Category Archives: Occasional Stories by Eric Gandy

The woman in the camel hair coat

The man in the café

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, thanks.”

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

The woman in the camel hair coat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was very quiet, except for the dull hum of the ventilation. My thoughts turned again to F. This time I had to clear him out of my life, my head, everything. Letters, messages, holiday postcards, photos, anything that reminded me of him. It all had to go. And I had to do it now, before I started longing for him again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Working late?”

“Busy time of the year.”

“Shall I call a cab?”

“Yes please, would you?”

“No problem. Have a good weekend.”

”Thanks Joe.”

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

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

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

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

“Is this seat free?”

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

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


Ryan’s Coffee Shop

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

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

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

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

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

Betty sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You do!”

“I’ve never…

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

“When do I start?”      



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Normally the café was quiet as the grave after the morning rush, except for the old dodgers who could sit all day over a cuppa,  nameless regulars. They trundled in mid-morning and sat with tea and a biscuit for an hour or two, having long since perfected the art of stretching a glass of water all the way to lunch. Some read the local free rag, others just sat quietly by themselves, or chatted to pass the time away. Usually the oldies left before the noisy lunch customers crowded in through the door for a quick lunch with workmates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the blue one quiet Monday afternoon  Ryan asked:

“Want to learn the coffee machine, girl?”

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

“Great! Tomorrow after closing”


Late Tuesday afternoon Ryan came up to Betty, smiling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Visitor, asking for you Ryan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“No problem, dear,” said Ethel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bye Trev. Thanks luv!””

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a word was spoken.




“Hi Frank, Lois here, got a minute?”

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

“Frank, it’s Lois.”

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

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

“What make’s your grinder, Lois?”

“King something, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I get you anything Frank?”

“No, I’m easy thanks Lois.”

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

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

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

“Say if you need anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where d’you want this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“A touch.”

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

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

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

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

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

“More coffee, help yourself to cookies?”

“I’m good, Lois, thanks”.

She raised the matter of payment again

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

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

Lois laughed, “I guess we still are family, sort of. But then you’re welcome to a family dinner tonight, here at eight. ”

She saw again the slight hesitation in his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Make yourself at home, Frank!”

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

“You’ve been busy, Lois.”

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

“Appreciate you taking the trouble.”

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

“Grill needs a good cold beer!”

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you ever feel lonely?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like that too,” he said quietly.

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

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

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

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

“Birthday present?“ asked Frank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello”, she whispered, hoarsely.

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

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

“Wanna go for a ride?”

Lois hesitated, “I’m………..not ready”.

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

Down By The River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still live in the old house do they?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, where’s that then?” asked Jean.

“Bit of land near the by-pass.”

“Whatye’ doing here then, inspiration?”

“Here to collect my old gardening tools.”

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

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

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

“OK, would you?”

Jean realised then that Harry was serious.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’ll cost a bit!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You been digging up the garden Harry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about watering the bushes?” said Harry.

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

“Heavy work”, said Les.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Human Remains*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Auntie Rachel

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


Mary & Ciaran”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“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’?”


“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?”


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.”


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.


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.


“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 slipped 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.”


“Why not?”

“It’s in Arabic.”


“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 one 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!”


“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.”


“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 tense, 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.

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.



















Smash and Grab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you see anything?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are they now?” exclaimed Nancy.

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

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

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

“Shouldn’t we phone ‘bout it?” wondered Nancy.

“Who? Police you mean. Nah, bit late now, all over bar the shouting” was Jake’s view.

“You gonna’ stay then?” asked Nancy in her soft voice, shivering nervously.

“Yeah, I’d like that”, said Jake, moving closer.

“Come on then”, said Nancy, smiling as she gently pulled at the greying hairs on his chest.

He let the curtains fall back into place while Nancy turned out the light.

They slid into the still-warm bed, lying close, holding each other tight. Jake pulled up the covers and soon they fell fast asleep.

*Pick-up truck: A motorized vehicle with over-size tires, enough horsepower to rescue a three ton elephant from quicksand and a glove compartment filled with country and western CD’s. (Urban Dictionary).

A Grave Story

A cloud of dry summer dust announced the arrival of Alan’s large black pick-up truck outside George’s place.

“Wanna ride in, George?”

“Sure, Al”, drawled George. He was leaning against his fence, smoking, considering whether it could wait another season for a new coat of paint.

“Jump in then!”

The large wheels spun on the brownish dirt road as George struggled to slam the door. Alan was in a hurry.

He was a large cheerful man, early sixties with workers’ hands and thinning fair hair above a round open face. Alan and his brother Charlie ran the village smithy, a family business for generations. Horseshoes had given way to ornamental gates for the newly rich, renovating their country mansions. Large gates ran at £10 000, each, so there was still money to be made. Alan was always busy with some new project and knew most people around the village, or at least anyone who could be useful. George was not one of these. Dark, wiry, nervous and not noted for taking the initiative. Bit of a wastrel, was the common opinion. So why did Alan offer George a lift?

“In a hurry I see then Al”, said George with a dry cough. “Not like you working Saturday morning.”

“Got a meeting at the churchyard, problem with a burial, our first Muslim one.”

Alan managed all the property for the local parish: churches, churchyards and the rest. Useful for borrowing tools and machinery.

“What’s the problem?”

“Not really sure George. Undertaker called. Said the family wanted to discuss the burial. Could be interesting, why not come along!”

“OK, why not? Nothing else on today.”

“Good on ye’, George. Knew I could rely on you!”

Alan looked relieved when George agreed to come along, and put his foot down through the village before George had time for second thoughts.

“Maybe the grave has to face Mecca”, said Alan cheerfully.

“If that’s all, can’t be much of a problem”, said George, “just get yer’ compass out”.

“Y’know the church and churchyard are listed buildings; we can’t do anything without permission.”

“Welcome committee already here I see!” announced George importantly, as Alan pulled up in the narrow tree-lined lane that led up to the old churchyard.

A shiny silver Mercedes with shades was waiting outside the churchyard, a statue-like driver behind the wheel. Alan parked the pick-up near the dry-stone wall that surrounded the churchyard.

“Here George, this is for you”, said Alan, and handed George a heavy tool-bag from the back of the truck. George finally understood why Alan had been so keen for him to come along – there was work to do.

“Let’s see what they have to say then”, said Alan, taking a deep breath. “And leave the talking to me, George!”.

George nodded, heaving the tool-bag over his right shoulder with a groan.

Two men were waiting just inside the black wrought-iron gate. The rusty hinges made a metallic scraping sound as Alan pushed the gate open. Alarmed, the men turned round quickly to face them. One was old, pale, wearing an overcoat that was definitely too large and too warm for a sunny day in June. He held a string of beads nervously in one hand. The other, younger, full dark beard hiding most of his olive skin, was speaking intensely into an outsize phone. He ended the call quickly on seeing Alan and George approaching, introducing himself in broken English as the son of the deceased. He indicated the older man and said that this was his uncle, his father’s brother.

Alan expressed his condolences. The son translated this for his uncle, who nodded silently. George stood quietly to one side, tool-bag resting on the ground. Alan immediately abandoned his usual presentation of the history of the church and churchyard and led the way to the site for the grave. The two men followed at a distance, deeply involved in a conversation of their own, in an unfamiliar language. George brought up the rear.

Alan followed a narrow gravel pathway cutting through rich green turf, dotted with gravestones and displays of flowers. Summer rain overnight and the early sunshine had seemingly doubled the size of the leaves on the many old trees which protected the churchyard, providing welcome shade. There was not much of a breeze, just enough to ruffle the yellowish-green leaves.

The churchyard was empty except for an oldish couple. Alan knew them. They were tending the grave of their son, killed in a road accident. She was kneeling, busy with a trowel planting fresh purple flowers. He stood dutifully beside her, watering can at the ready. Alan did not want to disturb them.

“Here it is”, said Alan finally, pointing to a grassy knoll beyond an old oak tree, with foliage so thick that it cast a dark canopy over the ground. It was a good distance from the church, so visitors did not need to walk across the consecrated “Christian” ground. This was one of the demands which Alan had heard from the undertaker.

The two men paced up and down, discussing and gesticulating. The younger one finally sent a number of photos from his phone. Alan stood discretely to one side, taking shade from the midday sun under the oak tree, waiting for the family’s decision. Realising this could take some time, George dumped his tool-bag and sloped off for a quiet puff. Finally, after an animated discussion of a couple of incoming messages, the young man turned to Alan and said:

“The family agree that this is a good place for my father to lie at rest. In our religion he must lie on his right side, facing Mecca.

“Where’s that then?” asked Alan.

“This way” said the man, showing the compass in his phone.

“No problem at all”, said Alan. “George, get those pegs out and we’ll mark it up.”

George came back, almost running, as he flicked away his fag end into the bushes.

Alan paced out the length of the grave, under the critical eye of the man with his compass. George followed Alan’s instructions, hammering the long white pegs down, one in each corner.

“This be all right then?” asked Alan.

The younger man translated and after some consideration the older man nodded his approval, a sad look in his bloodshot eyes.

“We’ll get it dug out this afternoon, and then it will be ready for you on Tuesday afternoon,” said Alan in his business-like voice, pleased that it was all settled. “How many mourners will there be?”

“What is this ‘mourners’ asked the younger man.”

“Well, family and others who will be here for the burial. We usually cover the ground around the grave to protect the grass and peoples’ shoes.”

Another lengthy consultation of the older man ensued.

“We think about one hundred fifty”, said the young man, after consulting his uncle.

“One hundred and fifty?”

“Big family. They come from all over: Turkey, Germany, England, France..”.

“Oh, I see. Where are they all going to park I wonder” said Alan to nobody in particular.

“Will that be all then?” asked Alan, trying to wind up the meeting so that he could get home in time for lunch.

“One more thing. Will it be safe to leave the grave when it has been made?”

“How do you mean?”

“Just open.”

“No one will be carting this one off anywhere!” said Alan, killing his smile when he realised that the question was serious.

“Safe as houses. We’ve never had anyone fall in an open grave before”.

“No, for the family it must be a newly – dug grave, never used before. We insist that it is kept secure until the burial on Tuesday.”

Alan could see himself having to stand guard over an open grave all night.

“What could happen then?”

“People could use the grave to bury someone else, another body. It happens.”

“Not in my churchyard it doesn’t!” said Alan, rather annoyed at the very idea.

“No, no, of course not here, but our tradition is that the grave must be pure, not polluted by another soul.”

“And how do we guarantee that?”

“By closing the grave until the ceremony.”

“We’ll have to think about that, but don’t worry I’ll fix something. You can be assured that the grave will be empty and unused on Tuesday” said Alan, trying to appear calm.

The younger man took some more photographs, and then followed his uncle back to the waiting Mercedes, which silently disappeared between the trees along the lane.

Alan looked around, scratching his head, a deep frown across his forehead, planning how to cover up the grave and accommodate a hundred and fifty mourners.

“Bit of a turn up for the books eh Al?” said George and picked up the tools.

“Interesting, bit unusual. Seemed important to them”, was Alan’s reaction.

“More than one body in a grave, common when people were poor. Never had separate graves for children. Buried with other family.”

“You’re right George, family graves. Not only the poor, well-to-do families too. Quite a few here with marble curbstones and fancy iron gates.”

“Well, now you’ve got something to think about, Al, how to close an empty grave. Have to make a lid for it with lock and key!”

George’s sense of humour was lost on Alan, who took things to do with the church very seriously.

“Thanks for helping out, George. Want a lift back?”

A week later George bumped into Alan in the local.

“Hiya Al, how did that Muslim burial go?”

“Tell you the truth George, it was a bit of a palaver, one of the biggest do’s we’ve ever had there. Two hundred mourners, cars parked all over the place – blocking the lane, in the fields. We usually get ten or so at the most. It’ll be a miracle if the lawns and flower beds ever recover. Got him in the right direction though, on his side facing Mecca. That was the important thing. Checked it with a compass!”

“What about the lid on the grave then? asked George.

“Took one of them two-inch metal plates from the workshop and laid it over the hole like a lid. Fitted perfect. Not easy to shift I’ll tell yer! Had to bring in a crane and lift it over the wall. Oak tree took a bit of a bashing.”

“That’s serious stuff, Al. Bit of an overkill. I’d say a one-inch would have done the trick!” said George giving his expert opinion.

“Mourners got an extra treat when they saw a crane lifting the lid off an empty grave”, said Alan laughing.

“All in a day’s work then, Al.”

“Wait till they get the bill!”


The End of Happiness

 A couple on the train:

“What do you make of him there”, she whispered, nodding slightly.


“Shh!”, she hissed. “Him in the green jacket, standing there reading. Don’t stare.”

He glanced up quickly and saw a grey-bearded, bald man with round glasses standing by the door reading, one hand in the pocket of his green jacket.

“What about him?”

“See what he’s reading – The End of Happiness. Bit depressing.”

“D’ you think he’s unhappy then?”

“How should I know. Most old people look unhappy.”

“Think so?”

“At work it’s always the older one’s complaining.”

She moved closer, leaning into his body. “You’re not like that though, well most of the time.”

“Wait till I get to his age”, he said pulling a face, “when I’m sixty four!”

“But I’ll still love you. And make you happy.”

“But The End of Happiness. Wonder what it’s about?”

“Probably the usual, woman ran off and left him broke and lonely.”

“Cynical, that’s what you are” she said, punching him lightly in the midriff. “I think she left because there was no happiness left in their lives.”

“You mean they used it all up until there was none left?”

“No, not really, but why carry on when it’s over?”

“Look, look”, he whispered, “he’s smiling to himself. Maybe he is glad it ended”.

“What, happiness?”

“No, their life together, remember you said his woman had run off. Maybe to someone else who still had some happiness left over.”

“Would you run off if you weren’t happy with me anymore?”

“Of course”, she said.

He pretended to be offended by her teasing.

“You know, I’ve seen him before, always standing and reading. Never sits down.”

“So what, maybe he likes standing. Growing good, my gran always said.”

“C’mon, we can stand too. I want to get closer.”

“You mad? What’s this all about? Fancy him do you?”

“Nooo! But there’s something about him.”

“Calm down, he’s getting off. Sometimes I just don’t get you.”


A man in a green jacket:

 It had been a distinctly unpleasant journey. I felt their eyes on me as soon as they sat down, burning through my book like sun rays through a magnifying glass. Or rather her eyes; bold and staring, as though trying to reach into my soul. I read the same line over and over, thoughts wandering. Sensing her staring at me, I suddenly looked up. She turned away quickly, moving closer to the man, guilty mouth gaping. Whispering furtively but getting little response. My eyes lingered on the couple for a moment or two, then returned to the familiar lines in the book. The train screeched to a halt and, turning away, I felt the muscles in my face relax. I could finally escape.


“Strangers in the House”

Between nine and eleven o’clock the local gym is a peaceful, almost meditative place, a retreat from the real world. The early birds have rushed off to work in their shirts and ties, after a short, sharp session. The lunch spinners have not arrived yet, still staring at their computer screens. A few seniors, mostly male, are scattered around the place, gently pulling levers and lifting modest weights. Mostly they rest against the brutal-looking machines, or chat softly with other morning regulars. The piped music is slow and low. Day after day they are there. Robot-like pale bodies programmed to unpack their bag, open a locker, change clothes, follow exercise routine, undress, shower, get dressed again, pack bag, close the locker and leave. Most days nothing notable happens to disturb this idyll.

One day a stranger appeared. A rather portly man in stocking feet, grey woollen trousers and a glaring emerald-green hoodie came striding along the narrow corridor between the rows of black and red machines. In one hand a clipboard, in the other a large cellphone with white plugs, round his neck a stop-watch dangling on a black ribbon. He made a beeline for a comfortable seat on one of the machines and flopped down, crossing his legs with difficulty and staring intensely at the phone.

A gradual slowing down of the seniors and their machines could be discerned, as focus turned from training programmes and repetitions to the newcomer.

Warm muscles started to stiffen up when it became clear that the intruder was not alone. First one, then another youth self-consciously followed, dragging their feet and looking around suspiciously. Mid-teens, one slim and sulky, the other seriously overweight. Hardly dressed for training, more like “come-as-you-are”. They dumped jackets and bags in a corner and nonchalantly kicked off their shoes. Gradually they made their way around the gym in slow motion, unwittingly imitating the seniors. Eyes downcast, avoiding contact, they tried a few machines, preferring those out of sight of their leader. He didn’t acknowledge their arrival, engrossed as he was in an animated and loud conversation in a foreign tongue to a person apparently far away.

Two late-comers shuffled along, clones of their comrades in appearance and behaviour. Once installed, they made half-hearted attempts at understanding how the machines worked. Occasionally they lifted a weight or two, between intense staring at the screens of their outsize phones.

The seniors were not too happy about the intrusion, muttering and exchanging disapproving looks as they resumed their training schedules. Order was restored, at least temporarily, until the green-hooded man got up from his machine, announced by a loud clang as the counterweights fell back into place. Greying eyebrows were raised and heads turned as the portly man marched off to find his reluctant charges, stop-watch swinging and clipboard held high. He started to chant instructions and encouragement to the drowsy youths in a bored voice. The only concrete result was the growing irritation of the seniors, defensive of their grandfathers’ rights.

Giving up, the leader retreated with his pupils to a small room fitted out with blue exercise mattresses, designated for stretching rituals. A bad move! The lads collapsed onto the nearest mattress like exhausted dogs, more from lack of sleep than exertion. They lay there groaning, clutching phones like cuddly toys. Stop-watch at the ready, the hooded man ordered the youths to perform a series of sit-ups, one after the other. Enthusiasm for the competition against his clock was definitely low; it was more fun bouncing giant beach balls around the room. Undermined by their lethargy and the increasing hostility of the seniors waiting for their stretching sessions, the leader made a hasty retreat. Gradually the youths summoned up enough energy to grab their stuff and slouch off after him, like sleepwalkers, keeping a safe distance.

The seniors seemed relieved, nodding approvingly, as they recaptured their territory and could return to their daily exercise regime.

“Strangers in the House” is the traditional cry when intruders are found in the British Houses of Parliament.


The narrow brook slowly meanders and wanders, emptying smallish lakes way upstream and draining broad, low-lying fields on its way to the sea. For most of its length it is enclosed by steep banks which the streaming water has gradually sculpted over the centuries. In some places the brook is wider, and the water seems completely still. Sometimes it overflows the low banks, turning nearby pathways and fields into small ponds.

The course of the brook is marked by a thick line of bushes which stretch their thirsty roots down through the rich soil to reach the water. These thickets provide shade and food for flocks of small birds, but also conceal a well-camouflaged, high fence. A wide footbridge, situated where the brook is broader and slow-moving, attracts a large flock of mallards. Little children and pensioners lean over the side of the bridge, bags of old bread at the ready. Themallards seek refuge under the bridge when the hawks circle above, biding their time to launch an aerial attack. This autumn the abundant rain has made life difficult for the mallards; the brook has swelled so much that the brook reaches up to the floor of the bridge, blocking off their escape route.

A loud squawking and flapping of wings broke the silence of the autumn twilight, as a mallard desperately tried to lift from the still water. The heavy bird came crashing through the bushes, flying low into the sunset, trying to gain height. A drone-like hawk struck from above, homing in on its target. A dull thud could be heard as the hawk sank its hooked beak and talons into the neck of the heavy mallard, slicing through its feathers. Linked together they sailed through the air for another twenty yards, hawk hunched like a jockey on the back of the mallard. They hit the ground together with a loud bang; two final choking squawks and then, silence. The hawk wasted no time plucking the feathers off its victim, still warm, just right for dinner.

Train Connection

The fat bulldog showed little interest in following its owner onto the underground train. “All aboard. Mind the doors” commanded the loudspeaker, but the dog still didn’t budge. The owner half dragged and half lifted the heavy beast into the train just before the doors slammed shut. Breathing heavily from the effort, the dog  flopped down on the floor, legs splayed like a cartoon dog dropped from on high. His owner leaned nonchalantly against the carriage wall, pulling out his phone.

Two stops later the owner made for the door, dog slowly waddling after, leaving behind an atmosphere of lethargy in the carriage. Passengers on their way home from work seemed to share the feelings of the bulldog.

Nobody reacted to the woman who moved swiftly down the aisle of the carriage, seemingly in a hurry to get off before the doors closed. She wore a black hijab, floor-length wide grey skirt and a long dark purple tunic. She was not strikingly pretty but quite attractive, in her late 30’s or early 40’s. Almost at the exit, she turned and banged her fist down on the shoulder of a man sitting next to the window, with his back to her. He jumped up, startled. The closest passengers looked up from their smart phones at this disturbance. The man was African, tall and slim, in his mid-20’s, wearing a blue quilted winter jacket and smart jeans. He instinctively turned towards his assailant, holding out his hand to keep his balance. The woman quickly pushed a screwed up paper into his hand, turned and almost running disappeared into the rush-hour crowd on the platform. Nothing was said. The man remained standing, as in a state of shock, and slowly opened his hand. He held it out at arm’s length for all to see. In his palm lay a few screwed-up banknotes. Incredulous, he stared at the crumpled notes for what seemed an eternity. Then he deliberately turned his hand upside down so that the notes sailed down onto the carriage floor. As if to say, this has nothing to do with me. He sat down again. A sympathetic smile from the young woman opposite made him feel a little more at ease. Together they peered down at the notes lying on the dusty floor. After exchanging an embarrassed glance, he decided the best thing was to pick up the notes and stuff them into his jacket pocket.

This is a true story. The woman was taking a big risk. If the doors had closed before she had time to escape from the train, or if the man had chased and caught up with her on the platform, what would have happened? A real life “Sliding Doors”.


The deep, slowing throb of a Harley Davidson* attracted my attention, as the biker slipped it into neutral. It was a late-summer afternoon on a busy city street. The queue waiting for the green relaxed. They were in no special hurry.

The biker hunched low in the saddle, brown pointed thin-soled leather shoes resting confidently on the asphalt. Grey nylon socks and brown-patterned suit brought to mind a pen pusher, not a cruiser. He was too skinny to fill out the khaki wind-jammer. It demanded a more muscular frame.

A greying pony tail hung down below his cream-coloured helmet, which was worn, but still feigned to provide some protection. Gold-rimmed glasses and mottled grey moustache with yellowish-brown stains completed the picture.

A rattling, guttural sound broke the silence, growing louder and more persistent. The biker was clearing his lungs from the effects of the cigar which was perched nonchalantly between the fingers of his left hand.

The lights switched to green but the Harley didn’t move, just turning over. The biker slowly flicked the ash off his cigar, stuck it firmly in the corner of his mouth and then deliberately slid in the clutch. The machine responded with its own guttural sound and slowly they cruised down the middle of the street, leaving behind two thin trails of blue smoke.

* Harley Davidson: The most effective way to turn gasoline into noise without producing any horsepower, according to the Urban Dictionary.


















The silence of the sleeping houses was broken by a dull sound, muffled by the piles of snow which still covered the ground. The snow had a greyish hue in the weak rays of the winter sun.

They had come a few days ago, appearing suddenly from nowhere. About ten of them, a family group; small ones, medium sized, adults and a vicious-looking extra large one with only half a tail. What attracted them was the brown patch of nuts and seeds on the snow below the hawthorn tree, spilled by the greedy birds. ­­

As newcomers they were on their guard. At the first sound of the door lock being turned they split in all directions, as though a grenade had landed in their midst. Some disappeared under the fence into the next-door neighbours. I rang on their doorbell but only the dog was awake. A few minutes later the door was opened by the woman, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “Oh yes, we’ve seen them too. Aren’t they horrible!“ she exclaimed drowsily. Her husband coming along behind almost fell out of the door trying to control the snarling terrier in his arms. “You know”, he added, “these dogs can kill three hundred in an hour if they get up the scent!” Yeah right, I thought, having often seen them dragging the lethargic animal up into the woods to do its business.

After a couple of days we adapted our lives to the intruders, making extra noise opening the door and not leaving any doors open as we fetched the newspapers from the mailbox. We almost missed them when they weren’t around. From reports received we understood they visited other nearby gardens.

The general concensus was that we should get rid of them. So I planned the deed, waiting for the right moment. It came early on Saturday morning. A lone medium-sized animal was preoccupied with digging through the snow to find some breakfast. I slowly slid back the door lock and slipped silently outside. Grasping the blue snow shovel with both hands I lifted it high above my head, held my breath and “WHAM!” There it lay on the crust of the snow, flattened and presumed dead. But wait, its tail was still quivering. Maybe I had just stunned it. Instinctively I raised the shovel once more, “WHAM”, and then again for good measure, “WHAM”. The snow gradually turned dark red around the edges of the flattened corpse. I knew the job was done and left it there to stiffen in the freezing air.

Blue Shovel
The Blue Snow Shovel

Replacing the shovel in the corner behind the door, I returned triumphantly to my breakfast and newspaper. “All in a day’s work for a man”, I told myself.

An hour or so later I knew it was time to get rid of the stiff. So with plastic bag and gloves at the ready, I returned to the scene. But what now! Somebody has stolen my corpse! The only evidence was a pale pink stain on the shrinking snow.

The next day a neighbouring cat-owner proudly described how his cat had come home with one of the intruders dangling from its jaws. “Strange though”, he said, “it was all flattened. I don’t want to know how the cat managed that.” The cat was rewarded with some fresh herring for its bravery.

An Unlikely Couple

Heavy rain last night, and now the muddy cocoa-coloured water almost overflowed the banks of the narrow brook as it snaked its way to the sea. Yellow water lilies leaned over in the strong current. The hot rays of the sun melted the morning mist.

Two figures walking close together appeared round a bend in the pathway which followed the meanderings of the brook. Two women. One appeared very frail as she shuffled along in her bright orange wellies, trying to avoid the puddles in her path.  Her matching orange raincoat was slightly too large, hanging down way below the knees of her white trousers. She was pale, striking white hair in an almost fashionable page cut, thin and not very tall, probably over eighty. Her thin arm, submerged in the oversized raincoat, was hooked over the arm of the other woman. She was younger and much taller, the older woman not quite reaching up to her armpit. The younger woman had a soft olive face, surrounded by a colourful tight shawl which concealed her hair, long flowing blouse and skirt, heavily patterned in dark green and brown, on her feet a pair of intense white sneakers. They walked slowly, the older woman leaning on her companion’s arm for support, both silent and looking dead ahead.

I stepped aside to let them pass on the narrow pathway. The only sound came from the water on its way to the sea. As the couple passed by, I was sure I could hear their thoughts.

The older woman thought; this is my first outing for ages. There’s so much to see and hear and smell, I just can’t take it all in. Wonder what she thinks about this? What was her name again? Must be boring to be sent out to walk me, like taking the dog out for a walk. She should be having fun with others her own age instead of this. We just have nothing to talk about. I’m so curious about where she comes from. But you can’t ask, can you! Might think I’m nosy. All these puddles – good job I got my wellies on. Poor girl in those thin shoes. She’ll catch her death of cold. Perhaps they don’t use wellies where she comes from.

The younger woman thought; here we are again, now it’s Gertie’s turn for a trip around the park. If only she would talk it’d feel less like taking the dog out for a walk. I’m sure she has a lot of stories to tell. Wonder where she grew up and what it was like when she was young? But you can’t ask, can you? Might think I’m nosy. Ahh! my bad luck. Right in a puddle with my sneaker. Went straight through – wish I had wellies like her.

Turning I saw that they took a firmer grip on each other and continued on their slow, silent walk along the brook.

Commuter Games

She sat on a corner seat at the end of the carriage and opened her fur-lined coat wide, oblivious to the other commuters. Sitting in her cosy corner nest she smiled to herself, ruminating on past memories or pleasures to come. The train rattled on, exchanging passengers at each station.

Suddenly her warm dark voice slices through the carriage; “John!” and then again “John!”, much too sensual for a regular morning commuter greeting. A man in his late 40’s is walking slowly along the aisle towards her, head held high with a scarf chokingly tight around his neck, giving him an aloof expression. As he approaches the woman he pretends to suddenly notice her and exclaims “Hello, fancy meeting you here”. He reaches out to shake her hand, as distant acquaintances do. “Yes, what a surprise” she replies, grabs his arm and pulls him into her corner nest. She links arms and snuggles up to him, face bubbling over with joy. His token resistance is noted by the other commuters, peeping from behind newspapers or glancing up from smart phones. She pulls him closer, like a spider hauling in its prey. Their conversation is muted, whispered almost. New passengers glance furtively at the couple before turning away, looking troubled or perhaps envious.

The train jerks to a halt, ready to offload another batch of commuters. The man disentangles his arm and plants a loud wet kiss on her mouth, jumps up and clears the doors just before they slam. He strides off along the platform without a backward glance, leaving behind only the hissing sound as the doors lock into place. Smiling, she raises her hand to wave but then hesitates, letting it fall back heavily into her lap. The woman snuggles down again into her coat, hugging herself tightly as if he was still there. The other passengers relax, their daily commuter routine back to normal as the train disappears into the dark tunnel.

The man slowly climbs the stairs from the cave-like station, breathing laboured and perspiring slightly as he reaches the open air of the park. He is in a hurry, wiping his mouth carefully with the back of his left hand, lips pale and tense, eyes too clouded to notice the yellows and reds of the trees.