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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories

The Suitcase
Claire Holland

Charlotte’s birthday dawned warm and sunny: the sky an innocent early autumn blue, the day she packed the suitcase. It was a weekday, so it meant an early start, juggling breakfast, presents and children in bed, "Mommy let me open that one for you; it’s from me; it’s a candle; it’s a surprise!" Then came the first of the twice-daily battles through the traffic to the school where Alex taught Science and seven year old Richard was a pupil.

She had refused to send her son to school on the tube, even with his father: "Too crowded, he’s too young." And though she had dreaded the alternative, that she drive them the six difficult miles into Kensington, had been surprised by her own ability and within a week of the new term starting was weaving her way through the jams like a seasoned Londoner.

That day, three year old Jamie was not due at Nursery until the afternoon and her birthday money was burning a hole in her pocket. Time for a little retail therapy, she thought.
"Shall we go for second breakfast, Jamie?"
"Yes, please." He skipped with delight and she smiled at his hobbit-like ability to eat as many meals a day as possible.

It was just on nine o’clock and the early morning rush was almost over. They found one of the low tables with huge squashy armchairs that Jamie loved and she sipped her latte while he ate his muffin, legs bouncing and crumbs dropping on the leather. When he finished eating, he climbed down and went over to the card rack on the wall nearby. It held a number of postcards, advertising different products and services and drew the child like a brightly coloured magnet. Jamie picked out six or seven of them and Charlotte sighed: she knew that she would find them abandoned on his bedroom floor later. She finished her coffee. "Let’s just take one, shall we, I think the other customers might want some." He didn’t protest as she put all but one of the cards back. "I’ll keep this one safe and you can have it when we get home." She slid the card into her handbag, without looking at it, and they left the café, Charlotte thinking about the new shoes she could now buy.

By the time they got home, some two and a half hours later, Jamie was hungry again. Baked beans on toast did the trick and she got him settled into Nursery. She wasn’t working that day and had invited friends for lunch and the house was filled with wrapping paper and laughter. And so she went that afternoon to pick up Jamie and do the school run again without once having turned on the TV or radio.

Normally, Charlotte would sit in the car and wait for her husband and son to come out together. Running the gauntlet of parents and pupils all wanting to have "just a quick word" with the Science Master usually took him some time and she had learned to be patient. But today she carried the sleeping Jamie across the road and up to the steps of the Georgian townhouse that did service as a school. There would be tea and cake in the staff room. Richard would be excited to be allowed to sit with the teachers.

Charlotte knew it was slightly unfriendly but did it anyway: ducking her head, she made a dash past the milling mothers and their offspring. If she had stopped to say anything other than a quick "hello", she might have noticed the expressions on some of their faces or heard something of their conversations. She rushed by up the steps and into the staff room.
"Hi, Albie," She called to the English master who was staring at the TV screen. She looked over his shoulder and saw a slow-motion image of a jumbo jet flying into a tall building. The words were out of her mouth as fast as thought, "Funny time to be watching a disaster movie."
He turned, his face frozen. "This isn’t a movie," he said.

Tea was forgotten as the staff huddled around the screen and fear kicked into life like an alien foetus in Charlotte’s gut. Richard kept asking loudly, "What’s happened?" and Charlotte did not know how to answer him. Eventually, they began to drift off home, one by one, with muted goodbyes and awkward hugs.

They did their best with the birthday supper and put the bewildered boys to bed early: "Mommy, why didn’t you eat any of your cake?" before being drawn back to the television as it endlessly blared its appalling news.
Eventually they switched it off. Alex put his arm around her and she nestled, cold, into the warmth of him. "We’ve got to get out of London," she said. She felt him tense against her.
"We have jobs, a house, commitments. And where would we go?" He said.
"Somewhere that isn’t a target." Even as she said it, Charlotte knew there was no such place; but also knew she had to do something, try to be ready, somehow, for what may happen.

Later on, Charlotte lifted the suitcase down from the top of the wardrobe in the spare room. She waited until her husband was asleep and then quietly packed four sets of clothes into it: one for each of them. She went outside and placed it in the boot of the car along with two large bottles of water and some chocolate bars. The kicking, which had felt as though it would burst out of her stomach, settled down a little.

The final twist of Charlotte’s birthday happened as she returned the car key to her handbag and found the postcard that Jamie had picked up only that morning, just before the world changed. The picture showed a city skyline with a jumbo jet superimposed on top. The aeroplane appeared to be flying into a burning building.
The caption read: "NEW YORK, COME FLY WITH ME".
© Claire Holland November 2007

Five get me into Trouble
Claire Holland

Four days after my ninth birthday, my parents moved house and so did I. And my little world fell apart.

Claire is studying for her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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