The Wild Woman
This story reached the 'Final Ten' in Stroud Short Stories' November's 2021 WILD! live lit event, and later broadcast on BBC Upload. It was published by Stroud Short Stories in their anthology "Stroud Short Stories Volume Three 2018-2022" on 9 September 2022.
Sometimes, just sometimes, the Wild Woman would choose to come to Joe Evans. With few needs and a few friends, Joe worked an honest day and slept a solid eight hours each night. He was no-one special.
Most evenings, his day’s work done, Joe would shrug on a coat and tramp the short distance from his own front door to that of his local pub. Hanging baskets flanked the entrance, gaudy flowers swaying to catch his attention, but Joe barely noticed them. What waited inside held so much more promise.
He’d duck under the stone lintel and into the gusty embrace of warm ale and ham sandwiches. Pausing to let his eyes adjust to the dim interior, he’d nod to neighbours before approaching the bar.
A greeting from the landlord Jeremiah, an acknowledgement in return, and the ritual would begin.
It took an expert hand to conjure up the Wild Woman. Betsy the young barmaid had never achieved it, nor that cocky youth who was seldom allowed out of the kitchen to serve drinks. Only the landlord could be relied on to bring her forth. When Jeremiah Clutton poured a pint, it was with a steady, practised hand and an unhurried air. It wouldn’t do to scare her.
Jeremiah would slide a glass under the tap almost stealthily, tossing out a quip on the day’s events or a comment on the weather as a distraction. His gaze never lingered on the drink and Joe was grateful for this courtesy on her behalf.
The moment liquid touched glass, violence erupted. Ale, momentarily freed from the depths of the barrel, now found itself contained behind glass walls and rose in anger, spewing foam as it roiled with frustration. Joe could only watch the turmoil and pray that she would appear.
Hints came first. A tendril of hair coiled into existence deep inside the foam and she tossed it to let him know she was there. The battle surging all around meant nothing to her. She held no allegiance, owed no favours. She moved constantly, shifting easily through molten amber, darting behind frothy clouds, never fully in view.
Joe was enthralled. The closer he watched, the more elusive she would become. A flick of her slim hand would call his attention, only to fade away. She’d sink into the depths of the conflict, then shoot upwards, a comet trail of bubbles the only witness to her passage. He could never see her completely, could never tear himself away.
Just once, fleetingly, he had coaxed her out of the glass. He’d glanced up to find her seated opposite, fronds of auburn hair fanned across her shoulders, skin pale and creamy. She’d raised her eyes to meet his, and they had speared him like a fish.
Caught unprepared, he’d floundered. He’d stared as deeply as he could into those liquid pools, but the connection he’d hoped to find there was absent. She did not condescend to answer his wordless question, and regretfully he’d looked down again.
The ale in his glass still fizzed, but gently now, subdued, foam dispersing. The Wild Woman did not belong in still waters and Joe was obliged to let her go.
He finished his pint quietly, nodded to the landlord, and set off home.
Jeremiah Clutton, hands spread wide on polished mahogany, missed nothing. So, the Wild Woman had chosen Joe tonight, and the landlord realised his business would be none the worse for it.
He swept an experienced eye over the band of regulars and knew that she had toyed with most, if not all of them. Not that any of them would ever admit it. The pub’s ale and atmosphere might loosen their tongues on many a subject, but when it came to the Wild Woman, each was convinced that they, and they alone, had won her favour.
No, Joe Evans was no-one special.