Memories of The Cenie

Cordelia May Gandy and the Century Cinema

Memories: Response to query on Facebook, Widnes Past and Present. (Names omitted)

The connection with Miss Gandy and the Century, Picturedrome and Empire was that Len Platt, who owned S Owens and Son was also part owner of the cinemas, and Miss Gandy used to keep an eye on them. Miss Gandy was a very well known and respected lady, she would stand at the back of the cinema and make sure we all behaved ourselves. She was a very hard act to follow when I took her job on at the estate agents. The office was in Victoria Road then. When Mr Platt retired and Jim Geering took over, the office was moved to Albert Road.

My first job after leaving school was at S. Owens and Son. About 1966, and Jim Geering was the proprietor then.

Wasn’t the Century known as the flea pit by some Widnes people

Never went in Anthony but was told it was a tanner at the front on orange boxes and a bob at the back in the posh seats. I believe they were hard with no stuffing in them. If I’m wrong somebody will put me right I’m sure. Ade Coyne the glass merchant owned the Century picturedrome and I think the Empire picture houses. He used to live in that big house in Highfield Road by the school .


My great aunt had a shop opposite the Cennie, as a child I used to go there. She would give me some sweets and the money to go in, never very impressed from what I can remember as I would be about 8 or 9 at the time.


The Century was officially opened by the Mayor of Widnes Ald P Caldwell on September 2, 1922. Tickets cost 9d, 6d, 3d. The Century, described as the cosy little cinema in the west, closed in 1959. I think it was the first of the Widnes cinemas to close as a result of falling audiences with the arrival of the telly. The front stalls were unpadded wooden seats. It must have been the smallest of the cinemas and was probably not helped by its location in the middle of West Bank. By the 1950s people had started to leave West Bank for new estates in places like Ditton. The Picturedrome also closed in 1959.


The cinema was in West Street, West Bank, Widnes. Please ignore the remarks about it being a flea pit and the one about orange boxes, the Century was neither of those things. I used to attend the cinema at least twice weekly, because I lived a few streets away, and we are going back to the days before television, in the fifties. The cinema had wooden seats at the front, which were the cheap seats (5p) there were seats in the middle which were nice material covered seats (9p) and then there were the best seats at the rear (1/6p) which were red velvet. I was one of five children, and Miss Gandy knew us all by name. Miss Gandy as she was known was very well respected as I said before, and she always got that title, she was never called by her first name, at least not as far as I can remember, even from my mum and dad, she was very well spoken and was always dressed perfectly, and may I say, always wore the best perfume. I had an aunt who was very much like her, and they were good friends. From what I can recall, Miss Gandy worked originally for Sammy Owens, who owned the estate agents, When he died, Leonard Platt took it over, and he owned the three cinema’s, I don’t know whether Sammy owned them previously, but I do know that Mr Platt and his 2 brothers owned them when I worked there. My aunty went to a licence victuallers too, in 1956 as my grandmother owned a local pub, and told me that she had been speaking to Miss Gandy and she was looking for someone to take her place at the estate agents because she wanted to retire. As I had just finished my 12 months course at a commercial college, she put my name forward. I went for an interview and got the job. I loved it there, Mr Platt was a well known tenor, and he used to sing as he walked around the office, he had a beautiful voice. I will try and find out more about Miss Gandy, and get back to you, I seem to remember a photo of her somewhere within my family. What relation were you to her Eric if you don’t mind me asking. By the way, my sister Irene lives in Oshawa, and she also knew Miss Gandy, do any of her relations live near to Oshawa.

What an interesting story. It must have taken you a great deal of time and energy to get everything together, its a first class website. I keep promising myself I will do the same with my family. My name before marriage was Manning. We lived opposite to St Mary’s church in the villas, my youngest sister still lives there. My three sisters and brother all remember Miss Gandy, and I will try and get some more memories of her from them. I took over from her in 1957, I was only 15. Attached is a photo of the Century. I will keep looking for more photos for you.

The picture of the Cenie what a find!  Notice the date of the building 1922, my dad was born 1923 and his brother 1924 thinking they probably went to the pictures there?  Can’t remember what the inside looked like, but remember Grandad and I would sit with Auntie May and she would get us lolly ices.  The last picture I went to with Grandad was “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with Marilyn Monroe, around 1954.   They play it sometimes on the Turner Classic movies and I’m sure it was not for children but in those days they didn’t really think about that.  Gives me nice memories of me and my Grandad Gandy he was the best!  Can’t believe the response you are getting especially from Ann Campbell.  By the way there is a place Oshawa in Toronto. Gr. Grandad Charles lived with Gr. Auntie May he probably went to the Theatre.  Trying to get hold of my Auntie May and maybe she can give us more info.  E-mailed my cousin in Hough Green as her husband lived near the Theatre, but have not had a reply.  Wondering what the road address to the cinema was?

The Companies Acts, 1908 to 1917.

The CENTURY PICTURE PALACE COMPANY Limited.

NOTICE is hereby given, pursuant to section 188 of the Companies (Consolidation) Act, 1908, that a Meeting of creditors of the above named Century Picture Palace Company Limited, West-street, Widnes, will be held at 7, Sweetingstreet, Liverpool, on the twenty-eighth day of August, 1923, at 2.30 p.m. for the purposes provided for in the said Section—Dated 18th August, 1923.

WILMOT WELCH, Liquidator (Denton, Son and Welch, Chartered Accountants, 7, Sweeting-street, Liverpool).

THE LONDON GAZETTE, 24 AUGUST, 1923

CENTURY PICTURE PALACE CO. Ltd. (In Voluntary Liquidation.)

NOTICE is hereby given, that a General Meeting of the Members of the above named

Company will be held at the offices of Messrs. Denton, Son & Welch, 7, Sweeting-street, Liverpool, on Thursday, the eighteenth day of September, 1924, at 2.30 o’clock in the afternoon precisely, to receive the report of the Liquidator, showing how the winding-up of the Company has been conducted, and its property disposed of, to hear any explanations that may be furnished by the Liquidator, and to pass an Extraordinary Resolution as to the disposal of the books, accounts and documents of the Company.—Dated this ll th day of August, 1924.

WILMOT WELCH, Liquidator.

THE LONDON GAZETTE, 15 AUGUST, 1924.

I also have as photo of the Cenie being knocked down. After the cinema closed, it was used by Ladylove, a local joinery business, making fitted kitchens.

Underground Octopus

Every visit to our country place, located by a small lake, starts with a routine inspection of the property to check what, if anything, has happened during our absence. Before leaving, I always rake over the sand by the shore, so that any new foot prints would show. I do admit that looking for signs of intruders by checking the sandy shore for foot prints could be regarded as somewhat obsessive – even paranoid – but innocent.

Another important ritual involves fetching a garden fork from the tool shed and, where the green slope meets the sandy beach, driving the fork vertically into the ground. I move step by step, from left to right, lean on the fork and prod the ground to feel if there is any resistance which may indicate the presence of tree roots. Why, you may ask, is this necessary? It is, but to answer your question, we must go back to a series of events which started over seven years ago.

At that time there was no beach to speak of, just a waterlogged area of tall grass, reeds and gravel washed up from the lake. The only thing that thrived there was an enormous old weeping willow. Over the years the tree had spread its branches so much that it in effect had occupied the shore and blocked our access to the lake. Whenever we tried to catch a glimpse of the setting sun over the lake, that darned tree was always in the way.

One day, seven years ago, I had just got tired of looking at an enormous tree. It had to go. The decision was made.

Full of enthusiasm, l fetched my ladder and a large bow saw to attack the tree. I started at the top, or rather as high up as I dare climb. The thinner branches were the first to go. That was easy, I thought, no problem, even though the saw was a bit rusty and not very sharp. The tree responded by releasing a flow of sticky sap where I started to saw. This clogged up the teeth on the saw. It took me an exhausting weekend to get through all the thinner branches. All that was left was the tree trunk, over three feet across with bark like rough vertical ribs. About six feet above the ground the trunk divided into three thick boughs, now deprived of their branches and leaves. The naked tree was about 25 feet tall in all, the three boughs stretching up into the sky like outstretched arms.

Pleased with myself, I asked M to come and look at the result.

She glanced at the enormous pile of branches, sighed, and in that down-to-earth voice of hers, said:

“Curb your enthusiasm. It’ll grow lots of new shoots where you’ve sawn off the branches. Be worse than before.”

No more was said. We drove home.

Three weeks later I was back, aching muscles forgotten and determined to beat that tree. M was right of course – new shoots had pushed their way through the bark where I had sawn off branches. No problem, I said to myself, this time I am going for the big one, the trunk.

My strategy was clear. First a V-shaped cut in the direction I wanted the trunk to fall, then a single deeper cut lower down on the opposite side. I had a new sharp blade for the saw and a motley collection of axes and wedges, some rather ancient. I started about three feet above the waterlogged ground, just below where the trunk split into three massive boughs. The ground was waterlogged and very soon I was standing with mud half way up my rubber boots. But I persevered.

By lunchtime I had cut out the V-shaped wedge to ensure that the tree would fall away from the shore and end up safely in the field above. At least in theory.

I struggled all afternoon to get through the trunk, bending lower to get a horizontal cut but without ending up in the mud. The saw kept getting stuck in the dense core of the tree and I had to hammer in wedges to pull it out again. Then I needed to hammer in more wedges to release the first wedges.

From time to time I leaned against the trunk, giving it a good shove with my shoulder and listening for the first sign of splitting wood. After two hours or so, knocking in two thinner wedges, I heard a dull groan from the trunk. Was it giving up the battle at last?  I leaned my right shoulder against the trunk again and pushed with all my weight in the direction where it was to fall. Nothing happened. I tried a series of short sharp pushes and then it started to wobble gently back and forth. Now I’ve got it going, I thought, and with a new sense of urgency started pushing the trunk back and forth. Suddenly a loud crack and it was falling. I had planned to shout “Timber” like a Canadian lumberjack, but realised it was falling in the wrong direction. I tried to jump out of the way but my rubber boots had sunk down into the mud and were stuck. Fighting against the suction, I fell over on my back, landing in the field but leaving my boots behind. The tree fell in the other direction, across the shore and into the reeds, with an enormous crash.

M came running down when she heard the noise.

“You survived?” she asked.

“Fell the wrong way, the bugger!”

“Trees can do that!” she said. “Tea’s on.”

I pulled my boots out of the mud, collected my tools and went looking for some dry clothes.

A week later, appetite whetted by my success with the tree trunk, I decided I had to get rid of the enormous stump that was left. Then I could see us sitting here in our beach chairs, looking out over the lake and drinking a cold beer.

Pulling on my wellies again and taking my expensive ergonomic spade from its hook in the shed, I marched off down to the shore to complete the job. The tree stump stood there in a grey pond. Nothing to it but to dig up the mud, free the tree roots and pull up the stump, or so I thought.

 I started digging a trench around the stump, lifting up spadeloads of a black putrid mass, releasing a rotten methane smell as the decomposing organic matter came up out of the water.  Luckily there was a fresh breeze from the lake. Then I continued to the next layer – heavy thick grey clay. The more I dug, the quicker the hole filled up with water from the lake. I discovered while digging that the old tree had an enormous network of roots which fanned out in the direction of the lake, reaching out under the shore to reach the water. Three of the main roots were as thick as my arm. After all my excavations, the stump and exposed roots were coated in wet mud. In the fading afternoon light it looked like a giant octopus with underground arms.

Home again I gave some serious thought to what I was doing. I could just leave the mess and forget about it, but there was no turning back.

M: “You can’t leave it like that, a muddy lake. It could swallow one of the grandchildren! Or the neighbour’s cat.”

Options available included a stick of dynamite, chain saw or the neighbouring farmer’s tractor. It could have been quite fun, despite the collateral damage, but no! That autumn I did build a traditional bonfire on top of the stump in a half-hearted attempt to get rid of it, but the wood just smouldered for a few days and ended up blacker and harder than before. An evil looking black octopus. Before winter set in I cleared some smaller trees and bushes further along the shore, to have something to show for all my work.

The next summer we were in luck. The level of the lake was lower than normal and the land closest to the lake had dried out. The octopus was still there, no longer sitting in a pool of mud. Instead the tree stump was stranded in a dry hollow, roots exposed where they joined on. My first thought was: Climate change! But no, there was a more down to earth explanation. The water in the lake flowed downstream via a narrow creek which eventually took it all the way to the Baltic Sea. The creek had been blocked by some industrious beavers. Local farmers shot the beavers, demolished their dam and lodge, the creek started running again and the water level in the lake went down.

So, back to work. I got out my saw and quickly cut off the roots from the tree stump, making it possible to lever the stump out of its hole and roll it into the nearby woods. The head and body of the octopus were gone.

To recover from this sweaty job I got out a beach chair and beer, looked out over the lake satisfied with a job well done. M joined me.

“You aren’t planning to leave the roots are you?” she asked,

“Well, maybe….. It’s a lot of work …. They can stay there underground can’t they?””

“Up to you, but lots of new willows will shoot up from the roots in the spring.”

“Mmmmm” I murmured.

It took almost two whole days because the roots had spread all the way under the shore and down to the lake. Some were ten to fifteen feet long when I got them up. I collected them all in a big pile on the shore, reaching out like the arms of a dead octopus washed up on the shore.

The woman in the camel hair coat

The man in the café

Yesterday by chance I visited a part of the city I had avoided for nigh on eight years. I had decided to walk part of the way home to avoid the traffic, making my way through green parks and quiet pedestrian streets. As I walked I pulled my collar up against the stiff breeze of late summer. Without thinking I turned into a narrow park enclosed by two large monumental buildings. An unpleasant wave of nostalgia rose through my guts, as I recognised the city police headquarters on the right and the daunting red-brick courthouse on the other.

It all suddenly came back. I used to work nearby but resigned six years ago in what could not be described as a happy ending. How well my feet remembered the daily plod through the park from the tube station to the office. Early mornings the park was usually empty, except for the odd rat enjoying scraps left by lazy picnickers and the occasional drunk sleeping it off in the bushes.

Looking around, it felt no different. Cormac McCarthy’s old observation came to mind: “You go back home and everything you wished was different is still the same, and everything you wished was the same has changed.”

I walked slowly along the length of the park. The sun broke through the clouds as if to say “welcome back”. Peering into the distance, I searched for a familiar sight. Is it still here, my regular hideout, where I escaped from the office for a quiet cup of coffee, all alone with my thoughts? Yes, there it was, “Café Commandante”. Or is it just the old sign, still hanging from its rusty nail on the corner of a newly renovated apartment building? I couldn´t believe it was still there. Surely not after all these years. Then, as if to settle the issue, a man stepped out of the café door carrying a small coffee pot. He was making for one of the wooden benches which now occupied the street, together with giant urns overflowing with half-dead blue and red perennials to stop intruding cars.

Reluctant to approach the wide-open door, I stood there looking for a moment. Commandante used to be a simple, cheap café housed in what had once been a small shop, popular for clandestine meetings to plan squats and demos. There was never anything on display in the shop windows, which were used as extra seating often occupied by a bearded youth reading a thick book. The unassuming exterior, poor lighting, unwashed windows and cheap coffee were made it a fitting venue for students who chose to devote their time to cultural and political discussions.

I plucked up courage and stepped inside, trying not to stare at the lanky youth in fashion jeans sitting in the window, a thin silver notebook balanced on his knee. Light from outside didn’t reach very far into the dim entrance and it took time before my eyes adapted to the surroundings. Gradually I could see that nothing vital seemed to have changed over the years. The old floor of uneven bare planks, worn grey over the years, was still there. So was the oversize counter which ran the length of the narrow entrance, leaving only a narrow corridor for those who wished to reach the rooms at the rear of the shop. A few ready made sandwiches and pies were on display in an aged, glass-fronted cabinet on top of the counter, together with a couple of buns and small pastries. Narrow shelves at elbow level ran the length of the other wall, catered for customers in a hurry. Old yellowing posters of Fidel, Ché and fellow revolutionaries were still hanging there, held in place by strips of ancient sellotape.

Two slim youths with full black beards and middle-eastern complexions manned the giant chrome and red vintage coffee machine behind the counter. Busy looking around, I hadn´t noticed one of the youths was smiling and asking if he could help me.

I ordered a cappuccino, which he relayed to the other youth, who immediately filled the café with the characteristic coffee-making sounds. He proceeded to bang, grind, let out steam, twirl knobs and press coffee with a flourish which begged attention, and blocked the flow of piped lift music. It was of course too much to ask that the music provided would be the same. Fortunately my hearing is not too sharp any more.

“Anything else” asked the first youth, smiling. I hesitated, too busy looking around. He waited patiently. Finally I said. “One of those, please”, waving in the direction of a pastry with nuts and sugary coating on top. He picked up the pastry with a pair of tongs and slid it onto a small chipped plate on top of the counter, rang it up on the till and said: “That¨ll be seven pounds please.”

One thing that had changed was the prices, but I thought it a mite mean to comment. Maybe they were out of cheap Cuban coffee. A comforting sign was the old silver sugar container still standing in its regular place on top of the counter. It had a folding lid and long communal spoon. I dug into the demerara and poured a small pile onto the creamy coffee. It slowly sank, leaving a round sink hole. Then I made for the inner rooms to find somewhere to sit.

The three small, dark rooms were still furnished with a number of chairs and small tables which didn’t match, spread out seemingly at random on the rough plank floor. One room had a small window but no curtains. A few old posters were stuck up here and there on the rough, painted walls.

All the seats were taken. The overage revolutionaries with their never-ending political discussions and plans for street action were long gone, replaced by young people living in a cyber world where the meaning with life is to be found on a screen. Clearly they put more money into clothes and visited their hairdressers more often than my contemporaries. To my great relief nothing vital seemed to have changed very much, apart from the habitués and the music on offer.

Desperate for a seat, I decided to check out the café garden which I had spotted through the window. A new door at the end of the corridor opened onto the garden, sheltered from the wind on all sides by five-storey apartment buildings with ochre-coloured facades. The pale afternoon sunshine barely reached the rough granite flagstones which covered most of the garden. Inviting park benches with green wooden seats and small black metal tables waited patiently for guests along each side of the garden.  Two large round tables with metal chairs were standing at the far end of the garden, partly hidden by a wall of flowering bushes for those who felt the need for some privacy.

There were a handful of people in the garden. Considering where to sit, I sauntered slowly and deliberately along the sunny side of the garden. In passing I overheard two young females involved in an earnest conversation about their school, and two men boasting about how much they drank last weekend. Speeding up to get out of range, I decided to make for the far end of the garden. Too late I saw that the larger tables there were already occupied by two couples. Instead I made for the park bench opposite, just out of hearing range. Interesting was that they didn´t fit in with my picture of yesterday`s, or today´s, regulars at Café Commandante.

The bench was more comfortable than it looked. The low wall behind it was decorated with painted flowers and provided me with some shelter. I settled down with my coffee and pastry, keeping one eye on a pair of sparrows that were hunting for crumbs.

The couple sitting at the nearest table were hard to place, somewhere in their mid-late 30`s. The woman was slim with tightish black jeans and a loud autumn wind jacket. Her short dark wavy hair was crying out for a visit to the hairdresser, and there was no visible makeup on her pasty face. Her partner was a couple of year’s older, his stout body stretching a forest-green jacket to it’s limit. His unwashed yellowish hair was long, too long, and fell in front of his eyes as he bent to study his phone, which he gripped with his puffy hands as if it was a prayer book. They were obviously some kind of tourists, passing the time and trying to agree on what to do next, but didn’t sit close together. He clutched the phone tightly, resting it on the table close to his belly. She leaned forward to get a look, but he instantly pulled the phone out of her reach. She sighed. They weren’t a happy couple.

The couple sitting at the other table were very different, attracting my attention. They seemed to be on better speaking terms but, regrettably, I couldn’t hear their conversation. I could see the woman clearly, as she sat facing me. The man however was leaning forward, as though trying to get closer to her, so I could only see him from the side.

The woman, in her late forties or early fifties, was wearing an expensive looking camel-hair coat which she kept tightly wrapped around her, its matching belt tied in a rough knot. It said, `I am not planning on staying´. The bulky coat obscured her figure. She had straight medium blond hair resting on her shoulders, very red lipstick and thick black mascara which diverted attention from the wrinkles which spread like a delta from her eyes A purple silk scarf protected her throat. Shapely legs encased in sheer greyish tights peeped out from under the table. Her black patent leather shoes would be described as “sensible”.

The man seemed to have devoted little effort to his appearance. His navy blue blazer was creased and sported a sprinkling of dandruff on the collar, matching his short curly locks which were greying at the temples. Dark trousers which didn’t match the blazer, a pale blue shirt open at the neck and anonymous black slip-ons completed the picture. He was slim, as though he jogged regularly. A laptop case stood under the table by his feet. No distinguishing features, as the police would say.

Here a different kind of drama was being acted out, in a low key, subdued fashion as though this was not the first time they had had this conversation. I tried not to stare, sipped my coffee and kept the hungry sparrows at bay with occasional discrete kicks. Over the rim of my coffee cup I could clearly see that the woman did most of the talking, without actually looking at him. It was as if she was speaking into thin air, but at the same time very aware that she had to keep up appearances. Probably this was a role she was familiar with, being observed – and judged – while speaking in public.

The man leaned forward, speaking intensely. She occasionally responded with a brief smile, which did not spread to her eyes. He leaned forward, closer and closer as the conversation progressed, perchance in vain search of a signal or a decision, perhaps a sign of affection, of hope. There was no warmth in their behaviour to each other. They never touched, as if there was an invisible barrier that kept them apart.

Coffee and pastry finished, I pretended to study my phone, hoping for some more action. Suddenly she stood up, reached under the table for a large leather bag, turned to the man and gave him a formal smile that she clearly didn’t mean. He stood up slowly, hesitated, picked up the computer case and gave a short elegant wave with his hand, meaning “After you!” When they were standing next to each other, I could see that she was quite a bit taller than him.

Without waiting, she strode on ahead along the narrow pathway, leaving him behind. They had to pass in front of me, so close I could hear the chafing of her tights. Instinctively I pulled my feet in under the table. He followed her at a distance, half-running to keep up.

As I got ready to leave, I noticed something purple lying on the stone floor below the table where the couple had been sitting. Bending down I saw it was the woman’s silk scarf. I grabbed it and ran after them into the café, but they had already left.

“Which way did the woman in the camel hair coat go?” I asked the youths behind the counter. They looked at each other, confused, and shrugged their shoulders in unison.

“She dropped this!” I persisted, waving the scarf.

“Try the courthouse”, suggested one of the youths with a grin.

I squeezed past the queue, ran to the door and then to my right, in the direction of the red-brick courthouse, narrowly avoiding being run down by a speeding cyclist. In the distance I spotted the camel-hair coat about to disappear around the corner of the building. Running as fast as my legs would allow over the damp lawns, I shouted “EXCUSE ME, EXCUSE ME!” as I got closer to the woman. I turned the corner, and she was standing there, bending over, fumbling with the lock on a sturdy metal door. “Excuse me” I repeated, holding out the scarf, “you left this at the café”. She half-turned and was about to say something, took a step forward, grabbed the scarf out of my hand and turned her head away. I did get a quick glance at her face. Tears were pouring down her cheeks, leaving pale grey tramlines from her mascara which she had not bothered to wipe off. She went back quickly to the door, punched in the code and disappeared inside the building, seeming terrified.

I made my way back to the café to collect my bag, which I had left behind in the confusion.

“Did you catch her?” asked one of the youths behind the counter.

“Yes, thanks.”

 I found the bag and made my way home slowly, almost regretting running after her.

The woman in the camel hair coat

Safe inside the courthouse I leant against the corridor wall, heart beating fast and hands still trembling. No wonder at first I couldn´t open the door: the footsteps getting closer, the heavy breathing and then the shouting. At first I thought it was F, coming after me, but realised it wasn´t his voice. It was that bearded man from the café, with my scarf! Gave me quite a scare. When you are being chased, part of you switches off. I couldn’t make a sound, just grabbed the scarf and ran back to the door.

I stayed there standing in the dark, waiting for my heart beat to slow down. I used the scarf to wipe away my tears. It had been a present from F, on that weekend in Paris which seemed so long ago now.

I couldn’t stay in the corridor for long, in case someone came along and saw the state I was in. There was a toilet not very far away where I would feel safer. I felt my way along the dark corridor and up a short flight of steps, as quietly as possible. The toilet was free. I sighed, locking the door behind me, hung up my coat, pulled down the seat and sat there in the dark. Safe There was no reason to hold back the tears. I let the sadness just flow, quietly, until I had no more tears left. By then the floor was littered with toilet paper.  I didn’t keep track of the time, it didn´t seem to matter any more. Anyway there was no one I could call to come and rescue me.

Sitting there in only a thin blouse, I started shivering. I realised I must pull myself together and make it up to my office. I had to look in the mirror first. I got up in the dark and groped my way to the washbasin and turned on the tap, hoping that splashing cold water on my face would make me feel better. Dryied my face on a bunch of paper towels, then hit the light switch. I was almost sick when I saw myself in the harsh green light: swollen red eyes, running nose, grey cheeks, hair all over the place, streaks of lipstick on my blouse.

Sat down again, hid my face in my hands, told myself I´d stay here until I was sure the building would be empty. Uppermost in my mind was not letting anyone see me in this state.

It was half past four, Friday afternoon, so the building was probably empty by five. Half an hour! I tried deep breathing, stretching, rolling my head from side to side to pass the time.  Still I couldn’t get F out of my head. There was a constant dialog going on with him in my head . How could he! Just dump me and run off home for a cosy family weekend with wife and kids. Stringing me along for almost two years, too scared to leave that bitch of a wife. Coming back time and time again, and then chickening out. I have nothing left to say to him, except NO MORE! What a waste of time, I thought, when I have so little left.

Footsteps approached in the corridor outside. I automatically held my breath.  The steps stopped outside and someone tried the door, twice, then silence. I expected to hear a voice: “Anyone in there? Everything all right?” but all went quiet again and I heard the steps receding. Thank goodness I had remembered to lock the door!

Now was the time to get a grip and make a move, pull myself together I told myself, and forced myself to look in the mirror again. A few strokes with my hairbrush did wonders. I put on my official-look, grabbed my bag, hung my coat over my shoulders, switched off the light and opened the door. It was so dark in the corridor I looked up at the ceiling, expecting to see whether the stars were out. I pressed the nearest light switch gently and the corridor flooded with light like a flash of lightning. Taking a step back I almost fell over, regained my footing and made for the stairs. I couldn’t risk the lift. 

My office was three flights up. I ran up, fumbling in my bag for the key. There was the door, safe at last.  My hands were still trembling but I managed to turn the key, slip inside and quietly lock the door. No one had seen me. I leant back against the door, coat slipping from my shoulders onto the floor. I left it there, bag too, concentrated on getting my breathing back to normal.

It was very quiet, except for the dull hum of the ventilation. My thoughts turned again to F. I had nothing left to say to him, except NO MORE!! This time I had to clear him out of my life, my head, everything. Letters, messages, holiday postcards, photos, anything that reminded me of him. It all had to go. And I had to do it now, before I started longing for him again.

Where to start? Here of course, the office. I started with the desk. A pale light filtered through the half-closed blinds.  I dragged my bag to the desk and turned on the small reading lamp and then the computer. The silk scarf lay on top of my bag, damp from all the tears. I dropped it into the waste paper bin, together with memories of the weekend in Paris.

I had been together with F for nearly two years! Two years of e-mails and messages. I mustn’t start reading any, just delete them all. Fortunately they were in a private file, which I dumped with a couple of swipes of my finger. I emptied the computer’s waste bin too, to stop myself retrieving them. It took several minutes before the file was gone. It felt like a liberation, deleting all the painful memories and talk of a future together.

Next I emptied my phone. At once there was lots of free space, as all to do with F disappeared into cyberspace. It just showed what a large part of my life had been devoted to him. It wasn’t easy to give up and accept that it was over. The tears were still coming. But I knew I couldn’t stop now.

Opening the bottom drawer in my desk was painful. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I looked through the pile of letters. In the end I did read one or two that meant something special to me, then forced myself to stop. Every single memory of him had to go. I ripped up all the letters, photos, postcards, theatre tickets, hotel brochures, air tickets and the rest and tipped them all into my waste paper bin. All gone, just an overflowing waste bin to show for two years of love, hope – and disappointment.

It was getting dark outside. Time to get back home to my small apartment. One last glance in the empty drawer, everything switched off. I reached for my warm camel-hair coat and was about to unlock the office door when I remembered the overflowing waste bin. It would be tempting fate to leave it there, a give away to the office gossips. I dragged the bin along the corridor to the copying room, which also had a large shredder-essential for a lawyer. Switching the machine on I started feeding it with the contents of the waste bin. The sound when the paper disappeared into the shredder had a satisfying  feel about it. Without thinking I fed the silk scarf into the shredder too, by mistake. The machine whined and stopped, red light flashing. I shook the shredded paper down into the overflowing bin and tried again. This time the machine didn’t protest and the silk scarf from Paris was no more.

Pulling the belt on my coat tight, I felt free at last as I made my way to the lift down to the front door of the courthouse, as if it was the end of an ordinary working week. The night watchman sat at his desk by the entrance. He pressed a button to open the door for me.

“Working late?”

“Busy time of the year.”

“Shall I call a cab?”

“Yes please, would you?”

“No problem. Have a good weekend.”

”Thanks Joe.”

I waited outside under the street lights. The air was cool and damp, but inside the cab it was warm and I snuggled down in the back seat. The cab drove past Café Commandante, and then it came back to me; that’s where I had seen the man who ran after me with the scarf. He had been sitting in the café garden earlier today. He must have thought me terribly rude, not thanking him for the scarf. Too late now I thought as I dozed in the warm taxi.!

When safely home I fed the cat and curled up in bed, feeling more lonesome than usual. The cat, ever sensitive to my mood, jumped up onto the bed, purring, and settled down by my feet. I didn’t have the heart to push her off.

The weeks went by. Memories receded and the pain of rejection dulled. After “NO MORE” I resorted to overworking as a cure for loneliness. There was no shortage of demanding and absorbing legal cases and processes, and they served their purpose. Exhaustion proved a good household remedy.

At work one day about three weeks later, it was way past lunchtime and I needed something quick and filling. I pulled on my camel hair coat against the autumn wind and slipped out of the side door of the courthouse, hurried through the droves of yellow leaves that coated the lawns and found myself outside Café Commandante. Hunger won over the slight hesitation I felt as I stepped inside what had been “our” place. I ordered a salmon sandwich and cappuccino. The place was busy, so I took my tray out into the garden. Bit chilly but then I did have my warm coat on. Out of habit I made my way to the old table, but sadly it was occupied. Not just taken. Sitting there, to my surprise, was the “scarf man”, as I had come to call him. I was about to turn on my heel when I remembered that I owed him a thank you – and an apology. Taking a deep breath I stepped up to his table and asked:

“Is this seat free?”

“I´m keeping it for a woman in a camel hair coat” he said, with a wry smile.

I lowered my tray slowly onto the table, and sat down.

Ryan’s Coffee Shop

RYAN’s – “The Best Coffee Shop in Town”

Rose O’Neill stepped off the number nine bus at the stop near the station to buy a bunch of roses. She was on her way to the cemetery to visit her mother’s grave. The combined florist and funeral parlour was in a small row of shops between the railway station and the cemetery. The others were an Indian all-night chemist and grocers, a café, laundry and dry cleaners, hairdresser and a charity shop.

Rose stopped when she saw the sign “Help Wanted” in the café window. Commuters making for the railway station squeezed past her on the pavement, holding green cardboard mugs with plastic lids. Above the door she read “RYAN’S Eco Coffee” highlighted in gold letters. Of course, this was Ryan’s place. Rose knew Ryan’s mum from their schooldays, and thought this could be something for her daughter Betty. She slipped inside, looked around waving to Ryan busy behind the coffee machine, smiled and left. She slid the sign from the window discretely into her shopping bag on the way out.

“You can get this” Rose said, waving the sign as she stormed after work. Betty was in the kitchen, leaning against the counter eating passion fruit yoghurt from the tub.

“It’s Ryan’s place, cousin Pat’s lad you know. I went to school with his mother. We´re almost family.”

Betty sighed.

“I’m not having you hanging around here all day. First thing tomorrow take a shower, get dressed and off you go before someone else takes the job.”

“Are you really serious? The coffee shop by the station! What if my friends come in there, see me working.“

“New experience for your friends to see someone working. No more sitting here all day long. Anyway, I told Ryan you would be coming.”

Betty scraped her chair back and walked out of the kitchen as slowly as possible.

“And don’t wear those jeans with holes in the knees. Put on your black skirt and a tight sweater. Show your figure. Brush your hair and don’t forget some makeup.”

Betty did as she was told, reluctantly, else there would be no end to it. She tried to sneak out of the back door but Mum caught her for a quick once over.

“You’ll do. Here’s money for the fare. Try to be a bit positive for a change!”

Running for the bus Betty buttoned up the cardigan she had smuggled with her and tied up her long black hair. She had skipped the makeup too. No way she was going to put herself out for a job in a café.

Her bus stopped outside the café. Betty looked around to see if there was anyone she recognised and sneaked inside. Ryan was leaning on the counter.

 “Hiya! I’m Betty O’Neill. I‘ve come about the job,” she said in her friendliest voice, “Is it still going?”

“Come inside, I’m Ryan!” he announced proudly, holding out his hand. Betty gave it a quick touch as he pointed her to a corner table near the window. Betty looked around at the empty café, piles of dirty dishes on the tables and tired pot plants in the dusty windows. Ryan asked politely about her family and then explained how he ran the café, with a green eco profile. Betty tried to appear interested, looking Ryan straight in the face. As he talked, Ryan´s eyes gradually drifted down from her face to her breasts. Instinctively Betty pushed her shoulders forward, breathed shallowly, and tugged down the hem of her skirt.

 “Who does the dishes?” she asked, looking around to divert his attention.

“You do!”

“I’ve never…

“You’ll learn, or leave. You want the job or not?”

“When do I start?”      

“Now”

“Where?”

Ryan pointed to a door in the corner behind the counter. “Out back, Paddy’ll show you the ropes.”

Betty’s first ever job interview was over in less than five minutes. She managed a brief, shy smile but Ryan had already turned away and was on his way to open the door, flipping the “Sorry we’re closed” sign to “Open at last!”

The first customers of the day were charging in as Betty pushed on the heavy swing door. It had double hinges and an opaque square of reeded glass. She had to push hard with her shoulder before the door swung open. A gruff male voice greeted the squeaky hinges:

“You the new girl? Apron’s hangin’ by the door. Out you go and load up yon trolley. Take a cloth, wipe the tables.”

Betty hesitated, stunned, receiving orders at a time when she was usually still in bed.

“Get a move on. Yalla Yalla! We’re open.”

She took down the long coffee-brown apron with RYAN’S emblazed in emerald green across the chest, as if to denote ownership. Betty turned the apron back-to-front in protest and tied it quickly before pushing the trolley through the door into the café.

The early customers were people with a job to go to, often regulars who grabbed a latte and sandwich on the go, running for their morning train or bus. “Hot, wet and quick with a whiff of coffee” was Ryan’s motto, and what the commuters in a hurry wanted. That was what brought the money in. Betty eventually got to like the morning commuters, mainly  because they left no dishes behind.

Ryan was the boss, standing strategically behind the counter, next to the till and coffee machine. He took orders and passed them on to Frances, a slim bottle-blonde type a couple of years older than Betty.  She fitted in with the healthy green life style image that Ryan was trying to cultivate. Frances kept the counter display stocked with the help of Paddy in the kitchen.

Ryan’s  pseudo americanese banter with customers was part of the image, together with the loud country music which drowned most attempts at conversation. One of his tricks was to learn the first names of regulars, particularly office girls in a hurry. Ryan didn’t normally deal with orders himself except during the morning rush, when he manned the bloated green and chrome coffee machine. He made a point of handing over latte-to-go to younger female customers with a steady gaze and a trite “Be careful out there, Janet” or “Have a good day, Suzie”. Some giggled and ran on their way, others just groaned and grabbed their coffee.

Betty thought Ryan was a creep, but he was the boss so she just got on with loading dirty dishes on her trolley, giving the brown-stained tables a quick swipe with a damp cloth and then pushing it off into the kitchen. Paddy showed her how to load the dishwasher and switch it on.

Betty spent her time in the kitchen listening to Paddy when she was not collecting and sorting dishes. To Betty he was old, probably well over sixty, but a long life on board cargo ships had taken its toll. Paddy was tall but crooked from  bending over a stove all day, swarthy with a grey beard and yellowed nicotine fingers. A black chef’s hat was perched on his carpet of wiry grey hair. On his own, working, he hummed old sea shanties. He was a bit gruff but Betty found him quite friendly, and he enjoyed a bit of company too – someone to listen to his old tales from the seven seas.

Paddy smoked sweet-smelling “eco fags” outside the back door, pretending to wait for deliveries. Never showed himself in the actual café. Probably under orders. He looked quite unsavoury – florid face, unshaven, bloodshot eyes, hands not very steady until after lunch. Not a good advert for healthy living, or hygien, thought Betty. But he was kind and knew the ropes, and Betty felt safe with him. “Boss won’t try anything on while I’m here, luv, but don’t be alone out back with ‘im.”

The first week Betty suffered from swollen feet, not used to standing all day. There was nowhere to sit down except the squalid staff toilet – not a place to linger. Paddy eventually got tired of her sitting on the end of his work bench, and conjured up an old chair from a container so she could put her feet up.

Mostly Paddy kept himself to himself, boss of the kitchen regions. He was in charge of fixing the fast food orders and other dishes which he left in the serving hatch for Frances to collect. She was responsible for the chilled counter: sandwiches, sallads, pies, cakes, buns, Danish and ready-made lunch boxes to pop into the microwave at the office. Frances always kept her distance. It was beneath her to talk to a skivvy like Betty.

Ryan was not interested in customers like the old dodgers who could sit all day over a cuppa, mostly nameless regulars. They trundled in mid-morning and sat with tea and a biscuit for an hour or two, had perfected the art of stretching a glass of water all the way to lunch. Some read the local free rag, others just sat by themselves, or chatted quietly to pass the time away. Normally the café was quiet as the grave after the morning rush.  They oldies usually left before the noisy lunch customers crowded in through the door for a quick lunch with workmates.

Afternoons the café was the refuge of housewives, who came in two’s and three’s to gossip over a latte or expresso and share a forbidden piece of chocolate cake with “ecocream” with someone who wouldn’t tell. Ryan was very friendly with the girls, as he called them, flirting openly with mothers waiting to pick up their offspring from the nearby school. They all collectively rushed off at 15.45, not wanting to be late for the school pickup.

At first Betty thought it was fun with all the customers who passed through the café, but quickly tired of the sameness and drudgery of the place. Then one day  Frances was off ill and Ryan asked her to stand in behind the counter, fetching foodstuffs from Paddy and serving dishes to sit-down customers. At first Betty was nervous and struggled to cope, sometimes even got orders mixed up when she had several to serve at the same time. A smile and apology, “Sorry, I’m new here”, usually helped.

“Sharpen up, Betty”, said Ryan, “never be able to trust you with the coffee machine, ha ha!”

Betty was trying hard to live up to her new responsibility, and felt rather angry when Ryan made fun of her in front of the customers. She didn’t let it get her down, and proved him wrong too, serving an expresso one afternoon ­­­while he was out back having a fag with Paddy. She had studied both Frances and Ryan closely when they pulled  an expresso shot., but didn’t let on. It gave her a feeling of “I’ll show him”.

The kitchen was her oasis, where she could sit down and rest her feet during the slack periods. Ryan and Paddy used to smoke outside the back door, where all the deliveries arrived.  Friday afternoon, Ryan came in as usual. Betty stood up, but he waved her back into the chair. Paddy was already outside having a smoke.

“How are you doing, Betty? Getting used to the routines now?”

“Okay I guess, feet a bit swollen. Not used to all the standing.”

“You’re doin’ well, but there’s not enough work for a full time only doing dishes.”

Betty feared the worse, expecting a cut in hours or the sack. Her mouth went all dry.

“Frances’s still off sick, not coming back for a while. Need someone to cover for her regular like,” said Ryan. “You’ve been doing fine behind the counter. What d’you say?”

At first Betty couldn’t speak, just nodded and then licked her lips until a squeaky “Yes, okay” came out instead of her normally quite strong voice.

“Great, knew I could rely on you Betty,” said Ryan.

“Mind you, being out front every day you’ll have get rid of the Goth outfit and take after Frances. Fit in with our image y’know, wholesome healthy natural look.”

“Closing down now, off you go. See you again on Monday. Say hello to your Mum.”

Betty hung up her apron, collected her bag and coat and hurried out the back door, almost bumping into Paddy.

“On your way up already, Betty! You watch out when you’re alone behind yon counter with Ryan. Wandering hands. That’s why Frances finished.”

“Get on with you, trying to frighten me off then!”

“Just a gentle word of warning, lass. See you Monday.”

“Seeyah” cried Betty and hurried away to catch her bus.

Betty saw being out front regularly as promotion, a step up, so she complied with Ryan’s demands on appearance. Monday morning she was up early washing her hair, putting it up in a tight pony tail, scrubbing her nails, rubbing her cheeks until they glowed red, left her black eye shadow and lipstick at home, her earrings in the bedside drawer. The night before she cleaned her white sneakers and pressed her best black jeans, put out a fresh white t-shirt. Before leaving home she brushed her teeth with Extra White toothpaste and practised a friendly smile in the hall mirror.

Behind the counter, Betty’s job was to see that customers got their orders. Correct and quickly, as Ryan stressed. Pies and lasagne were shoved in a microwave for a minute or two, slipped onto a plate already decorated with a handful of eco-salad and then delivered to the customer with cutlery rolled in a napkin.  Ready cut slices of cake were adorned with a squiggle of “ecological cream” from the cooler.

Ryan was in charge of the important jobs: the till and the coffee machine. Nobody was allowed to touch the till – he was the only one who knew the code. Natural, thought Betty, he was the boss. Ryan also managed the centre piece of the coffee shop – an oversized green and chrome coffee machine which huffed and puffed, letting off steam and spreading coffee aroma throughout the café. Ryan enjoyed showing off to the customers, banging out the old coffee, running the grinder, turning knobs, moving levers, letting out steam to whisk the milk. All at high speed and seldom spilling anything. Reluctantly Betty was a little impressed, watching Ryan at work.

Working behind the counter  every day, Betty noticed that Ryan discretely slipped “extras” from his pocket to certain customers, together with their mugs of coffee. Extra customers paid in cash, which didn’t make it into the till. This troubled her but she had no one to talk to about it. Not even Paddy, as she thought he may have been in on the game. And Mum would explode if she mentioned Ryan’s little sideline, the one which probably kept the café afloat.

Betty felt more respected by Ryan now and he was more relaxed, cutting out the american jargon. She kept busy even when custom was slow, keeping the counter display tidy and wiping off work surfaces. She took her job seriously. Better than collecting dishes, she thought. Betty had expected Ryan to take in a new girl for the dishes, but no way. Business was not going well. Now that Frances had left Betty had to double up: chief bottle washer and serving behind the counter, for the same wages.

Out of the blue one quiet Monday afternoon  Ryan asked:

“Want to learn the coffee machine, girl?”

“Yes, of course,” said Betty, trying to conceal her dislike of his way of addressing her. He didn’t know that she had been studying him closely and could already work the machine.

“Great! Tomorrow after closing”

“OK.”

Late Tuesday afternoon Ryan came up to Betty, smiling:

“Now Betty, I’m going to reveal the secrets of the coffee machine for you. May feel a bit complicated at first, but if you do as I say then you’ll be all right. Just watch closely!”

Ryan enjoyed the role of teacher, demonstrating all the functions of the machine accompanied by a stream of coffee machine jargon. He repeatedly asked Betty is she could follow what he was doing. Betty nodded seriously, asking him to repeat some of the instructions, which he did in a patient voice.

“Now Betty, it’s your turn. Think you could do all this? We can take it slowly at first. You’ll get up speed eventually, and then you can serve  in the morning rush.”

“I’d like to try” said Betty, quietly.

“Stand here then in front of me, and I’ll guide your hands” said Ryan.

Betty stood facing the machine, with Ryan close behind, almost touching.

“Let’s start with a simple expresso” said Ryan

Betty followed his instructions, trying to slow down and appear a little nervous. Ryan held his arms close and pressed her up against the coffee machine. Betty pretended it wasn’t happening, tried to concentrate on getting the right measure of coffee and water for a single expresso shot. She flinched and turned suddenly as she felt him press his body against her from behind, accidentally spilling the cup of hot expresso. Ryan shouted out loud “What the hell…!” as the hot coffee ran down his trousers, but regained his composure as Betty blushed, and apologised. He turned away,  looking guilty. “Happens to all of us at first, bit nervous eh’ Betty first time. No problem. Soon get the hang of it”.

After this “accident” Ryan gave up trying to instruct Betty, and kept his wandering hands to himself.

One slow afternoon later that week, Ryan was out back having a smoke with Paddy, leaving Betty to watch the shop. A tall, weasel-faced man with too long hair for his age sauntered in and approached the counter with a slow, deliberate stride.

“Hello! What can I get you?” asked Betty with a friendly smile.

“Ryan in?” he squeezed between thin lips, hardly looking at her.

“Just a minute, I´ll fetch him”, she said, sensing that he was not your usual customer.

Betty pushed open the door to the kitchen and announced; “Got a visitor Ryan, asking for ye.”

Ryan and Paddy were standing close together by the back door, not smoking, involved in some kind of argument, which stopped abruptly when they heard Betty’s voice. She repeated:

“Visitor, asking for you Ryan.”

He looked troubled as he pushed the kitchen door open a little too violently. Betty was about to follow when Paddy grunted: “Don’t! Best if you stay here ‘till they’re done.”

No more was said. Paddy returned to this work bench.  Betty thought it best to keep busy so she checked out the dishwasher, A heavy silence descended over the kitchen. They could hear a murmur of voices from the café but the heavy swing door was too well insulated to hear what was said.

Suddenly the door swung open violently and Ryan marched in, a scared look in his eyes.

“No dawdling here now, afternoon crowds on their way in. Get to it!”

Betty looked at Paddy. He nodded towards the café. She hurried out, leaving Ryan and Paddy in the kitchen.

Ryan was irritable the rest of the day, shouting orders at Betty and short with the afternoon school mums. Betty was happy when they closed for the day.

At home it showed that Betty was worried about something to do with the café.

“What’s up luv?” asked Mum when Betty came in.

“Nothing, just tired Mum. What’s for dinner?”

Betty noticed Mum kept turning from the stove to look at her, as though she was going to ask more but thought the better of it.

They ate dinner in silence. Then Mum couldn’t contain herself any more.

“That Ryan been at you, has he, trying something on? Just wait till I get hold of him!”

“No Mum, nothing like that. It’s just….I don’t know whether there’s any future for me at the café.”

“Well, better find something else before you give in your cards, luv.”

“Don’t worry Mum, I’m doing fine.” said Betty, trying to calm things down. “I´m going up for a shower.”

In bed that night, Betty chewed over what had happened at the café. Mum was right of course, Ryan had tried it on. But Betty was not surprised, forewarned by Paddy about Ryan’s “wandering hands” and Frances’ sudden departure. She was more worried about that afternoon’s visitor.

The next morning Betty arrived at the usual time, feeling nervous and apprehensive, to be faced with a sign on the door “Closed until further notice”. In a way Betty felt relieved when she made her way back to the bus stop.

The Neighbours Are Upset

It was my first day back in the village after more than a year away at uni. I was 18 years old.  Mum thought I should make myself useful by returning the old lawnmower to my Nan. It was her way of getting me from under her feet. Nan lived on a small council estate just off the main village street, with her grown daughter and son, my Aunt Nellie and Uncle Ike.

The mower was rusty, not having been near an oil can for the best part of a decade. It was too heavy to carry, so I decided to push the reluctant creature the back way through the estate. I thought it would also attract less attention than using the main street. Which turned out to be a big mistake.

Nan’s estate was part of a larger swath of houses built cheaply by the local council after the war, to provide homes for victims of the war from down in the town. Uniform semis built in greyish brick and roofing tiles had brick chimneys and tiled fireplaces for burning the local coal. Small windows slotted into metal window frames let in what little daylight managed to penetrate the polluted skies. Each house had a small garden to hang washing. The houses were arranged in winding streets named after trees, Alder Avenue or Sycamore Crescent, in an attempt to raise their status a notch. A few one-storey bungalows for pensioners rounded off the estate. Inside the houses were regarded as modern with a bathroom, indoor lavatory, back boiler and gas stove. The kitchen walls were plastered, just brick, coated with a thick layer of green oil paint.

Nan’s house was on the edge of the estate, bounded on one by the main village street and on the other by a deep cutting which housed the railway line to Liverpool. Having used up all the local trees, the council plumped for place names. Nan lived in Gloucester Road, off Lancaster Road. It was a quiet street where the houses hid behind both fences and thick privet hedges, to mark their respective territory. The people on the estate were low-income workers who cycled to the chemical plants of the nearby town, leaving their wives at home with the kids, shopping and housework. Several of my schoolmates grew up there.

I set off, pretending it was the most natural thing in the world to push a clattering lawnmower along the uneven slabs of the stone pavement. As I turned into Nan’s street, several heads appeared at upstairs windows, attracted by the din. I quickened my step to get it over with, but the old mower protested loudly. Suddenly a new noise joined in, dogs barking from behind me and getting closer. Turning, I saw two dogs rushing towards me from one of the gardens opposite Nan. I tried desperately to get the mower between me and the attackers, but it was not easy to manoeuvre. Too late, the dogs struck. They both jumped up, growling ferociously. A scruffy black and white sheepdog went for my trouser leg. The material ripped and the dog’s teeth raked the back of my leg. The other one, a mongrel, several shades of brown, sank his front teeth into my right thigh. I shouted as I tried to swing the lawnmower at the dogs like a giant rusty club. It was heavy, but I managed to give the sheepdog a bit of a swipe across the head. But it still didn’t let go of my trouser leg.

Suddenly I hear: “Get back in ‘ere!” from one of the houses. The dogs bolted home like frightened rabbits into their holes, and with some relief I heard a door slam. I stood there all alone. The whole street was silent, no one to be seen. I lifted the mower from where it lay upside down and dragged it the last few yards, leaving it in Nan’s back garden. I didn’t knock, not wanting to worry her or get her worked up about the neighbours. She was a fighter, not to be messed about and noted for her sharp tongue.

I sneaked out of the garden and closed the squeaky gate quietly behind me. My heart was still thumping against my ribs like a base drum. I looked down at my trousers and legs to survey the damage. Fresh blood was trickling down my legs from the bite marks, and both trousers legs were torn. I rubbed my legs with what remained of my trouser legs and limped off towards the village street. What now I thought? Mad dogs? Rabies? Tetanus jab? Doctor?

Instead of returning home, I got the idea of going to see the village doctor. He lived in a large detached house surrounded by an acre of garden and protected from the village street by a high brick wall. There was no gate, which felt welcoming,  so I marched boldly up the gravel driveway. Another mistake.

The only way to reach the front door was via a gate in a low brown wooden fence. A fat basset hound was lying down hiding behind the fence, awaiting his chance to ambush callers, tradesmen and unwanted patients. The hound knew that I would have to open the gate and get past him to reach the doorbell. Already bitten twice, in my desperation to avoid rabies I thought I was in some way immune or protected, that he would feel sorry for me.  He got up and looked at me with a rather superior expression. He was after all the doctor’s dog. I took a deep breath, opened the gate and instantly he was on me, barking and baring his saliva-dripping teeth. I felt them puncturing what was left of my trousers and just as I was going to do a runner, the solid oak front door opened wide and a cultivated female voice enquired,

“Can I help you?” A well-preserved middle-aged woman of class was standing there. It was the doctor’s wife. “Quiet Morris”, she said firmly, and the dog shot inside.

“Sorry to disturb you, but I need a tetanus jab, just been bitten by a couple of dogs on the estate. Is the doctor possibly at home?“

“I’m afraid he’s is not at the moment”, she replied in a voice modulated by many years of elocution lessons.

“Your dog bit me too” I said, “look here,” pointing to my bloody trousers.

“Yes, Morris does that. Try the clinic in the town. I’m sure they will be able to help you.” she said in a rather condescending manner, and firmly closed the front door. It had an expensive sounding thud which echoed around the garden. I hurried away, leaving the gate open on purpose and hoping that Morris would escape and get run over.

In the village street I joined the throng of housewives and pensioners at the bus stop.  A red double decker bus was due to take them the town centre and the local market. Standing at the bus stop I discretely surveyed my torn and blood-stained trousers. Several of the other passengers stared, or so I imagined, but no one said anything. Hopefully that meant they didn’t recognise me. They probably knew Mum from the local church and women’s club. Let them gossip, I thought. I don’t live here anymore.

The town boasted an accident hospital for minor injuries, which I hoped would be more welcoming than the doctor’s wife. I climbed on board as best I could, given my injuries.

“Been in the wars lad?” asked the observant bus conductor, surveying my blood trousers.

“Dogs on the estate!”

”Shoot ‘em all if I had my way! Need to get those seen to”, he said.

“On my way to accident hospital, down by the river.”

” Take you all the way son, only a shilling.”

I paid and, hoped it would shut him up, climbed upstairs to keep out of the way of the village gossips. A used white cotton handkerchief screwed up in my pocket was all I had to wipe the blood from my legs. It had dwindled to a trickle but I still got my hands covered in blood as I tried to scrub the worst mess off. The smell of blood on my hands mixed with diesel fumes from the bus was sickening. The bus took ages, stopping frequently for loud housewives to clamber on board. After the market place I had the bus to myself.

The accident hospital was a large red-brick building down by the river. I forced open the heavy wooden doors and stumbled into what turned out to be the reception. A jolly-looking nurse who presented herself as Edna stepped forward and, seeing my bloody handkerchief, exclaimed in a loud voice:

“What have we here then? Been in the wars I see.”

“Dogs,” I groaned

“How many?”

“Three in all!”

“My my! Record this week” said Edna laughing. “Follow me and we’ll have a look at your wounds.”

She led me to a small treatment room as though I was her “patient of the day”, gathering gossip to amuse colleagues during their tea break.

“Drop your trousers then, what’s left of them, and we’ll have a look at you. “

I hesitated a second or two.

“Don’t be shy now, I’ve seen legs before!”

I did as I was told and lay down on a low bench against the wall.

“Hairy! exclaimed Edna as she examined the bites.

“Yeh, it was quite scary.”

“Your legs I mean, hairy.”

Nurse Edna proceeded to swab off the dried blood and apply disinfectant on the bites and scratches. It stung sharply but I kept quiet until she had finished. Now I sported three oversize dressings held in place with gauze bandages.

“There you are, all done. Be right as rain in a few days.”

“What about a jab?” I asked.

Not deep enough lad, an’ we haven’t had rabies here since the Middle Ages. Up you jump and cover up those hairy pegs again. You can rinse off your hands in the toilet outside.”

“I’m going to report the dogs to the police.”

“Are you then! You’ll need one of these.” said Edna reaching into the desk drawer and pulling out an official-looking form. “Fill this in, name and address, and I’ll do the rest. Show it at the station.”

A big red bus was waiting for me at the stop outside the hospital. The driver had taken a stroll along the promenade for a cig. I climbed up, holding Edna’s form. It had her signature and a purple rubber stamp which said Accident Hospital. I was glad to sit alone on the bus, sights set on the police station a few stops nearer town hall square.

I had never been to a police station before. It was in a scruffy brick building next to the local billiard hall, The Black Cat, where the villains were said to hang out. The standard blue lantern with POLICE on the glass sides told me I had found the right place. Inside the heavy door, a tired looking elderly policeman with several stripes on his uniform got up slowly from his old office chair and approached the reception counter. He had grey hair and a belly which wobbled when he moved. Clearing his throat loudly, he slid the metal shutter to one side and in a rather weary voice asked:

“What can we do you for?”

“I’ve been attacked by three dogs. I want to report it,” I said, in a wavering voice. I handed over Edna’s form.

He glanced at the paper, placed it slowly on the counter and turned away to look for his glasses. He found them, with the help of a younger colleague, and then studied the form for what to me seemed a very long time.

“Sure you want to report this, lad?”

“Yes, ‘m sure” I managed to whisper.

“Where did this incident take place?” he asked in a formal sounding voice.

“The Village, on the estate.”

“Might have guessed.  Nobody down here in’e town ‘d report a dog bite! Kick the buggers, and owners too if they have any.”

“All right. Your privilege.”

He turned to face the office and growled loudly: ”Where’s that new one, got a job for ‘im.”

A young, fresh looking junior policeman appeared, hardly older than me.

“Take this young man up to yon village and get ‘im to identify them dogs as bit him. Chop chop now.”

The young policeman smiled and showed me through a door which led to the police car park. He unlocked a small police car with turquoise and white stripes, a Panda car, used for patrolling. It didn’t feel like a real police car for chasing robbers, but probably put the wind up the locals on the estate.

“Jump in, lad. Up in the village then?”

“Yes, Gloucester Road.”

“Live there do you?”

“No, my Nan does. I’m at uni.”

“What happened?”

I explained as briefly as possible, not mentioning the visit to the doctor’s house´.

“I’m Malcolm. New on the force. Get sent on these cases. Community policing it’s called.”

“What happens now?”

“I’ll go in first and talk to the owners. Then you’ll have to identify the dogs. In these cases, if the dog bites the policeman then it’s cut and dried. Probably get a fine and restraining order.”

Malcolm, a big lad in his early twenties, perched his police hat on his head and marched off up the pathway to number 31, kicking the loose gate open in his stride. I sat in the Panda car, slumped down in the seat, waiting. Occasionally I glanced up towards the houses and noticed net curtains moving. The neighbours were getting something to talk about. After about ten minutes, Malcolm came out and fetched me.

“You’ll have to identify the dog, procedure, but it’s got a muzzle on now. Bit of a giveaway really.”

I followed Malcolm up the pathway and he ushered me into the back kitchen. The black and white sheepdog was lying in the corner, wearing a brown leather muzzle. It growled as soon as it saw me. The owner aimed a kick in the direction of the dog. It retreated into the corner, cowed and silent.

Malcolm followed procedure:

“Is this the dog that attacked you, sir?”

“Yes, I replied”, my voice wavering slightly.

“Well,” said Malcolm, turning towards the owner, “you’ll be hearing from us. And keep that muzzle on when the dog’s outside!”

“That went rather well I think,” said Malcolm, back in the the safety of the car.

“Yes, ‘suppose” was all I could say.

“Want a lift home?”

“No, not far from here, this’ll do. Thanks!”

Malcolm dropped me off on the corner of the estate and drove off, looking satisfied with his day’s work.

Back home Dad was at the kitchen sink shaving. When I came in through the back door he carried on staring into his small round shaving mirror. Mum was in the living room. I felt the tension and disapproval as I stepped inside. She had heard, through the gossip grapevine. It all poured out, as expected:

“Where have you been all this time? Look at the state of them trousers, your good ones. Fancy wearing these to take the mower. Serves you right taking it through that estate, I told you to go along the main street. It’s all over the village, calling the police and making a fuss.  Neighbours are very upset. Don’t tell your Nan, they’re right across from her.”

I didn’t have the energy to argue with her. From the back kitchen Dad must have heard Mum’s outburst. He made a beeline across living room, a characteristic disappearance act to avoid getting involved, muttering “shoot ‘em” as he disappeared into the parlour with his racing paper. It was unclear whether he meant the dogs or the owners, probably both. He had no time over for the people who lived on the estate.

I was at home for another week, a week dominated by the big silence. Nothing more was said, except “your tea’s on the table” and the like. The volume on the TV was turned up to cover up the silence.

To make matters worse I contacted a solicitor when I got back to university. I was so angry about the dog attack and my ruined trousers that I was determined to make the dog owner pay. Living on a student grant at the time I couldn’t afford new ones. The solicitor sent a letter to the owners, demanding compensation for the trousers. They sent a cheque.

Mum wrote a brief note a few days later:

Dear Eric
The neighbours are very upset with the police calling, and the letter from the solicitor.
I don’t know what’s got into you since you left home.
Love,
Mum & Dad

 

 

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.

 

An Offer They Could Refuse

Early one very warm July morning I had the train carriage to myself. July is the preferred holiday month in Sweden, when the country is abandoned by the natives and handed over to the tourists. I was on my way to work, a report to be delivered on the sadistic deadline of August 1st.

My office was in the concrete jungle that is downtown Stockholm. Already by eight o’clock in the morning the air was wobbling like warm jelly as I approached the grey 1970’s office block where I was to spend the day. I let myself in and climbed the steps to the first floor.  The only window in my cubicle office faced onto a brutal brown nine-storey hotel building. It was just six metres away, between us the pedestrian way which plays a central role in my working day.

I switched on the computer and went to fetch some coffee. The long ghostly corridors were empty. Was I all alone in the building? Then I noticed the early queue of patients outside the cut-price Polish dental clinic which shared our building. Somehow that felt reassuring.

As the morning progressed, things hotted up: the computer started complaining and slowed down, I took off a layer of clothing and the ventilation system finally groaned to a halt. I opened the window, which proved to be mere symbolic: the air stood still. Outside I could hear the noise of hundreds of sandal-clad feet shuffling along the pedestrian way, their occupants in outsize shorts and loud shirts already tiring. They were “doing Stockholm”, on their way from the shopping emporiums to the Royal Castle, and picturesque Old Town. The stream of tourists moved like a flow of steaming lava, negotiating the souvenir shops and cheap eateries which barred their way like an obstacle course.

I tried working with the window open. After half a page I noticed that my typing had assumed a rhythm of its own, reflected in the red lines which had appeared on the screen. Unconsciously my brain had picked up a foreign rhythm. Leaning out of window I found the source, a tall young gentleman with Dreadlocks hammering rhythmically on a bongo drum. In the distance I could also hear an accordion/trumpet set playing the same Rumanian camp-fire folk song over and over. One block further south somebody with an amplified electric guitar was imitating blues riffs.

The choice was either to live with it, or close the window and die from heatstroke. Faced with this choice I considered relocating to the quieter side of the building, but my computer was bolted to the desk to put off potential burglars. On my way to get some more coffee, I had an idea.  I would pay the bongo drummer to move away, out of hearing. Brilliant, I thought! In the coffee room I met a couple of colleagues and pitched the idea at them, an experiment. Like most ideas that come from someone else, they didn’t like it. The usual objections were raised: “Why should we solve your problem?” “How much would it cost?” “Who pays?” meaning not us! “What happens if the drummer takes the money and stays put?” “Why not call the law?”

I never did try paying somebody to desist from anti-social behaviour. Instead, with the help of music of my own choosing, I battled on and finished my report in time. Then I changed jobs and forgot all about it. That is, until recently when I read a newspaper article* about a place where my idea is being tested in real life.

The place is Macao, a former Portuguese colony, now a special administrative region within the People’s Republic of China, across the bay from Hong Kong, which has a similar semi-independent status.

Macao, with 650 000 inhabitants, is noted for one thing – gambling. The casinos attract over 400 000 visitors each year, most from mainland China and generate most of the income of the local state administration.

A problem facing the authorities in Macao is the prevalence of drug addicts which disturbs the tourists and gamblers and could lead to a downturn in the number of visitors and thus the revenues of Macao.

For the past three years the solution tested is completely in line with my idea. The local welfare authority pays drug addicts to stop stealing from tourists and sleeping rough, to study, to return used needles and to stop sharing needles. Clean packs of needles are provided free of charge. Every day the authority does a clean-up of used needles from known haunts of the addicts.

There are standard rewards. First needle returned gives a cup of coffee, second needle a bowl of noodle soup, third needle dinner. A monthly payment of 500 dollars is given to all addicts if they desist from stealing, more if they decide to study. Like all citizens of Macao, the addicts also receive an annual check for 1000 dollars from the gambling profits.

The results are impressive. Drug addicts no longer share needles and there have been no new HIV-cases in the past three years.  And the gambling industry in Macao generates enough revenue to care for all drug addicts, while protecting the industry’s own interests.

One issue not mentioned in the article is how addicts who do not deliver are dealt with? Are the incentives an offer they cannot refuse? The gambling industry of course is noted for packing some muscle.

Interest in the idea of replacing sanctions with incentives is growing. Listening to Swedish radio recently I heard a politician who suggested the government buy weapons from gun-runners in the Balkan region to stem the flow of guns to criminal gangs in Sweden. Interesting thought, but a mite desperate and a wholly unrealistic solution to the growing problem of gang shootings.

Sometimes I regret that I did not pursue my experiment that one hot July in Stockholm. For a reasonable fee I could have offered the buskers an incentive to move a block or two. The bongo-drummer, who was just outside my window, would no doubt have demanded a higher rate to move away. Of course, this was an offer they could refuse!

* Henrik Brandão Jönsson wrote about the situation in Macao for Dagens Nyheter, Stockholm, on January 1st 2018.

Down By The River

The lift shuddered to a halt at the end of its journey from the fourth floor. A moment’s hesitation before the twin doors opened with a metallic clang and Harry trundled out, pushing a green wheelbarrow loaded with garden tools. “Morning Mrs Riley“ he said cheerfully to the lady standing waiting, desperately trying to silence a yapping off-white dog on a leash. The threat of eviction was standing over her, and waking the other residents at this early hour was not going to improve matters. “You’re early Harry”, she replied, “up with the lark”.  “No rest for the wicked, as mother used to say” answered Harry and headed for the front door.

Harry was a wiry man, not very tall, with hairy arms and large worker’s hands. A battered old trilby of nondescript colour clamped on an almost hairless head, checked lumberjack shirt, and baggy overalls tucked into grey woollen socks and green Wellies was his working outfit. A colourful cotton scarf for wiping his brow hung from a back pocket. Some said he could double as a scarecrow, but that didn’t bother Harry.

He had moved into the apartment block a year ago after a painful but inevitable divorce. His ex-wife Mary complained that Harry loved the large garden which surrounded their detached house more than he loved her. Finally she had had enough and found someone else. For Harry it was traumatic; not losing Mary or the house, but losing his garden. For the best part of twenty years the annual round of digging, spreading manure, planting, pruning, weeding and harvesting had ruled his life. Still it did come as a bit of a surprise when Mary slapped the legal papers on the kitchen table in front of him, instead of the dinner he was expecting.

It was as though part of him died that day, leaving a big empty space. To pass the time he spent mornings and evenings wandering around parks, allotments, lanes, fields – anywhere he could enjoy the company of plants, bushes and trees. He even sneaked around outside the old house, to mourn his old garden. It was grossly neglected. At times he blamed Mary and her new husband, but realised that without loving care nature would gradually reclaim all the land.

One crispy winters’ day he came across an abandoned piece of land down by the river. Harry guessed it ran to a couple of acres, left over when the new bypass was built about half a mile away. It was a bit out of the way, nearest neighbour a floodlit round-the-clock petrol station. The plot sloped to the south, skirted by a narrow footpath which meandered along with the river bank. The river was about 500 yards wide at the most, a shallow tidal river which was reduced to a narrow channel when the water was sucked out into the Irish Sea. A putrid smell of muddy sediment and rotting seaweed crept over the river bank when the tide was out. Then the returning tide brought with it the fresh salty smell of the sea, and banks of mist which rolled slowly over the low-lying, neighbouring  fields.  Harry occasionally met dog owners down there, who passed the time of day. And in the distance he saw a gang of youths on bikes bound for the petrol station. In all it was not a popular place.

The plot was enclosed on two sides by a thick wall of overgrown bushes and trees, which provided some shelter from the wind. Thin young saplings were already marching across the plot like an invading army. Harry knew that if nothing was done they would take over completely in a few years. The rest of the land was choked with tall dried grass and weeds,  seeds rustling in the slight breeze coming off the river. Rubbish dumped by fly-tippers was lurking in the undergrowth nearest the footpath, lying in wait for unsuspecting visitors.

To most it was probably just an overgrown, derelict site hardly meriting a glance. To Harry it had potential as a new garden. He started making daily visits to the plot. It had become almost an obsession. Harry felt his hands twitching, longing to feel the black, rich soil between his fingers again, to slice through the sods with the sharp edge of his spade, to reveal juicy fat worms wriggling in the daylight.

Back in the apartment Harry started planning “his” new garden. The excitement kept him awake, writing a mental list of what needed doing. Soon he had a clear picture in his head what it would look like – not unlike his old garden.

Harry was a methodical soul. He got out his black notebook and a sheet of squared paper. All morning he sat at the kitchen table, scribbling and pencilling in rose bushes, vegetable patches, furrows for potatoes, fruit bushes and flower beds for perennials. By lunchtime he was exhausted. He had to have another look. A quick sandwich and mug of hot tea, and he was off. It was hardly a quarter of an hour’s walk away but Harry automatically lengthened his stride, eager to check out his plans. He realised that he would have to be careful, not attract too much attention. Hopefully he could work early mornings and late evenings if the street lights along the bypass provided enough light.

In a sober moment he started to have second thoughts about the new garden. Who owned the land? What would the council say if they found out? Could he do all the work by himself? And how much would all the plants and bushes cost? He brushed these misgivings aside when he sat down with his plans for the garden, now that he had a clearer picture of what needed doing, and where to start. To get anywhere with the land he was going to need his garden tools. Hopefully they were still locked away in the old shed, unless Mary had got rid of them. Harry hadn’t spoken to her for six months. He decided to call their son David, which he did occasionally, to find out the lay of the land. David always appeared very busy so they never spoke for long. The usual topics were quickly rattled off: work, wife, kids, school, car, holidays and the rest. Harry usually stood up when he spoke on the phone, a habit from the time when telephones were installed in the hall with a short cord. It suited him, kept calls short.

“Hello David, Dad here” said Harry, as though David wouldn’t recognise his voice.

“You still alive then?” which was David’s way of saying that it was a long time since Harry had called.

“Just hanging in there, not literally of course,” was Harry’s weak attempt at being funny.

“Any contact with Mum these days?” he asked, trying not to appear too interested.

“Not much. Too busy with the new man” said David, disinterested.

“Still live in the old house do they?”

“Think so, off travelling most of the time. Spain next week think she said”.

“Long as she’s happy, David.” said Harry with an end-of-conversation voice.

After a painful silence David sighed and hung up with a “See you Dad.”

Relieved, Harry shuffled over to his favourite armchair, in fact his only armchair, to mull over which tools he would need. Luckily he still had the key to the old garden shed. Mary hated the place so most likely nothing had been touched since he moved out. He sank into the soft, worn leather and closed his eyes, pictured himself standing there in the shed, surrounded by shining tools. He dozed off, the earthy smell of peat, soil and manure taking him back to the shed. This was where Harry belonged, a safe house, his den, where he could hide from the demands of the outside world.

It was still dark when Harry woke. He made an early breakfast, planning a dawn raid on his own garden shed, before sun-up. He dressed for the job; old jeans, a grey plaid shirt, and an outsize black hoodie over a dark green cap and finally his old hiking boots. He found the key to the shed at the back of the cutlery drawer. Closing the door quietly behind him, he tiptoed down the four flights of stairs, afraid to wake the neighbours by using the lift. Harry’s heart was beating faster than was healthy, as though he was about to rob a bank. Outside the morning mist was still lying thick, so he was not likely to meet anyone. Still it was a good half hour’s walk to the old house through a large estate of older detached houses. Fortunately the street lights were weak and far between.

Approaching the old house, something moving about twenty yards ahead caught Harry’s attention. Stray cat perhaps. He ignored it and strode on. Suddenly a torch full in the face dazzled him. Instinctively he held up an arm to shield his eyes, hearing a dog growl and a woman cry out: ”Oh my God, who’s there?” Harry instantly recognised the sharp voice. It was Jean, a former neighbour. She lived in a small white cottage at the end of the lane. “Hullo Jean” muttered Harry, as though walking around far after midnight dressed in a hoodie was the most natural thing in the world. “Oh, that you Harry? Near scared the wits out o’ me, you did”. “Dog woke me, needed to go out. Bit scary what with the mist an’ all”.

Jean was deceptively mousy-looking, auburn hair going on grey in a loose pony-tail, rosy cheeks, oversized glasses, usually seen wearing a thick home-made woollen cardigan, black leggings and red anorak. Sensible outdoor shoes, soil coloured. Always seen with a reluctant, yapping Cairn terrier in tow and pockets bulging with dog bags. Harry had never really spoken to her before.

“Haven’t seen you around for a while, Harry.”

“No, not been near the place for ages,” said Harry, “couldn’t sleep.”

“Keep us company for a bit then?” asked Jean.

“Mmmm, why not”, said Harry after some initial hesitation. He couldn’t really explain what he was up to that late at night.

They walked along in silence, following the dog’s nose as it hunted for traces of other canines. The mist was lifting slowly, and soon they came up to the red picket fence which enclosed Harry’s old garden.

“Not been looked after since you left, Harry,” said Jean, “a shame really to let it run down.”

“Starting a new garden” said Harry, without thinking.

“Oh, where’s that then?” asked Jean.

“Bit of land near the by-pass.”

“Whatye’ doing here then, inspiration?”

“Here to collect my old gardening tools.”

“Middle o’ the night, wearing a hoodie!” said Jean laughing, “doing a break in then?”

“Something like that. It is my stuff after all, just collecting it.”

“I can keep a lookout if you like, Harry”, said Jean sounding rather amused.

“OK, would you?”

Jean realised then that Harry was serious.

The house was in darkness except for two dim outdoor lights. Harry slipped in through the gates and followed the familiar path to the garden shed. Jean hung around outside the fence, trying hard to look like an innocent dog walker.

Harry was nervous and fumbled as he pushed the key in the lock, afraid he might have to break in. Fortunately the lock opened with a familiar grating sound and the door swung open. He stepped inside but didn’t dare switch on the light, just stood there breathing in the familiar smell . With a small torch he found the tools hanging from their shiny metal hooks along the walls, arranged as though on display in a garden centre. Smaller tools were arranged on rough wooden shelves along one wall. Harry had made a mental list of what he was going to take, but hesitated when it came to loading his trusty green wheelbarrow.  Hearing Jean’s impatient dog barking in the distance, he had to get  a move on: digging spade, heavy garden fork, scythe, whetstone, pruning shears, a rake, furrow iron, pair of gloves and rubber boots. He pushed the heavy wheelbarrow towards the door, stopping only to apply a little oil to the creaky wheel – something he had long been meaning to do – before locking up the shed again. He made his way slowly through the garden gate to where Jean was still waiting, stifling a yawn. “Got all you need then?” she asked.

“Most”.

“This new garden of yours, Harry, is it a secret?”

“Nah, just something to keep me busy, time on my hands now” said Harry, a bit cagey. He didn’t want visitors who might attract the wrong kind of attention.

“Let me know if you need an accomplice again then”, said Jean, laughing nervously.

“I’ll get in touch, Jean”, said Harry marching off, “night!”

It was early spring before Harry started clearing the land. The mornings were still nippy. Sometimes night frost glistened from the tall grass swaying in the light breeze.  Some early trees and bushes were already displaying swollen buds. Harry started with the thickets of bushes and small trees which bordered the plot. Using a sturdy stick he forced his way through the jungle of brambles and wild roses. Hawthorns with vicious thorns stood in the front ranks. They would have to go. The undergrowth of weeds and nettles needed clearing. Deeper into the thicket he found tall, overgrown lilacs with bare trunks, a few buds and leaves at the top. Looking up he could see old sycamores wrapped up in strings of ivy like a helter-skelter, yews with branches splaying in all directions, a sombre scraggy pine or two and some one-time majestic oaks. The only way to attack this would be to start from the footpath and work his way into the thickets, he thought.

Harry began with the saplings. He enjoyed bending them over using his thick gloves, gripping close to the ground with the jaws of the pruning shears and gently squeezing the handles. The blades cutting through the bark and pulp made a crunching sound when the young saplings finally gave way. He could do this all day. For the  trees he had a bow saw, then his scythe to silently slice through last years’ grass and weeds, wet from the early morning dew. It took two mornings to clear the lot.

The next day Harry planned to start clearing rubbish from the plot so that he could start digging. He slept poorly again, waking while it was still dark. After an early breakfast he tried calling Mary to talk about reclaiming his fruit bushes. In passing he was going to mention his visit to the shed. He only got to her answering service, and declined the offer to leave a message.

He summoned the lift and heard it creaking as it reluctantly climbed to the fourth floor. The narrow doors opened with a hiss. Harry was waiting with his wheelbarrow already loaded for the morning’s expedition, pleased to see that the tools were in good shape. Down, it took him a few minutes to extricate the wheelbarrow .  “What’s going on here then?” he heard a woman’s voice exclaim, feigning complaint. “Not that woman again”, said Harry to himself, “on sentry duty here is she?” With her guarding the place he realised it would not be easy to sneak out unnoticed. “Morning Mrs Riley”, he replied a bit too friendly, “soon be out of your way. Off to my new allotment.”

“Can see that. Whatye’ gonna’ grow then?” she teased.

“You wait and see, Mrs Riley, just you wait and see.”

“Keep you out of mischief then I suppose”, she said over her shoulder as she squeezed past his wheelbarrow into the lift.

Harry didn’t bother to reply. Outside the street smelt fresh after an early heavy shower which had rinsed the dust from the pavements. He set off at a good pace down the street with his wheelbarrow. Not many people about this early, which suited Harry. By the pathway approaching the river, Harry found himself in a solid bank of mist floating in from the sea. The plot was almost invisible. First he tried to manhandle the wheelbarrow across the rough ground, but it was too heavy and the ground too uneven. In the end he gave up and parked the tools by the edge of the thicket. With spade on his shoulder Harry marched slowly across the plot, testing the ground here and there before deciding where to start digging. He preferred to dig from left to right, one row at a time. Leaning the spade slightly towards him, he rested his left boot on the footrest, took a deep breath and, shifting his weight over onto his left leg, made the first cut. There was some resistance from the thick layer of grass which covered the ground. He gradually let his full weight bear down on the spade and felt it slice into the soil below. A quick turn and lift followed by a smooth swing with the back of the spade to break up the soil. The soil crumbled, released at last by his spade from the suffocating layer of grass. Harry enjoyed the well-oiled routine, muscles honed after many seasons of digging. He bent down and picked up a handful of damp, black soil, rubbing it between his fingers. Greasy to  the touch and smelling of rotten vegetation and full of squirming worms, brutally lifted from the safety of their dark underground tunnels.

Head down, he carried on methodically turning over the soil until he reached the end of the first row. He looked up, stretched his back, walked slowly to the other end, inspected his work, and then started on the next row. His mouth felt dry, but he carried on digging until his back ached from turning over the heavy sods. Straightening up, he noticed that the mist had already lifted.

A disturbing feeling hit Harry as he stood there surveying the morning’s work; he was not alone, someone was watching him. He looked around slowly and saw a figure lurking by the bushes near the footpath. A man stepped into the thicket when Harry looked in his direction. He was tall, charity shop clothing, military jacket and orange bob hat on top of a mop of black, longish wavy hair. Harry thought the man nodded, but it was no one he recognised. Time to call it a day anyway, so he loaded his tools onto the wheelbarrow and made his way home.

The next morning Harry arrived later after a slow breakfast, to find half the plot already turned over. In one corner he saw Jean with her dog and the stranger from yesterday huddling over some mugs. “Hello Harry, thought we’d lend you a hand” said Jean. “This here is Les.” The stranger nodded: “Taken on quite a job here mate. Not been turned over for I don’t know how long.”

Harry tried to appear friendly, but he was worried where it was all leading to. Jean noticed that Harry kept looking around him, and seemed wary of Les. “Well I’ll leave you to it. Dog needs his walk” she said, pulling the leash and making a quick escape.

Harry and Les worked together for a couple of hours, mostly in silence, and by lunchtime they were done for the day. Harry could see that Les was a good worker. Turns out he used to have an allotment. “Must be off now” said Les. “Thanks for the help,” said Harry, in the friendliest voice he could muster as Jean appeared to see how they were getting on.

“I’m not happy about this Jean. Glad for the help and all, but it’s going to attract too much attention. Word soon gets around in a place like this.”

“Don’t worry Harry. It’s been derelict for years. Too low and too close to the river for building, and out of the way for most” said Jean, trying to cheer him up. “Fancy a cuppa’? It’s not far and you could leave your wheelbarrow in the garden.”

Harry gave in, collected his tools and tagged along. He parked the wheelbarrow in Jean’s garden and then sat in the kitchen while she brewed up.

“What’s next step?” she asked. “Soon be time for planting”.

“Need to get potatoes down, earlies,” said Harry, “best way of getting the soil in shape first season.”

“We’ll need manure, lots of it, and set potatoes too,” said Jean, knowledgeable.

“Like to get bushes down too before it gets too warm, currants, gooseberries and the rest”, said Harry,

“That’ll cost a bit!”

“Plenty in the old garden, and they’re all mine for the taking!”

“Have to get your skates on then. For Sale signs came up last week. Didn’t you know?”

Harry ’s mouth went all dry when he heard this and his voice failed him. He didn’t know the house was up for sale,so lifted his tea mug to avoid answering Jean’s question. He thought she was asking too much about his plans for the garden. They sat there quiet for several minutes. Finally Jean broke the silence with a giggle:

”We could do a few more night raids, Harry. I can stand guard.”

“What if we get caught digging up bushes in the middle of the night?”

“Well, they are all yours, aren’t they! I’m up for it, if you are.”

“I’ll think about it Jean. Don’t want to get you into trouble. Must be off now, enough done for today.”

“You can leave the barrow here if you like. It’ll be safe, save you pushing it back and to.”  He hesitated at first but then it was late and he was tired. Reluctantly he agreed, leaving Jean sitting at the kitchen table, a smile on her face: ”Thanks Jean. See you soon.”

Harry’s plan was a row of bushes a yard or so in from the footpath, to shelter the potatoes and vegetable plots from passers-by. Of course bushes took years to get established, but in his old garden he had plenty of mature bushes that would do. He decided to raid the garden again, but first had to plan where to put the bushes. Early next morning he started to dig a row of holes, deep enough to accommodate the large root clumps. It took all morning. Then he made his way home for lunch and an afternoon nap. It would take time to dig up the big old bushes, so it would be a few nights’ work. He didn’t want Les and Jean hanging around there. Eating lunch at the kitchen table, he noticed heavy grey clouds in the distance. That’s it, he would make the first raid that night, hoping the wet ground would make it be easier to get the bushes up.

The moon was out as Harry took the familiar path to the old garden. He parked the wheelbarrow outside the fence, near the bushes, which were some distance from the house. With luck his night shift would go unnoticed. Heart beating loudly he lifted the fork and spade quietly over the fence and then recklessly decided to climb the fence.  It was not a good idea. He was out of practice climbing fences and fell down, hitting his shoulder.

Digging up the currant bushes was easier said than done. They had been standing there for years. Luckily the soil was wet and loose but it was heavy work. It took the best part of an hour to get two bushes up, one black and one red. They were even larger when he got them out of the ground. Harry was sweating and breathing heavily as he heaved them over the fence. Then he had a job getting them up into the wheelbarrow. His shoulder was aching so it took a while.

He hoped no one would notice him pushing a wheelbarrow with large currant bushes in the middle of the night.  The roots had to be  trimmed too before he could lower the bushes into their new holes, so by the time he had finished the moon had slipped behind the clouds. It was pitch black for the slow walk home. He fell into bed exhausted, still partly dressed.

Early next morning something startled Harry. He sat up stiffly and swung his arm in the direction of the alarm clock, knocking it onto the floor. The ringing didn’t stop. It took him a while to realise it was the phone. He staggered into the hall, squinting in the coloured light from the stained pane of glass above the front door. “Hullo,” he croaked, steadying himself against the wall.

“You been digging up the garden Harry?”

It was a sharp, familiar voice. Never one for niceties, Mary got straight to the point. Harry tried to swallow but his throat was too dry. He coughed instead to try to clear it. He felt hot and sweat started to appear on his forehead, like a schoolboy caught with his pockets full of sweets. Mary had that kind of effect on him.

“They’re my bushes, for a new garden. You’ll never miss them,“ he said.

“The house is for sale Harry, we don’t want you running around at night digging up the garden.”

“All right, all right! I’ll be finished this week and leave it all nice and tidy for you.”

“And don’t forget to empty that old shed too!” said Mary, before hanging up.

Harry looked at the silent phone for a minute or so before dropping it back on the cradle, then shuffled along the hall holding his shoulder, making for the shower.

Over a late breakfast Harry’s thoughts turned to the remaining bushes. Reluctantly he realised that he couldn’t move all of them himself, not with his shoulder. He had to ask Jean and Les for help. Harry thought it could wait a day or two anyway, trying to convince himself that he was still the boss, but really he needed to dig up the bushes before Mary changed her mind. There was no going back, so he went to see Jean.

“Morning Harry” said Jean,” you’re early!” standing on the step, unable to hide that she was pleased to see him.

“ Well, less folk around to see what we’re up to. Still quite a few bushes to dig up. I’ll need a bit of help I think. Mary wants it over and done with.”

“Oh, she didn’t make any trouble then?”

“The usual. Bit surprised, but the house is up for viewing next week so she’s too busy to bother about a few bushes.”

“Oh I see. Don’t need a lookout then!” she said, laughing.

“No, but I can’t dig them all up and replant them in a day. Think Les could help?”

“I’ll give him a ring. Come in Harry, the kettle’s on.”

He slipped into the kitchen, dog at his heels, thinking it best to sit down at the kitchen table. Jean was already on the phone in the hall, then disappeared for a minute or two. When she came back she had brushed her hair, and applied a fresh smudge of orange lipstick. Harry pretended not to notice. “He’ll be over in a bit” she said, pouring water into the teapot and laying out three mugs with pictures of dogs.

It was not often Harry was happy to see Les, but now he felt relieved when he saw the big man coming in through the gate, to be greeted loudly by the dog. Harry explained the problem, avoiding mention of his shoulder, and his plan: “Holes are ready so if I dig up the bushes, you could plant them, Les. About a dozen in all.  How about that?”

“Fine with me”, said Les. “I’ll take charge when you’ve got them up.”

“What about watering the bushes?” said Harry.

“Too far away to get a garden hose fixed”, offered Jean. “Perhaps we could fetch water from the river?”

“Heavy work”, said Les.

Nothing was settled about the watering. A quick cuppa from Jean and then off they set. Harry was in charge, deciding which bushes to take. This meant he had the heavy work of digging up the bushes too. Les helped him to lift them over the fence into the wheelbarrow, and then drove them off to the new garden to be replanted. It took all morning and more. Four black currants, four red, couple of gooseberries, loganberries and then a bunch of raspberry canes along the footpath. “Bit more impressive when the leaves come out” was Les’ verdict.

“Lunch”, declared Jean cheerfully, “and a clean up.”

Harry was tired after all the digging so he stayed at home for a week nursing his aching shoulder and back. He worried all the time about his fruit bushes. They should have been trimmed after planting, and watered regularly. Late Sunday afternoon he couldn’t stay away any longer. Equipped with rubber boots, watering can and pruning shears he walked slowly  down to the garden plot. Most of the bushes seemed to have survived the move, but the soil banked up around the roots had dried out. Nobody had watered them. But other things had been done while Harry was at home recovering.  The area that he and Les had dug over had been cleared of sods and raked over, manure had been spread and furrows for planting potatoes marked out. Harry felt more and more that he was losing control of his garden.

There were two sacks of set potatoes standing in the hall, waiting to be sown, and he was looking forward to working the soil for them. This was what he really enjoyed most with gardening.  He usually gave away most of what he grew. Mary would have none of it. He understood that Les and Jean had other ideas. They wanted to invite people to join in, start a community project with harvest festival and all. He felt Les and Jean were taking over his garden, deciding and fixing things without asking when he was not there.

Harry felt sad, but more important was to rescue his bushes. They really should have been cut back soon after planting to help the roots get established. It stimulated long-term growth, even though they would give a smaller harvest the coming autumn. He sighed as he got to work with his pruning shears, but after an hour or so he looked along the row of bushes with a sense of satisfaction.

The watering was more tricky. At one place the river bank was not too steep, so he could slide down and fill his watering can and then clamber up again. Harry poured water around each bush slowly, watching it being absorbed until the soil was saturated. This was a job Harry enjoyed too, but after ten trips down the river bank he called it a day.

The next few weeks he decided to leave them to it. At least that was his plan, but he couldn’t stay away. A couple of times he visited the garden, late evening or early morning so as not to meet anyone. He wasn’t happy with what he saw. A lot of work was being done, too much for Les who must have had help. The whole plot was crammed with vegetable beds, well looked after Harry grudgingly admitted, but his fruit bushes were in a sorry state from too little water. He walked home, never to return, throwing out the sacks of set potatoes in the hall and putting his tools away.

One day towards the end of August, visitors found the plot surrounded by a tall metal fence with a large sign:

A few days later a noisy orange bulldozer, bellowing fumes like an ancient dragon, tore up all the bushes and levelled the ground,  Harry read in the local rag that this was in response to an anonymous complaint made to the local council.

Afterword

A moonless night in September, a dark stooping figure appeared through the swirling mist down by the river, pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with garden tools. It was quiet, except for the regular clucking of the black water. Coming to a halt on the steepest part of the river bank, the figure gently lowered the handles of the wheelbarrow, paused and then released them. The wheelbarrow crept forward, slowly at first, and then picked up speed as it rolled down the bank into the river. It hit the water with a loud splash. By then the lone figure had disappeared, swallowed up in the mist.

 

 

No-Go Zones

There are a few places I avoid, my no-go zones. One of these is under my bed, home to three large plastic storage boxes resting on redundant rollers. I manage to forget about them most of the time. They lie there in a state of permanent hibernation. Occasionally I have been forced to roll out one of the boxes, the small wheels leaving deep tracks in the dust and fluff that has accumulated under the bed over the years. My reluctance to kneel down on the rough sisal carpet and lift the tight-fitting lids is because I know what they contain. Despite the passing of time, I have been decidedly unsuccessful in erasing the memories they bring back to life, like reading old school reports.

The first box contains the remnants of my working life, a collection of all the official reports I produced over thirty or more years as a bureaucrat. A colleague once convinced me that I was making an important contribution to democracy and that my children would be proud of me. In fact, they didn’t care a hoot about my reports or my work, as long as there was food on the table. At first I enjoyed adding shiny new reports to the growing pile in the box under the bed. But over the years, the reports became associated with the unrewarding nature of the work. Memories of the people I had worked with faded away together with their names. The reports often left behind a sense of disturbing emptiness. I carried on regularly lifting the lid of the box to quickly slip in my latest contribution to society right to the end, but seldom with any pleasure or satisfaction. Now it is a long time since the dusty pile of reports was disturbed by any newcomers.

The second box is full of stuff that dreams are made of, of another life, and opening it would painfully remind me of unrealised ambitions. Recently I did have reason to open the box, which I did with some trepidation. The stuff was all still there; the tubes and pots of paint, some clearly dried up, the boxes of drawing pencils and charcoal, the Chinese calligraphy stone and inks, reams of hand-made paper. A huge bunch of brushes of all shapes, sizes and material, many good as new.  So soft when brushed across one’s cheek. Stuffed away underneath my gawkish attempts at being creative, together with books and programmes for art training courses. The guitar tutorials are all there too, with the song books, tuning gadgets which I hardly mastered and certificates from guitar lessons. One day, I say to myself, I will get going again – but without conviction.

The final box has a tight blue lid to keep all my secrets out of sight. I open this box so seldom that I have forgotten what secrets it holds. Over the years I have occasionally lifted a corner of the lid to surreptitiously slide in a letter, a worn moleskin notebook full of scribbles or a faded photograph. I close the lid immediately to stop the smell of incense escaping to pollute the house, concrete proof that I have been in my secret box again. I brought the incense with me from India in 1973, a present for a woman who didn’t want it, and since then it has contaminated all my secrets. Sustainable stuff, like the smell of moth balls which pervaded all the bedlinen and clothes I grew up with. A teenager who ran away from a local Hare Krishna commune after living there all her life said that she now vomits when she smells incense. Some of the memories in my incense-drenched box produce a similar sickening feeling.

The walk-in wardrobe is another no-go zone, better avoided. A more adequate name today would be climb-in wardrobe. It is a museum, or rather a chamber of horrors, devoted to displaying the surviving accoutrements of a lifestyle covering several decades. Very little has been discarded, to the dismay- or perhaps joy – of our local charity shop. The few clothes I actually wear hang just inside the door, within easy reach.

In the deep shadows at the far end of the wardrobe, an MI6-style cold war trench coat hangs together with a black leather Gestapo-issue military greatcoat. I remember wearing this at a rugby match on a very wet Saturday afternoon, standing room only. Walking home I got a shock when I saw my reflection in a shop window: a young Hitler copy, black hair plastered across the crown of my head, beard dripping with water and leather great coat no longer so great. It took a week for the coat to dry out, stiff as shoe-soles. It never recovered, but still hangs there. My reasons for buying this monstrosity in the first place are fortunately submerged in the mists of time.

All of the clothes in the wardrobe have a tale to tell, mostly events and places or people I prefer to forget. Coats, overcoats, suits – for winter and summer wear – including at least one woollen three piece pinstripe. What was I thinking of? Shirts which have long passed the vintage stage, and a rainbow collection of shiny silk ties and bulky knitted ones, dangle from a chromium tie-bar, some thin as shoelaces, others the width of an Isle of Man kipper.

Many of the garments have a characteristic odour of being worn once or twice on sweaty occasions and then hung in again. Closer inspection reveals a layer of fine grey powder on the bulging shoulders of darker overcoats and suit jackets, a sign of the times. They hang sadly on broad coat hangers like empty scarecrows waiting to be stuffed with straw. In the corner a pile of dusty, worn black leather Oxfords lie expectantly in wait for Spring funerals.

Situations when I had to dress up for a captive audience come back to haunt me; teaching in Malawi, Russia or China, lecturing to hostile congregations in Sweden, receiving foreign dignitaries and listening to all the hollow greetings and false speeches which such occasions demand. The shiny navy blue suit, pressed every day by staff at the former Vietnamese embassy, now a hotel, in Beijing. The suit still brings out a sweat on my brow when I recall those six-day weeks teaching in China. Standing in front of seventy eager students, writing down my every word, translated by Mr Chu, diligently recorded in their back-to-front symbols. At the back of the classroom, an old tape recorder slowly rotated to capture my words for posterity, while the man in charge lay snoring on a bench.

Fortunately most of the clothes are too small for me to wear, but still hang there on display as if to mock my efforts to look comfortable wearing them. There to remind me of exotic places and near-death experiences. Gradually I have moved the clothes I use out of the wardrobe, so that it becomes an exclusive no-go zone.

The one place I definitely avoid at all costs is fortunately relatively inaccessible. It can only be reached via a narrow ladder which descends with a reluctant scraping noise from a small dark hatch in the ceiling. Slowly climbing the wobbly wooden ladder, cold currents of air smelling of mould, bare wood and stables strike the senses. In the dark my fumbling hand searches for the light switch. The dim rays from a dusty thirty-year old light bulb reveal a large box-like place, with exposed steep roof beams for a ceiling and chicken netting for walls. In the middle it is possible to stand up straight. I shuffle around the narrow corridors slowly, knowing that a sudden careless step and down the hatch I go, head first. In my worst dreams I catch one of my legs on the ladder and hang there upside down like a struggling bat. I never go up there when the house is empty and limit my visits to once a year, at Christmas, to haul out the tree decorations.

The attic holds the debris of many years of family life, stowed away and largely undisturbed. Let sleeping dogs lie, if you don’t want to revive memories of long-forgotten hobbies: half-finished oil paintings, cabinet which once held a collection of bird’s eggs, pedagogic toys politely played with and then pushed aside, shoe-boxes of used postage stamps from exotic countries, two xylophones designed to develop the children’s musical abilities and a dusty old acoustic guitar with rusty strings which never got properly tuned up for the blues.

An inventory, if possible, would note worn out riding helmets, chaps, brushes, whips and other horse gear still smelling of the animals, an old rabbit cage long since abandoned, half empty notebooks with lists of French vocabulary and maths exercises in immature handwriting, bundles of letters and postcards from long-forgotten people round the world, boxes of photographic paper and chemicals left over from an earlier technical generation, ugly souvenirs from trips abroad, cradles, cots, toys and clothes already outgrown by the grandchildren. Redundant sports equipment: worn skis, bent ski sticks, skates, deflated basket balls, damp piles of textiles, mattresses, a giant Victorian-style perambulator, two worn design armchairs, on the for-sale list, and numerous sagging boxes, anonymous or with scribbled labels: kitchen, bathroom, pans, cushions, books, mixed.

Closing the hatch after my annual visit, I feel satisfied that the familiar debris will remain undisturbed until the children claim their dusty inheritance. To cry, laugh, cringe and ponder over before tipping it all in a large skip.

 

Join the Queue

As usual I was early for morning coffee with a good friend, driven by a deep-seated fear of being late. This originated from school days where a humiliating locked door and subsequent public clouting waited those who were late for morning prayers.  I took a stroll near the café where we had agreed to meet.  A pleasant oasis of human-sized three-storey brick apartment buildings from the early 1900’s sheltered inside a network of  narrow, leafy roads and small parks. It was autumn and underfoot  piles of wet leaves were waiting to upend unsuspecting commuters rushing to the nearby tube station.

Another minute’s walk and my stroll came to a sudden halt,  confronted  by a brutal four-lane urban motorway. The two lanes which lead into the heart of the city were blocked by a tailback of cars and  buses. The other two lanes were almost empty. The wide pavement seemed reserved for cyclists in tight clothes swerving around those who dared infringe on their space, trying to catch one of the overloaded red buses.

A castle-like wall of tall concrete and glass office blocks dominated the other side of the motorway, towering over the lower apartment blocks. The residents lived in eternal twilight. A long line of people snaking along the opposite pavement attracted my attention. It was a queue, an orderly queue, which seemed to emerge from the entrance to one of the office blocks. The queue must have been a couple of hundred yards long. Two uniformed security guards stood at the head of the queue, penguin-like with stiff legs and arms folded over their pouting chests.

What where they all queuing for at this time in the morning? And what was so attractive in the office building that guards were needed to stop the crowd invading the place? I could of course approach the guards and ask, but didn’t want to risk being banished to the end of the queue – or worse. Perhaps I could approach somebody in the queue, but that could be interpreted as an attempt at queue-jumping, an action not to be recommended. Anyway, I didn’t feel like risking my life by crossing the road in the rush-hour traffic.

Pulled out my cell phone and checked that I wouldn’t be late. Ten minutes to satisfy my curiosity. I glanced up at the office block, trying to find a clue to what made it so attractive. A few logo signs broke up the anonymous façade, shining like gold in the morning sun: The Tax Office, The National Insurance Board, The Migration Authority and an obscure building company answering to the name Vesta.

The Tax Office seemed an unlikely candidate for an early-morning queue, most business done on line and the wrong time of year for tax returns. A run on the National Insurance Board did not seem imminent. Most people kept away from their probing questions about ill health or disabilities which make employment out of the question. The Migration Board, on the other hand, was popular with those hoping to win the residence lottery or desperately trying to avoid being deported to misery in Afghanistan.

First the queue was just an anonymous line of people. Now I zoomed in on the individual members, starting with the lucky ones at the head of snake and then slowly following the snake all the way to the tails-end of latecomers. Some,  from their dress or colour, looked like clients of the Migration Board, but they were a clear minority. Most were standing alone, youngish, twenty something to fortyish, and with a sprinkling of clinging, young couples. Most had briefcases, bags or urban rucksacks, attributes of the working generation. They seemed to be quite happy to stand and wait. My final analysis, or guess, was that they were queueing for tickets to  put their names down for a new apartment from one of the housing sharks.

After drinking coffee and chatting for an hour or so, I went back to check on the progress of the queue. Sadly the queue had dispersed, the security guards had withdrawn and traffic was in full flow along the motorway. It was no longer possible to ask what they were queuing for and I had sadly missed my chance to join the queue.

Thinking about this on my train I recalled a story about queues in the Soviet Union, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, or possibly Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The advice given to a newcomer to Moscow was, if you see a queue, join it! So he did. It was a long queue, running around a large, high building with red-brick façade. It surprised him that most of those already queuing were women, often accompanied by young children and carrying large, undefinable bundles. The queue hardly moved. He stamped his feet to keep the circulation going. Occasionally women came trudging along the queue, holding a loaf of bread or bunch of carrots in front of them. He was curious but knew that in Moscow you don’t ask questions. After an almost stationary hour, he was beginning to doubt about the advice given to him. Perhaps they had been pulling his leg.

Then he saw a youngish woman coming along the side of the queue, struggling with a large bundle wrapped in an old sheet and with two small boys clinging to the hem of her coat, which flapped in the breeze. She looked tired and desperate. Half expecting her to stumble, he instinctively took half a step to the side, whereupon she squeezed in front of him, dragging the boys after her, and shoved a loaf of bread to him. He opened his mouth to say something, not sure what, but thought the better of it, took the bread and moved away. They needed his place in the queue better than he did. Shoving the loaf inside his jacket,  he headed for the corner of the building, following the queue to its source. It started at the high metal gates which formed the entrance to Lubjanka Prison. It was visiting day. Join the queue!

 

 

 

 

 

War Against the Hackers

Since 1991 I have been embroiled in a low-intensity war. Battles are limited to the summer months and are, for the most part, conducted underground and therefore well-concealed. Battles are fought on the set of seventeen steps which allow us to safely descend the steep, gently winding slope between our summer cottage and the lower meadow which extends to the lakeside.

The Battlefield

The steps were cut into the hard, dry clay of the slope many years ago, following the gradient and winding nature of the land. No two steps are the same; some are short and steep, others long and shallow. Thick wooden planks held in place with rough metal bars hammered into the clay mark the edge of the steps, which are covered with a layer of natural gravel. Normal, wet summers the loose gravel is held in place by a carpet of tough weeds which force their way up through the heavy clay. Grasses, clover, dandelions and other weeds here actually have a useful function. In a dry summer with few weeds to anchor the gravel, striding down the steps is an altogether more treacherous enterprise. Not to speak of running down.

Food for Hackers

Exactly where the enemy decides to strike is a mystery. Most of the time the war is an underground operation. One year the battle may be concentrated to the fourth step, another year step number ten. This year the battle was fought on, or rather under number twelve.

The give-away sign that this summer’s battle had kicked off was the appearance of small piles of fine dust where the plank sticks up from the clay. The one sure way of corroborating this is a gentle kick to the top of the plank. If it moves, we are in trouble. If it comes loose, the damage is so serious that the battle is already lost. Undisputable proof is the characteristic hacker damage in the remains of the plank. Clear evidence that the enemy has won this year’s battle.

A Battle Lost

Yes, you guessed! Ants – the usual culprits. Sometimes red, sometimes black, sometimes small, other times large, but always lots of them hacking and munching away at the wooden planks shoring up my steps.

Black Garden Ant

Most years I have to replace one plank, but some years two separate armies of ants decide to invade the steps.

What can I do about it? My choice of weapons is limited. What about ABC-warfare? So far I have tried biological weaponry – pouring large quantities of water on the steps. Ants prefer dry ground but just shook the water off and carried on the battle. A chemical weapon, sprinkling MYRR under and round the planks, was more successful but only in the short term. Long-term use and increased doses proved financially prohibitive as the ants just moved on to another plank. Hacker warfare is subject to some budget restraints.

Agent Hacker

I even considered asking the local hospital for surplus or out-of-date isotopes, but decided against it; radioactivity could lead to mutations and, in the long run, giant warrior ants.

So I am reduced to pursuing a low-grade guerrilla strategy. First, by not replacing planks until all the ants have moved on. So far I have been replacing damaged planks with new timber as soon as possible. I call this strategy “Starve the Brutes”. Second, investment in the latest generation of impregnated timber technology, designed for use in the ground or in water. Thicker, heavy duty, more potent . This strategy is designed to directly affect the hacking of the ants so that it takes them longer to masticate the wood fibres. Hopefully they become weaker and finally decide to leave for greener pastures. Combined with the chemical approach this could just tip the balance.

My Current Arsenal of Weapons

The end result appears solid enough, but appearances are deceptive. Already after one day I noticed the red forest ants had  sent a couple of scouts to check out my latest attempt at winning the war. I managed to exterminate the scouts, but have no illusions. They will be back!

New Hacker Meal

What next? I still have a few things up my sleeve. For example replacing the wooden planks with hardwood, metal plates, stone slabs or artificial composite wood, not to speak of a massive reinforced concrete staircase. Less charming, I know, but battles are there to be won. All’s fair in love and war!

 

 

 

 

A Week in the Life

Chinese Turn Away

Agitated phone call from daughter, eight o’clock Sunday evening. Buzz of voices in the background. On the train home or in a shop, I thought at the time.

“Hi”

“Where are you?”

“Chinese take away, in the queue, we won three nil. Dog’s limping, got something in his paw. Gotta go! Call you later.”

I said “Take care”, but she had already hung up. She sounded upset, spoke quickly, in whispers. I put it down to exhaustion after the football match, and worry about the dog. Or maybe it was her turn to order Chow Mein.

Monday lunchtime she phoned again, from work. She had calmed down, sounded tired.

“’Hello”

“Hi. Recovered from last night?”

“Yees. Got a kick on my knee in the match, big bruise. Dog’s still limping, probably have to take him to the vet.

“Sounded lively at the take away yesterday.”

“You don’t know half of it.”

“Tell me.”

“When I phoned you I was standing in the queue to order. Felt someone standing close behind me. Turned round. Big bloke with blood running down his face, from a head wound. Staring at me phoning. Probably thought I was calling the police. Turned away. He made for the washroom. Looked around. Nobody reacted. He came back and looked around, face and hair wet, blood on his shirt. The people waiting turned away, and those behind the counter behaved as though everything was quite normal. Heard police sirens outside. Didn’t dare get my phone out and call them, he’d see me. Got my Chow Mein, paid and left as quick as I could, ran all the way home, made the knee worse. It was really scary. He was hiding from somebody, and nobody dared do anything.”

“Feel better now?”

“Should have phoned, just hoped someone else would do it so I didn’t have to.”

“Probably what all the others thought too. Scary place. Good you survived. How was the Chow Mein?”

“That’s not funny Dad” she said and cut me off.

 

One Lost Elk

On Tuesday morning we took the car to visit our eldest daughter’s workplace, a local ecological farm. It’s usually only about fifteen minutes away, but diversions due to road works for a new by-pass slowed us down. The diversion took us through a mixed residential and industrial area, split by a four-lane road with lots of commercial traffic.

On the way home there was a bit of a tail back, so we were chugging along at thirty km/hr. The driver in front of us seemed confused by the diversion. We groaned, then sighed with relief when he turned off at the next junction. Now I could put my foot down, it was a seventy road. Suddenly a dark shape emerged from between two of the office blocks which lined the road. Instinctively I must have let up on the gas as I focussed on a large elk calf trotting across the road about ten yards in front of us, head held high like an elegant ballet dancer. The car overtaking me in the outer lane just missed the elk, which jumped nonchalantly over the three foot high concrete barrier into the opposite lane. Unfortunately it skidded on the asphalt, but the driver of a large, blue petrol tanker slowed down in time to let the elk regain its balance and trot across the final lane, looking rather confused. Safely on the other side of the road, it was faced with a choice of Burger King, a filling station or a car park.

We looked at each other with relief at our near miss. No horns blasting, no squealing tyres. An everyday thing this time of year, when elk cows chase away last year’s offspring to make room for new young ones.

Parking the car in our garage after the day’s excitement, I noticed a disturbingly large patch of fresh oil on the concrete floor. Phoned Carl at my local garage, (official name Reliable Car Repairs), reminded him that he had fixed an oil leak only two weeks ago. He was obliging with a time the next morning, seven o’clock sharp.

 

Loo for Two

It is a twenty-minute walk from Carl’s workshop to our house. He is a very talkative mechanic so it was seven–thirty when I got away. The walk took me between office blocks housing our local Silicon Valley companies, through a large mall, across a stony square and finally an area of apartment blocks and terraced houses.

At this time of the morning the shops in the mall were closed except for coffee shops and cafes catering to commuters who had missed breakfast. Two herds of people through the mall met in a scrum outside the underground station. Every five minutes a train deposited a load of youngish ITK-people heading for their computers. They stampeded through the mall, most half-running while skillfully balancing cellphone and take-away coffee. I sheltered in the doorway of an optician until the coast was clear. Walking briskly, I passed the entrance to the station, intent on making it into the square before the next stampede. Unfortunately there was another herd of people forcing their way through the glass doors to get to the station. I was trapped. This time I had to take refuge in the doorway of a British style pub. I held my breath to avoid the sickly odour of yesterday’s beer and fags.  A sudden lull in the flow of people enabled me to squeeze through the double-doors, shoulder down as in my rugby-playing days. Safely out into the square, I leant against the nearest shop front to breathe some fresh air. It was the local dry cleaner and tailor. By now it was almost eight o’clock, and the people rushing to the station had a look of desperation in their eyes, cell phones glued to their ears. They were late for work.

I looked round the square in the way that a stranger might do.  Along one side was a red-brick and concrete 1970’s church with clock tower and church rooms. Yellow-brick buildings closed two sides of the square, on one side a school, the other a former public library and meeting hall converted into a mosque and people’s high school for Koran studies.

I noticed that the small, discrete police station next to the dry cleaners had changed opening hours. A small typed notice informed presumptive callers that passports were not issued here but you could find the police there between one and three o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays, public holidays excepted.

As usual the large fountain between the church and high school was out of order, now serving as a giant litter bin. My eyes came to rest on the latest addition to the facilities provided in the square, a small building adorned with the sign “WC” together with symbols for men, women and wheelchairs. Sensitively erected outside the large windows of the church hall,  the toilet block has a modern upside-down U-shaped profile, with a green/black mottled pattern designed to dissuade local graffiti artists.

The Public Convenience (Loo for Two)

It is a modern construction, all stainless steel fittings, serviced by a man in a white van who regularly hoses the place down, before putting red CLOSED stickers on the two entrances. The toilets are mainly used by the Arabic-speaking men who sell flowers, fruit and vegetables from a large stall on the square, below the steps leading up to the mosque, and the beggars who sit outside the mall entrance with their paper cups. The stall-holders have a key, which they lend to the beggars.  For others it costs five crowns.

A couple of men hanging around outside the toilets caught my attention. They were definitely not commuters; tall, longish hair, skinny, washed-out jeans, stooped and a jerky way of walking were the give-away signs of junkies. They were arguing about something, gesticulating towards the toilets. Digging in jeans pockets, one of them eventually found a coin which fitted the slot in the door, and entered quickly carrying a plastic bag. For some reason, the second junkie held the door open. Was he checking out the square? No police around. The commuters were in too much of a hurry to care. After a minute or so he slipped inside to join his companion. No one in the square reacted by calling the police, or at least no police turned up, possibly because it was not between one and three on a Tuesday or Thursday.

After about ten minutes the toilet door slowly opened and the two men staggered out, vigorously rubbing upper arms and seeming less agitated.

Van waiting. Service man inside cleaning the loo.

Hurried home for an early breakfast, wondering what the service man found when he opened the toilet doors, hosepipe at the ready.

 

Pain Heals

Friday morning I took the train into the city for my quarterly visit to the chiropractor. I’d been going there for years, sometimes more often when the old back was playing up. The clinic was in an old basement apartment; small kitchen, bathroom, two treatment rooms, waiting room and a cloakroom. He shared the clinic with a female colleague.

I was ten minutes early, so I settled down in the waiting room with a magazine, “The Big Issue”. There were two other people there, patients, also reading. One a slim, middle-aged woman, tall, blonde, sunburnt, wearing running tights, orange sneakers and two shocking pink tops, apparently just come in from her morning run. She was reading a magazine called “Healthy Living”. Across from her sat a youngish man, overweight, pasty-looking. He was reading “Scientific News”. There was soft music in the background and the walls had arty, black and white photographs of a man in a white coat manipulating the well- limbs of a half-naked patient.

No one spoke, it was an anonymous place. No reception, no names, no complaints. We just sat there silently hiding behind magazines, nursing our own personal aches and pains. Suddenly a loud wail – “AAAAAArrrrrrggggg!” – split the silence. It came  from the direction of the female chiropractor’s treatment room. Then again a female voice cried: “No No No more, it hurts, stop, stop!!”

In the waiting room it was impossible to avoid hearing these cries, but the only reaction was to sink deeper down behind our magazines. Of course, it was not the done thing to cry out in pain on the treatment table. Never heard it before in all my years of visits to chiropractors.

I soon expected to hear the reluctant patient running down the corridor, escaping from the pain of the treatment table.  But no, all was silent except for the faint scrape as magazine pages were flipped and the creak of upholstered chairs. In the distance a door opened and a weak voice cried: “Mummy, you can come now”. There was only one possible mummy in the room, the jogging lady. She sighed, made a show of finishing the article she was reading, picked up her bag and marched off along the corridor with a deliberate stride. Unfortunately I missed the finale, the reunion of mother and daughter, it being my turn to enter the torture chamber.

That was the week that was!

Human Remains*

The phone rang too early and too loud for a Saturday morning in May. A voice rough as gravel asked “Wanna’ job?” It was Charlie. “Lump of bread in it for ye’. Take a day.” He hung up without waiting for an answer. He knew I was seriously short of readies. His wheels would be out front in five. A quick cough, a pee and dragged my gear on. He drove up in a cloud of dust as I opened the door, just slowing down enough for me to jump on the footstep. It was an old bread delivery lorry, logo still showing through a thin coat of white paint.

“Four in it for yer if we get it done today” was all he said. I coughed, “Where?” “Bellhouse Road, three up, three down, old biddy left the table. Cleaners comin’ tomorrow. Easy money.” “You think?” I said, sceptical before I’d seen the place, “them oldies can stack it away.”  “Remember that dump in Peelhouse Lane? Would’ve been better to torch it all”, said Charlie, laughing.

“Didn’t expect to see you in the driving seat today, Charlie,” I said after a pause. “Ah, nothing special today, just a bit short of hands” said Charlie, not very convincingly. He had a contract to clear out abandoned houses after evictions or squatters. Anything saleable was supposed to go a charity shop nearby, but Charlie had an associate with a large warehouse. The rest we binned or dumped. No recycling, unless it was something we wanted ourselves. It was cash in hand and the agent turned a blind eye if we got the house emptied quickly. These places were never gold mines, so the van was usually light when we finished up.

Known Charlie for a couple of years, since my stretch in Liverpool. A bad one, but us Irish lads stuck together. Spent time inside reading, passed the hours away and kept me out of trouble. They called me Prof, and it stuck. Charlie knew my Dad and the Bradys from back home. He looked out for me when I got out so I owed him, couldn’t say no. He was the local fixer, bigger than most with large, deep blue eyes, a bush of ginger hair and a few days growth on his chin. Tattoos on his arms told of army service somewhere, but you just didn’t ask Charlie. He kept it close.

I bumped into him late one night outside the Black Cat, a basement gym and billiard joint on a dark street down by the docks. The brute on the door said firmly “No” when I tried to get in. “Seriously, I need some stuff” I said, but he grunted “Wait!” To pass the time I leaned against the wall and took out a book. A while later this large figure stepped out of the dark. When Charlie saw me he burst out laughing; “What you reading Professor? Don’t yer know what this place is?” Feeling it would be unwise to say, I slipped the book in my back pocket and gave him a little grin. He came closer and clamped his fist around my biceps like a huge claw. “Not much here. You need to work on that body o’ yours. Tomorrow night, here, ask for Charlie. Right!” I shuffled my feet nervously and mumbled “OK” as he nodded at the door and slipped inside.

Charlie took me on, set up a daily training programme. I don’t know why. Maybe he smelt the Irish blood, or p’raps it was a way of keeping me out of trouble. He always called me “Prof”, said I was the only person he knew who read books.

The Black Cat was a spooky place. The heavy metal guys were big silent types, pumped up with handfulls of coloured pills. Only sound was the clang of weights and whine of cables as the machines toiled away, and an occasional thud when someone dropped their iron on the floor. A muffled click of billiard balls was the only background music. The tang of liniment and sweat dominated the space under the low ceiling. A few ancient strip lights spread a greenish light, hardly strong enough for you to avoid stepping in the pools of sweat on the concrete floor.

I trained every night. Brute opened the door as soon as he saw me – I was Charlie’s boy now. Nobody spoke to me, except Charlie if he paid a call. He pretended to check out my biceps, said a few words of encouragement, then off again. Staring at members was not appreciated, I kept myself to myself. Nothing was said, but the occasional raised eyebrow, a wink or a nod and they shuffled away to the discrete back office behind the billiard tables.

This was where I got to know Charlie, and gradually put on enough muscle to be useful to him. Now he trusted me for smaller contract jobs. The trust was not mutual, but the pay was all right if you did as you were told.

We pulled up outside 26 Bellhouse Road. Quiet street, mostly red brick Victorian terraced houses, a few cheap cars parked on the street, Asian store on the corner. Number 26 was a semi, small paved garden out front with low brick wall and sparse privet hedge that had seen better days. Weeds stuck up between the flagstones, vying for space with the piles of litter which filled the garden. Green paint was peeling from the window frames and front door. It looked deserted, a sorry sight.

“Who lived here?” I asked, but Charlie had already unlocked the door and was on his way in. I heard him take the stairs two at a time, probably opening all the windows to air the smell out. I unloaded the van: rolls of bin bags, cable ties, empty boxes, pile of old blankets, metal ladder, shovels, gloves, masks and of course our old music box.

I followed him into the house, recognising the familiar layout of a Victorian semi. Charlie had left footprints on the pile of brochures, flysheets and envelopes splayed on the floor inside the front door. I picked up one envelope. It was addressed to a Miss R. Kelly, the deceased, from the electricity company. Woman dies but her life just goes on. I picked up the lot and dumped them behind the dusty old telephone on the narrow hall table.  I heard later that the old lady had died alone, with no relatives and a budget funeral paid for by the local church; anonymous ashes scattered in a garden of remembrance for those who no one remembers. Name plaque not included.

We always took the kitchen first. Sometimes the smell was so bad we had to wear masks, with food left in the ‘fridge, and the electricity cut off. At Miss Kelly’s the odour wasn’t too bad in the hallway, but got worse as I slowly approached the kitchen door at the end of the corridor. The pattering of tiny feet told me it was a good idea to fetch a heavy shovel, useful to chase out the rats. I used it to bang a couple of times before fully opening the door. Rats had been having a party. I pinched my nose and ran to fling open the kitchen windows, and then the back door, which was bolted but not locked.

“What’s it like” shouted Charlie from upstairs. “Bit of a mess, rats. Haven’t open’d fridge yet” I answered. “Check other rooms down there first then,” said Charlie with his no-nonsense voice. “Ok”, I shouted back.

Did as I was told, but a strange feeling said that Charlie didn’t want me going upstairs. Usually we had a good look round for any bonuses before getting down to the dirty work. Perhaps he had found something he wanted to keep close. He’s the boss, so I got on with the living room.

Green three-piece suite facing mid-way between the fireplace and the old TV, heavy oak sideboard, coffee table, small cupboard with glass doors and shelves full of knick-knacks at one end, oak dining table and three chairs by the window. Couple of rugs, framed views of Ireland on the walls, heavy maroon velvet curtains hiding short greying lace ones, a standard lamp. Ina the bottom drawer the best cutlery, full set still in leather presentation box lined with green baize, silver plated with imitation ivory handles. Probably never used, saved for a special occasion that never came.

“Charlie”, I shouted from the bottom of the stairs, “get on wi’ moving out ‘living room shall I? Sideboard and settee ‘ll ‘ave to be lifted:” A muffled reply from Charlie: “Take the small stuff first. Need ‘ladder up here after.” “OK”. So, he was going up in the attic.

It took me almost an hour to get the living room empty, bar the heavies. The drawers and cupboards on the sideboard needed emptying, to get the weight down. Usually there was never anything interesting there, so it was straight into bin bags. I just salvaged a drawer of worn cutlery, but tablecloths and napkins went right out. One drawer was full of old bills and papers – gas, water, pension, taxes, savings bank. All binned except for a few hand-addressed letters which I saved in a pile. Don’t know why really, just curious. Who would be writing to the old biddy? Two cupboards full of old newspapers, magazines, knitting patterns. Nothing worth saving.

Right at the back there was an old shoe box, yellow with age. It almost fell to pieces when I lifted the lid. Inside it was packed with letters still in their envelopes, all addressed to Miss R. Kelly, 26 Bellhouse Road. Most had Irish stamps. From the postmarks I noticed that the letters were from the 1970’s and 1980’s, posted in Newland. Brady country both sides of the border. We lived there before moving to Liverpool. Some Bradys still lived here; Dad’s sister and a bunch of cousins.

Tried talking to Dad about those times but he just clammed up: “Long time ago, bad times” was what he usually said when I asked. Finding the old letters from that time raised my heart beat a little. A picture postcard fell out from between the letters. It was dog-eared, handled many times. The picture was of the shore near Newland, below the Mourne Mountains. I’d been there with Dad when we visited the Bradys. Turned it over and read:

“Dear Auntie Rachel

Early on Sunday we took the bus from Omeath along the coast. We planned a walk in the mountains. It was misty and drizzling, so we couldn’t see the peaks. The sun came out at around three o’clock and we had our picnic, then took the bus home. Plan to go back next Saturday.

Love

Mary & Ciaran”

 Who’s Mary and Ciaran? A sudden shout “Up with that ladder now lad!” made me drop the box. The letters spilled over the floor. Collecting them quickly I stuffed the letters into a sack and shoved it into the cupboard under the stairs, planning to read them later. The doorknob came off in my hand, so I pushed the door to with my shoulder and stuffed the knob in my pocket. “All right, on my way!”

The extending metal ladder was loot from a previous house job. Came in handy for climbing into attics, or through windows if keys were missing. Heaved it up the stairs to Charlie, who was standing below the open trapdoor. There was no light up there, just a black square in the ceiling. “You can get on with the kitchen before ye’ break” said Charlie, trying to make it sound less like an order. He meant, stay downstairs and get on with the job. Otherwise, mind your own business. “Pub on ‘corner should do when I’ve got that ‘fridge cleared”, I said. “Just bag it all, nothing there to keep” said Charlie and turned away, propping the ladder up to the dark opening.

Made my way back to the kitchen, pulling on gloves and mask before opening the bulky ancient fridge. It was dark inside, no electricity on in the house. I tried to drag the fridge round so that the door faced the window, but I couldn’t shift it. It was stuck to the floor, not sure if by accident or design. Couldn’t see what was in there. Used a shovel to scrape out one shelf at a time, straight into a bin bag. Like most old people Miss Kelly was not a big eater, so it was soon done. I sealed the bag quickly and, holding it at arm’s length, threw it into the front garden. Before the day ended the garden would be full of bulging shiny black plastic sacks standing in rows, sealed with white plastic cable ties, looking like a crowd of penguins with bowed heads waiting to dive into the ocean.

Two heavy thuds came from the attic, followed by a scraping sound as if something heavy was being dragged across the floor. Charlie was alone up there, but I knew not to ask what he was up to. Got on with the rest of the kitchen instead. Very little of any value: wonky table with greasy Formica surface, couple of chairs, some pots and pans, kettle, odd utensils. Smell of rats in the cupboards – they had ripped open bags of sugar, flour, packets of dried biscuits, tea bags, so it was a right mess. Four more sacks and the kitchen was done.

Dragging them along the hall into the garden, I heard a motor pulling up outside. Glancing over my shoulder I saw a smallish white van standing next to our lorry. It had green italic writing on the side: “Green Mountain, Painters & Decorators”. Two bulky lads in overalls got out and made for the front door. “Charlie here?” “Up there” I mumbled, and nodded towards the hall. They went inside quickly and hurried up the stairs.

I heard them climb up the creaky ladder into the attic, and then muffled voices. Charlie came down, more friendly than usual. “Good work, lad. Take a break, lunch at yon’ pub. Back in ‘n hour. Here!” He pushed a tenner into my hand, turned and hurried back upstairs.

Didn’t want to know what they were up to. Shovelled in the pub “curry special” quickly, without tasting it. Beads of sweat dotted my forehead, and I could hear the thumping of my heart. Curiosity got the better of me. Made a detour around the block and found an alleyway where I could watch the front door and the painter’s van. After a few minutes a high-pitched scraping sound, metal sliding against metal, came from the stairs and the two beefs came staggering out of the front door. They were carrying a long, green metal packing case. Charlie followed and opened the back doors on the van. Together they slid the case inside, van bouncing up and down on its springs as it took the weight. The driver quickly closed the back doors, gave Charlie a soft punch to the shoulder and with a “see you laddo!” off they drove, van labouring under the heavy load.

Charlie let out a sigh and went back inside. I sneaked back to the pub to fetch his take-away. Glancing up the stairs I noticed that the attic trapdoor was closed. The ladder was still lying along the stairs, like a slide. I just handed over the bag. “Cheers, lad” said Charlie with a look of relief, “remember, you didn’t see anyone here.” I nodded, not too convincingly, but Charlie was already tucking into his curry.

Together we loaded up the sideboard, settee, wardrobes and a few sacks of clothes and linen from the bedrooms. “I’ll be off with this lot” said Charlie, “to ‘warehouse. You’ve got the afternoon to bag the rest.” “Need some torches” I said. “Pitch black in here with no lights.” “I’ll send a couple of the lads to give you a hand.  Good work, Prof”, said Charlie climbing into the truck, revving the engine and then disappearing along the road.

Alone, thoughts turned back to the letters. Miss Kelly could have more stuff stashed away somewhere in the house. Bedrooms were the best bet. They had to be cleared anyway so I locked the front door and got to work. No bedroom furniture left, just pile of rubbish from when Charlie had upended drawers and wardrobes. I sorted through the lot as I bagged it: knick knacks, old jars of cosmetics, worn clothes, couple of books. Most people have family photos in frames, dotted around the house. But not here, which was strange. Sadly nothing to save here bar a few old holiday postcards. Finished up by heaving the sacks over the banister rail down into the hall, dragging them into the front garden for the laddos to take in the lorry. They would be here soon.

Locked the front door so I could read the letters in peace, in case the lads were early. Screwed the knob in again and managed to get up the door. It was a narrow cupboard, sloping steeply to the bottom of the stairs. Felt closed in, hadn’t been opened for a while. Unmistakeable smell of mould and damp cellar. There was no light, but the sack of letters was just inside the door. Decided to clear out the rest of the cupboard before looking at the letters. Could just make out a mop and bucket, ancient hoover, pile of carrier bags from the local supermarket and some empty boxes. Dragged all this stuff into the hall. More rubbish for the tip. Got down on my knees to reach the lower end of the cupboard. Something was jammed in there under some old sacks, could be an old tool box. Worked it loose and crawled backwards into the hall, dragging the box behind. Stood up too quickly, eager to see what it was, and banged my head on the door frame. Unwrapped the dirty sacking and found a small brown leather suitcase, battered and covered in dust. It had been under the stairs for a long time. The leather handle was loose, roughly mended with a length of dirty twine. The simple locks were rusty but I managed to lever them up with a knife and they sprung open. A strong smell of mildew filled the hall as I slowly lifted the lid. It was jam packed with papers, letters, notebooks and photographs – some in frames. This was it, Rachel Kelly’s secret hoard.

A loud banging at the front door rudely interrupted my reading plans. I grabbed the case, slammed down the lid and slid it back in the cupboard, together with my sack of letters. Covered them with the old sacking, shouting ”All right, all right, hold your horses!” to cover the sound of the cupboard door closing. Turned the knob quietly, slipped it back into my pocket and ran to open the front door.

“Took your time about it.” It was the two lads Charlie had sent to take the rubbish to the dump. “Resting after all my hard work”, I said, “more or less empty now, just load it up.”

They got to it, stuck in for an hour and then the lorry was loaded. They would have to come back for a second load, but I was done for the day. I closed all the windows, fetched my sack from under the stairs and slid the suitcase inside, locked the front door and climbed into the cab. “What’s that then, loot?” asked the driver. “Bonus” I said, tapping my nose. He shrugged and started the engine. Got out at the end of my road, dragged the sack upstairs and dumped it inside the door. Body aching, feet swollen, grabbed a beer and lay down on the bed.

Woke Sunday afternoon, stiff, still in working clothes, wearing a bad headache. Rolled out of the bed and tripped over the sack and suitcase. Crawled to the window and looked out. Drizzle and grey skies, suited me. Slow shower and a plate of food got me back on my feet.

Didn’t want Charlie or his laddos coming up here. Better to see him at the Black Cat. Emptied the sack, leaving a few old books on the table. Hid the letters and suitcase at the back of the wardrobe. Grabbed my training gear and ran for the bus, slamming the door behind me.

Nodded to the beef on the door: “Charlie in?” “Nope”, he murmured in his usual friendly fashion, letting me pass. Noticed a couple of Charlie’s boys there, didn’t show it, just got on with my own session to loosen up my back and shoulders after all the lifting. One of the lads came up in the changing room: “Charlie’s outside”. Sounded urgent, so I finished dressing and collected my stuff and left. Charlie was sitting in a big black car, lights on and engine purring. As I went over, the window slid down silently into the car door. “Good job yesterday, this is for you”, said Charlie and handed over a tight bundle. Slipped it right into my jeans pocket, not a good idea to start counting there and then. “Took some loot I heard”, said Charlie. “Few old books”. “Good for you Prof, keep you out a’ trouble now the job’s done.” The window closed again with a dull thud and the car floated away.

Charlie’s warning worried me on the bus journey home. Did he know what I had seen at Miss Kelly’s, or was it a warning to keep my mouth shut just in case I had seen something? Could the letters and suitcase get me into trouble? Felt wary.  Got off the bus early and walked home, keeping in the shadows with my hoodie up. There was no one hanging around outside, but didn’t switch on any lights until the curtains were closed.

Dumped the suitcase and bag of letters on the bed and sat there staring at them for a while, with a bottle or two for company. Least I could do was look through the stuff. Started with the suitcase. Tipped the contents out on the overcast, ignoring the mildew.

First a battered notebook with mould on the covers filled with neat pencilled notes in Gaelic, which I didn’t understand. Birth certificates in the name Kelly, other documents, a few odd picture postcards and letters with foreign stamps. Then a bunch of  black and white snaps of family events: christenings, birthdays, anniversaries. Mostly amateur photos except for weddings where they used a professional. Nobody I knew. Couple of pictures of a group of teenagers on an empty beach, probably near Newland. One where they were squatting round a campfire in the evening, in another standing in line pretending to be soldiers. On the back someone had written a few names in barely legible pencil. C.Kelly, J.Brady and N. O’Brien. Was this one of our lot? I studied the picture again for quite a while; it could be me’ Dad standing there in line, Jack Brady. Was he mixed up in all this? Put the pictures on one side and the rest back in the suitcase.

The letters were all addressed to Miss Rachel Kelly at Bellhouse Road. The sender was either Mary and Cairon or Jerry K. What attracted my attention was the differences in handwriting and the similarity of the contents. The letters were sent at regular intervals of about two months and told of trips to places on both sides of the border, hiking or visiting relatives. Often they referred to specific dates for planned future visits. Most were sent from an address in Newland, 37 Jubilee Road or 19 Queen’s Street. I put the letters back in their envelopes and stuffed them in my back pack, together with the photos from the beach.

Could this be dangerous stuff? Did it have anything to do with the mysterious happenings at Miss Kelly’s? Needed to find out some more.  Another bottle and a deep breath gave me enough courage to ring Dad. He didn’t like talking on the phone, so it was full charge ahead.

“Hello.”

“It’s me Dad.”

“Can hear that! What’s up?”

“Need to get away for a while, have a rest.”

“In trouble agin then lad?”

“Just a rest, change of scenery. Thought I’d pay a visit to Auntie Mary.”

“She’ll be surprised after all this time. Often asks ‘bout ye.”

“Can you ring her Dad and asks if it’s all right?”

“When ye’r goin’?”

“T’morrah!”

“Get on ye’ And mind ye’s don’t get into trouble over there. Us Bradys have had enough.”

“Ta Dad. “

He hung up with a bang. No point in asking Dad about the pictures. Perhaps Aunt Mary would be more talkative.

Collected my stuff, filled the back pack. It was dark, getting late. Easier to slip away unseen. Didn’t wasn’t to take the suitcase along, but the flat wasn’t safe. Had a safe hiding place nearby, a safe house. With luck Teresa was in. Wrapped the suitcase in a black bin bag, switched off the lights and slipped out of the flat, locking the door quietly. Down the stairs, no lights, feeling for each tread, out the back door into the yard, through the gate and into the back alley. Quiet except a couple of randy cats. Pulled up my hoodie and kept in the shadows.

Teresa lived near the station. I sneaked into her back yard and threw a stone onto the dark window pane. After the second try she pulled the curtain aside and peered out, then opened the window a little.

“That you Brady?”

“Yupp, let me in”, I hissed.

“What time o’ day d’you call this?”

“Sscchh!”

She closed the window and pulled the curtain again before switching on a small light. A minute or two later I heard the bolts sliding back slowly and the key being turned in the door. I slipped inside quickly and she locked up again. She was barefoot and wearing blue striped pyjamas. I followed her upstairs, both of us keeping quiet. There were nosy neighbours.

Once inside Teresa turned to face me: “What’s this about Brady?” she asked, voice sleepy but trying to sound annoyed. Teresa was an old girlfriend, pale complexion accentuated by her dark auburn hair hanging loose over her shoulders this time o’ day. She stared at me with those piercing sky-blue eyes of hers:

“You look like shite. What’ve you been up to?”

“Workin’, keeping out of trouble.”

“Explains it!”

“ Sorry I woke you. Just needed to get rid of some stuff for a while.”

She looked at me again, this time with more friendly eyes:

“Put on some weight since last time I see. Look’s though you haven’t slept for a fortnight. Come and sit down.”

I felt relieved she didn’t just show me the door.

She sat on the red sofa, legs tucked in and arms wrapped around her as if for protection. I took the armchair opposite, keeping my distance.

“On my way across the sea, family visit, have to get away for a while.”

“I don’t want to know, Brady. Don’t drag me into anything again.”

“Course not. Just need a safe place for this”, I said, pulling out the suitcase.

“What’s in there?”

“Just old papers, look” I said, opening the lid. Travelling light, fetch it when I get back. Nothing hot.”

She screwed up her nose at the smell that escaped from the case: “OK, one last time Brady,” she said, with a relaxed smile. “You know where the attic is.”

Opened the trapdoor in the hall ceiling, pushed in the sack and suitcase and then slid it back in place. Teresa was making a pot of tea in the kitchen, and spreading a couple of ham an’ cheese bams.

“Past eleven, no trains this late. You’ll need something to eat before you go.”

We sat across from each other at the kitchen table. I was hungry, forgotten to eat. She nibbled at hers, then passed it over for me to finish.

“Thanks. I’ll be off then.”

“Where ye’ kipping tonight?”

“Station I s’pose.”

“No way, already closed for ‘night. You can stay here.”

I didn’t even offer token resistance, made straight for the sofa.

“You need a proper sleep. In the bed with you, Brady, but no bloody funny business,” she said half-laughing, climbing in the other side, back-to-back. Fell into a deep chasm of sleep. Woke with a start, sevenish, need to get on my way. Teresa was lying against my back, arm gripping me like a warm, friendly octopus. I slowly extricated myself, pulled the cover up over her, got dressed, grabbed the backpack and left her with a warm kiss. She groaned and turned over, still sleeping. I slipped out quietly and was on my way, hoodie up and sights set on the station.

Train, train, ferry, train, bus and knocking on Aunt Mary’s door fourteen 14 hours later in Castleblayney, just across the border. She was expecting me, dinner on the table.

“My, you’re a big lad these days, our John. Good to see you. How’s yer Dad, our Jack?”

Nobody calls me John, but here it was all family. Aunt Mary was a real old lady with a twinkle in her blue eyes,  not very tall, tightly permed grey hair, glasses on the end of her nose, always wearing a cardi’ and apron around the house.

The next day or two I did the rounds of the Brady family: aunts, uncles, cousins and dogs, admiring sheep and tractors and cars and new babies. It was exhausting just keeping track of who they all were.

Third day I asked Aunt Mary, “What was it like when Dad was young? Who did he play with? Where did ‘e go to school?” It was almost as though she was waiting for a chance to talk about the old days, like pressing a button.

“I’ll just put ‘kettle on John luv, and we can sit down and have a good natter ‘bout them days. Right old lad was yer Dad”, she said chuckling. “Not many still around here knows what it were like.”

We sat all afternoon, got through three pots of tea and a lemon sponge cake. Aunt Mary brought out all her family photos, some in frames dotted around the house, others in a shoebox. She knew stories about them all, kept track of what happened in the family.

“What do you know about these, Aunt Mary?” I said, showing her the two photographs from the suitcase. “Oh, ‘ave you brought some of yer own photos John?”, said Mary. She looked more closely at them and suddenly became very quiet. Then: “Them’s not family, not from round ‘ere John. Where did you get them?”

“Just found them in a house we were emptying after an old lady, Rachel Kelly. Thought one looked a bit like Dad.”

Aunt Mary adjusted her glasses and had another, closer look. “Not from round here at all. Looks more like over the border, Newland, up the coast. None of our lads behaving like that!”

“Must get these dishes done, lad”, she said, putting a stop to any more questions.

Aunt Mary was obviously hiding something, but I was not going to get anything more out of her. Next day took the bus across the border to Newland. Found Jubilee Road, but number 37 was now a betting shop occupied by a few silent older men.

“Sorry to disturb, but I’m looking for some old mates who used to live here, Ciaron and Mary. Don’t know the surname.”

Automatically they all pretended not to hear, eyes pinned to their betting slips and Sporting Weeklies. Approached the counter and repeated my question. Rat-faced, surly looking man shook his head slowly: “Been here all of 15 years, haven’t we O’Donnell?” This directed to his mate drinking tea in the corner. “Right you are Seamus, all of fifteen years. Never heard or ‘em.”

Next call was 19 Queen’s Street, closer to the town centre. It was an old terraced house, one in the row that had not been done up. Knocker was loose, so I banged on the door. From inside a woman’s voice: ”Go and see who‘s at t’door!” Light footsteps approached. A ragged, pale-faced lad of around eight opened the door “What yew want?” “Looking for an old mate, used to live here, Kavanah. Go an’ ask yer Mam!” He turned and shouted down the hallway: “Bloke asking about Kavanah.” I could hear the woman arguing with someone about who should come to the door. Finally a male voice: “For God’s sake, I’ll go”. The door was pulled open wide and a heavy looking man of about fifty with tattoos and shaven head stood there. “What you want?” “Sorry to disturb”, I said, “but an old mate of mine called Kavanah used to live here.” “Where ye’ from?” “Speke, ‘pool”. Puffing out his chest and waving his finger in my face, the message was clear: “Make yourself scarce, don’t come round here again with yer questions”. He slammed the door hard to make his point it shuddered on the hinges

Friendly place Newland. Perhaps it was my accent. Retreated to the pub and kept my head down, then took the bus back to Aunt Mary’s. She didn’t look too happy when I stepped inside the back door, eyes flitting around, uneasy. Finally she came out with it: “Yer Dad rang today. Wants to talk to you, when ye come in.”

Phoned him first, gave me a little advantage.

“Hello Dad, it’s me.”

Straight to the point, can say that for him:

“Been asking questions I heard. Over in Newland. Not a good idea for a Brady. Get you into trouble. You listen to your Aunt Mary.”

“But Dad I was just…” he hung up.

Mary said nothing, got our tea ready and then switched the telly on for the evening. I left next morning. Aunt Mary gave me a warm hug and, looking away, reminded me in a sad voice: “Now John Brady, you stay out of trouble or you’ll have me and yer Dad to answer to.” “You take care too Aunt Mary, don’t you be getting up to no mischief either,” I said, giving her a hug.

It was a relief to get out of the house, and the village. Took the bus across the border again, had to find the shore and steep cliffs where the photos were taken, stretching all the way south to give a view of the Mourne Mountains. Bought a map at the bus station. Spread it out on a table in the station caff, playing the hiker with backpack n’all.

Half way through me’ tea I felt the hairs in my neck standing up, like a dog, when someone is looking at you. A thick-set man in leather jacket and jeans sauntered past to fetch more tea. He had a good look at the map over my shoulder, and probably noticed the photos too. On his way back he dawdled. I saw that he was in his 60’s, weather-beaten face, crew cut.

“Good weather for walking today”, he said, “on down the coast then?”

“Yepp”, I nodded, trying not to encourage conversation.

“Watch out for the tides if you’re on yon shore. Rip tides, come in very fast you know.”

“Thanks, I’ll do that.”

“Where you making for?” he asked, then bent forward and pointed at the photo of Dad on the shore.

“Wait a minute, think I know that place. Used to do a lot of fishin’ down there. Bit of a walk though,” he said, stabbing the map with a yellowed finger. When he got that close I felt the smell of stale tobacco.

“How long”” I asked.

“Take all day, down Omeath way, but there’s a bus part o’ way.”

“Thanks, I’ll check the bus times.” I said, trying to get away.

“You’re welcome. Those photos are a few years old. Family is it?”

“Yes, Bradies…..” Knew at once I should have kept quiet. “Must be off now “ I said, grabbing photos and backpack, folding up the map roughly as I half ran out of the caff.

Shit, can’t keep me’ mouth shut, could have kicked myself! Just hope he’s not one of the lads. Had to wait half an hour for the bus to Omeath. Bought a drink, something to eat, cigs.

“Single to Omeath, mate”.

“Right, got time on your hands?”

“How long?”

“Just over the hour.”

“Cheers!”

The bus was half-full, mostly biddies with their bags, been shopping in Newland for the day. No room to fold up the map without attracting attention. Would have to wait.

Found a shelter near the harbour in Omeath where I could sort out the map and find my way along the coast. Cruel wind whipped in from the sea, waves topped with creamy foam like an overfull cappuccino. Pulled my jacket tighter around me and got moving, finding a narrow pathway leading down to the shore. The cliffs gave some protection. Not sure at all what I was doing there, or where I was going. And what would I do when I got there.

No one about on this windy, autumn day. Only sign of life was the sound of an engine, muffled by the wind, possibly a motorbike, somewhere up on the cliffs. Otherwise I was alone. Heavy going in the loose wet sand, full of pebbles and broken shells. Took more than an hour’s trudging to find the right place. Checked against the photographs. Sat with my back against the foot of the cliffs, which gave enough shelter to light up, have a drink and bite to eat. The weak late-afternoon autumn sun was going down, creating long shadows.

What now, I thought? Who can I trust? Not Dad, nor Aunt Mary and definitely not Charlie. Teresa was the only one left I could turn to. Phoned her, got through on second try.

“Hija Brady. Where are you? Can hardly hear ye’”

“On the shore, windy, don’t know what I’m doin’ here.”

“You all right Brady?”

“Not really.”

“Heard they had been in your flat, turned it over. What you into?”

“Knew they’d do that. You keep away from there Teresa. S’not safe.”

The whistling of the wind from the sea made it difficult to hear.

The he heard Teresa say in a wavering voice:

”They knew Brady. They were here, two of ‘em. Threatened me, said they’d do me if I didn’t tell them……had to tell. Sorry Brady, but I couldn’t ……..” She sounded scared, weeping, voice failing when she tried to talk. “They took it, the case.”

“Teresa, don’t worry. Just keep away from them. Look after yerself, Tess. Love you.”

She asked, weeping, “you coming back Brady?” I hung up, not knowing what to say.

Made a fire by the cliff, using the map and driftwood. Dry kelp crackled when the flames reached it. Pulled out the letters and photos for one last look before feeding the flames. The acrid smell of burning paper hit my nostrils. Edges of the pictures curled up and turned into black ashes. The buffeting wind lifted the plume of blue smoke high up the cliff side. Standing back from the heat I could smell tangs of seaweed and salt brought in by the waves. A glint from the cliff top caught my attention, like a reflection of sun on glass. Took a step backwards, towards the sea, to get a better look. A sudden bright red flash and then falling into nowhere.

Blood seeped into the wet sand, ashes scattered in the wind, waves crashed against  pebbles and old seashells. Distant whine of an engine. Tide raced up the shore, in a hurry to reach the cliffs and retreat again, flushing all human remains into the deep Irish Sea.

* Thanks to Ron Pavellas and two other members of the Stockholm Writers Group, who generously took the time to read a draft of “Human Remains”, making many valuable suggestions and comments. Responsibility for the final version is of course mine alone. Eric Gandy

 

No Regrets

Day 1

Two sharp raps of hard knuckles on the door roused George from his afternoon nap, cruelly interrupting his dreamtime. The hydraulic door stopper resisted at first, but then released its grip with a loud sigh and the squeaky door swung open wide. An overly-cheerful voice announced:

“Got a visitor for you George. New girl. Cheer you up”.

It was that dragon of a social worker again, grumbled George to himself as he fumbled for his glasses on the bedside table. Towing along behind was the latest in a row of reluctant delinquents in community service, who reckoned visiting oldies was an easy option. George had lost count, hardly remembered any names and definitely no faces. Most just wanted to fill their hours, thought George, and he had to do most of the talking. Treat me like some therapist. Who’s the patient here?

“This is George”, said the social worker, half turning to the shadowy figure behind her. “Bit grumpy, not one for social chit-chat, needs cheering up a bit.”

Stepping up to where George half-lay in his bed, she announced as though George were interested, “This is Lee! She’ll be visiting for a while. I’m sure you’ll get on fine.” George snorted, louder than he had planned. The social worker raised a stern eyebrow: “Be kind to Lee now George, she’s had a rough ride!” Lee flinched, no way she was going to talk with this old man.

“We’ll start with an hour today just to get acquainted, see how you get on together“, continued the social worker. “Come by my office on the way out Lee. “And George”, she said wagging her finger, “no nonsense and keep your hands to yourself.”

The door thudded as it closed behind her, leaving the room silent as in a  vacuum. George turned to look out of the small window, while Lee remained standing just inside the door, keeping a safe distance and looking sullenly down at the floor, both avoiding eye contact.

Nobody spoke for several long minutes. Finally George nodded towards the worn sleazy brown armchair at the foot of the bed: “You c’n sit down if you want. Can’t stand there for ‘n hour.”  Lee waited a minute or so and then flopped down in the chair with a sigh, not wanting to seem keen.

“How many” asked George after a while.

“Fifty”, she mumbled.

“Serious stuff. Wanna’ talk ‘bout it?” asked George in his friendliest voice.

“No!”

They returned to silent mode, trying hard to ignore each other. “Well, I tried”, said George to himself. “No way I’m gonna’ tell him anything”, thought Lee.

“Okay if I get my book out?”asked George eventually.

“Whatever.”

“It’s under the bed.”

“Why you hidin’ it there?”

“So’s the dragon doesn’t find it.”

“The dragon?”

“Your social woman.”

Hiding a slight smile, Lee got down on her knees, dragged the book out and heaved it up onto the bed.

“Ouch!” shouted George, “that was my leg.”

“Your fault for reading heavy books.”

“It’s the Koran.”

“No shit! You one of them Muslims then?”

“Nope, but it’s useful.”

Lee retreated to the chair, curling up protectively as she recalled the social worker’s warning to George. She slid out her phone from a back pocket and hunched over the screen, in a world of her own. She checked that she had the number to the social worker, just in case.

George sat up in bed, holding the Koran against his chest, and started doing a series of sit-ups. The bed springs creaked, disturbing Lee who looked up from the screen.

“What ye’ doin’?”

“Training, can’t ye’ see?”

“You nuts?”

“Not allowed to train in here. They’re ‘fraid I’ll get too strong, dangerous. Don’t you go tellin’ the dragon now!”

“S’long as you keep quiet about this”, said Lee, holding up the phone.

“Done deal”, said George.

They both resumed their forbidden pastimes, comrades in sin, until George feeling uneasy at her presence, announced: ”Time’s up. See you tomorrow then?”

Lee slipper the phone back into her pocket and slouched out of the door, leaving only silence behind. George slipped the Koran under the bed and fell asleep, exhausted after his sit-ups.

Day 2

George didn’t expect her to turn up again, they didn’t usually. Ten past the hour she pushed open the door with her shoulder and made for the chair.

“You didn’t knock” said George.

“So! Why should I?”

“Could have caught me in a compromising situation.”

“A what?”

“An embarrassing moment.”

“Yea, right. Such as doing sit-ups with the book. Well, you weren’t.”

“Good to hear you’re in a talkative mood today Lee”, said George smiling.

“Whatever”, said Lee, with an exaggerated grimace, slipped out her phone and slumped in the armchair.

George’s response was to heave up the Koran and start his training programme, in slow motion.

Lee pretended to ignore George but after a few minutes she sighed: “D’you have to do that when I’m here?”.

“Best time. Dragon won’t come in when you’re here. Doesn’t want to disturb our social dialog.”

“Our what?”

“Talking. You and me. Supposed to develop your social skills, and provide me with some company.”

“No shit! Not doing so well there then are we?”

“We’re talking.”

“Just read the book and leave me be.”

“Can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s in Arabic.”

“So?”

“Can’t read Arabic.”

“Why buy a book you can’t read?”

“Don’t you get it? said George irritably, “I bought it for the weight, for training, not to read.”

“Could ‘ave bought it in English.”

“The Arab one was heavier, and cheaper .”

Lee stared at George for a minute or two, not speaking, a puzzled look on her face. George studied the deep furrow on her forehead. It deepened as she asked:

“What you in ‘ere for? Don’t seem sick to me. What’s your problem?”

George didn’t like talking about himself, his problems, but her face demanded an answer:

“Dangerous, they said.”

“You, dangerous.”

“OD.”

“Seriously. Old people don’t OD.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“If you’re so dangerous, how come they let me sit here by myself? I’m only sixteen.”

“Maybe they’re testing us.”

“For what?”

“See what’ll happen maybe”, said George. “Anyway, you must be dangerous too if you’re in the programme.”

“You’ve got it all wrong, I’m not dangerous” said Lee emphatically.

“Why’re you in the programme then?” said George triumphantly.

“Did a few things, small stuff.”

“Wanna’ talk about it?” asked George, feeling she was opening up a trifle.

“No, you first.”

“What?”

“Tell me about the OD. What makes you so dangerous?”

George hesitated and fell silent, not convinced this was a good idea. He cleared his throat, thinking, but an insistent knocking on the door changed everything. George and Lee exchanged glances. She seemed scared but quick as a flash jumped up, slid her phone under his pillow and then fell back into the chair, pretending to be half asleep.

The dragon pushed open the door. George suspected that she had been eavesdropping, but said nothing.

“Overtime today Lee. That’s a good sign. George keeping you busy with his tales. Off you go then, see you again tomorrow.”

Lee stared hard at George, before making a barely noticeable nod towards the pillow and then left.

“How you two getting on George,” asked the dragon.

“All right I guess. Not very talkative. Rather be with her friends than an oldie like me. What kinda trouble she in?”

“You know that’s confidential George. “

“Fifty hours is a long stretch for one that young. Must be serious.”

“My lips are sealed,” said the dragon, pretending to zip them up.

Day 2, late

 It had been a tiring, intense day for George so he rested most of the evening. He forgot about the phone, until at about nine he heard it ring from under his pillow. He lifted the pillow and looked at the phone. The signal got louder. It was silver coloured with a large blue illuminated screen. George didn’t know what to do, how to stop it. On the screen there was a green button with the word ANSWER inside. George tried pressing it but the message just slid away. He wrapped the phone up in some old socks and hid it behind the bedside table.

 Day 3

Lee was early, walked right up to George and whispered loudly: “Why didn’t you answer the phone. Called you lots of times. What’s up with you?” She held out her hand: ”Give it here!”

“Couldn’t figure out how to answer. Hid it away so’s the dragon wouldn’t find it”, said George, retrieving the phone and handing it over to Lee.

“Thanks, at least it’s safe”, said Lee, sitting down at the end of the bed. “Let me show you what to do.”

She was surprisingly patient with George, who had never owned or even held a cell phone before. He made notes in a small worn black notebook, using the stump of a thick lead pencil.

After the phone lesson, Lee retreated to her armchair. George sat with the Koran, flicking through the pages, following the strange snake-like writing with his finger. He didn’t feel like doing any sit-ups. The only sound in the room was George flicking through the pages, and Lee tapping the screen with her long, scarlet fingernails.

George was nervous. He wanted to ask Lee what she had done to end up in the programme, try to help her maybe. Finally he plucked up courage:

“Do you regret what you’ve done Lee?”

She looked up from the phone; “Whaddya mean, regret?”

“You must have done something. If you wish you hadn’t, you regret it” explained George.

“No, he got what was coming to him.”

“Did you………?”

“No. But somebody had to do it.”

“Do what?”

“Ask a lot of questions for an old man, don’t you.”

“Trying to figure out why you look so unhappy.”

Lee felt cornered, huddled up again in the chair, feeling safer with the phone for company. George returned to his book, wishing he had kept quiet. But he couldn’t let go:

“If that chair could take you back in time, or forward into the future, which would you choose?” Lee didn’t answer, but he felt that she was thinking about it.

After a few minutes George answered his own question: “I’d go back in time, to fix some stuff, things I did wrong, hurt people.”

“Well what’d be the point of you going into the future when you don’t have one,” said Lee.

“No, I guess you’re right.”

“What stuff would you change, do different?” asked Lee, a little curious.

“Things I said, without thinking, hurt people close to me, lost ’em. Ran away from problems. Didn’t love enough.”

“ You sit here thinking about that all day long?”

“Some times. Try to forget.”

“What about you Lee?” asked George again.

Lee hesitated. George thought she would resist again, but he was wrong.

“I’d go back too. That’s all I’m gonna say.”

“All right Lee, no more.”

They both sat quietly, smiling occasionally, until the hour was gone.

Lee handed over the phone on her way out: “I’ll call you tonight, old man.”

Day 3, late

Late that night the phone rang, waking George. It took some time for him to find it and remember how to answer. It was Lee.

“Hello” said George, slowly and deliberately.

Reception was poor, outside somewhere, heavy truck growling in the background.

“It’s me”, said Lee in a high, speeded voice, “It’s all over now. No regrets. Goodbye old man.” Then she was gone.

Day 4

George waited but Lee didn’t turn up. He was standing near the window, when he heard the door open and the bustling social worker stepped inside. She seemed in a hurry:

“Lee won’t be coming again George.”

He half turned and looked, trying to interpret the expression on her professionally empty face.

“Don’t worry, George, there’s more waiting in the queue”, she said in a flat voice.

“NO MORE!” shouted George in a wavering voice as he turned towards the window, looking out over nowhere.

Counting Sheep

Walking along a deserted beach, sun still below the horizon, the clucking waves rinsed the coarse, wet sand from Jack’s feet. He was enjoying the solitude, listening to the whine of the wind through the palm trees.  It felt like a good life, but something was wrong. He woke with a start and opened one eye. Dog was standing at the foot of the bed, rough tongue licking the smooth soles of Jack’s feet. He pulled his legs in under the cover and wiped his feet on the sheet. Dog moved closer and whined again, head cocked to one side, looking at Jack with his big brown eyes.

“You want to go out?” asked Jack with a groan. At the word “out” dog started wagging his tail, gave a quick bark and then ran for the stairs. Jack knew Dog would now be sitting by the front door, waiting. There was no escape.  Jack reached for his working clothes, parked on a chair by the window, and glanced between the curtains. It was still dark but the moon was up. He leaned over and kissed the bare shoulder of the woman lying in his bed. She groaned with an unfamiliar voice and rolled over. He never did catch her name.

The regular thudding of a tail against the wooden floorboards in the hall told him that Dog was getting impatient. Jack padded quickly down the stairs and climbed into his leather working boots, shrugged on a warm jacket and grabbed a short leather leash, expecting a quick walk in the dark and then back to a warm bed.

Dog was sitting with his nose up against the front door, eager to get out. Jack opened the door and reached for the long rope hanging on a hook nearby.  Dog bolted through the door, almost pulling Jack over. The sudden jerk woke him up and Jack had a gut feeling that it could be a long night.

The tall birches and pines which sheltered Jack’s cottage were outlined by sharp black contours from the new moon. The night sky was like a dark blue blanket, sprinkled with star dust. Jack liked to stand and watch the night sky, but Dog had other interests. He was a tracker, born to sniff, switching from one side of the narrow path to the other, hoovering up the scents of the night. Nose down, pulling hard, heading for his favourite spot. Jack followed. The path skirted a stand of old oaks with gnarled trunks, surrounded by a carpet of dried acorns which crunched underfoot. A good sign, thought Jack, no wild boars around. Here Dog chose to lift his leg for a long, overdue pee. Jack joined him.

The night was still, clear, just a dusting of frost on the tips of the grass. Why not make for the fields, thought Jack, who realised he was in no great hurry to get back to his bed mate. Hopefully she would be gone before they got back. He liked eating breakfast alone, alone that is except for Dog.

The dirt path snaked downwards, leaving behind the oaks and a few scrubby pines on the ridge. Dog flexed his shoulder and haunch muscles, pulling hard on the leash, knowing where they were headed. Jack jerked to slow him down, not wanting to shout and disturb the silence of the night. The temperature felt a few degrees colder when they arrived at the edge of low-lying fields. Here it was always cold and misty, a legacy from the time when this had been an inlet of the Baltic Sea, later a wide lake, now fertile land used for growing Lucerne to make winter silage for the cattle which roamed here. The second harvest was already knee-high, like a dense green carpet,  purple flowers rimmed with silver frost which glistened in the yellow moonlight.

Jack switched from the leash to a long rope, allowing Dog to run loose. Instead Dog froze and growled, trying  to catch a scent. But it was only the mist swirling across the open fields, flying around like ghostly figures . Jack hissed. Dog remained tense and wary but did as he was told. “Off you go now”, said Jack reassuringly, and Dog shot away, nose down, zig-zagging across the field, following the scent left behind by the deer. Jack followed, stumbling through the wet Lucerne which clung to his boots like seaweed.

Dog was happy, running free, stopping every so often to roll over on his back, legs pumping up and down, ending with a quick shake before running off again. So was Jack, happy, if you had asked him. They were moving south, following the banks of the narrow stream which wandered lazily across the fields, water muddy after heavy rain.  It was quiet, only sound coming from the metal links on Dog’s harness. Jack relaxed, feeling free himself, enjoying the night sky. A sudden low growl interrupted his thoughts. Maybe a deer or something out there, down by the stream where the mist was solid as a whitewashed wall. Jack called Dog in and they both crouched down, listening intensely. Jack strangled the sign of another low growl by quickly taking a firm grip on Dog’s neck, burrowing his cold hands into the thick warm fur. Dog was now panting rapidly with excitement.

Through the mist they could hear some sheep bleating, distressed. Jack knew that neighbours Frank and Della had lost some of their sheep recently, including a breeding ram. He stroked Dog slowly to calm him down, switched to a tight short leash and then they  made their way slowly in the direction of the sheep enclosure. Dog seemed to understand that he was to keep quiet and stay close, but the hairs on his neck were on end, and his tail stood right up.  Dog’s instinct was to chase anything that moved. Jack worked hard to keep him under control.

The enclosure lay on the far side of the stream, below a wooded hill. Jack and Dog crossed over by a narrow wooden footbridge and soon came to the fence. Following the fence they reached the wide gates. They were wide open. The bleating got louder as the sheep heard them coming. Through the mist Jack could see dark shapes milling around. Dog growled again, which didn’t help. Jack silenced him with a sharp tug on the leash.

The sheep had scattered over the fields along the southern bank of the stream. Jack realised he had no chance of rounding them up alone. Dog was not a sheepdog, and anyway he was too worked up to be useful. Better go and knock up Frank, thought Jack. Frank and Della lived almost a kilometre away, house and barn tucked away on higher ground over the hill. Jack and Dog made their way up there, trying not to scare any more sheep on the way. In the distance Jack heard the muffled sound of a truck, maybe a pickup, and stopped to listen. Dog didn’t react, he wasn’t interested in that kind of sound. Through the mist Jack glimpsed a single tail-light, the other one was missing.

Dog pulled hard as they approached the darkened house. He could smell Frank’s two border collies. They were sheepdogs and lived in the barn, not in the house. They must have sensed Dog too, Jack thought, but he didn’t hear a single woof. Dog wanted to play when he met other dogs, but these two always ignored him. Sheepdogs don’t play.

Jack knocked on the door, calling out “Frank! It’s me, Jack. Sheep got out.” He saw an upstairs light come on and then heard the scraping of a window catch. Della appeared at the window: “Oh it’s you Jack. Bit early. What’s up?”

“Where’s Frank, Della? Sheep all over, down by the stream.”

“He’s …… gone, .. ..he’s not here. Wait a bit, I’ll be down.”

A  minute or two later she came striding out of the front door, in working gear, cheeks a little flushed and dark hair collected roughly under a cap.

“Oh I see, you and Dog out walking at this time o’ night!! Couldn’t sleep?” she asked, too cheerful at this hour for Jack’s liking.

Dog wagged his tail energetically on hearing Della’s voice, and jumped up to lick her face. She pushed him down, he had to make do with her hands.

“Something like that. Good night for a long walk, beautiful sky.”

“Lucky for us.”

“Yepp, heard ‘em from way over the fields.”

“Let’s get to it then, I’ll fetch the dogs” said Della in her business-like voice. She marched off towards the barn, letting out a sharp low whistle and the two sheepdogs came running. Dog jumped about, excited, but the sheepdogs remained quite aloof, as usual, waiting for instructions.

“Did you see anyone out there Jack?” Della asked, as they hurried down to the fields.

“No, but did hear a truck, pickup on the old dirt road. Missing a tail light too.”

“You know we’ve lost some animals these last few weeks.”

“I heard” said Jack, pulling hard to stop Dog running after the sheepdogs.

“Heel!” she ordered, keeping them close.

The mist was still lying thick over the fields when they reached the enclosure. “Not easy to find white sheep in this stuff”, laughed Della in her deep voice. Jack didn’t respond, busy wondering where Frank had got to. Jack knew him well, had worked for him, but didn’t really know Della.  She obviously felt uneasy too as they stood there together by the gate. Jack bent down to calm Dog and finally broke the silence:

“How do you want to run this, Della?” He liked using her name.

“Collect them in smaller groups then drive them here. You man the gates. Let them through one at a time, and don’t forget to count them! Have to check if we have lost any more.”

“Sounds like a long night” said Jack, pretending to yawn.

“D’you think? Don’t you go falling asleep” laughed Della again and melted into the mist, sheepdogs close behind.

“Here Dog, can’t have you chasing the sheep. No such fun” said Jack as he tied Dog’s leash firmly to a birch tree at a safe distance from the gate. “Stay” said Jack. Dog looked badly done to, but resigned and lay down to rest.

The Gates

Jack studied the gates closely, trying to work out how he could let the sheep pass into the enclosure and count them at the same time. He unfastened the chain which held the gates together and opened them inwards. The only way of doing it was to keep the left-hand gate closed and open the right one, making a small gap for the sheep to squeeze through, one at a time. Easy!

Jack could hear Della’s voice from the fields, giving orders to the sheepdogs. He was impressed by how confident she was at handling them. Before he had only seen Frank running sheep. After about ten minutes he heard the first group of sheep coming towards him,  quickly, driven by the dogs. He thought it sounded as though there could be about twenty of them. Dog heard them too. He was jumping, straining on the leash and barking as the sheep got closer. “Quiet”, shouted Jack, but it didn’t carry above the din. Dog was all worked up.

Della shouted too: “Ready now Jack, get counting!” The sheep were eager to get into the enclosure, where they felt safe. Suddenly they were up against the gates, pressing forward like a football crowd. Jack put all his weight behind the gates to stop them breaking through. They were bleating loudly, agitated, dogs driving behind and gates stuck together. “Let them in Jack, or we’ll lose them again!” shouted Della, coming out of the mist. Jack opened the right-hand gate to make a narrow gap for them to squeeze through, one by one. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as they made for the opening. “Easy, easy goes” shouted Jack but the sheep didn’t bother. He opened the gate just enough to be able to  grab  them by the neck and pull them inside. Bracing all his weight against the gates he almost forgot to count them. It came to seventeen in all, before he could lean against the gates for a rest, gloves greasy from the wet sheep. Della came up to check how Jack was doing. “How many?” “Seventeen” said Jack, breathing heavily, “That all?” “Should be ‘bout another hundred. Can you cope?” “Never learned to count that far!” “Time you did then,” said Della cheerfully, running off to round up the next bunch.

It took nearly two hours before all the sheep were safely inside the enclosure. “How many Jack” asked Della, as they leaned together against the gates again, exhausted. “Hundred and fifteen.“ “Two missing then”, said Della, hair now hanging loose and cheeks rosy from driving the sheep. “Nothing we can do about them now. Let’s go home.” By home she meant her place.

They walked back over the hill on tired legs, quiet, all except Dog. He tried to get the sheepdogs interested in playing, but had no luck. Aloof, they just ignored him, eager to get back to sleep in their barn.

“Thanks Jack” said Della as they neared the house. “Glad to help out”, said Jack, looking straight at Della, “you’re good at running the dogs.” She smiled briefly, pleased with herself. “Want to come in, join me for breakfast? Tastes better with company.”  He hesitated, still uncertain with Frank not at home. She opened the door and Dog rushed in, Della close behind “Come on in Jack, it’s warmer inside.” He smiled to himself and closed the door firmly behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left Luggage

The underground train squealed to a halt and a herd of camera-hugging tourists and overage hippies squeezed through the opening doors onto the platform. Standing as usual, I instinctively drew in my stomach and rescued my London Review of Books. Ooohs! and Aaahs! revealed that they were on a tour of “the world’s longest art gallery”, here a station with naivístic artwork in solid red and green.

Order was restored as the driver warned he was preparing to close the doors. The carriage was now half-empty and we could relax. I returned to Seymore Hersch where I left off,  trying to grasp the complexities of the Syrian conflict. My reading was interrupted by animated female voices and the thunder of footsteps. Somebody about to miss their station, I thought, as I glanced at the sliding doors. No chance! I prepared to rescue a possible damsel in distress, caught between the doors.

A young woman in black running tights and orange sneakers came striding along the aisle of the train, dragging a black case on small wheels. Startled faces looked up at the sound of the wheels skidding across the hard floor. Approaching, she drew back her arm like a bowler going for a strike, and swung the case expertly through the gap between the rapidly-closing doors. She scored! The case sailed out onto the platform as the doors closed with a dull thud. She turned to her friend and raised her arm, clenched fist pumping in the air. “Right on!” they shouted and she returned to her seat, attracting disapproving looks from older passengers. “What if they think there is a bomb inside!” exclaimed her friend, and burst into a fit of giggles. And that’s just what they did.

The train accelerated slowly, heading for the dark cavernous tunnel. Calm descended on the carriage and passengers bowed their heads again over their cell phones.

From my vantage point by the door I could follow the case as it rolled in a wide arc, gradually coming to a halt in the middle of the platform. The train gathered up speed. I noticed people on the platform pointing in the direction of the case. Some were making quickly for the exit, others speaking earnestly into their phones.

I was not the only one watching the case on its lonely journey. The driver saw it too out of the corner of his eye, but turned to enter his cab. Already behind schedule, he slammed the door and pushed the accelerator into drive, happy to enter the safety of the tunnel and leave the problem behind.

The monitors in the railway control room flickered as they routinely switched between different stations. George and Mick, on duty but sleepy after a heavy lunch, were rudely roused when Tommy, their supervisor, shouted “What’s happening there?” Mick hit the button and zoomed in, seeing people running for the exits. They all watched as the lone piece of luggage, still upright, came to a standstill on the almost deserted platform. “Alarm, alarm“ shouted George, “stop all trains on the blue line!” Red lamps were flashing.In the background phones were ringing, but nobody answered. A robot-like voice repeated: “bomb alert, bomb alert”.

I tried to pick up the thread of the article about Syria, but the two women were still chatting loudly for me to think. A few hundred meters into the tunnel the train shuddered to a halt, ceiling lights dimmed and then came on again. It suddenly got very quiet. Behind me even the two women felt the need to whisper. I looked around. There were about fifteen people in the carriage: mothers with small children in prams, a few sleepy young men in caps, oldies  with walkers and tired-looking  middle-aged women with bulging shopping bags. Some appeared bored and resigned at the delay, others grappled with their phones.The train passed through a string of multi-ethnic suburbs. I was the odd  white man out in the carriage.

The only sound apart from phone chatter was air hissing in the braking system. A small boy started whining but was quickly silenced with thin slices of banana. A crackling sound from the loudspeakers was greeted with groans, usually meaning a longer delay. Passengers looked automatically up to the ceiling, expecting the usual excuses. The driver cleared his throat loudly, and a couple of children started wailing. An automatic “Schhh!” came from mothers.

I could hear that he was nervous, not the usual monotonous official voice. “We..ahh …. we have a delay. A brief …. delay. Train in front is, er, er, running a bit.” Fumbling with his microphone he switched it off  in a cloud of atmospherics, swallowing the final syllables.

We waited, and waited. Now everyone with a phone was telling someone else that they would be late; for a meeting, to fetch the dog/car/kids, for the kick-off or for a connecting bus or train. I tried to get the local news, but the signal was too weak in the tunnel.

An unexpected jerk and the train sprung into life again, engines throbbing and brakes hissing. The driver announced what we already felt: “Now we are on our way again, but we will only be crawling along.” Nobody cared, as long as we were moving there was hope. Passengers fed the good news into their phones, updating friends, colleagues, day care centres and the rest. Eventually we rolled slowly into the next station, out of the dark tunnel into the bright lights on the platform. Passengers were already crowding the doors, hoping to make up for lost time.

A disturbing feeling spread through the carriage; something was wrong. All the figures standing on the platform were in uniform: police in dark blue, others in black with white helmets and shields, some holding staring dogs with muzzles. They were lined up along the edge of the platform. Through the windows we saw stern, searching faces peering in at us. Some passengers instinctively took a step back from the doors, others returned to their seats. Police were not popular in this part of the city.

The train stopped with a loud hiss, but the buzzer which normally heralded the opening of the doors remained ominously silent. The doors remained firmly closed. “Open the doors”. “ I’m already late”. “What’s going on?” “Let us out!” “I’m missing the match.” “Is it a robbery d’you think?” asked someone.

Phones were again hauled out of pockets and bags, but the loudspeakers crackled and a new voice announced, “This is the police speaking. Due to a security incident we must keep the train here until further notice. We apologise for the inconvenience. Please be patient.” and then shut down. People returned to their seats, looking round suspiciously. Nobody said anything. We were in the third carriage. This is going to take time, I thought, and sat down on an empty “priority seat” across the aisle from the two women. It felt appropriate.

After twenty minutes the doors on our carriage opened without warning, but not to let us off the train. Each pair of doors was blocked by armed policemen with helmets and unusual, bulging uniforms. Two large policemen entered by the front doors and stood to attention,  unspeaking, waiting. The silence spread like an invisible blanket of fog through the carriage  A rather old moth-eaten police dog was then paraded up and down the centre aisle, sniffing in all the corners. It showed som interest in my feet and my first instinct was to kick out at the smelly beast, but thought better of it. Two policemen started checking ID-cards, reluctantly hauled out from pockets and handbags. I couldn’t hear what they asked, but guessed it had to do with the black case. When questioned, passengers instinctively put on their most innocent faces and slowly shook their heads. They looked uncomfortable and I felt them looking in my direction. I hoped the police didn’t notice, but they did.

They were business-like rather than polite,  have a long hard look at my ID-card. “Where you going then?” “Home”, I said, trying to stay calm. Police were not noted for their sense of humour, so I curbed my jocular tendencies. “Where’s that?” “Next station.” “What you got in there?” one asked, pointing at my rucksack. “Book, tea, dried fruit, socks.” “Open it!” I almost said “Why” but did as they asked. They rooted around and emptied the contents on the seat. When a rather dog-eared copy of “The Clash of Fundamentalisms” by Tariq Ali fell out, I knew I was in trouble.

“Did you see anything unusual on your journey?” “Unusual … no, I was reading.” “See any luggage left unattended?” “There was a black case, but one of those women threw it out onto the platform.” As I said this I pointed to where I thought the young women had been sitting, but their seats were empty. They had moved without me noticing. I turned  and saw them sitting quietly at the end of the carriage, with an older couple.

“Come with us”, said one of the policemen, in a tone I couldn’t refuse. Together they pulled me up reluctantly from my seat and dragged me towards the doors of the carriage. In the melee, my London Review of Books dropped onto the floor. Instinctively I tried to retrieve it. The last thing I remember was a big black bootprint staring at me from Seymore Hersh’s article.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Words Spoken

A man climbed slowly up to the top of the hill, leather walking boots slipping on heavy dew which coated the long grass. The legs of his worn jeans were damp. It was early, chilly. A thick sweater filled out his green jacket. At the top of the rise he stopped to get his breath, lifting the peak of his dark cap to wipe the sweat from his brow.

He looked down on a narrow valley which had been turned into a gently rolling golf course. It was knee deep in a blanket of early-morning mist. About to descend to the springy green turf, he stopped and listened to the distant clamour of crows and magpies, upset by something. Squinting, he pulled his cap down and scanned the horizon to locate the noisy creatures. There they were, occupying a small stand of old rowan trees on the opposite side of the valley. He could see nothing unusual, but was curious to find out the cause of the commotion.

Going down the hill, he almost lost his balance. Choosing a diagonal pathway which was longer but safer, it took him almost twenty minutes to reach the base of the hill. Immediately he felt the chill of the mist as it crept up his legs. On the flat turf, he lengthened his stride and made for the rowan trees with their noisy tenants, about three hundred yards away. Half-way there, a slight breeze across the flat land suddenly turned the bank of mist into a heaving grey sea. He stopped as the waves engulfed him. Fifty yards to his left he glimpsed a dark shape through a gap in the mist, like a badly focused snapshot.  The gap closed again as the breeze abated and the waves subsided.

Slowly, almost gingerly, he approached the spot where he thought it might be – whatever it was. He hoped it was just a pile of rubbish, or a sack of old leaves. He noticed that the magpies had fallen silent as he got closer. Did they know something he didn’t, but was about to find out?

Suddenly his right boot struck something solid, startling him. He instinctively bent down to investigate, hand shaking as it disappeared in the layer of mist. Waving his cap he tried to disperse the mist, and saw that he had kicked a wooden marker peg. His heartbeat slowed down with relief.

Gradually the mist thinned enough to reveal suds of greyish-white fur spread out in a circle near the marker, like clouds in a summer sky. Heartbeat accelerating again he took a couple of strides beyond the marker and bent down over a figure stretched out on the ground. It was a big, fine hare lying on its side, neck twisted as though broken, eyes staring up at the sky. Two bloody craters gaped wide where the hare had been ripped open, at the side of the hare’s chest and on one muscular rear haunch. The hawk was gone, the hare abandoned, leftovers for the scavenging magpies and crows.

Kneeling down on the wet turf, he felt a great sadness in his soul. He leant forward and stroked the fine grey fur. The hare was still a little warm, not yet wet from the dew. It had not been lying there very long. Lifting his hand he accidentally brushed against the hare’s belly and a thin line of blood trickled down his hand onto the grass. The body smelt of fresh blood, death was so close. The hairs on his neck quivered, standing on end. He had rudely interrupted someone’s breakfast, a Goshawk who had retired to wipe blood stains from curved beak and pointed talons.

Taking a step backwards he directed his camera at the scene and the victim, like a police photographer. Feeling quite sick after his intrusion into the animal world, he made to leave. The magpies and crows were getting impatient and nature must take it’s course.

The sun was beginning to warm, quickly dispersing the remaining mist. About twenty yards away he turned back for one last view of the hare, a silent sign of respect. Standing there, he felt he was not alone. Turning around he saw a movement by the wall of trees which marked the boundary of the golf course. A young, dark-haired woman wrapped up in a quilted jacket and with green rubber boots, was sitting on a fold-up beach chair. She was making notes in a pad on her knee. Taking a thermos flask from her rucksack, she poured some steaming liquid into the lid, and carried on with her notes. She made no sign that she had seen the man. No acknowledgments were made, no words spoken. The man resumed his walk, looking forward to his morning coffee.

Author’s Note: When the events which inspired this story occurred, I wrongly assumed that the perpetrator of the deed was a fox. Simply because I had recently seen a fox on the golf course. Reading Helen Macdonald’s book “H Is for Hawk”, it now dawned on me that it was the work of a Goshawk.

For those of faint heart, or stomach, I have not included the man’s photographs from the scene. If you wish, you may choose to view them here: Golf Course Victim

 

 

 

Cutting Grass

Our summer cottage overlooks an acre of meadowland which slopes down to the shore of a small lake in a series of natural terraces, a legacy from the ice age. The meadow is like a valley protected on both sides by tall, old trees: pines, firs, silver birches and oaks. By the lake  a 25-foot high outcrop of granite, worn smooth by the ice and now covered in moss, provides a natural boundary.

In summer an almost impenetrable jungle of grasses, ferns, wild flowers, bushes heavy with roses and currants and small saplings blankets the meadow. A few narrow paths which follow the contours of the terrain make it easier to move around in this undergrowth. They were originally made by the local badgers on their nocturnal excursions. We follow them too.

The Meadow
The Meadow

 

Rain and sunshine before midsummer lead to an explosion of green vegetation, and the meadowland becomes dense and entangled. The dog, a large boxer, disappears into the grass to find a good place for a snooze. The kids play “spot the dog”. Evenings are devoted to tic-picking, which he doesn’t like. Soon it will be time to harvest the currant bushes, red, white and black, if we can find them before the blackbirds do.

The grass needs cutting. For the past 60 years or so this has been done using a scythe. Before that the local farmer’s horses and cows did the job. I inherited the scythe from my father-in-law, 25 years ago. It hangs on a rusty nail in the shed, as though waiting to be used in a horror movie. There was no way back, I had to learn how to use it.

Scythe, whetstone and water
Scythe, whetstone and water

 

Mary had often seen her father in action, so she demonstrated how to swing the scythe. Over the years I have gradually got the hang of it, and in particular avoided any major injuries.

First I had to learn how to sharpen the blade using a whetstone. The picture that came to mind was of the butcher using a steel to sharpen his knives. Sharpening a scythe blade is different, stone on steel. The whetstone is a block of stone with fine and rougher grades, and has to be wetted for a good sharp edge. The action is different too – the butcher strokes his knife along the steel, the whetstone is stroked along the scythe blade. Both alternate between the two sides of the blade. To sharpen the blade, I stand with the scythe handle nestling in my armpit, arm extended along the dull side of the blade and other hand sliding the whetstone along the edge in steady strokes. I don’t use gloves but so far I have not cut myself.

It is easier to cut grass while still wet with morning dew or when the evening mist rolls in from the lake. We still use the same scythe, but switched to a heavier, shorter blade about ten years ago. Cutting grass with a scythe is quiet; only a slicing sound as the blade cuts through the stems of the grasses and like a scalpel separates the grass from its roots. It is heavy work swinging the scythe from side to side, rhythmically exposing the contours of the land one step at a time.  We usually let the grass lie for a few days, to release next year’s seeds and make it easy to rake up the grass. Over the years I have cut down a currant bush or two by mistake, but the dog still has a tail.

Swinging a scythe is a sweaty business but physically satisfying, and I tell myself it is good exercise. Often I am too enthusiastic at the beginning of the cutting season, and get a stiff, sore back which turns into a chronic condition as the summer proceeds and more grass is liberated from its roots.

In August I have a regular date with my chiropractor. He tugs and presses my body, twists and manipulates until I feel like a loose rag doll. After a particularly long and painful session he smiled ironically and pronounced:

“It’s about time you hang that scythe up for good!”

“No way, what will happen to the meadow then” I replied, despairingly.

“Get a machine, a trimmer. I have one. Perfect. Got it second-hand and share with a neighbour”.

“But we’ve never used a machine on the meadow before.”

“Mark my words. Next year I might not be able to get your old bones back into working order.”

To cut the story short, I ordered a machine for cutting grass. A month later a large, heavy box arrived. It could easily have doubled as a budget coffin.

 

The Box
The Box

The machine came in several parts which had to be assembled. Also included was a 30-page manual (four languages), safety instructions, grass cutter, trimmer head, tool kit, harness, various nuts and bolts. That was not all; the machine demands a special petrol/oil fuel, not included, a funnel, ear mufflers, face shield, heavy boots and thick gloves. I skipped the special grass cutting safety trousers.

Machine and Accessories
Machine and Accessories

 

A couple of days later I had assembled the machine and studied the manual carefully. At least half of the instructions were about safety. Sadly I couldn’t figure out how to start the machine. A safety precaution perhaps? I phoned Customer Service and explained my dilemma. The service technician agreed that the manual was rather unclear, but blamed a poor translation. I didn’t think it advisable to ask what it said in the original language. He said it was one of the easiest models to start on the market and explained the procedure slowly and with a loud, patient voice. Obviously he had been trained to communicate with regular folks.

“If you still feel uncertain, there are excellent instruction films on YouTube” he said, with a rather cheerful voice, and hung up.

I took his advice and searched YouTube using the model number of the machine. Rather unexpectedly the films which came up were all in Russian. OK, I don’t have anything about Russians, so I clicked on the first film. It was quite entertaining as far as instructional films go: two portly Russian men in shiny shorts and old gym shoes were happily prancing around an overgrown orchard like horses in a circus ring, waving their motorised grass cutters with such abandon that I expected a harvest of toes to crown their performance. They swung their machines about in a very carefree fashion, clearly not having read the extensive safety instructions. Not the reading kind, I guess.

Suddenly one of the machines shut down, rudely interrupting their pas-de-deux. The owner’s attempts to restart the machine were worthy of a performance by Coco the clown, ending with him abandoning his machine in the tall grass and stomping off for good.

As an instructional film it had some shortcomings. I suspect it was a “how-not-to-do-it” film. The user manual seemingly had the same origin, a Russian orchard.

D-day arrived. Kitted out in sturdy boots, thick gloves, jeans, harness, ear mufflers and face shield I filled the petrol tank with the correct oil/petrol mixture, carefully wiping off excess petrol, and then moved at least 20 feet away from the “filling area”, as prescribed. First I pumped the transparent fuel pump a few times until I could see the fuel bubbles, pulled up the choke and, with my hands in the right position, pulled the starting handle several times in quick succession until the engine coughed and almost started. Down with the choke, and the engine died again. Two quick pulls on the starting handle and the engine roared into life. “Eureka”, I shouted, almost falling over in shock. It worked. I lifted up the machine and hooked it onto the harness, albeit after some fumbling with my thick gloves.

Assuming the correct stance, I grasped the controls, pressed in the dead-man’s grip and then squeezed the gas pedal. It burst into action, the grass-cutting head spinning at an alarming rate as I looked round for some grass to cut. According to reliable sources, the engine was loud. Some pheasants flew squawking over the fence into the neighbour, the dog ran into the cottage and hid under the bed, while Mary took a long walk. I could hardly hear anything, thanks to my mufflers.

 

Man At Work
Man At Work

 

After half an hour or so I cut the gas and released the dead-man’s grip before pressing the “STOP” button. The engine slowed down with a grateful whine, but the blade carried on spinning for a minute or two, slower and slower.  Relieved I unhooked the machine and removed mufflers, harness and the rest. The machine left me with fingers still shaking and ears wet with sweat.

My first grass-cutting session over, I surveyed the results. Grass, ferns and flowers plus a couple of unknown bushes lay in one great tangle of vegetation. All in all a good job. But it doesn’t end there. The manual concludes with a twenty one item maintenance schedule for daily, weekly or monthly maintenance. With the scythe I simply wipe off the blade with an old rag and hang it up on its nail in the shed. At the end of the cutting season I wipe it over with oil to protect it from rust over the winter.

Cutting grass with a machine is faster than with a scythe – but, sadly, noisy and lonely. With the machine, I must focus on one thing – the machine, and not injuring anyone. It is definitely too fast and violent to avoid chopping up the wild red strawberries hiding in the grass. I miss the silence of the scythe, I miss the birdsong and the sound of the slow waves as they reach the shore. Working with the scythe I can meditate, contemplate, allow my thoughts to wander, and I get to eat more strawberries. Is the new machine a sign of progress? My answer is no – and the dog agrees.

 

 

 

The Dump

 Three ancient horseshoes with nails, two peeling window frames complete with glass, a heavy roll of chicken wire, a tired plastic bucket full of broken green glass, two tins of dried up paint, a roll of brittle black roofing felt, two pairs of skis and ski sticks anno 1950 with leather bindings,  a broken wooden armchair, two uncomfortably heavy beach chairs with lime green canvas seats, two  very rusty hand saws and pair of secateurs, an assorted pile of wood from wall fittings and dismembered wardrobes, two cupboard doors, a glass paraffin lamp with dodgy conversion for electricity, bulb included, a four feet long aluminium tube, function and origin unknown, a metal cage for poaching crayfish, probably illegal, one broken landing net for fish, camouflage net smelling strongly of rubber,  army tank size, some odd glass bottles and jars plus a few rusty tins used to store cement and plaster and a wooden window-shelf painted a sickly-green shade.

This is more or less the stuff I loaded into the back of my truck early one Thursday morning.  I felt the weak sun on my back as I opened the gates, hoping it would gradually dissolve the thin clouds which had protected us like a shroud from the night frost. The engine grumbled at the early start and heavy load. I drove slowly along the bumpy dirt road, shivering as I waited for the heater to loosen up my stiff fingers.

I had been putting off the visit to our local dump for years. It is one of those things blokes are supposed to enjoy, and now I had used up all my excuses. To get me in the right mood I played John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” on repeat for the half-hour drive.

The entrance to the dump was by an unmarked dirt track known only to locals. The track slowly snaked upwards until you got to a clearing in the woods, overlooking a deep old stone quarry. We used to drive up there with pickups full of rubbish and a six-pack to enjoy the scenery and see who was best at throwing stuff out over the edge. You backed-up as close as you dared and flung all your unwanted stuff over the edge. A dull thud as it hit the bottom was the only satisfaction needed. It was a relaxing, laid-back way of starting the weekend.

At night it was pitch black up there, frequented mainly by guys who wanted a quiet place to enjoy a beer and grilled steaks, the surrounding woods dampening the sound from their music systems. Setting fire to a stolen car and rolling it over the edge didn’t take place often, but attracted quite a crowd. Regular guys saw this as a trifle juvenile. Occasionally lovers also drove up there at night to be alone.

On the road approaching the entrance I noticed a slow sign. What now? At the turnoff I was confronted by tall metal-barred gates, and an official sign which said “Recycling Depot”. The dirt road leading up to the gate now had a hard top. Was this the old dump? And how do you get into the place? Not wanting to appear out –of –touch, I drove confidently up to the entrance like a regular visitor and waited for the gates to open. They didn’t. I waited some more. John Lennon was still howling, but even he couldn’t drown the persistent honking of the rusty red pickup which was almost climbing up my rear bumper. An old guy in heavy boots, worn jeans and greasy leather jacket knocked on my window, which I hesitantly lowered a few inches. “Forgotten your card have ya’?” he snarled. Sorry”, I said meekly, pretending to get what he meant. “You get a move on then when them gates opens, or yer’ll be in trouble.” He waved his hand in front of a box by the gates and strode back to his pickup. I got moving and drove through the gates but he revved up and overtook just inside the gates. I followed him along the road between high stands of trees, feeling the sweat trickling down my spine. Clearly this was a big mistake.

After a hundred yards or so the woods gave way to a flat ocean of concrete and tarmac. Our hill was no more. It was like a big road junction hidden in the woods, with confusing road signs and barriers with red and yellow stripes. To be on the safe side I tailed the rusty pickup, passing a depot for refuse collection trucks and mountains of green refuse bins before approaching a barrier which said “Private households”.

Now I was really lost about how to proceed. I drifted to the side and parked, to try and figure out things. I choked John Lennon so I could concentrate. The old dump was simple – just heave everything over the side into the quarry and that’s it. No big deal. Here I could see a long concrete loading bay with large skips arranged along each side, like a beetle with its legs sticking out at sixty-degrees. The top of the skips was level with the loading bay. Each one had a green wooden sign above, swinging in the morning breeze: Wood, Painted Wood, Plastic, Metal, Textiles, Electronics, Garden Waste, Paper, Cartons, Insulation, Chemicals, Tyres, Glass, Road Fill.

This was going to be one seriously challenging morning exercise. The loading bay was jam-packed with pickups, trucks, vans, cars and trailers, drivers scurrying back and forth carrying stuff and throwing it into the different skips, seemingly without hesitation. Their private collection of rubbish dumped, they navigated through the jam and turned back for the gate.

OK, now I get it. The never-ending stream of cars and vans into the bay showed no generosity to newcomers. At the risk of making myself very unpopular for a second time already that day, I speeded up and ran parallel to the queue, trying to force someone to give way and let me in. Challenging thick-necked men with shaven heads and shades in shiny new pickups was not a good idea.  I finally swerved in front of a brown saloon, deliberately choosing one with an oldie behind the wheel.

I found a gap next to the skip for “Unpainted Wood”. Not that I had any unpainted wood, but it seemed a safe bet to avoid annoying people. I looked around discretely to check out the right procedure. Folks really were in a hurry, rushing back and forth between the skips with piles of stuff. They just threw the rubbish into a skip and rushed back to their truck for more, seemingly knowing what they were doing. Another thing, they had their stuff ready in piles. I had loaded everything into the back of my truck, first come. It took me a whole hour to empty – I probably visited each skip a couple of times.

Weren’t they a little curious about the stuff in the skips? Might be something useful, but I didn’t see anyone climbing down in a skip raid so it was apparently not the done thing.

There was some good stuff dumped there, but there was official-looking shed which also had a wooden sign: “Office”, but it seemed closed. For one short moment I thought I could get away with it, the kid’s bike in the skip for metal waste. It was just the right size for Noah, purple and silver. Come on, it’s all about recycling isn’t it! Maybe I could ask – or maybe that’s not such a good idea.

The last stuff in the truck was a giant army camouflage net made out of rope and pieces of green and brown rubber, large enough to hide a Centurian tank. Don’t ask!

The net was enormous, cumbersome. I gathered it up in a large ball and held it clasped in front of me with both arms like hugging a giant. Which skip should I choose? It was difficult to see where I was going and the office was about 50 yards away. Suddenly someone shouted “Wait, stop!!” with a deep roar. What was up? I peered over the top of the net and saw a man running towards me, waving his arms and shouting.

He was big, head shaven and sporting a long tangled reddish-brown beard. I thought at once of an egg with hairy legs.  He was wearing a tight white t-shirt with SHOOT TO KILL in large letters above a large elk. It was stretched over his oversized pot-belly, which wobbled like a giant jelly as he ran towards me. With his neon-yellow working trousers and big boots I guessed that he was the supervisor, coming to tell me that I had put stuff in the wrong skip. But no, he just grabbed the net and held it tightly in his arms, taking a step backwards, all in one movement.  A wides smile split his face like a jagged crack in a hard-boiled egg. OK, no problem, I thought, but before I could say “you’re welcome” he was striding towards the white van parked next to the office. He bundled the net inside and quickly shut the sliding doors. I must have looked surprised, until he explained: “I’m a hunter, camouflage is gold to us. Cheers!”.

On the drive home John Lennon sang “Imagine” to calm my nerves. Mary was waiting with fresh coffee. “You’ve been a long time”, she said. “Come and look”, I said, opening the back door of the truck. Inside the purple and silver metal shone brightly in the noonday sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dendrocopos Major*

It hopped up from the ditch by the roadside like a miniature kangaroo and landed three feet in front of the car. “No-o-o” I shouted, even though there was no one there to hear. The young woodpecker froze, giving me time to register its bright red cap, white belly and variegated black and white wings. Then it was gone, under the car. Glancing instinctively at the rear view mirror I saw no sign of a squashed woodpecker on the asphalt. A sense of relief flooded through my veins – the bird had made it.

As I turned onto the dirt road, I could still see the bird in front of me. Woodpeckers have a very characteristic way of hopping up tree trunks, using their powerful claws situated near the bottom of their torso. This makes it easier to keep their balance while hacking away high up in the trees. On the ground they stand upright and hop along in a rather laboured, almost comical way – for a bird.

I backed the car into the gravel driveway and closed the gates behind, giving no more thought to the woodpecker.

The next day, as I opened the gate after my morning walk, my stomach lurched when I saw  what had happened:

IMG_0217 NEW

The woodpecker was there, speckled wings spread wide and red-capped head drooping, sucked into the car’s air intake. It had been there since yesterday. I just stopped in my tracks, not believing what had happened.  What if I had stopped right away and checked the car? Could I have saved it?  What now?

At least I could take a photograph of the poor bird so went to fetch my camera. Crouching down in the gravel, I thought I caught a little glimmer of life still in its eyes. But the broken neck revealed this as wishful thinking. I put on my gloves and held the opening of a white plastic bag over the woodpecker’s head, grasped round its neck and pulled gently. I expected it to be jammed hard in the air intake but the body slid out easily. The wings folded back automatically as the car released its grip on the bird. I noticed a red patch low down on its white belly. It was the same shade of bright red as the bird’s cap, not brown like dried blood. Lying there in the bag it looked peaceful, eyes tight shut. A not very dignified ending for a beautiful young woodpecker.

I slowly tied up the bag and fetched my spade to dig a hole down by the lake, where the woodpeckers hunt for grubs in the dead branches of the gnarled old oak trees.

* The great-spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos Major) is the most common and widespread of the British woodpeckers. The woodpecker is 23–26 centimetres (9.1–10.2 in) long, with a 38–44 centimetres (15–17 in) wingspan. It has black and white plumage, a prominent oval-shaped white patch on each wing and a red patch under the tail. Males also have a red patch on the rear of the head. Juveniles can be identified by their red crown.

 

 

 

How Old Are You Granddad?

Waiting at the bus stop my six year old grandson was talking about his favourite sports, just as he would with another six year old. We were on our way to Thursday’s football practice – his.

“What’s your favourite sport granddad?”

“Do you mean to watch or to play?” I asked.

“Both I suppose. My favourite to play is indoor hockey, and to watch either swimming or football. What are yours?”

“To play its rugby, then I like watching basketball” I said.

“Rugby?”

“You play with a ball that looks like an egg” I said, drawing a rugby ball in the air.

“Is that like American football?”

“More or less, almost the same” I said, nodding and raising my eyebrows like Groucho Marx to show I was impressed.

We were early, so we practised some passing and dribbling to warm up. After almost half an hour in the afternoon sun I was sweating profusely. His cheeks were blossoming, but otherwise he seemed unaffected. After collecting one of my badly skewed passes, he stood there holding the ball and looked straight into my eyes in that innocent way of his, head on one side and squinting against the sun.

“How old are you granddad?” he asked, right out of the blue.

“Seventy”, I said.

He didn’t say anything, just nodded slowly, tucked the ball under his arm and backed off so that we could carry on with our passing game.

His simple question opened up a generation gap between us, a gap that had not been there before. Later I wondered what had prompted his question. And what he thought of my answer. Most likely he was looking for an explanation for my poor performance – “Granddad is really hopeless at passing a football. OK – that’s because he is old and tired, but he’ll do if there’s no one else around.”

A more (for me) flattering explanation could be that he was impressed by my fitness, enthusiasm and prowess with a football and thought perhaps I was younger than I looked with my balding head and white hair. Or maybe he thought, “you’re not that old, only seventy, now it’s your turn to fetch the ball”.

A week or so later we were sitting in the park eating ice cream. He was at home with a heavy cough, I was keeping him company. I asked why he wanted to know how old I was. With a wide smile he confirmed my worst fears – I was past it as a football player.

At football practice I joined the “soccer mums” sitting by the side of the pitch, ostensibly watching their sons going through their training programme.  In fact they were involved in an intense, heated discussion about new city rules for placement of six year olds in schools the coming autumn. After almost half an hour of listening to their views I felt exhausted. But not our soccer mums. They then turned enthusiastically to the merits of living in the asphalt city with small children contra the option of buying a house in the leafy suburbs.

I tried to interest them in the football training which was taking place under their very noses, but to no avail. Their thoughts were elsewhere: what to put on the table for dinner, how to get sitters or grandparents to look after the kids at the weekend, conflicts at work, and the rest.

Another age gap opened up, like cracks in a road after an earthquake.

After training my grandson and I took a short cut through the nearby park to reach our bus stop, passing a large old apple tree in full bloom.

“What kind of tree is that” I asked grandson, trying to arouse some interest in nature.

“No idea” he said, disinterested.

“It’s an apple tree.” I knew this was his favourite fruit.

“How do you know that?”

“I saw some people picking apples from it last autumn.” I said.

“Can you still remember things from last year?”

“Of course, I walk past here quite often.”

He looked confused, probably thought it was another peculiarity about 70 year olds.

On the bus home, instead of chatting with me, he preferred to sit with a couple of his teammates, waving and pulling faces at the driver of the bus behind us in the traffic jam. She responded by waving her wipers and flashing her headlights. My role was reduced to bag man and general dogsbody.

Back home, grandma and little sister, three years old, were sitting on the settee looking at old family photos, waiting for the potatoes to boil. “Who’s that?” asked grandma, showing her a picture of two girls standing next to a large brown pony in the stables. They were about twelve and eight years old. Little sister looked puzzled, and so did big brother when grandma showed him the photo.

“This is your Mummy and her sister, your Aunt, when they were little girls”, explained grandma.  “No way” said the six year old, while the three year old preferred children’s TV. Grandma tried to arouse interest in more photos of their Mummy as a young girl, but to no avail. The idea that their Mummy had a life before she was their mother was completely alien to them. The kids seemed disturbed by the idea that their Mummy had once been young like themselves. I tried again: “Where do you think those girls went to, where are they now?” No response. Grandma and I gave up and set about fixing their dinner, while they sat mesmerised by the TV-screen

Interest in family history and delving into the lives of previous generations is something that comes late in life, often when people have more life behind them than in front of them. “Oh, I should have asked Aunt Mary or Grandma Perkins about this when they were still alive!” is a common reaction after hitting a stone wall in their genealogical endeavours. Another common sign of interest in the past are the rows of biographies and historical novels which dominate the bookcases – if not the reading – of older people.

Are they trying to cling to the past, a past which has long since disappeared into the mists of time? And where does the past go to? Who stores the events of yesterday and yesteryear? Or does the past just disappear into a black hole, sucked from our memories as we desperately try to cling on to what we have lived through? Why do old people try to remember the past, with failing memory, while young people’s hippocampus is set by default to “full steam ahead”? Is it simply that for old people with little future, the past is more interesting and there is more of it, while for younger people it is the opposite?

 

 

Eating Disorder

The early morning sun pierced the mist like beams from searchlights sweeping the sky to catch enemy planes. Their first victim was a large shadowy bird of prey, wheeling and hovering over the lush green fields. Hungry goshawk looking for breakfast. A sudden swoop, a flurry of brown wings, dull choking  and then, silence. Nearby a flock of deer busily grazing hardly batted an eyelash at the everyday slaughter. Was it a pheasant or a hare? Who cares?

In one synchronised movement, the deer suddenly lift up their heads from the long grass and turn towards the goshawk, already ripping at its prey with razor beak. They were disturbed by the loud clamour of a flock of crows, diving like a swarm of attack planes  to chase the goshawk away. The crows won, and started to fight over the bloody spoils. From a distance it looked like a young hare. The deer lost interest and returned to their grass. The goshawk left the scene for the protection of the woods without further ado, resigned to another lost breakfast like a football player shown a red card.

A deep guttural  cry, repeated, warned the crows and their lesser relatives, a family of magpies, who had also been attracted by the chance of a free breakfast. An old black raven circled over the noisy crows like a heavy bomb plane, carefully choosing its target, then landed in their midst. The outsize creature took command of the carcass lying there, strutting around and bobbing its head. Eating order was restored.

The disgruntled crows reluctantly retreated, some with bloodied beaks. They sat nearby on some old fence poles crowing and squawking, waiting their turn while bewailing their relegation in the pecking order.

The magpies retired to a safe distance from the crows, chattering incessantly to protest their position at the bottom of the food chain.

The deer gradually moved away from the fowl commotion to find  more peaceful breakfast surroundings.

The goshawk was already hunting a new prey, now that the crows were occupied.

 

 

Smash and Grab

Nancy and Jake woke up with a sudden jerk, naked legs still entwined under the bedcover. It was dark. Nancy slipped swiftly out of bed and made for the bathroom. Pulling a long purple shift over her head she wandered into the kitchen, shaking loose her mop of auburn hair. The tiled stone floor was refreshingly cool.

Jake stretched out like a sleepy cat, enjoying the space left by Nancy. The warm sheets still smelled of sex and perfume.

Somewhere in the distance he heard Nancy’s voice; “Come and join me, I made some coffee for you.” The flavour of fresh coffee eventually drifted into the bedroom, and Jake couldn’t resist any longer.

“Morning”, said Nancy a bit too cheerfully when Jake came shuffling in like a newly-wakened sleep walker. She was sitting at the kitchen table, hands cradling a blue mug. He put his arms around her from behind and nuzzled her soft warm neck. “Mmmm”, was her only response, “coffee’s out”.

“What’s the time?” were Jake’s first words of the day.

“Almost five. D’you see, moon’s still up”.

The thin curtains let in enough moonlight for them to see each other across the kitchen table. There was a warm sense of familiarity between them. It felt homely.

Jake lifted the curtain and squinted to see out in the early light. Outside it was deserted, street lighting cowering in the deep shadows cast by the waning moon. Empty buildings surrounded the square like a solid black wall.

“All quiet” said Jake as he let the curtain fall back into place. He sat down again. Nancy was smiling to herself in a sleepy sort of way. He was about to say something but Nancy hushed him up: “Don’t, don’t say anything.” He frowned slightly and took a long sip of coffee. Nancy reached across the table to take his hand in hers, and just held it gently. He didn’t resist.

Outside the deep rumble of a powerful engine disturbed their quiet intimacy.

“Bit early for delivering fruit and veg” said Nancy. “Must be market day.”

Jake took a look and could just see the outline of two dark shapes crawling along the opposite side of the square, without lights. “You’re right, delivery vans, at this time!” he confirmed.

Nancy reached out again and cupped his hand in hers. ”Can you stay, Jake?” Her voice was unsteady, a combination of sleepiness and uncertainty. She didn’t want to push him too hard.

He looked straight into her eyes, but gave no answer. His silence was drowned by the sudden loud revving of a heavy engine, a screeching of tyres and then a loud crash of metal and glass. Jake jumped up, spilling the remains of his coffee on the tablecloth.

“What’s happening, Jake?” asked Nancy as she stood up.

He strode to the window. The sound of two more crashes echoed around the square, metal against metal, glass shattered. He pulled back the curtains just in time to see the rear end of a black pick-up truck* disappearing through the demolished entrance to the shopping centre in the square. Two dark hooded figures sat on the bed of the truck, ski masks reflecting what little light came from inside the shops.

“It’s a robbery, smash and grab” he whispered loudly.

Nancy joined him at the window and Jake put his arm around her shoulder.

“Can you see anything?” she asked.

“They smashed down the entrance doors and drove into the shopping centre. Two of them were sitting on the back of the truck, dressed in black. Must be breaking into some shop in there.”

“Terrible”, said Nancy, her voice wavering. “Not the first time either!”

“See that van waiting outside?” asked Jake. “Must be proffs, done this before.”

“Look”, said Nancy, there’s another one leaning against the van. Engine’s running too”

“Probably the lookout with the getaway car! Just like in a film”, said Jake a little too impressed for Nancy’s liking.

From inside the shopping centre they heard the truck engine revving up again and then an enormous crashing sound. The truck squealed as it reversed and then came another crash. This activated an alarm which started to wail, but in vain. No security or police in sight.

“Now they’re making a run for it”, said Nancy, as three lithe black figures came running out of the shopping centre. “Look, they’ve got big sacks of stuff with them.”

“Not wasting any time” said Jake. The van started rolling slowly as the three robbers heaved their sacks into the back. It was already getting up speed as they jumped in and slammed the doors. The van disappeared in the shadows along the darker side of the square.

“Where are they now?” exclaimed Nancy.

“Must be making for the road down by the church” guessed Jake, as the red brake lights flashed briefly to confirm his hunch.

Silence descended once more over the dark square. Even the alarm had given up its wailing.

“And that was the end of our early morning entertainment, folks” proclaimed Jake in his mock radio voice.

“Shouldn’t we phone ‘bout it?” wondered Nancy.

“Who? Police you mean. Nah, bit late now, all over bar the shouting” was Jake’s view.

“You gonna’ stay then?” asked Nancy in her soft voice, shivering nervously.

“Yeah, I’d like that”, said Jake, moving closer.

“Come on then”, said Nancy, smiling as she gently pulled at the greying hairs on his chest.

He let the curtains fall back into place while Nancy turned out the light.

They slid into the still-warm bed, lying close, holding each other tight. Jake pulled up the covers and soon they fell fast asleep.

*Pick-up truck: A motorized vehicle with over-size tires, enough horsepower to rescue a three ton elephant from quicksand and a glove compartment filled with country and western CD’s. (Urban Dictionary).

A Grave Story

A cloud of dry summer dust announced the arrival of Alan’s large black pick-up truck outside George’s place.

“Wanna ride in, George?”

“Sure, Al”, drawled George. He was leaning against his fence, smoking, considering whether it could wait another season for a new coat of paint.

“Jump in then!”

The large wheels spun on the brownish dirt road as George struggled to slam the door. Alan was in a hurry.

He was a large cheerful man, early sixties with workers’ hands and thinning fair hair above a round open face. Alan and his brother Charlie ran the village smithy, a family business for generations. Horseshoes had given way to ornamental gates for the newly rich, renovating their country mansions. Large gates ran at £10 000, each, so there was still money to be made. Alan was always busy with some new project and knew most people around the village, or at least anyone who could be useful. George was not one of these. Dark, wiry, nervous and not noted for taking the initiative. Bit of a wastrel, was the common opinion. So why did Alan offer George a lift?

“In a hurry I see then Al”, said George with a dry cough. “Not like you working Saturday morning.”

“Got a meeting at the churchyard, problem with a burial, our first Muslim one.”

Alan managed all the property for the local parish: churches, churchyards and the rest. Useful for borrowing tools and machinery.

“What’s the problem?”

“Not really sure George. Undertaker called. Said the family wanted to discuss the burial. Could be interesting, why not come along!”

“OK, why not? Nothing else on today.”

“Good on ye’, George. Knew I could rely on you!”

Alan looked relieved when George agreed to come along, and put his foot down through the village before George had time for second thoughts.

“Maybe the grave has to face Mecca”, said Alan cheerfully.

“If that’s all, can’t be much of a problem”, said George, “just get yer’ compass out”.

“Y’know the church and churchyard are listed buildings; we can’t do anything without permission.”

“Welcome committee already here I see!” announced George importantly, as Alan pulled up in the narrow tree-lined lane that led up to the old churchyard.

A shiny silver Mercedes with shades was waiting outside the churchyard, a statue-like driver behind the wheel. Alan parked the pick-up near the dry-stone wall that surrounded the churchyard.

“Here George, this is for you”, said Alan, and handed George a heavy tool-bag from the back of the truck. George finally understood why Alan had been so keen for him to come along – there was work to do.

“Let’s see what they have to say then”, said Alan, taking a deep breath. “And leave the talking to me, George!”.

George nodded, heaving the tool-bag over his right shoulder with a groan.

Two men were waiting just inside the black wrought-iron gate. The rusty hinges made a metallic scraping sound as Alan pushed the gate open. Alarmed, the men turned round quickly to face them. One was old, pale, wearing an overcoat that was definitely too large and too warm for a sunny day in June. He held a string of beads nervously in one hand. The other, younger, full dark beard hiding most of his olive skin, was speaking intensely into an outsize phone. He ended the call quickly on seeing Alan and George approaching, introducing himself in broken English as the son of the deceased. He indicated the older man and said that this was his uncle, his father’s brother.

Alan expressed his condolences. The son translated this for his uncle, who nodded silently. George stood quietly to one side, tool-bag resting on the ground. Alan immediately abandoned his usual presentation of the history of the church and churchyard and led the way to the site for the grave. The two men followed at a distance, deeply involved in a conversation of their own, in an unfamiliar language. George brought up the rear.

Alan followed a narrow gravel pathway cutting through rich green turf, dotted with gravestones and displays of flowers. Summer rain overnight and the early sunshine had seemingly doubled the size of the leaves on the many old trees which protected the churchyard, providing welcome shade. There was not much of a breeze, just enough to ruffle the yellowish-green leaves.

The churchyard was empty except for an oldish couple. Alan knew them. They were tending the grave of their son, killed in a road accident. She was kneeling, busy with a trowel planting fresh purple flowers. He stood dutifully beside her, watering can at the ready. Alan did not want to disturb them.

“Here it is”, said Alan finally, pointing to a grassy knoll beyond an old oak tree, with foliage so thick that it cast a dark canopy over the ground. It was a good distance from the church, so visitors did not need to walk across the consecrated “Christian” ground. This was one of the demands which Alan had heard from the undertaker.

The two men paced up and down, discussing and gesticulating. The younger one finally sent a number of photos from his phone. Alan stood discretely to one side, taking shade from the midday sun under the oak tree, waiting for the family’s decision. Realising this could take some time, George dumped his tool-bag and sloped off for a quiet puff. Finally, after an animated discussion of a couple of incoming messages, the young man turned to Alan and said:

“The family agree that this is a good place for my father to lie at rest. In our religion he must lie on his right side, facing Mecca.

“Where’s that then?” asked Alan.

“This way” said the man, showing the compass in his phone.

“No problem at all”, said Alan. “George, get those pegs out and we’ll mark it up.”

George came back, almost running, as he flicked away his fag end into the bushes.

Alan paced out the length of the grave, under the critical eye of the man with his compass. George followed Alan’s instructions, hammering the long white pegs down, one in each corner.

“This be all right then?” asked Alan.

The younger man translated and after some consideration the older man nodded his approval, a sad look in his bloodshot eyes.

“We’ll get it dug out this afternoon, and then it will be ready for you on Tuesday afternoon,” said Alan in his business-like voice, pleased that it was all settled. “How many mourners will there be?”

“What is this ‘mourners’ asked the younger man.”

“Well, family and others who will be here for the burial. We usually cover the ground around the grave to protect the grass and peoples’ shoes.”

Another lengthy consultation of the older man ensued.

“We think about one hundred fifty”, said the young man, after consulting his uncle.

“One hundred and fifty?”

“Big family. They come from all over: Turkey, Germany, England, France..”.

“Oh, I see. Where are they all going to park I wonder” said Alan to nobody in particular.

“Will that be all then?” asked Alan, trying to wind up the meeting so that he could get home in time for lunch.

“One more thing. Will it be safe to leave the grave when it has been made?”

“How do you mean?”

“Just open.”

“No one will be carting this one off anywhere!” said Alan, killing his smile when he realised that the question was serious.

“Safe as houses. We’ve never had anyone fall in an open grave before”.

“No, for the family it must be a newly – dug grave, never used before. We insist that it is kept secure until the burial on Tuesday.”

Alan could see himself having to stand guard over an open grave all night.

“What could happen then?”

“People could use the grave to bury someone else, another body. It happens.”

“Not in my churchyard it doesn’t!” said Alan, rather annoyed at the very idea.

“No, no, of course not here, but our tradition is that the grave must be pure, not polluted by another soul.”

“And how do we guarantee that?”

“By closing the grave until the ceremony.”

“We’ll have to think about that, but don’t worry I’ll fix something. You can be assured that the grave will be empty and unused on Tuesday” said Alan, trying to appear calm.

The younger man took some more photographs, and then followed his uncle back to the waiting Mercedes, which silently disappeared between the trees along the lane.

Alan looked around, scratching his head, a deep frown across his forehead, planning how to cover up the grave and accommodate a hundred and fifty mourners.

“Bit of a turn up for the books eh Al?” said George and picked up the tools.

“Interesting, bit unusual. Seemed important to them”, was Alan’s reaction.

“More than one body in a grave, common when people were poor. Never had separate graves for children. Buried with other family.”

“You’re right George, family graves. Not only the poor, well-to-do families too. Quite a few here with marble curbstones and fancy iron gates.”

“Well, now you’ve got something to think about, Al, how to close an empty grave. Have to make a lid for it with lock and key!”

George’s sense of humour was lost on Alan, who took things to do with the church very seriously.

“Thanks for helping out, George. Want a lift back?”

A week later George bumped into Alan in the local.

“Hiya Al, how did that Muslim burial go?”

“Tell you the truth George, it was a bit of a palaver, one of the biggest do’s we’ve ever had there. Two hundred mourners, cars parked all over the place – blocking the lane, in the fields. We usually get ten or so at the most. It’ll be a miracle if the lawns and flower beds ever recover. Got him in the right direction though, on his side facing Mecca. That was the important thing. Checked it with a compass!”

“What about the lid on the grave then? asked George.

“Took one of them two-inch metal plates from the workshop and laid it over the hole like a lid. Fitted perfect. Not easy to shift I’ll tell yer! Had to bring in a crane and lift it over the wall. Oak tree took a bit of a bashing.”

“That’s serious stuff, Al. Bit of an overkill. I’d say a one-inch would have done the trick!” said George giving his expert opinion.

“Mourners got an extra treat when they saw a crane lifting the lid off an empty grave”, said Alan laughing.

“All in a day’s work then, Al.”

“Wait till they get the bill!”

“Cheers!”