Friends

31 December 2010

New Year Message

Nice one, Google! This gives me the opportunity to wish my blogging friends a Happy New Year and to thank you for supporting my blog.

The year has been an uncertain one for me, Arthur Itis came uninvited and decided to stay which as you can imagine presented umpteen difficulties. There was a family problem that was difficult to deal with and my Guy chose this year to develop Diabetes 2 whilst suffering depression over the problem child. Fortunately things have settled to a bearable level and we're able to laugh again.

Throughout it all there was blogging to do. People who don't blog will never know the great satisfaction it produces, will never experience the pleasure of making friends all over the world, learning about their countries, their families, feeling their sadness, laughing at their jokes, even sharing their weather. I am so pleased to have met such a lovely bunch of people. Bless you all.

27 December 2010

Unearthly Pranks (Repeat)



Perched on precarious stepladders, Sarah Gamble interrupted the shelf cleaning to sniff the air. She had earlier thought she had imagined it, but it was no fantasy - the ghastly stench of fermenting fruit was back. Without hesitation she jumped to the floor and wrenched open the airing cupboard door, hauling out neatly stacked yellow towels and white diapers. In the flurry of activity she thought how awful it would be if her second child's apparel began to disappear.

When the last item had joined the others on the quarry tiles Sarah examined the cupboard, eyeing the timber board which hid the hot water tank through which not even the flimsiest towelling bib could escape. She began to chew her lower lip as recollections surged of past experiences, strange smells and mysterious losses, toys and clothes finding their way out of the apartment never to be seen again, and Jimmy's stories of someone breathing on his arms. Sarah shuddered at the memory. Leaning against the steps, screwing the yellow duster into a ball, she recalled that first Christmas when the ordeal started.

Sarah and Jacko were delighted with the apartment, Jacko in particular liking the river view beyond the garage. If we had a dog, he'd say, whenever he parked his great bulk in front of the French windows, I could walk him along the river bank. Sarah was thankful they didn't have a dog, or a cat, or a budgie. All her time was taken looking after Jimmy, running the home, and doing a full time job. Tending pets did not figure in her daily programme.

The apartment was on the ground floor of one of those huge converted Victorian dwellings, once the residence of a well-to-do family if the servants' bells were anything to go by. Jacko thought the misshapen rooms were grotesque until he got used to them but Sarah loved the alcoves and crannies which gave the rooms character. Jimmy took to his new quarters with the eagerness of a three-year old on the threshold of discovery.

'Still love the place, Sarah?' asked Jacko, six months after they moved in. They were reclining on the rust-coloured three-seater taking a breather from installing Christmas lights.

Sarah shifted her nude legs to a more comfortable position on Jacko's lap, absently fiddling with her blonde fringe. 'Moving here was the best thing we ever did,' she said. 'It’s great for Jimmy to have a garden to play in.

Jacko reached across to stroke her cheek. 'It's a pity there are no other kids around. He'll get lonely later on.' Playfully he tweaked her nose. 'Unless ....'

Sarah cuffed his arm. 'Don't get ideas. Jacko. I'm not ready for another kid.' She swung her legs to the floor to avoid her husband's nomadic hand, primly straightening her skirt and adjusting the neckline of her hand-knitted pink top. But she didn't object when he seized her face and began to devour her lips … and she cursed when Jimmy called out that he wanted a pee.

Later that evening when Jimmy was asleep, snoring gently and clutching the leg of a majestic brown bear, Sarah pushed a lock of flaxen hair from his freckled brow and rearranged his quilt. The resemblance to his dad was uncanny even at this young age. Both had deep blue eyes and both knew how to use them to good effect. She prayed that when finally she allowed herself to conceive she would produce a daughter with the ability to resist the roguish good looks of Jacko and his son.

Back in the lounge, Sarah settled beside Jacko on the couch. The television was on low, a game show in progress. Two single lamps were reflected in the window. The coals on the fire burned bright orange. When small pieces of charred wood shot onto the hearth Jacko put out a restraining hand to stop her from jumping up. 'Leave them,' he whispered, pulling her close and nuzzling her neck.

But Sarah's ever-alert ears detected a sound. Thinking Jimmy was in the room, she glanced over Jacko's shoulder. One of the lamps had gone out which accounted for the phut sound she heard. Bulbs don't last five minutes she thought as Jacko probed her ear with his tongue. The next instant, stiffening with alarm, she pushed him away. On the opposite wall, over the stereo, an independent streak of light was slowly circling an unopened bottle of Bristol Cream sherry. The beam had no obvious source and maintained its shaft-like shape even as it toured the bottle's curves. Fearfully, Sarah nudged Jacko's chest and pointed.

Without a word Jacko rose and left the room. Sarah heard him unlock the back door and go outside. The shaft continued its orbit … up, across, and down. Jacko passed the window and disappeared into the dark. For a moment Sarah worried in case he didn't come back but he soon reappeared, giving a comical grin as he pulled a silly face and pressed nose and finger-tips against the cold glass … eleven ghostly blobs that somehow had the power to dismiss the light shaft and leave the bottle intact.

On his return, Jacko explained his assumption that a child was responsible for the illusion (angling a mirror at the light was a trick he played on sister Fran), but he’d found nothing in the garden to confirm his theory. No glass, no kid. He had forgotten that the garden was solidly fenced, the gate locked and bolted, and the area devoid of offspring.

On Christmas morning Jacko opened the sherry while Jimmy tore through his presents like a whirlwind, casting aside a new blue coat and a pillowcase of assorted toys in order to play with a sizeable red train, a gift from the paternal grandparents. By mid-morning the apartment looked like a tip, causing Sarah some embarrassment when Mr and Mrs Biggins, the elderly couple next door, came to contribute a colouring book and crayons to Jimmy's acquisitions. They stayed for mince-pies and sherry and listened to the tale of the spooky visitation.

Mr Biggins squatted on the floor to play with Jimmy's toys, a move which for the first time drew Jimmy's concentration away from the train. Mr Biggins leafed through the colouring book but Jimmy showed more interest in a plastic cone that fired balls into the air. One ball, to be exact. Knowing his son's prowess for losing small things Jacko had hidden the other five. Mr Biggins showed Jimmy how to fire the ball then catch it in the cone but Jimmy's co-ordination was as yet unformed and the second time he tried the ball rolled under a dining-chair. Seeing his face crumple Sarah promptly moved the chair to retrieve it. There was no sign of the white celluloid ball.

Leaving his sherry glass on the table Jacko crossed the room and stood at Sarah's side, gawking in disbelief at the place where the ball had disappeared. Mr Biggins wondered if it had bounced behind the radiator - an ineffective one situated three feet from the ground - but their probing was abortive. There was no opening big enough for a ball to get through.

Jimmy was lamenting his loss. While Sarah held him in her arms, as much for her benefit as his, Mr Biggins and Jacko searched the area. They examined the skirting board but nothing could have rolled through a quarter-inch knot-hole in the wood. There was no hiding place on either the chair or the adjacent stereogram. The carpet was firmly fixed to the floor and, unless there was a concealed trap door, the wall was intact. They had literally watched the ball go.

'Hope you don't mind my asking,' said Mrs Biggins, ‘have you lost things before?'

At first Sarah thought the question was an accusation and was about to word a denial when Mrs Biggins spoke again.

'The previous tenants lost things. In fact, he left her because of it. Said he couldn't take her carelessness any longer. They had a dreadful row. We heard it quite distinctly with the windows open.'

'Well I won't be leaving,' gasped Jacko, breathless from lugging the stereo to its rightful place.

Mr Biggins reinstated the chair in front of the radiator. 'Glad to hear it, lad. Can't abide marriage break-ups. Young 'uns these days don't have enough commitment.'

Sarah was quiet, reflecting on other objects that had gone astray: toys from Jimmy's room, his pants and cotton tops from the airing cupboard. All Jimmy's things! Incredulously, she shook her head as it occurred to her that the airing cupboard was in a corresponding position to the radiator on the other side of the wall. She turned to Mrs Biggins. 'Jimmy's stuff goes missing. Clothes and toys. Did the other couple have children?'

'No, but there was a family here before them who had a daughter, a lovely, curly-headed child. She was five when she died. Drowned in the river.'

'How tragic,' Sarah said, making a mental note never to allow Jimmy near the river alone. Maybe the child's ghost was purloining Jimmy's stuff. She quickly suppressed the idea as ridiculous. Ghosts didn't steal. Neither did they wear clothes.

It was a week into the New Year when Sarah noticed strange smells around the airing cupboard, inside and out, like over-ripe fruit. Unable to find the cause, she began supervising Jimmy's fruit intake, sitting with him until he finished and personally trashing the core. But the smells persisted, notably when Jimmy was around. Only traces remained when he was at nursery school.

She discussed the matter with Reg Phipps, the guy who lived on the upper floor, a bruiser of man, scaffolder by trade. She mentioned it because of his habit of hovering in the communal yard, nibbling the last remnants of apple before tossing the core in the bin, speculating on the possibility of a link. Considerately, Reg offered to investigate and the following Saturday he arrived at the back door armed with a tool box. Jacko was taken aback, but agreed with Reg that all avenues should be explored to trace the cause of the smell. Between them they completely dismantled the cupboard. They found nothing, neither an apple pip nor a piece of orange peel, yet the fruity fragrance pervaded the kitchen as fresh as if newly released from its skin.

'That's that,' said Jacko as he tightened the final screw. 'There's nothing more we can do. The smell remains a mystery.'

In September Sarah knuckled down to night school studies and on alternate evenings Jacko played darts with Reg. Sometimes Sarah took advantage of Jacko's absence by studying history in a hot bath, holding her revision book free of lavender-smelling suds. It was the ultimate in luxury for the bath was sited in the warm kitchen with the telephone near to hand.

One Tuesday, during a leisurely soak, the telephone rang. It was Marie, a friend from work. Outside a storm raged. Listening to Marie's version of an incident at work, Sarah sipped her coffee, then ran the hot tap, slithering down until her shoulders were covered with foam. The blinds shivered at the window, reminding her to get a draught excluder fixed before winter set in. While Marie rattled on about the boss, Sarah heard a noise above the wind. Someone entering the yard. She strained to listen, hearing the dustbin lid scrape open, then clang shut, and the gate forcibly drawn to. She was thunderstruck since Reg was the only other person to use the yard and he was out playing darts.

Swiftly cutting the call, she abandoned the phone and climbed out of the bath, donned a cotton robe and hurried to the bedroom window which had to be passed to reach either the road or the front of the house. Seeing no-one, she put it down to the wind playing tricks with her imagination. Yet as soon as she returned to the kitchen and heard the same noises she knew she was wrong.

Metal on metal, wood against wood.

Once more she raced to the window; again there no-one was there.

Clutching her robe to her, she checked Jimmy's room. He was sleeping peacefully, one hand tucked under his chin, his teddy tucked under his neck. As Sarah eased the toy away, she glanced through the window. The kitchen light shone through the transom over the door, illuminating the gate. As expected it was closed, bolted at the top as well as half way down. Sarah was suddenly scared. Only a giant could have unbolted and rebolted the gate from outside. Even Reg wasn't that big. Her eye alighted on the refuse bin, its black rubber lid secure … and wondered how long it had been since the metal bin with the noisy lid had been replaced by plastic.

A year after the first encounter with the unknown, Reg came up with the idea of calling the spirit's bluff, believing the whole thing was nothing more than a young spirit wanting to play. Though why a spirit should want to play with Jimmy's things was beyond Sarah’s comprehension. The stink of seasoned fruit had continued to come and go, dependent upon whether Jimmy was in or out. Parts of his train set had strayed, all but three of his vests had walked, and a lace vanished before her eyes from one of his trainers. Seeing Sarah upset over that prompted Reg to suggest that she ask for its return and see what transpired. He’d been discussing the matter with someone at work, someone who knew about psychic matters. Against her better judgement she agreed to give it a go.

She chose an evening when Jacko and Reg were out, taking two glasses of whisky to give her courage, bravely deciding to ask for the return of the original ball and work through the other items if nothing developed. Tremulously, she ventured into the kitchen and stood centre-stage, feet apart, one hand resting on a chair, eyes cast upwards. 'Please can we have our ball back?' she said, feeling utterly foolish as the words left her mouth.

Nothing happened, not a rumble nor a groan let alone a promise to stop thieving, but Sarah was sure the smell grew stronger as she spoke. Moving nearer to the airing cupboard she tried again, drawing herself to full height and adopting a masterful approach, threatening the spirit with extinction if the ball wasn't immediately given back.

Nothing!
Just an incipient citrus smell.

Two days later, outside the greengrocers, Sarah bumped into Mrs Biggins. 'How's Jimmy,' asked the old lady, stuffing a cabbage in her bag.

'He's fine, thanks.'

'I thought I heard him in the garden the other day, but then I realised he'd be at nursery. It did sound like him, though. I was looking after next door's cat while they were away, feeding it and letting it out to do its functions. When I came to call him in the rascal wouldn't come. I called 'til I was nearly hoarse. Someone said, He's here, Mrs Biggins. Could've sworn it was your Jimmy.' Mrs Biggins transferred her shopping bag to the other hand. 'It was definitely a child's voice and I naturally assumed ... except, come to think, it sounded more like a girl.'

That afternoon, dressed in jeans and a couple of warm sweaters, Sarah toured the garden planning what vegetables to grow. Daffodil shoots were already an inch out of the ground. A watery sun shone, giving the place a premature springtime feel. She stooped to uproot a tuft of grass from the border, tugging it free of hard soil, and there, nesting in the weeds, was a white celluloid ball, grubby but unharmed, still bearing the imprinted trade mark of Jimmy's toy.

Returning the last towel to the cupboard, Sarah chastised herself for being over-sensitive. If the child's spirit was pilfering baby things, it must mean the poor thing was making Polly welcome. Jimmy was never hurt so why should Polly be at risk? Lifting her eyes to the ceiling, she cried, 'Okay, little one, choose which bib you want and I'll iron it for you.'

Sarah could have sworn she heard a faint chuckle when Polly's bib, the one with the parading yellow ducks, fell from the top of the pile and floated to the table, where it lay in a crumpled heap alongside the iron.

23 December 2010

A VIEW OF CHRISTMAS

The scene beyond the rustic garden gate was like a Christmas card. Outside the ivy laden cottage a robin was perched in a holly bush. A recent snowfall covered the thatched roof like oddly shaped clumps of cotton wool. Leaded light windows reflected the orange flames from the fire. Beneath those windows, a wooden wheelbarrow filled with logs. The bare beech tree looked strangely out of place, dull brown when everything else was highly coloured. The cottage door, as red as the holly berries, was adorned by a festive wreath. The door was ajar and inside could be seen a Swedish Pine of mammoth proportions ablaze with twinkling lights. And the aroma that emanated from within was of turkey, slowly roasting.

In the snow-packed lane, an elderly itinerant peered over the boundary hedge, white unkempt hair wafting skywards in the biting wind. With ice-cold fingers he smoothed it over his crown then pulled his shabby grey coat closer to his chest. The motions were entirely mechanical for he was truly not conscious of the cold. He had no need of fires or Christmas fare for his soul was warmed through with love for the Lord God, who kept him safe and whose birthday today they shared.

21 December 2010

T'was the Night before Christmas

Weather Forecast:
Frozen snow
Ice like a rink
(mind you don’t fall
getting that drink)

Now take a minute to enjoy my all time favourite Christmas story

19 December 2010

Christmas Ditty

Christmas tomorrow.
Mother said,
lie down and sleep,
My sleepy head.

Look, here comes Santa
Happy and merry
Not surprising
After mince pie and sherry.

Christmas stocking
Hanging askew
Now filled with love
And something new

Oranges? Apples?
What a surprise!
You should see the horror
In the little kid’s eyes

Where’s the Nintendo
You promised before
I can’t train my brain
With an apple core!

NB. ditty scribbled in league with the ongoing craze for
the NINTENDO TRAIN YOUR BRAIN game

11 December 2010

In His Ignorance


IN HIS IGNORANCE
Written for the Christmas Carol Service 2000 held in Birmingham Cathedral
Copyright Valerie Daggatt 2000

The sun shone on the frozen town but it yielded no warmth to the boy whose occupation was to construct a cave. Diligently, in the quiet churchyard, he chiseled impacted snow with his boot, squatting occasionally to scoop chippings with his bare hands. He could hear the choristers singing: Oh Come All Ye Faithful. His favourite. Humming as he worked, he felt strangely ashamed that he did not know the words, but then he had never been encouraged to learn religious songs.

The Boy in his ignorance did not understand

Tiring of the pointless exercise, the boy adjusted his baseball cap. Hungry and cold, he shoved his numb hands into his pockets and considered going home, but the idea was discounted as quickly as it occurred. His Dad would be on the Internet and he hated to be disturbed when he was surfing. It was all he thought of, except when Sky Sport was on the telly. Christmas meant nothing to him; there were too many mysteries for his liking.

The Boy, in his ignorance, did not understand

Nor did he understand his mother, who sang so joyfully before she discovered drugs and who believed the Millennium would be her salvation.

The boy, in his ignorance, did not understand.

A new carol began: We Three Kings of Orient Are. Leaning against the edifice the boy banged his heel and bounced his head in rhythm. Suddenly, a shadow fell before him and he stiffened, fearful lest he was doing wrong.

The man whose shadow the boy had seen, a bearded man in a grey robe, came to stand in front of him. 'I am the Custodian,' he said in a gentle voice. 'Would you like to see our Christmas tableau?'

The boy remembered his father deriding the church's endeavours to recreate the nativity. This was the modern age, how could they reproduce what never existed?

The boy, in his ignorance, did not understand.

Feeling the first stirrings of inquisitiveness, a yearning suddenly to see inside, the boy took the stranger's hand and allowed himself to be led away.

Festooned with berry-laden holly, the church was alive with Christmas atmosphere. There was a sweet smelling pine tree, shining with baubles and a silver cross, but it was the nativity display that caught the boy's attention. Viewed by hushed, reverent children, each one pointing to a thing of note, it was as wondrous as fairyland. The wide-eyed boy crept nearer, wanting to touch the blue-eyed baby in the straw-filled stall.

Without warning, from the depths of the church there came great crashes of reverberating chords, followed by a more peaceful air.

And the congregation sang: Once in Royal David's City.

The boy, in his ignorance, did not understand the passion he felt or the coursing tears as he joined in, humming when the lyrics eluded him. Unwittingly, he stepped back, not wanting to disturb the sleeping babe, and when the carol ended he turned and fled and did not halt until he reached the outside.

The Custodian advanced towards him, smiling, gliding almost through fresh snow. Not wanting to show his tears, the boy made off. It wasn't proper to cry, his Dad said.

'Peace be with you, the man called.

'Thanks,' hurled back the boy, and he sprinted away leaving a trail of footprints in his wake.

As he sped along, he reflected on the pleasant experience. He could hardly wait to tell his Dad.

Peace be with you, the man had said, and the boy, in his wisdom, understood.

10 December 2010

Twelve Days of Christmas

This has to be the funniest Christmas narrative I've ever heard

06 December 2010

THE BUTTERFLY ON THE WALL

Because it is SO cold in the UK, I'm posting a summer story!

THE BUTTERFLY ON THE WALL

The view from the steps was breathtaking, the sea like an ultramarine carpet laid before Vesuvius. Except that Vesuvius was lost in cloud. A good sign, according to the courier. It meant the heat wave was certain to continue. We carried on, treading gingerly from one step to the next, gripping the handrail firmly lest we should skid on the rubble.

The thicket was denser now, obscuring the view altogether. A dank smell rose from the undergrowth making it difficult to believe a charming panorama lingered on the other side. Then, as abruptly as they were upon us, the shrubs fell away, permitting the sun to warm our shivery arms. It was like stepping out of a damp dungeon and finding the world was on fire. I freed the breath I had been holding, astonished to find I had been afraid. Me, who had faced a mugger in the underpass and denied him the satisfaction of snatching my bag. But the underpass was on level ground, not built into a cliff like those steps. As if he knew, Vic took my hand and led me along the bumpy path.

At the next bend we stopped again to take in the awe-inspiring view. Colourful trawlers were moored by the quay, rowing boats and rubber dinghies abandoned by the water's edge. An ocean liner was anchored in the bay, brilliant white and highly impressive.

'That's my kind of boat,' Vic said, raising his binoculars.

Sweat was running down the nape of my neck. A pair of blue tits flew into a nearby olive tree. I scanned the harbour and wondered if the pink building was a cafe and if we would reach it before nightfall. Once Vic got binoculars to his eyes he was quite likely to stay there forever. I told him sharply that I was moving on. It was far too hot to stand around.

We progressed slowly. The steps were sheer and the handrail at this point had gone astray. I hooked my fingers in the single strand of green plastic wire which presumably was intended to stop us falling the eighty feet or so to the sea. Unnecessarily, Vic cautioned me to be careful.

*****

The pink house was open, the Signora informed us, yelling her message from the far side of the building. Since he couldn't abide noisy women, Vic strode on until he reached a Taverna near to where the fishermen were mending nets, brown as berries and uniformly wearing T-shirts and mules. They worked to the high-pitched cries of herring gulls circling overhead. Gee-ya gee-ya.

Vic ordered the coffee in Italian, selecting the words from the phrase book he kept in his breast pocket. It didn't sound right to me, but the robust, silver-haired proprietor in the white vest obviously understood for he produced two cappuccinos exactly as requested.

Vic stretched his arms above his head. 'This is the life, Pauline. Can't remember when I last felt so relaxed.'

The last time I felt relaxed was at the top of those steps, before the handrail ran out. A smidgen of apprehension skulked inside me at the prospect of climbing back to the hotel. Tugging the straw hat to a more advantageous position over one eye, I shrugged my misgivings away and settled back on the wooden bench; no good marring the day with pessimistic thoughts.

Idly stirring the cocoa powder into the froth, I watched the launches ferrying passengers from the liner, scuttling across the water like red toads before disappearing behind a promontory. A cruise sounded romantic, but with so many steps to negotiate and being hauled into small vessels by rugged seamen it would be hard going. I had enough trouble with my legs without that kind of undertaking. The doctor said it was all in the mind when he inspected my knees. I argued that some days I could hardly bend them, however an x-ray seemed to prove his point. He recommended exercise but he would, being a fit young man who looked as if he worked out every day.

'See that, Pauline?' Vic was eying something through his binoculars. 'A batch of butterflies just landed in that hollow in the wall.' He removed the binoculars from around his neck. 'Here, have a look.'

Following his directions, I searched for the spot. Up the ramp at the end of the quay, ignoring the holiday-makers straining to glimpse the offloading of the day's catch; past the quaint houses, their balconies a riot of geraniums; and on to what Vic had labelled a hollow. It was really a sacred grotto, graced with a bust of Our Lady, surrounded by flowers and foliage and an illuminated cross. I adjusted the focus. The Virgin Mary smiled. Disbelievingly, I polished the lens with my skirt and looked again. She was smiling still. Her eyes seemed to beckon. I was surely dreaming, or else my mind had been addled by the sun. Vic surveyed the fishermen, unaware of the peculiar development. A single butterfly fluttered across Our Lady's face. I mumbled, 'Be careful,' then, overcome by a sense of urgency, I thrust the binoculars at Vic and hurried off.

*****

I ran all the way, down the Taverna's wooden steps, dodging the coils of rope and trailers and mountains of nets, past the souvenir shop and its array of tablecloths and postcards, up the cobbled ramp and round the bend until ... until, there she was, the fairy lights barely seen in the strong sunlight, the flowers showing no colour, foliage showing no green. Her smile was colour, her eyes the illumination. My feet were rooted to the scorching cobbles as I gazed at her tranquil countenance. Vic's fingers seized my elbow. I had not heard him come. My knees trembled, but there was no ache. Our Lady's eyes twinkled and I knew why she had summoned me to her cave. Cautiously, I bent one knee to genuflect. Not one twinge assailed me. 'Thank you,' I mumbled, wanting no-one else to hear my words.

Vic pointed to the wall. 'See the butterfly, Pauline. Isn't that a magnificent creature.'

I pushed him playfully and suggested a race to the steps, giving a backward glance as we moved away. A butterfly soared, brighter and more beautiful than the rest. An aerial display of shimmering colour. Yanking my hat into place, I squeezed Vic's arm. I had never felt so alive. 'Come on, slowcoach,' I said, 'or we'll miss our lunch.'

Arm in arm we marched down the opposite ramp, past the vegetable seller and a brood of scavenging feral cats. Canaries bravely sang from the confinement of tiny cages attached to walls in full sun. Beyond an arch of weather-beaten dwellings, the church bell began its forbidding toll. The sun beamed constantly and the butterfly twisted and wheeled non-stop, sometimes alighting on the wall, but mostly dancing ahead to guide the way.

29 November 2010

Away for Christmas

As the countdown to Christmas has started I thought I would show again some of my Christmas material. Hope you find it enjoyable.
AWAY FOR CHRISTMAS

The magnolia-painted window-sill in the hotel bedroom was wide enough for Hilary Barnes to sit with her legs drawn to her chest, arms encircling her knees in a pose reminiscent of dreamy childhood days. The room itself possessed a charm that reminded her of the house she grew up in, but the view through the window was as bleak as her state of mind. It was Ted's idea to come away for Christmas, declaring that their house would be lonely and far too depressing. She was equally depressed here, even the virgin snow shrouding the fields and hanging from the branches of an elderly oak did nothing to cheer her. It only served to remind her of Greg's childhood love of coasting down the road on a makeshift sledge, annoying neighbours with his spirited yells of pure joy.

‘I'll be home before you know it,’ he said when he rang to break the news.

Would he? Or would he be maimed or killed.

She stared through the window, looking beyond her own reflection at the white hedgerow where houses now glowed, transformed by fairy lights twinkling in the descending gloom.

Christmas Eve. It wasn't a time for sadness, but how could she not be sad when Greg's regiment was this very day flying to war zones, where God only knew what might transpire. She ran a finger over a slat in the wooden shutter, suddenly driven to check the whole thing for dust as though some sort of action would make things right.

Then, for the first time, anger swelled within her and she pounded the shutter with her fist. How dare they whisk a young man into danger without any regard for his tender age. She sucked her knuckle, grateful for the hurt yet moderately stronger for having released some of her fury. In the corridor, the maid loaded her trolley with discarded glasses; remnants of celebrations. Hilary wiped her hand on her plaid skirt. Maybe tomorrow would be better, by then Greg would be installed in new barracks. However, no matter how long he was to serve there, she would never become accustomed to her teenage son being in the firing line.

The snow fell steadily during the night and by morning the landscape was an unsullied wonderland. Christmas Day. A day of celebration. A day to give thanks for life's blessings.

Hilary contemplated the white world, seeing a young couple trudging arm-in-arm along the lane, heading towards the church, two enthusiastic little girls following behind, slipping and sliding in fur-topped boots, their laughter-lit faces encompassed by red-striped pompom hats, matching scarves taking wing as they scampered in the drifts. As she watched, she had an urge to attend a Christmas service, to sing carols with Ted at her side, to pray for Greg and plead for his safekeeping.

Ted needed no persuading. As soon as she mentioned her intention, he opened the wardrobe and took out their coats. 'Let's get there early,' he said as he helped her into the yellow sheepskin. Understanding her need he made no mention of her customary absence of spiritual leanings.

Outside the hotel, Ted took her arm, guided her down the drive, circling the frozen fishpond and passing between barricades of newly-cleared snow until they reached the wrought-iron gates. Five minutes later they walked into the ancient parish church. It was alive with the atmosphere of Christmas. The grey stone walls were festooned with holly, an elaborately-carved pulpit decorated with berry-laden foliage. A colossal Christmas tree dominated one corner, adorned with gold and silver baubles, shimmering tinsel, and a gold star at the top. Hilary could smell the pine even from where she stood. To the right of the tree, reverent children viewed a glorious nativity display, quietly uttering ooh's and ah's as each one pointed to something of note.

Hilary and Ted slid into a side pew behind the buzzing congregation. Hilary breathed in, enjoying the sting of cool air entering her lungs, for her insides were aglow with the character of her surroundings, and she wondered why her inaugural Christmas Day worship had taken so long to achieve.

During the ceremony she joined in the carols and intently listened to sermons and messages. She prayed with others for compassion, for liberation, and good will, as well as for Greg and his colleagues somewhere in a distant war-torn country.

With the closing carol sung, she felt in her pocket for her sheepskin gloves. A few couples rose to depart, but the minister held up his hand and they sat down again.

A small group advanced towards the altar as the minister announced that a christening was to take place; he invited the congregation to attend. Hilary nudged Ted and looked at him enquiringly. He nodded and smiled, and squeezed her hand.

The christening was soon over, a quiet service which could barely be heard at the back. After a final hymn, the minister toured the entire church with the child in his arms, her fingers clutching the stole around his neck, her shawl draping the front of his surplice, her residence in his arms making him beam with pride as he introduced her to everyone as Christine Beverley Anne.

'How do you do,' Hilary said, when it was her turn to be presented, automatically reaching out to move the dribble-damp shawl from the baby's chin. Christine Beverley Anne transferred her grip to the minister's immaculate surplice and, as the baby gurgled, Hilary began privately to celebrate Christ's birth, as they were glorying in the birth of this baby, as she and Ted did at the christening of their only child. In that instant she knew that Greg would return unharmed. Through this small being Jesus had decreed that it would be so.

Blindly, as the baby was carried away, charged with a sense of supreme well-being Hilary groped for Ted's hand. 'All will be well,' she whispered as a quivering smile crept over her face.

Ted put his arm around her shoulders. 'He'll be home soon, like he promised.' And with that he gently hauled her to her feet. 'Lunch calls,' he said. 'Presents to open.'

For the first time since Greg's worrying phone call, she felt happy. Not only that, she was suddenly hungry for the Christmas festivities, the repast which the hotel predicted would be the best ever tasted, the Queen's speech, a quiz before tea, and, later on, a fancy-dress ball. Leaning sideways, she kissed Ted's cheek. 'Merry Christmas, my dear. And to Greg, too.'

21 November 2010

Fear Awaits at Journey's End (repeat)

The deeper the express train travelled into the tunnel the clearer became the woman's reflection in the window, giving Arthur Mott a chance to stare without her knowing. Now, instead of occasional glimpses of her profile, he could see the whole of her face. Short, wiry hair curved around her ears like dappled muffs; dark hair, so flecked with grey it reminded him of pewter. He guessed her wistful expression belied a sunny disposition, for he detected the hint of a smile dallying at her lips. The pronounced cheek-bones attracted him. They made her almond-shaped eyes seem so submerged that he felt, if she turned to look at him, he would drown in the abyss of their dark beauty.

The notion of being captured in an all-embracing glance made him fidget and he rocked slightly on his seat. Forward and back. Soon, the agitation filled his head, turmoil he thought had long ago subsided. He was compelled to suppress it with a system of deep-breathing. As he inhaled, he ran his fingers along the plastic armrest, counting to ten. With every exhalation he scratched his chewed nails on the jagged edges of sundry burns, willfully accomplished with cigarettes, no doubt, by drunken barbarians. Mother wouldn't have liked that, he thought, recalling what a stickler she was for neatness, how she would toss into the bin anything marred by cuts or stains.

Now that he had a chance to study the woman, he saw that the skin on her throat was crinkly, like crepe, like his mother's, and he longed to touch her neck to see if it felt the same. There was an unusual fragrance in the compartment, of spicy perfume mingled with the polluted smell of soiled upholstery. Neither pleasant nor repulsive, simply unusual.

Her thinness intrigued him. How could a modern woman look so haggard when the whole nation was bordering on the obese? Arthur laced his nicotine-stained fingers, remembering his mother's bulk, her flesh hanging over him at night, her protruding eyes devouring his nakedness. He shuddered, as he had shuddered throughout his childhood.

Once again daylight entered the carriage. Fields rushed by, measures of green allocated for farming stock, an occasional house stowed aimlessly in the middle. Shouts could be heard in the next carriage, choruses adored by football supporters, some kind of convoluted vocal meandering punctuated with cries of ‘three-one, three-one’ which meant nothing to Arthur. He wasn’t a sporting man.

As if weary of the view, the woman changed her pose, languidly shuffling round until she faced him, her cream blouse taught against diminutive breasts. Her eyes were moist and her lips trembled slightly, drawing his notice to the lines on her upper lip. A pity the lurking smile had disappeared. He would have liked to see it go. Sweet anticipation set him rocking again; back and forth, a shade faster than before, foreseeing an exhilarating adventure, when she would be as putty in his hands.

Suddenly, the door slid open and a fat-faced man, carting a battered brown suitcase and a bundle of newspapers, barged in like a squall of blubber. Another example of modern living. Without asking if the seat was reserved, he dropped the bundle on the table adjacent to Arthur's green trilby and slung the case on the overhead rack. 'Teenagers make me sick,' he said to no-one in particular, 'the way they behave in public.'

Having secured the case, he flopped on the seat opposite Arthur, puffing out his cheeks with the exertion. 'I've been sharing a compartment with the Liverpool brigade,' he told Arthur, who was not at all interested. 'Had to leave 'em to it. Couldn't stand the noise. Comes to something when a body can't enjoy a train journey in peace.'

Agitatedly plucking the front of his fawn jersey, Arthur Mott eyed the woman wondering if the moment of contact was lost.

It brought a small, involuntary cry to Leonora's lips
And she knew she’d been right to be afraid

Leonora Deloitte rummaged inside a lizard-skin bag, searching for her wallet and the small notepad contained therein. She had thought of passing the big man a note concerning that measly little man who had stared constantly since they joined the train. She was used to being goggled at by men and enjoyed the experience, for it boosted her sometimes deflated ego, but this man was not a typical voyeur. When he stared it was like being mentally dissected.

She unzipped the inner compartment and flicked through the papers there, but she had no joy. The wallet, containing money and credit cards, was missing. She could only think she must have left it at her daughter's. She leaned back, wondering what on earth she was going to do, so absorbed with her dilemma she failed to adjust the black skirt that had ridden up.

'I'm going to Birmingham-on-sea,' said the rotund man. 'Though I confess I have no bucket or spade. Or a red and white scarf, for that matter.'

This smattering of humour went some way to persuading Leonora that he was an approachable individual who might help solve her predicament. Not that she would relish asking a perfect stranger for a loan, yet she couldn't see any alternative. She could hardly walk from Birmingham to Solihull. Hesitantly she smiled at him and the man promptly inclined towards her, stretching out his arm. 'Godfrey's the name, Ma'am. Godfrey Hastings. You going far?'

'Birmingham,' said Leonora.

'Well, isn't that just dandy. My luck must be in.'

In his corner, the scrawny little man scowled. His hands twitched in his lap, busy fingers stretching and curling as if he was squeezing an invisible object. It brought a small, involuntary cry to Leonora's lips and she knew she had been right to be afraid. Collectively, the two men arched their heads, but only Godfrey Hastings spoke.

'Whatever is it, Ma'am,' he enquired.

Leonora opened her mouth to express her fear but, feeling inanely foolish, she hastily closed it. She felt rather testy, hating to feel intimidated, but the horror of being thought ridiculous prevented her from launching into an unjustified dialogue of complaint. Instead, as calmly as she could, she announced the loss of her wallet, and was relieved to see a token of concern remove the disagreeable glower from the man's contemptible face.

*******

Even the brief glimpse of pale thigh that had so excited Arthur was powerless to squash his loathing for Godfrey Hastings. He had completely wrecked his intentions. If he had an appropriate weapon he might stab him through the heart. In the few minutes since he arrived he had not only gained the woman's trust, he had destroyed the possibility of seduction. Unless he could outwit him his prospects would be dashed. An offer of cash to the lady would stand him in good stead but he only had a paltry sum in his breast pocket, a sum estimated by the authorities as sufficient for his needs until he could fend for himself. He had let loose a hollow laugh when they told him that and had been warned to behave. Well, he would cope; always had and always would. The only quandary he had was how to manipulate the woman.

He liked the notion of offering funds, even falsely, but recognized the infeasibility of such a suggestion, reluctantly acknowledging the numerous unwanted problems it would pose. Anyway, to do that he would have to find his voice. He always became incoherent when he was nervous. Words would jumble together in his mouth and emerge in the wrong order. It was the reason he had not engaged the Leonora in conversation. Leonora. As delightful a name as any he'd come across. Most of the casualties in his life had ordinary names: Margaret, Sylvia, and Mary. Those were the three he commemorated most in darker moments, each one thin as a rake, with eyes like pools. Like Leonora. Arthur covered his mouth with his hand to hide the excessive salivation.

*******

'You mustn't worry, my dear,' Godfrey said. 'I'll see you're all right for ready cash. Leave everything to me.' He was helping Leonora return her haphazardly strewn belongings to her bag.
Arthur beheld a gold-coloured lipstick case rolling between a plastic cup and some cellophane biscuit wrappings. He was fascinated by it, for Leonora's lips were unadorned and he could not imagine her defacing them with tawdry paint. On the other hand, removing it could prove to be a lot more stimulating.

'Oh, dear,' exclaimed Leonora. 'I've just remembered where I left it.'

At that point Godfrey Hastings espied the lurching lipstick and retrieved it, presenting it to Leonora as if it was a nugget of real gold. Arthur's resentment rose up like bile when he saw the gratitude on her face.

'Thank you so much, Godfrey,' she said in her low, rich voice, its contralto timbre giving the impression that she was or had been a vocalist.

Arthur was captivated by it. He mused on the possibility that her screams would be musical and therefore so much nicer than the terror-stricken sort he’d grown used to hearing. He momentarily closed his eyes the better to imagine it.

Leonora dropped the lipstick inside the handbag and snapped it shut, offering the explanation almost apologetically, that she had placed the wallet by the mantel clock at her daughter's house while she looked for the ticket for the train. She had been distracted by her grand-daughter insisting she be picked up and nursed. In the event, she had forgotten it.

'Well, there you are,' Godfrey said. 'All's well that ends well.'

Godfrey fixed his probing sights on Arthur but swiftly re-established his concentration on Leonora. Arthur was excused the confusion of replying. In those few seconds, as he shrank from the fleeting inspection, it struck him that the man was familiar. But recall eluded him and he guessed he was mistaken.

Godfrey took a visiting card from the inner pocket of his navy suit. 'I'll withdraw enough cash to tide you over,' he said, handing the card to Leonora. 'There's my address and telephone number. I'll take my reward in kind.' He chortled and gripped Leonora's hand. She delivered a sumptuous giggle as if she was a teenager on a first romantic date.

She did, after all, live entirely alone.
Not even a dog to defend her

For the rest of the journey Arthur was besieged by despondency as Leonora Deloitte chattered about the holiday she'd had with her daughter and son-in-law, five grandchildren and a dog. She didn’t care for the dog, she said, would never have one herself, although she admitted a pet was good for youngsters. Leonora talked exclusively to Godfrey as if Arthur was but a travelling ghost. Though she did occasionally glance in his direction, at his hands, she did not once raise her eyes to his. He spent much of the time trying to visualize how her lips would look when painted. Older lips looked grotesque when highly coloured. On her scarlet might be appealing.

He meddled with the square card he'd rescued from the floor, thrilled that he'd had the sense to pocket it instead of handing it over. Surreptitiously, he glanced at it, scanning an address in Hermitage Road. Residence of Deloitte, it grandly proclaimed, in gold.

'Five!' exclaimed Godfrey. 'You don't look old enough to have five grandchildren.'

Arthur silently agreed. Though the outward signs were that Leonora Deloitte was old enough, she possessed a genteel manner that defied age. It showed in those extraordinary dark eyes. Such a contrast to his mother.

The disclosure that she was going home to an empty house inspired Godfrey to ask if she was a widow. Leonora's eyes misted again when she conceded that she had been alone for twenty years. Exactly the length of time since Arthur lost his mother. He wanted to tell her that. But he couldn't, his mouth would never manage the words. In any case, her attention was rooted to the comically stout intruder who, for all his portliness, knew how to hook a woman with spontaneous chitchat.

Leonora peered through the window. She had not liked that last, lengthy tunnel. She had imagined the seedy little man making a grab for her, his heavily veined, dirty hands seizing her by the throat. But Godfrey's hand brushing hers had reassured her that she was safe.

Arthur stood up, lurching as the swaying train arrived at their destination. He picked up his hat and positioned it on his head. Having no luggage to collect, he just stood there waiting for the train to stop.

'Travelling light, are you?' boomed Godfrey.

Arthur nodded and looked away, finalising his strategy. He would leave the train first, linger on the platform until they passed. Then he would follow. Godfrey Hastings couldn’t protect her all day … and she did, after all, live entirely alone. Not even a dog to defend her.

'Here, Leonora, let me help you with your coat,' Godfrey said, readily taking up the crimson garment. Another whiff of spicy fragrance was released as he held it behind her like a matador's cape.

'Birmingham New Street,' came the guard's announcement. 'Please be careful bridging the gap between the platform and the train.'

*******

By the time Godfrey and Leonora left the train, Arthur was studying the contents of the vending machine. He selected a chocolate snack bar and inserted coins in the appropriate slot. He could have pretended to be procuring something, but he was by now extremely hungry. It had been hours since he had a proper meal and the arrowroot biscuits he'd eaten on the train had made no inroads into his hunger. Clutching the chocolate, he leaned on the machine and watched Leonora teetering on silly stilettos beside her escort. Hurriedly, which suited Arthur's schedule. The sooner her monetary crisis was sorted, the sooner she would be free to travel home. Gleefully, Arthur tore the wrapper from the snack bar. The blue paper fluttered down to the dusty platform. Like a child, he stuffed the whole bar in his mouth … the chocolate would run down his chin and his mother would be furious if she could see. At that moment he didn't care. He had other things on his mind.

Ahead, at the entrance to the escalator, he saw Leonora sailing through, her hand resting lightly on Godfrey's arm. A beautiful slut, thought Arthur, chomping the snack bar as he moved quickly in the same direction. There must have been a dozen people between him and them yet he could easily pick them out by her red coat and his fair hair. Arthur gripped the rail as the escalator glided steadily upwards. He almost lost them in the station's main precinct when a crowd of high-spirited football supporters surrounded him, claret and blue scarves waving like streamers as they jostled for a place at the exit. Arthur panicked, thinking his plan had been foiled, but then he saw the red coat half-way up a second ascending escalator. Holding his hat in place, he ran, jubilantly, towards the subsequent bank of moving stairs.

She looked exquisite, standing there.
Mother would have adored her

One eye on Arthur Mott, Godfrey withdrew the money from the machine in the wall. He had known who he was as soon as he saw him board the train. He had been partly responsible for the man's incarceration after the dreadful murder of the prostitute, Patsy Musewell, in Small Heath Park. The morning papers had reported the news of Arthur's release only that morning: Ex-Banker's Sentence at an End. The report had gone on to describe Arthur Mott as formerly a smart intellectual, held in great esteem by his profession until his mother died and the man slipped into decline. Typical of newspapers to publish the man's antecedents before he was barely out of Walton Jail. Godfrey had resolved that while he was on the train he would watch him like a hawk and that was how he came to locate him sharing a carriage with one female occupant. Godfrey had been mighty troubled when he glimpsed the rapt look on his face. That's why he barged in like he did.

Leonora's polite cough stemmed his thinking and he turned to see her noting the time by her watch. Bygone police practices had driven her predicament completely from his mind. Noticing her anxiousness, he wondered again about the absurdity of giving money to a complete stranger. He'd have been stripped of his stripes if he'd been so daft in the old days. But he had a good feeling about Leonora. He trusted her. And he liked her a lot.

Movements beyond caught his eye. Two constables on the prowl, one redoubtable individual, bearing the hallmark of a long-serving copper, the other innocent and fresh: a slight-framed, bit-of a-kid rookie, just right for tackling the inhuman Arthur Mott should the need arise. 'Excuse me a tick, Leonora,' he said. 'There's a man over there I must have a word with. Will you wait for me here? And don't fret about getting home. I'll order a taxi.' Maintaining covert surveillance on Arthur, who was hiding behind a picture stall, naively believing he couldn't be seen, Godfrey scurried towards the two coppers.

Arthur laughed, rejoicing over his success. His plan had worked. Leonora was alone, scanning her watch and peering anxiously after the Hastings man. He wanted to yell at her that she had seen the last of him. The last of anybody, come to that. Very soon. Why didn't she walk away, he asked himself, wondering if he ought to make his presence known. But he preferred the concept of tailing her. The element of surprise was more exciting. She looked exquisite, standing there. Mother would have adored her. She liked thin women, being grossly fat herself, and often urged him to marry one. He might have, if he hadn't grown accustomed to mother's corpulence shrouding him in sleep, her podgy hands clutching him, thick lips beseeching his dormant parts to wake. Yes, she liked thin women, but thin women didn't like her, and it annoyed him that his mother's desires were unfulfilled; accordingly, after her death, by a process of selective slaughter, he had satisfied her needs.

Hoping her loitering would not be misinterpreted by staff inside the building society, Leonora stood inside the doorway. The area was dreadfully crowded. People dashed in all directions: passengers with suitcases and shoppers lugging bulky plastic bags. She could smell the dampness on people's coats as they hustled by. Rain. And she wasn't wearing a mac. A long-haired mongrel dog of indeterminate parentage paused briefly to sniff a Malteser box, then snorted as if disgusted by its emptiness before scampering on its way.

She had totally lost sight of Godfrey. She longed to get away but she had yet to make arrangements to return the cash. A black girl stopped at the cash machine, tossing her silky hair out of the way as she confidently punched in her numbers. Oh for the assurance of youth, thought Leonora, who had no aptitude for technical contraptions. Taking Godfrey's visiting card from her bag, she examined it and tried to recall exactly where Northfield was. An appreciable distance, she imagined, from Solihull, and probably the opposite direction. Nevertheless, she had his number. She could ring and quickly rectify the situation, whatever he thought of her for disappearing.

Arthur’s heartbeats were like tom-toms as he watched her advance towards the exit ramp that would take her to New Street from where, presumably, she would head towards home. Her coat bounced around her slender, though shapely calves, her hips swaying like a model's as she sashayed past the health food shop. He struggled with the disorder in his pants, recognising the need for control if he was to beget another offering for Mother. The best he'd netted to date. Why, even he could fancy her.

His courage rapidly returning, Arthur glided down the ramp and veered into New Street, his eyes fixed on the swinging red coat. And the added, useful accessory: a red scarf with white dots, half on, half off her hair. Unconsciously, he flexed his hands, tugging taut the imaginary ends, enthusiastically blessing the rain.

The crowd had moderated and he had no difficulty keeping tabs on her. She twisted round once, surveying the street. He thought she might have seen him but she was merely monitoring the traffic prior to crossing the road. Not that it mattered if she did see him, he had as much right to be here as she did, but if she saw him now that terminating jolt of bewilderment and incredulity that possessed his victims at the end would be forfeited.

After navigating a course through the queues of buses and taxis waiting at the lights, Arthur slowed almost to a halt. Ahead of him Leonora was contemplating the display in Principles' window. She looked weary. He chuckled contentedly, feeling certain it would not be long before he could administer a permanent cure.

She tried to fight the fear,
reasoning that her imagination was playing tricks

Clutching the scarf that refused to stay in place, Leonora followed the window round so that she was concealed from the road, yet her view of it was unimpeded. She had been so sure she was being watched that she needed to check it out. Then she saw that awful man from the train, staring at the site she'd just vacated, not even bothering to mask his interest. She saw him shove his hand inside his grey jacket, lift the scruffy jersey and slowly release a narrow, black leather belt until it hung by its buckle from his waist like a snake waiting to strike.

Alarm bristled like cactus spines, punching a warning at her brain. Beware. She realized she'd been spotted, the odious man was eyeing her through the window, toying with the buckle of his belt. He began to shuffle towards her, his face contorting in a hideous leer. Leonora's panic surged, swelling up like an eruption of boiling lava. She felt she would faint if she didn't get away. She tried to fight the fear, reasoning that her imagination was playing tricks, asking herself why she should feel so threatened, telling herself that nothing could happen to her in a public place. She attempted to pull herself together, relating her consternation to the man's obvious dirty-mindedness, a factor she so abhorred. The reasoning did not work. As Arthur Mott drew near, she retreated until her backside touched the frame of the shop door. She jumped at the unexpected contact. Certain she was being attacked from behind, she screamed, cries rising from the pit of her stomach like a welling spring and emerging from her throat like a salvo of ear-piercing howls.

Some passers-by gawked inquiringly, others swerved sharply away. No-one came to her aid.

Leonora's feet were welded to the ground, her knuckles white as she gripped the door handle. He was only yards away, his colourless face distorted, hooked nose almost meeting twisted mouth, pupils enlarged with impatience. As if witnessing something in a dream, Leonora saw him release the belt from the waistband of his trousers. She became mesmerized by a snag in the material running from his fly to his left hand pocket. A drawn thread, looped in places. She heard children laughing in the distance, but couldn't tear her gaze away. The belt swung like a pendulum as he neared.

A youngster begged his mother to look at the strange man with a strap in his hand. He was sharply ordered to come away.

The incident distracted Leonora. Her common sense returned. Shaking her head, she paced back, intending to demand the use of the shop's phone. But she didn’t need it. There was a sudden tableau of flying bodies. Godfrey Hastings and a boyish policeman, brandishing a truncheon, had entered like mounties in a movie, overpowering Arthur and pinning him to the slippery ground.

Godfrey didn’t shout, he merely said, 'Got you, Arthur Mott,' as he hauled the puny man to his feet, thrusting him at the young officer, who quick as lightning slapped handcuffs on the man's wrist. Arthur squealed like stuck pig as he struggled within the policeman's grasp. Leonora trembled, her relief so heartfelt she was sapped of all her strength.

*******

Later, in a coffee shop, sheltered from the world and its psychopaths, Godfrey's hand covering hers, Leonora listened to Godfrey outlining Arthur Mott's criminal history, though he benevolently apportioned blame to Arthur's mother: an overweight, oversexed woman with cross-grained chromosomes. According to Godfrey, Arthur had no spunk. His pitiful attempts to stand up to his mother resulted in physical and mental bruising until, in the end, her terrible dominance and his frantic desire to please, drove him to kill, believing the mutilation of the women she had so hankered after in life would indulge her in death.

Leonora quaked, remembering the earnest scrutiny on the train, those rheumy eyes, the twitching hands and fingers that curled, guessing he had decided to kill her. It would have been so easy to overpower her and wrap his hands around her throat. The reality of the situation eluded her as she imagined how easily he could have overpowered her when she was hedged in that doorway. No-one would have taken any heed. Others had been killed in broad daylight. She shook as the horror recurred of that awful, insane moment when she was sure she was going to die. It took a while for her mind to clear and to realise that such a thing couldn’t happen in a public place.

'Now, dear lady,' Godfrey said, 'There's no need to be scared any more. It's been quite a day, but there have been good bits. Certainly there were good bits for me. Meeting you, Leonora, was like emerging from a dark cave onto a sunny beach and basking in the warmth.'

Leonora blushed as she regarded him, loving his style and liking what she saw, admiring the friendly blue eyes and the blonde lashes that fanned his cheeks when he blinked. Was it possible they had only met that day? The image of Arthur Mott slowly crumbled as the prospect of running her fingers through the tight spirals of hair filled her soul, the need to unwind one and watch it spring back into place so essential it was like a pleasant pain. She was comfortable in his company; she thought she could be snug and protected in his bountiful arms. 'I'll try to put the bad bits behind me, Godfrey,' she said.

Godfrey chucked her under the chin and murmured affectionately, 'That's my girl.'

*******

Composed and unemotional, Arthur Mott waited in the interview room. So what if his scheme had been thwarted, it was only a temporary setback. The police could interrogate him all they liked, but they couldn't detain him for long without charging him, and they couldn't do that because he hadn’t committed a crime. Watching a woman didn’t constitute an offence, not when it was a one-off incident. Certain of early liberation, Arthur sat upright on the wooden chair and stared at the officer by the door. It was only a matter of time before he could continue his quest. Go for the kill. He palmed the white card and removed it from his pocket, keeping it below the level of the table so the supervising copper wouldn’t see. He read the gold print again: Hermitage Road, Solihull. Residence of Deloitte, where, by Leonora's own admission, she lived entirely alone. Not even a dog to defend her.

20 November 2010

How smart is your right foot?

This is funny to try and you feel like a idiot doing it.. How smart is Your Right Foot? Just try this. It is from an orthopaedic surgeon..... .......

This will boggle your mind and you will keep trying over and over again to see if you can outsmart your foot, but, you can't. It's preprogrammed in your brain!

1. WITHOUT anyone watching you (they'll think you're GOOFY) and while sitting where you are at your desk in front of your computer, lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles.

2. Now, while doing this, draw the number "6" in the air with your right hand. Your foot will change direction.

I told you so!!! And there's nothing you can do about it!

16 November 2010

Annual Check-up


‘Have you ever had an operation, dearie?’ croaked the old woman, her wizened fingers meddling with a black chiffon scarf.

Annabel looked at her in astonishment, more for her boldness in speaking to a stranger than the question itself.

The woman inched along the green bench until Annabel felt her bony elbows touching hers. She could smell her age, that fusty smell of old bones and looming death. The colourless, egg-shaped face, framed by silver-white hair, was strangely familiar.

‘I’d like to hear about your operation,’ the woman said.

Had she to have one herself? wondered Annabel. Was she het up because of it? Idly, she surveyed her surroundings. Two bowler-hatted men strode towards the reception desk. A nurse with a clipboard escorted a man on crutches. On the benches, injured toddlers whimpered into the comforting breasts of anxious mothers, and not much braver adults sat in stony silence, waiting. The woman’s question was probably fairly normal, considering where they were.

It would be something to do while she waited and it might be amusing to humour her and list her medical experiences. Like the one where that brute of a doctor dug out an ingrowing toenail, or the harrowing extraction of her third wisdom tooth which had wrapped its roots around its neighbouring molar, necessitating a drilling process guaranteed to put her off dentists for life. Then there was that glorious out-of-body experience when she gave birth to Kim, whose foot was wedged in her ribcage and caused such excruciating pain that she fled her physical form entirely unaided for half an hour.

Annabel studied the old woman sitting beside her. A harridan of minute proportions, craggy chin, heavily lined brow, and intensely blue eyes which seemed capable of scanning a body like an X-ray machine. Perhaps she was an x-ray machine. Perhaps she had grown a heart overnight and been cast out of the department as useless. Given the sack, so to speak. Whatever she was, she was uncannily familiar.

A man in a white coat pushed an empty gurney through the rubber flaps which served as doors. A stethoscope hung from his top pocket. Annabel’s nose wrinkled as the smell of ether wafted in her direction. Quite like old times, she thought, evoking the event which had the most impact on her life.

Now that she had decided to relate her story, Annabel was tempted to ask the woman’s name, but in the end she felt perhaps it was better not to know.

Examining her fingernails, she speculated about where to begin. Her tale could be classed as an accidental incident rather than one of a medical nature, although a surgical procedure might well have been carried out had there been enough time. The action took place this very day, long ago. It was enough to say it occurred on her fortieth birthday. The year was irrelevant.

Andrew had taken her to a bell-ringing contest to celebrate. Celebrate! There was nothing to celebrate in that dismal hall with those disgracefully ragged drapes covering the windows and teams of bell-ringers incessantly brandishing brassy bells by their wooden handles, coloured streamers fluttering in their wake. Up and down, up and tediously down.

Annabel shuddered as she remembered the rancour which flooded through her and the accusation she was tempted to fling at him: If you thought this was my idea of fun, you were sadly mistaken. Fortunately, Andrew sensed her disquiet and suggested they leave. Thank God, she mutely cried, not really wanting to upset he who had not yet produced her birthday present and who must, for the time, being be kept sweet.

Kim was waiting outside, leaning against the wooden panels from which the cheerless hut was constructed. Annabel had been surprised to her daughter dressed in her best blue trouser-suit, wearing the lovely perfume Andrew bought at Christmas. Gardenia, she thought. These days Annabel had difficulty remembering precise details like which scent it was, though she did recall that Kim’s blonde hair was swept into a French pleat with not a single securing pin in sight. Kim was very clever at disguising things. Even her love was hard to find. Annabel sniffed and swallowed hard, knowing she would never find it now.

Kim was idly swinging a set of keys which glinted in the light of the hut’s swaying lantern. Annabel briefly wondered why her daughter was dangling them in front of her when they were not her keys.

‘Your car, Madam,’ Andrew proudly announced.

Annabel remembered those words as if they had been uttered only yesterday and she recollected the joy she felt when she saw the bright orange Beetle parked at the kerb. Beetles were her favourite cars in all the world, prompting thoughts of Howard, that wonderful man who took her virginity on the leather-covered back seat.

‘It’s yours,’ Andrew said, tossing back a wayward lock of mousy-brown hair. Taking the keys from Kim, he placed them in Annabel’s hand and curled her fingers over them. ‘Happy birthday, darling.’

She vowed the driving seat had been moulded especially for her, though the pedals were a distance away. She strained her slender ankles to reach them, smiling at Andrew who sat in the passenger seat. Kim had by that time gone home.

Pausing briefly to brush her dark fringe from her brow, Annabel imperceptibly shook her head at the crystal-clear image of that night. She moistened her dry lips so that she could continue.

She had driven Andrew to the restaurant where they were to have dinner and where they imbibed much champagne. It was, after all, a celebration of her forthieth birthday. Afterwards she drove home in the rain, the pair of them singing country and western songs as loudly as they could. Annabel got so carried away she let go the wheel and waved her arms above her head.

The car skidded on the greasy road and careered into a telegraph pole. Momentarily, she saw a woman’s face through the window, timeworn and ashen with fear, her mouth widening into a scream. Her black scarf fluttered as the screen abruptly shattered into a fog of tiny fractures. The image had tormented her ever since.

It took two hours to release her broken body from the tangled wreck. Andrew was lucky to have been thrown clear. Long after he and the elderly victim had been carted off to hospital, firemen worked steadily and untiringly to free her from what remained of the birthday gift, operating their cutting equipment proficiently and with no time to lose. Even in her distressing incapacitation she could not help being impressed by their strength. She felt comforted by the efficient way they worked and watched trance-like as they carefully removed the metal covering and exposed her body to the rain.

‘A disasterous end to your birthday, ‘ observed the old woman.

‘It certainly was,’ replied Annabel, looking round on the off-chance she might see Andrew or Kim.

‘I imagine you were glad when it was all over.’

Annabel laughed. ‘You could say that.’

The woman knowingly nodded. She adjusted the bag on her la[p and hooked a hand through the strap. Then her brow puckered and she inclined her head to one side. ‘But wasn’t there an operation?’ she asked.

Annabel’s reply was gruff. ‘It wasn’t necessary.’

‘As with me.’ Easing herself to the edge of the bench, the woman struggled to her feet. tottering slightly with the exertion.

Annabel shot up in order to steady her, cautioning her to be careful not to fall. An appreciative expression was etched on the pallid, elliptical face.

Flattening her copious grey skirts to her side, the woman gave Annabel a toothy grin. ‘I’m glad you told me ,’ she said, and went on to ask if Annabel was waiting for someone.

‘Not really,’ Annabel remarked. ‘I come once a year to make sure nothing was overlooked. An annual; check-up, you might say.’

Livid weals appeared on the woman’s face as she scratched the diaphanous skin with grimy nails, giving the appearance of having been slashed by something sharp, like a knife or a piece of glass. ‘Strange I haven’t seen you before,’ she said. She began to fidget, her arms restless at her side, fingers meddling with her skirt. A agonised frown etched her forehead, yet when she spoke again her voice was calm. ‘My mission has long been the search for truth.’ Laying a gnarled hand on Annabel’s shoulder, she added, ‘Now hat I have it I am grateful, though gratitude is perhaps an ill-suited sentiment in view of that you did.’

So it was her, thought Annabel, the unknown casualty. All these years being haunted by that anaemic countenance, yet she failed to recognise it when they met. What on earth could she say? Was an apology enough? Indeed would an apology be accepted? She was about to attempt some kind of justification for what happened that night when the old woman spoke again.

‘Don’t fret about the accident. You did me a great service, as it transpired, since the cancer would have been a sight more painful.’ Fiddling with the ragged scarf, she peered at the clock on the magnolia painted wall. Bustling clerks and nurses tidied the place ready for the next day’s batch of emergency patients. Gripping her capacious black bag, the old lady stepped away from the hospital bench.

Annabel queried if she was leaving.

‘As soon as my hearse arrives. It’s late, as usual.’

‘You can share mine,’ offered Annabel. ‘Mine’s invariably early.’

14 November 2010

A Summer Chill

Mystery solved. I wondered why everyone stopped reading A Summer Chill (separate blog) at Chapter 15, now I know. Sorry folks but there are a lot more chapters than that, it’s just that Chapter 16 and onwards are shown in a different month, e.g. June, and then May. I can't find a way to change the Blog Archive system. So if you want to know who the guilty party is – start at Chapter 16 ... or at the beginning if you're new to the story. Happy reading.

09 November 2010

An Irish Tale

Donna told us the tale during our extended lunch break, extended because the boss was away playing golf. Donna McNamara was the cleaning lady in the offices of the building firm where we worked. Congregating in the rest room, away from telephones and other interruptions, my fellow secretaries and a couple of clerks would settle down with our sandwiches and a drink, prepared to hear for the latest of her Irish tales.

Donna was a great one for reminiscing. Considering her age she had a perfect memory. After she’d finished her cleaning duties she would put away her dusters and hang around until she felt the coast was clear. Then she would saunter to the middle of the office and announce that she had another story to tell about her in-laws. She could tell an amusing story when she chose and the ones about Jeff’s family were certainly that. The mere mention of her in-laws had us scurrying to the rest room to sort out the chairs.

But to start at the beginning….

Donna and Jeff went to Ballycastle, in Northern Ireland, to attend the wedding of Jeff’s sister Maureen and Patrick O’Leary. It looked like being a solemn affair but after a sombre religious ceremony things really hotted up. For a start, Patrick and his brothers drank whiskey as if their lives depended on it. Illicit stuff, so we were told. Patrick claimed it was brewed in Bushmills but if that was the case Donna couldn’t imagine his very strict and upright father allowing it through his front door. Of course that was a very long time ago.

Maureen looked splendid in white. The billowing skirt successfully hid the reason for a rushed wedding and a sizeable bouquet provided the finishing touch. It was a huge collection of seasonal pink and white flowers with lots of draping ivy that threatened to hide the dress altogether. Maureen needn’t have worried that her pregnancy showed. She looked like a princess as she walked up the aisle of the ancient church on the arm of her proud father, Paddy McNamara, himself wearing a huge smile. Sitting in the family pew Donna wondered if he actually knew he was about to become a granddaddy.

Patrick the bridegroom wore a stiff collar and a stiff back. Earlier his father said he looked as if he’d been strapped to a railway girder but Mrs O’Leary argued that he was simply a proud man. Mr O’Leary snorted and begged to differ. He claimed that his son was over-acting; adding insult to injury with the remark that no man in his right mind looked happy on his wedding day. Patrick seemed to take it all in good part and certainly there was no malice written on his face as he waited for Maureen to reach the altar.

It was an attractive couple of newly-weds that posed for photographs in the church grounds. With family cheering them on they kissed for the regulation picture, only breaking apart when the photographer gave the say-so. Donna said her tears welled up as she recalled her own wonderful wedding to the bride’s brother two years before.

The marquee which had been installed in a neighbouring farmer’s field was filled to capacity.
The tables were placed in an E shape so that the guests could easily see the happy couple. They could also see the bridesmaids and were able to witness the amount of drink that passed the best man lips. Alex was his name, better known as Bluey on account of his fingers. Donna explained that farmers in those days had to crop spray by hand and Alex took it literally, managing to get blue spray on his fingers as well as the crops.

The amount Alex had to drink was the reason he came close to giving the game away. He was at the end of a slurred but humorous speech about the bridegroom’s possible inadequacies as a husband when he suddenly called for a toast, lifting his own glass and begging them to give three cheers to the happy threesome.’ Fortunately by this time, relieved that the speech was over, the well-oiled guests burst into tumultuous applause and cheering so the blunder was lost.

After the reception family and friends headed to the McNamara cottage situated alongside the narrow-gauge railway. The bride’s parents squeezed in Jeff’s little car, Dad in front and Mam and Donna squashed in the back with the leather holdall full of wedding gifts. Donna wasn’t on really friendly terms with her mother-in-law and she had to force herself not to complain about the wafts of alcohol that drifted from the front passenger seat. Mother wasn’t too bad although she’d had more than enough of the hard stuff. Donna guessed she’d started earlier than the wedding itself.

Now, according to Donna, Mam-in-law wasn’t a drinker but she did need her nerves soothing at the thought of her daughter marrying an O’Leary. The accident by the railway tracks hadn’t helped. Dad-in-law had gone out very early in the morning to get a load of peat for the fire but the overloaded wheelbarrow hit a stone, overturned, and sent clods of peat all over the rails. He’d had to trek back to the cottage to get help clearing it away before the next train came along. The trains didn’t run very frequently which was as well because it took him and two neighbours to sort it out. And then he had to get back home, change into his wedding outfit and hope to God his daughter wouldn’t throw a tantrum.

That wasn’t the only catastrophe. Finishing his shave by the kitchen sink Paddy dropped shaving cream all down the white shirt. Another task for his poor wife who was slowly losing her patience.

But the worst was yet to come. Paddy was in such a rush to get changed that he shoved his leg in his wedding trousers so hard it tore a hole where a hole shouldn’t be. Of course, Mam-in-law had to set to and get it mended, hoping against hope that the hire shop wouldn’t notice when the suit was returned.

Nothing untoward happened at the party except, as already stated, Patrick and his brothers got very merry with the drink while poor Maureen tried her best not to nag. She commented to Donna she thought it was a little early in the marriage to start asserting herself. That wasn’t Donna’s opinion … she told us girls that she’d have had Patrick’s head on a block before he could say I’ll have another. Actually we always wondered why old Jeff was such a quiet soul.

It wasn’t until the do wound down and the happy couple had left for their unknown destination that Mam-in-law decided to fill the Kelly lamps in the kitchen. She didn’t want late evening to descend and find they were unprepared. There were three lamps altogether. They hung from the ceiling, one near the window wall and two either side of the big black range. That’s where Donna sat, on a well-worn horsehair couch long enough to accommodate three people.

Mam-in-law sang as she worked. Humming a few bars of Danny Boy, she leapt onto the couch, beside Donna, then leapt down to fill the lamp over by the sink. Jeff cautioned her to be careful but didn’t pursue it when she gave him a scornful look. Job complete, she returned to secure it on an enormous hook in one of the black beams. When all three were done, she settled on her chair by the range and went back to her whiskey.

The four of them had a bit of a sing-song and Dad-in-law told stories about Maureen’s growing up days, occasionally shedding a few sentimental tears. Donna helped Mam-in-law get supper ready, setting the table, silently wishing she could go to bed instead. She was tired after the hectic day and anyway the wedding had put her in the mood for a bit of canoodling with Jeff. She knew by the look in his eyes that he felt the same. But it didn’t do to be rude to his family so she ate beetroot sandwiches and tried to concentrate on more reminiscences about Maureen and Jeff.

Jeff thought differently. After another hour of football talk he nudged her and suggested they retire for the night. She hastily agreed and was just about to rise from the couch when she felt an awful pain in the head. She screeched, Jeff shouted, his Mam cried ‘Sure and Begorrah, I’ve done it now,’ while Dad rushed over to grab the Kelly lamp that had fallen from its hook.

A great fuss was made of Donna with Mam-in-law repeatedly saying how sorry she was, trying to make amends for what she called her lackadaisical approach to filling lamps. Even after they had the gas installed she never ceased trying to put things right. In a strange way the accident cemented the relationship between Mam and daughter-in-law. You could say it had broken the ice … the hard way and, as one of the clerks said, it was mother-in-law trouble of the first order.

31 October 2010

November

INSIGHT TO NOVEMBER

The Prose

November is perhaps the most moving month of the year, steeped in tradition and teeming with expectancy. Why yearn for sunnier climes or a terracotta tan when November's seasonal pulchritude comes free of charge. Broad avenues, awash with colour and piled high with copper jewels: red-gold gems, cascading from majestic trees, making way for fresh creations of embryonic buds.

Natural beauty contrasts sharply with more morbid attractions. Searing bonfires concoct a vivid tableau. Orange flames triumphantly lick the feet of man-made guys, egged on by a jubilant audience gobbling sausages and baked potatoes. Historical, traditional, and macabre, as are the fireworks: pretty explosives noisily winging, gloriously beguiling.

Scarlet poppies adorning our attire signify remembrance for the soldiers who fought for liberation … the war dead, who gave us optimism. Yields of mistletoe and holly and sometimes early snow prompt thoughts of Christmas celebrations, of nativity, and gatherings of families and friends.

Thus, November is a month of diverse elements: breathtaking, poignant, and sad. But it is never dull and those who claim that it is should examine its true potential, and wrest a soupçon of comfort from the depths of the sombre monotony that exists solely within their hearts.

This is November. Enjoy.

November was the month, many years ago, when I was seriously burnt, and had the misfortune to be in hospital when victims of bonfire and firework ‘accidents’ were admitted. I felt obliged to write the following poem, at the same time incorporating other monstrous November scenes.

The Poem
Broad avenues awash with colour,
Red gold gems tumbling to the ground;
Evolution preparing fresh creation,
Embryonic buds already sound.

Beyond the mists stem glowing vistas.
Nature sighs in resignation,
No challenger for graphic scenes
Of morbid fascination.

Poppies, red and unembellished,
Symbols of commemoration
To men in bloody trenches; soldiers
Sacrificing lives to give us liberation.

Carousals of darting, searing fire,
Triumphant flames of orange hue,
Incited by beholders’ hearty cheers
To kiss the feet of guys, and maybe you.

Motley fireworks, spectacular and loud,
Spiralling in the darkening night,
Gripping young ones, riveting them to pain.
Inevitably their shocking plight.

Advance through crumbly autumn leaves
Amidst displays of deciduous attraction,
But heed the groans as flames descend
And human euphoria condones the action.

27 October 2010

Fifty Years of Matrimony

Flour-covered hands suspended their activities in the mixing bowl as she paused to gaze dreamily out of the kitchen window. Her concentration was lax, normal attentiveness to the job in hand completely awry. All morning her mind had centered on the reason for the forthcoming celebration rather than the preparation.

A grey squirrel darted up the path to the front lawn, then scampered up the chestnut tree causing two blackbirds to squawk their alarm. Watching this action, Joyce felt her own unease, a stranger suddenly in her own kitchen, as if she had been spirited there from a bygone age. The lounge clock struck eleven; each chime was like a signal that the finishing post was in sight. Was she really on the final strait of the fifty year race?

Abandoning her baking, she wiped her hands on a blue and white towel and dropped onto a chair, uttering a huge, disbelieving sigh. Somewhat pensively she allowed herself to review the years, wondering at the swiftness of their passing, pondering on the perceptions she began with, the skirmishes, the adventures, and the myriad of achievements. It was a Saturday in September when she gamboled happily into marriage. Who would believe that fifty years could travel so rapidly into distant time?

Picking up a forgotten mug of coffee, cold now but welcome nevertheless, Joyce sipped the brown liquid. Grimacing at its bitterness she rested the mug on her knee, tracing the design of vines round the rim as she allowed herself to reminisce. Oh, the yarns she could spin, anecdotes both humorous and sad. How much she had learned. What advice she could give about life. So valuable; so precious. Unwittingly, she hummed the Wedding March, familiar still notwithstanding that matrimony was currently, incredibly, less popular with the modern generation. Don't know what they're missing, she murmured, rising to put the mug to soak.

In a more accepting frame of mind, less concerned now by the speed of things, she leaned against the sink and looked out at the garden: geraniums like a crimson sea, marigolds as bright as the sun, dahlias like orange orbs, a colour scheme as diverse as matrimonial occupation, and as satisfying.

The squirrel had been joined by another, somersaulting, racing, chasing, no time for contemplation. Like the fifty years just gone. Shadowy images besieged her: her family, her children and their children, her husband guiding her from the altar where they made their vows.

Wilt thou take this man to be your lawful wedded husband?

Thrills whisked her insides as she remembered that glorious day.

I will, she had promised. I will.

18 October 2010

Surprising Revelation

The day was bright and sunny when Grandma Charlotte told me about her infidelity. She was dressed in a lavender tweed skirt and very feminine pink mohair jumper. She dressed well, kept her small frame neat and tidy, never letting age dictate her attire. As she spoke she continuously stroked the deep grey wave that curved from front to back of her small head.

We were seated on this same iron bench overlooking the lake, a place we frequented as often as we could. Swans glided past, babies in tow and followed by a single female mallard. Gran said she thought it must be ladies day and giggled at her observation. Gran giggled a lot, especially when she was nervous. At first I thought she was imagining things but her tale was too realistic to be dreamed up.

It happened when Grandfather Tom was at war. It was a long war and she’d been lonely without him. Not that she admitted it to anyone. I suppose she missed her Mom and Dad and all of her seven siblings. I know what it’s like to miss parents; mine were killed when I was just a kid. I’d lived with Gran and Grandfather ever since. They looked after me, putting up with the tantrums and guiding me through the difficult teens. I loved them both dearly.

Gran met the man in an electrical repair shop. She’d gone to collect a radio that was having new valves put in. She had to explain about valves and I still don’t properly understand how they worked. Gran had been leaning across the counter trying to see if the radio was amongst the ‘readies’ on the back shelf, when suddenly his face appeared before her. She couldn’t see the rest of him. Apparently he was picking up dropped coins. Gran went quite girlish when she described him as a blonde bit of all right. Her eyes literally twinkled as she smiled, not a wide grin, just the hint of a smile. I always think of Gran now when I see the picture of Mona Lisa.

His name was Des, short for Desmond. Gran showed me a photograph and I must say her description was right. He had loose blonde curls and huge laughing eyes, wide open, as if he had been surprised by something the photographer said. His chin was deeply dimpled and I silently wondered if he lived up to the saying that people with deep dimples make good lovers.

Des and my Gran became firm friends. He would see her weekends and she would call in the shop in the week when she finished work at the munitions factory. Des couldn’t go to war on account of his deformed leg. You had to be fully formed to fight for your country.

Gran went starry eyed again when she told me about their first kiss. They were out walking, holding hands, telling each other stories about their past, when Des suddenly asked Gran if he could kiss her. I laughed when she said that, I never had a man ask for a kiss, the men I knew jumped in without asking. Anyway, Gran said yes and they never looked back. In fact, they looked forward most of the time, if you know what I mean.

‘Sylvie,’ she said, ‘I’d have done anything for that man. He treated me like I was something precious. Never handled me rough, always considerate. We were like man and wife except we didn’t live together. Her voice was silky, as if the mention of love had smoothed the words before she uttered them. I thought I knew my grandmother so well. Why had I not realised there was something … someone else in her life?

I dared to ask if they slept together.

‘Oh yes, we slept together but we didn’t stay together. I loved that man with all my heart. I loved his kindness, and his attitude to life, but neither of us wanted a scandal that would hurt our folk.’

‘But … what about Granddad Tom?’

Gran was silent for a while, searching for the right thing to say. Unseeing eyes followed a feeding robin, bravely pecking at a crust before an approaching magpie could seize it.

Scrunching her handkerchief in the palm of her hand, she told me, ‘I loved your Granddad in a different way. He was a good man, he didn’t deserve me, and I didn’t deserve him. I was impetuous when I married him; I didn’t really know what love was. I admired Tom and respected him, but my heart was with Des.

‘Did Granddad know about Des.’

Gran looked down, silently studying her hands. Along the path a youngster toppled, and cried. His mother shushed, promising to make it better. Gran gazed at them, while I wondered what she was thinking.

Stirred from her reverie, she put her arm through mine as if seeking solace in my presence. She spoke in a whisper, answered my question. ‘It would have killed him. No, he never knew. Des and I parted company when Tom came home from the war.’

Tears formed in her rheumy eyes. Sadness washed over her as she leaned into me. ‘I had to do my duty to Tom, raise his children, and be a respectable married woman, one he could be proud of. He’d fought a war thinking I was waiting for him, I couldn’t let him down.

Speaking softly, I posed the question, ‘What happened to Des?’

‘He stayed where he was, looked after his widowed mother. It was too painful to spend time in each other’s company. We’d see each other out and about, we had to be content with that.’

‘And when Granddad Tom died?’

Gran straightened her skirt, adjusted her cardigan sleeves, and gazed up at the sky. I sensed her mood lighten as I waited for her to speak. ‘He asked me for a kiss,’ she said. A hesitant smile played on her lips. ‘He came to check that I was coping on my own and …’ Gran turned to look at me, her happiness beginning to shine through. ‘It was as though we’d never been apart. He was there for me; even apart, he was always there for me.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘After his mother died he stayed on in the house. He’s old now; it’s too late to change. At least he thinks so.’

Gran delved into her bag, withdrew a crumpled packet of toffees and offered me the bag. Putting her free hand on my knee she told me she had plans. As I unwrapped the sweet I wondered what plans an elderly lady could have.

‘I want him to move in with me.’

You can imagine my shock.

‘Don’t dismiss the idea out of hand,’ urged Gran. ‘We both did our duty. We hurt no-one. Now it’s time we had some real happiness. Together.’

I suppose she had a point. If they loved each other as much as she claimed, it must have been a wrench to give him up when Granddad Tom came home. But Granddad was no longer with us, where was the harm in making it easy for two people who needed each other.

‘The neighbours will talk,’ I warned.

That really stirred Gran. ‘Let them. I don’t care. I’ve waited too long to worry about neighbours.’

Des and Gran spent the rest of their days together and it was difficult to tell which one was the happiest. As the neighbours will tell you, they bubbled with joyfulness and love. As for me, well, there were moments when I hankered for Granddad’s company but I had a feeling that he knew and was content with the way things were. There were only happy vibes in their house. As I watched Gran and Des together I thanked God for giving them the opportunity of ultimate contentment.

Now I have a funeral to prepare, making sure Gran’s plans are carried out as she wanted. Des isn’t capable of dealing with it. Since Gran died he’s been like a lost soul. I told him the other day that she wanted a happy funeral, no dirges, and no tears. He perked up when I mentioned hymns, told me he’d like to hear everyone sing’ You are the sunshine of my life’. I couldn’t believe what he was asking. Gran herself had put that one at the top of her list.

She often said she’d make the hundred and get the telegram from the Queen but she didn’t get there. Nevertheless we’re doing a cake with candles in celebration of a longstanding love affair. Their wish!

You are the sunshine of my life
That’s why I’ll always be around
You are the apple of my eye
Forever you’ll stay in my heart

I feel like this is the beginning
Though I’ve loved you for a million years
And if I thought our love was ending
I’d find myself drowning in my own tears

You are the sunshine of my life
That’s why I’ll always stay around
You are the apple of my eye
Forever you’ll stay in my heart

You must have known that I was lonely
Because you came to my rescue
And I know that this must be heaven
How could so much love be inside of you?

You are the sunshine of my life, yeah
That’s why I’ll always stay around
You are the apple of my eye
Forever you’ll stay in my heart.