This week, I have a small selection of short fiction from my two books, comprising Bleak Midwinter Tales. They’re all of $0.99 or £0.71, from all good Kindle sales outlets everywhere. That’s Amazon to you and me. Also available from Smashwords for other e-readers or PC reading. Click on the little pictures on the right for details.
It’s also available in print form from Lulu – where you get both books, plus two more pieces of short fiction, plus the prologue to my forthcoming novel “Death in Print”. Sounds like a bargain to me. See .: THIS PAGE :. for more information.
Anyway, here are some short pieces of fiction. I hope you enjoy them.
ALONE AT MIDNIGHT
In the darkness, the faint, soft glow of the screens lit his face, and a small area around it. He stared at the words and numbers on the screen, wishing they were different.
He knew he’d been stupid. Inspired by the acts of 9/11, he’d realised that the only way to get people’s attention is to make a big bang. Sitting in his tiny bedsit on the outskirts of London, it was easy to get high on good ideas and the rhetoric of commanders who sit on committees and dictate to others. Now, there was no doubt that he, Robert Banning, was deep in the shit, and scared to death.
He’d first developed a sense of right and wrong when he was at college. He and his close friends joined Amnesty International, and then after college, he’d progressed to an organisation more in keeping with his increasingly extreme views.
From there, he’d been recruited. He’d attended clandestine meetings in back street cafés, there was even talk of a training camp in the middle east. “Probably next year,” they’d said. “But the time for action is now.” Those were the words that had galvanised him.
He’d been stupid to admit he’d had flying lessons. And they were all stupid to think that a single-engined Cessna was the same as a Boeing airliner. He recalled the words. “How different can it be? I’ve played with the flight simulator on the computer. All planes are the same.” How stupid, how stupid?
The walkie-talkie on his belt beeped. “How are things, Captain?”
He forced a calm voice. “Very good. Everything going according to plan. How are things in the cabin?”
“Everything under control. This is truly going to be a glorious day in our organisation’s history. You will be a great hero.”
Sitting alone in the middle of the night, doing his damndest to keep the thing flying level, he hadn’t a clue where he was. And he was scared.
WHAT’S IN THIS?
Russell Davis was charming. Everybody said so. All the girls in the office fancied him. He was tall, well built, and had dark-brown hair, always cut expensively. His position as accounts manager meant that he was respected by his peers, and was on a rapid promotion programme. He had his own house, a nearly new BMW. All in all, he pretty much had everything.
But Julia wasn’t attracted to him. She couldn’t say exactly why, but there seemed to be something about him that made her feel uneasy. Of course, she was polite, and whenever he gave her some work to do, she did it as efficiently as she could. But she hated to be near him.
At the office Christmas party, she was having a great time with her mates, when Davis came over. “Would you like a drink?”
“I’m okay, thank you. I’m with my mates.”
“Go on, just one drink.”
Julia’s best friend, Sam, nudged her. “Go on,” she whispered in Julia’s ear. “He’s a real catch. You might get to like him. Just one drink. It is Christmas.”
He brought over a glass with an umbrella sticking out of it.
“What’s in this?” she asked.
“Ah, it’s a special cocktail. Try it. You’ll like it.”
She sipped, thought it was okay, and drank some more. Davis watched her, intently. “Shall we dance? And then I’ll get us another drink.”
Later, everyone agreed that Julia had had a little too much to drink. It was good of Davis to look after her, and see that she got home. After all, he was such a catch.
ONE MORE STEP
That’s all it needed – one more step. Overhead, white, wispy clouds decorated a clear, blue sky. The sun had risen just over an hour ago, and sat low on the horizon, watching, waiting.
On his drive down here, Tim had blinked away tears of frustration, and of rage. They had turned single-point streetlights into starbursts. They turned the warmth of his unshaven face cold and wet where they touched.
He stood on the edge for a moment, hands in pockets, hunched up against the early morning chill. In his trouser pocket, his hand creased the car park ticket, and the insanity of paying to park his car hit home, as a culmination of everything that was wrong about his life. About him.
“It’s all your fault,” she had said. “How long did you expect me to wait for you? I have my needs. I have to feel loved.”
He had loved her, even from a hundred miles away.
But everything had been his fault. Even that first time, when he had come home with the early signs of flu, and caught the two of them? Yes, even then.
He had wanted to punish Charles. Punish him for being a good friend to her when she needed it. Punish him for sleeping with her when he was working hard to pay the arrears on the mortgage, or to pay her credit card bills. He had needed to punish Charles, to feel like he had some control over his life. And he had punished him, well.
And now, after the fifteen years (time off for good behaviour), she had remarried, had children, and had forgotten about him.
He looked at the sun. It smiled at him, and he took that last step.
I should have known she would do it. Despite all of my best efforts to put her off, and make her see sense, she still went ahead and did it.
I know divorced husbands no longer have the same stigma associated with them as they used to, but there was always something about him that I didn’t take to. When I was young, if you were the product of a failed marriage, a “broken home” we used to call it, you stood out from the crowd. These days, a family with two parents still together is the exception rather than the rule.
Simon, he’s called. I suppose I could see what attracted her to him – smart, always well turned out, clean-shaven, nicely groomed. “Very presentable”, my mom would have said about him. He was a little taller than Suzy, and fairly trim. The slight limp he had, favouring his left leg, was caused by a bad tackle in a football game. He still goes to his club, watches the matches, has a drink with his mates after the match. Suzy sometimes goes, too. She used to go every week, nowadays she uses the time to catch up on the washing, or the cleaning.
I can still remember the first time Suzy went on a date with him. I could tell something was on Suzy’s mind – mother’s intuition, they used to call it.
“So, Suzy, what are you up to tonight?”
“Tonight, mum? Nothing special. Well…”
“You’re going out somewhere. I can tell. Where are you going?” I tried to make the question non-threatening.
“Just to the pictures. With Mandy.”
I knew it was a lie, but I thought I’d let it go. I suppose she had to take an interest in men eventually. It was, after all, her life.
“What’s his name?” So much for good intentions.
She let out a sigh. “It’s Simon.”
“You will be careful, won’t you? You know what I mean by that?”
She smiled at me. “Of course mum. I’m off now. I’m meeting him outside the pictures. I won’t be late.” She gave me a kiss, and looked into my eyes. “I’ll be careful, mum. He’s a really nice bloke. You’ll meet him soon.”
She skipped out, relaxed now that her little secret was out. I loved to see her happy, but I can’t help being a mother and trying to protect her, can I? I waited up, but not so she’d see me. I didn’t want to frighten her off.
A few more dates, and he came round to the house. Sponge cake, tea and polite conversation. I suppose he was charming, in a way. Very deferential, and careful not to sit too close to my Suzy. When she saw him off, I made lots of noise in the sink, drowning out any possibility of overheard sweetheart talk.
“Do you like him, mum?”
“I suppose he’s quite nice. I’m not sure about his tea drinking, though. ‘A man who takes two sugars is trying to sweeten down some bitter character’ – my mom used to say that.”
“Oh mum! He’s really nice. You’ll see, once you get to know him. Maybe next time he visits, he can bring his daughter.”
It took only a few moments to pick up the pieces of the plate, but the shock of what she had said couldn’t be fixed that quickly. From then, things went from bad to worse.
I tried talking to her, pleading with her, forbidding her. She called me overprotective, interfering – and worse. Nothing made any difference at all. Even when I became ill, I tried to use it as an excuse for her to stay close to me, and not see so much of Simon. Bless her, she did stay with me, helped me, held my hand. But I could tell she wasn’t listening to me at all. Nothing I said had any effect whatsoever.
And now, she’s done it. She’s married him, willingly taken responsibility for his daughter. Simon’s obviously happy his precious daughter has a new mother. Everything I tried to do, every note of caution I sounded, he was there, whispering in her ear, turning her against me.
My reminiscences were interrupted by the front door banging, and I called out. She ignored me, as she always did nowadays. She came breezing into the kitchen, looking around at the empty spaces where the appliances used to be. I felt it was time to try to make up, and put our differences to one side.
“Darling. Suzy. I think we need to talk.”
Nothing. No reply, no recognition even that I’d spoken. Just Suzy, moving around the kitchen, touching work surfaces, mind elsewhere. Eventually, she spoke.
“Mum. I really wished you could have liked Simon. It could have been so perfect to have you there at the wedding, giving us your blessing. It’s all too late now”. Tears formed in her eyes.
My heart melted, and I moved towards her, my arms wide open, ready to hug her for her forgiveness. My arms passed through her. I’d never get used to it. As I watched, she wiped a tear from her cheek, picked up her handbag, and stepped quickly towards the front door. I called out, so desperate to have her stay here with me. I was the only one to hear my voice. She could go wherever she wanted now, with or without Simon. She had the choices. I had none. I was stuck here, forever, on my own, with my regrets.
ONE SPARE PLACE
Daniel laid the table, placing knives, forks and spoons carefully opposite each chair. Force of habit made him lay out a fourth place, before he stopped, and reconsidered. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have done this – it had been nearly eight months since Angela had died, and he and the boys had got very much used to being on their own.
As Christmas approached, there had been plenty of offers, some insistent, of a Christmas with friends and family, especially for Christmas dinner. But Daniel had always prepared the dinner on Christmas day, and didn’t want to change the normal run of things for this year, even if Angela wasn’t going to be around.
He prodded things in pans on the hob, and turned to look out of the large window onto the garden. The two boys were playing football with Joey, their Jack Russell terrier. As usual, Joey’s lack of skill was more than made up for by his enthusiasm, and the boys cackled with laughter as they dog ran round and round, pushing the ball with his nose.
Daniel watched them for a while, and knocked on the window. When they looked his way, he moved his two fists alternately up and down at the front of his chest. There was a muffled cheer, and the three boys (including Joey), raced to the kitchen door.
“I want all three of you to stand there while I check for mud on your feet”, said Daniel. Two complied, but Joey ignored him, and ran into the living room, leaving a small trail of muddy paw prints.
As he checked them for dirty hands and feet, he felt so proud of the two of them. At nine and seven, they were still small children, but in some ways, they were grown up. This year had been both terrible and enlightening for them all.
“I want to ask the two of you a question. It may seem a bit silly, and I don’t mind the answer, but I’d just like to know”.
The two boys stood shoulder to shoulder, prepared for anything that life could throw at them now.
“By mistake, I’ve laid an extra place at the table. I suppose I was just used to doing it at Christmas. I don’t know whether to leave it, or take it away. What do you think?”
Ryan, the eldest, and the natural leader of the two, looked at his younger brother. James shrugged his shoulders. It wasn’t that he didn’t mind, he just didn’t understand the significance of the question.
Then Ryan spoke. “Dad, we know why you asked the question. But there’s just the three of us now. We know mum’s dead, and we won’t ever forget her. But you don’t need to lay a place for her. She won’t be there.”
Daniel patted both of them on the shoulder. “Fine by me. Now go and wash your hands, and I’ll serve this little lot up.”
He turned back to the cooker as the two boys raced upstairs to the bathroom. Lucky, really, because he wouldn’t want them to see the tears in his eyes.
GOING THROUGH MY DRAWERS
Michael and I had returned early. We’d been to a fundraiser, for the local hospital, but Michael had felt ill, so we came home early. I drove. Michael had drunk a few cocktails.
When we got home, the first thing I noticed was that the alarm was off. Michael normally sets it as we go out. He swears he did so last night.
So we go into our house, and there’s no noise. A few security lights had been left on – Michael’s idea – to deter burglars. So Michael says to me: “Stay here, darling. I’ll search the house.” So I did. For a while, anyway.
The door to the basement was still locked, like it normally is. He checked the kitchen and the family room, and everything was okay.
So he starts to go upstairs. I say to him: “Michael, let me go. You’re drunk.”
But he said: “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. I feel okay now.”
So he climbed up the stairs, very slowly, and very quietly. And then – nothing. No sound at all. So naturally, I got worried. So I went upstairs too. Slowly and quietly just like he did.
When I get to the first floor landing, I hear this sound in our bedroom. Sort of moving around sounds, if you know what I mean. So I head in that direction. When I open the door, there’s this guy, going through my drawers, one by one. And Michael, he’s creeping up on the guy, like on tiptoe.
Well, I tried to keep quiet, but the sight of that guy, looking through my underwear, I just sort of made a sound. And he turned around, saw Michael, and shot him with this gun he was holding. Just like that.
I was so upset, I just broke down, and the guy pushed past me, and ran out of the house, And there was my husband, lying there, dead. And that’s when I phoned you guys.
Whaddya mean, he’s not dead? Talking? Oh shit.
© Gerald Hornsby 2010