Short Stories

Wooden Heart

I spent years writing stories on trains and it certainly seeped into my work.

Here’s another from last year…….

Heat made the rails wobble as they stretched into the distance. He tottered along the platform, switching his briefcase from palm to sweaty palm. He’d had too much coffee, too little water and he’d hardly been off the phone since Euston. The papers were saying the Midlands was hotter than Marseilles. His phone vibrated in his jacket pocket and he tried to ignore it, but he knew Fisher had a thing about unanswered calls. He glanced at it and his shoulders sagged, relieved it was a text.
They’ve cried off. You’re off the hook.
He texted back. It’s cancelled?
No walk down memory lane for you then, matey. Don’t go astray.
Paul slumped onto a bench. An email followed, but he didn’t read it. It would be his latest tasks. He never got a moment’s peace. He massaged his temples, his fingertips working in spirals, thinking. He cringed as his sweaty socks slid against his leather inner soles. He got to his feet, bought a bottle of water with the last of his change and rolled it along his forehead.
‘Baking out, isn’t it?’
The taxi driver wore knee-length shorts and a faded polo shirt that clung to the spare tyre at his waist. He smiled and snatched at the briefcase and Paul didn’t protest. He got inside, slumped into the warm seat and closed his eyes, trying to imagine he was somewhere else. Smooth pebbles and icy water, as clear as glass, came to him. He knew the place so well. He said the name of it, surprising himself.
‘It’ll cost you,’ the driver said. ‘In this bloody traffic.’ Paul unfolded two twenties and slapped them into the driver’s palm. They crawled out of town in heavy traffic and Paul felt he could breathe again as they passed whitewashed cottages, fields of glowing oilseed rape and a lone, towering oak in a field of barley. He loosened his tie and stuffed his folded jacket into his briefcase. His shirt was stuck to his spine and there were wet patches under his arms. They passed the old hall and the dovecot, the disused airstrip where Paul had learnt to drive. ‘Just here’ll do nicely,’ he said. The driver frowned, watching him in the rear-view mirror. ‘Long walk back to town, bud.’
Paul took the business card the driver gave him. He opened his shirt as the driver performed a tight turn between the hawthorn hedges. Paul followed the lane, crossing the bridle-path and avoiding dense clumps of thistles buzzing with flies. Heat shimmered from the fields, blurring the outline of hawthorn and oak up on the ridge. At the bottom of the lane he let gravity run him down a grassy bank and he dropped to his knees. He loosened his laces and kicked off his boots so they landed in the reeds. His tie remained stubbornly knotted, so he took his shirt off first, not caring that he looked ridiculous bare-chested and still wearing a paisley tie, like some drunk exec doing a piss-poor nightclub striptease. He trod his trousers into the sand and pebbles and ran into the river stomping his feet. He splashed and snorted and dropped like a felled tree into the shallows. Tiny fish darted from his thrashing arms. He shouted what Fisher could do with his job and then, when he was spent of energy, he sat in the river, catching his breath. He felt the whisper of breeze about his shoulders as he sank in the gravel.
Afterwards, when the sun had dried him and begun to burn his shoulders and neck, he leant on a gate and looked out over the river valley. High above on a knotty branch was a loop of frayed orange rope. Could it be the same rope they’d used as a swing as kids? He circled the tree liking the feel of the roots and the damp peaty earth between his toes. Paul never went barefoot. It felt sensual and strange. The bark was mouldy but striped with slashes and gouged where names and dates had been carved with blades. It was a wonder the poor tree had survived so many cuts.
Andy & Kay
Potters Rule!
Pete +Stacey 4EVER
He ran his finger along a scar. There were names he knew. He walked around the trunk reading them. He read a name and read it again, his pulse jolting him. A heart, shaped more like an apple, had a clumsy arrow puncturing it. Joanne S 4 Paul M. He blinked. He took a photo of the words, checked his watch and saw it was the third. Her birthday. Twenty-two years his name had been carved in this tree. His name and Joanne’s.

Paul’s heart pounded as he stepped it out up the lane. He was being a fool, but fate had brought him here, hadn’t it? No, he said to himself: don’t be so bloody stupid. If he hadn’t had the meeting cancelled; if he hadn’t decided on coming to the river; if he hadn’t walked into the wood and seen the words they’d made in the tree; and today of all days. He tapped his phone screen and did a search. Ah! He dragged through the photos of cakes Joanne had baked. She’d always been keen, years before all that stuff was splashed over TV. Let Them Eat Cake, she’d called her place. She’d always wanted a little caff of her own. She’d won awards so she hadn’t been hard to find. She’d kept her name too, so maybe she hadn’t married.

He strolled past the shop twice, making out he was studying his phone. Let Them Eat Cake was painted in soft shades of blue and yellow and wedding cake-white, just like icing. There was no sign of her. Faint heart never won fair lady. It sounded as stupid now as it had when his granddad had said it. But it was all the justification he needed. Paul was never one to wonder, what if? Paul’s heart was thudding in his chest as he took a window seat, ordering home-made lemonade. A teenage boy had fidgeted with things on the counter before tying on an apron and taking his order.
‘Is the owner here?’ Paul said.
The boy was about to say something when the copper bell tinkled above the door. Paul turned to see a woman struggling with a box, trying to prop the corner of it against the doorframe while she searched for her purse or car keys. Her long red-brown hair obscured her face and it took Paul a moment to realise it was Joanne. He sprang from his chair and said, ‘Let me.’
When he’d set the box down on the counter she looked him up and down, tucking a silver-grey strand of hair behind her ear. ‘To what do we owe this pleasure?’ she said. She didn’t want to sit and talk with the boy about. ‘Tim’s my sister’s kid. Do you remember Beck?’ Paul nodded. Beck was a year older than Joanne and never gave him the time of day. He fished a twenty from his pocket and handed it to Tim. ‘Can you give us five, pal?’ Tim stuffed the twenty in his jeans pocket and ran off.
‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ Joanne said.
‘I’m sorry.’
‘He gambles. He’s driven Beck to her wit’s end. He’s working here so he learns the value of money.’
Paul sipped his lemonade. ‘This is really good.’
‘What do you want, Paul? I’m sure you didn’t come back here to praise my lemonade.’
‘I was here on business.’
She nodded, the faint trace of a smile on her lips.
‘I found something,’ he said.
Joanne stared at him. He swiped his phone display, sliding it across the table. The screen showed the heart etched in the trunk, their names picked out with the Stanley blade he’d pinched from his granddad’s tool shed. She tilted the phone a little and squinted, wrinkling her nose and Paul remembered the girl with the same gestures. There were lines around her eyes now, her skin a little taut at the mouth. She frowned. ‘That was years back. We’d have been fifteen?’
‘I’d forgotten we wrote that,’ Paul said.
‘We were kids for God’s sake.’
‘True.’ Paul’s hand moved across the table and Joanne sat back. He stirred the sugar in the bowl, heaping it at the rim.
Joanne shook her head. ‘I’ve got things I need to do.’ She got up and ran a basin of hot water. He followed her. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. ‘Why are you here, Paul? Look at your shirt.’ It was rumpled and dusty and weed had fastened to the tails.
‘I swam in the river.’
She dropped plates and cutlery into the bowl and Paul waited until the clattering had finished.
‘I was working here today. I was meant to give a talk. It got cancelled and-’
‘You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?’
Paul nodded. Perhaps she’d checked him out. Despite what she said maybe she’d been looking for him online. ‘How do you know what I do?’
‘Your mum, of course.’
‘She comes in here?’
‘She never shuts up about you. The whole town gets regular updates whether they like it or not.’
A red van pulled up on the opposite side of the road. Its brakes squealed as it came to a halt on the cobbles at the kerb. It had a rusty front panel and a cracked number plate. The driver was in shadow but he made no move to get out of the van. JK Builders was picked out in fading paint on the side panel and a local phone number was sprayed above the wheel arch.
‘Why did you come here?’ Joanne said.
‘Are you married?’
‘What does it matter?’
Paul sighed. ‘You don’t think things sometimes happen for a reason?’
‘Last of the great romantics, aren’t you Paul?’
‘Look, I hate my job and I made a decision I wasn’t going to do it anymore. I had to give a talk here and-’
‘That’s why you’re in town?’
‘It was cancelled. I went for a wander and I decided. Look, that doesn’t matter now.’
Joanne leant on the counter. The veins stood out on the backs of her hands. ‘You wouldn’t be here if your boss hadn’t sent you.’
‘I’m burnt out. I need a change. I’m sick of being treated like dirt. You know what I did this afternoon?’
‘You said. You went swimming.’
‘I went for a walk and I ended up sitting in the river.’
She made a sour face. ‘There are people you can talk to. You can get help for things like that.’
‘I don’t mean like that. I mean I needed to rest. I needed to see things differently.’
‘So, you saw things like a fish.’
Paul ignored her. ‘And I got dried off and I was walking and I found a sign. I found what we’d written on that tree.’
Joanne glanced at the door. ‘It’s not a sign. It’s kids messing about a long-time past.’
‘I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, Jo. I was stupid.’
Joanne folded her arms on her chest. ‘You were a kid. We were both kids. You’re being daft. You don’t just pull some diary or photo out of a cupboard and wind back twenty-odd years.’
Paul reached to take her hand and she stepped back. ‘Why do you keep looking at the door?’ he said.
Joanne ran a hand through her hair. ‘I’m hot and I’m tired. Look, I want to close up.’
‘You normally close before midday?’
Paul tried to look at her but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. ‘Have you got someone?’
‘I don’t see what difference that makes.’
‘Are you married?’
The driver got out of the red van and perched on the bonnet, arms folded. He rolled a cigarette between thumb and forefinger, glancing across at the café.
‘Is it him?’
‘What about you?’ Joanne said, ignoring him. ‘You ever married?’
Paul shook his head. ‘I didn’t meet the right one.’
The driver got off the bonnet and strolled across to lean against a lamp post smoking. He put on a pair of black sunglasses and pushed them up the bridge of his nose. He folded his arms and propped a heel against his other foot. There was something about his stance that seemed familiar. ‘And you?’ Paul said.
‘Anyone I know?’
Joanne opened the till, began counting fives and tens. ‘It doesn’t matter. I don’t know why I’m even telling you this.’ She folded the notes in her purse and zipped it tight. Paul stared at her. ‘So, tell me-’
Joanne twisted the Celtic band she wore on her middle finger. ‘Jason Knight was a few years below us.’ Paul’s eyes widened.
‘But he stuck around, for a time,’ she said. ‘He didn’t finish school. He’d got into nicking cars. Yeah, I can tell by your face you remember him. You think I should’ve done better.’
Paul nodded. ‘Does he follow you and stuff?’
Joanne swallowed. ‘Why do you ask that?’
‘Cos he’s standing over the road.’
‘You what?’ Joanne picked at her thumbnail.
‘He’s got a beat-up red van, hasn’t he?’
She wore a long-sleeved cotton top but the arm had ridden up at the sleeve and she saw him looking at the bruises on her forearms.
‘Did he do that to you?’
She tugged down her sleeves. ‘Why are you here?’
Paul took off his jacket, slipping his wallet into his trousers, and set it down on the back of a chair. He unbuttoned each sleeve in turn, rolling them back till they folded past his elbows. He cracked his knuckles and made for the door. The bell rang as he crossed into the sunshine. Jason stepped out from the kerb, thumbs hooked in his jeans pockets.
‘Don’t be so bloody stupid, Paul. He’ll kill you,’ Joanne said.
‘I’ll have a word with him that’s all.’
Joanne stood in the doorway. ‘Leave it, Paul. I’m begging you. Please don’t go over there.’
Paul took her hand. ‘I’ll deal with it. He’s not going to bother you anymore.’
‘Don’t be an idiot. He’ll murder you.’
‘Like you said that was twenty odd years back.’
She forced a smile and gave his hand a little squeeze.
‘If I sort this, will you come out tonight?’
She said nothing so Paul strolled across the road. He kept his hands flat to show he meant no threat to Jason but his temples were throbbing.
‘Well look who’s back in town,’ Jason said.
Paul got closer, said he meant no harm. He kept his back turned to Joanne. It was no bother to lower his voice, reach inside his pocket. ‘What would it take for you to clear off?’
Jason snorted. ‘You want her?’
‘You get lost and she never sees you again.’ Paul held two hundred between his fingers, close to his chest, his back to the café. Jason didn’t like taking orders but he was looking at the cash, and licking his lips.
‘A hundred more.’
Paul took another five twenties, folded them.
‘I only wanted to scare her,’ Jason said. ‘I don’t give a monkey’s if you fancy her, pal.’
‘Fair enough.’
‘For another fifty I’ll let you make it look good.’
Paul stepped up, grabbed a handful of Jason’s T-shirt and got so close he felt the man’s sour, onion breath. He stuffed the twenties inside Jason’s jacket. He shoved him hard in the chest and jerked a thumb. ‘You steer clear of her and this place. You got that?’
Jason skulked off, spitting and scowling. He got in the van and tore off. Joanne stared at Paul, wide-eyed as he crossed the road to the café. ‘I should say thank you. But I don’t know what you want.’

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