Tiger Fiction Stories 08

My late father’s life through his own words, tales and stories
Brian Matier – 03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018

Letting Go

2017

It was a great shock, a shock made worse by being totally unexpected.  It was, in male vernacular, a ball shatterer.  It came, as I recall, on a wet Sunday afternoon when my wife and I were idly ignoring something forgettable on television.  We both stared at my daughter, sitting on an armchair a few feet away in the lounge.  She appeared quite composed and sounded quite rational.  For my wife and myself, the world had just come to a crashing halt.
“What did you say?”
“Jim and I are engaged.”
I have two children, a son and a daughter, who arrived five years after her brother on the day Bobby Kennedy was killed.  We have always been close, she and I, something that, over the years, has seriously affected my then wife, now ex wife.  She used to say, “If you want to find Ben , look at Jenny’s little finger; he’ll be wrapped around it.”  It was meant as a joke, but it was used too often to be one.  Up to about the age of thirteen my daughter’s usual form of address for me was “Daddy Darling.”  Impossible to resist.
In later life she confessed to me that her mother had always been jealous of the close relationship between her daughter and her daughter’s father.  There was no need for any jealousy.  There is perhaps nothing quite as pure as your love of your children, fierce and undemanding.  Now thinking back at that time and reassessing, with more educated eyes, photographs of the family group where my daughter and I have been playing together, the look in my wife’s  eyes seems one of pure malice, a malice not recognised at the time.
I am an old fashioned man and an old fashioned father, someone who has never really been comfortable outside the time warp of his own upbringing.  I saw my role, not consciously perhaps, but certainly somewhere in my psyche, as helping my son to become a man and protecting my daughter.
“Oh!  When did you decide this?”
“Yesterday.”
At the time relations between the young lady and I were delicate.  She was only sixteen and was growing into a woman with all the physical and emotional changes taking place which she didn’t understand.  Clearly dads did not know or understand about periods or boyfriends or anything very much.  Our relationship had still not recovered from my refusal to allow her to go off to Greece with a mixed bunch of girls and boys of the same age.
I resisted the urge to ask if she was pregnant as being unlikely to help.  “Do Jim’s parents know about this?”
“No, we wanted to tell you first.”  She appeared defiant as if expecting a fight.
“Congratulations.  I am delighted.”  Nothing was further from the truth, but it was obvious her heels were well prepared to be dug in.
“Me too, darling.”  To her eternal credit my wife hid her horror at the prospect and we both hugged our daughter.
“You don’t think I’m too young?  You aren’t going to object?”
“Why, do you think you are too young?”
“Nooooooo, but l thought …”
“There you are then.  You are a grown woman.  If you have thought this through, that’s fine with us.”
My daughter felt she was being conned, but couldn’t work out how.  The problem, apart from her age was Jim.  He was just about the last person on earth we would have wanted for a son in law.  He was about the same age and was, well how do I put this?  He was a total dick; long greasy hair, spotty faced, a fully paid up speaker of Estuary English and unemployed.
My wife was on the ball.  “Right, let’s organise a party.  We must celebrate.”
A crisis had been averted, but perhaps only for the present time.
About three weeks later I noticed she was not wearing the ring that Jim had given her and I enquired about it. 
“Oh, we thought that we might be too young, and have postponed things.”
Needless to say, Jim disappeared from the scene not long afterwards.  It would be pleasant to record that a fairy tale ensued.  In real life, alas, fairy tales rarely happen.  Marriage to Tom, a relationship with John and marriage again to Peter all followed and all failed.  She is now awaiting her Decree Absolute from Peter.  Those relationships all collapsed, as did my marriage.  Our relationship, my daughter and mine endures.  She will always be my little girl, whether it is chasing spiders from her bedroom, spraying mosquitoes, soothing cut knees, or being there when divorce occurs.
We joke together today about those distant times.  She knows I was right about Jim, but who’s to say she might not have been better off with him than the others?

Buried Treasure

2017

The situation was bad, very bad, and I could see no way out of it.  I was angry, depressed and frustrated, but I was determined that, if we were to be beaten, we would go down fighting.  Tom Atkins was walking towards me.  He was eighteen but looked about thirteen.  I went to meet him.
“OK?”
He nodded.  “What do you want me to do?”
“Keep your head down, pick up any runs you can, but don’t get out.  We can get a draw out of this.”
Vic nodded at these words of not so infinite wisdom as if savouring the sayings of Solomon, but I saw that he was not totally convinced.
Limehouse Police had scored 120 and we, Hackney Police, were 57 for nine.  The third ball that Tom received was square cut for four, and he grinned.  It always makes you feel better to get off the mark.
We battled away, taking runs where they presented themselves, and the score mounted.  The tension left me a little, I was enjoying this.  The scoreboard seemed to have been on 89 for a very long time, as I faced up to a new over. 
“Last over,” called out the umpire. I nodded to him.  We might just make it.
The first ball was a half volley on the off stump.  “Thank you, Jesus.”  I drove it through the covers for four.  The next was angled across my body and I closed the face of the bat a little and guided it to fine leg.  Tom and I strolled through for an agreed single.  The third ball to Tom was short on the leg side.  He pivoted on the back foot and sent it, one bounce, to the mid wicket boundary.  The fourth he played back to the bowler.  ‘Good boy’ I muttered to myself, ‘only two balls to go.’  The fifth ball he picked up outside the off stump and sent it over long off for six.  There was a small riot of cheering from our side, gathered around the scorer.  I didn’t understand it at first, surely there was one ball left.  No, we had won!
They told me later that they had stopped posting the score in case we got nervous.  We got 64 runs in 60 minutes, with Tom on 27 and me on 39.  We walked off, and if a Cheshire cat had been around, he would have recognised our smiles.  It was before the days of punching the air, or exchanging high fives, or even of smacking our gloves together.  I tucked my bat under my arm, peeled off the batting gloves and Tom and I shook hands.
“Well batted, Tom.”
“Well played, skipper.”
The best kind of buried treasure is that of memories.   I do not suppose that Tom recalls this occasion now, but I do.  These nuggets are sometimes buried deep in the minefield of our memories, like that game, or like the occasion when a corporal in the 10th Gurkhas told me I was a good soldier.  He may have been lying, but it remains the most valued piece of praise in my military career.
The same buried treasure can lie on the surface, and be easily and beneficially recalled.  The days my children were born.  The last and final time I knew I was in love, and realised that all which had gone before was but a prelude to this.  The waiting over five hours in the cold for the lying in state of the Queen Mother, and the tangible feeling of nation which accompanied it.  The very first time I drove a Jaguar, and knew I would never own anything else.  The breathtaking, heart stopping occasion when I first saw a tiger in the wild, staring at me.
All of these glint like specks of gold on the surface, available almost on demand.  But whether buried deep like the cricket match, and the little corporal, or shining on the surface, I would suspect that when I come to die, these are the treasures I will remember, and not what Captain Morgan left buried in the beach in Hispaniola.

Worried

2007

It had been an hour and he was worried.  He glanced at his watch, the hands luminous green in the almost total darkness.  No, it was an hour and ten minutes.  The collar of his overcoat was pulled up around his neck, his cap jammed on his head as he began his mindless walk, ten paces in one direction and ten back again.  He found himself counting; four, five, six.  Stop it you fool, you know how many bloody paces there are.  Seven, eight, nine.  He had tried many times before to stop counting but had never succeeded.  Ten, about turn and back again.  He halted when he reached the turnaround position and searched in his pocket for a cigarette. 
He lit up, the match scratching into a fierce momentary flame, and he sucked the smoke into his lungs.  How many times was it now?  Twenty-six?  No this was the twenty-seventh.  Get through this and only three to go.  He drew on the cigarette, the glow lighting his face in the night.  Away to the east, across the flat landscape of Lincolnshire crouching unseen in the darkness, the first silver threads of dawn insinuated themselves.
Beside him he felt someone’s presence.  “That you, Dick?”  He spoke without moving his head.
“Yes, sir.”
“Any news?”  Even as he asked the question he knew what the answer would be.
“No, sir.  Ten landed, two to come, D-Dog, and W-Whiskey.”
“Thanks, Dick.”  Beside him he sensed the Squadron Leader salute and move away on silent feet.  Good man, Dick Roddy, his Intelligence Officer.
Group Captain Peterson walked stiffly into the nearby building and into his office.  Wearily he took off his cap and tossed it towards the hat rack.  It missed.  Jesus, it must be an omen.  He had never missed, not on the previous twenty-six occasions.  He picked up the hat and removed the overcoat.  It was stuffy and warm in the office, and he opened the window, the metal handle cold against his skin.  Outside the smell of the recently returned Lancasters filled his nostrils with their unique aroma, a mix of ammunition, petrol, blood and fear. 
He studied the photograph on his desk.  It had been taken in 1940, about June.  The whole family was there.  There he was, a mere Squadron Leader then, and Peter, the elder boy, the Flying Officer’s ring on his sleeve slightly bigger than David’s, who had only just been commissioned as a Pilot Officer. And there was Judith, his rock, his reason for living, smiling not at the camera, but at her family.  She was gone now, killed in an air raid in London while visiting her mother.  Peter had died in the skies over Kent on Adler tag, Eagle Day.  They never found him, he must have gone into the sea.  And David, where was he?  In the North Sea with the rest of the crew of W Whiskey?  They were a service family, a Royal Air Force family, but they had given enough now.  He kissed the photograph and sat at his desk for a long time.
The telephone jarred into his brain.  “Group Captain.”
“It’s Ops, sir.  Thought you’d like to know.  W-Whiskey put in at Scampton, a little while ago.  The aircraft is badly shot up but all the crew are safe.”
“And D-Dog?”
“I’m afraid they were hit over Bremen and went into the North Sea.  ASR are still out searching.”
“Thanks, Ops.”
He returned the phone to the cradle and rubbed his forehead with his index finger.  He was close to tears as relief flooded in.  The bloody war was in its fourth year, and it seemed it would go on for ever.  He pressed the intercom button, and a pretty blonde WAAF came in.
“Morning, sir.”
“Good morning, Susan.  Do you think you could arrange some tea, and toast for me?”
She smiled brightly.  “With pleasure, sir.  Your son landed at Scampton, I hear?”
He nodded.
“So, you can stop worrying, then?”
He smiled a tired little smile.  “Yes, Susan.  Thank you.”
As she left the office he turned to the window to watch his station prepare for another day of warfare.  Yes, I can stop worrying, until the next time, and the time after that, and the time after that.

Viewed From Afar

There is a place where the land and the sky meet, a secret place where heaven and earth dissolve into each other.  In this hidden place your imagination allows free rein to your thoughts, and, if you try very hard, you can see back in time with a wonderful insight.  With less certainty can the future be glimpsed shining brightly or dulled by fear.  My flights of fantasy take me unbidden to this eyrie in the sky and my view of man is unimpaired.
I am not objective, sadly perhaps.  Indeed I am myopic.  From here I see my country and its peoples, warts and all.  It is a little like playing God but without His awesome responsibility.  In the midst of the chaos, the mayhem and the occasional downright evil of mankind, I see also the courage and dignity of the human condition; the heroism of men and women who raise their children and live their lives only to die, to become shadows to those who knew them and then to fade away for ever.
Are these people possessed of lesser courage than those whose names and deeds we recognise?  No, but they were not in the right place at the right time.  As an American soldier replied modestly when asked if he had been a hero during the invasion of Normandy, “No, I wasn’t, but I was in the company of heroes.”  And so my journey backwards in time commences.
There below me is Luneberg Heath in Germany on 4th May 1945 where a smallish, bespectacled British Field Marshal is accepting the surrender of all German forces in Northern Germany.  Monty was argumentative, petty, vindictive, intolerant and a total enigma, but he had a habit of winning.  He didn’t need to be loved although he was by his soldiers if not by his peers.
And here is an airfield in Kent on a sunny late summer’s morning in September 1940 with the young men of the Royal Air Force, weary to their bones, sprawled beside their Spitfires and Hurricanes, awaiting the call.  The Battle of Britain may perhaps be more accurately termed the Battle of Europe.  And rolling across the scene is a voice, a growling lisping voice, speaking of the Few and ‘Our Finest Hour.’  Even after more than sixty years I am still reduced to tears by the sound of Churchill’s wartime speeches.  Of Winston, John Kennedy, no mean orator himself, said, “He conscripted the English language and sent it into battle.”
Back further to a rain swept cornfield in Belgium.  The wet, cold and hungry Anglo Dutch Army waits for the great Emperor to attack.  It is 11.30 on the morning of 18th June 1815.  The Allied commander, the simply dressed Arthur, Duke of Wellington sits astride the splendid Copenhagen, surrounded by his staff, calmly observing the posturing of the French.  Before this day is done, 50,000 men will lie dead, or dying among the Belgian cornstalks.  Wellington will say, as the tears flow, “I hope I have fought my last battle, because next to a battle lost there is nothing so terrible as a battle won.”
I move on over two hundred years and here is Tilbury in 1588 and Elizabeth, the Queen, is addressing her forces, awaiting invasion by the Spanish.  “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England at that.”  Well may Elizabeth have been played on stage and screen by many famous actresses because she was a sublime actress herself, whose sense of theatre and self promotion was largely responsible for her long reign.
And so, the journey continues and now slows.  Below me is a muddy field in northern France about two miles long by a mile wide, bounded on two sides by thick woods.  I descend and there is King Henry of England, the fifth of that name.  He is twenty-eight and fulfilling the most important part of his job description, leading his Army in battle.  It is the 25th October 1415, the feast day of Saints Crispin and Chrrispian.
The English Army is in deadly danger.  They had been withdrawing to the safety of Calais when overtaken and cornered by the French.  There are 5,700 English and Welsh soldiers facing 25,000 Frenchmen.  The English are cold and hungry.  Many are suffering from dysentery.  On this grey morning, as they wait for almost certain death, most have been to confession.  The French are so confident, one might say arrogant, that they are placing bets on who will capture Henry.  As they have continued to do until this day, the French underestimate the English and later the British.
Henry, despite his age has soldiered in these parts for many years.  He has noticed that the field narrows from a mile wide at each end to about 1000 yards in the middle.  He moves his forces forward to the narrowest part and places his archers on either flank.  In his bowmen Henry has the WMD of the day.  The French should know about these men, having been routed by them at Crecy in 1346 and Poitiers ten years later.  But Gallic memories are short.  Henry raises the Royal standard, proudly displays his coat of arms on his breastplate and, to ram home his message, fixes the crown on his head. If he is to die this day, he will die as the King of England.   He is attended by his kinfolk, the Royal Dukes, York, Gloster, Bedford, Salisbury, Exeter and Westmoreland.  They await the French response as the two armies hurl insults at each other and the English bowmen raise the two fingers of their right hand to show how they will soon kill Frenchmen.
This is not a just war.  No, it is all about land and borders and ransom and plunder.  I would submit, however, we should not judge the past by the standards of today, lest we too, of the 21st Century are found wanting by future generations.
The French charge.  As they reach the narrow waist of the field they are compressed into the middle.  The English and Welsh archers, some 5000 of them, bend their backs to their massive six-foot bows, firing up to ten shafts a minute.  The archers are attacked by the French cavalry, but they are protected by a fence of long pointed stakes, which horses will not charge.  The cavalry veer away to bunch in the middle, colliding with the French foot soldiers, jammed in the narrow waist.  The chaos is massive, the noise overpowering.  The hiss of the arrows, the clash of steel against steel, the cries of the wounded horses and the shrieks of the dying fill the grey French autumn day.  The middle and rear of the French press on, becoming so intermingled with the vanguard that they cannot move, cannot flee the arrows.  Knights in armour lie in the mud, unable to move until they suffocate or are killed.
The English men of war move forward.  The lightly clothed archers follow.  They hack and cut with their short swords, sharp daggers or deadly war axes.  It is over in half an hour.  The remaining French flee, sent on their way by the two fingered salute.
The flower of France lies crushed in the mud; the blood of French nobility irrigates the dark brown earth of Picardy.  French losses are around 8000, English 400, including York. 
Shakespeare has Henry saying: “And gentlemen of England now abed, shall think themselves accurs’d that they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap when any speaks who fought with us upon St Crispin’s Day.”
He might well just have done so.

The Milkman

2005

He loaded a dozen bottles into the crate, and picked it from the van.  He stomped into the block of flats, pushing open the communal door.  He knew these flats pretty well, after sixteen years.  Numbers one and three, no deliveries.  Number four took a pint, and number five usually wanted two.  Number two left a note stating their requirements.  Yes, there it was.  He picked up the milk bottle with the piece of paper rolled into the neck.  ‘Nothing today, Charlie.  Thanks for everything.  See you in Tesco’s.’  That was nice, most people ignored his passing.  It was all part of life in the 21st Century.  Who needed their milk delivered anymore?
He returned to the pavement and went towards flats 7-12.  It could have been a lot worse, of course.  In the old days the milkies used horses, slower, perhaps, but more reasssuring.  There was something timeless about horses, and people didn’t sound their horns at horses.  Horses were much better than those awful electric vans.  The milkmen disliked them, and other motorists hated them.  He supposed that they had good reason.  They were slow, making snail like progress around the streets, and especially towards the end of the run, got in the way of the traffic.  Some van drivers metaphorically used to raise one finger to the drivers in their beemers and Jags, by parking as inconveniently as possible.  He smiled at the thought of raised blood pressures.  Do they think we enjoy driving these bloody awful rattling crates, out in the open all the time?
Well, they would not have to put up with it for long, at least not around here.  No longer economic they said, too costly, they said, no demand for milk to be delivered to the door, they said.  And Charlie Miller agreed, they were right about all of those things.  Still, after sixteen years, he would miss the round.  He knew many of the people and had known some of them as customers for all of those sixteen years.
He stopped the van outside the Police Station, on the double yellow lines.  None of the coppers had said anything to him in sixteen years, and he didn’t expect anyone to make a fuss now, on his last day.  He went into the nick and deposited the six pints on the front office counter.
“Morning, Dave” he said to the duty sergeant.
“Morning, Charlie.  Last day?”
“Yes, you all need to go the supermarket to get your sustenance in future.”
“Charlie, the boys just wanted to say thanks for the last sixteen years, and we got you a couple of bottles.”  He handed over a small cardboard box.
“Dave, that’s very much appreciated.  Is it milk?”
The big sergeant grinned.  “No, mate, it’s the finest that Scotland can produce.  And, Charlie, keep off the double yellows once you hang up the milk float.”
“Thanks, Dave and thanks to the boys.”
“See you in Tesco’s, Charlie.”
He climbed back on to the float.  Milkman had never become a surname, like Constable, or Sergeant.  And there was Wright and Smith, Seaman, and Joiner.  He warmed to his ruminations.  There was Thatcher, Shepherd, Archer and Bowman.  Painter and Mason came to mind, as did Carpenter and Priest.  God, they were everywhere, Brewer and Waterman, Fisher and Major.  Plenty, but nothing on Milkman.
He drove back to the depot for the last time.  There was only Ernie, the fastest milkman in the west, as a marker to fame, and poor old Benny Hill who was dead now.   Oh, and one joke he remembered. 
One day just before Christmas this milkman calls at a house in a very well to do area, and is greeted by the lady of the house in a very revealing negligee.  “Come in milkie” she says, which he does.  She sits him down to a wonderful English breakfast with all the trimmings.  When he is finished the lady takes him upstairs, strips off the negligee and they make mad passionate love.  They both dress and she leads him to the door, the milkman’s head in a whirl by this time.  As he reaches the front door, she presses a pound coin into his hand.
“Lady,” says the milkman, “Please don’t think I am complaining, but what is going on?”
So the lady explains.  “At Christmas, my husband and I give all the tradesmen a gift.  The other evening I said to my husband, ‘Darling what should we give the tradesmen?’  He said, ‘Give the butcher and the baker twenty pounds each, and the postman a tenner.’  I said  ‘What about the milkman?’  He said, ‘Screw the milkman, give him a pound.’  Breakfast was my own idea.”
Yeah, yeah.  Oh, yes, Butcher and Baker, and Weaver and Cooper, and Farmer and Milliner.  Then there’s Hunt and Nurse, and Carman and Shoemaker.  Stop it, Charlie, you’ll give yourself a headache.
He drove into the depot, parked the float for the last time and went into the office to reconcile the takings.  He dressed, said goodbye to the supervisor and went to his car.  “Charlie, old boy,” he told himself, “It’s time for the day job.”
He drove to Tesco’s, went through into the staff car park, and parked his Rover 75 in the place marked “Dairy Produce Manager.”  It is always a good thing to have an each way bet.

A Walk In The Autumn

The coffin was lowered and the earth filled in on top of it.  The mourners moved slowly away from the graveside to walk in small groups towards the cars.  The older woman took the younger one by the arm.
“Come on, Ginnie, let’s go for a walk.  Funerals depress me.”
“Gran!”  The younger woman was shocked.  “George is only in his grave.  What would he think?”
“He would bloody well approve.  George hated funerals too.”
They liked arms.  “All right, Gran, where to?”
“Let’s go to Coppit’s Woods. It’s a beautiful day, and there aren’t many of those to come.”
They left the others, busy in their earnest chit-chat. far behind, and in a few minutes were crunching across the brown and red leaves dying on the autumnal forest floor.  The late sun dappled a weak path through the thinning trees to turn the carpet golden in the open spaces.  Leaves drifted down to join their dead brethren on the golden carpet, and the reassuring smell of wood smoke drifted in a pale blue thread from some suburban garden.
“I like it here, Ginnie.  I first came here over fifty years ago.  It was a day just like today.”
“Did you come with Granddad?”
“No, I didn’t know George then.”  The older woman was silent, for several seconds, as if she had drifted off into another world.  When she started to speak again it was in an abstract way, as if she was talking to herself.  “No, not with George.  I was with a young man called Tony Archer.  It was late on in the war, after D-Day.  It was his last leave.  We didn’t know it at the time, but he was to go to Arnhem about a few days later.  I never saw him after that day.”
Ginnie’s eyes glistened.  “Did you love him?
“Oh, yes.  I loved him.  I still do.”
“Did Granddad know?”
“He did later.”
Ginnie stopped in astonishment.  “Did Tony leave you?”
“No, dear, he died at Arnhem.  He died in George’s arms.  Let’s sit down, there, at that little bridge over the stream.”  She looked around.  “Look here Ginnie, in the stone.  You see, just here, faded, but you can read it.  Our initials, AA, and MF.  He always called himself Anthony, but I liked Tony better.”  She fingered the letters.  “That’s me.  Molly Friel.”
“What happened to Tony, Gran?”
“He served with George, and they were in the town with John Frost against the SS, and the tanks.  They didn’t have a chance.  No ammunition, no food, no reinforcements, nothing.  It was so unfair.  George told me about it.  He carried Tony from the house when it was all over.  He was badly wounded, Tony, not George.  The Germans took him for treatment.  George and the others sat in the street.”
Once again she seemed to be hearing George’s words drifting like ghosts over the years.
“A German officer came over to me.  He was in a grey uniform, Wehrmacht, not SS.”
He saluted military style. “Captain?  Cigarette?”
“I looked up.  I couldn’t speak.  I was sick and tired to my bones.  I nodded.  He lit the cigarette in his own mouth and gave it to me.”
“I’m sorry, captain, but the boy died.”
“He wasn’t a boy.  He was a British officer, Second Lieutenant Archer.”
“I’m sorry, captain, Lieutenant Archer died.  Did you know him well?”
“He was my brother.”
“Your brother?”
“For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.  Henry V.”
The German stared at him, without understanding.  “He asked me to give you this, and give it to his girl.  There’s a photograph, and this.  I do not know the English word.”
George took the objects.  “It’s an acorn.  I will give it to her, one day”
Molly Friel came back to the present.  “I gave him the acorn here, in this wood.  I said when he came home we would plant it, and watch our love grow.  There it is, on the other side of the bridge.  Perhaps it was not my acorn which caused that tree, but I like to think so.”
“Gran, that’s a wonderful story.  Did Granddad know all this?”
“Yes, good man that he was, he knew, and despite it, loved me all his life.  But, please, stop calling George your Grandfather.  Why do you think your mother is called Antonia?”

Case 743/02 LAPD

The diary, the Dachshund and the Yacht.

I am Josie Thursday.  I’m a cop.  You might have heard of my younger brother, Joe Friday.  He’s a cop too.  Me and Joe, we’re twins, but Joe was born the day after me.  You might think that Josie is a funny name for a guy, but my Ma, well, she had her heart set on a girl, and my extra bit of equipment didn’t stop her giving me a girl’s name.  Hey, don’t knock it.  It was real useful growing up; I sure as hell learnt to fight.
You see, one afternoon I’s sitting in my office, scratching myself with my Smith and Wesson.  It was as hot as a Tina Turner concert, but quieter, when my phone rings.  “Yeah, it’s Thursday here.”
“And what in Christ do you think it is here, Sunday afternoon?”
It is the Inspector.  He has a great sense of humour, but I have been on the force for twenty-two years, and hey, even the best of jokes gets a bit thin when you hear it at least three times a day for twenty-two years.
Anyway when he stops laughing, he carries on.  “Josie, we gotta 342 down on the Marina at Orange County.  Get your ass down there and crack it.”
I assume he means the case.  I wish I knew what a 342 is; I never was any good at Maths.  So, I strap on my piece, grab my jacket and shout to Horny.  No, don’t even ask.  We go outside the stationhouse and jump into the 428 double OHV, inclined cam, super injected, Corvette, with six on the floor.  I try the key, but the dammed car won’t start.  “Hey, Horny, the damm car won’t start.”
“Hey, Josie” he says.  “It’s not your damm car.  You drive the Ford Focus across the street.”
Well, sometimes Horny ain’t too smart, in fact he is four bullets short of filling all the chambers, but then, sometimes he notices things I miss.
We get down to the Marina and there is this uniform cop standing alongside this yacht.   It is Stinky Lopez.  No, don’t ask.
“Hey, Stinky, what’s the word on the street?”
So this Stinky he says, “The word on the street is ‘buttercup’, detective.”
Like what’s with this Stinky, buttercup for Christ ‘s sake.  The guy is only seventy-five cents in the buck.
So me and Horny, well we walk onto the yacht, and I can hear Carly Simon singing “You’re so vain.”  I glance in the mirror to check my hat is on at the right angle.
The first guy I see is Fingers Macdonald.  Now Fingers he was on the Force, but he and his partner are fooling about with their firearms one afternoon in the squad car, and he shoots off two fingers on his right hand.  His partner that day was Cocky Malone.  Jesus, don’t ask.
I exchange a high three with Fingers.  “Hey, Josie, old buddy.  What’s the word on the street?”
“Fingers, I heard the word on the street is ‘buttercup’.”
Fingers nods.  “Yeah, that’s what I figured.”  Sometimes I think old Fingers ain’t playing with a full deck.
“Hey, Josie, you seen Cocky Malone lately?”
“Hey, Fingers, Cocky got busted and thrown out of the Department.”
“Get outta here, Josie.  What happened?”
“Cocky was caught using coke in the police canteen and they kicked his ass out of it.”
Fingers is sympathetic.  After all, they lost a lot together.  “That’s tough.”
“Hey, you’re tellin’ me. Pepsi lost the franchise the next month.  So, what are you doing here, Fingers?”
“I am just walking the dog, my little Dachshund here, and this diary comes flying out the porthole of this yacht and hits Adolf on the head.”  Sometimes Fingers can be pretty dammed succinct.
“Poor little fella,” says Horny and bends to stroke the little fella, who bites Horny on the ass.  “Bastard,” says Horny, and aims a kick at the dog.
And then I see this babe.  She is nearly wearing this yellow top thing, and rubber trousers.  “What’s your name, babe?”
“I am Virginia Dubchek from Prague, and before you ask, yes, they called me Virgin at school for short, but not for long.”
“Hey, I wouldn’t have asked, Babe,” I tell her.  “With your rubber pants are you a rubber Czech.”  Well, hey, what’s life without a little humour?
But this is one cool chick.  “When I am on the trampoline, I am a bouncing Czech.”
Hey, it’s game set and match to Virgin.
“So what’s with the stiff?”
Virgin is alarmed, and looks around.  “What stiff?”
“The guy on the floor by your foot.  Him, the one with the stiletto heel sticking out of his head.  You have the other shoe on your foot.”  Trained cops notice these things.
“Oh, him, Osama.”
“Who?”
“Osama bin Shicklegruber.  His parents were confused.”
“Hey Babe, at the end of the day, everything being equal, I don’t want to hear no clichés or no red herrings.  How did Osama get the shoe in his head?”
“He slipped, and he was reading the diary at the time, and it flew out of his hand and hit poor little Adolf.”
“You’ll have to tell all that to the Inspector, Virgin, down at the station house.  Cuff her, Horny.”
So this Horny gives her a couple of whacks around the kisser.
“Hey, Horny, you schmook.  I meant put the dammed handcuffs on her.”
So we take Virgin, Fingers and poor little Adolf down to the stationhouse.  It was a tight squeeze in the Focus, and Adolf bites Horny on the ass again.
Now Virgin has gone off to the Bahamas with the Inspector to investigate her assets overseas. But, hey, we got a result.  Fingers has been charged with having a dog without a licence.
There are eight million stories in the naked city, and this hasn’t been any of them.

A Little Chat

The man stood on tiptoe, at the far side of the room, straining to look at the dying sky through the small barred window.  He had the palms of his hands against the beige painted wall.  It was damp to the touch and a rank unpleasant smell pervaded the room, a combination of urine and unwashed bodies.  The door opposite the window was opened, metallically creaking this fact.  The man turned and looked at a tall slim figure in an immaculate three-piece suit.  He was handsome, with dark wavy hair and a pencil thin moustache.  His eyes were a penetrating blue.
The tall man spoke.  “Good afternoon.  Sit down, please.”
“I’ll stand.”
The slim man smiled, but the smile did not extend to his eyes.  “No, you will sit down.  I’d like a little chat with you and I have no intention of doing it standing up.” His voice took on a steely edge.  “Now, sit down.”
The other man sat on the hard straight-backed chair and put his hands on the bare table.  The slim man pulled up the only other chair in the room and sat opposite him.
“Cigarette?”
“Who are you?  Police, MI5, MI6, who?”
The slim man smiled again, his eyes never leaving the other’s face.  He took a silver cigarette case from his inside jacket pocket and removed two cigarettes.  He tapped them several times against the flat of the case and then used a gold lighter to light them.  All the time his thin smile was held.  He pushed one across the table and took a deep pull at his own, the exhaled smoke wreathing his face. 
“It doesn’t really matter who I am.  What’s more interesting is who you are.”  He produced two passports and held them up.  “According to these you are Patrick Michael Burke.  Is that right, Mr Burke?”
“Yes.”  The short answer was enveloped in a cloud of exhaled light blue smoke.
“Indeed, that is what it says here.  This is an Irish Free State passport.  Born in Limerick in 1913.  That makes you about 29?”
“28”
“Ah, yes, indeed, I never was much good at maths.  And this one, the American one, says the same thing.  How very convenient.  Now Mr Burke, which are you, American or Irish?”
“I’m both.  I was born in Ireland but I lived most of my life in the United States.”  Burke leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms across his chest and stared hard at the questioner.
“Mr Burke, you don’t sound very much like an Irishman.”
“What would you know?”
“Well, I have met a great number of Irish people, but, most of all, I am Irish myself.  James O’Neill, an Ulsterman.”  He tapped his cigarette against the ashtray placed on the table between them.
“Oh, a bloody Protestant from the North.”
O’Neill’s smile deepened, becoming almost benign, although his eyes remained expressionless.  “From the North yes; Protestant, no”
Burke leaned forward, his dark face twisted, his voice almost a snarl.  “Call yourself a bloody Irishman, and a Catholic, working for the English?  I hate the fucking English.”
O’Neill took a long pull on his cigarette, allowing the smoke to seep slowly from the side of his mouth.  His eyes never left the other man’s face.  “Well, I have to admit that they irritate the hell out of me on occasion, but, generally they’re better than many others.  However, right or wrong, King George pays my wages, and he has my loyalty.  Who has your loyalty, Mr Burke?”
“Ireland.”  Burke sat back in his chair again, his face now settled into mere truculence.
“Can you explain something for me then?  You were picked up by the police on a beach at Tenby, in Wales, about three weeks ago at one in the morning?”
“I was looking for work.”
“Were you really?  Not a lot of it about on a Welsh beach in February, especially after midnight.  How did you get to Wales?”
“I came on the Dun Laoghaire ferry.”
“Funny town that, doesn’t sound anything like it is spelt.  You pronounce it very well.”
Burke tapped the ash from his cigarette and said nothing.
“And where did the ferry land?”
“You know where the bloody ferry lands, Holyhead.”
“And how did you get from Holyhead to Tenby?”
“I walked.”
“Indeed?  I have examined your boots and must say that they did not suffer a great seal of wear in your long walk.”
“Sometimes I got a lift.”
“I do not suppose you still have your ferry ticket?”
“No.  I threw it away.”
“The Police state that you were also soaking wet.”
“I was drunk; I fell in the sea.”
“The Police say you were not drunk.  It won’t do, Mr Burke, it just will not do.  Would you like to take a shot at another story?”  O’Neill took a final draw on his cigarette and ground it out in the ashtray, his eyes never leaving Burke’s face.  “Well, Mr Burke?”
“I’m here to collect money for the Republican cause to kick all the English bastards out of Ireland.”
“Are you indeed?  Undoubtedly praiseworthy, but I do not believe you.”
“I’ve nothing more to say.”  He too stubbed out his cigarette so forcibly he made the ashtray move sideways across the table.
“Right, let me say a few things then.  You are not Irish; the nearest you have been to that country was getting a soaking in the Irish Sea.  The British are not exactly popular in the Free State, but we do have a few friends.  There are some Irishmen who see a greater evil in this world than the British Empire.  Our contacts in Dublin have no record of a Patrick Michael Burke arriving screaming and bawling at Limerick in 1913.  They believe the passport is forged.”  O’Neill leaned across the table.  “Anything to say?”
“Nothing.”  Burke recrossed his arms, sat back, and stared fixedly at the grimy ceiling, as if seeking inspiration.
“Very well.  Now to the Americans.  They have always been very sympathetic, but since Pearl Harbour they are positively enthusiastic.  They haven’t heard of you either.  They think the US passport is also forged.  Do you want me to go on?”  He smiled helpfully.
Burke shook his head.  “Do what you please.”
O’Neill rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  “So, if you are not Irish and not an American, what are you?  Now Mr Burke, on the night you were picked up on the beach, there were reports of a U-boat in the Irish Sea, off the Welsh coast.  Any comment?”
“No.”
“About ten miles away from Tenby, the Home Guard stopped one Robert Groves, who has since admitted to being Werner Hidding.  Apparently he was going to meet you.  Here’s his photograph.  You don’t want to look at it?  No?”  O’Neill glanced at the photograph.  “ Pity, I took it myself. It is a good likeness”.  He placed it face up on the table between them and lined up the two passports, all facing Burke.
There was silence for a full two minutes.  Finally O’Neill spoke again.  “If you really were born in Limerick in 1913 and the Irish have no record of your citizenship, you are technically British, as at that time, all of Ireland was in the United Kingdom.  If you really are American, the United States is a belligerent now and their penalty for spying, like the British, is death.  If you are German, well I don’t need to go on, do I?”
Another silence followed, longer this time. O’Neill pushed his chair back, stretched and crossed his long legs and studied his fingernails.  Burke continued to stare at the ceiling. 
“Very well, Mr Burke, I have a suggestion for you.  Since I have been in this job, we have apprehended forty-two German spies.  Fourteen have been executed.  The others, well let’s say they have decided to co-operate.  That’s your choice.”
They sat in silence for full five minutes before O’Neill got up.  “Very well, Mr Burke.  May God go with you.”
Burke half-rose and reached out a restraining hand.  “Just one moment, Mr O’Neill.  Let’s talk a little more.”
O’Neill had stopped at the door, with his back towards Burke.  He knocked three times on the metal and the sound of footsteps was heard outside.  He turned slowly and once more smiled his smile.  “Very well, Mr Burke.  I will let you know in two or three days.  After all, I only came for a little chat.”

Looking Back

21/02/2017

The congregation stood in silence as the iconic tones of Frank Sinatra drifted over the church.  Those present were mostly male, dressed largely in black overcoats. Frank drifted away, his ‘My Way’ summing up what most believed represented the deceased to a tee.
“Are you going on to the reception, or wake or whatever it is called?” The question brought Paul abruptly back to the present time and the cold wind that swept across the churchyard.
“Well, Roger, my old mate, I don’t really want a drink, but I do want to pay my respects to Marjorie.  She has been a bloody saint over the last few years with Peter being so ill.”
“I agree. I don’t think you know this part of London, do you?  It is in the Fox, about 100 yards down the road.”  The two men joined the slow almost silent procession out of the churchyard, nodding occasionally at other mourners they knew.
They settled at a table in the private function room of the Fox.  Roger spoke first.  He lifted his glass.  “Here’s to Peter, God bless him.”
“Yes, God bless him and Marjorie as well.”
“Did you know him well, Roger?”
“Well enough until we left Hackney.  As we all did, we went our separate ways.  I went into Special Branch and Pete joined the CID. And where the hell did you go, Paul?”
Paul laughed.  “I joined the police in Southern Rhodesia, the BSAP.  Pretty hairy that was at times.  The country became independent in 1980 and I stayed just long enough to get my pension. I couldn’t see that Mad Bob Mugabe and I would get on well together.”
 “So, it’s about 25 years since we met last?”
 “Yes, it must be all of that. But I remember the old days at Hackney as if it was yesterday.”
Roger raised his glass again.  “Here’s to the good old days.”
Paul smiled wryly.  “Yeah, here’s to them. Do you remember Peter’s bike?”
“What, his Triumph 650?”
“No, not his motor bike, I mean his push bike.”
“No, what about it?”
“Well you remember when we were on nights and having a break in the canteen, and there was a shout?  We all poured out of the canteen, down the stairs like Battle of Britain pilots and grab the first means of transport available to get to the shout.  Well once I grabbed Pete’s bike and nearly broke my neck.  It had a fixed wheel and when I tried to free wheel, it threw me off.”
“No, I never knew that.”
”But Roger, old son, I seemed to remember you had a bit of a problem with Peter at one stage.”
“Yes, I did.”
“What happened?”
“Well, old Peter was in uniform, walking past Woolworths, when the Store Detective came rushing out chasing a girl, wearing a red hat.  He told Pete that she had stolen something from the store and demanded that Pete arrest her and he did. So Pete phones the nick for a car and I was sent.  When I get there Pete has this young bird by the arm I couldn’t miss her with that bright red hat. When I got to Woolies there was a bit of a crowd gathered round.  So we agree that I take her back to the station with the evidence while Pete sorts out the punters.”
“What did she steal?”
“Well, bloody strange that.  It was a teapot.  Any way I get her back to the station and she gets there OK but there is no sign of the bloody teapot.”
“What happened to it?”
“No bloody idea, mate, not a clue.”
“So, Peter wasn’t best pleased with you, was he?”
“Not half, he accused me of fancying her and binning the teapot.”
“Blimey, what a story.  What happened to the girl?”
“Well, without the evidence we couldn’t charge her.  She went straight after that.  She got married and had four kids.”
How the hell do you know all that, Roger?”
Roger laughed and took another pull at his beer.  “Because I married her mate, and she is a brilliant wife, mother and grandmother.”
Paul stared across the table. “You old bastard! What did Pete think about that?”
“Peter was a good bloke.  He forgave me eventually.”
“Was there much to forgive?”
“Well you could ask Pete about it but it’s probably a bit late for that now.”

The Ghost in Whites

1st April 2007

There is a small town in County Londonderry, in Northern Ireland, called Sion Mills.  It could probably be described as a two-horse town, if there was a second horse.  Despite that, the little town, village really, has an unsuspected, and to most people, a unique feature.  It has a ghost.  Not, you must know, your average sheet wrapped, chain rattling, screaming ghoul.  No, indeed.  Sion Mills’ ghost is a bearded male character, clad completely in cricket whites with pads, gloves, bat and cap.
Every night, at midnight, the ghost comes down the pavilion steps at the local cricket club, walks out to the middle, observes the non-existent fielders, takes his guard and settles down at the crease.  Now, to be honest, no one has ever seen this apparition, or at least no one who will admit to doing so.  However, everyone knows someone who has actually seen the transparent WG.
You may be inclined, dear reader, to dismiss this as some kind of Irish myth.  If I tell you that the Bushmills Distillery, home of the finest Irish whisky, is located not a million miles away, your doubts may be reinforced.  But hold hard.  Strange things happen at this little cricket ground.
And nothing stranger has occurred than the events of 2nd July 1969.  On that day, the West Indies cricket team was due to play a one day game against Ireland, not, even then, one of the great cricket playing nations.  The team, skippered by the legendary, sainted Gary Sobers, later Sir Gary, had arrived at Belfast Airport on the previous day.  If you had to pick somewhere in Northern Ireland further from Belfast than Sion Mills, you might have been hard pushed.  Nevertheless, Gary’s boys began a long, tiring drive to their destination.  On arrival, they were treated to some typical Ulster hospitality, where, just maybe, the odd drop of the hard stuff may have been on offer.  People from the Caribbean are known for a likeness for Guiness, and there may have been the occasional glass to hand.  It rained that night.
On the following day, Gary Sobers declared himself unfit and the team was led out by Basil Butcher.  The pitch, which had been uncovered overnight, was later described by Wisden as ‘emerald green’.  Gary obviously had known a thing or three.
The Irish captain, Douglas Goodwin, won the toss and sportingly invited the West Indies to bat.  The Irish team comprised butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.  Their opponent would eventually play a total of 264 Test Matches between them and record 43 Test centuries.  In their previous game they had played an honourable draw against England at Lords, scoring 380 and 295.
Ireland dismissed West Indies for 25 in 25.3 overs.  Captain Goodwin took five wickets for six runs in 12.3 overs and his opening partner, Alex O’Riordan four for eighteen in thirteen overs.   It could have been much worse.  West Indies lost their first nine wickets for twelve before the last wicket pair doubled the score.
It was a sensation, but how had it happened?  Well some blamed the pitch, and the fact that it had been uncovered during overnight rain.  However, Ireland’s amateurs scored 125-8 on the same track.  Others blamed the Bushmills and Guinness.  Ireland denied strongly that anyone had had drink taken.  Some said the West Indians were tired after the long, pre motorway, car journey the wily Irish had arranged.  Maybe.  It is understood, however, that when the ghost trotted onto the ground at midnight, he had a very satisfied grin on his face.
The following day, there was a second game at the North of Ireland Cricket Club’s ground in Belfast, a ground without a resident ghost.  West Indies scored 288 for five wickets.
Need I say more?

The Nun’s Story

He exhaled a deep sigh of relief as he turned the car on to the M40 motorway.  After the snarling aggravation of the M6 and the irritating road works of the M42, this road seemed to flow gently like a chuckling blue stream towards the sea.  David’s body relaxed and in response he switched on the radio, and tuned to Radio Four.  The Test Match had finished the previous day, or the radio would have been on already.  He half listened to the news and heard the announcer say “And now, ‘Play for today.’”  He thought about switching off, but changed his mind.  It night distract his thinking for an hour and that would be welcome.
“Today’s Play is ‘A Fatal Passion’, by Mary Francis.”
Mary Francis?  Mary Francis?  Where have I heard that name before?  It hit him like a heavy blow in the face.  That was her name, Kate, when she was in the convent, Sister Mary Francis.  It was her nun’s name, or whatever they called it.  He turned up the volume.  What a coincidence, except, as he quickly realised, it was no coincidence.  David by now was drifting along in the inside lane at about sixty miles per hour.  As the story unfolded, he realised that it WAS Kate’s story.  Well, Kate’s and his, the piece of fiction they had put together at writing class.  God, even some lines of dialogue were identical and the two main characters had the first names he had suggested, Siobhan and Richard.
It was a simple story, with a clever, complex plot involving a rich woman, bored with married life, who begins an affair and then decides to murder her husband and begin a new life with her lover.
David pulled into a service area, parked in a fairly empty corner of the car park and heard out the play.  There was a heaviness in his stomach and he was aware that his face was flushed.  No, no, it couldn’t be, but just suppose the crazy bitch had really gone and done it.
He and Kate had met the previous September when both had enrolled at a writing class.  He had noticed her, of course, as she was, by some distance, the most attractive woman there.  At coffee break she came to where he sat alone reading some adult education brochures.
“Hello, I’m Kate Burke.”  She extended her hand, cool and slim
David stood up.  “Hi, David Drew.”
“Yes, I know.  May I join you?”
Flustered, he pulled out a chair for her.  She sat down.  “It’s really Kate Nicholls, but I like to use my maiden name for this sort of thing.”  She waved vaguely towards the others in the small tearoom.  Her voice was lilting, musical and Irish.  Not the guttural tones of Bob Geldorf’s Dublin, but probably from the west of Ireland.  She also sounded like she had received a good education as her speech was beautifully modulated.
He was unsure what to say; her physical presence and habit of looking directly into his eyes disturbed him.  It had been a long time since he had been close enough to any woman to feel disturbed.  She smiled and continued.  “I did like the piece you read earlier; I thought it was excellent, very thought provoking.”
Despite himself, he flushed with pleasure.  “Well, thank you.  I thought it was a bit ordinary.”
She pursed her lips and shook her head.  “No, no, I think you have a talent for writing.”  He smiled a little, wondering if she was joking.  She wasn’t and continued.  “David”, she reached across the table and touched his hand, increasing his awareness of his reaction to her presence.  “David, I know we have only met, but I wondered if you could help me with a story I am trying to write?”
David knew he was being set up, but was unable to resist saying, “Of course, I’d love to.”
And that was how it began.  On week three they went to a nearby pub when the class finished.  Kate told him how unhappy she was with Edgar, her husband.  “He doesn’t treat me very well.”
He glanced at her SLK 190 Mercedes parked on the roadway outside.  “He doesn’t seem to treat you too badly.”
“A woman needs more than a Mercedes, you know, David.”  She looked him directly in the eyes and he looked away, uncomfortably.  He thought he knew the messages she was passing, but David had never been good at reading the female mind, something his ex wife had never failed to tell him.  Since his divorce, his relationships had been staccato and unsatisfactory, on many levels.  He had also determined never to get mixed up with a married woman, but his resolve, his conscience was weakening.
On week five she invited him to her home for their drink. 
“What about your husband?  Will he be expecting me?”
She dismissed that easily.  “He’s away in France, or Italy or somewhere on business.”
They didn’t have a drink, but started tearing off each other’s clothing as soon as the front door closed behind them.  Their lovemaking was thrilling and he was satisfied in a way that had never happened before.  “My God, Kate, you’re incredible.  Where did you learn all that?”
“Well, I know where I didn’t learn it.  In that bloody convent”
“You were educated in a convent?”  He laughed.  “I’ve never slept with a covent’s girl before.”
“Oh yes, I was educated at St Mary’s in Galway, but I really meant when I was a nun, in St Bridget’s”
David’s hand went to his mouth.  “Jesus, I have certainly never slept with a nun before.  How long were you there and why did you leave?”
She looked over her breasts at her body stretched like a cat’s over the bed.  “Well, you know, God and I didn’t have a lot to say to each other, and I thought he must have given me this body for some purpose.  I wanted a man.  Those bloody lesbians were driving ne crazy.”
She put her arms around his neck, pulling him towards her.  “Right, Mr Englishman. Would you like to make it twice? And convince me I’m not a lesbian?”
Their affair blazed like the sun up to Christmas when the holiday closing of the writing class removed their legitimate reasons to meet regularly.  She told him, in his bed on one occasion, “We’ll need to be careful over Christmas, Edgar will be at home.”
“I can’t see you at Christmas, Kate.  My son Steven is home from serving with the RAF in the Falklands and I need some time with him, and with Emma, my daughter, who teaches in France.”
Kate exploded.  How could he?  What about her?  Did she mean nothing to her?  It went on, a tirade and he was pleased when she stormed out of the house in a fury.  He didn’t see her for about two weeks, nor hear from her.  Eventually she phoned and talked like nothing had ever occurred and they got back together again.  But it was different.  David knew it.  She had become possessive, obsessive even.  She would constantly phone him, demanding to know where he was, what he was doing and who he was with.  However they did manage to finish her story.
“Now, David, after the old man is safely disposed of, where should the happy couple go?”
He laughed.  “Rio sounds a good place. I have never been there and have always fancied it”
“I agree, and how much money will they need?”
“Oh, £200,000?  Let’s say a quarter million”
She gave him a high five.  “Done!  It’s a deal”
Things got worse as the writing classes came to an end.  He thought that Kate was teetering on the brink and that very little would be required to push her over the precipice.  It was then he got the contract to work for four weeks in South Africa, in the oil and gas fields offshore in the Western Cape.  This started off another volcano and they were not seeing each other when he flew to Capetown.  David was relieved.  He couldn’t handle this relationship any more.  He had been in Capetown for two days when she phoned his mobile.  There were four or five calls a day until he told her that he had to go offshore and that mobiles were banned for safety reasons.  He closed down his own mobile and hired one for the duration of his visit.  He returned home on a pleasant May morning and hired a car at the airport, driving straight to Manchester to make a presentation and report to his clients.
As David drove south he realised he would have to find a way of telling Kate it was over, finished.  He had switched on the radio as he turned on to the M40.  After the news, it was time for ‘Play for today’.
After switching off the radio, David sat in his car in the service area for some time.  He picked up his phone and asked for Directory Enquiries.  “Nicholls Enterprises, please.  In Acton, I think.  Thanks, yes I’ve got that.”  He keyed in the number.  What was he going to say?  “Oh, yes, thanks.  I’d like to speak to Sir Edgar’s secretary.  I want to arrange a meeting.”  He still didn’t know what to say.
There was silence for long seconds.  “I’m sorry sir, but Sir Edgar is dead.  He died about four weeks ago.”
Oh Jesus, thought David, she has done it.  Aloud he stuttered, “I’m so sorry, I have just returned from overseas and haven’t seen an English newspaper for weeks.  What happened?”
“Sir Edgar raced classic motor bikes.  It was a big hobby of his.  He was in a race at Brands Hatch, and he came off.  Killed instantly, I believe.”
“How terrible” murmured David.
“Yes, We are all shocked.”
He returned to the motorway, now a raging brown torrent racing him towards what?  God knows.  At his flat he pushed the front door against the gathered mail, picking up the bundle and frantically tearing through it.  There it was, Kate’s handwriting.  With clumsy fingers he ripped the envelope apart.  The contents were simple; a first class BA ticket for Rio de Janeiro and a bank draft for a quarter of a million pounds.  Heavily he sat down and poured a large malt whiskey.  How long he sat there he did not know, but it was dark outside when he looked at the empty glass in his hand.  He put the glass down and reached for the phone, keying in a number.  He knew what he had to do.  There was a short interval and the number started ringing.  He knew what he must do.  A woman’s voice answered. 
David spoke quietly.  “Yes, police please.”   

Sprits of the Times

He examined the decorating with a critical eye and turned around as he sensed the other man approaching.  “Oh, hello George; I was just looking at the decorating.  What do you think?”
“Good morning Robert.  Yes, I suppose it looks all right, although, as you know, I am no great authority on internal decorating.”
“Nor are you an expert on external decorating either, as I recall.”
“Well that was the bloody ladder’s fault, George, not mine.”
“I am not too certain about the colour scheme.  It is all a bit too lurid for me.  I like magnolia as a colour.  You can’t go too far wrong with that.”
“That’s old fashioned nonsense, my friend.  I suppose that next you will be telling me that you like anaglypta wallpaper?”
“What’s wrong with it?  It covers a lot of faults.”
“Rubbish, the walls just crumble behind it.  Noah had anaglypta in the bloody Arc.’
Robert shrugged.  “Oh well, opinions differ.  Let’s have a look at the kitchen.”
In the kitchen they found Debbie, looking thoughtful and stroking her chin. 
“Hello, boys.  What do you think?”
George nodded.  “Big changes. It looks very modern and trendy.”
“And much easier on the woman of the house.” Robert instantly regretted his words.
Debbie was instant in her reply.  “And you still wonder why your wife left you?”
George pointed to the far wall.  “When I moved in there was a wood burning range alongside there.”
“What was that like?”
“Bloody awful, there was smoke and soot everywhere but bloody warm in winter.”
Robert added his opinion.  “Not only that but everyone smoked.  It was like living in a permanent blue haze.”
Debbie looked out the window.  “A car has just pulled up.  I think it is that real estate woman.  Do we want to hear what she thinks?”
Robert was eager.  “Yes, please, I heard her say the other day that she would check the finished job.  I think she might also bring a possible buyer with her.”
The two men agreed.  “Yes.”
“But no noises, please,” warned Debbie.
They heard the front door opening and two women entered, walked into the hall and then into the lounge room.  The younger woman, aged about thirty, carried a file and clip board on which she busily made notes.
The other woman, aged about fifty stood in the centre of the room, slowly pivoting as she looked at the decor.  “Very nice.  Really good work.”
George exchanged glances with Robert and whispered, “See what I mean; she agrees with me.”
Robert snarled back.  “She doesn’t even know you exist, you idiot.”
“Or you, you dick.”
Debbie glared at her companions and hissed “Be quiet, children.”
The tour of inspection continued with the younger woman continuing to make her notes and the older continuing to make appreciative noises.  The three watchers smiled at each other, clearly in approval of the developing rapport between the two main characters.
Finally the older woman smiled.  “Bethany, thank you.  We don’t need to go any further.  You have convinced me.  I will put in an offer and speak to my solicitors as soon as I get home.  Thank you.”
“Rose, I am delighted.  Thank you.”  They shook hands and a few minutes later left the house together and drove away.
The watchers smiled broadly.  “I approve,” said Robert and the other two nodded in agreement.
“She seems a pleasant woman,” said George.
“Now remember, you two”, warned Debbie, “No weird noises in the middle of the night or she’ll think the bloody place is haunted.”
They all laughed, creating a faint wind which rattled the windows.

Some Days Are Diamonds, Some Aren’t

Sharon was not happy, not happy at all.  Most Monday mornings failed to impress her, and this one was no exception.  Things had begun badly before she even left her flat, but she preferred not to dwell on that.  Now, things got steadily worse. 
She couldn’t find a seat on the train and had bags of trouble trying to apply her make up while standing.  To be truthful, she spent more time staggering than standing and was momentarily pleased when Southern Rail arrived, only seven minutes late, at Waterloo.
“Damm, damm, damm,” she snarled as she pushed down the stairs towards the Underground.  Someone in the throng trod on the back of her right shoe, and she was shuffled to the passage way hopping on one leg.  “Give me a break you bastards.”  Finally she was able to stop and examine the shoe.  She closed her eyes in anger and frustration.  The bloody heel was broken.  Sharon limped onto the Bakerloo line train with her fellow passengers looking at her very strangely.  “The heel is broken,” she snapped at no one in particular.  “I didn’t leave the house like this.”  They looked away in silence.  She twisted her face in what she hoped was a derisive look.  “Tossers”, she snarled to herself.
It was then that she seemed to have something in her eye and she rubbed angrily at the irritation.  Big mistake!  She caught sight of her image in the glass of the train window and saw a scowling girl with one black eye staring back.  She ground her teeth in helpless anger.
The Tube train stopped just outside Leicester Square Station and after being stationary seven or eight minutes, an announcement informed the over heating passenger that there was some kind of security alert at Holborn and the train would terminate at Leicester Square.
“Bugger shit bugger.”  Sharon intoned this mantra with increasing fervour as the train limped painfully into the station.  In the time this operation took to accomplish, the man beside her exuded rising levels of body odour and she was seriously groped from behind.  The train was so packed that she was unable to twist round and identify the offender.  Eventually they were disgorged onto the platform.  Sardines receive better treatment than passengers of London transport.
She struggled to street level where a fine drenching rain had started.  Sharon looked at the grey heavens.  “What have I ever done to you, God?”  There were no taxis and she finally caught a bus, arriving at her office thirty minutes late, very wet, and as savage as a wounded tiger.  She was greeted by George, the security officer, glancing at her black eye and dishevelled appearance.  “Good afternoon, Miss Temple.  Have you taken up boxing?”
“How very droll, George.  Have you considered a career move, to the Palladium perhaps?”
Sharon’s first stop was the Ladies where she repaired the ravages to her face but was unable to do much with her shoe.  She went to her boss’s office to apologise for being late.  Ben stopped her.  “Don’t worry about it; I heard about the problem on the Tube.  I was late myself.  Look, I need to turn this report into the Queen’s English by lunchtime.”
Relieved, Sharon took the report and invited Mr Gates to help her.  It was a struggle, even with spell checks and clever Microsoft tools.   On her seventh or eighth mistake she realised that her mind was not in the office, but on her problems and the turmoil of her life.  Who was to blame, who was responsible for her situation.  What was happening?  She had split with Simon, before taking up with Nick; in between there has been Zac, briefly and unsuccessfully.  Had they caused this, or had her parents failed her.  No, my girl, this is down to you, just you.
Sally from the Marketing Department breezed in.  “Fancy a drink at lunchtime?”
“No, I don’t.  Sod off you drunk.”
“Well, excuse me for breathing.”  Sally flounced off.
“What should I do?  Phone Simon?  Call Nick?  Zac, screw him.”
Finally, the day ended and Sharon shuffled home, wearing a spare pair of shoes which she had borrowed from Sally, after a grovelling apology.  It was still raining and the whole obdurate day depressed her.  She wanted to get home, but suspected that home would depress her further.  It did.  She opened the door to her flat and stood in the doorframe dripping, her blonde hair resembling rats’ tails.  She pulled off her wet clothes and went into the bathroom, leaving a trail of crumpled clothing.
“Here we go,” she said out loud and took out the hated test kit.  Sharon held her breath as the process developed in front of her eyes.  The result was the same as it had been in the morning.  “Shit.  I’m bloody pregnant.”  She thought about Simon and Nick and Christ Almighty, sodding Zac.  Shit.

Message in a Bottle

They clung together, standing on a small headland overlooking the English Channel, the wind flicking their clothing.  Sarah, with Richard’s strong arms enveloping her, felt small and safe, more like nine than nineteen.  Her reverie was broken by the sound of an aircraft engine and reluctantly they broke apart to gaze skywards.
“Spitfire?”  she guessed.
He shielded his eyes against the weak May sunshine.  “Yes, a Mark XI, I think, a PR job.  Probably been taking pictures over France.”
She took his hand.  “It must be soon”.   It was half question, half statement.
“I hope so.  If it doesn’t come soon, England will sink into the sea with the weight of all the men and tanks and stuff.”
She gently touched the blue and white ribbon of the DFC nestling under his RAF wings.  “You won’t be too brave, will you?”
He grinned at her.  “You know me, it’s against my religion.  I’m a devout coward.”
“Please be careful Richard.  Remember I love you.”
He kissed her.  “Don’t worry, I’ll be all right.  When I get back…..”
She put her finger to his lips.  “We can talk about that when it is all over.”
“I wish the damm thing would start.”  He looked at his watch.  “I have to be getting back to the station.”
They walked back to the little MG, Sarah’s senses trying to capture and hold the moment, the roughness of Richard’s uniform against her skin, the gentle smells of an English spring in her nostrils.
He dropped her at the hospital and she watched the car until the throaty sound of the engine died away.  She sat in the garden and was aware of the hot tears starting their path down her face.
“May I join you?”
Sarah’s head jerked guiltily.  “Oh, please, Sister.  I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.  I’ve only been here for two weeks.”
The older woman smiled, lighting up her face, and lending a beauty to her face.   “Thank you, I’m Sister Malloy, and you are?”
“Nurse Archer, Sarah Archer.”
“Was that your young man?”
“Yes.  Richard.  He’s in the RAF.”
“Will he be going to France?”
“Well, he can’t say, but they will all be going to France, won’t they?”
The older woman nodded.  “They all will.  My young man went to France in 1916.  I was a trainee nurse, here at this hospital.  On his last day before leaving we walked on the cliffs over by Lovers’ Leap.”
Sarah gave a little gasp.  “Richard and I were there today.”
“Yes, I know you were, my dear.  Michael and I had a small picnic there.  Afterwards we wrote down our hopes for the future and put them in two lemonade bottles and threw them into the sea.”
An icy hand was beginning to grip Sarah’s stomach.  “Did you get them back?”
“Well dear, mine came back, after a few months.  It only got as far as the Isle of Wight.”
“And Michael’s?”  Sarah already knew the answer.
“No, never, only mine.”
Sarah dreaded the next question, but had to ask it.  “And Michael?”  The fear was rising in Sarah, constricting her throat.
“No, he didn’t come back either.  Michael was killed on the first day of the Somme, like thousands of other boys.  I must go, dear.  God bless you.”  Sarah watched as Sister Malloy walked away around the corner of the hospital.
In the evening as she went on duty she met the Matron, a fearsome creature.  “Matron, where does Sister Malloy work?”
“Malloy, Sister Malloy.  The only one I knew was Mad Molly.  She worked here during the last War.  As I remember it, her chap died on the Somme and she killed herself in 1921 or 1922.  Threw herself over Lovers Leap.  It’s sometimes called Molly’s Jump around here.  Why?” 
 Sarah’s heart leaped; she could taste the fear rising in her throat.  “No reason, thank you, Matron.”
When she came off duty at 8AM, Sarah walked in the soft spring rain to Lovers’ Leap.  She carried a bottle in which she had sealed a note.  She hurled it into the sea, 200 feet below.  The note said.  “Richard, I love you.  Come home safe.”

Speed Limits

I never saw the thirty miles an hour speed limit.  I am not saying that there were no signs, there probably were, but as I had not seen those for forty miles an hour, I suppose it was only to be expected that I would miss the second lot.  OK, let’s be honest, I really wasn’t seeing very much of anything that Christmas Day.  I was just returning from Michaela’s, and I was several feet above the ground.  Michaela?  She’s my girlfriend, and she is beautiful.  When I say beautiful, I mean just that, beautiful; black hair, green eyes, lips like cherries, and a figure to die for.  We had been going out for nearly two years, and, what’s that?  Oh, yes, why were my feet not planted on the ground?  Well, my lovely Michaela had said ‘Yes’, she would marry me.
So, you can understand I was a happy boy, my heart’s desire would be my wife, and the E Type was purring like an overfed leopard, but was as fast as a hungry cheetah.  So, I didn’t see the dammed truck, and when I did, I knew that I couldn’t stop.  Yeah, the road was getting a bit icy at that time of the afternoon.  No, I hadn’t had a drop, I swear to God.  Well, maybe a glass of Jacob’s Creek.  All right, two then, but no more.  Well, the E is great in a straight line, but Bill Lyons never intended for it to have the anchors applied while in a skid.  So before you know it I’m spinning like Alistair Campbell and heading for the fields faster than you could say ‘Ethical Foreign Policy’.
“Jesus, please don’t let me die.  I swear to God I will be better, and the Jag is almost paid for.”
The tunnel was long and dark and there were no people, like a railway station platform when the RMT is on strike.  However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, so it had no connection with our railway system.  So I walked towards the light, which got brighter as I got closer.  I was in a large room.  It was dazzlingly bright.  There were white settees and chairs and small tables with magazines on them.  Reader’s Digest May 1989, and British Dental Review for April 1993, that sort of thing.  No point waiting there, I had read those.  I went to the door on the other side of the room and walked out into a large white field.  No it wasn’t snow, more that smoke stuff they use for the Brit. Awards.  Thank Heaven the recipients were not present, the noisy bastards.  Yes, I agree, there’s a clue there, Heaven, that’s where I was.
There was a large building about one hundred yards away, a bit like a Holiday Inn.  I wonder if they have gone metric in heaven.  Bound to have, I suppose, especially as old de Gaulle has been here for thirty years, not to mention that arrogant sod Mitterand.  The gates glittered with a reflective sheen.  The Pearly Gates!  They really do exist.  Well, God help us.  I rang the bell, and then again, but there was no reply, so I banged on them with my fists.
“Yeah, what do you want?”  He was a short squat bearded man, dressed in a kind of night-shirt arrangement.  He had one of those circular things above his head, which was at an angle.  “We’re closed.  What do you want?”  He fiddled with the gold thing; the halo I think it is called, till it sat more or less straight.
“Are you St Peter?”
 “Well, I’m not Bob Dylan.”
“I want to come in, please.”
“Well, you can’t.  I told you we’re closed.  Don’t you know it’s Christmas Day, or Founder’s Day as we call it up here?  It’s a heavenly holiday.  So shove off.”  He went to close the gates, and I stuck my foot in the gap.  My double-glazing sales training was coming in handy.  “You don’t understand.  I’m dead. I have nowhere to go.”
He pushed at the gate again.  “Why didn’t you wait in the Reception Area?  There are magazines and a coffee machine in there.”
“I’ve read all the magazines, and anyway, the door was unlocked.”
St Peter reluctantly opened the gates.  “If I have told Josiah Chubb once, I have told him a hundred times, get a proper access control system and stop fooling with that seven lever lock. OK, come in.”
“Thanks, St Peter.”
“Call me Pete.  Everyone else here does.”  He extended a large hand that smelt strongly of fish, and they shook.  “Look, the computer has been down all day.  Well, all right, we haven’t had it on because of the holiday.”  He called out, “Gabriel, in here please.”
A very tall Archangel appeared from a side room, blinking sleepily, and folding his wings behind him.  “Hi, Pete, baby, what’s up?”
“Gabby, if you are going to sleep on the job I will get Michael to come in on overtime.”
“Relax, Pete, baby, it’s cool.  We are a bit short handed ever since you gave old Lucy baby the ass.”
“Gabby, I have told you before.  We did not give Lucifer the ass, we let him go to pursue alternative career opportunities.  Now, if you do not mind, just switch on the computer and check what’s is face here.  I swear to God that if Bill Gates ever gets here, I’ll sort him out.  Windows 98 is crap.”
“It’s cool, Pete.”
So what then?  Well, I gave Gabby my name and address, my postcode and my mother’s maiden name, and he started thumping the keyboard.
St Peter looked at his Rolex.  “You’re lucky, Colin.  We have Happy Hour in thirty minutes.  You must come along.  I’ll sign you in until you get your personal ID card at Induction Training tomorrow.”  He began humming “My Way”.
“Great song, Pete.  Frankie Sinatra did that one.”
“Tell me about it.  Francis is doing a special on Tuesday night, and we have Bing on Thursday, and Elvis next Saturday.”
“Oh, Elvis is here?”
“Yep.  Him and me we laughed like hell every time some nut back on earth reckoned they saw old Elvis.”
“Hey Pete, old buddy.  There is no record of this guy in the computer.”  Gabby looked up, his finger poised over the mouse.  “Do you want me to input him manually?”
“No, let’s give the kid a chance.  Go on Colin, go back to earth, you have your life back.”
What’s that, was I grateful?  Do cats drink milk?  Is the Pope a Catholic?”
“Pete, I am just knocked out.  If there is ever anything I can do for you?”
St Peter beckoned to me with his index finger.  “Funny you should say that, but there is something.  Just keep that Tony Blair alive as long as you can.  He thinks he’s God now.  If ever he came here he would just take over.”
As I left, I could here him muttering, “Ethical Heavenly Policy, Integrated Intergalactic Transport Policy.”
A bearded man was bending over me.  “Are you all right, mate?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“We thought you were dead.”
“Yes, so did I.  Tell me, is Tony Blair still alive?”
The man looked at me very strangely, and touched the side of his head with his index finger, turning it slowly.  “Yeah.  Why?”
“Oh, St Peter will be pleased.  That’s all.”

The Garden

The mayor glanced around the council chamber, his glasses low on his nose, as he looked over the top of them.  “Ladies and gentlemen, there being no other business, I declare this meeting closed.”  He began to shuffle his papers on the desk in front of him and chat to the Clerk to the Council.  An elderly man, who would have been tall had he not had a pronounced stoop, detached himself from the few members of the public in attendance, and limped towards the mayor.
“Mr Mayor,” he spoke softly, so softly that the Mayor did not hear him.  “Excuse me, Mr Mayor.”  This time his voice was raised, and the mayor and several councillors turned towards him.
The mayor smiled and removed his glasses.  “Yes, how can I help you?”
The elderly man did not reply, but drew a firearm from under his jacket and quite deliberately shot the other man twice in the head.  The mayor, his face a frozen mask, fell backwards.  There was total silence and the elderly man turned to face the people remaining in horrified immobility in the Council chamber.  He put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Joe Pellew, citizen, and Andrew Maxwell, Mayor of Millvale on Sea were both dead on arrival at the local hospital.
Detective Sergeant Mick Edwards gave evidence to the Coroner at Court some weeks later about the two men.  What had occurred was obvious.  DS Edwards try to supply a reason.  “Mr Pellew was an eighty year old man, sir, living alone at 34 Windsor Avenue.  From enquiries I have made, he was a solitary, but not unfriendly old man.  He was described as keeping himself to himself.  It is believed that he had once been married, but none of the neighbours actually remembers his wife.  There do not appear to be any children, and Police have been unable to trace any relatives.”
He stopped for breath, and the Coroner encouraged him to continue with a reassuring smile.
“Mr Pellew had a distinguished war record, joining the Army in 1939, and serving in a number of different units before transferring to the 6th Airborne Division.  With his comrades he jumped into Normandy at midnight on 5th June 1944.  He was wounded several times but was in Germany in May 1945 when the war in Europe ended.  He had achieved the rank of staff sergeant at that stage, and was awarded the Military Medal.  After the war our enquiries showed that Mr Pellew became a train driver with British Rail, and had 41 years service on his retirement in 1987.  In all respects, sir,” the sergeant looked at the Coroner again.  “In all respects, he has been a model citizen.”
The coroner interupted.  “Any information on the reason for this aberration on the part of a model citizen, sergeant?”
“Yes, sir.  It appears that the deceased was dedicated to his garden and spent many hours working on it.  In fact, it appears that it was his only pleasure.  He was never seen to smoke or visit the pub.  When we searched his house we did not find a television.  The garden was very well tended, and a sight for sore eyes.”
“Are you a gardener yourself, sergeant?”
The big detective smiled.  “Yes, sir, as a matter of fact I am, and I have won several prizes at the County Fair for my marrows.”
The Coroner smiled again.  “I’m sure this court congratulates you on that, sergeant.”
Edwards coughed hastily.  “Will I continue, sir?”
“I would be very much obliged if you would, sergeant, in your own time.”
The policeman handed over a dossier of photographs, pinned at the top right corner.  “As you can see, a very well tended garden indeed.”
There were murmurs of approval from around the court as people looked at a garden which would have graced Hampton Court Palace.
Edwards continued.  “And this we believe is where the problems started.  Sainsbury’s are planning to build a supermarket in Windsor Avenue, and required a number of gardens in the area as a car park.  Mr Pellew resisted, of course, as one might expect, and his correspondence went back for two and a half years on the subject, mostly to and from the Council.  He was informed about a week before the fatal council meeting that a compulsory purchase order had been obtained, and his garden was to be bulldozed in July.  We believe that this was what tipped this respectable old man over the edge.  He had tended this garden since 1946, and it was to be turned into a car park.”
The Coroner was thoughtful.  “And when do Sainsbury’s expect to start building?”
“Since this tragedy, sir, Sainsbury’s have decided that it would be insensitive to go ahead, and have dropped their plans.”
“I see, that’s very ironic.  Have you any evidence to offer on the weapon used, Mr Edwards?”
“Yes, sir, it is a Luger, war time issue to German Army officers, and probably brought back to England by Mr Pellew as a souvenir at the end of the War.”
“So, the matter is closed as far as the Police are concerned?”
“Yes, as far as this matter is concerned we have finished our enquiries.  However, the Luger has a magazine of ten bullets, and six remain.  Three bullets were used in the fatal shootings, which leaves one not accounted for. Mr Pellew’s wife was last seen some fifteen years ago, and we can find no record of her death.  We are presently involved in digging up Mr Pellew’s garden.”

The Misunderstanding

She stood at the upstairs window, with the curtains pulled back slightly and watched the horseman approach on the big black stallion.  Midnight, reputed to be the wildest horse in the county, was being handled quite beautifully.  Horse and rider pulled up at the entrance to the house, causing a small flurry of stones in the driveway.  The horse stood panting, foam flecking his chest and sides.  The man dismounted, as a groom hurried up.
“Thomas.  Good to see you.  How are you?”  The rider threw the reins to the man.
“I am well, sir, and yourself?”
“Never better.  Will you see to Midnight?  Water him and rub him down.”
“With pleasure, Sir Roger.”  Thomas caught the silver coin tossed to him by Major the Honourable Sir Roger Fitzwarren.
Mary watched from her vantage point as Sir Roger looked around him.  He was tall and well built, hatless with black curly hair.  His black leather boots and white breeches were speckled with mud and his black riding jacket and red waistcoat covered a powerful frame.
She heard the senior footman, Henry, greet the visitor.  “Good morning, sir.”
“And to you.  Sir Roger Fitzwarren for Lord Rothermere.”
“Follow me, sir, if you please.”
Mary had estimated that it would take half an hour before she was called upon to play her part.  She was mistaken by five minutes.
“Lady Mary, his Loredship requests your presence in the drawing room.”
“Thank you, Katy.  Please inform his Lordship I will be there presently.”
Two or three minutes would be appropriate, she thought.  Anything longer could be deemed as ill-mannered.
“Father.  You wished to see me?”  Her father was standing with his back to the fireplace, his hands behind him under his coat tails.  It was a  habit, as it was not cold, and the fire had not been lit.
“Mary, my dear.  You do know Sir Roger Fitzwarren, do you not?”
“Yes, father, I have had that pleasure.”  She turned and curtsied.  Sir Roger bowed gravely.  Mary noticed again the long scar running from beside his right eye to the corner of his mouth.  It was a permanent reminder to him and everyone else that Sir Roger Fitzwarren was a hero, who had fought with the Guards at Waterloo where a French cavalryman had inflicted the wound just before Lieutenant Fitzwarren had run him through.  Sir Roger was famously reticent about the affair and always dismissed attempts to talk about it.  Mary thought that the scar, white beneath the tanned face lent a truly heroic aspect to his profile.
“Mary, would you show our guest the gardens.”
“Certainly, Papa.”
“Miss de Courcy.”  Sir Roger offered his arm and Mary laid her hand gently on his forearm.
They waked through the grounds, Mary indicating various plants and bushes.  She felt that Sir Roger was merely being polite, as she did not believe that gardens were uppermost on his mind.  They came to a double swing seat in the middle of the lawn, sheltered from the sun by a canopy.  They sat down.
“Lady Mary, may I be blunt.  I am, after all, a simple soldier.”
“Sir Roger, you have a question about the flowers?”
“No, Mary.  I was hoping to tell you how much I admired you and to ask if any of my feelings were shared.”
“Sir Roger, I am at a loss for words.”
He took her hand.  “Mary, I would like you to be my wife.”
Mary withdrew her hand.  “Sir, I fear that I cannot give you my promise in this matter.  I am not free to marry.”
“Is there someone else?”
“No, Sir Roger, but I am the youngest of six daughters, and only two of my sisters are betrothed.  I fear I could not marry until the others have made their arrangements.”
“Your father gave me to “
She stopped him.  “My fattier is a fine, good man, but frequently says that having six girls has addled his brain.”
The man stood up.  “My apologies Lady Mary.  I hope I have not offended you.”
She remained seated.  “Not at all, my dear sir.  It has been a misunderstanding between you and my father.”
He was red faced now, deeply embarrassed.  “May I escort you back to the house?”
“Thank you, no.  I will remain here for a while.”  She watched him stride away towards the large house. 
Mary removed her bonnet and shook free her long fair hair.  She walked slowly to the river and stared at the brown waters.  It was here that her father, despairing of ever having a son, had taught his youngest girl to fish.  Her mother had put a stop to such unladylike activities when she was thirteen.  Mary remembered her father’s strong hands closed on her own as she struggled with her first trout.  “Play him, Mary dear, play him. Don’t try to take him at first bite.  Play him, he’ll come back again”
 Sir Roger would be back and not the next time, but sometime she would say ‘perhaps’.  Perhaps.

The Old House

He carefully pulled back the net curtain and looked into the street, glancing first to the left and then to the right.  It all seemed to be quiet.  Gently he placed the net back in position.  He moved to the front door and repeated the procedure.  Still there were no signs of danger.  The Europols and their spies could be anywhere.
“OK, Katy, the coast is clear.”
A woman’s voice from upstairs scolded him.  “Don’t use that name outside this house, you’ll get both of us arrested.”
Steve, as he used to be known, grinned.  She was right, of course.  Personal names were ethnically and sexually divisive, and had been forbidden for almost ten years now.  She came downstairs wearing her Eurosuit, a shapeless grey garment that was too large for her, giving her a baggy appearance, which reminded him of the photographs he had seen in his childhood of the Michelin man.  He thought he remembered the photos, but it may all have been part of a near vanished folk memory of a time when private companies were still allowed.
“What are you grinning at?” she demanded.  “Have you seen yourself?”
He had and knew he probably looked worse than she did, his suit trousers finishing several Eurocentilinks up his leg.  About three inches in the old money, he told himself, remembering the mass arrest following the abolition of the Imperial measures.  Still, the Eurolaw 21456 required all citizens to wear the Eurosuit outside their homes.
He nodded, “I do look like an absolute tosser, I know it, but this is NewEurope.  One size fits all.”
She kissed him.  “All right, LK214 B56, let’s go and no more speaking English until we get home.”
He returned her kiss.  “You’re the boss, 4488.”  It was his pet name for her, her full name being too long and difficult to remember.  Only cohabitants were allowed to shorten the Euroname, and even then only in their own homes.  This decree had been proclaimed about the time that all national languages had been banned in favour of Euospeak.  Most people still spoke English but all education was now in Eurospeak, and before long you’d starve without the new language.
They went onto the street, again their senses straining for danger signs.  The cold of the February morning made them pull up their collars, and their faces were haloed momentarily by shrouds of icy breath.
“We’ll have to walk.”  She said it in a matter of fact way. 
He nodded, “Yes, I know.”  Steve and Katy were both EDP’s, Euro dissenting persons, who had refused to have the Eurochip implanted in their right index finger and as a consequence were ineligible for all Euro benefits, including free public transport.  Private transport had been banned years ago under the rule of Ken Livingstone, the first Gauleiter for region 21, as England was now called.  Using words like England or France had long ago been deemed divisive and anti European and was totally forbidden.  France had become Region 16 he seemed to remember, but perhaps he was mistaken in that. 
He seemed to recall that particular nonsense had come in about the time of the Eurowar on Switzerland and Norway because of their refusal to join the United State of Europe.  No one went there now, both places were just icy wastelands.  There was some talk, however, of opening up both regions as ski resorts for the Eurorulers and their families.
They walked for about two hours until they reached what had been the centre of London.  It was now called EC43, the letters standing for Eurocity.  Not a very catchy name, thought Steve.
“Do you think he will be there?” Katy muttered.
Steve knew who she meant, the President of Europe, Charlemange III, formerly known as Leo Blair.  His father had adopted the title of Charlemange II just before the men in the white Eurocoats had taken him away.  God knows what had happened to him.  Most people were reprogrammed and sent to the Eastern Territories.  Steve shivered at the very thought of those evil lands.  No one ever came back from the East.
Katy stopped him.  “We’re here.  Let’s have a look for Europols.”
There was a very large crowd around the big house and they mingled amongst them a little more easily.  It was an impressive building but built in a decadent, imperial and British way and was therefore not acceptable in New Europe.  The cranes and bulldozers stood ready, awaiting the signal, their noisy diesel engines panting foul smelling blue smoke into the cold morning air.
“What was it used for?” she asked.
“Well, I think it was for housing DEP’s, (Disadvantaged Ethnic Persons), or EDEP’s, (Economically deprived European persons).”
“No, I know that.  I meant what was it called in the old days?”
“It was the houses of Parliament.  I always knew this house would be pulled down one day.”

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