The Memory Box – A Life In Letters: Short Story

I’d like to thank Alex Grey for her short story submission “The Memory Box – A Life In Letters” a touching tribute to the memories that make up a life gone by.

After a lifetime of writing technical non-fiction, Alex Grey is finally fulfilling her dream of writing poems and stories that engage the reader’s emotions. Her poems and short stories have been featured in a range of publications including Siren’s Call, Raconteur, Toasted Cheese, Short Edition and Little Old Lady Comedy.  Alex is married to her long-suffering partner of 36 years; she does not have any children but is “mum” to two fur babies – greyhounds Alex and Saffy. Her ingredients for contentment are narrowboating, greyhounds, singing and chocolate – it’s a sweet life.

This story is a fictionalised account of a remarkable life and is dedicated to Renia, Alex’s mother-in-law, whose courage and resilience has always been an inspiration.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

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The Memory Box – A Life In Letters

That day, the nursing home’s ever-cheerful Activities Leader told us to use a memory box to reminisce with our loved ones.

I groaned. I knew the Activities Leader meant well but chasing my mother’s memories had become a tedious scavenger hunt as dementia hid them in the distant recesses of her brain and destroyed the clues that might lead me to them.

“We’re going to use the alphabet to think about places that your loved ones may have visited. Remember, don’t ask them to remember…” she paused, waiting for our weak laughter, “just ask them to tell you a story about a place that begins with that letter. Take your time and see how far you get.

I sat at the table with my mother, her blue-veined hands tapping out a tune that only she could hear. She smiled at me vacantly. I knew she couldn’t remember who I was, though she seemed to acknowledge that I was benign, something simple and pleasant like the institutional tea set and the cheap biscuits. My mother devoured them greedily, like a little girl at a rival’s birthday party. The activity room had a dozen tables like ours, covered with cheerful chintz tablecloths and circled with residents and their visitors in various degrees of torpor.

My eyes met those of another woman sitting at our table; her mother slumped in a wheelchair, crooning. We smiled briefly and looked away. You’d think there would have been some spark of empathy between us, but the long goodbye we were enduring was too painful, too personal to be shared.

“OK!” trilled the Activities Leader. “Let’s make a start. As you complete each card, just drop it into their memory box.”

“Look, we’re going to put things in here today.” I said.

I rattled the vintage biscuit tin that we were using as her memory box. I remembered when she’d bought the tin as a souvenir of a rare sightseeing trip to London; we’d eaten the biscuits with ceremony every Sunday teatime for a month. The lid had a picture of the Tower of London and the crown jewels.  When it was empty, she kept her sewing things in there. Every time she reached for it to darn a jumper or patch a dress, she would rattle the tin and laugh,

“Will we find jewels in here today?”

I remember looking over her shoulder excitedly; she always hid a treasure in the tin for us – an amber bead, a tiny rag dolly or a fat toffee wrapped in shiny gold foil.

I shook my head; my mother’s sewing days were over. Today the faded and rusty-edged tin contained some trinkets and photographs from a previous memory exercise. On good days, we would take them out and she would nod, her wandering mind briefly meeting mine at a waypoint. On bad days, we drank tea and stared, the tin a bewilderment of junk between us.



I forced a smile and picked up the first alphabet card. My mother looked the other way, distracted by the conversations going on around her. I touched her hand and she frowned, unwilling to concentrate on the activity. She had always enjoyed people-watching, that was the best part of being in a nursing home, she told me, back when she had been aware of where she was.

“Look, mama.” I said, “Can you tell me a story about a place that begins with the letter A?”

She fingered the card, and then started talking. I wrote little notes on the cards – it helped me to keep track of her disjointed thoughts.

AUSTRIA: My uncle saved me from the slave farm, a miracle; I had a bath, when I was free of filth I was as light as an angel in heaven.

BELSEN: They measured me there, height, hands, head – I was judged – Aryan enough to live, but not enough to be free.

I sighed; she’d been telling us tales of her wartime enslavement all of our lives. We’d always moved her on, embarrassed, but now I was afraid that her mind would be trapped in that nightmare for the rest of her days.

“No mama, don’t think about the war, what about our lovely holidays?”

She looked rebellious, then carried on…

CHECKPOINT CHARLIE: We went to Poland with treats for my uncle hidden in the car seats; frightened, we willed the children not to betray our innocent smuggling.

DULWICH: We made our life there – our own house, large enough to last a lifetime, a green place to raise our children, respectable, rich, peaceful.

EALING: We all went there after the war; we spoke Polish and dreamed of the old country. Some sneered that it was just a new ghetto; stupid people – we had freedom, money, education. I went to college, met my Olek and made a new life.

I missed my father so much; he’d looked after Mama when she first became ill, back when we pretended that she was just tired, that it was normal to forget things from time to time. We told stories to make it alright, but it wasn’t. He died of grief and worry, leaving me with this responsibility.



I realised that I’d drifted off – I held up the F card…

FRANCE: A truckstop on the road to England; so scared; so alone, each girl so alone, together only in body and hope.

“Not the war, Mama, please…”

GHANA: Olek’s business trips, violence, distrust; I worried at home with the children; the money never came home, but Olek did. I was grateful.

HARRODS: The SALE on our doorstep, a proper sale – I bought a fur coat for a song; I was an aristocrat again.

That fur coat! I loathed it, but mama’s friends from the old country wore fur, it was what they did, a symbol of how they’re recovered from their refugee poverty. Who was I to tell her it was wrong when she was so proud? She made me try it on, said it would be a legacy for generations if I looked after it and kept it in the freezer. I cut it up and turned it into dog beds, horrible thing.

ITALY: Our first holiday after the war; We went to the eternal city. We went to St. Peter’s Square where the Holy Father prayed with us. I was so sick, I thought it was the food, but I had been blessed, with YOU my daughter, reaching for life.

Suddenly she reached for my face and looked straight into my eyes. A lump of hope leapt into my chest, I’d so longed for her to know me again.

“Mama!” I said

“Sandra.” She said, “Are you here to cut my hair?”

I turned back to the cards, trying to hide the tears in my eyes, the heat of my hope igniting my anger. She couldn’t help it. I gritted my teeth; she really couldn’t help it.

She grabbed the next card…

JAMAICA: Our first Caribbean cruise, the sun so hot, the island so green, the sky and sea so blue.

KRAKOW: We bought amber in the market, dined on Fois Gras in Wierzynek; toured the salt mines, grateful for our freedom; we bowed our heads and sobbed in Auschwitz.

We’d all sobbed there. I hadn’t wanted to go. I still wish that I’d never been there, but Mama said we must never forget. I will never forget. I hoped that she could let the camp’s silent eloquence slip away, but some experiences refused to sink into the pit of her lost memories.

LINZ: The slave market, sold into hard labour; I had a price, yet I was worth nothing.

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: The undertaker said Olek should have a magnificent seven burial. I said yes, of course, Olek was a magnificent man, his ashes went to Brompton, where we had joined in marriage – I told him we’d meet again there.

NAZILAND: A plague of evil; they came to the house, took my father, shot him dead in the woods; my beloved daddy, his only crime was teaching the truth.

I willed her memory to reel back to happier days, before the war destroyed her childhood, even if meant that her memory of my childhood would be destroyed too.

ORATORY: Brompton, where we married; where we ate Polish doughnuts filled with rich plum curd.

POZNAN: Home with daddy and my beautiful mother; they were tall, like me. I remember servants.  My sisters played with their dollies, but I wanted to run with my brothers, mother frowned, girls don’t run; daddy laughed. It was always summer in the sunshine of his smile.

QATAR: Olek’s business went international; so glamorous; we sipped vodka in our expat compound and forgot the world.

RUSSIA: Betrayal – they destroyed the Third Reich for you, but we paid the price; the bear steals babies in the night, unseen, you didn’t know?

SEVEN SEAS: The children left home; we cruised the world. Oh, the on-board buffets, food 24 hours a day.

TULSE HILL: Olek left his soldiering behind and became an architect. How hard he worked – apprentice, partner, owner – his business was a lifeline and a legacy for our children.

UNIVERSITY: Daddy said I was too clever to be a girl; after the war, welcomed me, I became a draughtswoman, I became someone.

VICTORIA MANSIONS NURSING HOME: They said I wasn’t safe at home, I pleaded with mother to let me stay, but they took me away. They are kind here, servants bring my tea, mother stands by the desk and watches them. I clean my plate like a good girl.



I let go of a breath that I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. Moving mama into the home had been the hardest thing I’d ever done. At first, she knew where she was, visits were difficult as her eyes accused me, but we were past that now.

“You’re almost there,” said the Activities Leader.

Her voice made me jump. I had been lost in my thoughts, but I felt a touch of satisfaction when I saw how far we’d come. The other old woman at our table was fast asleep in her wheelchair; her daughter had vanished – I could hardly blame her.

I took a deep breath, willing the last of the alphabet to pass quickly.

WARSAW: We went to the old town, it was good as new, as if the war had never been, as if the past had never been torn from the future. We drank coffee in the old market square and laughed.

I flipped the X card over quickly, but mama grabbed my wrist.

XOCHIMILICO: Our first cheap package holiday to Mexico. I never knew so much colour could exist; travel, holidays, it was freedom beyond imagination.

I laughed, she was full of surprises, but I knew from her photo albums that this memory was real, unlike some of her more colourful fictions.

YESHAK: A saint’s school for my children. I wore my fur coat to the school gates so they would know we had money, that my children were not the spawn of poor immigrants; that my children belonged in England.

ZAKOPANE: My uncle’s farm in the lovely mountains; I am there now, skipping with the dogs, mother frowns, girls don’t run, but daddy smiles….

My mother dropped the last card into the box, her transparent skin luminous with joy as her face was lit by sunshine from another time, another place.

The old biscuit tin bulged with cards; her jagged memories captured by my spiky handwriting – her life in letters. Her remarkable life in letters. I kissed her forehead, promised I’d see her next week. Her carers wheeled her to the dining hall; she was already asking about pudding; she’d always had a sweet tooth.

***

To this day, I do not know who she was smiling for when she put that last card in the box.  Maybe it doesn’t matter; I know that my last smile was for her, my beloved mother…



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A New Promise: Short Story

I’d like to thank Sharon Kretschmer of South Australia for her story submission ‘A New Promise’. A touching work of fiction, based on true events.

Sharon Kretschmer is a born and bred South Australian, recently embracing both a tree change and becoming an empty nester in the beautiful wine region of the Barossa Valley. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and Post-Graduate Museum Studies, reflecting her love for both writing and tangible and intangible heritage. You can often find her exploring pioneer cemeteries in search of inspiration.

Her stories have been featured in the anthologies ‘A Flash of Brilliance’ and ‘Tales from the Upper Room’, and have also been published by Haunted Waters Press, Two Sisters Publishing, 101 Words and Beyond Words Literary Magazine. The NSW Department for Education has also published several of her works for children in quarterly statewide publications.

When not writing, Sharon enjoys spending time with her two daughters, two sons, and one son-in-law, as well as a spoilt Border Terrier named Bee.

This page contains affiliate links which may earn me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase. Affiliate links are how I keep this blog going, thank you.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

A New Promise

It takes two hours to travel by bus between Kiev and my hometown of Hlevakha. In those two hours, images flash past the window like a film reel. The weathered Beech and Oak trees roll past the window, forming a continual stream of browns and greys. The farmers in the distance, toiling in the black soil, shirt sleeves rolled up in summer, their heads covered with knitted caps in winter. One can see the rural history of Ukraine in the ancient farmhouses and sheds which appear, nestled in a valley or high on a hill. There were not many tourists that travelled this path. And yet my village was becoming filled with strangers from other countries. They just hadn’t been born yet.

Hlevakha is a small village, populated by generations of the same families. I was born here, and no doubt I will die here. My life has been the same as my mother’s, and her mother’s before. That was until the summer just past, when my husband Yakiv sat across from me after a dinner of borscht and unfolded a grimy flyer from the pocket of his chequered shirt. I was trying to keep my son Marko still, as he squirmed in his highchair. I had been trying unsuccessfully to wipe purple stains from his lips. Yakiv cleared his throat and pushed the paper across the knotted wood of the table.

“Read this Sofiy.”

I unfolded the piece of paper to reveal an advert for surrogate mothers. It was from a business called ‘New Promises’ in Kiev. I’d looked up sharply at Yakiv, confused by what he meant in showing it to me. His chair scraped against the concrete floor as he pushed it back hurriedly and came around behind me.

“Read it.”

My eyes skimmed over the words. Help couples from around the world; set yourself up for life; every expense paid;15,000 euros compensation. 15,000 euros! I pulled my eyes away from the words and stared at Yakiv.

“Tak Sofiy, tak! 15,000! That’s 395,000 hryvnia! Just think what we can do with the money. Put some aside for Marko’s education, build an extension on the khata! What do you think Sofiy? Would you do it?”

It was the easiest decision I ever made.

The first visit to the clinic had been more gruelling than I expected. I’d caught the early morning bus, waving goodbye to Yakiv and Marko. My stomach churned as the bus rumbled over the country roads towards Kiev. Yakiv was anxious, now the decision had been made, to start the process. I was surprised when I entered the small waiting room to find several other young women already there. I guess I wasn’t the only girl wanting to make money from rich Americans, or Europeans, or wherever they came from. I sat in a small room with five other women. I wondered what would happen, not fully understanding the reason for this visit. A girl from Kiev with bright red hair, has a cousin who had been through the process. There will be a questionnaire, discussions with a psychologist, and a physical examination. My hands are shaking, so to keep them busy I take out the form, signed by Yakiv, giving his consent for the process. I wonder if the other husbands have been as quick to sign as he has been, but I am too shy to ask.


Mum Life Stories: Micro-Fiction, Vol 1

Two hours later I am back on the bus, heading home. I had passed the test with flying colours, they explained. They were certain I would be called back very soon to meet with prospective parents. They gave me a bottle of vitamin tablets to start taking, to prepare my body for the pregnancy. The doctor said make sure I take one twice a day. I feel elated, but also scared. but know Yakiv will be very happy.

It is a little over two weeks later that I journey back to the clinic, passing by the Motherland Monument. I think how apt that Ukrainian women are becoming birth mothers to children around the world. This time I am taken straight away to a bright and sunny interview room with windows looking onto a courtyard. In the center of the courtyard stood an old pear tree, it’s leaves glossy and green. A large clock ticked on whitewashed walls. Two other girls were waiting, one in jeans and a white shirt, her face carefully made up, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. The other looked older and was dressed as if for a business meeting. Her stockinged feet were crossed at the ankle, sensible black pumps on her feet. She smoothed her woolen black skirt across her knees, a striped blue shirt and black jacket finished the ensemble. I tucked my limp brown hair behind my ears, and looked down at my green serge dress, and wondered what chance I had of being the chosen one.

All three of us jumped when the door opened. The head of the clinic, Sergie Anatov, entered and ushered in a man and two women. He introduced the couple as Mark and Jody, the second woman was named Svetlana, and she would be our interpreter. I studied the couple. The woman, Jody, appeared more nervous than I. I guessed she was maybe late thirties. She had short blond hair cut into a bob, and thick glasses framed her large blue eyes. She wore a lavender shirt with white trousers, a heavy gold necklace and matching earrings. She smelled delicious when she walked past me, a whiff of citrus and rose. Mark was stocky, with dark wavy hair. I would say he was older than Jody, probably in his forties. He had cream trousers and a navy-blue shirt. He too smelled delicious; his scent reminding me of the fresh pine needles which lay on the forest floor just beyond my village.

The interview went in a blur. There were many questions directed to the three of us, as well as individual questions. I couldn’t place the accents of Mark and Jody. It wasn’t one I was familiar with. One question they asked was how I spent my days. They seemed pleased when Svetlana interpreted my answer. I work in the fields, helping my husband with our small farm, or I am looking after my two-year-old son. I watched as Jody smiled and nodded at Mark. Perhaps they thought the fresh air would be good for their baby. The interview ended, and I was about to follow the other two women out the door when Jody gently reached out and touched my arm. She said something to me, and I looked to Svetlana to explain what had been said. Svetlana smiled at me.

“Jody said she can’t thank you enough for the gift you are giving them. They choose you.”

The process was quickly completed. Jody and Mark had already been to the IVF clinic attached to New Promises clinic, the embryos ready for implantation. I discovered they were from Sydney, in Australia. I found a map and looked to see where it was. Such a long, long, way from Kiev. Jody had suffered many miscarriages, her specialist in Sydney convincing them their only hope for a child of their own would be surrogacy. It made me both nervous and excited to be the one to help them realize their dream. Of course, the money that I would earn was also cause for excitement. I knew that my body would embrace their child, after all, Marko had come along so quickly and with no problems. The small embryo nestled into the warmth of my body and began to grow.

Jody begins sending me emails as soon as the pregnancy is confirmed. She organizes Skype sessions with me, anxious to see her growing child, to know it is safe in its Ukrainian home. At first it is easy to detach from this child. But as I began to feel the weight of her, for I feel sure it is a girl, to feel her squirm in my body, I begin to try and imagine what she will look like, what sort of life she will lead. Will she have Jody’s big blue eyes? Mark’s wavy dark hair, or the straight fairness of Jody? I sing lullabies to Marko, traditional Ukrainian songs like Brother Ivan and The Dream Passes By The Window, and the baby will roll and stretch. Sometimes I wonder, will she miss me? Will she wonder, where is the woman who sang me songs? Whose heartbeat lulled me to sleep? I wonder if when she is older, she will smell a Vareniki dumpling, and wonder why her mouth waters? I wonder how much of me, of my life, is imprinting itself on this little one. Although we share no DNA, I am nurturing her, providing sustenance and warmth. I remember how Marko reacted to my voice when he was a newborn. How he turned his head, and watched me with sombre brown eyes. This little one will have none of that. She will be given to people whose voices will sound as foreign to her as they were to me.



As the date nears, I see a fear in Jody’s eyes when we Skype. Mark often joins in, asking about my health, my life, how I am finding the appointments in Kiev. I tell them that at thirty-six weeks I will be moving to Kiev. New Promises has an apartment where I will live until the baby is born. Jody nods her head, but her unease is palpable. I realize the enormity of her fears. How does she even know that I carry their baby? Mistakes can be made. What if I decide I want the baby? If I run away, and she never sees me again. Of course, I know that I would never do such a thing, but Jody, Jody doesn’t know me at all. And now the end game is closing in, I can only imagine what doubts creep into her head, when she is over 14,000 kilometers away from her child.

I hug Marko tightly, his small legs wrapped around my swollen belly.

“Promise you will bring him to see me at least once?” I say to Yakiv. He promises me, and whispers in my ear, It will soon be over.

The apartment is small, and there are already two other women living in the room. There is a wooden bed, a sofa bed, and a mattress on the floor. A kitchenette with gas cooktop and a chipped enamel sink, sit below the small window which looks out onto a busy thoroughfare. A place my case down on the worn floral carpet.

“Dobryj den,” I say, “I’m Sophiy.”

“Dobryj den,” they reply. “I’m Anna and this is Katya. Sorry, but the mattress is for you. I have a week to go, and Katya is due in two weeks. Once I’m gone you two can shift up one.”

The days are long and slow waiting for the baby to arrive. I take walks in Shevchenko Park, following the trails between the fig and birch trees. I watch the families, thinking of my little Marko. I watch the young couples, their lives unimpeded by the worries of life. I wonder if they too will go down a similar path as Yakiv and me. Jody and Mark flew in from Sydney at thirty-seven weeks. We met a couple of times in a small cafe around the corner from their hotel. They have employed an interpreter for their time in Kiev. Jody tells me about Sydney, about their home and that they live only five minutes from the ocean. She says the little one will be a ‘beach baby’ as they will teach the baby to swim from an early age. I don’t know how to swim. I’ve never seen the beach. I subconsciously rub my belly as she talks to me. Jody reaches over and places her hand over mine.

“May I?” she asks.

I take my hand away and she gently strokes the skin surrounding her child. She whispers words I don’t understand, but I know that they are words of love. I see Mark reach into his upper pocket, pulling out a handkerchief and placing it on Jody’s lap. It is only then I realize Jody is crying silent tears.

In the end she decides to come early, at thirty-eight weeks and two days. Jody and Mark are in the labour room, dressed in the same blue scrubs as the nursing staff. They wait nervously to one side of the room, looking anxiously at me as I moan and push and scream their child out of my body. I saw Jody make to come to me, perhaps to hold my hand or speak words of encouragement. But one of the nurses lies a hand across her arm and shakes a silent no.

And then she is there. The doctor holds her up, squirming in his hands, her hair slicked down with blood and fluid. She opens her mouth and yells a protest, like the mew of a kitten. My heart is full. Full of love for this little girl. I watch Jody and Mark stand over the baby, watch as they wipe away the remnants of what remained from her attachment to me. Jody surprises me by remaining dry-eyed, although the joy which emanates from her is catching. Mark is sobbing great tears which he cannot contain. The nurse wraps her in a blanket and passes her to Jody, who cradles her as if she is the most precious thing in the world. And she is. To them. Jody comes over to me.

“Would you like to hold her?” she asks.

I shake my head no. But I am happy that she offers. I have heard stories of new parents simply walking out and ignoring the birth mother after delivery. I look into the baby’s big blue eyes and smile. They are definitely mother and daughter.

“Her name is Isabella Sophia. And she will know about you, Sophiy. She will know what a gift you have given to us.”

I nod my head, too tired and too emotional to speak.

Jody promises to send me photos of Isabella, and she has kept her promise. She sends me a message every few months, which is more than enough for me. I am busy with Marko and organizing furniture for the extension we’ve completed on our khata. Other young mothers in Hlevakha have followed my lead. There are several who are already pregnant, and more who are in the process of becoming so. I know for some, my story will fill them with hope, for others disgust. I am not sure, even now, how I feel.


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Thank you for reading this blog. If you’d like to submit a story for consideration to publish, please visit our submissions page. 

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The pace and intensity of our lives, both at work and at home, leave many of us feeling like a person riding a frantically galloping horse. Our day-to-day incessant busyness — too much to do and not enough time.

With this ebook you will learn to approach your days in another way, reducing stress and getting results through prioritizing, leveraging and focus!



Patiently Waiting: A Short Story

I’d like to thank Rhona McAdam of Scotland for her short story submission “Patiently Waiting” a wistful behind-the-scenes look into the private world of a Mother and full-time carer. Based on true events.

Rhona McAdam is studying for a Degree in Creative Writing and English Literature at the Open University.  She found time to take this course and pursue her dream of writing after taking redundancy a few years ago.  She is mum to two adult children, one of them disabled and has written several short stories, including true stories about having a child with a disability. She enjoys writing crime and mystery fiction.  She also writes plays and is a member of the Citadel Arts Playwriting Group.  She lives in Edinburgh.

This page contains affiliate links which may earn me a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. Affiliate links are how I keep this blog running, thank you.



Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash


Patiently Waiting

We are waiting for an ambulance.  After a week of various diagnoses my son is feeling sick, not eating, not drinking, and not taking his medicine.             

“I think you’d be better off in hospital.  Where we can find out what’s going on with you,” says Robert, his respiratory nurse. “Are you Ok with that?”

“Yeah,” Calum says.

      I look at him, long body propped up in bed, face the colour of curdled milk, and can only agree. He’s an adult now, but he needs support from me. He is disabled – not able to walk, not able to lift his arms, not able to scratch his head, not able to get out of bed without a hoist. 

      I have mixed feelings about him going to hospital.  I’m sure he has them too.  Yes, it’s the best place for him, to be monitored, tested and treated.  But hospital brings up the spectre of his ten weeks’ stay in the Sick Kids, with increasingly invasive procedures to help rid him of Pneumonia.

“There’s a place for him in the High Dependency Unit, better he’s there, they’re experts in the ventilation equipment he uses.  Good to get there during the day.”

     Of course, it’s not so simple to get to hospital; there is a layer of bureaucracy to get through.  The GP must be summoned.  When she arrives, she puts the peg like monitor on his finger, listens to his chest, takes his blood pressure.

      “Yes, oxygen saturation levels low, blood pressure low.  No problem going to hospital.  I’ll phone and get an ambulance sent.”

When she leaves, I hover by his bedside, helping him to cough (he has equipment for this – a vampiric hoover for the lungs). I glance out of the window at the sunlit street; parked cars are scattered about, plenty of room for an ambulance.   

     Two hours later, we are still waiting.  Bubbles of foam have been coming up from his chest.  This would be alarming if was you or me, but it’s the sort of cough he can have and as long as it’s white, and not yellow or green, he’s doing all right.  It’s oddly normal.

      My mobile phone chirps at me.  A voice says: “Hello, this is the ambulance service.  We are experiencing a very high demand just now.  We’ll get to you as soon as we can.  Has there been any change?”

     “No, no change,” I say. 

How bad to you need to be?

     “Phone us back if there is any worsening of his condition.”

Two hours later, we are still waiting for the ambulance.  The phone chirps again.  The conversation is repeated.  The coughing fits continue.  He’s only had a few hummingbird-like sips of fluid all day.  His medicines, in liquid form, come bubbling up as if from a blocked drain.

A further two hours pass and we are still waiting for the ambulance.  The phone chirps and I have the same scripted conversation.  Calum’s been in bed for a week; the sheets are starting to smell musty as if wet dogs have been sleeping there.  The coughing fits continue.  He’s given up on the sips of water.

    My back is getting sore, standing looking out of the window.  Why do ambulances seem to be all around when you don’t need them – their distant cries sounding from the bypass, screeching and bustling through town on a weekend?

    But we are still waiting.  The phone chirps again.  It is evening now; the sunset is blazing off the windows of the bungalow opposite, making shadows gather in the corners of Calum’s bedroom, my focus still switching between his face and the street outside.

     “Hello this is the ambulance service.  We are experiencing an unusually high demand-“

     “Have you any idea when one will come?”

“No sorry, no idea.   But let us know if your son’s condition worsens.”

      It’s only September.  What will it be like, trying to get to hospital in the winter?

      My stomach is swirling with hunger.  I don’t want to start eating, in case the ambulance arrives – it surely can’t be long now – and it seems unthinking to eat a sandwich in front of him, because how must he be feeling?  He’s not eaten for a week, and he wasn’t eating very much before that. 



Photo by Perfecto Capucine on Unsplash

Two hours later, the phone chirps again. 

“Hello, this is the ambulance service, we are still experiencing a very high demand.  Is there any change in his condition?”

     I don’t want to exaggerate.  After all I’ve seen him worse than this – hard to believe – bringing up waves of yellow gunk from his lungs (secretions, they call it).  In the intensive care department, lights low, machines beeping, wires attached, the tube down the throat ventilator, then the really bad one, the one that shook him at the same time.

“Yes, he does seem worse now, he’s very white, he’s breathing fast and his heart is racing.  And he’s had no drinks or medicine all day.”

“Ok, we’ll prioritise this call.”

It’s dark outside now, but the curtains remain watchfully open, and at last we see the blue light of the ambulance.  It parks outside, and two paramedics bustle in, all efficiency and kindness.

“What’s the problem?” one asks as she clips on a finger probe.

     I answer for him as I can see from his face that he is past speaking. “Breathless, coughing, being sick, not eating, not drinking, urine and chest infections,” I chant.       

They get a tank of oxygen, and fiddle around with a tube to get it through his ventilator.  We have a sign on the wall – Do NOT give oxygen without ventilation to this patient.   The ventilator whooshes and swooshes like Darth Vader in Star Wars (one of his favourite films).  I often wake up and listen for the reassuring noise in the middle of the night – he is still breathing.  A blood pressure cuff is squeezing his famine thin arm.

“Is his blood pressure usually this low?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “Well it’s maybe just lack of fluids.  Let’s get him to hospital.”

      A trolley from the ambulance is clanked in and manoeuvred round his equipment.  He has an electric wheelchair, hospital style bed, ventilator, spare ventilator, cough assist machine, nebuliser, suction machine – the machines have multiplied over the years. 

     “He has a bed in the High Dependency Unit at the Western General,” I say. “Or at least he had, eight hours ago.”

     A look passes between the two women. “We’re really meant to take him to the Royal Infirmary if it’s a priority call,” one of them says.

     It’s not the fault of the paramedics.  There is no point getting angry at them, or the people on the phone.  It won’t help.  But what do you have to do to travel four miles to a hospital? 

The other paramedic must see the look on my face. “I’m sure we can manage that, we’ll take you to the receiving unit at the Western, not sure we can take you direct to the HDU.”

    “That’s fine.”  Relieved to be heading off at last.  To the right hospital.

We wobble along quiet midnight streets.  When we get there, the hospital is not busy; guilt creeps in – have we beaten a commuter like rush of non-urgent cases?

A nurse takes him into a searingly lit cubicle, scented with disinfectant.  I repeat my incantation. “Breathless, coughing, being sick, not eating, not drinking, urine and chest infections.”

She hooks him up to a monitor.  A Doctor comes in; she is pale with dark shadows under her eyes.  She rummages for a vein, puts a cannula in and draws blood from his arm.  The same incantation of symptoms.  An additional chant of his medication.  Colymycin, Mucodyne, Azithromycin, Amytriptiline.  I am fluent in the language of his illness. She orders a chest X-Ray.  We wait.

Time takes on a different dimension when we enter the bright rabbit hole of the hospital.  It seems suspended, controlled by the needs of other patients.  I want to complain about the long day we’ve had, but I can’t.  Because what sort of a day has the Doctor had?   She looks like she’s had an even longer one.



A bag of fluid is hung, it starts to drip down, and some pink returns to his cheeks.  Another Doctor arrives.  I chant the same symptoms, the same medication.  He’ll send someone to get him transferred upstairs soon.  We are creeping closer to the hospital bed which has hovered like a mirage in front of us for the last ten hours.

We finally get to the High Dependency Unit at three thirty in the morning. It’s an hour later by the time I leave and look for the exit down an endless corridor – deserted, silent apart from a sucking noise from the ceiling.  I calculate how much sleep I could reasonably have before returning in the morning.       

The next morning there is a bag of neon yellow urine hanging beside his bed.  “That’s some infection,” the nurse comments. Bottles of H20, plasters, scissors, tape and syringes are lined up on the unit under the window.  The small room, glass walled at the front, is permeated by the tang of hand sanitiser.

“How was your night?” I ask.

     “OK. Can you put the TV on?”

     I fiddle about with the TV on the wall; find the switch hidden round the back.  The remote control isn’t working, and we are stuck with horse racing.   There are many sports he likes: football, tennis, rugby, wrestling,  but horse racing’s not one of them.  He rolls his eyes and sends me to find out if the nurse can fix the controller.  He must be feeling better.  The consultant comes on his ward round and he explains that the sickness was a reaction to the antibiotic for the urine infection. Things are looking up.

Two days later I walk up the long corridor, buzz for entry to the unit, use the hand sanitiser and turn the corner to his room. 

“He’s had a bad night, lots of coughing,” says the nurse.

I can see from the froth in his mouth that he needs to cough more.  He groans after I use the cough assist machine.

“What’s the matter?”

Calum’s not a complainer. He likes to chat; he’ll chat all day about films and TV shows, but he shuts down when he’s upset. I have to quarry past his facial expression to get to the problem.

“Sore chest.”

“Ok, let’s see if the nurse can get you something for that.”

The nurse gets a Doctor to prescribe pain relief.  A plate of pureed food arrives, looking like scoops of different ice creams, except they smell of chicken, potato and carrot. He is coughing so much he can only manage a few mouthfuls of food.  And I’m not sure he hasn’t coughed them straight up again.   I ask the nurse when the Consultant will come on his ward round.

“He’d normally be here by now.  What are your concerns?”

  “His cough, it’s much worse today than when he came in, and his chest is really sore – that’s not usual for him.”

“Ok, I’ll see what I can find out, but it’s only to be expected with Pneumonia.”

I look at my son.   His face mirrors mine.  Not Pneumonia.  We’ve been there before.

The Consultant is only at room two.  My son is in room eleven.  So we wait for the Consultant.  He comes at tea time, still trying to complete his mid-morning ward round.  I know from conversations overheard in the waiting room – “didn’t see the car coming”, “not long passed her test”, “induced coma” – (the reasons for the delay) that my son could be worse off.

My daughter visits, and I go to the canteen.  I walk past phlegm green walls (doubt you’d get that description on a Farrow and Ball paint chart) with wooden bumpers full of crevasses gouged out by years of flowing beds. Past a flock of smokers wearing dressing gowns, huddled outside the front door, underneath the ‘No Smoking’ signs.  More people in dressing gowns (at least stick some leggings and a sweatshirt on) perch in the café with their visitors.   Into my coffee I pray, let’s not go here again, let the antibiotics work, let this not be the end.  The phrase ‘life limiting condition’ is lurking in the back of my mind.  When Calum was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, life expectancy was eighteen years old.  He is now twenty seven.  I promise I’ll never be grumpy with him again.



But the intravenous antibiotics work, the waves of mucus recede, the fluid drains away from  his lungs, his heart medicine is increased and a tube is passed up his nose so he can get some nutrition.  A week later a permanent feeding tube is installed in his stomach.  He is sedated, but awake during the procedure, and he tells me what happened. 

“Just like when they do brain surgery on Grey’s Anatomy. I could see what they were doing on the screen.”

My daughter thinks the bottle of food hanging above his bed looks like pancake mix.  She is correct, but it must be doing him good because the chat continues non-stop.

Finally, it is time to go home.  I join the queue for the disabled parking spaces.  They are guarded by a barrier, and like hospital beds, someone needs to vacate a space before another car can get in.  I get to the front of the queue and park on the stop line.  There’s a gap before the barrier to leave space for ambulances to exit.  I read a book on my phone.  I wait for an hour.  An hour and a half. There’s no point getting grumpy.   Then two cars drive past me, right up to the barrier, blocking the ambulance exit.  What?  Can’t they read the signs?  I’m not putting up with this. The stress of waiting, patiently, for three weeks, is about to burst, Alien-like, from my chest. So much for never being grumpy again.  The first woman pretends she has done nothing wrong. 

“That guy,” she says, “said you’d just been sitting in your car for an hour.”

  I look round at a translucent-skinned man, cackling and coughing over his joke.  I finally understand road rage.  I resist pulling the woman out of the window of her car, and point out that I’ve been sitting in my car for an hour, because I am in a queue.  For the car park.  Which the sign says is full. 

The woman in the second car says she didn’t realise, was just trying to pick up her Dad.  I say I’m picking up my son.   I want to say I bet he’s worse than your Dad, but realise we’re all in the same situation.  These people have frustrations and worries I know nothing about.  The second woman reverses back behind my car.

The first is allowed through the barrier. Then told to re-join the back of the queue.  Serves her right.  But I need to concentrate on being grateful my son is getting home. 

And at home I even manage to be less grumpy, most of the time, despite the frequent requests for help with his Xbox wrestling game. As we return to our normal routine of ignoring his condition as much as possible, I think about how the National Health Service is stuck together with patience stretched like old fitted bed sheets.

Of course, that was before the virus struck, before the hospitals were full, before people were fighting over tinned tomatoes and toilet rolls, and before we applauded every night for the nurses and doctors.  It would be good to think we’d get a more responsive Health Service after all this.


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Chocolate in Summer: A Short Story.

I’d like to thank Lindsay Bamfield of Australia for her short story submission “Chocolate in Summer”, a touching story about the complex relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law. It was originally published in a small anthology in the UK called Greenacre Writers Anthology Vol 2.

Lindsay Bamfield relocated from UK to Australia in 2019. Her mother was Australian and she has always been in touch with this aspect of her heritage. Lindsay is a mother and is now grandmother to an Australian. She has written a number of short stories and flash fiction and non-fiction articles. She has been published in Hysteria 6 AnthologyStories for Homes 2, Reflex FictionGreenacre Writers AnthologyMslexia, Writers’ News and Writing Magazine as well as on a number of literary websites

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Chocolate in Summer

Seated at the grand piano, Margot became the woman she might have been rather than the one she was. Gone was the carping woman craving her headache pills; in her place was a maestro.

‘Oh, how wonderful. You’ll have some help,’ people cooed when I muttered through clenched teeth that my mother-in-law was coming to stay. How they thought it was helpful to be driving over a hundred and fifty miles to the airport, with a two-month old breastfeeding baby in tow, I couldn’t imagine.

   She spent the entire six weeks moaning. The bedroom was too hot, too cold, the baby cried, my cooking was terrible, I didn’t iron Patrick’s shirts properly.

   ‘She’s asking for Gentleman’s Relish,’ I said to Patrick. ‘What the hell is that? I’ve never heard of it.’

   ‘Oh yes, she used to love it on toast,’ he said, frowning over our bank statement. ‘She used to put a little jar of it in my school tuck box every term. I’d sell it to one of the older boys because I hated it, and bought sweets from the tuck shop with the money. She never packed sweets. You can probably get it at Fortnum’s.’

   ‘Are you insane? Do you really expect me to high-tail it to London to get a jar of something for her bloody toast?’

   But make the journey I did, for Margot must be appeased, although nothing would ever make me good enough for her son.

‘Have you put Toby’s name down for Patrick’s prep school yet?’ she asked one Sunday lunchtime while I was clearing the table.

   ‘Margot, he’s barely three months old,’ I said. ‘Rather premature, don’t you think?’

   ‘These good schools are subscribed years in advance,’ she said curtly.

   ‘Besides which,’ I said, ‘I do not intend for my son to be sent away to school, even if we could afford it, which we can’t.’

   ‘Patrick, surely you can’t want your son educated in a state school?’

   ‘I rather think I do, Mother,’ he replied. ‘I have no wish to put Toby through what I endured.’

   I didn’t hear the end of that conversation because Toby began to wail, much to my relief.  I hurried off to placate my son who would not be sent away at the tender age of eight when, I hoped, he would still be wanting a story, a teddy snuggled into his bed and a goodnight kiss.

Each year, two months of summer were utter misery. As he grew older, even Toby began to dread the visit from Grandma: her headaches that demanded his utter silence; the outings that were curtailed because she felt unwell; the meals that must be just so.

   ‘Give me a hand,’ Patrick yelled down the stairs one Saturday before the impending visit. ‘I need you to hold the ladder. It’s wobbling.’ I switched off the iron, glad to have respite from squirting steam over the curtains from the spare room, Margot’s room, and plodded up the stairs, pushing my damp hair behind my ears. 

   I held the ladder while Patrick inexpertly painted the room in his mother’s favourite colour.

   ‘She’ll like this,’ he said as he rolled the paint on. ‘She found the greens too bright.’ He was being tactful; ‘nauseous’ was the word she’d used. My carefully chosen two-tone green room disappeared under a coat of magnolia-meets-mushroom. The curtains would look quite wrong now but at least they would be dust and crease-free.

A month later, I heaved Margot’s luggage up to the room. She was already lying on the bed in the delicate pose of a dying martyr.

   ‘Pull the curtains,’ she ordered. ‘There’s too much sun. Where are my pills, I think a headache is coming on.’

   ‘Do you like the new colour?’ I asked as I slid the curtains closed, banishing the few rays of sun to have graced our summer that year.

   ‘It’ll do.’

   ‘I’ve made your favourite cake so pop down for tea when you’re ready.’

   ‘I couldn’t possibly eat cake. My digestion. Some cucumber sandwiches, I think.’

   ‘I’m afraid I don’t have any cucumber. How about tomato?’

   ‘Tomato? With my delicate stomach? Good gracious girl, you should know this by now. Just run out and fetch a cucumber. It’s hardly too much to ask.’

It was when we visited my new neighbour who had invited us for coffee, that the ground shifted. Standing in their airy living room was a grand piano. Enormous, shiny and proud, it took up most of the space. Margot drifted towards it and trailed her fingers on the keys.

   ‘Do try it, if you’d like to,’ trilled the neighbour.

   To my astonishment, Margot seated herself on the padded stool and began to play. Music rippled from beneath her fingers as effortlessly as breeze on water.

   That was the day I first saw her smile.

‘I’ve bought Mother a piano. She’ll like that,’ said Patrick a couple of weeks before the visit the following year. ‘It’s only an upright, because the living room won’t take a grand.’

   Nor would our fragile bank account. I said nothing for I knew he would trot out his mantra: ‘don’t be too hard on her, she had a difficult time bringing me up on her own…’ and I would have to refrain from reminding him that he spent term-time at boarding school and many of his holidays at his aunt’s house.


  

The Almost Mothers by Laura Besley

I picked Margot up at the airport and drove the weary miles home. Toby sat meekly in the back, listening to her interminable moaning. The car was stifling and hot because the fan no longer worked. Her damn piano had taken the last of our spare cash, so the fan would stay broken. I opened the window but she complained about the draught. We sweltered in silence.

   ‘Did you bring me a present?’ asked Toby when we reached home.

   ‘Little boys who ask, don’t get,’ was her reply. His face crumpled. Later, she relented and handed him a package. His excitement was palpable only to disappear on looking at the gift.

   ‘What is it, Grandma?’

   ‘It belonged to your grandfather. Now let your mother put it away safely until you grow up. It’s an heirloom and very valuable so you must treasure it.’

‘She gave him a tie-pin,’ I hissed at Patrick, when we were in bed. ‘Who gives a six- year-old a tie-pin?’

   ‘She means well, don’t be hard on her,’ was all he would say. I turned away from him dreading the next six weeks.

   But that summer Margot played her piano, and I saw a different woman. She taught Toby a few simple tunes and to her delight, he showed aptitude for her talent which had evidently skipped a generation. Their heads bent over the keys, she demonstrated a patience I could never have guessed at. The music allowed the time to pass more quickly and sometimes she smiled. Her pills remained unopened.

   ‘Toby is shaping up nicely,’ she said at dinner on the last evening of her visit. ‘You must arrange professional lessons for him.’

   Thinking of the red figure on our latest bank statement, my lips tightened, but I said nothing.

   ‘This casserole is very good,’ she went on. ‘Is it from the recipe book I gave you?’

   ‘No, it’s based on one from my mother.’

   ‘Oh. Well, even so, it’s very nice. You’re learning.’

When Patrick died in a car crash, she came immediately I contacted her.

   ‘I’ll make my own way from the airport, you don’t need…’ she left the sentence unfinished.

   As we met on the doorstep neither of us spoke but we understood that for the first time we shared Patrick without being rivals.

   ‘It was an accident, wasn’t it?’ she said the evening after the funeral when everybody had left.

   ‘Yes, of course, I explained–’

   ‘What I mean is,’ she interrupted, ‘it wasn’t like his father? An accident that wasn’t quite as accidental as it appeared.’ Her voice was quiet.

   For a moment I wondered if she was trying to tell me that she had pulled the trigger when Robert died in a shooting accident.

   ‘It was recorded as an accident,’ she said, ‘but Robert knew guns inside out. He’d been using them since he was a teenager on the estate. They had these shoots, pheasant, grouse, the glorious twelfth. That was common in those days. Robert was dogged by black depressions. Patrick didn’t know about them, being away at school. I tried to prevent him seeing that. I’d send him to my sister if they came on during his holidays. It was when he was away that it happened. Was Patrick ever…’

   ‘No, Margot, I never saw Patrick depressed. Sad, worried and angry sometimes, but never depressed.’

   ‘Thank God. I couldn’t tell Patrick the truth. I think some of our friends may have wondered but it remained unspoken.’

   And then Margot wept and for the first time I felt not resentment but compassion.

She stayed with Toby and me while I sorted through Patrick’s financial affairs and adjusted to a new life just as she had done so many years before. But unlike her, I had no secrets to stifle. My grief was her grief and hers mine, and there was a perceptible thaw between us.

   She told Toby about his father as a little boy, and then told us both her own story.

   ‘I was talented enough to be a concert pianist but I needed professional training,’ she explained. ‘I was to go to the Royal College, but then the war broke out and I worked for the war office.’

   ‘What about after the war?’ I asked.

   ‘We no longer had money for my training. My brothers had been killed and I had to help in the family business until I got married. Then my hands were full. You couldn’t harp on with fantasies in those days, not once you were married and had a child to look after.’

   ‘It sounds hard to have lost your dreams.’ I said.

   ‘Dreams are like chocolate in summer,’ she said shortly. ‘They melt. Besides, I still had my piano and I played at home.’

   ‘Yes, Patrick told me how you played, and that you tried to teach him.’

   ‘He didn’t have the ear,’ she said. ‘Or the patience.’

Toby took to the piano that summer and played non-stop. After Margot returned home, he continued playing and made up compositions. One he called Chocolate in Summer. ‘Because our dreams have melted too, haven’t they, Mummy?’ he said.

   Margot sent me the money to pay for his lessons.

***

Toby’s daughter is playing with his old boxes of Lego that I brought down from the loft. I have just finished decorating her cake with ‘Happy Birthday Sasha’ piped in pink icing and six pink candles. Her mother pours a glass of wine for me. Sasha’s big presents are waiting for when Toby joins us after work so he can watch her unwrap them.

   He arrives on the dot of six o’clock and swoops his daughter up into his arms, giving her a twirl, then he sits at the piano and plays ‘Happy Birthday.’

   ‘Again, Daddy!’ she laughs.

   He pays a slow, dreamy version and then a fast, silly one, delighting the birthday girl.

   I look at him, so like his father in appearance, and wonder if he would have realized his talent without his grandmother’s tutelage that terrible year.

   My heart still bursts with pride as I recall his first concert as a soloist, and wish so much that they had both lived to see it. Only Toby and I knew that beneath his jacket he wore a gold tie-pin that had belonged to the grandfather neither of us had known.

   We eat the birthday tea as Sasha tears open her presents with the enthusiasm of a happy little girl. Not an heirloom in sight.

   Afterwards, Toby sits at the piano again and plays, just as Margot had, whatever comes into his mind, as the mood takes him. He is playing ‘Chocolate in Summer.’

   I never thought I would miss her.


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The Picture Frame: A Short Story

I’d like to thank Julia Vanstory of the US for her short story submission ‘The Picture Frame’, a thought-provoking tale about ignorance versus insight and the often underestimated emotional maturity of a child.

Julie tell us “I work to capture small town, Southern culture and stories in my writing. When not chained to my computer, I am usually found in the dance studio. I live in Southern Mississippi with my daughter and husband.”

You can read more of Julie’s writing on her website at www. juliavanstory.com and follow her on twitter @juliavanstory.


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The Picture Frame

“C’mon, we’re gonna be late.” I rush around my living room, checking my purse for my keys, sunglasses, and lipstick. My six-year-old daughter picks up a picture frame, leaving an outline of dust on the cherry-stained bookshelf.

“Can I bring this?”

Ava strokes her dad’s face in the frame.

“That was our first family photo.” It was our last one, too, but I don’t add that.

Ava looks up at me and tilts her head to one side.

“I know that. That’s why I want to take it.” She looks back at the photo. “You look so happy,” she whispers.

I take the picture from her and study it for the first time in years. It’s from the day we were discharged from the hospital. I was wearing a nursing tank, and my hair was slightly greasy because I didn’t wash it the whole time we were in the hospital. Dakota looked like he’d just walked off the golf course — tucked-in Polo shirt, khakis, and a white visor. We both gazed down at Ava nestled into my arms, wrapped in layers of white lace.

“Did you know you came out all slimy?”

“Ew,” she shouts, but her mouth is opened wide in a grin.

That moment when Ava was born and the doctor lifted up her perfect pink body, I felt a desperate need to feel her next to me. Before the doctor even finished asking if I wanted to do skin-to-skin, I nodded and reached out for her. I feel that way now.

“I love you so much, butter bean.”

She throws her arms wide, and I squat down to her level to wrap her up in a hug. I nuzzle her head and kiss her.

“I miss him.”

I pull her little body into my chest and rub her head. I hate that she misses him. I hate that she hurts. I hate it even more because he doesn’t deserve it.

While I was up with a colicky baby night after night, he locked himself in his home office or snuck down to the bar. The lack of sleep drove me crazy. Thoughts of running away weaved in and out between diaper changes and late night feeds. But then he left first. Ava had only been three months old. For six years, I’ve wished, I’ve hoped, I’ve dreamed of Dakota changing his mind, of redeeming himself. Instead, Ava is stuck with this deadbeat father forever. Dakota will never get to see all her quirks, her little smiles, her spontaneous kisses — but it’s his fault. It’s his fault that he missed all these little moments in the past, and now it’s his fault he’s dead.

I check my phone for the time. Dread clutches my stomach. “We gotta go.”

I grab her plastic pink princess heels and sit cross-legged beside her. She crawls into my lap and props one leg up on mine. I slip her shoe on and suppress the urge to chunk the picture across the room.

He didn’t hide the cocaine from me at first, though I had always opted for greener remedies. Back then it didn’t bother me because everyone uses in college. At least, that’s what I told myself.

The older he got, the better he became at hiding the drugs. No one besides me knew he had a problem until he was found face-down on his desk at work last week. The sun peeking over the horizon behind him, the foam at the mouth, the eyes rolled back.

Ava pulls my hand and leads me to the door. With her other hand, she holds the silver picture frame against her chest. She skips halfway to the car and stops to pick a dandelion. She blows, and the seeds float away in a small breeze.

When I first found out about Dakota, relief washed through me. Then shame when I realized Ava would never know her father. Then, I thought of my in-laws. They lost a child, and the idea of losing Ava ripped through me as if someone sat on my chest while stabbing me over and over in the gut.

*

As we pull up to the cemetery, a small group of aunts and uncles gather around Dakota’s parents. The sun has risen just enough to peek over the trees, but it hadn’t warmed up the chilly morning. Kathy wears a black lace dress with a high collar and long sleeves paired with her set of pearls, pantyhose, and sensible shoes with a chunky heel to keep from sinking into the grass — the quintessential mourner’s outfit. It certainly put my widow’s attire to shame — dark jeggings and a black T-shirt. I had put less than 10 seconds of thought into it.

When Kathy said she’d handle the funeral arrangements, I agreed without any hesitation. Although we were legally still married, I knew I wouldn’t have made the right decisions. There probably wouldn’t have been a funeral at all. If it had been up to me, I would have had him cremated, and his ashes thrown in a dumpster.

“Oh, Claire, thank you for coming.” Kathy envelopes me in a warm hug that smells of cinnamon and lavender. Her paper thin and wrinkled skin presses against my cheek. The nerves wash away. Kathy’s touch is just as comforting as my own mother’s.

“Nana, Nana, Nana,” Ava hops from one foot to the other. The picture frame waves back and forth, and I wait for it to hit Kathy’s leg.

“Good morning, sweet baby.” Kathy sweeps Ava into her arms. “You’re the most beautiful little girl. You remind me so much of your daddy.”

Ava giggles and holds her shoulders up mid-shrug like she does when she’s uncomfortable.

“What’s this?” Kathy touches the frame, but Ava jerks it away and shakes her head. She reaches for me, and I wrap her up and hold her tight as if my arms can protect her from the ugliness, from the attention, from the pressure.

“Now, that everyone’s here,” Kathy opens her arms as if welcoming a special guest to one of her fundraising galas. “I thought we’d open with a prayer.”

Kathy nods her head at her husband, and Davis draws a crumpled piece of paper from his inside jacket. Sweat is beading along his hairline despite the cool weather. He clears his throat, and everyone bows their head.

“Jesus, please be with my friends hearing this prayer. You know every wound, every joy, every fear, every dream. Heal old wounds.” Davis had probably found the first prayer he came across on Google. He jostles his weight from one foot to the other, and his free hand jingles the change in his pocket. “Give us eyes to see where new life springs in our hearts. Rejuvenate when we’re weak. We need you, Jesus. Amen.”


Rustic Succulent Planters

After the prayer, everyone looks up and avoids making eye contact.  I was thankful when Kathy decided on a private service, but right now I question that.  It would have been much easier to fade into anonymity with a crowd of people around. Kathy speaks up and takes over the service. I realize quickly everyone has prepared a short story to remember Dakota by. I get nervous as they cycle around, and it edges closer to me. I hear stories of bicycle mishaps and summertime pranks. Stories of an innocent 10, 11, 12-year-old boy. But no one dares to go older.

When Dakota’s aunt begins speaking beside me, I notice Kathy’s shoulders tense and her eyes shift between me and her sister. Is there a way for me to get out of this? When Rebecca finishes, Kathy starts shaking her head slowly. I breathe in and glance down at Ava. I hug her a little closer.

“Uh, yea. Maybe, something, I could- um.” I clear my throat and begin again. “Most of y’all know Dakota and I met in college.”

Kathy’s shoulders relax, and her gentle smile returns.

“What you may not know is how it happened. It was about three weeks into our first semester, and it had rained non-stop for days. I had put off and put off going to the grocery store, so I had quite the haul when I finally gave in.” It was a story I had perfected when we first got engaged. I told it to strangers at the supermarket as I flashed the two-carat princess-cut diamond. I told it to our priest during premarital counseling and at every wedding shower thrown. Any of the women here had heard it half a dozen times, but it is the only thing I can grasp, the only articulate thing I can say. “Because of the torrential downpour, I refused to take more than one trip. I zipped up my raincoat, pulled on the hood and loaded myself down with bags of popcorn, Mint Milanos, a gallon of milk and Slim Fast shakes. I made it to about halfway across the road between the parking lot and the dorm before one of the bags split open and spilled across the pavement.

“I started spewing a string of-” I look at Ava, “adult language. I didn’t even notice Dakota at first. White T-shirt drenched and barefoot, he came barreling toward me and scooping up the snacks from the ground.”

“‘Don’t just stand there,’ he yelled. He yanked the box of Diet Coke from my hand and sloshed through the muddy grass before I’d even found something to say.

“Once we were inside, he asked for my room number. Up the three flights of stairs, he teased me incessantly, but that’s when I knew I’d marry him some day. Obviously, we had our differences, but I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without him.” I kiss Ava’s head and smooth out her hair with my hand.

“Dakota was so sweet,” Rebecca chirps. “You were so perfect together.”

A smile had crept up with the memory of that day, but it drops away now.

“Oh, no.” I shake my head and bat away the suggestion with my hand. “We were not.”

“No, no. Remember when he proposed?” Kathy chimes in. “Red roses all over and my grandmother’s wedding china. It looked so beautiful.”

“He certainly had a way with the grand gestures.” I pinch the tender part of my wrist to try to disperse some of the tension and anxiety. I want to shout what I really think about Dakota at the top of my lungs, but Ava’s here. Ava. So sweet. So innocent. For probably the hundredth time in the course of her short life, I wonder how she got saddled with us for parents.

“We all know how kind Dakota could be when he wanted.” Kathy catches my eyes as if she can hear my thoughts.

The blood pulses in my ears. I try to swallow to say something. A tiny voice creeps up next to me.

“Daddy wasn’t a nice person.”

Everyone’s eyes lock onto Ava, but she’s staring down at the picture in her hand. I want to whisk her away, but I’m too stunned to move. She’s too young to know that you don’t speak ill of the dead.

“What have you been saying to her?” Kathy’s voice crackles through the cold air.

“I never- I wouldn’t.”

I look around the gathering. No one is saying anything. Everyone is staring at Kathy, Ava, or me. Everyone except Davis. He’s looking at his shoes, and his hands are stuffed in his pockets.

“She’s six, Kathy, not stupid,” he whispers. “It’s obvious he hasn’t been around.”

“Don’t you dare.” Her voice shakes and rises. “He was troubled.

“Yes.” He looks up. “But he should have stepped up. Don’t go after Claire for his mistake.”

I hope he understands the wordless relief I’m trying to communicate. He nods at me. I kneel beside Ava. “I’m so sorry, baby girl.”

“Mama, you don’t have to,” she whispers back. “I didn’t even know him.”

My throat closes, and my heart breaks for her. I reach for Ava’s hand.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper to Kathy. I graze my hand on Davis’ forearm as I pass in gratitude, in solidarity.

“Take care of her,” he says. “She’s all we have left.”

I buckle Ava into her booster seat, and she lets me, even though she can do it herself. I look at her, really look at her, at her green eyes, her blonde hair. She does look just like Dakota.

“You know,” I say, “he wasn’t all bad. He gave me you.”

Ava drops the picture on the seat and reaches her arms out to give me a hug. Her tiny lips bunch tightly into my cheek.

“I love you, Mama.”

“I love you, too, butter bean.”


The Almost Mothers by Laura Besley

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A Mother’s Rites: A Short Story

I’m very honoured to present this short story, from a writer who has had many writings published in many reputable places. I’d like to thank Steve Carr for his submission “A Mother’s Rites”, a touching short story based on true events, about a Mother’s journey of love and remembrance. Originally published in Wagon Magazine in 2017.

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 400 short stories published internationally in print and in online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies, since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published, including Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock , 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories.

His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. and last but definitely not least, he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, twice. He has also written a guide book to getting your short stories published (see it at the end of this post).

His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com / or you can find him on Facebook or Twitter @carrsteven960



This page contains an affiliate link which may earn me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase. Affiliate links are how I keep this page running, thank you.

A Mother's Rites

Photo credits: Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

A Mother’s Rites

Thursday before the last weekend in August, hot wind perfumed with the drying golden grass that covers most of the roadside mounds of heated earth, blows in through the open windows. The rush of wind fills the car’s interior. Harriet’s normal speed on this stretch of interstate headed east, and she knows it well, having traveled it often throughout the years. Dying quick deaths, bugs splatter on the windshield leaving blotches and streaks. His face stuck out of the back window, long ears dancing about his head, tongue extended lapping in the scents of summer decay, Lucky wags his tail, a satisfied partner to the viewing of the open countryside being passed at seventy miles per hour.

At the turnoff to Wasta the car is slowed and here Harriet turns and decreases the car’s speed to forty miles per hour and then decreases it even more as she enters the small town. Wasta has changed very little over the years. A few ramshackle buildings line what could be called the downtown area. At fifteen miles per hour she cruises through Wasta and continues out of this throwback to dreams that never happened of becoming a traveler’s stop, usurped by the clever marketing of ice water offered in nearby Wall.

Outside of Wasta a few houses stand along the road she takes, it being an unlikely and almost desolate environment in which to encourage homesteading. It leads to the dried muddy banks of the Cheyenne River where dead trees submerged each spring in the yearly floods remain rotting in place.

Here, she puts her foot on the brake pedal and the car comes to a stop alongside a rusty barbed wire fence, a boundary marker for some land owner protecting his wasteland from – what? Harriet gets out of the car and then lets Lucky out. The dog runs off toward the river, his barks muted by the silence that hangs over this place like a death shroud. Harriet steps over some fallen fence wire and treads across the gray cracked earth, headed toward the river.

No grass or weed or wildflower grows along the river bank, only varying hues of dried red mud provide color. The river is barely a stream that moves slowly on its way to wherever it is destined to end. The water is brackish and unappealing, only tempting to Lucky who bounces over it and through it with abundant energy. On the opposite bank a lone cow, head bent and moving slowly, makes its way upriver. Lucky seems unimpressed with it and continues his frolic to and fro across the Cheyenne.                         

Harriet’s son, Jeffrey, thought this place magical, the name Cheyenne bringing to mind the days when the Sioux Indians roamed these parts in search of the great herds of buffalo, a place where movies were made to recall the glorified struggles between land seeking settlers and the noble Indian. Here he had searched the ground for arrowheads, never finding one but always hopeful. Lucky was his companion, sticking near him awaiting a friendly pat on the head or encouragement to join him and run along the muddy river until both were coated with thick globs of wet soil.


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Kindle Paperwhite Waterproof


Inhaling, the air here was dense with the almost fetid odor of lifelessness, that and the drying cow pies that dotted the ground like drying black pimples. Harriet too is entranced by this place. She had happened on it quite by accident one summer when Jeffrey was very young and inspired by him being enamored with its other-worldly quality, they had returned every year at the same time, finding nothing changed, nothing new except an occasional fallen tree or the carcass of a dead cow. While all else seemed altered by time, this small stretch along the Cheyenne River never did.

Lucky responds to her whistle, rushing to her side, his fur matted with mud, his eyes bright and if it is possible for a dog, full of joy. She leads him back to the car and there she opens a large thermos of cold water and douses him with it and rubs the mud and grime off of him. He is cleaner but not entirely free of the evidence of the excursion. She opens the back door and he leaps onto the seat. She takes her place behind the wheel, starts the car and turns back toward Wasta and back to the interstate.

Fifteen minutes later she pulls into Wall, stops at the corner convenience store and fills her gas tank, refills the thermos from a faucet extending out from a wall outside the store, then heads into town. Cars line the main street, parked at angles on each side of a median strip. Storefronts on each side of the street, most built or remodeled to look like a nineteenth century western town, are crowded with tourists gaping in the windows at shelves upon shelves of western and frontier souvenirs.

Harriet pulls off on a side street, finds a shady spot to park the car, rolls down the window to give Lucky some air in the late afternoon heat, and fills his water dish and sits it on the floor in the back. He knows the routine and doesn’t complain other than to look longingly at Harriet as she closes the door and heads toward Wall Drug Store.

Glaringly commercial, overstocked with cheap trinkets, it is room upon room attached to make a good-sized mall of useless paraphernalia for a town of less than 900 people, and crowded it has come a long way since its inception as a simple place for people to stop and get a free glass of ice water. She knows her way to the cafeteria and without stopping to look at Indian headdresses or plastic colt 45s as Harriet might have done had Jeffrey been along, she goes straight to the counter and in quick fashion given the length of the line that was ahead of her, orders a buffalo burger and fries and a diet Coke. She takes her tray with her order number on a small placard placed on it and goes into the large dining room. Surrounded by dark paneled walls covered with original works of western art, she takes a seat at a long table in the center of the cafeteria, in between a hodgepodge of men, women and children noisily living up the experience of being in this amusement park that has no rides other than a horse that requires a quarter to make it buck for a minute or two while a child sits on it.

The food arrives quickly, delivered by one of the students from a nearby college hired for the summer to supplement the workforce that Wall and the surrounding area was lacking. Of three places in this journey, this was Jeffrey’s second favorite, owing to its stacks of useless junk and lack of shame in providing nothing authentic other than the paintings on the wall, which he had studied as carefully as possible, reveling in those that were of mountain men, stallions on their hind legs, Indians on snowy plains and ragged buffalo in raging stampedes. Harriet eats only half of the burger and few of the fries, wrapping them in a napkin to be carried to Lucky. She stops at the counter again and buys two of Wall’s cake donuts, considered by Jeffrey to be the best donuts in the world, bar none. She leaves the drugstore through a different door than the one she came in by and makes her way down the street to a very wagging-tailed dog pleased with his treat which he devours almost as soon as it is offered to him.

At the end of the street and before leaving Wall is the only local grocery store, a small mom and pop place with five aisles that provides the basics for the locals and anything that someone who intends to camp at the nearby Badlands National Park would need. Harriet buys coal for a grill, two bags of ice and a variety of smaller items and some Slim Jims for Lucky. She leaves the store carrying two bags, one with the ice, the other with the remaining items. At the car she opens the trunk and moves aside the folded up tent, a shovel, and a small cardboard box with the top neatly taped closed and lifted out the ice chest and places it on the ground. In goes the ice, several bottles of orange juice, a pack of hot dogs and a package of bologna. She repacks the trunk and sets off again, leaving Wall.

From Wall to the entrance of the Badlands National Park it is only a few miles, and the famous rock formations begin a few miles beyond the turnoff past the entrance, the right handed turnoff that Harriet takes after buying a pass to allow her to camp until Sunday. Small gray clouds of dirt and gravel kick up behind her as she drives slowly past a broad stretch of prairie on the right and a ridge overlooking a deep valley with rolling hills of rock and stretches of barren land and yellow prairie grass to the right. Even before arriving at it, the wooden signs with silver lettering directs her toward the prairie dog town straight ahead. Cars are parked on each side of the road, with people milling about
with cameras pointed at the prairie dogs who stand at alert on their hind legs atop their mounds a hundred feet from the edge of the road, or they dash in and out of the hundred or so holes that beneath constitute their habitats. Harriet drives by the parked cars and the prairie dogs very slowly, swallowing hard against the rush of emotion that is overtaking her. Beyond there she picks up speed and takes the turns and stretches of straight flat unfinished road all the way to the campgrounds barely noticing how little anything has changed, after all it had only been a year since the last time she and Jeffrey had been there.

An oval-shaped space the size of several football fields bordered on one side by a wall of rock and a stretch of land cut through by a dry creek bed on the other, the campground is busy but not crowded. Harriet pulls into the closest available spot nearest an old dead tree that Jeffrey had cut his initials into, and parks the car. Keeping Lucky in the back seat, barking to be set free at last, she unpacks the trunk, sets up the tent and lays out the sleeping bags as well as the ice chest inside it. When set up she hooks Lucky’s leash to his collar and lets him out of the car and walks toward the creek bed, stopping to let him survey the myriad of scents and to relieve himself. Harriet is tired now, and she sits on a ledge of rock and watches small birds, terns or swifts, she wasn’t sure which, circling overhead, occasionally dipping down to the creek bed and scooping up something much too small to be seen by her. In the distance she hears the one bird sound she knew at some deeper level, the call of a meadowlark, his short melodic warble echoing from some nearby stretch of grass and down the creek all the way to her heart.




Saturday morning, Lucky is curled in a ball by her side and breathing heavily, Harriet awakes and sees the moving shadow on the side of the tent. She undoes the zipper on the sleeping bag and crawls to the tent door and unzips it and sticks her head out. Five feet away a large, mangy buffalo is nibbling at a small tuft of grass as its dozen or so companions do the same not much further away. Lucky is now up, attempting to push his way past her. She quickly zips up the tent door and sits back down on the sleeping bag, quietly opening the ice chest and taking out a bottle of juice and twisting off the cap and relishing the coolness of it as she drinks. Buffalo are unpredictable and dangerous, so she makes as little noise as possible, opening a package of Slim Jims from their noisy plastic wrapping with great care then feeding it to Lucky. Exactly when she falls asleep again she later does not recall, but it was near noon when she awakes in the hot tent with Lucky jumping about eager to take care of business. The buffalo are gone.

Throughout the day she takes brief walks to the creek bed, mainly to give Lucky exercise, but mainly stays near the tent sitting on an Indian blanket she had purchased at a small store in Scenic years ago, and reading Willa Cather’s “Oh, Pioneer.” She snacks on bologna sandwiches and fig Newton’s. The campers around her are cordial without being intrusive and tend to their own activities without pressing her to join them, which is exactly how she wants it to be. As evening approaches with purple skies and silvery clouds fading away in the darkness, she builds a small fire in the grill that had been built by the park service, basically a pit dug in the ground surrounded by a small circular wall of iron and topped with a grill of metal bars blackened by the fires that had been built beneath it. When darkness sets in she places two hot dogs on the grill and listens to the grease crackle as it falls into the fire. She opens a can of Lucky’s favorite dog food for him and they eat together, seated next to one another on the Indian blanket. While others in the campground are still awake, she crawls into her tent with Lucky and pulling him to her, settles into the sleeping bag and falls sound asleep.

Harriet is awake even before the Sunday morning sun rises over the campground. She lies in the sleeping bag rubbing Lucky’s ear much to his apparent delight and listening to the distant sounds of a coyote, and the nearer sounds of birds in the nearby trees giving song to the beginning of day. As light begins to creep across the tent, she hooks Lucky to his leash and takes him down to the creek bed and unhooks it, letting him run about free for nearly an hour before calling him to her side and walking him back to the campsite. Other campers are preparing to leave, with tents being taken down and folded and stacked onto car tops or in car trunks. Some weekend holdouts like her are taking it slower, fixing a final breakfast of eggs and bacon prepared in cast iron skillets placed on the grill, or heading off for a final walk down the ravines or up to the hilltop hoping for one last sighting of buffalo.  “This is it,” she says to Lucky, realizing that she had barely spoken more than those three words all weekend.

She opens the trunk of the car and takes out the shovel, then goes to the tree that had Jeffrey’s initials and at its base she begins to dig a small hole. Once she makes her way down about two feet she stops digging and sits the shovel aside. Lucky is tied to the car and is whining and straining at his leash. She pets his head and then takes the small box out of the trunk of the car and carefully peels the tape from the two flaps at its top. She lifts out a bundle, and carefully removes the bubble wrap and cotton and throws the wrapping items into the trunk. In her hands she holds a bright blue earthen jar decorated with a variety of images; footballs, cowboys, spaceships, and one of Lucky. She retrieves the two donuts from the car, then walks over to the hole and removes the lid from the jar and pours ashes from the jar into the hole. Once the jar is emptied she places the donuts on top of the ashes then replaces the dirt in the hole and pats it down. She thinks that maybe she should say a few words, but none came to mind. This is not a time for words.



A Guidebook

With his list of accomplishments, Steve Carr is one of the most qualified people on the planet to give other writers practical advice on the ins and outs of getting a short story published. His guidebook ‘Getting Your Short Stories Published’ reveals his organizing system and his methodology for approaching publishers, and is full of top tips to get your work in print. It’s a must-have for any aspiring short story writer.

You can find in on Amazon or click the book cover below.

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Thanks

Thank you for reading this blog, if you’d like to submit a story for consideration to be published, please visit our submissions page.

If you’d like to keep up to date with all the latest stories, news, promos (including writing competitions and giveaways) plus receive a FREE Ebook, sign up to our mailing list here or fill in the form below.


Get your FREE Ebook

Accomplish more IN a fraction of the time

The pace and intensity of our lives, both at work and at home, leave many of us feeling like a person riding a frantically galloping horse. Our day-to-day incessant busyness — too much to do and not enough time.

With this ebook you will learn to approach your days in another way, reducing stress and getting results through prioritizing, leveraging and focus!

ebook button