In the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am writing about how I got the idea for one of my short stories and promised that the story in question, Good at Saying Goodbye, would be on my blog.
So, here it is. And if you have taken the trouble to come here after reading my Idea Store column, then thank you very much.
If not, then I hope you too will enjoy the short story, which came about after I got chatting to a lady in a supermarket car park.
Good at Saying Goodbye
“Well, what do you think?” Paul asked.
Maria looked up from her magazine, her warm glow from fantasising over Triple Chocolate Mousse with Black Cherry Compote fading abruptly at the sight of her husband.
He was dressed in walking boots and waterproofs, with a bobble hat at least three sizes too small (which, she supposed, one of the kids must have left behind) perched on top of his head like a big red pimple.
And – this was what turned her warm glow to icy chill – he was holding her boots and waterproofs with the same self satisfied smirk the cat had when offering her a freshly caught mouse .
“Come on, love,” he said, in that bracing voice she’d come to dread. “It’s a lovely day. I thought we’d go up HenleyHill this morning and then have lunch out. What do you say?”
‘No’ was the first word that came to her mind, followed swiftly by ‘way’. But she settled for: “It’s cold, windy and they’re forecasting rain.”
“But we’ve got waterproofs. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Fun? Maria would have more fun filling in her tax return than struggling up those near vertical, scarily narrow paths that snaked up through the woods on Henley Hill, where partly exposed tree roots lurked ready to trip you up and bramble ropes swung menacingly from the trees’ branches, waiting for the chance to garrotte you.
And yes, if you survived all that, the view from the top probably was fantastic, but Maria would be too busy fighting for breath to notice or care.
It was all right for Paul. He was built – and acted – like a mountain goat, except for the hat, of course which, if he’d been a real goat he’d have eaten by now which would have been no bad thing.
“I’m not really in the mood,” she said.
“But a bit of fresh air will make you feel better.”
Maria was about to point out that a couple of hours on the sofa with her magazines and a bar or three of chocolate would make her feel better but he had That Look on his face again.
That Look had first appeared the day she’d had a funny turn in the undies section of Marks and Spencers. Her legs had, for no good reason, suddenly buckled under her and as she fell, she grabbed the nearest thing – a rack full of Special Offer knickers. The last thing she remembered before darkness and knickers overwhelmed her was how her mother used to tell her if she was going out to make sure she had clean underwear on, in case she had an accident and ended up in hospital.
Well, she didn’t end up in hospital – although she’d have been as well prepared, knicker-wise, as she’d ever be – but in the doctor’s surgery, where both he and Paul had That Look on their faces.
“You’ve had a wake up call which you’d do well to heed,” the doctor said before coming out with such a torrent of long, unfamiliar words that her eyes glazed over, while Paul was nodding vigorously. The only words she did catch, although she wished she hadn’t, were Late Onset Diabetes, diet and lifestyle changes.
“Are you still fostering?” the doctor asked.
“Just Jay and Bethany at the moment,” she said. “Three year old twins. I’ve been looking after them while their mum recovers from an operation but she’s back on her feet now so they’ll be going home any day now.”
“How many children have you fostered now? Or have you lost count?”
Lost count? She’d never do that because they all meant so much to her. Some, like little Jay and Bethany, only stayed for a couple of weeks while others were with her for years. She loved and remembered them all.
“Eighty-seven,” she said proudly. “It takes forever to write my Christmas cards.”
“I’m sure.” He flashed her a brief smile, then sent her world spinning out of kilter as he added: “You’ve done a great job but I strongly advise you call it a day now.”
She heard Paul’s sharp intake of breath, felt him lean across and take her hand in his as she stared blankly at the doctor across his desk.
“You mean – g-give up fostering all together? B-but I can’t do that.”
“And what would have happened if Paul hadn’t been with you and the children this morning when you blacked out?” he asked.
For once in her life, she didn’t respond with her usual breezy: “Oh, I’ll manage. I usually do.”
Two days later, Jay and Bethany went home to their mum, leaving Maria wandering forlornly through the empty rooms. She’d never known her house without children, at least not for the last twenty years. Twenty years of tears, tantrums and tussles as well as love, laughter and sheer unbounded joy.
It was what she did. Looking after children, caring for them, loving them. Watching so many of them grow from poor broken little people into happy, confident ones gave her a buzz like nothing else could. And she was good at it.
She was even good at saying goodbye, knowing she’d helped turn their lives around and that many of them would stay in touch. Knowing, too, there were always other children, waiting for the chance that she could give them.
‘But being good at saying goodbye isn’t really much to show for a lifetime’s work, is it?’ she thought with an uncharacteristic spurt of self pity. ‘When Paul retired recently, he left with a half decent pension and a set of golf clubs. But without children to look after, I’m not much good at anything, except perhaps cooking. My chocolate cake has coaxed many a withdrawn youngster out of their shell.’
“You know what the doctor said, love,”
Maria looked up sharply. She’d almost forgotten that Paul was still standing there, his waterproof rustling, his pimply hat pushed back even further where he’d been worriedly scratching his head. And she hated worrying him. She’d tried, really tried to follow the doctor’s advice. But it was difficult.
“Lose some weight and get plenty of exercise,” he’d said. “That will put you back on your feet.”
But the trouble was, without the children to run around after, picking up everything from stray socks to lost homework, her weight began to pile on, not come off. This, of course, wasn’t helped by the fact she was still doing the same amount of baking as always, only now there was only her and Paul to eat the cakes, pies and puddings she loved to cook. And now, Paul was even suggesting she gave that up.
He’d taken on the task of her ‘Lifestyle Change’ with the same single-minded zeal he’d approached his job. She’d become, she realised, his latest Project. Every week he’d come up with some new form of torture that he laughingly called exercise.
First there was golf. But she didn’t get past the first green and would be still there now, trying to get that silly little ball into that miniscule hole if the foursome behind hadn’t got impatient. Then there was swimming, but she hurt her back climbing down the steps into the pool. And as for getting on a bike again, the memory of that out of control, headlong rush into the hedge where she’d ended up face down in a patch of brambles still gave her nightmares.
Now he thought he was going to get her to go charging up Henley Hill with only the promise of a slimline tonic and a lettuce leaf at the end of it? In his dreams. She picked up her magazine, ready to return to the Triple Chocolate Mousse.
“My back still hurts from swimming and my bramble scratches are still pretty uncomfortable,” she said. “But you go ahead. I’ll be fine.”
But of course she was anything but fine, sitting sad and alone in the tidiest, the quietest and the emptiest of empty nests. An old fat mother hen with no chicks to fuss and cluck over. She missed the children so much it hurt and the realisation that there would be no more grieved her beyond belief.
Paul, desperately anxious to find something, anything, to help lift her out of her depression had even suggested she get a job to give herself something else to think about – but what could she do? What sort of jobs were there for people whose only skills were baking cakes, telling stories that would turn tears into laughter – and, oh yes, being good at saying goodbye.
Maria beamed with triumph as she stepped off the scales. A whole stone gone. But she didn’t need the scales to tell her she was losing weight – her clothes were doing that. Some of them were so loose she’d have to go and get some new ones. She hadn’t been back To Marks and Spencers since the knicker rack incident but she was fairly sure they wouldn’t recognise her.
She looked – and felt – better than she’d done for years and the doctor was as delighted as she was.
And it was all down to having young Ben in the house. As demanding and hard work as he was, she was loving every minute of it and was delighted the house was filled with laughter again. It had lost its unnatural tidiness too, as his toys were scattered about the place, just as she liked it.
He kept both her and Paul busy and she was so thankful to Paul for suggesting it.
“It’s ok. If it looks like being too much for you, I’ll help,” he’d said when at first she’d looked a bit unsure. “I’ll enjoy it. He’s such a lovely little chap, so bright and affectionate. Well? What do you think?”
What did she think? She thought having Ben was the best thing that had happened to her for ages. It had banished her depression and turned her life around in the best possible way. Since his arrival she’d been too busy to bake – and chocolate cake was bad for him anyway. She’d started walking more, too. At least twice a day, every day, whatever the weather. They’d even been up Henley Hill several times and although it still made her puff and pant, it was getting easier.
Paul was right about Ben being intelligent, too. He was as bright as a button and was learning every day, bless him. So, of course, was she.
Her initial doubts, when Paul had first suggested they become Puppy Walkers for the Guide Dogs for the Blind had long gone. And their first puppy, Ben, a beautiful golden labrador, was a delight.
There was just one slight problem looming on the horizon. In spite of what she’d told them, she wasn’t at all sure that, when the time came, she’d be any good at saying goodbye.
4 thoughts on “Short story. Good at Saying Goodbye.”
Delightful! And I love the twist at the end! (And can you actually walk up Henley Hill? i’d love to try it.)
Thanks for the comment Nikki. Glad you liked the story. I don’t think there is a footpath up Henley Hill but I have walked up there. The Henley Hill in the story was partly that one and partly on the farm in Crewkerne where I grew up.
I had no problem saying goodbye to my children when they moved out (except they keep coming back again – even after I downsized) but I’m not sure about saying goodby to my dogs. We did foster my stepson’s lab when he was in Afghanistan for 6 months and I’ve taken in my daughter’s dogs for longish periods, so maybe I can give them up, as long as I’m primed for it.)
Our writing group, the Whittlesey Wordsmiths (shameless plug) often use your story grid as prompts for our monthly stories. They were especially helpful through lockdown, when nobody could actually see what the dice had decreed, so we could choose which criteria we fancied.
Some of our ‘Throw of the Dice’ efforts have been included in the anthologies we’ve published and the one we’re puting together now.
thank you so much for your comments, Cathy. I’m so pleased your group finds my story grid useful. that’s really good to know.
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