Moving On - Third Prize Winner “The Personal Touch”
Third prize goes to Julie Ann Lee of Bromley. Della says, ‘ I chose The Personal Touch as our third place prizewinner for its wonderful understated writing and great characterisation.’
Vanda felt that the story showed the reader everything which had happened in the past without long explanations. A great example of ‘show not tell’.
Well done, Julie!
About the Author
I am an ‘A’ level English tutor, so with all the reading, marking and preparing for classes, it can be difficult finding the time to write. However, I have been writing short stories for quite a few years now and I learn something new with every competition I enter. Then I’m really glad I set that precious writing time aside. Meeting the challenge to take an original slant on a theme you may not actually have thought about before and within a certain word limit can be stimulating: you can find your imagination leading you along unexpected paths to destinations you never dreamed of!
The Personal Touch
Ida had bought a spray of yellow rosebuds. She would discard the Florist shop wrapping and replace it with petal-flecked mulberry paper, tie a narrow purple ribbon around the middle like a sash, match the ends of the bow with care. Now more than ever, now that she was in the nursing home, Mum deserved the personal touch.
Waiting in the Florist Ida recalled that torn piece of net curtain; Aggie Tranter declaiming, ‘I’ll be the bride. I’ll be the bride. You’ll be an old maid and you’ll have to stay with your mother forever!’ Mum appeared at the door and there was a moment’s uneasy silence. Ida refused to take the net back, ‘Keep it, Aggie. I’ll never leave Mum, anyway.’ Still it had spoiled the afternoon. Visitors were a rare treat in their house; the urgent ring of the doorbell could trigger that slight tremor in Mum’s hand and Ida hated to see that.
Honey-sweet jasmine and orange blossom breathed out their mingled scents as Ida waited for the Florist to take an order for wedding flowers. Perhaps she should have trained as a florist. Of course it wasn’t all romance. Customers might be seducers or bigamists: how many times had the language of flowers been abused? There would be the funerals too: those who thought a colossal ‘Mum’ in multi-coloured hothouse carnations would make up for never really having cared.
Ida laid the flowers down gently on the kitchen table and snipped their stalks, removing those nasty thorns. How long since anybody bought her flowers? There had been the freesias. Just a handful in crumpled tissue with a blob of sodden cotton-wool bound around their feet. The scent had faded by the time she got off the bus. But at first their fragrance had intoxicated her. She had been so light-headed when she put her key in the door until she saw the look in Mum’s eyes, momentarily pleading and bewildered yet fierce and proud too. Then an almost imperceptible switch to the light-hearted, ‘He has to be joking! Such a tiny spray – last of the big spenders, is he?’ followed by the more intense, ‘Oh Ida, you deserve better.’ The freesias were drooping by then and the glow in Ida’s cheeks at that little bit of male attention extinguished.
Toasting tea-cakes in front of the fire with Mum, all safe and sound and just the two of them, Ida had to admit a few freesias meant nothing compared with the bond they shared. It had taken her so long to learn how much Mum had suffered. She hadn’t told her, of course. Ida had to rely on hints and whispers and secrets snatched on occasional visits to scattered relatives. Ida had learned, though, that nothing she could ever do would make up. So when the girls in the office were marrying; flat-hunting; knitting matinee jackets Ida stayed put. There was tea and cake with doilies and an embroidered tray-cloth – yellow rosebuds because they were Mum’s favourites; beaded slippers wrapped in golden tissue with hand-painted labels. And come the end of summer, Ida would be stuffing satin pouches with lavender gathered from their garden to place amongst the lace and silk of Mum’s lingerie drawers. Mum needed the tender, the beautiful. The freesias were binned and Ida took a different bus route home – to avoid embarrassment.
Ida had made Mum’s eightieth birthday present. She had been working on it for weeks, a water-colour of roses such a delicate creamy ivory that the brush had whispered over the paper. Ida had always loved painting: still-life was her forte. There had been the offer of a place at Art College, but it would have meant living away from home. The birthday card Ida had chosen was a tasteful art print not a gaudy mass-produced one with ‘80’ in cheap gold foil. Mother was more than a number.
On the bus the innocent fragrance of those rosebuds fought against diesel fumes. Ida cradled them like her precious child. ‘This is no world to bring children into,’ Mother said once, but that had been a rare pronouncement. Last year, when she was washing Mum, Ida discovered the bruise on her hip, others too on her shins and her thighs, clustered together in mottled purples, reds and yellows. ‘I collided with that stupid coffee table. But we can’t put the lights on, Ida. That man has been watching the house for days and he’ll see us. Please come away from the window, child.’
Days later Ida was late home. She only stopped off briefly to buy two of those strawberry slices from the Patisserie on Talbot Parade and a metre of rose-pink ribbon to tie around the box. She’d called and called. Maybe Mum was in the garden. No. Surely she couldn’t have run into the street. But Ida should have known it would be best to search the house. Mum’s world. Ida found her crouched in a corner of the attic, cobwebs tangled into her hair like a crazy gothic wig. ‘Softly Ida, softly, do you want them to hear you?’
Ida had chosen a religious nursing home after all. Although Mum had always insisted she had no beliefs and she had brought Ida up agnostic. The old ivy-clad mansion was perfect. Now Mum who couldn’t remember her own daughter joined in with prayers in a mysterious language Ida had never heard. It seemed Mum’s birthright, a real homecoming. The nurses were well-trained, used to ladies from backgrounds like Mum’s.
‘She’ll be so pleased to see you on her birthday. I have to say she’s been ever so weak and rambling, you know?’
Mum was sitting by her window. Ida hoped she was nodding at the catkins blowing there and not scrutinising dark silhouettes against the skyline. Her tiny form shrank within the folds of a navy button-through dress. The sun behind her gave her face a translucent quality, as if she were frail origami, a tissue paper old lady. For a second she focussed on Ida with those fierce, bewildered dark eyes. Then she smiled. ‘What a beautiful young woman,’ she said, ‘Who are you?’ She didn’t seem interested in the roses or the painting, only on peering intently into Ida’s face, ‘I do know you,’ she said, anxious before seeming to relax, ‘Of course you’re my brother, Isidore’s girl.’ Ida closed her fingers gently around the hand she recalled as a child, twisting and twisting a linen handkerchief into knots or smoothing at non-existent creases in a skirt. It rested like a dying bird in Ida’s clasp. ‘Happy Birthday, Mum,’ Ida said and Mum replied in a voice that seemed to come from some distant shore, ‘Nonsense. It isn’t my birthday and I’m not old enough to be your mother!’
The sleeve of Mum’s cardigan had been pushed up and the faded blue tattoo she had never talked to Ida about was visible on an arm where time had doodled veins and age-spots. These were the numbers that had branded her young skin. It had once been her only identity in a crowd of hungry, scrabbling bodies. Ida turned away just as she always had when she’d had to wash Mum or sit her on the lavatory. She pulled the lacy pink sleeve down like a blind. ‘Shall I arrange the flowers for you?’ But there was only the sound of a tea-trolley rattling down the hall, the pattering of a rain-shower across the window. The hand she held was quite cold, but Ida could not release it yet. Now came the moment she had been expecting yet not prepared for so long. Now time unravelled relentlessly in front of her. But Ida would wait with Mum just a little before she rang the bell. Before – so late in the day – she moved on.