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Thursday, 20 May 2010

'Condemned' - short story


When it first sprung from the earth like some monstrous concrete giant back in 1963, Regan House was perceived to be a veritable temple of social housing with every contemporary convenience available to those lucky enough to be selected as tenants. By the time five long years later that the council had put the finishing touches on the neighbouring Goneril House, the initial shine had long worn off and the local community had taken to referring to the buildings as ‘The Ugly Sisters’. Almost fifty years down the line The Ugly Sisters were still towering over the town with decrepit menace and the estate that once been envied for its modernity was now considered by many to be a no-go area. The narrow litter-strewn alley between the two blocks was notorious for being the preferred hangout of drug dealers, alcoholics and criminals. Many of these individuals had had unblemished records before they moved into the estate; it was as if the wind that constantly rushed between the buildings mixed the grime of the earth into any soul unfortunate enough to have wandered there.

It was Housing Officer Juliet Kennedy’s first day on the job and as she parked her car against a wall adorned with some creatively scatological graffiti she was already questioning whether she was cut out for this. She’d been delighted when she was told that her application for the post had been successful – having spent three years studying hard at university it had felt like a huge anti-climax when as result of the crippled job market her first post-grad position turned out to be behind the counter at McDonalds. On the day that she shrugged off the polyester uniform and washed the stench of chip fat from her hair for the final time she felt like she was on top of the world; goodbye fast food nightmares, hello world of proper grown-up employment. When she’d been assigned her first task this morning however she had instantly got the feeling that she was being given this responsibility not because her new employers had great faith in her abilities but because no one else wanted to do it. As she walked between the buildings she kept her head down, trying to avoid making eye contact with any of the unsavoury-looking characters loitering there who were staring intently at her, making no efforts whatsoever to mask their collective suspicion for any outsider who dared to venture onto their patch, let alone one carrying a clipboard.

Upon entering the building Juliet could hear the sound of children’s laughter coming from the stairwell which made her feel a little less nervous – surely if the place really was as bad as its reputation no one would let their children out to play? At the first three flats Juliet’s knocks were not answered. She’d been advised by her line manager to not even bothering to try and ring the doorbells as 99% of them would have stopped working years ago. She’d also been told not to be surprised if residents who were clearly at home completely ignored her; the only suited visitors around these parts usually tended to be debt collectors or loan sharks. At the fourth flat Juliet rapped on the door with increasing impatience and was about to move on to the next one when she heard the sound of movement coming from inside. The door slowly creaked open and a frail elderly woman with a heavily lined face and thin grey hair shuffled out.

“Hello love, how can I help you?” she said in a raspy low voice that suggested a heavy long term smoking habit.

“Hello Mrs, um;” Juliet quickly glanced at her clipboard; “Mrs Tybalt. I’m here on behalf of Purfoot Housing Association. You may have noticed over the past few weeks that there have been some men here at Regan House and also over the way at Goneril House who have been performing some checks on the buildings. Unfortunately the results of these checks have come back and we have been informed that the towers do not comply with European health and safety regulations and can no longer be deemed fit for human habitation. As a result we will begin re-housing all residents with immediate effect.”

Much to Juliet’s surprise, the old woman burst out laughing.

“Oh my dear, I could have told you that forty five years ago. After the fire back in ’69 we all knew that this place was a death trap, but having spent so much building the Ugly Sisters they turned a blind eye to it, gave us all a nice new television and told us to keep quiet. I won’t be sad to go, no not at all. But mark my words there are some folks here who really won’t like it. Those girls – well this is the only home that they’ve ever known. They won’t go without a fight.”

“I’m afraid we really do have no other option, Mrs Tybalt;” Juliet replied. “These buildings are scheduled to be demolished by the end of the year. Everyone will be re-housed in the very best property that we have available; I’m sure once they see what we have to offer the residents will all be very happy with the arrangement.”

Mrs Tybalt said nothing but shook her head in disagreement.

“Well, thank you for talking to me today Mrs Tybalt;” Juliet continued. “You should expect to receive a letter through the post within the next two weeks which will provide details of when and where you will be moving to. If in the meantime you have any questions then please feel free to call me on this number.” Juliet rummaged in her pocket and pulled out a business card. “Goodbye”.

“Goodbye dear;” Mrs Tybalt replied. As she stepped back over the threshold of her flat and went to close the door she paused for a second and shouted at Juliet, who was by now on her way to the next flat, “Be careful how you go.”

As Juliet climbed the staircase to the next floor she again heard children’s voices. She couldn’t quite figure out where the noise was coming from but the shouting and screaming made it sound as if they were playing a riotous game. She smiled as she remembered the games that she had enjoyed as a child with her older sister. It was a pity that they had grown apart – when they were young they had been as thick as thieves.

After several hours Juliet had ascended 22 floors and knocked on the doors of all 138 flats in Regan House. Feeling somewhat tired from climbing so many flights of stairs and contending with many confrontational residents, she decided that she would get the lift back down, jump in her car and drive to a nearby cafe to grab a strong coffee and a bite to eat before returning to repeat the same exercise in Goneril House. She pressed the lift button and waited patiently at the top of the stairwell whilst the lift mechanics creakily came to life. As the lift moved up the shaft towards her she could again hear children; two young girls by the sound of things, getting nearer and nearer. When the lift ground to a halt she realised that the girls were inside the lift; so in anticipation of them running out she stepped back.

The doors opened and Juliet was confronted with the shadowy figures of a single girl aged roughly ten years old stood at the back of the badly lit lift. The girl appeared to be wearing what looked like an old fashioned school pinafore and had her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. As the girl stepped forward Juliet suddenly realised that something was very wrong. As the sunlight coming through the window hit the shadow girl’s face Juliet could see that her skin was completely charred and her eyes red with blood. Screaming, Juliet turned to run down the stairs but was confronted by a second, identical girl blocking her path.

“We heard that you are trying to take away our home;” the girl on the stairs said. “We don’t want that, do we Emily?”

The girl from the lift stepped down to stand beside her.

“No we don’t, Mary. My sister and I have been living here for forty years now and we don’t want to leave. They tried to take us away from our home before, back after the fire, but we wouldn’t let them. Do you know what we did?”

Terrified, Juliet shook her head.

“Come on Mary, tell the lady what we did;” Emily continued.

“We pushed her down the stairs;” Mary laughed. “She bounced down there like a ball until she reached the bottom. By then she had stopped bouncing.”

Juliet gasped, remembering the story she had been told about how a council worker had once had a tragic accident in this very building. The woman had apparently slipped on a wet floor, fell down the stairs and broke her neck.

“You’re not real. You can’t be. You must be in my imagination.”

“Oh, we’re real enough;” Emily replied. “Outsiders think that when people talk about the Ugly Sisters they are talking about these two buildings, but the truth is that that name came about because of us. We loved our new home in Regan House so much that when the fire broke out we did not want to leave. Our mother had hated the place so when the flames got her she willingly gave up her soul and moved on to another realm. We didn’t want to go though, which is why we’re still here today. And we still don’t want to leave.”

Juliet could feel her heart beating at breakneck speed and could not calm her shaking.

“Ok then, I’m sorry, I will go now.”

The girls crossed their arms defiantly.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. We know why you’re here. We know you want to knock down our home; we’ve been listening to you all morning. And we don’t like it one bit.”

Plucking up all her strength, Juliet ran towards the girls as quickly as she could manage, swinging her handbag at one and thrusting her clipboard into the face of the other. The girls laughed as Juliet’s flailing limbs went right through their ghostly bodies as she tumbled down the staircase.

From where she lay at the bottom of the stairs, Juliet looked up to see the real Ugly Sisters gliding down towards her.

“We might not be in your imagination, but we’re also not mortal, you dummy. We’re sorry we have to do this, but the council seem to have forgotten what we told them last time they tried to evict us. They need to get the message that we don’t care what those men with hard hats and nasty ideas say. Regan House is going to stand here for another forty years.”

The girls drew nearer until they were stood directly over Juliet’s crumpled body.

“Today, we’re afraid, it’s you that’s condemned.”

Sunday, 16 May 2010

A Very Savage Affair

Today is an exciting day as it marks the publication of the first Leeds Savages e-book, 'A Very Savage Affair'. The Leeds Savages are a modern day reincarnation of a group of writers, artists, musicians and 'kindred Bohemian spirits' first formed in 1898 and since their re-launch in early 2010 have been coming together to produce and share all kinds of creative works.

The e-book contains....

55 Pages
59 Fabulous pictures
17 Great stories
6 Stupendous Poems
1 Fiendishly hard crossword

and is completely free of charge! I urge anyone and everyone to download it and check out the diverse and original works by some very talented people (plus a couple that I threw together).
Download the e-book NOW at - you won't regret it!

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Home #fridayflash

An attempt at something a bit different from me - a story of love and loss...


Although the sign outside the entrance read ‘Sunningvale Retirement Home’, there was, in my opinion, nothing homely about the place. Home, to me, is a place where you feel comfortable and welcome; where you lay down roots, where history is written. Sunningvale on the other hand seemed not so much a home as a waiting room for those awaiting a vacancy in that eternal abode in the sky. The residents seemed happy enough, content with the sub-school dinner meals and seemingly oblivious to the pervasive smell – an unpalatable combination of over-cooked vegetables, industrial cleaning products and decay. Fellow visitors on the other hand seemed to share my agitation. Although I feel bad for admitting as much, every second I was there was usually spent thinking about how much I wanted to leave.

Some days she would just lie in bed, not even acknowledging I was there. On this day however she was sat upright, chatting animatedly with one of the carers. Although the carer turned and greeted me, she did not stop talking – probably recounting some random story to the poor girl for the thousandth time. If I had a pound for each time I had heard the one about the time she met the Duke of Edinburgh then I’d be able to take early retirement. Not that I’d want to if, as the tagline says, Sunningvale is the best that retirement living has to offer.

I took a seat and started to mentally prepare a shopping list for my weekly shop. Beef, pasta...

"I remember it as if it were yesterday, although these wrinkled hands tell me that it must have been long ago as I was just a girl then.”

....eggs, milk, bread. My train of thought broke as I realised that this wasn’t one of the usual yarns.

“The boy in the graveyard - oh, he was the most perfect thing I had ever seen in my seventeen years! I had noticed boys before, of course, but I'd never experienced such a sensation. When he nodded to me it was as if I was frozen to the spot; I wanted so much to speak to him but I had been struck dumb. I wanted to give myself to him; I had never felt more certain of anything, but before we had the chance to meet again the war came and that boy and the rest of his generation went away. All the time he was gone I thought about him and wondered if he had a girl back home. I wrote dozen of letters that were never mailed; I didn't even know his name, just that he had the most wonderful blue eyes and dark hair, and had been placing lilies on the grave of Mrs Lucille Portman, devoted wife and mother, 1887-1938.

The war ended and the village threw a huge celebration for the lads returning, all bunting, singing and tears. There were tears of joy for the men who had returned, though I dare say that on the inside many of them were very different to the boys they had been when they left. Tears of sorrow too, for those who had not come back and never would. I however didn’t cry at all - how could I possibly explain mourning someone to whom I had never spoken?

Months passed and life continued as usual. Although I was not a regular churchgoer, at Christmas my mother begged me to accompany her to mass. Afterwards, whilst mother was milling around with friends in the congregation, I slipped outside for some air. It was then that I noticed a new marble headstone next to Mrs Lucille Portman, devoted wife and mother, 1887-1938. I moved closer until I could trace with my fingertips the engraved text that read ‘Samuel Portman, beloved son of Edward and Lucille Portman, 1922-1944’. In that instant the dreams that had occupied my every thought for the past five years died. I was a woman now, and had to put my girlish fantasies behind me and get on with my life in much the same way as the thousands of grieving war widows. In a way it was even worse for me though - at least they had known the love of their men; I was left with nothing except the memory of him here, in my heart.”

She leaned closer towards the carer, as if to impart a secret.

“But do you know what? I carry him with me to this day.”

Choked, I rose from the chair. She looked at me with confusion.

“Who are you?”

She hadn’t recognised me for months but the clarity with which she had recounted the story she had kept locked inside for over sixty years had made me hope that today would somehow be different. As tears flooded from me the carer gently took my shaking hand and steered me back to the seat. The old memories, so I’m told, last the longest; it was time to accept that the fifty years that we had shared was probably irretrievably erased from her mind.

“Now, Emily, this is Lucy. Your daughter.”

Her face showed nothing, not a flicker of recognition. I continued regardless.

“Mum, its me. Lucy. I was just thinking, would you like to come home with me tonight? The bed is made up ready.”

She shook her head.

“But it must be lonely, here by yourself;" I persisted. "If you come with me I’ll be there to keep you company, and your grandchildren might even pop by?”

“I’m not by myself, love.” She paused and touched her chest. “Did you not hear me? I’ve got Samuel here. “

At the time I had no inkling that that would be the final time that I would see my mother alive, yet in retrospect its seems as if, having spent her entire life teaching and guiding me, the story she shared that day was actually meant as a final lesson. Before then I’d always dismissed the expression ‘Home is where the heart is’ as nothing more than a mawkish sentiment reserved for tea towels or cushion covers. But home, I now understand, is not four walls, a garden, a picket fence, but the destination towards which my mother’s whole life was headed, when her heart would finally be fulfilled. Under the sycamore tree barely one hundred yards from where Samuel Portman has waited for her for all these years, my mother now sleeps in peace, and I myself find peace knowing that she is home at last.