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Historical Fiction Romance

Straining her arm as close to her face as possible, Alice reads her watch in the occasional bursts of light from the big screen: 4.37pm. Her skirt is sticking to her legs, the coarse fabric of the cheap seat is rubbing into the sweaty folds of skin under her knees; even her palms feel damp, drumming the armrests in frustration. Did she really only check her watch two minutes ago? If there were a thermometer in the cinema the mercury would be rising, steadily, like the excitement of the young audience; but she can only sit here, perspiring and expiring in equal measure. For the hundredth time, she intones at the screen under her breath: end; at the projectionist: lights on-please! But Hopalong Cassidy persists in galloping about on his faithful steed Topper, oblivious to Alice Smith and her sufferings that interminable Friday matinee.


If her younger brother James sees her tapping fingers or hears her protracted sighs, he ignores her. Like all the other little children who fill the cinema, he is only leaping around as if he were galloping about the prairie on his own white stallion. Alice has given up pulling him down into his seat; letting him shoot a few imaginary rounds at the screen and lasso the hustlers is easier than tugging and reprimanding, just for him to rear up like a horse ten second later, screaming at the cowboy to “get ‘em Hoppy!”


The usherettes have given up too, sneaking off for a ciggy ages ago; she can hardly blame them: being stuck in Whitehall Cinema on a Friday afternoon is hardly her idea of a good time either. Yet here she is. When her mother had told her she would be babysitting, emphasising that she knew she didn’t have any other plans that Friday, she’d flung her schoolbag down on the floor, matched her hands-on- hips pose: squaring off, ready to give her some lip. But her father had walked into the kitchen, patrolling his house- maintaining law and order- and she’d dropped her stance, and eyes; raising instead the little white flag of defeat she always kept rolled up inside. 


She shifts in her seat. The lash marks from the last disciplining have faded but her skin still remembers the bite of the belt. The memory of the whole episode leading up to the hiding is just as painful: the school bell ringing the end of day, bumping into Tom Jenkins in the corridor and how he’d asked her to go to the Pictures with him on Friday night. She’d wanted to say yes, as quickly as she could, but the disapproving faces of her parents flickered into focus and she forced herself to say the opposite.


“No Tom, I can’t. Mum and Dad would never let me.” She rushed the words out, wishing them gone, they were so hateful.


  “I’ll win ‘em round, Alice,” he said, beaming that dazzling smile and picking up her schoolbag to hand to her, “or my name’s not Tom Jenkins.”

 

She hadn’t thought that much about it on the walk home. She was sure he’d find another girl before the weekend; one whose parents didn’t expect her to be walked up the aisle before he dared to chance a peck on the cheek. She had barely walked through the door when her mother had taken the bag off her shoulder, bundling an overflowing basket of laundry into her arms before pointing her towards the backyard.


 After the gloomy school building the white washing, in the brilliance of the afternoon sun, was dazzling. There was hardly a breeze, yet even so she struggled with the bed sheets, heavy and damp. Petite, each sheet threatened to swamp her slight frame and her tight corkscrew red curls were soon slicked to her forehand with the effort of bending, reaching, pegging, repeating. For just a moment she paused and there he was, leaning on the gate as casually as the cat licking its paws on the backstep: Tom. The peg, gripped in her teeth, clattered to the ground and before her tongue could find the words he was lifting the latch, breezing inside the gate, holding out the fallen peg as if her were offering her a rose.


“I could watch you all day, hanging out the laundry; there’s no finer sight than Alice Smith pegging out the whites on a summer’s day.”


If her hair was flame red, it was nothing to her cheeks.


“Oh, get away with you Tom Jenkins!” she laughed, flicking the end of a sheet at him.


“How long have you been staring at me?”


“Just long enough to know there’s a dance in those hips and a smile on those lips!”


“Well if there is, it’s not been put there by hanging out the washing; I’ll have you know that.”


“Then perhaps something else put it there, or someone…” and it was his turn to flick a sheet at her so it lightly brushed her arm.


She wasn’t sure how she found the confidence to say: “And so do you think it’s you- Tom Jenkins-making me smile to myself?”


And, almost shyly, he had reached for her hand and said quietly: “Nothing would make me happier than making you smile Alice.”


The memory of his hand round hers, even in the rowdy cinema with hullabaloo accompanying the cowboy’s every move, makes her smile. As James heckles Hoppy to round up the cattle rustlers, cheering on every feat of bravery, she lets his roar and those of all the other children swirl around her, spinning her back to that washing day.


Her hand had opened and their fingers had interlaced, locking into each other like the pegs gripping the sheets. She hardly knew what she was doing, but she pulled him into the heart of the washing, parting the sheets, slipping with him amongst their soft folds.

   

“Alice, Alice…” he laughed, laundry sliding about them, rustling like a soft encouraging whisper.

 

She put a finger to his lips, feeling how it seemed to cling to her skin and mouthed “shh”.


For a moment, with the sweet-smelling sheets all about them- hidden to the world- she felt like she was at the heart of a fragrant flower, ready to sip honey.


Then her mother had torn down the sheets; petal by petal she’d ripped their beautiful blossom apart. Her voice was a thorn, snagging at the moment, tearing the memory.


“Hussy!” hissed her mother. Boots on gravel.

“Slut! Get in that house now if you know what’s good for you.” Her father boomed, birds in the hedgerows taking flight.

 

Inside, peering out from behind the curtain, flinching as she heard: “What the hell do you think you’re playing at? Barely big enough for trousers and thought you’d come sniffing round my daughter?”


“I’m sorry sir. I just wanted to ask if I could take Alice to the Pictures this Friday night.”


“To the Pictures! You’ll be taking her to the flaming pit of hell before you take her there. Now get out before I tell your father what you’ve been playing at!”

 

She watched him go: Tom Jenkins and his dazzling smile, faded now like the whites, lying limp in the dirt.


She’d turned from the window; she didn’t need to see more to know what was coming: her father undoing his buckle, striding with purpose back towards the house, the kitchen and her. 


The lights suddenly flick on, the thick red curtain slips across, hiding the silver screen. The usherettes are back, although she’s not quite sure why; rationing put an end to ices long ago and the audience is too young for cigarettes. James, like all the other youngsters, wouldn’t want them anyway. He’s up and off before she can yank him back, galloping quickly out of sight up the long side corridor to the back of the theatre, wind milling his arm, ready to throw a lasso at fleeing outlaws or good sheriffs turned bad.


She stretches out her legs, the only advantage to sitting at the front, before swivelling in her seat. She tells herself it’s to check James isn’t getting up to mischief, but she knows the real reason; in lights- up, she can take a long look at the back row, so far away. She’s always sat in the cheap seats up front, tuppence is all her parents will spare for her; but dreams come free and she can imagine how the plush deep crimson of the expensive seats in the back row would feel, settling down, with her best boy at her side. There’s no canoodling couples now of course, who would want to hold hands and chance a squeeze with their little brother or sister in tow? Would a stolen kiss be worth what would come later?


“Mum, Mum you’ll never guess what our Alice was up to with Tom Jenkins when the lights went down!”


 “You what? Father! Father- come in here now!”


She sighs. Gone with the Wind is playing tonight; the film she’d wanted to see- the one she was sure Tom had meant to take her to. She’d seen the poster when queuing up to buy the matinee tickets for the Western. More than seen it; she’d stood before it transfixed. The background was burning red but that was nothing to the fire of the couple: Clarke Gable, shirt undone, carrying Vivien Leigh, her dress more off than on; her bosom straining against his chest, her face angled to his lips. Alice couldn’t pull her eyes away; they were drawn, helplessly, to that narrow strip of bare skin where his shirt hung open. And Leigh’s naked shoulder pressing against it. She stared and stared, feeling the heat radiate from the dry paper as if it might spring into flame at any moment, her intense gaze the strike of the match.


Is there time to go back and have another look? No, the lights are fading, usherettes flashing their torches for all the lonesome cowboys to make their way back to their seats. James has returned, jumping her legs- the final hurdle- chasing Clarke Gable from her thoughts. She retracts her legs, tucking them neatly under her seat, ignoring the tickle of the rough cheap fabric at the inside of her knees once more. There’s a bustle of movement in the row behind but she ignores it, probably a babysitter like her, late to return to their seat, desperate to kill a few minutes in the peace outside before returning to the fray.


“I’d prefer the later movie and a seat by your side, but beggars can’t be choosers.”

 

She would know that voice, in the dark, with a hundred kids screaming at the baddie; she doesn’t need to turn to know whose tongue has spoken the words, setting her pulse racing like the cowboy’s horse, legs a blur as it gallops, gallops and keeps on galloping. She can hardly breathe yet alone turn and yet she does both.


“Tom Jenkins,” she whispers under her breath, for there he is, seated just behind her in row 2. “I didn’t have you down as a Cowboy and Western fan.”


“I’m not,” he says, leaning further forward in the half-light cast by the silver screen, “I think you know who I am a fan of though” That dazzling smile, teeth so white against the red lips.


“How did you know I’d be here?” she somehow manages.


“I couldn’t let your dad have the last word.” He murmurs. “And I always say: where there’s a will there’s a way,” he reaches out to a stray curl and gently pulls it towards him. It stretches, straightening, a direct line from her to him.


Heart hammering, she presses into the hard backrest; it’s an unrelenting barrier, but it can’t stop the give of their lips, the parting waves of her fingers gliding through the soft folds of his hair.


More than anything she wants to lose herself in this moment but her brother James is tugging at her dress, prodding her in the stomach to get her attention.


“Alice,” her name somehow finds a way through the deafening roar of her pulse in her ears. “Alice, I want to stay.”


She drags herself out of the kiss and turns around long enough to see the screen has stopped flashing shots of chases and saloon bars; in its place, there is a simple announcement:

   

An air raid is taking place in East Grinstead. If cinema goers wish to leave the theatre they may do so.


Some kids leave, the vast majority don’t: this is their Friday afternoon treat after all and lord knows they’re few and far between. And these warnings, they’re always false alarms; you trudge to the shelter, holed up underground with not just the old folks, but every Tom, Dick and Harry; all the fun of a Friday gone in an air raid’s wail.


With a click, the announcement disappears; the cowboy is back and the kids immediately start whooping and so she turns once more. It is easy for her to fall into the kiss a second time, leaning over the seat, wishing she could topple over the back and join him.


An unwelcome thought elbows in: that the sound is strange, for a Western. She’s never heard a siren in this sort of film before, shrieking its high-pitched cry of danger and need: to save yourself, to save your loved ones; to get out, or at least get down.


When she realises that the sound is not coming from the film with its American prairie, it’s too late. The German, high above them, has released his 500 kg explosive and it’s speeding towards the Whitehall Theatre. Cheap seats, rich seats, it doesn’t matter; ripping through the roof, blowing the little cinema apart. Clothes are blasted from bodies, the laughter of a hundred small children is silenced in a second; the usherette’s torch falls and spins on the floor.


And lost too is a dazzling smile and a galloping heart; gone, with the flame and the wind of the bomb.







May 25, 2022 13:30

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14 comments

Rebecca Miles
15:27 May 28, 2022

Sorry🙈I think I'm in love with Tom Jenkins. I wish someone would stop me pegging out the laundry and compliment me😂At least in writing we can dream!

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Esperanza Rivas
02:53 Jul 07, 2022

Loved this! Favorite character: Tom Jenkins "petal by petal she’d ripped their beautiful blossom apart. Her voice was a thorn, snagging at the moment, tearing the memory"-Oh my word! This quote! So spectacular! Amazing job.

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18:22 Jun 01, 2022

Oh wow, this a beautiful story, amazing job!

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Rebecca Miles
18:30 Jun 01, 2022

Thanks Alyssa. I see you're new too. I will check out your story tomorrow. I am a teacher and examiner and marking has taken its toll this week so I need to curl up for an early night (it's 8.30 pm here in Germany).

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23:23 Jun 01, 2022

Thank you! I appreciate it! Oh man, good luck and thank you for being a teacher 🍎

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12:36 May 30, 2022

Rebecca, this was an incredible read. I love a good romance, and Alice and Tom's was done artfully. It made the ending all the more horrifying. You made me smile and grimace all in the space of a few paragraphs at the end there! Thanks for this. :)

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Rebecca Miles
17:48 May 30, 2022

Thanks for reading and commenting Shuvayon. I wish this could have been starting with a grimace and ending with a smile but history rather dictated that it would be otherwise. I'm glad you still enjoyed it!

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Shea West
20:45 May 29, 2022

I really did fancy this line: perspiring and expiring in equal measure. It was so visceral and true. I think the dynamic you created between Rebecca and her parents was strong, albeit sad due to how mean they were to her. The connection with her brother and the movies and even with Tom Jenkins was well described and so incredibly nuanced! At first I suspected the historical part was just around the movies and such but then you finished it the way you did and I had a huge A-ha moment. Thanks for writing something unique!

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Rebecca Miles
07:45 May 30, 2022

Thanks Shea for your very kind comments. I was in two minds whether the historical tag would give away too much and so whether to include it. I'm so glad you still got the A-ha moment!

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09:50 May 29, 2022

Hi Rebecca, a truly evocative piece of writing with some wonderful language. I’m glad they got to kiss. I found this really touching: ‘the little white flag of defeat she always kept rolled up inside.’

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Rebecca Miles
10:37 May 29, 2022

Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I am going to check out your story later. The prompt you responded to was intriguing but I had zero ideas. I'm looking forward to reading what you did with it!

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Rebecca Miles
06:08 May 29, 2022

Your response is utterly moving Zack. I've woken up ( here in Germany) and read your comments and they're sweeter than the birds singing outside. I felt a lot for these two characters too. The Blitz is a period that really speaks to me as my grandparents lived through it, though luckily not this particular event. They used to tell me all about it...Thanks so much for the heartfelt and detailed commendation.

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Zack Powell
22:45 May 28, 2022

The ending of this story is absolutely haunting. I got chills reading the last three paragraphs. Holy cow. Very well-written. This is gonna stay with me for a long time. I'm amazed how much characterization you fit into 2000-something words. Alice and Tom were rendered beautifully, and felt like real people. The dialogue throughout the story was consistently great. The sibling bond was great. The Gone With the Wind tie-in was great. I don't think there's a single aspect of this story that didn't work for me. Seriously, great job. Lots of p...

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Rama Shaar
15:22 May 28, 2022

Oh no, this is heartbreaking! I love Tom Jenkins' character.

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