Written, compiled and published by St Leonards Writers
Copyright © of all writings belongs to the individual authors. May 2016
Cover Copyright © Melvyn Grant May 2016
Shakespir Edition License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of these authors.
These stories and poems are works of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons and events is purely coincidental.
St Leonards Writers are a group of enthusiastic members who have been meeting weekly since 2007 for lectures, workshops, creative exercises, writing practice, discussions and constructive criticism, and to help one another create the best possible writing.
St Leonards-on-Sea is on the south coast of England, UK.
You can contact us at:
Table of Contents
Heavy rains fell in the UK during the winter of 2013/2014 and caused widespread flooding. Tight government budgets led to general neglect, but suppose the bad flooding had been cause by something much more unexpected…
Montague Sibley, Head of the Hastings Environment Agency, checked the Residents’ Concerns Agenda. A Miss Ripple of Dane Road, St Leonards-on-Sea featured first.
With all the rain of the last few months, her concern centred on the rising water in her garden pond and its effect on the gnomes who lived around its banks. Could the Hastings Environment Agency send round a dredger right away to drain her pond, please?
Montague Sibley’s fingernails tapped the glistening veneer of his office desk. Really! Such obtuse demands lathered him into a fury. What did the front office mean by green-lighting the ramblings of some crazy spinster and then to compound their idiocy, have the nerve to pass it on to the top of the chain of command?
His days of being on the front line and subject to the mania of the general public had passed some ten years before. Job descriptions for the staff emphasised that a necessary ability to sympathise with and at the same time deter time-wasters must be prerequisites for any successful candidate. The agency had put aside large amounts of tax-payers money to hammer these edicts home in their many and varied training programmes. All staff went on at least six a year.
A massive failing must have occurred with Miss Ripple.
He picked up his phone to give the front office Duty Superintendent a foretaste of the fury that he intended to unleash across the whole department, but before he had a chance to punch in the first number, a knock came at his door. Damn! “Enter,” he yelled and slammed the phone back into its cradle.
Samantha Purley, his PA, appeared. Her fingers caressed the door handle and as the light from the afternoon sun shone through a distant window, it turned her blonde hair into a golden halo. The soft light also outlined her lithe body and all its contours to their best possible effect.
Montague Sibley forgot all about training programmes. “Yes?” he squeaked.
“There’s a Miss Ripple to see you, sir.” She spoke each word with a husky breath.
“Yes?” he squeaked again.
“Shall I show her in?”
Samantha stepped to one side as she made room at the door. Her profile ravished his senses and he gripped the edge of his desk, torn between desire, guilt (he celebrated his tenth wedding anniversary this weekend) and fury.
Miss Ripple ambled into view and his desire and guilt wilted, but his fury boiled.
Samantha Purley’s teeth flashed as she smiled and left.
The spell broken, Montague Sibley attempted to regain his professional poise. “Good morning, Miss Nipple – Ripple! Please, take a seat.”
Miss Ripple resembled a small tank. Short and broad, she carried a large selection of plastic bags that bulged. She wore a dun-coloured waterproof coat that reached to her ankles and a hat whose design fishermen in the nineteenth century once favoured. Her approach, more of a shuffle than a walk, came punctuated with gasps and wheezes. She flopped into the chair and placed her bags with care around her feet. “Good morning.”
Montague Sibley picked up the phone, but as his finger hovered over the first digit for Security, Miss Ripple gave the sweetest smile and with a gentle wave indicated that he put the phone down. To his surprise, he obeyed.
Miss Ripple twinkled. “I shan’t take up much of your time. I just want to bring you up to date with the situation.”
Montague Sibley attempted to smile back, but his upper lip twitched and he feared that he leered. “What – what situation?”
Miss Ripple’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh! Haven’t you read my letter?”
“Well I – yes of course. I have the details here.” He held up the Priority Agenda.
Miss Ripple rose and snatched the paper out of his hand. “Let me see that.”
“What are you doing? Give it back.”
“This isn’t my letter,” and she crumpled it into a ball and tossed it to the far side of the room.
“How dare you,” Montague Sibley retorted. “That is council paper.”
Miss Ripple leaned across the desk and her voice deepened. “Now, you listen to me.”
Montague Sibley arched backwards, but he stayed seated and he listened.
“There’s going to be catastrophic floods and fearful storms,” Miss Ripple intoned, “if the work that I laid out for you in my letter is not accomplished.”
Her beady eyes glittered as she waited for his response, but he said nothing. “The doom that will befall us all will be due to your tardiness. Do you want to be remembered for the man who didn’t dredge my pond and whose negligence unleashed the tempests in all their fury?”
Montague Sibley didn’t understand a single word, nor did he understand his inability to order this woman out of his office. She possessed some strange aura that defied reason, but commanded attention.
“No, I don’t.”
Miss Ripple raised her hands skywards and sang. “Hallelujah!”
Such an emotional display burned Montague Sibley’s face with embarrassment. What if the front office heard? What if Samantha did? “Please, tell me what was in the letter. I promise to listen.”
Miss Ripple slumped into the chair, her face white with exhaustion. Water dripped off her coat and onto his Moroccan rug. He glanced at the window swathed in net curtains. Light shone bright and gold. Perhaps Miss Ripple had caught a shower that he hadn’t noticed. He worried that the water might stain his Moroccan rug.
Miss Ripple muttered. “It might be too late, but I can but try.” With both hands, she reached into one of her bags and lifted out a brightly painted garden gnome. She slid it onto his desk and revolved the base until the gnome and Montague Sibley faced one another.
“This is Sid,” said Miss Ripple.
The gnome’s sculpted features beamed the widest smile, its puffed-out cheeks glowed with the brightest rose-coloured hue and the merry eyes twinkled with pleasure.
Montague Sibley recoiled. “Take it off. It’s scratching my desk.”
“Don’t you speak so sharp to Sid,” Miss Ripple retorted. “It’s taken a lot of nerve for him to come here today.” She tapped the gnome on the shoulder. “You tell the man what’s going to happen if he doesn’t dredge my pond.” She sat back, her hands clasped in her lap, a smile of satisfaction on her lips.
Montague stared at the gnome and then at Miss Ripple. Had his mind tripped into some unknown region where insanity ruled? He attempted to take control. “Look Miss Ripple, I’m a very busy man…”
Miss Ripple’s eyes blazed and then her face crumpled. “There, you missed it.” She leaned against the desk. “I’ll tell you what he said- he said, ‘If the waters rise anymore, then Elton’s toes will drop off and cataclysmic torments will rent the world.’”
She reached into a second bag and lifted out another gnome. She placed it next to Sid. “This is Sid’s wife, Nancy.” Miss Ripple wiped her nose. “Poor love, he lost her two weeks back. I didn’t see how high the waters had risen. Once a gnome’s toes are submerged under water, it’s only a matter of time.” Miss Ripple pointed to the brown stubs that protruded from underneath the gnome’s red tartan smock. “I tried to save her, put her in the airing cupboard to dry out, but it was too late.”
Montague Sibley, aware that his mouth hung slack, engaged his tongue to speak, but a succession of grunts that might have suggested pain proved to be his best effort.
“I know,” Miss Ripple agreed. “It’s tragic. That’s why I wrote you see. If too many gnomes are wiped out by toe-rot, like poor Nancy, then without the gnomes’ magic powers to keep them in check, the music of the spheres that controls our elements will run riot.” She shook the drips from her raincoat sleeve and droplets spattered the desk. “I take some of the blame, of course. I didn’t notice the water creeping up. Nancy’s passing was a terrible wake up call.”
Montague Sibley snatched a paper tissue from the box beside him and his hand trembled as he pressed it hard against his mouth to stop the scream that threatened to erupt.
Miss Ripple wagged a finger. “The real worry is Elton. If he succumbs, then heaven help us. He’s very popular you see, commands a great following. The gnomes won’t stand for it if toe-rot bites.” She lowered her voice. “I didn’t bring him with me. He causes such a sensation when he’s out and about and at my age I have trouble keeping the crowds at bay.”
She lifted Nancy off the desk and rocked her backwards and forwards, much as a mother cradles a baby. Her tone sharpened. “You do see what a terrible predicament we are in, don’t you, if the gnomes revolt, the world is doomed?” She pointed a finger. “Head of the Hastings Environment Agency gives you the responsibility to authorise immediate action.” She placed Nancy on the floor. “So, when can I expect the dredger?”
Montague Sibley whimpered and the paper tissue, now a sodden mass after he’d sucked at it like a comfort blanket, disintegrated into wet lumps that dotted his blotter. His attempt to keep control failed and his head shook with the frenetic action of an overwound clockwork toy.
Miss Ripple’s face creased with alarm. “No? What do you mean no? Haven’t you been listening to a word I’ve been saying?”
Montague Sibley spluttered. “I don’t have a dredger. Please, get out. You’re mad.”
Miss Ripple’s eyes opened in wide surprise. “The Hastings Environment Agency does not have a dredger?” She covered her face. “Then how are you going to clear my pond? How are you going to save the gnomes? How are you going to save the world?”
Montague Sibley slipped off his chair, crawled under the desk and curled up into a ball where a sensation of damp spread across his face as his cheek pressed into the Moroccan rug.
“You can’t pretend it’s not going to happen,” Miss Ripple admonished.
Montague Sibley heard a rustle from one of the plastic bags and when Miss Ripple spoke again, she sounded very close.
“Look. This is Justin.”
Montague dug his fingertips into his skull to stop his mind from exploding.
“He’s young. How will you live with your conscience if he perishes because of your laziness?”
“Lalalalalalalala…!” he shouted.
“Have you no compassion?”
Montague Sibley’s stomach tightened with fury. With the speed of a coiled spring set free, he reached for Miss Ripple’s throat. Justin, the gnome, dropped from her grasp and broke into three large pieces.
Outside, thunder cracked so loud it shook the desk.
Miss Ripple choked as Montague Sibley’s hands squeezed. She wriggled backwards, but he followed, shuffling on his knees to keep up.
She kicked his leg which threw his balance and he flopped sideways.
He didn’t hear the knock at the door, didn’t see Samantha Purley as she stepped into the office. He heard her voice when she called in shock. “Mr Sibley. What are you doing?”
Miss Ripple stopped fighting, her limbs lay still and the harder he squeezed the less resistance he encountered. He glared at her face, waited for it to turn blue, but her expression softened and her translucent skin shone as her body diminished and then dissolved into a pool of water that soaked into the rug.
The plastic bags dissolved too. Each one revealed a different gnome, their sculpted faces moulded into a wide smile or a cheeky grin. Every pair of eyes fixed on his with a permanent gaze.
Samantha Purley gasped and sank to the floor in a faint.
Montague Sibley splashed at the water on his rug, felt its damp through his suit and its cold against his skin. His fury abated and his calm returned, though he wondered if it might be the calm that madmen experience. He glanced at his PA. So vulnerable, so inviting, she might be asleep she lay so still. She needed help and this unexpected opportunity to wrap his arms around her, stroke those blonde strands from off her face; revive her with love and gentle care, proved irresistible.
He struggled onto all fours and his shoulder banged the desk. Sid, the gnome, wobbled, tipped sideways by the shock. Montague Sibley heard the sound, paid it no attention, all his devotion focused on Samantha. As he crawled out, he hit the desk again.
Sid unbalanced, toppled, fell, whacked the back of Montague’s head and smashed into half a dozen pieces.
Montague Sibley didn’t move. Lightning flashed and thunder cannoned. Sid’s cracked face beamed. Daylight dimmed along with Montague’s consciousness. He slumped to the floor and wondered as he passed out, that all the gnomes’ eyes glittered with such malice.
How many of us can say with honesty that when forced into a corner, the thought of ‘murder’ has not crossed our minds? Should the means be at hand and the possibility of detection unlikely, might such a drastic course of action be given some consideration? ‘One Man and his Dog’ is the story of an ordinary, elderly man…
A lead grey sky. A steady drizzle of early morning rain. The elderly man climbed the shallow ramp to the police station door. Hatless, cold, soaked to the skin, he moved as though half-asleep. The glass door slid soundlessly open. He stepped into the yellow warmth of the reception area and crossed slowly to the desk. The sergeant, engrossed in form filling, didn’t look up.
The elderly man stood for a while, head bowed, watching as water dripped from his raincoat, making small puddles on the floor. Then, as though suddenly remembering why he was there, he raised his head.
“I am Arthur Martin. I think you’ve been looking for me.”
The sergeant looked up. A brief, frozen moment, then an explosion of sound and movement. He leapt to his feet. Papers flew from his desk. His chair crashed onto its back. “Constable. Constable. Get out here. NOW!”
It was all over in seconds. The elderly man was thrown face down onto the floor, hands cuffed behind his back. A rough, thorough body search.
“No weapon, sergeant.”
“Right. I’ll caution him. You call the D I.”
Interview Room Two.
A drab beige box. Its single window set high in the wall framed a small patch of sky. A detective inspector and a detective constable sat at the table. Arthur Martin, dressed in a shapeless brown overall, sat opposite, back straight, face expressionless.
Since his arrest some twenty-four hours earlier, his clothes had been taken away for forensic examination. He had been examined by a doctor who found that, while in reasonable health, Arthur was ‘in shock’ and needed rest before interrogation. He had advised medication. Arthur refused. He had been offered food, but had eaten very little and for four hours he had slept, a deep dreamless sleep born of exhaustion. The doctor had called again that morning. A brief visit. He considered Arthur ‘sufficiently recovered to undergo questioning.’
The recording machine had been switched on. Names of those present, the date, and the time had been noted. Arthur was informed that he was being held on suspicion of the murder of Michael James Waters. When asked if he wished to contact a lawyer, Arthur shook his head.
The inspector leaned forward. “Mr Martin. This enquiry could lead to very serious charges being brought against you. I would strongly advise legal advice.”
Another slow shake of the head. “I’m guilty. I want to make a full confession. I don’t want a lawyer.”
“Very well, Arthur. But… if you should change your mind …”
The inspector paused and leaned back on his chair. “Where’s the gun?”
“The allotments. Priory Road. In a shed. I broke the lock. It’s got a blue door. The gun’s under a flower pot on the bench.”
The constable got to his feet. “I’ll get uniform onto it right away, sir.”
He crossed to the door and opened it. After a brief conversation with someone outside, he returned to the table. The inspector seemed relieved.
“Ok, Arthur. Now, perhaps you could tell me exactly how you came to be in possession of this weapon?”
“It was in the park. Alexander Park. It was raining.”
It had been a bad day, a very bad day. Mary getting the telephone call from Anne, their distraught daughter, that morning. The frantic rush to the hospital. Their teenage granddaughter, bruised and battered, eyes blackened, ribs cracked, arm broken. And that evil, violent, animal still free to walk the streets. The second time in six months he’d put her in the hospital, and God knows how many trips to casualty in between. They’d tried everything, the police, the courts, formal warnings, restraining orders. But now, with the girl too terrified to testify against him, it seemed nothing could be done.
They stayed at the hospital until early evening. There was little they could do. The girl was sedated and barely awake. Mary and Anne sat at the bedside. They spoke in hushed whispers. They held hands. They cried. Arthur tried to comfort them as best he could. He needed to stay strong for them, but at times their frightened, tear-streaked faces were almost more than he could bear. It was the dreadful feeling of utter helplessness. What could he do? Seventy-five-year old Arthur Martin with an arthritic hip, a wife with a weak heart and a daughter without a husband? How could he put an end to this sickening round of threats and violence?
The summer evening air felt heavy and oppressive and it was almost dark when the taxi dropped them back home. Arthur helped his wife inside. He drew the curtains, opened a can and fed the dog. He made tea and set it on the kitchen table, his pent up anger and frustration showing in the clumsy clack and rattle of cups and saucers.
Mary sat, staring at the Formica table top. “What are we going to do, Arthur? What are we going to do?”
He snatched his jacket from the back of the chair. “I don’t know! What the bloody hell can we do? Nothing! That’s what we can do. Nothing! Bloody nothing at all!”
“Where are you going? Arthur! Where are you going?”
He pushed through the kitchen door, stumbling down the hallway in his haste to leave the house “Out! I don’t know! I just need some time!”
“But where are you going? Arthur! It’s getting dark! Arthur! Don’t…”
Her shrill voice was cut short by the full stop slam of the front door.
Arthur strode, head down, hardly aware of his surroundings. He reached the end of the street and crossed the Queens Road, ignoring the hoots and shouts of angry motorists who braked to avoid him. He turned right and headed for the park. He needed space. Time to unwind. To calm down. The darkness wouldn’t bother him. Walks with the dog, twice a day for years, meant that he knew the park’s meandering pathways like the back of his hand.
Shortly after Arthur entered Alexandra Park, the storm that had threatened all evening finally broke. A sudden glare of lightning revealed trees and bushes in stark relief. A deafening crack of thunder announced a sudden deluge of heavy rain, hissing and drumming through the foliage, bouncing and splashing up from the narrow, tarmac pathway. The intensity of the storm took Arthur by surprise. He grabbed his lapels, tugged his jacket up over his head and looked around for some shelter. A second lightning flash lit the small, densely-leafed tree set among the tangle of undergrowth. Not the safest refuge in a thunderstorm, but he felt a desperate need to get out of the rain. He stepped off the path into the darkness and pushed his way between the bushes. Cold water ran from the leaves, soaking his clothes and running down his legs. Twigs and branches clawed at his face and hands. Reaching the tree, he ducked under its low canopy, sank to his knees in the mud and rotting leaves and began to cry.
The tears helped. Slowly the pent up anger and frustration eased. Numb and exhausted, Arthur leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes.
A wailing of sirens nearby, growing closer. Louder. Arthur sat up, stiff and cold, a dull, persistent aching in his hip. The rain had eased. Mary would be worried. He must get back to the path and go home. The sound of the sirens reached an ear-splitting pitch. A screech of brakes on the road beside the park. Headlight beams. Flashing blue lights. People running, crashing through the bushes, shouting, yelling.
“Stop! Armed police! Stop! Armed police!”
Arthur slid forward, face down onto the wet ground.
The pounding of feet on the path nearby. Someone ran past, panting, gasping for breath. For a moment the footsteps faltered. A sudden crack and snap of branches in the tree above Arthur. Something heavy dropped through the canopy and landed with a soft thud close to his feet.
Mary must have heard his key rattle in the lock. She had almost reached the door before he could open it.
“Arthur! Thank God! Where have you been? I’ve been so worried! Look at the state you’re in! Whatever happened to you?” She moved towards him and reached out to hold him.
Arthur raised a muddy hand to stop her. “I’m all right love. I went to the park, got caught in the storm. Tried to run for cover and slipped over in the mud. But I’m all right. A hot bath, some clean clothes, I’ll be fine.”
“But your face. It’s all scratched! And that’s your best jacket…”
He took her hand in his and squeezed it gently. “I’m really sorry, Mary. Storming out like that. I didn’t mean to upset you love, but things just got on top of me… but I’m all right now… I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you go and put the kettle on. I’ll nip up, run a bath and get myself sorted.
Arthur locked the bathroom door, turned on the taps and sat on the edge of the bath. He took a hand towel, laid it across the toilet lid and, reaching inside his jacket, retrieved the bag from under his left arm. Small, with a drawstring. The sort of bag a child might use to carry trainers or football boots. He loosened the top, tipped it up and allowed its contents to slide out onto the towel. Something solid, heavy for its size, wound loosely in a cloth. Arthur suddenly realised what it was. Hands trembling, he pulled aside the wrapping, revealing the black, snub-nosed handgun and a small, clear plastic bag containing five bullets. He took the gun by the handle and picked it up. Two years National Service and a short spell with the Territorials meant that he was no stranger to firearms, but the solid, cold weight of the weapon gave it an almost tangible air of menace. He checked that it wasn’t loaded, then sat staring at it for a while before putting it, along with the cloth and the bullets, back into the bag. He stood up, took it over to the cupboard under the sink and hid it behind the clutter of sponges, cloths and bathroom cleaners. Tomorrow, he would smuggle it out to the garden shed and examine it properly. He turned off the taps, stripped off his wet, muddy clothes and stepped into the steaming water.
It was while he lay in the bath, thinking over the events of the day, that Arthur decided to murder Michael Waters.
Arthur pulled the elderly, reluctant dog behind him, struggled up the last flight of worn stone steps and stopped to regain his breath. This was the third evening he’d undertaken the long climb from Stonefield Road to the top of the West Hill. The third time he’d lied to Mary, saying he was off to the park, before climbing up to the stretch of green high above the Old Town. Arthur’s chest ached. A sharp pain gnawed at his hip, but these nightly efforts were necessary. A murder needs careful planning.
The actual killing shouldn’t be difficult. He had the weapon. A Ruger five-cylinder revolver. Not a gun he was familiar with, but it looked fairly new and seemed to be in perfect working order. Deciding a time and place for the shooting, with no witnesses and a fool proof escape route, would be more complicated.
He needed to know more about Mr Michael J Waters. His habits, times and places. Where he went, pubs he used. People he met.
He knew where Waters lived. Priory Road, up on top of the hill. It seemed a good place to start. A bit of a struggle getting up there, but he could walk the dog on the grass, sit on a bench and take his time. Keep an eye out for Waters who, with his reputation as a heavy drinker, was certain to pass by on his way to visit a pub sooner or later.
Plenty of time. Still a couple of hours’ light left. Arthur, breathing a little more easily, gave a gentle tug on the lead. “Come on, Barney. Time for walkies.”
It was Waters, heading across the green. The squat, swaggering body. The shaved head. The lurid Arsenal T-shirt. Carrying a long, thin box. A pool cue perhaps? Arthur got up from the bench and checked his watch. Seven thirty-five. He stepped onto the path and began to follow Waters downhill towards the Old Town. He’d thought he might need to walk slowly. Keep well back so as not to be noticed, but it was soon clear to him that the problem would be keeping up. Waters was younger and fitter, in spite of his lifestyle. He moved quickly down the slope and started down the steps that led to Exmouth Place.
Arthur, desperate not to lose sight of his quarry, dragged at Barney’s lead and broke into a stumbling, limping run. He reached the stairs just in time to see Waters turn right into Hill Street. It was no good. He’d never catch him now. He was probably already halfway down the long flight of steps into George Street. Once there, he’d soon be lost in the hustle and bustle of an Old Town Friday night.
Arthur cursed his age, his hip and his own stupidity. He should have realised his own limitations. Following Waters was not going to be easy. Though there was little chance of finding him now, he made his way to the top of the steps and began the long, narrow descent between the high retaining wall and the back of the George Street buildings.
Arthur stepped out into George Street and looked around. Lots of people enjoying the warm summer evening, but no sign of Waters. Maybe he should walk up and down for a while. See if he could spot him. But… no! He felt exhausted. He needed to sit down. Take the weight off his hip. And poor old Barney looked on his last legs. There was a large dog bowl of water set out on the Pump House step. He took the dog over and waited as it drank. He could do with a drink himself. He’d go into the pub. Get himself half of bitter. Rest for a bit before the long walk home.
He pushed open the door and stepped inside. It wasn’t too crowded.
Arthur made his way to the counter and waited while the barman served another customer. As he stood, leaning on the bar, he heard it. Above the hum and buzz of conversation, a familiar sound. The click and clack of pool balls. At the far end of the room, Waters stood at the table chalking his cue.
Arthur moved around the bar, out of Water’s line of sight.
The barman raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “What’ll it be sir?”
“Half of Guinness, please. No, on second thoughts, make it a pint.”
The barman went to the pump and began to fill a glass.
“I see you’ve got a pool table. Is it open every night?”
“Yes sir, but if you were after a game tonight I’m afraid you’re out of luck. The pool team are having a bit of a practice. Big semi-finals match on here tomorrow night.”
Arthur took his beer over to the small corner table, tucked Barney underneath and sat down. A real stroke of luck. He’d not only managed to find Waters, he’d also learned where he would be tomorrow evening and the route he’d be taking to get there.
Arthur sat, sipping his Guinness, resting his legs, thinking things over, working things out. By the time he had emptied his glass and got up to leave, he had decided when and where he would carry out the murder.
Saturday evening. It was raining. He stood in the wet grass under the umbrella that Mary had insisted he took. His feet were wet. The dog was soaked through. At least the weather might keep people indoors. Less chance of someone taking notice of an old man and a dog, standing in the rain.
Arthur had positioned himself close to the short stairway to Exmouth Place. This wasn’t where the shooting would happen. He’d let Waters pass. Let him go down the steps. Wait until he turned into Hill Street, then follow after as fast as he could. It was important to catch up with him just as he reached the top of the steps down to George Street. He’d shoot Waters there then turn back, but instead of climbing over the hill, he’d carry straight on, down Cobourg Place into the High Street. Once there, it was only a hundred yards to the sea front. A nice steady walk along to the town centre, time to catch his breath, calm himself down a bit. Then, up Queens Road and home.
Just an old man out walking his dog. No bother to anyone. Who’d even notice him?
From the moment Arthur saw him coming across the green things began to go badly wrong. Waters, anxious to get out of the rain, was almost jogging along the path. By the time Arthur had struggled with the catch, closed the umbrella and looped it on his wrist, Waters had reached the top of the stairway and started down. Arthur broke into a run. He must keep up. Everything depended on him staying close. He staggered, two at a time, down the steps. The dog dragged behind. The umbrella banged against his legs, threatening to trip him. He turned the corner. There was Waters, but too far away. He was too far away! In just a moment he’d be gone, out of sight, away down the long, narrow stairway.
Arthur shouted! A loud, desperate bellow of frustration. “Stop! You! Waters! Stop!”
Waters stopped, turned and saw Arthur limping towards him, trying to wrestle the gun from his rain coat pocket where it had tangled in the lining.
“Stop! Wait you bastard! Stop!”
The gun was finally free. Waters saw it. His eyes widened with fear. He spun around and began to run down the steps. He was almost at the bottom of the first flight before Arthur, breathless and shaking, reached the top, started down and, roughly aiming the gun in Waters direction, pulled the trigger.
The gun shot! The deafening sound! Like a physical blow in the narrow space between the walls. Barney let out a high-pitched howl of terror and made a desperate attempt to break free, lunging on the lead, dragging Arthur backwards down onto the wet steps.
He struggled to sit up, and fought to control the terrified animal. Below him Waters, on his knees clawing at the wall, trying to stand. He must shoot him again! He must finish it. He mustn’t leave him alive. Arthur raised the gun, but with Barney bucking and heaving at the lead it was impossible to aim.
He fired. The mind-numbing sound. The scream of the bullet as it ricocheted off a wall. Waters, almost on his feet… the dog lead snapped. Barney, still howling and mad with fear, raced to the top of the steps and away into the street. Arthur shook the umbrella free from his wrist and, using both hands to steady the gun, aimed and fired, once, twice. Water’s head jerked back. A spray of dark blood on the wall. He toppled slowly, rolled a short way down the steps and lay still.
He had to get away. Arthur pushed himself upright. It was difficult to breathe. His whole body was shaking, but he must move. He gripped the handrail and dragged himself upward.
He reached the top of the steps and set off, staggering and stumbling into Hill Street. Head down, he almost ran into the middle-aged couple. They saw the gun. The woman screamed. The man stepped in front of her and raised his hands, fingers spread, as though they could deflect bullets.
Arthur broke away, turned left and ran towards the stairway and the long climb up over the hill.
Early morning. The first, faint gleams of light pierced the cracks in the rough wooden walls. Arthur got up from the rickety chair, took off the sack that he’d wrapped around his shoulders and opened the shed door. It was raining. A stiff breeze blew in from the sea. It was cold. He wanted to go home, but knew he couldn’t. Mary would have called the police last night and reported him missing. What could he say when they questioned him? Asked where he’d been? He’d thought it all through. There was no way out. No way to argue against all the damning evidence stacked against him. The fingerprints on the umbrella, the eyewitness’ and Barney with his broken lead. Poor Barney, with his broken lead still attached to his collar. The narrow leather collar with its little silver disk stamped with his name… and Arthur’s telephone number.
Arthur stepped out of the shed, closed the blue door behind him, turned up the collar of his raincoat and started across the allotments, heading for the police station.
There was an old woman with a face like a piranha,
Who was slowly eating a large banana
And young Daniel watched with growing dread
When she’d finished that banana, would she chew on his head?
Would her lips draw back all stretched and thin,
Revealing a nasty black hole and lurking within,
Teeth all spitty and pointed, an ugly bunch
That’d bite clean through with a single crunch?
He watched her chin as it moved to and fro
And noticed some whiskers give an eerie glow
As her fish-eyes swivelled with every munch,
Did she eat little boys for Sunday lunch?
Did she boil them alive or make a pot-roast?
Or chop them in pieces to spread on her toast
And what would she do when she’d had all the meat
Did she chew on their bones as an extra treat?
His chest had gone tight; he could hardly breathe;
But whom could he tell, who would believe?
A terrible beast was loose on the floor,
That would pounce on this child and eat him up raw.
Suddenly, he realised with heart-stopping dread,
That she’d finished the banana and was turning her head,
Where could he hide? What could he do?
His feet wouldn’t move, they were sticking like glue.
Then, she turned, and she saw him… and after a while
Gave him the world’s most beautiful, old-lady smile.
And suddenly, like that, the change was uncanny,
She was a gentle old lady, just like his granny.
His heart stopped racing, the relief was like magic
To find the situation was not catastrophic
‘I’m foolish,’ he thought, ‘what a terrible drama
Cause she’s just an old lady who’s eaten a banana
Who’s face, kinda happened, to resemble a piranha.’
The story of Rapunzel being locked up in a dark tower is analogous with a young woman being confined to a small flat in a tower block.
Raz sat in her onesie looking out the window on the twenty first floor of the tower block in Che Guevara Gardens, Hollington. Grey clouds scudded by and the drizzle caused rivulets of rainwater to run down the window pane. She shivered despite being in a warm, centrally heated flat.
“It’s always bloody raining,” she thought. “Twenty-one storeys up and the bloody lift’s broken again. I’m sodding well marooned.”
Her only ray of sunshine was that her so called ‘stepmother’ had gone out for the day.
Her mother had died when she was eleven. Her father, previously a strong confident man, was devastated, hit the bottle hard, lost his job and his ability to cope. They had had to move into the flat in the tower block. By the time he sobered up and found work again, three years had passed and Raz had become a wild child.
He felt that Raz needed a woman’s guidance as she moved into her mid-teens, so he sought and found a new partner. At first all went well and his new partner moved in with them.
The new ‘stepmother’ soon took control and started to criticise Raz. “Your hair’s too long, get it cut. Your room’s too untidy. Your music’s too loud. Your friends are bone idle.”
Within two years they could barely stand the sight of each other.
Raz hated her stepmother’s constant complaining. Worst of all her, father seemed totally in her stepmother’s thrall and was always agreeing with her. Raz felt more and more cut off from her father.
The ring tone on her mobile phone brought her back to the present; snatching it up she saw that it was her new boyfriend, Will.
“Hello gorgeous, how are you today? The weather’s a bit rubbish isn’t it?”
Her heart leapt, she had never felt this way about a boy before. Will was a stylist in the Last Chance Hair Salon where she had been forced to go by her stepmother to get her long tresses removed.
“Hi Will. It’s great to hear your voice. The lifts have broken down and I am isolated at the top of this bloody tower again.”
“Oh, I was hoping that you might be coming out. The salon closed early today.”
Raz thought that she heard a note of sadness in his voice.
“No. The wicked witch of the west has buggered off on a shopping spree and taken my keys with her.” She looked outside, forlornly. No way was she going to get out today.
“Never mind, she will probably be back before dark and we could meet up then.” Will was ever the optimist.
“Just one problem with that Will, my bloody tag. I have to be in by seven p.m. or I’ll break the terms of my ASBO.”
“That’s a bit of a bugger. I was hoping that we could get a bite to eat. How long do you have to wear that thing?”
“Another six weeks. Weeks of boredom and inactivity, isolated in this bloody tower block. It will drive me bonkers!”
It was her stepmother’s fault; she had picked a fight with Raz nine months ago, needled her and wound her up until she was ready to blow her top. Then she let her out for the evening.
High on adrenaline and indignation, Raz decided to have a few drinks with her mates before returning to give the witch a piece of her mind.
Unfortunately, in the bar there were a bunch of girls from a rival school, mouthing off and it all kicked off.
Raz couldn’t remember hitting one of them with an empty bottle or biting another one’s ear.
The Judge had said, ‘I am minded to hand down a custodial sentence. However, as you are underage you should not have been served with alcohol in the first place and it is your first offence. Therefore, fifty hours community service, an ASBO, and a tag for six months will be more appropriate.’
“Raz. Raz are you still there?”
“Yeah. Sorry Will. I was just thinking how that witch wound me up and got me stuck in this bloody tower in the first place.”
“How long have you got before you have to be on call in your room?”
“The ASBO is from seven p.m. and they often check at seven on the dot. So I can’t risk coming out.”
She looked wistfully out of the window, it was half past six. She knew that she would never be able to meet Will and get back in time. Bugger!
Will must have read her thoughts. “If you can’t come down, I will just have to come up. We will only have a few minutes together, but it will be worth it.”
“But what about the witch?”
“It’ll take her at least half an hour to get here and then climb up the stairs. So let’s not waste time.”
Raz smiled. “OK. I’d better get into something nice then.”
Twenty minutes later the doorbell rang and she ran to let Will in.
Will looked her up and down. “Wow Raz, you look well good.”
In the time it took for Will to climb the twenty-one floors, she had managed to have a quick shower and put her hair up, slip into a mini dress and put on her makeup.
Raz was overjoyed at Will’s reaction and gave him a quick twirl. He took his coat off.
She grabbed his hand and led him into the living room and to the large couch.
“Rapunzel Where are you, you lazy good for nothing girl?”
“Bugger. Bugger, bugger!” Rapunzel pushed Will off her and hurriedly pulled her dress down.
“Quick, she’s back, tidy yourself up,” she hissed at Will. “I’ll try to delay her until you are decent.” With that, she ran her fingers through her hair and went to meet her stepmother.
“Where have you been? You’re dressed like a tart!”
“Hello step-mama. It’s good to see you too.”
“I thought that you might have gone out and broken the terms of your ASBO. You’re stupid enough to.”
“So that’s why you took my keys. You wicked old witch. I hate you.”
“Why don’t you hit me then, you’re good at hitting people? I will even turn my back if that will help.”
Raz lunged, but before she could reach her, Will’s strong arms seized her from behind.
“No Raz, can’t you see what she wants, you out of here, preferably banged up? Hit her and she will have won.”
The stepmother spun round. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Raz’s boyfriend and you have no power over me!”
“Oh, don’t I.” She strode to the phone on the hall table. “One call from me to the police, that’s all it will take. One call to report that she has broken the terms of her ASBO and is once more consorting with her old undesirable friends.”
“Sorry, that won’t wash,” Will said with a half-smile. “I didn’t get to know Raz until she was doing community service at the old folk’s home, after her little run in with the law.”
“So you have a community order as well. Even better!” A look of triumph crossed her face as she picked up the phone.
Will was totally unfazed by her demeanour. “Of course, it’s up to you what you do. However, I ought to advise you that I have never had any ASBOs, community orders, or convictions.”
She slowly replaced the receiver on its cradle and turned towards Will with a twisted smile. “Be that as it may. You are not welcome here and I insist that you leave. NOW!” Triumph and hate mingled in her expression. “Unfortunately, Rapunzel will not be able to accompany you because of her curfew.”
Listening to the exchange, Raz felt more attracted to Will than ever. “That’s not fair! I want him to stay and it’s not your flat, it’s my Dad’s. I only got an ASBO because you needled me into going out in a temper in the first place.”
Raz’s interjection raised the temperature of the argument. Her stepmother’s face turned a deeper shade of red as she pulled herself up to her full height. The veins in her neck knotted and visibly throbbed.
“You stupid, ungrateful girl. I have made your meals, washed your clothes. Put up with your whining when I came here and your foul temper as you have grown older. Yes, I wound you up on purpose that night and I thought that you would do something stupid… for once you exceeded my expectations… unfortunately, you didn’t repeat the performance today. I took your key with me so that you would lock yourself out and breach your ASBO.”
Raz felt faint that her stepmother was still actively plotting against her. She shook as she finally recognised the plot to have her commit a crime.
“Oh, you thought that it was an accident… you stupid little fool, being with your father suits me just fine, he buys me nice things and keeps a roof over my head. The only fly in the ointment is YOU. If you don’t like it here get out, run away, get pregnant, just leave your father and me alone.”
“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?”
Raz had not heard her father come in and wondered how much of the argument he had witnessed.
“Oh John, I am so glad that you are back. I have had such a terrible time with Rapunzel. She has started bringing strange men back to the flat.”
“Dad…” Raz began.
Her father held up his hand in a peremptory manner. “No! I have heard enough. I should have noticed and done something before, but I have been too tied up with my own problems. I have let things slip and matters have gone too far.”
Raz’s heart sank, her mouth went dry. Her father was going to side with her stepmother yet again. Will gently squeezed her hand.
“Stay where you are, young man,” Dad commanded Will. “I want a word with you in a minute. Now, I think that you have some explaining to do, madam.”
Raz’s eyes filled with tears, she took a deep breath; her stepmother, victorious, looked contemptuously at her.
Her father’s expression softened. “No, not you Raz.” He turned slightly and looked directly at his partner. “You. Madam. What do you have to say for yourself? You have schemed, connived and lied to me about my daughter. Well, don’t just stand there, EXPLAIN YOURSELF!”
Raz saw her father with fresh eyes. The once broken man had gone and his old, confident-self had returned. She must have missed noticing this happening over the long period of time she had been totally involved in the guerrilla war with her stepmother. But, for now, she just looked on, amazed and with tears running down her cheeks.
The row that followed raged for over an hour and increased in intensity as the stepmother lost her, already short, temper and Raz’s father became even more enraged as he comprehended the lies and deceptions which had been told about his daughter.
It came to a climax when the stepmother’s abuse turned from Raz to her father. “You were nothing but a broken down drunk before I came here. You’re nothing without me. You are just as useless as that tart you call a daughter!”
Paradoxically, her father’s voice dropped to near normal, the blood drained from his face and his hands trembled as he fought for self-control. “Enough. That is enough.”
“That’s it. Run away. Like you always do. Leaving me to deal with your daughter and your other mistakes. If I left, you wouldn’t last a week before climbing into a bottle again!”
“I think it would be best all round if you did leave. Thank you for suggesting it.” His words cut, deliberate and cold as ice. “You may stay here tonight, but be gone by midday tomorrow. That should give you enough time to find somewhere else.”
He turned his back on her and put his arm around Raz. “I am so sorry, my dear. I cannot apologise enough to you. I will make it up to you, I promise.” He looked at Will. “Now then young man, tell me about yourself and your relationship with my daughter.” Together, without a backward glance at the stepmother, they went into the living room.
Raz sat looking out of the window of her new second floor flat overlooking the sea. The sun was glinting on the receding tide as it flowed around the mussel-covered rocks.
She was reflecting on that cataclysmic row five years ago and its consequences.
The tears which she shed that night had made her father see where his priorities lay and true to his word he had put their relationship back on the rails.
He still lived in the tower block, fully sober and content to be on his own. The stepmother had left the next day to stay with her sister in Eastbourne, never to return.
Raz heard the front door shut as Will came in from work.
That was the other consequence from the row in the tower; her feelings for Will had grown into love and had been reciprocated. Marriage and the birth of the twins had followed.
Rapunzel felt warm and secure at last. Will and her father were her knights in shining armour. Rescuing her from the wicked witch and ending her imprisonment in the dark tower.
Danny’s learnt a new swear word at school,
Little Tim’s in trouble too,
Caught mooning at the girls in the pool!
Hours spent in A&E being stitched up,
Having bandages applied.
“That damned skate board!” Mum sighed.
Yet another pair of trousers wrecked!
Toys pulled apart to see how they work.
Shampoo down the loo.
Mud pies on the steps.
Worms in a jar.
The dog’s had a break down,
The cats moved next door.
Now they’ve been fed,
It’s up the wooden stairs to bed.
Tired from doing all those things.
Mum’s little angels with dirty wings.
Our story is endless.
We are there in its ancient beginnings.
The long dead speak through our mouths,
and all their distant horizons are mirrored in our eyes.
One and the same.
Our heartbeats have numbered each turning of the tide.
We have charted in sacred memory where our bleached
bones rail the sand and close marked the movement of
every silver shining beneath the green-deep sea.
Forever and forever.
Our one voice rides above the howling wind.
The ceaseless sea shall never wash our timeless
footprints from the sand.
During a writing group exercise to generate a story from a (now deleted) first line, a recent visit to the Hastings Shipwreck Museum came to my rescue.
My amazement at the size and history of the ancient boat rudders morphed into a science fiction story where a love of puns somehow linked computer memory sticks with a large lump of wood.
“Hi. Can I join you?”
Hearing a voice so close made me jump. “Sorry?”
“Do you mind if I sit down next to you?”
I squinted at the young man. The winter sun was low and shone into my eyes from behind his right ear, which glowed. His features were hidden in shadow.
Two groins away, a woman threw a stick for her dog and beyond that I could see a couple of beach fishermen. I’d been watching the Dunlin running on the sand and knew there was no one else around.
I tensed, shifting my weight on the pebbles to see him more clearly and taking the opportunity to move away a few inches. The man’s face was very pale and smooth, framed by straight, longish white-blond hair and he cradled a crash helmet under one arm. I guessed he was not more than about twenty years old.
“What do you want?” I sounded rude, but strangers don’t just turn up on an empty beach and ask to sit right next to you.
“Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be scared about.”
My heart thumped and my chest tightened. “What?” I was looking directly at him and his lips hadn’t moved.
“Please, can I explain?” Stones clattered as he fidgeted. “I need some help with recovering my data and when you passed me earlier I sensed that you were the right type.”
The ‘right type’? What did he want with me? My heart beat even harder as I wondered if I could get away from him. I glanced around. The woman and her dog had gone and the fishermen were out of earshot. I didn’t think I’d get very far trying to run on the loose pebbles.
I flicked a look at his crash helmet and remembered seeing him earlier. I’d noticed him because he’d looked so odd walking along the road near the museum, his slim frame topped with a round helmet; rather like a skinny lollypop.
“I need to get back,” I lied as I started to get up.
He ran his hands through his hair. “Please. I really need your help. I haven’t managed to find anyone else with quiet thoughts and I’m running out of time. Please will you give me the chance to explain?”
Perhaps I’d imagined the bit with the lips: or rather, without the lips. They were definitely moving as he spoke.
Although he appeared calm, there was a tightness around his eyes that spoke of stress, of tiredness. “It’s nothing scary or illegal, honestly. Please?”
If I agreed, I could start walking back to the fishermens huts and the safety of other people. “Ok, let’s walk and talk. I’m getting cold.”
I shivered and realised that this was true. Perspiration, triggered by my adrenaline rush, cooled my skin. “And what do you mean, ‘I have quiet thoughts’?”
He looked relieved. “Can I get to that in a minute? I’d like to explain what I am first and why I need your help.”
I ignored his outstretched hand and stood up.
He shoved his hand into the pocket of his denim jacket. “I’m a computer engineer, responsible for flight data. We now have all we need to leave this planet except the exact co-ordinates of our home, which we stored in a young oak tree in earth year 1019. It’s my task to retrieve this data and I need your help to do it.”
“Why an oak tree?” My voice cracked. Why on earth hadn’t I just told him to go away and find someone else to wind up?
The pale, slender alien faced me and explained as if to a child. “My kind have an affinity with stone and wood, we can occupy rocks and trees and store information in them. We had thought that the tree was lost – your race are so destructive with wood and stone, things that should last for many, many years. Some of our computers got damaged when we landed on earth, so we stored our data in several places, reasoning that not all could be damaged by natural catastrophes such as fire or earthquakes, but much has been lost, broken into small blocks for your dwellings, or burnt in stoves to warm them. We can’t recover our data from small pieces.”
He paused for breath. “It was by accident that I found the wood from one of the ancient trees in the building over there.” He gestured towards the Shipwreck Museum. “It had been cut down when it was a couple of hundred years old and used as a rudder for a boat.”
I became aware that I was gaping at him and closed my mouth. “I thought you couldn’t recover data from small pieces?” Tension made my voice sound sharp.
“Luckily, this piece is six metres long,” he grinned. It was the first time I’d seen him smile and it made him look even younger.
“What is your name?” I had so many questions, but only the trivial ones seemed to make it out of my mouth.
“Attis. And yours?”
We had reached the net huts just as a stream of school children rounded the nearest one, heading for the beach.
I heard a short cry from Attis and caught sight of his face, twisted in pain, as he pulled his helmet on. “They are so noisy!”
“What’s with the helmet?’ I was suspicious again. “Are you hiding from someone?”
Attis inclined his head towards me and lifted the visor. “No, nothing like that Kristy.”
I stared. “I didn’t tell you my name.”
Attis gave me a long hard look. “I know. That was deliberate on my part, so that you’d believe the rest of what I have to tell you. You see I ‘heard’ you answer me with your name, even though those children appeared and you didn’t say it out loud. I can hear your thoughts. I can hear everyone’s thoughts. That’s why I’m wearing this helmet – it screens me a little. Our race is telepathic, whereas humans broadcast, but don’t pick up except for the odd, ‘I was just thinking that’ comment and put it down to coincidence.”
He grimaced. “You all make so much noise and you have absolutely no idea!”
“Where are you from?” I half believed his story, but at the same time I expected to catch sight of a bunch of local students giggling and filming us for their art project.
Attis took a deep breath. “I come from a triple-star system that we call Hacate in the constellation of Scorpius, about twenty-two light years from here. Through some confusion your scientists call our planet and our star Gliese. We call our planet Lagina and it orbits the smallest of the three stars, which we do call Gliese.”
My words came out slowly. “Our scientists are confused about the name of your home planet… does this mean that they know you exist?”
“No, they don’t know about us. Well, only a couple. We occasionally influence people’s minds, but only on simple things – like the name of our planet, but those scientists obviously got confused. We rarely make contact because it has such an impact.”
“What sort of impact?” I asked.
The young man watched the school children walk down to the beach. “Copernicus, Newton, Darwin and Einstein. When we find humans with such intellect, we get tempted to help them sort out their theories.”
I realized that I believed his unlikely story of alien planets and telepathy. It all seemed so plausible, but, it didn’t stop me feeling rather scared of him: he had found it so easy to read my mind – what else could he do?
Attis surveyed the street and removed his helmet. “Look, now you believe me, please can I tell you how I need you to help? Please don’t be frightened.” He smiled reassuringly. “I won’t ask you to do anything wrong and we won’t hurt you or do anything weird to you. This isn’t a Sci-Fi movie.”
He raised his eyebrows at me and I realized, with a little jolt, that he knew those thoughts had just crossed my mind.
I relaxed a little and grinned sheepishly. “So what is it that you want me to do?”
“The wooden rudder is in the museum and all you need to do is put this,” Attis handed me a mug-sized chunk of wood, “up against the rudder and it will do the rest on its own. You could call it a memory stick – it works by induction and it will enable me to download the data I need.”
I studied the piece of wood: it was golden in colour, like polished oak. There was nothing to indicate that it was anything other than a section of branch. “Why can’t you do it?”
He frowned. “I started it off and have downloaded about eighty percent of the data, but I got thrown out. Twice.” His light green eyes rolled expressively.
He reminded me of my teenage daughter and I tried not to smile. “What did you do?”
Attis gave an irritated snort. “Well, the first time a coach load of tourists showed up unexpectedly and I fainted from the pain of all their thoughts. The staff found me and evidently thought I was drunk or on drugs, so I then tried to go back in with my helmet on and they thought I was going to steal something!”
I ran my hand over the wood. It felt cool and smooth under my fingers. “OK, I’ll do it. How will I know when it’s finished?”
“You won’t know. I’ll have to tell you.” Attis paused. “We need to practice telepathy – I have to make sure that we can ‘hear’ each other as you move away. I must be careful not to ‘deafen’ you or you will have a headache for days and you must project your thoughts more strongly as you move away.”
I thought back to the school children. “Won’t I hurt you?”
“No.” Attis seemed pleased at my concern. “As I said before, you have ‘quieter’ thoughts. I couldn’t have coped with a ‘louder’ human because of the noise level. The downside is that I may lose you, even though I have locked on to your mindprint.”
I rummaged in my pocket for some change. “I’ll get us some coffee and we can practice on the beach. I have so many questions I’d like to ask you.”
Attis ran his hands up through his hair in the gesture I was beginning to recognize. “Sorry – I really am running out of time. The spacecraft must leave tonight. The data will take about ten minutes to download and the museum closes in twenty minutes.” He looked agitated. “We will have to practice as you go in. ‘Think’ the questions at me and if you don’t hear my reply, ask me again, more strongly. Oh – and mentally shout ‘stop’ if I’m too loud. If you run out of questions, then just think ‘Hi’ again and again to keep in contact. I’ll do the same.”
I slipped off my jacket, draping it over my arm to hide the lump of wood. My heart was racing and I felt lightheaded. I took a deep breath to steady myself.
Attis brushed my shoulder and I heard a whispered ‘Thank you’ inside my head.
I thought, ‘That’s OK.’ and saw him wince slightly. I walked on a couple of metres and cautiously asked, ‘Is this better?’ I felt rather than saw him nod – a soft tingling over my scalp from my neck to eyebrows and back again.
I drew level with the museum and started thinking. ‘Hi… hi… hi.’ Back came the answering sensation of a nod.
A slim, older woman raised her eyes from her newspaper as I entered. “We close in fifteen minutes, dearie, so you’ll have to walk quickly!”
“Ok.” My blood was pounding in my ears, but I smiled back as pleasantly as I could and walked through the low arch and into the museum.
I’d been here in the summer, bringing visiting friends to look at local artifacts. The rudders were round this corner, yes! Damn it… ‘Rudders – three of them…which rudder is it?’
‘The 13th century one.’ I heard Attis’s voice in my head. I’d forgotten to keep ‘thinking’ after the encounter with the woman. Thankfully, we were still in contact. I glanced around trying not to look too shifty. Even though I couldn’t see any CCTV cameras, I decided to be cautious and made a show of fumbling with my coat to get a notebook out. I dropped it by the rudder and, under the pretence of picking it up, I slid the ‘memory stick’ from under my jacket and placed it behind the rudder.
I mentally called out. ‘Is it working?’
There was a short pause, then an answering, ‘Yes’ breathed into my mind on a sigh of relief.
‘What do I do now?’
‘Wait until it’s done,’ came Attis’s reply.
It felt awkward just standing there. I pulled out my pen and started copying down the notes about the rudder – it was a ‘side rudder’ used on the right or starboard side of the boat, the other side always being against the dock or jetty, hence ‘port-side’.
My mind wandered over Attis’s story. ‘What makes this so urgent? I know the museum is closing soon, but if you’ve been here for centuries, couldn’t you just wait until it re-opens tomorrow?’
Attis’s voice floated into my head. ‘The planets in this system are aligning tonight and will enable us to do a sequence of sling-shots to escape this solar system. My parents and the other elders arrived on earth as young men and women and they long to return home to Lagina before they die. The next alignment in 3707 will be too late. I was born here and, although I’d like to see my home planet, I am happy to stay on earth.
There will be other suitable planetary alignments, but they will require much more fuel – we would need another ISON-like comet to pass close enough to earth.’
I’d followed the articles about comet ISON and had hoped to see its bright tail when it emerged from behind the sun. ‘What has ISON got to do with it? I thought it burned up by getting too close to our sun?’
A mixture of amusement and regret came though. ‘We have a small craft that is capable of short journeys and uses solar energy. However, this technology only works close to stars, for the long interstellar distances we have to use a different fuel. We have been examining every comet and meteor that has come near earth for centuries. ISON was one of the rare ones to contain the compound we need as fuel, so we intercepted it behind the sun and extracted the cyanogen gas. As a result, the comet disintegrated and you didn’t get the display you all hoped for!’
How many years? I tried to do the sums in my head; the rudder is thirteenth century and the tree would have been a couple of hundred years old when it was cut down – going home this year – call it a thousand years! ‘How long do you live?’
‘We live on average the equivalent of 3,000 earth years. I’m nearly 659 earth years old, which is equal to just over twenty-one in a human lifespan.’
“Five minutes ‘til we close!”
I jumped and dropped my pad.
“You haven’t got very far, if you don’t run you won’t see the rest of the museum before we close.” The woman glanced at my notes as she picked up my pad. “Do you belong to the history society?”
I took the pad back. “Thanks. No, I’m doing research for a novel and wanted to look at the rudders, I won’t be much longer.”
She trotted away. “A writer are we? Don’t forget to mention us, dearie!”
‘Kristy? Can you hear me Kristy? What’s happened – it’s stopped downloading!’
I peered down, the woman must have knocked the rudder as she picked up my notebook. I pushed the piece of wood back into position. ‘Is it working?’
‘No – can you try tapping it? Again, harder.’
“What DO you think you are doing?” The woman’s shout startled me – I hadn’t heard her approach.
She looked really annoyed. “That’s it, we are now closed. You’ll have to come back in the morning if you want to carry on making notes.”
I felt my face go red. “Um, sorry, I was trying to work out what the rudder would sound like against the boat.”
She raised her eyebrows. It sounded really lame to me, too.
“You can come back with me.” She flapped her hand at me and sniffed.
‘Sixty seconds left.’ Attis’s voice sounded desperate. ‘You can’t leave it there!’
“It’ll only take me a minute to finish my notes,” I pleaded.
“Sorry dearie, I’ll not leave you here a moment longer.” She put her hand on my arm and steered me back towards the shop and the exit.
My mind was racing, I could feel Attis’s anxiety.
‘It’s done!’ As his shout exploded inside my head, I staggered and yelled. “Stop!”
The woman stared at me. With the pain of Attis’s shout still reverberating through my brain, I realised I had spoken out loud. I stuck my hand in my pocket and, ducking round her outstretched arm, I dashed back to the rudder and yelled. “My phone, I must have dropped it.”
I threw my jacket over the ‘memory stick’ and then stood up waving my phone. “Got it!”
Grasping the wooden block firmly, I sprinted past her towards the exit. “Thanks – see you tomorrow!”
My heart pounded so much I could hardly breathe, but I kept going until I was round the corner. I slumped against the wall and pressed my free hand to my forehead – the pain in my head was getting worse.
I opened my eyes as I heard Attis’s voice in my ear. “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have shouted at you – I was terrified I wouldn’t get it back.” His face swam in front of me a little out of focus.
“You were brilliant! Listen, your head will hurt for a few hours, you need to get away from people and rest. You won’t be able to ‘hear’ other people’s thoughts, but your brain will be sensitised and will continue to hurt if you stay around them. Take this.” Attis thrust a small cool pebble into my hand. “I have imbued this stone with a healing energy. Hold on to it all the while your head hurts and it will ease your pain. Can you walk ok?”
Gripping the pebble tightly as another wave of pain went through my head, I attempted a few steps away from the wall. I was unsteady, but could manage. “Yes – thanks.”
“I’m sorry to abandon you in this state, but I have to get back and load this data. My people will be so very grateful. Farewell!”
I watched Attis run up the road until he disappeared into the alleyway beside the pub. Everything had happened so fast – it didn’t seem real. Tiredness crept over me on the long slow walk home, but I was determined to write everything down, lest I forget.
Most of us are familiar with popular folk tales and their endings, good or bad. Suppose though, that an ending just happens to be a beginning…
He was still very young when he inherited the kingdom of St. Leonards-on-Sea, but he had promised his late father that he would get married as soon as he became King. In order to find himself a bride he issued a proclamation that all unattached girls between seventeen and twenty-one, together with their parents, should come to the palace to be interviewed.
There was one girl who was not only beautiful, but according to her father the poor miller, she had the ability to spin straw into gold.
“Fantastic,” said the King. “Let’s find out if that’s true.” So he locked her up in a room full of straw and said, “Ok, get weaving.”
The poor girl didn’t have the faintest idea how to spin straw into gold. Then, a dwarf appeared, spun the straw into gold and the gold into coins. She rewarded him with a necklace.
The King wanted more and led her to another room. The funny creature turned up again. He did the spinning and she gave him a ring. However, the third time when the king arranged to marry the girl if she could convert an even bigger room into a treasure house, she had nothing more to give her helper, so she settled for a promise. She was going to give him her first-born child.
Came the time when the child arrived and who should show up promptly at the palace – she was Queen now – but the ugly little man to claim the child.
The story goes that the dwarf said, “If you can find out my name in three days you can keep your child, if not, the child is mine.”
The Queen managed to find out his name – a very strange one – Rumpelstiltskin.
The Queen asked, “Are you called Rumpelstiltskin?”
The little man shrieked. “A witch has told you, a witch has told you!” And he stamped his right foot so hard into the ground with rage that he could not draw it out again.
Then he took hold of his left leg with both hands and pulled away so hard that his right came off in the struggle and he hopped away howling terribly.
The story goes on to say that nothing more was heard of our friend the ugly – now one-legged – Rumpelstiltskin, but nothing could be further from the truth.
He re-surfaces again twenty years later. A lot can happen in twenty years.
(Incidentally, there was nothing sinister about Rumpelstiltskin asking for the Queen’s baby. He wanted to give it to his sister who couldn’t have one of her own and needed to adopt.)
The King and the Queen, (formerly the miller’s daughter) and their child, a little girl by the way, lived not exactly ‘Happy Ever After,’ but everything went well for quite a while. Then things went wrong.
The King had always been very careless with money. No need to worry, he always felt, if you’ve got a wife who can turn a roomful of straw into gold overnight.
In any case, he had three large rooms each one bigger than the other, full of the stuff. All he had to do, whenever he needed to pay the street cleaner or the park keepers or his soldiers and all the people who keep a kingdom in good working order, was to pop into one of those rooms and fill his pockets full of gold.
He was a very popular King. Because he felt he had plenty of money, he didn’t bother to collect any taxes and he threw his money about, literally. He would go for a drive in his carriage every morning and throw a few handfuls of gold coins to the left and to the right to the people who lined his route and he waved to them as they scrambled for the money on all fours.
It was great fun to be so rich.
But one morning, he went to his treasury to get out some more gold. He was going for his ride in the park and needed money to throw out of his carriage windows. People would be most upset if he went past without throwing money as usual.
He went first to the smaller room and looked in. Empty! All the gold had gone. He tried the bigger room. Same story! Feeling a bit annoyed, he opened the huge room and all he could find was one gold coin that had got stuck in a crack in the floorboards and a bale of straw in the corner which, somehow or other, hadn’t been changed into gold.
“Oh well,” he said. “I suppose I better get some more straw in and get the Queen to change it into gold.”
Being a practical person in spite of his carelessness over money, he called in at the local Seed and Corn Merchants and ordered several loads of straw to be delivered to the palace.
Then he went looking for the Queen.
The Queen was in her parlour eating, not just bread and honey, but an enormous breakfast. Six fried eggs, slices and slices of yummy toast and lots and lots of sausages, battled for space on her breakfast platter with nicely done tomatoes, mushrooms and crisp rashers of bacon. A steaming coffee pot stood close by filling the air with a delicious aroma.
The Queen, of course, had put on a lot of weight, but she didn’t care. She was happy.
She had just finished her breakfast and was about to go to work on a gigantic box of chocolates, when the King came in.
“What do YOU want?” she said gruffly, annoyed at being interrupted in her most favourite of occupations – popping chocolates into her mouth. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, you could spin some straw into gold,” he said, trying to help himself to a chocolate, before she snatched them out of his way.
“What?” she said sharply.
“Can’t you just spin a little bit?”
“Spin?” she said.
“Yes,” said the king.
“SPIN?” she said in a threatening way. “SPIN?” She got up and towered above him. He was only a very short King.
“Yes,” he said. “I need the money and I’ve ordered the straw.”
“Well you can just go and cancel it again,” she said. “Queens don’t do any spinning.”
“You used to.”
“That was twenty years ago,” she said angrily, her treble chins wobbling with rage. “I’m QUEEN now. Queens don’t do any spinning. Get a kitchen maid to do it.”
“That’s what you were before I married you,” said the King.
The Queen picked up the gigantic box of chocolates and threw it at the King so hard that the contents scattered in all directions. Some of the chocolates with soft centres left gooey messes on the walls and on the door and some stuck to the ceiling.
“How dare you talk to me like that. Get out!” she shouted.
She started throwing anything she could lay her hands on at the King. Candlesticks, framed photographs, shepherdesses made out of porcelain, vases, flower pots…
The King managed to escape with only superficial cuts and bruises, but he did manage to pick up a couple of chocolates from the gigantic box that the Queen had thrown at him and pop them into his mouth. This made the Queen even more furious and she redoubled her efforts to cause him a serious injury, but the King had made good his escape.
The King was sitting in his counting house with his head in his hands, when a footman brought him a card.
“What’s this?” said the King wearily.
“There’s a person to see you, your Majesty,” said the footman.
Being called, ‘Your Majesty’ cheered him up tremendously. After all he was the King.
He turned the card over – he had been looking at the blank side. The inscription on the card read:
RUMPELSTILTSKIN & SUPERMAN INC.
All impossible tasks undertaken
Consult us now and make your problems
“Show them in,” he said graciously.
“There’s only one, Your Majesty,” said the footman.
“Oh is there?” said the King. “Wheel him in then, wheel him in.”
In came in the ugliest person the King had ever come across. A dwarf with a wooden leg – so horrible looking that he would have made the Phantom of the Opera or the Hunchback of Notre Dame look like Rudolf Valentino.
The King looked at the card again and then at the one-legged dwarf and said, “Which one are you?”
“What?” said the dwarf.
“Are you Superman or are you Rumpelstiltskin?” said the King patiently.
“Oh I see,” said the dwarf. “I’m Rumpelstiltskin. Superman used to be my partner, but we split up. Slight difference of opinion, but I kept the old visiting cards. Waste not, want not, if you know what I mean?”
“Quite,” said the King. He looked at the card again and then tapped it with a finger. “It says here you undertake impossible tasks?”
“That’s right,” said Rumpelstiltskin.
“Right,” said the King. “Can you spin straw into gold?”
“No problem,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “Got any straw?”
“I’ve got a bit,” said the King. “But I’ve put in an order for a load and that should be arriving in a day or two.”
“Well,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “I could get on with what you’ve got. There’s nothing like the present and a journey of a hundred miles begins with the first step.”
“Quite so,” said the King and he led Rumpelstiltskin to the largest of the three chambers, which still had that one bale of straw in it.
Next morning the King stood outside the largest of the three chambers and knocked on the door. “Rumpelstiltskin?” he called. “Are you there?”
“Ye-es,” came the reply.
The door opened and Rumpelstiltskin handed the King three gold coins.
“What’s this?” he said.
“Gold,” said Rumpelstiltskin.
“Three gold pieces?” said the King.
“Yes,” said Rumpelstiltskin.
“Is that all?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“But there was a whole bale of straw,” the King wailed.
“So?” said Rumpelstiltskin.
“Twenty years ago, I would have got three large bags of gold out of a bale of straw.”
“That was twenty years ago,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “That’s inflation for you. You need a good few bales of straw to make one bag of gold coins, let alone three, nowadays.”
“Oh well,” said the King. “I’ll have to order much more straw then.”
“Right,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “Let me know when it arrives and I’ll get busy then, but in the meantime there’s another little matter we have to discuss.”
“Oh, is there?” said the King, “What?”
“Yes,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “You don’t expect me to work for nothing?”
“Work for nothing?” said the King, taken aback a little. “Oh I see… no of course not… no I can’t expect you to work for nothing… what do you want?”
“Your daughter,” he said. “I want to marry your daughter.”
“What,” cried the King. “Out of the question!”
“Take it or leave it,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “No daughter, no gold.”
“Really,” said the King. “Have you seen my daughter?”
“Yes, she is very beautiful.”
“Exactly,” said the King. “And have you looked in the mirror lately?”
“What’s that got to do with it?” said Rumpelstiltskin. “Well, I’m not going to stand here and argue about it. As I said – no daughter – no gold. It’s up to you.”
“Can I think about it?” said the King. “And I’d better talk to the wife.”
“Yes,” said Rumpelstiltskin. “Do that. You can have three days to make up your mind.”
He limped off and the King went back to the Queen’s chamber and knocked on the door.
“It’s me,” said the King.
“Well you can take yourself off,” yelled the Queen. “The answer’s still ‘No!’”
“It’s all right,” said the King. “You don’t have to do any spinning. It’s something else altogether.”
“What then?” yelled the Queen through the still closed door.
“Somebody wants to marry our daughter,” the King called out.
The Queen opened the door. “That’s different, why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
She had a fresh box of chocolates in her hand and was popping the chocolates in her mouth one after the other.
“Have a chocolate,” she said, offering the King one. “Who is this person who wants to marry our daughter?”
“He’s a stranger.”
“A visiting prince?”
“Not exactly,” said the King. “But I suppose you could call him a prince. A merchant prince.”
“A merchant prince! What may that be?”
“One that makes plenty of money. That would come in useful.”
“Money,” said the Queen. “We don’t need any money. We’ve got plenty of money.”
“No we haven’t,” said the King. “That’s why I wanted you to spin some straw into gold.”
“We’re back to that again, are we?” said the Queen. “What’s the princeling’s name?”
“Oh, he’s got a funny name.”
“Rumpelstiltskin,” said the King.
“Rumpel… stilts… Rump… Rump…” yelled the Queen. “No… no… no… not Rumpelstiltskin.” She fell down in a dead faint with a gigantic crash that sent shock waves through the whole of the palace.
They threw buckets of water over her and when she came to she was attacked by a terrible bout of hiccupping that nothing could cure.
So the King was left to make his own mind up about their beautiful daughter and Rumpelstiltskin.
Three days later, on the dot, Rumpelstiltskin called on the King.
“Well?” said Rumpelstiltskin.
“How about a quarter of my kingdom?” said the King.
“No,” said Rumpelstiltskin.
“I could make you an Earl.”
“A Duke then?”
But Rumpelstiltskin shook his head. “I’ll be off then,” and started stumping out of the Palace.
“Wait… wait… wait.” the King moaned.
Rumpelstiltskin stopped and half-turned. “Yes?”
“How about if you marry one of the Ladies of the Bedchamber?”
Rumpelstiltskin turned and made for the door again.
“All right, all right,” wailed the King. “You can marry my daughter. I need the money. I’m broke. I’ve been a fool.”
“A fool and his money are soon parted,” said Rumpelstiltskin.
Well, the King’s daughter and Rumpelstiltskin got married – the beautiful Princess and the ugly, one-legged much older dwarf. Strangely enough, they lived happily ever after.
What about the King? Did he ever get his gold? The answer is no, he didn’t. Rumpelstiltskin double-crossed him, but for the good of the kingdom.
The people began to see what a show-off the King had been. By throwing his money about and not collecting any taxes, he had made everyone in the kingdom lazy and dissatisfied.
As soon as it became known how broke he was, the people turned against him and deposed him. He left the palace and moved in with the old Miller.
Rumpelstiltskin became King and the beautiful Princess his Queen. He didn’t need to spin straw into gold. He was a clever businessman and got everyone off their backsides and beavering away. In no time the country was booming and everyone got rich.
And what about the old Queen? Nobody was able to cure her hiccups. They tried jumping out and startling her. Didn’t work. They tried turning her upside down (that needed three strong men) and making her drink a glass of water while standing on her head (with four men holding her legs – two to a leg.) Didn’t work. They tried acupuncture and the Alexander technique. They tried homeopathic concoctions, they tried ancient incantations, they consulted healers and mystics and venerable fakirs who normally spend all their time lying about on beds of nails. Nothing worked. She continued to hiccup.
Rumpelstiltskin, now the King and the beautiful Princess, now the Queen, had children at regular intervals, year after year after year. There were endless celebrations and parties. The Queen Mother was there and hiccupped throughout the festivities, unable to eat.
As a result, she achieved her life’s ambition, which was to lose weight so she could wear all the beautiful designer gowns she had ordered shortly after her marriage to the old King.
She had been too fond of the good life and, although she had the best of intentions, she never had the willpower. But now they all fitted her again.
And so, as Rumpelstiltskin pointed out, the hiccupping proved a blessing in disguise.
The inspiration for the opening of this story came from a relative telling me the correct timing for soft-boiled eggs.
Watching the water, Ann thought that generations of Lawrence women had prepared boiled eggs in this exact way Edward had instructed her on their honeymoon.
“My mother’s eggs were always done to perfection and she had been taught by her husband’s mother, so we shall have no reason to do otherwise.”
Thoughts of her honeymoon and falling back through history prompted visions of the lift shaft, so Ann focused on the water forming small bubbles. Now the timing could begin.
The eggs cooked, Ann carried them to the dining room where Edward waited with expectant patience.
“Thank you, darling.” he smiled. “You are looking most attractive this morning. You suit that dress very well.”
Ann knew Edward’s compliment to be self-congratulatory. After the death of his mother, ‘a woman of impeccable taste,’ he’d carefully sorted through her clothes, the best of which he’d selected for Ann. He insisted he knew what suited her, her size and body shape and he always accompanied her on shopping trips. He liked to flatter himself that he had inherited his mother’s eye for detail and quality.
Ann opened her napkin, laid it on her lap and spread butter on her toast. She did not like eggs. “What news today, Edward?” She was skilled at deflecting her husband’s attention away from herself. And she knew this suited Edward’s requirements, that a wife should be modest and passive at all times.
Edward sliced the top from his egg with the precision of an executioner. “Well, the Prime Minister agrees with the Foreign Secretary that we cannot allow Hitler to have a free hand in Europe. The markets are distinctly nervous. Stable at the moment, but I’m sure it is only a matter of time.” Carefully, he balanced a spoonful of egg before taking it neatly towards his mouth and chewing with relish.
Ann averted her eyes, preferring not to witness Edward’s appetites. “Will it matter to Lawrence and Partners?”
Smiling, Edward inclined his head towards the tea things. “We at the insurance end will of course feel the effects, but not too badly and as you know I am rather well set up for any eventuality. Thanks both to my parents’ money and my position as senior partner at the company.”
Ann poured tea from the beautiful Victorian teapot that had been a wedding present given by her mother- in- law and which, privately, Ann thought looked incongruous in such a modern setting. “But I do worry. You know I think we should sell this apartment. It is worth rather a lot of money and we could move; go inland where there are trees and birdsong rather than the constant screech of seagulls. Buy gold. Gold always retains its value, whatever happens on the world markets. You taught me that.”
Edward laughed and laying his hand, with what she imagined he thought to be comforting reassurance on her arm, cautioned; “Now Ann we have discussed this many times, too many. I have invested wisely and you have absolutely no reason to worry. Whatever happens, you and I have a lifetime of comfort and security ahead of us. You must trust my judgement, my dear.”
Ann sighed. “I do Edward, I do, but you know how I hate this apartment. Everywhere I look is sea, sea, sky and harsh relentless light.”
Her husband wiped his mouth meticulously with his napkin before lifting the teacup to his lips. Ann waited. She knew he was annoyed with her for introducing, yet again, the idea of moving from Marine Court, the tallest apartment block in the country and an icon to Art Deco architecture.
“You know I love this apartment and have no intention of moving, Ann.”
Ann was well aware he considered the modern apartment a tribute to a man of his position and an indication of not only how cultured and abreast he was of modern thinking, but also perfect for the rare occasions when he would decide it was appropriate for certain colleagues or business associates and their wives to come for dinner. He was proud of his wife’s skill as a cook and as equally jealous of sharing her company with others. Ann hated cooking and hated how the presence of guests increased Edward’s pompousness and self-satisfaction.
She took a deep breath. “I would love a house with a garden and trees that give shade, somewhere I could grow flowers for the house.” Enthusiasm added vigour to her voice. “It would give me something to occupy my time and you love fresh flowers.”
Edward’s complexion darkened as he cleared his throat. “Fresh flowers we can buy at any time. You can see green in Warrior Square Gardens, a pleasant enough place to walk and sit. Many women would envy you.”
Ann monitored the mood of her husband as he settled his teacup back onto its saucer with an irritated clatter.
“No money worries, someone to help with the cleaning, books to read and music to listen to. Should we want to dine out we have a choice of three restaurants without even needing to leave the Court.” He screwed his napkin into a tight ball. “Not to mention a husband who comes home each day early enough to spend the evenings with you, instead of going to his club like other husbands.” He carefully folded the abused napkin, using his broad thumb to press home the creases.
Worried she may have said ‘if only,’ aloud, she hastened to mollify him. “I know you love it, Edward and I’m sorry to displease you by wanting to move, but for one thing, doesn’t the crankiness of the lift ever get you down? It so often stops working and then there are all those stairs to walk up and down until Mr Andrews is able to get the engineer in.”
Edward unfolded his napkin and drew his second egg towards him. “Talking of Andrews, he wasn’t in the entrance foyer when I returned from the office yesterday, so I imagine his cat is still unwell?”
Resigned to and relieved by the escape route offered, Ann explained. “The vet prescribed medicine to be given at strict times if the animal is to have any chance of recovery. That is why Andrews wasn’t at his usual post. He’ll also be with the cat this morning as it takes him time to persuade Hector to take his dose.”
Edward, who always ate faster when agitated, had finished eating. Ann gathered the breakfast dishes and took them to the kitchen. “When I return from my walk, Mr Andrews will be back at his desk and I shall enquire after the cat.” Quickly, she collected her coat from the hall wardrobe, anxious to leave. She knew herself to be on dangerous ground. Her husband followed her. Edward did not like her to argue with him, but doing so risked arousing his interest in her.
She felt Edward consider her before he spoke. “Off for your walk? I shall be leaving shortly. Let us hear no more of the inconvenient lift. The stairs are good exercise, they keep us trim and active and Andrews did say the lift might be operating this morning. So check and if the warning notice has gone you will be able to avoid all those stairs. We don’t want you getting tired.” He took her coat, holding it for her, a half-smile on his full lips. “Have a good day and I look forward to seeing you this evening.”
Ann hurried to the front door, her heart pounding, knowing his words would come as surely as the victim hears the returning footsteps of their torturer.
“Wear a nightdress, not pyjamas, tonight please, Ann.”
Ann closed the heavy apartment door and leaned against it. She should have kept quiet, managed Edward, as many women in books and magazines claimed to manage their husbands. Kept him satisfied with his favourite dishes, an evening of the classical music he loved. Allowed him to explain the news; draw her attention to the important points of the book he chose for her. Now her whole day would be coloured by dread.
She stared across the wide landing towards the lift, where the images of open doors and falling into oblivion danced across her mind. Each time the lift ‘played up,’ the impulse became stronger. The open ‘birdcage’ lift that allowed a clear view of the shaft did not help. She frequently wished the lift to be one of the less fashionable, enclosed designs.
Hesitating – a novice diver wavering between the walk to the end of the high board or the steps to safety – Ann gnawed her lip, looked towards the stairs, then back again to the lift gates. Until, like a somnambulist, she slowly walked towards the lift.
The dizzying drop of the empty shaft gradually revealed itself to her and relaxed the stone talons of anxiety that gripped her stomach. Perspiration trickled into her eyes, blurring her vision, so that she nearly missed the notice warning against opening the lift doors that had fallen from its hook and lay balanced precariously between the concertinaed gates and the landing floor. Fixing her eyes on the stairs, she stretched out a foot and nudged the notice over the edge and into the lift shaft.
Wiping her face with a handkerchief, Ann began quickly descending the stairs. It was nine o’clock. Thankfully, Andrews, a punctual man, would be with his pet today and not behind his desk. Always aware of the times residents left the building and returned, he even knew if she had been shopping or to the square or had walked the promenade by the length of time she was absent from the building.
Edward found him most reliable and was happy knowing Ann was kept safe by his vigilance. Nobody entered or left the building without Andrew’s knowledge. He would be equally as punctual and reliable with his beloved cat’s medicine.
Twelve floors below, slumped behind the reception counter in the large mirrored foyer, sat Andrews. Hector had died despite his and the vet’s best efforts. He sat gazing into space, reflecting how the last time he had felt such wretchedness was with the loss of his wife. Her suicide had been such a shock.
His reverie, distracted by a sudden movement in the mirrored wall, he left his chair and walked to the lift shaft where, looking towards the basement, he could see the lift roof. Lying on top of it was what must be one of the warning notices.
Simultaneously, the echo of a woman’s footsteps descending the stairs travelled down the shaft. About time too, her apartment door had closed some while ago. He returned to his chair and waited for Mrs Lawrence to appear.
Now there was a woman he admired. Attractive in a refined way, beautiful figure, elegantly dressed, and none of this ‘independence’ nonsense. A woman obedient to her husband’s wishes, all any man wanted.
Andrews took pride that her husband checked with him that his wife was at home when he came back at the end of his working day. He liked to imagine a sort of unspoken agreement existed between them, that Andrews would look out for Ann Lawrence.
“It is so good to have an ex-police officer responsible for the building, most reassuring in these difficult times,” Mr Lawrence had told Andrews. Thankfully, Mr Lawrence was innocent both that he had been forced to leave the police force because of accusations of coercion and that his fantasies of Mrs Lawrence involved her husband’s death.
Ann appeared in the large entrance hall. “Oh! But you’re – g – good morning, Mr Andrews.” The panic in her voice told him she hadn’t expected him to be in the foyer.
Andrews lifted his head. “Good morning, Mrs Lawrence.” He watched as the struggle to recover her poise chased shock from her face.
She walked to the counter. “I trust your cat is making a good recovery and the medicine is working well?” She placed her gloved hands on the counter’s shiny surface, one hand nervously pulling at a finger of the other.
He sighed and looked down at his large hands. “Sadly, he died early this morning, Mrs Lawrence.”
“Oh, Mr Andrews I – how sad. I am so sorry. But the medicine…”
“It had no effect. I have been sitting here ever since thinking of him. People have been very kind. You and Mr Lawrence are the last to leave the building. It is good to see people – occupies my mind.”
He was aware of Ann growing calmer as she asked questions, concentrated on his replies and said words to sooth them both. Then, after a quick glance at her watch, she left through the revolving doors.
As she walked, Ann reasoned it was highly unlikely Andrew’s had seen the notice fall down the shaft unless he’d been looking in that direction and if he had he would, or course, have shouted a warning and rushed up the stairs. Comforted by these thoughts, she enjoyed the sea view and wandered towards Warrior Square Gardens where, feeling wonderfully in the moment, she admired the spring daffodils.
Andrews sat and waited. The art deco clock moved towards nine thirty. He reflected that a shared feature of the residents was their punctuality, their reliability. High above, the sound of the Lawrence’s front door opening and closing for the second time that morning echoed down the lift shaft. He heard the lift gates slam open and then the scream of terror.
This time he did not need the hall mirrors to reflect the falling body, screaming, falling and landing with a sickening thud on the lift roof in the basement far below. The silence was unnerving.
He lifted the telephone, the shock in his voice clear to the police officer who answered his call to the station.
“This is Marine Court, come quickly officer, there has been a terrible accident.”
Since being introduced to the Hornblower books as a child, the Napoleonic war at sea has fascinated me. C.S. Forester’s descriptive English inspired this story.
The reader should not seek out a heated shot battery on the cliffs at Hastings, it only exists in my imagination.
The red hot missiles left smoky streaks in the sky as they fell among the small French flotilla. The French had already landed raiding parties, burned houses at Dungeness and received a bloody nose at Rye.
Trying their mettle at Hastings might prove costly. A post rider had lathered two horses bringing the news. ‘The French are out.’ The warning enabled the shot furnaces to be lighted and the nine-pound cannon balls heated.
The Sussex Yeomanry’s aim proved poor and only one hit was scored on a small frigate. The remaining vessels headed out to sea and out of range. Wooden ships and red hot shot are a dangerous mixture and the French were after easier pickings.
At sea, the frigate’s crew were desperately trying to cool the missile where it lay embedded at the foot of the main mast. They might have succeeded if the ready-use powder hadn’t taken fire. A series of small explosions decimated the crew and felled the mast. The end, inevitable, dead in the water, the vessel drifted, burned close to the water-line and sank in a cloud of smoke and steam.
I stood on the beach under the East Cliff observing the drama as it developed. When the cliff top battery opened fire the noise of the salvos and the clouds of gun smoke were spectacular. I was concerned with the possibility that I would have to set fire to my own boat where she lay on the shingle. If I didn’t, once they landed, the French would.
The Militia had mustered to repel the raiders, but they were mostly dandies and old men. Against French Marines they would have fared very badly.
The boat is my life and my living. Built in Rye to my father’s wishes, the Maid of Rye has the fairest underwater form of any boat in the Hastings fleet. Although similar to the other local fishing cutters, she is knots faster at all points of sailing. My father had been a fisherman and a smuggler and he excelled at both callings.
My inheritance; the Maid of Rye and a small alehouse called the Cat’s Paw. The alehouse has a large cellar and the Maid of Rye gave me the finest apprenticeship a seaman could have wished for.
With the remaining French fleeing and the frigate sunk, I sent my cabin boy to the stables to order the six dray horses we needed to drag my boat off the beach and into the water.
“We are fourth in a queue of five,” he piped on his return.
“So be it. Off you trot to the Cat’s Paw and tell Ben and George we launch in a half hour.”
My crew; two men and the lad, enough for the Maid. Ben Styles had sailed with my father and if he could ever stay off the rum he could skipper his own vessel. When sober he is cunning and competent, when in drink he is savage as a bear. George Mills is a clown, a big, strong lump of a man who is always smiling and follows me like a hound.
With the French gone out to sea, I was not alone in thinking of providing succour to the crew of the sunken frigate, with maybe a small bonus to be culled from the flotsam. The horses were dragging the second boat into the water as we climbed aboard the Maid and prepared her for sea.
I had no real plan in mind. Just go to the site of the sinking, assess the situation, do what we could and then go up channel for a day’s fishing.
No rush, plenty of time before our midnight rendezvous with a French fishing lugger who worked out of Le Havre and should be carrying twenty small barrels of brandy and ten bolts of pure silk looking for a new owner. Until then we were as free as the air with the hope that the French raiding flotilla stayed clear of the rendezvous area and the revenue cutter from Dover remained in port.
I wondered where the raiders had sailed from. It would be interesting to know. Since Trafalgar, the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet had the major ports under close blockade and to miss half a dozen vessels in one flotilla was unusual.
The horse team pulled us through the shallows and the traces were unhooked. Ben and George unshipped the sweeps and began to row the vessel into the surf while the boy and I hoisted the mainsail. The Westerly breeze was fair and the Maid picked up speed rapidly. “Boat the oars and set the foresails.”
The last got me a disparaging look from Ben. They know their business, but I love to play the Captain. As I took the tiller the ship came alive, leaning to the task and shaking her head at the breakers; the very best part of any trip or voyage.
There was a full scale melee at the scene of the sinking, with three vessels criss-crossing as they tried to be the first to recover people, dead or alive and chattels. All three were members of the ‘Hastings Brethren,’ a small group of skippers who smuggle and operate together. They have a series of caves, ‘St Clements’ under the West Cliff, where they store their contraband, not having the advantage of my commodious cellar at the Cat’s Paw. We are in competition, but there is such a demand for our style of goods that it is never an issue. I prefer my independence. They prefer to work in company.
We reduced sail and drifted up to the carnage. Boxes and barrels, spars and rigging, drowning men and corpses littered the surface.
“Drop the mainsail and rig a tackle on the boom,” I ordered. Recovering barrels or men from the sea to the deck is always a challenge. “Hang a length of net on the hook and we will see what we catch.”
Two or three Frenchmen were clinging to a grating some twenty feet from the side of the boat. I took all the forward way off of her and George swung the boom outboard while Ben let the net down just short of the trio. With a combination of hand signals, curses and my limited French we persuaded them to transfer their grip to the net. My crew laid onto the tackle and hoisted them clear of the water. The lad and I hauled in the boom and three wet and miserable seamen were deposited on the deck.
“Check ‘em for weapons and give ‘em a tarpaulin to huddle under. Put them for’ard by the bowsprit.”
I took in the foresail sheet and we ghosted deeper into the debris field. There was a likely looking barrel and what appeared to be a sea chest floating just ahead.
Heaving to, I looked the boy in the eye. “I need you to ride the net and catch me those items, lad.”
A shadow of doubt crossed his face. “I will get pretty wet.”
“You will,” I replied. “But you are the lightest and I will give you first pick when we open the chest.”
He puffed out his own chest. “Leave it to me skipper, I can do it.”
We secured him to the hook with a lanyard about his waist so if things went horribly wrong we would have something for his mother to bury. He grasped the net and we swung him outboard. Manning the sweeps we nudged the Maid up to the flotsam until it was close by the starboard side.
“Oh my God,” gasped the lad. “There’s a body roped to the chest.”
There was too. A length of cod line was tied off to one of the chest’s rope handles and then secured to the wrist of a body. The poor devil had been badly burnt and what was left of his clothing was charred and scorched.
“Cut the line and tie it off to the net, we can deal with him later,” I ordered. Boys love their knives and in a trice the line was severed and the corpse secured to the net.
“Open the net and work the chest into it, look lively boy or we will lose the barrel.” It was drifting down tide towards Davey Smith’s Seawitch and he would love to wipe my eye. The boy was clinging to the net with one hand and trying to capture the chest with the other.
“Can you swim, lad?”
“Then let go of the bloody net and get after it.”
With a long suffering look he slipped down into the water and thus made good progress with his task. With the chest captured, I shouted. “Hang on.”
I kicked the Frenchmen to their feet and laid their hands on the tackle line. After a small confusion they got the message and laid into the lift. My crew swung the boom inboard over the bulwark and the load was lowered to the deck.
The Frenchmen were chattering like starlings and staring at the body. With a mixture of gesticulations and pigeon French I got them to understand that I needed to know who or what the dead man was. It seemed that he was the frigate’s surgeon and not long on board. Not very promising. Doctors are not famous for their worldly wealth.
“George, put the froggies back in the bow and tell them to pipe down.” Now for the barrel which had drifted almost up to the Seawitch. “Yours or mine, Davey?”
“Take it, Daniel,” he replied. “I have three already, one with salt beef and two with drinking water that is now foul with salt.”
“Are you going in, Davey?”
“I am. I have some good oars and blocks and got a dozen live and two dead frogs to deliver to the Militia. Shall I drop the beef at the Cat’s Paw?”
“If you would be so kind, I will settle with you later. Would you deliver three live seamen and a dead doctor? I am off to the fishing now that I have launched.”
He agreed and we bumped gunwales while I got the Frenchmen to carry the doctor’s body over the rail.
During the exchange I sat on the chest as if it was the most natural thing.
We sent the net and the lad over the side again to capture the barrel. Easily done and once inboard I rolled it to the bulwark and secured it.
“Young shaver, go and find dry britches, but keep the wet set by in case you need another swim.”
Davy shoved off and the other two boats appeared to be gleaning fewer items from the wreckage.
“Let’s go fishing lads, full sail and I will take us down to the White Horse Shoals.”
The fish we caught were to go into tubs, not the fish hold. Once the contraband was on board it would be stowed under a false deck in the hold and the fish shot onto the deck to give the impression of a fine catch, should the revenuers come on board for a search.
The Maid ran away on a broad reach with the portside bulwark nearly dipping and the spray coming inboard by the cap full. It was time to check the booty.
“Nipper ‘tis your privilege, open the chest.”
It was a fine item with nicely made joints and deep carvings of a whale hunt on the front and sides. The lad knelt before the chest and fumbled with the brass turnbuckles that secured the lid. He pulled back the hasps and opened the chest. Everything inside was soaked through. On the top, a carefully folded blue serge topcoat.
“Hang that somewhere to dry; it will sell at market unless it fits one of you.”
George complied and hung the coat from the boom.
“Check the pockets,” I drawled with a wink.
The unpacking continued, some shirts and small clothes, hand knitted socks and silk stockings. A leather case came to light, beautifully fitted with a whole range of surgeon’s instruments.
“Dry those carefully, dip them in lantern oil and set them aside somewhere safe until the case dries out. What have you found next, boy?”
His eyes were glistening; in his hand was a shallow tray with a scattering of gold and silver coins. “Can I really keep these, captain?” His voice was breaking and shrill.
“That was my word lad, you earned them and you keep them.” I eased the helm as the wind shifted. “Keep digging, we aren’t at the bottom yet.”
Some papers with the ink running, soaking books that would go over the side and a small metal flask, battered and blackened. I straddled the tiller, asked the lad to pass the flask to me and pulled the stopper. It was empty, but for a pervasive scent of patchouli. I stripped off my neckerchief and gave the metal a rub, might it be silver? A pale green smoke started to pour from the neck…
In spite of the stiff breeze the smoke remained coalesced in a cloud that moved slowly along the deck of the Maid. We watched open-mouthed as the mist formed into the shape and form of a man. The ghost had little substance and the mast could be seen through as if through fog. What was clear was that the spectre had all the appearance of the deceased doctor; the part-burned clothes and the savage burns were plain to see.
The lad dropped to his knees and clasped his hands in supplication. George growled as his hand dropped to the hilt of his knife and Ben stepped back to join me at the tiller. My mouth went dry and my heart pounded. What on God’s ocean had we uncovered?
“Luff her up, we need to see what manner of hellishness we have here, Daniel,” Ben whispered.
I put up the helm and the Maid came into the wind with the sails flapping and the main and mizzen booms swinging restlessly.
The doctor’s form moved with agonising slowness to the open chest and looked inside. It was of course empty after our search for booty.
“Mon livre, ou est mon livre?” His voice was cracked and fractured. We stared at each other without understanding.
“Mon livre, mon livre, mon livre.” His voice rose with an increasing note of desperation. His arms raised as if in a plea, he cast about the deck until his eyes lit on the pile of books and papers we had set aside to dump over the rail.
He scuttled across the deck, stooped and began to search through the soaking pile. The spectre straightened up with a slim leather-bound book in his hands. The howl of anguish was heart-rending. He had attempted to open the book, but found the pages stuck together.
“George, fetch me the finest scalpel from the lamp oil pot.” I needed to act, if the apparition wanted the book open, I would try my best. Anything to speed his departure from my ship. “Dry it carefully and give it to the ghost.”
“Not bloody likely, if you want ‘im to have the scalpel, you give it ‘im.”
I took the instrument and with my pulse racing I approached the doctor and stretched out my hand for the book. He seemed most reluctant to tender it until I showed him the scalpel and mimed slitting the edges of the pages. Up close he had more substance. He gave me the book, I grasped it and backed away.
With extreme care, I worked the blade of the scalpel between the pages. They were made from very thick vellum which eased my task and only the first half-inch or so had taken up the water. Sheet by sheet I opened the book. Never had I seen such strange writing. The pages were filled with squiggles and lines, the like of which I had never observed before. The scent of patchouli enveloped me. I looked up. The ghost approached me. He held out his hands and took the book and scalpel. Retreating to the gunwale he continued the work I had started, slowly separating the pages.
As each page was disclosed he read the content avidly, shook his head and continued with the task. Then, a cry of joy. He had discovered what he had been seeking.
Pacing the deck, he read aloud from the pages he had exposed. The language was strange and unlike any I had ever heard. It certainly was not English, French or Dutch, these I knew well enough. His voice rose and fell as he spoke and his free arm moved in an increasingly violent manner. Pausing the reading, he cast about the deck until he discovered the flask lying where I had dropped it in shock when the cloud had appeared. He picked it up and made the motion of drinking from it, although I had thought it empty. The reading continued in a louder and more passionate way and he dropped the flask to the deck with a clatter.
The boy was still on his knees, moaning, with his eyes tight shut. George joined Ben and me at the tiller; they were both pale and disturbed. I felt weak and disturbed myself. Never before had I witnessed such as had occurred.
The being turned his face to the sky and gave one final shout. His form shimmered and dissolved back into the formless green cloud, the book dropped, causing the mist to swirl and re-form. The cloud flowed across the deck and slowly re-entered the flask.
Without a conscious thought, I picked up the stopper and ran to the flask. Seizing it up, I nearly dropped it again, the metal felt untouchably hot. After ramming the stopper home, I laid the flask down and took a deep, shuddering breath. “What under God’s heaven was that?”
The boy opened one eye, looked around, stopped whimpering and opened the other. They were bright with tears; he had suffered a large shock. As had we all!
“Ben, break out the spirits, I don’t care if its rum, gin or brandy. I need a stiff drink.”
Ben took a wide berth around the flask and book as he staggered forward to bring our cordial.
“Nipper, go below and fetch me a bread bag and a dozen or so musket balls.”
He scampered away, glad to have a distracting task. Ben returned, taking the long route. He carried a black bottle and four horn beakers in his hands.
“The lad can take one with a little water, we all need a bracer,” he offered.
I nodded and he brimmed the beakers. It was brandy.
Throughout the whole episode, the Maid had been slatting restlessly, so I put up the helm to get some way on and steady her down. As ever, she responded immediately and the wake began to bubble. The boy came on deck with the bag and the lead balls. He also avoided the objects on the deck.
“Take the tiller, Ben. Keep her steady on this heading.” I placed the book, the flask and the musket balls in the bag. “Give me your crucifix lad.”
He started to protest.
“You can afford a gold one, now. No arguments.”
The cheap pewter cross and chain joined the other items. “I don’t know what devils work we have just witnessed, but I want it off my boat.” I secured the neck and flung the bag as far as possible over the side.
“George, put the scalpel back in the lamp oil and throw the rest of the doctor’s rubbish over the side.”
I was uneasy and mystified, the Frenchman’s body should have been on the beach or a slab in Hastings town, yet he had appeared in some form on my deck.
“Choices lads, we can catch some fish and meet Monsewer Frog to get the contraband, or we can run for home now.”
The crew clustered around the tiller and debated while I took a pipe to steady my nerves.
Ben spoke for them. “Daniel, we are a mite frighte’d by what we have seen, but we all need the money, apart from the lad that is. We say, go on and finish the job.”
The light was fading, but if we were fortunate with the catch, we could still get it done. “Rig the nets, let us try our luck.”
It was good; three casts saw the tubs full to the brim, now for the real business of the night. Bearing away we headed for the midnight rendezvous. We had to cover twenty miles in just over three hours.
This was what my ship was built for. With every stitch of sail set, the Maid flew through the darkness.
I peered at my watch in the light from the binnacle. Ten after twelve, which should do. “Heave to and light two lanterns.”
We all paced the deck staring into the starlit night. Three lights in a vertical line. It was the signal.
“Show them our glims side by side and make way towards them.”
The lugger appeared from the gloom already heaved to. It was calm enough to come alongside. “Rig lines and fenders,” I ordered.
A hail from the Frenchman. “Daniel you are late. We were about to go home.”
“Sorry Jean-Paul. If you had seen what happened on our deck today, you would understand my tardiness.”
The vessels were secured together and the crews transferred the brandy barricoes and the silk to the Maid, stowing them below in the fish hold.
“Well Englishman, what was your problem?” Jean-Paul reinforced his question with a full glass of Dutch jenever.
I described our day, starting with the aborted raid on Hastings. When I told of the events that had taken place on our deck, his brow furrowed deeply.
“The warships escaped from La Rochelle and that is a godless place, they still burn witches there,” he offered.
The crew hurried to install the false deck over the contraband.
The Frenchmen boarded their vessel and cast off. “I am off home, Daniel. My agent will contact you when we have another cargo. Good luck. I think you will need it.” His final sally as they departed for Le Havre.
“Pour the fish into the hold, secure the hatch, make all sail, we are going home.”
The crew set to with a will and in short order we were on passage to the South Coast.
We made good time and dawn was past breaking as we reached Hastings. I stood off while the beach-rats laid out timbers to the water line and harnessed the horse to the windlass to drag the Maid ashore.
When all was ready, I pointed the vessel at the beach and the track of logs. The faster we went, the further we would reach before the tow line was attached. The activity went well and we finally came to rest well above the tide line.
“Off you go lad, up to the stables and order two carts and a covered wagon.”
George lowered the boy over the side at full stretch of his arms and dropped him onto the pebbles. He scampered off.
Nipper didn’t get far. As he crunched away, a dozen excise men dressed in their blue coats and tricorne hats appeared from behind the beached boats and grabbed him. Their leader came under our stern accompanied by four of his men who carried a ladder and two blunderbusses.
“Daniel Adams, you are suspected of carrying goods which have not had His Majesty’s duty paid. We are to search your boat and if our suspicions are confirmed, arrest you and conduct you to the Assizes.”
A pretty pickle, let us hope the false deck stands up to scrutiny. It had never let me down yet!
The Revenuers went through the Maid like a pack of hungry rats and found, nothing…
“Open the hold,” growled the leader.
“Nothing but fish,” I responded.
“Do as I say. Open it,” he ordered.
I nodded to my crew, who cast off the lashings and slid aside the hatch. My heart lurched for the second time that day. Sitting on top off the mass of silver fish was the bread bag I had thrown into the sea hours before.
“Fetch me that,” said the senior officer. “It could be contraband.”
Ben caught up the bag with a boathook and offered it to the man without laying a hand on it.
The officer unknotted the tie chord and tipped the contents onto the deck. Kicking the musket balls aside he picked up the crucifix and the flask. “Why were you hiding these?”
“I weren’t, it must have come up in the trawl.”
“In that case I will claim these items on behalf of His Majesty.”
I was speechless. How could I describe the activities of the day and night to such as him?
He shook the flask and pocketed it with the crucifix. “I will examine these more closely later.”
“Any other suspicious items?” he questioned his men. They all shook their heads and prepared to disembark.
The senior officer’s spotty, porcine face turned from red to purple. “I will have you Adams and when I do you will pay dearly for your criminal activities.” He went to the ladder and was about to descend when his eyes lighted on the cask we had recovered from the sinking. “What is this?”
“It is merely some flotsam we recovered yesterday,” I replied.
“Aye, flotsam covered in French script and symbols. Smash in the top.” This to one of his men who carried a boarding axe.
The rich smell of brandy pervaded the salty air as the man followed his order.
“Daniel Adams, you and your knaves are under close arrest for the importation of ardent spirits without licence or paying duty,” he barked. “Seize and restrain them all.”
And that is why, by great misfortune, I sit in Lewes Gaol waiting for the magistrates to decide my fate. I am told that Australia has a fine climate…
The Chief Excise man was discovered the day after our arrest, stone cold dead with an expression of total horror on his face and an empty flask at his feet.
I continuously wonder where the doctor’s spectre roams and what devilment had brought him to such a curious end.
His mortal remains were buried in Hastings town.
The opening scene in ‘Snowfall’ was inspired by happy memories of staying at a secluded country house in the winter.
Tom stepped onto the snow covered decking outside the back door.
The morning sun had breached the horizon and was casting a glow on the frost-carpeted snow, turning it light blue. The naked branches of the trees appeared to be lit by hundreds of crystal fairy lights.
He breathed deeply, watching the fog of his breath linger, then fragment, to be replaced by the next. He loved the feeling of being the only person alive and seeing the virgin winter scape before him.
The as yet unfrozen lake had wisps of mist pirouetting on its surface. His row boat lay on the bank, one side almost hidden by last nights’ snow. One oar was sticking straight up, looking like an arm trying for attention.
He had meant to move the row boat up into the garage. The unexpected snowfall had caught him out.
The crunching of his boots on the snow sounded loud in the still of the early morning. The birds were strangely quiet. They hadn’t started their morning serenade yet. He headed down the gentle slope towards the lake.
As he neared the boat he could see the snow had been churned up, as though a giant grey marker pen had been dragged through it.
He reached the buried side and peered over. The snow was disturbed here and displayed vivid patches of deep red blood.
Falling to his knees Tom took in the carnage. There was a small male lying in the boat. It had been a female last time.
“Oh, my, god!” he shouted. Tentatively, he shook the body by the shoulder. “Lad, lad, are you awake? Can you hear me?”
One eye opened and a moan escaped from his cut-blooded lips. The eye slid closed and he lay still. Tom could see his chest rising and falling.
“Well, you’re still alive, but if I don’t get you out of this freezing weather you won’t be for long.”
He heaved the boat upright. Then, after tucking his own jacket around the poor little thing, he dragged the boat by its mooring rope up the slope to the house. Flinging open the French doors, he pulled the whole thing into his kitchen.
The kettle still held some warm water. He tipped some into a bowl, grabbed a clean drying up cloth and set about bathing the many cuts and bumps that covered the young one’s body.
Going by all the foot prints in the snow, it was obvious to Tom that there had been more than one attacker. They’d certainly worked him over.
“Dirty bloody cowards!” he raged. “And to think this was going on while I was tucked up asleep in my bed. When I find out who was on my land doing this to him, I’ll bloody have ’em. The courts can have what’s left!”
Tom collected some blankets from the airing cupboard and made a soft bed near the Aga. Not too close. He remembered either reading or hearing somewhere, you shouldn’t warm up hypothermia victims too quickly.
After Tom had arranged the youngster on the blankets, he searched his larder for some kitchen roll. Some of the cuts had started to weep when he’d moved him. Tom folded the squares of paper so they’d be four layers thick and tenderly pressed them over the injuries.
“A cup of tea. That’s the thing to have at times like this,” he murmured. He refilled the kettle and pulled the teapot from the cupboard above the sink. As he waited for the kettle to boil, he sat and watched over the beaten little body, fearing its chest might suddenly stop moving.
Tom had his back turned, making the tea, when he heard a cry. He was on his knees on the floor in seconds. Two terrified eyes looked up at him.
“It’s all right,” said Tom soothingly. “You’re safe now. Nobody’s going to hurt you.” He gently stroked the red fur across his forehead.
The youngster managed to utter; “My mother! My mother! They got my mother. They tore her to pieces. I ran for my life, but some broke away and came after me.”
Tom felt tears in his eyes. “Those utter bastards,” he ranted. “I’ve told the hunt time and time again to stay off my land!”
I wanted to explore what happens when an autocratic busybody mistakenly finds herself playing duplicate Bridge.
I turn the key to lock the Rover’s door. The car pre-dates central locking and is therefore reliable. So, this is Kings Church. Not exactly traditional, more like something found on an out of town Retail Park, B & Q or ToysRUs.
It was my doctor’s suggestion that I use my considerable organisational skills as a volunteer with a local charity rather than carry out my suggestion of reorganising his patients’ files.
Two young women with children exit the building and head towards a blue car. So, that must be the entrance. Not very clearly marked. I brush my woollen skirt, place the strap of my leather handbag in the crook of my elbow, prepare myself for the challenge and sally forth.
An aroma of fresh ground coffee from the clean and well-presented café area wafts across the cavernous space. Such a high ceiling, but light and airy. Yes, full marks! To my left is a small reception desk, a man is on the telephone.
“Hold on a minute,” he says into the phone and glances up. “Yes?”
“I’m here to assist with the food bank.”
He points to his right. “Straight through that room and first on the left.”
I set sail in the direction of his pointed finger. So far so good, in fact it is all going swimmingly well.
I straighten up and swing open the door into a basketball hall. A team of pensioners busy themselves setting up tables and chairs. They don’t look up to leaping about. Ah! I spot what might confuse a less able person; this hall is used for multiple purposes.
A grey haired lady covers the tables with red velveteen cloths. Was this Muriel? She had sounded so young.
Things appear well organised. Most tables are taken, people chat and a man sits in front of a computer tapping away at the keyboard while conferring with a slim elderly woman who holds a sheet of paper.
Another grey haired lady picks green plastic boxes, about the size of a can of corned beef, out of a large plastic storage container and delivers four to each table.
The occupants seize hold of them. How ravenous they must be. But one of those won’t sustain you for long; it hardly contains enough to feed a child.
Yet another elderly woman hands out contraptions that resemble calculators. Once delivered, people punch the keys, but whatever they want fails to be achieved. They shake their heads, chat and write on white cards.
I remove my hat and jacket and ask a woman doing the same to point out Muriel.
The woman glances around the room. “She doesn’t seem to be here. Maybe she’s not in today.”
I place my jacket on a hanger. “She told me to meet her here.”
The woman nods towards the woman next to the computer. “Go and see Rose, she’s the director. Tell her what’s happened. Muriel may have spoken to her.”
“Thank you, I will.” I pick my way through the tables. “Rose?”
Rose looks up. “Yes.”
“I’m Augustine Wright. Muriel told me to come along this afternoon and now I understand she isn’t here.”
“Muriel’s got problems with her boiler. It’s all right. You can team up with our host. I’ll just finish this.” Rose focuses on the computer screen. “No, that won’t work. What about a Howell?”
I peer into a large metal cupboard that contains what might loosely be described as stationery. Where’s the food?
Rose calls to a middle-aged woman with bleached blond hair. “Karen, this is… I’ve forgotten your name, what was it?”
“She needs a partner.”
Karen looks me up and down as if I were some scurvy dog. “You’re over here with me unless someone else turns up at the last minute, in which case you’ll be with them.”
Karen reeks of stale tobacco and I don’t warm to the idea of spending the afternoon in her company. Anyone, no matter how poor they are, would be put off accepting food from stained yellow fingers.
“There seem to be a lot of people in charge,” I comment.
“Rose’s the director, she’s in charge,” Karen retorts.
“Do you always have partners?” I ask.
Karen’s mouth falls open. “Yes.”
I place my bag on the table. “What’s your role here?”
Karen’s lips purse over her stained teeth. “I’m the host.”
She picks up a pen and folds a white card in half. “Some people take it very seriously, obsessional, you might say.”
“How often do you come?” I ask.
“Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”
“I’m surprised the food isn’t on display,” I remark.
“Wait there a moment,” Karen orders.
She marches over to Rose who is balancing a stack of slim, red, oblong plastic containers on her left arm. She places three containers on the table. I can’t see what’s inside them but the shape suggests chocolate. It doesn’t seem fair; she only gives out three when there are four people sitting there. Rose and Karen engage in a whispered conference with occasional glances thrown in my direction. Both women approach with an air of purpose.
“Augustine?” asked Rose. “Have you played before?”
“Mrs Wright. I prefer to be known as Mrs Wright.”
“We use first names here,” barks Karen.
“We are ready to start, so I need to be clear if you are able to join in,” says Rose.
“Of course I can join in, that’s what I’m here for.”
Rose glances at Karen, shrugs and places three of the chocolate containers on our table. There are only two of us, so why give us three?
Karen pulls out a chair and plonks her bottom on it. “You had better sit down.”
I manoeuvre the chair opposite hers and descend into it, place my bag on the floor, straighten my back and glare at Karen. If her intentions are to intimidate, then two can play at that game.
Karen points at a sign saying NORTH stuck on the back of a cupboard door. “That’s north.”
I wait for more information.
“You’ll have to operate the Bridgemate.”
Really what was this woman on about?
Karen springs to her feet and pushes her chair away. “You had better play south.”
It was like some sort of adult version of musical chairs. Very childish. I resolve to stay put.
Rose’s benign tones float across the hubbub. “We are playing a nine and a half table Mitchel, east west move down, boards move up.”
What on earth is going on? What have these antics to do with food?
Karen seizes the device that looks like a calculator and hovers above me. “You’ll have to move.”
I take my time, rise to my feet; side step to the adjacent chair and lower myself into it.
Karen sits in my vacated chair and raises her eyes. “You’ll have to be south. I can’t play with you unless you sit opposite me.”
I glare at her. “I wish you’d make up your mind.”
She glares back. I make the concession and take the chair opposite her.
Karen taps the calculator’s keys. “This table is the ghost. We can use the time to decide on tactics.”
Ghost table? Ridiculous to try and conduct a séance in this atmosphere.
“What’s your number?” demands Karen.
Now she’s after my telephone number! Well, she can whistle for it.
“Your union number?”
Union! This is outrageous. Words fail me.
“So you don’t have a number?” she taunts.
“Certainly not,” I splutter.
She thumps the calculator on the table and seizes a white card and a pen. “Weak twos or strong?”
At last, she has said something that makes sense, even if her vowel sounds are somewhat array. “Strong, I can’t abide weak tea.”
The drone from the heating moans above an orchestral jumble of staccato orders. “Top. Low. Ruff.”
Rough? Are these pensioners stipulating a sexual preference? I can see I have my work cut out.
“Let’s try a few practice hands,” gibes Karen.
I don’t move.
“Take your cards then,” she orders.
That’s it. That’s what they’re up to. This is a form of gambling. It’s a racket, exploiting people who don’t have enough money for food.
Karen places a card showing five black short-handled shovels on the table. “If I was to play this, what would you play?”
I want to vacate this den of iniquity but someone needs to ensure a sense of morality is maintained. It seems that that has fallen on to my shoulders. This may well be a matter for the police. I play it cool, that’s the modern expression I believe. I need to think quickly. I examine my cards; spot one with the same number of emblems, but instead of shovels, blackberries. I slam the card down on the table. “Snap.”
Karen’s face resembles a disgruntled camel. “Have you got a spade?”
The random way this woman chops from one enquiry to the next.
“Yes, I’ve got a spade,” I retort.
“You have to play it then,” demands Karen.
“It’s not here. It’s at home, in my shed.”
“Have you got a spade in your hand?” persists Karen.
“No, I’ve already informed you, it’s in my shed.”
“You’ve not played this game before, have you?” tuts Karen.
“Helping out at a food bank is not a game.”
“The food bank is through there. You’re in the wrong place.”
Karen sucks in her cheeks, shakes her head and bustles over to Rose. She’s rumbled me, though I can’t think how. Now she’s making out that I’m mistaken. I grab my bag, set my back to regimental style and march out. This place needs a thorough investigation. I shall go straight to the press. The Hastings and St Leonards Observer will hear about this.
Steampunk is a genre about a world that never was but might have been. Inspired by historical culture and Victorian society, it imagines sophisticated technologies using clockwork mechanisms, gas and steam. I often imagined what Hastings pier, in the UK, was like in its heyday during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. From there, my imagination leapt to a steampunk pier where paddle steamers dock and airships land.
“Fresh whelks and winkles,” I sing, wooden spoon in hand, curtseying to the grown-up passers-by. “Freshly caught, freshly cooked, tuppence a bag. Fresh whelks and winkles.”
A shrill hoot comes from the pier’s control tower. Arms point and necks crane as people look for the airship arriving from London. All I see are bowlers and bonnets, and the sun drooping behind the copper-green roofs of the western pavilions.
“There she comes!” a woman cries. Lads whistle, and ladies clap their gloved hands in applause. Now I see her, a big purple sausage in the sky, the gondola glinting red in the light of the sinking sun.
She’s three hours late. Normally, the Princess Alice arrives here in the afternoon and flies on to Dieppe. The people waiting for the paddle steamer watch, and locals pay a penny at the turnstile to enter the pier and get a close view. Waiting people get hungry, and I’ve sold a lot of whelks and winkles today.
Now food is forgotten, and everyone jostles for a good view. She hovers above the pier, and the engine hum mingles with the whistles from the control tower, the excited chatter of the onlookers, the whirring tic-toc of the pier’s big clock and the splashing of the waves. The grounding crew dart around and yell. As she gets into position, the droning of her engines drowns out all other sound.
Now she drops her landing lines. Although the lines look like string, they’re arm-thick cables, and they drag her down to the docking tower.
The pot on my stove hisses loud enough to hear it over the engine noise. Duty calls. I hurry to lift the lid and stir, lest the winkles stick to the bottom or overcook and become rubbery. The shells rattle as I stir them in the simmering brine.
The wrought-iron gate of the arrival lounge creaks open, and the first passengers spill out in a flurry of rustling silk and clanking brass.
These people have money. I curtsey to every one of them. “Fresh whelks and winkles. Freshly caught, freshly cooked. Fresh whelks and winkles.”
They promenade past me, the ladies with their hands on gentlemen’s arms, their noses in the air. Having dined in London, and anticipating a fine meal in France, they have no need to buy fare from barefooted whelk girls like me. They come out of the gondola merely to stretch their legs, get an evening paper, or perhaps buy an ice-cream from the hokey-pokey man.
The air smells of algae, sea salt, sugar and frying dough.
At last, a couple approaches my stove, he in a brown suit and cap, she in a rust-coloured dress and beribboned bonnet—paddle steamer passengers, I judge.
“I love winkles,” she purrs.
Her young man laughs. “Then you shall have some.” He tosses me tuppence.
I ladle the shellfish right from the pot and fill a ready-folded cone of old newspaper. As I hand it to her, together with a toothpick to pull the snail flesh from the shells, our fingers touch.
A jolt runs through me. Like icy fire, it surges through my arm into my stomach. My vision blurs. Sickness rises and ebbs in rapid waves.
I struggle for balance. Then my sight clears—but I see two pictures. One is what I expect—the man stands next to the rust-clad lady. The other is the same man, but he bends his knee before her, cap in hand.
I blink, but the double image doesn’t go away. The man with the bent knee reaches into his pocket…
Heat rises into my chest, sears my throat and shapes into words that bubble from my mouth. “He’ll ask you to marry him,” I hear myself say, while my heart pounds in my ears.
The words burst from my lips like water from a geyser. “He is going down on his knee and he wants you to be his wife.”
She gives an embarrassed laugh. “Silly child.”
“He will. He really will.” I don’t know where the knowledge comes from, or the image, or what compels me to speak. “He’ll give you a ring from his pocket.”
The young man steps forward. “She’s right, Winifred. I had planned to do it later today, but seeing that my surprise is spoiled…” With a nervous chuckle, he takes off his cap, goes down on one knee, and draws a little box from his jacket pocket. “Dearest Winifred, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
She gasps, and then she opens the box and gasps again. They hold hands, and dance in a spin like happy children, whelks forgotten.
Their happiness makes my heart flutter. What has just happened? Can I really see what people will do next?
Then she stops and stares at me. “How did you know, child?”
He picks up his cap where he dropped it, and puts it back on. “Yes, how did you know?”
How did I know? “I just saw it.”
“Every pier has a fortune teller,” the young woman says. “But you seem a little young. How old are you? Seven, eight?”
“Nine. My mama is the fortune teller. That’s her booth.” I point to the end of the pavilion where Mama has her window, with the signboard World-Famous Gypsy Palmist, Urania Rose.
Her glance follows my pointed finger, and her laughter trills. “You have inherited her gift.”
People flock, curious to find out what the commotion is about. The young lady’s voice chirps like a thrush’s as she shows them her sparkly ring and repeats, “And this is the young gypsy who foretold it.”
Another woman pushes forward. She wears a green hat with black bird wings. “Oh, Herman, I simply must have my fortune told,” she gushes.
“Mama is the fortune teller, over there,” I say. “I just sell whelks and winkles.”
She waves this off. “I want a real prophecy, not rehearsed fare.”
Her man smiles. “We’ll have to buy some whelks and winkles then, won’t we?” He produces a leather portmonnaie from his pocket and drops a coin into my palm.
When I’ve filled the newspaper cone and passed it to him, the lady gives me her hand. It’s slim, white and cool. “How do you do it? Read my palm?”
“I don’t know how to read palms. Mama says…” My hand tingles where it touches hers, and heat surges through me. A wave of nausea rises from my stomach and settles. Dizziness clouds my mind, then vanishes, like fog clearing to leave a clear view.
I see a Christmas tree, sparkling with baubles and candles, and there is the woman with…
Words bubble from my mouth. “You’ll have a baby on Christmas morning.”
She yanks her hand away. “Nonsense.”
“Christmas?” the man asks in a strangled voice.
“Of course not.” The woman laughs, but her face is fiery red.
He looks at her belly. His face is white, and his fist clutches the cone so tightly that I hear the shells break.
“She’s just a little whelk seller. A little liar.” She takes his arm. “Let’s go.”
I never tell lies. “It’s true, it’s true!” I yell after them. “You will have a baby at Christmas, I’ve seen it.”
Mama comes dashing across the pier, skirts flouncing, bangles jingling, scarves aflutter. She grabs my elbow. Her fingers dig painfully into my flesh. “Dora! What are you doing?” she scolds. “You must not say such things.”
“But they are true!” I cry. “The lady with the bird hat will have a baby at Christmas. I’ve seen it. The other man did propose marriage to the other lady, just like I saw.”
“Oh, dear. So it’s starting for you already.” Mama’s grip loosens, and the bangles on her arm jingle. “I didn’t get it until I was thirteen.” She tugs my bonnet straight. Her black-rimmed eyes look unhappy. “Listen, Dora. Telling fortunes is a skill. It needs learning. I will teach you how to read fortunes properly, from the palm and from the crystal ball and the cards, and what to say and what to keep to yourself.” She sighs. “Until I’ve trained you, you must keep quiet about what you see. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. Do you understand?”
She rushes back to the pavilion because airship passengers are approaching and they may have money to get their fortunes told.
I lift the lid and stir my pot. “Fresh whelks and fresh winkles…”
Jemmy has brought another bucket of shellfish he’s scraped off the low-tide rocks. He never sorts them, just tosses everything into the same bucket, whelks, winkles, sometimes mussels, oysters, or even razor shell clams which I can sell for a penny each.
Kneeling on the pier’s wooden floor, I sift through his crop. The water’s biting chill numbs my fingers. Frigid air seeps through the wooden slats, through my skirts and into my flesh. I draw my cape tighter around me, huddle against my charcoal stove and press my fingers against the hot cast iron, but my feet and legs stay numb. Mama promised that if we earn enough, she’ll buy Jemmy and me boots so we don’t have to go barefoot this winter.
“Fresh whelks and fresh winkles,” I sing, to keep myself awake. I’m so tired and so cold.
The whelks go into a different bucket, because they need to cook longer than the winkles. I must guard the buckets against attacks from seagulls. The birds sometimes swoop down to snatch a snack.
From the other side of the pier waft the hot greasy scents of fish and chips, and my stomach rumbles. It’s evening, and I had no midday meal. I want to snatch one of the winkles from my pan and suck its hot juicy flesh from the shell, but we must sell them, and if we don’t sell enough before winter comes, I won’t have any shoes and we won’t have enough coal for the winter stove.
If some winkles are left over at the end of the day, we have them for tea with bread, but if any are left over, it’s because I haven’t sold many, and that means we have no money for food.
The afternoon started good while many people waited for the delayed airship, but now it’s quiet. Not many clients for Mama, either.
Far beneath my feet, waves whoosh and slash. Above, lines chink against flagpoles and seagulls screech.
But here’s a couple coming. He carries a suitcase with a clockwork front and wears a bowler hat, like important men do.
“Here she is,” the wife trills. “The little gypsy fortune teller selling whelks and winkles. I want to know that all goes well with your trip.” She beams at her husband. “I swear I’m dying with anxiety each time you travel by airship. Pay her.”
I rub my cold hands on my apron. “Mama says I mustn’t…” I try.
The man takes my hand and presses the coins into it.
At his touch, my vision blurs and reshapes. Through the dizziness, knowledge surges, and my mouth utters the words. “The pretty lady in France is very happy to see you. She is kissing you…”
“What the deuce…!” The man is red in the face, and the woman is white.
Then they look at each other, and their colours change. Now he gets white and she gets red.
She jerks him by the arm. “You’re not going to France! Not with this airship, anyway!”
A portly man comes running, clanking with mechanics. I know him. He’s Mr. Pollertow, and he’s important. He has all the keys for all the pavilions and he empties the money containers of the turnstiles and collects the fees. He wears a very high hat with control dials and a jacket with many clockworks and stripes. He ticks and tocks and rattles.
“What’s the trouble, sir?” he addresses the angry man. “How may I be of assistance?”
“This… this… charlatan!” the man points at me. “She pretends to tell fortunes and is most offensive! She has upset my dear wife!”
“I apologise for your distress, ma’am.” Mr Pollertow bows. Then he turns to me, arms locked before his chest, and scowls. “Your concession is as a seller of whelks and winkles. How dare you transgress!”
Mother comes rushing, her steps clacking on the wooden boards. “What has Dora done?”
“She had the impertinence,” Mr Pollertow barks, “to offend a customer with fake predictions.”
“Oh, Dora,” Mama scolds. “I told you to keep quiet.”
“I tried, I really did,” I sob. “But I see things when I touch people.”
“You have no business touching people.” His voice rises to a whine. “This is a respectable pier, and you’re not fit to work here, neither of you.”
Mama wrings her hands. “Please, Mr Pollertow, give us one more chance.” The black paint runs from her eyes in sooty streaks. “We depend on this work. It’s the only way I can put food on the table for my children.”
Her tears seem to make him uncomfortable, or maybe it’s the gathering crowd witnessing the spectacle. He clears his throat.
Mama clutches his hands. “I promise Dora will not say another word out of turn. She is a good girl, very obedient, she really is.”
He clears his throat again, and puffs out his chest. “Very well. I will be watching closely. At the first sign of anything untoward from the girl’s mouth, I’ll send you both packing, and I don’t care if you starve or drown.” Then he walks off with a huff and a chink of brass.
Mama strokes my curls. “Dora, promise me. Whatever you see, keep your lips sealed. I know it’s difficult sometimes, but it’s important. However hard it is, you must fight the urge. Please promise to be good.”
“I promise, Mama. I’ll be good.”
Darkness comes down like a hood.
The chill from the sea creeps through the gaps between the boards. It numbs my toes, and crawls up my legs into every fibre of my body. The relentless night wind gnaws through the layers of my cape and dress.
Mama is still behind her window, still ready to tell the filtered fortunes rich people want to hear.
The lamplighter strides the length of the pier, sparking the gas lanterns on the pavilion walls. Soon the flames behind the red, green and blue glass shine like a necklace of coloured beads.
Now the pier crier comes out, his steps thudding on the boards, the brass buttons on his maroon uniform glinting in the gaslight. He sweeps his arm up and down to shake the big bell.
“Ladies and gentleman. The boarding lounge for HMD Princess Alice is now open. Ticket holders for Dieppe, you may now enter the boarding lounge.”
A family flocks towards the boarding lounge gate, a man, a woman and four children. Even the little girls have fur-trimmed velvet cloaks and shiny boots.
“Let’s have some whelks and winkles for the flight.” His voice is booming and jovial. “Good English fare. Who knows what muck we’ll get to eat in France.”
“Four portions,” he requests, which will almost deplete my stores. Then he presses a guinea into my palm and closes my fingers over it. “Keep the change.”
I gasp, first at his generosity and then at the heat searing my hand. His smile, his family, the pier, everything vanishes from my sight. Instead I see him, his face all black and blistered, with blood running from his eyes.
I want to cry, but I promised not to speak. He would be unhappy if I said what I saw, so I fight to keep back the words boiling in my throat. With utmost willpower, I control myself, and bite my teeth into my lips until I draw blood.
Then his wife peers at me. “What’s the matter, little one?” Her voice is sweet with kindness. “You look like you’re about to swoon. Have you worked too long?” She lifts my chin. “Are you hungry? Cold?”
“A little cold…” I say, but already the surge comes, a powerful wave of nausea from my stomach, sweeping away what’s before me. Instead I see her, clutching her smallest child… There are flames everywhere… Searing red against the night sky… The lady’s hat is on fire, her hair… She screams… And then she falls, falls, falls…
I must not tell. I must not. She would be distressed. I bite my lips to keep them shut, and to make the pain pull me back into reality. I taste blood.
“Give her another coin, please, Arthur. She’s suffering.” I hear her say this, at the same time as I hear her scream, and scream, and scream…
The crier’s bell tolls. “Passengers for HMD Princess Alice, please proceed to the boarding lounge.”
I blink until the vision clears. Then I watch them walk, the man, the woman, the children, towards the boarding lounge. The wrought-iron entrance gapes like a dark, hungry mouth, and I watch them until they disappear.
My nausea subsides. It was hard, but I have been good. Very good. Mama will be pleased.
“Fresh whelks and winkles, freshly caught, freshly cooked…”
I am a spaceman from the future,
And you will never believe what I’ve seen.
I have been around this world at the speed of light,
And then I smelled kerosene.
What happened to me is hard to tell.
I shot up through the atmosphere and released from gravity’s pull,
My space ship rapidly gathered speed as round the earth I went,
Faster and faster my craft did go,
My nerves were getting bent.
At the speed of light I rocketed through space and thought all was going fine,
Then I heard a judder rattle my craft and I began to travel through time.
I know this is true, for what I saw was a spaceship’s backend drawing near,
I looked again and knew that craft,
I was about to collide with my rear.
I veered off into outer space, frightened by what I’d seen.
I saw my rear end drawing near… and I smelled kerosene.
I saw the planets go whizzing by and sent a message to base,
“Hurry and get some help up here, I am so fed up with this place.”
They came back on the radio, “Tell us where you have been?”
I told them, “Up my own arse.”
I heard them gasp.
Why? Because I smelled kerosene.
For a long time I waited in that lonely desolate place,
I felt a proper alien away from the human race.
Then one day I saw a spaceship coming towards me.
“Hey Buddy do you fancy a ride for free?”
I journeyed back through the planets and re-joined the human race,
I could not say what had happened, because I knew that I would lose face.
We had a party on my return and it turned out to be quite a scene,
“Just watch your behind,” I told the crews.
“And run… when you smell kerosene.”
Ben, the littlest demon, has been with me for a number of years, so I thought it’s about time I gave him something to do.
At Fairlight Glen, just at the edge of the wood, there’s a large flat block of sandstone jutting out into the sea. This is one of my favourite places and I like to sit quietly on a warm day and watch the world drift by. Today, as always, I have my backpack beside me and now I’m looking forward to a tasty snack as lunchtime comes around.
Then something strange happens. An odd little creature walks out of the bushes and sits on the end of the rock and watches me.
I don’t know what he is, but he has a bold attitude and the cheekiness of a monkey. In fact, that’s what I think he is, but somehow he looks different… and I’ve never seen any monkeys hanging around in the woods at Fairlight.
With no fur and a skin of dusty black, I suppose he could be a bald monkey. His large amber eyes peer out from an impish face and his ears stick out like lugs on a nut. In fact, his head reminds me of the wing nut on the front wheel of my childhood bike. He grins a fine set of teeth, pulls round his tail with a devil’s spearhead tip and lays it beside him.
The only thing he’s wearing is a battered old English Tommy helmet. The rest of him is obviously getting a suntan.
With a soft voice that has a wet lisp, he speaks to me. “Allo, ssth, ssth.”
“Hallo,” I reply.
“The nameth Ben. I’m the littleth demon,” and he sticks his chest out proudly.
“Hi Ben. I’m Mel and I’m sitting in the sun. Good to know you. I’ve never met a demon before.”
He looks at the backpack beside me with excitement. “Yeah, nice t’ meet yer too. Isth that yer lunth?”
“Buttered bread and cheese,” I reply.
He squints nervously and his eyes take on a peculiar glow. With a very shifty movement he glances around, then he looks at me and his brows rise in a dreamy expression. “Love a duckth, that takesth me back. I ain’t had buttered bread an’ cheesth thinth I wasth a nipper.”
“Would you like some?” I offer.
“Cor! Yeth pleaseth.”
I reach into my backpack and bring out my lunch tin, take off the lid and hold it before him. He quickly wipes his mouth on his forearm and snatches a large piece of buttered bread and a block of cheese.
First he sniffs it appreciatively, then he nibbles it and then he takes large bites and finally stuffs the whole lot in his mouth and chews ecstatically. When he’s swallowed his mouthful, he gives a little burp and looks very happy.
I am about to offer him another round, when there is a bright flash of pink light and a loud ripping sound, like someone tearing stiff canvas lengthways. Leaping backwards, I fall straight into a patch of stinging nettles. Ben disappears. I clamber back on the rock and there in his place is a star-shaped burn on the sandstone and a terrible smell of bad eggs.
“BEN! WHERE ARE YOU?” I yell, scratching nettle stings. “ARE YOU ALL RIGHT? Blasted nettles.”
Around me there is an eerie stillness, no little creature noise, no squawks, not a movement, just that terrible smell of eggs rotting on a hot day. I take a paper towel and hold it against my nose.
Abruptly everything comes alive, like a bubble bursting and there is desperate movement in the bushes. I leap across the rock, not knowing where to go and land in more nettles. Animals run in the distance, a mad scramble to get as far away from the evil smell as possible. And then… everything is gone. The world is still again. The creatures have all disappeared and I’m left standing in a nettle patch. Damn!
Minutes later, I hear splashing. I walk across the rock and gaze down at the sea. A green mermaid with long auburn hair is swimming towards me.
She puts on a burst of speed, submerges and leaps out of the water like a performing dolphin… and lands in an undignified heap on the rock beside me. There she lays gasping and wheezing until with a great effort, she pushes herself up on one elbow.
I bend over. “Holy tart Ben, you make a most unattractive mermaid. What are you doing in this feminine guise anyway?”
Ben sits up and looks embarrassed, then placing his helmet back on his head says, “Ith the guv’nor…”
“Th-the guv’nor… Beethlzebub. Ee ath usth on a diet an if we strayth an eath thuff we shouldnth…” he lifts his hands and sighs. “Thiss is what happenth. He thinkth making me a girl isth a big laughth.”
Beelzebub is right. I laugh my head off. Ben appears more like a large green tadpole with a tin hat and he certainly doesn’t look female.
He glowers at me. “Don’t laughth, it ain’t funny.” He hangs his head and in a mournful voice says, “I’m only spowth to eat brimsthone and wild garlicth. I can eat asth much of that asth I like, but I’m sthow fed up with it.”
“So, how do you get back to your demon self?” I ask, trying to hide my grin.
“Well.” He leans forward conspiratorially, eyes darting from side to side. “I thound a way that ee don’t think I know… I eatsth carroth caketh,” and he looked at the rock with sad eyes. “Otherwiseth ee changeth me back and punisheth me for conthuming illegal foodthuff.”
“Is that all? I can get you some carrot cake.”
Ben looks at me unhappily. “But I hateth carroth caketh. Thath why ee diddit. The BASTHERD!” Momentarily his eyes blaze, then he takes on an expression of fear, slaps a hand over his mouth and glances nervously around. A large toad hops from beneath a bush, eats the wrong insect and explodes. Ben gives a strangled squawk. “Crypth, the Guv’nor!” and jumps back into the sea.
I have to laugh. “Ben, it’s only a toad.” I sit down and enjoy my lunch.
Ben wheezes and gasps as he climbs up the rock. He seems reluctant to try the leaping dolphin trick again. Finally, he pulls himself on, wriggles across the stone and flops down beside me.
“Crikey Ben, is that you breathing?”
“Ith me listhp,” he says. “Ith alwaysth thoundsth like thisth when I exthertsth mythelf.”
“You’d better watch it then, we don’t want you pegging out on us.”
He shoots me a glare. “Lithen Mooth, I may be thmall, but I’m tuff!”
“Yes, I can see you’re as tough as old walking boots… and my name’s Mel not Moosh.”
He sticks his nose in the air. “Thath alright then.”
I watch the cocky little crust for a moment. There is something almost lovable about him, yet he is vulnerable.
I stand up and clip one of his ears. “Well, I gotta go now. I’ll see you in the morning and I’ll bring some carrot cake. You going to be all right here?”
He grabs his ear. “OW! Bastherd. And raises an impudent eyebrow. “Yesth, I’ll be thine, I often sleepsth here,” and he curls up on the stone and I am dismissed.
The next morning, I drop by the bakery, buy a large piece of their very best carrot cake and set off for the glen. It’s another beautiful day and when I enter the woods, the scent in the shade is most welcome after the hot sun in the open fields. I love the smell of summer woodland.
I follow the trail beside the stream and soon I can see the sparkle of the sea through the trees and a little green figure. A few minutes later I step onto the rock. “Morning Ben. How are you this fine day?”
He jumps up and heaves a great sigh of relief. “Ah, good to sthee you. I thought youth might hath forgotten.” He looks at me with tired eyes. “Hath you gottit? Hath you gottit?”
I feel like I’m dealing with a drug addict. “Calm down. I’ve got it.”
I take the carrot cake from my backpack and his fingers wriggle in my face. I slap his hands away. He puts them behind his back and regards me intensely.
I hold the cake out to him. He snatches, rams it in his mouth and chews noisily.
“Aargh,” he cries, pulling an ugly face and spits it at me. Again there is that bright pink flash of light and the loud ripping sound. I’m blown over backwards. Ben disappears. For a moment I sit dazed. At least I’m not in the nettles again.
I pick myself up and search around. Ben’s helmet is on the ground, spinning like a top. Once more, that bad egg smell is everywhere and there is another burn mark on the rock. This time, the animals have already gone.
“Ben! Where are you?” I hear a faint sound, but can’t see him. I walk across the rock and call him again. Then I notice a pair of feet sticking out of a bush, they definitely look like Ben’s, but these feet are sky blue and not black. I walk over to the bush. “Ben, is that you?”
“Yeth,” comes the muffled reply. I take hold of the ankles and pull. “Ow-ow-ow. That hurths.” The bush is reluctant to let go, but then with a loud ‘OW,’ he is free. I drag him onto the rock. He sits up and scowls, then rubs his arms and legs. “That hurth.”
“Don’t be such a baby. I thought you were a tough old boot?”
“Shcccrrr…” he hisses at me and makes his fingers like claws.
I flick his ear. “The trouble with you Ben, is you make too much saliva.”
He gives me a sulky pout, but his eyes blaze. “There wasth caraway theed in that carroth cake an’ I hateth caraway theed more than I hateth carroth cake. AND…” he spits on the ground. “Puthu! I HATESTH BEING BLOO MORE THAN I HATESTH CARAWAY THEED!”
I give him a sideways glance and picking up his helmet, plonk it on his head.
“Ow! Brutal bathterd.”
“So. Mr Sulky, how do we get you back to the proper Ben?”
He stares at me like the world has crashed. “I hath to thee the Guv’nor afterall… and be punisheth.”
“Come on then, let’s go see the Guv’nor.” It is out before I realise I’ve said it.
He looks at me sharply and is on his feet in a flash. “Yooth come with me?”
I’d never seen such an expression of hope on such a pathetic little saggy-face before.
I sigh. “Yes, I’ll come with you.” I give him my hand and he grabs it in both of his and bounces on his toes. A little voice in the back of my head says, ‘You’ll be sorry.’
“Ok Ben. Which way do we go?”
He points to a path I’ve never seen before. “Thith way.”
I’m not sure this is a good idea, me going to see the Devil, but I’ve said I would and now I can’t think of a dignified way of backing out.
Ten minutes later we come to a branch in the trail.
“Up there,” and he points to a large cave entrance in a cliff I don’t recognize.
I give him a sideways glance. “You sure?”
He regards me with an innocent smile. “Yeth, itsth the gateway to Hadesth.”
With Ben at my side, I walk into the cave and along the pathway to Hell. The cavern walls secrete a sickly smell of seaweed and sulphur, but it is the thought of facing the Devil that puts knots in my stomach.
The deeper in we go, the darker it becomes and the stronger the smell. We turn a corner and enter a second cave. Here, fire is everywhere and it moans like the drone of furnace gasses. Hot stones crack open. Flaming pieces shoot past me. The air in Hell is searing hot and it stinks. A small piece of burning stone shoots up the leg of my shorts and stings my backside. I yelp and leap in the air. Ben sniggers and I glare at him. Strangely though, I don’t notice any tormented souls serving time.
“What’s that awful smell?” I ask, holding my nose.
Ben cackles. “Burning demonth guano. Getsth upyer noseth, donitt?”
Dirty yellow vapour coils roll over the ground. Gobs of molten slime spit upwards.
“Thstay on the path an’ yooth won’t geth burnedth,” advises Ben.
The temperature on the path is bearable, but I’m sweating like it’s going out of fashion. Then ahead, through the ripples of heat, I see a magnificent keep of a gross, yet impressive design.
“So this is where the Devil lives,” I say.
Ben gives me an odd glance. “No, usth demonsth livesth there. Ee livesth round the back.”
Behind the keep, some metres off, stands a neat little cottage with a thatched roof and pink painted walls, surrounded by a large lawn with water sprinklers and several well-tended vegetable gardens. Hell seems peaceful, cooler and smells sweeter here.
We stroll up to the front of the cottage and Ben crouches behind me. I knock and we wait. A moment later the door is opened by a very attractive redhead wearing a tight fitting onesie.
“Can I help?” she asks huskily.
“Yes, can I speak to Mr Bub please?”
She frowns. “Who?
Ben rolls his eyes. “Beelzthebub.”
“Uh… Mr Beelzebub,” I correct.
She smiles and disappears into the cottage. Ben smirks and gives a lecherous snigger
“Who’s that?” I ask.
“Eeth fanthee piecesth.”
The Devil comes to the door wearing a pale, sage-green suit. He is a tall, well-built person, apart from a bulging stomach. His black hair is slicked back from the high forehead of a finely chiselled face and his skin is red. Ben hides behind me and clings to my leg.
“What can I do for you?” Beelzebub asks in a deep well-spoken voice. “Have you come to sell your soul?”
“No. I’ve come to talk with you about the diet you imposed on my friend here.”
“Why are you shaking?” he asks. “There is no need to be afraid.”
“It’s my friend, he’s shaking and he has hold of my leg.”
The Devil peers behind me. “Ahhh… a little blue demon. Hallo Ben. Now I understand. You’ve been eating illegal food again and you’ve got this bright fellow to talk for you.”
Ben bows his head and cowers. “Isthp, ther-ther…”
Beelzebub seems a nice enough fellow, but I’m so full of tension I jump right in. “Why must he eat brimstone and wild garlic all the time and none of the other tasty things he likes?”
The Devil grins. “Is that what he’s told you, brimstone and wild garlic eh?” He regards the grovelling demon with a twinkling eye. “Who’s been telling porkies again, Ben?”
“Isthp-isthp. Th-Thorry-Thorry-ther.” Ben bows low and doffs his helmet.
The Devil beckons. “Come forward Ben and I will give you back your colour.”
The little demon shuffles before Beelzebub, helmet under his arm and his head inclined. I can hear his knees knocking.
Quicker than lightning, Beelzebub cuffs him on the back of his head. Ben screams and bursts into flame. He hops up and down and runs round in circles, cursing loudly. Beelzebub leans forward and blows out the flames.
Ben is still hopping and cursing, but he is black again. “Ow-ow, BATHSTA…”
The Devil puts a hand on the demon’s shoulder and holds him still. “If I hear you call me that once more, I’ll set you on fire and I won’t blow out the flames. That’s five hundred and thirty times you’ve sworn.”
Ben’s eyes grow round. “Yooth counthed?”
“Of course, you know I don’t hold with bad language. Now, go to your room and think about all this. I’m giving you two punishment marks.” He takes a small notepad from his inside pocket and writes ‘Ben’ twice.
With his lower lip protruding like a sulky child, Ben backs away and starts towards the keep.
“Don’t forget to apologize to your friend here.”
Ben scowls over his shoulder. “Thorry.” And looking like the smoking wick of a blown out candle, he walks into the keep.
“You know,” says Beelzebub. “That little scamp gives me more grief than all the other’s put together yet, I find, I’m most fond of him.”
I smile nervously at Beelzebub. “Well, I’d better be going. Nice to have met you and your good lady.”
He ambles over and puts his hand on my shoulder. I feel apprehensive and look sharply at his hand. I can sense a tic beginning in my left eye.
Beelzebub chuckles. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to burn you, that’s strictly for demons. I need to be firm with them or they take all sorts of liberties. I have one hundred, ah…” He glances up and squints, “and thirty-five demons living here and they’re all natural gluttons, especially for junk food. Left to their own devises they would soon become grossly overweight, so I’ve given them each a list of foods they can and cannot eat. If you meet that rascal Ben again, take a look at the list tucked inside his helmet and you’ll know what he’s allowed.”
“But Ben is as thin as a rake.”
“Yes, that’s because demons are all part of me, flesh of my flesh, so to speak. That means I have a hundred and thirty-five pairs of greedy eyes with eager mouths sampling all sorts of tasty delights on my behalf… not forgetting the drinks.” He leans forward. “Now, here’s the catch. They eat as much as they like and stay skinny, because I get fat for them. I thought it might make them think twice, but do they care? No!” He wobbles his belly. “I eat strictly healthy stuff. Ben and his mates ate this lot for me.”
“Why don’t you let them pay the price for bad eating?”
He looks astounded. “I can’t do that. I have to maintain a smart set of demons! What would people think of fat unhealthy staff all over the place?”
Well, I guess that’s his problem, so I shake hands with the Devil and nothing happens to my hand. I wish him well and make my way back up the path and away from Hell.
“Goodbye,” he says, showing me a contract from his inside pocket. “Don’t forget, I’m always in the market for another good soul.”
Just around the corner, I’m out of sight… and I run for it.
My earliest literary and artistic influences were drawn from comic books. I confess that occasional echoes of ‘The Beano’ and ‘The Dandy’ can still be detected in both my artwork and my writing. The two dimensional, uncomplicated, almost cartoon-like quality of the characters and scenes in ‘A Hastings Tale’ are, perhaps, yet another unintentional homage to those timeless and much loved publications.
The word ‘ordinary’ as defined in the dictionary refers to the usual, the plain, the undistinguished; to those things so every day and commonplace that they are barely noticed and largely ignored.
Joe Bates was ordinary. Not just ordinarily ordinary. Joe embraced ordinariness to the point of invisibility. There was absolutely nothing unusual about him. Nothing to notice. Not a single feature worthy of praise, criticism or even the vaguest modicum of interest. He was of medium build, neither fat nor thin, tall or short. His hair colour hovered somewhere between dark and light. He wasn’t handsome, but then he wasn’t ugly and the clothes he wore were neither ‘workaday’ nor ‘Sunday best’. He lived in a nondescript house, had a job not worth mentioning and, until a series of remarkable coincidences, Joe’s life had drifted past in a seamless stream of nothing much at all.
The first coincidence came about as Joe took his customary midday stroll. At the very moment he turned into Spiggot Street, a Mrs Ada Blenkinsop along at number sixteen popped upstairs to attend to some urgent pillow plumping and a spot of light dusting, entirely forgetting to turn down the gas under a saucepan of vegetable stew. Just as Joe passed the house, the first whiff of burning stew wafted up the stairs and into the bedroom. Mrs Blenkinsop, being the possessor of both a sensitive nose and a highly nervous disposition, convinced that the house was ablaze and that she was only brief moments away from a fiery demise, threw open the window and began shouting and screaming at the top of her voice.
Joe, a man not easily roused into action and indeed a stranger to excitement of any kind, stopped and looked up at Ada. A woman at an upstairs window, not just shouting very loudly, but shouting very loudly at him, as though she expected him to do something.
Joe raised his hat. “Err… what seems to be the trouble?”
“Fire! Fire!” Ada screamed. “Save me! Save me! For pities sake! Don’t jus’ stand there! You need a ladder! Go an’ get a ladder!”
Joe nodded his agreement. Yes, a ladder was definitely needed.
It was at this point that a second coincidence occurred.
There, standing at the curb on the opposite side of the street stood a window cleaner’s cart, complete with rags, buckets and a short extension ladder. The owner of the cart, a Mr Bertram Biggins, had returned home for his lunch break and parked it outside his house.
Until his recent marriage, Bert had spent his lunchtimes at the local enjoying a quiet pint and a Ploughman’s, but since the wedding he now hurried home each day where his brand new wife, all pink and panting and plump as a pudding, waited with far more interesting fare to offer than bread and cheese! So, it happened that just as the dramatic events at number sixteen were unfolding, Bert’s lunch break had reached a stage that even the shrill screams of Mrs Blenkinsop could not hope to interrupt.
In the absence of any assistance, Joe, with a sudden uncharacteristic display of decisiveness, took matters into his own hands. He crossed the street, removed the ladder from the cart and carried it back to number sixteen. After a brief struggle, he managed to raise it to the bedroom windowsill and, after climbing up to the terrified Ada, began the difficult task of manoeuvring her considerable bulk out through the window and onto the ladder.
This was the moment when a third coincidence occurred. Around the corner into Spiggot Street came Miss Penny Snippet, junior reporter for ‘The Hastings Gossip,’ armed with a Brownie box camera, a reporter’s spiral bound notepad and a well licked H.B. pencil. Penny, an ambitious girl, rarely found an opportunity to practice her journalistic skills, being mostly confined to the nicotine stained, pin-up bedecked offices of the ‘Gossip,’ making tea and avoiding the unwelcome advances of Charlie ‘Wanger’ Watson, her middle-aged and decidedly unsavoury senior colleague. It was little wonder that she preferred to spend her lunch hours wandering the streets, hoping to stumble upon something, indeed anything, worth reporting.
The goings on at number sixteen caused Penny’s heart to leap with excitement. The wisps of grey smoke. The ladder. The heroic gentleman struggling to save the life of a lady in distress. In a town where nothing much happened with depressing regularity, this was a scoop well worthy of the front page! Penny raced down the street and, arriving at the foot of the ladder, began snapping away with her Brownie box.
When Joe and Ada eventually completed their rather ungainly descent and stood safely, if a trifle unsteadily, on solid ground, Penny flipped open the cover of her spiral bound reporter’s notepad, licked the point of her H.B. pencil and began to conduct her very first interview.
“Penny Snippet, Hastings Gossip. Could you tell me what’s happened here?”
Ada, though rather breathless, was only too happy to oblige. “I was upstairs, jus’ doin’ a bit of dustin’, when I smelled the smoke. ‘Allo, I thought, my bloomin’ ‘ouse as only gorn’ and caught light. I’d best open the winder an’ shout for ‘elp!”
“Have you any idea how the fire started Mrs… err, what was the name?”
“Blenkinsop. Ada Blenkinsop. No idea! I remember bein’ in the kitchen earlier, makin’ a drop of stew for me’ lunch and… oh no!”
Ada put her hands to her mouth and raised her eyes to the heavens. “I know what I’ve done! I’ve only gorn’ traipsin’ upstairs and left me stew on the gas! That’s what I’ve gorn and done!”
Penny paused her frantic scribbling and gave her trusty H.B. an extra lick. “And your name sir”?
“Joe Bates. Err… look,” he mumbled. “I can’t think of nothing much to say at the moment. I think I’d best pop in and turn off the gas… all right?”
Joe walked to the front door, pushed it open and made his way through the smoky passageway to the kitchen. He turned off the gas under the smouldering saucepan, let himself out through the back door and made his way home.
The story of the gallant rescue, complete with a picture of Joe struggling down the ladder with Ada Blenkinsop, duly appeared on the front page of the ‘Gossip’. The headline, ‘LOCAL HERO SAVES ELDERLY WOMAN’ was followed by a lurid and grossly inaccurate description of the incident. Strangely, the story was credited to a Charlie ‘Wanger’ Watson. (This was, in fact, the last story that Charlie ever reported, sadly losing his life in a bizarre office accident involving a fall that somehow drove a well licked H.B. pencil into his ear. Miss Penny Snippet was promoted to fill the vacant post.)
All across Hastings, people read and marvelled at the story, not the least of these readers being Mr Reginald Crumley, the Town Mayor.
Reginald Crumley, who had refreshingly few vices considering his exalted position, did harbour a passion for dressing up. In fact, apart from the rather tricky incidents that led Mrs Crumley to change the lock on her wardrobe door, the main reasons that led Reginald to seek the job of mayor were the many opportunities it provided for putting on and swishing about in lots of robes and regalia. Oh, how he loved those satin tights with their pretty, pretty garters. The dainty pumps with their cute little buckles and the hat, the glorious hat, with the fur trim and the bouncy white plumes. Reginald adored his outfit so much that he constantly searched for even the slightest of reasons to put it on.
And there on the front page of the local newspaper was the perfect excuse for just such an occasion. He lost no time in announcing that he intended to hold a grand ceremony in honour of ‘Joe Bates. Our very own local hero!’ He would give him a medal perhaps. Or grant him ‘freedom of the town,’ or something. There would be flags and bunting, a brass band, crowds of people, coachmen in fancy waistcoats, aldermen in tight leather gators, firemen in their bright shiny helmets. Ooh! Such a spectacle!
And there at the very centre of this glorious gathering would be Reginald Crumley, resplendent… no… one might even say… beautiful… in his lovely, lovely costume.
So little of interest ever happened in the town of Hastings, that anything even slightly unusual or out of the ordinary could be guaranteed to attract a sizeable audience. (The local constabulary had recently been called upon to disperse a large crowd that had gathered around a man with a wooden leg.) So it was that, when the afternoon of the ceremony arrived, a boisterous crowd had congregated early. They milled around the large stage that had been erected in the town square, waiting impatiently for the show to begin. The fact that the day had been declared a public holiday and that public houses were allowed to remain open all day, probably did much to encourage the high spirits of a gathering that, on its outer fringes, bordered on the riotous.
The arrival of the mayor in his open-topped, gilded carriage was marked by loud cheering, followed, as he climbed the steps and swaggered his way across the stage to the microphone, by a barrage of wolf whistles and raucous laughter. Undeterred, he adopted a suitably regal pose, one hand on his hip while the other gently waved a delicate lace hankie.
“Ladies and gentlemen, good people of Hastings. We are gathered here today to acknowledge the selfless heroism of Mister Joseph Bates who, without a thought for his own safety, bravely saved an elderly lady from a fiery conflagration.”
He paused and executed a graceful half-turn to the left, artfully causing the bottom of his coat to open just enough to reveal the red velvet pantaloons. There was a fresh chorus of hoots, whistles and catcalls from the crowd.
“I’m sure that you will all have read and no doubt marvelled at the account of his remarkable bravery as recorded in our excellent local newspaper and so, without further ado, it is my proud privilege to introduce… MISTER JOE BATES!”
The crowd roared their approval as Joe, looking as though this was the very last place on earth that he wanted to be, was escorted onto the stage by two aldermen, one of whom carried a large scroll of rolled vellum that he handed to the mayor.
“Mister Bates… Joe. In recognition of your outstanding heroism and the shining example that it sets to us all, it gives me the greatest of pleasure to grant to you…” he paused for greater effect. “THE FREEDOM OF THE ANCIENT TOWN OF HASTINGS!”
Another thunderous roar arose from the assembled masses.
The mayor shook Joe vigorously by the hand, handed him the scroll and, considering his civic duties completed, moved away from the microphone, allowing himself plenty of room to stretch out his arms and display the dainty froths of lace that spilled from his embroidered cuffs.
Joe appeared unsure as to what he was supposed to do next. He looked around in a vacant puzzled sort of way, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, then, perhaps feeling that he ought to do something, he raised the scroll, carefully unrolled it, moved to the microphone and proceeded to read.
“It says I am a hero.”
“Heeeero! Heeeero! Heeeero!” chanted the crowd.
“It also says here…” said Joe. “That I’m an extra special sort of person.”
“Extra Speshall! Extra Speshall!” echoed the mob.
“Would that be right, sir?” Joe turned to the mayor who, showing no further interest in the proceedings, was busy performing a series of slow pirouettes, finishing each with an elegant toss of the head to show off the bouncing white plumes to their best advantage. Obviously annoyed at the interruption, he stomped back to the microphone.
“Yes! Yes!” he snapped. “Heroic, brave, extra special, whatever! Look, you’ve got your scroll. No need for you to hang around any longer. Why not go home and… stick it up on the wall or something!”
This ill-tempered response drew a low, ominous rumble of disquiet from the crowd, who seemed to be growing quite fond of Joe and ever more irritated by the mayor.
Joe returned to his reading. “Just one more thing, if you don’t mind. It also says I’m granted ‘freedom of the town.’ Does that mean I can sort of wander about and do anything I want?”
“Yes! Yes!” snarled the mayor. “For heaven’s sakes, man! Go! Wander! The town’s yours. Do whatever you want. Just get off the stage and go and do it!”
“But, what if I decided I wanted to be someone different? Suppose I wanted to be a postman? Can I be a postman? Or maybe a tailor? Or a man who sells wet fish?”
The mayor’s face had taken on a distinctly purple hue which clashed dreadfully with the colour of his jacket. YEEEESS!” he screamed. “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. MAN IN THE DAMNED MOON. I – DON’T – CARE! – JUST – GET – OFF – THIS – STAGE!”
This outburst provoked an angry response from the assembled masses. There was loud booing, a shaking of fists and a shower of miscellaneous missiles clattered onto the stage.
Joe stepped forward and raised his hands. The crowd hushed. He looked out across the heaving, swaying mob. At the uniforms, the jangling medals, the robes, the regalia, the bright shining instruments of the town band and his usual look of mild bewilderment was slowly replaced by a new, unfamiliar expression of self-assured confidence.
He pulled himself up to his full height, threw back his shoulders and puffed out his chest.
“Up ‘til now, I’ve always thought I was an ordinary sort of bloke, but…” Joe held up his scroll. “I’M NOT! I’M A HERO! This here piece of paper says so, so it must be true… I’m an extra special person who can do what he likes and be whoever he wants to be. AND SO – I”VE DECIDED – I WANT TO BE MAYOR!”
“NO! NO! NOOO!” screamed Reginald Crumley.
“YES! YES! YES!” roared the crowd. “JOE FOR MAYOR – JOE FOR MAYOR!”
They surged forward and some in the front row began to clamber up and onto the stage. The frantic efforts of the aldermen failed to hold them back and the mayor was grabbed by a dozen or more pairs of none too gentle hands, speedily relieved of his finery and stripped down to his underwear. (Underwear that bore witness to the fact that while his wife’s wardrobe may have been securely locked, her chest of drawers was obviously not.)
The fine, embroidered coat was flung around Joe’s shoulders and the hat with its fur trim and fancy plumes was rammed onto his head. He was lifted shoulder high and carried in procession, through the cheering crowds, around the square to the gilded coach while the brass band boomed and blared a military march. The coachman cracked his whip and the coach rattled away, carrying the now decidedly ‘extra-ordinary’ Mr Joe Bates off to the town hall to begin his new life as ‘Lord Mayor of Hastings.’
Despite a lack of either education or experience, Joe Bates proved himself to be a surprisingly good mayor, diligently fulfilling the various duties of his office while gaining the respect of councillors and townspeople alike. Recognising the value and importance of good publicity, he courted and eventually married Penny Snippet, who was by then (after a remarkable spate of unfortunate office accidents,) the editor of ‘The Hastings Gossip’ and to the very best of my knowledge, if I may be excused a dreadful cliché, they both lived happily ever after.
This is the first love story that I have written. I set it during the Second World War when so many peoples’ lives were thrown into turmoil.
Night fell over Hastings; no lights shone from any windows as the town awaited yet another air raid.
War had reared its ugly head and shown its faceless contempt for all humanity.
I am Corporal John Stevens and serve with the Royal Engineer Corps based at Hastings, as I await further orders that will eventually post me overseas.
My duties involve manning a barge along with another five Corps members.
Adapted for spotlight reconnaissance, the barge has an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the deck. We use the spotlights to pin-point enemy aircraft as they approach over the coastline and the gun to bring them down.
This night was cloudy, with light rain and no moon.
My sergeant, ‘Taffy’ Wilson was a Welshman. A strong upright man, he stood no fooling around.
We sat on our benches talking quietly of our hopes and the lives we had lead before the war.
“What the hell is that?” the sergeant shouted.
A dark shape, darker than the sea, rocked up and down on the waves. It looked like a boat, though it was hard to tell if anyone was on board.
“Corporal, get some of the other lads. Bring your guns and some torches. It may be a trap.”
We used our dinghies and slowly rowed our way towards the drifting boat.
As we drew near, it was obvious that this was an inshore rowing boat and that two people were on board.
We raised our guns in case there was any retaliation, but they just sat there with no response. It was not until they were prodded with our guns that they made any attempt to move.
I shouted instructions and, at gunpoint, the boat was roped to the dingy and towed back to the barge where Captain Smythe would question the occupants.
As I went to have a mug of tea, one of the squaddies put his head around the door.
“’Ere corp. guess what? The two we picked up in the boat are women.”
I thought I’d better go along and keep the sarge’ and the captain happy. I picked up my gun, made myself presentable and went to join the interrogation party. The two women sat with their heads bowed.
There was silence as we awaited the arrival of Captain Smythe. Then the sergeant shouted, “OFFICER PRESENT. ATTENTION.”
Captain Smythe walked in. “Ladies, I am Captain Smythe. Now, I’m sure you have a reasonable explanation for being out at sea at night in a rowing boat. I hope that we can sort this matter out and get you both to somewhere safe and warm.
“You have been brought in front of me to explain why you were, during the hours of darkness, alone in a small craft without the use of any navigational aids or essential equipment, thereby causing a danger to shipping in and around the area of Hastings shoreline.”
Both the women had their heads covered under the hoods of their dark duffle coats.
It was then that the younger of the girls spoke nervously to the captain. “Please sir, my name is Becky and I am the carer and nurse of Susan, the girl sitting here. She has complete amnesia and for two years now has lost all her memory.
Two years ago she was found off the Bulverhythe by some local fishermen. She was delivering a plane when she was shot down. Since then, all the hospital can get out of her is that she keeps repeating that she must ‘deliver the plane.’ She’s always escaping from the hospital.”
Captain Smythe listened and took notes. “Very well Becky, thank you for your account. I shall now make some further enquiries. I would appreciate it if you could remove the hoods around your heads, please.”
As the girls drew back their hoods, I had the most terrible shock.
In front of me stood my wife, Susan. She still wore her wedding ring.
Two years ago, the Home Office had sent me a telegram informing me that she was reported missing, believed dead. A year later, I had met and married Mary who was now bearing my child.
I felt very alone and lost. I had to speak to someone.
When sergeant ‘Taffy’ Wilson returned from billeting the girls, I took him to one side and explained my dilemma. He made us both a mug of tea and listened.
When I had finished, he sat for a while and then said, “I will speak with Captain Smythe. Hopefully we can arrange for you to get compassionate leave. If I was you, boyo, I would go and discuss this with a chaplain. Take your wife Mary along, but make sure you tell her everything first.”
Two days later, I was called in front of the captain, who questioned me, made notes and duly granted me fourteen days leave.
I telegrammed Mary and we agreed to meet at London Charing Cross Station.
Boarding the train at Warrior Square Station in St Leonards, I found it crowded with troops, some wounded, who mixed with the daily travellers.
On arriving in London, I met Mary and we went to the Lyons Corner House.
Fortunately, when we first met, I had told Mary what had happened to Susan. Mary took her sudden reappearance very well and being her usual practical self, suggested that we see our local church minister. We left Lyons and caught the bus home to Kennington. I was so happy to be on leave and to be able to spend time with Mary, but these precious days were going to be difficult.
A few days later we met with the minister. He suggested that no contact should be made with my first wife, Susan and that I should concentrate on my life with Mary and look forward to the birth of our new child.
As he spoke, I glanced at Mary.
It was obvious that the minister spoke the words that she wanted to hear and she held my hand tightly and kept saying that she could not live without me and that all she wanted was for us to be able to spend the rest of our lives together.
The next few days at home were so happy. Though the happiness clouded when a letter of apology came from the Home Office admitting their mistake over Susan. They suggested that it was up to me to decide what I thought to be the right thing to do as they now considered the matter closed. By the same post, another letter came that informed me of my posting overseas. Until the day of the posting, I was to remain with the Royal Engineer Corps at Hastings.
Leave ended and after a tearful farewell with Mary, I returned to Hastings and my duties on the barge.
Sergeant Wilson was the first to welcome me back. “How did things go for you, boyo? Did your wife understand the situation?”
I told him about everything that had happened.
Sergeant Wilson nodded. “Well, I’d say it’s for the best. You have to think about your future. I know it’ll be hard, but the hospital will look after Mary. She might never come out of that condition, but they can help her through the amnesia. You’re still a young man with a good life in front of you and, you know, this war isn’t going to last for ever.”
I thanked him and returned to my duties. He was right of course, but it nagged at me that Susan still lived, even though she never recognised me that night we plucked her out of the sea.
On my second night back, German bombers came across the Channel. Often they passed to the east or to the west of Hastings, but tonight they came right overhead. Flack from the anti-aircraft guns lit up the sky.
Search lights criss-crossed in solid beams of light and the barrage balloons drifted on their moorings. Then, from behind the cliffs, I heard the full-throttled drone as our Spitfires attacked.
Tracer bullets lit up the night sky, engines screamed as planes plummeted into the sea and into the ground. Bombs exploded all over St Leonards.
As day dawned, the destruction was terrible to see. The worst sight was seeing the smoking ruins of the hospital where they had cared for Susan. No one had survived the direct hit.
I cried and prayed and cried again.
I was never posted overseas. I spent my war in Hastings. Afterwards, I returned to London to celebrate Hitler’s downfall with Mary and our new born daughter, Megan. Sergeant ‘Taffy’ Wilson was delighted to be her godfather.
Once a year, on the anniversary of her death, I spend a few moments in silence to think about Susan. Did she ever remember anything of her past life before she died? If she did, I hoped it was of happier times.
There once was a man with a very long jacket
With pockets so deep that he couldn’t get at it.
So he asked a good friend to reach for his money,
But all that they found were toffees and honey. “Well…
Bless me!” said the man. “I think I’ve been robbed.”
So he stood upside-down with his hands on the ground
And looked around sharply to see what was found,
But all that he saw were pebbles and fluff.
So he stood back on his feet and walked off in a huff. “Well…
Bless me!” he said. “I’m a man who’s been robbed.”
Oh, he was in a bad mood and he was in a state,
And to catch this villain, he just couldn’t wait.
So he thought with a smile that he’d set up a trap
And catch this bold thief and give him a slap. “Well…
Who’d blame me!” he said. “I’m a man who’s been robbed.”
So he got a snap-trap and he pulled back the spring
And clipped on the catch that loaded the thing,
Then he pulled back the cloth and opened his pocket
And dropped the trap in and promptly forgot it. “Well…
Who’d blame me,” he thought. “I’m a man who’s been robbed.”
All of that day he spent looking for traces
Following up clues in likely places,
But of this bold thief he found not a hair,
It was like looking for a ghost who’d never been there. “Well…
What can I say,” he thought… scratching his head and pulling his ear.
Oh dear, he was worn out when he got back home
‘Cause he’d looked everywhere from Sydney to Rome
His shoulders had drooped and his feet were all swollen,
But he’d not found a sign of the thief who had stolen. “Well…
Poor me,” he sobbed. “I’m just a man who’s been robbed.”
He flopped in his chair and poured in his cup
The tea he was sipping just as he looked up
And there on the mantelpiece he suddenly saw
All of the cash that he’d been looking for. “Well…
Bless me!” he said. “I haven’t been robbed.”
He stood up all smiles and picked up his money
And said, “You know, this is all very funny.”
Then still with a smile shoved his hand in his pocket
And snap went the trap ‘cause you know he’d forgot it. “Well…
Owww!” he said as his poor finger throbbed. “I’m a forgetful man who never was robbed.”
The story ‘Cargo’ comes from the contrasting nature of all medium sized towns where, in addition to the hustle and bustle on the surface, there are always darker undertones and all is not necessarily what it seems to be.
‘Bob the Beachcomber’ strode along the tideline in the wintery sunshine, his black leather trench coat streaming out behind him in the stiff sea breeze. His leather field boots crunched the shingle as he listened to the sucking sound of the receding tide on the pebbles. A collecting satchel was slung across his chest and on his head a black beanie hat was pulled well down.
His gimlet gaze sought out anything of interest deposited at the last high tide; tackle from the local fishing boats, cuttlefish bones and plastic detritus from the holiday makers. Sometimes, the sea threw up items which he then sold to one or other of the knick-knack shops which were sprinkled along the sea front.
One of the dishevelled alcoholics who sat in the niches under St Leonards Promenade called to him. “Hey Bob! Found something for you.”
It was Charlie with Jimmy and another semi-comatose member of ‘The St Leonards Drinking Society.’ They met daily with their ration of Tennant’s lager or strong cider and found items from the shoreline to pass on to him.
A grizzled grey haired veteran of the ‘Society’ wearing a black woolly hat, a scruffy soiled grey zipper jacket and faded jeans held out his grimy brown hand with his latest find.
Bob kept upwind of Charlie whose clothes were stained, frayed and had a strong odour of stale beer and urine. “What have you got for me, Charlie?”
Charlie’s sharp little brown eyes narrowed. “Found it ‘s morning under the pier. Dunno if there’s anyfing in it ‘cos the caps stuck tight. Thought that you might be able to do somefing wiv’ it.”
‘A SmugglersTube.’ Bob’s pulse quickened, but he adopted what he hoped was an appearance of calm disinterest. “I don’t know Charlie, an old brass tube with a stuck cap isn’t much use. What do you want for it?”
“What’s it worth?” countered Charlie.
Bob shrugged. “Quid.”
“Two quid,” snapped Charlie.
“Split the difference; one fifty,” said Bob.
Charlie grinned. Bob had a pretty shrewd idea where the money would end up.
Bob took the cylinder and slipped it into his coat pocket. He gave Charlie the promised money, waved goodbye to the drinkers and walked back to the tideline.
Once out of sight, he took the brass cylinder out of his pocket and inspected it closely.
He was in little doubt that he held a message cylinder. ‘SURVEYOR GENERAL HASTINGS’ was stamped in small letters along its length. Bob tried to twist the cap off, but it wouldn’t budge.
He had seen a similar cylinder in the local museum. The 19th Century Revenue Officers had used them to leave messages for their contacts.
Bob made his way towards the fishing boats hauled up on the shingle and found the old fisherman that he had been hoping to meet. “Hello William. How’s your arthritis today?”
The old man peered up at Bob with a distant look in his eyes as his gnarled hands moved of their own accord on the net he mended. “Afternoon Bob. Too cold for my liking; gets into the joints.” He continued with his mending.
Bob pulled out a hip flask and offered it to William. “Drop of something to keep out the cold?”
“Don’t mind if I do. Thanks.” William took a swig from the flask. “Ah, that’s better. Drop of good that.”
Bob winked. “Duty paid and all!”
“Dun’t know what you mean.”
“Course you don’t.”
“I want to pick your brains about smuggling, back in the seventeen and eighteen-hundreds.”
“Dun’t remember that far. Weren’t even born then!”
Bob proffered his flask again. “I know that you were not born then, but you are the most knowledgeable man regarding the smugglers hereabouts.”
William took the flask and held it tight. “The seventeen-hundreds was good times for the flaskers; them what brought in the brandy flasks. The Revenuers were a bit thin on the ground and could be persuaded to be lookin’ in the other direction. Of course, it all changed in the eighteen-hundreds after the war with Napoleon. The Revenue got stronger and the Militia got involved. Anyways, what do you want to know for?”
Bob smiled at William’s transparent ploy to keep hold of the flask. “I found an old reference to someone called the Surveyor General and wondered if you knew what he did?”
William offered the flask back. “Oh heem was in charge of the Revenue Riding Officers. Damn nuisance they was to the flaskers, but not very effective ‘til they started using spies and paying people for information.”
Bob waved the flask away. “I heard that the flaskers used to store contraband in the caves at West Hill.”
“They used the caves everywhere. West Hill, East Hill, Fairlight Glen, all the way to Pett. Soft sandstone, see, easy to tunnel and cut caves in. Surprised that they didn’t find any after that rock fall during the storm last week.”
Bob glanced towards the cliffs. “I suppose that if anything did fall in the sea during the storm it would have washed up towards Pett and Winchelsea Beach?”
“Funny things, tides. Normally flotsam ends up further round the coast, but I’ve known things fall in at Hastings and end up at St Leonards. Rare, but it does happen after storms. Why, have you found something?” His dark blue eyes sharpened.
“No,” Bob lied. “I thought that some fossils might have washed up and wanted to check where I should look for them.”
Bob retrieved his now empty flask and slipped it back in his pocket. William lost interest, his eyes went back to their normal distant gaze and he picked up the net again.
“I think I might have a root around along there tomorrow when the tide is out far enough. Bye William, nice talking to you.”
“Bye Bob. You and your flask is welcome to drop by any time.”
Bob picked up fish and chips for dinner on the way back to his flat. The tell-tale slip of paper that he habitually placed in the door jamb of the front door was missing. He carefully opened the door and saw it lying inside on the floor.
Bob tensed as he entered the small flat, and armed himself with a baseball bat which he kept in the hall. The visitor might still be on the premises.
Everything appeared the same as he had left it, but tell-tales don’t lie. His visitor had been careful, but the sideboard drawer was slightly askew. Only a few millimetres out, but enough for Bob’s trained eye to notice.
The flat was empty and Bob relaxed slightly.
The thought of another person looking through his belongings disturbed him. It took away the anticipated enjoyment of the meal.
As he removed the first layer of paper from the fish and chips he caught the hint of a familiar scent. Stale beer and urine; one of the ‘St Leonards Drinking Society’ had been here. But who and why?
Bob retrieved the cylinder from his pocket, wound a rubber band around the cap and gripped it firmly in a pair of pliers. Exerting pressure, he twisted the cap clockwise to counteract the left hand thread. Slowly, it unscrewed. Inside was a slim roll of paper.
Bob took a deep breath and eased it out. It appeared to be yellow and fragile with age.
He gently smoothed it out on the kitchen table. There was a pencilled message written in crude block capitals.
‘CARGO AT COVE. FRIDAY NIGHT. HIGH TIDE.’
How old was it? Who was it meant for? Could the recent rock falls have dislodged it from a hiding place?
He carefully re-rolled the message, returned it to the brass capsule, replaced the cap and dropped it into the pocket of his leather coat.
Tomorrow he would search the shoreline along the rock fall.
The next morning, Bob arose early and felt the familiar tingle when action was imminent. He ate a quick breakfast and set several tell-tales around the flat using damp hairs. If anyone ‘visited’ today he would know where they had been.
After the unexpected ‘visitor’ yesterday, he kept a sharp watch, repeatedly glancing in shop windows to check that he was not being followed.
Slipping behind the Fish Market he backtracked and re-emerged from a narrow fish scented alley between the fishing huts.
Two gulls squabbled over a discarded fish head. Nothing else in sight. So far, so good.
The sun broke through the early morning cloud and the tide ebbed strongly. He climbed down onto the rocks. The sea sucked at the pebbles and shale at the foot of the cliff and washed over his leather field boots. It would be safe until about half past two, after that the incoming tide would cut him off.
Just over five hours, plenty of time to have a good look and get back safely.
The nearest rock fall was the spectacular one shown on television, the fresh scar stood out from the weathered look of the rest of the cliff and a large pile of debris jutted out into the sea.
Bob spent over an hour picking his way over the rocks searching in each nook and cranny. He felt a sense of achievement when he discovered an egg-sized fossil, which he put in his satchel.
He made his way towards Black Rock to search the smaller rock falls.
As he reached a small cave which had recently been revealed by the recent storms, he had the feeling that he was being watched. He peered back along the shoreline, but could not see anyone.
Bob trusted his sixth sense, it had saved him many times working for Her Majesty’s Government.
He made his way through the narrow entrance to the cave. Taking a torch from his satchel, he played the powerful beam around. The pebble strewn floor sloped upwards towards the back of the cave which was partially obscured by an outcrop.
Bob glanced at his watch. “Half past eleven. Blimey, where had those two hours gone? I’d better get a shift on.”
He moved deeper into the cave and found a passage hidden from view behind the outcrop. It was narrow, but high enough to stand up in as the floor inclined steeply. Intrigued, Bob pressed on following its twists and turns.
“This passage isn’t natural, it’s man made. It looks like an old smuggling tunnel,” he muttered to himself.
Bob heard a sound behind him. A footfall or a rock falling from the roof? He flashed his torch back down the passage and listened hard, holding his breath. No one there.
Ten yards further on the passage petered out. He shuffled right to the end and touched the wall. He turned about to retrace his steps when he saw an area of deep shadow to one side.
Bob directed his torch beam into the shadows and saw another, smaller passage hidden by a spur at the last turn in the path.
‘Oh clever, very clever,’ Bob thought. You’re so intent following the path and seeing the end wall that you totally miss the change in direction.
Bob ducked his head as he followed the new passage ever upwards. It turned sharply at right angles and ended in a large cave hewn out of the rock. He swept his torch around.
On the floor lay a number of mattresses, Calor Gas bottles and cooking equipment. Slowly, it became clear to him. This was not just an old smuggling route, but also a current one.
Not contraband, human cargo. People trafficking! Had he been wrong? Was the message in the tube new and left deliberately at a dead letter drop?
Charlie stumbled upon it and had then obviously been seen selling it to him. Hence the visitation yesterday.
He heard a shoe scuff the floor and jumped to one side. A cosh missed his head by a whisker, but caught him a painful blow on his upper arm. Bob dropped the torch which bounced on the floor.
Its light, reflecting off the sandstone, illuminated the face of his assailant. Jimmy from the ‘Drinking Society.’ No longer a semi-comatose drunk in dirty clothes, but very much alert, dressed in clean jeans, a dark windcheater over a sweatshirt and wielding the cosh.
Bob stepped to one side, narrowly avoiding the blow as Jimmy swung again.
He calculated the odds, not good. They were both the same height and build. Jimmy was no amateur and had a weapon. If he did not do something soon it would only end in one way.
Remembering the fossil, he thrust his hand into his satchel and seized it. Jimmy stepped in and swung the cosh. Bob blocked the blow and a fierce pain shot down his already damaged arm. Bob smashed the fossil against Jimmy’s elbow, causing him gasp.
The fight continued for some time, each trying to get the upper hand as they circled one another.
The arm swung again. This time full contact was made. A senseless body slid to the floor.
The unconscious man was a dead weight and hard to drag back through the passageways to the sea cave. Coats and shoes were encumbrances and left behind until needed later.
Re-dressed, the body was placed face down in the sea and floated out through the crevice on the receding ebb tide.
The sea battered cadaver washed ashore near Pett Level.
Bob was identified by Charlie from his leather coat, beanie hat and field boots. The Coroner returned a verdict of ‘Death by Misadventure.’
Robert Davies’ report on ‘Border Security in Southern England’ to the Joint Intelligence Committee had been well received.
Returning to his desk, he strode down the corridor of Thames House in his carefully tailored suit and well shined shoes of soft black leather. His cover blown, others would now keep watch and take the necessary action.
He would miss the leather trench coat and walking the Sussex shoreline with the shingle crunching under his field boots.
I love that our unconscious, though dreaming, dramatizes our internal conflicts.
I struggle into consciousness as my nightmare of a storm that tears the heavens apart mutates into a loud knocking from downstairs. I follow the sound to the French windows, clutch the curtains, hesitate and then reluctantly draw them a hands width apart.
My stomach leaps upwards as a dreadful face stares into mine. I freeze, before realizing it is Celandine, my neighbour, her face horribly distorted as she presses it against the glass. Opening the door, I usher her inside.
She paces, wailing. “He looks dreadful and I’m responsible. Maybe it was the pebbles, or the chanting. Oh, what have I done?”
“Celandine what’s happened? Who looks awful? You aren’t making any sense. Calm down and tell me what’s wrong.”
“One of the spirits I called is inside my Celtic pattern. He may be dying!”
Celandine fantasizes that she communes with the dead. A spirit? Dying? I open my mouth, but now is not the time to challenge her logic. “Come on, let’s see what’s happened.” I grab my coat and torch from the cupboard under the stairs.
We slip through a gap between our fences. Behind Celandine’s shed, a man is lying on the muddy earth. I pass Celandine the torch. My medical training takes over as I check his vitals. No smell of alcohol – drugs perhaps? How did he get into the garden? He must have climbed over at least six fences. “It’s okay.” The man stirs.
Celandine breathes, ghost-like into my ear. “Be careful.”
“He’s not dead,” I reply. “He’s coming round.”
The nearly naked man has clearly been to some kind of fancy dress evening, judging by his short pleated skirt and the white sheet draped over his shoulders. Hastings and St Leonards are teeming with creative types and this sort of outfit is not remarkable.
As he opens his eyes, I catch a flash of something, perhaps fear or panic, but their clear bright blue is surprising in the torch light.
I stand back. “Are you okay? Do you know where you are?”
He sits and then climbs to his feet. “I’m fine, thank you and no I don’t.” He is tall, slim and muscular.
“What are you doing here? How did you get in the garden? Who are you?”
Celandine interrupts. “Don’t ask so many questions, Jane. He must be cold and wet. Let’s get him inside and give him a hot drink.”
In Celandine’s kitchen, the wood burner gives a comforting glow and her cat jumps onto my lap and curls up purring. It all feels quite dreamlike. Celandine hands out hot chocolate and the young man talks in a voice of eloquent authority.
“I frightened you both and I apologise.”
“No, I’m the one who must apologise.” Celandine catches up her loose dark curls and pins them on top of her head. “I called you up. The rain has been ceaseless and I’d hoped you’d be able to help.”
“I shall do my best, but it may take some time.”
“You must stay with me until the time is right for you,” she replies.
“Celandine,” I protest, coming out of the adenosine-induced trance. “This man is a stranger and you’re inviting him to stay in your house!”
“Forgive me!” He stands up. “My name is Phaethon.”
I hesitate then shake his proffered hand as he continues. “I feel much better now. At first, I thought I’d been hit by a thunderbolt.”
His smile is, I suppose, disarming. “Do you have proof of identity?”
“Jane!” Celandine is shocked. “He’s a spirit. Of course he doesn’t have I.D.”
“Everyone except illegal immigrants has I.D,” I insist.
She places her mug firmly on the table. “He’s staying with me. Forgive me for waking you, Jane. I know you have to go to work later.”
Humiliated and dismissed, I leave.
Once home, I fall deeply asleep. However, next morning the memories of the night come flooding back and concern replaces anger.
I quickly shower, dress and go to check on my neighbour. Although complete opposites in our thinking – I’m the rationalist with a scientific background, while Celandine entertains all manner of irrational mystical beliefs – we are friends who enjoy competing to prove our different positions. I relish the satisfaction of producing respected bodies of evidence in support of my arguments. Nevertheless, she is a good healer. In response to my knock, she opens her door. She looks rested and happy.
“Hello Jane, good to see you. Did you sleep well? Cup of tea?”
“I did, and I’d love one.” Relieved that she’s fine, I follow her into the kitchen and watch as she fills the kettle with water. “Where’s your mystery guest then – still sleeping?”
She returns the kettle to its base and switches on the power. “No, another early riser, he’s gone to the beach. Sorry about last night, Jane. I hope tiredness doesn’t make your day difficult.”
I shake my head. “Fortunately the acetylcholine in my blood was quickly overpowered by melatonin, so I slept well. However, I’ve been worried about you and only relaxed when you opened the door.”
“Jane, you know I wouldn’t take any risks.”
I pull out a chair and sit at the table. “But you have, Phaethon is a stranger.”
She warms the teapot, adds leaves, then pours in the boiling water. “He’s not a stranger, he’s a spirit and the son of Helix, the Sun God.”
Exasperated, I sigh. “Celandine, this is rubbish. Science has dismissed claims of spirits.”
She pours tea into two cups. “You’re too confident of science, Jane. Consider that before we had the tools to identify and harness electricity, science would have dismissed the idea of instant light at the flick of a switch as the ravings of a deluded mind.”
I take the cup she hands me. “Wherever these spirits live must be very overcrowded.”
She laughs. “Come on Jane, that’s a bit weak, you’re the scientist – space is infinite and spirits aren’t matter.”
“Aha, so Phaethon isn’t really here!”
“Of course he’s here, you’ve seen him. When spirits return to this world they assume the form they had when they were living.”
This is like swimming in treacle. “Celandine, this bloke is a vagrant and he could be from anywhere. You know the financial mess the country’s in and we have strict rules about aliens. You must report him to the police.”
“If something doesn’t fit your belief system Jane, your instant reaction is that that ‘thing’ is wrong and must be removed. Open your mind to the amazing world around you. Not everything in the universe can be measured and proven. Phaethon is safe. I called him and he has a lovely aura, we shall be fine.”
“Lovely aura, do you know how crazy that sounds?” I finish my tea with a single scalding gulp.
“Not as crazy as I’d sound if I’d reported a spirit to the police!” she retorts.
Another break from work and Celandine calls to me over the fence.
“Hello Jane. Good to see you.” She frowns. “You look exhausted. Come inside and have some coffee.”
Celandine makes coffee while I watch the crystals revolving in the window as they refract the watery sunlight and cast rainbows on the freshly painted kitchen walls.
She pours our drinks, then follows my gaze and tells me; “Phaethon is such a find, so practical and a wonderful cook.” She sips coffee, her bright eyes happy. She picks up a cushion cover and begins sewing on sequins.
I am envious of her ability to be so relaxed. Having studied and worked hard all my life, my reward is exhaustion. How can it be that she supports herself through ‘alternative practices’ while my shifts become longer and longer? It’s so unfair.
“He’s still here then.”
She slips the finished cover over a cushion. “He will be gone soon.” She gives a sensual stretch. “Besides, I like having him here.”
“He’s a young man, Celandine and you are a middle-aged woman. Your judgement seems even more impaired than normal if you’re suggesting what I think you are!”
Her look is measured. “I can assure you my judgement is fine. Perhaps middle-aged is something you feel. I’ve said before that you need a proper break.”
I protest. “My profession doesn’t allow me to just…”
She holds up a hand. “I know your excuses, Jane. The importance of being efficient. Never making wrong decisions or unsubstantiated claims. No ‘stress leave’ without a psychiatrist’s report, which the very act of applying for suggests that you’re not fit for work.” She collects the empty mugs. “You know my argument: as long as people tolerate unreasonable thinking they will always be vulnerable. Take care Jane, our minds and bodies must always ensure that we get the rest we crave.”
“Oh, it’s okay for you Celandine, things just slip into place for you.” I sound bitter but her talk of illness has frightened me. I do need a rest.
She stands, her face flushed. “Nothing has just ‘slipped into place.’ I have trained myself to be open towards life and alternative thinking. Try it, the rewards are well worth the effort. Now excuse me. I have someone coming for crystal healing and I can’t have negative energy near my consultation room.”
Unable to collect my thoughts and put up a rational argument, I decide that I need a long walk to calm me. At that moment, Phaethon materialises. He looks, well… I suppose… radiant.
“Jane!” He smiles. “I’m going to the beach. Do keep me company.”
A perfect opportunity to find out more about this man.
Hastings beach has that early morning emptiness, free of tourists with last night’s polystyrene containers, chip wrappings and empty beer cans strewn across the pebbles. The rain is holding off.
Phaethon waves an elegant hand. “How beautiful this is. Look how calm the sea is and see those wonderful clouds sitting on the horizon. Their bases are as straight as if drawn with a ruler.”
He selects a pebble and in one flowing, unbroken movement sends it skimming out to sea. I count the skips to stop myself thinking about the gracefulness of his body. “What are your plans, Phaethon?”
He pulls a black bin bag from his jeans pocket. “I have only one plan, to make amends to my father and get back to the world where I belong. Perhaps you will help me collect seagull feathers.”
I watch him examine feathers and curiosity gets the better of me. “Why do you have to make amends?”
Looking rueful, he explains. “I disregarded my father’s wishes. It cost him a son.”
I watch him out of the corner of my eye. I shouldn’t have asked. What a terrible burden. Too late to take it back. “How did your brother die?”
He laughs. “Not my brother. Me! I am the son my father lost.”
“Well, why don’t you just return home?” I snap, mortified at my mistake.
He contemplates me. “Jane, I know this is hard for you, but the only way I can join my father is if I travel back through time the same way I left.”
“Please don’t,” I implore. “If you and Celandine insist on carrying on this charade you obviously both think I’m stupid.”
“You’re a rationalist, Jane. It has nothing to do with cleverness. The stories you hear as a child become buried beneath layers of education and unless you determine to hang onto the magic and wonder of such tales, the life of them is lost to you. You are exhausted because rational thinking rules your life. Open up, Jane and enjoy the time you have.”
This is like a bad dream, full of veiled warnings about my health. I loathe his arrogance. This man has nothing. He arrived practically naked and now, wearing clothes belonging to Celandine’s brother, he is taking advantage of her naivety and thinks that he can fool me too. We drift towards the pier where men in yellow jackets and hard hats swarm wasp-like over its black skeleton.
I control my anger and focus on finding out when he plans to leave. “How will you achieve this?”
Phaethon chooses a feather. “I shall make a pair of wings and fly from the West Hill.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I exclaim. “You cannot be serious.”
He holds the feather up. “Icarus’s wings were made of these and, of course, wax.” He frowns. “However, Icarus flew too close to the sun. I shan’t do that, so I shall succeed.”
“Of course you will.” I ignore the small, sad feeling deep inside me. “You can do anything except prove who you are.” Turning up like a phantom, behaving like a deity, and treating me as a half-wit. He needs bringing down to earth. “I’m going to sort things for Celandine’s car boot sale. Collect your own feathers.”
Unconcerned, he waves me goodbye. That evening, I drive to the police station on Bohemia Road.
Days and nights merge. One afternoon, after I return from work, Celandine calls to me over the fence. “I’ve been waiting for you, Jane. Come and see.”
Inside her shed, I nod to Phaethon, but as I follow Jane’s gaze I see, hanging from the roof, a huge pair of wings. I stare at masses of tiny feathers, the undersides of fluffy clouds.
Phaethon lowers the wings and, despite myself, I cannot deny the incredulous beauty of his workmanship. The surface of each wing has layer upon layer of feathers, each graded according to size. Gently, he spreads a wing and I wonder at the perfect reconstruction. How has he managed to make something so intricate, so fantastic?
He smiles that smile at me. “I am flying first thing tomorrow, from the top of the West Hill as the sun rises. Come with us.”
I sound like some doom-laden crone, but one of us has to be practical. “The wings are amazing, but you are both unhinged. Phaethon will end up at best badly injured or worse, dead.”
They laugh. Phaethon takes my hand and warmth floods my body. He lays my hand on a wing; the depth of so many layers of feathers is miraculous. I snatch my hand back. “How will you launch yourself? Your body weight will drag you down.”
“I jump off the cliff edge using the ‘Ridge lift’ to gain height. I’m lighter than you would think Jane and I shall use thermal currents to stay airborne.”
Celandine holds up a jacket with dangling harnesses. “I made this for Phaethon. The wings attach to it.”
He smiles at her and turns to me. “Let’s go and have a drink.”
Like a sleepwalker, I drift into Celandine’s house where she lights incense.
“Phaethon’s talents are out of this world and his skills are quite breath-taking.” She gives a deep chuckle.
I feel bile rise. Incense always makes me nauseous.
She continues. “Sadly, the police are coming to the house tomorrow to investigate Phaethon. However, first he must try his wings out. The van hired for the boot sale will be perfect for transporting the wings and so it makes sense to go to the West Hill early.”
About to decline their earlier invite, I hesitate. Accompanying them will allow me to keep an eye on Phaethon and make sure that he doesn’t abscond before the police catch up with him. I’m also curious to see how he will wriggle out of pretending to be a spirit when faced with the reality of hurling himself off a cliff!
It is still dark the next morning as we park on the West Hill. But in the east, the sky grows light.
Celandine and Phaethon lift out the wings and attach them to the jacket. We climb to Hastings castle carrying the wings between us. A thick mist adds to the dreamlike quality of the expedition. We halt at the cliff edge.
“Now we wait for the wind.” Phaethon’s voice is confident.
“And of course the right wind will arrive.” My voice sounds muffled.
“Come, stand beside me Jane.” Feeling insubstantial, I go to him. He slips an arm across my shoulders and points west. “See those cumulus clouds with darker bases? They signify active thermals with light winds, perfect for thermal riding.”
He moves away and I feel the cold morning air. He slips the harness jacket over his shoulders. The wings, sewn along the arms, fold against his back.
Celandine buckles straps. “I’ve done an incantation and set pebbles as I did the night we found Phaethon.”
Memories of my nightmare that night flood back, but I dismiss them, preferring to anticipate the moment when Celandine has to face reality and admit that I have been right all along.
A wind picks up. Phaethon kisses Celandine, waves to me and then runs with surprising speed. I hold my breath, willing him to stop, but to my absolute horror he opens the wings and leaps into nothingness.
I breathe out as he drifts above Swan Pool then, gaining height, glides eastwards over the fishing boats as the west wind blows him out to sea. At that moment, the sun rises and blinded by its rays, I close my eyes. When I open them again, only gulls move in the sky.
Back at Celandine’s, I drink sweet tea to recover from my shock. “Well, the wings were certainly well made, but he’ll soon be exhausted. Hopefully a boat will pick him up.”
She asks; “Do you know about the myth of Phaethon?”
“Yes, yes. He took his father’s chariot, lost control of the horses, scorched the earth and Zeus, angry at the chaos, killed him with a thunderbolt.”
Celandine continues. “That’s right. Now, whenever his spirit returns to this world he uses the opportunity to impress his father. You see, it’s always about flying and keeping control. It also happens to be the only way that he can return…”
“No!” I protest. Trying to think feels like being smothered in cotton wool. “Phaethon is ancient myth. The rest is just poppycock. Give up, Celandine.”
“Sorry Jane, this is one you’ve lost. Phaethon and I knew you’d go to the police, despite him telling you the truth.”
I stare at her. “How will you explain Phaethon to them? They’ll think you’re mad, perhaps you are. Maybe you should be locked up, irrational beliefs are very dangerous.”
“Jane, I don’t have to do anything. You will be the one having to do the explaining, because there’s no evidence that Phaethon was ever here. My concern is for you. Penalties for wasting police time are severe. Then there are the repercussions at work. However,” she smiled. “Look on the bright side, you will get that break you need.”
I start. Struggle to focus.
A thunderous knocking on the front door echoes through the house.
Once I had a mountain,
a large and lumpy thing.
I washed and dried and dusted it,
and kept it on a string.
I decided, when I had the time,
to pack a picnic lunch and climb
and when I reached the top I’d sing
and shout aloud that I was king
of all the world and everything.
I started up my mountain
and for hours without a stop,
I stumbled and I scrambled on
until I reached the top.
And, as I looked around, I saw
a million mountains, maybe more,
and on each one an endless sea
of little people just like me,
all shouting out with all their might
that they alone deserved the right
to be the undisputed king
of all the world and everything.
It seems that climbing mountains is an ordinary thing,
and everybody wants to reach the top and be the king.
I turned around and climbed back down,
and, when I finally reached the ground,
decided I would just be me,
the person I was meant to be,
and so …
… I set my mountain free.
Inspired by the one hundredth anniversary of the Great War, I wanted to describe the awful conditions the conflict was fought under and in small measure applaud the bravery of the participants.
The fantastic element of the story stems from an incident recorded during the Battle of Mons, where many soldiers claimed to have seen legions of angels fighting on the British side.
Since writing this story, I have been introduced to the Wilfred Owen poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ which describes the reality much better than my efforts.
My feet really hurt. I hadn’t unlaced my soaking boots for two days and was frightened of what I might find when I did.
Four days ago, the section had received an issue of ‘soldiers’ comforts,’ packages from a Home Counties charity. The gift had included knitted mittens, a balaclava and some beautiful thick socks.
There hadn’t been time to take advantage of any of these before now and clasping the issue, I hobbled to the dugout which was cut into the enemy facing side of the trench and by the light of a sputtering candle, unwound my puttees and removed my boots.
My feet looked and smelled putrid. Two great white lumps with dirty broken nails and pale peeling skin. As the air reached the lesions in the flayed areas, I experienced a sharp, stabbing pain.
Thomas Connon, the platoon first-aider, had transformed one corner of the dugout into a store for his dressings and medications. He observed my activities. “They don’t look healthy, Charlie.”
“If that is the best you can offer, shut up,” I responded.
Connon contemplated the offending appendages while stuffing his briar with army issue tobacco. He applied a match and was instantly enveloped in a blue cloud of fog. Through the fug, he issued an edict. “Dry them as best you can, then dust them with the powder I have on the shelf. Put plenty in your socks, it will help.”
I recovered a damp, grimy towel from my knapsack and dried and ministered to my feet as instructed. I rolled on the new socks and stretched my feet towards the brazier that burned in the dugout day and night.
The feeling of comfort and wellbeing was indescribable.
“Carter, Corporal Carter, NCO’s briefing in five minutes.” The runner’s call penetrated the dugout.
Slowly and painfully I pulled on and laced my damp boots and wrapped the puttees.
“I hope I don’t see you later, bonny lad,” said Connon. “Do try to look after your feet.”
I fought my way through the double blackout tarpaulins which covered the dugout’s entrance and made my way down the trench to the officer’s bunker. It was already twilight and I had to step carefully to avoid the gaps between the duckboards. Murmurs of greeting and banter accompanied me from the men on stand-to on the fire steps.
Smoke from the brazier and the officers’ pipes and cigarettes filled the dugout.
“Pay attention,” said the captain. “We need two forward observation posts into no-man’s land tonight. Harris, Carter, your sections. Leave two men at the wire for cover and take the remainder forward about fifty yards. Observe, listen and if Jerry is patrolling, try to nab a prisoner. I want you all back inside the trench before first light.”
I stared at Harris keeping my face expressionless.
Since the casualties from our last attack, our two sections were seriously depleted and we were inevitably given the task of forward patrol and observation. The remaining sections could provide more men to defend the trench in the event of an attack. At least that was the captain’s belief.
“Now, the good news,” he said. “I want you to delay your start by about an hour. We should get a mule train delivery, including hot food after dark and you should get your men fed before you jump off.” Harris almost smiled.
Hot food, rather than bully beef and hard tack biscuits was a rare treat. The troops boiled potatoes on their braziers and the more competent made bully stew with crushed biscuits, but real food…
Making my way back to the dugout in the increasing darkness, I was even more careful to keep my feet on the duckboards.
I called the surviving six members of the section together and briefed them on the intended nocturnal activities. All of them had managed to shave, but their uniforms were filthy. No amount of beating and brushing could remove the mud from their greatcoats and breeches. In reality the mud stains provided a degree of additional camouflage in daylight. The only clean items about their persons were their Lee-Enfield rifles and the sword bayonets that could be fixed to the barrels.
The food was wonderful, lamb chops in gravy with real vegetables, hot tea with a splash of rum. But then the real business had to begin.
I selected the two men who were to remain at the entrance to the barbed wire barrier that fronted the trenches. The choice was easy, Johnny Thomas is a rotten shot and very short sighted and Lefty Wright had a cough that he couldn’t control. They brought a length of groundsheet to lie on and made themselves as comfortable as possible. I confirmed that they remembered the password and stressed they must only doze one at a time.
We mounted the fire step and then slithered over the lip of the trench and through the gap in the barbed wire.
We stayed low. Both sides fired random star shells at night in an effort to expose parties in no-man’s land and such exposure might result in sniping or a burst of machine-gun fire.
I led the other four forward. It was a very dark, overcast night with no stars. The only safe means of progress was a cautious crawl. Mud soaked our breeches and puttees and promised a wet uncomfortable night; at least it hadn’t rained, yet…
No-man’s land was pockmarked with numerous shell holes, many of which were flooded to a greater or lesser degree and was criss-crossed with barbed wire entanglements and piles of abandoned equipment. The remains of horses and men littered the ground.
The slow crawl reduced the risk of dropping into a shell hole or getting hung-up. Before setting out, I had used the trench periscope and in the fading light had identified a dry hole about fifty yards out which would be a perfect place for the post. In the darkness I missed it and had to cast about for anything deep and dry enough for the purpose.
My new mittens were already ruined, the barbed wire ensured that and they were soaked through and heavy. Still, worth a small comfort if I wrung them out.
We slid into a shallow depression and I placed the men in pairs, facing the German lines. I then positioned myself midway between the pairs.
Carefully, by feel, I emptied my rifle and recharged it with fresh, dry ammunition that I had stowed in an inside pocket of my uniform. The final act, to straighten the split-pins of two Mills bombs, so that the pins slid from the charging levers instantly.
The occasional riffle of wind blew in our faces. We could hear voices and laughter carried on the wind. The noise came from the nearest German trench and was accompanied by a ringing sound, rather like a cracked bell. A rumble of heavy artillery fire could also be heard from the south where the French manned similar lines to the British.
Time dragged slowly. My nose caught a scent which overlaid the stench of no-man’s land. During a recent assault the battalion had reached the German trenches and we had occupied them for some hours before a ferocious counter-attack had thrown us back to the start line. While searching a German dugout, I had noticed that it was permeated with a sour, vinegary smell, quite unlike the tea and tobacco scent of a British bunker.
That was the aroma which tickled my nostrils now. A German? Some Germans?
Close enough to taste. Clasping the lever firmly, I slid the safety-pin out of a Mills bomb and silently alerted my nearest comrade.
Curiously and even bizarrely, underlying the stench of the Germans, I could detect the sharp, sweet smell of lavender. And, carried on the wind, the unbelievable sound of a girlish giggle!
A star-shell burst into incandescence about a mile away. My heart lurched, twenty feet in front of our position five or six Germans stood in a bunch, their pickle haub helmets making them instantly recognisable. I released the lever, counted to three and tossed the bomb towards the enemy group. Simultaneously, my section opened fire, four shots sounding like one.
The blast of the grenade coincided with the death of the star-shell. The darkness was even more intense after the retinal flash of the explosion. We lay quietly, straining our eyes and ears for any evidence of movement. Suddenly, a shuddering, agonised groan broke the silence.
I waited for another illumination, but none occurred. The cloud lifted slightly, allowing some dim starlight. Still no movement, although the groaning continued. Interrogatory shouts from the German trenches. When the calls went unanswered. a machine gun fired, sweeping the area, but the fire was high.
Contemplating our options, I made a decision. “You and you go forward and drag that noisy bugger back here. We will try to get him to our lines, but be careful in case some other Jerry is playing dead.” The selected pair laid aside their rifles, drew their bayonets and crawled away towards the wounded German.
A British machine gun opened fire, probing for the muzzle flash of the German weapon. It was getting altogether too busy in the sector.
My men crawled back over the rim of the depression, dragging a German by his epaulets. “Had to clout him to keep him quiet, the others are all dead, got a nice pair of binoculars, hope they ain’t damaged.”
A reasonable start to what then proved to be a tiresome return journey. The Germans fired numerous flares in an effort to discover what had happened to their patrol. We continuously froze in our progress until it was safe to proceed. The captive’s uniform caught on every length of wire and splintered timber until we found a broken door to use as a sled.
To make the trip worse, every time Jerry fired his flares our lads responded with bursts of machine gun fire and it was no longer high.
We missed the entrance to our wire by a few yards, but the posted sentries heard our approach and came forward to guide us in.
The prisoner was manhandled down the ladder and onto the fire step inside the trench. He was not in good shape, but he was all we had and the call went out for Connon to attend him while transport was arranged to take him to the aid station, captivity and interrogation.
For the next forty-eight hours, I and the section were on light duties, standing by on the fire step, observing no man’s land and the German trench line through the safety of periscopes. It was an unnaturally quiet period with little activity on either side, although to the south the big guns continued to rumble like distant thunder.
I had been in France now for three months and the only time I could remember having dry boots was six weeks before, when our Battalion had been taken out of the line to a rear area for rest and re-supply. For three days we had been de-loused, had hot showers and had slept on mattresses. The re-supply had included new boots, but breaking in new boots was tough and painful, so I had carefully dried and dubbined my original issue. I had retrieved the laces, but left the new boots under the bunk at the rest centre.
The march back to the line had taken twelve hours and was only memorable for the volume of rain that fell.
The reason for the rest and recuperation had become obvious. Within a week of re-occupying our trenches, the Battalion found itself advancing behind a creeping artillery barrage in an attempt to dislodge the Germans. Sheer determination and the barrage had taken us into the Jerry trenches in spite of the well protected Spandau machine gun bunkers which caused huge numbers of casualties.
Six hours later, the Germans reacted with their entire reserve. They eschewed artillery because of the damage it would cause to their own installations and the hand to hand fighting had been memorably vicious. Having run out of grenades and rifle ammunition my section had withdrawn under continuous fire from the recaptured Spandau posts. The front stabilised with no territorial gain, but numerous casualties in both armies.
Since that attack the fighting had been restricted to sniper and machine gun exchanges and the occasional night patrols. We were sure that the generals were thinking up some fresh awfulness for the Tommies to perform.
I sat on the fire step, watching the section take it in turns to man the observation post. My feet were now really painful and Connon’s ministrations were long forgotten. I contemplated taking off my boots, but was really concerned at what I might see.
The German artillery barrage erupted in no man’s land with no warning. It was the classic rolling barrage that crept closer and closer to the British trenches. This would normally be the precursor to an attack by the German troops, so I sent most of the section to the dugouts, retaining just a couple of men with me to watch for developments. The shells rained down causing the trench to collapse in places, then the explosions progressively moved on behind the line and toward the reserve areas.
“Stand to, stand to,” was called up and down the line. The troops evacuated the bunkers and manned the fire step in anticipation of a German assault. The trench flooded with men fixing bayonets and easing the pins in Mills bombs.
The shells were still falling behind the line when a football rattle clattered.
My skin crawled; the rattles are a warning of an impending gas attack. Across no-mans’ land, a dense cloud of yellow fog was being driven on the wind towards the British positions.
“GAS, GAS,” came the shout and the rattles continued their din. I now knew that the curious bell-like sounds I had heard two nights before were gas cylinders being positioned and connected in anticipation of this attack.
Upending my haversack, I scrabbled for my gas hood and the liquid chemical I was supposed to soak it in. I pulled the stopper and tried to pour the fluid. The bottle was empty! It had leaked.
The first tendrils of poison crept over the edge of the trench wall. Some soldiers managed to put on their hoods; others were jamming the entrances to the dugouts in an effort to escape the danger. I knelt down on the floor of the trench and tried to control my shivers, I was terrified.
Without any warning, there was a loud pop. I opened my eyes. I seemed to be in a bubble, the noise of the explosions and the cries of the men were silenced. I could see the trench walls but they were shimmering and going in and out of focus. The lavender scent I had smelled days before was very strong!
“Hello.” A girl’s voice spoke into the silence. “Hello, my name is Alice.”
My head swam. Standing by me, a small girl, about eight or ten with a mane of blond corkscrew curls. She is amazingly clean and immaculate amongst the mud and debris of the trench. Dressed as if for church in a blue velvet frock with a muslin pinafore, white socks and patent leather shoes. How did her shoes remain so clean? Ah, her feet were about three inches above the mud, a nice trick!
“Charlie Carter, I am your Guardian Angel,” she said.
“I didn’t know I had one,” I replied.
“Well, you do, but your case is very difficult,” Alice said. “This gas is awful stuff. It was easier when you men used swords and bows, gave us something to work with. Anyway, I have a solution and please try to be grateful, it is truly the best I can do.”
“Thank you, I think.”
“Not at all, it really is my pleasure,” said Alice.
There was another pop and the battlefield noise came back with a rush.
My skin burned and my eyes hurt abominably. I eased myself back against the wall of the trench and marvelled over what I had experienced. Breathing was incredibly difficult and painful.
“Carter.” It was Connon’s voice. “All of your section is dead. We will get you to the aid station as fast as we can. Don’t know how you survived, but we may have a serious problem with your eyes. Why are you smiling, old chap?”
At last I could take off these dammed boots! That was worth a smile.
Local people referred to Combe Haven as ‘The Marsh.’ They valued it and cared for its natural beauty. Magnificent oaks and ancient hedgerows were destroyed to make way for the controversial Bexhill/Hastings link road.
Owl flew over the marsh and away from a distant high pitch whine. Owl knew that sound; it came from two-leggers who robbed trees of their branches. But two-leggers didn’t come here much. This place stayed safe.
A four-legged food scurried over the yellowish grass. Owl swooped down and clasped it in her beak, soared upwards and landed on Oak’s upper bough, her favourite lookout. She devoured the shrew and admired Oak’s magnificent branches. Whatever the weather, Oak remained strong and dependable.
The following day, Owl returned, stretched her wings and circled above Oak. Two-leggers had taken up residence in her tree. Noisy, inefficient and building ugly, square and impractical nests. Once the chicks started to move about, they would fall out. The two-leggers used strange flat materials, like blue sails and clutched silver spikes in their beaks, then banged the spikes into Oak by swinging their featherless wings. She compared their activities with the economy of a woodpecker’s.
It was the wrong time of year to build nests and they were the wrong shape. The eggs would roll off the platforms or the chicks would die of cold. This was her tree and she wished them gone.
The air filled with snow. It settled on the ground and topped the new nests and Oak’s branches. Food was scarce, tiny four-leggers stayed underground where Oak’s roots kept her sap safe. Owl puffed up her feathers and craned her neck. More two-leggers arrived. They made upside down nests on the ground, dug holes and lit fires. The snow melted, the mud softened, they churned it up and it stuck to everything.
Why don’t they leave? “Oak, wake up.”
Sometimes, visiting two-leggers sang to the new nesters, their song as sweet as a skylark’s, but most of the time their chatter was as flat and tuneless as a magpie’s. They didn’t seem to be doing harm and now moved about the branches with agility. Owl felt cold and hungry and wanted her tree back.
The next day, before sunrise, flocks of two-leggers arrived. The tree-nesters stayed put while two-leggers with yellow and orange plumage pulled down the ground nests and put up big fences. They took the ground-nesters away and erected small suns which turned night to day. Maybe these new two-leggers would get the nesters out of the trees and Oak would once again be hers.
The following day, lots of two-leggers, who climbed like spiders, fastened the nesters’ wings and lowered them to the ground. More two-leggers drove them away. At night, the small suns blazed and the remaining nesters slept. Owl sensed they were hungry because they too had not eaten.
The third day, the spider-climbers came back and took away the rest of the tree-nesters. They wrenched the nests apart and threw the pieces to the ground.
Owl had her tree back. “Oak, it is all right. They have gone. They made them go away.”
Different two-leggers climbed up the trees, machines hung from their middles. They perched on branches and pulled on vines attached to the machines. A throbbing filled the air, followed by a high pitched whine, sawdust flew.
“No. Oak no. Wake up Oak, wake up.”
These two-leggers sliced off Oaks boughs until she stood tall and bare. Her branches lay about her roots.
Owl circled above. “Oak, you can grow more branches. I’ve seen trees do it before.”
The two-leggers descended on vines. They cut into her trunk.
“No, this can’t be, no.”
They attacked her from sun up-side and sun-down side. All the two-leggers except one turned their backs on her and strutted away. He cut into her again, stopped and waited. A cracking split the air and she toppled. Oak lay on the ground, stripped of her dignity and her future.
John tugged at the jacket zip and thrust his fingers into cold damp gloves. He inhaled in his last warm breath and stumbled into the frozen night. The next breath hurt and the outbreath turned to miniscule crystals that glinted in the beam of his torch. It was bitter. He knew if he stopped walking, swinging his arms against his chest, he would freeze solid. Stig would eventually get off his arse and find him frozen, like a carcass of meat.
John crunched along the haul road.
Stig had warned him. “Keep your eyes open for protesters. It’s the anniversary of the oaks coming down. They may cause trouble.”
He swept the torch beam full circle. An icy blast buffeted his head and pain pierced his ears. The ground felt hard as iron. Three days now, the heavy plant machinery had stood redundant and they were behind schedule. Still, good news for him, it spun the job out. Bloody protesters. They wouldn’t be out tonight. They wouldn’t want to freeze their bollocks off in this!
Something rustled, like the wind sweeping through trees in full leaf. No trees here. He crunched towards a JCB, its long arm dormant, covered in frost, the base of the bucket trapped in a frozen puddle. That wasn’t right. Was someone playing silly buggers? That digger wasn’t in that position earlier. Its bucket was off the ground. A barn owl screeched, swooped overhead, soared upwards, circled and landed on the roof of the cab.
John made a wide arc with the beam of his torch and picked out the greyish trail of the haul road stretching to the frozen flood water in the valley and along the hill to Upper Wilting. Dead still, just the throb of the generator. He glanced at his watch, five minutes past two. He’d walk to Decoy Pond, then go back and make a hot chocolate and stick some more whisky in it.
He slid and tramped along the uneven surface. The cold rose up through his steel-capped boots.
A second digger stood lifeless like some extinct dinosaur. Not a sound. The generator had stopped. No light from the security cabin. He expected Stig to stumble out through the door swearing and flashing his torch. Lazy bastard must have fallen asleep.
John pulled the radio attached to his jacket up to his mouth and pressed ‘speak’. “Stig, you there, mate?”
A low static crackled back. “Stig, wake up. Stig mate, are you there?”
He’d have to head back, see what was happening. He stumbled and steadied himself with the flat of his hand on the arm of the digger. His head spun. It was the cold that did that, not the whisky. The whisky helped, he needed another slug. He took a few hollow breaths and swept the torchlight over the surrounding ground. He pushed away from the digger, but his gloved hand stuck fast. John rested the torch on the side of the digger’s bucket. The beam shone out into the vast blackness. In near dark, he yanked at the glove. It stayed stuck.
He tried peeling the fingers away one by one, but gained no leverage. Christ it was like those bloody protesters who glued themselves together. John needed to get back, check on Stig. Still no sounds or signs from the cabin. He slid his hand out of the trapped glove. The suspended glove reminded him of a policeman ordering a motorist to stop. John’s fingers smarted and he shoved his hand into his jacket pocket. With his gloved hand, he yanked the stuck glove up, down, side to side. Oh sod it! He’d have to leave it there.
John attempted radio contact, but again no response, just that static. He picked up the torch. Its beam rose upwards and picked out a circling owl. He followed its flight. It stopped as if suspended, fluttering the tips of its snowy white feathers. John trudged back to the cabin, flashing the torch from side to side.
The owl screeched. He spun round in the direction of the sound and spotted the owl perched on the digger. Its head rotated like something out of the film, The Exorcist. He wished he had his rifle with him. He’d take a pot at it. That would be something to show the wife.
A distant hum, like the sound made from running a wet finger around the rim of a crystal glass, but much, much deeper, vibrated through the frozen ground. He swung his torch round one hundred and eighty degrees, until again it lit up the digger.
Jesus Christ! The bucket had sunk further into the frozen ground. John blinked. Still holding the torch in his gloved hand, he brushed away his freezing tears. The vertical beam from the torch vanished. Blackness.
It must be the cold buggering up everything, everything that kept him safe and secure: the generator, the radios and now his torch. John tried to ram the useless torch into his pocket, but it just slid over the opening. In frustration, he hurled it into the black, moonless sky.
He tried his radio again. “Stig, Stig. If this is some kind of joke?”
Nothing, not even static.
The drone increased. He clapped his hands over his ears. Pain pierced his bare hand. Sharp spikes pulsed and pushed through his finger nails. He thrust both hands into his pockets, the pain increased. The drone changed pitch, rising like a chainsaw cutting through live wood. It rose up, reverberated deep into his muscles and turned his legs to jelly.
Then nothing. No sounds, no smells, no sight. Just silence and an eerie stillness. His diaphragm quivered and waves of terror pulsed through him.
An icy squall caught him full force. A cracking split the air. He fell backwards. No time to dislodge his hands to break the fall. The ground shook, it seemed to bounce from underneath.
John smelt urine and warmth seeped down his legs and up his back. A second later it turned icy cold and pierced his skin. He tried to shift his weight and pull his hands out of his pockets, but nothing responded. He willed his legs to move, but they remained fastened to the frozen ground.
Owl circled, hovered and fluttered the tips of her wings. She blinked and surveyed the two-legger, stripped of his dignity and his future.
This story might be read as a new telling of an ancient Greek myth.
She knew he was the owner of the Rolls Royce in the pub car park as soon as she saw him. It wasn’t so much his looks as his bearing.
Cavalry twill trousers, matching tweed jacket, beautifully polished brown brogues, white shirt and some kind of regimental tie.
He strolled over to where she was standing. “Hello. I see that you have been admiring my Rolls.”
“Absolutely. I love old cars, is it Vintage?”
“My Rolls? Not quite. Actually she is a Post Vintage Thoroughbred, a 1933 20/25 Owner Driver saloon with Thrupp and Maberly bodywork painted in battleship grey.”
Typical man, seizing every opportunity to become technical. Not only that, to him cars were feminine. So if a car broke down it was never the man’s fault, but perhaps ‘the old girl’ was having ‘a touch of the vapours’ and had to be treated gently with love.
She realised that the Rolls Royce man was speaking to her.
“Oh you’re back,” he said. “Where did you go, Venus?”
She laughed. This flirtation was going well. “No, not quite as far, but I was wondering, why do you say the car…” She hesitated for a moment, she couldn’t bring herself to use the feminine gender when talking about the Rolls Royce – to her cars were neither masculine nor feminine. So, if a car broke down, ‘it’ broke down. “I was wondering why you say the Rolls is painted in battleship grey. I thought cars were always sprayed?”
He nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right, of course, but not a Rolls. I don’t know about modern ones, but the old ones were always hand painted. They were hand painted, seven coats and lovingly rubbed down between each coat.”
“I see,” she said a little lamely.
He made a dismissive gesture. “Enough car talk, once I get talking about them, I become a bore…”
“Not at all.” She stole a sideways glance at him. She was sure he was someone high up in one of the services – Army or Navy perhaps. “I’m interested too and I particularly like the smell of old leather,” she admitted. “Can we go over to the car and can I have a sniff?”
“You are funny,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “Be my guest. But shouldn’t we make our introductions first? I am Jean-Paul.”
He pronounced it the French way – like in Jean-Paul Sartre. “You see, my mother was a Francophile.”
“How do you do, I’m Ariadne.”
Her mother had been fascinated by all the tales of Ancient Greece and had been reading nothing else while she was pregnant.
Ariadne, in one of those ancient myths, was the daughter of King Minos of Crete. She fell in love with Theseus who had come to kill the Minotaur. She gave him a ball of string to unroll as he went to and fro in the labyrinth in search of the monster, so that when he had found and killed it, he was able to guide himself back to the entrance.
It was a nice name, but her mother hadn’t done her any favours because whenever she told people that her name was Ariadne there’d be the familiar response. They’d invariably mention the labyrinth and the Minotaur, or they’d get mixed up and confuse Theseus with Hercules, or think that the name had something to do with the siege of Troy.
So, when she gave her name to Jean-Paul, the Rolls Royce man, she waited for the usual questions, but they didn’t come.
“How do you do?” That was his polite response and he accepted her name without making any comments about it. Was he one in a million?
Instead he said, “Now we’ve met, let’s go over to the bar and have a drink. What’s your poison?”
“You read my thoughts,” she nodded. “Brilliant suggestion. I’ll have a Bacardi and Coke. What about you? What does a person who owns a near vintage Rolls Royce drink, I wonder? Is it a tot of whisky? I suppose it all depends on which of Her Majesty’s Services you’re in. Army? Navy? Air Force?”
“Navy,” he replied. “I suppose I ought to be drinking rum – but I prefer whisky. Don’t tell anyone.”
“I suppose being in the Navy, you’ve a girl in every port.”
“Now, now. Do I detect a little mischief in your make up?”
“Nothing like a bit of mischief making,” she agreed. “No point in being too serious and intense. I believe in flirtation and you’re the sort of man one can flirt with without discarding one’s knickers five minutes after being introduced.”
“I have a feeling,” he answered laughing, “that the lady protests too much. Maybe you would like to discard your knickers?”
She raised her chin. “Now, now,” she chided. “What can a naughty boy in a vintage Rolls Royce be thinking of?”
He laughed out loud and spread his hands. “Do I have to answer that?”
“Maybe not,” was her reply.
She noticed that he was not wearing a wedding ring. That didn’t necessarily mean anything. There are men that dislike wearing rings, just as there are some that wear rings on every finger so that, if they got into a fight, the rings could do a lot of damage. But she couldn’t very well ask him. Sooner or later she was bound to find out.
In the meantime, she was enjoying the verbal fencing match. “Can I ask you another question instead?”
“Why a Rolls Royce?”
“There are several reasons.”
“First of all, the Rolls is over 25 years old.”
“One doesn’t have to pay tax on it. You know, the tax disc, the Road Fund License or whatever it’s called nowadays, is free. That’s one of the few regulations to do with motor cars that make sense.”
“I see…” she said slowly. “But, please forgive my curiosity. You said that there were several reasons.”
“Of course. The Rolls is what I call a ‘dog-type’ car.”
“What on earth is a ‘dog-type’ car?”
“I’ll explain,” he said. “It’s really a kind of private language, a private joke. You won’t find the word in any dictionary.”
He paused a while then went into what is often called ‘a brown study’. After a moment or two he squared his shoulders. “Oh, let’s have another drink first. Same again?”
Did her questions remind him of something he was trying to forget? The absence of a wedding ring, she was sure had some significance.
“Jean-Paul?” she said softly.
He came out of his reverie. “Oh yes, I was trying to explain. In most cars, not left hand drive ones of course, the gear lever is in the middle between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s. There is no way a dog can sit in the front and look out through the windscreen. However, in a Rolls like mine, the lever is on the right, the front seats are wide and meet in the middle, so your dog has plenty of room to sit or lie between the driver and passenger and is not relegated to the backseat. Unless of course it’s got impossibly long, spindly, legs like a Greyhound or an Irish Wolfhound. Do you get it?”
“Yes, but I have never heard the expression before.”
“I invented it,” he said proudly.
“So what sort of dog have you got now and who’s looking after it?”
“A yellow Labrador. My daughter is with him at home in Portsmouth. She’s about your age.”
So she was right. He had a grown-up daughter. She was sure there must have been a wife. But what happened?
She decided to let that lie for the moment and came back on a different tack.
“What brings you here to Hastings then?”
“The pier. I represent a charitable organisation. They are interested in various worthy causes and restoration of the pier is one of them. They sent me down to keep an eye on things and report back. How the money is spent, any progress, how the weather is affecting things and so on. I’m their trouble-shooter.”
“Do you get paid for that?”
“Not a penny. I do it out of the goodness of my heart.”
“You must have a big heart.”
He laughed. “Now, what about you? Do you live in Hastings?”
“Oh yes,” she assured him. “Actually, the bit where I live is St. Leonards, but it is all part of the same district. They call it 1066 country. My Nan left me a lovely little cottage by the sea. I paint and play the piano. I have a number of students that I teach art and music too. It’s not a fortune, but I get by. I loved my Nan, even though she had a wicked sense of humour.
“She also left me several kittens and a retired Greyhound with impossibly long legs who wouldn’t fit into the front seat of your Rolls. The final gift was what she called a ‘fool proof’ way of finding out whether a person – some man – you fell in love with, is genuine and doesn’t lead you up the garden path…”
“Glory be,” was Jean Paul’s reaction. “How do you achieve that?”
“Shall I show you?” she asked.
“Why not – the night is still young,” was his rather mundane statement.
She opened her handbag and took out Nan’s final gift – a ball of string – and tossed it over to Jean Paul who caught it, looked at it, then remarked; “I see.”
“You see what?” she asked.
“That you would like me to find my way out of the labyrinth of conflicting emotions – like the feelings I still have for my late wife and find my way back to you – into your heart – yes?”
“Yes,” she agreed.
That was a good answer. She was excited and a little afraid.
Was she falling in love like her namesake long ago in ancient Greece? But more importantly, would he fall in love with her?”
The telephone rang at eleven-o-clock
and I heard your voice on the line.
Little wonder you sounded so hollow and strange,
you’ve been dead such a long, long time.
And you told me you loved me and missed me so much
you’d decided to come back home,
and you just couldn’t wait, and you wouldn’t be late,
and then… you hung up the phone!
The telephone rang at eleven-o-clock,
and now it’s half past four.
And I sit in the dark in a state of shock,
dreading your knock at the door.
I thought I’d like to take the story of Cinderella and stand it on its head, then set it on the beach from the point of view of a scruffy little dog.
It’s a perfect day and I’m sitting on the shingle looking at a clear sea with all the little waves dancing at the edge of the water. I enjoy the tangy smell of beach and the feel of the hot sun on my back. I’m tempted to take a paddle, but the water is deep and with my short legs I could end up swimming… and those gulls are awfully close. Then something hits the water with a loud splash. I jump back and the gulls fly off.
“Hallo, mind if I join you?” I hear laughter behind me.
I peer up as this girl sits beside me and unwraps her fish and chips. I lick my lips. I love that smell… I notice an old sandal floating on the water.
I don’t really know her, but I’ve seen her around, although never this close. I sniff at the food. The gulls are back.
“Would you like some?” she says and offers me a chip. Then she shares the whole meal with me and I fall in love with her.
She laughs and ruffles my head. “I’m Cinderella, but you can call me Cindy.” Her laugh has a lovely sound, a proper chuckle.
When we’ve finished eating, she scratches me behind the ear. I haven’t had someone do that for a long time and it feels good.
We watch the gulls bobbing on the water. I hate those bloody gulls; they’re always stealing my food, but I give them a ‘SOD OFF’ face and they give me the cold beady stare. Grrr…
There’s another loud splash as a piece of driftwood hits the water and they take off.
“Up, up and away gulls,” says Cindy. “You’re upsetting my doggy friend.” She laughs again. Cindy has a wicked sense of humour and I love it. Oddly enough, the gulls don’t fly at me, squawking and trying to peck pieces off me. I think they’re finally showing respect.
After a while, Cindy pats my head and stands up. “Well, bye-bye little doggy, it was nice dining with you. Let’s do it another day.” She bends down and kisses the top of my head.
She climbs up the shingle toward the boats. I follow her, but when she comes to the road in front of the Fish Market, she turns. “Sorry little fella, but you can’t come home with me.” I sit down and as I watch her go up the back steps of the Nell Gwyn Pub, I realise just how lonely I am.
After that, I often notice Cinderella around the fishing boats, or paddling in the sea, so I walk with her. We become good friends; in fact, we become best friends. If she wasn’t human, we could even have become mates. I like the way she makes a fuss of me and says nice things or brings me food from the pub to make sure I don’t go hungry. And for the first time in my life I have a real name.
“I’ll call you Gary,” she says one morning. “Short for Garibaldi, or maybe Baldy if you lose any more fur around your bottom.” And she laughs. But she doesn’t call me Buggeroff or Ringworm, or RaggedArse, or any of those angry names like some humans do. I share my company and affection, but the truth is I’ll do anything for her.
I think Cinderella is a lonely person too. She knows lots of people, but doesn’t seem to have any really close friends, except Mrs Tinsdale, who somebody said is her godmother and Mrs T’s daughter, Tessa. They live in a small cottage along Rock-a-Nore road and are really kind people. I like them a lot. Tessa is about the same years as Cindy. They’d like Cindy to live at the cottage, but even I can see the place is too small for three.
So Cindy lives at the pub with her father and his new family and they’ve changed him, because now even he sees her as a wastrel. I hate them all, especially the daughters, they throw stones and beer cans at me.
“Here comes the Runt,” they say. “Ole RaggedArse the dirt dog.”
They’re big, brutal bitches with udders like dairy cows. You can hear the webbing in their bras creak when they turn. They always look a mess in their dresses and they smell like old carrion and urinated underwear – makes my nose sting.
Cindy is pretty and smells nice. Clothes always look good on her and they hate her for that.
The other day, one of them was bending over picking up a coin. Great big arse in the air, I couldn’t resist it. I ran past, jumped up and bit it. Boy, did she jump.
“Ow, you little runt bastard, come ‘ere!” She screams and chases me all around the boats with a large stick, yelling ugly words, but I’m too quick for her. And when she flops down on a lobsterpot to catch her breath, I sit on a second one, just out of reach and leer at her. She throws the stick at me, but can’t aim for old bones.
They’re always on heat too, going with males across the beach at night and submitting in the shadows under trawlers. Sometimes, I follow and when they’re lying there doing it, I cock a leg in their direction from behind an old fish box or something and then I’m off before they realise it isn’t rain.
Cindy has a small brick hut on the beach, covered in black waterproof paint. It’s her private place and she keeps it locked. It used to belong to her grandfather to keep stuff in when he had a trawler, but he died last winter. Her dad had the trawler then, and he swapped it for some money. Cindy had the hut and she kept it. She calls it ‘Her Castle.’ Inside it’s a proper little home, with a bed for Cindy and a bean-bag for me, a little table, a couple of chairs, a lamp, a small cabin bathroom and some nice crockery. And sometimes, when she’s had enough of the Nell Gwyn, Cindy sleeps there, although she’s not really supposed to and I sleep with her. One night, she tells me about her plans for the future.
“Garibaldi, you’re my little man,” she says, all smiles that make me feel good. She gives me a great big hug. “One day, when I’ve enough money, we’re gonna’ escape from Hastings and that rat hole pub and go off somewhere, London or America, Canada or somewhere and we’ll have a better life.”
From under the bed she brings out a metal box. She calls it her ‘Fairy Cake Box’.
“Look Gary,” she says opening the lid. “All my escape stuff and money is here. Things I’ve saved for the trip.” Then she looks at me, smiles wickedly and puts a finger to her lips. “Shhh, don’t tell anyone…” and she takes out a small pickle jar. “And these are my spliffs; they’re for when the pub gets too much…‘cause I don’t drink.” She holds up the jar, wobbles it and then unclips the lid and takes one out. “I think you’ll like this.” She puts one end in her mouth and picking up her lighter from the table, lights the other end and sucks in the smoke and a moment later, blows it all over. I love the smell, it feels like a fluffy bird in my head and I start barking.
“That’s it Gary, have a puff,” and she blows the smoke up my nose. It makes me sneeze and I shake my head and snort. Oh, I feel pleasantly odd. She laughs and I do my funny little dance and then we both feel good and the world floats away and leaves us in peace. I like spliff smoke.
One day, walking round the Old Town, we see a poster and Cindy reads it out to me. I wish I could read.
‘Hastings Old Town Beach Dance!’ A multi-day event will be held in two weeks’ time, at the Winkle Island, Rock-a-Nore.’
“It goes on for two nights,” she says, her eyes all of a sparkle. “Oh. I’d love to go.”
Then she saddens and regards her clothes. “But, look at me. I am such a mess. I’ve got nothing nice to wear.”
I gaze sadly at the ground.
So we wander over to Mrs Tinsdale’s cottage. I like Mrs T’s cottage, it has a nice comfortable, homely dinner smell about it. Cindy often calls on her godmother when she feels down, but a nice cup of tea, two bourbon creams and a bit of a chat always cheers her up. She tells her all about the coming dance.
“Well, I’ll just have to spend some of my escape money on a nice outfit. I can’t miss out on a do like this. I could meet a nice bloke like Tessa’s Bert.”
Having made the decision, she cheers up, slurps her tea and is all smiles again. I jump up and down and bark my encouragement.
“Hold on,” says Mrs T. “There’s no need to spend your savings, love. Tessa has lots of outfits and I’m sure she’ll be happy to lend you one.”
“Really?” Cindy bubbles with excitement. “Tessa has wonderful outfits.”
Well, the first day of the dance comes and Cindy, all dressed up, looks a real corker.
She laughs and gives a little twirl. “What do you think, Gary?”
Her hair is sleek and long with just enough curl and Tessa has made her dark eyes up so well, she can hypnotise. She bows to me. She’s easily the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. I bark my approval. I’m so proud to walk out with Cindy that I can’t help doing the ‘Canine Strut.’
But I have to laugh at those stepsisters, even in their expensive new outfits they look as if they belong in a field, a couple of dysmorphic heifers. If I were human, even I wouldn’t fancy them… but I would fancy Cindy. I love her anyway.
So Cindy goes to the dance and you know she walks right past those sisters and they gawk, but don’t recognise her. Talk about up their own arses. Proper amuses me.
I go to the dance too. I’ve got a date with a hotdog and there’s all manner of stalls that smell of tasty stuff on offer and I’m not gonna’ miss out on any of that. Walking around, I have a hard job not to dribble on the dancers’ feet, but most people are kind and give me lots of nice things to eat.
And then, he appears.
As soon as he arrives, I know he’s the main man, definitely a young pack leader. He rides past in a long open-top car, with fins at the back, coloured pink and cream with lots of shiny stuff and he parks it in the private road behind the Fish Market.
He steps out, tall and lean and dressed in matching clothes. He smells good too. All the girls just stare at him with their mouths open. Naturally, the sisters throw themselves at him, but Cindy ignores him. Oh, he notices her all right, standing under the streetlight with a hotdog. She only takes a small bite and then drops the rest to me. Boy was that tasty.
He saunters over and offers Cindy a paper napkin to wipe her fingers. “Hi, I’m Johnny.”
Cindy flashes her eyes at him and he looks down at her cleavage. She breathes in and he looks back into her eyes. I see the sparks jump and know there is mating in the air.
She smiles. “Hi, I’m Cindy.”
“Would you dance with me, Cindy?”
She holds up her hand. He takes it, softly brushes his lips across her knuckles and leads her to the centre of Winkle Island.
What a night. Cindy and Johnny dance like they’re made for each other. During the slow close dances, they kiss, deep lingering kisses that leave them both breathless. Well, I think Cindy has found her mate and I study him through slitted eyes. He’d better not let her down or he’ll have me to deal with. Grrr…
I wander off to find a doorway. I need a pee and then I sit by my favourite hotdog stall. People are generous when they’ve drunk that stuff that makes their legs move in different directions.
It is after midnight when I next see Cindy. She’s looking for Johnny. At midnight he vanished. She can’t understand it; not a word and he’s gone. And his car has gone too. I can see she is upset, although she does her best to hide it. We sit on one of the steps of the Nell Gwyn. I think Cindy is hoping Johnny will drive by and whisk her off somewhere. But he doesn’t, so we call it a night and go back to the hut. Inside she takes off the dress and hangs it on the wall and we crash.
In the darkness I can hear her sobbing. Bastard! I run my tongue around my mouth and choose my sharpest tooth. I’m really gonna’ bite him and then I drop off.
The next morning, we go round to Mrs T’s. Cindy’s trying to be brave, but her godmother knows something is wrong.
She places a cup of tea and bourbon creams in front of her and says, “Come on love, tell me all about it.”
Cindy shakes her head and won’t talk, then bursts into tears and the story comes out.
Mrs T. puts her arm around the girl’s shoulders and hugs her while she sobs. “There, there lovey. It’s not over yet, there’s still tonight.”
Cindy looks into her Godmother’s face with hopeful eyes. “But, what if he’s not there? I can’t go and he’s not there. I’d die.”
“You have to go sweetheart, the story’s not over yet and you’d be forever wondering. And what if he goes and you’re not there?”
Cindy nods. “That would be terrible.” The tears dry up and she smiles. “Yes, I’ll go.”
So Cindy goes to the dance on the second night and she looks even more gorgeous than the night before. I look good too, she’s brushed my fur.
People are everywhere, dancing and having fun. Word of the dance has gone round, but there is no sign of Johnny. We stand under the streetlight again and I can feel Cindy is not happy.
And then he’s standing beside her.
Her face glows like sunlight. He leans down and kisses her cheek.
“Hi sweetheart,” he says. “I’m sorry I left without saying anything last night, but time had flown by so quickly. I had to go.”
“Why?” she asks.
He sees the look in her eyes and smiles. “I can’t tell you now, but I will tell you later. I promise.” He leans forward and kisses her forehead, “No. There’s no wife or other woman. There’s only you, babe.”
He puts a finger on her lips. “I’m sorry to be so mysterious, but all will become clear.”
She looks into his face for a moment, then leans against him and rests her head on his shoulder. He puts his arms around her and holds her tight. And then he kisses her.
I give him a warning growl and he looks down at me, moves back and lifts up his hands. “Whoa, little doggy fella, I’ll behave.”
I put away my teeth, but I’m still keeping my eye him.
Cindy and Johnny dance and seem so happy. You can see they are in love. I watch them for a while, but then someone gives me a hotdog and I concentrate on that. When I look back, they’ve gone. I search everywhere and eventually see them in the moonlight walking on the beach near the fishing boats. I sneak after them. They stop by the side of a large metal trawler and Cindy leans back against the hull, puts her arms around Johnny’s neck and pulls him to her. I can’t see properly as their bodies are merged in darkness.
Cindy crouches down on the shingle and pulls Johnny after her. They lie down and roll into the shadows. I can see movements in the dark and hear murmurs as they say nice things to each other.
A bunch of revellers drinking from bottles come past, making a hell of a din, swaying and dancing to the rhythm of the band playing on Winkle Island. What a ruckus, kicking up stones everywhere and they stink of booze. A couple fall against the side of the trawler, laughing and shouting, kissing and hugging each other. Cindy and Johnny freeze. The gang moves on.
Cindy and Johnny creep out and move off across the shingle.
They go to Cindy’s hut. Why they didn’t go there in the first place, I don’t know. They let themselves in and close the door. I sneak up and lay down against the wall.
Soon they’re giggling like a couple of kids. Gradually, it goes quiet and I can hear the sighs and moans. The bed doesn’t make much noise, but I can hear it. I doze off anyway and leave them to their lovemaking.
Somewhere around midnight, something disturbs me. The door is ajar and the candle has burnt out. Johnny is dressed and standing outside looking at his watch. I can hear its alarm faintly vibrating. “Oh Christ,” he says softly. “I’ve done it again.”
He goes back into the hut and looks tenderly at Cindy. Then, noticing her hairbrush on the little table, he picks it up and puts it in his jacket pocket. He slips quietly outside again and shuts the door. Why’d he take her hairbrush? I follow him.
He runs between the boats and across the beach to where his car’s parked, unlocks it, jumps in the driver’s seat and starts the engine. It gives a deep throaty roar and the lights come on.
Slowly, it edges forward and then somewhere a clock strikes midnight… and it disappears.
I can’t believe it. One minute it’s there, the next it’s gone. I sit for a long time waiting, but it doesn’t come back. I walk over and stand in the exact spot where it disappeared, but nothing happens to me. Not even my bottom tingles.
Where’d he go? I make my way back to the beach hut. I need to get my head around this. People don’t just vanish, cars and all. I push my nose on the door and it opens. That daft Johnny hasn’t shut it properly. I go in and push it too, hearing the lock click. Now it’s shut. Cindy is alone and still sleeping. Johnny has definitely gone. I lie on my bed, but I can’t sleep. I keep seeing that car disappear.
I must have dropped off at some point, as I’m asleep when Cindy wakes. Even before I see her face, I feel her disappointment. Johnny has gone again and she doesn’t know where. She loves him. She thinks he loves her too, but he didn’t say a word. He just disappeared and she doesn’t know if she’ll ever see him again. I wish I could talk with human words; barks are so limited and little whines only show sadness. If I could talk, I might be able to help. At least I could explain how he went.
We stay in the hut, Cindy curled up under a sheet on the bed crying to herself. I can’t believe how deeply she loves him. I’m glad I’m a dog, sex is so much easier, sniff the parts, do the business and move on. I hope she doesn’t pine away.
Finally, we get up and go out, but she does look wretched. Fortunately, we bump into her godmother and Mrs Tinsdale takes charge immediately. I am so relieved.
Mrs T. is wonderful. She takes Cindy home, feeds her and runs her a hot bath. After the bath she cheers up a bit and looks brighter, although she is still a little tearful at times, she’s not nearly as bad.
For several nights, Cindy and I sleep on the sofa in the front room of the cottage. When she feels up to facing her bitch family, she returns to her room at the Nell Gwyn. I go back to the beach; me being at the Gwyn only means trouble for Cindy.
A week later, there is good news. Tessa’s mate proposes and she announces they’re getting married in two months’ time. This has them all excited. Humans love a wedding.
Two weeks after that comes the other news. Cindy’s having a pup, she’s having Johnny’s baby. This pleases and saddens her all at the same time. But mostly, it causes her to miss Johnny all the more. To make matters worse, Cindy tells her father, his bitch hears and lets it be known that she will not have Cindy living at the pub with a baby.
“Nasty noisy things,” she says.
Cindy looks at her father for help, after all he’s supposed to be top dog, but he hangs his head and says nothing.
I growl. Bloody coward.
The Bitch snarls at me. “WHAT’RE YOU DOING IN HERE, DIRTBAG?” She tries to kick me and I scarper.
One evening, we’re in the cottage just after I’ve had my supper – beef and carrots, very tasty.
Cindy, sitting at the kitchen table begins to cry. “Oh Garibaldi, what are we going to do? Where will we live with a baby?”
I put my chin on her leg and feel very sad.
She tickles my ears and brightens up. “Come on Cinderella! Snap out of it!” she says out loud. “Something will turn up and you’ve always got the beach hut as a last resort. They don’t want you with a sad face all over the damn place here. Your baby is a good thing!” She wipes her eyes and blows her nose on a tissue.
A moment later Tessa comes through the door. The two girls look at each other. She can see Cindy’s been crying, pulls up a chair and hugs her friend.
“Come on Cindy, cheer up. I’m sure Johnny will come back.”
“Tess, you are so lucky having Bert around. I wish I was marrying Johnny in a couple of months. We’d buy our own house and I’d no longer need to live at the pub with dad’s horrible wife and those grotesque daughters. I could just live with Johnny, the baby and Garibaldi and love them forever.” Cindy sighs, pats my head and looks at her friend. “I wouldn’t care if we lived in a tatty old tent over Fairlight.”
“Johnny will come back, don’t give up hope, Cindy,” and Tessa kisses her cheek. “Let’s put the kettle on.”
Mrs T. comes in, pulls up a chair and flops down beside the two women. “I’m worn out. I can’t shop like I used to.”
While they sip tea and I crunch on a bourbon cream, Tessa announces that the offer she and Bert have put down on the West Hill house has been accepted and the two of them will be living there after they’re married. “So, what if Cindy and the baby move into my room here in the cottage?”
Mrs Tinsdale thinks it is a wonderful idea and beams like a birthday girl and so does Cindy.
I do my little dance and everyone laughs.
So Tessa and Bert do this marrying thing. And what a beautiful wedding it is. I eat so much cake I throw up in the back garden. After that, I go for a walk on the beach… and find myself at Cindy’s Hut… I haven’t been back since Johnny left. I sniff around and instantly my fur stands on end!
Johnny’s scent is all over the door.
It’s faint, but he’s been here since we left! Why didn’t we go back? He could have left a message, or something. Johnny has been here looking for Cindy and we hadn’t thought… I sniff through the keyhole and under the door, but no fresh scent of Johnny in here.
Of course not, stupid dog, it’s locked.
I stare up at the door. Yes! Something has been written in chalk, but the rain has smeared it.
But he’s been here!
I rush back to the party to tell Cindy and stand there seething with frustration. I can’t speak bloody human, can I? I try barking, but one of the uncles throws a glass of beer over me.
So here I am soaked in beer, walking around with this secret in my head and I can’t bloody tell her.
Cindy moves into Tessa’s old room. Sometime later her pup moves in too, a little girl that Cindy calls Jonni-Jr, or JJ for short. She is a bright little thing, all giggles with dark hair like her mother. I can’t believe how daft women become around a baby. It is so noisy in the bedroom with all their gaggling and coochy-cooing. I go into the front room and curl up on the sofa.
I really like Jonni-Jr. She follows me around everywhere. I can always tell when she’s up to something by the giggles, mostly it is pulling my tail, but sometimes she yanks on my ears, but it’s never painful. Mind you, I never get a moments peace, she is around me all the time. I wake up from a doze and she’s curled up beside me, but I like that. Life is good with Jonni-Jr around… and the days pass happily for all of us, although we all miss Johnny.
One day, when Jonni-Jr is about a year old, I’m walking on the beach around the fishing boats. It’s a hot day and reminds me of when Cindy and I first met. It has that same zing in the air and I don’t realize it, but I’ve wandered across the shingle to the beach hut.
Johnny’s scent is there – today!
But there’s nothing written on the door to show Cindy. BUGGER! I’m still carrying this big secret around and it’s weighing me down. Ok, I think, nose down and follow the scent. It takes me to the dirt road behind the Fish Market.
And his car’s there.
Parked right where he parked it nearly two summers ago. I stand as stiff as a gatepost. I’m gobsmacked. I’m so excited I lift my leg on a fence post and pee all over this kid on a tricycle. Dirty dog! What to do? What to do? Go and get Cindy… No, he might disappear again, I sniff around it.
Lots of Johnny scent.
I jump on the driving seat. I’ll wait till he comes back, but I’m too impatient so I jump out and follow his scent again.
And there he is!
There are three other men with him dressed in the same clothes; I think they’re called uni-forms or su-its. He has a little gadget and he’s asking Cindy look-a-likes if he can brush it across their hair. I go closer and watch. Then something jogs in my mind. This must have something to do with Cindy’s hairbrush. He took her hairbrush when he left; I thought that was odd. Now I understand, it has something to do with that gizmo. It can tell Cindy’s hair.
I run home, it’s just down the road, dive through the dog-door, but no one’s in. SOD! What to do? Grrrrr… I run round the room and clumsy dog, knock the wash-basket over. Stuff everywhere. I grab one of Jonny-Jr’s woolly booties – the one she’s thrown up on. EEAGH, but I don’t care, this’ll do and I’m out the dog-door and back along the road.
I run through the group of Cindy girls, growling and huffing loudly and they make way for me. I sit before Johnny, looking up at him with the woolly booty held tightly.
“Hallo, little fella.” He looks down and studies me and I see the dawn of recognition in his eyes, they glow with excitement. “You’re Garibaldi, Cindy’s little dog.”
I wag my tail frantically.
“Where’s Cindy, little Gary fella? I’ve been looking for her for a long time,” and he gives my head a good rubbing.
Then he notices the booty in my mouth. I place it before him and he picks it up and recognises it for what it is and his eyes go wide and I see tears in them as the pennies begin to drop. He takes his little gizmo in shaky fingers and runs it over the soggy bootie. The thing goes crazy, making all sorts of bleeps and squeals and Johnny just stares at its little screen, wide-eyed and breathing heavily. He turns to me and he’s crying.
“Where is she, Gary?”
I bark at him and turn to go, but he just stands. I grab his trouser leg and tug and he comes after me. We run to Mrs Tinsdale’s.
But nobody’s in.
BUGGER! Johnny knocks loudly, there’s no answer. Calmly he leans against the wall beside the door. The three su-its stand beside him. I sit down at his feet and we wait.
A while later I hear them. I start barking and then they’re coming through the gate, Mrs Tinsdale, Cindy and Jonni-Jr in her pushchair. They see Johnny and stop dead. Cindy and Johnny stare at each other.
Mrs T. looks at them both and picks up Jonni-Jr. “I guess you must be Johnny,” she says, eyeing the three su-its suspiciously.
Cindy starts laughing and crying all at the same time and runs to Johnny. She flings her arms around him tightly and they’re lost in their hugs and kisses.
I leap about barking like a loon. Thank the stars – I don’t have to carry this secret around anymore.
So, at last, Cindy and Johnny are reunited and little Jonni-Jr has her dad. They are all so excited and Jonni-Jr takes to Johnny like there’s no tomorrow. She won’t leave him alone and even though he’s a stranger, insists on hugging him and sitting on his lap all the time. Cindy can hardly get a look-in.
So the kettle boils and we all sit in the front room, even the su-its, with cups of tea and Johnny tells his tale. I’m so excited I pee on the floor. Dirty, dirty dog!
It turns out that Johnny doesn’t come from our world. I can’t even imagine another world. It’s some place with a funny name that I can’t remember and his car is not even a car, but something that travels between stars. Apparently, it drives through space wormholes; must be bloody big worms. That’s why he always shot off at midnight. The gui-dance system was set on automatic return so he wouldn’t get lost and the gui-dance stars only aligned at midnight. But Johnny’s programmed it now so it knows the way here and he can travel to our world any time he wants.
He’s been coming back here every six weeks searching for Cindy, but his little gizmo has been checking the wrong women. It didn’t know Cindy had become a mother.
Back in his world, Johnny’s father is top Alpha Man of the richest and most powerful land on their planet and one day Johnny will take his place as top Alpha Man. The three su-its are from Johnny’s world too, they’re mine-ders and protect him.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” says Mrs T. “I thought they might be police and Johnny is in trouble.”
Cindy is nervous with all the ‘other world’ stuff, but she’d do anything for Johnny. She really wants a normal ‘Earthly’ life, just Johnny, her, Jonni-Jr and me.
“Look honey,” says Johnny lovingly. “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. It’s my world, come and visit it. We can be back in a month if you don’t like it… or the next day if you really don’t like it and we’ll live here, near the beach.”
So, it’s agreed. Jonni-Jr and me will stay with Mrs T. and Johnny and Cindy will visit Johnny’s world.
But Cindy does like it, in fact she loves it and so Johnny, Cindy and JJ move to a wonderful home in Johnny’s world. The trip only takes a short time through the wormholes and they come back and visit all the time so Mrs T. can spend time with JJ as she grows up… and because JJ wants to see me. We’ve grown very close. She is such a happy pup, in fact she has the best of everything. You could say she’s the happiest pup in the two worlds.
I stay with Mrs T. She does me a cracking good dinner – not that Cindy wouldn’t, but I like Mrs T’s. cooking and I’ve still got the boats to sniff around. But we all went to Johnny’s world for the wedding and that was great fun and we visit from time to time. I like Johnny’s world… but it’s not the beach.
Cindy still has the hut, because JJ was conceived there. Sometimes she and Johnny go there to remember. Her stash is still under the bed and sometimes I really fancy a spliff… but that’s another thing dogs don’t do. But who cares, I belong, I have family. And I can still go chase those bloody gulls and annoy those fat bitches at the pub. I wouldn’t change living in my world for anything. I’m King of the Beach!
Teeth are a pain,
From the minute they grow,
It seems as though,
Babies cry all day, and all the night.
Mothers breast feeding.
Get quite a fright.
When suckling babies,
Clamped on tight, give them a bite!
Then aged five or six,
In all their school pic’s.
They smile for the camera.
As wide as they can.
And there right in front,
Where their teeth should be,
A gaping black hole,
For all to see.
Then you reach teenage.
Having pearly whites is all the rage.
You brush them every morning.
And of course every night.
You smile into the mirror,
With great delight.
Because, you’ll only get a boyfriend,
If your teeth are bright and white.
Then in your thirties and forties.
They don’t look quite so bright.
So you spend a small fortune,
That just might!
Turn back the years,
Cover those stains.
And put the white back in your smile again.
Then when you hit fifty,
Imagine the blow.
All your teeth are still there,
But your gums have let go!
Like Archie in the story, I loved dressing up in plastic armour and fighting imaginary foes. I even allowed myself to be killed sometimes and revelled in my heart-breaking death scenes. My granddad fought in the Great War. The spirit for a good fight and the chance to be a hero are hard to quench.
Archie Piper scrambled out of bed and ran downstairs.
Mum stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes. “Hello darling, you’re up early. Ready for some breakfast?”
“It’s the parade today, isn’t it?” He climbed onto his chair at the table.
“It is and it looks like it’s going to be sunny.” She dried her hands and reached into the cupboard for a bowl and the cereal packet. “Are you excited?”
“Yes I am. Can I put my armour on now?”
“After you’ve had some breakfast and then a wash.” She poured cereal into the bowl and passed him the milk.
“Oh! I had a bath last night.”
“Exactly, that’s why you just need a wash this morning.”
As he ate, Archie peered at the photograph that stood on the shelf of the big cabinet against the wall. It showed a man in a uniform and a peaked cap. A black moustache covered his top lip. The man looked straight back at him as if he might be able to see into the kitchen and wherever Archie stood or sat, the man’s gaze followed.
Archie crunched through his cereal. The man didn’t frighten him, not now, not after mum found him hiding under the table one day, crying. “The man won’t stop watching me.”
She had wiped away his tears. “That’s my great-granddad,” she explained. “He was a soldier in the Great War.”
Archie didn’t understand ‘greats.’ He knew about granddads and he knew about war, but he let mum talk.
“He went to France. He died in the fighting and never came back.”
“Why is there a picture of him if he died?”
“That was taken before he died.” She had taken the picture off the shelf and let him hold it. “Isn’t he smart in his uniform? He was very brave to go to war.”
Archie tilted the picture, but the man still looked at him, though sideways. “Did he do a lot of fighting?”
“I expect so.”
“Why did he die?”
Mum gave a little sigh. “I don’t know. A lot of people died and he was one of them.”
“Why does he keep looking at me?”
Mum straightened the picture in his hands. “He looks at me, too. I like to pretend that he enjoys watching us, because he never saw his own son. I think he hopes that one day you will grow up to be big and brave.”
“I will.” He let go of the picture. “Was he strong? Did he kill lots of people?”
Mum placed the picture back on the shelf. “I never knew him. I was born a long time after he died.”
“Can I have a uniform like that for the parade?”
He expected mum to say no; instead she gazed at the picture and then said, “Well, not quite like that. I wouldn’t know how to make it, but I’ll see if I can think of something.”
At last, the day, this day had arrived! St Leonards Festival and the parade around Warrior Square Gardens with all his friends from school. Today he wore a uniform for real. Not a uniform like granddad’s, but armour as the knights of old once wore, with their swords and lances, which he liked best. Archie sucked the spoon for the last bits of cereal. “Finished.”
Mum took his bowl and dropped it in the sink. “Up you run to the bathroom, then.”
Archie leapt off his chair and ran towards the door.
“Have a proper wash,” she called after him. “With soap.”
Three minutes later, Archie ran down the stairs, dressed in his blue trousers, green top and yellow plastic sandals. “I’m ready.”
Mum brushed his hair with her hand. “I’ve put the armour in the front room. There’s plenty of time before the parade. Are you sure you want to get ready so early?”
Archie squirmed out of her reach. “I want to practice. I want to fight like the great-granddad. I can’t do it without the armour.”
Mum followed him into the front room. “I don’t think there’s going to be any fighting.”
“Yes there is. Because my friend Tom is going to be an alien and we’re going to fight.”
The armour lay on the sofa. It gleamed like real metal. The big piece that went across his chest and did up with buckles round his back shone like gold. The helmet, with a visor that went up and down in front of his eyes and two side-guards that dangled on either side to protect his cheeks, might be real silver, it flashed so bright. The wide belt: black leather with a heavy clasp. Then the sword, which was the best, with its silver blade and gold handle. Three jewels, blue, green and yellow, stuck into the crosspiece that stopped your hand from being cut by the blade’s sharp edges, sparkled bright enough to dazzle any alien.
“Now Archie, listen to me.” Mum knelt beside him and lifted her finger. “You must promise to behave. There’s going to be a lot of people watching the parade and the teachers are going to be very busy keeping order. When I told them you were coming as a warrior, they asked if you could leave the sword behind. I said I’d think about it. If you’re naughty, they’ll send you home. I want you to be a proud warrior, not a bad warrior. Do you understand?”
Archie nodded. He wanted the armour on – now! If he made a fuss it meant a longer time to wait.
Mum stood up. “All right. Let’s get you dressed.”
“Over here, over here.” Archie jumped in front of the big mirror that hung behind the door. Mum picked up the chest piece and he shut his eyes. The hard edges dug into his skin as mum pulled the buckles tight. The helmet squeezed his head as she pulled it over his hair. The pieces that dangled at the side tickled his cheeks. She fixed the belt nice and tight and then she took his hand and placed the sword into his palm.
“Ready,” she said.
Archie scrunched his eyes tight shut and then opened them wide. “Yay!” He thrust the sword into the air, jumped and landed with his legs wide apart and his knees bent. “Aaaaaargh!” and he swiped the sword sideways as he cut off an enemy head.
“I’ll leave you to practice,” mum said.
“Can the great-granddad watch? I want to show him how I practice. He might know some good practice too.”
Mum gave a little laugh. “What a nice idea. I’ll fetch him.”
With one leap, Archie reached the sofa. He lined up all the cushions in a row and stabbed them one after the other.
“I’ll put him on the mantle-piece.” She placed the picture of the great granddad in the very middle so that his eyes saw into every part of the room. “Be careful not to knock him off.” The door clicked shut behind her.
“Aaaaaargh!” Archie held the sword with both hands and brought the blade down with all his strength. The cushions crumpled under his blows. One, a big orange cushion with tassels, he threw into the air and whacked with the flat of the blade before it hit the ground. The thwump of the contact sounded good. He spun left, then right, held the sword sideways to stop a well-aimed blow at his head, circled the sword in a wide arc to scatter the enemies bold enough to come too close.
He glanced at the great-granddad who watched every move.
“Very good,” the great-granddad agreed. “But have you seen the assassin with the wicked knife crawling through the long grass behind you?”
Archie leapt onto the sofa and thrust the sword into the space over the back. The assassin gurgled and lay still. “Got him.”
“Well done.” Great-granddad’s eyes never left Archie’s. “But that bowman, fifty yards away, has climbed up a tree and his aim is clear and straight.”
Archie vaulted over the back of the sofa and ducked. The arrow hit the cushions with a loud thwack. “Missed.”
“Good reactions,” congratulated the great-granddad.
The sword made it difficult to crawl and Archie held it flat to the floor and then slithered like a snake round the sofa until he reached the side and the view in front.
“He’s still up that tree,” warned the great-granddad.
Archie squatted on his haunches and with the biggest jump landed behind the bean bag. Thwack! Thwack – went two more arrows. He drew his sword and as the bowman fitted a third arrow, Archie ran as fast as the wind, reached the lamp standard and thrust his sword straight up into the bowman’s leg.
The bowman’s shriek made a terrible noise and he lost his balance and tumbled out of the tree. Archie drove the sword into the man’s stomach and finished him off. Blood spurted everywhere.
“You think fast on your feet, Archie,” the great-granddad approved. “Very important in a fight.”
Hardest of all proved to be the catapult. Huge and heavy, it tossed boulders like pebbles.
“The best way is to set fire to it,” suggested the great-granddad. “Cut some dead wood off that fallen tree and tie it tight together.”
Archie worked quick and quiet as he gathered branches and twigs from behind the television.
“That’s good.” The great-granddad’s voice went to a whisper. “Now, crawl towards the catapult and use the bundle as camouflage.”
Archie wriggled along the floor towards the bookcase with the bundle in front of his face.
“Take my matches,” ordered the great-granddad. “Light the wood and throw it as hard as you can.”
Archie struck the first match and the wood exploded. He stood and, with a perfect aim, tossed it right into the middle of the catapult. He dived for cover as the catapult buckled and blew apart from the red hot heat and the enemy closest to it caught fire too and burned to death.
The battle lasted all day and all night. When it was over, Archie faced the mirror, his cheeks bright red and lowered the visor in front of his eyes. “The Warrior of Warrior Square Gardens,” he intoned. “Bring me the enemy leader.”
The alien king knelt before him to surrender, but Archie didn’t listen to his pleas for mercy. He sliced through all eight tentacles and then lopped off his head.
“That’s the last we’ll hear of that army.”
The great-granddad’s warm approval gave Archie a glow of satisfaction. He peered into the eyes that never blinked, or shifted, or glistened. “Why did you die?”
For a moment the great-granddad didn’t speak and his face didn’t move as it might if he was thinking. At last he said, “My weapon jammed. I tried to be brave and I did fight, but I didn’t have the same courage. You will make a very great warrior, because men will admire your strength and daredevil spirit and follow you into battle. I would, if you and I fought together.”
“Archie, time to go,” mum called from the kitchen.
Already! Archie spun back to face the mirror. A thousand prisoners needed executing. He’d save them for later.
“You look very hot,” mum said. “I hope you’re not too tired.” She picked up the great-granddad and took him back to the kitchen.
“My muscles are full of courage. I don’t feel tired at all.”
“Remember Archie, this is a parade, not a battle.”
Mum placed the great-granddad in his usual place on the shelf. He didn’t look upset or happy, pleased or worried. It’s sad that he just stands and watches, thought Archie, because once he must have talked, but because he died he stopped.
He took hold of his sword: the three jewels flashed. With both hands, he placed it in front of the picture – a ready weapon gave courage to every warrior.
Mum laid a hand on his shoulder. “Great-granddad will look after it for you.” She steered him towards the door. “The teachers will be pleased.”
Archie didn’t care about the teachers. He’d won the battle. The alien king lay dead and even the bravest warrior in the world needs a rest from fighting.
He ran out into the bright sunshine and gave the loudest victory cry. “Aaaaaargh!”
John Ballard – was born in South London in 1940. After a basic, secondary modern education, followed by short periods at Camberwell and Wimbledon Schools of Art, his working life has encompassed a wide variety of trades and professions. These include commercial art, the construction industry, factory production lines and ‘Special Needs’ education. He enjoys reading and writing poetry, sea fishing and working as a semi-professional musician. He joined St Leonards Writers hoping that, with encouragement and support, he might improve his abilities as a writer of short stories.
James Betts. After a career in the Finance Industry in the City of London, James Betts retired with his wife to a quiet village near the sea in East Sussex. Having spent many years writing Reports and Funding Applications, James joined the St Leonards Writers to encourage his artistic side and to write stories, (although some former colleagues already regard his Status Reports as works of fiction!)
Jonathan Broughton – has been writing fiction for the last eight years. He has embraced the digital revolution of e-books and published [_ Dark Reunion- Twenty Short Stories, The Russian White, ] a Victorian thriller. _Running Before The Midnight Bell is an urban thriller set in Hastings and St Leonards on Sea.
He has contributed a number of stories to Rayne Hall’s Ten Tales fantasy anthologies.
His Shakespir profile page:
You can join him on Twitter @jb121jonathan
Pat Cochrane – joined St Leonards Writers shortly after retiring and moving to Hastings in 2011. She was delighted to have a short story published in their anthology ‘Chills – East Sussex Ghost Stories.’ She dreamed her school years away until she left for a variety of clerical jobs. She trained as a Play Leader whilst her children were pre-school age and after completing her degree, considered a career with the Probation Service. However, she decided instead to train as a Psychotherapist.
She now enjoys creative writing, reading, gardening, walking with friends and spending time with her children and grandchildren.
Pat recently sold a short story in America.
Christine Dale – is a founder member of St Leonards Writers. She enjoys the challenge of creative writing and has a love for arts and crafts.
Robin Grady – is a recent émigré to the Sussex shores. Having spent some thirty-six years based in Aberdeen working worldwide in the oil and gas industry, he elected to return south for the climate and the culture. A move he claims not to regret. His short-form description is; war baby, Essex boy, failed rocker and grateful retiree!
Melvyn Grant – is a well-known artist specialising in book and album sleeve illustrations. His versatility spans from children’s art to the darkest adult horror, but he tends to concentrate on fantasy and has produced covers and interior art for leading writers and musicians. Among them are Terry Pratchett – Where’s My Cow. Darren Shan – The Demonata series. Judas Priest – Rocka Rolla and Hero Hero. Iron Maiden – Fear of the Dark, Virtual XI, The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg, Death on the Road, The Final Frontier and From Fear to Eternity. He also produced the cover for the final book in the Pan Book of Horror series.
In Mel’s paintings there has always been a hidden tale. Now he’s stepped out with a pile of paper, a pen and a large pot of ink and decided he’d write down the tales for all to read.
He’s started with Pesky Baboon on Kindle, suitable for all ages from twelve up. ‘The Doings of that Pesky Baboon’ (Part One) ‘The Maggoty Man’ (Part Two) ‘The Bloodpainter’ (Part Three). The link to his Pesky Amazon page is here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Doings-Pesky-Baboon-Maggoty-ebook/dp/B00BJ2MR0O/ref=pd_rhf_gw_p_img_1_PWQA
Rayne Hall – has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the dark-epic fantasy novel Storm Dancer, the creepy horror story collection Thirty Scary Tales, and the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic, Writing Dark Stories and more) as well as the publisher and editor of the Ten Tales fantasy anthologies.
Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has settled in St Leonards where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.
You can follow here on Twitter: where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.
To see her books on Amazon, go to:
Rayne’s website is here: http://raynehallauthor.wix.com/rayne-hall
To find out about new book releases, classes, writing contests and events, sign up for the newsletter: http://eepurl.com/boqJzD
Charles Menzinger – was born in Vienna and came to England at the start of WW2. At Oxford, he began writing short stories, some of which were published in the Evening Standard. He loved dogs. Sadly, Charlie passed away early in 2016. He joined the group in 2007 and was a loyal and much loved member. We all miss him.
Janet Nott – moved southwards for work from the outskirts of London. After a lifetime in Engineering and Project Management, redundancy turned into an exciting early retirement for her and her husband. Janet joined St Leonards Writers in January 2014 to explore a long held desire to write and was delighted to find both the writing process and the group to be a lot of fun.
Rosamond Palmer – was born in St Leonards, moved away when she was four and moved back in her forties. She has worked in the theatre as a producer, actor and writer. Her hobbies include working on an organic farm, travelling, yoga, playing bridge and walking in the countryside.
William J. Stevens – is an official Old Town walking guide in Hastings. He enjoys poetry and writing stories about the supernatural and science fiction.
We hope you enjoyed this book and if you did please consider leaving an honest review. Thank you
St Leonards Writers
St Leonards Writers are a group of enthusiastic members who have been meeting weekly since 2007 for lectures, workshops, creative exercises, writing practice, discussions and constructive criticism, and to help one another create the best possible writing. We also perform at festivals and local events in and around St Leonards-on-Sea and Hastings, UK. Spindrift contains stories and poems that include the paranormal, the historical, the urban, the comic and the tragic. We have given our imaginations free rein and let loose a wide variety of ideas and characters to delight and entertain. We hope you enjoy them.