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Contemporary Fiction Happy

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

‘Oh look, here she comes. Look at the way she waves to ‘mummy’. Do you think she’s quite normal?’

The girls stood at the street corner in their school uniforms hitched, pulled, and twisted to try and make them look appealing, sexy and fashionable. They stood around looking at her as she ran past them in her little girl’s dress, too neat, too clean, with her beautiful, youthful skin and short shiny hair.

The girls, treading on their cigarette butts, with their spotty complexions and long dull-looking hair, uncombed and wild, stared at the woman, at least ten years older than them, running past in her little schoolgirl brown sandals, waving to mummy.

The school girls stared at her, and not one of them wanted to look like the slim, attractive woman who had just run past them. At 15, they already had difficulties running due to their increasing weekly cigarette intake.

Elsa ran to work, just as mummy had told her to, making sure she didn’t look at anyone, didn’t speak to anyone, her head down and aiming straight for the office.

On entering her building, ignoring the lift, as instructed by mummy, she ran up the flight of stairs to her office. On reaching her floor, she passed two women her age, who looked and spoke as if of an entirely different generation. They oozed sex appeal. Both had long blonde hair, large breasts and tiny waists, puffing away on cigarettes and balancing precariously on high stiletto heels. They said nothing as Elsa ran past but stared at her with barely hidden smirks as they looked at the child-woman, breathlessly going to her spotless desk shared with Audrey.

Audrey, who sat opposite her, welcomed her, and for the rest of the day, apart from work issues, neither of the women spoke to the other. Audrey was a dumpy 40-year-old but was so nondescript could have easily passed for at least 60. The rumour was that Audrey had a dreadful marriage, and her alcoholic husband was prone to attacks of violence. Audrey was not the sort of woman to bring her troubles to work. Elsa was a gift from heaven for Audrey. Her perfect work colleague, a reliable woman who worked hard and had no desire to engage in tittle-tattle. Elsa and Audrey were the hardest-working women in the busy accounting office but were the least admired. Even Mr Brown, the Office Manager who was a stickler for getting the work done, had very little time for either. His eyes travelled to the buxom girls wearing their short mini skirts and skimpy tops, and although these girls did produce some work, it was nothing like the amount achieved by Audrey and Elsa - the two workhorses of the office.

Only once did Audrey surprise Elsa by asking her if she ever got bored. Had she ever experienced a feeling of being in a rut? She wondered what Elsa felt might improve her life. As it had never occurred to Elsa that her life needed improving, she said nothing.

At the end of the day, Elsa would do one final tidy of her pristine desk, stand up, smooth her teenage skirt down to just below her knees and off she ran down the stairs, out of the building and continued running all the way home. She spoke to no one, and no one talked to her.

As she approached her front door, her mother, watching through the front room window, would run to the front door and fling it open. 

‘Get in, get in, Elsa’, the mother would say in her usual anxious voice, grabbing Elsa’s arm and pulling her inside.  

‘Go and wash your hands, and change out of your work clothes, please’, and Elsa would go upstairs and do as she was bid. She would then go into the front room and sit on the edge of the couch until she was called into the dining room for her evening meal.

*******

Her father was from a monied background and had been a University Research Professor for many years but had left for health reasons. He met Agnes, his wife, as an in-patient in the same hospital, and they decided to buy a small house on the edge of the family estate that would require no staff and, importantly, no visitors. When Elsa was born, they decided to home-school her and keep her well away from the local kids. Frank and Agnes were already mature when Elsa came into the world, and by the time she had reached her 20s, Frank and Agnes were easily mistaken for her grandparents instead of her parents.

Elsa was a happy child and knew nothing of anything outside their home except church on a Sunday. They were regular churchgoers and were friendly with the Vicar. After completing her formal education, the Vicar suggested that Elsa work in an accounts department at a local company. For years Agnes walked Elsa to work and collected her at night, but when she reached 21, Elsa was allowed to run back and forth to work without her mother, on the condition that she never spoke to anyone and arrived home promptly each evening.

*******

After eating the simple, home-cooked meal, a cup of tea was brought in for Frank, and Frank would start the only conversation they shared. 

‘Did anyone speak to you today?’

‘No Father’

Frank said. ‘How much work did you leave undone when you left work today?’ He asked the same question every day, and every day he received the same answer.

‘No work was left behind, Father’.

‘Good girl Elsa. Go to bed, get a good night’s sleep to continue improving your performance.’

It seemed inconceivable that they would have anything further to say to one another. Her parents had communication difficulties, and although Elsa didn’t, it would have seemed awkward to break the silence that they lived in. It didn’t seem to bother Elsa at all.

Frank and Audrey rarely spoke to each other as they got on with their lives. Frank had a study that he shut himself into each evening. Very occasionally, the phone rang about the research project he was working on; but no social calls seemed to be made. Agnes had an art studio in the garden of the house, and once her housework duties were completed, she spent the rest of the day and evening painting huge abstract oil paintings. Elsa was expected to go to her bedroom after dinner and read. By 8.00 pm, complete silence would rein over the little house.  

This was her daily regime, and so it remained until Frank didn’t wake up one day.

******

Shockingly for the little family, without any warning, Frank had died in his sleep of natural causes.  Agnes woke up to find him not breathing next to her - and that was the end of Frank.

For Elsa, everything went on as before. She went to work, and no one treated her any differently after they had dutifully commented on the father dying. But she noticed her distraught mother not acting her usual way over the weeks and months. As each day was the same, it was noticeable that Agnes was beginning to suffer physically and slowly as her health deteriorated. A while after Frank had died, Agnes also passed away. Everyone said Agnes had died of heartbreak, but Elsa had never noticed loving moments between her parents.

Mr Brown from work, who rarely spent time with her, phoned and told her to take an extended bereavement break off work. He found her weird and didn’t want her to come in, particularly if she was grieving and showing emotion. Mr Brown found her at best cold and unresponsive but felt he couldn’t cope if she openly displayed emotions.

Elsa was lost. She had never set the alarm, ironed a dress, cleaned the toilet or booked a railway ticket. She sat on her bed and wept.

The next day the doctor arrived at her house.  

‘How are you?’ he asked in a concerned voice. He had made his tea as Elsa didn’t know how to.

‘I’m fine’, she replied in a low, shaky voice.

‘You need someone here to help you. Do you have any family you can call?’  

‘I don’t know of anyone.’

‘Let’s schedule an appointment with your dad’s solicitor and find out about the Will, as that might shed some light on any relatives.’

The solicitor, Mr James, after spending an afternoon going through all the paperwork and the Will, came back to the house, and with Elsa, they began going through all the paperwork in Frank’s office and Agnes’ desk.  

Sarah, a cousin living in Yorkshire, was located, and Mr James rang her to tell her of the death of Frank and Agnes. He cleared his throat when silence fell on the phone line and asked:

‘What do you think about Elsa?’

‘Who’s Elsa? The dog? The cat?’

‘Frank and Agnes’ daughter, Elsa’.

‘Of course, they had a child.  She must be mid-twenties by now. Poor Elsa, she must be bereft with both parents gone. Tell Elsa I’ll come for the funeral if she wants.’

‘Yes, that would be a wonderful idea. I’d like you to meet Elsa.’

*******

‘Well’, said Mr James, ‘What do you think of Elsa?’

‘She’s very quiet. Is it the shock of Frank and Agnes dying?’

‘She’s always quiet, perhaps a little strange, but so were the parents. I am perturbed about Elsa. Frank and Agnes controlled her ..well …a little excessively, and it is doubtful she has the wherewithal to function independently. Could you, her family, help?

Stella, the cousin, didn’t immediately say ‘No’ and instead seemed to be thinking.

‘Did Elsa work in an accounts department?’

‘Yes, she was apparently excellent. Mind you, she didn’t mix with anyone or ever smile.’

‘Well, that’s not a crime’, said Stella smiling. ‘Not all my farm animals want to mix, and many don’t smile, but they are all so loveable.’

Stella spent the night with Elsa, asking if she liked animals and the countryside and did she enjoy working on accounts.  

‘Yes’, assured Elsa. In particular, she told Stella she loved animals but hadn’t been allowed a pet.

‘OK, you have a long bereavement break from work. Why don’t you come to my farm? It’s pretty big, and my family has a couple of farms adjacent to each other, and we help each other out. The Estate Manager needs all the assistance he can get with the office - could you look at the accounts?’  

Elsa nodded.

‘You’ve never lived on your own, Elsa. Mr James thinks you need some tuition for living and managing independently. So if you come and help with our accounts office, I’ll show you how to manage a house, go shopping, understand domestic bills and anything else you’re unsure about. At the end of your bereavement break, we’ll discuss what’s to become of you.’

It was difficult to tell how Elsa responded as her face remained passive. Still, Stella seemed to pick up some body language that indicated that Elsa was keen to accompany Stella.

‘What animals have you got?’ asked Elsa shyly.

‘Over the three farms, we have dairy, sheep, and goats. We have a rescue Donkey Sanctuary.….. ‘ she stopped and looked intently at Elsa's face.

‘Wow’, thought Stella, 'a display of emotion. She seems to really like animals.'

Stella spoke to Mr James and told him how things had gone.  

‘It’s not permanent, and she knows that, but at least the family can try and demonstrate normal life and show her how to do things. She seems an intelligent and bright young woman. Let’s get her into normal clothes and a decent haircut. I bet you she’ll look like every other 26-year-old. What on earth did her parents do to her?’

‘Nothing as far as I can work out. They were a little strange, some mental illness perhaps, but they brought her up the way they thought best. The parents clearly had communication problems, so Elsa doesn’t speak much, but she seems a highly resilient woman who will hopefully emerge as a butterfly.’

*************

One year later.

It was accepted that Elsa was a loner and did not seek people’s close friendship, although Stella and Elsa had bonded well. 

When Stella’s husband died, Stella was heartbroken and very lonely. Her sons had suggested she open a part of the farm to animals needing rescuing to help deal with her bereavement. She had brought in cows, horses, pigs and finally, the donkeys, who now had a whole sanctuary to themselves. All the animals had experienced years of poor treatment from their previous owners and needed kindness and understanding. Stella would spend weeks and months finding a ‘friend’ for one of the newly rescued animals, often not from their species. Again and again, it worked. Difficult, lonely animals had been transformed from their original selves to happy, contented animals whilst still retaining their little quirks and behaviours. Working with the animals had pulled Stella out of her deep depression and loneliness; this was how she intended to work on Elsa. She knew it was far easier to have a deep, meaningful conversation with a ‘dumb’ animal who did not seem to judge or accidentally say the wrong thing.

Out of all the animals, Elsa became besotted with the donkeys. She had one or two absolute favourites who adored her. Her new life consisted of working in the farm office Monday- Friday, usually alone, except for a couple of fat, sleepy cats. Her work breaks were spent with the donkeys feeding them carrots. As time passed, Stella had even caught Elsa standing in the donkey field and singing to them. She never mentioned this to Elsa and just continued with her farm work.

Elsa now joined in the large evening family meals and occasionally seemed to participate in the laughter but not the conversation. The loud, jolly family accepted her exactly as she was. She spent most of the meal having private whispered conversations that complimented one of the dogs. The dog had placed his giant head on her knees, and she would stroke and fondle his ears, and if she stopped, the dog would push his nose into her hand to remind her to continue stroking him.  After the dinner, Stella and Elsa, usually accompanied by a couple of dogs, would corral the various animals and put them to bed in their multiple barns. Elsa may not talk much but seem relaxed and contented in this new life.

*******

One night, Elsa walked into the farm kitchen and gathered there were the estate manager and all the farm staff. She was surprised by how many people were in the kitchen and how lively the atmosphere was. The kitchen and sideboards were bursting with food and drinks of all kinds. The dogs and cats sat patiently, waiting for the eating to start.

Stella took her arm and said: ’Elsa, we’re all here to celebrate your first year at the farm. We want to make sure you know how very welcome you have been. Eamon says the accounts have never been so tidy, and he has been thrilled to have you working with him.  

‘Hear, hear’, said Eamon grinning at Elsa.

‘You have been a great asset to the farm in general and not least to the donkeys’, said Stella.

Everyone laughed. Elsa’s complete devotion to the donkeys was well known.

‘We all hope you will be here next year to celebrate your second year. What do you think?’

Elsa just nodded in agreement, her face, as usual, devoid of emotion.

‘You do like being here, don’t you?’ asked Eamon.

‘I can’t imagine not being here. I think I have found this thing called happiness,' said Elsa and smiled at him. It was the longest speech anyone had heard Elsa make. 

After dinner, with a handful of carrots, Elsa and Stella set off to put the animals in their barns.

‘Thank you for rescuing me’, she whispered to Sarah. 

‘It was the animals, Elsa, not me. Finding love and comfort wherever it comes from, in a sometimes complicated world, surely makes us two of the luckiest women.'

‘Does it bother you that tomorrow will be the same as today? Unfortunately, farm work is repetitive. I hope you don’t feel you are in an endless cycle.'

Elsa bent over and began laughing loudly and warmly. She reached out to Stella and said: ‘How wonderful if this is an endless cycle - may it never stop'.

April 07, 2023 14:09

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16 comments

Delbert Griffith
14:17 Apr 13, 2023

The coming-of-age story about Elsa works well with Stella's recovery from her husband's death. I can't figure out Elsa's parents. Were they simply ultra-strict or did they suffer from a form of autism (or something similar). We don't get much about Elsa's father and mother, or Elsa's early years. That could help with the flow and arc of the story. Still, the tale was an enjoyable read, and the happy ending felt good. With a little work, this could be a stellar piece, worthy of expansion. Cheers, my friend.

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John Rutherford
04:36 Apr 13, 2023

Excellent story, good read.

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MJ Simons
20:02 Apr 12, 2023

Stevie, this is a heartwarming story! I immensely enjoyed it and wanted it to continue. I wonder why your friend who reads your stories said not to post it. Animals have a way of healing us. This is an excellent example of healing and a great response to the prompt. Nicely done!

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Viga Boland
13:55 Apr 11, 2023

It’s interesting reading comments from others just after I finished reading it. To hear you say it’s not your best, and others suggesting what would improve it is fascinating. I don’t necessarily agree with them or you as I enjoyed it. Yes, Elsa’s silence was puzzling but then, she had been raised in silence. It would take time and much encouragement to help her become more outgoing and be comfortable with that new side of her. As for starting stories and getting stuck then persevering, happens to me often. I usually abandon those and wait...

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Stevie Burges
14:42 Apr 11, 2023

Thanks, Viga. On my 20+ edits of this story, I actually started to enjoy writing it. Anyway, this week's is going so much better but whether I finish it is another thing.

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Viga Boland
16:54 Apr 11, 2023

Yeah, I started one over a week ago I was going to adapt if the right prompt came along but I gave up and dumped it after the 5th try. Working on another one today and will see how it goes. But don’t think I’ll be paying $5 to enter it. Just can’t afford to keep paying when my stuff isn’t good enough to even get shortlisted. But I can still free submit for those folks who like what I write. I look forward to reading what you have for us this week 🤞

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Michelle Oliver
09:48 Apr 11, 2023

Hi Stevie, This is a lovely story about how not everyone is the same. We could judge the parents so harshly in this situation, but it you look at what they were protecting Elsa from, well you can kind of see their point. However protecting is not only about bubble wrapping, but arming those you protect with weapons to protect themselves appropriately. In this situation the parents failed and we can see ignorance or even negligence. Act two of the story is lovely, but I feel it was rushed. We didn’t get to see Elsa grow and change, and becau...

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Stevie Burges
10:34 Apr 11, 2023

I did badly on this story - you win some, you lose some. My very good. Buddies said don’t submit, but against the odds I submitted to get some feedback to help me improve my writing skills. Bizarrely I took longer over this than most stories simply because I couldn’t write it. In the end I began to enjoy writing it and missed all the editing mistakes. Thanks so much for critiquing.

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Michelle Oliver
10:44 Apr 11, 2023

There are stories like that aren’t there… you’ve no idea how many reedsy stories I start and dispose of because they’re not getting anywhere. I admire your perseverance in pushing past the block and getting a beautiful story out. Yes, it’s not perfect, nothing really is, but what you’ve got are the bones for something longer and more in depth if you ever feel you want to do it.

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Mary Bendickson
17:54 Apr 10, 2023

I may be totally wrong on this but I read this as Elsa being perhaps Downs-Syndrom. Thus the parents would not have tried too hard to integrate her into society. Especially if this was a number of years before more education and acceptance came to be. She was intelligent enough to learn one thing well- numbers. Animals have a way of communicating like no humans can and for her to become enamored with them would be natural for that kind of condition, I think.

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Stevie Burges
23:27 Apr 10, 2023

Many thanks, Mary. I assumed the parents were the ones with the problem. Mental illness is so difficult to define - so I didn't. My thoughts on Elsa were that we are the products of our upbringing - old parents who couldn't communicate, highly intelligent parents with their own lives who had produced a 'normal' child. The only person who existed in real life was the child-woman who used to run past me each morning when I was having my sneaky cigarette and the rest was just trying to get a story out. Many thanks for reading and commenting.

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Michał Przywara
03:20 Apr 10, 2023

A happy ending, ultimately. Not everyone gets on with animals, but those of us who do can appreciate what Stella tried to do for Elsa, and why it worked :) But there's quite a bit of sadness in this story too. The deaths of the parents, yes, but also something about Elsa's upbringing doesn't sit right. No independence, no contingency, no conversation - it's as though she was being raised as a robot instead of a daughter, given the focus on work and nothing else. Then again, she seemed fine with it - well, not the suddenly being stranded wit...

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Stevie Burges
11:17 Apr 10, 2023

I am so grateful for your critique. My buddies who are not Reedsy people had a quick look at it before I submitted it, and both independently said, 'not your best' and 'Don't submit'. I finally had to decide, and I decided to submit so that someone who is a writer could critique it - and I got what I paid for. So thank you so much for spending so much time and effort on my story. Your detailed answer was more than I expected. The problem with writing is that if you don't allow people to see your work, you will never improve your work (a...

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Michał Przywara
20:54 Apr 10, 2023

Glad to help! And yeah, there could be book material here. An odd family and an odder family history, given Stella didn't even know about Elsa's existence. A novel would give more breathing room to explore both that and the rescue, and how one affects the other, as well as showing us how Elsa changes - and how she doesn't. And I completely agree with "if you don't allow people to see your work, you will never improve your work" :) That's helped me improve a lot too.

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Helen A Smith
20:54 Apr 09, 2023

A lovely story. Animals make life worth living. Elsa is clearly happy with the animals and able to communicate with them in a way she hasn’t been able to with humans, given the constraints of her upbringing. Full of hope.

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Stevie Burges
00:23 Apr 10, 2023

Thank you so much Helen. I struggled with this one and I can see editing problems with it. So many thanks for reading it and bigger thanks for commenting.

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