Short lived, p.1
Short Lived, p.1Shortlived
A selection of short stories for the everyday.
By Jenny Lippmann and Victoria Hunter
Copyright © 2013 Jenny Lippmann and Victoria Hunter
All rights reserved.
What people are saying…
‘Short Lived, much loved.’
‘I adore this book, a delightfully crafted gathering of short stories which drew me in with their tales of love, loss, lollipops and legend.’
‘Imaginative and magical.’
‘…the authors have created a set of stories that stir the heart and mind, make you smile and shed a tear but above all else, these tales give us hope.’
Mr Clarence’s Hot Chocolate Varieties
It’s Just the House Settling
Lollipops from Wonderland
The Stone Fox
The Penny and the Biscuit Tin
See No Evil, Hear No Evil
The Hidden Dove on Hood Street
Jessica’s Wise and Future Self
The Literary Vision
Ace and Noah
Self-Portrait ,in Charcoal and Tears
Mr Clarence’s Hot Chocolate Varieties
Just focus on the coffee; things can only get better...
The main road has been gritted, but the narrow pavements here are ankle-deep in sugar-white snow. For a tempting moment, I consider sprinting down the road, shouting and waving like a bad imitation of It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m so desperate for a hot drink that the endless white stretch is conjuring up steamed latte milk before my eyes.
It’s been the morning from hell. For the first time in my career to date, I’m actually glad to escape the confines of the library, fully resigned to a caffeine and yoghurt lunch – mainly because I can’t afford the current commercial price of a cheese toastie, but yet similarly can’t stand to sit for an hour in the library staff room, where a bitter silence is festering.
I’ll take hunger over Carl’s mutely glaring negativity any day - and considering I just suffered through a particularly intense hour of it, the gnawing pain of my stomach eating itself right now feels almost friendly by comparison.
Don’t believe me? Okay, let me recap.
‘We need a winter holiday activity session for the kids.’ New, young and the only librarian, I’d looked around at the group enthusiastically. ‘Any ideas?’
‘Get an author in?’ Maggie suggested.
‘Too expensive.’ Carl fired back, immediately.
‘Read and review contest?’ Susie looked hopeful. The laser-eye shifted to her, witheringly.
‘We need them to come in and read first.’
‘Okay then,’ I spoke up, loudly, trying to cover Susie’s humiliation. ‘How about –’
Carl cut me off with thirty years of well-crafted disdain. ‘We must remain conscious of budget cuts. It must be suitable. And we must consider staffing levels.’
I stared around the table at all ten of us in disbelief. Sometimes, I swear, it’s like he desperately wants us to fail; a bureaucratic puppet counting off the days to retirement... And he's particularly out to destroy me at the same time. I realise that sounds dramatic, but it's true - like I said, I'm new; I'm young and I'm the only officially qualified librarian of the group... Oh, and I also don't really play by the very-tightly-restrictive rules.
Yeah, that may have something to do with it.
But the way I see it, we need people to come in and keep our library open at any cost. So we need to keep up with the times; sadly Carl and his fellow managerial bureaucrats are practically coated with dust as they slump in their office chairs, scared to even speak to a member of the public in case it means they have to actually do their jobs.
And yes, I realise how harsh that sounds, but trust me, you have to see this level of insane bureaucracy to believe it. Add to that the fact that, despite my best efforts, any attempt on my part to do my own job and draw people into the library keeps being shot down in a burst of violent flame, you can see why I've become so caffeine dependent. It's exhausting having ridiculous, non-existent flaws picked on in all your innovative ideas - not to mention thoroughly depressing, because at the end of it all, if I don't get people to come in, it's my head that will be rolling...
Unfair? Yes. Hence my irritation at the aforementioned dire staff meeting, where yet another soul-destroying, idea-bashing humiliation was taking place.
'Perhaps we could do something science-based? That's very popular at the moment - Brian Cox and all that?' Isobel caught my eye rather than Carl's, which I appreciated; it was a good idea, I could already see ways we could run with it...
'Absolutely, that would be brilliant. We could use bits of scrap coloured paper and all that glitter lying around from the summer, get the kids to make our own display of the solar system to go up on the boards...'
'Yeah,' Isobel agreed, picking up the pace, 'The Sun right through to Pluto!'
'Isobel,' Carl's tone was withering - the cringing crash-and-burn moment was imminent. 'Pluto is not a planet.'
When the metaphorical bell rang, I fled.
It can only get better – come what may, you still have your love of books – and chocolate...
Kicking my way through flurried drifts, I’m finally at the coffee shop and its solid warmth greets me like a long-lost friend; my winter triumvirate of hat, scarf and mittens will soon be abandoned, replaced with the glowing, bitter kick of beautiful, steaming coffee... I step towards the counter –
And realise that there’s something wrong. There's barely more than two people in here. Anywhere else, on a snowy, almost Arctic day, that might be normal. But here there’s only one high street coffee shop and I’m standing in it. Jeff Wayne’s Musical War of the Worlds could be happening outside, Martians blasting houses and Richard Burton rumbling in the background – the locals would still be crammed in here, queuing for their lattes.
The teenager behind the counter is as twitchy as a cornered gazelle.
‘I’m-sorry-but-the-coffee-machine-is-completely-broken-today,’ He bursts it out in one breath and steps back. I wonder how many other pent-up caffeine dependents have railed at him so far today. Not that I want to rail at him. No, I just want to crawl across the counter and bawl into his shoulder how much I need a warm, artificially stimulated drink to help ease my defeat and nurse my courage. I’ll even eat the beans raw if I have to.
Somehow, though, I manage to restrain myself.
‘Sounds like your morning has been as good as mine.’ I muster up a reassuring smile; not just for his benefit, but my own too. I need to make sure Carl hasn’t destroyed it.
‘We can still do smoothies,’ He offers. I don’t need to raise a sceptical eyebrow towards the sub-zero temperatures outside the window for him to see how inappropriate this suggestion is. He rapidly clears his throat. ‘Or hot chocolate?’
It’s a universal paradox that, unless you have a fantastic cafetière, coffee is usually better when someone else prepares it for you – yet with hot chocolate, the opposite applies. Bitter cocoa, stove-warmed milk, a couple of marshmallows... None of this over-sweetened, whipped-cream, commercial nonsense.
But I’m cold, tired and grateful to be out.
Five minutes later, I’m languishing at one end of a booth, a steaming frothy mug warming my palms. I’ve fi
Oh good God, I’m done for.
My guardian angel must be on strike.
I take a consoling sip of hot chocolate; the warmth of it pierces my tongue, a rippling, tangy, creamy delectation that flushes my cheeks instantly. I can’t stop myself wincing at the first burst of sweetness in the aftertaste though.
‘Not enough cocoa these days, right?’
The voice comes from the other end of the booth – an older man, taking a break from his newspaper to watch me. Probably wondering at a fellow stalwart’s motivation to brave the freezing weather for something that isn’t even caffeinated. I smile and shrug: the accepted British response.
‘You know, its original popularity as a drink was precisely because there was no sugar involved.’ I raise an eyebrow at his persistence, but he's beaming at me, nodding affirmatively. ‘The Mayans even used chillies to add more tang!’
Another smile is rigid on my lips - but his enthusiasm is slightly infectious. If he were younger, I’d be flattered at the conversation; it’d be like one of those ‘meet-cutes’ in the movies. Sadly for me, he’s at least three times my age – albeit kind-eyed and distinguished.
‘Oh, are you a historian?’
Just can’t help myself, can I? As if I don’t already live enough lunches in mortal dread of one of the many library stalkers accosting me... Another universal paradox, the curse of the public servant: you can never lose face in front of anyone.
The man beams another amused smile at my question; there's something slightly knowing flickering beneath that grin.
‘I guess I’m more a humanitarian. Or just Earnest. Earnest Clarence. No,’ He continues, ‘hot chocolate has never been the same since the introduction of the sugar base. You know, Jane Austen’s contemporaries would have sipped it at breakfast each morning; no wonder they wore dresses with no waistlines.’
He winks at me jovially and, surprisingly, I'm smiling back.
‘But of course, the bitterness is the real joy of the drink – a creamy flood that lingers at the back of the throat, with an aftertaste to make your cheeks curl. Like Edmund Pevensie drank. As I’m sure you know, C. S. Lewis spent many iced winters like this in Oxford.’ He gestured vaguely at the window. ‘What better drink for frozen Narnia? And so Edmund is served hot chocolate and – ’
‘Turkish Delight,’ I finish. Mr Clarence has certainly piqued my interest, even if the prolonged conversation is slightly surreal. I begin to wonder if he’s recognised me from the library, hence the literary-themed references.
Or perhaps he just really loves hot chocolate.
His crinkled eyes fall on my notebook. I'm something of a doodler when bored, or frustrated; I decorated this myself a couple of weeks ago, after a particularly irritating session trying to convince Carl of the success we could achieve by booking a guest speaker on F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Guess how that one worked out?) It's covered with sketches of Matilda, the BFG, Charlie...
Seeing Charlie now, clutching his golden ticket, Clarence’s whole expression lights up.
‘A Roald Dahl fan! You know, he really knew about chocolate. He grew up beside a chocolate factory, just like the Buckets.’
Okay – interesting, but enough now. This is growing beyond odd and a lunch break is, well, a break. I'm happy to talk about books at work; in fact, it's my favourite thing. But, nice as he seems, there's a time and a place - and it's not now. Plus there's still the riddle of the winter activity to solve...
If I'm forced into failing on this one, checkmated by Carl's stubborn bureaucracy, my job is really going to begin to suffer.
So I pointedly pull my notebook towards me, and Mr Clarence seems to get the message. As I pick up my pen and reach for my unsuspectingly-controversial drink, though, I can't help but catch his final remark, full of velvety warmth and rich as the chocolate brimming my lips.
‘Dahl understood the potential of chocolate, you know – because if there’s one thing kids know better than books, it’s their chocolate.’
I almost drop my mug as his words register fully.
It’s perfect! This stranger’s anecdotes have handed me everything I need on a silver platter – how did I not see it before? Suddenly, forgetting everything else, my notebook is open and I'm scribbling wildly, ideas seeping through my bones.
A completely chocolate themed event! Because what more do you want at Christmas, but chocolate and warmth and all the childlike excitement for the snow outside that comes with it... I could find more literary hot cocoa anecdotes, like Mr Clarence’s; we could read extracts about Willy Wonka’s factory - no cost there: we have the book, we're a flipping library! We could create our own chocolate waterfall for the display boards with discarded wrappers - again, no cost there; maybe even get the kids to invent their own hot chocolate recipe - all they'd need is a pen and paper...
Oh yes. I defy Carl to find fault with this one – cheap, bookish, fun... My pen trips over itself in excitement.
With every sweet, sweet sip of my drink, more ideas bubble.
Then the door clatters and I jerk upright, snapping back to reality.
Earnest Clarence is gone from the booth – and I suddenly realise I never thanked him.
Thanked him? For what, I rationalise. He couldn’t have planned it, known what I needed – it was just a coincidence, the coffee machine breaking, me sitting beside a friendly chocolate fanatic...
I consider running after him – then rationalise again. Sprinting down the road through snowdrifts, yelling thanks to Clarence? I’ve been watching too many movies, reading too many books. This isn’t It’s A Wonderful Life...
But as I contemplate my steaming hot chocolate, well…
I can’t help but wonder.
It’s Just the House Settling
‘You forgot my ski poles.’
Boxes and boxes of memories surrounded them: overflowing with books or photo albums, bears that held too much sentimental value to be thrown, lamps with lopsided shades, chipped mugs, knick knacks…
Sarah scowled at him over the top of her steaming mug of tea, perched daintily on a less than dainty box marked ‘SHOES’.
Brian shot her a look in return.
‘We haven’t been skiing for years,’ he sipped at his tea wantonly and allowed a knowing grin to tug at the corners of his mouth. ‘You sprained your ankle on the beginner’s slope, remember? I spent the rest of the honeymoon nursing you with foot rubs and cups of hot chocolate.’
Sarah’s scowl softened, and she disguised her smile by angling her head so that a curtain of blond hair swept down.
She looked around at the chaos surrounding them. ‘We’ve got the boxes in, now it’s emptying them.’
The first wave of unpacking was a blur of complaints and bickering. The arranging of bathroom mats and shampoos came with ‘we had more space in the old house’. Setting out the kitchen table and all its chairs were met with ‘You were supposed to fix the leg on this one.’ Pushing the bed into place evoked complaints about its decorative pillows.
The brief brightness of the honeymoon memory faded, and soon, even a cup of tea wasn’t enough. Sarah and Brian lay down at nine pm, tuckered out from their day of travelling, of moving to the modern house on the hip edge of the city. Brian set his alarm for an early start, and rolled onto his side.
Sarah sighed audibly, staring at the glass of water on her bedside table. She couldn’t close her eyes; new house, and all that.
There was a beat.
The water shuddered.
Sarah shifted, frowning slightly. It could have been a trick of the light, or the way the moon beams fell through the windows.
‘Just the house se
The next evening, amongst the clutter, Brian spied a box of ‘old’ photographs forgotten and bent, always put aside for albums that had yet to be bought. He took up a handful and looked at photo after photo, mostly from the wedding. That first dance to the cheesy title track to ‘Mannequin’, taken straight out of the eighties and dropped haphazardly into a wedding in 2010. Sarah had grinned all over her face, having let Brian choose the music because she loved him that much. They’d swayed and held one another – even as the heel of Sarah’s shoe snapped and sent her careering forward. Brian had of course caught her, managing to pass it off as a romantic dip.
They didn’t smile like that nearly as often as they should.
Brian made the decision to temporarily place the photos in the basement – because they would see them again, wouldn’t they? – And he abandoned them there without word, pulling at his collar as he left the oddly humid basement to return upstairs.
They had finally managed to move in a sofa, where Sarah had already planted herself. Brian took a place at the other end, the two of them distanced, still sitting in a war zone of random items kicked up by the whirl wind of the move. The ski poles almost pointedly lay in the middle of the floor, amongst the clutter.
Watching a television programme proved a difficulty, fifteen minutes in. Soaps were matched with ‘Olympic Football’ and in between that, ‘necessary’ trips to the gym were implied, along with a snide mention of ‘that bloke’ Sarah worked with who was supposedly ‘giving her the eye’.
Short Lived by Shortlived / History & Fiction have rating 2.7 out of 5 / Based on16 votes