THE FRUITS OF LABOUR, an excerpt by Karen Clark at Spillwords.com

THE FRUITS OF LABOUR

THE FRUITS OF LABOUR

From The Book ‘Tell Me Tomorrow and Other Stories’

written by: Karen Clark

@KarenCl29896539

 

Skye headed back home after work, feeling wronged and misunderstood – but most of all drained. She stopped at the church by the bridge on her way, to gather her nerve: how was her mother going to react to her losing her job? It had not been Skye’s fault; she had not realised that voicing her fears to her manager and colleague about answering the phones would be wrong. Now she was working her notice; then in a few weeks, she would be out – joining the ranks of the jobless, looking for work.

After checking her iPod for texts, she continued her journey back home; Steven Hayes – her eight-year-old cousin – and his mother would be coming to the house for a Halloween tea.

“Penny for the guy,” called a gaunt-looking boy on the verge of his teens, as she came to the bridge; and ignoring the two pound coin that remained in her purse, she grew heedlessly deaf and walked on, reaching the other end of the bridge to enter a side street of stalls selling pumpkins, fake blood and face masks to mark Halloween.

Remembering her mother’s request to bring home a cake, she stopped at a stall selling Halloween snacks that included Frankenstein cup cakes and iced eyeball buns.

“Would you like to buy one of these Dracula cakes; they’re an absolute snip at three pounds,” the stallholder said as he saw her approach.

“Do you have any cakes that cost a pound less?” Skye enquired, remembering that two pounds was all the spare cash she had left.

“Two fifty – and it’s yours,” the stallholder said, reducing the price.

Skye looked down and sighed, cursing herself for leaving the money to cover the cost of the cake for the supper behind; and having been axed from her job, thought it best not to draw any money out of her bank.

“On second thoughts, I’ll give it a miss; I’m trying to slim,” she uneasily said, abandoning the stall for the corner shop seconds away.

Entering the store and browsing its shelves in the hope of finding something for fifty pence less, she found the cakes that it sold were more dear than the stall’s; but further down the aisle, on the reduced items shelf, stood a sizeable cake in the form of a ghost for only two pounds – which should stay fairly fresh if consumed on the day it was bought. Skye seized the box with both hands after emptying her purse; the two pound coin growing warm in her grasp as she made for the till.

As she neared the front of the shop, two people walked in – the male employer who had told her to leave and the sly female colleague who roused his action by stabbing her, cruelly, in the back. Neither the man nor the woman said hello, despite making it tacitly clear that they saw her retreat; the smirk on the woman’s smug face making Skye squirm as her eyes stared into her own. Aware that they would not respond had she greeted them first, Skye averted her eyes, sidling up to the till with unease where she paid for the cake with the coin that she could not replace.

Hurrying out of the shop, she continued her journey back home, removing the price from the box that protected the cake before entering the house.

“Cousin Skye!” Steven called, darting into the hall as he heard her come in. “Me and Mum came here early; is that for our tea?” he avidly asked, pointing to the cut-price cake in the young woman’s grasp.

“Yes, it is,” Skye replied, hiding her fears with a smile as she put down the box to take off her coat.

“Your mum said we could have our tea in this room,” Steven said, as Skye picked up the cake and followed him into the lounge.

Steven dived on to the couch, whilst Skye placed the boxed cake on a table in the corner of the lounge amongst the various Halloween treats that her mother had prepared.

“Will you read me a nursery rhyme?” Steven asked, pointing to the sleek-covered book on the shelf by the hearth.

“Which one would you like me to read?” Skye half-heartedly asked, fetching the book before taking a seat beside Steven on the settee.

“Any will do; you can choose,” her cousin replied, as he waited for her to begin with wide, eager eyes.

Skye opened the book, turning its pages with traumatized hands; her mind plagued by the dread of informing her mother her job had been axed.

“Have you found one yet?” Steven asked, as she flicked through the book, pained by its sketches of pumpkins, Jack Horner and mice.

Skye paused at the page sprawled with drawings of churches and fruit; the mention of debt seizing her mind as she read the first line – and then stopped.

“Oh, please, Cousin Skye – carry on with this; we play this one as a game at our junior school,” Steven begged, stretching his body up from the couch to glue his eyes to the page.

“OK, then; as you’re ready, I’ll now begin,” Skye reluctantly said, nonplussed by her cousin’s option of rhyme, as the illustrator’s shillings on the edge of the page brought home the pay she would lose.

She glanced at her cousin’s naïve face before reading the first two lines of the poem out loud, continuing after a pause until reaching the end.

“Thanks, Cousin Skye; that’s the best nursery rhyme in the book!” Steven gleefully cried, too young to perceive its reference to public beheadings and people in debt.”

“If it used to be mine, it wouldn’t be now,” Skye begrudgingly thought, masking her angst with a smile as she rose from the couch and placed the book back on the shelf.

As she returned to the couch, both mothers entered the room, each carrying a platter of sandwiches cut into squares which they placed on the table next to the crisps.

“Hello, Skye,” Mrs Hayes said, giving her cousin a hug. “It’s lovely to see you again after such a long time. Are you just back from work?”

“Yes,” said Skye, lowering her eyes; the question leaving her tense.

“Skye – is anything wrong? You seem a bit down,” her mother enquired, eyeing her daughter with concern.

“No,” Skye untruthfully said, reluctant to mention the loss of her job in front of her guests.

“Skye’s probably just tired after work,” compromised Mrs Hayes. “When one’s new to a job, it takes time to adjust.”

“Mum – I’m hungry; can we have our tea now?” Steven asked, jumping up from the couch to feast his large eyes on the food.

“We’ll ask the host first,” his mother replied, as Skye mutely stood by the hearth, reflecting on work.

“That’s all right by me,” her mother agreed, throwing her daughter another solicitous glance. “Skye can help me bring in the drinks – and then we can start. What drink would each of you like?” she asked her two guests.

“Can I have some cream soda?” asked Steven, licking his lips.

“Yes; I’ll bring you some in,” Skye’s mother replied.

“A cup of tea would be nice,” Mrs Hayes said, throwing the two hosts a smile.

“Then, if you and Steven both sit at the table, we’ll be right back with the drinks,” Skye’s mother replied, as she and her daughter abandoned the lounge and entered the kitchen in haste.

“Are you sure everything’s OK? You look rather subdued,” she asked Skye, as she poured out the drinks.

“Yes,” Skye tersely replied, having resolved not to tell her mother what was wrong until after their two guests had left.

“Is it work?” her mother surmised, as Skye switched on the kettle and laid out the saucers and cups.

“Not now, Mum; we have guests,” murmured Skye, fetching two trays from the drawer.

Her mother resignedly sighed, placing the glasses filled with cream soda on one of the trays.

“I’ll bring these drinks into the lounge,” she despairingly said, causing her daughter to feel more uptight and distressed. “When you’re ready, bring in the tea,” she added, disappearing from the room with the tray of soft, fizzy drinks.

Skye poured out the tea, bringing it into the lounge on the tray that remained.

“Can we start?” Steven asked, sipping his drink.

“Once Cousin Skye has laid out the saucers and cups,” said Mrs Hayes to her son, as Skye observed that the cake she had bought now sat out of its box, on a plate.

“It’s OK, Steven; you can start; I’m about to sit down,” Skye cut in, placing the empty tray by the couch before taking a seat.

Steven stretched out his arm; his hand closing in on a cup cake adorned with a bat made of edible beads.

“Savouries first,” nagged his mother, placing a handful of crisps and two sausage rolls on his plate.

Skye passively watched as Steven rapidly hoovered the food from his plate, which he promptly refilled with cheese and pineapple sticks, and pate on bread.

“You’re not eating, Skye,” remarked Mrs Hayes, as both mothers helped themselves to a medley of bites.

“Skye – why aren’t you having any food? Aren’t you hungry?” her mother enquired; Skye’s appetite quelled by the prospect of being unemployed.

“No,” her daughter replied, harbouring her dread of breaking the news about losing her job once the two guests had left. “There was a function at work, and we had the food late.”

“Oh, well – I suppose you’ll be hungry in time, and will eat later on,” said her mother, downing her last salty bite. “Anyone for a portion of cake?” she went on, addressing her guests.

“That’s the cake that Cousin Skye brought home!” Steven piped up. “I want a piece.”

“I’ll have a piece, too,” Mrs Hayes said, handing over his plate and her own to the host for a slice.

“Would you like a piece?” Skye’s mother asked, cutting into the cake.

“I’ll have a bit later on – with some savoury bites,” her daughter replied, remembering the ‘use by’ date of the cake, which she hoped would not taste too stale.

Skye uneasily watched as her mother handed each guest a portion of cake before cutting a slice of the jammy, iced sponge for herself.

“Wow, Cousin Skye; it tastes out of this world!” Steven cried after taking a bite; leaving Skye relieved that the cake still tasted fresh.

“Good,” Skye abstractedly said, remembering her vacuous purse. “At least it means that the cake has been money well spent.”

The two mothers threw her a frown, perplexed as to what she had meant, as she gazed at the face of the ghost that covered the cake to behold the eyes of her colleagues glowering back.

“Steven – finish your drink; we’d better make tracks. You’ve your homework to do – and then it will be time for your bed,” said Mrs Hayes to her son as she glanced at her watch.

“Can I take some cake home?” Steven asked with wide, pleading eyes once he wolfed down his drink.

“Skye – would you bring me two plastic boxes and the roll of aluminium foil from the cupboard in the kitchen?” requested the host, slicing more off the cake. “I’ll give you and Steven a lift,” she added, addressing her guests, as her daughter abandoned the room to fetch the boxes and foil.

When Skye re-entered the lounge, her mother and cousins had on their coats, about to depart; each guest waiting to be handed their portion of cake.

“Thanks for reading me ‘Oranges and Lemons,’ Cousin Skye,” Steven gratefully said. “‘Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chip, chop, chip, chop. The last man’s dead!’” he playfully sang, as his cousin packaged the slices of cake that her mother had cut.

“That’s OK, Steven,” said Skye, handing both boxes of cake to his mother in haste.

“Aren’t you coming with us, Skye?” asked her mother, observing her daughter had not fetched her coat.

“I thought I’d stay here and clear everything away,” replied Skye, wishing to spend the next half an hour alone.

“All right,” her mother succumbed. “But be sure to eat something before going to bed. You look very pale – as if you’ve not eaten anything earlier today.”

“OK,” murmured Skye, reflecting that her mother had been right in sensing that she had skipped lunch.

“It’s been lovely seeing you again; good luck with the job,” Mrs Hayes said, approaching her cousin to give her a warm-hearted hug.

“Goodbye, Cousin Skye; thanks for bringing the cake,” Steven squeaked, following suit.

“Goodbye; safe journey home; come again soon,” Skye said to her guests, as they and her mother made their way to the door.

“See you later on – and make sure you eat,” her mother advised, before all three relations abandoned the lounge to leave her in peace.

Covering the leftover bites, Skye heard Steven chant from the hall:

’Two sticks and an apple say the bells of Whitechapel / Kettles and tongs say the bells of St John’s—-‘” his infantile voice trailing off as the front door clicked shut.

Placing no food aside for herself on a plate, Skye set about clearing the table of leftover food, deciding to wait one more day before telling her mother that she had been axed from her job.

***

Two hours later, Skye lay in bed, waiting for the sleeping pill she had downed to kick in. She tried counting sheep – but all that would run through her mind was the nursery rhyme that her cousin adored, and believed had meant nothing but fun, sweetness and light.

’Here comes a chopper to chop off your head,’” her thoughts relentlessly jabbed, reminding her of the job which – thanks to her colleagues – was soon to be lost.

Half an hour later, her eyes felt themselves close as the pill took effect, its paralysis merged with the dread of facing her colleagues the following day.

As her eyes slid open, she drifted downstairs, walking out of the house past a church belonging to the past – before decimalisation was used. Slowing down, she looked to her right, where a stall was selling oranges, lemons and striped bullseye sweets as the church bells pealed buoyantly forth. Skye pulled half a crown from her pocket to pay for an orange, a lemon and eight ounces of sweets, only to find that the coin in her grasp did not cover the cost.

“You’re five farthings short. You can pay me the difference next time you’re here,” the stallholder said, as she heedlessly placed the sweets and fruit in her bag.

Wearing a smile, she sauntered away, two tiles coming loose from the roof of the church as she browsed past a stall where fresh pancakes and fritters were sold, fried and tossed in a pan at each buyer’s request by the stallholder’s wife.

Skye walked on half a mile; yet only a minute had passed when she glanced at her watch. It felt as if she were gliding on air as she came to another outmoded street with a church and more stalls selling kettles, pokers and tongs. She looked down at two sticks and an apple that lay at her feet, next to three sixpenny coins that must have been dropped by a drunk passing by. She picked up the coins which she placed in her purse, deciding to pay the money she owed to the stallholder selling the bullseyes and fruit, when she made her way home.

She crossed the dank, cobbled road to head for a stall selling candles and choppers with razor sharp blades that looked indistinct in the mist; and as she drew close to the stall to examine its goods, the hideous loss of her job re-entered her mind.

Hearing footsteps behind, she looked round to catch sight of a priest emerge from the church, his figure growing increasingly close to the stall. As he came within inches of Skye, he drew to a halt; she and the clergyman now standing face to face in the autumnal mist.

“My name is Father Baldpate, Patron Saint of travellers and itinerants,” said the priest, shaking her hand, as the stallholders mutely looked on – a man and a woman whose faces were shrouded by hoods. “You’ve lost your job, I understand,” he added in a tone of regret. “But I’d like you to know that there’d always be room for you here in my church – if you became homeless, as well. Let me give you a piece of advice,” he went on, as the mist gave way to a blanket of thick, swirling fog. “In future, never trust your colleagues; don’t give them fuel for the fire by telling them too much. It would pay you to wear a false face; be more underhand, and let your future employer believe that you’re happy in your job – even if you aren’t.”
Skye shrugged in narcotic fear, picking up a Gothic style candle from the stall as the priest disappeared.

“My cousin, Steven, would really like this,” she said to the vendors of the stall.

“You owe us ten shillings,” the stallholders said; their voices captious and cold.

“How can I?” she quizzically asked, wondering why both their faces were still covered up.

The stallholders lifted their hoods; streams of dense, murky fog pouring forth from their mouths as the two of them laughed. Skye reeled back in shock; now she could see who they were: the male employer who pulled her to pieces, aborting her job, and the sly female colleague who gave him fuel for the fire by betraying her trust.

The woman started to grin; her eyes like daggers, pinned on Skye’s face as she took out a wax taper match, which she struck, before lighting a candle that stood on the edge of the stall.

“By the way – here comes a candle to light you to bed!” she maliciously jibed, picking up the candle from the stand as the man seized an axe.

Skye turned on her heels, fleeing in fear down the damp, foggy street in search of somewhere to hide from the danger she faced. Taking deep breaths, she paused and looked round to find herself being pursued; her employer and colleague close at her heels with the candle and axe in their grasps.

The fog increased as Skye continued to run, losing her footing on the kerb as her chasers caught up.

“Have you learnt your lesson now?” the colleague piped up with a pitiless shrug, as Skye lay flat on her back, frozen with fear.

“If you haven’t by now, that would make you even thicker than I’d thought,” her manager jeered as he lifted the axe.

The woman laughed, as Skye’s P45 appeared in her grasp; her chortling growing increasingly shrill as the candle set it alight.

“And by the way,” she callously screamed as the axe was about to descend, “Here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chip, chop, chip, chop. The last man’s—-

Karen Clark

Karen Clark

I'm Karen Clark from East London. On leaving school, I worked as a shorthand / typist, and then went on to work as an ad taker for Loot Magazine. I've always been single, and have no children, and started writing as a hobby once becoming unemployed.
Karen Clark

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