The following short story appeared in Blue Tattoo: A Short Story Magazine 9 (January 2012), 42-49 It appears in Prayer at the End: Twenty-Three Stories (Bangor: Cockatrice, 2015).
Phoebe’s Party: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
When she was eleven years old, and challenged by a friend in school to a dare, Phoebe Morris had approached a group of older girls and slapped one hard in the face. They were celebrities of the bullying world, popularly hated, and she had given them no choice but to act in defence of their reputation. Afraid to approach, but too fascinated to leave her, Ieuan had watched her endure restraint, indignities, punches, kicks, with an indifference that astonished him. She had been off-hand about it afterwards, had let him off his side of the dare as though its outcome were certain already, and Ieuan had finally dismissed her behaviour as something to be expected of Phoebe. In play she was bold, in naughtiness reckless, and he was too studious and too young to consider what reasons she might have for wilfully seeking out pain.
After she married Phil and started to cut herself off from her friends, Ieuan understood what was happening. Aged fourteen, and returning after an absence at school, she had mentioned to Ieuan that she had spent the week sitting with her mother in a home-made fallout shelter, while her father, it seemed, had looked after the house and brought them their meals. Her tone had implied that Ieuan would be incurious, that of course all mothers were Christadelphians who lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust. Two years later, entertaining Ieuan in her parents’ kitchen, she had remarked that her mother had gone into the bathroom to clean it, and ignoring Ieuan, her father had started beating his head against the wall. Phil had finally taught her fear, and in response she had learnt guile, provoking him when he was weakest so that the outburst would be more manageable, the quiet before the next one longer.
After five years she had filed for divorce, and refusing shelter with Ieuan in Cardiff had moved back with her parents in Haverfordwest. And in a spirit of adventure she had invited him and other close friends to a dinner party, to celebrate her new freedom and thank them for their support.
They ate early and outside, a concession to her parents. She had spread a trestle table in the shelter of an ash, and the patio door was open to facilitate movement from the kitchen. But Phil arrived to break up the party, appearing round the side of the house between the baked salmon and the sweet. Phoebe was standing to serve when she saw him coming round the patio. There was a determined look in her eye, and food was flying. The cheesecake went the way of the soufflé, and Ieuan could see that soon she would progress to more dangerous weapons. At this point her parents appeared at the patio door, and bundled Phil into the house. In the next two minutes, while Phoebe stood surrounded by cream and destruction, breathing sweatily, they heard both patio door and kitchen door shut and locked.
After this, the party began to break up. Mr Morris appeared at an upstairs window and told the guests to depart. He was obviously very frightened, and he was threatening to call the police. Phoebe demanded angrily how Phil had come to be there, and when he was going to leave. Answers on this point were vague. She turned round wearily, and told her friends they had better go. Ieuan was the last to get up. He touched her bare forearm and said, ‘I’ll wait outside for you, okay?’ She nodded, showing a tight, grim smile. Ieuan joined the others on the street. They were mostly friends from nursing college, colleagues Phil had been unable to discourage; one or two friends from school days still living in Pembrokeshire. As they dispersed, he leaned against the door of his car, listening to the shouts and cries of children on the estate, the harsh screech of a jay from the woods.
‘Let’s go, Ieuan,’ said Phoebe. He looked at her, a young woman of twenty-six, with blonde hair in a plait, and a figure that soon would subside into thickness. She was wearing a short dress with the glint of silk, and she was brandishing a half-empty bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. He got in on the driver’s side as she pulled at the door opposite. ‘What’s happening now, then, Phoebe?’ he asked.
‘They’re still holed up in there together. I left my keys indoors; I couldn’t get in if I wanted to. We’ll go for a drink, and I’ll sort my parents out later.’
‘And where am I taking you?’
‘Go west, young man. There’s a pub I know in St. David’s.’ Her nerves were frayed; relief turned to anger. ‘I’m not going to sit around here moping; now move it!’
And then she settled back and said nothing. The sun was in Ieuan’s eyes, and he glanced at Phoebe’s clear profile, with its green eyes blinking, as he drove them through the town’s narrow streets and onto the north west road. She took a few swigs from her bottle, and offered it to Ieuan.
‘I can’t, Phoebe, I’m driving.’
‘God, Ieuan. You can cope with what I’ve had.’ She beat a frustrated tattoo on her thighs, and putting up her hands, shook her hair loose. ‘I suppose one of us has to stay sober.’
‘What about this pub, then?’
‘Just a minute. Bloody dress! – I can’t even buy you an orange juice, I’ve no purse or anything… I just want a proper beer and a look at the sea before I go back and face the music.’ She waited a moment. ‘Ieuan?’
‘Yes, I understand,’ said Ieuan. ‘I’m buying you beer in a pub in St. David’s, and then I’m driving you to the beach.’
‘Well, do you want to do it or not? You can drive me straight back to Haverfordwest if you’d rather.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Ieuan. He smiled at Phoebe. ‘I didn’t mean to seem priggish.’
‘Then could you maybe drive a bit faster? I’d like to be there before midnight.’
‘It’s not far now,’ said Ieuan.
Indeed it was not far. The road sloped down on the approach to Newgale Sands, and they saw yellow sand, dogs running, and a purity of light above St. Bride’s Bay. Then there were caravans, bungalows and candyfloss, and the road twisted inland, turning west above the rocks at Cwm Bach for the last few miles into St. David’s.
And then they left the car beside the cathedral in mellow sunlight, and walked up the hill to the village square. She broke into a run, skittering into the hotel gardens, where she shouted ‘Here, Ieuan!’ and called for Guinness.
‘Good,’ she commented, wiping the cream from her lips.
He gave a tight smile, toying with the swizzle stick in some non-alcoholic cocktail, and putting it down on the table to drink. Two couples in their early forties were playing an informal croquet, each couple acting as one. Phoebe had finished the Sauvignon Blanc. She watched the game with bored curiosity, craning her neck.
‘Damn it, Terry,’ one of the women said. ‘You know the blue shots are mine.’
‘I’m sorry, Claire,’ Terry told her. He was a successful man in his sphere, Ieuan thought, a bank manager or a solicitor. ‘But could you have handled that roquet so well? Now could you?’
‘Yes, I could actually,’ said Claire, ‘and can I remind you we are a team?’
‘People might not think so,’ the other man said. He had been shy in early life, and now he hid nervousness behind puckish humour. ‘You’ve been playing on our side half the time.’
‘Take the shot, then, Claire,’ Terry said. ‘Take the second shot too if you like.’ He passed her the mallet and fell back behind the yard line, arms folded. The second man laid a friendly hand on his shoulder.
‘Show him, Claire!’ the woman said. Claire tapped, sending the red ball towards her feet. She played the second shot badly, missing her peg by a foot or so. ‘You shouldn’t have encouraged her, Patricia,’ said Terry. ‘You’ll have to fight your way out of that one.’
‘Actually, I feel rather well set up.’ She moved forward, smiling, to take the mallet from Claire. She tapped her ball neatly through the red hoop.
‘I swear you women are in league,’ said Terry. ‘Chris, next time I’m playing on your side. Are you two going to peg out your balls, or do you want a full game?’
Ieuan had watched Phoebe’s interest building. Now she called abruptly, ‘We’ll play the winners!’
It took them a moment to identify the speaker. ‘It’s a private game,’ Terry said, turning his back on her.
‘It’s our own equipment,’ Chris told her, more kindly, ‘even though we play in the pub. Are we taking this invitation to peg out, my dear?’
‘I’m ready for a drink, but I don’t mind playing,’ said Patricia. ‘Claire?’
‘I’ll take your place,’ shouted Phoebe again.
‘I don’t see why she shouldn’t,’ said Claire.
‘Come on then, Ieuan,’ Phoebe said. ‘And while you’re at it, get us another.’
Ieuan began, ‘Perhaps it’s better–’
‘All these men!’ put in Claire brightly. ‘So territorial, so mistrustful! And yes, Ieuan, you may buy me and Patricia a drink.’ She used his name casually, as if by right. ‘Especially if you’re borrowing my husband as a croquet partner.’
‘And the game?’ Terry said. ‘I assume you and Chris are claiming you won by default?’ He turned for moral support to Ieuan.
‘Let him buy the drinks, dear,’ said Claire. ‘And of course they beat us; they usually do.’ They asked for Hoegaarden, Beaujolais, Theakston’s, Chablis.
‘Then we reset the balls,’ said Terry. Ieuan returned from the bar to find the two women sitting at a table, and Chris explaining the rules of croquet to Phoebe. ‘I didn’t catch your name.’
‘My name’s Ieuan.’
‘Sorry,’ said Terry, ‘missed it again.’ He looked a little disdainfully at Phoebe, still trying to master the stroke. ‘I suppose you can’t play croquet either?’
‘Why do you assume I can’t play croquet? You assume it just because I’m with Phoebe?’
‘Let’s get this show on the road then,’ said Terry. He smiled at Ieuan, rebuked by his comment, admitting to alliance.
The rooks kept up a background chatter. Drinkers passed in and out of the pub, and Chris ordered another round of drinks. The women left the tables to watch the game, and Phoebe demanded a rearrangement of teams, ‘townies’ against ‘visitors.’ Terry raised his eyebrows sardonically. Chris and Ieuan complied.
Terry and Chris completed their circuit, and Phoebe demanded they play the full game. Terry began to play more aggressively, as much to disrupt his opponents’ progress as to further his own.
Ieuan, increasingly restless and concerned, kept up a pressure on Phoebe to leave. No way, she said, she was seeing the game through. The bar called last orders, and Phoebe, losing track of her game, took Chris’s turn.
‘That was a foul,’ said Terry coldly.
‘No way was that a foul,’ said Phoebe. ‘I touched Ieuan’s ball; I get another go.’
‘You would have done,’ Chris told her kindly, ‘only it was my turn. We have to put the balls back where they were, I’m afraid.’
‘You dare touch those balls!’ said Phoebe.
‘Well anyway,’ Chris said, ‘it’s getting late. Maybe it’s time to put the toys away, girls and boys.’
‘The game’s not finished,’ Phoebe said.
‘Young heads need early nights.’ He gave a pointed glance at Ieuan.
‘Come on, Phoebe,’ Ieuan said.
Chris stooped to pull the first peg from the lawn, gently moving Phoebe aside. A little sulkily, Terry joined in. Phoebe hurled down her mallet.
‘Come on, Ieuan, I can see we’re not wanted here any more. There’s a mate of mine in Fishguard; we can go and see her. You’re up for it, aren’t you, Ieuan? I’ve had a hard day, don’t go soft on me now!’