This weekend Sunday Writers’ Club was back at Cafe Rüdigerhof in Vienna’s 5th district. Just a short work from Naschmarkt, the cafe has long been a meeting place for Vienna’s writers and artists. Built in 1903 in Art Nouveau style and replete with timeworn 1950’s furnishings, the cafe now has a somewhat bohemian feel. Even though the cafe’s golden days may be well behind it, its just the sort of place to stir the imagination of our Sunday Writers. We look forward to showcasing the stories written at Cafe Rüdigerhof very soon. This week though, we have a couple of fabulous new Sunday Writers’ Club stories to share with you. Many thanks to Connie Phlipot and Emma Downey for their contributions.
By Emma Downey
Prompt: The Queue. Written on the 15th Sept Sunday session.
She looked down at her shopping basket, at the two one-litre bottles of vodka. The word vodka was written in large unapologetic letters. She looked ahead and counted eleven people ahead of her in the queue, none of the self-service machines were working that evening. She would be stuck there at least another half hour… what a pain! When planning that ultimate evening she had not allowed for time lost to the mundane.
Hannah studied her vodka bottles, their no-frills labels with stark-lettered words on them showing the alcohol percentage (thirty-seven) and a barcode. Other brands, beyond her price range, had ornate labels with gold script, conjuring up images of a romanticised Russia, tsars, snow, fairy-tale ballets, perhaps. The vodka that Tolstoy might have quaffed as he worked late into the night. There was a bottle decked out with sequins, booze for the party girl. The one Hannah had picked off the shelf was aimed squarely at the miserable, the desperate, those who were well beyond trying to glamorise, or even justify their drinking.
Two litres of vodka, to chase down the handfuls of pills she would later swallow in the peace of her damp London flat-share. Her flatmate, whom she hardly knew or saw, was a junior doctor, always working, or partying. This time it was a night shift. Hannah had prepared an email that would get sent automatically early the next morning to inform the local police station of her actions. At least no one would be traumatised on finding her, she had thought.
That morning she had decided today was worthy of her favourite outfit. She had put on her jade green vintage tea dress with tiny jet buttons, her long lace-up boots with her bashed black leather jacket slung over her shoulders. When at work, she was an admin assistant at a nursing home, today it had been assumed that she had something special on that evening, maybe a date, a party? She snorted at that. No. No dates, no parties. She could safely say that there was nothing for her to look forward to. Just the evening which she had chosen to check out of obscurity and into oblivion. She thought about her job with a shudder of irritation, but remembered she was finished with it now, someone else would have to liaise with suppliers of adult diapers and ear syringes. Someone else could suffer the relentless small talk about soaps and celebrities from the receptionists and management. She was the youngest staff member by at least fifteen years, and was relied upon to explain dating apps to divorced co-workers – that was the only challenge the job provided. Most depressing of all, everyone assumed she had a vibrant social life on account of her youth and lack of responsibilities. ‘Oh to change places with you for a few days’ sighed one colleague the other day, who was about forty, with three children under twelve. She often had to lie about her weekends so as not to depress the office, grimly inventing engagements. Weeks could go by without seeing friends. Dating was mostly online, but so far no meeting had been worth the bus journey.
Making friends had never been a problem for her, at university she had plenty. Some of them were even in London too. Only every-one worked long and sometimes unsociable hours, no one lived near one another and it took such a long time to travel anywhere. On top of that no one had much if any disposable income left after paying their rent, their bills, the Oyster card. After a while, many friends had moved on, hoping to find success elsewhere. Hannah could not do that, she loved London. But London did not love her, and the life she hoped she would find there remained cruelly out of her grasp.
After a year of living like that Hannah began to feel tired a lot of the time. She missed having company, she missed laughing, but gone was the energy for it, or indeed to go and look for it. She had not discussed it with anyone, she never wanted to admit her failure, and she had spoken so much about what she would achieve once she reached London, and the memories of that sort of talk stung now. It was just that previously, at school, at uni, she had usually succeeded, and her CV was full of top grades and awards. Now when she looked at herself in the mirror she saw how her eyes were dull, and how her skin had taken on a grey hue. ‘You’re skin and bone!’ her mother had exclaimed last time she had hugged her. Not quite, but Hannah had at last reached her target weight, one consolation in her unhappiness.
Four six-packs of Mexican beer that were on special offer, followed by several bags of nachos now glided down the conveyor belt. A young man of about twenty-five had reached the front of the queue. He looked cheerful, he had an evening to look forward to and people to share it with. His shopping reminded her of the film and nacho nights she had had with friends while still a student. Once her best friend had set the grill on fire and singed her eyebrows, tipsily trying to melt the cheese. The memory brought on a tearful grin. She had never thought her life would be without those inconsequential laughter-filled evenings.
Uni had brought good times and friendship, but she had always been dreaming ahead to her career. Hannah was an aspiring scriptwriter. She had planned to go to London and work in an office to support herself, maybe do internships as well, get involved with young filmmaking, and to write of course. Making contacts is essential, her tutors had told them again and again. She had tried, but it was tough in a town where all that happened was so fleeting. These days she only wrote emails begging media companies to take her on. She had managed to do a few internships but none of them came to anything. It was hard to stand out in herds of eager, highly skilled and qualified competitors. She had achieved a good degree in English literature, followed by a masters in filmmaking, but so did they all …
String bags of organic vegetables, cartons of juice, a pack of wholemeal bread and a decent bottle of Chianti, ahead in the queue a woman loaded her shopping onto the belt. Her toddler was sat in the trolley having a tantrum. The stressed-out mother would certainly need that wine later on, thought Hannah. Looking around her, most shoppers looked spent if not ill in the harsh florescent lighting. Next in the queue was a woman whom she had spotted earlier on in the dairy aisle. She was slender, coltish and wore an effortlessly gorgeous charcoal roll neck, and jeans of an awkward cut, but which sat on her hips just right. That was the kind of artless glamour Hannah aimed for, but never quite pulled off. While she could look lovely, and was often told so, she never made it to edgy or urbane. The glorious sweater-wearer was delicately placing about fifty loose figs onto the conveyor belt, some pomegranates, a jar of tahini and something mysterious wrapped in beautiful deep green leaves. She’s probably going to make a fabulous Ottelenghi-style feast for her friends, all of whom are going to be fascinating. Her home would be Instagram-worthy, all stripped wood and interesting shades of grey. Everything in it would be sleek and deliberate. It gave Hannah some pleasure to watch her finally place an eight-pack of recycled toilet paper on the belt.
Once again eyeing the giant vodka bottles it occurred to her that she could have perhaps added some budget range coke and red wine to the basket, maybe even some crisps. That way people would at least think she was making sangria for a party maybe… She immediately dismissed the thought. This is London, nobody cares what’s in your shopping trolley. Another failure, she thought, two years in this city and I’m still thinking like those from my small hometown. She was not and never would be a sleek, blasé London creative. She thought of how her mother used to embarrass her by peeking into people’s trolleys, and if they had an interesting combination of things she would ask what they planned to make that evening. She sometimes swapped recipes with fellow shoppers. Given a few more years, Hannah thought, she may have found herself doing just that – definitely time to put myself out of my own misery.
‘Can’t buy i’ then, ca—n I, we ain’t used to food shortages ‘ere dahling, you’d want to work on your customer service, we like that ‘ere in England’. A middle-aged man in an Arsenal shirt was at the front now and laughing at his own joke. He had tried to buy something without a product code, and the sales assistant, a young woman, eastern European, Hannah guessed, was trying to explain that this was impossible, he’d need to go and get another one with a code. The balding Arsenal fan continued to scoff at the cashier until he abandoned the unscannable tub of salad, paid and ambled off with his shopping, which consisted of a bottle of wine, some cans of lager, a ready-made lasagne for two and some chocolate ice-cream. He actually had someone to share a ready meal with, someone who cared about him enough to tell him to buy a salad. He was the object of her extreme irritation. Hadn’t anyone told him this was London where people voted remain?
Another hold-up. The cashier, now seeking help, made an announcement. What now, Hannah thought? It was a young woman in a red knitted dress and colourful trainers. She had an unusual voice, louder than most people’s and she sounded distressed. Again it was an item that didn’t register, and a minor communication problem. Hannah sighed heavily. Why bother with pills? I could expire from sheer frustration right here, she thought. The elderly woman in front of her turned around, ‘you’d have to be patient with her now, she’s retarded – no, that’s not what you’d say these days at all, is it… she’s handicapped’.
It was shocking to hear such an awful word. Nowadays people said intellectually disabled or differently-abled or neuro-diverse, certainly not handicapped or the other horrible term. She herself wasn’t sure what you would actually say regarding someone with Down syndrome, anyway she would not get into a debate about it. The woman continued, ’sure wouldn’t it be awful dull if God had made us all the same. Patience is a virtue, and we get plenty of chance to practice it here in the city of London.’ She paused for a moment and then added, ‘I’d know sure, I’m fifty short years here’, nodding as she spoke. She smiled broadly and her eyes shone, it was a face that was certainly old, but childlike at the same time. She had a gap in her front teeth that gave her a girlish quality. Hannah had hardly noticed her before she turned and spoke, but when she did she seemed so… there. She thought of her face again, it was luminous with something, what was it? It could only have been described as… joy. But why? How could someone like that survive the city, never mind rejoice in it? She had even said ‘the city of London’ with wonder. Hannah knew her accent; she was probably from the same westerly part of the country as herself. So she smiled and nodded in agreement, as she didn’t want the woman to make the connection, and possibly discover through a lengthy conversation that she had known her auntie or her town’s postman or any of that. She did seem a little eccentric, or else her mind was frayed by age, either way Hannah didn’t want to hear anymore about God, her favourite saint or whatever else would occupy such a person.
Hannah continued to wonder about her. She seemed as naïve now as she must have been when she got here, with her accent still unworn by years in London. She looked poor, her hair was inelegantly bobbed, probably by her own hand, and was wiry and white. It was crudely pulled off the face with combs. She had on two cardigans, the outer one unbuttoned, it was made up of patches of knitting in different designs. She had added her own darns to it as well. She wore white plastic crocs, too big for her, that reminded Hannah of Smurfs’ feet and there were beige Argyle socks that met the hemline of her skirt. When she had first turned to her, Hannah had noticed a silver crucifix around her neck, and thought she might have been some sort of plain-clothed nun. Her shopping bag contained five Pink Lady apples, a bag of Scottish porridge oats, carrots and the shop’s brand chamomile tea. That woman was the sort of person Hannah’s mother would have been kind to. Those people were always grateful for her attention, for her chats. Hannah felt small in herself, though she tried not to dwell on it.
The woman turned to face the front again, to smile at the young woman who had caused the most recent kerfuffle. At least here were only two people ahead of her now, Hannah thought. She would be home soon and there was still a letter to write, the one to her mother, reassuring her it was not her fault, not at all.
The cardiganed woman paid and turned to the cashier, ‘Have a lovely evening now’, she said. The cashier looked at her and smiled back. ’Thanks’, I wish you the same’ she said with gratitude in her voice. Then the two industrial style bottles of vodka swept over the scanner, blip, blip. ‘Twenty-two pounds and fifty pence’ said the cashier, Monica, according to her nametag, pronouncing each syllable with care. Hannah had the exact change ready, a neat transaction felt fitting. She thought of her hometown, they would have known her in the shops there, and someone would have already asked ‘where are you going with all that vodka young lady’. She would have been irritated by their nosiness, their readiness to pass comment. And yet here, in an anonymous supermarket in a big city, where no one looks at you, she loathed herself for almost missing home. She remained resolute, there was only one way out of this hopeless situation.
Hannah had declined a carrier bag and she clutched the two large bottles to her chest until she reached the packing area. ‘I like your boots’. It was the girl from the second barcode drama, the one who Hannah guessed had Down syndrome. A young man joined them, her carer maybe? He was thirtyish and looked mediterranean. ‘Sarah’, he said, ‘you pack everything in the backpack?’ ‘Yes’, replied Sarah but her attention was really fixed on Hannah. The carer stepped in then, clearly used to smoothly managing interactions like this. ‘Sarah loves fashion and she always notices when someone wear the special clothes’. ‘Yes’, said Sarah with conviction, she was still looking squarely at Hannah. ‘This is Nino, he lives with us sometimes and tonight I am making us dinner. I am making spaghetti carbonara but I make it the real Italian way with eggs and pancetta and a little nutmeg but no cream like the English do it, mine is delicious!’ Hannah felt frozen in Sarah’s gaze. She felt she should say something, but Nino chimed in, ‘Sarah is very good with cooking, especially for the English girl.’ He laughed gently and continued, ‘I look forward to our Friday night meal all of the week.’ Sarah laughed then and said ‘that’s because you don’t have to cook on Friday, lazy!’ Nino continued, ‘she is a big fan for Jamie Oliver, she watches the videos on YouTube. ‘Yeah, I like Jamie’, Sarah said, her focus still on Hannah. ‘You’re pretty’, she said, grinning, ‘but I am pretty too’, gesturing as if to allow for a moment of admiration in her swingy cherry wool dress. Hannah at last had something to say. ‘Yes, you are…you are beautiful’. ‘Thanks!’ said Sarah.
‘Hey!’ she said, ‘am I allowed to ask people to dinner?’ ‘No, Sarah, we are not allowed to invite the people we just meet, Nino answered in a sweetly measured tone. ‘We talk about this already the other days’ he continued. ‘Everyone is a new friend to Sarah’. ‘Yep!’, she thrilled. ‘Dinner not possible tonight… but we are from the care home at the end of the street and we have open day and big party next Saturday. There is music and dancing and good food, it’s open for the community, you can come there if you wish’. ‘Everyone is invited and everyone is welcome!’ Sarah added excitedly. ‘Sounds like fun…’ said Hannah. Some minutes later she was walking out of the supermarket, through the automatic doors and onto the busy London street. It had gotten dark and had started to rain since her time in the shop. The streetlights had come on, and they spilled their saffron yellow light onto the puddles of the grimy pavement. She walked to a dustbin, which was empty, unusual for the city. A sign, maybe. She opened her backpack and pulled out the bottles, took a bottle in each hand and dropped them both at the same time into the metal cylinder. She stood then, listening for the smash and the splash of them. She turned slowly to walk home.
Grocery Store line
By Connie Phlipot
Prompt: The Queue. Written on the 15th Sept Sunday session.
What kind of meal could they be planning? Chips and milk, dish detergent, candies – so many candies. I don’t even know the names of these candies. Do they have children? She looked at the couple ahead of her. Nothing remarkable. No outward signs of parenthood. The woman in jeans, the low-riding kind popular for the last few years; a too-tight top, a stretchy knit in an unflattering yellow-green. The man was similarly dressed, but his T-shirt was large and torn slightly in the back.
June glanced back to see if there was much of a line. Moderate for a Saturday afternoon. The woman behind her seemed to be studying the candy and her. She adjusted her shirt. I should have chosen something more comfortable, but we had been in such a hurry this afternoon . Bud had came in from the garage, wiping grease on his jeans,telling me to remember the party and their promise to bring candy. We should have gone to the drugstore, it would have been quicker,but well,while out,why not buy milk. Though I guess we could have bought that at the drugstore, too. What can’t you buy at the drugstore anymore?
Bud shivered. Why were grocery stores so cold? An elderly man, the bagger, was lining up the items before putting them in paper bags. Was that his game? Like making sure all the screws were the same length before putting them in the baby food jars saved for that purpose? Or was he trying to save bags?
The theme from Star Wars blasted. Bud,June, and the nosey lady turned as one to look at the shopper with the too-loud ring tone.
A 60s something man in a blue plaid shirt and khaki pants fumbled in his pocket as the tune continued. Damn why did I bother to bring this thing to the store. It wasn’t in his pocket. He reached into the cloth bag he brought for his groceries. A garish purple bag from one of the local community’s street fairs.
“Johnny?” his sister who was staying with them while her house was being painted. Maybe I should just turn the phone off. Pretend the call hadn’t come through. Her voice squealed through the phone. Why did she speak normally in person, but in a plaintive note, as if signaling her last earthly wish, on the phone?
“Pickles? did you get pickles? “Damn, no, I forgot.”
“Excuse me, Excuse me,” Johnny maneuvered his cart out of the line, knocking a jumbo-sized package of toilet paper off a cart. The customers who had resumed surveying the carts in front of them, twisted their heads like marionettes to look at him.
Gloria kicked her basket to the space vacated by the phone man. She hadn’t meant to buy much, so she hadn’t bother with a cart. In the store she remembered she needed shampoo and the strawberries were on sale and they sort of smelled like strawberries so maybe they would be tasty, which reminded her that she need yogurt. And now the basket was too heavy to carry.