Short Story Collection
The boat barely looked seaworthy. The smell of diesel and fish stung Emma’s nose. Every part painted blue and numbers were written on the side of it. Her and three couples were urged to sit down on the wooden benches along the sides under a shade and it started it up with a plume of smoke.
“Okay, we go,” said a man with a weather-beaten face. Slowly they pulled away from the jetty and as they got further away, the speed increased a surprising degree. Warm wind tugged at her hair, along with a salty mist of sea water.
With a sigh, she watched as they made their way to some distant islands. It felt wonderful, freeing, and she didn’t have a care in the world. Sea salt and coconut smelling sunblock. Was this what happiness smelled like? Everything was good. They’d snorkel and then return to her lovely room just as the sun was setting. Why couldn’t everything feel like this?
The island got closer, and there was a small beach by otherwise unwelcoming terrain. Steep cliffs covered by jungle, but they weren’t here for the island—instead the coral reef surrounding it.
The boat slowed as they got closer, and one of the men jumped out into the clear turquoise water, and fish scattered. They were urged off and she sat herself on the edge before jumping in. It was so warm it didn’t even have a chill. Finns in hand, and her goggles hanging off her arm, she waded up to the beach.
“We swim, then eat, then swim,” the man said. “We whistle.”
For a moment, the group look lost, before they started towards the water. At waste high water, she put her fins on and then the goggles and snorkel, which tasted rubbery and salty. As she placed her face in the water, the sand came into view and all the fish. Smalls eyes looking back at her, while her own breath echoed in her ears. The sand gave to an underwater world. Endless structures that she floated above. A riot of colors like a beautiful garden, and even brighter fish that shimmered with the sun. The waves above cast shadows.
Coral almost reached the surface and then plunges to the seabed. Patterns and soft stalks moved with the current, and she felt the coolness of the currents as she swam through them.
Greeting the Water
The sheer material of her wrap stroked around Emily’s legs as she walked out into the lush, tropical gardens of the hotel. Tall plants were unfamiliar and spectacular, with large foliage that waves slightly in the gentle, warm breeze. A winding path led to the pool, where a few people sat reading on sun chairs.
The sun warmed her immediately, but it wasn’t the pool she was after, so she kept going, her ears drawing her to the rhythmic lapping of the ocean. Emerging out of the garden, the bright blue of the water was almost a shock after the darker tones of the garden. Pale sand stretched down each side as far as they eye could see, lined with coconut trees along the path.
This was blissful and she just stood there for a moment, letting the warm breeze nudge her hair away from her face and making her wrap lap softly against her legs. Slipping her sandals off, she stepped onto the sand which gave under her feet as she walked, noticing the warmth as she moved out of the shade’s edge.
Dropping her tote bag on the sand, she kept going to the water. The sand grew courser, but the water didn’t have the chill she expected. It was warm with the merest hint of cool. Instantly, she relaxed and stood there with water up to her calves, feeling the slight surge with the waves. A deep breath had her closing her eyes as the sand sang around her when the water retreated.
Everything was so fresh, so lovely. She smelled salt mixed with the faint coconut of her sunscreen. Should she take the wrap off and go for a swim, or sit down in the warm sand and just take in the sight around her? With eyes still closed she faced the sun, worried for it’s paleness. There had been a time when she hadn’t been so pale, during those endless summer days of her childhood.
She was another person like this, in a place like this. Partly her old self from long ago when everything had been wonderful, and part something else. This had a homely feel she couldn’t describe, as if she belonged here—even as this place was completely different from the vacations she’d had as a child. This was the ocean, nature and sheer loveliness, and it felt like she belonged here.
Emily’s shirt stuck to her back, with that uncomfortable feeling of sweat that had trickled down. Her pants felt like sausage casings as she stood in the gorgeous lobby, waiting for her room key. This vacation had been a long time coming, and getting here was a nightmare. Plane, bus, taxi. It had sounded easy, and technically, it wasn’t hard, but the heat and the foreignness had made every step seem dire, as if she couldn’t recover if one thing along the steps went wrong.
“Here is your key, madam,” the small woman behind the counter said and smiled. “The lifts are just to the left, over there,” she finished, pointing with her whole hand.
Grabbing her rolling suitcase, and readjusting the bag on her shoulder, she took the key and smiled in return. The lobby really was nice, with a huge bouquet just at the entrance. The space was vast and cool. Those were real flowers too. Gentle music played, the instrumental kind where the notes were indistinguishable, yet somehow lulling. There was a bar further along and then huge windows facing sheer, green lushness.
This trek didn’t feel worth it yet, but it would be—once she got these ankle high boots off. In her planning, they had seemed the best options to deal with both the cold at home and the warmth here, but her feet were sweltering.
The lift enclosed her in darkness for a moment, again with the soft music and the gold and dark mirrors around her. It was nice. The floor counter was lit up with green numbers, ticking over as she ascended. Everything was nice, which it should be. It wasn’t the cheapest option, but she wanted to relax in a bit of luxury. So the vacation was a little shorter than she would have planned otherwise, but she hoped it was worth it.
Plush carpet led her to her room and it was utterly silent down the long hall. Rearranging her bag, which she’d haphazardly shoved her coat into, she pressed the card to the plate and was met with the gratifying click that unlocked the door.
Sheer coolness met her as she walked in, the bag falling awkwardly from her shoulder, freeing her of the burden she’d hauled with her the entire way. She dropped everything and quickly took off her boots. Her body was still warm, but the coolness caressed her.
There was a large bed with crisp, white linen. A small sofa and a table, then a desk and more chairs on the balcony outside. Beyond it was the lush greenness she’d come for, but for right now she luxuriated in the cool of the room. As soon as she opened the door, that heat would come in, and she’d want that, but just not yet.
Sitting down on the bed, she leaned back and let the crisp sheets meet her. The room smelled nice, like clean sheets and a hint of … was that iris? It was so faint, but it was welcoming. She felt like the dirtiest thing in the room. Maybe she should have a shower now, so she could enjoy all this properly, with clean hair, clean body, and the soft vacation clothes she’d packed in her suitcase. She wanted to put everything about getting her behind her and start from now. But right this moment, she couldn’t get herself off the bed, where she could stretch out in every direction, and it was all hers.
Illness at the Office - Nirvana Series
Talian swivelled back and forth gently in her chair, thinking about how she wanted to direct the AI to analyse. “Gopher,” she said, “can you compare analyse the grain consumption last month in relation to the weather patterns.” She had no idea why they called the AI gopher. It was some kind of animal that had existed back on the original Earth, and someone had named this AI after it.
“Grain consumption has steadily declined throughout the month,” Gopher answered. “A slight negative correlation with increased precipitation, of negative eight point five.” It wasn’t nothing.
“Has it rained above normal levels?” she asked.
“For the average, it is five point three percent above normal.”
That wasn’t nothing either. So why did people eat less grain than normal? Was this just an anomaly, or should they adjust the import requirements? This report was due in two hours, and she needed to make a recommendation.
Across the room, she saw Haya at her desk, who was busy pulling together the other part of the report, focus more on meat products. She looked troubled, leaning over her desk, stroking the middle of her forehead in small circles.
“What’s the matter?” Talian asked and Haya grudgingly looked over.
“I just don’t feel well. It’s been coming on for a few days. Maybe I’ve caught a cold. Like, it hasn’t developed, but I’m not myself.”
“Maybe you should go home,” Talian suggested.
“I will after I finish this report,” Haya said and sat up straighter. “I’m going to have to answer if I don’t deliver it on time.”
Well, not really. The Department of Food and Agriculture wouldn’t hold it against her if she went home because she felt unwell, but Haya was a bit of a martyr. It was one of her more annoying qualities, actually. Always lamenting how much she had to do, she couldn’t spare a moment for most things.
“Did you know it’s rained five percent more than average?” Talian said and Haya looked over at her, unimpressed.
“There’s always variance,” Haya stated, suggesting Talian was wasting her time. See there, that was Haya’s most annoying quality. She couldn’t just say, ‘oh, that’s strange.’ With absolutely everything, she had to come back in some way stating you were wrong.
“I’m getting a coffee,” Talian said, luxuriating in the idea that she wasn’t madly rushing to finish her report. It was a little dig, but she couldn’t help herself. Ever since she’d started in this job, Haya had been competitive with her in tiny ways that no one else noticed.
Talian walked to the small kitchenette, which overlooked the lush gardens outside. The sun made the foliage bright, but in the shaded places, dew drops still clung on from the morning. No one would have noticed the increase precipitation if Gopher didn’t pull the info together. Well, the meteorological people probably noticed. They’d write reports about things like that.
Keller walked into the kitchen and leaned on the bench. “I need a coffee,” he said. He didn’t look his usual self either.
“Did you have a hard night last night?” Talian asked. He wasn’t usually one to act irresponsible on a worknight.
“No, do I look like it? I feel like it,” he replied.
“You don’t feel well?” Talian asked. Both him and Haya. “Something must be going around.”
“Geste isn’t here today. Or Larse. They both called in sick.”
Talian stopped what she was doing and stared at him. She wasn’t feeling sick. “That’s strange.”
“The milk tastes off. Have you noticed?” he said.
Talian shook her head. “I don’t drink milk.”
“Maybe it’s the milk making us all unwell.”
“I have too much to do.”
Seriously, how had he and Haya not gotten together, Talian thought tartly. Because Haya’s standards were too high.
For a moment, he looked unsteady on his feet, and Talian rushed to catch him in case he passed out. “You need to go home,” she said more forcefully.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said and smiled weakly. “I feel like shit.”
A Surprising Charm
“What are you going to do?” Teresa asked as Eliza Hennington sat staring out of the office window, referring to the letter that sat on her desk. It was a summons and she’d been expecting it for some time. Fidgeting with her skirt, she tried to make it drape so it blocked the cold draft on her ankles.
“I’m going to give him a piece of my mind,” Eliza stated, knowing this was a risk, but the leaking roof was hazardous for their stock of educational material that sat in this warehouse. If things didn’t improve, they would have to find new premises, which would mean a big palaver of moving everything, but better that than a roof that leaked.
For that reason, she wasn’t overly concerned if this meeting resulted in the end of her lease here. She needed better facilities for her business, because as it was, she ran the risk of water damage on a particularly stormy day.
“Will you go see him? You could write instead.”
“Of course I will. I’m in half a mind to tell him how I feel about how he treats his tenants.”
It wasn’t the first time the issue had been mentioned, but nothing had been done, so she had stopped paying the rent.
Now it appeared the owner of the building had finally called for a meeting—a summoning more like. The tone of the note was terse, requesting her presence at the office of his solicitors. From what she understood, Lord Fortescue didn’t spend much time in London. In fact, she’d never met the man. The lease had been signed through an agent, so she’d never had direct dealings with the man.
The letter had also threatened serious consequences if she didn’t have the means to pay the arrears. The statement riled her. It was incumbent on him to provide the property she had been promised—one without leaks. She’d specifically explained to the agent the nature of her business, being that most of her products were made of paper, dryness was imperative.
“No, he is in town, so I will have a chat with him about my expectations,” Eliza said and stood. The letter didn’t give much notice, so she expected this was a summons made on short notice. No account was made with regards to her schedule, but she hadn’t expected there would be.
Moving to the door, she pulled on her coat, gloves and hat and walked out of her office, through the main storeroom and down the stairs to the streets of Lambeth. It would be a trek to cross the Thames to Temple, but she felt it gave her time to prepare what she wanted to say to this man. Prepare her arguments.
London Bridge was particularly difficult to cross with both carts and carriages impatiently trying navigate the traverse. It truly was faster to walk across this section of town.
The streets grew less busy the closer she got to Temple, which was a neighborhood of offices and clerks, rather than the warehouses and factories of Lambeth. Even the costermongers were better behaved here, and it smelled of lovely rolls from a bakery as she passed, promising herself she would buy some on her way home.
Once reaching the right street, she searched for the law office until she found small gold lettering on a door signifying the right law firm. It appeared to be located on the first floor. The stairs were paneled with dark wood and echoed as she walked up.
A bespectacled man surveyed her as she appeared in the office decorated with more dark paneling. It made for a quiet office. “Mrs. Eliza Hennington,” she announced to the man. “I believe I am here to see Lord Fortescue.”
The man checked the watch nestled in the pocked of his waistcoat. “I will see if he’s prepared to see you.”
“I anticipate he will be, because I didn’t walk all this way otherwise,” she said, holding her head high. Acting so forthright wasn’t her natural character, but she was fully prepared for this battle, and would find other premises if she didn’t get her way.
Never would she have achieved what she had with her business if she couldn’t stand her ground when she needed to. Granted, she didn’t like needing to when it was avoidable.
There had been a time when she’d been too meek in the face of confrontation and disharmony. She hadn’t had the skills to stand her own ground, and she’d worked hard to not place herself in that position again. She was not someone people disused for the own amusement. Not anymore.
The clerk returned to the foyer and smiled weakly. “He is prepared to see you now.”
“That is very good of him,” she replied calmly, and then they stood awkwardly for a moment. “Where?”
The question spurred the clerk into action and he led her down a corridor with more dark wood to a large office with windows, there was a desk over the far side and a fire for warmth. An office much more comfortable than her own. Her footsteps were absorbed by the thick carpet, not drawing the attention of the man scribbling at the desk.
Sandy blond hair a shade between blond and brown, and strong bearing. Fine clothes, but he was a lord, so that wasn’t perhaps surprising. The gentry usually dressed well. It didn’t always make them gentle, however. Or even refined.
Finally he looked up and then lifted a paper at his side. “Mrs. Hennington. I understand you are in arrears with your rent. I take it you are here to remedy the situation. We wouldn’t wish to expel you on a lovely day as this. You have inventory you could sell, I believe.” His voice was deep and bored. Perhaps she wasn’t the only tenant he’d had to take to task that day.
“I do. In fact, I have the funds to pay, but as I have communicated on several occasions, the property is not up to the standard to deserve it.”
The man’s eyebrow rose. “Not to standard?” he said in equally bored tone. “Pray tell, what standards do you feel are lacking?”
“The roof leaks extensively. I have lost some of the inventory you just mentioned because the property is not fit for purpose. You have seen fit to do little to remedy the situation, so I have seen fit not to pay you.”
Truthfully, she was much more nervous than she pretended to be, and hoped desperately that it didn’t show. Men like him tended to capitalize on weakness. In fact, people in general tended to when they came across it. It was a lesson she’d learned to her detriment, and she’d been ill prepared for it.
“Are you a widow, Mrs. Hennington?”
No, not a widow, simply abandoned. “No.”
“And what does your husband say about this?”
“He is not available to comment.” In fact, he was off on the other side of the world the last she’d heard, “but I expect he would notice the roof still leaked as well.”
Lord Fortescue placed the paper he held back on the desk again. “So this is a protest.”
“Very much so. I insist on the property I was promised when I signed the lease, and I gave you ample time to remedy the leaks. At some point, you must bear the responsibility of your actions.”
Obviously she knew she had no rights here as a tenant. Refusing to pay the rent for a substandard roof wasn’t enforceable.
“In all respects, I am a good tenant,” she continued, feeling her nerves build for a moment. No, she had to be strong, even as confrontation wasn’t something she enjoyed.
“Except that you don’t pay your rent.”
“In pursuit of giving you the opportunity to be a good landlord.”
“Opportunity,” he said with a smile. “Hennington. Are you by any chance related to Lord Hennington?”
This was not something she wished to get into. “My father-in-law.”
“Then it is unusual to find you in a warehouse in Lambeth.”
These were things she really didn’t want to discuss. This man was taking more of an interest in her than she’d anticipated. Most of the people she dealt with didn’t delve into the details of who the surname was linked to. To the point where her husband and his family were never mentioned. “We are… estranged.”
“I see. So this is your business rather than your husband’s.”
“It is.” Surely that would have been obvious. How often do wives sign leases on their husband’s behalf? A thought of Caius imposed on her. She hadn’t thought about her husband for a good while. In fact, she wasn’t sure she expected to see him again. As time passed, certainty had solidified that there would be no reconciliation between them.
“I will inform you that I was not aware of the issues with the property,” he said.
“It has been highlighted several times.”
“There seems to be an issue of communications between myself and the agent I employ. The roof will be fixed.”
The resolution surprised her. Just like that, he’d conceded. Coming here, she’d expected she would be requested to leave the property, but she was actually winning this standoff. “Then I will pay all outstanding arrears… at such time.”
“You do not trust me, Mrs. Hennington?”
It was fair to say her trust had been dented. “Promises are easy to break.”
“Yes, they are,” he agreed. “Then I will be delighted to surprise you.”
“Not surprise. Merely… gladden.”
“Gladden, then,” he said with a bow of his head.
Her association with this man seemed to have been very fluid throughout this meeting. To her surprise, he found she liked him, and not simple because he promised to fix the leaks, but maybe because he was so certain he would keep his own word.
She blushed slightly thinking how easy this had gone. It was the first time in years she’d blushed, or had been around a man who had the capacity to make her blush. “Then I wish you good day,” she stated, not quite sure what to say now. All her arguments had proved unnecessary, he had simply agreed that her perspective was right.
It seemed like it had been an equally long time since she’d dealt with a man who actually wanted to help her. Mostly she dealt with employees, or the men of the charity committees whom she sold her educational material to. But no one had dealt with her correctly simply because it was the right thing to do.
“Mrs. Hennington,” he said and rose from his chair to give her a proper, sharp bow. “I bid you good day.”
“Good day,” she replied. Feeling awkward for a moment, she moved to the door and opened it, slipping outside before he decided to be chivalrous enough to open it for her. Over time, she’d become unaccustomed and uncomfortable so such gestures.
Smiling tightly, she passed the clerk on the way out without stopping, and quickly moved down the stairs to the street below.
Once outside, she looked up at the building, seeing no one in the windows. Even as she was pleased, there was something disconcerting about the meeting, because she’d found that she actually liked this Lord Fortescue, and it surprised her immensely. Granted it could just be the man’s charm, and the decisiveness in which he’d chosen to remedy the situation.
Liking a man was something she’d discarded in the past. Such things were no longer for her, and technically she was a married woman, even if her husband had given up on the association years ago.
Still, it was nice to feel that little flutter that a charming man had been very considerate and helpful. On some level, it seemed as if she’d amused him with her stance, her protest. And in return, he’d promised to solve what was a significant problem for her. She was grateful, and felt awkward with the emotion. For so long, she’d been forced to be entirely self-sufficient.
No, it would not do for her to think about helpful and charming men. That wasn’t important in her life, and she couldn’t lose sight of what was—her business.
It was time to relegate this encounter as a successful argument won, and nothing more. Likely she would never see him again, but it gladdened her to think of an encounter and a remote association with what seemed like a decent man. Every time she’d send her rent payment to the bank, she would remember.
No, time to put this all behind her, provided he fixed the roof. If he didn’t, she would find somewhere else to lease, irrespective of if she found her current landlord interesting. Now where were those lovely rolls she’d promised herself she would buy?
**This short story refers to a scene mentioned in The Nuisance Wife, preceding where the story starts, but I had it so clearly visualised, I had to write it.