This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Chapter 1: Sylvia and Cole
It was the Friday evening of a long holiday weekend, one of those weekends I always worked at Kostlow’s. It became one of those moments to store away unwrap later at your leisure, perhaps in the final stages of recovering from flu, or in an indeterminate old age – a state that was by now far from distant or mythical to me.
There I was, sitting at the checkout, revelling in the grungy, prosaic ambience of my job – the cheap, free gift tea mug on a shelf near my checkout, containing the umpteenth cup of tea that almost always went cold before I had time to drink it. The deliciously garish strip lights in the ceiling overhead buzzed ominously as usual, while my legs and feet bore the brunt of rain-sodden gusts of wind from the open door. There was something about the indomitable starkness of this reality that I loved – the contrast between these dissonances and discomforts to eye, ear and skin, and the inner peace and spiritual comfort I now drew from this life of hardship and deprivation I was now deemed to live, compared to the nightmarish life of professional privilege from which I had only recently fled. Mum, although mentally in another world, seemed content in her way and was well taken care of.
My life now was one of hot oatmeal breakfasts eaten in simple, unhurried peace on days that started whenever I woke (I worked mainly afternoon and evening shifts at Kostlow’s). My flat overlooked majestic, craggy, heather and gorse covered hills from which I drew strength and solace daily like a draft of elixir, as if the bedrock beneath the green breathed life-giving power. I never tired of the unchanging landscape or the minute-by-minute transformations of cloud and light above it.
I walked the two miles to work every day. This job, currently my only source of income, was like a daily vacation from the solitude and mental fermentation that the solitude itself allowed. In the mornings I read, thought, and researched. In the afternoons I took refuge and drew sanity from this relentlessly ordinary, warm-hearted corner convenience store. I did a bit of everything, sometimes stacking shelves, sometimes working at the checkout. Everything about it dripped with the coziness of human scale.
Today I was on the checkout. Suddenly I became aware of an alien wave passing over me, a cold, insistent presence, a triumphantly whimsical expectancy in the air around me. There in front of me in what, for her, were casual clothes, stood the Deputy Head of Ransom’s. In the cozy dilapidation of Kostlow’s convenience store, in this heroically run-down, small-scaled and undeniably ordinary northern English town, far from the arctic social ascendance she was used to in her well-heeled southern cathedral city, Pauline Jenkins looked even more desiccated and full of herself than I remembered her. So much so, that I almost felt sorry for her. The packets of loose green tea and organic ginger biscuits she was about to buy stood awkwardly to attention in her two bony hands as she savoured the sense of command her position gave her over me, sitting in my Kostlow’s overall at the checkout. The thoughts in her mind were so piercing I could practically hear them as if she were speaking them out loud.
“This is just too blissful! Sylvia, the Ransom’s loser, working at a corner store checkout! And here in this hole, of all places! What a come-down! How delightful!”
As she launched her first missile, a sneering smile, Pauline’s features crystallized into their habitual unseeing haughtiness, but transposed an octave higher in honour of my humbled condition. Her eyes glinted and gloated on the sweet awfulness of my presumed demise.
“Well, fancy seeing you here, Sylvia!” she purred, proffering her tastefully exclusive purchases and gazing down at me from her slender height as I ran them through the system.
“Hello Pauline! What a pleasant surprise!” I chuckled.
As this was clearly not what she had expected, the mask rumpled for an instant, but she recovered her composure quickly and was ready with another parry:
“I simply must tell Barbara I’ve seen you! She’ll be so interested to know what became of you!”
“Oh yes, do please give her my very best wishes Pauline,” I replied, bagging her items and making sure to pop in the receipt. “And the best of luck with those naughty examination league tables – they really are a rollercoaster aren’t they? Never mind, I’m sure that nose-dive in the results this year was just a fluke. I’d ask you to pass on my best wishes to the teachers, but come to think of it most of the ones I knew seem to have left!”
As Pauline’s smile froze into an impromptu permafrost, the air behind her was pierced by an East Yorkshire accent making its way round the savory snacks isle.
“Fresh cuppa tea fo’ ya, Sylvia luv!” beamed Stacey. She stopped short as if frozen by Pauline’s frosty contempt.
“Oh, got company, I see!” she said, eying Pauline up and down cautiously as if she was a crab left over from yesterday’s fish haul. Undaunted by Jenny’s facial expression, her natural friendliness overcame her doubts.
“Canna get yer a cuppa tea luv?” she shot out at Pauline, who declined by shifting some of her facial permafrost into a wordless, antiseptic stare that made Stacey flinch, but not before she had recovered her senses: “Yer look as if yer could do wi’ something hot inside yer!”.
Making a mental note to hug Stacey afterwards, I switched on the conveyor belt and turned my attention to the next customer, musing on how I had found myself here a few weeks ago.... “Sylvia, you have to be kidding!” exclaimed an exasperated Monica. She was laughing nervously, feigning disapproval so as to avoid showing it openly. Sylvia’s face mapped her passage through her feelings, starting in a familiar back yard of uncertainty, as she skipped lightning glances round the room to read the responses of Monica and her sister Carol. Then came a resigned acceptance that she was going to be misunderstood whatever she said, and then a stalwart pride in her own quirkiness. She emerged from this inner excursion with a spontaneous grin, brought on by the startled awareness that she was actually enjoying her uncertainty. The other women in the room were more inclined to read her expression as provocative.........
One of Mozart’s Haydn quartets was playing in the background of Carol’s cozy living room at Martyrs’ Complex in Ransom’s school. Despite or because of the challenges being tabled in the room, Carol’s attention floated off for a few moments to follow the music. “Amazing,” she said mostly to herself, looking out of the window, “that Bach and Handel’s music was almost unknown in Vienna when Mozart wrote these quartets.” Her eyes returned to the room. “Bach effectively taught Mozart about counterpoint from the grave.”
“Counterpoint?” Sylvia repeated, trying to catch the thread of Carol’s thought. This seemed incongruous, given that she had just announced her plan to abandon all pretence of a career in education in general, and at Ransom’s school in particular, and go and work in a supermarket.
“Yes,” said Carol. “He spent a lot of his time in Vienna working on the Bach Fugues. Mozart’s father Leopold said it was all about what he called Il Filo - the thread or motif going through a composition. It had to have enough mileage in it to sustain the whole work. Otherwise the work would have to be abandoned.”
Having recently learned to adjust to a state of permanently fertile confusion, Sylvia registered Carol’s remarks with good-humored vacancy, as if dealing with a case of premature dementia. Coincidentally or not, her perception mirrored the other two women’s perception of her.
“Well, you’ll find out the reason for all this soon enough, Monica,” said Sylvia, her face returning from its travels to a quiet repose. The other women looked at her.
“I’m afraid I just can’t leave Mum on her own any more. She’s been going downhill for some time now and needs care. After much thought, Monica, I’ve decided on Brackenhurst, where you work. If I sell my house here and move into something more modest near there I think we can just about manage.”
“So that’s why you’ve been up north so often lately!” said Monica.
“I had no idea things had got that bad,” said Carol, surprised. “I always thought your Mum was so independent!”
“She is,” said Sylvia, “but lately she seems to have lost the thread completely. The doctors are not sure whether it’s Alzheimer’s or the side effects of a urinary infection, which can apparently produce similar symptoms.”
“It’s ironic really,” Sylvia added, looking out of the window. “You spend months on end worrying and fretting and agonizing over a decision, and then life just goes and makes it for you!”
..................I returned from my reverie to the elderly customer in front of me:
“Well hello there, Mrs. Boothroyd! Now you come and sit down on this chair and take the weight off your feet while I check your shopping through. Oh, I see you noticed the special offer on the mature Cheddar this week! There’s nothing like a nice bit of cheese on toast, is there?”
Not quite able to grasp how she had been dismissed by a social inferior, Pauline stood for a moment at the end of conveyor belt and watched me fuss over Mrs. Boothroyd, who had recently had a hip replacement operation and still needed to keep the weight off her feet.
“Well...” Pauline began impotently, searching for a parting shot.
“Yes, bye, Pauline!” I called after her, preoccupied with some reduced cans of baked beans.
“Lovely to see you again!”
She walked out of the store. I burst out laughing.
“Now what’ve you got to be so cheerful about, Sylvia? chuckled Mrs. Boothroyd, momentarily infected by my laughter.
“Oh, nothing!” I replied. “I’m just in a good mood today!”
Contentedly, I moved the items though the checkout, looking forward to my baked potato with grated cheddar cheese and pickle when I got home later in the evening. It felt so good to have more important things to think about than Pauline Jenkins. Still, my son Rusty would enjoy the anecdote.
A few minutes later, the Manager, Mr. Applegarth, came up to me looking pre-occupied and subdued.
“You couldn’t possibly do a couple of extra hours on the checkout tonight at short notice, could you?” he asked hopefully.
“Well, if you don’t mind letting me take a break for a bite to eat,” I said, looking up at him. “Why, what is it?”
“Well, Cole hasn’t turned up for work, and I can’t raise him on his mobile,” answered Mr. Applegarth.
“How weird!” I said, looking up at him again. “You can normally set your clock by Cole!”
“Exactly,” said Mr. Applegarth. “I’m a bit worried about him actually.”
“I hope nothing’s happened to him,” I said.
“Yes, me too,” said Mr. Applegarth. “Anyway, thanks for helping out, it’s bound to be a busy night, with the holiday weekend.” He turned and walked back to his office. I followed him for a few seconds with my eyes, before turning my attention to the next customer.
You know how it is. You shop at the local corner store and there are the people you notice and the people you don’t. At Kostlow’s you would always notice the manager Mr. Applegarth, with his proprietorial walk, his smart suit and go-getting aftershave. At the checkout I would always be glad if Stacey was on the till. She loves to crack a joke, and you can have fun guessing what her hair colour will be this week.
Then there is Monica’s brother, Cole. Or was. There was something eerily bland about Cole. If you walked past him you would miss him if you weren’t looking for him on purpose. He had this way of blending in with the trolley he was pushing up and down the aisles as he stacked the shelves. His looks are forgettable: medium height, neither slim nor fat, rather round face, fine auburn-mousy hair that is neither dull nor shiny. Nobody really dislikes him: there’s nothing to dislike. But still there is something weird about him. You can never quite work out whether he is just a nerd, or whether there is something, well, wrong with him.
It might have been something to do with his eyes. There was this intent look on his face as he went about his work. He somehow managed to give the impression of being both there and not there at the same time. He would have a look of perfect focus on his face as he moved the cans and packets from the trolley to the shelves, more as if he was working with relics from a museum than just groceries. The pace and rhythm of his movements heightened this impression. There was no bustle about Cole. There was an almost feminine grace and economy about him. It was as if he lived in a time-space bubble all his own.
Every day he would appear at work exactly on time. He even enjoyed a limited popularity with his colleagues, despite being different, because he was so willing to work shifts no one else wanted, such as bank holidays, Sunday mornings, Christmas or New Year’s Eve. With deliberate movements that fell just short of slowness he would take off his outer clothing to reveal his nondescript shirt and narrow tie, before putting on his clean overall. He had a way of looking intently at the customers that they found a bit creepy.
I told all this to the police when they came round to Kostlow’s. He hadn’t turned up to work for a couple of days and hadn’t rung in either. The manager Mr. Applegarth had called his landlord and found that even he didn’t know where Cole was. This was unusual, for Cole was renowned for his predictable habits. Cole lived in a drafty flat in one of those old Victorian houses overlooking the Pennine hills inYorkshire. It had no central heating, but was quite spacious, the sort of place with an old-fashioned, rather inefficient but cozy gas fire. When it rained, Cole would the only person out walking in the hills. He always paid his rent in cash on the last Friday of the month.
But not that Friday. Unable to drum up any relatives’ phone numbers, Mr. Applegarth rang the police to report Cole missing. They sent round a uniform patrol, who took down some details. Cole had no known history of absconding or of substance abuse. The officer on duty judged that Cole was not the sort of person who would be deemed vulnerable. A routine check was made of the local hospital and of people they currently had in custody. Both drew a blank. Missing persons enquiries were not a favourite with the police. Most filed reports turned out to be false alarms or, in most cases, repeat instances of children running away from care homes. The appropriate form was filled in and the officer hoped that Cole would turn up over the weekend. He didn’t.
“Any relatives, Sylvia?” asked Detective Constable Boothroyd the following Monday in Mr. Applegarth’s office, declining a cup of Gold Blend with an earnest shake of the head.
“One sister that I know of,” I answered. “Something beginning with M…. Maggie? No …… Monica, yes, that’s it, Monica. Works at that old people’s home on the edge of town.”
“That’s the one.”
“No girlfriend?” asked the DC, with a hopeful raised eyebrow. A love life going pear-shaped was a frequent cause of sudden disappearances.
“Nope, neither girls nor boys as far as I know,”
I had understood nothing, as it turned out. The irony is that I have always rather fancied myself as a judge of character. “Sylvia,” people would say to me, “how did you see that in him or her?” But with Cole I just didn’t read the signs. I of all people, the woman who had left a job at a “premier league” boarding school to go and work in a supermarket! I ought to have been an expert at spotting something that was not at all as it seemed. I just didn’t register his cautious, resigned acceptance of being misunderstood. Only now do I realize that this acceptance, for years on end, had become one of the core traits of his character. I should have recognized this in Cole as a mark of seriousness of purpose and perhaps of destiny. A destiny must be accepted before it can be crafted. I was, it seemed, still a fool after all. How reassuring.
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Ashley Stryker: So I'm writing this review, keeping in mind that this is a work in progress and it's part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), so my "deeper" critiques will be saved until it's all finished up.+ Chapter One: A stewardess would not talk to anyone quite like that, particularly a clear minor...
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