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 could have been Joe Cocker, but 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 was done 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.  That was the last I saw of Charlie for a while.

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.