Sunday Writers’ Club members never cease to delight readers with enthralling stories. This week is no exception. Enjoy reading the latest contributions from Caroline Stevenson and Connie Phlipot.
Mixtape by Caroline Stevenson
The Way the Wind Blows by Connie Phlipot.
Writing inspired by a SWC creative writing prompts.
By Caroline Stevenson
I’m sure most meaningful relationships can be expressed with their own individual mixtape, and that was what I set out to do at school at the age of thirteen to cheer up my best friend Kate.
Kate was one of those people who made many friends with her winning combination of kindness, wit, talent and beauty – but not all of our peers could just simply be glad to be around such company and a group of people in our year felt compelled to start bullying her as a way of making themselves feel superior. It got to the point where Kate couldn’t face going to school and the problem got reported to the head of our year group. The culprits were called into a meeting and were read the riot act and as far as the school was concerned, the matter had been dealt with. The bullies did indeed back down but still having to walk past them in the corridors was proving a challenge for my friend. So I set out to prepare her a surprise mixtape to keep her spirits up.
The first track outlined the purpose of the tape – it was intended to help her “Put on a Happy Face”. And also just to remind her in general about how awesome our friendship was. It was a slow-burning labour of love. The one cassette tape player in my house which could carry out the mixtape function, complete with recorded intros and commentary by yours truly, was located in my older sister’s room, so the tape could only be prepared when my sister was otherwise preoccupied after school. It was my evening project whilst during the day I would act totally natural around Kate as if I had nothing up my sleeve whatsoever.
One afternoon over the school lunch break, Kate and I went to one of the music practice rooms to have a little jam session; one of our favourite pastimes. We played Your Song, the Elton John hit which we were both fans of anyway but had grown to love even more after its show-stopping turn in the film Moulin Rouge. This lunchtime rendition was even more enjoyable, since I was feeling quite smug all the while about the fact that this song was already on the mixtape being prepared. When that duet came to a close, Kate began playing the opening bars of Aretha Franklin’s I Say a Little Prayer.
It’s one of the songs which makes you aspire to be a backing singer because it’s arguably even more fun than singing the main line. When you’re listening to it, leaning slightly out of your chair to echo the end of the soloist’s phrase after every 8 bars or so is inordinately satisfying. So sitting on the piano stool with Kate, she took the lead while I was dutifully on standby to interject various 2-syllable phrases such as “Make-up!” and “Wear now!” when the grand moments arose. We probably sang one extra chorus just for the sake of it but the song whizzed by nevertheless and when it eventually faded out, Kate exclaimed “Oh I love this song so much!” The most natural thing for me to do was to keep the flow of sound going, be it sung or spoken, and instantly reply with: “Do you want me to put it on your tape???”
Silence descended. And then, the angle of her head tilted and after a pause, she said unblinkingly:
“You’re making me a tape???”
I rewound the latter 5 seconds of the conversation in my head and that’s when the reel began to unravel.
“Oh shiiiiit!” I cried when I realised what had foolishly come spooling out of me.
I proceeded to kick myself internally for ruining the surprise launch of the tape, but she was thrilled and gave me a hug. Looking back on it though, it was so easy to blab about my secret plans because the existence of this gift-in-the-making was probably the one piece of information I hadn’t shared with her up until that point. Not long afterwards, the tape was completed and still received with much enthusiasm. If I were to make a Greatest Hits Album of our friendship today, the songs included back then would still be featuring now, alongside extra musical in-jokes and friendship-defining tracks.
To no one’s surprise, Kate became a professional singer and went on to marry a drummer she met whilst training in Liverpool, the birthplace of the band whose name I’m sure I don’t need to tell you. Indeed, the bride and groom were personally congratulated by Paul McCartney when they graduated. Attending their nuptials, I found my seat at the reception dinner once I spied a cassette tape with my name on it lying proudly on a place mat.
To this day, the contents of the tape remain a tantalising mystery because I’m still trying to find a cassette player to play this tape on, in no doubt that there is a message waiting to be heard on it, if not a song or indeed an entire mixtape!
The Way the Wind Blows
By Connie Phlipot
Tanya flung a blade of grass into the air. It drifted downward until a puff of breeze tossed it, sending it floating across the field and beyond her view.
She went inside the cabin and picked up the bags she had packed earlier in the morning. A deep blue duffle bag worn around the leather bindings and a back pack into which she placed a cheese sandwich and a plastic water flask. She checked her documents; they were tightly in her inside jacket pocket. She put the key in the center of the wooden kitchen table and took a last glance to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. Of course, she hadn’t. She had arrived with the same duffle bag and backpack, filled equally full. She was a good packer — she had to be moving around so often. Rolling her underwear tightly, stuffing socks into her shoes. Tanya bought nothing she didn’t need unless she could leave it behind. This time it was an electric teakettle. Actually she had bought a few of them over the years, always leaving them for the next traveler.
Next stop — a town with three syllables, beginning with a letter in the middle of the alphabet. The first one that she had chosen, Mantiga, she had to discard because there were no bus or train connections to it. Omala was the second choice. It suited. A train to the nearest large town, then a bus.
Tanya would find it there. It had to be there because she didn’t think she could keep on moving. She was tired. She’d begun to lose focus, forgetting why she was traveling. People were starting to look alike to her. Yesterday in the shop she had stopped in to buy cheese, she’d greeted a young man with a warm hello. He had been her student during those few years in Abba— the longest she had stayed in one location. (She had been on two syllables, first letter from the beginning of the alphabet, then.) The young man looked at her then flicked his eyes left and right as if looking for an escape route. He wasn’t her former student. She had never seen him before.
Abba. For a year she had found something there. She would wake in the morning, her toes tingling, her mind calm, but at the same time filled with ideas for paintings, curricula, recipes. The peaked red cap of a cardinal would flutter above the window sill, followed by his teasing chatter and a persistent pecking. Without bothering to dress, she would go outside and scatter a cup of sunflower seeds on the ground. The closest house was on the other side of a grove of trees. The road — hard packed dirt — was lightly traveled. She biked every other afternoon to the school where she taught international relations. It was a community college for students from the underprivileged surroundings who hadn’t the money to attend a four-year school. She liked them; they were humble; appreciated the time she gave them, the stories she told of the places she had lived. They kept her honest, too. If she started to embellish the telling or adding her interpretations to the events of the 1950s, they would look at her quietly. The doubt was a dark hole in their eyes. She would correct herself, apologize. They would smile, relieved that they could trust her.
Yet something changed or maybe had never been there at all. When she began her second year, the light in the morning was dimmer. The sun didn’t reach the same height at midday. She repeated the old curriculum. Her paint brushes dried up. The students were restless, looking at FaceBook while she tried to explain containment policy. The cardinal stopped coming around.
It wasn’t the right place after all. Abba lack the energy, the inspiration she sought. Tanya added another criteria to her destination search. Population. At least 500,000.
The jazz of the city. She didn’t wake up calmly but the ideas tumbled out of her as she got out of bed. She hopped from project to project. She published the book she started in Abba, re-painted the kitchen, refurnished the book case. And then she was so tired so couldn’t get up for days at a time.
Tanya gave up the population criteria several stops ago. Obviously that wasn’t the important determinant. She actually knew nothing about Omala — its size, its industry, demographics. Maybe it would have that crucial chemical mixture that would make it the right place.
“Let me help you, “ a young man, another former student said as she struggled to put her duffel bag on the shelf above her train seat. No, he wasn’t her student. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. He took the bag from her before she could answer. She felt serenely light. Maybe she would learn to travel with only her backpack. Buying all her possessions at each destination then abandoning them like the tea kettle. She could move whenever, wherever she wanted, skimming across the globe. She wouldn’t need trains or buses. She would just walk.
The young man had sat down across the aisle. He was reading a thick book — she could make out diagrams and equations. Engineering student, probably. He looked up at her and smiled. “Where you heading?”
“Omala. Do you know it”
“No, never heard of it and my family has lived in these parts for generations. Sure you got the name right? Got a ticket to get there?”
“No, I’m getting off the train in Egan. There’s supposed to be a bus from there.”
“Egan has no bus station. They’re closing the train station, too. In fact, this is the very last train to go there.”
Tanya swallowed hard. Was he teasing her? This had never happened to her before. She had picked a town that didn’t exist?
“You look troubled. Is someone waiting for you in — what did you call it? Omaha?”
“Yes, No. It’s just I was planning to live there. I left my last house, my job, my teakettle behind. “ Her nose started to run, her eyes were damp. The young man handed her a slightly used tissue.
“Come with me, then. We — that’s my brother, sister and I — live outside of Egan. We’ll help you find what you are looking for.”
She wiped her nose. “Looking for?”
“Yes, you are looking for something right? Isn’t everyone? But sometimes it’s not on the map, is it?
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus. She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe.