Semple’s Muse – Part 3

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*     *     *

            Come early Sunday evening Semple was tired but happy. The hours he had invested in arranging things for Miss H-V made him break from his usual schedule, and he worked both weekend days. By dinnertime he had amassed a goodly number of new pages. He momentarily reviewed the kitchen freezer’s contents before caving in and setting off to the pub.

The Red Lion’s décor dated from the ‘60s. Tobacco smoke permeated the furnishings and even, it seemed, the staff. Smoking in the establishment was strictly verboten now but that didn’t keep some of the Red Lion’s loyal clientele from trying to breath in the past as they lingered over their backgammon and pints of bitter.

Semple ordered his food at the bar and carried his ale to the corner booth that he and Emma called their “royal box.” The cracked red vinyl upholstery sighed as he settled onto it. When was the last time Emma and I visited the pub before her death? How can I not remember? Did the tapestry of their years together already have holes in it?

“You’re for bangers and mash?”

Semple glanced at the woman standing beside the booth. She repeated the query. “I said, bangers and mash?”

“Sorry, Miss. I’m afraid I was, uh, gathering wool.”

The waitress, whose nametag read “Tacy,” set down the plate. She had a pleasant smile and didn’t smell of ancient tobacco smoke.

“No worries. I am Gerald’s daughter. I started here last week. Newly back in town, you see.”

Semple vaguely recalled having heard that Gerald and Maxine Bronwell had a daughter. Tacy appeared to be in her mid-thirties, buxom, with green eyes and curly black hair. They shook hands and Semple gave his name. “Enjoy your supper, Mr. Semple. Another of the same?”

Tacy swept away with his empty mug. He rubbed his forehead. Why did it feel as though an electric spark passed between them? With an impatient “tut-tut” Semple picked up his knife and fork.

Nothing else out of the ordinary occurred during the balance of his meal. It was a darts night, and the pub was becoming crowded as he spooned up the last of his sticky toffee pudding. Tacy was so busy that she only had time to drop off Semple’s bill. She thanked him and hoped to serve him again soon.

Semple paused in the act of locking the front door, remembering with a start that tomorrow was Miss H-V’s inaugural day. He gave the bedroom and lavatory the once-over, even though he knew everything was in readiness.

In the lav he brushed teeth and flossed. The face in the cabinet mirror was that of a man in the early stages of developing a double chin. Semple’s medium brown hair was still luxuriant, with a smattering of grey. Not bad, all things considered. He was taken aback when a vivid mental picture of Tacy Bronwell replaced the thought. The last thing I need right now is an emotional entanglement.

Even after a year of being a widower Semple kept to what had always been his side of the bed. He set the alarm for six o’clock and got under the sheet.

Tomorrow I must make up for lost time. I hope to heaven that Miss H-V can settle in without my help . . .

*     *    *

            Eyes shut, Semple felt around on the nightstand for the clock radio. Once the offending device was silenced he noticed a wonderful smell. Emma must have decided to try out a delicious new recipe, to get his busy day off to a good start. How thoughtful of her. “Darling, I cannot wait to taste that dish. What is it called?”

“Palacsinta.”

A field of stars hovered above Semple’s face. Dressed in the same long skirt and blouse she’d worn when first he met her, Miss H-V stood beside the bed, a tray in her hands.

“How long have you been here? How did you get into the house?”

“I used this, of course.” Miss H-V held up a key taken from her apron pocket. “I was in the kitchen at five-thirty, as I like making an early start.”

Unlike many of their neighbors, the Semples didn’t conceal a spare door key beneath a flowerpot on the porch. Semple chuckled at his wife’s suggestion of hiding one inside a “fairy door” but that didn’t keep Emma from purchasing one online that was modeled after Dr. Who’s Tardis. Before long the Time Lord’s vehicle was installed in a leafy niche in the front garden, a shiny new key inside it.

“Eat. They are getting cold.” The housekeeper unfolded the tray legs and set it down. Semple made short work of the plateful of savoury crêpes, topped with apricot jam, sugar and crushed walnuts. He started to thank Miss H-V for a superb breakfast but he was alone.

Hm. I must have been looking away when she left the room.

[© 2018 Robert Edwin Stone, II]

Semple’s Muse – Part 2

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A week passed. Semple hadn’t churned out manuscript pages in the volume that he’d hoped but he remained upbeat. He was confident that his novel—about a medieval noblewoman, magically transmuted into a dragon that preserved her murdered husband’s fief from his greedy brother—had real potential. Its working title was Allith, Mountain Flower Dragoness.

Semple discovered a tendency to nod off after lunch. Thus, he began tuning in online to BBC Radio 4 as the workday commenced. The white noise provided by its news and arts programmes—even “The Archers,” royally detested by Semple—helped fend off drowsiness. In the evening he decided to celebrate his progress with a trip to the “Red Lion.” Pub grub and beer were bad for his waistline but he deserved a break from the microwaved fare that usually formed the foundation of his tea.

Hearing a rumble of thunder, Semple dropped his key ring on the small rosewood table in the hall and took an umbrella from the door stand. Retrieving the ring he noticed a light coating of dust on the tabletop.

Am I less diligent about the housework than I imagine? The drumbeat of rain on the roof made Semple abandon thoughts of going out. He walked through the house instead, assessing each room’s state of cleanliness. Furniture in those he seldom frequented needed dusting; cobwebs lurked in a few corners of the ceilings; the rugs would benefit from vacuuming; and the second story windows were distressingly dirt-streaked.

In light of the reconnaissance Semple was determined to find a replacement for Mrs. Chamberlain—without delay.

*     *     *

            In the morning Semple headed for the High Street. He carried a roll of cellotape and copies of an advertisement:

 

LIVE-IN HOUSEKEEPER SOUGHT

Widower of quiet habits (a writer by vocation) seeks a live-in housekeeper.

Duties include cleaning, washing & cooking

Salary commensurate with experience • References required

Please apply in person between 6 and 8, weekday evenings:

3231 Wisteria Lane

            Nowadays a plethora of online sites enabled employers and prospective employees to link up but Semple favored a traditional approach to hiring. At first he was reticent to solicit live-in help, for someone banging around was a potential distraction to his writing. Then he concluded that having all his household needs met was worth the risk of occasional interruptions.

Semple posted his advert in upscale shops’ display windows, believing that placement would attract a better sort of applicant. Walking home he considered the person he wanted. A pleasant, mature woman with an understated sense of humor would be just the thing. Acknowledging that he was imagining Emma brought tears to his eyes.

*     *     *

            As the days passed Semple worried that the advertisement might go unanswered. At last the doorbell rang on Thursday, at six, on the dot.

The young woman standing nose-to-nose with him was slim, with blue eyes, auburn hair done up in a tight bun and a dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Not exactly what Semple would call pretty but then, looks weren’t a quality he sought.

Despite the early summer heat she wore a green, ankle-length skirt and a long-sleeve peasant blouse, over which cascaded a constellation of sewn-on stars. Both articles were made from the same rough fabric. Semple chalked this up to a desire to defy his generation’s tastes. In their twenties neither he nor Emma had been so unconventional!

The visitor’s ringing tone derailed Semple’s question about whether she had come for an interview. “I am Miss Hegyi-Virág; call me Miss H-V. I accept the position.”

She swept past Semple and went on into the kitchen. With Mary Poppins-esque efficiency she plugged in the kettle and retrieved the tea things. Miss H-V joined her host at the table, adding a dash of milk and three sugar cubes to his tea . . . just the way he liked it. Its as if she knows the house—and me.

Semple blew on his mug as Miss H-V informed him that she would start on Monday next. She left after giving Semple’s hand a firm shake, not turning to wave as she headed down the sidewalk. He poured more tea, surprised at having neglected to ask for Miss H-V’s references. Neither had she inquired about what the position paid.

That evening was devoted to preparing the housekeeper’s lodgings. The twins’ bedroom became the guest room after they left home, so it was already furnished with beds, dressers and nightstands. Semple lugged up a worn but comfortable reading chair and a reading lamp from the basement. He placed towels, sheets and a pillowcase on the bed nearest the window.

The lavatory had been a battlefield during Maisie and Wrenna’s teenage years. Makeup containers, lipsticks and lotions crammed its cabinet and overflowed the counter, sparking arguments about the necessity of sharing the space with their parents. When the girls departed for university Emma joked that she had cleared out enough items to fill a toxic waste dump; after her death Semple discarded even her modest store of cosmetics.

He hoped Miss H-V wouldn’t muck up the lavatory anew, with her own store of war paints. The two of them would have to agree on a schedule for using the lav but that shouldn’t pose a problem.

[© 2018 Robert Edwin Stone, II]

Semple’s Muse – Part 1

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John Cleese of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” fame often remarked: “Now for something completely different.”

Many people know that I write fiction. I concentrate on historical novels but now and then I have the urge to dip my toe into the short story format. This is the first installment of the story I’ve wedged in between novels. (The fact that it’s set in the U.K. explains why some words are spelt as they are.)

I’d be interested in knowing what you think about my effort. Thanks, and get your friends to subscribe to my blog, will ya?

 

Semple’s Muse

            Semple didn’t need to check his phone to know that today was the first anniversary of Emma’s death: he felt in his bones. A lorry driver—an undocumented immigrant—had been glued to his mobile, not minding his speed; nor was he watching for people in the crosswalk. During the inquest the young Pole swore that the “olt voo-man” stepped from the kerb, oblivious to the oncoming traffic. Semple bristled: Emma was only fifty-five!

The items that spilled from his wife’s Tesco carrier bag attested to the collision’s violence. There was a squashed loaf of bread (patterned by tyre tracks and dimpled with gravel); two litres-worth of milk (coating the pavement); and a package of fresh chicken thighs (compressed into greyish-pink paté). A severe WPC came to the house to notify Semple about what had happened. She extended the Force’s sympathy for his loss and promised that Emma’s killer would be brought to justice.

Three days later a tip led to the driver’s arrest. His employer did not contest the court’s decision to award the grieving husband a large cash settlement. Indeed, the firm seized the opportunity to boot the fellow back to his native land, lest some hungry young solicitor convince Semple to pursue the case further.

The local council lost no time in having a new LED pedestrian crossing light installed at the accident scene. Every Wednesday Semple tied a cello-wrapped spray of lilac, Emma’s favourite flower, to the pole. The first few times he did this passersby paused to pray or offer their condolences. After a while they stopped but Semple took it philosophically.

He recalled how, in the weeks following 9/11, airline pilots encouraged passengers to talk to those beside whom they sat, probably in hopes of preventing a repetition of that beautiful fall morning’s tragedy. Semple also noted that the practice faded as quickly as it had begun.

Emma’s co-workers in the Oxfam office three bus stops from the house attended the chapel service. The young Methodist minister engaged by her sister to preside over the memorial service knew little about Emma: the generic homily he delivered was proof of that. Semple averted his gaze when the motorised conveyor belt jerkily transported the wooden casket into the crematorium chamber, to the accompaniment of a CD recording of “Abide With Me.”

Semple’s adult daughters had rushed from their jobs on the Continent—Brexit be damned—to help him navigate the funeral and its immediate aftermath. He was touched when both Maisie and Wrenna promised to maintain regular contact with him, albeit via Skype.

*     *     *

            Semple patronized the local bookshop, which was fighting a delaying action against amazon.uk’s onslaught. Conversations with the owner, who devoted considerable shelf space to fantasy novels, convinced Semple that he might be able to shoulder in between Gandalf and Harry Potter. Creative writing was something he had contemplated for many years, even though his wife pooh-poohed the idea.

“You’ve enough bloody make-believe in your life, without intentionally seeking out even more of it.” Emma had spoken in her no nonsense way. “If you want to become a writer, my dear, why not focus on reality? It is strange enough!”

Semple put his plan in motion soon after Emma’s funeral. He took early retirement from the marketing firm for which he had worked for thirty years. Confident that the story ideas he’d scribbled in a notebook on his nightstand had potential, he set about transforming Emma’s sewing room into what he jokingly called his “aerie.”

The first thing Semple did was to donate the sewing machine, myriad spools of thread in a rainbow of colours and a pile of half-finished projects to a women’s shelter. A contractor scraped away the flowered wallpaper; spackled nail holes from Emma’s collection of English pastoral scene prints; painted the walls a modern, neutral color, and installed a sturdy bookshelf within easy reach of the brand-new IKEA desk. The two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary held pride of place among bookshelf’s reference works. An updated laptop, a large flatscreen monitor and a Wi-Fi printer were the finishing touches.

The sunshine and mild temperatures augured well for the inaugural day of Semple’s new career. Following a breakfast of buttered wheat toast with strawberry jam and a pot of Darjeeling he settled into his desk chair and turned on the computer. His fingers were poised above the keyboard when the doorbell buzzed. He was surprised to see Rose Chamberlain before him.

Fifteen years earlier Emma had engaged the woman as their once-a-week charwoman. A dependable soul, Mrs. Chamberlain never filched anything and was disciplined about limiting her breaks. The smiling, portly woman standing on the step wasn’t dressed for hoovering, and Wednesday, not Monday, was her usual workday. Semple showed her inside.

“I don’t recall hearing that you needed to alter your schedule, Mrs. C.”

“I’ve come to give my notice, Mr. Semple. Our son living in Edinburgh and his partner have a large enough house that Alfred and I can live with them. The arrangement will enable our savings to go a lot further than they would in England.”

Semple congratulated Mrs. Chamberlain on her good fortune, wrote out a final cheque for her services and wished her and Alfred well. Passing through the kitchen after Mrs. C departed, he contemplated the breakfast dishes in the sink.

            Surely I can keep the place acceptably clean on my own?

Spurred on by this thought Semple washed the teacup, saucer, dish and utensils. Returning the items to their storage places, he felt a modest sense of accomplishment.

[© 2018 Robert Edwin Stone, II]