Story: The Advice Slip (2)

Chapter 2 of The Advice Slip. You can read Chapter 1 here.

Anne was shattered.

Six o’clock had taken far longer than eight hours to roll around today, she was sure of it. It had been a better day that usual, helped along by Gary Maybury’s good news that morning. At least that had put all of the customers at the pub in a good mood. Silly beggars, Anne smiled to herself. There they all were, buying Gary pints and wishing him well, hoping for a slate in his new pub, and most of them hadn’t grasped that it was thousands of miles away in America.

Her feet ached as she walked out through the bar, waving and throwing a smile to a couple of regulars. Her phone beeped as she came out of the door, a message from her daughter.

MUM CAN YOU LEND ME 20 QUID TO GO OUT TONIGHT?

Anne sighed. Stacey was 18, in her first year at University, although you wouldn’t know it from the amount of time she went out with her mates rather than swotting at her books. Stacey swore that her grades were doing alright, and everyone else went out as much as she did, but still. Anne had her doubts. And of late, a shocking amount of her income was flowing from her wage packet at the Red Lion into the tills of various bars and nightclubs around the town, via Stacey’s impossibly tiny handbags.

Anne didn’t bother texting her back. She’d be home faster that she could work the keys out. She stopped at the machine and keyed in her pin, shuddering to herself in the cold. Maybe she’d get the bus tonight instead of walking, since it was starting to rain. Although, the fares had gone up again…

The machine beeped at her, displaying a message.

“Do you want an advice slip?”

Anne normally skipped past this, but for a second she hesitated. Gary had told such an odd story this morning, about getting that funny yellow slip from the cash machine. Feeling a little reckless, Anne pushed the yes button.

Sure enough, after the £20 note had appeared, a yellow slip popped out. There were three words printed on it.

JUST SAY NO.

Anne blinked at the note, and shoved it in her pocket. What a thing to say! And how odd, given that it echoed a tiny little voice in the back of her head. A voice which had spoken up when she got that text message, but had been squashed by the fear of an argument.

Why don’t you just say no?

Walking down the road, her leaky shoes squelching a little through the puddles, Anne frowned to herself and pondered the problem.

Why DIDN’T she just say no? The requests for money from her daughter were becoming ever more frequent, and ever more demanding. Especially since she had started dating Darren. Anne grimaced to herself. She had tried very hard to like Darren, but it was hard going sometimes. Talking to him always left Anne with a slightly greasy, slimy feeling in her soul. She couldn’t put a finger on why, but there was something about the boy that she just didn’t like.

It was probably Darren that Stacey wanted to go out with tonight.

All of a sudden, Anne grew cross with herself. Why was she paying for her daughter to go out on the town with a man that she didn’t approve of? She couldn’t stop Stacey going, but she could stop paying for it.

All at once, Anne found a hot spark of flame hidden down in her stomach and decided that, just this once, she would say no. In an uncharacteristic pique of rebellion, Anne went into the Tesco Metro just down the street and splashed out on a bottle of wine for £4.99. And with the loose change, she got the bus home, and promised herself a hunt for some new shoes to replace her old soggy ones before she went to work tomorrow.

There was a row. As predicted. But it was shorter and less vile than Anne had dreaded. A few huffs, a bit of stomping, a sulky silence over tea and Stacey went out anyway. Perhaps she hadn’t needed the money that much afterall. Anne pushed the drawer into the dishwasher and set the machine whirring, and had every intention of settling herself down in front of Eastenders with a glass of her impulsively bought Chardonney, before having a bath and going to bed.

But just as she was reaching for the remote to turn on the programme, she was startled by the sound of a key in the yale lock on the front door.

“It’s only me…”

Stacey. But it was … not even eight o’clock?

“Hallo lovie…”

A very sorry looking young lady came into the room. Her mascara was streaked down her face and she looked positively down in the mouth.

“Stacey …? Whatever’s the matter love?”

Anne was on her feet with her arms open waiting for her daughter as Stacey collapsed into sobs.

“There my duck, what’s going on?”

“I broke up with Darren.”

“Aww, bless you…”

“It was horrible Mum. I asked if he’d get me a drink at the bar, and he was really nasty. Said he’d only get me a drink if … if I…”

Anne pulled back to look at her daughter’s face. “If you what, Stacey?”

“If I agreed to have sex with him tonight.”

“And you didn’t want to?”

“I wasn’t ready Mum. I didn’t want to.”

Anne offered up a silent prayer of relief that her daughter had had that much self esteem.

“And he didn’t like that?”

“It was horrible Mum, she shouted at me, called me a little cock tease and said I was taking advantage of him, that he’d bought me a large wine and I owed him something in return.”

“What happened?”

Stacey sniffed, and the ghost of a smile sneaked out.

“Well… I told him he could keep the drink. And he said he didn’t want it.”

“And then…?”

“And then … well … I poured it over his head. And walked out of the pub.”

Anne tried for a whole two seconds not to laugh, but then Stacey met her eyes and the two of them dissolved into giggles. Embracing her daughter in a big hug, Anne settled her on the sofa and handed her the kleenex to wipe her face. Fetching another glass from the kitchen, along with the bottle from the fridge, Anne settled back into the sofa, poured a drink for her daughter and passed it over.

“Thanks Mum.”

“You’re very welcome my darling. Now, shall we catch up with Albert Square?”

“Yes please…”

The rest of the episode passed on companionable silence. The wine bottle was empty by the time mother and daughter went to bed. Anne remembered at the last minute about the little yellow note from the cash machine, and as she fell asleep, she wondered how differently the evening would have turned out if she hadn’t pressed the YES button.

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Story: The Advice Slip

Gary’s fingers were almost numb with crossing as well as cold by the time he reached the front of the queue at the cash machine.

Please let there be a tenner left. Please let there be a tenner left, please…

He stamped his feet to bring some feeling back into them as the machine asked him to be patient while reading his pin.

AVAILABLE BALANCE: £12.95

Yes!

This was the first stroke of luck Gary had experienced all week, after three failed interviews and a nightmare appointment at the job centre with someone young and cocky enough to be his son. “We really need to get you into work Mr Maybury, are you sure there aren’t any more jobs you could apply for?”

Gary had applied for everything, including telesales. His two week trial had been a disaster as he’d slipped and stumbled over the script. He was not a well spoken man. He hadn’t needed to be when he was working at the old Brewery, so long as he was reliable, strong and not afraid of hard graft. But those days were gone now and the job market wasn’t good for a middle aged working class man who had failed his 11+.

Gary carried this disappointment around in his stomach more heavily these days, as he queued up for his benefit appointments alongside bright young things who were far better qualified than he was. Perhaps he should have worked harder in school. Then he’d have been running his own business in America like his older brother, Norman, who had gone to the local grammar school and on to great success.

The cash machine beeped at him, interrupting his well worn reflections.

DO YOU WANT AN ADVICE SLIP?

Without really thinking about it, Gary pushed the ‘YES’ button. A few years ago, this machine had given out chances to win Football World Cup tickets on the back of the slips and Gary had gotten into the habit of requesting them with every drinking tenner he took out. He didn’t really like football, but someone might pay £100 for the tickets if he did win, and that would buy a fair few pints. Gary knew himself to be a heavy drinker, but considered himself a responsible one. He had no car, so he never drank and drove. He never got violent, just sat at his regular spot at the bar in The Red Lion, getting quieter and a little morose with each sip until going home time. He never drank after midnight, not before midday. Gary observed the old fashioned licensing hours even if the pubs didn’t, and no man with self respect should indulge before midday. Gary still had a small slither of that left.

The machine spat his card out with a beeping noise, followed by a crumpled tenner and the advice slip. Which caught Gary’s eye as it was yellow, instead of the usual shiny white.

Rather than the usual depressing bank balance, there were three words printed on the back.

ANSWER THE PHONE

Gary blinked. He hadn’t had his first pint yet, so this couldn’t be a drunken fantasy. Perhaps one of the young ones at the bank was having a joke, or they were trying to get people to take their marketing calls. Not that any offers of mortgages or credit cards came his way any more. His mobile phone didn’t ring that often. His son had given him one to try and drag him into the twentieth century, ten years too late. It was old and solidly built, a bit like Gary. His son had mocked him for it a mere twelve months later, asking when he was going to update it. Gary had shrugged and smiled, quietly thinking there were a good ten years more use in the contraption yet.

He pulled it out to check it was still working and was startled when the screen lit up with a loud shrieking bell. The screen didn’t display a number, just the word ‘UNKNOWN’ in large black capitals.

The advice slip was still in Gary’s other hand.

ANSWER THE PHONE.

“‘Ullo?”

“Is that Gary?” A female voice with an American twang piped down the phone.

“Yeah, this is Gary, ooo’s this?”

“Oh Gary, it’s Margie, I’m so glad I found you.”

Margie. His brother’s wife, from Connecticut.

“Gary, I called Colin, he gave me your cell number. Gary… I’m so sorry, but Norman passed away.”

Gary stopped and sat down on a bench, an overwhelming sadness flowing over his cold bones. He had known his brother was in failing health for a few years. They’d exchanged a few letters. Norman had told him about the emphysema, hinting that Gary should come visit them. But Gary had no passport, and too much pride to ask for a loan to pay for one.

“I’m right sorry to hear that Margie. I… I hope he went easy, like.”

“He just fell asleep one night and never woke up. He was so tired at the end.”

“Well, let me know where I should send a card for the funeral Margie. On account of ‘aving no passport I won’t be there, like.”

“Gary… I’m coming to England. Norman wanted his ashes scattered in the park where you and he played as boys. I need to talk to you about Norman’s will…”

Time slipped away as Gary sat and listened to his sister-in-law telling him how his life was about to change…

*

Some time later, Gary made it to the Red Lion and sat up on his usual seat, still feeling rather dazed from the long call. The usual bar maid, Anne, ambled cheerfully down the bar towards him. The staff liked Gary. He spent plenty, never got rowdy or pinched their bottoms and always had a friendly word.

“‘Allo Gary, usual pint love?”

“No, not today Anne. Today… Today I’d like a Bells lovey, if you’d a splash left.”

Anne was shocked. “Whiskey at this time of day? Gary Maybury, what has gotten into you!”

“Well,” Gary smiled, “a bit of sad news mixed with some good. Me brother passed on last night.”

“Oh Gary,” Anne’s face drooped in sympathy. “What a shame, here’s to his memory,” she sat the tumbler of golden liquid down in front of him.

“Aye lass, here’s to Norman,” Gary agreed, taking a sip, “But here’s to him double again for the good turn he’s done me.” He grinned at the bar maid, eeking out his first bit of good news in a long time. “Y’see, Norm went out and founded his own business in America, and now he’s left it to his wife Margie and to me. So Margie wants me to go out there and run it with her.”

“Gary! Good God lad, are you really upping sticks to go? What are you going to do out there?”

Gary sipped a little more whiskey and hugged himself. This was the best bit.

“He had his own bar. I’m gonna be a landlord of me own boozer! It’s a gift from Norman and from God.”

Anne snorted, hardly believing her ears. “Don’t tell me you’ve found God after all those Sunday School sessions you skipped out on mister.”

Gary pulled out his tenner to pay for the Whiskey, along with the little yellow note, all ready to relay the story of the note that told him to answer the phone.

“God works in mysterious ways, Annie girl. And sometimes, he uses cash machines…”

 

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Saturday Story: The Ice Queen

During the summer of 2005, when we were all too poor to do anything and too bright to do nothing, my boyfriend at the time started putting together a world for a roleplay game we were all in love with, called Mutants and Masterminds, a super hero themed game.

He had written his dissertation on comics for his English degree and was well versed in the history and theory of DC, Marvel and various of the smaller comic-verses. The idea was simple and at the same time wonderfully complex – each of us would create a Dynasty, three characters all linked by blood who would pass on the mantel of a superhero identity from the Golden Age (40s-50s) to the Silver Age (60s-early 80) to the Bronze Age (late 80s to modern day).

The project kept us busy for a long time but unfortunately lost a lot of steam when M&M brought out a second edition with a different ruleset. The idea was a good one though, and for my money our superhero universe was one of the finest I’ve encountered.

All being writers and artists, we began to produce bits of fiction about our creations as well as backgrounds. This piece was about my Bronze Age character, Christina De Winterson – American Socialite by day/evening, Superheroine with the power to create and control control ice/water by night. Christina was a joy to write about, although sadly I never got to play her.

Dynastic: Behind The Mask

Click.

Clack.

Click.

Clack.

Click.

Clack.

Her high heels trace a pattern around the dance floor, stepping in time with the music which thuds through the walls. Her eyes are sharp behind her shades. The fingers twitch with nervous energy, delicately entwined around the champagne glass stem. The host won’t notice that one glass will last all evening.

Voices call to her across the room. Ringing out with intoxication, delight, desire, requests and requirements. Their eyes flash in the strobe lights, their jewellery glistens through the dry ices and thick atmosphere. The pheremones are intoxicating. Everyone here is on the hunt tonight.

Stares follow her as she threads her way through the crowd, leaving shivers and trickling gasps in her wake. The dress flows, floating like a gentle wave behind her as she parts the seething mass of people, as Moses parted the Red Sea. However, there is no promised land on the other side of the waves for her.

Click.

Clack.

Click.

Clack.

Click.

Slice.

The blade swings and finds its mark before the mook had even smelt the steel in the air. She moves swiftly, accurately, dancelike around the factory floor. Arms, hands, feet, torso and legs working in a perfect harmony, balance an art form rather than a chance left to fate. She slits her way through the trouble. The problems before her can all be solved with a sword or a blow. Lazily she flicks a perfect icicle behind her to impale an escapee. With a tiny fraction of her mind, she contemplates the perfection of the creation. Flawless, beautiful, shining, unique. She muses upon how such a thing would, in another world, be considered a work of art rather than an instrument of death.

Slice.

Click.

Clack.

Click.

Clack.

“Darling, are you having the best time ever? If not let me know and Harvey will fix it for you instantly…”

The only requirement in this life is to have the best time ever. Time after time after time after time.

Do they not realise how hard it is to frame the perfect smile repeatedly? To make the joy sparkle like snowflakes in your eyes, and not to let them turn to ice chips?

So many people here, and all of their nights rely upon her having the best time ever. If she doesn’t, their attempts have failed.

A casual breath re-frosts her lukewarm champagne. The bubbles tingle in her nose.

“Oh darling, it’s divine, I’m having the most wonderful time…”

And she’s off. Still tracing her patterns through the dancefloor. Ever on the watch, ever on the alert, ever mindful of those around her.

She’s surrounded now. A slight miscalculation. A slight error of judgement.

Her eyes close for an instant behind her perfect mask. A sheen of ice covers her skin, deflecting the blows from the swords and knives. A blast of bitter air knocks them all back, and the advantage is hers again. Her way is clear. Her swords resume their task.

Slice.

As if by some pre-arrangement, the hands reaching out in feigned friendship do not touch her. Her frosty perfect veneer is beyond approach. Beyond reproach. The gossip columns snigger in their new name for the beautiful Ms De Winterson. The Ice Queen. She smiles a secret smile. How truly perfect. How truly ironic.

She is the most known and unknown person in the world. The expensive transluscent makeup, which makes her already perfect skin glow with all the health and warmth of a St Tropez tan, is a more effective mask than the one she dons once the revellers sleep.


Behind the cut out eyes, she becomes real. She acts on her own instincts, for her own sake, and for the sake of others around her. Her actions have purpose and meaning. She feels more real behind this artistic mask than she ever does when patrolling the fashionable bars and restaurants of Manhattan.

As  the sodden air vibrates around her, she wonders. Why not give this up? Why not ‘retire’ from the public life, become a fashionable recluse, and devote her time to her real self. The one who has not aged since 1912.

Because… she thinks. Because.

Money is power. Beauty is power. And these people have money and beauty, however distorted and corrupt it might be.

And one day, a delusion of grandeur will strike, and one of these people who already has everything the world can offer them will want more. Already in possession of money and beauty, they will find that power corrupts. And the most beautiful and rich of all will see that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

She runs a careless hand over her shining hair, refreshes her glass with another crystal breath. With smiles and glances which make the night perfect for so many around her, she carries on walking, patrolling, watching and waiting around the edges of the dance floor. She studies her peers, in preparation for the day when they become her rivals.

She continues walking.

Click.

Clack.

Click.

Clack…

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Saturday Story: Nurse Morgan’s Watch

Nobody remembers who hired Nurse Morgan. She showed up one day, dressed in a neat white uniform with a steel-grey perm. She was so efficient that nobody minded much. She took on the grimmest tasks with a motherly smile and cheery hum, collecting and laundering soiled sheets. “It’s no problem dearie,” she would say sweetly. “All in a day’s work for me.”

Hospitals are known for their strange noises, the moans of patients are absorbed into the walls and few experienced nurses notice them. One night I heard a noise that whittled my soul. A thin keening, a howling high wind, needle sharp.

It drew me to a private ward, a young man lay seriously ill with terminal cancer. Glancing in around the corner, I caught my glimpse. Only a glimpse of a luminous woman, pale green eyes fixed upon the young man, long silver hair hanging loose over fingers that stroked his face.

“Oh, hello dearie,” Nurse Morgan turned to greet me. The image flickered away, a mirage, just an imagining from an overtired nurse’s brain. “I don’t think this poor dear is long for this world. I’ll sit with him and call the doctor when it’s time.”

I nodded, dry mouthed, retreated swiftly. She smiled at me when I saw her later, bearing away the covers from the young man’s bed. She hummed her little tune to herself. Somewhere on the wind, I heard an echo of a thin keening. A high howling wind. Needle sharp.

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Saturday Story: Dog

“Mummy, Mummy look at the puppy!”

“Oh my, isn’t he a little cutie? Oh look, he’s trying to lick your hand.”

From the day my mother and younger brother brought the black puppy home, misfortunes beset our family like gnats. My father was hit by a car while taking it for its first walk. The animal was sat next to him when the ambulance arrived, its tail wagging. The paramedic looked relieved when I took it away.

Edward named it Snuffy, but the rest of us called it ‘Dog’. It fouled every clean floor, every piece of fresh washing and every good temper in our home. Every evening, we gathered for dinner trailing fresh woes. As it grew bigger, so did our troubles. My mother lost her job. My father’s ill health continued, spurred by alcoholic binges. Edward was expelled after a kitchen knife was found in his school bag. “I don’t know why I took it,” he sulked, playing with Dog’s floppy ears. Dog’s tail kept wagging.

On the night when my mother finally left home, taking Edward with her, I refused to leave my father, who was passed out in a drunken stupor. Our family was torn asunder.

Dog left too that night. I watched him trot down the garden, a picture of nonchalance. A man in a black coat stood waiting at the end of our driveway. Four red eyes turned back to meet mine as they walked away down the street. Dog’s tail was still wagging.

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Story: Mermaid

Sometimes I write little stories for specific calls or in response to prompts and when they don’t make the issue cut, they hang around, lying fallow in my dropbox forever.

I need to share more of my writing on here so I will start posting some of them.

This was written for a Mslexia prompt about Mermaids.

Google an image search for ‘mermaids’. Since when did mermaids have to be white, I wonder? This was written to redress the balance a bit.

I dove into the waves seeking freedom, hundreds of years ago, and gave myself up to the waters. Stolen from my home, bereft of my own self, I sought death and found new life. My bruised and battered legs are now safe behind armoured scales; my slick tail slices through the ocean depths with purpose and dignity. My waters are warm and clear, soft on my skin. I steer clear of the icy depths that my pale sisters haunt, seeking kisses from skinny white boys with hairless chins. They are just soft ghosts who shimmer beneath crisp, frosted waves, long locks of gold and red their only dash of colour. My own black tresses stream freely under the waves, curling and twisting unbound with the salty currents. I hunt for lost princes, with ebony skin and marcasite eyes, thick rugs of male pride worn over their chests for me to run my fingers though. They gaze into my sugared eyes and feel the echoes of their history. They kiss me, and beneath the salt they taste the scent of home and freedom, feel the heat of Africa under my waves. We dance, we dream and they drown.

 

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Story: The Journey

When you start on any sort of journey that is going to be difficult, you will meet the following responses in this order. This includes the journey through life. Anything that involves a decision, a change of direction – in short, the upsetting of the natural ‘social’ order. A change of job, a change of social circle, or undertaking a new qualification. A new relationship, a new divorce. Leaving behind a friend. Going travelling in a new place.

First of all, before you set off, people will try to convince you not to take the journey. That you don’t need to do this. That it’s not worth it. That your reasons for wanting to do so are invalid. They will paint you as crazy or delusional for wanting to. They are cowards and should be ignored. They do this because they are not brave enough to take the journey themselves. The more honest of them will say so.

Once you get started, everyone you meet will want to know where you are going and why. You’ll have to explain yourselves and your actions and decision making process again and again. Because people will feel entitled to know the reasons behind your decisions in life, even if they are not part of them. Some of them will accept your reasons. Others will try the tactics you already had to overcome to get started. Take heart from the acceptance and don’t listen to the cowards. You’ve had practice at ignoring them by now.

You’ll go through some initial hardships and get tempted to turn back. Because the first wave will overwhelm you and you’ll be exhausted and the idea of doing it all again will be daunting. However – you will tell yourself that you can’t bear all of this to be for nothing, and that is what will spur you on.

Everyone you meet *after* these initial hardships will want to discuss them with you in great detail. The more foolish will ask whether you encountered them, knowing that they lie on the path behind you. You will also meet a few, beautiful and cherished people who give you a heads up about further hardships to come and how to avoid them or deal with them. But you will meet far more who want to rehash what you’ve already endured, and who will use the knowledge of hardships ahead as a way to try and convince you to give up. This is because they want to encounter, second hand, the feeling of achievement that you can cherish for getting through it, without actually putting themselves through the difficulty.  And they can’t bear for you to succeed where they are too scared to try.

As you get towards the end you will meet people who tell you to turn back. That you have gone far enough. That you’ve made your point. That you have proved ‘enough’ to the world. That pushing on any further would be pointless or worthless. These are the people who don’t want you to succeed. They want to bring you down. The idea of your potential success frightens them, because it proves that things can be done and that their reasons for choosing not to do so (CHOOSING, not being unable) are invalid, and they are shown up as weak. Their efforts to dissuade you also show them up as cowardly. By now you should definitely have had enough practice at ignoring cowards.

When you finally get to the end, you will quite possibly meet some of the people who gave you a heads up about hardships and encouraged you, even if they did not walk with you.

They will say just a few words and they will be more precious to you than jewels.

“I always knew you could do it.”

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