Today’s short story is from Mr McStoryteller himself…
As he drove up to his house in the works van, Bill MacFadzean whistled loudly the tune to Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek. Ella Fitzgerald had sung Cheek to Cheek when he went to see her in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh a couple of months before. Now he could hear that angelic voice of hers soaring across the top of his head. “Heaven, I’m in heaven,” Ella sang, and Bill smiled and whistled.
He parked behind his own car, stepped down to the pavement and locked the van. As far as he was concerned, his Saturday deliveries for the factory over, the van would remain there until Monday morning. Still whistling, he checked his watch. Not even half-past ten yet. Braw. Time for a quick bite to eat and a scan of the paper before heading down to the Star for the rest of the day. A few games of dominoes and a bit of banter with the boys. Braw.
And Janet, of course. Not forgetting Janet, the barmaid at the Star. She was nearly thirty years younger than Bill, but every time she looked at him, the way she looked at him, he was convinced he was in with a chance. Although he had turned sixty and was due to retire soon, he was still fit and trim. And still good-looking, he hoped. “A silver-tongued, silver-haired Lothario,” Janet had called him once, her blue eyes sparkling when she said it. Yes, it was the way she looked at him. One of these nights, he was sure, she would invite him to stay on after hours. Just the two of them in the half-darkness of the bar. He could picture her naked and spread-eagled on the pool table. Those small, pert breasts. Those long, shapely legs. He felt the stirring of a delicious erection as he opened his front door. “Heaven, I’m in heaven,” Ella sang again, and Bill couldn’t agree more.
Coat on, hat on, handbag by her side, a stony-faced Jean stood in the hallway. Ella’s singing stopped abruptly; it was as if the needle had been snatched from a gramophone record. Bill’s whistling also trailed off. And his nascent erection shrank away. Talk about a “sulky, sullen dame”, he remarked to himself; if there was a competition between his Jean and Tam o’ Shanter’s Kate, he knew who would win – hands down.
“He’s deid,” Jean said.
Bill blanched, thinking immediately of his two sons. One was down in London, where the IRA were still murdering people. The other was in the Army – somewhere over in Northern Ireland…
“Who is?” he managed to ask without conveying too much panic in his voice.
Bill could have knelt down and prayed at the sound of that name. “Thank you, God!” he rejoiced silently. Neither of his sons, then. Just old Tommy, Jean’s stepfather. He had been in the hospital for months, waiting to die.
“The hospital telephoned wi’ the news,” Jean continued. “I thought you’d be hame earlier, so I called Senga to let her ken. Her and Frankie’ll be well on their way frae Glasgow by noo. We’ll need to move it if we’re to get there before them.”
“Get where?” Bill asked hesitantly.
Jean brushed past him, sighing.
“Don’t be stupid, Bill,” she muttered on her way out the front door. “Tommy’s hoose.”
Bill stood for a few seconds, puzzled, before following Jean out and pulling the door behind him. She was waiting at the passenger side of the van, rather than at their car.
“The van’ll be quicker than that auld heap,” she explained, tapping one foot on the pavement.
Bill unlocked the van, helped Jean up and walked round to the driver side. He had been on the verge of reminding her that he wasn’t allowed to carry passengers in the works van – it was a sackable offence, and he could lose his pension as a result – but he held his tongue. His planned Saturday afternoon was already in tatters; he didn’t want to make it any worse with a row out on the street.
The journey from the village to Tommy’s house in Kirkcaldy usually took about twenty minutes. They drove in silence at first. After a few miles, Bill resumed whistling Cheek to Cheek, more softly than before. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t hear Ella’s voice again. Nor could he recreate that image of Janet on the pool table. All he could see was Jean’s face: immobile, determined – and, oddly, without a trace of sorrow over Tommy’s passing.
Jean was picturing Senga and Frankie in their posh car: wee, smug Frankie driving at top speed along the motorway, with dumpy Senga sitting like Lady Muck beside him. Of her sisters and brothers, Senga was the only one still living in Scotland, so Jean had felt compelled to phone her first about Tommy. She regretted that now. If Bill had turned up when he was supposed to, there would be no need for this haste. The man had become so unreliable, spending half his life in that pub, drinking and gambling and getting up to God knows what else.
Senga, thought Jean bitterly, the youngest of the four girls and two boys, the bairn, was always the spoiled one, the one who got everything. And now the bitch was on her way to claim Jean’s inheritance as her own. But not if Jean could help it; not if Bill moved his lazy arse.
“Can you no’ go any faster?” she asked suddenly.
Bill wanted to tell her that getting caught driving over the speed limit in the works van was also a sackable offence, but it would have been pointless. He smiled instead and eased his foot down.
Jean returned to her thoughts. She was the eldest, the twelve-year-old who had had to look after her siblings when their mother fell ill. She had practically brought them up, cooking and cleaning for them and making sure they went to school, and foregoing her own schooling as a result. It was only right, therefore, that she should inherit their mother’s most prized possessions. Maw had died nearly three years ago. She didn’t leave a will, so everything she owned went to Tommy. Now Tommy was gone – without leaving a will either, Jean was certain – and it was time to collect her inheritance.
The problem was that Maw had gone senile before she passed away and had managed to bequeath her possessions to almost every woman she came in contact with, including her four daughters, the home help, the district nurses and even a young girl from the Post Office who called to deliver flowers for her birthday.
“I dinnae trust they lawyers, so I’m no’ writin’ nae will,” she told them all. “But I can tell you noo, just between the twa o’ us, that everythin’ I haud dear I’m leavin’ to you when I dee off. The drawer at the fit o’ thone big wardrobe in ma bedroom. That’s whaur you’ll find it a’. A’ wrapped up in tissue paper. It’s a’ yours, ma dear. That’s ma deathbed request, ye ken.”
Everyone knew that because Maw was senile anything she said should be ignored – everyone, that is, except Senga, who chose to believe that she was the favoured daughter.
“The bitch’ll take it all if she can get away wi’ it,” Jean blurted out, her anger mounting. “Everything that’s rightfully mine!”
“Right,” Bill nodded, not daring to enquire who “the bitch” was.
Jean brightened up when she realised they were already driving along the street where her Maw and Tommy lived. The Council house was at the end of the street. As the van pulled up in front of it alongside Frankie’s shiny new estate car, Jean’s wrath returned.
“I telt ye!” she spat out.
Without waiting for Bill to help her, she jumped down from the van and rushed into the house, almost colliding with wee Frankie, who seemed to have been loitering at the foot of the stairs.
“Where is she?” Jean demanded.
Startled, lost for words, all that Frankie was able to do was point to the ceiling. Her handbag swinging, Jean thundered up the stairs, Bill panting a few steps behind her. She made straight for her Maw’s bedroom, there to be confronted by the worst of all sights.
Surrounded by mounds of yellowing tissue paper, wee, chubby Senga sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the wide-open bottom drawer of the wardrobe. Draped around her plump neck and even plumper arms was the mink stole that Maw had preserved for the best part of sixty years. Gleaming at the top of her cavernous cleavage was the diamond-encrusted silver pendant that had been handed down from mother to daughter through many generations of Maw’s family. And, horror of horrors, clutched to her ample bosom was the eighteen-carat gold carriage clock that the whole family had chipped in to buy for Maw’s sixtieth birthday. Oblivious to Jean’s presence, Senga was listening intently to the delicate, silvery tone of the clock as it chimed eleven o’clock.
Jean wanted to strangle Senga with the stole. She wanted to rip the pendant from Senga’s fat neck. She wanted to grab the carriage clock and smash it into Senga’s greedy face. But she was powerless to do any of those things. Instead, she turned her attention and her rage to Bill, who was now framed in the doorway.
“It’s a’ your fault!” she screamed at him.
Bill flinched and backed out of the bedroom. The Star, he said to himself as he returned to the works van. For a pint and some company. But most of all for one of Janet’s smiles. He loved the way her sparkling blue eyes crinkled at the edges when she smiled.
Born in Edinburgh and brought up just along the road in South Queensferry in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, Brendan Gisby is the founder of McStorytellers. He is the author of three novels, three biographies and several short story collections. The Race is included in the latest of those collections, Ping Time & Other Tales of Revenge