The Catalyst

Brakes screeched, the dog yelped, the woman screamed and the driver swore.

As he leapt out of the car, prepared to wring her neck for letting her stupid mutt dash out like that, he was almost incandescent. But he saw at once that she was already so overcome there was no point in piling obscenities onto her. The dog was shivering and trembling, but there didn’t seem to be any blood. He took a deep breath.

“Shall I run you to the vet’s with him?” he suggested, with an apparent calm mastery of the situation he didn’t feel. “It’s the least I can do, under the circumstances.”

She blinked and swallowed hard, and he saw the tears welling up. She nodded. “Please.”.

An hour later, with the welcome news that the dog had only superficial injuries, they stood outside the vet’s office again. “Let me take you home,” he offered, “I don’t think either of you is really fit to walk any distance. Where do you live?”

She hesitated, then told him. It was indeed a couple of miles and the dog was still limping.

He seemed a decent chap in spite of the amazing string of epithets he had flung at her at the scene of the accident, and she felt he certainly owed her some kind of recompense for the distress he had caused.

On arrival at her house, he picked up the dog and carried him to the door. It seemed churlish to simply say thank you and goodbye so she invited him in for a cup of tea. As they chatted, they found they had much in common and it was a couple of hours before he left her cosy home, not forgetting to ask for her phone number so that he could check on the dog’s progress.

Six months later, they were married. The dog, of course, was also present, since he had been the unwitting cause of their acquaintance, wearing a large white bow on his collar. Both bride and groom bore scars from previous unsuccessful relationships, but they agreed that Providence had brought them together and as time was no longer on their side, they might as well make an effort to follow the path that Destiny was laying so clearly before them.

Their daily walks with the dog took them past the scene of their first meeting, and the route became a blessed pilgrimage trail for them. One particular house located right next to the place of their accident drew their attention.

“That would be my dream home,” she said one day as they strolled past the garden gates, peeking inside. “Isn’t it just perfect?” He acknowledged that it was indeed a beautiful place and very desirable residence, and they continued their walk. About two weeks later, as they approached their sacred spot, they noticed a For Sale sign outside the dream house. What if …?

When the owners heard their serendipitous story, they felt they had no choice: this was obviously a scenario being written by a divine hand, and the sale went through without a hitch. A year to the day of their first meeting, they moved into the house overlooking that momentous place.

On the other side of the road, stationed at her post in the garden of the house opposite, the cat watched with interest. She didn’t show herself until the woman let the dog off the leash. Then she ducked under her garden gate and sauntered provocatively along the grass verge. The dog dived straight through a gap in the hedge, rushing full pelt at his feline target.

Brakes screeched, the dog yelped, the woman screamed and the driver swore. The cat purred.

 

The Man Who Missed The Boat: A Modern-day Candide

Should we try to steer the course of our ship of life ourselves, or simply let it drift with the tides as they ebb and flow? Do our decisions really influence events the way we want them to, or will it all turn out as the fates have predestined it? Simon Baxter, The Man Who Missed The Boat, is probably the most indecisive character in literary history, but no decision is also a decision, as he suddenly finds out one Saturday morning.

Peter Wells tracks the events that sweep Simon along in their flow, with unexpected and life-changing consequences due to his innate good manners and inability to say no to anyone. This gentle, self-effacing protagonist (he can hardly be termed a hero) gains our sympathy as we follow his passage through a short but significant period of his existence, buffeted by the storms in other people’s lives that impact on his own. From tiptoeing over the surface where he can avoid any involvement in other people’s affairs, he suddenly trips and falls into a deep hole that turns him into a key player.

Told in Peter’s inimitable style, with humour, wit, compassion, and some very neat turns of phrase, this carefully woven story offers well-observed insights into Simon’s mind and its workings. As the narrative progresses, Peter also opens up to us the dreams, desires, aspirations and regrets of a multitude of other highly credible characters. Eventually, this tale of a man who has no desire to be master of his fate confronts us with the eternal question: would it make any difference if he did try to control his destiny? Read and find out.

You can sample the flavour of Peter’s writing at his blog Counting Ducks, where you can also meet a few more of the weird and wonderful inhabitants of his imaginary world. Or are they real?

The Dress

This is my one time article for the Virtual Blog Tour Award.
A little chick-lit fiction for a change.

The dresses were lovingly packed in tissue paper and the whole lot wrapped in a piece of sheeting inside a dusty old brown suitcase. She cautiously unfolded one and shook it out: no moths, no dust, just a faint fragrance of lavender. The suitcase had remained locked for so long and had served its purpose well. How many years had it been under the bed, she wondered, how long since it was last opened?

She noticed a card that had been tucked inside one of the dresses, an indigo brocade cocktail frock. Yes, “frock” was the right word for these early 1950’s styles with fitted bodices and full skirts, demanding stiff petticoats. The card showed a drawing of the dress and the name “Vogue” with a pattern number. So this was a homemade item. She looked at it more closely and saw how carefully it had been made, in spite of a few minor irregularities. It had been finished by hand, neatly and invisibly hemstitched,

She moved the tissue paper aside and pulled out the next one, a flowing, full-length gown of emerald silk cut on the bias, even more exquisitely made than the first, and held it up against her, turning to look in the chevalier mirror. She gasped.

“Gran,” she called out, “Granny!” and carrying the dress as if it could fall apart any second, she ran downstairs to the sitting room.

“Granny, look! Look what I’ve found upstairs!”

Her grandmother looked up from her crossword, with a smile that immediately disappeared again at the sight of the green silk.

“Where did you find that?”

“In an old suitcase under the bed in the spare room,” she replied, her eyes shining. “Isn’t it gorgeous; Gran?”

She stroked the soft smooth material, almost lasciviously.

“It would be perfect for my Prom, Gran,” she said with a wheedling note in her voice. “It’s real vintage, and just amazing. It looks my size. Oh Gran, it would be awesome …”

Her grandmother was looking at her with a strange expression, as if she were going to cry. It took her a few moments to regain her composure and then she smiled at her granddaughter and said quietly, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea, sweetheart.”

But the girl had already slipped out of her t-shirt and jeans and was stepping into the green gown, which was a little long for her, but otherwise a perfect fit. She twirled and pirouetted for her grandmother’s benefit, and her long black hair flew round her flushed face.

“It’s magic, isn’t it, Gran? This is what they call Grecian, isn’t it? Made to measure for me!”

The old woman cleared her throat. “You are the same build as we were,” she said. “You have the Lewis figure. And your hair is the same colour as Helen’s was.”

The girl was catwalking to and fro on tiptoe, enjoying the swish of the silk and the feel of it against her skin.

“I know which shoes will go with it,” she declared, “They have six-inch heels, so the dress won’t even be too long!”

“It suits you, sweetheart,” her grandmother agreed. “But I think you’d better take it off now. We don’t want it to get spoilt, after it’s survived all these years. “

She helped the girl out of the dress, and laid it neatly over the back of a chair.

“Come and sit down a minute, “ she went on, catching the girl’s hand. “And I’ll tell you about it.”

They sat side by side on the sofa, and the solemn expression on her grandmother’s face suddenly struck the girl with foreboding. It was like an icicle on the back of her neck and she felt her skin turning to gooseflesh.

“Is it sad?” she asked warily. Her grandmother looked down at her feet and for a moment she didn’t speak. The silence lay like a thick cold blanket over them.

“You know we were three sisters, don’t you?” she began. “It was my older sister, Joyce, who was training to be a dressmaker and made those dresses you found. I didn’t know I still had them. It was great for us to have such a clever sister, and as we were all so close in age and more or less the same size and build, we shared most of our clothes. In those days, there was plenty of opportunity to get dressed up, and we all loved going to dances and parties.

Well, that green dress there was a very special one. The material was very expensive, and you know silk isn’t easy to sew, it slips and slides under the sewing machine, so Joyce had a lot of trouble making it, but when it was finished she was so proud of it! She had auburn hair, you see, and that green really complemented it and brought out the colour of her eyes. We thought she looked absolutely fantastic, like Rita Hayworth!” The memories softened the old lady’s face, as she recalled her sister’s beauty.

“Joyce was courting; a young man called Brian, and hoping to get engaged. They were going to a dinner-dance, and she knew he was going to propose that evening. She loved emeralds, and had been dropping hints about the kind of ring she wanted, and that was why she picked that colour for her dress. She looked so lovely, standing there waiting for him to come and collect her. Well, she waited and waited and he didn’t come. We were all getting anxious, and she was devastated, couldn’t understand why he’d stood her up. And then, much later, there was a knock at the door and it was a policeman.”

She paused, swallowed, blinked away a tear and then continued in a low voice: “Brian had one of those little sports cars, with an open top. He was on his way to our house, and … well, obviously he was in a hurry to see Joyce. It all happened very suddenly. The car skidded in a bend and turned over. He was killed outright, the policeman said. No seatbelts in those days, of course. They found a little box in his pocket with an emerald ring in it, and a card he had written that said: My darling Joyce, will you marry me?“

The girl’s eyes widened and she stared aghast at her grandmother.

“Well, of course, after that Joyce never wanted to wear that dress again. She hung it at the back of the wardrobe and left it there.”

“And did it stay there for ever and ever?” asked the girl.

“Oh no, not at all. It was such a lovely gown; it was a shame for it not to be worn. So after a while, I asked Joyce if she would let me have it. She was only too happy to get rid of it! I didn’t have the hair colour of course, but we all thought I looked nice in the dress. It is a very flattering style, as you can see. Anyway, I was madly in love and had a date with a handsome young airman at a special do at the officers’ mess. So off I went, full of happiness and hope. And halfway through the evening, he told me there was someone else! I felt as if I’d baled out without a parachute. He didn’t even have the decency to escort me home; just called me a taxi and said goodbye.” She gave a wry smile, but the pain and humiliation were still reflected in her eyes.

Her granddaughter snuggled up to her and squeezed her hand.

“So after that, I didn’t have very pleasant associations with that dress either,” she said. “I passed it on to my younger sister, and Helen was thrilled with it. She was a bit taller than Joyce and me, but that didn’t matter. You look very much like her, actually, same colouring. She got Joyce to alter the neckline a little bit, to make it more up to date. This was about 5 years after Joyce wore it, and necklines were plunging a bit more. She wore jet beads with it, and long dangly jet earrings.“

“Did she have a nice time?” asked the girl, timorously. Her grandmother shook her head. “She went to a dance,” she said, gritting her teeth. “You’re growing up now, so I suppose I can tell you. Do you know what ‘date-rape’ means?”

Horrified, the girl nodded. So did her grandmother.

“So, now you know why none of us ever wore that dress again,” she concluded.

The girl looked at her, thinking about what she had just heard.

“You can’t blame the dress, Gran,” she protested. “It’s just a coincidence.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” responded her grandmother. “But I believe that dress is jinxed. I have no idea how it got into my things. I suppose Helen didn’t want it after what happened to her, and Joyce certainly didn’t, so it probably just got put back with my things. I wish it hadn’t. It’s very bad luck, that dress. “

“I’m not superstitious, Gran! I don’t believe in all that stuff. Please let me have it for the Prom, it’ll be a sensation! I don’t think you really believe it’s jinxed, either – these things happen.”

It took a lot of persuasion, but the girl finally left with the green dress carefully wrapped in its tissue paper, revelling in her victory and with a sense that somehow, even though she wasn’t superstitious, she was challenging fate. She tossed her head and told herself there was really no reason to be afraid of anything bad happening.

The evening of the Prom soon came around, and the giggling gaggle of teenagers set off for a fantastic evening at the country house hotel that had been booked for the great occasion.

Her grandmother sat at home, her eyes fixed anxiously on the phone. She thought of the three times the dress had been worn up to now, and the disastrous events associated with it. She feared for her granddaughter, praying that she would be spared the kind of trauma she and her two sisters had endured. The phone didn’t ring, and she went to bed at around midnight with a heavy heart. The next day dawned, dismal and gloomy. She felt tense and worried all day, waiting for the bad news.

She was just pouring her afternoon tea when the doorbell rang. It was her granddaughter, limping, biting her lip and obviously distressed, holding a carrier bag in which a bundle of emerald green silk was visible.

“What happened?”

“I’m so sorry, Gran. There was a little accident,” said the girl tearfully. “I’m afraid the dress is ruined. Please don’t be mad at me.”

“Tell me,” said her grandmother, trembling with apprehension, as she sat the girl down and handed her a mug of tea.

“Oh, it was dreadful! I was having an amazing time, everything was fantastic, and then – well, you know the dress was a bit too long, so I was wearing those killer heels – oh, shoes to die for, Gran! And I nearly did! I was just starting to go down the grand staircase and I caught my heel in the hem of the dress and went bump, bump, bump like a bouncing ball all the way down to the bottom. I felt so stupid and clumsy!!”

“Oh my goodness! Were you hurt? Are you all right?”

“Oh, I’m fine, Gran – you know I do martial arts so I know how to fall. Just twisted my ankle a bit. But the disaster … the dress … I’m so sorry, I didn’t want to bring it back in this state … but, well, what broke my fall at the bottom of the stairs was the desserts trolley.”

She bent down and extracted the emerald gown from the carrier bag. It was torn and covered in smears of trifle, fruit salad, whipped cream, ice cream and chocolate.

“It’s ruined, Gran. I don’t think anyone will be able to wear it again.”

“Oh my darling! Oh, don’t worry about that! As long as you are all right, and – what I feared most – you haven’t had your heart broken through wearing this cursed dress!”

The girl grinned through her tears.

“Oh no, Gran – just the opposite! Tristan Perkins picked me out of the wreckage and carried me to safety. I’ve fancied him for ages, but he’s never noticed me till now.”

She laughed gleefully.

“He called me his Green Goddess and kissed all the chocolate off my face! Oh, Gran – he’s just awesome, amazing! I think I’ve broken the curse – that dress has brought me a wonderful boyfriend!”

Mr Jinx’s Corner

Sitting here in my usual place in Starbucks, I can indulge in my favourite pastime of people watching and eavesdropping. Nobody takes any notice of me, except the odd small child or pet dog, but nobody bothers about them and their gawping, either, so I’m left in peace here in my little corner.

You see all sorts in here, and I pick up all kinds of gossip. Sadly, there isn’t anyone left for me to pass it on to, but I still enjoy a good juicy scandal even if I’m obliged to stay mum. Oh, those were the days, when I could gather tales from what I overheard and invent what I didn’t, and what a success I had with them!  Into the lion’s mouth they went, page after page, for Mr Addison. He loved all my tittle-tattle. Still, that’s my eternal punishment: the frustration of daily scoops and no publisher.

I sit here most days, all eyes and ears. The place has changed, of course, over the years,. It isn’t even the same building any more, but luckily they rebuilt it with my corner still intact. It used to be all oak wainscoting with long benches and settles, and the stuff people scattered over the tables beggared belief! Pamphlets, letters, poems, drawings, lampoons, newspapers!  It smelt different, of course, too. What men smoked at that time was powerfully aromatic, and the coffee wasn’t this wishy-washy milky stuff they serve nowadays. it was good pungent Turkish sludge that inspired men to eloquence and rhetoric. You don’t get that rich human fragrance of honest sweat any more in here, either.

Not that it was all honest, I must confess. That’s one reason I’m here. I didn’t realise he was a highwayman, the fellow I overheard and told on. My last good story, that was. But he came rushing in when he discovered he was betrayed, crying, “Your ears may go on flapping but I’ll stop your tongue from clapping!” and shoved his sword down my throat. Pinned me to my chair, and that was the final curse that has kept me here ever since. Damned to hear everything, and unable to pass on anything.

They cleaned the mess up, of course, but I stayed on in this corner. I keep it chilly just here so it isn’t a popular seat. A few times, someone has tried to sit on me, but the sword makes it uncomfortable so they soon move. Oh, it was all very different, very different, and so much more exciting then. As I said, this is a new building and not at all the same sort of clientele today. You wouldn’t have found women here in the old days, though some of the nocturnal sisterhood tried to sneak in occasionally.

Miserable lot, though, many of them nowadays. They sit here in their squashy sofas and armchairs with their earplugs, tablets, laptops and so forth, tweeting, texting and twittering, and you never hear a proper discussion or debate.  No intelligent conversation going on at all.

Mind you, I welcome wifi. You probably know we aren’t supposed to intervene in the material world, though I soon got the hang of lowering the temperature around me, and causing draughts to blow papers around or make candles go out. I can vary the electricity supply, too, if I concentrate.

But wifi is a real boon: Oh, I have great fun playing with their gadgets! I can change their messages without their noticing, and they think it’s that predictive text thing. Or switch recipients for their e-mails – that can cause havoc! Phone hacking – that’s my invention, actually, and look what a pickle that has got people into! They never suspect me, even though I’ve taken selfies on their phones sometimes. I don’t come out very clear, unfortunately, so when they see my full wig they tend to think I’m some hippy they’ve snapped by mistake.

I can tell from your face you think I shouldn’t do that, you disapprove of my little bit of mischief making. There’s much worse I could be doing, I assure you. It gets rather dull, sitting here century after century, and you begrudge me my few moments of playfulness?

Anyway, what am I doing, talking to you? You aren’t supposed to see me. I’m invisible. Inaudible. It’s unnerving, the way you keep responding to me, unnatural. You really can see and hear me, can’t you?

What’s that, you have a ghost-buster app? Is nothing sacred? Three hundred years I’ve been sitting here, since this was Buttons Coffee House!  Playing by the rules of my curse! And never been rumbled! Egad, this is my corner, Mr Jinx’s Corner, that’s what it’s always been called. They may have guessed I was here, indeed, but now you come along and spoil my sport!

Ah, but wait – no! No, I take that back.

Did I get that right, you can actually hear and understand everything I say?

And you are a gutter-press journalist?

Oh, what a delight! Your servant, sir, electronics be praised!

Have I got some stories for you!

“”””””””””

 When the idea for this tale first struck me, I was unaware that a Starbucks had actually been established on the site of Buttons, one of London’s famous coffee houses: so it came as a surprise to read this article confirming that my fancy was fact. However, whether Mr Jinx is fact or fancy, I have no way of verifying.