Short Stories

Bottled Up – a short story


Henry ran his fingertip along the driftwood. It was smooth like bone and bleached white by the tide.
‘You’re not bringing that home,’ Mum said. ‘I can tell you that much for starters.’
She rattled a bucket full of razor shells to hurry him up. The bucket also held the quartz pebbles and the rusting coins they’d found in the silt beneath the harbour wall. Even at nine, Mum said, Henry was a compulsive hoarder, just like his Gran.
Once, Henry had found a buoy snagged in nets and seaweed. It was turquoise and pitted with scars and dimples where it had been dashed against the rocks. Somehow, he’d smuggled it between the travel rug and the windbreak in the boot. When they got home he hung it in the shed with some broken lobster pots and cork floats he’d found in a rock-pool. He stared at the buoy, running his hands over it like a fortune-teller. When he closed his eyes, he heard the cry of gulls and the scent of salt and ozone. But what Henry prized most on the shoreline, he’d never found.
He told Mr Jessop, who ran the campsite, what he was looking for and Mr Jessop winked and said it was all to do with tides. You had to pick the right spot. Mr Jessop was on his knees scraping cakes of wet grass from under his mower. He was using a bread knife and paused to wipe it clean on a rag. ‘Something’ll pitch up sooner or later,’ Mr Jessop said, ‘you mark my words.’ He took a pipe from his jacket and tapped it out on the dry-stone wall. He struck a match and Henry sniffed at the spark of sulphur. ‘Do they teach you about the saints at your school?’
Henry shook his head. Mr Jessop lit his pipe, drawing deep and puffing out plumes of grey smoke. ‘St Patrick set sail for Ireland letting the tides carry him,’ he said. ‘But no one really believed that.’
‘They didn’t?’ Henry said.
‘So, one day our history teacher set up a little experiment. Do you know what he did?’
Henry said he didn’t. Grown-ups liked it when you didn’t know the answers. ‘The teacher told us to put messages in bottles and throw them into the sea.’
Henry’s eyes lit up.
‘And what do you think happened then?’
Henry shrugged.
‘Days, maybe it was weeks, later he came into class holding a letter in his fist. Two old ladies had been walking the shore over in Northern Ireland when they’d noticed a bottle bobbing in the water. The bottle had been drawn by the same tides that carried St Patrick.’
‘Round here?’ Henry said.
‘You won’t go far wrong round here, boy.’
Henry wanted more time, but Mum complained it was getting chilly.
‘It’s all to do with the tides. Mr Jessop said so,’ Henry told her.
‘Did he now?’
Henry nodded.
‘We should be getting back. I’ve tea to get on,’ Mum said.
Henry stared at the sea. Men and their fishing rods were cast as silhouettes against a fading sun. The cliffs threw lengthening shadows across the rippled sand.
‘Come on, it’s getting cold,’ Mum said. ‘We’ll look again tomorrow.’
When Henry frowned, Mum said, ‘promise’ and squeezed his hand.
She jiggled the car keys and made a show of shivering into her cardigan. She hadn’t even tried, Henry thought.
‘But you said there was no rush. You said-’ Henry began.
Mum threw her hands up. ‘Fine, I’ll see you in the car. But, Henry-’
‘Two minutes.’
Henry climbed onto the rocks, stepping around clusters of sharp barnacles. The incoming tide crumpled his castle and moat. He ran along the shoreline, feeling the blood tingle in his toes. A car horn tooted. Henry’s mum raised her arm, pointing to her watch.
‘Alright, I’m coming,’ Henry shouted.
He vaulted a rock-pool and landed wobbling on a ledge. A swell surged against the rocks, fizzing and foaming. Henry gripped the rock and steadied himself with one foot wedged either side of a narrow channel of seawater.
His heart was pounding. The channel beneath him was deep and the water swelled, rising and falling like sheets on a washing line. Henry was steadying himself to jump when a glass bottle bobbed into the narrow space, clinking against the rocks. At first, he stared at the bottle as if it wasn’t there. He crouched and saw there was a note coiled inside, warped with damp. He hung from the ledge and prodded at the bottle with his toe until it became snagged in thick brown seaweed. He couldn’t reach it, so clambered back across the rocks and begged a shrimping net from a boy fishing for crabs in an Everton shirt. He clambered across the rocks and stretched out as far as he could. The bottle was still caught in the weeds. Henry’s arm shook with the strain, but eventually he caught the bottle. The bamboo shaft bowed under its weight, but Henry hooked it and snatched it.
‘You took your time,’ Mum said.
Henry took the bottle from behind his back, holding it in his palm. Mum’s eyes widened.
‘Now don’t get your hopes up,’ she said.
The bottle was shaped like a bell. The label had been scrubbed or picked off. He unscrewed the top. There was a faint whiff of something like medicine. Sand had been trapped in the thread and the grains slid down the inside of the bottle. Mum said, ‘hold on a tick,’ and rooted about in her handbag. She handed him tweezers and Henry swallowed as pinched the note and eased it free. He unrolled the damp paper and began to read. ‘Congratulations!’ He raised an eyebrow. Had he won some sort of prize? Henry cleared his throat and continued. ‘If you’re reading this it means you’ve found my message in a bottle. So, you’re probably standing in the sea and your feet will be getting wet-’
‘Proper joker, isn’t he?’ Mum said.
‘He’s called Thomas and he’s nine,’ Henry said, ‘same as me.’ Henry pointed at the note. ‘There’s a phone number.’
‘There’s no address?’
Henry shook his head. ‘I want to call him,’ he said.
Mum fiddled with the heater, so the hot air was angled at her face. ‘I don’t know about that,’ she said. ‘You get all sorts of people these days.’ By the time they reached the caravan Henry had persuaded Mum to let him call. There was an old red box at the crossroads. Henry had the ten pence pieces ready, warm in his palm.
When the phone rang, Margaret was mopping the kitchen floor, wiping slick S’s across the tiles. It was an early evening ritual. She sighed and dropped the mop with a splosh into the bucket, but she didn’t rush. There were too many timewasters phoning these days and she didn’t need new windows or solar panels.
‘Yes,’ Margaret said.
She ran the duster over the hall table as she waited. There was a ruffling of paper.
‘Can I speak to Thomas Pool, please?’
Margaret’s heart skipped. She thought she heard seagulls. ‘He’s not here,’ she said. Even now there were still calls from journalists. The line became muffled. Words were exchanged at the other end, but she couldn’t hear what was said. Another voice came on, a woman’s.
‘I’m sorry to bother you. I think we’ve got the wrong number,’ the woman said.
The phone clicked. Margaret balled her blouse in her fist. She almost let them hang up. ‘You haven’t got the wrong number,’ she said.
‘Oh, I see.’
Margaret picked at her thumbnail. ‘I get funny calls. You can’t be too careful.’
‘True,’ Mum said. Henry held up the bottle. He was doing a little jig on the spot, stamping his feet for attention. Mum rolled her eyes and shushed him. ‘My little boy has a thing about the sea. We’ve found all sorts on beaches and brought most of it home.’
Margaret remembered building sandcastles and making a mermaid, using coal-black pebbles for the eyes, shells for the dress and lush seaweed for her cascading hair. They took a photo with Dad’s disposable because Thomas got upset saying the tide would take her with it and they’d lose her forever.
‘Are you still there?’ Mum said.
Margaret swallowed. ‘Yes,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry, I’m rambling. My little boy Henry found a bottle washed up on the beach. He’s so happy because he’s been looking for ages.’
Margaret sat down on the stairs. She was light-headed, perhaps because Doctor Ross had changed her prescription.
‘He’s had a thing about it as long as I can remember,’ Mum said. She waited, thinking the line connection had been broken. She heard the faint sound of breathing and continued. ‘Well, Henry wanted me to call you and tell you. The bottle had a note with your phone number written on it.’
‘Where did you find it?’
Mum told her the name of the beach. ‘Is everything alright?’ she said.
Margaret had grown used to holding tears. For a time, people understood, but they soon grew tired with grief and expected you to make an effort. They told you ‘time’s a great healer’ and offered to make tea so they didn’t have to meet your eyes. ‘I’m fine,’ Margaret said.
‘Henry wondered if, well he wanted to write-’ Mum’s words trailed away.
‘He would have liked that,’ Margaret said.
Mum covered the mouthpiece. The past tense struck before she’d interpreted the words. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘You’ve nothing to be sorry for.’ There was a long pause, before Margaret said that Thomas had died. Mum stroked Henry’s head and listened. The pips went and Mum had to tell Margaret it wasn’t a problem as she fed more ten pence pieces into the slot.
‘It was a few years ago, now,’ Margaret said.
‘But we found the bottle today, drifting in the sea.’
Margaret crooked the phone in her elbow and stretched the cord so she could see the mantelpiece. Next to the carriage clock was a gold frame. Thomas was staring straight ahead, immaculate in his Guard’s uniform.
‘It must have been floating out there for two or three years,’ Mum said.
The pips came again. Mum fumbled around for change and fed more coins into the box.
‘Let me phone back,’ Margaret said.
Mum told her not to be silly.
‘It’s not a few years, it’s nearly twelve,’ Margaret said.
‘Twelve years?’
‘Thomas was killed in Afghanistan. He was a soldier.’
‘But the note says he was nine,’ Mum said.
‘He was when we dropped that bottle from the cliff. He nagged me for hours and pestered for his Dad’s scotch bottle.’ Margaret sniffed. ‘What does it say?’
‘I’ll send it to you. It’s yours really.’
‘Can you read it?’
Mum had an idea and handed Henry the note. He read it without making a mistake and Mum was proud of him. Margaret heard Thomas’s voice and Thomas’s mischief, especially the bit about getting your feet wet. Afterwards, Mum hugged Henry tight. ‘You did a good thing,’ she said. ‘You made Thomas’s mum laugh and remember.’
Henry pushed twelve years back into the bottle. Mum ruffled his hair, said there’d be ice-cream after tea.

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.’

Short Stories

Longlisted, Commonwealth Writers’ short story prize 2018


Not the best week really, but a brighter spot today with a longlisting in the Commonwealth Writers’ (CW) short story prize.

Having devoted so much time to drafts of longer, novel-length work in the last 3-4 years it was great to be in the 200 or so whittled down from 5,000.

I don’t write so many short stories these days – I used to – and I do miss the joy of completing a piece of work, sometimes in a few days.

2018 has been a tough year so far, so I hope this heralds a change. But writing is not an easy discipline and as they say in football, ‘we go again.’

Alas, I didn’t make the CW shortlist but best wishes to the writers who’ve made it to the final 24. You can read about them here:

To learn more about Commonwealth Writers visit


Crime · Short Stories

Wrench – a crime story

They left messages

Emma had begged and pleaded and left little sticky notes on the cooker hood and pinned to the cork board above the sink. She’d left catalogues open at the right page on the kitchen table and printouts folded and stuffed in Michelle’s handbag or the dash in the car. No means no, Michelle had said, determined to make a stand. You’re thirteen for God’s sake. Emma had roped her Auntie Julia in, but Julia would agree with anything once she’d cracked open the Merlot.
Michelle went through it all in her head again. All that stuff she’d read in the papers about stalkers and weirdos and stuff happened to other people, didn’t it? Emma showed her mum the local free-sheet. She pointed to an article from the police – WE’RE WATCHING YOU – saying they were online and working hard to combat cyber-crime and grooming. Michelle felt herself wavering, blowing the surface of her tea while she bought time to consider. Emma was a bright girl and you couldn’t watch them all the time, could you? You do your best for them and you send them out into the world, Gary said, as if he’d know. He’d hit the road before Emma had left nursery.
Emma was relentless in wearing her down. All the others have got one. I’m always the one who sticks out, aren’t I? Michelle folded her arms, said her decision was final. End of, she said. But a little voice, like an angel perched on her shoulder, kept telling her: this was you once, Michelle Harvey. You didn’t want to be the odd one out either. She tried not to think of the crepe pumps she’d been forced to wear for PE and the little cord bag she had to carry with her name stitched into the side in shiny gold thread when all the other girls had the latest sports bags. She’d sucked up all that embarrassment, all that shame and here she was passing it on.
‘You’ve got a phone,’ she tried. ‘I don’t see the problem.’
Emma curled her lip. ‘Oh, big deal.’
Michelle took Emma’s hands in hers, but they were stiff and cold. She was wearing perfume, one of her own she’d been bought for Christmas though, no longer a stolen snatch of Michelle’s Marc Jacobs. She didn’t know whether to feel glad or offended about that, but her girl was becoming a woman. ‘Love you, you know.’ Emma muttered that she knew and slumped on the settee, tucking her feet beneath the cushions and ending the conversation.
‘It’s just because I care about you, that’s all.’ She might have added that she knew what men were like, but that would only bring a scoff from Emma. ‘I’m just making sure you stay safe.’
‘Dad says it’s alright.’
‘And he’s concerned about your welfare now, is he?’ Michelle had been separated from Gary for three years. He’d spent two of them at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Gary spared them no time, sent them no money. His sometime role as a parent was agreeing with whatever his daughter wanted and forcing Michelle into the unwanted and thankless role of bad cop.
‘At least he gives me space.’
Yes, twenty-three miles of it, Michelle almost said. ‘You get a lot more freedom than I ever did, young lady.’ Young lady was a borrowed phrase, one of her mother’s. Michelle caught sight of herself in the wardrobe mirror, pale and blotchy and crowbarred into her size 14 jeans, with knitted brows and tired hair that was dull and greasy. Christ, she was becoming her mother. ‘I’m sorry, love,’ she said. Funny that it was the image of her mother – what she was becoming or might become – that broke her in the end. ‘But there’s got to be some ground rules.’ She hated herself, knowing she’d lost already.
Three days later a package arrived and Emma snatched at it, tearing the tablet from the bubble wrap. Michelle was fumbling through the packaging, looking for one of those tiny instruction books in seventeen languages when she noticed Emma was halfway to setting it up, her fingertips gliding across the screen. This was her first tablet, but she didn’t need lessons. Michelle pursed her lips, tried not to think what she might have got up to on Beth’s and Hannah’s already. Emma sprawled out on the settee and took a snap of herself and shared it, squealing when the reply came back from Bethany.
You joined the 21st century at last xx
Emma sprang from the cushions, threw her arms around her mother, hugging her so tight that Michelle’s mohair sweater tickled her cheek. ‘Thanks mum, you’re the best.’
‘Yeah, I have some uses.’
Michelle made them tea, hovering in the hallway while the kettle came to the boil and messages pinged back and forth from Emma’s tablet. Each time a message popped up a little bell rang. Did she have so many friends to talk to? Emma sensed her mother’s presence and tilted the screen away. ‘I’m OK mum. I’m not hacking into the Pentagon or anything like that.’ Michelle held her hands up in surrender. She scalded the pot and leant on the worktop while the tea steeped, thinking it wasn’t the right moment but she’d have to restrict Emma’s time, ask for the tablet to be left on the mantle where she could see it, or at least turned off late at night. It wasn’t as if she was a technophobe – Michelle had a mobile phone – but Emma said it was an embarrassment. It was one of those ‘ancient bricks’ Emma said with big, clunky numbers on it for ‘coffin dodgers with cataracts.’ Most of Michelle’s friends were always online, but she wasn’t interested. After a day staring at a computer screen at the call centre, the last thing she wanted to see was another keyboard.
‘You’ll be old one day,’ Michelle said, although she was only forty-one. Later, when the bells failed to ring, she saw the screen on the tablet would light up for a few seconds, so Emma must’ve silenced it. She texted Gary, something she hadn’t done for weeks. He told her to lighten up. All the kids are doing it and you would be too if you weren’t so old. He’d put a smiley face after that as if he hadn’t meant it. Gary’s latest model, Amber, was twenty-one.
Emma was running a hot bath so Michelle microwaved her tea – she hated waste – and went online. Michelle tried to concentrate, reading what other parents were saying and doing as she sipped her tea. She didn’t sleep that night and kept tossing and turning, wrapped up in the covers, when her phone vibrated on the bedside cabinet. She squinted at the green diodes on the alarm clock, bleary-eyed. It was a little past two. It was Gary and he’d been drinking – the only time he got to thinking – if you could call it that.
Any bother with fellas you know where to come
Michelle took a sip of water. Another message pinged from Gary. Something about ‘doing time’ if any fella laid a hand on his ‘little girl.’ She turned off her phone and padded across the landing to the toilet. Unusually for a teenager Emma slept with her bedroom door ajar. She hated the dark and settled for the soft amber shade of the landing light poking through the crack in the door. Michelle peeped around the door, watching Emma just the same as she had when she’d been in her cot. Still my baby, she thought. Emma was curled up foetal and the duvet had rucked up between her back and the wall. Michelle kicked off her slippers and crept across the soft shag pile carpet. She’d almost reached the chest of drawers when she froze as the tablet vibrated, its screen bathing the white ceiling in a rectangle of soft blue light. Michelle stood perfectly still, breathing through her nose, waiting for her pulse to settle and stop thumping in her neck. Emma shuffled under the covers and turned in towards the wall. Michelle was being stupid. It’d be some automated email, she told herself. She must’ve waited three or four minutes until she was sure Emma was sound and her breathing steady. She reached across the pile of clothes Emma had kicked off and took the tablet, holding it almost at arm’s length as if it was a bomb that might go off. She inched back across the landing and closed her bedroom door with a toe, listening to check Emma hadn’t moved. Michelle made a break in the curtains and sat down on the window ledge. It wasn’t quite a full moon, but you could see its milky reflection in the windows and windscreens along the avenue. She’d seen the message, a man’s name. It wasn’t a name she knew.
Are you awake? 
She took a deep breath, muttered ‘sorry’ and swiped the screen to read.

Did Emma know she’d read her messages? Three nights had passed and Emma had hidden the tablet while she slept. It wasn’t in the bedside cabinet, wasn’t stuffed in the growing pile of laundry. Gary told her not to worry. She’s home, isn’t she? There hadn’t been much to read, after all. Whoever ‘Jack’ was he seemed to want to talk about music mostly, sometimes films.

Friday evening, a little before teatime, Michelle was stacking towels in the airing cupboard when Emma sidled past on her way to the bathroom. ‘Oh yes?’ she said.
‘I’m getting ready,’ Emma said and slammed the bathroom door, sliding the bolt across.
‘What are you getting ready for?’
Emma sighed, stepping into the shower. ‘I’m going out with Fee and Beck.’
‘You can have your tea first. We need to talk.’
Michelle was picking up socks and crumpled T-shirts when she saw the tablet on Emma’s jeans at the end of her bed. Michelle sat on the end of the bed, listening for the gush of the shower head, the creak of the copper pipes. She swiped the screen and began to read.

Gary told her to lock the doors and windows, said he was working local and he’d be round in twenty. ‘Blame me if you like. She’s going nowhere.’
‘She’s already gone.’
‘She’s done what?’
Michelle rubbed her forehead. ‘She’s not a little girl anymore, Gary. I couldn’t keep her here.’ He cut the connection. Ten minutes later he was hammering on the porch door. She’d changed the locks the day he’d walked out. He was in filthy mechanic’s overalls, with paint spattered down the shins. At least he hadn’t brought Amber. ‘Where the hell is she?’
‘She’s out with her friends.’
‘And you know that, do you?’
Michelle filled the kettle. ‘They called for her. She’s gone into town. She’ll be OK.’
Gary cracked his knuckles. ‘How do you know they’re not covering for her? How do you know she’s not with him, Shell?’
She slid his mug across the table, handed him the sugar. He still took three sugars, was still built like a streak of piss. She opened the kitchen drawer and took the tablet out from beneath the tea towels. ‘She hasn’t arranged anything. I’ve been reading their little chats.’
‘Does she know you’re doing that?’
‘No. Well I don’t think so.’
‘She’s got a password?’
‘She has to share it with me. That’s the rule. But she’d hardly be happy about me reading this, would she?’ She tapped the screen, entered the password and handed it to him. He scrolled up and down, his jaw clenched and she saw that familiar tic in his cheek. Gary shrugged. ‘He’s some dirty old man.’
‘But what if he’s her age? What if he’s just a lad?’
Gary shook his head. ‘Doesn’t feel right.’ Gary was typing. He held the tablet, frowned and deleted what he’d written before starting again. ‘That’s better. Look’
What R U doing?
They sipped their coffees. Gary said to wait. Michelle was washing up when the tablet vibrated.
‘It’s him. What did I tell you?’ Gary said.
‘What if he’s a mate, Gaz?’
Gary wasn’t listening. He typed away, grinning when replies came back. ‘Nine tonight,’ he said.
‘We shouldn’t be doing this, Gaz. She told the truth. She isn’t meeting him.’
Gary’s jaw clenched. ‘You seen what he’s been writing?’ He jabbed a finger at the screen. ‘Asking her if she’s got a bloke?’
‘Remember some of the stuff you wrote to me?’
‘That was different.’
‘She’s my girl. If he’s done nothing wrong, well he’s nothing to worry about, has he?’ Gary got up. ‘Catch you later, petal.’
‘Gaz, are you going after him?’
Gary gave her a wink. ‘That’s for me to know, sweets. You sit tight.’
Michelle climbed the stairs and watched Gary from a gap in the bedroom curtains. He was slinging stuff about in the back of his van. He slammed the back doors, didn’t bother to padlock them. He pulled a woolly hat down to his ears as he broke into a stride. A wrench gleamed in his right fist. What had she done?

Gary chose a spot behind the bandstand, clearing a space in the litter and dead leaves beneath a sprawling rhododendron bush. The Dingle was where he’d first met Michelle. He’d been drinking cider, couldn’t remember what he was doing there, maybe fishing. It was something her mates had fixed up. She was shy and unsure of him, the first girl who’d made him wait for a proper kiss.
The bench by the river was what he’d agreed with Jack. Now Gary was cursing himself realising there must have been ten benches by the river, stretching from the war memorial all the way to the weir. It was cool for summer and that suited him. He didn’t want folk poking around, didn’t want any witnesses. A couple of students were kissing, drumming their heels against the bandstand. An old fella was walking his terrier sniff and piss against every dandelion. Gary got to his feet when he spotted a bloke in tracksuit bottoms and a faded baseball cap hanging about under the bridge. Gary felt for the wrench in the leaves, gripping the cold metal and sliding it up his sleeve.
Gary walked along the river path, hands stuffed in his pockets and his head bowed. If this was Jack, he was no spotty teenager. Baseball cap had turned his back against the breeze to light up a fag. Smoke blew over his shoulder. He was waiting, alright. Gary jogged across the grass. Baseball cap took a deep draw as he turned. Gary let the wrench slip from his sleeve.
‘You’d be Jack,’ he said.
‘Yeah, that’s-’ Baseball cap’s eyes widened as Gary swung the wrench, socking him in the jaw. Metal cracked bone and he fell sideways, splashing headlong into the river. His cap drifted downstream, tangling in the reeds. ‘You leave my girl alone or you’re dead.’
Baseball cap floated face down, a trail of blood bubbling from his head into the muddy river water. Gary heard the shouts, but he didn’t react to them. He’d only meant to give him a scare but now Gary was panicking cos the bloke wasn’t coming up. Gary waded into the river and was waist deep when he was struck across the temple. He blacked out as he went under.

She’d left her tea untouched, wracked with worry. She was gathering the plates when the doorbell rang as she knew it would. She saw two of them through the frosted glass. They asked her to confirm her name. The taller one had a shaving rash on his neck, a speck of toilet roll dabbed to staunch a cut. ‘We need you to come to the station.’ The taller one took her by the elbow. They wouldn’t talk in the car but the taller one was driving and kept glancing back at her in the rear-view mirror. They were buzzed through a metal gate into custody and sat her down on a bench.
‘He’s here, isn’t he?’ she said. Neither of them answered. ‘I can see his bloody boots outside that cell door.’ A puddle of water had spread around the sopping leather. The custody sergeant set down his pen and beckoned her over. ‘He’s your fella, is he?’
Michelle frowned. ‘Not anymore.’
‘You understand why you’ve been arrested?’
Michelle nodded, but she couldn’t recall the words. ‘What’s he done?’
The sergeant said nothing but one of the younger officers spoke. ‘He’s just put one of ours in a coma. That’s what he’s bloody done.’
The sergeant told him to shut it. She had to sit down. She put her head between her legs as blood rushed through her ears. She heard something about fetching a glass of water. They put her in a room with a policewoman. ‘You don’t choose your men well, do you?’
‘He’s not my man.’
The policewoman couldn’t have been long out of college, but she pursed her lips and told Michelle what had happened. Jack was a young detective constable. It was a cop who’d written those messages. If Emma had turned up as he thought she would, he’d have marched her straight round to her parents and offered them advice, warned them of the dangers of grooming. It had happened to his sister and what he was doing wasn’t official police business. But he hadn’t met Emma. Instead he’d run into Gary. His skull was fractured and there was bleeding on his brain. They got the wrench from the river. Michelle said she was sorry, said they could take the bloody tablet.

Short Stories

Fool’s Gold – a short story

Not the brilliant Stone Roses’ track, but a short story…

Tumbledown cottage

‘Any better suggestions?’
Carol said nothing. He gripped the wheel, digging his fingernails into the soft leather leaving a cluster of half-moon impressions. He jabbed the button on the dash killing that irritating newsreader voice that had got them lost in the first place.
‘What are you grinning about?’
‘Nothing at all, my love.’
‘Cos you’ve got nothing to smile about. In case you’ve forgotten you’ve got us lost and it’ll be dark soon.’
It had been like this all the way down the A55: niggles and moans followed by silence. Why did he have to get so close to that Mercedes? When would they stop for a flat white?
‘You should’ve got the postcode off matey.’
‘Yes, love. I know I should but it wasn’t a good signal, was it?’
They’d been through this twice already. Matey was Gruff, the Mr Fix-It at the local solicitors.
‘Your fancy woman would know the way.’
‘You’re jealous of the Sat Nav now?’
‘Don’t flatter yourself,’ Carol said and folded her arms to stare out of the window. The gold necklace he’d bought her glistened in the sunlight. There was a time when she’d been glad to get a bunch of daffodils in an elastic band, called him a romantic fool and ruffled his hair asking him which churchyard were they from? These days she thought expensive jewellery was the least she deserved. When he’d taken the gold necklace out at dinner she snatched at it and told him through narrowed eyes, ‘Don’t be getting any ideas, Pete Sutton.’
She frowned, swatting away a midge. Pete knew what she was thinking: Where do I plug in my hair-tongs round here? How the hell am I going to get a decent facial? Pete opened the window and sucked in the cool evening air. He closed his eyes and felt the breeze lift his fringe. He got a sweet trace of flowering gorse, the salt tang of the Irish Sea.
‘So, we sit here like lemons, do we?’
‘Christ, Carol. Give it a rest, will you?’
He didn’t have a postcode and the Sat Nav couldn’t cope with Welsh. The little windy lane they were looking for had so many vowels in it he’d likely copied it down wrong.
‘I said….’
Pete didn’t wait for her to say it. He rammed the gearstick in first and roared away scattering gravel in his wake and flattening the thin Mohican of turf that ran down the centre of the lane.
‘Does anyone live here?’ Carol said.
It was true they hadn’t seen a soul since they’d begun the steady climb from the coast road. The lane had got narrower and narrower and the dry-stone walls and scratchy brambles had come uncomfortably close to his front wings. He pulled up outside a cottage but the curtains were drawn.
‘We’ve been here before.’
‘No, we haven’t. I’d recognise it.’
‘I’m telling you. I’m not going to argue with you.’
Pete offered up a silent prayer; thinking if only that were true. He pulled in hard and snapped on the handbrake and got out. ‘Come on then, light of my life,’ he said.
‘What are you playing at now?’ Seeing he wasn’t coming back Carol grabbed her shoes from the foot-well and tottered after him. ‘We should get a hotel, get something to eat. Pete, for crying out loud…’
‘Don’t need to,’ he said. He was resting on a gatepost, grinning. Ten, maybe twelve years had fallen from his shoulders; the takeover and redundancies; his cancer scare and Julia and Stewart emigrating. Stand on your tip toes at the gate and, yes, it was just possible to see a tiny blue-green sliver of the sea beyond the abandoned quarry. Last time he’d come up this lane he would’ve been eleven and squeezed between their slobbering Labrador Ben and a stack of cricket gear, windbreaks and Dad’s fishing tackle. ‘It’s fantastic, isn’t it? A new start’s just what we need eh?’
‘You’ve got that faraway look,’ Carol said.
‘We had some good times here.’
Pete had never seen eye to eye with his Dad, but talk about buckets and spades and boat trips round the harbour and he got all misted up.
‘As long as your ghost isn’t still here,’ she said.
‘You what?’
Years ago, they’d been in a pub with friends and the drink had flowed and Pete had shocked Carol when he’d spoken of a ghost that had sat on the end of his bed as a kid. She’d always had Pete nailed as the practical sort who didn’t believe in the supernatural but he said it was an old sailor and he’d been so scared he hadn’t been able to move. His eyes were like black pits and he’d pointed at something through the window. The others had laughed and he’d got in a round of drinks to change the subject.
‘It’s got opportunity written all over it,’ Pete said.
Keep Out or Falling Masonry should’ve been written all over, Carol thought. New Place, it was called in Welsh. Well you could’ve fooled me, Carol thought. The drive up to it was full of potholes and broken half bricks jutted from the gravel. Pete didn’t have a key to the padlock so she had to carry her shoes and walk on the grass verge her feet sinking into the soft turf. New Place was enclosed by trees full of noisy crows. There were slates missing from the roof and fertiliser bags had been stuffed in their place to try and keep out the rain. The windows were streaked with grime.
‘What do you think?’ Pete was beaming. ‘We can get a conservatory put in and I want one of those wood burners. If I built a veranda thingy we could get a hot tub.’
Ever since he’d had the call from Parry’s solicitors he’d been glued to any property or renovation shows he could find. But you didn’t need to be an expert. Any fool could see his Auntie Gwen had left them a wreck. Carol’s thinking was to pull it down and stick on some holiday lets; those cute little timber chalets that were springing up all over the place. They could get six hundred a week each in the season, no trouble. Pete produced a long, thin key on a knotted piece of parcel string. He jiggled it about in the lock and it turned with a rusty scrape and they went in.

The White Lion was crowded but Pete found them a snug that wasn’t too near the toilets or coat stand and gave Carol a menu while he weaved his way to the bar for drinks. A few years ago, they’d have been serving up gassy lager, oven chips and scampi. Now it was all craft ales and Mexican and Thai food served up on slates with homemade relishes. Carol checked her watch. Pete wasn’t making much progress at the bar, so she draped her jacket over the chair and went to the toilets. It was chilly and she hoped she wouldn’t have to wait long. She sat in the second cubicle. The door opened, signalled by chatter and clinking glasses from the bar. Someone went into the next cubicle and sat down. After a few minutes a woman said her name. ‘We still on for tomorrow?’
Carol cleared her throat, agreed. ‘Come at three.’
The bolt slid across and the door swung open crashing against the tiles. Carol found she needed to pee after all. She was met by Pete in the corridor holding her vodka and tonic and a pint of something called Double Dragon. ‘Thought I was going to have to send out for a search party, petal.’
‘Just women’s trouble,’ Carol said, knowing Pete would never press.
When they’d got the wood-burner going she had to admit it wasn’t too bad. Dotty old Gwen had some decent furniture and the room had heated up so much she was glad for some fresh air on the patio. Gwen had painted a bit too – not Carol’s sort of thing – but she had to admit she had talent. She’d used something like a butter knife to spread splodges of oil paint. She’d caught the sea crashing over the rocks.
‘She was pretty good, wasn’t she?’ Pete said.
Carol yawned. ‘I’m bushed. Do you want me to take your book up?’
Pete followed her up the creaking stairs, no doubt angling for an ‘early night.’ How many times did she have to tell him she was worn out? She got under the covers, pulling them up to her ears as she had as a little girl – and listened to him breathing and sighing, hoping for something he wasn’t going to get. Finally, he cussed under his breath, clicked off the bedside lamp and before long he was snoring. Carol lay perfectly still, but wide awake beside him.
A little before three she heard the key in the lock and she went into the bathroom as they’d agreed. She put down the lid on the pan and sat on the toilet, listening. She heard a foot on the stairs and prayed Pete hadn’t woken. Usually, he could sleep through a tsunami. The bathroom floorboards were knotty and warped, the cracks between them wide enough to post a letter, so she took great care to inch around the skirting and open the door a fraction. There was a full moon and she’d left the blind up on the landing so it cast a faint, milky light on the stairs. She took a deep breath, grimacing as she opened the door a little more, cussing that she’d forgotten to grease the hinges with butter. They didn’t squeal and betray her and she offered up a silent ‘thank you’ to the heavens.
She saw him and swallowed. He gripped the banister rail and crept the last few steps to the landing. He was an old guy with lank, greasy hair and a dark complexion. He took a pipe from his pocket and bit on it. He wore an old cord cap and a creased woollen shirt beneath a greatcoat. He was perfect for the job. He watched each step and he pushed the door open with a gentle palm. Carol sat down on the toilet, counting to ten to slow her breathing, her racing pulse. The door was ajar and she caught the drift of tobacco, a low humming and a few words of a song before Pete screamed.
She made coffee. Pete sipped at it, holding the cup with both hands. Pete had bolted from the room. He wouldn’t go back upstairs and he wanted to drive, go anywhere. She said he was in no fit state to go anywhere, so they’d sat through the small hours in the rocking chairs talking, drinking coffee.
‘I know what I saw.’
‘I know love. It’s alright,’ Carol said.
‘You must think I’m tapped. It was him again. I know it was.’
Carol ruffled his hair thinking he was that boy again, desperate to get away. She sipped her coffee. It was important she didn’t rush him.
‘They were coming back from Australia when there was one almighty storm and they went down off the coal rocks. They were prospectors and carrying a fortune in gold, some of their pockets were full of it. They got a line ashore but some of them wouldn’t leave without their gold. They were still looking when they drowned. He’s still looking now, isn’t he.’ Pete shivered, blowing on his coffee.
‘Well he’s not going to have any luck round here,’ Carol said.
Pete stared at his feet.
‘What are we going to do then?’ she said. ‘I mean we can’t stay here if this is what happens.’
‘I’m sorry love. I’m not thinking straight, am I?’
Carol gave him a hug. ‘I don’t blame you. What happened was horrible.’
‘You believe me, don’t you?’
Carol smiled. ‘Of course, I do. You know what you saw.’ She went over to the window and gazed out over the gorse. ‘We’ll have to think about selling, though. It’d be impossible for you to live here.’
Pete said nothing.
‘We can’t stay love, can we? It’d be crazy,’ she said.
‘They haunt people cos they’re unsettled.’
Carol rolled her eyes. ‘You’ve been watching Channel 5 again.’
Pete shook his head. ‘If you can sort out what’s upsetting them they move on.’ He bit his lip. ‘The thing is I’ve done something I shouldn’t have….’
‘What did you do?’
Pete fingered the hem of his sweater. ‘He was searching for gold. If we gave him gold-’
‘No!’ Carol ran upstairs. ‘Where are they, Pete? What have you done with my earrings, my necklace? Shit, where the hell is my watch? Did you give it to that man?’
Pete climbed the stairs. He took her hands in his. ‘Not a man, a ghost. We’ve given him what he wanted so he’ll go away. I had to do it. We’ll stay here tonight and he won’t come again, you see.’
Carol stared into his eyes, searching for a glint, a gleam, anything. Pete stared back, giving her nothing.

Short Stories

My short story Lye Noon available to listen to here….

Lye, joint shortest station name in the UK and keen readers
Lye – setting for my short story – joint shortest station name in the UK and home to keen readers












I’ve never had my work performed by an actor so what a great experience to listen to Jack Trow reading my story Lye Noon.

You can listen to it online here

It was great fun, if a little sad at times, to write and I hope you enjoy it.

It’s a story about one of life’s outsiders, Billy Boon, who suffers despite his wish to help and be accepted.

Billy is a devoted admirer of the Wild West too and isn’t afraid to dress the part when he’s out and about in the Black Country.

The story wouldn’t have happened without the commissioning and support of WM Readers’ Network and, in particular Roz Goddard.

I had a fantastic time working with Lye Down with a Good Book reading group. They were friendly and encouraging and very knowledgeable.

Thanks to Rochi Rampal, Duncan Grimley and Jack Trow too, for a great reading.