Work in progress: new short story for potential entry into a short story competition. The Artists’ & Writers’ year book annual comp is themed ‘compulsion’ but not sure if this fits yet. There is also TNW’s Readers’ Challenge which, this quarter, is simply to be a piece of ‘imaginative’ short fiction. Or else it might be suitable for entry to Women’s Weekly fictional suppliment. I’m wondering if it’s getting too long now, maybe would work as a serial, but I think when it’s finally finished it will berelatively easy to edit it down. I find short stories are often more effective the fewer words used to tell them.
I still haven’t properly edited this yet so apologies for any typos or mistakes
Mrs. Potts opened her eyes onto the dark, five minutes before her 5am alarm, like every morning. She rose, already wide awake. On her way to and from the kitchen she poked her head around her husband’s bedroom door to ensure his snoring was still loud and even. It was, as always.
She clicked her own bedroom door shut behind her and turned the key in the lock. Sitting down at her desk with her cup of tea, she relaxed and unlocked the bottom drawer of the desk with a key from around her neck. She laid out her record book, a selection of notepads and a lockbox, the key for which she retrieved from under the desk lamp. She sometimes wished her husband would prove more of a challenge and force her to come up with new and cleverer ways of hiding things, but he’d never once set foot in her bedroom since she’d moved in there so she doubted even the lockbox was necessary.
She reviewed its contents critically, noting she was low on some of her more vital substances. She transferred a few carefully selected pills and tablets into an empty vanilla essence bottle, pocketed it and locked the box away again before making a note in her record book ad locking that away too. She selected a plain, ruled notepad and started to draft a letter to a GP, writing slowly and carefully, in someone else’s handwriting.
At 6:30am on the dot, dressed smartly and hair sprayed into submission, Mrs. Potts descended the stairs from her flat and unlocked the connecting door to the bakery kitchen. She thought, as she tied on her apron, that Saturday mornings, usually so hectic, were fast becoming her favourite time of the week. It was the shop’s busiest day but since Mr. Potts had been so recently indisposed she found herself enjoying the freedom of moving round her kitchen knowing he couldn’t manage the stairs to come and interfere. She carefully placed the empty bottle of vanilla essence at the back of her spice cupboard and found herself humming as she mixed the various pastry batters and icings, warmed the ovens and laid out bread tins.
Even the familiar smells seemed to have gained something in recent weeks, she was rediscovering how decadent they were as they mingled in the pre-dawn air, loaded with warmth and thick with the sugar and syrup and creams. It was quiet apart from the noise of the mixers and her own humming.
She flipped the sign expectantly at 9am and before she’d even positioned herself behind the gleaming counter, slightly misted with steam from the first pastries and cakes fresh from the ovens, two small old ladies wandered in, arm in arm, identical denture smiles set in the folded flesh of their faces. Mrs. Potts returned the smile still hoping that her own skin was still years off such sagging.
“Good morning, Ladies Smith,” she chimed. “So nice to see you. Would you like your usual order?”
“Oh, yes please, Mrs. Potts,” they both said, more or less simultaneously. “Saturday is our treat day, as you know.”
“I do indeed, I do indeed,” smiled Mrs. Potts as she set about packing a wholemeal loaf, two white buns for their soup luncheon and then, the ultimate weekend indulgence, two fresh treacle tarts, heavy with sugar and syrup, into a brown paper bag. They were muttering to each other as she loaded the bag and Mrs. Potts hid a smile as she asked, “So how has your week been, ladies?”
“Oh fine, fine, thank you Mrs. Potts,”
“Yes very fine indeed. Only…”
“Oh?” asked Mrs. Potts casually. “Nothing happened, I hope?”
“No, no, of course not,” Rose insisted. “A very pleasant week. We’ve been enjoying the last of the sunshine before the nights start drawing in.”
“Yes, that’s right. We’ve been enjoying wandering around the common in the evenings. Only, in the mornings…”
“Now, now Violet, Mrs. Potts doesn’t want to hear about our little disruptions.”
“Disruptions? Oh, surely not Miss Smith! In our peaceful little village?”
Violet looked from her sister to Mrs. Potts and back, eyes bright. “Well it’s as you said, Mrs. Potts. You told us to watch out and we did and you were right.”
“Me?” cried Mrs. Potts. “I don’t remember warning you of anything.”
“Oh no, of course not, not a warning exactly,” said Rose, eyes now as bright as her sister’s. “But you…mentioned, merely mentioned…that you’ve been noticing the milk round isn’t quite so…reliable as before…?”
“Oh, yes,” said Mrs. Potts airly. “It’s true Maximilian has accidentally left me out of his round once or twice since he took up the job, but it hardly matters.”
“Oh but it does, Mrs. Potts!” cried Violet. “It’s a sacred office, that of the milkman.”
“Violet. You’re exaggerating.” Rose chided.
“Well, maybe a little. But I’ve always thought of the milk delivery is something you could depend on, in this strange and ever-changing world, don’t you think? Something to be certain of. No matter how bad things get or what horrible things are happening on the news or even changing in your own immediate circles, you would always be able to have a cup of tea in the morning because the milk would be on your doorstep waiting.”
“Oh Miss Smith,” said Mrs. Potts. “What a nice way of thinking. A good cup of tea can ease much.”
“Well yes, indeed, Mrs. Potts. So imagine what it was like this week when not once but twice…”
“She’s right,” interjected Rose, leaning in conspiratorially. “Twice.”
“Twice this week young Max has left us the wrong milk or none at all.”
“Surely not,” Mrs, Potts exclaimed, placing a hand on her chest as though deeply moved. “So unfortunate. After his father spent so many years establishing such a good reputation for the dairy.”
“Well exactly, Mrs. Potts. Exactly.” Both the old sisters sighed. “It is most unfortunate.”
“With that young wife to support as well.” Mrs. Potts shook her head.
“Well, of course, she’s going very well.”
“Yes indeed,” continued Rose. “She’s just received a promotion in that law firm she works in in town. She’s doing very well for herself.”
“We always knew when those two got married that Sarah would be the one to support Max,” said Violet wisely.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Potts simply,, schooling her features to impassivity. “Do you think that’s quite seemly? Sarah’s such a wonderful girl. Of course, I’ve always like Maximilian very much, his father is a fine man. But do you think it’s quite right for her to be working so hard for him?”
“It’s quite the thing these days though, isn’t it?” said Violet. “Career ladies and all that. If I had my time again I don’t know that I wouldn’t do things differently.”
“Oh Miss Smith, what a thing to say! You and your sister have that lovely bungalow with the common at your doorstep and all your friends and neighbours. Who could want more than a quiet, happy community to spend retirement in?”
“You’re quite right, Mrs. Potts. Hear that, Violet, and this from a lady with her own business! As you always say, Mrs.Potts, community and the village are more important than the individual, it’s what’s best for everyone.”
“You are right, I suppose,” Violet nodded, smiling. “And in view of that, what do you think we should do, Mrs. Potts?”
“About young Max and his performance this week.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to interfere, ladies.”
“Not at all, we are merely asking your advice. It’s such an unfortunate thing to happen to such a young man!”
“But to be uncommitted to one’s profession,” said Violet. “It unsettles the whole balance of village life. What if he forgot us on an icy day, Rose? And we had to go to the convenience store, risking those icy pavements?”
Mrs. Potts kept her mouth shut and re-arranged cherry bakewells until the sisters said, “What do you think then, Mrs. Potts?”
“Well, it is unfortunate as you see, but it must be considered. My morning delivery from the dairy is vital, especially on a Saturday. If such an unfortunate occurrence was repeated with me I would feel compelled to call the dairy.”
“Poor Max,” Rose shook her head.
“But the lad is young, as you say,” Mrs. Potts added, watching the sisters carefully. “And it must be hard following in his father’s footsteps. I say go on home now and see what this morning’s order has brought you. If he’s managed to get it right I say give him another chance.”
“And if he’s got it wrong?” Violet asked.
Mrs Potts shrugged, holding out the paper bag. “Then it’s up to you.”
Mrs. Potts did swift trade that morning. After the Smith sisters had left, heads together, both clutching their paper bag of Saturday treats, the shop was busy with the stream of early-morning villagers, mostly pensioners, picking up the weekend bread and usually, with only a little prompting from herself, a cake or two for a treat. She smiled at the customers as she reflected how much nicer it was without Mr. Potts wandering down the stairs to interfere.
Trade slowed down about eleven, but Mrs. Potts wasn’t worried as she knew it would pick up again just after lunch. She took advantage of the respite to pop into the back room an ice a fresh batch of fairy cakes and place the bread tins with pale mounds of dough into the warm room for rising for the afternoon’s bake. She was surprised with floury hands and a mouthful of muffin dough by the tinkle of the shop bell at eleven thirty-four. A bit early for people to be picking up pastries for their afternoon tea and a bit late for anyone who liked to pick up bread for lunch.
She found young Michael Holdsworth eyeing up the chocolate muffins behind the glass of the counter with his hands in his pockets and an intent expression on his face.
“Good morning, Michael. What can I get for you this morning? Are you picking up bread for your mother?”
“Hey? No, no not today.”
His mother was a good woman so Mrs. Potts merely pursed her lips at his lack of greeting. “Well then, what can I do for you?”
“I’m after something for Emma…what do you think she would like?”
“Not the daughter of the man who’s opened up the convenience store?”
“Yes, that’s the one,” said Michael, beaming. “Do you think something chocolate? Girls like chocolate.”
Mrs. Potts has only met Miss Johnson once as she had little need for fresh baked goods when she lived next door to the mini-supermarket. Mrs. Potts had tried to recommend her one of her specialities, a custard slice, to which the girl had recoiled, stated how she couldn’t stand custard and went on to select an iced bun, the blandest thing on the counter.
“Don’t you think you’d be more interested in someone else, Michael? Like Amanda perhaps?”
“Amanda Perkins?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes, I see a lot of young Amanda. She’s a lovely girl, her mother’s the headmistress of the primary school I believe.”
Michael squirmed a little.
“And what’s wrong with her?” Mrs. Potts asked, folding her arms.
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with here I suppose…it’s just…”
“Now Michael, I sincerely hope you are not rejecting her because of her appearance? I surely don’t have to tell you how deceptive appearances can be?”
Michael opened and closed his mouth a few times. She stood there, arms folded, resolute.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Potts. I like Emma. Can I have two chocolate muffins, please?”
Mrs. Potts sighed as if relenting. “Very well, I suppose a young man’s heart is his to do with as he pleases. Here, I have my speciality out the back. I’ll give you two custard slices on the house. Just wait to see how she receives your thoughtful gift.” She gave Michael a wink with her smile and went into the back room to quickly retrieve and pack up two custard slices. When he had the bag in hand, Michael practically ran out of the shop in the direction of the convenience store.
At 1 o’clock she flipped the sign to closed. Muffled thumpings and bumps from upstairs told her her husband was attempting to get to the kitchen table, despite her assurances that he should stay in bed until the cast was removed.
There was some post on the doormat of the main front door. She quickly removed the one with NHS written on the envelope and pocketed it. The rest, statements and a letter from one of her suppliers, she took up the stairs.
“Anything for me?” her husband grunted from the kitchen doorway as she came in through the flat door and into their little living room.
“There’s a bank statement, dear,” she said, handing it over.
“Damn it all to hell,” he cursed, throwing the statement on the floor. “When’s that damn doctor going to write?”
“I’m sure it won’t be long now, dear,” she said as she started to move about the kitchen, putting the kettle on and rooting in the fridge.
“I’ve been in this damn cast for nearly two months. I swear the doctor said 6 weeks, 6 weeks for a follow-up appointment.”
“The doctor did say it was a bad break, dear. Maybe they think you need more time in the cast than 6 weeks.”
“They should bloody well write and tell me so then, shouldn’t they? And my headache’s getting worse. I don’t trust these damn tablets.”
“You must take them anyway, dear. Doctor Leseter knows what he’s talking about.” She said, laying out two blue tablets next to his side plate.
He grumbled and thumped his way, awkward crutches flailing, to the kitchen table and sat himself down. Mrs. Potts emptied the last of the home-made soup from the tupperware container into a pan and heated it slowly, staring out the window as she stirred. The only figures on the common at this time of day were the young twins of the Johnson family. Mrs. Potts was prepared to swear that the mother had as much hold over her young boys as she did over her daughter. One o’clock was the time to be indoors, sat a luncheon. All the closed front doors and vacant pavements attested to that. Of course, the door of that awful mini-supermarket was always stood wide open. She was pleased to see it looked next to empty.
She ignored the continued grumbling of her husband over his bank statement which he’d awkwardly retrieved from the floor and whilst he was preoccupied with it shook some extra pepper in his soup from the pepper pot right at the back of the cupboard, behind the cereal, hoping it would stop him stomping about all afternoon and messing up the house.
She was glad to get back into the quiet and the comforting scents of the shop after lunch, leaving Mr. Potts snoring heavily in an armchair. The next batch of rolls was ready to be put out on the shelves and the brownies were done to perfection. She flipped the sign back to open and soon a smart girl in sensible shoes and a nice overcoat came in, greeting Mrs. Potts pleasantly.
“Sarah, how nice to see you.”
“A white loaf please, Mrs. Potts. And four white rolls too, please.”
“Right away, Sarah. I am glad you still favour my little offerings to those which are stocked at the Mini-Mart.”
“There’s no substitute for fresh bread, Mrs. Potts. It’s only a pity you’re not open Sundays. But I suppose that’s the only day your husband gets you all to himself, I can’t begrudge him that.”
Sarah smiled again and Mrs. Potts nodded and turned away to fetch the bread. “And how is your fine husband, Sarah? Settling in alright at the dairy?”
“Oh, not bad.”
Mrs. Potts turned to her, showing conern on her face. “Oh Sarah, you sound worried. Is Maximilian not happy there?”
“He probably would be, if he was there, Mrs. Potts…” Sarah was picking at her fingernails. Her one bad habit. Mrs. Potts tried to put it aside considering it could be the symptom of internal stress.
“Has something happened, Sarah?” Mrs. Potts said, in her most comforting and sympathetic tone of voice. She wondered if she should feel a twinge of guilt as her face hardened a second and she swollowed, clearly fighting to put on a brave face.
“He got a phone call from the dairy this afternoon. They’ve laid him off.”
“No, surely not!”
Sarah nodded, still picking at her fingernails and not looking up. “I’m afraid so. Apparently he’s been getting complaints. Missing orders or getting them wrong. The Smith sisters alone have put in 3 complaints in the last month.”
“But whatever’s been happening? He’s such a concientios worker.”
“That’s what I thought too. He’s even mentioned he tries to pop in here at least once a week to double check with you that no one’s changed their orders. Apparently people sometimes mention it to you if they can’t get hold of the dairy?”
“That’s right, I try to help where I can.”
“Then I don’t know what to believe. He promised me…” Sarah was quiet for a moment and Mrs. Potts stood still, holding the bag of rolls.
“Chin up, Sarah,” said Mrs. Potts brightly. “Look…just wait here a moment.” Mrs. Potts popped out to the kitchen again and retireved one of fresh steak pies she had put to one side. “Here, she said, coming back out into the shop. “For his tea, to cheer him up. And you be sure to cheer up too, Sarah. Maybe this will work out the better for both of you.”
Sarah looked up. Her eyes were a little red. She managed a small smile and as the bakery door shut behind her Mrs. Potts felt a smile of her own spread across her face. She watched Sarah cross the road as she wiped down the counter, and saw her stop to someone on the other pavement. It took her a moment to recognise Constable Barnes as he was stood slightly behind the postbox and Mrs. Potts was a little diturbed tor reliases she hadn’t noticed he’d been stood there. She carried on wiping the counter but noted Sarah and the constable talk together for some moments, her talking and him nodding. She saw him give her a comforting pat on the arm and then they parted. Mrs. Potts turned away, pretended to rearrange some loves on the shelf behind her and heard the shop door open behind her. She pasted on her smile and turned to greet Constable Barnes, pleased with how easily she looked him in the eye.
“Good morning, Constable. Are feeling peckish? I have got a fresh patch of pies just about ready, I know steak is your favourite.”
“Please, call me Simon, Mrs. Potts. And, no, no pie thank you, Mrs. Potts, not whilst I’m on duty.” his smile was easy and his manner relaxed but she noted how his eyes roamed the store, taking in every detail. She liked the village having a diligent police officer in it’s midst. In this strange and modern world she thought it woeful but necessary to the smooth running of village life, but still thought it a trifle unnecessary and even slightly insulting when he came to her shop when on duty and therefore clearly not in the capacity of a customer.
“What can I do for you then, Simon?” She tried to say his name easily, even though thinking it slightly inapprorproate.
“Just calling in to see how business is doing, Mrs. Potts. I like to know how the village is doing.”
“Admirable,” she said, smiling. “On both your attitide and my business state, thank you for asking Simon.”
“You get quite a lot of the village in here, don’t you, Mrs. Potts?”
“I’d say so,” she said, pretending to think. “A fair portion. I also get people from town and people passing through. I like to think I have a bit of a reputation.”
“I assure you, you do,” he said, still smiling. His gaze was now sweeping the cake and puddings counter. “No custard slices today?”
She swallowed. “Not today, no, I’m afriad. I make the custard from scratch, as you know, and used the last eggs for the fiary cakes.”
“Ah, pity. They are onje of my favourites, was thinking about picking one up on my way home later.”
“I’ll be making more on Monday, I’m sure.”
“Oh good,” he said. “I may pop by then.” He touched his cap, (such old-fashioned and disarming manners, she thought), bid her good day and left and she went to the kitchen to sit down to try to calm the heavy thudding of her heart.
Mrs. Potts checked that the shop door was locked properly before flipping the sign and lowering the blinds at 4:30pm. Muffled thuds from upstairs announced that Mr. Potts had come around and would be wanting dinner but she retreated to the bakery kitchen and washed and cleaned and tidied thoroughly before thinking about having to return to the dingy flat. When every surface, pan, mixer and utensil was gleaming and tidied away, she retrieved the now empty vanilla essence bottle from the back of the cupboard and returned upstairs, overall pleased with the day.
She lay awake for some time in bed, record book propped up on her knee as she added new entries to the pages concerning Sarah, Maxamillian and, of course, the most scribbled-on part of the book, the Johnsons. She had five short years left before retirement and was determined to have the village in perfect shape to receive her golden years, but there was still so much to do. She started writing out the next stages of her various plans, trying to think what supplies she would need to accomplish it. If she hadn’t had a reply to her letter by the end of next week she would have to be more insistent.
She hesitated before turning to one of the last pages in her book. There was very little written on it apart from Constable Simon Barnes’s name. She always found it hard to write on this page, however necessary she told herslfeit was to keep it up-to-date. She took a deep breath and wrote a quick account of what had happened that afternoon and then, in tiny writing and in brackets, the word ‘threat’ with a large question mark. She tapped her pen against her lips, listening to the grating snores once again issuing from the room across the hall, before locking away the account book and turning off the light.