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FRUITS OF THE FOREST by Gordon Knight

A collection of short stories inspired by the landscape and people of the New Forest


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CONTENTS Grindling Halt

page 3

Emily's Lover

page 10

A Day in the Country

page 19

Windfall

page 26

Holmsley Passage

page 33

Gwendolyn

page 39

The Messenger

page 48

Blue Monday

page 55

A Gift of the Gods

page 60

Porphyria

page 68

Trust Me

page 73

Happy Anniversary

page 80

The Best Day of My Life

page 87

Contiguous

page 90

The Drift

page 96

Š Gordon Knight 2013. All rights reserved.


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Grindling Halt

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ou won’t find Grindling Halt on any map of Britain’s railway network. In fact, it never even existed officially. But for a short while it was a monument to one of the most extraordinary love stories to come out of the Second World War. It was one early morning in late October 1948 that I first banked my faithful Rudge 250 left onto the road that led to Brockenhurst. Following overnight rain, the New Forest was dappled red and gold in the clear morning sunlight. Small knots of ponies were steaming damply beside the road on the green carpet of Balmer Lawn. I hadn’t relished the assignment my editor had handed me at 4.30 the previous afternoon, but the bright Autumn day that dawned that morning was a motorcyclist’s dream. Besides, I was the newest and youngest reporter on the Southern Daily Echo and already harboured fantasies of Fleet Street glory. On the face of it, the story wasn’t exactly one on which great reputations were built. Following the nationalisation of the railways, a group of enthusiasts had raised £2,750 to buy their local station after the closure of the West Moors line. They planned to re-name it after Maysie Grindling, apparently one of their number. It was, my editor reckoned, a page three filler at best. My first surprise as I coasted onto the weed-infested gravel of the station car park was the visible state of dilapidation. Leaves of white and maroon paint were peeling from the station walls and the railings were heavily dusted with rust. After six weeks of ownership, I had expected at least some progress in restoring the station to its former splendour. But even the station sign was unchanged: it still displayed its original name - Holmsley. Just as well, I thought as I parked the Rudge, that I hadn’t bothered to lug the heavy camera with me. It was only when I walked onto the platform that I suspected a deliberate effort to preserve the legacy of the past - rust, peeling paint and all. Porters’ trolleys still leaned against the walls as if propped there only moments before. Baskets of produce and milk churns rested on pallets, awaiting trains that would never arrive. A platform sign stood stiffly to attention in its metal socket, proclaiming in faded white


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letters the imminent arrival of the 10.38 to Dorchester. A white-haired lady sat on a wooden bench at the far end of the platform, staring up the line. Otherwise, there was nothing but the sounds of birdsong.

I was startled by the screech of a sash window being slid up. ‘You’re too early.’ A shiny, apple-red face, topped with a dizzy shock of greying hair, had appeared at the opened window of the booking office.

‘You’re too early,’ the face repeated. ‘We don’t open for another fortnight.’ ‘That’s all right,’ I replied with the breezy confidence of youth. ‘I’m from the Echo. Just after a few quick details for a story.’ The window slammed down again and heavy footsteps approached through the platform entrance. The face belonged to a squat, powerfully-built man in his late 40s. He was wearing an ex-army greatcoat, the buttons straining against a barrel chest. His look was anything but friendly. ‘Story be damned. You blokes couldn’t manage to get the date right even if it was your own bloody birthday.’ Defiance blazed in his eyes. I lowered mine instinctively and noticed the familiar insignia on his greatcoat buttons. At the age of sixteen I had wept over a similar, treasured memento of my recently dead father. ‘Ox and Bucks. Which battalion?’ ‘Forty-third,’ he replied, his eyes softening in surprise. ‘How’d a whippersnapper like you know that?’ ‘My father. Missing in action at Caen.’ He looked over my shoulder, for a moment worlds away. ‘That were a brutal business. Lost a lot of good friends there.’ For a few seconds we were both awash with memories. I left it to him to break the silence.


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‘So, Mr Echo. What do you want to know?’ He led me into the booking office and sat me down in front of a coke stove. A kettle was singing cheerfully on the top grate. I took out my pencil and notepad as he brewed us fresh mugs of tea. ‘Could I start with your own name and age?’ He clattered the mugs down on the table between us. ‘Name: Grindling, Albert. Age: none of your business.’ I looked up in surprise. ‘As in Grindling Halt?’ I queried. ‘So you must be Maysie Grindling’s husband? He shot me an oddly hostile look. ‘Brother in law. Wallace, my brother, disappeared at Reichswald. M.I.A., like your father.’ ‘I’m sorry. It must have been a blow for both of you.’ He was silent again, staring into the glowing coke embers. ‘So,’ I probed gently, ‘the preservation project - it’s in memory of Wallace?’ He took the poker and stabbed savagely at the embers. ‘No. We’re going to keep it just the way it always was. But not for him. For Maysie. Everything’s for Maysie.’ ◊ It took me only fifteen minutes to gather enough additional details for my filler. I’d have liked to talk to Maysie herself, but Albert Grindling clammed up even at the suggestion. But as I opened up the Rudge on the road back through Brockenhurst later that morning, my budding journalistic senses told me that there was another layer to the story of Grindling Halt. That following weekend, out for a spin before the leaves finally turned, I found my-


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self, not entirely by accident, in front of the battalion museum of the Ox and Bucks. I parked the Rudge where the old metal railings used to stand before they went to make Spitfires. Grindling was, indeed, a name that immediately registered with the curator. In fact, one of only three Victoria Crosses won by members of the battalion during the war. Wallace Grindling. He and his brother Albert were also the only twins ever to serve together in the battalion, by special dispensation. Wallace, missing in action at Reichswald, was later awarded the nation’s highest medal for valour. Albert, wounded in the same battle, survived the war. The story was buzzing in the back of my mind all week as I covered items on the new uniforms of Southampton’s Albion Brass Band and a planned post-war reunion of the Canadian Forestry Corps. It wasn’t until the following Friday that I had time to bike out to Burley to see Elaine, the Echo’s local correspondent for the New Forest area. The story became more intriguing as she spoke. Maysie Grindling had put up a shutter in her mind after the news of her husband’s disappearance. Even after she received his posthumous VC, she still walked along Station Road each weekday morning, Wallace’s medal clutched in her hand, to await the 10.38 train from Brockenhurst. Three years later, when they announced the line closure, she was still to be seen each morning, sitting on the bench at the end of the platform, eyes straining up the line. It was her brother in law, Albert, who led the fundraising effort to keep the station open, even if only for tourists rather than trains. And, of course, for Maysie.

‘Everything for Maysie.’ I recalled Albert’s words as he had looked longingly down the platform. Suddenly, I remembered the figure I had seen, the whitehaired lady sitting stiff-backed on the bench at the end of the platform. Maysie Grindling herself, surely. I sped from Elaine’s house down to Grindling Halt as fast as common sense allowed on roads still greasy with frost. It was 10.25 already and I might just make it. There was no sign of life in the booking office as I ran onto the platform, but she was there. Sitting on the bench, looking up the line towards the train that had not run for nearly two months now. The lapels of her faded brown coat were turned up around her ears and her gloved hands were tucked under her arms for warmth. Her breath rose in soft, rhythmic puffs into the chill morning air. She didn’t move as I walked towards her. ‘Mrs Grindling?’


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She continued looking up the track as I sat down beside her and took out my notebook. It must have been ten seconds or more before she turned to look at me. She was much younger than I had thought, probably not much over 40. She must have been devastatingly pretty before the war ravaged her, her hair clearly blonde before it was whitened by grief. She studied my face with eyes as green and limpid as beryl. ‘Albert warned me you’d come. So young. The war can’t have meant much to you.’ ‘Growing up without a father,’ I shrugged. She looked away up the line as if collecting her thoughts. When she turned to face me again, she glanced down at my notebook and the pencil poised over it. ‘Do you come to praise my husband, or to bury him? ‘Praise him, I hope.’ Her eyes searched my face, as if probing for signs of duplicity. She turned to gaze up the line again as a gust of wind tossed the fine, silver-gilt strands of her hair. The faint odour of violets lingered on the breeze. After a few moments, she sighed as if some conclusion had been reached.

‘I’m not mad, you know. Perhaps at first. Every day believing that Wallace would one day climb down off that train and into my arms again. But not after I got the letter.’ ‘Letter?’ She turned to face me again. There was a faint, ironic smile on her lips. ‘From Wallace. It was his last, written a few days before Reichswald. He was so terrified he could hardly think straight. He was planning to desert and find his way back to me, by hook or by crook.’ ‘Do you still have the letter?’ ‘No,’ she sighed. ‘It didn’t arrive until several weeks after VE day. I destroyed it a few months later.’


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‘And you never heard anything more?’ She shook her head. ‘Only the medal and citation. But gradually, after Albert came back, I pieced together the truth about what happened that day at Reichswald. That’s when I burned the letter. It didn’t seem to be in anyone’s interest to keep it.’ She put out her hand to stop my notetaking. The warmth in her woollen gloves was strangely comforting on the back of my hand. ‘You see,’ she continued, ‘I always knew that Albert loved me. Enough to cover up for Wallace that day at Reichswald. They never found a body, you see. Poor Wallace probably just ran off and got himself blown to pieces somewhere. Albert must have seen it happen, so he passed off his own heroism as Wallace’s. It can’t have been very difficult in the confusion of the battlefield. They were twins, you see.’

She turned to look up the line again and laughed at herself as she did so. ‘Force of habit, I suppose. I know Wallace isn’t coming back. I’ve known for nearly three years now.’ ‘Then why … ?’ She plucked the pencil from my hand and tossed it onto the railway track. ‘At first, it was just to buy myself space to think. Then, it became a comforting routine each morning. The walk; the fresh air - anything to stop me staring at an empty chair. But, by the time I decided it was a bit silly, I realised that it was my best defence against Albert.’ She smiled as she noted the confusion on my face. ‘He’s a dear man,’ she continued, ‘but I don’t love him, in spite of all. By pretending that Wallace was still alive in my mind, I thought it would keep a safe distance between us. Then, they surprised me with all this…’ she indicated the station preservation project with a sweep of her arm ‘…and I was even more locked in.’ There was a mischievous glint in her eyes as she deftly removed the top sheet of my notepad with her other hand and balled it in the gloved palm.


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‘So now, after all this effort and money, we couldn’t possibly disappoint them. Could we?’

Her face, to my susceptible young gaze, was one that armies, not just brothers, might have fought over. There was not a shred of insanity in those bright, berylgreen eyes as they looked imploringly into mine. Behind them, I suspected, lay a shrewder understanding of human nature than I had yet experienced. Without extracting any promises as I left Grindling Halt that day, she knew exactly what story I was going to write. So that is how the undying devotion of Maysie to her husband Wallace Grindling, VC and her long, unrequited railway tryst became one of the most celebrated love stories of the Second World War. And even today, whenever I pass the disused railway line and those tourist tea rooms that, to me at least, will always be Grindling Halt, I smile at how my career - as prize-winning journalist, Fleet Street editor, then media baron - was founded on the biggest lie I ever told in print.


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Emily’s Lover

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hat kind of man woos a woman by sending her reptiles on her birthday? It was a mystery that had obsessed me since the age of twelve, when I first stood in fascinated horror before the stuffed snake that dominated my grandmother’s mantelpiece. And fifty years later, through that reptile, I would learn painfully the truth about my family and myself. My only encounter with Emily, my grandmother, happened in the immediate aftermath of the war. My father had managed to scrounge some petrol coupons, and, after much argument, the consensus was a day trip to the New Forest. It was a sunny spring day, bright as a new minted penny, and ideal for a drive from our home on the outskirts of London into the country. It would, I was solemnly instructed on the way down, probably be my only chance to meet the granny I had never seen. She was, I was warned, both incurably ill and irredeemably eccentric. Emily welcomed us, a stooping, frail figure, at the door of her unkempt cob cottage near Setley. She was dressed in green workmen’s overalls and wellingtons as if fresh from digging for victory. Her almost white hair was long and loose, in an unruly style quite unconventional for those days. My abiding memory of her is the sparkle in her inquisitive, jade-green eyes as she ushered us inside the cottage. It was like entering a museum. Every wall and shelf was crammed with prints, books, or glass-cased specimens representing half the reptile kingdom. A toad, tongue half uncoiled as if reaching for an invisible fly, nestled under glass amongst pondside vegetation. A bright green lizard sunned itself on a marbled rock. But it was the snake on the mantelpiece in the sitting room that held me transfixed. Its mouth gaped, fangs poised to strike, and its whole body was frozen in mid-lunge by the taxidermist’s art. My parents had gone through to the tiny patio behind the cottage, where Emily had laid out a lunch that must have used up half the coupons in her ration book, but I was deaf to their calls for me to join them.


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Emily crept up behind me and placed her hands on my shoulders, making me jump. She smelt of damp moss and violets. ‘Looks vicious, doesn’t he?’ My grandmother’s voice was surprisingly strong for her age, with just a trace of an accent that I couldn’t quite place. I stared at the snake, not daring to move any closer. ‘Where did you get it, grandma?’ ‘Please call me Emily,’ she chuckled, ‘or you’ll make me feel so terribly old.’ ‘Is it dangerous?’ ‘No. Not that one. If he was alive, he’d be more scared of you than you are of him.’ ‘But where did it come from?’ Emily ran her fingers gently along the top of the glass case. It was thick with dust. She bent down to whisper in my ear. ‘He was a special birthday gift a very long time ago. When I was a young girl, barely twice your age.’

‘Who from?’ She was quiet for a moment. Then she brought her lips even closer to my ear. ‘From a very special man.’ ‘What, you mean a sweetheart?’ Emily laughed, a little tinkling laugh like a cat’s bell. She put her arm round my shoulders and shook them gently. ‘Now what would a little girl like you know about sweethearts? Have you got one?’ I shook my head. ‘Well, when you do get one, don’t let anyone in the world keep you from him.’


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‘Why?’ She stood up and patted me on the head. I didn’t usually like people doing that, but it seemed quite natural with her. She gazed at the snake again. ‘Because, dear, you don’t want to wind up a brittle old stick like me without sowing a few wild oats along the way.’ I was just about to ask her what sweethearts had to do with scattering seeds when my mother’s voice came through the French doors. ‘What are you whispering to the child, mother? None of your Bolshevik ideas, I hope?’ Emily put her finger to her lips and we exchanged nods of understanding. Then she took me by the arm like an old school chum and led me out into the bright sunlight on the patio. I don’t remember much about the lunch, just a lot of rather formal small talk. Old friends lost in the war. The trials of food rationing. The new threat from Stalin’s Russia. Emily seemed to bristle when mother launched into a tirade about Attlee’s new Labour government, but father calmed things by pulling out his pocket watch and exclaiming at the time.

I was still bursting with curiosity about my grandmother when we left the cottage. I couldn’t wait to start the questions the moment Emily’s tiny waving figure disappeared from sight as the car pulled out onto the Brockenhurst road. ‘Why does grandma have all those frogs and snakes?’ My mother exchanged looks with my father in the front seat. He simply shrugged. She turned and rested her chin on the seat back. ‘Grandma used to be a collector for the Zoological Society. A long time ago, even before I was born. She gathered reptiles for the big zoo in London.’ ‘Was that during the Great War?’ ‘No. Even earlier than that. About the time Queen Victoria was on the throne.’


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‘So why have we never been to see her before?’ My mother exchanged looks with my father again. She seemed a little flushed ‘Your grandma was a bit of a wild sort. Careless with her choice of friends.’ ‘But she doesn’t live that far away from us.’ ‘She hasn’t always lived in Setley. She’s been in India for the past forty years. She only came back because of the troubles there.’ ‘So why did she go to India?’ ‘Her ma and pa sent her abroad to keep her out of trouble.’ I pondered all this new information for a moment. No wonder Emily wasn’t like other people’s grandmas.

‘So were you born in India, ma?’ ‘No. Emily went to India just after I was born. That’s why I was brought up by my grandma and grandpa.’ ‘And is she very ill, then? Will I see her again?’

‘Yes. Very. And no, probably not.’ My mother clammed up after that. Father needed no distractions, she said. Driving had become more challenging than on our trip down to the New Forest. Obviously a troopship had arrived back in Southampton, because the roads were filled with army trucks taking soldiers back to barracks for demobilisation. ◊ For the rest of her years, my mother refused to discuss the mystery surrounding her birth just prior to Emily’s foreign adventure. Even today, I’m not convinced she ever knew the full truth herself. After grandma’s death a few months later, just before Christmas, my mother went down to clear all the books and prints and glass showcases from the cottage. We were all quite excited by the idea of keeping the cottage as a second home in the


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country. Not many people could afford that after the war. Building materials were still scarce, but gradually the cottage was transformed until, with re-thatching three years later, it became the weekend idyll most people dream about. In the process, I think my parents fell in love with the New Forest and its changing seasons, because when I married a crazy Glaswegian rock promoter in the mid 1960s and moved to Scotland, they sold up and left for Setley to spend the rest of their days in the cottage. By then, my lifestyle had resulted in a major family rift. It pains me even now to think I only ever visited them in Setley half a dozen times over the next thirty years.

Unlike my parents, I never intended to keep the cottage after my own mother’s death at the dawn of the new millennium. My father only saw a few days of the new century, and she outlived him by a mere four months. At least she didn’t suffer long in solitude, but two funerals in the same year from that cottage was a memory I was keen to erase. Indeed, coming as it did so close on the heels of my marriage breakup, the year 2000 was an annus horribilis that drove me closer to the edge than all the drugs and hard living of my Glasgow years. The last thing I wanted was to wind up like Emily, a solitary eccentric surrounded by the detritus of better days. But my fate was determined, like hers, by a snake. Even as a kid, I’d never been up into the attic of the cottage, so I wasn’t to know that my mother had retained a few mementoes of Emily. It was the surveyor that alerted me when he was inspecting the cottage prior to sale. I spent most of a wet November afternoon poring over dust-laden scrapbooks of her articles in the Zoological Society Magazine and field notes from trips to Madagascar, Borneo and Rhodesia. There were photos of her as a young woman, almost always in what, for those days, would have been considered men’s clothes. There was even a special commendation, dated 1898, from the President of the Zoological Society for her work on tesselated snakes. I sat down under the skylight on a box draped with an old curtain to read some faded cuttings on Queen Victoria’s funeral. There was the sound of splintering glass and a sharp pain in my right buttock. I screamed and leapt to my feet. The curtain had been concealing a glass display case. And my buttock was now impaled on the fangs of Emily’s snake.


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‘Don’t worry, madam,’ the local Brockenhurst doctor reassured me, barely stifling a giggle. ‘The venom is very short-lived.’ He handed me a prescription for precautionary antibiotics before adding, with an infuriating grin on his face: ‘Now, if you’d like to bring the snake in for treatment …’ The following day, my backside suitably disinfected and dressed, I re-ascended the attic ladder to complete my investigations. It was then I noticed that not only had the glass case shattered under my weight but the base too. It was hollow. Through the crack that had opened up I could see something red hidden inside. It was a leathercovered book, secured with a rusted gilt clasp. As I retrieved it, something fell out onto the floor. It was the photo of a man. My hand trembled unaccountably as I picked it up. The man was probably in his fifties, but a mane of white hair and whiskers covered too much of his face to be sure. He wore dark, baggy trousers and a threadbare greatcoat and his head was crowned with a large-brimmed floppy hat. A canvas bag was slung over his shoulders and a variety of bottles and utensils hung from his belt. His eyes were dark and enigmatic. I checked for an inscription on the back, but there was nothing except a date. 1904. The year before Emily left England. I forced the rusty clasp of the book with a nail file and, with mounting excitement, read the inscription inside the front cover.

Emily Codrington - Her daybook 1899 - 1905. In a firm and rounded - almost masculine - hand, she had chronicled the daily events of those secret years of her life. I eagerly scanned the first few entries. They detailed her appointment by the Zoological Society to collect specimens for their thriving zoo in Regent’s Park. Her unfashionable anger at the New Imperialism in Africa and her enthusiasm for imminent female emancipation in Australia. It wasn’t until the seventh page that she began to reveal some of her inner story.

Monday 17 July 1899 Travelled by train to Brockenhurst in the New Forest. Thence by pony and trap to New Park, where I encountered the most extraordinary fellow. He lives alone, like a


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red Indian, in a forest clearing, where he has established a wigwam of willow poles covered with branches and canvas. Hard to understand his speech, since he is afflicted with a cleft palate. He lives, it seems, by odd jobs and by catching snakes in the purlieus of the forest. I do believe he has knowledge of reptiles equal to that of any of my acquaintance in the Zoological Society. Purchased three prime examples of ‘Coronella austriaca’ from him - a growing rarity in these parts.

There followed several pages of musings on the progress of the war against the Boers and revelations of my grandmother’s growing pacifist instincts. Little of direct interest until the following Spring, when Emily renewed her acquaintance with the New Forest.

Tuesday 15 May 1900 To Brockenhurst once more, where the forest was clothed in the bright green mantle of early Spring. Light luncheon in the Railway Inn to alleviate chest cold (didn’t work!), then up to New Park to visit with BM. A good example of ‘Lacerta Agilis’ plus some snakes of lesser interest. BM displayed amazing knowledge of woodcraft and herbal medicines. Offered me tincture of lovage for cold plus adder fat ointment to rub on chest. Drank lovage (not too sure about adder fat). Chest cleared by time I disembarked at Waterloo!

I quickly scanned the following pages, looking for any further mentions of the mysterious BM. I began to suspect he might be indirectly responsible for the pain in my right buttock.

Thursday 17 August 1900 A quiet birthday, relieved only by the arrival of a consignment by special delivery. No note. On opening, discovered fine example of ‘Bombina variegata’, which had barely survived the trip. Never known this toad to breed so far north, but can only have been from BM.

A routine seems to have settled into Emily’s life with the turn of the century. Each Spring, the entries showed, she would be on the train to Brockenhurst to collect new


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specimens from the wigwam in New Park. Then, each 17th August, a package would arrive at her door with some outstanding representative of the reptile kingdom.

By her birthday in 1904 something seems to have changed. It was, in some way, more special than the others.

Wednesday 17 August 1904 Miserable bout of influenza. Rushed out of bed to the door, just catching the delivery boy in time. Opened the package he brought, to discover something quite exceptional. A ‘Natrix tesselata’. Surely there cannot have been a single example in the New Forest in recent history. BM has really excelled himself this time. Finally, all else having failed, tried his adder fat ointment. By evening, on top of the world and singing like Nellie Melba.

I couldn’t help wondering if a dab of BM’s magical ointment might have eased my lingering discomfort from his snake. The entries thinned somewhat after that, and Emily’s visit to Brockenhurst the following Spring seems to have been her final one.

Monday 29 May 1905 Arrived at New Park to find BM in poor condition. Has been coughing a lot lately and taken to drinking yarrow nightly to relieve it. Agreed to administer the adder fat ointment to his chest. Surprised to discover how strong and (for his age) youthful his body really is. His facial appearance quite belies him. Had returned to London before I realised had not collected specimens.

I was disappointed to discover that the entries ceased shortly after that. Either Emily had abandoned her diary on going abroad or started another in India that had not survived.

By the time I descended from the attic again, clutching the precious red leather diary, a crazy idea had formed. I had no roots in London after almost forty years. The Glasgow memories were ones I wanted to expunge for ever. Maybe Emily’s diary


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could help me find some new roots in the New Forest. I decided to take the cottage off the market, at least for the time being. I began consciously to retrace Emily’s steps. I walked around New Park, now the grounds of a smart country hotel, imagining the small circle where the wigwam had stood. I sought out the Railway Inn where she had lunched that August almost a century before. It didn’t seem in the least significant at first that it now bore the name of ‘The Snakecatcher’. It was only when I entered the rear bar that realisation dawned. There, on the wall opposite, was that face that Emily had enshrined in her diary. Those same bushy, white whiskers and dark, enigmatic eyes. It was the face of Brusher Mills, 1840 - 1905, snakecatcher and local New Forest legend. The man who I was now convinced was my grandfather.


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A Day in the Country ‘Halloooo, there!’ Denzil Trug groaned. Another load of gawpers from the metropolis. He switched off the tractor engine and swivelled round in the seat. A middleaged couple were leaning on the gate to the field, their two young children peeping at him through the bars. Just his luck; ten minutes to knocking off time and he had got landed. He noticed the children were carrying corn dollies from the village handicrafts shop. They’d obviously done the usual circuit: the walk from the station to the village; the churchyard visit; lunch in the village pub; the handicrafts demonstration; the souvenir shop then, on the way back, a bit of local colour over the farm gate. Denzil ground the stalk of corn between his teeth, shoved his hands deep into his overall pockets and trudged over to the gate. ‘Hi, I’m Julian Winchester. This is my wife, Aileen, and these two are Lucy and Tyke - that’s,’ the man added with an apologetic grin, ‘short for Tarquin.’ Denzil wiped his hands on the seat of his overalls and took the offered, rather limp hand. At least the couple seemed polite, unlike some of the people who yelled at him over the gate as if addressing a minion. The young lad, Tyke, was staring at him sullenly through the bars.

‘Perhaps,’ said the woman, ‘if you wouldn’t mind, you could explain to Tyke what you’re doing.’ She was pretty, with curly brown hair and an engaging smile. Unlike her son, who was still glaring at him suspiciously. ‘You see,’ she added, ‘he’s never been to the country before.’ ‘Never bin to the country before?’ Denzil repeated with theatrical incredulity. He crouched down level with the boy and gave him his special wink, but the boy just


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continued glaring at him. ‘You’m be missin‘ a great part of your education, then.’ The boy hooked his hands over the bar of the gate, propped his chin between them and examined Denzil’s face with defiant curiosity. ‘You talk funny.’ Denzil chuckled as the boy’s mother shushed him into silence. ‘People don’t allus talk like you lot in the metropolis. Country folk ’ave allus ’ad their own way of sayin‘ things. Their own way of seein‘ ’em, too.’ ‘I think the country’s silly and it smells. It wasn’t my idea …’ The boy’s mother scooped him up before he could finish his sentence. His father looked at Denzil apologetically. ‘I’m sorry. Truth is, he’s been a bit of a problem at school recently. Today was the school’s idea, actually: a change of scenery, new people, some fresh experiences. But it hasn’t quite worked out …’ His voice tailed off as his wife shot him an angry glance. Denzil knew a family in danger of disintegration when he saw one. He turned to the little girl, who had so far just smiled shyly at him from the shelter of her mother’s hip. ‘And what about you, Lucy; what have you learned from a day in the country?’ ‘Lots,’ she sniggered. ‘Like how they used to bury people underground and put stones up so you knew where they were. And how they used to live on bread and cheese...’

‘We bought them a ploughman’s in the village pub,’ her mother explained with a laugh. ‘And did you learn where that food came from?’ asked Denzil. Confused, the girl glanced up at her mother for support. ‘Well,’ Denzil continued, ‘the wheat and barley for the bread was grown in a field like this one. And the cheese was made from milk that came from cows.’


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The girl wrinkled her nose in disgust. ‘Cows? The animals that make those smelly puddles all over the field?’ Denzil chortled together with her parents. ‘That’s another thing you’m learnt about the country, then. There bain’t no cow toilets.’ The boy was growing heavy on his mother’s arm. She put him down again, and he poked his head back over the rail to look into the field. ‘What’s that for?’ he pointed. Denzil turned to see where the boy was pointing. ‘That be a tractor. You drive it around the field pullin‘ things behind.’

‘Why would anyone want to do that?’ the boy asked scornfully. ‘’Cos the earth is sometimes so ’ard, you need to break it up to plant things in it. Things like wheat to make the bread you ’ad for lunch. Or vegetables. You like eating vegetables?’ The boy ignored the question. He was staring at the machine, his eyes suddenly animated. ‘Can I drive it?’ Denzil glanced at the boy’s father. There was an unspoken plea in the man’s eyes.

‘Well,’ Denzil hesitated, ‘it’s really agin the rules. But, if you’m very careful and does just as I says…’ Before he could finish, the boy had wriggled under the gate and was tugging him by the overalls towards the tractor. ‘Do be careful,’ his mother called after them as Denzil helped him up onto the seat. The boy’s eyes widened as Denzil started the motor and black smoke bellowed from the exhaust. He leaned forward excitedly in the seat as Denzil slipped the clutch.


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Back and forth across the field they went, the boy watching Denzil’s every move as he slalomed the tractor in and out of the thistle patches, shifting up and down through the gears as the incline changed. After a few minutes, Denzil stopped, slipped the tractor into neutral and beckoned the boy into the driver’s seat. ‘Take it easy on the pedals and don’t pull on the wheel too ’ard; she just needs strokin‘ around.’ He watched as the boy half sat, half stood to reach the pedals. A slight crunch as the gears were engaged and they were off. After the first thistle patch was safely negotiated, he slid her into second gear, sweet as a nut. Then into third, as they turned along the top of the field. Denzil smiled at the look of total concentration on the boy’s face. Coming back round the bottom of the field, he brought her down through the gears again smooth as butter. As they passed the gate, Denzil could see the boy’s mother poised anxiously on the fence; his father’s face wearing an amused smile. Then off they went again, boy and machine, climbing together up the incline and swooping back down through the thistle patches. The gleam in the boy’s eyes sparked a long forgotten memory in Denzil. A memory of other boys and other times. Finally, he motioned to him to bring the tractor to a halt in front of the gate. He couldn’t help noticing, as he helped him down from the cab, how animated the boy had become in the past ten minutes. He rushed over to the gate to bask in his parents’ praises. The father shook Denzil’s hand again, much more warmly this time. ‘I can’t thank you enough. We’d just about given up hope of shaking him out of it.’ Denzil shrugged his embarrassment. ‘No problem. The boy’s a natural. He didn’t need no help from me; it’s like he was born to drive tractors.’ The father tried to press money into Denzil’s hand, but Denzil refused it, slightly offended. He watched as they walked on down the path towards the station. The little boy slipped his hand into his father’s and looked back at Denzil. There was the briefest flicker of a smile on his face.


23

Denzil checked his watch and slipped on his jacket. The couple and their children would certainly be the last now. He locked the tractor, walked to the edge of the field and waited for the bus to arrive. He was deep in thought by the time the bus glided to a halt in front of him. Denzil rarely exchanged much more than a cursory nod with the others on the bus, the ones from the pub, the village church, the handicrafts centre. But Angus Loveridge was there, sitting by himself on the back seat. Obviously on one of his infrequent tours of inspection. Loveridge was a former curator of Roman Antiquities at the Museum of History and he and Denzil shared a common interest in the story of the British landscape. ‘Evening, Denzil,’ Loveridge boomed at him in those rich, Falstaffian tones of his. ‘Fancy a good chin-wag?’ Denzil shuffled down the bus and joined him on the back seat. ‘Hello, Mr Loveridge. Down for a sniff of country air, are we?’ ‘Not much chance of that. Spent most of the day inside reading endless reports and spreadsheets.’ ‘Still, could be worse. You could be back dusting off old sarcophagi or puzzling over some jigsaw of ploughed-up mosaic.’ Loveridge stared pensively out the window at the long shadows creeping across the fields. ‘It’s funny, Denzil. I do miss it sometimes. I miss the tingle.’ ‘Tingle?’ ‘You know. That sense of immediacy you get from holding a Roman denarius and wondering about all the hands it has passed through. Perhaps it was in Julius Caesar’s purse when he died under a hail of daggers on the Senate steps. Or part of the bribe Cleopatra offered to Octavian in a vain attempt to save her son by Caesar. Octavian himself, as the emperor Augustus, might have tossed it to a victorious gladiator in the arena. You don’t get the same sense of history from holograms and virtual reality.’


24

Denzil gazed at the patchwork of manicured fields passing the bus window. It was all too neat somehow. No comforting raggedness to give it soul. ‘Know what you mean, Mr Loveridge.. It’s hard for people to get a hands-on sense of history these days.’ ‘And you, Denzil. Don’t you ever miss your old job?’ Denzil scratched the two-day old stubble on his chin. It was a required part of his job, but he hated it.

‘Sometimes I do, Mr. Loveridge. Sometimes.’ The encounter with the boy had fanned a long forgotten ember in Denzil. It had been almost twenty years since he had stood in a classroom and watched that look of self discovery spread over the face of a child. Perhaps he had lacked the patience for teaching then. But he had had more than enough lessons in patience during fifteen years of pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Loveridge alighted from the bus at the main entrance to walk to the station. He gave Denzil a cheery wave before trundling off down the path. In spite of his bonhomie, Denzil always sensed an underlying melancholy in Loveridge. That was probably why he liked him. Loveridge had a life-long passion for history and hated to see it debauched. That was, Denzil reflected, something else they had in common. The light was already beginning to fade as the bus passed through the entrance gates. Denzil looked back at the evening sunlight glinting on the gigantic, domeshaped membrane. It had all seemed a worthy endeavour at the time, trying to resuscitate the memory of a bucolic past slowly fading from memory. But perhaps there were more effective ways of sowing a reverence for history in young people’s minds. He was resolved. Next morning, he would check what opportunities still existed in the metropolis outside for a lapsed teacher of history. There had to be better things to do with one’s life. The bus turned into the track leading to the staff compound. Denzil stepped down as it drew to a halt outside his bungalow. The biometric sensors picked him up as he walked along the path to his door and initiated the welcome home sequence. He turned to watch the bus glide noiselessly down the track, the familiar holograph on


25

the back blazing briefly in the last of the sunlight. He smiled ironically at the dome-shaped logo, etched in gold, and below it the slogan he had grown increasingly to hate:

Spend a day in The Country - Europe’s only theme park devoted to the rural past! Well, he thought, as he placed his palm against the access panel and the bungalow door slid open, tomorrow they could just find themselves a new make-believe yokel. To hell with their ‘rural past’. Denzil Trug was dead. From now on, he’d have a new mission. Genuine history still had a part to play in the urban future.


26

Windfall

I

t was the first time that anything had stopped him dead in his tracks. In the twelve years that Quentin Lisle had jogged his early morning circuit round the outskirts of Burley village, the gnarled, woodpecker-worn oak had always marked his turning point home to freshly brewed tea and Weetabix. He knew all its moods. Its gaunt, lichen-clad depression during the damp Winter months. The riotous, green exuberance of its Spring. Its calm Autumn satiety, when the pigs turned out for pannage gorged themselves drunk on its fallen fruits. And now it was gone. He stopped, hands on hips and panting heavily. A cold ripple washed up his spine at the sight in front of him. The oak was fallen, its mighty trunk splintered a few feet above the ground. Just a few degrees to the left or right and the only casualty would have been a concrete bird bath or an old wooden toolshed. But the arc of its fall had neatly bisected the front bedroom of the Gillespies’ cottage before coming to rest on the unyielding mass of their ancient wood-burning stove in the kitchen below. A white Volvo police car and an ambulance were parked on the gravel in front of the shattered shell of the cottage, their reflective stripes strobing eerily in the blue flash of their emergency lights. Two paramedics were loading someone on a stretcher into the ambulance. The face was completely covered with a white cloth. Whoever it was had evidently not survived. Gillespie, the poor sod, was standing with a WPC. She was trying to tease information gently out of him. But he was just staring blankly at the chilling scene of destruction. He turned his head briefly to watch while they loaded the body into the ambulance, then back to the massive trunk that had rudely invaded his home. He looked as if he had aged twenty years overnight.


27

◊ ‘Shit!’

Marjorie Gillespie looked up from her Joanna Trollope and sighed. Her husband John had embarked on a new variation of his usual early morning routine. On this occasion, he was hopping around holding his big toe, which appeared to have lost a skirmish with the poorly-lit wardrobe door. ‘That

bloody tree! It’s going to be the death of me.’

His face was distorted with pain and anger. Marjorie sighed again and returned to her book. She knew that her forbearance irritated him intensely, but that was part of the satisfaction. He raised his voice several decibels. ‘Serve

you right if I got bloody gangrene in it!’

He hopped over to the window and stared out at the giant oak, silhouetted by the first rays of dawn. ‘Look

at it! Standing there like some malevolent troll blocking out God’s good daylight. We might as well leave the curtains drawn all day!’ Marjorie slipped her bookmark into the book and watched as a pool of condensation spread across the window pane from his angry breath. ‘Well you know you can’t do anything about it, John, so why do you always get

your knickers in such a twist?’ He glared at her before returning to the object of his hatred in the garden outside. ‘If

it wasn’t for the infernal New Forest District Council it would have gone years ago,’ he spat. ‘One of these days I’ll take a damn axe to it myself. Fine or no fine.’ Marjorie shrugged as she returned to her book. ‘Anyway,

perhaps it’s wise to remember who owns this cottage. And pays most of

the bills.’ John Gillespie shot her a look of contempt as he limped off to the bathroom. Every argument seemed to end like that, as if her legacy from that long-forgotten aunt had given Marjorie the ultimate moral authority.


28

Sometimes, he reflected as he hobbled off to the bathroom, fate deals all the aces to the wrong player. A world cruise; a cellarful of fine wines: a classic car or two now those were the sensible kind of things on which to spend a windfall. Not a hand -painted designer kitchen that cost half what they - correction, Marjorie - paid for the cottage itself. Plus a string of ponies that cost more in feed and vets’ bills than their weekly shop at Sainsbury’s. He turned as he reached the bathroom door. Marjorie was propped up on her pillows like a self-satisfied squirrel, digesting her latest green welly saga. Books were another area in which they didn’t see eye to eye. Murder stories were more his taste - especially spouse murders - and the more non-fictional the better. He had digested them all, from Dr Hawley Crippen to John Christie to Brian Kearney. His years of careful study had taught him two lessons. One, it demanded a high degree of ingenuity not to get caught. Two, you had to maintain the illusion of a perfect marriage to avoid arousing immediate suspicion. It was the latter imperative that had tortured him for years. If only, he thought, Marjorie could read my mind. But she simply gave him the briefest of glances as she turned the page. It was the kind of glance you’d give a stranger. ◊ It was the book that crystallised John Gillespie’s plan. Browsing the second hand bookshop in Lymington had always been one of his special pleasures. It was one of the few that didn’t have a bill attached. He had really been after something on the early history of Alvis. Even through Marjorie wouldn’t allow him to indulge his passion for classic cars, he could at least dream. The book in his hand was old and shabby, with worn green leather covers and what looked like coffee rings on several of the pages. But the title intrigued him. ‘Tree Surgery for Beginners’ by Ernest Frowd. It was obviously written in the days before chainsaws, judging by its quaint descriptions of two-man crosscut saws and ‘lipping’ techniques for controlled felling. He opened the cover and read the foreword. Ernest Frowd had been head forester on the Beaulieu Estate in the 1930s and had, luckily, committed his knowledge to paper before walking into a German tripwire three days after D-day. ‘Out

of print now, Mr. Gillespie. Rare as dragon’s teeth. You won’t find many of


29

them around today.’ John Gillespie looked up. He had been immersed in saw kerfs and side dressing, not realising he was showing too much interest to get a good price. ‘Well,

not surprising really,’ he shrugged. ‘Things have changed a lot since the 1930s. Not much call for two-man bow saws these days, I imagine.’ Peter Bullock hesitated just long enough for Gillespie to know he had evened the odds a little. Bullock might be the sharpest second-hand bookseller south of Basingstoke, but Gillespie had a mixture of Scot and gypsy in his genes. ‘Tell

you what, Mr. Gillespie. I’ll let you have that and the history of MG you were looking at earlier for £5 the pair.’ Gillespie sucked his teeth as he shaped to replace the book on its shelf. ‘Three

pounds fifty. I was really after Alvis, not MG.’

‘Four.’ ‘Three

seventy-five.’

‘Done.’

◊ Borrowing the chainsaw had been easier than Gillespie expected. He had been reconciled to having to pay £12.50 at the hire shop. But then he recalled that Quentin Lisle owned one. He hadn’t really wanted to ask Lisle a favour. Lisle was a townie, originally a weekender who still worked in the City, but who had decided after the recession of the early 1990s that commuting from the New Forest was a desirable change of lifestyle. He jogged elegantly round the village every morning in his Nike Airmax shoes and Lacoste tracksuit. Everything he owned was shiny new, from his sit-on Hayter lawn mower to his metallic green Freelander. He had made his own fortune and Gillespie quietly hated him for it. Gillespie had caught him early one morning panting past the cottage, timer in hand. Lisle had made a great show of stopping the timer as Gillespie beckoned him to a halt. A bit of gentle flattery and forelock-touching (‘Fitted in well, Quentin. Hardly know you were a City gent at all these days.’) had done the trick. Now, Gillespie had over five horsepower of machinery throbbing in his hand. Ernie


30

Frowd, he reflected, eat your heart out. The chainsaw was noisier than he expected. He glanced up anxiously at the bedroom window as he started it. The curtains were clammed shut. Marjorie was obviously still dead to the world. Dreaming, no doubt, of the latest rural fantasy hosting her bookmark. He stared at the monumental trunk of the oak. He guessed it was over 300 years old - still a youngster compared with its relatives elsewhere in the New Forest. The cottage itself was even older. An image flashed through his mind of some previous yeoman cottager of the early 1700s. Gillespie imagined him sitting in the garden, idly watching while a squirrel - red, of course, in those days - buried an acorn for winter food. If, only, he sighed, the silly bugger had taken his flintlock musket and shot it. The oak had been his enemy for over a decade. He had almost come to blows with the council several times because of it. But he couldn’t help feeling a brief twinge of sorrow as he applied the initial stroke of the sink to the ridges and valleys of its age -old bark. It was as easy as carving butter with a hot knife. ◊ The wind has died a little now and the tarpaulin covering the temporary roof repair has stopped flapping as the evening silence gathers about the cottage. The tracks from the crane sent by the insurance company have already begun to settle. Lisle’s chainsaw lies idle now, practically burned out turning the old enemy into a pile of freshly-sawn hardwood logs for the coming Winter. Sawdust from Gillespie’s exertions over the past week has scattered in the wind across the surviving tiles of the cottage roof and melded with the rivulets of rain congealing on the outside of the windows. Gillespie sits at the desk in his study and breathes in the sharp, resiny scent of the green oak wood burning in the stove in the kitchen. Before him on the faded red leather covering of his desk lies the evening edition of the local paper. He smiles ironically at the headline:

TREE FELLING LEADS TO TRAGEDY Alongside a very old picture of himself in his fireman’s uniform is the breathless prose of the trainee hack who stammered her way through an agonising forty mi-


31

nute interview with him yesterday morning. Gillespie chuckles quietly to himself as he reads it for the third time.

Retired 67-year old local fireman John Gillespie described himself as ‘devastated’ by the loss of his wife Marjorie (64) in a freak accident earlier this week while he was felling a 300-year old oak tree in the garden of his Burley cottage. The oak, which had been the subject of acrimonious correspondence between Gillespie and the New Forest District Council, fell across the Gillespies’ bedroom, crushing his wife, who was still in bed reading. The Council, which had earlier threatened legal action against Mr. Gillespie for felling the ancient tree, changed its position earlier today, saying that Mr. Gillespie had been punished enough for his actions. Local Forestry Commission spokesperson Amanda Frowd (55), who is a qualified tree surgeon, warned against tree felling by untrained amateurs: ‘Expert tree surgeons know just how to make their cuts to control the direction in which a tree falls. It’s not something that the average householder can expect to master. People need to realise that tragedies like this are avoidable so long as they seek expert advice.’ He looks at the photograph of Marjorie from her am. dram. days, still propped on his desk in its ornate silver frame. In all the 25 years of their marriage, he recalled, she was never content with anything except centre stage. The photo shows her in the role she loved best - the tragic, wounded Desdemona suffering under the burden of a misguided husband. But his eyes don’t linger on Marjorie’s photo for long. Something outside the window keeps pulling his gaze away. Its long, purposeful bonnet catches the last rays of the evening sun and reflects them across the beamed ceiling of the cottage. An immaculate 1934 Alvis Speed 20 SC in pale metallic green. Thank God, Gillespie thinks to himself. Thank God for joint bank accounts. Marjorie’s one, surprising mistake. No hers and mine. Just ours. Or rather mine, now that Marjorie lies in Boldre churchyard where her money is no more use to her. He picks up the battered green book on his desk and strokes it reflectively for a few moments. He is about to replace it in his desk drawer, but thinks better of it. He


32

walks slowly out to the kitchen and, opening the cover of the stove, tosses the book in. There is a brief, acrid whiff of singeing leather and a bubbling hiss of steam before he drops the cover again. He murmurs quietly to himself as he returns to his study and the thrilling prospect visible from its window. ‘Thank

you, Ernie Frowd. Thank you more than you can ever know…’


33

Holmsley Passage

M

y name’s Tony Strickland. I’m 59 and one of the most ordinary residents of Middle England you’ll ever come across. And I’ve never believed in ghosts. But I’m standing here behind my recently acquired and exquisitely beautiful Austin Healey 3000 Mark II with a bucket of soapy water in one hand and a sponge in the other. Little flecks of spindrift from the bucket are speckling the gravel of my driveway, since I can’t control the shaking in my hands. They’re shaking because what I’m looking at defies all rational explanation. Let me rewind to last night. Quite a good term, actually, since I feel as if I’ve been living in a TV fantasy ever since and that someone’s going to press the pause button at any moment. Other than me, the cast of characters includes my ever-patient wife Sophie, our friends Mike and Pam Purkiss and the aforementioned new love of my life, otherwise known as Sally.

Sally was first registered in 1961, which was around the time I was first wowed at the age of 14 by the sight of Patrick McGoohan driving one in the Danger Man TV spy series. Sally is still as elegant as the day she was made, gleaming in maroon and cream duotone, in concourse condition and the culmination of my 45-year old dream. It was Mike’s idea to ‘wet the pistonhead of the new baby’ over dinner last night. Mike’s always had an engagingly bizarre sense of humour, which is probably why we’ve stayed in touch since our college days. On April first last year, he even arranged to have our Volvo resprayed overnight in dayglo pink and lime green. It was only after the police arrived that I discovered the ‘paint’ just washed off. So, an evening with him and Pam is rather like joining the cast in an episode of Monty Python and you never know quite what to expect next. Unlike me though, Mike’s passion runs to more than four wheels, and he has already become something of an authority on local railway history since his move to


34

our neighbouring village in the New Forest. Knowing him as well as I do, I was alert to the probability of a wind-up when he looked up in surprise after dinner as he studied Sally’s carefully preserved registration documents. ‘That’s interesting,’ he observed, refilling his wine glass heart-stoppingly close to the precious papers. He took a pair of reading glasses from the top pocket of his shirt and perched them on his nose for a closer examination. From the corner of my eye I noticed Sophie surreptitiously checking her watch. Her mutual exchange of gossip with Pam had petered out ten minutes ago and, besides, she had already endured a week of my love affair with Sally. I tried to head off the expected wind-up. ‘Yes, I know it’s Sally’s birthday today.’ ‘No, it’s not that. At least, that’s not the only coincidence. It’s also the date of the New Forest’s worst railway disaster - the Holmsley Passage crash - 29 June 1961.’

He looked across the table at me expectantly. Sophie and Pam sighed in unison. ‘Go on,’ I shrugged, hoping the punch line wouldn’t take too long. Mike lowered his voiced conspiratorially. ‘It was a bus full of kids from St Matthias Church of England School. They were on their way back to Burley from the inaugural performance of the Grange Choral Society in Christchurch when their bus stalled on the level crossing at Holmsley Passage.’ His voice was now a theatrical whisper. ‘By the time they saw the 22.17 from Wimborne bearing down on them it was too late to get all the kids out. Nine of them were carried along with what was left of the bus halfway to Holmsley Station. It was in the days before DNA testing, so they had to bury the remains in a communal grave. They say that the crossing is haunted to this day. Mike’s emphasis on the word ‘haunted’ caused the candles between us to flicker momentarily. His face leaning over the dinner table was briefly underlit like a character from a cheap horror film. ‘So I’d advise you,’ he continued, ‘to stay well clear of Holmsley in your shiny old toy. And best stick to cars: railway history is not something for those of a nervous disposition.’ There was something about the knowing smirk on Mike’s face as we left just before


35

ten that persuaded me to take the detour - in spite of Sophie’s protests - onto the winding road that led through Holmsley Inclosure. Besides, I had had a glass of wine too many and thought we’d be safer keeping off the main roads. With the top down on the Healey, the rush of cool evening air, scented with damp soil and leaf mulch from the woods, was like a much-needed decongestant to the brain. Sophie was leaning drowsily back in her seat, her breathing deep and regular. Her head lolled to one side as we passed across the cattle grid before jerking vertical again. Darkness had fallen by the time we entered the Inclosure. With no moon to give them outline, the broadleaf trees were no more than dark, amorphous shapes looming either side of us. I had the dizzy, absurd sensation of sullen woodland sprites that scattered briefly in the glare of our oncoming headlights before closing around us again as we passed. I glanced at the blackness in the rear view mirror and wished that I hadn’t had that final glass of wine. As we crossed the cattle grid at the end of the Inclosure and coasted down the steep slope leading to the level crossing, Mike’s absurdly apocryphal whisper was still ringing in my head. So it was probably a combination of defiance and - I admit it - light-headedness that made me stop the car at Holmsley Passage on the dismantled railway track. The gravel track bed, overgrown with weeds, stretched several metres either side of the car before disappearing into the blackness beyond the arc of the headlights. Something in the clapperboard walls of the crossing keeper’s cottage, abandoned for decades, rattled in time to the steady thrum of the exhaust. Sophie stirred as I switched off the ignition and headlights. The engine sighed briefly as it came to rest. An owl hooted from across the valley. Then there was nothing but silence. ‘Why are we stopping?’ Sophie asked sleepily. ‘Is there a problem with the car?’ ‘No. It’s just that this is where it happened.’ ‘Where what happened?’ ‘The Holmsley Passage railway disaster. Forty-five years ago tonight.’

‘Come on, Tony,’ Sophie snorted, ‘you don’t fall for Mike’s wind-up, do you? He probably made the whole thing up. You know it only encourages him when you take


36

him seriously.’ ‘Oh, I don’t believe him one little bit. If there are any ghosts in this area, they’ve probably been poisoned by Pam’s cooking. Or died of boredom reading one of Mike’s excruciating railway history pamphlets.’ ‘Now that’s not fair. They’re always very good hosts. Besides, you probably bored them silly by wittering on about your new car.’ ‘Cars are a perfectly normal, red-blooded male obsession. Railway history, on the other hand, is for nerds. Whereas ghosts are for scaring naughty kids at bedtime.’ My arguments were cut short by a peculiar sound, a metallic ringing that seemed to vibrate through the chassis of the car. It was a sound, with hindsight, that Mike would have recognised immediately. But to me, after a minute’s crawling round the car in the dark, it was still a mystery as I felt my way back into the driving seat. Sophie touched my arm as I groped for the torch wedged under the passenger seat. Her sharper hearing had detected another sound. A few seconds later I heard it too. It was like the panting of some huge animal, lying wounded in the dark. Only it wasn’t lying. It seemed to be getting closer by the second. Sophie’s face was turned to mine; even in the blackness, I could sense the disbelief in her eyes. But her earlier words still stung me. ‘Sod you, Mike!’ I yelled as I half rose in the seat. ‘Get yourself a bloody life, why don’t you. You’re not fooling anybody!’ The sound of my voice echoed along the valley, but was soon drowned by the oncoming panting. Then it was joined by another sound - the unmistakeable clackety-clack of steel wheels on metal track joints. Sophie’s hand was on my arm again, but this time her grip was urgent, compelling. ‘Tony, it’s impossible. He couldn’t have known we’d come this way. And this is just too elaborate for a set-up. Even for Mike.’ I turned to argue, but the words never came. Along the slight incline that hadn’t seen track or sleepers since 1964 a bright light was approaching fast, wreathed with intermittent haloes of steam. The hiss of pistons and the song of metal on metal were rising to a cacophony. I swear I could even taste the smell of hot oil and coal soots. It took Sophie’s voice to jolt me into action. ‘For Christ’s sake start the car!’


37

I turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. Not even the dreaded click from a dead battery. By now, the light of the oncoming train was casting shadows across the dashboard. I tried again, but the noise was so loud I couldn’t tell if the engine was turning or not. I slipped the car desperately into gear and stamped on the accelerator. Still nothing. Back into neutral. Key to start position. Nothing. Sophie was sobbing now and desperately scrabbling at her seatbelt buckle. I remember a brief, overwhelming wave of guilt breaking over me as I realised that it was too late to leap to safety. I had loved my car more than my wife and the grinding, ear-splitting screech of brakes only yards away was too real and too late to spare us. I still can’t explain what happened next. As I threw myself vainly over Sophie and awaited the inevitable retribution, I felt a sudden jolt at the back of the car. Gradually she gathered speed. Something or someone was pushing us agonisingly slowly off the tracks. The train passed in a maelstrom of steam and groaning metal only inches behind us as the car came to rest on the other side of the crossing. I swear I heard an expletive from the footplate as the blast of hot air from the engine rocked us. Then it was gone. The only sound remaining was the owl and the thunder of our heartbeats. I don’t have a very accurate fix on what happened after that. We must have got the car started again and managed to get home safely, because my next memory is of lying sweating in bed feeling that I’d woken up in the middle of a nightmare, with Sophie dead to the world beside me. One thing I’m sure of, and that’s that I didn’t dream any of it, because there’s no way I could have slept during the kind of horrors we had been through. There’s one part that I do remember though, and that was Sophie’s bitter words as she turned her back on me in bed and fell into an exhausted slumber. Of course, I know she was right. For the few moments that mattered, I had loved Sally more than her. Which is why I came downstairs this morning after that night of hell to wash and polish my new love before driving her back to Beaulieu Garage for good. But I’m not shaking at the thought of separation from my 45-year dream. That’s not why I’ve now had to put the bucket down and lean for support on the garage wall. Sally’s shapely boot is covered with soot, as if she’s spent a week parked next to a blast furnace. Except it’s not entirely covered. In a neat line across the boot, like Palaeolithic cave paintings clearly outlined in the soot, is a set of handprints.


38

They’re children’s handprints.


39

Gwendolyn

S

andy had been a fool and now he and Mary stood to pay with their lives. The heavy wooden tiller bucked in his hands as another breaking crest drove the boat headlong into the wave trough in front. His muscles ached from the hours of effort to stop her broaching. She was tough, oak-framed and built with stout Victorian craftsmanship, but even she was struggling in these conditions. The wind had risen steadily since they left L’Abervrac’h. His wife had taken to her bunk with seasickness five hours out into the Channel. The dog was cuddled up with her, terrified by the wind howling in the rigging. With him suffering from a dodgy oyster from dinner that evening, they weren’t even a skeleton crew. He raised one hand into the wind. It was blowing, he guessed, force nine - far too strong to turn back. They were still eight hours from the River Dart. He cursed aloud as a great slab of water broke over the stern in the dark and threw him forward onto the compass mounting. Pain seared across his chest with the impact. The last thing he needed now was an injury. He vomited again onto the floor of the cockpit. It was now a mess of half-digested oysters and tarte tatin mingled with seawater, but Sandy was almost past caring. Awake. He just had to stay awake. It was probably the only chance they had.

◊ ‘Why can’t you take up a sensible hobby in retirement? Most men your age are happy to spend their golden years in the garden, walking the dog or poring over their stamp collection.’ Sandy cleared his mouth of toast and marmalade. There was a mischievous glint in his wife’s eyes, but he knew her too well to ignore the agenda underlying her teasing. He usually came out second best from most of these breakfast arguments.


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That’s the price you paid, he reflected, for marrying a lawyer. Mary was like a smiling arachnid - she’d lure you in with gentle mockery then pounce without warning. ‘But I thought you said you wanted to travel when we retired?’ ‘Yes, I do. Virgin Atlantic. Cathay Pacific. Air Canada. Not tossing around in some ancient rustbucket honking my guts over the side every five minutes.’ Sandy bought a few seconds’ thinking time with a sip of his tea. ‘Anyway, she’s not a rustbucket. She’s wooden. Built in 1898. Very eco-friendly. Just add wind and away you go. Think of all the damage to the ozone layer if we travelled the world your way.’ ‘Pah!’ Mary drummed her fingers on the table, the way she always did before pouncing. ‘I don’t recall you being so deeply wedded to eco-friendliness when you were jetting everywhere covering the globe with oil refineries.’

‘That was different,’ he bridled. ‘Besides, we all become wiser as the years pass.’ ‘Not all. Some seem to revert to their childhood.’ Sandy put his mug down on the table and took Mary’s hands in his own. ‘Look, let’s just give it one season. We’ll go somewhere nice, like Brittany - you know you like the seafood there. If you haven’t been converted to sailing by the end of the Summer, I’ll sell the boat and we’ll do things your way. I promise.’ ‘And what if I spend all the time heaving over the gunnels or whatever you call them?’ ‘No problem. We’ll dose you up with Stugeron and ginger biscuits. You’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.’ ‘And what about the dog?’ Sandy sighed. He might have guessed this was coming. ‘Oh, all right. You might as well revert to your childhood too. We’ll get a dog. But on one condition - he doesn’t come with us on the boat. There’s no way I’m going to sea with a dog on board. No way at all.’


41

After breakfast, Mary retreated to the conservatory to scan the small ads for breeders of Jack Russells while Sandy pored over the particulars he had got from the yacht brokers. Two weeks later they caught the early ferry to Yarmouth and walked round to the boatyard lying alongside the River Yar. Patch, the Jack Russell puppy that was Sandy’s part of the deal, wriggled in Mary’s arms as Sandy walked admiringly round the ancient gaff-rigger standing on the hard.

Gwendolyn was a beauty, no question. Sandy knew at first sight. They say old boats have a spirit, and that was certainly true of her. It still shone through the patina of fifteen years of neglect. After admiring the classic lines of her hull, from the clipper bow to the sharply raked stern, he climbed the rickety ladder onto her decks. The weathered timbers sighed under his feet as he walked. He ran his hand over the strong, solid bronze fittings that had mellowed to verdigris with age and imagined the generations of skippers that had walked those decks since Queen Victoria’s days. By the time they returned on the ferry and walked to the yacht broker’s office on Lymington Quay, Sandy was in love. Even Mary had softened - mainly because she had noted the comforting bronze propeller that one of Gwendolyn’s more sensible owners had wisely installed. After thirty years in business, Sandy considered himself a tough negotiator, so the price he agreed with the broker reflected, he hoped, the surface neglect rather than what lay beneath. ‘Shame to see her go, really,’ said the broker as he completed the contract of sale. ‘Still, she’s been neglected far too long.’ ‘How come?’ The broker pursed his lips. ‘The old lady. Husband died in the eighties and she couldn’t bear to part with it. Saw the boat as some sort of memorial to him.’ ‘So why’s she selling now?’ ‘Estate sale,’ the broker shrugged. ‘The old lady pegged out last month and her daughter can’t wait to get the boat off her hands.’ He added with a smile, ‘I can tell you that now you’ve signed.’


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‘Was he a local man?’ ‘No. West Country. Pre-war skipper of one of the old Brixham sailing trawlers, I believe. That’s his portrait above the chart table: you must have seen it. Mister big whiskers in his blue serge coat and brass buttons.’ Sandy remembered the small water-colour in its incongruously ornate gilt frame, the man stiffly posed but with an enigmatic smile on his weathered face. A saltcaked Mona Lisa with licentious eyes.

Later, as they left the broker’s office, it was that portrait that lingered in Sandy’s mind. There was a history to every boat - the greater the antiquity, the more fascinating the story. He was determined to unearth what he could about Gwendolyn. That winter the boat became his obsession. After having Gwendolyn shipped across to Lymington, he spent most of his days in the boatyard, scraping off the neglect to reveal the beauty beneath. Her timbers were sound, mostly needing only a few coats of varnish or a lick of paint. Better still, once he cut through the thick layers of old varnish on the mast and boom, each shaped from a single spruce, he discovered they were almost as good as the day they were cut. Even her tan sails, though mildewed, were well made and good for at least another two seasons. As Gwendolyn approached her former glory, Sandy, to Mary’s frustration, diverted his time from the boatyard to the local library. One late May evening, two days before the grand relaunch, he came home from the library and dropped a thick folder with a flourish onto the kitchen table. ‘There, I told you.’ Mary looked at the folder, non-plussed. ‘Told me what?’ There was an eager look in her husband’s eye that meant he could only be talking about one thing - his new mistress. ‘About Gwendolyn. I knew she had a history. Look here.’ He scraped a chair across the kitchen floor and sat down.


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‘Apparently this Captain S T Petherick - that’s Gwendolyn’s former owner - was quite a character. Used to sail her across to France from Cornwall during the War, sneaking SOE agents into Brittany. Even got a gong from De Gaulle.’

Mary stifled a yawn. ‘After the War he sailed her solo. Went as far as the Arctic Circle and down the coast of Africa. He was quite a legend in the fifties.’ ‘Like some tea?’

He ignored her and continued riffling through the folder. ‘Even his death was something of a mystery. Walked out of his house one evening back in 1984 and was never seen again. Mind you,’ he added with a wink, ‘it appears he was a bit of a Jack the Lad. Woman in every port, you know the kind.’ Sandy went to change while Mary sat at the kitchen table, finishing her tea, and Patch tugged the folder off the chair where Sandy had left it and began turning it into papier maché. So, when the time came to decide on the destination for their first cruise in Gwendolyn, there was only one option - it just had to be Brittany. Their first Summer cruise would take Gwendolyn back to the waters she knew so well. The wind as they left the Isle of Wight astern was a gentle force three that even Mary couldn’t grumble at. The crossing was mostly uneventful, but, as they sighted Ile Vierge lighthouse, six miles off the Brittany coast, the boat seemed to pick up her skirts and fly. It was as if Sandy’s hand were not needed on the tiller, nor Mary’s reluctant tweaking on the sails. Gwendolyn slid between the granite outcrops of the coastline and into the river like a dog into a warm, familiar kennel. Two weeks of balmy weather, good food and tasty French wines conspired to dull Sandy’s memories of fickle Atlantic lows and early Summer gales in the Channel. But as they neared the end of their cruise on the final Friday, he was alarmed to discover a deepening low sprinting northwards from Biscay. It would hit by Sunday morning. But, he reckoned, if they left that night, they’d be home by late Saturday. They could avoid the unmitigated catastrophe of Mary missing her appointment at the vet’s on Monday for the dog’s final injection. Otherwise, they might not be home before Tuesday or Wednesday. Anyway, as Mary pointed out, they had that big bronze propeller if necessary.


44

They celebrated the end of their cruise and Mary’s incipient - if grudging - conversion to sailing with a final meal ashore. Sandy treated himself to a douzaine of the best Belon oysters. Then, as the first stars came out, he headed Gwendolyn out of the river on a voyage neither of them would ever forget. ◊ Now, they really were on their own. Somehow, seawater had got below and shorted out the electrics. The navigation lights had gone, which meant the radio was also out of action. Without the compass light, it was impossible to hold an accurate course. And without the batteries, the engine was useless. Not that it would have done them much good in the conditions. The wind and waves were alternately lifting Gwendolyn’s stern out of the water then pushing the bow in opposite directions, making steering almost impossible. Visibility had got worse as they left the French coast behind and the flying spray took away what little night vision Sandy had. And, though the last of the dodgy oysters had long since joined the reeking mess on the floor of the cockpit, his stomach was still writhing with the aftershocks. He simply had to stay awake. He had read of men hallucinating in a crisis, but he was unprepared for what happened next. Someone was in the cockpit with him. Sandy’s eyes were watering with the salt sting, but the image that swam in front of them was unmistakable. It was a man, dressed in a dark seaman’s jacket. Even in the darkness, Sandy could see the row of brass buttons glinting down his front. The man’s arms were reaching out towards him, as if inviting him into a last, desperate embrace. But between the great bush of his white whiskers and the red, woolly hat pulled down over his head, his eyes shone in the gloom like twin beacons of hope. The tiller bucked violently as Sandy took his hands from it and reached out towards the vision. Instead of the touch of rough seaman’s serge and brass buttons, his hand was grasped by strong arms clad in oilskins, hauling him roughly across the cockpit and up into the sanctuary of the lifeboat. ◊ ‘Bound for Dartmouth, you say? Not exactly a prize-winning bit of navigation, then?’


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The barman winked at the group of locals lining the counter as he passed the pint across the bar. ‘No. It wasn’t.’ Sandy was too tired to argue. Mary was sound asleep upstairs now, the dog curled up alongside her in a makeshift basket. But the terror of what might have been still banged at the gates of his soul. His hand shook as he lifted the glass. A bent old man, chin propped on his walking stick, was staring at him from his seat next to the fireplace. ‘You the one from Gwendolyn?’ asked the barman. ‘Yes.’ ‘How’d you get here then?’

Sandy took a gulp of beer and replaced the glass unsteadily on the counter. ‘Providence. I was just about done. Mid Channel in a force nine. I was even hallucinating.’ ‘Hallucinating?’

‘Yes. At one point, I even thought I had Gwendolyn last owner with me in the cockpit. Captain Petherick himself.’ There was a ripple of laughter around the bar. ‘Mind can do strange things, that’s for sure,’ said the barman. ‘If the lifeboat hadn’t appeared, I reckon we’d be goners.’ The barman looked at him in surprise. ‘Lifeboat? Fowey lifeboat? But I wasn’t paged. Were you, Alan?’ His question was addressed to another customer drinking at the far end of the bar, who shook his head in reply.


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‘So what sort of lifeboat?’ he continued. ‘Was it a Trent class?’ ‘No. I don’t think so. It was quite an old one. Not very big. Mary something. Mary Collingwood, I think. I only glimpsed the name as she tied us up in the harbour.’ The barman whistled through his teeth. ‘Hear that, Dan?’ He nodded to the old man next to the fireplace.

‘The Mary Collerton,’ the old man intoned in a voice as cracked as a potter’s fingernails. The whole bar was silent. The old man was staring at Sandy again. The barman leaned across the bar and whispered in Sandy’s ear. ‘The Mary Collerton went down with all hands in 1984. Five men dead. They only ever found two of the bodies. There’s been no proper lifeboat in Mevagissey since then.’ Sandy took another gulp of his beer. ‘Great. So I was saved by a mirage. It took over our boat; towed it all the way to Mevagissey harbour; tied us up and disappeared back into the genie’s bottle, right?’ ‘No call for sarcasm,’ said the barman. The old man started to weep, his chest heaving with emotion. Everyone turned to look at him. ‘It should have been me,’ he sobbed. ‘Not Tom. It should have been me.’ The barman looked at Sandy and made knowing circular motions at his temple with his index finger. The old man’s eyes were still fixed on Sandy. They were filled with pain.

‘Tom’s wife never knew, you see,’ he continued between the sobs. ‘I kept it from her all those years. That evening, Tom was with my Molly. She confessed it to me on her deathbed.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘Tom always had a way with women.’


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He paused to catch a wheezing breath. ‘There weren’t five dead on the Mary Collerton. It were six. I’d gone into Newton Abbot and ‘ad forgotten my pager, see? It went off in our bedroom. Well, Tom were always a great ‘un for helping anyone in trouble. He didn’t just disappear, like they said. He took my place on the lifeboat that night.’ The barman looked shocked. Sandy’s glass stopped halfway to his mouth. ‘What did he look like, this Tom?’ The old man shrugged and wiped his eyes with a grimy sleeve. ‘Regular bloke, I suppose. Tall, like a barber’s pole. Big whiskers. Always wore the same jacket, Summer and Winter, did Tom Petherick. Blue serge jacket, with a row of brass buttons down the front.’


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The Messenger

O

ne moment it was just empty air. The next, a spinning, golden orb so bright his eyes hurt. All the smudgy greens and browns of the garden were bathed in a sudden, blazing light. Barry Sullivan had never seen anything like it. They didn’t let him have toys, because he usually smashed them. Perhaps they’d take this one away from him too. He shuffled towards it, head lolling on one side and arms akimbo. He tried to focus through the thick lenses of his glasses. He had seen such bright, turning spheres on TV game shows. The ones they sometimes let him watch if he was very, very good. But this was so much better. It seemed real enough to touch. Barely inches in front of him, not miles away like the ones on TV. He reached out one hand in a jerky, unco-ordinated movement to stop it spinning. The surface was burning cold, like the inside of a freezer. As his fingers brushed it, the war between his tendons stopped. Warmth spread up the muscles of his arm and through his shoulder. His head straightened. The blur of trees, shrubs and flowers snapped into sudden focus. Something was unscrambling the disorder in his chromosomes; rewiring the misconnected neurones of his brain. Now, he could see deep into it. It wasn’t a sphere any longer. It was more like a lens. As he watched, his slack lips tightened, forming around a single phrase. His delinquent vocal chords stuttered into life. ‘I understand.’ It was the first words he had spoken in his eleven long years of existence. ◊

‘You mustn’t expect too much, Mrs Sullivan. It’s still early days and there could be further improvements.’


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Doctor Nazir rested his hand in reassurance on her shoulder. She was still heaving from the aftershocks of the sobbing, the handkerchief he had gallantly given her now limp and sodden in her hand. She looked up at him, her eyes reddened with pain. ‘I can’t understand it, doctor. How can God be so cruel? To give me my Barry back and then to take away his mind.’ She lowered her head and sobbed noiselessly into her chest. There were no more tears left in the well to draw. Doctor Nazir sat beside her and gently took her tear-dampened hands. ‘Look, Mrs Sullivan. Let’s not give up too soon. Just think of the eleven long years you’ve been praying for a spark of normality in Barry. Eleven years of visiting here three times a week. All the time you’ve spent talking to him, trying to waken some sort of recognition in his brain. You mustn’t give up now.’ She sat up, her back stiffening as she withdrew her hands and folded them on her lap. ‘I think, doctor, that I preferred our Barry with the cerebral palsy. At least there was the hope that one day he would know his own mother. Now he’s got the use of his senses, I almost feel even more of a stranger to him.’ Her eyes were cold as she looked into his. ‘You wouldn’t understand, doctor. You’ve got three healthy sons. Not mental cripples like our Barry.’ Doctor Nazir sighed. He’d never understood why charity was held to be one of the cornerstones of Christian faith. He witnessed more charity in his local mosque each Friday morning than he saw in an average month in his consulting rooms. ‘We won’t give up, Mrs Sullivan, I promise. I’m having another session with Barry on Friday. I’m confident’ - he lied - ‘that things will look up soon. It’s just so strange that Barry appears quite lucid all of a sudden and yet his mind is on another wavelength altogether.’ ◊ Doctor Nazir had had to have him strapped into the chair. It wasn’t something he particularly liked doing, but Barry Sullivan was no normal patient. He had remarkable strength for a boy of eleven and had floored him during their last session just for trying to ease him gently out of his delusions. Nazir stood at a safe distance,


50

leaning against the door of the interview room in case he needed to make a quick exit. ‘Now, Barry, it’s me, Doctor Nazir again. I want to talk to you about the voices. Tell me what you hear inside your head.’ Barry lowered his eyes from the ceiling. There was still that authority and selfassurance in them that Nazir found unsettling. It was a classic indicator of psychosis, but rare in one so young. ‘I’m not Barry.’ Nazir nodded. The boy’s diction had that same rather odd quality he had noticed since their very first meeting. It reminded him of someone reading out a dictation test. ‘Of course. Would you like to tell me who you think …er, who you are?’ ‘The messenger.’ ‘The messenger?’ ‘Yes. The chosen one.’ Doctor Nazir coughed into his hand. ‘Let’s start again. Do you have any recollection of your childhood? Growing up in Ringwood?’ Barry struggled against the thick leather straps. ‘I’ve told you, I’m not from Ringwood.’ ‘Where, then?’ ‘Sidereal 3710.’ ‘And where is that?’ ‘It’s not a place,’ Barry sighed, ‘it’s a date.’


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Nazir checked his watch. Another twenty minutes of this. Things were going no better than the last time. Nevertheless, he had promised Barry’s mother. ‘So, Barry - or whoever you are - tell me why you are here.’ ‘As I told you before, to bring a message.’ ‘Which is?’ ‘Deuterium fusion destroys.’

‘Quite so. Quite so.’ Barry rocked the chair so violently it almost toppled. ‘Listen, you primitive halfwit. In two months’ time, a team of scientists in Montreal will announce the first successful experiment in deuterium fusion. It will be hailed as the golden key to the future. It isn’t. It will unleash forces more destructive than mankind has ever seen. Unlimited free energy at the cost of a destroyed atmosphere. A world sterilised of all life by gamma rays.’ ‘Then how come,’ Nazir bridled, ‘there’s anyone left by Sidereal 3710 or whatever to warn us about it?’ Nazir could feel his face flushing with unprofessional anger as Barry allowed the chair to rock to a halt. ‘There isn’t. That’s the point. Unless the dangers are seen early enough, only the machines will survive. That’s all I really am. What you would call ‘software’. A simple implant in this atrophied brain.’ ‘Ah, so you do hear voices? What do they tell you?’ Barry sighed again. ‘I’ve told you, I’ve come to deliver a message. A warning that must not be ignored. Now, if you won’t listen, let me speak to someone with more authority. Who’s in charge here?’ ‘I suppose that would be me.’


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‘Then get me someone who can understand. There must be a scientist in this place. Someone who understands what you call physics.’ Nazir felt a little safer now Barry had stopped straining against the leather traps. He drew up a chair and sat down opposite him, careful to maintain a safe distance. The boy still had that imperious look in his eye. ‘Look Barry, I’ve studied physics at Amman Academy. I’ve read a lot of science fiction too. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke - I’ve even got a signed first edition of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. You can talk to me.’ ‘So you’ll be familiar with contemporary thinking on the mechanism of quantum decoherence and its importance to the study of multiple realities?’ Nazir sighed. There must be some way to connect with the boy. ‘Look, Barry. If the future is as bleak as you say, then all we can do is school people to accept it. If this deuterium disaster - or whatever you call it - is decreed, we can’t change it. It’s fate. We can’t act against the will of Allah.’ The boy gave him a withering glance. ‘Nonsense. There is no such thing as fate. The future exists in multiple realities. You can choose which one. But what you cannot do is undo the choice you have made.’ Nazir pushed back his chair as he rose to his feet. He had promised Mrs Sullivan twenty minutes but he had had enough. It was one thing for the boy to insult his intelligence. Insulting his faith was another thing altogether. As Barry’s frustration turned to fury again, Nazir left him foaming in the chair. He completed his report over a cup of coffee in the peace of the canteen. He hesitated briefly over the conclusion before shaking his head and scribbling a few swift words. ‘Still mad as a hatter. Quite insane.’ ◊ Mrs Sullivan had been very cold with him on the previous occasion. This time


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there was no spirit left at all. Doctor Nazir had never seen a woman so broken with grief. They sat in silence in his consulting room for what seemed ages. Finally, she burst into uncontrollable tears. It was almost ten minutes before the nurse managed to restore her to coherence. By then, she had drenched yet another of his hankies. ‘It’s the loneliness, doctor,’ she sobbed. ‘My Eamonn died just after Barry was born. I’ve been alone over ten years now and Barry’s the only family I’ve got.’ ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Sullivan. Really sorry. We’ve all tried so hard.’ She looked at him pleadingly as she wrung her hands. Her eyes were rimmed with red. ‘Is there really nothing? Nothing at all you can do? Nothing that can give me back my Barry?’

Doctor Nazir stood up and walked over to the window. He took a deep breath as he surveyed the scene below. It was a beautiful early spring day, snowdrops in full bloom and crocuses already peeping through the grass. The birthday of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. He could see the nurses wheeling Barry carefully around the garden in the sunlight. His arms were strapped securely to the frame of the wheelchair. Nazir turned back towards Mrs Sullivan. ‘There is one thing. It’s a long shot and I would need your consent. That is, if you’re brave enough to go for it.’ ◊ It was a lovely sunny day, rabbits rolling in the garden and cotton-bud clouds scudding before a fresh south-easterly across a peacock sky. She could see the poplars on Hangersley Hill bending to the wind from her kitchen window. A good washing day. Eileen Sullivan finished polishing the dishes and scrubbed the aluminium kitchen sink until it shone. She hummed as she boiled the kettle and put out the two cups on his favourite little tray with the picture of the New Forest ponies on it. Two Jaffa cakes for him; two ginger nuts for herself. She had had more than enough of solitude. It was good to be a family again.


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Barry was sitting in front of the television. She wondered which Teletubby he wanted to be today. She watched the multi-coloured antics on the screen for a few minutes while she stroked the dark, shiny strands of hair lying across his forehead. The scar had almost gone now, with just a thin red weal like a pair of tightly clenched lips between his temples. She ran her finger lightly along it, tracing the healing ridge of flesh. He looked up at her and chuckled happily as he munched the Jaffa cake. They sang the Teletubby song together as the programme ended. She didn’t bother to switch off the news that followed. Her Barry liked the pictures as much as anything, even though he could understand most of the words as well now. In any case, it was the usual boring fare. Another MP in a sex triangle. A football star in a record transfer. Some idiot sailing the Atlantic in a wardrobe. She felt Barry’s neck stiffen as an item came on about a new discovery at some Canadian university. The ultimate solution to the world’s energy crisis, they called it. Barry was rocking back and forth, struggling to say something. She picked up the remote control and quickly switched off the TV. She wasn’t going to have anything disturbing her Barry. Not after all they had been through together. She sat down on the arm of his chair and stroked his hair to soothe him. Before long, he was quiet again. She kissed the top of his head and murmured quietly to no-one in particular. ‘You know me now, don’t you, Barry darling? No more bad dreams. No tantrums. Not ever again. We’re a family at last.’


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Blue Monday

S

ynaesthesia. I still have trouble even pronouncing it, much less spelling it. All I know is, if it wasn't for synaesthesia I wouldn't be sat here in a poxy youth remand centre. And I wouldn't have been up in court last Monday for attempted murder. Monday. Blue Monday. That was the day that brought everything to a head, really. It wasn’t the first time. It had been going on for years - as long as I can remember. I was only four when I began to see the colours: the ones that went with words. Like, every time I thought of garden I saw an orangey-brown. House was a sort of pale violet. Afternoon was a dark shade of green. Monday was deep blue, like the sky in holiday brochures. At first, it was cool. I suddenly discovered that language was not just shades of meaning, but a whole palette of colours. Then, when I first started to read, it was as if I had my own private kaleidoscope on the page. A vivid imagination - perhaps too vivid. That's what they said at my first school. But it wasn't a problem. In those days, it didn't seem to matter.

You ask me what changed everything? Well, I suppose it began when my dad died. Shot by bandits on the way back from Nairobi. He was only 41. Dad had always promised me so many things. A game trip to the Maasai Mara. A week on the coast at Malindi. Just one more business deal, he used to say, one more big cheque in the bank, then we'd spend some proper time together. I tried to tell him that wasn’t what I wanted. But dads never listen, do they? It was dad's death that taught me the only safe promises are the ones you make to yourself. Why? Because only you can break them. Mum didn't want to live in Kenya after that. She began to feel more and more of a stranger there as time went on. So, one Friday I said goodbye to Mumu the houseboy and all my schoolfriends and left the heat of Nairobi for the cold and damp of my auntie's house on the clifftops at Barton-on-Sea. My mum was keen to get me back into school as quickly as possible. Perhaps to get my mind off things. Or may-


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be just to get me out of the house - she and my aunt were never really close. That's when the problems really started, I suppose. West Cliffs Junior School was a very different proposition from Daniel Moi Primary. Back in Kenya, I was just another kid learning and growing up in a pack like hyenas on the plains. Here, I was something alien. I thought and spoke differently. My mum was white, but my dad had been black. And I had synaesthesia. I was bullied almost from the beginning. When I told the teachers, they called me a sneak. Then the teachers started to give me a hard time, too. Not obviously, but in subtle ways. No-one liked sneaks at West Cliffs Junior. Especially Mrs Pettigrew. You don’t believe me? Well perhaps you’re the one that needs to wise up. Not all teachers work by the book, you know. The crunch came one Monday. It was the anniversary of some crash on the Stock Market. ‘Black Monday’, Mrs Pettigrew said. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Mondays are blue’. ‘You are a very insolent boy’, she said, as she put me down for detention. All the class laughed. Especially when I insisted Tuesday was pink and Wednesday a pale yellow. After that they nicknamed me the Colour Kid. My mum said that was racist, but the teachers didn't agree. So things just went downhill from there. For the class, it was like an open licence to tease. Then finally Mr Endsleigh, the headmaster, called my mum into the school for one of his 'little chats'. ‘Irrational behaviour’. ‘Odd hallucinations’. ‘A disruptive influence’. That's what he called me. ‘Perhaps a specialist could help?’ In other words, take your little darkie away and get his head seen to. It was there, at the doctor's, that I first heard the word. Synaesthesia. Apparently, it happens when the two separate parts of your brain that recognise colours and words are too close together. Words become associated with colours and stay that way all your life. It's much rarer in boys than girls. So what mum had always thought was just a vivid imagination was some sort of weird disease that couldn't be cured. So now I wasn’t just a sneak at school. I was a raspberry ripple as well. What colour's ‘punch’, Kev? What colour's ‘kick’? And ‘thump’, Kev - what colour's that? It got so I dreaded getting up in the mornings. So it's hardly surprising that I finally


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saw red. Saw red, get it? I decided to show them, that's all. I don't know if I really meant to kill them all. At least, not at first. Maybe just hurt them a bit. Make them sit up and take notice. I got the idea off the Internet. You sound surprised. Some kid had done it in Tennessee and wrecked half his school. Discovering how to put the device together was easy. It's amazing what you can find out just by searching for the word 'bomb' on the Internet. MI6 would have had a field day if they’d searched the computers in the school library. The only tricky part was getting my hands on some of the materials. That's why I broke into the allotments. And working out how to detonate it. It was my idea, the 12 volt soldering iron and the firelighter. I was quite proud of that one. I was planning to do it somewhere in the school, but then they arranged the class outing to Bramdean Country Park, which is what gave me a better idea. I took a day off sick (it's easy forging sick notes from mum - they never check the handwriting that carefully) and went out there on the bus to do a recce. I had a bit of a job persuading them I was sixteen so I could get in on my own. As soon as I saw the train, I knew that was how I had to do it. The Bramdean Country Park Great Railway Disaster. If I could pull it off, I would be a legend. There was a narrow gauge steam engine which did a circuit of the entire site. I knew the whole class would be bound to go on that. Teachers too. The tracks curved at the far end where they passed through some bushes. I could get quite close to the rails at that point and nobody would spot me. The wires needed to be quite short, you see. I threw another sickie the day of the outing and caught an early bus out to the Park. It was quite chilly, so there weren't too many people around. This time, I wore a jacket and tie to make myself look older. I even borrowed my dad’s old briefcase to complete the picture. I must have looked like some teenage dot com millionaire. I had made up the bomb the previous night while mum watched ‘Eastenders’ and packed it in an old Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchbox. I carried the detonator and the battery separately in the briefcase. The train hadn’t started running yet, so no-one spotted me as I walked over to the bushes.


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It only took a few minutes to wedge the bomb next to the tracks, install the detonator and cover the lot with some leaves and stuff. I ran the wires into the bushes to where I had hidden the battery. Finally, I collected some branches to put on the tracks at the right moment, so that the driver would stop the carriages just over the bomb. Then I waited. I got very cold. From my position, I could just about see the platform where people got on the train, but I had to be careful not to be spotted. There weren't many people on the first few trips, but I still got myself right down behind the bushes. Every time the engine passed my hiding place, I thought I'd get discovered or the driver would see the wires or something. It took ages before the school party finally came. The train had been running for almost an hour. I had almost begun to think they weren't coming at all - maybe the coach had broken down - when I saw Mrs Pettigrew. She was with another teacher and most of my class. She was buying tickets while the rest of the class arsed about as usual. I couldn't see her face, but I could imagine the look on it. That sort of pinched look when she screws up her mouth and glares at you if you so much as blink. You probably remember that look from the courtroom. They seemed to be standing around for ages. Then the driver sounded the whistle and they all piled on the train like there weren't enough seats to go round. I could hear Mrs Pettigrew shouting even from where I was. I hadn't been nervous until then. But even then, it was a funny sort of nervous. More like excitement: the kind you feel opening presents at Christmas. I almost forgot to slip out and put the branches on the line. The train was already puffing away from the platform when I remembered. I was very quick, but I still didn't know if the driver had seen me. But after I got back behind the bush, he just kept on coming, so I assumed he hadn't. The engine was puffing faster and faster as it came towards the bushes, but I think my heart was going even quicker. Then I heard a loud squealing as the brakes went on. He must have seen the stuff on the line. The train went slower and slower until it stopped with a hiss just before the pile of branches. I could hear the laughs and the yelling from the carriages and Mrs Pettigrew's voice trying to keep them quiet.


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I connected the second wire to the battery and stood up from behind the bushes. It wouldn't be long now. I wanted them all to see me. Not Kev the Colour Kid any more. Kev the Dark Destroyer. Kev the Instrument of Destiny. Some of the class saw me and started pointing and laughing. I remember thinking how they wouldn't be laughing in a minute. Then Mrs Pettigrew came over to the window of the carriage to see what was going on. There was a look of surprise on her face. Not impatience or contempt, as usual. Just surprise. As I thought of the flames already starting to curl around the detonator, I smiled straight into her face. Pettigrew. That's an orangey-red word. Orange for explosion. Red for blood. That's basically the story. Since then it's been nothing but policemen, mum crying buckets, social workers, doctors and questions. Questions and more questions. Even here at the remand centre they don't give me any peace. You see, they can't believe I really meant to do it. Something not quite right about this case - that's what the judge said. That's why he asked you to see me. Psychiatric reports, I think that was what he called it. Everybody seems to think that I'm loopy. Maybe you do too. But I'm not. It was a grand gesture, they all said. A cry from the heart. A sort of desperate plea from a victim of persecution. If the bomb had gone off, it would have been murder. Even the police expert admitted that. Mrs Pettigrew and most of the class burnt to a cinder. But I never really meant to do it, they said. Even the most uneducated person knows that you don't connect the blue wire to the positive terminal. No, it was just an attempt to frighten. A last-ditch cry for justice from an unfair system. My solicitor even called it - what were the words? - ‘a justifiable revolt against bullying and discrimination’. But it wasn't any of that. Don't you see? Once they started laughing, I really did want them all dead. I still do. They’re all bastards. Positive, you see. That's another blue word.


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A Gift of the Gods

B

y the age of 21, Eddie Frowd had already killed 57 men. But he was still a virgin. That probably accounted for his instant and overwhelming fascination with the lady’s corset. In fairness, it was no ordinary corset and its owner no ordinary lady.

It was a wet afternoon in May 1915 when curiosity tempted him into the foyer of the London Coliseum. Eddie had seen the lady’s name before on posters outside a Flanders brothel, where he had stood, nervously sucking on a Woodbine, while his mates from the Hampshire Regiment disported themselves inside. Now there it was again, on a theatre bill. But, as he stepped inside, it was the contents of the display case in the foyer that were to ignite a burning obsession with Mlle Polaire. There, resplendent under glass, was a pinnacle of the corsetiere’s art. Made from rich crimson brocade, its sensuous swirls of colour only served to emphasize its most remarkable feature. Eddie used the sleeve of his battledress to wipe the condensation from his breath off the glass. The caption read:

A GIFT OF THE GODS Irrefutable proof of the miracle of nature that is Mlle Pauline Polaire - doyenne of the Paris music hall and celebrated star of the silver screen. Witness for yourself the wonders of her 14 inch waist all this week only at the London Coliseum. Tickets available now at the Box Office.

Eddie sidled round the cabinet, enthralled by its contents and the fantasies they excited. He imagined himself slowly untying those crimson laces, his hands trembling as he explored the sanctuary within. He was beginning to attract stares from other people in the foyer. The commissionaire was glaring suspiciously at him over his gold epaulette. That look reminded him of his regimental sergeant-major’s and was enough to quell the growing intumescence in Eddie’s battledress trousers.


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‘Impressive, huh?’ The voice was deep and slightly accented - American perhaps. Eddie turned to see a tall man, florid and extravagantly moustached, standing behind him. His sober morning suit clashed with a gold paisley waistcoat and scarlet cravat. Give him a top hat and cane, thought Eddie, and he might have stepped straight off a variety stage. ‘That lady - Polaire - boasts the smallest waist in the world,’ the man continued. ‘When she started in music hall, it could fit into a man’s collar. They even made a song about her in Paris.’ He sang a few lines in French with an excruciatingly bad accent. When he had finished he offered Eddie his hand. ‘William Hammerstein. Publicity agent to Mlle Polaire.’ ‘Eddie Frowd.’ He winced at the pressure on his painful trigger finger. Hammerstein glanced at the insignia on his battledress. ‘So you’re one of our gallant war heroes? Just back from the front?’ ‘No. J- Just off again. F- Flanders. R- Rejoin the regiment.’ Eddie cursed inwardly. Strangers always brought out the worst in his stammer. He was sure he’d get bayonetted one day before he could spit out ‘H- H- Halt! Wh- Wh- Who goes there?’ Hammerstein surveyed him quickly, looking for signs of injury. Eddie was getting used to that look in strangers’ eyes, the unspoken question why he was safe in England while others’ husbands, sons and brothers were dying in their thousands in the Flanders mud. ‘You kill lots of Germans?’ asked Hammerstein, eyebrows arched in anticipation. ‘A f- few,’ Eddie shrugged, ‘fifty-seven at the last count.’ ‘Holy cow!’ exclaimed Hammerstein. ‘You a Hun-hater or what?’ ‘S- Sniper,’ Eddie replied, somewhat confused by the question.

Hammerstein stroked his moustache for a few moments, then, as if seized by an idea, reached into his waistcoat pocket and handed Eddie a card.


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‘Hey, you’re sure a brave young man. Take this card to the box office and tell the lady I said you could have a complimentary for tonight’s performance. And, once you’ve seen the show, what would you say to meeting the ravishing Polaire?’

Eddie flushed with gratitude as he stammered his thanks. Hammerstein waved them away. ‘See you then tomorrow morning at 10.30 sharp. Just ask for me at the box office.’ ◊

Even if Eddie’s life had depended on it, he couldn’t have recounted a single plot detail of the play that night. From her first entrance, he was captivated by the spectacle of Polaire. Although quite short and with a dusky, Arab complexion, she had the most breathtaking figure Eddie had ever seen. As she removed her black satin cloak with a tantalising flourish, there was an audible gasp around the auditorium. A voluptuous bustline and sensuously curving hips were accentuated by a tightly corseted waist so slender Eddie’s hands could have met around it. The exotic French timbre in her voice only fanned the obsession that had seized him the moment he ogled her undergarment in the foyer. The rest of the play passed in a blur. He slept very little that night, his mind restless with anticipation. At 10.30 next morning, Hammerstein met Eddie as arranged at the box office. He was accompanied by a gaggle of press photographers, who jostled them as Hammerstein led Eddie backstage to a grand audience room, full of red velvet drapery with gold fringes and lit by two enormous chandeliers. Eddie felt increasingly disoriented as the minutes passed, until double doors at the end of the room swung open and the miraculous figure of Mlle Polaire swept through. Her dark, Arabian eyes flashed coquettishly as they surveyed the assembled group. Her mouth, lusciously crimson and pouting, softened into a smile as she noticed Eddie nervously doffing his cap. ‘B- Bonjewer, Mamzel Polaire,’ he stammered in a French accent that he suspected was even more excruciating than Hammerstein’s. She gave him a playful curtsey, the swell of her breasts rising thrillingly in a dress that was little more than a bustier. ‘Enchantée, M’sieur.’ The next twenty minutes elapsed in a haze of musky perfume and popping flash-


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bulbs as Eddie, flushed with a mixture of pride and confusion, was encouraged first to take her hand then - ecstasy of ecstasies - to put his arm round that sensationally slender waist. As he did so, Polaire flashed him a smile that could have raised Lazarus. Its memory was still smouldering ten minutes later as Hammerstein steered him smoothly back to the foyer. It was by pure chance that he bought the ‘Daily Mirror’ the following day. The front cover was filled with a photo of the Lusitania, torpedoed off Kinsale with huge loss of life. Eddie was just skimming the rest of the paper when he was startled by his own face staring back at him. There he was, grinning inanely with one arm slung around the stunning Polaire. Under the headline POLAIRE THRILLS OUR HERO FROM THE FRONT, the article described her as the ‘darling of the forces’ (which was news to Eddie) and related how ‘hordes of our brave boys’ were flocking to her nightly shows at the Coliseum. Eddie noted wryly that an extra hundred had been added to his tally of ‘knocked off Huns’ and, instead of the carelessly dropped ammunition box breaking his hand, it was the dastardly German innovation of chlorine gas that had sent him home from the front to recuperate.

He was still wondering what his mates in the 1st Hampshire back at the front would make of the photo as he queued later that day to buy tickets for the rest of the week’s performances. How many of them, he reflected, would rate a quarter page in the ‘Daily Mirror’ with one of their Flanders whores on their arm? Each night for the rest of the play’s run, Eddie sat spellbound as Polaire flounced and twirled about the stage, those incandescent eyes blazing and her body striking poses that emphasised her wondrously slender waist. By the fourth night, he was sure she noticed him, and every night after that she would flash an especially alluring smile in his direction. If it wasn’t for that, he wouldn’t have dared muster the courage to accost her outside the stage door on that final night. She left alone, wrapped in the black satin cloak of her stage persona, her face in the dim light no longer ablaze but tinged with a surprising sadness. Eddie thrust his way through the small throng of waiting admirers, most of them in uniform like him. A burly naval rating with HMS Agincourt on his cap elbowed him in the ribs as he passed. Polaire seemed unsettled by the clamour, scanning the sea of eager faces blocking her path. Her eyes fell on Eddie and his heart forgot a beat as she flashed him a smile of recognition. To his astonishment, she took his arm, kissed him lightly on the cheek then reached up to whisper in his ear. Her perfume made him giddy.


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‘M’sieur. Just walk.’ The naval rating shot Eddie a look like a battleship broadside as Polaire led him past the row of envious faces until the two of them were enveloped in the dank evening fog of St Martin’s Lane. He didn’t care where they were going; he would have happily strolled into the German trenches with her on his arm. As they walked, Eddie tried vainly to muffle the heavy clump of his army boots. His mind ran frantically through all the opening lines he had so carefully rehearsed over the previous four days. ‘Mamzel, may I s- s- say how much I admire your acting. S- Such a talent …’ Eddie’s voice tailed off as he realised he was beginning to sound like Hammerstein. Polaire started to remove her hand from his arm, but replaced it when she saw the disappointment in his face. ‘I am grateful to you, M’sieur. I just needed some way to escape.’ Her long, French-accented vowels were rich as treacle. ‘Escape from what?’ Eddie immediately regretted his directness. There was a flash of resentment in Polaire’s eyes, which softened as she sensed his remorse. They walked on for several minutes until the road opened out into Trafalgar Square. Polaire’s voice seemed muted when she spoke again. ‘Tell me, M’sieur: have you ever lost someone dear to you? Not a parent, or brother, but someone you could not imagine living without?’

Eddie’s face flushed. ‘I’ve n- never been that c- close. N- Not to a woman, if that’s what you mean.’ Polaire flashed him that coquettish smile again that made his eyelids twitch. ‘Then you are lucky. Perhaps it is better in these times to cling to nothing. There is no pain then when it is taken away.’


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They continued in silence through Trafalgar Square, which was empty apart from a horse-drawn tram clattering its way from Charing Cross and a couple of hansom cabs waiting outside the National Gallery, their drivers swathed in their cloaks against the fog. Eddie recalled how, with the war on, some cabs were reportedly even driven by suffragettes. As they turned into the Strand, their shadows mingling in the pools of gaslight from the streetlamps, Eddie felt Polaire’s hand tighten on his arm. He turned to look at her and was astonished to see tears welling in her eyes. ‘P- Please, Mamzel Polaire - is there something I can do?’ She shook her head and dabbed at her eyes with the edge of her satin cloak. ‘How old are you, M’sieur?’ ‘C-Call me Eddie. Please. I’m t-twenty one.’ ‘And you do not fight in the war?’ ‘Yes. I g- go back tomorrow. This is my last night of leave.’ Polaire’s musky perfume and the gentle pressure of her breast on his arm were having increasing effects in Eddie’s battledress trousers. He had been walking on clouds when they left the theatre, but walking was now becoming a matter of some discomfort. So he was relieved when Polaire stopped outside the Strand Palace Hotel and led him gently by the arm through the gleaming glass and chrome lobby. A drink would be nice, he thought. However, she surprised him by leading him straight to the waiting elevator. Eddie would later cling to the memories of that night in his darkest moments at the front. At first hesitant, then growing in confidence as Polaire’s passion suffused them both, he explored the unmapped landscape of love until he could search no further. By the end of the night, there was scarcely an acre left undiscovered. When he stepped outside the hotel next morning into the misty dampness, early trams were already rattling along the Strand and fruit-filled wagons clopped by on their way to market. As he dashed across the road to Charing Cross station, he realised with a start that Polaire had barely spoken another word to him beyond a sleepy ‘adieu’ that morning as he had checked his pocket watch and hastily


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dressed. He thought of returning to the room, but he knew the price of missing the 06.45 to Southampton and the waiting troopship. These days the generals seemed to be trying to outdo the French in the numbers of deserters shot. Eddie arrived back with his regiment in time for the preparations for the Big Push at Loos. For the next few months he eked out his days in that flat, treeless landscape, concealed in foul-smelling slag heaps or muddy Russian saps. Most days, his lungs slowly choked with coal dust thrown up by the artillery bombardments. Once in his lungs, it had to stay there for hours because, for a sniper, one cough could be fatal. His role in The Big Push, when it finally came, was short-lived. He was lying in an advance redoubt overlooking the Lens road early one morning as the attack started. The attack was to mark the first use of poison gas by the British. They hadn’t issued the regiment with masks because they didn’t consider it necessary. But in the windless conditions, most of it drifted back onto their own lines. All Eddie could think of as they carried him retching back to the field dressing station was his picture with Polaire in ‘The Daily Mirror’ and the irony of the article’s patriotic embellishment of his injuries as inflicted by German gas. Because of the huge influx in casualties, Eddie spent the weeks it took his seared lungs to recover at a field hospital only two miles from the constantly shifting front lines. Before long, the constant cacophony of groans and cries of pain and the frequent crump of artillery barrages or detonating mines ceased to keep him awake. In a way, he found them oddly comforting. It was the occasional silences that disturbed him. By mid-October, the two opposing armies had fought one another to a standstill between Loos and Givenchy. The British had gained just a few additional acres of mud at a cost of over 50,000 casualties. After the New Year, life began to return to some sort of normality with the arrival of the divisions withdrawn from Gallipoli. The deliveries of mail and newspapers at the field hospital became less erratic. As his breathing gradually improved, Eddie even had the occasional moment of leisure to catch up with news from home. One afternoon, two weeks before he was due to return to his regiment, he opened the ‘Daily Mail’ and was surprised by Polaire’s picture staring back at him. She was returning, following her triumph of the previous year, for a new season at the Coliseum. The letter Eddie composed and sent to her took him the rest of that final fortnight to


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write. There were some fine phrases. He could be so honest with his feelings on the page, even if his tongue rebelled whenever he tried to voice them. He was still congratulating himself, three days after he posted the letter, as he lay cocooned in his full-body sniper’s suit overlooking Vimy Ridge while the Royal Engineers tunnelled away deep beneath him. There was a cold wind blowing down from the coalfields at Lens, delivering its usual cargo of coaldust across the trenches. Although his lungs had been ravaged, he hadn’t forgotten the importance of keeping them under control. Though this wind seemed to carry something else as well. There was a faint, musky smell that made him light-headed as he breathed it deep into his lungs. His heartbeat quickened as an image strutted brazenly through his mind. He was beginning to feel hot for the first time in months. He rested the rifle in the crook of his left arm and reached for the top button of his sniper’s suit. ◊ A few weeks later a package arrived for him at battalion HQ, just as Captain Morant, his company commander, was parcelling his belongings for return to Eddie’s mother in Lyndhurst. They didn’t amount to much, thought Morant: just a few trinkets; a theatre programme from 1915; seven show tickets and a carefullypreserved press cutting of Eddie with some foreign-looking floozy. Not much to show for 22 years, 89 confirmed kills and a German sniper’s bullet in the head. Morant sliced open the package with his bayonet. There was a brief letter from a William Hammerstein, announcing simply that ‘Polaire asked me to send you this’. It was wrapped around another package, whose contents were altogether more intriguing. It was an hourglass, miraculously whole considering the BEF’s postal service, with a note in a woman’s hand, heavily scented with musk. It read: ‘Adieu, mon cheri. Perhaps this will remind you of me. So, you ask me how long love endures in this foolish world? Bien. Just turn it over.’


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Porphyria

I

should never have allowed it to happen. I realise that now. Too late, alas. We were like two opposing elements, never intended to mix. Coming together was almost bound to end in some form of conflagration. I blame myself really. It should have been me that snuffed out that initial flicker of mutual interest. But grey hairs aren’t always a badge of wisdom. Fancy imagining that you could help a jaded old aesthete like me roll back the years! They say that love is mere folly, but it isn’t: it’s more like a disease that, just when you think you’re finally cured, you realise you’re only in remission. What on earth did you see in me? The wrong side of sixty. A solitary widower for the past thirteen years. Waistline spilling further over my trouser waistbands with every passing year. And a nose that would put Cyrano de Bergerac to shame. If I’d been a blind date, you’d surely have taken one peek through the pub window and promptly cut your losses. It’s no wonder I hadn’t had sex since flares were still in fashion. I couldn’t help noticing you, though, that very first class. The striking, long blonde hair helped, of course, but it was the luminescent, pearl-like quality of your skin that so struck me. That, and the absurdly blue eyes. There was such an eagerness, a radiance about your face. I thought immediately of Browning. Porphyria’s Lover. Do you know it? No matter. Perhaps that was a portent of what was to come. A warning that I should have heeded. You were quite simply a revelation. Your English was not yet perfect. Understandably, since you’d only left Helsinki five years ago. But could you use it! In the twelve long, tedious years I’d been taking that creative writing class, I’d never come across such a student. You didn’t just assemble words like the others; you were a jeweller, not an engineer. In your hands words glowed in ever fresher and more imaginative settings. For the first time - you’d have laughed if you’d known - I was almost afraid. Here was a talent I felt helpless to shape. Fragile in its very perfection, as if one false touch might destroy it forever. It’s silly, I know, but you were an inspiration to me. You fermented juices that were dormant and long forgotten. I even started to


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write for myself again, after all these sere, fallow years. It wasn’t easy at first. Writing is like playing a musical instrument: you never forget how, but only constant practice makes it a thing of beauty. Fifteen years of marriage to dear Miriam had all but stifled the flame. Not that I blame Miriam, God rest her soul. I was only too happy to let myself be smothered with the treacle of contentment. Over the thirteen years since her death, though, it had begun to flicker away restlessly inside me again. I suppose it just proves that true happiness can sometimes be the enemy of genuine creativity. The first mistake I made was sharing it with you. My only credentials in your eyes were that I had had a moderately successful novel published over twenty years ago. Now, I scraped a living from teaching and book reviews. But discovering that I was a working author again, how exciting that was to you! I should have known that allowing you to help with research and redrafting would bring us closer than was wise. I should have anticipated the intoxicating effect of those hours we spent sharing a computer screen, our thighs mere centimetres apart. I suppose, if I’m honest, I did. That’s what makes the sense of guilt so painful now. It’s not as though you were short of offers. God knows, half the class were just itching to leap between the sheets with you. The only reason the other half weren’t was because they were female. No, you were never short of friends. Who could be twenty-three, blonde and dazzling and still be stuck for invitations? The boat trip was my second mistake. You helped me crack the writers’ block that Sunday morning. Like all the best ideas, your solution was simple but inspired. Your reward was lunch on the boat in Newtown Creek. We had a glorious sail over. Remember? Friendly force two, the sun caressing your skin and your hair billowing like ripe barley. Then, the heavy warmth of the afternoon and the slow lapping of the waves at anchor in the creek. The bottle of chilled Chardonnay and the gentle rocking motion that sent you to sleep in the cockpit. You looked so beautiful, skin like alabaster wreathed with gold and your eyelids twitching in reverie. You were my Porphyria. I couldn’t help but kneel down beside you and steal a kiss on your cheek. Your skin smelt of ripe peaches and cinnamon. I didn’t realise you were half awake. As your arms slowly encircled me and you lifted your lips to mine, thirty-five years slipped off me. I was a salmon, burnished by the sun and leaping in my prime.

After that, the classes became almost unbearable. The exquisite pain of feeling you only feet away and yet untouchable, while thirty earnest faces looked to me in inno-


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cent expectation. I wanted so much just to reach out and caress you. Make sure you were real, not just a figment of a sad old man’s imagination. Your birthday was the turning point. I’m sure you recall. You’d said you’d give anything to get your hands on that latest mobile ’phone that did everything except make a double macchiato. Baffling, really, why people are so willing to infect themselves with a modern plague like that. Anyway, as you unwrapped it in my sitting room, the look in your eyes was worth every penny. You held me so tightly I could map your geography, feel each valley and plain and hillock of your body. Something slowly stiffened between us. It may have been out of practice, but it had a good memory… I’ve tried several times since, but I still can’t put that night into words. If you have to die a little inside to be a true artist, that must be why: I’ve never felt so alive in my life. I was like a traveller, arriving at some long-forgotten oasis after years in a selfinflicted desert. You were both innocence and experience. Yin and yang. You knew how to play both the virgin and the whore. By the end of that night I was deeply, irretrievably in love. But it was the turning point in another, entirely unexpected way. It started in class. You just couldn’t bring yourself to switch the damn thing off. Brrrrrrrr. Brrrrrrrr. Low, breathless tones into the mouthpiece. Blushes as you hung up. Then in the pub after class. Brrrrrrrr. Brrrrrrrr. Muffled laughter and more blushes. And so it went on, with the feeling growing in me that I was losing you to a legion of electromagnetic competitors. Irrational, perhaps. But since when was love reasonable? Even tonight, in the restaurant, when I tried to tell you. I don’t think you realised there was something important I was struggling to say. I took both your hands in mine and looked as lovingly as I could into that hauntingly beautiful face. You probably thought it was the onset of dyspepsia, for all I know. I’ve been a wordsmith most of my life, but I’ve never felt so helpless at trying to put something into words. Then it happened. Brrrrrrrr. Brrrrrrrr. Smiles, tinkling laughter. More secrets in which I did not share. I nearly erupted there and then. The mood was gone, destroyed by a malevolent microchip. I was going to drop you straight back at your flat. If only, for both our sakes, I had done it. But I had an inspired idea. A night sail to Newtown. A final attempt to recapture the essence of that first, tentative exploration of feelings. No golden sunshine this time, but a silver harvest moon. You were very quiet as the boat slipped along under a light land breeze. The moon-


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light spilled softly from the sails onto your still, thoughtful face. It was as if you, too, were struggling with something unsaid. The creek was deserted as we glided in and dropped the sails. The weekend sailors had long since departed and would be snugly tucked up in their home berths. Only the soft twittering of the sandpipers and the occasional rasp of a tern broke the silence. You always loved the sounds of nature, didn’t you? You used to say they reminded you of the Finnish lakes. But they didn’t seem to lift your spirits tonight. After we had anchored, we stood on the foredeck in silence for what seemed hours, both of us afraid to take the first step into the void that had opened up between us. We watched the oystercatchers wheeling in the darkness, the white blazes on their rumps flashing in the moonlight. Soon, even they had gone to roost. We were completely alone in the creek. Just us, the gentle chink of the anchor chain and the silver skeins of cirrus high in the sky above.

Brrrrrrrr. Brrrrrrrr. I don’t know what possessed me to do it. It was the action of half a second, to snatch the odious thing from your hand and fling it over the guardrails. It would have been better had it ended there. But it didn’t. We argued. Bitterly. I think we saw a side of one another we hadn’t seen before. Then I snapped. God knows how I managed it, pushing sixty five and with a paunch the size of a beanbag. You insisted I get it back. So I picked you up and threw you in after it. Of course, I had forgotten to check the tide tables. The boat had swung with the ebb tide and settled on the mud. Deep mud. You were instantly up to your waist, stuck fast and sinking deeper with every panicked flail of your arms. You can imagine my feelings: blind fury to abject contrition in the flicker of a moonbeam. But that’s when I did the really stupid thing.

So now here we are, both stuck fast in mud that sucks at the limbs like epoxy cement. Don’t struggle, say the experts. But it’s easier said than done. The mud’s almost chest-high now. So much for chivalry. At least, now we’re both quite still, we won’t sink in any further. And now, thank God, the hysterics are over. I tried my best to persuade you that it was just embarrassing and inconvenient, not dangerous. But then I never was quite as competent with the spoken word.


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Of course, you sensed it was a lie. In fact, it’s probably not high water until around 1.30. That means there’s at least another metre and a half of tide to come in. I can already see it creeping inch by moonlit inch up the keels of the boat. And the one thing that might have saved us is buried God knows where in the mud and darkness. That’s why I really had no choice. I couldn’t bear the thought of you realising. Having to watch the terror rising in your face along with the tide. I just knew I wouldn’t have enough courage for both of us. That moon is so amazingly bright. Look. You can see every pock and shadow on its face. There’s not a cloud in the sky now to compete with it. Scarcely a whisper of wind in the silvered branches of those trees fringing the shoreline. Even the water voles are snug in their burrows, safe from the marauding owls on their silent wings. Everything is so peaceful. Nothing but the gentle, insistent lapping of the incoming tide. And - listen - the plaintive, bubbling cry of the curlews somewhere down near the estuary.

Just you and me together. Calm of mind, all passion spent. Me and my Porphyria. Your cheek still warm against my shoulder. Your hair in the moonlight one long, silver strand wound tight about your throat.


73

Trust Me ‘Jeez, Algie! Look at this.’ Algie’s mouth froze, his fork halfway from the plate. Egg dripped off the fried bread onto his sausage and ketchup. Vince’s face was buried in a newspaper, his kippers steaming untouched in front of him. ‘Unlike you to read

The Times, Vince. Did you nick

it?’ Algie licked the egg trickling down the handle of his fork as Vince’s eyes shuttled back and forth across the page. ‘Two million quid! That’s what it says here.’ He turned the page towards Algie. ‘Two

million just for a poxy mongrel.’ Algie squinted at the article. His eyes strained without his reading specs. The headline read: Texan pays lab £2m to produce clone of pet dog. He snorted as he resumed the attack on his black pudding. ‘He could ‘ave our Julie’s mutt for a tenth of that.’ His eyes glazed as he wrestled

with his fractions. ‘No. A thousandth.’ Vince’s focus was already on the middle distance. Algie sighed. He knew the signs of another scam a mile off. He tapped Vince’s nose with his ketchuppy knife as his friend’s mouth started to open. ‘No,

mate. Not after that last trick. That disability benefit scam could have got us both banged up. Detachable plaster casts, my arse. I still don’t know how you wriggled us out of it.’ Vince folded the newspaper and leant over his kippers, elbows on the table. The steam from his plate wafted up past his eyebrows. He looked, thought Algie, just like a cheap fairground fortune teller. ‘Look,

Algie, this one’s a dead cert. Can’t fail. Trust me.’


74

◊ Algie felt a right pratt. This time on a Saturday afternoon he’d usually be sitting in his caretaker’s overalls enjoying a quiet smoke before placing his bets via the lab telephone. By teatime, he’d be sitting in Professor Khan’s big leather chair, tea mug in hand and feet up on the antique mahogany desk, watching the races on old Genghis’ private office TV. Today, thanks to Vince, he was pacing nervously in a white coat, half-strangled by a collar and tie and terrified in case some PhD student popped in to check on an experiment. He’d be a proper laughing stock. He took the fake business card from his pocket. Algernon Whalley, BSc, PhD, Head of Research, Pet Cloning Services. He chortled quietly. Nobody had called him Algernon since his christening. Most of his family had apparently pissed themselves laughing at the time, but his mother held firm. She had had great dreams for her Algie. He was started to sweat now. He had had bad feelings ever since Vince placed the ad in Pets Monthly. Going along with a wheeze was one thing, but Algie had never expected anyone to be daft enough to reply. If it wasn’t for his recent bad run on the horses, he’d have told Vince to find some other mug. Algie’s pulse quickened as he saw Vince arriving out front in the borrowed Jag. With Vince’s record, he must have sold a kidney to persuade the showrooms to lend him that. There was a pinstriped toff alongside him in the passenger seat. At least, thought Algie, the toff looked the part. Unlike Vince, who looked more like a doubleglazing salesman. Still, at three weeks that was the longest proper job Vince had ever held down, until someone spotted him running a weekend minicab service using the firm’s van. Algie had told the silly bugger that masking tape went transparent when it rained. So using it to cover up the firm’s name wasn’t the brightest wheeze on a rainy Saturday night. Vince ushered the toff - a Mr Russell - through the lab’s plate glass doors. After introductions, during which Algie just nodded affably and kept his mouth shut, they took him on a tour of the labs. He seemed impressed with the set-up (unsurprisingly, since Southampton University had laid out over £25 million for it). But Algie nearly had a heart attack when they adjourned to Khan’s office at the end of the tour. Vince sat down in Genghis’ chair, looking like a Junior Mastermind contestant in his ill-fitting suit, but it was to Algie that the toff directed his questioning. ‘Tell

me, Mr Whalley - or may I call you Algernon?’

The toff had a friendly enough face, but there was a distinct hardness in the eyes.


75

Algie nodded again. He was beginning to feel as though his head were on a spring, he had waggled it so much. But nodding had kept him out of trouble. So far. ‘Well,

Algernon; I wonder if you could just describe the cloning technique you use. Is it the nuclear transfer method?’ Algie felt his eyes bulge. He sensed that a nod would only get him in deeper on this one. His head was distressingly empty at that moment, but it felt as if someone had nevertheless broken into it and all the alarms were going off at once. A sudden flash of memory came to the rescue. A horse. Newmarket 3.30 last Saturday. Owned by a biotechnology millionaire. He was just about to blurt out ‘DNA Sequencing’ in triumph when Vince leapt to the rescue. ‘Of

course,’ intoned Vince in his newly-minted Jag-driving voice, ‘we don’t favour general disclosure of our methods. For reasons of commercial confidentiality.’ The toff’s eyebrows betrayed an incipient lack of conviction. A short-lived wave of relief swept over Algie as he realised the game was probably up. But he had reckoned without Vince’s doggedness. ‘We

do,’ Vince continued, ‘have a number of patents pending on our techniques. And, of course, we do offer a full money-back guarantee in the event of failure to produce a satisfactory clone.’ Algie had to stifle a chuckle at the thought of Vince parting with money once he had wrapped his wallet round it. Like expecting a jellyfish to give up a guppy. They’d have all the banners out from Bournemouth to Brighton the day that happened. But the toff seemed satisfied. Algie watched the blank TV screen while Vince gabbed on. Right now, he reflected, they’ll be running the 4.30 at Goodwood.

It was well after five by the time Vince escorted the toff back through the plate glass doors. The fifteen minutes it took Vince to run him back to Southampton railway station were, for Algie, like a pint of cold lager after a vindaloo. He stood outside the lab doors, sucking in gulps of air and feeling free for the first time that day. By the time Vince swung the Jag back into the car park, he was resolved. ‘Vince,

let’s call this off. It ain’t going to work. I think he sussed us already.’

Vince leapt up the steps two at a time, waving a piece of paper excitedly in his hand. He was like Neville Chamberlain on speed.


76 ‘See,

Jeremiah! I told you we could carry it off.’

Algie peered at the document. It was all in Vince’s fake legalese. Vince retrieved it impatiently from his hand. ‘Fifty

thousand smackers! That’s what it means. We only have to deliver a clone of his dead bitch within eight weeks to collect.’ He pulled a sheaf of banknotes from his pocket. ‘See. He’s already paid five hundred quid cash deposit.’ Algie sniggered. ‘What a relief! So all we do now is pop down to Clone-U-Like and wait while they

knock us one up. How could I ever have doubted you?’ Vince shot him a pitying glance. ‘Algie,

they must have been fresh out of imagination when you queued up. Look, all we do is find a puppy that matches near enough and deliver it after a decent interval. I’ve asked him for samples just so’s it looks pukka.’ ‘Samples?

What, you mean pee and stuff?’

‘No,

Einstein. Dog hairs off an old blanket. A chew with saliva on it. Anything that might have the mutt’s DNA.’ ‘Oh.’

Vince scanned the contract. ‘So

now all we need is a breeder that can sell us a … a ...,’ he scrutinised the unfamiliar name again, ‘a Tyrolean Pocket Spaniel.’ He folded the precious paper and slipped it into his jacket pocket. ‘And, the day we deliver it, you’ll be fifteen thousand quid richer. Just think of the bets you can place with that.’ The part of Algie’s brain reserved for mathematical calculations had long since become hardwired for calculating racing odds. He was still struggling to reconcile fifteen thousand as half of fifty thousand when Vince roared off to return the Jag to the showrooms. ◊ Algie sat at the back of the café with his trucker’s special breakfast, but Vince still spotted him through the window. Algie’s heart sank as he saw the look of triumph


77

on Vince’s face. A £500 quick in and out was one thing. Going through with the deal was madness. Vince scuttled between the tables towards him like a robber crab. ‘We’re

bonkers. Both of us.’

Algie cleared his mouth of egg and sausage. ‘Tell

me something I don’t know.’

Vince threw a copy of Pets Monthly onto to the table and pointed excitedly to the classifieds. ‘See? I’ve been phoning everywhere for six weeks for this bloody yodelling spaniel.

It’s been right under our noses all the time. Look.’ Algie focused his bleary eyes on the page.

Avondale Breeders Rare breed specialists Alborg - Blue Weimariner - Tyrolean Pocket Spaniel Ring 07725 623118 for details Vince noticed the scepticism on Algie’s face. ‘Before

you moan again, I’ve already telephoned. We’re in luck. They’ve got just one, the last of a litter. We can collect it Friday.’ ‘How

much?’

Vince shifted uneasily in his seat. ‘Well,

it’s not cheap. It’s a bitch, you see. They’re always more expensive. It’s the breeding potential.’ Algie put down his knife and fork and leaned across his trucker’s special. ‘How

much?’

‘Five

thousand pounds.’

Algie exploded.


78 ‘Don’t

be so effing daft! Where the hell would we get that kind of money?’

‘Look,’

Vince pleaded, ‘I can lay my hands on a grand or so. You’ve got the holiday club money. You’ll be able to pay it back ten times over when we complete the deal. I can borrow the rest from Kemal the Turk.’ ‘Not

if you value your kneecaps.’

Vince grabbed Algie by the forearms as he picked up his knife and fork. ‘Please,

Algie. We’re mates. Don’t let me down. Not now. This is the deal of a lifetime. You’ll get your fifteen thou. Trust me.’ ◊ There had been moments when even he had doubts. Too many things could have gone wrong. But that was the beauty of the best scams. It wasn’t necessarily that they made the most money: it was the challenge, the thrill of living on the edge. Of exuding total confidence even though your nerve ends were jangling like church bells. Of improvising when carefully laid plans threatened to come adrift. It was the piquancy of the immaculate deception. He looked at his watch. Ten to seven. His friend was late. The champagne had been so long in its bucket, the ice had melted. He felt hot in the unfamiliar suit, but had worn it to the pub anyway. Besides, it matched the new image he had worked so hard to cultivate: no longer the cheap scam merchant; more the consummate artiste of trickery. Others could clown around down in the circus ring if they wanted: from now on, he was a master of the high wire. He looked up as an attractive, middle-aged brunette in Barbour jacket and green wellies pushed open the gate into the pub garden. He held aloft the dripping bottle of champagne as she scanned the tables. She smiled in recognition as her gaze fell on the bottle. As she joined him under the sun umbrella, she kissed him lightly on the cheek just as the champagne cork cannoned off into the flowerbeds. ‘Hi,

precious. I presume you got it all?’

She pulled a thick wad of banknotes from her handbag and placed it on the table. ‘Five ‘No.

thousand smackers. Not bad for a £500 investment. No trouble your end?’

Once he had the cheque in his hand he was off like a hare to the bank. Probably desperate to cover the five thousand he’d just given you.’


79

She took a sip of champagne and giggled as the bubbles prickled in her nose. ‘I

wonder if the kennels in Burley had the faintest clue what was happening. There was one kennelmaid overheard us. I thought she might give the game away when she started laughing.’ ‘Well,

it’s not often they get to host such a rare breed - even if only for three days.’

They laughed together until the tears began to well. ‘Tyrolean

Pocket Spaniel!’

‘Best

of breed at the Zillertal Dog Show!’

‘Rest

of the litter sold to Count von Kronstedt!’

Tears were streaming down his cheeks as he took the chequebook from his pocket, doused it with lighter fuel and ignited it in the ashtray. ‘I’d

just love to see his face when he presents the cheque and it comes back stamped ‘Refer to drawer - no Mr. J. Russell at this branch!’ ’


80

Happy Anniversary

I

t had cost a fortune, but the look on Diana’s face as she appeared at the table was worth every penny. Besides, Jonathan owed it to her. He had scoured half the shops in Hampshire to find a place setting that matched the one in his mind; that vibrant mix of ochre and indigo she had so admired on their first anniversary dinner in San Gimignano. In the same shop he had discovered a set of cutlery with verdigris handles that could have been lifted straight from the restaurant. Matching the wine glasses had proved a real challenge. Their own set, a precious souvenir of Tuscany brought back swathed in bubble wrap, had disappeared in the house move before last. So he had needed to have some flown in specially from Murano. The centrepiece of wild thyme was the final inspired touch. He noticed the smile spreading across her face as its scent, carried across the dining table by the warmth of the candles, evoked their shared memories. Her eyes were moist and shining. ‘Jonathan, darling - you went to all this trouble. You are such a sweetie.’ She seemed to be trembling, either with emotion or cold. He wanted to reach over the table and envelop her in the warmth of his arms, like before, but he knew that he couldn’t. There was a magic just then that any attempt at physical contact would have shattered immediately. He watched the candlelight flicker on her face and for a few seconds the previous ten years fell away. He saw her freshly bronzed from their walk in the Tuscan hills that morning in June 1990, her eyes shimmering with delight as she enthused over the fresh sights and sounds at every turn. It was like a day stolen from paradise, a gentle breeze fluttering through the olive groves and a sky the colour of lapis lazuli. He remembered how the sun had scattered highlights in her long, auburn hair, which rippled with every movement as it tumbled over her bare shoulders. That day, he remembered, she was a vision which would have left Titian breathless. It had been exactly a year since their wedding, and in those first twelve months they


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had been together, she had overwhelmed him with joy. The light flickered and he saw another Diana, still beautiful, but her hair in a shorter, more practical cut. The face fuller and less sculptured. The eyes still shimmering, but tinted with the sadness he had put there. He shivered as a cold gust of memory swept between them. ‘I wanted it to be just the same. As perfect as I could make it.’ She looked into the distance beyond him, her eyes unfocused. She was still smiling, but with nostalgia now rather than surprise. Her voice was soft, almost a whisper. ‘It really was the most romantic place on earth, wasn’t it? It was just like getting married all over again. Those first twelve months had simply flown by, hadn’t they?’ Jonathan nodded. They had, if anything, gone too fast. ‘Do you remember that last night at Mimo’s Ristorante? Mimo had become convinced by then that we were honeymooners and told the maitre d’ to put a free bottle of Strega on the table.’ ‘Yes,’ she chuckled. ‘After we had finished the zabaglione and several glasses of the Strega, I seem to recall we lived up to our reputation.’ ‘Yes, and on the balcony of our room, too,’ he laughed. ‘I still recall that night. It was the night of the summer solstice. I don’t think I ever saw stars like it. They seemed close enough to run your fingers through them.’ She was silent a few moments. ‘Did you ever take HER there?’ The tone of Diana’s voice hadn’t changed, but there was an uneasy harmonic that only he would have detected. Jonathan had expected the question - or something like it - but not this soon. ‘No,’ he sighed, ‘it wasn’t like that.’


82

She was looking directly at him now. He couldn’t tell whether the look in her eyes was questioning or critical. ‘What was it like?’ ‘You know.’ ‘No, I don’t, actually. Unlike you, I didn’t make a habit of extra-marital affairs.’ He looked down at his hands, spread flat on the tabletop. He would have gladly cut off a finger, yakuza-style, if he thought that would placate Diana. But he knew that it would be no more than a pale surrogate for his incompetence with words. If his tongue hadn’t been so lame when his soul was crying out for forgiveness, he wouldn’t be in this position now. ‘Amanda wasn’t important.’ He wanted to wave his arms, dismiss her memory with a sweep of the hand, but he knew he mustn’t. ‘It was really just an accident. In a way, she only reminded me how much I loved you.’ ‘Ha! That’s a good one.’ Diana’s voice was hard with irony. Jonathan leaned forward across the table. Her face seemed to fade and re-appear as the candle flame sputtered. ‘Don’t you see? Every time I looked at Amanda, I saw you. Even when we made love …’ He noticed how Diana’s eyebrows knitted. ‘Yes, even when we made love, I felt as if it was you underneath me.’ ‘I don’t understand. You have sex with a tart from your office and you imagine it’s me?’ ‘Yes. You, Diana,’ he went on, ‘but before the … before you … lost the baby.’ He noticed her wince. ‘I didn’t want to rake it over again like this. God, this was supposed to be a special anniversary surprise, not another bloody post mortem.’ He could see she was close to tears. He had done it again; stomped all over her feelings with his size elevens. But he couldn’t stop now. He had invested too much in this evening to give up so soon. It was absolution or bust.

‘Please, Diana, try to understand. You froze me out of your life for months. Amanda was in and out of my office a dozen times a day. She made it very clear she


83

was available. But it wasn’t just the sex - or rather even the sex. She reminded me of you. That auburn hair, the hazel eyes, the tanned complexion - even the love of Italian food. She was in almost every respect a clone of you, Diana. I was … I was reliving what I had with you.’ She was crying now, head bowed onto her chest. He wanted so much to reach out and comfort her. But he knew that words were the only bridge he had left. The silence seemed to last for minutes, punctuated only by Diana’s quiet sobs. Finally, she raised her head. In his mind, her face shuttled unnervingly between two images, ten years and a sea of emotions apart.

‘I suppose,’ she said falteringly, ‘if I’m honest with myself, it was as much my fault as yours.’ ‘No, really. Don’t blame yourself. That’s not what this evening is about.’ She lowered her head again. Her voice was almost inaudible.

‘Jonathan, do hear me out.’ She took a deep breath and raised her eyes to meet his. ‘You weren’t the only one to make a mistake. When I said I didn’t make a habit of affairs, that wasn’t entirely true.’ He sat back in his chair. There seemed to be a sudden chill in the room. ‘You see,’ she continued, ‘it wasn’t jealousy that made me like that. I didn’t intend to drive you away. It was guilt. Losing the baby was a kind of punishment.’ ‘Punishment? Don’t be silly, Diana. It was nature. It happens every day.’ ‘Punishment,’ she repeated firmly. ‘You see, Jonathan - please don’t be upset - I did something silly. Something I’ll never forgive myself for. It happened just after the opening of the ’99 Summer exhibition. You were away at that conference in Houston, remember? Well, the exhibition was a triumph and we were all elated. It was a very hot evening. I drank too much champagne and wound up in a cab with Ennio.’ ‘Ennio? That overblown Milanese fop?’

‘Next thing I knew, I woke up in bed the following morning in his hotel room.’ Jonathan slumped even further down in his chair. A nasty thought was buzzing


84

inside his head. ‘So … you mean … the baby?’

Diana nodded. ‘I didn’t know if it was yours or his. The thought tormented me for months. Then, when I lost it, it seemed like retribution.’ ‘We could have tried again. We could have …’

‘No, Jonathan,’ she interrupted. ‘You know that’s not true. You were there with me when I saw the consultant. Remember what he said? My childbearing days were effectively over. In fact, any pregnancy could be life-threatening. You can’t imagine what that does to a woman. Only three months since the miscarriage, and it felt like a death sentence. I was crushed. Everything just seemed to have collapsed around me.’ ‘So that’s why …’ ‘Yes, that’s why I swallowed the tablets. You see, Jonathan, it wasn’t really your fault after all. It was my own guilt gnawing away inside me. I just couldn’t live with it any longer.’ ‘If only you’d told me.’ ‘I didn’t think you could ever forgive me. Even after you started that affair. I hadn’t just betrayed you; I had destroyed our chance of ever having a family. ’ Jonathan shook his head. ‘So that’s why you took the news about me and Amanda so hard. It wasn’t just jealousy. It must have seemed like the final twist of the knife.’ They were silent a few moments, motionless in the small circle of candlelight. Then, as their eyes met again, he seemed to see Diana in sharp focus for the first time. Her long, auburn hair fell in waves across her shoulders, just as he remembered. Her face was bronzed and glowing. A tear still hung on the ridge of her cheek, but the sorrow was gone from her eyes. Her lips curved in an affectionate smile.


85

‘Forgiven, then?’ ‘Forgiven.’ Jonathan felt unchained, for the first time in months. ‘Darling?’ ‘Yes?’

‘Happy anniversary.’ ‘Happy anniversary.’ He raised his hand to brush the tear from Diana’s cheek. She tilted her head slightly towards his approaching hand and closed her eyes. A strand of her long, russet hair slipped off her shoulder and nestled in the dimple of her neck. The scent of wild thyme, warmed by the candles, drifted again across the table. One final flicker of candlelight and the vision was gone. In its place appeared an older face, deeply lined and framed with a tight cowl of white hair tied back in a bun. Still a woman’s face, but with eyes tightly shut in concentration and cheeks glistening with sweat from her exertions. As he watched, her face slackened. She opened her eyes and glared at him across the table. ‘Mr. Anderson. That was very stupid of you.’ Feet shuffled uneasily under the table. Someone coughed in the room. She was still staring at him imperiously, demanding an explanation. Jonathan shrugged in embarrassment. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just that I wanted so much to touch Diana, like before. She seemed so real. So alive.’ ‘Nevertheless, that was a very dangerous thing to do. With such a powerful manifestation, there is no telling what might have happened. And after all the trouble you took in setting this evening up.’ ‘Sorry. I wasn’t …’


86

‘Sorry isn’t enough. I gave everyone very precise instructions on how to behave. You could have endangered us all.’ He looked around his dining room table. Six pairs of eyes, their irises flickering pinpoints in the circle of candlelight, were staring at him in silent reproach. Six pairs of hands were raised from the table, now that the circle had been breached. Someone switched the lights back on. The harsh glare of reality made him blink. His friends had agreed to help this far, but now Jonathan could sense from their faces how much he had betrayed their trust. But he was past caring. They had helped him cross that threshold and he had returned whole again. At last, he knew he was forgiven.


87

The Best Day of My Life By Ernie Scammell (Class 2D)

I

t was absolutely wicked, that whole day. Never been a day like it. Nor will be again, that’s for sure, not even if I live to be really old like my gran. It was really my gran as started it, in a way. Mum and dad had a big row about my birthday. All that kid ever does is cost me money, dad shouted. Mum tried to get him to be quiet, but I could still hear, even through the kitchen wall. Dad was blaming my mates from school. Just because they all had designer label clothes, he was saying, didn’t mean everyone had to have them. Why couldn’t I be happy with the Oxfam shop like mum? Mum was crying a bit, I think. I began to feel it was my fault yet again. Like this silly cardigan. My big sister Thelma had it before me. Horrible brown and yellow, with big buttons like a dress. I got such a ribbing at school the first time I wore it, what with it doing up the wrong way and everything. I even hit Roger Hinks, which was silly, because he’s bigger than me. Miss Dewbridge saw us and I nearly got detention, but Roger didn’t sneak on me. After that, mum started finding things wrong with Thelma’s clothes whenever she grew out of them. Dad said he had to wear his sister’s hand-me-downs when he was a kid, so why shouldn’t I. Mum messed up one of Thelma’s shirts so I wouldn’t have to wear it, but dad slapped her for that. I once got a Lacoste T-shirt in Brockenhurst at the St Nicholas church jumble. Mum gave me the money. It was 75p, which was quite a bargain. John Piper said it was fake when I wore it to school the next day, so I kicked his leg. Just because his mum buys his shoes at Lilley and Skinner, he thinks he knows everything. Next day, the bruise was the size of a grapefruit. He showed it me, all yellow and purple. Anyway, after the row, it seemed I had about as much chance of a Hugo Boss hooded sweat as marrying a Spice Girl. That was when gran suggested it. Give him something for the cricket, she said. Only thing he’s ever been any good at. She can be quite cruel sometimes, my gran. Mum asked me what I’d like, if I couldn’t have


88

the sweat. I said a bat. An SG Century. Dad nearly killed me when he found out how much they cost. Over my dead body, he said. It was mum’s idea to go down the Pilley car boot sale. She was all mysterious and winking when she came back. She wouldn’t let me see what she had bought. So I was quite excited on the day. I knew mum would come good. Only three other boys in the team have their own bats, which is probably why they usually get more runs than me. The school bats are all shit clapped out. All splintered at the edges and held together with string and linseed oil. Mum had wrapped it special. Red and gold paper from W H Smith in Lymington. A bow made out of a ribbon. But she bit her lip when I opened it. I was a bit disappointed. The bat looked awful, like something out of a museum. The handle wasn’t sprung and it felt really heavy, not like the SG Century at all. Dad said I should be grateful. Might even score a fifty at last, now I had my own bat. More like a string of ducks, I said. He clipped me. Gran laughed, but mum didn’t. Next Friday we were playing at King Alfred’s. Everyone laughed when I got on the bus with my new bat. Roger Hinks said it looked like a plank and did my dad know I had broken his garden shed. Simon Norris had got a new SG Century, just for getting his cycling proficiency. I nearly died. It was always nice at King Alfred’s. It’s quite a posh school. They all wear red jackets there with badges on and ties and everybody wears whites for cricket. They have proper changing rooms there, too, with inside toilets and boxes of nicesmelling soap above the sinks. Their team is better than us, and they usually thrash us by a mile. I had to go in at number five. We had only scored 26. Simon Norris only got 1. So much for his new bat. See if you can do any better with the plank, he said. He didn’t see me wee on his trainers while he was getting the pads off. They had this bowler who was a killer. Crampton. Very tall and really fast. He didn’t care if he hit you either. I got hit on the foot first ball, but it wasn’t out. Then he got me in the chest, which hurt. Next ball was going for my head. I should have ducked, but I was so angry I swung at it. Suddenly, the bat seemed lighter. The ball went miles and miles up in the air. It went so far it landed in the trees on the common opposite. They spent ten minutes trying to find it and then they had to get a new one. Crampton gave me a look could kill. He was really stamping as he walked away from the wicket. Next ball, he did the same thing. I was going to duck, but somehow my arms took over and the ball just flew. Another six. Crampton couldn’t believe it. He swore at me, but the umpire didn’t hear. They put a spinner on next over. I hit him for three fours. One after the other. It was amazing. I had only been on seven


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minutes - apart from the time hunting for the ball - and I had doubled the score already. By now there was a quite a crowd gathered. There was another game, the seniors, on the next pitch, but no-one was interested in that any more. They put another bowler on, a ginger one with freckles. He had bowled me the last game at St. Boniface’s. I hit him back over his head for four. And again. I’d never played this good before. Then he ran in very quick. I swept him, just like Brian Lara. Six. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. The bat seemed to get lighter and lighter as I played, like swishing a ruler. But every ball it hit went for four or six. I just couldn’t miss. It was as if I’d owned it all my life. Roger Hinks declared our innings at 125. I had scored 85 not out by then. They said it was the highest ever score by a Priestlands junior in the school’s history. They all clapped, even Simon Norris, as I walked back to the changing rooms. He even wanted to swap his SG Century. But I wasn’t having any. He could just plank off. When King Alfred’s went in, we got them all out for 57. I had a bit of a bowl, just two overs. I was crap not very good, but it didn’t matter. I got a catch, a little fat boy with a squint called Sketchley. Anyway, it was my batting that had won it. Everyone said so. I was man of the match and got a MacDonald’s voucher. Me and Paul Morant skipped school dinners the Monday after and went for big Macs, double fries and two large cokes each. It was my mum that almost spoiled it. She was reading the Echo that night and went all quiet. There was a picture in it of a cricket bat. It had got a record price at an auction and then got stolen. She reckoned it looked just like my bat but I said it wasn’t. Lots of bats got marks like that. Any case, the bat in the paper was over a hundred years old. Someone had paid £26,000 for it. Don’t tell the lad that, said my dad, or he’ll be wanting one of them next. It was a really special day, though. The best. Since then, I don’t get teased at all in cricket, even though I still play in jeans and a T-shirt. My friends at school don’t always keep trying to take the piss mickey any more. Even Shirley Prendergast has started being more friendly, which makes Roger Hinks mad. He thinks she’s really pretty. I reckon she’s just OK. It’s hard to believe that something like a gungey cricket bat could make such a difference to things. But it has. Everything is better now. Now, I wouldn’t part with it for anything. Who was this W.G. Grace, anyway?


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Contiguous

T

hey were all gone. Sandy. Becky. Drusilla. Even Naomi, with the curiously notched dorsal fin. And Siobhan, with the russet sheen that flashed in the sun like apple brandy. Siobhan the heartbreaker, the last of his loves. The one who had ignited his soul then flounced off with a uillean pipes player from Donegal. Henry Oliphant’s weak old eyes were misty as he probed the reed-run promontories and muddy inlets of the little pond. The bamboo cane trembled in his hand as it swept the dark recesses under the rockery outcrop and gently explored the silt at the base of the lilies. Nothing. By now, the knuckles of his other hand were cramping with the pressure on the handle of the walking stick as he fought the arthritic pain in his hip. They just had to be here somewhere. Maybe hiding in the mud. Driven by some unknown terror into a secret part of the pond, hidden even from his familiar gaze. They were the living record of his conquests. The milestones of his lubricious youth and mellow middle age, before the final heartbreak stilled the scurry in his blood. He had chosen them. Named them. Nurtured them through countless winters. Confided in them those few, small secrets he would carry to his grave. They simply could not have gone. Especially not the one who shone like fire. Not Siobhan. ◊ ‘Witch!’ ‘Rancid old cripple!’ ‘Termagant!’

Agnes Kellaway stared at him contemptuously, his angry, florid features propped like a ripening beef tomato on the top of the garden fence. She wasn’t quite sure what a termagant was, but if it came from Henry Oliphant’s lips it was bound to be


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rude. He had his walking stick hooked over the fence, taking some of the weight off his crumbling hip. There was a dribble of spit on his lower lip from his last expletive. It reminded her with a shudder of her Desmond, brain addled with syphilis from some French tart in Brest and dying the year they invented penicillin. Always did have an appalling sense of timing. ‘That murderous little monster! I’ll take a spade to him, I swear. If ever I catch the evil bastard in my garden again!’ There was a vicious glint in Oliphant’s eye. She had seen that same malevolence in Desmond during his final, raging battle with the poison spreading from his loins to every fold of his brain. Old Henry would do it, all right. He was enough of a thug. ‘Dylan wouldn’t go anywhere near your poxy little pond. Or your stupid goldfish. He hates water. Won’t even go out when it’s raining.’ The black cat wriggled in her arms, as if alarmed at the very mention of rain. It stared up into Agnes’ face, liquid eyes pleading for protection. Agnes stroked it reassuringly as she turned her back on her spluttering neighbour and returned to the conservatory. ‘Miscreant! Harbouring a felon!’ ‘Not felon, feline,’ she rejoindered over her shoulder. ‘Even an ignorant pig like you should know the difference.’ ◊ A mouse has a remarkable small anal orifice. In eighty-four years, it was the first time Henry Oliphant had ever had occasion to make that observation. Now, as he gently probed with the hypodermic, it was taxing his concentration more with every tremble of his bony hand. Strange, he reflected, how sure his touch had been for forty years as a paramedic. Now that his target was a mere rodent’s arse his hand was wagging like a metronome. Finally, as the squeaking rose to a crescendo, his needle found the target. He slowly squeezed the plunger home and withdrew the needle. Picking up the still struggling rodent, he opened the perforated top of the Tupperware box and dropped it in, sealing the lid with a smile of satisfaction.


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◊ This was the best bit. The notes reverberating around the age-old stones of Salisbury cathedral. Reaching into the soul and shutting out everything except D Minor Toccata. The headphones were a mere illusion. He was Simon Preston. It was his hands that glided lithely over the stops. His feet that nimbly trod the pedals as the organ thundered to yet another climax of holy chords. Yet there it was again. That tinny jangle. The third time now. He removed the headphones, exasperated. Nothing. He switched on the speakers to try to track down the sound (sod the old bat next door). Still nothing. He was about to replace the headphones when it sounded again. The doorbell. Cursing quietly, he heaved himself to his feet and lurched unevenly to the front door. ‘Mr. Oliphant?’ It was a policeman. So young, Henry Oliphant found himself instinctively looking down to see if he was in short trousers. ‘Yes?’

‘PC Woolacombe. Lyndhurst police station. May I have a word?’ Oliphant rocked back on his heels as the pain in his hip kicked in again. The policeman took that as an invitation and stepped inside. The blast of a D minor organ chord stopped him temporarily in his tracks. Oliphant shuffled across the room to turn down the sound. ‘It’s about your neighbour. Agnes Kellaway.’ ‘Contiguous, yes. Neighbour, no.’ ‘Pardon?’ ‘Never mind. What about her?’ The officer was looking at him curiously. Oliphant found his silence disconcerting, then irritating. He swished his walking stick, as if to waken PC Woolacombe’s vocal chords from their evidently catatonic state.


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‘She’s been taken to hospital,’ said Woolacombe at last. ‘Had a heart attack earlier today.’ ‘Sorry to hear that,’ replied Oliphant, somewhat unconvincingly. The officer studied him for a moment before continuing. ‘Strange thing is, she called the emergency services this morning. Rambled on hysterically about someone poisoning her cat. At first, they thought it was a hoax caller. Luckily, we had someone in the area who called in just to check. Found her collapsed in her conservatory. Half an hour later and she’d be dead.’ ‘Lucky for her, I suppose.’ Woolacombe was staring at him again in that annoyingly inquisitive manner. ‘You weren’t very close? As neighbours, I mean?’

Oliphant snorted. ‘Didn’t get on, if that’s what you mean. After her husband died, she started to take it out on me instead. If you ask me, he was the lucky one.’ ‘Anyway, we’d appreciate it if you’d keep an eye on the cottage for the time being. It seems Mrs. Kellaway hasn’t any other relatives nearby. We’re trying to trace a stepson in Ireland, but they haven’t been in touch for years.’ ‘Not sure what I can do, but I’ll call you if she gets burglars.’ ‘And this cat. No sign of it in the cottage or the garden. Perhaps you could let us know if it turns up.’ Oliphant’s rheumy grey eyes wandered to the window and the garden beyond. The bonfire was burning nicely now, the flames licking almost as high as the garden fence that marked the border of enemy territory. ‘Yes, officer. Of course. If it turns up.’

◊ A bunch of bloody students! They had trashed Agnes’ garden with a drunken party


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the day they moved in. Since then they had bedded some suspicious-looking plants under plastic in a hidden spot behind the shed. Oliphant could only see them by standing on the toilet and craning his head from the bathroom window. The stepson must have thought he had won the lottery. Within days of the old girl’s death, the place was let out pending grant of probate. The lucky bugger, thought Oliphant, must have been laughing all the way from Limerick or wherever it was he had fled his stepmother’s tongue. Oliphant had, in a way, almost begun to miss the frigid old witch. It didn’t stir the juices in quite the same way, ranting at a bunch of adolescents who just smiled indulgently and got on with their lives. Of all things, at his time of life to be indulged! She had had a bit of the Celt in her, too, did old Agnes. He could tell, from the day she moved in, only weeks after burying her husband. There were still those flames in her hair that the grey had not yet conquered. She was from the same mould as Siobhan, last of his loves. She, too, had that fire that led to faithlessness… Oliphant sat at his window looking out at the burnt ring of grass where the bonfire had been. Somehow the garden meant less to him now. Just one more neverending cycle of greening and dying. There was a sudden commotion from the garden next door. A loud explosion as something hurtled over the fence and spread itself like a canopy in the air before subsiding slowly over his garden. A hideous, anguished screeching which set his teeth on edge as some animal fought in rage against its entanglement. He shuffled out to his garden, stick tapping fast and choler rising. Two faces were peering over the fence. They wore official hats, with RSPCA along the band. They were looking with satisfaction at the struggling bundle imprisoned on Oliphant’s lawn.

‘Sorry to disturb you, sir. We had to work fast before he moved on again.’ Oliphant looked from one face to the other. They looked triumphant. Not at all apologetic. He felt the sap rising, just like in Agnes’ days. One of them scrambled over the fence and dropped down in front of him. ‘Ranger Roberts. The police called us in. There have been a number of reports. You must have read about it.’


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‘Never read papers,’ growled Oliphant. ‘Or watch TV. Bunch of rubbish, the lot of it.’ The second face joined them and began to untangle the threshing bundle gingerly. ‘There

have been sightings all over the area. This little rascal has been terrorising half the New Forest.’ Oliphant watched as the man lifted his catch carefully into a large cardboard box. ‘You must have lost a few yourself, sir.’

‘Lost what? Look, officer, what the hell is it you have there?’ ‘Osprey. Usually they pass over on migration. For some reason, this one decided to stay. Spent the past month on Easy Street, emptying half the fishponds in the New Forest.’


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The Drift

A

lan Sturridge had had blacker days, but not much. He watched as the last of the New Forest ponies was chivvied into the pound, where seven others were waiting with steaming flanks for the hiss of the branding iron. Their nervous whinnying echoed dully in the dank October mist. A piebald mare was kicking in irritation against the lower rail of the pound as her tail was notched by the official shears of Tony Fennell, the Agister, with the distinctive mark of Skinners Farm. Since the age of nine, Alan had never missed the Autumn drift, when all the ponies were gathered in for registration and, in many cases, sale. But this one would be his last. He leaned on the top rail to ease the ache in his back. The cold drizzle which was spotting the dust of the pound was getting into his bones as well. In his younger days, he’d have been in there with the other commoners, wielding the branding iron or giving his ponies their worming doses. But once you couldn’t stay out of harm’s way (and an arthritic back was no match for the hooves of a frisky pony), you were safer on the spectator side of the rail. A small boy was rocking on the rail opposite, squeaking with glee at the spectacle. Alan remembered how thrilled he had been when his father first introduced him to the sounds and smells and the centuries of tradition of the drift. They were only tenants of Foxgloves Farm in those days, but they enjoyed all the commoner’s rights that dated back to the Domesday Book. Initially, his father had exercised them all: pannage, which entitled them to turn out pigs in the Forest during the acorn season; estovers, which meant they could gather fallen timber for the wood stove. According to the lease, they even had the ancient right of turbary, but there wasn’t much call for turf cutting by those days. No, it was the right of pasture that had given them - at least for a while - a reasonable living from the annual Beaulieu Road pony sales. His father shrewdly invested some of the proceeds in a breeding pair of hardy highland cattle, huge-horned beasts with shaggy red hair that seemed to thrive in the hard conditions of the Forest. His father had been the first commoner


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to graze highlanders, and others had followed. The small boy nearly tumbled, and was rescued by an attractive brunette in a waxed coat and headscarf. She smiled shyly at Alan, prompting another surge of memories. In a sense, he reflected, the drift had become a thread that joined all the landmarks of his life. It was the drift of ’71 that first brought him face to face with Wendy, a cheeky commoner’s daughter who nearly branded him by accident and later married him in recompense. Then in ’74 (or was it ’75?) Wendy had watched from the other side of the rail, their first daughter, Hazel, balanced on her shoulders and marvelling at the spectacle of her first drift. By the time their second, Kate, joined them at the ’79 drift, it was to see Hazel choose her first pony with the Foxgloves brand and to earmark a yearling for Kate for the following year. A group of tourists, gaudy in their ski jackets, stood chattering at the corner of the pound. Alan sensed the silent cringing of his fellow commoners. Now that the New Forest was becoming a national park, they all faced the prospect of being swallowed up by tourism. For Alan, the process had already started. In a sense, it was a mercy that the ’80 drift had been his father’s last: he hadn’t lived to see the first hammer blow to commoning from the depression that set in over the decade. Luckily, his father had bought the deeds to Foxgloves Farm during the good years, but when he died there were debts to pay and they couldn’t eat bricks and mortar. By the ’86 drift, Alan recollected, pony prices had fallen so low that even the petfood companies found themselves in a buyer’s market. His small profit from the highland cattle was scarcely enough to trouble the taxman. Wendy had been their saviour. It had been her idea to start a farm shop and tearooms, using the produce from the smallholding and Hazel’s baking skills. Even Kate was pressed into reluctant service as a waitress. They had made enough from tourists and campers during the summers of the late ’80s to carry them through. Hazel’s departure for art college just before the ’93 drift and Kate’s for a gap year in Peru after the ’94 drift threw things a little out of kilter, but Wendy’s energy had kept them solvent - just. The acrid smell of burning hair and flesh invaded Alan’s nose. The ponies squealed as the mark of Denny Farm was applied to their flanks. Denny Farm, he recalled, had lost more ponies to increasing road traffic than anyone ever the past three years and were close to packing it in. But for Alan, the drift of ’96 had been the final, unkindest twist. They had borrowed to extend the tearooms and weren’t to know the BSE disaster was about to break. His highland beef was unsaleable and there was just too much to shift through the tearooms and friends and neighbours. They had eaten beef until Wendy ran out of recipes then burned the rest to


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free up space in the deep freeze. Then, once his growing back problems were diagnosed as arthritis, even riding was off the menu. ‘Alan, you want to take yours out?’ He was shaken from his thoughts by Tony Fennell, the Agister. Fennell had finished marking the seven ponies and was pointing out another half dozen waiting outside the pound. ‘Sure, Tony. The big mare with the Foxgloves mark and the two yearlings.’

He watched as Fennell ushered the mare and yearlings towards the slaughterers’ large white van parked on the verge. For the first time in nearly sixty years, there would be no stock showing the Foxgloves brand anywhere in the New Forest. Alan pushed himself painfully off the rail and walked slowly back to the Land Rover. Fennell turned to shake his hand as he passed. ‘Won’t be the same without a Sturridge at the drift.’ ‘That’s true,’ he replied with a grim smile. The small boy was back on the top rail again, yelping excitedly as the next batch of ponies was herded into the pound. The drizzle had turned to a steady rain now. Alan turned up the collar of his jacket and thrust his hands deep into the pockets. The damp smell of decay seemed to be everywhere.


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By the same author: A Question of Immortality http://issuu.com/lexicographer/docs/a_question_of_immortality The Lovestruck Lexicographer http://issuu.com/lexicographer/docs/the_lovestruck_lexicographer

Fruits of the forest  

A collection of short stories inspired by the landscape and people of the New Forest

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