Featured Review on this writing by Francis Agamah

The Potting Shed

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Realistic Fantasy
As the BBC are cutting back on production of soaps and drama due to the virus, I have decided to introduce The Potting Shed, incrementally, as a short-running soap. Tune in for the final episodes here. I'm sure this approach will play havoc with my read and like counts - does that really matter... anymore?
Take Care, Stay Safe - HJ x
Photo of The Potting Shed by Ron Porter at Pixabay

Submitted: March 23, 2020

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Submitted: March 23, 2020

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The Potting Shed

Sunlight streamed into the bedroom through a gap in the heavy plum drapes. Allen rolled onto his side to face the warm spring sun, clutching at her pillows. Ruth had been taken from him, cruelly, at such a young age, four weeks ago. His throat was sore. His head ached. He coughed. He wondered if he had the virus. A tiny fireball crossed his right, weaker, eye: the first sign of a migraine.

Tired, lonely, consumed by grief at losing the love of his life, he turned away and shut his eyes, deep in thought. The bed was too big without Ruth. He would buy a smaller bed. The house was too large for a widower. He would sell her cherished antiques at auction and move into a flat. His spirits deflated. He felt sick. His hands shook. Allen fought back tears. How much longer could he carry on living like this. Without her?

Blearily, he reached for the phone-on-the-wall, pressed eleven buttons from memory, waited for voicemail, and left a message telling the office that he wasn’t well. Might have the virus. Had best work from home. Allen fell asleep. When he awoke, he felt the sun’s warmth on the back of his neck. There was a copper silent-sweep clock on his side of the bed, by a kindle that Ruth had never found the time to read. He squinted at the vague yellow hands: seven o’clock.

Kean would be at work now: toilets, bathrooms, showers, cisterns, no call out charge, no job too small. Tall, bluff, big-hearted Kean, his friendly, reliable, local plumber. His best friend. Allen rang him on his mobile number,

‘Kean?’

‘Yes?’

‘It’s Allen.’

‘Hello mate! How are you?’ Kean’s voice was so rich, deep baritone. So warm and cheerful.

‘Not good. I think I’ve caught the virus.’

‘Sorry to hear that. There’s a lot of it about.’

‘There is a lot of it about,’ Allen mimicked.

‘How’s Ruth?’ his friend asked. 

At first, he didn’t know what to say. How to break the news. His mouth dried, parched of saliva. He coughed, gulped, then blurted out the words,

‘She’s dead, Kean. Ruth died four weeks ago.’

He almost felt his friend’s face straining with disbelief at the other end of the line.

‘Oh God! Tell me it isn’t true.’

‘It is true I’m afraid. She was taken by the virus.’

‘I’m so sorry, mate. I don’t know what to say. If there’s anything that I can do to help?’

Allen cut the call and stared at their favourite photo: Ruth, dressed in antique white lace, her mother’s wedding dress, gripping his hands in hers as they cut their wedding cake. The phone rang: Kean again, calm as ever,

‘Sorry, I lost you.’

‘I need to meet up with you, need your support. Please help me Kean, I can’t cope without her.’

The phone went dead. The sun blazed down. He poured with sweat. Descended into panic. He,

‘Kean? Kean!’

When the plumber spoke, his voice was flatter, dull, monotone, mournful, ‘I’m in Bulgaria.’

‘You’re where?’

‘I’m sorry. I’m at the villa with Celine. Don’t get back till Sunday. Give me a ring on Monday.’

‘But, but, Kean…’

‘What is it, mate?’

‘The cistern’s gone in the bathroom.’

*****  

Allen climbed out of bed, drew the curtains, dressed in an old sweater, tracksuit bottoms, socks, trainers, and flew downstairs. The list, his keys, and wallet were in the kitchen (which he kept spotless: for her). It was still early. If he hadn’t caught the virus then, with luck, the supermarket might be empty. He could shop, come home, cook breakfast, have a bath, and go back to bed.

When he stepped outside, he was relieved to find the street deserted. Most of his neighbours had self-isolated voluntarily and it was too early for parents to drive their children to school. The supermarket was a five-minute walk away, past an Indian corner shop, a Chinese takeaway, and a boutique NHS dentist: The Tooth Fairy. He noticed a sign on the door telling clients that ‘she’ had gone away until further notice. Her surgery was closed. Another casualty of the virus.

It came as no surprise to him when he turned the corner and found the supermarket car park empty, other than a few white vans and a juggernaut bearing heavy hydraulic lifting equipment. The text hit his phone just as he stooped to collect a basket on the way in:

Come to The Tawney, we can marry and then we’ll make love,

You can’t ignore me, I’m the woman your dreams are made of.

Allen stared at the screen, momentarily transfixed, bemused. He had no idea what it meant. He saved the message, took the basket, and entered the store.

She was standing by the cut-price fruit selection, testing pears to see if they were ripe and ready to eat or not: ‘Eat me? Keep me?’ A lithe, trim, figure with a short blonde-bob, suntanned face. Splendidly attired in a lightweight quilted beige jacket, chequered beige / caramel scarf, skinny brown jeans, a trendy flat cap. A woman who promised warmth, finesse, the softest of touches. She dipped a thumb inside her pocket, pulled at her jeans, swayed her hips, and cooed, brightly,

‘Don’t say hello then.’

She strode up to Allen, wrapped her slim fingers around his left wrist, and held him still, like a bad boy at school. She was tactile, very forward. He was horrified. Suppose she had the virus? She also looked sensational. Her touch was tender, erotic. Allen hadn’t felt a woman’s touch since Ruth lay sleeping in her death bed, her pneumonia-riddled lungs rattling out their final breaths, her solitary last rites. He’d held her limp hand, then felt her slip away. He shook his head out of her trance,

‘Antonia?’

‘Indeed. How’re you?’

‘Sorry, I was miles away.’

‘That’s ok. I’ll let you off this time. How’re you keeping? Well, I hope? Not infected, are you? Wouldn’t like to think I’m holding the hand of a man with plague. If you’re unclean, you should be tucked up in bed, y’know.’

She had an uncanny effect on him: raising his spirits, lifting his heart, soothing his woes. It was impossible to feel low in the presence of such a lovely person. He bared his soul to her, gripping her hand. She felt soft and vulnerable, held like that: responding gently, squeezing his fingers,

‘I started sweating last night, brought out a cough, felt a migraine come on, don’t feel so good.’

To his surprise, Antonia tightened her grip on his hand. Why did she do that? Was she lonely?

She answered his prayers, ‘So, that’s why I’m here. To look after you. Make you feel better.’

Allen frowned, mopped his sweaty brow, acted kind of confused, ‘I don’t understand. How?’

She brushed his doubts aside with a sweep of her free hand, ‘I’m immune, you see. One of ‘the herd’, lucky to be alive. I sweated the ague out of me, fought her off single-handed, battled her on my own, in solitary. She tested me, made my very bones hurt, filled my lungs with snot and mucus, till I could barely breathe. But I sweated her out, refused to give in. And now I’m here.’

He regarded her slim physique with fresh interest, astounded at her resilience, her drive, asked,

‘How much did she take out of you, Toni?’

‘I lost two stone. I’m afraid there’s not very much left of me,’ she released his hand, touching her flat chest, ‘Left me looking boyish, here, and here, if I’m honest. You can barely feel them.’

She lowered her head despondently. For a second, Allen thought she was going to cry. But she bounced back. Antonia was the living definition of strength. She lifted her face for him, and smiled. Her eyes were glistening with tears. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her.

He noticed Joe the supervisor, Stacey the cashier, Brian an assistant manager, staring blankly at them. Had best not hold her. Not here. In front of them. They might be reported to the Police. Cohabiting or touching another human was a notifiable offence, resulting in an instant fine and a criminal record.

Instead, he glanced around. The store was empty, like most shelves, stripped of every item by last night’s panic-buying epidemic. Allen had seen the cars, queuing past his house, the grimly-determined faces: men, women and children on their final family outing for months…

She intrigued him. He needed to know more. All of her suffering. Antonia, the first woman he had seen, touched, felt, since they took Ruth away from him, to the temporary mortuary outside town, her interim resting place before her interment with the other ten bin-liner-bagged corpses.

He held her hand. Sod the consequences. He cared for her, ‘How long did she plague you for?’

‘Eight weeks…’

Allen was appalled, ‘Eight weeks?!’

‘Mm.’

Inside her chest, her little heart beat wildly at the prospect of his company, his love, the ending of her abject loneliness. He made her feel safe, secure, made her lighten up within. She wanted to, needed to, love him. Hell, her life needed purpose! Antonia bit her lip, ventured the question,

‘I’m so sorry for your sad news, Allen, so sorry. The way she took Ruth from you was callous, heartless. You must be very lonely. Me, I survive. For what, for who? I don’t know anymore.’

She gazed into his red-rimmed eyes, searching for signs of hope, earnest expectation,

‘Can we be friends again, please?’

He sighed, a deep sigh of relief, bordering on latent euphoria. Antonia’s intent, her olive branch, thrilled him to the core. The chances of finding her, of even seeing her again today, in the store,

‘I’d love that, Toni, I’d really love that.’

He glimpsed three store staff, pretending not to notice, going about their daily preparations for shoppers they might not serve again. Antonia reached for his swarthy face, took his cheeks in both hands, and kissed him firmly on the lips.

Delighted for her, Joe, Stacey, and Brian burst into rapturous applause. They exchanged glances. Their smiles told her all she needed to know, and made her day:

Don’t worry, we promise not to tell the Police.

Allen felt all the stress, the tension, from his devastating bereavement, lift like mist burning off of a summer’s lake at dawn. They just stood there in the aisle, by the bruised pears, embracing, at one with each other. Presently, he broke their silence, sharing the omen that had haunted him all these weeks. He stumbled over his tongue at first. She felt him tense. Drew him close. Held him. His pounding heart beating against her chest. Until he had calmed, and was able to speak,

‘Ruth has been sending me messages,’ he faltered, ‘Messages from beyond the grave. I think she misses me. Think she can’t cope with our parting. With how she was taken from me. By the ague. By her. By them.’

He broke down. She stroked the tears from his cheeks, let him cry, sharing the intimacy of his grief.

‘They buried her in a pit of lime, Toni, lime!’

‘I’ll take care of you, Allen. I’ll look after you. Always. We’ll make her proud of us. Help the sick, the vulnerable, the aged. We’ll make her proud of you, darling, up there in Heaven, okay?’

He snivelled, she had this funny way, this incredibly positive aura about her, ‘Yeah, thanks.’

‘Don’t mention it. You’re welcome. All part of my customer service scheme,’ she laughed.

He laughed back, couldn’t help himself. She had that effect: filling him up to the brim with joy, her joy. She buoyed him,

‘Now, tell me what Ruth said…’

Allen scrolled up the message on his phone and showed her:

Come to The Tawney, we can marry and then we’ll make love,

You can’t ignore me, I’m the woman your dreams are made of.

Antonia paled, tried to hide her true feelings for him - the secret. She kept her secret, for now,

‘My goodness! That’s some message. How d’you know it’s her?’

‘I can’t explain it. I just know?’

She felt her shopping bag: its bulging contents between her calves. Felt the distinct urge to pee. Pressed her thin thighs together, kept it inside, for later, when she got home. Made her decision, looking serious for once,

‘I’ll help you find her. We’ll put Ruth’s soul to rest. I know the Tawney. Do you ride?’

He beamed a little, showing her his manly pride, ‘A little, I have a mountain bike! Why?’

Antonia lifted her limp wrist and checked her chunky bracelet watch: it was still only seven-thirty. She had all the time in the world, for him,

‘Meet me at Epping railway bridge at eleven. I’ll make us a picnic. It’s a lovely ride. You’ll love it! She’ll love it! We can all live there, and love as one.’

It occurred to Allen that the ague might have rendered her loopy, fruitcake, nuts, raving mad. He rubbed his unshaven chin, took the wallet from his baggy tracksuit bottoms, frowning at her, watching him, at the hope stamped all over her luscious face,

‘Well?’

‘Well, what?’ he gasped, stifling a chesty cough.

‘Are you game?’

He relaxed at last, then grinned, broadly, for her, ‘Game as I’ll ever be.’

‘See you at eleven then. Don’t be late,’ she bent and reached into her shopping bag, ‘You’ll need some of these. Here, take some.’

He reached out to her, touching hands, loving the feeling of their soft warmth, ‘What are they?’

‘Toilet rolls!’ she shouted, ‘The very last ones, Allen,’ she quietened, ‘For a very long time.’

Then his saviour let go of him, stood up straight, took her bag, pecked his cheeks, span on her heels,

and left…

His shoulders slumped. He felt all the energy drain from his body. His head ached; bones ached. The virus seized him with a vengeance, forcing droplets of thick sweat to ooze thru every pore in his body, wetting his teak hair black, sheening his brow with perspiration. Shocked by his contagious transformation, Joe stood six feet away from him, a hand raised high, mood altered,

‘Stand well back!’ he shouted, for the benefit of a burly Indian security guard: his face clad: in eye goggles, tough grey rubber mask, approaching him, expediently, ‘Leave the store at once or I’ll call the Police.’

Allen stared at the puffed-up millennial as if he were crazy, ‘I need shaving foam, deodorant, sanitiser, brown sliced bread, kitchen roll, washing-up liq….’

Joe’s cheeks flushed with anger, his eyes burned with rage, ‘They’re out of stock, now get out!’

The middle-aged, unhappy shopper felt the guard’s iron grip on his upper arm. Noted Ali Sadiq was wearing royal blue surgical gloves. Wondered why the amazing NHS doctors, nurses, even dentists, were unable to obtain personal protective wear. As he was forcibly propelled towards the exit, he twisted his head backwards, and took one last look at the supervisor,

‘How dare you treat me like this. You haven’t heard the last of me, Joe. I intend to complain to Customer Services.’

‘Customer Services are all dead.’

Allen was horrified, ‘They’re what?!’

Ali Sadiq intervened, ‘You heard what the man said.’

He shoved Allen hard, outside onto the empty pavement. The automatic doors slid closed, and locked, leaving Antonia’s two toilet rolls, lying strewn across the tiled floor.

***** 

Since Ruth’s untimely death, Allen had become a recluse, constantly phoning the office with excuses for not going into work. Instead, he completed tax assessments in their three-bedroom terraced house in the high street, submitting the outcomes online. His senior partner at the firm was relieved that he preferred to work remotely. Half of the office team had struggled into work on a crowded Underground train and succumbed to the virus. Seven of those had since died of respiratory failure in an overwhelmed hospital intensive care facility. There was talk at Board level of shutting down the firm at the end of the tax year, and temporarily laying off all staff, at least until the end of April.

No-one had an inkling of how long the pandemic would continue to proliferate: weeks, months, years? The mood of the nation had changed to one of uncertainty and fear. Allen contemplated his fate: an indefinite period of self-isolation and loneliness. If he survived the virus. He had few friends to speak of: other than Kean, who could be stuck in Bulgaria for weeks, a handful of casual acquaintances at work. Ruth was his life. They were trying for a child. It was all too much. He slumped against the supermarket wall, coughing – a rasping dry cough - out of breath, intensely fatigued, smiling inanely to himself at Toni’s ridiculous outpourings of false comfort:

‘I’ll help you find her. We’ll put Ruth’s soul to rest. I know the Tawney. Do you ride? I’ll make a picnic. It’s a lovely ride. You’ll love it! She’ll love it! We can all live there, and love as one.’

Ride? He could barely stand up! Doubts crept into his mind about Antonia, and her intentions. Was their meeting really a coincidence? Or had she planned it all along? Had she sent him the ghoulish messages from Ruth? How could she act in such a despicable, cruel way towards him?

With the doubts came a growing sense of guilt at the way that he cheated on Antonia. His illicit trysts with Ruth in a cheap Airbnb in Gants Hill. Pretending to work late at the office while Antonia cooked his favourite creamy turkey lasagne for supper. The hurt he inflicted upon her when she returned to her flat to find him packing his bags. The way he left her crying by the toilet. Wasn’t that cruel? And through it all she never stopped loving him. A love-lump formed in Allen’s throat as he recalled her desperation, the hope in her sad eyes, her offer of a new life:

‘Can we be friends again, please?’

He pulled himself together and trudged homewards. At the end of the road Allen turned right into the high street. At this time on Monday mornings, there would normally be a queue of cars stretching from the mini-roundabout opposite the new home hub to the traffic lights at the far end of Bell Common. Today, other than an ambulance which tore past him with its siren wailing and a white delivery van, the street was empty.

He stopped to read a hastily scrawled notice on the glass door of the first restaurant, an Indian, in a small parade of shops. The notice said that the owners had been forced to close indefinitely as a result of the virus. Allen inspected other signs, at the entrances to a Chinese restaurant, a trendy gift shop, a Turkish barber’s, a designer kiddie’s clothes shop, local estate agent, dry cleaner’s; all closed due to the virus. Why hadn’t he noticed them before? The Indian corner shop was still open. He decided against going inside for fear of seeing the latest news headlines.

At last, Allen reached home, crossed the crazy-paved garden, and inserted his key in the lock. He paused to listen. The world fell silent: there was no constant drone of traffic from the nearby motorway, workmen’s bustle or children’s laughter. Only the birds, singing, on that beautiful spring morning.

He had never felt so alone in his life.

*****

Allen closed the door behind him and walked through the small hallway. Past Ruth’s treasured lounge diner. Her walnut writing desk, shelves crammed with books, embroideries, paintings, trinkets, cameos, knickknacks, dusky pink chaise longue, and comfortable armchair.

‘My little bird’s nest, see sweetheart,’ Ruth, so lovingly, used to call it in her soft, lilting, Welsh.

He leaned against the jamb of the diner door, staring at her empty armchair, bathed in sunlight, in the corner of the lounge. Then she was there, for him. Ruth, his beautiful bride. Her oaken hair flowing in flouncy curls, fluffy waves, into the small of her slender back, kissing the milky beige skin of her ample breasts; her caramel, peek-a-boo, nipples clearly visible through the elaborate patterns of white lace. Allen sank to his knees, suppressed, compressed, confounded by her beauty, her virginal purity. Ruth had saved herself for him, for their wedding night. She took his breath away. Her skimpy bodice accentuated her bare shoulders and long slender arms. He started to cough. Her slim fingers were buried in the lacy folds, the furls, of her dress. He felt a sharp stab in his chest.

He saw her face. She looked at him: sad, wistful. Her bushy brows: raised in pity for him. Her brown eyes: teary, sorrowful, mournful. His mouth dried, couldn’t speak. Ruth’s lovely face: the sublime contour of her round chin, the sensually-high cheeks, her soft-snub nose. Tears ran down her blushing cheeks, trickling down her face as far as her mouth. She parted her thin lips. Allen imagined her breath on him, her soft beige brushing against his lips, her mouth enfolding his. He struggled for breath, suffocating. Crazy, demented, thoughts pervaded his distrait mind:

Here comes the Bride, all dressed in White…

Ruth changed. She wore a soot-black fascinator, a wide-meshed veil covered her face, as far as her hair lip. He toppled forwards, banging his nose on the soft-fibre, synthetic carpet, craning his head, worshipping his bridal queen, draped over her matrimonial throne. His final thoughts were of his adored wife on their wedding day. Her sacred words. As she opened her blood-red mouth to speak,

Come to The Tawney, we can marry and then we’ll make love,

You can’t ignore me, I’m the woman your dreams are made of…

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2020 HJFURL. All rights reserved.

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