Most of these shorts are in response to assignments from one of the courses I am following.

The Camping Trip

This week’s challenge at http://esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com/ offered a single line “I wish I hadn’t done it” that had to be incorporated somewhere in the piece. I was two-thirds through this, relaxing in a camp site on the Costa Brava and wondering how to get Duncan out of his linguistic nightmare, when a man with a Birmingham accent came and spoke to the dogs, then with us. He has a local wife, has lived here for a several years, and acts as an interpreter in addition to his regular duties. Whoda thunk it?

“Hurry up, Jane, we’re all ready to go.” I know, I know, Mister Impatient, that’s me. But when I’m ready to go, I don’t like to hang about. I want to go.

“Nearly ready, Dunc. I’m just making sure we have everything we need for the week. Have you loaded your laptop and the wi-fi extender?”

“Yes, Jane.”

“And the dogs’ bowls, and food and treats and leads?”

“Yes, Jane.”

“And your medications?”

“Yes, Jane.”

“OK. I’m done. Dogs on board?”

“Yup.”

We climbed into the camper, started up, and set off. Five kilometres down the road, we turned back to collect the satnav. And the dogs. Minutes later, we were under way again.

Our destination was a lakeside campsite, some six hours south of us, that we had visited once before. It was raining when we left, but the forecast for the lake area was clear skies and high temperatures. There was just the matter of the mountains we had to cross to get there.

Of course, we could have avoided the mountains altogether. We could have taken the toll roads; that would have added cost both for the tolls and for the extra distance involved, but it would have taken almost an hour off the journey. We decided, okay, I decided that we had more spare time than we had spare money, so we took the mountain route. The old camper doesn’t like steep hills too much, and spent a lot of that part of the journey threatening to overheat at any suggestion of use of the accelerator. We climbed the hills like a 1930s coach; slowly. But climb them we did. Four times we had to stop for the old girl to cool off – the camper, that is, not Jane.
The six hours planned for the journey extended to seven, then to eight.

We eventually reached our destination. The last few minutes were spent on a new road not in the satnav’s map, and the constant bickering from it was driving us nuts.

“If that bloody machine tells us once more to turn back, Duncan, I swear I shall throw the damned thing through the window,” Jane said.

I turned it off. “Best not,” I suggested, “we might need it to get home again.”

That was met with a stern look and nothing else.

As we entered the camp site, it was apparent that we had unwittingly chosen a busy period. Jane seemed annoyed.

“Did you book our pitch?” she asked.

“I meant to, but didn’t get around to it. Sorry.”

“Sorry? Sorry? Will sorry find us a pitch when the place is packed, Duncan? Will sorry give us somewhere to sleep for the night?”

“Don’t worry, Jane. I’ll talk to the girl in reception and see if they can fit us in.”

“Do that! And woe betide you if she can’t”

The girl at the reception desk was French and, of course, spoke no English. She spoke with a strongly pronounced regional accent, the like of which I had heard before, but could never fathom. My French is okay when I’m talking to our neighbour about the weather, or buying groceries, but not here. Do I ask for an ‘emplacement’? Or is that just for tents? Should it be a ‘stationnement’, perhaps? I looked back at Jane, still sat outside in the camper. Her look said, “I don’t care. Just do it.”

“Having trouble, mate?” a voice asked from behind me. I wasn’t sure how to respond. It took a couple of moments for it to sink in that the man was speaking in English, a language I could understand, even with a Midlands twang.

I told him briefly what had happened. He said something to the girl, which obviously fit the bill, as she passed me some papers with our pitch marked on a map of the site.

On the way back to the camper the Englishman, who told me his name was Mike, said that he had lived in this area for more than ten years, and had been employed by the site as a kind of liaison for English-speaking visitors, in addition to some janitorial duties.

“Nice man,” I said to Jane as Mike walked off, presumably to help some other linguistically challenged camper.

“Good job he was there,” she replied, ‘You would never have managed.”

I wanted this to be a nice break for us, and the last thing I needed was an argument. However, we all have our breaking point, and mine had just been reached.

“Will you ever give it a rest, Jane? Don’t you think I’ve been through enough today? I’ve driven this machine for eight hours, nursing it up hills it was never going to climb easily; we’ve had the satnav going stupid on us, then this damned place was full. OK, I should have booked in advance. OK, I should be better at French. But I didn’t and I’m not. That’s the reality and that’s what I have dealt with. We are here. We have our pitch. We are going to have a nice week here.

“I love you, Jane. Really I do. Sometimes, though, when you are being this negative, and missing no opportunity to put me down, I find it difficult to like you.”

As soon as I had uttered those words, I knew I shouldn’t have. Now, four years after that fateful holiday, sitting here on my own, out of work and penniless in a poky little bedsit, I wish I hadn’t done it.

The Visit

This week’s challenge at http://esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com/ is looking for humour. This is based on a true story, and I’m hoping it doesn’t fall into the “you had to be there” category. It is written with respect and affection for the participants

Shortly after arriving in France, we enjoyed that honeymoon period when everyone wants to visit – you know, before they realise how far it is to drive, just for a visit to a tiny hamlet where one of the dogs howling with frustration because he can’t pick up a hedgehog without hurting himself turns out to be the highlight of the month as far as excitement goes.

During that time, we had a visit from my wife’s parents. Both in their seventies, they had not been man and wife for many years, but always remained good friends. Father-in-law drove. They had an arrangement whereby, if one committed a navigational or other faux-pas, rather than argue, they would calm down over a Ginger Nut (a hard ginger biscuit/cookie for those not familiar with the genre). This was most effective, as it is not easy to gnaw such a challenging foodstuff with teeth that have already seen service for seven decades and probably feel that they should be presented only with less onerous duties.

They arrived at Le Havre, intending to drive the 535 km down to us. It should have taken about six hours. We added a couple of hours for stops, and expected to see them about eight hours after their call to tell us they were on French soil. A call from them about five hours later told us that they were entering Paris for the fourth time, but that they were confident that, this time, they would leave Paris facing south. They confirmed that the Ginger Nut supply situation was still within bounds. A couple of hours after that, they called to tell us they would stop for the night and sleep in the car, in one of the many aires along the autoroute. They chose a full aire (think motorway service area) rather than a simple aire de repos (think off-road picnic area with toilet facilities). This may have been a mistake, as they were awakened at about 5am by a gendarme (gen d’arme, literally man with gun – there’s a thought to carry with you) who told them in the French version of Franglais – Franglais being kind-of-French spoken badly by an English speaker, his was kind-of-English spoken badly by a French speaker – that they couldn’t sleep there, and they had to move on. Being, fundamentally, law-abiding citizens, they had another Ginger Nut each and set off again.

By a totally unplanned and unanticipated concurrence of events that serves only to reinforce that the universe has a devilish sense of humour, we were subjected the previous evening to a thunderstorm of such ferocity as to relegate the millennium celebrations to a mere firework display. It was sufficient to reduce my broadband modem to little more than a box of frazzled electronics. I left home at about 10.30am to drive the 30-odd kilometres to the nearest town, intending to buy a replacement. The possibility of being separated from the web is too painful to contemplate. On the way, as I was driving through a village only 8km from home, a small car with two older people in the front, both apparently chewing on something, came towards me. Just before we passed, I recognised my in-laws (but my, they looked tired) so I tooted and flashed. Knowing they were within fifteen minutes of arrival, I carried on to town. On arrival in town, I called my wife. Although it was a full half hour after I had seen them, they hadn’t arrived. I made my purchase and returned home, entering the house just before 1pm. Still no sign of them.

They eventually arrived at 2.30pm, having been into the nearby village and shouted their anglicised representation of the name of our hamlet (which, trust me, couldn’t have been much further from the way it is normally pronounced, if they had tried) to the great confusion of the local populace, and circling the area four or five times, passing the bottom of our road as many times – in each direction.

When they arrived, they were, if anything, more relieved than we were.

I understand that sufficient Ginger Nuts were consumed to support McVitie’s share price for some months!

Something is not write

My tutor asked for a ghost story. I hope I’ve done it justice.

I couldn’t remember typing that line, but I suppose I must have. It couldn’t have typed itself, could it?

I had just finished my eighth cup of double-espresso, and it was only 10am. Lots of caffeine and a couple of other things keep my mind in its most creative state, but I can’t, in all honesty, say that when it is in that state, I am in complete control of it.

I wasn’t at all concerned that there were words on my screen that I couldn’t remember putting there. It’s the price I pay for the way I boost my creativity. It was the words themselves that concerned me.

Julian hasn’t been seen for a very long time,” they said. There is no character in my story called Julian. I deleted the words and carried on writing, vowing to have no more coffee that morning. My mobile phone rang, and I took the call. After the call, I returned my attention to the screen.

Julian was not a bad boy, he was just a bit naughty. But he hasn’t been seen since that night.” That I didn’t write. I was on my phone. Who is or was Julian? What night? I typed those questions into the computer.

Just then, the computer went off. I flipped the light switch. Nothing. Power cuts in the middle of winter aren’t unusual here. I went downstairs to the fuse cupboard, to see if it was something I could fix. It wasn’t. It can’t have been a general power cut, as I could hear the radio coming from downstairs, and the washing machine was on its spin cycle. I went back upstairs.

On entering the study, it was clear that something was wrong. For one, it was unusually cold. For another, the computer monitor was glowing. Nothing was showing on the screen, no graphics, no text, just a diffuse light. At first, I dismissed it as the afterglow that is often present on old-style CRT monitors, where the tube retains some charge after shutdown. This was an LED screen, though. And it was pulsing.

As I sat and looked at it, the words “Thank you for coming back” appeared in the middle of the screen. I typed furiously, “Who are you?

The screen cleared, and three words appeared:

“I AM YOU…”

 

A Mug’s Game

This was in response to a challenge wherein I was given the last line and asked to build a story leading to it.

It was three o’clock in the morning when he eventually rolled in, drunk as a skunk, with a smell to match. His hair was matted with blood, there was an open wound on his right cheek and his clothes were filthy and torn.
“Hello, love,” he said. “I think I got mugged on the way home.”
“My God, look at the state of you. Don’t take your coat off, let’s get you to hospital and get that face looked at.”
“Why? Wassappened?”
“You have a massive cut, and it’s still bleeding,” I said, as I was putting some clothes on. “Come on.”
I drove him to the local A&E, about twenty minutes away. Unusually, it was quiet, and they had him straight into a cubicle. Within less than half an hour, he was being stitched. Because of the nature of his injuries, the hospital had notified the police, and two constables were waiting to talk to him as soon as the medics had finished.
Of course, he could tell them nothing. He had no recollection of anything beyond meeting a group of people and being hit by one of them. The police asked him if anything had been stolen. He had no idea at all.
“Was I wearing a watch when I went out, love?”
“Yes, you were,” I said.
“Which one?” he asked.
“I don’t bloody know. I just know you looked at it before you left the house.”
“I had a watch on, and it’s not there now,” he said to the policeman.
“Can you describe it, Sir? Make, type, colour or anything?”
Are you having a laugh? Of course he can’t.
“No, sorry.”
“Anything else? Wallet, cash?”
Yeah, right. As if he would have any idea how much cash he had in his pocket after a heavy night drinking.
“Not that I know.”
“Thing is, Sir,” said the other policeman, “there’s been a gang running around the city for a few nights now, jumping people coming out of pubs and clubs, stealing their valuables, and leaving them in a bad state. One man died last night, and one from earlier in the week is still in a coma.”
“Well, I don’t have any valuables on me,” my still-drunk husband replied, “so it wouldn’t have done them any good if they’d tried to get anything off me.”
“Quite, Sir,” the policeman said, “but if you think of anything else, you will let us know, won’t you?”
“Yes, of course.”
Again – yeah, right. If he thinks of anything. Him?
Perhaps tomorrow he would look at things a little differently and realise what a lucky escape he’d had.

Arguments

“Why are you dragging that up again?”
“Because we haven’t resolved it yet!”
“What’s to resolve? Your mother is becoming frail and needs help. She needs to be somewhere where she can be looked after, and we can’t take her.”
“Why not?”
“We – don’t – have – a – spare – room – for – her. What’s so hard to understand?”
“Can’t we change one of our rooms into a bedroom for her?”
“Which one: the kitchen, the bathroom or our bedroom?”
“We could convert the loft.”
“It’s less than four feet high in the middle and full of beams, not to mention the water tank. Oh yeah, and all the crap that you’ve been putting up there over the years!”
“It’s not all mine!”
“Even so; it’s not suitable for conversion, and we don’t have the money, anyway.”
“What about the room you use for your computer, and writing and stuff?”
“And where am I supposed to work?”
“You call that work? If it actually brought in some money, we could get out of this dump and buy a house with a spare room so we could care for my mother!”
“That’s it, throw that in my face again. I know I am a good writer. At least I have some ambition and drive!”
“Is it my fault I can’t find a job?”
“Can’t hold a job down, more like it.“
“That’s unfair.”
“So is you going on about your mother, Adam. Talk to her. She could sell up and go into a care home. That would be the best thing for her. And don’t let her bully you. I know what she’s like!”

Later, on the telephone:

“Hi, Mum. It’s Adam. How are you today?”
“I’m fine thanks, Adam. How nice of you to call.”
“I called to wish you a happy birthday, Mum. How are you getting on without Mr Moggins?”
“It’s not easy. He was eighteen, you know. My only company since your father passed.”
“Will you get another cat?”
“I don’t think so. I couldn’t do with training another one up – all that mess and cleaning.”
“I’m worried about you being on your own in that great big house, Mum. What if you had a fall or something; or if you fell ill, and there was no-one there to help?”
“What are you saying? I should find another man to replace your father?”
“No, Mum, but you need to have people around you.”
“A lodger, perhaps?”
“No, Mum. You would end up looking after them, not the other way around.”
“What are you saying?”
“We’ve talked about this before, Mum. I’d love to have you, but Jean says we don’t have the room. There are some nice places close by, where they’d look after you really well, and we could come to see your regularly, too.”
“An old people’s home? God’s waiting room?”
“It’s not like that, Mum. They’re more like social centres, doing trips, bingo, sing-songs, all sorts of things.”
“Sorry, Son; I’ve got to go. There’s nobody at the door for me, and it might be urgent. Talk again soon. Bye.”
“But Mum … Mum … Mum?”


On the maternity ward

The ward is bright and airy. It contains six beds, five of which are occupied. Each looks like a copy of the next one; a tired, yet deliriously happy mum in bed, cradling a new infant – two, in one case. One of the five ladies has what looks like her entire family visiting, all of them resplendent in their finest saris and dhotis, celebrating the new arrival, whilst three have obviously doting husbands or boyfriends fawning over them. One of the new mums is on her own. Her partner, a senior police officer, had just left; her uniform skirt swishing audibly as she marched out to continue her shift at the local station.
The atmosphere is like a party, but with the hushed, reverential tones reserved for a doctor’s waiting room. There is much banter between the ladies, embarrassing their visitors with semi-ribald tales of their pregnancies and delivery experiences; their visitors responding with rapt, attentive adoration, like supplicants at a royal court.
Another new mum arrives, along with her partner, who says, “Well done, my clever, clever darling! Such a beautiful baby. How are you feeling?”
“Sore, Jon, but so happy. We’re not a couple any more – we’re a family; a proper family. Do you have to go back to work, or can you stay with me for a while?”
“I can stay here all day, if you want. But won’t you want to sleep after all that work?”
“Not yet. Look, here comes the midwife with Jamie-Louise.”
“Oh, not just Jamie, like we’d agreed?”
“I thought Jamie-Louise, hyphenated. Louise, after the midwife who delivered her. What do you think?”
“Sounds good to me. Jamie-Louise Tanner. Has a nice ring to it, Mrs Tanner.”
“Doesn’t it, Mr Tanner?”
“Isn’t this a wonderful day for us all?” The new mum in the next bed was alone, her partner having left earlier.
“It is,” Yolande Tanner replied, “somehow all the months of discomfort and the pain of childbirth have faded into the distance. Is your partner coming back later?”
“No, she won’t be back until tomorrow. The doctors want to keep me in overnight, but my Chloë has to work the late shift. I thought, when she was promoted to Super, that she would have more flexibility, but she seems to work harder than ever! She starts her – I suppose you’d call it ‘paternity leave’ – tomorrow.”


On the geriatric ward

Each of the six beds in the mixed geriatric ward has a privacy curtain around it. Five of the patients have visitors, but Mr Jones hasn’t had a visitor since he arrived, more than a month ago. From time to time, one of the people visiting another patient pops across to speak to him, so he’s not completely alone at visiting time. Eddie is in his seventies, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and occasional hallucinatory symptoms. Visiting him today are his wife, his brother Hank, and his son Casey, both with their wives. Eddie can’t respond to them, so they tend to talk to each other about him, rather than to him. Hank says something that prompts a witty response from Casey. Hank chuckles and a smile appears on Eddie’s lips. They suddenly realise that Eddie can not only hear and understand what they are saying, but he can also react to it. They start talking to him, but using exaggerated expressions and speaking as though to a small child. Eddie looks at them, each in turn. Although he can’t say anything, his disease is far too advanced for that, his eyes express deep sadness, and seem to be asking them to speak to him like an adult, not like a child.
Meanwhile, close by, poor old Mr Jones suffers some kind of hallucination, cries out and, if it were possible, shrinks back further into his bed. A nurse runs to him.
“Whatever’s the matter, Mr Jones?”
“Take ‘em away! Get rid of ‘em!”
“Take what away, Mr Jones? What can you see?”
“Them!”
“What?”
“Them Russian spies! They’re coming after me for my secrets!”
“What secrets, Mr Jones? What do they want you to tell them?”
Mr Jones says in a very small, clearly frightened voice, “I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
With that, Hank marches to the ward door, opens it, and in a commanding, military voice (he was a drill sergeant for years) says, “Begone with you. Leave the man in peace.”
Mr Jones’s face shows clear relief as Hank walks towards him, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he says, his voice trailing off.
“If they come again, you tell my brother Eddie. He’ll call me, and I’ll come and deal with them for you.” With that, Mr Jones descends into a peaceful sleep.
Sadly, Mr Jones’s outburst and Hank’s action frightened some of the other patients, so the nurses have to ask all the visitors to leave, whilst they calm and settle their patients.


Out with the old

The young London Bobby found her sitting on a bench in Hyde Park. Her paper-thin skin was charring in the relentless rays of the noon sun; the sun that hung above her like a vulture, waiting for her to leave this body and slip into one younger, more vital, more able to support her in the next phase of her mission. “This one will do”, she thought, as her essence left when the old body exhaled and expired, and she rode the current of the younger man’s inhalation. “This one will do nicely.”


The restaurant

  1. The term ‘military bearing’ could well have been written with the Major in mind. He strode – no, marched into the dining room, his rolled newspaper under his arm like a drill sergeant’s baton. Seating himself at a table for one, next to the window but strategically close to the servery, he snapped his fingers in the direction of a young waiter and barked, “Boy!”
    The waiter rushed to the Major’s table, his hand shaking as he handed over the menu and wine list.
    “Fillet steak, à point – I assume your chef knows what that means; do you want me to spell it for you?”
    The waiter shook his head.
    “I’ll have it with sautéed mushrooms and onions, French fries and petits pois. And I don’t have all night.”
    The waiter noted his order and returned to the kitchen thinking “I don’t know much about pancakes, but I know a tosser when I see one.”
  2. Simon walked into the restaurant, and hesitated for a moment near the entrance. Although in his early twenties, he had not previously been in any restaurant beyond the obligatory fast food chains, and was visibly uncomfortable, self-conscious and nervous. The head waiter approached him and, with the superior air that is the trademark of his profession, asked “Does Sir have a reservation?”
    “Y-yes. Name of Corbett. For two.”
    Simon looked around to see if his date, Janine, had already arrived, and was unsure whether to be relieved or worried on seeing that she hadn’t.
    The waiter seated him at a table for two. He spent the next minutes arranging and rearranging the cutlery, straightening his tie, buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket, opening and refolding his serviette, looking around and consulting his smartphone. Twenty minutes later, his face lit up as he saw approaching him, the girl he had adored from a distance for years. He raised himself to his feet.
    “Sorry, Si,” she said, “Ross asked me out as well, and he’s way more fun than you. Can’t stop, he’s waiting for me outside. Maybe another time?”
    With that, she was gone, taking with her Simon’s hopes and dreams, as well as the last vestiges of his self-confidence.
  3. Seated opposite each other at the table for two, they almost missed the waiter’s appearance.
    “Are you ready to order, Sir? Madam?”
    “Yes,” Wayne replied, his eyes not straying from Nikki’s. “I’d like the magret de canard on the bed of lettuce,” stressing the word bed, ”and my – er – friend will love the salade paysanne.” They both giggled a little at that.
    “And for sweet, Sir?”
    “We’ll both have sorbets afterwards.” Wayne replied, snickering, pronouncing the word as sore bits. Nikki blushed and twisted the end of her hair in her fingers, whilst casting towards Wayne what was meant to be a reproachful glance.
    The couple held hands across the table, Wayne ate with his fork in his left hand, Nikki with hers in her right. Throughout the main course they fed each other morsels from their own plate, so both dishes were shared.
    As soon as the main course was finished, Wayne and Nikki rushed out of the restaurant, hand in hand. They never did have their sorbets, but …

 


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