WINNING STORIES - OPEN SHORT STORY COMPETITION 2017
MR PATEL'S POWER DRILL - by TONY OSWICK - £100 first prize
It's fun being a fairy, unobserved but able to observe the world, its glories and disasters. Today I'm sitting on the soap-powder shelf of Patel's Mini-Mart, the shop Hardik Patel runs in Drever Street. I like it here on the shelf because it's away from the sun and the soap-powder neutralises the smell of curry from Mrs Patel's kitchen.
Mr Patel, as he does for twelve hours every day, is standing behind the till. He looks up as the bell over the door rings, and a young man in pin-stripe suit, blue shirt and yellow tie breezes in.
"Good morning, Mr Patel. And how are you today? As promised - and I'm a man of my word - I've brought the Ford Focus to your door-step." Jimmy Stark extends an arm towards the road outside. Jimmy is the proprietor of Stark's Used Car Outlet in the High Road.
Mr Patel blinks. "Good day, Mr Stark. It is indeed most kind of you to deliver the car personally to me." I smile as Mr Patel bows.
"A little cracker she is. Ten years old. One careful lady owner. Only seventy thousand on the clock. And a snip at two and a half grand. You've got a real bargain there, Mr Patel. I'm giving it away."
"It is indeed a most beautiful motor-car. I am full of the highest gratitude to you for selling it for such a reasonable sum." I don't know if it's a bargain or not. We fairies aren't second-hand car sales' experts.
"I know you'll be pleased with her. I've filled her up with petrol. Here are the keys and log book."
Mr Patel bows again. "Mr Stark, you have been most gracious to me and my family. It is our custom to acknowledge such generosity and so it would be a favour to me if you would accept this small gift as a sign of my gratitude." Mr Patel reaches under the counter and produces a cardboard box. I'm as eager as Jimmy to see what's inside.
He opens the box's lid, rummages inside and reveals a power drill. Neither of us was expecting that. I think Jimmy may be lost for words for the first time in his life.
"It is only a small gift, Mr Stark. My wife's second cousin Ravinder works at Harwick's Warehouse and obtained this at a most satisfactory price. He informs me it is a Bosch Cordless, the best on the market. Please, take."
I know people give chocolates or bottles of wine but I've never seen a power drill given as a gift before.
"That will be most useful," lies Jimmy and I get the impression he'll just leave it lying around gathering rust. I'm also getting the impression Mr Patel isn't very street-wise.
I don't like interfering but I might have to intervene.
"I am so pleased you are here, Mr Stark. I must talk as a matter of urgency about the Ford Focus you sold me five weeks ago." Mr Patel has got up extra-early today and I've followed him to the office of Stark's Used Car Outlet in the High Road. I'm sitting on a bright orange filing cabinet. Jimmy Stark is lounging in a black leather chair behind a mock-oak desk.
"Good to see you again, Mr ....er "
"Patel. My name is Hardik Patel. I own Patel's Mini-Mart on Drever Street and five weeks ago you sold me a Ford Focus for two thousand five hundred pounds."
"Ah yes." I see Jimmy's face light up in recognition. "A lovely little runner."
"Oh dear no." Mr Patel throws both arms in the air. "It is awful, Mr Stark. Last Saturday I went to visit my nephew Arjan and his family in Birmingham but, on the way home, calamity. I was on the motorway when my lovely new car stopped working."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Mr Patel." I scan Jimmy's face but he doesn't look overly concerned.
"A nice man towed me all the way to his garage in Wolverhampton. I could not fully understand him because he was born in Scotland but his words are imprinted on my mind -'camshaft kaput, cylinder gone awol, transmission knackered.' "
Jimmy fidgets in his seat. "So?"
"Then he says it will cost me seven thousand pounds to put right."
"Seven thousand? That seems a bit steep to me, Mr Patel. But I'm not sure what you want me to do."
"I explained to the kind garage-man that it is an old car but a new car for me. He tells me to visit the kind Mr Stark at the earliest opportunity to sort things out. So here I am." From what I heard Mr Patel say to his wife this morning, he hopes Jimmy will pay for the repairs.
But all Jimmy does is scratch his chin. "Well, I'd really like to help but I'm afraid caveat emptor."
Mr Patel raises his eyebrows. "What is this?"
"Buyer beware. That's the long and short of it. The conditions of sale don't cover these things. Not beyond four weeks. Look, I'll get a copy of the contract." Jimmy goes to the top drawer of the orange filing cabinet where I'm sitting and reaches for a pile of papers. "Here, on page two, section seven, sub-paragraph eight. After four weeks all responsibility passes to the new owner and Stark's Used Car Outlet cannot accept liability for subsequent repairs or faults."
Mr Patel gets out his spectacles and peers at the small print on the paper. I'm not sure he understands. I sit there, silently urging him to challenge Jimmy Stark. Why doesn't he say he'll consult his solicitor? Or threaten court action? Or write to 'Watchdog'? But all he does is shrug. Perhaps I'll stay on this filing cabinet over-night. Perhaps it is time to help Mr Patel.
Jimmy Stark is whistling as he approaches the front door of Stark's Used Car Outlet. I've been in his office all night and been looking forward to this morning.
He's at the door now and he sees it. In the middle of the letter 'O' in Stark's Used Car Outlet on the front door.
There's a small hole the size of a pea. I laugh, although Jimmy can't hear me. "Those bloody kids and their air rifles." He takes out his key and unlocks the door. "That's going to cost me a couple of hundred."
Jimmy hurries into the office and flings his car keys on the desk. He thinks about sitting down but immediately jumps up as he notices six small holes the size of peas in a corner of his computer.
"What the hell's going on?" He's shouting now as he pokes his fingers around the holes. I laugh even more. "If this is someone's idea of a joke, I'll ..." Then he notices the door leading to the car showroom is open. "Oh no," he yells and rushes to inspect the cars. I don't need to see what 's going on. I can hear him cursing and swearing.
Ten of his best second-hand cars each have small holes the size of peas peppered in their bonnets.
As he dashes back to his office I feel a draught and, as he slams the door, the filing cabinet rumbles beneath me. Now he's noticed something on the floor, in the corner by the filing cabinet. "Gotcha!" he cries. "And you're covered in finger-prints, no doubt!" He takes out his handkerchief and gingerly lifts a Bosch Cordless power drill from the floor and places it in the top drawer of the orange filing cabinet.
"Right sir, you say the vandals left it in the office." It's four hours later but I'm still sitting on the filing cabinet at Stark's Used Car Outlet. A burly man in police uniform is sitting opposite Jimmy Stark.
"That's right, officer. Those bloody hooligans used a power drill to make holes in my door, my computer and ten of my beautiful cars."
The policeman inspects the damage on the computer. "Looks like mindless vandalism to me, sir. Certainly not the work of professionals." I feel insulted but there's nothing I can do or say. "And where exactly did you find the drill?"
Jimmy points to the corner. "Down there. Silly young fools, I'm sure they'll have left finger-prints. I was very careful when I put the drill in the filing cabinet."
"That was very resourceful of you, sir. Perhaps I could have a look?" Jimmy leads the policeman to the filing cabinet. I'm sitting there, unseen, but my heart is fluttering with anticipation as Jimmy opens the top drawer. There are papers, files and letters - but there's no sign of the power drill. Jimmy's eyes bulge. "But I left it there, on the top."
The policeman peers inside the cabinet. "It doesn't appear to be there now, sir. Perhaps you put it one of the other drawers?"
Jimmy rifles through all the drawers of the filing cabinet. "But I swear it was here this morning. I remember doing it. I don't understand." I watch as he paces around, throwing his arms around in despair. Of course he doesn't understand.
"Perhaps you were mistaken, sir? There was an instance last year - you may have read about it - when a Health Food shop burned down. Except we later discovered the business was in financial troubles. The court took a very dim view of the owner's attempts to claim the insurance. He got three years for that scam."
"But it's not like that, surely you don't think ... ?"
"Of course not, sir. I'm not casting aspersions at all. By the way, I wasn't able to find any evidence of forced entry. Strange that, don't you think? Whoever did this must have gained entry by using a key." The policeman leaned forward. "And the hole in the glass must've been drilled from the inside because there are shards of glass on the outside." He paused. "An inside job as you might say?"
I look at Jimmy Stark and, for a second time in his life, he's speechless.
"We're very busy people, sir. And wasting police time is an offence, you know. Now, how do you think we ought to proceed?"
Jimmy gulps. "Well I'm sure I know what happened ... and I'll definitely speak to my insurance people ... but perhaps in the circumstances ... shall we leave it there?"
"That might be for the best, sir. I'll be off then. Have a good day." The policeman waltzes out muttering to himself while Jimmy slumps in his chair.
"I must be going mad, I need a drink," he mumbles to himself. He starts to get up but he hears a noise. A buzzing noise. It's coming from the drinks cabinet in the opposite corner of the office. He takes a step backwards. The drinks cabinet door is opening. The Bosch Cordless power drill is drilling into the sides of the cabinet - one hole, two holes, lots of holes. All by itself.
"What the hell's going on?" Jimmy wheezes as the power drill stops making holes in the cabinet and starts to float towards him, it's drill-bit whirring and whizzing, louder and louder, faster and faster, nearer and nearer to his face.
Jimmy Stark faints and collapses on the floor.
I'm back on the soap-powder shelf of Patel's Mini-Mart. Jimmy is shaking as he bursts into the shop. "Your drill, your drill, please take it back."
"Good morning, Mr Stark. What is the matter? Is my gift not working properly? I am so sorry. I will ask Ravinder to obtain a replacement. I will phone him today."
"No, I don't need a new one. It's just that I've re-checked my records and there's been a dreadful misunderstanding about the Ford Focus. I'm so sorry. Look, I've had a Honda Civic come into the showroom, only two years old, runs like a dream. Here are the keys and the log book, please accept it with the compliments of Stark's Used Car Outlet. But please, please, please take the power drill back."
"A new car? For me? Mr Stark, that is so kind. I told my wife there must've been some mistake."
"So we can consider the matter closed?"
"Most definitely." Mr Patel's face is beaming. I feel a quiver of satisfaction running through my fairy body. My superiors will be most pleased with me.
Jimmy's face is beaming too. "And I'll even take the Ford Focus off your hands. Won't be a problem. I'll get it shifted back from Wolverhampton." I'd forgotten about the Ford Focus.
Mr Patel's eyes light up. "Oh no, that will not be possible. It has been sold."
Jimmy puts his head to one side. "Sold? But it was clapped out? Who'd want to buy it?"
"The kind garage-man from Wolverhampton telephoned me yesterday evening. His brother lives in Glasgow."
"What? Why? How?" Jimmy's puzzled. I lean nearer. I'm as interested as he is to find out what happened.
"The garage-man mentioned the Ford Focus to his brother - not about the repairs - but about the number plate. 'UP11 CEL'. The garage-man's brother is a follower of Celtic Football Club and he says the number plate is worth £9,000."
For the third time in his life, I see Jimmy lost for words.
"So now I have an almost-new Honda Civic - and £9,000. I am so grateful to you, Mr Stark." Mr Patel reaches out to shake Jimmy's hand but Jimmy Stark is rooted to the spot, his mouth wide-open.
I told you it was fun being a fairy.
THE DOME - by Joyce Walker - £60 second prize
"What yer doin’ Mister?”
I’d just started laying the foundations for what was to be a mammoth construction, one that would save my family’s life, I’d made sure of it; I’d had it written into the contract.
“Building,” I replied.
He was dressed in the all too familiar uniform of the street urchin, ragged, greying clothes that hung on the frame of someone who obviously didn’t get enough to eat and spent time loitering around the building sites hoping that one of us would take pity on them and offer some of the food we carried to eat in our breaks.
Sometimes they were lucky, but with food as scarce is it was, mostly they were ignored and went hungry.
“Wot yer building? Must be somethin’ big, there’s millions of yer doin’ it, ‘ard ‘ats ev’rywhere. Never seen so many of yer workin’ on the same thing at the same time before.”
He was right, of course, it was big and it was important, we were working for the survival of mankind. Sadly, though, the survival of his kind was unlikely to be included in the world governments’ master plan, so what could I say to him.
“We’re building a dome, radiation and acid rain proof. When it’s finished it will cover everything important and scientists will be able to regulate the weather inside it, so there are enough crops and cattle to feed everyone and nobody will ever be hungry again.”
“Everyone? Even me?”
I couldn’t possibly tell him the truth; that the everyone I was talking about was everyone that politicians deemed fit to enter, or those like me, who’d had contracts drawn up and signed so I lied to him.
Weeks and months passed and the walls below the dome began to grow and there wasn’t a day went by without the boy coming to see me. Previously, I’d made a point of not feeding strays like this one. I did, after all have a family of my own, including a boy not much older than him but one day, when I’d been paid a productivity bonus and was using some of it to treat my son to some sweets, I added a small chocolate bar to my purchases and soundly broke my own rule, handing it to him when I stopped for a mid-morning drink that I’d just poured from the thermos I had with me.
His face lit up in a broad smile and he thanked me profusely.
“Ain’t never ‘ad choc’lat before,” he said.
I expected him to gulp it down as I’d seen others do with any morsel of food, but he broke off a small piece and savoured it, popping the rest into the one good pocket in his shirt. I assumed he was saving it to eat later but he saw me watching him and explained.
“Fer me sister, she don’t walk too good and can’t scavenge like I can. She’d be dead by now if I didn’t tek somethin’ back. Course, when this is built there won’t be no more problems will there? Enough food for everyone, that’s what you said.”
God, I felt guilty stringing him along, but by the time the dome was finished, he’d probably have progressed from begging and scavenging to mugging and more serious crimes in order to survive and the little sister, well she wasn’t my problem, my problem was getting this thing built before the climate made it impossible to live outside and with each day getting drier and hotter, even in winter and with the news bulletins getting more doom laden I knew that day couldn’t be too far away.
Our working hours were increased, so that while ever there was daylight we continued to build and when no natural light remained we worked under strong floodlights and still each day the boy came and looked on. Soon it would be time to close off our sector and soon me and mine would be safe inside and he would be left outside foraging until his food supplies dried up and he perished along with all those others who, by an accident of birth, had become society’s outcasts.
I kept telling myself it didn’t matter, that all that mattered was what mattered to everyone these days, looking after my own kin, but each time I saw him I found myself sharing my meagre rations and always, he took only a small piece for himself, keeping some back for the sister I’d never met, but that he obviously felt obliged to look after and while he still looked like all those other street urchins I’d seen I began to feel he wasn’t like the others at all and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I had to do something to help him.
Then, one day when he came he was clutching an old newspaper he’d found and before I could give him my usual cheery good morning he thrust it under my nose to read.
“Yer lied to me,” he said. “Yer told me this, this place, this dome were for all of us, but that’s not wot it says in this ‘ere paper. It says it’s been built to keep scum like us out.”
Up until then I had no idea he could read, most of his kind, after all, had never been to school, but every time I’d formed an opinion about the street kids he’d confounded it by doing something unexpected.
I thought about trying to fob him off by telling him he shouldn’t believe everything he read, but not only did I think he’d disbelieve me if I did, I thought it was time for something approaching total honesty.
“I was telling you the truth,” I said, “The dome is being built to protect mankind from the disasters that climate change will bring and everything inside it will be controlled to make sure there’s enough food, but there won’t be enough room or the resources to include everybody, so some people will be either be left out, or in some cases cast out to fend for themselves on whatever the land can provide.”
“And me and me sister, we’re among the ones not deemed good enough to be part of this new world you’re building. Well it ain’t fair, I’ve as much right to live as anybody and so ‘as me little sister. It’s not our faults me mam and dad died in the last flood, that the ‘ouse we lived in ‘as gone and that we didn’t ‘ave relatives kind enough or rich enough to tek us on, so we couldn’t go to school no more. None of it is my fault. I don’t steal and I don’t beg. Have I ever asked you to give me anythin’?”
I thought about that for a while and then remembered that everything he’d taken was what I’d offered.
“No,” I said, “you’ve never asked me for anything.”
I realised then what I’d often thought of previously, that he deserved my help, what I didn’t know was how to give it to him.
“Have you tried for a place in one of the children’s homes?” I asked, “You are, after all, orphans.”
“’Ave you tried? They’ll only tek yer if yer parents kin put yer name down and like I said my aunts and uncles didn’t want nowt to do wi’ us. Anyways, from wot I ‘ear, it’s not much better in one o’ them than it is out ‘ere.”
“At least you’d get schooling and when you’re old enough to leave you’ll be on the right side of the wall. Your survival chances would be much greater than they are now.”
“Still don’t ‘elp me to magic up an aunt or uncle that will ‘elp me out with the papers though, does it?”
“No, I guess not. Look I might have one or two friends in the local records office that owe me a favour, I’ll see what I can do about getting you papers.” And remembering how I’d lied to him before, I added, “no promises, though.”
“Claude,” I said, “the name’s Claude.”
“Don’t sound like the sort o’ name a builder would ‘ave,” he said.
“No, I don’t suppose it does, but when I was born my daddy didn’t know that was what I was going to be. What do I call you?”
“Ali, short for Alan, Alan Johnson, me sister’s name is Mary, you’ll need to know just in case they give you the papers you need to get us inside.”
That night I went home and made a few phone calls and my favours looked liked bearing fruit, all I had to do now was persuade the wife that I’d found out the children of a distant cousin I hadn’t known about until a few days ago were living on the streets and ask her if we could bring them into our home until I could get them a place in one of the orphanages I’d spoken to Ali about.
“You’re sure it’s only temporary?” she asked. “Only even with the extra money you’ve been earning lately we can’t feed two extra mouths forever.”
“Positive,” I told her, “and I can’t see my own kin left outside the dome when they close it off can I?”
What she said next surprised me.
“You’re a good man Claude Foster, there’s plenty of people these days who’d ignore closer kin than yours.”
Yes, I thought, like the aunts and uncles of Ali and Mary who’d let them suffer and possibly die, rather than give them a roof for a short while and give them a chance at some kind of a life in our brave new world.
With leave finally being allowed while our part of the dome was closed to the outside, I was able, finally to go to the records office and fill in the papers, that, if accepted by the bureaucrats would guarantee Ali and Mary a temporary home and give me the chance to place them in one of the many homes that existed for children like them who had fallen on hard times.
There was, of course, a risk that someone would check the families out and find we weren’t related, a risk that could have serious consequences for me and mine, but it was a risk I had to take, so I completed the forms, signed them and submitted them, receiving a docket that gave me temporary custody and leave to move them with us into one of the new units I had now been building on the inside, that would with a bit of effort and imagination become our new home.
I was also able to get them both into school, for which Ali couldn’t thank me enough.
“I’ve missed school a lot,” he confided. “Mebe now I can learn to write proper and when I’m old enough, get a job. I’m worried about Mary though, the last school we went to, she was treated terrible, cos of ‘er limp.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” I said, “but if you hear she’s being bullied, just let me know and I’ll go and talk to the teachers and stop it from happening.”
It didn’t take either of them long to become part of the family. They accepted the chores they were given with better grace than my own children and received glowing reports from their teachers, because, unlike most of the kids they went to school with they really wanted to be there.
I thought perhaps it should be mandatory for all children to be taken out of school for a few months and forced from their homes to fend for themselves, just so they’d appreciate what they had.
Ali continued to spend as much time with me as he could when schooling permitted and began to take a keen interest in the plans I worked from and the building methods I employed and I realised for the first time in a very long time, I was truly happy.
When the letter arrived to say that a placement had been found for them in one of the orphanages it was with some reluctance we helped them pack their things and took them to the superintendant’s office to hand over responsibility for their care.
There were tears from all of us because we knew that it was effectively goodbye, contact with the outside world was frowned upon. The children were to be moulded for the new society and not until they were old enough to leave would they be allowed much contact with life outside.
“Don’t worry,” the superintendant said, “We’ll be their family now and I can assure you they’ll be well looked after.
#Seven years after I left them there, I had received a new contract to work on one of the new commercial buildings that were being erected and had been summoned to the architect’s office for a meeting. When I arrived I was greeted by a young man who had just begun working there and who, I had been informed on the phone was showing a great deal of promise.
The young man was tall, strong and intelligent and when he smiled there was something familiar about him.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“I hope so, Claude, I’m Alan Johnson, my friends call me Ali. Maybe after work we can meet somewhere and talk about old times."
The Widows of Slagdale - by Jill Merza - £25 third prize
Marcy Jackson pieced together the broken words that fell out of the tannoy and gathered that the train standing at platform three was the sixteen forty-five London to Sheffield. She waited until the last minute before boarding in the hope that Adam would come running down the platform and beg her not to leave.
As the train sped north she took a scrap of paper out of her bag, screwed it up and threw it out of the window. And so the details of Betty, a back street abortionist in Battersea (total cost sixty-five pounds, ten shillings and sixpence) ended up in a muddy field. She placed a protective hand on her belly, and tried to think of the future rather than the past.
Both were bleak.
From Sheffield she took the local train to Slagdale, or Slagheap as it was affectionately known. Before she even got off the train she could hear the gossip.
‘Serves her right, swanning off to London like that...’
‘Knew no good would come of it...’
It was a short journey and soon she was walking down Pitmans Hill under the swoop of orange lights that led into the town. A biting wind blew in from the moors and her suitcase banged against her bare, chapped thighs. Snowflakes fell in graceful, unhurried swirls and settled on her hair like tiny stars.
Once in the town she resisted the temptation to go in the Chinese chippy that sold fat chips and curry sauce in polystyrene cups. And when she walked past the Working Mens’s Club, where bow-tied comedians were telling jokes on a stage backed with strands of silver lametta, the sound of laughter and applause that spilled out onto the street added to her misery.
Her pace slowed as she got closer to home, but all too soon she was standing outside number thirteen Ironbridge Road. The snowflakes that had followed her became agitated; they bumped into each other as if they too were desperate to avoid the house that she had left four months ago.
And who could blame them?
Mrs Jackson opened the door and looked her daughter up and down. ‘So that’s what they call a miniskirt, is it? Look at your legs – red raw. I’ll put kettle on.’
Marcy dragged her suitcase into the living room. Nothing had changed. Grandma Vi was sitting in the winged armchair by the fire. She was wearing a flannelette nightie with one of Grandad Tom’s old cardigans over the top – the mustard-coloured one with the buttons that looked like half footballs. When Marcy kissed the top of her head – her skull pink and embryonic – she sprang to life and gripped Marcy’s wrist with her bony fingers.
‘Is that you, Tom?’ she croaked. ‘Are you takin’ me dancin’ tonight?’
Before Marcy could explain – yet again – that Grandad Tom would never take her dancing again, her mum returned with a pot of tea and a plate of mince pies on a tray.
‘How was your journey? Surprised you got a ticket, what with it bein’ so close to Christmas.’ Mrs Jackson made a space on the coffee table by pushing the clutter to one side with the tray. ‘How’s that Adam? What I want to know is when’s he goin’ to make an honest woman of you? All this livin’ in sin. It’s not right. I blame them pop singers
myself. All them antics on stage. It’s not decent. Too much hair and too tight trousers. And I expect that Adam’s just like them, knowing you.’ She wagged a finger under Marcy’s nose. ‘You want to get yourselves wed. Before anythin’ happens.’
Marcy took a deep breath. ‘It’s already happened. I’m two months gone.’ She focused her gaze on the strips of twisted red crepe paper that had been pinned in each corner of the room, and which crossed – not quite in the centre – of the ceiling.
The tea sloshed into the saucer as Mrs Jackson stared at her daughter.
‘I told you London’s no place for a Slagdale lass. Beats me why you went there in the first place when you got a perfectly good home here. What’s that Adam got to say for himself?’
Marcy blinked back the tears as she remembered his cruel words.
‘You’d better get rid of it or you and me are finished.’
The next day he’d given her Betty’s name and address. That had been her choice. Kill her baby, or return home.
‘I hope he’s goin’ to do the right thing by you,’ probed Mrs Jackson.
Marcy’s silence told her that he wasn’t.
‘Oh, Lord. Your dad’s goin’ to go barmy when he hears about this. Talkin’ of which, I’d best make his cocoa. He’ll be in from club soon. Don’t you say anythin’ to him yet. We’ll have to have a think about what to do first.’
Marcy knew there was no point in waiting up to see her dad, so she went to bed. Later on, when she heard her mum come up the stairs and call out, ‘Don’t forget to lock up, Joe. And put the milk bottles out,’ she pulled the blankets over her head. The ritual that had been so comforting when she was little now filled her with fear. Her dad couldn’t lock up or put the milk bottles out, and Grandad Tom would never dance again, because last December they’d both been killed in a car crash on Pitmans Hill. At first Marcy had assumed that as time passed her mum and Grandma Vi would accept that their husbands had died. But they didn’t, and Marcy had come to the conclusion that their grief had sent them mad. Terrified that the same madness might take hold of her, she’d fled to London.
The next morning Mrs Jackson handed Marcy a small box. ‘You better wear this. I can’t wear it no more, not with my arthritis.’
Marcy stared at the gold band that was lying on a bed of cotton wool. ‘You want me to pretend to be married?’
‘It’ll keep the gossip-mongers quiet.’
‘Won’t people wonder why you never mentioned I’d got married? And why you never come to the wedding?’
‘I’ll say we knew nowt about it. That you came home already wed – which you have done, haven’t you?’
‘What shall I say when people ask about him? They’ll want to know why he’s not here, especially as it’s Christmas.’
Mrs Jackson waved a hand in the air. ‘We’ll say he’s got to work.’
‘And what does he do, this husband of mine?’
‘Adam, you mean? You got to call him Adam. That way you won’t forget his name.’ Mrs Jackson gazed at the ceiling. ‘Let’s see…I know! He can be a doctor. Dr. Adam Gilmore. That’s nice and respectable.’
Marcy had to agree that pretending to be married would put paid to some of the things she’d been dreading, like pushing a pram through the streets of Slagdale, trying to ignore the whispering and pitying stares when she walked past the old women nattering on the street corner. So despite the nagging feeling that something was wrong, she kept the ring on her finger. Being married would solve so many problems. And what harm could one little lie possibly do?
That afternoon Marcy had a visitor.
‘Janice!’ She threw her arms round her old school friend and dragged her into the kitchen where her mum was doing the ironing.
‘I came straight over soon as I heard you was back,’ said Janice. ‘I couldn’t believe it when you went off to London without so much as a ta-ra! Not even a letter or phone call! What’ve you been up to?’
Marcy held her left hand out. ‘I’ve got married.’
‘His name’s Adam Gilmore. He’s a doctor.’
‘A doctor? And here’s me thinking I was doing well getting promoted to wines and spirits! Why didn’t you tell me? I could’ve been bridesmaid.’
‘We didn’t tell anyone. Not even my mum. We just popped down the registry office.’
‘Where is he?’
‘In London. He’s got to work over Christmas.’
‘Suppose I’ll just have to make do with the photos.’
‘Photos?’ Marcy paled, but her mum came to her rescue.
‘She forgot them.’
‘No I didn't! I just didn’t want to put them in my suitcase in case they got squashed.’
Bewildered by how easy the lies were falling from her lips, Marcy took refuge in the truth and told Janice she was expecting.
‘We want a big family. Adam loves kids.’
‘Where are you going to live?’
‘London. ’Cos of his job.’
‘I’ll have to come to you if your Adam can’t come up here.’
‘Come to London?’ Marcy glanced at her mum for help, but a look of panic crossed her face when Mrs Jackson spoke.
‘I’m goin’ down there after Christmas, when Marcy goes back. We can all go together.’
After Janice had left, Marcy rounded on her mum.
‘Why did you say that? I can’t never go back to London. And how can I stay here and not have Adam come up?’ Marcy wrung her hands. ‘I knew this weren’t such a good idea. I had a feeling something weren’t right when you suggested it.’
‘Calm down, lass. I’ve already thought about all that.’
‘Someone had to. You was never one to think ahead, was you?’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘You’ll see.’ Mrs Jackson smiled, and carried on ironing her dead husband’s shirts.
On the day before Christmas Eve, when Marcy came back from shopping, Mrs Jackson told her she’d had a phone call about Adam.
‘Of course your Adam. How many Adam’s do you know?’ Mrs Jackson paused. ‘He was on his way up here—’
‘He was coming to see me? I knew it. I knew he’d change his mind about the baby.’
‘It was the hospital, lass. His car crashed. They tried to save him but...I’m sorry, love. He’s dead.’
Grandma Vi’s head shot up from where it had been resting on her chest. ‘Dead? Tom ain’t dead. He’s takin’ me dancin’ tonight.’
‘Adam? Dead?’ Marcy stared deep into her mum’s eyes. ‘Is he really dead? Are you sure?’
Mrs Jackson nodded, then murmured words of what she thought were comfort. ‘Better to be a widder woman than the mum of a – you know.’
When Marcy’s sobs had subsided, Mrs Jackson went to the corner shop to tell whoever was in there about the tragedy that had befallen her daughter.
By lunchtime everyone in Slagdale knew that young Marcy Jackson was two months pregnant and a widow. Eager to find out more, the women of Slagdale filed into number thirteen Ironbridge Road and assured her that when the bairn was born they would all muck in and help. They offered second-hand prams and cots, and the owner of the haberdashery shop on the High Street, whose window you could never see into because of the sheet of yellow cellophane that covered it, said she would stock up on baby wool.
After Christmas Marcy begged her mum to find out when and where Adam’s funeral would be held.
Mrs Jackson pretended to phone the crematorium.
‘He’s been laid to rest in the cemetery in Sheffield.’
‘Already? Why didn’t they tell us? They had our number.’
Mrs Jackson shrugged. ‘He’s been buried in the paupers grave, seein’ as there was no one to pay for it. They don’t tell people when that happens.’
‘I want to go there.’
‘Why? There won’t even be a headstone.’
Marcy insisted she wanted to pay her respects so she went to Sheffield. It was a grey and lifeless day; the snow had melted, leaving wet pavements bordered with piles of slush that had solidified and were streaked yellow with dog pee.
She was pleased to see that the grave was in a nice spot on the edge of the cemetery, protected by the branches of an old oak tree.
When she got home her mum told her to write to Adam. ‘Tell him you never want to see him again and that he must never show his face in these parts.’
‘How can I, if he’s dead?’
Mrs Jackson nodded in approval. ‘There’s no catching you out, is there, lass? But you do know he’s not really dead, don’t you?’
Only now did Marcy realize what was happening. Her mum, for a reason she couldn’t understand, was trying to drag her into the same madness that she and Grandma Vi suffered from. But she wasn’t going to let that happen. She wasn’t going to talk to Adam as if he was there; she wasn’t going to make his cocoa or iron his shirts.
And as if to prove it, she went to the cemetery every week, and placed a posy of flowers on the grave that was in such a nice spot, under the protective branches of an old oak tree.