Category Archives: Short stories

Bloom

I wrote the story below during a round of SPARK in response to this painting by Sukia, entitled ‘Agave’.

Rose awoke to a gentle jolt, a pneumatic whoosh, and a rush of hot, dry air. She opened her eyes and looked out of the window.

This was the place from her dream. Not just similar, but exactly identical in every detail: the undulating smudge of hills in the distance, the rocky outcrop whose outline looked like the profile of a human face, and the cluster of agaves in the foreground.

In her dream it was night-time; the agaves’ grey-green foliage shone silvery blue in the moonlight, and the distant hills were backlit by the glow of an unidentified city. Rose would hear the unfamiliar sounds of the desert at night: the chirping of crickets, and numerous unidentified hoots, barks and howls. Then she’d become aware of another noise: the sound of a vehicle’s engine. She’d turn, and see a pair of headlights approaching. She’d walk out onto the side of the road, and stand with her thumb out.

And then she’d wake up.

‘Fifteen-minute break,’ said the coach driver, taking a packet of cigarettes from the chest pocket of his short-sleeved shirt and disappearing down the steps.

*

Rose had been brought up by her grandmother. Her grandmother’s interest in alternative therapies, her eclectic dress sense and her love of cats (she had eight of them), led to whispers among the local children that she was witch.

When a five-year-old Rose asked, ‘Nana, are you a witch?’ her grandmother answered, ‘Everyone has magic in them, Rosie. I’m one of the lucky ones; I was born knowing it. Most people don’t recognise the magic inside them until life cuts them open, but then the magic flows out, like blood from a wound.’

They say the first cut is the deepest. But not with Max. With him the cuts just got deeper and deeper. And then one day, while giving Rose a particularly violent beating, he collapsed and died. The doctors said he’d had a massive heart attack.

It was then that the dreams started. Or rather the dream – it was the same dream repeated over and over.

*

Rose stepped off the coach, her rucksack slung over her shoulder. This was definitely the place from her dream. She wouldn’t be getting back on the coach when the fifteen-minute break was up. All she needed now was a distraction – something to grab the driver’s attention, and make him forget to take a head count before leaving.

There was a sudden squeal of tyres and a brown station wagon slewed into the car park. A teenage boy leapt out of the driver’s seat, yelling, ‘Is anybody here a doctor? My brother’s been bitten by a rattlesnake!’

‘I used to be a paramedic,’ shouted the coach driver, running towards the station wagon.

Rose slipped around the back of the toilet block and leant against the wall, enjoying the coolness of the shade. Within a quarter of an hour she heard an ambulance siren, and five minutes later, she heard the coach pull off.

One of the agaves behind the toilet block was in flower. The flower stalk was at least five times as tall as the plant itself, with green florets branching off the top half. It looked as if a giant had been throwing trees around, and had speared one of the agaves with a gangly pine tree.

Rose’s grandmother had grown agaves in her sprawling back garden. They’d never grown this big, though, and Rose had never seen one in flower before. Her grandmother had explained that an agave flowers just once, and then dies. Or rather, the old growth dies back, but the plant lives on in the form of suckers that sprout from the base of its stem.

Rose sat in the shade and waited for nightfall.

*

Rose woke up shivering. It was dark. She opened her rucksack, put on a jumper, and then hoisted the rucksack onto her back. She emerged from behind the toilet block.

The car park was empty. Beyond the low wooden railing the landscape looked exactly as it had in her dream, and the night noises were in full swing. She wondered which city was lighting up the horizon behind the hills, and thought perhaps it was Phoenix. When Rose was growing up her grandmother had had a fire screen in the shape of a phoenix rising from the flames. Whenever Rose had suffered losses and setbacks as a child, her grandmother had urged her to remember the phoenix. ‘Don’t forget, Rosie,’ she’d said, ‘whenever our lives are consumed by fire, it’s an opportunity for us to start again; to build an even better life out of the ashes of the old one. All you have to do is be open to the possibilities that present themselves.’

Rose didn’t have to wait for long before she heard the engine and saw the headlights on the horizon. The vehicle was heading west. Rose took up her position by the side of the road.

The vehicle was a van. It pulled up beside her.

The lettering on the side of the van read, ‘Back to the Fuchsia – floral arrangements for every occasion’.

The driver of the van was a woman in her fifties. She had a friendly-looking face and an unruly mop of dark, curly hair streaked with grey. She leant across and opened the passenger-side door.

‘I’m going to Phoenix,’ she said.

‘Me too,’ said Rose.

‘Hop in, then.’

Rose got into the passenger seat.

The air in the van was filled with the scent of freesias and carnations.

Rose was on her way to Phoenix. She had a feeling it was her time to bloom.

(C) Helen Lewis,  2012


The prize

Gladys couldn’t recall ever having won anything before, and now a nice young man from the local radio station was on the telephone, informing her that she’d won first prize in that month’s phone-in astronomy competition.

Gladys first discovered astronomy at the age of eight. Her brother was given a telescope for his tenth birthday, but soon lost interest. One frosty night during the blackout, a bored Gladys casually pointed the telescope at the moon and ignited a lifelong passion.

She hadn’t had a telescope for quite some time. Apart from any other considerations, she now lived in a one-bedroomed flat and she would have spent all her time tripping over it.

As soon as the young man hung up she realised she’d forgotten to ask what the prize was. No matter; it was being delivered tomorrow and she’d find out soon enough.

As usual, Bella started barking just before the doorbell rang.

“Where do you want the telescope?” asked the courier.

Gladys stood impassively for a moment, and then put her hands to her face to wipe away the tears that were beginning to stream down it. The courier placed his arm around her shoulder and helped her onto the hall chair.

“Why are you crying, love? Don’t you like it?”

“No, I love it,” sniffed Gladys. “I couldn’t have asked for a better prize.”

“What’s the matter, then?” the courier asked.

So Gladys told him, while Bella the guide dog gently nuzzled her tear-salted hands.

 

(c) Helen Lewis  2004


Finding Charlotte

 

It was Freshers’ Fair, and Emily was wandering round on her own. She stopped at the Science Society stall, which advertised its presence with a huge black and white photo of Albert Einstein poking out his tongue. In multicoloured lettering across the bottom was the caption, ‘SciSoc: not as boring as you think’. The boy sitting behind the trestle table wore John Lennon glasses and a Metallica T-shirt. He looked about as bored as it was possible to be.

‘Want to join?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, why not?’ Emily replied. She handed over her student union card.

‘Emily Brownlee,’ the boy said, reading from the card. He looked up, suddenly interested. ‘Do you have an older sister?’

Emily’s heart jumped. ‘You knew Charlotte?’

The boy handed back the student union card. ‘I’m Dan,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if Charlotte mentioned me.’

‘Of course she did,’ said Emily.

Dan picked up a SciSoc leaflet and scribbled something on the back. ‘I finish at five. Come and see me then.’

*

Dan’s room was on the seventh floor of one of the tower blocks on campus. A lard-faced stick insect of a boy let Emily into the flat. He indicated with a flick of his green Mohican towards the end of the corridor.

Three minutes later Emily was sitting in Dan’s armchair, trying not to wince as she sipped a mug of sugarless tea. Dan was perched on the edge of the bed, poking at a rip in his jeans.

‘It was the morning after the May ball,’ he said. ‘My mate Dave wasn’t in a fit state to walk home on his own, so Andy and I volunteered to help him. Charlotte said she’d meet me back at the flat. I didn’t think…’ His voice trailed off.

Emily was trying to think of the right words to fill the silence when Dan saved her the trouble.

‘I think I know what happened to her,’ he said.

Emily put down the mug of tea and leant forward.

‘When I met Charlotte I was working on a teleportation device, like the transporters in Star Trek. I’d managed to teleport a paperclip, but I was having problems with anything bigger; things would disappear at one end and wouldn’t reappear at the other. Charlotte was always pestering me to let her try it out, but I wouldn’t. A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning under the bed when I found one of the earrings Charlotte was wearing on the night of the May ball. She must have come back here before she went missing. She’d had a few drinks. She wouldn’t have been thinking straight. What if she tried to use the transporter?’

‘Can I see it?’ asked Emily.

Dan opened up the wardrobe. On one side was a haphazard pile of clothes. The other side was empty apart from three halogen spotlights screwed into the ceiling of the wardrobe, and a large brass switch at about shoulder height.

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ said Emily.

‘No, it’s for real all right,’ said Dan, closing the wardrobe door. ‘This is only half of it; the transmitter. The receiver’s in the shower cubicle.’

‘Any chance of some sugar in this?’ asked Emily, holding out her mug.

While Dan was in the kitchen, Emily opened the wardrobe door and flicked the brass switch. There was a low, throbbing hum and the lights in Dan’s room dimmed. Emily stepped inside.

*

Emily found herself in Grandma’s back garden on a warm and sunny afternoon in summer. The house had burned down years ago, and Grandma had spent the rest of her life in a rest home, but here were the house and garden, exactly as Emily remembered them. When she and Charlotte were little they used to spend every Saturday with Grandma while Mum worked an extra shift at the hospital. In the warmer months the girls loved spending time in the garden. Sometimes they’d help with the weeding, water the tomatoes, or plant snapdragons and sweet peas in their own little corner of the garden, but most of the time they’d simply play.

Something was moving near the house, so Emily decided to go and investigate. The next thing she knew she was looking in through the kitchen window without any knowledge of how she’d got there. She looked down. She could see her own body, but she could also see through it to the paving slabs below. She felt a wave of nausea.

‘Emily?’

Emily turned round. Standing in front of her, hands on hips, was a Charlotte-shaped apparition, wearing a strapless ball gown and a frown.

‘You’re an idiot!’ said Charlotte.

‘You’re alive,’ said Emily. The tears began to flow.

Charlotte softened her expression. ‘I would give you a hug, but I can’t touch anything. It’s good to see you,’ she added.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Emily.

‘I’m in two places at once.’

Emily looked blank.

Charlotte continued. ‘When I first arrived, I thought this place was all there was, but then after a while, I started to hear a noise which didn’t belong here – like waves breaking on the shore. So I concentrated really hard, and found I was able to ‘be’ in the place the noise was coming from.’

‘What place?’ asked Emily.

‘I don’t know. It’s totally dark – even with my eyes open I can’t see anything.’

‘Sounds freaky.’

‘Actually, it’s kind of relaxing,’ said Charlotte.

Emily peered through the kitchen window. ‘Is Grandma here? Have you seen her?’

‘No,’ said Charlotte. ‘She must be out.’

‘But she’s bound to come home some time.’

Some time, yes,’ said Charlotte, ‘But not this time. We’re in a time loop. The sun starts pretty much overhead, then moves over that way, and then there’s this sudden jump in all the shadows and the sun’s back overhead again.’

‘If Grandma’s out she’s probably down the shops,’ said Emily. ‘We could -’

‘Nope,’ said Charlotte. ‘Can’t get through the gate. I’ve tried. Can’t get inside the house, either. I can’t touch things properly, but I can’t pass through them, either. We’re stuck here.’

‘Maybe not,’ replied Emily. ‘If you’re in two places at once, then I’m probably in two places at once as well.’

‘I guess,’ said Charlotte.

‘Which means we’re both half a person. If we could find some way of joining together we might become one whole person. Maybe then we’d be able to touch things.’

*

I’m hungry, thought Charlotte.

That was a clever idea of mine, wasn’t it? thought the part of her that was Emily.

It worked, and I’m really grateful, but right now I need something to eat, thought Charlotte.

Spaghetti hoops! thought Emily and Charlotte together.

Walking was a real effort, but Charlotte thought it would probably get easier once she’d had a bit more practice. Grandma’s back door key was under the mat as usual. Manipulating the key in the lock was tricky, but eventually she got the door open and stepped into the kitchen.

What was that smell? Never mind, there’d be time to deal with that later. Food first. Grandma had a gas stove, and she kept the matches on the top shelf of the pantry, which had been out of Charlotte’s reach when she was little, but not now. At the back of the middle shelf she found a tin of spaghetti hoops. She had a long struggle with a can opener to get it open.

What was that smell? She almost had it now. It was on the tip of her tongue. This two minds thing was going to take a bit of getting used to.

She lit a match.

Still the smell. It was something you couldn’t see. It had no smell of its own, so they added an artificial odour to it. Ah yes, that was it. Gas.

*

When Charlotte and Emily’s grandmother got back from the shops an enormous cloud of black smoke was hanging over the street and three fire engines were pumping foam on the charred remains of her home.

*

After a while the ringing in Emily’s ears subsided, and was replaced by a new sound: a rhythmic swishing noise. She was floating in a warm liquid. She wasn’t breathing, but this wasn’t a problem, because she didn’t feel like she needed to.

A thought began to form. Is this the ‘other place’?

Yes, thought the part of her that used to be Charlotte.

Emily opened her eyes. Darkness. She kicked with her arms and legs. She was encased in a rubbery cocoon. Her heart started racing.

Calm down, there’s no need to panic, soothed Charlotte’s mind.

But Emily was already panicking. She knew where they were.

And then the contractions started.

 

(C) Helen Lewis 2009


Renaissance Man

 

Giovanni Gabbiano was a true Renaissance man. Not that he ever used that term to describe himself – he’d never heard of it. Orphaned at the age of two, Giovanni was brought up by his paternal grandparents, who ran an inn in a small town on the road between Siena and Florence.

Little Giovanni’s mind was like a sponge. When he was just three years old he taught himself to draw, and he began carrying a sketchbook around with him wherever he went, spending hours every day creating meticulous pencil sketches of anything that interested him. He was particularly fascinated by birds, bees and butterflies – anything that flew.

By the age of four he had taught himself to read. He started reading widely; whatever he could lay his hands on. By the time he was ten he had read all the classic works of philosophy in the original Greek and Latin. Giovanni’s Great Uncle Luigi was the village blacksmith, and as a teenager Giovanni spent countless hours tinkering in the forge, making contraptions out of metal. In his sketchbook he had begun drawing inventions; strange machines that sprung up from the fertile field of his imagination.

When Giovanni was nineteen Great Uncle Luigi died and left him his inheritance, and Giovanni at last had the opportunity to follow his dream, which was to move to a great city of culture and learning where he could pursue his studies in earnest.

Giovanni travelled to Florence and, by virtue of a quiet self-confidence combined with a dogged persistence, managed to get an interview at the university. Naturally, he took his sketchbook along to the interview.

*

The interviewer flipped through Giovanni’s sketchbook and stopped about three quarters of the way through.

‘This would appear to be a drawing of some sort of flying machine.’

‘That is correct.’

‘Hmmm…’

‘What do you think?’

‘I don’t know what to think.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m not entirely sure you’re living in the right century.’

‘I realise some of my ideas are a bit of ahead of their time, but if one takes an open-minded approach…’

‘Ahead of their time?’

‘I’m known back home as a savant.’

‘Are you sure it’s not idiot savant?’ asked the interviewer, putting particular emphasis on the word idiot.

‘Are you trying to tell me you’re not impressed by my work?’

‘Mr Gabbiano, if you had lived six hundred years ago your work may have been impressive, but this is the twenty-first century, not the fifteenth. Good day.’

 

(c) Helen Lewis 2014


The first leaf of autumn

i

Phaedra the wood nymph sings and dances, showering the glade with rose petals. She is naked apart from a chain of daisies around her head. As she sways, her long hair swings. Suddenly she stops.

‘Who’s there?’ she calls. ‘Show yourself!’

A young man emerges from a bush. He has sun gold hair and sky blue eyes, and his garments are willow green.

‘I am Summer,’ he says, ‘deity of the season. I wander the earth at this time of year, inspecting my handiwork.’

‘I am not your handiwork,’ says Phaedra. ‘You have no right to inspect me.’

 

ii

Dear Diary,

You’ll never guess what happened today! I was singing and dancing in the nude like I always do, and this bloke popped up out of a bush and told me he was a god. A god!!!! I was totally gobsmacked — you don’t get to meet gods very often. Actually, I did meet one once, but he was old and ugly and full of himself, so he doesn’t count. And this one was abso-bloody-lutely gorgeous! He tried to kiss me and I didn’t stop him. I think I’m in lurve!

 

iii

From: bunny@yahoo.com

To: freeze_ur_butt@gmail.com; misty@hotmail.com

Subject: Our wayward brother

Brothers,

It has come to my attention that Summer has declared his love for the wood nymph Phaedra.

It is not fitting for a deity to become romantically involved with a semi-mortal.

We need to take action.

Spring

Vernal Deity

____________

From: freeze_ur_butt@gmail.com

To: bunny@yahoo.com; misty@hotmail.com

Subject: Re: Our wayward brother

I reckon wood nymphs are fair game. I tried to cop off with Phaedra myself once, and she gave me the cold shoulder. If I can’t have her, then I don’t see why anyone else should.

I agree that we’ve got to do something.

Coldly,

Winter

__________

From: misty@hotmail.com

To: freeze_ur_butt@gmail.com; bunny@yahoo.com

Subject: Re: Our wayward brother

Hey guys,

I don’t think there’s anything we can do right now. It’s Summer’s time, you know? But when the first leaf of autumn falls, the mystical power thingy transfers to me, and I’ll do something rad.

Chill.

Your mellow brother,

Autumn (AKA Fall)

_________

 

iv

Summer is drawing

to a close. It rains all night

and in the morning

 

the lovers embrace

beneath a maple tree and

share tearful goodbyes.

 

‘I’ll come back next year,’

says Summer. ‘You better had,’

Phaedra whispers back.

 

As they pull apart

a leaf spins down towards the

puddle at their feet.

 

And then it happens.

Phaedra turns to stone right where

she’s standing; eyes wide,

 

fingers to lips, mouth

open in surprise. She won’t

dance and sing again

 

until Summer sneaks

back into the woods and the

roses bloom once more.

 

(C) Helen Lewis 2011


Family heirloom

[Click here to listen to an audio recording of this story. (Read by me, and not a professional voice artist, unfortunately!)]

*

My grandmother’s house was just as I remembered it. The crunch of gravel on the front path, the lion’s head knocker, the smell of beeswax, and the umbrella stand in the corner of the hall.

When I was a child the umbrella stand fascinated me. It had an off-white circular base; ivory, Oma explained – like the piano keys. The umbrella bin was shaped like an umbrella itself; inverted and partially opened. Its spines were ivory too, and stretched between, forming the fabric of the umbrella, was a beige-coloured translucent material that reminded me of the hide on my bongo drums.

Whenever Heike and I stayed with Oma the umbrella stand was our touchstone. One of us would stand next to it, close our eyes and count to a hundred while the other hid. It was our hiding place for the sweets we smuggled in for midnight feasts. As teenagers it was where we stashed our make-up.

It didn’t take long to clear the house. I got the umbrella stand and the contents of Oma’s bureau. Sorting through her papers the next day, one handwritten letter caught my eye.

June 14th 1943

Sehr geehrte Fräulein Schwartz,

Please accept my deepest sympathies. Your late father’s patronage of our work has helped to make this country great. Your own generous donation from your father’s estate will allow us to continue our research for many years to come. Please accept this small token of my appreciation: an umbrella stand, fashioned entirely from waste materials.

Yours,

Joseph Mengele

 

(C) Helen Lewis 2010


Getting the job done

4:30 pm

Tony sits behind the executive desk in his office, perched on the edge of the high-backed leather chair. He is silhouetted against the drawn blinds, head bowed, his only movement a gentle motion of the hands, as if counting the rosary.

A police siren passes on the street outside and the trance is broken. Tony’s hands stop moving; he sits upright, conceals something beneath his jacket, then leans back and pulls the cord that opens the blinds. He blinks, his eyes suddenly caught in a horizontal shaft of sunlight.

The light reveals brown eyes with thick brows; a long, high-bridged nose and dark hair cut fashionably short.

It also reveals a sprinkling of grey hairs at the temples, heavily pitted skin, and a deep, y-shaped scar on his left cheek.

Tony carefully folds up the monogrammed handkerchief he is holding and returns it to his breast pocket. He stands up and walks over to the mirror, where he adjusts his tie. He looks at his Rolex. It’s time.

 

4:45 pm

Tony’s in the back of the Jag. He’s sitting with his legs together and his hands on his knees. Occasionally his right hand reaches across and pats his suit just beneath his left breast pocket. A black trench coat lies neatly folded on the seat next to him.

His upper lip is moist with sweat. He runs an index finger around the inside of his collar and loosens his tie a fraction.

Tony takes his wallet from his coat and pulls out a photograph. It’s a picture of a young woman in her late twenties, maybe early thirties. Only her head and shoulders are visible. Behind her is a shelf full of hefty, leather-bound books. She’s wearing a black gown and a white neckpiece. Her red hair, which peeks out from underneath a short, curled wig, is cut in a chin-length bob. She’s smiling. Tony studies the photograph for a long time.

 

5:00 p.m.

It’s getting dark on Chestnut Avenue. The broad, tree-lined street is deserted and its well-kept houses are shadowed and lifeless. About now, its residents will be collecting their BMWs from their reserved spaces on the company car park and preparing to do battle with the rush hour traffic.

Tony’s standing in the shadows behind a sprawling rhododendron that forms the border between park and pavement. He stands perfectly still, breathing slowly and deeply. He’s watching a house across the street. It’s an expensive-looking detached house set back from the road behind a sweeping gravel drive, bordered by mature trees. The drive is empty but a light is on upstairs. Tony reaches into his jacket and pulls out a mobile phone. He dials a number then holds the phone to his ear. Across the street a phone rings. After twenty seconds Tony hangs up and the ringing stops.

 

5:15 p.m.

It’s almost completely dark now.

Tony’s breath hangs in the air. He pulls up the collar of his coat. A black Mercedes slides into a drive four doors down. He can’t put it off any longer. He eases out of the shadows and crosses the road.

 

5:20 p.m.

Inside the living room the curtains are open and the yellow light from a street lamp casts leafy shadows onto the opposite wall. There is a single door in the room. It’s open. Tony waits in the darkness behind it.

 

5:30 p.m.

A key is turning in the front door.

Tony holds his breath.

A light comes on in the hall followed by the sound of the front door closing. Tony hears keys being dropped on the hall table. Then, so faint as to make him wonder whether he’s just imagining it, he hears footsteps on carpet, getting closer.

Tony catches a waft of her perfume, fresh and zesty like crushed lemons. Through the crack in the door he catches a glimpse of black fabric and a flash of red hair.

Still he waits. Timing is everything.

 

5:35 p.m.

Now he can hear her in the kitchen. The tap is running. Tony makes his move. He slips out into the hall, onto the deep pile carpet, which muffles his footfall. He inches along the hallway, pressing his back against the wall. He looks through the chink in the kitchen door. The black gown is lying on a stool. There’s a bunch of flowers on the counter. She’s at the sink, her back to him. She’s wearing a grey suit with a short, tight skirt. Tony edges closer.

She’s right in front of him now. If he were to reach out he could tap her on the shoulder. Instead, he reaches underneath his jacket.

She turns around.

She gasps, letting the vase drop to the floor. It smashes, splashing water over her legs and across the slate tiles. Then Tony does what he came to do.

“Laura, will you marry me?” he says, holding out the ring in its box.

 

5:45 p.m.

In the living room the curtains are closed now and the lamps are on. Tony and Laura are snuggled up on the sofa, drinking wine and listening to Chopin. Her head is resting on his shoulder. He’s stroking her hair.

“How did you know?” she asks.

“Francesca,” Tony replies.

Laura sits up. “So that’s why she was quizzing me about my sexual fantasies last week. I thought it was a bit odd.”

Tony raises an eyebrow in mock surprise. “And a barrister fantasising about an erotic encounter with an intruder isn’t odd at all, is it?” he says.

Laura elbows him playfully in the ribs.

“Anyway,” Tony continues, “I thought women told their best friends everything.”

“Don’t you believe it,” says Laura, reaching across to the coffee table and putting her glass down. She moves closer to Tony and places a hand on his thigh. “Now then, Mr. Intruder,” she says, “I think it’s about time we got on to the erotic encounter bit.”

 

© Helen Lewis 2011


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