Tag Archives: short story

A Short Story

This is a little story I’ve been working on for a while. Inspired by scent and memory.

shoes on stairs

The mirror is round and slightly convex, secured in a dark wood frame to the wall in the hallway. There is a smudged fingerprint at either side where someone has straightened it after a knock. She wonders if the ghostly, complex whorls belong to her.

Behind, light spreads muted and dappled through the frosted glass of the front door and is too pale to be anything but a winter’s morning. The air hangs like a chilly exhalation of breath, nipping slightly at her ears. It is always a thrill to view the familiar reflection of the hall made strange by angles in reverse, slightly bent in the mirror’s curve. Her winter coat, well worn and soft, oddly animated, as if she had hung it upon the coat stand with part of herself still concealed inside. The pretty willow pattern jug on the sill from a visit to an over-priced antiques market; seemingly taller and more slender than it’s actual, rather squat little form. The wooden rungs of the banister appear to be both climbing the stairs and bracing them; at once high stepping and bending as the stairs make their bizarre journey upwards and into the dark of the landing.

Her eyes dart back to her own reflection and she catches an expression there, one that she has never seen before. A flicker and it’s gone and in that moment her face belongs only in the mirror, the gaze already turning to join the electric stillness inside the glass, where inanimate things move so quickly that they remain still. She can sense something in the air of that mirrored hallway; an expectation, the acrid scent of burning paper while the match lies unlit in its box. She is tucked slightly too far into the wings, while shadows flit across the unseen stage.

She finds herself often transfixed by objects. Trinkets hidden in plain sight that flare brightly at the corners of her vision, as if trying to catch her attention. Of course they are just ordinary things when she turns her adult gaze upon them but she becomes convinced that they must have a secret purpose. Like the willow patterned jug for example. She found it amongst the vast cascades and toppling piles of antiquity, partially obscured by a rather grandiose gilded chamber pot. When glanced at, it seemed to peep its delicate form out from behind the immense frilled bottom of its guardian and shimmer a little. The air had momentarily thickened and a suggestion of burning caught her at the back of the throat. With closer inspection she noticed that it was in fact a rather plain, lazy reproduction, cracked slightly and discoloured inside. It lay absolutely still and cold in her hands, yet hadn’t it caught her attention for a reason?

And so it goes, she must have it. How could she possibly leave it behind? On the way home she picked one flower head from an abundant hydrangea bush to crown her prize with softest blue and bronze. Once inside she had placed it reverently on the windowsill and stepped back to admire her purchase. It was such a simple little thing, the flowers with all their fluttering petals somehow threw the shabbiness into sharper contrast. She puzzled over what had possessed her to buy it in the first place.

Looking at the jug’s reflection in the mirror now it seems to regain some of that shimmer and her heart skips slightly. She understands once more how such an ordinary object could practically jump from the shelf into her hands. The blue and white is such a vivid contrast against the dark windowsill, the pattern of boats, bridges and little men made somehow more animated by the amateurish, hand drawn lines. In the mirror’s reflection the jug becomes a vessel in which to hold something precious. She must find a beautiful bit of nature to fill it once again. There will be no hydrangea so late in the year but maybe a sprig of holly. The red of the berries will contrast nicely with the willow pattern blue. There is a magnificent combination, she thinks, the harlot and her sailor boy.

Her need for colour is as important as breathing. She craves it like a drug and puzzles further over whether this is normal. She feels so sad to see Mr and Mrs next door, going about all swaddled in beige and brown and grey. It is as if they are trying to disappear. The soup and porridge hues in which they are cocooned whisper of untold misery. Mrs wears the beige of a hospital curtain when she could have cream, rich and soft as a barn owl’s wing. Mr wears trousers that are mud shot through with ash. It looks as if he has been wading waist deep in gloom. Why does he not want deepest charcoal or chocolate brown?

Last Christmas, feeling especially festive, she bought the Mrs a gift in the hope of lifting the fog which clouds her, making her bland. A scarf of softest, finest wool the colour of a new leaf, almost a silvery green. Not too bright but just enough to bring out the flecks in her eyes. On opening the gift such a look of bewilderment crossed the woman’s face, she stroked the softness of the wool with guilty fingers as if this was not something that should belong to her.

As far as she knows the scarf has never been worn. She imagines it neatly folded in a drawer and glowing subtly whenever it is glanced upon. Maybe that is enough. She believes everyone should have a little colour in their life, no matter how well hidden it is. It amuses her greatly to entertain the idea of the Mrs wearing red lingerie beneath her putty coloured trouser suit.

Sometimes, when she least expects it, she gets the slightest glimpse into other peoples lives, just by touching them. If she were to deliberately lay her hands upon a person in search of their deepest secrets, she’d see nothing but their alarmed face staring back at her. It is the odd moment; like when someone hands her change in a shop, that she sees more than she should. A front door, a favourite item of clothing, the echo of voices. Just small things really, but enough to piece together the bits of that person’s life. Maybe she is just very perceptive. The idea that she might be anything more is faintly alarming. Besides, that sort of thing is all psychological anyway…

She remembers being a child, holding her upturned palms out for goodness to fall into as easily as raindrops. She feels an almost painful stab of nostalgia for those times, when innocence flittered and glistened around her like fireflies and reaching out to make a wish was instinctual. Those fireflies are still dancing, she is sure of it, but now she is grown they stay at the corners of her vision and always just out of her reach. Doubt is a constant presence, muddling her best intentions, dipping a bitter finger into her freshly brewed tea, peppering the downy cloth of sleep with tiny holes. It has such stealthy shadow, she can be sitting in full sunlight and still sometimes it finds a way to darken her day.

She sighs and finishes applying her lipstick, a blushed berry pink that makes her cheeks look rosy. As she tucks the little golden tube back into her purse her mind begins to turn back to the mundane tasks that will take up her day. As she buckles her bag she remembers she has not put any perfume on, so she reaches back into the leather recesses and pulls out a little vial. Another little stab of nostalgia leaps within her as she spritzes a mist of fragrance around her head. This was the scent her mother wore when she was very young and now it seems to throw her recent musings into an even sharper light. It reminds her of forgotten things.

All of a sudden her eye is caught by a slight movement in the mirror. There, halfway up the stairs, is the suggestion of someone small, with a hand clutching the banister rail. She is hit by such a wave of recognition that she feels herself locked into the reflection, unable to turn around. She knows what is about to happen but cannot move her lips to utter a single sound. The little form on the stairs, the size of a four year old child, seems to bend its knees and with an almost audible intake of breathe, jumps.

Her heart is lurching in her chest, the stairs are too steep and the child is too small. She sees it all distorted in the bend of the glass, the arc of limbs as they are raised in flight, the impending impact of fragile body against hard floorboards. Then there is a sudden thickness in the air, a change in pressure that makes her ears pop. The atmosphere sparks with the strike of a match and in that moment she is released from her paralysis, spinning around to face the stairs. There she watches as the child, in blue denim dungarees and small yellow shoes, executes a perfect landing. All around the little figure the light dances in golden beams. The child looks straight at her, dark eyes and brown curls all lit up with delight. There is a delicious little giggle of pleasure, echoing so clearly in her mind that she is rocked again by an immense sense of recognition. As she struggles with the growing rush of blood in her ears the whole scene begins to fade, slowly fizzling away until nothing but the winter sun and the scent of her perfume is left behind in the hallway.

She sits down slowly upon the seat below the mirror and continues to stare at the bottom of the staircase. She knows the small yellow shoes. She remembers them quite clearly. The Velcro straps had rows of ladybirds marching along them. She used to pretend that they were her magic shoes.

For how long she stays there she is unsure, the sudden snap of the letterbox spewing its mail onto the mat dislodges her sharply from her reverie. Glancing out of the window she sees that it really is a lovely morning. She puts on her coat and hat and steps out of the front door into the pristine winter air. The chill nips at her fingers as she pulls on her gloves but the sun is bright and sparkling in the crystal sky. Her hand instinctively flutters over her belly as the child inside does a little flip of excitement.

The scent of her perfume follows behind as she shuts the door. Perhaps it might still be possible to make wishes after all, she thinks as she sets off down the frost-dusted road. So she wishes for her child’s first pair of shoes to be yellow.

Juliet’s Party

This is not a perfume review as such. It is story inspired by Andy Tauer’s ‘Une Rose Vermeille’. Sometimes only scent can inspire words to form on my blank page. For this tale perfume has been my muse.

wilting rose

August is reaching it’s peak and summer sits heavily this year, how troublesome a shining sun can be when the mind is weary. The insistent, optimistic beam of golden light seeks only to cast the shadow of her ragged edges into sharper contrast. It is not usually like her to be so downcast when the trees are in full leaf. She is worried for herself. Somewhere in the cloudless blue above there is a higher part of her that shouts down in vain to the body, watching as it drags itself though yet another sun drenched day without so much as a glance at the copper beech, turning from deepest purple to green.

Today is Saturday and she must board a train. It is a country line and as the vehicle pulls into the station she thinks that it more closely resembles a school bus, with long benches and metal hand rails. She boards with her companions and they all sit in a row, watching through the windows as the countryside begins to surround them on all sides.

None of them really want to be here today. Their task (and it will most certainly be strenuous) is one they have been collectively putting off for weeks, polite excuses and prior engagements have become a little overused and the time has come to grit their teeth and get it over with. It is sad that although in this they are united, in every other way they are falling apart. At times during the journey the conversation becomes strained between two of them, the third looking on, both awkward and a little excited at the fractures forming, slowly creeping into the heart of things and allowing rot to take hold.

As the train chugs happily through the green and pleasant land she tries to get a hold on herself. She has noticed the watchfulness of her friend, the slight glint in her eyes when her stress bubbles too close to the surface. Always so supportive, always full of enthusiasm, holding herself back from the veiled resentment hissing between the other two. There is a danger that if she cannot keep it together today, she may lose her place within the group, that she will be pushed still further onto the sidelines. In her heart she knows that continuing in such dysfunction will eventually destroy her. She knows she should get out before she breaks but the path ahead is so misted with uncertainty that she is afraid to venture into it. Mustering enthusiasm for anything is so hard while the sun beats down relentlessly. She wants to crawl into a dark space between tree roots and hide.

As the train nears their stop they stuff the tension hurriedly into their handbags and instead share some fortifying words, for whatever may be rupturing between them it absolutely cannot show for the rest of the day. As she steps onto the platform she repeats it to herself like a mantra. ‘Do not lose your temper, do not lose your temper….’

Juliet is waiting on the bridge above the tracks. They can see her waving between the high grasses, beckoning for them to head through the gate. Her voice travels through the warm air like a bullet. They pile into the back of her car and hurtle down the country lanes at a ridiculous speed, Juliet chattering all the while about their journey, the landmarks they pass, the tenuous things they have in common. As is always the case she is unprepared for the physical jolt of energy that scatters her thoughts whenever Juliet is on top form. Perhaps she has become sensitive to it after a few weeks without daily exposure. She is barely holding her thoughts in place as it is. Glancing at her companions she notices that their jaws are set and their eyes falsely wide with interest. She forces her face into the same expression. God this is hard work already.

The car pulls up outside a lovely house with gardens spreading out around it on three sides. Juliet is puffed up with pride as they all gawp with genuine admiration. It is an idyl nestled in between rolling green hills. A tour promptly follows, where every treasured ornament and framed photograph is lingered over, Juliet’s whip crack of a laugh exploding far too frequently for them to relax. The three of them know only too well how finely tuned an instrument they are dealing with here. If one of them plucks the wrong string all will descend into a cacophonous riot.

The kitchen table is groaning under the weight of the feast set upon it. The platters of food look delightful and Juliet requires only a little help to finish it off. Whilst the others carry tables and cloths into the garden, Juliet instructs her how to dress the summer fruit salad. Juliet has a tone to rival any Victorian school mistress and the well intentioned guidance is like a physical assault. To see Juliet here, in her home environment, she had hoped to understand the woman better. There has always been such a contradiction at play, she is never sure how to handle it. Juliet is at once free spirited and stuck in her ways, open minded but also terribly prejudiced, young at heart with a lifetime’s experience, fierce yet fragile, manipulative but naive. She had been hoping that in her own home Juliet would become less frustrating. It seems though, that the whole house pulsates with the strength of Juliet’s contradictions, the pitch of her personality resonating at a purely vibrational level. It makes her head spin. She knows this woman loathes her, loathes all of them in one way or another. The invitation to be here today is an act of defiance, disguised clumsily as a gesture of solidarity. She can’t help but feel paranoid that Juliet has noticed the spots of disease forming within the group, even though they have been so careful to keep it from her. Bad feeling is like fuel to Juliet, it makes her burn all the brighter.

wilting rose

Juliet leaves her instructions hanging in the air like a velvet wrapped threat and departs to ensure the garden tables are being arranged as she intended. Waiting until Juliet has gone, she lifts the lid covering the green dish and breathes in the scent of summer berries. Plump raspberries, blushing strawberries, the softly bloomed skin of dark blueberries. She sprinkles sugar crystals all over, slices a lemon in half and squeezes the tart juice sparingly. Next to the sugar pot stands a dark brown bottle of highest quality rose water. She opens the lid and inhales the wonderful bouquet that blossoms forth, wondering as she does every time at the decadence of such a thing. Luxury is Juliet’s biggest weakness, so she is never one to scrimp on things she considers essential. This rose water is simply beautiful, as you would expect. Placing her thumb over the top, she tips the bottle and pours a little into the fruit, then stirs it all together with a silver serving spoon. The scent is exquisite. Sweet, tart fruit combining with rose into a frothy pink celebration, the lemon just sparkling away at the top to keep it from becoming too sugary. It strikes her as very poignant that such a joyful combination could exist in the tension fueled buzz of this afternoon. Inhaling one more time, she places the cover back over the fruit and steps out into the garden to join the others.

Time passes slowly, compliments are lavished upon the food and the beautiful surroundings, polite conversation is painstakingly crafted through sheer force of will. Juliet seems unaware that the situation is awkward. Another of her strange contradictions is that although she is always the one to cause trouble, Juliet feels adamantly that it is not her but them who are to blame. For once she is running the show and it is a role in which she thrives. To Juliet’s mind this is the way it should always be between the four of them. It is a never ending challenge to keep her in her place, a delicate balancing act performed with a tact and subtlety that once she found admirable. Now she finds it terrifying. She is no longer safe from the master tactician with whom she travelled here today. Sooner or later the true intention of this pleasant get-together will have to be discussed. Ironically, Juliet is in the safest position, even though she makes the biggest waves. Juliet remains the only permanent fixture, like a towering cliff on the shore of a turbulent sea. No amount of crashing and splashing will budge her.

Notebooks emerge from bags and the conversation turns finally to business. It all feels very formal somehow, even though the situation has been engineered to be as relaxed as possible. As she gropes around for her pen she is painfully aware how little she has prepared for this. Her mind, so fuddled and foggy with unhappiness, has been solely focused on getting through each day. Until now she has chosen to cope in this way, but as all eyes turn to her, expectant to hear her solutions and ideas, she realises with sinking certainty that she has not done enough. However constructively her lack of input is dealt with, she can tell from a look that she has greatly disappointed the person she is expected to support the most. That look is one she has encountered with more regularity in recent weeks than anyone in her position should. Her friend happily fills in the blanks she has left, seemingly prepared to do both their share willingly. Shame rolls over her like hot thunder. She has made herself redundant in this quartet, she sees it as plain as this summers day, yet she feels totally unable to change it.

Juliet, however much she feels superior, is managed with breathtaking precision. Her misguided and narrow minded input is made, to her, to seem both valid and useful, whilst actually being of no help whatsoever. This is how the four of them have rubbed along together these past years. They know that Juliet cannot be budged, so they tread carefully and take advantage of her short sightedness. This has become entirely too exhausting to keep up for the one who is unhappy, anger flares inside her with the white intensity of a lightening bolt. ‘Do not lose your temper, do not lose your temper…..’

Juliet, smug with achievement, skips off to fetch the dessert. The other two fall into further conversation, hatching plans whilst on the sidelines, the miserable one battles the storm intensifying within her. She sits mute, with eyes downcast, shame and anger and humiliation smashing at her battered will. She is disgusted with herself for not trying harder, furious that such little effort is praised in someone else. Her fragile ego twists in pain as she listens to her friend proving how much more she deserves to be here, while a little voice in the back of her head is questioning why she cares. It is too much. She is fully aware that while all this emotion is rocking her little boat, outwardly she appears to be in a deep sulk. A child sitting morose until the adults forgive her. She simply cannot find the strength to pull herself out of it. There is that look again, except this time the eyes flicker to the kitchen and back with a raised eyebrow. Juliet must not witness her meltdown or the hierarchy will crumble like a sandcastle, leaving her at the bottom of the heap.

Dessert is served in delicate china bowls. There is vanilla cheesecake too, deep, silky creaminess speckled with black seeds. The combination of smooth vanilla, sweet fruit and fragrant rose is so stunning that in the midst of her turmoil, eating it seems like a cruel joke. A tear escapes and drips into her bowl. She prays for the clouds to roll over the sun and shut out the infernal brightness. For all the lazy bees to take cover under the leaves and cease their happy droning. Glancing at her watch she counts another hour until it is time to catch the return train. She picks up her wine glass, drinks the previously untouched pink liquid in one and reaches for the bottle.

Halfway down the second glass she risks a prolonged glance at Juliet. She still seems totally unaware that she could cut the atmosphere with a knife, working her way steadily through her own bottle of wine. The conversation has moved away from business, notebooks stowed back into bags and laughter coming more easily. Maybe it it just she who is still submerged in this murk, it appears that the others have released some of their pent up tension and the mood at the other end of the table is significantly lighter. With an odd mixture of shame and relief she allows herself to relax slightly, although she knows that in the past hour something has broken. Tiredness rushes over her, encouraged by the wine slipping too easily down her throat. In her befuddled state she watches Juliet and the others chatting away, feels so separate from them that it is almost an out of body experience. A bizarre burst of sympathy for Juliet takes her by surprise, dining blithely with the wolves who manipulate her so cunningly, though she is a dangerous creature herself. It does not last, this fleeting kindness, but is does cast Juliet momentarily in a different light.

wilting rose

The last minutes of the party play out in a half drunken fugue of hot sun and pollen filled air. She is unsure whether she rejoins the conversation fully, she still feels removed from herself. The car ride through the lanes is a green blur, Juliet’s goodbyes are hurried as the train is already waiting. She falls asleep on the journey home. At the station they exchange hugs, bid farewell to their friend, then she and the other agree that they need to ‘have another chat’. The concern is genuine but she knows this tough woman too well to feel comforted by it. As she trudges home, slightly nauseous in the balmy evening, she tries to reflect on what exactly has happened. It feels like a dream now. The reality of her situation and the ultimate change in her mindset will not dawn on her fully until the next morning.

Arriving home she lowers herself wearily onto a chair in the kitchen and opens her bag. Tucked inside is a small tupperware pot with a folded note secured by an elastic band. The pot contains the last of the summer fruits, still sublimely fragrant but slightly bruised from being jostled around on the journey. Strange, she didn’t remember asking for it. She opens the note and reads it once, then again and again. Finally she drops it onto the table next to the little pot of jewel bright berries, pushes herself away from the table and slowly climbs the stairs. In her bedroom she draws the curtain to finally shut out the sun, climbs fully clothed into bed and pulls the cover over her head. She is asleep in seconds.

The note remains on the table until she emerges the next morning to read it again……

 “For you, because I noticed how much you enjoyed it.

 Much love,


She folds the note into a tiny square and throws it in the bin.