Friends

29 January 2011

FISH DON'T BITE ON SUNDAYS


The two made their way to the water's edge, Dan's trainer-clad feet flying to keep up, locks the colour of nutmeg flapping as he ran. Jed toted the heavy tackle box, to Dan's chagrin. He liked to play the big man when they went fishing, a role he adopted when his Dad was skippering his trawler.

The grass sparkled beneath their feet as they dumped the gear by the osier tree which slanted towards the water as if striving to drink. Jed hung his waxed jacket on a wooden tethering post and proceeded to unpack their gear while his son explored the adjacent woods.

Dan liked the forest best when he could kick the brown leaves to make them rustle and scare the redwing, but this morning the ground was soft as a cushion after the rain. A squirrel shot into view and paused when he saw Dan ambling along. Dan stooped to find a cone with which to lure it but then he heard Jed's summons and chose instead to participate in a more rewarding pastime. Spinning on his heel he ran back to the lake, happily anticipating a few hours’ fishing and quiet contemplation with his Dad.

'So why do you think your mother wanted us out of the way?' asked Jed as he adjusted the float with his powerful hands.

Dan had no idea, unless it had something to do with that man who called at the house when he was tucked up in bed. Uneasily, he tugged at his knitted scarf. He once saw the man through the window hurrying to their gate, carrying a huge piece of cardboard which knocked off his hat when he tried lifting the latch one-handed. He called him The Cowboy on account of the hat. He'd always wanted a cowboy hat, but had lately gone off the idea. Dan eyed his father's profile and tried to think what he'd look like in cowboy gear. He'd only ever seen him with a navy-blue woolly hat covering his coarse grey hair, but he'd like to bet he'd look real good in a Stetson, with silver pistols ready to draw and a gleaming sheriff's star on a black shirt.

Dan hadn't told him about the mystery man in case it made him weep. He didn't want that. He hadn't liked to see him cry when Mum's tummy lump disappeared and the baby they promised went to live somewhere else. He had undertaken then to make sure nothing ever upset his Dad again, that's why he couldn't tell him about the man Mum invited in.

His mother definitely wasn't right. No longer did she jest and joke and play pretend when Dad was away. It was very worrying. Sometimes it stopped him sleeping. He'd heard his father once say, 'Lighten-up, Francine. Don't be so heavy with the boy.' Unsure what lighten-up meant, Dan sneaked a look at his mother, who seemed the same as always except her mouth was stretched in a hesitant smile. She blamed her tetchy mood on lack of sleep. Dan couldn't take that in, not when she spent her evenings napping - at any rate the ones when the man didn't come.

Dan cast his line the way his Dad told him, his blue eyes flashing as he thought how wild Matt and Digger would be when he told them he'd actually used a rod. They still fished with nets and jars, but as Dad said he was sensible enough to handle proper equipment.

Jed nodded his approval. 'Well done, son. If that bait don't get 'em biting, nothing will.' He secured the lid on the baccy tin which held the maggots and installed it in the tackle box.

'Will you be home next weekend, Dad?'

'Sure will, lad, but don't tell your mother. Let it be a surprise, eh? Thought mebbe as it's my birthday we could go for a bite at The Lion. The break would do us good, your mother in particular.

'She's been bad-tempered lately, Dad. She won't play with me no more.' Dan felt his grievances rising and before he could stop himself wild accusations tore from his lips, charging Francine with not appreciating his needs, for sending him to bed early with no supper and no television, while she ....' Dan clamped his teeth on his bottom lip to prevent him saying more, from revealing Francine's involvement with the cowboy man.

Jed pressed his hand on Dan's shoulder. 'Don't fret, boy. It'll come right in a matter of months. Mebbe if you showed willing with your chores instead of idling the punishments would lessen.'

Dan didn't think that would make any difference, not with his mother preoccupied with another man, but he was willing to give it a try. It was only fair on his Dad.

The ensuing week was better. Dan helped Francine with jobs he'd never done before and was pleased as punch when she praised his window-cleaning, saying she'd never seen the glass so sparkling clean. However, just after Jed rang on Wednesday a strange thing happened. Dan was consuming a hot dog fresh from the travelling van and Francine was filling packing cases (which she'd lugged from the cellar all by herself) with her precious figurines. 'Don't want these broken when your Dad comes home,' she explained when Dan queried her action.

Dan nibbled the end of the bread roll. He was confused. Jed might be a tough guy, but he was mighty gentle around the house. If anyone broke ornaments in this house it was him or Mum.

Francine giggled as she planted a pink crinolined lady in the crate, the first chuckle Dan had heard in weeks. 'Don't crease your brow, Danny,' she said, her hazel eyes twinkling. 'I'm planning a surprise for your Dad's birthday.'

So was Dad, Dan thought, his mind in a turmoil over what to do, whether to reveal Jed's plan or keep quiet. He wanted to ask Matt or Digger, but Matt was away at his Grandad's farm and Digger was none too bright at the best of times. He licked a dribble of mustard off the remaining piece of sausage before popping it in his mouth. He could smell his mother's chips warming in the stove. Another time he might beg a few to round off his tea, only the mood for eating had gone. He wished his Dad was there to tell him what to do. Then he remembered Jed's wish that he say nothing and rationalized that since his request came before all this nonsense with packing cases he, Dan, should keep his promise.

However, before the night was out, as Dan climbed into his winceyette pyjamas, Francine unfolded the plan which changed everything and relieved Dan of the need for silence.

'Look at the parlour,' she said, eyeing a strip of paper suspended from the ceiling. 'Not had a lick of paint in years with your father on his boat so much and my back preventing me from assaulting the walls. But I've got plans for righting that, with the help of Cedric's brother.'

Cedric was the long-haired artist who lived opposite. Although Dan didn't know his brother he had an uneasy feeling about him, feeling certain - without Francine owning up - that he was the secret caller.

Francine went on with her account. 'It was a good idea seeking advice from Cedric's brother Duncan, him being an interior designer. He's been ever so obliging, coming twice a week with sketches for my regard.'

The breath left Dan's lips like a puff from the bellows. So that was who the stranger was, the man in the showy gear who timed his visits when he, Dan, was in bed.

Francine put the last ornament in the crate. 'I raised the money for his fee selling cross-stitch pictures to a buyer Duncan found, who wanted more when they were ready.' She crossed the room, stopping by the mirror to check her unruly chestnut hair, coiling it with slender fingers and lifting it free of her blue linen collar. She seemed suddenly carefree and Dan thought how pretty she was with her cheeks flushed and chubbier than he'd ever seen before.

And then the bell sounded in the hall, its jangle reverberating through the house, and Dan guessed, by the way his mother glanced first at him and then towards the door, who the visitor was.
The man breezed into the room flourishing his wide-brimmed hat, bowing slightly when he saw Dan. 'Pleased to meet you, young sir. Duncan Thresher's the name, Maestro of Colour, at your service.' His manner did not impress Dan, but the expansive smile embraced him and made him feel happy inside.

Francine gave him a can of Jed's beer which he drank without pause before extracting pages of paper from the pocket of a beige leather coat, fringed like the blanket on Dan's bed. Placing the can on the sideboard, now free of ornaments and picture frames, the man gazed into Francine's eyes. 'You sparkle with mischief, Madam,' he said, proffering the pages with a bow. 'Are you sure your friends know what to do?'

Francine smiled. 'They're eager as pups to oblige, Duncan. Amazin' what a pledge of free booze can do.'

'And is Daniel aware of the plan?'

Dan looked quizzically from one to the other, hoping that one of them would enlighten him. Francine pulled him close with a possessive arm, so close that his nose touched her tummy. Smelling her warmth and the gardenia talc she used every day made him feel safer than he had for ages. He was reluctant to move but, as her scheme unfolded, excitement stirred within, making his arms want to swing and his feet to skip in anticipation of being included in a real adult adventure.

Duncan Thresher playfully cuffed his ear. 'So will you play your part, young man? Keep that cheeky mouth sealed until it is a relevant time to speak?'

Dan wasn't sure what relevant signified, but he nodded anyway. Francine smiled her approval and gave him an intimate wink, and Dan mentally hugged himself with glee.

What furniture could not be transported had been stacked beneath dustsheets. Curtains were down and the pictures removed from the walls. On one small walnut table, pushed into a far corner, a shabby record player was set to play music, sixties tunes which Francine told the waiting guests was Jed's favourite. Uncle Kenny (not Dan's real uncle, but he'd always called him that) said if Francine believed that she'd believe anything, which Dan thought was unkind when she'd bought it specially for the party. Aunt Elsie taught him a lesson, though, by kicking his leg and telling him to mind his mouth. Uncle Kenny knew when he was beaten, 'cause he squatted on the lino and sulked. Nobody else spoke. They were all busy listening for footsteps in the road.

'It echoes, Mum,' said Dan, raising and lowering his voice to get the effect. 'Dad'll hate it.'

Francine shushed him and as she switched off the lights she ordered him to keep watch at the window. Thus, the cottage was in darkness when Jed arrived.

From his look-out position Dan saw his father hesitate beneath the lamp and clench his fists with irritation. Dan chuckled and shuffled his knees further on the chair until the carved wood dug in. He observed Jed advancing along the path to the front door, roughly brushing winter jasmine out of his way. Dan indicated by waving his arm that his father was on his way in.

Jed strode through the door, dejectedly dropping his haversack on the linoleum-covered floor and feeling for the light switch, missing Dan's head by an inch. A chorus of Happy Birthday greeted him, seconds before the light came on. Jed blinked, adjusting to the illumination, taking in the unexpected scene. Devoid of possessions, the room was filled with friends and neighbours, each holding a drink in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.

Dan was beside himself with triumph and delight. 'It's a decorating party,' he cried, rushing to drag Jed's rocker from the kitchen. 'Come on, Dad, sit down and have a drink.'

Ignoring Dan's outburst, Francine handed her husband a glass of apple cider. 'Happy fortieth, my darling,' she said.

'Some birthday with all this upheaval.'

'Don't you believe it,' shouted Kenny from the back. 'Wish Elsie could have come up with the idea on my big day.'

'You got extra jam on your tarts,' Elsie cried. 'What more did you want?'

Loud guffaws travelled through the gathering, followed by Dan's piping declaration that more jam on Aunt Elsie's tarts sounded like the most smashingest present.

Jed looked enquiringly at Francine. 'Am I expected to spend my birthday trimming the place up?'

'You're expected to do no such thing. You and Dan and I are going to The Lion for the night, while our remarkable friends get stuck in here. There's enough alcohol to see them through and plenty of food.' Francine ran a pink-tipped finger through his hair, 'It'll be the best birthday you've ever had,' she whispered in that voice she used whenever she playfully hid Dan's weekend sweets.

On Sunday afternoon a radiant Francine suggested that her two men go fishing while she began the clearing up. 'I want time alone,' she said, 'to dance through the cheery kitchen and saunter through the enchanting parlour.'

Dan reminded himself not to mention that bit to Matt and Digger in case they thought his mother had gone nuts. Thrilled with the idea of going out, he adjusted his sweatshirt over his jeans and ducked to lace his trainers.

But Jed turned the proposal down.

Dan peered at him, unable to believe he'd heard right. 'Aw, Dad. It might be ages before we get another chance.'

Jed grinned. 'Fish don't bite on Sundays, lad. Now, why don't you pop next door and have yourself a plate of Elsie's strawberry tarts, while your mother and me catch up on some unfinished business. See, son, now that I'm forty I've got to keep abreast of family matters. And with a new baby due, I've got to make certain your Ma don't lift a finger unnecessarily.'

The concept of eating tarts until he was sick sent Dan scuttling through the door chanting, 'Fish don't bite on Sundays,' at the top of his shrill voice, but as he paused to pull the door shut, he saw Jed caress Francine's belly with his big hand and heard him say, 'Fish mayn't bite, but I sure do.'

Dan ran off, hoping his Dad wouldn't bite too hard and ruin things, not now Mum's headaches had gone and her temper had improved and a new baby was making her tummy swell. But he didn't dwell on it, 'cause the prospect of extra jam on Aunt Elsie's tarts was too powerful a thought to push out of his mind, though as he vaulted the gate to next door he thought how smashing it would be to teach a brother to fish and handle bait and use a proper rod.

23 January 2011

The Parrot

Once upon a time a benevolent uncle gave me a gift. A parrot. A green parrot, thought to be a double yellow headed Amazon. The reason for this generous gift came about because of the parrot's hatred for Uncle Bill. Well, wouldn't you go off someone who let a broom fall on you? Parrots don't like being knocked about.

So I acquired this parrot and loved it at first sight. He was called Sally but please don't ask why a bloke parrot was given a female name. He came complete with huge cage attached to a trolley so he could be wheeled about. It had a cover that fitted most of the cage and lots of bells and things to play with.

This he and she business confuses even me so please forgive me if in the process of telling this tale I slip into the wrong gender.

Sally adapted quickly and was an amazing mimic. She had my voice off to a fine art in no time at all. The cat, named Lee, was demented when she (yes, she WAS a she) answered my call only to find she'd been summoned by the parrot. 'Leee-eeee,' called Sally, exactly as I did. And Oh my, did I get fed-up when she did her whistling kettle impersonation whenever she heard me fill the kettle.

Telephones were her favourite things to imitate. except when the real thing rang ... that was the summons for her to start chattering. While I tried to hear what the caller said Sally would rush up and down her perch chattering - in my voice - while I grew steadily demented. Eventually I would yell 'HANG ON WHILE I KILL THE PARROT'. Putting down phone, rushing to cage, slinging on cover, twirling trolley so that she faced the wall.

Ha, did I forget she could move about?

Yes, every time.

On my way back to the phone she would bend low, put beak through cage, lift up cover and say 'What's the matter' in that wheedling sort of voice she picked up from God only knows where.

Of course, she was allowed out of the cage. In fact, mostly out than in. She liked to be fed walnuts and grapes while she was outside, although I soon learned to ban walnuts when I found numerous bits of nut trodden into the carpet. Grapes were okay. She would sit on my shoulder to eat those ... on a pad, in case of juice marks.

Her favourite game was Throw the Matchbox. She would run up and down the top of the fire surround waiting for me to place an empty box on the tiles. Hysterically waiting! Squawking at the top of her/my voice, or so it seemed! Did I squawk, I used to wonder. Anyway, she would squeal as she dived for the box and hoot with joy as she threw it on the floor so I could have the dubious pleasure of picking it up. It was all very entertaining.

However! Whenever young son was home from school Sally went into wary mode. Jon was in wary mode as well. I thought he was transmitting his fear to the bird ... having completely forgotten the sustained injury that prompted uncle to give her away. Jon persevered, using the matchbox game to pacify the parrot. But not for long.

One evening, while I was washing crocks in the kitchen, I heard a scream. Oh My God. Rushed into lounge to find Jon with blood running down his face. Oh My God, not his eyes

Parrot was on the shelf. I swiped at her, knocked her to the floor. Grabbed Jon, dragged him out and shut parrot in the room on its own. Off to Emergencies which luckily was just up the road. Later learned that the bird had been on top of the door and had swooped on Jon as he was about to go through. You could see the claw marks on his cheeks.

The hospital nurses said they'd never had anyone in with a parrot bite before which made Jon feel a bit of a hero. He was okay, the beak had missed his eyes, thank the Lord.

Of course the parrot had to go. And it went rather quickly to a neighbour who had no man in the house. Well, you can't be too careful with parrots with long memories.

It was a long time before I had a yen for another bird. This time I bought a cockatiel, a white one called Chalky. She (haha) couldn't talk so I took the challenge and started to teach her. Using a tape recording of my voice (!) I played it through the night when the room was dark. By morning she would be repeating the phrase she'd heard. Once a week I would give her a different recording until eventually she could recite Pop Goes the Weasel without a hitch.

I was thrilled with her progress. So was my guy. He loved to clean the cage while she sat on his shoulder. Until one day he put her back in and let the cage door slam on her foot. Thereafter, every time HE entered the room SHE would attack him.

The local zoo was pleased to add Chalky to their collection. This is proof, I think, that birds have exceptionally long memories.

16 January 2011

A VOICE FROM THE PAST (repeat)

No man is worth crying over.

I could hear the words as distinctly as if father was sitting alongside. The expression was a frequent comfort when the break-up of teenage romances threatened to ruffle my sanity but it did not occur to me to question the criticism of his own gender. Dear father, always on my side.

The wind lifted my hair. The bridge wasn’t an ideal spot for contemplation but I’d needed to get out of the silent house and away from Kenny’s leftover possessions. I shifted to ease the pain of stone on flesh and to massage the weals on lower limbs. The roughness of the bench wasn’t something Kenny and I noticed when we were courting. Far below, the water frothed and foamed and smashed against the riverbank. I had no coat. I hadn’t bargained for a storm.

Kenny had promised to ring as soon as he reached Seattle but I didn’t expect a call until he’d fought off the jetlag. Notwithstanding, I was in possession of a fully-charged mobile phone … just in case. Kenny was to manage the overseas office short-term. Nine months to a year, he said. It’ll soon pass. Short term to me suggested weeks rather than months. I could have coped with short-term. I wondered if the future would look less bleak with children to care for. We didn’t have kids. Kenny couldn’t deliver the goods.

No man is worth crying over.

From habit, I blinked away the tears.

Kenny did everything he could to make amends for his deficiency. He really stretched himself to get the house we wanted, with a fabulous garden and an adjacent field the size of half a football pitch. Ideal for kids. On our fifth anniversary he presented me with a new Peugeot. My shopping car, he called it. That was the day father had his heart attack. The car was useful for ferrying relations after the funeral. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t cry.

The rain was holding off but the wind was still on the wild side. A polythene bag was caught on a nearby sycamore, one minute billowing like a windsock, the next deflated and limp. For about the fourth time I checked that the mobile was switched on. The idea of missing Kenny due to an oversight was too awful to imagine. He was all I had in the world; I wasn’t sure I could struggle through a whole year on my own. Or even nine months. I stood up then and paced about, needing activity to stop myself dwelling on the awful reality of a solo existence. Symptoms of impending lamentation, a tightening throat and burning eyes, were hard to resist.

No man is worth crying over.

Oh father, how wretched you were to advise repression. How desperately I need to cry.

A pair of mallards flew over the pathway, circled, then landed gracefully on the swirling water. The suddenness of their appearance startled a cyclist pedalling furiously with his head held low. In the process of recovering his balance he saw me on the bridge, watching. He laughed sheepishly and hunched his shoulders as if to verify ineptitude. Like Kenny did sometimes when he was playing the fool. At that point, as I was picturing one of those private moments, the mobile rang. I stumbled against the parapet in my rush to answer.

‘I miss you already,’ Kenny said. ‘God knows how I’m going to manage without you.’ He sounded very despondent.

I soothed him, restoring his composure with maternal phrases. It struck me how like a child he was. My child. It had taken his departure to make me see how bonded we were, bound together by the very childless fact that hitherto was so upsetting.

'You’ll have to come over here, Peg. I’m all at sea on my own. I feel quite severed.’

I couldn’t answer. I was too choked. Joyful tears cascaded like a waterfall, the deluge that had waited too long for release. Father’s words were as distinct as if he was standing next to me. No man is worth crying over. But it was a voice from the past, no longer as important as when I was young, or as influential. My man was definitely worth crying over.

‘Just imagine, father,’ I whispered as I switched off the phone. ‘Your little girl has grown up at last.’

08 January 2011

New York, New York

New York, New York, so good I saw it twice. And loved it. If you’ve never been I recommend you give it a whirl. Actually, whirl is a good word to use since while I was there that’s what my days were like.

It was winter, just after Christmas, and by Crikey it was cold. I’d been warned to take plenty of warm clothes and for the first time in my life I accepted the advice. Thank God for boots, gloves, scarves and woolly hats. Wearing a hat was unheard of at that time and there I was, hat in place, scarf on top, and a coat hood covering the lot. After a while I didn’t really notice the cold, maybe that’s because I was so enchanted with the place.

I’ve never before been to a city that could only be described as exciting. It was so alive I reckon I was dead before arriving in the Big Apple. I’ve been to Italy several times and was familiar with the bustle of traffic but it didn’t compare to New York. But then it doesn’t have those glorious yellow cabs racing around.

One of the first things I noticed was the width of the Avenues and the seemingly long distance from one side of the road to the other. There were Stop and Walk crossings, of course, but I felt as if I was taking my life in my hands as I walked … well skipped … no, ran, in front of a dozen or so eager cab drivers waiting for the light to change in their favour so they could run me down.

The hotel was on West 54th Street, just along from the 54th Precinct which made me feel very safe. I don’t remember too much about the hotel except that it only did breakfast and that meant eating out. It had a good bar though and a room key system that never worked which almost prevented me from dropping in for a drink. Three or four times I went down to reception trying to sort it out, each time having wedged the door after praying no-one would venture inside and steal my worldly goods.

All that coming and going meant frequent use of the lift and thank God for it … I’m useless on stairs. That’s how I came to meet the very nice man. He greeted me cordially as he stepped inside the lift and the minute I responded he knew where I was from. Not too difficult, you might think, but he knew exactly were I was from because he came from the same place. What a coincidence!

The next time I saw him, again in the lift, he nodded and went on to describe the weather outside. I can’t remember what I said but he just went on talking … ignoring me and carrying on with his side of the conversation, about weather, traffic, and queues for everything. It wasn’t until we reached the upper floor, when he said goodbye and reached up to switch off his earpiece, that I realised he hadn’t been talking to me at all. Oh what a fool I was!

The hotel was round the corner from the CBS TV Show place, a famous entertainment venue, once home of the Ed Sullivan Show in the 60's, and now (or then) the home of the David Letterman Show. I never went inside… there was no need since you could hear the whole show from the street.
I did a lot of walking, block after block, since I was determined to see everything. I did get a cab a couple of times, once to Maceys when I was told the store didn’t open until 10 or 10.30 so I was taken for a ride round. Guess the driver saw me coming but it was worth it, besides it was much warmer in the cab. I must have been in a good mood to treat myself to a Macey's bag at an extortionate price.

A visit was also made to Bloomingdales, well I had to have something to talk about when I got home. One day I hiked down to the famous 42nd street. It wasn’t a bit like I imagined, although there was an Internet CafĂ© the size of a ballroom that I made use of. I’ve never seen so many computers in one place!

Eating out was okay. There was no need to go hungry with so many cafes in Times Square. The one I favoured most was the Playwright Tavern, conveniently located in the heart of the Theatre District, just minutes from Rockefeller Centre and St. Patrick's Cathedral. The Tavern was a regular stop-off for theatre goers before and after a Broadway show. The food was great; reminded me of home. I could also watch the current GAME while I ate. Went there several times and got to know the waitresses quite well. I tried other venues but enjoyed the Playwright the best.


Food on the move was interesting. Sometimes I called in at a local sandwich bar and have them make me a sandwich consisting of a three course meal. Or so it seemed. You name it, they provided it. I like that sort of place. Then there were the self-service-cooked meal-take-away establishments but I only patronised them if I wanted to eat in the hotel. I was a good patron of the hotdog providers, it was so warm there! I got a hotdog with English mustard every time … guess they recognised the accent! Yes there’s a lot of food to be had in New York, one morning a whole street was dedicated to hot food providers and the smell of cooking was wonderful on a freezing cold day. One thing I can brag about, I passed Hershey's every day and didn’t buy one single bar of chocolate.

Fifth Avenue was a favourite haunt, especially Tiffanys. I bought several presents to take home and made friends with a lady assistant who was about to marry an Englishman. She invited me to the wedding (truthfully) but I couldn’t manage to go to New York again that year.

Seeing Carnegie Hall brought back memories, not of New York but of Rod McKuen’s birthday concert held at Carnegie Hall. I’m a great fan of Rod McKuen’s work, his poems and songs, and the recording of the concert was repeatedly played. I simply adore his gravelly voice.




The tour buses provided a lot more sightseeing and I remember vowing to return to see those places in more depth. I only made it once more. Well, that’s my account of my first visit in a nutshell… I hope one day to return to that great big city. Let me finish with a poem written by Rod McKuen... Enjoy.
TAKING THE TIME

Taking time to love
is what it's all about
what makes the clocks turn
and the sunsets come
true and without
complication

That doesn't mean
lying close
in shut up rooms
or staying always
face to face

It's meant to cover walking
being apart and knowing
that coming back together
makes small distances
even smaller

And taking the time
to love
is, most of all,
caring enough
to not hold on too tightly
and yet not run too loose.

05 January 2011

THE LONG WALK

(picture courtesy of blogging friend Faye)

The Long Walk is the sequal to the short story entitled Fear Awaits at Journey’s End

It is suggested that Fear Awaits at Journey's End be read first

The light was dimming and there was a cold chill that made Leonora shudder. She wasn’t sure whether to run or walk but one thing was sure, she simply had to get rid of the fear that gripped her heart as she passed the eerie growth on either side of the path. All around the winds whispered, a ghostly sound of unseen beings waiting to pounce. Leonora trembled and wished she’d listened to those friends who had urged her to catch the bus and go home the long way round. Who knew what lurked in that desolate place, they said.

Her house was situated on the furthest end of Hermitage Road and this newly laid path shortened the journey by twenty minutes. Going by bus would have been more sensible but after a few drinks with the girls she had lost the power of reasonable thought.

Leonora looked round quickly, fearing that some creature might have been behind her all the time. She saw nothing, her fear magnifying everything. Yet the footsteps sounded real, crunching against the frosty ground. The urge to run grew stronger but her feet were leaden. What would she do if her weary body couldn’t get her home before dark? Looking up at the sky she saw the clouds shift, revealing a pale moon. Perhaps it wouldn’t look so bad once moonlight emerged.

Leonora hadn’t been the same since that fearful incident on the train, when that dreadful Arthur Mott had … what? Done what? She had felt threatened by him but he didn’t actually do … anything … to harm her. And he hadn’t been charged with anything.

Things had been hectic at work. The bosses wanted everything done at the same time. Her fingers ached from high speed typing, and so did her back. She felt tired, knew she shouldn’t have come this way. Other times the walk had been refreshing, but not tonight. The moon, high in the darkening sky, looked menacing. She wouldn’t have been surprised to see a black cat sitting on it. Was a black cat supposed to bring good luck or was it a symbol of bad things, haunting things?

Leonora took a few more tentative steps, fearing the dark, fearing the twigs that reached out and snagged her hair. In the distance an owl called, its cry more like a baby than a bird. A crying babe. Leonora mentally shook herself, told herself not to be silly. Taking a tight grip on her fear she hurried on, following the path round, hoping street lights would soon be seen.

*****

Godfrey Hastings rang the bell and for good measure knocked again on Leonora’s door. He’d been sure she would have been home from her new office job by now but there was no sign of her. He still couldn’t understand why she wanted to go out to work, but appreciated that being with people probably did her more good than living alone in this desperately quiet area.

While he tried to decide whether he should wait or come back later he saw her hurrying along the road. His heart did its familiar lurch at the sight of her. Even in the dark she looked beautiful. He couldn’t wait to take her in is arms and gaze into those welcoming almond shaped eyes.

Leonora was so pleased to see him. She thought again that it must have been an act of God that caused them to meet on the train a mere two months ago. They got on so well. Each time they met she felt as though they had been friends forever. She hurried the last few yards and threw herself into his waiting arms. For no apparent reason they both laughed, such was their relationship.

*****

After supper Leonora curled up at Godfrey’s side on the lounge sofa. The room was lit by firelight and table lamps, giving a romantic feel to the stylish room. ‘I feel safe in this room,’ she said, unaware that she had even thought about it. Her nerves seem to have been rattled since taking the short-cut home.

Godfrey took her right hand in his, lovingly ran his thumb across the raised veins that emphasised the elegance of her tapering fingers. ‘What made you say that?’ he asked.

Leonora snuggled into him, told him about the walk home, even laughed about her fear. ‘My imagination ran amok,’ she said. ‘I even thought the twigs were out to get me.’

Godfrey laughed with her, even though he understood what she meant. He had taken that walk one day, though not at night, and could imagine the effect it would have on someone with a nervous disposition. Not that he thought Leonora was a nervous person but he knew she was still troubled about that awful Arthur Mott.

Leonora shifted her position slightly so that she could look at Godfrey’s face. Still holding his hand, she told him about a recent strange experience. ‘I was in the bedroom getting ready for work. There was a strange noise downstairs, in the kitchen, like something falling. I went to investigate but couldn’t find anything amiss. It must have been my imagination. But I heard it again the next day. Whatever it was clanged on the quarry tiles. Again, I found nothing. But the funny thing was I spotted one of my visiting cards on the floor. I don’t know how it got there but it couldn’t have made a noise, could it?’

*****

Arthur Mott strolled past the house, noticed the light showing through a crack in the curtains of a downstairs window. He pressed his hands to his stomach in an effort to control his fluttering anticipation and remembered his mother’s warning not to act hastily when he was excited. Even as a young boy he always obeyed her wishes. The consequence of disobedience saw to that. For an instant he visualised the cane coming down on his naked manhood. Quickly he brushed the vision away. He didn’t want his dead mother interfering in what he had to do, even though it was all for her.

******

Next morning Godfrey sat at his desk at the station, musing over the mysterious happenings at Leonora’s house. Things that go bump in the night was an expression dreamed up by storytellers, it just didn’t happen in real life. To his way of thinking if Leonora had heard something then there was something there to be heard. She wasn’t an imaginative woman; neither did she make stuff up. He would have to keep an eye on things. If he had pursued their budding romance a little more perhaps by now he would be spending nights there. He had to admit he quite fancied sharing her bed.

Godfrey’s mind wandered, thinking now of their more passionate embraces and wondering why she gently but firmly brushed him off. Although a little on the plump side he was well groomed and reasonably good looking. Reaching into the top drawer of his desk he withdrew a hand mirror, kept there for when he needed to shave before going out on a job. He studied his face. Admittedly his nose was rather aquiline but it wasn’t ugly. And his skin was perfect clear, not a spot nor a blemish in sight. Right now he was in need of a shave but that was only to be expected at this time of day.

The buzzing telephone distracted his personal scrutiny. ‘Yes?’ he barked into the received.

‘Private call for you,’ said the station secretary. ‘Mrs Deloitte.’

‘Put her through, Maisie.’

Leonora started to speak before Godfrey could say Hello. ‘Oh Godfrey, thank God you’re there.’

‘Leonora? What on earth’s wrong?’

‘I’ve just seen that dreadful man walk past the house. I’m certain it was him. I was in the bedroom. He looked up, as if he knew I was there, but he couldn’t have known, could he? Not with the nets there. He couldn’t have seen through the nets, could he?’ Oh Godfrey, I’m so scared.’

‘Leonora, my love, calm down. You’re right he couldn’t have seen you unless, of course, you had the light on.’ Godfrey swivelled round to face the window as if to verify the state of the light outside. ‘When you say that man, I assume you mean Arthur Mott. But it couldn’t be him, my darling. He doesn’t know where you live.’
And we don’t know his whereabouts either.

A neighbouring force had issued notices that Mott was wanted for questioning about a recent accost situation. The girl had only brief glimpses of her assailant as he attacked from behind but she got a good look when she employed her martial arts training. Unfortunately, the guy had managed to get away but she lost no time reporting the matter to the police and handing over the knife that had fallen to the ground. Godfrey thought hard about that knife, remembering the case for which Mott did time, when he’d cut the letters IAM in the victim’s bedroom door. I AM. I, Arthur Mott.

Leonora had been so screwed up she hadn’t thought that Arthur Mott couldn’t possibly know where she lived. After a while she managed to pull herself together and went on to discuss the arrangements for an evening out. ‘I’ll wear my finest outfit,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to let you down in front of your colleagues.’

‘That, my dear, would be impossible.’ Godfrey knew that she would be a knock-out with the men at the police ball. They would be jealous as hell when they saw his elegant companion. If all went well tonight would be the turning point in their relationship. He wanted the evening to be as pleasurable for her as it would be for him because at the end of it he intended to ask her to marry him. Maybe later he would tell her about the recent development, reassure her that he would guard her with his life.

*****

Arthur Mott had been here so often he knew the signs of occupancy. When she was at home there was always a light in the front porch, when she was out the place was in total darkness. Not very clever, he thought. Anyone would know it was safe to break in with regular signals like that. But he had the place to himself and had chosen to try out her bed while he waited.

Lying on Leonora’s bed he gazed at the ceiling, thinking back to when he followed her along that dark path. He could have got her then but her fear stopped him. Sensing her fright and hearing panic in her breath was like an aphrodisiac. It had been a long time since he was turned on by sheer apprehension. He wanted to continue terrorising; the heavy, heady stuff would come later.
He could feel the warmth of the duvet beneath him and debated whether or not to actually climb inside. ‘What should I do, Mother? ‘Of course, he knew the answer. She would want him to undress and wait for Leonora. Wait for her to exclaim in delight about his body, to insist on joining him under the pale blue cover. Quickly he checked the pillows and decided that one would be enough to complete his task. Despite his size he was a strong man and he didn’t think too much pressure would be required.

The digital clock on the bedside table said 12.15. She was very late coming home. Other nights he had watched her she had been home at a reasonable hour, 10,30 had been the latest. Except when that awful Godfrey was with her, then they were much earlier. Arthur allowed himself to wonder what they got up to when they were alone in her house but then he thought about his mother and pushed those thoughts away.

Leonora was exactly what his mother liked in a woman and Arthur was prepared to go along with her wishes that he take another one in deference to her. Not for him a compliant plump beauty, not until his mother’s desires had been fulfilled. For an instance rebellion took over. One day, he thought, one day I’ll consider myself for a change.

*****

Leonora and Godfrey strolled from the garage, arms entwined, matching each other’s steps as they neared Godfrey’s front door. ‘I had a wonderful time tonight,’ she said, raising her face for another kiss.

Leonora had looked stunning in the lilac dress, with her greying hair decorated with a matching flower just above her left ear. He had seen the approving glances of his mates, with a wink or two thrown in for good measure, and he felt proud to be the escort of such a beautiful woman.

Placing his lips on hers Godfrey murmured that he too had enjoyed it. He remembered that feeling of joy as they danced the last waltz, when she whispered that she loved him. Oh and how he loved her in return.

Because of the lateness of the hour Leonora had agreed to stay at Godfrey’s house, although both knew that the lateness of the hour had little to do with the reason for staying. They simply wanted to be together.

*****

It was nearly 2 o’clock in the morning before Arthur finally accepted the idea that Leonora wasn’t coming home. Thrusting back the duvet he shot out of Leonora’s bed and started to collect his clothes that had been strewn anywhere in his hurry to accommodate his mother. ‘You’ll be the death of me,’ he cried. ‘Perhaps when I contribute another naked offering you’ll give me some peace. Sitting on the side of the bed, he retrieved his knife from under the pillow, put it in his trouser pocket. He slipped on the brown shoes, laced them, and remembered his mother’s brief reincarnation, her eyes flashing as she covered him with her putrid flesh and worked him over with stubby fingers that gripped too hard.

He stormed down the stairs and into the hall. Pulling open the front door he glanced left and right to see if anyone was in sight. He wouldn’t want to be caught without having achieved his goal.

*****

Godfrey had the day off, so Leonora rang the office to request a day’s leave. They needed to enjoy the newness of their romance, being together was all they wanted. Wearing the jeans and low cut linen blouse that she’d brought with her prior to the ball, they lazed about, sometimes in practical mood but mostly wrapped in an invigorating cloak of passion. They adored each other and Leonora was amazed that grandmother status hadn’t got in the way of worshipping her jolly and caring man. They made plans, the first one being for her to introduce Godfrey to her family.

‘We could go for a weekend,’ Godfrey said. ‘On the train, relive the day we met.’

But the day was not one Leonora wanted to remember so she suggested that a leisurely drive down would be preferable. Godfrey could have kicked himself for his stupidity. Still debating the point they had a late breakfast of fresh grapefruit and mushroom omelets cooked to perfection by Godfrey.

Midmorning they went for a walk. Although cold the day was spring-like. The sun was shining and the birds were having a free-for-all on the roof tops. Holding Leonora’s arm Godfrey steered her towards the local park, through the iron gates, and across the damp grass to the lake. It was beautiful. A perfect setting for romantic lovers. ‘I was wondering,’ he said, as they approached a wooden bench, ‘if you felt the same as me.’

‘I think so,’ Leonora replied, inwardly trying to speculate what was to come next.

Godfrey sat on the bench, pulled her down beside him. Holding her hand, he looked deep into her eyes. ‘I was wondering if you would marry me. I mean we get on so well in all respects and I thought … well, I hoped we could make it a permanent fixture.’

Leonora laughed and squeezed his hand. ‘Now you’re thinking about football again.’

Godfrey flushed and wished he’d had the sense to choose his words more carefully. ‘I didn’t mean…’

‘I know what you meant.’ Leonora leaned against him, thinking what a comfort he was, how solid, and how much she loved him. ‘Marrying you would make me the happiest woman in the world.’

Godfrey was overcome with emotion.

*****

In the moonlight Arthur Mott walked slowly, thinking about the time he’d followed Leonora along the same isolated path. He’d been careless then, not even attempting to disguise his footsteps. Now he made sure each step was noiseless by walking on the grass verge. Practising. Just in case. Practice makes perfect, his mother always said. And she should know. Reaching the end of the hedge he could see Leonora’s house. It was a splendid, well kept house, and right now only the porch was lit.

An inspection, front and back, told him she was probably in bed. Bedroom curtains were never drawn when she was out. Quite casually he returned to the back of the house and entered through the back door. It was one of those doors with an easy Yale plus a mortise that was obviously seldom used by an owner who failed to recognise the need for self-protection.

Silently pushing open the door he moved into the kitchen, smelled again the lingering aroma of cooking. He imagined her to be a good cook, not in the least worried about diets. Arthur swore when his foot caught in the rug. Trying to free it made him stumble against the table, sending a couple of cups crashing to the floor. Damn stupid having loose rugs in a kitchen, he thought. That was the problem with moving round in the dark. He’d found the light switch but decided against illuminating the kitchen in case the neighbours were nosy-parkers. Because of that slight accident he now had to wait until he was sure the noise hadn’t disturbed Leonora before going upstairs and surprising her while she slept.

He leaned against a tall cupboard and allowed Leonora’s image to enter his mind. How would she be dressed? Would she be wearing a nightdress or PJs? Or would she be naked. He hoped the former, wanting more than anything to tear the clothes off her before she was fully awake, quickly overpowering her as realisation hit home. Quickly he checked that his new knife and sticky tape were still in his pocket. The rope was loosely tied round his middle, one jerk and it was ready to tie her to the bed.

Arthur swallowed hard, taking control of his thoughts.

*****

Leonora never drew the bedroom curtains. She liked to sleep in a moonlit room or, when there was no moon, use a bedside lamp just powerful enough to see where she was going. She nuzzled Godfrey’s neck and kissed his ear, enjoying the warmth of his body and giving silent thanks that this man would soon be hers. Now that they had decided to marry they saw no reason why they shouldn’t spend all their time together. Godfrey was asleep but Leonora’ mind was too full of wedding plans to sleep.

She gazed at the lacy design reflected on the ceiling. Maybe a lace veil would be too much for a mature bride. She liked the idea of an all white wedding but thought a second time round didn’t warrant it. But the grandchildren would look lovely in wedding finery. Maybe she …

Suddenly she sat up; sure that she’d heard a noise downstairs. Slowly she eased her legs out of bed, trying not to disturb Godfrey. Sliding her arms into a blue dressing gown, she crept towards the door, opened it, and listened. Except for her beating heart, everything was quiet. It must have been her imagination playing tricks. Outside some cats were squabbling, it could have been that which disturbed her.

She went to the window, thinking to shoo them away, opened it and breathed in the night air, seeing the shadows cast by the moon. The apple tree looked gaunt in the half light; there was an eerie feel about it. So much for romantic moonlit nights, she thought, remembering the fearful walk along that lonely path.

For several days she’d experienced bad feelings especially at night. There was something about the house, this room that disturbed her, especially when she found her bed unmade. Something she rarely overlooked even when she was late. It felt almost as if another presence shared it with her. Though it was reasonably warm in the room she shivered, then chastised herself for being silly. Leonora yawned. This is no good, she thought. I need to get back to sleep. But she knew that wouldn’t happen until she’d had a drink. A cup of tea would be just the thing.

Although Geoffrey was a light sleeper he didn’t risk sinking into oblivion. He needed to be alert but calm enough not to worry Leonora. He’d stirred just as Leonora swung her legs out of bed but he hadn’t expected her to spend time gazing out of the window. ‘What’s up, honey, can’t you sleep?

Leonora laughed. ‘Go back to dreamland while I fetch us both a nice warm drink.’ She heard again the odd noise that had disturbed her a short while ago.

Godfrey heard it too. Sliding out of bed, he grabbed his trousers, pulled them on, slid his bare feet into his shoes, then snatched up his mobile phone from the bedside cabinet. Listened again to the noise, guessed at it being the kitchen drawer, the one that jammed half way. ‘Stay here,’ he ordered. ‘Probably cats out in the yard. I’ll go down and sort them out.’

*****

Arthur heard her coming. He cursed. This wasn’t part of the plan. He wanted her upstairs, not here where there was a good chance a neighbour would see a light going on. He’d done time for the last one, he didn’t want to end up there again. Moving at a rapid pace he headed towards the kitchen door through which his victim would appear, one arm ready to grab her the second she was through. In his hand was the pad he would use to stifle a scream before she uttered it. Chloroform. Enough to knock her out until he could secure her to the bed. The one he’d slept on, the one where she would sleep her last. He felt the saliva gathering in his mouth, a measure of his excitement. His smile was evil. Yes, his mother would be well pleased with this one.

He was ready. Pad in hand, he stood by the door, silently waiting for it to open. A few minutes and she would be his.

*****

Godfrey had often been told by his mates that he had a sixth sense but this was one time when he knew what was going on. It wasn’t a hunch… he just knew. He’d seen vengeance in Mott’s eyes the last time he was picked up. And now he was up against him again, man to man. It remained to be seen who the best man was and Godfrey was highly confident that it would not be Arthur Mott.

Godfrey’s cautious nature made him pause outside the door and listen. He could swear he heard heavy breathing on the other side. Instinctively he knew that it was Arthur Mott, and only a door separated them. If he stayed quiet Mott would soon step through to check the hallway and stairs. There was only one possible escape route and that was the way he’d come in.

It was good thinking on Godfrey’s part to secure the front door before escorting Leonora upstairs, taking the house keys with him. If only he’d remembered her dislike of over-locking, hating to think she couldn’t get out of the house in an emergency. He should be horse-whipped for trusting her word that she’d securely locked the back door. Some perishing copper he was! Well, let’s get something right, let’s catch the bastard and skin him alive!.

Right now, the surprise element was on his side. Godfrey waited for the overconfident pervert to push open the door that led to the stairs. There was just enough room for him to remain out of sight until Mott was at the right level to receive the full weight of Godfrey’s karate chop to the back of the neck, backed up by other blows. He was still unconscious when the squad car arrived. ‘Thank God for mobile phones,’ he said to the recumbent form of Arthur Mott as Leonora opened the door to the first copper.

*****

She would never forget that day, the discovery of Arthur Mott’s initials on the pantry door, the relief on Godfrey’s face when that evil man was handcuffed and taken away, the slow evaporation of her own fear. Godfrey’s assertion that he had let her down was received with scorn; how could he think that when he had literally saved her life? A lot of time was spent on conjecture and supposition but today was their special day and there wasn’t a soul in the world that could spoil it for them.

Leonora’s smile was radiant as she looked into Godfrey’s eyes at the end of the wedding ceremony. She was so proud that she had married a brave man, one who cared deeply for her, who had promised before God to take care of her for the rest of their days.

THE END - WITH APOLOGIES FOR THE WEAK ENDING. I COULDN'T WIND IT UP WITHOUT TURNING THE WHOLE THING INTO A FULL LENGTH NOVEL!

04 January 2011

A MIND OF ITS OWN

A Mind of it's Own is a true story, only the names have been changed to protect identities ... lol

'Cheap to run and easy to maintain,' the salesman told the gathering crowd. 'And so safe you could let your granny ride it. She couldn't come to any harm on a three-wheeler.' He was demonstrating the Ariel 3, a new kind of motorised three-wheel machine, bright orange, with a basket at the front. The man said the contraption was designed with women in mind and, by the interest shown on the onlookers' faces, the ploy was working.

Maddy Fox was wide awake by this time, having travelled in by train in a half-conscious state due to the late night she'd had. She didn't remember alighting at New Street or being transported up the escalator, in fact she might have stumbled over the rope barrier had the salesman not shouted a warning. He was a real loudmouth, and he'd made her feel such a fool dragging her across the display area and inviting her to sit on the orange machine until she'd fully recovered.

She had to admit the seat was comfortable and her feet easily touched the ground, and she was quite taken with the idea of travelling to work on the cheap, but could she afford it?

'Money back in no time,' the man said. 'A gallon of petrol is nothing compared to the cost of travelling by train five days a week, and you'd get the extra benefit at weekends. And think of how nippy it is. No parking problems or waiting in traffic queues. Take my word for it, a whole new world would open up.'

A week later Maddy bought one. She had asked several friends what they thought of the new invention and they viewed it as a worthwhile buy. So, since the consensus of opinion was that these machines would become fashionable, she bought one. She had never ridden anything like it before, and before long she knew she would never ride anything like it again.

The Ariel 3 had a mind of its own. It had no problem travelling without a rider, and often did just that, but when Maddy mounted the thing refused to budge. She would turn the ignition key and pedal like crazy but it wouldn't start; then when she climbed off to see what was wrong the stupid little brake lever would disconnect and the contrivance would take off. As an added exasperation, on the rare occasions she got it going the spark plugs furred up yet remained in perfect condition on its solo performance. Nevertheless she persevered and discovered that if she cleaned the plugs the night before all would be well.

Bernice and Margaret, the two girls Maddy worked with, were impressed. Both were brave enough to have a go. Accordingly, at lunchtime they gathered in Church Street for a trial run, Maddy starting the machine and quickly alighting so that Bernice could hop on. Without fail it took off before she could hoist a leg, careered mutinously down Church Street and eventually glided to a halt in a vacant parking space. Bernice slapped her thigh and declared it to be the funniest thing she'd ever seen. Maddy was overcome by embarrassment, feeling she was doomed to be forever making excuses for the machine's devastating conduct.

One wet and windy evening, a month after taking possession of her flashy tormentor, Maddy, with a good deal of trepidation, kick-started the bike and heaved a loud sigh when for once the thing jerked into life. She quickly set off for home, cutting down the side road which led to New Street. She took the corner carefully, giving pedestrians right of way lest the machine chose that moment to romp, then prepared to take off. Sadly, her trouser-leg caught on the pedal and the bike tipped her onto the road, then shook itself upright and advanced up the congested street amidst buses, cars and taxis, launching itself directly at the traffic lights, where it crashed, unharmed and in complete control of its own destiny, while Maddy viewed the new invention with all the hatred she could muster.

For two days, as if sensing her disapproval, the bike functioned precisely as it should and Maddy was endowed with a confidence hitherto lacking in their relationship, finally consoled that her money had not been wasted. Almost in celebration, she removed the basket from the handlebars and affixed a square case to the back, more in keeping with her role as city traveller and less likely to strew the contents on the ground. Securing the case with colourful spiders, an added precaution since her handbag, knitting, and lunch box were inside, she donned her helmet and journeyed home, exhilarated for the first time to be handling her newfangled, dutiful machine.

It was Friday and the traffic was bumper to bumper on the steep hill where Maddy lived, but she didn't care. Gleefully she wove slowly in and out, overtaking big cars and little ones, occasionally encouraging the Ariel's progress with a toot on her horn. But half way up the hill, as she was debating the purchase of fish and chips, she heard someone yell, 'Hey, blondie, your bag just fell off.'

Over her shoulder, Maddy saw the blue case bounding on its corners down the hill. Hurriedly she parked the bike and ran to retrieve it.

The demon machine took off.

Maddy's hands flew to her face, watching with horror as it crossed the road and mounted the pavement, then rode the railway station's brick exterior like the wall-of-death before turning an expert somersault and landing upright on the footpath. But it wasn't over. The impetus drove it back up the wall and sent it spiralling through another somersault before crashing down and narrowly missing a band of teenagers who watched with captivated expressions.

It had to go. Next day it was returned it to the garage from whence it came. Maddy demanded her money back but was persuaded by the manager to try another machine. She did, and bought a Honda 90. Silver colour and peaceful-looking.

Her friends, Bernice and Margaret, liked the look of the Ariel so much they each acquired one. Only Bernice had trouble, when her machine drove backwards through the Queensway tunnel - on its own.

Maddy wondered ... but it wasn't possible. Her bike was locked in a garage.

Wasn't it?

02 January 2011

Fenny's Quest (Repeat)


Concealed by dense hawthorn, Margaret watched the young soldier rake the earth with his hands. In the diminishing light his fair hair blended with his khaki uniform. She could not see his face, but she imagined him to be handsome. As she adjusted the paisley scarf over her tawny hair, she wondered what he would say if he knew he was being observed. Unexpectedly, the soldier straightened and brushed the dirt from his hands, then rested his weight on his heels. Margaret drew a sharp breath as his head swivelled in her direction. Certain her presence had been detected she ducked swiftly behind the bush, and was reassured to feel her bicycle propped against the grey rock, facing the house in which she lodged.

A commotion near the old barn told her that the fearless fox was on the prowl which meant that Sean Bannister, her iron-muscled landlord, would soon burst upon the scene. Sure enough, the heavy kitchen door shot inwards, casting a rectangle of light across the cobbled yard. Margaret sighed and turned away, silently lamenting the disruption of her quiet scrutiny.

While Sean circled the yard, brandishing his shotgun and bellowing vicious intentions, she looked once more over the barred gate to the fallow field. But the soldier had gone, taking with him the mystery of what lay beneath the ground where for three nights he had been rummaging. Filled with the frustration of ungratified curiosity, she swept aside her cloak and jumped on her bike, determined that tomorrow, before darkness descended, she would inspect the field for clues.

AFTER A SUPPER of potatoes and beans Margaret described the young soldier to Aileen, the landlord's wife, a tall, lean woman with greying hair.

'That'd be Fenwick O'Brien,' said Aileen, letting the sock she was darning fall to her lap. 'Always comes in March to search for the Springer's name tag. Been lookin' nigh on ten years. Won't rest 'til he finds it.'

'But he's gouging the soil, Aileen. Is the dog buried there?'

'Oh no. Dog's with us. It's Sadie I'm talking about. It's a sad tale, if you've an urge to hear it.' Aileen waited for Margaret's agreement before continuing. 'It happened on St Patrick's Day. We were celebrating with fireworks and a bonfire. Poor Fenny joined us, even though he was on compassionate leave. He was just showing the disc to his cousins ….'

'The disc?'

'Sadie's disc. She originally belonged to Fenny's young wife, Lucy, and when she died of pneumonia he had her wedding ring melted down and transformed into a dog tag.’ Aileen leaned back in the wooden armchair. ‘The night of the celebration, the cousins started a jig. Carefree with whiskey, so they were. It was trying to keep out of their way that caused Fenny to drop the disc. That was when the barrel of fireworks exploded. He was killed outright.'

Margaret was aghast. 'Are you telling me that the man burrowing in your field was a ghost?'

'I am. T’was a dreadful accident, and him just back from Lucy's grave.' Aileen flinched as she uttered those last words and glanced at the shuttered window as if expecting to see the soldier there.

Ludicrous was Margaret's opinion of Aileen's tale. The man she had witnessed was as real as Sean, only much more pleasing to the eye. Troubled souls did not burrow in moonlit fields. Despite the intensity of the peat fire, Margaret shivered. Abruptly, she reached across the range for the blackened kettle. If ever she needed a cup of strong tea, it was now. Moving to the stone sink, she swilled the enamel pot and spooned in the tea.

The outer door flew open and Sean rushed in with the liver and white Springer at his heels. 'Fenny's here again,' he announced, putting a reassuring hand on the animal's head. 'Sadie was frettin' to find him. Sure, it was as much as I could do to get her in.' He looked at Margaret who was pouring tea into three mugs. 'Ah, tea. Just the substance for a tired body.'

THE FOLLOWING morning, bent on disproving the absurd fable, Margaret interrupted her journey to the village school. She wanted to examine the field at close quarters, needing to establish the authenticity of her own sighting. The soldier would have had a legitimate reason for scrubbing about in the dirt, though for the life of her she couldn't think what that reason might be.

She waded through calf-high weeds to the spot where he had toiled. Except there was no spot. The growth was undisturbed, the ground rock-hard; there was no fissure and no evidence that for three nights a pair of hands had probed the soil. In spite of her scepticism, Margaret shuddered. Unconsciously, she began to retreat, her eyes riveted to the alleged site of Fenwick O'Brien's yearly emergence.

As she prepared to climb the stile she noticed something glisten in the base of the hawthorn. A bottle top, she thought, thrusting a boot-covered leg over the bar and berating herself for letting her imagination run riot. But, astride the stile, she hesitated. What if it had been the disc? What if it had been safe all those years, protected by vegetation, or wildlife ... or Lucy. Margaret was bewitched by the novelty of such a phenomenon and though she tried to dismiss the idea as idiotic she went back.

Thankful that her arms were covered, she burrowed through a grimy mat of twigs, snagging her nails and tearing ribbons of skin until eventually her fingers closed on the circular object. She stared at it in amazement. It was not silver, as she first thought, but gold, and genuine by the look of it. It resembled a flattened ball about an inch in diameter. Ignoring her scratched and bloody hands, Margaret fished in her pocket for a handkerchief with which to clean the metal and she rubbed until the grime was removed and the name Sadie was revealed.

At school Margaret pondered over her find, giving only half her attention to the children, whose paint-smeared white pinafores were in danger of becoming totally coloured with purple, black and red. The dog tag lay heavy in her pocket and she frequently took it out to scrutinise the intricate engraving round the edge. It was more like a locket than a dog's tag, but there was no hinge and she felt stupid for trying to locate one. Why would a dog be wearing a locket, for goodness sake, but she giggled when she thought of Sadie being inspired by its splendour to find a canine beau and wear its picture around her neck. Margaret checked the classroom clock, wishing it was time to go home and report the find to Aileen, then she climbed down from her desk and went to attend to the restless children.

AILEEN HAD a hot meal ready when Margaret got home, baked ham and roast potatoes with sprigs of rosemary and carrot sticks adding colour. Margaret hung her cloak on the door hook and washed her hands at the kitchen sink. She moved quickly for Sean was waiting to say grace. As always his words stirred her, for where she came from grace was never said.

They ate in customary silence, Margaret hastily cramming food into her mouth in order to get the meal over. However, although she finished in advance of Sean, she waited until he laid down his knife and fork before venturing to speak. Laying the gold tag in front of him, she said, 'See what I discovered in the field.'

Anguish crept into his face as Sean picked it up.

Aileen gripped her husband's arm and with her free hand took the disc from him. 'After all these years,' she murmured in a solemn voice. 'Fenny'll rest now, bless his soul. And so will Lucy.' Aileen fondled the Spaniels's ears. 'I guess this one’ll be glad to get it back. Sure, she's been too long without her mistress.'

'Fenny must have loved Lucy very much,' observed Margaret.

'She was the air he breathed. He worshipped her and she him.' Aileen put the tag on the gingham cloth, absently centring it on one of the blue squares. She eyed her husband who was lost in his own reflections. 'Sean took it badly. Felt guilty, bonfire being on our field. It was twelve months before he could talk about it. It was Sadie who pulled him through.'

Margaret offered to put the disc on Sadie's collar, but Aileen shook her head. 'Sure, Fenny needs to see it first or he'll never stop scouring. You'd better plant it in the field, somewhere where he's bound to find it.'

So Margaret returned the tag. Initially she had found the legend of Fenwick O'Brien fascinating, but now, as she poked black cotton through the hole, she questioned the validity of her actions. Did they honestly believe that hanging the dog's tag on a bush would put an end to such foolishness? 'A pointless exercise,' she muttered as she tied the thread in a knot and let the tag dangle. Aileen and Sean would be pleased it was reinstated and it suited her to oblige, but before the week was out she vowed to cut it down for it would serve her well when she saw fit to marry. As a measure of defiance, she flicked the disc so that it spun. 'To be sure, Fenwick O'Brien, you'll be diggin' that pasture til' kingdom come.'

THE WIND howled round the eaves that night. In the barn the hens made such a racket that Margaret left her bed to peer through the window. She was astonished to see the yard lit by moonlight, assuming that with such a wind it would be pitch black and the rain would be sheeting down. She opened the window and leaned out. Beyond the silos, the line of silver birch trees swayed. A barn owl hooted and was answered by its mate. Margaret expected to see Sean wielding his shotgun, but the yard was deserted. Sensing movement she scanned the outbuildings, watching for the recalcitrant fox, but it was only Sadie nosing for vermin.

It was chilly for the onset of spring. Margaret hugged her shawl and started to turn away, but something about Sadie stopped her, something gleaming at her neck. She trembled and drew the shawl closer. As she watched, Sean appeared at the kitchen door. Sadie bounded to him and he hunkered down to stroke her. He seemed to freeze for a moment, then he put his hands round the animal's neck and tugged her collar round. Sean Bannister smiled as he fingered the gold disc. 'Sure and about time, Fenny lad. About time.'

A bit of Fry and Laurie

Let's have a laugh to start the New Year postings!