Story Chat for August

You may have come across Marsha Ingrao’s blog, Always Write in your browsing. Story Chat is only one of its many facets: an opportunity for writers to get one of their stories out there for discussion. This month I am guest hosting Story Chat, to introduce Wendy Fletcher, leader of our u3a writing group, the Whittlesey Wordsmiths.

A Dress for a Princess

Wendy Fletcher

I am hot and tired, and I know that I shouldn’t have put off this trip to the shops until the last minute, but that seems to have become my style in the past few months.

Shopping with a toddler is testing reserves I didn’t know I had, and I fear that they will run out at any moment.

The assistants have smiled and been polite, but I am left with the impression they would prefer us to shop elsewhere. We have asked for more than they can offer, and they have done their best to accommodate us, but it is an uneasy compromise.

I push these thoughts out of the way to deal with later and turn back to Alicia. She is excited about this afternoon’s party and giggles as I try awkwardly to zip her into a frothy pink dress.

I try to stay calm and not dampen her enthusiasm, but I am struggling. It has been another long day in an unbelievably long year.

She is almost three now, and every day brings more exciting discoveries for her and more unforeseen challenges for me. We have fought through sleepless nights when her screams reached neighbouring houses and morning has found us huddled under a duvet, too exhausted to face the day. We have travelled together the precarious road of frustration that leads to potty training.

This term she has started nursery and made her first friends outside the family. I have watched her growing more independent and my heart has been torn. Part of me is delighted that she is developing into a relatively normal child. Part of me wants to keep her safely cocooned against my shoulder – the unknowing baby who won’t have to field awkward questions and face life’s cruel realities.

It was at nursery that she met the new little friend who has invited her to the birthday party this afternoon, and my thoughts return to the dress. The length is about right, but she still has that chubby layer of baby fat on her torso and the stitching pulls tight across the chest. I try to stop her bouncing long enough to check if the label corresponds with the ticket on the coat-hanger. It does, but I am still not convinced. ‘Age 2-3’ sounds quite vague now. Does this mean that all children of two and three conform to this standard?

Evidently not. Mine is definitely stretching the boundaries. I thought we were coming out of the phase where she pushed away all my culinary efforts despite much persuasion. Now I wonder if I have been over-feeding her. Is she on the slippery slope to a bad diet?

Another problem to examine later, but right now I must deal with the reality that I have picked up the wrong size for my child. She is almost three, so perhaps it is time to look at ‘Age 3-4’. Such a silly, trivial mistake but I am cross with myself. It means that I have to get her out of the dress again and clothed in her own little skirt and jumper, complete with tights and boots.

Whoever invented lace-up boots for toddlers?

Then we will trail back across the shop floor to the rail and only hope that it comes in a bigger size. If I could properly explain this to her it would be easier, but her vocabulary is limited. At this moment it is limited to ‘Princess, ’licia be princess’.

I cannot make her understand that we will get another dress, the same but bigger – hopefully. She resists in the only way she knows: by making the removal of the garment as difficult as possible. She wriggles and protests as she is buttoned back into her own clothes, pushing away my hands and wrapping determined little fingers around my wrists. I know the thought she cannot express is that the beautiful pink dress with its shimmering decorations is about to disappear from her life. She is disappointed and I hate to see disappointment in her soft hazel eyes, now clouded with tears.

The most hurtful part is that it’s not about the dress. It’s about me. She is disappointed that I have offered her something and then taken it away again. She is even more disappointed that I have not heeded her pleas and, for just a moment, I am tempted to put the dress back on her and let her walk proudly out of the shop, but I know I mustn’t.

I must find a way of coping with the emotions I see in her eyes. I will see more disappointment. I will see hurt and pain and anguish. I have to learn to deal with those looks of confusion, bewilderment and a sense of injustice. I have to mop up the stream of tears that gush forth and hold back my own until the day comes when we might cry together and mourn the loss of her mother.

Only then – maybe – will we be able to find humour in our lives again, and perhaps laugh about the day we went shopping for her first party dress and had to clamber into a tiny, unlit storage area beyond a mountain of boxes waiting to be unpacked, because there were changing rooms for ladies and girls, and changing rooms for men and boys, but we didn’t fit into their perceived vision of a family. We were just a lost little girl and a bereaved dad, trying to find our way to some kind of normality.

happy child in princess dress

Wendy Fletcher

Wendy is group leader of the Whittlesey Wordsmiths writing group. Her first book, The Railway Carriage Child (available from Amazon) is a memoir of her childhood in the Cambridgeshire Fens, growing up in two Great Eastern Railway carriages. She is currently working on a first novel as well as collecting memories and pictures to compile a social history of the small community in which she lived as a child.

Wendy’s poetry has been published in The Poet (Christmas 2020) and you will find more poems and stories in anthologies from the Whittlesey Wordsmiths. Wendy is also editor of the local u3a magazine and an occasional writer for  The Fens magazine.

Find Wendy online at https://wendywordsmith.com/.

The Railway Carriage Child

Over to you…

Are things improving, or do shops still fail to cater for single dads with daughters?
Do parents recognise their own child-focused shopping trips in Wendy’s tale?
What aspect(s) of the story resonated most with you?

Don’t be shy. Share your thoughts…

94 thoughts on “Story Chat for August

  1. This is a great story. Wendy’s writing is always of a very high standard and original, I have enjoyed everything I have read of hers.
    The Railway Carriage Child is her brilliant autobiography, truly evocative of its time and place. I have yet to hear or read one adverse comment about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, Wendy and Cathy, you have created a masterpiece here. I love the element of surprise. I was waiting to see what handicap this poor mother was dealing with that made it so difficult to dress her little girl. It is such touching story in which the reader quickly identifies with both characters.

    The line that pricked my heart and curiosity was this one.

    “We have fought through sleepless nights when her screams reached neighbouring houses and morning has found us huddled under a duvet, too exhausted to face the day.”

    I wondered why the little girl was screaming so loudly that the neighbors could hear it and why the neighbors didn’t call the police. I also wondered if the child was autistic and couldn’t talk and the mom was exhausted trying to communicate with her. I never considered a dad or even a one parent family at this point because I assumed the dad would be working and I heard a woman’s voice (like my own) rather than a man’s in the narration.

    The story brings us a challenge that single moms and dads both have to deal with, and I’m sure there are many more. Moms are more accustomed to bringing small boys into the rest room or changing room with them, but the same doesn’t apply to young girls in men’s rooms.

    As a teen, this wouldn’t be such a problem as the teen can dress themselves and be by themselves in a changing room. I remember shopping with my single dad when I was a teen and parading barefoot out of the dressing room to model dress after dress for him to approve.

    Again, a fabulous story, Wendy. My heart is still breaking for this family. It will be interesting to hear what other chatters have to say.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I remember meeting Wendy for the first time at the Not Just Cafe in Whittlesey, next door to the library. It was the second meeting of the U3a Creative Writing Group there was just the three of us Wendy, another lady Jeanette, I think her name was and myself. We ordered our teas and coffees then after a little polite conversation Wendy produced the printed pages of the first chapter that eventually became The Railway Carriage Child.
    I read it through and immediately fell in love with the story. I was impressed with its quality and asked her when she was going to publish it.
    Wendy was very hesitant and prevaricated despite having the encouragement of the renowned Edward Storey who had seen the quality of Wendy’s writing before me.
    Eventually, Wendy decided to publish and as I proofread every chapter prior to publication I found myself so engrossed in the story that I had to reread each one to make sure I hadn’t missed any errors.
    Her mother, father and grandmother are vividly described, as are the day to day events as seen through the eyes of a girl growing up in the late fifties and sixties. We travel with Wendy as she rides on the buses and occasionally a train enjoying the journey as a fellow passenger rather than merely a reader or observer, a mark of true quality.
    Favourite lines are difficult, there are too many but my favourite chapter is probably the Sunday Excursion. A wonderful account of a railway journey to Hunstanton and the day spent at the seaside.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sorry Cathy I blame old age.

    Dress for a Princess, the twist at the end is priceless, I wasn’t expecting it.
    I too was impressed by the passage Marsha picked out but also this one,

    “Shopping with a toddler is testing reserves I didn’t know I had, and I fear that they will run out at any moment.”

    Most men find shopping with females of whatever age stressful, men and women in general shop differently. Usually, men have an idea of what they want, see it check that it fits or is likely to, pay for it and go. Mind you buying tools or equipment is different but we aren’t discussing tools here.

    Ladies like to linger over their choices, are more careful about what they buy and for them, it is an enjoyable experience, not the chore it is for most men who would rather be nearly anywhere else than in a dress shop.
    So the testing of reserves is entirely credible, it would certainly test mine, even without the changing room hurdles. My wife dealt with the shopping of clothes for my daughters, probably just as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved the way that story challenged my inherent assumptions. Well written, totally engaging, and reminiscent of the year I discovered 3 was much more emotional than the so-called “Terrible 2’s.”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. As a father of boys, I’ve always doubted I could cope with daughters, sneaking out to follow them when out with boyfriends. This presents an altogether different nightmare. I was there with him !

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. This story was originally written for a homework challenge. We often find that group members catch us out with a final twist at the end. Many of these stories deserve a wider audience and hopefully more members will be encouraged to come forward, Wendy

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Phil thought so too when he persuaded us to put together our first anthology in 2018. I’m hoping more of our members will become bolder about submitting their writing online and to competitions. That first submission is a big step.
      When you discover the sky hasn’t fallen, it gets easier.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved this story, the descriptions of life’s difficulties with a toddler really hit home in a been there done that kind of way. I was definitely thinking Mother until near the end. A brilliant twist that brought a tear to my eye, knowing how hard it is for Fathers on their own with children in a world of Mother and Baby groups or as in the story changing rooms for same sex only. I particularly empathised with the confliction He felt as his daughter was making new friends at nursery. You are thrilled they are developing well but also very aware that now you will not be able to protect them from the pain and misery of hurts and slights from others. A brilliant story Wendy as we have come to expect from you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it’s difficult enough to deal with a princess-minded toddler in any circumstances, without the additional emotional burden. It occurs to me though, that the responsibility of overseeing a toddler’s social awakening doesn’t allow for a bereaved father to retreat into himself to mourn. He has to grapple with (both their) emotions and get on with life for his daughter’s sake.

      Like

  9. Not even after reading the line ‘I have to mop up the stream of tears that gush forth and hold back my own until the day comes when we might cry together and mourn the loss of her mother,’ did I realise this story was being told by a father. I was somewhat surprised after reading that line, so had to reread it several times thinking it was maybe a carer telling the story. To be told at the end of the story that it was a father telling the story came as a complete surprise, and made me feel even sorrier for the storyteller as he struggled to find a party dress for his daughter. I loved it!

    Well written in a way that would have most readers thinking it was the words of a mother being spoken.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No, it’s not. That’s why I loved the twist in this story in that most of us probably thought it was from a woman’s perspective. The clues were there, but I still missed them. For me, that’s excellent writing.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks, Hugh, for giving feedback, glad you enjoyed the story. Good to know that I got the balance right with the clues, subtle hints but not too much, so the punchline still hits a nerve, exactly the plan

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You did a great job with the story, Wendy. You certainly had me fooled into thinking it was a woman doing the shopping. I had a big smile on my face when I realised it was the girl’s father.

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  10. I love this story. I suspect many of us who have ever shopped with toddlers could identify with most of the frustrations and emotions revealed here , and as for the sucker punch at the end, well, very nicely delivered. Like Marsha, I too heard a women’s voice, as I dare say most of us did. A product of our upbringing perhaps, and society’s expectations. I hope things will change if they haven’t already, but it seems we are no longer used to going into shops now, so who knows?
    Nice one Wendy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes – let’s hope that whatever progress had been made in supportive customer service hasn’t been completely knocked back in shops’ struggles to survive lockdown.
      A line that just caught my eye (again) is ‘The most hurtful part is that it’s not about the dress. It’s about me. She is disappointed that I have offered her something and then taken it away again … even more … that I have not heeded her pleas.
      It occurs to me that this father is more insightful than most fathers I know… (or maybe that’s just the fathers I know).
      Thinking on though, he has closer knowledge of his daughter now than most fathers of three-year-olds.

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    2. Hi Val, I think we all read what we expect to read and fit the voices to the pictures in our head. I have a few other stories where I have used the same technique, the shock coming not from the words but from the character who is saying them

      Liked by 1 person

  11. My only comment as a reader, not a writer is ‘whoever tries dresses on a 2year old’? Having been the mother of three girls. Then I was enlightened by the finale. But still?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Only a father, it seems. We all learned by experience (slthough my girls, not being my first offspring, were mostly wearing their brothers’ and cousins’ cast-offs, so I can’t recall much about buying at that age).
    Perhaps at the eleventh hour, with a party imminent and no time to take it back and change it?

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    1. Several of Wendy’s stories (and poems) appear in the Whittlesey Wordsmiths’ anthologies, ‘Where the Wild Winds Blow’ and ‘A Following Wind’, with two Christmas volumes due out later this year, for which we now have titles… (ta-da!)
      ‘Windy Christmas (that’ll be the sprouts)’ and ‘Jingle Bells and Tinsel Tales; Festive fiction for all ages’.

      Like

  13. Wow – Wendy. It’s so good to meet you over a story like this one.
    Okay, where to begin?

    I’m a dad of a boy – girl – boy set and they each brought their own adventure to our lives.
    I’m fortunate to have a fully intact family. Both my wife and I are still in our first marriage and love the love of our own 3 kids and watching them finishing the final laps of their 20s.

    My heart was seizing up as I read of this person and should have caught the early clue about the first-person being the father but like others – I missed it and recall only a quick thought about how this might be a female near relative or something similar. I was reading too fast and didn’t want to slow down to think it through.

    The pain your father character invoked was so present I felt it. My daughter would have had this degree of impact if I worried about her being hurt or upset or in pain or any-other-form of distress and I did struggle to find paths of managing her that would yield the best results for her but sometimes, the fact that she was born with opinions with her words were not far behind made her a particular challenge sometimes.

    For you other dads out there, I can set you teeth on edge with the account of one day as our family of 4 (her younger brother was not yet with us) were sitting down at a crowded restaurant and we detected her need of a fresh diaper.

    “i’ve got this.” I said to my wife so she could focus some on taking care of the older son who was still sitting on booster chairs and fidgeting for attention. Off, the girl-child and I went, but as we settled into the men’s bathroom where one of those great fold down platforms for diapering had been installed in the wheel chair accessible stall, my daughter realized what was happening and decided that she did not want her diaper changed. . . (yea – it made no sense to me either) so she played the only real card she had to get her way. I, on the other hand was is no mood to empty the place of other diners because – well – recall this was a needed diaper changing event and it needed to be done so – I WAS GONG TO CHANGE THE THING!

    Guys – it was only moments of her piecing screaming that brought most of the restaurant management to our stall door loudly (so they could be heard themselves) asking if, :IS EVERYTHIG OKAY SIR – DO YOU NEED HELP SIR?” it was clear to me in the tone of their voices that they were actually concerned that I was some pervert who decided to use their bathroom to rape this child or something equally ugly because she was really belting it out.

    I struggled to explain and wrestle with frantic little arms and legs to both get the job done, assuage their concerns for the life and health of this child (which I was fast beginning to agree with BTW) while minimizing the amount of poop being kicked into flight.

    When the deed was finally done, she finally resigned herself to loosing this round with dad and stopped screaming and fighting. I gathered her and the bad of baby-girl-stuff up into one big bundle and navigated us out of the stall to face the public defenders waiting for us to make sure that I had not indeed permanently silenced her and made our way back out to our table. I thought I must have looked a wreck because my wife immediately apologized for what I’d been through. How could she have known because the rest room was at the far end of the building from where we were sitting?

    Still in I WILL NOT LOSE THIS EFFORT TO THIS CHILD mode, I answered, “it really wasn’t too bad.”

    Not buying my line for a moment, she told me then that it had to be horrible because the whole restaurant heard our daughter from the fully titled amplifier that was that bathroom and management were obvious in their efforts to converge on us to mitigate whatever disaster was unfolding in that stall. I must have been mere moments from trying to explain things to the police..

    = = = =
    But back to Wendy’s story. This was excellent! You dropped enough clues to keep me just off balance and wanting to organize the full story in my mind as quickly as possible but still managed to catch me doing an OMG when I finally realized that this story was being told by the father and I cringed for this fictional father. My final thought across the final line was a version of, “that, but for the grace of God, could have been me.”

    Your character thinking and complaining out loud as if we were sitting together telling stories and I was new enough to the situation that I was mentally running to catch up.

    I too was trying to sort out if this gal has some trauma related to the death of her mom or ???
    As a care giver and little girl, they seemed scary alone and was there no one close enough to help and how sad that would be because this adult is clearly too alone to bear up for long under such a child.
    Intelligent questions were being asked and I felt the angst of each thought and laughed about the lace up boots. – yea – in the same situation I would be griping about those.

    You managed to get me into both their heads; her struggle with not being able to understand why she was being tortured, and his with trying to solve a problem for her and managing only to upset her further. Ugh!

    Excellent – just excellent!
    Delivered like a parent who knows too well how badly such interactions can go with young kiddos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gary, your response is hilarious – sorry, I know it was a horrible time. Thanks for chiming in. Wendy did a fabulous job of pulling us all into thinking it was the woman’s voice. My husband was a single dad into his son’s teen years. I think that’s why he went bald early in life. I can’t imagine what he would have done with a little girl.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. What a powerful story. My husband was a single father and is quick to remind folks that single dads often have it harder than single moms. Somehow a mom escorting a son into the women’s bathroom doesn’t look as curious as a father escorting a daughter into the men’s room.

    I have 2 daughters. I remember one Christmas, my oldest daughter had a beautiful off-white brocade dress for the holiday. I wanted just the right hair bow to accessorize it. But I couldn’t find the proper shade…not white, not beige, not ivory…kind of a pearl color. Anyway, I looked all over town but my efforts were finally rewarded.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t see my husband (past or present) going to that much trouble to find just the right colour. (Come to that, I’m not sure either would even recognise the right colour…). With no wife to fall back on, perhaps a sensitive father develops new reserves.

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  15. Lovely story Wendy, l read it as a grandmother with a difficult granddaughter, not having enough contact with the child. Sadly divorced daughters-in-law only ask for help when they themselves cannot be bothered with the little girl they so wished had been a boy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This story has brought to light so many struggles that go on in families, often behind closed doors. I intended it to tug at a few heartstrings but never imagined how many people would be touched by the thoughts it raised, wendy

      Liked by 1 person

  16. This was such a beautifully written story. I don’t have children but I was right there with the parent. I love a story with a twist, and this one definitely provided one – both to my heartstrings and to my pre-conceived idea of the gender of the story teller. I can only imagine how hard it would be for a grieving father to try so hard to play both parental roles, especially to a child of the opposite sex. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It must be easier in practice for single mothers with sons (and I’m obviously not speaking on an emotional level now – just talking shops) as Mum generally has the children with her in most shopping situations until they reach school age.

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    1. There is, isn’t there? The story was from a writing group prompt. (It’s in our group’s first collection, “Where the Wild Winds Blow.”) The prompt for that month was a scene chosen from a virtual hat, but I wonder if Wendy had a further prompt for this one – perhaps something seen on a particular trip to the shops?

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Like other correspondents, I missed the twist. I assumed mother, then possibly grandma or foster mum before slapping my metaphorical forehead when it became clear. I liked the other hints, too at other issues – the reference to stitches, the perhaps underlying fear his daughter had other issues beyond losing a parent to confront. Beautiful writing throughout and for a father of a daughter. Like Gary a memory jerker for the many times I was designated shopping parent – my wife and daughter realised before she was ten that I was her preferred companion. Or perhaps butler would be nearer the mark. Shopping for school shoes, to find something that met two very specific yet diametrically opposed standards will remain with me – can you be traumatised by black pumps? Ah me…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am impressed! My present husband breaks out in a sweat when entering any shop other than DIY or motor spares (and he doesn’t spend too long in those). Perhaps your daughter recognised the easier parent to twist aroud her spending finger? On holidays, my kids all loved to come into charity shops with me. If they saw something they wanted there, they knew I would buy it for them – as opposed to a clothes shop or department store.

      Like

  18. This is such an amazing story,the clues were there but I missed them. I was wrapped in memories. I have three boys and so the experience was different but no less fraught. That the narrator was the dad really knocked me for six. The fact that still in this day and age father and toddler could only be accomadated in the stockroom sadden me, not surprised but saddened. A beautifully written piece from the heart .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. I’m with you on the customer service issues. Sadly it seems that lockdown has sent retail outlets backwards in terms of customer service. for instance, here in the UK we’ve been getting news reports of restaurants not allowing in guide dogs (which is actually illegal).

      Like

      1. Yes I know, I am in the UK too , lots of places have always been difficult about guide dogs. For some places lockdown and covid are an extra excuse for them to be awkward. I used to work in retail and , I hate to say this, in my day we cared and went the extra mile 💜

        Liked by 2 people

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