Helen read at Story Shop 2014, the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust’s daily showcase at the Edinburgh International Book Festival of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today. You can read the story she read on Tue 19th August 2014 below.
Helen Foster studied Drama and English in London many years ago. She took up a short-lived career in advertising before moving to Edinburgh, on a whim, to work in the heritage sector. She is still here nearly twenty years later with a brief interlude which saw her return to her native East Midlands to teach in secondary education. She has studied creative writing with the Open University and Newcastle University. Helen turns to the past and people’s memories and interpretations of it for inspiration.
The Short Story she read on the day
a short story by Helen Foster
An airless summer evening. The Moon is coming up. I’m lying flat on my back in the waist-high grass on The Flash, a patch of scrubby common land, a big empty place where we like to play. A button’s missing from my shorts. My tee-shirt’s ripped. And I only have one flip-flop on. Carol was chasing me and I tripped and my flip-flop flew right off and she snatched it out of the air. She held it high above my head and I couldn’t reach it. She’s much taller than me, the lanky cow. And now she’s run off with it and she thinks it’s funny. I’ve been hiding here for ages and I want to go home.
The Moon is coming up. And I want to go home. I sense the grass moving just yards away. Carol is circling, waiting for me to show myself, prowling round and round, round and round. And I am lying flat on my back watching an aeroplane sliding by thousands of feet above me. It’s scratching a thin white line into the blue.
Suddenly something with spikes and stings hits me full in the face. I sit up sharply, biting the inside of my cheek. A garland of knotted-up twigs and leaves, sticky willie and nettles. I can smell diesel and dog muck. I can hear giggling. My face is on fire, my mouth filled with metal and salt. My throat’s tight but I can still shout. Lanky Cow. And then I hear a booming, a deep and distant voice. It’s Carol’s Mum. She’s calling for Carol across the fields, calling for her to come home. I count backwards from twenty and then scramble up and break through the grass. I reach the strip of asphalt that runs through The Flash, crumbles to gravel and then to dust and I’m running. Rubber sole then bare skin, rubber sole, bare skin, kicking up clouds. Carol’s nowhere to be seen. She’s just left footprints behind in the dust. And one abandoned flip-flop.
Carol meets me on The Flash. She’s late, a tangle of limbs and effusive apologies. She puts her long arms around me and squeezes. She still towers over me. She’s tottering in heels tonight. So good to see you. A wide smile and smokey breath. Small, even teeth, ever so slightly yellow. Last fag ever. Promise. She says this with crossed fingers and lights one up. She’s nervous and excited. We walk to the pub together, catching up on the years we’ve missed. Carol’s doing well. She’s always wanted to be an air-hostess and it suits her. She’s been all over the place. She still lives nearby. Still within shouting distance of the old lady. She chuckles and does an impression of her mother’s brass trumpet of a voice. I tell her that I’m still renting a broom-cupboard in a scruffy suburb in the capital, still temping, looking for that break. Just home for the holidays. We relax over cider and crisps and reminisce about being teenagers together, stealing cigarettes, underage drinking, home perms, fancying the same boys and falling out about it. And back further. Paddling in the river, croggies on our bikes, climbing the trees on the reccy, and the smell of the long grass on The Flash. And that time I nicked your flip-flop. Lanky Cow.
Hours later, as the old year ends, we stand barefoot on The Flash. We cheer, throw our shoes in the air, hug, and make our resolutions. We’ll not leave it so long next time.
Carol’s mum told Julie’s Nan, in confidence. Julie’s Nan let it slip to the mobile hairdresser, who does all the ladies in the sheltered housing on London Road. One of them got talking to the warden. The warden told the man who cuts the grass for the council about it. (I went to school with him.) He told his wife. (I went to school with her, too.) And she got talking about it over a pub-lunch with the girls after boxercise. My sister was one of the girls. She phoned me one evening and asked me in a hushed voice if I’d heard about Carol. That the prognosis wasn’t good. I bought a card for Carol and wrote a long note inside it. But I never sent it. It didn’t seem enough to make up for the years that we’d let go by since we’d last seen each other. I decided to visit instead, during the holidays. I arrived two days too late.
After Carol’s funeral I walk to The Flash. Since I was here last, it seems to have been commandeered as a driveway to a new housing development beyond the trees. All tidied up. Neatly cut grass. The crumbled asphalt has been tarmaced over. There are raised beds of manicured plants. There’s still a tangle of greenery around the edges, overgrown hedgerows. I gather bits of sticks and stalks of cow parsley and make a garland, weave in dandelions and wrap sticky willie around it all. And then I throw it up into the air and watch it fall back down to Earth as the engines of a plane coming in to land crack the silence. It’s getting dark now. A thousand pin-pricks begin to fill the sky. The Moon’s coming out. A veil of cloud dims it slightly, but it’s still there. Time to go. My new shoes are pinching me and so I slip them off. I think I can almost hear Carol’s Mum’s voice, bellowing over the fields, calling her daughter home. I take one last look over my shoulder before I walk away. But there’s nothing behind me, just the feint echo of my bare feet pattering on the freshly tarmaced path.
(c) Helen Foster, 2014
Other places to find her stories
Helen Foster has recently had a piece of short fiction published by Mslexia magazine.