short story competition in Writing
Magazine had bravery as its
theme, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross. The winning story came from Barbara Smith
and here is what Wendy Soliman had to say
about Barbara's story:
'Few of us, I suspect, have had reason to dwell upon the debilitating
effects agoraphobia has on the
quality of life its sufferers must endure.
Smith's heart-warming story on the subject, handled with compassion and sensitivity, gives us an insight into the
struggles that its subject, Lizzie,
must grapple with on a daily basis.
The author uses her
impressive descriptive powers to bring alive the terrors which Lizzie must
struggle to overcome. I found that I was living Lizzie's fears with her, willing her to take that first step, a
step that seemed "more like a mile" beyond the realms of the
safe and familiar.
likens Lizzie donning her outdoor fleece to becoming ensconced in "a straightjacket of apprehension", and finding
the courage to traverse the front garden path as akin to "climbing half-way up Everest".
she feared for the welfare of her aged cat more than she feared the illness
itself was an original manner in which to galvanise Lizzie into taking that all-important first step and I, for one, am
pulling for her to get "as far as the bus stop" tomorrow.'
Wendy Soliman’s novels have been romantic mysteries set in what she calls: ‘that most fascinating of historical periods, the English Regency.’
The Crocodile Under the Bed.
by Barbara O. Smith
Lizzie promised herself that today was going to be different. Today was going to be her new beginning. She put the kettle on and while waiting for it to boil she hung the calendar for 2006 on the back of the kitchen door. Above the lines of black and white dates and days, it portrayed a winter garden in all its crisp white beauty. She thought the snow looked like a freshly laundered tablecloth, which was more than could be said of the roads and pavements outside. She could see from an upstairs window that they were banked by grey slush left by passing cars and pedestrians.
She put the usual
three spoonfuls of muesli into a bowl, sliced a banana on the top and covered
it with milk. Her daily routine. She opened a tin of cat food and emptied it
into a shallow dish. George brushed
against her ankles with feline cupboard-love affection as she put it on the
floor for him.
switched on the radio in time for the news and listened to the announcer
giving details of last night’s festive goings-on in Trafalgar
Square. She’d seen the New Year in on television, far away from the crowds and
hubbub, but today...what of today? Lizzie frowned.
The one thing that could really make the New Year special for her was
to escape from this prison. Admittedly
it was warm and secure, and it
contained everything she needed except the company of those people going about their business beyond her garden gate. They talked and laughed and got on with life. They didn’t lock themselves away and stagnate.
When the breakfast things were washed and put away, Lizzie stood by the French windows and looked out into the garden. It was a masterpiece even in the middle of winter, and had been her source of therapy for five long years. She dug, planted, weeded and watered. She mowed the grass, pruned the roses, trained them to twine round the trellis and talked to them like friends. But now she hankered for a new beginning beyond the confines of her own patch. She longed for the ordinariness that other people enjoyed. She wanted to experience the joy of walking down the path, throwing open the gate and calling out ‘Happy New Year’ to everyone she met. A mundane wish that would make most people scoff. A win on the lottery would be more welcome for them. But not for Lizzie.
She went into the
hall and took down the expensive fleece jacket her son had given her for
Christmas. She held it against her
cheek and felt its softness, its warmth.
When he gave it to her, Paul had said: ‘It’s too good just for wearing
in the garden, Mum,’ and she knew exactly what he was getting at. He was giving her a gentle prod. She shrugged herself into it, but its
warmth did nothing to stem the chill in the pit of her stomach. It became a straitjacket of
apprehension. A jacket of this quality
was, in itself, a prediction. To wear
it meant that she had to steel herself to venture outside. Properly outside, not just into the garden
to sweep up a few leaves or to see if the slugs were snacking on the sprouts
in the vegetable patch.
gain time, she made a pretence of losing her gloves; her shoes were upstairs but the fur-lined boots standing like sentries at the side of the old-fashioned umbrella stand, struck a new sense of guilt into her marrow.
Unworn for so long, they must surely be out of fashion. Lizzie
fingered them, remembering the last time
she’d worn them. It had been in the park on bonfire night five years ago when she had been jostled
and elbowed by the excited crowd as she had gasped for breath, and panic built like a live thing inside her chest. The only fireworks she had seen since then
had been from her bedroom window as
she gazed across at her neighbour’s garden or on the screen of her television.
She glanced at herself in
the hall mirror. Her face was white, strained. She tried to smile reassurance at the woman
staring back at her. ‘Just go as far
as the bus stop, then you’re away,’ she told her. She frowned. Was there any sense in putting herself
through this ordeal? Couldn’t she put it off until the spring?
few weeks ago she had watched a hedgehog scuttle away in the beam of light
from her torch. He’d buried himself in
the mountain of leaves stacked against the garden wall ready for the compost
heap. Why shouldn’t she hibernate? Did
it matter if it was for years rather than months, like the hedgehog? Frustration brought a deep sigh. Go and make yourself a cup of coffee, she
told herself; start the crossword, be normal.
But normal didn’t come into it.
stalling for time, Lizzie pulled the kitchen curtain aside and looked
out. There you are, everything’s the
same as usual, nothing’s changed.
the more reason for you to change, her conscience challenged.
why? She answered. Where is the point?
nothing stands still, time least of all, so get on with it, and stop being a
cowardly wimp. There’s nothing brave
about it – a child could do it.
that’s not fair, I’m grown up, she argued, children are not mature enough to
be attacked by unreasonable fears like mine.
off it, kids are afraid of the dark, afraid of the crocodile hiding under the
She let the curtain drop and looked round for some other diversion that would allow her to opt out, to stay cloistered, isolated in this prison of her own choosing. But the voice inside her shouted: you did not choose this quarantine.
Bolstering her nerves, Lizzie left the safe embrace of her house like an animal venturing from its lair, leaving the front door wide open behind her, an emergency bolt-hole in case the usual panic overtook her and sent her scuttling back.
The path towards the gate appeared a mile long. Lizzie paused in her slow progress, still making excuses, pulling out tufts of grass and weeds that had the temerity to sneak between the flagstones, scuffing at a pincushion of moss with the toe of her boot. Her throat was dry, and she swallowed time and time again to relieve the brittle dry-leaf feeling. Her hands were wet as if she had worn rubber gloves for too long, and her ankles ached; she had already climbed halfway up Everest. As she reached the gate, her breath showed in little white puffs, issuing faster and faster as her heart hammered against her rib-cage. She clung to the icecoated metal, listening to the protesting hinges as she turned the handle, breathing deeply, remembering what they had told her at the clinic, bracing her shoulders, concentrating on keeping upright, trying to control the tremor in her hands. Suddenly she was in the middle of a safari park with wild animals all around her, hemming her in, stalking, coming in for the kill. Her nerves, her black fear, her phobia, clutched at her, closed in on her.
Defeated, she blindly half-turned, stumbling in her dash for safety.
A plaintive miaow pricked her bubble of terror and she turned back to
see George sitting in the middle of the road. George was old and nearly
blind. George was deaf and in danger, as a car came speeding down the road
towards him. The garden gate flew open, Lizzie leapt out and grabbed the cat
as the car sped by. She sat, crumpled in the used snow on the edge of the
pavement and held him close to her chest. He purred as she buried her face in
his thick fur, rocking him back and forth as if he were a child until, with the haughty arrogance of his species, he jumped from her arms and trotted up the path and into the warmth of the house, leaving his saviour marooned.
Bereft of her anchor, Lizzie looked
up and down the road, frantic that someone would
spy her sitting in the slush. The road was deserted. She stood
up and brushed the compacted grey snow from the seat of
her jeans. Her heart sang. I’m out! I’ve done it! She walked
slowly to the end of the road. Each step was a mile. Each step
took an eternity as the old band of dread began to
tighten round her head. Her hands clenched and unclenched round
nothing except her fear. When she reached the corner,
she turned, prepared to make a dash for the sanctuary
of home, but George appeared at her side, ready to escort her with the
measured dignity bestowed on him by some proud ancestor
owned, perhaps, by an Egyptian princess.
Psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, tranquillisers, worry beads and the rest of the caboodle went into Lizzie’s mental dustbin as she closed the front door behind her, leaving her fear to dissipate with the grey slush. She sat on the bottom step of the stairs and eased a boot off, then the other. She didn’t care if they were no longer in fashion. It didn’t matter. She had seen off her crocodile. Today she had made a giant step, not for mankind, but just for Lizzie Brown. Today – to the end of the road – tomorrow, who knows... to the end of the world? At least, she promised herself, with a small smile of triumph, I’ll get as far as the bus stop.