Devon Prize Winner of the 2017 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition.
I’m really, really quiet, they won’t know I’m here. Maybe, if I
stay here long enough, they’ll forget I existed. I’ll hold my
breath and float away into oblivion – or whatever happens when
woman – grey hair gathered into a bun, eyes screwed shut -
crouches in the shadows
of a garden shed. She curls herself into a tight ball, as she has
seen woodlice do, hoping she can’t be seen behind the lawnmower.
Footsteps. The door creaks, daylight slices through the dark.
can sense his presence, smell his spicy aftershave. She suppresses
the urge to gag. After what feels like an eternity, he turns and goes
out, slamming the door behind
eyes adjust slowly to the darkness. What happens now? She can’t
stay here forever.
You can’t live off grass seed and Miracle Gro.
she sees it – the red petrol can she uses to fill the lawnmower,
with a rag tucked in the handle. Did she remember to fill it up,
though? She lifts it with a shaking hand and hears the splosh of
started a year ago, after the death of Beryl’s husband. Their
detached house was far too large for her - two floors plus a big
attic conversion - so she had the attic floor converted into a
self-contained flat. The light was good and it had a spacious
with a lovely view over the neighbouring rooftops. Half an hour after
putting an ad in the Post Office window, the doorbell rang and she
had a tenant.
was one of those people it is impossible to dislike, mid-forties,
with an engaging
smile and honest blue eyes. He worked at the university – Beryl
didn’t fully catch exactly what he did there – and was ready to
move in immediately. The next day, a Saturday, Richard returned with
a hired van and a younger, equally personable friend, Charlie. Beryl
had never seen so many boxes – she couldn’t imagine they would
all fit in the flat. She made everyone a cup of tea, and discovered
that Charlie was moving in too.
hope you’ll have room for all your - things,’
said Beryl. She didn’t have a problem with Charlie, but Richard
should have mentioned him.
love it here already,’ said Richard.
following morning Beryl heard a tap at her door. It was Richard,
plate in his hand. ‘I wanted to try out the oven,’ he said. ‘I
hope you like brownies.’
knew it would ruin her appetite – she was going out for lunch –
but didn’t wish to appear rude. The brownie was warm from the oven
and gooey in the middle. Richard
insisted she sat down to eat it. It was far too big - too rich –
and Beryl felt queasy. It was a struggle to keep it down, except that
Richard was standing over her.
loves chocolate!’ he exclaimed. ‘Next time I’ll make my Better
Than Sex Cake. You’re going to love it.’
didn’t like that kind of talk. ‘Not specially for me – please!
I have to be careful what I eat nowadays.’
to yourself!’ said Richard. ‘You’re no age at all.’
picked up the plate and made as if to leave. His hand was on the door
handle when he turned and said, ‘Oh, I almost forgot! You were
right, what you said yesterday
- we are a bit tight on space up there.
it’s not asking too much, could we take you up on your offer of
storing a few boxes down here, till we sort ourselves out? In a
corner, out of your way?’
couldn’t recall offering anything of the sort, but it was true, she
had plenty of room. She showed him into the small back bedroom once
occupied by her daughter, apologizing for the décor.
your daughter live locally?’ asked Richard.
I’m hoping to fly out to see her later in the year. Will this do?’
– it’s just for the time being. Just one thing, though, would it
be too much to ask for a key into your part of the house? You know,
in case we need something from one of our boxes, and you’re out?
Also, if you’re going away…’
gave him a key. It was a good idea, to be honest, in case she ever
lost hers, or locked herself out.
she returned from lunch, Beryl knew the boys had been at work - she
could smell their aftershave. Caroline’s room was stacked high with
stuff and there were more in the corner of her own bedroom. On her
kitchen table was a vase of freesias – her favourite. Thank
you for making us feel so at home,
read the note.
and her husband had shared a passion for gardening, and in its heyday
the garden at number 15 had been the prettiest in the street. Beryl
regarded it as a matter of honour that she should not let standards
slip now he was gone.
front garden was partly paved, for Beryl to park her car, with
hanging baskets at the door and flowerbeds round the edge. At the
back was a patio, shed and lawn, screened by flowering shrubs and
with an island bed in the middle.
theme was colour
- the more of it the merrier. The display started in April with
wallflowers and tulips, in a brilliant burst of yellow, red, pink,
purple and bronze. Then came the kaleidoscope of midsummer - flaming
marigolds, mauve fuchsias, scarlet salvias and tumbling blue
lobelias, interwoven with purple geraniums and pink sweet peas. In
August and September these were in turn outdone by a strident fanfare
of multi-coloured dahlias, cerise lilies and neon nasturtiums.
did not plan her planting schemes – they were happy accidents. The
only colours she didn’t like were white (a wasted opportunity) and
green (a necessary evil). A few years back she went as far as to
order samples for an artificial lawn in turquoise, but thought she’d
miss the weekly mow.
was now May: time for Beryl’s first big hit on the local garden
centre. Richard and Charlie said they’d love to come along – it
was a lot of lifting and loading for one person, so she was grateful.
She dropped the pair off at the entrance and drove away in search of
a parking space.
can’t have been more than five minutes before she returned. To her
amazement, she saw the boys were wheeling trolleys, each of which was
already three-quarters loaded.
said Beryl, brightly. ‘You’ve started without me.’ It wasn’t
the way she liked to do things – she was a cautious chooser.
a great place!’ said Richard. Charlie hovered behind, smiling and
nodding. There was something insipid, irritating about the younger
need a few minutes, if you don’t mind,’ said Beryl. ‘I like to
have a good look round before deciding.’
problem – take your time. We’ve made a good start, though –
white and blue, like you said.’
harrumphed. Who ever mentioned white and blue? She looked longingly
up and down the benches of young bedding plants – stripy mauve
petunias, candy pink begonias and tufted yellow celosias. She had
never seen such a choice, in such mouthwatering hues; it made her
heart sing just looking at them. Richard was right, though - it was
probably old-fashioned to mix up colours.
reluctantly picked up a tray of white alyssum and another of white
tobacco plants – at least they would smell nice – and realized
the boys had disappeared with the trolleys. She found them five
minutes later, in animated conversation with a young staff member at
the information point.
we’d lost you!’ exclaimed Richard. ‘This charming young man has
been telling us we need some fertiliser.’ That set them off
laughing. ‘Let’s pick some up on the way out.’ (More
must have looked disapproving, because Richard said, ‘A little
birdie tells me it’s time we went home.’
and Charlie’s passion for gardening did not extend to the physical,
so Beryl found herself with a busy afternoon ahead. She placed the
little plants round the flowerbeds, then tucked each into its new
home with a trowel-full of compost. Richard said something about
planting in groups, to avoid a spotty effect. She didn’t know how
he’d suddenly become such an expert – probably picked it up from
some TV show. It was disconcerting to think she’d been doing it
wrong all these years.
she was in a pleasant glow when she came in two hours later. Her
tenants had taken to making extra when they were cooking, and leaving
tasty meals in her fridge, for her to pop in the microwave. She felt
peckish, and wondered what was on the menu.
of the usual lasagne or shepherd’s pie, her eyes alighted on a
salad, wrapped in cling film. Celery, some lettuce, an unripe tomato.
On top was a Post-it note: Bikini
diet starts today!
Really, it was too much. At least they couldn’t stop her having a
glass of wine. Except they could: on the wine bottle, which had been
emptied, was another note: No
was the start of a trying few weeks for Beryl. She knew they meant
well by watching her calories for her - we all feel better if we lose
a pound or two. But she started having food dreams at night, and woke
up with stomach pains.
there was the shopping. Neither Richard nor Charlie drove, so it was
only sensible she should do the supermarket run. It annoyed her,
however, that they always rounded down their share of the bill, or
neglected to pay altogether. As for the trips to IKEA: how she came
to hate that place! The phoney room sets, the stench of meatballs,
tried to keep things in perspective. Her tenants were in other
respects the soul of kindness – the best neighbours ever. In a
sense, she had brought the IKEA problem on herself, by failing to
object when the boys asked if they could spread out into her part of
the house. Obviously, they couldn’t be expected to share her taste
in furniture. And the IKEA stuff was
cheap, which helped, as she usually ended up paying.
sometimes, Beryl felt as if things were getting out of control. But
who was there to talk to? Ron would have known what to do, she
thought with a pang. As for Caroline, living thousands of miles away
in a desert – she had her own problems, what with that
penny-pinching husband and her psoriasis flaring in the heat. No, all
in all, Beryl should consider herself lucky.
September, Richard announced that he and Charlie were feeling the
pinch, and would it be okay if they took a short break from paying
rent? Beryl had seen it coming. As far as she knew, neither of the
pair had gone out to work for weeks, unless you counted dumping
empties in the bottle bank across the road.
this time she had also – in somewhat ill grace – taken over their
cleaning and laundry. An infestation of mice had necessitated a visit
to the top floor and Beryl – who hadn’t been up there for weeks –
was disgusted by the the piles of dirty dishes, overflowing ashtrays
and evil-smelling bathroom. A health hazard, that’s what it was.
long afterwards, she was ironing sheets (the boys were suddenly fussy
about such things) when she heard a low rumbling. A lorry was
reversing into her driveway, flattening the flowerbeds. Beryl ran out
of the front door. ‘You can’t turn here!’ she cried. ‘You’re
wrecking my garden.’
the man yelled back. ‘Hot tub.’ And it was true. Despite their
money troubles, her tenants had purchased a top-of-the-range heated
Jacuzzi, complete with massage jets and whirlpool feature. The ‘spa’
(as Richard called it) was installed on the roofdeck. It took four
hours to fill with water and Beryl was terrified the weight would
bring down the ceiling in Caroline’s room below.
said she could use it any time, but she shuddered at the thought. The
roofdeck was in plain sight of the neighbours, and she had no
intention of making an exhibition of herself.
feet had always been her weak point, and what her increasing
workload, they were so sore she had taken to retiring to bed after
supper. If she listened hard, she could make out what Richard and
Charlie were saying in the room directly above, and that’s how she
discovered that Charlie – the quiet one – was the mastermind, the
one she really needed to fear.
was explaining to Richard that the next step was to get Birdie (the
nickname had stuck – she hated it) to write her will.
probably already has one,’ said Richard.
maybe she’d like to write a new one,’ said Charlie, with a
chuckle. ‘It’ll give her peace of mind. She’s not too steady on
her pins, and it would be awful if she took a tumble down the stairs
without having her affairs in order.’
so it was that Beryl found herself hiding in her garden shed on a
drizzling November evening. For two weeks she had stood her ground
and refused, but now her black-hearted adversaries had given her an
ultimatum: sign the will today or you’ll regret it.
was hard to think of any indignity to which she hadn’t already been
subjected, but with those two, you could never be quite sure. Beryl
had turned over the possibilities – would they brick her up? bury
her alive? – and decided the best idea was to disappear.
had turned six, and she was trying to decide what to do next, when
she heard a squeal. Peeping out of the cobwebby window of the shed,
she looked up to the roofdeck and saw Richard slipping into the hot
tub, followed shortly by Charlie. Naked, the two of them.
they’d put on weight. Pink and bloated – not a good look.
shut her eyes and concentrated: she knew this was her moment. She
picked up the petrol can.
as a cat, she slid across the garden and let herself into the house.
Without turning on the lights, she felt her way into her kitchen and
found the box of matches she kept by the stove. Next she crept
upstairs, opened the door of Caroline’s room and emptied the petrol
over the piles of cardboard boxes. It stank to high heaven.
hardest bit was yet to come. Beryl crept up to the attic and into
the boys’ flat. She could see out from the darkened bedroom to the
roofdeck, where her tenants were cavorting the the floodlit tub.
darted across the bedroom and hid behind the curtains. She heard a
guffaw and clink of glasses from the tub outside, then crawled across
the carpet on her stomach and dropped the bolts on the roofdeck
doors. Her prey was trapped!
the way out, Beryl saw the will which had caused so much trouble on
the table. She snatched it up, ran downstairs, lit it by the corner
and tossed it into Caroline’s petrol-drenched bedroom. There was an
and flash of flame, followed by crackles and hissing. Beryl closed
the door against the blistering heat.
was the talk of the neighbourhood for years, and eventually a tale
passed from generation to generation, grandparent to grandchild.
were the piercing screams, which drew most of the town to their
windows. The screams were coming from the roof deck of number 15 –
the one with the hot tub – where two naked, rather overweight
middle-aged men were gyrating and waving their arms, with cries of
were no drainpipes to slither down, and it was far too high for them
to jump. The windows of the room directly beneath the roofdeck were
bright with flame, spewing out smoke. Tongues of fire licked upwards,
painting the roofdeck an infernal orange.
men must have suddenly felt the heat, because they threw themselves
back in the hot tub and started splashing about. The bigger of the
two then went into hysterics, shrieking about being boiled alive, at
which point the other threw him a punch in the face and they both
disappeared underwater. The commotion was too much for the structure
of number 15. The masonry shifted with a groan, then there was a
watched spellbound from the door of the garden shed. She felt the
warmth of the fire on her skin - the spritz of warm water as the
house came down - and later, the kind touch of firefighters, who
wrapped her in a blanket and delivered her into the care of a
crushed remains of Richard and Charlie were dug from the rubble the
following day, but it was Beryl everyone felt sorry for. She’d
warned the boys about those roofdeck doors, not to lock themselves
out by mistake. As for the petrol, how could she have known they were
daft enough to keep cans of fuel among the boxes in her spare room?
Highly irresponsible – specially considering they were smokers.
Surprising it didn’t happen sooner.
collected the insurance on number 15 and sold it as a building plot.
Her idea was to buy a little flat somewhere and go on lots of
cruises, but Caroline and Neville, scenting cash, returned from the
Middle East, pooled their money with Beryl and bought a house with a
granny annexe in the Home Counties.
misses the good old days with Richard and Charlie, but the annexe has
its own little garden, and Beryl – or Birdie, as she now likes
friends to call her - plants it out in their memory, in white and