New shoes – a short story

Fred wanted new shoes and knew that the best time to approach his mother was about an hour after supper. He had to time things just right to catch that sweet-spot moment when she was starting to relax and let go of her busy day. If he waited too long to the time when she was becoming drowsy, she would be annoyed and unreceptive to anything other than the mundane. On this evening he laid his groundwork well helping with the dishes and purposefully padding around, shoeless. When they sat down before the television, she with some mending in her hands, he put his feet up on an ottoman, in the hope that she would comment and give him a lead into, what he felt to be, his pressing need

He was disappointed, as she gave the impression of intense concentration while she sewed on buttons and watched a ‘House Hunters’ episode. At a commercial break he decided to take the plunge, coughed and said, “Ma, did you notice that I need new shoes?”

She looked up at his feet and smiled as if she saw through his intrigue. “No, dear, I didn’t, because you don’t.”

Fred disliked her response but now that he had broached the subject he had to continue “Ma, you must have forgotten. I’m in great need. Wouldn’t it be best if we bought them before school starts? If we buy them soon, like tomorrow, we would hit the before school tax holiday. It ends this weekend.” He smiled weakly, feeling proud of his practical suggestion. His mother didn’t smile; her face remained sad and wistful.

“No, dear, there are no funds for new shoes.”

Fred looked at this mother, this time he saw her, rather than merely knowing that she was there. She looked tired and grey; her face now tightened into a frown, her hair drawn back into an untidy pony tail. He noticed her clothes; a crumpled old shirt over black pants. Her feet were also shoeless. He turned and looked at her shoes, a pair of black pumps with worn heels where they had been scuffed while driving. Instinctively he knew that she was not lying about money, but he also recognized the refrain, which had been ongoing for the two years since his father died. Although he was almost eighteen and had an adult body, Fred still retained a child-like belief that his mother was omnipotent, and that, as a mother, she was required to fulfill all his desires and needs.

“Mother,” he groaned, “Mother, I gave you all my earnings from my summer pool guard job. There has to be enough to get me some new shoes!”

“You forget that the car needed repairs after that little accident which you had at the beginning of the summer. I could go on, Fred,” she sighed, “but you don’t want to hear about all our money troubles such as the rent-hike, or that it has been so hot this summer that the electricity bill was double what I expected. I do my best but there is absolutely nothing left for new shoes.”

Fred was hardly listening. “Mother, there has to be something hidden away somewhere,” he raised his voice, “because I need, not want, mother, need, new shoes. Tell you what I’ll show you,” With this comment Fred moved quickly; he rushed to the stairs and vaulted up to his room.

When he got there he gathered his shoes off the floor of his closet. He was surprised to find that he had more of them than he thought, but he decided to lug them all down to his mother. There were his old sneakers with their bright blue tops and dirty laces smelling of sweat and better times. His dress up shoes, the ones which he wore to his father’s funeral – black and shiny and too tight. Last, there was a pair of sandals that she had bought him last year; they were caked with mud from the time that it rained on the spring picnic. He left his flip flops under the bed deciding that they didn’t count as shoes.

“Mom, here are my shoes.” he gasped as he laid them out on the coffee table. “Look at them, they are old and inappropriate for school in the Fall. You don’t want your only son to shame you in any of these do you?”

She looked up from her work and gave an almost inaudible sad groan. “What about your walking shoes?”

“Come on Ma they were nines – much too small. Don’t you remember when I had the bad toe a few months ago, and you told me to throw them away. Well I did!”

“So what size do you take now? I forget.”

The question pleased Fred; he saw it as a chink in her armor. ”Been ten since the year after Dad died.”  ‘Now she is going to capitulate’ thought Fred, ‘I’m sure that she won’t spring for the boots which I want but I’ll have a try when we get to the store.’ He said, in his sweetest voice, “So we can go to the store tomorrow?”

“No dear, you didn’t hear me – there is no money. But I have an idea. Let’s go upstairs together. Bring your shoes and put them away” She rose and walked toward the stairs. Fred followed carrying his shoes in his arms.

“But Ma, I brought them all – that’s everything except the flip flops which I wore all summer at the pool when I was a life-guard.” He felt pleased with himself that he had covered this omission to his inventory.

“No dear, just put them away and then come into my room.”

Fred obeyed, He felt slightly anxious. He wondered what she was up to as she generally didn’t like him coming into her room. When he entered, he found her standing before her closet holding two pairs of men’s shoes. She held them out to him.

“Go on, try them on. They are tens. They were your father’s. I couldn’t throw them out they are so nice, so new. The boots remind me of him he always loved to wear his cowboy boots.”

Fred took the boots in his hands. The leather was soft. The decoration on the outside was restrained and elegant. “These are beautiful,” he gasped, “Do you want me to try them on?”

“Yes, try them on,” now she was smiling, “but know, Fred, that if you put on your father’s shoes you graduate into a responsible man. You will no longer be a child.”

Fred hardly heard her warning and sat on her bed as he pulled on the beautiful boots. As expected they fit him perfectly. He stood before her mirror and admired them. “May I keep them?” he asked his voice was husky with emotion.

“Yes keep them you have now stepped into your father’s shoes.”

After that things changed for Fred. When Bill, the boy next door left for college he took over Bill’s paper route. He willingly gave his mother the proceeds towards their necessary expenses. He wore his boots every day as he rode his bicycle along his route.

© August, 2014, Jane Stansfeld.

Push-ups – a short story

Katrina and her school-friends talked in awed voices about one armed push-ups. Their interest was spurred by the American action film GI Jane, released on August 22nd 1997. The movie stared Demi Moore as Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil and told the fictional story of O’Neil as the first woman to undergo the rigorous training as an equal to the male recruits in U.S. Navy Special Welfare Group (equivalent to the Navy SEALS). Along the way O’Neil faced sexism, and intense physical challenges on top of demeaning political conniving by U.S. Senator Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) who selected her for the experimental program. 

GI Jane was a box office success and grossed $11,094,241 its opening weekend, when it playing at a total of 1,945 theaters. Katrina, an incoming High School sophomore, saw it with her friends that opening weekend. They immediately identified with Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil. After all, they rationalized, wasn’t Mrs. Riley their drill team sergeant bit like the enigmatic Command Master Chief John James Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen)? They thought of their past year’s rigorous training sessions when Mrs. Riley had attempted to advance them from “girl” push-ups (push-ups from the knees) to “boy” push-ups (push-ups from the feet.) Some, including Katina, had painfully made the transition. But now they were agog with admiration as they watched Demi Moore perform multiple one armed “boy” push-ups, Extraordinary, they thought, and yet Demi, with whom they identified as being as female as themselves, seemed to perform the feat with ease. Katrina, a type ‘A’ high-performer, was especially fascinated. She thought that if Demi Moore could do it then she could also do it. When she shut her eyes she could see herself rising on one arm, and convinced  herself that all she needed was a little training.

Performance in real life proved much more difficult. Katina went into her bedroom and got down on her white Berber tuft carpet. She did a few “girl” push-ups to warm up then advanced to “boy” push-ups. All is well, she thought. She felt good and strong, so she tried on one arm. A disaster, she couldn’t even lift herself off the carpet. She felt as weak as a baby trying to sit up and gave an almost inaudible wail of anguish. She rested prostrate on the floor. She felt alone and disappointed. Her cat, Peanut, stalked up to her and nestled her nose into Katrina’s face. Katrina sneezed and then sat up to pet the cat. The cat crept into her lap and purred soothingly.

“If it is possible I will do it,” she whispered into Peanut’s ear, “I will, I will.” Then Peanut leapt off her lap onto her bed. Katrina took this show of feline agility as an affirmation that the cat agreed and understood.

Katrina was intrigued and first wanted to make sure that the push-ups weren’t a result of trick photography, to verify that it was a realistic goal for her to undertake. She invited her parents to go with her to see the film a second time. After this second viewing she walked out of the cinema convinced that the feat was real. Now she was convinced that it was within her grasp.

When she got home from the movies she retired to her bed-room again and stood on her head. The pose calmed her as it always had for standing on her head was not new to Katrina. She had learnt to do so when she was in Kindergarten. The summer before Kindergarten she had seen her Uncle do it and had imitated him practicing in secret until she had it mastered. First she would find a soft spot to use then she would kneel down and position her head with her hands on the ground on either side. Then she would slowly unfold her body into an upside down erect position. First her back and torso and then she would unfold her legs into their straight position feet skyward. The experience had shown her that she liked to stand on her head. She had spent so much time on her head in Kindergarten class that her teacher wrote a poignant note on her report card to the effect that in class she saw more of Katrina’s rear end than her face. This state of affairs might have been disturbing except that Katrina was also exceedingly smart and out-classed her classmates academically. Some even speculated that perhaps the upside-down pose gave more blood to the brain and accounted for her intelligence. Perhaps it did, for Katrina developed her plan of attack that day as she stood, alone on her head in her room.

The plan of attack was simple; push-ups, and then more push-ups. Katrina set herself a schedule five sets of ten (that’s 50) push-ups every morning before school, another five sets after she got home, from Drill Team practice, in the evening and a final five sets before bed. Initially the push-ups varied between “boy push-ups and the easier “girl push-ups but soon she was able to dispense with the easier variation. She was glad when Mrs. Riley called for push-ups in class because she could then get feedback on technique, “Back straight, butt tucked in, body like a board!”

All Fall Katrina maintained her regimen. Occasionally she attempted a one arm without success. By the time that her arms had buffed up so much that none of her shirts fitted she was becoming desperate. She needed outside help. One day, right after Thanksgiving, she managed to catch a private moment with Mrs. Riley.

“Mrs. Riley, what is the secret to one arm push-ups? You know the push-ups that Demi Moore did as GI Jane?” Mrs. Riley was happy to explain that once the arms and body was strong enough it was a question of balance. “You need to make a slight shift and twist of the body to place its center-of-gravity closer to or over the arm which is to act as support.” Katrina went home and tried and sure enough by the beginning of December she did her first one armed push-up

Katrina’s body sang in secret pleasure as she spent the rest of December perfecting her technique. When school restarted after the Christmas holiday she thought of herself as a one arm push-up pro as good as GI Jane. Katrina was accustomed to acing everything which she did, and so she didn’t brag or tell anyone of her new accomplishment – only she and Peanut shared the secret. But at their first Drill Team session of the New Year Mrs. Riley screamed at the team in frustration – everyone seemed lethargic after their Christmas recess.

“How are we ever going to look good on the football field?” She yelled, “Push-ups, I want twenty push-ups!”

The team groaned and got down on the floor. Some could only manage ignominious “girl” push-ups, some, along with Katrina, did “boy” push-ups. Katrina worked with ease. Anna-Marie on the floor next to her suddenly blurted out in a loud voice to be heard by all, her voice charged with derogatory bitter sarcasm,

“Go on Karina, do them on one arm!”

“OK,” came the happy response.

© Copyright, August 2914, Jane Stansfeld

The Exercise Bicycle – a short story

Fourteen months ago, when I went for my annual physical, the doctor’s office insisted, even though I have been a patient with them for years, that I fill out a new patient profile so that they could enter it into their new on-line electronic records system. I was annoyed that they had asked, since they already have all my medical records, and became quite irate as I filled out the same information multiple times. My anger turned to pain as I completed the page about the health of my parents and siblings. I came to a complete standstill when I wrote in ‘Stephen, brother, five, drowned.’ I was aroused from my moody reverie when a nurse emerged from a side door and called my name.

I suppose that the physical went as well as could be expected, although, looking back, I deem it to have been a total waste of time, as I came out with the instructions that I already knew, ‘Loose fifteen pounds and to start an exercise program.’ The doctor’s little pep talk, about life expectancy and so on, made, at least, a temporary impression on me. I thought about it overnight and, the next day, went to Craig’s list to look for a stationary exercise bicycle. As I had expected there were several to choose from. I selected the one whose seller was located closest to my house.

An elderly lady answered the door and quickly took me to her garage to see the bicycle. I mounted it and began to pedal. As I rode and tested the gears I looked around. The garage was a veritable workshop of bicycle parts and strange-looking machines. The old lady saw my questioning glance and spoke, “This workshop was my late husband’s. He liked to tinker. He always said that the one that you are sitting on was his masterpiece.”

After this comment I decided to pay her full asking-price and soon had the thing loaded into my station-wagon. As I pulled out of the drive she came bustling out carrying a helmet and goggles. “I almost forgot,” she said, “these go with the bicycle. There are some instructions about the electronics tucked inside the helmet.” When I got home I set the bicycle up in my spare bedroom and began my exercise routine. The helmet and so called ‘instructions’ were thrust into a corner of the room unused. After all who needs a helmet on a stationary bicycle? As for instructions, I handle these poorly at the best of times, and now I decided that I didn’t need to be told the obvious; how to plug-in the machine, how to mount it, or how to pedal.

At first things went well enough but after a couple of months my enthusiasm and dedication began to wane. Soon I was able to rationalize about the doctor’s instructions and, kindly told myself that I was not a hamster, and that I was wasting good intellectual time sitting on a stationary bicycle. Twenty minutes a day deteriorated into every other day and then twice a week. If anything I gained some more weight which always seems to happen when I attempt to lose. Then one day the tip of my flip-flop got caught in the pedals and I began to pedal backwards. Immediately the monitor between the handlebars changed color. ‘WARNING,’ it said, in bright red flashing letters, ‘FOR PROPER OPERATION IN THIS MODE, PLUG-IN AND WEAR THE HELMET AND GLASSES.’ The message sparked my curiosity and so I dismounted and took up the helmet.

The ‘instructions’ fell onto the floor and so I picked them up and, begrudgingly, began to read. They described an extraordinary operation which implied that if the helmet and goggles were worn and properly plugged into the machine then the reverse pedaling mode would take the rider back in time to any place which could be conjured up by his or her memory. It went on to describe the new monitor set-up. In the right-hand corner was a date which promised to give the time that the reverse pedaling had reached. Along the bottom were the new designations for the gears: Y, M, W, D, H, M, and S. These translated into: Years, Months, Weeks, Days, Hours, Minutes, and Seconds. In the center was an estimate of speed and time lapsed, both in “real-time’ and ‘memory-time.’

I was skeptical but, for some reason, I put on the helmet and glasses, mounted the bicycle and plugged in. I gently began to pedal backwards. I set the gears at ‘H,’ ‘Hours’ and happily watched the reverse counter in the upper right count down through the last thirty-six hours. Then I slowed it down to ‘M’ and finally ‘S’. At the ‘Seconds” setting I was still pedaling pretty fast but gradually I began to see myself sitting in the barber’s chair having the haircut that I’d had thirty-six hours earlier. It was fantastic! Over the next few weeks I perfected my timing and was able to go to any date that I wished. Here was my whole life in instant recall and perfect technicolor. I found that I could go back to times and dates that were no longer present in my consciousness but that the machine could find and then, in the ecstasy of recall, I remembered. I now had an entirely different approach to my exercise and fanatically looked forward to longer and longer periods on the bicycle. I lost weight and began to look like one of those ‘Tour de France” athletes.

The first time that I made it back fifty years to my childhood I was amazed at the clarity of my memories. It was a snowy January morning, my ninth birthday. The snow glistened white in the sun shine. It looked as though it were festooned with gems. I wondered if my nine-year-old self had noticed this beauty but there it was, so I assume that my subconscious must have recorded it. I watched myself and my younger two brothers playing in the snow; snowball fights and snowmen. The next time I went back I selected a few days later and enjoyed watching my brothers and I playing in the barn amongst the hay bales. We created an elaborate system of tunnels. They terminated in an inside chamber which we set up as our ‘den’. At one time I put my hand through a gap in the hay to the cat’s nest. Sitting on my bicycle I felt the tabby claw me. I yelled, and watched myself pull out a tiny kitten.

Another cold spring day I watched the siblings playing ‘travel’ in an abandoned car. It was cold outside but inside the car it was warm. The boys and I took turns sitting in the driver’s seat behind the steering wheel. Several days later I moved my voyeurism to summer and watched myself running bare-foot in the farmyard competing with a gaggle of geese their incessant honks to mingle with my war shouts, for I was an Indian with bow and arrow.

I always had fond memories of my youth, that is, up to the day of the accident. It was hard work going back fifty years but I was addicted and tried to do it at least every other day. At first I only selected dates which I knew would bring pleasure, always skirting around that black day when Stephen died even though I knew that I’d eventually have to go there. When, at last, I made it I was surprised that it was such a glorious early summer day. It had obviously been a wet spring and the crops were green and stock pond glimmered in the sun. Stephen was playing ball by himself while Mark and I kicked another ball back and forth. On the day of the accident I hadn’t realized that he had gone in to the stock pond following a ball, I’d assumed that he was practicing swimming as Mark and I had the previous summer. You walk in until it is too deep and then you dog-paddle to the shore. That’s how we learned to swim. That was the assumption that our parent’s made when his body was found. But, now, watching from my bicycle I saw him chasing a ball not wading.

I began to wonder whether there was any way that I could intervene. The ‘instructions’ which came tucked in the helmet were clear that the rider could not descend into his memory and that communication was impossible. The temptation to test the validity of this was overwhelming. I went back to the moment and tried calling to Stephen “No, Stevie, don’t go in the water,” but my voice was sucked into the air and, although he was quite close he obviously didn’t hear anything. I wondered whether a bell or a whistle giving a different audio might work but neither made any difference. I decided to see if I could insert something, like a life-saver, into my memory. At first I tried to do it mentally with no avail although I thought that I saw a shadow of one in my vision. Throwing one off the bicycle had no effect and when I returned to my room there it was lying on the floor.

I wondered if I could erase the memory and whether erasing the moment of the event from my memory would obliterate it from our lives. Try as I might I couldn’t come up with a way to selectively erase even the tiniest part of the memory. But then I came back to that shadow that I’d imagined or seen when I attempted to insert the life-saver. I began to experiment and found that if I concentrated very hard I could accomplish minor changes to the memory. Over the next month I painstakingly revisited the scene each time moving the trajectory of Stephen’s ball until one day I managed to prevent it from going into the stock pond sending it instead into the weeds on the perimeter. Now, obviously I didn’t actually see Stephen enter the water, and so it wasn’t part of my memory; for if I’d seen him I’d have saved him all those years ago. Thus I didn’t know if I had managed to change anything. I do recall that a few seconds later I had a most terrible headache and only just managed to return to the present before I was violently sick. When I removed the helmet it was smoking and I could see that the electronics were shot.

That evening Stephen came over to accompany me to the gym. Apparently we go every other day which accounts for our fitness. I wonder whether the episode of the exercise bicycle was my imagination although one odd thing did happen. When I returned for my next physical the nurse asked me to review my records on line to make sure that they had transcribed everything correctly. “What’s this?” I said” You have got this all wrong. My brother, Stephen, didn’t drown when he was five, he is very much alive. He and I go to the gym together every other day.”

©Copyright, Jane Stansfeld 8/14/14

The Return – a short story

Last week I wrote a story about a hitch-hiker in which the driver was a beautiful woman in a luxurious car and the hiker dirty and messy. I enjoyed the juxtaposition and so I kept the formula but attempted to turn the tables, with messy driver and more-or-less elegant rider; however, as I wrote, the story took on a life of its own.

After the bride and groom departed, the bride’s parents, her only family present, announced that they were also leaving but that they had mislaid their bag containing their Nikon camera, lenses and movie equipment. All responded to this revelation by speaking at once and scrambling around searching under tables and chairs. After a few minutes, when they had failed to find even a missing lens cap, the general consensus was that someone, maybe a member of the kitchen staff, must have made off with the bag. No-one used the word theft because the groom’s family and friends didn’t want to have their bride’s parents think poorly of them. They had pride, these East-End Londoners and most were reluctant to face the thought that someone had ripped off their rich American guests; visitors, who had traveled so far.

Mary, the only bridesmaid, had intended to catch a ride with the bride’s parents, but somehow the commotion, due to the lost bag, separated her from them, and they left without her. After their departure the party in that pub upper room, which had begun as a sober enough wedding reception, quickly degenerated into a noisy melee with free drinking, dancing and a good deal of smooching. Mary was as out-of-place as the Americans had been, and knew that she had to escape; so she went into the tiny women’s cloakroom, put on her coat and slipped down the dark stairs and opened the exterior door.

When she stepped outside onto the East End London street a cold blast of 1965 December night-air bit into her face and she realized that it had started to rain. For a moment the cold and wet caused her to pause to re-evaluate her options. She could hear the noise in the upstairs room and thought that it was getting louder. With no telephone available and no-one sober enough to give her a ride it offered little incentive to her to return. Indeed the noise confirmed her belief that the sooner she put it behind her the better. ‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘staying is worse than walking home in the rain and cold. I’ve made the right choice.’

She glanced up and down the empty wet street and started to walk. The red brick houses were unlit and the street lights barely illuminated the pavement. It looked dark, wet and Dickensian sinister. It was a daunting beginning of a long, seven-or-more mile hike, to her flat in Earl’s Court. She knew that, at this late hour past midnight, the tube had already closed and taxis few and far between. She had no umbrella or raincoat and her dyed pumps were unsuitable for walking. The improbability of it all crossed her mind. Who would have thought that she, a London University, art history student, from an upper middle class English Family, would be attending the wedding of, Cliff, an East-End London high-school drop-out whose family had never seen education beyond middle school?

She walked with a brisk tread, wondering if one could move fast enough to avoid some of the raindrops. As she turned this over in her mind she realized the stupidity of such an assumption even though the realization didn’t slow down her pace. Again she reviewed the improbability of her situation, for; of course her contact was Clara, the bride, not Cliff, the groom. But Clara’s background was as different from Cliff’s as Mary’s. Clara, a Californian girl, had met Mary the previous year at a one week Art history conference. During her visit to London she had also met Cliff when he bagged her groceries at a Sainsbury’s store. Upon her return to California she had taken up a brisk correspondence with Cliff, and, the next year, defying her PhD parents, returned to London to scope him out. Their courtship was quick, and now they were married.

The magnitude of her proposed trek had truly sunk in when Mary heard a car behind her and turned to see a beat-up old Ford. Her heart began to race; and she tried to walk faster without appearing to run. Her fear intensified when the car slowed down to match her pace. It was then that she was able to see the driver, quickly recognizing him as George, the best man, from the wedding party. He opened his window, and lent over, “Want a ride?”

Logic and experience warned her that she shouldn’t accept, but the cold and wet trumped caution and she said, “Yes, please.”

He hastily cleared papers, Coke cans and beer bottles off the passenger seat exposing dirty upholstery. She stepped in and he pulled off, a little too fast she thought. She already knew that she shouldn’t be there, the car smelt of beer, and rotten eggs. Mary deduced that it was his breath which carried the rotten egg odor and shuddered. The rain seemed to have intensified and now she watched his windshield wiper flicking back and forth scraping his windshield. The cone of light from his headlights cast eerie shadows on the buildings as they passed. Now he slowed down and drove as a man who knows that he has had too much drives in an attempt to avoid detection. She wondered how she was going to get out and decided that she might as well stay inside as long as possible.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m going to take you wherever you need to go.” Mary hadn’t expected such chivalry and attempted to re-evaluate his intentions.

“I live in Earl’s Court – that’ll be way out of your way. But, it’d be great if you dropped me off at a station or a large hotel; somewhere where I can get a cab.”

George put his hand on Mary’s knee, which confirmed her fears, but she lifted it off and gently placed it on the steering wheel. She spoke in a matter-of-fact tone while trying to disguise her fear, “George, don’t you need to concentrate on your driving?” He nodded and for several blocks concentrated on the road. Then he hiccupped and turned toward her and commented, “I was looking for you.”

‘You were looking for me?”

“Well yes, after the Americans left we needed to wrap things up and then I saw you sneaking off. Of course I knew that you would need a ride – perhaps more.” He wheezed a little. They passed Liverpool Street station and he didn’t stop. ‘He really is going to take me home,’ thought Mary. ‘So perhaps I should be polite, and make some conversation.’

“Known Cliff long?”

“Best friends, all our lives. I’ll miss him now that he is married and he’ll be going to America.”

“It was a nice wedding,” Mary lied “but I felt sorry for Clara’s parents they were so uncomfortable the whole time.”

“Yes, they didn’t seem too happy. It was their first time to London, wasn’t it?”

“I think so but, of course, the final straw was when her dad realized that someone had stolen his bag of cameras and stuff.”

“Yeah, all real fancy, but they can afford to replace it – rich Americans! Besides, I’ll bet you that it was well insured.”

“Perhaps, but that isn’t the point.”

“What ‘ya mean?”

“I mean that all the wedding photographs were in that bag. There is so much emotional record there –something that money can’t replace. There is something called sentimental value which far exceeds monetary worth. No insurance in the world can replace it.”

“That’s all right for you to say when you have always had everything that you need but for some real cash trumps sentiment!”

George turned and looked at Mary, his face a dead-pan gaze. She thought that he looked longing, almost needy, and was glad when he turned his eyes back to the road. They were coming up Moorgate and the wet streets were still deserted. She caught a glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral shrouded in rain. Its familiarity reminded her of her concern about how this ride was going to end. She tried to distract herself by taking up their discussion, anything to avoid getting too personal.

“Well, I wish that we could find out who did it. It’s a bit like a ‘Who done it mystery’, isn’t it?”

“Well it had to be someone in the wedding party.”

“What about the kitchen staff?”

“No, didn’t you notice, they left right when the cake was brought out? He filmed the cake cutting and was snapping away while we were eating it.”

“Yep, you are right.” George again gave Mary one of his dead-pan looks. When he turned back to the road he hastily swerved to avoid jay-walkers in the otherwise empty Strand.

“I also think that it couldn’t have been taken from the room as the bag he kept everything in was quite bulky. That just about rules out all the female guests; it’s not like you could slip that bag into your purse.”

“You are a regular little Sherlock Holmes aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not, I’m just being logical.

For a while they were both silent, the only sounds; the engine, the rain on the roof and the swish-swish of the windshield wipers. A stream of drips began to come in over Mary’s door. She tried to move away to avoid them without appearing to get closer to George. He noticed her movement and reached and touched her knee, again she put his hand back on the steering wheel.

“I’m just moving away from the leak. Why don’t you drop me off at one of the West End hotels? You have done so much already and I am very grateful. Really, you have done enough.”

“Sorry about the leak. It is an old car worth less than those fancy cameras, but much more useful. Don’t worry; I’m going to take you home, right to Earl’s Court.” He paused, “So, Miss Holmes, what do you think?”

“Think?”

“Think about the missing bag of cameras and stuff?”

“I think that it was removed from the men’s cloak-room perhaps hidden in someone’s coat.

‘You have got to be joking – right?”

“Actually, no I’m dead serious. Perhaps you saw something and can now put two and two together?”

“NO I saw nothing.” George’s voice was raised and his response so quick that it took Mary by surprise.

She waited while she thought about his reaction. They were heading towards Hyde Park corner with more traffic on the road and the rain had stopped. She decided that his response could only be explained by the fact that he did know something. It reminded her of Hamlet’s comment ‘The lady doth protest too much.’

“So you DO know something?’ She noticed his hands clench on the steering wheel, “Yes, you do don’t you?”

“NO.”

Again George’s rapid denial was too quick, too emphatic, and too glib. Mary felt sure that he knew something. “But it’s yes isn’t it? Who? It would be great if we could at least retrieve the film – just the precious irreplaceable images. Maybe you could talk to them tell them to anonymously return the film – the sentimental value, the irreplaceable images.”

“What do you know? Did you see something Mary?”

“No George but I’m sure that you did. Don’t you want to exonerate Cliff’s family? Don’t you want to help retrieve his record of his wedding day? After all you were best man and he, your best friend.”

“It’s not that important.”

“Maybe that’s what you think but you are not married. One day when you have children I’m sure that you will want to show them pictures from your wedding. And,” Mary was on a roll, “then there’ll be grandchildren to impress. The thief deprives Cliff’s future family of his heritage from a 1965 East End London wedding. It is important.”

George didn’t respond, he seemed wrapped up in his own thoughts. Now they passed Hyde Park, most of Knightsbridge and Holland Park and were driving down Earl’s Court Road.

“Where do I go?”

“It is just past the tube station. There, that building opposite WH Smith.”

George pulled up and Mary looked at him, he returned her gaze with his lugubrious dead-pan  look. Instead of leaning over and grabbing her, as she fully expected, he held out his hand. His voice quavered with emotion. “I’ve got to go, have things to do.”

Mary shook his hand and got out of the car. As she left she thanked him profusely, adding one final appeal, “George, you are a nice guy, If you are able help your best friend, Cliff. At least help him get some pictures to show future offspring.

Several weeks later after Clara and Cliff had settled down into married life they invited Mary over to see their wedding pictures.

“But weren’t your Dad’s cameras and film lost?”

“We thought so, but the black bag with everything in it miraculously turned up at the front desk of their hotel. Apparently a young man delivered it in the wee hours of Sunday morning. There was a note with their name and the words, ‘Pictures to show future offspring.’”

© Copyright, August 2014, Jane Stansfeld

The hitch-hiker – a short story

He threw his back-pack into the trunk and stepped into the front passenger seat of the car. The leather upholstery felt cool on his bare legs. As he reached and latched his seatbelt he watched his window noiselessly close, then he heard a distinct click as his door locked automatically. The cool interior felt wonderful after the 100 degree Texas torpor outside. He stretched his arms towards the two air vents blowing at him and directed cold air up his arms to his sweaty underarms. The interior smelt of perfume. He glanced at his driver; he deduced that it was her perfume. She looked cool in a pristine white and red polka dot dress with red belt. Her hair was drawn back into a loose pony tail, and her long fingers held the steering wheel with a delicate touch as though her elegant manicured nails might break if she held it too tightly.

They were already moving but the ride was so smooth and the car so quiet that he had the sensation of floating in space. The radio was gently murmuring ‘The Blue Danube” and he momentarily thought that if he closed his eyes he would be in the 2001 spaceship. They stopped abruptly at a traffic light and he looked down to see her bare feet on the pedals. Not unexpectedly her toe nails shone bright red immaculately matching her fingers. He saw her red platform heels abandoned under her legs. He thought that this might be a dangerous situation but said nothing. Soon they were moving again and he glanced out of the tinted windows, they made the sky appear a brilliant blue.

They entered the freeway and he began to relax, as he waited for her to start her questions. Rides always asked questions and he always had answers. Not necessarily the same answers, but something to reward them for their generosity in giving him a ride. He generally spoke off the top of his head, and enjoyed the rush that his fabrications gave him. Each episode thrilled him into musing that perhaps, one day, he’d be a great writer.

He smiled as he recalled the story which he had spun to his last ride. He had spoken convincingly, with tears, about his dying mother in Minneapolis and how he was penniless yet making every effort to get home in time to get her blessing and to tell her how much he loved her. His truck-driver, took in the tale with compassion. As they parted at the truck stop he pressed a twenty dollar bill into Brad’s hand. “Here’s a little something to buy flowers for your Mom.”

The ride before that he’d spoken about job opportunities in the North Dakota oil fields, and how he had a job waiting for him, if he could get there in the next four days. That one had almost back-fired as his driver hailed from Sioux Falls South Dakota and had relatives in Bismarck. Brad admitted to himself that he should have been alerted by the man’s accent and selected somewhere further off perhaps Ottawa, Canada.

Fifteen minutes passed and she still drove with the same calm precision. The music changed to Swan Lake. She didn’t speak she just drove. Brad began to worry – her silence was disconcerting. He admitted to himself that a ride from a single woman in such an expensive car was odd; but no questions was worse than odd, it was weird. Brad was physically comfortable now and tried to relax as he gradually came to the realization that he wanted to talk. “Oh why,” he thought, “why doesn’t she speak? –they always speak.” The gentle purr of the engine, the comfortable seat, the music, gradually lulled him and he became drowsy. Eventually he forgot about his surroundings and her silence and closed his eyes.

He slept fitfully as one does sitting up in a car and was dreaming about an event in his useless life when she awoke him by grabbing his hand. Brad flinched in fear even though her skin was soft, and her hand warm. She spoke, her voice tender and gentle, not the expected question but a statement.

“You have beautiful hands, long fingers, perfect nails with moons and they are clean. It seems incongruous as you badly need a shave, your hair is un-kept and you smell bad.” Brad nodded in acknowledgement to this statement. He looked down at his dirty cut-off jeans and his blue tee-shirt stained with parking lot dirt, He was a mess and now waited for her ensuing question, but she continued with instructions.

“We have made good time. I’m going to pull into a place, I know, where you can have a quick shave and shower. Then we can be on the road again.” Brad started. He assumed that she intended much more – so that was why she gave him a ride. He didn’t have time to analyze his feelings for she preempted him.

“No young man I shall not accompany you into the room. I am far too old for that kind of thing. It is totally out of the question.”

“Too old,” thought Brad, “but she looks as young as I am. I wonder if she has had a cosmetic job and Botox. She looks fabulous.”

Now she was pulling into the place and finalized her instructions. “I shall fill up with gas and buy food for you to eat while we drive. Your assignment is to clean up and to do it quickly. There are some clean clothes in the back seat. They will fit you. You shall put them on.”

Brad didn’t know why he followed her directions, but he obeyed just as he would his mother. Soon he was putting on the clean clothes – white pants, white shorts, white open necked shirt, and a pair of white flip flops. He looked at himself in the mirror over the sink as he combed his hair. His skin looked healthier, more tanned, than he remembered, his eyes bluer and his hair fairer. Altogether his body seemed to glow. “It must be the light.” He thought. “I should clean up more often.”

When he emerged she was standing next to the car waiting. In her platform shoes she stood slightly taller than him. He had deduced that she would be stunning in her red polka dot dress and red belt but he hadn’t taken in the fact that she had a perfect body. Old, she didn’t look a day over eighteen.

“Let’s get a move on Brad” she instructed as she walked over to the driver’s side; took off her shoes and got in. Brad eased into the passenger seat as he wondered how she knew his name. He knew that he hadn’t told her. Just as they pulled onto the feeder street her telephone rang.

“Yes,” she hesitated, “A mistake? I’ve taken the wrong one? OK, there is time, I’ll fix it.” She turned and smiled at Brad. Her warmth bewitched him and he barely noticed as they crossed over the freeway and merged into traffic again.

He ate his food in silence, marveling that she had managed to get him a hamburger with his favorite fixings. He noticed that she went hungry, but didn’t ask deducing that, perhaps, she had eaten while he was bathing.

He slept again. He woke as they drove into a truck stop. Surely this must be where his ride ended. But no, Brad sat up straighter, no, even though it was now late evening he recognized the place. This was the truck-stop of four hours ago; the place where he had hailed this ride. He looked at his driver. She turned to face him, her face glowing with a celestial glow. “God, she is beautiful” thought Brad. She spoke.

“I’m sorry, Brad, it was a mistake. It is not your time. You need to get out now. It is good-bye, your ride is over.” She touched him again and this time her touch was like an electric shock.

Sometime later Brad came to in an emergency room clinic. A female doctor in white scrubs with a red polka dot shirt underneath spoke to him.

“This afternoon, someone hit you in the truck parking lot. For a while it looked bad but then you rallied. We think that your only injury was a mild concussion. We’re now sure that you will be fine but will keep you overnight to be sure. Tomorrow you can go home.”

The next day Brad un-wrapped his belongings and dressed to leave the hospital. His clothes were new, pristine, detergent-commercial white, as though he had never been on the ground in a truck-stop parking lot.

© Copyright, August 2014, Jane Stansfeld

Gin and It. – a poem

Doctor Jim’s ritual for harmonious life.
One dose a day, taken, punctual at six.
Medication served with tinkling ice
in shot glasses on a silver tray.
All must participate and,
sip slowly, savor every drop.
No substitutions or generics,
the best, essential for this love offering.

To start his prescription formula
two drops of Angustora bitters,
their aromatic flavor coaxes contrasts
brings spice to each life.
His Gin, one ounce Beefeater,
perfect, pure unmarred,
doused into the glass,
a pep, a pick me up.

His “It”, Martini-Rossi Italian Vermouth,
two ounces, one sweet, one dry
life experiences in harmony
He curls in a fresh twist,
of lemon peel, no pith,
it’s acidity sharpens senses.
Finally ice to fight the heat of ardor,
the whole, not shaken, stirred with love.

His served elixir, a recipe
for success of lives in his care.
His love seal to blend together,
family and all in his home,
his oblation of pleasure,
delivered to each as father, doctor,
selflessly served with equal reliability
and dedication given to all.

© copyright, July 2014, Jane Stansfeld

Changing the Faucets – a short story

For months the faucets on our sinks in the master bathroom have leaked. These weren’t destructive or life threatening leaks just an unpleasant ooze of water at the base of the faucets. The water caused unpleasant calcium deposits and marred the sink’s cleanliness. Otherwise things were tolerable which explains why we left the problem for so long. I suppose that we could have found the hidden set nuts under the facet’s decorative caps and removed the housings and replaced the washers to inexpensively solve the problem. That simple solution defied our logic and our ability and so we agreed that replacement was the right course of action. Besides, we argued, by now the faucets were damaged from too much calcium and too many Lime Away treatments.

“Absolutely,” we said, “they must be replaced.”

So when last Saturday rolled around we decided that the moment for replacement had arrived. I was sure that all faucets are not equal and that before we sallied to Home Depot we needed to know where the holes in the sink were. Dan, my husband, agreed and so he emptied the collection of unwanted bathroom items, including a quantity of toilet paper, from under his sink into a disorganized pile of miscellanea on the bathroom floor. He then lay on the floor and curled his body into a gymnastic contortion to get under the sink so that he could remove the faucet. It took a couple of trips to the garage to find the right tools and a bucket but soon step one of our journey was accomplished and we were on the road to Home Depot.

Due to a multitude of home repair projects Dan’s car self propels to Home Depot, but we are not so accomplished and so we wandered down the Faucet Repair aisle before realizing our mistake and made it to the Faucet aisle. Here, we were overwhelmed by the choices before us and strolled up and down for some time while we admired the array. Just as we were homing in on a choice my mobile phone gave its; pressing whirr. I answered and attempted to have a sane conversation with my sister while navigating between faucets. Eventually the faucets won and a man on a mobile ladder fished down two of the most expansive faucets on display from a top shelf.

“But don’t they need electrical connections for the touch activation,” I asked.

”No,” he assured us, “they are mechanical.”

“Good, sold.” Dan responded.

We walked out with the two under our arms. Step two accomplished.

When we got home Dan methodically opened one of the boxes and neatly arrayed the contents on my vanity counter. While he did so I cleansed his sink for calcium deposits and the residue from the old faucets. The first item out of the box was the battery pack. So much for no electrical, but by now the box was partially unpacked. Return, we hazarded, would take longer than installation of the electrical portion of our package, besides we were now sold on the concept of touch on / off faucets. We pressed on.

“Oops. Darn!”

One of the new nuts went down the drain in my sink. Dan immediately emptied the collection of unwanted bathroom items, from under my sink to join the disorganized pile of unwanted miscellanea already on the floor. He then lay on the floor and again curled his body into a gymnastic contortion to get under my sink so that he could remove the P trap. Full of muck it spewed dirt and water and the lost nut into the base of the cabinet He scooped up the nut, reattached the P trap and we were back in business.

We decided that I should read the instructions and then communicate them to Dan who would be the brawn and undertake the additional contortions required to get under the sink. The images were pretty good and after I worked out how to navigate through the several languages associated with them I thought that things were going well. However there was plenty of discussion as we went along:

“This piece doesn’t fit. Those brain-dead idiots, they manufactured it too big! It is going to have to go back!”

“How about trying it the other way around as in the picture?”

“Hmm, seems to work!”

“It has to be this way otherwise it won’t fit.”

“That isn’t what it says. Try it first the way the instructions are written.”

“Hmm, seems to work!”

“The instructions are wrong, this will NEVER work”

“Let’s try anyway!”

“Hmm, seems to work!”

Then we came to the water connection to the electrical. We thought that this was an electrical connection and didn’t find out that it carried water until it leaked after our installation was completed. But I am getting ahead of myself. The instructions seemed clear enough with emphasis on a clip which was to hold the line in place. The problem was that the line DIDN’T fit. Eventually, in frustration, Dan went to the internet and was about to play an instruction video when I realized that there were TWO of these connections to the control box and we were fussing with the wrong one.

Back on track again we progressed slowly though the rest of the installation. We avoided an additional trip to Home Depot when we unearthed silicone sealant in an unopened tube in the garage. We installed it, in accordance with the instructions, under the drain escutcheon.

At last we came to the final instruction and removed the filter in the faucet, and turned on the water shut-off valves. It had taken five hours, without a break for lunch, but we were elated. I turned on the new faucet, water flowed and for a split second we stood admiring our work before we realized that we had not connected the P trap and that our new water was discharging in a river through the cabinet onto the floor to join the disorganized pile of unwanted miscellanea already there.

Re-installing the P trap presented a problem because the existing trap is wider than the new drain discharge and an adapter was required. We thought that the discovery of the silicone sealant had saved us from a second trip to Home Depot but now knew that one was necessary. Looking back I wonder how we could possibly have imagined that we could accomplish this home repair project with only ONE trip to Home Depot. While Dan made his valiant trip I moped up water, organized the pile of stuff on the floor. Most of it, including the sodden toilet paper, ended up in the trash.

Then I washed out the P trap. In it I found a disgusting mess of black slime held together with a glue-like deposit which was reluctant to move. While I cleaned out the crud I contemplated the anomalies of water. How could this simple liquid be so contrary? Every time that we address it’s conveyance we are either addressing illusive leaks or trying to make clogged drains flow. Sometimes I hope that leaks will fix themselves with some of the same material which blocks up drains but it never works this way. Leaks get worse and clogged drains always progress towards complete stoppage. The two paths never cross; it is as though both problems address the physics of different liquids.

When Dan returned he expressed frustration with his Home Depot purchases and was so sure that the little washers which the assistant recommended were wrong that he had also purchased a reducer coupling against the possibility of another trip. We installed the washer, and screwed up the P trap. We tested the system and marveled at the flowing water which stopped at the touch of a finger. It was now too late for the second faucet so we cleaned up delaying that excitement for the next day.

After all we knew that installation number two would be: “A piece of cake!”

We decided to do it before lunch on Sunday. We were right about the speed of installation, for now that we knew where things went it did go quicker and in about an hour Dan screwed up the P trap for the second time in two days and we ran water. The tools were returned to the garage and the remaining miscellanea to the cabinets. I swept and washed he floor.

Then I looked underneath to check things out. To my dismay BOTH sinks had puddles of water below them. The puddle under my one hour job was significantly larger than the one under Dan’s sink. Dismayed we wiped and tested and retested. This was when we discovered that two of the three connections to each of the control boxes carried water. Dan coiled his aching body into contortions and took them apart and re-assembled them. He reassembled each THREE times, but who is counting? In case you are counting that’s six times in addition to the first assembly. By Monday the leaks in these locations had stopped. BUT the sink P-trap assembly under my sink still leaked. We decided that another trip to Home Depot was needed. After all how could we have possibly even dreamt that we could accomplish a home repair project with only two trips even if we had dodged one bullet with the discovery of the silicone in the garage secret places?

This time we needed to go to the Faucet Repair aisle and, fortunately, still remembered its location from Saturday. The Home Depot assistant listened patiently to our story. He told us that if the P-trap was seated correctly with adequate overlap at the change in pipe size junction that it ought to be water tight. We enthusiastically told him that we thought that it was seated properly and had adequate overlap but LEAKED. Dan showed him a photograph on his mobile phone.

The assistant was at a loss and we could see that he clearly wanted us to leave so that he could help other customers who were lined up behind us. I asked whether plumber’s Teflon tape might help. He seized at this suggestion and told us that it might, in fact it probably WAS the solution to our problem. Derr, we have that hidden somewhere in the garage but decided to purchase some more to justify our trip. We wandered the aisles a while longer hoping to see a product which would inspire an elegant idea for a solution. None hit and so we checked out and went home. At home we struggled with the Teflon tape which is thin and reluctant to adhere to any grooves. Dan re-installed the P-trap. Something still leaked but further investigation with towel and flash light revealed that the P-trap was OK but water oozed from the connection of the arm for the drain plunger and the drain.

As we look back on the last few days we find comfort by reminding ourselves on our accomplishments. After all we have installed new faucets; we have solved leaks into the touch on/off electrical controls at two connections to both boxes, AND we have solved leaks at the P-traps at two sinks. But it is now Thursday and we still have a bucket under my “one hour assembly” sink in the hope that it fixes itself. I suppose that I’ll call a plumber on Saturday.