So, a short story and the longest thing I’ve written for quite a while. Yes, it began in a local venue and no, I’m not saying which one. None of the characters are me (If you read this and you know me that is, so no projecting either of them on what I believe x).

Make yourself a coffee and have a sit; have fun with it, it’s not all that serious.  All feedback welcome.  (Thanks John Holt for being my first reader on this one!)

“The Duchess”


Becky Sowray


Lavender air-freshener lay over the scent of last weekend’s vomit. “Ladies” might as well have been an instruction, though I suspected it could do with some details and expansion and maybe, on reflection, a picture book edition.
Andy had at least closed the door behind her and made it to the toilet bowl. That left me standing in a room that was last decorated when melamine wasn’t vintage and I didn’t want to think what the floor was sticky with. I forced myself to think that the glue like finish was probably only accumulated dirt. Lifting my foot, and making sure that shoe leather and not skin made contact I rattled the cubicle door. Seven diet cokes and four hours listening to whatever grunge she called music this week reminded me why I didn’t do this all that often. On hearing her retching I fought to embrace the positive; retching equalled breathing.
The unbalanced outer door cracked against the plaster, returned too fast for the reactions of the blond, fifty something who cursed at the crack it delivered to her elbow. Gathering her balance again she listened to Andy’s low moaning and looked me over. Leaving her purse on the cigarette scarred sink, she dug into it, selected a lipstick and made a pout.
“Your friend’s had a good one?”
“My sister,” I offered. “It’s not like she needs the practise.”
The old girl looked pickled both ways; her face thick with wrinkles and hands with tattoos that had never been well judged. I knew then that when I reached that age I wanted to be thinking about Elegant Resorts and a well-trained husband. Not the bloody Duchess with my girlfriends hoping we get there before they run out of special offer WKD.
Andy folded herself out of the tiny space whilst the cistern flushing seemed to dim the lights. She looked pink, slightly, but not at all unwell. She had proven, once again, that there is no god.
“Right. You ready for some more?” She pushed her braids back into line and tugged her top down.
“You go for it girl. Can’t put a good woman down,” said the blond, closing her bag and laughing at my goldfish face before braving the door a second time.
“You are joking?” I returned; hating myself for asking the question. Andy grinned. It was our Dad’s smile she always used at these times. It got her into anywhere, whatever she was wearing and no matter how drunk she was. It doesn’t work on me.
“Only just. I’ve a job on in the morning. We could otherwise.”
Silence is for the moments when life leaves you with nothing good to say. We made to leave the crammed venue, through a stinking, heaving mess of bodies. There were always two tribes in here; the regulars who’ve been there since doors, and some of them since the place opened in the eighties. Then there’s the clubbers and pub crawlers, drawn by the late licence, beaten and dwarved by the sheer volume of bands and DJ and voices. Andy sailed across; through much hugging and kissing in the knots of people, conversations about local nonsense, an incestuous crowd that fed on its own ego. Not many of them knew or remembered me. Her boots caught my toes as she stopped suddenly, her path blocked by a tall, wide man.
“You never got back to me with a price!” His big voice was loud even here before it broke to sudden laughter.
“Hell. It was that green wallpaper, yes? I wasn’t even sure you were serious?” Looking up Andy fished in her jacket and pulled out a soft eared business card. “You got a pen?” I knew before she turned who she meant. Standing still meant jamming my handbag into my chest. She scrawled a figure on the card before passing it over.
“Call me?” said Andy. I slid my arm in hers then; I’d really had enough. She stood her ground, looking back to the retreating figure. “Next week? I’ve a gap?” I felt the usual, reliable anger with her.
“Christ you sound desperate for work. You do know that?”
“Right now I’m broke,” she said, “and drunk.”
“Well it’s your own fault.”


“S’no good rushing me.”
I stood with my back to her, getting washed up, working very hard on not spelling out that I didn’t ask her for a ride to Dad’s. It wasn’t like we needed to be early, an invite for dinner didn’t mean he’d be ready for us. There would have been something reduced down the market that one of us likes; maybe green beans and garlic for me, strawberries for Sal. In his head there would have been a meal planned, but the practicalities would pretty much be absent. Last month we spent a Sunday night touring the corner shops looking for chilli oil. Buying from Tesco’s nearly broke the old hippy’s heart.
Her text, this morning, forced me to finish early, so I’d still not finished the gloss. Since leaving school Sal’s days had been very much “I-start-at-six-after-jogging-five-miles-and-only-drink-coffee-after-twelve.” She should get a bloody life.
Her fingers trailed along the frame of the cane chair, the back bleached by sunlight from the high windows.
“Have you changed any furniture since you left home?” she asked. Bloody hell. Style advice from Miss Ikea 2015.
“Bed’s new.”
“I remember the chair from your old bedroom.”
“Pass me that vase.” She reached it across to me, screwing her face up at the supposedly foul water. “I’d like to get some more daffodils for Dad, on the way over.”
“I’ve bought some wine.”
The thought rattles round my head; I’d have bought wine, if I’d been paid. I was so angry I’d have punched her if we’d still been children. I’d no real money till Monday. Best case. I wrestled the vase under the tap. Reached for washing up liquid.
“How’s your job?” I virtually spat the words instead, hoping to avoid the fight.
“We’ve a new boss. He’s from the New Zealand office. He’s got the softest, most …”
“I don’t need the odds on you copping off.”
“Accent,” she said but for all that she still laughed. “How’s the art therapy?”
“It’s an artists’ bloody cooperative. And we’ve an exhibition starting next week.” When I looked up from the sink she was smiling, having gotten the better of me. Something shrilly-pop rang out from her phone. “Answer the call.”
“I don’t take numbers I don’t know on a Friday night when I’m having tea with my Dad.”
“Why’ve they fetched him in? What’s up with whatsisname?”
“Early retirement,” she rolled her shoulders, “what do you care?”
“They didn’t advertise it? You could have done it?”
“Like you’ve ever had a job that paid tax.”


He’d been rummaging under parcels, in the back of the van, for what seemed hours before he found the red plastic canister of diesel.
“There we are. Didn’t think I’d be going as far as town today.”
I really wanted to look at my watch but I knew he’d start to panic if I panicked.
“It’s alright Sal. We’ll get there in time. The deliveries’ll wait till later.” He unscrewed the can top, fumbled with the built in funnel.
“Oh,” I smiled; grimaced, “it’s okay …”
“Do you really need to go after this job, now?”
“I’ve not got a job otherwise. Yes. We don’t need to go over this again. Dad, hurry up?”
“I know.” The final gurgle of the fuel stops him. “There we go. No. You just don’t seem very sure of it, that’s all.”
“You’re not going to park right outside are you? Not in this?”
He rubbed his hands clean on his jeans, moved to put his arm over my shoulder. I felt myself set.
“I need to make that last payment on Egypt. It’s not my fault the bloody car’s gone back.”
“Get in the van,” he said “wait till I tell folk I delivered my daughter.”
“You’ve got a paunch, you’re not pregnant.”
He was right, he’d shifted my mood but there’s no style in travelling by white van. And people abuse it, Andy amongst them, getting him to shift her “art installations” around the place. He drove as ever, right hand on the wheel, his left hand hovering between radio and gear stick, ill at ease with both speed and programming. Finally he settled on to the bypass and some local FM that I’d forgotten. There’s a tune from years back; something folk.


I’d lifted a chair down from the stack but there’s no real way of getting comfortable on a function room chair, even if it is spray painted in gold. The butterflies in my stomach were wearing DMs and pogoing to something from the 70s. Being in any venue out of hours is weird and the Duchess more so, it meant so much to me, I’d been coming here since before they’d let me in.
The room’d been cleared, cleaned and in the centre stood the pallets we sprayed last weekend. I had thought about sitting on them but didn’t dare, in case they were still wet at all. The upstairs room, like the downstairs bar and venue, was made of black; that was all you needed to accept really.
Two of my vertebrae rubbed against each other; reminded me of fragility, urgency, pain. I stretched, they protested and I gave in, laid out on the floor. A ventilation shaft, the cover painted black let in the sounds of the street but when I closed my eyes I swear I could hear music. At home I had a list of every gig I’ve shared, every exhibition I’ve seen, every book I’d ever read. A fair number on that list name The Duchess.
“You look like a bloody corpse laid out child!”
Through my Dad’s laughter, for just a second, I saw him as others do. Not just my Dad but scrawny and stubborn; an untidy greying exception. With him, the cooperative; Al; an ex-banker and Toni who built websites for online sex chat rooms. And the crates that contained the rest of the installation. It went together, it clicked and I was content. The staff had left four pints of something cold on the bar.


Fluorescent lights always did give me a headache. The careful white of the shopping arcade made everyone look their best colour, sold dresses and holidays alike. They told me that yesterday in training. I had my station to attend to from ten till two and then from half past two till eight. If the supervisor made it as far as me then I should get a comfort break in that second stretch. The fat little cow hated me on sight though so I’d left my water bottle at home.
The training had prepared me to meet and greet tourists and shoppers alike and ensure that “Sally” helped them to an “authentic city centre experience.” All I needed really was one of those huge foam hands they use at sports events that said “lavvys; that way,” with a pointing finger. Maybe just the finger.
On the plus side the short skirt and heels combo they’d decked me out in, combined with the low chair meant my legs were so tightly crossed I’d not need the gym this side of forty.
“Excuse me, my dear.”
My eyes were open and I was upright. But I had dialled out.
“Excuse me?” The client was ‘elderly’ for which I’d learned to substitute ‘awkward’.
“Hello! How can I help you today?” Programmed.
“My friends and I,” I read ‘posh old bag’; she waved to take in a group of a dozen. “We need some directions please.” I mentally prepared the finger.
“Yes of course, let me just find our convenient pocket sized guide.”
“Thank you dear.”
I fumbled, found the lurid shoppers map and spread it on the desk. At least this lot wouldn’t peer down my blouse.
“We need to find King Street.” So off the bloody map then. Useless bloody woman, stupid fucking job.
“I’m sorry, that’s not on the map. But I can give you directions?”
“Thank you yes. We’re looking for an art installation,” she waved a clipping from some broadsheet.
“It’s at The Duchess?” she smiled; struggling to read my facial response. “By a cooperative called ‘Winners’.”

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