MAUD • by Stephen Duffin

Maud turned up her hearing aid to eavesdrop on the blazing row.

Raised voices blasted through the second-hand bookshop.  Insults poisoned the morning air.  Maud cherished each stinging word, her eyes sparkling with mischief.  I sense an opportunity, she thought, but where?

***

A man with broken spectacles leaned over the counter.  “Do you sell any American Classics?”

From behind the till, a youth shrugged his shoulders.  “I don’t know, sir.”

The man glared at him.  “Why not?”

“I’m new here.”

“What is your name?”

“Tom.”

The man sneered at him.  “Why can’t you find out?”

“I’m not supposed to leave the till.”

***

Maud shuffled closer, a dowager’s hump stinting her pace.  Scalding arthritic pain burnt her fingers, knuckles bulging as she gripped her walking stick.  She peered at the customer, putting his age at fifty.  Twitching like a tortured demon, he muttered curses at the floor.  Saliva dribbled down his chin.  I’ll avoid him, thought Maud.  He’ll cause trouble.

Hobbling away, she clutched her empty shopping bag.  Her tiny pension only stretched to bargain biscuits and cut-price tea bags.

At the back of the shop, lost among coaching manuals on gridiron, Maud found a copy of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Hardback, possibly a first edition, the dust jacket looked in good condition.  Maud smiled to herself.  It could be worth something…

***

The row continued.  Flushed with rage, the man snatched up a copy of The Maltese Falcon, hurling it onto the floor.  “What a terrible bookshop,” he yelled. “Where is the manager?”

Tom tried to be polite.  “It’s his day off…”

“Lazy Bastard!”

***

Exploiting the situation, Maud glanced around, checking there were no other customers in the shop.  Shivers of excitement raced through her spine.  Be careful, she told herself.  Don’t get caught. 

She propped her walking stick against the wall.

Standing beside the trestle table, she draped her cardigan over Farewell, My Lovely.

Hardly daring to breathe, she lifted the book, hidden by the cardigan, dropping both into her shopping bag.

***

Neither Tom nor the customer noticed.  They were still arguing.

Shuddering and dribbling, the man bawled across the shop.  “This is the worst bookstore in America!”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Teenage delinquent!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Snivelling Catamite!”

Tom looked pale.  “Perhaps you should try a different bookshop?”

***

Maud hobbled away from the table, hiding her prize behind tall, well-stocked shelves.  I don’t think they saw me, she thought. Whoopie!

She adjusted the book, wrapping it in her moth-eaten cardigan like a tramp’s birthday present.  Nobody could see the book, and the soft cloth saved the dust jacket from getting torn.  Giggling like a neurotic harpy, she shuffled towards books on moonshine liquor.

***

“What a dreadful shop,” yelled the man, scratching at boils on his neck. “What is wrong with America?”

Stumbling and lurching, he suddenly raced through the shop, shouldering into Maud, shoving her into shelves marked Crime Fiction.  “You withered hag,” he roared.  “Get out of my way!”

Storming out, he slammed the door behind him.

***

Dazed and trembling, Maud’s vision blurred into a swirling mist of Penguin paperbacks.  Her knees started to buckle.  Please God, she prayed.  I don’t need another hip operation.

Tom rushed over to help her.  “Come and sit down,” he said, guiding her to a chair.  “Wasn’t that man horrible?”

She sat down to catch her breath.  I wish this boy would stop fussing, she thought, her mind rambling.  What if he finds the book?  Will I go to jail?  Do they shoot elderly shoplifters?

Tom fiddled about behind the till, rinsing two mugs in a dirty sink.  “I’m really sorry about that man’s behaviour,” he said.  “Would some hot coffee help you recover?”

She nodded, regaining her composure.  “Milk and two sugars, please.”

“I’d love to show you a special book that came in,” said Tom, making their drinks.  “It was published in 1940.”

“What is it called?”

Farewell, My Lovely.”

Maud froze.  Does he know I’ve pinched it?  Is he toying with me? 

“It was here yesterday,” said Tom, searching the shelves.  “My boss says it’s quite valuable.”

Slipping her bag out of sight behind the chair, Maud pretended to help him look for it.  “I can’t see a thing,” she said, lying through her dentures.  “I haven’t got my bifocals with me.  What does it look like?”

“It’s got a brownish cover.”

Maud grabbed A Field Guide to Groundhogs, shoving it under Tom’s nose.  “Is this it, dearie?”

Tom scrambled about, rummaging through boxes, peering on top of shelves.  “I’m sure it’s here somewhere,” he said.  “It can’t just disappear, can it?”

Eyes narrowed, Maud gave him a sideways look.  He doesn’t know I’ve stolen it.  Perhaps I’ll get away with it?

She beamed as if struck by a bright idea.  “Maybe that strange customer pinched it?”

“It’s the only explanation,” said Tom, scratching his head.  “I should have kept it locked in the rare books cabinet.  It was a first edition.”

“Oh dear,” said Maud, feigning sympathy.  “It must be worth a fortune?”

“About ten thousand dollars.”

Maud sipped her free coffee.  “You can’t trust anyone these days, can you?”


Stephen Duffin lives in a tiny garret flat which he shares with a theatrical mouse that likes to dance along the skirting boards. When not reading books he either watches films or eats extra-hot curries.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Victoria Silverwolf

    This was a pleasant entertainment.

    I have to question a couple of points.

    *****SPOILERS*****

    For a story set in the USA, this sures sounds British (or possibly Canadian.) Row? Biscuits? Gridiron? Although I suppose Maud could be an immigrant. Possibly more critical to the plot, would any bookstore owner who knows the value of such a book just leave it sitting around in the wrong section of the store? (I doubt even the rather dim Tom would have made this big an error — “I should have kept it locked” indeed! — or that the owner would have placed the item in the care of an assistant who doesn’t know if they sell American Classics!)

  • I thought this story was set in Britain until told otherwise, too.

    There’s also another inconsistency in addition to the rare book not being locked away; the old lady puts the book in her bag, then appears to be holding the book the next time it’s mentioned.

    Well enough written, with well-defined characters, though I felt the angry customer was a bit overdone.

  • Jorta

    I found the language pretty jarring too. Americans don’t “pinch,” and terms like ‘teenage delinquent’ or ‘dreadful’ are only heard in old movies. The average American has no idea what a snivelling catamite might be, let alone how to phrase it in a sentence. Hag? No, this guy would probably call Maud a name beginning with one of the first 3 letters in the alphabet. The antagonist went from rude to disgusting to ridiculous–spitting, shuddering, drooling, covered with boils and ramming an elderly lady to the ground? Sounds like he had rabies or bubonic plague! Is this really how we are perceived from across the pond? Disturbing, and not in a satire kind of way.

  • S.E. Gaime

    Same, I thought this was set in Britain.

    It wasn’t necessary to have “she thought” over and over. It’s fairly common to see thoughts in italics and the reader will pick up on it. Didn’t really care for the back and forth, from Maud to the angry customer, considering the angry customer is only a prop. Could have Maud overhearing the commotion without switching to it.

  • I thought it was a bit overwrought, ‘blasted’, ‘poisoned’, ‘stinging’, and that’s just the first paragraph. But readable in a pleasant enough way.

  • Sheila Cornelius

    I thought this was entertaining in a Titus Groan sort of way; definitely over-written, but the scenario was good and kept me reading. I loved the ‘swirling mist of Penguin paperbacks’.

    Do they have Penguin paperbacks in America? Maybe the location could be changed to Notting Hill or Hampstead. It’s just conveivable that someone there, closely resembling Bill Nighy, might call someone else a snivelling catamite.

  • An interesting read – kept my attention till the very end. My main problem was with believing that such a valuable book would be just left on a shelf.

  • Fiction is fiction. The folks at EDF thought well enough of this piece to publish it and that’s good enough for me. It was nice to have an enjoyable read that I didn’t have to plod and work my through.

  • A bit cartoony for my tastes, but entertaining enough.

    I too assumed it was set in Britain until all the references to America cropped up.

    Maud’s a good character, but Mr Angry was definitely OTT.

  • I don’t think they saw me, she thought. Whoopie!

    That, and the subject matter, made me think of the Whoopi Goldberg film (Burglar, I think it was) in which she begins the film as a second hand book dealer – and catches a shoplifter!

  • I liked the story, feels familiar but t’s a always fun. I as confused about the placing to though. If you don’t have a reason to set it in American I might just change that rather then alter all the colloquialism goofs.

    Thanks for the story, though, I enjoyed it as a way to start the day more then most.

    Pension: Americans say Retirement mostly.
    Old Hag: wouldn’t be surprised, but I think “bag” might be more common.
    Tea Bags: unless this lady is an immigrant as some one suggested she typically wouldn’t be thinking of buying tea when low on cash.
    Biscuits: Americans say cookies, biscuits are completely different things come with a main meal, you put butter on them.

  • well-developed plot, entertaining, slightly over the top melodrama, tendency to force the points down our throats in case we missed them, but otherwise an easy read

  • ajcap

    I liked Maud but Rude Customer was certainly overdone. Still, a pleasant read and smiled at the end.

  • I thought all of the characters worked very well together, and the last line tied up the point of their relationships nicely.

  • Overwrought. Confusion over American and British location/characters. Annoyed by the handling of direct thoughts. Felt the entire point of he action was all too contrived and convenient just to build up to the final punchline that, in my opinion, had little punch and had already basically been revealed early on (we get it, she’s the one stealing, as we saw her stealing the entire time, her added, last comment just made her completely unsympathetic for it, when it could have gone a different direct since she was a ‘pensioner’, it could have been a story about human forgiveness, instead it was a story about how old ladies are just as nasty as customers who curse and yell and destroy property.

    I guess just not my cup of tea (which, at least that was coffee Tom served, not tea, though a bit surprising to find a dirty sink in the middle of a book store).

  • JenM

    Maybe Maude herself was British? I’ve heard Candians use words like “teenage deliquent” but then maybe that’s because of our British roots?
    I thought the story itself was quite cute, Maude got away with it right under Tom’s nose.

  • George

    Beyond the “rude customer” who, unfortunately, completely ruined the story for me, I found the dialogue out of place. It is stated for us that the story is taking place in “the worst bookshop in America” yet all three characters in the story do not sound remotely American. In response to Victoria (#1) we Canadians usually don’t sound that way either!

    Overall, I kept coming back to the same feeling that “people just don’t talk this way!” as I read the story and that was something of a shop-stopper for me.

  • vondrakker

    I positively love these nice light reads
    that are selected by EDF for our monday
    morning pleasure. It’s not perfect…in the
    sense that the end is quite forseeable….
    STILL…it’s worth 5 stars to me…
    Thank you Stephen…

  • I’m with #16 (George) on this one. Just not believable enough “today” language to make me buy in. Two stars..

  • Amie Ilva Tatem-Araaya

    I enjoyed “Maud”. Where does one’s sympathy go, I wondered, at first? It was easy to feel empathy for the polite young man….and hope that the rude customer would get his due. But..the character of Maud kept meandering through…winding its way through the mess. At the very end, this reader’s sympathies went totally to the “shoplifter.” No, honesty did not win out…In this way , the character of Maud was reminiscent, to me, of “The Threepenny Opera.”..the “heroes” of which are the “poorest of the poor.” Kudos to this great storyteller!

  • All I can say is “WOW”.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this story – and more than that, I enjoyed the telling of it.
    Well done you – you’re a star in the making.

  • I struggled to write a British character in my novel. A few times he came out very cliche’. I can understand a Brit struggling with American voice.

    In the end the voice issues were enough to drag this piece from great potential to a pedestrian effort. The end wasn’t nearly as satisfying as it could’ve been. It’s hard to write a likable thief.

    2*

  • Any story that includes the phrase ‘snivelling catamite’ has to get an extra star from me!

    I found this OTT on every level, from Maud’s moustache-twirling delight with her own thievery, to the twitching, dribbling, boil-infested (but impressively erudite!) name-caller, to the amazing coincidence of Tom wanting to show Maud the very ‘lost at the back of the shop on the wrong shelf’ book she’s just stumbled across and pinched — but for all that (or possibly because of it?) I found it amusing too.

    A bit odd, but a fun romp.

  • erinbee

    George (#16) is completely right. My mom and her family are all British, so I had no problem with the word choice, but I’ve never heard any of those colloquialisms actually used by your average North American. Canadians (where I am, anyway) talk way more like Midwestern Americans. Maybe I’m just nitpicking as it didn’t actually take me out of the story – it only seemed off in retrospection.

    I liked the details about Maud’s pension and the description of her character to explain her thievery. I also liked how the store clerk was a genuinely nice kid, although it made me side with him and against Maud. Previously mentioned continuity aside, I found this to be an enjoyable read.

  • Jorta

    Why is Dribbling Boil Twitcher so oddly obsessed with America, and why would one little bookshop in Any-town represent the entire nation’s problems? A more typical complaint would be “this is the worst bookshop I’ve ever seen” or “the worst in town.” Even his opening line made no sense: “Do you sell any American classics?” What else would be sold there–French classics? And any customer in the USA exhibiting such destructive & verbally abusive behavior would quickly be told to leave the store or face the police when the clerk called 911. You don’t stand there and apologize while a customer is slamming merchandise to the floor! Would an English proprietor passively allow such behavior? One more mental image gave me pause: do harpys giggle?

  • There is a very entertaining story hidden here under several glaring errors. First, the dialogue is all British–not even remotly American. I kept wondering if the author couldn’t imagine such a disagreeable customer being British in a British book store.
    Some of the metaphors were over the top–something I see frequently on this web site.
    Also, the rude customer was almost psychotic–even a demanding American has some boundaries. (-; He needs some toning down–or the clerk should call the cops– aa we Americans would say! (-;
    It is imortant to write about what you know–or do some really good research.
    I loved the ending-there is something satisfying about a pensioner on need getting away with it!

  • Richard W

    I gave it 2 stars for all the criticisms above, but as I’ve read the reviews I’ve come around to the operating theory that it’s satire. Rereading it as such makes the story much more anti-American but a bit more literary.

    When it’s read as satire, all of the little things – the boils and “Catamite” and behaviour spelled (spellt?) with a “u” – are fun rather than irritating or perplexing.

  • Okay–I looked up catamite and really think this word was way out of place in this piece. Dialogue and vocabulary should be used to advance a story, not confuse the reader.
    The word catamite has a very specific meaning. As an insult, it is way too esoteric to be effective–at least to us Yanks.)-:
    Perhaps #27 is right–it is a satire to remind us Yanks what uneducated fools we are.
    Or maybe it is just too clever for its own good.

  • The beauty of good satire is that those being satirized aren’t simply openly bashed and called out. That’s not satire, that’s just bashing. Take Swift’s A Modest Proposal. The beauty is that even those it was in effect lampooning weren’t exactly sure, and many considered his proposal as if it were genuine. Candide is another, where the satire is more direct, and just about anyone is brought into the fray, but rarely in a way that isn’t clever and the sort of things even those at the butt of the joke can’t go along with (if they even realize they’re the ones being made fun of). In those instances, you can say ‘what, it’s just a proposal’ or ‘what, it’s just a fictional story’ and have a reasonable defense.

    Satire is when those at the butt of the joke either don’t get it’s about them, or can reasonably justify/discount/laugh-it-off as ‘nah, it’s not making fun of me, it’s just a [….]’

    This story, if intended to be satire of Americans as some have suggested, fails to do that, at which point it becomes little more than base, offensive attacks on a peoples/cultures.

    You can’t just slap a label of ‘satire’ on anything offensive or rude and think it’s justified and makes it effective. If this is intended as satire, then it fails on all levels (unless it’s a satire of terrible satire), as it’s not clever in that manner in the least.

    The story almost works as a nice little story about a retired woman stealing books with a bit of irony thrown in to earn the ‘humor’ designation. Add in all the inconsistencies and miscalculations, and it still works as that story, if not a bit weak at points, as some have suggested. If intended to be satire, though, that changes how it’s to be read, and then the story just becomes offensive, poorly-written satire, and I have to question why the editors thought it neat to put something of this nature up.

    Seriously, if they thought ‘neat, satire making fun of Americans’ then I suggest they learn what satire actually is, and then apologize to me as a reader for having to endure such an interpretation of ‘satire.’

    I’m personally hoping it’s just an ironic story about a retired woman who’s the real crook, and the obnoxious man is simply a red-herring of sorts, as even with it’s flaws the story still almost works on that level. If intended to be satire, though, shame on everyone involved.

  • To be honest, I had assumed based on the language that Maud and the bookstore were in the UK — somehow my brain skipped right over the “worst bookstore in America” line until it was pointed out in the comments here. It never occurred to me to think of it as satire of Americans, or cultural satire at all — the story seemed to me to fit “humour” better than “literary”, that’s all (Maud’s self-righteous thieving made me laugh, and the mad customer is so over-the-top I felt that it had to be humour), but if anyone is troubled by the category label’s inclusion of the word “satire” I can easily switch it to “literary”.

  • Jorta

    Each comment makes me consider the story again, so in that way it is a success, if only by holding our interest for discussion. Yet every time I look another question comes to mind. We have a very elderly lady with a dowager’s hump, hearing aid, hobbling on a cane. She’s grinning delightedly during the maniac’s tirade and is giggling ‘like a neurotic harpy’ (still can’t fathom that) when the maniac charges toward her–at the BACK of the store–slams her into the shelves and storms out the door? He was headed AWAY from the door. Then as she sits trembling and muttering confusedly, the young clerk decides to offer this frail,shaken & impoverished lady a book worth ten thousand dollars right after she tells him (deceptively) that she can’t even see. None of it makes sense. And I’m not going back to look again! ><

  • Sherman McCoy

    Camille, maybe you should file it under farce?

    At least it has one point in its favour – it is definitely not boring! I think it needs a sequel. What does Maud do next? What havoc does she cause? Maybe she could run for president? 🙂

  • Thanks for the response Camille. I’m glad it wasn’t seen as satire as some have mentioned. I can definitely see the ironic humor of the situation (which is where it does manage to work).

    Interesting that ‘humor/satire’ and ‘literary’ are different categories, and can’t be both, though. I suppose that’s the downside of ever having to label any writing, as much of the best ‘literary’ writing is quite humorous (which is why I never see ‘literary’ as a genre or subject-label, but more simply a style/method, and why I personally generally hate having to see genre labels at all, though realize they are necessary).

    Thanks for the response. I love the interaction on the site and how, as mentioned previously, every comment gives a new insight into multiple levels/stages of a story.

  • Stephen Duffin

    Thanks to all who took the time to comment.

    This is my first story published online and I do believe that writers learn from feedback. I am overwhelmed by the many responses, both good and bad. Vondrakker #18 gets the star prize here: he summed up exactly what my story was intended to be – a light read for Monday Morning.

    My favourite comment was #23: “ … the twitching, dribbling, boil-infested (but impressively erudite!) name-caller.” That made me smile. Thank you Michelle!

    What’s more, I even got a compliment from Popsicledeath #33 “I can definitely see the ironic humor of the situation (which is where it does manage to work).” It can’t have been all bad if Popsicledeath (eventually) managed to find something nice to say!

    Anyway, back to my story.

    Overall, the first general criticism is language. I am neither American nor Canadian, I was born in Australia of English parents and have lived in the UK for many years. This might explain some of the mix ups regarding word usage – and tells me that in future I must do more research!!!

    Thank you Mickey #22 for your sensible comments. I set the story in the U.S. simply because I happen to like the U.S. None of it was ever meant to be satirical, nor deliberately intended to insult America or American culture.

    Snivelling catamite was purely flippant, as was the value of the book (in the first draft it started at a more realistic one hundred dollars and somehow crept upwards and upwards and upwards…).

    Secondly, years ago I actually did work in a bookshop (yes, in the UK) just like the one described. It had threadbare carpet, reeked of bad plumbing, and really did have a dirty sink (although not near the till). Booksellers are not paid to wash dishes. Strange customers often came in, and a few really were aggressive. Sometimes we did not know that books had been stolen until they were returned by the police. It was an odd sort of bookshop and I swear blind that it was haunted, but that is another story.

    Thirdly, I thoroughly enjoyed developing my overwrought, unrealistic, melodramatic plot! Fiction is fiction and I stand by every word I wrote. I am blessed (or cursed?) with a vivid imagination, and it finds suitable outlet in flash fiction. I love writing flippant, off-the-wall stories, and have no intention of ever penning issue-driven, socially-conscious, high-brow “literature” with deep profound themes and multi-layered allegorical meanings just because somebody tells me that I should. I will write what I please, thank you very much!

    Many, many thanks to all those folk who offered at least some praise. I appreciate it.

    Finally, I think EDF is a great website and have been following it for years. For me, two of the best ever stories were Richard Lamb’s Thursday’s Child, and Townsend Walker’s masterful An Incident at Golden Gate Bridge (Did the boy jump or didn’t he?…). Also, I liked the more recent Tentacular – thank you Gale for a very nice, well-written story. I understood that it was about either Bill and Bill or Mary and Mary first time round. Five stars from me!

    So, three wonderful cheers for all the hard-working staff at EDF! I am very honoured that they published my work!

    Best wishes to all.

    Stephen.

  • @Stephen, I actually liked the story–I love stories that have these quirky endings. I just had a few problems with vocab and setting. Thanks for reading all the comments and listening to what the various people were saying. Good luck–I think you have real talent.

  • Paul Graham

    I enjoyed it Stephen, I like a light read and took it as no more than that.

  • I have also known a second-hand bookshop with a sink like that here in Australia, although there wasn’t a smell issue.

  • Just a note to the critics of the author’s use of the English language – particularly the critics who were ‘amused’ by words like humour, with its use of the ‘u’ in it.
    Perhaps it is amusing to you Americans that we English use the written words, colour, humour etc. but you need to remember that ENGLISH is the first language of the world – not American.
    So when you write ‘color’ or ‘behavior’, think again! You’ve distorted the English language. Tut! Tut!

    It’s possible that Stephen made the mistake of not setting his story in England – a run-down store in Soho, London, would have been a fine venue for his story.

    Nevertheless – a grand little piece of flash fiction – well done, Stephen. I can tell there’s more great yarns to come from your pen.

  • I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone that we can disagree without attacking each other or feeling attacked, right?

    As a note about EDF’s policy on regional spelling, since we publish stories from around the world, we use the spelling that the author prefers. There’s a forum topic on regional differences for anyone who’d like to weigh in on the subject here.

  • @Camille. As an American who speaks and writes in American English, I thank you.

  • To Camille in particular – no offense intended. Just pointing out something that we English are proud of – that’s all.
    Nothing against Americans – I’ve written for American mags;I belong to American writing forums; I’m part of an American writing community. All great fun.
    Sorry if I came across with that stuffy English ‘stiff upper lip’! Oh, dear…