Alex's stories · Shared World

Enjoying the view

By Alex Townley

PHIL stared out of the window into the bit of park she could see, which was half children’s playground, and half dumping ground for litter, dog excrement and illicit yellows pillsbehaviour, the sort that didn’t require lying down anywhere, which was probably a good thing considering all the dog mess hidden in the long grass.

It all made for better entertainment than the telly some nights and if she was in a devilish mood she would turn out the lights in her little flat and open the curtains to see if anything amusing occurred.

In her youth men could be arrested for that sort of thing, which seemed such a tragedy really. It wasn’t as if it hurt anyone, although some of their faces you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

She’d pondered letting Jacinta in on her little secret, but things were getting a bit frosty on that front recently and the moment never arose.

She hadn’t told Jacinta about the visits from her mother either, or the little men who gathered under the desk lamp on Mondays and Thursdays to hold their raucous meetings.

She very much enjoyed them, even the funny little one at the back who took the minutes.

Jacinta already thought her head was in the clouds, she suggested getting a cat or a bird to look after, but since Phil couldn’t look after herself these days it seemed like Jacinta was the one living in Cloud Cuckoo Land with that idea.

The thing was the other people in the Mews weren’t like her. They didn’t laugh or give you sideways looks when someone else was unintentionally funny. They barely reacted to anything. This was supposed to be a sort of halfway house in old age, something  in between for those who had set fire to their own kitchen one too many times, but weren’t quite doubly incontinent just yet.

She glanced over at the kitchen, just in case the little men were up to anything. You couldn’t trust them really. They stole the sugar if you took your eyes off it for too long.

Jacinta had started visiting about a year ago, when she first got her leg ulcers, just to dress them properly, because my did it hurt, she had never known such pain. She had never gone through childbirth, she just had her lovely nephew Jim to worry about, but childbirth didn’t last this long, and at the end of it you got a brand new baby to hold, so it didn’t seem like a fair comparison.

Her mother had been telling her recently that the leg ulcers were probably a portent of doom. She’d become quite superstitious since she’d come back really. Phil couldn’t remember her ever talking like that before, but death could change a person she supposed.

A movement caught her eye on the kitchen counter. It wasn’t a real kitchen, just a kettle and a toaster and a microwave she didn’t know how to operate. Most of her meals came through a delivery service or Jim brought hot fish and chips over with his equally lovely son, which they all enjoyed together on the sofa like they were huddled on a bench at the seaside.

Phil pretended she wasn’t really looking. That was how you had to be with them. Sometimes they were very open. The meetings, and every time they had a drinking session at the full moon, but there were definitely covert operations she wasn’t party to. Maybe they were organised in some sort of sub-committee she didn’t know about.

She couldn’t decide whether it was worth monitoring the situation, taking her seat at the window for the evening, or watching the new episode of Morse. It hurt to move her legs, but really she could do all three from the tall-backed chair, she just had to get to it.

She popped one of the little yellow pills into her mouth and took a sip of cold water, which tasted of dust.

Jacinta had recommended the tablets to her, when she’d seen the ulcers for the first time. They’d been relatively small then. She could swear they were growing a little every time the bandages came off.

She hadn’t had a problem with the pills then (she didn’t have a problem with them now exactly), but over the first few weeks there were oddities. A cactus appeared in her front hall, and her umbrella moved, then moved again.

She didn’t see the first of the little men until just before Christmas. Jim had been over to bring some cards from members of the family who couldn’t manage the journey and she’d just waved him goodbye when she saw one sitting on the windowsill of the little frosted window next to the front door. He’d smiled at her and winked. She hadn’t been afraid, just curious, and she’d reached out to touch his chest. He’d pretended to go for her finger, but they both knew it was in jest, even then on that first meeting, and he’d hopped down, quite the drop, to the floor and run off into the shadows.

She saw more and more of them over the next few days, mostly in the evenings. And then on Christmas Day, just after the delivery people turned up with her turkey dinner, her mother had sat down on the sofa next to her and offered to pull a cracker. It really was the best Christmas present a girl could ask for.

If she were to say something, even to Jim, they might make her stop taking the pills, and then she might not see any of them anymore, and life would become terribly lonely then. She’d turn into one of the other residents, straight faced and empty inside. She might not even want to look out of the window.

She decided to let the little men be. Let them have their fun, and Jim could always bring supplies of sugar. She’d happily sprinkle it on all the surfaces if they would only visit more often. Her mother would complain, but that was fun too. She’d missed that about her.

She eased herself up from her seat and shuffled across the flat to the tall-backed chair. The little yellow pill had kicked in, the pain had eased and she knew she could look forward to an entertaining evening, whichever way she looked. Life really had to be made the most of when you thought about it.

© Alex Townley 2019

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Alex's stories · Shared World

Into the woods

By Alex Townley

I THINK I’ll take her into Champney’s Wood, Natasha. She said to think of somewhere and I can’t see her squashed into the gazebo in the kids’ playground, sharing a bag of into the woodschips with Dave and Kevin.

We’ve both got a free period after lunch on Wednesday so we can walk down there and get back in time to not miss any lessons. I reckon it’s far enough that no-one else would bother.

And she likes the trees, all those colours, and we can probably lie down without getting wet.

I’ve been planning it for a while, but I didn’t want to seem too keen, and I wanted to make sure it was what she wanted, but I think she does.

And she’s got more experience than me, she’s done this sort of thing before. Well not exactly this sort of thing, but she’s got experience, with men, I’m guessing, whereas I’m pretty much playing it by ear. A few dodgy pornos, and stories Kevin’s told me about what he gets up to with Lorna when his parents are away. I’m pretty sure neither of those are solid sources.

I reckon if I ask her myself what she likes and what I should do that will work, after all it’s good to ask questions, that’s how you learn, that’s what she’s always saying. And it’s worked with kissing, at least from my end, and she seems into it.

It’s weird not telling anyone. I don’t know who I’d tell, but everyone else tells me about stuff, stuff I don’t really want to know. Sometimes it’s stuff that makes me not want to look at their girlfriends, or really want to look at their girlfriends.

But you don’t know if it’s true. It’s worth a wank in the shower, but you don’t want to give it much stock, just in case it’s all bollocks.

And Natasha’s the real deal. I know she’s not going to feed me a bunch of lies. She’s got more to lose from this than I have. She keeps telling me, like that makes it more exciting. She keeps saying we shouldn’t, and then next thing I know she’s pulling me into the art supply cupboard, and we’re snogging up against the life size model of a Dalek some technology students built about ten years ago when Doctor Who was cool.

Only having it a secret is alright, it’s fine, but after a while I just wish I could tell someone, because there’s things I’d ask, like is it normal to only see each other at college? Does it matter what I call her? Am I the only one?

I’m pretty sure I am, but people do talk about her, there was a kid in Year 12 when I was in Year 10, people talked about him and her, but nothing solid. I used to watch her face, before us, before her and me, and I couldn’t see it. I don’t reckon there was anything in it.

I’ll tell her Wednesday.

I’ve had a text from Karen. She never texts me. She barely talks to me, even at the breakfast table when Mum and Dad are on best behaviour and telling us to be nice to each other.

She says there’s rumours going round about me.

I don’t know. I mean we’ve been careful, but if Karen’s hearing things then everyone’s hearing things, she’s not exactly top of the gossip list.

Shit. Now I don’t know whether to tell her, because I don’t want it to stop, and I reckon she’ll stop it, get scared and back off.

Maybe after Wednesday.

The sun is shining, and I enjoy it, walking along the road in the middle of the day. I think how I should do this anyway, just walk up to Champney’s Wood in my free periods, it’s nice.

And she’s meeting me there she says, which makes sense. I think maybe she’s heard there’s rumours too.

I didn’t speak to Karen in the end, but she started giving me these looks over her Coco Pops, like she felt sorry for me, and I don’t need anyone feeling sorry for me. I’m meeting a beautiful woman on a sunny day, to, well, maybe to, y’know, go all the way. Maybe.

It’s cold mind. I pinched the picnic blanket from home, which means it was stuffed in my locker all morning, and I didn’t dare get anything out in case anyone asked me about it, so I didn’t take my art homework in.

I tried to explain with my eyes, but she told me off in front of everyone. I guess that’s on me, she’s not psychic. Anyway, makes it less obvious.

I get all the way there. To the car park we agreed, and I find a quiet spot away from the road under some trees, where the sunlight is green through the leaves, and I put the blanket down and lie on it for a while, to test it out, check there aren’t any brambles.

People go by, but they don’t see me. I’m tucked well out of sight.

I wait for an hour before I decide she isn’t coming. It rains all the walk back.

Karen tells me later, about the police. How they came right into her classroom, in front of her pupils, and asked to speak to her. And the head, Mr Blakedown, was there too, he took over the class. It was perspective apparently, kids were joking they got a new perspective on her.

It all happened before I even left the building. Before I started walking. She would have come if she could. I know she would.

That kid, the Year 12 kid from before, he had a breakdown apparently, reported her to the police. They called it grooming.

Kids look at me now in the corridors, but they don’t know anything. The police haven’t said anything, and I haven’t said anything. There’s nothing to say. We didn’t actually do anything, not really.

When I think back on it, sometimes I think walking out to Champney’s Wood is the only real thing I’ve ever done. Lying there under the trees, staring up at the sky through the green.

I go there now, when I want to think about her, remember her.

© Alex Townley 2019

Alex's stories · Shared World

A warm hug

By Alex Townley

HE looked at the dog.

It was looking at him, or possibly his sandwich, its head tilted to one side as if it was considering things quite seriously.

dog treatsHe handed over the sandwich. He was a soft touch. The dog still looked at him for a few seconds before sniffing it, and then inhaling it.

He had had a particularly bad day. At a guess they both had. He felt exhausted, his head full of sand, and when he lay down on the sofa in front of Question Time (which was a particularly poor viewing choice for the mood he was in) the dog had come and sat on his stomach, warming him like a hot water bottle.

It wasn’t a big dog, not really his sort of dog if he’d been put on the spot, but it was just right for a hot water bottle, or a warm hug. And he’d needed a warm hug. He felt a few tears roll down the side of his face, and the dog licked them gently, making him giggle, right through an answer from Liam Fox, or some equally irritating MP.

Round here if you didn’t have a dog people wanted to know why. It was just that sort of place. And he didn’t have a dog because it wasn’t practical with his hours. He was hardly ever home. The house was cold and lonely and it felt mean leaving a dog alone in that.

But this dog, he’d decided to call him, or her, Phil, (his favourite Great Aunt had been called Phil) had spent its first afternoon in and out of his company, tucked away under his desk while he was called away from it, in a way that made him think that was a practical solution.

Phil had arrived in the morning, just as he was pouring himself his first cup of coffee. Esme had brought it in under one arm like it was unattended baggage she was retrieving and might explode at any moment.

He never knew what to make of Esme. She was professional enough, but he’d tried having a joke with her the one time she’d come to the pub, and she’d looked at him like he was imparting important information. He almost expected her to start taking notes.

He felt for her. She wasn’t a local either. Most of the PCSOs were, which helped smooth things over with the local community. Round here if you hadn’t gone through puberty within a three mile radius you didn’t ever get to belong, which wasn’t really practical in terms of professional advancement in the force. He was the only sergeant here, so if anyone wanted to move upwards he was going to have to clear out, or they were.

Still it didn’t make much difference to the locals. To them he was an import, and the fact that he didn’t have a dog just made things worse.

Phil scratched its ear. He doubted it had fleas. It seemed pretty clean and well groomed to be honest.

He thought back over the day. First Phil arriving, Esme’s guilty eyes as she backed out of the door, then a report of a body up in the little copse where he’d been blackberry picking back in September. He’d always liked that place, and he found he was quite dazed having to call in SOCO to cordon it off. Like they were irretrievably ruining it.

He’d been hit hard by that. Back in his old life it wouldn’t have been routine exactly, but it wouldn’t have dealt the same blow.

You think you’re swapping one thing for another, but it doesn’t work like that.

He’d called in the county over the body, too much for his pay grade really. He hadn’t realised that was just the morning.

They couldn’t find any ID, and way of determining a next of kin. That knocked him too. Maybe he was in the wrong line of business, or maybe he just wasn’t steeled for it like he used to be.

People should be grieved for when they go. He’d grieved for his dad, still did and five years had gone by.

He’d been a dog person. There had always been a Collie on the farm growing up, all named after Shakespearian characters, but the last of them, Coriolanus, had gone a few years before his dad.

Getting back to the station it was as if Phil had known, not about the body, but about his dad, about the Collies; Viola, and Romeo, and Titus and the others.

It licked his hand the way they used to, and he’d ended up taking it for a walk, feeling the size of the sky. Took the weight off his shoulders. And the dog had loved it, sniffed at anything and everything. That was when he’d settled on Phil.

He returned to a call about a gas explosion, and already dealing with his body, he’d unwittingly sent some poor young bobby over, only to discover there was also a charred corpse and distressed relatives to deal with.

He’d ended up going down there to deal with the daughter himself. She seemed more angry than upset, which just left him feeling sad for the dead woman in the house.

All in all he’d been grateful to Phil for being there, tucked under his desk, warming his feet. He’d typed up both reports himself, reaching a hand down to stroke Phil’s head every few minutes as he worked. Checking in.

On their way home, they’d called in at the Co-op and picked up dog food and treats, probably too many if he was seriously considering handing Phil over to the relevant authorities. And now here they were, nestled on the sofa, him crying at Question Time, and Phil warming his belly in the darkness.

His dad would have smiled. He would have said he needed a good woman in his life, but the dog would do for now.

You get used to the everyday nature of death.

‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!’

He’d thought so anyway, and then his dad had gone and he’d felt it like nothing else. Enough to move away from it all, come here.

But you can’t hide from it, sorrow. You can’t dodge every blow.

Maybe he should move again, even if he did own a dog now.

Liz's stories · Shared World

The first time

By Elizabeth Parkes

IT was the first time that Clare had ever dealt with a dead body and today she had two, you didn’t get this kind of variety in the tax office, ‘definitely a good move to retrain’, she thought as she closed the ambulance doors, ‘this is life in the raw’.

ambulanceThe man had been a possible suicide. He was off road in a little copse near Champney’s Wood. Difficult to manoeuvre the ambulance but Jack had congratulated her on her driving – another first, for the old cynic usually choked on compliments.

Jack had talked at her all the time as he rifled through the man’s pockets.

“No life signs. Suicide eh? Too much Eastenders. Never assume. Pills, empty bottles, packages? Check them out, is he on anything, taking anything? Wallet, credit cards? Any name, address, contact numbers, the police will deal with that.”

The blues and twos of the police car had appeared right on cue.

The second body had been more gut wrenching. Call out to an old lady, mid-day. After a frustrating wait outside A&E it had been a relief to be back on the road again. The police were already there, the door open.

She had got herself into the kitchen. The porridge pan was black, the kitchen covered with a sooty film, burns on the upper body, smoke inhalation. The young policeman had been business-like.

“Neighbours saw the smoke. Fire brigade. Nothing we could do for her.”

Clare marvelled at his calm, he had seen so much more of life at only half her age. They had been about to deal with her when the front door exploded back to the wall and a woman appeared. Her riding boots left muddy footprints across the hall. Funny the little things you notice at such times. The scream had jangled Clare’s nerves, Jack immediately went into the procedure for shock, sitting the woman down suggesting she put her head between her knees.

Surprisingly the woman seemed furious, less concerned with the old lady than with cursing a ‘she’.

“She left mum here to die. Sent me a bloody text. She knows the phone spooks the horse, I’d always have it on silent. What has she done with the dog? Murdered that too, I should think.”

Her mother lay, rigour mortis already taking hold, collateral in the family warfare.

© Elizabeth Parkes 2019

Shared World · William's stories

Palimpsest

By William Gallagher

JUST sometimes, the rocking of the boat annoyed Esme. Usually it was a comfort and really the rocking was so little that she only noticed it when several other ones moved down the canal beside her. Even then, if it made her mug of tea slide a tiny bit to one side, it was only enough to remind her that it was good to be here. That it was good to be alive.

narrowboatToday, though, anything would’ve annoyed her, but the timing was unfortunate. She’d done her hair up, she’d relished the way that concentrating on fixing it with a scarf had stopped her thinking about anything else. Then she’d even been satisfied when she pulled on her poncho and had everything just right.

This time the rocking of the boat was from someone stepping onto it and for just that one moment, Esme was back in Leeds. Her fingers tensed and she caught the poncho, tugging it down as she tried to calm herself.

“Who is it?” she called. No one answered and she hoped that was because she had overcompensated. Trying to sound calm, her voice had come out quiet. She preferred that idea to the image she now had of him waiting on the boat. Waiting for her to come out.

Her fingers reached for a saucepan on the shelf behind her. She was lifting it up when a man’s voice called. It was a young man’s voice, not the old one she’d feared. It was maybe an Indian voice, certainly not Irish. And it was educated, too. All he called out was “Hello, sorry, is this Claire Thompson’s boat, please?” but Sebastian would’ve doubled the length of that sentence with swearing.

“Next one along,” called Esme.

“Thanks,” he said. And then there was the matching little rocking of the boat as he stepped back off.

Esme looked back at the mirror. The scarf was fine but the poncho had shifted and you could see the tattoo of a penny farthing at the base of her neck. At least if anyone saw that, they wouldn’t notice the bruise written underneath it. She tried rearranging her clothes and considered redoing the scarf so that it better draped over her neck but the idea of spending one more second looking at herself repulsed her.

She couldn’t help but hesitate before climbing up out of the boat but the man was gone. As she took a step off the boat, she heard a squeal. Jolted, she looked up at the next boat and there was Claire. She was managing to hold on to an enormous bouquet and at the same time hug the life from of what turned out to be a much, much younger man.

And now Esme recognised him from the station. She tried to remember what he’d been there for and couldn’t but knew it hadn’t been serious. The kind of youthful exuberance that wouldn’t even have been noticed in a city but here got you a night in the cell and a stern telling off by the sergeant when you sobered up.

Claire and the man went inside the Dauntless, which Esme yet again thought was a ridiculous name for a boat. She leaned on her own, Palimpsest, and decided right then that she would leave. Write a new history for herself somewhere else. She had to move the boat every few weeks to avoid paying fees for being permanent, this was as good a time to go as any other. Maybe this time she’d move a little closer to the city. Maybe she’d get away from this village.

Maybe she could become a waitress. Call herself Claire, see how that fit.

She let herself dream for a moment of a job where, okay, she might be badly treated by the public but at least there’d be a salary. For the first time, she wondered what had got into her head when she came here and signed up to be a PCSO.

Esme realised she was still standing with one foot on the boat and one on the path. Rather than move, she looked at her two feet and tried to decide between solid ground and travelling. There was no telling what would happen if she just climbed back on the boat and got the motor running, but she could guess. She knew how much longer her money would last. She was less sure about her nerve.

That made her lean toward staying and as she thought that, she also leaned on the foot on the bank. She moved forward and then thought about how ridiculous the police work was, how they neither deserved nor needed to be told she was leaving. That sent her back onto the foot on the boat and now she laughed at herself for her indecision.

Esme jumped onto the path. She’d finish the latest stupid assignment and give getting to know the locals one more go. She didn’t really believe that there was a thriving ecstasy problem and couldn’t see how the village would remain so dull if there were. And the suspicion that the sergeant was just giving her work to keep her out of his way had been cemented last night when he told her a code word.

“Really?” she’d said.

“Really,” he told her.

“I slip this word into a conversation and they just give me something.”

“First one’s always free.”

“Sure.”

Esme was thinking of this when she saw a woman far away down the towpath, looking like she was being pulled by a tiny, butt-ugly dog. With a shudder, Esme got back onto the boat. She’d make some tea and think about it.

The gas bottle on the boat was running low and it took several minutes to boil the kettle. Yet when Esme came back up top and sat to drink her tea, the woman didn’t seem to be a lot closer.

The dog seemed to have given up. And the woman. looked as if she were anywhere but here. Worried, thought Esme. Or stoned.

Here goes. “Oh, isn’t he lovely?” said Esme, smiling at the mutt. No reaction. Okay. Try again. “Is it a he?”

The woman seemed to have to think for a ridiculously long time. ‘Maybe she suspects I’m police’, thought Esme.

“A girl,” said the woman. “Sorry.”

“No, I shouldn’t assume. What’s she called?”

The woman smiled. “Take a guess.”

Definitely drugged. Here we go, thought Esme.

She tried petting the dog like she’d seen on TV and took a great breath.
“I think -“
Oh, God, the little runt was eating her face now. “Gerroff,” she managed through a fake smile. Just say it.

“I think you’re a… Petal.”

Esme looked straight at the woman as she said it. Daring her to react.

“You’re right. That’s amazing. However did you guess?”

“Really?”

Esme jolted. It was all true. Drugs in this ditchwater village.
“I can’t believe it.”

She waited for the woman to offer her whatever it was, pills or something. She couldn’t see this prim woman taking out needles.

“Take her,” said the woman.

“What? I can’t possibly.” Was this some kind of test? Look after the dog while we get you crack cocaine from John Lewis’s.

And yet here she was, holding a dog away from her like it was another unwanted baby, and there the woman was, walking away.

Esme sat on her boat, watching the woman walking away so very much faster now, and she wondered if she’d been set up somehow. Then the dog started shaking to get free and Esme recognised the signs of someone needing feeding.

She fetched a biscuit from the boat and began walking the dog to the station, resenting being responsible for yet another life.

 © William Gallagher 2019
Shared World

Unravelling

By Alex Townley

THE body was found in a small copse of horse chestnut trees, about five miles from Champney’s Wood. It’s a bit of the countryside I remember as a child, where the fields slope up and away from the far side of the canal up to a low hill.

new st stationApparently, it’s a regular dog walking spot in the summer, and in autumn people go blackberry picking or to collect conkers with the kids, but this time of year it’s rarely visited because it catches the brunt of the wind.

I got called in because of the train ticket they found in his pocket, and because there wasn’t another chump willing to sit through hours of CCTV footage to find evidence of him as he left Birmingham.

“Ann-Marie will do it.”

I like the viewing room though. Tucked away from all the inane office chat and jokey comments behind my back, lights dimmed. It lets you concentrate. Awful and claustrophobic if you’re watching something really severe, like Andrews who has to sit through snuff movies and all sorts.

But this was different.

I pour myself a glass of red wine and tip some black Kalamata olives into a ramekin, setting them both down on the coffee table. I nearly put on some music, but it feels wrong somehow, so instead I curl my legs up under myself on the sofa, and just stare at the black square in the wall, where I haven’t yet closed the curtains.

He was found lying on his back with his shoes neatly laid out beside him. They checked him over, and he had the end of a packet of Tunes in one pocket, £22.76 in cash, and a train ticket from Birmingham New Street, but no ID or anything personal.

At first they thought he must have been mugged, or the body touched before he was officially reported, but there wasn’t any indication of that. Why would they leave the cash?

I went up there after I’d been pulled in, just to get the lay of the land. We used to walk that stretch of the canal on sunny weekends, and the place has a lot of happy memories for me, but the area where he was is scrubby and unwelcoming. All frost and brambles.

Maybe it’s just the time of year.

The local station is only a part time sergeant and a bunch of shell-shocked PCSOs, so I asked about, with my photo tucked in my pocket. ‘Do you remember this man?’ and the landlord at the Blue Boar on the High Street said he’d seen him earlier in the day, just hours before he died. He’d called in for a pint and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, and he’d asked about local beauty spots.

Was he trying to kill himself? The official post mortem says he died of natural causes, but exacerbated by the cold, which probably means it triggered his heart condition.

He didn’t have any medication with him though. Not even an empty bottle.

The wine warms my throat and I lean back into the sofa staring at clean lines all around me.

I bought that book the other year about the magic of tidying up, and went through the flat like a whirling dervish, purging old Christmas presents and unread books and more than half of my wardrobe, and now when I look around it feels a little like one of those showrooms in Ikea.

It’s supposed to make me happy, but it makes me feel a little like I don’t live here. And if I don’t. Who does?

The problem was I didn’t own much I did like. And I don’t really have time to buy new things, what with the job.

I looked through 46 hours of CCTV footage in the end. It’s a little like the opening montage of Love Actually with the sound off. You worry you’re becoming blind to it, but I spotted him. It’s strange to see him up and moving about. He had a really distinctive walk, not confident, but not embarrassed or shuffly either. He walks up to the ticket counter (I talked to them later, but they get too many people to remember just one) and then through the barrier and down to his platform.

There’s no CCTV at the other end. It’s one of the few spots in the country where you’re spared it. Is that why he chose it? Or did he stick a pin in a map.

Watching through different camera angles, I found out which entrance he came in through. And then I tracked him back through the city, slowly and methodically. He didn’t speak to anyone, stop anywhere much. He bought what looks like a sausage roll from a bakery, but they don’t remember him.

It does something to you, watching a dead man, sends you somewhere inside yourself. Watching this unravelled life in reverse.

Eventually (or to begin with, depending on how you see it) he got off a Megabus from London, and that’s where I handed him over to the Met, who will probably lose him somewhere in their case backlog. One man, alone, leaving his life behind.

I wonder whether someone is missing him. I wonder where his possessions are now, how much he really left behind.

I should call my dad.

I stare out into the night and eat an olive.

 © Alex Townley 2019

Shared World

Ashes to…

By Matthew Warburton

AS she steered round the corner by Champney’s Wood, they skidded slightly to the right. Anna pulled the wheel to correct it, and the car slipped again, dragging across so the front passenger wheel bumped up onto the grass by the side of the road. The engine stopped. Mark sighed.

Forest“Stalled it,” he said, folding the newspaper. “I did say I’d drive.”

“It’s the tyre,” she replied. “I think we’ve got a puncture.”

“Are you sure?”

She glared at him, and stepped out, into the sunlight coming down through the trees. Inappropriate weather. Mark joined her behind the car. He hitched up his trousers at the knee and eased himself down, prodding at the tyre with the index finger of his right hand. His nails, she saw, were polished, glossy, almost as if they’d been lacquered. Does he wear nail polish, she wondered? Or just have a manicure in his office every two weeks.

“I’ll call the AA,” she said, reaching in to get her bag, “you don’t want to get dirty.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, anyone can change a tyre.”
“Are you sure?” she copied his intonation.

He glared at her. “Just because I work in a bank, doesn’t mean I’m completely incapable of physical work.”

“You don’t work in a bank.”

“No, what’s RCMJ then?” He took off his jacket as he talked, and laid it gently on the back seat, like an injured animal.

“All right, but you make it sound like you’re behind the counter on the high street, counting the change.”

“The High Street doesn’t exist any more,” he told her, taking the keys and pressing the switch to unlatch the trunk.

“Doesn’t it? Well done you.” She leaned back on a fence post and watched as he moved the bags of their dad’s stuff from one side of the boot to the other.

“And I’m not apologising for working in the city.” He dropped a Tesco bag full of papers on the road behind the car. A photograph blew off the top and onto the grass. She snatched it up, then moved forward, picked up the bag again and opened the back door.

“Careful of my jacket,” he barked, heaving at the spare wheel.

“Careful of Dad’s papers”, she replied. But she put the bag in the foot well behind the driver’s seat, well away from his coat. When she stood up he had found a pair of latex gloves and pulled them on.

“Where did you get those?”

“At Mum and Dad’s”, he stopped himself, and restarted. “At Mum’s. Thought they might come in handy clearing out the rubbish.”

“It’s not rubbish.”

“Well, you keep what you want.”

He was more efficient than she expected, using his weight to get the wheel nuts loose, and picking the wheel off, swapping the new one on and getting the flat into the boot without fuss. He even manoeuvred the bags back into a semblance of order, glancing in at the things she had saved as he finished.

He snapped off the latex gloves, dropped them in the boot, and jerked the trunk down. When it closed, she saw that he was holding the urn. He raised his eyebrows.

“Do you want to go on? There’s a path in here.”

For a moment she was shocked, and her lip trembled. He smiled at her.

“The wood’s the wood. No?”

“Yes.” He was right. Dad had said Champney’s Wood. He had walked every path, with the irritating little dog. Anne nodded. Mark clicked the lock, and they set off up the slope and into the deeper shadows. The car ticked in the heat.

“How do you think she’s coping?” Anna asked.

“Fine. She’s got the dog. And Granny to talk to.”

Anna peered at him. Did he really believe Mum was taking solace from either of those two things? She shivered as a breeze rustled the leaves, and they pushed on, looking for a suitable spot.

Half an hour later they were back.

Mark surprised her again with a hug, after she had placed the urn back in the boot, two seconds of family time. Then he patted her heavily on the shoulder, and went back to business. He reached into the car, retrieved his jacket, and put it on, pulling his shirt sleeves so each extended a visible inch. He took a handkerchief from an inside pocket and wiped his hands on it. As far as Anna could see, they were spotless anyway. Then as if in a dream, it seemed so familiar to her, he pulled a small tube of hand cream from another pocket, squeezed an orange blob onto the back of his left hand, snapped the lid back onto the tube, and deliberately massaged the cream into his skin. As he finished he moved the fingers of both hands through each other, then flicked them abruptly, as if shaking off water. As he bent down to open the passenger door he saw her staring and scowled.

“I have very dry skin.”

“No, she said, and smiled at him, though for the first time that day she felt like crying. “That was Dad.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The way you… the way you did your hands, I’ve seen Dad do that, after the washing up, a hundred times. That weird flicky thing. It’s Dad.”

He frowned at her.

“Do you want me to drive, if you’re going to get all emotional?”

“I wouldn’t be all emotional if you weren’t the spitting image of Dad. You freak.”

“I’m going paint-balling next week. Dennis would never do that.” He got into the passenger seat, pinching his trousers up at the knee again.

“Go get ‘em, Killer.” But she said it under her breath, and walked round to the driver’s side. The sun was still coming down. Just the wrong weather for the day. She held her face up into the warmth for a moment, then opened the door, and climbed in.

 © Matthew Warburton 2019

Alex's stories · Shared World

Talking the dog for a walk

By Alex Townley

POPPY enjoyed taking the dog for a walk, mainly because it got her out of the house. It was a terrible dog really, quite nervous and that inconvenient height that meant you were likely to trip over it coming down the stairs or nearly tread on it standing up from the sofa.

a_frosty_morning_on_the_staffordshire_and_worcestershire_canal_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1672333Dennis had bought it for her one Christmas as a surprise, and she always got a guilty feeling when she looked at it, because she would never have chosen it, and because everyone knows you shouldn’t buy dogs at Christmas, there were poster campaigns about it even. She half expected some sort of dog police to interrupt her as she came out of the house and finally make her pay.

She felt like that about a lot of things. Mainly to do with Dennis’ mother.

Dennis was the sort, she suddenly realised, to turn up with events fait accompli, like dogs and mothers, so you couldn’t exactly turn them down, and yet you ended up being the one doing all the feeding and cleaning and clearing away poo. In both cases.

And she couldn’t really complain now.

That was the annoying thing about losing a spouse. All their decisions were suddenly set in stone.

It was a sharp sort of frosty morning and the dog had stopped to sniff at something, probably another dog’s mess, there seemed to be more of it about these days, so she averted her eyes, looking automatically over the road at the house where the watering can woman used to live.

When they’d first moved to the village she used to invent details and nicknames for all of their neighbours. She’d thought back then they might turn into friends, but it never happened, probably in no way unlinked to Dennis’ insistence on starting all DIY jobs at 8am on a Sunday morning.

They were probably talked about by all the neighbours. Maybe everyone else became friends united against them.

She wasn’t sure she knew how to drill anything. When should one get rid of one’s drill following a bereavement?

The watering can woman used to stand in her window watering house plants every morning as Poppy walked past to pick up milk from the corner shop, and she would hope every morning that the woman might look up, and smile and perhaps they’d have a silent conversation, a wave, an offer to get anything from the shop, but the woman wasn’t interested in passers by.

The dog finished examining the pavement and pulled her on. It was surprisingly strong, and determined for a small dog. They crossed the road and entered the snickett that went down towards the village shops and the canal.

This bit always took a while because there were a lot of interesting things for the dog to investigate. Poppy dressed warmly though, so she didn’t mind standing around. She layered up with multi-coloured scarves that Dennis would have disapproved of, and a big gorgeously warm and ridiculous hat. You could get away with a lot as an eccentric widow.

Her mother in law Dorothy, Dotty, (they sounded like two public school girls on a hockey team,) would be asleep for hours yet. She defied the usual habits of the elderly and regularly slept for 12 hours straight. There was a daughter, Dennis’ sister, who had moved out of the county, and sometimes when Poppy was feeling particularly self-righteous she nearly picked up the phone and told her to take some responsibility for heaven’s sake, but it never quite came to that.

She stood under a street lamp in the middle of the snickett and nudged at a patch of nettles while the dog conducted its own investigations. She regularly found little glass canisters in amongst the undergrowth and wasn’t sure whether they were drugs paraphernalia, or something to do with vaping, but thankfully the dog avoided them.

Should she take up vaping? There were always gangs of youths, well, a small group of well-behaved teenagers, huddled under the children’s playground shelter doing it and some of the flavours smelled quite nice. You were supposed to make some wild and crazy decisions after a major loss, but vaping seemed a bit underwhelming now she thought about it.

The dog pulled her forward out of the snickett, and they mixed for a moment with other dog walkers in the early morning light.

There was a man who had sight problems and lived round the corner from Poppy. He wore dark glasses and his dog was a little terrier type, so not a guide dog, but he always smiled and said hello as if he recognised her. She wondered if she had a distinctive walk, or smell. She most likely smelled of Dorothy if anything.

Poppy considered the day ahead. Making breakfast of soggy Weetabix for Dorothy, and carefully spooning it into her mouth, watching a morning chat show maybe, or one of those quizzes, and then possibly some recycled drama from the 1980s on one of the high numbered channels they had these days, or people auctioning off their unwanted belongings.

Should she call in Channel 4 to clear out her house on TV?

Dennis was everywhere she looked. Even the house itself was Dennis’ choice. She’d tried to make the garden her own, but there was no time since Dorothy moved in (she couldn’t bring herself to call her Dotty), and the dog of course, peed all over the grass and regularly dug up the flowerbeds, as if it knew she wasn’t fond of it.

The not quite blind man wasn’t there today. She might have left the house a little early. It gave her the confidence to take a right turn, toward the canal. Time was on her side.

Walking off the road down to the water’s edge, the season revealed itself properly, frozen puddles in the muddy towpath, and frost thick on the bramble bushes and the elders. The edges of the canal were frozen too around some of the stiller areas where people’s back gardens came down to the water in gentle slopes and handmade jetties. Those were the sort of houses she would have liked, but no-one really asked. No-one ever asked her anything.

The dog did its business at the entrance to the tunnel going under the road, and she carefully picked it up in a little plastic bag, which she looped around one wrist, trying to ignore its disturbing warmth.

It felt refreshing walking along the canal. It stretched hundreds of miles out in front of her. All the way to Manchester possibly. The roads did too obviously, but down here it felt more intimate, designed just for her, for feet to move one in front of the other and get there in the end.

“Oh isn’t he lovely. Is it a he?” A woman sat on the edge of a decoratively painted narrow boat. Her hair tied up in an elaborate scarf arrangement, Poppy could see the tip of a tattoo licking at her neck from under a knitted poncho.

She had to think for a second, she was so used to calling the dog ‘it’. “A girl. Sorry.”

“No, I shouldn’t assume.” The woman sat next to a steaming cup of tea. She looked cozy and free and completely at ease.

Poppy tried not to hate her a little.

“What’s she called?” The woman had jumped down and was petting the dog, who was acting as though all its Christmasses had come at once.

Poppy smiled, “Take a guess.”

The woman didn’t take her eyes off the dog, “Umm, come here girl. Let me look at you. You’re lovely.”

The mutual love-in continued for a second or two, and Poppy let go of the lead while the dog licked the woman’s face enthusiastically, something Poppy personally hated, and refused to let it do.

“I think you’re a Petal.”

Poppy leapt on the answer. “You’re right. That’s amazing. However did you guess?”

“Really?” The woman’s face lit up. “I can’t believe it.”

“I know.” Poppy tried half-heartedly to recall the name Dennis had given the dog, but it might just as well have been Petal. It was ridiculous enough.

“She’s so lovely. Such a lovely temperament. I’ve been thinking about getting a dog myself. Something like this, so they didn’t feel too hemmed in on the boat. Is she expensive to keep?”

Poppy took a subtle step back. “No.” She hesitated for a split second, and then gathered her resolve, “In fact. You should have her. Take her.”

“What?” The woman looked vaguely alarmed as if she were being offered a child, “I can’t possibly.”

“No, you can.” Poppy smiled. “I don’t want her. You take her.”

And she turned and walked off along the towpath. She waited tensed in anticipation of the woman following her, even though she was walking quite quickly, but nothing happened. She was free.

Still she was walking the wrong way along the canal now, away from her exit, and she didn’t want to have to go back past the woman and the dog.

She put it out of her mind for a moment. Enjoying the stillness of the morning, the absence of the dog, making the ducks braver as they swam over toward the towpath in a flotilla of tiny v-shaped ripples.

She looked at the crystal clear reflections of tree skeletons and blue sky dotted with clouds, the way the water went on and on like the yellow brick road in the land of Oz.

That reminded her of Dorothy, waiting at home, still blissfully sleeping. She slipped off her glove, slipping off the bag of dog mess with it and dropping it under a hedge. It wasn’t her responsibility anymore technically speaking.

Pulling out her mobile phone, she typed a text message, polite but firm to her sister in law, asking her to please kindly come to the house and collect her mother. Preferably before breakfast time. There was a spare key behind the wheelie bins.

It shouldn’t take more than an hour to drive over even in bad traffic. Not that she’d ever made the journey before.

Poppy turned her phone to silent, and pushed it and her hand deep into her pocket, feeling lighter, more alive, and started to walk, one foot in front of the other, toward Manchester.

 © Alex Townley 2019

Shared World · the project

Hello again

Hi there. Yes, we still exist.

We went dormant for a fair while, mainly because the Prompted Tales project came to its natural end at the end of 2016, but then over the Christmas break we had an idea for a new Prompted Tales spin off project, and we’re a little bit excited.

It’s called Shared World, and over the next month we’ll be sharing some more of the details with you, as well as inviting any short story writers interested in contributing to join us in our adventure for 2019.

world

December · finally · William's stories

Tim Enough at Last

By William Gallagher

A sequel, an update and maybe even a replacement for It’s About Tim, my first Prompted Tale from January.

TIM Lambast woke up like he was wrenching himself from sleep. An urgent drive forced him upright before he opened his eyes and then when he did, it was as if realisation caught up at the same speed. “Oh, sod this again,” he said, and fell back dodecember-williamwn.

He stared at the slanted ceiling just above him and he looked at its pristine new paint. Just about the last thing Dad had done around the house before he left. Tim reached out to the beside table, grabbed the marker pen he knew would be there, and then he wrote the number 37 onto the ceiling.

Tim threw the marker pen as far and as angrily as he could, knowing that the next time he woke up it would be right back there by the bed. Knowing that the next time he woke up, the ceiling would be pristine and the desk mirror would be clean and the door where he used to carve the count on would be unblemished.

The phone under his bed bleeped with a text message but he didn’t consciously hear it. The sound was just one more of the endless repeating details that he was stuck living through over and over.

Yet maybe something of that detail did register somewhere because now he found himself raising a finger and holding it poised like a conductor. “Annnnnnd cue Mum,” he said, smashing the finger down exactly as her voice called up the stairs telling him to hurry or he’d miss his exam.

He knew every movement, every word his mum was going to say. If he closed his eyes and bothered thinking about it, he could work out the movements of everybody. Pamela is next door, getting ready and coming to walk with him to school. She can whistle for that. Mr Brown the chemistry teacher is right now considering whether he’s got time before the exams for a second coffee in the café up the street.

He does. Every time through this day, though, he panics during the delay waiting for that second coffee to be made and hurriedly changes the order to a take out. He drives to school, sipping as he goes, and arrives in enough time that he could’ve just taken as long as he likes to finish it. But there’s a problem with either the Bobson twins in Year 9 or Mrs Hendry pretending she wants his help with her PC. It’s weird how there must be something Tim does that alters something he has no obvious connection with. He’d never spoken to the Bobson twins, he didn’t know Mrs Hendry until a few times through this loop. Yet something he does at some point makes the difference between who gets Mr Brown’s attention.

Tim doesn’t even know what happens to the twins or what they do. But he has seen that Mr Brown deals with it faster when it’s them than when it’s Mrs Hendry. Either way, he gets to the exam all in plenty of time to see Tim come in.

When Tim can be bothered to go to the exam hall.

Of course Tim had done the exam the first time through this day and once or twice he’d somehow been manoeuvred into it again. On the 17th and 27th times through it all he’d chosen to sit the exam out of sheer frustration at his inability to change any other outcome of the day.

The 27th time was actually fun. Again, it must be something he did that somehow cascaded on into making a significant change – why could he change all these things and not the one he wanted? – but the 27th was fun. Because of Pamela. Every time up to then she’d been concerned for him like a sister and patronising him like another sister. On his 27th go around, she seemed to share his new attitude to the exam. She seemed to realise that in the end the exam didn’t matter.

It was funny to think how much pressure he’d felt under the first time he’d sat it. Now there had been that one time when it was actually was fun and in the last few loops Tim had come to realise that he even enjoyed sitting the exam over and over. He could handle the exam now, he could do it. The exam made sense and it felt like the sole thing in his life that he could control.

What he cannot seem to control is that his mum dies today. And she has done, 36 times in a row.

It makes Tim angry that in all these times through the same day he has still not found out who her new boyfriend is. He’s tracked the man’s car by waiting ahead at each point in its route, seeing where it turns and then being there for the next go-around.

Still it happens. For the first 31 times, it looked like a car accident as she goes out with this man, whoever he is, and he drives them into a tree.

On the 32nd time, Tim gave up trying to delay his mum, trying to get his dad to come back, trying to divert this fancy car, and instead told her straight what was going on.

Before the end of that 32nd time around, his mum was calling someone for advice about mental issues in teenage boys and it turns out to be this new boyfriend. He’s not a doctor, he’s a PhD like Tim thinks Pamela’s dad is, but he knows something or knows someone, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that for the first time Tim is successful in stopping his mum going outside the house and getting into that car, getting into that accident. But still she dies.

For this boyfriend, presumably freaked by being told he was going to kill them both in a car crash, he chooses now to come to the house instead. Not to pick her up outside, not to have her admit to him that there is anything going on between these two. Instead he comes to kill her, Tim and himself.

The world went black for Tim on this 31st go around, it went black before he could even see the face of this man. Then when he woke up yet again at the start of the morning. The only differences were that he had drenched the bed in sweat and he now vomited onto the floor.

So the 33rd time was spent trying to get his mum away from the house while the 34th was getting out early and going to the police. Didn’t make a difference. Not enough of one anyway.

So for 35 and 36, Tim just stayed in his room, stayed on the bed, and let his mum go out, get in that car and be killed in what was apparently no accident at all.

He put his hands over his ears as his mum called louder. He stared up at the number 37 he’d written. Tim remembered now that he’d sat the exam on the 17th and 27th times, maybe it was something to do every ten times.

His mum was calling even louder now and for a moment he was back to being a normal teenager, back to before he got stuck repeating this day, for he forgot that he knew every syllable, every moment, every gust of wind in this day. He forgot that he knew everything and so he forgot that this was something new. He just yelled back “What?”

This was also new.

He could hear his mum talking but not what she was saying. Because she wasn’t talking to him, she wasn’t calling up the stairs.

Tim sat up and swung his legs to the floor. He sat on the side of the bed, trying to hear what was going on. And then as he got up, as he trod on the Coke can by the bed, there was a knock at his door.

“God, you’re a mess,” said Pamela. She was holding her revision folder against her chest. It was like a shield against the room’s smell of body odour and a long-forgotten curry.

“Er, do you want to come in?” asked Tim.

She gave the room a look and then gave him one too. “I think I might catch something. Anyway, I need us to work together now.”

“Oh, would you fucking forget the chemistry exam? That is truly, totally, absolutely the last thing on my mind.”

“Tim, concentrate. I’ve tried everything else I can think of to change today. If we work together, maybe we can finally put it right. Hang on.” Pamela paused for a moment and then turned around her revision folder. “I’ll lose count if I don’t make a note.” Then she wrote the number 11 on it. “Ready to save my dad’s life?”

© William Gallagher 2016