On this page, you will find a sample of Martine's short stories, some of which are a result of her university work, and some were just written for pleasure.
We hope you enjoy them.
Their Final Gift
My gut tightens further with every pylon I pass. The irregular palpitations coursing through my body are at odds with the rhythmic rumble and gentle rocking of the 07:40 from Norwich. I release my hold on the green and gold package and pull at the front of my shirt collar, silently cursing Rachael for making me wear a suit.
‘It’s a matter of respect’ she had said over breakfast, as she placed the box into the Marks and Spencer carrier bag.
‘Nice touch’ I’d replied, ‘Mum loved Marks and Sparks.’
As the train speeds by the familiar black and grey graffiti, adorning the walls and windows of every building facing the tracks, I close my eyes and attempt to still my mind. The ambient sounds: women on phones, school kids arguing, and the tinny beat from the earphones of the man across the aisle, usually create the perfect conditions to lose myself. But not today.
My eyes open as I feel the train pull up at Diss station. Instinctively I check the time on my phone, and despite the somersaults in my stomach, derive great satisfaction from the fact that it is 07:58. Bang on time. I glance at my trench coat, neatly folded on the seat next to me, hopefully dissuading anyone from sitting there. Neatening the carrier bag on the table in front of me, I brace myself, the remains of my bitten fingernails forcing themselves into the palms of my hands.
I hear him before I see him, apologizing for bumping into everyone and everything, as he makes his way down the aisle. If it wasn’t for the adrenalin and cortisol flooding my brain, I might find it amusing.
‘There you are. Either trains have gotten smaller, or I’ve put on more weight than I thought. Good to see you Samwise.’
His voice is gregarious, but his smile is awkward and uncertain. I study him through my anxiety-induced blurred vision and have to agree, he is no longer the athlete he was in our youth.
‘Don’t call me that,’ I say and beckon him to take the reserved seat opposite me. Neil slumps down, clearing his throat with a rasping cough. I am irritated by the smell of cigarette smoke lingering on his clothes. Just three years my elder, his greying hair and sagging jowl make him look at least sixty.
‘I love travelling backwards,’ he says, a glimmer of the boy within rising to the surface. ‘it’s makes it more of an…’
‘…an escapade. Yes, I remember. Do you think you could manage to sit still?’
He eyes the Marks & Spencer bag and this time his smile is real.
‘So, we’re really doing this then?’ he says, and the sparkle in his eyes confirms that his mischievous sense of adventure hasn’t changed.
‘Apparently so, though I’m damn sure it’s illegal.’ A gentle jolt signals the train limping out of Diss station. ‘Have you brought anything to read?’ I continue, ‘It’s an hour and twenty-six to Liverpool Street.’
‘Nah, thought we could talk, make the most of the day.’
‘I was afraid of that. How’s Daisy?’ I say, choosing my subject carefully, ‘ She must be, what, three now?’
He coughs some more, and I hand him a pack of Scotties and some hand gel.
‘She’s four Sam.’
He stares over the top of his designer glasses at me. I recognize that look, it’s his I-know-something-you-don’t-know-and-I-wish-you-would-ask-me look. Well, I’m not playing his stupid big-brother games. I’ve only got to get through today, then I won’t have to see him again for another decade, hopefully.
‘How’s Anna?’ he asks
And there it is. Driving in the dagger of guilt that has made its permanent home in my heart; a constant reminder of my pitiful parenting skills.
‘She’s fine. Did you get the tickets?’
He draws an envelope from his inside coat pocket and waves it in front of his face as if he’s fourteen years old holding a free pass from school.
‘Two tickets to the Tower of London Battlements Walk,’ he says, ‘lovely day for it, too. Now don’t change the subject.’
I look out of the window. It is indeed turning into a lovely day, rays of sun are streaming in through the rain stained windows as we speed past ploughed fields, more pylons and the occasional tree.
‘Sam, it’s been years. We’ve gotta talk.’
‘There’s nothing to say, Neil. Don’t make this day more difficult than it has to be.’ I slide my copy of The Daily Express toward him, and thankfully, he accepts it. The aroma of coffee and bacon drift through from the dining carriage. I close my eyes once again and listen to the smooth repetition of the train on the track, my chest rising and falling slowly, soothing my nerves, whilst my mind searches for a temporary escape.
Suzi, my ex-wife, is making breakfast for the three of us. I run my fingers over my chin; I definitely need a shave before work.
‘Anna!’ I call up the stairs. ‘I swear that girl spends longer in the bathroom every day.’ In the absence of a reply, I climb the stairs, two at a time and knock on the bathroom door. It swings open. Surprised, but pleased to have access, I reach for the cabinet door, but something nags at me. It’s too quiet. Stepping back into the hall I can see that Anna’s bedroom door is open too.
‘Breakfast’s ready honey’ I offer gently. No answer. Her bed is made, and the overly pink room is unusually tidy. I walk in and see an envelope propped against the mirror of her dressing table. With a trembling hand I pick it up, but I don’t want to open it.
‘Here. Sam. I got you a coffee.’ Neil’s eager voice pulls me back from my personal hell.
‘Oh,’ I manage to say, straightening up and pulling myself back into the present. ‘Cheers.’ I blow on the contents of the steaming paper cup and take a sip of the forbidden beverage. It tastes better than expected and I push away my doctor’s voice warning of the effect on my nerves and my blood pressure. I look back up at Neil. He is staring at me as if searching for the switch that will make this all right. I put down my cup.
‘I can’t ever forgive you. You know that don’t you?’
‘I know, but I had no choice,’ he replies, ‘she begged us.’
‘She was a child!’ My raised voice is earning the attention of some of the other passengers.
‘She’s never said anything?’
‘Not a word.’ The bitter, metallic taste of hurt and betrayal comes up from my throat and wants to express itself in anger, and as usual, I turn it in on myself in painful frustration. My shaking hand reaches for the coffee as I try to focus on what I want to say. ‘A year Neil. A whole year’ is all I can manage.
‘But you knew she was safe. She sent you e-mails.’
‘And thank God she did. Suzi blamed me of course. And I blamed myself. Still do. And then to find…’
‘It destroyed me, Neil. Suzi was right to leave. If it hadn’t been for Rachael, God knows where I’d be now.’
‘And where exactly are you Sam? You look a mess, man.’
He’s right, though he isn’t seeing me at my worst.
‘I’m better than I deserve, I think. We rarely see Anna, that hurts.’
‘And the drinking?
I slip my hand into my trouser pocket seeking the reassurance of the bronze sobriety chip I always carry.
The train pulls into Ipswich station. 08:21, one minute behind schedule. Strangely, today it doesn’t bother me. We sit in silence and both watch the few passengers board from the platform. The previously bright day has become bleak and overcast. I pull against my shirt collar, as the train once again rolls forward, anticipating the next round of interrogation.
‘Look, Sam,’ he says ‘this is an important day. You know Mum and Dad would want us to be on better terms. I really want us to clear the air.’
‘I can’t imagine they give a damn now.’ I responded. Neil winced at my comment and immediately I felt the dagger twist further in my chest. Bad parent, bad son. Mum and Dad always hated us quarrelling. I down the remainder of my, now cold, coffee.
‘I tried to send her home, Sam when she first turned up. She was in a terrible state, wouldn’t stop crying, and I wanted to call you.’
‘But you didn’t.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ He coughs some more, and I push the gel toward him. ‘It took days before she would say what was wrong. It was Tina who persuaded her to send you the e-mails, just to let you know she was ok, but she begged us never to tell you where she was or what was going on.’
‘So, I haven’t even got you to thank for that then.’ It is a statement rather than a question, and I deliver it with a touch too much spite. I was grateful that Anna had had them both to turn to. The thought of what might have happened otherwise still sends an ice-cold shiver down my spine. ‘I’m glad you were both there for her, and I know you meant well and she loved looking after Daisy. I, I’ve just never understood why she couldn’t tell me where she was.’
‘She knew you would come after her Sam, and she didn’t want that. She needed time to figure things out for herself.’ Neil is squirming in his seat; he looks as though he’s every bit as uncomfortable with this conversation as I am.
‘Why couldn’t she talk to me, Neil? Why can’t she still?’ I’m pleading now, and I feel like I’m ten years old, begging my big brother, to help me with my homework.
‘She loves you Sam, she’s always loved you, but this was something she had to do on her own.’
My eyes begin to sting. I turn once again to the window as another train speeds by on the opposite track. As its tail passes, a break in the clouds catches my attention above the busy A12. My gaze follows the beam of light fighting its way through the dark sky. I feel movement; the dagger is relinquishing some of its pressure. Something taps the back of my hand. I look down. It’s wet; a tear, followed by another. I check that nobody is looking at me, nobody that is except for Neil. I pull a freshly laundered handkerchief out of my blazer pocket and wipe my face and hand.
‘There’s more, Sam if you’re ready.’ Neil’s voice has taken on a softer, more sympathetic tone as he picks up his phone and speed-dials a number. I hear it ringing, and then connect, but the voice is so soft I can’t make it out. ‘It’s time’ Neil says into the phone. ‘You OK?’
He must have received a confirmation because he hands the phone across the table.
‘Time to fill in the gaps’ he tells me.
I take hold of the phone as if it is about to deliver a death sentence.
‘Hello, who’s this?’ I say.
‘Anna?’ My heart thumps and the blood rushing through my ears is making so much noise that I can hardly hear my daughter. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Dad, there’s something I have been wanting to tell you for some time.’
As I listen to Anna’s story, I look into Neil’s eyes, his gentle, caring eyes, and I begin to understand the weight of the secret he has kept from a beloved brother, for the sake of a beloved niece.
‘Dad, Dad, you still there? Say something, please.’
I can focus on just one question. A question I dare not speak, for fear that it will crush this fragile new hope of a stronger relationship. I’m torn between the shame of not protecting my daughter, a primal urge to obliterate the person responsible for her pain, and the realization that that same pain has bought her, perhaps, her greatest joy.
‘Anna, my brave girl. I’ve let you down, I’ve let Daisy down too. How can I make this right?’ A torrent of excited ideas gush forth from Anna, but I can’t take it all in.
‘… dinner… Daisy… get to know you better… ‘
‘I’d like that too honey. Love you.’ I wait for her soft response before handing the phone back to Neil. My brain is frantically trying to process this new information, to fit new facts into four years of mystery, to reject the many awful scenarios I had imagined. I feel nauseous and wish I could get off the train. I glance at my phone, 09:22, nearly there. Breathe, Sam, breathe.
Gradually, it dawns on me; this was their plan all along. I place a gentle, appreciative hand on the green and gold package.
As the train pulls into Liverpool Street Station, I stand and pull on my coat. The world out there, even under the station’s glass roof, seems brighter than the one I had left not 2 hours earlier. I turn to Neil, who is clumsily extracting himself from his seat, and a forgotten warmth rises from my belly. An equally unfamiliar feeling spreads across my face; I am smiling.
‘Grab the ashes Frodo, let’s get this adventure started.’
I Do copyright Martine Cullum
‘Hey chipmunk,’ dad says, knocking gently on my bedroom door. ‘You ready?’
I am staring into my dressing table mirror, considering how much my reflection has changed since I first gazed into it on my tenth birthday. I can’t quite believe that I see this grown woman in front of me. I finish touching up my lipstick before carefully pulling my white tulle veil over my face.
‘Ready as I’ll ever be.’ I reply, standing and turning around carefully to face my dad. ‘How do I look?’
My white satin bridal gown is a classic empire line with a simple daisy-chain trim around the neck and cuffs and slim chiffon sleeves. The dress is exactly how I had wanted it, simple and elegant, but I have indulged my love of all things sparkly with silver dance shoes and my veil held in place by a cubic zirconia tiara. I feel every bit the princess.
‘You look wonderful Rose; I couldn’t be prouder.’ says dad as he leans gently on my door frame, arms folded across his chest, posing as if he was a catalogue model. ‘But that’s enough about you. Get a load of me. Handsome or what?’
‘You look gorgeous too, dad; very George Clooney and, of course, as modest as ever.’ I roll my eyes and can’t help but laugh at this long-standing family joke. Actually, he does look really smart. He has foregone his usual roll necked jumper in favour of a navy three-piece suit, white shirt and royal blue cravat. His grey hair and beard are far more harshly trimmed than I am used to seeing and his usually tanned face is a few shades lighter than normal.
I look out of my bedroom window onto mum and dad’s beautifully manicured front lawn, with its large bed of daffodils and tulips in the centre providing an island of colour around the solitary willow tree. The borders are overflowing with lots of beautiful flowers; flowers that much to my parent’s chagrin, I had never been interested enough to learn the names of. Both of my parents loved to garden and had enjoyed maintaining the bungalow's large grounds themselves, but Mum had hired professionals to make sure everything was just that extra bit special for today, and it did look magnificent.
Across the road, a small gathering of our neighbours is waiting to watch the bride leave home for the last time. Oh God, the last time. Suddenly, the nerves hit me. Not that I have any doubts about my wedding; Mike is going to be a wonderful husband. He is kind, funny and the cleverest man I have ever met. But still, it feels like I’m leaping out of the safety of a penthouse suite and trusting that the Mike shaped air cushion will catch me and keep me safe.
‘Car’s here love… Rose?’ Dad frowns at me, his thick eyebrows almost touching in the middle. ‘Are you having second thoughts?’
I wonder, briefly, how he would cope if I said yes. Mum is the one who always handles difficult or emotional situations in the family, and she left for the church twenty minutes ago with Angela, my Maid of Honour and the bridesmaids. She looked good, better than I had seen her for a long time. I’m so pleased she took my advice and treated herself to a make-over. The new silver pixie hairstyle gave her back some of the years that our loss had stolen from her and complimented the pale pink Mariposa dress and matching lace coat. She almost looked like the strong and confident woman I remember from before.
‘No dad,’ I assure him, ‘I’m fine, just nervous. Let’s go.’ I watch as his shoulders and jaw relax, and for a moment I see a shimmer around him.
The vintage style cream and navy Badsworth Landaulette is waiting on our brick weave drive. I pick up my teardrop bouquet of daisies, cornflowers, and white roses before following my dad through the front door and making sure my dress and train don’t catch on anything. The scent of freesias, one flower that I did know the name of, permeates the air as I step out into the open.
The day is bright and pleasantly warm for April. The crowd across the street let out a little cheer and I feel myself colouring up. I give them a little wave and head for the car. The breeze catches my long chapel train and the chauffeur, ready to serve in his steely grey uniform and peaked cap, steps forward to help me.
I climb as elegantly as I can into the back of the Badsworth and take hold of my dad’s hand: the same hand that steadied me when I first learned to ride a bike, the same hand that placed cool flannels on my forehead when glandular fever made me delirious, and the hand that warmly welcomed Mike into the family whilst its owner spoke words of warning about what would happen if he ever hurt me.
The car moves gracefully for a full five minutes along Millers Lane; the same lane that I have walked so many times to school, to college and eventually to work. I stare out of the window on my side of the car and consider, bizarrely, that the hedges bordering the cemetery are in need of a trim. I ponder all the couples buried there, side by side, devoted to each other for decades. I think about my grandpa who died of a broken heart within weeks of losing my grandma to cancer. They are both laid to rest in this very cemetery, for eternity. That is the kind of marriage I hope to have, long-lasting, dedicated, loving and faithful.
Traffic lights on the crossroads at the bottom of Millers Lane bring us to a slow stop. Dad must sense my nerves increasing; I think I feel him squeeze my hand.
‘It won’t always be a smooth ride, Rose. Just remember to be kind to each other, and work on any problems openly and together.’ His voice is so quiet, just a whisper really, but as always, to hear it means so much to me.
‘You make it sound so easy dad.’
‘You’ll do fine girl,’ he says with confidence as the chauffeur, who is looking at me in his rear-view mirror, interrupts.
‘Everything all right Miss?’ he pauses, presumably for a response, and then continues. ‘We’ll be arrivin’ in just two minutes, Miss. Bang on time. Would yer like me to drive yer round the block?’
‘No, no thank you,’ I say. ‘On time is great with me.’ The chauffeur nods. The lights change and the car moves gently forward. I relax back into my seat as best I can.
‘Thanks, dad… thanks for everything.’ I say, squeezing his hand as if it is the last time I will see him.
As we drive by the little dance school where I once had ballet lessons but never really managed to get past ‘Hello toes-Goodbye toes’, the church comes into view. I see flashes of pale blue fabric as Angela and the three younger bridesmaids wait to greet me under the floral arbour, where the path through the church gardens meets the street. The closer we get I can see that the girls look lovely in their coordinated dresses with their hair elegantly pulled back into French plaits decorated with cornflowers and daisies.
The car rolls to a halt in front of the arbour, attracting another crowd, this time of people who just happen to be walking past and notice a wedding is about to start. The chauffeur steps out and walks around the front of the car to open the door for me. Angela makes sure the young ones stay safely within the church grounds and then moves forward to greet me.
‘Rooosieeeee! Look at you, gorgeous girl’ she squeals as she plants air kisses on either side of my veil, then holds me at arm’s length. ‘You look amazing.’ She fusses about with my dress and train and then stands in front of me looking me straight in the eyes.
‘Are you sure this is the way you want to do this?’ she asks, with a huge emphasis on the word ‘sure’.
‘Absolutely. Is Mike here?’ It is a bit of a lame question, but it is all I can think of to change the subject as we walk up the path to the vestibule.
‘Here and looking nearly as nervous as you.’ She smiles again, accepting of my decision and then she works on the final positioning of the three young bridesmaids behind me.
‘OK, I’m ready.’ I say, not feeling half as brave as I sound. I look round for my dad and link his arm in mine, both hands gripping my bouquet.
The church organ announces my arrival and I take a deep breath, exhale slowly and move forward with my first step. Despite having practised the perfect pace, it seems as though I am racing down the aisle and the floor feels like it is moving as if I am on one of those moving walkways you find at airports. I hold on tight to dad to keep my balance.
I glance over at all the guests on the bride’s side: my uncles and aunts with their respective partners, friends from work, from college and even a few from school, all standing with their heads turned to watch my entrance. I see pity in the eyes of some, pride in others, and confusion in just a few. My pulse is racing, and it feels as though Flipper is doing a gymnastic routine in my chest, so I fix my eyes on Mike who is standing with his back to me, next to his best man.
I reach the steps in front of the alter. The music stops and Mike turns to face me. Angela is taking my bouquet and dad is no longer by my side. Flipper has gone. There is a hollowness inside me; a deep well of sadness that I don’t believe even Mike will ever be able to fill.
I swallow the familiar lump in my throat that threatens to overwhelm me with sadness, and I choose. I choose to allow my future in and to let go of the past. I choose to love, and once again be loved. In that same second, as I look into Mike’s eyes, I feel a spark of hope for the future. There is shuffling as the congregation reseat themselves. It really is the perfect day; almost.
It begins. I gaze at the man I am about to pledge my life to, the man who has proven his love time and time again, the man who is everything I have ever wanted.
‘Who gives this woman to be married to this man?’
I turn slightly and see my mum, a vision in pink, step up to my side. In her grey-blue eyes, there is that same look of pride and sadness I had seen in some of the congregation. The one incongruous element of her ensemble is the single cream golfing glove on her right hand; my dad’s glove. She and I had agreed that this was how it should be. This was the closest we could get to my dad giving me away. She takes my bare left hand in her gloved right and offers it to the vicar.
‘I do.’ she says.
Cooper ~ coming 2022