Interact is a charity that sends professional actors to read and talk to patients recovering from strokes. As part of this, writers were commissioned to write short stories suitable for reading. I wasn't keen on this at first, on the grounds that, with one actor reading one short story to one stroke patient it would take me 4393 years to become famous, but then I realised Interact would give me an audience who couldn't walk out halfway through the story. There have been some remarkable recoveries with patients leaping out of the bed shouting: 'I'm better. I'm better, just don't read any more of Barrett's short stories'. It makes it all worthwhile...
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OUT LOUD:36 TWISTED TALES
Read some of the short stories at
SHORTBREAD SHORT STORIES
Or read one short story printed below
Linda found herself staring out of the window into the cold morning light. It was a ridiculous thing to do at her age - 30 years old today and far too old to be looking out for the postman with a sense of growing excitement. After all, what could she expect to receive - a card from her mother, one from her brother (if he remembered), and possibly a few more from her friends, maybe even a present or two, but probably not. Nothing to get excited about, but she could never shake off this childish sense of anticipation at birthdays and Christmas which was inevitably followed by disappointment when the actual event arrived. Once the card was torn open or the present opened, even if it was something she really wanted or needed, it never lived up to her expectations.
Disappointment, she concluded, was the only dependable feature of adult life but even so, there she was, at the window, her breath on the window fogging her view, looking out for the postman who might not even appear at all.
It was a relief then when the phone rang diverting her from her vigil. She lifted the receiver.
‘Hi. It’s David’
It was strange because David never rang her in the mornings, only in the evenings or very late if he was particularly depressed.
‘It’s a bit early for you, isn’t it? I thought you didn’t get up until lunchtime.’
‘I know. I know. Wasting my life.’
There was a pause, which was strange. Usually they had so much to share, even when they’d only been apart for a few hours, there was always so much to say. She could tell instantly something was wrong.
‘Last night,’ he said.
‘I think I might have left my bag behind.’
“ I haven’t seen it.’
‘I think I might have done. Have a look under the table.’
She stepped into the living room, stretching the phone cord behind her.
‘Oh yes, it’s there. Do you need it?’
‘Not today. I’ll pick it up tomorrow morning’
‘Linda.’ There was a pleading in his voice, something she’d never heard before. ‘How long have we been friends?’
‘A long time.’
‘Look, I know this sounds a bit weird, but I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me that you won’t look in that bag.’
‘It’s really important. You mustn’t look in that bag.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of looking in your bag. What do you think I am?’
‘I know you wouldn’t normally. It’s just.. It’s just.. I think if you look in there, you won’t want to know me anymore.’
‘You’re joking? What’s in there, for God’s sake.’
‘Just please, please trust me on this. Just leave it alone, I’ll pick it up tomorrow and we can forget all about it’
‘OK. I won’t touch it. I wouldn’t touch it anyway.’
‘I know. Thanks’
‘There’s nothing to thank me for. I am your friend you know.’
‘I hope so. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
She put down the phone and walked into the living room and stared at the black bag under the table. What she had told David on the phone was true - she would never look in his bag. Why should she? But she found herself troubled by the phone call in a way she hadn’t expected. Long, unresolved questions about David began to surface in her thoughts.
He had always been a close friend, possibly closer than any of her girlfriends, but she had never really understood why the relationship had not gone further. They seemed to have everything in common: the same tastes, the same friends. They could spend whole days together without ever becoming bored. There was a time when it seemed that living together, marriage, whatever, would inevitably follow, but that crucial next stage always seemed illusive. The kiss, the embrace that would signal a change in their relationship never came.
And then one day, when she was laying in his arms of the sofa, when a simple turn of his head could have changed their lives forever, she realised it was never going to happen. The friendship was never going to be any more than that, a friendship.
She started going out with other men and David never showed anything but mild curiosity about them. Some he liked, others not, but he never showed any signs of jealousy, even when the relationships turned serious. For Linda, the sad thing was that she never found the same closeness with her boyfriends that she found with David and she sometimes had to make a real effort to hide the depth of her friendship with him, in case her boyfriends became jealous.
Her friends assumed that David was gay, and she did too, to a degree, although he had never shown any interest in men when she was around. She stared at the bag and wondered if its contents would somehow be related to his sexuality - some gay magazines or something that he assumed would shock her. Although she couldn’t think what would do that - she had plenty of gay friends, some of whom made no secret of their sex lives. She was often amazed at their explicit talk, but it made her laugh rather than shocking her. A few gay magazines wouldn’t damage their relationship. Why should they?
But then a darker thought occurred to her. Only that morning she’d read a story in the paper about a local man caught with thousands of pictures of children - some of which apparently had shocked even the battle-hardened policemen involved in the case. Even Linda, a fully paid up Guardian-reading liberal, had some limits to her tolerance. She detested adults who prayed on children with an anger that came from a limited, but devastating, personal experience. The last time the topic came up amongst her friends, when some were decrying the modern day witchhunts which targeted lonely old men now, instead of lonely old women, and how the abusers were simply the abused, grown up, Linda’s cutting words and the edge in her voice had led to a rapid diplomatic change of subject.
There were some things for which she would not show tolerance, even if they involved David. Somehow, without realising it, she had lifted the bag onto the table.
More doubts about David crept into her thoughts. He’d been a teacher but had left the job for reasons that had never been specified. As a youngster, he had been a keen gymnast and now he coached in a gymnastic club. He also attended a swimming club once a week where he had plentiful contact with young children. She had been surprised, even impressed, by his civic- mindedness and the effort that he devoted to young people. Now she could see that activity in a more sinister light.
What had he said?’ ‘If you look in that bag you won’t want to know me anymore.’
What else could it be but horrible horrible pictures of children - the one thing he knew would turn her against him, the one thing that could destroy their friendship?
She had to know.
She had to look in the bag.
She had to face the truth about David, whatever that truth might be.
With a heavy heart, she flicked the catch on the bag. She paused, breathing out heavily and then she pulled the bag open. She looked inside. All she could see was a brown package which she carefully lifted out as if the thing were about to explode in her hands.
There was a tag attached. She opened it and read the words inside.