A few of my favourite things

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I’m not a person obsessed by possessions.

I know we all like to think that– who of us in the developed world want to admit we’ve hitched ourselves to the consumerist bandwagon and that we fall for every TV ad and poster trying to sell us products we don’t need for money we don’t really have. We all want to think we’re immune and few of us really are.

But maybe I consume less than some people. I rarely buy clothes, which of course means everything I wear is faded, all my woollens resembling neglected Old English sheep dogs, all my hems fallen and trailing thread. I bought some knickers a few months ago, but only because the gussets were shredded on the old pairs. Gusset. Is it only me who sees some graphic, anatomically correct image at the mention of that word? Oh, it is. Moving on…

I’m not obsessed by electrical items, either, though I adore Dominic Silverstreak, my laptop. But, then he and I have shared so much, have such an intimate relationship, that he’s no longer just a way to record my mind’s dribblings – we’ve passed into something more spiritual, man.

I recently got a new phone but only because someone else didn’t want it anymore. The old one had become a bit of family a joke, being ten years old and vaguely brick-like in form. But I didn’t see the point in an upgrade costing hundreds if the old one sent texts and made calls- that’s what phones are for, isn’t it?

I do have a weakness, though. Something I find hard to resist spending money on, something that binds me in its spell, that pulls me zombie-like from the high street and into ink – scented caverns of delight. Books. Give me a two-for-one deal or a second hand book stall, and my fingers get twitchy, I’m searching for something, any lump of papery gorgeousness I can buy and feel slightly less myself if I walk away empty handed.

It’s the same with writing magazines. Show me a cover claiming to know the ‘guaranteed way to snare an agent’ or how to ‘improve your prose and make huge wodges of cash from what you love’ and it’s in my bag before I can blink (Okay, I pay for it first.)

Of course, this lack of consumerist urges means I’m the subject of grumbling come my birthday and Christmas. When asked what I’d like I shrug and say, ‘Books. Maybe a book token’. This answer is usually greeted with the complaint that I’ve asked for the same thing every year for decades and people seem to have a problem with buying the identical gift each year, even if it makes the recipient a very happy, book-laden bunny.

I don’t claim this lack of materialism to sound virtuous or superior. I have no control over how I feel. I’m not saintly or highminded and I don’t abstain from spending a fortune on shoes (which, apparently as a woman I should be genetically hardwired to do) because I’m above the grubby exchange of the consumerist society, but because I’m just not bothered.

I do have one possession I would hate to lose.

It lives in a silver cardboard ring box I picked up from a jeweller, though it’s not a ring.  I forget it’s there for weeks on end. I only take it out every six months or so, but when I do it’s tarnished, grey and grubby looking. I guess it’s uninspiring and dull to look at, but to me it’s magical, a time machine.

My Tudor sixpence.

Husband bought it for my birthday nearly seven years ago. A big purchase, he spent much more on that tiny piece of silver than he usually would on anything, but it was that coin that triggered my YA novel idea.

That coin made me realise I had to learn how to write before I could give my characters the lives and adventures they deserved. It led to years of writing badly, to a course with the OU, to meeting my online writing group, to us creating an anthology together, to me becoming a published author and winning a national prize.  It led to me rediscovering something I adored, that defines who I want to be and what I’d like to do for the rest of my life.

Would I have become a writer without that wonderful gift? I hope so, but who knows. I only know that coin represents a turning point, a love and a confidence in my own creativity that had been missing.

Thanks hubby, for my sixpence and for a new life.


Writing 101 Day Twenty Today’s Prompt: Tell us the story of your most-prized possession.

Now, obviously, if my house was burning down, I’d throw hubby over my shoulder, tuck ‘the boy’ under one arm and Dominic under the other, clamp the family photos between my teeth, then run for it.

But I’ve chosen the coin for what it means just to me and the way that one little piece of metal triggered a spark of an idea which ultimately led to this blog and everything else that’s come from my scribbling obsession.

And for that, I have to love it.

Time Travel and what to do with it

silhouette-391653_1280I’m writing a novel, one of three that are at a not-a-bad-effort-but-not-quite-there-yet-stage. Two of the books are good ideas, they have ‘legs’ and I know one day I’ll return to them, jiggle them into some kind of readable format and have them published.

But there’s one, my true love, my first…

It’s YA and features Edie*, a ginger headed, arsy teenage girl as the main protagonist. She finds time travel, an old lady with a dozen miniature poodles, a two-thousand-year old psychopath who decides the best thing is just to kill her as nastily as he can… You know how these things go.

Edie’s the teenage me I wanted to be. Mouthy and self-confident when I was painfully shy and reserved, brave and headstrong when I was chicken and biddable (Okay, maybe my Mum would disagree with the biddable bit…)

Edie’s a great girl, if a bit of a handful, but she does have one talent I would **skin a badger for – she can travel through time. Well, to be precise she can travel BACK in time, and there are restrictions on where and when she can visit, but I ain’t publishing a synopsis here, so let’s just say she’s a Time Traveller.

Time travel is a popular subject in fiction, recurring and reinventing itself since Mark Twain and H.G Wells and is it any wonder? Who can seriously say there isn’t at least one period or event they’d like to visit? Roman, Elizabethan, Victorian… there’s some time, Somewhen, we’d all like to see. I’ve included these eras in Edie’s travels (or will include in sequels- yes, planning sequels before I even snare an agent!) I just need to set a whole book in World War II and I’ll have the secondary school history curriculum covered!

What would I do if I could time travel like Edie?

Well, I reckon my research would be a lot more through. I can imagine what a Tudor privy smelt like, how it felt to wear armour in the Roman arena, but if I could go back in time… Of course, I’d need to live long enough to return to the present and with my running/fighting/thinking on my feet that could be a big ask.

Would I go back in time and tell myself to start writing earlier, go back to the teenage me and tell her I needed to stick at my studies or I’d spend the next decades in low paid retail work?

I dunno. I reckon living in grotty bedsits and lodging houses with fungus growing out of the walls, living with arsonists, bipolar sufferers, drug addicts and folk in witness protection has all added to my knowledge of people and filtered into my writing.

Maybe I’m better for being a late starter.

N.B One thing I won’t be doing if I time travel is killing my own Grandad. And why is it always Grandfathers and not Grandmothers (we’ve all known some awful old ladies, let’s be honest) and why do scientists think the first thing we’ll do if we discover time travel is go back and murder a family member?

Scientists are weirdos.

*And for those interested in reading my Edie novel… You’ll have to wait a little longer. An agent submission package is about ready to send out. If only I could see into the future and discover who’s more likely to pick it up, I could save myself a lot of hassle!

**No badgers were skinned in the writing of this post.


Writing 101 Day Nineteen. Today is a free writing day. Write at least four-hundred words, and once you start typing, don’t stop. No self-editing, no trash-talking, and no second guessing: just go. Bonus points if you tackle an idea you’ve been playing with but think is too silly to post about.

In the dark, all alone

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I’m in bed for the longest time, trying to fall back to sleep, trying to ignore the pressure in my tummy, but I won’t sleep while I need a wee so badly and I don’t know what to do because I know what’s out there.

But it’s no good and I think if I have to do it then make it quick, so I kick off my duvet, though it’s caught round my foot, and I push away my panda and my Sindy dolls and the others and I put my feet to the floor, scuffing dolls and bricks and books out of the way as I go.

It must be later than I thought, because I can’t hear the telly downstairs and all I can hear is snoring and the creak of the boards under my feet and the odd snap and crack which I tell myself is just from the house, just the voice the house has at night, nothing more.

I reach the door and wait. I want to be fast, so fast nothing can catch me, but I need to be slow too, because what if there’s already something waiting out there on the landing? But I know I won’t see it until it’s too late, because it will be hiding in the darkest shadows, breathing shallow, waiting for me, just me.

I think of Dracula and Frankenstein and ghosts and mad men, arms round their backs, all tied up in special coats, screaming between the bars of their cells. And I think of the faces that come at night, rushing from the darkness, their blank, open eyes, their hollow mouths buffeting my cheeks and I want a wee more than ever.

I step out on the landing, the door creaking so loudly I’m worried it will wake someone and I hope it will wake someone then I won’t be alone and I won’t have told anyone I was scared because I’m really too old to be scared of the dark.

The loo is across the way from my room, past my parents’ door, past my brother’s, very close but so very far away when you’re afraid, when you’re alone.

I run, open the loo door, switch on the light, lift the lid and sit, not daring to look down, not daring to look, in case the SOMETHING is there, staring back, in case it will reach up and snatch me. In the day I’d take my time, pick at the walls, peel off the brown paint with my fingernail, but not at night, at night I wee as fast as I can and I wipe myself, though not as well as when it’s light, and I won’t stop to wash my hands or to flush, because that means I’ll be longer, in the dark all alone.

I’ve pulled my pyjama bottoms up and it’s time to turn off the light, but I need to look first, need to check there’s no one there, nothing there, so I look out onto the landing and I see the brown swirly carpet and the airing cupboard, the Firebird paintwork and there is nothing, though I know that won’t stop me thinking there is. I can’t put it off any longer, so I pull the light switch and it’s dark, so much darker than before and the panic hits me, blinding, deafening and I worry I’ll be paralysed by it, that I won’t be able to run.

Then I’m running – one, two, three, four, five steps across the landing – I’m through the door, over the floor, in my bed, the duvet pulled over my head before I can think. I was sure this time there’d be a claw on my shoulder, teeth in my heel, but I’ve escaped, I’m alive and I wait for my heart to settle, for the shivering to ease so I can sleep again.

And I hope that tommorow night I won’t need a wee.


Day Seventeen: Your personality on the page

Today’s Prompt: We all have anxieties, worries, and fears. What are you scared of? Address one of your worst fears.

Today’s Twist: Write this post in a style distinct from your own.

Here’s a stream of consciousness from a very vivid childhood memory. I think I watched too may scary movies as a child…

Lost and Found

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The ring hung from Grace’s finger, clashing, overlapping with her own rings. The problem was money. If only they had more money, she would never have found it.

If Simon’s salary was higher, she would have gone straight out somewhere swish and stylish like Liberty or Biba and bought herself a new winter coat. She could have donated the old one to the Salvation Army or to Mrs Bloom a few doors down. It might have been too small but with eight children and a runaway husband, her neighbour couldn’t afford to be picky.

But although the coat was drab, the cut five years out of date, it was serviceable. So when Grace found the pocket lining had come apart, her heart sank. Make do and mend.

Grace had pushed her hand through the split seam, the frayed silky edge tickling her wrist as she felt for lost pennies. There was definitely something, round and solid- but she couldn’t tell what it was. As she opened her fist, the dull gold had glowed in the light. Her stomach jerked.

Simon’s ring.

He’d never worn a wedding ring, said he wasn’t ‘the type’. But she’d wanted something for him, something he could wear next to his skin. Something he could look at and think only of her.

Grace had bought it from Mrs Bloom with money scraped from the housekeeping. It had belonged to Mr Bloom- a gambling debt repaid in jewellery. One of the only times he’d actually won, apparently. It was the stone Grace was drawn to, the flash of blue. Mrs Bloom had wanted more for it, but she had that lean, hungry look common just after the war, when rationing had cut bone deep. In the end, they’d agreed three shillings.

And Simon had loved it- Grace had known from the heat in his eyes. He’d never taken it off.

Then it vanished.

He’d tried to make a joke of it, of what a dolt he was- not to be trusted with anything. But Grace was devastated. How could he be so careless? Did he know how hard she’d saved, how much she’d gone without? She’d thrown the teapot, taken a nick out of the cupboard door. She’d known she was being unreasonable, that the loss was no reflection on how much he loved her. But once she’d started to cry, to shout, something hot and painful was unleased. It was as if a reservoir of grief was tapped- unceasing, constantly replenished- and she couldn’t find the way to dam it.

Then one day, Simon returned with a bunch of roses- the palest pink, with soft, fleshy petals. A few days later had come a new teapot and not a heavy, brown-glazed one, but bone china with trails of ivy painted on the handle. She hadn’t dared to ask where the money had come from.

But there were other things. His face softened when she talked about her day and when she spoke- even if it was only about the price of fish, or how cheeky the new bread boy was- he folded his paper, turned down the radio and she basked in his attention, sparkling like sunlight in a pool.

And now she’d found the ring.

She could show him. He might smile, laugh, pull her to him and kiss her cheek. He might.

The front door banged.

‘Grace? Where are you?’

Grace opened her underwear draw, slid the ring between a blue petticoat and a pink. She thought of his hand, sliding over the slippery fabric and smiled.

‘Coming!’ she called and headed for the stairs.


Today’s Prompt: Imagine you had a job in which you had to sift through forgotten or lost belongings. Describe a day in which you come upon something peculiar, or tell a story about something interesting you find in a pile.

This is linked to Writing 101 Days Four and Thirteen- Lost and Found– and imagines Grace (the old woman with dementia in the previous posts) as a young woman.

Found

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The girl with the watery eyes takes me by the arm and her mouth’s smiling, but she still looks sad. She always looks sad. I wonder if there’s something wrong with her.

She leads me into the room with all the chairs in, the one with the big window. Some of the old people sit in there to stare out at the garden, though there’s nothing to see but mud and twigs. It’s raining. It always rains.

I try to explain to the girl with watery eyes that it must be past my bedtime, that I’d better go home to my Mam, but she says I’ve only just had my breakfast. I try to tell her she’s got it wrong, but she won’t listen so I give up. I don’t want to upset her- she smells so nice.

The girl wants me to sit down, but I don’t like the chair she puts me in because I’ve seen one of the old men sitting in it. It’s the man who always has his hand in his trouser pocket. He makes me feel itchy and anyway, he smells like dirty knickers, so when the girl leaves the room, I move to another chair- the one with the big orange flowers on the cushion.

Someone coughs and I’m worried it’s the girl that smells of mince, but it’s another young woman. She’s pretty in an untidy way, blond hair falling from a clip on top of her head. She smiles at me and I smile back and for a minute, we’re just smiling at each other and I’m not really sure why.

‘Hello,’ she says.

‘Hello,’ I say. ‘Have you come to see one of the old people?’

She smiles and nods. She has some bags with her, big blue ones with long handles made of a sort of shiny fabric. The bags are open at the top and lengths of cloth spill from them- there’s pink and a peacock blue and something the colour of peas. I like the colours and the shimmery fabric. I want to feel them, but know it would be rude to do it without asking.

‘What have you got there?’ I say, my fingers twitch wanting to touch.

The untidy, pretty girl’s smile widens. ‘Scarves. Would you like to take a look?’

And she jumps up and begins to lay them over the arm of my chair, the colours flowing and overlapping, so that you can see one through another. Pea mixes with the pink and there’s one with butterflies- a pale ash ground with magenta wings- and as she pulls it from the bag and the wings curl and flutter above my head I can’t help but giggle.

At first I’m too shy to touch. The girl pulls out more and more scarves- like a magician with a top hat- and her cheeks flush and all of the hair tumbles from the clip so it hangs round her face all straggly, but still pretty. She takes off her coat and throws it on her chair and she starts on the second bag. She kneels on the floor and starts to lay the slithering cloths on the carpet and over her coat, and it’s all so beautiful.

‘Captured rainbows,’ I say and she smiles wider than ever.

She looks so happy, I’m sure she won’t mind if I hold just one. It’s a blue-green that makes me think of ducks. I run a finger over its length. It’s soft and slippy and the cloth makes little rasping noises as it slides over itself. I curl my fingers around it, scrunch it in my hand and it’s so fine it fits in my palm.

And then.

I smell the sea, taste the salt, feel the wet sand sloshing between my toes. From one hand hangs my sandals, and the wind tugs at my scarf, the teal- coloured one that Simon bought me for my birthday. I realise my other hand isn’t free by my side, but swaying with a rhythm that isn’t mine. I look up. I see a shirt, crumpled as always, and a blond head, higher than mine so I have to lean up to kiss the cheek. It’s his hand I’m holding, that swings me back and forth, that pulls me out of step, then slips back into it. The hairs are golden on bronze skin and I’m sure I’ve never seen a more beautiful man.

‘Simon,’ I whisper, but the wind snatches the sound away.

‘That’s right, Auntie.’

I’m in the room with the chairs. The sand has gone from under my feet and the only smell is air freshener and boiled veg. But the smiling girl is still here. She’s draped scarves round her neck, like boas. Her hand is on mine.

‘You look pretty today, Suzy,’ I say, ‘I like what you’ve done with your hair.’

She squeezes my hand again.


Day Thirteen: Serially Found

On day four, you wrote a post about losing something. Today’s Prompt: write about finding something.

This is a second installment, a continuation of Lost, Day Four’s post. It’s about the same character, in the same setting. A little sad and a little hopeful.

The lych-gate

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Magnolia Villa, Crowstones,

Derbyshire.

24th October 1895

Robert,

I have placed this in the hands of Jonathan Cowper- a low, rough man, but trustworthy enough when paid. This way I am sure the letter will reach you unopened.

Please save your anger. Yes, we agreed not to correspond for some weeks after what has passed, but you will hear bad news of me soon and I wished to explain in my own words.

As you know from my last letter, the funeral was arranged for the 21st and I rose early, dressed in the black suit, the black armband, the top hat- the image of a grief-stricken husband. The service was at eleven, so I wandered in the garden for an hour. Have you noticed how suddenly the garden becomes moorland here? The vivid green of the lawn swallowed by scrub and cottongrass- civilisation devoured by wilderness.

That was the path we had to take, you see- across the moor, along the Corpse Road. At least Mrs Connors calls it such. The Corpse Road. Perhaps if there had been a different route to the church, not across that dreadful moor…

The walk seemed longer than it should. I walked behind the bier, listening to the wheels rattle, thinking how small her coffin was. But then, Constance was a slight woman, slim wrists, slim waist- bones as brittle as those of a roasted bird.

We stopped at the coffin stone, by the old cross. I wished the day over, wished to urge the men onward, so the whole, dreadful business was behind us. But the villagers like the tradition of it, and you and I had agreed- I must do what is expected of me.

The pallbearers muttered among themselves, shared bottles of beer and cakes. I smoked one of the cigarettes you gave me- the Turkish- and looked out over the moor. The sun came and went behind dashing black cloud, one moment bright and chill, the next dark, as if a storm threatened. I turned my collar up against the wind, but still the warmth was tugged from me.

Then I saw it. Flitting over the torn grass. A flame, tall as a person, white and dazzling blue at its heart. I saw it- I swear- but then it was gone and I wondered if the pressure of the day…

Mrs Connors touched my arm, told me we were moving on. I was so befuddled I almost mentioned that white fire. But telling another would have made it more real and it wanted it to remain my mind’s phantom.

The rest of the walk passed in a blur, except for one moment when a man lost his footing. He grabbed the rail on the bier to stop himself from falling, the whole thing pitched sideways, the coffin sliding.

I thought it would fall, Robert. I thought it would smash to the ground. I saw the lid broken into matchwood and Constance dropping into the heather. I saw her face, that same look of terror, those reproachful eyes.

It never happened. They righted the bier and the coffin was saved. But the thought left me shaken.

Perhaps that is why the service passed so quickly. I hardly remember the eulogy, the hymns. I only remember removing my glove, the feeling of earth as it slipped from my fingers into the grave.

The weather had changed by the time we left the church. The massed clouds began to drop fat, grey drops of rain and the villagers dashed away to their firesides. I stood in the lych-gate, where the coffin had passed through, where Constance and I had walked on our wedding day- do you remember? I was pulling on my gloves, hiding from the rain, when I realised Mrs Connors was standing at my elbow.

‘Corpse gate,’ she said.

I asked her what she meant.

‘Tis what lych-gate means. Corpse gate.’ And then she looked up at me with her cold, steady eye, ‘I saw a flame dancing on the moor. Slim and slight, like a lady.’

My mouth was jammed, no words would come.

She leaned in close to me and said, ‘It means another body will pass through the gate soon.’ She said nothing more, but strode from the churchyard and back towards the Corpse Road.

I almost called for her to stay, almost shouted for her to explain herself. I saw her accusing stare- that flash of anger. She knew me for the man I was….

I have watched the moor every hour since returning to the house. And as the night falls and the chill rolls in, I see it- the ghost candle, white and blue and flickering. It is Constance come to punish me. Tonight I shall go and meet her out there, among the heather and the nodding cottongrass and it will end.

Do not come. You will be too late. Wait to hear the news of me and know that our last journey together will be through the lych-gate, with you walking behind my bier.

Yours, Charles


Today’s Prompt: Pick up the nearest book and flip to page 29. What’s the first word that jumps off the page? Use this word as your springboard for inspiration.

The book I picked up was Precious Bane by Mary Webb– the word lych-gate. The book probably influenced me, as it’s set in a rural area in 19th century Shropshire, with lots of talk of curses and Sin eaters and funeral cakes. A great book (4 plus stars on Amazon and Goodreads) that I highly recommend.

Sicily on East Street

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I’d been watching a toddler get a lecture from his mum: his look of utter misery, her restrained rage. I’d never seen anyone look as worried as that little boy did just then. Maybe that’s why it took me a moment to register that someone had asked me a question.

‘I said, mind if I sit here, love?’

There was a walking frame and its owner. She was an elderly lady with a face like a peach that’s been in the bowl too long.

‘Just need to rest me legs.’

‘No, of course.’ I smiled and went to move my shopping bags from the bench.

‘Ooh, my arse ain’t that big,’ she laughed.

I forced a laugh, left the bags where they were and she settled down beside them.

‘You working?’ she said.

‘Not today. I’m going to meet a friend, but I’m a bit early.’

‘Right, right.’ She stretched her legs out in front of her, flexing her knees. ‘Where you meeting? Café is it?’

‘That’s right.’

‘I used to run a café.’

‘Really?’

‘Know the place across there- the fruit market?’

I could hear the owner calling ‘strawbreez,’ ‘taters by the pand,’ torturing the vowels out of shape. ‘Git your peeeches, pand a punnet.’ I thought of the lady’s soft wrinkly face. I nodded.

‘Well, that used to be a café, that did. Best café on the street. And I should know, cos I ran it.

‘Clean as a whistle- spotless. None of your plastic tablecloths with drawing pins stuck in ‘em- we had proper cotton, all red and white check like you find in Italy. And no sauce bottles with all the top gummed up neither. We put our sauce in those squeezy plastic tomatoes- wiped clean every day.

‘Proper tea too, not stewed in a big pot and the bacon was always done just right with no rind on, you know?’

She talked about how busy the cafe had been, that people from the television studio had gone there for breakfast because her fried bread was so famous. She’d had photos taken and mounted on the walls.

‘There was a competition in them days,’ she said, ‘back in the seventies, for the best café in South Bristol. Who do you think won it four times in a row? Me, of course.’

‘You must have been very good.’

‘Oh, I was. Would’ve won a fifth too if it wasn’t for the landlord. Decided he wanted us out and the amusement arcade in- greedy git. The day I found out, I was so angry. You know what I did?’ She nudged me as if about to share a confidence.

‘Err, no.’

‘I found out where he lived. I left my sister-in-law in charge of the cafe and I got on the bus- two buses it was. I went up to his house, over the other side of the river. Big house, with a gravel drive and columns- columns, do you believe it? I knocked on his door. This woman answered, all pearls and a twin-set. I says, “Is he in?” she says, “Is who in?” but she knew who I meant. She vanished inside and found him.’

Her voice had dropped to a whisper.

‘He came to the door, just in his shirtsleeves, no jacket- shirt buttons underdone to there like he was a singer in a club. He smelt like meat and sweat- like a pig. A good foot and a half taller than me, he was, but still I didn’t care. I stood right up close to him.’

She leaned towards me. Her eyes seemed suddenly flat, the sparkle swallowed by something darker. Her top lip formed into a curl.

‘I says, “If we was back home in Sicily, you’d be in trouble, boy. Back home, my Poppa would’ve taken his belt to you. The buckle’s this big- big as my fists together. I seen that buckle take a strip of skin two inches wide off a man’s back. Do you know what my Poppa is? He’s Cosa Notra.”’

She caught her thumb a vicious tug with her teeth. ‘”My Poppa ain’t afraid of no one and neither is Rosa. Remember that, if you want to keep what you’ve got.”’

She leaned back on the bench, her lip still curled at the memory.

I looked at my phone, eager to be gone.

She muttered, ‘Know what he said? Nothing. I left. He said nothing.’

‘Err. Did he evict you?’

‘Nah. He offered me a twenty-five year lease.’

‘So you kept the cafe?’

She shrugged. ‘No, I’d got tired of the long hours and smelling of fried bacon.’

I felt I’d missed something. ‘So why…?’

She leaned forward again, resting her hand on mine- she smelt of peppermint and unwashed clothes. ‘My Poppa used to say- “Always make sure other people see you win. Even if you’re not bothered about the race.”’


Today’s Prompt: Write a post inspired by a real-world conversation.

Inspired by a meeting on my local shopping street. If you’re reading, Rosa- all respect due.