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Sunday, 1 January 2017
A New Year's Gift
It's that time of year when many of us take stock and make good resolutions about how we will improve our lives. Having a healthier lifestyle with more exercise is a popular choice, but beware, there are pitfalls. In Motivation, Maureen's lifestyle change should have come with a serious health warning.
So everything in moderation. Just sit down with a cup of tea, or something stronger, and allow yourself a few minutes of relaxation and fun with this short story.
A happy, healthy and prosperous 2017 to you all.
‘Maureen! I’m home!’
No answer. I
closed the front door behind me and tried again. ‘Maureen! Where are you, love?’
An ominous din
came from the kitchen. Inside, I found my wife, Maureen, with her head in the fridge, tossing
out jars and bottles with the gusto of an excited Jack Russell unearthing a
bone. I dodged as she lobbed a jar of chocolate and hazelnut spread into the
bin. Broken glass tinkled.
‘What on earth
are you doing? You know I like that stuff on my toast in the mornings.’
emerged from the chilly depths, lips pursed and brow furrowed.
cent fat and a hundred and fifty calories a teaspoon, Frank; I’m not having
that kind of thing in my house. If that’s what you buy, it’s the last time I
let you go shopping on your own.’
‘What am I supposed
to have for breakfast then?’
‘Low fat, high
to the kitchen table and I saw a stack of boxes. The topmost one had a garish picture
of a beaming woman with her spoon poised over a sunflower-yellow bowl. The bowl
seemed to be full of shredded up coconut matting. ‘But I don’t like that kind
of cereal,’ I protested.
it’s just a matter of re-educating your taste buds.’
the retort that my taste buds were fine just as they were. I doubt she’d have
noticed anyway. Her head had already disappeared into the fridge again. I
guessed there was no way that she would miss the bottle of tomato ketchup I’d bought
at the supermarket yesterday. That was probably full of forbidden ingredients
dinner?’ I asked with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
emerged once more. She put her hands on her hips. ‘I’d have thought it was
obvious I’ve been far too busy to cook; you’ll have to wait. I’ll put a salad
together when I’ve finished here.’
‘I’ll go and
watch television for a bit then, shall I?’
‘You do that.’
In the sitting
room, I dug the remote out from under Maureen’s pile of slimming magazines.
Flicking through the channels, I found an old film, North by Northwest. It had already got to the bit where the crop spraying
plane chases Cary Grant across the fields. When we were first married, Maureen
used to say I reminded her of Cary Grant.
I sighed. Somehow,
I didn’t have the heart to watch to the end.
I stabbed the
channel button again and found a programme about a middle-aged couple converting
a derelict barn into a dream home. They were what I call comfortably built, rather
like me and Maureen, or at least me and the old Maureen.
seem to be a lot left of the barn except for crumbling walls with black holes
like empty eye sockets where windows should have been. The roof had caved in
and there were bats nesting in the rafters. I didn’t give much for the couple’s
chances, but they looked to be enjoying themselves. The wife was a jolly woman,
rushing about with mugs of tea and plates of chocolate biscuits for the
builders. I was willing to bet she wouldn’t expect her husband to eat diet
cereal if he didn’t want to.
it finally arrived, consisted of clear soup and a carrot salad with a vinegary
dressing. Afterwards, with my stomach griping, I sat down to watch Match of the Day. Maureen changed into
pink Lycra shorts and pounded away on her exercise bike in the corner of the
room. It was hard to hear the commentary over the whir of pedals, but I didn’t say
evening, I needed a drink before I faced any more carrot salad so I dropped in
at the Dog and Duck on the way home. In the bay window, two women in business
suits sipped white wine. The only other customers were a noisy gang of
youngsters whose loud conversation made it impossible to be unaware that they
worked for the local computer company and were celebrating a birthday. Dora,
the barmaid, finished serving them their drinks then came down to my end of the
bar. She smiled. ‘Evening, Frank: pint of your usual?’
A burst of
laughter came from the group at the end of the bar.She swivelled her eyes in their direction.
‘I dread to
think what they’ll be like after another round. Heathen concoctions these
cocktails they like to drink; give me a pint of bitter any day.’
I grinned. ‘Each
to their own.’
for a glass from under the counter and started to pull my pint. I had just paid
her for it when half a dozen more of the loud crowd arrived and she had to go
off to serve them.
Left alone, I
ran my finger glumly along the groove of a scratch on the wooden counter. The
laughter from the other end of the bar only added to my melancholy. I thought
of Maureen. If I was honest, she’d always been bossy, but I’d grown used to
that. No, this was something else: in the last few months, with this new health
kick, she had become impossible.
and looked down at my empty glass.
‘Do you want
the other half, Frank?’
I glanced at
my watch and shook my head.
‘Better not, Maureen
will be wondering where I’ve got to.’
She swept my
glass off the bar with a practised hand. I noticed how soft and plump it
looked, the nails painted candyfloss pink. Our eyes met and she smiled. ‘Not
too late to change your mind, y’know.’
I smiled back.
‘Maybe I could be persuaded.’
better. I was hoping for to some civilised conversation.’
looking at me then.’
‘Don’t do yourself down, Frank.’
second pint, I set off home. A thin, icy rain was falling and a gust of wind
buffeted me as I turned into my street. As I walked into the hall, Maureen came
out of the sitting room. She had an odd, secretive smile on her face.
I gave her a
peck on the cheek. ‘Had a good day, love?’
‘Mmm.’ The funny
smile was still there. A strange foreboding started in my head and travelled
down to my stomach.
‘I’ve got a
surprise for you,’ Maureen went on.
‘Hope it’s a
She giggled. A
sound I hadn’t heard in a long time. ‘Come and see.’
the sitting room, I recoiled. ‘What on Earth. . .?’
that competition I entered; the one where you had to complete the sentence, “I
love Mr Motivator’s low fat, organic spread because . . .?” Well, this is my
prize – Mr Motivator himself. Isn’t he gorgeous?’
not how I would have described him. Mr Motivator was a six foot tall,
inflatable man. In his black Lycra shorts and singlet, his perma-tanned body
rippled with muscles. The smug smile on his chiselled, PVC features revealed white
teeth so dazzling that I felt in danger of snow blindness. Worse still, he was
propped up in my favourite chair.
stay,’ I said abruptly.
her hands on her hips, the giggle gone. Her brows knitted and her voice would
have cut granite.
years for a man like him. He’s staying and that’s the end of it.’
I opened my
mouth to speak but she had already flounced out of the room, leaving me to
stare in dismay at the plastic interloper.
Weeks went by.
Maureen and Mr
Motivator were inseparable. She named him Max and wherever she was, he was too.
She even took him out on drives to the coast or into the country. When I
protested, she ignored me. My nails were bitten to the quick and I couldn’t
hardly a scrap of food in the house now. If it hadn’t been for the burgers and
chips at the Dog and Duck, I’d have starved. Maureen had lost so much weight, I
feared that a puff of wind would blow her away. I could have circled her waist
with one hand – except there was none of that kind of thing between us now. ‘Max
needs me,’ she’d frown if I went too close, then she’d brush me off like stray cake
on, Frank?’ Dora asked as I wolfed down the plate of food she served me one rainy
evening. ‘It’s always nice to see you, but don’t you ever eat at home these
I finished the
last lovely, greasy morsel and wiped my mouth on the paper napkin. For a
moment, I was on the point of confiding in her, but then my pride took over.
The truth was just too humiliating; so instead, I mumbled something about
decorating the kitchen and Maureen not being able to use it. Dora just gave me
a quizzical look.
A few days
later, I’d left the house to escape from my enemy when I met Dora coming out of
the newsagent’s with a huge, shiny, blue balloon. Emblazoned on it in a circle
of gold stars was the name “Max.”
I nearly passed out.
She gave me a
concerned smile. ‘You all right, Frank?’
‘Yes,’ I said
She pointed to
the balloon. It’s one of those helium ones that stay up on their own. It’s for
my sister’s kid. I thought it would make him laugh. He’s a dear little thing. They’re
having him christened today. It’s a nice name, Max, isn’t it?’
‘Er… I suppose
‘Of course it
is,’ I said quickly. ‘Very nice.’
be getting along,’ she said at last. ‘Have a good weekend, Frank.’ I watched
her walk away, those curvaceous hips of hers swaying.
It was then
that the idea came to me. It took some research on the Internet but eventually,
I found what I wanted. All I had to do then was bide my time until Maureen went
out on one of her few trips without Max.
The opportunity presented itself
on her next weekly visit to the beauty parlour. She’d taken to going there
regularly because: ‘Max likes me to look my best.’ As I heard the car start up,
I rubbed my hands. She was usually gone for at least an hour and a half. Perfect.
In the sitting
room, I imagined I saw a flash of panic in Max’s plastic eyes as I bore down on
him and wrenched him out of my chair. Wrestling him to the ground, I fumbled
for the stopper at the back of his neck then pulled off the top. With a
triumphant grin, I watched him deflate until he was just a puddle of black and
orange plastic on the beige carpet. ‘Ha!’ I shouted. ‘Not such a hunk now, are
I fetched the
helium canister from its hiding place in the garage and attached the nozzle to the
open tube in Max’s neck. The valve on the canister hissed as I turned it.
Gradually, Max expanded until he reached his former size. I glowered at him,
restored as he was to his cheesy good looks. ‘Say your prayers, sucker,’ I
snarled. ‘Don’t think you’re going to be let off as easily as that.’
black felt-tip pen, I inked in his teeth then I started to drag him out into
the garden. He bumped over the terrace and onto the lawn. The afternoon was
drawing to a close and the grass was damp with early dew. He made a squeaking
sound as I pulled him over it, almost like a pathetic plea for help, but I was
past pity. We were out in the open now, away from the trees that fringed the
lawn. I took a deep breathe: this was it, the moment when I took my revenge. I swung
my right foot back and took aim. Any moment now, Max would be up with the
What’s going on?’
I froze. On
this day of all days, Maureen had returned early from the beauty parlour. She screamed;
her bracelets jangling, she seized Max around the waist and tried to pull him
away from me. ‘Let him go!’ she shouted. ‘Have you gone crazy?’
I staggered as
she ground one of her stiletto heels into my foot. With a howl of pain, I released
Max. He shot upwards, taking Maureen with him as if she were no more than a feather.
Too horrified to move, I watched as they soared up and away towards the setting
sun. Then the adrenaline kicked in. Dashing into the house, I grabbed the phone,
but soon I hesitated. Who would believe me? The story was too crazy for words.
My head reeled: where would Maureen and Max land and when they did, would she
be OK? What would I say to her? Even more alarmingly, what would she have to
say to me?
I stood in the
rapidly gathering darkness for a few moments before I reached for the light
switch. Nothing happened. I frowned as I noticed that the clock on the DVD
player had gone dead. It must be a power cut. I went to the front door and
opened it; outside, the other houses in the street seemed to be in darkness too.
The wail of sirens grew louder; two police motorcyclists roared by, followed by
four patrol cars.
on, Frank?’ My neighbour poked his head out of his front door.
‘No idea,’ I
said but even as I uttered the words, I was very afraid that I did have one.
In what seemed like no time at
all, the town was full of news teams – reporters from the TV, the radio and the
papers, all madly asking questions and spouting theories. It seemed everyone had
seen something in the sky; stories of UFOs, Martians, fairies, even Harry
Potter and his quidditch team spread like wildfire. ‘We’ll probably never know
the truth,’ a solemn man from the BBC intoned into his microphone. ‘One thing is
certain though: whatever the phenomenon was, it was blown to smithereens when
it struck the local electricity sub-station.’
guilt, I crept back home and huddled in my favourite chair. Never again would
Max displace me from it. Elation coursed through my veins, hotly followed by
grief. Maureen too was gone forever and there had been happy times. I bowed my
head and wept.
In the days that followed, I kept
my secret to myself, but being alone was soon unbearable. Like a homing pigeon,
I headed for the Dog and Duck; I reckoned no one would take much notice of me
there and Dora was glad of my help. Poor old Maureen had certainly boosted
trade. We were rushed off our feet as psychics, astrologists, science fiction
fans and hairy members of strange cults made their pilgrimage to the now famous
substation. It took two weeks for all the fuss to die down and the whole crazy
road show to lumber off on its way. After life had returned to normal, I let a few
months pass before I moved house. The neighbours waved me a sympathetic
goodbye; they had swallowed the story that Maureen had left me for a personal
trainer. Well, in a way she had, hadn’t she?
I didn’t move
far. I still see Dora. We go salsa dancing every Tuesday night. It keeps us