Odd Couple Short Story Competition - Runner Up

Daren Carpmail

Runner Up
Daisy and Frank
Odd Couple Short Story Competition


Daren Carpmail is a fifty-something writer from the West Midlands. He took to writing several years ago as part of an ongoing midlife crisis. He has had several short stories published, both in print and online, and has had some previous success in competitions. He is especially pleased to have done well this time given how high the standard in Writing Magazine always is. His day job is in sales, which is every bit as dull as it sounds, and when not writing he spends his time guitar playing, cycling and getting stressed by West Bromwich Albion.


Daisy and Frank By Daren Carpmail

 I had toned down my appearance for the day, but still none of the family wanted to have anything to do with me. It was crowded on their side of the church, but I had a pew all to myself. I was dressed in black, as always, but I was wearing a sober skirt – no leather or zips in sight, and I had spent ages polishing my boots the night before. I wasn’t going to let him down. OK, I was still wearing heavy eye makeup, but even that was much less “in your face” than usual. Of course, it didn’t help that I was trying not to cry. If I did, my mascara would run, and I’d end up looking like something out of a zombie movie.
 I would never have spoken to him if it hadn’t been for Gracie. It was a lovely spring day and I was eating my lunch on a park bench. I often do that. I get so sick of all the girls in college sniggering about the way I look. That and their stupid conversations. Who cares who won the X Factor anyway? I opened my sandwiches and was approached by a whirlwind in the form of a little brown Jack Russell. She sniffed my bottom. Why do dogs do that? I love animals, I’d be a vegetarian if only I had the discipline, but I’ve never had a dog of my own.

A man ambled over. He was elderly and looked at me warily, as people tend to do, and not just old dears either. You would think I’d got two heads the way some people stare. To be fair to him, I had really gone to town that day. I was wearing a short leather skirt, huge boots, and a strappy black top to show off the new skulls and roses tattoo on my upper arm. It was quite big, and I was very pleased with it, but I could always cover it up with a long-sleeved T shirt when I wasn’t feeling so brave.

He relaxed when he realised I was just making friends with his dog. “Don’t worry love, she won’t hurt you. She’s just being friendly.”                           

I’d normally give any man an earful for calling me “love”, but he seemed like such a nice guy I didn’t have the heart to say anything.  “She’s certainly very friendly.” I ruffled her fur. I think he was expecting a stream of swear words, so he must have been relieved that I was “normal” after all. “What’s her name?” I asked.

“Gracie. After Gracie Fields. You won’t remember her of course. She’s not quite a year old now. I love her to bits, I really do. She’s the only company I’ve got these days.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, but I had to say something. “So, don’t you have any family then?”

“Oh yes, I’ve got a son. He’s married with kids of his own…well they’re not really kids now, teenagers. But they live in London so I don’t get to see them too often.”

Silence again. “Well I’d better be off. Bye Gracie!” I tickled her under the chin.

Over the next few weeks our meetings in the park became a regular thing. I was supposed to be revising for my A levels, so I went to the park to clear my head, and I often bumped into Frank and Gracie. Frank carried his Daily Mirror, and Gracie would always leave me covered in dog slobber. I soon found out that he actually lived in the same street as me, and I think it says a lot that neither of us had ever noticed the other before.

Later that summer, I was on my way home from college when I realised I hadn’t seen Frank for a while. I wasn’t sure whether he’d like me knocking on his door, but I thought I’d try anyway. They’re always wittering on about how you should check up on elderly neighbours, so I thought I’d do just that.

The door opened just a few centimetres as it was on a chain. “Who is it?” Frank sounded different, diminished somehow.

“It’s me, Daisy.”

“Daisy! Come in.” The warmth in his voice was unmistakeable, and the door opened wide. I was surprised to see that he was in a dressing gown, and I could see some old school blue and white striped PJs underneath. There was a sort of floral smell in there. Was it lavender? Whatever it was, I thought of it as an old person’s smell.

“Gracie, your mate’s here!” He shouted, and the little dog ran in from the kitchen, her tail wagging like it was nuclear powered.

“Have a seat. Do you want a cup of tea?”

“Oh, yes please Frank. Proper builder’s tea with two sugars.”

I took a look around the room while he was in the kitchen. What is it with old people and photos?                                            

There were a lot of pictures of his son’s family, and especially of his grandchildren when they were little. There was also a black and white wedding photo, with our Frank looking very dapper in a suit that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Al Capone movie. The one that really caught my eye was a framed picture on top of the telly. Frank was in an Army uniform and looked very handsome, even heroic.

I walked over to the picture and picked it up just as Frank came in with the tea. He saw me looking at it but didn’t say anything.

“So, how come I haven’t seen you and Gracie in the park lately?” I ask.

He sat down in the big armchair and sighed. “You’re a good girl, Daisy, you know that? I was a bit wary of you at first, I don’t mind admitting. I was mugged a few years ago, and so I’m a bit uneasy around young people, especially when they look a bit, you know, different.”

I smiled. He wasn’t the only one.

“But you have always been a proper lady, zips, tattoos and all, so I’m going to tell you the truth. I was diagnosed with cancer a year or two ago, I had chemo and everything and they thought they’d got it all, but now it’s back and there’s nothing much they can do. There’s no point in more chemo, it wouldn’t do any good, so now it’s just a case of doing the best I can. They reckon I’ve got about three months.”

I didn’t know what to say. I had been lucky, I suppose, and no one close to me had ever died before. I realised how fond I had grown of him. “So, is there anything I can do?”

“Well, there is one thing. You see I am tired all the time now, and I haven’t been able to take Gracie for walks. She can do her business in the back yard, but she needs the exercise, you know what a little bundle of energy she is.”

I agreed that I would drop by and take Gracie for a walk every day. This was hardly a chore as I loved the little mutt, and it was nice to be able to do something for Frank.

One cold afternoon a couple of months later, I was taking Gracie back to Frank’s when a bunch of little kids on bikes rode past. “Freak,” one of them shouted to me, as his mates laughed and cheered.

I wouldn’t normally let something like that bother me, but because of Frank I was feeling more emotional than usual. When he opened the door, I was wiping away tears.

Frank looked concerned. “Whatever’s the matter love?"

“Oh, nothing. Just some stupid kids, making fun of the way I look.”

“Oh, take no notice of them.” He patted me on the shoulder. “You’re a smashing girl just the way you are, don’t let anybody tell you different. Always be yourself, that’s a battle worth fighting.”

He really was a lovely guy. When he was making the tea and I found myself looking at the photos again. I had never mentioned the Army one, but this time I decided to ask him about it. All that talk of fighting and battles had made me curious, I suppose. I looked at him as he sat down. “I saw your Army picture.”

“I know you did. I’m not old enough to have been in the ‘Big One,’ mind you. I was in Korea in the Fifties, the forgotten war it seems to me. We were just young lads and the things we had to face… well you don’t want to know. Still, I survived that battle. I wish I could say the same about the one I’m in now.”

He looked close to tears, and I put a hand on his shoulder.
 He died a couple of weeks later. I was determined to go to the funeral, even though I wouldn’t know anyone. Who cared what his family thought anyway? None of them had been there in his final few weeks.

At the wake afterwards, I was sitting by myself eating cold sausage rolls when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Frank’s son. I recognised him from the photos.

“Excuse me, you’re Daisy, aren’t you?” 

I nodded.

“He wanted you to have this, I can’t pretend I’m happy about it, but there’s nothing I can do; his will was very clear.”

“Nice to meet you too,” I thought as I opened the package. Inside was a medal, it was silver with a red and blue striped ribbon. It featured a map and the word “Korea”. There was a note attached: “Goodbye Daisy. Keep fighting those battles. Love, Frank.”

I wiped away a tear.

When I got home, I re-did my make-up and put on my shortest, loudest skirt, and my biggest, clumpiest boots, just for Frank. Gracie’s tail was going like crazy as I attached her lead, ready for her walk.


Judges Comments

Daisy and Frank, the runner up in WM's Odd Couple Short Story Competition, is a really heartwarming story of an intergenerational friendship. Through the connection between emo kid Daisy and elderly dog-walker Frank, Daren Carpmail shows two people being rewarded from looking beneath the surface as each character discovers how deceptive appearances can be.

Daisy, in her subcultural finery, is used to being written off as a weirdo. Frank has misgivings at first, but Gracie the Jack Russell's instincts tell her that Daisy is friendly. And so the odd couple bond, at first over the little dog, but with a growing appreciation of each other.

Daren has paced his story just right, showing enough of his two central characters to pique the reader's initial interest and then building carefully to construct a really rewarding storyline. Picking Daisy as his first-person narrator is a wise choice, giving the reader an immediate insight into her via her voice, which is friendly and engaging. She's upfront about her own vulnerabilities early on, revealing that her carefully constructed appearance is camouflage as well as self-expression – tellingly, she's both proud of her bold new tattoo and happy to be able to cover it up when she's not feeling brave. It's hard not to like her, and the whole story hinges on her being an engaging character.

Frank's reveal, that he was a war hero, is another layer to the story: Daisy is able to see past the enforced anonymity of the lonely old man to the valiant hero of the past. The mutual exchange is well conveyed: Daisy gives Frank companionship and later, care; Frank sees Daisy and recognises her courage.

Daren keeps a final twist of the heartstrings to end this touching story of how a cross-generational friendship enhances both lives: Gracie the dog puts in a final appearance. It's skilfully done: Gracie started Daisy and Frank's friendship and the end, when Daren shows us that Gracie is now in Daisy's care it echoes the beginning of the tale as a lovely narrative device that brings the story full circle.