Category Archives: Short Fiction

A Christmas Present

A short read … for those quiet few minutes that occur every Christmas.

The Writer

A Short Story

Cafe

I walked into a bar. Well, I couldn’t very well ride my bike through the door.

In truth, it was a café; my summer holiday, a cycle tour of the South of France had degenerated into a café-crawl. The intense heat, that arrived with the rising sun and lasted until well after it had set, meant my original fifty-k-a-day plan was in ruins. I knew that five minutes after leaving this place, I’d be looking forward to my next drink break.

Inside it was dark, cool and pretty quiet. A small group sat around a table, not watching the pop music videos playing on the television, passing the odd comments to and fro. There was a solitary man, propping up the bar, a half-finished beer in front of him.

“Bonjour!” I greeted him, while I waited to be served.

“Nothing bon about today mate!” He continued to stare at his beer.

The Proprietor arrived, I looked at the clock, nearly midday. Lunchtime; I allow myself a longer break for lunch and it would be too late by the time I’d climbed the hill to the next village.

“A large bottle of cold water and a beer, please. What is the plat du jour?”

“Confit de canard, avec frites et salade.” He put the beer down in front of me.

“His duck and chips are good.” The eyes were still on his beer, condensation running down the glass.

“Can I buy you another?” I point at his glass. One of the problems with cycle touring solo, it is a bit lonely. A conversation with an English speaker over lunch would be pleasant.

“Yeah, why not. Thanks.”

“Seeing as you know about the food here, I guess you live locally.”

“Lived. Sold up and I leave this evening, going back to Kent. My wife has found  a houseboat on the Medway that we can afford to rent while we search for a house we can afford.”

“Oh, didn’t you enjoy ‘la vie française,’ I have always quite fancied the laid-back way of life here.”

“I used to really enjoy it, but it has all gone wrong.”

I sense a story worth listening to, so I offer to buy him lunch and a pitcher of wine. He readily accepted.

“So, what has gone wrong?” I ask, as we move to a table ready to get our starters.

“I cocked up. I mean I made a disastrous mess of things.” I pour us both a glass of water, we were nearing the end of the beers, and encourage him to continue.

“We moved here two and a half years ago; I was going to write my great novel. Ha!” He drained his beer glass. “I’d spent the last few years of my working life writing bids for government funds, I was good at it. Bids I wrote often attracted the funds they were supposed to. The sad thing from my point of view was that most of them were totally fictitious, I assembled a set of stock phrases and buzz words and used to arrange them into a coherent story. I thought if I can do this, I can do the great book too. We sold up and moved to this beautiful place.”

Our starters arrived, along with the wine. He poured a glass of the rich, red, liquid and held it to the light. He took a sip and sighed. We sat in silence for a while, eating our melon with ham.

“The move here was an interesting experience. We met some of the locals and eventually we hooked up with an ex-pat group. We started going out to lunch with the local British group almost at once. Over lunch, we would all exchange anecdotes and war stories about the idiosyncrasies of French administration, laws and drivers. Imagine, thirty boozy Brits sat around a table, the banter, witticisms, laughter and gossip. It was an incredible source of material. I started plotting my version of ‘A Year in Provence,’ based on what we were hearing at these lunches. Ah, the duck!”

Our main course had arrived. He had been right when he said it was good, the confit de cerise tasted just like a genuine home-made cherry jam.

“You were telling me about your idea for Not A Year in Provence,” I prompted my companion.

“Ah, yes. I had all these snippets and anecdotes but no real theme to hang them all from. With that in mind, I invented a couple, retiring to France and wrote it so that almost everything happened to them. It wasn’t autobiographical, apart from a chapter about the useless estate agent, that was based entirely on our Immobilier. No problem. I wrote the whole thing, both my wife and I proofread the manuscript, several times. We corrected the spelling and changed the point of view of some scenes. Once we were happy, I posted it to Amazon as a Kindle book. Then I made the mistake of turning it into a Print-on-Demand paperback.”

“Doing a paperback was a mistake?” I asked, as I used a piece of crusty bread to wipe up the last of the tasty sauce on my plate.

“Hindsight is wonderful; if only you could have it before you make the mistake.” He took a sip from his glass. “I was excited about having my first book published and I wanted to share it. I ordered several copies of the paperback and sent them to the family. Hoping they would write nice reviews. Some did, some didn’t.

“The Kindle sales were steady, low, but steady at two, maybe three, copies a week. I got on with writing my great novel. It was tough work, each sentence made up of the very best handcrafted words. Arranged and rearranged until they were all in a perfect sequence, leading smoothly from the preceding sentence to the succeeding one. Paragraphs that took what the last one had said, and building on it, passed the narrative forward. Or some such bollocks!” He paused to pour the last of the wine into his glass.

“All the ex-pat group knew I had retired here to write; they would ask time after time about how things were going, blah, blah, blah. Slowly, I’d reply and leave it like that. The conversation would move on to a new topic and my writing would be forgotten about.” He raised his hand to attract the Patron. “Dessert? Tarte Tatin avec crème anglaise s’il-vous plait.”

That sounded like a good idea, “Apple pie for me too, but with vanilla ice-cream instead of custard, please.” I placed my order.

“As I was saying, the Great Novel was slow work. Writing a serious book was nothing like as much fun as that first book. Then, just for a giggle and to make the sales look better, I bought a copy of my own story for my Kindle. Then one wet and windy autumn evening, some months later I started to read it. I was surprised to find myself laughing at some of the tales. That was when I found the error.”

“You found the error? Why was it such a disaster then?”

“I’m coming to that. I needed someone, a character that would know everyone, to let a semi-secret about a couple, who were only part of the group during the summer months, out of the bag. Someone in a position like the organiser of our little lunch group. I changed his whole personality, writing him as a short, posturing, bombast, a cross between Colonel Blimp and Captain Mainwaring of Dad’s Army fame. Nothing like Jerry, who is the group organiser. I needed a name for this character so I used Jerry as a placeholder and had never got around to changing it.”

Our desserts arrived and we ordered coffees to follow.

“So, you found your mistake, what happened next?”

“Ah! That was easy. One of the joys of ebooks and Print-on-Demand is you can make almost instant changes to the manuscript, repost it to the website and within hours the new version takes over. I went through the file on the computer, I took out all the references to ‘Jerry’ and replaced them with ‘Charles’, reposted and went to bed. The next morning, I had emails telling me the ebook was updated and later, that my paperback had been too. Job jobbed.” He scraped the last of his custard up onto a spoon and popped into his mouth. “That is my last taste of real French food. I don’t think I’ll ever persuade my wife to come back to France.”

I raised an eye at that.

“She couldn’t stand it any longer, she went back to England to sort out somewhere for us to live. I had to stay while I dealt with winding-up everything down here.”

“What happened? It sounded like you had a pretty good life here.”

“We were ostracised, dropped from society. People stopped inviting us to dinner, to barbeques, even the emails telling us where the next ex-pat lunch was stopped coming. My wife told me she was ignored and even snubbed by our former friends in the supermarket. She is a far more sociable person than me so it was very hard on her.”

Our coffee arrived, he paused while I paid the bill. “This is on me, call it a leaving present. Did you find out what had caused your fall from favour?”

“Yes, my wife eventually trapped one of the other women and forced it out of her.”

“And?” We were both toying with our spoons in the coffee saucers.

“It was the book. My wife had tired of me evading questions about my writing. She had passed a copy of my book onto one of the other women at the lunch club. They had read it a few weeks after that, then passed it on, in anger. My wife, unaware of that grievous error, had introduced a ‘first edition’ copy of my book into circulation. Eventually, they all agreed that what I had written, was if slanderous, not only about Jerry, but the characters that they imagined were other people in the group. Mind you, I think that it says more about how they see each other than anything I would have put on paper. In the end, the book got to Jerry and the rest is, as they say, history.”

We both picked up our cups and toasted each other with the bitter taste of coffee. We both stood up, I went to buy another bottle of water for my onward journey. The writer headed for the door. By the time I’d paid and stepped out into the solar furnace, he had gone. I strapped the bottle of water to my luggage pannier. A quick check of the tyres and brakes and I was ready to go. I clipped my helmet straps together, then looked up at the road that lay ahead as the Proprietor emerged from the kitchen door carrying a bundle of ready meal cartons to the bin.

Au revoir, Monsiuer.” he called as he stuffed the frozen chip and heat and serve Confit de Canard packages into the overflowing trash receptacle.

C’est triste!” I gestured towards the bin with the bike wheel. I was bitterly disappointed to see another bit of French culture going down the chute.

Oui, Puis, il raconte la même histoire tous les midis!” With a gallic shrug he turns back to the kitchen. I point the bike up the road and start to peddle in the blistering heat.

I’d gone about a kilometre up the road when I started to unravel that parting comment from the Proprietor. I’d caught the bit about the same story every lunchtime and accepted that. ‘Puis, il raconte …

Finally, I got it. “Then, he tells the same story every lunchtime.” The cunning old scroat!

A Flash Fiction Exercise

Haunted House is a story made up to meet a string of keywords, characters and a situation during a creative writing class. Start to finish in 20 minutes … Flash fiction!

See if you can spot my 5 required elements! I enjoyed writing this little tale, I hope you enjoy the silliness!

The Haunted House

No money, nowhere to stay and the gig cancelled, what was I going to do? I’d wandered around town and it appeared that everywhere was in lock-down. It was getting cold, I needed somewhere to sleep. 

I just wish I hadn’t chosen that place.

It was a deserted house. The door was open so why not. I let myself in and by the dying light of the day, filtered through the grimy windows, I looked around. There was dust everywhere but the sofa in what had been the lounge looked pretty solid and would be better than sleeping on the floor. 

I propped my guitar in one of the armchairs, opened my rucksack. The first thing I pulled out was the sandwich I’d made before leaving home. The one and only thing that had gone right all day. OK so the bread was a little stale, but it was still edible.  As I chewed the dry bread and cheese, I reviewed the day.

It had been a bit of a red-letter day! I had a paying gig. I play guitar and sing songs, folky sort of things. I am available to play in pubs, clubs, private parties, christenings and bar mitzvahs, give me a call!

It has been a while since I had a paying gig, so I took the bus from home. It was a long ride, but cheaper than the train, and I’d have to find somewhere to sleep overnight. The buses stop running at eight in the evening, public service for you. 

As I was saying, I’d got to the town, found the pub I was supposed to be playing; it was shut. A family bereavement according to the note on the door. I expected there would be a message on the answering machine at home. Just as well I’d spent the last of my dole money on a return ticket! 

I’d walked the streets looking for somewhere to sleep and the streets were deserted. It was strange, nobody walking the dog and no cars moving either, nobody. Then I’d spotted this place.

My sandwich finished, I settled down on the sofa, pulled my coat tight around me and tried to get to sleep. In the distance I could hear the bells of a church chiming the hour. I counted ten chimes before I dozed off.

“What are you doing here?” I was woken with a start, it was a female voice. There was someone shining a torch in my face.

“I needed a place to sleep, the door was open and the place looks deserted. Sorry, is it your house?”  

“So, you chose the towns haunted house. Talk about bad luck!” At least it didn’t sound like I was going to get thrown out on the streets.

“I suppose I should ask why are you here? At the dead of night?”

The torch moved away from my eyes and flashed around the room.

“I am a psychic and spiritualist. I have been asked to see if I can bring peace to the spirit that haunts this house. My spirit guide says that you being here is part of the solution. That is good.”

I was about to ask more questions but the room started to get cold. In the distance the church bells chimed midnight.

Then the sounds started, a low undulating “Oooooo ooooo!” 

Then a glowing form started to coalesce in the middle of the room. “Oooooo ooooo!”

I looked at the psychic lady, she was frozen watching the form slowly developing. Then I got the tingling in my hands. I had to play. I must play!

“Oooooo ooooo!”

I hastily pulled my guitar out of its’ case and started to play. Why I played what I did I don’t know. Maybe it was the shape of the form in front of me. An arm raised, a body curled in almost into a ball, well, that’s what it looked like to me. 

I hit a chord, and dum-dum, dum-dum, dumpa!

“Oooooo ooooo! Bloooo Blooo Blue suede shoes …”

We played every Elvis song I knew; the ghost sang them all. We even did ‘Love Me Tender’; I am sure I have never learnt that song, but we covered it. I played and the spirit sang for what seemed liked hours.

Then it disappeared. A voice in my head ‘Elvis has left the building’ was echoed by the Psychic.

“The spirit has gone … Thank you!”  

I looked at my watch five past midnight. My fingers were sore and blistered, I can’t have played for just five minutes, can I? 

Was that fun ?