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Henshaw Short Story Competition
    Henshaw Short Story Competition

 

 

 

 

  December 2021 Competition Winners are: - 

 

 

 

First Prize:

 

Anil Classen of Switzerland

for

‘The Nightingale’

 

 

 

Second Prize:

 

Mark Broucek of Joliet, USA

for

‘I’ll Do Anything’

 

 

 

 Third Prize:

 

Don Horne of Port Macquarie, Australia

for

‘Love Conquers All’

 

    

 

 

 

 

                                                      *********

                        

 

 

‘The Nightingale’

 

by

 

Anil Classen

                        

 

 

 

Suad was so caught up in her singing that she failed to hear the sound of his key in the door. His key ring was so full that the chorus of metal chimes would normally have her ears pricked up. It was the perfect alarm system. The hand on her shoulder was so unexpected that she almost screamed. She had not heard his footsteps because he had taken his shoes off, as was the habit now since they moved to Hamburg. The city was so different from Kabul that it may as well have been on another planet. Suad felt the air sucked out of her, the last sung note hanging in the air for a moment before it vanished like a startled fairy.

‘How long have you been singing?’

The question sounded simple. It demanded a simple answer. Suad took in his enlarged eyes that were framed by a pair of thick black spectacles. She saw the anger vibrate in time with the throbbing vein on his forehead.

‘Suad, I asked you a question. How long have you been…singing?’

This second question was accompanied by his firm hands applying more pressure to her shoulder. She tried to twist herself free but it was pointless. She could already feel the shiver of pain coursing down her left arm all the way to her hand that was still holding the green and white striped sweater she had been folding before he appeared like a bad-tempered genie.

‘Not long.’

Her answer was soft, lost in the small bedroom.

He shook her shoulders before he shouted, ‘How long?’

They were so engrossed in each other that neither of them heard the approaching footsteps before Suad felt her body being pulled from her father’s strong grip.

‘Are you crazy?’

It was her mother, her brown eyes wild with confusion as she wrapped Suad in her arms.

‘I was only…’ he tried to say before his eyes fell to the ground. This lasted only a moment before he raised his head, his eyes different, as if he had suddenly remembered something.

‘She cannot sing in the apartment. The neighbours…the Ahmeds, they…they will hear her.’

‘And? so what if they do? What were you thinking?’ she hissed. ‘You scared her!’

There was a long pause before he walked away. A few seconds later her mother stood up and left the room, foolishly forgetting to close the door, allowing her daughter access to the argument that was already starting in the kitchen. Suad pressed her face between the cracked wooden doorway and the doorhandle that felt cold against her cheek.

‘I will not have her singing…she is no longer a child.’

‘She’s just turned eight…of course she’s a child!’

Suad could see the side of her jeans, the pair that sat snugly on her hips, the pair they had bought together in a store that offered so many styles that it overwhelmed both of them. They had never experienced such a myriad of choice before, nor the amount of bare skin around them.

‘We’ve spoken about this.’

‘No, you spoke about this…this madness.’ Her voice dropped a notch as she continued, ‘I was silly to think it was a mood, Ismael…’

Now her voice softened as she said his name. Suad recognised the sugared tone. This tactic had been used on her to calm her moods or to lift her spirits.

‘Leila, I will not have the neighbours gossiping about our daughter…or our lack of morals,’ he said, regrouping. ‘She is over eight years now. She is not allowed to sing in this home…or anywhere else anymore.’

Suad closed her eyes. She felt the beginnings of shame. It followed the rumbling in her tummy. She knew that she should have been more careful. Her father had warned her. But she could not stop herself from singing, though. The song had ripped its way through her when she discovered the rare intimacy of being alone in the apartment. Her mother had shushed her last week as she started humming her favourite Disney song, the one every girl in her class was singing, the one her teacher had told them to please stop singing because it was unbearable.

‘This is craziness.’

‘You call our religion crazy?’

Her father’s slow tone sounded scary all of a sudden. ‘You think that what we believe in…is crazy?’

‘Tell me why we moved here, Ismael…tell me why I gave up everything…everything I knew to follow you here, to this country where everyone looks at me like I am an alien because I choose to wear a scarf over my head. Tell me.’

‘You know why we moved.’

‘I want to hear it from you. Even if it is the fiftieth time, Ismael.’

There was a light groan before he answered, ‘Because there was no future for us in Afghanistan.’

‘And now our future here is meant to be one of restriction? You expect me to believe that because some man in the mosque is preaching that our daughter should no longer sing, that it is okay? What’s next? Will you force me to wear hijab? Will you lock me up in this apartment just to avoid other men looking at me?’

‘For goodness’ sake, lower your voice. You are bordering on blasphemy…the Ahmeds...’

Suad knew the mistake even as he was still speaking. Her mother did not enjoy being interrupted, nor did she enjoy being told to be silent.

‘I don’t care about our nosy neighbours, Ismael! They can listen all they want. You promised me that things would be different here. We ran away from all that…’

‘All that what?’

‘You know what,’ she said in a lower voice, forcing Suad to squeeze her head further into the doorway so she could hear better.

‘This was meant to be a new start. You have been different since you found your new friends. When you grew your beard, I thought you looked even more handsome. Now I know it was only so you can fit in here. Your friends are no different from those you ran from.’

‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Your friends back home turned on you because of your work…they all turned their backs on your friendship. To them you were a traitor because you translated German texts. Suddenly you were going against your religion just because you were trying to put food on the table for your family.’

Suad remembered the angry faces of the men that day. She could still feel her mother grabbing at her arm as she foolishly unlatched the key chain, allowing them space to barge in and drag her father away.

‘It was more complicated than that. These are good people here, Leila. If you took the time to get to know them…you would…’

‘I have taken the time!’ she suddenly yelled. ‘I met their wives. I went to their homes as you asked me to. Do you know what their daughters said to Suad?’

‘What?’

‘That her scarf is too colourful. She should wear black. And the worst of it was,’ she said forcefully before her voice faltered. ‘The worst is that…all the mothers nodded. One of them actually turned to Suad and told her that the last thing she surely wanted was the boys noticing her.’

‘Were they wrong?’

‘Can you even hear yourself? We ran from these people!’ she yelled again. ‘These people who now want you to put a muzzle on your daughter like she’s some sort of dog that does not know better.’

‘You are blowing this out of proportion.’

‘Am I? It seems you and I are on two byways, Ismael, and sooner or later one of us is going to grow tired of travelling alone.’

The sound of a chair being pushed backwards echoed down the hallway before her mother called, ‘Suad! We’re going out.’

‘Where are you going?’

The open shock laced its way through her father’s thin voice.

‘Are you now monitoring me as well? Is that who you want to be? One of those men…those men you rolled your eyes at before? I am taking my daughter for a walk…if that is okay with you?’

Half an hour later Suad found herself in front of a middle eastern restaurant. She turned her face to smile at her mother whose eyes were masked by angry clouds that managed the impossible task of making her even prettier.

‘Why are we here? It isn’t my birthday.’

‘We don’t need a birthday to spoil ourselves.’

Her mother’s reply was followed by a sly wink. The clouds dissipated slightly.

‘Could we have two portions of sheer pira as a takeaway?’ Suad’s mother asked politely in Arabic.

The tall woman next to the cash register wore a striking red and white dotted scarf. She nodded before opening a large glass cabinet door that revealed several stands with various desserts on large metal trays. Suad could already taste the earthy ground cardamom on her tongue. When she saw the diamond-shaped pieces of the traditional dessert her grandmother had always prepared for her on special occasions, she closed her eyes, thinking of the thick creaminess mixed with too much syrup and chopped nuts.

As her mother opened her bag to pay, Suad heard someone singing. For a short second, she thought it was the radio, but then the sound intensified. She looked up, into the exasperated eyes of the woman behind the counter.

‘That Miriam, she’s my pride and joy, but she is like a bird that won’t stop chirping.’

Suad felt her mother’s eyeing her. She lowered her head before she looked back up into the curious eyes behind the counter.

‘She’s allowed to sing?’ Suad asked.

The question stood uncomfortably in the room until her mother’s hand touched her shoulder. Suad’s eyes remained glued to the woman who looked at her mother quickly before she focused on Suad again. The understanding passing between the two women was something Suad could not grasp. The three of them stood in silence until the singing in the background grew louder, reminding Suad why she had asked the question.

‘Here we sing all we like. No one,’ the woman finally said as her face broke into a large smile, ‘no one has the right to silence us, habib.’

When they were outside, Suad waited until they had found a bench to sit on before she asked, ‘Did I do something wrong?’

Her mother dipped into the white plastic packet on her lap and fished out two plastic dishes holding their treats.

‘No, darling.’

‘But…I said something wrong in the restaurant, didn’t I? And…and you and Daddy…you were fighting because of me.’

‘Your father and I…we are still getting used to Hamburg, Suad. It was no different for you. Remember how scared you were of going to school here?’

Suad nodded before she bit into the solid dessert that almost crumbled between her small fingers. The wave of sugar was almost overwhelming.

‘And now you have friends. You enjoy going to school. It just takes time.’

‘Can I still sing?’

There was a slight hesitation from her mother. Suad saw the way her smooth forehead rippled into fine lines before she asked, ‘Does your singing hurt anyone?’

‘Well…no.’

‘Then you carry on singing, Suad. You have such a lovely voice. It would be a shame not to use it, don’t you think?’

‘Do you want me to sing?’

‘What, here?’ her mother asked before her lips puckered teasingly, matching her cheeky brown eyes.

‘If you like,’ Suad said shyly.

‘Well, by all means…don’t let me stop you.’

Suad’s legs dangled freely above the ground before she started singing. A jogger ran by, turning her blonde head slowly to the sound of the pretty voice that rose up from the dark grey park bench. In that moment, the song Suad had heard in the restaurant left her lips, the Arabic making her mother close her eyes in silent pleasure.

 

 

 

                                                                        ******

 

 

‘I’ll Do Anything’

 

by

 

Mark Broucek

                        

Jack Meyers was sitting in total darkness, as he always did at the start of the show. It was much better theatre for the contestants to be hidden from the audience until that exact moment when the announcer called out their names. Then a spotlight would hit them and the world would see a startled, and momentarily blinded, man or woman with nothing to lose. The combination of shock, nervousness, and false hope created a look that the producers banked on every week – and was always delivered.

As three time returning champion, Jack should have been prepared for the spot.  But he never was and he gave the producers exactly what they wanted.  He hated them, and himself, for that.

            Jack was particularly on edge tonight.  Since he was back for a fourth week in a row, he had to come up with something even more spectacular than last week.  And he really was back for a fourth week.  Unlike most game shows, which taped up to five shows a day to be replayed during the coming weeks, Jack’s was live.  While this was done to heighten the tension, it played havoc with Jack’s nerves and ulcers during the wait between shows.

            As the sweat literally dripped from his armpits to his waistband, Jack listened to the familiar fake enthusiasm of host Bob Sindelar:

            “Hello everybody and welcome back to beautiful downtown Burbank, California!  Thanks for joining us for another episode of the most intense and nerve-wracking hour on television!!  We do what no one else dares to!  And it’s all LIVE!  So, without further ado, let’s play, I’ll Do Anything!  (pause for applause)  Let’s meet our contestants!  First, this week’s challenger:  He’s a dock worker from right down the road in Inglewood, meet Randall Brackin!!”  The spot hit Brackin full on and he smiled queasily.  “What are you willing to do for us tonight?” squealed Sindelar.

            “Well, Bob,” said Brackin, squinting and shading his eyes, “I’m gonna go over to my boss’s Man of the Year award ceremony, rush the stage and confront him with pictures I took of him with the prostitute I set him up with.”  The audience cheered wildly and Sindelar had to shush them to have his velvet tones heard.

            “Well, I’m guessing that you don’t really need your job!  Am I right, Randall?”

            “Actually, Bob, I do,” said Brackin.  “My wife is eight months pregnant, my kids need braces and Mom just had a stroke and moved in with us.  But for this show, I’ll Do Anything!!”  The crowd erupted again.  Sindelar shushed again.

            “Well, that’s going to be tough to beat!  But now, we move to our three time defending champion, from Van Nuys – Jack Meyers!”  The applause was good but not what Jack had been hoping for.  The crowd seemed to be taken with this Brackin guy and that really concerned him.  He’d have to come up with something pretty good.  The sweat continued to pour.  “What have you got for us tonight, Jack?” burst out Sindelar.

            Jack sneaked a peek over at his opponent.  The look in Brackin’s eyes convinced Jack that he would go through with his stunt and not chicken out like others had.  He had to come up with something.  He looked back into the spotlight and, seeing nothing, said, “I’ll kill my own daughter.”  The studio went absolutely silent.  Then all hell broke loose.

 

****

 

            I’ll Do Anything was the brainchild of Sindelar-Maxwell Productions.  After years of great, but not immense, pay as a game show host, Bob Sindelar (nee Walter Kandelterry) realized that for him to achieve the respect, and money, that he deserved, he needed to start his own production company.  In the beginning, there were quite a few false starts.  The most memorable, Running On Empty, was a show in which opponents answered progressively easier questions over a five day period – the catch being they could not eat or sleep during that time.  The last coherent answer was the winner.  Finally, Sindelar-Maxwell pitched the concept of I’ll Do Anything to ABC Daytime. 

Since there actually was no Maxwell (Sindelar had noticed that most successful game show production companies were collaborations, so he just made one up), Sindelar went it alone.  This time he hit pay dirt.  The idea was relatively simple.  Each week, two contestants would make a statement about what they were willing to do for that week’s prize money.  Then they had to do it.

What made ABC bite was Sindelar’s two unalterable tenets to the show.  First, there had to be consequences to the contestant’s actions.  No “I’m gonna cuss out my boss to win the money and then let him know later on it was a joke – ha ha” would be allowed.  The statements had to be serious and real.  Try to tell the LAPD that the bank robbery you just attempted was a joke for TV – ha ha.  If you wanted to be on I’ll Do Anything, you had to be ready to lay it all on the line.

Second, the show had to be live.  This was for two reasons.  Sindelar had seen too many reality shows where the editing had made sympathetic characters into villains and vice versa.  He wanted his contestants to be who they were, warts and all.  The other reason had to do in part with his philosophy of laying it all out.  With intros, credits and Sindelar’s speeches, opponents had a maximum of 41 minutes to complete their challenges.   There was no time to pussy foot around.  You jumped in and did what you said you would do or you didn’t and were humiliated in front of millions. 

After the show had been greenlit, Sindelar had an epiphany of such monumental proportions that it virtually guaranteed a ratings monster:  The prize money.  The other reality shows were falling all over each other trying to give out the biggest prize each week.  One was touting a chance at a $1 million payday for a nights trivia work.  Hell, a mediocre Jeopardy payout was $25 – 30 grand and that was assured to the day’s winner.  Sindelar wanted his prize money to be so nominal that people watching could not believe that these schlubs would attempt such things for so little cash.  The “I can’t stop watching this train wreck” factor would be through the roof.  He started out with a $1,000 for the first week’s winner, then progressively 2, 3, and 5 grand in the coming weeks if you kept winning.  You were retired after a four week stay as champion. 

The network expressed doubt that people would stand for such minimal winnings. Sindelar held fast and was right. With all the nuts in California, he had to beat prospective contestants off with a two by four before selecting the right sad sack for any given show. Why give a million when they would have settled for $50, just to get on TV. And all the more profit for Sindelar-Maxwell Productions.

The show was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  It was moved to primetime and Sindelar and ABC couldn’t even begin to count all the cash that was rolling in.  Until May 21st that is, and Jack five little words.

 

                                                                            ****

 

Jack knew he was in trouble.  He was sitting in the show’s Green Room, which had been turned into the Interrogation Room.  He should have known that a show seen live across the entire country would be seen by the Burbank Police Dept.  Officers arrived at the studio before the audience was even brought to order.  They shut down the show immediately.  He wondered what reruns were being shown on ABC right now.  He didn’t have the guts to flick on the room’s TV so he just waited for another round of cops to drop by.

The door finally opened and in walked Sindelar followed by two men Jack didn’t recognize.  Detectives probably.  “Jack, Jack, Jack,” sighed Sindelar.  He wasn’t as enthusiastic sounding as he was on air but was just as condescending.  “The show’s lawyers and I have gone over your story with a fine tooth comb and we think it’s a go.  But you gotta tell these guys one more time.”

Jack couldn’t believe his ears.  It’s a go?  What’s a go?  Him to jail or the show continuing on?  He was thinking he might be having some sort of a breakdown when Sindelar prompted him.  “Just tell your story, Jack.  Then we’ll go back to the studio.”

Unless they were going back to the studio to televise his trial and execution (which Jack didn’t fully put past Sindelar), he wasn’t getting arrested.  He began his story.  “My life was normal four years ago.  Wife, two kids, dog, crappy job.  Just like every other American, right?  Then Marie, my youngest, runs right out in front of an ice cream truck.  Can you believe it?  Those things move so slow, you could walk faster.  But Marie got tangled up underneath it and to this day is still on life support.” 

He paused, thinking about so many things.  “She’s not coming back,” he finally said, “and the insurance is gone.  We have no money.  Dr. Wilson advised us to consider pulling the plug, if we were strong enough.  We’re not.  Until I cracked and said what I said.  My wife, Ellen, can’t go on watching Marie fade.  I guess I thought I could use the show to make me do what I know I have to.”  He looked around at everyone in the room and added, “That’s it.  End of story.”

No one spoke.  Finally, the two detectives sighed, shrugged and left the room.  Sindelar sprang into action.  “Okay, Jack here’s what has to go down to keep us all out of a courtroom.  We go back into the studio and you repeat what you’re going to do.  Tell your story.”  He thought for a moment.  “Some tears would be good.  Yeah.  And then we go do it.  We’ll have to break into the news in some markets but who cares.  This is big.”

“What about Brackin?” Jack asked.

“Screw him,” said Sindelar.  “He can’t beat you no matter what.  Besides that Man of the Year dinner is probably over by now.”

“Then what?” asked Jack.

“Then what what?”

“What happens next?”

“Oh,” said Sindelar.  “Well, you get the five grand and retire as four time champ.  And the show ends with its greatest champion ever.”

Jack just looked at him.  “The show goes off the air?”

“Well, that’s what we worked out with ABC and the FCC.  You know, it’s for the best all the way around.  I mean, who could beat you.  You’re the winner of all time.”

Jack thought about it a bit.  “So, the show goes off the air,” he finally said.

“Yes, yes,” said Sindelar impatiently.  “It goes off the air.  So, are we going or not?”

“Sure,” said Jack.  “Let’s do it.”  They went into the studio, calmed the audience (who had the foresight to stick around, sensing that the show must go on) and reiterated Jack’s earlier statement.  Then, with camera crew in tow, they went off to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to fulfill his pledge.

 

 

 

                                                                                    ******

 

 

‘Love Conquers All’

 

by

 

Don Horne

 

Drool slides from the corner of dad’s mouth, his hand quivering near his chin, failing to dab it away. I gently guide him, struggling to contain my feelings as his helpless look guts me. 

Must keep things positive, for his sake.

Let’s make you more comfortable eh?” as I reach behind him for the square patchwork cushion, summer colours of yellow, blue and green, recalling mum’s snippy reaction when I bought it years ago, “Wasted money Kate. I could have run up something for you.”  I came to realise her upbringing was guided by parents who lived frugal and uneventful lives, and she struggled to find a passion in hers.

The cushion is keeping pace with dad, squashed, and colours dull, lacking lustre.  Bang it like a concertina.  Fluff it.  I draw him forward into a happy cuddle, kissing his forehead, taking in the citrus notes of his Old Spice aftershave.

 Am I applying it after every shave to keep things normal, or is it denial of what lies ahead? 

Wrap my arms around him, silently pleading with some supernatural power to repel the disabilities and give him back to me.  Finally, ease him back into the cushion’s softness, “That’ll be better for you Dad.” His watery blue eyes find mine and he gives a little nod, a gentle smile pulling down the right side of his mouth.   

Our lounge room is ice-box cool after an overnight low.  Morning clouds have been banished by thin afternoon sun pushing through the coloured leadlight windows, creating red, green, purple and yellow shapes on the pale walls, just as I’ve always loved. Little girl memories I still treasure, using the patterns as backdrops for my make-believe stories. Fairies and nymphs dancing in a sunlit glade. 

China cups and saucers are set on a delicate white lace tablecloth with a rose pattern. My own work and from my collection.  Settling alongside him I pour tea from the matching china teapot, the way he likes it. Leaf not bags, his constant reminder back in our good days, Let it draw for three minutes Kate to get the rich flavour. Never use a metal pot. China for best result, Pumpkin.  

I lift the cup and he takes a sip, his left hand wrapping mine, feeling like sandpaper, papery-thin skin drying so quickly in this climate. Have I been so pre-occupied with my own problems that I’ve neglected his moisturiser?  Another sip, and another.  It’s just right because he doesn’t hold it in his mouth, cheeks puffed before swallowing like when I make it with tea bags – to let me know I can’t get one past him, despite his stroke and weakening heart.

Afternoon tea over, I clear the china from the table. Can tell he enjoyed a date scone, freshly made from the oven, and most of his tea.  I remove his messy bib, splattered with blackberry jam from his scone, and check his bag to make sure it doesn’t need emptying. Finally, adjust his lazy-boy so he can comfortably watch the tele. It’s Saturday and he’s not into football, so I scan the apps for police dramas, things he can attempt to follow of sorts.  “How about Midsomer Murders? OK?”

I get a twisted smile and his best attempt at a nod. His effort pulls me to him for another hug and kiss.

As I start Midsomer he gives a few shivers, so I fetch a soft mohair rug from my old camphor wood chest, to wrap around him.  The chest was supposed to be a Glory Box for my married life, but now consigned to a corner of our back room with just a few things remaining. My special collection progressively found its way into everyday use as my hope for a wedding slipped away with each passing year.

Every day dad seems to be shrinking before my eyes, a frail reminder of the robust man I cherished. Looks older than his years.  Long ago as a little girl I’d spend cold days snuggled in his lap while he read me stories.   Can still feel the soft wool of his sweaters or rough tweed of jackets on my arms and legs. Remember my fingers finding their way to the buttons on his vest, undoing and redoing them, and how he’d return my little hands to my lap. Don’t leave dirty marks Pumpkin.

Dad was the reader, not my mother. We’d settle in his comfy lounge chair with my books, evenings and at week-ends when he wasn’t working. Special treats were Possum Magic and visits to the bookshop, holding my hand as I looked for any new books from Mem Fox.  

Sewing and knitting were mum’s things. Thankfully, she taught me embroidery and this became my hobby as a girl.  The faded cushion on the lounge is a reminder that I was rather good at it once. Each cursive letter, neat and tidy, against a lemon background, surrounded by blue forget-me-nots.

I tuck his hands under the mohair rug.  It is soft, light, and will keep him warm on this chilly afternoon.  Can’t afford the heater so early, just managing on his pension, a care plan and my benefits. The next hour or so will give me time to tidy the house and tackle a basket of ironing while I keep an eye on him.  And to prepare for the unavoidable talk I must face.

                                     

“Didn’t hear you come in last night. What time was it?” my mother on her usual twenty questions after my date.

“A little after ten,” catching dad’s small wink, knowing it was later. 

“Are you seeing him again?”

“How are you feeling Mum?”

“Don’t answer my question with a question. It doesn’t wash.  Now are you seeing him again?”

“No Mum.”

“And why not this time?”

“He has bad breath.”

“Oh for goodness sakes Kate, stop being so pernickety. Way too fussy, finding fault with everyone. Last time it was too short for me. Before that doesn’t know how to use his knife and fork properly.  Next thing it’ll be he has false teeth.  As I keep saying, time’s slipping away my girl. And good men with it.  At 33 you aren’t a spring chicken you know.”

“Get off her back Maggie. It’ll happen one day. Sometimes I think you don’t want it to happen anyway.” Dad, full of sympathy, fixes on me not my mother.   My smile sends him a thank you.

She bluntly tells him it’s women’s territory.

“Not much chance though for her to get into a relationship Maggie, with her tied to your apron strings. Some fellas would run a mile from that.”

“That’s unfair Geoff.  Don’t know what I’d do without Kate, what with my health problems. All this talk has set my nerves off again.”

I help her back into bed, propped up with two pillows.

“Could you get my book Kate, and another cup of tea please? You know I’d fall apart without you. Sit for a minute and I’ll tell you what has to be done today.”

          Clutching her list I return to the kitchen.

“Ease your bones into a chair Pumpkin.” Dad gently closes the door and sits facing me, “I know I’ve said this many times but I‘ll say it again for what it’s worth. It’s high time you moved out on your own while we’re still able to manage. You have your own life to live.   She’s clinging to you. Don’t let time slip away.”

I walk around the table and wrap my arms around him, holding him tightly, “I love you so much Dad.”

“Love you too Pumpkin. But think about it.  Make the break. We can cope.”

Am I staying because she needs me, or because I want to look after him?

                                     

Across the room I watch dad moving around, thanking people for coming to mum’s funeral.  He was unshakeable about her care, “My parents had unhappy lives in a nursing home. Too many bad memories.  No way your mother’s going there.”  We shared her care at home.

Now free of all her on-call attention, it’s like I’m seeing dad in real time. I’m startled, with a feeling that I’m re-appearing in his life, despite being here all the time. He looks so much older.  Slower in his movements and hair almost silver.  Deeper lines in his face and cheeks hollowing out. His changes have silently passed me by, not touching the sensors of my awareness and concern. 

Dear Dad I’m with you now. 

 I move to his side, linking my arm through his, as he continues to work the room with his gracious appreciation of people’s support.    We pass the big mirror hanging above the sideboard and I catch my reflection. Curly salt and pepper hair, cut simply for comfort, not for style.  Glasses hiding my green eyes, and minimal make-up doing nothing for my face which is also showing its share of lines.  My mother’s words fill my mind as we move to another group in the crowded room.

                                     

Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby puts the suspect behind bars in Midsomer and I turn off the tele.  Dark clouds have replaced the sunshine, dusk clearing the rainbow colours from the room. I switch on the overhead pendant light to dispel the gloom.  Dad looks uncomfortable so I ease him out of his lazy-boy for a gentle exercise walk arm-in-arm around the room.  As we pass the coffee table I reach down and pick up my fine lace cloth draping it over my head like a veil, pretending we are walking down the aisle. 

“Who gives this woman’s hand in holy matrimony, eh Dad?” I feel him straighten and his good hand finds mine.  He turns to my mother’s photo on the sideboard.  Tears come to my eyes as I hear a muffled attempt at “Maggie.”  

Our make-believe comes to an end alongside his chair.  With his special twisted smile he attempts to lift my hand and offer it to a waiting bridegroom.  I kiss him and ease him into his chair as though it’s a pew in the church. 

Removing the veil I move my chair so I can face him while I explain what’s about to happen. I take his hands and look into his watery eyes, “Don’t know how to say this any other way.”

A quick slur, like “I know,” with a small nod.

“It’s time for a painful decision, Dad,” squeezing his hands for reassurance and feeling a gentle response. Is it my imagination I wonder; is he reading my mind, willing me on? Maybe my bulky sweaters and over-dressing haven’t fooled him about my progressive weight loss?

Gather strength for what I’m about to tell him. Try my best to stop trembling, “I need to go into hospital. Something to do with my pancreas. Doctors are a bit concerned.” 

Can’t tell him that I’ve been advised to prepare for the worst, and to get my affairs in order.

Another squeeze of my hand.

“It will mean separation,” hugging him tightly to hide the fear that must be filling my face. I hold back tears, “We’ll find a nice, comfortable place for you, and talk more about it tomorrow.”

My mind is a slide-show of his life ahead, budgeted care from unfamiliar faces, in a room off a clinical corridor. No family support.  Another name in a managed system.  Against all his wishes. 

I lower his lazy-boy, easing him back, tucking the rug around him and start the heater to warm the room. “Have a little sleep Dad while I start getting tea ready.”

When his breathing becomes regular and I’m sure he’s sleeping, I quietly collect my lemon cushion from the lounge and place it over his face, pressing down until I’m sure he’s no longer breathing, staring at my carefully embroidered cursive letters, Love Conquers All, surrounded by blue forget-me-nots.

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                           *************

 

 

 

 

December  2021 Short List

 

The Time Traveller by Michael Thompson of Amble

I’ll Do Anything by Mark Broucek of Joliet, USA

Love Conquers All by Don Horne of Port Macquarie, Australia

A Souvenir of Brighton Pavilion by Mary Francis of Wellington, New Zealand

Giles and the Alien at his Door by Daniel George of Bristol

The Nightingale by Anil Classen of Aeugst am Albis, Switzerland

 

 

December 2021 Long List

 

 

Looking for Cara by Yvonne Clark of Chichester

Retribution by Cathy Cade of Whittlesey

The Time Traveller by Michael Thompson of Amble

The Hugging Station by Frances Knight of Canterbury

I’ll Do Anything by Mark Broucek of Joliet, USA

The Mirror by Emma Loader of Seaford

Love Conquers All by Don Horne of Port Macquarie, Australia

A Souvenir of Brighton Pavilion by Mary Francis of Wellington, New Zealand

Giles and the Alien at his Door by Daniel George of Bristol

Unraveling by Colin Brzezicki of Niagara, Canada

Adequately Compensated by Carmel Lillis of Yarraville, Australia

The Nightingale by Anil Classen of Aeugst am Albis, Switzerland

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Henshaw Press (inc Parlow Press)