I was commissioned to write a story by West Midlands Reading Network to work on an Arts Council funded project. The story was published in a collection featuring work from five authors. In addition to myself, the authors were Kerry Hadley-Pryce, David Calcutt, Rachel New and Rob Ganley. Each of us met with a reading group and discussed the type of story they would like to written for them. My group met at Cradley Heath Library.
I am interested in stories about the nature of power, selective memory and our infinite capacity to excuse our own failures, ignore the role of luck and attribute every success to personal merit.
Prior to my meeting, I parked in the street alongside Cradley Heath Library and began making notes. It was the end of April and cherry blossom trees flowered along the pavement. From a school gate an infant class, wearing pyjamas and dressing gowns, were walking to the library to hear a story.
The Reading Aloud group contributed numerous ideas and these fell into three themes. They wanted a story set in a library, a guilty secret and a sense of passing time. As well as using observations from the visit as details and metaphors, I added literary references because, as a reading group, I thought they might enjoy discussing how themes are echoed in the story.
Also, they told me I couldn’t swear, so I was forced to use code.
The Last Days of Cherry Blossom.
It was gone, but her hand kept scrabbling around in the netting pouch that was stretched across the back of the passenger seat. The lights changed. A horn blared. The only consolation of her new convertible was the height and clarity of the middle finger she gave the van driver behind. Accelerating across the junction, she swung into the first side street and parked. Stepping out, she stared at the place where it had been.
Swear words machine-gunned across her mind. She wanted to scream. Spit abuse about the low-life scum that had stolen it. But there was a crocodile of school children handholding their way along the pavement and, bizarrely, they were wearing pyjamas and dressing gowns. She began pacing the length of her car, back and forth, needing the jerking physicality. The back of her tongue constricted. She felt sick. Numbers. Monies. Lost clients. Lost profits. Lost credibility. She’d have lost nothing if she’d chosen the Merc. The Merc had a roof. What was it about women her age and sports cars? One last chance to feel the wind in her hair while her income was high and the expensive moisturisers still held some sway over her skin.
Her phone beeped, Calendar Reminder. Her phone. A lifeline. She could access emails. Her emails, with all the spreadsheets and strategy documents attached. She’d planned a slick performance; her iPad synchronising with screens around the table. Cutting edge. But her iPad was gone. ‘Still,’ she thought, ‘Paper could work; maybe even better given the age of the punters.’ She pressed a key and the roof unfolded, sealing the car. She ground her teeth at the simplicity of the operation.
Leaning back against the bodywork, she put an e-cigarette to her lips. Across the street, the houses were cheap, low-roofed new-builds. She’d seen so many before. Approved them on a nod and a wink; cramming them in close-packed lines across old factory sites. Narrow slit windows stared back from behind a trio of cherry trees, heavy with pink blossom. A few petals began a slow descent into the dirt.
The crocodile of school children had snaked around the corner, but the moment for screamed obscenities had passed. She was back in control. Somewhere on the way would be a print shop; Prontaprint or similar with access to a computer. All doable now.
She looked along the street. A line of Victorian terraces sneered down on the cheap new-builds and at the corner was a tall, terracotta cube of a building. She dropped her e-cigarette into her bag and took out her phone. She tapped a tracker app… ‘Yes, the dozy prats have left the battery in…’ She flicked the Call symbol.
‘Thank you constable, Constable…?’ She was soon beyond the initial 999 response desk. ‘And your collar number? … Thanks, always like to know who I’m talking to. Strange you still call them collar numbers, when you wear them on your shoulders… My name? Caroline Lancing, home residence…’ She switched screens for a second. ‘My i-pad has been stolen, but it’s stationary… ‘I’m on the West Midlands Police website now. What’s your station…? And I’ve emailed you the tracker link… So, while it’s stationary you… No you can. You really can…’ The exchange of words was brief and conclusive and business moved on.
Lancing tapped the microphone icon on her phone, Listening scrolled across the screen.
‘Print shops, near here.’ She enunciated and a map appeared with a line of little footprints and One Minute. There was a photograph of the cube’s front, with its stone-carved leaves and scrolls; a finger flick and a sign filled the screen, white and functional– Library, Sandwell Council – ICT and Community Print Services.
Reaching the main road, Caroline Lancing felt a distant recognition; the shape and spacing of buildings seen from the top of a decades-ago bus. Upstairs smoking, her and her gaggle. Slumming it for the Saturday Girl money, then into town. None of it left by Sunday morning. Every penny in the tills of Birmingham’s clubland; Bobby Brown’s, Millionaires, Miss Moneypenny’s; sometimes The Dome or Liberties if you could blag a lift; older men telling you about their glory days at The Rum Runner. It had all been a learning curve, with its school fees paid by Woolworths, Halesowen.
Pick’n’Mix: God she’d picked and mixed so much out that back door. The thrill of escape, bags packed with tat, making a couple of quid, giving it away sometimes. Then the strategic thinking – less is more; small items, big mark-up; CDs to order, make-up. In behind the scenes. In the stockrooms, not out where the managers watched. No barcodes in those days. Just the occasional shelf count. Stocktaking. Oh yes, they’d done some of that. Then she’d discovered it. Male gullibility. The lean, the pout, the seemingly casual touch of a hand. The ease of it all. Told the gaggle. Told them how it operated. God teenage males were easy. Not just teenage, time had taught her. A look and a cheek brush and their bags were full; bags and pockets and meet you outside. Doing your bidding, hoping to impress, hoping for more. Clever girls. Grammar school girls, doing what they do best. Then it had finished. Cut and run and out from under. She remembered a boy with the bag she’d given him and a fat security guard taking out its contents and making a neat row; nail varnish, eye-shadow, blusher, then holding up a neon lipstick with a smug ‘Who do you think you are? – Boy George?’ And she remembered the boy’s eyes, staring like a fish at the moment when hope becomes a baited hook.
She’d been casual as she’d left; waved to the old biddies and the spotty girls who worked there all week. She was finishing anyway. Exams and off. She’d always had good timing.
‘No surprise it went to the receivers,’ she thought. Receivers, oh she’d dealt with them over the years.
A concrete ramp sloped up from the pavement and it was there – The Library. Ornate ochre against brick. ‘Less is more,’ flashed across her mind as she pushed the door open.
Inside, mothers in market stall clothes chatted; some wore hats, some headscarfs, some had unruly hair. Their voices were low, but they giggled with hands supplementing words. It seemed a casual rotation between toddlers and picture books and conversation. She pulled down on her hip-cutting leather jacket. Alexander McQueen’s take on biker. Cheaper to buy a motorbike if you added on the price of the matching trousers she had at home. But today was business, so she’d gone for a dark Moschino jersey that managed to combine formal with a clear line of gym-honed thigh.
Eyes assessed her, then turned back to friends. In a corner was the crocodile, now re-shaped and sitting cross-legged. A librarian was holding up a large, colourful book and reading with effortless drama. Pyjama-ed children clung close to cuddly toys and her every word. Caroline Lancing too found herself held for a moment, but then caught sight of the computers. Across the room was a reception desk with a queue. She cursed and went to stand behind a hunched woman wearing a cheap anorak and a thin cotton dress. The woman’s legs were white and above her ankle socks was a trellis of veins. She was constantly reading as she shuffled forward on mud-caked tennis shoes.
‘Only chance of romance she’ll have. Bit of Mills and Boon… Jesus, it’s like a foodbank for books,’ Lancing shook her head. Behind her a mother had a toddler hitched onto her hip. The toddler was pointing at a picture book, ‘Koer… dog,’ the mother said. ‘Kass… cat, hobune… horse.’
The hunched woman was at the desk now.
‘You always go back to him don’t you Sadie…’ the librarian smiled. ‘Him and Dickens…’
The hunched woman was holding her book open ready to be stamped. Lancing looked at the title page. It said, Dostoyevsky and The Brothers K… something, the rest was hidden under fingers.
‘I like his smart-arse humour,’ the hunched woman dropped the book into a carrier bag. ‘The way he sees through people.’
Lancing looked at the woman’s crude, grey hair. ‘Christ, it looks like she did it herself with a breadknife…’ Slipping a small mirror from an inside pocket, Lancing began making minor adjustments to her own hair, instantly absorbed. Twisting and tweaking, teasing the borders of form and casual. She knew her hair; knew why only that stylist was allowed to touch it, knew the perfect rotation of conditioners, knew everything but the colour that was hiding beneath three decades of highlights and lowlights.
As she reached the desk, the toddler’s picture book kept brushing the back of her jacket. Lancing made a half turn.
‘Lehm… cow,’ the mother was still following the child’s finger around the page.
‘Have you got a library card?’ The engagement in the librarian’s voice when chatting to the hunched woman fell into a terse monotone.
‘No, but I don’t want to read a book. Just a computer to make some print-outs’
‘Any ID then? I need to complete a record of who uses our computers. We need to prove they’re serving a purpose, otherwise the council will cut the funding.’
Lancing fumbled with her bag, its catch hidden within the large metallic YSL emblem. Eventually, she located her driving licence. ‘I feel like a foreigner in here,’ she said, handing it over.
‘Yes, you would.’ The librarian’s eyes briefly flicked up from the photo on the licence, then focused again as she copied the name onto a booking slip. Eventually, she opened a small desktop scanner but, this time, when she looked up, she smiled a How-can-I help-you? smile and her voice lightened, ‘Thank you for waiting. Sorry for the delay. Sadie is one of our regulars.’
‘Yes, she seemed to find books a comfort.’ Caroline Lancing smiled back, knowing charm mode would be the quickest way forward. ‘I really do hope you can help me. Bit of a problem with some thieving scum.’ Lancing explained how she needed email access and the facility to print off a lengthy document for several clients.
‘Ten pence a sheet, I’m afraid,’ the librarian was still holding a smile. ‘Twenty if they’re colour.’
‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ Caroline Lancing was also smiling. ‘I’m not a great reader myself. Did maths and sciences at school – and business.’
‘You’re lucky. Joan’s just logged off.’ The librarian came from behind the desk and walked Lancing to the computers.
‘We did a play once, at school.’ Lancing stayed on charm setting. ‘A handbag… I remember that line… Can’t think why.’
‘Yes, Oscar Wilde. Great fun. Shame he only wrote one novel though. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Like all great stories… true even if it never happened.’
Lancing held her smile.
‘Such bad luck with your iPad,’ the librarian continued. ‘Won’t be top of the police priority list, I’m afraid; even with the tracker app. Not round here.’
‘Actually, I am hopeful… I asked the copper on the phone if he was any good at filling in missing words, and gave him Husband, Golf, and Assistant Chief Constable, then asked him to make a sentence. It seemed to concentrate his mind.’
At the computer Lancing sat and the librarian leaned over. ‘Just give you a log on code and check everything is as you need it.’
The librarian continued to watch as Caroline Lancing accessed her email account. ‘Just numbers. Why doesn’t that surprise me?’ went through her mind as Lancing entered her password. She was pretty sure she got the first three, 2, 2, 7 and the last number, 3.
‘So if you open the attachment and press Ctrl P for print, everything will come out by my desk.’ The librarian smiled again and said ‘Ooh… bit of a queue now’ and made her way back.
The final Ctrl P was pressed. Lancing logged off and walked to the desk.
‘£23.60. Lot of coloured graphs, virtually every page. So I’ve had to charge you top price. Still, I know you can afford it.’ Caroline Lancing handed over twenty-five pounds in notes. The librarian slid over a folder. ‘You’re Caroline Lancing of Lancing Enterprises aren’t you? Been a while since you were round here last, I expect.’ The words were chatty, but the voice wasn’t now and the smile was gone. ‘A handbag…’ the librarian gave a cold laugh. ‘Shame your school didn’t perform An Inspector Calls.’
Lancing was jarred for second, but she had the folder. ‘Keep the change,’ her voice slid into effortless contempt. ‘Buy yourself a new anorak.’ And she turned.
Once outside, she had a moment of panic. What if the bitch hadn’t actually done the printing? She leaned on the rails by the ramp and opened the folder. No, all there… and an extra sheet. A grainy photocopy. Teenagers, face-pulling, finger pointing and mock-model posing around a sign: Woolworths – Deliveries Only… Two heads were circled in pen – a young Caroline … Markbane then, and some blurred boy. Shutting the folder, she took a deep breath and tilted her head back. Close up, the library’s stonework was dirty and pitted. A buddleia, still brown after the winter, had rooted in its mortar, forcing open a crack in the brickwork.
Around the corner, in the street where she’d parked, cherry blossoms swirled in the strengthening wind. An old man was brushing them onto a shovel, but they were falling faster than he could sweep. The petals were tinged brown at the base. Their time was over.
Shutting the car door, Caroline Lancing felt in control. All set now and she reached a chocolate out of the glove compartment. Bliss… but she’d pay for it later, on the treadmill and the spinning bike. Her almost daily routine. ‘Like a hamster on a wheel,’ her father had told her. ‘Like a bloody anorexic hamster. At your age you’d look better rounding up a bit for a smoother finish.’
‘Your age… Old sod knows nothing,’ Lancing told herself. Knows nothing about the burn and feeling the sweat sliding from skin to lycra, trickling between your shoulder blades. Brad would trace his index finger along the line of her sweat sometimes. Beautiful Brad. Bullying Brad. Keeping her young for money. She pressed the start button and pulled away.
As Caroline Lancing’s car turned into the High Street the librarian watched from a window and knew what she would do. She’d rehearsed it in those years when she’d watched her mother’s humiliation and her brother’s life corrode into self-destruction.
She’d spotted it on the society pages of the Birmingham Mail; the names, the photographs of the wedding; Markbane becoming Lancing. What had her mother said? ‘The influence of affluence’ and she’d spit in the fire. Over time there’d been more photographs; Chamber of Commerce, casino opening; Caroline Lancing standing over architects’ models. When her mother was alive, the librarian had thought about writing to trade magazines. She’d drafted a letter, but those first phone calls had made it clear… ‘Had she heard of libel laws? Our magazine is here to promote business not…’
Time passed, but healed nothing; it just pushed the dream into a corner of her mind that was labelled Unobtainable.
But today she’d seen her; Caroline Lancing, Markbane as was. And this was a different world; a digital world. She could sit anonymously at any computer in any library in the town to set things up and use a time delay on the email to cement an alibi.
2, 2, 7 a few more then 3. She checked the scanned copy of the driving licence, date of birth, house number. Then a text beeped on her phone and, as she tapped in her own passcode, it all became obvious.
A couple of weeks of techie research and article writing and the librarian was ready. It was her day off when, hat down and scarf up, she entered a library on the far side of the borough. She avoided the desk, though she was sure no one she knew was on duty. Logging on as one of the numerous old ladies who could never remember their own passwords, she accessed the internet and then Lancing’s email account. When password came up she took out her phone and looked at the little letters above the numbers on her keypad , 2, 2, – C,A, then 7 – R and so on to the final 3 – E. She clicked compose and wrote The truth about Caroline Lancing in the subject box. In the textbox she wrote Happy Reading and began adding attachments from a memory stick. All complete, she went into options and added the whole of Lancing’s contact list to a group, so they would all get the email simultaneously; business partners, business rivals, friends, relations, Assistant Chief bloody Constables. Now for the real techie bit, she unfolded a set of instructions. Options again: and she began to set up a time delay, so the emails would go at a time of her choosing; a time when she had an alibi if anyone mentioned the word Libel. All checked, she pressed send and her time-bomb was ticking. ‘That’s for you, mom,’ she told herself. ‘And our Jason.’ It felt so good. ‘At last…’ She breathed in, then she pulled the scarf over her mouth and began to chuckle.
It was a week later when Caroline Lancing opened the email. The librarian knew the time and made sure she was standing at her desk, opposite the security camera. There was a clock on the wall behind her.
Lancing looked at the subject box of the email- Happy Reading; then she began to open attachments; scanned photographs, newspaper clippings and there was a typed article, First Steps in Raising Capital – The Lancing Enterprise Way. The opening paragraph was jokey; a matey satire. But paragraph after paragraph slid into a darker tale; theft, exploitation, humiliation; a mother who couldn’t face her workmates after her son’s dismissal for stealing. A brother demoralised and branded by bad references; lost self-respect, lost future, drugs and a final disappearance. Caroline Lancing read every word, scoured every photograph. Then pressed Delete.
The librarian wasn’t the only one who knew about setting time delays. Lancing knew the dangers of a hasty click that replied to a group instead of an individual, or the havoc a disgruntled employee could wreak if a vast contacts file was just a keystroke away. So, the email came to her, like every other email on her company’s site that had more than three recipients. It came to her, but went no further. It would sit until the appropriate verification code was approved by a second employee. ‘Nice try,’ she said to herself as she took out her phone. ‘Hi, Bryan. Bit of a glitch, darling. Can you patch me in so I can re-set my email access. Thanks.’
Caroline Lancing flicked Call End, then looked at the unlock screen of her phone and the small letters grouped above each number and began selecting her new code F – 3… U – 8… She carried on tapping. ‘There you go love, a code and a message.’ Her finger loitered on the seventh and last letter; another 3. She stared at the back of her hand and the way the spray tan fell into fine, dark lines where her skin wrinkled around joints, or puckered as it sagged between bones and tendons. ‘A handbag!’ For a moment she wasn’t sure if the words had just echoed in her mind, or whether she’d actually spoken them out loud. Either way it didn’t matter, she was alone.