Cold Calling

The phone rang for the hundredth time. I sighed, put down the iron, and answered the call.

“Good afternoon!” a false, cheerful voice rang out. “Could I speak to the homeowner please?”
“I’m a tenant,” I said dourly.
“Ah!” The Voice never faltered. “In that case, can I just ask if you have taken out life insurance lately?” I screamed silently.
“I’m not interested.”
“But if I could just take two minutes of your time to tell you about…”
“I’m really not interested. And I have to go and feed my baby.”
“A baby! How lovely, many congratulations. And have you considered how your premature death or illness could affect your children?”
“Sorry, got to go.”
“Well, thanks for your…”

I returned to the ironing, seething. Just once, just ONCE, I was going to tell The Voice to take a long walk off a short pier. These cold calls were among the many things that were really irritating me at the minute. The phone rang again.

“Good afternoon!” The Voice sang. “Could I speak to the person in charge of the bills please?” I grunted, then smiled.
“Mummy’th not in now.” I chirped.
“Oh…is your daddy there?”
“Daddy’th with my babythitter. They’re having a cuddle.”
“Um, ok. So when would be a good time to call back?”
“I don’t know, thorry. Mummy’th out till very, very late.”
“Bye bye.” And I put the phone down with a smug grin.

The next day the phone shrieked again, and The Voice rang out once more.
“Good morning! Are you the homeowner, may I ask?”
“You may.”
“Ah, ok. Um…”
“Ask then.”
“Er, are you the homeowner?”
“No. Anything else?”
“I believe your contents insurance is currently due for renewal, is that right?”
“You seem to know more than me. Are you going to pay it for me?”
“Er, no, madam.” The Voice seemed to rally. “This is just a courtesy call, madam, to let you know that you could save over £100 a year with our contents insurance.”
“That’s fine thanks. I don’t want to.”
“You don’t want to save over £100 per year?”
“Nope. My husband is paying the bill, and as he’s currently sleeping with my neighbour and I’m about to leave him for my dance teacher, I’d rather he was left with as big a bill as possible.”
“Is there anything else? My taxi’s waiting.”
“Well, I could…”

I was starting to enjoy the cold calling now. It certainly livened up the ironing, which seemed to go on and on and on and…anyway. Later there was another call.

“Good afternoon!”
“It’s not twelve o clock yet.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You said good afternoon. It’s not afternoon yet. Not by my watch.” There was silence for a moment, and I pictured the caller checking the time. Which was about half two.
“Right, well my mistake, madam,” The Voice apologised in a not-very-sincere tone, clearly thinking I was a complete idiot. I was going to enjoy this one.
“Can I help you?” I said politely.
“As a matter of fact, I think I can help you. Have you renewed your car insurance yet?”
“I was just about to. You stopped me with my hand on the mouse.”
“Excellent Mrs Brown! I think I can save you hundreds on your premium, have you got a minute to hear how?”
“Not really.”
“Well, it will just take a moment. Or is your husband in? Perhaps he is the one to talk to.” This got my attention. Ignorant, misogynistic little…I seethed silently.
“Nope. I just put him under the patio.”
“I’m sorry?”
“I just buried him. Under the patio, so the smell doesn’t attract vermin. Except then I got a call from an insurance company, so it mustn’t work.”
“I, er, one moment please?” There was silence and I was confused. Surely at this point he hangs up and apologises for wasting my time? Or says he will phone back later? Surely, SURELY, he hasn’t been dim enough to believe that I just confessed to murdering my husband to a total stranger?
“Mrs Brown?”
“Could you, er, could you just go through your current quote for me?” What?
“That could take a while?”
“Great…I mean, that’s fine Mrs Brown.” Oh, now I got it. He was keeping me on the line. What, were the police going to turn up? I laughed.
“Right, ok, let’s just wind this up. I’m not interested, I just made that up to get rid of you. Ok?”
“Ah, of course Mrs Brown! Ha ha, excellent joke. Sorry for wasting your time.” And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a cold caller hang up as fast.

I smiled and took my drink out onto the patio. Hopefully that prank would spread and I might get less sales calls. Presumably cold callers had some little society or something where they shared tips. I was feeling much less irritated now anyway.

“I can’t believe I was married to one of you people for so long,” I remarked to my sort-of absent husband, and shuddered.

I took another sip of my wine, and smiled again.

Champagne and Fireworks

In honour of my grandma-in-law, who turned 80 yesterday.

“Champagne and fireworks,” said Dot, not looking away from Deal or No Deal. “It’s not everyday you turn 80. I want champagne and fireworks.” Her son rolled his eyes and made a note on his phone.
“Mam,” he said, “You know champagne costs a load, don’t you? And fireworks will too, this time of year. And I don’t know how we’ll get them sorted for tomorrow night.”
“Don’t worry about that, Paul,” said Dot. “Got a bit saved up. Bingo. No deal! No deal!”

Her daughter looked up in surprise, then realised she was talking to Noel Edmonds. “She gets battier every year,” muttered Carole, ironing a lace tablecloth.
“So the club’s ours from lunchtime, to sort out the food and that,” Paul said, ignoring his sister. “And I’ll get some champagne from Asda.”
“Susan at work knows someone who does fireworks and stuff,” said Carole in a resigned tone. “Or Bill from the estate, he might know where we could get some.”
“Off the back of a lorry, likely,” said Paul.
“Eh?” said Dot, as the adverts came on, a smooth velvet voice extolling the virtues of a Caribbean cruise.
“Nothing, Mam,” said Paul, getting up and giving her a kiss on the cheek before pulling his coat on.
“Get them fireworks sorted,” she told him. “The bairns’ll like them. I want them at my party, even if I’m not there to see it.”
“What’re you talking like that for?” scolded Carole. “Course you’ll be here, Mam. Strong as an ox, you are.”
“She been like this much?” whispered Paul as the adverts finished and their mother’s attention was diverted.
“Yeah,” said Carole. “She keeps getting these morbid turns. Says she won’t be here for her party.”
“Think there’s something she’s not telling us?”
“Nah. She’s just getting old. Old people get thoughts like that in their heads, don’t they?” Then, speaking up, “We’re off now Mam. I’ll let you know about the fireworks.”

“Ok, pet,” said Dot, giving kisses to each of them without taking her eyes off the screen. When she heard the click of the front door she sat back in her chair with a sigh. She got up and went around the living room, running her fingers over the photos arranged on various surfaces, each one sat proudly on a lace mat. Faces stared back at her, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Norman. She missed him so much still; even after all this time, it would still feel strange having a birthday without him. Her eye fell on a pile of envelopes, her name scrawled twenty times, waiting to be opened. She was supposed to be saving them for her party, but since her birthday had actually been yesterday she decided to open them all now. She read each one out loud, squinting at the handwriting, putting each one aside reverently then standing them up in the spaces between her pictures. She would have to chase up her grandson, she still didn’t have one of him and his wife together. She smiled at the ones from the great-grandchildren, her bairns. A couple of them were starting to write their own names, a couple were doing bold crayon scribbles in blue and pink and lime green. One card had a wrinkled patch from a damp kiss and a note ‘Emily kissed this card for her great-grandma’. She picked up the discarded envelopes and put them tidily to one side, ready for the recycling bin.

The following evening, she was all ready. Glammed up, full make-up, the works. The lights were on a timer, the blinds were tilted, everything ready for her to leave for the party. Carole had called earlier to make sure she was ready. “Taxi’ll be there at seven, Mam,” she’d said. “Make sure you’re ready.” Dot looked at the clock, and as seven o clock struck a horn blared outside. She picked up her bag, gave one last look around and carefully locked the door behind her. The taxi driver gave the suitcase a curious glance, but obviously just thought her age was getting the better of her.

“All set then, love?” he said cheerfully, heaving the case into the boot. “Bit much for a party, isn’t it? Planning a good night?”

“Change of plan,” Dot said. “Just call at the club with this,” she handed him an envelope, “then Newcastle Airport, please.” He raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say anything. Dot could almost see him mentally rubbing his hands together at the unexpectedly large fare. She opened her handbag, and checked. Tickets, passport, cruise itinerary,  and around £10000 in various currencies. Well, it was pointless letting all the bingo winnings sit there doing nothing. In a few hours she would be enjoying champagne and fireworks just like she wanted, from the lounge on the Freedom of the Seas.

Moving On

I wasn’t intending to do a Friday Flash this week but there you go! Hope you like it.

Moving On

I turned and looked at the hospice I had just left. A family were also leaving, huddled together. The women were openly sobbing, the men had tears coursing down cheeks that were as tense and hard as rock. I heard their cries, but the sound all around me was muted and faint. I left them behind and walked down the road.

The buildings here were old, craggy, moss-covered. They showed their history and age in every crack and every dusty window pane. Foliage ran a little wild, and there was a smell around here of damp and mildew, mixed in with a faint memory of old wood polish and Brasso. In one, I saw an old lady cradling a newborn baby with the care she would show to a precious ornament, trembling with age and worry in case she dropped him. An empty seat beside her had a worn and faded dent, where a shadow played instead of the man who should have been there. I moved on, and the old, tumbledown buildings began to give way to more modern ones.

These also showed their age, though. Doubtless the architects had called them ‘modern’ at the time, but now they looked as dated as faded colour photographs, down to the grey uniform materials they wore. A wedding party was leaving a church here, and I saw the mother of the bride standing to one side, watching her daughter over the distance that separated them; a proud father frantically photographed and chroniclled every minute. The woman was smiling through her tears, as a video tape of memories played in front of her eyes. I knew she wasn’t seeing a bride but a little girl in her mum’s shoes, with a net curtain fastened on her head. I smiled, and moved on again.

A small row of shops reflected the sunlight merrily. The street was deserted, but the shops were full, as if I was the only living person out and the others were trapped behind the glass facades, looking out. Except they weren’t interested in what lay on the other side of the glass, they were too busy filling their shopping baskets. A woman had a trolley with two small children in. The boy turned his face up for a kiss, the girl reached for her mum’s hand. An instant later they both screwed up their faces and began to cry for some niffy-naffy thing. I shook my head at the same time as their mother, and we both moved on.

At the end of the shops a set of park gates stood open, beckoning passers-by to stop and rest in its shade. A heavily pregnant girl sat on a bench, resting her hand on her stomach and reading a book. She looked so tired, but her face was smooth, unlined, still an empty slate ready for life to write on. The sunlight winked off a brand new, shiny ring and she put her book down and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. I copied her, drinking in the cut grass, the roses, the traces of cigarettes. I could have watched her all day, poised at the threshold of her life, but I moved on.

The houses now were newer, solid brick residences with smoking chimneys. One front door opened, and a young man came out, leaving a girl who, tearstained, slammed the door behind him. He stood a moment, head bowed, then turned and ran to the door as she opened it. They clung together, apologies and forgiveness and love tied up in one wordless embrace. I looked away from their private moment and moved on.

Towards the end of the street a girl and boy were standing together, shuffling feet and shifting heavy schoolbags from one shoulder to another. They swapped a book, fingers lingering a split second. They turned to part, then the girl dropped everything and planted a kiss on the boy’s cheek. He stared, touched his cheek, and I mimicked every gesture reverently, reliving the moment as if it were yesterday. He turned and ran, and I moved on.

On the pavement a small girl pranced along the path behind her mother, in too-big shoes and a piece of netting pinned to her head. Lost in her daydream, she tripped over a pothole and stumbled to her knees. Her cries drifted towards me like a whisper in the breeze, clear but weak, other-worldly, and as she revealed a graze on her knee her mother scooped her up and kissed away her hurts. My eyes stung as much as my knee. I moved on.

In the last house of the road, a comforting, cosy house built of bricks that looked as though they had just been freshly laid, a faintly familiar woman cradled a newborn baby, cooing and beaming. I stopped a moment and savoured the warmth stealing over me, then looked ahead to a figure standing, waiting. And I moved on for the last time.

Rum Balls

I can smell rum balls. Someone is rustling a bag. A paper bag? They should be in a paper bag. I’m straining, but I can’t see who’s got them. Ah, my beautiful granddaughter. That’s right, pet, you enjoy them. No, I can’t have one, hinny. Can’t eat them anymore. Can’t eat anything anymore.

I remember rum balls. I remember going into the sweet shop and looking along the rows and rows of jars. Bonbons, sugar mice, cough sweets, chocolate limes…and rum balls. The bonbons got stuck in your teeth. The sugar mice were gone too quick. The cough sweets were what your grandma got. The chocolate limes were what your ma liked to pinch when no-one was looking. The rum balls were what your da liked. And I liked them too, he gave me one when ma wasn’t looking. I got them with my first ever wage. ‘A quarter of rum balls, please.’ I said that so often, soon I didn’t have to say it any more.

Then HE started working round that way. He was a conductor on the buses. He was shy, poor lad. I offered him a sweet when we got talking. He didn’t like rum balls much, I don’t think, but he took one anyway. Then he started buying them, and offering me one whenever the bus stopped near the Co-op. I would be out doing some job or other, whatever I could think of that took me outside. Checking the delivery boy’s bike, polishing the brasses, cleaning the windows. Them windows. Little sticky prints all over them. Little tinkers. But I’d get them shining again, and the bus would rattle past and five minutes later he’d wander along, pop into the sweet shop and come and offer me a rum ball. I’d eat it quick, before Mrs Milburn saw.

Can I have a drink, please? I need a straw, hinny. Ta.

It wasn’t bad, working on the buses. He stopped being shy, started chatting to the passengers. Started chatting to the sweet shop girls, too. But he always remembered to bring me a rum ball. In the summer, when he was in his shirt sleeves and the dust clung to his black trousers and he had to keep taking his hat off and giving it a wipe. In the winter, when he had his greatcoat on and the buttons shone and he stamped his feet and clapped his hands together to keep warm. There was one spring day, when the rain came down in sheets. It was dripping off the peak of his cap. It was running down his neck. It was soaking, even through his greatcoat. He came into the Co-op and I gave him a towel to dry off a bit. The fire made his coat steam a bit. There was a smell of coal, and damp wool, and, and, just him. Then he put his hand in his pocket. I won’t ever forget his face. He pulled his hand out, and there was a wet paper bag. Just a mush of rum balls. He said he was sorry, and we laughed about it. We laughed about it for years.

Your grandad never forgot about them rum balls. Me neither.

Can you turn the light on, hinny? It’s getting dark. Is that as bright as it gets? Ah, well.

Maybe I could try one of them rum balls, pet. Just a tiny crumb, just break it off for us. Just for a taste again. They can’t do any harm now. Ah, they’re not as good as they used to be. When I was young and the light was brighter and the colours were brighter and it was me and him laughing about soggy rum balls.

I can still smell them rum balls. I can still hear the bag rustling. I’m going to have some sweet dreams tonight, pet. I love you. Tell yer mam I love her. Time to sleep now.

Friday Flashing

I’ve meant, for a couple of weeks, to have a go at the #FridayFlash meme on Twitter. I don’t know if you sign up to anywhere – if anyone knows, can you let me know in the comments please? Much appreciated. Anyway, the following conversation took place yesterday on Twitter between me and @alisonwells (whose excellent blog is here). NB read bottom tweet first:

So, gauntlet thrown down, I went away and did just that and here’s my Friday Flash Fiction. It’s very unpolished, so be forgiving please!

Alison’s Story

The peace was unprecedented. The hot weather meant that the children were out in the yard with a ball. The chores were done. The fire crackled in the grate with the kettle just beginning to bubble, and Alison pushed the window open a little further before checking everything was set up on her desk.

The tealeaves were carefully measured out. The tea cup was perfectly lined up with the milk jug to one side, while in the centre of the desk a sheaf of pristine paper stared at her, beckoning her. The quill and ink pot were positioned carefully to the other side. Neat, organised, just the way she liked it but so rarely managed to achieve. She poured hot water into the teapot and sat down with a sigh, wondering for the umpteenth time what it would be like in a world where women did not wear corsets or petticoats or have fires roaring in the heat of summer just so they could have a cup of tea or hot water. Shaking her head out of her fantasy, she picked up her pen, carefully shook off the excess ink and carefully wrote, ‘Chapter One’.

“Mama!” Alison sighed and pushed back her chair, going to the window and asking what the problem was. “Jamie kicked the ball out of the yard. He did it on purpose, Mama, he did!” She went out, restored peace and recovered the ball, just before the coalcarrier’s cart went over it. Returning to her desk, she sipped her tea and recaptured the story that was still hovering at the front of her mind.

“Mama!” Alison sighed and pushed back her chair, going to the window and asking what the problem was. “Jack pushed me. He did it on purpose, Mama, he did!” She went out and presided over the peace process, gave the stew a stir on her way back through the kitchen (fearing her sister Jane’s wrath should she let it burn before she returned) and took another sip of tea. The story still danced within her reach, and she picked up her quill again.

“Mama!” Alison sighed and pushed back her chair, going to the window and asking what the problem was. “Jenny stole my marbles from me. She did it on purpose, Mama, she did!” She went out, discussed the stolen marbles and checked the washing on the line. Another sip of lukewarm tea helped her grasp an elusive thread of the story that was slipping away from her, and she picked up her quill again. This time she managed to write another word, ‘Once…’

“Mama!” Alison sighed and pushed back her chair, going to the window and asking what the problem was. “Joe called me a nasty name. He did it on purpose, Mama, he did!” She went out, delivered a short but pithy lecture on appropriate language, and returned to the desk, stirring the coals on her way past before they died to glowing embers. She stared into her cold cup of tea, wondering if there had ever been a story or if she had only imagined it.

“Mama!” Alison sighed and pushed back her chair, looking up to see a line of small faces in front of her desk. “Can we have some paper and your pen? We want to be writers, just like you.” Alison looked at the paper, the pen, then the hopeful gazes fixed on her. She pushed her chair away and, leaving them busy pouring their words onto the paper, she put the kettle on to boil again.