"Once or Twice Upon a Time" is a home for stories longer than is usual for blogposts. Some have been previously published in hardback. These are indicated (p) along with the year of publication. Word counts (2500 etc) let you estimate how long a read will take.

July 27, 2012


(1600 words)    

    Paul Theroux tells how while waiting for the Staten Island ferry he caught sight of a girl, for an instant only till she was lost amongst the boarding commuters – and though they did not speak, though she did not see him, he never forgot her. Thereafter, unbidden, his mind’s eye would catch sight of her, the turn of her head, swing of her hair or skirt, her blue windcheater.  Reading Theroux, did I think that I – anybody - would carry such snatched visions through life? That someone you saw once, briefly, could become your unquiet ghost? I wouldn’t have thought so. Till Gabrielle. I fared better than Theroux. I learned her name. I spoke to her. Gabrielle spoke to me.

    “I’m looking for a disc drive for my better half’s Christmas. To back up her laptop,” this to the sales assistant who approached with the usual greeting - “Can I help you?” as I entered the computer store. Some people have a presence that puts you at ease at once. She seemed demure but sparky and she didn’t shy from eye contact.
    “They’re over here,” she said, an invitation to follow her and I wondered if she’d ever danced, I mean with commitment  - ballet, jive, tap, ballroom, whatever - for the dancer showed in the grace of her walk, the straight back, fluid hips and . . and . . thinking “I’m old enough to be her Granddad, never mind her Dad.”  She laid aside the tablet computer she carried and slid open the glass front of a display cabinet. Her hair was taken up in a french pleat, a style you don’t see much in young women these days. I imagined it shaken loose falling about her shoulders in dark ropes, and she sitting brushing it with that look of complicity that women keep for their mirrors.

    She put a boxed hard-drive on a counter. Her nails were varnished blue, a near match for the sweatshirt tops all the staff wore.
    “This is the one I use myself. This is the one we recommend,” she said, not in the least discomfited by a customer who now needed to root through pockets for reading glasses to study the specification on the smooth white box. And to read the name on her ID tag. She saw this and held it up - to me or to my glasses. I said, “Gabrielle. That’s lovely. Lovely name. Lovely word.  And everyone calls you Gabby?”
    She showed no surprise. “Everyone. My colleagues, friends, family.”
    “You shouldn’t let them. Gabby – that’s the Old Timer in a Hollywood western.”
    This made her smile. “With a battered hat. And whiskers.” She put a hand to her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . .”  I’m a greybeard, literally.
    “And a corn-cob pipe,” I said and to cover her embarrassment, picked up the box. “If you use this one I guess it will suit me too. Now, Gabrielle – point me to the sales desk.”
    “No need.  I do it all right here.”  She picked up her tablet computer. “Wireless linked on our local network . .”
    “Clever stuff.”
    “Saves you standing in line at the sales desk. I just need your name.”
    “I’m on your database, I expect.”  I told her my name.
    “That’s a nice name. It means ‘Stern King.’”
    I made a questioning face.
    “I was doing modern languages. At the Univeristy.” But she stopped, rolled the tablet screen, with a swipe of slender fingers. Why ‘was’ wasn’t disclosed. “Here you are,” she said.  She showed me the screen. “You bought . .”
    “A laptop. Just last Christmas.  My wife uses it all the time. Now she wants to upgrade the operating system . .”
    “So she’ll archive her files and apps first. Very wise.”
    “Mostly pics of the granddaughters. She has dozens. I tell a lie. She has hundreds.”
    “How old are they?” she said. She entered the disc’s details by swiping the barcode on the box over her screen.
    “Four and a half. Twins. Here.” From my notecase I took the small picture I keep of them, in stripey tops and plaits, grinning for the camera.
    She took it, looked at it carefully.  “They’re not alike, though.”
    “They’re the other sort. Fraternal twins. I’m keeping you.”
    “We’re not busy just now. And we have to wait till your invoice prints. It’s wireless linked too. They’ll soon be starting school. They’re so cute. What are they called?”
    I told her, adding “I don’t know what’s happened to the Marys and Dorothys and Joans.  Now it’s all Kylie and Charlize . . .”
    “And Gabrielles,” she said, emphasizing each syllable. She had finished entering data.
    “Do I feel I’m being got at?” I said.
    She looked at me square. “They have nice names. I bet . .”
    “You bet?”
    “I shouldn’t . .”
    “Shouldn’t bet or shouldn’t say?”
    “I just thought, I bet you’re a lovely Granddad,” lowering her gaze, then “Oh! Now I am really out of order.”
    I said, “No, Gabrielle. You say what you think. Thank you. They’re just little kids. Watching kids grow, helping them learn, is just magic. One day you’ll know.”
    What happened next both surprised and touched me. 
    “May I keep this?” She still held the photo. “They’re both so lucky. They’ve each a sister. I’m an only.”
    I began “That’s . .” and was going to say ‘sad’ or something equally fatuous and unhelpful, when she said “I always feel as if I’m looking for someone.” She put the photo on the counter between us, slid it toward me. I could easily print off another, and when I said “Sure. You keep it,” she turned her face away and then from under the counter a printer rolled out a sheet which she took and handed to me, the moment over.
    “Are you paying cash of card? I’m afraid we don’t do cheques anymore.” But her eyes were still moist.
    I got out my credit card. She pushed a card reader across the counter.
    “More wireless linking?” I said to her smile, brave again, thinking ‘There’s a wound here I mustn’t rub salt into?’ I’m a twin myself but I didn’t tell her this.
    “I just need your PIN number.”
    And so we completed the purchase. She put the box into a drawstring bag with the store’s brilliant logo, the bitten apple.
    “I hope your wife likes it.”
    “If she doesn’t she gets a good thrashing.”  She knew I was joking.  “Well, thanks for your help. And please . . don’t let them call you Gabby any more, Gabrielle.”
     Just as I was thinking ‘I’ll never see this lovely person again’ she came closer and she held out both her hands towards me and though she said nothing, her body language was pleading “Hold me. Please.” So I did. So she did, in an each-in-the others’ arms clasp that was just more than just a hug, that lasted just long enough for me to feel her relax against me as if her body was saying “Thank you.” But not because I’d added a disc drive to her sales inventory; more for a hurt comforted; for the hug from a sister or brother she never knew, a salve for her aloneness. We drew apart, both saying at the same moment “You take care,” and All the Best and the other small seasonal things you say at Christmas time while we each held the others’ hands a moment more.

    I left the store, walked up Buchanan Street to the concert hall – the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall, let’s so honour this unimposing building squashed between two malls - and sat in the excellent cafeteria with a pensioner’s elevenses, a pot of tea for one and a slice of caramel shortcake, and wondered what would become of her, of her dreams and hopes, her triumphs and disasters. Which would turn to puffs of smoke, which return to haunt her, to break her heart or carry her to the heights?  And whether any of them or anyone – any one, would fill the void where her siblings might have been?

    I watch my granddaughters romping together on the lawn. I read them stories and help them read for themselves, till they don’t need their Granddad for that anymore, and from the wings Gabrielle says “Well done.” Or one of them runs to me asking “Mum says do you want a cuppa, Granddad? And sponge cake. It’s got butter cream and raspberry jam,” when she trips and goes down in a heap and the ghost at my side says “Here, love. Let me hold you.” Is this how it was for Paul Theroux?

    Then one day, sprawled with the “Herald” and bored enough to be reading the Intimations, I was startled by - “To Gabrielle and Howard M -, a son. Mother and baby are just fine.” There’s the name of the maternity unit, the d.o.b., their child’s name, the same as mine. The same as mine?  And you’d like to think, you’d like to think, wouldn’t you, well . . wouldn’t you?  I don’t know this Howard. Never met him and never will, yet find myself saying to him, “H. my friend, be whatever – her partner, friend, helpmate, lover. But above all when you hold each other, you and your Gabrielle - be advised, mate. Be her brother.”


  1. What a finely crafted story. And as an only child I think I can say you have that only-lonely wistful feeling spot on.

  2. As my brother emigrated to New Zealand over thirty years ago, and I never had a sister, I too would heartily endorse the need for a proxy sibling. Every girl should have one...


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