I had this sudden realisation;
This must be it. The end of the line.
Why else would my whole family be at my hospital bedside.
There, I see the pinched, cruel face of my sister; she must have travelled all the way from Edinburgh, to be here. The last time I saw her was, three or maybe four years ago, at our mother’s funeral.
She is wearing her Senior Nursing Officer’s uniform. That confirms that the end is nigh.
When the time comes, I’m sure she will pull rank and volunteer to switch off the machine to which I seem to be connected by pipes and wires.
The machine is constantly nudging and pushing me.
As I remember, my sister was always pushing me too, off swings, down steps and then making a show of administering to my cuts and grazes to impress Mother.
Now I feel a distinct tingling from my machine, it must be.
Yes the Staff Nurse is reprimanding my portly brother for using his mobile phone. He is not happy at being told what to do, he is just not used to it; but no one denies Staff Nurse, so he is switching off and slipping the phone into the pocket of his immaculate hand tailored suit. It is a shame I no longer get his hand-me-downs.
It is obvious that he wishes he wasn’t here, especially now that he is not in contact with the world of high finance. I’m sure he has lieutenants out there who are more than capable of robbing the poor to line the pockets of the rich, but he worries that he will miss the cream.
And there is my son and heir looking cool, calm and collected like a marble statue of some Roman general or Greek god. Despite the outward appearance of solid dependability, a rock to which others can cling, I know there is turmoil within.
My daughter, always happy and joking. But, oh dear, another indicator, today her smile has disappeared. Not to worry, I’m sure that when it is all over, she will have something funny, but appropriate, to say that will lift everyone’s spirits. I am glad she hasn’t brought the children my grand-daughters, it could disturb them.
My wife is here, but she doesn’t want to be. She would rather be at home with her TV soap dramas, bottles of wine and cigarettes. She has already popped out a couple of times to have a smoke. She is playing the part of the grieving widow to be, saying how much she will miss me and how much she loved me, but I know that, when the time comes, she will probably be in the car park, fag in hand, with the other grey, sad addicts.
I wonder what will happen to me when the life support system is finally switched off.
Will a couple of angels escort me up to heaven, as in the religious paintings? No, I would probably only merit one angel, or more likely I will be one of a group of soles gathered around an angel with an umbrella held aloft, to guide us on our final package tour excursion.
Maybe I will just float upwards like a dandelion seed, I feel that I am floating now.
But suddenly the pain is back, I am on fire, my head is bursting. I glance to the left my sister is at the machine controls and is smiling. I am no longer floating upwards, I am sliding sideways, I try to cling onto the mattress, but my fingers don’t work, I try to shout, scream, but there is no noise. I am sliding faster, into the darkness, into...nothing.
That's life (that's life), that's what all the people say
You're ridin' high in April, shot down in May
But I know I'm gonna change that tune
When I'm back on top, back on top in June
“That’s not my life, Frank,” thought Elspeth as she sat on the hard chair at her kitchen table, listening to Sinatra.
“I’ve been shot down in most months and never got on top, especially not in June.” She took a sip of rapidly cooling tea and re-visited a warm memory from her youth. “I might have been riding high, once, but not in April. It was New Years Eve; my parents had dragged me, unwillingly, to a party at the Recreational Hall on the airport where my Dad worked. I was fifteen and a half. I noticed this boy, who looked as bored as I felt. He was with his parents. He kept looking at me and I tried not to glance at him, too much.
I heard a bit of a commotion at his table, and suddenly he (his name was Edward, ‘Eddy’) was standing in front of me, I think he was blushing. He said, ‘Would you, perhaps like to, sort of, dance with me?’
I was blushing too and turned to my Mum. She nodded and indicated that I should dance. “I’m not very good” I lied, I had been dancing, mainly ballet, for most of my life.
“Neither am I,” he said, “but let’s give it a go.” He led me onto the dance floor.
In fact, he was a very good dancer, and as we spun around the floor and relaxed a little, he admitted that he had had ballroom dancing lessons.
After the dance we sat together and talked, we had so much in common, both our Dads had been in the RAF, and we had been brought up on various bases. We had even been to the same schools but had never met; he was a year older than me.
We agreed that we were different, and didn’t really fit in with the other kids in civilian school. He went to the boy’s school on the other side of town, it didn’t matter at least, we lived in the same town. I was in love.
Soon after that I was shot down for the first time, my Mum was taken ill and went into hospital for a couple of weeks, when she was discharged she came home, but was confined to bed. I left school to look after her whilst Dad was at work. Of course I didn’t have much time to see Eddy. I got a Saturday job at a shop in town and we would meet up for lunch, but that was about it, I had to get home because Dad was not coping too well. After a few months Mum passed away and Dad fell to pieces.
I saw even less of Eddy, as I had to look after Dad especially after he had to give up his job.
Eventually Dad died too; the doctor diagnosed heart failure, but I think he died of a broken heart.
I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate
A poet, a pawn and a king
I've been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race.
Dad had provided for me, his insurance paid off the mortgage, but without his income or RAF pension, I had to earn money to pay the everyday bills. I soon found that without any qualifications I could only get menial jobs. I was a shop girl, an office girl, a cleaner, a waitress, all low paid positions. It would have been easier if Eddy was around, but he had gone off to study at some distant University. We kept in touch, until one day he phoned to say that he had fallen in love with some posh girl, she was pregnant and they were going to get married. Shot down in May.
When I recovered, I decided that I would go to College and get a qualification. I might even sell the house and get a small flat. I was beginning to pick myself up. But, there was this really handsome, charming, older man who lunched in the café when I was waitressing. He took me to the cinema and the theatre and then to a restaurant for dinner. He treated me like a princess, he made me laugh and he had his own business. I took him home and into my bed. I didn’t love him, but when he asked me to marry him, I accepted.
He moved into my house and we lived together quite happily for a while. He expected his dinner to be on the table when he came home and there were only certain dishes he would eat. He expected me to iron his shirts in the certain way he liked. He did pay the bills but I realised that I was just his skivvy. I told him I was unhappy and he was no longer good fun. We had an awful argument and he hit me.
He eventually apologised profusely and explained that his business was in trouble. He needed someone to invest some money and then everything would be alright. We discussed it at length and I finally, stupidly, agreed to re-mortgage the house to raise some money for him. I was surprised at the amount he needed but I went ahead, he said he would re-pay me within a couple of years.
I had to start working again, twice as hard, to pay the bills and the mortgage payments. He started to come home late, sometimes reeking of drink. “Consolidating leads” was his excuse. “Chasing up contacts” was his explanation for not coming home at all on two occasions. Then this morning I got a call from the Police Station to say he had been arrested for causing an affray outside the casino from which he had been ejected. I realised that I had been conned out of my inheritance, he had wasted all my money on gambling and drinking and probably other women. I brought him home and gave him a good talking to. He said he was sorry and would not do anything like that again.
Elspeth has made sure that he will keep his word. He is lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. She is sitting on the hard chair, drinking tea, listening to Sinatra and waiting for the overdose of pills to work. “Maybe you’re right Frank, That’s life”.
That's life (that's life) that's life
And I can't deny it
Many times I thought of cuttin' out but my heart won't buy it
But if there's nothing shakin' come here this July
I'm gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die
I have been all around the house looking for any items that may have been left behind.
All I found were memories.
I am in the kitchen; empty now, quiet, sad, a little run-down, no longer the hub around which the household revolved.
I remember that it was this spacious, airy kitchen that had finalised our decision to buy this house, and commit ourselves to mortgage payments for twenty-five years, which we really couldn’t afford. But that was fifty odd years ago.
When we moved in, the kitchen was decorated in green and cream, there was an enormous welsh dresser, a gas cooker, a butler sink, a walk-in larder and the kitchen table, which is the only item that has survived all these years.
As and when we could afford it we started to ‘modernise’ by installing units purchased from MFI or scrounged from friends and relatives. The existing wall units on the back wall are good quality, Jill’s parents gave them to us and I put them up sometime in the seventies.
The one-time sleek, now slightly tatty, fitted kitchen I am looking at now, was installed, with the help of an increased mortgage, in the eighties. The Victorian welsh dresser was smashed up and thrown out, something we regretted twenty years later. The larder was converted into a ‘utility room’ and everything else, apart from the table and ‘my’ wall cupboards was consigned to the skip. Happy days!
I open the door of one of ‘my’ wall cupboards; it’s empty, apart from one scruffy looking tea bag. I remember what this cupboard was used for and visualise its contents; the box of tea bags, the jar of instant coffee, the cocoa, the Horlicks, the Ovaltine, the air-tight jar of coffee beans and the tea caddy containing Earl Grey tea leaves, Jill’s favourite ‘little treat’.
The next cupboard is also empty, but I can see the pots of jam, some home-made, the marmalade, the Marmite, the chutney, the mustard, salt, pepper.
I can see it all as it was, everything in its correct place as ordered by Jill.
I can’t open any more cupboards; I know they will be empty.
The tears are flowing down my cheeks; I reprimand myself for being so stupid, fancy crying over condiments.
But it’s not the empty cupboards that are upsetting me; it’s the realisation that this is the end of my life in this house.
Perhaps it is for the best, my life, here, has not been happy since Jill went.
I know the new owners will change everything, make it their home, extinguish our years of love and care, provide their own decorations and laughter and tears.
But the incredible amount of money that I got from the sale of the house will easily pay for my stay in Woodlands Retirement Home, until it is time for me to join Jill.
I hope it will be soon.
When I saw that I was listed to be a speaker in the club programme I panicked. I immediately informed those around me, that I knew a very interesting person to take my place.
They said, ‘No it is expected of new members that they should speak about themselves.’
‘But I’m so boring. Just call me Mr Boring.’ I said
There was no way to avoid it so this is what I said:
To start at the beginning I was born on the morning of Burns Night in the coldest January on record at that time, in the first year of World War 2, in London.
My mother and father got me out of London before the Blitz started and we went to East Anglia, where you would think we would be safe , however my father was something to do with the construction of airfields so we lived close to airfields that were regularly bombed and strafed by enemy aircraft. We survived and returned to North London just in time for the start of the Doodlebug raids.
After the war my father got involved in the construction of an oil pipeline in Iraq. I remember seeing him flying off from a field with a few huts in West London called Heathrow. He stayed in the Middle East and I didn’t see him again until I was in my 20’s.
In the early 1960’s I was working for British Rail and found that I was entitled to a free Continental rail ticket. I managed to organise that I travelled by train for free through Europe, Turkey, Syria, and finally to Beirut in Lebanon, where I knocked on my fathers door and announced that I was his son. I am not sure that he was pleased to see me.
Fate decreed that the Middle East and I would become better acquainted.
In the early 1970’s, I was offered a job with a Dutch company who designed and supervised the construction of regional airports throughout the world; I would be required to work in Hail in Saudi Arabia.
I flew into the half constructed airport in the middle of a desert, where I was met by my new boss, a Dutchman, who’s first words to me were, “I hate the British”. From that start things went steadily downhill.
I soon realised that the boss was a distinctly evil person. He would brag that he knew when the contractors (an Irish Company in partnership with a Saudi firm Bin-Ladin) had made a mistake and would allow them to finish the work to his own exacting standards, and then make them break it all out and start again. Although I was not involved in the construction of buildings, whenever I heard a rumour of such unprofessional conduct I would pass it on to the contractors, which needless to say made me even more unpopular with the boss who the Irish called the Heil Hitler.
I lasted for six months until I was due to go home on leave. As soon as I could I resigned and never went back.
Some ten years later I did return to Saudi but before I bore you with that lets go back to1957.
I was 17 and was like many others of my generation trying to find ways of avoiding National Service. I think I had a pretty good case for delaying call-up as I was in training with a Local Authority and studying on a day release basis. Suddenly the Government decided that anyone born after October 1939 would not have to do National Service. I had missed it by about 3 months.
I should have been pleased but I was not. Most of my friends and relations had been called up and after the initial horror stories of basic training they all seemed to be having a great time in exotic places like Cyprus and Germany, and I was stuck learning how to mend the local Council’s roads. I was restless and when I saw an advert for volunteers to train as helicopter pilots in the Fleet Air Arm, I jumped at it.
I was accepted and found myself at RAF Hornchurch with a crowd of other lads undergoing basic flight aptitude tests. We slept in a dormitory and were fed egg, chips and beans for every meal on Formica tables in a vast canteen.
In the afternoon of the second day a small group of us were given travel vouchers to travel by rail to Portsmouth and on to HMS Sultan in Gosport. We arrived in time for an evening meal, which was served by orderlies on a vast polished mahogany table in the Officer’s Mess.
The rest of the week was spent completing tests, physical tests, mental tests, written tests, spoken tests, aptitude tests, leadership tests and then there were the medicals which could only be described as intrusive.
By the end of the week there were five of us left, an Irishman, who swore that he was a deserter from the Irish navy, the son of a Rhodesian cattle farmer, a frightfully well-spoken Public school boy, me and one other.
This fifth lad, The Swot, we named him, was not part of our little gang, he was quiet, coped with the tests adequately but didn’t excel or fail in any of them., as we did. The four of us were finally informed that we had not been accepted as pilots in the Fleet Air Arm. We didn’t know what happened to The Swot but assumed he had been accepted. We were distraught at our failure but took some comfort when we found statistics that showed there was a very high mortality rate of helicopter flight crews in the Navy.
Now let me fast forward to the 1980’s.
In the early 80’s I found myself working for a Saudi Arabian company, based ironically in that most Jewish of North London suburbs, Golders Green. I was leading a small team of British engineers engaged on part of the design of the infrastructure of a new industrial city on the shores of the Persian Gulf called Jubail.
The reason for the construction of this city in the dessert was to utilise the natural gas that was produced as a by-product of the off- shore oil wells. The project was nominally managed by a Saudi Arabian Royal Commission and was supervised by a large American Consultancy who sub-contracted the design to many smaller design consultants like my employers.
Our task was to design the network of major roads within the city. We beavered away meeting tight deadlines producing designs and hand-drawn drawings, these were the days before CAD (computer aided design).
On a couple of occasions I took our designs out to Saudi where I assisted the Resident Engineer in our Jubail office to present the drawings to our American employers.
Back in the London office I was working on another highway which had an interesting complication in that part of it had to be strengthened to accommodate massive multi-wheeled vehicles transporting refinery plant. Suddenly the schedule for completion of this road was put forward, my team was increased and we worked extremely hard, often into the small hours of the morning. We completed the task in time by the skin of our teeth and I was to make the presentation on my own as the Resident Engineer was on leave at this revised date. I was not worried as I had already met the American Consultants and had some experience of presentations. I was confident that I knew all the details of the scheme and could answer any questions that were raised.
My boss a flamboyant Hungarian-American whose favourite expression was ‘the world is full of shit’ wished me luck and told me that the reputation of the company rested on my shoulders.
No Problem, I thought.
I arrived at 10.00pm and found the presentation was scheduled for 7.30am (the working day started at 6.00) on the following day. I was surprised to find that the presentation was not to be around a table in a meeting room but in a lecture theatre in front of about twenty-five or more people, some American and some rag-heads. (sorry I mean Arabic gentlemen in traditional dress).
I launched into my performance with confidence and found to my surprise that it was not being received with respectful silence, there was a definite rumble of murmuring. I was stopped in my tracks, when a big Texan boomed out, “This is not the project we expected to hear about,” or words to that effect. I froze, my voice didn’t work anymore, I didn’t understand, all I could think of was my boss saying, ‘The reputation of the company rests on your shoulders Alan.’
I returned to London with my tail between my legs but it turned out that I was not at fault; somewhere along the line there had been a misunderstanding and the project that should have been presented was the upgrading of the Airport Road which was being designed by another team in the office.
A few months later I was asked to return to Jubail for six months to temporarily run the office, as the existing Resident Engineer was leaving. The money was good, I knew our staff and most of the employers staff.
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I settled in quickly and apart from the time I was thrown into prison, (that’s another story we can pass over quickly) all went well. The Airport Road was under construction as was the spine road that my team had designed. The function of the Jubail office was to clarify any design queries and make small amendments as necessary. As my appointment was only temporary I was not entitled to be accompanied by my wife, which was hard for her and I suppose for me. She would phone and tell me that the pipes had frozen, I said there was nothing I could do about it and anyway I had to go to the beach.
I came home after six months ( I could tell you the story of the school budgie, but I won’t.) expecting to stay but I was asked if I would do another three month stint, this was not popular with the wife but for purely financial reasons I agreed to go. The same thing happened on a few more occasions and eventually my temporary six-month assignment lasted nearly two years.
There were quite a few British, Irish and Dutch families with young children living in Jubail. The children under eleven went to an ex-pat school. But outside of school hours there was little for the kids to do. Someone decided it would be a good idea to start a Cub Pack. There was a flourishing British Scouting organisation in Dharan some 100 km down the motorway which embraced the idea and welcomed the pack into their District.
I was not interested in getting involved with this, I was busy producing a satirical magazine describing the life of ex-pats in the Magic Kingdom for distribution back home.
However I was made to feel so guilty about all the good things I had got out of scouting that I eventually joined. As a result of Scout Leaders leaving to return home I quickly became GSL in charge of a Cub Pack, a Beaver Colony and even a patrol of young French scouts.
The position had great personal benefits as I met families who invited me for Sunday lunch (on Friday) and other celebrations. Of course being Saudi there was very little, if any, alcohol available at these parties. Through my scouting contacts I found a chemist working for ARAMCO the big oil company who had a side line in distilling Sediki, a sort of moonshine. I would buy plastic two litre bottles of this nearly 100% proof alcohol put it in the boot of my car and drive the 100km back to Jubail where I would dilute it to normal 30-40 % proof and sell it on to the cub’s dads. I hate to think what would have happened if I were caught.
I also got a recipe for Jeddah Gin from an old hand which was a fermentation of apples, oranges, lemons, sugar, water and baking yeast which were all available from the local Supermarket. I kept a bucket full of this continually bubbling away under my bathroom sink. If I had not come back to England when I did I think I would have become an alcoholic or had all sorts of bits cut off by the Saudi authorities.
I could tell you lots more stories but I won’t bore you with my adventures in sub-Sahara Africa or my time in the theatre or how I almost stowed away to Australia.
I could even tell you how I had many wives, some of whom were mine, but I seem to have run out of time.
No questions please.
The powerful headlights of the Range Rover pierced the inky darkness.
He was sure that he had taken the right turning although he was not sure that he recognised the houses on his left. They were all large properties set back from the lane some with walls and electric gates. There was no street lighting.
Suddenly, he saw the house he was searching for; it stood out from the other well manicured properties. There were large trees and a wildly overgrown hedge forming the front boundary. He carefully manoeuvred the large vehicle through the gap in the hedge onto the gravel drive, which was so over-grown, it no longer crunched under his tyres.
He switched off the engine, extinguished the lights and sat quietly for a few moments studying the front of the house. A substantial porch obscured the heavy front door and there was no light showing from any of the tall, arched, front windows.
As he shut the car door the moon broke free of the clouds and a beam of moonlight managed to penetrate the surrounding trees. The blade he was carrying on top of the large box briefly glittered in the moonlight.
He entered the gloom of the porch, laid his burden down on the low surrounding wall and fished in his pocket for the key he had been given earlier that day. Having located the key he then had to find the keyhole in the pitch blackness. Using his mobile phone as a torch he managed to slip the key into the lock and the door swung open silently. He was mildly amused that the heavy old door did not open with a dramatic creak.
He retrieved the knife and box and stepped over the threshold into the large hall, it was colder in here than it was outside. He didn’t bother to search for the light switch, but waited for his eyes to adapt to the darkness. Ahead of him he could make out the wonderful sweeping staircase that he knew led to the balcony above. A faint glow was coming from the short corridor to his left. He swiftly and silently crossed the black and white marble tiles and found the light was emanating from an open door of a room at the back of the house. He peered into the room.
And there she was, slumped in a high backed chair, a part empty bottle of wine standing on a packing case at her side. The room was illuminated by an unshaded low-wattage bulb in a standard lamp. His shadow followed him across the room and fell across her sleeping form.
He stood in front of her just looking down at her; she was extremely pretty. One hand was slung carelessly over the arm of the chair; the other clutched an empty wine glass to her breast. He hoped he was not too late.
Suddenly she woke, startled to see a man with a blade standing over her. Soon reality dawned in her eyes; she smiled and said, “Oh! You’re back. What did you get?”
“I got” he said “a pizza, Ta-da!” He opened the box with a flourish. “And because I purchased the largest one on the menu and two portions of garlic bread and potato wedges: they gave me a free pizza cutter.”
He set about cutting the pizza into Trivial Pursuits wedges whilst she poured more wine.
“I’m so hungry,” she said, “but I don’t think we will manage to eat all this”.
“Don’t worry we can finish it off for breakfast, they say that pizza tastes better the following day.”
They tucked in to the food and gulped the wine in silence for some time; then she began to laugh her low throaty laugh that he loved so much.
“Just look at us, we’re like a couple of students, eating Takeaway in an sparsely furnished room. (I’ve made up the sofa-bed, over there), with no lights, (I think the fuse has blown in the lighting circuit). Our problem is we don’t know how to be ‘rich people’. We have over ten million in the bank, but who would believe it seeing us like this.”
He smiled, she was right as always, but he said, “I don’t know, it was only a couple of months ago since we won, and we have bought this mansion, a flash car and we had that literally first class Caribbean Cruise...”
“It was a lovely idea, a belated honeymoon, sailing around in luxury, in the tropics. It really was luxurious and we saw some lovely sites, but we agreed it was a bit of a mistake. Not that I have anything against old people, but spending three weeks in a moving care-home was not really my idea of fun.”
“You are so ungrateful; I should have married someone else, someone who would appreciate my skill at choosing six winning numbers.”
“Hold on, it was OUR skill at choosing numbers, remember two of them were my birthday dates, and a third was my favourite number.”
“OK, you win, and anyway I couldn’t imagine being married to anyone but you.”
“That’s nice,” she said, pulling him to her, they kissed a rather greasy, pizzary, kiss.
He would have continued kissing, aware that the bed was only a few paces away, but she pulled away and nibbled a potato wedge.
“I’m serious; we must start thinking like rich people. For instance ‘rich people’ would have had the house done up before they moved in.”
“I know, we don’t need to live like this. Tomorrow we will move into a hotel and look for a nearby place to rent or buy. I can oversee the renovation work here and you can supervise the landscaping from wherever we land.”
“Yes that will be great, but what will we do when we have finished the works and had a grand housewarming party?”
“Good point, I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. I suppose we won’t have to work anymore, the interest on our money should keep the wolf from the door. It would be a shame, though, to waste all that studying and years of training. Perhaps we could start a sort of Robin Hood practice, we could take on commissions from the rich and let them pay but do free work for charities and the poor.”
“Yes” she said yawning “That sounds great, we can set up an office in one of these downstairs rooms or even convert one of the many bedrooms, but I’m so tired, it’s been a long day, let’s have a good nights sleep and discuss it in the morning.”
She clinked her glass against his “Until then lets drink a toast to new beginnings and our ‘rich people’ future.
“Let me have a go with the binoculars, 007.”
“No sorry, Sherlock, I have the binoculars because I am in charge of visual surveillance. You are audio.”
“But there isn’t anything to listen to, and my equipment is no good.”
“What are you talking about? You’ve got more gizmos than me; you’ve got the stethoscope, the hearing-aid and the hand-held voice recorder. When the time comes you will be all ready to go, won’t you?”
“I suppose so, but I’m bored, we’ve been here for ages and nothing has happened. Can you see what is happening?”
“You’re right, there is nothing happening. The car is in the drive, the front door is closed. There is no sign of Mary, I can’t see through the...hold on! The front door is opening."
“Let me see.”
“No way! It’s him! Gollum! he’s looking up and down the road to see is it is all clear.”
“Let me have a look.”
“Hey! Careful! You’ll strangle me! OK you can have a go! Let me get the strap off.”
“Got them! I can’t see … Oh yes I can, it is Gollum! He is looking up the… Oh no! There’s a car pulling up next to him!”
“Yes I can see it. Who is driving it? Here, give me back the glasses. They are mine.”
“No they’re not; they are Great Uncle Matthew’s.”
“He’s been dead for years, so they’re mine now. Give them back. Remember I’m visuals.”
“Don’t snatch! Ow! That hurt.”
“The driver is getting out … It’s that big bloke with the square head, like that guy in the Addams Family; what’s his name? Munster? I think that’s it, anyway that’s what we will call him. He is the one that took Mary out of school. Gollum is talking to him. You ought to be recording what they are saying.”
“We’re too far away. Let’s get down there, quick, before they go in.”
“I’m not riding my new bike down that slope; we will have to go round by the road.”
“OK You’re right, but quick, quick, quick.”
“There! I knew we would be too late, they’ve gone inside.”
“Well that’s it, they won’t come out again. We’ve lost contact, the trail has gone cold.”
“No! hold on, there is a footpath behind these houses. Perhaps we can see something at the back of the house.”
“It’s the third house down. What if someone comes along and finds us snooping?”
“Turn your bike upside down and pretend to be repairing it. I will see if I can find out anything.”
“OK, I’ll keep an eye out for anyone coming down the path.”
“Well! Talk about a lucky break! Munster has just come out into the garden… and he is on his mobile. I’ll try and hear what he is saying.”
“Use the hearing-aid. What is he saying?”
“Shush, I think he is waiting to be put through. Shh, Here we go, he is saying ,‘hello my name is…’ Oh! Bottoms! He has turned with his back to me. Shh, he’s turned back… ‘…must move fast… operation… sparrowhawk…when can?… we have transport… yes Mary, it is … will die… everything in place… we’ll be there in ten …ground floor… primrose… OK.’ He’s going back inside.”
“What do you think that was all about? What are they going to do to Mary? What is Operation Sparrowhawk?
“I don’t know but I am sure they are about to leave. Let’s get round the front and watch. We can use the broken down bike trick on the pavement opposite.”
“There! I was right, the door’s opening. And here comes Gollum! He is dragging Mary by the hand. She is crying and looks really scared.”
“What has he been doing to her? What’s he going to do to her? He’s putting her in the back seat of the car.”
“We must try to rescue her. Come on.”
“No wait, here comes Munster. What is he carrying all wrapped in a blank… ? Oh No! There is a hand flopped out! It’s a body! A dead body!”
“They’re putting it in the back seat with Mary! How awful! We’ve got to save her before they drive away.”
“Hello, you two, what are you up to?"
“Hi Grainger, can’t talk now.”
“It’s too late, they’re driving off. We’ll never catch up.”
“What you going on about? I’m off to the shop for my Mum. You coming?”
“No, sorry Grainger, we’ve got to go home.”
“If that fat freak hadn’t turned up, we could have followed them on our bikes.”
“No. We might have followed to the corner and possibly down Sylvan Avenue but then we would have lost them. They would probably go down the ramp onto the Motorway, and that would be that.”
“So, that’s it, is it? We are letting those crooks get away with it. They will finish Mary off as well. We will never see her again.”
“Mary! Where have you been? Haven’t seen you for ages.”
“Thought you were gone for good.”
“Had to look after my Mum for a while. She was very ill, and collapsed. Doctor Sparrowhawk rushed her into hospital. She had an operation and they say that she could have died if it was left. Dad and I stayed with her in the Hospital, in Primrose Ward, for days, but she’s home now, and is much better. It was all very worrying. What have you guys been up to?”
There were only three of us left, huddled together, terrified, against the back wall. Then Milly returned, and we were four again.
Milly had found a small amount of food, but had lost it to the Killer, who was still keeping vigil outside our hiding place. She had managed to evade this Monster but had sustained a minor gash on her left side, it was not too serious. She also reported that she had seen a couple of dead bodies. She thought they were probably two of our brave brothers who had escaped last night; there was no sign of any of the others.
There had been about twenty of us living in this cosy lodging before the Evil Killer had demolished the entrance.
The youngsters were the first to go, they were dragged out squealing, and there was nothing we could do to save them. A couple of the horrified Elders tried to create a diversion in an attempt to stop any further destruction of our home and family. They were caught and killed.
The few of us who were left moved back as far as we could away from the demolition. The brothers tried to dig a tunnel out of the back but found it impossible, they decided that they would get out when they thought the Killer was sleeping, and would find help to dig a tunnel from the outside. We four sisters tried to dissuade them but they were convinced that they would succeed.
It seems that we were right.
Now, we had to have a plan. If we stayed here, in relative safety, we would starve. An alternative, we decided, was for the four of us to rush out in different directions past the Killer and perhaps one or two of us might survive.
We considered the boys had made the wrong decision to leave at night; we would go in the middle of the day when it was hot. We reasoned that the Killer might be sluggish or even dozing in the warmth.
Our reasoning seemed to be correct, for when the time came, I rushed to the entrance and immediately turned sharp right. I ran as hard as I could until I reached the safety of a nearby hedgerow. Staying in the cover of the hedge I travelled some distance until I suddenly sensed that my sister, Milly, had been there before me. I was trying to establish which direction she had taken, and had wandered out into the open.
I was surprised to be attacked from above. I felt the iron-hard claws tighten around my body as I was lifted off the ground. I realised that I was doomed and would soon be dead, but I had enough time to philosophise about my fate. I had escaped from the cat but had been caught by a hawk.
Such is the destiny of a mouse.
I woke, suddenly.
I found that I was lying on a wooden park bench.
I swung my legs off the bench so that I was sitting.
I stretched my neck and back muscles.
I surveyed my surroundings with curiosity, I was not in a park, I was in a garden.
I stood; I was surprised that I did not experience the usual lower back and leg pains.
I studied the garden more closely, I realised that it was very beautiful.
I thought I was still dreaming.
I don’t know how I came to be here, I have no memory of travelling here.
I observed, to my right, an orchard; cherry trees in blossom, pear trees heavy with fruit, orange and lemon trees.
I could see fig and greengage trees trained into fan shapes on the wall that forms one of the orchard boundaries,
I squinted to see distant pine trees cloaking the hills occasionally scarred with white cliff faces.
I am aware that on the horizon, the light blue of the sky is kissing the azure of the sea, on which the rays of the early morning sun are reflected.
I wonder if I have been washed up on a Mediterranean island.
I think, however, that the lawn I am standing on is distinctly English.
I stroll, barefooted down the lawn towards a dissecting gravel path
I feel relaxed and supple; I swing my arms and lift my knees painlessly.
I study the flower beds on either side.
I am no gardener but I feel there is something strange about the planting.
I note that the roses are flamboyantly blooming and at their feet snowdrops are blooming too.
I see daffodils and chrysanthemums flowering side by side.
I reach the path and look both ways; the path slopes gently to my right.
I see a small group of people emerging from the curve to my left.
I hear their chattering, which is dominated by the jovial voice of their leader.
I recognise that voice; it’s my old chum, Geoffrey Goodman, GG!
I shout ‘Hello, Horse’ using his schoolboy nickname.
“I don’t believe it. It is you. Dingle Dell” he replies using my nickname.
“I didn’t get notification of your arrival. When did you register at the gate?”
I tell him I am really pleased to see him again after so long.
I also tell him that I don’t know anything about registration.
“I can’t fathom how you got into the garden without being entered in the Register.”
“I will check with the gatekeepers when we are in town.”
“I would be very pleased if you would join us, at the café, that’s where we are heading now.”
“I think we have a lot of catching up to do. You will know a lot of the folk at the café.”
“I know that Jenny will be really pleased to see you again.”
I stopped in my tracks "Jenny’?" I said "You mean my Jenny?"
“I do mean your beautiful muse and long-term lover.”
I corrected him "She was not just my muse and lover, she was my wife."
I found I was excited at the prospect of meeting the love of my life again.
I quickened my pace, eager to arrive at this promised café.
“I am afraid we will have to sort out your registration before we go to the café.”
“I don’t expect it will take too long. It is probably an admin error.”
I follow Horse to an elaborate gate set in a high flowering hedge.
I wait outside, whilst Horse enters a small office building nestling close to the gate.
I note a steady stream of people coming through the gate and entering the office.
I wonder what is happening here, but I am beginning to suspect that, really, I do know.
I am summoned into the building and am ushered along a series of corridors.
I eventually find myself in a large well appointed office.
I am surprised to see Horse meekly standing in front of a large desk behind which is seated an imposing old man with a long beard.
I feel somewhat overawed and resist an impulse to bow. The old man speaks. “I believe your name is Timothy James Dell”. He reads my date of birth, mother’s name and surprisingly my National Health number from a file in front of him.
“I will investigate how you got into the Garden without passing through the Gate”
“I assure you that if you had managed to approach the Gate you would not have been allowed in”
“I have evidence to show that you should not be anywhere near here you should be in another place entirely. I furthermore, have evidence that shows you did wilfully murder Jenny Dell, your wife, five years ago.”
I was stunned, this was not exactly accurate. Horse would not meet my eye.
‘I did not murder her, I just put her out of her agony, at her request. It was a mercy killing, I did no wrong’
“I will not argue with you. The rule is clear ‘Though shalt not kill’. You did, and therefore you are damned.”
‘I believe she is nearby. Let her explain, she will verify what I have said.’
“I cannot do that. I am having you taken down immediately”
I hoped I was dreaming.
I pleaded; ‘At least let me see her.’
Hello, my name is Rodney.
In many ways I am a very lucky rabbit, I have the run of the ground floor kitchen, where I have a hutch under the stairs. I can exit through the cat-flap into the garden where I have a summer hutch. I am well fed and the Guardians look after my health and welfare and give me love and affection.
But, I do have a real problem.
I wish I was… no, I am convinced that I am…. a dog.
You see, I share my home, and have good relations with two dogs, Boris and Bobby.
Boris Katchanchewski considers himself to be from aristocratic Russian Borzoi stock,
(In fact he is part Borzoi but mainly gipsy Lurcher born in Essex), he tolerates me and considers me to be an amusing pet.
Bobby is a happy-go-lucky, bouncy dog. He has no pretensions and is blissfully unaware that some describe him as a dog made up of spare parts.
Bobby and I are best friends.
The Guardians frequently take the dogs out of the back gate and into the fields beyond for a walk. They, always, well almost always, prevent me from following.
There was one occasion when I did manage to get through the gate, without anyone noticing.
The field was wonderful, long grass, flowers and smells. Oh! The smells were intoxicating, damp earth, mouse, cat, dog and rabbit.
Although I knew I was a dog, I couldn’t resist following a rabbit run through the brambles. I eventually came across a family of small bunnies and a very good looking doe. The little ones scampered off to the safety of their warren, but the mother stood her ground and faced me, defiantly. I found this exciting and was about to approach closer when a very large buck joined us. The doe fled to join her children and the buck approached me menacingly. I will admit that I was scared, I had never met a wild (and he was certainly wild) rabbit before. I didn’t know what to do.
I really didn’t want to fight, and if I fled, he would chase and pounce. I was sure I was doomed, but suddenly Bobby was there, bouncing and barking, the buck made a brisk exit and I was saved. I felt like barking too. I was taken back to the safety of the kitchen hutch, where I soon fell asleep.
A few moons later, I had forgotten all about my adventure, and was straining at the leash, mentally, if not, unfortunately, physically, to go walkies with my canine pals.
I waited for a lapse of concentration and when it finally happened I slipped through the gate into that wonderland of the ‘outside world’. The grass was lusher, there were more flowers in bloom and the smells were even more exiting. I caught a scent which reminded me of the pretty doe I had met before. I found the run to her burrow, but there was no rabbit there, the burrow was abandoned. Initially I was disappointed, but then I remembered the big buck and was quite relieved.
I stood on my hind legs and looked above the grass.
Boris was racing around the field like a competitor in the Greyhound Derby.
Bobby was not far away, but he had his nose to the ground and was following a scent. Suddenly he stopped and excitedly threw himself on the ground and rolled in something smelly. He missed the glimpse of a bushy tail disappearing into the undergrowth.
I decided to follow a new path that I found and soon met another dog. In fact she was a lady dog (I don’t like to use the other word), she was magnificently good looking in a wild sort of way. She exuded an exciting aroma which was not like the homely smell of my pals. She had a long, but delicate nose, big pointed ears and beautiful reddish fur. I explained that I was a dog out on a walk. I think she quite fancied me because she smiled and licked her canine teeth with her wonderful long tongue. She suggested that we walked together to her nearby home, where she would introduce me to her two young puppies.
I was so happy, what a wonderful day, the sun was shining, I had escaped from the confines of home and I had met this wonderful lady dog.
I was very lucky, no it wasn’t luck it must have been written in the stars, it was fate, Kismet. I hopped along with her anticipating what I was sure would be an incredible future!
“Darlings! That was wonderful! Enchanting! They loved you!” enthused Adrian.
“Don’t be daft, Ade. Whose bloody silly idea was this, anyway! I doubt I will ever walk again!” moaned Tom rubbing his right thigh and left calf.
“Oh do keep quiet, Tom! I fail to see what you have got to complain about; poor darling Lucy is being examined by the doctor as we speak.”
“Silly Cow! It’s not my fault that she fell.”
“What are you talking about? You know very well that you dropped her.”
“Well she must have put on at least a stone since the last rehearsal and she already weighed a ton then.”
“Oh, Tom! There is no need to be so rude. You are so non-PC. You are a dinosaur!”
“Don’t talk to me like that, you..you..”
“6.35 and 1016.”
“What was that, Bill?"
“A stone is approx. 6.35 Kilos and an Imperial or Long Ton is approx. 1016 Kilos.”
“What the hell has that got to do with anything?”
“I thought you needed to be up to date and modern and anyway…”
“For Gods sake, Bill, I’ve got enough to deal with, without your trivia answers, why don’t you … Ah Lucy!, Darling!, how are you?”
“Oh I’m alright. Dr. Brown says it’s just bruising, nothing broken or dislocated. It was good of him to come up from the audience. He said that most people didn’t notice or thought it was part of the show.”
“He is so right, my dear, you carried it off brilliantly; you’re a true professional, not like some in this troupe!”
“I told you there was nothing wrong with you.”
“Well, thank you, Tom. All you had to do was support me. I always had one foot on the stage, you didn’t even have to lift. Lance would never have let me go.”
“Lance!, Lance!, Lance the Prance!. Prancing around in his tights and his codpiece like a fairy… stallion.”
“Don’t you dare speak about my darling husband like that. If he was here, he would punch you in the… on the nose.”
“I doubt he would know who I was; he doesn’t even recognise you any more.”
“You nasty bastard, Tom, I hope you get Alzheimer’s too and have to…”
“Hey! Hey! Hey! This is getting really nasty. Tom, stop it. Lucy, ignore him. We should be celebrating, not bickering; the whole show was a great success. I think we particularly, did a wonderful job. The population of Brandon Market must be proud to have so much local talent. It was wonderful that the Arts Festival Committee invited us back. It’s been three years since we did our last show and let’s face it, we were all a bit long in the tooth, then.”
“It was two years and four months ago and…”
“Oh! Shut up, Bill.”
“Don’t shout at him. He just likes things to be accurate.”
“I’m sorry Margaret, I’m just feeling so emotional. I have the feeling that we are approaching some sort of crisis. What do you think, Barry?”
“Personally, I think the Arts Festival is doomed. The hall was less than a quarter full. The Festival is a thing of the past. It has no appeal for the younger generation. Look at tonight’s program, a Brass Band, an excruciatingly bad two act play by the Branmar Players, a Chamber Orchestra and us, ‘The Instep Dance Troupe’. It’s hardly inspiring. We really don’t stand a chance, especially when you realise that there are regular rock band and street dancing gigs at the old Ritz cinema.”
“I fear you are right, Barry, It was all so different when we formed the Troupe thirty odd years ago. How long has it been, Bill?”
“I don’t know!”
“What do you mean, you don’t know; you always know everything.”
“Well, Margaret and I moved to Brandon Market, twenty-nine years and eight months ago. We started the Ballroom Dancing Studio as soon as we moved in, and you and Barry were well established in the ‘Gardenia’ flower shop by then. At a guess you started the Troupe thirty-two years ago.”
“I remember now, it was actually thirty-three years ago that we moved up from London. Barry and I had been hoofing in the chorus lines of a number of west end musicals and decided to retire before we reached our forties. We met with Lance and Lucy, who had also recently given up entertaining on the cruise ships, and started the Troupe to bring a bit of glamour to the local scene.”
“That’s right, there were the four of you, Tom and Deirdre and another amateur couple who moved north after a year or so.”
“Deidre and I may have been amateurs but we were bloody good, we were artists not mercenaries like you. Poor D. Silly Cow! She shouldn’t have popped her clogs…no her points and left me with you lot and that lump Lucy.”
“Don’t start, Tom. I think Barry is right the Arts Festival has more or less ground to a halt, and we are, to be brutally honest, not that good, anymore. I’m sure I heard the audience chuckling at us, a bunch of wrinklies trying to be elegant, their applause was …. I don’t know … charitable. We have had thirty years of highs and lows, laughter and tears, god times and bad, but I think we have reached our sell-by date, and I propose that we dissolve ‘The Instep Dance Troupe’ and that when we do the finale this evening it will be our last dance.”
During the contemplative silence that follows this moving speech, only one comment is heard, from Tom. “Silly old bugger”
Martin loved books. The content was unimportant; he loved the look, the feel, even the smell of a book, especially if it was old. He had a small collection and was always on the look-out for more. This was why he was in a gloomy, small second-hand bookshop on a sunny day in a sea-side town.
The shopkeeper was keeping a close eye on the small boy browsing through his stock and became more vigilant as the boy stood on tip-toes and removed a small volume from a shelf. “Can I help you?” he asked.
The boy seemed to be caressing the book but had not opened it. “It’s beautiful,” the boy replied.
The shopkeeper admired the boys taste; he knew that book well and agreed that the leather binding with an inlayed art-deco design was indeed beautiful.
“It was written by a retired Oxford Don who lived locally, it was published in 1922.
It was intended as a self-help guide, for soldiers returning from the Great War.”
Realising that one so young might not understand he continued “That is the First World War, 1914-1918. Thousands of soldiers were slaughtered, and the few who survived were disturbed by what had happened to them; they found it hard to adjust to civilian life.”
Martin listened intently, eager for more, the book still cradled in his hands.
The shopkeeper, pleased to have an attentive audience, continued. “The book was written in simple language and contained some sensible, if somewhat patronising, advice. If it had been sold in a cheap paperback form, it would have been a great success, but for some reason, it was published as the book you hold in your hand. The price put it out of the reach of most people and it was a complete failure.”
Martin thanked the shopkeeper for telling him so much, looked lovingly at the book, ran his hand over it, raised it to his nose and then stood on his tip-toes to return it to the shelf.
“I thought you wanted that book” said the shopkeeper.
“I do, but I can’t afford it. The sign says ‘All books on this shelf £1.00. I only have 67p.”
The shopkeeper, recognising a fellow bibliophile, said, “We might be able to negotiate, but first you must tell me about yourself."
“My name is Martin Daniels; I am nine years and 10months old. We, that’s, me, my Dad and my sister are here on holiday. We are staying at Aunty Jane’s house, it’s a really big house, she is married to Uncle Bill, he is a bookmaker, but I don’t think he could make a book as beautiful as this.”
The shopkeeper smiled at this, but said, “What about your mother?” and immediately regretted it, for the boys eyes filled with tears.
“My Mum was very ill, she went to hospital. I never saw her again. She died.”
The shopkeeper was devastated at causing the boy so much grief, he wanted to give him a hug but realised it would be inappropriate. “I am so sorry,” he said. “What about your sister?” To his surprise this meek little boy with tears still running down his cheeks turned into an angry, yapping, terrier.
“Mandy? I hate her. She’s fourteen. She thinks she’s a princess. She made me give her my pocket money, so I can’t buy that book. She calls me ‘Worm’. I hate her.”
“Hey! OK! She doesn’t sound very nice, but I’m sure she isn’t too bad and remember she is family. That book in your hand stresses that family is very important. Why does she call you ‘Worm’?”
“Oh! I don’t know, I think it’s because Dad called me a bookworm, once.”
“On thinking about it, that book might have a lot of good advice for you. In a way, you are like those poor soldiers; you have been through a traumatic experience and have lost a friend, your Mum. You no longer have to mindlessly obey your sister. You have to build a new life in which you are in charge.” The shopkeeper settled down to skim through the book, and point out advice that could be relevant to Martin.
After half an hour, Martin was feeling much happier and more confident. He thanked the shopkeeper and made to return the book to its place on the shelf.
“I have just remembered, we have a Sale on today, everything is half price.” The shopkeeper lied. “You can have that book for 50p.”
“Really! Oh, thank you, it is so lovely, are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure” said the shopkeeper, thinking he would be happy to sell all the remaining copies of that book at that price. He had at least ten in his store room, left over from the Author’s house clearance.
“Thank you again, and thank you for the advice. It’s getting late. We are going home and I must meet Dad in the car-park.” Looking lovingly at his new possession, he reached the door, turned and asked, “What does this mean on the spine ‘AUXILIUM SUI?”
“It’s Latin and translates as Self-help, most inappropriate for a book like that.”
Martin made his way down the alley that leads to the sea-front repeating to himself, ‘Auxilium Sui’ ‘Auxilium Sui’. At the junction with another alley Martin looked to the right and saw his sister with a local boy, he was pushing Mandy against the wall and was trying to pour beer from a can down her throat.
“Get that inside you, Posh, then we’ll see what you’re really like.”
Martin could see that she was not happy, no longer the confident princess, despite the fact that she had a cigarette in her fingers.
He raised the book in the air and shouted, ‘AUXILIUM SUI’. The words bounced off the alley walls giving a weird echo affect.
The boy was temporarily stunned to see a small being casting a spell on him. Mandy wriggled free and ran towards her brother. “Car–park!” he told her. He repeated the Latin phrase as loudly as possible, but the boy was beginning to realise what was happening and started menacingly towards Martin. Martin turned and ran after his sister. Luckily the car-park was fairly close and their father was there waiting for them. “There’s no need to rush, you are only five minutes late.”
“Sorry” said Mandy, panting.“We didn’t know what the time was.”
“Where have you been? What is that smell?”
“A boy squirted a can of beer at Mandy,” Martin replied.
“And Martin saved me.”
They had both spotted the boy lumbering after them, and had also seen him slink away when he saw their Dad, who was tall and broad.
“It all sounds a bit strange. Mandy, you will have to change, but not here. We will stop at the Service Station on the Motorway, you can change there. We really must get going and get out of town before the rush hour.
Brother and sister slipped into the back seat of the car and fastened their seat belts. Mandy whispered “Thank you, bookworm,” and smiled as she returned his two pound pocket money.
“What’s the book?”
“It is a Self-help book and it really works”.
When I was younger I was a bit of a Zombieholic. I devoured all the Zombie Thrillers, Zombie books and stories, Zombie films and videos, even Zombie computer games.
This is partly why I am so delighted to be at this Halloween Party, surrounded by many, many Zombies.
Everywhere I look I see the living dead, shambling and staggering around, wonderful Zombies in varying states of decomposition The air filled with the heady aroma of rotting flesh. Some recent arrivals have only superficial worm holes, but mostly the company is in a more advanced state of putrefaction. They lurch about, some shedding an eye or a finger here and there, others have very little flesh on their bones In fact there is an older generation who have only their bones left, the Skeletons, but they are still as animated as the Zombies, if not more so.
Over there is a group of outsiders, ghosts, spectral figures, lost souls who are searching for explanations for their untimely departure.
This year there seems to be a much larger gathering than last year. But last year it did rain. Of course, this year there is the added attraction of a Celebrity Guest. I can’t see him at the moment; I assume he is presently being surrounded by admirers close to the gate.
Suddenly the crowd parts and our Guest emerges; he is magnificent, his shining black horns and hooves glinting in the moonlight, his eyes glowing red like coals. He jumps up onto a marble memorial slab, places a violin under his bearded chin and starts to play.
The melody is instantly recognised by the audience, Zombies, skeletons and ghosts all start to sway in time with the music. The fiddler subtly changes the rhythm of the tune to one more suitable for dancing. One of the wraiths, a pale, pretty girl in a flowing white dress, steps forward and starts to dance in perfect time with the music. She dances elegantly at first but as the rhythm increases her dancing becomes more sensuous. The crowd is enthralled and is now foot tapping, or in most cases stump tapping. The beat becomes even faster, the girl is whirling and twirling in a wild dance. Now everyone is prancing, dancing, clapping excitedly to the furious pace of the music.
Suddenly the violinist stops playing, the dancers stop and there is silence, everyone is listening. In the distance, the company hears the crowing of a cockerel, the dark night sky to the east is showing signs of becoming lighter, dawn is approaching. The party is over, the assembled company slopes away to their beds. The guest plays a slow funereal dirge. I trudge to my sleeping quarters, not wanting to be caught in the light of All Saints Day. I lie down and pull the lid closed over me. I hear the comforting fall of earth which will keep me safe for a year until the next Halloween Party, I will slumber and dream until then. I will Rest In Peace.