My name is Madeline and I am an aspiring fiction writer, based in London. I am currently working on a first novel, and I have also written...read more a collection of short stories, two of which have been published in online magazines. My real love of writing began in 2009 when I completed a creative writing workshop at Central St Martins, London and from there became part of a writing enterprise which included a number of students from the creative writing workshop.
When I am not writing or working or running after my two young children, I am either scribbling away in a cafe, or buried in a book.
I very much hope that you will enjoy reading my story
Thank you in advance for your kind consideration
With best wishes
A man stood at the edge of a large, shallow artificial pond. Something caught his eye, an object bobbing on the otherwise smooth surface of the water. For a moment, dazzled by the reflection of the early morning sun, he thought that he was looking at a branch that had fallen into the pond, but there were no trees around the pond’s edge, only paving stones. Curiosity drove the man to walk along the edge of the pond towards it. When he reached the object, his heart froze inside his chest, and his head spun as a powerful force sucked the oxygen from his blood cells. A body lay face down in the water, the head floating on a nucleus of plum-coloured blood that faded out from the body into a grisly watercolour of reds and browns. It was a man, fully dressed and as he stared he saw an object glinting at the end of the sleeve of the body’s right hand. He ran to a phone box and dialled 999.
Marco’s nostrils dilated at the strong aroma of shellfish as he cycled up the hill on the fishmonger’s bicycle, pedalling hard against a stubborn wind that fought back at him. He thought of the packages he was to deliver that morning, lobsters and oysters to the wealthy houses, and of how the butlers who answered the door to him never gave him so much as a shilling, even though he always made sure to smile and tip the straw boater he despised so much when they opened the door to him. When the last package had been handed over, Marco cycled back to the fishmongers to collect the orders for his afternoon deliveries. They were for the smaller houses. The people who lived in them always tipped him, even though Marco knew they could hardly afford it.
Mr Stone looked up from the counter.
“Took your time, didn’t you?”
“There’s a pretty strong wind this morning, Mr Stone. It wasn’t easy cycling up the hill. I almost got blown over.”
Mr Stone tutted.
“Young people like you shouldn’t get tired. I never did at your age.” He lifted his left arm, and glanced at the metal hook that replaced his hand. “Back before I had the accident, I was down at the public baths ploughing up and down every Saturday before work. I was a fast swimmer.” Marco watched as a brief look of melancholy drifted over Mr Stone’s face. “Before this.”
Marco didn’t tell Mr stone that he also swam up and down swimming pools on his weekends, and that he was awarded the school swimming champion’s badge year after year.
The bell tinkled as a customer walked in. Mr Stone shook his head, as if to dismiss the thoughts that had made his face change.
“Hello Mrs Greenstreet, what can I do for you?”
“Morning Mr Stone, I’d like some cod, please.”
“You’re in luck, got this in this morning. Fresh off the boat.” Mr Stone reached down to lift some off the blanket of crushed ice underneath the counter, flicking decorative pieces of sliced lemon aside with his hook as he did so. He plunged the sharp instrument into the white fish with a meaty sounding squidge and held it up. “Look at this Mrs Greenstreet. You won’t find fresher anywhere else.”
Marco walked past Mr Stone to the office at the back of the shop as Mr Stone weighed the fish. Mrs Stone sat behind a desk, filling in a ledger with slow deliberate handwriting. She was a bygone relic of the Victorian stiffness she’d grown up in, one she hadn’t purged from her life even by the time she’d reached her late 70’s. She wore leg of mutton blouses, fastened all the way up to her chin with seed pearl buttons and long grey skirts that hid her lace up boots completely when she stood. Her hair was always heaped up and neatly pinned. If she went out she wore a hat, even when it was warm.
“I’ve finished the deliveries.”
Mrs Stone raised a school ma’am hand to silence him as she continued writing figures in violet ink.
“Shush. Don’t interrupt Marco. I’ll make a mistake.”
Marco sat down on a wooden stool near the desk, and rolled his eyes up to heaven. “There. All done. Now what was it you wanted to say?”
“I’ve finished the deliveries.”
“Run along then, dear.”
“I need the parcels for the other houses.”
“Hasn’t Mr Stone laid them out yet? I wrapped them all up for him.”
“I couldn’t see them”
“Not in their usual place?”
Mrs Stone tutted, got up from her desk and walked to the counter.
Marco listened as Mrs Stone gently chastised her husband. He thought back to his own parents when he was a child in Cape Town. How his mother used to gently needle away at his father, slowly winding him up into a tight ball of rage until the pressure gave way and he shouted at her, of how when he was young, the arguments would send Marco running from the room to the comfort of his nursery and into the doughy arms of his nanny. Marco took out the parcels of cod and haddock that Mrs Stone had wrapped. The fish that the people in the terraced houses ordered.
Once Marco had finished the afternoon deliveries, he helped Mr Stone refrigerate the unsold fish, and scrub the counter and floors before the shop was closed for the day. He went home on the bicycle, left it by the side of the house and went upstairs to the top floor flat he shared with his mother. Music and a smell of overcooked vegetables floated down from their front door. Fred Astaire’s syrupy: “Isn’t It a Lovely Day To Be Caught in the Rain” played scratchily on the gramophone. One of his mother’s favourite songs. Marco hated its frothy insignificance. It made him angry, angry with his mother for yanking him out of the life he loved and dragging him to England. He hated living in her dream world of denial.
“Is that you Marco?”
Marco closed the front door, and walked inside, hoping for the peace and quiet of his own room. His mother walked out into the corridor in mint green satin pyjamas and a bed jacket printed with pink roses. A vision of 40’s film glamour, decorated in lipstick and diamonds that she had refused to sell even when they barely had enough money to pay the rent. The 1950’s were too uncouth for her. She existed in her black and white film set, even though it was a cramped two bedroom flat they lived in with a tin bath which had to be dragged from the corridor into the kitchen, and filled with saucepans of hot water.
“How was your day?”
Marco handed his mother the money he’d made that morning. He watched her ruby nails close on it.
“Thank you. Such a good boy. I’ll make us both a cup of tea.”
Marco went into his room and lay down on his bed, listening to the sound of water going into the kettle over the whimsical tap dancy music his mother was now singing along to in the kitchen. He covered his ears with his hands.
Marco stood on the rock, and looked out at the horizon, at the sun bouncing off the strip of blue ribbon that cut a precise line between the sea and sky. He lifted his arms above his head and took a deep breath, pulling as much air into his chest as he could, pressing the soles of his feet against the seaweed-covered rock to steady himself before he launched himself off it. When his body sliced into the water in a perfect streamline, he swam deeper underwater until his eardrums sang. He kicked his legs, propelling himself back up towards the surface. Marco rubbed saltwater from his eyes, treading water for a moment before he swam again, ducking and diving through the waves in a steady front crawl. Afterwards, he lay on a towel on the beach, a hot wind turning the salt on his skin into a layer of icing sugar.
“Marco? Wake up dear. Supper’s ready.”
He was jolted out of his dream by the sharp trill of his mother’s voice. The sound of her words sucked the sound of the ocean from his ears, replacing it with broken glass. Marco felt as though he was being pulled off the honeyed beach he had been lying on, before being dumped as if by a huge wave back into the grey stillness of his room. He turned over on his bed and faced the wall. He pretended to be asleep when his mother came back to ruffle his black hair. The homesickness in his chest made him wince at the thought of supper, especially if Fred Astaire was going to be joining them.
Marco looked at the empty chair at the head of the table as his mother spooned mushy spinach onto his plate, picturing his father and uncles filling the dining room back at home with comic book anecdotes. Stories that Marco asked for again and again because they made him laugh until the tears rolled down his cheeks. At bedtime, Marco’s father always said the same thing:
“Give me a kiss, boychik.”
“Come on dear, help yourself.” Marco’s mother pushed a dish on the table towards him.
Marco swallowed hard on the lump in his throat as his mother delicately scooped mashed potatoes onto the tip of her fork . Big boys didn’t cry. That’s what his father had said at the dock as he handed Marco his suitcase and told him to look after his mother because life in England would be harder than it was in South Africa. Marco had stood on the deck as the Union Castle liner heaved away from the port, a rainbow of streamers from all the decks flying on the wind, and watched his father, waving at him as the ship moved out towards the open sea, until he became nothing more than a tiny chess piece. Marco stayed on the deck for most of the two- week long voyage, impassively watching the sea change its colour from the turquoise and midnight blue he knew so well to pond water grey as the liner ploughed through cold seas until it reached Southampton. Marco’s mother lay on her bunk in their cabin for most of the journey, green with sea sickness and complaining of how she wasn’t able to use any of the shimmering evening dresses that she had packed for her nights in the ballroom.
“I’m not hungry.”
School hours evaporated like sand through an hourglass. Marco toyed with his slide rule, knowing that the sums were easy. He was good with numbers. He just didn’t care. He looked out of the classroom window, up at the sky and the saucepan lid of cloud that covered it. He jumped as a sharp pain shot across his forehead.
Marco rubbed the skin that the piece of chalk had hit. His teacher, Mr Wilkins, beetroot red, glared at him. “Pay attention! Stop dreaming your life away, boy.”
Marco stiffened with rage, and imagined standing on his rock, watching Mr Wilkins being devoured by a Great White, his body vanishing below the surface as the huge fish pulled him under. The shark’s rows of razor teeth would do considerably more damage than the pieces of chalk that Mr Wilkins threw at people in the classroom. Marco laughed silently to himself. When he was home, his mother greeted him with a bright lipsticked smile.
“I’ve got some good news, dear.”
“What is it? “
“I’ve got a job at the International Telephone Exchange. Isn’t that wonderful?”
An image of his mother sitting in front of a huge switchboard trying to remember which of the lines she was meant to be connecting flashed through his mind. Marco thought back to the time he sat with his father and uncles on a velvet evening. Marco was in his usual place next to his father, listening to the night insects as they chirruped inside their ebony amphitheatre, lit up by neon Fireflies.
“She’s the most impractical woman I’ve ever met! Do you remember the emerald? Silly goose left it on that train from Kimberley.”
Marco laughed at the emerald story. At the one about his mother, spending all the money his father had carefully hidden inside her jewellery case, for one of their long journeys, on an Elizabeth Arden facial because the sun was playing havoc with her skin. One of his uncles lifted his glass and took a mouthful. Marco watched as he held the brandy in his mouth for a few seconds, his throat moving as he swallowed it down. Marco’s father talked about the time his mother had fed Marco pureed spinach when he was only a few months old, that had put him in hospital with a terrible stomach upset because she didn’t have a clue about weaning. About the time Marco had screamed for hours, flailing his chubby limbs in his cot, until his father went to him and found bloodstains on his white vest.
“She had accidentally pinned the boy’s nappy to his little belly. Can you believe it?”
Everyone at the table said that it was so lucky that his father was there. They all lifted their glasses, their laughter drowning out the sound of the crickets.
“To our Marco!”
“I’ll be able to use my French. I start on Monday.”
“Yes, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? Then you’ll be able to keep some of your wages for yourself, once your mother starts earning a crust. I’m quite nervous actually, I haven’t ever really worked. All my time was spent looking after you.”
Marco felt a wave of frustration at his mother’s ability to believe her own falsehoods. His mother had nannies to help her from the day he was born. She paraded him like a trophy once he had been bathed and powdered to perfection by his nurse, carefully dressed in thin cotton sailor suits. “You were such a beautiful baby, dear.” She smiled, sparkles of pride brightening her sapphire eyes. She stood up and cleared away the plates. “Shame you haven’t eaten your first course. Still never mind, I’ve made a trifle. Your favourite.”
Marco looked at the glass dish clumsily layered with sponge, jam and whipped cream under a blanket of chopped nuts.
“Would you mind if I went to bed?”
Before he got into bed, Marco rummaged in his pockets for the coins he saved for the gas fire in his room. He put each one into the meter, and turned the dial until he heard a hiss of gas breathing life into the fireplace. Marco lit a match, and sat watching the flames until the chill in his hands and feet disappeared. He stayed sitting on the floor and basked in the pool of warmth, memories of the blankets of heat that surrounded him as a child, his mother sitting on the veranda sipping sundowners, fanning her face as the heat melted her make-up, her telling everyone how much she missed the green green grass of home.
“Goodness me, you’re early. One moment, I’ll be out in a minute.”
Mr Stone stood in the office behind the counter with his back to Marco. Mrs Stone was buttoning Mr Stone’s shirt and knotting his tie. Marco knew to look away, to leave them to their private moment of symbiosis. He went outside the shop and turned the metal handle to open the awnings. Something about their clean white and blue stripes made him think of the sails of the yacht his father took him on, how he taught Marco to hoist the main sail, the canvas flapping wildly against a crystal sky.
“Dear boy, you’ll freeze in that get up. You’re not in the colonies now. I do wish you’d get yourself something more suitable. It’s an English summer, after all.”
Marco felt embarrassed as Mrs Stone came outside with an umbrella, and looked dissaprovingly at Marco’s Khaki shorts and shirt. Marco didn’t tell Mrs Stone that they couldn’t afford it because his mother let money slip through her fingers like water, and that they would be eating bread and jam until Marco was paid his wages. “I’m just going to the bank, Marco. I’ve packaged up the fish for you. Lobster and oysters.”
Marco cycled back from the last address he’d delivered to. The lady of the house had taken the package of oysters from him, instead of a butler. She reminded him of his mother. Make- up perfect, hair coiffured, diamonds dripping from her earlobes. Marco felt sad as he looked at her, a smooth pearl framed by the oyster of her opulent house as he thought of his mother, the same Hollywood picture, but sitting at the table in their cramped kitchen and dreaming of her life as a young girl. She had met his father in Budapest when she visited with her parents. He had noticed her sitting on a velvet sofa in the hotel bar. As soon as she returned his admiring gaze and her eyes flashed violet blue at him, that was when their life of exuberance began. And then the rows started.
Between the arguments, they swam in a sea of champagne receptions and laughter. When it was broken and their marriage ended, washed up onto the rocks by a raging ocean of infidelities and arguments, his mother continued to dress the way she did in the 1940’s, when her life was good, as though she couldn’t quite leave the happier years behind her.
Marco waited for Mrs Stone to tally up his wages, hearing the slap of fish that hadn’t been sold, as Mr Stone lifted it into wooden boxes filled with ice. Mr Stone’s straw boater was hanging on a hook, his apron still on. As Marco left the shop, he saw Mrs Stone come out to the counter and untie Mr Stone’s apron strings. He felt a stirring, a faint tug of a heartstring as he thought of his mother alone, dependent upon him.
Marco’s mother put the envelope with Marco’s wages inside it into an old Evening in Paris perfume box. He used to sit at his mother’s dressing table as a child and play with the box, running his fingers along the smooth blue Bakelite, having imaginary conversations with the owl that decorated the box. “The switchboard was terribly busy, and my French is a bit rusty, but I managed. I won’t be paid until next week, though. I know I said that when I started working you could keep your wages for yourself, but I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind just for this week. It’s the rent, you see. But it’ll all be different once I get promoted. I might even get a real job as a translator.”
Marco’s mother waved her hand nonchalantly. We’ll be able to afford a bigger place in Hampstead, dear. Then you and I can go into town and go to the theatre, or to recitals. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Marco watched her as she floated away into her wonderland, knowing that she’d somehow fritter away his wages, and then wonder where the money had gone. He felt a twinge of annoyance. He had plans to go to the cinema with friends. He wouldn’t be able to pay for a cinema ticket.
He slept badly that night. His mother opened his bedroom door and brought in a cup of tea.
“I’m not feeling well, mum.” Marco thought of Mrs Stone’s concerned words.
“You’ll catch your death.”…… “Your mother should get you some long trousers.”…. “Summers here aren’t like the ones you grew up with.” His throat felt like broken glass when he swallowed, and his face felt hot, as though he’d spent too long on the beach back home.
Marco’s mother put a hand against his forehead. Her skin smelled of Gardenia. Marco closed his eyes, the scent transporting him back to the Gardenia blossoms in the garden, their perfume wafting through the windows of their house.
“Poor boy. You’re running a temperature. But we have to just grin and bear it, don’t we, dear. Work pays the bills, after all”
He took out a shoebox from underneath his bed after his mother had gone to her room with one of what she called her “slight migraines,” and flicked through photographs of himself as child. He read the letters his father wrote to him each month, telling how much he missed Marco and how he couldn’t wait for him to come out when school finished for the summer. After a long day’s work Marco pitched and rolled with a fever on the uncomfortable mattress. He thought he heard his father’s voice in the dark.
Marco put his pen down on the desk at the end of his final exam. Exhilaration coursed through his veins. Buds of summer burst open inside his chest, sunlight pushed open the doors and the windows of the stuffy examination room. He walked home, feeling as light on his feet as Fred Astaire. The flat was quiet and still. His mother was still out at work. Marco arranged the pink roses he’d bought for her in a crystal vase she’d packed into their suitcase when they left for England. She was so fond of the vase. She complained all the time about the basic functional china that they had in South Africa, how un-decorative and vulgar it was. The vase was her one piece of refinement. She had taken some of Marco’s clothes out of their suitcase to make room for it, including his one pair of warm trousers.
Marco sat on his bed and opened the envelope containing his passport and the plane ticket his father had sent him for his journey home in one week’s time. He closed it again with a smile and put it into a drawer. He lay back on his bed, feeling his tired limbs sink into the mattress. He sat up as the doorbell went, and looked out of his bedroom window onto the street below. His mother stood at the front door, looking up at him dolefully as Marco opened the window.
“I forgot my key.”
He followed her up the stairs to their flat, and looked at her dark hair. A strand of it had come loose where a pin had fallen out. They sat at the kitchen table, a silence thickening in the room.
“I lost my job. Well I didn’t lose it. I resigned. Someone was rude to me. I told him I wouldn’t be spoken to like that by anyone, and pulled the plug on the phone call. I simply won’t tolerate bad manners under any circumstances.”
“Look mum, I’m supposed to finish work next week, but I can change my ticket for later in the month and work until I leave. You won’t have to worry about the rent until I get back.”
“No dear. I wouldn’t hear of it. I’ll go and stay with Aunt Betty in Littlehampton. She won’t mind. I’ll manage somehow.” His mother forced a smile. “I wouldn’t want you ruining your summer holiday with your father, worrying about me.”
“Mr Stone! Mr Stone!” Marco shouted. Mrs Stone lay in the office, slumped on the floor, her head propped up by a leg of the desk. Her pen was still in her hand. Mr Stone rushed from the counter. His features turned to blue marble as he looked at his wife, at her usually poised stiff limbs blancmange-like on the floor. “Mr Stone! Don’t just stand there! Get an ambulance!”
Mr Stone stood still. The clock on Mrs Stone’s desk ticked softly. Marco got up and rushed to the phone, pushing Mr Stone to one side as a gentle murmur of voices inside the shop gave way to gasps and a babble of panic.
Mrs Stone was placed on a stretcher. Before she was carried out through the swarm of people that had formed on the pavement, Marco covered her face with the white sheet to hide her eyes from Mr Stone as he stood still motionless in the doorway of the shop, watching her being carried away from him. His eyes were wide open and expressionless, like those of a fish.
“Dear boy. Would you be so kind?”
Marco stopped sweeping away the crispy remains of the wreaths that had been left outside the shop by customers and fellow shopkeepers, and went inside the shop. “It’s just that I can’t…..” Mr Stone’s voice trailed off.
Marco knotted Mr Stone’s tie, and buttoned the cuffs of his shirt. He fed mother of pearl cufflinks through the pupil-like apertures on Mr Stone’s shirt cuffs.
“She gave them to me, you know. Anniversary gift. Fiddly to put on. She always did them, you know.”
Marco turned Mr Stone around and tied his apron strings. The black armband on Mr Stone’s arm had come loose. Marco carefully tied its strings again, before bending down to Mr Stone’s shoelaces. The new delivery boy arrived, flushed from pedalling up hills in the summer warmth. Marco handed him the fish parcels he had wrapped for the deliveries.
“Start with the houses down the hill. They always tip you.”
Mr Stone held up fish fillets with his hook to show to customers, acknowledging sympathetic words from them with little nods of his head. Marco went into the office and sat at the desk to fill in the order book. He lifted the blotter to clean the ink stains off the desk before he opened the ledger. Mrs Stone’s ink bottle grew larger in front of his eyes as he carefully picked up the pen that still lay on the floor. The bottle seemed to pulsate like a heart. Marco stared at it, imaginary hairline fractures appearing on the surface of the glass until the pressure of the ink inside opened the cracks wider, and the bottle finally split in two. As Marco saw the violet ink escape, he wondered what Mrs Stone had felt the moment her own heart stopped for good.
He went to the front of the shop. Mr Stone stood at the counter, his eyes fixed upon the black armband stark against his white shirtsleeve. Marco looked at the rows of fish, at the hundreds of pale eyes that gazed up at Mr Stone.
“It’ll be alright. When she comes. My sister. You know, to help out with everything once you’re gone. And with the writing and the orders. Mrs Stone always did all that. She was good at that. Never made a single mistake.”
Marco packed the unsold fish, and scrubbed down the counter.
“Is it ok if I go now, Mr Stone? My mother’s waiting.”
“Yes yes by all means. Here’s what I owe you for this week.”
Marco looked at the neat fold of notes Mr Stone handed him.
“But Mr Stone, I can’t. This is too much. You’ve overpaid me.”
“Nonsense dear boy. You more than deserve it. I’ll err... I’ll miss you this summer Marco. You’re a good worker.”
“Thank you Mr Stone. I’ll be able to start work here again at the beginning of September, when I’m back.”
“Not a bit. Now off you go and have some fun, boy. Good wishes for your trip.” Mr Stone looked at the clock. He had stopped it the day his wife died. “You know, I think I might close up early today.”
“You will come back won’t you?”
Marco looked up from a plate of lumpy mashed potatoes. His mother laughed. It sounded forced, unlike the ones she usually laughed when she was her normal optimistic self.
“Of course I will. I have to, don’t I? I’m back at school in September. And I’ll be back at Stone’s, wont I?”
“Pay attention to me, dear. I was being silly. It’s just that I know what a wonderful time you have with your father back in that place. With all that swimming and sailing, and what have you.”
“It was my home, mum.”
“I did try. You know. With your father. With life out there. He just couldn’t be faithful, you see. That ghastly heat, too. Unbearable.” His mother shuddered.
Anger swelled in Marco’s chest.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Marco swam underwater until he reached the other side of the public swimming pool, voices and the shriek of the lifeguards’ whistle ringing in his ears as he surfaced. He thought of the way the ocean lapped and sang at him softly as he swam in the bay. Warmth spread over him as he climbed the ladder at the pool’s edge, even though he was chilly from the water. He towelled himself dry in the changing room, thinking back to Mr Stone’s words. How Mr Stone used to plough up and down the pool before the hook replaced his hand. Marco did not know why, but he thought about Mr Stone until he got home.
When Marco opened the door, a pregnant silence made him close the door carefully. His mother came out of the kitchen.
“Oh Marco, it’s so terrible. Come in and sit down. I’ve made you a sweet tea.”
“What is? What’s happened?”
“He was found by someone. Face down in the pond.”
“Mr Stone, dear. Did something unspeakable to his throat. With that hook...” Her face went pale underneath blossom-coloured blusher. “Doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“He’s dead, isn’t he?”
“Yes Marco. I’m afraid he is. They say he couldn’t carry on without his wife. She did everything for him.”
Marco got up from the table and went into his room.
The jolt of the plane’s wheels hitting the runway travelled up Marco’s back from the base of his spine. He looked out of the aeroplane window. Excitement travelled into every nerve ending, Marco felt as though it were bursting out of his pores. A thermonuclear heat rushed through the plane as the doors were opened. Marco stood up, irritated by the family in front of him who were taking too long to gather their belongings. Mother fussed over the children, straightening their clothes and tightening up hair ribbons while her husband lifted cosmetic and jewellery cases, children’s teddy bears. Marco thought of his mother. Lipsticked and decorated on a train as it pushed its way through the drizzle on the line to Aunt Betty’s house by the sea.
Marco stepped onto the silver metal ladder, breathing in a familiar scent of tropical air and jet fuel. He squinted his eyes against the long lens heat haze, and climbed down the staircase, the steps clanking noisily under his feet. Marco saw the suited figure of his father standing on the tarmac a short distance away from him. His father was waving frantically, a jubilant smile on his face.