I like to write short stories. They are a completely different beast from novels and I find them a good way to keep nimble. There’s no room to waffle on in a short story—every word counts.
I hope you enjoy these little offerings.
‘Seeing Him Again for the First Time’ won the 2018 RWNZ chapter short story contest.
Seeing Him Again For The First Time
Isabel frowned at the rain-soaked beach. She tucked her legs underneath her and shivered as the mist worked its way inside her thin jacket, soaking her jumper and trickling down the back of her neck.
“I can’t believe he’s done this to me again.” She cast a sideways glance at Dean, his lank hair plastered to his pale forehead.
An incongruously cheerful chime emanated from his jacket pocket. He pulled out his phone and peered at the screen. “He says that there’s another train at nine-fifteen that gets in here at ten-thirty.”
She looked at her watch before gesturing towards the oily sea lapping listlessly at the muddy shore. “That’s two hours we have to wait for him in this shit hole. I only get one day off a week and I’m spending it here with…” She bit her lip.
“Sorry,” Dean muttered, slipping his phone back into his pocket.
She sighed, “It’s not your fault. He’s the one who insisted we catch the early train in the first place. If I added up all the time I’ve spent waiting for Trent to turn up it would…” She sighed again. “Sorry, I know he’s your mate.”
He shrugged. “S’okay.”
Bad tempered gulls screamed over a McDonald’s burger box abandoned on the beach. They jostled each other before leaping into the air and pumping their broad wings to wheel overhead their cries filling the soggy air.
Isabel lowered her legs. “Let’s see if we can find a café open. I could do with a coffee.”
Dean nodded unfolding his lanky frame. They walked in silence along the seafront. He with his head down, hands shoved firmly into the pockets of his army surplus jacket, she staring ahead. It was going to be a very long wait.
They’d know each other for as long as she’d been with Trent, which was nearly two years. Even though Dean was always around, Isabel had never had an actual one-on-one conversation with him. She knew practically nothing about him except that he’d been Trent’s best mate since they were kids. To her, they had always seemed an incongruous pair—light and shade.
“You into motorbikes too?” she asked as they trailed along the deserted promenade past shuttered ice cream shops and stacks of rusty tables padlocked to poles outside darkened cafés.
He shook his head. “That’s more Trent’s thing than mine.”
Silence descended again as they turned into the main street. A bus roared past spraying muddy water from the overloaded gutter. Isabel leapt sideways to avoid the deluge. Her foot skidded on a slimy patch on the pavement and she swung her arms in a futile attempt to stay upright. Then, just as she was sure she was going to fall, a strong arm caught her around her waist. Bent backwards, with Dean leaning over her in a pose reminiscent of a pair of ballroom dancers executing a dip, she stared up into his face. She’d never really looked at him before. He was like a shadow, always there, but it was Trent who held the limelight. Her boyfriend was charismatic, gorgeous, and the life-and-soul of every party. Isabel knew she was lucky to have been chosen by him. He could have the pick of any girl he wanted—a fact of which he regularly reminded her.
Dean’s face was unremarkable; a little too pale, a little too thin, but it was his eyes that caused the breath to catch unexpectedly in her throat. They were green, not that muddy, hazel sort of green that lots of people had, but clear emerald speckled with jade. Even more remarkable than the colour was the intensity of his gaze, as if he could see right inside her head.
A rush of warmth travelled up Isabel’s neck and onto her face. “Err, thanks,” she muttered, pushing herself away from him.
He released her. “No problem.”
Isabel turned away, trying to ignore a lurking sense of unease. They walked on, her eyes darting everywhere, except in his direction.
A rust-streaked caravan slumped at the far end of the street. “That place looks open,” she said.
A lopsided canopy extended over the pavement from one side of the vehicle and steam drifted lazily from a wonky metal chimney on the roof. As they approached, the mingled scents of coffee, rancid cooking oil and bacon filled the air.
An unshaven, middle-aged man in a grubby cotton apron eyed them with suspicion. “The fryer’s not up to temperature yet, so if you want chips you’ll have to wait,” he said without greeting or preamble.
“I’ll have a bacon sandwich and a coffee.” Isabel’s fingers roamed inside her jacket pockets for coins.
“Same.” Dean placed a ten-pound note onto the grimy counter. “I’ll get it,” he added without looking at her.
“No, I can—”
“It’s the least I can do seeing as you’re stuck here with me.”
She frowned. “Thanks.”
Isabel watched the corpulent, none-too-clean cook preparing their food and then wished she hadn’t. She turned away after losing count of the number of times he scratched his backside and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. When he finally handed over their sandwiches wrapped in damp paper napkins her appetite was wavering.
“Back to the beach?” Dean asked, tipping his face towards the sky where a weak sliver of sunlight now peaked through the low-hanging clouds.
“Sure,” she said before taking a sip of her bitter, luke-warm coffee.
The promenade was slightly less desolate in the watery light. A young couple passed with a stroller that presumably held a baby, but it was hard to tell with all the blankets swaddling the child. And an elderly woman hobbled towards them with a tiny dog skittishly high-stepping on the end of a thin leash.
They descended the steps onto the beach and squelched over the sucking, brown sludge.
“Your drawings are really good,” Dean said unexpectedly, his eyes fixed on his boots.
“My drawings?” Isabel asked, caught off-guard. “You’ve seen them?”
He nodded. “Trent’s got a couple on his bedroom wall.”
“Oh, yes.” She’d pinned up the drawings in a vain attempt to make her boyfriend’s featureless room feel a little bit homely. He’d been cutting in his criticism of her ‘girly flower pictures’ constantly threatening to take them down and replace them with some ‘real art’ by which he meant posters of large-breasted, semi-naked women sprawled over gleaming motorbikes.
“I don’t think he likes them very much.”
Dean shrugged. “The way you’ve captured the shape of the petals in just a few strokes is—” He paused. “You could be an artist if you wanted.”
Again, Isabel’s cheeks warmed. “I’d love to go to art college, but Trent says I should concentrate on my job at the call centre, try to get promoted to supervisor so we can both move out of our parents’ places and get a flat together.”
“Do you like working there?”
“I hate it.”
“Thought so, you get this look on your face when you’ve been at work…as if someone’s been trampling on your soul.”
She swallowed the lump forming in her throat. “Do I?”
Isabel took a tentative bite of the greasy sandwich. The stringy bacon squeaked against her teeth. “What about you?” she asked after forcing down a rubbery mouthful. “What would you rather be doing?”
He chuckled. “You really want to know?”
He turned to face the water. “I want to be an architect.”
She stopped and stared at him. “Really?”
Two pink spots appeared high on his cheekbones. “I know it’s a stupid idea. No one in my family has ever gone to university.”
She shook her head. “It’s not that, I just didn’t realise you were interested in that sort of thing.”
“My Dad says I should stop dreaming and be grateful for my job at the shoe factory.”
The lump in Isabel’s throat reformed. In their town being different usually got you teased at best and beaten up at worst. Guys liked motorbikes and drinking. Girls liked make-up and clothes—that was how it was. Dean didn’t fit. She had always suspected that he had only escaped being singled out for persecution because of his friendship with Trent.
“Do you make sketches of buildings?” she asked.
He nodded. “I have folders full of them at home.” He glanced at her. “I brought my pad and pencils today hoping I’d get a chance to draw some of the Georgian houses on the seafront. They have great period features.”
She grinned, grasping his jacket sleeve. “Let’s go and do it now.” She stopped herself before adding ‘before Trent arrives.’
They clambered up a set of decaying concrete stairs, dumped the remains of their breakfast in a rubbish bin and took up residence on a rickety bench opposite a row of houses that would once have been grand but now held an air of dereliction about them. Dean pulled a sketch pad and pencil case from his canvas messenger bag.
“Do you want to draw too?” he asked opening the case and extracting two pencils. “I have plenty of paper.”
She shook her head. “I’ll watch you.” She paused. “If you don’t mind.”
His eyes rested on hers for a moment. “I don’t mind.”
Isabel unconsciously pressed closer to him as his pencil slipped over the page creating confident marks. She’d taught herself from books and You Tube and had never sat with someone and watched them draw before. His talent was undeniable. The detailed style, different from her own sparse renderings, captured the building in perfect scale and perspective. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered as he shaded the last column. She touched the paper with her fingertip. “The way you’ve done the windows is—” She paused, suddenly self-conscious.
He turned to her, their faces inches apart. The tang of the sea air hung about him as his eyes met hers with an unwavering gaze. He’d always made her a little uncomfortable in the past with his quiet intensity, but today she’d seen him for who he really was for the first time.
He was so close he could have kissed her if he’d wanted to. She held her breath. The roll and hiss of the waves and the gentle thrum of the sleepy seaside town waking up around them faded away. All Isabel was aware of was him, and her, and the current running between them.
He turned away, breaking the spell. “Better get this finished before Trent gets here.”
She slid to the far end of the bench, the sandwich and coffee churning in her stomach.
“He’s my best mate,” Dean said finally, his gaze fixed on the page in front of him.
She nodded. “I know.”
The lumpy lemons thudded against each other as they tumbled from their brown paper bag into the fruit bowl. They lay there, taunting Kate with their imperfections. She frowned at them, knowing that to buy organic meant to accept produce that was not only eye-wateringly expensive but also looked as if insects had been eating it. Apparently, the taste was better, but she was yet to be convinced on that one.
She turned away with a sigh. To purchase fruit with perfect, waxy, skin was tantamount to clubbing a baby seal to death in the eyes of her new friends. She’d be shunned at yogalates and ignored at the community picnic. The sleek, size eight MILFs in their skin tight crop tops and low-rise leggings, would whisper behind their manicured fingers as they power-walked past her house on their way to get a kale and turmeric smoothie from the organic café.
Kate longed for the good old days when nobody cared that their food had been doused in chemicals. Nature hadn’t been anywhere near the produce her mother brought home from the local supermarket when Kate was a child and it hadn’t done her any harm. Back then, the fruit and vegetable department resembled a candy store, with its impressive array of gleaming, blemish-free skins on display. Her mother would cruise the aisles, in a valium induced daze. She’d hum along to I’m not in Love, playing quiet and tinny through concealed speakers, and smile at the minimum wage workers behind the counters.
Nowadays, Kate had to lug her fair-trade wicker basket to the free-range butcher, sustainable fishmonger, organic greengrocer and then drive to the other side of town, in her hybrid SUV, to the store that supplied all-natural cleaning products made from oranges. God help you in anyone found out that you’d cleaned your bath with Jif.
The solar-powered door-bell rang and Kate winced. They were here. She knew that having the school centenary committee agree to meet at her house for coffee was a huge coup, especially as she had only moved to the area two months ago. This was her big chance, and she was determined not to stuff it up. She inhaled, and plastered on the smile she intended to wear for the next two hours.
“Hi!” Kate winced inwardly at the fake sing-song voice she automatically adopted as she pulled open the front door.
They were in a gaggle on her doorstep. Designer clothes and spray tan as far as the eye could see. A wave of expensive perfume rolled over Kate and clawed at the back of her throat.
There were the obligatory hugs and air kisses to get through, even though they’d all seen each other only two hours earlier at the school drop-off when everyone smiled and waved to each other as they disgorged their designer-label-clad offspring for another day of politically correct lessons at their peanut-free, we say no to bullying, school.
Miranda, Chairperson of the committee and self-appointed ringleader of the mums-who-matter, eyed the designer cupcakes Kate had snuck out to the bakery and bought this morning. She had become addicted to these little treats, never able to resist their lilac icing and delicate fondant flowers.
“Are they gluten-free?” Miranda bought her painfully thin hand up to her oddly immobile face and covered her mouth as if a cupcake was going to jump off the plate and assault her with its wheatiness.
Kate shrugged; her stomach dropping. “Um—I’m sorry I didn’t ask. I thought they were pretty—and they’re delicious.”
All background conversation ceased as the temperature in the room dropped five degrees.
“We’re all gluten-free,” Miranda said flatly. The others nodded their perfectly made-up heads in agreement.
“And I don’t eat refined sugar,” a woman with unnaturally white teeth and shiny hair added.
“I’m paleo,” someone else piped in from the back of the group.
Kate squirmed as icicles formed in the air. “Oh, I didn’t know.”
The silence stretched on for what seemed like an eternity. All eyes were on Miranda. In this moment she could make or break Kate. One word from her and Kate would never be allowed to join the centennial committee, let alone help out at the school’s weekly vegan sausage sizzle. She and her children would be cast into the social wilderness, and every woman in the room knew it. Kate’s eyes flicked from Miranda’s face to the offending cakes and back as everyone held their breath. The front door banged, causing Kate to jump.
“Hey, did I leave my phone this morning? I can’t find the damn thing anyw—oh—hello.”
Kate’s husband Dan strode into the middle of the subzero stand-off. She was never more grateful for her husband’s chronic absent-mindedness than at that moment. In a flash, the mums went from hostile-hoard, ready to rip her to shreds, to simpering school girls. Miranda pulled her face into as much of a smile as her attempts to stem the inevitable march of time would allow. She extended her skeletal hand with its bright red talons towards Dan.
“I’m Miranda, so pleased to meet you.”
Dan hesitated for a moment. Kate held her breath.
“Hi, I’m Dan, nice to meet you too.” He clasped Miranda’s hand and shook vigorously.
Kate winced, anxious that Miranda’s reedy arm might snap right off if he pumped it any harder.
The women crowded around Dan, introducing themselves in strict pecking order. By the time they were done, the atmosphere in the room had thawed considerably, and there was a relaxed background babble of conversation. Kate breathed a sigh of relief as she wiped her hands on the legs of her pants. But her respite was short-lived.
“Yum, you got those cakes again. These are awesome. Have you lot tried them yet?” Dan lunged for the plate of cakes, grabbed one and stuffed the whole thing in his mouth. His cheeks bulged as he chewed loudly, stopping only to lick icing off his fingers.
Kate stiffened as the conversation faltered.
Miranda’s tinkling falsetto laugh filled the room. “Oh, Dan, no cakes for us I’m afraid. We ladies must watch our figures.”
She smoothed her palms over her emaciated frame, lifting her eyes to Dan’s face. Again, Kate held her breath, praying that her husband would pick up on the hint. Tell her she doesn’t need to worry about her weight. Tell her she looks amazing. But Kate knew from experience that Dan was notoriously thick when it came to stuff like that. He was honest to a fault.
“Nah, that’s crap. Personally, I like a woman with a bit of meat on her.” He wrapped his arm around Kate’s waist and jiggled her.
She closed her eyes and died a little on the inside. There would be no recovery from this. They’d have to move, there was no alternative. She began to calculate how much they would lose if they sold the house so soon after purchasing it.
Miranda’s hands fell to her sides, and her mouth formed a tight sphincter. “Well, it’s been lovely, Kate. But I really must be going. I just remembered that I have an appointment with my iridologist.” Miranda clutched her gold festooned Prada handbag closely to her side and strode from the room.
The others looked at each other, confusion written on their faces before they too made their excuses and fled.
Kate slumped onto the sofa and let out one long shuddering sigh. She hated the tears that threatened. This wasn’t high school, she was a grown woman. Why did she care if Miranda and her flock of cronies didn’t want her in their clique? There was no way that she would ever fit in with them anyway. She wasn’t prepared to do boot camp style workouts five times a week, starve herself half to death, surviving on a diet of quinoa and goji berries, and let some quack inject poison into her face, and God knows where else, to keep everything tight and smooth. She wasn’t one of the ‘cool girls’ and she never would be. She looked up at Dan.
“Did I cock that up for you?” he asked.
She smiled and shook her head. “It’s okay. It was already going south before you arrived. I was kidding myself if I thought that I was ever going to fit in with them.”
Dan sat down next to her with a thump. “You don’t want that lot of bogus-betties for friends anyway. I could smell the fake tan from the street. Come on, have a cake. They’re awesome.”
Kate chuckled. “Yeah, go on then. Pass one over.”
Dan hauled himself off the couch and reached for the cakes. He paused, eyeing the fruit bowl before turning back to his wife. “What the fuck is up with these lemons?”
Past Were Present
He strode across the foyer with purpose.
Elizabeth lifted her gaze from the latest du Maurier to follow the newcomer’s athletic form. Now that was a man, not at all like the disappointing specimens she was used to encountering in this second-rate establishment. Everyone around him strolled, ambled or wandered with little intent, but he knew where he was going.
She snapped the book shut. “Manuel,” she whispered gesturing to a passing porter. “Who is that?” She tilted her head to indicate the outstanding example of manhood who was now waiting by the lift doors. His arms were crossed and one fine Italian leather encased foot tapped an impatient rhythm on the marble floor.
“That is Mr Forsyth-Smith. He arrived this morning,” The porter replied.
Manuel’s lips lifted under his pencil-thin moustache. “Yes, madam, he is.”
Elizabeth waited for some juicy titbit about the new guest, but the porter only continued to stare at her with simple, expectant eyes. She impatiently waved him away. What was the point of the staff in this place if they didn’t provide one with useful information?
Mr Forsyth-Smith stepped inside the lift. As the doors closed his eyes, pale blue and sharp as a bird of prey, met hers for just one moment. Elizabeth’s heart leapt.
Pleased that she had made an extra effort when dressing for dinner this evening, Elizabeth again looked momentarily into those extraordinary eyes as she passed his table which, by good fortune, was adjacent to her own. Her pale pink satin gown flowed over her tanned skin and her chiffon sleeves fluttered like so many tiny birds’ wings. She moved with carefully contrived grace, allowing him the maximum opportunity to admire her. He obliged, his expression remaining impassive except, she was satisfied to note, for the slightest lift of one thick, straight eyebrow and a twitch of those sensuous lips.
Of course, she ignored him throughout the meal, picking delicately at her food whilst keeping him in the corner of her vision. He conversed with the others at his table in a polite manner, answering the questions directed at him without becoming effusive. Elizabeth craned to catch the threads of their conversation whilst casting narrow glances at the American twice-time widow, Mrs Benson, who was unfortunately seated beside him. The woman had made no secret of the fact that she was on the prowl for a third husband and obviously saw the new arrival as worthy prey. Elizabeth gripped her cutlery at the older woman’s tinkling laugh and flinched when she reached out to touch his sleeve in a tastelessly bold move.
Elizabeth left the dining room before dessert; unable to bear the spectacle any longer. If Mr Forsyth-Smith was attracted to someone as crass and positively ancient as Mrs Benson then perhaps he was less interesting than first impressions had indicated.
Footfalls behind her as she approached the lift did not draw Elizabeth’s particular attention until a voice, soft as melting butter, reached her.
“I thought that woman would never stop talking.”
Elizabeth turned and there he was. She found herself regarding his diamond shirt studs and was forced to tilt her head back to look into those eyes, which she realised now were rimmed with thick, dark lashes.
“We haven’t yet been introduced. I’m Phillip Forsyth-Smith.” His accent was cultured but untraceable.
“Elizabeth Carruthers.” She took his proffered hand noting its smooth, dry warmth and undeniable strength.
“I saw you reading in the foyer this afternoon.” He continued to hold her hand. “Do you enjoy Mrs Du Maurier’s work?”
Elizabeth shivered with delight under his steady gaze. “I do.” She opened her mouth to add some witty comment but, to her horror, her usual eloquence deserted her as she gazed into the lean lines of his face.
He released her, gesturing towards the doors. “Would you like to take a walk, perhaps around the garden or down to the beach?”
She nodded, allowing him to place his hand on the small of her back and guide her across the foyer.
The night air was heavy, enfolding Elizabeth in its damp warmth as they left the lights of the building behind.
“You arrived this morning?” Elizabeth asked silently cursing the fluttering in her stomach that seemed to be robbing her of witty conversation, leaving only inanely obvious questions in her mind.
“Yes,” he replied, pulling a silver cigarette case from the in-breast pocket of his dinner jacket. The lid popped open and he turned the case towards her. “Cigarette?”
She eyed the perfectly lined up rolls and shook her head.
“You don’t mind if I do?” he asked.
“Not at all.”
She observed his economical movements as he extracted a cigarette and tapped one end on the engraved lid of the case. Then he placed it between his lips and, with practised ease, flicked a silver lighter also extracted from his pocket. The flame sprung to life, its yellow glow lighting his even features. Smoke billowed from his mouth, rising into the darkness.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“A…About a fortnight,” she stammered an annoying flush rising up her face.
Fortunately, he didn’t seem to notice her stumbling ineptitude.
“My son recommended that I come,” he said.
Elizabeth’s mood slipped. “Your son?”
“David. He’s twenty next month.” He chuckled. “Only seems like yesterday that he was a boy in short pants.”
If there was a son, there must be…”And your wife, will she join you here?” she asked, worrying her lower lip with her teeth as he drew again on his cigarette.
He blew another plume of smoke. “She passed nearly four years ago.”
She exhaled, ashamed of her relief. “I am sorry.”
They reached the end of the garden. The path became sand, stretching in all directions. The moonlight was quicksilver on the undulating plain of the sea and the rhythmic percussion of waves thrummed the air.
“Do you want to go down to the water?” he asked.
She looked at her shoes, which were completely unsuitable for night-time beach walking. As if reading her mind, he knelt, his fingers surprisingly dextrous with the tiny buckles around her ankles. His touch on her skin was delicious, like the first step into a warm bath on a cold night.
She gazed at the top of his head, resisting the urge to run her fingers through his thick, dark hair peppered with grey. A moment later he was upright again, slipping off his own footwear.
“Come on.” He took her hand and they ran across the sand, cool under her feet. She laughed, the euphoria of the moment taking her by surprise.
As they reached the water’s edge he swung her to face him. His arms slipped around her waist and she lifted her face in an open invitation. He took it without hesitation, his lips pressing briefly to hers. She knew she should be shocked, after all, they had only just met, but his touch was more of a question than a demand and her answer was yes. He pulled back, his thumb caressing the delicate skin beneath her ear.
“I’m sorry, that was terribly forward of me, but from the moment I saw you this afternoon it was as if—”
“You don’t have to explain. I felt it too.”
He smiled his teeth, flashing white in the moonlight. Then he kissed her again, properly this time, and the world fell away. How the touch of a stranger could feel so right, so familiar, was inexplicable to her, but it was perfect, he was perfect. His taste was smoky, a sultry mist wrapping around her. She clasped him close, pressing her cheek to his chest, the steady thud of his heart in contrast to her own skittering beat. Phillip was a real man, not one of those boys she had endured furtive, stumbling advances from in the past.
Elizabeth started as if roused from a dream.
Phillip tapped the back of her hand in an annoyingly insistent rhythm. Why was he doing that? She flicked away the touch in irritation. “Stop it, Phillip.”
“She’s gone again. Shame, she seemed alright this afternoon.”
The warmth of the night slipped away like a sheet drawn from her body. Elizabeth’s eyes flickered open. The face peering down at her was not Phillip’s. She blinked repeatedly trying to clear the spectre.
“Good, you’re awake. Do you know what the date is today?”
Elizabeth tried to sit up but found her bloated, lumpy body stiff and unresponsive. “It’s the twelfth of August. Who are you? Where is Phillip?”
“What year is it, Elizabeth?” The person spoke annoyingly slowly as if they thought her to be some sort of simpleton.
“Nineteen thirty-six, of course. Why are you asking me these ridiculous questions?”
The face frowned and turned away. “She’s having the one where she meets her husband. That’s the third time this month. We’ll have to call her daughter. She said that if it happens again that she’ll give the okay to move her mother into the secure unit. Help me get her into the wheelchair.”
“She’s fast for an old bird. Dave said that he saw her in the dining room at seven and by quarter past she’d made it out the gate and halfway up the street. I keep telling him we need to lock that side gate after dark.”
Elizabeth’s gaze flicked around the unfamiliar surroundings as she was lifted by unseen hands. Where was Phillip? Why had he left her here alone? The wheel of the chair in which she had been placed squeaked incessantly as the beach became concrete buildings rising all around her and the hum of cars replaced the fall and pull of the waves. “Phillip?” she whispered as a tear escaped the corner of her eye and rolled down her cheek, its progress slowed by the soft creases of her skin.
copyright 2016 K A Servian