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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Ed Bruce

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Sophie was devastated when Peter disappeared. It was the suddenness of his going that shook her, no last phone call at work, no sticky note on the TV screen, only a silent void. Sophie loved surprises, but this was silly. Even the guitar, his excuse for staying at home by the phone, stood idly in the corner.

She blamed her neighbour Jim. After all, it was he who introduced Peter to the delights of Bacchus. In the washhouse that separated their hard-to-let category council flats, Jim could create a potent but palatable wine from the most unlikely of raw materials. Tasting sessions from his limitless stocks invariably led to nightlong parties.

Life was euphoric for a while until squabbles erupted from lack of sleep and hangovers. With Peter less inclined to seek work and Sophie struggling to do her job professionally, their mutual respect had dwindled, along with their bank balance. But she worried about him and prayed that the St. Christopher medal she gave him would keep him safe.

"You'll like this one Soph; I picked the elderberries in the park last summer." Jim placed the wine bottle on the table.

"What's that smell?"

"Oh, just the drains, they never come to fix 'em."

"Not your shed then?"

"Don't think so, I'm tidying up in there."

"Any word of Peter? I've asked around the pubs."

"He won't be back Sophie; trust me."

"I'm comin' home for lunch for a while, just in case. He left his key behind."

"You were much too good for him, you know."

Scanning the cooking guidelines on her meal-for-one, Sophie tensed as she felt his hand grip her shoulder. "Not now Jim, I need time to sort my head out."

"OK, but remember, I'm here when you need me. I'll be watching over you."

When she went home at lunchtime next day, a man driving a sleek red Porsche had just taken the last available parking space. Until then she hadn't realised how many cars used the area around the flats in the daytime. Only a handful of residents were car owners, yet all the spaces were full. The Che Guevara Estate was only two stations from the City on the underground.

She stepped out of her old Datsun Cherry to confront the stranger. "Excuse me, do you live here?" she asked.

"Who's asking?" The voice was flippant, teasing, as he tightened his necktie.

"Who's asking! This isn't a public car park, you know. I have to be back on duty by two."

"You know, you're very attractive when you're angry." As he leaned over her, it was the cynical smile as much as the cliché that made her blood boil. "By the way, isn't it illegal to drive a car in that dilapidated condition?" he added, pulling expensive-looking mirror sunglasses from his shirt pocket.

The full-blooded slap that sent him reeling surprised Sophie as much as her tormentor. "Move it, you ponced-up prat, or I call the police," she said, fighting off tears of frustration.

He held on to a wing mirror for support, head shaking, eyes blinking. "You just do that and I'll have you charged with assault, you mad bitch." The smug smile gradually returned as he walked towards the subway, rubbing his face. Sophie bit her lip as she knelt to retrieve the letter that had fallen from his pocket.

Sophie's confrontation was one of many, though less violent, over the weeks that followed. Visits to the council offices and letters to her Member of Parliament, resulted in strong metal gates being fitted at the entrance. Each car-owning tenant was given a key, but the padlocks were soon forcibly removed.

On the day she received a ticket for leaving her car out on the road, Sophie challenged the Porsche driver as he was about to leave. "This should be yours by rights," she screamed, pushing the crunched-up penalty notice in his face, "commuters like you are gettin' away with murder - I LIVE HERE!"

When the police came to see her it was only to question her about acid attacks on the paintwork of some of the trespassing vehicles. While she disapproved of the vandalism, it did mean easier parking for a few days, although the interlopers soon dribbled back.

Then her car failed its Ministry of Transport test and Sophie asked Jim if he could find her a newer model at a reasonable price. That evening, disturbed by digging and scraping noises as she passed the shed, she called out his name. As Jim opened the door, the smell assaulted her nostrils again, more pungent now, taking her breath away.

"I spilled some acid," he explained, "and I've had to dig the floor up. It... it needed fixing."

"Acid?" She also wondered about the punctures on the traffic warden's car.

"You know, I use it for work."

"Right." She found conversations about cars, even wine, boring, but as her concern for Peter turned to resentment over his cowardly exit, she warmed to the attentions of her kindly and devoted neighbour.

"I have a nice little car for you. I'll bring it round tomorrow." He smiled a lot these days. It suited him. "I'll bring my breakdown truck, I have plans for your old Datsun, too."

"Hang on Jim, how much..."

"Shush! Seeing you relaxed and happy again is reward enough. But it's pay back time for that smarmy Porsche driver. Do you still have his letter with the address on it?" His lips tightened and his eyes had lost their twinkle.

Next morning Jim spent an hour removing the engine and chassis numbers, registration plates and all traces of previous ownership from the Datsun Cherry, then the wheels. Sophie brought a picnic lunch and they waited in the breakdown truck near an ostentatious house in the suburbs, until a particular car emerged from the driveway heading in the direction they had come.

Having ascertained that no one else was at home; they dumped the old car ceremoniously by the front door. She saw Jim take an oily rag from his pocket and remove the petrol inlet cap.

"No Jim, I loved that old car. I don't think I could handle seeing it cremated. Besides, I want him to know whose car it is. I just wish I could see his face when he sees it."

She was ecstatic about Jim's choice of a replacement car. The anxiety was gone now; she was back in control of her life - and she had her parking space again. Although she occasionally feared retaliation, she now felt capable of handling it, if it came. She no longer saw Jim as a threat, as she did when Peter used to share his wine. What he lacked in looks he more than made up for in attentiveness. She still came home lunch times, but only to share a meal with the neighbour who was now her lover.

A week later the Porsche was back. She had prepared a few well-chosen words for him, but the driver was nowhere to be seen. When she returned in the early evening the car was still there.

Jim had been spending most of his spare time in his wine shed. When Sophie disturbed him he was putting the finishing touches to the new concrete floor. An old bathtub had been installed and the walls were freshly painted. It smelt nice again.

"That car's back Jim."

"I know, some people never learn, but I've fixed him."

Two weeks later, its glossy bodywork now soft-focused by a thick coating of dust and gummy eucalyptus seeds, the sports car had been reduced to an abandoned shell supported by bricks. Che Guevara bandits took no prisoners after dark.

Sophie's euphoria returned. To her delight she discovered that Jim also had a tendency to surprise. One day she found him dancing naked on the grapes in the bathtub. For the first time she noticed the gold chain around his neck and the St. Christopher medal. As he kissed her and handed her a glass of her favourite Burdock and Dandelion, she thought how ridiculous he looked in designer mirror shades.

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