The Prodigy: The Complete Story

This is all 24 parts of my recent fiction serial. It is a long read, in 19,020 words.

The story was suggested by a first line supplied by Chris. https://thestoryreadingapeblog.com/

He hadn’t seen anything like it in twenty years of teaching. Not only did it seem incredible, and too good to be true, it gave him a shiver up his back. Roger read it again, realising he could hardly have written it himself, let alone have expected to read it as homework submitted by an eleven year-old girl.

It was the first month of the new school year, September 1968, and Roger had been assigned his classes, including his own form, G1. G for Gale, his surname, and 1 for the fact they were all first years. New uniforms, always a little too large, to allow growing room. The kids unfamiliar with the building, not used to regular homework assignments, and most getting to know classmates for the first time. Attempting to fit in, or make new friends.

Not Emily though. She sat with a remarkable self-assurance, her uniform immaculate, and exactly as it should be worn. Not for her the rebellion of sports shoes, or a skirt folded at the waist until it was too short for modesty. Her tie was in place, and her white shirt crisp and clean. That alone was enough to set her apart. As he asked questions during a lesson, her hand went up before he had finished speaking, earning her raised eyebrows from her classmates.

And her answers were not only correct, they were detailed, and well reasoned too.

Only a few days had passed before Emily had made herself very unpopular with her peers. But if she cared, there was no indication of that. Easing them in to the new regime and surroundings, Roger had waited until the second Friday to set homework. They would have all weekend to do it, and hand it in after the last period on Monday. It was simple enough. Give a description of a Motte and Bailey castle, with one example. He didn’t even ask for a diagram or drawing. History was a compulsory subject until they were fifteen, and one of the least popular with the kids.

Something wasn’t right. Not even the best encyclopedia could have provided so much background and detail, and instead of the one example he had asked for, Emily had given him ten, with drawings up to the standard of an architect. Not just an explanation of how they looked, but how they were built, why the sites were chosen, and even the names of the Norman lords who commissioned them and later occupied them. It must surely have taken her all weekend. If she had actually done the work of course.

During his three years at university, his time at Teacher Training College, and the subsequent twenty years at the school in the London suburbs, he had never seen any homework to compare with this, not even from a seventeen year-old hoping to go on to study History at a university. It was not possible that an eleven year old girl had produced this over one weekend.

Roger started to become angry.

Was this some kind of joke? Did the girl and her parents really believe he wouldn’t see through some obvious plagiarism? He was going to have to have sharp words with Emily tomorrow, perhaps ask for her parents to come into school and see him. He opened a bottle of cheap Liebfraumilch and poured a glass. Diana would have mocked his choice of wine, but luckily Diana was long gone.

Comparing the efforts of the rest of the kids’ homework made it even worse. Thomas Saunders had produced half a page, almost certainly copied from The Encyclopedia Britannica. He didn’t even care that his teacher would know he had used words he couldn’t possibly have understood, including Norman French, for God’s sake! After Emily, the brightest in the class was definitely Christine Hollingsworth. But the best she had managed was two sides of very large writing, and a half-page pencil sketch of a castle. The rest of the marking only took twenty minutes. They had all got a rough idea, but most had used examples of stone castles that were built a hundred years later.

Halfway down the second glass of Hock, Roger walked over to his bookcase. It took up one entire wall of his living room, and was a lifetime collection. He chose three books from one section at random, knowing they would all contain references to Motte and Bailey castles, then sat in the armchair and read the relevant sections as he smoked cigarettes.

Nothing. No comparison to Emily’s homework. Despite being written by leading authorities in the field, none of them compared to her work.

She had definitely created something totally original.

That night, the thought of that kept him awake.

Whilst eating his cornflakes the next morning, Roger had a change of heart. He would wait to tackle Emily and her parents, ask around his colleagues to see if she was as good in every subject, or if her History talents were just a fluke. He drove in early, actually getting a space in the staff car park, instead of having to park on a side street nearby. Even though he was only forty-three, most of the other teachers considered him to be rather stuffy and old-fashioned, and only a couple of them were older than him.

He knew what they thought of him, but didn’t care. Tooo many years of living alone had made him stuck in his ways.

The early months with Diana had been wonderful. The white wedding, a short honeymoon in Paris, followed by moving in to the terraced house they were buying together just a short drive from the school. But marriage had changed his wife. She displayed snobbery, constantly talking about not being able to afford a better car, or more modern furniture. She complained about his books taking up too much space, forcing him to relocate them to the spare room. And she had insisted on buying the latest model of television, even though the weekly payments made things tight financially.

Then she watched it. Every evening, seven evenings a week.

She spent too much money on the housekeeping, buying only the choicest cuts of meat and expensive wine, which she insisted on drinking with dinner every evening. Very soon, they had debts that they could hardly keep up with. When Roger confronted her about those, she called him mean, tight-fisted, said he didn’t appreciate her good taste. And all this from a woman who was a copy typist for the local council, and he had met at a Jazz night in a local pub.

They didn’t see their first anniversary. Diana moved back in with her parents, then moved on later to the man who owned a big car dealership that dominated the nearby road junction. No doubt he had the money to make her comfortable. At least the debts were paid, and Roger bought her out of the house for a fraction of what she could have asked for. He agreed to the divorce when she asked for it, and she even admitted infidelity with her new lover to speed things through the courts.

That was a long time ago now, but he still considered he had made a lucky escape. After Diana, he sold the television, and didn’t bother with women again. He went home every night to peace and quiet. Eating whatever he wanted, and drinking cheap German wine if he saw fit to do so.

And he had his books.

Sarah Cook was already in the staff room. He knew she taught Maths to Emily, so came right out and asked if Emily was showing promise in the subject. Sarah was reasonably new, only two years at the school. Rumour had it that she thought herself above a surburban school like theirs, and was hoping to move on to something more prestigious. She accepted his offer of a cigarette before replying.

“The Hartmann girl? Somthing fishy there, if you ask me. I gave them a test last Friday, just to see who had any idea. It was a forty-five minute general question paper, and gave me a break before the end of the school day. Less than ten minutes in, and the Hartmann girl has her hand up. “Finished, Miss”. Sarah mimicked Emily’s voice perfectly. “So I walked over and took her paper, expecting it to be crap. But it was a hundred percent correct. Most of the others were on question three of fiteen questions, and Miss Smarty-Pants had done the lot in record time. If I didn’t know better, I would say she was at the standard of a school leaver. But she’s only eleven, so something doesn’t seem right”.

It was obvious that Sarah didn’t like the girl, but the fact she had nailed the Maths test just added to Roger’s worries. Sarah stubbed out the cigarette and picked up some folders. He knew she would be keen to get to Morning Assembly early, and to be seen to be early by the headmaster. Tom Morgan showed up then, taking off his bicycle clips and running his hands through his windswept ginger hair. He was Emily’s English teacher.

Roger walked over and asked him much the same question. How was Emily shaping up in English? Tom was making himself a cup of tea and answered without turning round. “Well her spelling is erratic, but her grasp of literature is first rate. I set them an easy homework of an essay on their favourite book, and she turned in six pages about Wuthering Heights that I would have been proud to submit myself. The girl has promise, undoubtedly”.

Wandering off to the main hall for the boredom of Assembly, Roger was feeling uneasy.

Roger waited until the lunch break to catch up with Philippa Moore. She taught Emily Geography, and he asked her the same question, as she nibbled a sandwich in the staff room.

“She certainly has a grasp beyond the rest of her class. Most of the others couldn’t point to England on a world map, and they have yet to understand anything much about natural geological formations, and the oceans. Then again, she lived abroad, didn’t she?” She returned to her sandwich, dismissing him by turning away.

So Emily was good at everything. Was that even possible? He had heard about kids being amazing in one subject, and musical prodigies were famous too, like Mozart. But every subject? He still had to cover the rest of course. Science, Art, Religious Education, Physical Education, and German Language. But first he wanted to check something.

Re-reading her homework, Roger could not find any spelling mistakes. Even with the more difficult technical words she had used to describe building techniques, and some of the tools involved. Yet Tom Morgan had talked about her bad spelling in English homework, so that confused him. And now this mention of living abroad, he wanted to find out more.

After the end of the school day, he had handed back the homework before his form left. The decision to give Emily an ‘A’ had been easy enough, but he had resisted adding a + to that. In the school administration office, he caught the eye of Delia Simmons before she went home. She was the school secretary, and had been there ever since the school had opened. She knew everything, and Roger knew from past encounters that she also liked him.

“What can I do for you, Roger? We don’t often see you in here?” He told her that he was going to need to contact the parents of a girl in his form, Emily Hartmann, and asked for their address and phone number. Delia didn’t even need to check the record card. “Oh, she doesn’t have parents, she has a legal guardian. I remember them coming in to the headmaster’s office for the interview. It was all explained. She had been living in America, her parents died in an accident, and a business associate had been named as her guardian. He had to travel here on business, so she started school here this term. Hang on, I will get you the details”.

Plucking the card from one of the file drawers, Delia returned with a smile. “Lakeside Drive, a very swanky address. I think there are only four or five houses down there. It’s a private road, a very posh area indeed. The houses there are worth a small fortune, Roger. Yes, here is the guardian’s name, a mister Riku Yamada. He’s an oriental-looking gentleman, but speaks perfect English with an American accent. He was very friendly too. Shall I write it down for you?”

He knew that Delia had been widowed at a young age, and was at least ten years older than him. She had made no secret of her attraction to him, although he had never encouaged her. At the staff Christmas dinner the previous year, she had saved the seat next to her, waving at him as he walked in. Then she had scolded him for not dressing up, and wearing the same suit he so often wore to school. She was too pushy for his liking.

Thanking her for the information, he departed hurriedly, before she had the chance to suggest they go for an after work drink sometime. She had tried that on two previous occasions. The first time he had invented a dental appointment, the second a visiting aunt.

Now he was running out of excuses.

At home that evening, Roger started to take some notes. There was something niggling him about Emily. A girl genius who had just turned up in a south London suburb at the age of eleven, with a Japanese guardian, and some story about dead parents in America. Emily had no trace of an American accent, and used no American terms or phrases. If she had lived there and gone to school there, how could that be? And she must surely have been born in Britain, to qualify for a state school education free of charge.

It was giving him a headache.

Unable to settle that evening, Roger got in his car and made his way to Lakeside Drive. Not that he was going to call at the house, but he had an overwhelming curiousity to see it. As Delia had said, it was in the very best part of the area, and close to countryside and woodland as the suburbs gave way to open land. Each house had a name, not a number, and Emily’s address was Lake View.

It was at the end of a cul-de-sac, with just enough room to turn the car around in the road outside. He was disappointed when he saw large metal gates across the entrance to the house. They looked like the type that open and close electronically, and a matching metal postbox was attached to one side. So even the postman didn’t have to go up to the door.

Determined not to have made a wasted journey, Roger parked the car and walked up to the gates. Through the small gap between the two solid gates, he could just make out the house at the end of the driveway, illuminated by two security lights that shone onto the grounds surrounding it.

Mostly glass, and all on one level, it seemed to back directly onto the lake. In front of a separate garage, he could clearly see a new model Rolls-Royce car parked. But all the blinds or curtains were closed, so he had no view of anything or anyone inside.

Whoever this Yamada was, he certainly had a lot of money. Or perhaps the money was Emily’s, an inheritance from her deceased parents? There had to be at least five bedrooms in such a large house, and the luxury of it all seemed excessive. A girl from such a wealthy background could easily have been sent to the best private school in England. Why come to a moderately affluent suburb and got to the local school?

When he got home, there was a message on his answerphone. It was Delia. “Oh, I’m sorry to have missed you. I didn’t think you went out much in the evenings. I just thought you might like to come round to mine for a nightcap and a chat. If you are home at a reasonable hour, please ring me back”. Roger cursed the woman. Now he was going to have to come up with some excuse why he was out, and why he wasn’t back early enough to return her call. What was she doing ringing him at home anyway? She must be getting desperate.

The next morning, Roger got to Delia first. He apologised for missing her call, and told her he had a migraine, and had gone to bed early. She gave him her most sultry look. “Oh you poor thing. If I had known, I would driven over and looked after you. Perhaps we can do something next weekend? There is a good film on at the local”. He wanted to keep her onside, and he really didn’t like films. But he heard himself say, “That sounds good. I would like that”.

As he left the office, Delia looked like the proverbial cat who had got the cream.

Richard Mason was the physical education teacher who took Emily’s class for various sports and exercise, though Anita Day ran the Netball team and the girl’s swimming club. Richard liked to be called Rick, though he was old enough to know better. Roger managed to catch them both as they left the staff room to sort things out in the gym. He asked them both how Emily was doing, and offered no explanation as to why he was interested.

Anita spoke first. “Well she is a non-swimmer, and there is a letter excusing her from the pool due to the fact her parents drowned. As for Netball, she is hopeless, no stamina”. Rick nodded his agreement. “Hopeless in gym class too, out of puff in record time. I have asked the Headmaster to check if she has some kind of illness. I don’t want to push her to a collapse”.

Thanking them, Roger headed off to his class of third years.

So despite her average size and build, Emily was not good at any exercise or sports. So much so that one of her teachers was worried that she might have something medically wrong with her. And no swimming, with a very convenient excuse that was unlikely to be challenged.

The third years were rather noisy and disruptive, but he let them get on with it for a while. He was putting all the pieces of Emily Hartmann together in his mind.

And none of them were fitting.

During the next History lesson that Roger was teaching his own form, Emily showed remarkable insight into the Norman expansion across Britain. She also added some details about how Harold Godwinson had reneged on his promise to give William the crown, giving some justification for the invasion in the first place. That wasn’t even something Roger had mentioned during the lesson, and Emily went on to reference the Bayeux Tapestry, which was a lesson he had in mind for the following week.

The rest of the class sat looking bored as Emily delivered what was more or less a lecture, and the girl sitting next to her was staring out of the window throughout. After the class left the room, Roger was sitting at his desk considering the fact that Emily Hartmann could easily have taken that lesson if he hadn’t been there.

At morning break, he managed to have a word with Sonia Reiss, the German teacher. Trying to act very casual, he mentioned that Emily appeared to be very bright, and asked how she was getting on. Sonia replied as if she was talking to an idiot. “Hello? Her name is Hartmann. That’s a German name and her family was of German origin, so she speaks it like a native. There is hardly any point in her being in my class, but they are the rules. She will pass all of her German exams with flying colours, that’s obvious”.

He didn’t appreciate her tone, or her thick Geman accent. She always reminded him of those aggressive camp guards he had seen being arrested at the end of the war, in documentary films.

Roger’s next target was Hugh Edwardes, the Religious Education teacher. The Welshman was well-suited to his subject, with his sanctimonious airs, and pale bald head like so many vicars seem to have. He screwed his face up at the mention of Emily’s name.

“She laughed at me! Laughed, mind you. She told me that religion is a myth, and that no God exists. I understand from the headmaster that the girl’s guardian has tried to get her exempted from my class on the grounds that she is an atheist. Eleven years old, and claiming to be an athiest. I ask you, Roger, is that normal? Anyway, it was turned down. It is a compulsory subject until they choose their preferences in a few years”.

By the end of the school day, that familiar headache was starting again, and it was not improved by the sudden appearance of Delia in his room.

“Funny Girl, that’s the film I was talking about. It’s all the rage, and a wonderful musical with so many great songs. Barbra Streisand is the star. She’s so good, a really great singer. If you pick me up about six forty-five, we will get there in plenty of time. Then we can have a drink somewhere after. Okay? Here’s my address, I wrote it down for you.” She placed the sheet of paper in front of him.

Then she left without waiting for an answer, which was just as well as he hadn’t had time to think up a reason to cancel the date.

Unable to face cooking anything, Roger bought a Cornish Pasty and a box of red grapes in the corner shop near his house. He ate the pasty cold as he considered what he was now naming The Hartmann Conundrum.

Could he be the only teacher at the school bothered about the girl? The only one thinking that there was something really strange about her? He was aware that most of his colleagues believed that it was enough just to get through the day, and hope for a decent percentage of exam passes next summer. Performance reviews and promotion were linked to those passes, and the teachers were not supposed to bother themselves with any issues outside of the school, unless alerted to them by other agencies.

Of course, he was taking time to ask about her progress in every subject. His colleagues were likely to only be focusing on what happened in their own classes. Part of him just wanted to get on with the school term, give Emily an A for every paper, and stop worrying about why she was so different. But Roger was not a man who could let things go.

He liked his life to be orderly, from the way he catalogued and arranged his books in subject order, subdivided by publication date, to the way that he always used the same knife, fork, spoon, bowl, and plate. Then washed them up as soon as he had eaten, dried them, and put them away.

Emily was disrupting his routine.

As it had been over twenty years since he had last been on a date, Roger had no idea what to wear. The cinema, then drinks in a pub. No need for a tie, but not too casual. His old blue blazer still fitted him, and that had what he at least regarded as timeless style. An open necked white shirt underneath, grey trousers, black shoes. Before leaving the house, he splashed a little after shave lotion onto his hands, and patted his face. It smelled strong. Too much?

Too late now.

By contrast, Delia was desperately overdressed for the same occasion. A low-cut velvet dress with a hemline far too short for a woman of her age, black nylons, and a short bolero jacket. She was wearing enough make-up to jusitfy a stage performance in a West End theatre, and he had been able to smell her perfume through the door before she opened it. By local standards, they were going to look more than a little out of place in a surburban cinema.

He had remembered to open the car door for her, and to gallantly turn his head so as not to look down her cleavage or up her dress as she got in. On the way, she rambled on about how it had been a long time coming, and they should have started seeing each other a long time ago. It was apparent that she already saw them in some form of long-term relationship, and he hadn’t even parked the car behind the cinema.

“After all, you are divorced, I am a widow. Neither of us is getting any younger, and we have both been married before. Okay, so I am a little older than you, Roger, but at our age does that really matter?”

Roger paid for the tickets of course, and chose the Circle for a better view. When Delia hovered at the counter that sold sweets and drinks, he offered to buy her something. She chose a box of Maltesers, the largest one they had. Upstairs, they sat in the front row, so Delia could put her jacket over the ledge and get the best view of the screen. By the time the advertisements appeared on screen, she had opened the Maltesers and was holding his hand.

Fortunately, she was not one of those people who talked a lot while watching a film, but the crunching sound she made as she ate the sweets was just as annoying. He had to admit the film was very good. It was well-staged, and the songs were mostly memorable. Walking back to the car, Delia held his arm in a possessive way. Before he could suggest a pub for drinks, she got in first.

“There really is no need for us to go and sit in some noisy pub on a busy Saturday night. I have all we need at my house, so let’s just go back there”. On balance, he preferred that to one of the local pubs, he had to admit.

In her cosy living room, Delia produced a decent white wine, and slipped off her shoes as she curled up on the large sofa. “Why don’t you take your jacket off, get comfortable?” By the second glass of wine, he was thinking it had been a long time since lunch, and it was making him feel a bit woozy. He had no idea what to say by way of normal conversation, but guessed a debate about Saxon settlements in sixth century England was not the way to go.

Then Delia made her move.

Despite his age, and his short marriage, Roger knew very little about sex and love-making. But he was left in no doubt that Delia was considerably more experienced. By the time she was finished with him, his shirt was open, his trousers around his ankles, and her dress and underwear flung across the room. Lying underneath her after, feeling her weight on his body, he really wasn’t ready for what she said next.

“Right then. Let’s go upstairs and do it properly”.

It could be said that Delia opened his eyes to new possibilities that night. In fact, he was sure that on at least two occasions, his eyes had actually bulged in their sockets.

When she said it was time to sleep, he was relieved on two counts.

One that he badly needed the rest.
And two that he could ask her about Emily the next morning.

The next morning, Roger was up early. He washed as best as he could in the bathroom, upset that he was unable to brush his teeth. Dressing quickly, he went downstairs and sat politely on the sofa, waiting for Delia to appear. He had left her snoring gently in the bed. After twenty minutes, he went into the kitchen and got a glass of water from the kitchen tap. Perusing the garden, it occurred to him that this was a substantial house indeed, and she had been left well provided for by her long-dead husband.

It was almost an hour before an apologetic Delia appeared. She had brushed her hair and was wearing an expensive satin dressing gown, but last night’s make-up was still on her face. “You should have woken me, darling. Have you had a drink? Just water? I will make us some tea and then cook you a nice breakfast”.

She had called him darling, and he had noted that.

Over a full English breakfast served in the large dining room, he talked about Emily Hartmann, and how nothing about the girl added up. He had intended to ask Delia to help him find out more about her, but she beat him to it.

“Why don’t I make some enquiries, Roger? I’m sure I could find out much more about her without anyone being concerned about why I was asking. School secretaries are the backbone of school life you know. We are expected to be nosey. Now, I hope you are going to stay for Sunday lunch? I have a half leg of lamb in the fridge, and I make my own mint sauce”.

He had to disappoint her, claiming too much homework to finish marking. In truth, he wouldn’t have minded a home-cooked roast dinner, but he was not going to spend the day in yesterday’s clothes, with unbrushed teeth. Delia settled for a very smoochy goodbye kiss as he left, then whispered in his ear.

“We will make a good team, you and I. We will get to the bottom of the mystery of young Emily. You can pop round after work one evening and I will tell you what I have discovered. No need to talk about it at school and raise any suspicions”.

As he drove home, Roger experienced a strange feeling. He was going to miss Delia.

School on Monday felt strange too. Delia winked at him as he walked past the office, and tapped the phone she was holding before nodding and smiling. She seemed to be telling him that she was talking on the phone about Emily, but he knew he would have to wait to find out. To cover up anything he was planning, he treated Emily the same as everyone else, despite her boring the pants off of everyone in the class by launching into a detailed description of the Bayeux Tapestry without even being asked.

In the staff room, he went back to being ignored, and didn’t bother with any follow-up questions about Emily. Best let them think he had moved on, lost interest in the girl.

The day passed quickly, and as he packed his things into the old leather briefcase, he was surpised by the sudden appearance of the headmaster. Stephen Hoare was a former army officer who had gone into education relatively late. Some staff members looked down on him because he had not been to university, but he had a bearing and authority that intimidated them into silence. Hard to guess his age, Roger presumed he was in his late fifties, and probably did not have that long to go until retirement.

“Ah, Gale. Glad I caught you. Need a word. I’m not mentioning any names, but I have it on good authority that you have been asking around about a girl in your form and showing undue interest in her. The Hartmann girl, I am sure you know who I am talking about”. Roger nodded, and the headmaster continued. “Well I think it’s time to stop all that. After all, teachers showing too much interest in young girls, tongues wil start to wag, rumours will circulate, and before we know it there will be some sort of repercussions. In short, we don’t need a scandal at the school. Now you are a good chap, your work is exemplary, so what do you say you just get on with that and forget all about this girl”.

He didn’t wait for a reply. It was an order, not a conversation

Delia was on the phone to him that evening before he had time to start making his dnner.

“Well, so far I have been able to discover that there is a birth certificate that shows Emily Hartmann was born in London. There is a record of it on her application form to come to the school, along with the serial number. I cannot find out anything about her parents drowning yet. America is a big country, so I have no idea which newspapers to telephone. However, her guardian Riku Yamada listed a home address different to the one here, as they only took that house once they moved here permanently this year. That address was Maida Avenue, in a very expensive part of London. So I telehoned the local education authority for that area early this morning, and made a routine enquiry about Emily. They said they would get back to me, and they did”.

There was a long pause when Delia could be heard flicking through some papers.

“She attended school near there from the age of eight, at St Saviour’s School. I rang the school secretary, and she remembers her. She said she had a guardian, as her parents had been killed in a road accident in Germany. But the guardian’s name was not Yamada, it was Richter, and it was a woman. The secretary also recalled that she was very intelligent, enough to make some of the teachers query her real age. That’s definitely strange, Roger darling, not to say suspicious”.

Roger thanked her for her efforts, and agreed to go to her house on Friday evening after work to talk it all through. After the headmaster’s visit, it was not something that could be discussed at school.

Not bothering with a proper dinner, he prepared some crackers and cheese and opened a bottle of Blue Nun. He felt jubilant, redeemed. There was something not right about the girl, and his assumptions had been correct.

Two days later, Roger did something he had never done before in all his years of teaching. He prepared a history test paper for the class, but changed the questions on the one he would hand to Emily. He deliberately included some very hard questions on subjects he had not covered yet, as well as changing some real dates and names. For the rest of the children, he left it at their expected standard, so hopefully none of them would realise Emily had a different paper. He was going to give the test on Friday, and watch them write the answers.

On the day, there were the usual raised eyebrows and theatrical groans when he announced the test. Walking round the class handing out the typed sheets, he made sure to have Emily’s in the right place when he got to her desk. It always seemed there was someone different siting next to her, and it dawned on him that it was usually the last to arrive who had no option but to share her desk. This time it was Alan Holt, a boy whose father was in the army. He wanted to be a soldier too, so considered having to learn anything was superfluous to his ambition. He was unlikey to notice Emily’s different paper.

Emily’s hand was up halfway into the allotted time of forty-five minutes. Roger collected her paper and took it to his desk. Not only had she got one hundred percent correct, she had also changed the wrong dates, and corrected the names. He knew full well that the kids he taught in sixth form would have struggled with that paper, and they were all seventeen.

By the time he got to Delia’s house that evening, he was excited. As soon as she opened the door, he started rambling on about what he had done, and how he was convinced that the girl was some kind of genius, a prodigy. Despite her physical appearance, he was also convinced she was older than she looked.

Delia had other things on her mind. “Let’s go upstairs before dinner, my love. I have really missed you since last Sunday morning. It is so annoying, not being able to let on at work that we are a couple”.

She wanted her reward, and Roger paid in full.

Over the meal later, he asked Delia if she knew who had complained to the headmaster, causing Stephen Hoare to issue his warning. She smiled at her new flame.

“Of course I do, sweetheart. It was that German bitch, Sonia Reiss”.

On his way home from Delia’s, Roger was fuming. Sonia had run to the headmaster and told on him, and she might have asked around the other teachers before doing that, to offer a more convincing complaint. Delia had done well to find out about the other school, and the different guardian. It would be easy to jump to conclusions about some connection between Sonia and the Richter woman because they were both German, but something told him that was only a coincidence.

He had one more teacher to talk to about Emily. Her Science teacher, Siobhan Connolly. She was one of the new breed of teachers. She had long fair hair, wore trendy clothes, and let the older pupils call her by her first name. She also had a lot of new ideas about Science, and how it would change everyone’s life before the end of the century. Naturally, most of the other staff members had little time for her. The women seemed to be jealous of her good looks and massive self-confidence, and the men knew that she was out of their league in terms of dating, or illicit affairs.

Ignoring the headmaster’s warning, he approached her the next afternoon when school was over for the day.

She listened politely to his usual questions about Emily being so advanced academically, then smiled as she replied. “Well, I have to agree that she is very different to the rest of her class. She grasps the subject well, and her homework is of a very high standard. But I think she’s a fake, and is being helped by someone outside of the school. Her work is so far advanced compared to the rest of her year, she couldn’t possibly be that clever. At some stage, I was going to confront her about it, but until you mentioned it, nobody else has remarked about her. Then again, most of them are just here for the salary”.

Roger asked Siobhan to wait before making an issue of it. Trying not to give too much away, he reminded her that Emily was in his form, and that he was already in the process of trying to look into the reasons why Emily was so good at everything. She shrugged. “Okay with me. I don’t really want to stir up a hornet’s nest. After all, I’m the new girl, so I am happy to leave you to it”.

Delia phoned him after dinner, and by the tone of her voice he knew she was pleased with herself.

“How do you fancy a day trip into London on Saturday, my love? I have chatted to the school secretary from St Saviour’s again, and she has agreed to meet us to talk about Emily. She also believes that the Richter woman might still be at the same address, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t call on her while we are there. I said we would meet her in the Little Venice cafe at two on Saturday afternoon. You could stop over on Friday night. I will make you something nice for dinner”.

After agreeing to both the meeting and stopping over on Friday, Roger had to face the fact that he was actually becoming quite attached to Delia.She had left him in no doubt how much she liked him, and her interaction with him was so different to what he had known from his wife Diana. In every way possible. Added to that, she was actively trying to help him, interested in why he was doing it, and she had asked nothing from him.

The woman was already in the cafe when they got there. He had found somewhere to park a few minute’s walk from the cafe, which was situated on a road bridge over the junction of the Regent’s Canal and The Grand Union canal, in a very desirable district of London. It was also very close to the address where they might find the Richter woman.

Her name was Millicent Pugh, and she had a Welsh accent to go with her surname. Probably forty-something, dressed in a decade-old style and timid-looking, she reminded Roger of a librarian, and had made Delia aware that she was a Miss, so unmarried. She kept rotating her teacup on its saucer as she spoke.

“I never took to Emily. I mean, it sounds horrible to say that about such a young child, I know. But there was something strange about her from the start. When they came in to arrange her coming to the school, she was talking in German to Mrs Richter. But like an adult talks to another adult, you know what I mean? Not a like a child to a guardian, especially a woman of fifty-odd who looked very stern. If I had to sum it up, I would say Emily was in charge. Now I know you’re going to think that’s crazy, but then you have driven all this way to see me, so it’s best to know the truth”.

Delia leaned forward. “Tell us more, Milly”.

Millicent took the bait. Roger went to the counter and ordered more tea and some fancy cakes.

“Well, as you have taken so much trouble…She was the talk of the school for a while. Anyone involved in teaching her kept using words like genius when they talked about her. She had the educational level of someone much older, apparently. There was even talk of entering her for IQ tests, and maybe getting some publicity for the school. But the Richter woman would have none of it, and tried to pass it off as Emily having very intelligent parents who had worked hard with her before they died”.

She accepted the French Slice with real cream from Roger, and took a large bite of it.

“During her last year, it was presumed that she would attend the local Senior School. They get options of where they want to go, and apply. But of course you know that, silly me. Anyway, we were told that she would not be staying in Maida Vale. In fact she would be moving to the South London suburbs and attending a Secondary School there. That is obviously your school, and her records would have been sent on for you to examine, I’m sure”.

Delia waited until she had finished her cake and her second cup of tea. “Milly, could you show us the house where she lived? I understand it is close by.” Milly smiled, and turned to point out of the window. “You can see it from here. That side of the canal, number four. That’s why I suggested we meet here”.

They thanked her for the information, and for agreeing to see them. On a paper napkin, Milly wrote down a phone number. “Please let me know what you find out”.

Waving her goodbye as she walked to a nearby bus stop, Roger looked down the street. Outside the house there was a car parked. It was a new model Rolls-Royce, identical to the one he had seen through the fence at Emily’s address.

Delia was more confident than him about just ringing the doorbell and seeing who answered. “We have come this far, my darling. I for one need to know why they moved from this area”. She marched up the front steps and pressed the bell. Roger hung back at the bottom, still wondering what they would say to whoever answered. Just when they thought nobody was home and they were about to leave, the door opened.

Standing in the doorway was a man who looked Oriental. When he spoke, his accent was American. “Can I help you, folks?”

Completely unfazed, Delia smiled. “Hello, Mr Yamada. We were just vsiting some friends nearby, and I thought it would be interesting to see where Emily used to live. I see you still live here. So who is at the lakeside house with Emily?” Roger was sure all this would cause trouble. What reason could they have to be there? What if Yamada made a complaint to the school?

He was equally as composed. “Oh, Emily is at home studying today. I just came to visit a friend who still lives here, catching up on old times. Why don’t you come in and meet her?” Inside the large reception room overlooking the street, he offered them a seat and left the room. A few moments later, he returned with a serious-looking woman. Her short grey hair made her look severe, and her dress seemed to be more like a uniform of some kind. Yamada made the introduction. This is Erika, Erika Richter. We go back a long way”.

With no hesitation, Delia gave hers and Roger’s names, adding that Roger was Emily’s form teacher, and very interested in her because she was so bright. Mrs Richter replied in a German accent so strong, it reminded Roger of those German Officers in old war films. “Emily voz alveys a clivver girl. She does vell at your school, yes? Riku looks after her now. I voz getting too alt”.

Roger desperately wanted to launch into questions about why Emily’s parents were supposed to have died in Germany when she was eight, but drowned in America when she was eleven. But that would mean implicating Millicent Pugh. It was enough of a shock to find both of her guardians at the same address, and he felt that if he pushed it, they would either tell a web of lies, or be in the school on Monday to lodge a formal complaint.

Before Delia could dig them in any deeper, he stood up, thanked them for their time, and wished them a pleasant weekend. A surprised-looking Delia stood up too, and walked out with him. As they went out of the front door, Yamada smiled and waved. “Thanks for your interest. Emily is in good hands”.

As they walked to where the car was parked, Delia raised her eyebrows. “Well, I wasn’t expecting that!”

On the drive home in heavy traffic, Delia was going over her thoughts about what had happened.

“Well, imagine that! Both of them in the same house, and Emily supposedly studying at the lakeside house. Do you think she was in there, my love? I wonder if they are controlling her in some way, I really do. It seems incredible to me that two different official guardians should be snuggled up together in that house. I can only imagine what they have in mind for the poor girl”.

Roger thought Delia was becoming too fantastical with her theories. Emily was hardly a prisoner, as she could approach any teacher during the school day, and ask them to alert the authorities. Besides, had Delia forgotten what Millicent Pugh had said? She had remarked that Emily appeared to be the one in charge of Erika Richter, not the other way round. He was more interested in the girl’s inconsistencies. Why was her spelling excellent in his class, yet poor in Tom Morgan’s English lessons? Why could she not participate in any sport or physical activity, when she looked so fit and well?

He concluded that interrogating the guardians or trying to find out more about them was a diversion they didn’t need, and said as much to Delia. Yes, it seemed strange they knew each other. Then again, once Yamada took over guardianship, wouldn’t it be natural to be in contact with the previous guardian? They had to concentrate on the girl.

Emily Hartmann was the key to finding out why she was like she was.

With Delia hyped-up and excited, they spent most of that evening, and almost all of Sunday, in bed. Roger was becoming used to her constant terms of endearment by now. He no longer squirmed at being called ‘Darling’, My love’, or ‘Sweetheart’. He did not return the favour in the slightest, but that didn’t seem to bother her. Being around her was starting to feel normal, though on Sunday evening when she suggested he move into her house, he refused quite firmly.

Stroking his head, she smiled seductively. “I can wait, my darling”.

They had until late October before the half-term holiday week, and Roger decided on a charm offensive with Emily. If she had been told that he had showed up at the Maida Vale house, she gave no indication of knowing. And despite his concerns, there was no second visit from the headmaster. Yamada must have kept quiet about a form teacher and school secretary turning up on his doorstep.

That proved that he definitely had something to hide.

Young Emily responded well to increased praise for her History class work and homework. He even added the occasional + sign to the regular mark of A that she received. Rather than risk asking more questions of her other teachers, he resorted to eavesdropping in the staff room, but heard no mention of Emily’s progress in other subjects.

By mid-October, Delia could no longer contain herself, and was dropping heavy hints around the school that she and Roger were an item. Hugh Edwardes slapped him on the shoulder one day as he was getting in his car. “You and the lovely Delia, eh Roger? I didn’t see that happening, well done!” He managed a sheepish grin as he got into the car, then sat wondering if Hugh had been interested in Delia for himself.

Perhaps she was a much better catch than he gave her credit for?

That evening, he went through some boxes of papers he kept in the spare room. He found an old GCE ‘O’ Level exam paper that covered a completely different period to the one he was teaching currently. Victorian Britain, the extended use of the steam engine, the expansion of heavy industry. Cotton Mills, Railways, and increasing populations in cities and large towns.

The following day as the class packed up their things and started to file out to go home, he called Emily back. He showed her the paper, and suggested it might interest her. He said she could try the questions, and see how she got on. When he told Delia on the telephone that evening, she was complimentary. “Smart move, sweetheart. If she can’t resist getting a good mark, she will prove our point. That is a paper sat by sixteen year-olds, and you haven’t taught any of it to her class”.

The next morning, Emily placed the paper on his desk as the class left to go to their first lesson. It was accompanied by ten sheets of paper containing her answers. Halfway through lunch, Roger took the papers into the staff toilet and sat in a cubicle to read them in private.

She would have got an A from the Examining Board. It was one hundred percent correct, and even contained some of her own conclusions.

Emily had taken his bait and swallowed it whole.

The day before the half-term break, Roger managed to get Emily alone in the class for a few moments. He asked her how it was that she was able to do so well on an exam paper designed for much older children, on a subject he hadn’t taught her. Her reply was matter-of-fact.

“I study History because I enjoy it, Mister Gale. Not just the period you teach us at the moment, but every aspect of History. I hope to go on to study it at university. I have lots of books and encyclopedias, and I have been lucky enough to take trips to some historical sites too. Is that all?”

She was certainly uncannily self-assured for someone so young, and had not hesitated to answer his question, betraying no concern that he had asked it. Perhaps she was simply a prodigy? If so, she had a bright future ahead of her. But something was still niggling away in Roger’s belly.

It just didn’t feel right.

Delia had some suggestions for how they could spend the weekend. Although the pupils and teaching staff had a full week off for half term, administrative and secretarial staff had to work normal hours during half-term, and also go back earlier before the end of the longer summer break.

“You know they hire out boats on the lake, my darling? I thought we could take a picnic and rent a boat on Sunday afternoon. Yamada’s house might be screened from the road by metal gates, but it backs onto the lake, so there’s a chance we might see something from the water”. Roger hadn’t thought of that, and agreed immediately. He could take along his wartime binoculars that he had been left in an uncle’s will.

The old-fashioned two-seater motor boats only moved along at a sedate pace. Delia had left the picnic basket in the car with a large tartan blanket, so they could eat on the grass by the lake after they got back. By getting there early, Roger had been the first to hire a boat, and was pleased to discover it was easy enough to drive, with a steering wheel just like a car.

He knew nothing about boats.

After cruising up and down aimlessly for forty minutes, with Delia constantly kissing him as he managed the unfamiliar controls, Roger brought the boat to a halt opposite the back of Yamada’s house, about fifty feet east of the back garden. Lifting the heavy binoculars as the boat drifted slowly, he could see that the back of the house was all glass, and unlike the front, it was not obscured from the rear view. Delia’s guess had been good. But the weather wasn’t sunny, so nobody was outside. Concentrating hard, he foucused on being able to see through the huge glass windows into the living room. But there was no sign of either Yamada or Emily.

They had to settle for the picnic in a cool breeze on the grass near the car park, and admit failure. Then he drove Delia home and took her upstairs to reward her for her initiative. After all, it wasn’t her fault that they hadn’t shown themselves.

Over a light dinner that evening, they talked about what they could do next. Well Delia did most of the talking.

“Since Yamada hasn’t mentioned anything about us turning up in London, I reckon you ought to contact him and ask to talk to him at the Lakeside house. You can say it is to discuss extra tuition for Emily because she is so clever, or that you are concerned she might be cheating. I can get his home number from the office, and nobody would need to know you have spoken to him. You need to get inside the house, get him off guard, then ask him the pertinent questions. If he was going to complain to the headmaster, he would have done that before half-term, so he is not likely to complain if you visit him at home showing some genuine interest in Emily’s future”.

Roger liked her train of thought. Yamada had said Emily was in good hands, so if he offered extra tuition free of charge, chaperoned of course, it might be a way to get on the inside. Once he was accepted, he could slowly ask more probing questions and hopefully get to the root of the mystery. He turned to Delia and smiled.

He would do it as soon as term resumed.

On the evening of the first Monday back at school, Roger telephoned the number Delia had given him on a piece of paper. It took a long time to answer, and Yamada sounded cagey when he spoke. “The Hartmann residence, may I ask who is calling?”

So he used Emily’s surname, not his. Roger thought that was most unusual.

As he had decided to offer the extra tuition rather than ask questions about her apparent genius, Roger stuck with that. Once Yamada knew who was calling, he relaxed and became very friendly.

“Extra tuition you say? Well it is certainly very nice of you to offer that. I will discuss it with Emily, and get back to you. But if we go ahead, it will definitely be paid for, I could not allow you to work extra hours for free”.

It was not him that got back to Roger though. The next afternon as the pupils were leaving for the day, Emily left an envelope on his desk in the Form Room and walked out without saying anything.

In the empty classroom, he opened the letter. It was written in Emily’s handwriting.

‘We agree to the extra tuition. Please come to my house alone on Saturday morning. My guardian will be there, and he will make the arrangements to pay you for your time’.

That night, he phoned Delia and told her what had happened. She sounded delighted. “Well my darling, progress at long last. You are going to get inside the house, and I am sure that once in there you will be able to get some insight into what is going on. Once you are finished there on Saturday, please come straight to my house and let me know what happened”.

With the prospect of Saturday to anticipate, the school week seemed to drag. The weather changed too, becoming much colder very quickly. Roger spent his evenings preparing book references, test papers, and lists of suggest reading for the girl. Sitting at his new portable typewriter after dinner on Friday, he had an idea that he might get her to university standard before the middle of the following year. He was going to have to ask her and Yamada to keep his tutorials secret. No need to upset the headmaster again.

When he drove up to the metal gates on Saturday morning just before ten, they opened as he approached them. He pulled his car onto the driveway next to the Rolls-Royce, thinking it looked shabby next to the luxurious vehicle.

Yamada was at the open door, dressed very casually and smiling. “Welcome, Mister Gale. Please come in”.

The interior of the house was very warm, despite no sign of any fires or heating radiators. Roger was happy to take off his heavy parka, and the jacket he was wearing underneath. Yamada offered coffee, and he accepted. The huge room was open-plan, with modern leather furniture, a massive white rug in the centre, and very little clutter. When the man returned with the coffee mug, Roger offered a few compliments about what a nice house it was, then asked how they managed to keep it so warm.

Stamping his foot against the wooden flooring, Yamada grinned. “Underfloor heating. Electic cables set into the floor throughout. It’s all the rage over in the States”. Then he pointed to large grilles above the windows and the sliding glass doors that led out onto the lakeside garden. “Airconditioning too, keeps the house lovely and cool in the summer”. There must have been a kitchen somewhere, but a dining table and six chairs took up the remaining space on the other side of the room. Roger asked if Emily was joining them.

“She will be with us shorly, but first I would like to discuss your payment”. He reached into his pocket and produced a small black velvet bag, reaching over to hand it to Roger. “This should more than compensate you for any work you do with Emily. I know something about stones, and you could sell this in the Hatton Garden jewellery district for close to two thousand pounds. Just tell them you were left it by a relative, they won’t ask too many questions”. Opening the bag, Roger tipped out a large diamond onto the palm of his hand.

That much money was just over a year’s salary for Roger, and free of tax, pension payments, and other stoppages. He should have said it was too much, made some protest, suggested a smaller fee.

Instead, he just said thank you.

Roger was still looking at the diamond when Emily came into the room. She looked very tired, and her skin was pale.

“Will that suffice, Mister Gale? My guardian assures me that it is a very good payment.”

He nodded, and she sat down on the sofa next to him.

“So you are going to give me extra tuition? I am very interested in the world wars, one and two. Can you help me with those periods in history?”

He assured her that he could, but that neither subject was part of the current curriculum.

“That doesn’t matter. I do not seek academic achievement, I only want to research the periods. Are you happy to talk to me about the after effects of the first world war, and the rise of the right in Germany, Spain, and other countries like Italy leading up to 1939?” He nodded again, and she produced a notebook. “In your own time, Mister Gale”.

For more than two hours, pausing occasionally to allow her to catch up with her notes, Roger described the near collapse of Germany in the years following the end of World War One. He went on to give an overview of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and Mussolini’s popularity in Italy. He followed that with a precis of Republican Spain, and the invasion by the Nationalists led by Franco and his Moorish army.

During his virtual monologue, Emily took notes feverishly, and Yamada stared out of the window, occasionally sipping what smelled to Roger like good cognac.

Before Emily called a halt to the extra class, he had covered the Flu pandemic in 1918, the International Brigades and the defeat of the Republic in Spain, the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party in Germany, and the Fascist takeover in Italy. He told her he would go into more detail in future lessons.

Emily appeared to be delighted.

“You have a great knowledge of the subject, Mister Gale. I will be looking forward to exploring other historical periods during the year. You do of course know that you are not to discuss this in school, or with your colleagues?” Roger told her that it would be their secret. “When you come again next week, I would like to know much more about the conflict between England and Scotland, leading to Cullodden. Is that something you can help me with?

He was confused about why she wanted to cover so many different eras, but assured her that he could help with the Jacobite rebellion. He had been there for almost three hours when Emily stood up.

“Thank you for your help, Sir. It has been extremely useful”.

With that, she left the room. Yamada offered more coffee and a snack, but Roger declined. He was cursing himself for not asking more questions of both of them, but pleased that he had made a good impression, and had been asked to come back. He was also more than happy with the diamond offered as payment.

Taking his leave, he shook Yamada’s hand and said he would be back next week.

His next destination was Delia’s house.

Her eyes lit up when she saw the large diamond. “Wow! That’s worth a lot of money, more than Yamada suggested, I’m sure. I know what my husband paid for some of my jewellery before he died, and that was years ago. What else did you find out? Did you get any sense of their life, or why Emily is so clever?”

All Roger could really tell her was that Yamada and Emily did not seem to have a very close connection. They hadn’t spoken to each other all the time he had been there, and the guardian had not become involved in the lesson in any way. Obviously, Emily was hungry for knowledge, and understood some complex political issues far more than most eleven year- olds would, but they already knew that she was intelligent beyond her years.

One thing had stood out though, and it reminded him of what Millicent had told them about Erika Richter. Emily definitely appeared to be in control. Yamada seemed more like an employee, than a parent. He admitted to Delia that he had been reluctant to ask any personal questions, and hadn’t mentioned the confusion over the death of her parents.

Delia was reassuring. “You will get to that in good time, my love. I’m sure their barriers will break down once they get used to your visits.

Although he wasn’t so sure about that, he agreed anyway.

If Roger was concerned that his new relationship with Emily would make things awkward at school, he needn’t have worried. Her behaviour didn’t change at all, and if anything she had started to act more like the others. Although she was still getting an A for every test and homework project, she had stopped adding so much detail he hadn’t taught the class, and she was learning not to answer every question immediately, but to give the others a chance.

Even if they got it wrong.

Life with Delia was settling into a pattern. He was getting to know her better as a person, and to become aware of some of her frailties. The longer he spent in her company, the more he liked her. She had stopped asking him to move in with her, and seemed sure he would choose to do that in time. More staff members appeared to know that they were seeing each other, but that soon became old news.

The Saturday morning tutorials with Emily had also settled into a routine. She would take notes as he talked, and Yamada would gaze out of the window, seemingly disinterested. So far, Roger had not attempted to sell the diamond. He had left it in Delia’s small safe in one of her wardrobes, when she had happily told him the combination to reassure him he could retrieve it at any time. That day she had also given him a front door key, telling him he should feel free to treat her home as his.

But he still rang the doorbell.

As Christmas was coming up, with the longer break from school, Roger asked Emily if she still required tuition during the holidays. “Oh yes please, sir. We don’t celebrate Christmas, so I would be grateful if you could continue as normal”. During his now frequent visits to the lakeside house, he had occasion to use the bathroom. He had been directed to a family bathroom along a narrow hallway, and noted that all the doors leading off that were closed. On his way back to the living room one morning, he tried some of the handles, hoping to get a sneaky look into other rooms.

They were all locked.

There had been no relaxation of the mood when he was in Emily’s house. It was always quite a formal atmosphere, and he had little chance for general conversation, let alone personal questions. Delia had suggested he should just come straight out and ask them anyway, but that was not in Roger’s nature.

Delia was planning a traditional Christmas meal for them on the 25th, and when he arrived that morning, he was taken aback by just how much effort she had gone to. A massive decorated tree filled one corner of the large sitting-room, and there was a pile of wrapped presents underneath it. He asked her if others were coming, and she laughed. “Of course not, my darling. It is going to be just the two of us”.

Feeling embarrassed, Roger handed over the small gift he had remembered to buy. He had paid extra to have it gift-wrapped in a department store, and had asked the advice of the sales girl on what to purchase. It was a very popular perfume, she had assured him. A qualilty product. At fifteen pounds, it certainly seemed expensive enough for a gift, so he had bought it. Delia was effusive in her gratitude. “Oh, that’s wonderful! I had been thinking about trying that perfume, how thoughtful of you to go to so much trouble”. He eyed the pile of presents under the tree again, counting seven parcels. Hopefully, they would not all be for him.

But they were.

The meal she had prepared was more like a banquet. He sat at the dining table as she brought out course after course, finally ariving with a turkey big enough to feed a family of six. She handed him a large carving knife and two-pronged fork. “You carve, sweetheart. I like to see a man carve the bird”. Roger didn’t have the heart to tell her he was already full, and sliced off a few pieces of the breast meat, declining a leg in addition. When they had eaten that, she suggested they wait until she brought out the pudding and cream.

He nodded, much relieved.

Trying not to doze off on the sofa, he listened as Delia droned on about it being a perfect day, and how many more perfect days they would enjoy together. Then just after five that evening, the doorbell sounded. Delia looked at him, and raised her eyebrows. “Who could that be? I am not expecting anyone”. She got up off of the sofa, and Roger followed her to the front door.

It was Riku Yamada.

Yamada was apologetic. “Sorry to disturb your Christmas, but I have a request”. Delia invited him in, but he declined. “I would like to invite you to come with me to the lakeside house. I have the car of course, and will be happy to bring you back later. You can both come, and will learn something quite monumental. I wanted to leave it until tomorrow, but Emily was insistent”.

They both agreed, without hesitation.

In the comfort of the Rolls-Royce on the way, Delia had a question. “Tell me, how did you know that Roger was at my house? And how did you know where I live?” Yamada smiled. “That is also something that will be revealed soon. Emily made a big decision this morning, and it will change your life”.

Roger was sorry he had accepted a large glass of port after dinner, and hoped his head would stay clear. He had no real idea what was going on, but from what Yamada was saying, that seemed to confirm that Emily was definitely calling the shots.

At the house, the metal gates were already open, and as the car drove through them, they began to close. In the living room, Emily was waiting, dressed in a simple white dress and knee socks. She seemed quite calm, even serene. Delia and Roger declined an offer of drinks, then both sat opposite the girl. Yamada stood by the huge window, looking awkward. Emily turned to him. “Show them”.

He produced a device from his pocket, and walked over to show it to them. It had a screen that showed a red dot on a small map, and the map contained the street where Delia lived. “It’s called a Tracker. Emily put the transmitter under the wheelarch of your car some time ago. It shows on this receiver, tells me where your car is, and if it is moving. That’s how I knew where you were”. As he walked back to the window, Emily began speaking to them.

“I am about to tell you things. They are all true, but you will not believe me, and you might even think I am insane. You cannot take any notes, I’m afraid, and please do not interrupt me. Any questions you have will be answered in good time”. Delia wasn’t waiting to ask her question. “Why Roger? Why us? How did you choose us to reveal yourself?” Roger looked sideways at her. She seemed to undersand much more than he did.

Emily answered patiently. “I don’t have a lot of time. I needed people who were interested, intelligent, and reliable. You have been looking into my background, and I have been aware that Mr Gale was suspicious of my educational level. He involved you in his research, so I thought it only right and proper that you should be here this evening”. Delia nodded, and the girl continued.

“It is now December, 1968. Next July, the Americans will land men on The Moon. You may have read that they plan to do this, I can tell you it will be successful. In November 1989, Germany will be unified, after the Berlin Wall is taken down. In February 2022, Russia will invade Ukraine, setting in motion a war that will eventually spread across Europe, and involve America. In the winter of 2087, a high tide will engulf most of southern England, spreading as far as London, which will become uninhabitable. I could go on, but I think you get the idea”. She turned to Yamada. “Show them”.

Walking to a unit against the back wall, he reached into a cupboard and came back with what looked like a very slim book. When he opened it, a light came on, and revealed text. He handed it to Roger. “Just pass your hand over it to move to the next page”.

For the next fifteen minutes, Roger and Delia flicked through the electronic pages, most of which listed cataclysmic events as historical fact. The melting of the ice caps on both poles flooding huge populated areas, increasing temperatures burning up most forests, and crop failures that caused hundreds of millions of deaths. A world war fought over fresh water, and the end of oil and coal production when it just ran out.

They both knew it wasn’t a joke, but it was too much to take in.

Closing the strange book, Roger placed it on the coffee table. Emily stared across at him. “Now you understand, but you need to know much more”. She turned to Yamada. “Coffee for our guests, I think”.

When the coffee arrived, a subdued Roger and Delia waited untl Emily started speaking again. The sheer enormity of what they had learned so far hadn’t really sunk in, and it was naturally hard to comprehend. But neither of them protested or scoffed. They both believed her.

“I am from what you currently call Germany, at a time in the future when we no longer use place names, dates or calendars that you would recognise. After the various disastrous events you have read about on the recall device, the decision was made to move human civilisation underground. The projects started on each continent, but were not all successful. Britain was not suitable, but colonies were built in Germany and France, also in America, Japan, and Sweden. As you can imagine, this took hundreds of years, and did not include the poorer nations of the world at that time. They were left to fend for themselves, and Russia and China made their preparations in secret”.

Delia had a question that wouldn’t wait.

“So are you really a child of eleven? And what is the role of Riku here?” Emily seemed a little exasperated, but answered anyway.

“I am myself at the age of eleven, as you see me. But where I come from, I am close to what you would consider to be very old. Perhaps eighty, to give you some perspective. But in the future that is not old, as age is irrelevant to a large extent. As for Yamada, he is my guardian in this time period. Tell them, Yamada”.

Riku sat down.

“Okay, so I am from San Francisco, in this time. I am forty-six years old, and have Japanese-American heritage. People like Emily need to have a guardian. They don’t understand how things work in their past, so they need instruction. They also need watching, as they have to be very careful not to get seriously injured or die in this time. That’s why she does no sports, and no swimming. Where she comes from, swimming and sports are unknown anyway. Exercise is also limited, so she tires very easily. Before me, Erika Richter was her guardian, but she was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I was brought over. I used to be the guardian of a Japanese teenager who travelled back to live in San Francisco. But he stupidly went out on his own and was run down by a car. It’s hard to find good guardians, as it is a stressful job involving a lot of care and attention, and a lot of lying!” He smiled at that.

Delia spoke up again. “What about the diamonds? Don’t you have money? How do you cope with everyday expenses, and running the household bills?” He looked at Emily, and she nodded.

“Well no, money as we understand it doesn’t exist in their time. But they have been coming back throughout our history, and used advance knowledge to secure fortunes in valuable stones, gold, anything of value that could be traded. They bought land and houses with it, like this one. It was built for one of them in thirty-eight, before the war. And the house you came to in London was bought by another one of them in the early nineteenth century. Worth a small fortune at today’s value. They have land and houses all around the world, and they pass them on from guardian to guardian in wills. It has worked as a system since the middle ages. Same with all the documents, like Emily’s birth certificate. They just apply for duplicates of people who have died, and use them as needed. Emily Hartmann is not her real name, and she was not born to parents as you and I understand it”.

Emily raised her hand, and he stopped talking. She took over.

“The guardians are well-paid of course, and carefully chosen. None of them have children or close relatives. None of them are married, none have criminal records or bad reputations in their communities. They are set for life, after twenty-five years of service. Given enough valuables to live in comfort, and a house in the country of their choosing. None of them would ever tell their stories anyway, as trying to explain all of this would make people think they were crazy. Unfortunately, Erika contracted cancer, and we had to find a replacement for her. But she will get extra medical treatment, and help at home until she dies”.

She turned to Yamada again. “More coffee. It is going to be a long night”.

Delia had something to say once the fresh coffee arrived.

“We have seen those electronic screens, but they don’t explain how you can move through time. Do you have anything else to show us, Emily?” The girl nodded.

“Finish your coffee, and I will show you things you cannot imagine. Even when you see them, you won’t understand them, believe me. You can ask questions about anything, but I cannot guarantee that you will comprehend the science behind the answers. I do not mean to sound patronising when I say that, but the technology we use every day is centuries ahead of anything you can even imagine”.

Roger hadn’t said anything previously, but then he asked her why she had shown such promise in some classes, but not in others. He mentioned her bad spelling in English, and her rudeness to the Religious Education teacher.

“I am always looking for the more intelligent and adaptable teachers. They might make good guardians, or be more inclined to help me generally. I do not consider the English teacher and the RE teacher to be suitable. But Miss Reiss had potential, as do you. So I made sure to do well in those classes, to bring attention to myself. In your case, it worked. As for Miss Reiss, she made an assumption based on my current name without taking me very seriously. Where I come from, we can learn a language fluently in the space of a few hours of your time. We have implants inserted in our brains not long after birth, and that makes it possible to learn a great deal in a very short space of time. In fact, there are no schools, at least not as you understand them now”.

Putting down her cup, Delia wanted to know something.

“How far in the future do you come from? Can you put that into some perspective we can understand?” Emily thought for a moment.

“In your calendar, it is currently nineteen sixty-eight. That means it is one thousand nine hundred and sixty-eight years after the birth of Christ, who many of you worship as a God. In other cultures, the years are different. For instance in the Muslim world, China, and Judaism. But try to imagine three times the current year. Three times the amount of years since your Christ was born. That would give you an approximate date of five thousand, nine hundred and four. Not that the date really means anything, for as we have found out in the future, time is nothing like you imagine it now. Would you like a break? I appreciate this is all far too much to understand this evening”.

Roger shook his head and told her to carry on. His postprandial tiredness had disappeared in an instant once they had arrived at the lakeside house.

“In the time where I live, humans have to do very little. We study, we learn, we try to improve and develop. Since the discovery of time-shifting, we also travel. But we can only travel back. One law we soon discovered is that travel into the future will never be possible. Becuase the future does not exist until it has happened. So, to explain. Tomorrow, I can travel back to today, but not to the day after tomorrow. However, I can travel back to any time in my life, then from there travel back in time to any date I choose. When I do that, I have all my accumulated knowledge as an elder, and in this case as an eleven year-old girl. Meanwhile, my actual self remains in my time, in stasis. My vital functions maintained by computers, and by robotic artifical intelligence”.

Interrupting, Delia had something to say. “What is artificial intelligence?” Emily pursed her lips.

“I will not try to explain that tonight, but consider what you already know. Machines that make things, machines that make light work of human labour. You even have the basics of computing, with machines that use punch cards to make calculations. In your lifetimes, machines will do so much more. They will manufacture cars, sort parcel deliveries, operate on people requiring delicate surgery. When you are both old, telephones will be portable, and fit in your pocket. You will all have devices like my recall device that can access every single piece of information you can ever need. Students will learn on computer terminals, and games on home computers will replace toys. This is the period in history when technology accelerates. By the time you are both dead, nobody will fail to understand such progress”.

Looking rather uncomfortable, Delia stood up and spoke to Yamada.

“If it is alright with you, I would like you to take us home now. I need a break, even if Roger doesn’t”.

As they were leaving, Emily walked up and touched Roger’s shoulder. “Please come back tomorrow, you can telephone the house and Riku will collect you, or just drive over anytime”.

The drive back to Delia’s house was quiet. Yamada didn’t say anything, and Delia sat holding Roger’s hand very tightly. When they got back inside her house, Roger asked why she had wanted to leave.

“If what she is telling us is true, then she knows everything. Wars, famine, disasters, even the dates we will both die. I don’t want to know all that my love, I don’t want to sit anticipating terrible events, knowing they are going to occur when she told us they would. It is too much, it really is. I wish I had never heard what we have already been told. I feel drained, can we just go to bed and go to sleep now?”

Delia was genuinely exhausted and was soon sleeping soundly. Roger was far too excited to sleep. He had not questioned a thing they had been told, because he instinctively believed it was all true. As an historian, he had spent his life looking back into the past, but now he could do the opposite, he could know what was going to happen, not just what had already happened. And if they had been travelling back for centuries, imagine the depth of the first-hand experiences they might have. They could have stood on the Forum in Rome, or watched the Pyramids being constructed in Egypt.

He was going back, and nothing would stop him.

On the morning of Boxing Day, Delia was calmer. As she served up some breakfast, Roger told her he was going back as soon as they had eaten. He expected an argument, perhaps even a tantrum. Delia gently stroked his face. “You go, my love. Go and discover what you need to know, but please come back to me tonight and tell me some of it. But not all of it. I don’t want to know about any more terrible things, and I definitely don’t want to know when I will die”.

The gates were already open, so Roger drove straight in. Yamada opened the door and waved. “She’s waiting for you”.

Emily was standing in the hallway wearing pyjamas with a penguin pattern. That made her look much younger. There were no formalities or pleasantries. “You must want to know how it works, so follow me and I will show you”. Yamada remained in the living room. They must have decided that Emily had no need of a chaperone. Along the corridor where the doors had been locked, she opened one and he walked in behind her. The room was around twelve feet square, and empty. When she passed her hand over the blank wall at the back, a blue light came on, shimmering and cascading. It reminded Roger of a waterfall, but made no sound.

“This is a portal. It leads back to when I was eleven in my own time. We can only bring through what we can carry, but we can make unlimited trips. The main thing I have to explain to you is the difference in time. Not just in years, but in the way it works. I have been living in your time since I was eight years old, so just over three years. But in my time that is a moment, a heartbeat. When I go through the light and back into myself at the age of eleven, it is as if no time has passed. And there is another portal there that takes me back to any time in my life I choose, and eventually back to my older body, in stasis. Once I choose to return to that, I live again as a woman of eighty. Do you understand?”

Roger was nodding, but inside he was still trying to grasp what she was saying. She sensed that.

“Look at it like this. I have aged three years in your time. I have grown up, and gone from the ages of eight to eleven. But all I have actually done is to inhabit your time as myself at those ages. In reality, I have not aged here at all, and never will. Where I come from, age is relative. Our bodies age a little, but not as people do in your time. There is no disease, and regeneration by foetal cell implantation is usual. Before travelling back, we have to undergo extensive vaccination procedures, as we otherwise have no resistance to the diseases of the time we choose to go to. If we die in the past, we do not exist in the future. That is our dilemma, and the risk we must take”.

The pounding in his head was becoming something like a migraine, and Roger tried to fight the discomfort. Emily mistook that for confusion. “You do not seem convinced. So I will show you something that might help you to believe me”.

With that, she walked through the blue light into the portal and disappeared.

Two minutes after Emily had walked through the blue light, a woman appeared in the portal and walked into the room. She looked to be about thirty years old, full figured, and very attractive. Her clothing was a long dress, in a shiny bronze-coloured material. Roger took some steps back, and she raised her hand.

“Don’t be afraid, sir. It is just me, but at a different time in my life. If you want proof I can name some of my classmates at your school, or recite my last homework essay. I just wanted to show you what I have told you is true. This is me at a stage of my life that you might recognise as being forty years old, but in my world that is only a fraction of my life expectancy. I would be considered young, almost childish by your standards. Let’s go into the living room, and I will tell you more”.

There was no sign of Yamada, and the older version of Emily sat down next to him on the sofa.

“I will go through some of the basics for you, and I am sure you will be able to picture my time. There are no parents as you know them. Babies are born in laboratories using eggs and sperm taken from suitable candidates. There are no birth defects, no hereditary diseases, and there is strict control of genetics and gender. Every racial type is preserved, and only so many of the babies are allowed to grow to full term in each cycle. The resources are limited, and must be preserved. Over-population would be disastrous. The babies not integrated into the population are used to provide stem cells to prolong the lives of those that are, and those who go full term are cared for in special nurseries, tended by robotic nursing staff. The population of Earth is strictly controlled by mutual agreement. Just enough to continue our research, and to allow us to progress into our uncertain future”.

Roger was rubbing his head in his hands, and Emily paused to let him recover his wits.

“Because there are no animals, we exist on a vegetarian diet, supplemented by nutritional aids. There is no crime or violence, so no police are required. There are no wars, so no armies are necessary. It is a life of contemplation, almost monastic in practice. There is no marriage, no sex between genders, so no jealousy, no frustration, and anger is almost unknown. One thing that makes it difficult for us when we travel is having to endure spitefulness, bad temper, anger, and occasionally violence. None of us have experienced any of this where we come from. It can be a terrible shock. In fact, it has caused many travellers to return after a few days, never wanting to go back in time again”.

He wanted to know why they travelled back in time at all, when they already knew what had happened. She grinned.

“Why do people in this time want to go on holiday to foreign countries, when they can see what they are like on television? Why do people travel to Paris to see The Mona Lisa, when they can see a picture of it in a magazine? Why visit a zoo to see a lion when so many films and TV shows have already showed you what they look like? It is curiosty, and a desire to experience the difference. We live in individual units, just large enough for our needs. We rarely meet other people, as we can communicate electronically. There is no desire to travel within our own time, as every underground city complex is identical, and the surface of the planet is too dangerous to go out onto. So we seek our gratification and life experience by travelling back in time. That is one of the main reasons that our elders spent so long developing the structure to make it possible. And when you can spend a year watching the Norman invasion of England, and return home when only a few moments have passed, who would not want to be able to do that?”

He wanted to know how they financed their world of the future. She thought about that before answering.

“There is no fiscal structure. The machinery is self-perpetuating, and maintained by robotic droids that can exist on the surface. Food and clothing is made and issued by different automatons as and when needed. There is no alcohol, no tobacco, no fashion industry, and no charge for accommodation or electricity to run our lives. Once personal possessions and wealth were pointless, greed ceased to exist. When there is nothing to steal, crime does not exist. Our lives are simply lived in the pursuit of knowledge, with the idea that humans will never make the same mistakes they are making now. And one day, there might be hope of some kind of return to culture and innovation. But as things stand, nobody in my time feels the need for change”.

She stood up. “I am going to return to my eleven year old self now, I won’t be gone long”.

When the eleven year-old Emily returned to the room, Roger had made up his mind to ask her something. As soon as she sat down, he asked her if she had some idea of asking him to be a guardian.

“I can see why you might think that, but I have a very different offer in mind for you. It is something that has only been done a few times, and it must be approached with great care. However, in the last few months I have come to the conclusion that you would be a perfect candidate. As far as Delia is concerned, she will indeed be offered the chance to become a guardian. In fact, she will be asked to become my guardian. Yamada has been requesting a return to America, and we have a project for him in Califoria that he is most suited for. If Delia agrees, she would become my guardian after New Year, before the school starts again.

She hesitated for a second, then lowered her voice slightly.

“It will involve moving location to Edinburgh, as I intend to change to the age of eighteen and attend university in Scotland. I will pay the fees as a private student and Yamada has arranged the sale of some diamonds to fund all that. We also have a house there, so the move north will be easy. I want you to ask her. And I would like you to convince her”.

He was far from sure that Delia would agree, but told Emily he would do his best to sell her on the idea.

“As for you, I think you will be excited at what I have in mind for you. You would become one of the elite, one of the few chosen to travel forward through the portal into our time, and then be able to go back to any time of your choosing. As a History teacher, I suspect that would appeal to you. Once you are in one of the cities of the future, you would receive all the medical treatment necessary to extend your life to at least twice of what you can expect if you stay here in your time. Your life experience in our past would be invaluable, and you would become something like a university professor, refining our knowledge of this period. Does that idea appeal to you? I appreciate it may be very scary to contemplate, but you do not have long to make up your mind. If you agree to go, it will happen on the thirty-first, in a few days’ time”.

When he nodded that he understood, she continued.

“To make it work will require an implant, similar to the type we all have. The portal will recognise someone with that specific implant, and allow travel back and forth in time. This will mean a small surgical procedure that will be carried out by a robotic device that I will bring back through the portal. It is not painful, but it will require that you rest here for twenty-four hours while your brain adjusts. That means that you have to decide soon, and have the implant procedure on the thirtieth. Perhaps it is best if you go back to Delia’s now, and talk it through with her”.

Delia was excited when she opened the door. “I was worried, my love. Come inside and have a drink, then you can tell me all about it”. After giving him a large glass of white wine, she patted the cushion next to her on the sofa, and he sat where she had indicated. For the next hour, she listened without interruption as he told her every detail of what had happened at the lakeside house. She sat thinking for a full ten minutes before speaking.

“Well you wouldn’t have to be gone forever, surely? You could choose to come back at some stage, couldn’t you? I mean, if I am to be Emily’s guardian in Edinburgh, then she will have one of those portal things, and you could come back and visit whenever you wanted. I can understand why you might want to do it, I really can. But you only have three days to make such a huge decision, and we would both have to contact the headmaster and make up some story about why both of us are leaving. Perhaps it is best to sleep on it tonight, and approach it all with a clear head tomorrow morning. Let’s go upstairs, my darling”.

Roger didn’t need to sleep on it. His destiny had arrived.

The atmosphere in Delia’s house was subdued the next morning. It was a very cold day, and she had her central heating on a high setting. But Roger was not used to it, and felt uncomfortably hot. By the time he sat down at the table for breakfast, he was losing his appetite. Delia assumed that meant he was undecided, and she launched into what sounded like a very well-rehearsed speech.

“You know I was hoping that we might become more than just two people seeing each other. I hadn’t ruled out the idea that in time we would get married. Now all this crazy stuff to do with Emily has come along, and I have to say it has turned my world upside down. I’m not saying I don’t believe what she has told us, or what we have seen with our own eyes, but I just wish she had never come to our school, and we had never heard of her”.

She spread some butter far too thickly on a slice of toast, and Roger resisted the urge to tell her that without Emily, nothing would ever have happened between them. He had come to really like Delia in a short space of time, but compared to what was on offer from Emily, Delia’s bedroom specialities were not going to keep him there. The next thing she said surprised him.

“But I see no reason to stop you doing something so potentially amazing, on the understanding that you come back to me one day soon. After all, you can travel to all manner of places and times, and still return to me as you are now. I mean, that’s what Emily said, isn’t it?” He didn’t want to burst her balloon by telling her it wasn’t as simple as that, so just nodded as he chewed some bacon. That seemed to seal the deal.

“Well then, I agree. Why not? I will be Emily’s guardian, as long as she doesn’t treat me like a servant. The way she speaks to Yamada is not very nice at all. I will have to make it clear to her that she will not be able to treat me the same way. And if she wants to have a car in Edinburgh, she will have to employ a chauffeur or use taxis. I’m not going to contemplate learning to drive at my time of life”. She reached over to pour more tea from the pot for both of them.

“As you have to go so soon, I would like us to spend at least one full day here together today. We have all that food left over from Christmas, lots to drink, and we could spend the whole afternoon in bed to make up for what we are going to miss when your are off time-jumping, or whatever they call it. Okay?” He had been hoping to go and see Emily again, to find out more about the life he could expect in one of her underground cities. But Delia needed his reassurance, so he smiled and agreed that she was right.

She was sleeping later, after the protracted sex. But Roger was lying awake, imagining the places and times he would choose to visit, aware that Delia would age while he was gone, and not relative to him. To his way of thinking, living in a small unit with no distractions to interfere with his studies sounded perfect. A society of pure research and learning, all the basic needs supplied with not having to go shopping, prepare meals, or worry about what to wear. Life without the routine and deadlines of schoolteaching seemed ideal. Emily had been right about Delia though. She was better suited to being a guardian. She had a caring nature, and enjoyed looking after people. Well she certainly looked after him, in the short time they had been together. Far better than Diana ever had.

Delia must have been tired, because she was still asleep when he got up to go downstairs and make himself a snack. It was after six when she appeared, her hair in disarray, and her mood sour. “You should have woken me. I was going to prepare a nice evening meal for us, and look my best. Now it’s too late. I’m going back up to have a bath”.

Giving up on his sandwich, Roger sighed. He didn’t want their last few days together to end badly.

The next morning, there was lots to do. Delia contacted the headmaster at home, and told him that her and Roger had to move away to look after a relative in Scotland. She would send him a forwarding address in due course, but both would be leaving without notice. Stephen Hoare was not best pleased, and Roger could hear his raised voice even though Delia was holding the phone close to her face.

“Well, I have never heard the like of it. Gale will be leaving his class in the lurch, and I will have to get a supply teacher to start immediately. He can say goodbye to a decent reference, I can tell you that. As for you, Delia, I am sorry to hear you have to move away to look after someone. There will always be a job here for you if you ever come back. Joan can take over your role until we can find someone of your standard, she know the ropes well enough”.

Next, Delia made a call to a local estate agent. He seemed keen to talk, on the usually quiet first day of opening after Christmas. She asked him to come and look at her house at his earliest convenience, with a view to finding respectable tenants for a long-term rental. It would be rented fully furnished, with every necessary item left in place. The young man agreed to come and give an appraisal at three that afternoon, assuring her he had a list of very suitable potential renters. Then she rang a local removal company, and arranged for them to come and pack her clothes and personal items the next day, with a view to moving them north to Scotland very soon.

As for Roger, he would pay his rent up until the end of the month, and send a letter to the landlord giving notice. His personal items would be packed up and sent into storage, using the same removal company as Delia. She would arrange to pay the storgage fees through her bank account, using money supplied by Emily bringing back precious stones and gold. His main concern was his massive collection of books, but Emily had assured him that once he had the implant, he could read anything that had ever been published, in any language. All he would have to do was to close his eyes and think of the title.

When the young man had been and offered a surprsingly large monthly rental, less a fifteen percent management fee, Delia sat down and talked at length about how she expected Roger to come back from the future and visit her. It was much the same thing, repeated in a roundabout fashion.

“I will expect you back for my birthday of course, and Christmas. I am sure you will soon work out how to arrange a short visit, even if only overnight. You will be able to tell me lots of fascinating stories about all the things you have seen, and in due course you may tire of that, and decide to stay with us in Scotland”. She continued saying much the same thing for well over an hour, and it only stopped when she decided to cook an early dinner.

On the twenty-ninth, Roger returned home to supervise the removal men as they packed his things. He sent the letter to his landlord, and chose what to wear the next day, the day he would have the implant fitted. He had promised Delia that she could come to the lakeside house with him, as he would have to stay overnight to recover from the procedure. Clutching at straws, Delia phoned him at home that evening.

“My darling, it’s not too late to back out. I’m sure you must be nervous, even afraid of what might await you in Emily’s world. We can contact the headmaster and tell him we don’t need to go to Scotland after all. You can leave your things in storage and move in with me, and we can both go back to work after the new year as if nothing had happened”. Her tone was upbeat, but inside she feared the worst. When he said he had to go ahead with the plans, those fears were realised.

“Well at least I will be there with you to wish you Bon Voyage”.

When Emily opened the front door, Roger and Delia were both taken aback. She was now around eighteen years old, and dressed like many students of the time in a short denim dress and purple tights. Her hair was loose, and rested on her shoulders. Seeing their faces, the girl laughed. “I changed up to eighteen, to be ready for university. I think it’s a good look”.

Roger carried Delia’s cases from the car. She had packed enough clothes and essentials for the first couple of weeks in Edinburgh, and had a separate overnight bag ready for that evening. Emily was bubbly and cheerful. “Yamada has gone. He returned his car to the the hire company on his way to Heathrow, and will probably be arriving in California soon. He has sent a letter to the school telling them that we both had to return to America, so I will not be back next term”.

As Roger placed his car keys on the hall table, Emily nodded at them. Just leave your car here. It may be useful if anyone else comes to live here at some stage”. Then she turned to Delia. “My new name will be Anne Fraser. I have documents stating that I have been at school in America, but want to return to Scotland where I was born. You are going to have to get used to calling me Anne before we get to Edinburgh, and there are guardianship papers for you to sign later.”

She showed them into a room overlooking the lake, containing a large double bed. Next to the bed was a strange device, a metal box about the size of a small television, with what looked like a metallic crab on top of it. “This is the robotic device that will insert your implant. It will not be painful, but will take some getting used to. I will guide you through the process once it is in place. Then you can spend the night together here before going through the portal tomorrow. Shall we start?”

Delia had been expecting some kind of farewell party and some personal time together, so she was shocked that the procedure was going to happen immediately. She sat in a small armchair as Roger got onto the bed and Emily manouvered the machine into place. When she activated it, an orange glow surrounded it and one of the crab-like arms extended out to touch Roger’s head just below his right ear. There was a noise like a high-pressure spray, and Roger flinched. Emily reassured them both. “Just the anaesthetic”.

A second arm extended, holding a long needle something like a hypodermic. It slid smoothly into Roger’s head as Emily watched. “Stay very still, it will be over in seconds. The implant is no larger than a shirt button, so you will not feel it once it is in place”. There was a whirring sound, followed by an audible click, and the long needle withdrew back into the arm, then back inside the small robot. Emily leaned forward and attached what looked like a small sticking plaster over the tiny hole it had made. But it wasn’t the skin-coloured fabric they were familiar with, more like a metallic mesh. She seemed pleased. “There, it’s all over. Lie still for one hour, and try not to move your head at all”.

With that, she picked up the machine and left the room, smiling at them from the doorway. “I am just going to send this back”.

For the next hour, Delia chatted to Roger about anything and nothing, as he stayed still on the bed. Then Emily returned. “I need to speak to Roger now, Delia. There is food in the kitchen, and any refreshments you desire. Can I ask you to please leave us alone for a while? You will have all night to say your farewells”. Delia wasn’t hungry, but she went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. Then she crept back to stand outside the room, hoping to be able to eavesdrop through the door. But the door and walls were too solid to be able to make out specific words, and all she could tell was that Emily was doing all the talking.

Emily came to find her in the living room after a couple of hours had passed. “Roger is sleeping now. You can go back to the room and spend the rest of his time here with him, but please try not to wake him up”.

It was a disturbed night for Delia, lying next to the man she loved. Despite what she had been asked she did try to rouse him, but he didn’t wake up. By the time dawn arrived on the thirty-first, she was aching all over, and had hardly slept. Emily arrived in the room, and Roger’s eyes opened immediately, as if a switch had been flicked. The girl looked down at him, and he smiled at her. “It’s time. Shall we go to the portal?” Roger nodded, and got up from the bed.

Feeling shaky, Delia held Emily’s hand as Roger stood in front of the cascading blue light. He turned and smiled once, before walking into the light and disappearing. Moments later, the blue light disappeared, and a blank wall was left in its place. Delia gasped. The girl put her arm around her, and spoke quietly. “It’s okay. The new portal in Scotland will be activated now, and this one will cease to exist”. Delia was trying not to cry as she asked the question.

“So Roger will be able to come back and see us in Edinburgh, then?” Emily shook her head.

“Oh that won’t be possible. Two of us cannot exist in the same time frame. Roger knew that, I told him earlier”. She released her arm.

“Come now, Delia. We have much to do”.

The End.

Just The Driver: The Complete Story

This is all 20 parts of my recent serial compiled into one complete story, plus the epilogue. It is a long read, at 17,700 words.

**Contains some swearing!**

I bumped into Nicky again that Friday night in a Bermondsey pub that I liked to hang out in occasionally. Between girlfriends, most mates married or shacked-up, it was nice to be able to go for a drink where people knew your name, and you had more than a few nodding acquaintances propping up the bar.

He was playing the records in the corner, on two decks. Not exactly an official DJ, but he knew what people liked, and the owner slipped him a few quid for his trouble. He grinned as he saw me, and I bought him a beer and took it over. Same old Nicky, slim to the extent of having no spare flesh, and that nervy way of moving that was just shy of a twitch. He was called Nicky because his surname was Nicola. His dad had come over from Cyprus, and he had that black hair and sallow complexion from his genes.

Nobody ever called him anything but Nicky. To be honest, I don’t think any of us knew his first name.

For over a year, I had been working the cabs in South London. Unlicensed taxis, pre-booked only. One of my other mates had got me into it, when I saw how much money could be made, and you could work when you liked. Pay the boss of the cab company a fixed fee to have the radio in your car, show him your taxi insurance and driving licence, and that was it. Everything else you earned was yours, in cash. You got a number that was your callsign to use on the two-way radio, and anytime you wanted to work, you just booked on. I bought myself a new Hillman Hunter, and the next day I was a cabbie.

Despite the music, it wasn’t busy in the pub that night. Tony the owner was upstairs in the flat, leaving the bar to his wife. I managed to have a chat to Nicky when he took a break, and he finished playing the records just before the official closing time of eleven. There was going to be some after-time drinking and card playing, but I didn’t have the money to lose on Three-Card Brag. So when Nicky’s cab failed to turn up, I offered to give him a lift to his place in Thamesmead. It wasn’t exactly out of my way, as I had gone back to living at home, and my parents’ house was in a more genteel suburb a few miles further on.

On the way, Nicky didn’t stop talking. He seemed wired, and I felt sure he had been snorting coke in the pub toilet. When we stopped outside his block on the estate, he was adamant I should go in with him for a drink. “Patsy will love to see you, Paul, and you have never seen little Suzy, she’s two now”.

Up in the flat, you could be forgiven for thinking you were anywhere but Thamesmead. The interior was nothing like you might expect to find in that huge social housing complex on the edges of South London, just inside the Borough of Greenwich. Everything was first rate, from the latest fridge-freezer, to a state of the art TV. Patsy was pleased to see me, and I was able to not look too doe-eyed at the woman I had a terrible crush on. Her mum Janey was there too, and despite the late hour, both the kids were up playing. Little Suzy (with a Z) and five year-old Marky.

It struck me as I sat there with my beer that I was the only person in the flat whose name didn’t end in Y.

Once the kids were in bed, and Janey had gone home to her flat in the same block, I was sat there chatting with Nicky and Patsy, when he suddenly put a proposition to me.

“Look, Paul. You know I’m banned from driving, and it is really affecting my business. I have things to do most weeknights, and I just can’t rely on cabs being available. How about you drive me around instead? I will pay the cab fare, whatever it comes to, cash every night. You can come and have dinner with me and Patsy about six, then drive me around during the night while I do my thing. What do you say?”

Thinking it over, I knew for sure that whatever Nicky’s thing was, it would be illegal. I told him I lived a very straight life, and couldn’t afford to get nicked by the police. He nodded frantically as I spoke, his mouth ready with the answer as soon as I stopped talking.

“But you will only be the cabbie. Just the driver”.

By the time I left Nicky’s flat it was after two in the morning, and I had agreed to give his plan a go, starting the following Monday. I knew that the only reason I had gone along with it was because I would be seeing much more of Patsy, and to be able to hang around their flat four or five nights a week. Besides, I was drifting through life. Early twenties, unsure of what I wanted to do with my future, and the prospect of being part of that small community appealed to me in many ways.

He wasn’t there when I turned up just after six. Patsy had already fed the kids, and her and her mum were sorting out the dinner for the grown-ups. When Nicky turned up, we had already eaten, and he said not to bother for him, as he had been in a Wimpy Bar most of the afternoon. ” I had a Wimpy Grill about two, and five or six coffees since. I’m fine”. He went into the bedroom and returned clutching an Adidas holdall that only had one handle. “Shall we get going then?”

It was already dark, and raining lightly. He asked me to take him to the Ferrier Estate at Kidbrooke. I told him to sit in the back, so he looked like a cab fare. It was a twenty-five minute journey that took almost an hour in the tail end of the rush hour traffic. I parked in Lebrun Square, and he disappeared into one of the nearby blocks of flats. It wasn’t a comfortable place to be sitting around on your own in. One of the burglary hotspots of London, and home to various teenage gangs that would think nothing of smashing up my car for a laugh, before robbing whatever money I had on me. The telescopic wheelbrace hidden under my seat didn’t exactly make me feel safe.

When he came back, he was accompanied by two men. They had a family resemblance that was undeniable, and both were wearing Fred Perry polo shirts, Farah Sta-Prest trousers, and leather loafers. I was introduced to them as Big Buster and Little Buster. My confusion was immediate, as Little Buster was the son, but was twice the size of his dad, Big Buster. They got in the car with Nicky, and he asked me to drive to the Lord Napier pub in Greenwich. That was just across the road from the office of the taxi firm where I worked, so I parked up the side of the pub so I wouldn’t be spotted.

They were inside for ages, and I was starting to get really bored. Looking in the rear-view mirror I noticed that a lot of the people were going into the pub alone, mostly young men, and they were leaving soon after, hardly time to have drunk one beer. I may not have been a criminal, but I knew enough to guess that Nicky was dealing drugs in there, probably under a table in a corner, or in the Gent’s toilets. The Busters must have been his protection, in case someone tried to turn him over.

It dragged on for so long, I was just about to get out of the car and go into the pub to make sure they were still in there, when a sudden knock on the passenger door window made me jump out of my skin. Two men were standing there, dressed scruffily. One was holding a wallet, with a badge in the flap. He motioned for me to wind down the window.

“Polce, mate. You’ve been here a long time. What’s the story?”

I told him I was a cabbie, and had brought someone to the pub who had asked me to wait for him. I showed him one of the business cards advertising the taxi firm across the road, and he seemed happy enough. But the older one wasn’t happy. He walked around to my side, opened the door, and said, “Let’s see what’s in the boot, and your licence and insurance while we are at it”. I opened the boot to show him a spare wheel, an empty petrol can, and a spare fanbelt. There was an adjustable spanner, a screwdriver, and an empty Tizer bottle. He held out his hand for my documents, and shone a small torch on them to read them properly.

Just at that moment, Nicky and the two Busters came out of the pub by the side door. They took one look at the two men talking to me, saw the torch shining, and went back into the pub. Handing back the documents, the older copper changed his tone to friendly.

“So you are just waiting for him? What’s he doing in there, just having a drink?” I shrugged, and smiled politely.

“No idea, officer. I don’t know him, I’m just the driver”.

When the two coppers got fed up hassling me and left, I headed into the pub to tell Nicky the coast was clear. By then it was almost closing time anyway, so he said to take them back. I dropped the two Busters at the Ferrier, then as I was driving back to Thamesmead, Nicky launched into a load of paranoid chat about how come I had attracted their attention, and what did I say to them about him.

That wasn’t surprising, considering how well known he was to the police. Although he had escaped any jail time, he had been nicked more times that he could remember. He had been charged with so many driving offences for never having a driving licence that they had eventually just decided to fine him a grand. That was so much money, he had to sell his car to pay it. There was no point banning him again, as he didn’t have a licence to ban in the first place. Since then, he had decided to keep a lower profile by never being seen driving a car.

Trouble was, people like him and Patsy, her mum Jeany and all their friends didn’t do buses and trains. They needed to be in a motor to stash their stuff, so they had all become dependent on cabs. That was more expensive than running a car, so that cost had to be factored in when selling the stolen goods, or even the drugs. Most of their customers hadn’t taken kindly to the price increases, so they all had to become twice as busy to make up the shortfall. Then there was the trust factor. Using unlicensed cabs meant you never knew who was driving, and whether or not they would grass you up.

That was where I came in, and why I got the offer.

By the time we got outside his flats, he had calmed down and apologised. He weighed me up in cash for the cab fare and waiting time, and didn’t bat an eyelid about how much it was. “Okay, see you tomorow, same time? By the way, can you do me a favour first, I’ll pay the fare. I need you to pop down to the Ancient Foresters and see Mickey Shaughnessy. He’s bound to be in the bar by half-five, and I have this for him”. He started to root around in the Adidas bag.

I was smiling to myself at how casual he was. That pub was in Bermondsey, hardly on the way from my place to Thamesmead. It meant me driving all the way into the area, then all the way back to Nicky’s place to pick him up. I suggested I pick him up first, then he could go in and see Shaughnessy himself. He shook his head. “No, I can’t be seen in there. I owe some money to Freddie Foreman, got to keep out of his way”.

That made me raise my eyebrows. Mickey Shaughnessy was bad enough, what the yanks would have called a hoodlum. Small time enforcer, sometime armed robber, and used by bigger fish to enforce protection rackets. But Freddie Foreman was a different matter. He was mainstream gangster, hard all the way, and an associate of the Krays. He was the got-to man to dispose of bodies of other gangsters, and pretty much untouchable. The Foresters was his pub, despite someone else’s name being over the door. I certainly didn’t want to get involved with his grief. Shaughnessy was approachable, but only just. Unpredictable, probably mentally unstable, and always carried a shooter.

But get mixed up with Freddie Foreman, and my body could end up in the cement propping up a motorway bridge.

He was still holding something in the bag, when he asked me another favour. “I know you don’t usually work days, but I need you to run Patsy and her mate Shell around on Saturday week. They are going up West, hit a few favourites. You know, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Selfridges. It’s Christmas in a couple of months and they have been taking lots of orders. People like new clothes for Christmas, don’t they? Her and Shell have been lying low for a few weeks since Shell got nicked in Debenhams, but it’s time for them both to get back on the horse”.

Shelley was another one whose name ended in a Y. At least Freddie Foreman spelled his with IE. Patsy and her mates were top-class shoplifters. They could get you anything to order, in almost any size. If it was on a rack in the shop, they could lift it. It was fairly clean crime too. Only fines, almost never custodial. Worse that could happen would be a lifetime ban from the shop, with the store detectives on the watch for you. But a new wig and a put-on accent could deal with that, at least a few times, until you got sussed again.

I said I would do it. It meant a day out with Patsy in my car, and I wasn’t going to turn that down. Then Nicky handed me a pillowcase. I didn’t need to be a gunsmith to know that there was a revolver in it. He smiled and kissed me on the cheek, all brotherly. “I knew I could count on you, Paul”. As he walked away from the car, I wound down the window, and called after him.

“So much for me being just the driver!”

There was no chance I was going to leave Shaughnessy’s shooter in my car overnight, so when I got home I hid it under my bed. Having to get to The Foresters by half five was a real pain. The traffic would be murder, and then by the time I left to drive back east to Thamesmead, I would be in the thick of the rush hour traffic heading out to Kent. I could kiss goodbye to eating at Nicky and Patsy’s place, so was thinking I might get pie and chips later, while waiting somewhere for Nicky.

By five-fifteen, the pub door was already open, and there was Mickey Shaughnessy propping up the bar holding a large Scotch. He was dressed smartly as usual, two-piece silver mohair suit, crisp white shirt, and a burgundy-coloured tie. The jacket of his suit was open, revealing the handle of a revolver tucked into the side of his trouser waistband. His dark hair was slicked back, old-style, and his red cheeks betrayed his Irish ancestry from long ago.

I had the gun in the pillowcase inside a Fine Fare carrier bag, with a loaf of sliced bread I had bought to cover it. Shaughnessy grinned at me as I walked in, and when he opened the bag, he laughed. “What am I supposed to do with that? Make a fucking sandwich?” He turned to the barmaid, a weary fifty-something who looked like she would sooner be anywhere else. “Give him a double, my usual”.

Although I didn’t really like whisky, when she slid over the double Glenfiddich, I nodded my thanks. No money changed hands, people like Mickey didn’t pay for drinks. He placed the carrier bag between his feet, and raised his glass to me as I downed the Scotch in one to act like I was the same as him. “You’re the driver? Nicky speaks well of you, says you’re staunch. I hope he’s right. Is he right, son?” I nodded, and signalled to the barmaid for two of the same, producing a ten-pound note. If I bought him a drink, it wasn’t free. I told him I had things to do, and swallowed the drink. I knew I couldn’t leave the bar until he said it was okay. “Off you go then, driver. I might have some work for you soon. You will know when I do”. He reached out a hand, and I shook it, feeling him almost crushing the bones in mine.

Back in the car, I wasn’t best pleased. two large Scotches inside me, and the Shaughnessy handshake had confirmed I was in, like it or not. I was a ‘face’, a known associate. Even as I drove away, I imagined some undercover cop was taking a telephoto portrait of me on his camera, from some safe flat across the street. And my motor would be on the flag list.

It was close to seven before I got to Nicky’s place. He was waiting on the street for me, and said we had to go straight to his garage around the corner. No chance of seeing Patsy, obviously. “Did It all go okay with Shaugnessy? Was Freddie there?” He gave me no chance to answer his barrage of questions before we arrived at his lock-up. “I’ve got twenty-odd leather jackets to shift, Paul. If I get rid of most of them, you can take your pick from what’s left”.

After loading the coats into my boot, he sat in the back directing me to an assortment of locations, mostly pubs, all over south-east London. He came and went to and from the car, taking some coats into the pubs, and returning with handfuls of cash. By ten that night, nobody was buying, probably all too drunk to pay a fair price by then. Nicky chucked me a dark brown jacket that was nice Italian leather, but probably one size too big. “Here, have this one. If it doesn’t fit, you can knock it out to someone. But don’t take less than fifteen. They are worth twenty, and that’s bent. Retail is fifty-plus. That’s on top of your fare of course”.

Just after eleven that night, he put the four unsold jackets back into his garage, and paid me in cash. No invite up to his flat, but he looked wacked-out, and I was guessing he was straight to bed. As he walked away, he seemed to have a tinge of guilt, and turned to say something.

“Sorry about Shaughnessy tonight, mate. Don’t forget now. If anyone pulls you, you’re just the driver.”

It seemed I had been right about Nicky looking under the weather. When I turned up at six the next night, Patsy told me he had the flu or something, and had been in bed since midnight. I told her not to bother him, and went down to call in on the radio to do my regular work. At least the night passed quickly, with the usual short runs and non-stop calls until at least three in the morning. It saved me spending so much time sitting around in the car, waiting for Nicky to do his thing.

The following night he was still ill, so I popped down to the taxi office to pay my radio rent. Sonia, one of the women who took the phone calls, handed me a slip of paper and gave me a weary look. “He’s phoned three times, and he didn’t sound happy the third time”. On the paper, the pickup address was written at the bottom, ‘Ancient Foresters, Bermondsey’. The name of the caller was underneath that, ‘Mickey’, and my call number was at the top, ‘1-8’.

Sonia was back answering the phones, so I left straight away, wondering what the hell Shaughnessy wanted. Though not at all surprised that he had found out where I worked.

At least he was in a good mood when I walked into the bar. I recognised the man standing next to him, Teddy Kennedy. He always used to joke ‘No relation’, because of the American politician.

Another one with a name ending in Y.

Mickey wrapped an arm around me, and spoke to Teddy. “Good lad this one. Knows his way about, and knows to see and hear nothing”. He turned to me and pulled a roll of money out of his trouser pocket. Peeling off six ten-pound notes, he pushed them into the top pocket of my jacket. “Run my pal Teddy around for a bit, that should cover the fare”. Then he turned back to face the bar, and I walked out, followed by Teddy.

He refused to sit in the back, and produced a list of addresses written on a betting slip. Jabbing a finger at the one at the bottom, he said “Try this one first, see if I can catch him at home”. I was well out of my usual working area, but back where I had been brought up. The first address was a flat in Rotherhithe Street, and I knew it well. Teddy chain-smoked, and stayed quiet. I didn’t need telling that he was collecting debts on behalf of someone, and that someone was higher up in the food chain than Shaughnessy.

He was gone for less than ten minutes, returning with a paper bag bulging with old notes. He gave me the bag. “Stash this somewhere in the car, somewhere that will stand a spin. He was referring to the chance that we might be stopped by the police and they would do a basic search of the car. I didn’t need a translator. I lifted up the rubber mat in the boot, and stuffed the bag into the waterproof holder containing the car jack and wheel nut spanner. After three more calls in the same area, there was no more room in the holder, and there was one more address on Teddy’s list.

That one was a bit of a longer drive, out past Nunhead Green and down on Kitto Road, near Telegraph Hill. Teddy walked up to a big house that was divided into flats, but before he could press a doorbell, the front door flew open, and a skinny bloke ran past Teddy like he was in the hundred yards sprint at the Olympics. Depsite his age and size, Teddy moved fast, and as he ran down the road after the man, he screamed at me. “Don’t just sit there, cut him off, for fuck’s sake!”

I started the car and pulled out into the evening traffic, aware that many people were watching Teddy pounding down the street after someone, his face getting redder from the unfamiliar exercise. I was easily able to overtake Teddy’s quarry, and did a sharp right at the roundabout into Pepys Road on the wrong side of the road, much to the annoyance of the oncoming traffic. Seeing me stopped two wheels up on the kerb on the corner, and presuming I was about to exit the car and grab him, he gave up.

Teddy grabbed his arm and frog-marched him into the small driveway of the nearest house, as I sat there taking abuse from all the drivers trying to get past my car to access the roundabout. When Teddy emerged and came walking back to the car smiling, the skinny man was nowhere to be seen. I guessed he was recovering from a few slaps delivered away from public gaze.

“You done well son”, he said as he got into the car. “Now take me to the Lilliput and you can call it a night”. I knew the pub well. My mum’s uncle had once owned it, before I was born, and my parents had got married in the church opposite. Back in Bermondsey, Teddy waited until I retrieved the bags of cash from the car boot, and gave me five tenners. “That’s for you, on top of what Mickey give ya”.

I really wanted to tell him that I was just the driver. But I knew when to shut up.

Those few hours with Teddy had earned me much more than I could have made working taxi jobs all night, so I took the chance to have time off. It felt strange to be finished so early, and I drove down to the stall on the corner of Dunton Road and the Old Kent Road and bought myself a pie and chips. With the pubs almost at chucking-out time, the stall was busy.

In the queue, I bumped into Christine, a girl I knew from schooldays. She seemed happy to see me, but the bloke with her was giving me the evil eye. Then she introduced him as her husband, and reminded me he had been at our school too. I hadn’t recognised him, as he had already lost most of his hair.

Not wanting any aggravation from his jealousy, I drove off and parked in Lynton Road, to eat my grub in peace.

The next night, Nicky was fit and well, and seemed over-excited when I arrived. Patsy was cooking us ham, eggs, and chips for dinner, and she was very chatty too. Nicky had already heard about my evening out with Teddy Kennedy, and seemed impressed. “You’re moving up in the world, mate. Seems like the chaps have taken a liking to you”. I reminded him that I wasn’t really interested in working for small-time gangsters, but I had to admit the pay was good. He carried on with the same theme. “You ought to get yourself a better motor, one of them big Rover three-point-fives, maybe even a Merc diesel. You ought to have some classy wheels when you are hanging around with them blokes”.

He wasn’t listening, so I gave up and ate my dinner.

That night, Nicky was exploring some new territory. He wanted to go across the river, so we went through the Blackwall Tunnel, heading for Stepney Green. This was not only north of the river, but east end territory. I knew the roads well enough, but I didn’t know the people, and I was worried that Nicky didn’t know them either. His sports bag was packed with gear that smelled strong enough for me to know it was grass, and he had told me to go to a pub called The Ship. He was meeting someone in there called Lawrence. To me, that sounded like a made-up name. I had never heard of any criminal called Lawrence in my twenty-two years in London. Not even one called the shortened version, Larry, which would at least have ended in Y.

When I parked up right outside, he went into the pub, all smiles. I was shaking my head as I sat in the car, sure he was being stitched up.

There must have been a juke box inside, as I could hear music. It was old school rock and roll stuff, not my thing. On the cab radio, I could tell the firm was busy already. The despatcher was calling for anyone available, holding jobs all over. But getting paid for sitting in my parked car was a better deal financially, so I turned down the volume and ignored it.

Almost an hour later, Nicky came back, and he didn’t look happy. “That bloody Lawrence hasn’t shown. And nobody in there knows him. The barmaid laughed at me when I asked if she knew him”. He would never be told, but coming across the river to meet someone he didn’t know, and didn’t even know what he looked like, was never going to be a good idea. As well as that, sitting in a strange boozer holding hundreds of quid’s worth of illegal substances was bordering on foolhardiness, as far as I was concerned.

Nicky was edgy now. “It’s a wild goose chase, that’s what it is, Paul. I’m out of pocket on your fare, and no customers. Let’s go back over Tower Bridge, I know where I can shift most of this”.

After a couple of stops that didn’t pan out, we ended up in Watergate Street, Deptford. Nicky spotted two black blokes standing next to a mark three Ford Zodiac, and told me to pull up across the street from them. He jumped out, leaving the bag in the car. One of the men he spoke to was a sharp dresser, wearing a three-piece suit and an overcoat draped around his shoulders. His mate was three times the size, and glared at me as Nicky spoke to the smart one. He was obviously the muscle, the bodyguard.

I wasn’t comfortable. Everyone knew to leave the black blokes alone back then. We stuck with who we knew, and let them do their own thing. After some close face to face talking, Nicky finally shook hands with the suited and booted bloke, and the big man walked over to the car. He opened the back door and picked up the holdall. Still glaring at me as if I had done something to upset him, he leaned forward over the passenger seat. I could smell his sour breath as he spoke to me.

“No trouble now. Y’hear me, man”. I nodded.

“No trouble from me mate, I’m just the driver”.

Nicky ran back to the car flushed with his deal. He had even left the sports bag with the black geezers, and was holding a wad of cash. My feeling was that he had just had a lucky escape from being stabbed, or worse, and his gear stolen. But he wasn’t listening to me of course, he never did.

Not once.

“Take me up to Camberwell Grove, Paul. I’m in the mood to see Big Irene”.

I had never met Big Irene, but had heard enough about her to know that she was a forty-something woman on the game, famous for the gigantic tits that gave her the name ‘Big’. To be honest, I couldn’t understand why Nicky would want to pay a prossie probably thirty quid for sex, when his lovely wife Patsy was waiting at home. But it wasn’t up to me to reason why. When I dropped him outside Irene’s flat, he gave me double fare for what I had earned running him around. I told him there was no need, but he was flush with money, and feeling magnanimous.

With Nicky obviously staying for the night, I called up the cab firm on the radio, and worked until almost six in the morning.

The next night when I got to his place, Patsy let me in. “Nicky’s not here, Paul. He’s on the missing list since he went out with you last night. Sit down, I’ll make you a bacon sandwich, I already had dinner with the kids”.

Not knowing what to say, I said nothing, and ate my bacon sandwich. I was enjoying sitting alone with the woman I would have happily died for, and I was reluctant to get into the question of Nicky’s infidelities. As it turned out, she wasn’t that concerned. “He does this a lot, couple of times a month. I know he always comes home eventually, that’s the way of life with Nicky”.

They were both five years older than me, and had been together since school, aged fourteen. I might have sat there wondering why she tolerated him and his lifestyle, but I could never have penetrated almost fifteen years of them being together. When Patsy offered me another cup of tea, I said yes of course, and heard myself offering to go out after and find him. I told her I could retrace my steps to where I had last dropped him off, but didn’t mention where that had been.

Obviously, I went to Camberwell Grove first, and knocked on Big Irene’s door. She presumed I was there for business, held out her hand and said, “Thirty before I let you in. I see the money before you see my tits”. When I told her I was looking for Nicky, she blew smoke in my face from her cigarette, and shrugged. “He couldn’t manage it, darling. He left twenty minutes after he turned up. I ain’t got a clue where he went after that”.

My next port of call should have been the two black guys in Deptford, but no way was I going to get into it with them. So I bit the bullet and went to see Shaughnessy in the Ancient Foresters. The barmaid told me he was in the Southwark Park Tavern, Billy Tarrant’s pub. That was only two minutes away, so I drove there.

Mickey was at the bar with his older brother. He was already drunk, and making a lot of noise. He ignored me when I walked in, so I sloped up to the side of the bar and asked Billy if he had seen Nicky. “Greek Nicky? Nah, he hasn’t been in. If I see him I will say you are looking for him”. Billy had been a face in his time, and was now trying to just be a pub owner. But the old boys wouldn’t let him go, and he now had to suffer free drinks for the Shaughnessys, for as long as they stayed in his pub.

As I was trying to creep out, Mickey spotted me. “Hey, driver! Come and have a drink”. I knew I couldn’t leave until he was happy, so insisted on buying him and his brother a Scotch. Billy charged me for them, I knew he would, no complaints. Mickey’s brother ignored me as if I didn’t exist, but Mickey was on me, worryingly friendly. With a strong arm around me, he spoke close to my face, whisky breath overwhelming me.

“What are you up to here, then?”

I told him I was looking for Nicky, as he had gone on the missing list since last night. But he just laughed.

“Billy, give the boy a Scotch. Do you know this one? He’s just the driver”.

Going to the pub to see if Nicky was around had not been my brightest idea. Once I had accepted Mickey’s drink, his older brother Pat became interested. “So what’s the story then? You free for a job now?” I started to explain that I was only out looking for Nicky, not actually working, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Billy Tarrant shaking his head. So I changed tack, and told Pat I was happy to take him wherever he needed to go.

With both the Shaughnessy brothers in the car, the smell of after shave and hair oil was overwhelming. Pat sat next to me in the front as I drove off. “Amersham Arms, New Cross”. I knew the pub well, a big boozer on a corner, only a few minutes away. It was a bugger to park there, as it was on a one-way system opposite a mainline station. But I managed to get two wheels up on the kerb just past it, outside a car dealer’s forecourt. Pat spoke for the second time. “Leave the engine running, and dont move the car. Okay?” I nodded.

I kept my eye on the rear-view mirror, and it wasn’t long before they were walking back to the car, Mickey with his arm around a third man, who looked white as a sheet, and wasn’t walking too well. When they got in the car, Pat was smiling. “Deptford Creek, son. I will tell you where to stop”. The man in the back with Mickey was actually trembling, but he didn’t say a word as I went back around the one-way and headed north.

Deptford Creek wasn’t the name of a road, it was part of the River Thames, formed by a tributary flowing into it. I actually knew why that area of London was called Deptford, as I had lived there for some years as a child. It was derived from ‘Deep Ford’, and was one of the first places that the Romans used to cross the river during their invasion of Britain. But I doubted the Shaughnessys wanted to hear a history lesson.

My best guess was that they had both been expelled from school before the age of twelve, and begun the apprenticeships in their criminal careers. Access to the side of the Creek was via the aptly named road called Creekside, so I headed for that.

Back then, the area was industrial. Paper merchants yards, scrap dealers, metal workshops, all pretty unsightly. Pat pointed at the entrance to a scrap dealer’s place. “Blow the hooter”. I pressed the car horn a couple of times, and the heavy metal gate slid open. Someone inside was waiting for them. The brothers pulled the trembling man out of the car, and Pat turned to me. “Stay here, back in a minute”.

It was no surprise to me when they came back thirty minutes later without the third man. I had an idea he would be lying at the bottom of the Creek, with an old car engine chained around his legs. But whatever had gone on inside, the brothers had not got their hands dirty. They were both still immaculate in their suits, and Pat smiled as he spoke. “Okay, back to The Tavern”. I went to the top of the road and turned left, and on the short drive back to Billy’s pub, neither of them spoke to me at all.

Ouside the pub, Pat got out and walked straight in. Mickey gave me four ten pound notes. “That should cover it. Well done, son”. I was lucky he paid me anything. He was notoriously tight with money. Even if he had given me nothing, I would have just had to swallow that, and even say thanks. But forty was much more than the actual cab fare, so I was relieved. I wanted to get away from that manor, and decided to drive back to Thamesmead and tell Patsy I couldn’t find Nicky.

When I got there, she was matter of fact. “He rang home just after you left. I wrote the address down where he is, and said you would pick him up when you came back”. I looked at the address, and cursed myself for not ringing Patsy from a phone box. Nicky was all the way over in Dulwich, some posh address off College Road. I couldn’t imagine how he had ended up there, but smiled and told his wife I would go and get him. That was about twelve miles south, a good three quarters of an hour in normal traffic.

On the way, I contemplated what had gone on earlier with Mickey and Pat. If they got lifted for that, I might get dragged into their mess.

And there was no way I could say I was just the driver.

When I got to Dulwich, Nicky was sitting on some steps outside the big house, talking to a young bloke with long blonde hair who was wearing a seersucker suit and brown leather sandals. He waved as he saw my car stop on the street, and shook the young bloke’s hand before walking over. He looked like he had not slept at all, and also like he was still wired on whatever he had been taking.

By the time I had driven to the end of the road, he was fast asleep, sprawled across the back seat. I had to wake him up outisde his flats, and he gave me three five-pound notes as he struggled out of the car. “Sorry, it’s all I’ve got left. See you soon, I won’t be going out for a couple of days”. That left me wondering what he had done wiith the money he had got from the two black guys. My suspicion was that he had done a deal with the posh geezer, and was awaiting delivery of something stronger than hash.

To make up for my lost time, I called in on the taxi radio, and worked until seven the next morning. As I went to bed, I decided to give Nicky a miss for a while.

For the next few days, I avoided Nicky’s place in Thamesmead, and just worked as normal for the cab office. But then I remembered I had to take Patsy and Shell to the West End on Saturday, so didn’t work very late on the Friday night. The only contact number they had for me was through the taxi firm, and I hadn’t had any messages. Nicky knew my parents’ home number, but he was unlikely to ever ring me there. So I went to his flat on the Saturday morning, wondering if the trip was still on.

Patsy was there with Shell, and her mum was there to watch the kids while we were out. Nothing was said about me not being around, and Patsy made me a cup of tea and some toast before we set off. “Nicky’s asleep, Paul. He’s been out of it for a few days now. Said he’s waiting on a good job that’s coming up soon”.

When we got to the back of John Lewis, I hung around Cavendish Square, driving around the one-way system while Patsy and Shell were in the shop. There was nowhere I could park without attracting attention, and the nearby NCP car park was no good. We would need to drive away quickly once they came out. They showed up after about twenty minutes, and as I stopped outside the back entrance to the shop, they opened the car boot and dropped some bags into it. Then they both took Burberry trenchcoats off the back seat, and put them on over what they were wearing.

Selfridges and Marks and Spencer were opposite each other, either side of Orchard Street. I turned left into North Audley Street across the road, and dropped them off on the corner. If I kept my eyes open for traffic wardens and occasional interested coppers, I was okay to stay parked there for a while. I managed forty-five minutes before two motorcycle cops stopped next to the car. One of them pointed down the street, and waved that I should move.

It wouldn’t have been the best idea to tell them I was a taxi from South London, just waiting for a fare. I had a boot full of hooky gear, after all. So I smiled, and drove off. The one-way systems there meant that I had to go down as far as Grosvenor Square, back up Duke Street onto Oxford Street, then back to where I had started in North Audley Street. By the time I got there, Patsy and Shell were walking up and down looking for me. They were both wearing designer sunglasses, despite it being a dull day. Walking out wearing them had obviously been the easiest way to lift them.

Although both women were carrying at least five bags of stuff, they didn’t waste time opening the boot, and got into the back with them. Shell wasn’t amused. “Fuck me, Paul. I thought you had bottled it and pissed off”. I explained about being moved on by the cops, as I headed south in the traffic to get across Westminster Bridge.

Patsy didn’t want to go back to her flat. They had to drop the stuff off at a friend’s place, so she gave me the address in Rotherhithe. Whe we got there, I helped them carry the bags into a terraced house in Brunel Road, and Patsy gave me thirty quid and a pair of very expensive Loake shoes two sizes too big for me. “Is that enough, Paul? We are going to be here for a while, so you can do whatever you need to be getting on with”.

Part of me was hoping I would be asked to stay there with her. But I could see that as far as she was concerned, I was just the driver.

With any hope of something happening between me and Patsy shattered, and Nicky moving into the dangerous world of dealing blow, I made the decision to keep clear of the whole area for a while. I went back to my normal night shifts, earning regular money without having to look over my shoulder. Christmas was a big earner for cabbies. Double time after midnight on Christmas Eve until midnight on Boxing Day. And with the drink-drive laws being clamped down on, at least in the suburbs, we had more bookings than ever.

Nothing was heard from Nicky, and no messages received in the cab office from the Shaughnessys or their associates. Three-quarters of me was relieved, but the other quarter had the niggling feeling that I was missing the relative danger. Not that I was in any personal danger unless I grassed anyone up, but there was an undeniable cachet about hanging around with blokes that everyone was scared of. And it came with another bonus.

You were untouchable, one of them. Everyone left you alone.

New Year’s Eve came and went, another double time shift. Then as the winter gave way to the spring of 1975, fate drew me back to Bermondsey once again. I picked up a young woman in Greenwich, and she asked me to take her to Abbey Street, near the junction with Tower Bridge Road. I knew it well of course, and after dropping her off outside her flats, I decided to pop in and see Tony, the nominal owner of the pub where Nicky used to play the records.

I say nominal, as his name was above the door. But there was every chance he was fronting for someone with a criminal record, who would not have been able to get an alcohol licence. The pub was called Simon The Tanner, a nod to the leather-manufacturing heritage of the area. And it was literally across the road in Long lane, opposite the Caledonian Market. Despite being almost closing time, I felt sure Tony wouldn’t mind me having one drink. The small bar wasn’t that crowded, but I recognised one man standing at the bar immediately.

If Tony hadn’t spotted me and started to pour me a beer, I would have walked out there and then.

Little Legs was very appropriately named. Barely five-one in shoes, you might be mistaken for assuming he was a very sharp-dressed schoolboy. But only from behind, as when he turned around, you could see he was about forty. His name was Brian, and he liked to be called that. Woe betide anyone who called him Little Legs to his face, unless they were also a much-feared gangster. He was known to always carry a pistol, and would not hesitate to use the butt like a hammer on your face if he thought you were mocking him.

Fortunately for me, he didn’t know my name, and was in loud conversation with another man at the bar who was dressed like a workman. As I made small talk with Tony, I couldn’t help but overhear Brian. “So you reckon Sunday night would be best? You sure the stuff is being delivered Saturday? Don’t fuck me about now. If I turn up with a team on Sunday and that place is empty, it’s you I’ll come looking for. You know the Shaughnessys? I’ll send them after you if you are stitching me up”. The other man was nodding furiously, his face white. “Straight up, Brian, so help me. It will be there on Sunday, and will be shipped out first thing Monday. Sunday night’s your best bet, too busy around here on Saturdays.

Reaching into his inside pocket, Brian produced some cash, folded the notes in half, and gave them to the white-faced man who left the pub immediately. Then he turned to Tony, “Same again, Tone”. Seeing me glance in his direction, he didn’t hesitate. “Who the fuck are you? You been earoling me?” Even though he knew I could not have avoided hearing his conversation, I certainly couldn’t admit to that. Before I could say anything that might get my cheekbones broken, Tony stepped in. “He’s okay, Brian. Paul, he’s a cabbie, been here plenty of times. He’s straight-up”.

Brian gave me a grin that could have curdled milk. “Cabbie, eh? Well it so happens I have need of your services. When I have finished my drink, you can take me to Cleaver Square.” I knew where that was of course, in Kennington, halfway between the Elephant and Castle district, and Camberwell. Brian didn’t live in the area where he liked to work, and where he enjoyed using the pubs. For a few seconds, I contemplated telling him I already had a booking. But I knew better.

On the way, Brian spent the time naming names, and asking me if I knew the people. When he got to the Shaughnessys, I nodded. No point lying. As he paid me the correct fare and walked away, I gave him a parting shot.

“But I’m just the driver”.

Driving away from Cleaver Square, I was so annoyed with myself for stupidly venturing into Tony’s pub. Little Legs was far worse than the Shaughnessys, at least you knew what to expect from them. He was a Jekyll and Hyde character, amiable one minute, unstable and dangerous the next. I called up on the cab radio and made myself available for work.

Anything to take my mind off encountering Brian.

Before I started work on the Saturday, I drove down to the office to pay my radio rent. Sue was taking calls in the back room, and she waved at me to stop as I was leaving. When she came off the phone, she stubbed out her cigarette and reached for a piece of paper. “You have a booking, tomorrow night. They asked for you specifically, Paul”. I thanked her and took the job slip, then waited until I was in my car to read it, already guessing what would be on it.

Sure enough, I was to pick up ‘Mickey’ in The Ancient Foresters, at ten tomorrow. I worked the rest of that Saturday shift in a daze, wondering what was going to happen the next night. I took a late run to Heathrow at half-six, a couple jetting off to some exotic destination, holding hands in the back and excited. I envied them.

There was no point going into work before picking up Shaughnessy, so I slept late and had some dinner before leaving around nine on Sunday night.

Mickey told the barmaid to give me a drink when I turned up. His brother Pat was talking to two men at the other end of the bar, and as he left he turned to Mickey. “Off to get the van, see you there”. The three of them walked out, and Mickey swallowed his drink. “Okay, let’s make a move, we have to pick up you-know-who at Cleaver Square”.

Little Legs was waiting ouside his house when we got there. He got in the front next to me, dropping a canvas toolbag onto the floor as he sat down. He looked distant, perhaps tense. I said nothing, and let Mickey do the talking. “Pat’s gone to get the van from the lockup, by the time we get there he shouldn’t be far behind us”. Then he spoke to me, just a few words. “Pages Walk. I will tell you where”.

No need to ask where that was. I had lived just up the road from there from the age of eight, until my parents moved us to the suburbs when I was fifteen.

The street was mainly industrial. Warehouses, workshops, that sort of thing. Mickey told me to stop outside a premises that had a heavy shutter door, locked on both sides with big padlocks. We then had to sit there waiting until Pat and the two men drove up behind the car in a large van marked up in the livery of a bread company. Brian got out with his tools, and didn’t even bother to check the street before applying heavy bolt-cutters to each padlock in turn. When he had freed the locks, one of Pat’s men brought over a long crowbar, and it took both of them to lever up the shutter, which was obviously bolted on the inside.

Pat reversed the bread van into the opening, and Brian took a pistol out of the toolbag. Mickey shook his head at him. “No need for that, there’s no watchman. Besides, I have that covered”. He patted his suit jacket. Raising his voice as he spoke to me, Mickey snapped me out of my nervousness. “Driver! You go to the end of the road. If you see any coppers coming, drive past here again and sound the hooter, okay? Come back in half an hour if not.” As I drove off, he pulled down the shutter.

I wasn’t sure which end of the road Mickey had intended me to wait at, so chose the junction with Willow Walk. I hadn’t banked on being used as a lookout, and having that job suddenly made me extremely nervous. Fortunately, very few cars passed me, and none of them were police cars. Checking my watch, I was back outside the place as Pat drove the van out, and Brian pulled down the shutter. Taking off a pair of leather gloves, he threw them into the toolbag, and handed that to one of Pat’s men. Then he turned to me. “You want a new telly son?” I shook my head, and thanked him. I didn’t want to run around with a stolen television in the back of my car, or explain to my mum how I had acquired it.

When they got back into the car, Brian smiled, and handed me a hundred in ten pound notes. “Take us back to The Foresters, and if anyone ever asks, you were with us all in the bar until closing time, okay?” After dropping them outside the pub, I breathed a sigh of relief and took the rest of the night off.

If any cops had turned up in Pages Walk that night, I would never have got away with saying I was just the driver.

I knew that it was time to keep away from the area, and made my mind up to do just that. I started to turn down jobs that ended up near there, claiming I needed petrol, or the fanbelt was loose. More and more, I tried to get the longer runs, mostly to airports, or to hospitals in the home counties. And I took on some of the school runs for disabled kids, which meant I had to start much earlier, before four in the afternoon.

All was going well, and for a month or so, life returned to normal. Then one day, I was aked on the radio to call into the cab office. Sue had a message for me.

It was an Inspector John Bromley, from Tower Bridge Police Station, and a contact number. I used the office phone, and spoke to a sergeant who seemed to know why the Inspector wasnted to see me. “Could you pop down to see him later, say six-thirty? He just has a few questions for you”. Of course, I was shitting myself. It didn’t much working out to suspect that I was going to be questioned about the stolen televisions. But it couldn’t be avoided, so I showed up at the cop shop around six-fifteen. The uniformed copper on the desk made a phone call, and five minutes later a plainclothes cop showed up in reception and asked me to follow him.

In a small interview room, I looked across at the man. He was older than my dad, that was for sure. One of those old-school types who still wore a trilby hat and a faded suit. He almost certainly wore an overcoat too, except in the summer. He was okay though, businesslike, and straight to the point. There was no caution read out, and no hint that I was in trouble. He took a statement form from a drawer, and used a pencil to write on it. Back then, there were no recordings or cameras for an ‘informal talk’.

“We have some suspects for a recent break-in and theft of goods. They tell me they were all together in a certain pub on the night, and stayed late. Naturally, that alibi is not much good, as they are bound to say that. However, they tell me you were there too, and can confirm that they did not leave the pub”. As he was talking, he was writing on the form. “You are not known to us except for one motoring conviction, so if you alibi them, that’s good enough for me. But I would be interested to know how you happen to be friends with such characters”.

My story had been concocted on the drive there, and sounded as flimsy as tracing paper to me. I was adamant that I was just a cab driver. I had received a job to pick someone up there, and then they had bought me a drink and not bothered to use the taxi. They were all drunk, and had befriended me, eventually paying me some money for wasting my time. I said he could check with the cab office that I had a booking. Bromley could hardly contain his laughter, but settled for a wide grin as he wrote down what I was saying. Then he slid the statement across to me.

“Read through this, and if you agree it is a true record of what you told me, sign it at the bottom”. As I quickly read more or less what I had made up, other than he had included the names of Mickey, Pat, and Brian, he lit one of those small cigars that come in flat tins. In the small room, the smell of it was overwhelming. I signed the paper, and he picked it up and put it in a file on the desk. Then he leaned forward and smiled. “Might be worth your while to drive over to The Foresters and see Mickey Shaughnessy, I bet he’s expecting you”.

Ouside in the car, I felt more relaxed. Bromley was undoubtedly a bent copper, and on the villains’ payroll.

Given that he had told me Mickey was expecting me, I had to go and see him. I received a warm welcome in the pub, and a drink of course. Mickey told anyone who would listen that I was a stand-up bloke, and my alibi together with Bromley not trying too hard to acquire evidence, had surely got the case against them dropped. Fortunately, Mickey had a date with one of his women, so I was able to get away before nine. He gave me seventy-five quid before I left

As I was driving back to Greenwich, I concluded that I really had to extricate myself from those blokes. And soon. If I ended up in front of a police detective again, I knew I would never get away with saying “I’m just the driver”.

Since the beginning of March that year, I had been seeing a new girlfriend. Not that I saw much of her, as working six days a week on twelve hour night shifts wasn’t exactly conducive to socialising. But I liked her, and she seemed to like me. We had met by chance at a friend’s house. She was working with his wife, and had driven over to join them for dinner. I had popped in during my shift, and we seemed to get on immediately.

She was nothing like any of my previous girlfriends, and lived in a reasonably affluent part of South-West London with her parents. University educated, well-spoken and well-travelled, she had remarked that she was hoping to take time to obtain a teaching qualification, before moving on to become a lecturer at a college of further education. Her life couldn’t have been more different to mine, a cash-job unlicenced cabbie originally from an area she had never heard of, let alone visited.

But she was open to new experiences, and when I asked her for a date, she agreed. However, it was on the condition that she met me there, and could drive herself home.

I chose the Green Man in the Old Kent Road, a pub on the corner of the street where I had gone to school, and known for some very good Jazz nights on certain days of the week. We would both eat before, and meet for drinks reasonably late, after eight-thirty. I met her where she had told me she would park her car, and we went in together. She wanted to buy the first drink, which was very unusual to me. I came from a background where women never paid for anything, and most never learned to drive either.

You would be right to think that the conversation did not flow easily. The Jazz was very good, but rather loud. I had left school without going to university, and the jobs I had been doing before deciding to become a cab driver were nothing to boast about. She also had no idea about the criminal underclass in South-East London. Her rather genteel upbringing had excluded her from anything remotely nasty, or illegal. She was a modern woman from a crime-free suburb, and although we were close in age by just two weeks, we might just have well been from different countries.

During the evening, I asked her about her world travels. Her dad worked for Thomas Cook, the famous travel agency. I had been on a few school trips to France, and only on the ferry boat and trains. I had never been up in an aeroplane. She talked of world cruises, exotic destinations, all free of charge because of her father’s job. The only part of the world she had never visted was the Soviet Union, and The Falkland Islands. But she wasn’t boasting, as she was well-aware of her good fortune.

Later that evening, before we left, she mentioned that she had never been to Tunisia, and asked me if I would like to go with her. I readily agreed. I had briefly met her parents and sister, and they had been kind to me. But I knew that a cockney cab driver was far from their ideal of a partner for their daughter. Maybe a holiday together could be the thing? Before she left, I invited her to my house the next weekend, offering a spare room. She accepted, saying she was happy to share my room if my parents agreed.

My first ‘modern woman’.

I kissed her goodbye at her car, and drove home relishing my good fortune. This young woman would give me the wake-up call I needed to change my life. She had such a refreshing outlook, and expected nothing from me except to try new things. When I got back, my mum was still up, my dad away with his job. I asked my mum if my new girlfriend could stay one weekend. She saw the excitement in my face. “Of course. You’re not a boy anymore, but be careful. Don’t get her pregnant”.

Lying in bed that night, I was thinking about Tunisia. French colonial heritage, deserts, wonderful coastal resorts, and a history including Roman occupation, and Hannibal. I knew what had to happen soon. I had to get a real job, and stop cabbing.

I could no longer be just the driver.

So I worked hard, kept away from south-east London, and saved my money. The holiday to Tunisia was booked, my passport was still valid, and off we went to Sousse. It was the first time I had been on holiday ‘alone’ with a girlfriend, the first time I had flown in an aeroplane, and the first time I had been outside of Europe. I loved all the new experiences, and got on great with my new girlfriend too. Although we didn’t actually say it, it felt like we were going to be together for a long time.

Returning home to reality, I began to think about a career change. I wanted to try something that would be long-term, and still bring in as much money as I could make as a cab driver. But things at home had changed. My dad was out a lot, and not just because of his job. My mum was unsettled, and confided in me that she feared he was having an affair. I needed to stick around to support her, and postponed moving jobs as that might have involved moving out of home too.

Since the holiday, my relationship was more relaxed. It felt like we had known each other for years, and my girlfriend understood the pressures at home, as well as my need to stay focused on earning money with my cab. We saw each other when we could, and she continued to stop over occasionally.

The taxi work was busier than ever, but I made another decision. I would move taxi firms, and work from the one closest to home. That would keep me out of the area I wanted to avoid, and hopefully away from the people who knew how to contact me. So I handed in my radio in Greenwich, and went to work for a much smaller outfit in Albany Park. The rent was cheaper, and the local work was busy most days. I went back to taking old ladies to Bingo in the afternoons, picking up overloaded housewives from supermarkets with their bags of shopping, and dropping off groups of excited young girls at the favourite pubs in the area.

At weekends, the more affluent area offered lots of airport runs to Gatwick, pickups from various golf clubs and restaurants, and late night jobs from house parties. It was stress free, and a world away from the same work just 10 miles west. Everyone gave you a tip, and there were few aggressive drunks, argumentative customers, or people trying to jump out at traffic lights to avoid payment.

And no criminals.

Another benefit was the lack of traffic, compared to being closer to the centre of London. I could easily do three local jobs an hour, sometimes four, and that meant I had a good idea what I would earn each shift, as well as using a lot less petrol operating in a much smaller catchment area. Being flexible with my working hours, I soon developed a good relationship with the owner, who ran the place pretty much as a one-man operation. Most of the other permanent drivers had been there a long time, and at busy periods like Saturday nights, we had part-timers supplementing their income from normal day jobs.

For the first time since bumping into Nicky in Bermondsey the previous year, I finally felt I could relax. Nobody at the old place had known where I was going, so if anyone phoned and asked for me by name, or my call number one-eight, they would be told I had left, and that would be that.

Early summer saw me taking time off to go out with my girlfriend. I met some of her friends over in south-west London, and ignored the fact that they looked down on me, raised their eyebrows at my accent, or patronised me during conversation because I had not been to university. I was becoming a regular visitor to her parents’ house, though I never asked to stay over, and wasn’t invited to do so.

We did a lot of things I hadn’t done before. We went to Kew Gardens, took a boat out on the Thames at Sunbury, and had a picnic on Wimbledon Common. I started to take Friday nights off, and that became our night for going to the cinema, with a restaurant meal before or after. We were easy in each other’s company, and she ignored the snobbery of her friends, who were undoubtedly telling her I wasn’t good enough for her.

Then one week night in late July, I got home from work and my mum was still up late, watching TV. She told me there was a message for me. “Someone phoned earlier. I told her you were working until late, but she said you could ring when you got home, whatever the time was. Her name is Patsy, I wrote it down”. Mum handed me the piece of paper, and I got a cold feeling in my stomach. If Patsy had gone so far as to find my home number and call me, something bad had happened. I picked up the house phone in the hallway, and started to dial the number.

If my guess was correct, I was being drawn back in. Once again, just the driver.

Patsy answered on the third ring. Her voice was agitated, but she was very friendly.

“Thanks so much for ringing me back, Paul. I found the number in a book Nicky keeps in the bedside cabinet. The thing is, he has gone missing. Not like before, this is something different. He might have stayed out a couple of nights and not let me know, but now it is over a week, ten days in fact. I rang the cab firm, but they said you didn’t work there. Are you still doing taxi work?”

I hesitated for a moment, and then lied. I told her I had packed up being a cabbie and was in the process of looking for a straight job because I had to be around for my mum. That might not have been the best idea.

“Oh that’s great. If you are not working at the moment then, I really need your help. I have been in touch with everyone I know where he might have gone, and those who might have seen him around or on the street. But you know a lot of others he would never have told me about, so I’m gonna need your help. Can you come and see me tomorrow? I don’t know who else to turn to, I really don’t”.

Anyone not familiar with those sort of people and the area they lived in might be wondering by now why Nicky’s wife hadn’t called the police, and reported him missing. They might have been asking Patsy if she had telephoned all the hospitals to see if he had been admitted unconscious, or worse. But I knew better than to even bother to mention that. People like Patsy never involved the police in anything, and she would not have brought Nicky’s disappearance to public notice by asking around at hospitals.

People who lived their way of life sorted out their own mess, and dealt with their own problems.

That was the moment I should have told Patsy I couldn’t help. Told her I was needed at home, told her I no longer had a car, made up any wild excuse. But I couldn’t do that. Not because I still thought anything could happen between me and Patsy, I had moved on from that.

And not because I thought I owed her or Nicky anything, I had done what they had asked me to do, and been paid for it. I said I would help because I was a decent bloke who had been brought up to do the right thing. Even though I sometimes did things that were not strictly legal.

So I told her I would be there tomorrow evening about six.

The next night, I was expecting Patsy to come with me, but she had no intention of doing that. Besides, she had nobody else there to look after the kids. She was edgy, wearing no make-up, and speaking quickly. All she could give me for background was that ten days earlier Nicky had told her he was going out to do a deal, and was being picked up by a friend. As was his habit, he didn’t mention any names, or what area he was going to.

She gave me a small photo of him that was about five years old, taken at a party somewhere. Luckily, he hadn’t changed much. Patsy said he had taken a leather shoulder bag, and probably would have had at least a hundred quid on him. But she couldn’t remember what he had been wearing, as she had been bathing the kids when he left the flat.

As I drove off, I had no real idea what I was doing. After all, I wasn’t a private detective, or a copper. I had no authority to ask any questions, and no backup if anything turned nasty. My first destination was the house in Dulwich. My gut feeling told me he was doing deals with the posh guy, and there was an outside chance that someone in the house might have known who he was meeting, or who had picked him up that night.

On the way, I thought up a story to explain my interest. I would say that I had been running him around in my cab all that time, and he hadn’t paid me. Looking for someone who owed you money was a common enough thing back then.

It surprised me when the same bloke answered the door. I didn’t need to show him the photo, so just asked if he had seen Nicky, or knew where he might be hiding out. He smiled and shook his head. “Greek Nicky? The last time I saw him was the night you picked him up from here. What’s going on? You work with Nicky?”

Deciding not to say anything about money owed, I smiled back.

“Me? No. I’m just the driver”.

My next port of call had to be Big Irene’s place in Camberwell. I was surprised when she recognised me, and didn’t bother to ask me for thirty quid. “What d’ya want? I’ve got someone arriving in fifteen minutes”. I told her I was looking for Nicky, because he owed me money. What she said next was my first clue.

“The Greek bloke? I haven’t seen him for about a week. Wednesday? Not sure though. Early-ish, before it got dark. He was flush when he came round, paid me extra for a special. Rushed it a bit though, said someone was waiting for him downstairs”. I wasn’t about to ask Irene what she did for a special, but was excited that she had actually seen him since he had disappeared. I asked her if he had been carrying a leather shoulder bag, and if she remembered what he had been wearing. She raised her eyebrows, and extended the palm of her left hand.

“Time’s money in my line of work, sunshine.”

I gave her a ten pound note, and she tucked it inside the waistband of her skirt. “Yes, he had a bag like that. Lots of money inside it too, I saw that when he paid me. As for what he was wearing, please be fucking serious. Do you know how many blokes come through this door in the course of a week? I couldn’t remember what he was wearing if my life depended on it”. I asked if she could tell me anything about the car, and she blew out her cheeks and started to close the door.

“The car? What you think I walked out of my flat stark naked to see what car he was in? You a nutter or summink?’ Now, please do me a favour and fuck off”. Big Irene could afford to be so rude and offhand. She paid for protection.

Upset her, and someone would find you.

Back in my car, I was down ten pounds, but had a definite sighting. Wednesday last week, before it had got dark, so before eight-ish. Trouble was, I didn’t have the first clue what to do with that information. In television dramas or films, Irene would have noticed something about the car, a hot clue that would have had me tracking down Nicky’s next move.

But in real life, she had just been lying on her crumpled bedding, smoking a post-coital cigarette before the next mug arrived.

Despite feeling a bit sick at the thought of it, I knew a pub crawl was going to have to happen. I would start at the Simon The Tanner. If Nicky went for a drink anywhere, that was usually his first choice. I was relieved to find the bar devoid of professional villains, and Tony in a talkative mood.

“Yeah, I did see Nicky last week, not sure which day though. He was with a young bloke. Fair hair, a bit too long. Hippy-type. You know the sort, posh boy who thinks it’s all the rage to go slumming. Bit of a prick, to be honest. I warned Nicky about flashing the cash. He had a shoulder bag stuffed with cash and was buying drinks for the usual crowd, as well as some locals he didn’t even know”. Tony couldn’t remember what he had been wearing, and I decided to abandon that line of questioning. But I did ask him if he knew what car they had been in. Tony liked cars.

“Well, I didn’t see it like, ’cause I was behind the bar. But the hippy bloke put the keys on the bar, and they had the Mercedes symbol on them. So it had to be a Merc, Paul. He said he was going to Billy Tarrant’s pub to see someone, and had to wait until ten for them to be there”.

Thanking Tony for his help, I went and sat in my car. So that hippy bastard in Dulwich had been with Nicky after all, and he had lied through his teeth to me earlier. But I hadn’t seen a car at his house, though that didn’t mean he didn’t have one. After Irene and Tony, I was beginning to feel I was geting somewhere. And my next clue was The Southwark Park Tavern. I knew I had to go and ask Billy if he had seen Nicky that night, but as it was Mickey Shaughnessy’s second favourite pub, I wasn’t best pleased.

Ten minutes later, I was talking to Billy. I breathed a sigh of relief that there was no sign of Shaughnessy, or Little Legs. Tarrant was cagey, but still helpful.

“Yeah, Nicky was in here. He was alone though, and he didn’t have a shoulder bag. For Christ’s sake, who carries one of those in Bermondsey? Why do you want to know?”

Billy accepted my shrug, and believed me. “He owes me a lot of cab fare, Billy. You know me, I’m just the driver”.

After the brief chat with Billy, I just knew that I had to drive around the corner to The Foresters, and face up to asking Mickey Shaughnessy if he had seen Nicky. No point coming all this way and losing my nerve now.

It was getting late, and Mickey was in a heated conversation with three men I didn’t know. They were standing in a corner, and I immediately saw it was not the time to approach him. So I bought a half-pint and hung around on the other side of the bar. A sudden slap on my back caused me to spin round. It was Little Legs, and he had just emerged from the Gent’s toilet. I had to offer him a drink, which he readily accepted, and then he asked me what I was doing in there.

With no intention of bullshitting, I told him Nicky had gone missing big time, and I needed to ask Mickey if he had seen him. Brian leaned in close.

“Not now, son. Definitely not now. I doubt it’s anything to do with Nicky, but Pat hasn’t been seen for three days, and Mickey’s on the warpath. If I was you, I would leave it well alone”. I agreed with Brian that the disappearance of Pat Shaughnessy was probably nothing to do with whatever had happened with Nicky, but inside I couldn’t help feeling it was connected in some way. I was definitely not going to get involved in any search for the missing Shaughnessy brother.

Brian was in a good mood, and bought me another half. “Is that the best idea you’ve got, to ask Mickey? Nobody else know anyfing?” I told him about the posh bloke in Dulwich, and how Tony said he had been with Nicky in his pub. He thought about that for a while. “Dulwich Village, you say? Hmm… Tell you what, pick me up at my place tomorrow afternoon around four, and I will have a word with the bloke in Dulwich for you. But for now, you’d best fuck off before Mickey spots you”.

That was good advice, and I took it.

Before leaving for Cleaver Square the next afternoon, I rang Patsy and told her I was following one clue. She made me promise to ring her back that evening if it came to anything.

Little Legs was ready when I arrived. He came out of his house wearing overalls and carrying a large pair of pliers, which he put on the floor in front of the passenger seat. Chuckling, he turned to me as I drove off. “When we get there, leave it to me. You stay in the car. If this long-haired ponce is at home, I will get the truth out of him. My pliers never let me down”. I was very surpised that he had offered to help out, and I just knew he would want something for his trouble. It wasn’t as if he even knew me or Nicky that well.

As I parked my car across the entrance to the short driveway leading to the house, I spotted a beige Mercedes 200D inside. That confirmed what Tony had said about it being a Mercedes. It had last year’s plates, so was quite new. Brian picked up the pliers and got out of the car. He had a look inside the 200D as he walked to the door and pressed the bell. As the door opened, Brian barged in, and it slammed behind him.

I sat in the car staring at the house. I couldn’t look away, in case something happened. Not that I was remotely classed as ‘backup’, but if anything went bent inside I would have been expected to step up. I felt for the telescopic wheelbrace under my seat, and reassured myself it was easily to hand.

He was in there for about twenty minutes before the door opened, and he came out smiling. When he got back into the car I turned the engine on, but he said to switch off again.

“Leave it for a minute, he won’t be coming out. Well, he was tougher than I thought, even though he was still wearing bloody pyjamas. I broke all the fingers on his left hand and he still said he didn’t know about Nicky. But when I started on his right hand, he lost his bottle. He took Nicky to Tony’s and then to Billy’s to meet someone for a deal about pills. Outside Billys’ place, Nicky left the bag in the car, and this geezer pinched three hundred out of it. He reckons there was at least two grand in there. Then Nicky comes out and says he has to go to a pub in Stepney to see a bloke called Lawrence, so he takes him there. Nicky goes in with the bag, and doesn’t come out. This geezer loses his nerve after an hour, and comes home. That’s it”.

Brian lobbed a wallet onto my thigh, and dangled some car keys from his finger. “I told him I’m taking the Merc, to pay for my time and trouble. You wanna sell it and split the money, or are you happy with the wallet?” I said I was happy with the wallet, and thanked him for what he had found out. As he got out, he looked back in through the open door. “You sure now?” I nodded.

“Yeah, I’m sure, Brian. I’m just the driver”.

Leaving Brian to steal the Merc, I drove off and parked along College Road. Inside the wallet was forty quid, a photo of a girl with long black hair, and a driving licence. Toby Hendricks-Cooper. A posh double-barrelled name for a posh boy. I doubted Toby would ever report the car as stolen. He would be far too scared of what Little Legs might do to him if he did. He was going to have to put that down to experience, and realise that’s what happens when you start dealing drugs in circles you have no experience of.

What he had told Brian was going to drag me back to The Ship at Stepney Green, I was well-aware of that. It seemed like Nicky was being given the runaround by men who knew their business much better than he did, and he had made a schoolboy error by travelling around those areas of London carrying a bag with two grand in it. I started to fear the worst for him, to be honest. But there was no point going home until I had followed the last clue.

The traffic was bad, and when I got across the river to Stepney Green, the pub was open for business. I knew if I sat outside I would lose my nerve, so I garbbed the photo of Nicky from my pocket and walked in before I had time to think about what I was doing. There was a man behind the bar. When I told him I wasn’t ordering a drink, he eyed me suspiciously. I showed him the photo of Nicky, and he shook his head. “Nah, he ain’t never been in here, pal”. There were only two other customers, both standing at the end of the bar.

At the risk of upsetting the barman, I walked over and showed them the photo.

One turned his back on me, but the other took the photo off me and stared at it. He was smartly dressed, and a long scar across his forehead suggested he might be a local villain. “Why you looking for this geezer, then?” I repeated my lie about Nicky owing me money for unpaid cab fares. He handed back the photo. “Don’t know him. What is he, Spanish, Italian, Greek maybe?” I confirmed Greek, then threw in that he was supposed to be meeting someone called Lawrence.

That got his interest. “You talking about Larry? Larry Lombardo?” I shrugged. The big man smiled. “Well Larry is doing a life stretch in Parkhurst for murder, son. So he couldn’t have been here to meet your mate, unless the screws were feeling kind, and let him take the ferry from the Isle of Wight”. The barman laughed, and I put the photo away. But scarface hadn’t finished.

“What you wanna do is get yourself over to Clerkenwell, that’s where the Lombardos hang out. Try the Fox and Anchor, near Farringdon Station. You might see Vincent in there, if you’re lucky. Don’t tell him I sent you though”. The barman laughed again. I decided it was time to leave.

Farringdon Station was only twenty minutes or so from The Ship, but at the wrong end of the rush hour, it took me forty minutes to find the pub. There were quite a few City types having after work drinks, so it was busy. A woman with blonde hair was behind the bar, and she smiled as I walked up. When I asked if she knew Vincent Lombardo, the smile vanished. “You a copper or summink?” I assured her I was not a policeman, and she inclined her head to her left and said, “In the corner, on his own at the table. Grey hair”.

The man looked about sixty, wearing an immaculate navy suit, a striped tie, and large gold cufflinks visible on the crisp white cuffs of his shirt. His full head of grey hair was slicked back with some sort of lotion. I was very polite, and asked if he was Vincent Lombardo. He pointed at the empty chair, taking a sip from a glass of red wine he was holding. I sat down.

“Maybe I am Vincent. If I am, what do you want from me?”

He listened patiently as I blurted out the story of Nicky owing me money, and me trying to track him down to get paid. I showed him the photo, and grassed up the big man from Stepney Green, saying he had told me to come to that pub and ask for Vincent. What happened next surprised me completely.

“I don’t know this Nicky you understand, but let’s say I cover his debt. You seem like a nice young man, so how much does he owe you?” I was flummoxed and came up with the first number in my head, one hundred and twenty. That seemed like enough to warrant me running around London trying to recover it. Vincent reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and produced a roll of notes. He counted out twelve tenners onto the table, and slid them across to me.

“That’s you paid, the debt is done, I don’t want no trouble from you, young man, you get me”. I answered as I picked up the money and stood up to leave.

“No trouble from me, I’m just the driver”.

Heading south over Blackfriars Bridge, I stopped at the first phone box I saw, and rang Patsy. I told her I had some information about Nicky, and would go to her flat later and tell her in person. On the way, I stopped in Blue Anchor Lane, and bought pie and chips to eat in the car. Sitting there eating, I made the decision not to tell her about Vincent Lombardo. I would leave the trail at The Ship on Stepney Green, and not mention the next place I visited.

The money from Lombardo had covered my expenses nicely, so after visiting Patsy in Thamesmead, I could take the night off. The stress of running around had taken its toll, and I was feeling worn out.

By the time I knocked on Patsy’s door, the kids were in bed, and her mum had gone home. She looked tired and stressed, but made me a cup of tea and we sat in the kitchen. I explained in detail about Nicky doing deals in Dulwich with Toby. How Little Legs had got the truth out of him by breaking his fingers, and that had led me to the pub in Stepney. Then I gave her the wallet, and told her to keep the forty quid in it. I suggested there was no point in her following the lead from Toby, as I had been to The Ship and they were denying all knowledge of Nicky ever being in there.

She took the news reasonably well, confirming my suspicion that she already knew the worst. Nicky was likely to be in a crushed car in a scrap yard, or in the concrete foundations of one of the many new office blocks springing up all over the city. He had made up his mind to move from being a small time thief and drug dealer, to branching out into the world of major dealing, a world already owned by organised crime.

He was completely out of his league.

Patsy thanked me for my efforts, and told me she still hoped he might turn up. “I reckon they are holding him somewhere. Maybe against a debt, or because he’s upset someone, Paul. Nicky’s like a bad penny, he always turns up”. I hadn’t mentioned how much money he had been carrying around in the shoulder bag. In those days, you could get someone killed for five hundred, and he was carrying close to two grand. As Patsy had suggested he would have only had a hundred on him, I guessed she didn’t have a clue that he had been keeping that secret from her.

Her positive attitude was understandable. After all, Nicky did indeed have a habit of going missing, and turning up later with little or no excuse. But I had seen the look on Vincent’s face as he gave me the money, and that look told me we were never going to see Nicky again.

The next half-hour was awkward. I ran out of things to say, and Patsy sat chain-smoking until my tea went cold. I said I had to go, and she walked me to the door before kissing me on the cheek. “You take care, Paul, and thanks again”.

That was the last time I ever saw her.

In my bedroom that night, I found it hard to get to sleep. The events of the past few months were playing on my mind. I had reluctantly become involved with some of the nastiest small-time gangsters in South London, and also been in contact with some more fearsome organised crime faces. This wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life. I knew full well I could end up like Nicky if I wasn’t careful

You didn’t have to do much to upset those people.

Leaving the wallet with Patsy had been a deliberate act on my part of course. If she ever decided to seek out some of her criminal contacts to find out what had happened to her husband, Toby would be their first port of call. As for me, even if they asked around in The Ship, or managed to track down Vincent Lombardo in Clerkenwell, I wouldn’t feature, as far as anyone was concerned.

They would be told I was just the driver.

Spending time with my new girlfriend was very relaxing, so I started to work longer shifts during weekdays, and stopped driving as a cab on Friday and Saturday nights so I could see her at weekends. It wasn’t too hard to make sure I didn’t take any work that got me back closer to South London, and my mood soon improved.

But I became less aware of what was happening at home. One evening, my mum stayed up late to tell me that my dad was moving out over the weekend. She suggested it might be an idea for me to make myself scarce, to avoid any arguments that I might either start, or become involved in. According to him, he was going to share a house with a male colleague in the Croydon area, saying he felt stifled in the marriage, and needed time to ‘think’.

We both knew that was unlikely to be true, as my dad never did any housework, and nothing remotely domestic. He had also never been without female company since returning from WW2 in 1946. That he had been having an affair and was moving in with his female lover was beyond doubt. But despite mum tackling him on the subject, she received flat denials every time.

At the start of October, the family home was up for sale, and dad was talking about a divorce. That made for a miserable Autumn, and a gloomy Christmas. Mum had decided she would use her share of the money to buy a shop with accommodation above, and she asked me to stay with her and help her achieve that. My girlfriend was very sympathetic, stating that if we managed to do that, she would move in with me above the shop.

One thing attracted me to the prospect of us becoming shopkeepers, and that was that I could finally say goodbye to being a cabbie, and would have a source of income along with a place to live. We began the new year of seventy-six driving around various areas looking at shops for sale, everything from tobacconist’s to small grocery stores. Our only concern was the accommodation. It had to have enough space for us to live relatively separately. That search took us into Surrey, down into the Kent coast area, and even back into Central London.

Eventually, we found a small shop with extensive accommodation above. Formerly a pub in Victorian Times, it now operated as an off-licence, selling alcoholic drinks to be consumed off the premises, alongside sweets, snacks, and cigarettes. We were unable to buy it outright, as the building was owned by one of the big four breweries, but we took a tenancy agreement with them, on the condition that we only sold their beers and wines. That cost mum almost all of her share of the house sale.

By the time we moved in, my dad’s deception had been unmasked. He had been unable to keep away from friends and relatives, and they soon informed us that he was with another woman, and had said his intention was to move away to Northampton, of all places. Surprisingly, she was not young and attractive, as we had suspected. She was a divorced woman the same age as my father, with a son the same age as me, still living at home. He had swapped one family for an identical one, for reasons that we never discovered.

We never saw him again.

My girlfriend made good on her promise, and moved in to share my top-floor rooms, with mum living on the floor beneath. She went to work each day, and mum and I ran the shop during its long opening times until eleven at night. It was in Clapham, South West London, an area unfamiliar to us, but well-known to my girlfriend.

And despite being only seven miles west of Bermondsey, it might as well have been in a different part of England. I would have no reason to ever go back to the areas where I had spent so many anxious months the previous year. Nobody from the old days knew where I was, and they didn’t know our new phone number. If I had emigrated to Australia, I could not have been any further from their influence.

A few weeks after taking over the shop, I traded in the Hillman Hunter for a Volvo saloon car. New home, new area, new job, and now a new car.

I would never be just the driver again, for as long as I lived.

But it did occur to me that this might make an interesting story, perhaps even the plot for a television series. So that is why I am sending you this outline.

The End.

Epilogue.

After a big break from fiction and serials, I used some old notes to write a twenty-part serial based on the advice, “Write what you know”.

As I hinted at many times, this was actually about me, and a period in my life from late 1974 until the spring of 1976. The driver ‘Paul’ was me, and the events in the serial all happened, with some minor differences. Some of the names were changed, but all the ‘characters’ were real people, many of whom are still alive. The car shown in the photo ahead of every episode is indentical to the one I drove as a taxi during that time.

I am using this epilogue to explain some name and plot changes, also to let readers know about some of the places and people mentioned during the serial.

The Pubs.

The Simon The Tanner still trades as a pub. The area underwent a lot of ‘gentrification’ in the 1990s, and it now stands opposite a trendy hotel built on the site of a former antiques market.

The Ancient Foresters is still there too. During the period covered in the story, it was associated with local gangsters.

The Southwark Park Tavern. I am unsure if this is still trading. At that time it was a very popular place to drink.

The Lilliput Hall. Once owned by my great-uncle, it was later converted into apartments. The facade was retained.

The Ship, Stepney Green. This was closed for a long time, then renamed ‘The Ship On The Green’.

The Fox and Anchor, Clerkenwell. This pub still trades, and also offers accommodation in upstairs rooms.

The Characters.

Nicky was/is a real character. Most people called him ‘Nick The Greek’. He was hoping for a career as a DJ, playing records in pubs. He lived in South London with his wife and children, though she was/is not called Patsy and they did not live in Thamesmead. I never found out whether or not he resurfaced after his ‘disappearance’. For all I know, he might still be alive and kicking. The part in the story where I take Patsy and her friend Shell shoplifting is fiction. But the fact that some of them did that is not.

Mickey and Pat Shaughnessy are ‘based-on’ real people who were exactly as they are described in the story. But their surname was not Shaughnessy. I did ‘look after’ a handgun for Nicky, but he collected it. The part where I take it to Mickey is fiction, though having to drive him and his brother around is true. I was used as a reluctant lookout during a warehouse break-in, but it was not televisions that were stolen. I also gave an alibi statement to a police detective like the one described. But he was not called Inspector Bromley. I also took them with the frightened man to the dockside in Deptford. Pat went missing at the time mentioned in the story, and I don’t know if he was ever found.

Teddy Kennedy is an invented name, close to the real name of that person. The incident where I take him to collect a debt from the man who runs off did happen.

Little Legs was a real person. An ‘enforcer’, and a hard-man gangster, despite his size. He did get the information from Toby, and steal his wallet and car, but I was not there when that happened. So that episode was fiction. Many years later, Little Legs was shot and killed in a room in his own house. It was reported as a ‘gangland killing’, as he was suspected of being an informer.

Toby is an invented name. There was a posh young man who lied to me, and was seen around with Nicky. But as he is almost certainly still alive, I did not use the real name.

Freddie Foreman is a real person, and one of the best-known figures in London crime history. He is still alive, and lives in a care home. His son Jamie became an actor. He is still acting, and well-known for playing criminals and villainous roles. He was also in a long-running soap opera on the BBC.

Tony and Billy were pub landlords in those respective pubs. After 1976, I have no idea what happened to them.

Vincent Lombardo is an invented name. He is based on a real Italian/Sicilian gangster who controlled that area for many years and had connections to the Gambino Mafia family in America. I chose not to use the real name. The man I spoke to in the pub that night was almost certainly not him. Vincent was far too important to have been sitting in a pub dealing with ‘messages’. So the grey-haired man was probably one of his minions, and dealt with what he saw might be a problem by giving me cash that was small change to him. There is a good chance he really had no idea who Nicky was.

Being ‘just the driver’ was still very stressful, given the personalities of those involved. However, I was not actually involved as much as it might seem from reading about the events. Using cabs was common, as the police were generally only aware of the cars actually owned by the criminals, and would not be looking out for random cars used as cabs.

The final part about buying the shop and moving away is true, and has been written about on my blog previously. The ‘girlfriend’ mentioned became my first wife, in 1977. She knew nothing at all about the events mentioned in the serial. And even after we split up in 1985, I never told her anything about them.

This reurn to fiction was enjoyable for me. I appreciate everyone who followed the story, read every part, and shared on social media. So far, each episode has received around 75 views, and considering I had that break from fiction, I appreciate that. So, around 1,500 views, and a good amount of engagement and comments too. Tomorrow, I will publish all 20 parts, and this epilogue, as one complete story.

Street Life: The Complete Story

Another reblog of a complete story that was originally a serial. This one is from four years ago, and is reblogged for anyone who might have never read it previously.

beetleypete

I recently published a sixteen-part serial. This is all those parts, in one complete story, for those who suggested it, or others who might prefer to read it in one sitting. If you haven’t read any of it before, I hope you enjoy it.
It contains 18,500 words, so is a very long read.

He watched her walking in his direction. Made him smile every time. Peroxide hair sticking up all over, leather waistcoat over a fishnet vest, and a skirt so short passing traffic almost always had a near miss, as the drivers ogled her legs. She sat down in the doorway next to him, noisily chewing the gum in her mouth. Jack nodded, but she didn’t look at him, or say anything. He let her be, allowed her to take her time. Candy was that sort of girl.
“Good day so far?” He knew what she meant, as…

View original post 18,349 more words

Longer Stories: Travelodge

Reblogging one of my first serials for the benefit of anyone who didn’t see it the first time. It is a complete story.

beetleypete

A Travelodge is a budget hotel, part of a popular chain here in the UK. This is one of my earliest attempts at longer fiction, originally published in three parts. I have decided to group it together into one long post, and offer it as something for new followers to discover. If you take the time do do just that, I will be very grateful. I warn you now, it is over 11,000 words.

I have taken some liberties with punctuation and grammar. Where those appear, they are deliberate.

Part One: Chris

Pardew indicated left, to turn into the service road behind the large petrol station. He was craning his neck, to see if his favourite spot was free. He considered it unlucky if someone else was parked in it, though for no good reason. He turned right, following the direction indicated by the blue sign, and was ridiculously elated…

View original post 11,008 more words

A Real Spy Story: The Complete Story

This is all 35 parts of a fiction serial. It is a long read, at 27,337 words.

As usual, I was wading through some translation when the owner made an unexpected appearance at the opening of my tiny cubicle. “Er… Martin, isn’t it? I have a job for you, Martin. Get some money from petty cash, you’re going to Hastings. You will need to go home first and pack some things for a couple of days, come and see me when you have finished whatever you are doing now”.

Colin Magee rarely surfaced in the general office. The only times I could remember seeing him were when he interviewed me for the job, and when he gathered everyone together to tell us we were not going to get a pay rise for two years. Small publishers like ours were fast-becoming a thing of the past, and finance was almost impossible to come by, according to him at the time.

Still, I was pleased to get a break from translating what was possibly the world’s most boring Russian novel, something about an alcoholic rehab centre in Arkhangelsk. If anyone had ever bought an English language copy of that in hardback, I would have eaten all those unsold. In his office, Magee showed more of his tightwad nature.

“You will purchase a return train ticket with the petty cash money, and get a receipt. You have been booked into a pub in the old town. We will pay the bill directly, so just breakfast and evening meal for you. No extras on the bill please, and any drinks have to be paid for. You can walk to the address from the station, no need to get a taxi. I take it you have a phone that records speech and video, so make sure it is charged up and take your charger. I need this job recorded”.

I was still standing in front of his untidy desk when he picked up a piece of paper and scanned it quickly.

“We have received a letter from an elderly lady. She says she has something for us, a story that will make a good book. She doesn’t want to write it though, so there is no manuscript. Apparently she was a British spy, back in the Cold War days. Spent most of her life as a prisoner of the Soviets before being released long after Perestroika. She has papers that prove it, according to her, and many of them are in Russian, hence why you have to go and interview her. If you think it’s worthwhile, you get the job of writing the book, and your name will be on the cover. Luckily, she doesn’t want any money for her story, so it won’t cost us much to see if it’s worth working on. You had better get going, she’s expecting you late afternoon”.

After four years in my dusty office, the thought of a trip to the seaside to interview a spy was the equivalent of excitement for me. I forked out for a cab home, so I could get my stuff together and be on time for the 12:24 from London Bridge Station. On the way, I started to wonder what the hell I was going to ask her. I began to jot down some relevant questions, realising the importance of proving that what she claimed was actually true.

Reading her handwritten letter for the tenth time, I tried to imagine what Helen Renton was going to be like. Female spies were rare enough in our secret service, at least I couldn’t remember any. I wondered if she had ever known the famous spies of the Cambridge Five. It would be great if she had met them, adding another dimension to the story.

Magee had been right about not needing a taxi. It was a ten-minute walk to the pub, and I left my case in the dismal single room after asking directions to her address. It was literally on the next corner, the last in a row of clapboard cottages fronting the sea that were fast-becoming desirable residences in this previously run-down part of Sussex. But not her one, that was far from desirable. I could only guess at the last time any new pale blue paint had been applied to the wood, and the windows didn’t look as if they had been cleaned since it was built. Net curtains inside them were dingy and threadbare, and there were no decorative boxes or planters outside, as on the neighbouring houses.

Three loud knocks on the cast iron knocker eventually brought someone to the door. But the woman who opened it looked nothing like a spy.

Nothing at all.

We looked each other up and down before she spoke. “Martin Green, I presume. Come in”. Her voice was more like I expected. Channeling Keira Knightley in a Jane Austen period film. English upper-class, beautiful enunciation in just six words.

Her appearance was more Miriam Margolyes. Bra-less pendulous breasts that seemed likely to drop out the bottom of a too-short t-shirt that was stained with what I was sure was egg yolk. A creased denim mini-skirt that was about forty years too young for her, and thick navy blue tights with the left little toe peeping out through a hole in the foot.

Despite no other apparent make-up, she had a swathe of scarlet lipstick covering her lips that resembled the result when a little girl has been at her mother’s make-up bag. The thick dove-grey hair appeared to have been cut by placing a bowl on her head, and hacking off whatever was protruding. And the aroma of the woman was far from perfumed, unless anyone counts tobacco as a perfume.

I followed her down a narrow hallway into a back froom that my grandmother would have called a scullery. An original fireplace, two small archairs either side of a circular coffee table, and a kitchen beyond that looked just large enough for one person to stand in. It also appeared to lack any modern appliances on first glance, though I could see a large pile of unwashed pots and dishes in the small sink.

The room had one window to the side, firmly closed. Cigarette smoke had stained every wall, and the small ceiling too. There was nothing personal in there. No framed photos, no pictures on the wall, no clock or knick-knacks on the wide mantlepiece. The two-bar electric fire in the hearth was like a museum piece, and the rug covering the black-painted wooden floorboards was threadbare.

“Sit yourself down, and I will get us something to drink”. She returned with a bottle of vodka and two tumblers. I had been expecting tea. As I prepared my phone and notebook, she took a cigarette from a soft paper packet, and inserted it into a short plastic holder with a tortoiseshell design. Although I had never smoked, I did notice that there was no filter on it. Her lighter was one of those flip-top ones that you see in American films. A dull metal casing that reeked of petrol as she opened it. She made no offer of a cigarette to me, instinctively knowing I was a non-smoker, I suspect.

Next, she filled her tumbler to the brim with vodka. As she leaned over to me with the bottle, I put my hand over the glass. She shrugged. “All the more for me then”. The whole tumbler of alcohol went down in one large gulp, and she refilled it before speaking again. “Now I expect you are thinking I am an alcoholic. Perhaps I am, but you get used to vodka when you are in Russia for as long as I was. It doesn’t even get me drunk any longer”.

The only thing on my mind at that moment was avoiding the clouds of smoke she exhaled every few seconds. Though her remark did make me think about the book I had escaped from translating, and its alcoholic rehab centre in Arkhangelsk. I was wondering if she had ever been to that city.

“Let’s get started, then you can take me for dinner. I’m betting you are not on expenses for this trip, but don’t worry, I’m a cheap date”. I switched my phone onto record, and opened my notebook. She was already speaking before I had reached for my pen.

“It all began with my father. He was born in nineteen-o-five. Too young for fighting in the first war, but old enough to know why his father never came home from Belgium. My grandfather was from Scotland originally, moved south for a good job and better pay. Daddy’s name was Oliver Renton. Have you ever heard of him?” I shook my head and noted down the name.

“He had some books published; non-fiction history, political, that kind of thing. Didn’t make any money from those of course, which is why he stayed on as an English teacher. Then nineteen thirty-six happened. The civil war in Spain. He wasn’t married at the time, and considered himself to be something of a Socialist. So when they formed the International Brigades, off he went as a volunteer”.

Helen downed the second vodka, then sat forward. “I’m too hungry to talk any longer just now. Let’s go and eat, and we can do more after”.

To the relief of my wallet, Helen walked me the short distance to a seafront fish and chip shop that had some rickety tables outside. We went in and she ordered for both of us. “Cod and Chips twice, two large pickled onions, and two cups of tea. We will be eating outside, and the gentleman is paying”. As I waited for the food, she went and sat outside. Reaching into the pocket of her worn-out padded jacket for her cigarettes and lighter, she turned and called out to me.

“Just salt on mine, no vinegar. Tell them now, as they always splash it on without asking”. The tired-looking woman behind the counter smiled at me. She had heard Helen. The food was handed over to me in polystyrene boxes, with a plastic knife and fork balanced on top of each. They were added to a paper-thin tray with the plastic cups of tea.

Not waiting until she had finished her cigarette, my companion tucked into the food as if she had been starving for days, pausing only to puff on the cigarette between bites. Dinner table conversation was limited.

“Are you going to eat that onion? If not, give it here”.

It was much tastier than I had expected it to be, and I found myself joining her in eating far too quickly. When we had both finished, she didn’t waste time. “Right, let’s get back and continue”.

A tumbler was filled with vodka as she made sure my recording was running, then she carried on as if we hadn’t been out.

“Daddy was involved in the fighting around Madrid University. He hadn’t been in the country very long before he was wounded there, shot in the thigh. He did get good medical treatment, but his left leg was never right after that. Still, being wounded meant he was evacuated out of the city, and eventually found his way to Barcelona with a different unit. Then in thiry-seven trouble broke out in that city. The Anarchists and union militias ended up fighting the government, and the International Brigades were used against them. He thought the different factions should have been united against Franco, and all the in-fighting cost them any hope of victory. He went to Spain with Socialist ideals, and came back a Communist, and a firm supporter of the Soviet Union. Sorry, I need the lavatory”.

She was out there a long time, in the bathroom built on the back of the house. I doubted the original property would have had more than an outside toilet. When she returned, she downed what was left of the vodka, refilled the tumbler, and lit a cigarette.

“Before he came home to England, he visited Moscow with some others who had served in Spain. In thirty-nine, he returned not only with his political convictions set in stone, but also with a pregnant Russian wife. My mother, Liliya, who luckily had a decent command of English. Then the second world war broke out, and he left us to go and fight the Nazis, this time in the British Army. If he came home on leave, I don’t remember, I was only five when it was all over. I do remember him coming back from Berlin though. The forty year-old father I had never known. By then I had already started to speak both Russian and English, and he adored me. He got a job as a teacher again, very keen on the idea of all the changes happening to make education more equal”.

My phone needed to be put on charge, and she finished her drink as I plugged it in next to a side lamp.

“So you see, Martin. My father’s choice of wife led me to become fluent in Russian. And once I had mastered the Cyrillic alphabet, I quickly learned how to speak Bulgarian, helped by my mother. There was never any doubt that I would go to university, or that I would study Russian when I got there. My father was keen on me applying to Cambridge, but I had a preference for Oxford. That included Russian history and culture of course, but the usual trips students would take to that country were not so easy back then. Given my almost unfair advantage, I was in the top group, and received an oustanding degree. Daddy wanted me to stay on for a Masters, then do a PhD. My college friends threw a party after the formal graduation, and I was introduced to a man. Not in that way, you understand, he was quite obviously queer. He told me his name was John Holdsworth, and that he worked for the government. When he was leaving, he gave me his card, and stared into my eyes. I can still see him now, as he spoke these words”.

Her gaze left me, as she saw that moment in her mind.

“Come and see me in London, Helen. I have just the job for you”.

One thing Helen was surely right about was her ability to consume copious amounts of vodka with no apparent effect. She left the room briefly to return with a second bottle, not bothering to ask if I wanted any refreshments. It seemed that her only option for hospitality was vodka or nothing.

“Where was I? Oh yes, John. I rang him once I returned to the two-bed flat near Battersea Park that I shared with my parents. My mother was ill in bed when I came home from Oxford, but daddy assured me it was nothing serious. He was trying for a job with the education authority, keen to become involved with the new syllabuses. It slipped his mind to ask if I was going back for my Masters, so I rang John. The meeting was arranged outside the Foreign Office in King Charles Street, but when I got there, he walked me to Carteret Street, and we went into a nondescript building, then up to a large office on the first floor”.

She topped up her tumbler from the new bottle, and lit another cigarette in her holder. I had given up my game of counting how many she smoked.

“In that office he told me he worked for Military Intelligence, and that if I refused hs offer of a job, he would deny the conversation ever happened. To be honest, he made it sound very exciting. Very cloak and dagger. Do they still say that, I wonder? I was twenty-one years old, it was nineteen-sixty. We had teenagers, jazz music, even coffee bars in London. And I was still a virgin. The thought of returning to Oxford for more years of study didn’t appeal. John spoke of my linguistic abilities, but he was also very interested in my father. Being a known Communist and advocate of the Soviet Union, my position as his daughter would make me a very credible double-agent, John told me”.

I had to stop there to ask to use her toilet. Though once in there, I had cause to regret that necessity. It didn’t appear to have been cleaned since before I was born. So I did my pee, and got out quickly. She was eager to continue.

“I had few questions for Holdsworth at the time, as he laid it all out very clearly. As far as anyone was concerned, I would be working for the Foreign Office as a translator in Russian and Bulgarian. Although both countries were firmly behind the Iron Curtain, as Churchill had called it, there were still trade deals to be done, as well as many requirements from the Diplomatic Service. I would be sent to both Moscow and Sofia, ostensibly working as a translator. Meanwhile, I would be flagged as a possible recruit by the so-called enemy, because of my father’s connections. There would be training of course, and it would be in Scotland, at a facility used by the SOE during the war. If I said yes, I would be on the Civil Service payroll immediately, with a high grade and good salary. But I would have to leave for Scotland the following Monday. John left the room, to make a phone call. When he got back, I said yes.”

Looking at my watch, and feeling a yawn coming on. I stopped the recording and told Helen I was calling it a night. Her reaction was to refill her glass, and light another cigarette.

“Young people today just don’t have the stamina, do they? God forbid you would have to fight off the Nazis and the Japanese, let alone manage all those desperate years of the Cold War. Okay then, come back tomorrow. But not early, mind. I refuse to be presentable before eleven these days, as I need my rest”.

Her remark amused her, and she started laughing. That resulted in a hacking cough, which she tried to cure by drinking more vodka, and puffing on her cigarette. Once I was out of the house, the fresh sea air felt wonderful. I spent some time wandering around before returning to my room.

The next morning, I shared my breakfast table with two travelling salesmen who were trying to outdo each other by boasting about how many sales leads they were following up that day. After a mediocre, rather greasy full English, I went outside and phoned my boss, Magee. I left a message when he didn’t answer. It went something like this.

“I need to stay on in Hastings. Helen Renton is completely genuine, and I need more time with her. I’m sure we have a real spy story here”.

After breakfast, I headed into the shopping centre. Finding a branch of a chain of electrical retailers, I bought the cheapest video camera and tripod they had for sale. A basic model that I got the young salesman to show me how to use. While there, I bought enough memory cards to last me the week, perhaps longer. I had decided my phone wasn’t going to cut it. The recordings didn’t last long enough, and I had insufficient memory to store the hours of talking I was expecting to hear from Helen.

Besides, I wanted to get her speaking about it on some decent video footage. Watching her was going to be more convincing than listening to her.

On my salary, it was an unwelcome expense, but I had already decided that if Magee refused her book offer, I would write it anyway, and hopefully submit the video to a documentary company too. All I had to do now was to get her to agree to be filmed. Walking back to her house, I stopped off and bought some pastries, and a cup of black coffee for myself. It seemed pointless taking any hot drinks for her, as she only seemed to drink vodka.

Timing it to the second, I knocked on her door at exactly eleven o’clock. I was surprised that she answered almost immediately.

“Come in, Martin. What have you got there? Cakes? Oh good. I hope that coffee isn’t for me, can’t stand the stuff these days”.

She wandered off, trailng smoke from her cigarette. I was not expecting her to have suddenly dressed up nicely, but the sight of her in a pink dressing gown, barefoot and hair standing up, confirmed that she really was not bothered about what she looked like. Some damp strands of hair at least suggested she had showered, but I wasn’t completely sure about that.

Once we were sat in the two chairs, and her tumbler was filled with vodka, I showed her the video camera and tripod, asking for permission to film her. “I don’t care. To be honest, I had expected you to bring a cameraman or photographer from the start. Can I have that Cinnamon Twist? I love those”. I pushed the bag of cakes over as I set up the camera. She had eaten three of the four before I was ready to begin. I had to keep averting my eyes, after discovering that she was naked under the ill-fitting dressing gown, which kept gaping across her chest.

“Scotland. I think we had got to Scotland, right? Well, I had expected some secret agent stuff. Guns and things. Demolition charges, hand-to-hand-combat, Judo. You know, all the things you see in the films about spies being trained during the war. The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was the only woman, in a class of ten. We had two instructors, one was a military type, and the other one looked like a friendly bank manager. Both of them had been agents in France during the war, but you would never have known that from looking at them. John Holdsworth didn’t appear. I didn’t see him again for a long time”.

I wanted to ask her more about the training, but didn’t need to. She told me anyway.

“It was mostly about how you acted. You had to learn to be nonchalant, pretending you were over there to do your job, and knew nothing about spying. One day, they took us into the nearest town, and we had to follow each other in pairs, trying not to be spotted. Then we would swap, and try to avoid being followed. At the end of the day, the instructors told us what we had done wrong, and showed us how to do it better, with a role-play exercise in the grounds of the training centre.
Can I have that Belgian Bun if you are not going to eat it?”

Having to go hungry wasn’t a hardship. After all, I had eaten a big breakfast. I nodded, and paused the recording as she wolfed down the bun. That was followed by a vodka refill, and another cigarette.

“The spy bit mainly concerned microfilm. We were shown how to use the tiny cameras involved, and we had to do lots of practice at dead-letter drops. That could involve anything from using a newspaper left on a park bench, to passing a bank-note with a microfilm folded into the crease. But they were obsessed with following, and being followed. We had to do that over and over, until we could easily spot someone following us. Not that we did anything once we noticed them. We just had to know, you see?”

When she left to use the bathroom. I reviewed the video footage on the flip-out screen. It was great stuff.

“Being the only woman, I was also taken to one side and told how to act over there. I was to be amenable to flirting, but not to instigate any. There was a lot of talk about diplomatic receptions, formal dinners, attending exhibitions, and important meetings. I was to act like an interpreter at all times, be in the background, unassertive. They brought in a female former spy to talk to me about it, and I was amazed to discover that she had been operating in Paris all through the war. Her name was Letitia, and she had a lovely air of faded elegance about her. She had spent almost five years pretending to be a French noblewoman, entertaining German generals, and feeding back information though the network. I was impressed. If I could do a quarter as well as her, I would consider that to be an achievement”.

Helen paused to scratch her head violently, taking the opportunity to light another cigarette, and top up her glass of vodka.

“The day before I left Scotland for home, a young woman came to my room. She told me what I should buy in England before taking the flight to Moscow. I would need lots of pairs of stockings, as there were almost none to be found there except for awful woolen things. Sanitary products were essential too, as they were still in the dark ages where periods were concerned, apparently. Any decent underwear should be taken with me, unless I wanted to end up in a vest top and bloomers. And shoes. She suggested lots of pairs of shoes. According to her, women’s shoes in Moscow were clumpy affairs, and mostly made from fake leather at best. I would be travelling on a Diplomatic Passport, with some other Embassy staff who were changing over with those already in post. I would be allowed two good sized suitcases, and there would be no baggage checks at either end. I started to feel a bit special, Martin. Do you see that?”

I nodded to agree that I understood.

“The aircraft was a De Havilland Comet, very swish, and there were only sixteen of us on board. When we arrived in Moscow, we were met by a delegation who shook our hands and kissed our cheeks very firmly. It was a big deal for the Soviets, and one of the officials made a long speech, which I have to tell you was badly translated by his interpreter. They ushered us through into the terminal, to a function room laid out with delicacies and lots of drink. I was nibbling on caviar canapes and drinking vodka from large glasses, before being whisked away onto a coach with the others by one of the Embassy bores. They were not much fun those types, believe me. I ended up in a small apartment block over the road from the Embassy, the whole of which was rented by the British government. My so-called apartment was one room, a double bed, two chairs, a small table, and a basic kitchenette in the corner. A door led off that into a bathroom that had a shower over the toilet, and a basin that was so close to the toilet bowl, I had to pee sitting sideways. These days, they would call it bijou, or a studio flat, I suppose”.

She got up again, and returned with a packet of Jacob’s Cream Crackers, starting to eat them with no cheese or butter on them.

“At least it was bigger than my room in my parents’ flat, and I was so tired I slept soundly all night, even with no dinner. I had instructions to report to the Embassy the next morning at nine, and ask for a Mister Whittaker. George Whittaker took my fancy at first sight. Tall, smartly dressed, and with dark hair. He had an urbane manner, and reminded me somewhat of the actor Cary Grant, except that George had a rather large moustache. He told me he was a military attache, a euphemism I understood from training. I sat in his office giving him the glad eye as he ran through the list of my supposed official duties for the next month. Then he told me the reality, which that I was to go on all these interpreting jobs and keep my fngers crossed that I was approached by a Soviet spymaster. Once that happened, he would begin to feed me just enough genuine information to get them interested”.

Pausing to wash down a mouthful of cracker crumbs with half a tumbler of vodka, she smiled.

“Then he told me to go to GUM and buy a very warm coat and hat. He said, it is going to get very cold here, young lady”.

Helen shivered, as if remembering the cold of a Moscow winter.

“George was right about the cold of course, and I was grateful for his advice about buying a coat and hat. I bought some felt-lined boots later too, you wouldn’t believe how cold it gets over there”. I didn’t bother to tell her I had visited Russia many times. The least she knew about me, the better. I wanted her to talk about her past, not mine.

“I spent a few more days with George, on and off. I knew he was married, but I set my cap at him, fair and square. Do they still say that, set my cap? It meant I flirted with him, let him know I wanted him. I wasn’t always as you see me now, Martin. I was a curvy young woman, dark auburn hair, buxom, and desirable. It wasn’t for lack of offers that I had remained a virgin, believe me. I decided that George would be the one. His wife and family were still in England, so that meant there would be no complications. I didn’t want to fall in love with him, and certainly didn’t want him to fall for me and talk about leaving his family. So whenever we were alone, I flashed him a bit of stocking top, dipped my shoe off my foot, leaned forward too close to him when he lit my cigarette, that sort of thing”.

She sat back, and from the look on her face, she was reminiscing about some sexual encounter.

“Eventually, he just went for it in his office. It was all very fast and passionate, but he thankfully remembered to use a rubber. Do you even know what a rubber is? They call them condoms now, so I have noticed”. The second time was in his nice apartment, and that time I slept over. He was keen to discuss something, and once the sex was out of the way, he poured some drinks and told me about my first really important task. Shall we have an early dinner? Then I will tell you about that. I have something in the fridge, no need to go out”.

With Helen doing something in the kitchen, I took the time to insert a fresh memory card into the video camera, and put it on charge to boost the battery. She returned around thirty minutes later, carrying two plastic containers on separate plates. I took mine to discover it was a shop-bought lasagna, a portion big enough for a family, with an old dessert spoon plonked in it. I put it down and got the camera running. She had started talking already, between mouthfuls.

“What George had in mind was for me to make myself known to Vasily Semenov. He was a diplomat who spoke some English, and usually turned up at any important meetings. George was convinced he was a KGB bigwig, and he wanted me to become involved with the man, in the hope that he would approach me to be one of his agents. He showed me a series of photos of Semenov, mostly taken close to KBG headquarters. So the next time I accompanied the British Ambassador to a bone-dry dull meeting about trade regulations, I wandered over in a refreshment break and asked Semenov for a light for my cigarette”.

She stopped to shovel down a quarter of her meal in one gulp, then polished off half a tumbler of vodka.

“The thing that surpised me most was that Vasily knew who I was. He was very charming too. He introduced himself, speaking to me in Russian at all times. He knew my name, my father’s name, and was even able to quote some of the titles of daddy’s books. I didn’t let that throw me though. When the meeting was over I was free to go home, as the ambassador was being collected by his driver. Vasily touched my arm as we approached the stairwell, and invited me to dinner. Usually, embassy staff would not be asked, as they would have declined. But I was no ordinary staff member”.

Although the food was tasty enough, I could only manage half. When I put my spoon down and sat back, Helen grabbed my dish and ate the rest of it while still talking.

“I was wined and dined, ended up in his bed, and the next morning he told me he had a job for me, if I wanted it”.

As if sensing I had a question ready, Helen answered it.

“I was uneasy about Vasily’s offer. I acted shocked, and said I didn’t know what he was talking about when he asked me if I could gain access to top secret documents. I might have been a real rookie in the spying game, but I knew he was acting too quickly, and far too confidently. I told him I was just an interpreter, and he apologised. But his apology came with a smile that was so knowing, I immediately concluded that there must already be a spy in the embassy. When I told George the next day, he just chuckled. He said ‘You did the right thing, old girl. He was just chancing his arm. If you had said yes immediately, he would have suspected you were a plant straight off. No harm done though, now he will work harder on you’. Although I was giving George my best glad eye, he didn’t bite. After that, he never bit again. I had the sense that he had been breaking me in for Vasily, or anyone else he had in mind. Actually, I don’t feel so good, and I badly need the lavatory. Perhaps we can call it a night, Martin.”

Considering all that she had eaten, including the one and a half family sized lasagnas, I wasn’t surprised that she felt Ill. I tidied up my things and got out of there before she had a chance to dash off to the bathroom to expel her excess consumption.

Back at the pub, I sat in the bar writing a letter to Magee, my boss. I told him that everything was going well, that it was all down on video and my notes, and it would be a nice retro piece about Cold War spying. I didn’t use any names Helen had given me, and kept it short. Then I had an early night, although I had trouble sleeping, for some reason. The next morning, I breakfasted alone, as the only person appearing to be renting a room. As it was too early, I wandered along the seafront for a while, trying to imagine Norman soldiers making their way from Pevensey Bay, in 1066.

She opened the door on the second knock, and I was amazed to see her in full make-up, hair combed, and wearing a checked dress.

“I’ve been shopping, Martin. Got some milk, tea bags, and sugar while I was out. It dawned on me I haven’t been a very good host, so would you like a cup of tea?” I told her I would, and set up the video camera while she made it. I hadn’t expected her to join me with tea, and I had been right. When she put down a teacup with no saucer in front of me, she had a tumbler of vodka on her side of the table. After lighting a cigarette, she sat back, smiling. “Right then, let’s get going”.

Once the camera was focused and operating, I gave her the thumbs up.

“As it turned out, Vasily fobbed me off to one of his minions. His name was Andrei, and he was much younger. I quite fancied him, to be honest. It had been a couple of months since Vasily had made his clumsy offer, when Andrei walked up to me as I sat in a park, feeding the pigeons. He stopped in front of me, then smiled. He said he knew me as an interpreter, from meetings with the ambassador. I had never seen him before, but I pretended I had. He sat on the bench next to me, and told me that he was so sad that former allies had become enemies. His take on it was that each side posturing in the military sense, and all those issues about atomic bombs, were destroying the trust we had from forty-one to forty-five. I gave him a few nods of agreement, and mentioned that my father was of the same mind. Then Andrei asked if I would accompany him for tea and cakes in a place he knew nearby, and I agreed. Do you want a bacon sandwich, Martin? I’m going to have one”.

Declining the bacon sandwich, I waited while she made her one, listening to the bacon sizzling fiercely in the frying pan. When she came back and started to eat it, tomato ketchup dripped down her dress, apparently unnoticed by her.

“So that’s how Andrei became my KGB handler. And before you ask, I didn’t sleep with him”.

Helen’s face lit up as she continued.

“My first real job as a spy was to Leningrad. Such a marvellous city, have you been?” She didn’t wait for me to reply before continuing. “Colder than a witch’s tit, but simply breathtaking. The Winter Palace, The Peter and Paul Fortress, the inland waterways crossing the city. They used to call it the Venice of the north you know. I was supposed to be doing some interpreting for a visiting government minister, and George thought it was the perfect opportunity to lose my spying virginity. He passed me some tiny film negatives concerning British nuclear submarine plans. He said he had a good idea that the soviets already knew what was in the photographed documents, but my handing them over would show good faith”.

She lit a cigarette, and there was a long pause as she took a trip down her personal Memory Lane.

“The hotel was close to the River Neva, and I had the chance to wander around before the interpreting job the next day. It felt like a place I would loved to have lived in, the grand buildings reminded me of the time when it was built in the seventeen hundreds. Even all the soviet iconography couldn’t detract from the sheer grandeur. Of course, the outskirts had the usual dismal-looking housing, tower blocks stretching for miles, and queues outside shops, but the centre! Oh, that was just wonderful. The meeting I interpreted at was dull, but I spotted Andrei sitting at the back of the soviet delegation, pretending not to notice me. When it was over, I asked to walk back to the hotel in the twilight, and it was not difficult to realise he was following me”.

Realising her vodka glass was empty, Helen held up a hand and stood up to get a fresh bottle from the kitchen. That was my signal to pause the recording.

“I stopped walking near the Finland Station, pretending to fiddle with one of my fur-lined boots. From inside the top, I removed a wrapper from a stick of chewing gum. The microfilm negative was inside it. Carrying on without looking back, I discarded it casually. I knew that if Andrei knew his stuff, he would pick it up. Two days later, I was back in Moscow, a delighted George full of praise for my work. That was it you see, Martin. No shootouts, no drama, no street-light chases on shadowy cobbled streets. I dropped a piece of paper on a street in Leningrad, and became an accomplished spy. A child could have done it. Within a month, I had made five more drops. Leave your coat in a theatre cloakroom with the microfilm in one of the pocket linings. Collect your coat after watching The Bolshoi Ballet perform, and it had gone. Make a visit to the Moscow State Circus, use a coin to release the opera glasses in the seat in front of you. After the show, you replace the tiny binoculars with the negative on the stand. Simple, you see?”

I had questions, but she wanted to keep talking.

“Andrei didn’t make any effort to contact me during that time, though I saw him sometimes. Like the night at the Bolshoi, when he was in a nearby box with a glamorous dyed blonde. One weekend, I was wandering around window shopping and I spotted him standing by the entrance to a Metro station. He smiled at me, and when he was sure I had seen him, he turned and walked down the stairs. I presumed this was some indication I should follow him, and I was right. He led me a merry dance, changing lines, swapping platforms. It was all I could do to stay on the same train. Then in a station well outside of the centre, he got off and walked out onto the street. I followed him to a small park, children were playing on some ancient playground equipment, mothers wrapped up against the cold as they sat and watched their little darlings. He stopped next to a bench, pretending to tie his shoelace, then he took off his fur hat and wiped his head with his hand. As he walked away, I saw a small envelope on the ground and hurried over to pick it up. It contained ten American one-hundred dollar bills, a thousand dollars, Martin. That was a lot of money then, I can tell you”.

Inhaling her cigarette in what seemed to be the wrong way, there followed a fit of coughing that seemed to go on for some minutes.

“I had been paid for spying. That was my first payment!”

“Can you imagine my disappointment the next day? I had shown George the envelope full of money, and he took it off me and put it in the safe. He said, ‘we don’t get to keep the cash, old love. That wouldn’t be cricket now, would it. Unless you want to become a real double agent, and risk life in jail back in England’. I don’t know why it hadn’t occured to me that I couldn’t keep it, but when George said that, it made sense. Maybe we could end it there for today? I feel an early night coming on. There will be lots more to come tomorrow, and for some time after that”.

At my hotel, I had a message to ring Magee. He was not in the best mood when I finally got him at his home number.

“You sure about this old girl, Martin? I hope she’s not spinning you a line. I will give you a week, and want to hear something definite that convinces me she’s the real thing”.

The next morning, there was no reply at Helen’s house. After a few tries, I walked down to the seafront. It had turned chilly, and I wasn’t dressed for the cold wind. Deciding to give it another try at Helen’s I walked back that way. She finally opened the door, looking bleary-eyed and wearing a near transparent nightdress that left nothing to the imagination. “Come in, Martin. Sorry, I overslept this morning”. I followed her in, averting my eyes and hoping she was about to go upstairs and put on some underwear and clothes.

When she plonked down heavily into her armchair and lit a cigarette, I concluded that was not her intention. I hardly had time to get the camera running before she was speaking.

“Yes, the money. It kept arriving from Andrei, and George was still putting it in his safe. I had started to become obsessed with the idea that he was going to keep it, and that thought made me really irritated. Things were getting tense, because of the situation in Berlin. It was sixty-one, and the Soviets and East Germans were building a wall to divide the city. The gossip was that this was all some precursor to military action of some kind. George was whisked off to Berlin at a moment’s notice, and Andrei disappeared too, probably to the same place. That was when they decided to send me to Bulgaria. I was too new for the dramas in Berlin of course, and although I could speak and understand a lot of German, I wasn’t up to interpreting there. My Russian would be useless in that city, as the Soviets were not talking to anyone. I need a drink and something to eat, do you want tea?”

I nodded my agreement for tea, and took her time of absence to change the memory card. She returned with my tea, a tumbler full of vodka, and four slices of bread thickly spread with a good half-inch of strawberry jam. My scrambled eggs on toast for breakfast was looking like a decidedly healthy option at that point. She started eating, and carried on talking as she chewed the bread, sipped the vodka, and puffed on what was left of her cigarette.

“Oh, how I loved Bulgaria, Martin. It was warm, sunny, and so relaxed after Moscow. Sofia felt like a Mediterranean city, but the focus of our mission was on Burgas, a seaport and naval base in the east, on the Black Sea. In Sofia, I was shown in to meet Clive Hendricks. He was the equivalent of George in Bulgaria, the head of Security at the embassy, and one of the MI6 operatives concerned with the Black Sea. The Soviet Union was just across the Black Sea from Bulgaria, which had a direct sea route to Odessa. There was also a land corridor through Romania, which of course was friendly to the Soviets back then. Clive had established some kind of false trade delegation over at Burgas, and asked me if I would go there to be an interpreter and see what I could find out about Soviet naval deployments around the larger Black Sea ports. He attached me to his almost non-existent trade delegation, which was only made up of a couple of Foreign Office staffers who didn’t really have a clue what was going on. I went by train, and was shown to their office above a shop in the city of Burgas. They fixed me up with a one-bed flat, and told me to come back the next day to interpret”.

Standing up to reveal herself in all her faded splendour through the nightgown, Helen smiled.

“I need more food. I won’t be a second, I’m just going to get a bowl of cornfflakes”.

When Helen returned with a large soup bowl full of cornflakes, I was pleased to see that she had got dressed. Well, not exactly dressed, but she was wearing a knee-length cable-knit cardigan buttoned up, and some thick socks that reached her knees.

“I had these drying in the bathroom, Martin. Sorry about earlier. Now, on with Bulgaria. My target, according to Clive, was a Bulgarian interpreter named Desislava Todorov. She had come to notice at some meetings in Sofia, and Clive had information that she was interested in living in the West. As she could speak Russian and English, she had been used in many meetings, and she was going to take part in the trumped-up trade talks in Burgas that summer. Hendricks was sure she would be privvy to lots of information about naval activity on The Black Sea. Do you want to take your coat off?”

It was cold in the house that morning, and I had left my topcoat on after sitting down. I shook my head.

“Oh well, up to you. Anyway, I got to know Burgas before the sheduled meetings, and Clive had given me some information about Todorov. She was almost forty years old, divorced with no children, and during her time in Sofia she had been something of a socialite, appearing at functions, and being seen in clubs around the city. Due to meetings being rescheduled, I didn’t get to meet her until the end of August. It was a fiercely hot day, and the meeting room was only cooled by two fans. I was sweating like a racehorse before the Bulgarian delegation arrived. Then I looked up and there she was. Cool, calm, collected, and stunningly attractive”.

When she paused to spoon in four huge mouthfuls of cornflakes, I watched as the milk dribbled down her chin and onto the cardigan. She carried on without bothering to wipe her face, and the remaining cornflakes swirled around in her mouth like washing in a spin-drier as she spoke.

“It was hard to concentrate on my translation that afternoon. Every time I looked across the table, Desislava was staring at me. When she caught my eye, she smiled, and that made me feel a bit silly and girly. By the time the meeting was over, I had a big crush on her, believe me. On the way out, she put a hand on my shoulder. She said she was pleased to meet me, was looking forward to the next two days of negotiations, and that I should call her Desi. That night, my head was in a whirl. I had never been attracted to a woman in that way before, and it confused me totally”.

Then Helen raised the bowl to her mouth and tipped it up, to get the last of the remaining milk and cornflakes. Before speaking again, she let out a loud belch, and rubbed her chest.

“Sorry about that. For the next two days, I felt like I was in a dream. Desi and I kept grinning at each other across the table, and she was playing a game of not interpreting exactly what was being said by our side. I did some of that too, and it became our shared secret. Both of us knew that it was all nonsense anyway, as the whole pointless exercise had been set up to get us to meet each other. During the afternoon break on the Friday, Desi was outside speaking to me as we smoked cigarettes. She said that one of the Bulgarian men had asked her about me, and told her he wanted to take me on a date. That made us laugh, as the man in question was well over sixty, and weighed about twenty stones. Then she suggested I meet her that evening, and she would take me to a jazz club in a run-down part of Burgas. Of course, I agreed immediately”.

Standing up and carrying her bowl back into the kitchen, she asked if I wanted anything. I told her no, and put the charging cable into the camera to make sure the battery didn’t die on me. She came back with a tumbler full of vodka, and a fresh packet of cigarettes.

“We had such fun at the club. It was mostly outside because of the heat. Only the bar and toilets were in the small inner room. A couple of dozen others were sitting around at the tables, and records being played inside were audible on a speaker fixed to the wall outside. I got a bit drunk, and Desi got me up to dance with her”. Helen paused to light a cigarette, then gave me a knowing look.

“Luckily for me, they played a slow song”.

“After that dance, we walked back to my flat. Desi pulled me into a small alleyway and kissed me passionately. To this very day, that was my best kiss, ever. But she left me at the door, saying she had things to do the next day and had to get home to bed. As she walked away, she stopped and turned. She said she was going to take a week’s holiday in Sozopol, from the following Monday. If I could get the time off, she would love it if I could accompany her. She said it was a beach resort on the coast, popular with influential Bulgarians, East Germans, and Russians. She had already booked a room in a modest hotel away from all the grand places. Then she took a pen from her handbag and wrote her phone number on my bare arm, before saying ‘let me know soon, sweetie’. Early the next morning, I got the Foreign Office types to send Hendricks in Burgas a coded message. I think they were using short-wave radio, but I cannot be sure. Would you like anything, Martin? I am a poor hostess”.

I said I would have a cup of tea, and she returned carrying a small tray. It contained my cup of tea, a plate of Garibaldi biscuits, and a refilled tumbler of vodka. When I didn’t pick up any of the biscuits, she leaned forward. “If you aren’t going to eat those, I might as well have them”. She proceeded to demolish the whole plate of currant biscuits, each one washed down with sips of vodka.

“Hendricks was keen for me to go. He replied that I should quiz her about anything to do with naval movements, and promise to extricate her from Sofia. It was a four-hour drive from the Bulgarian capital to the border with Greece. They would conceal her in the boot of a diplomatic car that couldn’t be searched, and take her to Athens. From there, they would fly her back to England on a military flight, and give her a new identity. I was excited. I was going to be involved in repatriating my first foreign spy, and it didn’t hurt that I was crazy about her, into the bargain. I phoned Desi, and told her I would go to Sozopol with her. She picked me up in her tiny car on the Monday morning. It was a Fiat 500, with an open roof at the top. There was just room in the back seat for my case, and she kissed me openly before we set off. It was only a thirty-minute drive, but the roads were terrible. Full of potholes, and clogged with slow-moving trucks. It took over an hour, but then she stopped the car in front of a lovely small hotel overlooking the beach. Would you like anything, Martin? I am going to finish the rest of the packet of Garibaldis”.

I shook my head, making some notes as she went to get the biscuits.

“Of course, the room had a double bed. But in those days, nobody thought anything of two women sharing. We had a deal for bed and breakfast, and Desi assured me that she knew great places to eat in the evenings. She said we would fill up on a big breakfast, skip lunch, rest in the heat of the afternoon, then enjoy dinner and drinks when it cooled down in the evening. As you might imagine, there wasn’t too much resting for us in the afternoons. I won’t go into detail, but the love-making was nothing less than spectacular. That first evening, we went to the beach for a swim before changing for dinner. Desi was cagey. She said we had to keep our backs to the town at all times, and look at the sea. She said they used lip-readers with telescopes to see what we were saying. And we had to avoid any families with cine-cameras. They would appear to be filming their wives and children, but would really be filming us. Shaking her head, she said, ‘This town is full of KGB and Bulgarian Security Services, Helen. Don’t forget Bulgaria fought with the German Nazis in the war. They don’t trust us, those Russkies’.

I was making some more notes as she carried on speaking.

“To be honest, I was past caring. I knew I was in love with her by then”.

“For the next three mornings, we sat in the shallows, to get out of the heat on the beach. With our backs to the town, we chatted constantly. Like me, Desi was not just an interpreter, but a trained spy in the Bulgarian Secret Service. Clive had been completely right about that. She had been expected to not only spy on behalf of the Russians, but to spy on the Russians for the Bulgarians. I didn’t let on about my training at first, but when I needed to talk about her defecting to England through Greece, she guessed my full involvement. In my rather silly, infatuated state, I had conversations with her about us possibly living together in London, or another city back home. I would ask for a transfer to duties in England, wait until Desi had been debriefed, and see what happened. She was less convinced that MI6 would ever let that happen, but agreed it was a nice idea, and it was good to have a goal”.

Helen stood up to go and get something, returning with some paperwork.

“I thought I should show you these before continuing, Martin. I don’t want you to have the slightest idea that this is all bullshit on my part”.

Scanning the faded documents, I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck. As I translated them from Russian in my head, I made a decision. I told Helen that I was finishing for the day. But I assured her I would be back tomorrow, and every day after, for as long as it took. Taking my leave, I returned to the hotel. I stopped on the way, and made a phone call on my mobile. It took a while to get through to my boss, Colin Magee, and I soon shut him up as he started moaning. I told him I was quitting, effective immediately. He could keep my outstanding salary against what the hotel and expenses had cost him. Before he could splutter his outrage, I had hung up.

The next morning at eleven, I went back to Helen’s house with the video camera fully charged, a bag containing six pastries, and a black coffee for myself. When she opened the door, she looked the best I had seen her so far. Her cotton dress was a fetching dark green, her hair combed, make-up applied to her face, and she was wearing some tan-coloured tights and brown court shoes. It was as if we both sensed that we had turned a corner, and it was finally becoming serious. Despite her age and clothing, I finally had a distant glimpse of the young attractive woman she had once been.

Once I had sat down and started the camera, Helen ate two cinnamon whirls washed down with vodka, then lit a cigarette.

“Okay, let’s get started, Martin. Most evenings in Sozopol, we had been going to the same restaurant. It was a cellar bar that served food, and played Jazz music. Desi loved it there, and told me that on our last night that Saturday, she would treat me to a special Bulgarian banquet. During the day on that Saturday, we went to the harbour. There were some Bulgarian patrol boats anchored there, and a larger warship flying the Soviet flag. Desi had a Zorki camera, a rangefinder model, and she took lots of photos of me at the harbour, with that warship in the background. On the way to the meal at the restaurant, she mumbled that the Soviets were planning to site nuclear bombs in Cuba, and that it might cause a world war. She said she needed to get out of Bulgaria as soon as possible, and had lots more to tell us once she got to England. I was excited, as that meant she wanted to defect sooner, rather than later”.

She stopped to pick up two custard slices, holding one in her hand as she ate the other one.

When we got to the cellar bar that night, Desi greeted the owner, and we sat in a small booth. He produced various small courses that were all delicious, and we washed them down with red wine. As the night went on, and many customers had left, we started drinking Plum Rakia, the owner filling our glasses then smiling at us from behind the bar. Close to midnight, I needed the lavatory, and left Desi chatting with the friendly host”.

Lighting another cigarette, Helen leaned forward.

“When I came back from the toilet, Desi was lying on the floor with her throat cut, and the owner nowhere to be seen. Then the lights went out”.

“Something heavy hit me from behind, knocking me face first across Desi’s legs. I realised it was a man, his heavy weight knocking the breath out of me. He laid on me so I couldn’t move at all. In the total darkness, I was aware of someone else in front of me. He grabbed my head, pushed it sideways, and I felt a sharp pain in my neck. Whatever they injected me with knocked me unconscious instantaneously. When I woke up, I could tell by the motion that I was on board a ship. I must have been low down inside it, as I could feel the vibration of the propellers, and there was an overwhelming smell of oil or fuel of some kind. My head was pounding, my mouth dry, and I had wet myself. Taking of which, I need a pee Martin”.

I quickly made some notes during her absence. She returned with a refilled tumbler of vodka, and a family-size packet of Cheesy Wotsits. Before she started speaking agian, I had to sit patiently listening to her crunch her way through half the packet. When she put them down, her mouth was covered in the orange dust used to flavour them.

“An hour passed, maybe more. With no idea how long I had been asleep or where I was going, I felt disorientated. Then the upset of Desi’s death kicked in, and I started crying like a baby. When the metal door opened, it made me jump, and the lights in the corridor seemed dazzling, though they were actually dim. A man stood in the doorway, grinning. He looked Chinese, but when he started speaking to me in Russian, I presumed he was Mongolian. His accent was so thick, I hardly caught much of what he was saying, but I did recognise the words ‘keep quiet’. Then he plonked a metal bucket down by the door, making a squatting motion, and laughing. His teeth were almost all black, and his breath had a terrible smell, like meat that has gone off. He handed me two thick chunks of black bread, and a metal flask containing water that tasted lukewarm when I drank some. Then he slammed the door and left.”

Helen lit a cigarette, swallowed half of the vodka, then wiped her mouth using the back of her hand.

“There was no toilet paper, so when I had to use the bucket, I just had to use my knickers instead. It was impossible to get comfortable on the metal floor of whatever sort of room I was in. There wasn’t enough room to stretch out, so I presumed it had been something like a broom cupboard. I was too scared to be bored at first, but after what must have been twelve hours, the door opened again and a different man delivered the two slices of bread and flask of water. I was so hungry and thirsty, I wolfed down the bread,and had to force myself to save some of the water for later. That man didn’t speak, but he was wearing a uniform of the Soviet Navy. And the lights were off along the corridor, so I guessed it was daytime. I had wanted to ask him to empty the bucket, but he hardly glanced at me. After eating the bread, I must have managed to drift off to sleep, because I was woken up by the ship changing course, and the motion made me seasick. I had no alternative but to use the bucket.

Keen to keep going while Helen was in full flow, I raised my hand and paused the camera. I needed to use the toilet, and I was amazed to find it clean and shiny. Her contact with outsiders at long last must have provoked some embarrassment at her living conditions. When I got back, she was finishing the last of the Cheesy Wotsits, tipping the bag to get every last crumb in her mouth.

“Have you ever been seasick, Martin? Well, it was a first for me. I lost all track of time, and spent hours clutching that fetid bucket as I brought everything up. The next thing I remember, the door flew open, and there were two navy men there in smart uniforms. They shouted at me in Russian. ‘Get up, bitch!’ ‘Move when I tell you, English whore!’ ‘Hurry! Hurry!’. They dragged me up on my feet, and pulled me along the corridor then up metal steps like ladders, yelling all the time. I was in a huge port, probably early evening, as there were street lights on. My feet hurt on the deck as I had no shoes on, and when they pushed me down a wooden walkway attached to the ship, I almost fell over the side into the water”.

She blew out a cloud of smoke, aiming it at the ceiling.

“On the dock was a black-painted van. The sailors threw me into the back of it and slammed the doors. I looked up at a man who was sitting on a seat at the side. He was wearing rimless glasses, and his hair was cropped so short he appeared to be bald. Looking down at me, he smiled quite sweetly before speaking to me in English”.

She swallowed the rest of the vodka.

“Good evening Miss Renton. Welcome to Odessa”.

With Helen’s revelation that she had been captured and taken to Odessa, then part of the Soviet Union, I called it a day on the interview. I wanted to get back to my room, then go and get a decent meal. I told her I would be back the next day, but before I left, she produced another document. It was all in Russian, and dated in nineteen sixty-two. Years of carrying it around tightly folded had made it very fragile, but the typewritten form was easy enough to read. When I handed it back, Helen smiled.

“My transfer papers from Odessa to Moscow. They gave me a copy when I was moved. One thing the Soviets were very good at, record keeping and bureaucracy”.

I told her I would be back the next day at eleven, and took my leave.

The next morning I made the mistake of arriving fifteen minutes early, and was greeted by her answering the door wearing only some large white knickers, and with one arm across her bare breasts. “You caught me still getting dressed, Martin. Come in and set up while I go and finish getting ready, then I will make you some tea”.

She came back with my tea, and a tumbler of vodka for her. Her supposed ‘getting ready’ had consisted of putting a dressing gown on, and she hadn’t even bothered to secure it correctly. But I was used to her by then, and ignored the unwanted view as she carried on.

“The man with the rimless glasses took me to a prison in Odessa. It looked very forbidding with barbed wire on the walls, and searchlights sweeping the whole area. Inside, he handed me over to some female guards who looked at me as if they wanted to kill me. He smiled as he left, talking to me in English. ‘See you tomorrow, Miss Renton. Sleep well’. The guards frog-marched me along a corridor and into a shower and toilet block at the end. One ripped off my dress and bra, and the other told me to get under one of the showers. She handed me a bar of greasy soap that felt like a lump of lard, then turned on the shower, which was freezing cold. They kept telling me I had to wash harder, and they didn’t turn off the water until they were satisfied. Then I was given a skimpy towel, and about one minute to get dry. After that they pushed me along another corridor to a small room where they gave me a pullover dress that felt like it was made of sacking, some big felt slippers two sizes too big, and some knickers that almost came up to my armpits”.

Helen stopped to light a cigarette, then downed two large gulps of vodka.

“The older guard checked a clipboard and said ‘Solitary’ to the other one, who nodded. She told me to follow her, and led me to a cell with a narrow metal door which she opened with a key from a bunch hanging from a chain on her wrist. She jerked her head, shouting ‘Yours, bitch’. Inside was a bucket with a lid, and a new packet of toilet paper. They didn’t have rolls much then, just crinkly stuff in packets that felt like thin wallpaper. There was a blanket on the small bed, and one pillow covered in hessian material. On the window ledge below the high opaque window was a water jug and metal cup. The second guard appeared carrying a bowl containing a watery soup with bits of cabbage and some pork fat floating in it. She put that on the window ledge with a thin slice of black bread, then they both walked out and the door slammed shut. I had to drink the soup from the bowl, no spoon or anything. It didn’t actually taste that bad, except for being very salty. Which reminds me, I must get myself some breakfast”.

There was the noise of the microwave operating in the kitchen, followed by the ping as it finished. She came back carrying a large bowl full of scrambled eggs, and a fork. The bowl was obviously hot, as she had it wrapped in a hand towel. I asked if she had been afraid that first night.

“Not really. During training, we are told that torture or execution rarely happens to foreign spies, only their own ones. It is better to keep us alive, and to use us in spy exchanges later, when one of theirs is captured. I knew they would ask me lots of questions of course, and they might attempt to turn me, get them to spy for them. But if I kept my head and stayed focused, it should only be a matter of time before I was released during some negotiation or other. It was different for Desi. She was one of theirs, looking to defect. Once they found that out, her fate was sealed”.

Chewing a big mouthful of eggs, Helen seemed to be remembering Desi.

Helen was subdued the next day, but she was dressed and ready when I got there, and wearing make-up too. I had extended my stay at the pub indefinitely, settling the bill up to that date as requested. They considered me to be one of their regulars now, as I sometimes ate in the bar in the evening. Despite considering more comfortable accommodation, I stayed there because it was so close to Helen’s house. There was no tea offered that morning, and it seemed she had already been hitting the vodka hard before I got there. As soon as I was set up, she lit a cigarette and started talking.

“The next morning I was taken from my cell. No breakfast, no hot drink, just marched up a flight of stairs, and into a room. Seated behind a large desk was the man with rimless glasses, and a stern-faced woman who turned out to be the prison governor. Both speaking in Russian, they read out charges against me of spying for Britain against the Soviet Union. Then they added spying for Bulgaria against the Soviet Union. I said it was all nonsense. I was an interpreter, a Foreign Office employee. I demanded to see someone from the British Embassy, or at least be allowed to speak to them on the phone. Glasses man opened an envelope and laid out some photos on the desk. Me at Sozopol, with the Soviet warship in the background. Desi in the same spot, photographed by me. He said Desi was a double-agent, working for the KGB and also the Bulgarians. He accused me of trying to arrange her defection, put the photos back in the envelope, and shook his head. He said there would be no trial, and the British Government would not even be informed of my capture. For the first time since I had left England, I was really scared”.

Helen poured the last dregs of a bottle of vodka into her tumbler, and downed it in one.

“He went on to say that I was small fry, but as things were getting very dangerous over the Cuban issue, I might have my uses later, if exchanges took place. I was to be detained in Odessa until arrangements could be made for my transfer to Moscow. That was about it, Martin. No interrogation, no torture. But in many ways, that felt worse to me. I had vanished from Sozopol. My colleagues in Burgas, maybe even those from London, would guess what had happened. But what of my parents? The government would never tell them the truth, and as far as they knew, I had gone missing in Bulgaria for my own reasons. Whatever else happened, nobody would be looking for me in Odessa or Moscow. Sorry, I forgot to offer tea, I will get you some”.

She wandered off into the kitchen, looking all of her seventy-six years. Slightly stooped, and her skin pallid and wrinkled. I almost felt sorry for her at that moment. When she came back with my tea, she was carrying a bottle of vodka in the other hand. It was the first time I hadn’t seen her eating anything.

“They established a routine with me in that prison in Odessa. I was segregated from the Russian prisoners because I was fluent in Russian and they didn’t want me talking to them. For fifteen minutes a day, I was allowed to walk around the yard, but with no coat provided, that was awful once the weather turned. Once a day, they brought me a bowl of the cabbage and pork fat soup with one slice of black bread. Before I was allowed to eat it, I had to take my bucket to the shower room and empty it into the toilet, then wash it out in a big sink. By the time I got back it was lukewarm, but I devoured it out of hunger. I had a shower once a week, on my own once the other prisoners had left. No shampoo for my hair, just the greasy soap. No razors allowed for shaving my legs or under my arms, and when I had my period, they gave me a huge swathe of beige cloth and some strings to tie it on with. I was not allowed to read any books, or associate with anyone else. It was the complete definition of solitary confinement, Martin”.

She paused there, appearing to be upset as she remembered.

“After three months I was so depressed, I was contemplating suicide. I was always hungry, desperate for a cigarette, and I had lost so much weight I had stopped wearing my knickers as they fell down all the time”.

The tears came after that, and I sat there feeling awkward.

When Helen had stopped crying and regained her composure, I suggested she might want to eat something. But she shook her head and continued talking.

“I lost track of time. At first I kept pace with the weeks, using the routine of the shower to mark them. Later, I became confused, so had to use the changes in the weather out on the exercise yard to guess the time of year. For months and months, I had no conversation, so ended up having nonsenical conversations with myself. I had tried speaking in Russian to the guards, but they ignored anything I said. Then I began to find it hard to recollect faces of people I knew. Desi was first, and all I could remember was her mass of dark hair. When I started to forget what my parents looked like, I feared I might lose my mind, Martin”.

She poured more vodka, and lit another cigarette.

“Then one morning, they came to get me. I was taken to the warden’s office and given that form I showed you. It was my transfer to Moscow. I must have been in Odessa almost a year, as it was rather warm outside, and sunny too. Two soldiers appeared in the doorway, and the warden told me i was being taken to the railway station to be put on a train to Moscow. I was handcuffed to one of the men, and marched along corridors to a door leading to the outside where their black van was parked. On the train, I was surprised to discover we had a private compartment at the back of the train, in the last carriage. Blinds were pulled down at the window, so nobody could see me sitting there. The guards spoke to each other, but not to me. I asked the one handcuffed to me how long it would take, and all he would say was ‘We’ll be there tomorrow’. When I asked to use the toilet, he came with me, stood outside, and told me to leave the door open. Thankfully, he turned his back. When we had been travelling for about four hours, the other guard left the compartment and returned with a tray of hot sweet tea and three sandwiches. I had to eat and drink still handcuffed, but I didn’t care”.

Helen stopped to swallow half the tumbler of vodka.

“After the food, they lit cigarettes. I asked if I could have one but they just laughed at me. The one handcuffed to me blew smoke in my face. Then the other one stretched out across the long seat opposite, pulled his cap down over his face, and went to sleep. I wanted a cigarette so badly, I even considered offering some sexual favour to the soldier next to me. But why would he have wanted that? I hadn’t had a shower for almost a week, and I must have looked awful. I had not been able to see myself in a mirror since the day I was captured in Bulgaria. There were none in the shower block, and they hadn’t given me a toothbrush or toothpaste either. Can you imagine not brushing your teeth for almost a year, Martin? I had got used to the taste in my mouth, but my breath must have been foul. I had no hairbrush, and my hair had become tangled and matted, as well as growing so long it covered my breasts. Oh, I forgot, I have more papers to show you”.

She came back with some more documents in Russian, and I read through them as she drank more vodka and lit another cigarette. I was sure she might pass out, as she had eaten nothing, but she carried on as usual, with very little sign of the effects of alcohol.

“The man opposite sat up after about five hours. He went down the corridor to use the toilet, and when he returned, they swapped over, changing the handcuffs to his wrist. Then the original soldier lay down on the seat, faced the back cushions, and went to sleep. When he was snoring loudly, the man handcuffed to me turned and gave me a cigarette. I thanked him as he lit it, then I swooned as the nicotine coursed through my system, making me light-headed. That was one of the best cigarettes I ever smoked, Martin. Then I must have drifted off myself, and woke up needing to pee. The kinder soldier took my handcuff off, and didn’t make me leave the door open. Two hours later, the train pulled into a station, and I saw the signs on the platform. Moscow”.

“This time, there was no closed van. They had a lorry backed onto the end of the platform, one of those army-type trucks with a canvas cover over the open back. I had to wait until everyone had left the train, then they hurried me up to the lorry and helped me into the back. One guard got in front with the driver, and the one handcuffed to me sat on the bare foor in the back with me. I was expecting the Lubyanka of course. We had all heard about the KGB headquarters, with the fearsome prison attached to it. I had walked past it on more than one occasion when I had been working in Moscow. But they drove me south-west, past the State University, and out into the suburbs. Pause there please, I need the lavatory”.

Helen was gone for some time, long enough for me to consider knocking on the door to see if she was okay. But as I stood up to do that, she came back.

“That was a part of Moscow I didn’t know. Some light industry, run-down housing, and then we suddenly turned left. I didn’t see the prison until they told me to get down from the lorry. It looked like a prison in London. Large walls surrounding a structure that was probably built before the turn of the century. The soldiers took me though a side gate, handed over some papers to a man behind a screen, then unlocked the handcuffs. The man behind the screen told me not to move, and to look at the floor. Then as the soldiers left, he picked up a telephone and said something I couldn’t hear. I fiddled with the transfer document which was in the apron pocket of my shapeless dress, hoping they would give me something to eat and drink once I got inside the prison. But that was not to happen for a long time that day”.

She lit a cigarette, then poured some more vodka from the bottle. I noticed the label was in Russian, and read ‘Gorlovka’. It was a litre bottle, though I had seen Helen pouring from half-litre bottles previously. I noted that down in my notebook, as I was sure it was not readily available in Britain in twenty-fifteen.

“They put me through the induction procedure. I was taken to the showers, though this time they were hot. The soap was the same though. Then I had to have all my hair cut off. They used clippers, Martin. When I struggled at the sight of them, one of the female guards slapped me so hard it made my nose bleed. After they almost shaved my head, I had to strip for a medical examination by a nurse who was smoking a cigarette as she fiddled with me. And I mean fiddled with me, Martin. In any way of looking at it, it was sexual assault. Squeezing my breasts, fingers inside me front and back, and all the time leering at me, to let me know she was enjoying it. Then the guard gave me a new uniform. No bra was offered, but I got three dresses, three pairs of pants, some rubber shoes, and a scarf for my head. I was overjoyed when they issued me with a toothbrush, tooth powder, toilet paper, and my own bar of greasy soap. Have you ever used tooth powder, Martin? Of course you haven’t. It is abrasive, pink in colour, and tastes awful. But the thought of being able to clean my teeth excited me. How crazy was that? They gave me a towel too, and told me I would get two showers a week, with the towel changed every other week”.

She stopped for a moment to light another cigarette, she was chain-smoking now.

“One of the guards took me to my cell. It was still a bucket in the corner, and I was told that I could not associate with the female Russian prisoners. Fifteen minutes in the exercise yard every day, and I was allowed to choose one book a month from a trolley that was wheeled round. I cannot begin to express my joy at being told I could read a book, Martin. That guard also told me that I had to eat in my cell, and food would be brought to me. Before she had finished speaking, another guard arrived with a big glass of sweet tea, and a plate containing stuffed cabbage leaves covered in some sort of yoghurt, accompanied by three thin slices of rye bread. Hard to believe now, but I thought I was dining at the Ritz that night”.

She sat thinking for a moment before continuing. I had a feeling that she was deciding whether or not to add a detail. Then she did.

“The guard winked at me as she locked me in, and she said this. ‘The nurse likes you a lot. If I were you, I would ask to see her again”.

When I went to her house the next morning, Helen was back on form. She answered the door holding half of a bacon sandwich, with tomato ketchup smeared around her face like a toddler.

“Come in, I’ll make you some tea. I got up early and went shopping. Would you like a bacon sandwich, Martin?”

Saying no thanks to the sandwich, I set up as she made my tea. She came back in the room with two more bacon sandwiches on a plate, both leaking the red ketchup.

“The guards in that prison were more talkative. One who usually brought my food told me her name was Alina. She explained that I was on that corridor all on my own, and the guards all knew I could speak Russian and that I was a foreign spy. I denied that of course, and Alina laughed and shook her head at me, telling me not to lie. I asked her if I could have a hairbrush for when my hair grew back, and if there was some way of getting some fresh fruit, and cigarettes. She said that anything was possible, as long as I had something to offer in return. Of course, I had nothing of value, so gave up asking. Then on the fourth day, a guard called Olga came into my cell to take me to see the governor. As we walked to the office, she mumbled that she could get me cigarettes, but she wanted me to teach her English. I agreed of course, and she winked at me as we stopped outside the room”.

Helen paused to eat three more halves of her sandwiches before continuing, washing them down with her usual beverage of choice, vodka.

“Governor Makarova was an attractive woman in her thirties. Her uniform looked tailored and well fitting. She wore her hair in a bun, and had lots of make-up on. I had to stand in front of her desk, with Olga next to me as she spoke. She said that I was going to be detained indefinitely in that women’s prison, with no association allowed. I would be given a padded jacket for the winter, allowed books, and provided with one main meal a day, and one snack. Two cups of hot tea, and one flask of water daily would be all I was allowed to drink. I was expected to only speak when asked a question, and to behave impeccably, following any instructions from the guards. Failure to cooperate would result in being moved to a solitary cell, and dry rations. She said that proper medical care would be provided, and I could ask a guard if I wanted to see the nurse. Then she made me sign a document that I understood the conditions of my imprisonment, and handed me a copy. On the way back to my cell Olga whispered that she would bring cigarettes when she was next on night duty. But if I told anyone, she would say I attacked her and that would be very bad for me”.

Downing the vodka, Helen finished the last bit of her sandwiches, and slid her plate onto the small table. She refilled the glass from a bottle next to her chair. There had been no mention of how much longer her story would last, and she hadn’t asked how I had managed to stay on longer than arranged. I had bought extra clothes, and used a laundry service through the hotel. But none of that had seemed to enter Helen’s head. She had not asked one single question about me, my life, or my family.

“Before Olga rostered around to night duty, I got a bad toothache one night. Hardly surprising, after so long without a toothbrush, and existing on a diet containing almost no vitamins whatsoever. I asked Alina if I could see a dentist, and had to wait until late afternoon before she came to take me to what was a small hospital wing on the other part of the prison. They had obviously locked up all the regular criminal prisoners, as I walked there without seeing anyone. The dentist was a woman, and she looked like someone’s old granny. She had no assistant, and the chair and equipment looked like as if it hadn’t been updated since the nineteen-twenties. After a lot of painful scraping around accompanied by various profanities, the dentist put a rubber mask over my face, and knocked me unconscious with gas”.

Letting out a big sigh, and looking up to the ceiling, Helen suddenly leaned forward, and there was hatred in her eyes.

“When I woke up, that bitch had removed nine of my teeth, and scraped the others so badly, I couldn’t eat my dinner that night”.

Helen relaxed and sat back. She watched as I finished my almost cold tea, then continued.

“By the time Olga came around to her month of night duty, the weather was turning cold in Moscow. I was issued a padded coat, and a pair of big boots made of compressed felt. They are called Valenki, and are really warm. Mine were so big, I could wear the rubber shoes inside them and they still flopped around on my feet. But when I went out for exercise, I was grateful for everything, including the headscarf. Olga came into my cell around ten that first night, after turning on the light from outside. She sat next to me on my bed and gave me a flat packet containing eighteen cigarettes, and a small book of matches with a white cover. She said I should only smoke them at night, then hide them inside my underwear at other times. She also told me that if I tried to use the matches to start a fire in my cell I would spend months on the solitary block. The she opened a notebook and told me to teach her English. I started by translating the Cyrillic alphabet, and by the time she had to leave, I had taught her a couple of dozen basic words. It was getting light when she went, and she reached into one of her pockets and gave me a small bar of cheap chocolate. I broke off a piece and sucked it, but the sugar hurt my teeth so I stashed the rest under my mattress until my mouth had healed. Telling you that has given me a fancy, hang on”.

She came back in the room with a box of Mint Matchmakers. I shook my head when she offered some to me. Then she crammed a few into her mouth and was mumbling as she carried on.

“Olga was bright enough, though she struggled with her accent, which made some words unintelligible. But I persevered, and she was happy to keep going. During that month, I got lots more cigarettes, some dry biscuits, and a carton of pulpy orange juice. She also allowed me two books from the trolley instead of one. When I asked her for some fresh fruit, oranges or apples, she just laughed at me. She said I should know better, that there would be nothing like that in the shops until the end of next summer, and then the queues for them would be so long she would never have time to wait in them. Not for the first time, she said I should ask to see the nurse. She grinned as she told me, ‘she likes you, she will be a good friend for you in here”. The next morning, I asked Alina to arrange for me to see the nurse, and she didn’t even ask why. She did pull a grumpy face though, as everyone else had to be locked in before I could be taken to the medical block”.

More Matchmakers went into her mouth, and she filled a tumbler full of vodka to drink with them.

“It was around four in the afternoon when Alina took me to see the nurse. The woman told Alina to wait outside, then told me to get undressed. When I was naked, she produced a safety razor from a drawer and told me to use the sink in the room to shave my legs. She said I looked like a monkey. No, a chimpanzee, that’s what she said. I used the bar of soap on the sink, and managed to completely shave my legs. I didn’t bother about under my arms. Then she told me to run fresh water, and to wash myself. I’m talking about between my legs Martin, just to clarify. When I had done that she said I should lie on the examination couch. I suppose the best description I can give you of what followed is that she played with me for around fifteen minutes. Then she took off her uniform, swapped places, and told me to do what she had done. When that was over, she asked me what I needed. I told her cigarettes, matches, and fruit. She was very affectionate, and actually kissed me before I left, telling me to ask to see her the day after tomorrow”.

She lit a cigarette, and grinned at me.

“And that is exactly what I did”.

“Well Martin, you don’t want a day to day account, I am sure. Bascially, life in that prison continued much the same for many years. Olga began to be able to have a conversation in English, albeit quite basic stuff. She also confided in me, telling me things about the prison, and occasional insights into her personal life. It transpired that I was the only inhabitant of a twenty-cell block. Regarded as a special prisoner, the guards assigned to me were the more experienced ones, and those considered to be less inclined to be interested in the temptations of life in the West. Olga had been a Young Communist, and was still a party member. She admired Krushchev, as he had been at Stalingrad during the war. She never really understood the Cold War, as we had been allies when the Nazis had been defeated. Like most of the others I met, she blamed America for maintaining the bad feeling against the Soviet Union, and told me she thought that Britain was just an ‘American Puppet’. I was left wondering why she even wanted to bother to learn English, but never asked her”.

Helen lit a cigarette, waiting for me to finish some written notes.

“I became accustomed to the routine. Between the guards and the nurse, I was well-supplied with cigarettes, occasional extra rations, and personal items like tampons, a hairbrush and comb, and small bottles of very strong-smelling shampoo that I used sparingly. But I never got any fruit, and fresh vegetables were rare, also usually overcooked to extinction. They told me they just didn’t have time to queue for the fruit, and in winter it was almost non-existent anyway. And despite the extra slices of bread now and again, I was always hungry, and continued to lose weight. After I had been there for five years, an anniversary confirmed by Alina, my teeth were giving me so much trouble I pulled one of them out with my own fingers, rather than ask to visit that butcher of a dentist. Brezhnev had taken over after Krushchev died, and I was coming up to my thirtieth birthday. I was so much a part of the furniture in that place, they only locked my door at night, just before lights out. After all, even if I escaped, how far would I get?”

She suddenly looked down at her shoes, and there was an awkward silence that dragged on for some time.

“One afternoon, Olga brought a mirror to my cell. She said I couldn’t keep it in case I broke the glass and cut my wrists, but I could look at it for a few minutes while she was with me. I had asked for a mirror for ages, but they had always told me it wasn’t possible. When I looked at myself in that mirror, I felt the tears start to stream down my face. Very soon, I was sobbing uncontrollably, and Olga must have felt uncomfortable, as she took the mirror out of my hand, and left the cell. If it’s okay with you, I think I will leave it there for today”.

That evening as I waited for my dinner in the bar of the pub, I read through my notes. The documents she had already shown me were completely authentic, I was sure of that. Soviet paperwork of the period was usually typed on cheap paper stock, and all the stamp-marks and phrases used were typical of that era. Helen’s sometimes detailed recollection of small details might be hard to believe after such a long time, but if I had spent that long in Soviet prisons with little else to think about, I was in no doubt I would have remembered such things too. The hardest thing to swallow was her naive faith that the British government and her spymaster colleagues would be in the least bit bothered about her, and would have been trying to secure her release in clandestine meetings. But placing that in the context of the times, I understood her thought process completely. Part of me was beginning to warm to her, but I had to try my best to remain detached from the emotions surrounding her life history.

The next morning, I decided to treat her to two real cream eclairs from the baker’s shop, and I even bought her a small bunch of flowers.

When she opened the door and saw the flowers, she wept.

I followed Helen inside as she clasped the flowers, then sat down to set up as she went into the kitchen with them. She returned with the small bunch wobbling precariously inside one of her vodka tumblers. As I had heard the tap running, I was satisfied the flowers were not resting in vodka.

“Sorry about that emotional outburst, Martin. But you see, I have never received flowers before, not from anyone. I don’t even have a vase, as I never expected to get any. My mum always said that a lady should never buy her own flowers, so I never have. It was a lovely gesture. Anyway, on with the story”.

She lit a cigarette and picked up the vodka glass that was already on the table.

“Four days after my birthday, I was taken to see the governor. I asked Alina what it was about, but she just shrugged. The governor was her usual businesslike self. She told me there had been a communication from the Foreign Office, asking after me. It contained the information that my mother had died three months ago, from cancer. That was it. No details, no mention of what type of cancer. Makarova said they had not confirmed my detention to the diplomat, but had agreed amongst themselves to pass on the message. I was too shocked to cry, and ashamed that I could hardly recall my mother’s face after so long away from England. Then Alina took me back to my cell”.

Helen paused to drink some vodka.

“Later on, it dawned on me that the diplomats must have been aware that I was imprisoned in Russia, and not dead in Bulgaria. Otherwise why would they send the communication to the Soviet Authorities? So they knew, and had left me stewing there. That made me so furious, I asked Alina for another meeting with the governor to request a visit from someone at the British Embassy. That was turned down flat, with Alina advising me not to antagonise the governor if I knew what was good for me. ‘She likes you, Renton. Don’t upset her’. So I was left thinking about my father. Dad was not the most romantic man, but he and mum had a real unspoken bond. First I disappear, then mum dies. I imagined he would be lost and alone in London. I need some breakfast. Let’s go out for a change, my treat”.

After getting her handbag and putting on her shoes and coat, Helen held my arm and walked me down to a cafe on the seafront. She ordered a full English with extra sausage, toast and fried bread. I settled for scrambled eggs on toast. Before the food came she went outside to smoke. I watched her walking back and forth, a wide ladder at the back of her nylons, and a black cardigan that had been washed out to dark grey. It was hard to picture the vivacious young woman on a Bulgarian beach, making plans with her lover. The food was demolished as if she was in an eating contest, and her lukewarm tea gulped down at the same speed. Five minutes later, we were back in our chairs.

“They wouldn’t even let me send a letter to my father. Of course, that was obvious, as that would mean admitting they had me in detention in Moscow. After staying so positive for so long, the next few years were not so good. I went the other way in my thoughts, imagining I would die in prison after spending the bigger part of my life stuck in there, being ignored and disregarded. I was simply a minor inconvenience to them. I also had a vision of them tiring of the expense of keeping me alive, and just taking me into some woodland one day and shooting me in the head. These days, we live in a world of twenty-four hour news. Breaking news, headlines, reporters in every country where anything happens. Christ almighty, even that Trump guy is running for President next year, and his face is never off the headlines. Try to imagine knowing nothing, Martin. In all those years up to then, all I had ever been told was that something was happening in Cuba, and Kruschev had died. I had no idea that there had almost been an atomic war because of Cuba, and the whole Vietnam thing was never mentioned once. I was news-starved, and nobody would tell me anything”.

She left the room to fetch another bottle of vodka, filled up her glass, and shook her head.

“By the time I was thirty-five, I think I had gone a little bit mad.”

I had received a message as I ate breakfast that morning. Helen had telephoned the pub and told them to tell me not to go to her house that day, but to come as normal the next day. The manager’s wife brought the message, and she was polite enough not to ask who Helen was. To say the least, I was curious. She had never asked for a day off from being interviewed before, but the fact she had said to go back tomorrow as normal implied it was nothing serious.

With a lot of unexpected free time, I took the opportunity to collate my notes into some order, then got into the town centre before the shops closed to buy some more memory cards and notebooks. I was back at the pub in time to receive my laundry delivery, and to reserve a table for one at six-thirty for dinner.

At eleven sharp the next morning, Helen opened the door, smiling. I could hardly recognise the woman infront of me. Her hair was dyed light blonde, she had flawless make-up on her face, her nails were painted, and she smelled fresh and perfumed, dressed in a smart two-piece with some pearls around her neck. She saw my surprise.

“I smartened myself up, as you can see. About time too. Come in, I have just made you some tea”.

The beauty treatment had taken years off her, as least ten years. She looked more like a sixty-five year old recent retiree, than a woman of seventy-six. But some things had not changed. She brought her tumbler of vodka through with my tea, and lit a cigarette as I set up for recording.

“So, Martin. Today, we are about to do some time-travelling. We are going forward into an uncertain future, and leaving Moscow behind. Get your notebook ready, as I am raring to go. As you know, and so do I now, in nineteen ninety-one the Soviet Union ceased to exist. At the time I had no idea. I had celebrated my fortieth birthday in prison, then my fiftieth. I had been almost insane, then recovered my wits. I was fifty-two years old, and had gone through the menopause while incarcerated. Olga had retired from being a prison guard, and Alina only had a few years left to do. Governor Makarova had been replaced by a younger model, and I had been a prisoner for almost thirty years. I had started to think in Russian, as it was so long since I had spoken English, except for the short spell of teaching Olga. Then one cold December morning, two guards I had never seen before came into my cell. They told me to pack up my stuff, and gave me a canvas bag to carry it in. I asked them what was going on, but they refused to reply”.

Helen seemed to be in a good mood that morning. Her voice was lighter than usual, and she was very keen, speaking quickly. She downed most of the vodka, lit another cigarette, and continued.

“Alina was at the back gate when they took me out. She handed me a transfer document, then gave me a gentle hug. No tears, but there was something genuine in her farewell. The female guards handed me over to two soldiers who walked me to a black car. No handcuffs, a seat in the back next to one soldier, the other driving. I looked at the document on the way, having to hold it at arm’s length as my eyesight was failing for reading. I could make out the main headings, and saw Penal Colony 4 written there. Also Sankt Peterburg, which surpised me. I had only ever known that city as Leningrad. Back then, I presumed it was some kind of administrative error. We were going by train, and I was pleased to have my coat and Valenki, as it was so cold. At the station, the soldiers handed me over to two female soldiers. Again, no handcuffs, though we did have a private compartment on the train. The two young women chatted during the journey, though not to me. But they did let me smoke, and one of them brought me hot tea with sugar already in it. It was less than four hours on the train, and when I asked to use the toilet, one woman just nodded. She didn’t even walk there with me and stand outside. As I sat there peeing, I realised that I was no longer considered to be anyone worth bothering about. And that made me cry”.

Refilling the vodka in the tumbler, Helen shook her head as she reflected.

“From that moment, I just presumed that I was going to die in prison”.

“Martin, I have to tell you I was worried. We drove some way out of the city of St. Petersburg, and I was concerned about the name of where I was going. Penal Colony Four. But on arrival, my fears proved groundless. Spies are not subject to hard or forced labour, and I was quickly housed in a cell on my own, in a small block of six, away from the main camp. That was a row of long huts, which reminded me of the wartime concentration camps. But my accommodation was reasonably modern. I had a sink and a metal flush toilet in my cell, which was as warm as toast inside, heated by steam through radiators. I suppose by modern British standards now, we would call it an Open Prison. But not for me of course. I was the forgotten spy from a Cold War that had ceased to exist”.

Helen poured more vodka, and ate the second eclair before continuing.

“Even the guards were friendly, and I had a personal guard, Natalia. She was allocated to me as she lived in. I was shocked to discover that she lived in a similar cell at the end of my small block, and only went home to see her family once a month. When she was away for three days, I had another Olga. That Olga was very interested in me. She actually asked for my autograph. Can you believe that, Martin? She could also speak some English, and was quick to let me know that I could contact the British Consulate to obtain what she called ‘luxuries’. She was my conduit with the prison governor, who had so far never summoned me to her office. Between Olga and Natalia, I managed to ask for a visit from the diplomat who ran our consulate there. You can only imagine my surprise when someone showed up one day, and Natalia told me I had a visitor”.

It was time for Helen to light another cigarette, and to show me one of the many documents she had saved from that time. It was in Russian of course, telling her that she had a visitor at three in the afternoon, and she had to agree to see him.

“Of course, I agreed, and as you can see, I signed the visitor’s order. I wanted to give whoever showed up a piece of my mind. As it turned out, I spent most of the allotted thirty minutes in a state of shock. When he left, I was crying, and it took weeks for me to get over what I had heard. In the visitor’s room, I was on my own, with Natalia looking on from the corner. I had a good idea that they would record the visit, probably on film, as well as sound. A young man entered, very British, wearing a blue serge suit and a cashmere overcoat. He introduced himself as John Holdsworth. I told him that John Holdsworth would be at least my age, probably older. He winked at me. Winked at me, Martin! He said that they were all called John Holdsworth, and he wanted to know what I needed. I wasn’t dim-witted, even then. He was the new version of a John Holdsworth that was probably long dead. He produced a notebook before carrying on”.

Helen had a severe coughing fit at that stage, serious enough for me to rush into the kitchen and get her a glass of water. But she waved that away and refilled her tumbler with vodka instead.

“I told him I wanted to go home. But meanwhile I wanted books, cosmetics, toiletries, vodka, cigarettes, better food, and some acknowledgement of my situation in an official capacity. He smiled at me like I was some old girl in a care home. ‘Oh, I can easily get you the five everyday things you need, but I am afraid we cannot get you home just yet, and there is no possibility of you being acknowleged officially. Not now, not ever, you must realise that’. Martin, if I had been strong enough, I would have strangled that jumped up bastard. But I was so fixated on a better life in prison, I told him to get me all I needed as soon as he could. Then he left. It took a ridiculously short time. Three days later, I had British paperback books, cartons of cigarettes, chocolate, fruit, and loaves of bread coming in. I had so much, I gave some things away to Natalia and Olga”.

She paused to fill her vodka glass, and down the whole tumbler in one gulp.

But it was too late for my teeth. With so few vitamins after so many years, the following week, they were all removed under anaesthetic”.

Helen paused to go into the kitchen and get something. She came back with three hot sausage rolls on a plate, each one already smeared with tomato ketchup. Not bothering with cutlery, she picked one up and bit the end off of it, then waved the other hand over her mouth.

“These are hot. I probably left them in the oven too long. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the teeth. The thing was, medical attention in that camp was good. A doctor would come to my cell accompanied by a nurse, so that I was chaperoned when he examined me. Even the dental treatment had been suggested, not forced on me. I had agreed to the extractions as toothache was starting to plague me on a daily basis. Besides, I was of an age where any vanity I had left had started to well and truly slip away”.

Picking up the half-eaten suasage roll, she blew on it a few times, stuffed the rest into her mouth, licked her fingers, and lit a cigarette.

“My small cell block was surrounded by a wire-fenced compound, and when the weather improved, my cell was unlocked so I was free to walk around outside if I wanted. I could see the long lines of other prisoners walking to and from whatever work they had to do. Men and women were separated, and it was always a single sex group that went past. None of them ever turned to look at me, no doubt they knew I was a special prisoner, a foreign spy. The food was much the same. I would get some black bread with sweet jam of some kind in the morning, then an evening meal of pork and vegetable soup one day, followed by rolled cabbage leaves the next. I depended more and more on the parcels sent in from the British Consulate, although they were always opened by security, and many items stolen before the parcel arrived at my cell. I made sure to give something to Olga and Natalia every time a parcel came, and that kept them interested in being kind to me”.

She stopped and stood up, to take her plate out. Returning with a bottle of vodka and a tumbler, she asked if I wanted anything. I shook my head. Once she had filled her glass and swallowed half of it, she carried on.

“I had been there almost a year when I had another visitor. It was getting very cold again, and had been snowing hard that day. I was surprised to see a woman waiting for me. She told me her name was Barbara, and that John Holdsworth had been reassigned. From a big bag next to her chair she produced an assortment of colour magazines in English, a carton of English Benson and Hedges cigarettes, and four bars of Cadbury’s chocolate. I was very happy to see the familiar cigarettes and chocolate, but not so pleased with what she had to say. ‘I have to give you some bad news. Four weeks ago, your father died from a brain haemorrhage in Saint Thomas’s Hospital. We are looking into his will, and meanwhile he has been cremated at public expense, his ashes scattered on the shoreline near Westminster Bridge. It seems the lease had expired on his flat, and he was in negotiations to try to get an extension. Now he has died, that is unlikely to happen. I am so sorry for your loss’. With that, she got up to leave, telling me she would come and see me when she had time to do so. I was stunned. I knew my dad was old, but now he had died without ever knowing what had happened to me. And with the flat gone, I was technically homeless back in England. When I got back to my cell, I gave Natalia and Olga a bar of chocolate each, and sat smoking a cigarette. I told them what had happened, and that evening they brought me a fifty-centilitre bottle of cheap vodka to drown my sorrows”.

Sitting in thought for a moment, Helen let her cigarette burn down. She stubbed it out, and lit another one.

“Now I had nobody left who cared for me. I drank all the vodka in twenty minutes, straight from the bottle. I was too self-obsessed to even cry for my dad, and I did love him so much, Martin”.

With that, I closed the interview for the day, and told her I was leaving.

Before I returned to Helen’s house the next morning, I went into a stationery shop in town and photocopied all the documents she had let me borrow. Although I had made comprehensive notes on all of them, hard copies were going to be more useful. I stopped for coffee and a wrap, then bought her two Chelsea buns on the way back to her street. When she opened the door, she seemed very happy, and pleased to see me. Before commencing the recording, I ate the wrap and drank my coffee as she demolished both buns washed down with vodka.

“I celebrated my sixtieth birthday in that place, Martin. I told Natalia it was my birthday, and she called me Babushka, kissing me on both cheeks. The next day, she brought in an embroidered scarf wrapped in some red paper, and solemnly presented it to me as a gift. I hadn’t had a visitor from the British Consulate for some time, so it was nice to be able to talk to Natalia like a friend. We spoke about the next new year, when it would be a new millennium. She told me I should have hope for the new century, and then gave me the bad news that she was being moved to another facility, because of being promoted to supervisor. She was going to be replaced by Anna, who had volunteered for the job of being my dedicated guard”.

Helen stopped to go into the kitchen and refill her glass. When she came back, she remained standing.

“Why don’t we sit in the lounge for a change? I have never taken you in there, which is remiss of me”.

Following her back into the hallway, we went into the small living room at the front of the house. It was sparsely furnished, and had a musty, unused smell. Garishly patterned small sofas stood opposite each other, with a formica-topped coffee table in between. On a small writing desk under the window, there was a fairly modern Dell laptop, and in the original fireplace was an ancient electric convector heater. I would have preferred to have stayed in our usual spot, but sat down opposite her and set up my camera.

“I suppose you must be wondering how I ever got out, and what I am doing in this shabby little house in Hastings? Well, all will be made clear. Three years after Natalia left Penal Colony Four, Anna came to tell me I had a visitor. The parcels had still been arriving, and Anna particularly liked to see the glossy magazines that sometimes came in them. But nobody had been to see me for almost four years. That new century Natalia had gone on about wasn’t proving to be very hopeful for me. It was Barbara in the visiting room. Her hair was turning grey by then, and she had lost a lot of weight. I also had grey hair, but unlike her, I was getting fatter on the stodgy prison food and the extra parcels sent in”.

She grabbed her belly, and squeezed it, to demonstrate the fat was still there. Then she lit a cigarette, sliding a large amber glass ashtray from the centre of the coffee table.

“Barbara was going home. She needed medical treatment, and had been posted back to England. But she said she wanted to give me some encouraging news before she left, and to let me know that a man named Desmond would be coming to see me in future. I confess that I was cold to her. After being dumped and ignored, left rotting in prison for so long, I could see no point in being civil in my dealings with those minor diplomats, Martin. Anyway, she told me that the Foreign Office had submitted a formal application for my release. Of course, they didn’t mention spying, just that one of their employees had been ‘mistakenly detained’. How do you like that turn of phrase, mistakenly detained? I had been in Russian prisons for forty-one years, that’s longer than a murderer gets in England. Now my employers were trying to have it written off as some kind of administrative error. Barbara went on to say that when I was eventually released, I would receive a lump sum in back pay, help with accommodation, and a full Civil Service Pension. She seemed to think that being financially well off should make me happy”.

Pausing to drink more vodka, Helen was shaking her head.

“All I could focus on was that she had used the word ‘eventually’

“Well it turned out eventually was going to mean never. I got very down when nobody came from the British Consulate. The parcels stil arrived, but I only kept the cigarettes, exchanging everything else for vodka, which Anna managed to smuggle in for me. I still hadn’t seen the Chief Warden of the camp, and two years after Barbara’s last visit, I made a formal application to do just that. Anna told me it would be at the start of the next week, and she would have to handcuff me to take me to the administration block. On the day, she was very apologetic, telling me she thought it was so silly to have to put an old lady into restraints. I was surprised how far away the offices were, as we had to walk for at least ten minutes, possibly almost fifteen. That walk made me realise just how vast the camp was. I could only imagine how many prisoners were held there. Outside the Warden’s office, Anna warned me to speak softly, and not to become angry”.

Helen leaned forward, lit a cigarette, then blew the smoke away from me, up at the low ceiling. I had started to become genunely concerned about passive smoking, after all the hours I had spent with her.

“In the office, a surprisingly young man sat behind a small desk covered in files. He had one open in front of him, which I presumed was mine. I had to stand in front of him, looking respectful. He asked me if there was anything I needed, so I said I desperately needed glasses so I could read properly. Even holding books as far as my arms would reach, I had started to give up after one chapter. He made a note in the file, and asked me if there was something else. His tone was kind, so I chanced saying what I was really there for. I mentioned what Barbara had said, the formal application for my release from detention. I respectfully suggested that it was taking a long time to arrange, and that I would appreciate his help in making that happen. He looked very confused, Martin. Flicking through the file, he raised his eyebrows. I can never forget what he said next.

“You appear to be misinformed, prisoner Renton. If fact, it was the Russian Federation that contacted the British Consulate, asking them to arrange for your collection from this facility as we no longer had any need to keep you here. I have the name of the person we spoke to, a Mister John Holdsworth. He is listed as one of your visitors. You understand these things have to be formally arranged. We cannot very well just open the gate and say farewell. Documents have to be signed, and you have to be handed over officially”.

She paused as I sat taking that in.

“I was in shock, Martin. They had lied to me, pretending that the Russians were causing the delay. Then after they were notified and realised they had just forgotten me, they were paying me off with food parcels and cigarettes, leaving me hoping that release was a real option. You cannot imagine how much I hated them that day. I thanked the Warden, and agreed that I would raise the matter with the next visitor from the Consulate. On the way back to my block, my legs felt like jelly, and Anna had to hold me to stop me from falling over. I asked her to get me some extra vodka, and I would make sure she had everything from my next parcel. She came to my cell after dinner, and produced two bottles, telling me to try not to be too sad”.

Talking about the vodka must have jogged her memory that her glass was empty, and she left me in the room as she went to fill it up.

“That night I got roaring drunk, and I swore that one day I would get my own back by telling my story. The next day I felt awfully hungover, but had to act sober when an optician came with equipment to test my eyes. Three days later, I received two pairs of metal-framed glasses. Anna let me look at myself in a small mirror she had in her bag, and we both laughed when she said I looked like a college professor. Everything had snapped into focus, but I had to take them off unless I was reading, or they made me dizzy. Shall we call it a day now, Martin?”

After getting my stuff together, I walked down to the seafront to read through my notes in the fresh air.

Helen was ready for me the next morning, reasonably well dressed, showered, and wearing some make-up. But she was clutching a glass of vodka as she opened the door, and I felt sure she had been drinking for some time before I arrived. She led me into the back room, obviously happier there than in her rarely-used small lounge. She had already smoked one cigarette by the time I set up, and lit another one before starting to relate her story.

“So, there was no contact from the Consulate. No visit from the never-seen Desmond, and only the parcels of food and luxuries denoted that they still knew I existed. Anna stuck by me, making sure I didn’t descend into a mental black hole, and treating me like I was an extra grandmother. On her days off, Olga was not so friendly. I got the feeling she had long ago tired of having to babysit me when my special guard was off duty. Nothing changed for me, nothing at all, though I was grateful for the reading glasses which enabled me to read the books sent in every month. The night before my seventieth birthday, Anna brought me a present. Ten years together, and she never forgot a birthday. It was a Matryoshka nesting doll, a very nice example in black laquer with different designs on each of the seven dolls. She told me that it showed love of family, respect for elders, and was traditional. I cried at her thoughtful gift, and she hugged me until I regained my composure”.

She poured more vodka, and as she hadn’t mentioned food, I was concerned that she might get drunk. But there was no sign of that as she carried on.

“It was two thousand and nine, Martin, six years ago this month. I had been shut away in Russia for almost fifty years. Even now that is hard for me to take in. I had never married, never had children, not even the chance of love with Desi. My parents were long dead, I had no living relatives, and any friends I had from the old days were either dead, or had forgotten me. I hope you never have to experience that feeling of complete loneliness, where your only friend in the world is a woman paid to guard you and keep you locked up. I contemplated suicide all the time, I really did. Do you want some toast? I’m having some”.

I shook my head as I made notes, and she came back later with four slices of toast smothered in what looked like strawberry jam. Two of them were eaten in seconds, before she started talking again.

“So I did something unusual, at least as far as their prison sytem was concerned. Obtaining some plain paper and a propelling pencil from Anna, I started to send notes to the Warden. Anna told me it was the same man, and I addressed them respectfully. With no envelopes, I wrote his name and designation on the outside of the folded paper. Each note was a variation on the previous one. Had he heard any more about my release papers? Would he possibly have a chance to contact the Consulate and ask them to expedite the necessary documents? That kind of thing. Anna said nobody ever did that, but she delivered them to his office for me. I never got a reply, and didn’t expect one, but I sent one every week, and nobody ever told me to stop. I did that for a year, Martin. My seventy-first birthday came and went, and still I sent those notes”.

Helen stopped to eat the other two slices of toast, then she lit a cigarette, and swallowed half a tumbler of vodka.

“Then one morning, Anna came through the open door of my cell. She appeared to have been crying, and she told me to smarten myself up as I was being taken to see the Warden. That time, there were no handcuffs, and on the way, Anna wouldn’t answer my questions about why we were being summoned. She only shook her head in reply to each one. Inside the office the Warden smiled at me. He applied a rubber stamp to a document, and handed me the top copy. I had to find my glasses in my uniform apron pocket to read it. But I didn’t get past the first line, which said ‘Prisoner release’, before the tears were flowing down my face. The Warden was grinning, Anna was standing by the door openly weeping, and he said this to me”. ‘Pack your personal belongings, prisoner Renton. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken by car to the British Consulate. We have heard nothing from them, but no longer wish to detain you in our custody. As of tomorrow, you are a British problem, no longer a Russian one. Just read and sign this form, and I wish you good luck’. The form was basically a statement that I had been treated well, never subjected to physical or psychological torture, and that I agreed to leave custody at nine the next morning”.

Before she spoke again, Helen looked up across at the small window, as if remembering something.

“The hardest thing was leaving Anna. On the way back to my cell, she broke down and told me she would miss me”.

“One regret was that Anna was not working the next morning. Olga came with another guard, handed me a canvas holdall and told me to pack my things. I took just my cigarettes and matches, a hairbrush, and the doll Anna had given me, along with all the paperwork I had accumulated over the years. The documents you have seen, Martin. I had to wear my prison uniform and rubber shoes, no outdoor clothes were provided. Olga accompanied me in the car, which was driven by a soldier who said nothing on the way. When they arrived at the small Consulate office, Olga turned and said. ‘This is where you get out, Renton. And you are not allowed to return to the Russian Federation, ever’. She handed me a large brown envelope containing my original and long-expired passport, along with my Foreign Office identity credentials. The photo on those was taken when I was twenty-one, and I didn’t recognise the young woman looking out at me”.

Helen stopped for the usual refill of vodka and lit another cigarette.

“The car drove off, leaving me standing alone in the street. I was free to go anywhere, but had no money, no valid passport, and I was hungry, as they had not given me breakfast after my shower. I walked up to the office door and pushed a button on the side. I was surprised when someone spoke to me on a speaker above. I had never seen such a contraption. I said I was Helen Renton, and wanted to talk to someone called Desmond. I was surprised when the door clicked open. That seemed very futuristic to me, Martin. I had to walk upstairs, and at a desk at the top sat a suspicious-looking young man who asked me what I wanted. I told him I had been in prison for just over fifty years, I was a Foreign Office employee, and a British Citizen. I added that I had to talk to someone called Desmond. then showed him my old passport and credentials, and he asked me to sit on a chair at the side, as he seemed to have taken me seriously”.

More vodka drinking followed, and I sat waiting for her to speak again.

“Five minutes later, he returned with a middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Nicola Desmond. She looked embarrassed, as well she should have. She asked me to follow her through to her office, and once I had sat down, she asked me what she could do for me. Can you believe that, Martin? Well I can tell you, I gave her a piece of my mind. I did nothing less than ranting, for a good thirty minutes. To give her a little credit, she didn’t interrupt me. When I had finished, I lit a cigarette, and she said, ‘Sorry, there is no smoking here’. I told her to go and F herself, I don’t mind admitting. She left to make some phone calls, then returned with a sickly smile. She said that they were going to put me up in a hotel, find me some decent clothes, and make sure I had all I needed. Then in two days, she would be accompanying me to England on an aircraft, where I would be ‘fully debriefed’. If my mouth had not been so dry, I would have spat in her face, Martin”.

It was obvious that recalling that meeting was upsetting her. I waited as she lit another cigarette, obviously remembering her encounter with Ms Desmond.

“I was driven to a decent hotel, and not long after I arrived in the twin-bedded room, Nicola arrived with a weekend case. She was staying with me until we flew, and produced a far too large dress, and a pair of shoes that were too tight. She was apologetic, telling me she hadn’t been expecting me, and knew almost nothing about my situation. She said that we would be flying back to the military base at Brize Norton, and when we arrived, I would be handed over to John Holdsworth”.

At that point, Helen began coughing heavily. It was some time before the cough calmed down, and she was ready to carry on. Before speaking, she swallowed more vodka, and lit a cigarette. I was tempted to ask her if both were good for her, but said nothing.

“Another John Holdsworth, Martin. I asked Nicola how many there had been, and she smiled”.

At that point, I said I was finished for the day, and started to gather up my notes.

That evening, I spent a lot of time going through my notes. It seemed Helen was getting close to the end of her story now, so I began writing them up in some semblance of order. Then I made sure the camera was fully charged and had a new memory card, ready for the next day. Next morning, I had a light breakfast before returning to my room to go through all the papers I had copied. I was convinced that they were all genuine, one hundred percent. When I approached her door later, she opened it before I knocked. Once again very presentable, she seemed to be in a very good mood.

“In you come, Martin. I am keen to get on and tell you what happened when I got back to England”.

As usual, she drank vodka and smoked as I set up.

“Nicola and I were the only two people on the RAF flight to Brize Norton. There was no passport control or immigration check, and our baggage went through as diplomatic. Inside the aircraft, I was amazed that nobody elese was in the medium-sized passenger jet, and suspected that they didn’t want me to be seen by any other staff who might normally fly home using that service. Less than four hours later we landed, and when we walked down the steps our bags were ready for collection. There was a fancy-looking car waiting at the edge of the runway, and a well-dressed man standing next to it. He approached and shook my hand, saying ‘Welcome home, Helen, I am John Holdsworth’. Another one of course, not my one. He was close to fifty, politely spoken, and so obviously security service. I got in the back of the car with him and Nicola put my canvas holdall on the front seat then walked in the direction of the airport buildings, wheeling her small case. She didn’t say goodbye, didn’t even look at me. Then we left for London, and I soon found myself travelling eastbound on the A40”.

Helen stopped for a moment, and she seemed to be deciding whether or not to add something.

“Holdsworth didn’t say much at first, and I sat gawping at the changed surroundings. So many cars, so much new housing. And as we got closer to London, the amount of high-rise developments took my breath away. Once we were held up by gridlocked traffic in the suburbs, Holdsworth became chatty. He spoke about things that would be new to me. When I had left England, we were not in the EU. Now I was back, we were on the verge of trying to get out of it. Decimal currency would be new to me, as would multi-channel colour television, buses and tube trains no longer taking cash, and so much more that I would have to get used to. One thing I had forgotten was how much warmer it was, and when I tried to open the car window, I couldn’t find a handle. He smiled, and told the driver to switch on the air-conditioning. In seconds, i could feel the cold air refreshing me. I wasn’t allowed to smoke in the car, and that was making me edgy. Then when Holdworth told me that I was going to be debriefed for six weeks, I got plain angry. Pause there, Martin, I need something to eat”.

She had obviously been out that morning, as she came back from the kitchen with two large pork pies still in the shop’s bag. After muching her way through one, she carried on.

“Once we were at Paddington, I started to recognise some streets. But there was a huge new hospital, and many more tower blocks and skyscrapers. London felt closed in and oppressive, so different to when I had lived there. We turned off before Baker Street, and I could tell we were going north. Twenty minutes later, the driver turned into a quiet road near Swiss Cottage, and stopped the car outside a double-fronted house with tall gates across the driveway. The gates opened by themselves, and we walked from the car to the front door. It was already open, and a stern-looking woman was standing there. Holdsworth introduced her to me as Mrs Lee, then without another word, he turned and walked back to the car. I followed the woman inside into a large hallway, and she turned and said ‘Welcome, Miss Renton. This will be your temporary home’. ”

Helen paused at that point, and ate the second pork pie.

“Mrs Lee was nicer than she looked, but wouldn’t call me Helen, or tell me her first name. I had a lovely room on the first floor with a comfortable double bed, my own small bathroom, and a view over the garden. I was only allowed to smoke in the conservatory, so as you can imagine I spent most of my time there, Martin. For the first week, Mrs Lee went through the things I needed to know about in everyday life. She showed me how to use the Internet, and gave me a laptop to keep. The same one you saw in my lounge. I thought it was like a magic trick, and spent hours sitting in the conservatory looking at historical sites so I could find out what had been happening while I was in prison. There were lots of practical things too, like bank cards and PIN numbers. She told me nobody used cheques any longer, or carried more than a few pounds in cash. I had to create one of those PIN numbers for security, so used the first four numbers from my Soviet prison number. Nobody would ever guess that. Back in a minute”.

Helen returned with a plate of cream biscuits and a refilled vodka tumbler.

“On the Saturday morning, Mrs Lee took me by bus to the shops in Oxford Street. She showed me how to take money out of those wall-mounted machines, and we went into John Lewis so I could buy new clothes and underwear. They had set me up a new bank account, and were paying the Civil Service pension into it monthly. There was also a lump sum payment of twenty thousand pounds, so I felt incredibly rich. Mind you, I was determined to have a word with someone about that, as it didn’t really seem enough compensation for all the years I had been locked away. With so many bags of clothes, toiletries, shoes, and some assorted luxuries, we took a taxi back to the house. Mrs Lee appeared with a camera, and took a photo of me that was going to be used on a new passport. Although I had no intention of ever leaving England again, she said it would be useful as a form of identification. She also gave me a copy of my Birth Certificate and a new Medical Card, saying I should register with a doctor once I had moved into my permanent home. Then she suggested that I should think about how much I was eating, as it wasn’t good for my health. I was a bit snappy with her, and told her to try to imagine eating almost the same two things for dinner every day for nearly fifty years”.

As if to confirm Mrs Lee’s fears, Helen stopped to cram two cream biscuits into her mouth, holding a third ready for when she had made room.

“Once I had decent clothes lots of cigarettes, and I felt almost normal again, I asked about getting some Gorlovka Vodka. There was some Smirnoff in the house, but it wasn’t to my taste, nowhere near strong enough. She said she would pass on my request, but it took a week until a case of twelve bottles arrived. Mrs Lee cooked a nice meal every evening, but I was always hungry, so used to help myself to things from her huge fridge after she had gone to bed. She only sat with me when she had to, and i tended to eat, drink, and of course smoke in the conservatory. I spent my time looking at the laptop and reading the news from the last fifty years. I had no interest in television, so she used to sit in the large living room to watch her favourite programmes. For the first two weeks I was in the house, I never heard a phone ring, and there were no visitors except deliveries made from a white van. When I asked if there was a phone in the house, she showed me a mobile phone, telling me I would be provided with one when I left and shown how to use it. I smiled and said I no longer had anyone to ring, but it might be useful in an emergency”.

Three more biscuits descended down her gullet before she looked across at me again.

“Then on the Monday of the third week, two men arrived. Mrs Lee said they had come to interview me”.

“I told Mrs Lee I would talk to the men in the conservatory, so I could smoke. I also took a bottle of vodka and a glass through there, as I was sure I was going to need fortifying. They intoduced themselves as Richard and Quentin, no surnames. Stuffy, pallid-skin types, with dead eyes. It seemed Quentin was the main man, as he kicked off the conversation by telling me that I was still subject to my signing of the Official Secrets Act back when I joined. As Richard took notes in a large folder, he added that there was no statute of limitations on that, and I was not to speak to anyone about anything unless they worked for MI6. Before he could say anything else, I let him have both barrels. I screamed at him about how I had been ignored and disposed of, and how they hadn’t even bothered to reply when the Russians had asked them to agree to my release. For what must have been at least an hour, I swore like a trooper at them, and asked them to explain how I had come to be dumped in Odessa, then Moscow, then Leningrad, without any intervention on their part. Why had I never been exchanged, when I knew full well that such exchanges were frequent? And how dare they scatter my dad’s ashes on some muddy bank on the Thames. I went on for so long, Mrs Lee brought a pot of tea in for them, and they had long finished that before I stopped talking”.

Helen saw me taking notes, and paused until I looked back at her.

“Quentin told me it was unfortunate that things had turned out the way they had. I just hadn’t been important enough to exchange, and until they heard from the Russians that I was in St Peterburg, they had no real idea where I was. He went on to say that I would be given a house to live in free of charge on the south coast, that all my bills would be paid, and my pension would be paid until my death, with another fifty thousand lump sum to be deposited in my account once I had moved to Hastings. Unfortunate, that was the word he used, Martin. My life written off with that simple word, unfortunate. Then he passed me a card with a phone number written on it, telling me that I could order anything I wanted by ringing that number, including my cigarettes and favourite vodka. I would only need to spend money on clothing, personal items, and any food I decided to buy in addition to my order. It would be delivered in seventy-two hours, stocks permitting. I had to break for the toilet, and while I was up there, I decided I would get nowhere with those two, so I would appear to play their game, bide my time, and publish my own story later to shame them. Talking of which, I do need the toilet. Won’t be long”.

She settled back in her chair, lit a cigarette, and started smiling as she remembered that day.

“When I came back, Quentin started asking me lots of questions about my time over there. He wanted names that I could remember, wanted to know what they had asked me, and more importantly, what I had told them. He seemed perplexed when I told him there had been no interrogation, very few questions, and that I had stuck to my story about being a Foreign Office translator throughout. He obviously didn’t believe me, and exchanged a look with Richard that said more than words. Then he changed tack, asking me to describe the prisons I had been kept in, the appearance and names of the Wardens, anything I could remember about locations. I gave him crumbs, Martin. Bits and pieces of incomplete details, pretending not to remember much after fifty years. That was all those bastards deserved, after leaving me to rot for most of my life. Quentin knew about the parcels that had been sent in, and tried to justify those as ‘taking care’ of me. He asserted that I knew what I was getting into when I completed the training course in Scotland, and that it was all just a part of ‘The Great Game’. I had heard that phrase used before, and I didn’t accept it as an excuse. Then they suddenly stood up, and said they would be back on Tuesday morning”.

As she lit a cigarette, I sensed she was pausing for effect.

“But they never came back, Martin. Not ever”.

Helen was keen to work late that day. She suggested ordering a Chinese meal from the restaurant in the next street, and said I could go and collect it. I agreed, knowing I would be too late for bar food if I didn’t eat then. When I got back, she had even found two very clean bowls, along with some cutlery that looked like it had never been used. I had bought myself a beer in the restaurant, knowing she would only have vodka to offer. When we had both finished eating, she lit a cigarette and continued talking, not bothering to clear the table.

“The day after the men left, Mrs Lee gave me a mobile phone, and showed me how to use it. It wasn’t one of those fancy phones connected to the Internet, it could just make calls and send text messages. She told me the number I had to ring for deliveries was the first one in the contacts list. I didn’t have to pay the bill for using it, as it was on government contract. That told me I would be monitored every time I used it. I still have it, it’s the one I used to ring in the food order. Then she told me I would have to pack, as the next day we were leaving for Hastings to get me settled into my house. Three suitcases were provided for me, rather old and battered ones, I have to say. The following morning, a man was parked in the driveway in a very large car, what they used to call station wagons when I was young. He loaded the cases into the back, and I could see the name of the car, a Volvo. The drive took over three hours, and I wasn’t allowed to smoke. I asked the driver to stop so I could use the toilet. He stopped at a service area, but I didn’t need the toilet. I just stood outside the car and smoked two cigarettes, one after the other, much to the obvious annoyance of Mrs Lee.”

Chuckling as she remembered that morning, Helen refilled her glass with vodka.

“When I saw this house as the car stopped, I have to say I was very disappointed. I certainly hadn’t expected anything fancy, but would have liked something more modern, perhaps a smart flat with a balcony facing the sea. The driver took the car to a public car park to wait for Mrs Lee, and she came inside to show me where everything was. When I asked her how long I would be expected to live there, she said I sounded ungrateful, and that houses like this one were very sought after on the south coast. Then she said I would be expected to live there for the rest of my life, and it had once been a popular MI6 safe house, used long before the last war, and as recently as the year before they gave it over to me. Reaching into her handbag, she gave me a small sheet of paper. There was the name of a local doctor on it, as well as a dentist, then a third number that she said I should call for any general repairs or failure of equipment like the washing machine or cooker. Then she suggested I walk around the town later, to locate the nearby shops and buy some food and provisions. After that, she gave me one hundred pounds in cash, wished me luck, and left. That was that, Martin. I haven’t seen or heard from any of them since”.

I had a few questions for her, but before I could even think about asking them, she started again.

“That afternoon, I went out and found a Post Office. I bought some notepaper and envelopes, and four books of postage stamps. Then in a newsagent’s, I purchased a copy of every newspaper they had for sale. I had something to eat while I was out, then came home and logged onto the laptop, using the password for the wi-fi that Mrs Lee had written on a card for me. I looked up every major publishing house still in business, and made a note of their names and addresses. I was determined to start trying to get my story told, and made up my mind to write to all of them, starting the next morning”.

She started coughing, and I decided it was getting late for her. I began to pack away my things, telling her I should leave. She nodded, waiting until the coughing had subsided before adding the last statement that night.

“And that’s just what I did. I wrote to all of them. It took all day”.

The next morning I told Helen I would be completing the interview that day, and would stay as long as was needed. I mentioned that I woud pop back the following day with papers for her to sign that gave me permission to ghost-write her book, and I would have credit as co-writer. She was happy about that, and settled straight in to the conclusion of her story.

“Very soon, I learned the reality, Martin. I received more replies than I had expected, but I could tell from some that they thought I was either a charlatan, or a crazy old woman. A couple of the newspapers took me more seriously and said someone would be in touch. When someone phoned to ask me to talk him through the story, he said that there was no chance it would be printed. The government would issue a D-Notice to stop publication, and by cooperating with someone breaking the Official Secrets Act, the newspaper could find itself in court. As for the book publishers, their replies varied. Most wanted me to have an agent to use as an intermediary, others asked for three full chapters, a synopsis, and a personal biography before they would even pass it to an editor. I didn’t feel up to that, Martin. It’s one thing sitting and talking about it, quite another getting it down on paper as something coherent and interesting. I will make you some tea”.

Helen came back with the tea, and the usual full glass of vodka for herself.

“They were also wary about me not asking for any money. I tried to explain that I was unlikely to be long for this world after a lifetime of poor diet, heavy smoking, and copious amounts of vodka down my neck. I wanted to leave my story as a legacy, hopefully see it hit the headlines before I died. But I wasn’t doing it for gain, I just wanted to shame the Establishment. As for the literary agents, they showed no interest whatsoever. Only four replied, and all wanted to see some examples of my writing. I wondered if they had even read my letter, in which I clearly stated I would need someone else to help me. So I let it go, thinking I might just eventually get around to writing my own story. But of course I never did that, or you wouldn’t be here”.

She was answering most of the questions I had wanted to ask the previous night, but I still had one needing an answer. So I asked how she came to contact Colin Magee.

“Some months back, I forget exactly when now, I received a parcel one morning. Someone at the Foreign Office had sent it to me at my old address. Shows how lax they were at updating records. Whoever lives in that south London flat now refused to accept it, and it had languished back at the Foreign Office until someone asked some questions. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect some MI6 mole found out about it, and arranged to have it sent on to me here. There was no note or covering letter. It contained my late father’s personal effects, well some of them. His wedding ring, his very old watch, and six copies of books he had published after I had disappeared. They were dry stuff, I’m sad to say. Justifications of Stalin, memoirs of his travels in the Soviet Union before world war two, and one about why he believed Marxist theory would be the best way to educate children in schools. He was very old when they were writen, and I doubt anyone ever bought a copy. But the publisher was Colin Magee. So I thought if he had bothered to try to sell my dad’s books, he might do the same for me. I think they call that serendipity, Martin, and it seems to have worked”.

How her letter had arrived on Magee’s desk had long worried me. Now I knew why. I told Helen that it would take at least three months for me to get the draft to an editor. Then there would be the usual re-write after that, choosing a title, and sorting out a cover photo. But that would all come in time. Meanwhile, I would be back with the paperwork the next day, then return to my flat and begin the first draft. I would contact her by telephone if I needed to ask any questions. As for the chance of a documentary, that would take longer. I would need to get all the hours of camera footage to someone who knew what they were doing, and that would have to be tied in with any book launch. She seemed happy as I left.

“Okay, I will see you tomorrow. Don’t even think about using a photo of me on the cover though. I look bloody awful”.

Field Report.

To: Quentin Hughes. MI6 London
From: Field Operative Martin Green-Tompkins
Subject: Helen Renton. MI6 (Retired)

Sir, I would like to thank you for this opportunity. After so long monitoring Russian interest publications at Magee Press, it was rewarding to be back in the field. Enclosed is my full report, including all relevant original papers, sound and video recordings, along with my claim for out of pocket expenses. (Receipts attached)

As for the last day, Renton was welcoming and hopeful. I went back over our long sessions together, perpetuating the idea that I would be writing her book and that it would be published. I showed her some notes I had made, including ficticious names of documentary makers, film producers, and publishers who might show an interest. She was very bullish about who should play her in any film adaptation, so I noted her suggestions.

Once you have read the report in its entirety, you will see that she was unlikely to stay quiet about her experience. She was aware of self-publishing online, and blogging too. I suspect she would have eventually got something published on a conspiracy website, and she had even spoken briefly about approaching Russian organisations such as Russia Today TV to offer them her story. There would no doubt have been much embarrassment, and questions to answer.

It seems we have little to learn from my extensive interviews with her. She told nobody anything during her detention, and I believe that.

Once I was convinced that she had nothing hidden away, I went ahead with the agreed arrangement.

The bottle of Gorlovka Vodka I took along was a nice touch, as she was happy to toast the forthcoming book by swallowing a large glassful from the bottle I offered her. The Potassium Cyanide worked very quickly, probably because of her poor health. She expired without a word, and I left her slumped in her chair. Once I had waited long enough to be sure she was dead, I carried out an extensive search of the house, including the loft. All the original papers, the Russian doll, her mobile phone and her laptop are in the box accompanying this report.

Naturally, I wiped all surfaces before leaving. Even though my fingerprints are not on record, I left little trace of my presence, short of some DNA on her furniture that will be of no consequence. As when her body is eventually found, it will certainly be judged to be the suicide of a lonely old woman with poor health, and nothing to live for.

No doubt by now you have cancelled her bank account, and her Foreign Office records and pension. So in most respects, Helen Renton never existed.

As you know, I resigned from Magee’s as planned, and now await your next instructions.

Martin Green Tompkins.

Gabby Goes Missing: The Complete Story

This is all 26 parts of my recent fictional series, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 20,338 words.

Benedict.

I met her at university. Most of us were nervous. Eighteen year-old first-year students, living in halls, in a new town that felt strange. Few of us had lived away from home before, cooked meals, washed and ironed clothes, or any of those things that suddenly become such a big deal when there is nobody around to do them for you.

But not Gabby.

Gabrielle was one of those people who just stood out. It wasn’t just because of her looks, or her unusually short hair. It was her vitality, the way she exuded confidence, and her desire to befriend anyone.

Even a nerd like me.

Those of us studying History tended to gravitate together. After lectures, we would end up in the Student Union bar, each paying for our own drinks, making every one of them last as long as possible. And we would watch Gabby doing the room. Chatting in their own language to the Chinese students, comparing good places to eat in Tokyo with the Japanese ones, and laughing about Christmas on the beach with two girls who had lived in Australia.

To say she was well-travelled was an understatement.

Her father had been in a job of some kind that meant Gabby had grown up everywhere but England. Yet to my knowledge, nobody ever asked her what her father did for a living. Her parents were still abroad somewhere, but they wanted her to complete her education in England, so the story went. Her older brother had died in an accident of some kind on the island of Bali, so somebody else told me.

It soon became clear that everyone who thought they knew Gabby didn’t actually know her at all. And it was also very clear that I was besotted with her. Madly in love with her in fact. I wasn’t alone, as at least a dozen others appeared to be crazy about her, both women and men.

She called me Ben, and remembered my name straight off. No mean feat, when you were introduced to at least sixty people in the first few days. Her level of attraction was so strong, she was asked out on a date by the end of the second day. Then at least ten more times by the end of the first week. Not by me of course, I was out of her league, and knew it. But she didn’t say yes to any of them.

There were a few others like Gabby in that year. Obviously well-off, more worldly than most of us. Like her, they talked about where they had been, and cruised through the routines that were unfamiliar and confusing to the rest of us. But nobody seemed to like the others. They would say they were boastful, flash, entitled, even boring.

As for Gabby, I never heard a bad word said against her. Not even a bitchy remark from any other woman about her crew-cut hair. As long as I live, I doubt I will ever meet anyone else like her. I certainly haven’t so far.

Academic excellence came along with every other talent Gabby possessed. By the end of the first term, we all knew she was at the top in History, seeming to know as much as the lecturers and tutors. But she had a generous nature too, helping out anyone who was struggling; organising trips to places of historical interest at weekends, welcoming anyone who wanted to come along.

Naturally, I went on all of them.

Looking back now, the things we saw were a blur. I went to be near Gabby, just happy to be around her, even in the company of a dozen others. For a young woman who had never lived full-time in England, she knew more about the country than those of us who had never left.

When I went home at the end of year break, looking forward to being a second year student and maybe sharing a flat when we returned, I missed Gabby. I would have given up my holiday time to still be back at uni, just to be around her.

That first day back, she walked up to me, her thick lips opening in a smile. “Hey, Ben. I have found a nice house to rent. Mikki is keen to share, and I thought you would be perfect for the third bedroom. Interested?”

My throat went dry, and I had to nod my agreement instead of speaking. I felt like an idiot.

A very happy idiot.

Michaela.

When I first noticed her, I was sitting in the back of the Student Union bar, nursing a pint of cider. I had been sipping it for well over an hour, as I couldn’t afford to buy another one until my mum had paid in the money she promised. I spotted her hair first; cropped short, and very dark. Then she turned, and I saw her mouth. Wide, with thick lips, already in a half-smile as she looked across at me sitting alone at that table.

She broke into a stride, and I looked around, wondering who she was heading for. When it turned out to be me, I was surpised to say the least.

“Hi, you are History too, aren’t you? I’m Gabby”. I raised a hand for a lame handshake, then felt stupid when she leaned over and planted a soft kiss on my left cheek. Fighting back a stutter, I said my name. “Michaela, and yes, I’m studying History”. She sat next to me, barely perching on the edge of the chair. The smells coming off of her were wonderful. Clean clothes, fabric softener, and combined with just enough of a divine perfume that I didn’t know the name of and could never afford to buy.

“I shall call you Mikki, okay? Michaela is such a mouthful. Come over and sit with us. No need to be here on your own”.

The table she led me to had two others sitting at it already. A nice boy pulled another chair over for me. “Hi, I’m Ben. Good to meet you”. Taking the lead from my new friend, I leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Call me Mikki”.

I was catching on fast.

Across the table sat a skinny girl. Possibly half-Chinese, she had that so-slim body that makes you think she would look like a skeleton when she was naked. She was giving me the look, the one I had grown up seeing.

Her eyes moved around, checking out the fat thighs and curved calves under my too-long dress, with the black opaque tights I wore winter and summer, hoping to make my legs look smaller. They settled briefly on the over-sized breasts that always seemed to arrive anywhere two full seconds before the rest of me. Then they moved up to gaze at the thick single pigtail of straw-coloured hair that reached down to the middle of my bum. The only effort at hair management I had ever used.

There was no introduction, and she suddenly thought of a reason why she had to hurry across the room to talk to an Arabic-looking guy with a huge beard.

After that night, I was in Gabby’s gang, like it or not. Fortunately, I liked it, as she seemed to hang around with nice people who never asked me why I was fat, or why my tits were so big. Ben was really nice, one of those blokes who is good-looking, but doesn’t realise it. So he had no side to him, and acted like a nerd. That made him endearing to me.

Though it was Gabby I fell in love with. Head over heels, life-changing love.

Not being anywhere near as well-off as the others, and one of the few from a single-parent family, I had to get a job. Fortunately, the Campus Cafe was recruiting, and I was taken on for as many hours as I could squeeze in when I wasn’t studying. Gabby would come in often, order a latte, and then sit at the counter chatting to me when I wasn’t serving a customer. If I was on my own, I never charged her for the coffee, and I would slip her a free brownie too.

That first academic year flew by. When I could afford it, I went on the trips she organised, usually sitting next to Ben. I knew he liked me, but both of us were fixated on Gabby of course. It was that blind devotion to her that drew us closer together, I am sure of that.

Before we all went home at the end of that last term, Gabby was waiting for me outside the cafe.

“Hi, Mikki. I was thinking. We are going to be second years when we come back. You know they will be on at us to move out of halls. I am considering renting a house, and wondered if you wanted to share with me? I’m going to ask Ben too, as it will be cheaper split three ways”.

I said yes immediately. Of course I did.

Kimberley.

When I didn’t get the grades to apply to Oxford, I had to settle for what I considered to be a lesser university. The University of East Anglia in Norwich had a decent reputation, nice grounds and accommodation, and it was close to the ancient city.

But it wasn’t Oxford, as my parents were always happy to remind me.

The others in my set looked shabby, to be honest. I got the feeling that most had been lucky to make it to uni at all, and were going to struggle financially while they were there. Many of them only wanted to be History teachers in the school system, nowhere near as ambitious as me.

Then I saw her. Standing out from the crowd with her cropped hair, her wide mouth looking like it was always ready to smile. She came straight over to me as I stood outside the Campus Shop. “You’re History too, I think. Call me Gabby”. Then she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek, close to the side of my mouth. It felt like being caressed by tiny velvet pillows.

“Kimberley, and yes I’m History. I live off campus though, my parents rented me an apartment near the river in the city”. She made no comment about that. “I shall call you Kim. Kimberley is such a mouthful. Why don’t you come to the Student Union Bar tonight, meet up with some of the others?” I didn’t even drink alcohol, but found myself agreeing instantly. Then I stood and watched her as she walked off to talk to two Japanese guys.

Suddenly, I was glad that I didn’t get into Oxford.

My parents had come to England from Hong Kong just before it was handed back to China after ninety-seven. I was young so didn’t remember much about it, though I did remember how cold it was. As my mum was from England, my maternal grandparents were here too, so settling in was easy enough. Especially at a private school in Kent that my dad insisted I went to. Studying was his obsession, and he had wanted me to be a doctor. When I was more interested in History, he accepted that, as long as I did well enough to become a professor one day. Preferably at Oxford, where my mother had studied.

There was a lot of pressure, and that was when I stopped eating. Next came private therapists, followed by a stay in a facility for girls like me who wouldn’t eat. When they thought I was cured, my parents allowed me back home. Then I threw up the food they made me eat, until I thought I didn’t look fat anymore. Naturally, that affected my studies, so when the grades were too low for Oxford, my dad hardly spoke to me. That didn’t stop him buying a flat for me to live in, next to the river in Norwich. He would sell it once I graduated, and no doubt make a good profit.

I told the others he rented it for me. I never wanted to boast about how rich he was. I even bought a second-hand bicyle to use to commute to uni.

Sitting in the bar that night, I was introduced to Ben. He seemed nice enough, though a bit of a doormat. He was obviously crazy about Gabby, but I could understand why. Then Gabby went over to the back, and returned with a hideous fat girl. Her legs were wobbling as she walked, and her boobs were repulsively huge, like cow udders.

After a few seconds, I thought looking at her was going to make me physically sick, so I pretended I had to talk to someone. I picked a guy who looked like a member of the Taliban, and asked him where the toilets were. Anything not to have to stay at that table.

Compared to most of my set, I did really well that first year. Not as well as Gabby of course. She excelled, making us all look like we were struggling. When they all went home at the end of the year, I stayed in the city. It was very clear I wasn’t wanted back in Kent. Besides, my dad was in America on business, and mum was busy writing her seventh novel.

So it was a surprise to see Gabby one morning, as I walked past the football stadium. She was crossing the road, carrying two bags of groceries. I ducked back so she couldn’t see me, and my stomach was fluttering as I watched her walking away.

Could this really be love I was feeling?

Andrew.

The few years before I first met her were turbulent ones in my life. Then the years after I met her were even more turbulent.

My wife and I had split up. She returned to Scotland, the only place where she had ever been happy. Our son joined the army, much to our consternation, then took her side during the rather bitter divorce. The thing that saved me was my grandmother dying, and leaving me her house and considerable life insurance. The benefits of being an only child.

I had an agent sell the house, then made the move from Bristol to Norwich, with a new position at the UEA as a tutor and lecturer in History, specialising in Modern History. I bought a cottage for cash in the nice village of Bawburgh, and had an easy commute to my new job. It felt good to be in a smaller city, and to be working at a university that was more relaxed in attitude.

Those years in Bristol were behind me now, and unlike my wife, I had no desire to return to Edinburgh.

Marking time in Norwich, I led a rather uninteresting life, but I was content.

Then one day, I was working through a new intake on my course. Unfamiliar faces with familiar stories, and that familiar lack of ambition. A knock at my door. I called “Come in”, in a neutral tone of voice.

There she was. Gabrielle Parker.

If you had asked me five seconds earlier if I ever believed in love at first sight, I would have snorted with derision. I was never even sure if I loved my wife, let alone anyone else. Then I saw Gabby.

She breezed into my room, with her shocking cropped hair, pillow soft lips, and oozing confidence from every pore. Suddenly, I was on the back foot. “Hello, Gabrielle, I am Andrew Donaldson, and I will be your tutor”. Her smile could have melted an iceberg.

“Call me Gabby, and I wil call you Andy. Andrew is such a mouthful”.

In those few seconds, we exchanged conventional roles. She was in charge, not me. And I was in love with her from that moment.

If she knew what I was feeling, she didn’t let on. Lectures proved to be easy for her, and the work she submitted was of a good standard, though not exceptional. I started to look forward to any contact with her, though I was acutely aware that she would not be looking at me in the same way. After all, I was forty-six years old, and she was eighteen.

That made me twenty-eight years older than her. She was only five years younger than my army officer son.

At the end of that first academic year, she didn’t go home like all the others. I bumped into her one day when I was shopping in Castle Mall, and we went for coffee. I found myself inviting her to my house for dinner, and dismissed all the conventional alarm bells associated with that behaviour. Her reply stil rings in my head.

“That would be lovely, Andy. Text me your address, and I will get a taxi on Saturday night. I might have to stop over though, as it’s not easy to get a taxi home late at night”.

I have always been a decent cook, but I was so nervous that evening, I waited until she arrived and ordered a Chinese meal to be delivered. She was so naturally at ease, I felt as if I had grown up knowing her.

You can guess the rest. The wine flowed, I gazed at her as she told me her life story. When it was late, I showed her up to the small spare room, and the single bed I had put new clean bedding on earlier.

Then her hand was on my shoulder, and she spoke very softly into my left ear. “Oh I think we would both be more comfortable in your nice big double bed. Don’t you agree, Andy?”

Before I went to sleep I lay there listening to her breathing, without a care in the world.

She was already gone when I woke up the next morning. I didn’t see her in private again for over a week, and found myself looking at the crowds of students, hoping to spot her cropped hair. When we met again, she came straight to the point.

“Andy, I am struggling with the course work. If I can’t get on top of it soon, I will be dropping out and looking for a job”. I was about to reassure her, but she put up a hand to stop me speaking, and continued.

“You are going to have to help me”.

Benedict.

Gabby was excited when she came up to me outside the Campus Shop. “I have a viewing set for Saturday morning. A three-bed end of terrace in Colman Road. It is literally behind the uni, so you can fall out of bed into class”. I knew Colman Road was close. It was also a busy main road, so just as well none of owned a car. She waffled a bit.

“Obviously, it’s not very luxurious, and there’s no bath, only a shower room. But even the smallest bedroom is a good size, Ben. We don’t have to worry about gardening either, as it’s just got a patio. It’s set up for students. You know, fire blankets, smoke alarms, all that stuff. Can you be there at ten? Mikki is coming of course”. She handed me a photocopied agent’s sheet, bearing a photo of a rather sad-looking small house on it.

But what the hell, I would be sharing with Gabby. I nodded. “See you there then”.

The agent was a flash-looking guy with a creased suit and gelled hair. Although he was probably only about twenty-five, he tried to act older. According to Gabby, the smallest room with a single bed would be mine. Before Mikki arrived, she whispered conspiratorially to me. “Mikki needs a double bed at her size, and my room, well I found the house, and I’m paying the deposit”. The kitchen was tiny, and the bathroom led off of that, built onto the back of the old house.

By the time Mikki showed up, red-faced and breathless, Gabby had already agreed to the contract.

“Hi Mikki. It’s a great place, so I have taken it. I will pay the guy the deposit in cash. But as I have no credit history in Britain, you will have to sign the agreement, and put someone down as a guarantor”. Mikki looked as if the ground would swallow her up. I stepped in. “How about I sign, use my parents as a guarantor? Mikki can take charge of the key-meters for gas and electric, and sign up for the broadband and wi-fi?”

For that, I got a kiss from Gabby. A real one, right on the lips.

I just had to get my mum or dad to countersign the agreement and send it in, and we could be in within a week. When Gabby gave the guy a bundle of money, I was impressed. Four hundred for the first month’s rent, plus a five hundred security deposit, in case we wrecked the place. He said he would give Mikki the keys for the gas and electric meters once he had the paperwork, and then Gabby kissed us both, before leaving.

“Sorry guys. I am meeting Kim in the city. Staying at hers tonight”.

Mikki looked a bit lost, so I suggested we get a bus for the short trip into the city centre, and have an early lunch. She hesitated, and I had to add, “On me of course”. I was beginning to wonder if Mikki had any spare money at all. And if not, then why had she agreed to share the house?

Over a cheap lunch, sitting outside a cafe, I tried to get to know her better. “I’ll tell you something, Mikki, just between us. I told Gabby my name was Benedict, and she said she would shorten that to Ben. The truth is, my real name is Ben, and I only said Benedict because I though it sounded upper-class”.

That backfired, and she wasn’t amused. “I think you should have been honest from the start. I don’t like deception, and don’t agree with it. I thought you were realy nice, but that worries me”. Gabby had a much stronger hold over her than I had ever imagined. I finished my panini, and kept my mouth shut as we walked back to the campus.

My dad was really irritating on the phone. “Why you? Why couldn’t she sign the agreement?” I reminded him that I had just explained why. She had been living abroad, had no credit history, but had come up with nine hundred in cash for the deposit. Once he had finished moaning, I knew he would cave. “Okay, I wil sign it when it comes, and send it back first class post”.

We had a house, we were second years, and I was going to be living with Gabby.

Life was great, and couldn’t get better.

Michaela.

Although Gabby was the only friend I connected with, I didn’t see that much of her. When I found out she wasn’t going back abroad for the holidays, I naturally invited her to come and stay with me and mum. “It’s not as grand as you will be used to, Gabby, I will say that now. But it’s a comfortable house, and mum is a good cook”. She stroked my face, and that made me tingle.

“That’s okay, Mikki. I have people I know in England, and it will be good to catch up with them. Drink a lot of wine, sleep on a few sofas, you know how it goes. Besides, we will be sharing a house next year, and seeing each other all the time”.

I didn’t know how it goes at all. When you have no friends and struggle financially, you tend not to gad about sleeping on sofas and drinking wine. But I didn’t tell her that of course.

Once the academic year started, she didn’t mess around, finding a house to view that first weekend. I was already back in my job at the Campus Cafe, and I needed the money I had saved from that for food and clothes. I knew it was going to be hard to find the cash to share with her and Ben, but I had been looking forward to it since she first mentioned it. There was a few hundred in my Post Office account, left to me by my grandad whe he died. But I wanted to keep hold of that to learn how to drive when I graduated.

Extra hours in the cafe job were going to have to make up the shortfall, and I was just hoping I would get them this year.

That Saturday, I woke up late, and by the time I had got ready and walked to Colman Road, I was hot and exhausted from rushing. It was already a done deal, and I hadn’t even seen inside yet. Gabby handed over all that money as if it was nothing, and Ben saved my bacon by agreeing to sign the contract and get his parents as guarantors. My mum’s credit rating was so low, she barely qualified for a regular bank account. At least I got a nice double room, with a big bed.

Shame it looked out over the main road though.

Ben asked me to lunch after. I thought it sounded like a date, which threw me completely. I was tempted to tell him how I felt about Gabby, to put him off. But then he said something smart about Ben being his real name, and that he had lied to Gabby by saying it was Benedict. That gave me reason enough to act angry with him.

I still went for lunch though. I was hungry, and he said he would pay.

The paperwork came through within a week, and Gabby brought me the keys for the gas and electric. You had to take them to a certain shop or petrol station, and put money on them to charge them up, she told me. I didn’t let on that I knew everything about Key Meters. It was all my mum was allowed to have at home, after defaulting on her bills too many times. So I pretended to have just discovered how to operate them. “Oh, I see. Okay then, I will put thirty on the electric, and twenty on the gas. I doubt we will be using the cooker that often”.

The day of the move, Gabby had organised a big van, with a driver who helped us carry our stuff. At the house, he complained about not being allowed to park outside. Gabby put him straight. “We are not going to be that long. It’s mainly clothes and books. Come on, just put your hazard lights on. You can stay in the van if you’re afraid of getting a parking ticket”. Then she flashed him a smile, and he actually blushed.

Once everything was unceremoniously dumped inside, Gabby produced a bottle of champagne, and a pile of cash. “Tonight, we are going to celebrate our new home. An Indian takeaway, on me. And if we have to drink the champagne out of tea mugs, I don’t give a shit. Mikki, get the electric on, I need to put this in the fridge”.

Even now, I think of it as one of the best nights of my life. We sat around on the worn-out furniture, watched rubbish on the TV, and stuffed ourselves with Indian food, washed down with good champagne.

When Gabby went up to bed, she kissed me and Ben goodnight. Real kisses, on the lips.

Kimberley.

She must have spotted me, as less than two hundred yards further on, she turned and smiled. “Kim! I thought that was you. Do you live around here? I knew you were staying in the city during the break, and hoped to bump into you”. She walked up to me, her shopping bags clinking with what sounded like bottles. The kiss she planted was awkward, more on my mouth than my cheek.

Warm, and very soft.

Turning to point back along the street in the direction of the football stadium, I smiled back. “Yeah, those modern apartments on the riverside, just behind the football club. It’s only noisy on match days, then only for a couple of hours”. She moved across the pavement, so as not to block the way for those walking by.

“Why don’t I come up and see your place? I have wine, and you can order in a pizza later. I’ve been crashing on a friend’s sofa, so could do with a shower. That okay?”

I was nodding so hard, my hair covered my face.

We had only been in the flat for five minutes when she was starting to pull off her clothes, and ask me for a towel. Wearing just her panties, she called out to me from the bathroom. “Okay if I use a couple of those bath bombs, Kim? I didn’t realise you had a bath. I love a soak in a bath”. I had been trying not to look at her, but standing by the door as she started to run the taps, I felt myself blushing. “Of course, use what you like. There are clean towels on that rack there”.

Gabby was in the bath for ages, and had left the door open. Then she yelled out, and I heard the water moving. “Kim, bring me in a glass of wine, there’s a love. There are three bottles of red plonk in one of my shopping bags. They are screw-top, no need for a corkscrew”. I poured the wine into a glass, and reached into the bathroom to hand it to her. But she wasn’t having that.

“Come in and talk to me. Put the toilet lid down and sit on that”. I wasn’t used to looking at anyone else naked, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her as I sat there, with no idea what to talk about. I needn’t have worried, as she did all the talking anyway.

“You not having wine? Come on, Kim. Don’t make me drink alone”. I explained that I didn’t drink alcohol, and she grinned. “Just fill the glass halfway, and then top it up with mineral water. It will be just like drinking flavoured water. Go on”. I went back in sipping the drink, which tasted sour. But I smiled because I wanted her to like me. And I wanted to be just like her too.

When she let the water out and stood up to dry herself, I didn’t turn away. I watched her over the rim of my wine glass, my stomach turning somersaults. She fixed the towel around under her arms, and grabbed her drink. “I’m not putting those clothes back on, so I’ll just keep this towel around me. Let’s go and sit in the living room, and we can choose what pizzas we want.

Gabby ate the pizza as if she had never seen food before. By the time she had finished it, she had opened a second bottle of wine, and insisted I had another drink. “Don’t water it down so much, Kim. It will taste better that way”. When she spotted that I had only eaten a third of my boringly plain pizza, she leaned forward. “You not eating that? Okay, I’ll have it. Shame to waste it”.

Later on, I was sleepy, and thought it must be the wine. I felt good though, and had never been so relaxed. “Gabby, this is only a one-bedroom flat. So I will sleep on the sofa, and you can have my bed”. She gulped down the last of her drink, shaking her head. “Nonsense, we can both share your bed. Girls together, and all that”. She was in bed when I came in from the bathroom. I was wearing a long t-shirt, and could feel myself trembling, wondering if something was going to happen.

Wishing something was going to happen.

And it did. And it was more wonderful than I could ever possibly have imagined. Lying in the dark after, she spoke softly.

“Kim honey, my parents have forgotten to send me the deposit money for the house we are renting. Can you lend me a couple of grand until it arrives?”

I said yes. Of course I did.

Andrew.

Once she had said she needed help, I knew I was in trouble. Not that it was unknown for lecturers to have relationships with students, but it was frowned upon. And all she needed to do was to say that I had coerced her into having sex, and my career was doomed. After all, I had invited her to my home. She would know the layout of my house in detail, and even worse, be able to describe every part of my naked body.

Even as I kicked myself for the stupidity, and knew I had been played by a teenage expert, I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

She was like some kind of feminine heroin, fatally addictive.

So of course I did what she asked, and by mid-term I was not just helping her, I was actually typing out the course work for her, which she signed and handed back as if it was her own. Naturally, it was of a high standard, though it took me some time to re-write into a form that a student would submit.

She got high marks from me too, the highest. I knew the quality of the work would stand up to scrutiny, so I wasn’t concerned.

My reward was in the form of sexual breadcrumbs. Fleeting moments with my office door locked, leaving me wanting more and more. As much as I hated her for manipulating me, I loved her more than life itself, and would have thrown it all away for her with one word.

Everything I had.

If the other students were jealous of her success, I neither knew nor cared. Truth be told, I would have given her anything for one more night in my bed. I was solid proof that a good education doesn’t necessarily make you intelligent. And it certainly fails to make you aware of the ways of the world. At least in my case.

Many evenings, I would sit alone. Not bothering with food, drinking too much wine, and wishing she was there next to me. I had imagined my wife and son reading the headlines in the newspapers if Gabby ever went public. They would nod their heads, with that justification that they had been right about me all along.

Then one night, a taxi arrived outside my house. Something unusual in my village at night.

She swept in, fragrant and confident. “Please pay the taxi, Andy. I find myself temporarily short of funds”. There was wine, and another takeaway meal delivered late. Then there was my bed, and that same joy I had been savouring in my mind for weeks. The bill for that came the next morning. Over coffee, as she waited for the taxi I had ordered and paid for, she spoke very casually. Not a question, a done deal.

Andy sweetheart, I really need to shine. I have to be top in my set, get an outstanding degree. I am counting on you to do that for me, my love”.

Like a love-struck idiot, I nodded. “Leave it to me, Gabby. You will get a double-first.” I didn’t even know if I could make that happen, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. If I kept up the high standard, there was no real reason why that shouldn’t happen.

As she grabbed her things to be ready for the arrival of the taxi, she spoke in a matter of fact way. “Let me have some cash, honey. Save me going to the bank machine. A hundred should do it”. I only had seventy in my wallet, and she took that with a shrug. “Okay, I suppose that will have be enough”.

As the cab drove away, I tried to be angry with myself. I was writing up her course work, paying for her taxis, and now giving her cash. I hadn’t said a single word that even remotely sounded as if I was standing up for myself. I had wanted to ask her what I meant to her. If I meant anything to her at all.

But I was too scared to hear her answer.

When we were next alone at the uni, I tried to be chatty, asking her how the move had gone, and what she thought of the house. How was she getting on with her house-mates. All fair questions, and very normal. Or so I thought. She was not amused.

“Why all the questions? You are getting very clingy, Andy. I don’t like clingy people”.

She left in a huff, and my voice sounded pathetic as I called after her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that”.

Benedict.

The thing about sharing with Gabby was that she was hardly ever there. Unlike me and Mikki, she didn’t seem to have to do much studying, and we had never seen her print off any course work to hand in. Then considering she supposedly had few other friends at uni, she managed to find lots of places to crash overnight.

One good thing about her absences was that Mikki and I got to know each other better, and became more relaxed in each other’s company. I saw a different side of her, vulnerable, socially awkward, and with a lot of goodness and kindness to give to others.

In many ways, she was like a female version of me.

Gabby soon started to skip paying what she owed us too. Her monthly payment for her share of the rent to me was often late, and sometimes didn’t appear at all. That meant me dipping into my student loan to make up the difference, as I really didn’t want them to contact my dad, who was guarantor.

And every time Mikki asked her for her share of the money put on the Key Meters, she brushed it off with the same excuse. “Look, you know my parents are paying my fees, I don’t have a student loan. I depend on them sending the money from abroad, and they take their good time about doing that. Once it comes through, you know I will repay you”.

With hindsight, I appreciate we should have known. We should have stopped it all earlier. But the crazy love we both felt for Gabby clouded our judgement. Besides, you know what they say about hindsight. ‘In hindsight everything is much clearer.’ Looking back now, those evenings with Mikki were mostly spent talking about Gabby. We would start by complaining about her, then both end up defending and excusing her.

Maybe we didn’t want to face our own weaknesses, or perhaps it was because we both truly loved her. We will never know now.

In the classes and lectures, she was shining. The rest of us could only look on in admiration as her work got better and better. More insightful, almost breathtaking in its passion and form. There didn’t seem to be one aspect of the course that she wasn’t on top of, and that she understood with far more clarity than the rest of us. Mikki even suggested she could write a book on modern history, and it would be a best seller.

Mikki got a kiss on the lips for that comment, a really big and soft one.

But she never did get the fifteen pounds Gabby owed her for that month’s gas and electric bills.

By the start of our third and final year, Gabby had repaid small amounts of what she owed both of us. She also spent more time at the Colman Road house in the evenings. Mikki was working almost full-time in the Campus Cafe, and had stopped bothering to ask Gabby for the Key Meter Money. When Gabby spent evenings with us, our eyes lit up, we smiled, and felt contented.

She was funny, she was clever. She brought wine and beer, and sometimes quite exotic food that she tried to cook. Not always successfully. But we ate it anyway, just happy that she was there with us.

Then one weekend, she stayed away again. The atmosphere in the house was flat. Mikki seemed depressed, so I comforted her. Before I really knew what was happening, we were together in her room, making the most of her double bed. Every fantasy both of us had ever envisioned with Gabby was brought to life between us that night. Both virgins at the time, both embarrassed and awkward about our bodies, it took a second night of the same until we were happy to be comfortable around each other.

Suddenly, I had a sexual partner in my life. And it wasn’t Gabby.

It got to the stage when we didn’t actually want Gabby to come home. If she was out, we were together. I didn’t ask Gabby about the money she owed me, and Mikki stopped mentioning the outstanding amount due for gas and electric at all.

Yes, we struggled to pay it all, but I became used to walking Mikki home after her shifts at the cafe, both hoping Gabby would be out again.

By the time the year was coming to an end, we were sharing Mikki’s room, and paying all the bills between us. When Mikki asked me to go home with her to meet her mother, I readily agreed.

And when I finally got to stay at my parents’ place for a week or so, I told them I had a girlfriend.

Michaela.

Gabby was always out. It started to seem pointless to me to share a house with her. Sometimes she would be in all day, but then I was usually working at the cafe, so missed her. I started to think she was avoiding me, but Ben hardly saw her either.

Both of us were rinsing our bank accounts to keep things going, with little help from her. Ben always gave me his share of the key meter money, but he confided in me that Gabby was almost never paying her rent money into his account, and he was using his study loan to pay the difference.

It was making me depressed, but I started to appreciate Ben a lot more. He was always around, always doing the right thing without complaint, and only talking when he knew I needed to talk.

Then one night, we ended up in bed together. I doubt either of us know exactly how that happened, but it was better than I had expected. Tender, caring, and affectionate is how I always remember that night. Then after that, it seemed natural. Rightly or wrongly, I took it that we were together, especially as Ben always slept in my bed when Gabby failed to show up.

It wasn’t too long before we both stopped asking her for money. Our time at uni was drawing to a close, we had each other, and we could put Gabby down to a bad experience, and move on. Pretty much all that was left to do was to complete out final course work, give notice to leave the house and pack our things. Then we would come back to get our degrees at the formal graduation ceremony later.

At that point, Gabby went missing.

Not just failing to show up at the house, really missing. Not attending class, nobody had seen or heard from her, and when it dragged into two days, everyone started to get worried. I spoke to Ben late on that second night, and he looked serious.

“We have to go to the police, Mikki. They report someone missing after twenty-four hours, and it has now been twice that since she showed up anywhere”. We agreed to go to the police station the next morning, then back into uni to tell Mister Donaldson that we had filed a report.

To their credit, the police took us seriously. After all, female students are often targeted by sex attackers or weirdos, and not showing up for class was unusual for Gabby. We gave them a list of the people we knew she sometimes hung out with, and they took a description of her, with a note of what we had last seen her wearing. Then Ben gave them the most recent photo we had from his phone, taken a week earlier.

The man at the desk gave us a reference number, and told us a detective would be in touch soon.

When we got to uni, we went to see Mister Donaldson, but he was busy. So we went to the main office and told the lady in charge about the report. Ben suggested she give Gabby’s parents a ring, to make sure she hadn’t flown home, and she nodded. “Leave it with me. I will start to contact everyone now, including her tutor”. Then we asked around. Most people knew Gabby, even if they were on a different course. She was not the sort of young woman you could forget.

Still, nobody claimed to have seen her, until we ran across Kimberley and asked her. She looked embarrassed. “Gabby? Yeah, she stayed over at my place three nights back. Then she wanted to use my credit card to book a flight. She was a bit upset. I think she had to fly home. Something to do with her family”. Ben phoned the police and updated them with that information. Someone he spoke to said they would check airport departures.

Back at the house that evening when I got in from work, Ben was making a list, trying to think of anyone Gabby had mentioned in the past, and where she might have gone. At the end of the ten o’clock news, the local news came on for our area. They showed Ben’s photo of Gabby, with the headline ‘Concern for missing student’. There was a number to call for anyone with information, and a brief outline of what she might have been wearing. They used her full name, Gabrielle Parker.

The next day, the whole thing became a media circus.

Benedict and Michaela.

We stayed at home that day. There was a van outside with a film crew for the local news, and a couple of reporters holding microphones. They knocked on the door a few times, but we stayed in bed and didn’t answer. Then someone rang my mobile, and I let it go to answerphone. Mikki looked at me, her hair crumpled, and worry on her face.

“You should listen to the message, Ben. It might be about Gabby. Might even be her”.

It was the police, a detective telling me he would be there in an hour, and wanted us to be there to let him in. When he arrived, flanked by two others, the journalists were filming me as I opened the door, and shouting questions that I didn’t take in. The policeman looked tired, as if he had seen too much and wanted to be in any other job but this one.

“I’m Detective Sergeant Wright. My colleagues here would like to search Gabriella’s room while I speak to you and Miss Petersen”. When I had closed the door, Mikki showed the men where Gabby’s room was, and the sergeant accepted my offer to sit down.

“I should tell you now that there has been no trace of Miss Parker, after an exhaustive search. The lead you gave us about plane tickets didn’t work out either. She has not flown out of the country, at least not with any ticket bought using her name, or the name Kimberley Lau. Some CCTV has been searched through, and showed nobody with such a distinctive hairstyle. So if she is moving around anywhere, her head has undoubtedly been covered with a hat of some kind, or perhaps a wig”.

Without her trademark crop, Gabby could easily look like any other young woman of her age in a crowd. I had a feeling the police had their work cut out. Mikki came back downstairs, and sat down next to me on the sofa.

“They want to take Gabby’s laptop and some of her notebooks. Her address book and phone are not there though. They want her hairbrush too, Ben”. The sergeant nodded. “Yes the brush is so we have a sample of her DNA. The laptop and notebooks may reveal if she was in regular contact with anyone she may have met before she went missing. We have to cover all the eventualities, I’m afraid. There will be another television appeal once we can get her mother up to Norwich”.

That comment confused me. “Has her mother already arrived from abroad then? Is her dad in the country too?” He looked confused. “Abroad?” Her mother lives in London, in the borough of Newham. She is currently in hospital after collapsing with an alcohol-related disease. As far as I am aware, there is no father on the scene”. Mikki was as gobsmacked as I was, and after looking at me with her eyebrows raised, she turned to the policeman.

“Are you sure you got that right, sergeant? I mean, Gabby’s family live abroad somewhere. She was brought up in other countries, and didn’t return to England until it was time to start uni. Everyone knows that. I think you must have the wrong contact details”. He checked his notes. “No, we have the correct details. Her mother has not seen her for some years. Gabrielle has been living with her brother in West London, and he has confirmed that her mother is the next of kin. I spoke to him myself”.

Mikki didn’t let it go.

“But she lived all over. Japan, Australia, Singapore. And her brother is dead, killed in an accident on the island of Bali. You must have the wrong information, you must”.

He shook his head. “I have spoken to her brother, as I said. Gabrielle lived in his house with his wife and daughter until she left to come to university in Norwich. She was with his family from the age of thirteen, when a court decided that her alcoholic mother was unfit to care for her”.

As he spoke, I was starting to realise he was right. There had always been something too good to be true about Gabby, and now that truth was coming out, it all began to make sense. I leaned forward, and asked him a serious question.

“Have you spoken to Kimberley Lau, sergeant? I think she could be most helpful”. Then Mikki spoke up.

“Talk to the tutor too, Mister Donaldson. I think they were close. If you know what I mean”.

Detective Sergeant Clive Wright was standing in front of a large whiteboard, addressing the assembled officers sitting on chairs in the briefing room. To his left, his boss stood with her back to the closed door of the room, watching him intently.

It wasn’t so much that Clive resented having a female Inspector in charge of him, but he would have preferred it if she hadn’t been sixteen years younger than him, and so straight it was as if she had a metal rod up her arse.

“Okay, listen up!” Once he had the attention of the ten cops in the room, he pointed at the top photo stuck to the whiteboard.

“Gabrielle Louise Parker. Almost twenty-one, and a student at the UEA. She has now been missing for four days, and has shown no financial or telephonic activity during that time. Nobody she knows has seen or heard from her, and there was no suggestion that she was visiting anyone, or taking a trip somewhere. We now have to seriously consider she may have been abducted, so we are jacking-up the current missing persons investigation into a nationwide search”.

Turning back to the board, he pointed in turn at the other photos.

“Her housemates, Ben Halliday and Michaela Petersen. They reported her missing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know more about what happened. Kimberley Lau, a uni friend who lives in the city. She gave Gabrielle her credit card details, supposedly to book a flight. We have since discovered that seven thousand pounds was taken off the credit card and transferred to a bank account in the name of Gabrielle Parker. Moments later, that was transferred to different account in the name of Louise Parker, which is now empty. Gabby possibly stole that money, or Kimberley did the transfers to make her look guilty. Either way, Kimberley has a motive”.

Inspector Duggan stepped forward and pointed at the board. “Who’s the older guy, Clive?” Trying not to look exasperated at the interruption, he answered.

“I was getting to him, ma’am. Andrew Donaldson, a history lecturer and the tutor for the set containing the other four mentioned. According to Michaela Petersen, he was having a sexual relationship with Gabrielle. We went to see him last night, and at first he denied it. Then when I said we had a sample of Gabrielle’s DNA and could swab his whole house, he broke down and admitted an affair. It’s not illegal of course, but he acted like we were going to lock him up, and throw away the key. He agreed to a search of his house and property, and we found nothing of interest”.

Clive stopped to pull his trousers up before continuing. He had lost a full size around his waist, and wasn’t even trying to diet.

“So matey-boy is definitely a suspect, as he is the only one we know for sure was shagging her”. He didn’t see his boss wince at the crude word. Clive was old school, and as far as Duggan was concerned, he was well past his use-by date.

“So, the next thing we do is to get all of them in for interviews under caution. They can have a solicitor in with them of course, but I tend to think none of them will bother. Gabrielle’s photo and description has been circulated to other forces nationally, and also to Border Force, the National Crime Agency, and Interpol. We have also issued an international arrest warrant for her. If she shows up anywhere, she can be detained on the credit card fraud. Then at least we will know she’s alive. Her mum is still in hospital with DTs, so no good her doing an appeal. Her brother has agreed to come up from London, and we will do the appeal on BBC Look East tomorrow evening at six-thirty”.

Duggan stepped forward again.

“I think I should be on that, Clive. You know, senior officer and all that. I will take any questions and make the appeal on behalf of the force”. Clive nodded. He had expected as much. Then she took over the end of the briefing.

“Right, thank you, Clive. Good work so far everyone, now let’s get to it and find this girl. Alive if possible, or her body if not”.

Steve James had a nose for a story. He had worked for one of the serious papers when he started out, but the lure of better money had drawn him to the biggest-selling tabloid less than five years later. He made a name for himself there, always got the byline.

There was no low he wouldn’t stoop to in his lust for a lurid scoop. He would go through rubbish bins, bribe people, blackmail people, scan phone signals and online activity, and had even been known to commit a burglary looking for hidden photographs.

Nobody liked him, and he didn’t care.

He got the job done, sold the papers, and received the fat bonus cheques. He had slept with ugly women twice his age to get the dirt on someone, and on one occasion had even had sex with a man so he could write about the unfortunate guy and his ‘Gay secret life’. He was a hack at best, journalistic pond life at worst.

Four marriages later, and living in a run-down bedsit in Stockwell, he had finally fallen foul of one of the owners of the newsgroup that owned his paper, after revealing that the man’s addict daughter was selling herself to buy crack.

To nail the story, he photographed himself having sex with her for her drug money. Although he didn’t show his face, the editor knew full well it was him, and he got his marching orders. Time to move to the provinces, where he could exchange the bedsit for a decent one-bed garden flat in Norwich, and where the editor of the local paper didn’t know that much about his reputation.

Plus now they were online too, and posted videos. Steve discovered a talent for being in front of the camera.

Trouble was, it was as dull as dishwater. Council meetings, road safety on the A47, and standing doing a talking head about how snow was affecting the traffic while he froze his plums off in the dark, to be live on the website.

Schools closed when the heating broke down, old ladies protesting about changes in the pension laws, with only the occasional stabbing or dead body in the river to liven things up.

One good thing was that he had built contacts. Ther was hardly anyone working in the business that he didn’t know. Okay, they didn’t like him, and didn’t want to have anything to do with him. But without exception, he had some dirt stored away on all of them, no matter how dusty and ancient that skeleton in their closet was. So when the need arose, he could make a call. Coppers, Council officials, the mayor, anyone he came across seemed to either owe him a favour, or be afraid of being exposed.

The real icing on the cake was his new girlfriend. He had met her on a work leaving do, during a night out in the city. She was with a hen party, and they were all pissed as farts. Steve and two others had copped off with the three older women in the group, and to his surprise, Sarah had come back for more. She was a fat girl with a nice face, just his type. Not too full of herself, and short a boyfriend for years. She didn’t care about the ten year age gap, and after six months, she had readily agreed to move in with him.

The best bit about Sarah was that she talked a lot. Where her job was concerned, that was pure gold.

She worked as a 999 call-taker at Police Headquarters in Wymondham. Twelve hour shifts, four days a week. And she loved to tell Steve about the calls she received, or the ongoing investigations that she was asked to do record checks for. If it ever occurred to her that he would make use of that information, she never showed any indication of that. Even when things she told him supposedly in confidence appeared in the newspaper the following day.

If there was one thing Steve really loved to have, it was a stupid girlfriend. Especially one who had three days off to clean the flat, do the shopping, and make sure he was well-served with regular sex. If she was in a mood, he only had to gee her up with his London accent, and she would melt. “Stevie, I loves your accent, I really does”.

Now she had come home with a potentially great story. A missing girl known for putting it about with men and women. Plenty of suspects who had been checked out, money that had been swindled, and the best part of any story, sex.

He was on it like a car bonnet.

Steve was all over that story like a rash. Between his contacts in the police, and his girlfriend’s job, he was able to find out the names and addresses of everyone connected to Gabby and her disappearance. He already knew this was going to be bigger than a regional newspaper, so made a call to someone he knew in London to sell the exclusive story to a popular daily tabloid.

Not the one he had worked for previously of course, his bridges were burned there.

Telling his editor he had a lead, to excuse his absence from the newsroom, he worked more or less for himself from then on. Giving away a byline so as not to reveal his idenitity, he drip-fed his sensationalist coverage to the London tabloid, delighted to see it make national news. It was even quoted on the TV news channels, and if he kept it up, he just knew he would be back in the big time. The headlines began to have traction.

“University Tutor In Love Triangle”
“Bisexual Seductress Goes Missing”
“Where Is The Mysterious Sex-Siren Gabby?”
“Gabby’s Alcohol Addicted Mum’s Criminal Past”.

In less than a week, Andrew Donaldson’s career was in ruins. Gabby’s mum was hounded by the press waiting ouside the hospital, and Kimbeley Lau was shut away in her riverside flat, terrified of being named and her parents finding out. Ben and Mikki thought they had escaped notoriety, until Steve turned up at the house and they refused to talk to him. The next day, they were named in the national tabloid, and the toe-curling headline screamed “Shared House Of Sex. What Went On There?”

Then Kimberley’s world ended as a new headline was reviewed on a TV channel. “Lesbian Lover Pays For Gabby’s Disappearance. Why?” She was named too, and there was a zoomed-in photo of her flat.

At the local newspaper, Steve’s editor had seen enough, and called him in to discuss his future. But Steve resigned over the phone, telling the man to shove his job. That evening, Sarah packed her stuff and moved back to her mum’s. The penny had finally dropped, and she was also under investigation at work.

As far as Steve was concerned, he didn’t care in the least. He was heading for success again, and would soon be back in London.

For the police investigating, Steve’s gutter journalism was making life hard. Inspector Duggan was on the warpath, trying to find out who was leaking information. Tracing some of the computer checks back to an operator at headquarters, they suspended the woman involved, pending investigation and possible criminal charges. But for some reason, Duggan became convinced that Clive Wright was the one giving stuff to the press, and she set about looking into his life without letting him know of her suspicions.

While all this was going on, there was still not one solid lead about where Gabby might be.

To get her out of the limelight, Kimberley’s mum and dad came to get her. There was to be no graduation ceremony for her, she could get her degree in the post for all they cared. And they were not interested in bringing charges against Gabby for the missing money, or the two thousand she had borrowed previously. Mr Lau would swallow that loss, anything to avoid bringing more shame on his family.

The day after she got home, Kim stopped eating again.

Losing Sarah’s inside information was annoying for Steve, but he already knew enough to make up the rest, and in the spirit of true trash journalism, he set about inventing anything to keep the story going. Kim’s flat was described as a ‘Lesbian Love-Nest’, and Andrew’s house as ‘The Cottage Of Sin’. With people in his village shunning him, and also being asked to leave his job voluntarily or be sacked, Andrew was in hiding in a rented caravan at Caister, on the east coast of the county.

After evaluating all his remaining options, he concluded that he was going to have to work abroad, Once the dust settled, and the police allowed him to leave the country.

Because the credit card company was still happy to have the charges against Gabby outstanding, the warrant for her arrest held. Public sightings of her following the appeal were still coming in thick and fast. Any female under thirty with cropped hair was in the frame, and dozens of them had been questioned by police forces all over Britain.

Including a twenty-eight year old woman who had lost her hair following chemotherapy.

With Steve’s nonsense keeping the story on page two at least, Clive was sitting in the office one afternoon when Inspector Duggan arrived, looking like a bulldog chewing a wasp.

“Sarge, I’m taking you off the Parker case, effective immediately”.

Benedict.

One more thing Gabby managed to ruin for us was graduation. Talk around the uni was that her degree would not be awarded, as it was being investigated. They were comparing her course work with the style and content of Andrew Donaldson, and it looked like she would be accused of cheating. That would mean no qualification for her, and a lifetime of living down her reputation. As for Mister Donaldson, he was already gone, and nobody knew where he was hiding.

We were not going back for the graduation ceremony. Too many eyes staring at us, whispers behind hands. And no doubt the press would be there, milking the last drops of scandal left in the story It was all too much for our parents, though the thing that upset my mum most was finding out I had been calling myself Benedict. “What was wrong with the name I gave you? That really hurt me, Ben”.

Mikki came to stay at my parents’ place before going home to her mum. Dad said we might as well share my bed, seeing as we had been doing that in Norwich anyway. I suppose we saw ourselves as a long-term couple from then on, and it just didn’t occur to us to imagine life with someone else. We stopped talking about Gabby too. If we had got into that again, we would have ended up having to admit we were both still in love with her.

I tried to contact Kimberley Lau through Facebook, but she had made her page private. We both felt sorry for her, though the main emotion was jealousy, to be honest. Kim had managed to go to the next level with Gabby, something Mikki and me had only ever dreamt about.

Four weeks after we got our degrees in the post, Mikki applied for teacher training, to become a primary school teacher. She was so pleased to be accepted, I went down and visited her at her mum’s. I had to sleep on the sofa that weekend though. Her mum was old-fashioned in that way. I had no idea what I wanted to do. The events of those final few months had messed with my head, but I had to do something to start earning a living.

That’s how I found myself working for a bank, in the call centre for their online customers, offering tech support. That was about as far removed from my earlier ambitions as I could have imagined. But the money was good.

Steve James was not one to let a story die. The Missing posters might have fallen off the lamp-posts and trees, and no newspaper in the entire country was still interested in his story, but he would not let go. Like a terrier shaking a dead rat, he kept on at his contacts, and went the extra mile to shake up anyone remotely involved with Gabby.

Turning up at the Lau house early one morning, he took photos as he shouted questions at her surprised father. When the door was slammed in his face, he took photos of the closed door. Then he climbed over the side gate and took photos of the windows at the back of the house, smiling as he decided which one he would claim to be Kimberley’s bedroom.

His favourite moment was when he discovered that Gabby’s mum had been discharged from hospital. He drove to London, found her flat, and knocked on the door holding a litre bottle of vodka up to the spy-hole. As he suspected, she let him in. Then once half of the bottle had gone, he had her on his voice recorder, slurring all the sordid details of her own past, and Gabby’s too.

With the money running out and needing to do something fast, he took that story to the tabloid editor. Adding some photos taken on his phone showing the state of the flat inside, and the state of the alcoholic woman slumped almost in a coma, wearing only a filthy, flimsy nightdress. They ran with it, dragging in the entire backstory, and making it look like it was all Gabby’s mum’s fault.

When he got back to Norwich, Steve took stock. Not enough money to make the move yet, and the last story didn’t get the traction he had hoped. It never even got a mention on the telly news, and only a couple of other newspaper websites ran it. Not for the first time in his life, he was wondering where to go next. Then his phoned pinged, a message alert.

It was a long-lens close-up photo of a woman sitting on the decking of one of those log-cabin lodges that you see in holiday parks. She had brown hair, and was wrapped up in an oversized dressing gown.

She could have been anyone, except for those lips like little pillows.

Steve read the message under the photo, which was all written in caps.

£500 CASH FOR THE ADDRESS. YOU GOT 24 HOURS. TEXT BACK.

Douglas.

Steve replied to the text immediately, and was rewarded with a postcode, a name, and a short message.

PH6 2JZ. I’M DOUGLAS. BRING CASH. COME THURSDAY. SIX PM. CAR PARK.

Looking up the postcode, he found it referred to Crieff, in Scotland. The name of the place was Riverside Log Cabins. That was a drive of over four hundred miles, taking close to eight hours, and the cabins were literally in the middle of nowhere. His first thought was to question if he needed to pay Douglas at all. The Scottish bloke had given away the location, so if he just went there and hung around, he was sure to spot Gabby eventually.

Then again, she might be somewhere else entirely. So Steve had to go for it, and give this idiot the cash he had asked for if it came to it. He replied that he would be there, and left it at that.

Douglas grinned when he saw the text. That reporter had published his phone number in the newspaper, offering a cash reward for information about the missing girl. He had noticed her right off, when she turned up in a taxi and asked to rent a lodge. He had been sweeping up as usual, but listened in as she spoke to Mister MacIntyre. Douglas like to watch the news, and he liked taking photographs too. Especially of the women who used the hot tubs that came with the lodges. The big lens on his camera had cost him more than a month’s wages, second-hand.

But it had been so worth the expense.

His mum had been angry. “Dougie, you are a general hand up there. Why do you want to be spending so much money on cameras and such like?” He had just ignored her. One day it would come good, and not just the topless ladies. There would be something special. And now there was.

The five hundred was just the start. Douglas had lots of photos of the girl. Topless in the hot tub. Naked as she dropped her dressing-gown to get in it. Sitting on the decking in skimpy underwear. He would tell this London reporter he could buy each one for fifty pounds. If he bought the ten good ones, that would be a thousand in total. More than he took home for a month at work.

With that much extra cash, he could buy the camera he really wanted. Okay, it would be second hand. But what a camera.

Steve did the drive in one day, only stopping for petrol and a coffee. He was there just after five, sitting in his car in the site car park, waiting to be approached. In the back was a holdall, with enough clean clothes to last him four days. He had no accommodation booked anywhere. If it came to it, he would drive down some country lane and sleep in his car.

The fat kid was wearing a logo-emblazoned polo shirt that was far too tight. His hair fell over his eyes, which were made small by the fat on his face. His legs rubbed together in the joggers as he walked to the car. Steve smiled, This was Douglas, one hundred percent. Opening the window, he kicked things off.

“You Douglas? Well you get no money until I know it’s her. That’s standard, so don’t argue or I drive home. Get in the car.”

Watching as he heaved his bulk into the passenger seat, Steve relaxed. This was going to be easy. “So, big-boy, what you got for me?”

Reaching for his phone, Douglas showed the photos, including the nudes. “This is definitely her, you know, Gabrielle. Look, here she is topless, and here nude, but the photos are fifty quid each, on top of the five hundred you owe me. She’s in Cabin Six. That one, straight in front of us”. Steve felt delight rush over him. The idiot had given it all away for sod all. He shook his head. “Okay, fat boy. Piss off out my car and go home to mummy. I’m not interested. I have been driving since before breakfast, and I’m in a shitty mood, believe me.”

Confused, Douglas didn’t know what to do. But this man was very aggressive, and he wasn’t used to that. Plus he was older, and looked very angry.

So he got out of the car, and went to get his bike to ride home on.

Gabrielle Louise Parker.

As he walked across to the cabin, the door opened and a young woman walked out, smoking a cigarette. Steve straightened up, adopting his most determined stance. She shook her head, and smiled at him.

“You took your time mate! I was expecting you to show up at least a week ago. I gave that fat boy enough chances to take photos of me, but he dragged his heels getting in touch with you. Come in, and we can have a drink”.

It was not often that Steve was caught on the back foot, but he stopped walking and found himself nodding like some dumb bloke. Then he followed her in through the open door and closed it behind him. The brown wig had gone, and the cropped hair hadn’t grown back that much. Her mouth still looked so inviting, and the gentle curves under her clothes made him fully aware why so many people had fallen under her spell.

He was not about to join them, that was for sure.

“Vodka alright? It’s all I got anyway, so take it or leave it”. Steve reached out and took the glass. He still hadn’t spoken, hardly able to get over the shock that she had been expecting him.

“Sit yourself down mate. You’ve had a long drive. Then I will tell you what’s gonna happen”. Her accent was harsh, a sure sign that she had gone back to her roots in London, and was no longer adopting that international unspecified English that people had described to him. “I got a microwave spaghetti thing if you’re hungry?” Steve was famished, but shook his head. He wanted to get on with it. So he let her talk.

“Tomorrow, we are going to take your car and go to Perth. That’s the nearest big place worth seeing anyway. I have the name of a solicitor there, and I’m sure he will be capable of drawing up a legally-binding contract for us both to sign. There are two spare rooms in this dump, so you can kip down in either of them when you want to. You will get twenty percent, non-negiotiable. I’m not talking about some crappy paper headline either. This will be a book, maybe a film, at least a mini-series on the telly. You can use all your contacts to tell my story. You are going to make me famous, but not just as the girl who disappeared from university”.

Steve downed half the vodka, and felt it warm him up. Gabby took his silence as agreement, and carried on talking.

“Took me six years to plan this. I had it in mind since I was hardly fifteen. People get famous for doing shit these days, and I have done stuff that will sell books and make people interested in me, you wait and see. You want that spaghetti thing or what?” He knew he had to eat, so nodded. She brought it back still in the container, resting on a tea plate with a fork to eat it with.

As he ate, trying not to gulp it down, Gabby carried on.

“You tape it all, I won’t keep anything back. Then you find someone to write it up, just as I told it. You can add stuff about those losers at uni later, to round it off nicely like. Then tout it around your contacts. I want a real book deal with an advance, and all the options on everything from film rights, to DVD sales, and any merchandise. I want a say in who plays me in the film or on telly, and some control over the script, so they don’t make me out to be nuffin I ain’t. Okay?”

Swallowing a mouthful of the chicken carbonara, he nodded again. Christ, this girl was the real deal, and no mistake.

“How much did the fat boy want for the address?” Steve held up five fingers as he chewed. “Five hundred, what a mug. Bet you gave him nuffin anyway. Good. We can use that cash to pay the solicitor. I need to hang on to what’s left of Kim’s money, and I need to extend the stay here so we can get to work. You might have to buy some clean underwear in Perth tomorrow, ’cause we ain’t going nowhere until it’s all signed and sealed”.

That night as he tried to get to sleep on the single bed in the tiny spare room, Steve was smiling.

She was his kind of woman.

On the way to Perth the next morning, Steve managed to get Gabby to increase his share to twenty-five percent. But when she looked out of the window and smiled, he had the feeling he had only got what she had intended to give him from the start.

The solicitor was good at his job. He created a front company, with Gabby shown as holding three-quarters controlling interest, and Steve the rest. Gabby named it Parker Productions, and registered the name separately. It was all registered in Scotland, so nobody snooping around in London or Norwich would get wind of anything. They both signed in front of witnesses, and received their own copies in large brown envelopes. Steve paid the bill in cash, including the company registration fee.

On the way back to Crieff, they stopped at a supermarket to stock up for the rest of the week, and Steve bought some casual clothes and that underwear Gabby had mentioned.

After an early dinner, Gabby lit a cigarette and sat back on the only comfortable chair in the cabin. “Right then. Fire up your recorder, and let’s get started”. Steve switched on the digital voice recorder, opened an A4 notebook he had bought, and grabbed a pen to make notes as she started talking.

“So try to imagine. You don’t know your dad, and your mum doesn’t even remember who he is. Your brother is fourteen years older than you, and has a different dad. Your mum is drunk all the time. I have never seen her sober. Not once. I am more or less brought up by my brother. He does the washing, the shopping, and gives me my meals. When I am old enough, he takes me to school, and I have to wait at a strange woman’s house until he collects me. The electric and gas keep getting cut off because mum don’t pay the bills on time. So I mostly eat sandwiches, and sleep in my brother’s bed to keep warm.”

Steve is scribbling away, and she waits until he stops.

“Then I am seven years old. My brother is twenty-one, and has been working as a carpenter since he was sixteen. He’s had enough. He wants to get out, to get away. He is sick of having to look after me, sick of the men who mum lets into the flat every night, and sick of not getting a decent night’s sleep. He tells me he is leaving. He has met a girl, and they are going to move out of London. He’s found a job, and I have to look after myself from now on. He tells me how to get the money for food from her purse when she is drunk, and shows me how to take the key meters to the shop so I don’t run out of gas and electric. I should also keep money hidden to buy food for myself on the way home from school. The next day, he’s gone”.

She stopped to light a cigarette, and pour herself a good shot of vodka.

“Three months off my eighth birthday, and I am supposed to be the lady of the house. Use the washing machine, iron my clothes that need it, get myself up for school, and eat something on the way home so I’m not left hungry later. When I feel ill, no point telling mum. She’s drunk, or nasty ’cause she ain’t got no booze in. She’s waiting for one of her blokes to bring the drink, then I have to go and hide in my room or she will shag the geezer in front of me. Not exactly a normal life so far, eh? But it gets much worse, you wait and see”.

Over the years, Steve had heard so many similar sob-stories, this was nothing new to him. But he could tell from Gabby’s tone of voice that this back story was important to her, so he just nodded and carried on making notes.

“The one saving grace for me was that I was actually clever. I found school easy, and got good reports. Not that mum ever went to a parent’s evening of course, she would always say she was ill, or having to work. And she never worked, as long as I knew her. The first time one of her blokes came into my room, I was petrified. I think I was ten, it was definitely before I went to secondary school, I know that. I didn’t scream or fight him when he started touching me, I knew mum wouldn’t help me if I did. Afterwards, he gave me a ten-pound note and said I was a good girl. But then mum came into the room and took the tenner off me, heading out to the shop to buy booze with it”.

For a while, she stopped talking and stared into space, like she was remembering something.

“Then there was a bloke in my room most nights. Sometimes, mum was too drunk to steal the money so I kept it. That was how I paid for my uniform when I went to the big school”.

This was meat and drink for Steve. The more Gabby talked, the better he liked what he heard. The alcoholic mum pimping her out for a bottle of vodka, a child left alone to fend for herself. He may have heard it all before, but added to what happened more recently, he knew he could turn the whole thing into a tear-jerker of a soap opera, and no mistake. They stayed up late that night, as Gabby carried on talking.

“The only time I could shake my mum out of it was when I had to be interviewed for acceptance at my new school. A parent had to accompany me, or questions would have been asked. I didn’t want to end up in a Children’s Home. No matter how shit my life was at home, at least I had some control. Being shut up in a home was not on my agenda. I told mum that if she didn’t shape up and come with me, they might arrest her for child neglect and take away her social security money. She looked a complete mess on the day, and had to hold my arm to stay upright, but she was able to nod in the right places, and remembered to say thank you to the head teacher as we left.
On the way home, I made her buy me some panty pads, as I had started my period while we were at the school for the interview.
I only knew about periods from other girls talking, mum had never even mentioned it. She bought me one packet, and used the rest of the money to buy a half-bottle of vodka. That night I had to eat three bags of crisps for dinner. I had hidden them under my bed”.

Trying to imagine how bad her mum must have looked almost made Steve grin, but he suppressed it. Gabby sounded genuinely upset.

“I got into the school of my choice because I was clever, and they liked to have bright pupils. Then like I said, I used the money from the blokes to buy the new uniform. I also learned a good trick, which was to tell the blokes who came into my room that I had my period. That stopped most of them, but not all.
When they saw I wasn’t taking any packed lunch into school, they arranged for me to get free school meals. I forged my mum’s signature on the form, and then at least I was able to start eating properly.
I made a couple of friends too, and managed to persuade one girl’s mum to come to the dentist with me. Over that first year, I got my teeth sorted out properly for the first time. Despite my age, I was more like someone much older. I had determination, and started to develop courage too. When the blokes came into my room after that, I would tell them twenty quid or nothing, and I would tell some teacher at school about them if they said no. It wasn’t long before I was saving a hundred a week, and eating better too. I managed to do that without me mum finding out, but I sometimes had to give her some cash for drink”.

Steve had a question. “What about your brother? Did you see anything of him?” She shrugged.

“He rang the house phone one night and asked how I was. My twelfth birthday was coming up, so I hadn’t seen him for four years. I answered it because mum was out cold. I was very off with him, but he gave me his number and address, told me not to tell mum anything, then said he would send me some money in a birthday card. He came good on that, sent me twenty in a card, and I got to it before mum opened it.
That was when I started to tell other girls at school that he lived in Australia, and went on holiday to Bali. I got invited to their houses sometimes for sleepovers, but nobody could ever come to where I lived. I just told them my mum was bad-tempered, and wouldn’t allow friends to visit. One weekend I stayed at Polly Machin’s house until Sunday night, and my mum didn’t even ask where I had been. I doubt she even noticed I wasn’t there”.

Closing the notebook, Steve yawned loudly. “Time for me to hit the hay, Gabby”.

The next morning, Gabby was up early, keen to continue. She knocked on Steve’s door.

“Get up and get dressed. There’s tea and toast ready, you can have a shower tonight. I want to get more stuff down on tape”.

Not usually a morning person, Steve decided to play along. He was already liking what he had been hearing so far, and was becoming keen to discover more about how Gabby had worked that plan out so long before implementing it. He had the recorder going and his notebook ready before he had even had one bite of the now lukewarm toast.

“By the time I got to fourteen, I was working hard at school, still running things at home, and had got rid of most of the blokes who wanted to come into my room. I kept a couple of regulars on the hook, ’cause they paid the most. I moved the telly into my room, as mum never watched it anyway, so I shut myself in there and watched a lot of crap. The main thing I noticed was how some horrible slags were becoming celebrities. Fat girls who had lost weight, thin girls who had got fat, slags who shagged guys on reality telly shows like Big Brother and Love Island. Those whores were turning up all over the place. Even Mastermind had contestants described as Influencers, and even though they were as thick as shit, they still got their performance fee”.

Steve was scribbling down random notes like Influencers and You Tube, as Gabby droned on.

“Now don’t get me wrong. Men are shit. All men, bar none, including you. Shit, pure and simple. But now there were girls and young women who would shag anyone for fame. Not only that, they went on telly documentaries boo-hooing about having issues like Bulimia and Anorexia. Then the next day they were posting on You Tube and Instagram about how you needed to have painted on eyebrows and lip-plumping to get a boyfriend. You know the sort, I’m sure. It wasn’t long before I found out that some unspeakable chav in Essex had over four million followers on social media, and was earning ten grand a month just for looking fat in leggings and posting tips about make-up”.

Smiling, Steve agreed. “Oh yeah, the cult of non-celebrity, I did a piece on that”. Gabby ignored him as she carried on.

“So I thought I can do that, and can do it better than them no-nuffings. But it needed a proper plan, and I was too busy with my school work to have time to do that. Then the penny dropped. I didn’t need to do the school work, if I exploited my situation. It was obvious to me at fourteen that some of the teachers fancied me. Not just the men teachers, some of the women too. I was already cutting my own hair really short, as I couldn’t afford to go to a hairdresser. My curves were developing nicely, and my tits were already bigger than most of the girls in the school. I knew what to do, and set about doing it”.

The toast was cold by now, but Steve ate it anyway. Then he slurped down the rest of his tea.

“The women were the easiest, as it turned out. Hang back after a lesson, look sad, and they come up to you, asking what’s wrong. A few crocodile tears, a cuddle that lasted a bit too long, then that eye to eye contact that lets you know they’re interested. Most of them were married, but I was their fantasy. As for the real lezzers, they were putty in my hands. They suggested extra lessons, two of them even invited me to their houses to do those lessons. It was so easy just to end up in bed with them. I preferred them to men anyway, to be honest. But then they had completely ballsed up their careers, so when I told them they had to do my course work, they had no choice. Same with the men teachers, who were looking at serious prison time if I blabbed. Honestly, Steve, I can’t begin to tell you how easy it was. Underage sex is like a drug to those bastards”.

Making a fresh cup of tea, Steve could not help smiling. “If we do this, we will have to name all of them, you okay with that?”

Gabby replied before he got back with the tea.

“You can bet your life. They all deserve what they get”.

After lunch, Steve had some questions for Gabby before they went back to her story.

“So how is it that those teachers didn’t find out about you having a relationship with the others at the same school? I mean, staff-room gossip and all that. And how did you manage to get money if your mum was on benefits and you had stopped taking money off the drunks for sex?”

Gabby lit a cigarette, and smiled.

“Over the years until I left school, there were four women teachers, and two men. How they didn’t find out about the others, I don’t know. You would have to ask them. Most of the time it was a quick session in a parked car, or locked in a stockroom when everyone had gone home and before the cleaners turned up. They all gave me presents too, or money to buy myself something. So added to what I could pinch out of my mum’s purse, I had enough to get by, to get new uniform, underwear, tights, shoes, and make-up. I didn’t have many other casual clothes, and that wasn’t a problem as I usually only hung out with other girls straight from school”.

That seemed to satisfy Steve, and he jotted down a few notes before asking her something else.

“And how did you manage to do so well at the lessons? Were they fiddling your paperwork and homework, or what?”

She leaned forward, flicking the ash from the cigarette into her empty teacup.

“You keep forgetting I am actually clever. I didn’t need too much help, just couldn’t be arsed with too much study. So they told me what tests were going to be about in advance, gave me tips on what to write, what to feature as bullet points, and how long it should be to look convincing. They told me to make some mistakes deliberately, so it didn’t look too fishy. But once the O-levels were coming up, I had dropped some subjects like all the science stuff, and concentrated on English, History, and Geography. I had to do maths too, that was compulsory. I was shit at Maths, but fortunately Miss Devine was the teacher, and I knew she was crazy about me. She was so easy to pull, it was laughable”.

Steve’s interest was piqued.

“Miss Devine, eh. Tell me more about her. Was she a lesbian? How old was she?”

Stubbing out the cigarette in the cup, Gabby grinned.

“I could almost feel sorry for her, but only almost. She was from Northern Ireland originally, you know, with that accent you see on the news when there’s trouble there. I reckon she must have been close to fifty, as she looked really old-fashioned. One day I waited behind after the lesson, looked really upset, and told her I was going to completely fail Maths if she didn’t help me. It was like she had been waiting for the moment, I swear I saw her lick her lips before she answered. She said she could give me extra lessons at her house at weekends. But only if I didn’t tell anyone about it. She lived in the suburbs of course, not in the crap area where I went to school. She gave me directions from the closest bus stop to her house, and even slipped me five quid for the return fare. I didn’t tell her I had a free bus pass”.

With his pen moving fast on the notebook, Steve just nodded. “And you went of course?”

“Course I went. Saturday morning I arrived just after nine, to find she had breakfast ready to serve up. She went through the motions after, sitting on her sofa with lots of maths books open on her coffee table, telling me how to solve problems I had no chance of remembering. I pretended to be listening, then hit her with some more fake depression. Her arm went round me to comfort me, and five minutes later we were at it on the sofa, followed by a full-on session in her bedroom.
Then Sunday we didn’t even bother to pretend, and stayed in bed most of the day. She said the next weekend I could come on Friday evening, stay until Monday morning, and she would drop me off in a side street behind the school. She was completely in love with me, and totally hooked. Then it was every weekend for months after that”.

He had stopped writing, and as he looked at Gabby, his expression was sheer admiration.

“Angela Devine used to call me her precious girl. I let her believe I would move in with her once I had finished at uni, and she did anything for me. Bought me stuff, gave me spending money. She steered me in the right direction for the exam questions, and showed me tricks to remember how to solve the problems. I got a decent pass mark in the exam, then dropped the subject for A-level and dumped her. She couldn’t say anything about that of course, could she?”

Checking his watch, Steve closed his notebook and switched off the recorder. “Time for dinner, I reckon”.

The next morning, it wasn’t long before Gabby got busy with finishing off her back story.

“Well the girl did good. Four A-levels, with one of the top marks in the country for History, courtesy of many hours spent on the back seat of Mister Goddard’s car. I could have applied to one of the top universities, but I was happy enough to go to Norwich. After all, I knew I was never going to graduate, so it made no difference where I went.
With no chance of any money from my mum, I took the student loan to get by, arranged accommodation in Student Halls, and before I went I set about creating a whole new Gabby. A different person. I watched films to get the accent just right, and spent the summer holidays reading books and websites about the various countries I was going to have claimed to have lived in. The icing on the cake was having the complete hair-crop, which I knew would make me stand out from day one. As for what happened next, well you know that already”.

Steve checked his notes. “So, I can fill in the rest, even give Fat Boy some credit for grassing you up so I could find you. Then we start the modern-day tragedy. The abused girl who dragged herself out of her slum roots. Having to exchange sexual favours to get a good education, inventing a fictitious family so you wouldn’t be ashamed of your past. Then you couldn’t stand that any longer, so skipped before the end of year, and missed graduation. Of course, once this comes out, there can be no degree, and they may even take back your educational qualifications, all of them. As for the people you have named, they are in deep shit, Careers over, possible arrest for historical child abuse, trial by media followed by an actual trial. This is going to drag on for years”.

Gabby was rubbing her hands together and chuckling. “Serve them all right, the bastards.”

Closing the notebook, Steve was nodding in agreement. “Okay, so we have to think about packing up and getting out of Scotland. Every one of my contacts is London-based, so no point staying up here in Jock-Land. You can come back with me to Norwich and stay at my flat. You will have to stay inside though. God forbid anyone spots you before we break the story. And before you say anything, I will be sleeping on the sofa. You can have my room”.

When she got back from settling the bill at the site office, Steve was already packed. “What about the fat kid? Do you reckon he will try to sell your location to any other paper or TV station?”. Gabby shrugged. “I almost forgot about him. Give me ten minutes and I will go and find him”.

Almost twenty minutes had passed when she got back. “I took him over to the car park and told him if he tells anyone about me I will go to the police and say he raped me after taking obscene photos of me. I suggested he would be better off resigning today, and going home. I said if I heard he was working here tomorrow, I would be going to the big police station in Perth to report him. He turned very pale, and his lip was quivering. I reckon he probably pissed his pants too”.

She was packed and ready in record time, and they were soon headed south for the long drive back to Steve’s. Gabby slept in the car for a long time, waking up when they were near Nottingham. “Do you need petrol yet? I could do with a toilet, and I’m starving too. Find a place to eat, some services or whatever. I have my wig in this bag, so will put that on before we go inside”. Steve was about to say that her story was old news by now, and it was unlikely that anyone would notice her. But he thought better of that. Best to leave her edgy, that would make everything more convincing.

It was dark by the time they got to Norwich. Gabby was unimpressed with the flat that Steve thought was actually quite smart. She sniffed the bed. “S’pose this will do for now. You will have to go out in the morning and get me some cigarettes, real coffee, and something decent to eat. If I’m gonna be stuck in this place for weeks, I expect to be well looked after”.

Steve got busy on day one. A ghost-writer was contacted to prepare a synopsis and a rough draft based on Steve’s notes and recordings. He would drop them off at the woman’s place in North London before the end of the week. He wanted a woman to write it up, as he was sure the female perspective would sell better.

By early evening, Steve had a promise from a literary agent for Gabby, as well as two definite interests in a book deal if it read right. Despite his journalistic background, he knew better than to try to tout the story to any newspaper so soon. Far better to wait for the book publication date, and use any press or TV coverage to sell-on the book.

Gabby proved to be easy to please. Steve invested in a coffee percolator, lots of her favourite cigarettes, and good quality snack foods that kept her happy. She kept adding some snippets that she had missed earlier, leaving him to phone the ghost-writer to embellish some details. Steve knew it was going to cost him now, but that outlay would be recouped ten-fold later. This was going to be his Olympic Gold project, the one that would cement his name in tabloid history.

He had no doubts. None whatsoever.

The rest of the world slumbered on peacefully, unaware of the journalistic and literary bombshell he was concocting in his mundane Norwich flat. He couldn’t help himself speculating on his future earnings. Gabby would get a twenty-grand advance against future sales on the book deal. If they took the film rights internationally, that might mean as much as fifty grand, paid once shooting began. Then there was the eventual book sales for a best-seller, appearance fees on every chat show and magazine programme on telly. And he has a quarter of that action.

As he spent his money like water, he had no concerns. It would all come good eventually.

For Gabby, life was comfortable. Not allowed to go out in case she was identified, she lazed around and made the most of the leisure time. Steve got her whatever she needed, and never once asked for any money. Even if he had, she could have told him she wasn’t allowed to go to any banks or bank machines. His rules, not hers. If he was keeping an accounting of expenses, expecting some reimbursement, he would be sorely disappointed. That twenty-five percent was all he would get.

If he even got that.

One day, Steve returned with the news that her mum was back in hospital again. “She is supposedly critical, and in need of a liver transplant. It seems unlikely that she will qualify for a donor, seeing as she has been a drunk since she was sixteen”. Gabby was not at all bothered. She opened the Chianti she had asked him to get, and shrugged.

“I hope the old bitch dies, I really do. Then she can rot in hell for what she did to me”. Steve was already on the telephone, arranging for a contact in East London to get a photo of Gabby’s mum on a ventilator. When he received the good news that it was done, he gave Gabby a thumbs-up. “It’s in the bag, we can probably use that in the book”.

There might have been some inkling in the back of Steve’s mind that he would eventually have sex with Gabby. But she soon shut that down.

“You are getting very familiar around me. Shut the bathroom door when you are in there, I don’t want to see you except fully-dressed. And stop sitting so close to me when we are in the living room. I don’t like it, and don’t want it. Don’t forget you are no better than all other men, Steve. You are shit, as far as I am concerned”.

He didn’t get annoyed when she said that stuff. One day, he would get that payday, and more importantly, some recognition. Then he could have any bimbo he wanted on his arm. But he knew he was going to have to put up with Gabby for many months yet. The story had to die completely, before it could be resurrected as a success.

Just like Jesus. Nobody cared about him until the third day.

By the time the book launch was ready, six months had passed. And that was with Steve pulling out all the stops. Gabby was stir-crazy, and Steve was almost out of money. He was onto his credit card, which he had used to buy Gabby some new hair clippers, and some clothes she had ordered online. A photographer friend came and took lots of photos of her in various poses. Steve had to promise to pay him once the money started to roll in.

At the suggestion of the publisher, Gabby’s brother had been contacted. Her mum had died without regaining consciousness, news of that had made Gabby do a dance around the room in her underwear. Her brother wasn’t interested. He rang Steve as requested and said Gabby could say what she liked and do what she wanted. He would have no part of it. That was fine with Steve, as it meant he wouldn’t be denying any of the back story.

Although they had used a literary agent, the publisher who accepted the manuscript brokered a tough deal. Only five grand up front, and that to be deducted from royalities. Steve had no concerns, he was sure the book would do well, and they could sell the film or TV rights later, as well as getting a good payment from one of the tabloids to tell the inside story. He had got his share of the advance, and Gabby used the rest to move out and live in a small hotel twenty miles away. It was a nuisance having to keep running back and forth to sort things out with her, but he was pleased to have his flat to himself again.

When the first box of hardbacks arrived, he smiled at the cover. ‘Gabby: Why I Went Missing. By Gabrielle Parker’. The cover photo was a missing poster from the time of her disappearance, showing her university photo and the details from the police. The first promotional gig was the local TV news show, BBC Look East. It was a small spot on the evening bulletin, filmed outside the hotel with a girl interviewing Gabby, who was holding a copy of the book. As expected, that went online, immediately generating interest in the story.

The book went into the big chain booksellers, and was being sold on Amazon too. Steve paid someone to generate some fake five-star reviews, and it started to climb up the Amazon charts. When the second biggest tabloid contacted Gabby for a story to be published in the Sunday edition, she referred them to Steve. He did a deal for fifteen grand that gave them exclusive rights to newspaper coverage and allowed them to add the story onto their website. They had to also carry a photo of the book, and buying links. Someone else he knew who was good at playing Facebook generated hundreds of fake posts there, and just as many from fake Twitter accounts.

The Monday following the newspaper article, Gabby was trending on Twitter, had thousands of new Facebook followers, and the book had a passing mention on the main national news that evening. Whe the tabloid did a follow up story on the Friday, showing a photo of Gabby’s mum in hospital before she died, and milking the sob story of child abuse, there was an offer from the BBC magazine programme The One Show. Gabby went on that same night at seven, plugged the book, tried to claim she was speaking out for all abused children, appeared to lose the battle to fight back some tears, and then the female presenter started crying.

As he watched the show that evening, Steve was triumphant. He stood up in his flat and shouted. “Yes!”

When the tabloid ran some more stuff on the Sunday, digging deep into the teachers involved in sex for exam results, it really took off. She was on BBC Breakfast early the next morning, followed by a spot on the ITV chat show This Morning just after eleven. That got her booked for Loose Women the following lunchtime, where Gabby gave the all-female team a story of sexual abuse so heartbreaking, it jammed the phone lines into the station.

Generated by all of this, public outcry followed all over social media. Angela Devine was arrested, and the police applied to extradite Andrew Donaldson from his new job abroad. Other teachers from her past were taken in for questioning, and the book tipped number one on the best-seller list, with the publisher rushing out paperback and Kindle versions.

That was when Steve made the call about film rights.

As the book was still riding high, Gabby took every opportunity to make any guest appearance offered to her. The late-night chat shows were fertile ground, as she could be more graphic about details of her past, and there was no censorship. As well as those, Gabby got onto the shock-jock radio broadcasts, laying it on thick about how her mum brought men to have sex with her, and how teachers traded extra tution and exam questions for sex in their cars.

Every time she appeared, that generated more headlines, which in turn sold more books, and got her more offers of TV appearances.

Negotiating the film rights proved to be easier than Steve had hoped. After a couple of companies showed no interest, Gabby went on the Graham Norton show to plug her book, and Graham cried as she described trembling in fear when she knew men would be coming into her room to have sex with her.

The next day, four companies were bidding for the rights. Gabby stepped in, and accepted the offer that would allow her some say in casting, as long as her chosen actors were available, and wanted the job. She signed a fifty-grand advance to include a share of all DVD rights, streaming rights, and any merchandising. Once filming started, the book could be reissued with a photo of the star on the cover, and the words ‘Now A Major Movie’ wrapped around it.

Two days later, she appeared on the Jonathan Ross chat show, and dropped her bombshell. She accused Steve James of raping her in his Norwich flat when she was staying there while he was negotiating her book deal. In floods of tears, she eventually had to be consoled by Jonathan. Steve had been watching the show at the time, and his jaw hit the floor when she said that. He rang her mobile after she was off screen, and it turned out the number was unavailable.

Gabby had a new phone, and a new number.

When he drove to her hotel the next morning, he wasn’t unduly surprised to discover that she was no longer staying there. Dozens of calls to all his contacts failed to find her anywhere. She had gone to ground again. Back at his flat that evening, he was halfway through a bottle of whisky when there was a loud banging on the door. Three policeman were standing in the lobby when he opened it. The one in plainclothes smiled as he showed his I.D. card.

“Mister Steven James? I am Detective Sergeant Murphy. I would like you to accompany us to a police station for questioning. You may call a solicitor if you wish. You are not under arrest at this time, but if you decline to come with us I am prepared to arrest you on suspicion of a serious offence”. Steve felt as if he was going to throw up, and swallowed hard.

“Just let me get my coat and keys, officer”.

They drove him to a main police station in Norwich, and he declined legal representation. When confronted with Gabby’s accusation, he denied it. “I never touched her. I slept on the sofa”. He was aked to provide a DNA sample and fingerprints voluntarily, and agreed to that. “I have nothing to hide. This is all a set-up. I know what she’s up to”.

Someone brought him a cup of tea, and he was left in the Interview Room for almost an hour. Then Murphy came back. “Okay, you can go home tonight, but be prepared to come back in for questioning when asked. And definitely bring a solicitor next time, because that interview will be under caution, and recorded. You may also face charges on that occasion. Two officers are waiting to give you a lift home”.

After finishing the bottle of whisky, Steve slept heavily that night. He didn’t wake up until after ten the next morning, and as he stumbled out of the bedroom he almost fainted with shock to see Gabby sitting on his sofa, smoking a cigarette. Before he got his brain into gear to be able to start shouting at her, Gabby was already talking.

“It’s your day of reckoning, Stevie boy. Time to pay for all the lives you have ruined, and the lies you have told. I can make my way to the police station to give them a statement about how you dragged me to your bed and raped me, or I can say it is all too traumatic to go over it again, and drop the charges. It’s entirely up to you. Sign these papers, or get seven years inside in the nonce wing. Simple as. You’ve had it anyway, whether you go to trial or not. You will always be known as the journo who raped a vunerable girl he was pretending to help, even without a guilty verdict”.

Snatching the papers from her, he speed-read the main parts. He was signing over his twenty-five percent of her company in perpetuity, with no comebacks. There was also a non-disclosure agreement, forbidding him to write about the story in any form, or talk about it to anyone else. Forever. It was already witnessed in advance, and signed and sealed by a top London lawyer whose name he recognised immediately. It took him less than ten seconds to make his decision.

“Give me a pen”.

Benedict.

“Okay, my name is Ben Halliday, not Benedict, and I am doing this interview to just explain our part in the story of Gabby Parker. Is your camera running?”

The man nodded.

“My wife Michaela wants no part of this, so I will not be answering any questions about her. She is seven months pregnant with our first child, and I don’t want her bothered. I will only be making this statement based on the questions you supplied me via email, and that’s it. Okay?”

The man nodded again.

“So we met Gabby that first week at uni. You could hardly fail to notice her, with the cropped hair that so many girls have now. She was good-looking too. Confident, clever, with an interesting life story, none of which was true, as we know now. She was good to be around, everyone thought so. Was I in love with her? Yes. Was everyone she met in love with her? You bet they were. She knew what she was doing from the start, but we had no way of knowing that five years ago”.

He stopped to drink some water from a metal flask.

“Were we fooled by her? I don’t know about that. We were just happy to be around her, and didn’t judge, or ask questions. Kimberley Lau was certainly fooled by her. She thought they were a couple, gave her a huge amount of money, and ended up where she is today, in a mental institution. But for myself and Michaela, we escaped, I suppose. After Mikki finished teacher training, she got a job in a primary school here in Canterbury. I transferred with my Banking job, and we bought this small house you are sitting in”.

The man adjusted a light behind him, then Ben continued.

“After the disappearance, there was the book. We were described in that book as ‘love-struck losers’. I’m not denying that, and neither is my wife. But we have moved on, we have our own life now, and Gabby is not a part of it. We didn’t bother to see the film, and I was pleased that it didn’t get any Oscars, despite three nominations. But now Gabby is the face of child abuse, reporting on the BBC about child abductions and sex-trafficing, and she appears on telly every day as part of the Loose Women team. We cannot avoid her in theory, but we do in practice”.

After another swig from the flask, Ben continued.

“Then there was the second book, and after that the third. She was consulted as some kind of expert on child abuse every time something similar happened. Meanwhile, five people were serving terms in prison after she gave evidence against them at their trials. Those who escaped that have no career left. I mean, so many people, young girls and boys, have abusive childhoods. That’s horrible. But Gabby used hers as a springboard to fame and fortune. Do you know that she lives in a five-bed house in Hampstead? She has her own driver for the car she owns, and her agent got her onto Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and she was even a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing? She got to the final of that, but didn’t win. Sorry, I need a pee”.

When filming resumed, Ben remained calm.

“Do I resent her? Actually, no. She got me together with Michaela, and claims that was her intention all along. Either way, we are happy, and loving the idea of becoming parents. But she was so hard on people, so harsh. Even now, she has never had a boyfriend, never contemplated marriage or children, and revels in her huge following on social media. I understand that alone makes her ten grand a month, on top of all the telly stuff and books. She doesn’t travel, doesn’t spend her money on much other than the house and car. Is she remotely happy? I really doubt that”.

There was a pause. The light in the room necessitated a change of direction for the white umbrella.

“Okay to continue? Well my take on it is this. Gabby embraced the cult of celebrity by making herself a celebrity based on a youth of abuse and neglect. She has earned a lot of money, ruined many lives, and become a household name on the back of it. That is an example of everything that is wrong with society in the twenty-first century, in my opinion”.

After some camera adjustments, Ben raised his hand.

“That’s it, I’m afraid. You need to leave now”.

The End.

Danny: The Complete Story

This is all 38 parts of a fiction serial in one complete story. It is a long read, at 29,560 words.

I never liked my wife that much. No idea why I married her, really. It seemed to be the thing to do. We went out for a year, got engaged, then got married a year after that. That’s what you do, isn’t it? You conform, play the game, do what everyone before you did. It’s expected of you, let’s face it.

What makes people change so much when they get married? The security of a thin gold band? The knowledge that they are now entitled to half of everything? Why do you walk into that church with one woman, then walk out with someone you hardly recognise?

Eve smoked a lot. I knew she smoked of course, but once the certificate was signed, I found out just how much. She smoked while she ate. Chewing a steak and puffing on a cigarette between mouthfuls. Gazing at her phone to see who was doing what, and where they were doing it. Why did she think it was okay to do that? To ignore me, and to blow smoke over my food.

Because she could. Because she was now a wife.

Then she changed her mind about having kids. “Let’s not rush in, Daniel. We are still young, and kids can come later”.

Always with the ‘Daniel’. Why did everyone call me Daniel? I told them I wanted to be called Danny. I felt like a Danny. Daniel sounded so old fashioned, Biblical, boring. Danny was cool. Leather-jacket cool. I can’t remember how many times I asked Eve to call me Danny.

But she never did. Not even once.

And where did the sex go? Not that she was ever that adventurous, but it was regular and very nice before the wedding. Then came pyjamas in bed, all make up removed, and sensible big knickers. “Leave it to the weekend, Daniel. You know I get tired at work, and I have to be up early. Go to sleep now”.

Well she had to work before we got married, and get up early. But that didn’t stop her in the past. And the knickers were brief and lacy then.

Six months in, and I was starting to feel more like we had been married for ten years. Eve was home late from work, meeting the girls for shopping at weekends, and going to visit her granny in the old people’s home every Sunday. I was back to eating alone – at least that was smoke free- and cooking easy meals in the microwave.

Just like being single again. Until she came home.

When I turned twenty-eight that autumn, I was feeling more like fifty-eight. And her idea of a birthday present was an electric drill. “You can put those extra shelves up in the airing cupboard that I asked you about”. An electric drill? What was she thinking? When it came to her birthday, she spent weeks dropping hints about all the things she was hoping I would buy her.

She got a slow cooker. I told her she could make the casseroles that I asked her about. That went down like a lead balloon, as you can imagine. But it gave me a much-needed laugh when she unwrapped the box.

So she went out and bought herself a car. A car we couldn’t really afford, and certainly didn’t need. We already had a decent car, and that only got used for the weekly grocery shop, or to drive over to see her granny. Now we had two stuck outside the door, and a three-hundred quid a month loan over four years in her name.

Even before our first anniversary, it was all going downhill rapidly. Eve joined a gym, because one of her friends went there. Then it was gym after work, swimming on Saturday mornings, jogging when it wasn’t raining, and anything to stay away from me, so it seemed. We started to pass in the house like ships in the night. Her coming in as I was going out, and vice versa. She said I should get a hobby, play a sport, go out with my mates.

“We can’t live in each other’s pockets, Daniel. It’s not the nineteen fifties any longer. Times change”.

If I had wanted to go out with my mates, take up fishing, or play tennis, I needn’t have got married. Naturally, I wasn’t happy. Not happy at all.

That’s why I killed her.

Wanting to kill your wife and actually doing it are two very different things. Unless you don’t care about geting caught and serving life for her murder of course. Then I could just have taken her birthday gift drill out of the box and drilled straight through her head with it.

But I didn’t want to get caught.

Lots of methods go through your mind. You can’t look them up online, as that might look suspicious if the police decide to seize your computer and mobile phone. No, it all has to be done from memory and invention, each possible method examined and discarded. Nothing can be written down either. Even if you burned the paper later, something like that could also be deemed suspicious.

Poison was out of the question, as that would show up in the post-mortem. It had to look like an accident, a tragic accident.

Even that doesn’t give you many options. You have to consider your alibi, as you mustn’t be in the vicinity of where that accident happened. They check your phone activations on masts too, so that has to have the battery removed. Might even be best to break the thing so it wasn’t working at all, then claim a replacement from the insurance later.

Accidents involving twenty-seven year-old women usually involve cars. Or horses, or swimming, or skiing, or cycles. They don’t often die by electrocution when fixing a fuse box, break their neck playing netball, or fall off a ladder while clearing gutters. They are unlikely to stab themselves in the groin and bleed out whilst filleting a leg of pork, or accidentally pour a whole kettle of boiling water over their head while making two cups of tea.

In fact, fatal accidents involving females under forty are surprisingly rare.

Tampering with her car was not going to work. If she died in a car accident they would be bound to investigate the vehicle. And if she only received minor injuries, there would be no point. She was far too fit and healthy to have a heart attack or stroke as she exercised at the gym, and it was too early for a smoking-related illness to free me from her. And she was such a strong swimmer, drowning seemed unlikely. Besides, she was always swimming with her friend.

It wasn’t long before I realised that I was going to have to do something physical to kill her, and make it look like an accident.

That also took a lot of thought. DNA wasn’t a problem, as we were married. If the accident happened in the home, it would not seem remotely suspicious that I was there at the time, as long as the cause of death looked completely accidental.

Eve didn’t know it, but she provided me with the perfect solution when she returned from a shopping trip one Saturday afternoon. Opening various bags, she delighted in showing me the things she had bought using credit card money we couldn’t afford to spend. New gym clothes, a thing like a wristwatch that monitored her pulse and blood pressure, assorted sensible underwear, some horrifically expensive Nike trainers, and a new pair of ‘going-out’ shoes.

Her voice rose to a squeal when she showed me the shoes. Red velvet, with huge spike heels that would probably add eight inches to her height. She slipped them on, and walked around the living room, the high arch of the shoes pitching her forward unnaturally until she got used to the feeling. Stopping by the front window, she raised one leg.

“Aren’t they just fabulous, Daniel? God knows I will never be able to dance in them, and I will have to get a taxi to meet the girls when I wear them, but it’s worth it. They were great value too, marked down to one hundred and fifty. Look, you can see the designer name on the sole”. Resisting the urge to complain about how much she had spent, I simply smiled and nodded.

Two weeks later, the night arrived. Meeting the girls in a restaurant at seven, taxi booked for six-thirty. After the meal, it was on to a club. One of her friends was thirty that day, and they were going to make a night of it She was upstairs getting ready when I casually wandered into the bedroom to tell her she looked nice. In fact, she looked like a prostitute, in my opinion. The dress that matched the shoes had probably cost as much as them, and there was hardly anything of it. Too low cut, and far too short.

Carrying the shoes in her left hand she walked out of the bedroom, with me following close behind.

That’s when I picked her up, and threw her head-first down the stairs.

The sound her head made when it hit the tiled floor of the hallway reminded me of dropping a bag of shopping on the pavement when I was a kid. I had less than twenty minutes before the taxi showed up, so moved quickly. Eve had dropped the shoes when I threw her, so I recovered them from the stairs. I walked down and placed one on her left foot, then snapped off the heel of the right shoe and put that and the shoe on the top step.

Her chest was still rising and falling a little, but she was making no noise. Some blood was running out from under her right cheek where her nose had broken on impact, so I stepped over that as I picked up the house phone. After hyperventilating for a few moments, I rang 999 and asked for an ambulance. I sounded concerned enough, but not panicking. They asked me if she was breathing, and I said she was, so they told me to turn her on her side if she was on her back. I said she was already on her side and they said an ambulance would be there in under fifteen minutes.

They actually turned up in around ten minutes, and got to work on her, asking me lots of questions. I pointed to the stairs, and showed one of them the shoe at the top. I told her I had been in the toilet, and come out to find Eve like this, ringing an ambulance immediately. I made sure to mention that she had never owned shoes with such high heels, and that I was sure they had caused the fall. By the time they had finished, she had a neck collar on, an oxygen mask over her face, a drip connected to one arm, and splints on the other arm and one leg, both believed to have been broken by the impact of landing.

The taxi driver rang the doorbell while they were strapping her up, and looked startled at the scene when I opened the door. I apologised to him and said my wife would not be needing the cab after all.

When they got her into the ambulance they said I could go with her, so of course I did. On the way they used the siren, and the vehicle was rocking about all over the place as the driver seemed to be going so fast. The woman in the back kept looking at a machine Eve was connected up to, and trying to give me a reassuring smile. But she didn’t look very convincing. We got to the hospital in less than ten minutes, and nurses and doctors were waiting. One of the nurses took me inside and sat me in a room along the corridor as the rest of them wheeled Eve into the department.

It must have been almost thirty minutes later when a young female doctor came into the small waiting room, looking very serious. “Your wife has gone for a scan. She has a broken arm, and her right femur is broken in her leg. But more worringly, we think she has a skull fracture, a very serious one. I will come back and see you when we know more”. A chubby nurse came in with a plastic cup of tea. “I didn’t think to ask if you wanted sugar, sorry”. I put it under the seat. Tea was the last thing I wanted.

A different nurse came in with a clipboard, and suggested I phone Eve’s parents. I told her that she only had her granny, and she was in an old people’s home. So she asked me a load of questions about Eve, even though I had already told the ambulance people most of the same things.

Another hour went by until a dignified-looking male doctor appeared in the room. “Your wife has sustained a catastrophic fracture of the skull, I’m afraid. We are going to admit her to Intensive Care, but my advice is to prepare yourself for the worst, I’m sorry to say. The surgeons have looked at the scans, and they don’t believe an operation would be possible. Even if they tried, she might never regain consciousness. Do you know if your wife ever expressed a wish to donate any organs?”

Nodding, I told him that she was very enthusiastic about organ donation, and had often said she would hate to be kept alive on a machine. He said he would be back soon.

Forty minutes later, the police turned up to talk to me.

The two uniformed cops presumed I already knew that Eve was dead, and offered their condolences. Naturally, I jumped up and acted shocked at the news, leaving the younger one looking at the older one for some kind of backup. He came through.

“Well sir, your wife is technically alive, but only because she is being kept alive on a ventilator so that organs can be taken when a surgical team is free. I was led to believe you had agreed to that, and someone should be along soon with a consent form. Otherwise, as there is nothing that can be done for her, we are just taking a brief report of a sudden death caused by a fall downstairs. This will be reported to the CID of course, and they may want to examine your house. I have to ask you to make sure not to disturb any of the scene where the accident happened. Perhaps you could stay with a relative?”

I told him I would book into the Premier Inn. As it was a Saturday night, I had no work the next day, and the CID could ring me on my mobile. I gave answers to all his questions, making sure to get some details wrong, and then correct myself. It wouldn’t do to look too composed.

As if on cue, the dignified doctor returned with paperwork for me to sign, and they left us alone telling me that someone would phone me.

The doctor asked me if I wanted to go and see Eve before the surgeons got to work. I shook my head. “Something very good will come out of this tragedy, sir. The organs will give new life and hope to many people. Your wife’s generosity of spirit will live on in them”. I wondered how many times he had made that speech, before giving the green light for the butchers to get to work removing Eve’s kidneys, liver, eyes, lungs, and anything else they could use. Then I told him she was a heavy smoker, so he should be careful with the lungs.

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, but he just nodded.

It turned out I didn’t need to book into a hotel. The night duty CID on-call rang my mobile, and I said we could sort it out that night. I would get a taxi home, and meet them there. I used the excuse that I wanted to be somewhere familiar, and get the place cleaned up when they had finished. I acted a bit strange on the phone, guessing they would put it down to me being in shock.

If I had been expecting a full turnout of crime scene examiners and forensic specialists, I was very wrong. There were two tired-looking blokes sitting outside the house in a car when I got home, and one of them was eating a burger. They came in, the non-burger one carrying a professional-looking camera. As I told burger-man all the details again, and showed him around, the other one snapped off lots of photos using a powerful flash. Done and dusted in twenty minutes, burger-man turned to me as they were leaving.

“This looks very straightforward, just a tragic accident. Sorry for your loss. The Coroner will receive the report from the hospital, and we will write up our investigation. Someone will be in touch about the inquest. You should attend, as the Coroner will want to ask you questions. Goodnight”.

He had used the line ‘A tragic accident’. Music to my ears, and that would no doubt be in his report too. Mind you, I guessed that wouldn’t be the end of it. Those two would probably hand it off to the day shift to do the real work.

The next morning, I cleaned up the blood in the hallway, and decided I had to go and tell Eve’s granny. I hadn’t seen her since the wedding, but as she was the only relative, I ought to be the one to tell her. I used Eve’s new car, to give it a run before I got rid of it. One of the care home workers showed me to her room, and she was duly surprised to see me. I told her as quickly as I could, before she could start asking me why Eve wasn’t there.

Surprisingly, she didn’t seem too shocked. “Silly girls, wearing those ridiculous shoes. What a stupid way to die”. I wanted to mention that she had probably worn stilletos in her youth, but let that slide. Instead I said I understood she would miss the Sunday visits. Her eyebrows raised to her hairline.

“What Sunday visits? I haven’t seen her since you two got married”.

I had to admit, granny’s confession had surprised me. So Eve had been up to something on Sundays? That might have explained why she wasn’t so interested in sex with me after such a short time of being married. Still, that made me feel even better about killing her. I might find out who she had been seeing, and if I did, they would pay for that infidelity.

On the drive home, it occurred to me that I could get time off work. After all, my wife was dead, and that would entitle me to some sort of absence. I pulled into the big McDonald’s on the ring road, and got a meal to eat in. I rang my boss at home, and told him the news. He sounded really upset, even though he didn’t really know Eve. Him and his wife had been invited to the evening reception when we got married, but had declined because of a previous commitment.

Tony was very good about things. “Take as much time as you need, Daniel. It won’t count against your leave, just let me know how you are, and come back when you feel up to it”.

Daniel again. I had given up telling him to call me Danny.

Delivery logistics wasn’t a very sexy career, but it paid well, and I was good at it. I had been at the same company since leaving school ten years earlier, and two years ago I had been promoted to departmental manager. I liked being good at it, and finding it easy to do. As far as I was concerned, I would stay there until I retired.

As I sat finishing my milkshake, I thought I should probably tell Eve’s friends. Most of them were just names I had never met, but a couple of them had come to the house when we moved in, and I remembered one was Fiona. They would all be on her phone, which was still in her handbag in the house. I knew her passcode, as I had been in the phone shop with her when she upgraded. It was her granny’s birthday.

Fiona screamed so loud when I told her, I thought my ear would explode. Then she started sobbing theatrically, so her boyfriend took the phone off of her. “Sorry mate, she’s too upset to talk now. She will let the others know, and don’t forget to let us know about the funeral”.

As I suspected, the cops were not finished with me. I had to go in and make a statement, answer the same questions all over again, and agree that I had no plans to leave the country. The po-faced female detective gave me a stare like a snake in a tank. “It’s not that we suspect you or anything, but you have to be aware that in most cases like this, the possibility of domestic violence has to be ruled out”. To show willing, I declined a solicitor, and agreed to both a DNA swab and fingerprints. That seemed to impress her.

“Thank you, we will be in touch”.

For the next couple of days, I boxed up all of Eve’s clothes, handbags, and shoes. Once the dust had settled, I would take them all to a charity shop. I rang the car company about her car, and they agreed to take it back for a finance settlement fee of five hundred quid. I paid over the phone, and they said they would be there the next day to collect it. I cancelled her car insurance while I was at it, and informed the mortgage company. We had both taken out life insurance when we bought the house, and both made wills leaving everything to each other. They said I would need to send in the death certificate when I had it, and then they would pay off the mortgage.

I tried cancelling her credit card and bank account, but they said I would have to come in with the death certificate and see someone.

Then I sat down one afternoon and went through her phone. Most of it was the usual stuff. Calls to the hairdresser, the gym, and various friends and colleagues. The text messages were more interesting though. A number with no name or identity, but full of arrangements and dates. I checked the calendar. They were all Sundays. Whoever was sending the replies signed off with a ‘J’, and three kisses. It only took me seconds to work out that was one of the partners at the law firm she worked for, Julian.

I had only met him once, at a company dinner. I reckoned he must have been at least sixty, but he was fit and tanned, with shiny white teeth and cropped grey hair.

He went straight in as my number one suspect.

As I had told Fiona, I presumed she would have informed everyone at work, so they would know about what happened to Eve. But it hadn’t gone unnoticed that nobody had phoned me to offer condolences. So I decided to shake the wasp’s nest. I rang the law firm and asked to speak to Julian Tolliver. The woman told me he was very busy, but when I said I was Eve’s husband, she asked me to hold for a moment. He sounded edgy when he came on the phone.

“Daniel, what can I say? So tragic. We are all in shock here. Eve was such a lovely young woman, and so good at her job. Popular in the office too. Is there anything we can do to help you?”

My first thought was to tell him he could help by calling me Danny. But I let that go, and said I would let him know about the funeral arrangements in due course.

After two weeks I was thinking about going back to work, when the police rang to say that they could release Eve’s body for a funeral, and the inquest would come later. I guessed that meant it was going to be considered an accident, at least by the police. If the Coroner came to the same conclusion, I would be home and dry.

A local undertaker sorted me out a basic cremation with a rent-a-vicar. A hearse, plus two cars for mourners. I told them I would only need one car. Eve’s granny had suffered a stroke after my visit, no doubt a delayed reaction to the news. She was doing okay, but not fit to attend a funeral. My dad didn’t speak to me, and my mum was dead. As for Eve’s friends, and Julian, they could make their own way there.

The hospital’s patient’s affairs department provided me with some paperwork that I could take to the Council offices to get a death certificate. They also gave me a clear plastic sleeve containing Eve’s personal effects. Wedding ring, engagement ring, two gold hoop earrings, a gold bracelet and matching necklace. At the Council offices, I paid extra for more certificates. Then I would have spares to send to the insurance company, and to give the bank. I decided to take the rest of the time off until the funeral.

There was a lot of running around to do.

I chose two different charity shops for all of Eve’s stuff, and they were very pleased to receive the good quality clothes and shoes. The meeting in the bank took almost an hour, but they closed her account and stopped her cards. I declined their offer of a cup of tea, but still had to listen to their businesslike and totaly insincere condolences. With my darkest suit dropped off at the dry cleaner’s, I popped into work to let Tony know. He was a bit flustered, and when I asked him if he wanted to come to the funeral, he got even more flustered.

“Too busy here my friend. With you away, I couldn’t possibly take time off. But I hope it all goes well. Take as much time as you need”. I could tell by the look on his face that he was already regretting saying that.

On the way home, I bought a black tie.

As funerals go, it was a good one. Julian looked so uncomfortable, I had to suppress a smile. The female friends all boo-hooded a lot, but none of them spoiled their perfect make-up. From the time we walked into the crematorium until I was heading home in the funeral car, it was all over in thirty minutes. Some of them asked me where we would be going on to. I told everyone I was too upset to have any sort of food and drink wake. Like I was going to waste money on that lot.

Not long after I went back to work, much to Tony’s relief, I got a call from one of the cops about the inquest. “Don’t worry, Daniel. It’s a foregone conclusion mate”. I wore a nice suit and sat in the small courtroom looking suitably sad. It was a lady Coroner, and she was very kind. Speaking softly, she went through all the witnesses, checking the papers on her desk, asking them questions, and nodding sagely.

She called the ambulance crew, the uniformed cops, and the detective woman with the snake eyes. There was the first doctor, the woman one, followed by the distinguished-looking man, and then a pathologist who outlined the injuries and cause of death. She didn’t bother to call the taxi driver I had sent away. At the end, she asked if I had any questions, and I said “No madam” in a clear voice.

There was no need to even break for lunch. She ruled ‘Accidental Death’ before midday, and that was that.

The thing about murder that most people don’t realise is that it’s addictive. I’m not talking about sex killers like The Boston Strangler, or killers for profit, like Mafia hit men. No, just run of the mill killings, the taking of a life. Getting away with it is easy enough if you are careful. After all, there are thousands of unsolved murders sitting on the books around the world.

And don’t get me started on the ‘Missing’, or the ‘Disappeared’. They are all dead and gone, take my word for it. I know what I’m talking about.

Forget about all those ‘Sociopaths’, ‘Social rejects’, and ‘Psychopaths’. Most of those either want to get caught, or are trapped by their carelessness. Being famous for killing a lot of people is no substitute for spending the rest of your days in solitary or a mental hospital, not as far as I’m concerned.

No, you just kill people you don’t like. It’s as simple as that. Make it look like an accident, and that’s a bonus.

Modern technology is the murderer’s enemy, not the police. The police would be useless if it wasn’t for their three golden rules. ‘Motive’, ‘Method’, and ‘Opportunity’. Leave out one of those three, and they are running around like the Keystone Cops. But you have to be careful now. Mobile phone tracking, Internet searches, and the bane of my life, CCTV cameras. They are the worst, and account for so many convictions these days, they might as well sack all the cops and just employ more CCTV operators instead.

Back when I started, all that was in its infancy. All I had to remember was not to get any books out of the library that mentioned murder.

Life wasn’t so bad, until my little sister was born. Dad played football with me in the garden, mum made a fuss of me and bought me cakes. We had holidays at the seaside, ice cream and funfair rides. Cricket on the beach, and tired evenings in the caravan. Once we even went to Spain for a week, on an aeroplane. I remember being excited about the plane, and remember it was so bloody hot there. But not much else.

Then just before my eighth birthday, mum looked fat. She sat me down and told me that I was going to get a little brother or sister. She seemed happy, and said it like she expected me to be excited at the prospect. You can already guess that I wasn’t.

I played along of course, hoping for a brother I could dominate, and pass on my toys to. Seven months later, I got a sister.

They called her Emily, after a great aunt who had left some money in a will. As soon as she arrived back from the hospital, I was savvy enough to know that I might just as well kill myself. They had just tolerated a dirty, smelly boy for eight years, and now they had an adorable blonde daughter who didn’t even keep them awake at night crying. Emily was perfect. My Dad told me so, more times than I ever wanted to hear.

That started what I think of as the ‘bedroom years’. My parents and grandparents doted on baby Emily for the next two years until I was ten. I might just as well have gone to live in another country, for all I mattered. Especially to my dad. No more football in the garden. No more help with school work. No more fun presents at birthdays or Christmas. Just clothes, or vouchers. While Emily had so many presents under the tree, it took them an hour to open them all for her.

I retreated to my bedroom, and I started to think about my situation. Obvously, little Emily had to go.

Luckily, I was bright enough to continue my studies with no parental assistance. Not that I ever forgave them for that, as I am sure you have worked out by now. Her second birthday presented me wih a wonderful opportunity. Dad’s brother, Uncle Brian, presented the toddler wih a gigantic stuffed Panda. Now I look back, I am convinced he played the uncle to cover up his predeliction for young boys. At least that meant that Emily was safe from his advances.

Death by Panda was not that easy to achieve. But I was nothing if not inventive.

Little Emily’s days were numbered, but I had to be careful. Mum wasn’t working now, and wouldn’t go back until her angelic daughter started school. She never left me alone in the house with my sister either. Not because she was worried about what might happen, she just couldn’t bear to be parted from her.

My plan began by befriending Emily. Coming out of my room and playing with her. Letting her climb all over me, and pull my hair. I even gave her some of my treasured old toys, and faked laughter as she wrecked them. Over the space of a couple of weeks, mum started to relax, and even told me how nice it was to see me warming to my sister. “I can tell how much she loves her big brother. She wil look up to you one day, and count on you for protection”.

How wrong can you be?

Then one afternoon in the Easter holidays, mum came downstairs. “I have just settled Emily for her nap, and I’m going to make a Victoria sponge cake”. I was looking forward to some cake later, when mum reappeared from the kitchen. “Silly me, I’m out of jam. I’m just going up to the Londis shop, won’t be long”.

Now a reasonable person might wonder why she just didn’t give me the money, and ask me to go to the shop and get the jam. There was a reason. Both her and my dad were mean with money, and each of them was as tight as a duck’s arse. The truth was they never handed me any money to buy anything. They just didn’t trust me. Not even with the change from a jar of strawberry jam.

I could have been to that shop and back with the jam in less than ten minutes. But I knew my mum. She would chat to anyone she knew in there, and if there was nobody else in the shop, she would chat about nothing to the owner. I had my window of opportunity.

My sister was in her tiny bed with the sides up, to stop her climbing out. The toy panda was next to her, almost twice as big as she was. She was fast asleep on her back, making a bubbling sound. I picked up the stuffed panda and held it over her, pressing its fat belly area over her face gently, but hard enough. She didn’t struggle or cry, but her podgy little legs waved around a lot. When they stopped moving, I removed the panda, and watched her tiny chest. When it didn’t rise and fall for a count of one hundred in my head, I turned Emily on her side, and jammed the panda hard against the safety rails. Then I pushed her face hard into it, put the crochet blanket back over her, and went back downstairs.

When mum got back after being out for close to forty-five minutes, I was reading some comics in the living room. As well as the jam, she had been distracted enough to buy other stuff, and she went into the kitchen to unpack her shopping bag. Then I could hear her mixing the cake, humming a nameless tune as she worked.

Wiping her hands on a tea-towel, she walked past me. “The cake is in, I’m just going to wake up little madam and sort her out”. I looked up and smiled as she told me that.

The scream from upstairs could have shattered glass, and actually made me jump, even though I was expecting it. What happened after that hardly involved me, though it did involve a lot of frantic phone calls, a great deal of shouting and sobbing, and a totally pointless attempt at CPR on my sister by my hysterical mother. When the ambulance people arrived, mum rushed out with them without stopping to get her bag or her keys, and without bothering to even say one word to me.

The sirens sounded loud in the street as they drove off, and I sat in the same position until I couldn’t hear them any longer.

By the time mum and dad got home, it was dark. I had rubbed my eyes hard enough to make it look like I had been crying. Mum looked at me and shook her head. “She gone, Daniel. She’s gone”.

My dad’s face looked like a stone statue, and he had his arm around mum’s shoulders, almost holding her up. I expected something. Maybe a family cuddle, a shared exchange of grief. I had been practising for that all afternoon. By doing so I had forgotten to turn off the oven, so the cake was burned black.

What I didn’t expect was for my dad to take two paces forward and slap my face so hard, he drew blood from the corner of my mouth.

After my dad hit me, I ran upstairs and hid in my room. I could hear him screaming at my mum in the living room.

“How could you? How could you leave little Emily with that waste of space, and expect him to watch her?” I don’t think he hit her, but I was sure he wanted to batter her until she was unconscious.

After that night, everything changed.

Mum stayed in the bedroom, mostly crying day and night. My dad didn’t speak to me unless he had to, then only aggressively, and just giving orders or instructions. I hardly got anything to eat, and when I did it was just fish and chips from the shop, or something dumped in the microwave. My dad wasn’t the kind of man who adapted well to taking control of domestic things. I had to go to school with unironed clothes, always feeling hungry and unloved.

Emily’s funeral was a sight to see. My dad carrying a tiny white coffin, my mum in such a state that my granny called a taxi and took her to hospital. I kept out of the way as much as possible after that. I stole whatever money was left in my mum’s purse that I found in the kitchen, and bought extra food and drinks to keep me going. No comics, no watching telly, it was like living in a graveyard.

Not long after that, dad packed my stuff and told me to get in the car. Without saying a word all the way, he took me to his mum’s house, on the other side of town. When we got there, he threw all my stuff onto her front path and looked at me like he wanted to beat me to death.

“You’re living here now. I never want to see you again”.

That suited me just fine. Granny was always nice to me, and she fed me until I felt I would burst. Although I had to take two buses to get to school, I didn’t mind. Uncle Brian lived with her, and after the panda toy, nobody was talking to him either. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be long before he made his move on me, and when it happened, I wasn’t surprised.

To be honest, I quite liked the affection. And when his guilt kicked in, he bought me stuff, took me to the cinema, and then onto a burger bar or pizza place. I didn’t even mind the sex, as he was so caring and gentle. But we had to be quiet, in case granny heard anything downstairs.

Then granny took bad. She had to go into hospital for tests, and she never came out. My dad didn’t even come to his own mother’s funeral. He didn’t want to see me, or Uncle Brian.

Six weeks later, mum took an overdose of sleeping pills and anti-depressants. I wasn’t told about her funeral, and my dad has never spoken to me since.

Uncle Brian was ready to take care of me. In many ways, they were my golden years. I could wear what I liked, watch anything I wanted on TV, and add my favourite foods to the shopping list. I had to move into his room, and into his double bed. But I couldn’t have cared less about that. I finally felt free. Long before I ever realised about husbands and wives, I worked out that Uncle Brian considered me to be his underage wife, and I just went with the flow.

Things were not so good for me at school. I had started secondary school close to granny’s house, and I found it hard to make friends. Paul Carpenter started off by picking on me, thinking himself to be a tough guy. His mum was a fan of the books by Danielle Steele, so he thought it was funny to call me ‘Danielle’, instead of Daniel. I cannot recall how many times he would stand in front of his gang of admirers and ask me, “Isn’t your name Danielle? I think you are a girl, Danielle”.

I played along of course. Smiles, and false laughter. Educationally, he was a moron, but he more or less controlled the first year at secondary school. So I played the fool, and got into his little gang, if only to make him sure I was an easy target.

He would come to regret that.

During the school holidays when Uncle Brian was at work, I could do anything I wanted. He liked me to be back for dinner before seven, but he never asked me about homework, where I had been, or who I had been with. I got on okay with most of the kids at school, but didn’t have any special friends there that I would spend time with during the break away from school. Paul Carpenter thought I was his friend, and he thought I was scared of him too.

He was very wrong, on both counts.

That didn’t stop me pretending, so I sought him out and started to mix with his little gang that hung around the parade of shops ten minute’s walk from where I was living. After the first couple of weeks of the summer holidays had passed, he was ready to accept me as a pal. That was when I could put my plan into action.

Stage one was to invite him round to the house when Uncle Brian was out. I enticed him with the promise of being able to look at my uncle’s collection of porn magazines, which was extensive. While he was flicking through the magazines, I asked him if he had ever been swimming in the disused quarry. Turning over to a centre page spread, and exclaiming “Wow!”, he shook his head. Then he looked round at me.

“Dangerous there, out of bounds to everyone, and swimming is banned. Besides, it’s a long bus ride from here. I go to the town pool sometimes, but that cold water in the quarry doesn’t appeal to me”. I handed him a can of Tizer, and as he popped the tab, asked if he was too scared to try swimming there. He didn’t even bother to sip the drink before replying.

“Scared? Me? Piss off! I ain’t scared of nothing. Just don’t want all the aggravation if someone calls the cops. Anyway, there used to be security patrols there, it’s not worth the bother”. I told him I was going there on Friday afternoon, and if he was too scared, I would swim across the quarry on my own. I could see his mind working, and knew what he was thinking. If I went back after the holidays and told everyone he was too scared to swim in the quarry, his reputation would be damaged. Possibly irreparably.

He gulped down the entire can of drink, then let out a huge belch. “Okay, you’re on. But you have to pay the bus fare, I’m skint”.

I arranged to meet him around one in the afternoon, at a bus stop that was an equal distance from both of us. It was a bright day, and warm but not that hot. After we got off the stop nearest to the old quarry, we had a twenty-minute walk along the former lorry track, and then we had to get over a wire fence. I was carrying swimming trunks and a towel in a duffel bag, but Paul didn’t have anything. I asked him why he didn’t bring any trunks, and he sneered at me.

“Trunks? I’m going in bare-assed. Trunks and towels are for wimps. You wear them if you want, Danielle”.

The fence was past its best, and the signs warning about security patrols and the danger of swimming were faded and rusty. It was easy to get inside, and I had to admit the huge pool in the quarry excavation looked impressive. Keen to show off, Paul kicked off his shoes, stripped off his clothes, and clambered down to the level area where the water could be accessed. He slid on the shingle a few times, but kept a brave face as he reached the water.

“Last one in is a Homo, so that means you!” With that he plunged into the water.

Taking my time, I changed into my trunks and walked down carefully. Making it look good, I went in up to my knees, reaching the spot where it fell away into deeper water that could well have been eighty or ninety feet deep. It was icy cold, even on that summer’s day. Splashing around, Paul started laughing at me, presuming I was too scared to go in after all. When I just stood there, he started to swim back to me. While his head was under the water, I picked up a pebble as big as my fist, and held it behind my back.

As he got nearer, I played the scaredy-cat, shaking my head as he shouted once again. “Come on, you baby. Come in, or I will come and drag you in”. As he reached shallow water, he ran in my direction, arms outstretched. He definitely wasn’t expecting it when I hit him over the head with the pebble. Not the first time, nor the sixth time. He slipped back into the water, unconscious. I threw the pebble as far into the quarry pool as I could, then pushed Paul gently with my foot so that he floated back out into the middle, sinking slowly as I watched.

It took me almost three hours to walk home.

They found Paul’s body two days later, after his parents had reported him missing, and a big search had gone on locally. It seems those security patrols did still go around the disused quarry, and they found his shoes and clothes wher he had left them. After that, it didn’t take long for the police divers to discover the body in the water.

I was watching the report on the local news when Uncle Brian got home from work. He was looking flushed, and smiling a lot. I knew what that meant. He stood in front of the screen, blocking my view. “Come on, Daniel. We could go upstairs for a while, then I will get us a curry delivered from that nice Indian place after”. I told him that if he carried on calling me Daniel and not Danny, there would be no chance of me ever going upstairs with him again, and I might just remember all that sexual abuse and tell the police.

That shut him up, and I got the curry anyway. With a naan bread, two poppadoms, and some mango chutney.

There was no indication on the news that anyone was with Paul. The shingle surrounding the quarry didn’t leave footprints, and if anyone had asked the bus driver, he obviously hadn’t remembered. Despite the warnings and random security patrol, there was no CCTV at the quarry either.

For the next to last week of that summer holiday, Uncle Brian had booked a luxury caravan for us, at a holiday park in Lowestoft. He had been promising me a holiday ever since I moved in, and finally came good on that promise. It was quite a well-appointed site, with a social club, shop, playground, and amusements too. The seafront was close by, and both piers were in easy walking distance. The caravan slept six, with a double room at one end, and furniture that converted into beds at the other.

As Brian was quick to tell me, we would only need the double room.

Mind you, he made sure I was entertained, repaying me for ‘afternoon naps’ and early nights in the bedroom with cooked breakfasts, busy mornings at the seafront, and slap-up dinners at various places in the town. People just assmued I was his son, and he never once corrected them. Even the weather played along, and we only had one afternoon of heavy summer rain. I really enjoyed it, and on the way home, genuinely thanked him. That made him keen to offer me something better.

“Maybe next year, we could get a villa in Greece. It’s very hot there they say, but it looks beautiful in the brochures. I will check on a passport for you, I think your old one was just added on your mum’s”. I suggested that the Easter holidays might be cooler, and he smiled in agreement. I was sure he was already convinced that we would live together forever, like a couple.

What a mug.

Back home, Paul’s little gang were all talking about him drowning, and how he had been stupid to go to that quarry and go swimming on his own. They seemed a bit lost without him, and little Georgy suggested to me that I should take over. “After Paul, you’re the biggest and cleverest, so why don’t you tell us what to do?” I told him he could clear off, stay away from me at school, and tell all the others to do the same. I think he was actually crying when I walked away.

At least it confirmed that Paul hadn’t told anyone he was going swimming with me. Nobody had a clue that we had been together.

The good thing about going back to school as a second year was that the first years got all the grief, and we were left more or less to our own devices. I got back into my studies, stayed away from any stupid little gangs, and settled into a regular routine with Brian making a fuss of me. So as not to upset me again, he always remembered to call me Danny, at least when he wasn’t caling me his ‘beautiful golden boy’, or ‘the love of my life’.

Things settled down, as winter approached.

Halfway through that second year at school, I started to attract interest from some of the girls. They seemed to grow up faster than the boys, and even back then they got away with wearing some make-up and shortening their skirts by turning over the waistband.

One day as I was walking home, a girl I vaguely knew as Toni ran up to me as I walked along my street. She extended a hand with some folded paper in it. “Sophie says to give you this”. Then she turned and ran back to a group of girls in the distance, and they all started laughing hysterically.

Sophie Hallett was one of the better-looking girls in my year. Despite being the same age as me, twelve, she could easily pass for fifteen. I once saw her out with some friends at the shopping centre, and she looked about eighteen dressed up in her weekend clothes. I opened the paper and read her note.

‘I think you’re cute. Do you like me? If you do I will meet you outside Spud’s Plaice fish and chip shop on Friday at six’. That was a surprise, and at least I had a couple of days to think about it. Funnily enough, I was more attracted to Toni. She was a bit chubby, but I liked her jet black hair and big round eyes. Sophie was very fashionable, but also stick-thin.

That night, I talked to Uncle Brian about it, expecting him to be jealous, and not at all pleased. But he was enthusiastic. “I think it is a good idea for you to get to know girls, even though you are still far too young. But if you prefer Toni, you should tell her. No point going on that chip shop date with Sophie if you don’t fancy her. Those good-looking popular girls can be very fickle anyway”.

It wasn’t easy to get Toni on her own, as she was almost always hanging around with Sophie and the couple of others. By chance, I saw her in the corridor outside the girl’s toilets on the ground floor. As I walked up to her, she smiled, nodding her head at the door. “Sophie’s in there with the others, you will have to wait until she comes out unless you want me to go in with your message”.

When I told her I would sooner go out on a date with her, and that she should tell Sophie thanks but no thanks, I thought she was going to fall over with shock. “Me? Really? You sure? You’re not just messing me about?” I reasured her that I was serious, and said I would meet her outside the chip shop instead, even buy her dinner from there if she wanted. She nodded, her face almost splitting in half with a huge smile.

“Okay then, but I have to be home by when it’s dark. If you’re making a fool of me, my dad will get you, so tell me now”. I did my best to convince her I liked her, then I left her to tell Sophie the bad news.

Uncle Brian was amused when I told him, but not so amused when he asked me her surname. Malone? As in Patsy Malone? Good God, he is doing a twenty-year stretch for armed robbery, and his wife Maria is as scary as he is. You will have to be careful, Danny. For Christ’s sake don’t upset the girl”. I told him she said her dad would get me if I upset her, and wondered how he would do that from prison. Uncle Brian was shaking his head. “You have a lot to learn, my love. He can reach out from any prison. I wish you had told me it was a Malone, Jesus they only live three streets away”.

On the Friday, Sophie was blanking me completely, acting as if I didn’t exist. But every time I saw Toni, she blushed and gave me a smile. Uncle Brian had left me out twenty quid, and a note. ‘Look your best, have a bath, and buy her anything she wants. Make sure to get her back to Maria’s on time, and whatever you do, don’t feel her up. xx’

As I walked down to Spud’s Plaice, I was feeling pretty good.

I could see Toni waiting outside the fish and chip shop. Even out of school uniform, she still looked much the same. Black top, black bomber jacket, and a skirt that was a little too short for comfort.

There was someone with her. Small, skinny, and smoking a cigarette. As I got closer, Toni beamed one of her big smiles, and I suddenly saw that the person with her was older, with a very lined face, small eyes, and a rather hooked nose. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me it was her mother. But I soon found out it was.

Her Irish accent was thick, but I could make out what she was saying, along with the no-nonsense tone of her voice.

“So youse the boy? Well you’re good looking, so you are. Now listen here. You can buy my Antonia her dinner, then maybe walk around the park with her a bit. She tells me she really likes you, and I can see why. But no funny business, or you’ll have me to deal with, y’hear?” I nodded, and she flicked the cigarette butt into the kerb before continuing.

“Now snogging’s acceptable, so’s hand holding and cuddling. But nuttin’ else. She’s too young”. I nodded again, and she walked off. Turning to her daughter, she smiled and pointed at her. “Now you be home by dark girl, y’hear?”

Toni chose haddock and chips, and I went with chicken pie and chips, as I didn’t want to have fishy breath. I bought drinks too, two plastic bottles of Pepsi. We walked along to the middle of the small shopping precinct and sat on a bench to eat our food straight from the paper it was wrapped in. Neither of us had ever been on a date, and we didn’t really have a clue what to say. Between bites, Toni looked at me and smiled, and when she had finished eating, she suddenly said. “I really like you, Danny”.

She had called me Danny! I didn’t even have to ask her, she called me it straight off.

Naturally I told her I really liked her too, and made no mention of her scary mum, or her criminal father. When I suggested we walk to the park, she took my hand as we stood up, no prompting. With the lighter evenings, the park was still busy, and we walked around the other side of the lake to the quieter part away from the playground full of tired and noisy kids.

Away from the path, we sat under a big tree, finishing our Pepsis. She was still holding my hand, and after looking around to see if anyone was nearby, she leaned forward and said, “You can kiss me if you like. I want you to, it’s okay”.

Experience with Uncle Brian had taught me more than I really wanted to know about kissing, to be honest. But I was keen to try it with a girl. I started out slowly, building up to using my tongue, but it was clear she had no idea how to kiss, and was mainly just rubbing her lips over mine in a random fashion. I slowed her down, suggested she open her mouth a little, and ten minutes later we were having a full-on snogging session. My first ‘girl in the park snog’, not bad for twelve years old.

After that, her face was flushed, and she couldn’t stop smiling. I wanted to take my mind off the uncomfortable stirring in my loins, so asked if she wanted another drink. We had passed an ice-cream van on the way from the lake, and I knew it would sell drinks. She nodded, and released my hand so I could go off and buy them. When I turned back to look at her as I was walking away, she actually waved at me, calling out “Don’t be long”.

At this rate, we would be engaged to be married before it got dark.

When I got back with the two exhorbitantly priced cans of Coke, Toni was standing up, surrounded by a small gang of girls. One of them was Sophie, and one of the others who I didn’t recognise was pushing Toni. Pushing her hard. I ran up and put the cans on the grass, pulling the girl away from Toni so she couldn’t reach to push her. Sophie spoke up, her tone sounded spiteful.

“So I do you the favour of asking you out, and instead you choose this Irish slag over me”. She turned to Toni. “You’re finished, believe me”. I told them all to clear off and leave Toni alone, putting my arm round her to emphasise the fact she was under my protection. As they walked away, Sophie turned round and gave us the finger. I grinned.

Sophie was going to have to go.

The incident with Sophie made Toni even happier about our date. She loved how I stood up for her, and when we sat back down on the grass, she clung on to me like a limpet. After more serious kissing, she looked up at me, doe-eyed. “I love being your girlfriend, Danny”.

So now I had a girlfriend.

Not wanting to push my luck with Maria Malone, I walked Toni home early, getting to her door while it was still light. She gave me a more reserved kiss on the doorstep, then her mum opened the door. This time, her face was softer, and she was smiling. “You did well, boy. Got my girl home in good time. You can take her out at the weekend if you like”. Toni immediately looked at me, her eyes hopeful. I nodded, and said that would be great.

The next day at school, things were not going so well for Toni. I saw her walking around on her own, and it was obvious all of her former friends were giving her the cold shoulder. At break time, I found her sitting on one of the concrete planters near the school entrance, and she had been crying.

“Why can’t they just be happy for me, Danny? Sophie can go out with anyone she likes, but because you asked me out they have all turned on me. Someone tipped a can of drink into my school-bag, and everything is soaked. They are going to make my life a misery, I know it”. I put my arm around her, and told her I would sort it all out. Then I told her I would come to her house on Saturday afternoon and take her to the cinema.

That cheered her up.

Uncle Brian was in two minds about the situation. He liked being in the Malone’s good books, but he was worried what would happen if me and Toni didn’t work out. “As strange as it sounds, you could well be stuck with her for the rest of your life. I know that’s hard to imagine now, but you mark my words”. Then he said we should go upstairs for a while, and after he would take me to Pizza Express for my favourite pizza.

Being young and immature, staying with Toni forever sounded like a good idea to me at the time. I really liked her, and wanted to look after her. To my young mind that sounded like the perfect foundation for long-term love. But to make her happy, I was going to have to work out how to get rid of Sophie without Toni finding out.

An opportunity arose as I was walking to the town centre to get Uncle Brian a birthday card. Up ahead, a bus stopped, and three girls got off. One of them was Sophie, and she said something to the others before heading off on her own. I followed her from a distance, and watched her go into a large shoe shop. She looked through the racks, tried on a couple of pairs, then left without buying anything.

Following her around the shopping mall, it wasn’t long before she spotted me. Typical of Sophie, she turned, hands on hips. Always so supremely confident. “So what do you want? Come to slag me off about your Irish girlfriend? Or maybe you didn’t like second best and prefer someone who actually looks good?” I had to give her credit. For twelve years old, she was as sassy as someone twenty years older.

My story was already concoted. I told her that I went out with Toni because the Malones lived nearby, and my uncle was scared of them. I added that of course I preferred her, but would get aggravation if Toni and her mum found out. Her self-satisfied smile was the definition of smug.

“I knew that of course, so I will give you another chance. It might be more fun for Toni to carry on thinking you fancy her when you are actually going out with me. So what about Sunday? We could do something then”.

Smiling, I told her I was happy with Sunday, but that we needed to go somewhere quiet, and nobody else should know about it. Although it was an hour’s walk, I suggested Mendlesham Woods, which was about as remote as it got around the town. She laughed. “So you want to get me alone in the woods then? Okay, I will meet you at the back of the library at twelve on Sunday”. As she walked off, she called out without turning round.

“And don’t be late!”

Deliberately early that Sunday, I was behind the library when Sophie arrived. I had been thinking about the cinema date with Toni the previous day. That had gone well, with her holding my hand all the way through the rather lame Disney film she had chosen, then a short snogging session in an alleyway near her house before I left her waving goodbye to me from outside her front door. I had the feeling that she would have let me go a bit further if I had tried, but I wasn’t about to rush anything.

Sophie wasn’t dressed appropriately for a walk in the woods. Her skater-girl skirt was worn over some white fishnet tights and she had some fashionable white Converse trainers on her feet. As well as wearing far too much make-up for a girl of her age, her hair was tightly drawn back from her face and plaited at the back. It looked as if she hadn’t settled on her look for the date, so had thrown together three looks instead. A small red shoulder bag completed the outfit, and she was trying to act laid-back and cool.

That wasn’t working either, I could tell by the way she was looking at me. I realised that she did actually fancy me. That put me on the front foot.

She pointed at my duffel bag. “What’s that for?” I told her I had drinks and snacks in there for later. As we walked to the woods, she told me that she had argued with her dad before leaving home. He had said she was dressed up too much for her age, and there had been a lot of screaming and shouting before she slammed the door and walked out. As far as her parents were concerned, she was meeting her friends at the shopping precinct, and going for a burger. “They drive me mad. They want me to be a little girl, Daniel. They won’t let me grow up”.

There it was again. Daniel.

Until we got to one of the entrances to Mendlesham Woods, she walked near me, but not close to me. Although we didn’t see anyone we knew, she was obviously wary of anything getting back to Toni if we were seen to be together. Once in the woods, she sidled over and held my arm. “So how do you like me? Do you think I look nice?” I told her she looked very sexy, and even thought to add the word ‘irresistible’. That played well, and she actually blushed.

This was no casual stroll. I had a place in mind, and an actual tree to show her. A famous oak in the middle of the woods that Uncle Brian had taken me to see when I was much younger. But not so young as to forget that was the first place he ever put his hand down my trousers and told me I was special.

After the long walk to the woods, and another walk to get to the Oak, Sophie was either bored, or feeling neglected. I suspected she wanted me to get all romantic with her, tell her how much I fancied her, and try my luck with a snog, or more than that. As the tree appeared, she sneered. “Is that it? We walked all this way so you could show me a big tree?” I explained that it was a great tree to climb, and you could even get a view of the town from the branches just over halfway up.

Shaking her head, she looked at me as if I was crazy. “You want me to climb this tree with you? If that’s so you can look up my skirt, just say so. I don’t need to climb a tree for that”. With that, she raised the tiny skirt and showed me what was underneath it. I pointed at a large branch that was an easy climb, maybe fifteen feet off the ground. I explained that we could sit up there and not be seen by any other woodland walkers. She wasn’t convinced.

The trump card had to be played, so I suggested she was scared. That did it. “Scared? I’m not scared, I just don’t want to spoil my trainers”. With that, she pulled off the Converse, and raised her right leg. “Give me a boost onto that first branch, and you will see I’m not scared”. To her credit, once on the first branch she scrambled up really well. By the time I was following, she was already sitting on the branch I had pointed out, swinging her legs.

When I got up next to her, I crouched down, reaching into my duffel bag. I removed the old washing line I had found in Uncle Brian’s shed. The slip-knot was already tied. I just had to secure the other end to the branch. With my back to her, I quickly did that. “What are you doing, Daniel?” She sounded fed up, probably waiting for the snogging to start. I told her I was getting a drink for us from my bag. When I turned round, she was gazing at the view over the town, and just reached out a hand to take the expected drink.

The noose part went over her head so fast, she hadn’t even realised it was there.

Until I pushed her off the branch.

As I suspected, the drop didn’t kill Sophie outright. But I wasn’t prepared for how long it took for her to be strangled by the nylon line. There was a lot of swinging around too, and the bark on the branch was rubbed away where I had fastened the line at the top.

Watching her clawing at the noose, her knees drawn up as if that would somehow help her, I had to remember to use my vantage point to look around and make sure nobody was nearby. Fortunately, it was a little early for afternoon strollers. They were probably still finishing their traditionally heavy Sunday lunches before deciding to walk off the stupor in the fresh air.

When she finally stopped moving, arms limp at her sides, I carefully climbed down, making sure not to scuff my shoes or catch my clothing. I knew enough about fibres and forensics to realise clues are microscopic.

The long way home was the best option, as I was less likely to encounter anyone making for the famous tree on the main path. It wouldn’t be long before someone found the girl hanging, and it would be better if they didn’t remember a blonde-haired boy walking past them carrying a blue duffel bag.

By the time I got home, Uncle Brian had started cooking the evening meal, ready to warm it up later. He didn’t ask me where I had been, and he knew nothing at all about Sophie. I suspected he thought I had been seeing Toni, but my absence never came up in conversation. He turned and smiled. “Chilli Con Carne tonight, blondie. One of your favourites”. He had called me blondie on and off for years, but only when my parents were not in earshot.

That was going to have to stop.

Watching the news later, they mentioned that ‘the body of a young woman’ had been found in the woods, and that an investigation was ‘ongoing’. There was the usual appeal for witnesses, and a freephone number to call. It wasn’t until her parents reported her missing when it got dark that they found out who she was.

The next day at school, everyone was talking about it. The girls in tears, mostly crocodile tears, I was sure. There was a special assembly, and the headmaster told us in solemn tones that Sophie had been found dead in the woods. I looked suitably sad, and Toni genuinely cried for her one-time friend. At break time, it was Toni who told me the rumour that was spreading like wildfire.

“She hung herself, you know. Went into the woods, climbed that big old tree, and hung herself from a washing line that she took from home. They reckon it’s because she had arguments with her parents about how she dressed, and that she spent too much money. She used to complain to me about her dad all the time”.

One good thing about those green nylon washing lines, everyone had one at one time. They mostly came from the same shop too. One day, Sophie’s dad would find their old washing line still in the shed, or wherever. Then he might wonder where Sophie got her washing line from.

Two days later, it was all but forgotten, and there was no mention of any suspicious circumstances. Everyone, especially her parents, just accepted that Sophie had hung herself in a fit of temper after a couple of years of arguments at home. I was amazed that anyone would believe that of such an egotistical girl who would never dream of killing herself.

Then again, maybe I was the only one who knew what she was really like.

Things got a lot better after that. There was no Sophie to call the shots, so Toni got back in with the girls who had been blanking her. We started to be known as an item, with everyone accepting that Toni was my girlfriend. That made her happy. “Oh, Danny. They are genuinely jealous, because you are so good-looking”. It had never occured to me before that girls might find me attractive.

Uncle Brian did of course, but that was something very different.

When we both turned thirteen, Maria Malone was inviting me in, introducing me to Toni’s older brother, and telling anyone who would listen that I was a ‘really nice boy”.

Then late that summer, during the school holidays, something changed.

Maria took an interest in me. A very personal interest.

Toni told me that she was going to Ireland to visit her auntie and her young cousins for the last ten days of the summer break from school. I presumed her mum was going too, but she was travelling alone. Flying to Dublin airport, where her aunt and uncle would collect her. “It’s not like mum, she always loves to go and see her younger sister. She said I should go though, as the kids won’t see me again until next year”.

The day after she left, I was sitting at home reading a school book. I had left the summer homework until the last minute as always, and when someone knocked on the door, I presumed it would either be the postman, or someone selling something. But it was a surprise to see Maria Malone standing there, smiling.

“Are you any good with a lawnmower? It’s electric, and my boy Liam usually does it. But he has started his apprenticeship now, and the grass is getting long where he doesn’t bother. I don’t want to keep nagging him, so I thought with Toni away you could walk round and help me out?” She carried on smiling as I agreed to come to her house in an hour’s time. When she left, I felt embarrassed that I had forgotten to be polite and ask her in.

Call me naive, but I honestly thought it was a good thing back then. To get in her mum’s good books, help out when I could, and secure my relationship with Toni.

Despite what she had said, the grass wasn’t that long. And the lawn wasn’t that big either, as a concrete patio took up more than half of the medium-sized scruffy garden. The mower was easy to use, and I didn’t have to clear up the cuttings, as it was a hover type that just chopped them up really small. Maria sat on a folding chair watching me, smoking constantly, and drinking what looked like a gin and tonic. When I had finished, she brought me out a can of coke. “It’s warm day, and you did well, young Danny. I’ll make you something to eat now”.

It was tempting to decline her offer of food, and make the excuse of my school work. But I was still wary of upsetting Maria, and in turn affecting Toni in some way.

For some reason, I was shocked to see her turn up in the garden with a delicious bacon and brie panini for me, perfectly cooked. Befitting her painfully thin appearance, she didn’t eat anything, settling on another G&T, accompanied by at least four more cigarettes. I realised I was being snobbish, expecting her to offer some thin tasteless ham, on the cheapest sliced bread. Maria had more class than I had given her credit for.

When I had finished eating, she sat back in her chair and launched into a speech that sounded well-rehearsed. To say it raised my eyebrows is an understatement.

“So, it’s like this. Me and you are going to go upstairs to my bedroom now. My man has been inside for seven years, and I am gagging for sex. I can’t trust anyone I know to provide that for me without my man finding out. So I have chosen you, because my Antonia thinks you’re the bees knees, and I don’t think you would ever tell anyone what happens here. At least if you know what’s good for you. Because after my man had got someone to deal with me, you would be next, so you would”.

The first thing I thought of was that I was now beginning to understand her accent a lot better than the first time I met her.

The second thing I thought of was that my experience with Uncle Brian would not exactly stand me in good stead with women.

The third thing I thought of was that I had little or no chance of satisfying her needs.

The fourth thing I thought of was that she was very skinny, and not remotely attractive.

I told her I had no experience, hoping that would suffice. After all, she knew I was the same age as her daughter, and unlikely to be worldly. Her response was to light another cigarette, and stare at me until I felt very uncomfortable. I sat like that until she had smoked her cigarette, and then she stood up and held out a bony hand.

“Come on now. It wasn’t a request”.

It would be easy enought to sit here now and write that Maria abused me, and I hated every minute of the four hours I was in her bedroom. But that would be a lie.

They say you never forget your first time. Or in my case my first five times.

Naturally, the first go was over in seconds. Maria was very understanding. “No bother, Danny love. You’ll be ready to go again in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Leave it to me.”

Never was a truer word spoken.

As well as what Maria described as ‘straight sex’, there were other delights in her repertoire that are probably best not to go into detail about. Like the old saying goes, I walked into her bedroom a boy, and left it as a man. During the ‘downtime’, Maria went and got us more drinks, smoked an amazing amount of cigarettes, and constantly threatened me not to never tell anyone.

Especially her daughter, Toni.

I knew nothing then about female sexual appetites, but with the benefit of later experience, I can confidently say that hers were ravenous. At no time she did she comment on my age, but she did allow herself to give me a lot of compliments on my looks and general behaviour. At one stage, she came out with a very strange justification of her actions.

“The thing is, boys like you are going to need sex eventually. And with my Antonia being completely mad for you, chances are she would give in and let you do the deed. I can’t have that, Danny. She’s too young, and the chance of getting her with child is too risky. So the best thing for both of us is to give you what you need, and to get some benefit for myself while doing so”.

Like that would ever stand up in court.

When it came time to leave, she surprised me again by coming over all tender and romantic.

“I think you’re a special boy, and I want you to come round while Antonia is over in Dublin. At least during weekdays, so you can do your school work and be with your uncle at weekends. Besides, my Liam is around most weekends, so nothing could ever happen then, so it couldn’t. I want you to be happy with the arrangement, but remember it is not negotiable. I need what I need, and I have chosen you to provide it. Okay then?”

My agreement was immediate, and my nodding in that agreement was frantic.

Though I did wonder what would happen once Toni came home. So I decided to ask her.

“Well I am going to have to come round to your place. I will have a word with your uncle. Everyone around here knows he’s a nonce, and I very much doubt he will raise any objections to me spending time in your room. If he does, he’s a fool. And I don’t think he’s a fool, Danny. He will make himself scarce, believe me”.

She called me Danny from the start. Maximum brownie points.

Maria came with a huge bonus that went further than the unexpected sex. Uncle Brian was terrified of her and her husband, so once I told him he had to clear off out of the house so I could have sex with Toni’s mum, he would have to leave me alone. Or have the Malones to deal with. In many ways, Maria choosing me freed me from his clutches, and provided something I could use to keep him away from for good.

He knew only too well that if I told all to Maria, his time in this life would be short-lived. I had a lot to thank her for, undeniably. As well as providing me with a teenage boy’s dream experience, she could free me from the clutches of a predatory paedophile.

Even though she replaced those clutches with her own, at least she was female.

By the time Toni came back from Ireland, and we had our reunion, I had more sexual experience than most men three times my age.

At that stage, I had little idea that Maria would soon be farming me out to her friends.

Maria would have to go.

Less than a week after Toni got back from Ireland, Maria was standing outside my house when I got home from school. I presumed she wanted more of what she had enjoyed in her bedroom, but I was wrong.

“I’m coming in to wait to see your uncle when he gets home from work”. I opened the door, and she sat on the sofa. “Got anything decent to drink, Danny?”

Uncle Brian’s drinks cupboard was reasonably well-stocked, and she pointed at a bottle of Haig Whiskey. “It’s no Busmills so it isn’t, but I’ll have a large one of those”. I poured it until it filled half a large tumbler, and she lit a cigarette after sipping it. I had to go and find her an ashtray, one of the ones my gran used to use.

“Will he be long, darlin’?” I told her he might not be home for well over an hour, but that didn’t put her off. “Ah, then put the telly on, so. I’ll watch any crap, so I will”.

Looking back now, I was actually disapointed that she didn’t suggest whiling away that hour by going upstairs. By the time my uncle’s key turned in the door, the bottle of Haig was half-empty, and Maria’s speech was starting to slur. He turned white when he saw her sitting there. She ignored him at first, lighting another cigarette, and turning to me.

“Why don’t you go up to your room and make yourself scarce, darlin’.”

Less than thirty minutes later, I heard the front door close with a bang, and went back down into the living room. Brian was drinking the whisky this time, gulping it down from a porcelain tea mug. He looked up at me, and carried on gulping. Then he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

“Christ on a bike, Daniel. That woman’s a bloody psycho! Do you know what she’s done? She got me changed onto late shift at work. Twenty years I have managed to stay on eight ’til fours, and now I have been moved onto the two to ten line. She knows people at my work, the bitch. And I don’t know what you have been saying to her, but she says that if I ever touch you again, I will end up in a cement overcoat at the bottom of the Irish Sea”.

Managing not to laugh, I promised him I had said nothing. In fact that was true. It was just that most people in the town had always had their suspicions about my uncle. And they had all been right of course.

He was too upset to do any cooking, so he phoned up for a Chinese later.

Maria had given me my freedom, although I would have to learn to cook my own meals during weekdays, or live on snacks. Brian was far too scared of her to go against anything she said, even behind the closed doors of our own house. Besides, I might tell on him now, and he could visualise the murky depths of that turbulent sea.

Of course, Maria’s good deed came with a high price, as I soon found out.

With my uncle out of the house until almost eleven every night, my evenings were free. Maria had told Toni she could see me at weekends, but the rest of the time she had to do her studies, and help around the house. She had also not mentioned to me what was about to happen.

The next afternoon as I walked up to the house, I was surprised to see a woman standing there. She wasn’t that old, and she had a toddler in a buggy in front of her. She was also very fat. There was a beer-belly hanging over the waistband of her leggings, and pulling the stained tee shirt above out to maximum stretch. The insides of the thighs of the leggings were threadbare, because her huge legs rubbed together as she walked. She turned and smiled at me, revealing a lurid tattoo on the side of her neck.

“You Danny, yeah? Maria said I could come today. Can we go inside and get on with it? I have to be home to cook my son’s tea when he gets in from college”. I was just about to ask her what she was talking about, when the penny dropped. Once inside, she wheeled the buggy in front of the television, and switched it on. Then she turned back to me, casually pulling off her leggings before removing the tee shirt to reveal more tattoos, and no bra.

“We will have to do it down here, I can’t leave my little girl on her own. Oh, and Maria said thirty quid, but you tell her I have to wait for my benefits, so I will drop it around hers next week”.

Maria was selling me far too cheaply.

The Friday after I had entertained the fat woman earlier in the week, I got home from school to find someone parked outside in a beaten-up old car. The exhaust was tied on with string, and the driver’s door was a different colour to the others. As I walked up the short path to the front door, someone called out. “You Danny, love?” I turned to see a woman opening the odd-coloured door, and calling to me through the gap. I nodded.

She got out and slammed the door, walking toward me without bothering to lock it. Not that anyone in their right mind would steal the thing.

Unlike her overweight predecessor, she was of average size. She was also older. Much, much older. If prompted to guess, I would have said she was at least sixty-five, and that would have been a kindly estimate. Getting closer, she smiled, and her face collapsed into dozens of wrinkles that ran around under her ears.

“Maria said I should come about this time. Is it convenient, love?” I opened the door without answering, and she followed me in. Her first action was to open the large fake leather handbag and produce four ten pound notes. “Shall we get that out of the way first? Maria said that was enough”. I put the money into my trouser pocket, and took off my school blazer and tie before asking if she would like a drink.

Although I had meant tea or coffee, she misread my offer. “I could do with a brandy, I’m really nervous, to be honest. Never done anyfing like this before”. Her accent was coarse London, but I didn’t imagine for a moment she had driven all that way. I found a bottle of Three Barrels at the back of Brian’s drinks cabinet, and poured her a large measure. As I handed it to her, she was looking around the room as if to make sure we were alone.

“Thanks, love. Okay if I smoke? I’ve got the jitters you see”. I nodded, and went to fetch an ashtray. At least she was polite, and she was well-dressed too. She was also keen to talk. “Fing is, me old man’s been inside for longer than we was together. I moved up here to live with me old auntie years ago, then she died last year, so I stayed on. Me old man knows Maria’s bloke in the nick, so we sort-of become friends like”.

Her London accent and grammar became thicker as the brandy and cigarette calmed her down.

“I’m Sandra, but everyone has always called me Sandy. Well, they do don’t they? ‘Cept my Derek of course, always calls me Sarn. I wouldn’t never do anyfink like this normally, but Maria says you can be trusted. Gawd knows what my old man would do if he ever found out”. She swallowed the rest of the brandy, and I picked her glass up and refilled it.

“I’m relying on you to tell me the drill. Do we go upstairs and get stripped off, or what? Maybe we do it here on the sofa? I’m sorry, but I’m nervous, love”. She did seem to be nervous, and very awkward about the situation. Not that I had any sympathy for her, as she was prepared to pay an underage boy for sex, and not enough money for what was on offer either.

The second large brandy relaxed her. “You are cute though, Maria was right about that. Cor, I don’t half fancy you, love”. I thought it best to get it all over with sooner rather than later, so reached down to take her hand, and led her upstairs to the bedroom.

She was actually very affectionate, and very grateful. When it was all over and she was geting dressed, she turned and smiled at me. “You oughta charge more, love. That certainly cleared me sinuses, if you get what I mean”.

I got what she meant.

When I showed her out, she actually leaned forward and kissed me goodbye. Just like we were on a real date.

As I waited for a pizza to cook later, I knew full well that those two women would not be the last. The fat one had mentioned seeing me again soon, so as well as anyone else Maria had lined up, there was going to be repeat business, undoubtedly.

My plan for Maria was already at an advanced stage, but I needed Toni to be out of the way when I implemented it. That meant waiting until the Christmas holidays, when I was certain Maria would send Toni to Ireland again, to get her out of the way. If her brother Liam was around, that didn’t matter.

He could go too.

The weekend gave me some relief from the unwanted callers, and I got to take Toni out for a burger and milkshake, followed by sitting under a shelter in the park because it was raining. She didn’t stop talking about how much her mum liked me.

“Oh, she thinks you’re great, Danny. Says I should stick with you because you are solid and loyal. She actually said I would never find anyone better than you, if I live to be a hundred”.

If only she had known the truth.

When I walked her home and said goodnight, I hadn’t got far before Maria caught me up. She was holding a shop-bought fruit cake, her excuse to come out and talk to me. As I took the cake, she grinned. “I will be around for the money on Monday. That fat bitch Kerry hasn’t paid up, so you can kiss goodbye to your share. Still, I have some better-off women lined up for you, so I do”. I wanted to punch her in the face, but just smiled.

Uncle Brian was walking on eggshells around me. But he cooked a great Sunday dinner the next day, a half-leg of lamb with all the trimmings. The unwanted contact with the Malone family had really shaken him up, and he hated having to work the two to ten shift because nobody on that shift line spoke to him. He was starting to see what the life of a known sex abuser was like, out in the real world.

Maria turned up just after six on that Monday. “So Sandy gave you forty, right? You can keep fifteen, and give me the rest. As for Kerry, when she pays up I will be keeping it all. I don’t like having to wait for me money. Someone else is coming round after seven. Look after her, she’s a lawyer, and a good friend to my family. She will give you a hundred, and I will be back for my share tomorrow. Have yerself a nice bath first, and make sure yer bed has clean sheets”.

I nodded, and handed over the twenty-five pounds.

When the lawyer turned up, I was at a loss as to why she felt the need to pay for sex. She was forty-something, smartly dressed, surprisingly curvy, and very good looking. She was also wearing a wedding ring, and an expensive-looking diamond engagement ring. To tell the truth, I really fancied her. She was businesslike, producing five twenties as soon as she walked through the door, and not telling me her name.

As soon as we got into the bedroom, I discovered why she had to pay for the sex she wanted. She had a serious kink.

“Okay, you call me mummy while I’m here. Just go along with whatever I say or do, and we will both have a nice time”.

She was well-spoken, and wearing expensive underwear. Obviously used to taking charge of the situation, she chatted to me as if I was her son, and then did things mums and sons rarely do. At least in my experience. Even though I did have a nice time, as she said I would, the strange scenario she stage-managed was very off-putting. When she left, I was hoping she never came back.

The next day after school, Maria showed up as she had said she would. “Well, you did very well with the lawyer. I got a bonus for that, so you can keep sixty”.

Having Maria alone for a while as I went to get the forty pounds, I started to implement my plan. Hard as it was to carry off, I told her I missed her, and while it was all very nice that she was sending her friends and contacts around to have sex with me, it was her I really wanted. The flattery worked, and she said I could go to her house once Toni was not in the country.

“She’s off to see family in Ireland in December. You can come round one day then, so you can”. She was stroking my face and smiling at me as she stuffed the money into the pocket of her jeans with the other hand.

Vanity was going to be her downfall, and I didn’t have too long to wait until the Christmas holidays.

The day before Toni flew out to Ireland, I gave Uncle Brian some money and asked him to buy me a bottle of Bushmills when he went shopping. I told him the truth, that it was a Christmas gift for Maria, to keep her sweet.

It was never going to be wrapped and go under a tree though.

My uncle was taking Vallium now, after telling his doctor that he was very stressed at work. I had already stolen a few of his tablets from the bottle in the bathroom cabinet, and when he gave me the whisky, I crushed three of them into a fine powder, before adding it to the Bushmills and giving it a good shake.

Since the visit of the kinky lawyer, and before Toni flew out of the country, Maria had sent two more women to my house in the late afternoon. One of them had cried after, and said she felt ashamed. The other one wanted me to tie her hands to the headboard with some cord she had brought along, then swear at her while we did it.

I guessed that most were wives of prisoners doing time, or contacts like the lawyer, and I was beginning to wonder just how many women Maria knew who were willing to pay for sex so their husbands never found out they were being unfathful.

As well as the money, their meetings with me gave Maria a huge hold over all of them. One anonymous word from her to the police, and they would be arrested.

The arrangement to see Maria was on the first Monday of the school holidays. It was cold and bright, and she told me to come to her house just after three. To hide the fact that the Bushmills had already been opened, I kept my hand around the top as I showed it to her, then pretended to crack the cap as she went to get her tumbler. I knew it was her favourite tipple, and she needed no second bidding to pour a large slug.

Once that had been gulped down, she smiled at me as she refilled her glass. “We’ll have to do it down here, so we will. My Liam’s in bed upstairs with the flu. He’s taken some medicine, and he’s fast asleep. So keep the noise down”. I wondered why she said that, as I never made any noise.

When the second drink was almost gone, she struggled out of her skinny-fit jeans and panties then sprawled out on the sofa in her version of a seductive pose. I did some of my best acting, pretending to be excited by her, and saying lots of things that she loved hearing. When it was over she was beginning to look very tired, and filled her glass again after lighting a cigarette. “Did you bring the money from the last one? Did she ask you to tie her up? She said she might”.

I handed over the sixty pounds, and she gave me back thirty. “You’re a good boy. Here, take half”.

Lying back on the sofa with her jeans still crumpled on the floor in front of her, she took another big swallow of the whisky, then yawned noisily. “Jeezus, Mary, and Joseph, I feel bloody tired. Must have had too much of the old Black Bush without eating”. Her eyelids were flapping, and I could see her screwing up her eyes, trying to focus on me from across the room.

Moments later, the tumbler fell out of her hand, and her head tipped back onto the cushion. She was out cold.

In her kitchen, I carefully tipped the vintage gas cooker forward until the safety chain stopped it falling. The racks inside made a scraping sound, but it wasn’t too loud. I could see the rubber gas pipe connecting from the wall into the cooker, and I used a tea towel wrapped around the connection to loosen it. It was harder than I expected, but the rubber was old and greasy, and eventually shifted.

The tiny hiss I could hear as the gas began to escape was all I would need. As it was so cold, every window in the house was closed, and with the living room next door, the gas would soon find a level. Easing the cooker back into place, I left the house quietly, hearing Maria snoring as I closed the door with an almost inaudible click.

Lying on my bed writing an essay for homework, I checked the time on my digital alarm clock. It was just after seven, and I was starting to feel hungry.

As I got up to go downstairs and make something for dinner, the explosion from three streets away rattled our windows, and made my ears pop.

No chance of getting much sleep that night. When Uncle Brian got home, he was chattering about the event that was a big deal on the estate.

“Gas explosion, they reckon. It was on the news in the car radio. Two dead, one critical”. After the sirens of the emergency vehicles stopped, there was a helicopter flying around, shining a big beam of light to aid the rescuers.

I was watching it from the front room window, when I suddenly realised what Brian had said. I asked him to repeat it.

“The news said one house was almost demolished. There was one dead inside, and one taken to hospital. Then in the house next door, someone was killed when a wall collapsed on her”.

I had to wait for the early news to find out more. I got Brian to ring the school and say I was sick. I felt too tired to spend the day concentrating on lessons. By the time of the third bulletin on the local news, the full extent of what had happened was known.

It was being treated as a domestic gas explosion. The gas company and Fire Brigade investigators were examining the scene, and the street was cordoned off. But according to the policeman being interviewed, there was no further danger to the public, and it was regarded as non-suspicious. The person found dead was described as a woman in her forties, and a teenage boy was in intensive care with life-changing injuries. A seventy-eight year-old woman in the adjoining house had been removed from the rubble, and pronounced dead on scene.

On the six o’clock news, they were named. With the additional information that Liam had died of his injuries and burns just after four that afternoon.

Following that explosion, much of my life changed. Not all for the better.

There was a tearful phone call from Toni. She suggested that her mum had got drunk, then lit a cigarette as soon as she woke up. I agreed that sounded likely, especially as it was the part of my plan that I had been counting on. Between the tears, and blowing her nose, Toni had more news.

“The bodies are being brought back to Ireland for burial, Danny. They won’t let my dad out of prison to attend the funeral in case he tries to escape. The thing is, I have nowhere to live now, so have to stay here in Ireland, and live with my auntie. I hope you can come and visit me soon, perhaps your uncle will give you the money to fly over?” I told her I would ask him, and that I was going to be very sad that she couldn’t come home. Which was true.

But I never saw her again.

Brian was delighted at the news, and told me he was going to change back to day shifts. But when he went into work, they refused to let him change, and the men on his team who didn’t like him warned him he was still being watched. One even suggested that he might have been responsible, seeking revenge on the Malones. Now he was even more scared than he had been before.

The Friday afternoon after the explosion, someone came to the door not long after I got in from school. It was Sandy. She smiled as I opened it. “Got a spare hour, love? I’ve got forty quid for you, and now you can keep all the money”. I let her in. Might as well make some money out of it, now I wasn’t giving most of it to Maria.

Though when fat Kerry turned up the following week pushing her toddler in the buggy, I told her in no uncertain terms that she should never call at the house again.

Now I got to choose.

By the time I turned fourteen, I had six hundred pounds saved up, stashed in an old pair of school shoes in my wardrobe. My regular women callers had spread the word around their friends, and I kept a diary using initial letters and times to indicate when to expect them. I limited it to three times a week though, so as not to let my studies suffer.

For Uncle Brian, they were bad times. The silence at work had turned to outright bullying, and he was too scared to mention it to his bosses. More and more, he relied on his anti-depressant tablets, and he let the housework go until the place started to look like a tip. I was fed up doing all the chores, and eating crap because he couldn’t be bothered to cook.

Time to have a serious word with him.

Shaking Uncle Brian out of his doldrums wasn’t easy. I had to resort to threatening to report him to the police in the end. I was bluffing of course, as that would likely have seen me end up in a children’s home, with my dad not offering to house me, and me not wanting to live with him anyway.

But it worked. Brian came off the tablets, and started to do his share around the house. He would cook meals before leaving for work, and I could hot them up when I was hungry at dinnertime.

To cheer himself up, Brian took a week’s holiday and went off to visit Amsterdam, telling me he had never been there. I wasn’t invited, which was just as well, as I wouldn’t have gone with him. To be honest, I didn’t actually believe he was going to Holland. More likely meeting some other men with similar sexual proclivities nearer to home.

The weekend when he was away, I took the opportunity to search the house properly. I knew he would have incriminating stuff hidden away, and by the time it got dark that Saturday, I had found most of it. He did hide it quite well, but chose places that I had seen used on many crime shows or films. Large envelopes taped to the underside of drawers in the bedroom, others placed behind the desk he used in the tiny spare room not much larger than a cupboard.

Most of what I found was as expected. CD-roms and home-burned DVDs containing thousands of indecent photos of young boys. Memory sticks with video clips of boys engaging in sex with older men. Including Brian, who could clearly be identified in at least a dozen clips. I replaced them all very carefully, exactly as I found them. They could wait until the time came.

Then leafing through a tattered box file that was in plain sight on top of a bookshelf, I found something that I really hadn’t expected. It was my paternal grandmother’s will, signed and witnessed on a date I recognised. My fifth birthday. It came with an accompanying letter from one of the more reputable solicitors in the town, and the contents of the will itself were very short.

She had left everything to me, her only grandson. I could claim my inheritance, which consisted of the house and contents, on my eighteenth birthday.

Nobody had ever mentioned that.

Not willing to take a chance that those papers could be destroyed, I removed them from the box file, and took them up into the loft, wrapped in tinfoil. At the back of the loft where nothing was stored, I lifted the fibreglass insulation, and slipped my little parcel under it. Even if Brian noticed they were missing, which seemed unlikely as the box file was covered in thick dust, I doubted he would ever mention it to me.

If he did, he might have to tell me what was on the paperwork.

Finding the will changed everything. I had a goal now, and a fixed date to look forward to. In less than four years, I would inherit the house. Once I had been to see the solicitor, I would give Uncle Brian the bad news. He would be out on his ear.

That gave me something I wasn’t used to, peace of mind. I became a nicer person, more content, more forgiving.

When Sandy arrived early on Monday evening as arranged, she had someone with her, a mousey-looking, quiet woman who looked to be about ten years younger than Sandy. I was a little confused at first, and asked if they wanted to both go upstairs with me at the same time. Sandy laughed so hard, she almost choked.

“Nah, nuffink like that, darlin’. Rachel’s me younger sister, ain’t she? Got the train all the way up from London just for today. She’s got the money, forty as usual”. I was in such a good mood after discovering the will, I told her that Rachel could have a freebie.

That good mood continued for the rest of the year. I did well at school, remained pleasant to Brian, and soon had almost fourteen hundred stashed. I had to use two pairs of shoes to hide it by then.

And since Maria, I hadn’t killed anyone.

Honest truth.

Life continued to calm down, and I carried on doing well at school. On my sixteenth birthday, Uncle Brian bought me a fancy watch with a metal bracelet. He told me it was the one James Bond wore.

Like I believed that for a second.

He was still being bullied at work, both mentally and physically. I suggested that he change jobs. For one thing, the local bus companies were looking for drivers, and the pay wasn’t far removed from what he was earning. I was surprised by his response.

“I won’t let those bastards beat me, Daniel. They can push me around, steal my food, refuse to answer me when I talk to them. But I am what I am, and it’s too late to change that now. If I stick it out, they will eventually get tired of it”. I was impressed by his optimistic outlook, but thought he had really missed the point.

They would never give up. It wasn’t going to go away.

I had whittled down my female visitors to two regulars by then, including Sandy. With eighty pounds a week coming in from their visits, I now had well over two grand, even allowing for treating myself to a new X-Box, and some nice clothes. I only had two years to wait, and then everything would get so much better.

Then we got a new Games teacher.

Mr McCarthy replaced the much younger Mr Addison. He had got married, and was moving to New Zealand, so the rumour had it. McCarthy was a very different animal. Late forties, ex-drill instructor in the army, and in every way possible, a complete bastard.

Yes, he was hard on us in Football and Rugby. As for P.E., he would run you ragged until you collapsed. But that was only the half of it. When it came to shower time, he was there. Perving over the naked boys as they showered, then turning to watch them as they got dressed by the lockers next door. He showed undue interest in a couple of us, including me.

Uncle Brian had told me enough about the signs and indications over the years, so I immediately realised his intentions. Dominic was a quiet boy, studious, and no trouble. McCarthy would pick on him during class in the gym, and whatever we were doing, Dom was never good enough at it. But when he received no reciprocal signals from Dominic, he transferred his affections to me. I knew all about signals from Brian, so it was easy to lead McCarthy on.

His time in this life was limited from the first time he winked at me.

Managing to divert his attention from Dominic, I soon had the horrible man on the hook. Like a lot of them, he was married, and even had a daughter at university. And also like a lot of them, he led a double life of abusing teenage boys, I instinctively knew that. At the age of sixteen, strictly speaking we were legal. But that didn’t apply to teachers, who had a duty of care to their pupils.

Not only would they lose their jobs, they would almost certainly get a custodial sentence in prison.

But that was never going to be enough for my liking. Not for McCarthy.

He managed to instigate first contact by stopping his car to offer me a lift into school one day. I later found out he lived in the opposite direction, so had clearly looked up my address and cruised around until he spotted me. McCarthy wasn’t very original, pulling the seat belt across me after I got in, to get as close as possible, then allowing his hand to brush my leg every time he changed gear.

“You got a girlfriend at school, Daniel? A good-looking boy like you must have your pick of the girls”. I told him I didn’t have a girlfriend, then for good measure I added that I found girls a bit silly, and not that interesting to be around. He told me that his wife was boring, and he had been pleased to see his daughter leave to go to university as she was lazy and argumentative.

“I would have preferred a son. Someone like you would have been good, Daniel”.

When he dropped me off, I asked him if he wanted to give me a lift home later, and I would meet him at the back of the school grounds so nobody would see me getting in his car. I told him my uncle was at work until at least ten, and he could stay for a cup of tea if he wanted.

He could hardly speak with excitement, and his throat sounded dry.

“That would be lovely. Thank you”.

McCarthy was very talkative in the car. “Call me Patrick, but never in school of course. I could tell right away you were interested, Daniel. You gave me the look, and that got me excited at the prospect of talking to you. That’s why I offered you the lift this morning”.

He also told me he had left his previous school and moved over one hundred miles to get away from possible accusations that might have destroyed his life. I was actually shocked at how much he wanted to tell me.

“There was a boy at my old school. You know how it goes, we liked each other straight off. He wanted me, and I felt the same. It lasted a year, until he was almost fifteen. He told me he loved me, and wanted to live with me when he could. I told him that could never happen, but I never realised he would hang himself once he knew that. People had seen me giving him extra attention at school, and they started talking about that. Before any trouble started, I applied to change jobs, and ended up here”.

I assured him I wouldn’t be killing myself over anyone, certainly not him.

“It’s easy to see you’re special, Daniel, it really is”. To confirm what we both knew was going to happen, he ran his hand up my leg as he said that, and licked his lips.

Once we got back to my house, he parked around the corner. Inside, I abandoned all pretence of offering him a cup of tea, and suggested we go up to my room.

Looking back, I have to be honest now. It wasn’t that bad. Much better than putting up with Uncle Brian, and lots of affection and tenderness, which was totally unexpected. In different circumstances, I could see how I might be quite happy with him. But the circumstances were not different. He was a teacher, and a horrible bastard teacher into the bargain. He liked me so much, he rang his wife and told her he was held up with reports at school. Then stayed for a second session, not leaving until almost seven-thirty.

After that first time, he was completly smitten. He left Dominic alone, and changed his teaching style completely. Some of the other kids at school were wondering how come he had suddenly become a nice guy. Only I knew the answer to that.

During that school term, I let him have his way with me once a week, keeping him keen. But he wanted more, and at weekends, when he could tell his wife he was attending various sporting events. When I told him he couldn’t come round at weekends because Uncle Brian would be home, he devised a plan. Renting a garage not far from where he lived, he took me there one Saturday afternoon.

To make sure that nobody saw him picking me up in his car, I had to meet him by a bus stop on the south side of town. That was when I discovered he lived nowhere near me.

Even if I had really wanted to get together with him, the choice of a rented lock-up was pretty seedy. Having sex in the back of his car lit by flourescent strip lighting was far from my idea of an affair. He tried to sweeten the pill by bringing along lots of snacks and soft drinks. As a health-freak, he didn’t drink alcohol, and that removed the Maria option.

But that garage gave me an idea.

To make it work, I had to convince him I was crazy about him. Given my experience over the previous three years, that was easy enough to do. I was so convincing, he even talked about leaving his wife when I was eighteen, taking early retirement on two pensions, and us moving in together once I was done with education.

Like Maria, vanity was his undoing.

I still had some of Brian’s unused vallium, and together with half of an old hosepipe from the garden shed, that was all I needed.

One Sunday afternoon, after a particularly passionate meeting in his car in the garage, I produced a two-litre bottle of coca-cola from a rucksack I had brought along. He gulped down almost half if it, flushed as he was, and had no idea it contained ten of Brian’s vallium tablets. I offered a second time, which he jumped at, but when that was over, he fell fast asleep in the back of his car.

Pulling up his trousers, I made sure three of the car windows were shut tight. Then I opened the back one above his head just enough to get the end of the hosepipe through. Once it was in place, I jammed his jacket into the gap, then placed the other end into the car’s exhaust pipe, wrapped in some rags I found in the old garage.

My last job was to start the car, leave the engine running, check that the fumes were filling the car, and then leave after closing the up and over door shut tight too.

Some opportunist criminals found McCarthy’s body just after dark. They were trying to break into the remote garages, and no doubt were delighted to find the door unlocked. Less delighted by what greeted them inside, they made an anonymous call to the police then ran away.

Just as I had hoped, suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning was immediately believed to be the cause of death. Even with no suicide note, it looked completely non-suspicious, and a quick check on his background soon revealed the allegations in his former job, and his hurried departure to our town. It got a brief mention on the local news that Monday evening, and that was that.

Unusally, there was no special assembly in school, and his unexpected departure was never mentioned.

What followed for me was a period of contentment and reflection. I reflected on the fact that I was connected to every death in some way, however tenuous. If someone ever investigated them as a whole, I would end up being the main suspect. But I wasn’t worried, as I felt secure in the knowledge that there was no evidence whatsoever. They would never get enough to charge me for any of the killings, let alone all of them.

My little sister had suffocated on a toy that was too big for her cot.
Paul Carpenter had drowned on a solo swimming trip in a dangerous place.
Sophie had been depressed after arguments with her parents, and had hung herself.
Maria was a drunken criminal who had blown herself up by lighting a cigarette during a gas leak. Nobody missed her.
Liam and the old woman next door were unintentional. Yeah, sorry about that.
McCarthy deserved what he got. I suspected that other victims of his lust were cheering his death.

Eight deaths. Six deliberate murders, two collateral damage. Not that much, compared to famous killers.

I had no desire to be famous, so it was time to take a break. Leave some space between any deaths that might later be associated with me.

Get on with my studies, and fiocus on my next milestone, becoming seventeen and getting a driving licence. Three months before my birthday, I attended a careers exhibition at the school, and got chatting to representatives of the company I worked for eventually. They liked my grades, and said that if I didn’t go on to university, they would train me up on a management programme in the less than fascinating career of delivery logistics.

That appealed to me for two reasons. It wasn’t that far from where I lived, and the pay was good.

That same day, Uncle Brian decided to buy a new car. Being Brian, it was nothing exciting. A standard Ford Fiesta four-door in factory red, with no extras. He took out a two-year loan, after paying a substantial deposit, and collected the car the following Saturday. I suggested that he could put me on the insurance once I had my provisional licence, and take me out on ‘L’ plates. He grinned.

“Do you have any idea how much that might cost? An inexperienced driver of seventeen? Too much, that’s how much. Best you think about proper driving lessons when you can afford them”. I grinned back. He would learn the hard way.

The exams that summer went well, and I passed everything I hoped for. My plan was to leave school after the Easter break, and start my new job the first week in May. Meanwhile, I received my learner licence, and booked an intensive driving course for the second week of the summer holidays. It was very expensive, especially the one-to-one option that I chose. Picked up in a company car in the morning, and driving for most of the day, with practical classroom work before they dropped me back at home.

It lasted from Monday to Friday, with the official driving test pre-booked for the following Monday. If Brian wondered where I had got all the money from, he never asked me.

Passing first time wasn’t a done deal, but I was very pleased to receive the slip that meant I was a qualified driver. The next day before Brian went to work, I told him that not only did he have to put me on the insurance for the Fiesta, he had to sign the car over to me, as the new owner. Once he had paid it off, it would be mine.

As soon as he started to ridicule my idea, I only had to mention informing the police of what he had been doing to me, and he nodded.

Then he shut himself in his room until he had to leave for work.

My uncle had to make the best of his new situation. I was now firmly in control of things, and had both sets of car keys. As annoyed as he was, he had to comply, and still bought the shopping and did the cooking. He had to go to the supermarket on the bus now though, and struggle home with the bags.

As for commuting to and from work, he went to the local Halfords and bought a basic bicycle. I laughed as I imagined him pedalling along the main road, as he probably hadn’t been on a bike for forty years. I told him he had to buy a safety helmet too. I couldn’t risk him being killed in an accident.

At least not until I was eighteen.

My new job was not quite what I expected it to be. The training programme supposed to direct me into a managerial role started off from ‘the bottom up’, as my boss liked to say. That meant I was doing everything from making tea for the warehouse staff, to stacking the waste cardboard and tying it in bundles ready for collection.

If it was meant to humiliate me, or break me, I didn’t let it. The pay was the same, whatever I did, and I had Brian’s new car, now my new car, to drive to and from my job.

One of the long-serving fork lift drivers started to pick on me though. Derek Fox was a heavily-tattooed man who favoured the wearing of sleeveless vests under his hi-vis waistcoat. That meant his voluminous chest hair protruded through the gap like a huge bunch of salt and pepper grey broccoli. He thought it was funny to send me on pointless tasks, like going to the equipment stores and asking for a Long Weight. I was naive enough not to realise that meant a long wait.

And I stood there for thirty minutes before it dawned on me.

Another day, he was fiddling around at the back of his fork lift, and called me over. “This isn’t working, you need to go to the stores and get me a bucket of steam”. I didn’t fall for that one of course, but I went to the stores anyway. I could hear Derek and his mates laughing behind my back.

He was on borrowed time.

The second part of my induction was learning how to drive a fork lift, and working with the regular mechanic to service them, and do basic repairs. He was a nice bloke, and complimented me on how well I drove the awkward vehicle. “You’re a natural, Danny. Some of the new starters take weeks to get the hang of it”.

He called me Danny, so Tom became my friend.

Now I was in a real job, with only four weeks holiday a year, my regular women could no longer come to the house until much later. Sandy stayed regular though, and her forty quid a week paid for my lunches, and petrol for the car. I had grown to like her a lot, and one day she had news for me. “My old man died in prison. They said it was Angina. I’m going to move back down south and live with me sister. Gonna miss you, darlin’”.

I let her off paying that day, for old time’s sake. Maybe it was time to look for a real girlfriend.

Before that, Derek had to pay for his ridicule.

The company got a new contract, delivering electrical goods to a big chain of high street shops. There were all sorts of things like fridges, washing machines, freezers, and televisions. When they came in from the manufacturers, they were stacked really high in the warehouse, until the individual orders from the shops came in. I was on my last week working alongside the mechanic, when I heard the warehouse manager talking to Derek.

“There will be some overtime for you tonight, if you want it. I need forty washing machines brought down from the stacks, and put on pallets for tomorrow’s distribution loading.” Derek jumped at the chance to earn the extra money, and I carried on working, as if I had heard nothing.

As people started to leave at the end of the day, Derek went into the staff canteen to make something to eat before he started his overtime. The night team were due in later, and he would work with them for the couple of hours it took. It was easy enough for me to hang around, telling the mechanic I would put away the tools, and clean up.

Onece nobody was around, I walked over to where Derek’s fork lift was parked. He had fitted a whip aerial onto the back, with a fake fox’s tail attached. Everyone called him Foxy, because of his surname, and he had seen fit to personalise his truck.

All that was needed was to loosen the main hydraulic fitting. Just a little bit, enough for a tiny leak that wouldn’t be noticed at first.

Two turns with a big spanner.

Everyone was talking about the accident when I got to work the next morning. The Police had reported it to the Health and Safety Executive, and until they arrived to investigate, the fork-lift and the area surrounding it had been roped off.

My plan almost failed, but fortunately Derek made it work by default. As the fork lift grabbed the pallet containing four washing machines, Derek had reversed back as normal, with the heavy-duty machine easily taking the weight. Then the pressure ruptured the loose hydraulic joint and the whole machine tipped forward as the support failed. There were a couple of safety bars above the driver’s seat, and had Derek stayed in that, there was a good chance he would have walked away uninjured.

But according to the night supervisor, he jumped out of his seat to get away from the tipping vehicle, just happening to stand directly under a falling washing machine in its heavy packing case. It fell onto his back, square across his neck and shoulders. The ambulance took him to the General as an emergency, lights flashing and sirens wailing. But he was pronounced dead in the Casualty Department, with a broken neck.

That day, the boss asked me to start training on the despatch system in the office. As I sat there, I could hear all the phone calls coming and going. The night supervisor had reported the failure of the main hydraulic connection, and Tom had been called in from home before midnight. That morning he was nowhere to be seen, and I discovered he had been suspended on pay, pending the investigation.

The boss made a few calls to the company lawyers, and the insurance company. If Derek’s family sued, the payout could be huge.

Nobody asked me anything about the accident. I had been at home, and nowhere near the depot.

Quiet Alice from the accounts office came round at lunchtime. She had an old biscuit box, and was collecting money to send to Derek’s family. “Everyone is putting in, Daniel. Most have given ten quid, but you don’t get paid that much so five will do. I placed a five pound note in the box, and she smiled. “You’re a good lad, thanks”.

The enquiry was actually a big deal. The Coroner had words to say about workplace safety at the inquest, and the local TV news and papers took up the story. They interviewed Derek’s wife on TV, and she was suitably tearful. What surprised me was how attractive and sexy she was. Derek had definitely been punching above his weight in the marriage department.

Poor Tom had to go. The insurance company settled out of court with Derek’s wife, and the rumour was that she accepted two hundred grand. The company was fined another ten grand for allowing the use of an unsafe fork lift truck, and Tom was the sacrificial lamb, sacked with one month’s pay.
I felt a bit bad about that. Just a bit.

Accounts Alice didn’t come round with her biscuit box for him.

Working in the office seemed to be my ideal environment. I picked up the distribution rotas really quickly, and after three months, I was handling phone calls from ten of the biggest clients we had. They used to ask for me personally, and only liked to deal with me. The distribution manager used to look at me a bit sideways when they asked for me, but he always called me Danny, and never took the piss out of me.

He was safe.

Busy learning the ropes, I had almost forgotten about getting a girlfriend, then someone arrived who solved that problem for me.

Olivia liked to be called Livvy. I could completely identify with that. She had just left sixth-form college, and it was her first job. Her duties were general office work. Filing, typing, photocopying, and transferring phone calls. She was good at everything, and I couldn’t see her staying too long.

Everyone fancied her. Curvy, long black hair, something of a mediterranean look about her that didn’t go with her surname of Radcliffe at all. Like most young women, she wore a lot of make-up, and her skirts were very short. Our company was far from being a flagship of political correctness, and every man under the age of fifty flirted with her outrageously. A couple of the older women too, including Accounts Alice.

But I played it cool, and studiously avoided looking up her skirt, or showing out to her.

Eventually, she came to me.

Livvy started by occasionally sauntering over to my desk to ask me about things I knew she already knew the answer to. She would lean in a little too close, slide her foot out of her shoe while she was talking, and many other things I already recognised as signals. It took her a couple of weeks before she made the plunge to ask me outright for a favour.

“I was wondering if you could give me a lift home tonight, Danny? It has started pouring down, and I will get soaked waiting for the bus”.

In the car, she gave me directions to a road in a part of town I didn’t really know. It was out on the way to the Golf Club, in an affluent district I never had cause to visit. As we got closer to her parents’ house she tried to suggest something in a casual maner, but it sounded like a prepared speech.

“Have you seen the latest Spider-Man film? I was thinking of going to see it on Friday after work, and wondered if it was any good”. Given how everyone was so attracted to her, I was surprised she didn’t seem to have a boyfriend. So I asked if she was planning to go to the cinema with a friend on Friday. Her reply was too eager.

“Oh I had a boyfriend while I was at college, but he went up to university in Durham, and we decided to split up. Long-distance relationships are always fragile, don’t you think?” That reminded me of Toni moving to Ireland, but I didn’t mention that, just nodded. As I turned into her road, she sounded a bit desperate.

“You could come with me if you want, as you haven’t seen it”. I had no interest in the Spider-Man film, but agreed to go. I said we could go straight from work on Friday, and I would take her for a drink before, and a pizza after. Her smile lit up her face. “That’s a date then”.

The film wasn’t my sort of thing, but she seemed to enjoy it. She even tried to buy her own ticket, but I wouldn’t let her pay. In the pizza place, she asked me lots of questions about my home life, and I told her things were going to change drastically in a few weeks, when I became eighteen. I paid the bill there too, and she touched my hand as we waited for my change. “You are such a gentleman, Danny”.

When I stopped the car outside her house, she made no effort to get out, sitting waiting for me to kiss her.

So I did, for quite a long time.

Then I asked if she wanted to go out with me again, and she nodded vigourously. “Of course I do, silly”.

We became a couple that night, and she soon told everyone at work that she was my girlfriend. Her parents were well-off, and often went away at weekends to a holiday home they owned at Southwold. After three dates, Livvy told me I could stop over the following Saturday night. “If you want to, Danny. It’s up to you”.

I told her I wanted to.

Before we went to sleep that night, she was lying next to me, holding me close. “Oh wow, Danny, that was amazing. I never expected anything like that. Where did you learn to be such a wonderful lover?” I just smiled and said it was natural talent. I wasn’t about to let her into the dark side of my life.

Two days before I was eighteen, I rang and made an appointment with the solicitor for the day of my birthday. I took the day off work, and that evening I was going out with Livvy, who wanted to take me for a celebratory Chinese meal. Uncle Brian had asked me what I wanted as a present, and I told him I didn’t want anything.

He had looked very nervous when I said that.

When I showed the solicitor the will I had retrieved from the loft, he was polite and businesslike. “Yes, we hold the deeds here, and a copy of the will. The property can be transferred to you quite easily, just a few days to complete the paperwork, and you will own it”. I asked if that meant I could sell the house, and he nodded. “It will be your property, to dispose of as you see fit”.

That was music to my ears.

The Chinese meal was excellent, and Livvy had bought me a digital watch too. It was only a Casio, but the thought was there.

As a bonus, we had sex in the back of the car, in the deserted car park of the Golf Club.

Uncle Brian looked suitably ashamed when I told him the news. He had known all along that the house had been left to me, and never said a word. I pushed him about my dad knowing too, and he phoned in sick from work so he could drink himself senseless later.

“Yes, when your gran died, we had a reading of the will, and I was angry that she had left everything to you. Your dad was furious about that too. It was our legacy, Daniel. It should have been shared between us, not left to you. I told him we should make a joint will, leaving both our assets to you when we were gone. But you were only five, and he said we could think about it later”.

It was when I told him he had two days to move out that he opened the bottle of Dewars.

Unknown to him at the time, I had already retrieved his hidden photos and memory sticks from their hiding places. Everything had been stashed away in a large padded envelope I took from work. I had hidden it in the well under the floor of the boot in the Fiesta. On top of where the spare wheel sat. And he had no keys to that car.

Once he started to pack up his stuff, he would have noticed they were gone. But he was too scared of me to ask about them. I told him he could take nothing from the house, except the the clothes and personal possessions he could carry. He had to hire a small van, once he found a bedsit to rent above a cafe in town.

Making sure to be around on the morning he moved out, I stood stone-faced as he loaded his pathetic pile of stuff into it. Last but not least, he crammed his bicycle on top of everything, and left without turning to look at me. He thought he had been punished, and was receiving his just desserts.

But he had no idea. I had only just started to take retribution on him.

Another visit to the solicitor saw me instructing him to sell the house. It needed work of course, but I was prepared to take a fair offer, as long as it was a speedy cash sale and did not require many viewings. I had an idea that a local builder would buy it, then convert the three-bedroom house into two flats. That had happened to quite a few properties in our street over the years.

Meanwhile, I visited a new development close to the old canal. Smart modern flats with canal views. One bedroom, an open plan kitchen/living room, and a balcony. One car park space in the underground car park. I was interested in the Show Flat, and after some rapid negotiation, I bought it as seen, fully equipped with everything. The deposit cleared out my savings, but it was worth it.

Livvy was very excited by my news.

“Oh, that means we will always have somewhere to be together. You are so lucky, Danny. I wish I could move out of home, but I can’t afford it”.

The house sold for cash in four days. A builder, as I suspected. The price was fair, and almost twice the cost of my new small one-bed flat. That meant I could pay cash too, and put a large amount into my savings account, all legal.

There was no point taking all the old crap from Gran’s house, so I hired two skips, and spent a weekend dumping the lot. On moving day, I took two days off work, and only had to move all my clothes, and a bit of personal stuff. I walked away from that house with mixed memories of living there.

Most of them bad ones.

The day after I moved into the canal-side flat, I took the large padded envelope to a post-office on the other side of town. It was addressed to the Chief Constable of the county police. Inside was an anonymous note, with Brian’s name, and the new address of the bedsit above the cafe.

It wasn’t that long before they arrested him.

Uncle Brian’s trial wasn’t just of local interest, it went national. I soon realised I had little idea just how much of a kingpin my uncle was, in the dark world of paedophile porn. What I had found hidden was the tip of the iceberg.

They tore the house apart with a search warrant, much to the annoyance of the new owner. The house revealed more secrets, when they started to lift floorboards, discovering things he had kept hidden since he was a teenager. Mostly old negatives and black and white photos, and always involving young boys, with many featuring a clearly identifiable young Brian too.

He had obviously forgotten they were there.

His defence counsel tried to assert that he was abused by his father, a man I had never met, so became an abuser because of his backgroud. But as the trial dragged on and more and more evidence was presented to a shocked courtroom, it was plain to see that he had taken the whole thing to a new level. When it was finally over, and he had been found guilty, the judge gave Brian a piece of her mind, telling him she had never experienced such distressing evidence, nor presided over the trial of such a calculating and evil man.

Then his previous convictions were revealed, most of them before he was thirty.

Shaking her head with disgust at the sentencing hearing, the judge gave Brian twenty-four years, one of the longest sentences handed out for such offences at the time. Then she added that he should serve a minimum of eighteen years before even being considered for parole, so he was less likely to be a danger to children. His legal team appealed the harsh sentence, not long after.

The appeal was lost.

Naturally, I had been interviewed by the police. I told them I had never been molested by my uncle, and had no idea what he had been up to. I wasn’t about to have my life tarnished by being known as the victim of a sex offender. I didn’t attend any of the trial, just read the reports or watched the TV news. My dad went into hiding soon after. I was later told that he left his job and moved away. The distant relative who told me added that Brian had interfered with him too, and like me, he hadn’t spoken up.

Livvy knew of course, as did everyone at work. Their attitude was to be sympathetic, and support me if I needed it. Which I didn’t.

Nobody ever asked if I had been involved, not once.

Things went well at work. Uncle Brian was soon forgotten, and I became invaluable to the company. On my twenty-first birthday, Livvy talked about moving in with me.

“I spoke to mum and dad about it, Danny. They say it’s okay. What do you think? It’s going to be a long time before I can ever afford to buy anywhere of my own, and there’s enough room for me in your cosy flat, don’t you think?”

She had spoken to her parents before asking me. I was tempted to say that her dad could afford to buy her a flat outright, but kept quiet. I had met her parents many times by then, and found them to be fake and shallow. He owned a property management company, and to my mind was over-extended financially. The holiday home in Suffolk, a new car for him and his wife every year, plus the occasional exotic holiday, like three weeks in The Maldives last December.

Yet his daughter didn’t even drive or own a car, and she couldn’t afford the deposit on a studio flat. He was either strapped for cash, or just plain mean. As for her mum, she spent most of her time either shopping, or having her hair done. She hadn’t worked since Livvy had been conceived.

Desite all that, I told Livvy she could move in. I liked her a lot, and was even thinking about marrying her one day. But not yet.

Once she was living with me, Livvy went to night school to study for better qualifications. She was a hard worker, doing most of the cleaning and cooking as well as her studies, and she never complained about me at all.

Not once.

Maybe I would marry her now, instead of waiting. I thought about buying a ring the following weekend, and proposing.

Then something unexpected happened.

Livvy got home from night school complaining of a blinding headache. She told me she had vomited in the street, during the short walk home.

“It was so embarrassing, Danny. People walking by were looking at me. I bet they thought I was drunk or something. I’m going to take some painkillers and go straight to bed”.

After watching a film later, I went to bed just before midnight. Livvy was snoring loudly, something she had never done before. I slipped in quietly next to her, making sure not to get too close, and wake her up.

The groaning woke me up at two in the morning. She was rolling from side to side, and making a noise like some old man or something. I switched on the bedside lamp, and immediately saw and smelled vomit on the top of the duvet, and the pillow on her side. The noise changed to a bubbling sound, and I shook her, trying to wake her up. But she didn’t wake up, just kept bubbling and groaning, her eyes screwed up tight.

I rang 999 and asked for an ambulance. They asked lots of questions, but when I repeated that she could not be roused, they sent an ambulance immediately. I pulled on some jogging bottoms and a sweatshirt, then went down to wait for them outside, to let them in.

The faces on the two women who arrived told me things were not good. One even looked at the other and gave a slight shake of her head. Not even bothering to ask me much, they told me to get my keys and wallet, then took her down to the ambulance on a folding stretcher thing. Once Livvy was wired up to their machines and an oxygen mask was on her face, the woman driving took off at great speed for the General Hospital.

Not able to go inside with her, I was directed to reception to book her in with the receptionist. I sat waiting for over thirty minutes before a young doctor with a beard came and asked for me. He took me into a room along a corridor. “We are going to transfer your partner to Nottingham, to the University Hospital. They have the latest scanners there, and Olivia needs a scan as a matter of urgency. As she may also need surgery, we think it best she go there. You can go with her in the ambulance, ten minutes or so, okay?”

The long journey to Nottingham took half as long as if I had been in my car. The ambulance used the blue lights all the way, and I was thrown around in the back, despite my seat belt.

In that huge hospital, I ended up in a room much the same as the one I had left earlier, being told to wait for news. I thought I had better ring her parents, and her mum answered eventually. I told her what was going on, but to be honest, she didn’t seem that bothered.

“Well her dad is away at a conference, and I’m not going to drive all the way to Nottingham at this hour, Danny. Ring me at a decent time in the morning, and let me know how she is”. With that, she hung up.

After the scans, and an examination by the surgeons, a thin Indian doctor came in to talk to me. She looked very tired, and her green scrubs were loose on her tiny frame.

“Not good news, I’m sorry to say. They have diagnosed a sub-arachnoid heamorrhage, caused by a burst blood vessel in an important part of Olivia’s brain. Given her age, and that she is a non-smoker, I suspect this might be herditary, and it is very grave. She is going to need surgery now, and we are just waiting for a specialist to arrive. You might want to get a drink and something to eat. There are vending machines in the main building. You could be here for a long time”.

It was daylight when the thin woman came back. I must have been asleep for some time, stretched across three small and uncomforatble chairs in that airless room. Her face was a picture of practiced sadness. She even reached down and held my hand.

“They did their best. The specialist went in, and tried to clip the blood vessel. But she had already lost too much blood. She died a few minutes ago. You can come and see her in about twenty minutes, once we have cleaned her up”.

Work had been forgotten, so I quickly rang the boss, to give him the reason why both of us hadn’t shown up.

He actually cried. And then I realised I was crying too.

For the first time I could ever remember.

Of course, I wasn’t the next of kin, so had to ring Livvy’s mum soon after getting the news. I had declined to see her, laid out with her head in bandages.

“Dead? What do you mean, dead? Does this mean I have to go to Nottingham? I can tell you now that’s not going to happen, Danny. Get off the phone, and let me ring my husband”.

They gave me her personal possessions. As she had been in bed at the time it happened, that amounted to a gold chain, small gold earrings, and a cheap ring she used to wear on her right hand second finger.

I ordered a taxi from reception to take me home. They queried the distance, and asked if I knew how much it would cost. I just nodded at the woman on reception.

Livvy’s dad must have come home and sorted things, because a week later her mum rang me and gave me the details of the funeral the following week. “She would have wanted you to come, I expect”. That was all she had to say to me.

They cried crocodile tears at the crematorium, for a daughter they never really gave a shit about. After the service, her dad just nodded at me, and I didn’t get invited back to the house for buffet and drinks.

Not that I would have gone anyway.

They became next on my list. Not real parents at all, as far as I could tell. In truth, I think they were relieved that she was dead, and that her death removed all future responsibility from them. Maybe Livvy was unplanned, an accident? Whatever the reason, she deserved better, so those bastards had to die for their negligence.

That began a period of frustration for me. Her mum phoned me just the once, to tell me to give all her clothes to charity shops, or just throw them out in the rubbish. That was all they thought of Olivia, their only child? I was beginning to wonder if she had been adopted.

A house fire was my first choice. Late at night, a firece blaze. No survivors.

The problem was, they had state of the art CCTV. Cameras everywhere, and in colour, when nobody had colour CCTV. They also had a bank of fire alarms, Livvy had mentioned that. Then there was the killer reason not to do it.

My personal connection, and the obvious animosity between us.

There was no other option but to let it go. I satisfied myself that I would get them another time. Maybe at the holiday home in Suffolk, or when their guard was down in a year or so. But that wasn’t to be.

The only way I could kill that heartless pair was to implicate myself in some way. And I couldn’t afford to do that.

So I walked away from them, and my enjoyable life with Livvy.

Reluctantly, but it had to be done to stay safe.

For a good few years, I did my job, moved up the pecking order, and was well thought of. I got rid of Brian’s Fiesta, and bought myself something younger and trendier.

But not too flash.

There were no girlfriends either. I had cried over the loss of one, and that was never going to happen again. Better no girlfriend, than one who actually got to me.

My boss was in clover. I had become indispensable, and could easily have run the whole company if he wasn’t there. I had interest from women of course. I had spent my life attracting interest from women, and men. The boss gave me a pay rise, and moved me up the chain of command. It wasn’t too long before he relied on me completely, even paying me extra not to take all my leave entitlement.

A few years went by, and they were all defined by working hard, earning more money, and living for the job.

Then we had a company night out at a disco bar in town. I had a few too many drinks, and my eyes started to wander around the nightclub.

That’s when I spotted Eve.

Well, if you have read this from the beginning, you already know what eventually happened to Eve.

By now, you might also be wondering why this was all written down. A lifetime of confessions, my dark past exposed for all to see. I got away with murdering Eve, after all.

Sadly, not quite. My desire for revenge was my downfall you see. It happened something like this.

Eve’s boss, Julian Tolliver. They had almost certainly been having an affair. No doubt he thought he was going to escape my wrath for his infidelity, but he was wrong. I let the dust settle a bit, then started to work on my plan. It had to be completely accidental. His connection with me through my dead wife was too strong for me to take any chances. So to be able to guarantee a flawless plan, I had to make myself aware of his routine.

That involved some following.

At first, I did it very casually. Walking past his office to get to a shop. Waiting close to the car park at the back to see if he still drove the same car when he left. Then following his car at a reasonable distance to find out where he lived with his wife. I took my time, and remained patient. Over a three-week period, I began to plot out his regular movements, including his numerous trips to the small flat of his new girlfriend. She was probably Eve’s replacement at the office. He would have had no idea I was tailing him.

Or so I thought.

I hadn’t counted on him noticing me. I had also not counted on him being so afraid that he went to the police. He told them I was following him, then confessed to the affair with Eve, and said he thought I had found out about that, and killed her. Now he thought I was going to kill him too.

His desire to survive was stronger than his fear of ruining his marrige, it turned out.

During his trip to the police station, Julian struck lucky. Frances Ross was an unpopular detective who had recently been promoted to sergeant on the major crime squad. When Julian’s statement was shown to her, she took it seriously. Then she showed it to her Inspector, and asked for permission to investigate me. He didn’t like her, so was happy to assign her a junior colleague and tell her to get on with it.

And get on with it she did. Her brightest idea was to visit Eve’s granny in the care home. That old lady put me well and truly in the shit.

“Well, Eve wasn’t happy you see. He was a strange man, very different after they got married. He didn’t like her going out, and between you and me, she was seeing someone. Her boss, I think. She told me she told Daniel she was coming to see me on Sundays, and that’s when she met the man. I was so shocked when she died, I think I told him she never came to see me on Sundays. I reckon he must have already worked out that she had another man and probably killed her”.

Granny got that bit wrong of course.

Now a lesser detective might have called me in, and confronted me with the old woman’s statement, tacking it onto Julian’s allegation that I was following him. But Frances Ross was not a lesser cop. She was at the top of her game. I only found out later that she liked to be called Fran.

Naturally, I identified with that.

She went over my life with a fine-tooth comb, biding her time until she had worked out a time-line of potentially connected events that had some aspect of me possibly being involved, however tenuous. The file must have been huge by the time she decided to make her move.

Her and her colleague came to see me at work. To Tony’s surprise they said I had to go in with them to help them with enquiries. If I refused, I would be arrested there and then. I rang the solicitor who dealt with the Will, and the house sale. He said he would send someone he knew who was a good criminal lawyer.

In the back of the car on the way to the Police Station, nobody spoke a word.

Sergeant Ross was a clever lady. The solicitor spoke to me before she came into the interview room and advised me to stay quiet, saying nothing as was my right. Ross and her colleague brought me in a cup of tea in one of those flimsy plastic cups that bend as you pick them up. I left it untouched on the table.

She started by showing me lots of different clips of CCTV. My car following Julian’s car. Me walking past his office. My car parked on the street where his house was, and then my car parked outside the flat of his new lover. When I stayed silent as she questioned me about why I was there, she just smiled.

Then she played her ace, by arresting me on suspicion of harrassment of Julian Tolliver. It wouldn’t stick in court, as I could probably find reasons for being in those places, but it gave her the legal right to take my fingerprints, and a DNA sample by swabbing inside my cheek. Ignoring the protests of my solicitor, she then authorised my detention for twenty-four hours to enable them to carry out a search of my flat by warrant, and to ‘pursue an investigation into other crimes’.

As the custody constable led me off to a cell, I had to give it to her. She was bloody good at her job.

The DNA would sink me, I knew that well enough. I had got away with everything up to then, as I was not on any police record system. But the DNA and prints taken at the time would still be on file somewhere, and I knew that Ross would be fast-tracking my sample, then cross-checking everything while I languished in a cell until the following afternoon.

They left me alone, and I slept as best as I could on the thin plastic-covered mattress, listening to the shouts of the drunks in nearby cells, and some angry prisoner banging his cell door until he was exhausted. The next day at two in the afternoon, they came to get me, with one hour left in the legal detention period.

The solictor had been called in, and was looking glum. Whatever he had been told had taken the shine off his mood. Once again, he advised me to stay silent. Ross didn’t mess around, and she looked triumphant.

My DNA had been matched with a semen sample found in Maria Malone during the post-mortem. My fingerprints were on what was left of her gas cooker. Ross charged me there and then with Maria’s murder, as well as the murder of Liam Malone, and the old lady next door who had been killed in the explosion. Her eyes were bright as she summed up.

“You will be kept here until tomorrow morning, then taken to the Magistrate’s Court to be remanded in custody pending a trial. I am going to object to bail on the grounds that you may harm others, specifically Julian Tolliver, and also that you may be a flight risk, attempting to leave the country. Have you got anything to say?”

Trying not to smile, I shook my head. I wanted to tell her she was good at her job, but that didn’t seem appropriate.

A brief time was allowed with the solicitor before I was returned to my cell. He told me that he would instruct a Defence barrister to appear on my behalf when the case got to Crown Court. As he left, he shuffled his paperwork.

“It’s not looking good, I have to tell you. DNA is irrefutable”.

Ten minutes was all it took for the Magistrates to detain me on remand, pending trial. I was taken to a remand unit in the nearest prison, and given a cell shared with a young burglar who regarded going to prison as a necessary evil of his chosen career. It turned out that being on remand charged with three murders made me something of a celebrity, so nobody bothered me at all.

Six days later, a warder came and opened the cell door. He nodded at me. “You have vistors, look lively”.

Frances Ross sat in the room with a different cop. I soon found out that he was a Chief Inspector. My solicitor sat next to me, as the new man started speaking.

“I am going to put further charges to you, in the presence of your solicitor. You don’t have to say anything, but anything you do say will be recorded and used in evidence”. He opened a file with one sheet of paper inside.

It had a lot of typing on it.

It took so long for Ross’s superior to read out all the charges, I had to use the toilet before the time allowed with my solicitor.

She had been very thorough in her investigations indeed, going back as far as the death of my baby sister, which they did not charge me with. Even she knew that would never fly in court. But they charged me for Paul Carpenter, as they had found my fingerprints and DNA on his shoes and clothes, after I had arranged them to make it look like he had done that.

Then they mentioned Sophie, saying they had found my DNA on the washing line taken from around her neck. They charged me with her murder too.

Next up was the teacher, McCarthy. My DNA was found in semen samples taken from the scene. Charged with his murder.

The Chief Inspector had a lot to say about Foxy, telling me he believed I had tampered with his fork-lift truck. But as he didn’t charge me for that murder, I guessed the evidence wasn’t going to make the case.

Last but not least, they charged me with murdering Eve. Then with Ross sporting a very smug smile, they left.

My solicitor was trying to look on the bright side. I tried not to laugh. Facing trial for no less than seven murders had no bright side that I could think of. They only had to get a conviction for one, and that was life imprisonment.

“The thing is, Daniel, the evidence against you for Paul Carpenter and your wife Eve is completely circumstantial. There are no witnesses, and no motive to show that they can prove. As for the others, they are going to be rather difficult for you. I will let you know when we will be having a meeting with the barrister I mentioned”.

The news soon spread around the prison. I was already known for being charged for three murders, but now I had been charged with seven, I became an overnight superstar.

Sitting out another six months on remand, I got to see the comings and goings of many different cellmates. When one of them was overheard telling someone else that Maria’s husband would fix it so I got killed in prison, the next thing I knew I was placed in segregation for my own safety.

Over the course of three meetings with the barrister once we had a trial date at Crown Court, he decided not to put me in the witness box during the proceedings. I was to look serious at all times, and say nothing. He was planning to defend me on the evidence. I hadn’t told him about being abused by Uncle Brian, or by Maria and her friends. I wasn’t going to let that come out.

The trial turned out to be the longest on record in our county. With me instructed to plead Not Guilty, every single shred of evidence had to be gone through. To be fair, my barrister earned his fee, talking such a load of old shit day after day, that had I been on the jury, I would have found myself guilty.

But he was partially successful. I was found not guilty of murdering Eve, and not guilty of murdering Paul Carpenter. It seemed that the jury just couldn’t get past the fact that all evidence presented for those cases was purely circumstantial.

As for the others.

Sophie. Guilty.
McCarthy. Guilty.
Maria. Guilty.
Liam. Guilty.
The old lady next door. Guilty.

Funnily enough, Ross had dropped the charges of harrassment involving Julian.

The judge remanded me for psychiatric reports prior to sentencing, and I was taken to a secure prison wing in a mental hospital. For seven days, I had sessions with psychiatrists, took written tests, looked at abstract pictures and had to say what I saw in them, and marvelled at the crazy bastards I was locked up with. No wonder none of them were on the outside, they belonged in there, undoubtedly.

As you might imagine, the reports did not come out in my favour. I was described as manipulative, narcissistic, cold and cruel, calculating, lacking empathy or conscience, and showing no remorse for my crimes or my victims. One doctor summed it up quite well in the court. “This man is so incapable of feeling, he is actually unable to even feel sorry for himself in his current predicament”.

If hanging had still been available, that judge would probably have tied the knot himself. He sentenced me to life with no parole, to be detained in a secure hospital for the rest of my life, never to be released. I was a ‘danger to society’, and an ‘unspeakable, heartless individual, unable to feel remorse, now or later’.

Well, they got me good, didn’t they?

But I wasn’t finished yet.

So off I went to Broadmoor, a maximum security prison hospital in Berkshire. Home of the crazies who are too dangerous to be around normal prisoners. I wasn’t unduly concerned of course, as I was not remotely mad. In fact, I was going to be better off there than in a mainstream prison. Maria’s husband may have had a long reach in the prison system, but he was not going to be able to engineer my killing in that place.

Once I got used to the smell, the food, and the occasional unspeakable madman who had to be avoided at all costs, it wasn’t so bad. I had a proper room on my own, with an en-suite bathroom. I was lucky to be in the refurbished wing of the Gothic monstrosity, the oldest intsitution of its kind still used by the Prison Service.

There was routine of course. Regular interviews with the doctor assigned to me, activities that were more or less compulsory unless you were disruptive. And they probably drugged my food, as I was fairly tired all the time, and surprisingly calm. In that place, seven murders were nothing much to shout about. It housed some of the worst sickos and weirdos imaginable.

To try to keep my mind active, I signed up for Art Therapy. I had been hopeless at Art when I was at school, but now I had unlimited time on my hands, I might as well give it a try.

From the first lesson, I hated the tutor. She was a civilian who was paid to come in and teach the nutters how daubing some paint about would make them nicer people, and hopefully inspire them to recant their wicked ways. To keep her safe, two attendants were present in the class at all times, not that the medicated zombies who sat painting were likely to do her any harm.

She called me Daniel. I asked her to call me Danny. I gave her that chance. But she kept calling me Daniel even after that. And she had a stupid name too. Rosalinda. Who calls their kid a name like that? Her parents must have been avid readers of romantic fiction set in the eighteenth century. And she took the piss out of my work, though she called it constructive criticism. Her most used phrase was “No, no, no”, whenever she looked at my work in progress. Then she would shake her head and smile at me like I was six years old.

One day as she started to head over to me to look at my idea of ‘the perfect view’, I quietly snapped off the end of my paintbrush. If she was about to come out with her catchphrase, I will never know. As she leaned over me, I stabbed her in the neck with the sharp end of the brush. I got in eight good thrusts before the two attendants wrestled me to the ground and sounded the alarm.

Despite some trained nurses and a doctor being rushed to the Art Room, Rosalinda didn’t make it.

Shame about that.

I expected the padded cell, or whatever they used at the time. But they transferred me to Rampton instead.

The trial was by video link. I stayed silent, and was found guilty of course. When you are already in Broadmoor for seven murders and then kill someone else, the trial is not the same as it is outside. Like I cared, either way.

Rampton was so much nicer. More modern, and great facilities. I was a marked man though, often in restraints when moved around, and always on my own for the first few months. The guards were obviousy wary of me, and that was fine by me.

A few years went by. To be honest, I lost track of time.

There was a visitor. He was a writer, and he was keen to tell my story.

“People are interested, Danny. They want to know about you. I have a book deal in place if you cooperate”.

He called me Danny. So I agreed. I told him my story, and he wrote it up as you are reading it now. I got a copy in the post, a hardback. Not as thick as I would have liked, but there you go.

Maybe you understand me, maybe not. I don’t really care.

But if I ever get out of here, and you happen to run across me somewhere, always remember one thing.

Call me Danny.

The End.

New Year, New Category

Many of you already know that I usually compile every episode of my fiction serials into a complete story. Thanks to a suggestion from David Miller at https://millerswindmill.wordpress.com/ I have added a new category containing the longer complete stories, to make it easier for anyone to find them.

It can be found on the right hand side of any of my blog pages under ‘Serialised Fiction’. As it was not practical to add every episode of every serial, I chose to only include the complete stories. (Please note that ‘Found Footage’ is not included at the moment.)

Here is a link, for anyone interested in looking at the list today.

https://beetleypete.com/category/serialised-fiction/

The Bloodstained Letter: The Complete Story

This is all 24 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 18,708 words.

After the postlady had pushed the letters through the letterbox, Jon noticed a smear of fresh blood on one of them.

Below the usual stack of bills, circulars, and card statements, the envelope stood out. It was small and square, like the kind that usually contains a greeting card. Sand-coloured, the edges were decorated with maroon squares, in a geometric design. The wide smear of blood was around the stuck down flap at the back, as if whoever had licked the glue had blood around their mouth as they did so.

The name and address was written in block capitals, with what looked like a marker pen of some kind. Not that it was a proper address, Jon had his moderate fame to thank for it being delivered at all.

MR JONATHON RIDLEY, YORK, YORKSHIRE.

Obviously, someone at the postal sorting office knew him well enough to have put it into the right bin, where it would have been collected by the pleasant lady who had been delivering his post ever since he had moved to the city some years back. The stamp was a Christmas stamp, second-class and probably bought some time ago,. The design was a drawing from Raymond Briggs’ book, ‘Father Christmas’. Jon tried to recall when those Christmas commemoratives had been issued, but couldn’t remember. It was a long time ago though, he knew that much.

Still, the one good thing about stamps with 1st or 2nd printed on them was that they would always be honored, no matter how old.

He took the post into what had once been the dining room, but was now his study. Taking the antique letter opener in the design of a Toldeo sword from a Moorcroft pot at the back of his desk, he opened the strange letter with great care. Inside, a thin sheet of notepaper bore the same design as the envelope, and there was just one word written on it, in large capital letters.

HELP

Sitting down into the green leather captain’s chair that he always used for his writing, he studied the postmark using an ivory-handled magnifying glass that looked as if it could have once been owned by Sherlock Holmes. Around the circular design was printed Watford Mail Centre. The date was faded, as if the machine was running out of ink, but he could clearly make out the number fifteen. The fifteenth of this month then. That was four days ago, about right for a second-class letter with an incomplete address.

Although he prided himself on knowing and having visited most parts of the British Isles, he was certain that he had never been to Watford. All he knew of it was that it was an unimpressive commuter town to the north west of London, and that it was the last stop on the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground network. And as far as he knew, he didn’t know anyone who lived there. Not personally, anyway.

One of his readers pehaps? A person who enjoyed his crime novels and thought he was someone who could actually solve such mysteries in real life. For many years, his Detective Inspector Johnson series had been required reading in the genre, and sold well in hardback long before the paperback was available. He had run to twenty-six books in that popular series, before losing the muse. When he told Claudia that he wanted to change direction, to write science fiction and fantasy, she had shaken her head as she lit a cigarette.

“Daaaarling”, she drawled. “Write what you know. Write what sells”. He had waved away the cloud of smoke she exhaled, and parted company with his literary agent.

Moving almost three hundred miles from Brighton to York had not been intended to be his retirement. But when rejection after rejection flooded in for his sci-fi manuscripts, it turned out to be just that. He even tried to rework his detective novels into the future, something along the lines of ‘Inspector Johnson In Space’. But even he thought they were so obviously a rip-off, he never sent them to the editor.

Life in York wasn’t so bad. Years of success and the inheritance from his mother’s house sale left him comfortable financially. And his reputation was still good enough to allow unaddressed letters to be delivered through his front door. He pushed the piece of notepaper around with the tip of the letter opener as he sat thinking. A mysterious letter was indeed great inspiration for a new novel. It would require some research first of course.

He would get onto that tomorrow. First thing.

Using a resealable clear plastic freezer bag, Jon sealed the letter inside, hoping to protect any forensic details as best as he could. A quick check on his laptop provided him with various districts in the Watford postal area, and the extra digit he couldn’t quite read on the postmark might help to identify exactly where it had been posted from.

It seemed to be a daunting task so far, given the wide area covered by Watford. He made a list of possibilities inside the morocco-bound A4 notebook his father had bought him the week before he left for university to study English.

Oxhey, South Oxhey, Carpenders Park
Bushey/ Bushey Heath
North Watford/Central Watford.
Garston, Leavesden, Aldenham, Letchmore Heath.
Rickmansworth. Kings Langley. Borehamwood.

There was only one thing for it, he was going to have to make the trip to Watford, and enquire at the postal sorting centre.

Alanah from next door could probably be relied upon again to feed Tutankhamun, his cat. She could be trusted with a key too, as in the past nothing had ever been disturbed. No drawers ferreted through, or things out of place. She was a spiritual type, and a cat-lover into the bargain. The two Siamese she owned never went outside the house, and as she would trust nobody with them, she rarely went very far either. He had always thought she might well have once been a full-time hippy. She certainly looked the part.

As he disliked having to change trains frequently, a hire car would be essential, and accommodation too. It was too far to travel for one day, so he would book into somewhere quite nice for a few nights. He could think of it as a holiday, even it it was only Watford. He telephoned Enterprise and arranged for a car to be delivered the next day, booking it for a week. As he rarely drove now, he decided to treat himself, and chose an E-class Mercedes.

If the book idea worked out later, he could claim the cost back against his taxes.

A hotel wasn’t as easy to find as he had expected. His first three choices had no rooms available, and he eventually had to settle for a Premier Inn, close to the football stadium. At least it had car parking, albeit at minimal extra charge, and he chose a double room to get a decent-sized bed to sleep in. A Google Maps check showed him that the main central post office was two miles from the hotel. He could walk that easily.

There was no difficulty getting Alanah to feed the cat. She was delighted when he asked as he handed over the spare key, and immediately invited him in for drinks. As it was only midday, he declined, inventing having to collect clothes from the dry cleaners as an excuse. She often smelled of whisky, and had a way of looking at him that made him uneasy. She also habitually sat with her knees apart, forcing him to avert his gaze. If it was his body she was after, she had very much chosen the wrong man.

With a standard check-in time of two in the afternoon, the hotel could allow a much later check-in if required. So he didn’t have to bother to leave too early. Just as well, as delivery of the car wasn’t promised until nine anyway. At almost two hundred miles, the journey south would probably take him four hours, not allowing for any traffic problems on the main roads. His Satnav was rather ancient now, but he got it out of the box and charged it up anyway. Then he charged his laptop and phone, before making a list of what he had to pack for seven days away.

Settling down in bed that night, Jon was feeling excited. He had a project, and one that really interested him. Although he dearly loved living in the city of York, a break down south would make a nice change from routine.

The young man who delivered the car just after nine the next morning was very nice. Much more his type. But he didn’t give Jon a second look, as he ran through the basics of the car, and showed that there was no damage. He had a colleague waiting for him up the lane in a small hatchback, so once the paperwork was signed, he scuttled off in a hurry. Jon watched him leave, in his chain-store suit, and brown shoes. Smiling to himself, he thought it was a shame the man didn’t have to come inside the house.

Well, you never knew until you tried, did you?

Charging the Satnav had been a waste of time. The new Mercedes had one built in.

Pleased with the delightfully smooth ride offered by the Mercedes, Jon made good progress south as he enjoyed listening to Radio Four on the impressive in-car entertainment system. Memories of his time in Brighton drifted in and out of his consciousness as he kept to the speed limit and watched out for the large trucks pulling into his lane too slowly.

These days, they would undoubtedly call it Grooming. The encouragement of an impressionable and overwhelmed student by an older, well-respected man. Someone abusing a position of trust in an educational establishment. Such stories were all the rage now, with court cases that were described as the pursuit of ‘historical offences’ But Jon harboured no resentment, sought no justice or revenge.

For him, Nigel had been a revelation, not a predator.

It all seemed so long ago. A room in a shared house at the cheap end of Brighton. Bus journeys to and from Sussex University. Then that first one-on-one meeting with his tutor, Nigel Downs. Although he was around the same age as his father, he was so different to him in every way imaginable. Dressed casually in the latest fashions, relaxed and chatty, quick to drape an arm around a shoulder, or gently pat a knee. Thinking about it made Jon smile, even now.

Flashing headlights in the rear view mirror broke his reverie. The car behind was just inches away, the driver shaking his head. Looking at the speedometer, Jon realised why. He had dropped to below fifty miles per hour, on a fast road. Checking the side mirror, he indicated and pulled over into the inside lane, allowing the man behind to swoop past, accelerating. Snapped out of that nostalgic dream state, something suddenly dawned on him.

How had the sender of the letter known he was living in York? On all his biographies and blurbs on the Inspector Johnson novels, it was mentioned that he lived in ‘The seaside town of Brighton, on England’s south coast’. Since moving north, he had not published anything, and as far as he could recall, very few people knew of his current location. Certainly not any readers of his old books.

The next service area came up in six miles, and he turned into it.

Sipping a tasteless coffee that he had no intention of finishing, he shifted around on the awful plastic chair. Smooth plastic and heavy velvet cord trousers were not a good combination, and the constant sliding was annoying him. Who knew he had moved to York? Well Claudia, certainly. He had sent her his address just in case he decided to reconnect with her in the future, as well as to receive his declining fan mail.

And there was young Lawrence of course. Splitting up with him had been the catalyst for the decision to leave Brighton. Lolly, the love of his life. Eyes meeting as he served Jon a glass of wine in a bar, like a scene from a corny old romantic pot-boiler.

Lolly only knew he was moving to the city, not his actual address. There seemed little point in giving that to him, after coming home unexpectedly and finding him in bed with a man old enough to be his grandfather. So much time invested. So much money shelled out. And all for nothing, in the end.

Reaching across the table for his phone, he pressed it to call Claudia.

“Daaarling, please tell me you have a new Inspector Johnson manuscript for me? Those old detective novels are enjoyed something of a renaissance, dear boy, and I am willing to forget our little bit of nastiness when you fired me”. Typical Claudia, he hadn’t even said hello before she launched into it. He asked her if she had told anyone about where e lived now. Not the usual people like his editor, or her publicist woman. Fans, strangers, someone who may have written in, or phoned the office.

“How could I possibly remember that, daaarling?” He heard her exhale cigarette smoke with such force, it reminded him of the steam trains he had seen as a small boy. “I mean, I can’t deny you do still get some fan mail, but that is always forwarded to you in a different envelope. I would never give a reader your address, daaarling. That said, you don’t get so much these days, do you dear boy? And I think it is very good of me to send it to you, considering”.

He thanked her, and hung up. It was time to get back on the road.

His second experience of a Premier Inn proved to be a good one. The receptionist was very efficient, and his parking space was not too far away either. The room felt fresh and airy, with all the basics he would need. The bathroom impressed him with its squeaky-clean cleanliness, and he had to admit to himself that the hotel chain had definitely smartened up its act.

Not in the mood to tackle a visit to the Main Post Office so late in the afternoon, he had a walk around the town instead. Avoiding the depressingly similar shopping mall, he wandered up the pedestrianised area instead, checking out the selection of restaurants. There was a Zizzi not far from there, and that Italian chain was always reliable. Finding a traditional pub, he wandered in an ordered a gin and tonic, then found a quiet table at the back.

Opening the notebook he had carried with him, Jon jotted down more possibile names of people who might know he now lived in York, but perhaps not his full address. It was a small list, and gave him cause to reflect that his memory might not be as sharp as it had been. After a second drink, he strolled back to Zizzi and was shown to a table for two by a girl who looked like she had just arrived from school. As it was relatively early, there were few other diners. Ordering a large glass of red wine and a king prawn linguine, he was in and out of the place in around forty-five minutes, suitably full.

Perhaps the drive had tired him more than he had realised, but in no mood to walk back to the hotel, he took a taxi from the rank at the end of the street. The driver appeared to be unconcerned about such a short fare, so Jon made sure to give a generous tip.

Although the bed was comfortable, sleep wasn’t about to happen. His mind was too active; full of thoughts about the past, many interwoven with the current mystery he was investigating. Before midnight, Jon gave up trying, and switched on his laptop.

The Bloodstained Letter
An Inspector Johnson mystery.
By Jon Ridley

Okay, it was back to the old style, but if Claudia was correct that it was popular again, why not? By two in the morning, fighting back yawns that felt strong enough to dislocate his jaw, Jon had two chapters down, more or less substituting what he was actually doing with his familiar Inspector character tracking down a suspicious letter on behalf of Scotland Yard. Of course, the letter had been sent to the police, not to him, and had landed on the desk of Inspector Johnson, not his own doormat in York.

It had been surprisingly satisfying to get back to the familiar formula, and to bring it up to date, he had decided to create a new character to become Johnson’s sidekick. Covering all the politically correct bases, Detective Sergeant Chen was not only female, but from a Chinese family that had emigrated from Hong Kong. She was going to bring a nice slant to the book, with her Confucian philosophy and methodical style.

Hopefully, she would bring the Inspector Johnson books into the twenty-first century. And she might even spawn a completely new series, if Jon decided to promote her later.

When a final yawn made his jaw crack with a sound like a snapping breadstick, he switched off the lamp and went to sleep.

He never slept late, so to do so was most irritating. Hanging the do not disturb sign on the outside of his room door, a long hot shower was just what was needed. Breakfast could come later, perhaps even wait for an early lunch.

Dressed in a suitably artistic crumpled linen suit, and not wearing a tie, he found the Main Post Office easily, then followed a sign for a public entrance to the collection office where people went to pck up parcels, or pay for items requiring excess postage fees. There were two people in front of him, both female. The younger one at the counter was arguing with a disinterested-looking man behind the perspex screen. “Says on this card that I have to collect it, so where is it then? I mean, I can’t be in all the time, can I? And I had to get a bus here and all. Now you tell me you can’t find it, and it’s been sent back to the sender? Go and have another look”.

The second woman in the queue turned and looked at Jon, raising her eyebrows. As the heavily tattooed woman at the counter started to demand to see a manager, she shook her head and left the office.

That was good. Now he was next in line.

The annoying woman finally gave up, leaving the office mouthing a selection of expletives that would make a wrestler blush. Jon stepped forward, and produced the plastic bag containing the envelope from an Italian leather shoulder bag that looked as if it might once have been carried by Gianni Versace. The man behind the perspex screen was suitably unimpressed. “And?” Jon asked if he could possibly identify where the letter had been posted, and quickly added that he should not remove it from the plastic.

After the most cursory glance, the post office operative jabbed a finger at the post mark. “Aldenham, mate. See that number? That’s Aldenham”. John could not see that number, even after putting on his plus two reading glasses. But he was pleased that the man could. He asked him where Aldenham was, as he had never heard of it. Leaning on his counter, the man adopted a tone that Jon found rather patronising. Close up, it was also evident that his nostril hair was out of control, and resembled small bunches of brown-coloured broccoli.

“It’s a couple of miles north east, mate. Very much your sort of place, I reckon. Classy, know what I mean? Countryfied like. Let’s put it this way, I couldn’t afford a bedsit there, let alone a house. Anything else for you today, sir?” The last part was in such an offensive tone, Jon might usually have demanded to report him to a superior. But he quit while he was ahead, thanking the man for his help.

With his stomach rumbling, he walked back into the town centre, where he found a cafe serving the ubiquitous all-day breakfast. Ordering the full works with a mug of tea, he sat in a window seat, and watched the world go by.

Back in the hotel room, it was easy to find out more aabout Aldenham using his laptop. Almost four miles north, it was an ancient village, now marked as a conservation area. Despite its proximity to Watford, it oozed the old world charm of an archetypal English village, boasting some very desirable properties indeed. There was also a prestigious private school, a classic village green, and a medieval church originally dating back to Saxon times. Modern additions to the area included a well-used Country Park.

However, as far as he could tell from the online search there were no shops in the village, and no Post Office. Though there would surely be at least one post box, if not more. There seemed to be little point in changing hotels, as it was so close to where he was. He decided to drive out that afternoon and take a look for himself.

The satnav in his car took him along the busy A41, then under the bridge of the M1 motorway. There were only seven or eight roads making up the village of Aldenham, and it was immediately obvious that this was a wealthy area. Even the older housing stock and smaller bungalows were all well-kept, and it struck Jon that prices of property in this area would exclude most working-class people from being able to live there.

He stopped the car outside the imposing church of St John The Baptist, as he had seen a Victorian post box built into a wall nearby. If there were other post boxes, he had not spotted any as he drove around. There seemed no point in actually going to look at the postbox. It was unlikely to have any traces of blood on the slot for letters, and other than the huge church, nothing jumped out at him as a clue. It seemed likely that anyone posting a letter there would be a local resident walking past, but the worrying truth was that anyone could have driven there from any location in the country, with the sole purpose of disguising where the sender was, if that had been their intention.

Having to make a decision about how to proceed with his investigation, he concluded that there was only one avenue to pursue. Whoever had sent the letter had to have been nearby, able to walk there and post it, or have someone post it on their behalf.

If he allowed the other options, he might as well drive home to York and forget the whole thing.

That evening after dinner, Jon returned to his notes, and the rough draft of what might become his next novel. What would Inspector Johnson do, in these circumstances? It would be very differentwith police powers of course. Knocking on doors showing the envelope, checking the computer for likely suspects in the Aldenham area. Detailed forensics from the blood and fingerprints. And the missing persons branch could be contacted, collating the available information against anyone who may have gone missing.

There was also the option of working alongside the Post Office Investigation Branch, a civilian unit with extensive powers given to them by the Royal Mail. But if Jon contacted them, or the Hertfordshire Police, it would all be taken out of his hands. He would no longer be able to investigate, and it would be highly unlikely that any information about the case would be passed to him.

It was not going to be possible to write the story from his perspective. The Inspector Johnson mystery was going to have to be completely different.

After breakfast the next morning, he went to reception and extended his stay in the hotel for another week. Then he called the car hire company, exchanging the Mercedes for a Transit Van that would be delivered that afternoon. The bigger vehicle would give him room to spread out, and with white vans everywhere in the country, it would pass without notice parked on a street. As well as that, the panelled sides would shield him from public gaze.

While waiting for the vehicle exchange, he walked into town and bought a cheap sleeping bag in a camping shop. Adding a thermos flask, and a pair of basic binoculars to his purchase, he smiled to himself as he remembered the excellent wartime German binoculars in his study. It hadn’t occured to him to bring those.

Surveillance was an area Jon had covered many times in his novels. Imspector Johnson would often use specialist teams to keep tabs on suspects. Sadly, he would have to try alone on this occasion. He would have no access to CCTV cameras as the police did, and there would be nobody to relieve him after a shift.

Worst of all, he had no suspect to surveil.

That gut-feeling so often written about in police procedural novels and murder stories was on his side though. Years of life on the edge of society living in the Gay Community had sharpened his senses nicely. There was a certain satisfaction that those first impressions of people so often proved to be correct, and with this current project, he had that feeling that he would instinctively know if he spotted someone with something to hide.

The van arrived on time, driven by a smart young woman who was very efficient. Unlike the one in the photo on the website though, it was dark blue, not white. No matter, as it would still pass for a tradesman’s vehicle, something not uncommon in an affluent suburb like Aldenham, of that he was sure. The young woman inspected the Mercedes, then exchanged her paperwork for its key. Jon went back into the hotel and changed his car details on the parking permit to reflect the new hire vehicle, then went to his room to take down some notes.

The next morning, dressed casually for comfort, he placed the sleeping bag and binoculars in the back of the van, together with his fully-charged phone, and the leather-bound notebook. The thermos flask had been filled in his hotel room, using the complimentary coffee sachets. Breakfast would be exchanged for some sandwiches and cereal bars, purchased in the BP petrol station on the A41. The day was bright and clear, but Jon knew all too well how cold you could get sitting in the back of a van all day.

Well he had written that into some novels at least, so presumed it was true.

Parking directly opposite the post box was not a good idea, so he parked where he could see the area clearly using the limited range of the new binoculars. Sitting on the sleeping bag up against the back doors to be able to look through the two back windows, even after ten minutes, the ridged metal floor was very uncomfortable. Perhaps he should have brought the spare pillows from the hotel room. He would do that next time.

The postal collections were at nine in the morning, and five in the afternoon. The small Post Office van arrived just after nine, but between then and midday, nobody walked past.

And now he badly needed to pee.

Trying to take his mind off the need to empty his bladder, Jon found his thoughts drifting back to his past once again.

Close to graduation, there had been the scandal with Nigel. Arrested by the police for Gross Indecency with another man in a public toilet on Hove seafront, the tutor’s life unravelled quickly. Resigning from his position, and no doubt losing his cosy family life with a long-suffering wife. For Jon, it was on to teacher training, and then a job as an English teacher in a West London school. A rented one-bed flat in Hammersmith, followed by a baptism of fire at one of the roughest secondary schools in the area.

Controlling the behaviour in the classrooms was near impossible, and most of his colleagues had stopped trying a long time ago. Like them, he was soon going through the motions, and accepting the appallingly low performance results. But unlike them, he was writing in his spare time, churning out manuscripts that he sent off in batches to anyone who would read them.

After watching a television series about a determined and efficient police detective, he concluded he could do a better job. Two years later, his first Inspector Johnson novel was published, he had an agent and had tendered hs resignation, prior to moving back to Brighton.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

As anyone knows, trying not to think about having to pee makes the urge to go worse, not less. Scanning the street through the van windows until it was clear of pedestrians or traffic, he grabbed his things, and exited through the back doors. Perhaps there would be a toilet in the church, though that seemed unlikely. Jon knew little about churches, other than a few he had researched for his novels. Like most people christened in the Church of England, he was only ever inside a church for christenings, weddings, or funerals.

In case anyone was watching, he held up his phone, pretending to take photos of the building as he approached it. His plan was to walk around to the back, and if nobody was around, he would relieve himself against the ancient stones. Not the gravestones of course, just the back wall. By the time he reached the rear of the church, the sense that relief was imminent made him feel relaxed. There didn’t seem to be any CCTV above him, so he put his phone away, and approached the wall.

Just then, a back door opened, and a man walked out into the churchyard.

Judging from the black suit, charcoal grey shirt, and white dog collar, he had to be the vicar. But as he was also a black man in excess of six-feet six tall who looked more like a professional basketball player, Jon wasn’t sure. Pretending to inspect the stonework, he contrived not to notice the man, until he was addressed by him. “Good afternoon sir, are you interested in my church? That stonework is actually medieval, but the building existed before that, in Saxon times”. He smiled, showing a row of strong white teeth that looked powerful enough to bite through the very stone he was describing.

Jon explained that he was a writer, a novelist researching a new book. He might well feature the church in it, so was doing some research. Shifting from foot to foot like an awkward schoolboy, he finally cracked and asked the vicar if there was a toilet inside he could use. He made a joke about drinking too much coffee before leaving the hotel.

“Of course, my friend. There is a toilet in the vestry. Many of the parishoners get taken short when my sermons go on too long you know”. He grinned, and opened the back door. “Follow me, I will show you where it is”.

Never had he known such relief, as his powerful stream felt as if it might well drill a hole in the porcelain. Tomorrow morning, he was definitely going to have to buy some kind of plastic container. As he exited the toilet, the vicar was waiting for him in the vestry. “A novelist you say? I might have read some of your books, what’s your genre?” Jon explained about the Inspector Johnson series, and gave the vicar his real name. The tall man shook his head. “No, not familiar with those”. Then he winked. “I much prefer horror, to be honest, but don’t tell anyone”.

Jon was hoping to say thank you and take his leave, but as they entered the main part of the church, the voice boomed behind him.

“Don’t rush off, I will show you around now you are inside.”

Trying to look interested, Jon actually took some photos on his phone as the vicar showed him around. He was trying not to think of the missed opportunities of being able to spot anyone who might be using the post box outside. His host seemed keen for the church to be included in any forthcoming book, and went so far as to suggest he might be a character.

“Of course, if you want to write me in, I won’t complain, Mr Ridley. My given name is Babatunde William Bolaje, but that might have come as a shock to my congregation. So I tell them to call me William. It used to amuse me when they asked where I was from. No doubt they expected some African jungle origin, and they all seemed very disappointed when I told them it was West Drayton”. He roared with laughter at his own joke, and continued.

“I suspect the Bishop was playing a cruel joke on the locals when he appointed me to this parish three years ago, but it has worked out very well, so backfired on him”. Stopping by a table near the main entrance, he picked up two leaflets. “These may well be of use to you. The history of the church, with some original drawings and a photo dating from the eighteen-eighties. This second one is information about the parish, church activities and special services.”

Reaching into his shoulder bag, Jon took out his notebook and opened it to slip the leaflets into it. As he did so, the plastic sleeve containing the envelope fell onto the stone floor, and the vicar quickly bent down to pick it up. Smiling as he tapped his finger against the front of the enveope under the plastic.

“I see you have received a communication from the redoubtable Amelia Bowes? Is that why you chose this church? I recognise her stationery from the numerous letters and notes she has handed me since I became the vicar”. Jon felt his mouth drop open, and a nice tingle ran up his spine. He thought fast, telling the vicar he was correct, but that Mrs Bowes had forgotten to put her address on the letter.

The huge smile returned, and he shook his head. “Really? That is most unlike her. She usually puts her address on her notes to me, even when she hand-delivers them. Come outside, and I will show you where she lives”. They walked to the end of the path, and standing close to the post box, the vicar pointed with his right hand. “Straight across the road, and you will see The Crescent. Her house has no number, it is called The Poplars. You will see why when you notice the Poplar trees along the side of the property”. He shook Jon’s hand, and held the grip for longer than usual.

“Please send me a copy when the book is published. And be careful of the widow Bowes, she is rather fierce”.

Deciding not to return to the van while the vicar was watching, Jon walked a little further down, and pretended to take some more photos of the church on his phone. The vicar soon got bored, waved a farewell, and went back inside the church.

Back in the van and writing notes furiously, he felt there was no longer any need to keep sitting and watching.

He had his first suspect.

Feeling cold and rather hungry he drove back to the hotel, got changed into something smarter, and went out for an early dinner. Or perhaps it was a late lunch, he wasn’t sure. On the way back to the hotel, he bought a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon to drink in his room while he worked on the draft manuscript. A church and vicar might well feature in the book, but it was unlikely to be that church, and that vicar.

By the time he had started to feel tired, there were four completed chapters saved on his laptop, and he was having to stop himself from getting ahead of the story. A doughty widow who lived in a house with no number was an unlikely suspect indeed. Unless you were Agatha Christie of course.

Which he wasn’t.

The next morning, Jon sat planning how he might approach Amelia Bowes. If her writing paper and envelopes were so distinctive, it seemed unlikely that she had posted it. Being well known in the community and church congregation also suggested she was unlikely to be in need of help without some local person or friend having already discovered her dilemma. Then again, if she had sent it, it seemed the right thing to do to go and see if she genuinely needed his help.

The mistake he had made yesterday had been not asking the vicar when he had last seen the woman. He was annoyed at himself for forgetting to do that. Inspector Johnson would have asked that question staight away. He would also have not hesitated to go to The Poplars and knock on her front door. Then again, he had authority on his side. He decided that he would drive back to Aldenham, and watch the house today to see if the woman emerged.

Casually driving past the house, he glanced along the short driveway that led to an original garage with wooden doors, and an old brown Jaguar XJ6 parked in front of it. A double-fronted Edwardian house with large sash windows, and dormer windows suggesting at least five bedrooms. It was not untidy, but could have done with repainting. The Poplar trees ran along one side of the property, separating the house from the nearest neighbour. He counted twelve of them, all very tall and well-kept.

Parking the van further up the street, he got in the back to look out of the windows. This time, he had an empty five-litre plastic container, the type usually used to contain spare fuel. He had bought it in the BP petrol station on the way, along with a litre bottle of water and two sandwiches.

A lady went past walking a small fluffy dog, gave a sideways glance at the van, then carried on. No doubt she would have been used to seeing the vans of tradesmen in such a well-to-do area.

Just after eleven, the brown Jaguar XJ6 exited the driveway of The Poplars, driven by a woman in her seventies with a scarf covering her hair. Jon decided not to follow, as that would be glaringly obvious. He would stay where he was, and see if anyone else came out.

It seemed likely that the woman driving the car was Amelia Bowes. And if that was the case, she did not seem to be in any immediate need of help. It was tempting to imagine trying to get into the house while she was gone, but as many of the nearby houses had obvious CCTV cameras, and the dog-walking lady could return at any time, he wasn’t going to risk that.

The next two hours passed very slowly. A couple of delivery vans made drops at houses across the road, but nobody walked past, or emerged from the driveway of The Poplars. When the Jaguar appeared again, it came from the other direction, behind him, turning into the driveway at some speed. Jon made the snap decision to go and speak to her.

She cut an imposing figure indeed. With no headscarf, her dyed blonde hair was immaculately styled, perhaps a hairdresser’s appointment explaining her absence. At least two inches taller than him in flat shoes, she had a firm stoutness that could not be described as fat. Just about to put the key into the lock, she turned as she heard his footsteps on the gravel. There was no trace of concern or alarm on her face at the sudden appearance of a strange man.

“Can I help you? I should warn you now, I buy nothing at the door, whatever you might be selling. If that is your purpose, I suggest you leave my property now”. Jon pulled the plastic sleeve containing the leter from his shoulder bag, and explained that he wanted to ask her about it, adding that he had spoken to the vicar, who had told him where to find her. She took it from him, and gave it a cursory glance before handing it back.

“I certainly never sent that. Look at the way it is addressed? I fail to understand why William could imagine I might have written that. But it is my usual stationery, he was right about that. I suppose my son might have sent it to you, he visits once a week and may well have taken paper and envelopes”.

Jon explained that there was no sender’s address on the letter, and wondered where he might find her son. Amelia was opening her door, about to go in. She showed little interest. “Roderick? Oh he lives in Old Hemel Hempstead. If you go down Chapel Street, his house is on the corner of Chapel Cottages, a small lane. You will find it easily. Good day to you”.

A quick check on his phone showed that the address she had given was almost eleven miles away. He would liked to have asked if her son would be home, but she had gone inside and closed the door so quickly, he had thought it best not to bother her further. It could well be that Roderick had brought the letter with him, posting it in Aldenham to avoid it having the Hemel Hempstead post mark.

It was definitely going to be worth staking out the man’s house, and seeing who came and went. Best leave it until tomorrow though, as he had some things to think about first.

Dinner that night was in an upmarket burger place that he had never tried. The meal was delicious, and after he had finished he continued to drink what was left of his bottle of wine as he took notes. Roderick Bowes. What was his story? Inspector Johnson would have asked Amelia so many more questions about her son, but he had been in no position to force the issue. Was Roderick employed? Did he have a social media profile?

Lying on the bed in the hotel room later, Jon added another chapter to the book. He changed the names of Amelia and Roderick, and made a lot more of the doorstep interview.

Sergeant Chen had one of her gut feelings about Roderick in his manuscript, and Inspector Johnson cautioned her to only look at the evidence. But inside, the Inspector was beginning to be impressed by his new sergeant’s pertinent observations.

There was something in this Confucious lark, no doubt about that.

In his real world, Jon had to be careful. If Roderick Bowes was not the sender, he might well be a victim. This was a game that could play out in so many ways, and take directions that Jon could easily have written around in a book.

But you can’t edit real life on a laptop.

As he settled down that night, sleep did not come easily. Tomorrow morning he had to drive to Chapel Street, and make a decision about what to do once he got there.

Amelia had been right about it being easy to find. The old white painted house on the corner bore a number corresponding to Chapel Street numbering, though most of the house extended back into Chapel Cottages. Parking was an issue. Like many old towns in his experience, those early Victorian streets had not been designed to accommodate cars, and in this commuter town for London, it seemed there were at least two cars for every one of the houses along the street.

Finding a space for the van less than one hundred yards west of the house in question, he had to park with two wheels on the kerb, and hope for the best. He had arrived early enough to miss the start of the runs to school and the train station, just in case Roderick left the house early. Hiding in the back, he looked through the windows, munching on a sandwich bought from the BP petrol station, and washing it down with a black coffee that tasted like dishwater.

The house was well kept. The stucco exterior painted a glowing white, and the window frames a gleaming dark green. Two large plant pots were placed either side of the front door, both containing mature Clematis bushes. But most of the property extended out of sight, with the white painted wall extending at least fifty feet along Chapel Cottages. Parking in that dead-end was at a premium, but an old Nissan Prairie was parked tight against the wall by the back gate, so Jon wondered if that could be Roderick’s vehicle.

After two hours of bum-numbing surveillance, he was rewarded by the sight of a very fat man in his forties coming out of the back gate, and walking to the car. He had sparse hair combed over a bald pate, and was dressed rather flamboyantly for his age. The Nissan drove out, and turned left, away from where his van was parked. Could the man be driving into town, to the shops?

Jon was excited, and was seriously considering jumping over that back wall.

The road was too busy to chance being seen jumping over that back wall. Besides, it was a long time since Jon had jumped over anything, let alone a wall higher than he was tall. He would likely fall down and break something if he tried, as well as almost certainly being noticed by people walking around, and passing traffic. Best to stay in the van, and hope the man came back soon.

And hope it was indeed Roderick, and not someone else.

Inspector Johnson would have asked Amelia for a detailed description, with Sergeant Chen writing it down in her notebook as it was given. Once again, this mystery would be so much easier to solve in fiction. With no sign of the old Nissan, Jon was lost in his thoughts again.

The move back to Brighton had started a better chapter in his life, and he was relieved to get away from the overwhelming concrete embrace he always felt in London. And those terrifying kids too, so very different to his own schooldays. Brighton was about to become the gay capital of southern England, as more and more people moved away from London to enjoy life by the sea within commuting distance of their city jobs. It was the perfect time to live there.

He got in before the property prices skyrocketed, buying a lovely restored two-bed terraced house near Regency Square. There was an oblique sea view too, though only if you leaned out of any front window and looked left. The courtyard garden was just enough outside space, and the kitchen-diner in the basement opened out onto it. Within five years, it was worth four times what he had paid for it. By the time he sold it to move to York, it fetched a small fortune. Parking was a nightmare in that town, but he didn’t need a car. Everything he needed he could walk to, and there was a good train service up to London too.

That daydreaming almost cost him noticing the return of the old Nissan, and he suddenly saw it reversing from Chapel Street into the side street, parking close to the wall again. The man got out, and retrieved three shopping bags from the car, which he carried in through the front door, stooping to pick post up from the mat before closing it again. Jon hadn’t even noticed the postman delivering. He had to stop his thoughts wandering, and pay attention.

It dawned on him that he had no idea what to do next. No doubt Inspector Johnson would have convinced his superiors to authorise a search warrant. He would have knocked on Roderick’s door, swept past him as he opened it, and searched the house thoroughly, accompanied by a specialist team in white overalls. Then he would give Roderick a good grilling about the letter. Who sent it, and why? Sergeant Chen would have a Confucian moment, and discover something sinister under a floorboard.

Case solved.

All Jon could do was to sit and watch. Take notes, and hope for clues. But what if nothing happened? What if no clues were forthcoming? Soon he would have to decide whether or not to extend his hotel stay, and the vehicle hire. With nothing happening in Hemel Hempstead at the moment, any further chapters of the new book were going to have to be pure invention. Still, it was only day one. He had to be patient.

Not easy, for an impatient man.

As far as he could tell, there was no CCTV camera on Roderick’s house. Jon decided to stretch his legs, and walk as casually as he could along Chapel Cottages. If anyone asked why he was there, he would pretend to be lost, and ask for directions to Aldenham. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all he had. He started by walking along the main road, past the front of the house. The curtains in the front windows were closed. If that was any sort of clue, it was the only one. Turning around, he strolled into Chapel Cottages, and past the old Nissan and the long white wall. In case anyone was watching, he took one of the church pamphlets out of his shoulder bag and pretended to read it.

In less than five minutes, he was back sitting inside the van.

None the wiser.

That evening after dinner, Jon wrote up the next chapter, based on what he had been thinking about today. Inspector Johnson got his search warrant, and arrived with his team. When there was no reply, they forced entry. But after an exhaustive search, there was little to arouse suspicion. They took away an old-fashioned personal computer to see if that revealed anything, and then left a uniformed policeman standing guard on the door until a locksmith repaired it.

It would never have done to have solved the case so quickly. Sergeant Chen would have to wait for her moment.

Settling down to sleep, Jon had a thought. A long garden like the one at Roderick’s house might well have a shed, perhaps even an outbuilding. It would be good to be able to get a look inside anything like that. But how to accomplish that? He might have to be bold.

An undercover policeman might pretend to be a utilities inspector. Show a convincing identity card, and say he had to inspect the property because of water leaks, or sewage issues. Most householders just let people like that in without a second thought, hence why so many fraudsters were able to steal from houses. But he wasn’t an undercover cop, and he had no way to fake an identity card.

There was only one thing for it, he was going to have to confront Roderick Bowes.

Steeling himself the next morning, he didn’t bother with breakfast, hoping to doorstep Roderick before he could go out. Arriving in the middle of the school run, there were lots of parking spaces in the street, so he parked almost outside the house. Dressed in a corduroy suit and carrying his shoulder bag, he strode up to the front door, and banged the brass knocker twice, very hard. As he heard a bolt inside being pulled back, Jon swallowed hard.

The man opened the door, then raised his plucked eyebrows at the sight of an unexpected caller. He was wearing a silk dressing gown adorned with embroidered peackocks, and had some very feminine feathered slippers on his feet. Jon asked him straight out if he was Roderick Bowes, and when the man nodded, he pulled the plastic sleeve from his bag, and asked if he had sent the letter.

The reply was delivered in a voice that sounded female, and heavily affected. What Jon’s father would have described as ‘fey’.

“Sent that? Dear me, no. I would never have addressed a letter like that, and I cannot even remember the last time I ever sent one anyway. Besides, that stationery is my mother’s, she never uses anything else, and I would know it anywhere. I wouldn’t be seen dead with something so pretentious. Back in the day, I always used Basildon Bond. Whoever suggested I could have sent that must have confused me with my mother, and given you the wrong information. Is it a rude letter? A threat, or something? Why are you so bothered about who sent it? You might as well come in, I’m hardly dressed for chatting at my front door”.

He turned into the hallway, and Jon followed. There seemed to be no danger from this patently effeminate man, and it was very obvious that the letter had completely surprised him. With no offer to sit, and the usual hospitality of tea or coffee ignored too, Roderick stood with his back to a fireplace that was so large, it made the small living room feel even smaller. Without waiting for Jon to reply to his earlier questions, he cupped his chin in the palm of his hand.

“Just had a thought though. Could be my sister, Eloise. She still visits my mother. I haven’t been to the Aldenham house for over twenty years, not since the inheritance from my grandfather when I was twenty-one, and I bought this house. When my mother came to look at it the week I moved in, she described it as a ‘rather pathetic cottage in a slum town’. We haven’t spoken since. Hang on, and I will write down Eloise’s address for you. I know she still sees mother, because she visited me last Christmas and told me so”.

Shifting his bulk across to a cluttered Victorian bureau under the side window, Roderick opened a red book with ‘Addresses’ embossed on the front in gold print. Then he tore the bottom section from a gas bill, and wrote his sister’s address down. “She still uses her married name, Eloise Parker-Hill. Been divorced for years though”. He extended the piece of paper with a leer. You are not going to tell me what it’s about, are you? If Eloise is involved, I’m guessing it’s an affair of the heart. Did she break yours perhaps?”

Jon grinned as he took the paper, concluding that Roderick’s Gaydar was not tuned in.

Sitting in the van, Jon shook his head when he read the address. Broadstairs in Kent was a considerable distance, at least one hundred miles south-east, if not more. That would mean changing hotels, as he had no interest in driving such a long round trip for however many days this next part of the mystery might take. While he was at it, he would change the van back to a car too. He hadn’t enjoyed his short time as a surveillance operative, and if he found himself doing it again in Kent, he would do so from the comfort of a nice car.

It had occured to him that whoever wrote the letter needing help might well be beyond aid by now, but his main concern was how he was going to progress the new book with this change of location. Inspector Johnson and Sergeant Chen would undoubtedly be making the drive from London, after informing the Kent Police they were going to be in their area. He jotted some notes down, so he could flesh out the next chapter later, in his hotel room,.

For now, he wanted a late breakfast, unable to hold out until places began to serve lunch.

The reception staff were very good about him leaving early, and he paid his bill ready for a departure the next morning. A phone call to the car rental company confirmed the van would be collected the next morning at nine, when the replacement car he had ordered was delivered. With no Mercedes available, he chose a Volvo X60 instead. This jeep-like car looked very comfortable, and he would hopefully keep it until he returned to York.

After an unusally light dinner, he arrived back in his room to pack everything for tomorrow, leaving out just what he would be wearing for the trip, and anything else he needed. Researching Broadstairs on the laptop reminded him of a visit he had once made to the small seaside town, part of a south coast book-signing tour. A favourite haunt of Charles Dickens, where he holidayed whilst writing some of his famous books. It seemed entirely appropriate to Jon that he might solve such a mystery for his new book, in a town associated with one of the greatest British writers.

Western Esplanade, where Eloise lived, was a clifftop road with sea views that boasted some impressive houses. He started to ring round some hotels in the town, securing a double room for three nights in the impressive-looking Royal Albion Hotel. Parking was available, and breakfast included in the room rate.

The Satnav in the Volvo showed one hundred and eleven miles to his destination. Feeling relaxed in wool trousers and a cashmere polo shirt, Jon was thinking that if this went on much longer, he would either have to buy some new clothes, or find a laundry service. Choosing the suggested route around the southern stretch of the M25 motorway, he at least avoided the Dartford Toll Bridge, despite the greater distance involved. No doubt the Satnav knew about delays and roadworks.

Three hour’s drive after a hearty breakfast, and he was in the rather upmarket seaside town that he had last visited more than fifteen years ago. The staff at the Royal Albion were immaculately uniformed, and very professional. His room had no sea view, but that didn’t matter to him in the slightest. It was very comfortable, and well appointed. And so it should be, given the price.

He decided to relax, and reacquaint himself with the town before lunch. Eloise could wait until tomorrow, no point in rushing things. She might not even be at home. Although Roderick Bowes had added her land-line phone number to the piece of paper, Jon had decided not to call her. It was far too easy to fob someone off on the phone, and he wanted to see her face when he asked her the question.

The restaurant in the hotel was surprisingly good. That evening, he enjoyed a three course table-d’hote meal before retiring to his room with a bottle of Grenache that he had purchased in the town earlier. Writing up the notes for the novel on his laptop, Inspector Johnson’s police team were speeding along the M2 motorway from London, eager to interview the sister, Eloise.

In the real world, he would drive to her house early the next morning, and show her the letter.

Over his choice of a continental breakfast that morning, Jon resolved to approach Eloise Parker-Hill directly, and ask her outright if she had written the letter. He had spent too much time already, and he knew it was true that had it not been for the idea of writing a new Inspector Johnson novel, he would have given up and gone home after speaking to Amelia.

The house was reasonably impressive. An in and out driveway, and a large double-fronted ninteen-thirties house in very good decorative order. The sign outside on the wall surprised him. Cliff House B&B. Ensuite single and double rooms available. Roderick had failed to mention that his sister owned a bed and breakfast establishment. Immediately, he wondered if he should employ some subterfuge. Ask to book a room there, transfer from his hotel, and then be able to observe the woman at first hand. It was tempting, but would waste more time.

So he drove the Volvo into the driveway, got out with his shoulder bag, and pressed the doorbell.

She was nothing like he had expected, given the mother and brother, Closer to fifty than forty, so probably an older sister, she was nonetheless strikingly beautiful. More like a film star, than a boarding house owner. If he had been attracted to women, he would most certainly been attracted to her. Her voice was husky too. As Alan, one of his straight friends in Brighton, would have said, “She’s the full package, Jonny boy”.

“Where you looking for a room? I do have a double available at ninety pounds, including breakfast”. Straight down to business. He explained that he had been directed to her by her brother, and wanted to ask her about a mysterious letter. Her smile was wide, and revealed delicious dimples in her cheeks. “Roddy sent you? A mysterious letter? Do come in and tell me all”.

Eloise showed him along a hallway to a large extended kitchen at the back of the house. There were four tables at the back, next to wide glass doors looking out over a lanscaped garden. She told him to sit at one, offering coffee. Bringing the sylish green Apilco cups and saucers to the table, she sat opposite, then tapped the table top with her hand. “Come on, don’t leave me in suspense”. He explained about his visit to Amelia, and then to Roderick. Sliding out the plastic sleeve, he showed her the front of the letter, and asked if she had sent it.

“Oh what fun! A real mystery indeed. What did it say inside, may I ask?” He hadn’t told anyone about the one word inside so far, but Eloise was rather charming, as well as being open and friendly. He told her that it just said HELP, and the flap was bloodstained.

She leaned forward, her eyelashes flapping slowly, and what seemed to be a yard of plump cleavage on display under a thin cerise blouse. “So you decided to be a hero, and investigate. Well done you. Perhaps you should base yourself here? I could do with the business, to be perfectly frank”. Leaning back, she crossed her legs slowly and deliberately, showing more thigh than was socially acceptable.

Jon thought to himself that she was the second member of that family who failed to realise he was gay.

“But to answer your question, I didn’t send it. Do I look as if I need help? More coffee?” He watched her walking away, trying to imagine what Inspector Johnson would think of her. His famous character was a straight man, and he had been seduced by more than one woman in the series of stories featuring him. One had been a barrister acting for the defence, and another the distraught wife of a murder victim who later turned out to be the killer. He would not have hesitated to have fallen for the charms of Eloise.

But with Sergeant Chen around, that might have proved tricky indeed.

Bringing the coffee refills, Eloise had a suggestion. “I think you should go to see my mother again. She has used that stationery for as long as I can remember, certainly all of my adult life. Roddy hated it, and I have no use for it. I have my own headed notepaper for the business, and I never send personal letters since they invented email and text messages. No point you booking in here, I think you have to go back to Aldenham and tackle the old dragon. Her bark is worse than her bite, don’t let her scare you off”.

After finishing the coffee, Jon thanked her for her hospitality, and her helpful suggestion. But the two coffees had gone through quickly, and he had to ask if he could use her lavatory.

“Of course. Top of the stairs, second door on the left. The rooms are all en-suite now, but at one time that was the only bathroom”. When he had finished and washed his hands, he walked back out onto the first floor landing. It was dominated by an impressive bookcase, in period walnut suiting the thirties style.

And it contained every book he had ever written.

The sight of his novels in Eloise’s bookcase stopped Jon in his tracks. He was vain enough to have a full-size photo of himself on the back cover of every book. It had been taken professionally at the Brighton house, showing him sitting on his writing desk offering what he felt was his best serious writer look. And he hadn’t changed that much since.

Eloise had either never read the books, or knew who he was and was pretending not to recognise him.

He decided to try something as he was taking his leave at the front door, and complimented her on the amount of hardback books in her bookcase. She should have been an actress, such was her composure. For all he knew she may well have had a career in acting, prior to opening a guest house on the coast. “Oh, the books? Yes, I like to have a good reading selection available for my guests. Makes me feel my humble house is rather classy. Not that I read any of them myself, I’m far too busy usually”. He thanked her again, and walked to the car.

Her door was closed before he reached it.

Driving back to the hotel, he was sure he didn’t believe a single thing she had said. It had all been an act on her part, delivered with aplomb. That family was undoubtedly giving him the runaround, and on a huge scale. But why? There had to be a motive. He had to think like Inspector Johnson, maybe even Sergeant Chen. They would work it out by the end of chapter twenty-one.

A huge grin spread across his face as he parked the car in the hotel car park. That was it! If he stopped going along with their wild goose chase and just wrote the book, he would also solve the mystery at the same time. It was time to check out, get packed, and drive home to York.

There had never been anyone needing help, he was sure of that. It was all some kind of perverse game.

He telephoned Alanah from the room, letting her know he would be back later that day. She sounded very happy to hear he was coming back. “Tutankhamun will be pleased to see you, and so will I of course. I will feed him at four this afternoon, and leave your key on the hallstand”. He thanked her and reminded himself that he really must let slip to her that he was gay. It wouldn’t be long before she wasn’t satisfied with innuendo, and flashing her underwear. He feared she would move to the next level, and just lunge.

It was going to take him at least five hours to drive the two hundred and eighty miles back to his house, maybe six. But he should be home in time for dinner, and would pick something up at his favourite deli in the city. The hire car could wait until tomorrow, when he would phone the company and ask them to collect it. This trip south had already involved considerable expense, and there was no need to keep paying for a car he wasn’t going to use.

On the long drive, his mind was racing as he plotted out the story in his head. Only stopping once for fuel and a coffee, he was hungry by the time he opened his front door. Alanah had piled his post onto the hallstand, and placed his doorkey on top of it. He had to hope she didn’t come round later, and stop him working. As for Tutankhamun, he was curled up asleep in his basket, not even bothering to wake to to greet his owner.

After dinner, Jon took the remaining wine through to his study, and started reading through his notes before beginning the next chapter.

Typing feverishly, he soon had Inspector Johnson briefing a team. They would raid all three houses at the same time, armed with search warrants. This would involve officers from Hertfordshire and Kent police forces, as well as himself, Sergeant Chen, and Detective Constable Fox. it would be at first light, and give them no time to warn each other. If there was anything to be found, that would be the time. Naturally, Inspector Johnson chose to lead the team in Broadstairs. He had obviously been researching Eloise Parker-Hill.

Happy with the chapter, Jon reflected that it was just a pity he couldn’t actually arrange that. If the family members were indeed playing him, he could at least cause them some unwelcome disruption. He closed the laptop at ten that night, feeling tired after a long day.

When Alanah rang his doorbell twenty minutes later, he didn’t answer the door.

Early the next morning, Jon walked to a local shop and bought chocolates and flowers for Alanah. When she came to her door, he presented the gifts, adding his thanks for looking after his cat. To forestall any offer to go inside, he told her he was going to be very busy with a new book, so she would be unlikely to see much of her for a while. Her disappointment at that news was eased by the sight of the largest available box of her favourite chocolate assortment.

Three weeks passed, and in the new manuscript, Inspector Johnson was making headway. Some interesting evidence had been found at the house of Roderick. Correspondence concerning a relative who had never been previously mentioned. He was an uncle, the older brother of Amelia. Checking all available records, it appeared this man had not been seen or heard of for some years. In fact, examination of more paperwork discovered at the Aldenham house showed that Amelia’s lawyer had arranged to have him declared legally dead, and as a result she had inherited his estate, including a substantial house in St Albans which had been sold the same year.

The Inspector would have liked to have arrested them all on suspicion of involvement in his death. But with no corpse, his case was shaky. At the suggestion of Sergeant Chen, he placed them all under observation instead, hoping that they might do something to incriminate themselves.

Jon was happy with the way it was going, and continued to make notes concerning the Inspector’s eventual seduction by Eloise, and how that would complicate the case later. Naturally, he had not used any actual names or exact locations, but to get back at the family for messing him around, he used names and locations that were so close to the real ones, anyone who knew them could definitely make a connection.

That evening as he waited for a pasta meal to cook in the oven, he wondered about contacting Claudia, and sending her the first few chapters as a teaser. After all, she had been the one to suggest he should write another book in the series, and it wouldn’t hurt to engage her as his agent once again. As he forked some of the chicken and penne into his mouth, he decided to sleep on it.

Not bothering with breakfast the next morning, he made a pot of coffee in his vintage percolator, ready to face the phone call to Claudia. Jon wasn’t good at eating humble pie, and he had no doubt she would serve him up a very large portion. He would just have to grin and bear it. After all, she was one of the leading agents in literary fiction, even though she managed to run her busy office on a shoesting, employing just one very put-upon assistant, and insisting on answering all the telephone calls herself.

Before he could dial the number, there was a sound from the door. His post dropping into the cage, and the letterbox snapping shut after.

The first two letters were in brown envelopes, one from the Inland Revenue, the other probably a circular. But the third was in an envelope that he recognised immediately, and bore the same clumsy address as the first one that had sent him on that search. Exactly like that one, it had a smeared bloodstain around the flap, and the stamp was a very old Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas. The Aldenham postmark showed it had been posted five days earlier.

On the one sheet of paper inside, there were more words this time. PLEASE DON’T LET ME DOWN.

Shaking his head, he found another plastic sleeve to put the letter into. He wasn’t about to play that silly game again. This time, he would take both letters to the police, and let them deal with it. He no longer needed to solve the mystery anyway, as he was convinced there wasn’t one. As for the new book, he could make up the rest.

As soon as he was ready, he prepared his notes and both letters, placing them in his shoulder bag. Despite the light drizzle, he could easily walk to Acomb Police Station, where he would speak to someone about the silly practical joke being played on him, and show them the letters.

Enough was enough.

In the reception of the police station, Jon had to wait behind a scruffy-looking youth who was signing in under his bail conditions. Then he went and asked the middle-aged woman if he could see a detective. In a monotone, she made a short speech that she must have made thousands of times before.

“If you want to see an officer, you have to give me some idea of what it’s about. I can issue you with a crime number for minor offences like the theft of a phone, so there’s no need to see an officer for anything like that”.

Using his best authoratitive tone, he explained that it was serious, a possible kidnap or forced imprisonment, and that it was definitely necessary to see a detective, preferably someone senior.

She remained totally unimpressed. “Take a seat, and I’ll see what I can do”.

He sat on the perforated metal bench which was divided by the plastic armrests running along it. The woman picked up the phone, and was soon talking to someone, glancing across at him as she spoke. He couldn’t hear her, but his instincts told him that she was describing his appearance to whoever was on the other end of the line.

Forty-five minutes later, a side door opened, and man called his name. Jon approached a chubby man who had a moustache like something out of the early seventies, and was wearing a faded brown suit that was too tight to be able to button the jacket. “Hello, I am detective constable Terry Skinner, please come through”. He was taken into a small room hardly big enough for the desk and four chairs that were the only things in it. The policeman sat opposite, and smiled. “So you mentioned an abduction, I believe? Please tell me everything you know about it”.

Jon began to tell the story from the arrival of the first letter, sliding his evidence across the desk as he did so. He also consulted his notes, mentioning Amelia Bowes and her son Roderick. By the time he got to the part where he was about to travel to see Eloise in Broadstairs, he suddenly noticed that the man had no voice recorder operating, and was taking no notes in the classic police pocketbook. When he mentioned this, the cop waved away the comment.

“Don’t worry, it is all going in here”. He tapped the side of his head. “If I decide that there is something worth investigating, I assure you I will take a full statement.” Continuing to recount the events, Jon produced the second letter, and sat back. If he expected the detective to be amazed, he was sadly disappointed by the man’s response.

“Let me make sure I have got this right. You are, by your own description, a famous writer of crime thrillers, including the Inspector Johnson mysteries, which I have to tell you I have not read. You get a strange letter asking for help, with what you say is blood on the sealed flap. Yet you don’t bring it straight in so we can begin an investigation, oh no. Instead, you decide to play detective by driving down to Hertfordshire, and mounting surveiilance on a family based purely on the fact that they also own stationery of the same style? Am I correct so far?”

Jon nodded, and the man continued.

Then you travel all the way to Kent to follow up on what you believe is a lead, and when you see that this woman has your books in her bookcase, that seems to confirm your suspicions. You say you are a famous novelist. How many copies of those books have you sold in hardback?” Jon told him it would be in the tens of thousands, and the detective rubbed his face with both hands. “Then you just came home and forgot about it, using the whole thing as a storyline for your next book. Incredible”.

He slid his chair back with a noisy scraping sound, and placed both hands on the desk.

“Well, here is what I think. If you had really believed someone was in danger, you would have been here on day one, showing us that letter. Seems to me that you have a book in progress that one day you would like to promote and market. So you reckon you can come to us after the event, get us running around like headless chickens, and then use the press coverage of a wild goose chase to get your name and your book in the newspapers. You are very lucky I am not going to bother to charge you with wasting police time. Now, what I would like you to do is to pick up all that stuff on the desk, place it back into your very nice shoulder bag, and go home”. He stood up, indicating the interview was over.

Almost unable to believe the insolent attitude of Skinner, Jon was back at home before he thought that he should have demanded to see someone more senior than a detective constable.

That afternoon, Jon was raging. He began to compose a contact email to the Chief Constable, initiating a formal complaint about Detective Skinner. Halfway down, he stopped. It wouldn’t look too good that he hadn’t involved the police the day he received the first letter, he had to admit that. Weeks had gone by, and he hadn’t mentioned anything to a single police officer, whether in Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, or Kent.

He highlighted the text, and pressed Delete. Time for a rethink.

After an early dinner of Moussaka, and half a bottle of Othello to go with it, he decided that two could play at their game. Back in his study, he typed out a blank word document in upper case.

I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND THE POLICE HAVE BEEN INFORMED. YOU ARE ALL BEING INVESTIGATED

He saved it, printed off three copies, and addressed plain white envelopes using block capitals with a pencil held in his left hand. Tomorrow, he would take a long train journey, and post them to Amelia, Roderick, and Eloise.

Then he would get back to writing his book and living his life, leaving the crazy family to stew in their own juice.

At York Station the next morning, he bought a ticket to Oxenholme Station. Just on the edge of the Lake District town of Kendal, it was a journey of less than three hours, but far enough west not to have any postmark connected to Yorkshire. The ticket was reasonably priced, and he added the cost of it to his running log of expenditure. It could count as research, for tax purposes. On the way, he wrote paper notes for the book.

Inspector Johnson’s investigation was in full swing. Surveillance of family members showed repeated visits to the Aldenham house by both Roderick and Eloise, and they all visited the church every time they were together. When an undercover officer went into the church pretending to be having a moment of silent prayer, he spotted all three accompanying the vicar into the Vestry, the same room where Jon had used the toilet that day.

Sergeant Chen had one of her moments of intuition, suggesting that the large garden at the Aldenham house should be dug up. By the time the Inspector was trying to convince his superiors to authorise that, the train was almost at Oxenholme.

In his opinion, Kendal was one of the least attractive towns in the Lake District. He had visited the area many times since moving north, and much preferred Keswick or Windermere. But Kendal would serve his purposes, offering many choices for lunch, and a couple of post offices to choose from too. As the letters were already stamped with first class stamps he had at home, he walked up to the first post office he saw, and posted them in the large box on the wall in the First Class and Abroad slot. The next collection was at four that afternoon, so the recipients would likely get the letters tomorrow morning.

Not far from there he noticed a smart Tapas Bar, and easily found a table in the almost empty establishment. He ordered a small Tortilla, accompanied by Gambas Pil-Pil, Calamares, and Bacalao. That would satsify him nicely until dinner, and a large glass of Rioja that was expensive but delicious.

He thought the waiter was also quite delicious. But he sadly failed to give Jon more than a glance.

Lingering over a coffee, he still had time for a leisurely stroll back to the station before catching the three fifty-two back to York. The train departed six minutes late, almost at the same time as the letters he had posted were being collected.

A taxi from York station was a treat, as even after sitting on the train for almost three hours, Jon felt tired. His plans to write up his notes were abandoned as a result, and he watched the ten o’clock news before considering an early night. But the second letter was playing on his mind. If all of this wasn’t a weird practical joke, then someone out there had asked him not to let them down. Who could that be?

In bed that night, he ran through the possibilities once again. His conclusion worried him, and left him unsettled. Although they had parted on bad terms, he began to be convinced that the sender was Lolly.

If it was Lolly, he was going to have to try to help him.

To find out what had happened to Lolly after they split up, he would probably have to travel down to Brighton. He had heard that Dennis Green had allowed Lolly to stay at his flat for a few nights, until he found somewhere to live. Dennis had once been a successful drag artist, using the stage name Dorothy Emerald. But outside of some northern coastal resorts like Blackpool, drag acts had dipped in popularity back then, and Dennis had been working on various concessions on Brighton Pier by the time Jon had left for York.

Meanwhile, he had a phone call to make. Time to contact Claudia and to sell her the concept of his book. He waited until he had eaten a bacon and brie panini for lunch, then poured a large glass of Chianti to take into his study to fortify his courage for the phone call. The best time to catch Claudia in a friendly mood would be after she had enjoyed her first large gin and tonic of the day, which was usually just after one in the afternoon.

The tone of her voice indicated that she had almost certainly enjoyed at least one drink.

“Daaarling, how lovely to hear from you. Are you still enjoying your retirement up there? Or have you sold so many science-fiction novels you are getting film offers from Steven Spielberg, and thinking of relocating to Los Angeles?” Ignoring what she thought passed for wit, he told her that he had six good chapters of a new Inspector Johnson novel down, and had done a lot of valuable research into the bargain. He assured her that the story was flowing well, and he should have it completed in less than three months.

That got her attention.

“Tell me more dear boy. Give me an outline at least. If I like the sound of it, we might well be able to capture the Christmas market with a rushed release in hardback”. Jon was ready, with a good length outline written up, which he read to her. Then he added some background about the letter he had telephoned her about previously, telling her how he would use the characters he had actually met, renaming and relocating them. He went into some detail, and she listened without interruption for a considerable time.

“Daaarling, that sounds wonderful. I really like this new detective, Sergeant Chen. She could generate a spin-off, perhaps transferring to the murder squad or something, then cracking cold cases with her Confucian ingenuity. Love it, daaarling”. There was a pause as he heard her light a cigarette, then the sound of ice cubes clinking in a glass signalled gin and tonic number two before she continued.

“So you should email what you have to me, and I can start thinking about a synopsis, and a suitable cover photo. Might get a couple of readers onto it as well, see what they make of the idea behind it. Okay with you, dear boy?” He agreed, knowing what was to come next. “Of course, that will mean you signing a new contract accepting me as your agent. I won’t read a single word before I get that. I will have it written up and sent by courier tomorrow. You should get it the next day, with a return wallet”.

Keen to get off the phone after such a long call, he exchanged a few pleasantries, and told her what she wanted to hear, that he was very happy to be working with her again. After all, she was the best in the genre, and could get publishing houses fighting each other for the writers she represented. She exhaled a lungful of smoke that sounded like a hippo blowing out water as it surfaced, and then her tone changed to something more serious.

“Tell me those names again. The real ones, the people in that crazy family who have been trolling you with this bloodstained letter nonsense.” Jon reeled them off from memory, and he could hear Claudia’s Mont Blanc fountain pen making a scratching sound as she wrote them down. As always, she was pressing too hard. “Okay, Jon. Give me ten minutes, and I will ring you back”.

Something had sobered her up, and she had dropped the facade. The call came in under five minutes, not the ten she had asked for.

“I thought as much. Eloise Parker-Hill is an unusual name. A couple of years ago, she sent me a manuscript for a private eye novel. She wanted it published under a pen name, Eloise Bowes. I just looked through my filing cabinet under B and there it was. It was rubbish, to be honest. I rejected it out of hand”.

The revelation from Claudia was very interesting. A woman who had a bookcase full of crime novels, including all of his, and now the news that she had written one herself, only to have it rejected. Jon allowed himself a second glass of wine as he assessed the situation. That was a motive to harass him perhaps, but there were many other successful novelists writing in the genre, including at least six who sold twice as many books as he had.

Could it be that it really was just a spiteful game by the family, and that nobody was in danger? But the fact remained that they had sent the letters to him in York. Even though they didn’t know the full address, his move north had never been publicised, and his current personal information online had not been changed from being resident in Brighton. That had to mean that someone had told them. If it wasn’t Claudia, then who?

As well as Lawrence, there was the removal company, and the next door neighbours the Andersens, who only lived in their house at weekends. The other side was a holiday let property, and he would never have told anyone staying there where he was moving to. Did the Andersens even still live there? They had often mentioned him being on a short contract, and that they planned to return to Denmark one day. It seemed unlikely that anyone would have asked them about him, or the removal company. Besides, the removal firm knew his actual address, even though they should have known never to give it to anyone. If they had broken that confidence, the sender would have had the full address from the start.

That left two main possibilities. Lolly, and Dennis. It was very likely that Lolly would have told Dennis when he stayed there, and he only knew it was York, not the street name or number. He wanted to go back to Brighton, find Dennis, and see if he knew anything. Not least Lolly’s whereabouts. The outside chance was someone in the Post Office in Brighton. Jon had his mail redirected for the first six months after the move, so whoever dealt with that paperwork would have known. But they would also have had the full address.

He now had a headache, and it wasn’t just because of two glasses of wine before dinner.

One thing he did know was where to stay in Brighton that had a car park. He rang and booked a hotel for two nights, hoping that was long enough to track down Dennis. While he was on the south coast, he might well drive around to Broadstairs and confront Eloise Parker-Hill with the new information. But that would depend on what Dennis had to say when he found him. On the plus side, he might well be living in the same small flat, and Jon knew where that was. His last job that afternoon was to ring the car hire company and arrange for a similar Mercedes to be delivered on the day after tomorrow.

Having to wait in for Claudia’s contract to arrive meant he had to delay by one full day.

Settling for a mixed platter of cold meats and cheese and biscuits that evening, he was soon back to work on the laptop, polishing the draft manuscript to the style he knew Claudia would expect and enjoy. He scrapped the part about digging up Amelia’s garden, and instead wrote in more interest surrounding Eloise. That would make any later sexual liaison between her and Inspector Johnson more credible, as he would be spending longer in Broadstairs.

The courier arrived on a motorbike, and said he had to wait for the return wallet. Jon signed the contract, kept his copy, and handed it back to the man standing outside. That saved him a trip to the Post Office, so he quickly popped along to see Alanah, to ask her to feed his cat for a few days, and hand over the spare key.

She wasn’t her usual self. Despite agreeing to do as he asked, she appeared to be distracted, and she didn’t ask him in. That was something she had never failed to do previously, but Jon was relieved not to have to make up an excuse to avoid her attempts at seduction. He spent the rest of the day going over his notes, and giving the final edit of his email to Claudia a good tidy up.

By the time he pressed the box to send her the email, it was already late afternoon. So he went upstairs to pack a bag with what he would need the next day.

A smart young woman dressed in a pinstripe suit arrived with the hired Mercedes the next morning. The car was in metallic grey, but otherwise identical to the one he had hired before. He wasted no time getting on the road, as he knew it would take at least five hours, and wanted some time that afternoon to try to locate Dennis.

With a brief stop for fuel and an indifferent sandwich later, he arrived in front of his hotel just after three. The receptionist arranged for his car to be collected by a valet and driven to the car park, then Jon left his things in the impressive seafront suite he had booked and walked quickly to the pier.

Although it was late in the season, there were still people on the beach, and the pier was surprisingly busy. He spotted Steff, a woman he knew from the old days. She was running the three balls stand, surrounded by tasteless soft toys that were given out as prizes. The skin of her face looked like crumpled crepe paper, ruined by a lifetime of chain smoking. And her voice betrayed that too, for anyone who might still be in doubt.

“Jonny, love. Long time no see. I wondered where you had disappeared to”. He hated being called Jonny, but smiled. He told her that he had moved away, but was in town for business, and hoping to look up some old friends.

When he mentioned Dennis, she got into a fit of coughing, taking a few moments to recover. “Dorothy Emerald? He’s not around on the pier much. He was working in Maurice’s seaside rock shop on the promenade, last I saw him. Do you wanna try your luck with three balls in the bucket, Jonny?” Jon thanked her for the information, declined the offer to win a soft toy, and headed the short distance back along the front to the rock shop.

A greasy-haired girl was leaning against the back wall of the small shop. She looked to be in her teens, and a spot between her eyes seemed ready to erupt into some kind of dermatological Vesuvius. Her faded black dress was so short, Jon averted his eyes as she moved, lest he see something he didn’t want to.

“Yes. I help you? He guessed at East European, as he glanced briefly at the sign in front of the multi-coloured sticks of rock. £1 Each Or 5 For £4. He told her he was looking for Dennis Green. Immediately losing interest, she slumped back against the wall, shouting so loudly, it startled him. “DENIZZ!”

The door behind her creaked as it opened, and Dennis appeared.

Looking much older than he was, and wearing a teal chiffon scarf that looked out of place above his grey cable-knit cardigan, Dennis managed a weak smile. “Hello Jon old love, great to see you”. Jon told him he was trying to trace Lawrence. “Lolly? Let’s have a little walk along the seafront old love, and I’ll tell you what I know”. Dennis wasn’t breathing that well, and it wasn’t long before he suggested sitting down on an empty bench. Fishing around in the pocket of the cardigan he produced a single cigarette, lighting it with a Zippo from the other pocket.

“He only stayed with me for a few nights, old love. No funny business, you understand. I was just helping him out. I told him what a stupid boy he had been. I think he really did love you, but he couldn’t stop himself when someone flirted with him. Anyway, he got a job, somewhere north of London. Working as the barman in a pizza place. I lent him the money for the train fare to go for the interview, but he never sent it back to me. Radlett it was. Yes I’m sure. Radlett.” That made Jon take a sharp intake of breath.

Radlett was only two miles from Aldenham.

Jon didn’t let on to Dennis about the Hertfordshire connection, but he did ask him if anyone had been around asking where he lived. Dennis seemed surprised. “No, old love. Nobody ever asked me. Lolly mentioned that you were going to live in Yorkshire, but not where up there. To be honest, I thought you were putting him off the scent. I was sure you might go to London, get a lovely flat on the river or something. Did you actually go to Yorkshire then?” Jon nodded, but didn’t elbaorate. Taking out his wallet, he gave Dennis fifty pounds. He looked like he needed it, and made no attempt to refuse it. Then they stood up and shook hands, and Jon walked back to the hotel.

As he was changing to go down to dinner that evening, Claudia rang his mobile. She came straight to the point, her voice rising and falling in volume as she spoke. “Daaarling, I love it! It’s old school, but still very much an Inspector Johnson mystery. You have given it that Cosy vibe that has become SO popular these days. I have already spoken to Brian at the production company, and he reckons it would be snapped up by ITV for a six-part series. We would do well to wait for that, then sell the book on the back of it, with a photo of whoever stars in it on the cover”.

Making the right noises about being very pleased, Jon slipped on his Italian loafers, then managed to get her off the phone as he headed out the door.

Before going through to his table in the hotel restaurant, he stopped off at reception and cancelled the second night. There was no point staying longer, as he had no intention of driving to Broadstairs to tackle Eloise. He would go back to Hertfordshire instead, and examine the Radlett connection. As it turned out, the receptionist was happy to cancel as she was turning people away because of something happening at Brighton Conference Centre.

The waiter tried to debate that Chateaubriand was for two people, but as long as Jon was prepared to pay the full price, he took the order. A bottle of Beaune was ordered from the sommelier to go with it, and after a delicious meal, he retired to his room to write up some more of the book.

It was obvious why the television drama guy was keen to have an option. The location filming was close to London, and in picturesque spots too. It was all very English, meaning that it would also sell in America, and probably do well on a dvd box set too. If Claudia negotiated in her usual merciless style, Jon reckoned his share would be approaching six figures, plus repeat fees.

While waiting for the valet to bring his car the next morning, Jon rang the Premier Inn in Watford and was able to get a room for that night, but not for a second night. He took that, hoping it would be long enough. Amelia Bowes had some questions to answer, and this time he would make sure to ask them. That vicar would be a good contact to use. He would be able to draw Amelia out of her house on some pretext, then she could be spoken to somewhere public.

With time to kill before check-in, Jon drove straight to Radlett, arriving just after eleven thirty.

Strolling along the main street, Jon saw three restarants that served pizza. One was Domino’s, which he ruled out as not having a bar. Pizza Express was a well-know chain that had a bar, but was unlikely to employ a barman as the waiters probably got the drinks. The third was an Italian restaurant that served all the usual food, as well as hand-made pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven. It also had a smart bar that was fully stocked.

He walked into that one, deciding it was the most likely. It had not long been open for business, and he was offered a table in the window of the empty establishment. The middle-aged waitress left him with the huge fold out menu, and went to get the glass of San Pellegrino he had ordered while he looked at it.

When she brought the water, he ordered a pizza with porcini mushrooms, black olives, and asparagus, then casually asked her if she knew Lawrence Brooks. She folded her arms across an ample bosom and smiled. “He owe you money? He still owes me money. We let him live in the bedsit upstairs, and he was a good worker at first. But then he got in with that blonde woman and her mother. Regular customers, you know. They made a fuss of him, and I reckon he was under their spell, if you get what I mean. Anyway, he upped and left with no notice, and I had paid him two weeks in front. If you find him, tell me where he is, and my husband will pay him a visit”.

She walked off to check on his pizza as Jon realised that she was talking about Eloise and Amelia.

The pizza was delicious, but Jon ate it automatically, as if it was made of cardboard. Lolly must have told the Bowes family where he lived, but why would they go to such lengths just to pester him with silly letters, and send him on a pointless chase around southern England? And part of him was concerned for his former lover.

When the owner brought the bill, he asked if she had any idea where Lawrence might have gone. She shrugged hard, wobbling her large breasts up and down under her black T-shirt. “No idea, I’m sorry. We have had no request for a reference, not that I would have given him one, and his post was never redirected. We just threw it away. He left a few things behind, like a phone charger, and some dirty washing. We just threw them all away. Was everything alright for you sir?” Jon nodded, and added a generous tip.

As he stood up to leave, she called out to him. “Was he your son, by any chance?” That reminded Jon of the age difference, and he shook his head as he walked out, fighting back tears.

Once he had checked in to the hotel and sorted out his car park space, he decided that tomorrow would have to see some kind of showdown. All of this had gone on far too long. Even though he might get a book deal, and a television series, he now knew that it involved someone he still loved, and probably would always love.

After a restless night he had no appetite for breakfast, so settled for three cups of coffee to liven himself up. Changing into a reasonably smart suit, but leaving off a tie, he prepared all of his evidence so far, and placed it into his shoulder bag. The drive to Aldenham was fast and easy, and he parked on the street outside the church.

Surprisingly, the door was locked, so he waited in the car for someone to arrive and open up.

Just over an hour later, he saw the vicar walking along the street, then turning into the entrance to the churchyard. He was dressed in casual clothes, not his vicar’s suit. The bomber jacket and tight jeans made him look all the more like a basketball player. Jon was reminded of the Harlem Globetrotters, who he had watched on television when he was young.

He gave the man time to enter the church and do whatever vicars did, then got out of the car to go in to see him. He was sure he could trust the witty and honest man, and whatever the outcome, he was his best chance for resolving the mystery.

William seemed surprised to see him. “Hello again. It’s been a while. Did you come back to tell me you had written me and my church into your latest novel?” He was in his black suit, religious dog-collar in place. Jon spilled out the events of the past weeks, uncharacteristically babbling, and confirming all of his suspicions with what passed as evidence, including both letters.

The vicar listened attentively, and perused each document carefully before replying.

“I think I recall Eloise writing a novel. I didn’t know it had been rejected though. When she visits her mother, she often comes for Sunday service before going back to Kent and sometimes we chat briefly. But I cannot imagine that the two of them would concoct such a deception, just to have you running around the country trying to investigate it. What could possibly be their motive?”

Jon had to admit that he was struggling to discover a real motive, other than that they were being spiteful, and wasting his time. He asked William if he would be prepared to draw Amelia into the church, so that she could be confronted with the details of his investigation. The vicar pondered that for some time, then replied.

“I can see no harm in that. I will ask her to come and see me tomorrow, and make up some story about church business. Then you can ask her about the letters, and I will be there to witness what she has to say. Meanwhile, go back to your hotel and relax. I am sure it is all a lot of coincidence, a fuss about nothing, my friend. Come back here tomorrow at midday, and I am sure you will have an answer, and be reassured”.

Shaking his hand, Jon assured him he would be back the next day.

Checking out after breakfast, Jon drove the short distance to Aldenham. He would be there two hours too early, but there was nowhere else to go. He parked the Mercedes within sight of the church, and went through the notes and documents in his shoulder bag while he waited for the vicar to arrive. Not long after eleven, he saw William walking up the street and turning left into the path to the church. He grabbed the shoulder bag and car keys, arriving at the church door while the vicar was still standing just inside.

The tall man gave him a wide grin. “I thought you might be early. Come through and I will make us a cup of tea. There should be some cake left too. Some of my church ladies make delicious cakes”.

In the vestry was a small table with a kettle and mugs on it, and a mini-fridge underneath. William started to make the tea, but when he opened the big tin next to the kettle, there was no cake inside. He shook his head. “Apologies, I think I must have eaten the last piece yesterday. Go through and take a seat in the church, I will bring it through”.

Jon sat on the end of the front pew, feeling that cold air that always seemed to be found in any church. When he was handed the tea, he sipped it immediately, hoping it would warm him up. William stood his mug on the stone floor. “I have asked Amelia to call on me at twelve. I invented some church business. It turns out her daughter Eloise is staying with her at the moment, so I suggested she come too. You should have an answer to all of this by lunchtime”.

The tea was very milky, and the supermarket blend not to Jon’s taste at all. But he swallowed all of it as soon as it wasn’t too hot to do so. The church had given him a chill that he couldn’t seemed to shake.

He had no recollection of passing out, but as he came round, he was aware that he had been unconscious for some time. He was somewhere dimly lit, and he could hear people talking nearby, but could not make out what they were saying. There was a sharp pain in his mouth, and he thought he must have bitten his tongue, as he could taste blood. As he tried to sit up, he was stopped by something hard and metallic. Stretching out his legs, he hit something else with his feet.

It took a moment for him to realise he was in a cage. It was not that much larger than him, and there was a bucket and a toilet roll in the left hand corner, next to a large plastic bottle of still water. He shook the cage, but it was secure. Bolted to the stone floor, and the opening above secured by a substantial padlock. He heard a female voice clearly.

“He’s awake”.

Footsteps sounded on the floor, and suddenly Eloise’s face loomed into view just outside the bars. Standing behind her was Amelia, Roderick, and William. The vicar had such a wide grin, his teeth looked whiter than ever in the gloom. Jon asked them what they were playing at. Why was he in a cage. What was it all about. And finally, what had they done with Lolly. Eloise answered his last question first.

“We did nothing with your young friend, except to pay him handsomely for telling us where you lived, and allowing us to cut his tongue so he could lick some envelopes. Then he took his money and left, I assure you. By the way, your letters were very bad form, amateurish to be honest. As if we would believe the police would be interested in your fantasy”. Jon opened his mouth to speak, but she raised her hand to silence him.

“This is what you are going to do. I am going to put an envelope through the bars, and you are going to lick it. If you do that, we might give you something to eat. If not, we might just lock the door to the crypt and forget you are in here”.

She slid the envelope though. It was addressed in the same clumsy style. The recipent was Terence O’Connor, the American author of the best selling Mickey Mulligan private investigator novels. Jon licked the gummed flap and handed it back, asking Eloise again why they were doing this to him.

William the vicar stepped forward. “We had no luck with our detective novel. Your snotty agent rejected it. So we are changing genres. This time, it’s going to be a Horror novel, based on first-hand research. You are the subject of that research, and perhaps Terence O’Connor too, if he can work out how to get to Aldenham, as you did. So just stay calm, and who knows, you may be famous again. If only by default”.

All four of them started to laugh out loud, and Jon slumped back against the cage.

His one hope was that Claudia would put two and two together, and send the police searching for him. He had changed the names and locations in the story, but Claudia had written the real ones down when they spoke, and knew about Eloise and her rejected manuscript. But that could take a long time, and he had no idea how long he had left.

Meanwhile, he was wondering what Inspector Johnson would do now.

The End.

Outside: The Complete Story

This is all 35 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 27,142 words.

Gillian had always felt happy at home. There was something about the familiarity that made her feel safe and content. Everything in the same place, the same dinner to look forward to on each day of the week, and settling down with mum in front of the TV to watch their favourite shows.

She couldn’t remember her dad, and only had the old photos of him to remind her of the man he had been. Many were in his fireman’s uniform, looking smart and proud. Some others showed him holding her as a baby, and one was in a swimming pool on holiday somewhere.

He had been killed at work fighting a fire, along with two of his colleagues. Mum said it was an explosion that collapsed the roof and trapped them.

As Gillian was just eighteen months old at the time, she had grown up only knowing her mum. And mum had been great.

With no grandparents to help, there had been baby-minders at first, then nursery so mum could carry on working. The life insurance had paid off the mortgage, and left a good amount besides, so mum told her. Although they never had a car, as mum couldn’t drive, they had a very comfortable life and were a lot better off than many in the town.

There had never been another man, no chance of a step-dad coming on the scene to change their routine. And friends were few and far between too. They liked to keep their own company, and didn’t feel the need to have anyone else around. Besides, with Gillian tending to be very overweight from a young age, she had never found it easy to make friends at school. Once she was home and changed out of her uniform, she never wanted to go out again anyway.

When it came time to think about a job, mum arranged that too. She worked at the unemployment office, and that was always busy. She got Gillian a start there at the age of seventeen, with a decent salary and a good Civil Service pension scheme. And they could travel into work together on the bus too. Mum wouldn’t take any housekeeping money from her. “You save it carefully, love. Put it away for when you are older”. So the savings grew and grew over the years.

Life couldn’t have been better, as far as she was concerned. Okay, she never had a boyfriend, but that only mattered if you wanted one to start with. And she could talk to mum about anything, so not having friends of the same age didn’t matter either.

Getting used to using computers at work made Gillian interested in them. She used some savings to buy a laptop, and paid for the Internet connection through the house phone. Mum thought it was a lot of nonsense. “Encyclopedias were good enough in my day. How much stuff do you need to know about anyway? It’s not like you’re still studying for exams or anything”. But she would sit watching TV with the laptop next to her, and she soon found she wasn’t really concentrating on the programmes like she used to.

Not long before her twenty-eighth birthday, Gillian got ready to do something nice for her mum’s fiftieth. Mum had scoffed at the idea of going out to a restaurant, but had agreed to a special Chinese takeaway, and a bottle of sweet white wine. Gillian went to H. Samuels jewellers and bought her a gold bracelet with a charm showing the number fifty. Then in Clintons card shop, she found a huge card with the number on it, and it played Happy Birthday when you opened it.

It was a great night, and she laughed at mum getting tipsy on two small glasses of Sauternes.

The next morning, mum was up early. She said she hadn’t been able to sleep because of indigestion. She had taken some Milk of Magnesia, and still felt a bit queasy. “You will have to tell Mister Bell I’m going to be off sick today, love. Say I should be a lot better by tomorrow”. Mum hated going sick from work, and Gillian couldn’t remember the last time she had ever done that.

The traffic was bad on the way home, and it was pouring with rain. Gillian got in soaking wet, hungry, and fed up. She was looking forward to meat pie night, and getting into her dressing gown. But mum was still in bed, feeling no better, and her face was so pale, Gillian was scared.

Despite mum’s protests, she rang the number for the emergency doctor.

The doctor had a serious face. “I think it’s your heart, Rebecca. I am going to call an ambulance to take you into hospital for some tests, but I suspect you have Angina. Don’t get too concerned, there are tablets and other treatments that can help you”. Gillian went and packed a small case for her mum while they waited for the ambulance.

They were at the hospital for hours until all the tests were completed. Eventually, a young doctor came to see her in the waiting area. “We are going to keep your mum in overnight for observation. You can go and say goodbye to her in the cubicle, no point waiting until she goes to the ward, as it is getting very late”. After trying to look cheerful in front of her mum, she went to reception and asked them to phone her a taxi.

It was too late to get anything to eat from the fish and chip shop or Chinese takeaway, so when Gillian got home she ate four slices of cheese on toast and a family-size bag of crisps before going to bed. The house felt strange without her mum there, and it took her ages to get to sleep, despite being exhausted.

When she woke up the next morning, she realised she had overslept. Throwing on some clothes without even bothering to have a proper wash, she grabbed her handbag and keys. At the front door, she hesitated. Why bother to go to work all flustered? Her mum was in hospital and she was worn out. Mister Bell would understand. Giving it fifteen minutes to make sure someone was in the office, she phoned in.

“Can you tell Mister Bell that Rebecca Baxter is in hospital with heart trouble, and wont be in. Also that I can’t come in today. I’m Gillian Baxter”. The clerk read the names back, then she said something nice about hoping mum got better soon.

Hanging up the phone, Gillian got undressed and went back to bed.

Late that afternoon, she was woken up by the phone ringing. It was the hospital, one of the nurses. “Miss Baxter? I wanted to let you know your mum is coming home soon. She has responded well to treatment, and we have given her some tablets to take home. I can order an ambulance for her but she has no keys, so I need to know someone will be home when she gets there”. Gillian assured her that she would be home to let mum in.

Mum looked a lot better, and walked from the ambulance into the house. “I have some tablets to take when I get those pains, love. They have to dissolve under my tongue, and they give me a shocking headache. But they work. They said I should have two weeks away from work, and make an appointment with the doctor to get a certificate. Then I have to wait for a letter to go for an out-patient appointment. Cardiology, they said. meanwhile, I have to avoid over-exerting myself”.

She wasn’t too pleased to hear that Gillian hadn’t gone to work. “Why didn’t you go in? It was me that was in hospital?” To avoid an argument, Gillian went into the kitchen and cooked sausages, eggs, and chips for dinner. She put the telly on for mum, and brought her a cup of tea. During the commercial break in Coronation Street, she turned to her mum.

“I think I shoud stay home and look after you, mum. I’m sure they wil give me some time off to do that. If not, I’ll just take some holiday leave. It’s not as if we are going away anywhere, and they owe me four weeks”. Her mum was too tired to argue. “Okay love, whatever you think is best”.

Mister Bell was very nice about it when she rang in the next morning. “Take a week, Gillian, and give my best wishes to your mum for a speedy recovery. But if you want more than a week, it will have to be holiday time, I’m afraid”. She told him she would ring back in a week, and arrange to take time off using her holiday entitlement.

Being at home and looking after her mum suited Gillian nicely. They could watch telly all day without bothering to get dressed, and she could pop to the corner shop for food, just wearing a raincoat over her pyjamas.

On the Thursday, she had to walk to the doctor’s and collect mum’s certificate, then post it into work from the box on the corner.

Stopping at the corner shop on the way home, she bought two microwave lasagnas. They would be easy to do for dinner.

After two weeks, and no recurrence of her Angina, Rebecca Baxter was looking forward to going back to work on the following Monday. But when Gillian didn’t appear downstairs that morning, she went back upstairs, and into her room.

“Gill, why aren’t you up and about? Come on love, you will be late for work, and make me late too”. Gillian looked sulky. “I don’t fancy going in, mum. Tell them I will use the rest of my holiday, I feel like taking a longer break”.

On any other morning, Rebecca would never have tolerated such nonsense from her daughter. But it was her first day back after being off sick, and she didn’t want to be late. “Okay, I will ask Mister Bell, but I can tell you know he’s not going to like it”. With that, she left in as much of a huff as she could be bothered to display. Then she almost missed the usual bus, and had to run up the hill to catch it just as the doors were closing.

By the time she got to work, Rebecca was feeling rather breathless, and quite stressed. The last thing she needed was to have to apologise to the boss about her daughter’s seemingly pointless absence. He was busy on the phone, but he smiled at her, and pointed at the chair opposite. As his phone call went on, Rebecca could feel the shortness of breath getting worse, and there was a pain along the side of her jaw that felt like toothache. She rubbed at it, but it didn’t go away.

As there was no pain in her chest or arms, it didn’t occur to her to take one of her tablets from the packet in her handbag, and place it under her tongue.

Jim Bell was still trying to explain to a factory manager why he didn’t have anyone suitable to recommend, when Mrs Baxter fell off the chair, face down onto the floor of his office. He hung up on the factory manager and rushed around his desk. She was as white as a sheet, and he could get no response from her. So he went back to his desk, picked up the phone, and dialled 999 for an ambulance.

Gillian was settling down with two toasted teacakes when the phone rang. She suspected it was going to be her mum, ringing to have a moan at her.

“Hello, Gill. It’s Jim Bell from work. You mum has collapsed unconscious, and the ambulance is taking her to the General. I have to tell you that they were doing resuscitation on her before they left, and it doesn’t look good. Maureen has gone in the ambulance with her, but you need to get down to Casualty as soon as you can”. Gillian was determined to finish her teacakes before they got cold, so took them upstairs with her and ate them as she was getting dressed. She could get the 187 bus to the General Hospital, it wasn’t that far away.

It took about forty minutes until Gillian walked into the busy Casualty Department, then waited for a receptionist to become free to talk to her. “My name is Gillian Baxter. I’ve come to see my mum, she was brought in by ambulance”. The woman gave her a knowing look, and a pleasant smile that seemed false. “Please take a seat, I will get someone to come and speak to you. There was a friend from work with her, but she left about five minutes ago”.

A young Indian doctor came into the waiting room. He took her to a room, the same one she had sat in that night over two weeks ago. When she had sat down, he sat next to her, and spoke very quietly. “I am very sorry to tell you that your mother has died, Miss Baxter. Between the ambulance crew and the medical team, we tried hard to save her, but after thirty minutes, there was no point carrying on. Is there someone we can call to be with you? A relative or close friend perhaps?”

Unsure what to say, Gillian looked at him for a long time. “No, there’s nobody, doctor. She was only fifty you know, just fifty”. He nodded sympathetically. “Would you like to come through and see her? She just looks like she’s asleep, nothing horrible I assure you”.

Shaking her head, Gillian sat up straight. “No thank you. I don’t think I would like that”.

Jim Bell more or less took charge of things after her mum’s death. Gillian went with him to register the death, and then they went to the undertaker where mum had already taken out a funeral plan. It was going to be very basic. Just the hearse and one car, followed by a short cremation service. Jim said he would come to the funeral with Maureen from work, surprised to discover they had no family or friends attending.

It was a sad affair to see, with just three mourners and a vicar who Gillian had never met before. There was no wake after, and standing outside with the flowers, Jim Bell told her to take as much time as she needed.

Her mum had always told her that Purdey’s had her will and instructions, so a week after the funeral, Gillian made an appointment to see someone in that firm of Solicitors. She was shown in to the boss himself, Graham Purdey. He said the usual condolences, and then got down to business.

“Your mother has left everything to you, Miss Baxter, as might be expected. As well as the house, I am pleased to inform you that there is a substantial sum of money. Your father’s pension lump sum was paid after his death at work, as well as the life insurance. Then once I get the paperwork sorted for your mother’s pension, I expect that will come to a lot of money too. She worked for the civil service for a long time, and has thirty-four years of pension to be paid to her beneficiary. That’s you. As far as I can estimate at the moment, there should be something close to two hundred thousand, and then there is the value of the house to consider. I will juggle the figures around to save you paying any death duties, and our fee will be most reasonable, I assure you”.

Back at home later, Gillian treated herself to having a pizza delivered, adding garlic bread and a two-litre bottle of Pepsi to the order. She had missed any birthday celebrations because of all the upset, so it seemed to be the least she could do for herself.

The amount of money discussed by the solicitor was well over ten years salary for her, maybe as much as twelve. He didn’t know about her own savings of course. Not having to pay any bills or housekeeping for most of her working life, at the age of twenty eight she had saved up a lot of money. Eight hundred a month since she had turned eighteen amounted to ninety-six thousand pounds.

As she waited for the pizza delivery, she chuckled to herself. She was rich.

Four days later, the solicitor rang to tell her that she would get half of mum’s monthly pension, but all of the lump sum due. “I have opted for you to take the largest lump sum on offer, and the half-pension should be something over three-fifty a month, paid until you die. The lump sum is estimated at the moment, but I suspect it will be something close to sixty thousand. Meanwhile, I have transferred the rest of your mother’s funds and savings into your account. You will have to visit your bank to make any arrangements for the money, but it is substantial sum, almost one hundred and thirty thousand pounds. I will need you to come in and sign some more paperwork soon though”.

Gillian’s accounts were at the same branch of the same bank as her mum’s, so she would pop in there soon and arrange to sort out her finances. Meanwhile, she went online to look at her own pension. She had been paying into it for eleven years, and she filled in an online estimate which returned a figure of a little over three hundred a month, with a lump sum of twenty-seven thousand on top.

In bed that night, she made a decision.

Around ten the next morning, she rang into work and asked to speak to Jim Bell. He was tied up with something, so Maureen said he would ring her back later. As she was enjoying some toasted waffles with raspberry syrup, the phone rang. It was Jim, returning her call. Eager to get him off the phone and finish the waffles, Gillian made it short.

“I have decided to resign. Can you sort out the paperwork and inform the pension people, please? I’m sorry to let you down, but I have inherited some money from mum, and I don’t need to work any longer”.

Once she no longer had a job, and could do anything she liked with her time, Gillian started to think about what was going to happen to her. She missed her mum being around, as she had been ideal company, and liked all the same things. But she had never been an over-emotional person, or demonstrably affectionate, which had left Gillian thinking that was the way to act.

Mum’s ashes had come, delivered in a plastic urn inside a thick cardboard box. Gillian had put that in mum’s bedroom, so she would feel at home.They had never been religious, but mum had often said things like “I will be watching over you’, so being in the house was the best place for her. Not that she had any idea where they could have been scattered.

There was plenty of money to spend, and she decided to spend some of it. Her trip to the bank had been brief, but worthwhile. She had set up direct debits to cover every monthly bill, and transferred a lot of money into her savings account, leaving plenty available in the current account. The man had also showed her about phone banking, and how she could just ring up to make payments and do transfers.

Not that she was reckless with money. She still had clothes that were ten years old, and spent next to nothing on make-up, jewellery, or lingerie, like some women did. The thing she craved was a big computer. The laptop still worked well, but she wanted something bang up to date, with a big screen and a proper keyboard.

On the bus to the retail park, Gillian felt uncomfortable. People were looking at her funny, she was sure of that. And two women behind kept whispering, almost definitely about her. In PC World, she bought the best and most expensive computer they had, with the largest monitor they had in stock. Then she paid extra to have it delivered within two working days. Her trousers were feeling tight after spending so long in pyjamas and jogging bottoms, so on the bus back she popped the top button above the zip to release the pressure.

When she got off at her stop, she made sure not to glance at the driver. He had given her a strange look when she got on.

In the corner shop, she stocked up with enough groceries to last the week. She had seen on TV about online shopping with Tesco, and intended to sign up for that as soon as possible. One less reason to have to go out, and much cheaper than buying everything from the Londis shop.

The men delivered her computer on the Friday morning. She shouted through the letterbox. “Leave it there please. I will be able to bring it in” One of them shouted back. “Sorry, love. You have to sign for it!” Before she opened the door, Gillian put the chain on it. The man passed the form on a clipboard through the gap with a pen, and she signed it and poked it back through. As they walked away, one muttered something to the other one, and they both laughed.

She waited until the big van drove away before opening the door to get the two big parcels.

Set up on the dining table, the new PC looked wonderful. She had it connected to the Internet with a cable, so it was much faster than the laptop too. She was so busy scrolling websites, she forgot to have lunch, and by the time her stomach was grumbling to tell her to eat something for dinner, she had an online account with Tesco, and with Amazon too. Now she could get her groceries delivered, and buy any CD or DVD she wanted.

When she had finished her pie, chips, and beans and done the washing up, she settled down to watch one of the soap operas that came on early. But after a few minutes, she got bored, and went back to the computer. Long before she was tired enough to go to bed, she had signed up for a Sky satellite system to be installed, and ordered one of those flat-screen plasma televisions she had seen for sale in the shops.

And she had ticked the box to pay extra for installation and setup too, even though that meant some man coming in.

With the plasma television and SKY satellite box set up and working, supermarket deliveries arranged, and her excellent computer to enjoy, Gillian was sure she was going to love her new solitary life. There was no need to go out at all, unless she needed the dentist, or had to visit a doctor. She could cut her own hair when it got too long, and everything else she might need or want was available online.

One morning, the doorbell rang as she was halfway through watching a DVD of ‘Cleopatra’. She paused the disc, Elizabeth Taylor’s face filling the screen. Nobody was expected, and there were no orders awaiting delivery. The bell rang again, and she crouched down, speaking through the letterbox. “Who is it?” The voice that replied was familiar.

“It’s Jim Bell, Gill. I was on my way back from a meeting, and thought I would pop round to see how you were”. Naked under her dressing gown, she didn’t feel like entertaining a visitor. She couldn’t remember the last time she had washed her hair or had a bath, and her legs were hairy and unshaved.

“Sorry, Mister Bell. I don’t feel so good today. Got a bit of a temperature. Better not let you in, in case you catch something”. Jim might have been annoyed that she hadn’t even opened the door, but his voice didn’t betray that. “Some other time then. Get well soon, and keep in touch. We all think about you at work you know”.

Before resuming the film, Gillian decided to warm up a Cornish Pasty. Might as well, as she was up and about.

Watching News At Ten that night, there was an appeal for a missing girl, and they showed CCTV footage of her getting on a train at a staion in London. That gave Gillian an idea, and she went to her computer and started searching on Google.

The next day, she rang the numbers of a few home security companies, deliberately choosing some that were not local. Before lunchtime, she had made an appointment for the next morning for someone to come and talk to her about having a camera outside the house. It would mean having to let him in, and getting dressed too, but it was worth that for peace of mind.

The man was quite old, which was good. She reckoned he was at least sixty, and he had a kind voice. He also had a van outside, and said he could fit whatever system she chose there and then. That was a big bonus for Gillian, so she picked one from the catalogue, and made the man a cup of tea as he started working. Late that afternoon, it was all done, and she had paid directly using the phone banking. He showed her how it worked.

“The camera is a wide-angle. As you can see, it looks like an outside light, not a conventional camera. You will be able to see almost all of the front of the house from your gate, right up to the front door. This switch moves the angle, so you can look down, then move it back, and you see wide again. It’s a black and white only, but that makes it more affordable. The recording tape runs on a loop for twenty four hours, then starts again. So if you go out, you can see if anyone was outside your house by playing the tape back. It even shows you the time, and adjusts when the clocks go forward and back. There’s a remote control too, but that’s extra. You can ring the number on the paperwork if you decide you want one, and they will post it to you”.

Gillian nodded. The small control box was like a half-size VHS player, and the monitor screen lifted up from it, much like her laptop. She thought for a moment. “Can you come back tomorrow and fit one of those outside lights that comes on at night if someone comes to the door? It will be winter soon, and dark by four. Oh, and one of those speaker things, so I can talk to the person without opening the door. And you might as well bring that remote control you said about”. He smiled. “Of course I can miss, see you about the same time then”.

She was feeling good. By tomorrow evening, she would always know who was at the front door.

When the man came to fit the intercom and outside light, Gillian made him a cup of tea, and this time added a Penguin biscuit. She liked the elderly man, and wished more people could be like him and her mum. But she knew they weren’t. When he had finished, he showed her how they worked.

“I have removed the old doorbell and put the new entryphone in its place. There is a sticker on it that says ‘Press to speak. Release to listen’. The same thing on the inside for you, so don’t forget to let go of the button to hear the replies. The outside light has this three-way switch on the inside, near the door. Turn it left for off, in the middle for motion-activated, and to the right to leave it on all the time. It is in the middle for now. The bulb should last a long time, but if it goes, just contact the company and I will come and fit a new one. It is fitted higher than the camera, which also looks like a light, as you know. But this one is bigger, and covers the path and front door really well”.

She rang the bank while he was there, and transferred the payment. Then he tidied up his tools, and left.

Next day, Gillian watched the CCTV monitor for the postman, the only person who regularly came to the door. When he showed up just before ten, she was thrilled at how clear the image was. Just a shame he had no reason to ring the new intercom door buzzer, then she could have tried it out. Over lunch, she made a mental list of reasons why she might still have to go outside.

Dentist.
Doctor.
Dustbin day.

She smiled at the fact they all started with D. Dustbin day was an essential, but she could creep out after dark, leave it just outside the gate, and collect it the same way that evening. The dentist might be an essential trip, and she couldn’t imagine she could pay one to treat her at home. As for the doctor, that could wait until she was very ill with something. Then she could offer to pay privately for a visit at home. She was sure that could be arranged.

She had forgotten something. The back lawn. Mum always cut the small patch of grass with an electric mower kept in the little shed by the back gate. Gillian wasn’t about to take that job on, so she would ring around some local companies and get it concreted over. Mister Allen the window cleaner came once a month, but they always left his cash on the upstairs window sill. He would have to take a cheque in future.

Put it in a plastic bag so it didn’t get wet, then place something heavy on it so it wouldn’t blow away if it was windy.

It never occured to her to question why she had suddenly wanted to stop going outside, but the thought of opening the door and walking out onto the path now filled her with dread. When mum had been alive, she had never once thought about it. But she had everything she needed, and was happy at home, so she didn’t think it mattered in the least.

The next time she was due to put the plastic dustbin out, it didn’t go quite as easily as she imagined. After standing at the open door for almost twenty minutes, she closed it again and went back inside for a cup of tea. Then she put the outside light on and sat watching the CCTV to see if anyone was on the street. When it was completely deserted, she went out and dragged the bin to the gate, leaving it there propping the gate open.

Turning to go back inside, the front path seemed to be ten times longer, the house receding into the distance. Breathing fast, and trembling with fright, Gillian closed her eyes and made a run for the door. She tripped up the step going in, but luckily didn’t injure herself.

Sitting with a glass of Pepsi and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, it took her a good half an hour to calm down.

Dustbin day was going to be something she hated.

Now when the deliveries came, Gillian could see the drivers coming up the path, and would already have the door open. Standing just inside, she would speak to them through the gap. “Just leave it on the doormat, please”. If there was anything to sign, she would take the paper through the gap, sign it, then pass it back. When the young man came with the groceries from the supermarket, he had to unload the bags from the plastic delivery boxes and stack them in the doorway. When he was gone, she would carry them through to the kitchen.

That was a system of sorts, and it was working well for her.

Two men came to estimate the work of concreting the garden. She spoke into her new doorbell intercom. “Can you come around the back please? The gate is open”. They went through the side gate into the garden, and she talked to them through the kitchen window, telling them a lie to excuse the fact that she wouldn’t go outside. “I haven’t been well, and have to stay in the warm. When you come to do the work you will have to use the back gate or side gate, and you won’t be able to come into the house I’m afraid”.

They looked at each other, and the younger one tried not to smile. But work was work, and they accepted the job.

The window cleaner didn’t seem too happy about being paid by cheque. “Gill, if you are going to pay by cheque now, you had best pay me for the full year in advance. I can’t keep going back and forth to the bank to pay in cheques”. She was happy to do that, and passed a new cheque for the full amount through the partly-opened kitchen window.

It had taken the men four days to dig up the garden, lay the hardcore, and then concrete it all over. They were not prepared to be paid by phone banking, and reluctantly took a cheque after grumbling about their quoted price being based on a cash payment.

She had stood her ground. “Well I haven’t been able to get out, so it’s a cheque or nothing. Sorry”.

The following week, a removal lorry stopped outside. The house next door had been empty for almost two years after Mrs Parkinson had died. Mum told her it was because of some problem concerning Doreen not having a will. Now it seemed that it had been sold, and people were moving in. She watched the removal men coming and going on ther CCTV camera, but there was no sign of the new neighbours. Gillian presumed they must be inside the house out of view.

If mum had still been alive, she would have gone next door and offered to make them cups of tea. Perhaps taken them a cake, and introduced herself. But that wasn’t going to happen today. Or any other day.

Keeping an eye on the camera over the next few days, she could soon tell that there were two people living next door. They were both women, and she had heard them talking loudly out in their garden. They looked to be about the same age, so not mother and daughter. One of them wore overalls, and used to go out on a small motorbike that they kept parked in the front garden. She hadn’t seen the second one clearly until almost two weeks later, when someone walked up the path and pressed the intercom buzzer.

She was about forty years old, with short hair like a man, and wearing a denim pinafore dress. Gillian spoke into the box. “Hello. Can I help you?” The woman replied too loudly, as if she had to shout through the door. “I’m Kirsty. I just moved in next door with my friend, and came to say hello”. Gillian watched as the woman walked back a few paces, looking at the windows to see if anyone was looking out. Then she pressed to reply.

“I’m Gill. Sorry I can’t let you in, or come out. I’m not very well, and have to stay inside. I hope you like living on the street”. She saw the woman shrug. “Okay, Gill. See you around”.

As she made herself a fried egg sandwich, Gillian was glad she hadn’t let Kirsty in. The last thing she needed was nosey neighbours.

With her twenty-ninth birthday days away, Gillian wondered what to buy herself as a gift. It wasn’t as if anyone else was going to give her anything. One morning as she brushed her teeth, her face in the bathroom mirror provided the answer. She would buy herself a professional makeover, and get her hair done.

Fifteen minutes on the computer later, she had found a mobile beautician who claimed to be able to do everything she needed, and booked an appointment for four that afternoon. Having it all done at home meant she didn’t have to go outside, and tolerating a stranger in her house for a couple of hours was okay if she did a good job. With that arranged, she went up and had a bath and shaved her legs. The woman had mentioned waxing, but that sounded painful.

Mandy arrived with a lot of gear. A big box of make-up, scissors and brushes for the hair, as well as a portable hairdrier that had a big hood attached. She looked about forty, and had tattoos up both arms. “Shall we do it in the bathroom, darling? Easier to get all the hair up after. I will do your hair first, then sort out your fingernails and toenails. After that, you get a professional make-up job. You haven’t been looking after yourself, have you my darling?”

It seemed to take forever, and Gillian was hungry by the time it was over. But she had to agree with Mandy that the change was remarkable. “You look like a different woman. Get some nice clothes on, and I will take some photos for you on your phone, darling”. When she told the woman she didn’t have a mobile phone, Mandy shook her head in disbelief. “No phone? Oh my days, how do you even cope? I can’t imagine not having one”. Gillian paid her by cheque and thanked her, agreeing to call her in future when she needed any beauty treatments.

She hadn’t mentioned that she couldn’t put any nice clothes on, as the only ones she had didn’t fit her anymore.

With no time left to cook, she ordered a Chinese meal to be delivered. While she waited, she looked up mobile phones on her computer. She could buy a phone with a SIM card that let her add as much credit as she wanted. No need to go to a phone shop, or go out to top up the card. It could all be done by telephone or online.

When she had eaten the Chinese, she got back on the computer and ordered the phone. Then she did some online clothes shopping, buying a few nice bits and more everyday clothes in two sizes larger than those she had in her wardrobe.

At least her shoe size hadn’t changed.

On the late news that night, there was a feature about blogging. It was becoming really popular, a kind of online diary about your life, or about anything that interested you. A way to meet people with the same interests as you without having to actually meet them other than online. And you didn’t have to go out. Gillian decided to sleep in her new make-up. Mandy had said it wouldn’t stain any bedding or clothes, and would last a long time until removed.

As she felt her eyes closing, she was thinking about that blogging thing she had seen on the news.

After breakfast, she looked up how to have a blog, and was surprised to discover it was free. She put her details into the online form which was private, but then they wanted her to have a username and a blog name too. That would take some thinking about. She would decide after lunch.

There was no way she was going to use her real name. For one thing, Gillian was so old fashioned now. She had been named after one of mum’s aunts who had died before she was born, and hadn’t thought much about her name until she went to secondary school and was the only one called Gillian in the whole school. She had liked a girl called Stacey, and wished that had been her name too.

So when it came to the username, she picked ‘Staceydarling’. Then she had to think of a name for the blog. It took a while, but she smiled as the perfect name popped into her mind. She typed it in the box in capital letters.

OUTSIDE.

Staring at the blank screen, Gillian was wondering what to write. She had the blog now, but was yet to publish anything. After reading a few other blogs, she had a rough idea about tags and categories, but her first blog post was supposed to introduce her to other bloggers, and she wasn’t too sure how to go about it. The last time she had written anything was for a school essay. Her fingers started to move over the keyboard, and she typed a title first.

Asking for a friend.


Hello, everyone, I am Staceydarling. I live alone, and don’t like to go outside. Not even in the garden, or out the front to the gate. I don’t understand why that is happening, as I used to do it without thinking. Anyone else feel like that? I would like to say I’m asking for a friend, but it is for me.

She read it again, clicked on ‘Preview Post’, and saw what it would look like as a blog post. It was too short, she was sure about that, but she had no idea what else to add. Taking a deep breath, she clicked on ‘Publish Post’, and there it was. After considering deleting it for almost fifteen minutes, she went and made herself some cheese on toast instead.

That afternoon her new phone was delivered. It took her a while to set it up and register it. Included in the deal, it already had ten pounds credit. As she had nobody to call, she was sure that would last a long time. She tried the camera out by taking a few photos of herself, but only from the neck up. The blog had mentioned a profile photo, but she was undecided about adding one. So she had used an image generated by the company that looked like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Placing the phone on charge as it was only showing a quarter of the bar on the indicator, she went back to the computer to check on her blog.

There were no comments, but someone had liked it. They came up as Anonymous though, so that was a disappointment. She looked at her admin page, and saw that the post had been viewed eleven times. So only one out of eleven had bothered to like it, and nobody had commented. Oh well, it was just an experiment, and it hadn’t cost her anything. Then the notification sound kept going off on the mobile phone, so she went to see why.

Three text messages. Who could be texting her? She hadn’t given anyone the number. They were just from the phone company. One was welcoming her as a customer, and the other two were special offers on other phones and phone contracts. Why did they do that? She had only just got the bloody phone, and was hardly likely to buy another one the same day. Thinking that she might have made a mistake getting a phone, she went into the kitchen to prepare dinner.

While the oven was warming up, she checked her blog again. There was a comment, and that made her really excited.

GentlemanZorro
Dearest Staceydarling, I am sorry to hear you feel this way. There is so much to enjoy about life, and it is a tragedy to lock yourself away. And no profile photo? Don’t be afraid to show your face to the world!

Gillian had not ticked the box to approve comments. She hadn’t even noticed it as she had been clicking through the various options. GentlemanZorro had a profile photo. He was wearing a mask, just like Antonio Banderas in the film. But the rest of his face looked very nice. She clicked the like star to let him know she liked his comment, but it was time to put the chicken goujons in the oven, so she would think about replying later.

When she had eaten, she went up to her bedroom and did her make-up. It wasn’t as smart as when Mandy had done it, but she knew how to do it better after watching her. Then she brushed her hair. As she was only wearing a pink dressing gown, she turned the collar down so it wouldn’t show, and took a photo on her phone just showing her head and neck. The first one was too dark, so she took six more, eventually settling on one she quite liked.

It was a fiddly process getting the photo off the phone to her computer using Bluetooth, but the charger cable fitted into one of the ports so she transferred it that way. Then she went into her blog admin page and replaced the random image with the photo of herself. Before she could reply to the first comment, he had commented again.

GentlemanZorro
I have just seen your profile photo. You are lovely! No need to hide away, Staceydarling. XX

As she began to type her reply, she could feel her face blushing.

Deciding to keep her reply short but polite, Gillian typed just one line.

Staceydarling
Thank you for the kind compliment GentlemanZorro

Before he could reply, a new message appeared under her blog post.

happystayingin
Hi Stacey, I’m Janet. I haven’t been outside for twelve years and have no intention of ever going out again. Just don’t worry about it. If you don’t want to go outside, then don’t. And don’t listen to people who say you have to, or let them get psychiatrists to come and see you. They will just mess you up.

Clicking on Janet’s profile showed a blog with no comments or likes, but dozens of posts about not being bullied into going out. It had been nice of her to leave a comment, but as Gillian had nobody bullying her to go out, she felt no connection with her. So she just clicked to like the comment, and didn’t reply.

Then there was a reply from GentlemanZorro.

GentlemanZorro
You are very modest, lovely Staceydarling. You should post many more photos. Perhaps you have some in swimwear, or maybe wearing even less?

No mistaking what he was after, so her reply was less friendly, but still polite.

Staceydarling
That’s not a very nice thing to suggest, and it makes me think you are not a nice person. Please don’t leave comments like that again.

Unsure if blogging was going to be something for her, Gillian clicked off the blog and had a quick look at Amazon instead.

The next morning, there was a new follower, and he had left a nice comment.

Liveyourownlife@gmail.com
There is nothing wrong with feeling the way you do. If you can manage to stay in and be happy, that’s your choice. I feel the same way, but I have to go out to earn money, and all the time I am outside, I feel anxious and sick to my stomach. I have lost jobs because of not being able to go out, and all my doctor could suggest was tablets or meeting a counsellor. I don’t have a blog, but I have followed you and commented through my email address. You can contact me anytime, and I will be happy to help you, or just chat. Matt.

That was more like it. A nice helpful person who wasn’t pushy and didn’t want her to post rude photos. So she replied immediately.

Staceydarling
Thanks for your offer, Matt. I will definitely be in touch by email soon.

Now she had to decide whether to use the email she had created for the blog, or get a new one. A new one would be best, as it wouldn’t have her real name on it. So she picked Staceydarling@hotmail.co.uk It wasn’t taken, so she didn’t have to mess about adding a number or any other letters. After adding Matt as a contact, she thought about what to say to him. Then she thought some more about it while eating a fresh cream choux bun, washed down with a mug of hot chocolate.

One of her favourite breakfasts.

She felt more relaxed using email, as nobody else would see it.

Dear Matt. Thanks very much for your comment, and the invitation to chat on email. I feel the same as you about going out, though it only started recently. Even putting the dustbin by the gate made me feel as if I was going to pass out, and I came over all dizzy. I suppose I am lucky that I don’t have to go to work, because I definitely couldn’t cope with that. I get my shopping delivered and buy everything online. How about you, how do you cope?

Presuming he would reply immediately, she sat waiting, feeling a little deflated when no reply came back straight away. Still staring at the screen, the door buzzer made her jump. On the camera, she could see that Kirsty, the woman next door. She was wearing a leather jacket, and had pink bits dyed into her hair. Her arms were folded, and she was tapping one of the heavy shoes on her feet. There was nothing for it but to go to the door.

It looked like she wasn’t going to go away.

When she opened the door, Kirsty didn’t smile. If anything, she looked grumpy.

“Hi, I’m Kirsty, and I live next door. We are having a housewarming party this weekend, and thought you might like to come. You don’t have to bring anything, there will be food and drink there. It’s going to be in the garden, we have got some canvas pergolas in case it rains. What do you think?” Gillian looked her up and down.

“No, but thanks for asking. I don’t go out, not even next door”. Kirsty looked even more annoyed.

“Well it’s going to be noisy, and go on until late. So don’t complain, you have been invited”.

There was no reply from Matt that evening. Gillian decided to eat both the Chicken Kievs in the packet, as they went out of date the next day. She checked again before bedtime, but her email list hadn’t changed. So she checked the blog, in case he had replied on there.

Amazingly she had four new followers, and sixty-three views of her one post. Only two followers had left comments.

GentlemanZorro
Okay, enjoy your sad lonely life. I didn’t fancy you anyway you fat bitch!

She felt sad about being fooled by him at first, and realised she would have to be more careful. The second comment was much kinder.

carolynsmum
Hello, I am mum to Carolyn, and my name is Audrey. My daughter started to want to stay in when she was only 14. She refused to go out, even to school. Nothing we could do would make her go outside, and she spent every minute in her bedroom. It lasted for years. We got in trouble with the authorities for her not going to school, and eventually my husband left home because he said I was spoiling her and ruining her life. Eventually, she was sectioned into a psychiatric hospital, and she is still there, refusing to see me. That was twelve years ago, and my heart breaks for her every day. So please think about what you are donng to yourself, and don’t go the same way as my daughter. This might help you.
https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/anxiety-type/agoraphobia/

Clicking on the link, Gillian read some of it, and shook her head. No, this wasn’t her situation. She didn’t feel the same things they were writing about. She was happy at home, and just didn’t need to go out. The dizzy spells would pass in time, she was sure of that.

Next morning, she was pleased to see a reply from Matt.

Hi. I don’t cope that well, to be honest. I have lost all my friends, and never see any of my family now. They used to be okay with coming to see me and me not going out, but they eventually got fed up with that. It would be nice to have a friend like you, someone who understands. In an ideal world, we would all live in rooms in the same house, and never have to go outside. (Except for those dustbins! Haha.) But you have to be careful who you meet online, as there are some nasty people out there. It’s okay if you don’t trust me, I understand that feeling. But I hope you will stay in touch, as people like us have to support each other. Matt. x

This was more like it. No links to read, no judgement, and no asking for dirty photos. He seemed to be very nice, but he was right. She had to be careful.

Dear Matt, thanks for replying. I agree that it would be great if we could all be together without going out. Those dustbin days would have to be on a rota though! How do you cope about going out to work though? I couldn’t imagine doing that again now, feeling like this. I’m happy at home, but I stil hope this feeling goes away some day. Hard to imagine never going out for the rest of my life. Take care, and keep in touch.

Gillian left off any kisses, and didn’t use her real name. It was still early days. Then she went and made herself a bacon sandwich for breakfast, adding plenty of tomato ketchup.

Despite checking back numerous times, he didn’t reply to that. And there was no other activity on the blog. So she watched her DVD of The Blues Brothers. That always cheered her up, and she knew all the lines spoken in the film off by heart.

That evening, after a dinner of chicken pie, chips, and peas, she decided to write another post on her blog.

A bit about me.


I used to work in the Unemployment Office in my town. I am single, and under thirty. I started this blog to meet other people who might feel the same as me, as in not wanting to go outside the house. I like watching films and some television programmes. I don’t drink alcohol that much, as I prefer fizzy drinks like Pepsi. My favourite food is choux buns. I love the soft pastry, and the cream inside them. I don’t think it’s bad to want to stay inside and do the things I enjoy. I know people find it strange, but that’s only because they have never felt the same way. Please don’t send me rude comments or write dirty things to me. I don’t want a boyfriend, and I will not be taking my clothes off and showing photos of that. My mum always said ‘if you can’t say something nice, then say nothing at all’.

It had thirty views in under an hour. She went to bed feeling excited.

On that Saturday morning, Gillian was woken up early by noises from outside. Looking out of her bedroom window, she could see the women next door setting up some kind of open tents in the back garden. There were two people out there with the neighbours, one had long hair and the other one looked like a man, with a shaved head. But when he turned round, it was obvious from the big boobs under the checked shirt that it was a woman.

As she was up early, she thought she might as well check on the emails and blog. So she went down in her dressing gown and made a big mug of tea before turning on the computer. There was no reply from Matt in her emails, so she logged on to the blog instead.

Yesterday’s post had sixteen more views, and a total of twenty-three likes. There were some comments too.

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They puzzled her. She couldn’t see why they had left the comments, as they had no relevance to anything on her post. Not knowing what else to do, she clicked the star to like each comment, then went to make some breakfast. Fried eggs on toast took her fancy, and as she was cooking, she could see the two bags of rubbish she had dropped outside the back door. Last dustbin day, she had been unable to summon up the courage to take the bin to the front gate, and had put her rubbish outside in the garden instead.

But she had only opened the door wide enough to drop the bin bags without actually walking outside.

Before lunchtime, the sudden noise from the garden made her jump. They had started playing music out there already, sounding like a heavy metal disco or something. Gillian switched on her television and cranked up the volume loud enough for her to hear what they were saying on the news, but the music from the party in the garden next door, and the sounds of people shouting and laughing made it seem pointless to try to watch anything. Best to have an early lunch and look on the computer instead.

There was a reply from Matt, sent just a few minutes earlier.

Hi, I’m sorry to say that I don’t think the feeling will ever go away. If anything, it will get worse over time. Ask anyone who feels the same, and they will tell you it’s incurable. But I don’t want to bring you down, so I encourage you to just learn to live with it. Ignore all the advice online, and anyone who tells you they can talk you round. If there was a cure, I wouldn’t still be like I am. On the way home from work yesterday, I was so distressed, I vomited at a bus stop. I think the people in the queue thought I was drunk, though one old lady did ask me if I was alright. When I got home, I was still shaking, and couldn’t face eating anything. So to answer your question in the email, I don’t cope with going to work, not at all. If I could get a doctor to agree to sign me off, I would never go to work again. Matt. X

Gillian was starting to feel really sorry for Matt. He seemed so nice, and she could imagine his upset making him sick at that bus stop. It also made her feel a bit guilty, as she never had to go out. The noise from next door was getting worse, so she decided to reply immediately, to take her mind off the racket.

Dear Matt. If you can go out to get to work, maybe you should go to see your doctor instead. Explain what is happening, and see if he will give you time off. Better still, make you unfit for work, so you can get benefits and not have to go out. I don’t like to think of you being so bad like that, but there’s not much I can do, except be your friend My name is Gillian by the way, but don’t mention that on my blog. You can call me Gill. My mum used to, and so did some of the people I worked with. x

She thought it only fair to tell him her real name. And one small kiss at the end didn’t hurt.

When Matt hadn’t replied by bedtime, Gillian gave up and went upstairs. The noise from the party was as loud as ever, and she peered out of the side of the curtains, looking down into the garden next door. There were some flashing lights inside one of the open tents, and about thirty people crammed into the small garden. The music they were playing sounded terrible, and one song was played over and over again until she had the chorus stuck in her head.

‘Yeah, hallowed be thy name
Yeah, hallowed be thy name
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’

She wondered what the family on the other side of them at number forty-nine must be thinking. The Singhs were a very quiet couple, and on their own now since the daughter had got married and moved to somewhere near London. Even as she settled down in bed, Gillian knew that she wouldn’t get any proper sleep with that racket yards from her bedroom window.

At a quarter to one, she gave up and went back downstairs. Making a cup of tea, she grabbed the biscuit barrel and walked through to the dining table. If there was to be no sleep, she might as well look at the computer. There was still no reply from Matt, but there was a new comment on her blog when she logged on to that.

NeverGoingOut
Hello, my name is Charlotte, but most people call me Charlie. I know exactly how you feel, as I haven’t been outside for years now. I used to live in this small flat with my sister, but then she got a job at Gatwick Airport and moved down to Surrey. Now I live here alone without her to help me, and she hardly ever visits because she is a stewardess and always away with her job. If it wasn’t for the Internet, I don’t know what I would do, but I have to survive on benefits, and I find it hard to make ends meet. Will you be my friend? Here’s my photo.

The photo was of a woman about thirty, very chubby, with long hair worn in a pony tail. She was sitting on the edge of a single bed, and had taken it with the phone extended in her right hand. She was wearing a dressing gown, and some big fluffy slippers. Except for the long hair, Gillian realised it was uncannily like her, and felt an immediate connection to Charlie. Despite it being so late, she replied straight away.

Staceydarling
Hi Charlie, of course I will be your friend. We actually look quite alike I think, and are about the same age too. If you let me have your email address, I will contact you there, rather than type a long reply.

Surprisingly, the reply came back in seconds.

NeverGoingOut
charlottecalder@gmail.com

As she was thinking about what to say in the email, the music next door suddenly stopped. There was still the noise of people talking and laughing, so Gillian went to the back door and peered out. The lights were no longer flashing in the tent, and there looked to be only about half a dozen people left. As she was looking, she could hear the sound of motorbikes starting up at the front of the house, and car doors slamming. After all the uproar, the night now seemed eerily peaceful.

Back at the computer, there was an email from Matt, sent a few moments earlier.

Dear Gill, thanks so much for your nice email. I honestly don’t think I can cope much longer though. I have been buying Paracetamol tablets in the shops every week, and saving them up. I have over a hundred of them now, and think I will just end it all with an overdose. But I didn’t want to go without thanking you for your kindness. Matt. X

Typing at great speed, she replied as soon as she had finished reading.

No Matt, that’s not the way. Please don’t do that, I have only just got to know you, and anyway, I have thought of something. You could come and live here. I have a nice big spare room that was my mum’s room, and you will never have to go out. I have some money that was left to me, and that will tide us over for a long time to come. Please don’t kill yourself, come and live here, not as a boyfriend, I don’t want that, just as a friend who understands me. You don’t have to come out of your room if you don’t want to. Think about it before you do something harmful, please Matt. Love Gill. xx

The offer had been made without thinking it through, but now she had done that, she decided she would stick to it. At least they wouldn’t ever criticise each other for not going out.

But as the sun came up that morning, there was no reply.

After some much needed sleep that morning, Gillian didn’t rouse until after lunchtime. There was still no reply from Matt, and she was really worried that he had taken that overdose. She thought she should ring the police and tell them, but she didn’t know his full name or his address, so they might think she was crazy. There might be a way for them to track where he lives using his email address, but for all she knew, he could have been sending them from anywhere.

With nothing new happening on her blog, she decided to email Charlotte Calder.

Dear Charlotte, thanks for sending me your email to Staceydarling on my blog Outside. My name is Gill, and when I saw your photo it reminded me a lot of me. I mostly wear a dressing gown or pyjamas, and I have slippers like those too. I’m so sorry to hear about you struggling to cope alone since your sister moved for her new job. I have only just started to feel like this since my mum died, but I don’t like to go out at all now. I had to stop putting the bins out because I couldn’t bear to walk to the front gate. So now I put the bags outside the kitchen door, in my garden. I used to like to watch DVD films and television a lot, but since I got a new computer, I seem to spend a lot of time on that. Let’s be friends, at least on email. Keep in touch. Gill. X

Instead of sitting waiting for a reply, she went into the kitchen and started to make a late lunch of two Cornish Pasties heated in the oven. Waiting for them to cook, she was still worried about Matt, and decided to send him another email when she had eaten. But before she could do anything, the door intercom buzzer sounded.

It was Kirsty from next door. She was wearing denim jeans and a flannel shirt, and her hair was sticking up all over the place. Gillian pressed the button to speak.

“Hello, can I help you?” She looked really angry on the CCTV camera, and sounded it when she replied. “Yeah, I want to know what you are going to do about the bin bags of rubbish you have piled against our fence in your back garden. We don’t need that smell when we want to relax outside, and if the weather gets hot, we are going to get a lot of flies too, maybe even rats”. In her best timid voice, Gillian replied. “Sorry, but I’m not well, and I shouldn’t go outside. I’m not well enough to take the bins to the gate at the moment, but when I feel better I will move the bags”.

Kirsty was shaking her head as she pushed the button to speak, and replied in a raised voice. “That’s absolute bollocks! Your shit is a health hazard, and if you don’t sort it out now, I will!” Not used to such aggression and swearing made Gillian nervous, but she stood her ground. “Please don’t be rude like that. I told you I am not well and will do it when I can. Now please go away and leave me alone”. Kirsty walked off muttering something too quiet to hear.

Back in the kitchen, her pasties were almost burnt. She reckoned if she cut the tops off of them, she could eat the rest. Movement to her left startled her. Kirsty was climbing over the four-foot fence, and was in the garden. She grabbed two of the bags, walked to the back of the garden, and threw them over the back gate into the alley that ran along the back of all the houses. Then she came back again and again until all the bags had been thrown over the gate. Gillian hid below the glass pane of the back door as Kirsty banged her fist on it.

“I know you’re there. You just saw me move your crap. Don’t let it happen again, or I will be in touch with the Health Inspector at the Council. Got it?”

By the time she got back to her pasties, they had gone cold.

Thomas Halloran checked his emails, already convinced she would have replied before he had even logged on. It was predictably easy. The lonely chubby ones always took the bait. They were his favourites anyway, as they had no self-assurance, little or no confidence, and sucked up compliments like a man dying of thirst finding an oasis in the desert.

The trick was to take your time, never rush things. But that was also the hardest part. Thomas had learned patience over the past twenty years. The patience to leave no clues behind, the patience to learn when the moment was just right. The Internet was a dream come true for him. Before that, it had been pen-pal letters, lonely hearts advertisements in local newspapers, replying to box numbers.

The world wide web was his wonderland, as if it had been designed with him in mind.

Easy enough to find a photo of some dull woman wearing a housecoat and sitting on a bed. What were they thinking of, putting photos of themselves like that online? They had no self-respect, so why should he respect them. A fake profile, access to a forum, and there they were. Any number of photos to choose from, ninety-nine percent of them completely uprotected from copying. Click right on the mouse, choose ‘Save As’, and it’s in the folder. One day, it will be useful.

Names were often tricky. They had to sound right, so as not to be suspicious. Charlotte Calder was an actress in a popular drama serial. But she was at least number twenty down the cast list, in her role as a shopkeeper who only appeared in the first couple of episodes. Nobody he was interested in was ever likely to bother with looking at cast lists, something else he was sure about.

Email was a wonderful invention. No handwriting to disguise, no stamps to buy. No need to travel halfway across the country to make sure the postmark had no connection to where you lived. Then no letters to have to find and destroy afterwards. And an even better invention was the software that allowed you to disguise the origin of your computer. Choose a name or make up something silly, be either sex as it suited, any age you choose to claim to be. Nobody would ever know.

Mobile phones helped immensely. You could buy a SIM card that changed the number, pay for service without having to sign up to a contract and give personal details, and send an email from anywhere you happened to be without access to a computer. Sometimes, Thomas would sit quietly with a glass of good Scotch and just marvel at how technology had freed him to continue his interest in life.

Living a public life in his home town as a respected craftsman allowed him flexibility. His bespoke joinery allowed him to pick and choose jobs, and to charge more or less what he wanted for the finished pieces too. It gave him a reason to be away from home, making deliveries in his unmarked white van, or working in the houses of customers, creating wonderful staircases or fitting out libraries in grand mansions. Though not rich, he was very comfortable. He had enough put by to be able to refuse commissions or take time off as it suited. He paid his taxes and his bills, drove carefully, and never came to anyone’s attention unless he was working on a job for them.

Ouside of his business, he was a nonentity. An average-looking unmarried man in his late-forties, average build, and average height. He looked like thousands of other men, someone who nobody would turn to look at, or remember passing on the street. That suited Thomas very nicely.

Smiling at the screen on the laptop, he typed his reply.

Dear Gill. Thank you for letting me know your name, I really appreciate that. Since my sister moved out, I also have issues with putting out the rubbish. Luckily, there is a cupboard on the landing of the block where I live. We put our bags in there, and the caretaker sorts it out for collection. So I just build up my courage and dash from my front door to the cupboard, throw it in, and run back inside again. I have no idea how much longer I can cope though. I often wonder how other people like me manage, as my bills are piling up, and my income from benefits is hardly enough to cover the cost of basic living. That’s why I am dressed like that in the photo, as I can’t afford new clothes.
Thanks for being my friend, it means a lot. Charlie. xx

He pressed ‘Send’, and closed the lid of the laptop.

Without reading the reply from Charlotte, Gillian tried emailing Matt again.

Dear Matt. Please let me know you are alright. I am so worried about you. Love, Gill. x

As she went to put the bones of a chicken in the bin, she realised it was full again. So she pulled the bag out and tied it up. Not wanting to risk more aggravation with the rude women next door, she left it on the floor by the front door. Later that night, she would put it out the front, by the wall. With any luck, the bin men might just take it away. Even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to that Kirsty’s garden.

Then she ate her chicken sandwich and plain crisps, staring at the screen hoping that Matt would reply.

With no action on her blog, it occured to her to write another post. It also dawned on her that she didn’t really have a clue about blogging, or what to do to get more readers, and to make some additional blogging friends.

Contacts.
Staceydarling
Hello again. I don’t have many contacts on here, and that seems strange. Am I doing something wrong? Let me know if I am. I don’t like going outside, and I think there are lots of others who don’t go out, and are happy to stay inside their houses. If you are one of them, let me know. We can support each other, and be friends.

Gillian had ignored the prompts to add tags, and categories. Her posts were not tagged, and she hadn’t even considered following anyone else, as she had no idea how to search for anyone in the same situation. It seemed to her that her blog name was the most important thing, as it had already attracted a few followers and comments.

When nothing happened in the next twenty minutes, she went and made another chicken sandwich. There was a lot left of that large cooked chicken, and she was already thinking that she might have cold chicken and chips for dinner later, with big dollop of Branston Pickle.

Becoming annoyed with the blogging because nobody seemed to be reading her blog, she watched a film on the television that afternoon. It was Back To The Future, and although she had seen it lots of times, it always made her laugh. In the last advertisement break, there was an ad for a furniture company selling sofas at half price. Looking down at the sofa she was sprawled out on, Gillian thought it might be nice to have a new one. This one had been in the house for as long as she could remember.

Not bothering with the last segment of the film, she was soon scanning the furniture company website, trying to decide whether to order the sofa in leather or cotton canvas.After deciding on leather, she really couldn’t make up her mind on colour. Navy blue looked lovely in the photo, but dark brown would go with the rest of the furniture in the room. Then the thought came to her that nobody else would ever see it to consider any colour-clash, so she went with navy blue. A little window poppped up on the screen, confirming the payment, delivery within four weeks, and telling her that a confirmation email had been sent.

There were three unread emails. The order confirmation, the one from Charlotte that she hadn’t got around to, and a reply from Matt. She clicked on that one immediately.

Dear Gill. I am so sorry to make you worry. I was a coward, I’m afraid. I took forty tablets after drinking almost a full bottle of vodka. But then I got scared, and soon phoned for an ambulance. They took me to hospital and I had to have something to make me sick so I could bring up the pills. Then they did blood tests after, and kept me in overnight. They are sending me an appointment to see a psychiatrist, even though I told them I won’t go. My life is in such a mess at the moment, and though I really do appreciate you being so supportive, it is best that I don’t involve you in my problems. I just wanted to let you know that I was still around, so you would stop worryng. Take care, Matt. x

The jar of Branston Pickle had such a tight lid, she couldn’t open it. Remembering what her mum used to do, she tried holding it firmly in the frame of the half-open kitchen door and twisting it. When that didn’t work, she ran the lid under the hot tap then put on a rubber washing-up glove to get a turn on it. But it wouldn’t shift, no matter what she did.

Cold chicken and chips just didn’t taste the same without Branston.

There didn’t seem to be much point continuing to chat with Matt on the email. He had made his decision, and Gillian was annoyed with him anyway, for worrying her. So she tried the blog instead, and saw a comment on her last post.

oldgrumpybloke
You say you might be doing something wrong, and you are.
No tags.
No categories.
You don’t follow anyone else.
You don’t comment on other blogs.
Seems to me you just want people to feel sorry for you.
My advice to you is to delete your blog, open the door, and go out into the real world.

She couldn’t understand why some people could be so rude, and there was no way she was going to click to like that comment, or bother to reply.

Forgetting she hadn’t read Charlotte’s email, she logged on to the supermarket website, and started to compile her grocery order for delivery later that week. She couldn’t fool herself that her clothes were no longer comfortable, and decided it was about time she changed her diet to eat more healthily.

After almost half an hour scrolling up and down the huge number of selections available, she was pleased with her order. Only two choux buns instead of six, and ordinary plain digestives, instead of those covered in milk chocolate. There was even the substitution of sweeteners, for the granulated sugar that she had two and a half spoons of in every cup of tea.

The biggest sacrifice had been ordering only two bags of frozen chips, instead of four. But that was mainly because the freezer was almost full. And Diet Pepsi. She didn’t really like it that much, but if you gulped it down, it tasted much the same as full-fat Pepsi. Anyway, it was better than Diet Coke. Much sweeter.

Thomas Halloran wasn’t in the least bothered that there was no reply to his last email. He liked the waiting, the heightened anticipation. Knowing full well that someone like her would eventually cave in and reply made it all the more enjoyable. And he had just quoted someone two thousand five hundred pounds for a pair of carved bookcases that would cost him less than three hundred to make. They had confirmed the order without hesitation.

Life was good.

Leaving the rubbish bag out the front had worked well. Gillian had put on the security light, opened the front door, and flung the bag along the wall in the direction of the side gate. It had ripped a little bit as it landed, but it was a long way from next door, so that Kirsty had no cause for complaint.

Unable to sleep, Gillian got up at after one in the morning, and made some hot chocolate. She liked the real stuff, Cadbury’s powder mix, stirred into warm milk. While she sipped the drink that she hoped would settle her down for some sleep soon, she remembered Charlotte’s email, and logged on to read it again. Feeling sorry for her, she composed a long reply.

Dear Charlotte, I am so sorry to hear about you not having enough clothes, and your problems with paying the bill. As I said, I feel a real connection with you, and think we are very similar. I was left some money when my mum died, so I could help you out by sending you some. But that would mean you would have to send me your bank account details for telephone banking, and I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to do that, considering I am a stranger on the Internet.
I have been having trouble with my new neighbours. They had a really noisy party and then complained about my bin bags and threatened to report me to the council. The one who comes round is called Kirsty, and she looks like a man. She is so angry all the time, I feel scared of her. I have to put the bags outside the front now, so they don’t have anything to moan about.
Let me know if you want me to send you some money for your bills. Love from Gill. x

That night, she dropped off on the sofa as she was watching the DVD of Little Women, starring Elizabeth Taylor.

In no rush to reply to the woman, Thomas spent the weekend in his workshop a few miles from his house. He had sourced the wood for the commissioned bookcases from a salvage place he frequented, and it had cost even less than he had anticipated. All the work would be in the carving, something he found theraputic to occupy himself with.

As he carved the requested Art Nouveau design into the sides of the bookcases, it occured to him that it might be nice to find out where she lived. He could perhaps drive by her house on his way back from delivering and installing the bookcases next week. They would be finished by Monday afternoon, but he would wait until later in the week to inform the customer they were ready. Always best to let them think he had spent far more time making them.

Driving past her house when she had no clue who he was would add a nice frisson to the proceedings.

Replying to the last email, he thought carefully about what to say.

Dear Gill, I was touched by your offer to send me money. It brought tears to my eyes, and shows what a lovely person you are, deep inside. My sister came to see me as she had time off from flying. I told her about you, and she wants to send you some flowers to thank you. I cannot accept any money from you, no matter how much I appreciate the offer. I would feel ashamed. My sister paid two bills for me, and bought me some shopping, so things are okay for now. I told her I don’t have your address to send flowers, so she told me to ask you for it, and email her the details. Sorry to hear about that trouble with your neighbours. I wish I could help you, but I will just say that you should ignore them. I bet the Council has enough to worry about, without bothering over a few bin bags. Your friend, Charlie. X

Gillian didn’t see the reply until after she had packed away the grocery delivery that had arrived. She couldn’t decide whether to be pleased or annoyed that Charlotte had turned down her offer of money. Still, it was very nice of her sister to offer to send flowers, even though her and mum had never bothered with them, as they never lasted in their house, for some reason. She read the email again before replying.

Hi, Charlie. Glad to hear your sister was able to help you out with some money, she sounds like a good sister to have. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. In fact I have no family at all since my mum died. Tell her not to send any flowers. They cost too much and don’t last a week. Chocolates are better, and cheaper, but she doesn’t have to send me any. If she does, I really like those Belgian Truffles. Like I said, they are cheaper than flowers.
My address is
Miss Gillian Baxter
53 Longcliffe Road
Grantham
Lincolnshire
Keep in touch, and let me know how you are getting on. Love, Gill. x

It didn’t bother her in the least to send her address. Charlotte never went out, so she was unlikely to ever show up at the house. And she might get a nice box of truffles.

It was no surprise to Thomas that she had readily sent the address. They always did. He knew the country quite well, but checked his big map book anyway. Grantham was a place he had only ever passed on the main A1 road, and it was sixty miles away from his home in a village on the outskirts of Sheffield. Fortunately, it was just twenty three miles north of Stamford, where he had to deliver the bookcases. It would be very easy to divert into the town on his way home.

The customer was very new-money. He had bought the house on the edge of Stamford as a weekend retreat from some northern suburb of London, and discovered it was built in the Art Nouveau style, before the turn of the century. Determined to exploit those origins, he had no doubt spent a great deal of money buying up period pieces in the same style, and furniture that was probably, if not almost certainly, reproduction. Thomas arrived at the house early, and spent much longer assembling the bookcases than it actually needed. Taking time and appearing to be careful only exaggerated his reputation as a craftsman.

By three that afternoon, he had stopped to refuel his van just a mile or so outside Grantham town centre.

Gillian refused to admit it to herself, but she was bored. She found herself wandering around the house, stopping to look out of the windows at the outside world she could not face venturing into. At least the women next door hadn’t complained about the small pile of the bin bags at the front, which had now grown from one to four.

The blog seemed to be a non-starter. No more comments, not even rude or nasty ones. Maybe that grumpy bloke had been right about her not following anyone or commenting, but she felt more comfortable using email.

Charlotte hadn’t replied, and no truffles had shown up. Maybe it took longer to deliver chocolates than the stuff she usually ordered. Or perhaps her sister had to go back to work as an air hostess, and might bring some back from Belgium, then post them once she was in England.

As she was staring out of the window that afternoon, a large white van drove slowly past, then stopped just in view to her left. Gillian was excited. It was like one of the vans that came from Amazon. Perhaps he was going to deliver the truffles after all.

There was something about sitting in sight of the house that made Thomas excited. As he had suspected, it was a run down semi-detached on a boring estate of identical houses probably built in the late sixties. Featureless, practical, and very dull. Her house in particular made the street look shabby. Bags of rubbish accumulated close to the front door, windows not cleaned, and curtains unwashed. The wrought iron front gate had seen better days, and was barely hanging on with its one remaining hinge. Only a couple of long-dead dry plants stuck out from the top of the planters either side of the door, and you could well imagine the person that lived there was closer to ninety years of age, than thirty.

In every respect, it was perfect. As if he had written the script.

Not a good idea to hang around too long though, especially in his own legally registered vehicle. With one last look in the wing-mirror, he started the engine and drove off. The time would come soon enough.

Seeing the van leaving, Gillian felt a twinge of disappointment. It must have been delivering to a house further up the street. To cheer herself up, she made a cup of tea and opened her Mister Kipling Manor House cake. Two thick slices of that would be nice to eat while she was watching a film. While the kettle was boiling, she looked through the new films she had bought since mum died. Selecting Miss Congeniality, she carefully removed the cellophane wrapper.

Soon back out onto the main A1, Thomas kept in the left hand lane, driving sensibly at less than sixty. He was in no rush to get home, and had a lot to think about. Just the one big job to do, renewing the bannisters in a large staircase that dominated the entrance hall of a rather grand house in County Durham. But he had already turned the spindles weeks ago, so it was just a matter of installing them in the house, then adding the balustrades and end posts. To save time and driving, he had booked into a nice bed and breakfast establishment nearby, and would leave tomorrow morning, starting work that afternoon.

All being well, he would be finished in under a week, including staining the wood. Then he could take some time off.

Not too impressed with the film she had just watched, Gillian decided an early dinner was in order, and went to turn the oven on to heat up. On the box of the lasagna, it had writing that said ‘For a family of four’. But her and mum always had one each, and shared a garlic bread with it. No need to break that tradition. During the time that the oven heated, and the cooking time of fifty minutes, she chose another film to watch.

Something scary this time, as it was still early enough not to leave her with nightmares. What Lies Beneath wasn’t the sort of film mum would have been happy to watch, and Gillian smiled to herself as she pressed play.

Talking out loud, she muttered, “Sorry mum”.

When the new clothes were delivered, Gillian went through the usual rigmarole of asking the man to leave the boxes just by the door. Then she half-opened it when he had gone, and pulled the boxes in one by one.

Each outfit was tried on in turn, and she decided the extra comfort from the larger size had been a great idea. That left her having to clear out the wardrobe to make room for the new things, so she stuffed all the old clothes that were now too tight into bin bags, and carried them downstairs. Then she had to flatten out the cardboard boxes they had come in, and tie them into a bundle with some coarse string from a loose bundle in one of the kitchen drawers.

Mum had always kept things like old string. She would say, “You never know when it might come in handy”.

After a nice dinner of cod in breadcrumbs with chips and peas, she checked the camera before opening the door just enough. Standing inside on the step, she flung the bags out along the wall. But piles of clothing were surprising heavy, so they didn’t go very far. Last but not least, she lobbed the bundle of cardboard onto was was left of the front lawn, then scuttled back inside before anyone walked past.

Two days later, the door buzzer made her jump as she was eating some toast spread with some tasty Bonne Maman strawberry jam. Wiping her hands on her new pink tracksuit top, she walked over and looked at the camera. It was that Kirsty again, and this time there was a man with her. He was wearing a suit, and carrying a clipboard. She pressed the button to speak. “Can I help you?” The man leaned forward, as if that helped her to hear what he said.

“My name is David James, and I am from the Council. We are following up a complaint from your neighbour here, Miss Ward. He reached inside his pocket and produced a photo identity card with the name of the local Council printed above his picture. Gillian was annoyed with Kirsty, but unsettled by the smart man doing all the talking.

“So what do you want? I can’t open the door as I am not well. I don’t go outside because I am ill”. Kirsty looked at the man and shook her head, raising her eyebrows and rolling her eyes as she did so. He leaned in again and pressed the button. “You have to do something about your waste, I’m afraid. We can’t have bags thrown in the back alley, or outside the front of your house. It’s unhygienic for one thing, and also unsightly. If you don’t do something about it, you face a heavy fine, perhaps even a court summons”.

Gillian was annnoyed, and her face flushed as she replied. “This is my house, all paid for, and I owe nobody nothing. What I do with my own property is my business, so I would like you both to go away, and leave me alone”. The man and Kirsty started to talk to each other, with Kirsty looking aggressive, and waving her arms around. Gillian couldn’t hear what they were saying, as neither of them had pressed the button to speak.

After a couple of minutes, the man started writing on a form fixed to his clipboard. When he had finished, he pressed to speak again.

“I am going to put this notice of compliance through your letterbox. You have twenty-eight days to clear away this rubbish, and I will check once that has expired. If you fail to do this, I will consider court action to make you do it. Do you understand, miss? That made Gillian bullish. They had to take her to court then. She felt they were unlikely to do that, as it would be expensive. She pressed the button, uncharacteristically raising her voice as she spoke. “Thank you. Now go away!”

Her toast had got cold now, so she put three fresh slices under the grill and got the jam out of the cupboard. She thought she might watch a film, and later on she could see if Charlotte had emailed her.

Sitting in front of the television eating the fresh toast, she ignored the form protruding through her letterbox.

For Thomas, the staircase job was very enjoyable. The owners of the house were holidaying in Antigua, so he was looked after by the housekeeper. The elderly lady kept him well supplied with hot drinks and delicious food throughout the day, and left him alone to do his work. She treated him with great respect, and called him Mister Halloran. He liked that a lot.

His fee for the work had been paid in advance, to include his necessary accommodation nearby, and general living expenses. Once he had finished on Friday, he was looking forward to taking some much needed time off, unencumbered by any financial concerns.

As he was thinking about his forthcoming break from work, Gillian had experienced a light bulb moment, and was looking at a website on her laptop.

Whe she had worked at the Unemployment Office, they had used a waste removal company called Biffa. The amount of rubbish generated by all of the staff in that busy office, added to the bins in the waiting room full of job-seekers, was a lot more than could be accommodated by the conventional bins provided by the local Council. So at the back of the office, in the car park, there was a huge bin on wheels. This was owned by that company called Biffa, and they came to empty it twice a week.

She couldn’t arrange it online, but there was a contact number. So she rang them.

“Hello, I need one of your bins for my house. Do you do private addresses? It would need to be close to my front door, as I am unable to go outside very far. They would also have to wheel it from the door to the street. But I have a good sized path from the side gate that would be suitable.”

The young woman on the other end was very friendly.

“Of course we can arrange that, madam. There will be a deposit to cover the container, and a monthly fee for removal. In your area, that is usually quite early, around six in the morning. If that will be alright for you, we can deliver your bin within three working days, and collect it the following week on the same day. I will just need some card details for payment, and I can process your order”.

Gillian agreed to everything, and gave her card details. When the bin arrived, she would have to try to be brave enough to put all the bags and cardboard into it one night, but at least that would get Kirsty and the Council off her back. As for the bags that Kirsty had thrown over the back gate in the garden, they could stay there, for all she cared.

Not her problem.

Thomas sat in the bed and breakfast, thinking it was high time he contacted her again. So he compiled an email on his phone, and pressed ‘Send’ before going out for dinner.

Dear Gill. I keep thinking about how well you cope. I can’t stand people coming to my door, or neighbours knocking to see how I am, or wanting to borrow a pint of milk. It’s all I can do to open the door even a crack, to be honest. And I have no idea what to do once the groceries my sister bought me run out. As far as I can tell, you are so much braver than me, and coping so much better. I am so pleased you are my friend, and staying in contact with me. Love, Charlie. X

When Gill spotted the new email, she was in a positive mood about the bin, so she replied immediately.

People like us have to stick together, Charlie. I have my CCTV to see who is at the door, and if I don’t want to talk to them, I don’t answer the intercom buzzer. I have just arranged to have a private bin collection, so the Council and my neighbours have nothing to complain about. To be honest, I think you should consider moving in with me. I have a nice big spare room, and enough money to feed us both, and give us a good life. I don’t mean anything funny, like being a couple or anything, but we could have a great time here as friends, as we are so similar. I know that can’t happen though, as you won’t go outside. But maybe if I sent a taxi for you, you could be brave enough to try just once?

When he read that reply, Thomas began to chuckle. Then he laughed out loud.

When the reply came back from Charlotte, Gillian was not best pleased.

Dear Gill. You are very kind to offer me to come and live in your house, but I couldn’t possibly do that. Not only could I not face travelling to where you live, I would be ashamed to let you pay for everything, and just cannot let you do that. But your offer proves that you are a lovely person with a great heart, and I am so happy that we are friends. Love, Charlie. xx

That wasn’t very grateful. After all, she had offered to send a taxi, and she didn’t even know how far away Charlotte lived. Not that it bothered her to live alone. Unless she could have got mum back, she was better off being on her own, with nobody to answer to. For all she knew, Charlotte wouldn’t like the same kind of films, or what she cooked for dinner. Oh well, up to her if she wanted to miss out.

Checking the blog, Gillian was surprised to see a new follower, and a nice message.

StephaniesWorld.


Hi there. I am pleased to have come across your blog. Nobody understands why I don’t want to go out, not even my mum and dad. I tell them I am happy at home, but they say I can’t be, and I should have friends, and be outside enjoying life. They just don’t get it, and my mum says I will have to get a job soon so have to go out. I wish I could run away, but that would mean going outside. Everything seems so big and noisy. Traffic goes by so fast, and people walk around at such speed too. I haven’t been out for almost five years now, and hope I never have to. I am going to follow your blog, so you can call me Steff.

Not really knowing how to reply to that, Gillian clicked ‘Like’ on the comment, then went into the kichen to toast some waffles.

Thomas Halloran was making his preparations. He had arranged a hire car, as using his own van would not do. The choice was a boring two-door hatchback. A basic model in white that was the same as a million others on the road. Informing the company that he might need it for a few months, he had been asked to pay a deposit and leave card details for any additional charges. Essential items like toiletries and some clothes to change into had been packed into a holdall, along with some other items already kept in there. In a car accessory shop, he had bought a yellow hi-vis gilet, the sort worn by road repair workers. Paying in cash of course.

Driving the exceedingly dull small car to a large supermarket on the outskirts of the city, he purchased his favourite brand of tea bags and instant coffee, a packet of real butter, and some granary bread. Then making his first-ever trip along the confectionery aisle, he added a large box of expensive Belgian truffles.

Those waffles had been delicous with some raspberry syrup, and she had to stop herself having more by settling down to watch a film. A quick look through the newer DVD selections had her choosing something a bit different. She liked Tom Hanks in the film Big, so had bought a more recent one, called Forrest Gump.

The drive of sixty miles would only take just over ninety minutes, Thomas estimated. But as he wanted to arrive just before it was getting dark, he decided to drive to a nearby shopping complex and have a long lunch in a chain pub that was popular with families. They were open all day now, so closing times were no longer an issue.

By the time Thomas had eaten, and was driving to the junction where he could join the A1 heading south, Gillian had turned off the film before it finished. She had found it confusing, and rather silly. And she also thought it wasn’t nice to make fun of a young man who was obviously a bit slow in the head. She decided to have a nice long bath instead, and would think about what to cook for dinner while she was soaking herself.

In a side street five minute’s walk from Gillian’s house, Thomas parked the car, making sure it was in nobody’s way, not obstructing a drive or entrance, and legally parked in an area with no lines or restrictions.

It was going to be there for some time.

Some harassed-looking young mums were struggling to get their excited kids home from school. Shouting at them to keep up, or to wait at the kerb ahead in case they got run over by a car. Many were trying to cope with a baby or toddler in a buggy at the same time, and a few had bulging carrier bags full of groceries dangling from the handles. School turn out time was always busy, but a nondescript man walking from a plain car carrying a holdall went unnoticed.

Thomas circled the block until the streets were no longer crowded. Quite soon, the older children would be coming out of senior schools, and he wanted to get a move on before they arrived.

After a nice warm bubble bath, Gillian slipped into a clean pink fluffy dressing gown, one of the new things she had bought. It was so big, it wrapped right around her, and the hood helped to dry her damp hair. Then she went downstairs to see if anything in the freezer caught her fancy for dinner.

She wasn’t looking at the CCTV camera while her head was in the freezer, so didn’t see a man casually throw a holdall over her side gate.

Still trying to decide between some flaky pastry chicken slices or crispy filled pancakes with ham and mushroom, the door buzzer startled her. She closed the freezer door, and walked into the living room to look at the camera monitor. There was a man outside wearing a reflective waistcoat, like the Amazon delivery drivers wore, and he was carrying a box that wasn’t plain cardboard.

Pressing to speak, Gillian kept an eye on the screen. “Yes, what is it please?” He held the box up so she could see it clearly. It was the biggest box of Belgian truffles she had ever seen. “Gillian Baxter? I have a delivery for you”. So Charlotte’s sister had kept her promise after all. Forgetting herself in the excitement, she opened the door all the way.

“I’m Gillian Baxter, yes that’s me”. The man reached into his jacket under the reflective vest, mumbling. “Just something to sign please, Gillian”.

She was still staring at the box of chocolates when the edge of Thomas’s right hand slammed into the bridge of her nose with such force it made her stagger back into the room. It was as if a flashbulb had gone off behind her eyes, and the power of the blow made tears flow immediately. Stumbling over the small armchair that nobody ever sat on, her legs flew into the air as she struck the back of her head on the floor.

It was over in a second. Thomas was in the room, the door closed behind him. The woman was groaning, but not moving. He quickly ran into every room, just in case someone else was in the house. Then he unlocked the back door in the kitchen, and walked around to the side gate to retrieve his holdall. Gillian wasn’t moving, but he could see her chest rising and falling under the dressing gown, so knew she was breathing. He turned her onto her side so she wouldn’t choke, then went over to the CCTV monitor and examined the recording device underneath.

After a few moments checking the controls on the remote, he erased the previous twenty-four hours of the tape, including the moment he had arrived. As the machine whirred, he turned and locked the front door, adding the short security chain that Gillian had omitted to fasten. Content that there would be no intrusion, he opened the holdall and removed what he needed for now, working quickly before she woke up.

The television was on, some inane late afternoon quiz. He found the remote on the sofa and increased the volume slightly. Not enough to disturb any neighbour, but sufficient to cover any sound he was going to make.

Although he had known in advance that she would be heavy, getting her upstairs was more difficult than he had anticipated. After two attempts to drag her up the stairs holding her under the arms, he changed to lifting her over his shoulder, feeling his body complain about carrying such a weight. He made it upstairs in one go, accelerating into the first room on his left before he thought he might drop her, then dumped her unceremoniously onto the top of a double bed.

All that effort had made him hot and thirsty, so he went down and put the kettle on, taking his favourite tea bags from the holdall.

The smell was her mum’s bedroom. She would always know the smell of mum’s room. The only perfume she ever used, and the slightly musty smell that came from never having had a window open, even at the height of summer. Gillian knew she was lying on the bed, and could feel the pillows under her head. Her eyes had been watering and felt sore, and the pain in her nose made her convinced that it was broken.

Her first thought was to scream, but there was something forced into her mouth, and fixed tightly around her head. And she couldn’t see anything, as there was some kind of mask over her eyes. The memory of what had just happened came on suddenly, like a flashback scene in a scary film. So she panicked, trying to turn and get off the bed. But her wrists and ankles were secured with something, and a few seconds of struggle soon made her realise it was hopeless. There was something else too. Her dressing gown had gone.

She was naked.

The sound of the television could be heard upstairs, and that left her wondering if the man was still there, downstairs making himself at home. Maybe he had robbed the place and left, that would be good. But how would she get free if he had? Shaking her head from side to side failed to dislodge the mask, and even the loudest sound she could manage from her mouth sounded like something muffled by a cushion. Nobody outside was ever going to hear her.

And she was starting to feel hungry too.

With his tea, Thomas made himself some toast using the granary bread, spread with real butter. A brief perusal of her larder and fridge had confirmed his worst fears. Cheap margarine, awful white sliced bread, and wall-to wall junk food. That wouldn’t do at all. He took his snack over to her computer on the table, and moved the mouse. Typical. No access code required, and the screen illuminated immediately. Next to the keyboard was a flimsy notebook, like the school exercise books he had used as a child. On the front of it in capital letters were the words, PASSWORD BOOK.

That made him smile, and his smile broadened when he opened it and read the first page.

Blog password. NAILLIGRETXAB

Tesco Deliveries. 53NAILLIGRETXAB

Amazon. RETXABACCEBER

She had used her own name backwards for the first one, and added her door number for the second. Then presumably her mother’s name backwards, for Amazon.

There were some others, including one for a plus size clothing company, but he ignored those and clicked on the Tesco site. Sure enough, she had ticked the box that said ‘Save card details’. He was ready to go, and began to compile an order for delivery later that week. Some much better food, a few bottles of decent wine, and a lot of cleaning products. This awfully dingy house needed a thorough clean, if he was going to be able to tolerate staying in it. Something popped into his mind, and he added two large boxes of condoms.

The last thing he wanted was to get her pregnant.

Before he even considered walking upstairs to see how she was, he had ordered an exercise bike from Amazon, some waterproof sheets too, and a chair-style commode. There was also a digital radio, so he could listen to some decent music, and some proper plates and cutlery. The stuff in her drawers and cupboards was unspeakably average. Then he had a quick rummage in her freezer, choosing to heat up a family-size chicken pie for her dinner. In time, he would educate her palate.

Gillian had been awake for almost two hours before she heard the footsteps on the stairs, followed by the bedroom door opening. She could smell the pie he had cooked, and carried up on a plate for her. It made her mouth water, even with the gag.

When the mask was removed, the man who had delivered the chocolates was standing by the bed. He was holding a plate with the pie on it, and a spoon to eat it with. But he was also holding a horrible-looking knife, like those ones you see hunters with in films. He held the knife against her throat as he removed the ball gag. Speaking quietly, in a friendly tone, he even managed a smile.

“I will release the gag, and one hand so you can eat the food. If you scream, or do anything except eat the pie, I will slit your throat. Understood?

Gillian nodded, and grabbed the spoon as if she had never seen food before.

Watching her gulp down the pie, Thomas realised that her desire for food had overcome any possible embarrassment about being naked in front of a stranger. Gillian worked the spoon around the plate like a competition eater, and devoured the whole thing in less than four minutes. Not knowing what else to say, she looked at the man and mumbled, “Thank you”. As he secured her free hand, she could feel herself trembling. “What if I need the toilet?”.

He smiled. “You get to use the toilet when I come and tell you that you can. Do you need it now?” She shook her head, and watched as he fastened the handcuffs. Plucking up courage, she spoke a little louder. “Are you going to kill me? What do you want from me?” Thomas picked up the plate and spoon, then stroked her head with his right hand. “Kill you? Why on earth would I do that? Besides, why would I make you dinner if I was going to kill you? Surely you would already be dead? Just relax, and let me look after you”.

Thomas took the plate and spoon downstairs, and washed them in the kitchen sink. As he suspected, she hadn’t screamed or called out, even though he had not replaced the ball gag. Turning the television to the BBC, he watched the evening news, while drinking another cup of tea.

Always best to savour the inevitable.

Before the local news that came after the main news started, he heard her calling out. “Hello! Can you come up please? I need the toilet”. She was bound to explore the boundaries. Even someone as inexperienced and inherently weak as her would have watched films and TV dramas, just as he had. He gave it a few minutes, then walked back up to the bedroom.

Showing the hunting knife, he made a short speech.

“For the time being, I will release you to go into the bathroom, and use the toilet. After that, there will be waterproof sheets in case you cannot hold it, and a commode next to the bed for you to use. For tonight, I am going to release you, but you have to have the gag back on, and I will be accompanying you to the toilet. If you try to run away, or fight me, this knife will put an end to you. Understood?” Gillian nodded feverishly.

She really needed to pee.

He was surprisingly gentle as he replaced the gag. Then he freed her from the bed and followed her as she walked to the bathroom. When he walked in behind her, she shook her head vigorously until he removed the gag again. “I don’t think I can go with you watching. It’s bad enough having no clothes on. Nobody has ever seen me like this, not even my mum. Not since I was old enough to know better, anyway”. His expression was like stone.

“You go, or you don’t go. Up to you, but I am staying here. If you don’t really need the toilet, I can take you back to the bedroom”. Gillian sat on the toilet and looked at her feet. After a while, she managed to pee. The man knew that she had finished, and pulled her up by her arm, then flushed the toilet. “Okay, gag back on, and back to bed. You better not think about giving me any trouble, Gillian”.

He had used her name. How did he know that? Her mind was racing as he led her back to the bedroom.

After securing her back onto the bed, Thomas put his mouth close to her ear. “I will be back to see you later, just lie quietly, and don’t worry. I am definitely not going to kill you. I might even be in love with you. Think about that, while I am downstairs”.

When he had gone, Gillian thought about what he had said. She had never so much as kissed a man, but here was a good-looking man telling her he might be in love with her. But where had he come from? And why was he attracted to her when she thought she was fat and ugly?

It took her over an hour to put the pieces together, in her panicked mind. The Belgian truffles. Knowing her address. It could only be one thing.

That man was Charlotte.

Ten minutes more on her computer had seen Thomas delete Gillian’s blog, as well as deleting every email she had sent and received. He then changed the password on her email, just in case. He knew it could all be retrieved of course, but when he eventually left this house, he would take the hard drive with him, destroying it in his workshop.

Picking up the landline house phone, he pulled the cable out of the back, rendering it useless. A few moments in the menu of her mobile phone, and he had set up a password to access that too.

Tipping out her handbag onto the sofa, he found two sets of house keys on different key rings, and put both into his trouser pocket. Then he rummaged through the contents of her purse, removing a bank card which he also put in his pocket. With her card details already saved by the supermarket website, and numerous other online sites including Amazon, he was not going to need it.

To while away some time, he used her computer to log on to some other blogs of women he was messaging. Thomas always liked to have a couple on the go, planning ahead.

Littlesparrow was promising, although he was yet to get her to divulge her real name and address, she had sent him a photo, and he knew that she lived in Derby. In her case, she was a lonely elderly divorcee looking for love, and the photo and details he had been using to woo her had been easy enough to find online.

Leaving her a message explaining that he was away working for a while, he went to cook an omelette for his dinner, using some of the dozen eggs he had found in Gillian’s cupboard.

The bedtime routine would have to be worked out, and she would have to comply. No point messing around, so he thought he might as well sort that out from day one. Walking upstairs holding the knife, and a small glass of water, he made Gillian jump as he entered the room.

“Well, it is time for you to settle down for the night. You can drink some of this water, then I will let you use the bathroom to go to the toilet and brush your teeth. I will release your restraints for that, but I warn you now that of you do anything I don’t like, you will get this. Okay?”

He showed her the knife. Gillian nodded, and watched as he unlocked the cloth-covered handcuffs securing her hands and feet. She felt the need to speak up while she could, before he put that awful gag back in her mouth.

“I don’t think I can go to the toilet with you watching me. I have never done that before, not even in front of my mum. And can I have something to cover me? I feel so embarrassed with you seeing me like this”. Thomas smiled before replying. “You will use the toilet, or wet the bed later, the choice is yours. I will give you your duvet for sleeping, but there is no need to be ashamed, as I think your body is wonderful. Now, up you get, and don’t give me any trouble”.

In the bathroom, Gillian was mortified to be peeing in front of the man. He didn’t even turn away, just stared at her. After that, she brushed her teeth, then followed him back into mum’s bedroom and lay down on the bed while he fastened the restraints and secured the gag. He showed her the mask. “Do you want this?” She shook her head, so he covered her with the duvet and went over to switch off the light. Before he did so, he leaned back into the room.

“Goodnight, sweet Gillian. Sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite”. As the room was plunged into darkness, she remembered her mum used to say that when she was little.

Back in the living room, Thomas watched the late news, drinking a cup of his favourite tea.

It was all going very well, much better than he had hoped it would. He might even make her breakfast in bed tomorrow.

Before settling down on the sofa, he went to the computer to send a message to Littlesparrow.

I cannot sleep for thinking about you, my only sweetheart. If only I was there, to hold you tenderly, and to take all of your cares away, my love. xx

Thomas quickly established a routine. He would wake Gillian in the morning, freeing her restraints while showing her the hunting knife. Then she was taken into the bathroom to use the toilet, while he ran a bath for her. When she had finished bathing, he would allow her to go downstairs with him and make herself some breakfast. When she had eaten, she was taken back upstairs and secured to the bed again.

On the third morning, she tried to engage him in conversation. “Can I have some clothes please? I feel horrible being naked all the time with you watching me”. His tone was kind, but firm. “The reason you are not allowed clothes is to stop you trying to run away. I haven’t hurt you, and don’t want to. I just want to look after you. So I don’t want you to try to run away, do I?”

A noise outside startled him, and he turned to look at the camera. A man was wheeling a large industrial bin across the front lawn, then leaving it beside the door against the wall. He pressed the buzzer, but when nobody answered immediately, he pushed some paperwork through the letterbox, and left. Gillian looked at the man. “That’s the Biffa Bin I ordered. I got in trouble for leaving bin bags outside, so I phoned up and paid for a private bin”. Thomas nodded.

“Okay, back up to bed for you for now. Anything else you haven’t told me about?” She shook her head.

Later that morning, the Amazon delivery arrived. Various large boxes containing the things he had ordered. Used to Gillian never opening the door, the driver left them all just short of the front step. Checking the CCTV until he could see nobody on the street, Thomas quickly unlocked the door and dragged them in. To make room for the exercise bike he was going to assemble, he dragged the small armchair out through the back door, and dumped it in the garden. Once he had exchanged Gillian’s old plates and utensils for the better items he had ordered, he went back out the front door and dropped all the old things into the large Biffa Bin.

No sooner had he unpacked the heavy box containing the exercise bike, then the door buzzer went again.

It was the supermarket delivery. Rather than have to free Gillian to talk to the young man, Thomas took a chance and spoke briefly into the intercom. “Just leave it outside please, I will get it later”. Once the delivery van was out of sight, he brought all the bags through. To make room in the fridge and freezer, he used the empty bags to clear out most of her food, and dumped them in the big bin on top of her crockery.

He was satisifed. Things were coming together nicely.

That evening, he cooked chicken with chorizo, accompanied by savoury rice. He ate his portion alone, washed down with a nice glass of Burgundy. Then he dished up a portion to carry upstairs, chopping the chicken into small pieces so she could use a spoon.

Gillian had been able to smell the food cooking, and she was very hungry, having not been given any lunch. When the man came uptairs, he was carrying a chair with a seat, not food. “This will be your toilet from now on, to save you having to get up and use the bathroom. I will empty it for you, and you will have one hand and leg free, so you can slide onto it. I am going to get your dinner now, okay?” Gillian nodded, wondering when she had ever been so hungry.

Mum had never used garlic, and they had never tasted chorizo. Rice was only ever for dessert, as a sweet rice pudding. But she lay on the bed spooning it in as if she had never seen food before. When she was finished, she actually thanked him. “That was delicious, is there any more please?”. Thomas shook his head as he removed the plate and spoon. “That was an adequate portion, I assure you. Just relax while I have a bath, and I will be back to see you soon”.

When he returned twenty minutes later, he was naked. Gillian wanted to close her eyes. She had never seen a naked man, except in a film, or on television. And had never had a boyfriend.

But when he opened a condom and sat on the bed next to her, she instinctively knew what was about to happen.

It had been nothing like Gillian imagined. There were no restraints, no gag, just the evil-looking knife placed on the chest of drawers opposite. The man had actually been very gentle. Yes, she had to admit, even loving. Much like she had seen with the romantic leads in the films her and mum used to watch. And it hadn’t been painful, even though his weight on her had felt strange.

She was sure it should have taken longer though. Oh well.

When he had finished, he had even kissed her passionately. Her first kiss. Then he picked up the knife and went downstairs, returning with a bowl of ice cream for her. It was the best she had ever tasted. He smiled as she devoured it. “Haagen Dazs, much nicer than the cheap stuff that was in your freezer”. Then he let her use the bathroom instead of the horrible chair-toilet.

When she had brushed her teeth and had a wash, Thomas escorted her back to bed and secured the restraints again, showing her the ball-gag. “Do I need to put this in your mouth?” Gillian shook her head, and as he left the room, he turned. “Don’t let me hear you make any noise, or it stays in all the time”.

Feeling very pleased with himself, Thomas got on the excercise bike and set the controls for an uphill ride of twenty miles. He was determined to keep fit now he wasn’t out and about working, and this was an easy option that didn’t involve going outside to run. As he got into the rhythm of the pedals, he reflected on the woman upstairs. It had been nice that she hadn’t squirmed, struggled, or resisted. He hated having to fight them, gag them, and hold them down under restraint. He wanted them to want it.

Gillian had been a good choice, one of the best yet.

Over the next few days, that became the pattern. Although sometimes he would stay in the room after lunch, slowly removing his clothes when she had finished eating, leaving her in no doubt what was to happen next. She had to admit to herself that she had started to look forward to it, especially when he whispered compliments to her after, and cuddled her so gently. One evening when he was late coming upstairs, Gillian found herself hoping she would soon hear his footsteps.

And the food was amazing. Meals she had never heard of. Cassoulet that looked like stew, but tasted so much better. Coq-au-Vin with Dauphinoise potatoes, something else she had never heard of. She even tried a home-cooked Chinese meal for the first time ever; Hoisin Duck with noodles and Chinese leaves. He told her the names as she was eating, and she committed them to memory, for the future.

But one lonely night in the dark, she started to think about that future. What would happen to her? Would he decide to be her boyfriend for ever and move in permanently to look after her? Part of her wished that could happen,and she would forgive him for how they had met. But she had watched enough films and television dramas in her time to know that rarely happened.

He would tire of her, then kill her. And she wouldn’t even know his name.

She started to formulate a rudimentary plan in her mind. He had mentioned love that first night, and she would convince him that she loved him. It wouldn’t be too difficult to convince him, as she knew that part of her didn’t want him to ever leave.

The weather was warming up. After ten days at the house, Thomas was still very happy. He could spare some more time with Gillian, especially as she had become a willing and enthusiastic participant in everything he did to her. Very soon, he was sure he could do away with the restraints completely, as he already had no need of the gag. She might even join him downstairs for lunch and dinner, as she was behaving so well.

One morning, he was startled by the appearance of a man with a ladder at the bedroom window. She hadn’t told him about a window cleaner. Did he need paying? Would he create a fuss until someone answered the door and paid him? Thomas was angry, but had to break his anonimity.

“Excuse me, who are you? Do you need paying for this work?” The window cleaner seemed to be surprised to see a man speaking to him from a bedroom window.

“No, it’s okay. I have been paid in advance. Sorry mate, but who might you be?” Thomas smiled, and appeared to be very friendly.

“Oh, I am Gill’s boyfriend. I moved in last week. You don’t need to come anymore, I wil do it, and you can keep the money”.

As the man left, Thomas was raging inside. Now there was someone who might remember him.

Feeling angry about the window cleaner, Thomas decided to punish Gillian for not telling him. Securing one arm to the bed, he pushed the commode nearer. “You didn’t tell me about the window cleaner. That was very naughty, so you have to learn a lesson. No food today, and you have to use the commode. I will bring you up some water later, but that’s it. Give me any backtalk, and the gag is going on. Got that?” Gillian nodded, worried by the change in his mood.

As she settled back down on the bed, already hungry after being told she would get nothing to eat, her main concern was to worry that he wouldn’t want to have sex with her today.

She had started to look forward to it.

To release some of his stress, Thomas cycled thirty miles on the exercise bike. After that, he had a bath, then made some toast with granary bread, topping it with a delicious Ardennes Pâté. Sipping a glass of Saint-Émilion as he watched the news, he started to wonder about whatever else the stupid young woman had failed to mention.

Up in her mum’s bedroom, Gillian had struggled to use the commode, and flopped back into bed feeling exhausted. She could not remember ever going a day without food, and treating her like that because of the window cleaner seemed so unfair. So much had happened, how was she supposed to remember to tell him about a window cleaner? Perhaps he wasn’t as nice as she had started to believe he was.

Her conclusion was that she was going to have to be much more careful.

By the time he had calmed down, it was almost the usual dinnertime. She could survive a day without food to teach her a lesson, he thought. In fact, she could survive a week or more without food, given her size. But by seven that night, he was feeling some familair stirrings, and decided not to deny himself. Selecting a bar of Lindt ninety percent cocoa chocolate, he went upstairs.

When she saw the chocolate bar, her eyes lit up. But she said nothing as he removed the insert from the commode and took it into the bathroom to empty it and wash it. When he came back, he undressed next to the bed, inclining his head in the direction of the chocoalte bar, placed out of her reach on the floor.

“If you are nice to me, if you are loving and affectionate, you will get the chocolate. If I am not convinced, you get nothing”. She nodded. “I will be all of that”.

The chocolate tasted so good, it was just a pity that it wasn’t a much bigger bar. The man had left a two-litre bottle of water by the bed, and she gulped down some of that before relaxing. It was so boring with no television, the hours seemed to drag on relentlessly. But after lying quietly for a while, she drifted off to sleep.

She woke quite early the next morning, then heard the familiar whirring sound from downstairs, wondering what he was doing. That morning, a rejuvenated Thomas managed fifty miles on the exercise bike before he stopped for a shower.

After he had made Eggs Florentine for breakfast, he walked into the bedroom with a smile on his face. “If you promise to behave, you can join me downstairs for a delicious breakfast, then have a bath. Agreed? Gillian nodded enthusiastically. Although she had never seen spinach before, let alone eaten it, it seemed just like overcooked spring greens, and she ate everything in seconds. Thomas decided to try an experiment.

“I’m glad you enjoyed your food. Now go up and have a bath. You can use the toilet in the bathroom today, no commode”. The naked woman ran upstairs, seemingly as excited as a small child, and he was happy. She was beginning to understand how it worked.

Taking her time in the bath, Gillian thought it was high time she shaved her legs and under her arms. But when she looked in the bathroom cabinet for her Venus razor, it was gone. He must have removed it in case she used it to hurt him.

Relishing the taste of his breakfast, Thomas was considering watching the morning news.

Then the door buzzer sounded.

Thomas looked at the monitor, and could see a man aged around fifty standing outside carrying a small bunch of flowers. When the man didn’t leave and pressed the buzzer again, he rushed upstairs to the bathroom. The tone of his voice was menacing as he spoke. “Get your dressing-gown on and get downstairs now. There’s a man at the door. Get rid of him, and make it fast”.

Gillian did as she was told, with Thomas following her down before she got to the door intercom. She could see he was carrying that horrible knife again. He stood on the bottom step as she looked at the CCTV monitor. “That’s Mister Bell, from where I used to work. I didn’t know he was coming, honest”. Jerking the blade of his knife, he snarled at her. “Don’t let him in, and don’t make him suspicious. Or it’s this for both of you”.

She pressed to speak. “Hello, Jim. Sorry, I was in the bath. I’m not feeling well, and thought a warm bath would help”. He sounded disappointed as he replied. “Sorry to hear that, Gill. I was just popping round to see how you were on my way to a meeting. I have half an hour yet, if you want to invite me in for a cup of tea”. Gillian hesitated. It had never once occured to her that Jim might fancy her, but that was before she had met the man standing on her stairs.

Now she could see that Jim might be trying his luck. After all, he had brought flowers.

“Sorry, Jim. I’m not dressed or anything, and I have a thumping headache. You can leave the flowers on the step, and I will get them later. Thanks for thinking of me”. He gently placed the flowers on the front step, then turned away looking suitably dejected. That made her convinced her suspicions were correct.

As she turned around, Thomas slapped her face so hard, the shock and the pain made her start sobbing immediately. The he grabbed the collar of her dressing gown and dragged her back up to mum’s bedroom, pushing her onto the bed. Without speaking, he dragged the dressing gown off of her, and secured restrants to one arm and leg. Pulling the commode over next to the bed, he finally spoke in little more than a whisper.

“So, that’s your lover is it? The best you could do, a sad-looking man like him? No wonder you enjoy it so much with me, he looks pathetic. Well that’s not good enough. Not at all. You can stay in here today, and use the commode if you need it. There is water in that bottle next to the bed, but no more food for you today, young lady. If I hear so much as a murmur, I will be back up to restrain you completely, and you get the gag too”.

Still sobbing, she never heard him leave.

Pausing the recording on the CCTV, Thomas opened the door, picked up the bunch of flowers, and put them into the large Biffa Bin. He sneered at the cheap bouquet as he did so, imagining that the man had bought them from a bucket on a petrol station forecourt. All he needed to get his way with the simple woman upstairs, presumably.

Raging inside, he climbed onto the exercise bike and did twenty miles on a steep gradient setting. The weather was really warming up, and he would have to start opening some windows soon. Once he had completed the cycling task, he got all the cleaning materials he had bought, and began to clean the house from top to bottom. Everywhere except the bedroom of course.

Four hours later, he was feeling calmer, and very hungry. The wine he opened was a delicious Gevrey-Chambertin, and it went well with the selection of charcuterie and cheeses that he ate with some previously part-baked baguettes that he had heated up. Gillian could smell the aroma of warm bread wafting upstairs, and lay there hoping he would bring her up something to eat. He had to believe that she didn’t know about Jim Bell coming round, but it seemed he had thought she was lying.

Two hours passed on the old digital clock next to the bed, and Gillian wondered if she had been dozing. Then she heard him coming up the stairs, and the door was opening onto the dark bedroom. She was delighted. He was bringing her food after all.

But when he walked in, he was naked, and was not carrying any food.

He was rough with her that night. Turning her onto her front and not being very nice at all. Gillian was crying the whole time, and still crying when he left her and went back downstairs. And she was hungry too, with nothing to eat since breakfast.

Thomas sat on the sofa, restless and not at all sleepy. He had been angry at her, and hadn’t enjoyed what had happened. He wanted to give affection, and receive it back. But they didn’t understand, they never did. All they had to do was let him look after them, and everything would be okay. He poured himself a large Remy Martin, and sat contemplating his life.

Mrs Halloran had not been expecting to have a baby so late in life. Her daughter was already grown up, and had moved away when she was eighteen. A long way away. Kathleen Halloran didn’t blame Maggie for leaving though. Brendan was a hard man. Hard on her, and hard on his children too. Having a daughter had turned out to be a disaster, as he controlled Maggie the same way he had always done with her.

Violence followed by affection. Anger followed by laughter and gifts. No nights out, no friends in the house, other family members ignored untl they stopped bothering. A joint bank account so she had no personal control over any money, and Brendan taking her to work and picking her up after. Same with Maggie, doing the school run there and back, making sure she wasn’t talking to any boys and had no friends to walk home with.

He was free to do as he pleased. As a self employed carpenter, he could pick and choose the hours he worked in the large workshop at the end of the garden. Kathleen had become so sick of the smell of wood around him, she didn’t even like to have any wooden furniture. But she had no choice, as he made it all himself.

Once she was old enough by his estimation, Brendan started to go upstairs at night to ‘tuck Maggie in’. She screamed at first, and Kathleen sat with cushions over her ears to drown out the noise. The neighbours probably thought it was some sort of hysterical argument, as they never mentioned it.

But it wasn’t long before she stopped screaming and just accepted the inevitable. The day after her eighteenth birthday she packed a small case, and moved to the other end of the country after finding a live-in job in a hotel. She didn’t tell them where she was, and they never heard from her again. Then Brendan turned his attention back to his wife, and a year later she had Thomas.

Brendan saw his son as a protoge. Another male to be educated in the way of the world according to Brendan Halloran. Kathleen was sidelined as Brendan spent hours with him in the workshop, teaching him everything about crafting wood. And he was teaching him other things too. Awful things.

As she found out one night when Brendan brought him up to the bedroom, and left him alone with her.

After that, she rarely went out. Her employer got tired of her absences and fired her by letter. She started to eat for comfort, and had soon doubled in size. She hoped being so fat would put them off, but if anything it made things worse, especially with Thomas. It turned out he had a thing for fat women.

So Kathleen did the opposite, and began to starve herself. Living on sips of tea and cigarettes, she lost so much weight over the next two years, she no longer had the energy to keep the house tidy, or go shopping.

Then one morning, Thomas found his father dead in the workshop. The post mortem result was a brain haemorrhage. Kathleen was disappointed that he hadn’t suffered more. But it was her chance to escape, so she went to visit her married sister, and never came home. Thomas was alone at the age of nineteen, and about to embark on a series of events that would eventually lead him to Gillian’s house.

His dad had been a good teacher. He had told him exactly what to do, and how best to do it. As far as Thomas was concerned, he had been the best dad in the world.

Gillian was sleeping soundly by the time he went back up to the bedroom. He lay down gently on the bed next to her and stroked her hair as she slept.

It felt very hot in the bedroom. As Gillian’s eyes opened that morning, she discovered why. The man was cuddling her, and on top of the warm weather that was arriving, the heat from his body was making her uncomfortable. But she saw it as a good sign. He must have forgiven her, and she would surely get some food today. She needed to pee though, so gently pushed against him until he woke up.

“I need to pee, sorry. It’s sort-of urgent”. He smiled at her, and got off the bed. Not wanting to risk waiting to get to the bathroom, she managed to slide off the mattress and use the commode. He came back in with the key for the restraints and undid them. “You can go and have a nice bath while I prepare breakfast. Come down and eat when you’re ready”.

While frying some bacon and heating ready-made pancakes, Thomas noticed the grass on the small lawn was almost a foot high. He wasn’t about to cut it though, and he would hopefully be gone soon anyway. He had already stayed longer than intended. Not that he was worried about work, or money. There were no arranged jobs outstanding, and he had enough in the bank to last a long time.

Besides, other than hiring the car, he hadn’t spent anything. All the online shopping had been charged to Gillian’s account.

Despite still being early, it was already very hot. He opened the kitchen door a little, then went into the living room and opened the windows wide to try to get some kind of breeze in the house. After a nice bath, Gillian was already feeling hot and sweaty by the time she finished drying herself. For once she was pleased not to be allowed to wear any clothes, and with the smell of bacon driving her mad with hunger, she scampered downstairs without bothering to dry her hair.

Over breakfast, the man was nice to her. He let her eat four big rashers of bacon with six of the pancakes. He had poured something over them before serving her, and it tasted deliciously sweet. He told her it was maple syrup, the real stuff. She had never even heard of it, but knew she could happily eat much more of it. They hadn’t quite finished when the door buzzer sounded.

Thomas looked over at the monitor and saw a woman standing outside with her arms folded. She was wearing some kind of overall, with a white t-shirt underneath. Gillian was immediately concerned in case he got angry again, but he spoke quietly. “Who’s that then?” Swallowing half a pancake, she inclined her head in the direction of next door. “That’s Kirsty. Her and her woman friend moved in next door not long ago. She complained about my rubbish bags, so I got the Biffa Bin after she came round with a man from the local Council”.

He seemed happy with that. “Go and see what she wants, but don’t open the door, not even a little bit”.

“Hello Kirsty, what do you want. I’ve got that big bin, so no more rubbish bags outside. What is it now?” The woman leaned in to speak. “If you ever went out in the garden, you would smell the stink from those old bags of crap that I threw over your back gate. You have got to get them shifted, or we will have flies and rats now it’s the summer”. Maybe because the man was listening, Gillian was feisty.

“Well you threw them there, not me. So if you want them shifted, you can do it. It’s not my problem, so go away and stop bothering me”. Leaning in even closer, Kirsty used a very nasty tone. “Look, you crazy cow. I’m here to tell you I’m not having this. Your shitty house lets this whole street down, and I will be calling the bloke back from the Council about your crap in the back alley”. With that, she turned and stomped off.

The man was smiling at her, and pretending to clap as if giving her a round of applause. “Well done. That’s my girl. Just the way to deal with an ugly bitch like her. She won’t bother you again, I’m sure”. Gillian sat down to finish her breakfast, and decided not to let the man know how persistent Kirsty was.

Once she had finished the food, and even wiped a finger across the plate to get the last of the syrup, he stood up still smiling. Extending a hand, he spoke softly.

“Shall we go upstairs? I will be gentle this morning, I promise”.

Over the next couple of weeks, nobody came to the door with the exception of the supermarket delivery drivers. The weather stayed hot and humid but inside the house the atmosphere was relaxed. Gillian had noticed that the man didn’t carry the knife around any longer, and if she promised to stay in bed, he didn’t attach the restraints. He had also bought her some lightweight clothing, nice full slips to wear that covered her but were not too hot in the summer weather.

It hadn’t occurred to her that he had ordered them on her Amazon account.

Thomas did all the cooking, as well as showing Gillian how to clean the house properly, and help her by taking on either the upstairs or downstairs as they did it together. They had three meals a day, all well-balanced, and she had tried vegetables that she had never even heard of before. Although not so keen on aubergines, she had really liked courgettes, asparagus, and Chinese leaves. And braised celery had become such a favourite, she actually requested it a few times.

He made sure to keep her well-supplied with buns and cakes though. It wouldn’t do for her to lose too much weight.

The hardest thing for Thomas was trying to put out of his mind that he should be long gone. In many respects, they had become a couple not unlike many others. Gillian was completely compliant now. He had put the commode out in the garden, as she could be trusted in the bathroom. The ball-gag was a memory, and after evenings watching television and cuddling on the sofa, the nights in bed were affectionate and sometimes exciting too.

As far as Gillian was concerned, Thomas was her boyfriend. Though she didn’t know his name was Thomas of course, as he had told her to call him Paul. When he told her that, she had sat on the toilet repeating the names. “Gillian and Paul. Paul and Gillian. Pleased to meet you”, as if she was introducing them to other people as a genuine couple. Then again, as far as she was concerned, they were a genuine couple. As much as she was able to understand the concept, he was her lover.

And she loved him dearly.

If it could have been described as such, this was their honeymoon period. She never once thought about that day when he had forced his way in, almost breaking her nose. And she had dealt with the incident when he had been rough with her by refusing to consider it, and blotting it out of her memory. In her limited experience, she believed that she had found the perfect man. He fed her delicious food, clothed her, cared for her, and cleaned her house.

Then in bed, he made her feel special, whispered such tender things to her, and gave her compliments that made her blush. When she woke in the mornings now, he was sleeping quietly next to her. She would watch him for a good hour, almost unable to believe her luck at finding such a romantic man, a good lover for all she knew, and so affectionate.

In the background, Thomas had deleted all the CCTV, and removed the tape completely. Then he had destroyed it in the oven, adding the sticky plastic mess to the rubbish that went into the Biffa Bin. He had also wiped the hard drive on her computer, by downloading some disc cleaner software. All that was left on it now were the online transactions for shopping, all in Gillian’s name. She had been happy to give him the username, password, and bank card details.

His DNA was everywhere, as were his fingerprints. But that was of no consequence, as he had never once been arrested.

When they started to fall in love with him, and become overly affectionate and lovey-dovey, his interest always waned. There was no longer the thrill of control that his father had told him about so long ago. Yes, the sex was nice, but that wasn’t everything. With no fear, no trepidation, the frisson was diminished. And how could this lump of a woman ever think they were a genuine couple? The poor thing was deluded. But her delusion at least made life easier.

The time would soon come when he would have to tell her he was leaving. His clothes and toiletries could just be stuffed into the holdall, to join the knife, ball-gag, restraints, and the keys to the hire car. The departure would be quick, with no protracted farewells or goodbyes.

He would promise to return soon, and that would calm her down. He would say it was because of work commitments.
She would be sad, but she would understand.
She would believe he would come back, and wait forever if necessary.
She would never complain, or report him to the police.
She would never tell on him to anyone she knew.

Just like all the others.

Gillian found the holdall in the wardrobe in her own room. It was her turn to clean upstairs, and she had been careful to do it properly. He obviously hadn’t expected her to dust the inside of the wardrobe doors. It seemed like he was packed and ready, there was even some dirty washing in a plastic bag, and a set of car keys right at the bottom.

Was he planning to leave today? Her mind was racing, so she sat on the bed for a moment, thinking about what to do.

Make him want to stay. That was her conclusion. Look nice, make an effort, don’t mention the holdall.

Hurrying to finish the cleaning, she then ran a bath. The long hair she now loved was carefully washed and dried after, and she chose a nice satin slip to wear. Time was spent doing her best effort at make-up, trying to remember how that professional woman had done it. Then she painted her fingernails and toenails, sitting nervously on the bed until they dried.

Thomas was downstairs preparing a nice lunch for his last day. Saturday seemed to be a good choice to depart, with the area reasonably crowded, and nobody noticing a very average man walking to a car that looked like so many others. He had already unlocked the back door, planning to leave via the back gate, then up the alley behind the houses until he came to the end of the street. His plan was to suggest she went up to the bedroom after lunch, and wait for him to join her on the bed. He would tell her he was just going to use the bathroom, before retrieving the holdall from the wardrobe and quietly exiting the house.

She looked very nice when she came down. Nice enough to make him think about delaying his departure by thirty minutes.

With everything chopped and prepared, he reached into the cupboard and took out the wok he had bought a couple of weeks ago. Gillian had never seen a wok before, and thought it was a very deep frying pan. “The eggs will get lost in there, Paul”. That had made him smile. But she had really enjoyed the beef strips stir-fried in oyster sauce, with the shiitake mushrooms and baby corn. The thick udon noodles had amused her. “They look like white worms”.

Today he would be serving chicken in a black bean sauce, with beansprouts and pak choi, accompanied by fried rice.

Before starting to cook, he sat opposite her at the table. A compliment wouldn’t hurt. Might soften the blow when she found he had left. “You look very nice, Gillian. Beautiful, in fact”. She blushed poppy red. Nobody had ever said anything like that. She knew enough to be aware that she was far from beautiful, but if he thought so, that meant everything to her.

Stir-frying the meal wouln’t take long, so he heated the oil on a high gas, enjoying the strong aroma of the sesame oil he was using. The smell of the food being prepared was making Gillian feel very hungry, so she laid the table with spoons and forks, adding the thick cotton napkins he had bought last week. He had tried to show her how to use chopsticks, but she had just dropped the food on the table, or in her lap.

No sooner had he dropped the chicken pieces into the oil and grabbed the long chopsticks to stir it, the door buzzer sounded.

Kirsty was outside again. Thomas spoke loudly, his voice raised above the sound of the sizzling in the wok. “Just ignore it, or the food will spoil!” When there was no reply, Kirsty stomped off, shaking her head and glaring at the camera. A few moments later, Thomas brought the bowls of food to the table. “Who was at the door?” Gillian didn’t want to tell him, but didn’t want to lie either. “That Kirsty again, probably wanting to complain about the bin bags”. He smiled, and started eating. Then he stopped and looked serious.

“That woman is a real pain. She really spoils my enjoyment of staying here, truth be told. It’s such a shame that she bought the house next door to you”. Inside, Gillian was fuming. Anger, mixed with panic. It was all that bloody Kirsty’s fault. No wonder he had packed a bag and was thinking of leaving. It made it hard for her to enjoy the meal, and she just shovelled it in without tasting it. Thomas stopped for a sip of his Tsingtao beer, the perfect accompaniment to a Chinese meal. Then the buzzer sounded again.

He wasn’t expecting what happened next.

Jumping up from the table, Gillian headed for the door with a speed that belied her bulk. Then she unclipped the chain, turned the key, and flung the door open. Thomas turned to look at the camera monitor as she launched herself at Kirsty, leaping off the front step and flattening the surprised woman. The door rebounded and closed shut behind her, as she raised her fight arm again and again, striking Kirsty repeatedly.

But the fork was still in her hand.

He moved quickly. Grabbing the holdall from the wardrobe, he was out the back gate at lightning speed. By the time Gillian was sitting panting on the front lawn, and Kirsty was no longer moving, a fork handle protruding from her left eye socket, he was in the street where his car was parked.

Wiping a blood-soaked hand across her face to move the hair from her eyes, Gillian smiled. She wasn’t dizzy or scared. Then something else made her laugh.

She was finally outside.

The End.