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.

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.