Short Fiction

Hi,

On this page I sporadically post my short fiction. 'For the Girls' was originally published in Espresso Fiction nine or ten years ago. So it's an oldie, but it gives you a good idea of where my writing was heading even back then. I hope you enjoy it.


For the Girls


Tom was burning leaves in the back garden when Angela got home from work. She fixed herself a drink and stood at the backdoor, watching him rake up fallen leaves and dump them onto the fire. After a while, she called to him, “How’s it going?”

Momentarily, he seemed startled. Then he glanced over his shoulder. His face was blotchy and damp from exertion and the heat of the fire. He put down the rake and approached her.

“How long have you been stood there?”

“Not long.” Angela tapped a fingernail against her glass. “Do you want one?”

Tom shook his head. “I’ve got to drive the girls to dance practice.”

“Let them walk, it’s not far.”

Tom looked shocked at the suggestion. “It’ll be dark soon.”

“Lauren’s twelve and Claudia’s thirteen going on thirty. They’re both perfectly capable of getting around on their own.”

“I know, but...”

“But what?”

“Well, you don’t know who’s lurking around do you? There are a lot of crazy people out there.”

“Come off it, Tom, everyone knows everyone in this town. Any strangers, especially crazy looking ones, would be noticed at once.”

“I suppose you’re right,” murmured Tom, clearly unconvinced, “but I’d still rather drive the girls to dance.”

Smiling, Angela slid an arm around her husband’s waist and pulled him close. “I always said you’d turn out to be an overprotective father.”

She tried to kiss him.

“Not now, darling,” he said, turning his head to one side. “I’ve got things to do.”

***

The instant they got in from school, Claudia and Lauren rushed up to Angela and said simultaneously, “Mum, Mum, have you heard?”

“Heard what?” she replied.

“Molly Frazer’s gone missing.”

“How do you mean, missing?”

The sisters began to speak at the same time again. Angela raised a hand, palm outward. “One at a time, please.”

Lauren lapsed into a sullen silence, as Claudia continued quickly, “She went out to meet some friends the day before yesterday and never came home. The police were in school today trying to find out if anyone knows where she is.”

Angela turned to a doorway and shouted for Tom. A moment later, he poked his head into the room. “What is it?”

A troubled frown creased his face as Angela repeated what Claudia had told her. “That’s terrible,” he said. “Do the police have any idea what might have happened to her?”

“No one has a clue,” said Claudia. “It’s like she just vanished into thin air.”

“There’s going to be a prayer vigil at the school tonight,” said Lauren. “Can we go?”

“Of course,” said Angela. “Now hurry and get changed. Tea’s almost ready.”

“Imagine what that poor girl’s parents must be going through,” sighed Angela as she watched her girls leave the room.

“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” said Tom, shaking his head.

Angela took her husband’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For accusing you of being overprotective. You were right, there are a lot of crazy people out there.”

***

The headmaster’s wife greeted them at the school gates and led them into the packed assembly hall. Faces turned toward them, anxious, worried, inquisitive. Mostly, they belonged to people that Angela had known all her life.

A middle-aged couple waved them over. The woman put her hand on Angela’s wrist and said, “Absolutely awful, isn’t it.”

Angela nodded. “Any news?”

“They’re using dogs to search the woods to the north of town,” said the man.

“And there’s a rumour going around that they’re draining the fishing pond at Chapel Farm,” added his wife.

The hum of voices in the hall died down as the local vicar appeared on the stage. “Thank you all for coming here tonight to pray for Molly’s safe return,” he began sombrely. “Before proceeding with the prayer, the police have asked me to inform you that they’d like to speak to anyone who visited The Avenue Shopping Centre on Saturday afternoon.”

The crowd bowed their heads as the vicar continued, “Lord, we ask for your blessing and comfort. Please go with us. Please send Molly home safe.”

Later, as the vicar spoke of the light of hope promised by God, candles were lit and carried out into the night.

***

Molly Frazer’s pretty, smiling face stared at passersby from fliers stuck up in the windows of every town centre shopfront. Printed beneath it in large blood-red lettering was the word, ‘Missing’. And beneath that was a brief narrative that read, ‘Molly Frazer has been missing since 13th of January 2007. Her parents and the police are concerned for her safety. If you’ve seen her or have any information regarding her please contact us on the number provided below.’

Figures stood in the rain, handing out fliers to shoppers and motorists. Tom approached one of them and said wearily, “I’m starting to wonder whether we’re wasting our time.”

“Don’t say that,” exclaimed Angela.

“I’m just being realistic. It’s been almost a week since she went missing. The light of hope’s getting pretty dim, wouldn’t you say?”

“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean we should give up.” Angela stabbed a finger at Molly’s picture. “That could just as easily be one of our girls.”

“You’re right,” agreed Tom. “I’m sorry.”

The telephone call came later that day. After a brief conversation, Angela hung up and wandered dazedly into the lounge. “Girls, would you leave the room please,” she said to her daughters.

“I’m watching the-” Claudia began to protest, but some instinct warned her not to continue. She switched off the telly and followed her sister from the room.

“What’s wrong?” asked Tom.

“They found a body.”

Tom didn’t look surprised. “Where?”

“In the woods.”

“Is it her?”

“They’re not sure. Apparently, the body’s been beaten so severely that they can’t-” Angela broke off, her voice choked with tears.

Tom put his arms around her and rubbed her back. “Poor little girl,” he murmured, as she sobbed into his shoulder.

***

The roads leading to the school were even more clogged with traffic than was usual for a Monday morning. “I’m going to be late,” said Angela, glancing at her watch.

“We can walk from here,” offered Lauren.

Angela considered this briefly, then shook her head. “I’d rather drop you at the gates.”

“It’s not fair,” muttered Claudia. “I wish things could go back to the way they were.”

“So do all of us,” said Angela. She knew, though, that things could never return to the way they’d been. Not even if Molly’s killer was caught and jailed for life. The damage that had been done to the community was as irreparable as the injuries Molly had suffered.

Angela pulled into the kerb. “See you at half-past three,” she called after the girls as they got out of the car. She waited until they were well inside the gates, before accelerating away.

***

“By the way,” said the shop-assistant, “how does the blind look?”

Angela gave her a quizzical glance. “What blind?”

“Tom was in here the Saturday before last. He bought a Venetian blind.”

Angela’s face took on a thoughtful expression. She wondered why Tom hadn’t mentioned the blind to her. Or, for that matter, that he’d visited the shopping centre on the day Molly went missing. A possible answer came into her mind, but it was so absurd, so appalling that she disregarded it at once, feeling deeply ashamed for thinking such a thing.

During the drive home, however, the same thought kept nagging at her.

Tom was pushing Lauren on the swing in the back garden. Her feet brushed the grass. Soon she would be too big for the swing, like Claudia already was. Angela watched as, laughing, Lauren stretched her legs out and leant back to look at her dad upside down. He smiled back at her.

A sense of sudden urgency prompted Angela to call to Tom. He waved and started toward the house. “Stay there, honey,” shouted Angela, when Lauren stood to follow him, “I need to talk to your dad alone.”

Tom frowned a little. “What’s up?”

Angela motioned for him to follow her inside. She was aware of her heart beating faster than usual, as they made their way to the lounge. When she turned and saw his crinkled red face, which was as familiar to her as her own, she was tempted not to ask the question. But she knew that wasn’t really an option.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the blind?”

She saw that he knew what she was talking about. And she saw him think about denying it. Then a look of resignation came into his eyes and he said, “I was embarrassed.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to fit the blind as a surprise, but I made a real mess of it. I got so angry that I took the damn thing into the garden and burnt it.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Was there anything else?”

Angela shook her head. After Tom had left the room, she picked up a newspaper and read again how Molly’s body was found in a ditch, naked, her ankles and wrists bound with cord. She’d been beaten so savagely that detectives initially thought she’d been blasted in the face with a shotgun. One veteran police officer was quoted as saying that it was the most brutal case he’d ever seen.

When Tom re-entered the room a while later, Angela was sat with the newspaper on her lap, deep in thought. She looked up at him, her eyes narrowing. “I still don’t quite understand why you didn’t mention the blind to me,” she said.

“I told you,” replied Tom. “I was embarrassed.”

“But we’ve been married nearly twenty years. I’ve seen you lose your temper over that sort of thing hundreds of times.”

“Why do you have to keep going on about this?” Tom’s voice rose in irritation. “Can’t you just accept what I’ve told you?”

“Sure, but-”

“But what? Just what the hell are you getting at?”

“Nothing. I’m just trying to get it straight in my mind why you kept this from me.”

They stared at each other for a moment, her eyes curious, his steadily filling with anger. Then he looked away. “I’ve had enough of this,” he said, storming from the room and out the front door.

Angela heard the car start up and pull away from the house. She stood and made her way to a patch of scorched earth in the garden. A few lumps of melted plastic were all that remained of the blind’s slats. There was, of course, no trace of the cord that would have connected the slats together.

Claudia came into the garden and asked, “Where’s Dad gone?”

“I don’t know.”

“Will he be long?”

Angela shrugged. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as Claudia whined, “He promised he’d give me a lift to Lisa’s house after tea. If he doesn’t come back in time, I’ll have to walk there.”

“Don’t be silly, Claudia, Lisa lives on the other side of town.”

“So what? I can walk there easily.”

“You’re not walking anywhere by yourself.”

“I am,” Claudia retorted defiantly. “And you can’t stop me.”

“You’ll do what I tell you, or you’ll-” Before Angela could finish speaking, Claudia turned and ran inside the house.

“Get back here,” shouted Angela, chasing after her.

Claudia darted into the downstairs toilet and locked the door. Angela hammered on it with both fists. “Let me in,” she demanded.

“No!”

Suddenly, all the anger that had been brewing in Angela for the past fortnight bubbled to the surface and she hit the door so hard that the bolt gave way. Claudia screamed and cowered against the sink, her face pale with shock. Angela stood over her, breathing hard.

“You’re not going anywhere by yourself,” she said. “Do you hear me?”

Claudia nodded. “Are...are you going to punish me,” she stammered.

Seeing her daughter so scared made Angela’s anger disappear as fast as it had arisen. She shook her head. “I’m sorry, darling, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” she said softly. “It’s just that you and Lauren mean everything in the world to me. I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to us, Mum.”

“I know,” said Angela, “because I’m going to make sure it doesn’t.”

***

Angela was lying awake in bed when Tom returned home. She closed her eyes as he climbed the stairs. He opened the door quietly, approached the bed and stood staring down at her. His breath reeked of alcohol. He shifted a foot and cleared his throat, but she kept her eyes shut.

After what felt like a long time to Angela, he turned and left the room.

Hearing him look in on the girls, she sat up, listening intensely. She was on the verge of getting out of bed, when he went back downstairs and into the living room. There was a muffled clink of glass, followed by silence.

Angela looked at her hands and saw that they were trembling.

***

“You alright, Mum?” asked Claudia. “You look really tired.”

“I didn’t get much sleep,” admitted Angela, checking her reflection in the mirror and applying a little more blusher. Hearing movement in the room below, she dressed quickly in a black skirt and jacket and made her way downstairs.

Tom was at the drinks cabinet pouring himself a whisky. He was still wearing his clothes from the previous day.

“The funeral service starts in an hour,” said Angela.

“I know.”

“Well hadn’t you better start getting ready?”

Tom made no reply, but took a big mouthful of his drink.

Angela said carefully, “You do realise how it’ll look if you don’t go.”

In response, Tom treated her to a look of such contempt that she raised her hands and backed out of the room. Half-an-hour later, she looked in on him again. He was slumped in an armchair, staring at a recent photo of Claudia and Lauren. His eyes jerked up to her face, bloodshot and glistening. “I’d do anything for them,” he said. “Absolutely anything.”

“Time to go,” said Angela, biting back an angry retort. “Are you coming or not?”

Tom’s gaze returned to the photo. “You and the girls get going,” he murmured in a strange, distant voice. “I’ll see you at the church.”

“Fine.”

Angela called the girls downstairs and hustled them out of the house.

***

Every pew in the church was full to overflowing. Angela and her daughters were sat near the front, a couple of rows back from Molly’s parents, who looked as though they’d aged ten years in a fortnight. The coffin rested on a bier to the right of the pulpit, which was draped in black.

“Where’s Dad?” whispered Claudia.

“He’ll be here soon,” Angela assured her, glancing toward the vestibule.

She looked around at all the familiar faces. Almost the whole town had turned out to say their final goodbyes to Molly. The vicar mounted his pulpit and began the sermon by asking the congregation to bow their heads. Angela felt sick.

After all the prayers for the living and the dead had been said, the organ started up, curtains closed in front of the coffin and the congregation filed out of the church.

“Why didn’t he come?” asked Lauren.

“I don’t know,” lied Angela.

On the way home, Angela dropped the girls off at her sister’s house. “No arguments,” she said, when they began to protest. “I’ll pick you up later. Me and your dad have got stuff to sort out.”

Alone in the car, Angela struggled to hold herself together. She sat in the driveway for a full ten minutes, before she managed to summon up the courage to go into the house.

Tom wasn’t in the living-room. She shouted his name and got no response. The silence gave her a cold feeling inside.

She climbed the stairs slowly. The bathroom door stood slightly ajar. She pushed it open and stepped forward.

The first thing she saw was the blood. The bath seemed to be full of it. Tom was laid on his back with his arms folded across his chest. A thick, dark stream flowed from his wrists into the water. He looked dead, but then his lips moved.

In a barely audible whisper, he said, “Call an ambulance.”

Angela snatched out her mobile-phone, started to dial, then hesitated. In that moment she saw the future in vivid detail, like a waking nightmare. She saw the newspaper headlines. She saw the trial dragging out for months. She saw all the silently accusing – or pitying – looks she and her girls would have to put up with as long as they lived in their hometown. And in the far distant future, she saw the whole agonising mess being stirred up again when Tom was released from jail. The nightmare would never go away, unless...

Very slowly, Angela returned the phone to her pocket. Tom’s drowsy eyes widened a fraction in horrified disbelief. His lips moved again, but no sound came. His gaze remained fixed on Angela, as his head gradually slid beneath the water. And she returned his stare steadily with eyes that seemed to say, “You’re not the only one who’d do anything for our girls.”


The End


I hope you enjoyed the story, and thanks for dropping by.