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Tales for the Beach - Five stories of love and friendship

 

 

 

Tales for the Beach

 

Five stories of love and friendship

 

 

 

LISA DYER

Copyright © 2016 Lisa Dyer

 

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except for brief quotations used for promotion or in reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

 

First Edition, Tickle Belly Alley Books. 2016

 

Shakespir Edition, Licence Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favourite ebook retailer to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.

 

 

 

I

Emily closed the front door behind her and took a deep breath. It had been another fraught evening and the morning had dawned with raw emotion hanging over it.

Dave had left the home last night, slamming the door in a display of anger. The pictures on the wall had jangled on their hooks and the cat had taken flight up the stairs to hide under the bed.

Emily had sat in stunned silence on the sofa; the pit of her stomach had fallen out when she had heard the words, ‘I’ve had enough, it’s over.’

She fiddled with her wedding band trying to slow the million and one thoughts that whirled through her head.

Emily and Dave had been married seven years – the seven-year itch? Maybe. They had a good (so she thought) marriage. Not perfect; they’d had their fair share of difficulties but who didn’t? They’d bought a lovely little terrace house in the town and had managed to save enough money to do it up. Thoughts had begun to turn, inevitably, to children and then the bombshell was dropped.

Dave’s employer had called his team in and announced that the contract they’d bid on had not been successful; layoffs were coming.

Emily had tried to be pragmatic, to suggest temporary solutions to the immediate impact of the loss of one wage but Dave was bitter; he’d been with the firm since leaving college and thought they owed him more.

Trying to keep a calm head in the face of his anger had been difficult but she’d managed it. As the days turned to weeks and the letters began to arrive from the firm outlining redundancy payments, it soon became clear that the money coming in from her wage wasn’t going to cover it once the meagre payout was used up.

She knew that it was his feeling of impotence that drove the anger; that he felt unable to control the situation and so he turned on her.

“You need to get a proper job. It was all very well indulging your whim when we had my wage coming in, but, that coffee shop isn’t going to pay the mortgage.”

Emily’s ‘whim’ had been, not a coffee shop, as Dave had harshly called it, but a tea shop. There was difference. Wisteria Tea Shop was pleasantly situated in the small market town, just a short walk from Emily’s home on the banks of the river, in a timber building that once had been a weaver’s house.

With its seasoned beams, slightly slanted roof line, white-washed walls, snow white table linen and fine bone china tea services, it had a genteel, agreeable atmosphere and was popular amongst the older residences who liked to take tea and catch up on the news.

There were nooks in which she had arranged books on shelves and padded seats which overlooked the river and people were welcome to take tea and read for if they liked; cup didn’t buy a spot at a table here.

Most didn’t take advantage of such a generous offer. Emily had faith that they wouldn’t and so being a cosy place to hang out meant that people stayed and drank tea and ate cake; perhaps more than they would if she hadn’t offered such a unique experience.

The idea of owning such a place had taken hold in Emily from a young age.

She had visited such an establishment on a family holiday and was completely smitten with the thought that she could have her very own place.

Dave had been sceptical at first but she’d done her homework prior to broaching the subject – she knew him well enough to know that vague ideas didn’t wash. He needed clear data and so, in her lunch hour at her old place of work, she diligently set out to provide them.

He’d pored over the spreadsheets, costings, and projected income she had provided. The town was a tourist trap having a large moated house that drew hundreds of visitors in the summer season as well as the river which was used by kayaker and canoeists. The one thing they didn’t have was a convenient tea shop to stop at, moor their crafts and take refreshments.

“Okay, it all looks great on paper but, you know, Em, this is going to be seasonal. What about winter?”

Emily was already onto it.

“I’ve been looking at Shott’s House,”

She heard him take a breath.

“Hear me out,” she continued, sure that she had covered all her bases before even embarking on this conversation “It’s got a great frontage and upstairs, it’s got those massive weaver’s windows, lots of light. I was thinking…I could put a gallery up there, or maybe rent it out as studio space”

She saw his shoulders slump a little and waited for the doubt.

“And, where are the artists coming from?”

“Well…there’s the local group and, you know, maybe they’d like to have the rooms for meetings.”

Dave twisted his hands and looked at her. “Okay, if you’re serious then I guess we’d best get to the bank and see what they have to say.”

She had thrown her arms around his neck and kissed him. It was a dream come true and her head spun with delight.

Today, Emily felt as if she were made of lead. Her feet dragged as she made her way through the streets towards the tea rooms.

On the way, she passed several of her regulars who bid her good morning and promised to see her later. She managed a wan smile and as much of a cheery response as she could manage. Within ten minutes she stood at the front door. The hanging baskets were a cacophony of bright, clashing colours and ivy snaked down and twisted towards the sunlight. She never ceased to find the dipping heads of the petunias a welcoming sight nor did the tiny paned windows bedeck with curtains that through which the casual observer could see the warm welcome that awaited them. The bank had said ‘yes’ to the loan and she had signed the lease with the estate agents and with mounting excitement had taken possession of the keys.

On that first morning, as she opened the door to the property, she could smell the scent of centuries. Shott’s House had been a small B&B, a bookshop and latterly a charity shop. She had stood in the emptiness soaking up the stillness of the place before climbing the winding staircase to the rooms beyond.

 

***

 

On the first floor, was a large room that covered the entire length and width of the building. It was divided by a wall but the daub had been removed and now only the bare bones of the wooden frame survived. The so-called weavers’ window was a long, high aperture fixed with diamond leaded glass.

Its name came from the fact that in the days gone by the Flemish weavers, who had fled the religious persecution inflicted upon them in their home country, would sit in this room, using the light afforded by the large windows to produce their fine woollen cloth at looms situated within.

At the far end was a small flight of stairs down to a kitchen. The place needed a good clean but nothing a bucket of hot water and some Flash wouldn’t cure.

Above were the attic rooms, small and tight with a great king post supporting the roof.

Emily had drunk it all in and was soon filling up the pages of her notebook, capturing all the ideas she had for the place. The excitement she had felt on that first day had stayed with her until now.

With a heavy heart, she opened the front door and keyed in the alarm code. She looked around her at the neatly laid out tables replete with small posies of flowers. Some might say it was twee, that she should be going for the industrial look to offset the wood but she wanted this. It was comforting, traditional and, more importantly, her clientele liked it and kept coming back.

 

***

 

“But old people aren’t going to keep you afloat,” Dave had said but the old people had proved him wrong.

The local art society, which boasted its fair share of ‘old people’, had jumped at the chance to use her upstairs room for their meetings and soon they were holding live drawing sessions, exhibitions, and socials, all of which called for refreshments. She’d even been approached by prospective brides looking for somewhere small to hold a quiet reception. Once a year the whole building was opened over the Heritage Open Weekend and along with the history enthusiasts came the opportunity to sell more pots of tea and rounds of scones and jam.

The kitchen had been refitted to catering standards and she had begun a fair trade in local sandwich delivery. She employed two full-time members of staff to wait and they took it in turns to do the sandwich runs out to offices and shops.

“We’ll see when winter comes,” said Dave, gravelly.

Emily was beginning to think that Dave was just a total Debbie Downer. Why didn’t he share her enthusiasm for this enterprise? Then again, he’d always been super careful with his money, not tight exactly, but he had an eye for a bargain and didn’t like to see it frittered on things that he thought were unnecessary. At times this had led to cross words and much negotiating. In the matter of this tea shop, whilst she considered his point of view, it was her dream, and if she never pursued it, then she would always wonder and regret.

Winter came and whilst footfall in the shop slowed somewhat, with less passing trade, the regulars kept the tills ringing and the sandwich runs helped fill the shortfall.

Emily had gotten to know all them by first name and greeted them all with a big smile, a quick catch up on their latest news and pot of their favourite tea.

At the end of the day, after the staff had left, and she sat cashing up the till, filling out her daily takings forms and placing the money in the bank bag ready for depositing in the night safe on her way home, she could honestly say, she was never happier than right now.

 

***

 

That was before the news of the redundancy. It was quite clear that, had this happened at any other time of year, the turnover would have offset the problem and given Dave a chance to find something else but the winter wasn’t a good time to be out of work. The longer his enforced exile from the daily grind continued, the worse his moods became.

Dave took to making comments, barbed and laced with acid. She should consider dropping one of the waiting staff, or maybe move them both to seasonal employment. Why did she need two? She could manage the odd customer during the quieter months. Emily felt it was pointless to point out that there was no such thing as the ‘odd customer’; people still wanted a hot drink, especially in the cold months.

She listened quietly and with as much patience as she could muster, not wanting to cause a fight but in the end, it boiled down to his feeling of inadequacy. That, somehow, not bringing in a wage was an affront to his status. It was as if her success was hers alone and he couldn’t see that it was theirs.

Emily had no intention of shedding her staff even if it was obvious that there were the odd days that they were stretched for work and she’d had to adopt a table policy to ensure that they both got equal chances of tips.

The final straw came after he’d been for an interview but the phone call came through to say that he’d not got the job.

His moods blackened and she understood, she really did, that he was feeling angry, useless and trapped in a small town with little prospects, however, it also seemed very clear to her that he was being very inward in his outlook. The nearest large town was forty-five minutes’ drive When she had suggested that maybe he should start looking there and do the commute it led to a long rant about how the cost of the fuel and the lost time driving would be a negative against the wage earned. It seemed pointless pursuing the argument.

The tearoom became her sanctuary. The walk to work, her thinking time and now, here she was. The early morning peace had been a time she had relished. The world was waking up, starting to go about its business. Local business owners would be setting out their pavement signs, sweeping their frontage and wiping down windows.

Soon she would hear the excited chatter of the children being led to the local school, and the cajoling of their parents, aware of the time.

Next, the buses would begin to arrive bringing in the villagers who shopped in the local market, visited the library to return books and kept appointments they had the hairdressers, doctors’ surgery, and opticians.

By mid-morning, she knew she would have a steady stream of customers. The sandwiches would have been made and dispatched on the round at ten-thirty, and the tinkle of the shop bell would punctuate her routine.

On a weekday, she might hear the solemn bells of the church of St Stephen’s opposite, heralding the arrival of a funeral but on a Saturday, it was the peal of bells that sounded the joyous union of two souls.

Customers would crane their heads to catch sight of the bride as she arrived at her wedding. Emily never tired of smiling stupidly as they stepped out of their preferred mode of transport. She loved to see the glow of happiness that hung about them as they took the arm of their escort and began the walk to their new life.

Emily could feel the involuntary constricting of her throat and the sudden welling up of tears.

Her own wedding had been such a celebration of love. She coughed and swallowed to try and head off the outburst. Not for one second as she walked down that aisle had she envisioned this moment.

Another part of her felt her resolve stiffen; she straightened up her back, stood tall. This would not get the better of her. She couldn’t lose her little tea shop, however desperate the situation, they’d come through, they had to come through.

 

***

 

The bank had agreed to extend the mortgage, to give them some time to gather themselves. They’d rationalised the weekly budget, choosing cheaper options for food and dropping the contract mobiles in favour of pay as you go. The cable telly package had been given the boot and Freeview was in. Where there was fat, now there was lean and still Dave wasn’t happy.

Emily knew that they were in crisis; that this had become more than just a matter of not having a job or of having somewhere to be every day.

This was about pride, about his feelings of inadequacy, and his shame that he was not bringing anything to the table. How could she make him understand that this was what marriage was supposed to be about – in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer. Those vows had more resonance now than ever before.

After he had left the previous evening she had been sick with worry. Sleep had eluded her and she had spent the night at the kitchen table drinking copious pots of tea, her senses alert to the merest sound that told her he was back, and the constant checking of her phone for any hint of a message.

But he didn’t come back and neither did he call or text. As dawn, had broken, and she watched the spread of light through the crack in the curtain from the sofa where she’d made up a bed, she felt anger that he could leave her to worry so and not think to even text and let her know that he was ok.

 

***

 

Slowly, Emily put on her white apron and began to prepare the ovens for the first round of scones.

Gemma and Di arrived but neither noticed, or at least, didn’t comment, on her red eyes and black circles.

By nine, the place had the warm smell of baking

As the buses pulled in to the stops that littered the High Street and the town square, the street began to liven up and by ten-thirty, the place was full once more.

Now, once a week an elderly gentleman would come in about three o’clock. He liked to sit by the window where he could watch the world go by. He always ordered a pot of tea for one and a slice of Victoria sponge. He never engaged in conversation with anyone else around him and he ate and drank, in contented silence, his gaze always firmly fixed on the outside world as if in his own bubble.

Emily found him intriguing and had made him her ‘particular’ customer.

She had noticed that he always liked the same table and she supposed that whatever it was that he wanted to look at was best viewed from there. Much to the amusement of the other two, she’d had a ‘reserved’ sign made which she put out around two forty-five every Thursday, his usual day. Just before three she would remove it and hope that nobody beat him to his seat.

When it first became apparent that he was a regular and that his habits were routine, Emily had enquired after him but Di and Gemma didn’t know his name.

He was polite, and tipped generously. He always wore a trilby which he’d touch with a slight tip as he said ‘goodbye’ and he always carried a small posy of hand tied flowers. Emily often wondered who the recipient of those beautiful buds could be. She never saw him accompanied by a friend so assumed that, after he had left them he must return home, flowers in hand.

Emily couldn’t recall the last time Dave had come wandering in with such a beautiful bouquet and it made her sad that such gestures were outdated.

Di returned from the sandwich round full of gossip from her regulars which she imparted with glee as she got stuck into the lunchtime rush. This was usually Emily’s favourite part of the day. The small town had that small-town mentality and nuggets of idle chatter flew up and down the High Street, like leaves blown from one end to the other. Today, she listened with half an ear and tried her best to put on a ‘face’ whilst hoping to God that she wasn’t being talked about in the same manner. It made her stiffen her resolve to not encourage it in the future.

Once lunchtime had been and gone, the afternoon settled down to a slow, manageable pace.

As soon as she had room to reflect on more than sandwiches, tea, and cake, or what she orders needed to be placed with the wholesaler, Emily found her thoughts once again filling up with her present situation.

Her mind was a tumble; she felt agitated and distracted by the comings and goings of the customers, the tinkling of the bell, and the idle chatter of her staff.

In a desperate bid to get some space, she took herself off upstairs to the sanctuary of the weaver’s room where she could relish the quiet to calm and order her thoughts.

Emily grasped the back of a chair to steady herself and to give her something of substance to hang onto as she drew in and exhaled deep breaths, feeling, as she did, the tension drop away and found that her heart was beginning to harden somewhat towards her husband.

Of course, she understood his attitude. It sucked being dumped by the company he’d worked hard for but he was biting the hand that fed him by turning on her. Why should she give up all she had worked hard for? Why should he expect her to be miserable just because he was?

She glanced at her watch. It was nearly three- thirty. With any luck her gentleman would be the last customer of the day.

Emily made her way back down the narrow, slightly uneven stair case that wound its way up the centre of the building, deciding, as she did, to give the ladies the rest of the day off.

With any luck, her gentleman would stick to his routine and be gone by three-thirty after which she would turn the sign, go over some figures and then take a gentle walk home, giving her a chance to free her mind, decompress and face whatever was to come

As she looked around her lively tea room she felt more determined than ever that he wasn’t going to allow her to sink to his level.

The shock that she had felt last night had turned this morning to grief but now it was turning to anger. This was not her fault and she wasn’t going to be made to feel that it was.

She picked up the reserved sign and popped it onto the table by the window. She swept up the dirty crockery left by the couple who’d just settled their bill at the till and then turned to her staff.

“Leave those last few bits, I’ll clean up.” She said.

“You sure?” asked Gemma with a quick glance at Di.

“Yes, you two get off.”

Di glanced at the old grandfather clock.

Emily noticed the odd look on Di’s face but didn’t have it in her to justify her decision to her staff. She reassured them that it was fine, that she wasn’t going to dock them any pay.

The ladies grabbed their stuff and did as she bid them. She knew that as soon as they were outside she’d be the subject of a ‘post-mortem’ but she didn’t care.

Silence fell on the tea room. Outside, the clouds were gathering, threatening rain. She hit a button on the till which spat out a short length of till roll. She checked the totals and looked at the money in the drawer.

The front door bell jangled making her jump and she glanced, almost involuntarily at the clock. He was early.

He carried his customary posy but this time, instead of going to a table, he made for the small carousal of cards Emily stocked. These were mainly taken from the local art society and didn’t really sell that well.

Emily smiled and bid him a good afternoon and used the moment to go and grab the reserve sign, which she slipped back onto the shelf.

Gently, the turned the stand, studying each card carefully. He must have sensed her watching him because he turned and smiled.

“I’m after a card. For my wife. To tell her that I love her. It’s her birthday, you see.”

Emily smiled and nodded. “I see you have your flowers.”

The gentleman looked at the posy of freesias.

“She would be cross; she’s always said: flowers belong in the garden not in a vase. For sixty years, she’s said that. Started saying after I presented her with her first bunch.” He smiled. “Didn’t stop her admiring them in the vase though.” And he winked, his face glowed as he spoke of her.

Emily smiled again. Sixty years. She couldn’t even begin to imagine being married for that long.

The gentleman went back to studying the cards.

“She loves lilies, and freesias. Do you have any with those on?”

To be honest, Emily wasn’t sure what was on the cards. Doreen, the society’s secretary, had come in with a box one day and asked if she might display them at the till. Emily, ever keen to help, had agreed and there they were. Any money went into a pot Doreen had left on the side. Emily flicked through the cards but couldn’t find any with those flowers on but she did find one with a nice arrangement of peonies on it. She handed it to the gentleman who took a moment to consider it before declaring:

“Yes, that will do nicely.”

He passed the card back to Emily and fished in his shopper for his coin purse.

“I met her at the church social, you know. Nineteen forty-nine. Boys down one side, girls the other. I was home on leave; national service. We had those then, church socials, and my brother Harry dragged me to it. Had his eye on some lass. Nobody was dancing and I saw Evelyn and decided there and then.”

He stopped talking as he attempted to wrangle a pound coin out of the purse.

Emily was curious. “Decided what?”

“Oh, that she was the one for me. So, I walked across the dance floor…longest walk of my life…I think they were all looking at me and asked her to dance.”

He stopped trying to find the coin and looked up, his eyes shone at the memory, his gaze so far away.

“She was wearing a blue dress,” he leant in again and said in a very conspiratorial way, as if imparting a great secret. “Blue suited her very well. She always wore blue.”

Emily smiled as she watched him finally succeed in tipping the coin into the centre of his gnarled hands.

“And she said ‘yes’ to the dance?”

“No.” he chuckled. “She turned me down flat!”

Poor Emily, one minute she had been smiling at this sweet old man and now she wasn’t sure how to react. Clearly, the story had ended well but right now, she felt like she’d got a plastered-on rictus grin and wasn’t sure what to do.

“What did you do?”

“Walked back to my brother.” He shook his head. The memory of that night still burned bright in his mind. “I left shortly after that. Didn’t see her again for six years. After National Service I signed onto the Merchant Navy. Oh, I travelled everywhere, all over the world and when I came home, my brother and I went back to that church hall and there she was. So, I said to her, ‘six years ago, in this very hall, I asked you to dance and you said no. Will say no again?’ But she didn’t; she said yes.”

Emily heard him sigh, as if memory had caught him out.

“All so long ago. Such a long time ago. So much has changed.” He put the coin on the counter. “These days, young folk, they give up to easily. We had our difficulties, me and Evelyn, like most folk, but we got through them.”

“How?” Emily hadn’t really meant that to come out but she was so captivated by this elderly man, with his pale blue eyes and distant look of sadness.

“Talking. We talked about everything. Never let anything stew.”

Emily took the coin and popped it in the tin.

“But what if…it’s gone beyond talking?”

“There are always words. That’s what we’re good at, us humans, talking and talking. Usually a lot of hot air. Trouble is we don’t talk to listen anymore. Sometimes, you must listen to what’s not being said. Sometimes, it’s in the silence that all the answers are waiting.”

He sighed once more and Emily thought she detected a hint of loneliness in his voice. Before she could speak he picked up the card and slipped it into his shopper.

“I told Evelyn I’d only be a few minutes.” The gentleman turned and began the slow walk to the door. He stopped and looked back at her.

“Do you know what the secret of a long marriage is?”

Emily shook her head.

“Never let the sun set on an argument.” He smiled for the first time, and with a wave of his hand he was through the door with a cheerful. “Bye, bye dear.”

Emily moved swiftly to the door, partly to lock it but also to see where it was he went with his flowers.

As she peered through the pane of the window, she saw him cross the road and walk to the small lych-gate of St Stephens. Here, he stopped for a moment to adjust his coat. He made his way into the churchyard, but she lost sight of him. Then something struck her and she glanced over at his unused seat.

She slipped into the chair and looked out of the window. She could see that he’d stopped by a bench on the small rise of land.

Emily felt the breath catch in her throat as she watched him.

With immense care, her gentleman stooped down and took the withered flowers out of the container which was set upon the grave. With equal tenderness, he placed the fresh ones in the vessel and set the card against it. Then he turned and took up a seat on the bench opposite the grave and here he sat, deep in thought and memory. Emily felt the tears tumble down her cheek as she watched him take out a snowy white hankie which he dabbed against his eyes. The tension of the last few weeks finally came to a head and her shoulders began to heave as the tears turned from a gentle trickle into heavy globs, splashing down onto the cherry wood of the table.She watched him through the blur tears; this wonderful old gentleman, who had shared a lifetime of love and happiness and, unknowingly, had given her the one thing she really needed – perspective.

It would be easy to walk away, to throw it all in the air and say enough was enough but within all the anger and harsh words, was her husband, who was hurting and who needed to be told that he was loved, needed and above all wanted.

With shaky hands, she reached for her phone and pressed the numbers.

As she listened to the ringing, she watched as the elderly gentleman paid his farewells to the grave and walked away.

At last he answered.

“Hello,” she said, her voice soft and warm. “It’s me. Can you come and meet me at the tea room? We need to talk.”

 

***

 

Emily felt her stomach knot with nerves and felt ridiculous. It was Dave, her husband not some first date! She reflected on how estranged they’d been. How one simple thing could deconstruct everything; make the familiar feel strange and unnatural. Unassuming things like Dave coming home and tossing his keys in the bowl by the front door had become loaded with tension as she had tried to gauge what his mood would be. The easy, naturalness of wandering into the bathroom whilst he was showering or those gentle touches on the small of the back or the hand; close moments had suddenly become minefields as they had slowly retreated behind their own walls.

That loss of easy intimacy was driving them apart and even now, as she poured the scalding water from the urn into a two-person pot, and set up the cups and saucers, she knew that regaining that trust would be the hardest part of what had to happen next.

She laid out the tea pot, cups and saucers, and the sugar bowl and waited.

A few moments later she heard a gentle tap on the door pane.

Emily paused to gain her equilibrium before turning the lock and opening the door.

“Hi,” Dave said, his tone soft and she knew he hadn’t come here to fight.

She looked up at his face and she could see how weary he looked.

Emily reached out and tentatively touched his fingers with her own and felt his encircle hers in a tight hold.

 

 

 

“I’ve made us a pot of tea,” she said simply and Dave nodded.

She led him to her gentleman’s table and he sat down, his demeanour was subdued. Emily glanced out of the window, over to where Evelyn lay and felt the strength within her grow.

As she poured the tea and splashed in the milk, somehow, she knew, without even looking up, that Dave was crying and, as much as it hurt her to see it, Emily was aware that the first step towards sorting out this whole sorry mess was for him to open up to her and for them to recall those vows they took, in that church, seven years ago.

She pushed the cup across the table and handed him a napkin. This was going to be a long evening but she wasn’t going to let another sunset pass.

Seated at this table, with the words of that wise old man sounding in her head, she felt strong enough for both of them.

 

THE END

 

 

 

II

(adapted from the poem by The Eve of St Agnes John Keats)

 

 

Snow lay thick on the ground and the man dragged hard on his cigarette as if somehow the red glow it elicited would warm him against the freezing air around him. He stood on the gravel path by the garages of a mansion modelled on the style of a Scottish baronial castle however, it screamed ‘new’ and ‘no taste’.

 

The man was suited and booted by the finest of bespoke tailors but his attitude was cocky and accent thick south London.

 

MAN: How cold is this? Must be well below freezin’.

 

He took another long drag on his cigarette.

 

MAN: There’s this old owl right, wot lives in that there tree. Bet he’s freezin’ his feathers off right now.

 

He sniffed in the cold air and looked around him.

 

MAN: Be a good night for a spot of lampin’. Reckon I might even bag me an ’are. To bleedin’ cold to run away.

 

He tossed his cigarette butt away, glanced around, gave the bushes that surrounded and concealed the garages a long, hard stare like he was expecting company and entered the house via a small door.

 

The man walked down a long, plain passageway. His gait was cocky, a swagger, he was important in this place and he knew it.

 

He passed and open door and, noticing someone inside, took a few steps backwards and looked in.

 

On his knees, praying before a makeshift altar loaded down with every kind of religious iconography was a man of indeterminable age.

 

MAN: That’s ’Arry, boss’s brother. Discovered God a year ago, and prays nightly for the souls of his family.

 

Harry got slowly to his feet and genuflected to the cross.

 

MAN: Well, that’s ’im finished for a few hours. ’E don’t sleep much. Survives on God’s love and crystal. Probably ain’t gonna last much longer neither. Poor bastard. Let’s hope his prayin’ ain’t all in vain.

 

From somewhere further inside the house, the sound of music crashed into the silence from a newly opened door.

 

Harry turned, startled by the sudden and unwanted intrusion into his thoughts. His face is wrecked with drug use, his eyes sunken, cheeks hollow, his skin sallow, scabby and his teeth rotten or lost. He snuffed out the candles on the altar and shuffled out of the room, oblivious to the man. Along the corridor was the back stair which Harry mounted with considerable discomfort and disappeared from the man’s view.

 

The man continued his way through the labyrinthine passageways toward the catering kitchen where an army of chefs sweated over steaming pots and pans.

 

As he passed through, he took a piece of food from a plate; his manner was of ownership and a right to do as he chose because he had the ear of his boss and a secure place in the hierarchy of the household.

 

MAN: Boss’s havin’ a bit of party, like, for his only daughter and light of his life, Madeline.

 

He ran up a flight of stairs from the kitchen and emerged onto the mezzanine floor that ran around and overlooked a ball room.

 

A party is in progress – theme ’medieval’. The guests are young, rich, and happy.

 

MAN: Total ponces, the lot of ’em.

 

The man disappeared back through the doorway and reappeared through a curtained doorway in the ballroom.

 

He took a glass of bubbly from the tray of a passing waiter and looked around him.

 

MAN: That’s her, Madeline, over there.

 

Madeline looked like a vision from a John William Waterhouse painting; tall and willowy, her hair a mass of pre-Raphaelite curls dressed with small flower buds. Her skin held the dewy glow of youth, unsullied by life and cares. The gown was of gold and looked far too heavy for her slight frame. She stood as if a statue, as if that gown were weighing her down, preventing her from moving amongst her guests.

 

MAN: Gorgeous, ain’t she? And this is her twenty-first birthday. A magical night in more ways than one. See, our Madeline was born on St Agnes Eve. Now, that mightn’t mean much to you but in the days when this party was set, it was the night when maidens followed a ritual and saw their true love. St Agnes bein’ the patron saint of medieval virgins, hence the theme of the party. Medieval that is, not virgins. Doubt there’s many of those in this room, Madam Madeline excepted.

 

He smirked at the thought and then remembered himself and his position here.

 

MAN: And how would I know about the state of my lady’s womanhood I hear you ask? Easy. I’m the poor sod who’s dicked to look after her. I am the bodyguard. I was outside her room as she got ready. My usual place, I hasten to add, not pervin’, so get your mind out of the gutter. I overheard, as she’s gettin’ ready, her tellin’ her mate about it.

 

Earlier that evening:

 

The man stood outside the door, hands folded in front of him, feet apart. Nobody was getting past him.

 

Through the door he could hear the raised voice of Madeline’s best friend, Saskia.

 

SASKIA: Madeline, if you don’t talk or eat or drink people might think you’re a bit of a, you know, freak.

 

He cocked his head slightly to listen.

 

Inside the room, Madeline and Saskia are getting dressed for the party.

 

Unlike the cockney ’geezer’ guarding the door, these two are pure-bred, best school, RP accents.

 

SASKIA: It’s your birthday party for God’s sake. I mean, do you want to get a reputation for being…weird?

 

MADELINE: Okay, I know, I know but those are the rules.

 

SASKIA: And where has this whole stupid idea come from? I’ve never heard you even mention this… this…ritual before.

 

MADELINE: My grandmother.

 

SASKIA: Oh right, and does the old crone divine tea leaves on the side.

 

MADELINE: She’s my grandmother.

 

SASKIA: Okay, okay, don’t get all angsty on me. Next you’ll be trying to tell me it only works if you’re a virgin.

 

Madeline coloured slightly. Saskia immediately realized the meaning and was agog.

 

SASKIA: Oh, shut up! You are so not a virgin.

 

MADELINE Ssh…

 

She gestured to the door and the unseen bodyguard.

Saskia lowered her voice.

 

SASKIA: But I saw you with Julian, at Tiger’s birthday party.

 

MADELINE: Nothing happened. I just let him cop a feel and told him I was saving myself.

 

SASKIA: And he was okay with that?

 

MADELINE: Of course.

 

Saskia glanced at her friend with a skeptical eye.

 

SASKIA: Yeah, right.

 

MADELINE: Well, believe me, don’t believe me, I don’t care.

 

SASKIA: I believe you, it’s just, this thing you’re doing. Mads, you know, you only get one chance at a twenty-first birthday party.

 

MADELINE: Look, don’t worry, it’s all under control. All I’ve only got to do is smile and nod my head. Besides, everyone will be too busy dancing and having a good time and trying to cop off behind the curtains to worry about what I’m doing. Nobody goes to a party to talk to the host. It’s just for a few hours. I plan to slip away and come here. I have food and music waiting. Look…

 

She went to her walk-in closet and opened the door. Inside was a trolley laid out with food and drink.

 

SASKIA: You do know that Oscar Fermount is mad about you? He’s loaded. Well, his dad is and in about half an hour he’ll be down stairs waiting for you.

 

MADELINE: My dad’s loaded, big deal.

 

SASKIA: Right, so instead of, you know, having a bit of a snog with the totally fit Oscar, you’re going to come up here and carry out some bizarre black magic?

 

MADELINE: For the last time, yes and it’s not black magic, okay?

 

SASKIA: Fine, okay, whatever.

 

MADELINE And you’re not to breath a word.

 

The friend crossed her chest in a less than convincing way.

 

MADELINE: Now, help me on with this dress. It weighs a ton.

 

Madeline dropped her robe and stepped into the dress and waited patiently for Saskia to lace it up.

 

Back in the ballroom:

 

The man circled Madeline who neither sees nor hears him. It is as if he is a ghost, a chorus for the viewer.

 

MAN: ’Course, you believe that load of old crap about seeing her future husband, you’ll believe anything but, she does, so…

 

One after another, well-heeled young men approached Madeline and are rebuffed with a slight smile.

 

MAN: She’s not moved from this spot, all evenin’. More than one geezers chanced his arm and been met with a calm and steady gaze and a polite smile that says it all. I reckon, in her head, she’s somewhere else entirely.

 

Dreamlike sequence:

 

Madeline’s bedroom lit by the full moon, which shines in through the window, and casts a silvery glow. Madeline – looking more ethereal than ever – lies on her bed, her eyes closed but fixed heavenward. The room is full of fine foods laid on silver platters.

 

A YOUNG MAN, seen only in shadow, steals into her chamber, and kneels beside her bed, takes her hand, and kisses it softly. She opens her eyes and sees her future husband.

 

Back in the ballroom:

 

Madeline sighed and dropped her gaze to the ground.

 

MAN: I don’t think her heart is really in it.

 

He took another glass of bubbly and surveyed the scene.

 

MAN: Still, good party. Boss really knows how to push a boat out.

 

He raised his glass to his unseen audience.

 

MAN: Cheers!

 

The man circles the dance floor.

 

MAN: There’s the boss. Big Mo. A man not to be messed with.

 

Big Mo was not big at all. He was a slightly built with the look of a spiv about him. He was sat at a long table, surrounded by flunkies and sycophants who hang on his every word, and laugh at his every observation.

 

MAN: Don’t be fooled by appearances. You think he got all this by being Mr. Nice Guy? Nah, he got it by selling the junkies on the sink estates just what they wanted. He thought big, imported on a wide scale. Now, o’course, he’s legit, or so he would have you believe but this little lot didn’t come from no clean money. Been busted a few times; been to nick, bounced back. They can’t prove nuffin’ now, much as the local filth would want to. Funny thing is, their boss lives just down the road, next manor over. Who’d have thought, ey, a pig and a drug lord sharing a private road. Funny old world.

 

***

 

A flashy sports car cruised silently to a stop in a lay-by. Its lights were already off in anticipation.

 

Porphyro is a tall, handsome young man of twenty with a slightly mocking expression as one used to getting his own way. He is casually but expensively dressed. With a languid air reserved for those whose self-confidence knows no bound, Porphyro gets out of the car and lit a cigarette. He took several long, drags before grinding the butt into the ground with the heel of his shoe. Then he crossed the road, climbed the low fence, and disappeared into the trees.

 

Back in the ballroom:

 

Madeline is engaged in a silent dance with a young would be suitor.

 

Meanwhile outside, Porphyro crept out of the bushes, glanced around and ran across the garden to the same back door the man had used. Slowly, he turned the handle, careful not to make a sound, gently pulled it open and with a last look around to make sure that he hadn’t been seen, he slipped inside

 

Quick as a flash and Porphyro is running along the mezzanine floor

 

The man looks up, catches a glance of a shadowy figure.

 

MAN: That’s Porphyro, son of aforementioned police chief. I ask ya, what a bleedin’ name, ey? If the boss knew he was here…well, let’s just say, there’d be hell to pay. Can you imagine, I mean, what are those two thinking of. It don’t bear thinking about but think about it I have to cos my lady has sworn me to secrecy and, as much as I respect Big Mo, I love her more. So, if the boss knew I’d left the back door open on purpose…

 

He paused and left the boss’s revenge to the imagination.

 

The man slipped through the curtained door, to reappear at the top of the stairs by the mezzanine.

 

MAN: Course, like everything, not everyone in this place is against him. Madeline’s great-grandmother Angela dotes on the bloke like one of her own.

 

He turned, alerted by a noise in the corridor.

 

MAN: And, speak o’ the devil, here she comes now.

 

Angela, the formidable matriarch of the family, shambles along the mezzanine, her ancient body stooped and shaken with disease.

 

Porphyro, equally alerted by someone coming, had slid himself behind one to the ornate pillars.

 

Angela’s progress is slow. Porphyro smiled to himself and, as Angela drew level with the pillar, he grabbed her by the hand, and nearly shocked her to death.

 

She saw who it was, squeezed his hand and looked fearfully over her shoulder.

 

ANGELA: What are you doing here?

 

Porphyro kissed her face and she smiled at him, brushing his hand with her own but her happiness at the sight of him did not last long.

 

ANGELA: Talk about walkin’ straight into the lion’s den.

 

PORPHYRO: You think I care? I don’t care. Let them find me.

 

ANGELA: Don’t care was made to care.

 

And with that she pulled him away from the pillar and along the mezzanine floor, hugging the dark shadows as they went.

 

Porphyro tried to crane his neck to see below but the elderly lady, through frail with age, maintained an iron grip on the lad.

 

ANGELA: Brand is ’ere.

 

Porphyro pulled back. This piece of information has stunned him.

 

PORPHYRO: I thought he was still banged up.

 

ANGELA: Released ’im yesterday.

 

She continued to drag Porphyro along and he let her with an affectionate smile.

 

ANGELA: And, he’s had too much drink, which is bad news for you because right now he’s bendin’ Big Mo’s ear about you and your father.

 

She opened a door off the mezzanine floor and entered the room beyond.

 

ANGELA: He’s got a right hump on and the more he drinks the more painful your last moments are gonna be. What he ain’t gonna to do to you, my lad, ain’t worth thinking about.

 

Porphyro looked down the corridor and saw, standing at the end, hands folded in front of him, feet set firmly apart, the man who nodded once in acknowledgement and was rewarded with a nod from the interloper who then disappeared into Angela’s room.

 

The bedroom was lightly furnished, the furnishings being old, treasured. Black and white photographs of parents and children taken on special days, adorned the walls, little gee-gaws presented by excited grandchildren are dotted around; all loved in equal measure despite the evident vulgarity.

 

The exertion of hurrying had made Angela breathless and she leant on the back of a chair, her breath laboured.

 

Porphyro, was oblivious, agitated and determined to continue his mission had lost him his manner as he paced the room.

 

PORPHYRO: Angela, where’s Madeline?

 

When Angela didn’t respond, he turned and was and was momentarily back footed by Angela’s condition.

 

ANGELA: In the drawer; me inhaler.

 

Porphyro rushed to retrieves the inhaler before guiding Angela onto the chair. Porphyro crouched at her feet, his soft features full of concern for this elderly woman who, with a single call to her son, could destroy him.

 

ANGELA: You’ll be the death of me, you and ’er.

 

PORPHYRO: Then let me get you both away from here.

 

Angela half laughed at the idea. She absent-mindedly stroked his hair.

 

ANGELA: Do you really love ’er?

 

PORPHYRO: I would die for her.

 

ANGELA: Die you might if Brand finds you here. I have heard that he intends to ask Big Mo for her hand before the night is out.

 

PORPHYRO: But….

 

ANGELA: It’s okay, Madeline found out. That’s a loyal bodyguard she has there.

 

Porphyro’s rueful smile told her all she needed to know.

 

ANGELA: I’m guessing that’s how you managed to get into this nest of vipers tonight. Well, I’m not sayin’ a word but I will tell you this. Madeline’s got it into her head to carry out the ritual of St Agnes Eve. You heard of it?

 

Porphyro frowned and wondered where this was going.

 

ANGELA: Well, best I tell you. St Agnes Eve, when all good girls, I take it my girl is still good?

 

Porphyro grinned and nodded his head.

 

ANGELA: There’s summink in your favour then; if I didn’t already love you as me own. Anyway, so the story goes, tonight, provided certain things are carried out, her future husband will appear in her room where they will feast. Oh, she has it all prepared; closet full of food she has but it will only work if she sticks to the rules. No talkin’, no eatin’ and no drinkin’ before she goes to her room. And at her own party, if you please.

 

PORPHYRO: Angela, take me to her room.

 

ANGELA: I will not!

 

PORPHYRO: You will. I can hide and when she comes to her room and sleeps, I can set it out, as in her dream and then I shall awaken her. She will have her St Agnes Eve.

 

ANGELA: That I will not! I can’t believe you’d even suggest such a thing. I think you should go.

 

PORPHYRO: And leave her to Brand? Angela, if he lays a finger on her…

 

ANGELA: And you?

 

PORPHYRO: I love her. Why would I want to hurt her…I swear…?

 

ANGELA: Swear on what?

 

PORPHYRO: My life. I will go to Big Mo and let him do with me what he will if I so much as touch a single hair on Madeline’s head.

 

ANGELA: You’ll be the death of me, you and that girl of mine.

 

PORPHYRO: Don’t say that. We both love you.

 

Angela softened slightly, took his face in her gnarled hands and upturned it to hers.

 

ANGELA: I will help you, though I may live to regret it, in this life or the next.

 

***

 

MAN: I know what you’re thinkin’. See, though I am in the gainful employ of the boss and should, technically as the law of feuds dictates, be stitching Porphyro right up by now, I can’t. Despite his unfortunate parentage, he’s a kosher bloke and my lady loves him. I am a mere facilitator. Greasin’ the natural order of things, so to speak.

 

The man, maintaining a respectful and diligent distance, followed Porphyro and Angela along the corridor.

 

From along a passageway leading off the mezzanine came the sound of high-spirited revellers approaching. The co-conspirators froze momentarily.

 

ANGELA: In here. Don’t move ’til I get back.

 

Porphyro is shoved with little finesse into a closet and Angela, assuming the persona of doddery old woman, shuffled past the party-goers who give her not a single thought. As they moved on, she dropped the act and turned quickly back to retrieve Porphyro from the dark.

 

ANGELA: Quickly now, quickly.

 

***

 

Inside Madeline room, Porphyro stopped to absorb his surroundings and drink in Madeline’s private space.

 

ANGELA: Behind ’ere! Quickly now, she won’t be long.

 

Porphyro ducked behind a lattice screen. From here he had a clear view of the bed and the window. The moon was now high and the snow clouds had, for a moment, revealed it, flooding the room with an unearthly silver glow.

 

ANGELA: Remember, not a hair on her head.

 

Angela leaves.

 

***

 

In her slow descent of the stairs, Angela met with Madeline who was on her way to fulfil her St Agnes Eve vow.

 

ANGELA: Now my girl, I suppose you’re off to carry out this nonsense I’ve been fillin’ your ’ead with.

 

Madeline smiled but didn’t utter a word.

 

ANGELA: I see. Well, maybe you will see your future husband tonight.

 

Madeline held out her arm for Angela who accepted it and together they walked slowly back down the stairs. Happy that she had delivered her grandmother safely to the lower floor, Madeline kissed her on the cheek and ran back up to her room.

 

Porphyro had been wiling away he moments getting increasingly more concerned as to her whereabouts when Madeline entered.

 

Unaware of her guest, Madeline moved to the window to soak up the moonlight. Slowly she took the buds from her hair, and let them fall to the richly carpeted floor.

 

Next, the jewellery about her neck and wrists; each piece carefully removed and the precious gems placed in a box on her dressing table.

 

She snatches at the laces of her gown to loosen them and the bodice slipped down her honey tanned shoulders, the weight dropped it to the floor. Neatly, she stepped out of the collapsed heap.

 

Porphyro, observes all of this with expectation and growing arousal.

 

Madeline arranged herself under her covers and awaited the moment of truth. Sleep rushed in, drowning her in its sweet embrace.

 

With all now still, Porphyro peered around the screen and waited with breath bated for movement before creeping across to the bed.

 

Satisfied that she is deep within the arms of Hypnos, Porphyro, with swift and silent step, went to the walk-in closet and removed the trolley laden down with fine food and wine.

The noise from the ball below suddenly grows louder and Porphyro was frozen to the spot as fear gripped him. As quickly as it rose, the noise faded and he breathed once more.

 

At her bedside, he looked at her face, serene in the moonlight and bent his mouth to her ear.

 

PORPHYRO (whisper): Madeline! Madeline!

 

She did not stir.

 

He lifted his hand and, with the lightest of touches, stroked away the curls that have fallen upon her brow. She moved slightly; he withdrew his hand. So, sweet did she look, so at peace with this world in which she lived that he felt an overwhelming desire to protect her. Brand would not have her.

 

Porphyro moved around to the other side of the bed and gently climbed on. Mindful of his promise to Angela, he remained above the covers, his head near to Madeline’s.

 

Porphyro awoke and silently chastised himself at his stupidity at falling asleep. Madeline stirred and let out a gentle moan of pleasure. Porphyro sank back down beside her just as she sat up to take in the feast, the room and, finally, Porphyro next to her.

 

Porphyro smothered her hand with his and then entwined his fingers and hers.

 

MADELINE: Porphyro?

 

He kissed her hand.

 

MADELINE: How white you are? Are you ill?

 

Fearful of breaking the spell, Porphyro shook his head.

 

MADELINE: Then speak and tell me this is a fairy dream.

 

Porphyro raised himself slightly and bending over, kissed her so passionately as to leave her in doubt that she was not dreaming.

 

She rose into his embraced, kneeling naked above the covers. With shaking hands, she began to slowly undress him and all the while he stared intently at her face, meeting gaze for gaze.

 

They kiss and Porphyro pulled her to him and they became joined in union.

 

***

 

Sated and exhausted, Porphyro and Madeline lay in each other’s arms, bound together by their love.

 

Close to the bedroom door came the sound of drunken men, who shouted, swore, and banged on doors as they passed.

 

PORPHYRO: We’ve got to get out of here. It’s nearly morning.

 

MADELINE: And go where?

 

PORPHYRO: My dad’s got this place, in Scotland. They wouldn’t think of looking for us there.

 

He felt her body go limp in his arms.

 

MADELINE: You don’t know my father. Or Brand.

 

PORPHYRO: This is our only chance, our one chance.

 

***

 

Ears stretched for noises alien to the growing day, Porphyro and Madeline exited her bedroom. They hugged the walls; crept in ever shortening shadows, as they made their way down the backstairs to freedom.

 

The man stepped out of the shadows and watched them as they ran down the passageway. Their tail draft lifted the tapestries that adorned the walls, causing the embroidered figures to move and shake as if alive.

 

MAN: Everyone’s in bed, or passed out pissed.

 

Down the stairs the lovers came. The guard dog raised its head and cocked its ears but made no fuss.

 

Quickly and quietly, Madeline slide the bolts and turned the key.

 

Porphyro turned Madeline to face him. He put up the hood of her jacket and held out his hand. She glanced down, her final chance to turn back but she did not. With a smile, she grasped it.

 

Outside a heavy snow storm raged blanking out field, lane, road, and path. Eyes almost blinded they created a course across the fresh fall, their footsteps soon covered.

 

The Man appeared at the door and could just make out, through the white, the two figures as they disappeared.

 

MAN: Well, that’s that then, these lovers fled into the storm.

 

***

 

In his bedroom, Big Mo slept but fitfully.

 

His nightmare, the party where he held court, eating, and drinking too much. His sycophants leering into him like grotesque comedy figures, closing in on him and he laughs maniacally.

The guests move closer to him and as they turn his laughter stops to be replaced by a gagging horror that sticks in his throat.

The guests have turned and their faces have assumed distorted aspects, witches, demons, rotting, being eaten by maggots.

Big Mo looks at his meal, only find it crawling with maggots.

The room closed in on him, suffocating him with the rank stench of decay and decomposition.

He screams but the noise is drowned out by the buzzing of a million flies.

 

***

 

Angela, dead in her bed, her eyes open look unseeing to the ceiling. Her hands have clawed the bedding up as she, in her desperation, tried to reach for her inhaler.

 

The man gently closed her eyes and kissed her forehead.

 

From somewhere deep within the house a cry of anguish rings out.

 

MAN: Big Mo, havin’ his nightmares again. And this one, she sleeps wiv the angels now, bless ’er.

 

Harry, dead on the floor, a needle in his arm.

 

MAN: And ’Arry, after a thousand aves told, sleeps amongst the devils.

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

III

 

It had all started so well.

Alice had decided, since it was a lovely Sunday afternoon and she had nothing better to do, to go for a walk in the countryside. What could be more wholesome, more invigorating, than a trip through Mother Nature; she would pet the lambs through the fence, find a nest of baby birds in a hedgerow (but not disturb them, of course), and pick wild flowers, some of which she may put in her wild tangle of curls. It was all too…Disney Princess. So, Alice took herself off and did exactly that. In fact, so enthused was she about the whole thing she decided to channel her inner Julie Andrews and run up the hill, arms thrown aloft and do a bit of a twirl. Glorious!

A few seconds later, however, she was running full pelt back down the hill being pursued by an angry cow. Who knew they could even run that fast?

Now, Alice wasn’t really one for running unless it was for a bus or maybe, at a push, the ice cream van and it appeared that the cow, pretty much had running sewn up.

If the run up the hill had left her breathless with an odd pain in her chest, then the run down was ten times worse. For a start, it was downhill which meant physics was probably involved. She wished, for an instance, that she had paid more attention in Mrs. Finnigan’s class.

The cow was gaining on her. Ahead, she could see a wall and what was that in front of it. She squinted and saw a gaggle of chickens pecking the ground.

“Out of the way!” she yelled out, waving her arms in a ludicrous fashion.

In her mind, she was going to gracefully straddle the dry-stone wall and make good her escape from Raging Cow

She pushed her already jellified legs to go faster and then disaster struck. Her foot hit a clump of grass. Over she went. She rolled a few meters, with gravity doing its thing. Several times she went over. The side of her face hit a cow pat but that was the least of her worries. As she turned her head she could see that the cow had decided to bring some mates.

She also noticed an unfortunate stain on her cheesecloth skirt. Too late she realised that she’d hit something on the way down.

“Oh crap.” The last words uttered by Alice Mutton on this earth.

***

Alice had never really given much thought to what Heaven would look like. Oh, of course, she’d had R.E lessons in school and they’d done the usual junior school Nativity Play at Christmas. She’d never been picked to be Mary but she did play fourth angel one year. Mostly she was consigned to being an animal which she was sure never featured in the bible (penguin at the stable anyone?).

Pretty much she’d describe herself as an agnostic, or rather, she would if she had even heard of the word. Anyway, here she was, dead and about to find out the truth behind one of the most enduring mysteries of mankind. Does heaven exist?

“Would all new arrivals please make their way to the check in desk. That’s all new arrivals to the check in desk. Thank you.”

It seemed that to reach heaven, one had to ride an ascending staircase – she’d look, there didn’t appear to be a descending one – at the top of which one was greeted by a crew of what could only be described as bossy, spotty and with an overdeveloped sense of self-importance tour reps.

These, it turned out were The Dominions and it was their job to make sure that the newly arrived Just, were collected, collated, registered and dispatched to the correct department in Heaven.

That’s right folks, forget fluffy clouds, heavenly music (unless you count the piped music in the arrivals lounge – more of that later) and wings. No, heaven, is a bureaucrat’s wet dream.

Alice arrived at the top of the staircase, dazed, confused and sporting a massive clump of cow shit on the left side of her face. Her tights were ripped to shreds, her pretty, lacy cardigan had the imprint of cow hooves on it and her hair was full of dried grass and leaves. That stain? It looked organic in a pleasing shade of blood splatter and brown. It was not how she’d like to be seen for eternity. With glazed eyes and stunned expression, she joined the queue. On the wall to her left was a poster of The Seraphim, the heavenly equivalent of One Direction, a trio of angels with chiselled cheekbones, gelled hair, and perfect teeth. One had been smothered in lipstick kisses but a second had been vandalized with the word The Cherubim 4eva scrawled across it. Clearly even in heaven boy band rivalry existed.

Alice reached the head of the queue and was greeted by A Dominion who wielded a clipboard and pen like a lethal weapon. His name badge said Malcom.

“Name?”

“Huh?” replied Alice who had been slightly disarmed by the fact that there was an angel called Malcom.

“Name?” repeated Malcolm in the same bossy tone as before. “That which you are known by!”

Alice was, by now, doing a credible version of a stunned fish as she took in her surroundings.

Malcolm gave out attitude.

“Who are you?”

“Alice… Mutton. Alice Mutton Where is this?”

Malcolm chose to ignore her and flipped over his list of names.

“Mutton. Mutton. Mutton. P. Hmm. No. Sorry, not on the list. Can you come this way?”

He led Alice to a sort of metal detector and with a brisk manner said: “Through here.”

Alice, still drunk on her surroundings, obeyed, and wandered through the metal frame and (excuse the expression) All Hell Broke Loose. Lights began to flash. Alarm bells sounded. The Dominion remained calm under pressure and without saying a word, pressed a big red button to his right. A trap door flew open and Alice disappeared through it. Satisfied that he’d dispatched her correctly, The Dominion looked at the shocked faces in front of him and yelled: “Next.”

***

In a grotty basement office, like something out of the nineteen thirties with old-fashioned manual typewriters and carbon paper, George and Julian were passing their day in much the same way as they had for the past, oh-I-don’t-know-how-many-years.

George was in his mid-60s and going bald. Well, I say going bald, he was as bald as he was ever likely to get given that he was, in fact dead, and thus, for all eternity, trapped in the state in which he died. Well, I say in the state in which he died, that’s not strictly true of course because he died by being blown up therefore, technically, he would be a jelly mess. No, I suppose what I mean is, he is the spiritual embodiment of the George that was alive moments before he…died.

Julian was in his early twenties and, given that he had passed in the early 1960s whilst going through his Mod phase, doomed to stay in a tonic suit and winkle pickers forever.

George and Julian were total opposites.

George’s side of the office was neat and ordered. His desk was clutter free and he kept a shelf full of well-ordered filing boxes on them. George was never happier then when he could break out his label writer and set up a new file.

Julian’s was a mess; crumpled up paper, loose sheets that should be in folders and a stack of unread documents littered the desk. He sat with his feet up, chewing on a piece of paper which he loaded into a straw and fired at a poster of The Seraphim attached to the wall opposite him. The poor things had been subjected to additional horns, blacked out teeth and one had a bogey hanging out of his nose.

“She’s late! I knew it! I knew this would happen. Upstairs are not going to be happy and I’ll be damned if I’m taking the blame for this one.”

George consulted his watch, which was, quite frankly ridiculous as time didn’t happen in heaven and besides, his watch was permanently stopped his time of death. Still, that didn’t stop George consulting it at least fifty times a day, or what passed as a day as time…oh forget it.

Anyway, George was a very officious man. In life, he had been in the army and boy, did he let everyone know it. There wasn’t a single free thinking bone in that man’s body. He was eternally bound up in rule and regulations, time keeping, record keeping, you name it, it obsessed him.

He was also a bit of a bully. Disagree with George AT YOUR PERIL (that’s the only warning you’re going to get; don’t heed it, you’re on your own). He would see it as a challenge to his view of world (or heavenly order). The finger would be raised, the unfortunate opponent would find themselves being slowly and literally backed into a corner as George took no prisoners in explaining why he was right.

Being too old to go to war this time around – although it was a commonly held belief amongst George’s neighbours that the War Office had missed a bit of trick there by not sending him to Berlin to explain to Mr. Hitler why it was all such a terribly bad idea – George had enlisted in the local Home Guard. It was during one such meeting, when he was being particularly bossy and insisted on correcting the Captain that he met his demise.

“You know there are days when having to appease the Almighty can very stressful. Very stressful. I don’t know why…well, I’m going to say it and please Lord (he looks upward) forgive me but I don’t know why He gets His pants in such a twist.”

“Ah well, first rule of free will, that. Don’t mean He don’t care but you, sunshine, need to chill out. Stop taking it all so personally. It’s just a job.”

That just about summed up Julian. ‘It’s just a job’. He’d been born just a few years before the war ended but had been fortunate enough reach his teenage years in a time when people had teenage years. Some of the older folk (like George f’rinstance) thought it was an American import and possibly a major threat to the British way of life.

For Julian, it had meant coffee houses, juke boxes and Friday nights at a club. It meant record stores with booths and the Hit Parade, shopping in Carnaby Street and going down to Brighton.

“I’ve heard that the Other Place has a special room for people like us.”

Julian pulled his skinny legs off his desk and wandered over to a wall chart of DOSE successes. It was a simple affair: a column for God and one for the Devil. Under each name was a tally of souls and it appeared that the Devil was winning.

“Reckon it wouldn’t be a bad deal,” said Julian wistfully.

George was horrified.

“Oh, come on, Georgie boy, you seriously think it can get any worse than this dump? And what do we have to look forward to? Save enough souls and we get promoted. No thanks! I’d rather take my chances with old Beelzebub. At least he knows how to throw a party.”

George, to distance himself from such blasphemous talk, took up his duster and began to polish a row of plaques neatly affixed to the wall about his desk. Each contained a star and his name and he was awfully proud of them.

“Well, I for one am looking forward to going up to the next floor. It’s what keeps me going.”

Julian smirked. “I can just see you as an angel. Running around, interceding on behalf of humanity. Telling ’em what they ought to be asking for. Be right up your alley that. Still, not likely to happen, is it? How many souls have we lost to the other side in the last six months?

“And not likely to change now we have her to deal with. I knew this one’d be trouble. I said, I told ’em but oh no they know what they’re doing up there. Didn’t I say? I did.”

George was getting unduly agitated. It happened from time to time and stemmed from having his memos roundly ignored by the next floor.

“Was that before or after The Thrones told you to piss off and never bother The Almighty again?”

George went red with rage. He loathed The Thrones; the only way into The Presence was through The Thrones and boy could they throw their weight around. They were like Heaven’s doormen complete with clipboard (weapon of choice), shades and sharp suits.

“The trouble with The Thrones is they think they own the top floor.”

“Yeah well, technically they do and your name, sunshine, is on the blacklist so get used to it. Personally, I don’t give a rat’s arse so long as I don’t have to deal with them; jumped up bunch of doormen. Head down, nose clean, get your fun where you can, that’s my motto.”

“And that, Julian, is precisely what’s wrong with this department. When I was in the war – the Great War…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know! Trouble is, last time around you managed to blow yourself up. It’s small stuff George. All we’re legally required to do is sort out the crap left by those whose own gross stupidity in the manner of their death causes the Father of Mankind to repeatedly have a Very Bad Day. Easy. We’re here for ten thousand years, not like we have anything going off the boil.”

Julian resumed his spot at his desk and proceeded to make a batch of paper planes to throw at George.

“But we’re bogged down with paper work and now, thanks to Ms. Fanny Pants, we’re going to be explaining this in triplicate.”

“Oh, come on, everyone knows you get off on the smell of carbon paper.”

And he wasn’t wrong there, as sadly George did have a bit of a habit and it was being noted in the Stationery Dept. where some jobsworth had realised that more than normal was being ordered by DOSE.

“Anyhow, not likely to be Missy’s fault now, is it? Cock up in the Angel Division I should think. If they spent less time swooning after The Seraphim and more doing as they ought maybe we wouldn’t have a lost soul to go and find.”

At that moment, a deafening alarm began to sound and the red warning light above the door pulsated.

George leapt out of his seat, donned ear defenders, a hard hat and grabbed his clipboard.

“Hold up! Sounds like this could be the lady now.” Julian popped on his ear defenders and made for the door just as Alice shot out from a hatch in the end wall, on her back, legs in the air, a look of horror on her face. The two followed Alice’s progress down the corridor where she came to an unceremonious halt by hitting the end wall with a winded ’ompf’.

“One of the less classy arrivals I think. You all right there?”

Alice glared at him. Julian took it all in his stride.

“Right, well, when you’re ready we’ll be in here.”

George and Julian turned away. Over the years, they’d seen countless new arrivals to their floor. This had to rate as one of the more undignified entrances but then again, the floor had recently been polished and was now, very much a health and safety risk. George, naturally, had filled out the appropriate forms to report it.

Alice lay on her back and stared at the ceiling.

“Oh. My. G…”

In what only can be described as super slo-mo, Alice heard Julian yell ‘Noooo!’ except, this being slo-mo it was slower than that whilst George collapsed into emergency landing mode.

“…. God!”

 

***

 

The Heavenly Throne Room was seemingly endless. A long Perspex tube, through which zipped pieces of paper that emptied out into a large over-flowing bin, ran (presumably) the length of it – if indeed, it had a length.

On his throne sat God; he wasn’t what you’d expect being small in stature. Oh, he had the white beard and crazy white hair but he also had an eye patch and was sat slumped on his throne looking as if he were moping.

The Seraphim stood to the right of him and sang his praises in close harmony. They were dressed in tight white trousers, white sequin waistcoats and had chests as smooth as a baby’s bum.

God rolled his eyes and puffed out his cheeks. If he had a watch he’d check it.

Alice crashes through from the ‘ceiling’ and landed on her back in another undignified heap. The Seraphim stopped mid-praise and stared at this new arrival and then at their Lord.

God immediately perked up. From down the side of his throne he grabbed his megaphone and put it to his lips: “Go away!”

Alice pulled her head up and stared but it seemed the Lord wasn’t finished with her yet.

“Are you deaf?”

Now, you’d think that being in The Presence of the Almighty One would render most people impotent; their legs would turn to jelly, and they might vomit but not our Alice. She’s made of sterner (and nosier) stuff.

Up she got and approached The Throne, her curiosity, and not to say her anger at her treatment this last…however long, was up.

God slid off his of his throne – he had to slide as whomever had made The Heavenly Seat had over anticipated his actual size, not having had the privilege of enter The Presence and hadn’t realized that God was a bit on the petite side.

God squared up to Alice – he came up to her chin. With alacrity one of The Seraphim broke rank, leading to whispers of ‘brown nose’ from the other two, to grab the Holy Standing Box. God, with a little help, mounted it and lifted his megaphone again so it was right in Alice’s face.

“I’m waiting!”

Alice should have been, by this point, either be completely gaga having just been given the answer to the eternal question that had plagued mankind since the dawn of time or, in the very least, be so dumbstruck that she was unable to function. She was neither and with no due deference to the Greatness she found herself sharing a space with, she gently pushed the megaphone aside and continued to stare.

God was beginning to feel a little self-conscious: “What are you looking at?”

Alice slowly lifted her finger and with a deliberate motion jabbed God in the arm.

He pulled up the megaphone: “Stop that!”

“Are you…?”

God let out a sigh. “The Almighty Redeemer and Creator of All Things? What do you think?”

“Then I’m…”

“Dead? ’Bout the size of it and before your Lord and Maker so… (he put the megaphone to his lips) Don’t push it!”

“You know I’m a fan of Darwin?”

“Ack, you’re young, you’ll get over it. He’s kicking around here somewhere. Should have seen the look on his face when he came up the stairs – priceless. I got The Dominions to take a photo.”

God pointed to the said of Darwin – the sort that captures hapless victims of the roller coaster at Alton Towers.

“Have to say though; you ballsed up.”

Alice felt quite indignant. “I didn…how?”

“Getting yourself squished by a bunch of cows. I mean, cows!” and he roared with laughter. “

He pointed and Alice lifted her hand to feel the dried pat on her face. She tried to rub it off but it was stuck and good.

“It’s not even glamorous, face down in a pat.”

Alice looked rather po-faced, or should that be poo-faced, as God continued to cry with laughter. The Seraphim joined in, not because they found it funny – frankly, with no brain cells between them, they had no idea what was going on, but because they felt they should. “It’s not coming off, you’re stuck with it.”

Alice glared at The Tiny Divinity.

“At the start of my day, I did not intend to end up here with… midget God.”

God glared at her in a miffed kind of way and with a deliberate tone said: “I like you.” Then he held up his right index finger. “See this finger? It’s got the power. Just like in that chapel that bloke painted, whatsisname…”

“Michelangelo” hissed one of The Seraphim.

“That’s the one,” and God gave the beaming angel the thumbs up whilst the other two squirmed and muttered ‘arse-licker’ and ‘toady’ under their breath.

“Okay, then make me un dead!”

God clambered down off his box and back onto The Heavenly Throne.

“Can’t. Out of my hands.”

“Oh, come on! You did it all the time in the Bible!

God flopped his hand: “Ack, Bible-smible! Look, I am not in control of this place any more. It’s all run by a Management Team. They did a time and motion study and decided I wasn’t ’cost-effective’ enough. All they ask of me is to sit here getting the prayers of that lot down there… (he waved to paper pile) and to listen to dumb, dumber and the one know one fancies, singing my endless praises. And between you and me, endless ego massaging is a little tiring after a while.”

Alice pressed her index finger and thumb together and holds them up in an indication of how much she cared.

“Ooh! Hoity!”

By now Alice was naturally beginning to feel just a tad peeved with God.

“I’m dead; why are you surprised?”

“Look, the committee convened and decided your fate. Nothing I can do about it. And between you and me, I wouldn’t have been that harsh! But, that’s The Principalities for you. High on the smell of power.”

“Er hello! You must have known when you created me that I’d end up getting squashed by cows ergo you cannot punish me for something you preordained.”

God’s eyes lit up. He jumped off The Throne and went to a filing cabinet (which Alice was pretty sure wasn’t there before).

“Ah, no, see, preordination went out with the Great Restructure.”

After what seemed like an interminable amount of time God pulled out a rather snazzy looking document, quite thick and wire bound. He licked his thumb and began to, well, thumb through the pages, muttering to himself as he did.

“Ha! Page twenty – God gives man free will. Right there, black and white. Basically toots, you chose death by cow.”

He held the document up but snatched it back before she had a chance to lean in far enough to see the small print.

“’Bout the only thing those busy body Principalities got right. Do you know how much time I was wasting on spoon feeding you lot? Give you free will and you’re off and that means more ’me’ time.”

Alice frowned. None of this made any sense and not just the fact that she was sitting in the Heavenly Throne Room with God.

“Free will doesn’t not wipe out predestination – it’s twisted logic.”

“Lady, you’re sounding like a Calvinist. Besides, you killed Mildred.”

“Who the holy…is Mildred?”

God pointed to the mess on her skirt. Alice stared at it and then gingerly plucked a feather out of the mess.

“Oh!”

“Now, Mildred, as it happens, was due to die today….”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“By a fox! You know what happened, cos you intervened? The fox got Betty. Betty was due to be dinner. Because she was eaten by a fox, the farmer’s wife went out for lunch and got hit by a bus. Pandemonium. See, how it works? Now, if you’re quite finished

God picked up his megaphone, flipped a panel in The Throne and hit a button. “Toodles.”

“But I’m not….” and with that she disappeared through the ‘floor’.

God giggled and jiggled his legs like an impish child. He pointed the megaphone at The Seraphim.

“Hit me with some Tom!”

The Seraphim duly obliged with some close harmony Tom Jones as God swayed from side to side clicking his fingers and getting ’on down’.

 

***

 

As Alice crashed to the floor in the third ungainly heap of the day, a thought passed through her mind that maybe she would never use stairs again and that this was quite normal for Heaven. She picked herself up, staggered to the nearest chair and slumped back in it.

George and Julian, who had been on tenter-hooks since she shot off, leant forward eager for information.

Alice, aware of the pregnant pause, opened one eye and peered

“What?”

“You’ve been in the Presence!”

“Yeah, like that was anything to write home about!”

George let out a gasp and had to steady himself on the desk.

“Easy there George, remember she’s new.”

Alice sat up and opened both eyes. “Where is this place and who was that short weirdo upstairs claiming to be G…”

“Ah! Don’t say it! You go back now and he’ll be seriously pissed. Did he lift the eye patch?”

“No! And what’s that all about any way? You lot having a ’go to work as a pirate day’?”

“No. Wonky eye,” replied Julian. “You know, one eye looking at you, one eye looking for you, that kind of thing. Bit of an embarrassment really but, you know, self-creation, things are bound to go wrong. But, kind of explains the whole burning bush approach to physical manifestation. I mean, who’s going to take Him seriously if they’re trying to work out who He’s talking to? Moses’ would have died laughing before he got the commandments written down.”

Alice rose from the chair and looked around the office. George felt jumpy, what if she removed one of his folders and didn’t put it back straight?

“Look, I don’t know what this place is, or if this is some kind of dream…”

“You’ll wish it was.” Muttered Julian.

George sat back down at his desk, partly because he was a shocking teacher’s pet but also because it was the only way to stop this person moving his stuff.

“No, no, no, I’m sorry, I’m afraid you’re very much stuck with us,” he said as breezily as he could as he realigned his staplers. “No way out. No clicking of the ruby slippers…It’s not so bad, you know, once you get used to the idea. I got quite upset you know once I realised what it was about but you soon settle down. Well, you must, don’t you? Don’t have much of a choice really. And, save one thousand souls and you get promotion. How about that?”

Alice was straining to see the positive aspect in any of this. Yesterday, she assumed it was still today but who know, she had plans to meet up with her mates, go and get her hair done and phone her mother and now she was looking at ten thousand years in a broom closet. “I suppose Him upstairs thought of this place?”

Julian chuckled. “Yeah, He’s a card.”

“He’s bonkers.”

“I am omnipotent you know.” Came a disembodied voice.

“Bully for you!” yelled Alice.

Julian lowered his voice with a quick glance upward “Well, He’s you know ‘Him’; got to be a little bit…” he spun his finger around the side of his head. “Last week, right, word got around that He was trying to persuade the Virtues to change all the seasons because He thought it might ’shake things up a little’. Week before He got some stupid idea that He wanted to shift a few land masses around because He wasn’t sure He’d got the original design right. Can you imagine the chaos that would’ve caused?”

George nodded his head. He had the doleful eyes of a baby seal.

“I tried suggesting a few things to take his mind off the boredom,” George said, wistfully. Backgammon, Ludo, quiet game of crib, that kind of thing.”

“And?” Alice felt sorry for George. He was clearly eager to please his Lord.

“He changed me into a ping pong ball. For a whole week.”

Alice tried to suppress a laugh but seeing George’s distraught expression she felt bad.

“Oh, come on, George, cheer up. If He’s so ungrateful that He can’t see you were trying to help, then…sod Him.”

“I’m still here, y’know!” came the voice of God through his megaphone

Alice glared upward and then looking at Julian and George declared, in a very decided manner.: “I want to appeal!”

Her announcement was followed, at first, by a stunned silence, then by George spluttering and finally by Julian bursting out laughing.

“What’s so funny?” Alice felt indignant. How dare they not take her seriously.

“You can’t go around changing the way heaven is run just because it doesn’t suit you.” Cried George, although, to be fair, he often tried to do exactly that because he thought his way was much better. “No good’ll come of this! Mark my words! You’ll end up in the Other Place being…hot spooned by imps or worse, they’ll put you in the Perpetual Wedgie Machine.”

“The what?” Alice was sure this place was getting crazier by the minute. A thought occurred to her that maybe she wasn’t dead at all, just in a coma or something.

“The last bloke who tried to appeal ended up in the Perpetual Wedgie Machine,” explained Julian. “On a clear night, you can still hear him yelping.”

“Well, I don’t care,” said Alice defiantly and before Julian or George could stop her she called out the Lord’s name.

 

***

 

When Alice landed in her fourth (or was it third, she was losing count) winded heap, God had just scored a strike at The Seraphim bowling, which basically consisted of God hurling a bowling ball their legs

Alice recovered from her landing and stood up. “I want a word with you.”

God pulled a face and put down his bowling ball and shuffled over to his Throne.

As Alice walked past The Seraphim she suddenly realized all was not as it should be. Instead of the three that were present not an hour ago, now there was one and two mannequins.

“Hang on…where’s dumb and dumber?”

God rested his cheek on his hands and said in a stroppy voice: “Took them away; said they had to be redeployed. It wasn’t efficient to have three singing my perpetual praises when I could have one and a backing tape.” He clicked on the play button and karaoke style backing music blared out.

The lone Seraphim, rather like Pavlov’s dog, responded by going into full Nolan Sister’s mode. God whacked the tape machine with his megaphone.

“Do stop that!” he snapped then turned his attention back to his visitor. “Anyway, what do you want? And how do you keep getting past The Thrones?

“Never mind that, I want to appeal.”

The Lord and Mighty Redeemer screwed up his face and put his hand behind his ears feigning hard of hearing. Alice wrenched the megaphone from his tiny hands and used it.

“I said, for those at the back (The Seraphim took this literally and went to look for those at the back, with a rather delighted look on his face) I WANT TO APPEAL.”

Somewhere, from deep inside Heaven the sound of a warning siren could be heard.

God snatched back the megaphone and gave her a good ticking off: “You’re in big trouble. Big. Big. Trouble.”

Alice was just about to answer when she realized that God seemed to be going through crisis.

His expression had gone from petulant, to horrified to terrified and he sort of shrunk down in his seat and proceeded to slink off onto the floor in one fluid movement suggestive of a lack of bones.

Next thing, he’s on all floors and crawling like his life depended on it behind his throne. From this point of perceived safety, God gesticulated wildly and in a very loud whisper hissed: “Hide.”

Alice took a few moments to register all of this by which time it was far too late and besides, it was obvious he was hiding, so she turned and looked to see what abomination had caused him to have an attack of the willies.

Alice screwed up her eyes to focus on whatever it was that was coming towards them. At first the shape seemed to be indeterminable, a mass, fluid and shifting in purpose until it sort of coalesced into human form

Alice shook her head and looked again. The woman wore a sharp navy blue suit, court shoes, had big hair and bright red lipstick.

“What’s Sarah Palin doing here?” enquired Alice who was now absolutely convinced that she was in a coma.

“No, someone worse. Someone with real power,” hissed God.

Alice, having authority issues, saw it as a challenge and squared up.

“You must be a Principality?”

The Principalities gave her a withering look that, if she had been a milk would have turned her sour.

Undaunted Alice ploughed on: “Good, I want to lodge an appeal.”

The Principalities swept by her and sat on the throne. She looked over her glasses at Alice as she simultaneously pulled out a large wad of forms from her briefcase.

“For the record, it’s The Principalities. I’m a definite article.” She slapped a two-page form down on the table God kept his Rubik’s cube on. “B452A.”

Alice allowed herself a little sigh of relief. “That it? A stupid form?”

The Principalities pulled out another wad of forms and dropped those onto the table.

“638 A through C – in triplicate.”

Alice moved to pick them up but The Principalities slapped her hand down hard on the paperwork.

“And… we need an affidavit from each party affected, directly or indirectly, by your stupidity.”

“What the h…” she bit her tongue with the sudden thought that if saying the G-word brought her here, then maybe the H-word would do the same. “I got killed! Me. The cows are fine.”

“The records show that you killed a chicken”

“What?”

“She means, Mildred.” shouted God helpfully from his hiding place. “Or maybe Betty. Who knows? Don’t engage with her.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Alice irritably. “Firstly, I didn’t mean to kill a chicken and secondly…well, there isn’t a second but if there were…oh, hold on…no, there is a second…how am I supposed to find a chicken…up here?”

The Principalities stood up. “Not my problem.” And she strode off, her heels making a sharp clicking sound as she went.

God scrambled to his feet, dusted off his robe and looked rather pleased with himself.

“Bad luck, old bean,” he said with a bit too much smugness. “She’s got you and good on that one.”

Alice frowned; a thought was trying to push through. She closed her eyes and thought harder.

God was intrigued. “Are you having a stroke?”

Alice opened her eyes: “You’re coming with me to the office!”

“No! For the love of me, no! That nutter George works down there,” he howled like a kid who can’t get his own way. He screwed up his eyes and began to yell.

Alice remained resolutely unimpressed: “Don’t be a baby.”

God unscrewed his face and stared at her.

“Let’s go, big guy.”

 

***

 

In a scene, reminiscent of every bad TV cop show ever, the lights in the office were out. A single point of light shone on Julian’s table. Everyone, except for The Seraphim – who was having a lively conversation with the defaced poster – was focused on something unseen on that desk.

“C’mon,” said Julian who prowled the desk in mean cop mode. “So, you had a foul death, but you can’t go around not giving a cluck. This chick needs you!”

Alice gestured WTF but Julian just shrugged.

“I’m winging it.”

The Principalities sat in the corner, legs crossed, lips pursed, pen ready, monitoring the situation. Every now and then she jotted something down. God leaned over to look but he got a swift rap over his knuckles with the pen and a warning look.

“Can I go now? I’m missing Hart to Hart on ITV 3,” he whined.

In unison, Alice and Julian yelled ‘no’

“I bet Ganesh doesn’t get shit like this.”

Alice gestured to the chicken, the subject of Julian’s bad interrogation skills. “You must know which one she is, Mildred or Betty.”

“I might do,” replied the Diddy Deity in an attempt

to be enigmatic. “But, Divine Intervention is expressly

frowned upon as it negates the free-will clause. Isn’t that

right?” God winked at The Principality who gave him a

withering look in return.

“And when, exactly, did that apply to chickens?” Alice was feeling exasperated. She couldn’t believe she was having to interrogate a chicken.

God was quick to point the finger of blame on The Principalities

“Okay, forget Chicken Little here. How many farmers’ wives are there in heaven?”

The Principalities got out her heavenly iPad and tapped the screen. She got the results and peered over her glasses to deliver them, not without a hint of relish.

“Ten million, six hundred and fifty-two thousand.” She paused as new data came in. “Fifty-three thousand.”

“And you won’t give me even the teeniest clue where to find her?”

“Like I said…”

“Not my problem.”

“Does that mean I can go now?”

When no one answered God, he sidled up to Alice who reacted in a manner rather reminiscent of when the local town drunk tried to have a conversation. She screwed up her lips and hunched herself up to make herself small and less of a target.

“Stephanie Powers! Arf! Arf!” and with that God wriggled his eyebrows, flipped up his eye patch, popped a cigar in his mouth and exited in the manner of Groucho Marx “See ya later toots.”

“Fat lot of use he was,” grumbled Alice.

“Easy to blame God when the chicken doesn’t talk.”

At that moment, The Principalities stood up.

“You failed in your task therefore Clause 63, sub paragraph eight, sub-section D of form B452A immediately kicks in.” She smiled to be nice and failed miserably but, really, it was obvious she didn’t care. “Have a nice death.”

Alice pounced on the form that The Principalities had left on George’s desk. As she scanned the document, her expression registered a look of utter disbelief.

“I’m screwed.”

“Hot spooning by imps for all eternity?” asked George.

“Perpetual Wedgie Machine?” asked Julian

“Worse,” said Alice glumly. “Much, much worse.”

And to be fair, she wasn’t exaggerating.

If Alice Mutton had felt aggrieved at being thrown into an office who’s only task was to argue for the souls of poor, hapless humans whose only sin was to die stupidly, her new role should give her real cause to complain.

God, having had his tiny fill of Hart to Hart, had slipped back onto his Holy Throne and clicked his fingers.

From somewhere in the perpetual distance came the sound of platform heels galumphing on the whatever the surface of the Heavenly Throne Room was.

God wriggled excitedly in his seat and clapped his tiny hands together.

“Over there!” he ordered and when that instruction had been, reluctantly, obeyed, he poured over the playlist he’d complied.

With a gleeful laugh, he hit the play button and out of the speakers came the opening bars of Tina Charles’ I Love to Love began on the karaoke machine.

“Let me hear ya sing!” he yelled.

Alice Mutton, resplendent in a white, sequined jump suit with flared bottoms, would have plenty of time to reflect upon the unwise decision to challenge the authority of Heaven as she perpetually serenaded God who had a rather soft spot for nineteen seventies cheesy disco.

 

FIN

 

 

 

IV

 

“Excuse me!”

Robbie turned abruptly at the sound of her voice. He’d been following the signs from the car park and had eventually found the mortuary tucked deep inside the hospital, along a poorly lit corridor.

“You’re not supposed to be in here. Authorised personnel only. See.” And she held up her ID card suspended on a lanyard around her neck.

He wasn’t really listening. The fridge doors had taken his attention.

“Am I in one of these?”

His choice of words momentarily threw Scarlett but she quickly recovered as her thoughts split into two: deal with him; am I in damage?

“Not unless you’re dead. It’s where we keep the bodies.”

Robbie turned to Scarlett. Just below his ribs, to the right, the green tee shirt was soaked with blood.

Scarlett noted it and said with a firm voice: “I think you need A and E.”

Scarlett reached for the phone and punched in a number.

“Yeah, hi, it’s Scarlett down in the mortuary…hi, I’ve got this bloke down here. He’s got some kind of injury. No, alive. I think he might be in shock…His name? Hang on…hey, what’s your name?”

Robbie had gone. Scarlett replaced the receiver and pushed open the doors to the corridor. It was empty. She gave it a few moments head room before deciding that he must have taken her advice and gone off to A&E

She returned to the post-mortem room and pulled on the water hose humming to herself as she sluiced down the metal table.

It was only as she turned to replace the hose that she leapt out of her skin at the sight of Robbie standing at the head end. Her fear turned immediately to anger.

“Right, that’s it, I’m calling security.”

“Don’t! Please!”

There was something in his tone; it wasn’t hostile or threatening, it sounded helpless, scared.

“You’re injured. You need to see a doctor.”

Robbie looked at his tee shirt as if realizing for the first time that there was a lot of blood there. With a curious fascination, he touched the ragged hole and then slowly, he lifted the shirt to reveal a small, puncture wound.

“You’ve got to help me.” His voice sounded distant, like he was physically present but his mind wasn’t in the moment.

Scarlett knew it was the brain’s defence mechanism kicking him; slowing everything down, preserving and protecting.

Robbie touched the wound. “They got me! They did it!”

His face twisted with anger, and confusion: he lunged forward, not at her although that did not stop Scarlett grabbing the nearest thing, the mop and gripping it tight.

“Don’t come any closer.”

Robbie didn’t hear her; he was too involved in his own internal drama as he relived the events that had led to this moment.

“Sammo, he had a gun an’… an’ Reg…Reg was yelling, telling him to do it, do it, over and over and then there was this noise and blackness.”

Robbie looked wildly about him.

“But I can’t be here. They didn’t bring me here. They haven’t found me. I’m still out there.” There was a rising panic in his voice but his words made no sense to Scarlett.

“Okay, maybe…maybe you should lie down.”

“Oh God! No, no, no, no, no.”

“You’re just, you’re disorientated. You’ve lost quite a bit of blood.”

Robbie began to scrabble around, trying to grab his back, reaching, and feeling for something behind him. He found what he was looking for and suddenly, his world slowed right down and he felt as if he was tumbling through space. He could feel it, even if he couldn’t see it.

A sort of calm now swept over him and slowly he turned around. He heard the mop clatter to the floor.

“Is it bad?”

Scarlett couldn’t respond. She could see the gaping hole in his body, and explosion of flesh and viscera. She stared at the bloody mess and then looked again at Robbie.

“You couldn’t have survived that.

“I didn’t survive it. I’m dead.”

 

***

 

Scarlett stood in front of a large ‘NO SMOKING’ sign and dragged furiously on a cigarette. Despite the events of the last half an hour, she had enough common sense left in her to snatch her bag containing her mobile.

“Smart girl.”

“Yeah, mad not stupid?”

At that moment, a woman walked past and Scarlett adjusted the ear phones to leave the woman in no doubt that she was on the phone.

“You haven’t even asked me my name.”

“I’m not interested in your name.”

“Why, because I’m dead?”

“No, because you don’t exist. You can’t exist.”

“Whoa, whoa, hang on, I think I do. I’m in limbo, me and you’ve got to help me.”

“I don’t have to do anything.”

“You wanted to help me in there.”

“Yeah, when I thought you were injured.” Scarlett ground the butt with her heel and picked up the flattened remains which she threw in the bin. “Look, I’m not interested, okay but, you know, sorry your dead.” And with that, she left.

 

***

 

“What the hell?” Scarlett gaped at the scene which met her return. The inhabitants of the morgue, the dead inhabitants of the morgue, had broken the ever-present silence of the body store.

Mrs. Ellis had been brought in by the local funeral home two days ago. Her post-mortem had been pretty straight forward, old age had done for her and she was now awaiting collection for her funeral

Mr. Furnish, who was a much younger man, had sadly succumbed to a drunken driver and was yet to be looked at. The others varied in age, favouring the much older side. All of them were making far too much noise!

It would seem obvious, that most people, when confronted with the spirits of those whose bodies rested within the mortuary would, you know, feel a little freaked out. Not Scarlett. In her twenty-three years, she had coped with so much; an abusive step-father, a drug addled mother and the overdose that claimed her life. Scarlett had spent her life in the system, seeing the best and the worse it could offer. A few dead people…nothing to write home about.

“Oi, clear off I was here first,” said Robbie gruffly.”

“You can all clear off,” replied Scarlett crossly but she left her special ire for Robbie. “Now look what you’ve done. Flaming well woken the dead.”

“Excuse me?” said Mr. Furnish rather meekly. “Can you help me?”

“What?” snapped Scarlett causing Mr. Furnish to hop back a bit.

“I’ve forgotten to tell my wife the passwords for all the computer files. I can’t settle. I must let her know,” he implored

“Mr. Furnish, right?”

He nodded and Scarlett opened the fridge door and pulled out the gurney on which his earthly remains lay.

“In you get.”

“But, my wife…”

Scarlett ignored him.

“Just so typical of the living,” he grumbled. “Your time will come, then you’ll be sorry.”

“Not as sorry as I am now,” muttered Scarlett as she watched Mr. Furnish re-enter his body.

Scarlett turned her attention to the other five.

“Right you lot, back in your bodies, and don’t let me see you out here again.”

Mrs. Ellis shuffled towards her body: “It’s my cat you see. I died so suddenly. I’m sure they won’t remember to feed her.”

“It’ll be fine,” soothed Scarlett in her best reassuring voice. “Cats are very…resilient.”

“Not Samson,” cried Mrs. Ellis in alarm “He’ll starve, I’m sure of it.”

“If you’d just like to get back…”

“Would you go and check on her for me? I live at 55 Oakapple Close…”

This sparked a frenzy from the others who began yelling out requests for assistance with their dearly living relatives.

“What? No! What am I, a gofer for ghosts? Come on, back inside. Just ‘cos you’re dead, doesn’t make you special.”

The spirit of Mrs. Ellis resettled itself in her corpse but as Scarlett was closing the door she sat back up and said: “Would you think about it, dear? Samson must be missing me terribly and my daughter-in-law is such a bitch.”

Safely contained back in their bodies, Scarlett turned her attention to Robbie.

“So, what do I do with you?”

He shrugged.

“Isn’t there, like, a light anywhere nearby?”

“Nope.”

“Long tunnel? Sound of angels calling you to heaven?”

He made a big deal of looking around before shaking his head. He frowned.

“Look, I think I need my body. I’ve got this whole, I don’t know, feeling going on like I’m disassociated.”

“Disembodied, I think, is the word you’re groping for,” Scarlett was feeling very testy now. “Besides, dead is dead is dead, what do you want your body for?”

He looked very serious and his manner took on a decidedly studious turn. “I’m still linked to it. I can’t pass on until I’m found.”

“Bullshit.”

“Er…I think I have more experience than you of being dead. Seriously. Look, I’ll help you find me okay and then you can go to the police and….”

“Oh what?” Scarlett was outraged at his impudence at walking into her life and expecting her to drop everything and get involved. “You expect me to walk into a police station, tell them I know where you’re buried and they’re not going to want to know how I know? Do I have ‘stupid’ tattooed on my forehead?”

Scarlett turned away from him. This was getting scarily out of hand.

“I’m really sorry you’re dead but I’m not getting involved. You have some serious shit mates and I don’t want them finding me.”

“They won’t. Sammo and Reg aren’t the mafia. They’re two stupid gits who, right this minute, are getting away with murder.”

“I’ll think about it.” She picked up the mop and shoved it back into the bucket.

“Thank you.”

 

***

 

Scarlett crept up the driveway away from her parked scooter.

From inside the house she could hear the shrill voice of a woman.

“No, I said that piece over there. This piece is for the auction house, if they ever get here. And mind you don’t scuff the legs. I’ve taken pictures you know, so don’t come the old ‘it was damaged already’ routine with me.”

Scarlett stood by the open door and fretted over whether to knock. Something brushed against her leg and she looked down to see a large tabby cat cosying up to her.

“Hey Samson.” She dropped down to her haunches and fussed the cat. “Hey fella.”

“Who the hell are you?”

Scarlett stood up and sized up the woman in front of her. She had a very angry face and her arms were folded tightly over her chest as she gave Scarlett the once over trying to work out what her angle was.

Scarlett decided the best way to approach it was by being overly perky and totally against type.

“I’m Scarlett, Mrs. Ellis may have mentioned me. I used to help her out, you know, bit of shopping, feeding Samson, that kind of thing.”

The woman bristled at the thought of her former mother-in-law doing something she was unaware of. She’d been busy making herself completely indispensable to the woman since she realized how much money was tied up in the house and furniture.

Mrs. Ellis had a soft heart and had, on more than one occasion, mentioned that her son had everything he needed and what did he want with her old stuff. Mrs. Ellis junior was terrified the old woman would do something completely stupid like leaving it all to that wretched cat. Her tenacity had eventually paid off, that and the regular mentions of being strapped for cash due to this outlay or that.

“She most certainly did not. What do you want? You know that the will’s been read. She hasn’t left you anything.”

Scarlett held her temper in check. Samson rubbed himself around her legs. She looked down.

“She left me Samson.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Samson. Mrs. Ellis said that if anything should happen to her, I was to take him.”

There was a short pause and with a dismissive flap of her hand the woman said: “Fine, take him. We were having him destroyed this afternoon anyway.”

With that the woman turned on her heels and disappeared back into the house.

Scarlett picked up Samson and nuzzled his face. “Mrs. Ellis was right, she is a bitch.”

 

***

 

Scarlett lay on her bed, in her sparsely furnished bedsit and dragged on her cigarette. Samson was curled up beside her as if he’d always been in her world.

“Not what I expected.”

Scarlett jumped so violently that Samson shot off the bed with a wild cry and a hiss.

“Jesus Christ!”

“Haven’t met him yet.”

“How the hell did you find me?” Scarlett got down on all fours and lifted the duvet. Samson was cowering under the bed and refused to move.

“What can I say? I’m just attracted to you.”

“That’s just gross.”

“No seriously, when I say I’m attracted to you, I mean, I’m literally attracted to you. Guess you’ve got something I need.”

He moved closer and peered at her like she was some weird exhibit.

“What are you, exactly?” he muttered.

“Pissed off, that’s what I am,” if he had substance she would have pushed him out of the way, instead, she did the next best thing, which was to walk right through him. “Don’t they have privacy laws over the other side?”

She took a bottle of beer out of the fridge.

“Not really, it’s more of right-to-roam policy.”

He watched her open the bottle and take a slug.

“I miss beer.”

Scarlett waved the bottle under his nose.

“Sniff it up, dead boy.” And, seeing his longing she deliberately took another long glug. As she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand she looked at him: “Why are you haunting me?

Robbie looked rather upset at this remark. He had an oddly angular face, long and lean and a thin slash for a mouth. Smiling probably suited his features better. “Don’t say it like that.”

Scarlett flicked her black hair back off her face and resumed her prone position on the bed: “How do you want me to say it?”

I don’t know. How about ‘lost’? I’m a lost soul.”

“Now you’re just romanticizing what is, in fact, disembodied stalking. Can’t you go haunt the ladies’ locker room at the gym or something?”

“Tried it. Without a corporeal body, it’s not such a thrill.” He picked at his trousers. “It’s not fun, you know, once the novelty wears off.”

Scarlett sat up and looked at him; really looked at him. She could see that, although he was underweight, he hadn’t been malnourished in life. His had clean hair and his clothes were good quality. He was someone’s son and they had cared for him. He wasn’t from the streets and he certainly did look like the crowd her mum had hung about with. Something was off and she was actually beginning to feel sorry for him.

“So, you’re not digging being dead?”

“Yeah, it’s not really doing it for me, you know? This whole, dead but not feeling dead thing is a bit of a trip. It’s this confused mass in my head with all these gaps…I’m here, then there, then somewhere else and I don’t remember getting between these places.”

She rolled off the bed and sat down on the couch.

“Okay, how do you know that it’s not been found? That it’s not laying in a morgue somewhere?”

“It’s not an ‘it’, it’s my body.”

“Your ‘body’ could be in a freezer somewhere, right now. Why don’t you see if you’re attracted to your ‘body’?”

Robbie’s features twisted slightly: “I’m still out there. I can just tell. Oh God, what if some animal is eating me right now.” He sounded genuinely traumatized at the thought.

“Okay, look, call me stupid but why don’t you know where your body is?” Scarlett was beginning to find herself drawn further and further into this drama despite her attempts to remain aloof. “I mean, you know where you got killed, right?”

The look on Robbie’s face told her otherwise.

“You don’t know where they shot you?”

“I’ve tried.” Robbie was beginning to sound agitated. “I know there was a train, like we were near a track and a car, a Golf, burnt out, white.”

As he talked something began to happen; he began to ‘blink’ in and out, like someone was changing the dial on his reality.

“What’s happening?” Scarlett could feel the air around her changing, becoming almost charged. The static lifted her hair. Samson, who had crept out from under the bed, hissed loudly and darted for cover.

“I don’t know…”

With a final blip, Robbie was gone. Scarlett sat still, uncertain as to what just happened.

“Hey! Where’d you go? Okay, is this like a ghost joke?”

The bedsit was quiet. Slowly, the charged atmosphere settled back down.

As Scarlett sat in the calm and quiet, Samson crept out once more and jumped onto her lap. She felt a lot more disconcerted than she wanted to admit to. Apart from anything else, this room was her sanctuary; the one place she could call absolutely her own. Having grown up in various council run care homes, and been fostered out and returned more times than was healthy for a child, at last, she had her own door, her own key, and her own life. Robbie coming here, unannounced, uninvited had invaded her space.

She picked Samson up and went over to her bed. She climbed inside, drew up the sheets and waited for the cat to settle before turning on the T.V. Somehow though, she knew she wouldn’t be able to settle and so she hunkered down for what she knew would probably be a long night.

 

***

 

“Ah, there you are,” said Dr. Fielding to Scarlett when the latter emerged from the locker room dressed in scrubs and ready for the morning’s work. “I thought we’d start with the Ellis case.”

Dr. Fielding folded back the sheet to reveal Mrs. Ellis. Scarlett felt herself recoil.

“Not suddenly gone squeamish have you, Scarlett?” she said with some concern. Scarlett had proved to be an asset to the work of the mortuary and had proved particularly resilient to even the most gruesome aspects of the work.

Scarlett pulled herself together but continues to stare at Mrs. Ellis.

“I overslept, missed breakfast.”

Dr. Fielding nodded, unsure if this was the truth. It was certainly worth keeping an eye on. “Well, make sure you go to the canteen after this. Can’t have you fainting now, can we?”

Scarlett managed a limp smile as Dr. Fielding picked up a scalpel ready to make the first incision.

“Right, ready to look inside?”

 

***

 

Scarlett rushed out of the hospital, desperate for fresh air. She could feel her whole body shaking and the smell of the body was stuck inside her nostrils.

“Are you all right?”

“Just leave me alone.” She could feel the sensation of being overwhelmed subsiding now as she continued to regulate her breathing.

“About last night. Something’s happened. It’s the reason I disappeared.”

Scarlett straightened up. “I don’t care. Just, clear off.”

“Tell me what’s wrong then,” he said and sounded genuinely concerned.

“My job. I can’t do my job.”

“And that’s my fault?”

Scarlett rounded on him: “As it happens, yeah. Before you showed up I wasn’t fazed by dead bodies, whatever their condition. Then, today, we do Mrs. Ellis’s post-mortem and it made me feel sick. I’ve never felt sick, not with car crashes or burning, nothing, but today a little old lady, who died from old age, almost made me puke. And do you want to know why? Because I spoke to her. Because I have her cat in my home. Because, she was no longer just a cadaver, she was a person.”

“They’re all people.”

“No,” cried Scarlett, again feeling as if her life was out of control once more.

This one small encounter had made her feel as if the chaos of her past was back. What if this never stopped and she had to leave to make it so? Where would she find a job that allowed her to have so little contact with other people that allowed her to move about a space without feeling the touch of another person?

Dr. Fielding fully understood that she had taken on a damaged person and allowed Scarlett as much space as was required that still allowed her to carry out her job professionally. The pathologist’s wisdom had paid dividends for both. Where would she find that again? Why couldn’t he see that he was the catalyst for all of this?

“To do my job I have to separate what they were from what they are. We’re doing Mr. Furnish next and all I keep thinking is how concerned he was for his wife and that stupid password. What if, what if there’s something on that computer she needs, something important she should know? What if I could have helped, somehow?”

Robbie listened in silence and he did understand, or at least, he had a good understanding of what she meant but he had to be selfish, he needed her. Everything could be worked out afterwards. Maybe, once she had helped him find his body, he’d leave and this would all stop. He knew what he had to do but first he had to persuade her.

“Okay, okay, look. I want you to do something, not for me, this isn’t about me.”

“Since we met, it’s been about you.”

“Not this time. I want you to go to ICU. There’s a lady there, name’s Mrs. Muir. Go see her.”

“Why?”

“Just do it. Please.”

Scarlett sighed. “If I do it, will you leave me alone?”

“I can’t answer that. I’m not asking to be here. I just am but this might help you decide if you want to help me then I might be able to.”

 

***

 

At the door to the ICU wing Scarlett swiped her card and the door buzzed open. She found Mrs. Muir in a side room on a ventilator.

“She came in this morning. Do you know her?” said a nurse who had seen Scarlett peering through the viewing window behind which Mrs. Muir lay, oblivious to the world.

“Yes,” lied Scarlett. “What happened?”

“She was mugged,” said Robbie but, of course, the nurse couldn’t hear or see him.

“Not sure,” the nurse joined Scarlett. “A couple walking their dog found her on a footpath.”

“How do you know?” the question was directed at Robbie.

“Sammo and Reg.”

“Police mentioned.” Naturally, the nurse thought Scarlett was talking to her.

“You can only stay a few minutes,” said the nurse kindly and went back to her station.

“That’s where I went,” said Robbie, coming to stand beside Scarlett. “They pulled me back somehow. I watched them do it. She’s dying. Look.”

In the corner of the room a shadowy black figure stood perfectly still, its form was turned towards Mrs. Muir but its face was featureless.

“Is that the Grim Reaper?”

“Not exactly,” said Robbie kindly. “It sort of guides the souls but not like the Big G.”

At that moment, Mrs. Muir ‘crashed’. The alarm on her life support system began to blare out and within moments the crash team were on the scene.

As Scarlett watched, Mrs. Muir’s spirit rose out of her body. As it did so it turned towards Scarlett and smiled then, together, Mrs. Muir and the creature disappeared.

The nurse closed the blinds leaving Scarlett to walk away shocked by what she has witnessed.

This Sammo and Reg had now killed twice, at least to her knowledge. How could she walk away from that and not hate herself for every moment of her life? What would happen when Mrs. Muir ended up in the mortuary? Would she see her? Speak to her? This was no longer about him. It was so much bigger than that.

 

***

 

Mr. Furnish lay on the table, covered up to his neck with the sheet. Scarlett approached the table with caution, half expecting him to sit up and talk to her. She leaned in and whispered in his ear:

“Mr. Furnish, I know you can hear me. Give me the password. I need the password. I’ll let your wife know. I promise.”

Mr. Furnish remained resolutely quiet. Dr. Fielding entered and gave Scarlett a quizzical look.

“All ready,” Scarlett said with a business-like tone.

“Good, let’s get on then.”

 

***

 

“It’s ‘Beagle’”

Scarlett almost dropped the mop. Maybe, if this was going to be a regular thing, she needed to think up some ground rules. At this rate, she would either end up dying of a heart attack or, worse, wetting herself. She put the mop down and turned to face a rather embarrassed looking Mr. Furnish.

“My password. ‘Beagle’. I was a botanist you see.”

“I’ll let her know.” Scarlett smiled in a sad way as she watched Mr. Furnish fade away.

“Thank you.” And he was gone.

 

***

 

Scarlett was as good as her word and on the way home that evening she stopped by Mr. Furnish’s house and slipped an unsigned note through the door.

Twice in the space of a couple of days she had managed to give relief to those who had passed beyond, and what had it cost her? Nothing? Maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing after all; knowing that she had some use in the world.

 

***

 

“What about your parents?”

Scarlett was curled up on her bed but Robbie, lacking a corporeal body, was forced to wander.

“Mum O.D.”

“And your dad?”

Scarlett shrugged, tried to give the impression that she didn’t care: “I dunno, some bloke. She was completely whacked most of the time. She’d taken so much shit she didn’t know what day of the week it was.”

“And that’s how you ended up in care?”

Scarlett gave him a long look. “What’s this? New, caring Robbie? Why do you give a shit?”

“I’ve been thinking, that’s all. You didn’t ask for any of this. Must be a total mind fuck having some dead guy suddenly turn up.”

“And the rest!” She thought about it for a moment. Sure, she’d been angry with him about the intrusion into her private world but where else did he have to go. Being dead probably wasn’t all that either. “What about you? You got family?”

“We fell out.”

“About?”

“Stuff. Life. Shit. Who knows?” And he didn’t know.

Robbie’s parents were the traditional type. They had a vision of how life should be. Robbie had gone to a good school, got good grades, and had entered university with a bright future ahead of him.

“I suppose the freedom went to my head. My dad was very controlling and suddenly I didn’t have to do things his way.”

“And Sammo and Reg?”

“Couple of pushers, lived on the estate I moved onto during my second year; nothing heavy, just some home grown and E’s. Things got away from me. I fell behind. My course tutor advised me to put it on hold ‘til I got back on track and my dad threw a wobbler. I ended up dossing at Sammo’s.”

“But, you’re not dead because they were pushing home grown?”

For the first time, Robbie began to feel as if he and Scarlett were connecting on a deeper level than just haunted and haunter.

“No. Reg started getting ideas. Wanted to push some heavy shit and I wasn’t interested.”

“You were a pusher as well?”

That blew it.

“Well, fuck me, what was I supposed to do? I had no money.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Get a job?” The sympathy that had been building in her evaporated in a trice once the truth of the situation was out there. In all honesty, she had suspected as much but was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“There was a turf war brewing…”

“A turf war? Nobody calls it a turf war. You sound like the Daily Mail.”

“Well, what would you call a rival gang of pushers hitting your area and outselling you?”

It was all getting a little testy. Maybe some time out was needed here to calm it all down a bit.

“I don’t know. A free market economy?”

Robbie pulled a face and went along with it.

“So, because of this ‘free market economy’, Reg got this gun. Protection, he said. Things were getting tight. Reg was getting desperate. He needed to shift the gear to keep himself going.”

“So, he mugged Mrs. Muir for a couple of quid for some cheap smack? And I suppose you want me to go to the police about this one as well?”

“Look, I understand that you probably don’t think that much of me right now, with your mum and all but Mrs. Muir won’t be the last. Okay, one less pusher fine but I wasn’t like them.”

“What, you were the pusher with a heart? Slipping your customers an NA card with every bag? You were a pusher, end of. Now you’re dead. The world’s a better place.”

“And Mrs. Muir?”

Scarlett ignored him.

“Mrs. Muir’s got a family, grandkids. Okay, yeah, I might have got a job, cleaned myself up. I might have carried on. Who knows? I could have died next week of an O.D. That’s life. Mrs. Muir didn’t deserve to die to feed Reg’s habit. You can stop him. I can give you names, dates, drop off points. You can take him down and the other gang.”

“Well, aren’t I just the regular fucking superhero?”

Scarlett got up and picked up her jacket.

“I’ll do it but not for you. For me. For people like me who get the shitty end of the stick because of arseholes like you.”

She picked up her keys and without saying anymore she left the flat. Her heart felt heavy. The chance to shop a couple of lowlifes like Sammo and Reg had to be taken but she didn’t want to be on anyone’s radar. She’d had enough police with good intentions in her life, usually accompanied by a righteous social worker. How must it have felt to be Robbie, to grow up in a normal household? What she would have given for a father who loved her enough to have rules. Robbie was just another self-entitled whiner who had no idea how lucky he’d been.

 

***

 

Scarlett sat at a table in a stark interview room. Her learned dislike of all that the two men who sat in front of her meant to her had kicked in the moment she had spoken to the desk sergeant and he’s pointed at the waiting area. Robbie stood in the corner of the room and keenly observed all that passed between them.

The plain clothes officer pushed a written statement across the table to Scarlett.

“Read and sign please.”

Scarlett scanned the statement.

“You should have come before now,” he said with a reprimanding tone.

Scarlett scrawled her name on the dotted line. “You’re lucky I came at all.”

She pushed the statement back. The uniformed officer looked at her name.

“You’re Maggie Hanson’s girl, aren’t you?”

Scarlett bristled at hearing her mother’s name. “What of it?”

“These blokes anything to do with what she was into?”

Scarlett was a little long on the pause.

The plain clothes officer decided to take a different tack. “We’re going to need you to take part in a couple of ID parades.”

Again, her silence was telling.

“Is there anything else I should know, Miss Hanson?

Scarlett glanced at Robbie.

“My name is Robbie Smith; did you never think to ask?”

Scarlett felt a surge of guilt. She had never even considered his name. He was a blip, a nuisance on her radar.

“Ever heard of a Robbie Smith?”

“Should I have?”

“He used to hang out with Reg and Sammo. I heard…there was a rumour going around, that’s all.”

Plain Clothes gaze was penetrating.

“I heard that he disappeared, that’s all.”

Plain Clothes seemed pretty relaxed about it. These types move on all the time. No one cares, no one misses them.

“I heard….” Scarlett sucked in air through her nose and swallowed hard. She was about to open a can of worms and she knew it. “I was told that Sammo shot him.”

Now Plain Clothes was interested. “And who told you that?”

Scarlett shrugged and Plain Clothes’ experience told him that she’s not going to spill. He pushed back his chair and stood up. “We’ll make some inquiries.”

 

***

 

Scarlett exited the station, glad to get out of the place, happy to smell the diesel and petrol fumes from the cars waiting at the traffic lights. She lit up a cigarette.

“Thank you.”

Scarlett barely glanced at him. She chucked the unsmoked cigarette into the gutter and put on her helmet. Without acknowledging his presence, she started the scooter and rode away.

 

***

 

Scarlett had received a call a few days later asking her to attend the police station to do an identity parade. Dr. Fielding had been most concerned that she had been a victim of some kind of crime that she had not disclosed and Scarlett had reassured her that it was not the case and promised to make up the hours she was about to lose.

“No,” Dr. Fielding reassured her. “No, need, I’ll square it”

Scarlett scanned the line-up and glanced at Robbie who held up four fingers.

“Four.”

This was repeated in the second line up where Robbie indicated to number two – Sammo.

Neither of them looked as she imagined and yet every bit so. They weren’t ‘hard men’ pushing drugs; they were as much victims as she or Robbie had been. Their sallow, spotty complexions testament to abuse. Dirty hair, dirty teeth, lack of hygiene. Not caring about what they looked like just where the next fix was coming from.

It was those higher up the food chain that were to blame for this mess, for her mother, for Mrs. Muir. Preying on the weak; those who were unable to stop, feeding their habits with a freebie to reel them back in once they’d got clean.

She didn’t feel guilty at naming them. Perhaps she’d done them a favour.

 

***

 

On the blackened, swollen toe, which poked out from under the hospital sheet was a tag ROBERT SMITH. Scarlett approached the covered body and with a growing sense of trepidation about her, and gingerly pulled back the sheet.

 

***

 

Scarlett flushed the toilet chain and laid her head, just for a moment, on her arms.

“I wasn’t a pretty sight, was I?”

Scarlett dragged herself up and exited the stall. She went to the mirror and stared at Robbie through it.

“I’m sorry I made you puke.” He sounded genuinely remorseful. “Why’d they need a post-mortem anyway? Pretty obvious how I died.”

She ran the tap and splashed her face: “They needed to formally identify you. Get a precise cause of death.”

“Which was?”

“Single bullet wound to the stomach causing massive haemorrhaging. It was slow.”

Robbie seemed shocked by this and withdraw into his memories.

“I remember watching a fly caught in a web. Struggling, fighting for life. It seemed like hours.”

He looked at Scarlett. She had tears in her eyes.

“Robbie,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “You’ve been dead for over two months.”

Robbie felt the world collapse in on him, like being sucked into a tunnel.

“That’s…that’s not possible.”

“I’m sorry. Dr. Fielding is sending official confirmation through to CID tomorrow.”

Robbie was stunned into silence. Two months? Where had he been? He remembered fighting his way out of the blackness, if knowing somehow that he had to find her but why? What on earth was Scarlett Hanson that he should be so drawn to her? At last he found his voice.

“Why the change of heart? Why’d you tell them about me?”

Scarlett didn’t know the answer.

“I suppose it doesn’t matter now. Sammo grassed up Reg, the other gang, and then spilled the beans about the night he shot me. Seems he and I had been talking and I’d already made contact with someone inside the police.”

“And that’s why Sammo shot you?”

“Yes and no. Sammo’s a bit daft in the head. Too much weed. Reg found out and set me up. Course, he wasn’t going to pull the trigger.”

He looked at Scarlett and she noticed a change come over him.

“What’s the matter? What is it?”

“I don’t know. I feel…peaceful.”

He levelled his gaze at Scarlett; a new kind of maturity shone in his eyes.

“I’ve got to go.”

In the corner of the room the psychopomp was waiting.

“I’ll see you around, Scarlett Hanson.”

He smiled for the last time and then faded away, leaving a huge silence over the rest room.

 

***

 

Scarlett observed the funeral from a distance. Robbie’s mother was uncontrolled in her grief and his father stoic in his. After the coffin had been lowered into the ground and the funeral party had begun to depart, she too turned to leave.

As she made her way through the gravestones something distracted her; a movement too quick for her to fully detect but a definite presence. She stopped and looked around. The cemetery seemed peaceful, yet the sense of presence remained.

With her head held high, Scarlett turned her back on the world of the dead but something told her that maybe the dead hadn’t quite turned their back on her

 

THE END

 

 

 

V

 

“Hi, Livvie here…”

“Liam…”

“Evie…”

“Jules, Julie…Anderson…that was…”

 

When Damian had first voiced the idea of a school reunion he’d envisaged a few mates down the pub reminiscing about old times. The Facebook page he’d set up soon attracted likes; a few likes soon became lots of likes and very soon tens of likes. It seemed that he was going to need a bigger venue.

 

“Andy…”

“Divorced….”

“My job…”

“I’m married to Craig…”

 

It just so happened that one of his former teachers, Mr. Weston, or Jeff, as Damian now called him, was a

regular in the photography shop and so the idea of hiring out the school hall was run by him over coffee in the back room and a promise was made by Jeff to ‘see what he could do’.

 

“Bank manager…”

“Property development…”

“Literary agent…”

“Housewife…and, well, I’m mum too”

 

The School Head was more than happy for Damian to have the hall provided he took responsibility for setting up, taking down and had some kind of public liability insurance going on.

Very soon, the idea he’d mooted to Leanne, his wife of twenty years standing, was a reality. One hundred and fifty guests had signed up to attend and Damian found himself in a whirlwind of organization.

The idea of a video presentation had come to him one day in the shop. He set up a screen, a camera and some lights in the back room and invited a select few to come in at their leisure to give a quick video presentation of themselves and where they were at with life. Slowly but surely, they popped into the shop, one by one to get filmed.

 

“I’m the branch manager at the local Barclay’s. Andy and I have been together thirty years, married for 25 of them… That’s what you get for choosing your lab partners in chemistry ‘O’ level!”

 

“Just in the middle of preparing my second spa development. Sadly, divorced but I have a beautiful daughter for the trouble. Looking forward to catching up with a few of the old faces. Check out my webpage. See you there.”

 

All except one but he had a good excuse. Unlike the others, he’d got out of town, joined the army and now was the owner of his own close protection company. He had, however, agreed to make the reunion. Damian was glad; he hadn’t seen his former best friend in seven years.

 

The day before the reunion

 

Ed Moore made his way through the train that had just pulled out of Paddington Station and found a seat in first class. He settled down, pulled his lap top out of its case, a flipped it open. As he composed his thoughts, he starred out of the window as the city began to slowly recede and the sprawling suburbs took over. Soon, even they were behind him as the train rattled along passing open countryside and small villages. His laptop went into idle mode as its owner continued to stare out of the window, seemingly forgetting his vow to do some work before the train arrived back in his home town.

Ed had, at first, decided that attending a school reunion was a pretty lame idea. He’d moved on both figuratively and literally; joining the army straight out of school and rising to the rank of WOI before leaving to set up his own company. He’d got lucrative government contracts in light of the various conflicts that had taken place and was doing very nicely for himself.

He’d sat on the invite for a while, clicking on the Facebook page every now and then to see who was definitely going and who’d clicked on ‘interested’. He never saw her name appear but, then again, he’d never seen her come up on Facebook ever, so he had to assume she’d never fallen in with the whole social media thing.

In the end, he’d decided ‘why not’ and clicked on the button to say he was going. After that it all seemed pretty easy; get an advanced train ticket, book a hotel room for one night, and come away the next day. He wasn’t even going to tell his folks he’d come home. That particular assortment of problems needed to remain firmly unopened.

 

“After studying Modern English Literature and American Classics at university I joined the team at Peabody, Primrose and Sutcliffe. I was quickly promoted but I took the plunge and started my own agency.

 

“I have three boys. Craig has his own dental practice and we live down Learmont Drive. Hope everyone has a good time and say ‘hi’ if you remember me.”

 

Damian turned off the camcorder and smiled at Jules. He’d always been fond of her. She was still the same meek soul she’d been when they were at school. Never one to draw attention to herself and certainly not as confident as Evie, who’d breezed through her stint in front of the camera.

Evie had come along today in support of Jules.

“Thanks for coming,” he said, helping Jules off the raised stool and giving her a kiss on the cheek.

“It’s been fun, hasn’t it Jules?” Evie turned to her friend and waited for the inevitable compliant smile. She wasn’t disappointed. “Shame Leanne wasn’t here.”

“Yeah, she’s off having kittens somewhere,” he replied as he began to dismount the camera from the tripod and carefully pack it all away. “This reunion’s been a real challenge.”

“So, it’s all coming together?”

“Yeah, it’s all good to go and Lee’s been working really hard to get the food sorted. Reckon she’ll do us proud.”

Evie could see that Jules was beginning to get a little restless.

“Right,” she said brightly, hoping that Damian hadn’t noticed. “well, we’ll see you tomorrow then.

The two women, firm friends since the first day of secondary school, left Damian to fuss over his camera and made their own way down onto the busy High Street.

The town was part of the stockbroker belt, commuters who worked long hours in the City and came back to their detached houses, well-groomed spouses, charming children – or at least those still at home and not harvested out to expensive boarding schools, and the usual round of golf club socials to fill out the weekend before it all started again.

It was therefore a prosperous place which afforded it a High Street of family run business ranging from greengrocers, to butchers, to fishmongers, to clothes, to general stores, everything, in fact in one very exclusive street. Small boutiques offered up high end clothing and accessories. Not for this town the usual gaggle of charity shops selling unwanted tat; here those shops were where the savvy shopper could pick up designer labels at fraction of the cost, providing, of course, they could run the gimlet eye of the ladies who lunch who could spot last year’s must-haves a mile off.

Naturally, like most places, there was one area of town that stuck out like a sore thumb and, for this town it was Manor Park, a sprawling council estate built in the sixties. It had a bad rep but that wasn’t because it was a bad place. It was more the affluent locals and their fear of ‘the other’ with the ‘other’ being those who didn’t work in the City and didn’t belong to the golf club or send their kids away, aged four to some exclusive school.

Jules had been born on the Manor, as it was known, and had attended the Manor Park secondary modern as she had attended its streamer school. Evie’s family had come to the town during the school holiday, at the transition from primary to secondary. Whereas most of the kids starting their first year came from the town and mostly knew each other, Evie was a stranger.

An Audi coupé pulled up on double-yellow lines on the opposite side of the road to the women.

“Oh God, its Olivia,” hissed Jules and then, more to herself whispered: “Don’t let her see us, don’t let her see us.”

Olivia got out of the car. She was groomed to perfection; her shoulder length hair was a glossy curtain of warm tints and lo-lights. She pushed the designer sunglasses up onto her head, swept her hand bag up her arm and onto her shoulder, locked the vehicle and walked away. All without seeing either of the women.

“I don’t know why you let her bother you. She’s a bloody bank manager, no, make that a part-time bank manager and she’s married to Andy her boyfriend from the fifth year. Bet she’s never had an orgasm in her life.”

Jules giggled. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“Obviously, that’s why she’s like she is – same bloke from the age of fifteen? How’d she know if he’s any good? Bet they always do missionary.”

Jules felt herself go a little bit pink and hoped that Evie wouldn’t notice.

She hadn’t. “Listen,” she said. “Let’s get a coffee before I get the train.”

“Going to town on a Friday afternoon? You’re keen.”

“Snowed under more like,” Evie took the reluctant Jules by the arm. I need a decent coffee so I can resist that muck on they serve.”

Evie felt Jules brace against her arm and waited for the inevitable excuse.

“I’ve got to get to the fishmongers and pick up some salmon.

Evie managed to suppress a sigh and said kindly: “Well, it’s dead, it isn’t going anywhere.”

Jules wasn’t for persuading: “Yeah, I know but I’ve got tons to do.

Evie let go of her arm. She loved Jules like a sister but this stubbornness to keep playing the little housewife was just wearing. “Jesus, whatever it is you’re making from scratch for dinner buy it in Roberts, he’ll never notice the difference.”

“If it were that easy, I’d do it.” Jules could feel herself getting heated. She wished that Evie would at least try and understand. “He can spot a packet ingredient at fifty paces.”

“Yeah well, if he was my husband…”

“But he’s not. He’s mine and I can’t complain.”

“Course, you can and you should, loudly and often.”

“My life is fine. I have three wonderful boys. A beautiful home….”

“And a husband that treats you like a skivvy.”

Evie looked at Jules. “Why the hell didn’t you marry Ed?

Jules sagged “You know why.”

“Being an army wife isn’t that bad. Thousands do it. Okay, so you wouldn’t have had the big house at the posh end of town but he loved you, which is more than Craig ever did.”

Jules didn’t respond.

“As much as I love you, Jules, sometimes you can be a crashing snob.”

“That’s not fair,” cried Jules, stung by her friend’s words.

“No, what’s not fair is that you settled for a man that makes your average anally retentive fuckwit look relaxed just because you didn’t want the likes of Olivia sneering at you for marrying a squaddie.”

“Ed understood why I couldn’t…”

“Did he?”

Jules felt trapped and decided to ignore that last bit. “I knew what I was doing when I married Craig.”

Evie rubbed Jules’ arm “I know it. I just…I hate to see you trapped. Accepting an allowance like some child. You should have married Ed.”

Jules shot her a look.

“So, sue me for thinking he was the man for you.”

Jules fiddled with her handbag and Evie took it as her cue to shut up.

“I should go,” she said, pecking Jules on the cheek. “I’ll pick you up about seven, tomorrow.”

Jules managed half a smile.

“You never know,” said Evie as she glanced down the road to see if it was clear. “Ed might show up.”

With that, Evie nipped across the street and disappeared down the road opposite which led to the train station.

For a few moments, Jules stared after her, wishing that she had a life that meant dashing off to London to meet with clients and discuss the next big book deal; to eat out on expense and be invited to launches and parties. It was all dreaming on her part. She had neither the stomach nor the condition for such things. Her life was her home, her garden, and her family. She pulled her jacket around her slim waist and began the walk to the fishmongers. Around her other, similarly bored suburban housewives, filled their bags with produce ready to be taken home and cooked for when the man of the house returned.

 

***

 

The mansion had once been the home to a prosperous family who had made their money in the sugar fields of the Caribbean, and, consequently, on the broken backs of slaves imported to work under harsh conditions. When owning such a place became an economic burden the mansion went through various incarnations before ending up almost derelict and in the hands of a local developer.

High hoardings on which were displayed speculative images of what was to come, hid the site from public view. These boards showed beautiful people, swathed in fluffy white robes and slippers, heads wrapped in thick white towels sitting by pools sipping health drinks or laying on sun beds, their toned and already tanned bodies used to entice the locals into believing that, for a hefty price, this too could be theirs.

A blue BMW pulled up in the makeshift carpark next to a black Porsche 911. The owner of the latter got out and waited as Liam exited.

“Tony, sorry I’m late,” said Liam, extending a hand in greeting before going on to qualify his tardiness with: “Traffic. You know how it is.”

Tony wasn’t used to be kept waiting but he was gracious enough to accept the half-hearted apology and with a north New Jersey accent said: “No problem.”

As they walk towards the site, Liam begins his ‘elevator pitch’ to Tony who listens politely.

“So, here we have it, the site of the next Sanctuary Spa. We’re on the right side of the M25 so I’m thinking of expanding the client base away from the usual ladies pamper weekends and more towards London and into the corporate hospitality industry; you know, team-building weekends, business launches. They come here, get the works, do the business go home relaxed and better off, spiritually, and financially one hopes! I’m also thinking of offering discount to the larger organizations, we all know how hard these business people work, eh? Bosses send ‘em up here, they have a weekend of being totally cosseted and bam, they hit the office on Monday, ready to go.”

“I hear the other place isn’t doing so well.”

This shouldn’t have as back-footed Liam. Tony was a businessman, naturally, he was going to bone up on the offer.

“It’s just temporary. We’ve been re-organizing the business. These things have a knock-on effect. It’ll pick up.”

Liam hoped that sounded as convincing aloud as it had done in his head.

They entered the grand entrance hall and Tony took in the slowly reinstated splendour then looked at Liam.

“You know what you should do? What I’d do? I’d forget this baronial, colonial whatever shit you’re aiming for here. Rip it out. Get rid of it.”

Liam was shocked. “I can’t do that,” he spluttered. “I’ve just…I mean…this is like ten grands worth of panelling going in here.”

“And yesterday’s news.”

“I can’t just chuck that kind of money in the skip!”

Tony put a large arm around Liam’s shoulders and began guiding him away from the hall.

“Come on Liam, spas are yesterday's news. Team building, forget it, old hat. If you want to get the city boys in here and give 'em something they want which is booze and girls. Lots of girls. Beautiful girls. The bottom's falling outta of this crap. Lap dancing's where it's at. Half a dozen, no, a dozen girls, a 25% cut of everything they make. All you got to do is give 'em a place to shake their tits and put a hefty mark-up on the booze.”

Liam stood in stunned silence. Tony looked at him, weighed him up, and mentally calculated if he’d made a massive error of judgement with this one. He was a born go-getter and he wasn’t about to risk his cash on someone he thought might baulk at the first hurdle.

“You ever been to one of those joints?”

Liam shook his head.

“Not ever?” Tony nodded slowly. “Let me tell you, I’ve got six in London, one in Manchester, one in Liverpool, three in San Francisco, four in LA and three in New York.”

Liam smiled, but it was tight, unnatural, and unsure. He felt as if he were about to be boxed into a corner with absolutely no escape.

“Sounds like you have it all covered.”

Tony prodded him in the chest. “Yeah, but I don’t have a mansion. Come on; let’s go talk business at my place.”

 

***

 

Jules moved about her designer kitchen in a whirl of home roasting coffee beans, chopping, slicing, dicing, and sweating off vegetables. She mixed, tasted and finally she was done.

Whatever Evie thought of her, as she stood in the kitchen, sipping on a glass of wine, she did feel a sense of satisfaction with her world. It wasn’t perfect, far from it, but at moments like this, when she had the house to herself, she felt at peace.

Of course, she knew it couldn’t last. He would be home soon and the house would ring to the sound of his anger, offence, contempt and loathing but right now, she could handle it.

 

***

 

Andy stood at the hob and stirred the contents of the saucepan. Scattered on the work surface were the cores and skins of onions and pepper. A dirty chopping board and knife sat by the sink alongside a used measuring jug and a discarded packet of casserole mix.

He heard the front door open and her voice filtered through from the hall.

“I got a bloody stupid parking ticket.”

Andy could feel his inner self curling up into a ball, arming itself against the verbal onslaught.

Olivia entered the kitchen, her face wreathed in bitterness and anger and immediately she noted the mess and her face turned thunderous.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

“Chilli,” replied Andy with a tone much bolder than he felt. “Thought, if I did it now it’d save a bit of time later.”

Olivia grabbed at the mess and began to throw things in the sink. “I was going to use that mince tomorrow.”

“We’re going to the reunion there’ll be food there.”

“Yeah and you seriously think that I’m eating anything that’s had that bitch’s hands on it?”

Andy tossed the spoon onto the work surface causing splatters of sauce to hit the tiles and canisters. “Do it yourself, or just bin it, I don’t care anymore.” He dropped the tea towel onto the floor and left her too it.

Olivia wasn’t finished with him by a long shot: “Oh, I forgot. Can’t say anything about your precious Leanne, can we?”

“When are you going to give this up?”

“Never! You don’t get away with cheating on me.”

Andy rummaged around in the under stairs closet.

“We were fifteen!”

“And the rest.”

Andy pulled out his fishing box and rods. “I’m going fishing.” He pushed past her. “Alright with you?”

“No, I’ve made arrangements.”

“Then unmake them.”

He went back into the closet and pulled out a tent.

“I’ll see you in the morning. Maybe.”

And with that he grabbed his stuff and left her fuming in the doorway between the kitchen and hall.

Olivia let out a low growl of rage and snatched up the dirty dishcloth, hurling it after the long-gone Andy.

 

***

 

Ed alighted from the train and paused as he took in the kitsch hanging baskets that festooned the wrought iron of the platform pillars that held up the glass roof.

A few passengers joined the walk to the ticket barrier. The car-park beyond the chain -link fence was full to over-flowing.

In a couple of hours this platform would be a heaving mass of people jostling to get out and get home as quickly as possible.

Outside the station, Ed jumped into the first taxi.

“Churchill, please mate.”

As the taxi pulled out of the rank, he pressed a number into his phone and waited for an answer.

“It’s Ed… Yeah, I’m just going to the hotel now. Are the lads at the airport? What’s the delay? Okay, give me half an hour, I’ll call you back and tell them if they cock this up they won’t get another shot.”

He ended the call and stared out of the window as the town went by; the same old street scene he remembered from when he left. Nothing changes.

***

Liam entered the club via an anonymous door that faced out onto the street but only had a small brass plate to identify it. He had pressed the buzzer, announced himself and the door had been opened. Inside was a small entrance hall with a flight of stairs. At the top, he could see some kind of reception desk. It was all very bland, very ordinary. Slowly, he climbed the stairs and went to the desk where he gave his name to the well-dressed young lady managing it.

“Liam, glad you could make it!”

Tony appeared out of nowhere, tipped the lady a wink and guided Liam through the heavily curtained door to the room beyond.

The club was heaving with clientele both male and female.

In various private booths, punters were enjoying personal dances. A single dancer occupied a central podium.

It was exactly what Liam had expected and yet, there was an air of exclusivity about it. The décor was expensive with deep-buttoned leather sofas in the booths. The clientele was city folk in well-tailored suits. Barely any were taking notice of the girls that moved about the room with trays of drinks.

“Look at this,” he said, with an expansive gesture to the room. “Who’d think it was only half three in the afternoon? It isn’t just a place for ogling the girls; a lot of business gets done here, deals struck. We give ‘em a place where they feel relaxed, the drink flows and voila, a few more millions change hands.”

He indicated to Liam to follow him to a VIP area and an empty booth. As if by magic a scantily-clad girl appeared with a champagne bucket and two glasses. Liam could feel the slow creep of a blush spreading outwards.

Tony didn’t seem to notice Liam’s quiet discomfort at his surroundings. He sat down and poured the drinks. “Okay, I’ll tell you what I’m offering,” he said as he handed one glass to Liam. You sell me half that place, let me open it up as a club and you get half the action. You don’t even have to break sweat on it. If you like what you see, and you will, you’ll be turning a profit on your investment in no time. That’s my advice to you, free of charge.”

Liam felt as if he couldn’t breathe. He’d worked really hard to get Tony interested in his business and now he could feel it slipping away from him. He was losing control and being pulled by the rip tide in a direction he wasn’t prepared to go. He’d banked on the money he’d get from Tony and he’d seriously misjudged.

“If you don’t mind me saying, you seem a little tense.” Tony studied his companion. Despite what outward appearance might show, there was more to Tony than just being a shrewd businessman. Hell, he’d never have been as successful as he was if he didn’t possess the ability to read people and to understand exactly what they needed at the exact moment they needed it, even if they were largely unaware of it themselves.

Also, Tony wasn’t a charity giver. He wasn’t opening expensive bottles of champagne and offering him a cut of the business because he felt sorry for Liam; no, he was a strategist and Liam had something that Tony wanted. Tony wanted that mansion.

As soon as he’d pulled up in the car park he’d seen a vision of the future and it didn’t involve kale smoothies and hot stones.

“Maybe I should get one of the girls to come over.”

Tony raised his hand to beckon a nearby dancer.

“No!” Liam’s tone was a little off, a hint of a scared note about it. He paused briefly. “No, its fine, I’m fine. I’ve just got a lot to think about.”

Tony half-shrugged, no big deal and called off the girl who was already on her way over. From inside his jacket he pulled out a card wallet and selected a subtle black one.

“I know this great girl, very discreet.” He held out the card to Liam. “She’ll put you right.”

Liam studied the business card which contained only two lines of text in gold – the name Vonnie and a mobile number.

Tony checked his watch: “I gotta scoot, you okay here for a while? Sure you don’t want a dance? It’s on the house.”

Liam slipped the card into his jacket pocket. “No, I’m fine, I’m just going to drink up and then head home.”

Tony eased himself up out of his seat and took his coat from the back of the sofa. With the coat deftly thrown over his shoulders, Tony held out his hand.

“Call me in a couple of days with your answer. You’ll be making the right move if you come in with me. I’ll talk to you soon.”

Liam watched as Tony made his way through the club; he shook hands with punters, kissed waitresses on the cheek, he acknowledged those too far away with a raised hand and a mouthed ‘hi’. He was certainly the consummate professional.

He opened his wallet and tossed a note down on the table before getting up to leave. In contrast to the exit of the club owner, no one even noticed.

 

***

 

Damian had just entered the alarm code and was locking the door when he heard the van pull into the yard behind him.

Leanne pulled it to a smooth halt and smiled at her husband as she jumped out and went to the rear of the van.

“Hard day?” she asked as she pulled out a cardboard box crammed with peppers, red onions, celery, and heads of cauliflower. She opened the outhouse, which acted as a cool store but before she entered she looked at Damian.

“You okay?”

“I am now.” He waited whilst she put the box down before slipping his arms about her and pulling her close. “I love you.”

Leanne turned her face up to his. “I know and if you’d gone out with me in 3C instead of Caroline McKinley, there’d have been a whole lot more of it.”

Damian released her and turned to the van.

“I’m glad we didn’t,” he said as he pulled another box of veg out.

Leanne landed him a playful punch.

“Don’t get mad. I’m just thinking that if we had, we mightn’t be together and I’m glad we’re together.” He put the box on the shelf with the other and locked the door.

“Me to,” said Leanne with a smile. “Come on, busy day tomorrow.”

 

***

 

Liam’s car pulled up outside a large, semi-detached, four-storey house in the smart part of town.

The road was quiet and faced onto a sizeable square enclosed by ornate iron railings where the locals could sit during the summer on various benches dotted amongst the shrubbery. It wasn’t uncommon to see neighbours gathered for a picnic or barbeque, sipping Prosecco whilst their off spring chased about. Very few ‘outsiders’ ventured into the space. The air of exclusivity wafted out of every blade of grass and leaf.

It was all an illusion. Most of the houses had been converted into flats long ago. Liam could count on the fingers of one hand those that remained intact.

He got out of his car and jogged down the narrow, steep steps to the basement door.

The dimly lit hall was serviced by a small window at the foot of a set of stairs that now, officially led nowhere. When the house had been converted from a substantial Victorian family home, this had been the realm of the servants and those stairs led up the green door, beyond which was the dominion of the family. The door was long gone, sealed up, hidden behind dry wall.

Liam tossed is keys into a dish on the small table, scoped up the pile of serious looking envelopes and clicked the flashing light on his answering machine. He listened for a few seconds to someone reminding him that he had to pay an outstanding bill before he hit the delete button. He tossed the envelopes to one side and made his way into living room/kitchenette.

Life, he mused as he tugged loose his tie, was playing a serious game of fuck over with him.

 

***

 

Dinner was timed to perfection and sat, still hot, in lidded dishes upon a pristine table cloth, when Craig walked through the front door.

Without a ‘hello’ or a kiss, he went to the downstairs bathroom and washed up. This was Jules’ cue to begin serving up his dinner, which was placed before him, with impeccable timing just as his arse hit the seat of the dining chair.

He flicked open the folded napkin and placed it across his lap. He poured himself a glass of wine and passed the bottle to Jules. Only once she had sat down to her meal did she speak. In this home, the feminist revolution had never happened.

“Have you had a good day?” Jules asked as she watched him shovel one fork full of food after another into his mouth as if he’d never had a decent meal in his life.

Craig chewed rapidly before replying, the half masticated remains of the dinner still visible.

“Do you know what I heard today? Dave Gilman, his wife’s only gone and left him for another man. And you’ll never guess what; he’s a parcel delivery driver. I ask you?”

“Isn’t Dave having an affair?” ventured Jules cautiously.

Craig half shrugged; a loose movement to be interpreted as an emphatic ‘Your point being?’

Jules lowered her eyes and nipped at the edges of her food with the fork.

“Turns out she’s been squirreling money away, money he gives her for an allowance and done a bunk to Bournemouth.” Craig’s tone was scornful. “He works all the hours to provide a beautiful home and that’s how she repays him. I’m telling you, she’ll be lucky to see a penny when he divorces her.”

He washed down his food with a mouthful of wine, teasing out the bits that had stuck between his teeth.

Jules smiled weakly but her mouth had suddenly gone very dry. She picked up the pitcher of iced water and poured a glass. She could feel her hands shaking and she prayed he hadn’t noticed. She gave a furtive glance in his direction. He was busy scooping food into his mouth and swallowing it almost whole and scrolling through his iPad to notice her. She took a long slug of water and felt her heart rate soften and her head clear. She must be more careful in future.

 

***

 

Tony stood in a sumptuous white bathrobe – his hair damp from his shower – on the balcony of a chic apartment that overlooked the Thames. He gazed out over the lights from the opposite side of the bank as they glinted off the dark waters. The cool breeze had calmed down the heat of summer in the city. Below in the street, voices floated up to him; the noise of the city traffic muted by the converted wharfs and new builds. It had been a good day when he’d got in on the ground floor of this investment. Prices had rocketed and this little place was now worth at least three times what he’d paid for it.

Evie rested her shoulder on the door frame between hall and living room and studied him. He wasn’t her usual type but he had money and connections, all of which she needed.

She crossed the room and slipped her arms around his waist, her fingers finding the knotted belt which she swiftly pulled loose.

Tony turned in her arms, setting down the wine glass on the shelf beside him. He pulled her close, as she slipped her hands inside his robe. Tony kissed her neck, moving his easily her body.

“Honey, let’s take this to the bedroom,” he whispered hoarsely in her ear.

 

***

 

Jules frantically scrabbled through drawers and boxes, books and backs of photograph frames taking out amounts of money as she did.

Highly agitated she looked wildly around the room as she explored and then discarded potential hiding holes for the money she’d been squirreling away.

This stash of money, which she had gathered through careful management of the household budget, was her fall back. It amounted to several thousand pounds and would get her a train ticket, a deposit on a flat and something to live off until she could find her feet. It was what kept her sane; knowing it was there, knowing that if she ever found the courage, she had the means.

She finally settled on the pocket of a jacket that is kept inside a plastic clothes protector. Jules knew that Craig wouldn’t go near her wardrobe. As she closed the door, feeling relieved, he walked in from his shower. The few seconds of calm she had experienced evaporated in an instance. She grabbed her robe and dashed into the en-suite.

Craig glanced about the room as if noticing that something was amiss but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He heard the shower go on and, with a quick listen at the door to make sure he could hear her showering, he pulled out his mobile and made a call.

He lay down on the bed and got himself comfortable.

“So, you dirty bitch, tell me what you’re wearing.”

 

The evening of the reunion

 

“I don’t know why you’ve gone to so much trouble. It’s bloody Manor Park for God’s sake; it’s not like you’re going to a decent school reunion with people worth keeping in contact with.”

Jules pressed her lips together, trying to hold back the tears.

Craig snatched up the dress Jules had carefully laid out on the bed. “So, how much of my money have you spent on this little number?”

He tugged at the dress, a pale blue silk sheath dotted with delicate seed pearls.

“I paid for it.”

Craig tossed the dress back onto the bed. “You earn money, do you? Since when?”

“Well, I…”

He loomed over her and she could feel herself diminish in size.

“No, you don’t.” he was right in her face now. She could smell the garlic on his breath from the dinner she’d prepared earlier. “I give you an allowance so therefore I paid for it. And I don’t appreciate you spending the money I give you for the home on tat for your school reunion.”

“You don’t want me to look nice?” she tried to appeal to his sense of superiority. He knew that the dress would have come from one of the boutiques in Hatsby Row, a mews of exclusive shops that ran off the main High Street.

“You look cheap,” he spat and then added insult to injury “I’d be ashamed to be seen with you if I were going which, of course, I’m not.”

“I explained. Only those who actually went to Moorfields were invited. I’m not keeping you away.”

“I wouldn’t want to go.” He was prowling he bedroom now, hand thrust in his trouser pocket. “Waste my time with those losers you call friends. I’d rather chew my own leg off.”

Jules dropped the dress to the floor and stepped inside, pulling it up over her slim legs and slight frame. She knew better than to ask him to zip her up so she managed it somehow.

He jealously eyed her. She looked amazing and he knew she would turn heads in that hall, amongst those her husband deemed to be failures. She wasn’t a trophy wife – he could have had any number of women that would have satisfied that criteria. No, he wanted someone who had no ambition beyond a fine home, two expensive holidays a year – summer and winter, was willing to keep the house immaculate, cook him the best meals and most importantly of all, make him look good. He’d found all of that in Jules, a little mouse of girl who nobody wanted and who was grateful for the attention. It was an exchange – her loyalty for his money and connections. How else would a girl from Manor Park have been able to go out and buy that dress, from that shop?

“It does absolutely nothing for you, you know. You’ve always had a bit of an arse.”

Jules turned her back on him and without dignifying him with an answer she left the room.

“Yeah, well, just remember,” she heard him shout after her. “It’s me you’re coming home to.”

Jules paused on the stairs. ‘how can I forget?’

 

 

***

 

Liam could feel his own reluctance to finish getting ready steadily growing in him. He’d had mixed feelings about the reunion since the day he’d bumped into Damian who had enthusiastically told him about the plan. He knew it was all a game of one-upmanship and he’d have to play along. It would be like a live version of Facebook; all the edited highlights, the shining façade with the lies and the bitterness and the failures hidden from view.

Slowly he put on his jacket, adjusted the collar of his shirt, and then slipped on his TAG Heuer watch before he studied himself in the mirror. Not liking what he saw reflected back, he turned off the lamp, dimming the view before him and pocketed the invitation.

Finally, he checked his walled for cash and noticed the business card that Tony had given him. For a split second, he gave it some consideration before slipping it back into his wallet which he slipped into his jacket pocket

With a slow step and half a mind to tear off his jacket, yank off his tie and toss the invite into the bin, Liam grabbed his keys and left the flat.

 

***

 

Andy exited the house leaving Olivia to do her usual routine of double checking everything was turned off and the door properly locked.

As he was about to get in the car he saw his wife stop by the passenger door.

“Oh, for crying out loud. I’ve caught my tights!”

Andy peered over the top of the car to see Olivia squirming on the other side.

“Well, take them off; nobody will notice.”

“I’m not going without tights. Look, you go on, I’ll go back in and get changed.”

“It’s okay, I can wait,” replied Andy reasonably. “Don’t see any sense in taking two cars.”

“Just go,” Olivia nearly snapped his head off. “If we get there too late, we’ll never get a decent seat and end up sitting next to…”

“Who?”

“I don’t know, someone I’m not likely to want to spend the evening making small talk to. I’ll be five minutes behind you.”

Andy knew that it was no use continuing the conversation and so he got into the car; a part of him pleased he didn’t have to suffer the journey with her moaning all the way.

Olivia waited for his car to disappear down the road and then she ran to her own, jumped in and drove off in the opposite direction.

 

***

 

Evie’s car pulled up on the immaculately kept gravel of Jules’ drive.

Jules’ emerged from the house a few moments later and Evie literally caught her breath. Her friend was transformed from dowdy housewife to super glamourous party goer.

Jules’ spotted the look on her friend’s face and immediately felt self-conscious. What was she thinking getting all dressed up like she was going to some kind of swanky do? Maybe she should go back in and throw on a perfectly serviceable dress she’d pick up from M&S.

Evie noted the change in her friend’s countenance and immediately she knew exactly what was going through her head. She opened the car door and half stood out.

“Don’t you dare, lady!” she warned. “Come on, get in,”

Buoyed by knowing that Evie would be by her side the whole time, Jules’ got in and smoothed down the dress as she did.

“I suppose he’s throwing the mother of all sulks?” said Evie as she carefully maneuvered her car around the driveway.

Jules nodded.

“Tosser.” She cast a look at Jules “You look gorgeous.”

“I don’t think anyone will think that.”

“You say that because he tells you otherwise. Like he’s God’s gift to the world.” Evie checked the traffic on the quiet street and pulled away. “If he smiled he’d crack his face.”

Within a few moments, another car pulled up and took the place only recently vacated by Evie.

Craig answered the ring on the doorbell.

“God, I thought she’d never leave!”

Craig looked out at Olivia’s car and said in a shaky tone: “You can’t leave it there. What if she comes back?”

Olivia smiled sardonically and began to slowly unbutton her summer coat whilst at the same time adopting a cat like prowl. “What if she does?”

Her prey was transfixed as one button after another was undone and a hint of naked flesh revealed itself.

Craig’s eyes were out on stalks. He grabbed her for a kiss as she pushed them into the house, their movements hungry and fanatic. The door slammed behind them and they didn’t make it any further.

 

***

Evie and Jules took a few moments to savour

the view of the school from the car park.

“I remember rushing down the path so we could bump into the boys coming out of games,” she said, giving Jules a slight nudge of the elbow to encourage her participation in this game of memories.

“I remember having my first proper snog…” Jules began.

“Open mouth?”

“Very open mouth,” Jules continued, feeling the creep of a blush over her cheeks. “With Carl Wilton, just over there.”

“I remember waiting outside that hall for Gordon Baxter to turn up for the fourth form Valentine’s Disco and the bastard stood me up.” Gordon Baxter had been the darling of the fourth form and Evie had been euphoric at securing him as her date. It took a while to live that one down

“I remember being asked to that Valentine’s Disco by Ed, and Susan Philips threatening to kick six bails out of me if I went with him, so I said no.”

A silence fell on the two women.

“Do you think he’ll be here tonight?” asked Evie in an attempt to broach the very big elephant in the room.

Jules shrugged; part of her hoped so very much that he was. Not because of any romantic inclination on her part but because he was a part of her past and he had never quite left her heart. There was another part of her though, a bigger part, that wanted him to remain firmly fixed in her memory, safe, unaltered, and young.

Evie took Jules’ hand and slips it through her arm. “Let’s go and find out.”

Jules pulled back. “I…I don’t know whether I want to…see him.”

“Oh God, you’ve been having that fantasy again, haven’t you? The one that involves Ed Moore never marrying because he never got over you.”

Jules mouth gaped open.

“Okay, reality check,” said Evie swiftly before her friend could protest. “He’s tall, impossibly good-looking…”

“How do you know? He might be bald and fat.”

“I Googled him, so sue me and do you want to know what I found out?”

Jules feigned disinterest but her insides were churning with butterflies. She wanted so badly to know but at the same time, really, she didn’t. She didn’t want to know because then her memories would be meaningless.

“Owns his own security company with contracts in the Middle East…turned over a couple of million last year…still not interested?”

“I’m married.”

“Yeah, but he’s not.”

Jules’ mouth gaped open.

“You’ll catch flies. Let’s go. This is one evening that you’re going to forget that husband of yours and leave him to stew in his own juices.”

 

***

 

Leanne had prepared everything to perfection. She stood inside the double doors that led into the school hall and viewed everything with a critical eye. The food look fabulous, the bar was doing a brisk trade and the DJ had listened to her instructions to play unobtrusive music until she gave the signal that the real party could kick off.

She was pleased to see that there was plenty of laughter and chatting and that nobody was sitting like a wallflower wishing they’d stayed at home.

Leanne felt relieved and glanced up at the little hatch high up in the wall of the hall. She could see Damian looking out over the slowly gathering crowd. He glanced down at her and gave her a wave and was rewarded with a smile.

Evie and Jules entered the hall and, after handing over their invites collected their name badges. Jules awkwardly held onto hers, reluctant to let the delicate fabric be marred by a pin. She felt Evie give her a nudge and, for a split second, she felt her heart leap up into her throat. She looked up, half expecting to see Ed but saw only Evie trying to discreetly indicate that there was a name badge for him.

Just as the two friends had moved off to find a drink, Andy arrived. He checked his watch as he was handed his name badge.

“Andy! Hi!”

Leanne kissed him on the cheek “Livvie not here?”

“Er…yeah, I mean…well…not quite; wardrobe malfunction. She should be coming soon.”

If only Andy had known how true those words were for at that very moment Olivia was, indeed, reaching a very loud climax in the shower, as Craig frantically thrusted, reaching his own less vocal but long climax several seconds later.

“Well that’s good,” said Leanne brightly. “Anyway, I should go and mingle.”

Leanne crossed the floor to where Jules and Evie stood clutching their wine glasses and pointing to various people in the room. Andy’s eyes, full of quiet longing, followed her.

“I raise my glass to you,” said Evie, with a swift air kiss to Leanne’s cheek. “Where’s Damian?”

“Busy backstage.”

The words were scarcely out of her mouth when the music wound down and the D.J called for everyone’s attention. Slowly, the chatter died down and a spotlight hit the centre of the curtains that obscured the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced the D.J. “I give you the Class of ‘88’.”

The curtains swished open to reveal a screen with the school motto ‘Stabilis quod Verus.’ (Steadfast and True) projected onto it.

This faded out to be replaced by collection of cine footage from various events in the school year and over the time that the Class of ’88 would have been at the school – fetes, plays, speech days, sports matches, sports day.

The guests lapped it up, cheering and laughing, as they pointed out faces in the footage. Jules and Evie watched with soppy smiles on their faces.

The film memories were then followed by a roll call of honour for teachers now deceased and finished with the speech delivered by their former headmaster at their last ever assembly.At the end of the show, the guests broke out in a loud and appreciative applause.

Damian came up onto the stage and took the mic from the D.J.

“I think we can all agree, that despite what some might say, we did go to a truly amazing school.” He waited whilst another outbreak of clapping and whooping died down. “And tonight, we’re here to remember those great days, catch up on what we’ve all been doing and have a great party. My lovely wife, who has worked like a Trojan and without whom this wouldn’t have been possible, informs me that the buffet is now open. So, eat, drink and be bloody merry!”

Evie grabbed Jules’ arm and notices a resistance. She looks to see what has captured her friend’s attention,

“Oh my God,” she said when the penny finally dropped. “is that Susan Philips?”

The object of their interest was skinny, plain looking woman with mousy brown hair and a face that looked much older than her years.

“Blimey, if Ed could see her now,” remarked Evie just as the waitress came along with wine.

Jules waited until the she had finished topping up their empty glasses before hissing: “He never went out with her. She just fancied him.”

“I should hope not the way he used to hang his liver out over you. He’d never get forgiven.”

Evie glanced at the photographs pinned to the wall beside her – a group of girls aged around fifteen all done up for the school disco.

“We thought we were so grown up,” Evie peered harder at the photos. “It’s not until you get to our age that you realise how stupid we must have looked. Who are they anyway?”

“Well, that’s Jane Cooke, look, long blonde hair,” Jules pointed to a rather pretty, blue-eyed girl. “Do you remember she used to be able to sit on it?”

Evie leant in for a closer look. “Wasn’t she going out with whatisface, oh God, you know, Jason, Jason somebodyorother and they got caught by old Mr Granger having a bit of a fiddle behind the sports hall?”

“Fiddle? What the hell’s a ‘fiddle’?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I let Carl Wilton put his hand up my blouse once.”

“Slut.”

“I know.”

And they giggled for a bit before a comfortable quiet descended on them. Evie cast a tired eye over the guests and sighed

“What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know…this place,” replied Evie. “It’s making me nostalgic. I wasn’t expecting to feel nostalgic.”

“I thought that was the point of these things.” Jules wasn’t feeling particularly nostalgic and was surprised to find that Evie was. She’d rather expected to be the other way around.

“No, the point of these things is for the alphas to come and boast about their successes and the betas to be in awe of them, not to come and wish you were still wearing long socks and eating meatloaf on a Friday.”

She could see that her point had been somewhat lost on Jules.

“Okay, take Liam just for example…”

“Rather not,” interrupted Jules. She had never been fond of him since he’d make a very disparaging remark about her to one of her so-called friends who’d, naturally, made sure she wasted no time relaying it to Jules.

“Well, forget that you didn’t like him. Listen. He was the captain of the footie team, fastest runner, most popular boy in school, agreed?”

Sadly, Jules had to agree with that as it was indisputable fact and probably the reason why he’d been such a dick.

“Now,” continued Evie. “he’s a businessman, got a flash car and look at Miranda Carter, she owns her own magazine title. Both super popular at school, both really successful now, and that’s where it is all laid down. Susan Philips, mediocre at school, mediocre in life.”

“Evie that’s dreadful. Why would even say that?”

“No. Think about it,” Evie was warming to her theme. “All the popular kids at school, kids like Damian, who, let’s face it, had the teachers eating out of his hand, have gone onto be successful adults. It’s like they were given that extra boost. That little confidence pill to think, believe, that they could do anything, become anything they wanted and they have. They had a head start. They were already popular, they had fantastic self-possession and this is the result.”

“So,” said Jules feeling the bile rising slightly at the inference Evie had just made. “I wasn’t popular; does that mean I’m a failure?

Evie suddenly realised she’d dropped a huge clanger and hurried to pick it up again.

“You’re not a failure.”

“I’m a miserable failure because all I do all day is clean and cook,” Jules could see Evie going red. “As for Susan Philips, who’s to say she isn’t happy? I don’t think you can measure it by what job you do. I bet loads of these people are totally unhappy in their jobs.”

“Okay, okay but you have to admit we still judge people by them. You say ‘hi’, ask how they are and then it’s straight into what line of work they do and that’s where the value judgment comes in. It’s ego and some sub-conscious need to know where we are on the pecking order so we can be smug or intimated as need be.”

“And I’d be pretty low down, I suppose, because I don’t work?”

“No! I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about them. Fuck it. I’m not talking about you. I’m just…talking…shit as usual. Red wine, makes me maudlin.”

Jules looked at her friend. She loved Evie like a sister but sometimes, just every now and then this side of her came out; it was a little too hard, a little too nasty. Jules wondered if it came from having to be tough in her line of work and that it spilled over into her every day.

 

***

“What’s the hold up?”

Andy had left the hall to make a call to Olivia who, at that moment, was standing by the patio doors, smoking a cigarette, and wearing Jules’ dressing gown.

“I got a flat. I told you to check that damned tyre for me. Just so typical. I’m waiting for the AA now.”

Andy pushed his phone back into his pocket after the call had ended and glanced around him. This place haunted him.

Olivia had picked him to be her lab partner in chemistry but Andy had assumed, at the time, it was because he was top of the class and she had been languishing somewhere in the depths.

She’d always been a strong woman – he hated to use the term bossy, why should women be labelled bossy because they knew what they wanted? She’d sailed through that practical with him to guide her and Andy had thought that maybe, just maybe, she’d found some respect for him.

It was here, in this very hall that he’d asked Olivia out on a date. It was the fifth-year Valentine disco and he’d been egged on by Liam and Damian. Somehow, once that first date was over, she’d kept suggesting more things for them to do until it seemed they were a proper item on the local scene. Andy and Olivia.

They’d got engaged on her twenty-first birthday and married two years later. What a day that had been! Planned by Olivia to within an inch of its life, Andy had been left with the distinct feeling that he was just there to make up numbers.

From then on, it seemed that she was never happy, never satisfied with the life they had together.

Olivia always had one eye on what everyone else had and her conversations over dinner revolved around it. Working in the local bank gave her easy access to everyone’s hopes and dreams. Louise Manning’s new extension; Roger Hinchcliffe’s swimming pool; Mrs Plummer’s latest holiday, it all came home with her to be pored over and dissected and compared with what they had or didn’t have.

Then it happened. He caught her out in a lie.

She’d claimed that their son’s teacher had asked her to come into school to discuss some problem he was having. Andy had felt slighted that as his father, he wasn’t even considered when it came to the meeting. Olivia had, naturally, talked him out of it in her usual dismissive tone but something had just snapped in his head.

He told his boss that he had to go to the school and Jeff had more than happy to let him leave early. Andy arrived to find that no meeting had been set up and that his son was doing fine at school.

Over dinner that evening, boiling with anger, Andy had managed to keep calm and ask Olivia how the meeting had gone. Her answers had been non-specific and it was at that point that Andy suspected that something was going on.

 

***

 

“Hey Andy,” called out Leanne as she spotted him walking towards the dining room. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I was just er…” he looked about him but didn’t finish his sentence.

Leanne frowned but let it pass. “Well, as long as everything is all right. Got to go, food waiting.” She smiled warmly and walked away.

Andy watched her and decided that this might be his last chance.

“Great party though,” he called after her. “You’ve done, well, you’ve done us proud.”

“Thanks! Maybe tonight I’ll get a good night’s sleep.”

Andy followed her into the kitchen where the staff she had hired for the night were preparing the desserts.

“Oh?”

“Oh, no, nothing serious,” she said as she opened the large fridge and pulled out some trays of seafood. “Just pre-party nerves. You know, have I ordered enough food, will anyone turn up. What if the DJ is crap, that kind of thing.”

Andy watched, feeling a little like a fifth wheel, that for sure someone would wonder what he was hanging around for.

“Do you um, do you need a hand with anything?” and he rubbed his hands together.

“Sure, if it’s not too much trouble.” Leanne was rather startled by his offer and glanced around trying to find something for him. Her eyes settled on the sea food platters.

“Just, be careful with them. Lot of money on those platters.”

Andy scoops up two of the large platters and balanced them precariously on his arms. With care, he pushed open the swing door and waits for Leanne to follow him through.

“Leanne.”

“Huh-huh?” Leanne, having had years more practice at the carriage of large platters came through the door with another two deftly laid across her arms.

Andy, who was struggling not to drop his precious cargo, put them down on the serving counter and said: “Leanne, stop. I… I need to talk to you.”

If Leanne had been concentrating she’d have heard the tone in his voice and been alerted to what was coming. However, her mind was still on the job and so she stopped which gave Andy the incentive he needed to continue.

“I’m thinking of leaving Olivia.”

“Oh?”

It wasn’t the reaction he’d been hoping for when he’d rehearsed this speech a thousand times in his head. He felt a sense of anger that she hadn’t jumped up and down with glee at the very idea of him leaving Olivia. Most people, at this point would have taken the cue, and not gone there. This was the very point Andy could have turned it into a confidential conversation and nobody would have been any the wiser. Andy didn’t think like that.

“Don’t you want to know why? Apart from the fact that she’s a self-centred, never anything good enough for her, bitch?”

“Andy, I…” Too late, Leanne had guessed what he was going to say.

Andy held up his hand to hush her.

“I love you.”

Leanne tried to stop him going any further but he rushed ahead: “No, listen, listen, I love you.

Leanne felt her head pounding and all she could think was ‘this isn’t happening’. She glanced at the door to the dining room willing Damian to appear at any moment to prevent Andy going any further. Time seemed to slow down and she looked at him and wondered if he was safe to be with.

Andy was in a world of his own as if the barrier was now down and flood of pent up emotion was being let loose. He wasn’t even really talking to her any more.

“I don’t know why I stayed with her. I mean, fifteen. It’s too young to know what you want, right? But, when I met up with you again, I realised that I never stopped having those feelings for you. I still feel that and it’s killing me.”

Leanne heard the hurt in his voice and it pulled her back. This was Andy. Andy Cummings. She’d known him since the first day of infants. He was as familiar to her as her own family.

“Andy,” she said slowly. “I love Damian.”

She heard the hiss of breath as he let go of the pain those words caused him

“I never thought that the bloke I sat next to in registration twice a day for two years would turn out to be the best thing that happened to me.”

She looked at Andy.

“Andy, you’re a nice guy, a little, what shall we say, indecisive sometimes? If you’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t bear it anymore then leave. I’m not the answer though.”

She walked past him without a backward glance. At fifteen Andy Cummings had been her world and he’d chosen Olivia. At twenty, when he was about to embark on his marriage he’d turned to her once more. Nothing more than whispered promises and stolen kisses had occurred but it was all just that and Andy had, on the allotted day, walked down the aisle with his bride.

Damian came back into her life not long after that and they had made a life together as Andy had made his. Leanne now had a comparison and she knew that Andy was weak-willed and could never be the man for her.

Leanne met up with her husband in the corridor leading past the hall to the dining room.

“Hey, you’ll never guess who’s just turned up?”

 

***

 

“Ed Moore.”

Jules heard Evie whisper his name and her first reaction was to be ‘not cool’.

“How is he still so gorgeous?” mused Evie as she watched him take his name badge from Samantha Goode who had been the Head Girl to Liam’s Head Boy. “It defies some law.”

Evie realised that Jules had yet to say anything and turned to her friend.

“Are you okay? You’ve gone beetroot.”

“I’m just hot. It’s hot in here. Aren’t you hot? I’m really hot. I think I need some air.”

“Oh. My. God. You’re blushing.”

“Would you like to say that a bit louder? I don’t think they heard at the back.”

“Go and say ‘hello’.” Urged Evie giving Jules a gentle nudge with her elbow.

“No!”

“Oh, come on, what are you scared of?”

“Nothing. I’m just not going to make an idiot of myself by rushing over the minute he walks through the door.”

“What, like Susan Phillips?”

Jules swung around to see Ed giving Susan a big hug and her heart almost stopped.

“Fine,” said Evie tartly. “If you won’t, I will.”

Before Jules could stop her, Evie was on her feet and heading over to Ed.

Jules cursed her friend under her breath. Still, she held her breath as she watched Evie make her way through the crowd to where Ed was ordering a drink from the bar. She saw how he turned and nearly bumped into Evie. The double-take, the huge smile of recognition and the bear hug of a hello. She saw him bend his six feet four frame to hear what Evie was saying and his eyes look up and straight at her, and the smile that spread over his face.

Jules smiled back, embarrassed, fifteen again.

She saw Evie take him by the hand and begin to walk towards her. She could feel her own heartbeat pounding in her chest, and the creep of blush spreading over her cheeks. Barely able to contain her smile, she looked away, composed herself then looked back just in time to see Ed intercepted by Liam and Carl. She saw him break loose from Evie’s grip, say something to her as he became ensnared in their animated conversation. She saw him look over at her, his eyes wishing that he was by her side and she saw him look away.

“My God, look at them,” sneered Olivia as she

surveyed the scene before her. “And we spent fifty quid on this. Leanne’s got some nerve calling herself a caterer.”

She turned to look at Andy who sat with a stony expression; his lips set into a thin line.

“Oh please. Look at you, you’ve been making moo-moo eyes at the silly bitch, all evening, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Slowly Andy turned to his wife and hissed: “Why don’t you shut the fuck up?”

Olivia is, at first, startled but then finds her voice. “What did you say?”

“You. You look down on everyone and you’re no better than they are. I don’t know where you got the idea that you were. This is where you went to school. With these people. You’re nothing special, so why don’t you, just for once, take that stick out of your arse and shut the fuck up?”

And with that he slammed the pint of beer down onto the table, causing its contents to slop over the sides on the table, pushed his chair back with such violence as to knock it over and walked out of the hall. Mortified, Olivia looked around to see who had noticed and wasn’t sure if she was happy or dismayed to find that she wasn’t centre of attention.

Jules had been caught at her table by a woman whose name she couldn’t remember but who clearly remembered her. This woman seemingly had the ability to breathe through her ears as she jabbered non-stop; her voice faded into the background as Jules’ eyes wandered over to Ed.

He was, in turn, gently staring in her direction as Liam and Shorty noisily prattled on.

Embarrassed, Jules looked away but couldn’t help herself and smiled before locking eyes with Ed again. He’d clearly seen her smile and was grinning from ear to ear.

In an instant, she was back in school, in the library, sat at a table with her friends, as he was sat at one with his and they were doing exactly this.

And so, it went on through sixth form, a relationship by proxy until the day they were walking home and he slipped his hand into hers and suddenly they were an item.

Then, just after A levels, when talk changed to ‘what next’ he astounded everyone by announcing that he’d joined up.

Ed saw no problem with it – he’d get basic training out of the way, pass out, get a posting. After a couple of years, he’d get promotion and then they could get married and move into quarters.

Except, Jules didn’t see it that way. She wasn’t really sure what she saw – their age, moving away from home, the acidic comments of Olivia who referred to her as a squaddie mattress? All three or nothing at all? Was it just her own fear? She called the relationship off.

Ed, who’d never had a great relationship with his own parents, found his wings in the rigour and routine of service life and never looked back.

The grapevine alerted Jules to his sporadic visits home but tonight was the first time she’d seen him in the flesh in all these long years.

 

She looked at him again, seeing the boy in the features of the man before her and it felt as though they were conversing across the room in looks and smiles and a warm glow spread through her.

“Is that true?”

Jules suddenly realised that the woman has stopped talking and is waiting for an answer.

“Sorry, is what…?”

“That you’re husband no longer takes NHS, it’s just I’ve got this tooth, here, look…” the woman pulled up her top lip to expose her teeth to the startled Jules.

“Oh, no, he’s private.” Seeing that the woman was clearly disappointed to hear this she added: “The chap down on Western, he’s NHS, he’s taking on, I think.”

Her unknown companion brightened up at this news. Jules decided that she should exploit this moment of silence to make good her escape. “Would you excuse me, I need to visit the bathroom.”

This announcement was marked by a round of false bonhomie as the two women exchanged kisses on the cheek before Jules managed to get away to where Evie was sampling the seafood.

“Who was that you were talking too?”

“No idea.”

 

***

 

Alan worked in the photography shop on a Saturday. He was at the local sixth form college looking to go to University after his A levels. He was a competent lad and Damian had trusted him with the important task of manning the projector and lights for the various activities that had been planned for the evening, including the showing of the autobiographies guests had filmed. He had been holed up in the projector room above the hall with a running order and stop watch.

Andy arrived unannounced, startling poor Alan who had been taking five minutes to chat to his girlfriend on Whatsapp.

“Sorry mate, you’re not supposed to be up here. Elf ‘n safety, you know.”

Andy rubbed his hands together, a nervous tic. “Yeah, I know, I mean, sorry. I’ve got this.”

He held out a disc which Alan took and flipped over as if there was something more insightful on the other side.

“I was supposed to give it to Damon after approval but I forgot. Hope it doesn’t, you know, mess up your timings.”

“Sorry, what’s your name?” Alan scanned the list.

“Andy. Andy Cummings.”

“Cutting it fine mate,” replied Andy. “you’re on in ten.”

 

***

 

“Look, do you mind if I call it a night?”

“What?” Evie tried to swallow the food in her mouth. “You can’t go.”

“I’m not, it’s just…” Jules paused and felt the hot sting of tears forming. “I feel stupid.”

Evie quickly wiped her hands on a paper napkin and put a protective figure between her clearly upset friend and the rest of the room.

“Why?” she asked with concern.

“I don’t know. I just, I don’t feel comfortable.” Jules wrung her hands. “I, I just can’t bear it.”

“What? Jules, you’re not making sense. Are you feeling okay, you look kind of peaky?”

Jules swallowed as she tried to frame her thoughts whilst losing the battle with her emotions.

“I can’t bear knowing that my life is a sham,” she said finally. “I look around and all I can think is that the last time I was here I had my whole life ahead of me. I had all those blank years to fill and what did I do? I spent the past twenty-two years is cooking and cleaning for a man who can barely hide his contempt of me.”

“I’m impressed.” And she was. It seemed to Evie to be the first time ever that Jules had admitted the truth about her life. “You’ve finally said it. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

It was clear to Evie that Jules had no idea what to do about it. It was also obvious that if Evie didn’t steer her in the right direction that the moment would be lost and Jules would continue her narrow, unhappy path through the rest of her life.

“Well, why don’t you start by going over and saying hello to Ed?”

Jules stole a look over at Ed who seemed to be making his goodbyes to Liam and Shorty. As he left the pair he gave a long and lingering look before he disappeared through the door.

“Guess he doesn’t want to stay either.” Jules felt her heart sink.

“Yeah, what a surprise. Here, hang onto this for a mo.” Evie handed over her glass to Jules and followed Ed.

At the same moment, Shorty was commandeered by Susan Philips, which left Liam alone.

Suddenly bereft of his pals, he cut a vulnerable figure trying to look cool as he surveyed the scene. For a few short moments, he stood there before turning to the buffet in an act of displacement. He noticed Jules but busied himself by picking over the remains of the buffet, and all the while maintaining a casual air as if this was in his plan all along.

“Jules, right?”

Jules smiled tightly and wished him gone.

“It’s Liam. Liam Mollencamp. Remember me?”

He held out his hand and she gingerly took it.

“Good turnout, don’t you think?” he said breezily and with a note of cocky confidence Jules instantly recalled from school. “Course, wasn’t sure I’d make it, been busy with the new place. I’m a property developer. Health Spas, you know that sort of thing.”

Jules nodded and hoped that it had appeared as if she were the least bit interested in his life.

He looked at her. “Sorry, what did you say you did?”

“I didn’t.”

They stood in that awkward and embarrassed way people who have been thrown together at parties do when they have nothing in common and nothing to say.

“Fancy another drink?”

“No, I’m fine. I’m, I’m off soon.”

“Yeah, me too.” He nodded emphatically as if to press home his next point. “Got a whole pile of business plans to go through before Monday. Confidentially, between me and you, a hot new business proposition came my way yesterday and I’m seriously thinking about going with it.”

Jules’ response of ‘that’s nice’ sounded strained and slightly high pitched.

“Well, it’s been nice seeing you again. I’ve got some phone calls to make. No rest for the wicked, eh?”

And he was gone. Jules sighed with relief and checked around to see where Evie had got to.

 

***

 

Liam stepped outside the school hall and savoured the cooling night air. He lit a cigarette and then, after a fortifying drag, he pressed an icon on his phone and waited for the call to connect.

“Hey, Becs sweetheart, it’s me.”

“Hi dad. What’s up?”

Liam sat down on the wall and took another drag, his gaze on the lookout for any strays from the hall.

“Nothing just thought I’d see if you’re okay.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be, like, at some crusties reunion?”

Liam smiled; Becs just melted his heart. Now all grown up and at university, he didn’t see as much of her as he’d like. She was packing in life to the full. “Less of the crusty. Yeah, I’m here.”

“Having a good time?”

“It’s okay. Listen, I was just wondering if you were up for some lunch and shopping tomorrow, my treat.”

His heart sank when she responded: “Sorry, no can do. Mum and I are going to the cinema.”

“Okay, um, next weekend?”

“Na-ha, Fred and I are off to York for the weekend. Pretty much booked out my summer vay-kay”

There was a pause.

“Are you okay dad? You sound really fed up.”

“Just…tired…work’s been a bitch, you know.”

“You should lighten up, get yourself a girlfriend. You’re not that bad, for an old guy”.

“Less of the old.”

Becs chuckled. “Seriously. There must be a blast from the past in the hall. Weren’t you like, Mr Popular at school?”

Liam rubbed his hand down his face and dragged on the cigarette.

“And give up the fags. Nobody’ll snog you behind the bike shed if you smell like an ashtray.”

Liam smiled at his daughter’s matronly tone. “Yeah. Well, I’ll give you a call in the week; see if we can’t find a date that suits.” He paused. “I love you.”

“You too, dad. Talk to you later.”

And she was gone. Liam sighed and hunched over, taking the last desperate gasps from the cigarette before grinding the stub with the sole of his shoe.

Becs had grown into a beautiful, strong, and very independent woman and he was beyond proud of her but sometimes, at times like this when life was thrown into an introspective light, he felt left behind. She didn’t need him anymore. The little girl who had begged for piggy back rides or curled up on his lap for a story before bedtime was a dim memory. He no longer knew where he fitted in in her world.

He pushed the phone back into his jacket pocket and his fingers touched his wallet. For split second a thought passed through his head which he dismissed with equal alacrity but then, he stopped and considered and pulled the wallet out, flipped it open and retrieved the business card.

 

***

 

Evie had just got back to Jules when her phone rang.

“Damn!” she fished in her clutch bag for the offending device. “I thought I’d turned that off. Don’t leave. I’ve got so much to tell you.”

“Oh God, Evie…” Jules was torn between wanting to know what on earth Evie had said to Ed and the desire to leave and never think about this place again.

Evie was gone, sliding through the party goers who were, by now, loosened up enough to be doing the Birdie Song without the slightest bit of bashfulness.

She stepped outside and connected the call.

“Hello?”

Liam heard the ringing of a phone and looked up to see Evie just at the moment that she connected the call and said:

“Hello? Anyone there?”

Evie caught sight of Liam holding up his phone to her and saw him, very deliberately, press the end call button. She heard the call on her phone disconnect.

“Vonnie?”

The game was up. There was no point denying it.

“You’re Vonnie?”

“I’m Vonnie. Ta-da.” She walked slowly over to the wall, her clutch bag dangling at her side. Right now, she had to limit any potential damage. She took out a packet of cigarettes and tipped it towards him. She sat down on the wall and put a cigarette to her lips. Liam took out his lighter and offered her light before lighting his own.

“So,” she said as she tossed the packet back into her bag. “How’d you get my number? I’m usually pretty discreet.”

“You know a bloke called Tony?”

“A few.” She was being cagey, her mind a whirl of trying to work out if what he was going to do with the information he now had.

“American, you know him?”

“Yeah, I know him. How d’you know him?”

“Thinking of going into business with him.” Liam sounded like the big man.

“With Tony?” Evie was impressed. “No shit? Is he branching out from porn to spas or are you going from spas to porn?”

“Porn?” Liam tried hard to conceal his horror but it seeped out. “I thought he just owned a few lap-dancing clubs.”

Evie knew she was in a better position now. Liam wasn’t the big man. He was a little man trying to play with the big boys and they didn’t come bigger or tougher than Tony. He was out of his depth.

“Yeah well, that’s the more ‘respectable’ end of the business empire,” Evie said with a casual air as if it were all so very ordinary, so very mundane. “He’s got a load of seedy clubs in SoHo, peep shows, that kind of thing. Then there’s the internet stuff…”

“Internet?” Liam almost leapt out of his skin. This was not something he wanted his name associated with. Whatever else he was he was a straight up guy, maybe even a little prudish. He’d felt uncomfortable in the club but he needed the cash injection Tony was offering him.

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s all, you know, adult stuff, he’s not into kids or anything like that. Just sad punters with credit cards paying some poor bitch from eastern Europe to get raunchy on a bed whilst he gives directions via a web cam.”

“Have you…?”

Liam was trying to turn the tables and she wasn’t having any of it.

“Nope. I run my own diary and I don’t pay some dirty pimp. I only deal with the best. My time, my terms.”

And it was. No off the street customers. Her clients were vetted heavily before she put them on the list so she was surprised and more than a little cross that Tony had given out her card so casually. She thought he knew better than that.

“He’s offered to take half of my new place, if I let him turn it into one of his clubs” Liam didn’t sound so convinced anymore.

“Take it, that’s what I say. The bloke’s a money magnet.”

There was a moments silence. Liam gave her a sidelong glance.

“I thought you’d got a big agency or something up in London?”

“Yeah, well, that’s what I tell the public.” And she knocked him gently with her elbow in a ‘nudge and wink’ kind of way. If she was going to walk away from this with her reputation intact, then she had to play hard ball with Liam. “Tony’s my main client and he pays well. I turn tricks, he hands me a grand and everyone’s happy.”

“Jesus!” hissed Liam.

Evie wasn’t offended “Get used to it. It’s the pool Tony swims in.” She stood up and smoothed down her dress. “Word to the wise, I’d take the offer; Tony never does things because he likes someone. There’s something in it for him and if there’s something in it for him, there’s something in it for you. I guarantee you, this time next year you won’t regret it.”

She walked a few steps before turning back to Liam.

“But be warned. Tony’s got a real soft spot for me; you step out of line and he’ll hear about it.”

She swung back around, and walked with a confident swagger back into the hall.

 

***

 

The place had stopped. Everyone was staring, transfixed by what was showing on the screen.

Evie crept quietly into the crowd and made her way to Jules’ side. She felt Jules’ hand groping for her and Evie took it and squeezed it hard even though she didn’t know what was wrong. She looked at her friend for a moment and then realised that Ed was standing right behind them. Evie looked up at the screen. There was no sound, just a video.

It seemed innocuous, boring even. Olivia, going about her everyday business but then Evie realised that someone had to have been filming her coming out of the bank, getting into her car, filling up on petrol. Ordinary, everyday, life.

Evie glanced around the faces to find Olivia but was distracted by a gasp and the tightening of Jules’ hand. She looked up to see an image of Olivia and an unseen man, engaged in heavy sex in a hotel room.

“Turn it off!” called out Damian, looking up at the crow’s nest in the hall. “Alan, for crying out loud! Turn it off!”

“Leave it on!” yelled out a voice in the hall and some of those around sniggered harshly.

Evie looked over at Damian just in time to see Olivia fleeing the room. Andy voice came over the air.

“My wife is having an affair,” he said with a bluntly. “I wanted you to see this because for years and years I’ve had to put up with her shit, her disapproval; her bitter disappointment. She looks down on you lot like you’re shit on her shoes. But this is who she is. Look at her”

Olivia was, by now, in the middle of a violent orgasm. As she moved it was revealed to the stunned, murmuring crowd exactly who she was having sex with.

“Oh, my God!” Evie breathed and reached her other hand out to steady Jules.

Ed shot a look at Evie. He could see her struggling to keep Jules’ upright. Her legs were giving way and she was in danger of falling. He instinctively took hold of her shoulders and leant in to her.

“I’m here,” he whispered and felt her lean back into him. A steady rock against the world.

“Get me out of here,” Jules mumbled.

Calmly, Evie took hold of Jules and lead her out of the hall. Ed followed at a discrete distance. The screen had now gone black following Damian’s successful attempt to alert Alan to the problem.

The crowd broke out in frenzied chatter as the news of the identity of man spread like wildfire around the room.

 

***

 

Evie managed, just, to get Jules to the wall before her legs finally buckled under her. Ed stood at a distance, his face etched with concern but not sure, after all these years, whether he should interfere.

Evie sat down next to her friend and took her hands.

“You’re shaking.”

Ed wiped off his jacket and gently put it around Jules’ shoulders. She was blank, her mind and body desperately trying to process the information. Oh, it wasn’t that Craig was having an affair or even that it was with Olivia. She pretty much knew that he’d never been faithful to her but she brushed it aside, kept her head down. Like a trade-off; his infidelity for her home as if bricks and mortar were worth more than her self-respect. Self-loathing was beginning to rear its ugly head within her.

“What am I going to do,” said Jules quietly. “What do I tell the boys?”

Evie tried to soothe her but didn’t know what to say.

“I feel such an idiot,” the self-reproach was starting. “Me, Julie Abercrombie, the girl from the council house.”

She sniffed back the tears that were forcing their way out.

“What did Olivia used to say? I’d never seen a built-in kitchen until the council put one in.”

“Who cares what that fucking bitch said?” Evie was angry not only with Andy for being so bloody selfish as to air his dirty linen in public and take her friend down with him but with everybody in that hall for standing by and watching, sniggering, judging. “Honestly, I could fucking swing for her. And him. Bastard.”

“But she’s right,” cried Jules, not caring now that the tears were pulling the mascara down her face. “That was me, the girl Liam Mollencamp said was sick looking when he found out I had a crush on him in the third year. The girl who never had the money to go shopping on a Saturday afternoon but can show up for a stupid reunion in a four-hundred-pound dress. I was so proud that I’d finally made something of myself but I hadn’t. I just married well.”

“You married a control freak knob head.”

“But it was bearable, the trade-off was manageable. He left me alone most of the time.”

Evie’s mind was racing, working through all the scenarios.

“We can get a copy of the disc,” she said, the whole scheme panning out in her head. “I know this shit-hot divorce lawyer. You can take him to the cleaners.”

Evie felt Jules sag in her arms.

“He’ll have the whole thing wrapped up so tight that I’ll spend more divorcing him than I’ll get.”

“Does that matter? At least you can hold your head up”

Jules was sobbing by now. She knew that it would never be as easy as Evie thought it would. Craig would have had the assets bound up somehow. She’d end up on the street, penniless, living in some God-awful bedsit. The boys would be okay and for that she was grateful, but she would have nothing. Huge tears fell down her face, soaking a spot on her dress with a mixture of salt and mascara.

“But it’s my home. Mine. It might’ve been his money but I made it.”

“Look,” said Evie. “I know this guy right. Let me talk to him. He’ll help, I promise. If there’s one thing I know about its men. Trust me. Craig will give you whatever you want by the time I’ve finished with him.”

Jules’ sobbing slowed down, her breathing became easier.

Evie whipped a tissue out of her bag and gently cleaned up her friend’s face. She applied a dab of powder to soften the redness and swelling and fixed her makeup.

“I can’t go home,” said Jules softly.

“No,” agreed Evie. “You can stay at mine.”

Evie kissed Jules on the cheek. She knew that her friend was stronger than she ever thought possible and that the coming weeks and months would test that inner resolve but something new was happening. Someone had returned. Evie glanced at Ed who waited out of earshot. She knew Jules would never behave in the same way as Craig had but that didn’t matter because she knew that Ed was prepared to wait; after all, he’d waited all these years.

“I think,” Evie whispered to her friend. “There is someone waiting to speak to you.”

Jules looked at Evie who smiled and nodded. She kissed Jules on the cheek and got up and walked over to Ed.

“Is she going to be okay?” he asked.

Evie touched his hand and smiled at him: “She will be. Give it time.”

Ed waited until Evie had gone back inside the hall. For Jules, it felt like the longest time imaginable.

She heard his soft footfall coming towards her and she involuntarily ran her hand over her cheek; she wished that he hadn’t seen her like this.

Little did she know that he didn’t care. That he’d waited all this long time and that whatever she looked like, whatever the circumstances, she would never be more beautiful to him than she was right now.

Inside the hall, he could hear the DJ winding down the evening.

“It’s almost time to wrap things up. Hope you’ve had a good time. I know I certainly have! So, grab that guy or girl you fancied in school and give them one last dance.”

Ed smiled to himself, recalling a time, oh so long ago, when the last dance of the evening was the most important; the one that signalled that it was serious, that this was the person you were walking home. How many times had he had this dance played out in his head?

As the music began, Ed walked held out his hand to Jules.

She looked up at him and smiled. Slowly, she allowed him to pull her to her feet and take her in his arm

 

She didn’t know where the road was going to take her but she felt sure that Ed would be part of it. As she laid her head on his shoulder and breathed in the scent of his cologne, she permitted herself one small, hopeful smile.

 

THE END

 

 

 

About the Author:

 

Born and raised in Dover, Lisa began writing in her bedroom, hunched over a portable typewriter. As a teenager, inspiration came from life around her; her mates, her music and Dover. Many, many years later, with life, children, and the general business of being a grown-up having taken her away from that world, it was back to Dover as the inspiration for her debut novel, Since You’ve Been Gone.

Also by Lisa Dyer:

 

Since You’ve Been Gone published by Crooked Cat Books, 2013 and available to buy from Amazon

 

To find out more about the author please visit: www.lisadyerauthor.com

 

A preview of Since You’ve Been Gone is available on the next page.

 

Since You’ve Been Gone

 

 

 

 

Lisa Dyer

 

 

Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Dyer

Cover Artwork by Sweet Lana

Design by Crooked Cat

Editor: Christine McPherson

All rights reserved.

Since You’ve Been Gone: 978-1-909841-29-1 No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or Crooked Cat Publishing except for brief quotations used for promotion or in reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

First Red Line Edition, Crooked Cat Publishing Ltd. 2013

 

In the beginning…

 

…there was Hal and Abigail and they should have lived happily ever after… everything in their story shouted that to the world. Hal’s mother knew it. Their friends had no doubt about it.

Hal and Abigail were the perfect pair. Having grown up together from infancy, there were no secrets, no hidden agendas; just love. All that was missing were the church bells and the first flat with the second-hand furniture and the gas fire that didn’t work, and even that would be okay because they’d cuddle up in bed to keep warm until summer.

Then Hal blew it all wide open by getting a conditional offer to study at Cambridge – in the Department of Veterinarian Medicine.

To be honest, it was a total shock to everyone, but most of all to Abigail. She had supported his idea to apply, but had secretly thought that he would be out of his depth and have second thoughts. He didn’t.

It was all he thought about and planned for. He locked himself away in his bedroom to study, and suddenly two people, who had been inseparable from the first moment they had met, were wrenched apart. Hal’s mother, Diana clucked about nothing else; anybody would think he was marrying into royalty. Anyone foolish enough to ask, ‘How’s the family, Di?’ soon found themselves wishing they’d kept their mouths shut.

Hal and Abigail limped through the spring, and dragged themselves into the summer. His hard work paid off and he attained the required grades then received positive confirmation that, come the autumn, he would be going up to Cambridge.

There was one last night, camped down at the Bay, Hal on his guitar and the old crowd avoiding talking about what was happening, as if by doing so it may go away.

And that was it. The beginning of the end of Hal Bartlett and Abigail Markham. Except, for Abigail it was the start of something new, something so big, so life changing – and its outcome would resonate down the years…

Chapter One

 

Dover, Kent: 1998

 

The envelope had sat on the dresser for days and still Abigail could not pluck up the courage to post it. She swore to Ferret that she would: cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. The fact that Ferret had even trusted her to carry out his wishes was laughable. Abigail and Ferret (or David, to give him his proper name) had been friends since infants’ school and, in truth, he’d never been the brightest bulb in the box so she’d easily conned him into believing that nothing was further from her mind.

The delay had bought her time to think and to plan, and in the end, she’d re-written the envelope, changed the address slightly, omitted the fact that it was going to a veterinarian practice and left out the postcode – that should cause the sorting office a problem or two. That way, she reasoned to herself, she hadn’t technically lied to anyone. The fact that the recipient didn’t get it would lead them to assume he’d declined the invitation and had better things to do, so that was fine.

She wasn’t being deceitful… okay, she was being deceitful, but it really was in everyone’s best interest for Hal Bartlett not to attend his 15th anniversary school reunion. The more she thought about it, the more reasonable it sounded. Abi brightened… but still didn’t put the invite into her bag for posting.

“Rory! Come on, time’s getting on!” she shouted into thin air, in the hope that the sound would drift up to her son in his bedroom, as she rummaged through the fridge for a packet of pre-cut apples to put in her son’s lunchbox. “Rory!”

Abigail Markham had been a striking-looking girl, with her elfin face and large expressive eyes. The look had reached it apogee when she’d persuaded her sister to give her a Chelsea haircut, beloved of skingirls back in 1980, and the fringe and feathers served to accentuate her features. Now the eyes were dulled by the trials of life but somewhere, inside, the vestiges remained. She just needed a break and the chance to shine again.

She glanced around the shabby kitchen in search of inspiration for the lunchbox, and her gaze fell on her blue work bib scrunched up in the basket of dirty laundry that seemed to permanently live by the washing machine. Her eyes drifted upwards to the sight of the dirty dishes from last night; dried-on baked beans and tomato sauce. She winced and mentally chastised herself for her laziness.

“Totally undomesticated” is how she liked to describe herself in the lighter moments of self-justification, but the bottom line was she couldn’t be bothered. Life was a long round of working, cleaning and falling asleep exhausted in front of the telly. Some days she just let it all hang out. Who was going to see it anyway? Only those who knew and understood, and as for the rest… well, they didn’t matter.

“Rory, I said now! I’m going to be late for work.” It was just the daily battle cry in her house. A bit of co-operation all round wouldn’t go amiss. Like telling her that someone, i.e. her eldest, had taken the last packet of apples so she could restock. She found a lone packet of dried fruit in the cupboard next to the fridge and tossed that into the lunchbox before hurriedly scrawling “fruit” on the chalkboard that hung on the wall. The list was getting longer and she briefly panicked about when she was going to find the time to nip to the supermarket.

She often wondered how two sentient beings could move around a shared space and not notice what needed to be done. Ellie, at least, could pick up a few things for her but she never offered, and Abi was sick of asking. In her darker moments of introspection, she looked back on her life and felt keenly the sense that she had lost her way. If someone had asked her back in 1983 how she saw her life in fifteen years, she wouldn’t, for a million years, have offered up her current situation. Some things, though, she was pretty sure about; she knew she’d be doing the same job, hanging out with the same crowd, but as for the rest…

Abi shook herself out of it. That was a road well-travelled – usually after a frustrating day when the world conspired to give her more shit than she could handle – in the deep, dark parts of the night when the kids were asleep and the television held no escape, and it led to a dead end. The decisions she had made back then were hers and hers alone; she was the one that had to deal with the consequences of being headstrong and not a little wrapped-up in the drama and heroics of it all. Her life wasn’t a complete train wreck, more of a slight derailment. Trouble was, no-one seemed to have the means to get it back on track. Least of all Abigail.

Seven-year-old Rory, his shirt half-hanging out of the back of his trousers, raced into the kitchen followed by his constant companion, Darcy the terrier, who danced around Rory’s feet and yelped when he got accidentally stepped on. Abigail scolded the hapless creature and Rory soothed, dropping to his knees to fuss Darcy, and kiss him on the nose. The dog wagged his tail furiously and rolled over, and so another distraction began as the two played on the floor until Abigail hauled Rory up, dusted him down, and shooed Darcy out into the hall.

Rory grabbed his book bag off the back of the kitchen chair and ran after the excitable pet. Abigail attempted, as he whizzed past, to grab the shirt tail and tuck it back into the waistband, but failed and only elicited a howl of protest and a forceful, “Get off” as he wriggled free and fled.

With a sigh and clutching a carrier bag full of other invites, her bib and her bag, Abigail herded the whirlwind down the hall to the front door where she stopped briefly at the foot of the stairs to shout her other child out of her bed.

“Ellie, you’ve got school in one hour. Shift it!”

Abigail steered Rory out of the front door and slammed it behind them.

There was a pause and the house fell quiet for a few seconds. Ellie, tall and slim with long brown hair, thumped down the stairs still half asleep in her oversized Ramones t-shirt and cotton shorts. She stumbled into the kitchen and surveyed the mess; her clear hazel eyes finally fell on the single envelope. For a brief second she considered whether or not to run after her mother, but apathy got the better of her and she headed back upstairs where she collapsed onto the bed and snoozed for another half an hour.

Fortunately, in direct contrast to Abigail’s chaos management morning regime, Ellie had her routine down to a fine art. She left the house awake and presentable in her school uniform and Doc Martens, and she did think to be helpful and post the lonely letter. It was the start of a train of events that had the potential to change all of their lives forever.

 

A Greasy Spoon Cafe, somewhere in Oxfordshire: 1998

 

Hal stared at Michael’s grease-laden full English breakfast with a small hint of disgust and a slight fear that someone would tell his screamingly posh mother-in-law he had frequented such a diner, filled as it was with builders and passing truckers in for their morning cuppa and bacon butties. This was his grubby little secret.

Now in his early thirties, Hal had long ago finished his metamorphosis from teenage rock god to boring, not-quite middle-aged man. He’d long given over his drainpipe jeans with the turn-ups and the brothel creepers, all anti-establishment kicking and screaming and dreams of playing Wembley Stadium, and was now the epitome of respectable upper-middle class with a town house, expensive car, and holidays on private estates in the Caribbean.

It didn’t suit him, if he was being honest, which he wasn’t. Hal Bartlett hadn’t been honest about who he was for a long time. His brown hair, which had once sported a number two and occasionally – in a tribute to his idol, Joe Strummer – a longer clump of hair which he styled into a rockabilly quiff, was still short but in a boring, middle-aged, middle-class way. He had a youthful face, which was awkward rather than handsome, and he permanently looked languid due to his hooded hazel eyes. But he still had a certain something about him which could have carried off a slightly funkier look.

His beloved Levi red tabs had long since been replaced by workaday cords. The only hint of what had been was a tell-tale dent in his left ear, the mark of a closed-up hole which had once sported a sleeper earring, and on his left forearm an unfortunate self-inflicted, upside-down Indian ink tattoo that bore the faded legend ‘AM’. Julienne had insisted he get it removed somehow, but he’d always managed to avoid doing so. His punishment for disobeying orders was that he had to wear long sleeves at all times, even on holiday. It was a price he was willing to pay, and it was one of the many reasons his marriage was now on the rocks.

The waitress walked past, her hands full with dirty dishes. Michael tapped her with the side of his forearm.

“‘Ey,” he said, chewing on his food as he spoke. “Any chance of some bread and butter?”

The waitress nodded.

“Cheers, lass.” He gave her a saucy wink. She smiled, half pleased at the attention, and walked away. Michael observed her arse and gave it his own private seal of approval with a quick raise of his eyebrows.

Michael Bayliss, Hal’s associate, was going into his mid-thirties still kicking and screaming and in complete denial that he was no longer the babe magnet his mind had always supposed him to be. He sported his thick, wiry, dirty blond hair tied back into a knot at the nape of his neck, and his clothes gave off a certain air of beach bum-gone-straight. They usually consisted of faded Levi 501s worn just a little too long, so they bunched fashionably around the top of his Vans. His white cotton shirts were always worn loose, and he accompanied the look with ethnic wool bracelets and necklaces.

A charmer with a ready smile, Michael had a thick Yorkshire accent. And he made no effort to modulate it for the soft Southern ears of the matriarchs whose precious cats and dogs he ministered to in the veterinary practice he and Hal co-owned. Michael prided himself on his down-to-earth attitude and strict adherence to the Northern mantra of calling a spade a spade. He never denied his past. If people didn’t like him, he reasoned, they could sod off.

Michael, on the whole, got away with it. He took no nonsense from anyone, but his ready smile and easy manner meant that the well-heeled ladies of the small market town where he and Hal had their practice, found him hard to resist. They were bored, kept women who had little to do but organise fundraisers for their latest charity de jour, meet for lunch, gossip and spend their husbands’ money. Michael was more than willing to assuage their angst over the health of their expensive pets, and occasionally provide a broad shoulder for the nervier ones to offload onto. The former was all money in the bank, and the latter meant that he never had to go without and he never had to commit.

“Thought you were taking up being veggie to impress that girl?” said Hal flatly.

Michael had forsworn meat about three months ago, when a vision of divine loveliness had wandered into the surgery clutching an injured pigeon. Sadly, the pigeon didn’t make it but, unsurprisingly, Michael did. Several times. In his flat above the surgery.

In order to continue the relationship, which had started out well with such dynamic sex, he’d given up meat. This had cost him dear, as he was an avowed carnivore, but she had been worth it. Sadly, he learned a tough lesson.

“Rowena? Nah, turned out, right, she weren’t no veggie; she was one of them, whatdaya call ‘em? Aye, fruitarian. Yeah, one of them.”

Hal looked blank.

“She made that up to get rid of you.”

“No, no, it’s proper, like. I looked it up, yeah, and it’s right kosher, is that.” Michael loaded his fork with a bit of everything and crammed it into his mouth. “Surprised you’ve not heard on ‘em. Thought you Southerners were all into this faddy stuff.”

Egg yolk slopped into his close-cut beard. He didn’t wipe it away and its presence transfixed Hal for a moment, as he recalled a teacher he once had who habitually had remnants of pipe tobacco hanging out of his Rasputin-like beard, along with whatever the school canteen had foisted upon the unsuspecting pupils that day.

The waitress delivered a slice of white bread, spread thickly with butter, and cut in half. Michael gave her a quick smile and carried on with his food.

“So, what is it?” asked Hal, who felt he should know and was slightly bemused that the word had never reached his vocabulary.

With a full mouth, and using his knife and fork to illustrate, Michael explained:

“Right, well, you know, like a veggie, yeah, don’t eat meat, and vegans don’t eat meat and all animal by-products are ultimately theft? Well, turns out these fruitarians don’t pick stuff.”

Hal looked confused, as well he might. Michael regularly mangled the English language due to his whole-hearted endorsement of “keeping it regional”.

“True, aye,” continued Michael, as he shoved more food into his over-full mouth. “They only gather windfalls; you know, what the plant has given up naturally. And I said to meself, ‘Michael,’ I said, ‘life’s too short to wait for a carrot to commit suicide.’ So, I dumped her.”

He continued to eat as Hal nibbled delicately on a piece of dried toast. Michael glanced up from his food and felt it was polite to ask, even if he knew the answer.

“What’s up with you? Got a face like a wet weekend.”

Hal threw the crust down onto the plate and shoved it away from him.

“Stupid pre-wedding dinner with Julienne’s family and Verity’s future in-laws. Olivia’s driving me nuts.” And that was it, in a nutshell. Hal’s in-laws and the society wedding of the decade.

“Aye, ‘ey, rather you than me, mate.” Michael mopped his plate with his bread and butter. “What’s the ma-in-law got her knickers in a twist about now?”

“I don’t know… doves… birds… I don’t know…”

Hal sighed and looked out of the window. He knew he was just a bit player in a larger production. Olivia, his mother-in-law, was determined to blow the family fortune to make the wedding of her youngest daughter – the spoilt Verity –the talk of the town. She’d shanghaied every wedding planner, florist, caterer, marquee owner, wine merchant and decorator within a forty-mile radius, and then had discarded them for not being able to live up to her unfeasibly high expectations, until she was sure she had assembled a crack team to deliver her vision.

Olivia was ruthless in her pursuit of perfection and had reduced more than one business owner to tears in the process. Thank God, Verity was the last child because Hal was sure that no sane person would agree to work for Olivia again, unless massively compensated for their troubles. For his part, he’d prefer just to arrive at the church, sing a few hymns, toast the happy couple and then disappear. He also knew that it was unlikely to happen and that he must endure it as best he could. Even if it displeased Olivia, there was still only twenty-four hours in a day and he only had to get through them once.

 

***

 

Abigail returned home from a long day standing on her feet, tending to the thinning locks of elderly ladies in the small hairdresser’s down the road. It had been there since she was a child, and where she had routinely gone to have her hair cut until the fateful day she’d gone for the Chelsea. The set-up had never changed; shampoo and set or a blue rinse, and the ladies came as much for the treatment as for the company. They sat under the hooded driers with curlers in their hair and gossiped themselves silly, whilst they flicked through dog-eared copies of Women’s Weekly.

Abigail was a talented hairdresser, but somehow this was comforting. She had known these old duchesses for as long as she could remember. They’d cover their newly-set hair with headscarves to preserve it from the wind, and call her “dear” as they slipped a pound tip into the pocket of her work bib. She’d smile, say thank you and collect them in a jar she kept in the broom cupboard out the back.

When she had enough tips, she’d treat Rory to a trip to the gloriously named Silver Screen cinema in Gaol Lane, down the side of the museum. It sounded so Hollywood, but it was about the size of a living room! Clearly the town planners had decided, when they agreed to such a tiny venue, that Dovorians didn’t have an appetite for popular culture, and then wondered why people went to Canterbury to spend their money. Still, she couldn’t complain, it was a rare treat at the best of times and they always enjoyed themselves.

She could have gone and worked for a trendy salon and explored her creative side, or gone out on her own, but she didn’t because she was happy where she was.

When she first entered the kitchen, she hadn’t noticed the missing envelope. She pottered around, dodging Darcy, who thought every moment was dinner time, tidying up the mess that had been left all day.

Rory came in, sat at the small square table and read his school reading book out loud. Abigail corrected his pronunciation as she switched between turning the chops under the grill and opening a can of mixed veg. Ellie returned from seeing her best friend, Tiffany, and Abi noticed, with a jaundiced eye, that her school skirt was now the regulation knee-length whereas that morning, as Ellie had hurried past the salon, it had been most definitely mid-thigh.

Ellie slung her bag onto the back of the chair and grabbed a bag of crisps from the basket on top of the fridge. Then the arguing started. Despite the difference of seven years, Ellie and Rory could go at it hammer and tongs.

Abigail slammed down the fork she was using to turn the chops and told them to pack it in. As she chastised Ellie for being the oldest and therefore of knowing better, her eyes wandered to the vacant spot behind Ellie’s ear where the envelope had been propped up.

“Where’s that invite gone?” She pointed to the space with the fork.

Ellie poked out her tongue at Rory, then said,

“I posted it.”

“I posted it,” mimicked Rory.

“Rory,” snapped Ellie.

“Rory,” said Rory, in a singsong voice.

“Muuummm!”

Abigail’s mind was racing. She shook off the sound of their bickering.

“You what? When?”

Ellie shrugged and clipped Rory’s knuckles lightly with a spoon, which sent him into paroxysms of imagined pain, designed to work on his mother’s instincts and get his sister into trouble. Abigail saw but didn’t register the spat.

“Ellie, when?”

“This morning.”

Abigail groaned.

“What?” Ellie said, her eyes opened expressively wide, her shoulders hunched and her arms spread out. “Chill out, just a letter. God.” She snatched Rory’s book from him and ran out of the kitchen with her brother in hot pursuit. Darcy, always ready for a game of chase, hurtled through the kitchen and the three of them rushed upstairs to great noise and slamming of doors.

Abigail threw the fork angrily into the washing-up water and lit a cigarette, her mind was frantic. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” Was the address obscure enough to fool the Post Office? What would happen if Hal came home? She stopped herself just in time. There was nothing she could do about it now. Ellie, bless her, had tried to be helpful and with a fourteen-year-old she had to be grateful for any spontaneous acts of helpfulness she could get. If Hal, by some fluke, got the invite and decided to trek halfway across the country for a lousy school reunion then she’d do what she always did, she’d deal with it.

 

***

 

“The way I see it, you’ve got two choices. You keep going, pretending it’s all fine. Do what her family wants. Ignoring your own tribe and not standing up for yourself…” Hal was dropping Michael back at the surgery, where Michael kept the flat above.

Hal had been called out to a calving and Michael, his appointments cleared, had gone along for the ride. From here, Hal was off to spend the weekend at his in-laws, to endure the wedding day that was now less than twenty-four hours away.

“It’s not that easy,” Hal interjected.

“I know! We’re blokes! This much self-awareness I’m going to have to lie down. It’s not natural.” Michael pulled out his ‘baccy tin and began to roll a smoke. “As me gran used to say, there’s

no rich men in the churchyard. Houses… they’re just bricks and mortar.”

He lit the rollie and took a puff. He looked around the small car park and towards the practice as if he would find inspiration for what he needed to say there. Then he glanced back at Hal who hadn’t made any move to drive away. Michael nodded.

“Flamin’ heck. I’m going to sound like a right pansy saying this, yeah, but you… something’s going on here.” He tapped Hal’s temple to demonstrate. “I’ve seen it, right from day one. Back at university when you were moping after that lass who dumped yer. You, my friend, have never been happy. Never mind Julienne; before you even met her, you had some serious shit going on.”

Hal didn’t speak. What could he say? Michael, in his weirdly wonderful way, had reached into his brain and found the reason for Hal’s restlessness and given it voice. Hal had been acutely aware of it, but pretended it didn’t exist; the nagging voice he suppressed that goaded him, taunted him, and caused him to doubt himself.

He’d lost the one thing that had meant the most to him in the world and he had never even seen it coming. Unthinking, he had gone his own way and never imagined that it would cause him such heartbreak. Instead of dealing with it, he had taken the high ground, stuck out his chin and never looked back. The small voice had been drowned out. But only temporarily.

Michael could see from Hal’s expression that he’d hit home, although he was on a fishing exercise because, whatever it was, Hal had never confided in Michael. It was a secret he had wanted to keep and Michael respected his right to it. Now, though, he’d started the conversation and was determined to have his say, even if it didn’t elicit any form of confession from his friend.

“I know it’s not easy. Look at us. We’re children of the seventies. Wearing that much corduroy was bound to mess with our heads.” Michael glanced down at the olive-green cords Hal was wearing. “Case in point.” Michael flicked the tiny stub of rollie across the asphalt and got serious. He pulled Hal’s arm towards him, yanked back the sleeve to reveal the fading tattoo and looked him squarely in the eye. “Get it sorted, ey?” He let go of Hal’s arm and walked away.

Hal stared down at the fading initials and gently ran his fingers up and down his arm, but no amount of rubbing would erase the memory.

 

 

If you have enjoyed reading this preview then find Since You’ve Been Gone on Amazon, across the market in paperback and for Kindle.

 


Tales for the Beach - Five stories of love and friendship

Five short stories of friendship and love from the author of Since You've Been Gone. 1. Emily finds comfort in the words of a wise old gentleman when her marriage hits the rocks. 2. A modern adaption of John Keats 'The Eve of St Agnes'. Madeline and Porphyro, two star-crossed lovers from opposing families must find a way out of their lives so that they can be together. 3. Alice discovers that Heaven isn't what she thought it was when she takes on the higher order of angels in an attempt to overthrow their ruling, in this amusing tale of heavenly disorder and a Divine Deity unlike any you've read about. 4. Scarlett finds her job at the morgue gets a little too lively when Robbie turns up to haunt her into helping him solve the mystery of his death. 5. Friends come together for a school reunion. Secrets, old loves and long-held jealousies come to the fore as the evening wears on.

  • Author: Lisa Dyer
  • Published: 2017-08-05 11:50:12
  • Words: 42974
Tales for the Beach - Five stories of love and friendship Tales for the Beach - Five stories of love and friendship