March 2019 Competition Winners are: -
Fay Dickinson of Corby
Gordon Aindow of Preston
Susan Conrad of Redhill
‘Another Saturday Night’
Eighty-seven years have passed and still I wonder if I killed my brother.
I’m ninety-five now. Everyone says, “Florence, you’re ‘as sharp as a button’.” People shout this at me, pronouncing the words very slowly. I usually retort “Buttons are not sharp and my hearing is not blunted.”
It’s a very special occasion for me today. I’m back in the village where I grew up, although it's a town now. The lanes edged with cow parsley are gone, replaced with nondescript wide grey roads. The old stone cross near the church was demolished years ago. It had uneven steps with weeds sprouting from the cracks, but now there’s a war memorial covered in brass plaques naming the fallen heroes of the Great War and the 1939-1945 conflict.
I was born in 1910 and my brother, Harry, was thirteen years older. He used to make up stories for me all about princesses, magic and fairies. Harry wasn’t like other boys. He worked on our small farm, but I often used to find him reading in the hay barn or tickling the tummy of the farm tabby. Once our father caught Harry reading and he walloped him with a leather strap. Harry cried and dad cuffed his ear and said the boy was a pansy, or some sort of flower. Our father was a hero. He’d won medals for bravery and he used to bring them out of the box sometimes and let us touch the faded ribbons. He was a scary man though. I used to hide behind my mother, but Harry would say what he felt was right even when he knew he would be literally belted.
Harry went off to the war. I’m still not sure if he had to go or if our father made him. It was hard to live if you had no home and nowhere to go, or maybe Harry felt that it was his duty. Now I’m older I think of Harry as an individual, not just my brother. There’s lots of questions I’d like to ask him, or would have liked to ask if he’d lived. I hope he forgives me and that what I’ve done is some recompense for that dreadful day in 1918.
“No, I don’t need to go to the toilet. Do you think I have the bladder of a ninety-five year old or something?”
Shireen laughs. She’s from the retirement home where I now live. Some of the girls are a bit frightened of me, but she sees the humour in my words. When I bark like that I sound the same as my father, which is why I want to be sure that I am not just regarded as cantankerous.
Shireen squeezes my hand.
“It’s a proud moment for you, Florence. You
have fought really hard for this.”
“Please don’t dare call me a brave soldier.”
She gives me a hug because she feels the sadness in that sentence.
Harry looked very smart in his uniform, but he wasn’t “my Harry” any more. I cried and that made mother cry too. Father never walloped her with a belt when she sobbed, nor did he do anything to me, so I didn’t understand then why he became angry with Harry. Harry didn’t let the tears fall, but they were in his eyes as he looked at me.
Father muttered something to Harry. I think it was, “It’ll be the making of you. Don’t let me down.”
The other young men from the village were jubilant as they waved from the train, but Harry was sombre. I wanted him to stay, to tell me one of his wonderful stories.
Mother sent parcels. She knitted mittens and balaclavas for Harry and other soldiers. She taught me to knit and I used to sit besides her, my needles clicking clumsily. One day I was concentrating on the thumb of a grey mitten when father went to answer the door.
When he returned he flung a piece of paper to the floor and shouted about Harry. I heard words I didn’t recognise, and mother hushed him with just one word, my name.
“Florence,” she repeated.
My father grabbed my shoulders and his grip hurt. I tensed and leaned away.
“Your brother is a coward. He has shamed his family and himself.”
The next day someone left a white feather on our doorstep and at school the others taunted me about Harry. I wanted to fight them, but I knew it was not something girls did. Now I think it ironic. Our father hated Harry for not wanting to fight and he would have hated me for wanting to.
It was a gloriously bright spring day about a week after father received the telegram that I went to the back of the barn and saw Harry. He was all curled up behind an old trough and his face was mud-smeared, but as white as a candle.
He reached out his hands, but I ran out of the barn shrieking, “Harry’s here. Harry’s back.”
I was eight years old and I didn’t understand.
Father rushed from the field and mother ran from the house.
I went back to see Harry, but father told mother to take me into the house.
I never saw my brother again. Mother sat in a chair in the kitchen and cried. I was frightened. She made horrible noises and howled like the dog did that day it stood on a thorn. Later our father took me to Mrs Baxter, our nearest neighbour. She was an old widow lady dressed in black and she let me play with her treasures in the parlour. I heard soldiers’ boots pass by, but was delightedly examining a little tin box with a picture of a pretty lady on the front. When father came to see me he said that I would be spending the night at Mrs Baxter’s. It was all very exciting for me. I had never stayed anywhere except the farm.
What a foolish thing it is to be selfish child. Whilst I pranced and preened in Mrs Baxter’s the soldiers came for my brother. He was never able to tickle our tabby on the tum again, or read his beloved books, or tell me stories. The punishment for cowardice was execution, but my brother was no coward.
Shireen feels my pain.
“Florence, it wasn’t your fault. He could not have remained hidden.”
“If only I’d stayed with him and let him know that I never thought he was a coward.”
She places her dainty head against mine.
“That might have been harder for him. He knew what you thought about him. He was a brave man who chose to sacrifice his own life, rather than take the lives of others.”
This was true. I traced one of Harry’s friends thirty years ago and he said that Harry felt that he could not kill another human being. In the end he became very distraught about this. When the order came, that they were “going over the top” the next day, he sneaked away in the night. I don’t know how he managed to make it back to the farm, but I wish now that I had hidden him, brought him food and saved his life.
Shireen knows what I am thinking.
“Florence, you could not have saved Harry. You are not at fault.”
I was twenty when execution for desertion was outlawed. Harry would have been thirty-three.
I can’t help thinking that although he deserted, in the end he was deserted by everyone. Did father betray his only son? I think so, and mother was powerless to intervene. Whilst I poked about in Mrs Baxter’s parlour my brother went to his death alone and reviled.
This monument with its shiny brass plates lists all the boys from the village who lost their lives in two world wars. I always hated the fact that Harry’s name was not there. For thirty-five years I have fought to have that cowardice badge removed and today I have won the battle.
The mayor is going to make a little speech and then Shireen will wheel my chair to the side of the monument so that I can unveil the plaque.
I often wonder if Harry had not deserted whether he would have survived the war, but now I know what kind of man he was I think not. If Harry had been responsible for the death of another human being he could not have lived with himself.
Shireen is squeezing my shoulders, then she pushes me towards the mayor.
I smile at him. He gives me a kiss on the cheek.
“Don’t even think about telling me I’m ‘as sharp as a button’,” I say, and he laughs.
I pull the cord and there is the gleaming plaque. Harold Drage is now a hero.
Everyone claps and we all head for the town hall for a wartime-style tea.
A tear slips down my face.
Shireen says, “Do you remember the stories Harry told you?”
I nod. “I remember every single one.”
Shireen bobs her head in that delightfully animated way that reminds me of Harry acting out parts in his tales.
“Florence, when we get back we’ll start taping these stories of Harry’s. I think a lot of people would want to hear them.”
I smile again.
“Thank you, Shireen. Harry would like that. He always preferred writing to fighting.”
“And so he should.”
Shireen manoeuvres the chair and me towards the town hall and tea. I don’t look back at the monument.
‘Are you sure about it then?’
‘Yeah, it’s got to go, too big now.’
‘It’s been here a long time’, Alex says.
‘Yeah, been here a long time, like me. Too close to the house though – like me.’
Frank had been in the house a long time, that was true. He had bought the house in the eighties when he and Janet decided to move out of the town. Frank would joke with Alex and Charlie, that, when he and their mum had bought this place, ‘it was all fields around here.’ It had become one of their regular jokes. A long time since it was fields all around here. It was alright still; Frank liked it. ‘I’ve got used to it now’, he would say. A stock phrase.
The tree was a flowering cherry or plum – none of the family were horticulturists – they just liked it, had always known it. The tree had indeed grown large and was close to the house. It hadn’t seemed so all those years back, but now, here we were.
‘The builder said it broke through a drain; the roots broke through, smashed the drain. Tough little bugger that tree. It’s been nearly blown over in storms I don’t know how many times, but it wasn’t moving. Survived.’
‘Oh well that makes me feel great’, says Alex. ‘Here I am about to wield saw and axe against this icon of our lives; that makes me feel really great, that does.’
‘Always the sensitive one. Get on with it, or do you want me to hire a tree surgeon? It’s coming out of your inheritance if I do.’ Another stock joke between them.
‘It’s not that I’m sensitive about it; well actually I am, I like this bloody tree. I grew up with it, I’m allowed to be sentimental. And what about you: It’s survived storms, it’s a tough little bugger. You’re just as sentimental as me.’
‘Am I going to have to do it? Give me the axe.’ Frank smiles, he likes to gently goad his youngest son and is glad Alex gives as good as he gets. He likes this father and son stuff.
‘Do you remember when mum and you had a go at minimalism?’ asks Alex.
‘Oh yeah, a short phase, well maybe a year actually; you and your brother had just moved out and your mum and me had the house back. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We thought let’s have a tidy up and we just kept going.’
‘Charlie and me didn’t know the place when we came home; we thought we’d landed up in Sweden or something.’
‘Yeah, well, your mother and me had been watching a lot of Wallander at the time.’
Both laugh as they look around the living room today. ‘Comfortably untidy,’ as Frank puts it.
‘Even before your mum got ill, we decided what’s the point of not having any stuff around; when there had been stuff around it had had to be ‘tasteful’. I mean, pretentious or what! No, we knocked that on the head. And then when your mum… well, more and more I got to like my things around me, close by. I mean it’s your stuff that explains who you are, what you’re about.
‘You’re a philosopher dad. There’s a self-help book in those wise words.’
‘Shut up and drink your tea.’
‘What’s your own place like these days? I haven’t seen it for ages.’
‘Lovely, quite right too: young man, carefree. I suppose you could describe it as shabby chic?’
‘Nah, shit heap.’
‘I notice the garden has got gradually more relaxed’, said Alex.
‘Yeah, I had a bit of a think about that too; I thought why the clean lines and borders, and I couldn’t come up with a reason, except habit, so I thought that’s gonna have a more relaxed look too, to match the house. It also encourages more wildlife; did you know that? Well we get’… Frank pauses as he realises the we, sighs, corrects the conversation to I.
Alex looks at his dad, nods, knows it hasn’t been easy, that it isn’t easy.
‘…I get hedgehogs and lately a fox has been visiting; and I’ve been putting dog food out. Next door doesn’t approve but to hell with it, they’re lovely creatures, I like them.’
‘Good for you dad, good for you. Do you see yourself more as Chris Packham or Bill Oddie?
‘Both really: old enough for Oddie, daft enough for Packham. Although I know bugger all really.’
‘You know plenty dad, plenty, and loads more than me about most things.’
‘Flatterer. You must really know bugger all if you think I know stuff!’
‘You always have, dad. Charlie used to say to me, ‘How does he know that? Where does he find this stuff out?’ I said, I don’t know, he’s probably up all night reading improving books.’
‘Yeah, that was me up most of the night reading improving books. I don’t think. Just curious, that’s all. Curious.’
After a long pause Frank asks, ‘How is Charlie?’
‘Alright. Got himself a promotion at work, and a girlfriend; it’s developing into a good year for him.’
‘Good, glad to hear it. Tell him I was asking after him; you know, how he’s getting on.’
‘Yeah dad, I’ll tell him.’ Alex pauses, clears his throat: ‘You know why he doesn’t come over, don’t you dad?’
‘Yeah, I know.’
‘He doesn’t hate you; you do know that?’
‘Yeah, I know that.’
After a little while Alex says: ‘ Why did you do it dad? Bloody hell, why? Mum was ill and you decide to, well, have a bloody affair. I mean, for god’s sake!’
Frank looks at his son, sighs, says, ‘It’s not an excuse, not even close to one, but we didn’t know, not when I started seeing her anyway, that your mum was ill, I mean proper ill. As soon as I knew… and Sheena for that matter… she’s not a bad person, it wasn’t her fault; she was lonely and I was stupid. As soon as I knew that your mum was ill, I stopped seeing her, never met her since.
‘I suppose the damage was done then,’ says Alex.
‘Yeah, damage done.’ He looks around the room and then down at his hands, picks dirt from under a nail. ‘I’d like Charlie to forgive me, I’d like you to; I’d like to forgive myself. I know Janet, your mum, did.’ Frank is looking into the middle distance but really into himself and the past. ‘But that’s not all of it is it? That’s not all there is to it. Your mum would do that; she was a good person, a special person. Clearly I’m not; so there it is. I’ll have to do something with that. I have to carry that.’
The father and son sit quietly, neither man wanting to explore that chapter of their past any further, at least not now.
‘Well, what do you think about a pub lunch? A couple of pints, back here to watch a film, what do you say?’ says Frank, standing up, rubbing his hands together, trying to change the energy in the room.
‘Okay, but aren’t you forgetting something?’
‘The small matter of Mr Tree out there, daring us to attend to him?’
‘No, I’ve thought better of it, it’s reprieved.’
‘Thank goodness for that,’ says Alex.
‘Too right! I wasn’t looking forward to you sobbing about the place and getting all lyrical.’
‘Thanks for considering my feelings.’
‘My pleasure. Considering my own too, if the truth be known.’
‘Yeah, well we’re the preservation society, we are’, says Alex. ‘We’re doing something for nature and the environment and…’
‘Oh, definitely history. Well said, son, a fine speech, couldn’t have put it better. Not to mention that by sparing the tree, we spare ourselves and anyone else the embarrassing spectacle of two blokes crying over a cherry, plum or whatever tree.’
‘There’s that as well, dad, we need to keep our decorum.’
‘Yes indeed, son, decorum maintained. I’ll get your jacket.’
As Frank hands Alex his jacket he puts his arm around his son’s shoulder, draws him into a hug. Years fall away and Alex is the boy going off to play football or perform in the school play. As Frank’s breath catches, he just manages to say, ‘Thanks son, thank you’.
‘Another Saturday Night’
Two in the morning and it's another Saturday night sat around Tina's mum and dad's yellow formica kitchen table. This now familiar ritual has developed over a few years. Part of the ritual involves refuelling, so the kitchen is filled with the warm, reassuring smell of toast mixed with a hint of lager (for Dan), while a bottle of red wine has also been pilfered from the wine rack, its fumes mixing subtly in. Dan finishes his third slice of toast, dripping with butter, his feet up on the rung of Tina's chair. Crumbs, butter smears and drops of red wine decorate the formica. Dan, Si and Tina look like they're in a fog; eyes red-rimmed and struggling to focus, cheeks sagging. They are only really upright thanks to the straight-backed chairs. Only Lissa is still on it, eyes alight, talking animatedly, hands adding emphasis or outlining ideas, unlit cigarette clasped between two fingers, underlining her points.
Tina has been watching that unlit cig for several minutes. Her own supply ran out in the club around midnight and she'd been loath to cough up the £6.50 for the club vending machines rip-off 16-packs when she knew she could get a packet of 20 for £4.80 at the petrol station. Problem was the petrol station was closed by the time they got there after Si's customary kebab stop once they'd left the club. And now she's gasping. She's desperately wondering a) whether Lissa is going to actually take that cigarette outside and smoke it, or whether she just intends to keep using it to prop up the points she's making about the pros and cons of dating an older man, and b) if Lissa is going to smoke it, would she be open to going halves with Tina given that Tina's bummed a couple of cigs off her tonight already. Or even let her have one more from the squashed packet that's calling out to her on the table.
“This is what makes older men so much more attractive,” Lissa concludes for the fourth time. Tina has no idea what 'this' is, having stopped listening some minutes ago.
“One day, I'll be an older man,” Dan interjects.
Lissa's flow momentarily interrupted, she looks at Dan coolly as she absorbs this information.
“You'll only be an 'older man'” - Lissa does the finger air quotes thing when she says older man, the cigarette nodding in agreement with her - “if you actually go out with someone who's considerably younger than you. Are you saying you're attracted to younger girls or just that you think you will be?”
Dan stretches out his hands, fingers knitted together, in a mock-modest way.
“The point I'm making is that I can't help it if the younger ladies are attracted to me.”
Tina groans and rolls her eyes. It is all the reaction she can muster at 2am. The room starts to spin.
Lissa smirks. “Well, attraction is one thing, but women - of any age – want someone mature. And I'm afraid, my friend, that's where it all goes wrong for you.”
At that she stands up, picking up her lighter with purpose. She looks over at Tina and nudges the squashed packet of Marlboro Lights towards her.
“Join me for a smoke?”
Tina doesn't need to be asked twice. She eases out a cigarette from the packet, leaving Lissa's upside down lucky cigarette untouched, stands up, a little unsteadily, and follows Lissa out the back door, leaving the boys to it.
Dan drains his can and tries to focus on Si. He notices his toes are going numb and shifts position.
“Where are you watching the footy tomorrow?” he asks. “Want to come over?”
Si glances up, then returns to slowly disassembling a toast crust that he'd rejected, shovelling crumbs into tiny, tidy hillocks on his plate.
“I'm not around tomorrow.”
Dan raises his eyebrows. “You're missing the Arsenal match?” His slurred words sound incredulous.
Si rearranges the hillocks into one continuous straight line, giving the impression that a minuscule mole has traversed the underside of the plate.
“I've got something on.”
Dan's eyes narrow. “Got what on?”
Si doesn't answer. Dan shifts uncomfortably in his chair. The hangover is kicking in and he now regrets that last can of Stella. He glances at Si, who remains focussed on the crumb trail.
The girls come back inside, talking in low voices, cold night air and cigarette smoke breezing in with them. Dan twists round in his seat to face them. The cool air is enticing. He pushes himself to standing.
“T, thanks to you and your parentals for hosting the after-party. I'm gonna call it a night.”
“You don't want to kip over?”
“No, I'll walk home. I'm watching the match tomorrow if you want to join.” He raises an arched eyebrow meaningfully. “Si's o-ther-wise en-gaged.” He says this carefully, not fully trusting his alcohol-sodden mouth muscles to form the words.
While Tina shows Dan out, Lissa sits back down, pouring herself another glass of red. She eyes Si with curiosity.
“What're you doing tomorrow?”
He shrugs. “Just got some stuff to do.”
“What stuff?” She's all piqued-curiosity, sensing something juicy. She gasps. “Have you got a date?”
Tina catches this just as she comes back into the kitchen. “Oooh! Have you? Who is she?”
Si shakes his head. “I haven't got a date.” He stands up, rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand. “I could do with turning in too. Am I on the sofa?”
Tina starts to say yeah, I'll get you some bedding, but Lissa interrupts.
“If it's not a date, what is it?”
“It's nothing, Just a family thing.”
Lissa pouts. “A family thing?” She clearly doesn't believe him.
Si hesitates. He looks tense, like he's holding his breath. Lissa sits still, watchful as a cat.
Tina's headaches. She looks at Si and realises it's the first time she's properly looked at him. She sees him now: a 20-year-old man-boy who looks so, so tired. Not early-hours-of-Sunday-morning tired, but soul-seeping-out tired. She thinks, when did he get so tired?
She sits down and, for something to do, starts collecting stray crumbs from the formica by sticking them to her fingertip then brushing them off onto a plate.
Si deflates, crumpling back down into the chair. He rests his forehead in one hand, elbow on table, fingers in his dark hair.
“I'm going to see my dad.”
A long silence follows. Tina and Lissa look at one another. A line forms between Lissa's brows. Tina feels fuzzy-headed, confused, because ever since she's known Si, his dad has been dead. She says, gently, “What do you mean?”
Lissa is blunter. “I thought your dad had died?”
Si shakes his head. “No.”
“But you told us -”
“I know. I lied.”
“Because I didn't want anyone... I didn't know how to say what happened...” His voice dies away. He stares down at the table.
The silence yawns between them. Tina feels the pressure of it but can think of nothing to say.
“My dad's in prison.”
Tina feels her jaw drop. She can't help it.
“What did he do?” asks Lissa.
Tina shoots her a look. She says instead, “I'm so sorry, Si. That must be hard for you and your mum. Do you see him often?”
Si shakes his head. “I'm visiting for the first time tomorrow. First time in four years.”
“Oh,” Tina says. She feels like she should reach out to him. She squeezes his arm awkwardly, feeling a sudden rush of fond love and protectiveness for her friend. We've known each other since sixth form, she thinks, and he's hidden this all this time.
“Four years is a long time,” says Lissa. Tina's not sure what Lissa means by this but she thinks it sounds like a criticism.
“He didn't want me to visit.”
Tina fidgets, gets up. She takes three glasses out of the cupboard and fills them with cold water from the tap. She leans over the table, giving one to Lissa, and puts the other down in front of Si. She remains standing, resting against the kitchen worktop, sipping.
Lissa ignores the glass. “Why didn't you say anything before?”
Si doesn't look at her. He says, “Look Lissa, it's not something you just drop into conversation. I was at a new school, I didn't know you. It was difficult.” His voice sounds flat.
“What was difficult?” Lissa persists.
“Someone died. A man died. We killed him.”
“We?” Lissa asks sharply. “You were there?”
Si looks up, like he's coming out of a daydream. “Yes. I was in the car. We hit him. Whilst driving.” He looks nervous, upset.
“It was...” He looks down again. “Awful. Horrible. He was walking... It was quite dark. And raining. I couldn't see him. Dad couldn't see him.”
He pauses, taking a long, ragged breath.
“Dad was jailed for drink driving. He shouldn't have been driving...” His voice trails off.
“I'm so sorry, Si,” Tina says again. She wishes she could think of something else to say. She wishes they could stop talking about this. She would love to go to bed, hide in sleep, right now, but doesn't know how to finish this conversation.
The silence grows around them. Tina looks at Lissa. The line between her brows is even deeper, her lips tight. Si looks beaten. Tina takes a deep breath.
“Listen, I'm really tired. Maybe we should all get some sleep. We can talk about this more in the morning, that's if you want to Si? I'll go make your beds up. Lissa, you're in the spare room. Si, will you be okay on the sofa?”
Si nods. Lissa switches her attention to Tina.
“Don't worry, I can do it. Just show me where the bedding is.” She gathers her things together and walks out of the kitchen. Tina flutters about for a moment, feeling awkward. “I won't be long.” Si nods and is left alone.
Slowly, as though his body's aching, he stands up, picks up the glass of water and goes into the lounge. He switches on a table lamp with an ugly fringed shade, puts the glass down on a coaster on the table, and sinks onto the sofa. He sits for a moment, looking at the smiling family photos of Tina and her sister with Tina's mum and dad.
Tina comes in, carrying a blanket, pillow and towel. She places them on the sofa next to him.
She hovers, not wanting to sit down, not wanting to leave him alone. “Will you be alright?” she asks.
He mumbles something about them having had a lot to drink tonight and she says they'll feel better after some sleep. He nods, making a gesture as though he's about to say something else, but instead knocks over the water, spilling half of it before he manages to right it again. He grabs the towel she's just given him and mops at it.
I didn't mean to.” he says. His voice sounds small, far off. “It was an accident.”
“Of course...” Tina starts to say.
“I was 16. I couldn't drive. I just didn't want him to drive. He let me. He'd had a few drinks...”
Tina freezes, saying nothing.
“He told them he was driving. The police.”
She sits down next to him, then puts her arms around him, hugging him tightly.
“It was an accident,” she repeats. There's nothing else she can say.
They sit for a minute, watching the first light of dawn peep through the drawn curtains.
"You better get some sleep,” she says. He nods. She closes the door behind her and slowly climbs the stairs to bed.
The March 2019 Short List
Where Cicadas Sing by Jan Petrie
A Supporting Role by Thomas Moody
The Nocturne by Kate Lillystone
Deserted by Fay Dickinson
Tree by Gordon Aindow
Another Saturday Night by Susan Conrad
The March 2019 Competition Long List
Mother Dear by Anne Sheppard
Where Cicadas Sing by Jan Petrie
A Supporting Role by Thomas Moody
The Nocturne by Kate Lillystone
Simply Done by Elaine Morrison
Adrift in Bangkok by Sarah Evans
Deserted by Fay Dickinson
It is in the Files by Richard Walsh
Tree by Gordon Aindow
Another Saturday Night by Susan Conrad
Random Noises by James Davies