PLEASE NOTE: If you've not yet read The Runaways or The Wedding Bells of Bow - two stories that were previously published in my collections Shy Feet and London Eyes respectively - then do NOT read this opening extract from Tell Me a Story as it contains spoilers. You can read these stories and Tell Me a Story in The Runaways: A Trilogy of Short Love Stories which is available now at a special reduced price.
If you have read these stories and you remember the characters, you're hopefully keen to know what happens next for them...
Tell me a story,” Johnny said. “And make sure it has a happy ending."
He was lying in bed, his hands limp by his side and his eyes drooping. I sat down in the chair next to the bed and reached for his hand, covering it with my own.
"Well,” I began. “Once upon a time there was a couple who eloped to get married. They didn't tell any of their friends or family what they were doing or where they were going. Early one morning, they sneaked out of their care home and jumped in a taxi to Paddington station. They took a train and travelled to one of the woman’s most favourite places, Bath, and they stayed in the most expensive hotel in the city. The woman had never seen such luxury before, and the man pretended that he hadn't either, although they both knew that wasn’t true. In fact, he had stayed in some of the most amazing hotels in the world in his lifetime..."
"He sounds like a real man of the world," Johnny closed both his eyes and his mouth in a look of relaxed satisfaction.
"Oh, he was,” I agreed. “He still is in some ways, though he doesn't get to travel as much as he would like."
"And why's that?"
"Because he's a boring old fart," I said and squeezed his fingers. I felt every knuckle poke up into my palm.
We laughed quietly, as if in fear of waking someone, though we were all alone in Johnny's room.
"Tell me more," he whispered and I wondered if he was about to fall asleep, but suddenly his blue eyes flashed open, willing me to carry on.
"Well, this couple went ahead and did what they set out to do. They got married. They had only two witnesses at the ceremony, a woman from the hotel and a woman from a tea and cake shop the bride had once been to with her family some time ago. The woman from the hotel was called Justyna. She spelt it with a Y. She’s from Poland and she was very pretty…"
"Was she? I didn't notice." Johnny raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, she was. Although she wore her hair in a rather funny way and was a little too skinny in the bride's opinion," I said, smiling back at him.
"And what happened after that, when they got home as a married couple? What did everyone say?"
"Yes, that was an interesting time, especially for the woman as her family is a little overprotective." I sat back and remembered. “It took a little while, but eventually the bride's son mellowed to be very happy for them.”
"So that's it? They all lived happily ever after?" Johnny looked at me.
"Who knows? That story is still being written."
"You said it had a happy ending? That's what I asked for." He crossed his arms, which seemed to take more breath from him than it should have.
"Can't a story have many happy endings before it's over?"
"Now you're just being silly and romantic," he said, still smiling.
"I think it's time we thought about getting dressed," I said, though I stayed where I was.
"Oh, why bother? The day is already half finished."
"Or only half begun... Don't be so cup half empty!" I tapped his knee and started the series of movements that would finally see me standing.
"Don't..." he said when I was halfway vertical. "The doctor says I need to rest. Why don't you rest with me?"
Johnny tapped the side of his bed that wasn't occupied. I couldn't really call it my side as we didn't sleep together every night. I found Johnny's snoring kept me up and he complained that I went to bed too early, before all the terrible TV programmes he liked to watch were on. Besides, I liked having my own space and though he would never say it, I knew Johnny felt the same way.
"I'm up now," I said, straightening out as much as I could. "Do you want a cup of tea?"
"Let me get it," Johnny stuck a leg out of the bed and I saw his trousers didn't match the pyjama shirt he wore on top.
"No. As you said, the doctor told you to rest."
"I'm not sure I even needed to see a doctor," he said to my back as I shuffled towards the small kitchen. “A lot of fuss about nothing.”
"You were coughing up blood and wheezing like an old man."
He laughed. "I am an old man! I didn’t need a doctor to come and tell me that.”
“She didn’t come to say that. She’s far too polite.”
“More polite than you, you mean?”
“So, tea or coffee?” I called back. I was finally closer to the kitchen than him.
“Tea, please, my love.” His voice carried well; you wouldn’t think it was pushing its way out of a shrinking and increasingly fragile body.
I took my time making the tea. We weren’t in any rush. When I returned to the bedroom, it looked as if Johnny hadn’t moved an inch while I’d been gone. Although his eyes were open watching me return, I wondered if he’d had a brief sleep. I placed a mug into his open hands and we sipped in silence for a minute or two.
"Tell me another story,” he said eventually. “Another love story. Tell me the one about the other man the woman loved..."
“Well, we met… they met at a bus stop opposite Streatham Common one Saturday morning in September 1953. He needed a light for his cigarette and he asked the woman if she had a match, which she did as she was taking her father his cigars to the hospital where he was currently being treated for a chest infection. How things have changed!” I shook my head and smiled, almost smelling the harsh sweetness of the cigar smoke my father filled my childhood with.
“The man said he was on his way to work, and she explained she was going to visit her unwell father. He told the woman he was a doctor and worked at the hospital she was going to. He asked if he could accompany her all the way to the hospital and she agreed because he had kind eyes and a warm smile. He not only sat next to her on the bus but also walked her up to the ward her father was on. He then asked for her name, shook her hand firmly and then rushed off, saying he was late for rounds on his own ward.
“A week later, the woman was visiting her father again and just as she was settling into the seat next to his bed, the man from the bus appeared. They exchanged more easy conversation before he said he had to leave and attend to his own patients. At the same time the following week, he was at her father’s bedside before she was, reading the newspaper out aloud. That was when he asked the woman if she’d like to have tea with him that afternoon. The woman agreed instantly, but worried for the hours that followed how she could possibly go for tea with a doctor when she was wearing a dress she’d owned for nearly five years. Killing time before their date, she wandered the shops of Oxford Street considering if she should buy a new outfit, but quickly discovered that her secretary’s wages weren’t going to stretch to much more than a pair of tights and a second hand hat.
“‘He’ll just have to take me as he sees me,” she told herself.
“They had agreed to meet at the tea rooms of the hotel next door to the hospital and the woman deliberately arrived a few minutes early. She headed to the Ladies to check her hair and pinch her cheeks, to make them pink, like a bit of blusher would. Just as she was leaving, she bumped into a man wearing overalls and a flat cap making his way into the Gents’ loos opposite. The overalls were stained with grease and paint, and a large hole at the knee revealed plaid trousers underneath. I remember I could smell the outdoors on him. Growing up in Lambeth, I’d never smelt that on anyone before.”
“You mean the woman in the story…”
“Yes, yes. I mean the woman in the story could smell the outdoors on him.”
Johnny put his now empty mug of tea on the bedside table. He reached over, tapped my hand and closed his eyes. It was an invitation to continue.
“So this man began apologising for bumping into the woman and he even took off his hat to do so – can you remember when gentlemen used to do that? – well, as he did, the woman saw the dark blond hair and soft, hazel-brown eyes of someone she vaguely recognised. It was her date, the doctor.”
“What happened next?”
With his eyes still closed, I can shake my head at him. He knows already, of course. But I’ll indulge him.
To read the rest of Tell Me a Story, download The Runaways: A Trilogy of Short Love Stories which is out now and priced only 99p/$0.99/€0.99. It's the third story in the book.
You'll also find a free extract from my collection London Eyes. Happy reading!
Frances M. Thompson
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