Spotless

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Tara Kenway


Photo Credit: Joshua Tabti/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Joshua Tabti/Flickr (CC-by)

“I’ve told you a thousand times to clean up, Edward. We’re a hotel, not a train station. The lobby must be spotless. Spotless! Is that clear?”

I nodded.

It was true. Justine had told me many times. Maybe not a thousand but probably not that far off.

“Keep it pristine.”

Pristine Justine.

That’s what we called her. Justine with her perfect hair, perfect nails and perfect uniform. She wasn’t even the manager, although none of us doubted that it’s where she saw herself.

We just saw her as a pain in the ass. I was responsible for the lobby and reception, Sophie had the first floor, Elaine the second, and Roger was maintenance. Justine was on his case even more than ours.

“Quick, quick, Roger! I haven’t got all day!”

The girls got hassled too.

“How complicated can it be?” she’d say, wiping a critical finger along a window ledge or shelf.

“God, why doesn’t she get promoted or get a new job,” Elaine whined one lunchtime.

“There’s no use complaining about it. She’s been here for fifteen years. I’ve told you before, I doubt she’ll leave now.”

That was Sophie. She’d been here as long as Justine and probably knew the hotel even better than she did.

Roger smoked in silence.

“Nothing to add, Roger?” I asked.

“I wish she’d die,” he muttered.

“I say, that’s a bit harsh,” Sophie said.

Roger shrugged and lit another cigarette.

None of us knew much about Roger. A man of few words and many cigarettes.

And me. I was one of us too. Only here for the summer, but that didn’t make any difference to Justine, who was particularly obsessed with the lobby entrance.

“It’s the window of the hotel,” she said, squinting at the floor, bending down slightly to see everything in a different light. “You know, the eyes are the windows to the soul, and the lobby is the window to the hotel’s soul.”

I liked how she tried to make being a maniac about cleanliness poetic.

All of this would make some sense if we were talking about a classy hotel somewhere, but we weren’t. The only reason we had any business at all wasn’t because of our spotless lobby, but the fact that we were the only hotel around. All the tired tourists who’d spent the last five hours in the car with the air con cranked up knew if they didn’t stop here they’d have to drive another couple of hours before coming across another place to stay.

Did the fact the hotel was clean help? Sure it did. But if the lobby really was the window to the hotel’s soul, most people would keep on driving.

This particular day the hotel wasn’t very busy. The weather wasn’t too hot, driving conditions were good and people just kept on, trying to get home rather than stop yet again. Sophie was the first to notice it.

“Have you seen Justine, Ed?”

“Nope.” I glanced at my watch. “Maybe she’s ill?” I flashed Sophie my crossed fingers and she laughed.

“It’s odd. She’s never late.”

“What? You think she’s been kidnapped or something? Too much CSI, Sophie.”

She smiled but still looked worried.

“Look, maybe she had car trouble. Or she’s ill. She’s only half an hour late. There’s a multitude of reasons to be late.”

She nodded and walked over to the elevator.

“Can you text me when she arrives? You better clean that up before she arrives too.” She pointed at the lobby floor.

“Sure.”

Some bastard had traipsed mud straight across the lobby sometime during the night and Justine would kill me if it was still there when she arrived.

I took out the vacuum cleaner and started passing it backwards and forwards. This was a mistake as the mud wasn’t quite dry yet and just smeared and stuck to the vacuum cleaner. Dark reddish smears ran across the lobby.

“Dammit.” Now I’d need to clean the cleaner too.

I put the vacuum cleaner to one side and fetched a mop and bucket.

A few swishes of the mop later and most of the mud was gone. I squinted at the floor, and bent down slightly, trying to see it through Justine’s eyes. I didn’t especially care about doing a good job, but I did like an easy life and cleanliness meant no Justine on my back.

There was still some streaks of mud across the hall.

I went out back to the cleaning cupboard and had a look at the products we had.

*Industrial floor cleaner.*

That could be the bottle for me. I had a look at the label.

Removes all stains from wooden and tiled floors. Mud, oil, even blood!

Well, if that didn’t work, nothing would!

I went back into the lobby and started cleaning. Thank God there was still no sign of Justine. I scrubbed and scrubbed and then passed over the wood with the floor polisher.

I looked at the floor again. Squinted. Bent down.

“Damn, now that’s what I call pristine.”

I turned around.

It was Roger. He was smoking as usual. He went to tap the ash on my floor.

“Come on, man. Gimme a break.” I pushed the bucket of dirty water over to him and he tapped the ash inside.

“Don’t let Justine see you smoking here. You know it drives her crazy.”

“Yeah, well, the feeling’s mutual.” He glanced around. “She not here yet?”

“Nope. Sophie’s worried.”

“Sophie’s always worried.” He dropped the cigarette butt in the bucket. “Let me know if she turns up.”

He wandered off, leaving dusty footprints behind him.

I passed quickly behind him with the floor polisher.

*

The rest of the day passed by and still no Justine. Sophie called the manager and told him Justine hadn’t come into work.

“I’m just worried. It’s not like her. In all the time we’ve worked together she’s not been late. Not once!”

He tried calling her at home but there was no answer. He finally called the police and they went to her house. Still no Justine. That’s when they came to the hotel and started asking questions.

There were two officers. I got a young guy who looked about the same age as me. My mother always said that you knew you were getting old when the policemen started looking young. Jeez, I was only 22 and I was already thinking that.

“Have a seat, Edward. Can I call you Edward?” he said.

“Sure.”

“So, when did you last see Justine?” His pen hovered above his notepad.

“Last night. When my shift ended.”

“And what time was that?”

“Around nine p.m., I guess.”

“You’re not sure?”

“Well, my shift ends at nine p.m., but then usually I leave a little later than that. You know, the time to put everything away.”

“Sure. And you didn’t see Justine leave?”

“No, but then I never do. She always leaves after me.”

“Okay. Is she popular here?” He glanced up at me.

“You’ve already spoken to the others, no?”

He nodded.

“She’s not the most popular. She’s a ball-breaker.”

“Pristine Justine?”

I laughed. “That’s her. That’s why the lobby’s so clean. Windows to the soul of the hotel.”

“She says that?”

“All the time.”

He asked me some more questions about her routine, my routine, my colleagues.

“Do you really think something’s happened to her?” I asked.

“Don’t you?”

I shrugged. “I really don’t know. It just seems a bit crazy.”

“All these things seem crazy until they happen. Then they don’t seem quite so crazy.” He stood up. “Thanks for your time. This is the number where we can reach you?”

I nodded.

I got up and left the office and went back into the lobby. There was a guest waiting at reception. Seeing as no one was there, I checked them in and got their keys sorted out.

“Don’t you have someone to help with my bag?” the woman asked.

I looked around for Roger, but he was still in with the police.

“Sure. I’ll help you myself.” I smiled a big cheesy grin. All my grins were cheesy—it was why Justine didn’t want me working directly with the guests.

“Try sincerity, Edward!”

“This is it.”

“Well, just stop smiling then.” She’d turned on her heel and walked away.

I put my cheesy grin away and took the woman’s bags. God only knows what she had in there but they weighed a ton. I almost joked that she had a dead body in there, but seeing the circumstances I thought it better to say nothing.

I took her up to the second floor. Elaine was up there.

“Room 215?” I asked.

She led us down there and opened up the door.

“Ma’am,” she said, holding the door open.

I put her suitcase down with a thud. Elaine looked at me and I shrugged.

“Thank you. That’ll be all,” said the woman. Not even a tip.

Elaine closed the door behind us.

“Bit of a pain, huh?” she asked. “Who does that remind you of?”

“Have the police spoken to you yet?” I asked.

Elaine nodded. “Same as you. I didn’t see her after my shift ended.”

“It’s weird though, isn’t it? What do you think happened?”

“God knows. Maybe she was having a torrid affair that none of us knew about.”

“Really?”

“Edward, I don’t know! But, come on. Outside of here we know next to nothing about each other. Do you know where I live, or if I’m married? Have I got kids?”

I flushed.

“Don’t worry. I know nothing about you either except that you’re a student. And that’s fine. All I’m saying is that we could all have secrets or a dark side and we probably wouldn’t know.”

“Until something like this happens.”

“Exactly.”

We both stood in silence for a moment.

“So what’s your secret, Elaine?” I asked.

She smiled.

“Well now, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret.” She pressed the elevator button for me. The doors slid open. “Back to the lobby with you, Edward.”

And so Elaine had a mysterious side. Who would have guessed? Certainly not me.

When I got back to the lobby, Roger was just leaving the office. He nodded at me as he passed.

The police officers were talking to each other and looking at Roger.

“Do we have any news?” I asked. “I’m not trying to inject myself into an investigation, you know. I know you guys watch out for that. I’d just like Justine to turn up.”

“Well, you’ll know when we do,” one of them said.

And that’s what happened.

Three hours later Justine’s car turned up but still no Justine. The police came back and started talking about a timeline and alibis. All of us were suspects as we were all at work when she went missing, and we weren’t together. It was hard to find out exactly where she had been as she regularly went all over the hotel.

I saw Sophie in the corridor.

“They think it’s one of us!” she whispered, spitting out the words.

“Maybe it is.”

“Edward! How can you even say that?”

“Come on. We were all the last people to see her. And none of us were her greatest fan.”

“Well, I didn’t do it,” she said, looking around her as if someone might be listening.

“I don’t think they’ve bugged the place yet, Sophie.”

She glared at me and walked away.

The police were hovering around the lobby, bending and squinting at the floor.

“Can I help?” I asked.

“This floor is spotless,” one of them said.

“Yes, sir. Justine’s very particular about that. She says it’s the window to the hotel.”

“Does she now?” He kept looking at the floor.

“Did you clean it when you arrived this morning?”

I nodded.

“Of course. It’s always the first thing I do. Plus someone had left mud all over the floor.”

He stood up, and gave a quick glance at his partner.

“Mud?”

“Yes. I had footprints right across the lobby. A real pain in the ass to get out.”

“I’ll bet,” he muttered.

The day continued quietly until the afternoon when Sophie came rushing in.

“Have you heard? They’re questioning Roger and Elaine. Again!”

“Maybe they just had some other questions.”

“No, no. It looked like they wanted to arrest them. Maybe they just don’t have enough evidence for the time being.”

“Like I said before, Sophie—too much CSI.”

At the same time, it did look like the police knew something. There was an urgency to them that hadn’t been there before.

I glanced over at the office and could just see Elaine shaking her head.

“We could all have secrets.”

Wasn’t that what she’d said to me? So what was her secret? Maybe she bumped off Justine. I certainly wouldn’t blame her, although it seemed a bit of an extreme reaction. At the same time, I knew I could get out of here at the end of the summer. Elaine didn’t.

And what about Roger? He was kind of suspicious, but then we all could be.

I sighed. This is why I wasn’t a police officer and they were.

“Not my job, man,” I said to myself.

The police kept them in there for a couple of hours. I sat at the lobby, checking in a few people, watching them as they scuffed my floor, cursing each one of them.

Once everyone had gone I took out the floor polisher again.

It chummed across the floor, making my arms judder.

I was engrossed in the cleaning when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Edward?” It was one of the policemen. “Can you come with us for a moment?”

“Sure. Can I just finish up here?”

“No, leave it.”

“But Justine—”

“I don’t think it’s going to be of a concern to her. You know we found her car.”

I nodded.

“There was an awful lot of blood inside. It’s Justine’s.”

“Oh.”

“Just leave the machine.”

I followed the officers, Sophie peering out the office door at me.

“She’s going to say I did it now,” I said.

“Did what?”

“Kill Justine.”

“No one said she was dead.” They were both looking at me.

“What? You just basically said it. Two minutes ago!” I started feeling a little scared. I didn’t want to be a patsy.

“Have a seat, Edward. We need to talk to you about the lobby. The mud this morning.”

“Okay.”

“You’re sure it was just mud?”

“What else would it be?”

“Could it have been something else?”

“What? Like dog crap?”

He gave a slight smile.

“We’re thinking more along the lines of blood.”

I thought back to the smears.

“We have a theory that Roger and Elaine killed Justine. We found her body in the garden behind the hotel. She’d been hit with an axe and then buried. We found her blood in one of the rooms and some blood on the fire escape stairs. There would have been mud on their shoes. But blood as well. The footprints would tie at least one of them to the crime scene. Otherwise we don’t have much.”

“I guess it could have been blood as well. It didn’t cross my mind. It was just hard to get rid of.”

“Can you show us what you used to clean up?”

“Sure.” We left the office and went to the store room. I showed them the bottle.

“Shit,” one of them said. “That’ll have destroyed everything.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t know, Edward.”

The police gathered their things and left. I guess to try and find a plan B.

We all watched them go.

Sophie sighed.

“The one time you manage to clean the lobby well. Nice job.” She walked away.

“Yeah, nice job, Ed,” Roger said, winking at me.

Elaine took Roger’s hand and smiled at him.

“Pristine.”

pencilEnglish writer and English trainer living in Lyon, France. Likes cats, cinema, reading and running. Has been previously published in TCLJ and has a story called “The Barber” in an anthology. Email: tkenway[at]gmail.com

The Woman in the Attic

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Tara Kenway


323 - 19 November: Another macro
Photo Credit: Darren W

“You dare speak to him again, and I’ll stick you!”

Mrs Campbell put her keys down next to the answerphone, and frowned. She pressed play again.

“You dare speak to him again, and I’ll stick you!”

She wondered if it were one of her girls playing a joke on her. They’d been studying Brighton Rock recently and the message had an air of Graham Greene to it.

She pressed delete and thought no more about it.

She took off her beige jacket, hung it next to her red one, and went into the sitting room. Her cat, Jones, was sitting near the window, planning his escape.

“Jones, how was your day, you furry beast?” she scratched his head, and he purred, almost smiling.

Mrs Campbell sat down in her armchair, and looked through her post. Nothing very interesting. The usual bills and bumph, telling her she had to buy her new sofa now as there was 25% OFF ONLY FOR TODAY! She tore it up—she didn’t like flyers that shouted.

She didn’t really like shouting in general. It was why she had left her husband—he shouted at the television, on the phone, at the postman, in the train. She found it embarrassing to be with someone who made other people embarrassed on your behalf. She saw them looking at her and wondering if she realised her husband spoke at the same volume as a ranting two-year-old. She did realise of course. She had realised when he shouted “I do” in the church so loudly that the candelabras wobbled and she thought Father Williams might faint.

It was one of those things that she thought she would get over, that her ears would adjust to. Instead they became more and more sensitive until the only solution she had was to ask for a divorce.

“Divorce?” he bellowed. “Why?”

Mrs Campbell looked over at Jones, who was still staring out of the window, frowning at something that mere humans couldn’t see. She glanced out of the window to see if anyone or anything was there, but there was nothing. Just the silence of the suburbs on a Saturday evening.

She had just finished dinner and was washing up her plate when the telephone rang again. She didn’t answer, preferring to let the answerphone take her place.

“This is Whyteleafe 7813. Please leave a message.”

“I’m telling you! You stay away from him! …” The line sizzled as the person stayed there, waiting.

Mrs Campbell looked at the phone, rather perplexed. She started as the phone spoke again, a different voice this time. Calm. Patient.

“Who are talking to, darling?”

“No one.”

“Well, if it’s no one you can hang up, can’t you?”

Click.

Clearly not one of her students then. She didn’t recognise either voice. She dried her hands, went to the phone. The number was a local one.

She tried to think of some slight she could have done to someone, but apart from her students and Jones she didn’t talk to that many people, certainly no one who would leave this type of message.

She had had an affair with a maths teacher many moons ago, but he had been a widower, and their affair had ended when he decided to take early retirement and go overseas with the VSO. Since then, there hadn’t been much passion in her life. Certainly not enough to warrant having someone stick her.

The phone rang again.

“Don’t think you’ll get away with it! Bitch!”

Now Mrs Campbell started to get irritated. Being threatenedà la Greene was one thing. Being insulted in her home by some unknown woman was something else. Her teacher hormones kicked in.

She picked up the phone.

“How dare you speak to me like that!”

There was a pause.

“Are you still there? Not so easy when there’s a voice, is it?”

She could hear the woman breathing.

“Now, I’m only going to say this once—stop calling here. You have the wrong number. Is that clear?”

She didn’t wait for an answer and hung up.

She stared at the phone, daring it to ring again, but it stayed silent.

“Good decision,” Mrs Campbell said, and went back to her washing up.

Three days later and Mrs Campbell had heard no more from the woman. She assumed that was the end of it.

That evening, when she arrived home from work, the light of the answerphone was flashing.

“Hello? I’m phoning about my wife. I believe you spoke to her. Could you call me back? My number is—”

Mrs Campbell picked up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Oh, hello. I was leaving a message, but then you know that.”

“I heard. What can I do for you?”

“My name is James Thomas. I wanted to check if my wife had called you again.”

“Your wife being the woman who called and threatened me?”

He sighed. “Yes, that would be her.”

“No, she hasn’t. And I hope she doesn’t either!” Mrs Campbell added.

“She’s a little disturbed. She gets it into her head that I’m having an affair—”

“Are you?”

The man laughed. “I wasn’t expecting that question. No, I’m not. Not right now.”

Mrs Campbell could still hear the laughter in his voice.

“Perhaps you should. Seeing as your wife thinks you are already,” she suggested.

“I did consider it, but she takes up rather a lot of my time. I don’t think I could find the time for an affair as well. Anyway, the reason I was calling was to ask if we could meet. It’s about my wife.”

“How does she even know me?” Mrs Campbell asked.

“That’s what I would like to explain.”

Mrs Campbell thought about it for a moment. This could be a scam that the couple ran to target vulnerable women. Perhaps they had been watching her for weeks without her knowledge, planning and scheming, waiting until she was at her weakest. She didn’t feel especially weak, but then perhaps that was a sign of weakness.

On the other hand, she didn’t fancy spending another evening alone with Jones and the television.

“Do you know The Fox and Hounds?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“I can meet you there in half an hour.”

“Perfect. I’ll have Schuster with me.”

“Schuster?”

“He’s a Great Dane. You can’t miss us.”

She hung up and glanced at herself in the hall mirror. Perhaps she should wear some lipstick.

Half an hour later Mrs Campbell was in the pub with a glass of white wine. She didn’t usually drink, but then she didn’t usually meet unknown men with Great Danes and mad wives either.

She saw Schuster first, an enormous dog that lumbered through the door, followed by a wiry man with a wisp of a moustache. She wondered how it resisted the wind.

“Mr Thomas?” she said, making room for the dog.

“Mrs Campbell?” He held out his hand which she shook.

“I thought people and animals were supposed to look alike. I pity you if Schuster looks like your wife.” She smiled.

“But no pity for the fact that she calls strangers and threatens them. Interesting logic.” He signalled to the barman to bring him a half. “You don’t beat about the busy, do you?”

“Too much time with teenagers. I’m sorry.”

Don’t worry. I just thought I should explain what the situation was. How she got your number. Why she chose you.”

“Go on.”

“She does it every three months or so. I had an affair years ago, and since then she’s been insanely jealous. Any woman I mention she assumes I’m seeing on the sly.”

“But I don’t know you.”

“Yes, but I know you.”

Mrs Campbell raised her eyebrows.

“You teach my daugher, Janine.”

Mrs Campbell’s brain flicked through her directory of students. “Janine Thomas. Third year.”

He nodded. “She likes your lessons and has spoken about you. I picked her up from school a few weeks ago and she pointed you out.”

“So I must’ve met your wife. At Parents’ Evening.”

“Yes. That’s how she knew who you were. She followed you, and then got the number from the directory. You really should go ex-directory you know.”

“To protect myself from people like your wife?”

He shrugged.

“Perhaps she should get help. Speak to someone,” Mrs Campbell suggested.

“Probably, but she’s a stubborn woman and doesn’t like to think she needs help.”

“But you agree that she does.”

“Oh yes. Clearly.” He frowned. “Are you married, Mrs Campbell?”

“Divorced.”

“Good choice. I thought about it but I’m worried it would push her over the edge, slipping from cranky to insane.”

“If she’s really insane, she’ll get there all by herself, no matter what you do.” Mrs Campbell had finished her wine, and her tongue felt looser than usual. She could see her lipstick, red smeared on the edge of her glass and wondered what Mr Campbell thought of her.

“Perhaps. But I don’t know if I can take that risk of pushing her there before she’s ready to go. Maybe I should just lock her in the attic.”

“Very Jane Eyre,” Mrs Campbell remarked.

He smiled. “Unfortunately I don’t have an attic.”

He ordered another round of drinks.

A few weeks later Mrs Campbell’s phone rang again. She stood in the hallway, touching up her lipstick, the red the colour of a bullfighter’s cape. She let the machine do its job.

“I warned you! I’m going to stick you. And then him!”

The speaker slammed the phone down.

Mrs Campbell sighed. She leant over and pressed the delete button, wiping the message clean away. The messages came every day now, but she didn’t really care. She hadn’t been stuck by the wife, and she doubted she was going to be.

Jones walked past her, slithering between her legs, on his way to the kitchen. She checked he had enough food and went into the sitting room, and turned on the television.

Mr Thomas came into the sitting room and she smiled up at him. He sat down next her, slipping his arm around her shoulders.

“Who was that?” he asked.

“The woman in the attic,” she smiled.
pencil

Tara Kenway is a Paris-based writer. Email: tkenway[at]gmail.com

We’re Not Common

Fiction
Tara Kenway


Plunk.

Keeping her eyes fixed on me, my mother let the sugar drop into the cup. It sunk to the bottom with a small splash, a few bubbles gasping to the surface, and finally I understood.

That Sunday morning I had been cutting up soldiers for Violet, my daughter.

“One soldier, two soldiers, three soldiers,” we counted, my daughter giggling. “Frrrreeeee soldiers,” was accompanied by a little saliva shower for her piece of military bread.

The phone rang and I left Violet in her high chair to smear butter on her hand.

“Hello?”

“Carrie?”

“Speaking.”

“It’s Pat. Your mum’s mate.”

I could imagine my mother’s disgust—being referred to as someone’s mate. “How are you? How’s Terry?”

“I’m fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine.” She paused, the line crackling in discomfort. “It’s your mum, Carrie. She’s had a stroke.”

“What? When?”

“Last night. She tried to call but there was no answer so she got the doctors to call me.”

I sighed. Another one she’d never let me forget. “Does Luke know?” I glanced over at Violet.

“Not yet. I was going to call him after you.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll do it. Where is she now?” I glanced at Violet, who was now sticking her soldiers butter-side down to her bib, all lined up, standing at attention, waiting for their orders. She gave me a big grin when she noticed I was watching her. I stuck my tongue out. She giggled, and went back to her soldiers.

“She’s in hospital,” Pat was saying, “but she’s okay. Her left side is a bit dodgy, but nothing major. They’re keeping her in to be safe.”

“Have you already seen her?”

“First thing this morning. She’s in St. John’s.”

“Cheers Pat. I guess I’d better go and see her.”

“Be nice to her, pet. She’s fragile.”

The suburb where I grew up was one of the nicer ones in London. At least it was when I was a child. The only strange thing that happened was some man flashing me and my brother, Luke, as we cycled home from the park one day. I didn’t understand what was happening as I was only six and was more worried about missing The Muppet Show. My brother, being older, shouted at me to keep up with him as he zipped down the road.

As we were putting our bikes in the garage, sweat trickling down my back, my brother grabbed my arm. “Don’t tell Mum about this,” he hissed. “She’ll stop us going to the park if she knows.”

I nodded. Losing park privileges was not an option. My mother had become somewhat neurotic since my father left, and we relished the opportunity to stay out of the house, leaving her alone to curse what life had done to her.

My brother bounded up the front steps two at a time, me trotting behind him. My mother yanked the door open before Luke even had a chance to put his key in the lock.

“When I say be back by seven, I don’t mean seven on the dot. I mean 6.50!” She gave my brother a swift clack around the head—he was the oldest and therefore meant to know.

My brother rubbed his head but stayed silent.

We went into the lounge, and turned on the TV. I prised my shoes off and sat on the floor, near my brother’s feet. He was muttering to himself from the sofa.

“Why doesn’t she just say 6.50?”

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

My mum came in. “So what would their highnesses like for dinner?” She was beaming, content now the babies were back in the nest.

“Chips!” I said immediately.

“You can’t have chips every day. Try again,” my mum replied.

“Spag bol?” my brother suggested.

“Fine.” She frowned at me, suddenly noticing how red I was from cycling. “Do you feel alright Caroline? You’re very red.”

My brother pressed his foot on my fingers in warning.

“Yeah, we had a race on the way back.”

My brother’s foot released its pressure.

“Hmm. You’ll find there’s an ‘s’ at the end of yes, Caroline. We’re not common.” She went back into the kitchen.

I glanced at my brother, who mouthed at me “We’re not common,” putting on his snooty face. I started giggling, stopping only when my brother got bored and started crushing my fingers again.

We’re not common.

My mother’s favourite expression. Never said in company of course, but the fundamental phrase of our upbringing. Maybe she thought if she said it enough we’d take it to heart. Her parents had to focus on having food on the table each night—my mother had the luxury of being able to focus on other things.

Once Luke and me had been having a contest at the park, to see who could spit the furthest. We waited for an old couple to pass by so we could continue spitting into the lake. Luke watched them shuffle by, arm in arm.

“We’re not common,” Luke suddenly said, as I was busy trying to get as much saliva in my mouth as possible.

“What?” I gurgled.

“We’re not common,” he laughed, and spat a good metre-and-a-half into the lake. He slapped me on the back, making me swallow my supply.

I laughed because he was, not really knowing why.

She refused to speak about my father, saying she wanted us to make up our own minds, but seeing as he had left one Saturday before the morning cartoons, neither of us thought much of him. I used to entertain daydreams where he’d pull up on his motorbike and we’d drive down to the coast, sitting on the beach eating chips, vinegar running down our fingers. But he disappeared, and that is what I could never accept. I couldn’t understand how a parent could do that. Many years later, after I had Violet, I couldn’t imagine a circumstance which would make me leave her behind, and yet that’s what my father did. Me and Luke never spoke about it either. The couple of times I tried he cut me off with “He’s gone.” He said it with such finality I let it go.

All of this came to a head with that call from Pat, my mother’s best friend. They’d been friends since they were sixteen, spending weekends driving down to Brighton on their scooters, sitting behind their boyfriends, wearing their helmets on their arms like handbags. Pat’s husband was known by everyone as a lovely bloke.

“You know Terry, don’t you?”

“Yeah, he’s a lovely bloke.”

A typical conversation. Being a little naïve I didn’t realise that a lovely bloke was also what people said about the Kray brothers. Lovely blokes as long as you’re on their right side. Get on the wrong side and suddenly they’re not so nice, making you concrete boots and chucking you in some dank part of the Thames. God only knows how many are at the bottom of the river, feet encased in a concrete cube, swirling with the current, bobbing around, fish nibbling at their faces.

When I saw her she was sitting up in bed, a cup of tea on the table beside her. Other than her hair being a little messy she looked the same as always.

“How many times have I told you not to stare, Caroline?” she said in greeting.

I gave her the obligatory kiss on the cheek, her skin smelling faintly of roses.

“Mother. How are you feeling?” I sat on the chair at the end of the bed.

“I’ve been better.” She kept fidgeting with the sheets, rolling them up and down with her right hand. “Where’s your brother?” she asked, glancing behind me.

“At work,” I replied. “He said he’d be in later.”

“I could be dead by then.”

“We can but hope.” I smiled.

She glared at me. “You’re so much like him sometimes,” she muttered.

“Who?”

“Your father.” She wiped away the saliva from the left side of her mouth with a distasteful look.

“How’s that?” I asked, surprised. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d mentioned him.

“Making stupid jokes at the wrong moment. Never knowing when to be quiet. Never knowing the right thing to do.” She looked around the ward, as if it held an answer to a question she hadn’t yet asked.

“Common?” I asked. I’d heard all these criticisms before, grown up with them.

“All I’ve tried to do is give you two the best, and neither of you have a bloody clue. I wanted to give you a better start than I had. None of that playing on street corners, letting boys kiss you for five pence.” Her Cockney accent was coming out. “Getting knocked up at sixteen, your family sending you away to have the baby and then leaving it behind.” Her words were starting to slur slightly and I thought about calling the nurse, but she kept talking. “Knowing your husband’s sleeping with your best mate and not being able to do anything about it.” Her eyes teared up as she looked at me. “I should’ve left him before you two came along. That was my chance but I let it slip by. First your brother and then you. Two stones around my neck. My mother rabbitted on about that’s how life is—you do the best with what you’re given and that this was my cross to bear, but I couldn’t. I refused. He was no model for you and Luke to grow up with. Chasing skirt, eating jellied eels. I wanted better than that.” She looked out the window, fixating on something I couldn’t see. Her eyes snapped back into focus as she turned back to me, her tears gone. She waited a few long seconds before continuing. “So I spoke to Terry.”

Terry—he’s a lovely bloke.

“He always did have a soft spot for me.” She gave a smile I hadn’t seen before.

“What did you do?” I asked, feeling slightly sick, already knowing the answer.

She didn’t reply. She took her cup of tea, and held it delicately in her right hand. With her left she took a sugar cube from the dish and, looking at me, dropped it into the cup.

Plunk.

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Tara Kenway is a Paris-based writer who spends her time reading, writing, running and begging her cat to let her sleep later than 6am. For the latter she has little success. E-mail: tkenway[at]gmail.com

Frog Escapism

Fiction
Tara Kenway


I looked over at Fernandez, who nodded at me.

“Go on, man. It’ll blow you away. I swear.”

We’d been in the prison now for over three months, and I’d reached a level of boredom I hadn’t previously known existed.

When they’d first put us inside, I’d been so scared. Hearing grown men crying in the middle of the night disturbed me, and the prison we were in wasn’t for real criminals. It was for those poor bastards who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, weeds that the government decided to get rid of. Part of me wished they’d just shoot us and get it over with, but that would’ve been too bloody and the army was trying to conserve its bullets in the unlikely case the rebels got enough people together to fight back. I say this was unlikely as the majority of them were either in prison or dead, and even the sympathisers were now hard to find.

They’d arrested me and Fernandez as we were coming out of a brothel. We’d known each other for years and lost our virginity to the same hooker when we were fifteen. She was a dirty blonde who called herself Marilyn, and she made very quick money with us two as just seeing a naked woman in front of me was enough to make me come in thirty seconds. But she was sweet and took her time with us, possibly thinking she was helping whatever poor women would come across us in the future.

After this first time, me and Fernandez often went to the brothels. That is, when we scraped enough money together. We always went to Marilyn as she used to cut us a deal, and she let us hang out in the bar downstairs, watching the men come and go, furtive and shifty like rats. But the rats were always happy when they left, the sex giving them a swagger that they didn’t have when they walked through the door. I always found that swagger strange. After all, they’d had to pay some woman just to touch them. Me and Fernandez didn’t kid ourselves: girls our own age thought we were disgusting, and were too busy fantasizing about their best friend’s older brother to give us a second look. So we went to Marilyn.

And that was where I wanted to go now. I wanted to get out of this hole we were in. And it was then that Fernandez came to me with the frog.

“You have to lick it, man.”

The frog sat in my hand, rather patiently I thought, just looking up at me, contemplating whatever it is that frogs think about. Did he know what was coming? Did he mind?

Licking a frog. That is what my life had come down to. Other people were taking drugs, and doing anything to avoid getting the guards’ attention, avoid getting cut, and I had my best friend trying to get me to lick a fucking frog.

“This is crazy,” I said.”Why don’t we just smoke a joint?”

Fernandez smiled. “Because the frog is free, man.”

And we liked free.

That was one of the first things I learnt in prison—nothing is free. You may think it is, they may tell you it is, but they’re lying. Any little favour will come straight back at you squared. I learnt that lesson fast after a guy gave me a cigarette and that night expected a blow job in return.

I knew where Fernandez had got the frog from. He kept his head down, and the guards cut him a little slack. He was a charming guy, and he knew how to talk to adults, telling them what they wanted to hear, making his black-brown eyes look wise and sad at the same time. He’d got himself a job in the kitchens, and next to the kitchens was the outside. And outside there were frogs.

The prison wasn’t that far from the old marshland, and the frogs hadn’t yet realised that the swamp was gone and wasn’t coming back. But there were enough mosquitoes there to keep an army of frogs going for a lifetime. And maybe they liked the weird smell of bad food and sweat that the prison had to offer.

Fernandez had made friends with this particular frog. The first time he showed it to me he cradled it in his hands, gently stroking its head. “She’s called Marilyn,” he said.

“How do you know it’s a girl?” I asked.

“Look at those eyes!” he said, holding up the frog for me to see. “That ain’t no boy frog.”

I nodded, wondering if Fernandez had been smoking something before coming to see me.

One of the other prisoners had told Fernandez about licking frogs. Apparently there was some hallucinogenic quality to their skin, which us poor, pathetic humans could access by licking them. I wasn’t convinced, believing more that it was just a good way to make someone look stupid. But apparently Fernandez had tried this, and swore blind it worked.

“I’m not convinced, man,” I said.

Marilyn looked up at me, and for a second it seemed to smile.

“Hey, don’t worry about Marilyn—she don’t mind being licked,” Fernandez said.

“I’m not worried about the frog.”

“Marilyn,” Fernandez corrected me.

“I’m not worried about Marilyn. I’m more worried about me.” To be honest I was also getting pretty concerned about Fernandez.

I looked down again at the frog and closed my eyes, held her up to my mouth and took a good lick along her back, my tongue surfing gently over the bumps.

I opened my eyes, fighting the gagging sensation that was looming up from my stomach.

“Fuck,” I stammered, “That tastes like shit.”

“Careful,” Fernandez said, taking the frog from me, “You’ll hurt her feelings.”

I sat and waited, the swampy taste in my mouth getting stronger and stronger.

“So?” Fernandez asked. “Anything?”

I shook my head, not trusting myself not to vomit if I opened my mouth.

Fernandez nodded. “The first time takes a while,” he said.

“When does this taste go away?” I was trying not to move my tongue as it kept making the taste come back in waves.

“About a week.”

“What? You bastard! A week? Jesus, as if this place isn’t bad enough, and now my mouth tastes like a fucking sewer.”

“Wait for the effect. It’s beautiful.”

And that’s when it started coming. The walls of the cell started to melt, and I swear I could hear the ocean, rolling in towards me. I tried to lean back against the wall, but I couldn’t stop myself falling. I fell until the sand puffed up behind me like a pillow, and Marilyn was there, the real one, the Monroe of my dreams, her blond hair falling softly around her face, coming out of the ocean like some long-lost mermaid.

I don’t remember the rest of the day. I came to at some point and Fernandez was there, still cradling Marilyn in his hand.

He smiled at me.

“Now you understand her name, right?”
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“I currently reside in Paris and when not writing I like cycling, the cinema, reading, playing hide & seek with my cat, and making Super 8 films.” E-mail: kenway.tara[at]lycos.com

Glenn Miller and the Vases

Fiction
Tara Kenway


The sun came shining through the trees like knives. I squinted, pulling down the sunshade in the car. It didn’t make much difference, as it was a low sun that as soon as I’d driven past the trees shone straight into my eyes again, blinding them.

‘Didn’t you bring your sunglasses?’ Jane asked.

I felt my face. ‘No, I forgot.’

‘Idiot.’

We were on our way to visit her parents. The first trip of the year and it was already June. Her mother phoned every day and most of the time left long, rambling messages that Jane deleted unlistened to.

Her father didn’t really speak at all and generally ignored me, hoping I wouldn’t exist if he didn’t accept it. The visits were always nightmarish, with the mother talking at 100mph—even if her husband did want to say something, he didn’t have much opportunity.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked.

Jane nodded, looking out the window.

‘You know how it is—mum’s birthday, dad’s birthday, and Christmas. Sounds like I’m talking about a prescription—three visits a year until symptoms cease,’ she said in a doctor’s voice, forcing herself to smile.

‘Did you bring the present?’ I asked.

‘Now you think to ask? We’re already halfway there. Anyway, it’s in the back.’

We’d bought a vase, like we did every year. I wanted to buy something else, just to break the monotony, but Jane had got her mother a vase every year since she was a child and had made her one at playschool. It was a tradition, like the three-times-a-year visits.

I hated these visits. Her embarrassed-looking mother always referred to me as ‘Samantha-Jane’s-friend’, as if it were all one word, to a father who refused to look at me. Jane tried to convince me he’d come around eventually, ‘especially as you like motorbikes’, but she’d been wrong. She spoke to her mother in the kitchen whilst her father and I sat in the sitting room, or in the garden if it was the June visit, saying nothing.

The only positive thing about the June visit was that the weather was usually good. As we turned into the drive her mother came out of the house before I’d even had the chance to turn the car off, knocking on Jane’s window and smiling at us both.

‘You found us okay then?’ she asked

‘Mum, I used to live here, remember?’ Jane laughed.

We got out of the car.

‘I thought we’d eat in the garden today,’ her mum said, as if it were a new idea.

‘Lovely,’ Jane replied.

‘And how are you Samantha?’ her mother asked, giving me a swift peck on the cheek.

‘Fine thanks. Happy birthday. 38 isn’t it?’ I smiled. That was my line for June.

Formalities over, we went inside. Their house was a small, semi-detached not far from the station. The front garden was neatly trimmed, with various climbing flowers that tried to caress the walls. Jane’s old room overlooked the garage, and when she was in her teens she used to crawl out onto the roof to smoke cigarettes and look at the stars.

After we’d wiped our feet, Jane went into the kitchen and left me stranded in the sitting room with her father and the vases. There were hundreds of them covering the top half of two walls. I’d once suggested putting flowers in some of them, only to have her father say, ‘Flowers are for the garden.’ End of discussion.

Today he was sitting in his armchair, his newspaper folded neatly in his lap.

‘Hallo Mr. Smith.’

He shook open his paper and started doing the crossword. I sat down and waited for the others to come back. I looked at the vases on their shelves, lined up like soldiers, and tried to see if there were any new ones. Her mother’s favourite was lilac and hand-painted with flowers. Jane bought it for her in a craft shop in Cornwall on our first weekend away together. She saw it on the first day and put it on the bedside table. That night when we were making love she stopped suddenly.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Give me a second.’ She rolled over and put the vase in the drawer and closed it. ‘That’s better. Now, where were we?’

I wasn’t Jane’s first girlfriend but I was the first she took home to present to her parents. Her mother was fine once she saw I didn’t have devil’s horns and a forked tail, but her father didn’t say a word. Later, as he took the dishes into the kitchen we overheard the frantic whispering of her mother.

‘At least try and be polite, for goodness sake,’ she hissed.

So now he responded to some questions, answering ‘how are you’ with ‘fine’ that still sounded like ‘fuck you’ to me. I had never realised such innocuous words could be so loaded.

Mother: Offer the girls potatoes, Gordon.

Gordon: Potatoes? Fuck you.

Me: Thank you. You too.

Jane knew this is what we did and had given up long ago.

‘You’re as bad as each other,’ she said.

‘He started it,’ I grumbled. ‘Miserable old sod.’ These discussions always ended in her being silent and me apologising. Quite what for, I wasn’t sure but the apology always seemed to work.

And at first I did try, but after receiving illicit insults with every vegetable dish I gave up.

We once saw Jane’s mum by herself—a nerve-wracking experience as she hadn’t told Gordon she was meeting us and was paranoid he’d find out.

‘You’re sure that wasn’t him?’ she asked, turning around in her seat to follow the portly man who had just walked past. We were in the sterile end of the shopping centre, where all the shops looked the same, and the customers were mainly young mothers with three children, or pensioners who came here every week for tea and a bun.

‘Mum come on. Dad never comes to this part of town. When have you known him to change a habit? Anyway, why didn’t you just tell him you were seeing us?’

Her mother looked at me, and we both understood it was my fault.

‘Gordon doesn’t like new things very much,’ she said, nibbling at the carrot cake in front of her.

‘Sam’s hardly new now mum,’ Jane said, taking my hand. ‘He’ll have to accept it one day.’

‘Your father can be a little stubborn, dear.’

I said nothing, afraid that if I made one comment about Gordon, the floodgates would crash open.

Her mother sighed. ‘He wasn’t always like that you know. Before you were born we used to dance in the garden every evening in the summer. He had an old gramophone that he’d plug in and I’d put my heels on and we’d dance to Glenn Miller for hours.’

‘Sounds romantic,’ I said.

‘It was. Except for the fact that my heels kept sinking in the grass and we’d have to start over.’ She laughed at the memory.

‘Didn’t you ever try barefoot?’ Jane asked.

‘Just once but I trod on a slug and thought I’m not doing that again!’

‘Why did you stop?’ Jane asked.

‘Once my heel sunk in and Gordon didn’t notice. He spun me around—he was ever so good at that—and we both heard this snap. It sounded like I’d trodden on a twig. Then I had a shooting pain up my leg, and thought that wasn’t a twig! I had broken my ankle. Gordon blamed himself and felt terrible. Even when the plaster was off he refused to dance again. I suggested it a few times but he wouldn’t even hear of it.’ She shrugged. I went to take the bill but she took it from my hand. ‘This one is on me, Sam.’

She went into the bar and I saw her talking to the barman, laughing at something he said.

‘I didn’t know Gordon danced,’ I said.

‘Neither did I,’ Jane said, watching her mother.

Over the years I’d tried to memorize the order of the vases—Jane’s playgroup, green and yellow, red roses, Bognor Regis beach… Any new vase was merely added on at the end, and each visit was like playing that kid’s memory game: I went to the market and bought one apple, one banana and 75 vases.

If the new vase were too big for its shelf, Gordon would unload all of the vases from the given shelf, and put them on the floor in a group but still in order. He moved the shelf down and then reloaded all the vases, with the new recruit at the end.

Once, I’d asked why he didn’t just put the new vase on a shelf where it fit.

‘Because new vases go at the end.’ Fuck you.

Lunch today was roast lamb with homemade mint sauce, potatoes and two other vegetables, lightly steamed, and a white wine from Marks and Spencer. To follow there was a selection of cheeses and the birthday cake. The lunch was always the best part of the visit. Jane’s mother put into cooking all the colours and perfumes she couldn’t put in her vases. The complete opposite of my family where eating fish fingers was a special occasion.

Over lunch, Jane broke the news that we were buying a flat together. We’d already been living together for three years and the landlord had wanted to increase the rent, so we looked around and found a place not far from Wimbledon Tube station and the park.

‘You remember the park, don’t you mum?’

Her mother thought for a moment. ‘There’s a nice little pub nearby, isn’t there?’

‘That’s the one. Samantha goes running there and saw the For Sale sign.’

‘That’s wonderful, isn’t it Gordon?’

‘Wonderful.’ He put more potatoes on his plate, the sun shining off his bald spot, burning red like a traffic light.

‘When do you move then?’ her mother asked.

‘Next week. We’ve both taken a couple of days off and rented a van, so it shouldn’t be too bad,’ I said, wondering if Gordon’s head would be sore the next day.

‘Make sure you wrap your china up carefully. I’m ever so good at that. I remember when we got married and my mother gave me her second set of china, but she didn’t have the box and I spent a whole Sunday afternoon wrapping up cups and plates. And we didn’t break anything when we moved, did we Gordon? Which was a pity really as the second set of china was rather nasty!’ She giggled the way she always did when she said something daring.

She stood up and started to clear the dishes away, knives and forks clattering. Jane gave her a hand and I was left with Gordon.

I never knew what to say in these silences. Anything I said just made things worse. I topped my wine up as Jane was going to drive home, and sat there and drank. Odd strands of conversation drifted out of the kitchen, but we stayed buried in silence. I finished the wine, accidentally letting the bottle thud on the table. Gordon glanced at me, and blinked, as if that would clear me from the garden. Finally Jane hustled her mother out of the kitchen and made her sit down.

‘Sam, give me a hand will you?’ she asked.

I stood up, feeling the wine rush to my head. I steadied myself against the kitchen sink, and watched as Jane got the cake out of the fridge.

‘Where’re the matches?’ she asked, opening and closing various drawers.

I handed them to her, not trusting myself to light the candles without setting fire to something.

‘How much have you drunk?’ Jane asked, laughing and slapping my arm. She pushed me into the garden, whispering, ‘Start singing!’

Jane followed me, carrying the cake with five candles on it, one hand cupped around the flames to stop them blowing out.

‘Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!’ we sang.

Gordon sang too, his voice a melodic bass that never failed to surprise me when I heard it.

‘It’s time for your present Mum,’ Jane said once her mother had blown out the candles. She handed her a long narrow package. Her mother carefully unwrapped it and took out the vase.

‘Oh, you’ve outdone yourself this year, Jane. Hasn’t she Gordon? Look at that!’

‘I’ll have to move the shelf.’ he replied.

It was a long narrow vase, designed to hold three long stemmed roses.

‘Are you sure, Gordon? It might fit,’ she said, looking at it.

‘It’s not that tall,’ I said.

‘It won’t fit.’ Fuck you.

Jane’d bought it a couple of months earlier from an antiques shop on the King’s Road.

‘Tad phallic, isn’t it?’ I said, holding the vase in my hand.

‘Oh god, don’t even think it!’ She looked at the vase in horror, snatching it back from me. ‘Can you imagine my dad’s face if you said that at the table!’

‘Phallic vases go on the second shelf,’ I said, imitating Gordon. I smiled at her. ‘It might finally break the ice. You never know.’ I topped up her wine and she took a sip. She put the vase on the table in front of us.

‘God, I’ve bought my mother a phallic vase. I can’t give it to her now. If I look at you, I’ll start laughing and then I’ll have to explain why.’

‘At least it’ll brighten up the afternoon.’

‘I’ll have to think about it.’

‘And Gordon will be peeved because he’ll have to move the shelf. Perfect present choice, Jane. Well done.’

The vase sat tall and erect in the centre of the table. I tried to catch Jane’s eye but she refused to look at me.

‘I’d better move the shelf,’ said Gordon, standing up.

‘Well, there’s no need to worry about it this second,’ said Jane’s mother, gently pulling him back into his seat. ‘Let’s enjoy the rest of the sunshine.’ Her mother turned the vase so she could see the design on the other side. She smiled at Jane.

‘Anyone for tea?’ she asked.

‘That’d be lovely mum. Why don’t I take the vase inside?’ Jane said.

‘No. Leave it there. I want to enjoy looking at it while I drink my tea.’

After dinner we had the vase ceremony. This involved Jane’s mum putting the vase on the shelf and everyone saying, ‘It’s lovely!’ Obviously this was when the vase fit. When it didn’t, we had to watch Gordon try and fit it on the shelf, holding it at different angles as if he could catch the shelf off guard, and squeeze the rebel in. Failing, he then said: ‘It’ll have to come down.’

The first time this happened, I thought it meant we could go back in the garden for another piece of cake, but no. We all had to stand and watch as Gordon took off all the vases from a shelf, one by one. I offered to help once and received a jagged look from Jane and silence from her parents. Shelf adjustment was Gordon’s job.

We finished lunch and Gordon cleared his throat and picked up the vase.

‘Let’s see about this then.’ He stood up, holding the vase in his hand like a truncheon. He went through the patio doors into the lounge. We all stood up and followed him.

There were four shelves in the lounge—two on one wall and two on the other. The vases stood silently, waiting to see what Gordon would do with them. He went to the lower shelf and tried to put the vase on. It was about one centimetre too tall.

‘Sorry, dad,’ Jane said.

‘Surely we can put it on a higher shelf just this once, can’t we Gordon?’ her mother said. ‘What will happen if we don’t put it with the others?’

Gordon looked at her and for a second I thought he might say yes, but he just blinked a few times and said: ‘No. Its place is here. I’ll go and get my tools.’ He put the vase on the floor and went to the cupboard under the stairs where he kept his toolbox.

How many times had the two of them watched this ritual? Her mum didn’t just get vases for her birthday, but also for Mother’s Day, Easter, and Christmas and often if they invited people over for dinner, they brought a vase, as there was no point bringing flowers.

‘Jane, come on. Can’t you talk him out of it? Just once?’ I whispered.

She was just about to reply when Gordon came back in with his toolbox.

Gordon slowly took down every vase. The shelf wasn’t attached to the brackets, so he just had to pick up the piece of wood and lean it against the wall. He took a pencil and marked where he wanted to move the shelf. He drilled a new hole, making the vases on the shelf above jiggle in excitement. When he’d finished, he put the shelf back in its place and checked it was straight with a spirit level. Satisfied, he started replacing the vases, starting with the troublesome phallic one, and working backwards.

The problem was that the vase after Jane’s latest was a heavy Inca vase made in Mexico. It fitted onto the shelf perfectly, so Gordon didn’t give a second thought. But all by itself on the shelf, it was too heavy. The second he took his hands away, the shelf shot up like a pinball flipper, hitting the shelf above it with such force that it too jumped, causing the vases to slide. Once one slid, it knocked into the next and suddenly the vases started raining down from the first shelf like lemmings, directly onto the other vases that were waiting below.

There was an immense silence once the noise had stopped. Gordon’s hands were still frozen where the Mexican vase used to be.

‘Are you all right, Gordon?’ his wife asked finally.

His hands were trembling.

‘I’m s-sorry Jean,’ he finally stuttered.

‘They’re just vases, Dad,’ Jane said.

He turned around slowly. ‘They’re not just vases, Jane. They’re your mum’s vases’. His left eye was twitching madly.

We all stood in silence looking at the remains of the vases.

Jane’s mother sighed deeply. ‘You know, I think I’ve had enough of this.’ She crossed the room and turned on the radio, turning the dial until she found some big band music. She turned up the volume and danced a few steps until she arrived at the surviving vases. ‘Gordon, sweetheart.’

He looked at her, tears starting to run from his left eye.

‘They are just vases.’ She took one and dropped it onto the floor where it split into three large pieces. ‘So is this one. Look.’ She lifted his face to make him watch as she took another, this time throwing it onto the floor where it smashed. She took another, offering it to Gordon like a piece of cake. He was frozen and stood there, left eye still twitching, saying nothing.

‘Jane, can I tempt you?’ her mother said, holding out a vase.

‘With pleasure.’ She smiled and smashed the vase.

‘Samantha?’

‘Thank you. That’d be lovely.’ I launched the vase against the wall, where it exploded.

‘Gordon? Are you sure?’ his wife repeated, this time standing close to him, closing his fingers around the vase. ‘I love you,’ she whispered,’ and it is just a vase.’ She kissed him on the cheek, and gently wiped away a stray tear. ‘Try it. It’s rather liberating.’

He looked at the vase in his hand as if seeing it for the first time.

‘But Jean—‘ he began.

‘But Jean, nothing,’ Jane’s mother said. ‘Throw it. For me. Please?’

He looked again at the vase in his hand, this time weighing it up like it was a problem to solve.

‘It’s what you want?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’

He nodded to himself, a silent decision taken. He turned away from the wall and took a few steps, rubbing the vase against his trouser leg like a cricket ball. He turned to face the wall, and bowled the vase over arm against the wall. ‘And he’s out!’ he shouted, holding his arms above his head. Jane’s mother kissed him on the cheek, and handed him another.

Jane took my hand and smiled.

We smashed all the vases that afternoon, except one—the one Jane had made at playgroup. It was the only one that had ever mattered.

In the car on the way home, Jane was quiet as she drove. I put my hand on her knee and she looked across at me.

‘Never again can you say my family is strange,’ I said.

She laughed and continued driving.

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“I was born in England, but spent seven years in Italy (Florence is my second home and I swear I must have been Italian in a previous life) and now live in Paris. To pay for food, etc. I sell books. To maintain some semblance of sanity, I write and play hide and seek with my cat, Angelo.” E-mail: kenway.tara[at]lycos.com.