"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.

May 26, 2013


 (2013.  1675 words)

  In the late afternoon of his wife's fiftieth birthday, Hamish Lancaster picked up their daughter Imogen from after-school hockey.  The teenager tugged the car door closed.  To be specific, she closed the passenger door of her father's Bentley, model - "Flying Spur", colour  - 'Scorched Earth', registration GO HL. The closing door made hardly a sound.  The car's interior was filled with the smell of leather upholstery. The dash and doors were furnished with much figured walnut. To Hamish Lancaster it was always "The Bentley", never "the car." To Imogen it was luxurious yet she did not like it. Her classmates said it was the kind of car that the top echelons of drug dealers swanned around in.
   She settled in her seat.
  "We won, Dad. I scored."
  "Fasten your seat belt, Imogen. And text Mummy that we're on our way."
   She clicked the buckle, then thumbed her mobile, "Hi Mum. Just leaving sports ground." Then she looked sideways at her father, who looked ahead, driving soundlessly out of the car park adjacent to the School's sports complex.  "I said I scored."
  "Yes. What have you got for Mummy?"
  She said "I acheived a goal. For the school."  'Achievement' was her father's favourite word.
  "Yes. I asked you a question, Imogen."
  She did not persist.  At home she would say "I scored a goal for you, Mum, for your birthday!" and her mother would hug her with words of praise. So - what could she say she had got for Mummy that would irritate Daddy? A kit for breeding tarantulas? A boxed set of every Doctor Who since the Year Dot? A one hundred pound voucher for Anne Summers? But Hamish Lancaster, a man with a plentiful moustache and sparse hair and a very expensive car, had a great many achievements to his name but little sense of humour. He would admonish her for the the vulgarity of these choices, but they would not amuse him.
  "Let's wait till we get home, Dad. Then it'll be a surprise for both of you."               
  "You know I don't like surprises, Imogen."
 "Any more than you like other people's achievements, even your daughter's?" Her father, negotiating a roundabout, said "Never distract a driver by talking on roundabouts, Imogen,"  so that she wondered if he had registered her comment let alone it's sarcasm.  She tried teasing again.
  "Dad - you tell me yours, and I'll tell you mine." She was poised between fourteen and fifteen, between girl and woman, and - though she did not yet know it - between love for and judgement of her parents. And she was beautiful the way ponies are beautiful, slender, glossy haired, long-limbed. Her mother saw this; her father would not regard mere beauty as much of an achievement, and said "I have bought Mummy a shrubbery fork."
  She did not speak for six beats, then she said, pausing on each word.  "A. Shrubbery. Fork?"
  "Yes. You know how Mummy loves the garden. What a grand job she makes of it. It's her great - "
  " - achievement?"
  "Exactly, Imogen. Her achievement. And her greatest pleasure - "
  " - really?" thinking "Better than sack-rolling with a balding Hamish?"
  "Yes. Look at the time she devotes to it. A shrubbery fork will take much of the effort out of clearing weeds. It's of stainless steel. With an ash shaft and handle. Not heavy at all. Just the tool for lady gardeners. Our couriers will have delivered it by now. I had it wrapped by Dispatch so the package looks nothing like a fork. To surprise her when she unwraps it . .  "
  She laid her hand on his arm. "Oh, Daddy!  How clever! So what does her not very heavy stainless steel ash handled shrubbery fork look like all wrapped up by Dispatch? A drum kit perhaps?  Or a weekend break in Florence or Budapest?"
  Now her father looked sideways at her. "What is your point, Imogen?"
  She had to deal with a knot of anger tightening her throat. "Nothing. I just thought Mummy might have appreciated something more unexpected. Unusual. You know - a birthday surprise. It's her big Five Zero after all."
  "She will appreciate my making her work in the garden easier. She will appreciate my thinking of her.  A drum kit! How very ridiculous. Can you see Mummy playing drums? And that's a ridiculous expression. Big Five Zero. No, Mummy will dote on her fork. Now she is settled in life, in her sixth decade, she doesn't need surprises. She has the garden.  She swims twice a week. She meets her friends for canasta, or lunch. She wouldn't want at her age to take trips to - where did you say? Florence? Budapest? Far too hot. And who would water her tomatoes?"
   She realised she was crying, looking out of the passenger window of her father's Bentley so he would not see her tears of rage, or despair.  Oh, Mummy, Mummy, don't you ever, ever complain? Are you so used to him you just don't notice anymore? 
  "Dad . . I think I'd like to walk the rest. We're nearly home. I can call at The Happyshop to get her a card. Mrs. Fairweather has nice cards."
  Without surprise he said, "Very well. My card was wrapped with the fork. We'll see you back at he house then."
   He pulled in, in front of the village shop and she got out and he drove off, so he did not hear her using the word she would never use in front of him, or her mother, as she stamped across the pavement.   "Jesus!  A fucking garden fork. What? Thirty quid? And how much did his fake Rolls fucking Royce cost?  A quarter fucking million and the rest." She went into the little shop.
   "Hello love. Your Mum was in earlier. She wanted some food colouring. For a cake."
   "Hi Mrs. Fairweather. Yeah.  It's her birthday. She's fifty. I forgot a card."
   "On the rack there, Imogen dear. Why, you've been crying?"
    She went to the display of cards, talking over her shoulder.
   "It's O.K.  I'm O.K now. Spat with Dad. Sort of."
   "I saw you stop outside. I thought, our Imogen looks real cross."
   "It's nothing. Just Dad."
   She took a card with a picture of a Happy Birthday Girl wearing pink spectacles shaped like goblets and the legend "My birthday drinking glasses."
   "So what will you give your Mum?  Or is it a secret?"
   "Not at all.  She's getting a stunt kite. You know - for acrobatics. It has two strings so you can make it swoop and soar. You need both hands to steer it. She's never had anything like that. She'll love it."
   "Does your Dad know?'
   "Not yet."
   "Bit straight laced, your Dad. That's ninety nine p, dear."
   She left the shop and walked the few minutes to the drive gates and more minutes to the house, wondering for whose sake her mother kept the house, kept the garden - which was a picture, yes, was a real achievement - and kept her silences while both of them, wife and daughter, listened to Hamish Lancaster droning through the catalogue of his achievements. These, she was old enough to understand, kept them in comfortable security, paid for her school, her flute lessons, a heated pool in the back garden, and so on and so on.  "Whoever would think," she mused, "that one solitary Hamish could end up with so much wonga just from printing and selling picture postcards."
    The Bentley was parked in front of the house. Hamish Lancaster had, she assumed, gone inside for the front door was closed. She was coming up the curving drive when her mother appeared from round the side of the house and pointed a set of keys at the car. The flashers and beeps and clicks announced the car had unlocked itself. This was odd. Her mother rarely drove.  She stepped out of sight behind a rhododendron.  Her mother opened not the driver's door but the rear door, driver's side. And now she saw that her mother was carrying a shrubbery fork - the shrubbery fork? - the tines gleaming. But she was gripping it half way along the shaft, her hand clenched in a fist round the wood, holding it like a spear, a four pronged trident.  Standing outside the open rear door, her mother took the shaft in both hands and drove the tines of the fork into the back of the leather seat, and wrenched it out and drove it in again, into the seat this time, not making a sound herself but the sound of puncturing leather was so rewarding that Imogen sat on the grass and began to laugh, while her mother methodically savaged the seats, and the arm-rest between the seats, and the head restraints behind the seats. Then she moved to the other side of the car so that now she could see her mother's face grimly smiling.  And Imogen, fourteen going on suddenly grown up, whispered "She using both hands! Like she'll  need for the kite! Give it some wellie, Mum," and watched in fascination as the desecration continued.
   Her mother came finally to the driver's door and wrenched it open. She changed her grip on the fork and with her hands higher than her head, drove the tines into the leather where Hamish Lancaster sat when driving, so that Imogen winced and said "Ouch! Right where is hurts most." Then, passion spent, her mother abandoned her assault with the fork sticking out of Hamish Lancaster's seat where it rocked to and fro for a moment before coming gently to rest, handle against the steering wheel, while Mrs. Hamish Lancaster walked round the car, not hurrying, peering in through the doors, one by one, surveying all that her Big Five Zero had achieved.