Mike was the fourth reader at Story Shop 2015, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

His appearance was on Tue 18th August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.

Based in Edinburgh, Mike has written novels and picture books for children including Grimm and Thistle Sands, and enjoys writing very short stories on Twitter @writerblighter. You can find out more about him at mikenicholson.co.uk

You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
 

 

Daily Male
a short story by Mike Nicholson

She noticed him struggling and wondered if she should help. She knew that no-one would watch, but everyone would notice. It was the way of the underground train.

He was seated only two feet away from her across the aisle, moving slightly as she was with the rhythm of the train as it pressed on through the tight tunnels.

She could always justify helping him as some kind of act of citizenship. It didn’t have to mean that she was making a move on him or anything like that. But no, she knew that it would be too risky to intervene. His reaction was too unpredictable. Down here it just wasn’t the done thing.

He tried again. This time he started with both ends of the tie the same length, and when he was finished ended up with the upper part much shorter than the lower one.

She concluded that he was someone who didn’t wear a tie too often, and that even today he had left it until as late as he could before he tied the knot. He must have a meeting close by wherever he was planning to get off the train.

No wedding ring. She always found herself checking that automatically, before ticking herself off for doing so.

She speculated that a wife might have made sure that his tie was in order before he left the house – she would have done that, she thought proudly – she was traditional in that way.

She would also have wiped away the smear of shaving cream that was lurking under his left ear, and had a quick, efficient attempt at removing the tiny bloodstain from his collar. He’d have got annoyed at the fuss, but she would have won the day. He needed someone like her she decided happily.

She continued to gaze at him. This time he had cracked it. The tie was the right length and although it wasn’t the best knot, it would do. Symmetry wasn’t everything. He ran his finger under his collar, uneasy with the unfamiliar restriction. She was still tempted to reach out and make a tiny adjustment, not for any reasons of precision but just to have that momentary touch.

She fell for someone every day on this train, always pondering on how she might make that initial contact, but never doing so.

‘Going for an interview?’

‘Did you get 10 across? I got a bit stuck.’

‘I’ve read that book – the language is wonderful isn’t it?’

Innocent enough questions but the law of the underground stated that to ask them you must be starting to pull off some scam, or be mad enough to flout the ‘no speaking’ rule.

Since the last stop, people were now standing in the aisle blocking her view of him, and swaying with the movement of the train. But she could still glimpse him between laptop bags and newspapers.

He was looking at some sort of document, an annual report perhaps. He was flicking through it, not really reading it but perhaps just keeping himself fresh with what he had read before.

If he had been with her, she thought, she would have quizzed him on it last night as they sat in their dressing gowns, their wine glasses empty. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be brilliant,’ she would have said. He would have been anxious and she would have calmed him down.

She would have seen him off this morning, and then she would have waited for his call after the interview.

‘Hi, it’s me.’

‘How did it go?’

She might have met him afterwards, buying him a book on the way that she’d heard him speak of. ‘To celebrate if you get it, and commiserate if you don’t.’ He’d have smiled at the unnecessary gift, touched that he had someone who listened to him and remembered. She knew how to do this stuff.

She watched the windows behind his head change from tunnel black to a fuzz of heads on a platform, and the train came to a hissing rattling halt. He was caught out, realising almost too late that it was his stop. He stuffed the papers hurriedly into a folder as the doors opened. This was her stop too – she might even see where it was that he was heading for.

She watched him on the escalator, moving his head to give his neck freedom from his top-buttoned collar. She whispered, ‘It’s OK you’ve got time,’ as he checked his watch.

She was just behind him at the exit barriers struggling slightly to keep up as they emerged out of the pallid light of the underground and into the colours of the real world.

He had his phone out and was checking a map. She shook her head sadly. She would have looked at it with him last night – that way he would have known which way to turn. He checked a street name, glanced at his phone again and strode off. She watched him go, knowing that it was now over.

She smiled and breathed deeply, taking in the crisp morning air and clearing away the last of the Tube’s staleness. She flicked a strand of lank unwashed hair from her mouth and gripped all eight of her carrier bags more tightly. Turning away and limping slightly in her uneven shoes, she headed for the square where she knew that the pigeons would be waiting for her.

Tomorrow would bring someone else for her. It always did.

(c) Mike Nicholson, 2015

 

Picking Apples With My Father
a short story by Mike Nicholson

It was a fixture like Christmas Day. You couldn’t imagine a year being the same without it. As the summer came to an end and the garden became older and damper, the weekend would be nominated. The crop was judged to be ready, or perhaps there was a concern that a strong early autumn wind would spoil things; either way there was a chosen Saturday. It was time to pick the apples.

Christmas came with its own trappings and traditions; simple annual preparations. December’s cold earth packed into the green container to support our tree. The cardboard box of decorations bound by string, brought down from the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard; objects ignored for months finding their once-a-year meaning.

Apple picking had its equivalents and you Dad were quietly in charge of proceedings, flat-capped, garden-booted and quite possibly wearing a shirt and tie. I’d wait impatiently as you went through the annual motions. Slatted dusty boxes extracted from the stick shed, piled high in the wheelbarrow and carted across the road to the back garden. There they were turned upside down and slapped hard to send the spiders scuttling, before being lined with the recent weeks’ newspapers.

The other tools of the trade were unearthed and systematically set out by the garden bench, like equipment for a hospital operation. The long handled pruner, the yellow bucket and the S-shaped hook; I would hold this piece of bent metal and clutch my cuff at the same time, pretending to be hook-handed while the final preparations were made. The extending ladder, pulled out from its resting place alongside the brick wall and the yellowing heap of summer grass cuttings. It was given a test run – one ladder pushed through the grooves of the other with a strangely acceptable metallic scrape.

Everything was in place. The work could begin and I could be unleashed – finally given permission to climb.

There were two trees but only one accommodated small boys. The one with the cooking apples obliged with a perfectly positioned step of a low branch; an easy way in and up. From various vantage points I could fill a bucket or toss the apples down, where your safe hands brushed them round and round and placed them gently in a box. As I worked I could sneak a look into the neighbour’s garden somehow justified in doing so from my important position of lofty employment.

Once the climbing had achieved all that it could, the ladder was pressed into action. You’d carefully choose the best location for a safe footing, push the inner ladder up to the right point and crunch the whole length of it through the smaller twigs high up in the tree before it came to rest. Then you’d lean onto it, bouncing on the bottom rung to check there was enough support from the branches about to be breached.

Armed with the bucket and hook I’d start to climb, up, up and up again reaching all that I could on each step of the way. I’d fill the bucket and then descend partway to pass it back. You’d carefully remove the spoils, and the boxes covering the garden bench would slowly fill. I’d climb some more, and when everything I could stretch for had been picked, I’d go a final rung or two further, just because I could. By now I’d be squeezing under branches, leaf debris in my hair, dusty green marks on my clothes, and the ground and you at the base of the ladder mostly obscured by the canopy I had worked my way through. From the highest point my chin would then be level with the top of the tree, and I could see well over every garden wall, and all of the way up the road and beyond to Smart’s field with its greenhouses and horses.

“I think I can get one or two more,” I’d call down. That may or may not have been true. Sometimes I just wanted to pause, feeling some heady mix of doing an important job which only a lightweight boy could do, and of being up in the sky looking at a familiar yet unfamiliar world.

When that last climb was over, the ladder would come down. You would make it short again and lay it aside; its annual outing over in an hour.

Just when it seemed that everything was done, there was a coda to these afternoons, complete with its own excitement. Those apples which remained, might yet be captured. With the long handled pruner, you would stretch up hooking it over the twig end of an unsuspecting apple; one which thought it had escaped the trawl. A pull down on the yellow handle, and with a slicing slapping sound the blade chopped and the apple dropped. Sometimes there were false alarms; the noise and no movement as the wrong twig was targeted; the apple we were after momentarily reprieved. But with a good run we could fill another whole box as you cut, and I caught.

I would stand alongside you craning my neck, the sky suddenly too bright even on a dull day. I looked up fearing to blink as I waited for a hint of movement, hands poised and ready for the catch. At this age I fancied myself as a goalie. Realistically with the size of the apples and with your heritage, I was really in the slips waiting for a catch. When it worked it was a triumph, as my hands closed perfectly around the falling fruit. When it didn’t, the apples would smack on the path splitting juice, or dent and later bruise in the spotted pattern of a concrete slab.

When it was all over we’d look at the harvest; perhaps fifteen boxes of cookers and eaters of all shapes and sizes, greasy to touch in the way no shop-bought apple would be, and with a promise of weeks of crumbles and pies to come. Then everything would be packed away once more and the apple boxes stacked in the study bringing a pleasantly musty smell of a damp garden to that cold room.

Autumn no longer has that day at the heart of it. The cycle has stopped. The last apple picked, caught, stored, cooked and eaten.

I’d enjoy seeing those trees again, although they’d seem smaller now I’m sure. What I once saw as exciting branches to climb would no doubt be viewed differently through my adult eyes.

But I’d like to have that moment again; standing beside you, not much more than half your height. Looking up and assessing the situation. Perhaps as in the old days we would say little. We might only talk of what the crop was like and how we should tackle it – quietly comfortable alongside one another.

(c) Mike Nicholson, 2015