Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This week’s story is by Francesca Baker.
"But I don’t want it." Joe crossed his eyes, folded his arms, pouted his lips and slammed himself back in his chair. Quick as nightfall in winter Charlotte shot out her arm to stop the teetering chair crashing down onto the tiles of the Royal Festival Hall.
She put her hand up to her straw-like hair, and tried not to look around.
"That is what is for lunch," she said firmly.
"Please Joe." Her voice was soft and plaintive, but her teeth gritted and chin out in anger.
Sarah, who until now had been engrossed in her food and was a good few bites through her sandwich became aware of her younger brother’s protestations and decided to follow suit. She squished the soft bread between her fingers and threw it on the table.
"I’m not eating it."
Charlotte looked at the substandard picnic laid out on the melamine table that rocked slightly every time someone leant on it. Soggy white bread filled with cheap butter and cheese slices, congealed layers each a slightly different shade of beige. Weak orange squash, of the type they served in nursing homes. A family bag of Tesco value crisps, decanted out into smaller sandwich bags, so ashamed was she of their branding.
He had a point.
"I want one of those," said Joe, pointing at the train shaped cardboard lunchbox a smartly dressed boy with soft brown curls was emptying on the table next to him. He was beaming an almost beatific smile, whilst his mother gazed at him with glowing eyes and luminous skin. Charlotte wished she could give it to him. Roasted coffee flooded her nostrils. A sweet scent of fresh baked cakes teased her and her children. A hum of happy chatter bubbled around them all, and a kaleidoscopic whirl of weekend activity vibrantly danced. Mothers in designer trousers were pushing expensive pushchairs and their children like catalogue cut outs followed suit, families apparently living the lives of glossy magazines.
Yes, she wanted that too. She wanted the life. She wanted a — she glanced up at the blackboard above the counter to see what she wanted — a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich on fresh baked rye, not these clammy plastic cheese morsels. Her heart felt heavy. She wanted to give them a day out. In the city. Like real families. Show them the sights, the red glare of the buses and the bright lights of the streets. As a treat they had sat on the top deck of the bus. She had even cut the sandwiches into triangles.
She was fed up with this. She wanted to threaten to take them home, but she didn’t want to go home. The block of flats had seemed particularly grey this morning. Elephantine concrete slabs merging into the gloomy sky studded with black clouds. A wind had been blowing, whipping up crisp packets and chip wrappers all dancing in a frenzy, a blur of brown and green and vinegar-sodden white. Smoggy fuzz seemed to hover around it and ashen faced children mingled in the corridors with weathered adults.
Her legs were sore from climbing the flights of stairs up to their 15th floor flat. The teenagers who hung out had left it out of order again. Everyone knew it was them because the idiots had sprayed their names on the doors. She hoped her Joe and Sarah would never become like that. Idiots or louts. Yesterday she wanted to yank them by their hoods and yell and cry at them. Carrying Joe on one hip and carrier bags laden with economy brand food in her other hand, she could feel the plastic straining in her hands, little white stretch marks hinting at the disaster to come. Twisting the handles around her fingers was OK for a bit, but come the seventh floor one broke, and the shopping crashed to the floor. She’d rescued the apples as they rolled across the floor (Charlotte made sure they had fruit every day, she was a good mum like that), but the eggs. Gone. That was £2 she would never see again.
It had never been easy, but leaving Paul just made it impossible. There were days she regretted the decision, her decision to take her children and run. They didn’t know about the drugs and the violence, but they did know about warm rooms and nice food and good presents. They were happy then. Deep down she knew she did the right thing. But sometimes, when daily life ground at her, she was unsure. Everyone said she was brave. To take such a risk. Put her kids first. Although firmly placing one foot in front of the other, she seemed to be shifting and teetering on a shaky surface.
She smiled at her children, trying to jolly them into enjoying the meal, but tears were forming in the corner of her green eyes. Frustration and sadness collided within her, her hunger mixing with the knotty sensation of anxiety that sometimes lodged itself in her stomach.
She reached across the table with hands worn and etched to rub Joe’s hair. He scowled and pulled himself away.
She wondered if she could try harder. She could feel the last £1.53 to her name digging through the worn denim of her jeans into the flesh of her bottom. Looking again, she realised that it was not even enough for a can of coke for them all to share. She was exhausted.
They should never have come. Come to see this reminder of what she and her family were not and never could be. Staring out of the window she watched the rain fall, prisms of London lights forming in its droplets. The city could be magical. If you could afford it.
We’re still after your stories, which you should send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
For children/by children
- The Lion: Something’s up in Trafalgar Square.
- Lyndon The Greatest Thief in London: A light fingered robber meets the Queen.
- Beyond the Central Line: Notting Hill Gate looks different today…
- The Makings of a Killer: A dark encounter in Southwark.
- Places to Hide a T-Rex in London: About time someone tackled this one.
- The Modern Fire of London: A sneezing dragon is a dangerous thing.
- The Let Down Competition: A mango has a fight with a pig.
General London fiction
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
- The Guardian of Travellers: Victoria Coach Station passengers take the advice of a sage.
- Graphic Novels: A celebrated novelist finds inspiration in Shoreditch Library.
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
Christmas in London
- The Ghost of Christmas Replete: David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
- Keep the Change: Lee Hamblin takes a sneaky taxi ride.
- Night Bus Dreams: Michelle Surtees-Myers is picked up by an enchanted night bus.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Routine: The importance of the day-to-day, by Clare Kane.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.