Fancy

The story never tells, but I was there too: lady’s maid at the ball.

Watching the whirling glamorous dancers, awkward in my pretty dress, I yearned for our kitchen’s dark corners.

The shy, fine-liveried footman gave me a bright flower. In quiet shadows, we danced in each others’ arms, stealing kisses.

At midnight, she ran. We followed. Her crystal slipper fell into the snow, then my flower. She rushed on, but we stopped…

The carriage rattled away without us: two mice again, furred not clothed, scampering together from the frozen petals towards shelter, glad not to be fancy anymore.

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Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

 

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook. Check it out. Lots of lovely stories in just 100 words.

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Branch Lines

That winter was the coldest on record.

Every morning, we shuffled like cattle on the station platform, our breath vaporising. Each of us hunched in silence as our mobile screens studded the gloom until the train arrived. Sometimes an old lady was already on board, sitting with pursed lips, clasping her handbag. She glared out of the window, come rain or gloom, in cold disapproval. Looking at my own reflection, I practised my smile and lifted my eyebrows. At least she didn’t talk. I dozed until London.

One Monday in December, the wrong kind of snow meant we had to change trains. At some backcountry station, I climbed directly into a ancient carriage dragged from old rolling-stock. Two banks of high backed seats faced each other and on the other side, a corridor led to other carriages.

There was another girl inside. She was a little younger than me, wearing a tweed skirt, red coat and low heeled lace-ups. Curls and a brown trilby framed her face. She had a sort of uniqueness that I envied, sitting opposite in my anonymous corporate clothes. Fiddling with a bracelet, she turned to the door.

Outside, the whistle blew and the girl tensed. With a clatter, the outer door opened and a young soldier collapsed onto the seat.

He held her face and kissed her. Discretely, she nodded towards me.

‘Sorry miss’, he said, lighting a cigarette and removing his cap. The girl glanced at it, her face dimmed, her smile uncurved. Muttering excuses about leaving them in peace, I made my way to another carriage. A few stations later, we changed back to a modern train.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the train switched twice at the same out of the way stations. I rode alone, watching the dark approaching fingers of midwinter outside.

On Thursday, the girl got into my carriage again. Her smile was hesitant as she faced the door, touching her hair and pinching her cheeks. But the train pulled off and no-one else entered the carriage. She wilted then slumped. Her shoulders moved but her jaw tightened and her hands only unclenched her bag for the seconds it took to find a handkerchief and dab at tears. She was still trembling as we climbed down onto the platform but she held her breath, gritting her teeth to keep from making a noise. Before I could speak, she marched into the snowy gloom. I was standing unnerved, feeling I could be anywhere or nowhere, when the curtain of whirling white parted and the soldier grabbed my arm.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I thought you were… Look, if you see her, can you give her this?’ He thrust a letter into my hand and stepped away. When the station became visible again, there was just me and a few other commuters on the platform herding towards the onward train.

I pushed the envelope into my bag. I would give it to the girl tomorrow.

On Friday, everything was running normally: no more corridor trains, just modern ones with no-smoking signs, wifi and refreshments. I rushed from station to underground to office, somehow still late.

Christmas was nearly upon us, but although we exchanged cards with scenes of snow and ice, in reality, all we had was rain. A slow grey muddy drag towards the festive season began. Memories of young lovers and old fashioned carriages thawed and melted away.

One morning, the grumpy old lady joined me.

As we went through a tunnel, I saw in the window reflections that she was staring at me.
‘I recognise you,’ said the old lady, easing off her gloves and tutting as the threads of one caught on her bracelet.

‘I often catch this train,’ I said.

‘No, that’s not it.’ Her lips pursed, her brows crunched together.

She looked down at my phone’s screensaver.

‘Your young man?’

I nodded.

‘I hope he’s not the sort to leave and not say goodbye. Not the sort who’d never come back because of a row.’

She stared at the tracks outside, branched at the points, disappearing around embankments.

‘They said the war was nearly over. Why did they need him to fight?’ she murmured.

Her eyes scanned my face. ‘Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great grandmother or something.’ The old lady was silent for the remainder of the journey.

A few days before Christmas, the temperature dropped. First frost, then snow. Just enough snow to bring back old fashioned trains. I could live with it. In the New Year, I would be starting a new job nearer home.

At the backcountry station, the girl sat down opposite and glared. In two months, lines had become etched between her brows. She clasped her bag as if daring me to take it. I glanced at the door but she snapped: ‘They’ve shipped out. He left and never said goodbye.’

At that moment, I thought my phone vibrated and rummaging in my bag, felt a crushed letter. The girl, glaring at the aimless snowflakes, had loosened her grip on her own bag. As I hesitated, the train lurched and … a ration book fell out. My face went cold, then hot. As she leant forward, I caught her arm.

‘This is yours,’ I said, handing her the letter, ‘he gave it to me a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t see you again. I hope…’

There was a clunk under the carriage and a pause. As she took the letter, the train changed direction. The girl opened the envelope and when we stopped, I climbed out onto a different station altogether. But the girl stayed reading the letter, her hands trembling.

That was the last of the old carriage journeys. On my last commute to London, an old couple sat opposite me. He held her face in his hands and kissed her before grinning at me and lifting his cap.

The old lady was the one I’d met before, only she wasn’t grumpy. The lines on her face were soft, her mouth ready to laugh.

After a while, her husband dozing, the old lady said, ‘I recognise you.’

‘I’m often on this train.’

‘No, that’s not it. Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great-grandmother or something.’

She took me in, my hair, my face, my corporate clothes, my bag, my mobile.

‘Your young man?’ she asked, nodding towards my screen saver.

I nodded.

‘Terrible winter,’ said her husband, waking up, ‘Like when we met, isn’t it dear? Teenagers, right at the end of the war. Fell in love on this train journey, then fell out, nearly finished, but somehow it came right in the end. Terrible winter, like being in a dream. Felt like anything could happen. Felt like life could have taken one wrong turn and ruined everything.’ He looked at me a bit closer, his faded eyes twinkling through the glasses, ‘were you once our postwoman?’

I shook my head.

‘Funny. I look at you and think of letters. Can’t imagine why.’

I caught the old lady’s eyes.

‘Not a postwoman,’ she said, ‘just an angel passing through. Keeping things on track.’

And she put her hand in his, put her head on his shoulder and winked.

branch lines

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

In the Diner

Outside rain pours onto a city dissolved into night.

Inside, the diner is garish with comforting colours; I smell coffee, fried food and damp clothes. I gather my things.

At this despairing hour, there is music, but little chatter. I should go, taking and leaving loneliness.

I should go, returning to my world; rejecting yours.

You catch my hand.

I should go. I should not look into your eyes. But I do. Through my tears, I see your tears. I am lost. Lost in love for you. Lost mapless at a crossroads.

Your hand holds mine.

I do not leave.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

From a prompt “Lost” on Thin Spiral Notebook – check out the other reactions

Jasmine Tea

Holidays still felt wrong. Over the years, Diana had adapted to everything else. She had been independent and capable before she married, she was independent and capable after he’d gone. She reverted. The bed felt wider, the bills were harder. Otherwise the only things that mattered were the two daughters to bring up alone and a heart which felt as if it was made of cogs and gears running on oil, rather than flesh and blood powered by love.

But holidays were hard. When the girls were still little, there was no-one to plan the day with, argue over directions with, choose a restaurant with, count the pounds/pesetas/drachmas/euros with, sit up in the evening over a glass of wine and watch the sun go down with. As the girls grew, there was no-one to help them jump waves, to play jokes on silly, serious mummy; no-one to help kiss those sun drenched faces as they slept under strange skies, exhausted by new experiences. But she kept on anyway. At first, she decided where they would go and as years passed, she invited her daughters’ input and through their eyes, experienced the world anew.

Now they were nearly grown. Diana was no longer alone in the hot cicada evenings, one daughter would share a little of the wine and the other filled the evening with guitar music. But her bed was still cold on one side. And soon, the girls would fly the nest and she would vacation alone.

In the first week of their holiday, Diana took the girls a few miles upstream of the pretty town and watched as her confident, independent daughters, eschewing her help, phrase-book-Frenched themselves a canoe trip down the river. She saw them push off from the bank, all orange and yellow and red, insulting each other and arguing over paddling techniques as they disappeared under the trees; then she drove back to wait for them.

She had two hours to kill. This was the first time she had been abroad, totally on her own, since she had been in her twenties. There was no sticky hand to hold, no arm hooked through hers, no squabble to referee, no groans of boredom to contend with. To start, she walked the shaded streets along edges, peeking in windows, wondering who was watching her progress. She was the only person alone, washed along in a tide of families and couples.

Diana walked into a few shops and turned over the bright ceramics and lavender scented linen. She considered preserved delicacies and unusual jewellery. Under flapping awnings, waiters rushed to prepare tables for lunch, placing table mats and cutlery and reservation markers.

It was too early for lunch and besides, they would eat it together when the girls had finished their trip and handed the canoe back. But she was thirsty.

Going down a quieter side street, Diana found little businesses more unique than those in the main tourist area and among them, a shop selling English second hand books with a salon de thé attached. Diana could never resist a bookshop. She was pleasantly surprised with the selection, expecting tattered forty year old Penguins and musky hardbacks. The books were good quality and varied, the shop light and airy, with gentle piano music in the background. She could see through into the rear where a few tables stood neat with lace tablecloths and beyond them the light green of a narrow garden which must lead down to the river.

Diana chose three books and approached the till which stood between the open door and the empty tables. The music stopped and turning, she realised the piano was behind her and a tall man had risen to serve her. What nationality was he? After all, he was selling books in English. But his ‘Bonjour madame,’ was definitely French.

‘Bonjour monsieur,’ she said, handing over the books. The sounds of birds came in through the door and she could hear the laughter of people on the river and commentary on a passing tourist boat. She still had an hour to kill. Looking out into the garden, Diana noticed there tables were set up in the shade, a little vase of flowers on each one.

‘Et du thé aussi, s’il vous plaît?’ she asked.

The man smiled and handed her a menu. The range of teas was, like the selection of books, wide and varied. Diana’s desire for a taste of home was lost in the options. The day was very hot. It was too hot for English breakfast tea and milk.

‘Jasmin, s’il vous plaît,’ she said, struggling to remember in time to soften the J to make it sound French.
‘À l’intérieur ou..?’ he queried, indicating the cool of the interior.

‘Dans le jardin,’ she said firmly. She was pleased that although he knew she was an English speaker, although her accent was terrible, he continued to speak to her in French as he asked her to take a seat and said that he would bring the tea out to her.

Diana sat in the garden for a while, and then leaving her things on one of the spare seats, wandered down the length of the garden to enjoy its peaceful greenness and its slightly overblown flowers and herbs. She trailed her hands through lavender as she made her way to the end, where a little roofed store held spare tables and rusted garden tools. A small glass-less window looked down onto the river. Turning, she looked at the narrow back of the bookshop and its upper rooms and the stone walls enclosing this secret place of sun and tranquility. She ambled back to the table and took out her book.

‘Et voilà, Madame,’ said the man, putting a teapot and cup before her.

‘Merci beaucoup,’ Diana said, then, waving her hand added, ‘C’est très joli, ce jardin.’

Was that good French? She couldn’t remember. It sounded right.

The man paused and smiled, shrugging a little. He continued to speak in French, slowly but nevertheless in French: ‘it’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid, I’d like to make to more appealing.’

Diana understood him. Every word. Well, not every word. But she understood what he was saying to her. She started to formulate a reply and then decided just to talk and hope that what she said made sense.

‘No. It’s good it looks at this time,’ she replied, knowing the French was wrong. But if she stopped to work it out, she might as well not speak at all.

‘You’re very kind. Do you think it would be nice to have a tea garden?’

‘Yes,’ Diana could not remember the subjunctive, how to say ‘I’m sure it would’. She plumped for: ‘It’s very polite, gentle, tranquil… I’m sorry – my French is very bad.’

The man smiled. ‘Not so bad,’ he said.

‘I’m not at school during many years,’ Diana winced, imagining her A level teacher sobbing into her text books. ‘Depuis’ not ‘pendant’. Too late.

‘Are you holidaying alone?’ asked the man. Somehow it felt neither intrusive or creepy. It was just a question.

‘No, my daughters are with me too. They promenade on the river in a canoe.’ What a ridiculous thing to say. And what must he think of her, leaving them to do it on their own? ‘They’re eighteen and sixteen,’ she added. Although now she thought about it, he couldn’t possibly think they were little children, she was no longer a young woman. She was sitting in front of him. The sun shone on her fine lines and anyone, even a man, could almost certainly tell that her hair was coloured and spot the reading glasses on the table. For a second she felt silly but he didn’t seem to be appraising her. He was just chatting.

‘Your daughters – do they speak French too?’

Diana was ashamed, not for the first time, of the linguistic indifference of her nationality. ‘One – she learns Spanish only. The other loves music alone.’

‘Ah,’ he nodded as if in approval, ‘does she play an instrument?’

‘Yes, the guitar. She’s in a team…er… gang.. er…band.’

‘And you?’

‘Yes, I play a bit on the …..’ what on earth was the word for piano? She pointed at the instrument inside.

‘Piano,’ the man told her without reproach.

Diana pulled a face in apology, ‘Sometimes …. when we’re on holiday, I ….’ (what’s the word for ‘miss’?) ‘want to play…I’m sorry. I forget more than I learned.’

‘Don’t be sorry, it’s nice for me to speak to a customer in French,’ he answered.

There was a silence but it was comfortable. Diana poured her tea and wondered how to ask what had made him start this business. He was looking down the garden as if envisaging it with more tables, filled with customers. Perhaps he preferred it as it was now, quiet, with just a few people dropping in from time to time, so that most of the time, he could play piano to his audience of pre-loved books. He was, like her, neither young nor old either. Just himself.

‘Monsieur, pourquoi…’ she started but then a voice called from the interior:

‘Yoohoo! Jacques! It’s us!’

The man bowed to Diana and smiled, ‘Pardon, madame,’ he said, ‘… et merci.’

‘Merci aussi,’ she replied as he turned to his other customers.

Thank you? What for?

She heard him inside, still courteous but now speaking impeccable English, ‘good morning Mr and Mrs Smith, how are you both today? What tea would you like? I have some green tea or lapsang souchong? Or orange blossom perhaps?’

‘Oh away with you and your teas!’ laughed Mrs Smith, ‘you know we don’t like that sort of thing. Just the usual, same as always.’

‘Inside or outside?’ asked Jacques.

‘Inside’s cooler I reckon,’ decided Mr Smith, ‘and no insects.’

In the garden, in the breezy shade, Diana finished her tea and carefully carried her things back to the counter. She paid Jacques and smiled, seeing him glance at the piano. 

’Come again, even if you don’t want books or tea,’ he said in French, ‘just to play the piano. If you’d like to, that is.’

‘Thank you, I think on the subject of it.’

Outside in the street, Diana made her way to the canoe landing place, slowly. When she arrived, the girls were waiting.
‘What have you been up to?’ asked her youngest, ‘you’re all smiley.’

‘Aren’t I allowed to smile?’ argued Diana, ‘I’m so proud of you both, you’ll give anything a go. Daddy would have been so pleased to know that you grew up willing to try. He was never scared of anything.’

Her eldest gave her a hug damp with river water. It was eleven years since his death but she could remember him, just about, ‘Or maybe, he was scared but he tried anyway,’ she said, ‘just like you.’

Just like me, thought Diana.

‘So really, what were you up to?’ asked her eldest.

‘Bought some books, had a cup of tea.’

Her youngest looked unimpressed. ‘Can we go canoeing again, Mum?’

‘If you like,’ said Diana.

‘What will you do? More tea?’

Diana thought about it. ‘

Yes, why not,’ she said, ‘and maybe find a piano to play. I’m going to try something new.’

salon de the

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Tuesday at Seven

In a quiet side street, beneath a solicitors’ office, steps led down from the pavement to the tiny restaurant.

There were still only ten tables in this little facsimile of an imaginary Italy. It was one of the few things which had barely changed.

Tom ordered some bread and olives. His early evening had been spent walking round betrayed by memories. He felt the disoriented bereavement of returning after so many years. Road layouts were different; you had to park in different places and pay to do so. The big named places which had gone under were filled with other big named places, struggling to compete with the out of town malls. Was that where Woolworths used to be? Was that once British Home Stores? Small shops and businesses he remembered had gone and been replaced. Perhaps he’d imagined them. The town was just as pretty, with its Georgian elegance and flower displays but nothing else was the same.

He could have eaten anywhere. The Spa Hotel was now easily affordable. Once he had walked through the park outside under tasteful Christmas lights, silver in the trees. He’d watched the rich go inside and wonder whether the food and ambience was worth the cost. Then, mentally counting how much he had left in his account, he’d gone to this little Italian haunt instead.

He could have eaten anywhere, but it didn’t seem right. He took Cara’s photograph out of his pocket and studied it. At that moment, the waiter appeared with the olives and leaning over his shoulder said ‘bella! bella!’

Tom was startled, his privacy invaded. He made a meaningless response and turned the photograph face down on the table.

‘Yes!’ continued waiter, oblivious to or despite Tom’s feelings, ‘and when she comes here, this place, it lights up!’

‘Really?’ replied Tom, ‘you mean, she comes here?’ How ridiculous, why shouldn’t she? She had lived here all her life.

‘But yes!’ the waiter, with his dubious accent, seemed unable to speak without exclamation marks. Tom wondered what would happen if he asked in Italian which region the waiter was from. But then, the exaggerated accent was part of the atmosphere, always had been. The waiter continued, ‘she comes here every Tuesday evening at seven o’clock. Such a beauty! Her laugh is like a bell!’

Wondering how a bell was supposed to laugh, Tom was startled by the punctuality. Cara must have changed. Routine and pattern were his traits, hers were spontaneity and surprise.

He had blamed that discord for his departure all those years ago. Only now, picking up olive after olive, he realised that for all that, he was the one who had gone off into the unknown and she was the one who had stayed.

Cara could have gone with him of course.

‘Plenty of prestigious schools down in the South East,’ he’d said.

‘Plenty of prestigious schools here too,’ she’d said.

But she had chosen to teach in the one everyone pretended didn’t exist as disadvantaged, uncultured poverty didn’t represent the way the town wanted to portray itself.

He’d wondered aloud what good it would do them to mix with those complex families. In his mind he pigeon-holed them into stereotypes: barely literate, behind with the rent, hiding from loan sharks, breeding like rabbits.

‘You mean they won’t give you good connections,’ she’d snapped, ’I want to make a difference,’ she’d said, ‘do you?’

Her words had escalated from ‘self-serving’, to ‘snob’ and then ‘bastard’; his from ‘unambitious’, to ‘lazy’ and then ‘failure’. The names stung then slashed. She cried, he left. He left her in that cold, damp flat with its elegant but unbeatable proportions, left the untidy rooms, left the hasty marriage proposed under those sparkling trees. Clean break. No contact. Twenty years had passed.

Tom glanced at the clock. It was six. He frowned. He’d just realised it was Tuesday. Would she come here this evening? With her man-friend? Tom had only come to check the restaurant out, wondering if he could ask her to join him there for old time’s sake another evening.

He had never intended to find her again. But twenty years of promotion and order, influence, routine, predictability had passed and he’d never found anyone to share it with. And then redundancy was offered; inevitable, but worth more if you jumped before you were pushed and when someone said ‘never mind, now you can have more time for your pastimes and friends’, he realised he hadn’t really got either. During a weekend of doubt and uncertainty, he’d bumped into Cara in the National Gallery, on neutral ground. They had nearly bypassed each other, not recognising the changed faces and bodies; but over coffee they simply started to talk as if time had been suspended and could now restart.

With trepidation he had said he was thinking of spending a week back in the West Country she had never left. Would she be free? Was she free? Would she consider spending some time with him? No strings, just company.

They had walked in parks and forests, climbed hills above the river, visited theatres and museums and found that somehow while different, they were still the same and while still the same, they were somehow different. Then her hand had slipped into his and he knew he wanted to ask her to dinner in the old place, if it still existed, and that this would be the turning point. He had never been afraid of risk before, but now, it was all or nothing. If he could not win her back, he would return to the empty South East alone.

And here was the old place, still existing.

The waiter returned to take Tom’s order and prodded the photograph again. ‘Yes,’ he continued, as if the conversation had not ceased, ‘she comes every Tuesday at seven o’clock with her man-friend. What a lovely couple they make.’ He kissed his fingers. Mwah!

The olives became tasteless, the room cold. Tom said something non-committal and picked up his phone.

‘Now?’ Cara said, ‘right this second? Well, I could… but…’

‘You remember the place? Park Close. It’s barely changed.’ He named it and looked at the clock. It was nearly six fifteen. She was quiet and then spoke, anxiety in her voice.

‘Not tonight, tomorrow night. I could meet you somewhere else tonight.’

‘I’m already here. I’ve got a table. Please join me.’

‘How about nine?’

‘No, now. Now or…’ he couldn’t say it.

The silence was so long, he took his phone from his ear and checked to see if he still had a signal. Then she said, ‘oh all right.’

She walked in at six forty-five. She was beautiful but her smile was strained. Her long chestnut hair was pinned up and she wore some earrings he vaguely recalled.

‘This was our place, do you remember? Do you still come here?’ he asked.

‘Hardly ever,’ she said.

But ‘every Tuesday’, the waiter had said, ‘every Tuesday at seven with her man-friend’. Cara fiddled with a piece of bread.

Six fifty.

The waiter came back and took their order. He smiled and flirted a little with Cara and winked at Tom.

She was shaking slightly, rolling bits of bread but not eating it; swirling her wine but not drinking it.

‘Listen,’ she said, ‘there’s something I haven’t got round to telling you…’

The door of the restaurant opened. Its ringing bell made them turn. A young man and woman walked in laughing. The girl’s head was thrown back, uninhibited, long chestnut hair straightened and falling round her shoulders. Her clothes were retro, she might have walked straight out of his youth. She stopped laughing and wiping the mirth from her eyes, took in the restaurant including the middle-aged couple staring at them in silence.

The waiter returned with the starters and tapped the face down twenty year old photograph again, pointed at the girl and said ‘what did I tell you? Bella, bella! Laughs like a bell!’

Tom, his mouth open, looked at the slender young woman. He took in her hair, her mouth, hands and feet. Then he considered Cara with her fine lines and plumpness and then he turned the photograph face up.

And the girl, oblivious, stared at Cara and with the tone only a nineteen year old can emit, said seven exasperated words: ‘oh Mum! What are you doing here?’

bottle

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission