I had a wonderful time at the Albion Beatnik Bookstore yesterday. It truly is a magical place. Slightly off the beaten track in Oxford, it is always worth schlepping up Walton Street to browse from its eclectic shelves, debate with Dennis the owner, sit at one of the decorated tables with tea and cake reading your purchases. If you don't know it, you really should visit. And often, because it's hard for independent bookstores to survive and Albion Beatnik is one of the best.
It was also real treat to perch myself at the front of the shop and write flash fiction to people's request. By the end of the day I had five stories written and four more requests. I scribbled one on the bus on the way home, but I've rewritten that now. I had some great conversations with the people who came in the shop about Brexit (inevitably), Oxford, family relationships, architecture, photography, and the rain. And just before I left, who should walk in but fellow Unbounder, Sally Bayley, whose Secret Life of the Diary is doing very well thank you. What a treat.
So a huge thank you to Dennis and his fabulous customers, I had a blast.
Here are the first few stories:
Prompt 1 was mine inspired by decoration in the shop: a chain of hearts hanging from the ceiling.
1. Happy Valentine’s Day
He was coming round for dinner. After weeks of careful negotiation, he was finally coming round to dinner. Finally coming to MY place. And on Valentine’s Day. A sure sign that we were getting somewhere. Moving from random late night shags to an 'in a relationship' declaration on Facebook. All those gentle hints about it being such a long trek to work from his place, how I cooked a mean tagliatelle and how my bed had the softest mattress had finally paid off.
He said he would be there by eight, I had two hours to prepare. I would have had more time, but I’d spent half the afternoon making a chain of hearts to hang from the ceiling, laying the table, and the other half decorating the table. It looked fabulous, white cloth, silverware, red napkins in the form of roses. The centre piece was a vase with a single red rose and an ice bucket ready for the champagne.
I checked my watch, worked out a schedule. Hoovering, bedding, toilet by seven. Wash hands, prepare veg, make sauce, by seven thirty. Jump in the shower, change, in time to put the pasta on just before he arrived.
It went like clockwork. At seven forty five, I was pulling on my new silk bra, pants, suspenders, shivering with anticipation at the delights ahead of me. I took my new Monsoon dress from the cupboard, green satin, low cut, figure hugging. I'd bought it for Jan's wedding, but knowing how good I looked in it, couldn't resist wearing it tonight. A spray of Chanel No 5, and a brush of the teeth and I was back in the kitchen
At eight pm, the pasta was bubbling, the salad prepared, the garlic bread in the oven. He hadn’t arrived yet, but he was usually late for our dates. I wasn't worried.
At eight fifteen, the pasta was cooked. He hadn’t texted, but his phone was always dying on him.. I mixed the pasta with the sauce and placed it in a dish with the oven. I wasn't worried. I poured myself a Baileys as an aperitif.
Eight thirty and it began to rain. A patter of droplets at first, that turned into a roar. Wind rattled the windows. The chain of hearts swung wildly in the draught. I wasn't worried but I hoped he had an umbrella. Otherwise he might get drenched.
By nine pm I was on my third Baileys, and there was no sign of him. He still hadn’t rung. I turned the food down, trying not to worry, to wonder where he was.
He rang an hour later. Full of apology. Something about a client, a contract deadline, needing to have papers signed by midday Tokyo time. He hoped I hadn’t gone to too much trouble.
None at all, I smiled putting the phone down. I understand.
I took my dinner out of the oven and sat down at the table. The pasta was soggy, the garlic bread dry, the salad had wilted.. But it was food and I was hungry.And thirsty. I might as well wash it down with champagne.
I opened the bottle. The cork exploded, ricocheting of the wall before hitting the chain of hearts hanging from the ceiling; breaking it in two.
Prompt 2 came from Deborah who was shop sitting for Dennis for a while: The comfortable white middle class non racist Out voter.
2. The Morning After
‘Juliet,’ Hermione knocked on her daughter’s door, ‘Seven am.’ There was a grunt from the bedroom. She popped her head round the door to see her daughter already sitting up in her bed, hunched over her phone, texting swift responses to the constant ping of messages. She did not look up.
‘Morning love.’ Hermione said. Juliet did not reply, but continued with her texting. She tried again. ‘Haven’t you got an exam this morning?’ This time the girl looked up with a withering gaze, ‘I think I know my own time table mother.’ Oh dear, it was going to be one of those mornings. ‘In that case, you have ten minutes.’ ‘K,’ said Juliet showing no signs of movement. Hermione knew from experience that withdrawal at this point was the best option. The fifteen year old would slink down to breakfast, and, given the previous night’s events, probably sulk her way through it.
Sure enough, her daughter was at the table shortly afterwards, eating her cereal, continuing to respond to the barrage of texts with her free hand.
‘Please don’t text at breakfast,’ Hermione said. ‘I am sick of asking you.’ Juliet gazed at her with contempt.
‘And don’t look at me like that.’
‘Like what?’The teenager shrugged and returned to her texting.
‘Like I was the worst mother in the world.’ Her daughter ignored her. ‘I can see it in your eyes. You’re thinking, how could I?’
Her daughter broke away from the phone to glare at her mother with all the fury ‘Because you’re a racist?’ She returned to her texting with all the fury of the self righteous teen.
‘Will you put that bloody phone away and listen to me?’ Juliet looked mutinous, but she put the phone down, sat back and folded her arms.
‘All right Mum. You’re not a racist.’
‘Enough with the sarcasm, there are good reasons.’
‘Like what? Stuffing up your kid’s future?’
Hermione sighs. ‘Don’t be so melodramatic. I voted Leave because I think the EU is undemocratic run by elites and political interest groups. I voted Leave because I think it’s the best way to tackle poverty in this country. I think when you’re older, you’ll agree.’
‘You had free education, nice houses, and freedom of movement in Europe. Now thanks to you we have lost it all. And we didn’t even get a say.’
‘You’re too young to understand.’
‘Don’t fucking patronise me.’ Juliet, jumped up, pushing her chair away so hard it fell to the ground with a bang.
‘How dare you speak to me like that?’ But it was too late, her daughter was gone, in a cloud of seething fury, leaving Hermione in the kitchen alone. She heard her stomping about in her room, and then thumping footsteps on the stairs. The door banged and she was gone without saying goodbye.
Hermione cleared away the table and began to wash up. She hated arguing with Juliet, and it happened far too often these days. Her daughter off to school in a huff, leaving Hermione wondering how to put it right.
To school in a huff...Oh damn. The exam. She hadn’t wished her good luck.
She picked up her phone, sent a text and began to load the washing machine. As she switched it on her phone pinged, to say thanks. No kiss or apology as usual, but it was a start.
She would try again tonight.
Prompt three came from Marysia who was in the shop with her boyfriend: A dog who thinks he is human.
3. Tea Dance
This is so exciting, Benjy thinks, as he and Jenny wait in the wings to be called. The heats were thrilling enough but, to be here, about to meet Simon, Amanda and the crew is beyond their wildest dreams. They have just recorded their interview with Ant and Dec, which was all he'd hoped it would be. The duo were funny and supportive. They laughed in all the right places and wished them good luck. Now as he and Jenny watch identical twins perform a contortion of dance movements which is apparently about conception, he can hear them chortling in the background.
The twins finish and the crowd applauds hesitantly, not quite sure what to make of them. Simon is disparaging, Amanda, encouraging, Alesha confused, David amused, but they don’t go through. The stagehands clear the stage, preparing for Benjy and Jenny's set. And then it is time. 'On you go,' says the producer and he and Jenny walk on stage to the arm in arm, to the sounds of the song tea for two. The audience erupts with laughter as they sit down at a table and smile at each other. Jenny pours him a cup and passes it to him. He picks it up. The audience clap and whoop and cheer as he drinks it. The tea is sweet and hot. It trickles down his throat warming him right to his stomach. The audience applaud wildly.
They move effortless through their routine. He stands up, asks her to dance and they waltz around the stage. The lights are bright, the theatre is warm, the atmosphere is electric. He loves this, he loves every minute of this. They are going to be superstars, he can feel it.
They finish their act to tumultuous applause, everyone rises to their feet cheering and clapping. Simon is ecstatic, Amanda exuberant, Alesha amazed, David lost for words. And then the magic words ‘You’re through.’
They leave the stage where Ant and Dec are ready with a mike.
‘How do you feel?’
‘Wonderful,’ says Jenny.
‘Fantastic,’ says Benjy, ‘This is the best night of my life.’
‘Woof, Woof, Woof!’ Benjy is jumping up on his hind legs with an enthusiasm Jenny can’t contain.
‘What an amazing dog,’ says Ant to Jenny. She laughs in agreement.
‘He seems almost human,’ says Dec smiling.
Wooof, woof, woof, woof, Benjy turns from one to the other.
‘But I am human,’ he cries...’Aren’t I?’
Hope you enjoyed these as much as I enjoyed writing them. I'll be posting more tomorrow.
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