What started out as a Valentine’s Day short story challenge set by a friend, ended up fueling so many ideas that it looks like I have a new novel on my hands, whether I want one or not. So, to celebrate February 14th, I thought I’d publish the first three chapters here. The chapters are still in their early stages. If this idea ever makes it into a full novel worth publishing, there’s no doubt that these chapters would change dramatically. Still, it can be fun to poke your nose into a writer’s first or second drafts.
The challenge: Write a 5k-10k short story that includes the words heart, surrender, Valentine, Cupid, and sweet somewhere within the text.
My thought process: The challenge words made my mind jump immediately to the Romance genre. A story that takes place in the here and now. Except, I don’t write Romance and all my stories take place in other worlds entirely. That could make this tricky. After a lot of thinking and a notepad covered in scribbles, I started tracing out a plan: A Historical Fantasy set in London, 1946, recovering from WWll. The more I thought about it, the more the ideas multiplied, and I realized this would not be a short story… My friend suggested I write the first three chapters of the novel for the challenge instead and Blitzed was born.
I will post one chapter a day on the blog until Valentine’s when all three chapters are released. I hope you enjoy the sneak peek at one of my works in progress!
I set the clean glass on the counter and started wiping down another. Ten down, twenty more to go.
“There’s nothing doing once a lad’s got his mind made up to sow his oats and that one’s been growing wheat for years if you ask me.”
I hadn’t asked him, but there Frank was, on the same stool he’d sat on for the better part of sixty years, going on about my apparently failed love life.
“Yeh’ve got to show him who’s in charge, lass. Real subtle like though, or you’ll scare ‘em.”
“Right,” I said, setting another clean glass on the counter a little more firmly than was necessary. I’d worked in my uncle’s pub, The Huntsman, officially since I was fifteen. Unofficially, I’d worked here as long as I can remember, if only to run errands between coloring in the back of the phone book in the corner booth. The men here, the regulars, had seen me grow up and felt a sense of responsibility, grown out of some sort of paternal duty, to see that my life was a happy one.
“Those ears of his could pick up radio signals from Munich; could’ve helped the war effort!” called Ernest from his place at a round wooden table that was probably as old as he was. He and Frank laughed and raised their glasses. I couldn’t help smiling. Colin’s ears had been awfully large.
What they hadn’t understood, though, was that I was perfectly happy with how things ended. Mostly the fact that they had ended. I’d been trying to figure out a way to break up with Colin for the past month, but he beat me to it. I just wish he would have waited until after Valentine’s Day. Thinking me brokenhearted right before the saint’s holiday was half the reason the old codgers wouldn’t let up.
“Lydia,” came my uncle’s voice from the back room. “I need you back here for a moment.”
I tucked the rag into my front apron pocket and pushed open the door set into the stone wall behind the counter. Frank and Ernest were the only two patrons at the moment, but more would soon be arriving as it neared six ‘o clock.
My uncle Jack stood with a clipboard next to a stack of boxes labeled with the Charrington stamp. He was one of those people that carry themselves in a way that makes them look much taller than they really are. He owned three of the same sweaters in slightly different variations of muted brown on which he always wore a fastidiously kept red, paper poppy.
My uncle had told me countless times with great pride about the day he’d enlisted in the first war illegally at the age of sixteen. It almost broke his mother’s heart, he’d said. So when the news of the second war broke, he’d marched down to the army’s registrar’s office fully intending to enlist again. When they turned him down on account of a previous injury, he came straight home, pinned the poppy to his lapel and threw himself into the home front war effort more than any other single person I knew.
“I need these logged into inventory before the rush,” he said, tapping the stack of boxes.
“I’m on it.”
“Oh, and Lydia? Are you sure about that drink of yours?”
“Yes, yes. It’ll be a hit, I promise!”
In an attempt to cheer me up, my uncle had suggested I put one of my cocktails I’d been dying to try on the menu. The Huntsman was a strictly ale and stout kind of pub but I had been pestering Uncle Jack to let me try making some of the drink recipes I’d seen in Woman. I thought it would bring in the younger crowds, not to mention some ladies for once.
This being my chance, I’d mixed up my own special recipe for Valentine’s Day that I’d named The Cupid. It involved candy hearts, a cherry, and a good deal of gin. I mixed one up for Uncle Jack last night and he seemed more than a little wary. I made sure to mention that I’d had to return a few of Colin’s things earlier.
That night was an especially busy one on account of it being the Saturday after payday. The men were in a raucous mood with many refrains of “The Foggy Dew” being sung at every new round of drinks. I spun around my uncle, holding pitchers of beer in both hands as he scraped together change from the register’s drawer.
I glanced at the chalkboard where I’d meticulously written “Valentine’s Day Special: The Cupid! Try it tonight!” with curlicues and embellishments. Not a single one had been ordered.
“Another round of Barclays over here, lass!”
I hurried to the tap. Guess my uncle was right. There’s no use selling a drink for a young lady when we didn’t yet have any. He’s never going to let me try out a new drink again, I thought, sullenly filling another pitcher.
I scanned the bar to count up the number of people waiting on drinks when I noticed someone new gingerly push open the door and look around. He was wearing a clean white button-up, underneath a twill jacket, like he’d just come from an office or something and it immediately put him at odds with his surroundings.
The men of the Huntsman were almost all labor workers- metal, construction, the docks. It wasn’t often we saw an accountant, or whatever he was.
He sidled up to the bar, one hand in his pocket, looking at what we had on tap. When Gregory left his stool to go join a game of cards, the newcomer took his spot.
“Erm, whiskey please. Linkwood if you have it.” A lock of brown wavy hair fell over his forehead and he pushed it back in place. He was quite young, now that I had a clear look at him. Probably around my age.
“That we do, Mr…”
“Harkers. Nathanial Harkers. But call me Nat, if you don’t mind.”
“Alright, Nat. Welcome to The Huntsman. Linkwood Whiskey it is then.”
I poured a glass and set it down in front of him. He finished it in one go.
“Thirsty are ya?” I asked laughing.
“A little. Another, please?”
This one he took slower, one modest sip at a time. I left him to it and made my rounds through the tables. Most barmaids had to worry about pinches or pats on the bum every night, but no one here would even let it cross their mind. Not to someone they’d given hard candies to as a child, still warm from their pocket. And even if some of the younger men did think to get a little handsy, my uncle would have them out on their arses before they could blink.
“Tell ‘em, Lyd! Tell ‘em I won the final hand night before last!” Ernest said, pulling me over to his table.
“I’m sorry Greg, he certainly did.”
“Ha! What’d I tell ya? You were too gone in your cups!” Ernest slapped his cards down. “You’d better pay up or I’ll call ‘round to the missus!” I winked at Ernest as Gregory counted out the pounds.
Back behind the bar, I ran a rag over the hundred-year-old surface, worn at the edges where countless bellies had rubbed against it.
“You seem rather popular in here,” said Nat.
“You would be too if you’d control over the alcohol,” I laughed. “You new to this area? Just start a job or something?” I looked again at his clean button up.
“Oh, yeah, you could say that.”
“What do you do?”
“An electrician? You don’t look like it.”
He laughed. “Well, you don’t look much like a barmaid yourself.”
“Now, what is that supposed to mean?”
He blushed faintly. “Only, I dunno. You look like you could be one of those girls that travels a lot. Seen a lot of the world. Like in the pictures.” His voice trailed off and he looked down at his drink. “Don’t mind me, I always end up saying stupid things once someone gets me talking.”
I burst out laughing— the kind of laughing that makes people around you look up and take notice, which is exactly what happened. It was just… that was probably the poorest description I’d ever heard of myself. I had lived in the same flat with my parents since the day I was born. I’d never gone anywhere but to the country for a bit during the worst of the war.
Once I’d recovered myself enough to speak, I said, “Must be something off with our whiskey to get you to say something like that. But I thank you. If it was a compliment of sorts, I’ll take it.”
Nat looked up at me and grinned. He had a cheeky little smile. Mischievous, like the kind of grin I imagined got him in and out of trouble as a child. His ice clinked around his empty glass.
“Another whiskey, is it?”
“I’d better switch to ale, Miss.”
As I went to pour one from the tap I saw my uncle look up at the chalkboard and shake his head a little. I stopped.
“Hey, Nat,” I said leaning over the bar so he could hear my lowered voice. “Listen, would you mind terribly doing a favor for me?”
He looked at me quizzically for a moment then shrugged. “Sure?”
“Would you order the special for this week? It’d really help me out.”
“What is it?”
“Just a little something I made up for Valentine’s Day. There’s gin,” I added quickly.
He blew out a breath. “Ok, but you’re walking me home if I end up falling off this barstool.”
“Deal,” I laughed. “One special, coming right up!” I said loudly enough for my uncle and everyone at the bar to hear.
I took my time, making sure everything was just right. When I sat the pink concoction down in front of him, he just stared at it.
“You want me… to drink that?”
I nodded with enthusiasm. The men around him were starting to turn to look at him. A few craned around their companions to get a look at the martini glass. There were a few chuckles.
He looked up at me again. “You owe me one,” he said under his breath, then picked up the drink and downed it.
“You’re not supposed to—“ I started, but too late. He sat back, crunching on the conversation hearts from the bottom. Cheers went up and down the bar.
“It’s not bad, really!” he called out to the men cracking jokes. “A little sweet, but I actually liked it!”
“Lass?” It was Frank, sidling up to the bar. “I’d like to try one of them specials.” He gave me a wink and patted Nat on the back who wobbled dangerously on his stool.
And that’s all it took. Once the men saw how happy it made me every time someone ordered The Cupid, there was a pink martini glass on almost every table.
I might need to get my heart “broken” more often.
The night was over quicker than usual thanks to conversation with Nat between cleaning tables and drink orders. I found myself thinking up reasons to go to his end of the bar and talk to him. It was nice to have someone my age to talk to. He argued over who had the best album— Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra. I’d always be a Sinatra girl no matter what he said.
The bar was emptying and Uncle Jack and I were busy collecting tabs.
“How much do I owe you?” asked Nat.
“Let’s see, um, looks like one pound, fourteen pence.”
He took the hand that had stayed in his coat pocket all night out with his wallet. Two of his fingers were missing, his pinky and ring finger, and most of what was left was shiny with burn scars.
“Oh,” I said, and immediately berated myself for drawing attention to it.
“Oh, this? I’d actually almost forgotten about it for once.” He smiled ruefully.
“The war?” I said. How stupid. Of course it was the war. First I draw attention to it, now I’m asking questions about it? I could feel whatever friendliness that had grown between us dissipating along with the cigar smoke in the pub.
“Bomb. It was a bomb. Here I mean, in London.”
“Oh,” I said again. I wished I could melt into the floor.
“It’s all right. Really,” he said, seeing my discomfort. “I can’t always keep it hidden. And the drinks help.” He gave me a wink. His hair was in he eyes again. He placed the money on the bar and put his wallet away, leaving both hands out of his pockets.
“Thank you. For ordering that drink, I mean,” I stammered.
“How long will it be on special?”
“The Cupid— how long will you have it on special?”
“Until Valentine’s Day, I suppose.”
“Brilliant. I’ll be sure to come in for another.”
My heart leapt and I stared stupidly at him from behind the bar.
“See you next time?” he laughed.
“Yes!” I was finally catching up. “See you, then!”
He made his way to the door, only a little unsteady on his feet, and was gone into the cold night.
I immediately put my forehead down onto the bar and groaned. I was such an idiot.
“Tired?” Said my uncle, coming over to collect Nat’s money. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but your drink was a hit! Maybe we can start having a cocktail special on the weekends, eh?” He nudged my elbow. I just grunted.
“Looks like that young gentleman of yours left you a good tip.” I stood up as he handed over the change.
“He’s not my gentleman, Uncle Jack. Don’t be getting any ideas.”
“I would never,” he said with a wink.
To be continued…. Look for Chapter 2 tomorrow!
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