Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bristol Short Story Competition

I wrote a story for the Bristol Short Story Prize. Today they announced the longlist. My entry is not on it.

Therefore it's no longer bound by the "no publishing even on your blog" rule. I could keep it hidden away, my precious, until I find somewhere else to send it to. But on balance, no. Let's just put it up.

This is becoming a recurring theme on this blog, mostly because I'm not posting anything except things that went to competitions. This is also the third of the stories I wrote earlier this year which featured young women estranged from their fathers, the others being September Mondays and Mr Bug Makes New Friends.  Anyway here's my story, which I called:

Homecoming

Mid-morning in a quiet residential street. She had been surprised the taxi driver wouldn’t wait for her. “Sorry missus. Against the by-laws,” he’d said. She was pretty sure it wasn’t.

The terraced houses were slightly shabby, the tiny front gardens dominated by bricks and bins. On the corner sat a dark pub, opposite a brightly coloured corner shop. The street was crammed with cars, leaving a slightly too narrow gap down the middle for two way traffic. The low, cloudy sky seemed to seal everything, making it almost claustrophobic. Melinda found it equal parts strange and familiar.

The house didn’t have a number on it, but sat between 20 and 24. She breathed in, put a confident look on her face, marched up to the door and pressed the bell.

After a minute or so she pressed it again. This time she could hear a muffled thump and some indistinct voices. Eventually the noise reached the hall and the door opened.

Standing there was a short middle-aged woman, grey hair escaping from a headscarf. She was wrapped up in a large men’s dressing gown, from under which peeked out pink furry slippers. She grimaced up at Melinda.

“What d’you want?”

“Good Morning. My name is Melinda Switch. I’m looking for Raymond Parker. I’d like to talk to him about John Belton.”

“What?”

She checked the details on her phone, despite having memorised them on the train journey. “I’m looking for Raymond Parker?”

The woman turned and yelled. “Ray! Ray! Come down here. There’s a coloured girl wants to talk to you.”

Melinda sighed. Clearly it was going to be one of those days.

A man appeared in the dim hallway. He was barefoot, wearing a blue and white T-shirt over some dull brown trousers. Medium height, slightly balding, running to fat. He did not look happy.

“D’you know what time it is? It’s not decent getting people out of bed.”

She blinked. It wasn’t early. She’d had a mid-morning coffee on the train. “I, um, I’m sorry. My name’s Melinda Switch. Are you Raymond Parker?”

“What if I am? You people aren’t allowed to hassle me at home.”

“Mr Parker, I’m probably not who you think I am. I just want to talk about John Belton.”

“Look. Just bugger off, will you.”

He tried to push her back, but she stood her ground, bracing herself. Anger swept across his face, a red tide under the grey stubble. He swung his arm at her.

Melinda blocked it and used his momentum to push him face first into the door, the move an automatic response from training. She held him there, one arm twisted behind his back as he swore at her. From inside there was a squeak of alarm as the woman came back.

She let him go and stepped away. “Look Mr Parker, we seem to have got off on the wrong foot. All I want is to talk about John Belton. I’ll tell you what, get your jacket and shoes on so we can go to the pub at the end of the street. I’ll buy you a pint and you can answer some questions.”

He rubbed his arm. “Why didn’t you say so?” Bending down he picked up a faded pair of trainers. “Barbara! I’m going out.”

****

Well, it’s like this. I know John from way back. We drank in the same pubs, worked for the same guys. Sometimes when times were tough we’d meet each other in the dole queue, share a fag, that kind of thing.
Every now and then I’d get an opportunity and need a bit of help, and John was one of the guys I’d ask. Nothing too big or risky, just move a few boxes, ride in a van, keep an eye out, that sort of thing. So when he called me up saying he needed a hand with something, that’s what I thought it was.

Turns out that Big Jim, who’s a well known figure in some circles, has been caught by the cops. But just before, he’s ducked into this bar and who is the first person he recognised but John Belton. “’Ere,” he says, “’Ang onto this for me and there’s something in it for you,” and passes him this parcel. So John slips it into his coat, Big Jim nods at the barman, leaves and is picked up by the rozzers a hundred yards down the road.
Well John hides it away in his lock up to wait for Big Jim to tell him what to do with it. But that never comes, because while he’s on remand, Big Jim has a heart attack and dies. So John takes a look in the package to figure out what’s what.

It’s full of passports. Now John doesn’t know nothing about passports, and he doesn’t know what Big Jim was doing with them. As far as he’s concerned they’re finders-keepers, but that leaves the problem of what to do with them. So John has a think, then he calls me.

Now I’m no expert on dodgy documents, but I know a guy or two, and ask about discreetly and no one seems to be missing these passports. So I give John the all clear to sell them, and he asks me to introduce him to someone.

Well... sorry love, just need to wet my throat a bit. Where was I? Oh yeah. What I don’t know is that the guy we go to, Greg Easton, has hurt the feelings of some nasty people. He really needs some urgent cash to smooth over the differences, and John and me, well we aren’t actually friends of his. So when we get to his club, he takes us into the back room in among the cardboard boxes of dodgy goods, gives me a single malt and John a cigar, puts us off our guard. Then a couple of large lads come in to work us over and we end up tied to the beer barrels and the passports taken from us.

Well that was a turn up and no mistake. He’s asking questions, wanting to know where we got them from and when we can get him some more. Things are looking a bit tricky to be frank with you when he gets called upstairs to deal with a problem.

Some Yardboys have turned up, wanting repayment on some of his debts, so we’re forgotten. John tries to get loose, knocks over some of the boxes. They’re full of washing up liquid, and he gets the bright idea of using it to try and slip out of his bonds. To cut a long story short, he gets washing up liquid everywhere, then the bung comes out of one of the barrels spraying beer about the place. At the moment we get loose, in comes Easton’s lads and the Yardies, both ready for a scrap, and both taken by surprise to see a room full of soap suds.

Well there’s some argy-bargy but we get away scot-free. Neither of us saw a penny from all this, but at least we weren’t out anything either. Could have been a lot worse. For some reason John doesn’t see it that way, blames me for all that. We have some hard words and walked away from each other, and as I said I didn’t see any money coming out of it.

****

Parker picked up his glass and sucked down the last quarter of the pint of Stella. Melinda leant back, looking about. The pub was more modern than she had expected, clean and bright with blond wooden furniture everywhere, smelling slightly of cleaning fluid. Even the coffee was drinkable. In her memory the pubs round here were dark and gloomy, full of dreadlocked men hunched over Guinness. They also glared disapprovingly at little girl running round and round the tables.

“That’s all very interesting Mr Parker. But I’d like to know where John Belton is now.”

Parker shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t help you I’m afraid. That was the last time I saw him. And he owes me a tenner... Tell him that if you find him.” He held up his glass hopefully.

She shook her head. “Thank you Mr Parker.”

She watched him slouch out and sighed. She picked up her cup and walked to the bar, catching the eye of the landlady. She was in her late forties, with dark skin, a prominent nose and long braided hair under a bright yellow headscarf.

“Can I get a Bushmills please?”

The woman found the square bottle and poured out a measure. “There you go love. Word of advice. Don’t mess with that fella. He’s not a good person. Married too.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

She gave Melinda an appraising look. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

She considered her shiny boots and black leggings and the smart caramel coloured tunic dress. It was probably the accent that gave her away. “No I’m not. Well, not for a while. My Mum took us away when I was seven.”

“After the riot?”

Melinda laughed. “What? No. That was before I was born!”

The landlady smiled, slightly embarrassed. “I’m sorry love. With your smart clothes and the way you carry yourself, I took you for someone experienced. Settled. I suppose youngsters can be that too.”

“I guess I’ll take it as a compliment.” She took a sip from the whiskey.

“Where are you living now? I wouldn’t take you for Irish.” She indicated the glass.

“London,” said Melinda. “But I picked up my drinking habits from Irishmen.”

“I’m Ellen.” She gave the bar an absentminded swipe with a cloth. “What brings you back down here then?”

“Melinda. I’m looking for a man. Actually perhaps you can help me. His name’s John Belton.”

Ellen frowned. “Belton, Belton. Oh, friend of Ray, right. Tall, broken nose? Older Fellow. A white guy.”

“Yes!” She smiled eagerly.

“He used to come in here, but not for the last couple of years. Sorry love.”

She sighed. “Oh hell. Should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.”

Ellen leaned forward, swept the braids from out of her face. “I don’t know where he is, but I know who he was working for. They’re... not good people.”

“Tell me anyway. I’m only in town for one day, and I don’t want to waste it.”

Ellen shook her head. “Well, I guess you’re a woman who can look after herself.” She paused, lowered her voice like a conspirator. “You’re going to love this.”

****

“Hey! You!” The large man tried to grab hold of Melinda’s coat, but she swung the scarlet cloth out of his reach like a matador. She slipped past him and through the doorway.

“Hello Mr Brown. My name is Melinda Switch.”

The office behind the grimy betting shop was surprisingly modern, if a little sparse. It seemed like all the businesses round here were being updated. Brown, assuming she had found the right man, was sitting behind a plain wooden desk equipped with a laptop. A side table held a printer and a glossy potted plant with leaves that dangled to almost reach the floor. He took off his glasses, and bemusedly polished them with his tie.

“Oi! Don’t ignore me. I’m warning you. I was in the Paras.” The large man had followed her in.

She turned and looked him up and down. “Oh? Corporal Switch, 33 Engineer Regiment. On leave until tomorrow, so I was hoping to get my business with Mr Brown done today.”

A flicker of what Melinda hoped was respect crossed his face. “Oh. Well. Still, you can’t just barge in here.”

“I’m sorry. When I asked you where Mr Brown was and you pointed at the door, I thought that was an invitation.”

Brown finally spoke. “Enough. Thank you Davenport. I’ll talk to Miss Switch now.” The big man left, shutting the door. “Please take a seat.”

She lowered herself into the chair. “I won’t take up much of your time. I was told you might be able to tell me about John Belton.”

He closed the laptop and steepled his hands. “Well Miss Switch, it’s been a while since I saw him. He took out all the money he was owed here, saying that there was a business deal he wanted to invest in. I believe it involved some Eastern Europeans, Latvians or Lithuanians, I’m not sure. These gentlemen were in the import-export business, although not always in a conventional way. It seems that...”

“I’m sorry,” interrupted Melinda, “I’m sure this is all fascinating. But I’m not really interested in his business deals.”

“I just wanted to explain that there isn’t anything left on account here. We’re not trying to cheat anyone.”

“Fine, fine. This isn’t about money. I want to talk to him about some personal things. Family business.”

“Oh... dear.” Brown took off his glasses, polished them again. “I’m sorry, I thought you knew. I have some bad news for you.”

****

The wind had got up, blowing the clouds away. Melinda hunched in her coat, the flowers she’d got from the poky florists up the street beating themselves against her leg. That shop was just as she remembered, dark and grimy. The grass was neatly mown, the rows of stones kept clean. She looked down at the grave in front of her.

John Belton
1952-2013

She put the flowers down, weighting them with one of the round white stones left there for that purpose. She took a couple of steps back.

“Hi Dad. They tell me it was lung cancer. I remember you smoking out behind the kitchen, so that makes sense. I wanted to ask you some questions, but I guess I won’t be getting any answers now.”

She paused, her thoughts churning in her mind. It took a moment to sort out what she had to say.

“Mum is well. She’s the secretary of a crèche, answering phones, typing letters, all that kind of thing. It works out; Ginny’s kids go there, so she can pick them up for her.

“Ginny got married last year, to a boy called Will. Not a boy; he’s a man really I suppose. They already had two girls, and she was expecting her third. So now I’m an aunty. Three times over. Alexandra, Michelle and Celia they’re called. They’re... they’re pretty cute. Alex wants to be like her soldier aunt. Ginny’s tired all the time, I don’t know how she does it. Of course, she says the same about me.

“I joined the army. I remember you said it was for mugs. Mum wasn’t happy either. That’s one reason why I did it. I was seventeen, and... doing things your parents don’t like seemed a good idea. But it turns out it suits me.

“Mum had said you’d dropped off the map and no one she still knew round here could get hold of you. She finally tried Ray Parker, even though she hates him, but couldn’t get an answer. I offered to try and look him up.  I’m off to Cyprus next week, and won’t be back for at least nine months. So that’s why I came down today to see... to see if I could find you.”

She stopped, empty of words, and stood there for a moment. She pulled out her phone, took a picture of the grave. “For Mum and Ginny. Sorry about... well, sorry about how all this turned out. Bye Dad.”

She turned and walked down the path. Just by the gate waited a taxi.

“Hey lady. Mr Brown said you’d want be wanting a ride.” The driver standing by the car smiled broadly. “No hurry. Whenever you’re done with your business here.”

Melinda stopped to consider. “Just down to the station I think.”

He opened the rear door. “You sure? You don’t have anything else to do in this fine town today?”
She got in, tucking her coat under her, putting her bag on the seat beside her. “No. No, I’m done here. Time to go home.”

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