Off Season

A small B&B establishment a stone’s throw from the pebble beach of a sleepy holiday resort on the north-west coast of England is the setting for this silent drama. There were only two guests on the night in question. Both arrived separately, by car, parking on the tree-lined street outside. The pavements were slippery with a layer of wet musty Sycamore leaves swept up by the autumn winds blowing in from the Irish Sea. It was still early September but definitely off-season.

The man arrived first, about three o’clock in the afternoon. Mrs Ethel Brewster, the owner, had been dozing on the settee in the front room, an abandoned crossword and biro on the low coffee table where she perched her feet. At the sound of the front door she jumped up and made her way to the small counter which served as her reception desk, quickly combing fingers through her loosely permed grey hair. Ethel was closer to seventy than sixty, a little on the plump side which she tried to hide inside a long grey cardigan and a loose dress, navy blue with a faded daisy chain pattern. She didn’t have time to pull on her slippers, but the man couldn’t see her stocking feet behind the desk.

He had no advance booking and no luggage to speak of. Mrs Brewster accepted payment in cash for one night only, at the off-season rate. She was glad of the company, but the man was anything but talkative. He signed the hotel register and she handed him the key to room number two on the first floor. He grunted in reply to her directions, already half way up the carpeted stairs. Ethel ran her finger down the list of names in the register, stopping at the last entry. It was just a scribble with a final flourish. “Hm, at least not Smith or Jones” she thought to herself. Ethel was a fan of detective series on the TV, but if asked to describe the man to the police she would prove a poor witness. He was plain, featureless and dressed in a way that wouldn’t attract attention.

Puzzled she locked the money away in the desk drawer and set off for the back kitchen to put the kettle on for her afternoon tea. She made herself a whole pot and placed it on a wooden tray together with her favourite teacup – decorated with hounds and horses at the hunt. As an afterthought she added a saucer with a chocolate digestive biscuit. She always took her tea in the lounge in front of the TV, together with her favourite afternoon talk show.

It was almost time to start thinking about dinner when Ethel heard the front door slam again. She pulled herself up and marched briskly into the hall. A youngish-looking middle aged woman was standing inside the front door, vigorously shaking her hair. Outside it was pouring down.

“Hello, bit of a shower, time of the year,” Ethel said, trying to excuse the weather. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, a room for the night if you have a vacancy” said the woman. Ethel looked at her closely, without staring, in case the police called. The woman was mid-blonde, with a shortish page cut, wearing in beige trenchcoat, black trousers and trainers. No rings and only a touch of pale orange lipstick. A shiny black shoulder bag served as luggage.

“Yes we can arrange that. Do you have a booking?”

“No.”

“That’s all right, it’s off season. I’ll give you number five, first floor,” said Ethel, handling over the key. “Pay by card or…?”

“Cash, in advance, one night” said the woman in a rather nervous voice, Ethel thought.

“No problem, dear,” said Ethel.

The woman disappeared up the stairs when Ethel bent down to deposit the cash in the desk drawer. Ethel realised that she had forgotten to ask the woman to sign the register, but could remind her at breakfast. “Strange,” thought Ethel to herself. Neither of her two unexpected guests had asked about breakfast times.

Before locking the front door and retiring for the night, Ethel set the dining room table for breakfast and then did her customary rounds. She had done this many times before. It was half past ten. She walked slowly along the first floor corridor. The thick carpet dampened her footsteps, and she knew how to avoid the squeaky floorboards. A narrow strip of light escaped through the gap under the doors of rooms two and five. Her guests were in for the night.

At the end of the corridor, Ethel realised she had been holding her breath. She gulped for air, shaking her head and putting it down to those detective stories on TV. She switched off all the main lights, leaving just a weak night light above the stairs and half way along the corridor. Then she climbed the stairs up to the second floor and slipped into her own bedroom, taking care to secure the door before she climbed into bed.

The next morning Ethel was up by half past six, in time to make breakfast for any early risers. Making her way along the corridor, she noticed that the doors to rooms two and five were still closed. “No hurry then”, she thought. First she went to unlock the front door, but found the bolts already open. Strange, she was sure she had locked it last night. A quick glance outside and she saw that the street was empty. Worried that there may have been a break in, she hurried to the reception desk. Two keys lay next to each other on the counter, the keys to rooms two and five. Ethel unlocked her cash drawer, breathing heavily, but all was in order. “I’ll have to bank that today,” she said to herself.

During his lunch hour, Ethel’s son Trevor came by to accompany her on the short walk to the bank. She was always nervous when she had cash in her handbag.

“Good of you to keep me company, son,” said Ethel, “specially after the guests I had last night.” Ethel told Trev about her two mystery guests.

“Well you’ve got CCTV in the corridors Mum, cameras I installed for you so you’d feel safe. Hidden in the night lights they are!”

“No use to me love, can’t fathom out how to use ‘em.”

“Dead easy, Mum. I’ll show you when we get home.”

Trevor set up the CCTV and linked it to Ethel’s TV-set so she could watch th efilm from last night. “Just press here to start, Mum” said Trev, showing her on the remote control. “Fast forward is the red button. Just phone if you get stuck. Must get back to work now, bye for now Mum.”

“Bye Trev. Thanks luv!””

After lunch Ethel checked out rooms two and five. The beds had been slept in but otherwise the wastebins were empty and towels unused. Looked as though nobody had been there at all, apart from the beds. Ethel changed the bedlinen and then sat down with her usual pot of tea and chocolate digestive in the lounge.  Ethel felt troubled inside, as though small worms were gnawing away at her innards. It was those two guests from yesterday, aroused her curiosity. Were they together? What were they up to? When did they leave?

“I know”, she said to herself, “I’ll try the films! Why not? Just a minute or two.”

Ethel sat down on the settee, switched on the TV and directed the remote control for the CCTV, but then hesitated. “What was she up to”, she wondered, before pressing the play button. The corridor appeared gradually on the flickering screen but nothing happened for a long time. She thought how boring it must be for the policemen who sit watching these films all day long. On TV they always found important evidence right away, but Ethel found it difficult to keep her eyes focussed on the screen. Then she remembered the fast forward button, and soon found herself watching her evening round, checking that the guests were all in their rooms and all was quiet. The picture was not perfect, but it was definitely her.

There she was walking along the corridor in her carpet slippers and dressing gown, slowing down outside the two occupied rooms. Ethel felt a little embarrassed when she saw herself leaning towards the doors, listening and then hurrying along in case she got caught out.

The time shown on the bottom of the film was 22:43. Ethel poured herself another cup of lukewarm tea and let the film roll on, her finger on the fast forward button.

At exactly 23:29 Ethel almost spilled what was left of her tea when she saw the door of room number five slowly opening. There was no light on in the room but the dim corridor lighting enabled Ethel to see a figure slipping out of the room and closing the door gently. It was the blonde woman who had arrived late that afternoon. She was barefoot, wearing a longish white nightshirt, and shook her hair loose in the  characteristic way Ethel had seen her doing in the hallway when she arrived. The woman padded silently along the corridor and stopped outside room number two. Ethel almost dropped her teacup. “This is getting interesting,” she thought, as she saw the woman lean towards the door, listening, then slowly turning the door handle and opening the door just enough to slip inside and then closing the door again.

“My, my,” thought Ethel, “this will be something to tell our Trevor.” Who would have thought her two guests were together.

After about a quarter of an hour the door to room two opened suddenly, the woman slipped out and then closed the door firmly behind her. Clutching the nightshirt, she wrapped her arms around herself like a giant octopus, half running back to her own room.

Ethel was wide awake, intrigued but also a little shocked – what was going on in her hotel? She reached for the teapot in its knitted tea cosy, but it was empty. “Nothing else can happen now,” she told herself. But watching the film flickering across the screen was compulsive, like gambling, eating up the hours of darkness.

The film ran so fast that Ethel almost missed something. The timer said it was 02:10 in the morning, still middle of the night. When Ethel slowed the film down she saw the door of room number two opening slowly. The scene was repeating itself, but with another person in the main roll. A male figure in baggy black boxers stepped out into the corridor and closed the door after him. He walked briskly along to room number five, stopped and leaned towards the door, listening. After what to Ethel seemed a long time, but probably only a few seconds, he  pushed the door handle down, opened the door enough to slip inside and then closed it behind him.

“So that was it”, thought Ethel, “took him a long time to make up his mind.” She put her cup and saucer back on the tray and got up from the settee. “Well that’s all for now, better switch TV off now before I fall asleep in front of it.” She retrieved the remote from where it had slid behind a cushion and turned to face the TV and press the OFF-button. But wait a minute, the door was opening again. Ethel almost dropped the tray, taken aback; “My, that was a quick one”. The man closed the door and shuffled back to his own room, shaking his head slowly from side to side. Ethel guessed the visit had lasted ten minutes at the most. “Curiouser and curiouser. Strange people” she thought as she switched off the film. “Have to tell Trevor all about this ……..or maybe not. Just as well we don’t have cameras in the rooms!”

Mrs Ethel Brewster never did find out what really went on in her B&B that late night in September. If you don’t want to know, stop reading here.

So, what did happen in the two rooms during those brief visits?

First, the woman slipped into room two, closing the door slowly behind her. It was dark so she stood quietly inside the door. Gradually, in the weak light from the street lamps outside, she could make out the bed and the figure lying there, his back to the door. She dropped her shirt onto the floor, lifted the cover and slipped into bed beside the man, pushing her knees gently against the back of his thighs. The man pretended not to notice he had company in bed. It was warm, but the lack of response made her feel chilly inside. The woman lay alongside him and breathed slowly, her warm breath ruffling the curly black hairs on his back. She tried tracing a pattern up and down his spine, using the tips of her pointed nails, but there was no change in his shallow breathing. Sighing the woman slipped out of his bed, grabbed her shirt from the floor, wrapped it tightly around her and left the room as quietly as she had entered.

A couple of hours later the man sneaked along the corridor, opened the door to the woman’s room and stepped inside. In the pale light from the window he could see the woman lying asleep, her back facing the door. The man slipped heavily into her bed and lay alongside the woman, not touching her. She didn’t react. Her breathing was slow and steady. The man listened for what seemed a long time, his breathing following the rhythm of hers. Lifting his right arm he ran his fingers through her blond hair, but she didn’t react. He tried stroking her bare shoulder, expecting perhaps a slight shudder, but her skin was taut as a silent drum. She appeared deeply asleep. Sighing, he slid out of her bed, leaving the room quickly, not even stopping to pull the cover over her.

Not a word was spoken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Regular Habits

The dog froze, tail standing to attention, nostrils quivering, fur along his back standing on end, like bristles on a scrubbing brush. A low persistent growl slowly erupted from deep down in his throat. “Quiet Rocky,” hissed Joe, and gave him a sharp nudge. The growling stopped and the dog lifted his head to sniff the air, ears pointing straight up. Joe listened too, but all he heard was the dull buzz of traffic from the distant motorway. It reminded him of an old radio not quite on the station.

Joe Kelly was a retired sailor, or so he said, and always wore a seaman’s cap to prove it. His face was weather-beaten, cheeks a reddish hue, but that was not from a life on distant oceans. Joe rarely mentioned that most of the time he worked down in the engine room on the ferry boats across the Irish Sea. He was in his mid-sixties, retired a few years ago and adopted the dog from a refuge for company. Joe had reddish-blonde hair and bushy  eyebrows  above deep blue eyes, He was clean-shaven but didn’t bother with the razor every day. He spoke with a soft brogue, which he exaggerated to remind people of his pure Irish heritage. Rocky on the other hand was a mongrel, a mix that Joe had given up trying to sort out.

There was a slight wind coming towards them across the damp fields, breaking up the thick blanket of mist into long, fuzzy white fingers stretching across the pink early morning sky. The breeze brought with it the sound of a high-pitched voice from the direction of the old abandoned farmhouse, just south of where they were standing, listening. Rocky started pulling on his line, eager to investigate, ears twitching and head up. Joe had no option but to follow the younger and more muscular dog. Rocky made a bee-line straight across the wet fields, jumping through last year’s long grass, ignoring all the pathways. Joe tried to keep up, paying out the line and telling Rocky to calm down – and slow down. The dog didn’t bother, he was on to something, barking with excitement as the cries got louder – “Help! Help!” They were coming from the dirt road below the old farm. Joe couldn’t keep up with Rocky, but daren’t let go of the line. Desperately he grabbed hold of a young pine tree and wrapped his end of the line around it a couple of times. Rocky came to a halt with a jerk.  Frustrated he attacked the line. Puffing out loud, Joe hauled in the line slowly and gradually got Rocky under control. Holding him short, and quiet, Joe lead the way over a small rise to get a better view of the farmhouse.

The cries for help were coming from a woman lying on the steep dirt road leading down from the farm. She slowly raised one arm when she heard footsteps in the loose gravel. “We’re coming” shouted Joe, “you’re safe now.” Rocky started barking again, thinking it was a game. Joe tied him up to a gnarled apple tree in the old orchard below the farm, and hurried along to where the woman was lying on her side next to a heavy red bicycle. Her right leg was caught up in the frame and twisted badly. “Hello”, said Joe, “what have we here?” She groaned, sighing. “Where does it hurt?” asked Joe, noticing the blood on the side of her face, seeping out from under her helmet into her long black hair. The woman didn’t respond. Probably been lying here a while, thought Joe, getting out his phone. “I’ll call an ambulance, you need help.”

Joe felt it took ages for them to answer, and then to understand where he was calling from. It was a bit out of the way, but this dirt road was often used as a short cut by cyclists crossing the fields from the housing estate to the nearby industrial estate. “They’re on their way now love”, said Joe, not knowing whether she heard him but it felt strange not to talk to her. There was really no more he could do but wait. He took off his fleece jacket and laid it over her, and gently lifted her head to slip his rolled up gloves underneath as a pillow. He got some blood on his hands. Bending down to wipe them off on his jeans he noticed a dusty cell phone lying on the ground near the woman. She’d probably been trying to call for help.

Rocky started barking again at the wail of the approaching ambulance. Joe tried to calm him down but when the dog saw the ambulance men in their neon-yellow uniforms he went wild, jumping up and down. He was barking so much that the uniforms said they would call the police if Joe didn’t leave at once and take the “animal” with him. Joe felt rather offended but dragged Rocky away, leaving them to it. It was getting chilly without his jacket, and his jeans were soaking from the wet grass. Joe took the shortest way home but still it took him and Rocky close to twenty minutes, at a brisk trot. The dog was so tired when they got home that he just drank some water and then collapsed on his blanket .

Joe sat down in the hall and pulled off his leather boots, soaking wet after the march across the fields. His socks and feet were wet too, so he decided to warm up with a shower. He removed the phone from his back right-hand pocket and put it on the kitchen table before stepping out of his clinging wet jeans. When he shook them, something heavy clattered onto the floor from the left pocket. It was the young woman’s phone. He must have shoved in his pocket when the ambulance came, and then forgot about it when they told him to clear off!

He looked at the screen. It was cracked, probably from when she fell. Without the code he couldn’t open it and possibly find someone to call. He left it on the kitchen table next to his own phone and went to have his shower.

It was still only seven o’clock when Joe sat down in the kitchen to eat breakfast. The dog was still snoring and didn’t react when Joe switched on the radio to catch the latest news. After breakfast he retired to his favourite armchair in the living room and must have dropped off too. He woke suddenly when he heard the dog barking from the kitchen, disturbed by a phone ringing. It was the wrong signal for his phone. Joe half-ran into the kitchen and grabbed the other phone. “Hello”, he said, “Joe Kelly here. I found this phone ….” He was interrupted by an animated woman who shouted “Amina, you got her phone, where is she? where is she?” Then another voice took over at the other end, a man with a deep voice and a strong foreign accent. “What are you doing with my daughter’s phone? You’re in big trouble if anything has happened to her.”

Joe tried to explain what had happened, but the man interrupted with questions and then spoke to the woman in a language which sounded as though it came from somewhere in the Middle-East. She started sobbing hysterically in the background. Joe was trying  to explain which hospital the ambulance had probably taken their daughter to when they abruptly hung up. Joe felt a little offended, but then realised that the girl’s parents were probably in a state of shock.

Joe lived in a small, neat wooden house tacked on to the end of a row of large terraced houses, as if an afterthought. It was painted a dark forest green, which suited Joe. There was a kitchen, living room, bathroom on the ground floor, one bedroom up a narrow ladder after a loft conversion. The dog hadn’t mastered the ladder, so his territory was downstairs. He slept mostly in the kitchen or by the front door. The house had a small garden back and front, garden gate opening straight on to widespread open fields, like an ocean with thickets of bushes for islands and woods on the higher ground in the distance.

The night after the accident Joe was sitting in bed reading. He suffered from chronic insomnia, so he had a pile of thick books on his bedside table. It was the only thing that worked, combined with poor light from a weak bedside lamp. Joe had fallen asleep half-lying on several pillows, a book about butterflies resting on his broad belly. For some reason he sat up with a jerk, and the book fell onto the floor with a dull thud. He listened but the only sound to be heard was old Rocky snoring in the kitchen below. Joe groaned and switched off the bedside lamp, punched the pillows into shape and settled down again under the bedclothes. He was half asleep again when he heard a sharp rattle on the narrow loft window. His heart started thumping and he instinctively held his breath. It was dark, middle of the night. Joe groped for his glasses on the bedside table but managed to knock them onto the floor. Down on his knees he slid his hand silently to and fro across the floor. Eventually he found the glasses covered in dust from under the bed. He blew the dust away gently and perched the glasses on the end of his nose.

The small attic window didn’t open but there was a narrow vent on one side to let fresh air in. Joe dragged a chair to the window and climbed up so he could look down on the back garden. It took some minutes for his eyes to adjust to the dark. There were no street lights, only the pale moon hiding behind thin clouds. The garden was just a narrow strip of lawn and a low privet hedge.  Below the window Joe noticed an unfamiliar black shadow. Someone was standing there, all in black except for trousers with three white stripes. Joe recognised the uniform, worn by the young black couriers who delivered goods by moped or motor bike.

“Whadya want?” asked Joe through the vent, using the deepest voice he could muster in the middle of the night.

“The phone!” came back in a whisper. Joe saw a row of gleaming white teeth against black skin, as though recently bleached.

“It’s the middle of the night!” said Joe, irritated at having his sleep disturbed.

“Sharp aren’t you for an oldie. Boss wants to see you. I’m taking you for a little ride”.

Now Joe was wide awake, and curious, so he agreed. Dressing quickly, he climbed backwards down the creaky ladder and slipped out through the back door without waking Rocky. The dog was getting on a bit, so his hearing was not too good any more, even though Joe suspected he played the old soldier when it suited him.

“You got the phone?” said the waiting hoodie.

“Yes, where are we ….”

“Follow me.”

He set off, leading Joe towards a thicket of bushes about fifty yards into the bare muddy field which was usually covered in Alfalfa and Clover. It was slippery after  recent rain. The morning mist hung thick over the ground, which sloped gently towards a narrow brook. Joe looked back towards the house, but it had already disappeared into the mist. Joe kept his eyes on the striped trousers to keep up. The youth was in a hurry, dragging a dark off-road bike from the bushes. He straddled the bike and shouted “Get on!”, turned the key and revved up the engine.

Joe hesitated but did as he was told, throwing his leg over the seat. The lad let in the clutch. and they were off, while Joe was still groping for something to hold on to. There was no pathway to follow. He drove straight across the bumpy field, engine whining as they skidded through the swirling mist, back wheel digging into the wet soil and throwing up clods of earth. The noise of the bike echoed across the fields, probably waking a good few of Joe’s neighbours. The lad didn’t seem to bother.

After a scary fifteen minutes the driver dropped Joe off in the lane outside the abandoned farmhouse and disappeared quickly into the, back wheel spraying gravel from the dirt road. It was a place well-known to Joe from his walks with Rocky, and close to where he had found the girl. Still it was different in the dark, difficult to get his bearings. A few minutes later he heard footsteps approaching along the  lane. Another slim youth appeared through the mist, dressed in the familiar black hoodie and striped track suit trousers.

“Got the phone?”

“Yes, here” said Joe, pointing to his pocket.

“Follow me!”

”Where to, what’s happening?” asked Joe

“Take it easy old man, you’re safe here.”

Without further ado the youth turned and walked back from where he came with long strides. Joe followed close behind, almost running to keep up. The guide slipped through an old green wooden gate sagging on its rusty hinges, and made for a narrow overgrown path behind the farmhouse. The path took them to a group of low, wooden outhouses facing the fields.

“Wait here”, said the guide, and melted into the darkness.

Abandoned Farmhouse by Day
Abandoned Farmhouse by Day

Joe was still breathing heavily after the ride over the fields, and feeling a little lost without Rocky. It was quiet, except for the occasional sound of flapping wings and familiar cooing of pigeons. Of course, Joe realised he was standing by the sheds where somebody kept a large flock of pigeons and a few hens. An occasional whiff of the special acrid odour of fowl confirmed Joe’s suspicions. Joe had often seen the pigeons from a distance, across the fields where hungry goshawks floated lazily in the sky. Piles of white feathers in the woods revealed where the hawks took their meals, culling the flock of pigeons.

New footsteps approached, interrupting Joe’s thoughts. Two men appeared.

“Hello Joe!” said one of them with a strong foreign accent, extending his hand,  “good to meet you.” A smallish, unassuming man in his fifties, he was dressed simply in jeans, trainers and a yellow football sweater under a black leather jacket. Joe hesitated and then shook his hand briefly. The other man said nothing. He was younger, thin, all in black, looking around nervously. Joe was aware of several other figures in the shadows but turned back to face the man who seemed to be in charge.

“Like to thank you for helping my daughter, Joe”, said the boss.

“How is she?” asked Joe.

“Still in hospital but she’ll be home again soon.”

“Good to hear.”

“You have her phone?”

Joe tapped his breast pocket, waited a moment and then slowly hauled it out. The man held out his hand again, eyes narrowing. Joe handed it over.

“You opened it?”

“Don’t have the code, do I? Just answered when it rang, twice.”

“Good for you. Like to give you something. A reward. What d’you want most Joe? Money? New TV?”

“Not necessary,” said Joe, eager to get away now that he had got rid of the phone. “Helped her because she needed help, that’s all.”

“Must be something you want!”

Joe hesitated, realising that it could be seen as insulting to refuse.

“Left my sweater and gloves behind. Like to get those back.”

“ OK. You’ll hear from us” said the man, suddenly turning away and quickly disappearing into the shadows.

Behind him in the lane Joe heard the motor bike revving up, a sign that he was to leave.

“Get on” said the driver.

“I’d rather walk” said Joe.

“Past your bedtime. Sit up!”

Thinking it best not to argue, Joe climbed up and off they shot across the fields in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

Joe’s heart was still racing when he closed the back door behind him, glad to hear the sound of the bike fading in the distance.  He sat down in his favourite armchair, truth to say his only armchair, waiting for the thumping in his chest to get back to normal. It took a while. From the kitchen he could hear the dog snoring, oblivious to the night’s adventure. Eventually Joe climbed back up to bed and fell into a not very restful sleep. Later that morning the whining of the dog at the back door woke Joe. Their normal morning walk was overdue.

Three nights later Joe was woken again by the dog growling at the bottom of the ladder. Outside it was still pitch black. He rolled out of bed, grabbed his glasses from the top drawer and, half crawling, inched his way to the narrow window. The dog quietened down when he heard Joe get out of bed.  Joe was about to stand up when he heard a stone hit the glass. It was him again, the bike boy. Joe was beginning to regret he’d got mixed up with that crowd at all. He climbed down the ladder, moving heavily, and stepped into his slippers parked at the bottom . Rocky ran to the back door, growling, with Joe close behind. A well-aimed kick quietened the dog, who yelped and retired to his bed in the kitchen. Joe peered through the curtains and saw a familiar figure standing there: the biker.  Opening the door a few inches, Joe regretted not puting on his dressing gown. The night air was damp and raw.

“What do you want at this hour?” whispered Joe.

”Boss wants to see you” came the answer in a low voice from the shadows.

“What for?”

“Got something for you. All I know.”

Realising he would get nothing more out of the lad, Joe told him to wait while he got dressed, then closed the door. This time he put on his heavy boots and a warm jacket for the ride across the fields. Before leaving he glanced into the kitchen. The dog was already snoring.

This time the lad waited for Joe to climb on the bike before starting the engine. Joe pulled his cap down tight over his ears and jumped up, less scared now he knew what to expect. He grabbed hold of the boy’s jacket, but the shiny material was slippery so Joe had to slide his arms around his chest and hold tight. It felt almost too intimate, but with the jacket billowing in Joe’s face this was no time for niceties.

The boss was waiting near their meeting place, the pigeon sheds. They shook hands and the man handed over a carrier bag.

“Your sweater and gloves were gone, but we fixed new ones for you Joe. Hope you like them. Least we could do for you.”

“Thank you, very thoughtful” said Joe, rather surprised at all the cloak and dagger stuff for an old fleece sweater and pair of worn gloves. “How is your daughter faring?”

“Much better. Sends her thanks to you.”

After that there was nothing left to say. Joe decided it was time to leave. “I’d better….”

“Wait” said the boss, “we want to do something for you Joe, a proper reward. You got any problems? I have people who can help, you know!”

Without thinking, and eager to get away, Joe blurted out: ”The big  problem we’ve got where I live is dealers who sell drugs to our kids. They live in the area too they do, but nobody dares touch ‘em. Too scared.”

The boss nodded slowly, “Yeah, same problems all over these days. Got three kids myself. Have to keep an eye on them.”

“Live among us they do”, said Joe, warming up to his favourite subject. “Neighbours are unhappy about it, traffic all hours, lot of strangers in the area. Gives the area a bad name too.”

“Bad people, big trouble! Sorry I can’t help. You take care of yourself Joe” said the man, and turned away abruptly to end the meeting.

On the ride home Joe got to thinking it had not been a good idea to mention the local drug dealers, a large family who lived near the main road. Could be dangerous. Neighbours talked about the noise,   expensive Audis with blacked-out windows arriving at all hours,  engines running and dark bearded men at the wheel, waiting. Nobody dared complain.

Joe knew the family by sight, but had never spoken to them. On his daily walks with Rocky he  often walked along the road past their house and studied the cars and their crews. He sometimes made a mental note of their plates, hoping he would one day pluck up courage to call the police. He never did. The weekend after his second meeting with the boss, Joe noticed a new car outside the  house: an exclusive silver BMW. Several times after that he saw the youngest brother in the family behind the wheel.  “Business must be good,” thought Joe to himself.  Once time he walked up to the parked car and bent down to look in through the driver’s window. He was curious. Suddenly he felt the dog stiffen, letting out a low growl. Joe stood up and took a step backwards.

“Hands off old man. Envious eh? Nothing you can afford” said a man’s voice, laughing. It was the young dealer. Joe turned away quickly but the dog was reluctant to back down and kept looking back. Joe had to pull hard on the leash to drag Rocky away. Most days Joe saw the new BMW outside the dealer’s house, parked as though on display in a car showroom.

A week later the silver BMW stopped outside an out of town shopping centre a few miles away. The passenger door opened and a young woman in a tight dress and heels was struggling to get out. The driver turned, watching her with a grin.

A black Audi with tinted windows glided up alongside the BMW, the passenger window slid down and a semi-automatic sprayed the BMW and driver with a shower of bullets. The woman screamed and ran for the nearest cover, stumbling and losing her shoes on the way. The Audi is off while the sound of the gunshots is still echoing between the tall buildings. The victim is slumped over the wheel, dead before any help can arrive. Inside the shop, the passenger is on her knees, screaming until she spews.

That evening the local TV news reported on the drive-by shooting, attributing it to an ongoing feud amongst local drug gangs. When Joe sees the car, the silver BMW, he feels physically sick. His first thought was that it was his fault. He had complained about the local drug dealer to the boss, but this was not what he wanted. He switched off the TV and all the lights. Shivering in the dark he started thinking about revenge shootings, and what would happen if it got out that he had put them up to it.

That night he slept poorly, tossing and turning. It was hardly light when he gave up trying to sleep. Outside it was overcast. He decided to take an early walk with Rocky, getting out before anyone was up and about. The dog was reluctant to go out that early so Joe had to bribe him. Joe stayed away from the houses, preferring the open fields. On their way home, he took a short cut leading to the main road, which he thought would be quiet this early in the morning. He was wrong. A blue and white police van was parked a couple of blocks away from the dealer’s house. In the other direction he saw a couple of dark figures leaning on the parapet of a pedestrian bridge over the main road, with a good view of the house. Joe couldn’t make up his mind to go on or turn back. What decided him was the sight of a number of black cars parked outside the house, blocking the road, attended by a large group of dark, young men. Joe beat a quick retreat, with the dog at his heels.

The morning after the fatal shooting a steady stream of mourners was ferried to the house to pay their respects to the grieving family. Young women in black, old men in unfamiliar dark suits and their wives in long black coats and smartly dressed young men. Others,  obviously  told  they were expected to attend, were rounded up by bouncers. The police van had been replaced by an overweight civvy policeman in a sloppily parked oldish red car. He spent most of his time playing games on his cell phone and eating, while waiting for the relief that never came. The family and assembled mourners sat together in the garden on hastily gathered white plastic garden chairs, one shift at a time. This went on for several days.

A memorial to the dead man was built under a gazebo-like tent in the front garden, with portraits of  the deceased, candles, flowers and messages of sympathy. It was protected during all-night vigils by a group of younger men. This was not appreciated by neighbours, who kept their distance unless their presence was demanded. An  atmosphere of fear and insecurity spread during the invasion, which went on for four weeks. After the funeral things calmed down, got back to normal. The memorial was cleared away, the black cars were nowhere to be seen and the drug dealers kept their window blinds and heads down.

Joe did the same now that it was all over. At last he could relax. He did change his daily routine, preferring  long walks with the dog early morning and late evening across the fields. Usually they left home by six in the morning, before the mist lifted. Their new regular daily walking habits were comforting, giving a feeling of safety and normality after recent events. Now they could relax, it was all over Joe told himself. Rocky liked routines too, following the same trail every day across the fields: sniffing his way along the edge of the thicket with thorny bushes, running across the open field with last year’s stubble, where he could roll over and scratch his back, striding through the long grass along the collapsed chain-link fence which followed the narrow brook, trotting over one of the wooden bridges and then up into the woods, circling round the abandoned farmhouse and then back nhome over the football field. Morning and evening skies were beautiful, it was quiet and the rolling mist over the fields provided good some protection. In fact, Joe enjoyed being out alone, except for the dog and the occasional deer and hare. Sometimes he heard the toiling engine of an off-road bike in the distance, but drug deliveries seemed to have dried up.

One such morning, about three weeks after the funeral, Joe was standing by the edge of the field which sloped up to the abandoned farmhouse. As usual Rocky was having fun rolling in last years’ dried grass, and sniffing at the small piles of soil which dotted the field. The voles were busy digging their tunnels through the heavy clay. Soon it would be time for breakfast. In the distance Joe heard the characteristic sound of an off-road bike, but he couldn’t tell if it was going or coming. The sound was smothered by the thick blanket of mist which still hung over the fields, waiting to be dissolved by the morning sun. Joe called in Rocky, who was on a long line, afraid the dog might take off across the narrow dirt road to the short grass on the other side – the football field – to roll around and scratch his back. The bike came closer, noisy. Joe shortened up the line, wrapping it around his hand a couple of times. Rocky resigned to sitting at Joe’s feet. “Good dog” said Joe, trying to keep him calm. The dog was not a friend of noisy motor bikes. A familiar dark blue motor bike came into view along the dirt pathway, bursting through the mist. Joe had just turned to look at the rider and his mate when a burst of shots rang out. He rolled backwards into the ditch by the side of the path. Rocky barked and then yelped as he was pulled down by the line, trapped under Joe’s heavy body. The motor cycle didn’t even slow down, disappearing quickly into the mist,

Nobody heard the shots above the sound of the motor bike. The fields fell silent again. Another dog walker found Joe in the ditch some time later, attracted by Rocky’s howling. It was too late. At his funeral, somebody remarked that Joe had fallen victim of his own regular habits.

Nobody was ever caught for the shootings.

 

 

 

 

Non-Verbal Communication

One icy winter morning at about eleven o’clock I hurried across the stony windswept square, passing the ragged Christmas tree and solid brick church which sported a banner declaring “Hug somebody you like!” when I noticed a stocky, older man approaching. Outside the smelly ornamental public toilets he stopped and looked around, obviously confused. He was wearing a dark blue padded winter jacket, loose blue jeans, gym shoes and a bob hat which had lost the bob. I slowed down and, taking this as invitation, he came up to me, rather uncomfortably close I thought, and whispered “SFI?” in a gravelly voice. Another lost soul, I thought, and considered pointing him in the direction of the church, but repented and repeated “SFI?” He nodded and smiled. He was closer to sixty than fifty, with a dark weather-beaten face, which possibly indicated African roots, and poor front teeth. He was blinking urgently, obviously running late.

With my whole arm I pointed towards the glass doors of the shopping centre across the square, telling him to go right through the building and out the other side, take off to the right and past the hotel which he would see there. He smiled and nodded, but then asked again “SFI?” and pointed to his feet. He obviously hadn’t understood. I asked “English?”, whereupon he smiled again and shook his head. I waved my arm again in the general direction of the shopping centre. He shook his head slowly for a minute or two and then, like a man revealing a secret, dragged out an envelope from an inner pocket and handed it over. It was an official looking paper, an invitation to take part in a training course for SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) at 11 o’clock at an address on the other side of the shopping centre. I knew it well, went past there often on my way to the gym.

I nodded and pointed to the paper, then used my arms again like a semaphore to indicate which way he should go. To be on the safe side I repeated this procedure a couple of times. He smiled, put the paper back in the envelope, stuffed it into his pocket and set off at a good nick towards the shopping centre. At last, I thought, he got it, pleased with my success at non-verbal communication. Then, as he approached the entrance, he veered suddenly to the left and scurried along a passageway towards the bus station. I couldn’t catch him before he disappeared around a corner, and it was too far to shout. Obviously he had not understood anything I had said. Which of course was why he needed to go to Swedish for Immigrants. There was no map or instructions how to get there.

What happened to the man? Did he get to his Swedish lessons? Did he feel as lost here in Sweden as I did living in Beijing in the early 1980’s? And what could I have done to get him there safely?

These questions squelched around in my head all day. If I had smiled and, holding hands in the African manner, accompanied him to the training centre, a walk of almost a kilometre, would he have trusted me, a white man?

 

 

 

 

 

Lonesome

“Yeah!”

“Hi Frank, Lois here, got a minute?”

A diesel engine in the background drowned their voices, then closed down slowly with a whining noise and she tried again:

“Frank, it’s Lois.”

“Hello Lois. What can I help you with?”

“Straight to the point, Frank. Waste unit just screamed and died! Know it’s late Friday but I’m having a grill party tomorrow. Any chance you could look at it for me?”

“What make’s your grinder, Lois?”

“King something I think.”

“I’m down at the O’Brien place. I’ll call in on my way back.”

“Great, thanks a lot Frank!” said Lois, as the engine started up again.

No other service firms had answered on a Friday afternoon. Calling Frank was a desperate last-minute impulse that she almost regretted. Frank and Lois went to the same school, but she was a couple of years older. She was once married to Billy, Frank’s older brother, so he was her ex brother-in-law. She hadn’t seen Frank since before the break-up four years earlier. In her late thirties, Lois was a fifth-grade teacher in Smithville, eastern Nevada near the Utah border. She had grown up nearby and came back home after teacher training. Now Lois lived in Newton, a small residential town in the Snake Valley, Utah, not far from the Great Basin National Park.

Frank was a loner, taking over the old family ranch himself when Billy moved away after the divorce from Lois. Their two sisters also left, for marriage and the bright lights of Vegas. He was not interested in ranching so most of the land was rented out for grazing. He kept a pair of horses in the barn, that’s all. Frank was a mechanic, the local fixer: plumbing, electrics, pumps, irrigation, farm machines, you name it.

It was late afternoon when Frank was done with the pump at O’Brien’s. He brushed the brown dust from his clothes as best he could and started his truck, an old ’99 Ford. On the way he called in at the ranch to pick up some tools and spares. He hadn’t given Lois a thought since her and Billy separated four years earlier, and was surprised when she called. The dog was happy to see him, but not to be left behind when Frank drove off again. Lois lived in a small house near the river, fifteen minutes away. He recognised the road, lined with poplars and willows along the river bank. Driving slowly he tried to remember what the house looked like. There it was, set back from the road on a large plot, a green two-storey clapboard place with white shutters and windows. There were about ten other houses along the road, her neighbours, many with shiny new cars in their driveways.

Lois opened the door when she heard the deep growl of the Ford’s tired engine, but was about to step back inside when she saw the dusty old truck. Too late, Frank was already half way up the drive carrying a heavy toolbox. He took off his battered hat and dropped the toolbox on the porch with a dull thud, uncertain how to greet her. She kept her distance.

“Good to see you Lois. How you keeping?”

“It’s good Frank, that is apart from the unit!” she said with a nervous laugh.

“Let’s have a look then” said Frank, business-like, to cover up his uneasiness. “Lead the way”.

Lois headed quickly for the kitchen, leaving Frank to follow with his toolbox.

“Here it is”, she said, “just ground to a halt.”

“How long you had this one?”, asked Frank.

“Well, Billy had it put in ……” she started to say, without thinking.

“Let’s have a look” said Frank, pretending not to hear.

“Can I get you anything Frank?”

“No, I’m OK thanks Lois.”

He turned away to hide the sudden warm blush in his cheeks, and opened the cupboard under the sink, located the power switch and switched the grinder on. The machine started with a whine but then suddenly shut down.

“Doesn’t sound too good does it?“ said Lois, who was hovering near the kitchen door.

“We’ll see, have to open it up and take a look”, said Frank, “could be jammed.”

“Say if you need anything.”

“Mmm” said Frank, turning back to the cupboard again to disconnect the power and grab a wrench to open the unit.

Half an hour later Lois heard the familiar sound of the grinder running, and then the clang of tools when Frank dropped them into his toolbox.

“That sounds good,” said Lois, as she stepped into the kitchen.

“Good for a few years if you look after it,” he said, holding up a handful of sticky brown goo, mixed with bones and old string. It’s the bones from all those grills, jam the blades.”

“Have to be more careful what I put in there then, won’t I!”

“Where d’you want this?”

“Uugh! I’ll get a bag and take it out back.

“What do I owe you Frank?” asked Lois when she came in again.

“This late on Friday I don’t charge, not out of working hours.”

“I made some coffee, come and sit down and have a cup.”

Frank hesitated a second. “Just let me wash up first.”

It was only then that Lois noticed he had dirt up to his elbows. “Of course! You can take the towel hanging there”. Frank scrubbed his hands at the kitchen sink and dried them quickly, leaving a brownish stain on the towel.

He sat down opposite Lois at the round pine table. There were two mugs of coffee and a plate of cookies waiting. Frank pulled a chair out from the table to make room for his long legs, putting some distance between them.

“Milk?”

“Just a touch.”

The cold milk flowed more freely than the conversation. Lois crept up in her chair and looked at him with her big green eyes. She saw a tall, solid-bodied male with wary, dark brown eyes and a slow smile. He was weather-beaten from working outdoors, with longish uncombed brown hair and big, rough hands.

Frank felt troubled, He still thought of Lois as Billy’s wife. Her shiny black hair was pulled back in a ponytail with a straight fringe, in sharp contrast to her pale skin, which looked like she kept out of the sun. Lois was slight, with thin, elegant fingers and expressive hands, which she used to emphasise her point when she spoke.

“What were you doing at the O’Brien’s?” asked Lois, trying to break the ice.

“Pump at the wellhead, took all day to fix” replied Frank curtly.

Lois asked questions, too many, thought Frank. About work, old schoolmates, the ranch. He felt uncomfortable and made to finish off his coffee quickly and escape. He tried to wind up the conversation, giving Lois some advice about the grinder.

“More coffee, help yourself to cookies?”

“I’m good, Lois, thanks”.

She raised the matter of payment again

“You must let me pay you, Frank, at least for your time”.

“I don’t charge family”, he replied, which sounded pompous when he heard it himself.

Lois laughed, “I guess we are still family, sort of. But then you’re welcome to a family dinner tonight, here at eight. I won’t take No for an answer.”

She saw again the slight hesitation in his face.

“It’s just dinner together instead of eating alone, Frank, just to say thank you. And don’t you bring anything!”

Frank smiled slowly: “Eight is OK! Enough time to feed the animals.”

Driving back home Frank admitted to himself that he had always liked Lois, but as Billy’s wife she was off limits. He realised that they had never really talked before, except to pass the time of day. It was quiet and empty at the ranch. He checked the stables, fed the dog and took a quick shower. Lois was right, it was lonesome to eat dinner alone, which he did most days. Out working he grabbed a bite to eat on the move. Then after a long days’ work it was relaxing to eat by himself, with the dog and a beer for company, but lonesome.

He couldn’t say no to Lois now, even though he felt uncomfortable about it. And it was a free dinner. He felt warm as he climbed into the truck again, but maybe it was the quick shower. He drove off in a cloud of dust, before he could change his mind.

Lois’s street lived looked different in the evening. There were lights on in most of the houses, outside in the gardens too. The driveways and street were packed with cars. Frank guessed Friday night was party night here. He found a space outside Lois’ driveway. The truck looked out of place there, but so what he thought.

Lois must have been waiting in the hall because when Frank arrived she was already on the porch.

“Truck parked outside twice in one day, said Frank joking, “Neighbours gonna talk!”

“Only if it’s still there in the morning!” said Lois with a cheeky grin. “Come on in, dinner’s ready.”

“Mmm, just like Mom’s real home cooking.”

“Make yourself at home, Frank!”

They sat down at the pine table, now hidden under a dark green tablecloth. The lights were low, and candles flickered from the counter.

“You’ve been busy, Lois.”

“Well, I have the grill tomorrow for colleagues from school, so I thought we could get a head start.”

“Appreciate you taking the trouble.”

“Good of you to fix the unit. Let’s eat now before it gets cold! What d’you want to drink?”

“Grill needs a good cold beer!”

“Done, Bud all right? I’m on a red run myself” said Lois, fetching the beer and a bottle of wine that was already open.

As the evening progressed the drinks flowed. Lois noticed that Frank seemed more at ease, more talkative and funnier. It was not only the beer. He seemed more relaxed in her company, prepared to talk about personal things such as the family and being alone on the ranch. Frank started to look Lois straight in the face, instead of out of the corner of his eye. The wine warmed Lois inside and she also felt more at ease with him in her house.

“What’s it like living alone on the ranch, the old family home?”

“Don’t think about it much really. Meet people all day on my travels. Work all round the county. Then there’s the horses to look after, and I do some hunting with the guys. ”

“Don’t you ever feel lonely?”

“Work all hours, mostly alone, but don’t really feel lonely. Evenings and nights can be long, specially wintertime. How about you?”

“Almost four years now since Billy moved out. It still feels empty in the house. I try to keep busy, but weekends and nights can be lonesome. I’m surrounded by people at school, then there’s all the families round here. In a way it’s more lonely when you’re living amongst families, with kids and all their parties.”

“I miss family, Billy and the girls now they’ve moved on. Nobody left to talk to about the ranch, the future and things.

“Most of all I miss sharing a bed, you know, just being held tight before falling asleep, and then not waking up alone,” said Lois. “That more than the sex…”

“Mmmm.. At least you had some years with Billy. I’ve mostly slept alone, except for the dog of course”, said Frank laughing…

“Frank, don’t get me wrong but how about you staying over tonight? Just lie with me for a while and hold me. I’d like that!”

Frank looked surprised: “Two lonely souls in the night!”

“Just to feel the comfort of being held. Anyway, you can’t drive with all that beer inside you!”

Frank, laughed again to hide his shyness: “Thought you were very generous with the beer, Lois.”

“It would mean a lot to me Frank, just to lie close for a while.”

“I’d like that too,” he said quietly.

They sat in silence for a while, nobody wanting to make the first move. Lois emptied her wine glass and stood up to blow out the candles. Frank cleared the dishes, piling them up on the sink.

“Leave that,” said Lois, reaching for his hand. They made their way upstairs, slowly and a bit unsteady.

“Your turn first”, said Lois, pointing to the bathroom.

When Frank returned he found Lois already sitting on the bed, wearing yellow Simpson pajamas and with her hair down.

“Birthday present?“ asked Frank.

“No, Christmas”, she said, laughing, “from the kids at school. You usually sleep in your clothes then?”

“Dog hid my pajamas” he said laughing too, and slowly slipped out of his jeans and shirt.  He lay on the edge of the bed, stiff and uncomfortable. Lois turned down the lights.

“Come closer, won’t bite Frank”, she said softly. The bed creaked and she rolled towards him. He moved closer too and she snuggled up to him, head on his shoulder. Lois’ hair had a mild flowery fragrance which Frank liked, but couldn’t place.

He hoped she didn’t hear the thudding of his heart, but Lois just sighed and laid her arm across him. Somehow her fingers got entangled in the carpet of curly hair on his chest, but he didn’t mind. He liked being close to her, and an unfamiliar warmth spread through his body.

Lois relaxed, the smell of fresh male sweat making her feel safe. Gradually her breathing deepened and slowed down a little. Frank started to relax, forgetting the numbing feeling in his right arm. She would probably roll over soon, he thought, pulling up the covers and letting the beer take over.

It was still dark when Frank surfaced again, shivering. Lois had rolled away, taking the covers with her. He turned and looked at her sleeping soundly, long hair spread across the pillow. She looked contented. Frank was tempted to join her under the covers, to wake up warm next to Lois. He lay there looking at her for a while, listening to her steady breathing. He was afraid he wouldn’t know how to handle things when she woke up. He found himself looking for an excuse to escape. Then he remembered what Lois had said: “Neighbours only take notice if a car’s still there in the morning!”

Frank rolled quietly off the bed and tiptoed out of the room, grabbing his clothes as he went. He pulled on his jeans and shirt in the hallway, found his boots and jacket and slipped out of the door. The porch creaked as he stepped outside. It was early, raw. Night mist from the nearby river was still hovering over the manicured lawns. Frank pulled on his boots and stood silently, in two minds: to sneak back inside to Lois’ warm bed or make a run for it. He pulled his jacket tight and made for the truck, standing there alone on the street looking lonely, just like Frank. The engine was sour, needing some coaxing before it turned over. He didn’t want to wake Lois, but you can’t sneak away quietly with a ’99 Ford truck.

Lois woke up when the sunrays bounced off the mirror onto her bedroom wall. She rolled towards Frank, shaking the long hair out of her face, but he was not there. Maybe he was in the bathroom, or downstairs fixing a cosy breakfast. She got up and saw that his clothes had gone. Going to the window she could see that his truck was missing too. She threw herself back into bed and hid under the covers. It was so lonely to wake up all alone, and now she felt abandoned – and cheated –  again.

Frank phoned Lois later that afternoon. An unknown woman’s voice answered, “Janice”. In the background he could hear a party in full swing. Janice said she couldn’t see Lois anywhere, so he left a message. Only later, when the party was breaking up, did Janice remember:

“Sorry Lois, I forgot, guy called Frank phoned earlier. Who’s Frank?”

“He mended the waste disposal” said Lois, curtly.

“Aha!” said Janice, with a knowing smile.

Tidying up the kitchen that evening, after the last of her colleagues had left, Lois leaned across the sink to switch on the waste disposal. The grinding sound reminded her immediately of Frank, and the message passed on by Janice. She’d missed him and then forgot to call back. It was still not too late, but she got no signal. Probably just as well, she thought, after his disappearing act.

Lois crept up on the couch in the living room, wrapped in a warm plaid blanket and with a bottle of wine within easy reach. The sun was gradually slipping behind the trees along the  river. It had been a good warm night with Frank and she had started to like him. But then he just sneaked off, leaving her alone. Now she felt even more lonely than before, and couldn’t bring herself to sleep in the big empty bed. Gradually she slipped into a restless sleep on the couch, only waking when she turned over and knocked the empty wine bottle onto the wooden floor. It was dark, but light outside. She got up, pulling the blanket around her shoulders, and shuffled to the window. The moon was up, a full moon, reflected on the river in the distance. She pulled back the curtains and curled up again, trying not to think of Frank.

In the ranch house, Frank was tired after a long day with the horses. He made a fire, grabbed some left-overs from the ‘fridge and settled down with a bottle of beer and some sorrowful country music on repeat. He sat in the dark watching the flames dancing around the walls. The dog joined him on the sofa, head in Frank’s lap. Lois hadn’t called, and really Frank didn’t know what to say if she did. After last night he didn’t expect her to call.

He let the fire burn down until all that was left was embers reflected in the dog’s eyes, like distant tail lights. A dying fire and sleepy dog, enough to make anyone feel lonely. Maybe Lois hadn’t got his message, or he could have missed her call. Couldn’t find his phone, probably still in the barn. He got up to fetch it, but the dog woke up and wanted to come too. Outside it was chilly, so he pulled on a jacket. The phone was lying on a shelf by the barn door, and he dropped it into his pocket. A full moon and clear sky almost felt like daylight. The dog ran off towards the river, the same one that flowed past Lois’ place. Frank followed, feeling a little sad and lonely. He had messed up with Lois. The reflection of the moon in the river was there to be shared. He forgot about the dog, thinking about how good it had been with Lois. A loud splash diverted his attention and he saw the dog come running, heading for home in a hurry. Frank was longing for his warm bed too.

Once inside the house he hung up his jacket and made for the kitchen to fix some food for the dog. Then he remembered and checked the phone. Lois had phoned! Twice! And he had missed both times. Without thinking he hit reply and waited…….

Lois was dozing on the couch. She heard the phone ring, or was she dreaming? It rang again from the kitchen. She stumbled on the wine bottle, dropping the blanket and ran to grab the phone before it stopped ringing.

“Hello”, she whispered, hoarsely.

“Seen the moon?” It was Frank’s voice.

“Yes”, she said, pleased to hear his voice, “can’t miss a big one”.

“Wanna go for a ride?”

Lois hesitated, “I’m………..not ready”.

“Moon’ll be up for a while. I’ll be outside, down by the river. See you there.”

 

We Are Not Alone

Over the years I have seen countless signs that our summer place is used even when we are not there, but have seldom met any of the visitors. Some years ago I did sit down by the lake for some hours late one evening, wrapped in rubberised army camouflage netting, torch and binoculars at the ready. The animals were too smart, warned off by the smell. I woke up the next day with a sore back, and the netting ended up at the dump.

Now I have tried a different strategy. Very early one Friday morning towards the end of a wet October I decided to sneak up on the place to find out who was there, and what was going on. Our little cottage is like an island, surrounded by a deep sea of heavy gravel and protected by two creaking wooden gates. Nobody can get close to the cottage without making a noise. I left the car along the dirt road about half a mile from the cottage. It was barely light and the only sound was the breeze from the lake which rustled the yellowing leaves on the tall birch trees. I pulled on my rubber boots and dark green jacket before making for the thick bushes which grew by the side of the road. I treaded carefully, taking my time. If I did meet anyone, which was most unlikely, I planned to say that I was hunting for fungi.

As I approached our site I saw that the cottage was still enveloped in a cobweb of mist, blown in from the lake. No one was in sight as I climbed over the brown four-barred fence, heart beating loudly. I slipped quietly into a compact stand of saplings: oaks, rowans, hawthorns, maples and birches, planted to provide a thick barrier against the road. I squeezed between the trees making for our compost, favourite haunt of a badger. It was hard going. My jacket was dripping wet from the leaves and swirling mist, while the vicious hawthorns clawed at my clothes.

The compost was well hidden behind a tall fir with branches which swept the ground. Good cover for the badger who regularly turned over the compost for us, digging for worms. I slipped through the wet, knee-high grass and found the compost black and  freshly turned over. It must have been here last night. Over the years the badgers, rarely seen, have established a network of meandering paths following the contours of the land. We use them too.

Behind the compost the land slopes upwards towards the mountain, an outcrop  of smooth polished rock. The mountain towers above a sloping field which makes up most of the site, and then drops steeply  thirty feet into the lake. A few years ago the badger tried to dig a den in the shallow soil cover but gave up after a couple of yards, when it came up against the thick root of a pine tree. Now badgers use the mountain as a toilet, digging shallow holes for their blackish droppings, and ploughing up the moss in search of worms and beetles. Apart from the occasional deer or two, who make their beds under the shelter of the fir trees, there are few other signs of life up on the mountain.

Standing by the compost,  the mountain blocked my view of the lake, but I could hear heavy waves landing on the sandy shore. Fortunately the wind came in from the South, towards me, dispersing my scent. I stepped carefully, using the badger path which sloped down towards the lower field, skirting the mountain and a giant pine tree. At this early hour I was hoping to see some more signs of animal life. Passing the pine, I had to wade through a large patch of wet ferns, three feet high. Unfortunately I disturbed a male pheasant which had bedded down there for the night. It flew up, screeching loudly to tell any living being within 500 yards that it had been woken up by an intruder, and ran for the nearest tree cover. It  frightened the wits out of me and my heart took an extra beat or two.

That put an end to my silent mission. Resigned, I continued along the badger path in the direction of the lake. The path skirted a grassy slope dotted with red spots like a bad case of the measles, windfalls from  our only apple tree. Under the nearby oak trees the ground was covered in old acorns, which crackled underfoot as a further alarm signal.

Now I could see  the lake and stopped to watch the steaming mist rising from the surface, melted by the rays of the early morning sun. As the mist gradually dispersed, I could see  the outline of our blue and white rowing boat on the beach, leaning lazily to one side as though trying to find shelter amongst the tall reeds. It was half-full of brownish rainwater, yellow birch seeds floating on the surface like freckles on a summer face. Along the edge of the shore the strong waves had whipped up large blobs of stiff white foam, like shaving cream waiting for the razor.

It had rained during the night, which made it easier to detect traces of visitors on the shore. Bending down to the sand, I was reminded of Robinson Crusoe’s feelings when he found the print of a foot on his beach many years ago. When he knew he was not alone.

”It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition. I listened, I looked around me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one; I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the print of a foot – toes, heel and every part of a foot. How it came thither I knew not, nor could I in the least imagine; but after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be man.…

” In my reflections upon the state of my case since I came on shore on this island, I was comparing the happy posture of my affairs in the first years of my habitation here, with the life of anxiety, fear, and care which I had lived ever since I had seen the print of a foot in the sand.”

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, http://www.gutenberg.org

Our beach also had footprints. The paw marks of the neighbour’s cat were easily identified, a daily visitor who finds the loose sand excellent for burying droppings. It was my job to rake the stuff up and consign it to the nearby bushes.

Despite the early hour, my heart did beat a little faster when I noticed a trail of unfamiliar footprints leading up the beach to a thicket of elms and willows, normally used by shy bathers. The footprints had five clearly defined fingers linked by a web, and claws which left deep marks in the sand. The prints were concentrated to the area below the bushes, and then trailed off into the reeds. Puzzling, until I noticed a couple of fresh branches lying in the water near the shore. Of course it was a beaver, cutting down fresh branches for breakfast, leaving  characteristic tooth marks on the stumps.

Over the years I have found many traces of visitors and more permanent residents. In summer a flock of pigeons has come regularly every year to briefly sip water from the shore, hardly leaving any impressions in the sand. The heron  who nests in the reeds on the other side of the lake, is much heavier and not in such a hurry. It leaves very distinct triangular footprints, striding around in the shallows on stilt-like legs, looking for frogs and tiddlers.

More dramatic events have taken place on the beach, leaving behind other  traces. Early one morning I came upon the neighbour’s cat sitting by the shore, crunching on a two foot long slowworm (a snake-like lizard). The cat scarpered, leaving me to bury the poor headless victim. A slowworm family has lived for many years under a mound of boulders, left over from a pier demolished by winter ice crawling up the shore. The snake lookalikes curl up asleep on the rocks in the sunshine, or can be seen swimming along the shore. Once or twice I have spotted a shallow trail in the sand where they have slithered across the beach, from the water to the safety of the rocks.

My second burial was a deer, or the remains of a deer. First I noticed that tufts of pale brown fur were spread around the site, presumably from when the deer tried to escape. The animal was picked clean, carcass left on a slight rise overlooking the beach, probably where the meal took place. Under some bushes nearby I found the stomach and intestines, still intact. It was a professional job, probably a lynx judging by the marks on the deer’s throat. Neighbours later confirmed that a  lynx had been sighted in the area.

Last summer I was down by the shore with the dog, a boxer, who rushes around nose-down, following the myriad of scents left by animals.  I noticed a strange pile of white stuff at the water’s edge. Closer inspection showed that a large number of white feathers had been washed up onto the shore, as though from an exploding feather pillow. Nearby under some bushes there was a large pile too, presumably where a goshawk had plucked its prey. There was nothing else, no carcass or other remains. From the amount of feathers I guessed it was a mallard – one of many on the lake. The dog was agitated, running to and fro, nose down  in the tall grass. A few minutes later he disappeared into some bushes, tail wagging like a metronome.  When I tried to pull him back, he growled. Afraid he had scented a snake or badger, I dragged him out and found he had the remains of a well plucked and stripped male mallard between his teeth. He gave it up, but not without a struggle. I fetched my spade and buried the bird discretely, to stop the dog digging it up again.

Climbing up the slope to the cottage, I noticed a disturbing number of new oak trees sprouting up everywhere. The less wooded parts of the site have become infested with oak plants, perchance due to warmer summers and climate change. I blame our resident squirrel, who violently defends his territory against intruders and spreads acorns around to ensure a sustainable supply of food for future squirrel generations.

On my way back to the car, I realised that that we are just temporary visitors, intruders in the lives of the animals who really inhabit our summer place. An occasional disturbance in their lives, with my only function being to clear up their droppings and bury their dead. Now, mission abandoned, I was longing for some hot tea and a Friday afternoon in the company of Robinson Crusoe.

 

 

 

Exit Pursued by a Dog*

The underground train ferrying people from the soulless suburbs to the magnet of the city shuddered to a halt, brakes squealing as if in protest. It was one of the noisy old trains which ran in the middle of the day, for less important passengers. The doors opened slowly with a dull thud and hiss of compressed air, hardly loud enough to rouse the half-dozen passengers from their slumbers.

Then the carriage was invaded by a load of five-year olds with loud neon-yellow vests and even louder voices, like miniature road workers. They were shepherded on board by three tired-looking teachers, decked out in similar yellow vests. Half-heartedly they tried to keep the children seated, while attempting to count their flock, afraid they might have lost some on the way. The standard precaution, name and telephone number of their pre-school stencilled on the back of their vests, was no guarantee. This group apparently belonged to “Raspberry Hills Pre-school”.

A few passengers groaned at the rude awakening, as the kids behaved like five-year olds on an outing are wont to do. The noise level escalated as they started pushing and shoving to sit next to friends, or at a far distance from the bullies. Boys and girls did not share seats. The boys were more physical, and louder, switching places, fighting, jumping on seats and treating the carriage as a parkour obstacle course. A few blows were exchanged but without bloodshed. The girls were quieter, sitting close together, whispering secrets or comparing hairstyles. They kept a close watch on any boys who came too close, ready to defend themselves.

Two stations on, the class was herded off the train by one of the teachers, snapping at their heels like a sheepdog, while the other two battled to get them in line on the platform for the recount. A deep sigh like whales communicating under water could be heard from the remaining passengers. Two women hurried on board after waiting impatiently for the herd to disembark. There were now only five passengers in the middle section of the carriage, which felt strangely empty and quiet after all the commotion.

Leaning against the wall next to the exit was an oldish man with bushy grey eyebrows and ruddy complexion, dressed like a model for an outdoor-style store: heavy forest-green jacket with large pockets, checked cap, cavalry twill trousers, checked shirt and heavy duty brogues.

An ancient brown and white hunting dog lay spilled out at his feet. The children  had pestered the man, wanting to know the dog’s name and if they could pet the dog. At first he tried to respond patiently: “his name is Blackie and no, he doesn’t like being petted”. They persisted so finally he told Blackie to growl. The dog was not in the mood, but did so reluctantly when the man poked him in the ribs with his left shoe. A bad move, as this just encouraged the kids to demand more growling.

Settling down again, the dog  looked up at the man, eyes wide open, begging for consolation. The dog knew what the bulge in the man’s pocket meant – it could smell the musty pieces of dried chicken wings. Man and dog then  followed a well-oiled ritual, like a jerky clockwork toy: dog looks at man, man dips hand in pocket, dog sits up, man holds piece of chicken, dog opens mouth, man drops chicken, dog catches chicken and flops down on floor to chew his reward.

The two latest arrivals, both women, sat on the seat to the right of the man, with their backs to him.  A shortish, plump, middle-aged woman sat next to the window. She sported ginger hair still curled from a visit to the hairdresser probably not more than a month ago, white trainers, black trousers and a  zipped-up maroon autumn jacket. A large carrier bag from one of the cheaper food stores rested in her lap. When she had made herself comfortable, she pulled out a large ice cream which she proceeded to slowly devour. Occasionally she glanced out of the window, but most of the time just looked straight in front of her. She was not the kind of person you would notice or remember.

The younger girl who got on at the same station sat down hurriedly next to the ice-cream woman, preferring to sit next to a woman rather than an unknown man or boy. Strikingly tall she wore a black burka, long black gloves and flat-heeled black shoes. The worn hem of pale blue jeans showed beneath her flowing robe. A small, black satchel-type bag hung across her shoulder and she also carried a large brown tote bag. She pulled out a black tablet notebook, which she immediately hunched over. She was probably on her way to school.

A non-descript man in his late twenties sat on the seat to the left of the two women, huddled against the glass window, uncombed longish brown hair and overdue for his weekly shave. He wore grey sweatpants and a grubby, formerly white sweatshirt. A worn bag lay collapsed at his feet, obviously empty.

The fifth passenger was a clean-cut youth, all of twenty, dark hair shaved back and sides, standing taller on top. He wore a popular national football jersey, tight black jeans and yellowish boots with thick soles. Facing all the other passengers, his dark brown eyes flicked nervously from one to another, often resting longer on the young girl with the tablet. She didn’t appear to notice, head down, absorbed in her studies.

Several times the nervous youth made as if to get to his feet and approach the girl. At last he made up his mind, moving quickly to sit on the seat opposite her. Nobody reacted, or at least showed any reaction, least of all the girl. Puzzled, the boy leaned forward towards her, staring aggresively. She ignored him. Apparently provoked by her way of dressing, the youth started waving and commenting on her long robe. She looked up, appearing startled. Unaccustomed to being addressed by strange men, she responded with a neutral, blank stare. He persisted. She folded up her tablet and looked around, in a silent appeal for support – which was not forthcoming. The pensioner dug into his pocket for more chicken, the woman by the window was finishing off her ice cream, the sleepy man didn’t stir. Realising she was on her own, the girl prepared to beat a retreat as the next station approached. Collecting her bags, she made her escape hurriedly through the nearest exit. The youth gave up and made his getaway through the forward door of the carriage.

Peace was restored and the three remaining passengers carried on as though nothing had happened. Turning her head, the woman by the window noticed the tablet notepad lying on the seat beside her, obviously left behind by the girl. The woman turned back to the window, considering whether to turn the tablet in at the left luggage office. She didn’t touch it.

The train pulled in to the next station, a busy junction with quite a crowd waiting on the platform. Picking up his bag from the floor, the sleepy unshaven man made a show of scratching his head and rubbinghis eyes. The doors flew open and in one unexpectedly quick movement he bent down, scooped up the tablet and ran out of the door, pushing through the crowd and off along the platform. Nobody reacted.

Later that day the following newsflash appeared:

“Earlier today a person was seriously injured in an incident near a busy city underground station, in what appeared to be some kind of explosion. Pending enquiries no further details can be given, according to a police spokesperson.”

A few days after this incident, four people sat round a table in an anonymous industrial building to the south of the city. A brown and white dog lay asleep under the table. “That went rather well, I thought”, said a tall young woman. They all agreed and then made their exits, followed by the dog.

*”Exit, pursued by a bear.” W Shakespeare in “A Winter’s Tale”.

Mrs D Williams, Highfields

I always say “Yes” when the assistant in the shoe shop asks if I’d like the box that my new shoes came in. Over the years a collection of shoe boxes has appeared on a shelf in my wardrobe, dusty and seldom opened except to slide in the occasional card or envelope. Most contain letters, postcards, Christmas cards and other handwritten bits and pieces from a time when people still wrote real letters. A sudden bout of nostalgia – or influenza – and I take down one of the boxes to trawl through the contents like an archaeologist sifting through layers of silt. The deeper I get into a box, the more often I find letters and cards from people I have forgotten. Postcards or thin sheets of airmail notepaper sent from no-longer exotic holiday resorts, often written in ink with indecipherable signatures.

Recently I found a thin bundle of hand-written letters in dark blue ink at the bottom of one my shoe boxes, together with a few small sheets of paper typed with a pale blue typewriter ribbon. The letters were written in a strong, cultivated hand, clearly signed by Mrs D. Williams of 42, Gopsall Street, Highfields, Leicester, and dated 1967.

I was a Social Science student at the University of Leicester from 1964 to 1967. The university was located near Victoria Park in a number of low, grey wooden pavilions which had previously housed the local mental hospital. In his welcoming speech, Professor Ronald Meek pointed out in his booming Scots voice that there were still bars on the windows, but now to keep people out instead of in. This was meant to reflect on the popularity of the new university, but this being 1964 we were not convinced.

I had forgotten Mrs Williams, but sifting through her letters and writings took me back to my years in Leicester, and an incident which took place early one morning in my first week there. Crossing a side road I avoided the rush-hour traffic to take a short cut though Victoria Park. The autumn grass was still wet, but I forgot the dew on my gym shoes when I heard a sudden loud squeal of tyres to my right. Looking up I saw a cream and maroon double-decker bus leaning over as it swerved through the nearby roundabout. A woman who was standing on the open platform at the back of the bus lost her grip and was slung off into the road like a sack of coal. The uniformed bus conductor, a thin, sallow faced Pakistani with black stripy hair, turned his back. Nobody else reacted as the bus hurtled on towards the city centre. Fortunately there was no car or lorry directly behind the bus. After a moment’s hesitation I started to run towards the woman, who had rolled over into the gutter but was slowly getting to her feet, brushing off her clothes. She was middle-aged, West Indian with bushy hair tied up in a bright patterned scarf, wearing a green dress, beige cardigan and flat, comfortable shoes. The woman was probably on her way home from working as a cleaner or housekeeper at one of the large houses in the nearby leafy residential area. Seeing me approaching, she quickly grabbed her brown shopping bag from the road and limped off. I stopped and watched until she disappeared down a side street into the nearby housing area, Highfields.

Highfields, “High Fields”,  originally an area of farm land outside the city, became a residential district from the 1850’s onwards. Little development took place during the twentieth century so the Victorian suburb looked very much as it would have done in the nineteenth century, with Victorian townhouses,  today often subdivided into flats, and redbrick terraced housing.

Highfields was badly bombed during the Second World War and after the war became less desirable, as the trend to suburban living encouraged many residents to move to the outskirts of the city. Highfields became instead an area of lodging houses and poor quality rented accommodation, which attracted a succession of migrants to make their homes there. Highfields is an extremely multicultural area, with large ethnic minorities. In the post-war period the first incomers were Irish together with ex-servicemen and workers from the Caribbean and migrants from South Asia.

Over the years Highfields has been subjected to numerous waves of migration including Indian, Jewish, Irish, Polish, Somali, Pakistani, and Caribbean populations. Recently the area has attracted a large number of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Today Highfields is home to the Leicester’s synagogue, an African-Caribbean Centre, various Christian churches and many mosques, madrassas and Islamic community centres, which reflect the numerous ethnic groups who live there.

Highfields was a place I occasionally visited, usually to see fellow students who had found cheap lodgings there. I felt uncomfortable on the streets of Highfields: unfamiliar languages and peoples, West Indian greengrocers with strange fruits and vegetables, Indian restaurants with strong spices, an Indian cinema and pub, Pakistani corner shops. The narrow cobbled alleys were used as parking for flashy old American cruisers with growling V8’s, decorated with flags and equipped with loud speakers pumping out unfamiliar rhythms. Earlier Highfields had a reputation as a red-light district where crime was rife, often drug-related. This reputation still tainted the area in the 1960’s.

One familiar sight on the streets of Highfields was the uniformed bus drivers and conductors employed by the local city council, mainly from India and Pakistan. The local newspaper, the Leicester Mercury, wrote of increasing tensions in Highfields in connection with the India-Pakistan war in 1965. The city bus service tried to avoid using mixed crews on the buses, after incidents between Indian and Pakistani employees. Photographs of Indian women in saris queueing patiently to donate their gold trinkets to the war effort were published side-by-side with team photographs of the Highfields School hockey team, where twelve of thirteen members wore turbans and answered to the name Singh.

What has all this to do with Mrs Williams? And who was Mrs Williams?

I first met Mrs Williams at her home in Highfields in 1967 when I was working with volunteers who did painting and decorating for people in poor housing conditions. Their names were suggested by the local social welfare department and materials were donated by local shops and businesses. Not the latest wallpaper styles or shades of paint, but clean and bright.  A visit was agreed via Mrs Williams’ home help, Elizabeth, who introduced herself as Lizzie. Mrs Williams was more formal and always addressed her as Elizabeth.

Mrs W, as Lizzie referred to her, sat in a large armchair draped in a mohair plaid when we arrived, wearing a long dress and slippers. We guessed she was about seventy years old, but her face looked older from living in the sun. On our first visit she told us her life story, in a well-spoken upper-middle class English with a very slight South African flavour. She had lived for many years with her husband in South Africa, who was an estate manager. On a visit to England, he had died suddenly. She lost the house in South Africa and was then more or less penniless, but survived on a small pension in her house in Highfields, with the help of Elizabeth. Mrs W spoke to Elizabeth in the manner customarily used for servants in South Africa. Elizabeth didn’t seem to take offence, a slightly raised eyebrow and little smile put it down to a difference in class and upbringing.

Mrs W was always sprucely turned out, in long, pre-war tailored blouses or dresses, outfits infinitely more suited to an evening G&T in the lodge overlooking the estate than a seedy brick terraced house in Highfield. Her half-long, thick grey hair, almost reaching the double row of pearls which usually completed her outfit, was always freshly brushed.

In contrast, the house was in a bad state, almost derelict, back yard full of rubbish. Mrs Williams only used the ground floor, heated by a small coal fire and a one-bar electric heater. Like many older British houses it was unhealthy – damp, cold and draughty. This didn’t bother Mrs Williams and she definitely didn’t want us doing any painting and decorating. She regarded us more as companions and friends, allies in discussing her latest ideas and writings.

While Lizzie busied herself about the house with the daily chores, Mrs W devoted her energy to campaigning: animal rights, capital punishment, anti-vivsection (animals used for medical research), Thalidomide and immigration. Daily she wrote long letters to the newspapers on these topics, hammering away on an old typewriter with a worn, blue ribbon. On some of these issues her position was very clear; she was for animal rights and anti-vivisection, warned against Thalidomide but seemed less clear on humane forms of capital punishment and limits to immigration, at least as far as “darkies” as she called them were concerned.

Lizzie’s final responsibility of the day was to stick stamps on Mrs W’s daily production of letters and drop them in the red and black pillar box on the corner of Highfields Road, in good time before the five o’clock collection.

Mrs Williams found time to write personal letters too, written in sweeping long-hand, using a fountain pen which it was Lizzie’s job to keep filled with dark blue ink. Mrs W wrote about everyday matters, expressing concern that we worked too hard for our finals or didn’t get enough sleep. She was also very generous in suggesting unorthodox cures for ailments such as arthritis (for my mother) or other afflictions.

In Highfields Mrs W saw herself as the last outpost of civilisation, surrounded by various threats which were personified by the many immigrant groups who made up her neighbours. In some way she was proud to be the only white English person left in the multi-ethnic Highfields, but at the same time decidedly paranoid.  Old, frail, alone and alienated, she felt threatened when local kids threw stones into her yard and shouted insults. She was on speaking terms with her Indian neighbours, tried to get help from them with the gang of children, but did not trust them. Once, on my way out, she slipped me the following note on a small folded-up piece of paper:

“If no answer at front door please try the back door, because neighbours are not all reliable & on occasion have sent people away saying I was not here!!!”

Mrs Williams’ other fear was the authorities, who she knew were provoked by her controversial views  and were planning to silence her. She was convinced that they were a danger to her, and told us on one occasion  that she had in fact been kidnapped. She described in detail with a wavering voice how she had been rolled up in a red blanket and unceremoniously bundled into an ambulance and driven away.

Perhaps that is what happened to her in the end. Reading her old letters, I see in front of me Mrs Williams sitting, well-dressed, in her near-derelict house in Highfields, surrounded by a multitude of ethnic groups whom she saw as frightening and hostile. She was the last outpost of white Britain, trying to keep up a semblance of civilisation in her campaigns – Thalidomide, immigration, capital punishment and  animal welfare. She battled on, brandishing the Union Jack, alone except for her faithful servant, home-help Lizzie.