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Saturday, 29 September 2012

Sample Sunday September 30th

As we are just about to tip into October, and Hallowe'en time, something a little extra for the next month.

Efestival of Words is running a 'Trick or Treat' Hallowe'en Horror promotion, and my book of stories - Fragments - is being featured in the event.  For the entire month of October, Fragments will be discounted by 25%.  The code is over here.  There is also a 5000 word sample of 'The Fool' there for your delight and delectation.

You can also take part in the Horror Bingo event, with every filled card receiving a free copy of the horror anthology Return of the Dead Men (And Women) Walking.   One winner will also receive a free audio book of Julie Dawson's A Game of Blood.  And there is a book a day of Legendary Horrors to be won for people who comment.  All details on the Horror Bingo link above.

So, it's coming to a windy wet and chilly Winter here in Scotland.  Autumn has been skipped entirely.  It's very strange to have green leaves with just the faintest hint of yellow, and to be wearing a winter coat.  The berries and brambles are ripe, although very small and still a little sour.  The Bramley apples in the shop are huge and the Hallowe'en decorations are in the stores.  Yet every bone in my body tells me it's Winter.

So a winter tale for this week's sample Sunday.  From 'Sleet Dreams', in Fragments.  I'll do the entire short story over the next four weeks and try for a spooky new tale for the final sample Sunday, just before All Hallow's Eve itself!  


Sleet Dreams 

            Maggie O’Hara knew that it wasn’t hunger that made poverty so bad, it was cold.  Warm summer days and a gnawing stomach were bearable.  Freezing cold days with noodles in your stomach and no heating in your home was hell.  Rain dripping down your back and soaking into your clothes in the frigid wind at the bus stop, was hell.  Feet of ice that had given out all heat to the snow that had soaked into the holes in your shoes, was hell.
            Hell was cold, and that was all there was to it.
            Poverty was not being able to choose between food and heat, because there was no way you could heat a room in the winters that slammed into the city every year.  Not on her tiny pension, no matter how much she scrimped and saved.  Heating the room was just not an option: food could always be found.  Cat food was cheap: a stove to heat it on, much more expensive.  She’d never had to resort to cat food; a kettle of hot water on instant noodles was cheaper anyhow.  As were hot dogs, truth be told.  But she knew she could go there, if she had to.  She’d never been cold and hungry and made it a life’s ambition never to experience it.
            No, the trouble wasn’t food.  The trouble was heat.  Poverty was not enough heat.
            Like everyone else in her building, Maggie paid for central heat in her rent.  Like everyone else in her building, she got two hours at 6am and three hours at 6pm.  Just enough to keep you going, if you worked day time shifts and went to bed early.  Night workers, and retired people like her, either shivered in the cold, or bought their own electric heaters that ran off the meter in the wall, using up electricity credit at a frightful rate.  If you were, as the papers put it, on a limited income, you couldn’t afford heat.   She couldn’t even pee in comfort: the tiled closet that held a toilet, a sink and a shower cubicle, had no hope of staying heated from the towel warmer, which switched on and off when everything else did, although it was a useful airer of wet coats and clothes.
            The communal bath room she could use, if she fed the meter on the wall for lukewarm water, was too cold to use in cold weather.  By the time the tub was filled, the water was stone cold.  It was fine in the summer and autumn, but in winter and for most of spring, no one ever ran a bath.  Strip washes at the kitchen area sink were the best she could do once she couldn’t bear the cold in the shower.  And even that was fully clothed when the snow was on the ground.       
            She couldn’t even run the gas from the stove.  When Tony, the landlord, had inherited the run-down hovel from his grandfather, Guido, the rest of the family had laughed.  Tony had never settled into the family businesses and never would amount to much, everyone knew.  But he’d surprised them all.  He’d emptied the tenement of all the old tenants, and the drug labs and ‘special apartments’ rented by the hour.  He’d ripped out the aged, worn and dangerous gas piping, put in new central boilers and rewired the entire building up to slightly above code.  He’d had to go above code, as he’d stopped his grandfather’s payments to certain city officials.  He’d cut most of the apartments in half, creating two floors of ‘studio apartments’ like hers, on the top floors.  Below was two or three room apartments, depending on how he’d carved the old floor plans up.  But whilst he pushed as many people in as he could, he’d also put in good soundproofing and working plumbing. Every apartment got its own pay as you go electricity meter, the front and back doors got camera security and he banned naked bodies and flames in his building. He was sniffy about cigarettes, and non-smokers found it easier to get a lease and keep one.  A single cigarette burn on the fixture and fixings and you were gone.  Retired people were allowed one pet, but no one else. He re-tenanted the entire building within two weeks of opening back up, and there was never an apartment empty for two nights running.  No-one ever got more than a month behind on rent with a two month deposit.  He was making his investment back at a decent rate, in a decent way: no wonder the rest of his family couldn’t stand him and were furious Guido had left the building to him. His tenants would kill for Tony, which went a long way to keeping everything calm.  Maggie had seen mothers burst into tears and kiss his hand on moving in day, their babies no longer sharing their cribs with cockroaches.
            Tony supplied the tenants with three essential appliances, all electric.  A shower unit, a small instant water boiler that fed out over the kitchenette sink and a microwave: the tenant brought in everything else.  Tony had the wiring on the appliances checked every year and all the smoke detectors in the hallways worked.  You felt safe in Tony’s building.  You could go to him personally if there was a problem; he knew every one of his tenants by sight.  He often changed the light bulbs in the corridors himself, and many a potential tenant had lost the chance of a lease for not realizing the handyman showing them around was the owner.

            A microwave was fine for her sort of income, but it didn’t heat much otherwise.  Most of the other tenants had also bought plug-in electric grills, as well as stand alone electric heaters.  She couldn’t afford either; to buy or to run.  The meter that doled out electricity took enough cash off her as it was.  Middle of the nights were worse, the cold would disturb her sleep, pinging out through her aching joints, her hot water bottles having lost all their heat.  She’d twist, and turn, and try layers in this direction, layers in that; there just wasn’t enough of her to keep the bed snug and warm all through the night.  She often dreamed she still had Bertie, her old dog.  Now Bertie had been great at snuggling up and keeping her warm, much better than either of her husbands.  But Bertie was long gone, in the cold, cold ground.  So was husband number one, actually, but she didn’t mourn him.  She still carried the scar he’d given her when she’d miscarried their first, and only, child.  She’d been standing at the kitchen table, scrubbing carrots in a bowl of warm water; even then she’d hated cold hands.  He’d been sitting at the table, telling her flat out that the baby had died because she was a bad mother and not to think he’d spawn any more with her, if she was gonna push them out early and dead, in his bed.  He wasn’t that kind of fool, not when it was obvious she must have been whoring somewhere and another man’s prick had killed his son.
            She’d picked the bowl up and hurled it at his head.   It had hit square on and split in half, leaving a gash on him; the muddy water erupting like his rage.  She remembered slipping on the water as she danced around the kitchen trying to escape him and the paring knife she’d thrown at him. A slash to her inner arm, the tip of the blade taking the long way down as she twisted past it, had been deep enough to scar and to flood out enough blood to stop him in his tracks.  She often thought, as she looked at the thin line of white, that it had saved her life that day; that slash that never made it deep enough to bleed her out.  She should have left him then, but he’d been so contrite... Maggie shoved it away.
            No, like Bertie, Fred was long gone cold dead.  She’d stuck it out to the end, which hadn’t been long as cancer had taken him.  Left her with the scar, some aches in her heart about how you fall in love with a stranger, and a debt that would have crippled Jesus.  Cancer treatment had turned out to be more than the insurance, wasn’t that a pip?
            The phrase bounced around her head.  That had been Charlie’s best saying, a cheeky chappy smile, and his English accent, to charm the socks, and panties, off anyone.  Oh she’d fallen for Charlie, fallen hard.  And he’d been good to her.  He’d helped pay off the debts in return for his green card, had rented them a neat little house in the suburbs, and tried to put life in her belly.  But all the rubbing up heat he did with all the other pretty ladies robbed him of that vital spark, that’s what she reckoned.  Can’t stoke the fire at home, if you are layin’ kindling all around town.
            They broke up well enough.  She just couldn’t take an empty bed and an empty cradle.  He’d gone off to Southern California, where he’d settled down to a life of widows and gratified smiles.  Divorce papers had followed through a year or two later.  They exchanged a card every year until they each moved one time too many. 
            He’d gone where the ladies were and she’d gone where the work was.  Before she’d known it she’d drifted steadily north, into the cold zone.  At first she was glad, as summers were so much cooler and so much more bearable but she’d had younger bones and a good strong back to earn money with in any way she could.  Waitressing; maid; check out.  Did one summer as a short order cook, but didn’t like the heat, now wasn’t that a pip?  What she’d give now to be hot and sweaty all day long with as many greasy burgers as she could eat.
            But age had slowly wound down her life, and her job opportunities.  Minimum wage was for the young and strong, and she’d never settled on anything she could call ‘skilled’ labor, nothing that made still employing her worth anyone’s while: too many younger bones and strong backs to choose from.  So she slowly dropped down the scale... or up, rather, as each apartment got smaller and higher up.  Until here she was, on the fifth floor in a one room hideaway and a closet for a toilet.  Which would have been fine if she’d still been in the south: she didn’t need much.  Sure, the building was old but Tony had every corridor and stairwell checked weekly.  Tenants were sober and respectable and there were no vermin, either in the walls or the other rooms around her.  The basement boilers were lined with rat traps.  The corridors were filled with workers moving up and down all day, from one shift to the other.  The thick gates and bars kept out all but the most determined thief and nothing was ever allowed to molder.  No, she could be in a lot worse places, even if you did have to push past the drug dealers and the prostitute women and boys, in order to get up the steps. She’d waited damn near two years to get in, grateful the pay as you go meters meant she didn’t have to find a huge utility deposit with the two month’s rent up front: she’d just scraped in.
            She wasn’t so much proud of her little place, as settled in it.  Her treasures were safe here.  Her grandmother’s quilt: her mother’s porcelain figurines.  Her collection of commemorative plates of dog breeds: they hung safely on the walls, smiling down on her.  She was as reasonably sure as anyone could be that they’d still be there when she came back every time she nodded goodbye to them as she went out.  It was just the cold, the winter.  Winter and being poor were not good bedfellows.
            Literally, at times, as the cold made her homeless to all intents and purposes.  As the morning heat burst faded she’d be forced out onto the streets like those who didn’t have a home at all.  She’d found all the routes and tracks and tricks that her fellow travelers had evolved in their own survival and it provided her with a routine, a way to get through to summer; to when it was no longer cold.  A routine she needed to get up and onto if today was going to be a good day.  She took a deep breath and forced herself out from under the layers.
            The trick was to be clean, neat and respectable, without making it look like you had a coin in the world.  Shopping malls and libraries were good for a couple of hours but sitting down in malls for too long brought security, and sitting down for too long in libraries, brought aches and cold: libraries just weren’t that warm.  Not all day warm.  Having an address, and thus a library card, bought her a couple of hours a day with no problem.  Enough time to read through the newspapers and then move on.  Shopping malls were great for thawing out from moving about from one place to another.  But they required regular walking about and pretending to window shop, which was, in its own way, a pain in the butt.  Staring at everything you couldn’t ever afford soon lost its thrall.  Museums could shelter you for a time but they never warmed you through.  But she liked looking at paintings, that was sure.  She was always going to get a book about painters out of the library, so she understood what she was looking at, but she somehow never got round to it.  Romances and thrillers were her idea of a good read.
            Then there was a regular round of Goodwill and soup kitchens.  Hot soup and bread always sounded fine as the cold seeped into her bones and she was expert at slipping in and out of places without being noticed, but lukewarm grease water and stale bread made you so depressed it wasn’t always a good deal.  She used to help out at some of the shelters and so avoided them.  Some were too pushy in their salvation thumping and some had too low a clientele, lice being the least of the ‘extras’ on offer.  But there was a wide selection of decent ones throughout the city, and bus rides to and fro for a couple of square meals could be the answer to pouring rain.  She could also get tins of soup and beans and packets of dried noodles from the churches if she truly ran out.  She tried not to do that: there were people in worse shape than her that needed such, but hot food in the middle of the day was worth a lot when the snow was drifting.
            Her day was varied enough to keep her wits sharp at all times, and a balance between staying on the move and not spending more effort on getting warm and eating than she was getting back.  The nirvana moment was when she was tired, aching and still warm enough to believe life was worth living, and she had only half an hour or so to get back home in time for the heating being switched on.  That way, when she finally headed back, she was happy and grateful; longing to be in her own space, tucked up by a radiator, glowing in the transient warmth as she read books or watched TV.  Not cramped and bitter and moaning about her terrible lot in life and feeling sorry for herself.  Happy to have what she did have was a better option than dwelling on what she did not.  Her grandma had instilled that in her at an early age and she kept the lesson close to her: her Gran had lived through the depression unlike two of her siblings.
            So she was always striving to be happy and settled as she crawled into bed, holding onto the heat and not thinking about the radiators cooling down to stone cold dead, leaving her to fend for herself.  Some days it worked, some days it didn’t.  Days where she still dreaded going home even if she was cold or hungry, were bad days.  Days where she headed off home, grateful to her core that she wasn’t sleeping in a shelter or trying to garner enough dry cardboard boxes and a safer alleyway to sleep in, were good days.  Excellent days were reserved for summer.
            The weather changed the routine substantially.  There were ways to eke out her money by supplementing.  Dry days were best for that.  Trawling through dumpsters for items that could be sold, or eaten, was a useful addition.  You had to be careful though, to not make it too obvious and not to look too desperate.  And choose your dumpster route wisely.  Dumpsters held all manner of things: dirty needles, excrement (areas with a lot of young families were out), broken glass and dead animals.  Good food could be under rotten food, even at the market areas.  Dealing with smells and slime was crucial, and many a treasure had been left as to reclaim it would leave her looking too far down the pecking order.  Keeping clean cost money, and being clean was crucial if she was to keep all she did have.  There were also a fair amount of territory wars and some areas had to be checked out with one eye behind you.  She’d once been tipped head first into a sewer rat of a dumpster, for daring to ‘steal’ from someone who claimed to own the whole block.  She’d lain there in the stench and filth, whilst the person – she never knew if it was a man or a woman, just an aged bundle of screeching rags – had banged on the side and then weighted down the lid on her.  It had taken an hour of heaving, sweaty work to get out, and her clothes were in slimy rags by the time she’d managed to get the lid up enough to crawl out.  She’d had visions of her body being noticed at the dump, and the terror of a communal burial with the rest of the rubbish had finally been strong enough to propel her out.  She could see her dead fingers being gnawed by rats and her eyes... yes, fear had finally got that lid up and her out of her reluctant tomb.  Dumpsters could provide bounty but it wasn’t for the faint hearted or weak stomached.

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