She could already picture his face. They’d played this game before.
He’d try and fail to mask his initial shock before something else chased it away; disappointment perhaps, but more likely anger. She’d have to wait on his weapon of choice. If it was fire, she’d bow her trembling head and let his rage burn itself out, her whispered sorry far too inadequate a cover. If it was ice, she’d wrap up in burning shame against the days of cold rejection. Either way she knew the drill. Apologise and accept the consequences.
She was caught, bound so tight that she couldn’t remember the last time she spread her wings and soared. So she stayed, cared for him while the cancer hollowed him out, fed and bathed him when his strength was too far gone to waste it on cursing her. Some nights she watched him drowse in bed, unfamiliarly gaunt and weak but somehow still on top, pressing down on her.
Not long now, the hospice at home nurse said.
There was one more thing to do. She left him with the TV playing for company. Soon she sat facing a mirror with a cape around her shoulders and a feverish look in her eyes. Or perhaps the rosiness of her cheeks was excitement. She couldn’t remember.
“You’re certain about this?”
She nodded. “It’s for a cause very close to my heart.”
He’d always loved her hair, how it fell in a dark glossy curtain that almost reached her waist, and never allowed her to cut it. She emerged blinking and unfamiliarly youthful, liberated from the weight of her history as the hairdresser snipped and shaped her new pixie cut.
“These bundles will make a beautiful wig for a cancer patient,” the hairdresser said. “And you still have wonderful hair.”
She smiled her thanks and floated out of the door with her bag full of hope. What would he say when he saw her? It didn’t matter anymore.
With her locks gone, the door cracked open. Not long now.
Commended (just missed the longlist) in the Reflex Press Winter 2019 Flash Fiction Contest and first published by them 15 Feb 2020
I never could get my beef casserole to taste exactly like my mother-in-law Melanie’s version. My husband Todd declared her dish the tastiest, of course, and said he’d ask her for the recipe. My next two attempts still fell short of the mark.
“You tried your best,” he said with a kind smile. I seethed in silence.
When his sister Jane came to dinner and offered to help in the kitchen, I swallowed my pride. We’d always got on well so I asked her advice.
“I just can’t get it right,” I said.
Jane smiled. “You know what they say about your mum’s cooking.”
I didn’t. My mother had been great at microwaving. “I followed her recipe to the letter.”
“I’m sure. But you should know that she never gives away all her secrets.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well.” She lowered her voice. “The secret ingredient makes the dish. Ground fennel seeds for pork chops. Grated nutmeg in creamed spinach. Use red wine and a splash of balsamic vinegar, and cook that beef casserole slow and long. Try it.” She winked as she carried the ice cream out.
After that I watched TV chefs and studied recipes for inspiration. I experimented with Todd’s family favourites and took careful notes on what he enjoyed most, until the flavours were perfectly balanced for his tastes. And then I invited his family for Sunday lunch.
We feasted on meat of such sweet silkiness it melted in the mouth, underpinned by wine, redcurrants, and fresh rosemary. When Todd had second and third helpings before declaring my lamb casserole the best he’d ever had, I was delighted.
“I’m glad you like it,” I said.
“It was surprisingly good, actually.” Melanie dabbed at her lips delicately with a napkin. She acted unimpressed but her empty plate said it all. “Perhaps I could have the recipe, though I’d want to put my own spin on it. You don’t mind, do you dear?”
Across the table Jane coughed, then took a long drink of her wine. I avoided catching her eye.
“Of course not.” I gave her a genuine smile, went into the kitchen, and danced unseen while angel voices sang of my triumph.
I already had a suitable version, prepared earlier. No need to mention the depth of umami imparted by dried shiitake mushrooms and the surprising addition of anchovy fillet. She might figure it out, eventually.
That first winter in their new house, they pored over seed catalogues and vegetable garden blogs. She had long dreamed of growing her own food and he joined in with enthusiasm. Early the next spring, they donned boots and got their hands dirty. His stamina came in handy to double dig the new beds, and he built trellis and a small greenhouse where she nurtured her seedlings.
The days lengthened. She planted and dreamed of serried rows of preserve jars, like her grandma had in the old pantry. Each jar held jewelled treasures of garnet red beetroot, opalescent baby onions with satellites of red and black peppercorns, or jade green tomato chutney concealing an unexpected hit of spice. Hard-won bounty stood guard against an uncertain winter and preserves meant security.
She hardly noticed ingrained dirt under her nails, so caught up in the promise of harvest that she fell exhausted into bed after long days weeding and grafting. She didn’t mind that he spent most of his time on his phone or at the computer even when the sun shone. They were a team, growing together.
The garden blossomed under her loving care. By the time the inevitable tomato and zucchini glut came around he was gone, in search of indoor pursuits with someone who cared about her manicure. She was left with far too much produce to eat alone or give away.
As the nights drew in again she stood over a hot stove, stirring and seasoning her pickles with salt tears and the bitter fruit of regret.
I’ve trained myself to illuminate the things in my personality that are likeable and to hide and protect the things that are less likeable. – Will Smith
Introvert or extrovert, you’re a social creature.
You have to interact with other humans in groups or one-to-one, whether you like it or not. You might be able to avoid parties and skip the small talk, but few of us live in total isolation from others.
When interacting with colleagues, employees, or new acquaintances in a group setting, you want to make a good impression and feel more comfortable with these relationships. Here are 11 ways to show your likeable side.
A genuine smile
A smile is the universal welcome. – Max Eastman
A warm smile isn’t just attractive, it encourages the other person to smile back. Smiling can help you feel better and is a great start to a conversation. You are inclined to trust a smiling person more so use that to your advantage.
Use their name
Words have meaning and names have power. – Unknown
Most of us complain that remembering names gets harder over time. Yet addressing someone by name tells them that you find them important. Focus on the name, repeat it, and link it to something else. When first introduced, shake hands if appropriate and repeat the name as in, “Hello, nice to meet you, John.” Focus on receiving the information. Try creating an association in your mind between the name and the person that helps recall. For example Jack = tall, Sarah = glasses. You can find more tips on remembering names here.
Be an active listener
When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. – Ernest Hemingway
Active listening is a set of actions that makes the person feel heard. It means paying attention and then reflecting what you heard. Give nonverbal cues such as nodding and smiling, then summarise what was said. This shows you’re listening and makes the other person feel important.
Recall earlier conversations
Stop and listen. The story is everywhere. – Thomas Lloyd Qualls
Because you remember Anne’s name and listened when she mentioned she was training for a 5K, the next time you meet ask her how the race went. Linking past and present is essential in building long-term relationships, whether closer (your partner’s friend) or more distant ( a co-worker you see daily.)
Ask questions and hear the answer
There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing. – G. K. Chesterton
Most people like to talk about themselves, so let them. Ask about their interests or activities and actually listen before responding. Ask a followup question that allows them to reveal a little of themselves. For example, “So how did it feel to complete your first 5K?”
Resist the urge to one-up people. You can talk about your half-marathon or trip of a lifetime another day. Save it for when you’re asked directly.
Give sincere compliments and praise
Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. – Sam Walton
We all love genuine praise. You’ll gain likeability as a boss or manager if you praise good work, like delivering on time or under budget. A few words will go a long way. Creatives in particular often doubt their work, and pointing out something you liked in a project gives much-needed validation. Give what you’d like to receive because karma is real.
But we can all sniff out fake praise. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.
Be tactful with criticism
Shout praise and whisper criticism. – Don Meyer
It might be your job to bring up areas for improvement. Offer suggestions without attacking the person. You are focusing on the work, not the character of the worker.
Don’t rush the process and give it some thought beforehand, so that you come up with a considered response.
State the issue in neutral language as you see it and allow them to respond. Define the desired outcome and discuss how you can support the person to work towards it. Remember to acknowledge improvement.
Ask, don’t give orders
In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way. – Tina Fey
Maybe you are the boss, but most people hate to be ordered around. Saying please and thank you doesn’t make you appear weak. Be clear about your request. If you need the report by Thursday 10 am, say so.
Don’t expect people to read your mind and then get angry when they didn’t deliver – that’s manipulative and a fast track to being disliked.
The cure is as simple as this: Live your words and live your belief system. – Shannon L. Alder
Others might get away with insincerity with some people some of the time, but most of us can spot it – so why would you want to be insincere? Be your genuine self with everyone. You don’t have to share every facet of your personality, but don’t change for every person you meet because fake people aren’t likeable. Find what works for you and stick with it.
Ask for advice
Ask better questions. Get better answers. – Richie Norton
Asking for advice shows that you’re humble enough to seek help, and it flatters the person asked as it shows they have greater knowledge than you. You win twice because you gain information and make the person feel good about themselves.
One rule; be respectful. Don’t interrogate or expect detailed professional advice for free. Nobody likes to be used for what they know.
Learn to tell stories
A thrilling story can be dull if told badly, but even the most mundane event can be elevated into a tale of epic scale by a good storyteller. – Johnny Rich
Likeable people can tell stories well. Whether it’s an account of their holiday or a summary of their project, they know what they want to convey. Practice makes perfect here. Concentrate on your point and don’t ramble. Observe your audience’s reaction so that you can do better next time.
Not A Popularity Contest
It is better to be likable than to be talented. – Utah Phillips
Popular is not necessarily the same as likeable. If you prefer to connect with small numbers of people, you can still be likeable and memorable. The essence of likability is paying attention to the person in front of you. As Keanu Reeves says, the simple act of paying attention can take you a long way.
Be intentional in social situations. Pay attention, focus on the other person, treat them with respect, and watch your connections grow to the next level.
It’s always been considered bad luck to make your own wedding dress. It implies a life of want if you can’t outsource such an important task, or maybe a life of never-ending work. That means a steady procession of happy brides-to-be in my bridal shop. These days I leave the actual stitching to my dedicated and skilful seamstresses. I prefer to interact with my customers and bask in their excited energy, spilled without any thought to the cost.
Being married isn’t essential in this business, but it definitely helps. My engagement ring is not just a symbol of love, it’s one and a half carats of trust. Brides love to buy their wedding dress from someone who understands their mindset after all. And the man who gave me his promise is six feet of wonderful who loves me dearly. Sometimes I pinch myself, because how did I get so lucky?
My last customer of the day is radiant. Accompanied by her mother, Rosalind wants only the best. They haven’t set a date yet but she can’t wait to start looking. I pull eight gowns and she looks truly wonderful in all of them.
While Rosalind gets dressed her mother and I chat, the usual about luck and love and soulmates. A photo of them smiling together is proudly produced. Rosalind’s mother wipes away happy tears. Look, they’re made for each other. I look, and I can’t breathe. I lock and bolt the door after they’re gone but it’s too late.
Somewhere along the line, I missed something.
The day I leave, I pack everything except my shears. I take great care of my dressmaking tools even though I don’t use them often, because keeping a sharp edge is essential to a clean cut. His jackets will look normal at first glance, until he pulls them and finds sleeves removed and linings slashed.
When I reach the last one, his favourite Italian wool suit, I can’t bring myself to vandalise its exquisite workmanship. I know how much work it takes to construct something so beautiful. Instead I leave parting gifts; my wedding ring on the counter – and raw eggs smashed in each of the suit pockets.
We shared everything. Soon he too will discover something rotten hiding in the dark.
She’s always there, staring out of her front window. When I herd my children into the car for the school run or come home late from work, her gaze follows me. I’ve learned not to look because her answering smile is borderline creepy.
Sometimes her constant scrutiny angers me. I want to scream obscenities, smash the window, drag her outside. I want to get right in her face and tell her to get a life that’s not mine. However, polite society frowns on that kind of behaviour, not to mention it’s a bad example for the kids. So I swallow it all down with a gin and tonic on Friday night.
When the sale board appears outside her house I grin. No more weird old neighbour, probably been hauled off to a nursing home to stare out of a new window at the world going by without her. Of course I’m much too busy to think that far ahead but I’m absolutely certain that won’t be my future. Gotta keep moving. Don’t slow down, then those troublesome thoughts can’t catch up.
I silence it all, swallow it all with another gin and tonic every Friday night.
I know you all are busy
life gets more complex every day
and you just don’t have time
for hardly anything
so don’t worry
you don’t need to check on me
I know you’re minding your business
and someone else will do it, right?
Someone else with more time
and more resources
and while everyone’s busy
leaving it up to someone else
I slip through the cracks of absent smiles
fade into the rear view mirror as life moves on
don’t worry, okay?
when I sink
I’ll hardly make a ripple
and leave nothing behind
and perhaps someone will say
Life moves on you’ll soon forget
those who fall behind
and are left out of mind
Here’s a new day
it really doesn’t matter because
I’m already gone
Despite everything, Jo couldn’t help but feel excited. She’d come to the amusement park with four friends, hoping to forget about Ben. So far it was working, though she missed having Molly by her side to share inside jokes and angry rants about her ex. They giggled through the haunted house and ate way too many sugary treats. She even won a bright blue bear at the shooting range all by herself.
When they reached the front of the line for the Ferris wheel, Jo hung back at first. Then she swallowed hard, took a deep breath and got into the last car. She should be strong enough to conquer her fear.
The car rose and she was too fascinated watching the people below to remember she was alone. Her friends were laughing, paired off in the cars ahead. Jo laughed too, until she spotted them. Far below Ben and Molly walked hand in hand, then stopped to share a lingering kiss. Right out in the open, where anyone could see. Like they hadn’t a care in the world.
Jo stared down at the couple, her knuckles white around soft blue fur. Her heart slipped its moorings and fell to earth. From such a height, it was bound to shatter.
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I walked down a street that seemed much bigger in my memory. Where were the dangers our mothers warned us about? It was a perfectly ordinary row of houses. Small front gardens were tucked behind hedges in every stage of growth from tight restriction to careless abandon.
I stopped outside the wildest hedge of all, overgrown and formless. Branches glossy with recent rain reached damp fingers towards me. A faint scent of unseen roses blew past. The pale green front door was peeling and the windows were blank. Still, your voice drifted down to me.
“You’re late.” I tapped my watch in mock anger but my lips betrayed me. “As usual.”
“Sorry, wait for me.” You flashed that unforgettably brilliant smile, and vanished.
Alone again, I turned my collar up against light but persistent drizzle. Suddenly colder, I wished past and present would unite into the future you promised before we slipped through each other’s fingers, and were lost.
Wait for me.
That’s what you always said. And I did.
I came back, but all I found were ghosts whispering in the wind.