Welcome to Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group and the third story on this blog. This 3,100-word piece is by literary author, poet, interviewee and first contributor to ‘Novel Nights In‘ Rose Mary Boehm.
Please do comment in the section below telling us what you liked about this story and, what if anything, the author could do to improve upon it. Thank you – it’s very much appreciated!
I do have some feedback but I’ve just included it (below the story) as links to the scans of my handwritten-notes so I can let others comment here without being influenced by me. 🙂
Mrs Boffa moves slowly. An old black overcoat barely protects her squat, heavy body from the worst of the London winter. Sharp air uses the high buildings packed tightly on either side of the street as a wind tunnel. Around her head and ears she wears a woollen scarf, old-pink roses woven into its light grey fabric. She bends forward to protect her face from the pain.
Seen from the side she looks as wide as from either back or front. Her legs are screwed badly into wide hips, coming together in a V-shape; her feet are struggling to keep the weight from defeating them. The fake-fur lining of her dark-brown, rubber-soled slippers give some comfort to her ankles, while heavy brown stockings wrinkle generously around her legs.
From her bare and swollen hands extend sausage-like appendages. Years of abuse in hot and cold water make them almost unrecognisable as fingers. Now they are also blue from the cold. One hand holds a plastic handbag, black and shiny, full of her most important possessions, the other tries to find warmth in one of her coat pockets, pulling the shabby fabric tight.
She tries to remember the heat of Egypt. Oh, if only she could step out of her tormented old body – even for a brief spell – to feel (and hate) again that implacable, unremitting African mid-day sun, wishing only for cold.
“Oh, Mrs Boffa,” they say, “tell us about Egypt.” “Tell us again about when you were rich.”
She knows they don’t believe a word. They are teasing her. But neither can they be sure. And she can’t resist the temptation. So again she throws her pearls before the eager swine. They are impressed by her English, her Greek, her Italian, her French and her Arabic. Quite a conundrum for them. How can a cleaning lady be more educated than her employers?
“Oh, Mrs Boffa…”
They never call her by her first name, Adela. It’s as though they know, see her guilt and don’t want to become too friendly. They can’t know. Or can they? There never was a moment when it occurred to Adela Boffa that this omission may be a sign of respect.
She has the key to 157, Attlee Road, Flat 6, fifth floor; she’s been ‘doing’ for Mrs Ventnor for nearly eight years now. Mrs Ventnor lives in a high-rise, very near the council flats. The walls are covered in old, flaking William Morris wallpaper; over the bed a baby-blue Jesus helps angelic little children across a brook, stretching out a sickly pink, soft, feminine hand. The whole thing is framed in Woolworth gold. A pink candlewick bedspread is carelessly thrown over some wicker chairs, sheets and blankets lie in a heap on the floor. Margareta Ventnor has a lover. ‘Good luck to her’, Mrs Boffa wheezes with an effort and begins her task by picking up the sheets and putting them into the washing machine.
Egypt. El Cairo. Al-Qāhirah to those who live there or, even more local, Masr. It hadn’t taken her long to become a Masraweya. Her house in the suburbs on the way to Alexandria was white against the desert colours of the surrounding land. Its luxurious garden had been stolen from the desert sands. Very quickly it had become home. She had two maids and a gardener. A very young Adela Boffa had followed her handsome husband from Malta to North Africa. He’d kept his promise: he’d made her his queen and provided everything she could have ever wanted – a beautiful home and three beautiful children. They’d study and go to University. They’d be doctors, teachers or civil servants, respectable and respected. One day she’d be a grandmother.
In her head she hears again the “Tell us, Mrs Boffa!” and often enough: “Mrs Boffa, are you a witch?” and, “Do you have a spell to make him fall in love with me?”
She’s nearly done. Dry and put away the dishes, wash the floors, vacuum, and off to her next house. It’s not far from Attlee Road. She’ll walk, despite the cold. Her swollen ankles and knees don’t take kindly to bending down, and every day it costs her more to complete her tasks on time. She wipes her still moist hands on her dust coat.
Her children were still small when it happened. Jean, the oldest boy, called after his father, as was the custom, was only seven, little Adela five, and the baby, Mikiel, had just completed his first year. In the immediate aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution lead by Naguib and Nasser, the storms seemed to calm, and the Boffas looked forward to a bright and secure future. Husband Jean had developed a thriving transport company, moving goods and people all over North Africa, and the business was growing.
She pulls on her old coat, switches off all the lights, takes her black handbag and closes the door behind her, making sure she locks it well. Then she presses the lift button which, thank God for small mercies, is not out of order today, squeezing with some difficulty into the small cabin. She knows all the graffiti by heart. Jenny loves Nigel. ‘Good luck to them’.
To get to Bellevue Road she has to cross the small park. The wind now attacks her from all sides but with less violence. The ends of her scarf, knotted under her chin, flutter into her face.
“Oh, please, tell us, Mrs Boffa…”
She had entertained. Her house had become a well-known haven for friends and business acquaintances. Among the guests there had even be the odd Egyptian civil servant. Jean always said that a businessman, especially a foreigner, could never have too many connections. He knew how to oil the wheels of commerce. She had been the gracious hostess and had enjoyed her role.
Mrs Boffa pulls up her collar and, ‘that’ll stop you from hitting my face’, feeds the scarf-ends through the big buttonhole of her coat collar. A tear rolls over the end of her nose. She wipes it away with her free hand.
They were amongst the many foreigners disowned and thrown out of Egypt by Gamal Abdel Nasser. They could only take what they had on their backs and what they could carry in some plastic bags. They went to the UK instead of Malta. Why? She can’t remember. Perhaps there were no ships going anywhere else? She had little Mikiel in her arms, Jean shepherded the other two. On the ship they huddled together with hundreds of others – Asians, Greeks, Italians, Maltese…
It happened when she left her little family to go and find something to eat and especially to drink. Little Mikiel needed milk. Someone had told her that there was a small cafeteria on board. “Jean, don’t move from here or I will never find you again. Children, be good, listen to your papa! I’ll be back in a moment.”
She’d followed a small human exodus and then placed herself firmly in the queue which was too long to see what they were queuing for. She would have liked to go and investigate but didn’t dare to leave her place. Still, so many people must queue for something worthwhile. So she stayed.
Two men in front of her whispered to each other in Egyptian Arabic, looking around furtively from time to time. She had nothing better to do and moved in a bit closer. The ship’s engines together with the people talking, weeping and shouting made listening almost impossible, but the whisperers also had to increase volume so that they could hear each other. One of them had something in his pocket which he fingered from time to time. She heard words like ‘artefact’, ‘pyramid’, ‘tomb’, ‘money’… What else could this mean but a stolen artefact which would make them rich?
To this day she doesn’t remember what made her do it, but when someone pushed the queue from behind, and general chaos ensued for a few minutes, just when she feared she might be trampled underfoot by a stampede, she reached into the man’s pocket (his hands were busy for a moment when he tried to fight back the pressure of the crowd). Her heart beat so loud she thought everyone could hear it and guilt burned her face. She fell back through the masses and, being small, found it easy to duck and disappear.
Mrs Boffa touches her black handbag making sure it’s there. She pulls part of her headscarf over her mouth and nose because breathing in the cold air has become too painful. Never mind, soon she’ll be in her next house. In Bellevue Road, Mrs Panagopoulou will be waiting for her ‘Maltese witch’. Mrs Panagopoulou, born in Cyprus, had married a Spartan from the mainland and settled in North London. Apart from ironing for her, Mrs Boffa teaches Apollonia Panagopoulou some basics regarding Egyptian magic: how to find out who hates you and wishes you ill, how to ward off the evil eye, how to make sure someone you dislike never comes back. Small stuff. They sometimes sit at the kitchen table, Mrs Boffa reading the dregs in the coffee cup. If she sees bad things she’ll lie. But they understand each other, and that’s a comfort. Malta, Egypt and Cyprus, close neighbours in more than geography.
When Adela got back to her family, she said nothing, just shook her head when Jean asked whether she’d found anything. There was a piece of dry bread in one of the bags and a bottle of warm lemonade. It would have to do. Right now she couldn’t go back.
Now it was her turn to sometimes reach into her bag and touch the little box which obviously contained a heavy object. She felt its weight in her hand.
After the refugee camp, they’d found a small place in London and were promised a council flat. That gave them hope. They’d taken all the money they’d had in the safe – but that wouldn’t last long – and everything else was taken by the Egyptian State: the business, their beautiful home and whatever they had in the bank. Every day, Jean left early to look for work, and every evening he came home more and more discouraged. He lost weight and didn’t laugh any more, and she smelled alcohol on his breath. She’d never learned anything else but languages but wouldn’t leave her children as many other women did and work in an office. Where would her children go when she couldn’t look after them? So she started to clean houses.
In a hidden way her ‘degradation’ almost pleased her. Not that she was a masochist, not Mrs Boffa. Neither did she succumb to the victim mentality so many of her fellow exiles showed – wailing and complaining and only talking about their glorious pasts, many of which, Mrs Boffa suspected, were either highly exaggerated or non-existent. No, she felt some justice in it all. A penance, if you like. Wasn’t her conscience troubling her greatly? Some nights, when she tossed and turned next to Jean, envying him his noisy sleep, she reached back to that moment on the ship that had made her a thief.
On the ship she hadn’t dared to even think about the little box in her bag in case her guilt would light up above her head like a flame, making her an easy target for the man who by now must have noticed his loss and knew that it would still be somewhere on board. He was probably stalking the huddling passengers right now looking for a sign, a hint that would lead him to the thief. But once they’d spent their first days in the refugee camp and settled in after a fashion, she couldn’t wait any longer: “Jean, I’m going to leave you with the children for a while. If I don’t get out of here now, right now, I’ll scream.” As he made to accompany her, she waved him to stay, “No, don’t come with me. I need to get away on my own, please, even if it’s for a few minutes. I promise I won’t be long.”
So she had walked to the perimeter fence, her bag – as always – clutched to her chest. It was clearly too cold and windy for the other refugees, she could see no-one else, which was what she’d hoped for. After all, weren’t they all delicate hot-house flowers, suddenly transplanted into incompatible soil and a hostile climate? She sat down on a wobbly bench that offered her the view of the high double wire-mesh fence, an abandoned railway line and far, far away something she took to be a dirty piece of northern sea. After looking behind her once more (just to make doubly sure that she was not only quite alone but also unobserved), her heart beating fast, her cheeks and ears like glowing embers, she reached into the bag with trembling fingers and retrieved the little box.
The box was made of dark-brown, polished wood. She could make out a pattern on the lid that could have been hieroglyphics, but she couldn’t be sure; too many hands must have buffed the wood and worn away the pattern over time. While stealing occasional glances in every direction she finally managed to pry open the lid with the help of a sharp little letter opener – one of the items of utmost importance she carried with her at all times. What she saw made her frown with disappointment (not that she could have even said to herself what it was she had expected): it was nothing more than a sandy-coloured marble cube on the bottom of which there was another pattern, carved into the marble with precision. If only she knew what it meant! It looked like a seal of some sort. The round little platform which contained the carving projected outward from the cube by about two millimetres.
Having finally seen what she had taken, Mrs Boffa didn’t dare to linger and quickly put the seal – by now she thought of it as the ‘seal’ – back into its box, forcing the lid to shut well. When it dropped again to the bottom of her bag she’d felt a moment’s relief, but not for long. Walking back towards the barrack-like structure to join her family, fear added itself to her now familiar nagging guilt. She was of an old lineage of wise women, and in her belly she knew that this ‘thing’ would only bring her grief.
Mrs Boffa puts the iron on the side of the board while she is folding the fourth sheet. Mrs Panagopoulou shouts from somewhere, “Mrs Boffa, want another cuppa?” “No, thank you, my dear, perhaps later,” she calls back. Her hips ache, her spine is a mess. For a moment she stretches her tortured old body as far as she can, then pulls a chair over. Just for a moment.
In London, Jean had not outlived his ‘shame’ for very long. One early dawn she was woken by the silence next to her. ‘Oh my God, Holy Virgin, please don’t let him be…’
Many people had come to pay their last respects. She was astonished and grateful that all her clients came to shake her hand and mumble their condolences. There were some strangers too. Probably friends Jean had made while he was hunting for jobs.
When the big silence finally descended on her life, there were still her children, and her guilt. The ‘seal’ never left her handbag, and her handbag never left her sight. There had been moments when she considered throwing it into the deepest waters of the River Thames from one of the bridges in a bid to liberate herself, but the object had been strong in its resistance to that plan.
The children grew up, they married, and Mrs Boffa became the grandmother of five grandchildren who adored her. As her children, thanks to their mother’s thousands of scrubbed floors, polished furniture, cleaned windows, ironed sheets and shirts, began to study, work and dress well, they seemed always just a little ashamed of her, and then a little ashamed of themselves. They soon fattened her small pension enough to give Mrs Boffa the opportunity to retire. She tried. It didn’t work out. Her memories and her conscience needed company, not solitude. But she only ‘did’ now for her favourites and least demanding.
Mrs Boffa gets up to finish the ironing. She is amazed at herself. Eighty-two years old and still able to do what younger ones wouldn’t or couldn’t. But how did she get to be so old? When exactly did it happen? She sighs as she moves the iron with the expertise of many years into the most impossible little corners of the frill on that blouse. ‘I am tired, Holy Mother. I think I’d not mind coming home. It’s been a hard life, thank you. Thank you for helping me with my children, and forgive me my sins.’
Mrs Boffa says goodbye to Mrs Panagopoulou at the door to the Panagopoulou Greek Delicatessen. Mrs Panagopoulou always opens the door for Mrs Boffa and follows her with her eyes until she turns the corner. ‘She makes me think of my mum, may she rest in peace.’
Mrs Boffa moves slowly, clutching her bag. She feels as though the pavement is even harder today. Not far now. The moment she sees her front door, she begins to search for her keys which, as always, are right at the very bottom of the bag. Oh, yes, the box. Old friend, old enemy, old guilt. She holds on to the iron railings, pulling herself up step after heavy step – three stairs to her front door. Mrs Boffa’s hands are too swollen to hold the keys easily, and she fumbles for a desperate moment to fit the key into the lock. Finally she hears the click and the door swings open. Just as her eyes get used to the dark, cramped entry hall, something or somebody pushes in behind her, shoves her forward and slams the door shut. Mrs Boffa turns to face whatever has entered with her, her eyes widen: “You have come at last, you found me. Good luck to you.” Hands close around her throat.
Next day’s local paper’s headline: Senseless Murder in Finsbury Park: Deranged man strangles innocent 82-year-old pensioner. The man has been arrested. Detective Arthur Heart: “There is absolutely no discernable motive. The man is probably mentally unstable. We are waiting for a psychiatric report.”
Thank you, Rose.
If you’d like to see my comments, click on the links below but do leave your comments for Rose first. Thank you. These sheets aren’t overly clear (I will try harder in future!) so I can email them to you, just let me know.
- My critique (page 1)
- My critique (page 2)
- My critique (page 3)
- My critique (page 4)
- My critique (page 5)
A German-born UK national, Rose Mary Boehm now lives and works in Lima, Peru. Two novels (‘Coming Up For Air’ and the follow-up ‘The Telling’) have been published in the UK, as well as a poetry collection (‘Tangents’).
Her latest poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in US poetry reviews. Among others: Toe Good Poetry, Poetry Breakfast, Burning Word, Muddy River Review, Pale Horse Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Other Rooms, Requiem Magazine, Full of Crow, Poetry Quarterly, Punchnel’s, Verse Wisconsin, Naugatuck Poetry Review (contest semi-finalist), Avatar…
Her poem ‘Miss Worthington’ won third price in the coveted Margaret Reid Poetry Contest: http://winningwriters.com/contests/margaret/2009/ma09_epaminondas.php. You can find out more about Rose and her writing at her blog: http://houseboathouse.blogspot.com.
If you’d like to (family-friendly) submit your 5,000-word max stories for this blog, see the Submissions page.
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As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do, and a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words (and post stories of up to 3,000 words). Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 3,000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me posting it online on the Red Pen Critique posts, or posted for others to critique (up to 5,000 words) on the new Morgen’s Short Story Writing Group) then do email me. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry. My online writing blog / Facebook groups are:
- Morgen’s Online Novel Writing Group (http://novelwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/508696639153189)
- Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group (http://poetrywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/388850977875934)
- Morgen’s Online Script Writing Group (http://scriptwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/319941328108017)
- Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group (https://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/544072635605445)
Thank you for reading this and we look forward to your comments.
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