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Relaxing Reads - Short Stories

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RELAXING READS

SHORT STORIES

by

Tula Jack

Published by Tula Jack at Shakespir

Copyright 2015 Tula Jack

Shakespir Edition, License Notes:

Thank you for downloading this free ebook. Although this is a free book, it remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at Shakespir.com, where they can also discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.

This book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the subject of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

 

This book is dedicated to Mum and Dad

Thank you for letting me spend my childhood with my nose in a book

Thank you for letting me be a dreamer

Thank you for letting me be the person I am

 

Table of Contents

 

 

1. Daph’s Caff

2. History Lesson

3. The Deception

4. Musical Magic

5. Emily

6. The Hydrangers

7. Trevor’s Lucky Day

8. Temporary Hiccups

9. The Trapper

10. Willie’s Coming

11. The Hole-Diggers

12. Appointment With Lucy

13. Pops

14. The Gravel Path

15. The Missing N

16. A View To Die For

17. Sleepy Hollow

18. Where There’s A Will There’s A Way

19. The Devil’s Kitchen

20. Fireworks Galore

21. The Jumper

22. Crash Helmets Not Needed

23. Ask The Oracle

24. Blown Away

25. Golden Wedding

26. Gambling On Love

27. Two’s Company

28. Moving On

29. Shooting Stars

30. The Uninvited Guest

31. Secrets

32. Poles Apart

33. The Slogan

34. Snapshots Of Life

35. Fireside Warmth

36. The Ballet Live

37. The Holly Bush Inn

38. Just Too Late

39. The Leader From Corner Cottage

40. Finding Mary

 

 

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1. DAPH’S CAFF

 

(Theme – Breakfast)

 

 

‘Oh my God, Daph. He’s sat in her seat.’

Daphne didn’t flinch. She spooned four tablespoons of baked beans onto two slices of toast and carefully laid two fried eggs on top. Even at this stage of the morning, her seventeenth cooked breakfast, she still presented her food with the care of a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. ‘Here, Janice,’ she said to the vacant-looking teenager at the end of the counter. ‘This is for the corner table in the window. And don’t forget his knife and fork this time.’

‘No, Daph.’

‘Come on, get with it girl. And smile.’

‘Yes, Daph.’ Janice stretched her mouth into an open line, baring her two over-large front teeth.

‘Or maybe not,’ muttered Daphne, turning to her sister. ‘Now then, Flo. What were you saying?’

‘That young man who’s just ordered. Double bacon sandwich, by the way. Grilled bacon. He’s sat at her table.’

Daphne bent her bulky form from the waist. The plastic container labelled “Bacon” was at the bottom of the fridge. ‘Who’s table?’

‘Miss Just A Black Coffee No Sugar. And she’ll be here in about six minutes. Same thing every day now for over three weeks. She’s like a robot. I’m sure she won’t cope with someone being in her seat.’

‘Do we know him?’ Daphne laid six rashers of bacon onto the grill pan. ‘Could we ask him to move?’

‘No, he’s not been in before as far as I know. And yet … he does look slightly familiar.’

Daphne peeped round the plastic display on the counter, which held Mars Bars, Kit Kats, Maltesers (for the weight conscious) and Peanut Treats. ‘I’ll tell you why he looks familiar, our Flo. He looks a bit like a young Sidney Poitier to me.’

‘Who?’ Janice had resumed her leaning on the end of the counter under the sign “Waitress Only”.

‘Never you mind,’ said Flo. ‘Yes you’re right, Daph. And, when you think about it, Miss Just A Black Coffee No Sugar does look a bit like a young Audrey Hepburn, doesn’t she? All elfin-like and tragic with those big, sad, doe eyes.’

‘Who?’ said Janice again.

‘Never you mind,’ said Flo and Daphne together.

Janice bridled at the second put-down. ‘She’s preggers, you know.’

‘Who is?’ said Flo.

‘Your Audie Murphy black coffee girl.’

‘Audrey Hepburn.’

‘Well, whoever. Stupid giving her a name anyway.’ Janice stood taller, her eyes flashing. ‘And she is preggers.’

‘What makes you think that?’ Flo had never seen Janice so adamant about anything.

‘I watch her. While she sips her coffee she strokes her stomach like she’s got a secret. And three weeks ago when she first started coming in, I twice heard her being sick in the toilet. That’s why she always sits right by the toilet door.’

‘And what do you know about being in the family way, madam? I thought you went to a good Catholic school,’ said Flo.

‘I did. But Leg-Over Lucy O’Mahoney was the same at the beginning of our last term. She used to sit stroking her stomach looking all dreamy and when it started to show, she disappeared. She even missed the school leaving disco. And anyway, I know she was because she came from a big family. Irish, you know. Eight brothers. She was always bragging about doing it and was bound to catch eventually.’

Daphne stopped in the action of turning a slice of bacon. ‘What? With her brothers?’

‘Of course not. With their friends.’ Janice opened her eyes wide. ‘Well, I think so anyway.’

Daphne snorted. ‘Go and wash your mouth out, girl.’

‘She could be right, Daph,’ whispered Flo. ‘She’s never had so much fire in her voice before. She can’t be making it up.’

‘I’m not,’ said Janice. ‘You watch her when she comes in.’

Three minutes later a sad elfin-like face looked up at Flo, who smiled at the young girl. ‘Would you like some breakfast today, dear?’

‘No, thank you. Just a black coffee no sugar.’

Flo leaned forwards as if to share a secret. ‘I’m sorry to say there’s someone in your usual seat today. Will you be okay to sit elsewhere?’

The girl didn’t even glance over to the left, as Flo had expected her to. She continued looking steadily at the older woman on the other side of the counter. ‘Does he have dark curly hair and is he wearing gold-rimmed glasses?’ she whispered.

Flo looked over to the young man, even though she knew the answer. He was staring at the little elf. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Do you know him?’

The girl’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I knew he’d stand by me,’ she said, for after three weeks Flo was no longer a stranger to her. ‘I wrote and told him I’d be here everyday for four weeks and if he didn’t want me and …’ she hesitated as she gently rubbed her stomach ‘… I’d understand.’

‘Oh, he wants you alright, love,’ said Flo, with a tear rolling down her cheek. ‘He’s coming over right now with his arms out to you.’

As the girl was enveloped in the young man’s arms, Flo turned to Daphne. ‘Make her a little scrambled egg on the house, Daph. After all, she is eating for two.’

‘Coming up,’ said Daphne. ‘Eeh, it’s just like a fairytale. The things that happen over breakfast in Daph’s Caff.’

‘Told you she was preggers,’ muttered Janice.

 

 

***

 

 

 

2. HISTORY LESSON

 

(Theme – The Sphinx)

 

 

Miss Peterson is droning on at the front of the class. Beside me Bridget is listening and staring at her, and at the same time, she’s scribbling on a fresh page of her jotter. She’s good like that, is Bridget – she can watch, listen and write all at the same time. Whereas me … well, I dream and doodle.

Inside the back cover of my jotter, there is just room for one more heart. There we go – a heart; an arrow through it; the flight end going in the front; the point coming out the back. Initials LT by the flight feathers; JW by the point. John Wallace. Tall; blue eyes; floppy blond hair; at sixteen, almost an adult; short stubby fingers with clean nails – I notice them every Sunday when he holds the little silver plate under my chin as I take Holy Communion from Father Murphy.

I squirm in my chair – I can “feel” those fingers gently stroke my cheek, pull my head towards his, his lips near mine … Bridget nudges me and points towards my jotter. I’m pressing on the W so hard my pen is making a blot.

Miss Peterson’s still droning on – I haven’t a clue what she’s talking about.

I slouch in my chair, my left elbow on my desk, my left hand supporting the weight of my head. I can smell Bridget’s sweat. I turn my head and glance through the v-shape made by my forearm and my upper-arm. Bridget is still writing furiously – how can she do it? Watch, write and listen all at the same time. I can see the yellow sweat stain under her arm – white nylon shirts still stink even after their weekend wash.

It’s Friday afternoon; it’s summer; it’s a history lesson; and it’s all so boring.

Without moving my head I stifle a yawn and check my watch for the thousandth time since the lesson started. I’ve taken to wearing the watch with its face under my wrist, like I saw John Wallace’s under his altar-boy cassock last Sunday. The numbers are a bit fuzzy this close to my eyes, but I can see it’s still only twenty-five to four. Ten more god-awful minutes to the bell.

Miss Peterson drones on.

Just room to squeeze another heart in here. LT loves JW.

Sunday, Sunday – soon be Sunday. Holy Communion. JW’s fingers holding the plate right by my mouth. I love him; I love him; I …

‘Are you listening, Laura Taggart?’

… love him. Oh my God! I look to the front. She’s staring at me.

‘Yes, Miss Peterson.’

‘Well, you’ve obviously made extensive notes. You’ve been … er, writing? … during the whole lesson.’

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘So your essay will be full of interesting facts?’

I’m getting hot now; my armpits are oozing, dampening the crispy dry sweat on my shirt. ‘Yes, Miss.’

‘So, what’s the title of this weekend’s homework essay, Laura?’

The other girls look round at me. I glance across at Bridget. She whispers something without moving her lips. I can’t hear her so make a guess. I look back at Miss Peterson.

‘Er, the great prince of …?’

There are some giggles nearby.

‘Yes, Laura? The great prince of where? The forest?’ More giggles; I’m getting hotter; I stink of sweat like Bridget now. ‘Is your essay going to be about Bambi’s father?’

The class erupts into hysterical laughter. Even my best friend, Bridget, is laughing behind her hand as she pushes her jotter across onto my desk. I look down to see what she’s jabbing her pen at.

History Homework Essay – The Great Sphinx of Giza.

The bell rings. Everyone moves. Thank God it’s Friday.

 

 

***

 

 

 

3. THE DECEPTION

 

(Theme – Wrong End of the Stick)

 

 

Julia slammed the front door, threw her bag onto the sofa as she passed through the living area and stamped into the kitchen. She took the bottle of Chardonnay out of the fridge and heard all the other contents rattle as she shut the door with a satisfying slam.

‘Just what I need after the day I’ve had,’ she said to Hercules, as she poured herself a large glass. Curled up on a tea-towel on the work surface, Hercules opened one eye. He closed it again, oblivious to his owner’s turmoil.

Julia made to swipe the cat to the floor, but she checked herself and scratched his head instead. ‘It’s not your fault,’ she said, as she gulped a mouthful of the cold wine. Tears prickled her eyes. ‘And I’m not going to cry over a two-timing dirt-bag like him.’ She topped up her glass and looked from the bottle to the fridge. Decision made, she took the bottle with her to the sofa. A few quick mouthfuls and her glass was empty. She re-filled it.

With every swallow, her mind raced. How could he? After three years of a happy relationship. She’d always adored him and would have sworn he adored her. How could he? And with her best friend, too. The more Julia drank, the more she hated them both, and the clearer the picture became of what Elsie had told her at afternoon break.

 

‘But it couldn’t have been him,’ Julia had said. ‘He’s not due back until 7 o’clock tonight and he’s going straight to Gino’s. I’m meeting him there at half past.’

‘I swear it was him.’ Elsie had insisted. ‘Your Pete’s the tallest man in town; you can’t mistake him.’

‘And you say he was kissing Amanda?’

‘I saw them with my own eyes. They came out of the jewellers, arms round each other, both smiling like Cheshire cats. That so called best friend of yours …’

‘The bitch.’

‘ … was holding out her left hand to let the sunlight catch the stone of a ring. Then they hugged and Pete took the ring and put it in a little box, which he put in his pocket. They must be going to make an announcement sometime. After that, they kissed on the lips and went their different ways. They didn’t see me. I’m so sorry, love, but I thought you should know.’

‘It’s okay, Elsie,’ Julia had patted the older woman’s hand. ‘You did right to tell me.’

 

The ringing of her mobile snapped Julia out of her reverie. She looked at the screen – Pete. She let it ring. The mobile stopped; the house phone rang. She ignored it and emptied the last dregs of the wine bottle into her glass. The house phone stopped but her mobile rang again almost immediately and the insistent shrillness reverberated in her wine-fuddled mind.

She answered the phone. ‘What?’ she yelled.

‘Julia?’ How false Pete’s soft voice sounded now she knew.

‘Who did you expect? Or did you think you’d rung your darling Amanda?’

‘Julia, what’s wrong? And where are you? It’s twenty to eight and you’re not here. I was worried’

‘Of course I’m not.’ She was close to tears now. Damn him.

‘Darling, I don’t understand. Are you ill?’

‘No.’

‘Well get yourself to the restaurant; the drinks are on the table and I’ve got something to say to you.’

‘Tell me now.’

‘It’s not something I want to say over the phone.’

‘I bet it’s not.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Are you coming? Shall I send a taxi for you?’

‘No, I’ll come on my own. It’s only a fifteen minute walk.’ Julia ended the call.

She checked herself in the bathroom mirror. Blotchy face, hair a mess, crumpled pharmacy uniform. Huh, I’ll go as I am. That’ll show him how much I care for him.

By the time she arrived at Gino’s she was beginning to regret her dishevelled appearance, but at the sight of Pete waiting in the doorway, she set her mouth in a firm line and strode forwards.

‘Julia, darling.’ Pete bent to kiss her, but she turned away. ‘What’s wrong? You look like er …’

‘Like what? Do I look as if I’ve been dragged through a ditch or perhaps as if I’m about to be ditched?’

‘Have you been drinking?’

‘What do you think after what I’ve heard today?’

‘I don’t know what you’ve heard, darling, but I didn’t expect you to turn up in your work clothes. But never mind; let’s go in.’ As Julia followed him into the restaurant, Pete called out, ‘She’s here everyone. Better late than never.’

As she became aware of people getting to their feet, Julia spotted faces she knew. ‘Surprise. Surprise,’ came at her from all angles. Her parents, Pete’s parents, her brother, friends, and there, grinning at her, was Amanda.

‘She’s not looking her best tonight,’ said Pete with a grin, ‘but she’s still beautiful to me. I’d better do this before some other prince whisks her away.’ He got down on one knee and held out a small open box. ‘Julia, darling, will you marry me?’

His smile melted her stony heart and Julia collapsed onto the nearest chair. ‘Oh, God,’ she whispered.

‘I know it will fit because you are the same ring size as Amanda.’

‘I think I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick today.’

‘Wrong end of the tree, I’d say. Amanda and I spotted Elsie glaring at us and knew she’d tell you, so we played up for her.’ Pete’s eyes twinkled in amusement. ‘But what’s your answer?’

‘Yes, darling Pete. Oh yes, yes.’ She fell off the chair into Pete’s arms.

‘It’s a yes, folks,’ Pete shouted and the restaurant erupted into applause.

Over Pete’s shoulder, Julia spotted Amanda. ‘Just you wait. I’ll get you for this,’ she called.

Amanda grinned, held up her ring-finger, wiggled it and blew her a kiss.

 

 

***

 

 

 

4. MUSICAL MAGIC

 

(Theme – Theatre)

 

 

‘I’m not going.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I don’t want to. It’s sissy.’

‘But you don’t know anything about it.’

‘Yes I do. You told me a minute ago. It’s a musical and it’s a Bible story. How boring is that?’

Jane looked at the rigid set of her son’s shoulders as he lay on the floor picking through a mountain of Lego. ‘But, Ben, darling, you used to love Bible stories when Daddy told them.’

‘Well, that was then and this is now.’ He plunged his hand into the Lego pieces.

‘The stories are the same.’

‘No, Mum, they’re not. When Dad told them, we lived in the vicarage and he was here. Now we live in the city and he’s … well, he’s not.’

Jane’s heart ached, not only for her own loss, but for the effect his father’s death had had on Ben. Her once extrovert, happy son, who, being the Vicar’s child, had taken part in every activity in the village, was now a silent, lonely boy who forced himself into solitude.

‘But that’s the fun of living near the city.’ Jane changed tack. ‘We can go places, like the theatre, which were too far away before. I used to love going to musicals with your Gran and Granddad when I was young.’

‘For goodness sake, Mum, you were living in the Dark Ages then. What else would you do? You didn’t have Lego and stuff to play with; you had skipping ropes and spinning tops. I ask you!’

Ben found the piece he needed to finish the helicopter rotor-blade and carefully fixed it in place. Jane allowed herself a smile at the bit of fire in his tone. ‘So you’ll give it a go … the musical? I was so lucky to have heard Mrs Dunne in the Post Office saying she couldn’t take her grandson because he’d gone down with chickenpox. I offered to buy her tickets straight away. I thought you’d enjoy the change.’

Ben got to his feet, held the helicopter above his head and flew it around. ‘Well I won’t, ‘cos I’m not going.’

‘Justin Davison’s in the lead role.’

‘Oh, Mum, please. You were mad on him on the telly, not me. I don’t care if God himself is in the lead role; I’m not going.’

‘Ben!’

‘Sorry.’

Jane crossed the lounge and put an arm round his shoulders. At ten years old he wanted to be so grown up but was still so young inside. ‘Please, Ben, for me. I’d like a change too.’ Ben lowered his arm and he held the helicopter in front of him, spinning its rotor with one finger. ‘And if we go now, we’d have time for a pizza in that little bistro near the theatre. The show starts at seven.’

The spinning stopped. ‘McDonald’s.’

Jane hardly hesitated but looked at the ceiling in silent apology. She squeezed the thin shoulder. ‘McDonald’s it is.’

‘And I’m not getting changed. Not dressing up.’

‘You’ll be fine as you are. You only need your fleece. We’ll walk in along the canal and come home on the new tram. How about it?’

‘Okay.’

 

During the performance, Jane was amazed at Ben. They had seats in the middle of the Dress Circle, with a perfect view of every action on stage. Ben was lost in the story. He leaned forwards, arms on the railing of the balcony, chin on his arms. He was mesmerized.

During the interval they had ice creams.

‘Enjoying it?’ asked Jane.

‘It’s okay, I suppose.’

Jane settled herself in her seat with a smile when Ben leaned forwards again, chin on arms, before the curtain had even risen for the second half.

On the tram on the way home, Ben turned to his Mum, his eyes shining. ‘I didn’t know I was named after Jacob’s nicest son.’

‘Well, …’ she stopped. Now wasn’t the time to remind him he was named after his father and grandfather, ‘… it was a toss up between Jake, Joseph and Ben, as your Dad and I liked all those names.’

‘Well, I’m glad you chose Ben, ‘cos Benjamin was the best son.’

‘But Joseph was Jacob’s favourite.’

‘Doesn’t matter. Benjamin would never have stolen the golden cup. He was definitely the best.’

‘I agree. All Ben’s are the best.’ Jane slipped an arm round her son’s shoulders.

‘I didn’t know there were going to be children in the show,’ he said.

‘Yes, there’s always a choir to help sing the story.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I have to confess, it’s my favourite ever musical. I’ve even got the CD and I know all the words. We can play it if you like.’

‘Okay, I’d like to hear it again. How do the children get the parts?’

Jane sensed a new interest in Ben’s voice. ‘It says in the program they’re all local children from the Alexa Bardino Stage School. It’s here in the city somewhere.’

Some minutes passed when the humming of the tram was the only sound and Ben stared out the window.

‘Do you think I could join that school, Mum? I used to love being in all the shows in the village when Dad was alive. I was mega in the Christmas pantomimes, wasn’t I?’

‘Yes you were. And I’m sure if you want to, you could join. We’ll go tomorrow after school and speak to the principal. But I expect you’ll have to audition.’

‘That won’t bother me. I’ll sing one of tonight’s songs and act like Benjamin.’

Jane smiled. Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat had worked its magic.

 

 

***

 

 

 

5. EMILY

 

(Theme – Winds of Change)

 

 

To Whom It May Concern

 

I don’t like change. I never have. If you’re happy the way things are – why change them? That’s my view. That’s why I didn’t go to university, but stayed in my home town, found a job and married Thomas. I simply didn’t want a change of lifestyle – didn’t have the confidence. I felt safe in my home town and I knew Thomas would look after me.

That’s not to say Thomas was like me. Far from it. He loved change. He was always wanting to move house (we need a change); change the car (we need to upgrade); change the colour schemes in all the rooms (he loved decorating); redesign the garden (it’s looking a mess); go on holiday to new places (we need a change); and so life went on. Every time he wanted to change something, I would frown whilst I mulled it over – any change was a big thing for me to cope with. ‘If the wind changes, that frown will stay forever,’ he’d say, laughing at me.

The one thing he couldn’t change was our childlessness. For some reason we were singled out to be childless. So we swore to look after each other forever – until the bitter end. I always knew if I went first, Thomas would absorb the change to his life and carry on. Okay, so he’d miss me for a while, but change was his second name. He’d manage, without a doubt. He’d most likely move house, change the car and maybe even find a new love. That’s my Thomas – he’d get on with things.

On the other hand, I would fold in on myself if he went first. When I was younger, I’d often wonder how I’d cope alone – no Thomas and no children. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he said dozens of times over the 63 years we’ve been married. ‘We can’t change fate. Winds of change, you know. You’ll be forced to move on and you’ll be okay.’ I wasn’t so sure, so I made plans.

So when I woke up this morning and found my dear Thomas dead beside me in bed, I was obviously devastated, but at the same time I was calm. I had been planning for this occurrence. My life was not going to change with Thomas’s passing.

For the last twenty odd years (I’m 81) I’ve suffered with painful rheumatism and have been on a repeat prescription for painkillers. And I’ve made good use of that repeat prescription – I’ve amassed a cupboard full of tablets. Yes, I have had to take them for the pain, but not as many as I’ve been prescribed.

I washed and shaved Thomas and changed his pyjamas. He’s quite frail now at 85, so I was able to manage him. Then I showered and put on the new cream nightgown I’ve been saving for this very situation.

I’ve written this letter to ensure whoever finds us knows there has been no foul play.

I’ve taken all the tablets. I don’t know how many there were, but there were lots. You’ll find all the empty bottles in the bathroom wastebin.

I’m going now to lie at the side of my beloved life-long partner, hold his hand and wait to join him.

I suppose I should have rung the doctor to report what has happened, but if I did, things may be taken out of my control and things may change. And I don’t like change.

I expect it will be you, Sarah, who will find us because you are due to come and clean on Tuesday. I’m sure Home Helps come across awful things from time to time. I’m sorry I can’t warn you as you are such a dear. But if I do, things may change – and I don’t like change.

I’m going now to be with my Thomas.

 

Emily Clarke

 

 

***

 

 

 

6. THE HYDRANGERS

 

(Theme – Take a Chance with Hydra)

 

 

1997

 

Piraeus port, Athens. First of all, I can’t believe I’m here. Second, I can’t believe I’m here with a bicycle. And third, I can’t believe I’m still alive after that harrowing journey. Thank goodness for a shady tree. But how on earth did it all start?

 

I remember being in the pub after we’d finished the 25 mile “launch of the local section of the national cycleway” bike ride. Rob and I had not long been back from a holiday on Crete. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do this over there?’ he’d said.

‘Do what?’ I gulped on my pint of lager.

‘Cycle round Greece, of course.’

I coughed as I finished my drink.

‘Another?’ he asked.

‘I’ll drink to that,’ I said, and the next thing I knew, he’d booked the flights, dismantled and packed our bikes, sorted us out with sleeping bags, a camping stove and two folding stools and told me to pack everything I needed for two weeks into two bike panniers! ‘We’ll be there and back before term starts in September,’ he’d said.

 

Twenty four hours ago his mate Tom picked us up and took us to the airport. We needed someone with a hatchback to transport the packed bikes and all the kit. After a sleepless overnight flight we landed at Athens airport at four o’clock this morning. It took Rob two hours to put the bikes together, while I packed all the kit into the panniers. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, as we did a quick test of pedals, steering and brakes, ‘we’ll be through Athens before the rush hour.’

As I looked at the orange glow which precedes a Greek sunrise, the roar of traffic attacked my ears. ‘Rob, I think Athens starts early.’

‘Well it’s easy; follow me. Stay right behind me; don’t dither; and go wherever I go,’ he called as he set off.

Not being used to the weight of the panniers, I wobbled as I followed him along the airport exit road, my calves threatening to explode. I knew I was in the wrong gear but daren’t loosen my grip on the handlebars to change down. On leaving the airport, we had to get across five lanes of traffic, and it wasn’t even fully daylight. Greek drivers are mad – Athenian drivers are maniacs. ‘Come on,’ yelled Rob, launching himself forwards. ‘Take a chance now.’ I got off my bike and pushed it across all five lanes at a fast run. ‘What on earth …?’

‘Rob,’ I gasped, ‘I can’t do it – they’re mad.’

‘You’ll be fine. Look, there’s a sign there for Piraeus. It can’t be far and we’ll be on a ferry and off to the quiet islands before you know it. I promise you, you’ll be fine.’ As he smiled at me, the sun rose and it was suddenly the clear daylight of early morning Greece.

‘Okay.’ I got back on my bike. ‘Lead on MacDuff.’

For over an hour I followed Rob. Every time he took a chance, I followed – weaving through the crazy Athens traffic, kicking out at what I feared were rabid dogs as they chased us along the road, waving and smiling at the old men flipping their worry beads as they sat outside the roadside kafenions. The traffic noise, the horns blaring, the smell of fumes invading my lungs – I hated it and loved it at the same time. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. I followed Rob as if I was attached to him.

Suddenly, with no warning, we entered Piraeus port. It’s enormous. Huge ferries come and go with the simplicity of small pleasure boats, as if in a choreographed dance. I stopped under a shady tree. ‘Rob, I need a break.’ Legs shaking from the perils and effort of the journey, I dismounted, leant my bike against the trunk and slid to the ground.

‘I’ll go and see what’s what,’ said Rob, as he cycled off into the main port area.

 

Within twenty minutes he’s back, steering one-handed waving tickets at me with a silly grin on his face. ‘Easy peasy.’

‘Where are we going?’

‘Hydra.’

‘But you said we were heading off up to the North-East Aegean. You said you wanted to start at Lesvos and work your way down to the Dodecanese.’

‘Yes, but that’s nearly a ten hour journey and the ship doesn’t go until tonight. Hydra is only one and a half hours … and the ship goes in forty minutes. Come on, it’s only a few hundred metres.’ He points into the confusion of cars, lorries, motorbikes and backpackers, none of which seem to know where they are going. ‘So I thought, let’s take a chance with Hydra – it could be perfect for us. There are no motor vehicles; everyone gets around on foot, by donkey or by bike – what more could we want? Follow me.’ He sets off into the crowd and as I cycle alongside him, he grins at me. ‘What do you call two cyclists on their first trip to Hydra?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Hydrangeas.’

I ponder for a moment. ‘What? What have flowering shrubs got to do with us?’

‘Oh, come on, Liz. I know it was a long night, but wake up. Hydrangers. As in Hyd … rangers. As in us ranging around Hydra. Get it?’

I laugh – he does amuse me. ‘I suppose that’s not bad for you. But I hope you’re not going to keep your silly head on for the whole trip.’

‘Don’t worry – chances are, if I lose this one, I’ll find plenty more heads on Hydra.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

7. TREVOR’S LUCKY DAY

 

(Theme – The Ark)

 

 

‘Hey! Hey, you!’ Sniff sniff. ‘What yer doin’? Where yer goin’?’ Sniff sniff.

‘We…ll.’ Chew chew. ‘It depends who’s asking.’

‘Trevor.’

‘Trevor? And what, pray, is a trevor?’

‘Me; me; I’m Trevor.’ Sniff sniff. ‘Anyways, what yer doin’?’

‘And please do tell.’ Chew chew. ‘What sort of animal is a trevor?’

‘Animal? What’s an animal? I don’t know no animals.’ Sniff sniff, scurry about. ‘I just know me name’s Trevor. So, what are you, then?’

‘We’re camels.’ Chew chew, snooty look.

‘So, where you goin’, camel?’

‘Norman!’

‘Sorry. Where you goin’, camel Norman?’ Sniff sniff.

‘We’re following these wildebeest.’ Lazy chew chew. Burp.

‘Why?’

‘Apparently, some bloke called Noah wants two of every animal in his ark. So the wife and I thought we’d mosey along.’ Sideways look. ‘Didn’t we, Celeste?’

‘Yes, Norman, dear.’ Dainty chew chew.

‘What’s an ark?’ Sniff sniff. ‘What’s a bloke?’

‘How should I know?’ Stretch of neck. ‘Wildebeest ahead! Do you know what is an ark?’

‘Nah, mate. No idea.’

‘Norman!’ Icy glare.

‘Nah, mate Norman. We just thought, like, it’d be fun to follow the lemmings. Cos, like, lemmings are always going somewhere, like, innit.’

‘Are they lemmings ahead of you?’

‘Dunno mate.’

‘Norman!’ Spit chew spit.

‘Yeah, like, dunno mate Norman. Hey, you in front – are you lemmings?’ Glance back over shoulder. ‘Nah, mate, they’re not lemmings.’

‘Norman!’

‘You’re Norman, mate. They say they’re not lemmings, so like, what are they?’

‘Norman, dear.’ Dainty chew chew. ‘Ignore these plebs.’

‘Hey, camel Norman.’ Sniff sniff, scurry. ‘What’s that ahead?’

‘Must be the ark.’ Chew, interested look, chew.

‘Is that a Noah bloke then?’

‘Must be.’

‘What’s he sayin’? What’s he sayin’?’

‘Keep quiet and we’ll find out.’ Chew, kick, chew. ‘Listen.’

‘Halt, you lemmings! Shem, we’ve got ten more lemmings here! Send your two over the side, let eight follow and keep the last two.’

‘Okay, Pa.’

‘Lemmings, come aboard.’

‘Soooo, wildebeest, they ARE lemmings.’ Chew chew.

‘Not our fault, mate.’

‘Norman!’

‘Yeah, right, mate Norman. Like we said. Not our fault they don’t know what they are.’

‘Halt, you two! What are you?’

‘Wildebeest, mate.’

‘Noah!’

‘Yeah, right, like, wildebeest, Noah.’

‘Let me see. Antelope, gazelles, reebok, springbok, nope, no wildebeest – come aboard.’

‘Yeah, like, right.’

‘Halt! Aaah, camels.’

‘Mr and Mrs Norman.’

‘No camels here yet – come aboard.’

‘Halt, you! Away with you. We don’t need any more of your sort.’

‘What? You’ve already got two Trevors?’ Sniff sniff.

‘Pa! Pa!’

‘What, Shem?’

‘The cats have just eaten one of the mice.’

‘Okay, Trevor, it’s your lucky day. Come aboard.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

8. TEMPORARY HICCUPS

 

(Theme – Temporary)

 

 

Laura flounced in, elbowed the back door shut, threw her school bag into a corner and sat at the kitchen table. With a deep sigh she rested her chin in her hands.

‘What’s up with you?’ Twelve-year-old Rowena was already sitting at the table with Purrdy, the cat, curled up on her knee.

‘Nothing.’

‘Had a good day, darling?’ June was used to her elder daughter’s moodiness. Typical for a fifteen-year-old, it was usually temporary.

‘Mum, you have no idea how bad my day has been.’

‘Try me.’

‘You wouldn’t understand.’

‘Has something happened in school?’

‘Of course not.’ Laura almost spluttered a laugh but instead she frowned and her cheeks blushed slightly. ‘That’s as boring as ever.’

Purrdy sat upright on Rowena’s knee, purring as her head went back and forth following the conversation.

‘So, you’ve not been in trouble for day-dreaming again?’ June raised an eyebrow. ‘Or … staring out the window when you should be concentrating … or drawing love hearts on your jotter?’

Rowena sniggered.

Laura flashed a glare at her mother and sister, anger showing in her blue eyes. ‘Don’t make fun, Mum.’

‘I’m not; remember I was young once – as I’ve told you both many times.’ June poured three cups of tea and put one each in front of the girls with a plate of biscuits. ‘I was infatuated with many boys before I met your dad. Did I ever tell you about the time your granddad caught me walking through the park holding hands with Cedric Winterbottom?’ Laura looked up through her fringe as she nibbled a digestive. ‘I think he was more angry I was with Cedric Winterbottom than the fact I was holding hands at the age of eighteen.’

‘Yuk! Holding hands with a boy,’ said Rowena.

Still frowning, Laura giggled. ‘At eighteen, Mum? Goodness you were a grown-up by then. Why shouldn’t you hold hands?’

‘Oh, life was different in those days and you didn’t grow up until you were twenty-one … so you’ve got another six years of parental control, my dear!’

Laura took a second biscuit. ‘And what sort of name is Cedric Winterbottom? Gosh, I’m glad you didn’t marry him – we’d have been Laura and Rowena Winterbottom.’ She giggled again. ‘We’d never live that down.’

‘Mum, you could never have called me Rowena Winterbottom.’

‘It’s quite nice alliteration.’

‘What?’ Both girls spoke together.

‘Never mind. Actually Cedric was a sweetie. And like your heart-throb, John Wallace, Laura, he was an altar boy.’

‘Mum, he isn’t my heart-throb.’ Laura’s cheeks flamed.

Rowena sniggered again, stood up and put Purrdy on the chair. ‘This is all too much. I’m going to watch telly.’

‘Half an hour, then homework.’ June called after her. She turned back to Laura. ‘Anyway, that’s why your granddad didn’t like him. Because he was an altar boy. As you know, granddad was a strict Methodist but your gran and the rest of us were Catholics. Anyway, Cedric went off to become a priest, otherwise I may have continued seeing him.’

‘Lucky for us,’ Laura muttered, putting out a finger to stroke Purrdy’s head. She sighed again.

‘So, why are you in a mood? Have you fallen out with Bridget?’ said June.

‘I … am … not … in … a … mood.’

‘Well you don’t normally come storming in like that.’ June poured herself a second cup of tea and cocked the teapot towards Laura. ‘More?’

‘Yes please.’ Laura slid her cup across the table and took a third biscuit. ‘Okay, I’ll tell you. I saw John Wallace in town holding hands with Oona McGlynn from our sixth form and all the gang started shouting about it to me so loud he looked round.’ Tears filled her blue eyes. ‘I wanted the pavement to swallow me up I was so embarrassed. And then I fell out with the gang about it, even Bridget, and now I’ll have to face them all tomorrow.’ The tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘I bet you didn’t have days like that!’

June reached across the table and took Laura’s hand. She expected Laura to draw away, but she didn’t. June gave a gentle squeeze. ‘It’s simply a temporary hiccup, darling. Life’s full of them but they always pass and things turn out better than before. You’ll see.’

Laura managed a smile. ‘Did you have hiccups when you were young?’

‘Oh, too many to mention.’ June laughed. ‘Did I tell you about the time your granddad caught me sitting on the grass behind an oak tree with Sheridan Sidebottom?’

Hooting with laughter Laura left the table, grabbed her school bag and made for the hall door. ‘Oh, Mum, you do make me laugh. Now I know you’re having me on. Sheridan Sidebottom, my foot; that can’t be a real name.’ She headed for the stairs. ‘I’m going to do my homework.’

June smiled to herself, remembering her first kiss – with Sheridan Sidebottom. ‘If only she knew how many temporary hiccups I had, Purrdy,’ she said.

The cat purred in agreement.

 

 

***

 

 

 

9. THE TRAPPER

 

(Theme – The Trunk)

 

 

‘You’re thirteen years old now, lad. You’re coming down the pit tomorrow.’

Lionel stared wide-eyed at the man he knew as his father. ‘I don’t want to, Dad.’

‘Well, you’re coming. Wrap him some bread and butter when you make my snap, missis.’ George Smith nodded at his wife. ‘He’ll not need much ‘cos he’s scrawny as a scarecrow.’

Mary laid her mending in her lap. ‘He’s not going down, George. You know he’s got a weak chest.’

‘Weak chest, be damned. More like weak in the head.’ George stuffed tobacco in his pipe, pressing it down with his huge coal-blackened forefinger. Even on a Sunday when he was well-scrubbed for Chapel, his face, neck, arms and hands had a greyish tinge from the ingrained coal dust. Only his legs and the trunk of his body glistened white when he had his weekly bath in front of the fire. It was Lionel’s job to scrub the man’s back and shoulders – a job the boy hated. ‘Anyways, I’ve put in a word with Mester Thwaites and got laddo a job as a trapper.’

‘No, George, it’ll kill him. He’s not going below. He hates the dark and …’ Mary glared at her husband.

‘It’ll not kill him, it’ll make a man of him. And trappers are important – how else do we get fresh air at the face? Tell me that. If the pit’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for him.’

‘No, I won’t let him. He’s not going to sit alone in the dark for twelve hours. And you know he’s prone to bronchitis. I’ll find him work in the town and get him out of this god-forsaken damp valley.’

George leaned across the table and placed his bulbous head inches from his wife’s fine-boned face. ‘You were happy enough to marry me and come here when you was expecting him, weren’t you?’ His spittle splashed her cheek. ‘It wasn’t so god-forsaken then, was it? You could lose yourself among people who didn’t know you were a whore …’

‘George, that’s enough.’ Mary flapped a hand towards the four children sharing a bedtime mug of tea at the far end of the table. She continued in a low voice. ‘They may know you’re a bully but I won’t have them hearing such language. And you know I was grateful for your taking me in after I was, well … you know, after I had that unfortunate incident. And haven’t I repaid you enough over the years working as your slave? Anyway, Lionel’s not going below.’

Lionel’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Please don’t let me, Mam.’

‘And then what?’ yelled George. ‘He’ll earn next to nowt in the town and spend it all on board and lodgings. Not a penny piece will come here where it’s needed.’

‘He’s good with his writing and figures. I’ll get him a place somewhere and he can live with my sister.’

‘Oh yes. Perfect. Keep all his money in your side of the family – the family that disowned you. What about us?’ He thumped his fist on the table. ‘No boy of mine will work with words and figures like a dandy.’ He stood up to his full height, filling the small room. ‘Oh, of course – he is no boy of mine.’

‘If you didn’t spend it all on ale, we’d be better off. The few shillings you give me don’t go far,’ said Mary. The children looked on wide-eyed.

George unbuckled his belt. ‘Why, you brazen …’

‘You leave our Mam alone.’ Ten-year-old Edwin moved away from the table and faced his father.

George chuckled. ‘Now, that’s a boy of mine.’ The tension eased and he fastened his belt. ‘A boy with a bit of gumption. And that’s why your dandy boy is going down my pit. He’ll learn to be a man. Then what he earns will come through me and a bit will go to you for the house. Satisfied?’

‘No.’

‘Well you’d better be, missis, ‘cos that’s what’s happening. Now I’m going for a pint and you, boy,’ George looked round but Lionel had crept out through the scullery. ‘Well, you’d better make sure he gets his sleep ‘cos he’s going to be up and out before dawn.’

As George whistled his way along to The Wheatsheaf, Lionel was sitting with his back to the trunk of the ancient oak tree across from their cottage. Tears trickled down his pale face as he watched the first stars twinkle in the clear sky. He closed his eyes, trying to imagine the darkness of twelve hours underground.

 

 

***

 

 

 

10. WILLIE’S COMING

 

(Theme – Something in the Air)

 

 

‘Mother. We’re here.’

Betty Campbell raised her head at the sound of her son’s voice. She sat, as always, between the fireplace and the mullioned window, where she spent her days staring at the unfinished pair of mittens she’d been knitting for her husband Willie on the day he died. Every day the knitting needles and the second mitten, the one with the half-finished thumb, lay in her lap, with a curly strand of brown wool snaking down into the cloth bag on the floor beside her chair.

She was dressed in widow’s garb, as she had been every day for the two years since her husband’s death. Winter and summer she wore a fringed black shawl wrapped around her narrow shoulders and a black bonnet set slightly askew on her white hair.

With a flash of interest Betty squinted towards John’s huge bulk filling the doorway. ‘It’s Willie,’ she said. ‘Willie’s come home. Where have you been, Willie? I’ve nearly finished your mittens.’

The tall woman standing behind the armchair straightened Betty’s bonnet. ‘No, Betty, dear,’ said Evangelina Sliney, the vicar’s spinster daughter and self-appointed carer of the village elderly and infirm. ‘It’s not Willie; it’s your John, and he’s brought little Lottie to visit you.’

‘No, you’re wrong Angel,’ Betty corrected. ‘It’s definitely Willie.’

Evangelina moved towards John. ‘She doesn’t usually say much, but all week she’s been telling me she’s going to see Willie soon.’ She leaned in closer. ‘I was getting a bit worried, you know, as if she was thinking of …’ she whispered, ‘passing on.’

‘Thanks, Miss Sliney,’ John said. ‘I appreciate all you do for her and that you call on her every day. It must be difficult for you.’

‘It’s my calling,’ Evangelina said. ‘After mother passed away when I was fifteen, taking over the housekeeping of the vicarage for father, and taking over mother’s duties was easy. I’d always been involved.’

‘It’s true, you are the village angel, Miss Sliney.’ As he spoke, John wondered how such a big-boned, homely-looking woman with heavy eyebrows and her mousey hair pulled back from her square face, could have been given a name which became shortened to Angel.

‘Anyway, Mr Campbell,’ Evangelina continued, ‘what am I thinking of? Here’s me blocking your entrance and there’s you standing holding your dear baby, waiting to visit your mother. Betty, dear, I’m going now to take the Sunday school. I’ll leave you with your John and I’ll be back later. We’ll read some of your favourite Bible passages.’

‘I thought it was Willie,’ Betty’s voice trembled. ‘I’m sure he’s coming for me; he told me so.’

Evangelina moved towards the door. ‘See what I mean?’ she said, as she passed John.

 

*

 

A few minutes after seven o’clock, Evangelina ran up the stairs of the almshouses, her skirt and starched underskirt swishing noisily in her haste. She tapped on the door and opened it. ‘Betty, dear, I’m back.’

Betty was in her usual chair. ‘Angel,’ she said, ‘Willie’s here. You remember Willie, don’t you?’ Betty looked upwards smiling, as if someone was standing behind her chair. She raised her black-gloved hand and patted her shoulder, as if tenderly patting a hand resting there.

Evangelina stopped and stared. ‘What do you mean, Betty?’

‘He’s come for me, dear.’

Evangelina looked round the room, a sudden fear striking her. She sniffed. There was a faint musky smell; an aroma, not a perfume, moving on a current of air. It was a smell she remembered from years before. It was the same smell which had hovered and floated around her mother’s bedroom for months after the young Evangelina had sat by her mother’s side watching her die. The smell had finally left when Evangelina had accepted her mother had gone forever. But for weeks afterwards Evangelina had crept into her mother’s room, taking deep breaths around the bed, under the bed, in every corner, even in the wardrobes, searching and longing for the aroma, desperate to inhale into her own body that last link with her mother. But she never experienced the smell again; until now. As she crossed the room to Betty, the smell became stronger, muskier, but nothing to fear.

‘Betty, dear, I believe you. I think Willie is here,’ she said. ‘But maybe it’s not time for you to go with him.’

‘I’m going, Angel. Willie wants me.’

‘What about your little Lottie?’

Betty smiled. ‘I’m going to tell Willie all about his beautiful granddaughter and we can watch over her together.’

Evangelina crouched in front of Betty; they held hands and looked into each other’s eyes. Betty broke the look and bowed her head until her chin touched her chest. She whispered, ‘I’m coming Willie,’ and breathed no more.

For a full ten minutes Evangelina stayed in front of the old lady. Under the shadow of the black bonnet, she could see the closed eyes, the lids almost translucent, showing not a flicker of the life they had been a part of for almost seventy years. She gently disengaged herself from Betty’s grasp and stood up. She sniffed. The aroma was fading. Betty was leaving with Willie.

Evangelina straightened Betty’s bonnet and smoothed her crumpled clothes. She looked around – the unfinished mitten was no longer on Betty’s knee. She checked the cloth bag and inside were the knitting needles, the wool neatly wound into balls and the pair of mittens – finished in time for Willie’s coming.

 

 

***

 

 

 

11. THE HOLE-DIGGERS

 

(Theme – Street Lamp)

 

 

8 am

 

Bristling, Audrey stomps along the garden path. ‘You’re blocking my gate.’

‘Er, yes, missis. We’re unloading.’

‘Unloading what? And don’t missis me.’

‘Er, let me see …’ Lifts cap and scratches head. ‘Well, picks and shovels. And the kango. Oh, and beware signs and security barriers and dayglo jackets and not forgetting the hard hats …’

‘Don’t patronise me; I’m not really interested in what you’re unloading. More importantly, you’re blocking my gate.’

‘We’ll move the wagon if you want to get out.’

‘No, I don’t want to get out.’

‘So …?’

‘I don’t like being blocked in. So don’t leave it there too long.’

‘No, missis. We’ll move it when we can.’

 

9 am

 

Frowning, Audrey strides along the garden path. ‘What’s happening? I’m still blocked in.’

‘Do you …?’

‘No, I don’t want to get out.’ Looks over the gate. ‘You haven’t done anything yet!’

‘Well, after we unloaded, we needed breakfast. So, laddo here,’ nods at lanky, fresh-faced youth, ‘went to the cafe and fetched us bacon butties. So we’ll get started when we’ve finished.’ Grins at Audrey. ‘Damn good butties they make round here, missis.’

‘Language, please! And what do you intend to do when you start?’

‘Dig a hole.’

‘Where?’

‘Here.’

‘Outside my house?’

‘Well, the worksheet says outside number thirty-one. What number are you?’

‘Thirty-one.’

Lanky youth sniggers.

‘There’s your answer then, missis. Here, do you want to see the worksheet?’

‘No, keep your grubby worksheet to yourself. Just move the lorry soon, I don’t like being blocked in … and I’m not your missis.’

‘Yes, missis, no, missis, we’ll move it when we can …’ whispers, ‘missis.’

 

12.30 pm

 

Sighing, Audrey walks along the garden path. ‘Your lorry is still here.’

‘Yes, missis, there’s nowhere nearby to park. Laddo went to look.’

‘I haven’t seen the lorry move. It’s been blocking my gate all morning.’

‘No, that’s because laddo doesn’t drive. He walked up and down the street looking for a place.’

Lanky youth sniggers.

‘Have you dug your hole?’

‘Well, we started, but then the kango packed up, so we had to wait for the depot to send out a replacement. And it only arrived … ooh, let me see,’ looks at watch and wipes sweat off forehead, ‘ten minutes ago.’

‘So now you can dig your hole, pack up and remove your lorry from blocking my gate.’

‘Well, of course, laddo has to go to the chip shop to fetch our lunch now. But if you want to …’

‘No I don’t want to get out. But please hurry and move your ugly lorry from in front of my gate.’

‘Yes, miss … sorry, I nearly said missis then.’

 

5 pm

 

Smiling, Audrey walks along the garden path. ‘I hear the kango has stopped and I can see you loading up your wagon. Have you finished?’

‘Yes, all done.’

‘Good, because I’ve brought you all a mug of tea and a biscuit.’

‘Well, that’s kind of you ma’am.’ Winks at Audrey. ‘Would they be Hobnobs by any chance?’

‘Very perceptive, yes, they are.’

‘Thank you very much – we do appreciate it after such a long, dusty day.’

Lanky youth smiles and nods, dunking his Hobnob in his tea.

‘So what have you dug the hole for?’

‘Don’t know, ma’am. Could be anything. We’re just given the position and the dimensions – although someone comes along before us and spray-paints a white square or circle on the pavement to be sure we’re in the right place.’

‘Yes, I wondered what the white square was for. It’s been there for ages. So, you’ve no ideas about the hole?’

‘No, could be for gas or electric or drainage or telephone – anything really. We’re only the hole-diggers – what would we know?’

‘Could be for a street lamp.’

‘Don’t be daft, laddo – there’s street lamps all along this road. And look, there’s one right here by the lady’s gate. Sorry, ma’am, he’s a bit soft up top. Anyways, you’ll probably find out tomorrow when the next set of workers come and park up here to finish off. We’ve left the hole safely covered.’

‘So, I’m going to have another wagon out here tomorrow?’

‘Yes, ‘fraid so, missis. But if you want to get out, they’ll move for you.’

‘No, I won’t want to get out, I don’t drive. I simply don’t like being blocked in. And …’

‘I know, I know – you’re not my missis. But I wouldn’t mind if you were, what with Hobnobs in the cupboard.’ Winks at Audrey. ‘I’ll warn them at the depot what to expect tomorrow – tea and Hobnobs under the street lamp outside number thirty-one.’

Audrey blushes and sighs. ‘Only if they don’t block me in, mind.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

12. APPOINTMENT WITH LUCY

 

(Theme – Appointment)

 

 

‘Come on, you’ll be late!’ David shouted up the stairs to his sister.

‘Will only be a minute.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘Getting changed.’

‘Why? You looked fine when I arrived.’ David held the front door ajar tapping his fingers on the Upvc. He annoyed himself with the tap tap tap. ‘You said your appointment is at 11 o’clock.’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘Well, it’s twenty to eleven already.’

‘Don’t worry, Dave. It’s only ten minutes to get there.’ Alice ran down the stairs and twirled in front of the hall mirror.

‘Why on earth are you wearing a suit?’

‘I want to make a good impression.’

‘You made a good impression last week when you passed the interview.’

‘Yes, I know, but that was with the manager. This time I want to impress Lucy, as she’s the one I’ll be spending every day with.’ Alice stood back and spread her arms. ‘So, is this impressive enough?’

‘Alice.’ David took her handbag from the hall table and hung it on her outstretched arm. ‘I don’t think Lucy will care what you look like. From what I remember last week when I saw her, she wasn’t exactly what you’d call smooth and silky herself, was she?’

Alice giggled. ‘Yes, she did look a bit rough. But I think that’s why I felt we’d get on, because I’m like that really – rough and ready underneath.’ She patted her fly-away hair into some semblance of neatness.

‘Yes, so why the suit? You may frighten her looking like a power-dresser.’

‘Oh, I just want her to feel that I’m reliable, faithful, trustworthy, loyal …’

‘Aren’t they all the same?’

‘Mmm, I suppose so.’ Alice locked the front door and followed David to his estate car. ‘Well anyway, I thought a suit would show my commitment. Nice dog-guard, by the way.’

‘Yes, it will keep dog hairs off the seats.’ David started the engine and smiled across at his younger sister. ‘Dear Alice, you’re the most loyal person I know and I’m proud to have you as my sister. Lucy will love you too, soon enough. But for the moment I don’t think she’ll care what you look like.’

Ten minutes later, David parked outside the main entrance. ‘Bang on time for your appointment.’

‘That’s good, thank you.’ said Alice. She got out of the car, took a Santa hat out of her pocket and pulled it over her wild curls.

‘What on earth …?’ David laughed out loud as he joined her at the door of Barkingham Palace Dog Shelter.

‘Well, she needs to know a dog’s for life not just for Christmas. You heard the manager say that nobody ever wanted to take on such a big dog as an Old English Sheepdog and Lucy’s been here for over two years. I want her to know the fun and magic of Christmas and know that I’m taking her home forever. I’ve got loads of toys under the tree for her.’

‘You truly are wonderful.’ David hugged her. ‘Come on, let’s go to your appointment with Lucy. It’s certainly her lucky day.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

13. POPS

 

(Theme – Uninvited Guest)

 

 

‘Mum.’ Matthew burst into the kitchen. ‘I’ve just seen an old man come out of Lucy’s bedroom.’

Linda stopped mid-way through transferring a hot sausage roll from the oven tray to the serving plate. ‘Do you know who he was?’

‘No. At first I thought it was Grandpa. It looked a bit like him from the other end of the landing, but then I realised he wasn’t dressed like Grandpa. He wasn’t wearing a zip-up cardigan, for a start.’ Matthew pointed to the plate. ‘Can I have one of those?’

‘You can have that small one on the edge. But be careful, it’s hot. Did you speak to him?’

‘I asked if he was looking for the bathroom, but he didn’t answer. He just smiled and floated down the stairs.’ Matthew popped the whole sausage roll into his mouth – as only a twelve-year-old can.

‘Floated?’

‘Well, he didn’t walk like an old man, even though he was about as old as Grandpa. Mmmm, these are nice. Can I have another?’

‘No, they’re going on the table in a minute. Where is he now?’

‘I don’t know. It was cold on the landing, so I went to get my fleece. When I came out of my room, he was gone. And, Mum, there’s a funny smell up there. It wasn’t me, honest, but I think you need an air freshener.’

As the July sun streamed through the kitchen window, Linda looked at her son snuggled in his fleece. ‘Are you sickening for something?’

‘No, I’m fine now, but it was so cold upstairs.’

‘Well, go and find your Dad and Lucy, and tell them to get everyone in the dining room. We’ll toast Grandpa’s birthday and then we can start the buffet.’

‘Yes!’ Matthew punched the air. ‘Food at last – I’m starving.’ He stripped off his fleece. ‘Phew, and now I’m hot.’

‘Keep a look out for the old man and point him out to your Dad or me. I want to know what he was doing in Lucy’s room.’

‘He’s probably one of Grandpa’s card-playing cronies from his Club. You said he’s been inviting everyone he knows.’

‘True, love. And the house is pretty full.’

 

*

 

Ting, ting, ting. The hubbub of voices quietened as John tapped a spoon against a glass. ‘Hello and welcome everyone. I’d like to thank you all – family and friends – for joining us today to celebrate Bill’s – my father’s – 80th birthday. If you’d like to join me in raising your glasses to him, we’ll give him a rendition of Happy Birthday To You and then the old rogue will say a few words before we start the buffet.’

Matthew made his way through the throng to his mother, who was hovering in the hall doorway. ‘Mum, I saw the old man sitting on the window seat.’

Linda looked at him, zipped up in his fleece again. ‘Are you okay, love?’

‘Yes, but it’s cold in there, Mum.’

Linda looked at the guests wearing t-shirts and summery clothes. She put a hand on Matthew’s forehead. ‘Well, you’re not feverish.’

‘No I’m fine but the air’s cold. And that funny smell is in there. Do you think I should tell Dad to check the cellar and the drains?’

‘Not now, love. We’ll check things after the party.’ She sniffed the air. ‘I can only smell food – I hope no one else notices a funny smell.’

As the singing tailed off, Bill beamed at his family and friends. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Thank you all for being here and for your generous gifts. And a huge thank you to John, Linda, Lucy and Matthew for hosting this wonderful party. It means so much to me to be here with you all in this house, which has been our family home since 1892. And today I have achieved my goal – I have lived longer than my own father.’ Bill grinned and nodded at all his friends. ‘It’s true, it’s true,’ he chuckled. ‘Pops died upstairs in this very house when he was seventy-nine. Many of you won’t know this fact – Pops and I shared the same birthday. Today I’m eighty, and he would have been one hundred!’ Bill raised his glass and looked up at the ceiling. ‘So, wherever you are, Pops … happy birthday.’

‘Happy Birthday Bill and Pops,’ said everyone around Bill, as they raised their glasses.

Matthew tugged at his mother’s arm. ‘There, Mum,’ he pointed, ‘the old man’s standing by the fireplace now, waving and grinning at Grandpa.’

Linda looked across the room. She gave Matthew a hug. ‘I do think you are coming down with something, love. There’s no one anywhere near the fireplace.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

14. THE GRAVEL PATH

 

(Theme – Path To Redemption)

 

 

The ringing of the bell marked the end of the last lesson before lunch.

‘Right, girls. Pack away and be in the playground in five minutes. And don’t forget to change into your outdoor shoes.’ Beatrice Peterson despaired. Seven months into their first year at grammar school, she was still leading these twelve-year-olds by the hand.

‘But, Miss, it’s raining.’ Rowena Taggart had her nose pressed against the window.

‘Laura Taggart, it’s only spitting. A bit of damp never hurt anyone. You all have coats and you young girls need fresh air.’

Rowena turned round. ‘I’m Rowena, Miss Peterson. Laura’s three years older than me.’

‘Oh my, you Taggart girls do confuse me. You could be twins, you’re so alike.’ Beatrice clapped her hands. ‘Anyway, come along girls, get yourselves moving. Outside with you all.’ She straightened her mortarboard, gathered her bags under her black gown and swept out of the classroom.

‘Is she on playground duty?’ Rowena looked at her five best friends.

‘Don’t know,’ said Rachel.

‘Well I’m not going out. That’s more than spitting.’ Rowena folded her arms.

‘We have to. The classroom monitors will see us in here.’ Pauline, who had big eyes, always looked frightened.

‘Not if we hide.’ Rowena grinned at them, eyes sparkling.

‘Hide where? We can hardly all fit under a desk.’ Susan looked around the room. ‘And we’d be seen, anyway.’

‘Wait until everyone’s gone.’ Rowena took charge. ‘Look busy putting your stuff away.’

When the other twenty-five girls in class 1c had disappeared to the cloakroom to don berets, gaberdine macs and outdoor shoes, Rowena gathered her gang around her.

‘Oughtn’t we to go out?’ Pauline’s eyes were bigger than ever.

‘No, I told you. We’re going to hide.’

‘Where?’ Five breathless whispers.

Rowena pointed to the left hand corner at the front of the classroom, where there was a door set in the wall to the left of the blackboard. ‘In there.’

‘In the stationery cupboard?’ Barbara looked aghast. ‘Won’t it be locked?’

Rowena tapped her nose. ‘Old eagle eyes here has noticed that the key’s in the door.’

‘What if we get locked in?’ Barbara’s voice rose a pitch.

Susan giggled and nudged Barbara. ‘We’ll take the key in with us.’

‘Come on gang, before the classroom monitors get here.’ Rowena led the way into the stationery cupboard. Last in was Susan, key in hand. She shut the door.

‘Gosh, it’s dark as Hell in here. Where’s the light switch?’ Barbara put her hand out and connected with a face. ‘Who’s that?’

‘Me, Melanie. Get your fingers out of my nose!’

Giggles all round.

‘Rowena, it’s your idea to come in here. Where’s the frigging light switch?’ Barbara flapped her arms, this time connecting with a chin.

‘Ouch.’

‘Oops, sorry.’

‘Keep the noise down,’ whispered Rowena. ‘Sorry, gang, the light switch is on the outside. We’re here in the dark, I’m afraid.’

‘I don’t like it.’ Melanie had a note of panic.

‘Oh don’t be a baby, Mel.’ Susan was enjoying herself. ‘There’s only us and a few shelves of stationery. Nothing’s going to hurt you.’

‘Yes, but what if we get caught?’

‘Who’s going to catch us? We’ve only got to wait twenty minutes, then we can wander into the dining hall for second sitting as if we’ve come in from the playground.’

‘Come on, girls. All for one and one for all – you know our motto.’ Rowena took control again. ‘Let’s link arms, make a circle and do our gang dance.’

Amid giggles, guffaws and ouches, the girls ended up in a huddle, hugging each other and laughing out loud.

The door was flung open. The laughter stopped. Six pairs of eyes blinked as daylight poured in. In the doorway stood the bulk of Mother Immaculata. Her eyes hard, her plump cheeks crimson, her mouth crimped like a bit of ruching.

Finally the mouth moved. ‘What is going on here?’

Silence.

‘Why are you hugging and touching each other in the dark?’

Silence.

‘Answer me. You, girl.’ She pointed at Pauline, who burst into tears. ‘Stop that noise, girl. You.’ She pointed at Rowena. ‘Laura Taggart, why are you hugging each other?’

‘We’re not, Mother. We’re hiding because it’s raining.’ Rowena wasn’t about to tell Mother Immaculata she’d made a mistake. Leave her under the illusion I’m Laura, ha ha.

‘Liar. I saw you all touching each other. Mother Superior will hear about this, and your parents will be warned about your tendencies.’

Six twelve-year-old girls looked at each other in bewilderment.

 

*

 

The Mother Superior’s office was in an annexe attached to the convent. A gravel path linked it to the main school building. Lined up on the path, standing in the drizzle, were the six girls. They wore neither berets nor macs but they did have on their outdoor shoes. Mother Immaculata stood under a black umbrella. One by one she sent the girls alone along the path to an interview with the headmistress. Each girl was crying and penitent when she returned to the school building.

Finally only Rowena was left on the path. She was cold and wet, and a little nervous as she was heading into uncharted territory. She’d never been sent to the headmistress before. But she held her shoulders back and her head high.

‘Go, girl, it’s your turn for punishment.’ Mother Immaculata poked her in the back. ‘And keep a civil tongue.’

Rowena strode along the gravel path, knocked on the headmistress’s door and was bidden to enter.

‘Ah, Laura Taggart.’ The Mother Superior looked over her glasses. ‘I’m surprised at you and sorry you have tarnished your previous good record. I’ve never had cause to speak with you before. Do you have anything to say to redeem yourself, Laura?’

‘No, Mother Superior.’ Rowena hung her head to hide a smile.

 

 

***

 

 

 

15. THE MISSING N

 

(Theme – Computer Error)

 

 

‘Now what? Enter; enter; enter.’ Doreen stabbed at the ENTER key. She sighed, staring at the flashing but stationary cursor. ‘I can’t log on, girls,’ she shouted over the office murmur. ‘Is anyone else having trouble?’

The Accounts Department quietened as four pairs of eyes stared at the top of Doreen’s permed head, the only part of their senior they could see over the bulk of the monitor on her desk.

‘It’s ten to nine, Doreen. What do you think?’ With a chipped scarlet-painted finger nail, Sandra teased a lock of dyed black hair behind her ear. ‘We’re not paid until nine o’clock.’

‘You’ll never get anywhere with that attitude, Sandra Watkins.’

Sandra sniggered. ‘I don’t want to get anywhere – except into Danny O’Dowd’s trousers.’

The other three girls giggled but started tapping on their keyboards without making a comment.

‘There was a time when you had a pride in your work,’ said Doreen.

‘There was a time I was appreciated.’

‘You still are.’

‘No, Doreen, I’m not.’ Sandra stood up and leaned forwards over her VDU. She jabbed a finger at the monitor. ‘I’m not into this newfangled equipment. I was always brilliant on dockets – I was the fastest punch-card machine operator. It was always “Sandra this”, “Sandra that”, “Sandra for department head”. Then all of a sudden we go computerised …’

‘I can’t log on either,’ Pat said, staring at her screen. ‘There’s only a green flashing thingy at the end of my password.’

‘… then I get taken off dockets; I get moved into Data Processing; I spend months typing names and addresses into the “New Computer”; and then I get put in here,’ Sandra ignored Pat’s interruption. ‘I never wanted to do data processing and no way do I want to be here dealing with customers and their accounts. Who knows what gremlins are in the “New Computer”?’

‘We don’t know.’ Doreen looked over the top of her VDU and met the mocking glint in Sandra’s eyes. ‘But, maybe you do?’

‘Oh, there are bound to be errors, like … spelling errors, I suppose,’ With a twist of her lips, Sandra feigned a smile but managed to convey a sneer.

‘I can’t log on either,’ called Helen from the desk by the window. ‘Doreen, shall I try Veronica’s VDU? She’s not in today.’

‘Yes, and I’ll call the computer room for help.’

‘Anyone know Veronica’s password?’ Helen asked, as she switched on the monitor.

A telephone started ringing.

‘It’ll be either POOL, LOOP or POLO,’ Jane said. ‘She changes it every week.’

‘Can someone please answer the phone! You’re all on work’s time now – it’s gone nine,’ Doreen called.

‘Good morning, Accounts Department. Pat speaking; how may I help you?’ Pat moved her pen and notepad into position. ‘Oh, I am sorry, Sir, but we have recently put all our records onto a computer and …’ She shifted the receiver into her left hand so that she could write. ‘Yes, Sir, I’ve made a note of your account number, but I’m sorry I can’t check it at the moment, as the system is down.’ She raised her eyes to the ceiling and stifled a sigh. ‘Yes, Sir, we do take our customers seriously and I can only apologise again for what is obviously an unfortunate computer error.’ Holding her pen like a cigarette and flicking it from side to side, Pat glanced round the office. Everyone was watching and listening. ‘Yes, Sir,’ she nodded, ‘I will correct the details as soon as the system is up and running and I will write to confirm. Thank you for understanding that we are having some teething problems.’ She replaced the receiver. ‘Phew, that was awkward.’

‘Who was it?’ asked Jane.

‘A Mr Ennis. He’s received his annual interest statement and was complaining because we’ve misspelt his surname.’

‘Not a huge problem. Dead easy to put right once we have a system.’

‘What was the error?’ Sandra showed a sudden interest.

‘Well, it’s a bit embarrassing.’ A light blush rose from Pat’s chest to her neck. ‘We’ve missed out an N, spelling it E N I S.’

‘Why is it embarrassing?’ said Helen.

Pat’s blush deepened. ‘His christian name is Peter, so you can imagine how it looked on the envelope. Mr P Ennis, but with an N missing.’ Pat giggled as she met her colleagues’ eyes. She saw their slow realisation of the enormity of the error. A moment later, the office erupted into laughter.

‘The system’s up,’ called Doreen.

Sandra turned her back on the others. With a sly grin she secretly punched the air with her fist. ‘Yes,’ she hissed. ‘Computer error number one comes to light.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

16. A VIEW TO DIE FOR

 

(Theme – View)

 

 

Friday Afternoon

 

‘You’re going where?’ Sandra put her cup on the table.

‘Snowdonia.’

‘But, Dell, that’s a three hour drive.’

‘Yes, that’s what makes it so romantic. And you more than anyone should know I need some romance in my life.’

They’d been friends for over thirty years, since they’d started at the same school on the same day, with the same blue eyes and curly blonde hair. ‘They could be twins,’ everyone said. But over the years things changed. Sandra grew tall, willowy and beautiful with boyfriends and lovers queuing up to win her heart – which was won by her wonderful Don. Whereas Delia grew – well hardly grew at all … except outwards. She remained short and plump, with only the occasional boyfriend. She soon learned they went out with her for only one thing, which always started with a grope. They never called her again after being refused at the groping stage.

‘Darling, it’s my greatest wish for you to have true romance and happiness. But why Wales? Why do you have to go on a three hour drive with a near stranger?’

‘Because he has an old stone bothy where he spends his weekends, goes walking, watches birds and lights a roaring fire. And he says it has a view to die for. Sandy, I’ve never seen a view to die for. I’ve never experienced wild country and peacefulness and bothies away from civilisation.’

‘And what do you know about him?’

‘Oh, you old mother hen.’ Delia took a big swallow of her tea.

‘I’m serious, Dell. You’re not exactly streetwise with the opposite sex, are you?’

‘I’ve slapped a few faces and brought my knee up into the odd groin.’

‘Yes, but you’ve never been completely alone, out of shouting distance of help; as you just said – away from civilisation. So, what do you know about him?’

‘We’ve been emailing for six months.’

‘Six months!’ Sandra looked hurt. ‘You kept that quiet.’

‘At first I didn’t want to admit, even to you, that I’d resorted to internet chat-rooms.’

Sandra frowned.

‘Yes, I know,’ continued Delia, ‘we share everything. And I’m sorry. But I thought nothing would come of it. Then James and I started emailing outside the chat-room. We got on well and had loads in common. He sent a photo – he looked lovely, distinguished.’

‘Could have been anyone’s photo.’

‘No, it was him. When we met I recognised him immediately, and he me. I’d sent a photo and told him I was fat. He said it didn’t matter as he’d already fallen in love with my personality. Take note, Sandy – in L O V E with my personality.’

‘How many times have you met?’

‘Four.’

‘Does he know where you live?’

‘Oh no, we always meet in a different pub.’

‘But you’re prepared to go away with him? I don’t believe this.’

‘Don’t be a nag, Sandy. I’m really excited about it … about him. If it goes well I’ll introduce you next week.’

‘When are you going?’

Delia checked her watch. ‘In about two hours. So I need to fly home, get my stuff and get to the pub.’

‘Dell. I don’t like this. I want to know where you’re going. What if something happens to you?’

‘Oh, darling Sandy, nothing’s going to happen to me, except I may fall in love with a gentleman while looking at a view to die for.’

‘Promise to text me every couple of hours.’

‘Sandy!’

‘I’m serious. Oh, alright. Text me when you get there, then again tomorrow, then on Sunday before you leave.’

‘Okay.’

‘Promise?’

‘Promise.’

‘And what’s his email address?’

‘Why?’

‘Just because.’

[email protected]’ Delia stood up. ‘I must run.’

‘Which pub is he picking you up from?’

But Delia had gone.

 

*

 

Saturday evening.

 

‘Wow, Jim, this is such beautiful country. Thank you so much for bringing me.’

They were sitting on a rock at the edge of a ravine watching the sky redden as the sun sank towards the horizon.

‘It’s my pleasure. Sharing a view like this with a beautiful woman makes living worthwhile.’

‘Oh, you are sweet and you’re right, this is a view to die for.’ Under the weight of Jim’s arm across her shoulders, Delia snuggled closer to him. He dropped his arm and started caressing her back.

‘That’s what they all say.’

Delia stiffened. ‘All who?’

‘All the saddoes I’ve brought here who I met on the internet.’ He gripped the back of her fleece.

‘Jim, can we go back to the cottage?’ As Delia stoop up the zip of her fleece pressed into her throat. Jim twisted his handful of fleece; the pressure on her throat caused a wave of dizziness. The pressure on her back increased; it became a push; the ground disappeared from under her feet; she was floating, falling; she disappeared into the yawning black depths.

Jim searched her rucksack, switched off her phone, smashed it on a rock, then slung everything into the ravine after Delia.

 

*

 

Sunday evening.

 

‘I don’t understand.’ Sandy hung up. ‘No answer at home and her mobile is switched off.’

‘She’s probably too wrapped up in love,’ said Don.

‘No, she promised she’d text. She sent one Friday saying they were almost there but going out of range. She sent one Saturday saying they were having a good day out and were going back to watch the sunset over the view to die for. Then nothing.’

‘Maybe she’s not in range.’

‘She would be by now, they’d be on their way back, if not home already.’

‘Email her.’

‘I have – no reply.’

‘Well email the bloke. You said she gave you his address.’

‘Yes, of course.’ Sandra tapped out a short message and pressed send. Almost immediately a reply popped into her inbox. She looked at her husband in horror.

‘What is it, love?’

‘The email address doesn’t exist.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

17. SLEEPY HOLLOW

 

(Theme – In the Quiet of the Night)

 

 

A strange house with strange noises. As I lie, longing for sleep, I wait for the quiet of the night, but all I hear are strange creaks, cracks and groans. Strange to me, but not to this old house, which I have seen almost every day of my life, but never before slept in. I glance at my alarm clock – 3.07, the little green dot between the numbers rhythmically beating away the seconds in time to Yvonne’s deep regular breathing beside me.

The heat of her skin is warming me through our night clothes, her body pressed against me. We are both wedged in the permanent hollow which runs down the middle of this ancient feather mattress. I try to inch away without disturbing her, but the sides of the hollow are too steep, so I settle back and shut my eyes – sleep, sleep, sleep … it doesn’t come.

I drank as much as Yvonne at last night’s pre-wedding party and she is now deep in the sleep of alcohol, but my mind won’t settle. It was about 11.30 when we let ourselves in through the heavy front door and crept up the rickety old staircase. We tried to be quiet, hanging on to each other, stifling our laughter as we stumbled on each stair. There wasn’t much chance we’d waken old Mrs Timson, she’s as deaf as a post, but at that point in our tipsy state the house seemed quiet and every sound we made echoed around us.

We finally made it into Mrs Timson’s spare room housing the ancient double bed. A bed so high I had to hoist Yvonne onto the mattress, as she was giggling so much she couldn’t make it under her own steam. By the time we settled, each on our own side, our cheeks were wet with tears of laughter. Then as if in a choreographed movement we both rolled into the hollow and clutched each other in our muffled hysteria. I chuckle quietly at the memory – my head clear now.

I picture everyone sleeping in the house next door. Mum, Dad, brother and sisters, plus aunt, uncle and cousins who have travelled hundreds of miles for the wedding, and my Gran who is sleeping in my bed tonight. There simply weren’t enough beds for me and Yvonne, so Mrs Timson offered her spare room once she’d received her wedding invitation.

Yvonne and I have known each other since infant school. Always friends, I think we’ve always known we were destined to be together forever, and we became even closer after she was left alone after the death of her parents. She started spending even more time at our house.

As we had settled into the bed and our laughter quietened, I had gripped her hand and asked her, ‘Are you ready for this momentous occasion?’

‘I’m not sure.’

After the build-up during the evening, I could tell she was becoming nervous. I squeezed her hand. ‘You don’t have to do it, you know. I’ll ask you again tomorrow.’ Then we had tried unsuccessfully to separate, so finally settled comfortably together in the hollow.

I glance at the clock again. 04.00. In nine hours I’ll be walking down the aisle behind Yvonne – I have the responsibility of being chief bridesmaid over my younger sisters. Waiting for Yvonne at the altar will be my big brother, Tom, who finally noticed Yvonne was more than his kid-sister’s silly friend.

The house has quietened and I relax, knowing sleep is coming. I smile to myself – not many brides and bridesmaids sleep together in a strange double bed the night before they are to become sisters-in-law.

 

 

***

 

 

 

18. WHERE THERE’S A WILL THERE’S A WAY

 

(Theme – Catch 22)

 

 

Gladys’s displeasure preceded her into the conservatory. From the bang of the front door, the click-clack of her heels on the hall tiles and the jangle of Poppet’s lead being thrown onto the work surface in the utility room, Harry could tell his sister wasn’t happy again. With Poppet already having taken her position on his lap, he sat looking at the doorway. Gladys appeared and was met by two pairs of defiant brown eyes.

‘It’s no good, Harry. I’m not doing it any more – you’re going to have to get off your backside and take that dog for a walk yourself. Pull, pull, pull all the way. I can’t cope.’

‘Can’t be done.’

‘Why ever not?’

‘There’s a problem. I can’t get off my backside. Impossible.’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Harry. It’s a figure of speech. Don’t start on those numbered problem things again. What are you up to …?’ Gladys waved vaguely to her right as she cast her eyes upwards. ‘Was it twenty-two last time?’

‘They’re all number twenty-two. It’s Catch 22. It’s the name of an impossible situation.’ Harry humphed. ‘Like me getting off my backside – impossible.’

‘You said it was impossible to get on with your life when …’ This time Gladys waved towards the floor in Harry’s direction, ‘… when you had your bad luck.’

‘I was stuck upstairs in bed.’

‘So, we got you a nurse while we built you this little flat attached to us.’ Gladys beamed. ‘So now you have your life back.’

‘For what it’s worth, living alone.’

‘When you said you couldn’t get around without help, we bought you the electric wheelchair – you soon got the hang of using it.’

With the touch of a lever and the slightest hum, Harry turned the chair so he could look out into the garden. ‘It didn’t stop me being lonely, though.’

‘Oh, Harry, you old grump. We’re here for you and when you said you were lonely and wanted love not sympathy, and no one would ever love you as you are without feeling sorry for you, we found Poppet for you.’

‘Yes, Poppet.’

At the sound of her name, Poppet looked at Harry and licked his unshaven chin.

‘She loves you unconditionally, Harry, but you must start to walk her, not carry her around on your lap all the time.’

‘But she likes to sit with me.’

‘Of course she does, but she’s a dog and she needs training and that’s your job, Harry. It will give you a purpose.’ Gladys sat in the wicker chair next to her brother and took his hand. ‘Why did you stop going to the dog-training classes in the village hall? It’s so close, it’s easy for you, but Mrs Wild says you only managed three.’

‘I didn’t like them.’

‘But Mrs Wild is lovely – a great teacher. And all the villagers are nice.’ Harry pulled his trembling hand away to fondle Poppet’s silky ears. ‘What went wrong, Harry?’

‘Everything went wrong. She made it impossible for me. She showed me up.’

‘Who?’

‘Mrs Wild.’

‘No, Harry, she would never.’

‘She did. Week three.’ Harry’s eyes watered. ‘Week one, we did “Sit”; week two we did “Come”; and week three …’ Tears trickled down his wrinkled cheeks ‘… week three she announced we were doing …’ Harry took a shuddering sob. ‘… “Heel”.’ He looked at his sister. ‘How can a man with no legs train a dog to walk to heel, Glad? I tell you – impossible. It’s Catch 22 – I can’t train the dog to walk to heel, because I don’t have heels to walk to.’

To cover her own tears, Gladys leaned over and embraced both Harry and Poppet. ‘Oh my dear, dear Harry,’ she whispered. ‘Forget all about your Catch 22s – where there’s a will there’s a way.’ She pulled away and stared out at the garden. ‘I know, why don’t you train Poppet to walk to “Wheel”?’ She stood up. ‘Come on, grump,’ she said with a sniff and a grin, ‘there’s no time like the present. Get off your backside and let’s give it a try.’

‘Now, there’s a problem. Impossible …’ said Harry with a tremor of a grin.

‘Oh, you; don’t start that again.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

19. THE DEVIL’S KITCHEN

 

(Theme – Stranger in the Rain)

 

 

This is hell. What on earth am I doing here?

‘Oh, you don’t want to go up the kitchen today,’ said the camp-site warden this morning. ‘There’s rain in them there clouds.’

‘I’ll be fine,’ I’d grinned, ‘my husband’s up there.’ I omitted to say “the spirit of my husband”. And now I’m in a cloud and it’s raining – the all-encompassing, drenching, fine rain you get in Wales. Welsh rain. They’d told me in the pub last night, the Devil’s Kitchen is hell for the unfit in good weather, but suicide in bad. So, what am I, a childless forty-something, unfit office-worker widow, doing clawing my way up this slippery path and these steep steps? I’ll tell you – I’m trying to come to terms with what happened to Michael one year ago today. Michael, my husband, who slipped to his death from this path a year ago.

He’d always wanted me to walk with him – I wouldn’t. He’d wanted me to camp with him – I wouldn’t. And most of all he’d wanted to take me up his beloved Devil’s Kitchen and to see the beautiful views from the Glyders above. In twenty years of marriage, I wouldn’t do it with him, so once a year he took himself off and camped and walked alone. ‘Hurry back to your angel’s kitchen,’ I’d always call as he left, ‘I’ll have something devilishly hot ready.’ And he did; every year; until last year when he didn’t come back.

Nobody knows what happened. Never walk alone, the books say – Michael always did. Leave a route with someone – Michael never did. Take a mobile phone – what good is one of those when you fall to your death?

So here I am one year on, trying to find out, to feel, what drew my beloved Michael to this place, and I’m struggling. I hated my night in a tent last night, even though I cheated and paid the warden’s son to pitch it for me. How do people sleep on a bit of foam the thickness and consistency of orange peel? Impossible. And now this rain and cloud. I’ve got all the kit – Goretex boots, leggings, coat – and even a rucksack with a bright yellow waterproof cover. The two walking poles are more of a hindrance than a help at the moment, as I need my hands to help pull myself up these steep steps. I’m wet through to the skin (must be sweat, as my coat is waterproof and I’m hot), I’m alone and I’m miserable. I’m crying because I can’t even find the marker bolted by Michael’s brother to the rock where they think he fell. Surely, by now, I must be near. Michael, where are you? What is it you loved so much about this hell?

With my chest burning and my throat dry, I stop for a breather. My legs are like lead; I can’t go any further; I won’t make it to the top. I stand, legs apart, leaning forwards on my sticks, the rain pattering on the back of my hood and my rucksack.

‘Excuse me, can I get by you please?’

‘What?’ I look round but my head swivels inside my hood and I see only darkness. I’m hallucinating. No one can be up here in the wet, talking to me.

‘Excuse me. Er, are you okay?’

A light touch to my left arm. Michael fell to the left. A wave of dizziness sweeps through my head as I peer at the rocks near my left foot. But, yes, there it is – the small brass plaque. It’s too gloomy in the cloud to read it, but it must be Michael’s. ‘Michael?’ I speak aloud.

‘I’m sorry, do I know you?’

Voices in my head now, but I know it’s him. I know I’m standing at the exact point where he was last alive one year ago. ‘Michael, it’s me … Angela.’ I give a sob. ‘You never came home to your angel’s kitchen.’

The touch on my left arm becomes firmer, more of a grip. ‘How did you know my name?’ I peer through the gloom into a heavily-bearded face, sunk in the depths of a waterproof hood. ‘I’m sorry but I don’t think I know you, Angela. But if you need help, I’m here.’ He smiles. ‘We look out for each other on the mountain, and it’s only a few steps to the top now. I know where we could shelter by a wall and I’ve got a flask of soup, if you’d like to share it.’

I look into his friendly eyes. Of course, he’s not my Michael, who was clean-shaven and fair-haired, but he’s offering to help a person in distress, the same as my Michael would have done. I suddenly need to unload my pain onto an objective listener. ‘You have no idea how much I need your help, Michael.’ Am I smiling at this stranger, despite the rain?

‘Follow me,’ he says, ‘it’s not far to the top.’ As he squeezes past me he bends down and gently rubs his gloved hand along the brass plaque. ‘Hi Mike, how yer doing, mate?’ He turns to me with a sheepish smile. ‘A fellow walker who didn’t make it to the top last year. I say “Hello” every time I come up and as today’s the anniversary, I didn’t want him to be alone, even though I didn’t know him.’

‘I’ll introduce you,’ I whisper, as I climb after him with renewed energy. I’ve a feeling I’m going to like this new Michael. I’ll find out for sure at the top of the Devil’s Kitchen.

 

 

***

 

 

 

20. FIREWORKS GALORE

 

(Theme – Fireworks)

 

 

Laura walked through the gate into Bridget’s garden and immediately noticed the tall, slim youth with straight dark hair hanging down to his shoulders. His eyes were sparkling in the gloom of the November evening as he gesticulated with his beer can and laughed with a group of four lads, one of whom was Brendan, Bridget’s older brother.

Oh boy. He’s gorgeous.

‘Hi, Laura.’ Brendan waved.

‘I’ll pick you up at half past ten,’ called Sean Taggart from the car.

Shut up, Dad. Don’t embarrass me. She returned Brendan’s wave.

‘Laura!’

‘Okay, Dad.’

‘And no drinking.’

I’m sixteen, for God’s sake. Do you really think I don’t drink. Laura sighed. ‘Okay.’ The car pulled away. Thank God he’s gone.

Laura could see the flickering orange glow from the bonfire which had been built in the side garden, well away from the house. She could smell hot dogs, burgers and baked potatoes and hear talking, shouting and laughter. Every year Bridget’s parents held a bonfire party for their children and as many friends as the children wanted to invite. Laura and Bridget were best friends. There was no danger, as Bridget’s fireman father supervised the lighting of the fireworks way down the garden, far away from the onlookers.

Laura slowed her steps and hovered for a moment near the lads. The tall youth had just finished speaking and had thrown his head back, laughing out loud. His long hair shone in the light from the front porch.

Is it brown or black? She wanted to touch its silkiness and keep listening to that laugh. But if he’s a friend of Brendan’s, he must be at least nineteen. He’s too old. Laura turned towards the corner of the house.

‘Hey, Laura, come and listen to this joke Big Malc’s just told.’ Brendan reached out and pulled her over to the group, draping an arm across her shoulders. She could smell the beer on his breath. ‘This is my babe Laura, lads.’ He kissed her cheek. Usually that was okay because he was Bridget’s brother, but he followed it with a kiss on the lips, as if they always kissed like that.

No no, I’m not his babe.

‘Tell it again, Malc. It’s so funny,’ said Brendan, leaning his weight on her and laughing again.

Laura looked at Malc. Her heart pounded; she couldn’t breathe.

Please don’t let me faint. He is so gorgeous. I want his arm round me not Brendan’s. I want him to kiss me. But he’s too old – no, of course he’s not.

Pop. Whoosh. Bang.

They all looked up. Before Malc could speak, the party-opening rocket exploded in the sky. There was a huge ball of silver, then red, then orange sparkles, which disappeared as they fell like bits of confetti. A chorus of ooohs and aaahs and loud cheers reverberated around the garden.

‘Pretty spectacular, don’t you think, babe?’ Brendan pulled her closer.

Laura looked again at Malc. The sparkle and glitter of the dead firework was still in his eyes as he smiled back at her. Does he see the same in mine? She blushed.

‘Er, yes.’ Laura wriggled out of Brendan’s grasp. ‘I have to go and look for Bridget. She’ll think I’m not coming.’ She rushed round the side of the house and found Bridget coming out of the back door carrying two cans of beer. Laura took one, opened it and swallowed three long gulps. She lowered the can, panting, and wiped her mouth.

‘Laura, what’s the matter? You look all weird.’

‘It’s that lad, Malc, with your Brendan. He’s really got to me.’

‘Yeah. Big Malc. He’s quite nice, isn’t he?’

‘Nice? He’s bloody gorgeous.’ Laura took another swallow of beer as the two girls walked towards the bonfire. ‘I think I’m in love.’

‘Already? You don’t know him.’

‘That’s just it. You’ve got to help me get to know him.’

‘Watch out, mind these kids.’ Bridget’s younger sister, Caitlin, wheeled round the garden leading a line of youngsters. They all carried lit sparklers above their heads as they ran. ‘She said she was going to make a live Catherine Wheel – now I know what she means.’

‘Come on, Bridget, I’m not interested in Catherine Wheels. Tell me all about Malc.’

‘I don’t know much, except he’s quite good looking.’

‘More than quite. What does he do? Is he at college or something?’

‘I don’t know what he does all week – works I think. But he spends every weekend down at the river, hiring out those rowing boats at one of the landing stages. That’s where Brendan knows him from, ‘cos Brendan works at the next landing stage doing the motorboat river trips.’ Bridget tipped up her beer can. ‘Hmm, empty. Come on. Let’s go grab a burger and watch Dad light the next part of his display. He’s worked so hard to prepare it.’

‘Burger? Fireworks? Bridget, I can’t possibly eat and I’ve got fireworks galore going round in my head and heart. My display would put your Dad’s to shame.’

‘God, you’re such a romantic. What’s suddenly happened to your love of John Wallace?’

‘Finished now I’ve set eyes on Big Malc.’

‘Look.’ Bridget grabbed Laura’s sleeve. ‘Brendan and Malc are over there by the barbecue getting burgers.’

‘Okay, maybe I can eat something.’ Laura led the way but stopped after a few steps and grabbed Bridget’s hand. ‘And tomorrow we’re going out in a rowing boat.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

21. THE JUMPER

 

(Theme – Tower Block)

 

 

‘I don’t understand what the problem is.’ Darren glared at the contacts list on his mobile phone.

‘There isn’t one.’

‘Yes there is. You’ve not done what I told you.’

‘Yes I have.’ Dawn lit a joint, took a deep drag and lay back on the sofa, eyes shut. She giggled.

‘No you haven’t. And stop that stupid giggling.’

‘Oh, Darreny, Darreny. You’re so worked up over nothing. Have a drag on this and calm down.’ Dawn held out the joint.

Darren ignored her. ‘I told you to do one simple thing.’

‘Two, and they weren’t simple.’ Dawn giggled again. ‘But I managed, didn’t I? I nicked the credit card and put the PIN in your phone, just like you told me.’

‘I told you to enter the PIN after a name so it looks like a phone number. And what do you do? You enter Dawn7612 all on one line. You use your own name, you stupid cow and it looks nothing like a phone number entry. It stands out a mile as something odd.’ Darren threw the phone the length of the sofa. It landed in Dawn’s lap. ‘Why didn’t you put the number on the phone number line? And why didn’t you add enough digits to make it look like a phone number?’ He put his head in his hands. ‘And using your own name – stupid, or what!’

Dawn grabbed the phone. ‘So, I’ll change the entry. It’s no big deal. What name should I put?’

‘Any but your own, you stupid cow.’

‘Stop calling me stupid. You’re not being very nice to me.’

‘What do you expect? You never do what I tell you. You’re a liability. You’ll be down the road if you carry on like this. I need someone I can trust.’

Dawn took another deep drag. ‘Not someone you can love?’

‘Love’s nothing. I need someone I can rely on to do exactly what I tell them, keep their mouth shut and keep me out of trouble.’

‘But I always do exactly what you tell me.’ Dawn crawled along the sofa towards him, grinning. ‘I put the PIN after a name. That’s what you said to do.’

‘For God’s sake, Dawn, you should use your brain sometimes – or is it too addled with all this wacky baccy or whatever other shit you’re taking? And stop bickering – you don’t always do exactly what I tell you; in fact, you never do. If I told you to jump off the balcony, you wouldn’t do it.’

‘Try me.’ Still holding the joint in one hand, Dawn stroked his thigh. ‘I always do exactly what you tell me – in every situation. And you know it. You and your kinky bedtime games.’

‘Okay. You’ve got two choices. Either jump off the balcony or take off your clothes.’

Dawn giggled again. ‘Mmmm, choices, choices.’ She fondled his crotch. ‘But you have to tell me which one to do. I’m a good girl and only do what I’m told.’ She pouted then took another drag of the joint.

‘Jump off the balcony. I’m telling you to jump off the balcony. And I bet you don’t do it.’

Dawn got up with a flounce, lay the joint on the ashtray, went out onto the balcony, climbed onto the railing …

‘Dawn, don’t be stupid,’ yelled Darren.

… and she jumped.

Darren picked up the smoking joint and took a deep drag before going out onto the balcony. He looked down at Dawn’s twisted body lying on the concrete ten storeys below.

‘Holy shit,’ he whispered, frozen for a moment before going back into the flat. He fetched scissors from the kitchen, cut the stolen credit card into small pieces, wrapped them in toilet paper and flushed them down the toilet. Then he returned to the sofa, picked up his mobile phone, accessed the contacts list and deleted Dawn7612.

 

 

***

 

 

 

22. CRASH HELMETS NOT NEEDED

 

(Theme – Flying High)

 

 

The door to the inner sanctum opened and Mike Webb ushered out his area managers. ‘Sonia, you’re still here.’

‘Of course I am, Mr Webb. I never leave before the meeting’s finished.’

‘Don’t you?’ Sonia arched her eyebrows. ‘Well, obviously I know you don’t. I’m just so used to seeing you that …’

‘You don’t see me,’ finished Sonia.

‘Mmm, something like that.’ Her boss looked at her with twinkling eyes. Sonia blushed. Mike still stared. Sonia stood up and shuffled some papers to break his trance.

Never a day went by that she didn’t despair about her scatter-brained boss and she had to keep reminding herself he was CEO of a successful house-building business.

‘So,’ he said, ‘have you remembered it’s finally your turn to spend the evening floating in the air with me tonight?’

‘I’ve only been worrying about it all day. I even rang Alfred to check whether he thought conditions would be safe. He says he pilots in this weather all the time.’

‘Dear Sonia, why all the worry?’

‘Well, it’s not every day an ageing PA, with her feet firmly on the ground I might add, and who’s never even been in a plane, has to go up in a hot air balloon with her boss, of all people.’ She looked away from the dark eyes she loved so much. ‘Will I need a crash helmet?’ She tried to lighten the heavy atmosphere which had filled her small office.

‘Dear, dear, Sonia.’ Mike shook his head, his intent gaze softening.

As a treat, every member of staff had been taken for a trip in the firm’s advertising balloon. Tonight, the last flight of the season, was Sonia’s turn. Not only was she afraid of the flight, she was also afraid of being close to her boss in an out of work environment.

Starting as a typist, she’d worked for Webb’s Builders for over thirty years. She became Mike’s secretary and finally rose to his PA when he took over the business from his father. Never in all the years had he called her dear Sonia. Their relationship was purely professional, even though her heart fluttered whenever he stood near her. Being roughly the same age, she was finding him more attractive as the years passed.

Sonia was a confirmed spinster. Thirty years ago she had decided there was only one man for whom she’d let down her hair, but first of all he was the boss’s son and then he became the boss. So he was unavailable. He was also married to a beautiful woman, who had sadly died seven years ago. But he was still her boss, so still unavailable. Sonia took her love of life from working for the love of her life.

Mike cleared his throat and Sonia jumped. A few seconds had passed which seemed like hours, she’d been so deep in thought. ‘So you’ll be at the park for seven, won’t you? Alfred will have everything ready for a smooth take-off.’

‘Yes, yes, I’ll be there.’ Sonia picked up a post-it note. ‘Mr Webb, Simpson’s jewellers rang to say your order had arrived. Shall I run round to collect it before I go?’

‘Er, no, no, I’ll go on my way out.’ He headed for his office. ‘See you at seven.’ He poked his head back out of the doorway, ‘And crash helmets won’t be needed.’

 

*

 

Fifteen minutes before seven, Sonia made her way through the dozen or so hot air balloons in various stages of inflation in Chelson Park. Webb’s was easy to spot, after all it was the first flying house in the country. A balloon made in the shape and colours of a thatched cottage, the modern version of which Webb’s were now famously building.

Mike gave her a hand into the basket. ‘Ready?’ he said, as the contraption rose off the ground. ‘Let’s take her away.’

‘Mr Webb, Alfred’s still on the ground.’ Sonia looked down in horror as Alfred’s grinning face grew smaller.

‘Oh, did I forget to tell you? Your scatter-brained boss has passed his pilot’s licence. Tonight, my dear, it’s just you and me.’

Mike handled the balloon well and Sonia soon forgot her fear and enjoyed floating over the countryside in a convoy of multi-coloured balloons. Apart from the whoosh of the gas, the sense of peace was amazing. Chelson Park was soon a green speck.

‘Look, Mr Webb. There’s our Thatcham Estate. I recognise it from Google Earth. Doesn’t it look wonderful.’

‘Please call me Mike.’ He draped an arm across her shoulders. ‘Thatcham Grange is still empty, you know.’

‘Yes, it’s so beautiful in its own grounds. I don’t understand why it hasn’t sold.’

‘Waiting for the perfect couple, perhaps?’ Sonia fidgeted under his arm, suddenly aware of their proximity. ‘Now we’re alone flying high up here, I’d like to offer you the opportunity to work from home, Sonia. Home being Thatcham Grange.’

‘Oh, Mr Webb, er Mike, I could never afford it.’

‘No, my dear Sonia. I don’t mean it that way. For years you’ve done a wonderful job of looking after me both at work and mentally. I don’t often show my feelings, but I do have deep feelings for you. And, if I’m not mistaken, you have some for me.’ He took a ring box from his pocket with Simpson’s embossed in gold on the top. ‘I’d like to offer you the position of becoming my wife.’

Sonia’s eyes were wet with either tears or from the chill of their height. ‘Thank you, Mike. I’ll be honoured to accept my new position.’ She grinned at him. ‘I’m flying high now, but when I come down to earth with a bump, I may need that crash helmet.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

23. ASK THE ORACLE

 

(Theme – The Oracle)

 

 

Do you have writing worries? Share them with The Oracle.

 

Do you have writing problems? Seek The Oracle’s advice.

 

Do you have fears about your writing future? Ask The Oracle for help.

 

 

Every month in “The Write Way to Fame and Fortune” our Ask The Oracle page will put your mind at rest about all your writing worries. If you require a private reply, send a cheque for £5 with a s.a.e to Ask The Oracle at the address below. The Oracle knows you won’t be disappointed.

 

Now for this month’s problems:

 

Q. Dear Oracle. My editor has returned my manuscript saying my writing is heavy and wooden, I use too many words and my story goes around in rings rather than branching off into plots and sub-plots. Although I’m the son of an author, my editor questions my roots. My book has been felled with one swipe. Am I barking up the wrong tree with my chosen profession? Flattened, Harpenden.

 

A. Dear Flattened. I usually believe the editor. It sounds to me as if you should cut, chop, shave and plane your tomb – er, sorry, tome – into more manageable proportions. In other words, if you don’t either spruce up your work or palm it off as your father’s, I’m afraid you’re up the proverbial gum tree. Hope this helps. The Oracle.

 

 

Q. Dear Orac e. I have a perp exing prob em and need your he p p ease. I ove writing – it is my who e ife, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I’ve fo owed a the se f-he p books I can find. I’ve sent my first three chapters and out ine of my nove to many pub ishers and agents, but not one has bothered to rep y. What am I doing wrong? Am I gui ty of some grave error? Carefu Author, ondon.

 

A. Dear CareLess Author. What the L is going on here? You’re having a Laugh, aren’t you? Get Lost. Hope this heLps. The OracLe.

 

 

Q. Dear Oracle. I’m losing my confidence in my writing. I’m getting negative reviews from my Writing Club, and rejections galore from every Publisher and Agent I contact. Everyone tells me this is normal and to keep trying – after all, they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. What do you think? Desperate, Derby.

 

A. Dear Desperate. What do you expect me to know about Rome? I’m of Greek extraction. Sort yourself out. Hope this helps. The Oracle.

 

 

Q. Dear Oracle. I’m very confused. I avidly read tips on writing and try really hard to properly use grammar. I keep reading that adverbs are used too much and sadly I think I possibly might be a culprit, even though I studiously write every day. What are your thoughts on the use of adverbs? Confused, Coventry.

 

A. Dear Confused. I really did get very bored at this point, so I quickly decided it’s time to go rapidly to the beach as the sun is shining brightly. Not really sure what an adverb is, how to use them or even if I do use them. Hope this helps. The Oracle.

 

 

Comment. I must apologise for the critical, nay harsh, words I used on SD’s query in the January issue of “The Write Way to Fame and Fortune”. Regardless of my view (which some have said was a little sarcastic – can you believe it?), there is obviously a place on the bookshelves / Kindles of the world for a story about the 13th century, so well done, SD. Oracularly you are better than me – I bow to your divine inspiration.

 

Until the next issue of “The Write Way to Fame and Fortune” – The Oracle will be at the beach or in the pub. The Oracle has spoken.

 

 

***

 

 

 

24. BLOWN AWAY

 

(Theme – Offshore)

 

 

Sonia closed the bedroom door and leant against it for a few seconds, grinning at the five girls in the room. Her damp hair was drying into corkscrew curls, giving the impression of a brown halo around her head.

‘Hey, she’s back, girls,’ said Meredith.

‘How did you get on? Did your handsome Greek waiter give you a good time?’ Paula leaned forwards, hands clasped under her chin.

‘Totally blew me away, girls.’ Sonia walked to her bed and sat cross-legged on her pillow. ‘I finally did it!’ Her eyes shone as she looked at the five eager faces. Her five best friends, with whom she was sharing a room on the school trip to Greece. ‘I told you all I intended to do it before the end of the holiday, and I have – I’ve done it at last.’

‘With a handsome Greek waiter, to boot. You lucky girl.’ Meredith climbed on the bed in front of Sonia and bounced around, tucking her legs underneath her. ‘Come on, tell us all about it. What it was like; how it felt. Did it hurt? Did it just come natural?’

‘Yes,’ said Angela, ‘None of us have ever done it and we’ve all had such a terribly boring last afternoon, we need to know everything.’

‘From the first day when Lefteri served our dinner, we all fell in love with him, but you got him. So spill the beans.’ Meredith bounced some more.

‘I was a bag of nerves to start with,’ said Sonia, ‘but Lefteri guided me in what to do and how fast to proceed. He was so sweet. And by the end, I was in heaven, having an out of this world experience.’ Sonia leant back against the rough-plastered wall, gave a deep sigh and looked up to the ceiling.

Meredith flapped at her knee. ‘Come on, don’t go into a trance. Don’t stop. We want every gory detail.’

‘It’s just so romantic.’ Paula clasped her hands under her chin again. ‘What did it feel like?’

‘Well, we started off walking back and forth along the beach chatting, both of us looking out into the bay, sort of waiting for the right time. I was a little nervous with the waiting. But once we went into the water, it was brilliant,’ said Sonia. ‘Lefteri led me in everything I had to do to get the most out of the experience.’

‘Did you touch straight away?’ Gail wanted to know.

‘First of all we swam side by side for a bit. Then I was really daring and put my arm across his back and let him pull me along. His body was smooth and cool and felt so wonderful, I rested my face on his back.’

‘You’re a loose woman!’ Gail gave a laugh. ‘But I wish it had been me. There’s something so sexy about being in the sea with a male monster.’

‘Poor Lefteri’s hardly a monster,’ said Paula. They all laughed. ‘Then what happened?’

‘Well, I got on top of him and held on with my arms round his neck while he swam us along. The feeling of my body moulding to his was … well, wonderful, and I kissed the back of his head. I couldn’t stop myself. Then I went underneath him. Lefteri said I must trust that he’d keep my head out of the water, and he did. When he looked at me, his eyes were all black and shiny and looked deep into mine. And he was smiling all the while. It just made my heart turn over and I fell madly in love with him.’ Sonia sighed again. ‘I never wanted it to finish. But eventually Lefteri said he’d had enough and led me back to the shore.’

The room was silent for some minutes as the girls’ imaginations ran wild.

‘When we get back to school, I can just imagine the title of your essay about your favourite part of your holiday,’ said Cassandra. ‘How I Lost My Virginity To A Greek Waiter.’

‘What?’ Five voices spoke in unison.

‘Well, didn’t you?’

‘Cassie, I sometimes wonder how dense you are,’ said Sonia. ‘Haven’t you listened to a thing I’ve said all week? I’ve been out with Lefteri, his family and half the village. Every afternoon a dolphin comes into the bay about four o’clock and swims with the locals about a hundred metres offshore. Lefteri took me to fulfil my lifelong ambition. He took me to swim with a dolphin and I was blown away by it.

 

 

***

 

 

 

25. GOLDEN WEDDING

 

(Theme – Anniversary)

 

 

Phyllis’s hand hovers over the phone. She knows she has to make the call, but it can wait. A few more minutes won’t make any difference. Instead, she picks up the two theatre tickets from behind the clock on the kitchen dresser. She looks at them for maybe a minute, reading the details. Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story – one of her favourite musicals. Middle seats on the front row of the first balcony. Eight o’clock tonight. She’d booked the tickets months ago to be sure of getting these seats for today. She’d planned a surprise outing for George on this, their special day. But the surprise he gave her this morning was far greater.

 

*

 

She knew something was amiss as soon as she opened his bedroom door to take him his cup of tea. There was a strange aroma. When she approached his bed, she knew immediately he was dead by the colour of his skin. She’d seen dead people before.

Typical of you, George, doing things your own way, even at the end.

If he was going to die, of course he would do it alone without a fuss, and of course he would choose a memorable day even though he hated celebrations of any type, and he couldn’t care less what happened when. In fact, George had lots of pet hates.

She sat beside him on the bedside chair for an hour, in their usual companionable silence. She even drank his tea, her mind awash with memories. George hated surprises, birthdays and anniversaries more than she loved them. He also hated to be in close proximity to people. They’d only ever been abroad once in the early 1980s. He hated the queue in the airport. He hated being on the plane rubbing shoulders with a stranger. He hated the bus journey to the hotel. And the Welcome Meeting the next day was the final straw. He hated the whole week’s holiday, simply because he was anticipating the journey home. So no more holidays after that.

After his retirement, George spent most days alone in his shed, pottering on his various hobbies, whilst she kept the house clean, the meals on the table and filled her spare time knitting, crocheting, tatting and making hundreds of soft toys to sell for various charities.

Phyllis couldn’t remember when they’d moved into separate beds, nor when George had decided to sleep alone in the spare room. They’d simply drifted apart over the years but continued to live together in companionable separateness.

 

*

 

In the kitchen, Phyllis slowly fans herself with the tickets. She knows George would have hated both the surprise and being in the theatre, but she’d hoped that on this one day they could have done something together and shared their love of Buddy Holly’s music.

She can count on one hand the number of times she and George have been to the theatre together. Three. Way back in the 70s, they’d been to see three up and coming comedians in quick succession. She’d enjoyed them, but they weren’t a patch on a good musical. How she loves her musicals and ballets. At least George never denied her the chance to go and see them – Barnum, Swan Lake, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, The Nutcracker, even Sing-a-long-a-Sound-of-Music (that was such fun) – to name a few she’s seen over the years. And, of course, Buddy. She looks at the tickets again.

She’s seen Buddy several times. She loves the music from her youth, she loves the dancing and she never fails to gasp with the rest of the audience at the horrific end, when the lights go out, the music stops and the theatre goes silent. Every time, she wishes Buddy Holly hadn’t gone on the plane. And every time, she cries. A prickle of tears stings her eyes just thinking about it.

Funnily enough, she hasn’t yet cried for George. She slowly tears up his ticket. But she’ll still go to the show. Of course she will. After all, life alone won’t be so different. But perhaps tonight, she’ll be crying for the loss of two men.

Phyllis looks at the clock. Eleven o’clock. Exactly fifty years ago to the minute, she was walking down the aisle on her father’s arm. Walking towards George waiting for her at the altar. She looks at the pile of unopened cards on the kitchen table. There will be time for them another day.

She picks up the phone to call the doctor.

 

 

***

 

 

 

26. GAMBLING ON LOVE

 

(Theme – The Bet / Gamble)

 

 

The general hubbub in the common-room increased as a steady flow of students came in after their liquid lunch in the pub. As usual, the hardcore of five were sat playing three card Brag at the corner table. Their number swelled to twelve for the last game before afternoon lectures.

‘All in?’ said the dealer, sitting on Laura’s left. It was a penny in the kitty to play, then a penny a bet unless someone raised it. If it was raised, you had to follow the higher bet to stay in the game, raise it further or give in and fold.

‘I’m in.’ ‘I’m in,’ came the mutters from the newcomers as pennies were tossed on the table with the nonchalance of those who’d been drinking.

The dealer dealt three cards each. It was difficult for those seated to secretly look at their hand with so many new players standing around the table. Laura pulled her cards in close to her chest and peeked a look at the top left hand corners. A two, a three and a five – three different suits. Five high – the worst hand. Coming from a card-playing family, seventeen-year-old Laura Taggart could keep a poker-face, but she couldn’t prevent the faint blush on her cheeks when her hand was good, nor the involuntary twitch below her left eye when it was bad. Her eye twitched as she lay her cards face down on the table in front of her.

Being on the dealer’s right she watched everyone throw in a penny on the first round. She followed suit. The same on the second round. On the third round she watched four people fold their hands. That left eight. She threw in her penny.

On the next round, four more folded but the player on her right raised the bet. Laura followed and placed twopence in the kitty. Her eye twitched more. She looked up as one of the newcomers standing opposite her took the vacated chair in front of him.

Oh my God. She broke out in a sweat. John Wallace with his floppy blond hair and sparkly blue eyes. How many hundreds of times had she written his and her initials all over her school jotter inside a heart? She knew he was at the Further Education College two years above her and had seen him from afar a couple of times, but hadn’t had any close contact with him. As well as her twitching eye, a slight blush coloured her cheeks.

The dealer folded; that left three.

John Wallace raised the bet by another penny. The player on Laura’s right folded. That left just her and JW. Laura resisted the urge to look at her cards again. That would show weakness and hesitation. They wouldn’t have changed. She still had two, three, five in different suits. With hardly a moment’s pause she put in threepence.

John eyed his opponent. He was well aware of Laura’s crush on him when she was at school. Nearly everyone in the town had brothers and sisters at both the boys’ and girls’ schools – there were live channels at work constantly passing rumours between the two. She’d been a kid of fourteen then, but now she was an attractive student and he’d fancied her ever since he’d spotted her at the beginning of term. He looked at his cards – ace, two, three on the bounce – all hearts. Unbeatable, unless he was exceedingly unlucky. He saw the twitch and the blush; how far would she go?

John threw in a ten pence piece, a glimmer of a smile on his lips. He heard a few gasps – after all, you could buy a pint in the student bar for twelve pence. The tension was rising as no one had yet left the table. Laura looked down at the front of her t-shirt – was her pounding heart obvious to everyone?

Either one of them could have paid double to “see” their opponent’s hand, but if the person paying had the worse hand, they would lose the kitty. It was pointless Laura “seeing” John’s hand as she knew she was the loser. She had to bluff it out. She slid ten pence across to the kitty. Poker-faced, her eyes met John’s.

On the other hand, John was certain he would win but he wanted to ask Laura out and was pretty sure she’d refuse if he won by “seeing” her. He decided to gamble on her saying yes by letting her win. Chivalrous to the end he folded his cards and his heart thumped a little as Laura’s face first registered surprise then delight. She drew the kitty towards her.

‘What did you have?’ The dealer asked what everyone wanted to know. She turned over her two, three and five to cheers and shouts of ‘Well done!’

‘Excellent play, Laura,’ said John.

‘Thank you.’ The blush was there again.

‘Er, would you fancy a drink tonight? Maybe you could tell me your strategies and well … we could go for a pizza or something.’

Laura looked at him. Two years ago, even one year ago, she would have fallen at his feet and kissed his shoes to have been asked out by him. But she was a schoolgirl then and now she was a student, an adult. Also she had Malc. From the moment they’d met at Bridget’s bonfire party, there had been between them the fizz of a just lit firework waiting to explode. Big Malc, who was a man with a job and a car, not a student. Even at seventeen she was prepared to take a gamble that Malc was the one for her.

She smiled at John. ‘Thanks for asking but my boyfriend Malc is picking me up after classes. But I’d love another game tomorrow lunchtime.’

John grinned. ‘Lucky Malc. And you’re on for tomorrow. I bet I win all those pennies back.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

27. TWO’S COMPANY

 

(Theme – Sleeping Partner)

 

 

Valentine closed his book with a snap and put it on the bedside table before rolling from his left side onto his back. He turned his head on his pillow and looked at the figure lying on the other half of the double bed. ‘So, now we’re not talking?’

No answer. His partner lay rigid, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling.

‘It’s no good not talking about it, Vinny. You ruined the whole evening.’

Still silence as Vinny lay there. Valentine could tell there wasn’t a flicker of emotion in the wooden form.

‘It’s always me, isn’t it? I always have to make the first move.’ Valentine slid his arm across the bed and worked his fingers under Vinny’s head, as if to caress the nape of his neck. But he clasped Vinny’s head and forced it to turn towards him, then moved his fingers down his partner’s back. They stared at each other in the dimness cast by the bedside lamp, but there wasn’t much sparkle in Vinny’s eyes.

‘And so you should look ashamed,’ said Valentine. ‘You know you were wrong.’ Vinny’s mouth opened and closed but no sound came. ‘So, don’t you have anything to say for yourself? Or are we going to go to sleep not speaking again?’

Vinny blinked slowly as if he was choosing the right words. ‘It was all your fault,’ he said at last.

‘What? How could it have been my fault? I was pleasant the whole evening.’

‘You wound me up. You were goading me on in front of everyone.’

‘That’s only your view. No one else was bothered by me. It was you who said all those disrespectful things to the landlord. You’ve probably got us banned for life.’ Valentine sighed in exasperation as he glared at Vinny’s expressionless face. ‘Aren’t you even sorry?’

‘Why should I be? And as I said, you egged me on. Almost putting the words in my mouth.’ Vinny stared at the ceiling again. ‘Anyway, BigAl deserved everything I said. The big-headed know-all. I was only saying what half the punters in there daren’t say.’

‘Even so, Vinny, you were rather rude and your language was a bit …’

‘It was pub language. And anyway, you taught me all I know. I hadn’t even heard half those words before I met you.’

With his arm still under Vinny’s neck, Valentine looked across the room as he heard the door open and close with a soft click. Maggie came towards the bed, the smell of beer, chips and scampi in a basket wafting before her from her hair and clothes.

‘Oh, you’re still awake.’ She dropped a kiss on Valentine’s forehead. ‘Sorry I’m late. It took forever to get the last revellers out and clean up.’

‘Hi, Maggie. Ready for three in a bed are we?’ said Vinny with a whistle.

Valentine glared at him. ‘Don’t be so crude. Haven’t you caused enough trouble tonight with your vile tongue?’

Maggie laughed as she went round the foot of the bed. ‘Oh, don’t worry, Val. A little wimp like that can’t upset me. I face up to worse suggestions every night at work.’ She unzipped her jeans.

‘She’s coming in. She’s coming in.’ Vinny’s voice rose to a childish high-pitched squeak.

‘And don’t you worry about tonight’s show either,’ she continued, ignoring Vinny. ‘They all loved you – BigAl more than most. He was still chuckling when I left. He’s going to offer you both a monthly slot – bar takings were well up. Everyone thought you were great, so I don’t think you need to be practising at this time of night, Val.’ Maggie yawned. ‘Gosh, I’m tired. Come on you – two’s company, three’s a crowd.’ She hoisted Vinny out of the bed with ease and sat him on the small armchair in the corner. ‘Now answer back if you dare.’

From the chair, Vinny stared at her in silence.

‘You may be his working partner mate, but I’m his sleeping partner,’ said Maggie. She closed the ventriloquist dummy’s eyes. ‘And no peeping.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

28. MOVING ON

 

(Theme – Castaway)

 

 

It was the morning of Fred Robinson’s 90th birthday when he decided to stop being a castaway – or, as he accused his family of treating him, a cast-off. The previous day, whilst he was still 89, he was living his usual grumpy life and was still able to drive himself to the shops. However, for the sixth or seventh time (he’d lost count) when he made the right hand turn across the on-coming traffic to enter his lane, he almost caused a pile-up. Of course it was the other driver’s fault for driving too fast, as it always was, not his fault for misjudging the distance and juddering slowly across the opposite carriageway.

Fred Robinson had always disliked people. If he’d still had neighbours, he would have disliked them, but they took the money and moved away when the purchase option was offered on their land to widen the road. Fred had refused the offer on his land, even though his interfering family had begged him to sell up the moorland cottage and move closer to them in the town. He disliked his family, although his daughter Judith had become less dominant now she was approaching 70. She was in worse health than him and had moved into sheltered housing, where she’d been begging him to join her. Most of all he disliked children – especially his grandchildren, who now in their thirties and forties had taken over bossing him around from Judith. And the great-grandchildren showed no respect whatsoever – it was them who called him Robinson Crusoe for living such a reclusive life.

No, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Fred Robinson was still happy to live as a castaway in his cottage in the middle of the moors. The cottage had been in his family for one hundred and forty years – goodness, it was only fifty years older than he was. He had been born in it, had married from it and had never in his life lived anywhere else – apart from his time in the army.

The cottage used to sit down a path about a hundred yards from the track which wound over the moor. The moorland track became a single lane road and his path became a lane. The single lane road became a narrow two-way road encroaching slightly onto his land and reducing his lane to about fifty yards before it reached the cottage. Fred was incensed by this robbery of his land. When, in the 1970s, they decided on major roadworks to widen the road into a fully-fledged A-Road right across the moor, they offered to buy several cottages and land so the road could take the easiest and most direct route. Everyone sold but they hadn’t counted on the stubbornness of Fred Robinson. No amount of money, or pleading from Judith and the family, would get him to leave his home.

So the road was widened but it had to swing away to the west. This meant Fred’s cottage was positioned two hundred and fifty yards from the junction to the road, which suited Fred fine, but they didn’t give him back the ownership of the land up to the road, which didn’t suit him at all. In his opinion, even though his family continued to visit after the road-widening scheme, everyone had cast him off as an eccentric stubborn old man, which made him grumpier than ever.

In 1986 Judith had insisted he have a telephone installed as a life-line should he have any difficulties. He refused. The telephone was installed and Judith paid. She was still paying the monthly rental. Fred had never once made a call. When the phone rang it was only ever the family ringing to snoop on him, so he rarely answered it.

But for some reason on the morning of his 90th birthday, Fred woke up in a different frame of mind. He’d had a nightmare about causing a multiple pile-up at the junction to his lane and in the dream he hadn’t been able to deny it was his fault. For the first time in his life he woke up with shaking hands and had trouble carrying his mug of tea without spilling it. His back ached, his legs ached and he had trouble lifting his arm to comb what bit of hair he had left. He caught sight of his reflection in the hall mirror and saw an old bent man. He didn’t know why, but he was suddenly a little afraid being out on the moor on his own, two hundred and fifty yards away from life on the A-Road.

Fred looked at the phone and lowered his aching body onto the seat of the old-fashioned telephone table. By the phone was a notepad where his grandson had written instructions. There was a list of numbers with a name by each number. All he had to do was press the number for the person he wanted and lift the receiver. It would automatically call them. Fred knew Judith was number one, so he pressed one and picked up the receiver.

‘Hello, Judith Shaw speaking.’

‘Er, Judith, it’s your Father.’

‘Why, Dad, what a lovely surprise. Happy Birthday. Have you opened all your cards?’

‘Er, no, not yet. Judith, something’s happened. I feel different today.’

‘Well, it is your birthday and not many people are still living like a castaway at the age of ninety.’

‘That’s just it. Judith, I don’t want to live like a castaway any more. Do you still have a room in your flat? I’m ready to move on. I need company.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

29. SHOOTING STARS

 

(Theme – At the Bottom of the Garden on a Starry Night)

 

 

‘Eve?’

‘Over here.’

Andy made his way towards the bottom of the garden, guided by the pale oval of his girlfriend’s face, which seemed to float in the blackness. ‘What are you doing?’

‘I needed a minute to myself; to get some fresh air.’

‘Yes, I know what you mean. My family is a bit overwhelming, especially when you first meet everyone.’

‘And there are so many of them; I’ll never remember all their names.’ Eve tipped her head back. ‘Like all those stars … so many.’

Andy laid his arm across her shoulders and gave a gentle hug. ‘You’ll soon get to know them, and I know they love you already.’ How couldn’t they?

‘Andy, I never knew the sky was so big. It’s wonderful.’

‘That’s because you’re a city girl. You are so overwhelmed in London by tall buildings and lights, you never see the true night sky.’

‘And I thought you were bringing me to a farmhouse in wet Wales. There’s not a cloud in sight.’

‘Yes, we’re lucky it’s so clear for our first night. We do get a lot of rain, but we also have the occasional night like this.’

‘It’s magical. Oh look, Andy.’ Eve pointed, moving her arm in an arc. ‘What’s that light whizzing across there? Could it be a space ship with aliens?’

‘No, it’s a plain old satellite destined to follow its pre-ordained course forever.’

‘Poor thing. If I was it, I’d hop off to the left or right, just for the hell of it.’

‘I believe you would.’ Andy pulled her a little closer.

‘And look there, Andy – a shooting star. I’ve never seen one before … and another behind it. And another behind that. Oh, Andy, it’s my lucky night tonight, isn’t it? I’m going to try and catch one.’

As Eve raised her arms to the night sky, Andy moved between them and wrapped his own arms around her. He was weighed down by his love for this slip of a girl. As he inhaled the fresh night air filtered through the faint perfume of her hair, the words he’d planned for later slipped out before he could stop them. ‘Eve, will you marry me?’

She tensed for a moment before moulding her body to his. ‘Oh, Andy, yes I will; yes I will.’ She clasped her arms around his neck and whispered, ‘I’ve caught my shooting star. This is the most wonderful night of magic.’

It was at that point Andy decided he’d never tell her the first one had been a shooting star, but the second, third and fourth were the lights of planes taking that night’s route across North Wales to Manchester Airport. If Eve knew the truth, it would break the magical spell forever.

 

 

***

 

 

 

30. THE UNINVITED GUEST

 

(Theme – Free Spirit)

 

 

‘Mrs Smith?’

‘I’m in the kitchen making you a cup of tea.’

‘Mmmm, lovely; exactly what a man needs after a successful hunt.’ Bob made his way along the narrow hall and into the kitchen, holding the metal cage in front of him.

‘What? You’ve caught it already?’ Mrs Smith stopped, tea pot in one hand and tea cosy in the other. ‘Oh, so it’s not a rat.’

‘No, but he’s a cute little chap, isn’t he?’ Bob held the cage at shoulder height and looked into the bright black eyes. ‘He must have been hidden in the insulation watching me, because before I’d even stepped back onto the loft-ladder, I heard the trap snap shut.’ Bob chuckled. ‘Peanut butter gets them every time.’

‘Do you think there was only one?’

‘Yes, I reckon so; and luckily he’s not done too much damage. Some nibbling of the joists, which would be the grating sounds you heard. And he’d scuffled up the insulation in one place, but I’ve laid it back down. No damage to your electric cables, though.’

‘That’s good news. How do you suppose he got in?’

‘There’s a broken tile on the side over your garage, so he’d easily come across the flat roof and hop up, being inquisitive you know. Such is the problem with bungalows – you bung a low roof on and all sorts of uninvited guests pop in for a visit.’ Bob chuckled at his own joke. Mrs Smith smiled and poured the tea. ‘I’m the pest control man and my brother, Des, is the repairman. I’ll send him round tomorrow to replace the tile and plug the gap if you like.’

‘Yes please, that’ll save me looking for someone.’ As Mrs Smith put a mug of tea in front of Bob she eyed the cage on the floor. ‘Are you going to kill it?’

‘No, I’m pest control not pest killer. In my view, everything’s got a right to live – big or small. I only kill when there’s no other option. And I’m of the opinion this little chap deserves to live. Many people class them as vermin, and I know they do damage and have almost ruined the chances of our native red ones, but they’re opportunistic – free spirits, if you like. And they bring untold joy to people with their wily ways to rob our bird tables. I’ve got a mate on the board of trustees of Stonebridge Park and they let me release my captives there, where there are acres of woodlands for them to roam in.’ Bob finished his tea and picked up the cage, smiling at the grey squirrel. ‘So, little chap, let’s spirit you away from Mrs Smith’s warm loft and set you free among your own kind.’

‘He is sweet, Bob. I’m pleased you’re giving him a chance.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

31. SECRETS

 

(Theme – Wardrobe)

 

 

‘Hey, carrot-top. Your head’s fell off.’ Sitting on the garden wall of number two Brook Street, the twins shouted in unison.

In a show of solidarity, Gail linked arms with Joy. ‘Doesn’t matter. She’s got another one in her bag,’ she yelled. At twelve years old, Gail already had more confidence than her fourteen-year-old sister.

‘I bet it’s a ginger nut,’ shouted Eddie. ‘At least you won’t be the odd one out in that packet.’ Both boys hooted with laughter at Eddie’s wit.

Joy unlocked the front door of number eight and disappeared inside. Gail stuck out her tongue at the boys, stepped inside and shouted, ‘We’re home, Mum.’ She ran to the kitchen. ‘Huh, no one here. But there’s a note.’

‘What does it say?’

‘Hello darlings. If you’re reading this it means I’ve got in at the hairdresser’s. Help yourselves to carrot cake and a drink. Be good till I get back. Love you loads. Mum.’

‘Carrot cake. Typical.’ Joy leaned on the door frame. ‘That’s all I want after coming past the gruesome twosome.’

‘Don’t let them get to you.’

‘It’s alright for you. You’ve always got an answer. I just clam up, go red and clash with my hair.’ Joy looked at her younger sister. ‘Eddie’s right, though. I am the odd one out, aren’t I? With my hair colour, translucent skin and freckles – I’ve never thought about it before.’

‘No you’re not.’ Gail stuffed a piece of carrot cake into her mouth.

‘But why am I this hateful carroty red? You’re not.’

‘Well, Mum was brown before she went grey and Dad’s blond. So you’re a mix.’

‘Yes, but … red? You and Michael are blond and Diane’s auburn, so why am I red?’ Joy sliced off a thin sliver of cake. ‘Maybe I’m adopted and no one’s told me.’

‘They would have by now. I saw a thing on Newsround about adopted children being told the truth and then being able to find their real parents.’

‘I wonder how I’d find out.’

‘Your birth certificate.’

‘Haven’t got one.’

‘Of course you have, silly. We’ve all got one. I saw one on Newsround. It tells your parents’ names.’

‘Well, I’ve never seen mine. Have you seen yours?’

‘No, but I know where they are.’

‘Where?’

‘In that big blue handbag at the bottom of Mum’s wardrobe.’

‘I thought that was full of knitting patterns.’

‘It is, but it’s also got savings books and loads of papers and envelopes. One was marked certificates – that must be them.’

‘How do you know all this?’

‘I was snooping around once looking for hidden Christmas presents, but Mum nearly caught me. It was a close thing.’ Gail giggled at the memory.

‘You sneak. I don’t know how you dare.’

‘It’s the only way to learn things.’ Gail grinned. ‘Come on, let’s go and look.’

‘Er, I’m not sure. What if Mum comes back?’

‘We’ll hear her. Come on.’ Gail was half way up the stairs. ‘Do you want to know or not?’

Joy followed, heart pounding. By the time she entered their parents’ bedroom, Gail was already sitting on the floor, the big blue handbag open in front of her and a heap of patterns strewn around. Joy knelt opposite her sister, who was delving in the bag again muttering. ‘More patterns; letters; nearly every Christmas, birthday and Mother’s day card we’ve ever given her; insurance; mortgage.’

The girls were soon surrounded by paperwork.

‘It’s like Mary Poppins’s bag,’ giggled Gail. ‘Ah, here. Certificates.’ She held up an envelope in triumph. ‘Shall we?’

Joy nodded.

‘Here’s Mum’s,’ said Gail. ‘Born twenty-sixth October 1938. Father Lawrence Burke. Mother Hilda Burke.’

‘Gran and Grandad Burke,’ said Joy. ‘Is that Dad’s?’

‘Yes. Fourteenth August 1938. Father John Turner. Mother Mabel Turner. Here’s our Diane’s. Born twenty-third March 1958. Father Samuel Turner. Mother Christine Burke.’ Gail stopped and stared at her sister.

‘What? Are you sure?’

Gail nodded and handed over the certificate.

‘They weren’t married,’ said Joy. ‘That can’t be true. Mum’s planning a thirtieth anniversary party next year.’

‘Do you think Diane knows?’ whispered Gail.

‘She must do. She’s twenty-eight. She must have a copy of her own birth certificate. Is their wedding certificate there?’

Gail shuffled the papers in her hand. ‘Yes. Oh goodness. They married in 1959.’ The girls stared at each other again.

‘The liars,’ said Joy. ‘They never let on. What else have they lied about?’

Gail looked through the papers again. ‘Here’s Michael’s. Born 1968.’

‘Is mine there?’ Joy could hardly speak.

‘Yes, yours is next …’ Gail stopped.

‘And?’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Quick, give it to me.’ Joy snatched the certificate and stared at it in amazement. ‘There’s no father’s name. And my mother is … Diane Turner.’ She looked at Gail. ‘That can’t be right.’

‘Our Diane, our sister, is your mother?’

‘She’d only have been fourteen and my father’s not named. He could be anyone.’ Tears trickled down Joy’s face. ‘I shouldn’t be finding out this way. We should never have snooped in here.’

Gail leaned across and hugged her. ‘But that must be where your red hair comes from. Your father. Cheer up. We can search the town for him. Check out all the redheads.’

Joy sniffed. ‘It’s alright for you to talk. You’ve not just had the shock of your life.’

‘I’ve had a thought,’ said Gail with a giggle. ‘If this is true, you’re still older than me, but I’m your auntie. Auntie Gail.’

As the enormity of this fact sank in, Joy joined in with Gail’s giggling until both girls were hugging and rocking each other in near hysteria.

They hadn’t heard the opening and closing of the front door, nor the footsteps on the stairs. When Christine Turner looked into her bedroom, she saw her daughter and grand-daughter on the floor, surrounded by the secrets she’d kept hidden in a blue handbag at the bottom of her wardrobe.

 

 

***

 

 

 

32. POLES APART

 

(Theme – Opposites Attract)

 

 

1974

 

‘I don’t care how grown up you feel or how old you think you look, but eighteen is too young to get married.’

‘We want to be together … forever.’

‘Laura, forever is a long long time. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. What’s the rush?’

‘But we’re ready for it, Dad, we know we are.’

‘Ready? Your mother and I were hardly ready at twenty-five, were we June?’

‘No, dear, it was a struggle coming to terms with living together, especially with the ba …’

‘There, you see, even your mother thinks you’re too young.’

Laura stared at her father. ‘But I’m not pregnant. We’re getting married for love.’

Her father’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down twice as he swallowed his anger. His voice came out a little more hoarse than his usual school-master boom. ‘Love? You love him? No, my dear, you don’t love him … you are infatuated because Malcolm is everything you’re not.’

‘Malc. You know he doesn’t like being called Malcolm – it’s too old-fogyish.’

‘Whatever. But like I say, you’re too young to know what you want.’

‘I want to marry Malc and we’ll do it with or without your approval. It’s 1974, Dad, not the ’50s like when you two got married. I can do as I please.’

‘I don’t know why you can’t find a nice Catholic boy. One who was perhaps an altar boy, finished his schooling, went to university and has a job.’

‘Malc has a job.’

‘Working on a production line in a bicycle factory all week and hiring out rowing boats at the weekend. That’s hardly going to support you both. As I understand it, he was expelled from two schools, never finished his schooling, has no academic qualifications for his future and he’s an atheist, to boot. He comes from the wrong side of town – he can’t even talk properly, using all those slang words and dropping his aitches. Whereas you, my dear, will be taking your A-Levels shortly and you’ll possibly have a place at university, if you work hard.’

‘I’m leaving college to get a job. And anyway, Malc may not be academic but he’s streetwise and he loves me and looks after me.’

‘No, Laura, please. You can’t do this to us. We knew Malcolm was going to be trouble when he talked you out of staying on in the 6th form, didn’t we June? You’ve run wild since you went to that Further Education College, spending half your time playing three card Brag. Hasn’t she, June?’

‘Yes, dear. And Laura, Malcolm’s got brown eyes and long brown hair hanging round his shoulders. You always said you were going to marry a blue-eyed blond like yourself … like that altar boy you used to drool over. You remember … John Wallace. Now he would be a catch.’

‘God, Mum, I was a kid then. And anyway, I see him at college and we’re friends now, but that’s all – just friends. Malc’s the one for me now.’

‘Laura, your mother and I absolutely agree on this one thing. You and Malcolm are complete opposites …’

‘Malc.’

‘… you have nothing in common and this won’t work.’

‘But, Dad, you’re a physics teacher; you’re always telling me opposites attract.’

‘Yes, my dear. But you two are poles apart. And if you go ahead with this foolishness, I give you five years – no more.’

 

 

2014

 

‘A penny for them; you were miles away.’ Malcolm gave Laura’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.

‘I had to open this one before you came home, as the envelope was in Dad’s handwriting. I couldn’t wait.’ With tears in her eyes, Laura looked up at her husband, her husband of forty years, now the owner of a chain of bicycle shops. She smiled as she handed him the anniversary card. ‘I think you’ve finally been accepted. What a shame mum never lived to see it.’

‘But your mum loved me from the minute she first saw me – I could see it in her eyes.’

‘I know. She saw your potential – as did I. Go on, read it.’

Malcolm read his eighty-five-year-old father-in-law’s spidery handwriting.

 

“Happy 40th Anniversary. I was wrong – your poles are getting closer. Love, Dad x”

 

 

***

 

 

 

33. THE SLOGAN

 

(Theme – Jumping On The Bandwagon)

 

 

March Managers’ Meeting

 

As usual there was an all-pervading stench of blood in the room. Not that the group of ten men were fighting and wounding each other – it was the quarterly meeting of Gerald Blake and Sons, Family Butchers.

Present were Gerald Junior, Gerald Senior the founder having passed on, and his younger brother James. They were the current owners of the string of eight shops, one of which was found on every High Street of the eight busiest towns in the county. Also present around the table were the eight shop managers.

Even scrubbed up after a morning in the abattoir (of course, Gerald Blake and Sons, Family Butchers, killed all their own meat), Gerry and Jimmy couldn’t erase the smell of blood. It was absorbed by their pores and they left it behind them like a perfume as they moved around. Not that it bothered the eight managers, who were all master butchers. They spent their days surrounded by the smell, so they didn’t notice it.

‘So, gentlemen.’ Gerry shuffled the papers on the table in front of him, picked them up and wafted them in front of his face. ‘These figures don’t lie. We’ve got the best positions on eight High Streets. We’ve been in the same premises for years. But customer numbers are down.’ He looked at the men round the table. ‘So what do we do?’

‘It’s those damn supermarkets.’ Dan Smith thumped the table with his fist. ‘On the outskirts of every town, loads of free parking and fridges full of bits of meat in polystyrene trays covered with cling-film. Disgusting.’

‘We only get the old folks in now and they’re either dying off or going into care homes. Don’t see many youngsters on the High Street.’ Offered Jack Tweddle.

‘These may be some causes of the problem, gentlemen, but they don’t provide a solution.’ Gerry smiled at his managers. ‘But, thanks for pointing them out.’

'What about more special offers?' suggested Bob Bennett. 'I know we've done the "Spend more than £10 and get 10% discount", but to be honest, people aren't that bothered about a quid here and there, or they don't understand how much 10% is. They'd probably be happier with half a dozen free sausages.'

‘Good point, Bob, thanks.’ Gerry made a note on his pad.

‘We could do a leaflet drop or hand out flyers in the street,’ suggested Colin Crowe. ‘But then I suppose we’d need a catchy slogan.’

‘Oh, God, Colin, you’re not suggesting we jump on that bandwagon, are you? That’s all we hear day in, day out, on the radio, on the telly, everywhere – terrible tunes with slogans that worm their way into your brain. God, I hate them.’ Jimmy sat back, balancing his chair on two legs, hands behind his head. ‘No, there’s no way we’re going down that route.’

‘Er, Jimmy. With all due respect, that’s what slogans are for – to get into the punters’ brains so that they think of you first.’ Colin blushed. ‘And, buy your meat at Gerald Blake and Sons, Family Butchers, is a bit boring, don’t you think?’

‘No, definitely not.’

‘Actually, I think you’ve got something there, Colin,’ said Gerry. ‘Come on, a quick brainstorm session for a catchy slogan.’

‘Gerald!’ Jimmy glowered at his brother.

‘Starting now.’ Gerry grinned at them all.

‘You cannot beat, Blake’s for fresh meat.’

‘You’ve tried the rest, now come buy the best. You’ll find the best at Blake’s.’

‘Buy your meat at Blake’s. Just do it.’

‘Er, sorry, Dan. I think a sports company uses those last three little words – we can’t poach them,’ said Gerry. ‘But good try.’

‘For any cut of meat you want – Come to Blake’s – the butcher that likes to say yes.’

‘Mmm, Bob, again we’d be poaching. There’s already a bank that likes to say yes. But see how slogans work – they get into your subconscious. I do think this may be our answer, folks.’ Gerry looked at Jimmy. ‘Come on Jim, join in. That’s what jumping on the bandwagon is all about – if it’s proven to work, then join them. Just do it!’

 

 

June Managers’ Meeting

 

In his excitement, an extra strong smell of fresh blood emanated from Gerry as he stood at the head of the table. ‘Sales have more than doubled.’ He waved a sheaf of papers in the air. ‘Jimmy’s idea to advertise a competition to get the public to come up with a slogan has been a phenomenal success.’

The managers visibly relaxed into their chairs and grinned at each other.

‘We certainly have more customers,’ said Bob, ‘and they’re all desperate to win a month’s supply of free meat.’

‘Phone orders and home deliveries have really taken off since the Council put double yellows all along the High Street,’ said Colin.

‘I think people hadn’t realised how bland supermarket meat is until they came back to us,’ said Dan. ‘I’m sure they’ll continue to shop with us after the competition results.’

‘Yes, the competition,’ said Gerry. ‘Jimmy and I have narrowed it down to three, so it’s up to you eight good men to choose the winner today. Here they are.’ Gerry passed round some sheets of paper. ‘Jimmy, would you read them out please.’

Jimmy cleared his throat. ‘Number one – If you want quality meat, that can’t be beat, follow your feet to Blake’s. Number two – You won’t find bread, you won’t find cakes, you’ll only find, the best meat at Blake’s. And number three – Order by phone, we’ll deliver meat to your home, you’ll get the best service at Blake’s.’

‘Thanks, Jim.’ Gerry looked at the managers. ‘Okay gentlemen, jump to it. Mark them first, second, third and we’ll find the winner. I feel the fortunes of Gerald Blake and Sons, Family Butchers are on the up.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

34. SNAPSHOTS OF LIFE

 

(Theme – The Photographer)

 

 

I’m not a photographer in the professional sense of the word. I take snapshots. Snapshots of my life. Some are good. Some are bad. One or two are worthy of enlargement and framing; most aren’t even worthy of going in an album – but they all mean something to me. My two favourites have been enlarged and framed. The people in them smile down at me from their place on the wall.

My first favourite is the group shot of my family arranged in front of a thick clump of tall, feathery pampas grass. A wonderful sepia print, it has such atmosphere and I love it. I remember the day so well. My mother, father, brother, sisters, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, uncle, great-aunts, great-uncle, niece and nephew – age range from five to ninety. I was so proud to have worked out how to use the timer on the camera, which was balanced precariously on the bird table. After lots of shouted commands and arm waving as I looked through the viewer, I had all fifteen of them in sight. I pressed the button, ran to my place and and the camera clicked. Sixteen of us laughing at the camera – a snapshot of my barbecue in August 1990.

I do a quick count as I stare at the photo now. Only nine of us are still alive – but they all live on in my memory. The niece and nephew in the photo are now grown up with children of their own. I would now be one of the great-aunts in a similar group – that makes me smile.

My absolute favourite photo was also taken at a barbecue – this time in 1997.

‘I wish Julia was here.’ My sister, Maria, said to me. Her voice had a slight wheeze to it, but even though she was in poor health, we didn’t realise the importance of the sound.

‘But she’s having a great time in Majorca,’ I said. ‘She’ll be back in ten days.’

‘Yes, but she’s missing this last barbecue and we always barbecue together. It’s tradition.’ Maria was right on that point – the whole family did always barbecue together at my parents’ house and our sister Julia was away. The old family home was the hub of all our lives, as our beautiful Maria, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, had never left home.

‘Oh, you silly thing.’ I remember I put my arm round her narrow shoulders and hugged her. She was such a little thing. ‘It won’t be the last one. We’ll be bound to squeeze in another one before autumn sets in.’

Maria turned her head and kissed my cheek, her lovely almond-shaped eyes looking deep into mine. ‘I’m not sure,’ she wheezed.

The rest of the family were milling around bringing out food and drinks, so I went to sit on the other side of the table, opposite Maria. She was sitting with her back to a wall full of pink climbing roses. I had put my camera on the table earlier. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I must take your photo with those roses behind you – it all looks so beautiful.’

She put her baseball cap on sideways, tilted her head a little and grinned at me. I just snapped the photo on the spur of the moment without any planning.

Six days later, Maria passed away peacefully in her sleep. Due to her diabetes and failing kidneys, the wheezing had been the prelude to her lungs filling with water during the night. She died before Julia returned from Majorca. Maria had been right – it had been her last barbecue.

Months later I had the film developed. I had forgotten what was on it. My most treasured photo now hangs in my kitchen where I see it several times a day – a perfect snapshot of my perfect Maria. In my view, it couldn’t have been better if a professional had taken it – it’s a snapshot of a treasured moment of my life.

 

 

***

 

 

 

35. FIRESIDE WARMTH

 

(Theme – Warm Up)

 

 

They both heard the noise whilst they were eating their porridge but thought nothing of it. It was just a thud mixed in with the rumble of traffic, the letter box banging as the post was delivered and the noise of the kettle boiling for their second cup of tea. They looked at each other, but John went back to his crossword and Daisy went back to her word-search. Breakfast was always a quiet affair.

After breakfast they went into the lounge with their second cup of tea. John had already lit the fire. He rattled the coals around to generate a flame and as he stood up, he looked out the patio door to the garden. ‘It seems to me we need a new window cleaner, love. Look at that huge dirty smear Darren’s left.’

Daisy leaned forwards in her armchair. ‘That’s weird. I’d swear it wasn’t there yesterday when he finished.’ She shielded her eyes from the glare of the winter sun. ‘I say, John. Doesn’t it look like the shape of a bird?’

John frowned as he studied the mark. ‘I think you’re right, love. I can see the shape of two outspread wings and a head facing to the left.’

‘Me too. Oh, John, you don’t think …’ Daisy stood up and they both hobbled over to the door and looked down onto the patio. ‘Oh it is, John. It’s Scruffy. Oh, the poor thing.’ Lying on the frosty slab, its feathers moving slightly in the breeze, was a collared dove. Daisy gripped her husband’s arm. ‘Do you think he’s dead?’

John fumbled with the door lock. ‘I would expect so. He’s hit the glass with a terrific thump. That must be what we heard at breakfast. So he’s been lying there about fifteen minutes, poor lad.’ John slid the door open and stepped outside. ‘Fetch the cat basket and put it by the fire. I’ll bring him in to warm him up. You never know …’ His voice trailed off.

Scruffy, so named because one feather stuck out of his right wing at a funny angle, and his mate Sarah had been residents of their garden for five years. John and Daisy treated them like pets, almost family members. Every morning the doves’ cooing echoed down the chimney in a reassuring manner and they would take titbits from the elderly couple’s hands.

John picked up the bird and stepped back into the lounge as Daisy placed the cat’s basket on the hearth. ‘Put him in here, love.’

‘Gently does it.‘John laid the dove on the fleecy blanket.

‘Is he alive?’

‘I’m not sure, love. I can’t feel his heart beating but he’s not frozen. Here, wrap the blanket round him and rub him gently.’

‘Yes, that’ll warm him up. What do you suppose happened?’

‘I think the glass was so shiny and in the bright sun, you know the winter sun is always deadly, he saw the reflection of the bird table and swooped in to land on it. But of course, he mistook the reflection for the real thing, so hit the glass.’

Daisy looked out to the bird table a few yards from the patio door. Blue tits were performing on the fat-balls and peanut hangers. A robin was picking crumbs from the ground below. And sitting on the top, staring through the glass door into the lounge, was Sarah.

‘Come on, Scruffy,’ said Daisy. ‘Sarah’s out there waiting. You’ve got to be alive.’

‘Don’t hold out too much hope, love. He’s perhaps broke his neck.’

‘No, no,’ Daisy moaned, ‘he’s got to live.’ She continued rubbing. ‘John, did you see that?’

‘What?’

‘I’m sure he moved his head.’

‘No, it’ll be a reflex from your rubbing.’

‘No, I’m sure he did it himself. There, look, his eyelid’s quivering.’

John lowered himself onto one knee and peered into the basket. ‘You know, you may be right, love. His eyelid is trembling. Oh look, he’s opened his eye now.’ John put out a gnarled finger and stroked under the bird’s beak. ‘Come on lad, you can do it. I’d stop the rubbing now, love, if I were you and open the blanket. We don’t want him too warm.’

A minute or so later Scruffy was on his feet fluffing out his feathers. He hopped onto the side of the basket, stretched his wings, jumped to the floor and walked to the patio door. Daisy and John clung to each other smiling, before helping each other to their feet. John walked to the door, slid it open and Scruffy hopped outside. With another fluttering of his wings he flew up to Sarah on the bird table and a solitary feather floated to the ground.

‘Look, love,’ said John. ‘His scruffy sticky-out feather has come out. His wing’s smooth now.’

‘He must have got too warm by the fire.’

Scruffy and Sarah rubbed their heads together.

‘Oh, they do love each other. I’m so pleased he’s okay,’ said Daisy. ‘She’d have been devastated – as would I.’

‘What, at losing Scruffy?’

‘Well, yes. But I meant at losing my husband.’ Daisy slipped her hand in John’s as they continued to watch the birds.

 

 

***

 

 

 

36. THE BALLET LIVE

 

(Theme – Dance)

 

 

‘I’m off, love.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘Oh, the usual. Up the hill, through the wood and round Moorgreen Pond. I’ll be back for tea.’ Cyril Braithewaite smiled to himself in anticipation of his walk.

‘I saw that leery look, our Cyril. You’re turning into a dirty old man … a proper peeping Tom. I don’t like it.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with watching a bit of canoodling, love.’ Cyril slipped an arm round Sheila’s still trim waist. ‘It’s only natural, you know.’

‘I’m telling you – if you get your arm or leg broke by that big brute, I’ll not be looking after you.’

‘No chance of that,’ said Cyril, patting the travel binoculars in his poacher’s pocket. ‘I’ll be too far away.’

 

*

 

Cyril stood on tip-toe and pulled in his large stomach to get through the squeeze stile. Will today be the day they “do it”? He plodded along the footpath and up the incline towards the wood, his heart racing and his lungs burning. Perhaps they’ll perform today.

Cyril had been watching the lovers for four days – same time, same place, every afternoon. It was on Monday when he’d spotted movement through the trees. They obviously felt safe so far away from the footpath, but he’d heard scuffling and slapping sounds. Sounds which brought back memories of the many evenings of his youth spent in these woods with various girls, so he took a sneaky peek. There are always bad girls to be had, as long as you find a good girl to marry, his dad used to tell him. Cyril snorted at the memory. He’d certainly had his share of bad girls, none of whom he would have married, if truth be told. He’d fancied Sheila at the barn dance, and when he couldn’t get her to go into the woods because she was a good girl, his interest was piqued, so he married her. After that, she became his bad girl, until old age stopped them – but they were happy.

When he arrived at the place where he needed to leave the footpath, Cyril separated the thin branches hiding his secret trail, and treading lightly for his bulk, he crept along the narrow path towards the hidden end of Moorgreen Pond. Quietly, holding his breath, he lowered himself to the ground, groaning inwardly at the arthritic pain in his knees. He pushed his hand into the bush in front of him and placed a Y-shaped twig with great care, so one branch of the bush was held up, giving him a clear view of his quarry. They were there, as he hoped they would be, oblivious of the person looking into their private world.

Must have started early today. Cyril settled himself on the ground. The couple were already necking with a passion Cyril had only dreamed of for years. They were close to him; he didn’t need his binoculars. They were a well-matched couple; their size and colouring were similar. Neither of them looked particularly male or female to Cyril and as they cavorted in front of him, he tried to work out which was which. He knew he would find out if today was the day they “did it”. He found a titillating beauty in their uninhibited show. Suddenly they made their way down the bank into the water, their large webbed feet making a slapping sound on the wet mud.

The necking dance continued on the water; they rubbed their chests together; they put their heads together and arched their necks into a heart shape. What was obviously the male climbed on the back of the female, pushing her body under the water with the weight of his own, but pulling her neck back to keep her head up and prevent her drowning. It was over all too soon for Cyril. They separated, raised their chests from the water and flapped their wings – perfectly choreographed.

‘Thank you, Cob. Thank you, Pen. That was truly wonderful,’ whispered Cyril, as the mute swans glided across the pond in the graceful way only swans have.

 

*

 

‘It was fabulous, Sheila,’ said Cyril when they were having their tea. ‘It was as beautiful as Swan Lake and it was all natural. The music was the sounds of the wood. It was the best ballet I’ve ever seen, and it was a private performance for me.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

37. THE HOLLY BUSH INN

 

(Theme – Washed Up)

 

 

7th April

 

The barman sensed that someone was standing behind him. He turned round from wiping the dusty shelf and stared at the man at the bar. Funny, he hadn’t heard the door open and close, he hadn’t felt a draught, nor had he heard footsteps on the flagstone floor. Even nosey old Wally sitting in his usual window seat was staring into space, showing no interest in the newcomer.

How the barman hated these vagrant types with their long straggly hair, pock-marked faces and big heavy overcoats. Whenever they washed up in Makefield, there seemed to be a spate of robberies reported. Last time it was Lance’s turnips and carrots which disappeared from his vegetable garden, and Miss Sourpuss Johnson, leader of the WI, was twittering on for days about her dahlia tubers having been stolen. Even when it was proven they’d been eaten by rats, she didn’t lighten up. ‘Highway robbery,’ she kept saying when she was doing her house to house visits. She tried so hard to get the villagers interested in her new Neighbourhood Watch scheme.

‘What can I get you?’ With a sigh, the barman threw his dirty grey cleaning cloth into the sink as he inspected the stranger slouching against the other side of the bar. He moved back a step, unnerved by the pale empty eyes and dreadful complexion.

The man’s Adam’s Apple worked up and down as he cleared his throat and the old fashioned black neckerchief he was wearing shifted slightly, revealing an angry-looking scar. ‘I’ll let you pour me a mug of your best ale, landlord.’ His voice had an unhealthy rasp to it.

‘You mean pull you a pint.’

‘I know what I mean. I don’t know what you mean. And I know what I want. I want you to fetch a jug of your best from your cellar and pour me a full mug. I have a thirst on me.’

‘What’s your preference? Dark? Light? Porter? We only do the best cask ales here, mate. All hand-pulled. We’re in CAMRA, you know.’ The barman nodded as he pointed to a chalk board showing a list of beers. ‘You’ll get your discount if you’ve got your membership card.’

Wally looked up from the window seat. ‘What’s that, Charlie?’

‘Nothing, Wally.’ The barman looked back at the stranger. ‘So, what’ll it be?’ He pointed to a pump handle. ‘The Doom Bar’s good.’

‘Aye, pour me a mug of that.’

‘It’ll be a pint – in a glass. We might have done mugs in Dick Turpin’s day, but now with all the Weights and Measures fuss, it’s always in a pint pot … as I’m sure you know.’ The barman started pulling the pint of Doom Bar. ‘He used to come here, you know.’ The stranger raised a bushy eyebrow. ‘Dick Turpin. Rumour has it, the place is haunted. But I’ve never seen or felt anything. I don’t believe in such rubbish.’

‘Really.’

‘Here you are. A pint of the best Doom Bar in the county. That’ll be £3.80 please.’

‘Really.’ The stranger picked up the glass and stared at the clear amber liquid. ‘Prepare to meet thy doom.’

Not sure if he was being threatened, the barman started wiping non-existent drips off the bar with his dirty cloth. No eye contact and easy conversation – that’s safest. ‘So, how come you’ve washed up in Makefield?’

‘Washed up? No, I’m on a pilgrimage. Every year on my anniversary I visit one of my old haunts.’

‘Anniversary of what?’

The stranger downed his pint in one go without seeming to take a breath. He put his empty glass on the bar and gently rubbed the scar on his neck before pulling up the neckerchief to cover it. ‘No, not washed up. Just passing through.’ He turned and walked towards the door.

‘Hey, you haven’t paid.’

The stranger never looked back. He continued to the door and passed straight through it without opening it.

Wally shuffled over and put his empty glass on the bar. It clinked against the one the stranger had left only a minute before, the creamy foam still sliding down the inside. ‘Not like you to drink on duty, Charlie. What did you have?’

‘Prepare to meet thy doom.’ The barman seemed to be in a trance.

‘Doom Bar, you mean?’ Wally peered at him. ‘What’s up, Charlie? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’ Through the open window came the sound of a galloping horse. ‘Irresponsible riding through the village like that. It does annoy me. Any ideas who it could have been, Charlie?’

‘Black Bess.’

‘Wow, Charlie, that Doom Bar must be good. I’ll have a pint too.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

38. JUST TOO LATE

 

(Theme – Every second counts)

 

 

It’s many years since we’ve visited the city of our birth and taken a stroll along the riverbank, and I’m pleased to find it’s easy to push my newly wheelchair-bound husband along the concrete path. The never-ending flow and the power of the water still amazes me. The river is wide, dark and deep as it loops around the suburbs of the city. It’s a river that likes to swallow the unwary and spit them out when it’s had its fun. Those coquettish little ripples on a hot summer’s afternoon hide the demon lurking beneath the surface away from the banks.

I’m surprised how few people are out enjoying the Sunday afternoon fresh air. But, of course, these days everyone is shopping on Sundays. It’s not like it was in years gone by, when the riverbank was crowded with families, people were hiring rowing boats and the pubs turned out at two o’clock.

 

It was on one such Sunday when, as a sixteen-year-old, I worked on this stretch of river taking the money from and giving out the tickets to the people hiring the rowing boats. At twenty past two, three lads staggered down the gangway towards my little office. They were obviously drunk.

Big Malc, the giant of a nineteen-year-old who looked after the boats, looked across at me as he tied up a returned boat. He shook his head. The owner expressly forbade us to hire boats to people who had been drinking.

As I refused the lads their boat, it took Malc’s presence to persuade them this wasn’t their day for messing about on the river. Big Malc, who I’d met at my best friend Bridget’s bonfire party one night, hired a rowing boat from the next day (with Bridget as co-rower, of course) and fallen in love with. Malc had felt the same about me and got me the weekend job so that we could be together.

About twenty minutes later a commotion on the far side of the river caught everyone’s attention. The three lads had obviously hired a boat from another operator and they were larking about changing seats, standing up and rocking the boat. Suddenly all three went overboard, shouting, flailing their arms, disappearing. People on the far bank watched, transfixed. I suppose they thought the lads were playing. No one threw in one of the lifebelts, which were placed along the bank.

As I watched the horror unfold, Big Malc jumped into one of our rowing boats and set off across the river, his muscles straining against the current in his haste. He kept glancing over his shoulder to ensure he was heading in the right direction. As he arrived at the scene, one of the lads reached the far bank and scrabbled to safety, but from my position, the other two had disappeared. In one fluid movement, Malc dropped his oars, bent over the back of the boat and plunged his arm deep into the water. My heart was pounding as I watched him stand up and haul one of the lads over the back of the boat by his hair. A few more seconds and he would have been gone. Malc tried again, plunging his arm back into the river, but the second time he came up empty-handed. By this time the river police had arrived – they fished out the body of the third lad two hours later.

After handing over his spluttering survivor, Malc rowed back to our floating dock. He looked at me with tears in his eyes. ‘Just seconds too late,’ he said, shaking his head.

 

I stop pushing the wheelchair and lay a hand on my husband’s shoulder. ‘Are you remembering too, love?’

Big Malc isn’t so big now his body is twisted and painful with arthritis, but there’s nothing wrong with his mind. He covers my hand with his own and gives a gentle squeeze. ‘Every second counts when you’re drowning, Laura.’ He looks to the far bank and shakes his head. ‘And he never even thanked me.’

 

 

***

 

 

 

39. THE LEADER FROM CORNER COTTAGE

 

(Theme – The Leader From The Corner)

 

 

On that July Sunday morning, at twenty-four years old, Wilfred Shaw had never kissed a girl and he knew nothing about the mystery of what made them tick. This wasn’t because there was a shortage of girls in the village; even on his father’s farm a dozen or so worked in the dairy every day. They giggled behind their hands and fluttered their eyelashes whenever they saw him, knowing they embarrassed him, for his blush darkened his sunburnt face and he couldn’t reply to the simplest of questions.

 

Why do they do this to me?

 

Wilf was desperate to kiss a girl, even to talk to one, but he was too shy and everybody knew it. The girl he would choose to kiss was Gwen Hardy from Corner Cottage. Gwen Hardy with her pert nose, her full lips, her pink cheeks and a waist he could slip his arm around and squeeze. Gwen Hardy the always available hussy, who’d been kissed and cuddled by the whole village, if he was to believe what he heard from the farmhands.

 

So why does she fill my head and dreams?

 

As usual after Sunday lunch, Wilf whistled his dog Meg and they set off for their walk. It was the same route every week. Up the farm lane, turn right to the village, past the church, across the village green, past the Golden Fleece and out along Shady Lane to pick up the footpath leading to The Ridge. The first cottage on Shady Lane was Corner Cottage but Wilf had no chance of catching a glimpse of Gwen, for he always walked by with his head down and a blush creeping up his neck. Had he looked to the upper window, he’d have spotted her watching him every week. And had he looked behind him, he’d have spotted her slipping out of the garden gate and following him. This Sunday was no different.

 

Why do I torture myself by always coming past her cottage?

 

After a fifteen minute climb up The Ridge, Wilf squeezed between two craggy rocks and dropped into a grassy hollow – his secret resting place. Here, lying under the trees with the rocks shielding his back, he and Meg had a view across the valley. This was where Wilf could open his mind and let in the thoughts of Gwen Hardy.

 

Her lips, my lips. My lips, her lips. What does it feel like?

 

A soft scrabbling sound came from the gap between the rocks. Meg gave a low growl. ‘Steady girl, it’s only a rabbit or something.’ Wilf put his hand on the dog’s neck.

The scrabbling turned into the rustling of a skirt and underskirt as someone erupted from the gap and almost tripped over Wilf’s prone body. ‘Oh my goodness … Wilf Shaw.’ Gwen feigned surprise. ‘You did give me a start.’

 

Oh my God, it’s her.

 

Wilf sat bolt upright, his mouth opened and closed a couple of times. ‘Er, hello, Gwen.’ He looked round her skirt. ‘Are you alone?’

‘Yes, just out for a walk. And you?’

He cleared his throat and patted Meg’s head. ‘Yes. Stretching our legs.’

‘Can I sit?’

 

Why?

 

‘Please do.’ His face bright red, Wilf gesticulated towards the other side of the hollow, but Gwen sat beside him, her right arm touching his left and her legs stretched out alongside his. She pulled her knees up under her chin and her right foot rubbed a trail along his left leg from ankle to thigh.

 

What are you doing, girl?

 

‘Nice view,’ she said.

Wilf stared straight ahead. ‘Yes.’ His voice was hoarse.

Gwen lay back on the grass. ‘Why don’t you lie down, Wilf?’

 

Oh no.

 

‘I don’t think I should.’

‘Come on.’ She put a hand on his shoulder. ‘You were lying down when I arrived.’

 

What’s the harm?

 

Wilf tensed but allowed himself to be pulled backwards until they were side by side. He lay rigid and shut his eyes.

 

Now what?

 

After a few minutes of silence, Gwen sighed, turned towards him, hitched up her skirts and rolled over to straddle him across the hips.

 

Oh my God. Don’t open eyes!

 

Wilf opened his eyes and was met by the swell of her breasts beneath her cotton blouse.

‘So, Wilf, is it true what I’ve heard?’

Wilf raised his eyes to her face, stopping to stare at her pouting wet bottom lip, with the tip of her tongue on it, before meeting her eyes.

 

Is she laughing at me? Oh, those lips, those lips. He dropped his gaze again. Oh, those breasts.

 

‘Cat got your tongue?’ Gwen giggled.

Wilf looked again at her face to find the lips coming closer, closer. He closed his eyes and pursed his own lips as Gwen’s met them. His dry, hers wet – a quick brush.

 

Nice.

 

He opened his eyes. Gwen’s face was still there. Her lips were still there.

 

They’re coming again.

 

Wilf relaxed a little, enjoyed the feel of her lips, parted his lips slightly and wham … her tongue was in his mouth. He suddenly realised her body was moving to a rhythm; her weight on his hips and torso was doing unknown things to him. He put his arms around her waist and squeezed, holding her close.

Gwen broke the kiss and pulled her face away a few inches.

 

More! More! Don’t stop! His eyes were glazed.

 

‘The cat’s not got your tongue.’ Grinning, Gwen cupped his face. ‘Gwennie has.’

Wilf put a hand behind her head and pulled her down for more.

 

She may have led me into this, but we’re not stopping until I’ve had enough.

 

On that July Sunday afternoon, the kissing continued for Wilfred Shaw.

 

 

***

 

 

 

40. FINDING MARY

 

(Theme – Santa Claws)

 

 

The plump old man shuffled across the market place, the extreme cold causing his breath to roll down his straggly beard and form small icy balls where it caught in the grey hairs. Everywhere glistened white under the Christmas lights and he stopped to look around at the magical scene. Outside the Market Inn a discarded Santa hat lay on the ground, the red lights set in its furry rim still flashing. With a smile he put it on his own balding head, replacing his greasy threadbare cap.

In keeping with his Polish Catholic upbringing, he had listened to midnight Mass in the doorway of St Paul’s, before melting into the shadows of the gravestones as the worshippers had spilled out into the crisp Christmas morning. Now, at 2 am, he had the town to himself, even the latest party-goers had stumbled home. For twenty years he had tramped the towns and villages of England, occasionally calling at a soup kitchen, but happy in his solitude.

At the far end of the market place he stopped to pay his respects to the Nativity Scene, where he was impressed by the almost life-size models. The three kings in their colourful robes, the donkey, Joseph with a hand on Mary’s shoulder, and Mary sitting on a bale of straw looking down lovingly at … The old man grunted with annoyance at the sight of the manger roughly tipped to one side. ‘Bloody drunken yobs.’ Mary was looking lovingly into a pushchair.

As he pulled the pushchair away to rectify the violation, he was surprised at its weight. He looked closely at the bundle under the waterproof cover. Was it a baby or a large doll? He touched the cheek with the tip of his dirty forefinger – the cheek was warm. His touch caused the baby’s mouth to open into an O as if expecting a teat or a nipple. The tiny nose scrunched up and then the baby let out a soft mewing sound when no food was forthcoming. The old man stroked the cheek murmuring softly to the tiny form. ‘Come on little one, I’ll have to take you somewhere warm.’ He took hold of the pushchair handles and set off along East Street, pushing his find before him.

It was quiet in the police station; in fact it had been an unusually quiet Christmas Eve. The officers on duty were sitting around sipping coffee and murmuring sleepily. No one took much notice of a tramp walking in with all his worldly goods in a pushchair; even though it was a new looking, smart red pushchair.

When he reached the desk, the old man said, ‘I’ve found this baby.’ Suddenly the room was an explosion of movement.

An hour later, the old man was sitting in Interview Room 1, a mug of sweet, hot tea and a plate of toast spread with strawberry jam in front of him. Sergeant King entered and sat opposite him, smiling as he spoke. ‘Thanks to you, Mr Laws, the baby is safe and well. She’s only a few hours old, but the hospital has confirmed she’s perfectly healthy. They’ve named her Mary while we look for her mother.’

‘I like that,’ said the old man.

‘Now, if you don’t mind, I need to take a full account of how you found her. Let’s start with your full name and address, Mr Laws.’

‘Santak. Santak Laus, originally from Wolin in North Poland.’

Sergeant King stared across at the old man, whose plump cheeks were now glowing pink in the warmth, and whose hat was still flashing. A vision of another plump man clouded the sergeant’s mind. Later, when his report was being typed out, to the amusement of his staff, he simply could not explain why he had written “Santa Claus, North Pole” in his notebook.

 

 

*****

About Tula Jack

Tula Jack was born in Nottingham, England where she spent her childhood surrounded by the legend of Robin Hood. Tula’s love of books (stories and poetry) started early in her life – at the age of ten she had a poem published in the school magazine. Sadly, she cannot now remember the words, only remembering that it was about Autumn. When, at the end of the school year, she won a prize for her needlework, she chose a Book Token as her prize.

 

Now retired, Tula has the time to write poetry and short stories of all kinds – especially illustrated stories for children. Having been a member of a writers’ web site for more than a year, Tula enjoys the challenge of writing short stories of less than 1,000 words to a given theme on FFF – Friday Flash Fiction. This book is a collection of some of her FFF work.

 

She also enjoys the challenge of writing poetry on given themes on the Flash Poesy Thread. A selection of her poems will be published separately.

 

If you enjoyed this book, won’t you please leave a review? Thank you.

 

 

 

Connect with Tula

Shakespir author page:

https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/tula5

Email – mailto:[email protected]

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Discover other titles by Tula Jack at Shakespir.com

 

Oh No, It’s Poetry – A short collection of 15 illustrated poems for children. The poems are perfect to recite out loud and cover a variety of fun themes, including the circus, pets, a tin opener and the playground.

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/536436

 

 

Here Comes Granny Ticktock – An illustrated story for 3 – 5 year-olds. Tom wants a granny to teach him how to tie his shoelaces before he starts school. How will he go about finding one? Find out about Tom’s plan and meet Granny Ticktock in this first story in the Granny Ticktock series.

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/554859

 

 

Granny Ticktock Stays For Tea – The second illustrated story in the Granny Ticktock series. Aimed at 3 – 5 year-olds. Find out what happens when Tom tries to take Granny Ticktock into the house. With her large round bottom, will she get through the front door or will she get stuck? If she gets stuck, what funny thing will happen when she is freed? And will Tom learn how to tie his shoe-laces?

 

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/566292

 

 

Spaghetti-Leg Spike’s Birthday – A short rhyming story for 5 – 10 year-olds. It’s Spaghetti-Leg Spike’s birthday and he is desperate for a silver and red bicycle. He visits everyone he can think of, from his granny to Bob the baker, and tells them what he wants. Will Spike get a silver and red bicycle for his birthday?

 

https://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/572538

 

 

 

Coming Soon By Tula Jack at Shakespir.com

 

Yikes! More Poetry – Another short collection of illustrated poems for children. Poems with a difference, including: Ants In Your Pants, We’re Not Going To Bed and What Am I?

 

Granny Ticktock Goes To The Park – An illustrated story for 3 – 5 year-olds. Find out what happens when Granny Ticktock, Tom, Amy, Mummy and Molly the dog go to the park. What will a goose do when they are all at the lake? And what happens when Granny Ticktock decides to take Amy down the slide in the playground? With her large round bottom, will she slide or will she get stuck? If she gets stuck, who comes to the rescue and what funny thing will happen when she is freed?

 

Relaxing Reads – Poetry – A collection of Tula’s poetry, written to given themes on the Flash Poesy Thread.


Relaxing Reads - Short Stories

Do you fancy a relaxing read which won't take up too much of your time? In this collection of 40 short stories, you will find something to suit any mood. Stories of love, happiness, sadness, winning, losing, even a little ghostly - all are less than 1,000 words. Tula Jack enjoys the challenge of writing a short story from the prompt of a given word, phrase or idea - these are the results. Relax and enjoy your reading.

  • ISBN: 9781310013669
  • Author: Tula Jack
  • Published: 2015-12-30 19:05:17
  • Words: 32626
Relaxing Reads - Short Stories Relaxing Reads - Short Stories