Not Long Now – 3 short stories

In 2016 I took part in a writing workshop and, over the course of a few weeks, created the Not Long Now mini series.

Not Long Now

They’d known about the storm for a couple of days, since Monday in fact. It hadn’t been a severe storm to start with and the upgrade had happened on Wednesday. The evacuation order was given on Wednesday afternoon with an emphasis on an orderly departure from the coast.

It was anything but orderly.

By Thursday afternoon the military were involved in the operation to empty the hospitals, maintain order, clear the roads and rescue trapped individuals. This was due to the panic, traffic accidents, arguments, violence and everyday issues of civil disobedience. The police couldn’t, or wouldn’t, cope.

Everyone was watching the clock, but one person was watching it very closely. The storm was due at lunchtime on Friday, it wasn’t long now.

The media were still there on Thursday, getting as close to the beach as their producer wanted them. The weather boys and girls weren’t used to being this close to real weather and weren’t coping well, but their producer said it made great TV. Their hourly updates repeated the same, officially approved text: it wasn’t going to be a smooth ride, there was a risk to man, woman or any other sentient being, and structural failure was likely. Oh, and it wasn’t long now before it was due to hit.

The local government officials had long since gone and were making brave statements from fifty miles away, somehow they were promising the funds to rebuild when a week earlier there had been no spare funds.

By ten on Friday morning the warnings had ended, the patrols had been removed and the media was a long way from the beach using remote cameras. The beach was deserted, there wasn’t a soul to be seen. The sky was devoid of birds, or even clouds right now and, strangely enough, the wind was dropping.

It wasn’t long now, they said on the radio, not long now.

She opened the door of her shack and looked across the beach, but there wasn’t much to see. She tugged on the ropes that would hold the roof down and checked the knots. This wasn’t the first storm she’d seen on this and it possibly wouldn’t be the last.

Her beach-front property was a thorn in the side of local government and local organised crime. The beach had been owned by the people since the first folk had settled here, over a century ago. Then the council decided they owned it, on behalf of the people. Then the council sold the beach to some property managers. Those nice property managers, the ones with Italian names, then rented the beach back to the town’s people.

So the beach remained a public beach, so long as everyone paid their rent. Failure to pay was not recommended.

She’d been here for thirty or forty years, no-one could be sure. Her land wasn’t quite on the beach and she had title of her little parcel plot. She also had a covenant from the council giving her access to the beach in front of her plot.

There had been attempts, many, to remove her but the council had been unwilling to go beyond legal means. The courts had tossed out the case, her paperwork was in order and pre-dated any business arrangements with property managers.

The property managers hadn’t worried about legal methods when bullying, threats and violence would suffice. She wasn’t one to be bullied and knew a thug when she saw one. She’d reported them to the police as her insurance required she report vandalism. It was quite simple, every time a window was broken she replaced it, so it could be broken again.

The policeman who came to visit had offered the services of his brother, for a regular fee, to stop the windows being broken. She’d tossed him out.

And so it went on.

The wind was increasing, the waves were being whipped up and the trees were bent double, not long at all now.

She remembered the day when those nice property managers had paid her a visit, their expensive suits looking quite inappropriate on the beach. They’d offered her a reasonable price for her plot of land. At least they claimed it was reasonable, she had her doubts.

They’d offered her a long term lease on a beach-front property about one minute away; the sale value of her plot wouldn’t even cover three months at peak season. She’d declined, graciously of course.

They were upset, naturally, and chided her for her missed opportunity. Apparently that lease offer wasn’t going to be available for long, too good an offer to miss they claimed. She declined but thanked them for their time, there was no need to be rude.

That night her power had gone off, the electric company said it would cost a few thousand to replace the entire run of cable from the distribution box, plus the damage caused when she’d ripped the copper out.

She’d laughed, she needed a stick to walk and arthritis prevented her from getting up if she got down – disco dancing was a distant memory.

She’d been expecting something like this for a while, there was a rumour that all the managed leases were due to expire at the end of the season so by the spring a new apartment block would be on the site. She had a fallback supply, using a truck battery and a turbine, that would do for now.

She was the only un-managed property and the beach-front pool would be where her shack was. Of course she’d only found out about the plans by accident, the registered letter from the planners had never arrived.

The windows were rattling, the last broken pane had been fixed on Tuesday. The roof was shaking, but wasn’t going anywhere. Not long now.

She was a cynic, and no one could blame her. Of course, everyone did blame her; she was holding up economic development, they said. She’d laughed, they were all reading from the same script.

She’d tried talking to the press but that was pointless, she was the villain of the beach, the mad old woman.

She had spent her days writing, not plotting. She’d had this idea for a novel that wasn’t going to write itself. It had taken twenty years, sat in the doorway of her shack with a notebook, scribbling words and making notes. Once it was finished she’d sat on it, literally, as it went under her mattress for safe keeping.

Eventually she’d found an agent, one from the city who didn’t know about local politics. She didn’t want to leave her shack so the agent came to the beach, unsure what to expect.

A month, or six, later her novel was in print. A year later a film studio had taken options on the story. That was some time ago, but the film was finally out this weekend. Ironically, the local cinema was closed because of the weather. Her bank account was healthy, very healthy.

The wind was really blowing as she locked her shack and walked away.

She’d enjoyed her time in the shack, but there was nothing there to keep her. Not long now.

A vehicle approached and stopped to pick her up.

“To your hotel and then the première, Madam?”

“Sure, but be quick as we don’t have long now.”

The première went well, her film was well received and she was congratulated by many of the invited audience. Unfortunately that meant the press took an interest but, as she was using an alias, she wasn’t overly worried, and, it was all fiction, wasn’t it?

The film wasn’t due to go on general release for a few weeks so would only be seen at select cinemas as preview screenings, this didn’t matter and she’d told the producers the same. In fact there might even a few changes to the film, so the extra time was valuable.

The after-show party was at the Grand Hotel, an edifice some hundred years old that was probably decent looking about a hundred years ago. There was plenty of alcohol and she told the real story to several people, her tongue becoming looser as she enjoyed the party.

Unfortunately, again, the press weren’t far away, none knew her but that wouldn’t take long. She took herself to bed when the enjoyment started to wane.

Saturday’s newspaper included a review of the film, favourable, and then an article on the back story. All of the documents, the transactions, the lawsuits, had been found in a few brief hours by a diligent journalist. Unfortunately this included her real name.

Her phone started ringing with requests for interviews from the media, and requests for meetings with officials. She switched it off when the requests turned into threats.

She took breakfast in her room, unfortunately the restaurant was full of hangovers and hangers on as well as the next tranche of the esteemed press.

She had to get out of the hotel but didn’t have to worry about her room, the producers had paid for that. Unfortunately the front desk had warned her that several people had enquired if she was still there and had prevented a few from climbing to the sixth floor.

Drastic action was needed.

She unpinned her auburn wig, revealing a mess of grey hair. That morning’s carefully applied make-up was less than carefully stripped away. She cleaned her nails, removing the polish, and removed all jewellery.

Trousers instead of a skirt, a plain sweatshirt over a tight t-shirt and she was almost done. She looked in the mirror but now saw a slightly effeminate middle-aged man. Her coat was bright red and couldn’t be reversed so she stuffed that in her overnight case, a tight squeeze. Fortunately her case was a unisex design but she would, unfortunately, be exposed to the elements.

She called the front desk for a cab and waited a few minutes before going down in the lift. The desk was busy so she dropped the key and shuffled towards the door. Unfortunately she only had heels, court shoes or sandals, so was trying carefully not to click as she walked across the marbled floor to the door.

The cab was outside so she gave directions, to the retail park. She needed better shoes if she had to maintain the disguise. She also needed a better coat and a bigger case, this was not a cheap deal.

Another cab took her to the station, she used the machine for her ticket, her female named debit card might cause a problem. Unfortunately her railway discount card was in her legal name so she couldn’t claim the reduced fare. At least the train ride was uneventful.

She took a cab from the station to the seafront, just in time to see her beachside shack being destroyed. Where her shack had been was now a pile of wreckage. She went to find out what was happening but was stopped.

“Sorry Sir, it’s dangerous, the storm damaged a few properties. We’re making it safe.”

She shrugged and walked away, no point in speaking. Unfortunately, nothing else along the shoreline looked damaged, that included the garbage store behind the shack. She owned it but there were official looking signs for the local council emblazoned on the sides, to disguise the fact. She giggled as she had that thought then giggled as to what was to come.

Unfortunately, until the beach was cleared of workmen, there was nothing she could do. She went to a local hotel and checked in, then went to buy some clean underwear – this might take a day or two.

A phone call to the council solicited nothing, an automated message said their staff wouldn’t be back at work until Monday. She also had a house but felt certain it would be watched for her return, so phoned a neighbour and said she’d be calling by the house in a few days, unfortunately her shack had a little storm damage.

The neighbour said she suspected that much when a van pulled up and deposited several boxes outside, apparently they had used a pizza delivery van. She asked the neighbour if his CCTV covered her driveway, it did. She asked if he’d send her the appropriate five minutes of video.

After dark she walked to where her shack had been but went instead too the refuse store, opening a panel. She removed the memory cards from a pair of cameras and swapped new ones before quickly leaving the shore. Unfortunately she was seen but fortunately it was the local feral cat.

She had her laptop, too risky to leave it at the shack, and uploaded the video to the web. The memory cards held two days worth of video each, with multiple audio inputs around the shack. She’d been expecting this day for a long time. Her shack, she could see, had survived the storm intact, just as it had before.

She rang the film producer and promised some excellent publicity material, dynamite in fact. Those nice men in Italian suits with Italian accents were first discussing, then searching, then removing and finally destroying. Unfortunately for them every word was captured. There was video of the pizza delivery van driving away from the shack and video of it arriving outside her house.

The producer was very interested. Their film about local corruption was portrayed as fiction but was anything but. The new video would be used at the end of the film and spliced with the promotion material.

The story broke on Sunday morning but she stayed in the hotel with her phone off. She;d spent years trying to get the local journalists involved until she found out they were being paid off, hence the book and then the film. Now, those very same journalists wanted a piece of the action, unfortunately none had seen the film nor read the book and there wasn’t a bookstore open on a Sunday anywhere nearby.

They had interviewed everyone, even the council sent a team. Some of the council had been paid off and they’d been named in the film; Brown became Smith, Jones became Hunter and they all became hunted. Unfortunately the journalists got to them after the Italians got to them.

Everyone wanted to speak to her but the public relations expert said to keep quiet.

By Monday the story was at fever pitch, a major police investigation was underway and she was asked to attend a press conference in the same hotel if only to say “no comment” to every question.

She redressed as herself, taking care with her make-up before re-pinning her wig. She took a copy of her book and her laptop then walked down to the lounge once she knew her publicist was outside the room.

The buzz in the room was tremendous but order was called. Eventually one nominated journalist started the questions.

“Is it true you used to be a man?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Unfortunately?”

“That’s what my client said. Now, what about the corruption?” The publicist was not happy with the first question.

When the next question from the Sicilian lady reporter was a near repeat of the first, the press conference was over. This was unfortunate for the respectable journalists and wouldn’t be usable on that evening’s TV news.

They returned to the room on the sixth floor, a hotel porter now blocked access to anyone who wasn’t a guest. The press conference had been the producers’ idea, a way to garner publicity for the film. Ironically the publicist hadn’t been happy, his client wasn’t ready, hadn’t been briefed and there was too much in her past that could distract from the real story, just as it had.

To put it mildly, this had been a disaster when it should have been an outstanding success. What was the reporter’s name? Was she a plant? The conspiracy theories now kicked in. When you’re dealing with multimillion corruption with deep ties and deeper graveyards you need to tread carefully and assume the worst.

The publicist now needed the full back story if they were going to rescue this wreck.

She’d been one of those unfortunates, mis-identified at birth as a boy. Her anatomy was, formerly, vague, and the doctor overseeing maternity that night was probably pissed. A simple blood check would have confirmed, or rejected, the gender that was to go on the birth records.

Her parents had been understanding, as she got older things would sort themselves out, but they didn’t. Fortunately puberty was delayed, but when it did kick in it was near fatal. By then she’d done her GCSEs and left school, as a boy.

A month later she was in hospital being re-identified as a female, this time the doctors were very sober and vastly more experienced than the village quack in a cottage hospital sixteen years earlier.

School records can’t be altered, not completely. This was in the fifties so computers were an eon away. The school certificates couldn’t be re-issued they said, but she could hardly stay as John, could she? She was now a girl with an invalid education. Try getting a job when you can’t even prove you went to school?

She wanted to sue the cottage hospital but it had closed and the doctor had passed away, gout apparently. She also couldn’t afford solicitor fees so the idea was irrelevant. Her parents decided she’d bring shame on them, even though they could have fixed the problem by asking for confirmation, but doctors were god then and you didn’t challenge God, did you?

She left home before she was pushed and went to a women’s refuge in the next town. It might have been easier if she was pregnant but the idea of sex was repugnant, unfortunately many of the other teen girls were indeed up the duff, looking forward to a free council house and state handouts for life.

She was helped, of sorts, and worked in a cafe for a few months, seeing the best and worst of humanity. That led to a factory canteen job and finally school kitchens, ironically in her home town. She’d changed her surname and had blossomed, but remained a spinster.

Fate dealt her another cruel blow when the menopause struck just after her forty fifth birthday. She started to lose her hair, what remained went grey and wild. She started wearing wigs in order to avoid stares.

She retired to the coast and settled down to write about her life in kitchens, buying her beachside shack as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of life. Unfortunately she started to see the underbelly of business, officialdom and how the two intermeshed. It wasn’t always pretty, or obvious, but she was patient. The battles started when her little parcel of sandy land was threatened.

She had title, but that didn’t seem to matter. She wrote what she saw, what she heard and what she discovered. Eventually someone noticed her scribbling but she was still writing her kitchen diaries, wasn’t she?

The book, under an alias hadn’t mentioned her seaside town, and had fictionalised the participants sufficiently enough to throw off suspicion. It was published quietly, without an advance, but sold well in most English speaking parts of the planet. Eventually her publisher suggested she got an agent and that resulted in the film, after a decade or so.

She’d had so many years to prepare for this eventuality but right now probably only had minutes to decide their next move and was was out of ideas.

The publicist was battling phone calls, CNN wanted an exclusive. It rang again, the police wanted an exclusive. Everyone wanted an exclusive. Then that nice Sicilian journalist rang and said something not very nice, along the lines that she was waiting and would keep waiting, how unfortunate?

The hotel front desk called the room, she had to leave as she was causing too much disruption. The journalists were in the bar, in the lobby, in the carpark, in the way. And it was the last of those that really riled them, unfortunately.

More quick thinking, a car was needed, an escape plan and a bolt hole, before someone made a hole in her head with a bolt. The police rang again, they’d really like that exclusive, could they send a car?

She was worried, the local police were up to their armpits in the mire and would like to see this problem dealt with. A deal was done with the out of town squad, the sharp suit and earpiece brigade, as well as the bulge under the jackets.

Fifteen minutes later the stage was set, the actors were in place and everyone knew their part. How she managed to lose her wig was never determined, but she felt pretty naked. She had a spare but it was in her case and that was nowhere to be seen.

Somehow, with a little good fortune, they set off. The car was actually a van, the sort with blacked out windows. There were three of these vehicles and they kept changing places, just like in the movies. Things got difficult when a fast red Italian sports care raced up and slotted in between two of the vans, causing one to brake hard. Now there were two.

More cavalry arrived and detained the nice suited man with the automatic weapon in his red sports car. The two vans accelerated, going faster than was allowed, or sensible. Unfortunately one had a tyre burst, now there was one.

She wasn’t happy with the arrangements and told this to the smart suits. Her publicist was screaming into his phone, asking for the CIA, or MI6 or whoever. Then the battery died and he screamed louder.

Her case, she discovered, was on a seat behind her. She needed her spare wig, even though more important matters had arisen. Like the helicopter that was now tracking them, or the smoke coming out of the exhaust, not that she knew either of these things and, regardless, it would’t nave altered her imperative need for a wig.

The menopause had been cruel to her, very cruel, especially after she’d been brought up as a boy. How could they have got it so wrong? Puberty was a disaster, near fatale, until the error was discovered. One in a million they’d said, well now she had a one in a million chance of surviving the journey.

The van conked out in the middle of nowhere and the sharp suits were looking worried. So was she when they showed off their hardware. The publicist fainted, it was probably for the best reasons.

The helicopter landed and they transferred, not that the suits gave them any choice. Up they went, ahead were darkening skies as the next storm rolled in. The pilot could choose up, down or around. He chose down and regretted it almost immediately when the rain hit.

Oh how she wished she could be sat in her shack, watching the waves crash on the beach, instead of being in a helicopter about to crash, or so it would seem.

The next crash was a wave hitting the shack, she’d fallen asleep and had missed the première. Perhaps she should go home, the storm was almost here?