An unsuccessful short story

I wrote this story back in the spring as an entry for the Yeovil Literary Prize and posted it on For the Fainthearted, my other blog. It is a story that was inspired by an old lady in our village who used to walk from her cottage to a house that had been bequeathed to her by a man who had died. Sadly, neither the cottage nor the house match the descriptions in the story, but I tried to imagine them as she would have seen them. 

Sunlight shone through a gap in the curtains. The sound of a tractor passing the cottage told Maggie that it was later than she thought. Her clock had stopped at some point and she had not replaced it. Normally waking at the same time each morning, Maggie had felt that a new battery for the clock was not necessary. The chimes from the church tower were enough to regulate the day.

In the kitchen, Maggie put the kettle on the stove and measured two spoons of tea leaves into the pot, “one for me and one for the pot,” she said to herself. The water boiled and she poured it on the leaves. “Leave the tea for five minutes, Maggie.”

Lifting a loaf from an enamel bread bin, she cut two slices and put them into a toaster. The toasted bread was spread the thickly with butter. Taking a jar from a cupboard, she spread marmalade on the slices. “Not too thick, Maggie.”

Lifting the kettle from the stove, she walked to the bathroom and poured the hot water into the sink. The bathroom was cold, it was always cold. The sun did not shine on that side of the house. “Hurry up, Maggie.”

There was the sound of a car passing by outside. Maggie washed quickly. The sound would be the teacher’s car and Maggie would usually have been leaving the house when the teacher passed by.

On days without rain, Maggie enjoyed the walk each morning. Putting on her green coat and outdoor shoes, she set off through the village. The post office had not yet opened. A neighbour stepped out of the village shop, “Morning, Maggie.”

Maggie smiled. Children on their way to school would soon appear. “Hello, Maggie” and “Good morning, Maggie,” were the usual greetings. Maggie did not know their names, but would smile back at them and wave.

“Don’t worry. I don’t mind being called, ‘Maggie.’” There had been some adults who had expressed concern at the children’s over familiarity. They thought it disrespectful for the children to treat Miss Appleyard as they did. Maggie had reassured those who were more formal in their ways. “I won’t be Miss Appleyard when I am married, then they would have to learn a new name. I’ll be Maggie for now.”

The church clock showed that it was quarter to nine as she passed. Maggie quickened her step, raising her hand to greet the children arriving at the village school. Hurrying meant Maggie was now no more than five minutes later than usual, but nevertheless she gently rebuked herself. “You are a sleepy head, Maggie. You are late today.”

His house came into view. At a crossroads, Maggie passed along one side of the garden before turning left at the cross and walking along the road to reach the front gate. Maggie called at his house each morning. When they were married, she would move here from her cottage.

A stone-flagged path led from the gate to the front door. Maggie took a key from her pocket and opened the heavy brown door.

“Morning,” she called out, “anyone home?” Picking up that morning’s bottle of milk from the step, Maggie stepped into the hallway and called out again, “Are you back?” There was no answer. He hadn’t arrived yesterday; perhaps he would be back today. She had not been certain about the date he was due to return.

Walking through to the kitchen, Maggie took a mop and bucket from a cupboard. The first duty every day was to wash the black and white tiles of the kitchen floor. Once the kitchen was clean, she would then begin the dusting and cleaning of the other rooms.

“Did you dust the tops of the picture frames, Maggie?” The morning chores were always satisfying. Maggie had particular days on which she did particular tasks. The brass fender around the fireplace would be burnished one day, the silver tea service polished on another, the glasses shone on a third. The routine had become firmly established in Maggie’s mind. “He likes everything looking nice.” Maggie would not be satisfied until everything looked as it should. It was important that he should be pleased when he got home.

“Time for a cup of tea, Maggie.” The church clock struck eleven and Maggie set down the cloth with which she had been cleaning windows. Pressing the switch on the electric kettle, she took a teapot from the dresser. When she moved here, she would bring her own teapot; it wouldn’t be polite to bring it into his kitchen before he came back. It would seem very forward, very presumptuous, to put her things into his house, there would be time enough when she was no longer Miss Appleyard. The tea made, Maggie sat at the table. A vase of bright flowers at the centre of the table pleased her; she had picked them from her garden yesterday.

The tea was finished as the quarter hour struck. Maggie washed the cup and saucer and put them back in the dresser. The tea leaves from the pot were emptied into a bucket. She would empty them around the roses. “Waste not, want not, Maggie.”

The second half of the morning would be spent in the garden. Maggie loved gardening, although thought his garden was very dull. He never allowed flower beds. He argued that, as he was frequently away, beds would become filled with weeds by the time that he returned. Maggie had not wished to disagree with him, but vowed that once she was in residence, there would be much more colour around the house.

Pushing the lawn mower across the lawn, the postman passed the gate. “Morning, Maggie,” he called. Maggie looked up and waved, half expecting the van to stop, half expecting a letter from him to say at what time he would be getting home.

Raking the grass, she made a mental list of what things she would do to change the garden. Roses had always seemed beautiful. He had sent her a dozen red roses once. She still had petals pressed between the pages of a book.

Lunchtime came quickly. Maggie boiled new potatoes and prepared a ham salad. The table was set with cutlery and a side plate. “Mind your manners, Maggie.”

The lunch things were washed and dried, each carefully returned to its correct place. She checked that the refrigerator had all he might need to make a meal. “I had better be going. I have a lot to do. I’ll be back first thing in the morning.”

Closing the front door, Maggie pushed hard against it to make sure it was firmly locked. She surveyed the garden contentedly. If he was home before it was dark, he would be pleased at how well the garden looked. It did look at its best at this time of the year. She would be able to tell him tomorrow what needed to be done.

Maggie walked back through the village. It would be another hour before the children came out of school. She would see them again in the morning. She would not believe the stories that people told her about young people: the children of the village had always made her happy, and she saw no reason why they would ever change.

Back in her cottage, Maggie hung up her green coat and took off her outdoor shoes. With her slippers on, she began her own housekeeping, tidying, cleaning, polishing.

Maggie allowed herself a cup of tea at four o’clock, again resuming her tasks when the quarter hour struck. At six o’clock, the work was complete. Maggie cooked dinner, happily reflecting on the day.

The sun still shone. Putting on her coat and shoes, she went for walk, smiling at those she met in the lanes. In her heart, she had hoped that she might meet him on his way back to his house: it was not to be. Never mind, it might be late before he was back. There would be another day tomorrow.

Soon after sunset, Maggie decided it was bedtime. After tidying up, she walked to the mantelpiece and lifted down a photograph. “He is very handsome.”

Looking back at her, a young man in a British army officer’s uniform stood smiling. Tucked into one corner of the photograph frame, a yellowed and faded newspaper cutting told a story of a young soldier who had gone missing.

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2 Responses to An unsuccessful short story

  1. Timbotoo says:

    Very poignant. It reminded me of my elocution teacher in junior school, who had lost her betrothed in the First World War and never married. One of many, I suppose.

  2. Ian says:

    I remember there being many unmarried older women when I was young. It never occurred to me that the reason they were unmarried was that the men they might have married had died in the wars.

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