March 2018 Competition Winners are: -
Lucy Bignall of Adstock for
‘Nothing but a Thread’
Helen Cormack of Stirling for
‘The Cook, The Tart and the Ford Fiesta’
Caroline Goldsworthy of Ipswich for
‘Nothing but a Thread’
She has changed – of course she has changed – but I recognise her as soon as I look into her eyes.
It is always her eyes that I think of first, in those times when I can't stop the memories from invading my brain – times when the scent of cinnamon, or lemon rind, or vanilla comes drifting, unforeseen, to my nose; or when I see children playing some imaginary game – or just when it's one of those days that feels like her. However much I try not to think of her, there are times when I can't help being a small boy again, gazing with fascination at the sparkling life in her dark eyes.
Sometimes I see them, wide and shining with excitement, as we race through the long grass of the meadows behind our houses. The wind blows warm and musky, shushing the trees and filling the air with scents of blossom and new-growth and sending our blood singing through our veins. Her cheeks are flushed, her hair a tangled mess of goose grass; her chest heaves with her efforts to breathe, but she spreads her arms wide and turns her face up to the sky as she runs and her voice comes sailing back towards me through the air: “We're flying Franz! Isn't this just as if we're flying?”
Sometimes I remember the glow of wonder in her eyes as she holds a leaf, under which a shrivelled brown chrysalis hangs. It is splitting apart, millimetre by agonising millimetre, a tiny, crumpled monster dragging, pushing, clawing its way through. I reach forward to help it, but she grabs my hand and pulls it away, eyes flashing. “You'll kill it, you dumkopf, just be patient, can't you?” And so we have to wait while it hauls itself out and onto the leaf to rest. She continues to stare, entranced, at the insect, whilst I stare at her, at the shining of her pupils, at a curl of hair hanging over her nose in a way that would surely tickle if she weren't so engrossed by the transformation taking place – a transformation that I miss because I cannot look away from the wideness of her eyes, the thick dark lashes, until she lifts her head and breathes out: “Oh Franz...” and there is a butterfly, wings glossy red-brown as a conker, lifting itself into the air and floating away.
Sometimes I remember her eyes full of the mist of other worlds, myself squatting at her feet, waiting, maybe trying to peer into them, searching for a glimpse of the adventures that stir within, for the mast of a pirate ship, or the tangled lianas of a steamy jungle. But always, when the mist clears and she jumps to her feet, it is something unexpected: “Today we're going to be slaves, forced to work in the cotton fields. We have to run away and if they find us they'll whip us.” And already, we are running, glancing back over our shoulders for our captors, hearts thudding in our ears.
Sometimes her eyes were a warning; I remember them glinting with frost - enough, surely to freeze the earth itself, the day she set off, walking to her new school. Her friends, Liesel and Agathe, shuffling along behind her, their eyes downcast, faces pinched, whilst she marched in front, swinging her school bag. I remember standing on the street corner and wondering what it would be like at school without her. Easier perhaps, in some ways?
The only time I ever saw her eyes without expression was the last time I saw her. I was not allowed to say goodbye, but stood behind the shutters of our front room, watching as they climbed into the truck. I was afraid she would get in without looking in our direction, but, at the last minute, her head turned and I saw her face was as blank as the sheets of paper they give you at the start of an examination. And then she climbed into the truck and it moved off.
I meant to watch till it had turned the corner at the bottom of the street, but my mother made a noise and when I looked I saw she was crying. When I turned back, the truck was gone.
The one thing I never saw in Hanne's eyes was fear, but there is raw fear there now, in a face that is wan and pale. She is thin, her hair lank, with none of its childish lustre, the black threaded with silver. Her eyes dart, like a bird, from me, to the men standing behind me, in this dusty, stale-aired room. Then back to me. She knows me, I am sure, though she does not say my name. She knows that I was a good person, once upon a time.
There is a man by her side, a child, about the same age as my Gitte, pressed up against her thigh and she has a baby clutched to her chest. It was the baby who gave them away, crying for sustenance and life.
“Please,” she says. “Please let us go.”
Behind me, my men shift and stare; I have been silent too long.
The child is gazing up at me and there is fear in her eyes as well, but a fear too innocent to equal that of her mother's.
My little Gitte has her own fears sometimes - of the dark, of monsters under the bed. Gitte is twice the size of this child, with chubby little arms, rosy cheeks like her mother, golden curls that make people stop in the street to stare.
Hanne's daughter has sallow skin and thin, bone-arms which protrude from the sleeves of a dress which must have fitted her, at the beginning, but is now too short in the leg and arm, though it bags across her chest and tummy. The baby has eyes too big for its face, eyes that stare, black like Hanne's, but solemn, as though it knows that fear is redundant.
The man with Hanne, stands slightly in front of her, as though there is something he can do to protect her and my eyes are drawn to his and I see their desperate pleading and I see that there is only a thread which separates us, this man and me, the man who would wish to protect his family and the man who can.
“Mein Herr?” The men behind me are losing patience. I must say something. Gunther's eyebrows are drawing down over his nose, and he looks, from me to Hanne and I can see the suspicions forming in those small, greedy eyes. I must speak.
My hands are clammy as I gaze at Hanne's child and see instead, my Gitte, bone thin as she is and solemn eyed. I glance at Hanne herself and see my Christina, her hair lank, her cheeks drawn, her mouth bitter, like Hanne's. There is only a thread which separates the two women.
I must say something, but it is as if my skin holds nothing but memories and fear and my mouth is so dry it will not work.
Though her face has been robbed of colour, there is life in Hanne's eyes still, though there is also a feverish spark in the dark depths that I once knew so well and the memories are raining down again, thundering in my chest and behind my eyes, filling my mind.
I see those eyes again, sparking with mischief as we creep, on all fours, along the back fence of Frau Braun's garden, to where the strawberries grow, calling to us in all their scarlet lusciousness. I hear Hanne's breath, rasping in her chest, I can smell the sweetness of the fruit and I feel again, the sharp prickle of a thistle under my palm. I am not aware of making a noise, but suddenly, we are running back the other way, Frau Braun is rushing out of her house, waving her stick and screaming at us: “Get out of my garden!” Or maybe it is Hanne she is screaming at, for she yells, again: “Get out of my garden, you filthy little Jew!”
And then Hanne's eyes are flashing at me, accusation and fury in them. “Just go home. What good are you as a friend if you can't even keep quiet for five minutes?!”
But later, when I open the door to a quiet knock, it is, again, her eyes which speak first, huge and dark, welling with guilt. “I'm sorry Franz, I didn't mean to yell, I was a bit upset - it wasn't your fault – at least, not really. I mean, it was only a thistle, but I suppose it was a shock and I shouldn't have yelled.” She holds out a plate with a vanillekipferl curled on it, all powdery with sugar. “Forgive me?”
I stand on one foot, holding the door, a barrier between us, but the nutty smell from the warm kipferl, or maybe it is the dark beseeching of her eyes, wins over my pride. So I open the door wide and her smile lights up and she bounces into the house and soon we are seated side by side in the back garden, she making me choke and splutter my biscuit crumbs as she throws her arms wide, eyes sparkling again, face twisted and demonic: “You filthy little Jew! Get out of my garden!”
There is none of that mischief in her eyes now, just desperation, though, behind it all, a hope, a dreadful hope, because, in spite of everything, she thinks I might help her. “Please.” It is a whisper, a moan, and I hear the familiar wheeze in her voice.
At least she will not last long, with her bad chest. They will examine her first and they probably won't think it worth keeping her alive. The same with the baby. And the child? She is so skinny already. The husband will have the worst of it. Though thin, he looks strong, and will last the longest.
He too looks straight at me, begs again: “Please.”
I do not look at Hanne. I look back at her husband and I shake my head, turn around and say to my men: “Go on. Do it. Take them away.”
And I turn and leave the room.
Later, tonight I will go back home to my own family. We will eat dinner together and Christina will ask me about my day and I will shrug, tell her that it was fine, it was a normal day. She will tell me stories about what she and Gitte have been doing, what mischief Gitte has been up to and I will laugh and chew on my dinner, while I try not to listen to the screams in my head - the screams of Hanne and her husband and her children - and my own screams, ringing around the walls of hell.
‘The Cook, The Tart and
The Ford Fiesta'
There I was: stuffing this prostitute into the back of a Ford Fiesta – a bright yellow fiesta at that – which stood out against the street lights like a neon sign.
“Quick,” said Dave, revving the engine. “I can’t be hanging about all night.”
The woman squealed, “Ah’ve caught ma heel in yer seatbelt.”
I looked down. I saw a glimpse of black stocking and suspender beneath her short red skirt. Interesting outfit for a winter night, with the low cut top and black bomber jacket. I gave her rear a shove.
“Watch the…..” yelled Dave.
Too late. She landed face first in the tarte aux pommes we were taking to the party. Hell, damn and blast! I was aiming for a good impression with Dave and his friends.
“Oy!” she yelled. “Watch yer hauns, Mrs. I could’ve done masself an injury.”
She turned herself upright, realised her face was covered in the filling of the tart.
“Mmm…what’s in yer pie? ‘S a’right,” she said, wiping the mess off her face and into her mouth with none-too-clean, vibrantly painted fingernails.
“Thank you,” I said before I could stop myself. “I use Calvados in the frangipane for that little bit of extra flavour…”
Dave groaned. “Get in,” he said.
“Ta for this,” said the woman. “I couldna get there without you. See, there’s nae buses goin’ after six and Ah cannae afford a taxi”
“No trouble,” I said which, given that it was Dave’s car, Dave’s friends’ party we were going to and not Dave’s suggestion that we give her a lift, was a bit of a cheek.
We also now had an apple-flavoured Eton Mess to give our hosts instead of the tarte aux pommes I had planned.
It all started when I couldn’t remember if I’d put the gas out under a pot of stock. I’d asked Dave to stop so I could ring my flatmate to check.
We stopped at a phone box. Remember them? What we used before mobiles when not at home? Anyhow, I hadn’t the right change and had asked a woman nearby who’d offered the coins I needed. I had switched the cooker off but once I’d hung up, the phone rang and, of course, I answered it.
“That you, Stella?” said a deep voice.
“No,” I said. “I’m Delia.”
“Is Stella there?”
I glanced outside. The woman was looking anxious. Opening the door, I called “Are you Stella?”
“Yes,” she said. “Is that Tony?”
I shrugged and stepped back out on to the pavement, handing her the receiver.
Once I was outside that I realised I’d left my purse on the shelf below the phone. So I had to wait with Dave mouthing “What are you doing? Come on!” from the car.
She came out looking upset.
“I’ve left my purse…” I indicated the shelf. “Are you alright?” I asked, at which she burst into tears and I could only make out occasional words like “Tony” and “hospital” and “bus service”.
When she calmed down, the story came out. Her son was in hospital and had had results of tests he wanted to tell her about. He was going to theatre for an operation first thing. The bus service to the hospital stopped at 6.30pm and she didn’t have enough money for a taxi.
“We’ll give you a lift,” I said brightly. “We’re going to a party but it won’t matter if we’re a bit late when we tell them we’ve been running errands of mercy.”
And so, there we were.
Dave was not pleased when I announced we were giving Stella a lift to the hospital. He made it plain that his friends were stipplers for punctuality but his better nature made the rebuke mild.
We set off for the hospital in an uncomfortable silence – apart from some noisy gum-chewing from the back seat. Dave’s foot was heavy on the accelerator and, at one point, he took a corner too fast and the tyres squealed.
“Let’s get there in one piece,” I suggested.
“Naw, it’s great,” said Stella from the rear.
We did slow down for the next hundred yards. Dave put the radio on, Stella singing along, urging us to join in. I made half-hearted attempts to mumble musically. When the news came on at the hour, Dave swore and sped up.
Almost at once, I was aware of blue lights flashing behind us.
“Pull over,” I urged Dave.
“Good evening, sir,” said the police officer. “And where are we rushing to this evening?”
“The hospital,” said Dave.
“Wife in labour?” asked the officer.
“Not exactly,” said Dave. “My passenger has to see her son before he undergoes major surgery.”
“I see,” said the PC.
“Not me,” I said, “Her,” indicating the back seat.
The constable peered in. “Stella Robinson,” he said. “Now, what have we got here?”
“Tell him,” urged Dave.
“I think you’d better come with us, sir” said the policeman, waving his colleague over.
“Gentleman here says his passenger has to get to the hospital to see a sick relative before surgery,” he informed his colleague. “That’s a new one, isn’t it?”
“But it’s true!” Dave and I chorused.
There was some muted chortling from the police.
“Come on, all of you. Out of the car.”
Dave and I exchanged glance. There didn’t seem to be a choice. Stella found it difficult to extricate herself. Her heel caught again, on the car mat this time, and she fell to her knees in the road, miraculously holding the tarte aux pommes upright as she did so.
“Never know when you might be back for this,” she said cheerfully.
“Now look,” said Dave, “I was going to a quiet dinner party with friends, not heading to a police station.”
“Yes, well, all in a day’s work,” said Stella, as we were bundled into the police car to travel to the station.
“Name and address?” asked the desk sergeant.
“Delia Cook, 42 Winston Road.”
“Pastry chef? Did you make that?” he gestured at the tarte.
“Well, yes, but it’s had an accident while we were taking it….”
“Enough,” he said. “I’ve heard it all now. A threesome with apple slices and short crust!”
“A threesome? What are you talking about? It wasn’t like that.” I protested.
“No, I’m sure it wasn’t,” he said sarcastically. “Constable, take Miss Cook (snigger), the pastry chef, to Interview Room 3.”
I sat for ages wondering what was happening outside, how Dave was faring, when Stella would convince them her son needed his mother at the hospital, whether Dave’s friends would forgive him for being late and whether any first date had ever gone so wrong.
At last, a man appeared and sat down opposite me. A young constable stood by the door.
“Right, Miss Cook. Let’s hear your story.”
“Dave and I were going to a dinner party. I stopped to make a phone call. “She, Stella, was at the phone box. Someone phoned her and she said she had to get to the hospital because her son was ill. We were just doing her a favour and…”
“OK. Let’s take it slowly,” he said wearily.
And so we did, up to the moment he said, “So, let’s think about that. You stop in an area known for prostitution to make a phone call.”
“Yes. No. I thought I’d left a pot on the cooker and it was the nearest phone box. I didn’t know it was where prostitutes hang out.”
“So why were you in that area of town?”
“I don’t know. I was just the passenger in the car. I haven’t lived here long. Dave was driving.”
“Dave was driving? Your boyfriend? He must have known about the park area.”
“I don’t know – and he’s not my boyfriend.”
“No. This is the first time I’ve ever gone anywhere with him. We only met a few weeks ago.”
“So, do you often go out with men who use prostitutes? Were the three of you looking for some fun?”
“I told you. I only met Stella at the….What do you mean “men who use prostitutes?”
“Well, he must know the area, what kind of women go there, hang around the phone box.”
“But she was waiting for a call – from her son. He’s ill.”
“Stella Robinson doesn’t have a son,” he said. “I don’t know what game you’re playing but tell the truth now. What’s with the tart?”
“I only met her at the phone box.”
“Not that tart! The apple thing.”
“Oh, I see. Well, you make a pate brise – a pastry base and bake it blind and while it’s baking you slice the apples and store them in ice water and then you make the frangipane topping. I use some extra Calvados in that for the flavour but you don’t need to…..”
“Stop! Stop! I don’t need a cookery lesson,” said the man. “Why did you have this….this…cake in the car?”
“We were going to a party with Dave’s friends. It was the pudding. They’ll have started without us now – and there won’t be any pudding if we don’t get out of here soon.”
“Some sort of orgy, was it? Were the friends bringing others to this place too?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Look, my head hurts with all these questions. We haven’t done anything wrong. Honestly! We were just trying to help someone who had to get to the hospital.”
“What are these “friends of Dave” called? Where do they live then?” he asked.
I racked my brain for names and an address.
“Julie and Peter…..Oliver, Oliver, that’s their last name. They live in Chester Road. A new house.”
The man left the room but the young constable stayed.
Time passed, with me glancing at my watch every twenty minutes or so. OK, so maybe it was every three minutes. What could be taking so long?
After two and a half hours, the man came back.
“Sorry to have kept you,” he said without a trace of irony. “You can go but be careful what company you keep from now on. The hospital story is one the prossies use so they can move about to meet dealers or customers for drug deals. They stand around phone boxes and places where people are likely to stop and then spin a yarn, so they get a lift to where the customer is, or where the bigger fish are waiting. You were a perfect target.”
“So Stella didn’t have to go to the hospital at all?” I asked.
“Nope. And she’s not got anything on her tonight so she was probably about to pick something up but we can’t hold her. You can all go.”
I staggered out. Dave was waiting near the door but the Desk Sergeant called to me, “Miss Cook!”
I turned around. He held an empty plate out to me. My plate!
“That was amazing,” he said. “Me and the boys had a small piece each. Seemed a shame to waste it. How do you get that appley flavour in the topping again?”
There was some hilarity behind the desk from several officers. I wondered if it was at our expense – innocents in the big city. But maybe they were just happy at their work.
“Calvados,” I replied, “You know, apple brandy.”
I grabbed the plate.
“Right,” said the sergeant.
Dave and I walked through the door without speaking. Outside, Stella was leaning on a railing, smoking.
“A’right?” she asked
“Not really,” said Dave. “Four hours in a police station, no dinner and a long walk back to my car. No, not really.”
“Could’ve been worse,” said Stella. “They might have found something.”
“Not on us,” I said.
“Naw, maybe not,” Stella replied. “Glad they enjoyed that tart though. Bit of quick thinking on my part to sprinkle it with what I was carrying. Ta ra, pet.”
And off she went, heels clacking on the pavement.
‘We’ve been here before haven’t we?’ he turns to me and I nod my agreement, looking into his deep blue eyes, bluer than the Cornish sea we overlook. For a moment I lose myself in those eyes once more.
‘I thought so,’ he says. ‘I remember the view and all these steps to get to it.’
‘Do you recall anything else?’ I ask him.
I can see that he does. His smile falters briefly and I see an ancient recollection stirring, rising to the surface.
‘I’m sorry,’ is all he can say.
‘I know. You always were.’
He moves towards me and kisses my cheek. The stubble is rough, and I pull back, but too late to avoid the scratching. The scent of his aftershave hangs in my nostrils and I suck it in. How I love that smell.
‘Do you remember anything else?’ I repeat my question, my voice trembling and hands clammy since asking again could anger him.
‘You know I do,’ he replies.
‘Good,’ is all I am able to say, but I rub my wrist and caress the scars. Deep inside the pins don’t ache now as much as they used to, but they still set the alarm off at airports. It’s a constant reminder. The truth of our marriage.
‘I can’t remember what we were arguing about though,’ he tells me.
‘Nor can I,’ I lie, giving him a reassuring smile. ‘It’s all forgotten,’ I tell him, and this is the truth. Not so long ago I could not have been so quick to forgive him, but it’s all in the past now and I know he won’t hurt me anymore.
I take his hand and we walk together down the steps where he once kicked me to the base and we lunch at a little bistro in the town.
In this last journey around all our old haunts, I have booked several stop overs and hotels along the way, therefore it’s not unusual to wake and not recognise my surroundings. I reach over to Tom’s side of the bed but it is cold, he is long gone and I snuggle back into the warmth created on my side, pull the duvet up around my ears and sleep some more.
Waking two hours later and realising breakfast is almost over I race downstairs. Tom is seated at a table and I join him. The waitress pours me the coffee I ordered but does not serve Tom. I am not surprised and suspect he has already offended her. Tom often upsets staff, but he seems worse this trip. Perhaps because we know it's the last time. When I settle the bill, the waitress has morphed into receptionist and I convince myself she's giving me strange looks. That's not a first either. I've had it our whole married life: sympathy or incredulity that I stay with him. Did I mention his eyes?
We drive back through Cornwall. I suggest Jamaica Inn for lunch, but Tom rejects the idea; it’s become too touristy and the atmosphere is lost, he says. I do not argue. I know which battles to pick and which to discard. We carry on driving through Devon and into Somerset. Bath is our next stop.
Bath is as beautiful as ever and we wander round the Royal Crescent terraces, past the Assembly Rooms, eventually stopping to lean over the ramparts near Pulteney Bridge to look at the weir. My reflection is shattered by the water as it increases in speed. Tom’s is not visible at all; he must be stood too far back.
We stay in the same hotel as for our honeymoon, few of the restaurants are the same but we find somewhere we both like to eat that evening. We are not in the same room. I am sad about that. It was where he first hit me. Sending me crashing into the upright of the four-poster. I was concussed but he would not let me call for a doctor. He is always ashamed afterwards, but even that is not enough to stop him. He can’t help himself, he says. Other times it is all my fault. I drive him to it, he tells me.
Tom takes a shower when we return to the hotel and he lies on the bed, with a white towel around his waist. He’s kept himself trim and is tanned from our recent visit to Barbados. A treat for our anniversary, he said.
The cut above his ankle does not seem to be healing. He sees me looking and gives me a rueful smile.
‘You got your own back in the end,’ he tells me.
I laugh, twirling around and giggling with glee. I clap my hands over my mouth. I cannot stop sniggering.
‘I did. I really really did. I couldn’t believe that something so simple would work. I should have done it years ago,’ I reply.
He glares at me but only sits up, punching the pillows until he is comfortable. At least he is not punching me.
‘Do you think you’re going to get away with it?’ he regards me, with a single silver eyebrow raised. ‘Don’t you think the pathologist is going to be asking some questions about this?’ he points to the injury on his leg.
‘Probably,’ I reply. ‘But I left a whole pile of decorating junk at the top of the stairs. I said you’d left it, no doubt hoping that I would stumble over it in the dark. I tied the plumb line between the bannisters and a hook on the skirting board for you to trip and then I wrapped it around your leg and pulled it tight. It looked as if you’d caught your foot in that and fell. Accidentally. I told them that I had asked you to replace the landing light bulb. You’d not got around to it yet. Such a shame, I told them, if only you’d changed the bulb when I had asked. No one seemed to disagree.’
Tom opens his mouth and closes it again. Speech fails him.
‘You’ve thought of everything,’ he says finally.
‘I’m sure I have. I did my research,’ I smile at him, I cannot stop grinning, it is good to know that I have won at last.
Today is the last day – I wanted to do the tour to say goodbye to him and to our life together. Mandy, our daughter, tells me it’s maudlin. Her brother agrees, and they try to dissuade me.
‘I don’t like the idea of you driving all that way alone,’ David my son tells me. ‘Dad always drove. How are you going to manage on your own?’
I worry for a moment how much like his father he is becoming. He has the same deep blue eyes. I hope that he has inherited little of the temperament. I hold his hand in mine. I reflect on how it has grown, from tiny fist to the strong paw of today.
‘It’s all part of the grieving process, darling,’ I tell him. ‘Disbelief, anger, they are behind me and I think this trip will help me through acceptance.’
He hugs me. I know he does not agree but in the end he gives me his blessing and reminds me that regardless of the time, day or night, he will come and get me. Yes, he does have some of his father’s traits. Let’s hope it’s the best ones.
However, I did need to take this trip and as I drive home, Tom sits beside me in the car. He is fainter today and I wonder how long it will be before he is gone completely. I nearly died myself the morning after the accident to wake and find him still in the bed. I suppose the chill should have warned me something was not right. I had risen and gone to make coffee. My screams reverberated around the hallway, assaulting my ears when I saw him both dead at the foot of the stairs and grinning at me from our bed.
All through the blur of ambulance, police, inquest, funeral and the wake, Tom was by my side, arm looped around my waist or hand on my shoulder. He often tried to hold my hand, but I could not bear the coldness. It was bad enough night after night in bed. I’d started using an electric blanket – in summer!
I see him prodding at the car radio.
‘What do you want?’ I ask.
‘Can we listen to something different? I don’t like this station.’
‘There’s a USB in the glove box. Some of the old songs.’
His hand goes through the glove box, he cannot open it, yet I recall he could on the outward journey.
I pull into a service station, open the glove box and push the USB into the socket. As we pull onto the motorway again, sounds of the eighties fill the car. The songs from when we met. Tom leans back in his seat and is happy.
‘How much longer?’ I ask him.
He blinks and turns his head to look at me full on.
‘How long for what?’
‘Until you’ve gone entirely, and I move on with my life.’ I reply. Why does he still answer a question with a question? My knuckles go white on the steering wheel.
‘I’m going nowhere,’ he laughs. ‘I am going to stay with you until the day you join me. Didn’t you know that about ghosts? We stay with our loved ones. I may grow fainter, I may disappear altogether, but I will still be here with you my darling. Forever and ever. Isn’t that wonderful?’
My hands on the steering wheel have lost all colour. They begin to ache, and I try to relax them. I stare straight ahead at the road. Tears form and I blink them away. I keep driving. I don’t stop for food until I am almost out of fuel. Round and round goes my one last question.
How do you kill a ghost?