This is an excerpt from my recently published ebook ' A Good Day for Jumping'. It is a character-driven novel with an intriguing plot, set mainly on the island of Crete.
Miss Shackleton’s mother had recovered sufficiently from her operation for her daughter to leave her and return to her own life. She would cope very well on her own again, and would call regularly. Her neighbour had agreed to shop for her once or twice a week and the doctor would make a house call the day after next to make sure of her health.
‘I assure you, Joyce. I will manage perfectly well. Stop fussing!’
There was something in her mother’s voice, especially when she pronounced her daughter’s Christian name that twisted itself deep inside Joyce’s belly.
‘If you are sure then, Mother?’
‘Absolutely. As I have already said.’ Her mother’s tone was, as usual, unconditional.
Joyce packed her suitcase and arranged her hair in front of the mirror. She applied a subtle lipstick, taking her time, and put on her red tailored jacket, which fitted her perfectly and exactly suited her colouring, which, once upon a time, had been darker than it was now. She pinned on an antique silver brooch of a spider in its web and fastened a discreet string of pearls around her neck. Her shoes were polished and waiting by the front door, below the hook where she had hung her new lamb’s wool coat.
Leaving twenty minutes for the fifteen-minute walk to the station and allowing for a possible platform change, she left the house at 2.35pm precisely, calling once to her mother that she was going and neither expecting nor receiving a reply. She closed the door quietly behind her and set off at a brisk pace down the driveway and out onto the street. She greeted Mr. Thompson but did not stop, as she had not allowed the time to do so.
The avenues of trees were bare, and a cold wind whipped their branches as she proceeded towards her destination. It was a pleasant enough morning. It made her spirits rise. Her mother had been difficult, but Joyce had done her duty. She breathed in the clean, fresh air and stood tall, her arms swinging just the right amount at her sides to show that she was strong, dynamic, confident. It was good to be alive on such a morning.
The train was on time and Joyce chose a carriage near the centre. At the front of the train, if there were an accident, you would be sure to be killed and at the back of the train equally so, as the last carriages would leave the track and most likely turn over. She sat facing backwards, so to speak, so that on impact she would not be thrown forward. Once settled, she listened to the guard announce that the train was a non-stop service from Bristol Temple Meads to London King’s Cross and that the journey would take two hours and twenty minutes. Then she settled back into her seat and looked out of the window.
There were not many passengers on the train and so she did not have to put up with the smells of people eating or the babble of inconsequential conversation. There was a middle-aged man who was checking his mobile phone, but then he slipped it into his pocket and looked, mercifully, as though he might go to sleep.
The doors of the train closed and she felt the familiar jolt as her carriage moved forward behind the engine. People on the platform waved and were left behind, replaced by factories and compact city housing. The green fields of the leafy suburbs were soon dashing past. Joyce liked the colours of the countryside even if she disliked the thought of stepping out into it. It was better to view it from her present vantage point, safe from unpleasant odours and muddy lanes.
A memory came to her of blackberry picking. There had been brambles and nettles, slippery banks, mud and animal faeces. Her hair had been in pigtails then, and she had worn a cream pinafore over her yellow dress. She, her mother and her two sisters had each had a Tupperware to collect the berries, which were large and juicy. The other girls had almost filled their containers and were ready to go back to the car but Joyce had only five berries in her bowl.
‘These are no good, Joyce! Look how hard and small they are,’ her mother had said, in the tight voice she reserved for her middle daughter.
‘Have some of mine, Joyce. Look how juicy they are.’ Sandra picked one out and popped it into her glistening mouth.
‘Look, Joyce,’ said Lily, ‘I got big ones.’ She grasped a handful of berries, squashing them in the palm of her hand and holding them out to her big sister.
Joyce recalled all this with an expression of profound disgust. The horrible blue-black of the juice, the stained fingers, tongues and mouths of her sisters revolted her then and now.
‘Come along girls. Joyce doesn’t want your berries. Let’s go home.’
Her mother understood. But, at the car, as she removed her sisters’ ruined aprons and cleaned their hands and mouths with a special cloth that smelled of soap, laughing and telling Lily to hold still, Joyce had stood to the side, pristine in the cold September sunshine and had known that her sisters were more loved for being stained and dirty. And she had felt a sense of injustice that sparked a deep resentment inside her.
The man with the mobile phone was snoring. His mouth lolled open, making him look half-witted; his chin had disappeared into his neck, and his enlarged jowls swelled as he breathed in, flattened as he breathed out. The trembling noise he made, gentle as a snuffling baby, was insufferable. Joyce didn’t think she could stand it.
She took out a book she was reading. It was ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’. She opened it up and tried to concentrate. Michael Henchard had risen above the depravity of his initial base act of auctioning his wife and child at a country fayre, (at which he had consumed too great an amount of beer). He was now Mayor of Casterbridge, the eponymous town in the South West of England. She felt sorry for him, knowing that he would be found out, that he would pay the ultimate price for his recklessness.
The man with no chin let out a particularly resounding snort just as the guard arrived to check their tickets. Joyce was delighted. She watched his startled expression as he came out of a deep sleep and struggled to extract the ticket from his wallet with his large, fumbling fingers. When he glanced across at her, she gave him the unedited smugness of her smile.
When the guard had gone, the man took out some papers from his briefcase and, softly clearing his throat, busied himself, embarrassed that he had been observed, hoping that he had not been snoring too much, for he knew from his wife that he was in the habit of doing so. He looked over to the woman who had smiled at him, hoping to catch her eye, to nod at least, if not to apologise, for how could he know what he had done? But she was reading and unassailable, so he returned to his work and became gradually absorbed by figures and statistics. The woman did not look at him for the remainder of the journey and he was irked at how awkward she had made him feel.
The train pulled into King’s Cross shortly after the announcement on the carriage intercom. The doors opened and the passengers alighted. The odour of the platform air was reassuringly familiar and Joyce stood for a moment taking in her surroundings. It was good to be back where she belonged.
On the way to her flat, she shopped for dinner at Marks and Spencer. Two lamb cutlets, a tub of couscous and a green salad. For dessert, there was tiramisu. To drink, a half bottle of Bordeaux. The food came neatly wrapped and hygienically sealed. The dates were good. She paid by card, assessing the cleanliness of the cashier’s hands. It was pleasant to pay for the things that she wanted with the money she had earned. It was comforting to be reliant upon no one but oneself.Inside her apartment, there was the grainy light and the profound stillness of a place that has been left empty for a while, waiting to be revived, filled up with life once more. The delicate ticking of a carriage clock was all that could be heard, measuring out the silence. Joyce unbuttoned her jacket and hung it up by the front door. She liked that nothing unexpected came to meet her: no leaks, no scufflings. She stooped to pick up the post from the mat and, seeing that there was nothing of interest, laid it on the table in the hall and went through to the kitchen. The light buzzed and the fridge droned. She heated olive oil in a pan and listened to the sound of the lamb sizzling, sprinkling it with oregano, salt and pepper. She ran water to wash the salad and prepared a tray for her food. When everything was ready, she arranged it carefully on one of her favourite bone china plates and poured herself a glass of wine. The news had just started and so she watched it with the tray on her lap. It was good to be home.
If you would like to read more of 'A Good Day for Jumping' please click on this link: viewBook.at/B00ALIV3MA