he could just make out the tiny figure lying beside the fire, wrapped in a small fur. He ran to his sister’s side, scooped her up onto his knee and held her close. She stirred from her slumber, opened her eyes and smiled. “Brin?”

“It’s me, little one,” Brin said, returning his sister’s trusting smile. “Was it really you who got the fire going?”

Rowena nodded. “All by myself,” she said proudly. “Like you and Papa used to do.”

Brin laid the rabbit on the ground and Rowena’s eyes widened. “Well you are cleverer than I even thought possible,” he said. “And, to celebrate, we will have rabbit for dinner tonight.”

The Lurking Menace

The boy sits on his haunches, watching the world as it passes him by. His heavy coat is as black as his heart. His eyes are narrowed like a cat’s. He drags on a cigarette, long and hard, sucking the smoke into the furthest reaches of his lungs. With a flick of his wrist the butt is on the pavement, ground out beneath the heel of his steel-toed boot. He waits.

The girl leaves her apartment. The door slams shut behind her. Outside the air is cold, her breath manifested in a cloud above her head. She fiddles with her earphones, tucks her phone into her armband. She pulls her hat down low and starts to jog.

He sees her approach before she is aware of his presence. Seizing his advantage he springs into her path, grips her firmly by the shoulders.

She screams as his hands are upon her, shakes him off with surprising ease, runs faster, and is gone. Safe from his grasping reach.

He slinks back into the shadows, this wolf in men’s clothing, his face twisted into a grotesque smile. Because he knows something she doesn’t: His capacity to wait far exceeds her capacity to run.

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NaNoWriMo Day 26: The Impossible Dream?

Given the recent terror threats in Brussels, and the ridiculous amount I’ve had on at work, I could perhaps be forgiven for falling behind with my NaNo novel. Nonetheless it’s frustrating to be four days away from the end of the challenge feeling uncertain as to whether I will manage to complete it. I’ve had a good bash at translating my idea into a story, but along the way, as so often happens when you lack a solid plan, I’ve wandered off, allowing my characters to do exactly as they please, often with most unpleasing results. Still, in its current form my ‘novel’ (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense) stands at a not unimpressive 37,397 words – which is precisely 37,397 words more than I would have written had I note decided to partake in the challenge again. So I suppose whatever happens from here on in I should at least be proud of that. But now I’m so tantalisingly close to crossing the virtual finish line I’m not sure I can let it drop. Maybe four days is enough to cram in almost 13,000 words. Maybe this dream is not impossible. Maybe…Just maybe…

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Santa Comes to Town

It’s Secret Santa time at The Stationery Store and Harold, the acting manager (standing in for John who is off work for the duration of the festive season due to hernia surgery), calls everyone into the office to exchange gifts. Rita, the manager’s personal assistant, brings out a bottle of cheap Cava and sets about pouring everyone thimble-sized amounts in plastic cups so they can toast one amother’s good health.

Stacey walks into the office, her impressive breasts squeezed into a tight Christmas jumper that has a Christmas pudding placed strategically  over each nipple. She clocks Mick and takes up a position at the opposite end of the room (everyone knows Stacey and Mick had a clinch in the stationery cupboard at last year’s party – everyone except Mick’s wife, that is – though Stacey swears blind it’s a figment of Mick’s overactive imagination).

“So,” says Alan, the company’s resident social commentator, “which poor bastard got landed with being Santa this year?” The question is answered when a sheepish looking Ron – the gawky work experience boy with luminous ginger hair and violent acne – appears in the doorway in an ill-fitting Santa suit, holding a tatty red sack.

“Come on then,” Harold says clapping his hands together, “let’s get this over with. Time is money after all.” Alan laughs and digs Mick in the ribs. “Bedside manner’s not our Harold’s strong point is it?”

Rita hands the thimbles of fizzy wine to the assembled employees and Ron circles the room proffering his sack. When everyone has their present they open them in unison.

“Well that’s just hilarious,” Stacey scowls across the room at Mick, brandishing a pair of pink handcuffs. He shrugs.

“Ooh!” Rita squeals with overstated enthusiasm, “socks! Just what I wanted!”

“That woman’s feet haven’t seen socks since the day she was born,” says Alan. “What a bloody ridiculous present.”

“Open yours then Alan,” Rita says breezily. He obliges, holding up his Christmas tree shaped ice cube tray and grimacing.

Harold gets a comedy tie, Mick a joke anti-cheating device and Ron a tube of Clearasil.

“Well,” says Harold once all the presents have been opened, “that concludes this year’s office festivities! Merry Christmas, and get back to work!”

“Thank Christ for that,” says Alan, dropping his ice cube tray in the bin on his way out.

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