Old Flame (300 words)

She is a sight that I’ll never forget, even if I tried.

Despite the long years that had passed, she still wore that same blue scarf, those fiery auburn curls, that breathtaking cheeky smile. A familiar warm shiver danced down my spine. As she drummed her fingernails and patiently awaited her bill, all those precious memories of our too-short time together came flooding back.

Late night strolls across campus, arm-in-arm and heads bent together, giggling at corny jokes. Heartfelt conversations in the nearby forest, smoothing back an errant curl as she smiled down on me. Private study sessions, fingertips barely brushing as we each scribbled away. Fond side-glances when we each thought the other wasn’t looking …

This woman wasn’t the girl I loved at 19. She stood taller and relaxed, more sure of herself. Her tanned skin glowed – back from a sunny holiday, no doubt.

And a silver ring glinted on her left hand.

A pang of regret squeezed my heart. That time was over. We were young and foolish then. She really was a different person now. But this beautiful woman reflected the person I once was … someone who didn’t take a chance.

As she stood up and strolled past my table, like ships passing in the night, my mind screamed at me to get up, say something, anything. My last second chance. But my body locked into place. My throat tightened, and my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth.

What good would it do, after seven long years apart?

She disappeared for the second time in my life, leaving me with a cold slice of cake and the fantasy of what could have been. I raised my mug and toasted the cherished times we once shared. They were distant memories now. Long gone.

But they were still ours.

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Crimson Snow (1000 words)

The trick was to get it over with, then drive it out of your mind. To tell yourself: these aren’t people. These are MacDonalds.

War hardens a man, and after a few years in the army he can stomach almost anything. Even so, it’s a lot to ask of a man – to eat another man’s food, to sleep under his roof, accept his hospitality … and then murder him in his sleep.

Still, King William was determined to be rid of the “Auld Fox” MacIain and the rest of his MacDonald clan once and for all. So we were billeted on them, with the excuse that Fort William was too overcrowded to hold us. As we marched into the glen – 120 men of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment – MacIain’s sons melted out of the mist and asked if we came as friends or foes. ‘As friends,’ Captain Glenlyon smiled. ‘As friends.’

For fifteen days we shared their poor wee houses in that great valley of Glencoe, where a river of wind flows always cold and where the snowcapped mountains tower high into the sky. The Master of Stair said it must be done in winter, the one time the Highlanders could not elude us and carry their wives, children and cattle off into the mountains.

They didn’t suspect a thing. After all, we had accepted MacIain’s hospitality, and that should have guaranteed our goodwill even though we were Campbells. (Campbells and MacDonalds had been at each other’s throats for decades; that’s why Stair chose us for the job.) The unwritten law of the Highlands – they thought they had nothing to fear.

So we played cards with the MacDonalds, drank with them, swapped stories around their smouldering peat-fires. We sat down to supper cooked by their women, and our knuckles brushed theirs as we reached into the same bowl for food. The children tugged at our uniforms, pleading to be sung a song. Their mothers hushed them to bed: ‘Dinnae fash the officer: he needs his sleep.’

At nightfall we were summoned outside and given our orders by Glenlyon. No bed-rest tonight. When they saw us checking our muskets the MacIain brothers asked, ‘What’s happening?’

Glenlyon just laughed. ‘Local band of robbers in the next valley. We’ll go after them tomorrow.’

The time was set for five in the morning, when the clansmen would be sleeping or just stirring. We waited, watching the moon drift over the glen through tangles of snow-cloud, a thistledown of snow falling. By three o’clock it had thickened into a blizzard.

Come five o’clock we went to work. Bayonets fixed. No shots fired, that was the order. But some of us were jumpy – or squeamish – and we used our guns. The MacDonalds would have woken anyway. The screaming would wake them soon enough.

We killed more than thirty. You wouldn’t think that would take long. And yet the screaming seemed to last for an eternity. Sometimes I still hear it in my dreams. Men, women, children. Everyone under seventy, the order said, and don’t bother the Governor with prisoners. If they barred the doors against us, we set the house alight and burned it down, with them all inside. Women. Children.

Thirteen in one house.

In the confusion some got away, out of the village. Didn’t matter. It’s so cold up there, with the snow so deep, and only their thin nightshirts for sleeping, barefoot, without cloak or blanket; we knew they’d freeze to death on the mountainsides.

In the hovel where I had slept, nine clansmen were huddled around the morning fire when we went in shooting. Four died where they sat. We split up and went after the women, the bairns, the old folk. They wept, they cursed and pleaded … but our bayonets were deaf. I came face-to-face with the owner, whose knuckles had brushed mine as I reached for bread at supper. Odd how, in all the chaos – the smashing of furniture, the screams, the shooting, the curses – there lay nothing between us but silence. A blanket of silence. Then he raised his chin and said, ‘Let me die in the open air, man, nae under ma ain roof.’

I had steeled myself against the usual pleas: Let me live. Spare my wife. Pity the bairns. This seemed such a small thing to ask, such a trivial mercy to grant: “Let me die in the open air.”

I nodded. ‘For your bread which I have eaten, I will.’ We shoved him outside with our musket butts, and he stood there in the dark in his thin nightshirt, tartan plaid over one shoulder, his face underlit by the blood-spattered snow.

We raised our muskets.

He ripped off his plaid, threw it in our faces and ran. We fired after him, but the night swallowed him up. Maybe he lived. Maybe he froze to death, being without his thick woollen plaid. Part of me hopes he got clear.

But Glenlyon came down on us, raging. ‘There’s two more run into the forest yonder!’ he bellowed at me. ‘Get after them and finish them both!’

I could hear them crashing through the deadwood; clods of snow slumped down from the branches, showing their panicked flight. I followed their footprints through the trees – one set deep, one set so small and light that it barely dented the snow. Pretty soon the snowy trees swallowed up the roar of burning buildings behind me, the crack of muskets. All was silent when I found them: a silent grey hollow pillared with bare tree trunks. A woman and child clung gasping to each other, too exhausted to run any further, their breath curling into the air like musket smoke.

I raised my musket. Fired. Drew my pistol. Fired again.

Twigs and snow tumbled down upon me, from where the balls had holed the leafy canopy overhead. The woman stared at me, her hand clamped over the boy’s mouth to stop him screaming. Neither of us said a word.

Then I pulled the shawl from her shoulders, turned on my heel and headed back. On the way, Providence set a wolf in my path, so I killed it and daubed the shawl with blood. Something to show Glenlyon. Appease his butcher’s heart.

It was a shameful night’s work. I don’t tell people I was there. I don’t say, “I was at Glencoe.” You only have to mention the word and men shudder. I shudder too: as if the snow blew deep inside me that night and lodged where it’s never going to thaw.

And at five in the morning, I lie awake in the dark.

Shivering.

© 2020 | Tom Burton

The Candlemas Hunt (2800 words)

Frost crisped the ploughed field as Dewfang trotted over the iron-hard furrows. The fox’s breath misted the air as he yawned, pads crunching through the broken corn stubble. Snow still shackled the north-facing heights of Dartmoor, but in the sheltered stream runnels snowdrops peeked shyly from dead bracken, and purple crocuses flaunted their crowns to greet the first splash of sun. Spiders’ silk veiled the hawthorns in silver, and the hedgerow glittered crimson with rowanberries. Dewfang paused to taste the breeze with his nose, enticing scents of coney and fieldmouse cramming his senses. Woodcocks tumbled from the leafless trees before him and rattled away eastwards, but Thornbeak the buzzard was ready. Mewing to her distant mate she corkscrewed into a swift dive and hit the flock from behind, seizing the slowest straggler and scattering the rest in panicked disarray. Breakfast swinging from her talons, Thornbeak windsurfed over the scarlet-coated riders gathered outside the White Hart and settled into a skeletal ash to butcher the hen.

John eyed his visitors coldly. True, he was sure to take a handsome profit from beer and kidney pie at lunchtime, but their swaggering presence needled him. These pale-breeched men and women braying to each other in light nasal accents, slouching against the bar in their crimson livery, littering the carpark with their fag-ends, their dogshit … He mashed the dishcloth into a soapy tankard, fuming.

His daughter curled bare arms around his waist. ‘They here for the fox, Dad?’

‘Aye, Kate. These duffers ain’t got no chance ’gainst Old Red.’ He ruffled her blonde curls as she scowled at the loitering riders. Many winter nights she’d roused him from sleep and eagerly pulled him to a frosty window, her eyes shining as a tawny shadow trotted across the rear porch, its sleek chestnut pelt glowing under golden lamplight. The fox’s mystery enchanted her; it was born to freedom, its kingdom the wild beauty of the open moor. This whole pagan bloodsport of running it down with dogs repelled him. Disgusted him.

He clenched his jaw as both the Huntsman and Master of Foxhounds waddled up to the bar, heavy paunches straining as they discussed the merits of prized dogs. Even their hunt jargon sounded snooty as hell — ‘half a score of hounds’, ‘a dem fine nose’, ‘caught him by the brush’ — like it was a jolly harmless game. Damn them. Damn them all.

‘Why’re you huntin’ him?’ Kate interrupted, pouting up at them. ‘Old Red asn’t hurt nobody! Why’re you after him?’

The huntsman smiled indulgently down at her. ‘Because he’s a pest, young lady. Pests kill chickens and pigs — you want a dirty thief stealing all your bacon and eggs?’

Kate’s eyes glistened with furious tears. ‘But it idn’t right! He’s got cubs, he’s gotta hunt something!’

‘And we have to hunt him.’ The huntsman patted her head — John was almost tempted to ram his fist into that smirking face.

‘She’s got a point,’ he growled. ‘Ain’t right to make them cubs orphans.’

The master’s lip curled. ‘Easy now, sir. We only ever kill dog foxes. Not the bitches.’

More quaint slaughterhouse smalltalk, the barman thought. Seething, he nodded.

The huntsman slapped down his drained tankard. ‘Remember, God gave us dominion over all the birds and beasts.’

John rolled his eyes. ‘With respect, mister, this ’ere’s Devon — not the Holy Land.’

The master bristled. ‘Says so in the Bible.’

Kate buried her face in her hands and sobbed. John shepherded his daughter away, shaking his head. ‘Also says there’s a Garden of Eden someplace. No Moors of Eden, just a Garden full o’ God’s creatures.’ The two hunters had now turned their backs and resumed chatting; he knelt down to dry Kate’s tears. ‘Well, we’ve got a garden.’ He took her hand and smiled. ‘An’ I reckon God likes foxes in it. Sound good, kid?’

Kate giggled wetly and hugged him. Felix dozed before the fireplace, his marmalade paws twitching as he chased mice through his dreams.

Outside, the horses champed and stamped, their flanks steaming as their scarlet-coated riders chatted to the beaters in rust-brown tweed. The pack of foxhounds swarmed around the Master, grunting and snuffling for attention as he fussed over Campion, greatest hound of Ivybridge kennels. The tan-spotted dog had bolted a huge breakfast of beef porridge, and eagerly licked his nicotine-stained fingers. Eastward, a dark curtain of rain shrouded Haytor, and the reek of wet swedes drifted over from Ashford Farm.

Dewfang had caught the taint of man as he crested Hound Tor, running down through the furze. As he slithered through bracken the spicy tang of vixen flooded his nose and pulled him to the root tangle of a fallen oak choked in moss.

Golden eyes gleamed from the darkness. A tawny vixen padded out of her earth, fangs bared as two cubs huddled behind her.

‘Quick!’ Dewfang urged. ‘The hunt’s coming, hounds too. We’ve gotta go. Now!’

‘Rat scat!’ she sneered. ‘The hound that can force me out of my home ain’t been born yet.’

‘There’s an empty badger sett down in Bluebell Wood. The hunters never ride there.’

She glared down her muzzle at him. ‘And what if the hounds sniff us out over there instead of here?’

‘I’ll foil the scent. C’mon!’ He grabbed a cub by the scruff of the neck and darted outside.

The foxes hurried downhill and snaked through the furze clumps. The clamour of the hounds rolled off the hills behind them. Down among the shelter of a larch thicket the vixen lowered her wriggling young.

‘Now what?’ she panted.

‘Go up through the trees and I’ll follow you,’ Dewfang told her. ‘Follow the badger path as far as the water, then around the bend downstream – it’s under an old willow. Wait there and keep ’em quiet.’

The vixen bared her fangs. ‘Her name’s Rosemere. And he’s Ashpaw. I’m Fernsmoke.’

Dewfang rolled his eyes. ‘Never mind all that, now – let’s go!’

Fernsmoke ran on, Dewfang close behind her dragging his own brush. Back in the woods the hounds were calling again. They splashed across the shallow ford and halted on the far bank. Dewfang lowered his cargo onto Fernsmoke’s back. Ashpaw clung on tight, whimpering.

‘Now run for it!’ Dewfang cried. ‘Run!’

He sat down and grinned after the fleeing vixen and her cubs until they disappeared around the riverbend. Splashing across the stream he doubled back and dragged his brush through the undergrowth, laying a false trail among the skeletal hazels until he reached a gnarled hornbeam. Pausing to dribble scats on the roots he quickened his stride and burst out into sunshine. The clamour redoubled behind him; the lead babblers had taken his bait and were now hunting his line through the trees. He laughed a defiant bark that drifted downwind to lift Campion’s hackles.

Fancy a runaround, you arse-sniffing mudbrains? I’m right here – come get me!

A pheasant whirred up from the scrub before him and clattered away, its gobbling alarm echoing over the open moor. In the valley below the beaters waved at the huntsman and pointed ahead. Lancer was crying wolf among the trees but Campion gleaned out Dewfang’s scent and bayed. Above the renewed clamour of the pack the horn wailed the Gone Away, higher and more piercing than a vixen’s bell-like screech. A wedge of hounds poured uphill, the riders spurring their horses on.

‘Seen him yet?’ the huntsman roared.

‘Up there, sir!’ panted the master. Against the pale horizon Dewfang was visible amid a scribble of thorns.

The huntsman grinned. ‘We’re in for a dem good run. Leu-in, boys! Leu-in … wind ’im!’

The music of the hounds drifted down to the White Hart, where John closed his eyes as Kate clung to his leg, whimpering. Not Old Red, he prayed. Not today, God. Please. Not him.

*

Sunlight exploded in Dewfang’s face. He raced over the hilltop down towards the road through furze and hawthorns, his breath rattling in loud gasps. A jay swooped low overhead, scolding him with its harsh chatter. On tussocky heathland he was far slower and weaker than the hounds, their long strides eating up the distance behind their hunted quarry. A train hooted from Moretonhampstead, and gazing eastwards across the treetops Dewfang glimpsed white steam rising.

The pack thundered over the skyline at full cry, panting heavily as they quested below Adley Wood. The Chagford-Lustleigh road was thronged with Galloways and Dewfang ran among them, zigzagging amid stocky legs as they snorted and shied away from him. He streaked up the lane as a drover yelled after him.

The pack rounded the bend and scattered the herd. Cattle stumbled up the verge and lumbered off, bellowing and tossing their shaggy heads as drovers tried to corral them in vain. The huntsman swore and reined in his steed, laying about with his whip. ‘Leu-in, boys! Back, damn you! Leu-in!’

Marshal nipped at a bullock’s heels then yelped as the whip slashed across his back. Blanked by a swirl of mud, shit and trampled grass the hounds milled about until Campion nosed out Dewfang’s fresh line and howled. The rest of the pack gave tongue in a fierce clamour and swarmed up the muddy lane.

Dewfang’s lips peeled back in a grin of exhaustion. Squeezing through the hedge brambles had spiked his ear and snagged at his pelt. He crossed the field downhill towards the allotment gardens behind Moretonhampstead Station. The hounds were now less than a field behind him and still gaining, plunging on as their jubilant clamour echoed for miles.

As he tore through the allotments and chicken runs the 12.45 for Newton Abbot was readying to leave. The noise muffled the hounds’ clamour, but he could still hear the dogs as he trotted along the track and sprang up onto the engine’s running board.

Shovelling coal into the boiler’s furnace, the stoker never noticed the chestnut streak that crept past his bent back and trotted along the footplate. Dewfang clapped down onto the buffer beam and oozed out scats in a shudder of excitement. The metal shelf shook as the train moved off. Steam swirled around the fox and he huddled close to the boiler, ears flattened and his brush twitching. The acrid stench of oil, metal and tar plugged his nose, cancelling out his stink. Pistons thudded below him like a stuttering rumble of thunder. Then the countryside was sliding by as the train gathered speed with gasps of steam. A farmhouse flew at him and vanished. Branches blurred past, slicing the sky. The engine hooted and steamed under the bridge by Wray Brook Farm. Blackness and noise blotted out Dewfang’s world, then he burst into sunlight once more.

The postman and his son rushed across to the parapet and watched the train steam away. ‘You saw ’im, didn ya, boy?’ grinned the postman. ‘I idn goin’ mad! You seen ’im?’

‘On the side o’ the bliddy engine!’ his son whooped. ‘Old Red’s riding the southbound train from Moreton! ’E’s magic!’ He punched the air and cheered.

Far behind hounds milled aimlessly over Platform Two. The tantalising whiff of fox had suddenly ended in a churning maelstrom of confusing new smells — the heavy reek of engine oil, hot metal, burnt coal and steam clogged their senses. Even Campion was baffled. He whined and sniffed Dewfang’s lingering trail back into the railway gardens. A man in blue overalls yelled at him and Campion sat down to scratch, driving his hind foot into his jowl. Crestfallen, Lancer slumped onto his belly and wailed. He hadn’t caught anything today, wouldn’t get any juicy scraps off his master’s plate later, have his head stroked or called “Good Boy”. It wasn’t fair!

Thundering hard through the cabbages on a horse lathered with froth, the huntsman glared after the fading trail of steam. That crafty bugger! Old Red had eluded him once more; outwitted for now the seventh time in three seasons. He wheeled his horse around and stormed back along the lane, leaving in his wake forty miserable dogs and a long procession of sweaty, grim-faced riders.

The train idled at Lustleigh. Dewfang hopped down unseen and gazed back along the sunlit track. A long three-mile walk home lay before him, but he wasn’t worried. By the time he reached his old haunts by sundown the hounds would be long gone. He trotted down the track, following the warm rail at a leisurely pace as rowdy jackdaws skirmished overhead. No hurry. He smelled rabbits on the wind. He had all the time in the world.

*

John picked up a brass tankard and began polishing it, smiling at the lament of inconsolable hounds gathered outside. The riders slouched about glumly, staring at their boots: their quarry had slipped through their fingers. Another hunt with nothing to show for it.

In the corner the master listlessly nudged peas across his gravy-smeared plate. The door banged open as the huntsman trudged inside, twisting his riding crop and grumbling. At the counter the postman winked at John and smirked into his ginger beer.

John hid his grin behind a muffled cough. ‘Afternoon, gents. Good hunting, eh?’

The huntsman tore off his cap, dashed it on the floor with a curse and stomped outside. The master scowled into his pint pot. Already two drinks in and only getting worse. Kate sat at the foot of the stairs, hugging her knees in excitement. John caught her eye and gave a discreet thumbs-up. Kate rocked back and forth, grinning from ear to ear.

The master pushed away his plate and sprawled back in his chair, dejected. ‘Thanks for lunch,’ he finally muttered, and lurched unsteadily to his feet.

‘My pleasure, guv.’ John cleared his throat. ‘Now, let’s see here … accounting for lunch, then yer three beers, not to mention cleanin’ up the awful mess yer hounds made o’ my yard an’ the mud you fellas brought inside stamping about …’ He held out an expectant hand. ‘That’ll be nine shillings an’ six, please – no, don’t get yer cheque-book out, mate. Cash only. Cheers!’

*

Fernsmoke crouched deep in the dusty sett, her infants curled around her. Suddenly a shadow darkened the tunnel mouth, and claws scrabbled the earth. Closer. Closer … The cubs shrank together, whimpering. Fernsmoke bared her teeth, hackled raised.

A low bark of reassurance drifted down the tunnel. Dewfang crawled out of the gloom and grinned as the cubs eagerly danced around him, yipping with joy. ‘We’re safe,’ he rumbled.

Fernsmoke nuzzled against him. ‘Where’re the dogs?’

‘Out chasing moonbeams,’ Dewfang smirked. ‘They’re long gone. Need any cub-sitting help from a raggedy old fleabag?’

Fernsmoke hung her head. ‘Why bother with me?’ she sighed. ‘I’m such an arrogant fool.’

‘Heyyy, shh.’ Dewfang licked her brow. ‘None o’ that. You’re still here, aint’cha? You’re still breathin’. Better a live fool than a brave corpse. Suckle the cubs an’ rest. I’ll keep watch.’ He settled down with a relieved growl, facing the entrance.

Fernsmoke drove her muzzle into his flank. ‘You seem real pleased with yourself.’

Dewfang cracked an eye open and grinned. ‘Ya think? Well, we did beat the hunt – doesn’t happen every day.’

Fernsmoke nudged her cubs forward. ‘Remember your manners. Thank our brave friend who kept you safe.’

Rosemere wobbled forward to lick Dewfang’s snout. ‘Fank you,’ she mumbled shyly. ‘My name’s—’

‘Rosemere.’ Dewfang brushed noses with her; his whiskers tickled her cheek as she rolled over, giggling. ‘Your mum told me. Pleased to meet you, missie!’

*

‘… Dad! … Dad! Wake up!’

John blinked awake, squinted at the clock and frowned up into Kate’s eager face. ‘… Blimey, luv. ’S half-eleven! Wuzz goin’ on?’

‘C’mon, Dad! Quick!’ Stifling a yawn John let himself be tugged out of bed and downstairs into the gloomy kitchen. Out in the frost-rimmed yard lay a metal saucer full of cat food. Kate pulled him to the porch window, eyes shining. ‘Look, Dad … look!’

John peered into the darkness, then smiled as a fox slunk out of the shadows, followed by a silky-furred vixen. They raised their snouts to sniff the freezing air then trotted to the food bowl, munching away. Felix stalked to the window, sniffed disdainfully as he saw his dinner gobbled up, and minced away upstairs to sulk.

‘He’s magic, that foxie,’ Kate cooed. ‘He can do anything. Got himself a real queen. Her’s a beauty!’

A scuffle from the darkness, a muffled squeak. Old Red glared into the darkness and barked sternly.

Out rolled two brawling cubs, yapping and wriggling as they gnawed each other’s tails.

‘Ooh look!’ Kate squealed, her eyes sparkling with excitement. ‘He’s got new cubs an’ they’s lovely!’ They watched breathlessly as the cubs tussled and pounced on each other with playful growls, the dog fox and vixen gazing on in fond pride. Once the bowl had been licked clean, the two adults scooped up their troublemakers and vanished into the night with a gleam of russet fur.

‘They’ll never catch Old Red,’ Kate sighed happily. ‘Never. He’s a proper hero, idn’t he, Dad? He’s magic.’

Her father knelt beside her, hugging her as she giggled with joy. ‘And he’s won.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Still Life (350 words)

I feel a sneeze brewing. The garden flowers are fragrant, lush … and full of pollen. Bugger. I sip shallow breaths until the urge passes.

Over by the sundial, Cupid sneezes. I wince in sympathy: that’s half his pay docked. No leftover finger sandwiches for him, no port in a tiny thimble glass as the evening chill creeps in. The lady of this garden won’t deign even a glance his way. To her, he’s invisible.

As we all must be. It isn’t enough for the hostess to have garden statues. To have a genteel party, they must be living statues. Three of my neighbours are all dressed in the same grey, half-hidden in the shrubbery. Lady Liberty, her arm aloft bearing a flaming torch. Must be a hell of a cramp. Sir Walter Raleigh, hands proudly on hips near the wisteria. Doesn’t his ruff itch? Emperor Nero frozen mid-oration by a stone vase. I don’t know their names, only their disguises, and we never talk. We just try not to breathe. My elbow aches as I minutely adjust the parasol over one shoulder. Luckily my hat hides the sun. A bee buzzes close; I cannot gasp or flinch.

The heat cracks the grey paint on my face. All for two shillings at day’s end. Two bob. One loaf, an orange, two apples, a chicken, a handful of beans, milk, salt. The meagre price of keeping my stomach from growling. The price of my dignity. I savour that chicken roasting in the oven, the salty crackle of crispy skin instead of the overpowering lavender that clogs my nose.

A guest sits next to me. The chicken aroma shrivels away. Another guest arrives and they chat. Not with me. I’m merely an ornament. A decoration for a two-seater bench. The hostess nods at me as she greets her guests, all smiles. She’s pleased; I’ve done my job well.

When the last guest departs and I finally take my paltry two shillings, my employer hands me a nosegay of peonies along with the tiny sandwiches. I take them without meeting her eye. They aren’t a reward. They won’t fill my stomach. To me, they only smell of chicken.

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Wedding Worries (600 words)

‘But if you –

‘I’m not wearing it.’

‘But Gemma’s spent all this – 

‘I’m not wearing it.’

‘… How about if I –

‘I’m not wearing it, Sue! How many times?!’ Alex scrubbed a hand through her cropped hair, fuming. She eyed the bridesmaid’s dress sprawled on her bed with the tight-lipped revulsion normally reserved for vomit stains. ‘It’s hideous.’

‘It’s … a lovely colour.’ Sue said feebly. Alex snorted and stomped into the living room.

‘Forget it, I’ll phone Gemma. What’s her number?’

‘No, Alex. If this needs doing, it needs to be done with tact.

Josh waved from the sofa. ‘So: how was the hen do?’

Sue grunted, trudged over to the sink and poured herself a large seltzer water.

‘… Not brilliant,’ Alex ventured. ‘Off the leash with her chums, turns out Gemma’s quite the party animal. Well, actually a complete party animal.’

Josh winced. ‘I thought she was a health freak and a total stickler for sobriety.’

‘Perhaps when her fiancé’s around, she is.’ Alex shrugged. ‘Once her friends got a few cocktails inside her, she kept bugging Sue to try one.’ She squeezed Sue’s shoulder. ‘But Sue stuck to her guns, like a good girl.’

‘Oh go on, Sue. Oh go on. Why don’t you like having fun, Sue? Why are you so boooring, Sue? Maybe just one drink. Oh go on … Sue parroted her tormenters with a shrill nasal squawk before flopping down on the sofa, muttering, ‘why can’t you be like us, Sue? It’s nooormal to drink, Sue …

Josh patted her knee. ‘Poor sizzywops. Why didn’t you just say you were pregnant?’

‘Didn’t have a chance,’ Sue muttered. ‘That excuse was taken She turned to glare at Alex.

‘Not my fault,’ Alex raised her hands. ‘Never actually said it! I just … didn’t deny it.’

Sue groaned into a cushion. ‘And all the bridesmaids have a mandatory singing rehearsal tomorrow! How do I get out of it?’

‘Tell her you’ve got leprosy,’ Josh shrugged. ‘C’mon, Sue. Might be more fun than you think!’

‘Turning up probably is your safe ticket out,’ Alex grinned. ‘I’ve heard you sing, after all.’

Josh waved the hair shears and a cosmetic brush. ‘Thought you might fancy a do-over before the big night, Al –

‘Come near me with those,’ Alex smiled sweetly, ‘and I’ll rip your arms off.’ Both brush and shears instantly vanished.

Sue sighed. ‘We still need to tell Gemma.’

Alex chewed her lip. ‘We could say I’ve gained weight … because of the baby.’

Josh snorted. ‘But they saw you just two nights ago; you can’t’ve put on that much since then.’

Alex bristled. ‘I could’ve, quite easily; I was wearing baggy clothes then, like always.’

‘Hmmm,’ Sue sounded unconvinced. ‘So what were you going to wear?’

‘A tux, of course!’ Alex brightened. ‘Already hired one – it’s in my room.’

‘Well, go try it on, then,’ Sue grimaced. ‘And we’ll keep thinking.’ Alex grinned and swaggered out the door.

I could wear the dress,’ Josh ventured, after pondering for a few minutes. ‘And…pretend to be Alex?’

Sue blinked. ‘Would you actually do that?’

Josh hesitated.

Sue folded her arms. ‘Josh … Alex and I are actually trying to sort out this crucial situation for a friend’s wedding day. We are not lying with our feet on the sofa, picking our nose and making idiotic suggestions. Would you mind either taking this seriously or not saying anything at all?’

Before Josh could make a reply – idiotic or otherwise – the flat was rent with a howl of outrage.

Alex emerged from her bedroom with a livid scowl, wearing a white shirt and dress trousers unzipped at the waist.

‘I have put on weight!’ she roared. ‘They don’t bloody fit!’

© 2021 | Tom Burton