THE PROMISED FIRST CHAPTER

PROLOGUE

‘Hello. Stevie Bellingham here. I’ve an appointment with Tony Frogmore.’

‘Hello.’ She called. Louder. And again. Still no response.

Weird. If I was so minded I could run off with all the art works in the gallery. Nobody would know. Where’s Frogmore for goodness’ sake?

CHAPTER 1

Irritation replaced the euphoria Stevie had enjoyed at seven-thirty that morning. Under the shower shortly after her early morning run around the lanes near her cottage, she’d sketched a celebratory high five. That bastard Andreas hadn’t once sneaked into her mind since waking.

She’d managed her early morning run without his curdling her brain and had even eaten her breakfast fruit without recalling he did not like kiwis.

Andreas: he of the challenging brown eyes, of the instant smile. He, whose touch she knew could still send delicious tremors through her.

He whom she’d finally kicked out when she could no longer stand his belittling comments. Or his constant attempts to take absolute control over her life.

He, who had stolen her money and used it to fund his own dreams, leaving her broke and in debt. He, despite all, whom she feared she still might love.

Six months of wallowing in despair, drinking too much and cutting off contact with all her friends had taken its toll. She had been left physically and mentally bereft.

But worse than that he had turned her innate trust of people into a sceptical disillusionment, one which now coloured every aspect of her life.

Since she’d thrown him out she’d managed to pay her way, managed to keep up payments on the mortgage, but every month it had become harder. Now, even though her bank balance was almost back in the black again, her life had become one of scrimping and fear of losing everything.

If she could land the job she was being interviewed for today it would bring financial peace of mind back into her life – and maybe then she might be in a position to live again.

‘You sound as if your background and skills are exactly what I’m looking for.’ Mr Frogmore, the owner of the new gallery in Beverley had said ‘I realise you have never actually worked in a gallery before, but you are an artist yourself. That surely means you will understand more than I do about the creative side of things. Come in for a chat and we’ll see how we get on’.

As a professional artist, Stevie’s pictures sold well. It must be said, though, still at a price only sufficient to support a meagre lifestyle. Her bank account was only now recovering after she’d kicked Andreas out. It had been a while before she’d learned how often he’d ‘borrowed’ her bank card during those final months.

And an even worse blow was how, as a goodbye gesture, he’d raided her wallet on the day he left, taking its contents to the last penny.

Her own fault she’d admitted when the overdraft letter from the bank arrived. For months she’d never bothered checking her statements, Instead she’d lived on cloud nine, totally enthralled in what she’d imagined was a permanent love affair. A perfect idyll – a pastoral shared life. Her with her painting, he turned small-holder, mini-farmer ……. She must have been mad.

So here she was. Saturday Market. Beverley. The addess of the new gallery.

No problem at this early hour in finding a parking spot close to it. She slid the Mini between two delivery vans alongside the newly refurbished bandstand with its spire gleaming white in the sunlight. The vans would soon be on their way. In the next half hour, she knew, all the large vehicles would be gone, leaving the square pedestrianised and crowded with tourists adding their melting pot of multinational accents to the local Yorkshire dialect.

As she flicked off her seat belt the bells of St Mary’s Church, not far away in the nearby Georgian Quarter, chimed out the hour, confirming she’d made good time.

Ever since she was a young girl and her father had brought her here each Saturday she had loved it. Especially on those days when it was filled with its namesake market stalls.

They had bought cheeses and crusty bread from the Italian baker and bell peppers and kiwi fruit which she loved more than any. And juicy black olives and farm bread chicken which they would cook back at the cottage if the weaher was good on the brick built barbeque her father had designed himself. How easy it was to fall into reminiscing.

The appointment was for a quarter past nine. ‘Good going Min. We’ve a few minutes to spare. A little deep breathing I think. Wish me luck. I’ll certainly need it. Now to get a parking ticket. Don’t want a fine.’ A wry smile. Had things got so bad she’d even started talking to the car?

Walking to the ticket machine gave her ample time to enjoy the square. On Saturday it was filled with market stalls selling local produce, hardware, luxury goods, and everything in between from picture framing to beauty products and dog food.

Today, without the market, she was able to see the whole area of the square and reflect on the multitude of public houses still serving Beverley. They reminded her that this was a town built when horses provided the only means of transport, when the hostelries not only provided food and lodgings for the human travellers but also sustenance for the horses. No wonder a national newspaper had desribed Beverley as one of the best places to live in the whole of the UK.

Back at the car, parking ticket in hand recalling the reason for her being here, her stomach lurched. Uncomfortably. Many moons had risen since she had last been interviewed. Interview. The word unleashed bad memories of those meetings with college tutors when her work had seemed never good enough to please them. At the thought of their derogatory comments her fragile confidence began to crumble. It took only a moment before Andreas picked up the reins and led her to the top of the slide.

It did not take much these days to put her on the downward track. As from nowhere a feeling of apprehension flared in her mind. It seemed the very buildings bordering the square mocked her. How could she even imagine the gallery job could be hers?

Her gaze swept across the cobble stones. Right. Left. The Cafes …… all around the Saturday Market again. This time it seemed she searched friendly support. But it was too early yet for the local shoppers or tourists to arrive.

Too early also for the tempting aromas of cooking which later in the day would filter out from the numerous restaurants and various cafes. Each wanted visitors to sample their menus and tried at this early hour to entice workers to buy a take-away as they wended their way to offices and shops.

Her mouth watered. No time for that now. Instead she promised herself a cappuccino if she got the job. The thought seemed to do the trick of ridding her of her doubts.

‘And a large slab of chocolate cake to go with it,’ she added showing a bravado she did not feel. Taking care over the cobbles this time she prepared to face her fate.

The reality of her dwindling bank balance drew her onwards to the window of the Frogmore gallery. Nothing more.

Like a lamb to the slaughter she was unaware of what lay ahead. Certainly no capuccino or chocolate cake.

BLOSSOMING OBSESSIONS

I had intended to post the first Chapter of my new book as promised. However events during recent days have prevented me from doing this and instead I have posted a short story which I published several years ago. Perhaps when you read it you will see why it fits happily into this post.

The reason Chapter 1 is not here is because of my failing to control an addiction which has held power over me for more than thirty years, Bonsais – those little trees which have filled my dreams and my life. I have succeeded in controlling my urges and have not bought any new specimens for the last six years. However, like any true addict, this week I could not resist the call any longer and I bought two wonderful new trees.

Hence the story Blossoming Obsessions. I hope you enjoy reading it. CHAPTER 1 soon.

BLOSSOMING OBSESSIONS © Mollie Kay Smith

At the very moment the glass entrance doors slid open an overwhelming sense of foreboding stopped Blossom dead in her tracks. She already knew the dangerous path she had chosen to take. Even thinking about visiting the show was an extreme act of folly.
Even now, on the point of making the decisive foolhardy decision to go on and with her heart beating erratically against her ribs, she acknowledged to herself how foolhardy her behaviour was – yet still she continued and followed the crowd of visitors into this seemingly innocuous horticultural show. Innocuous for most, but for her…
As these thoughts passed through her mind her hand, apparently of its own volition, slipped from within the wide-sleeve of her kimono-style dress; slowly, secretly, her fingers insinuated themselves beneath the obi belt sculpting her waist where they smoothed the two envelopes concealed there. One carried the logo of her bank and its contents informed her she could not add even a ten pence piece to her already enormous overdraft. So…she was already aware she could no longer feed her obsession.
Fellow visitors may have thought she resembled a Japanese statue with her lips settled into their habitual serene smile; over recent months she had schooled herself even harder never, not even for a moment to allow the turbulent emotions tearing through her to show.
Foremost amongst these was anger, a fury so intense that even now it caused her head to throb and spots to blur her eyes. And worse, behind the anger lay the need to point an accusing finger. Her father, she had told herself over and over again, was the real culprit. Wasn’t it he who had brought her to the chaos which was now her life?
As the doors slid closed behind her she halted for a moment, head raised like a pointer dog, testing the atmosphere. The sweetness of roses and flowering shrubs, the aromatic bitterness of crushed herbs, the waft of peaty compost – all overlaid with the aroma of coffee emanating from the cafeteria – the veritable pot-pourri of any horticultural show.
As if overwhelmed by these over-abundant scents she stumbled like someone who has drunk one too many glasses of wine. Someone who is neither drunk nor totally sober; someone apparently intoxicated by the heady perfume emanating from troughs of exquisite white hyacinths lining the passageway into the exhibition hall proper.
Of course it was none of these that caused her ankle to turn: momentarily she had forgotten where she was and had allowed her mind to carry her back to the days when it all started half a century ago.
Like someone sleepwalking, she wandered on ignorant of the amused smiles her image and behaviour provoked on those she passed. Her thoughts skimmed over the years, from her childhood to the present day, forever castigating her father for everything he had done.
‘He shouldn’t have called me Blossom. Such a rubbish name.’ she told herself again and again as she recalled how he had spoiled her throughout her childhood, lavishing her with gifts and praise, seemingly trying by means of word and deed to compensate for her fragility and tiny frame. Yet though she never acknowledged it, deep down she knew she was lucky to have survived at all and hated herself for her ingratitude. Her premature birth had caused her mother’s death.
‘Good things come in small packets,’ her father always told her. ‘Remember you are a perfect human being in miniature.’
Every time he said this he tried to prove his point by giving her gifts which were exquisite reflections of what he said she was. Miniature dolls, tiny glass animals, finger-sized kitchen sets, inches-high doll’s houses. And then, joy of joys, when she was in her early teens, a tiny translucent Japanese tea set decorated with delicate plum blossoms and a petite kimono clad Japanese woman.
This painted image influenced Blossom to such an extent that over the years she deliberately set out to cultivate an appearance which resembled it. With her sallow complexion and eye-brows plucked and drawn in slantwise it was easier than she imagined. She adopted every ruse she could think of, even began to dress in a quasi-Japanese Geisha fashion, and wore her long black hair mounded on top of her head and held in place with long pins.
Whilst doing this she created an environment around herself that was as Japanese as she could make it. When her father died leaving her enough money to open her own flower shop she specialised in ikebana arrangements as a matter of course.
Now, in the main hall of the show, even though her thoughts were miles away, she continued on her way with the aplomb of someone who has been here dozens of times before. She homed in on the source of her obsession with the surety of a migratory bird returning to its annual nesting place.
Straight backed and with head raised her tiny retroussé nose led her past magnificent trumpet lilies and orchids, past dahlias and out of season chrysanthemums; delights which would have tempted a less dedicated visitor to halt in wonder
Anybody observing her closely would have known the exact moment when she laid eyes on her destination for her previously tranquil expression became transformed into one of overt lustfulness. Her voice when she spoke out loud was that of a pilgrim who has reached her most holy place.
‘There they are. Bonsais. Oh, there’s nothing to beat them.’
The eyes of the elderly Japanese man whose stand she had arrived at lit up as she approached for here was somebody he recognised as an old acquaintance. ‘Good morning,’ he said, ’I’m so glad you came. Today the gods are watching over you. Look!’
‘O-o-h.’ Blossom breathed a long drawn-out admiring sigh. ‘You still have it.’
‘Yes indeed.’ His smile and the twinkle in his eyes seemed intended to convey that his next words would make her the happiest woman on earth. ‘And this year it’s for sale.’
Her response surprised him; his expression turned into one of concern as her right hand reached out and clutched at the green baize covering his stand. ‘Oh, no. It can’t be. It’s too late. I…’
Her round face now resembled that of a geisha in full white makeup for it was drained of all colour. Then a wan smile flitted across her face as with an evident struggle she managed to overcome whatever ailed her. Nevertheless the old man looked worried when the spread fingers of her left hand clutched tightly against the Obi belt as if she were in pain. Her words slid almost soundlessly from between clenched teeth, so quiet they almost failed to reach him.
‘I can’t believe it! After all these years.’
‘But it’s true.’ The old man shrugged his shoulders in the universal gesture of resignation, hands outstretched, palms uppermost. ‘One has to live. Much as I love it I’d rather let it go than any of my trees.’
‘I can understand that.’ Under control once again Blossom spoke softly. ‘My own trees are like babies to me. They are the only things I have since my father died. I could never sell them either.’
The old man’s fingers caressed the object of Blossom’s admiration. They slid over the translucent jade green glaze as if over a silken nightdress, picking out the outline of the pot’s discreet pattern with his fingertips before fondling each elegant foot in the manner of a lover with his beloved.
To the uninitiated this was merely a pot for a plant, a container for a bonsai tree. For Blossom it was what stood between her and the achievement of a long held ambition.
The old man’s expression, when she spoke again, demonstrated his confusion. Blossom’s right hand thumped out a tattoo on his table as if to underline her words. ‘It’s entirely his fault. It was him who started it. Now it’s too late. He’s gone and now the Wakebury Crab will never be the best in the world. Too late, too late.’
She drifted away from the stand, muttering wildly to herself as she reviewed the latter years of her life.
In 1962, still pandering to her obsession regarding all things Japanese, she bought an ancient scroll. It was to complement an antique screen depicting golden cranes and jade coloured bamboo which she had acquired at another auction along with her low tables and the futon she preferred to a traditional western bed.
Had her scroll been the original painted by Takakane Takashine in the fourteenth century, the first authentic record of a bonsai, she could never have afforded it. As it was the admirable copy was just within her reach and it inspired her to buy her own first tree.
In this gentle manner her erstwhile harmless obsession corkscrewed into dangerous realms and an innocent mountain maple provided the seed for her downfall.
Within eight years she owned more than a dozen trees and was now a member of the Wakebury Bonsai Society. After another five years her collection was extremely creditable and she became known locally as ‘the expert’. A founder member of the British Bonsai Society in 1973 she was voted President of the Wakebury Society two years later.
Her life now seemed perfect for her fame as a bonsai grower spread nation-wide. She exhibited trees throughout the United Kingdom, gained endless trophies and wrote booklets of guidance for initiates.
Everyone acknowledged the best tree in her collection was the Wakebury Crab. This tree sent her obsession soaring into orbit for she came to believe The Crab would be the best in the western world if it were set in the Chinese Kowatari pot the old man had always refused to sell. Until now.
‘How much?’ she asked, returning again to his stand, already knowing that whatever he said she could not afford it.
Since her obsession had taken over her life she had forgotten to work and the flower shop fell deeper and deeper into debt. Things had grown so bad she had resigned her presidency at the last Wakebury Society meeting, fearing the inevitable public disgrace.
‘A very fair price,’ she responded, never flinching at the amount the old man mentioned. ‘For a genuine Kowatari pot it’s absolutely reasonable. But it’s too late. I can’t afford it now.’
She turned her back on him, on the pot, on her ambition, on the final prize she had striven so hard for all those years. She stumbled away like a lost soul doomed to wander in the wilderness for ever.
Eventually, though, her unbidden footsteps led her back to the old man’s stand for she could not resist taking one last look at the pot.
Horror at what she found drew her closer, helpless as an iron filing against a powerful magnet, or an opium addict to his favourite den. She undulated though the crowd until she stood supported at her waist by the edge of the old man’s table. The Kowatari pot now carried a red Sold label. To Blossom this disfigurement broke every rule governing the displaying of bonsais. And worse…
‘No! No! I’ll not accept it. Nobody’s having it if I can’t.’ Visitors, drawn by her cry, looked and then turned away, no doubt embarrassed by her strange behaviour. The old man talked to another devotee at the other end of his stand and had his back to Blossom.
‘Nobody, ‘ Blossom’s whispers now sounded almost like a toy automaton, ‘nobody, nobody.’ Her voice emerged as the mere rustling of leaves, the sounds linking together into a mantra.
With each repeated word her tiny hand slid further across the green baize until finally its fingernails hooked beneath the ivory stand on which the pot stood. Her breath emerged in short measured gasps as centimetre by centimetre she drew the stand towards her.
Her shriek when the pot finally reached the edge of the table rent apart the convivial atmosphere in the exhibition hall.
‘Nobody. Nobody. Nobody.’
The noise as the pot shattered on hitting the floor was loud enough to still the voices of all around. For several seconds all was silent and then the old man too started to shriek.
The mesmerised crowd watched as slowly, very slowly, like in a film played in slow motion, Blossom’s knees folded and she slid to the floor. She lay like a crumpled flower amongst the million jade green fragments which had so recently been a Kowatari pot.
Is it possible that a heart can shatter into as many pieces as rare porcelain? Possibly, for Blossom’s had stopped beating at the very moment the pot ceased to exist. Her fall had loosened the obi belt and one of letters previously secreted there, the one carrying the logo of her bank, now lay alongside her amidst the shards of porcelain.
The other, the second letter, carrying the logo of a nearby hospital, lay beneath her. It warned that her heart could fail at any stressful moment.
If only she could have read the card intended for inclusion in the package when the pot was boxed perhaps her stress might have been lessened.
To Blossom, it read, with grateful thanks from the Wakebury Bonsai society on her retirement as President after all these years.

CHAPTER  1 next time.