#FF: Project Gutenberg’s Birthday- The Stories

Gentlemen prefer blondes: the diary of a professional lady

I can see the raised eyebrows – yes, even here from the page – and I can sense judgement made being that the words professional lady have nothing ladylike about them. But, that simply isn’t the case. I married into an old moneyed family. My husband was a darling man, he fell for me for the way I looked but, when he got to know me, to know my personality, my mind, my qualities – that’s when he got down on one knee. I’d struggled with my decision, for I’d sensed what was coming. He thought he was being clever asking to see my rings and putting each of them on his pinkie to test for size. But I knew… That said, my did that man have good taste in jewellery. His mother I found out later, she’d insisted on having him spend as much time with her as with his father, and she’d schooled him in many useful ways.

Yes, my husband was almost perfect. Intelligent, well-read, erudite, cultured, and kind – oh so kind. People said I married for money, but I didn’t, it was a love match. I’d have followed him into the anywhere, truly I would. And we were happy, ridiculously so, even though the family curse loomed over our happiness. It struck, of course, one day, after his morning ride. They shouted for me from the stable yard, and I was able to get to his side so I could be with him in his final moments. I withdrew from society after that, for I had nothing left of him, as we’d not been blessed with children.

Instead of spending my time raising children, he’d taken pleasure in schooling me – in business. He wanted to make sure I would have more than what he left me, for he was determined I would be my own woman and not dependant upon another man for my future security. It was he who told me not to be afraid to use my wiles. Not that he was suggesting I trade my person, oh no. Only that I shouldn’t be shy about using my looks – and my striking blonde hair especially – to get my foot in the door.

He also left me with one hugely valuable asset – an address book of the highest quality. Not lords and ladies, but rather business professionals of the highest standing and scruples. These were all men of course – for women are not taken seriously in business yet. But I always knew I’d want to work with women in due course, and set about making my fortune, so I’d have no-one tell me how unwise my plans were. It took time and now my locks are more white than blonde – still striking, I’m told, but no longer needed to get through those doors. For money talks, and I have a lot of it.

My ladies don’t have to be blonde, not have they needed to trade on their looks. I teach them not to be shy though. There’s more than looks to use with gentlemen in order to gain an advantage. Some have turned me down, assuming me to be something that I am not. Not one of them got a second chance, for I won’t be judged by those I work with. I don’t doubt there were some who thought the same but, by keeping their thoughts to themselves and acting on their ambition to succeed – have found success and, in most cases, a friend and mentor to both like and respect. We are a rare breed – successful business women.

I am writing my story so that others who come after me will know how best to obtain the advantage in a world where women are not taken seriously. Voting is permitted now, of course, and women are working – but it’s usually doing jobs men don’t want, or in lower paid professions. I’m certain that things will change in the generations to come, but I want women to know how to gain an advantage in a business world populated primarily by gentlemen. Being blonde certainly helps, but I’ve put pen to paper to capture all my knowledge and expertise. My words will help an advantage to be gained in business, whether you be blonde, redhead or brunette. But remember, your don’t have to be a natural blonde, you can become blonde if you’d like to use that edge!

© Debra Carey, 2021

A warning to the curious, and other ghost stories

The day had gone well for 2 section. Out of the whole company, they were the only ones to achieve all their objectives, and they’d had the lightest casualties. It had only been an exercise, but given where these raw recruits had been a matter of months ago, they had every right to swagger a bit. The captain had been complimentary to the rupert, and whilst as green as they come, he was humble enough to know that their success was mainly down to the NCOs, particularly Corporal Baker.

Baker had been one of the stars of the last intake and had earned his first stripe during training. The second had come after their passing out parade, and he’d been posted to training the next lot. Where the officers were posh and came from all over the place, Baker was every inch a Gloucestershire boy, and the lads revered him as one of their own. He spoke their language and got the best out of them. In training he patiently explained everything in his slow country cadence, stepping up the tempo as they moved from the classroom and parade ground and onto the rifle range and into the field. Here, his barked instructions were acted on instantly.

Tomorrow they’d be back in barracks, but for tonight they’d be given permission to bivouac without setting a guard. A couple of crates of beer had been dropped off and the fixings for a camp fire meal. Isaac smiled to himself at the enthusiasm the lads showed for this which, if they had known, was another training exercise. He also smiled at the thought that the brass imagined there was anything these West Country boys needed to learn about living off the land.

He’d got them started and then gone off to report to the rupert and the captain and take part in the debrief on the exercise. He mostly stayed quiet in the company of his peers and superiors, but there were a couple of things he felt it important to pass on, ideas which he believed would lead to a better outcome in a similar situation.

When he got back to his section, he found them settled in, and telling ghost stories round the campfire, waiting for the grub to be ready. They’d even waited to open the beer until he got back. He started opening bottles and passing them around whilst he listened to the stories. There were a couple of good yarns he’d not heard before and some of the boys had a real gift for telling a story. On the other hand, young Appleby was really struggling with his story, losing the thread and getting the characters mixed up. The rest of the section were getting restless and starting to heckle the unfortunate speaker.

“Come on Corp, your turn!”

“Well now, me ‘andsomes, are you sure? You’m don’t be standing guard tonight, but you’m still be needing your beauty sleep – early start and a busy day tomorrow.”

”The food’s not ready yet Corp. We’ve all told a story – of sorts.” Everyone looked at Appleby who blushed and pulled his head in like a shy turtle.

“Well then, if you’m sure, but I warn ‘un, this is a true story. This happened to me when I was on training.” The section settled themselves back again, with two of them dividing their attention between Baker and the fire where their meal was cooking.

“In fact, ’twas a night much like tonight: cold, clear and with the promise of frost. In’t middle of night, I got woken up to stand my duty and was sad to leave my nice warm sleeping bag, I can tell you.

“Well, my hour passed peacefully enough, and I went to get my replacement. After I’d done that, I thought I’d not get back to sleep until I’d emptied my bladder, so I took myself off past the guard. My night sight was pretty sharp by now, so I had no problem picking my way over to an appropriate tree.

“I’d just buttoned my fly back up when I spotted a glim of light bobbing away amongst the trees further in. What I probably should have done was to report it to the guard or the corporal or perhaps even the sergeant, but I were young and foolish and I thought I’d be checking it out for myself.

“Well, I followed that blessed light around and about for nigh on half an hour, nearly got myself lost I was so turned around, but I never caught up with th’ light and whatever was causing it. In th’ end I found myself back where I had started and deciding to get on to my bed. I picked my way back and checked in with the guard. The corporal was checking on them and asked me where I’d been. When I explained, he laughed.

‘Oh, you’ve seen the ghost have you? Nothing to worry about their, although he do be taking a shine to some people. Follow ’em about he do, if’un be too curious about his doings.”

He laughed again, and I pretty much decided he’d been having me on. But… He didn’t seem to be too worried about whatever was out there… I got back to my sleeping bag, but struggled to sleep. I were tired a’right, but my mind were all awake with this business of ghosts.

About an hour later, I reckon, I was just starting to drowse, when I realised I could see a glim of light bobbing around outside moi bivvy. The light seemed to be circling around moi bivvy…but getting closer with each pass. I wanted to cry out but moi voice was frozen, like. Closer and closer this light came, until I could start to make out features. It looked like a soldier, but from an earlier time. He still clutched his Brown Bess, but he knelt and laid aside his rifle and reached out his hands.

” I tried to say ‘What do you want?’ but it just came out like a creak.

“The hands were reaching out, reaching out, reaching out, until they clasped around my leg and started tugging.” Isaac paused and took a swig of his beer. The attention of the whole section was on him now.

“Where was I? Oh yes, they clutching hands pulling my leg – just like I’m pulling yours!”

© David Jesson, 2021

Author’s note: How could I not go with MR James and a ghost story this close to Christmas? The stories I normally write from the PG prompt focus on a trio of brothers that first came on the scene in a little second bookshop that may or may not be haunted, but as I’ve been spending a lot of time with the characters of the November Deadline (the book Debs and I are writing) recently, that I decided to explore Isaac’s background a little. I also need to say a thank you to Mr Dodge who gave me the bones of the story many years ago.

Christmas 2100

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“Hello dear!  Happy Christmas!”

“Happy Christmas Grans, are you ready?”  I’d popped over to the sheltered accommodation where my grandma lived with some of her old cronies,  to pick her up for Christmas dinner with the family.

It was going to be hectic, because my older siblings were coming over with their kids.  The unwritten rule at these events was that I needed to be ‘Fun Uncle Bobby’ and keep the kids entertained until at least we sat down for lunch.  The four of them would keep me busy and the challenge was always to keep things from getting too loud.  There would be Christmas presents to open and play with – which had its pros and cons.

Picking up Grans was a blessedly peaceful interlude.  Christmas Eve had been hectic, as always.  Mum and Dad had long ago developed a timeline for jobs that needed to be done.   It got tweaked in the run-up, depending on what was going on, but Mum always took us, and then more recently the grandchildren, to the Crib Service on Christmas Eve, which gave Dad, and these days me too, a clear run for getting the veg prepped.  We’d make pigs in blankets and other trimmings, as well.  Everything was lined up, ready to go.  In recent years, given the extra people round the table, Dad had moved to turning the barbecue into an oven to cook the joint, so we’d get the fire laid and ready to go.  Dad was a real arsonist when it came to the barbecue and you could always guarantee that it would light with a single match.

In the pod on the way back home, Grans and I chatted about her Bridge club, knitting circle, book club, and she asked me about my semester at uni.  This had been the toughest so far, but everyone said to expect that with the second year.

When we got in, my first job was to make sure that Grans didn’t get mobbed by her great grandchildren.  My nephews and nieces loved her to bits.  My second was to make sure that she got ensconced in her favourite chair with a glass of sherry.   The first was accomplished by telling them it was time to try out the new board game – another family tradition was to get a new board game at Christmas, and I always made sure I was au fait with the rules before it was officially opened on Christmas day.  Clarrie, the eldest (and bossiest took charge by the simple expedient of holding the box above her head and walking through to the living room, trailing the other three like the tail of a comet.  By the time Grans was safely in her chair, glass in easy reach, the board was set up and ready to go and Arwen, the second eldest, was deciding that Clarrie didn’t actually have any special insight afterall: with split second timing I was able to swoop and get the game started before a proper argument started.

Lunch was a noisy affair, of course.  Afterwards, the children opened big presents from my Mum and Dad, a smaller present from me, and a card from Grans with the obligatory voucher.  One of Grans stories that none of us really believed was that you used to get money made of paper, and coins, and that it was a common thing to get money from relatives to buy things for yourself.

And then Grans turned to me and handed me one too.  “This is from all of us, dear.  We’re very proud of you, you know, and you are so wonderful with the little ones.”  I could see my elder sister biting her tongue; she clearly wanted to say something but didn’t want to step on Grans’ toes.

“You didn’t have to – ” I started to say, as I slit open the envelope, and then I noticed that everyone was watching me, even the kids.  This wasn’t just going to be a book voucher then.  Perhaps…no I really didn’t have a clue.  You know when people talk about a jaw dropping open in astonishment?  That was me.  It was a voucher for a cup of coffee.   And not just any cup of coffee, coffee at one of the premier Cafes.  One of the really exclusive ones.  I’d probably need to wear a suit to go and redeem this.  I couldn’t begin to imagine how expensive this voucher had been.

When climate change wrecked the growing conditions for coffee, all the big coffee companies had switched to one of the half dozen or so coffee substitutes that had been the preserve of the kind of people who would be deemed eccentric for drinking roasted dandelion root, or yerba mate, for example.  So you could still get your caffeine fix, or the experience of going to the coffee shop and getting something with steamed oatmilk or whatever, but real coffee had become so expensive that it was not something you drank regularly.

“Well say something then!” My mother exclaimed, breaking the silence.

I just looked at her, speechless.  Grans laughed.

© David Jesson, 2019

 

 

 

 

Take Off

The VIPs filed into the observation lounge, shepherded in after the excellent lunch with the big star by the PR staffers.  Stewards guided them to their seats and took drink orders.  They sank down into the big comfy chairs and prepared to watch the show.

“Welcome!  It’s great that you can be with us here today.  This really is one of the highlights of the year.  You’ll understand that we can’t show you absolutely everything, and I think you’d be cross with us if we kept you here until the bitter end!”  There was a little ripple of laughter at this.  The head of PR stood in front of an enormous window

“For the next 24 hours, this is the nerve centre.  I present” with a flourish he drew their attention to everything in the room below “Mission Control!”

Through the window they could see something that looked a lot like a theatre, but instead of a stage there was simply an enormous screen, with a stack of smaller screens on either side.  They were, in effect, looking out over some sort of pit, with ranks of desks sloping downwards.  The ones at the bottom were some distance from the bottom of the screen, but anyone seated there would still get a serious crick in their neck if they tried to look at the top.

The observers took in the bustling, hurrying figures, the people taking their seats, those running back and forth with bits of paper, those conferring with colleagues at other desks, and realised that even the small screens were probably the size of the window in front of them.  Perspective could be a tricksy thing indeed.

“OK everyone, settle down, settle down.” A gruff voice rang out and filled the room.  The bustling didn’t cease, but did seem to become more purposeful.  Those seated at desks seemed to become more tense.  “Systems check.”

The observers tensed as well.  They hadn’t seen the Mission Controller slip into the room.  Hadn’t seen him place his coffee mug on the table, hadn’t seen him take his seat and plug his headset in.  Things were about to get interesting.  And this was not just any Mission Controller, this was one of the most senior, whose reputation, in certain circles at least, was as big as the person that they had been having dinner with an hour before.

The Head of PR called over one of his minions.  You’d have to be an expert in body language to see the tinge of panic that added a soupçon of peremptoriness to the gesture.  No one in the room was such an expert, so all they saw was a collegiate summoning.  The assistant trotted over.

“What’s he doing here?” the Head hissed quietly.  “He’s not supposed to be on duty!”

“I think he pulled rank.  Said something about not allowing ‘that idiot’ to ruin everything.”

“OK.  Well we can’t do anything about it now.  But we can’t listen in like we’d planned.  Switch the intercom off and go and round up the rest of the team.  We’ll provide a running commentary, and provide every VIP with someone who can answer any questions that come up.” The assistant ran off, and the Head of PR turned a megawatt smile on the audience.  “I’m afraid I have some bad news, the intercom system has broken and we’re not going to be able to listen in on the Mission as planned, but we will be providing a full commentary and there will be colleagues ready, willing, and able to answer any questions you might have.”  With a gesture that the audience missed completely, he set the Chief Steward to work on top-ups.

*****

“OK everyone, settle down, settle down.  Systems check.”

“Transport.  Check.”

“Dispatch. Check.”

“Tracking. Check.”

“Weather. Check: there is nothing major brewing in the next 24 hours; you can stand down the emergency back-up.”

“Intelligence. Check.”

Department after department checked in and red lights turned green across the board.  The Mission Controller chased antacids down with the last of his cold coffee, snapped his fingers and pointed to the empty, branded, mug.  A steward come over and refilled the mug from a large jug, placed a mince pie in a little silver case by the side of it and moved off, repeating the task again and again before heading back to the galley for further refills.  It would be a long night.

“Right, ladies and gentlemen, listen in.  Thirty minutes to take off.  We will be doing this by the freakin’ book – do you understand?”  There were murmurs of assent.  “Some of my fellow mission controllers have reported some issues over the last few years.  I know that it’s difficult to predict exactly what is going to happen in the field, but let me make this absolutely clear, I do not want a repeat of Oslo, I do not want a repeat of Fremantle, and I do not want a repeat of freakin’ Milwaukee!  By the book ladies and gentlemen, let’s get to it.”

He pulled out a cigar from a pocket, bit off the end and swallowed it.  A nervous steward scuttled up and quavered “I’m afraid it’s No Smoking in here now, sir.”

The steward received a glare of rock-melting intensity.  After a moment the Mission Controller said: “It’s chocolate” and returned his attention to the board in front of him.  Satisfactory.  He looked up at the screens.  Everything seemed to be going well.  The emergency back-up system was being taken away from the launch zone.  Last minute checks were being carried out.

“Where is he?” The Mission Controller muttered to himself.  Then he spotted the operative.  “Who does he freakin’ think he is?  Freakin’ Rocky Marciano?” This was not said sotto voce, and a number of staff pricked up their ears at this.  Only one or two of the old timers were brave enough to look round.

The crowds on the screen were cheering as a figure made its way down a flight of steps, waving, making thumbs up signs, hands clasped above his head in the ‘I’m the champ’ pose.  The figure paused to write autographs, shake hands, kiss a proffered cheek.

The Mission Controller flipped a toggle and growled into the mic “Five minutes.”

On the screen a minder spoke into the mic clipped to his sleeve “Affirmative”.

Minders closed around the figure and moved him along amidst protests from the crowd and indeed the star himself.

Another toggle was flicked.  “OK, the fat guy’s on his way, get him aboard and settled, stat.”

Everyone in mission control watched as the minders hustled their charge up to the transport zone and handed him off to the team on the launch pad, who helped him up onto his seat and tucked him in, handed him a flask and lunch-box.

“And in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, GO!”

There was a flick of the reins and the deer started running, pulling the sleigh.  It leaped into the air.  The driver couldn’t resist a circle over the crowds, a wave, to the cheering folk below.  And then he was away.

“About freakin’ time”, the Mission Controller said, turning on the timer.

© David Jesson, 2019

Designing Christmas

Every year she visited the West End to see the Christmas windows. It was a tradition that her mother had started when Isabel was 10 years old. They’d go during the day, battling the crowds, then stop to have a meal in a small bistro. But when it was dark and the shoppers had gone, they’d return, taking their time, drinking in the sights. On that one day each year, Isabel was allowed to stay up late and have a lie-in the next day.

Her mother always made Christmas special. They didn’t have a lot of money, but she was artistic and made wonderful decorations from bits and pieces, and other people’s cast offs. She absolutely loved that Isabel had made a career out of designing Christmas for one of the biggest retailers in the country.

The year Fortnum & Mason had windows inspired by Russian fairy tales was Isabel’s favourite – simply magical. She always took pictures and made notes as she travelled the world, not just at Christmas time, but to festivals throughout the year, building up her inspiration portfolio. In her job, money was no object – to a certain degree – but what she learned at her mother’s knee of “make do and mend” was years ahead of the current enthusiasm for recycling. She’d been trying to persuade her retailer to apply a less disposable attitude to Christmas, but it was falling on stony ground. She’d been thinking how she could start her own business and bring some of her mother’s ethos with her.

As a young girl, she remembered her mother saying “this year we’re going to have …” and it would be gingerbread men one year, boiled sweets wrapped in colourful cellophane the next – home-made snowmen, angels, santa, elves, or reindeer featured also. During the year, they’d unravel old jumpers to knit stockings and garlands, and they’d crochet mistletoe and holly clusters. There were trees in the park where they’d collect fallen pine cones, and the old string they’d collected throughout the year would be dyed into festive colours to tie up their gifts. The cards they received were kept in a box – some cut up to make gift tags, some to create a christmas collage, others for ideas and inspiration. They’d been the first in London to make popcorn strings like the Americans, and no old material was ever thrown out – it could be dyed, decorated or made into something new. Friends allowed them to cut holly and greenery from their gardens in return for some of their home-made decorations, so their home was always bursting with freshness and festivity. Plenty of plain white candles, bowls piled high with walnuts, oranges and rosy apples, with mulled fruit juice gently infusing the house with its seasonal smell. Her mother had a special collection of beautiful big glass baubles, and each year she and Isabel would spend ages deciding which one to add to it. Now that her mother was frail and old, that collection was spectacular and their tree was magnificent.

After her father died, Isabel had persuaded her mother to move in with her. She’d fought against the idea for a while, but when Isabel was able to buy a lovely mansion flat in the West End, her mother had given in gracefully. She loved to walk around the shops looking at the window dressing, still making notes and drawings in her sketchbook. When Isabel had met Mark, her mother had insisted on finding somewhere small for herself. But when Isabel lost Mark after just five years of happiness, her mother had agreed to return to her beloved West End.

This was the first year Isabel had walked round the West End windows without her mother. She wasn’t able to walk that far anymore, so she’d wait until late at night and their favourite black cab would take them for a leisurely drive. Jennifer was still too young, so Mrs Grey would stay with her, but she was already asking to join them. It seemed that Christmas was in safe hands for yet another generation.


© Debra Carey, 2018

A New Christmas

Melanie had been worried about her sister. Sue was newly divorced, but that wasn’t the problem. Sue’s life had been much lighter since her husband Malcolm had left – around 180lbs lighter to be precise – and everyone had commented on how different she now looked. Prettier, happier, not so skinny and care-worn.

No, the problem was Sue’s son, Martin who wasn’t spending Christmas at home this year. Having announced that he and his girlfriend were now “serious”, Martin had asked Sue if he could use his grandmother’s ring as an engagement ring when he popped the question on Christmas Eve. Sue had been delighted, but she’d rather assumed he’d meant to do that at her house. Martin being rather too much his father’s son had avoided making it clear to Sue that his plans had always been to spend Christmas with his girlfriend’s family. Well, until it was too late to ask him to make a change, that is.

For Martin preferred being with Patty’s family. There was a huge crowd of them all living in the same village and they tended to have relaxed and somewhat rowdy gatherings, whereas Sue liked everything to be structured and restrained. Oh … and the wrapping paper always had to bloody match whatever colour theme she’d decided on for that year’s tree. Still, it had been mean of him, for it left Sue alone having turned down many invitations, all whilst hinting heavily there’d be something rather special happening at home.

And this year, Melanie and Bob were also going away. The kids being all grown up and travelling round various parts of the globe, they’d decided to have that New York Christmas they’d always talked about. Melanie tried to persuade Sue to come – and she’d nearly succeeded – until Sue saw the cost of flights. She could afford it, truly she could, but …  Melanie reckoned that spending too big a sum of money might make it appear as if she was desperate, and that would never do for Sue. Too proud by half. And always had been.

That left Melanie – on December the 20th – packing for a dream holiday … and worrying. With a sigh, she closed up her suitcase, ready for Bob to carry downstairs. It was time to finish off her carefully planned care package. Pulling a few last items from carrier bags – books and DVDs – Melanie carefully tucked them inside coloured tissue paper before popping them into the huge gift-wrapped box. It had taken for ever to wrap the damn thing but, even if she said so herself, it did look dead classy. Covered tastefully in silver and white paper – to match Sue’s theme for the year – Melanie tied up the big satin ribbon, attached a few silver and white baubles, finally tucked in some silvery-sprayed holly. Stepping back to admire her handiwork, Melanie nodded. Yes, that would meet Sue’s exacting standards, now they just needed to stop at her sister’s home on their way to the airport so Bob could put in under the tree. Sue was out, meeting Martin in London to hand over the ring, so it would be a nice surprise for when she returned later on.

Melanie smiled. Before she’d met Bob she’d had a Christmas alone – the children were spending it with their father for the first time since the divorce. Some kind person had done the same for her – one of her divorced friends. They’d asked for no thanks, simply saying it was something to be ‘paid forward’… and now it was Melanie’s chance to do just that.

It would be different next year. Sue would have the kind of Christmas she liked. She’d scoop up the local waifs and strays, give them a wonderful meal, full of tastes and traditions. Melanie and Bob would be there too, for there’s no doubting Sue was an excellent hostess. Even Martin and his fiancee might get an invite …

 


© Debra Carey, 2017