short stories

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Clare’s third short story for Radio 4 will be broadcast on Friday 30th September 2016.  Part of a crime series of original stories, it is called THE ETYMOLOGY OF A THIEF, and Clare is the reader.

Clare’s second short story for Radio 4 was called SMALL PRINT. It was broadcast on 22nd May 2015, at 3.45pm, with Patrick Kennedy as the reader.

The first story that the BBC commissioned Clare to write for them was called SERENITY. It was broadcast on Radio 4 on 21st March 2014, at 3.45pm. Hattie Morahan was the reader.

Here it is:

SERENITY

It was called Serenity Café, and something about the name had impressed itself upon the atmosphere. It was a brand of serenity, not unlike the kind of peace that might be found in some eateries in North Korea. Ms. Bernard had created it, and she saw that people liked it here. It was a little cube of a different life. Her café contained no clutter or dust or anything errant apart from the lingering Damocles’ sword of a promise that existence could be better if you really just tried a little bit harder. People liked sitting at the scrubbed wooden tables on strategically designed cushions. They liked to know that the wool used to make the cushions came from an alpaca flock in the foothills of the Andes. They said they liked the beaten bronze lamps that sat on every table, miniature statues of Pandora, a bulb peeking out from the box in her hands. Ms. Bernard knew they couldn’t care less about the artistry: they just liked that they knew who Pandora was. The wood for the tables was thick and reclaimed from various places, all of which was recorded on good quality paper in old Letterpress print. Everything came from somewhere, and Ms. Bernard was as religious about documenting the objects she possessed as she was about forgetting her own origins. The customers were often artists and writers. They ordered coffees that came in hand-flung ceramic cups, ate cakes that sat impossibly tall on architectural plates, and bitched about artists and writers who were earning money.

Ms. Bernard was sharp in features and mind, with a tongue to match. She presided over the place with a mouth that often smiled, but only as a physical reflex to a social scenario. A flash of teeth was often to be seen when greeting a customer. A smile was usually firmly in place as Ms Bernard poured milk on top of a latte in an absolutely perfect representation of a Zen symbol. But the smile itself was a symbol of some sort of emotion she rarely felt. Was that emotion happiness? Ms. Bernard was too busy focussing on Serenity to wonder. When she meditated, that’s what she thought about. The fluffy white rug on her living room floor was placed on coordinates that allowed her to view the sea but not the street below: so there she sat once a day, barefoot and cross-legged, French doors open no matter what the weather. Her blunt fringe just touching the top of sculpted brows, she would empty her mind in the way that expert removal men do. A rapid system of mental bubble-wrapping would occur: thoughts and strictly held routines and systems for living were speedily packed away in boxes of consciousness fashioned precisely for the event. Trailing ideas that had no place were rigorously swept out. This Ms. Bernard did with a broom that came straight from what she considered to be Real Life. When her mental chambers were cleared, she would meditate. She filled the space with something she called serenity, in the sincere belief that the quiet she felt for thirty minutes each day was a peace that would influence the rest of her life. This was despite having shipped the rest of her life out of the range of influence, absolutely insulating it from any effects. The truth was, without that daily opening of French doors, Ms B. would have almost certainly experienced some form of internal combustion.

As a result of her well-ordered consciousness, her internal rooms were inhospitable places for change, unless Ms. B. had deliberately measured up a space to accommodate a new idea. Should any idle thoughts drift up from the café below and into her brain during meditation, they were often instantly rebuffed, thanks to the specially set internal air conditioning system she had developed during her thirty-seven years on the planet. It had to work hard to catch unwelcome concepts, whisk them around the air-flow and spit them out into the atmosphere. Yet keeping her thought processes so constant was now such a reflexive action that oft-times, Ms. B. had no sense-memory of receiving an idea to reject it. She just knew she didn’t like things. And that was that. Closed, like the set of her bright red lips.

Artists came to Serenity Café because they liked the art that hung on the walls. That is, they liked having opinions about it, borne from a knowledge of art history and contemporary styles and fads – but most of them hated the art that she hung on the walls. The discreet little tags that dangled from the frames had something to do with it. In hand-stamped numbers, they showed prices that, logically, were impossibly expensive for so little paint on so much canvas. But Ms. Bernard had an eye for what would sell and she knew what hung on the galleries in the capital city; she knew what aspiration was, and she consistently sold the expensive art works at the price she set, just like she planned. Then she would disappear on a Monday, the only day Serenity was closed, and return with a new piece from another artist whose unknown existence seemed unfathomably glamorous and successful. That’s why the local artists hated the art: it wasn’t theirs. The big picture was that paintings were being hung on the walls of a café in a seaside town. It was not an unfathomably glamorous and successful end for an artist’s work. But it seemed so, and that was all that counted here.

On stormy days, customers could hear the sea crashing outside. This was because the music was pitched at a volume that allowed it. One new idea Ms. B. had accommodated was that yogic breathing – quite a noisy technique that requires the mouth to stay shut while breathing in through the nose and back out again – is supposed to sound like the sea. If Serenity was to be a successful enterprise, why not use the sea? She would never go so far as to actively think it, but she considered the sea a commodity. The sea, after all, encouraged people to go to her café. Once people were in, they hardly acknowledged the sea, but they knew it was there. It was simply another ingredient that contributed to Serenity, a trademark that required almost as much upkeep as Ms Bernard’s hair – a straight bob that sat at her jaw line, and was not cut or maintained at any hairdressers in the town. When asked, she said “London”, but never offered any further details. The giver of the compliment invariably felt as though their muddy inquisitive shoes had stained some kind of pristine white carpet they hadn’t noticed, which was true. There was no place for uninvited questions in Ms Bernard’s domain.

When the girl came in with her three children, Ms Bernard’s lips made the slightest of imperceptible twitches, as if two tiny screws at both sides of her mouth had been turned simultaneously, tightening the straight red line of lipstick into a slightly more taut version of itself. Children were welcome in her café. It was, however, a theoretical welcome, borne more from the impossibility of not welcoming them – in legal and social terms – than any actual desire to have them there. The family sat, and Ms. B. waited for the girl to notice that her boys suddenly seemed noisy. She did. This was inevitable. Most customers had a mild sense of being out of place in this muted space; it wasn’t at all unusual for people to find themselves conducting their conversations in near-whispers, and somehow feel it was the appropriate thing to do. One of the children reached for the jar of sugar cubes in the centre of the table, and at a distance, Ms. Bernard’s thumb pressed down upon the counter with a little more pressure than before.

In contrast, she looked benignly upon two teenagers who had walked through her doors behind the children. As with the rest of their tribe, the teens made the act of ordering and paying for a hot drink as agonising for themselves as if they had determined, instead of entering the cafe, to step over the low wall between the street and the beach, walk down the sand, and wade into the sea, without taking off their shoes or coats. The self-consciousness of this walk to the counter was perhaps even more painful than a journey through the sea towards certain death, because in Serenity Café, they were still alive at the end of it.

They walked until their clothes were sodden, every crease water-logged, each pocket filling with salt and water, so the contents of their pockets began to float upwards as their bodies weighed down. They felt the chill and burden of the endurance test, yet on they doggedly marched, faces set to grim acceptance, the tips of their noses touching the water line just as they reached the counter. And as they opened their lips to order experimental espressos for virgin palettes, they found in horror that their mouths were filled with salt and debris. They reached up, as if in a terrible dream, where time urges you to hurry and your body will not. They reached up and physically picked each word out from the swirl within: “I’ll have a flat – white – please.”

The marginal softening of Ms. Bernard’s eyes towards these helpless half-drowned souls at her counter could barely be called empathy, but to be fair to her, she did possess and put to use her solid block of knowledge about what it was to be a teenager. True, this knowledge was hewn like the Germanic sculptures she admired in Berlin’s national parks, as burnished and unforgiving as steel cut to shape: but it had a sliver of empathy cut through the centre, and that made it glorious. She treated these teenagers with a gentleness they could in no way have discerned from her efficient ripping of their receipt from her bespoke till, or the firm pinch she gave to the starched collar of her white British-made shirt as she waited for the espresso machine to do its work. But it was there.

She looked across the teenagers’ heads at the noisy trio of blonde-haired boys crowding around their mother. The girl had no idea what a coveted place she had. Ms. B. noted with a little quirk of satisfaction that one of the artists had entered just a second too late to sit there, and as he glanced towards the family taking his favourite spot, a flicker of ire passed across his pupils. Ms. B. didn’t like the artist because she considered his demeanour needy. The word “Ha”, complete with exclamation mark, shot into her mind through an opening in her eye as she looked at him, but her brogue-shod foot just as quickly stamped any life out of that unseemly thought. She mentally filed it away to be examined later, and brushed a dot from her cigarette trousers. It was a weakness to feel Schadenfreude: Ms. B. believed that particular emotion was just a reflection of envy, and she had determined never to be envious. She had, after all, meditative principles that held up her internal ceilings. She considered these pillars to be pure, but really they were shot through with interpretation, because Ms. B. was not egalitarian. She in no way minded if others were envious of her, and in fact encouraged them to be, just by believing she was better.

Ms. Bernard emptied the used coffee granules into the compost bin and wiped her stainless steel counter deliberately, with the particular strength towards cleanliness that only comes from distilled fervour: a quality mostly found in surgeons. It could not be found in her young assistant Jessica. To see her employer achieve such results with one wipe of the cloth created in Jessica a feeling she could not articulate, but was akin to a nefarious snake made from clapper-boards working its way through her internal organs: a corporeal shudder with eternal dimensions.

The artist came to the counter, smiled generously at Jessica, and ordered a latte from the owner: “Decaf today, I’m afraid”. He felt the need to justify his choice to Ms. B., as if drinking caffeine would have made him more of a man in her eyes. She listened soundlessly, teeth showing in the shape of a smile, all the while moving handles and pushing buttons on the espresso machine to make him the drink he was paying for and embarrassed about. He was still talking as she tipped the coffee into the ceramic cup with one hand while pouring warmed milk with the other, so that the swirl and twist of light and dark wove together. The culmination saw perfect proportions meet in the shape of an ‘S’ for Serenity on the surface. Ms. Bernard knew nothing of it, but she knew what it meant. The artist cast around for something else to say that would move the topic from caffeine, and gratefully remembered something he had heard the day before from a friend of a friend. “I hear you used to be an artist,” he said, holding his coffee with one hand while the other was in his pocket lazily flicking his house keys and an accidental mint.

Locals maintained later that Ms. B. must have had a temporary black out: some kind of spasm that caused her to throw the metal coffee holder, old granules and all, directly at a customer. She said she had no recollection. It hit him right on the nose, between the eyes, and if he hadn’t been wearing glasses he might have died, just like Goliath.

photo courtesy of BluReco

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