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.

A Good Runner: The Complete Story

This is all 35 parts of my recent serial, in one complete story. It is a long read, at 26,383 words.

Mike and Edna.

By the time Michael Hollingsworth had finished his basic training, the war in Europe was almost over. He missed the celebrations in England though, as he was now part of the army of occupation, in the British sector of Berlin. At least they had taught him to drive, and to fix and maintain the trucks that he drove around, delivering supplies to various units stationed in the defeated country.

Lots of the soldiers took advantage of the situation. You could get a woman for the night for some cigarettes, sugar, or tinned food. The Jerries were desperate, and many were living in cellars, or in rudimentary shelters inside the rubble of the destroyed buildings. Not Mike though. He didn’t want to know about those women, or trying to make money by bartering for souvenirs or jewellery.

All he could think about was getting home, to be with his beloved Edna.

They had been together more or less since they were children. Living in the same street, playing with the same bunch of kids, and going to the same school until they were fourteen. The war didn’t really spoil their childhood that much, as living in Essex close to the Cambridgeshire border, they were sixty miles away from the bombing in London. Though the nearby American air bases made them very aware of the war, as well as the kids from London who had been evacuated and had swelled the numbers of the school.

Mike was twenty when he got home, and him and Edna didn’t waste any time. They got married two days after he was discharged from the army, and moved in with Edna’s mum. It wasn’t long before he found himself a job as a lorry driver, doing deliveries for a company in Chelmsford. They moved to the much larger town, and rented rooms above a hardware shop. Edna got a job working in the Co-op shop, which was on the opposite corner. They had never been happier.

It wasn’t long before the company asked Mike to help out fixing their old lorries, and he soon found himself appointed to senior mechanic, no longer having to drive around the county. Just as well, as Edna was expecting. Little Brenda was born in the spring of nineteen-fifty, and became their pride and joy. But with Edna stopping work, Mike’s plans to buy a car had to be put on hold. He carried on using his cycle to get to work, and put down to do overtime on Saturdays, hoping to save for the car he wanted so badly.

Over the next few years, things didn’t get much easier. No sooner had Edna gone back to work once Brenda started school, she fell pregnant again. This time there were lots of complications, and Mike could no longer work on Saturdays as he had to look after Brenda, and help out around the home. And with a baby on the way, they finally got high enough up the list to be offered a small council house on an estate. The extra space and small garden were welcome, but the rent was more than they had been paying. On top of that, Mike’s journey to work was fifteen minutes longer each way.

Not long after they moved in, Edna lost the baby. The doctors told her she would almost certainly never have any more, and she shouldn’t be trying anyway, in case she brought harm to herself. As she recovered from her grief, Mike took on some cash jobs, repairing cars and motorbikes in the street outside the house. But he could only do that in good weather, and not that many people around them owned cars in the first place.

Edna got her old job back, and took the bus into town. She finished earlier, so she could collect Brenda from school. That meant Mike could go back to working on Saturdays, and very soon his savings account in the Post Office was looking very healthy. When she turned eleven, Brenda started at secondary school, one on the estate, not far from home. She was given a doorkey, and Edna told Mike she would go back to full-time hours.

One day when he got home from work, Edna had exciting news for him. “My manager is selling his car, love. It’s a Ford Prefect, and only nine years old. He said we can have first refusal”. Mike looked at her as if she was crazy.

“I’ve waited this long, so will wait a bit longer. I want a new car, not some old one”.

By the time Brenda was thirteen, Mike decided he had enough money. He began to visit car showrooms in the area, and would come home clutching brochures and price lists. After dinner, he would constantly flick through his haul, announcing those he had excluded, and the few remaining on his shortlist. “Four doors is a must for me. Too many of those two door models around these days”.

Edna would nod, trying to concentrate on her television programme as he continued. “British built for me, no foreign imports. We have to support our own car industry. I’m coming around to green too. I like a nice dark green, like they have on Jaguars. I know I can’t afford a Jaguar, but I can have a similar colour”.

Edna was shaking her head. “Get whatever you want, I’m trying to watch Coronation Street”.

She knew nothing about cars, and no desire to learn to drive one. To her mind, that was a man’s job, and she didn’t need to know anything about it.

As for Brenda, she was upstairs in her room, listening to her Beatles record on the Dansette. That pop group was all she talked about at the time. Mike had his own opinion about them. “If you ask me, they sound like cats screaming. And they could all do with a bloody good haircut, and two years in the army. Give me Frank Sinatra anytime”.

Brenda didn’t ask him.

Despite his wife’s complete indifference, Mike settled on a Ford Consul Cortina. It had been around since the previous year, and seemed to be reliable, as well as increasingly popular. With Edna not remotely interested, he took the bus to the Ford Dealership one Saturday morning, and discussed buying one with the salesman. They made him a good offer on a white one in the showroom, but Mike held out for green, even though it meant a special order that would delay delivery.

It not only took all of his savings to buy it, but thirty pounds from Edna’s savings too. He paid the deposit, with the balance due in cash when the car arrived from the factory.

Arriving home excited, Edna couldn’t fail to be pleased for him. He had waited all that time, saved hard, and worked extra hours. Although she had no interest in the car, she was delighted for her husband that he would finally be getting it in two or three weeks.

While he was waiting, Mike started to talk about the trips they could make. “Southend will be easy, Clacton even easier. Nice day out at the seaside on Sundays, and no messing about with trains. Then there’s the summer holiday, love. We can go anywhere we like, even Devon or Cornwall”. Edna smiled and nodded. Devon and Cornwall seemed exotic to her. She had never been outside of Essex.

He was relentless in his enthusiasm.

“Getting to work is going to be so easy. And I can take you to the shops too. This car will mean freedom to us, Edna love, it really will”.

By the time the day arrived to collect the car, Mike had already arranged the insurance, and bought a cover to keep it clean when it was parked outside in the street. He had been to an accessory shop to ask about spotlights, and applied for his AA membership in case of breakdowns. Even though Edna couldn’t really care less about the car, her husband’s enthusiasm was infectious.

He even managed to interest Brenda, when he told her he could take her to her friend’s house to listen to records, and pick her up too. She had a question. “Dad, does it come with a radio?” He smiled at her. “No love, but I know someone who can fit one in it for me, just as soon as I have the money”.

When the day came to get the bus to go and collect it, Mike wore his best suit, and put his insurance certificate in his jacket pocket. Edna and Brenda saw him off from the door of the house, as if he as about to embark on a great adventure.

Which of course he was.

Edna knew her husband was home when she heard the sound of the car’s horn on the street outside. She rushed upstairs to get Brenda to accompany her outside to see the new car. Mike was standing next to the driver’s door beaming like a toddler on Christmas morning. He called out to them. “Fetch your handbag and lock the door, we’re going for a drive!” With Brenda in the back, Mike set off, immediately, breaking into a running commentary as he drove along.

“Listen to that engine. Purring like a cat. In fact, you might have trouble hearing it, it’s so quiet. And the gears, syncromesh you know, not crunching like when I was in the army. And the indicators, built-in, no floppy arms poking up at the sides”. Realising he was heading south, Edna looked perplexed. “Where are we going, Mike? I thought we were going round the block. I was just about to start to get dinner ready love”. Mike was laughing. “Forget that, we’re off to Southend. We can have fish and chips on the seafront when we get there”. Stopping at a traffic light, he turned to his daughter. “What do you think, Brenda? Don’t you love it?”

The girl shrugged. “It’s a funny colour, and the inside smells like plastic. Makes me feel a bit queasy dad”. Raising his voice, Mike made his point firmly. “I suppose you thought I should have got a white one? Well they’re ten a penny. You won’t see many others in this colour, I can tell you. And if you’re going to be sick, I will take you home now. Don’t you dare be sick in this car, you hear me?”

When the seafront at Southend appeared in the distance, Edna was relieved to be soon getting a break from Mike’s endless chatter about the car. How much you could get in the boot, how it used just so much petrol, and how it was so easy to fix, he could do all the servicing and repairs himself. As he was parking near the pier, she thought that she must now know as much about a Consul Cortina as anyone in England. Except Mike of course.

No sooner had they strolled just far enough to the first place selling fish and chips, Mike was heading to the counter to buy some. “Find a bench or somewhere to sit. We won’t be eating these in the car. I don’t want it smelling of fish and vinegar”. He was so keen to get the food eaten and get back in the car, Edna was left with indigestion, and Brenda wasn’t allowed to waste time having an ice cream.

On the way back there was less traffic, and Edna was scared as Mike speeded up. “You’re doing sixty, Mike, I can see it on the dial”. He just laughed. “It’ll do more than that, love. Just wait until we get on some of those major roads down in the West Country”. Edna couldn’t remember ever going so fast, not even in a train, and she reached out to push her hand against the dashboard. “Slow down, Mike, I don’t like it”. Easing back to forty, Mike shook his head. “You’ll get used to it, love”.

By the time they got back home, it was almost dark. Brenda rushed inside to go to her room and listen to her new record. It was the hit from Gerry and The Pacemakers, called ‘I Like it’. She was pushing her luck, as she had played it so many times on Friday night, Mike had called up to her that if he heard it one more time he would come up there and snap it in half. Don Cullen from three doors away wandered up as Edna was getting out. “New Consul Cortina eh, Mike? How’s she run?”

Delighted to have someone to brag about his car to, Mike grinned. “Jump in, Don. I’ll give you a run into town and back. She’s a good runner, quiet as a mouse”. Edna made her excuses and headed inside, knowing she could not have stood hearing any more about how wonderful the car was.

Mike didn’t get back until gone ten, when Brenda was already asleep.

Mike spent all day Sunday polishing a car that he had only picked up the the previous day. Edna took him out a cup of tea, and he stood back, admiring his work. “Look at that love. Like a mirror. I reckon I could shave looking at that bonnet”. But the change in the weather soon put an end to any plans for more day trips. As it became colder , Mike got up earlier for work, as he wanted to let the car engine warm up before he started driving. “They say this modern engine oil circulates quickly, but I’m not taking any chances”.

Edna loved her husband, but before a month had passed, she was already completely fed up with hearing about that car.

That November, everyone was shocked at the news that nice President Kennedy had been shot in America. Edna shook her head as they watched television. “What’s the world coming to, when even the president can be killed in his own car?” Mike wasn’t listening. He had his head in a car magazine, trying to decide which spotlights to buy to fit on the car. “Extra lighting never hurts in winter, Edna love. Especially when it’s foggy”. Brenda was upstairs listening to her new Beatles record, ‘She Loves You’. Even Edna had to agree that it really did sound just like a lot of screaming.

The winter that year was the worst since forty-seven. Snow and ice were both a real problem right into the new year. Edna was worried about Mike driving in such bad conditions, and she couldn’t relax until she heard the car pull up outside in the evening. For Mike, that bad winter meant he would cover the engine with an old blanket at night, so he didn’t have starting problems the next morning. And when he had read the evening paper, he went outside in the cold and spread it over the front windscreen, to stop the ice forming on it overnight.

By late January, there was no sign of a let-up, and Mike had started to drive Brenda the short distance to school, so she didn’t fall on the icy pavement.

One lunchtime at work, Edna was in the staff room eating her sandwiches, when the manager came in. “Edna, there are two police officers here asking for you, I will bring them through”. His face looked solemn, and Brenda felt a cold chill run up her back as she dropped the sandwich back into the metal tin she used for her lunch.

One was a man, very tall, and holding his police helmet. The other one was a policewoman, and she did the talking. “Mrs Hollingsworth, I’m afraid there has been a terrible accident. It’s your husband. We have come to take you to the hospital”. Edna stood up, her lip quivering. “That bloody car, I knew it. He’s had a car crash, hasn’t he?” The police lady shook her head. “No, nothing like that. Something happened at work, and his boss called an ambulance. He told us where you worked”.

In the police car, Edna asked the question. “How bad is it, please? Can you tell me what happened?” The policewoman was sitting in the back with her, and held her hand. “It’s very bad. I’m sorry to tell you he has been killed, and we are taking you to identify him. He was working under a lorry and the hoist failed, apparently. It came down on top of him and crushed him”.

She couldn’t speak, let alone scream or cry. It seemed unreal, like a bad dream she would soon awake from. It wasn’t until some medical person pulled the white sheet back from Mike’s face that her legs went, and she knelt on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. The young policewoman was very caring, and held onto her until she regained her composure enough to walk back to the car. “There will have to be a post mortem. That’s always the case in industrial injuries”.

As far as Edna was concerned, she could have been talking in a foreign language. Staring out the window at people on the street as they drove her home, she had a strange feeling. They would go home tonight, to their wives or husbands. But her husband would never come home again. She resented them that good fortune. Then she thought of Brenda, and turned to the policewoman.

“Can you drop me at Broomfield Secondary School please? I have to go and get my daughter”.

Diane White.

Once the funeral was over, and the life insurance had paid out, Edna reckoned she could just about manage. Brenda would be leaving school in eighteen months, so more money would be coming in after that. Mike’s boss had been very kind. He arranged to have the car driven back and parked outside the house, and the men gave Edna a brown envelope with fifty pounds inside, money that had been collected by donations from all of Mike’s colleagues.

The car had been outside for just two days, when Don Cullen knocked on the door. “I was wondering about the car, Edna. I could take it off you hands if you want. Not as if you are going to drive it, is it? I can give you cash, how does three seven-five sound?” Edna hadn’t been interested in the car, but she did know how much Mike had paid for it, as she had to add some of her own small savings to make up the total.

“That’s not enough, Don. It was almost seven hundred, and that was at the end of last summer”. Don nodded. “Okay, but think about it. Like I said, I have cash”.

The next Saturday, Edna took the bus to the Ford dealer, and asked if they would buy the car back. The man was nice, and told her the truth. “New cars lose a lot of money in the first year, Mrs Hollingsworth. I know how much your husband paid for it, but I couldn’t offer more than four seven-five I’m afraid”. Edna nodded. That was considerably more than Don had offered. “Okay, I am happy to take that, as long as you can collect it”.

Two men turned up at three that afternoon. One handed her a cheque for the agreed amount, and she gave them all the paperwork Mike kept in a kitchen drawer, and both sets of keys. As they were leaving, one of them turned to her. “Sorry to hear about your husband, madam. Don’t forget to cancel the insurance”.

Diane White was a modern woman. She had completed her teacher training at the end of nineteen-sixty, and after three years of teaching in a school in London, she wanted to buy her own house. Prices in Essex were more reasonable, so she had applied for a job at a school in Colchester, and been successful. Once she had her starting date, she put down a deposit on a two-bed cottage near Fordham, then decided she would need a car to travel the ten miles each way to school. Despite passing her test when she was twenty-one, she hadn’t had enough money to buy a car, and hadn’t driven since.

She saw the half page car dealer’s advertisement in a local paper, and it included a car that seemed ideal. ‘Ford Consul Cortina. 1963 model, four doors, low mileage, Green. £600’.

Being a teacher was a the sort of job that allowed her to get credit, and she had enough for the deposit in her savings account. The salesman treated her like an idiot, but she was used to that. So she wiped the smile off his face with an offer. “I will give you five-fifty for it, and take your credit payments scheme. I know you make money on that, and I can give you a cheque for the deposit now. Say no, and I will walk away and buy a Vauxhall I was looking at earlier”.

They shook on the deal.

When the finance had been approved, Diane was able to collect the car the day after she moved into her new house, and four days before she started at the new school. It was a lot nicer than the car she had learned to drive in, her dad’s old Standard 8. On the way home from Chelmsford to Fordham, she really enjoyed the easy steering, and smooth gearchange. And now the bad weather had passed, it felt great to drive around the country lanes on that bright morning in late April.

The first day at her new school, a few heads turned to see the young woman get out of the smart green car in the car park. In the staff room, it was mentioned by all the male teachers that she was the only female teacher with her own car. Even the headmaster had something to say.

“Well well, our new English teacher has her own car. Times really are changing”.

Diane was the youngest teacher in the school. Her fashionable short hair and even shorter skirts gained her a lot of attention from male members of staff, and most of the boy pupils too. It wasn’t long before Clive Symonds, the physical education teacher, was sniffing around. “Some of us go to the local pub for drinks on a Friday, will I see you there? Or if that’s not your thing, I do know a nice Italian restaurant in town.”

She snapped back, her tone sarcastic. “I doubt your wife would be comfortable with us meeting in a pub or going for a meal together, Clive”. As she spoke, she gently tapped the large wedding ring on his left hand.

It was the last time he asked her.

Some of the braver boys risked a wolf-whistle when she took her turn at playground duty, but she knew better than to make a big thing of it. At their age, every woman under thirty was desirable, so she let it go.

Growing up in the male-dominated atmosphere of the time, Diane had quickly learned how to cope with the so-called banter, and often blatant sexual innuendo. If anything, Essex was much more relaxed than London, where she had once had to report a colleague for daring to slide his hand up her skirt. Diane was a political animal, a young woman who had opinions and a sense of self worth. She had soon discovered that made men uncomfortable.

The pupils were of mixed ability. She taught classes aged from eleven to seventeen, and was already well-used to finding the special pupils. In London, she had called them her ‘Gems’. Those special ones that really got it, the pupils who read for pleasure, not just because it was on the syllabus. And in a class of fourteen year-olds in Essex, she found the brightest gem of all.

Constance Reilly had ginger hair the colour of copper. She parted it in the middle, and wore it in a plait that reached halfway down her back. In class, she sat alone near the front, the other kids apparently avoiding her company. Her green eyes seemed to follow Diane as she walked around talking. That girl read the Brontes for recreation, and she knew Jane Eyre back to front. Interestingly for Diane, she also got it. She knew what it meant, what it was about. Her hand went up at every question posed to the class, and the others took down their hands when they saw hers appear.

As far as Diane was concerned, there had never been a school pupil like her. It was as if she had been born in the wrong time. She also understood Jane Austen, and even Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Diane had to stop herself running the entire lesson based on Constance’s remarkable literary perception. And she had to stop looking at her as she spoke to the class.

Keeping her eyes off of Constance was becoming a problem she could do without.

And it was undoubtedly reciprocated. Whatever was going on in the classroom, Constance kept her gaze fixed on the teacher. Diane felt herself flushing with embarrassment every time she locked eyes with that unusual girl. Whether the rest of the class had noticed became progressively unimportant. And Diane found herself looking forward to those mornings of double English when that class appeared.

Sitting quietly in her cottage in the evenings, Diane found herself wondering what Constance would make of her lesson plans. She could never remember a time when someone so young understood literature so completely. But not everyone in the same class was up to the same speed, and she had to allow for that, albeit increasingly reluctantly.

Only a few weeks had passed, when one day after school, the school bus had broken down. Diane saw the irritated pupils hanging around as they awaited replacement transport. Constance spotted her green car, but did nothing. It seemed to be the decent thing to do, to stop and ask.

“Where are you heading for? I live near Fordham”.

The girl’s smile sent a tingle down Diane’s back.

“Fordham, Miss? That’s where I live”.

Without asking the other puplis in the queue, Diane leaned over and flicked open the door.

“Okay, jump in”.

On the drive home, Constance was very chatty. “I like this car, Miss. It’s much nicer than my dad’s old car. I think that’s about fifteen years old. I know he had it before I was born because he took my mum to hospital in it when she was having me. Not that we ever go in it much these days, as he’s in the Army. At the moment he’s in Aden. That’s near Saudi Arabia. We used to live near Farnborough, and only moved here two years ago because he changed regiments or something”.

Diane drove carefully, having to force herself not to keep looking round at the girl. “Is that why you sit alone? haven’t you made friends in the past two years?” There was a considerable pause before she answered.

“All the others talk about is pop groups or boys they fancy. They read fashion magazines and stick posters of groups and film stars on their bedroom walls. That doesn’t interest me. I like books, and art. And they tease me for having ginger hair, so I keep myself to myself. I have to look after my little brother too. He’s only four, and my mum works some evenings at the village pub. You might have seen her behind the bar, Miss. Her name is Carol”. Diane shook her head.

“I don’t go to the pub, and I don’t have a television. Like you, I prefer to read. Have you ever read any Russian classics, Constance? They are not on the syllabus, but I think you would like some of them. Look out for Anna Karenina in the school library. If you can’t find a copy there, I will lend you my one”.

As they got closer to home, there was another question. “How old are you Miss? You seem too young to be a teacher”. Diane smiled. “I will be twenty-five next birthday. Next week in fact. It’s my birthday next Tuesday”.

The girl directed her once they got to the village, indicating the small row of houses that were the only council houses there. Stopping outside one in the middle of the row, Diane was surprised to see how shabby it looked. Dirty net curtains hung in the windows, and the front door was badly in need of repainting. She turned and looked at the girl, who was staring intently at her. “Miss, please call me Connie. Everyone does, and it seems funny hearing you say Constance”. As she reached over to the back seat for her bag and opened the door, Diane replied.

“Okay, Connie it is from now on”.

Relaxing in her cottage with a glass of wine, Diane stroked the expensive hardback copy of Anna Karenina sitting on her leg. She had known exactly where to find it of course, as organising her bookshelves was something of an obsession. She wondered what Connie would think of Count Vronksy and Anna, but had no doubt that the girl could manage the complex novel that ran to over eight hundred pages in her copy. It had also occurred to her how strange it seemed for the daughter of a soldier and a barmaid to become so invested in literature. That made her different indeed.

A true gem.

The rest of the week seemed to fly by. Having the car meant Diane was able to get in early and get things arranged before school assembly. The next time she had that class for English, she called Connie back into the room as the pupils were leaving at the end of the lesson. Producing the heavy book from her desk, she handed it to the girl. “Please be careful with it, I have had it a long time. But there’s no rush to give it back, as you can see, it is very long”. Sliding it into her school bag, Connie smiled. “Thanks, Miss. I will be very careful with it. It will be in my room, well away from my brother”.

The school bus didn’t break down again, leaving Diane with no excuse to offer Connie a lift home. Every afternoon as she finished at school and the kids had already left earlier, she found herself wishing that there was no bus service for them.

That thought always made her drive the car a little faster.

Diane White had never had a boyfriend. It wasn’t that she didn’t attract men, if anything she attracted far too much attention from them. All of it unwanted. From her early teens, she was aware of being attracted to women, at a time when it wasn’t possible to be open and honest about such things. She once tried to talk to her mother about it, and that was dismissed with a smile. “Oh girls always have crushes, darling. You will grow out of those, trust me”.

But Diane didn’t grow out of them.

At university, she found a soul mate in Francesca, another fan of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and anything written by Jane Austen. They spent hours discussing the characters and plots in great detail, and it wasn’t long before Diane was sure that her friend loved her as much as she loved the raven-haired bookworm. Then she returned from the first Christmas break full of news about losing her virginity to a boy she had long admired, and Diane was devastated. She was even more devastated when Francesca left university in the spring after confiding that she was pregnant, so was going to get married.

After that, Diane stopped bothering. She had heard of clubs where women who liked women went, but she was far too embarrassed to go to one of those. Instead, she dedicated herself to the brightest girls, as soon as she became a teacher. As well as being determined to be modern in her outlook and to encourage the same in others. Now she had met the brightest girl of all, the true gem that was Constance Reilly.

If she was allowed, she would change that girl’s life for the better.

That summer was warm, and Diane was busy with the older pupils who were taking crucial examinations. Although her job was far from arduous, the long summer holiday couldn’t come too soon for her. Not that she was heading off to some exotic foreign destination. Her plan was to tidy up the garden at the front of the cottage, then perhaps drive up to Howarth in Yorkshire, to immerse herself in Bronte country whilst staying at a small bed and breakfast for a few days.

On the second week of the holiday, she was using some clunky old shears to trim the privet hedge at the front when she heard a voice behind her. “So this is where you live, Miss”. She turned to see Connie, standing by an old bicycle. The copper hair was released from the usual long plait, and completly covered her shoulders. In a green summer dress she looked older than her fourteen years, and her gaze was mesmerising. For a moment, Diane wondered if the girl had followed her some time, to discover where she lived, then Connie spoke again.

“My mum has taken my brother and gone to visit my granny in Winchester. I didn’t want to go all that way on the trains, so stayed here. I got mum’s old bike out and pumped up the tyres, and I have been riding around the village and the area. I hadn’t really seen that much of it before”. The girl looked hot, so Diane did the decent thing and invited her in for a cold drink. As she prepared some lemon squash in a jug, Connie wandered around the snug living room, staring at the books and framed prints. “This painting is so lovely, Miss. I have never seen anything like it”.

She was looking at a large print of The Lady of Shallot, by Waterhouse. The young woman in the painting has long ginger hair, and both Connie and Diane could not fail to notce the uncanny resemblance to the teenager. Passing a glass of squash, Diane was excited to show the girl a book of paintings that included that one, and Connie sat attentively as each page was turned on her lap. “Oh Miss, they are wonderful. I have never seen anything so lovely”. Diane smiled. “Look, while you are here, and school is finished, why not call me Diane? Miss makes feel feel old and frumpy. But just here though, never in school”.

As another page was turned, Connie turned and stared at her teacher. “Diane is such a lovely name. Perfect for a lovely lady”.

Diane could not stop herself blushing.

When it was time for Connie to leave, Diane toyed with the idea of asking her to stay and share the ham salad she was having for dinner that evening. However, that might mean her cycling home in the dark, and there were no lights on the old bicycle. Instead, she called to the girl as she got on the bike. “I will send you a postcard from Yorkshire!”

The drive north was very pleasant in her shiny green car. She had washed and polished it before the trip, making sure to check the oil and water when filling up at the garage in Fordham. With her small case secure in the boot, she took the scenic route, not arriving at the bed and breakfast until very late in the afternoon. It was not the first time she had been to Haworth, or that same bed and breakfast, and it felt familiar as she walked up the driveway carrying her case.

At a gift shop the next morning, she found a nice postcard of the Bronte’s house, and a paperback copy of Wuthering Heights. Both were intended for Connie, though it suddenly dawned on Diane that although she knew where the girl lived, she didn’t actually know the postal address. They would have to wait until she returned home to Essex. In a tiny bookshop, she was delighted to find a postcard with a reproduction of The Lady Of Shallot on it, and she tucked that inside the copy of Wuthering Heights for Connie to use as a bookmark.

Arriving home four days later, Diane thought about driving to Connie’s house to deliver the gifts. But she had no idea how long her mother would be away, and that woman might have not thought it appropriate for a teacher to visit the house. Probably best to leave it until school resumed in September.

She didn’t have to wait until September.

The knock on the door startled her as she was reading. The post had already come, and she was expecting no visitors. Connie was propping the bicycle against the front hedge as she opened it. “I came by each day to see if your car was back in the lane, Diane. My mum came home yesterday, but she doesn’t start back at the pub until Friday evening”.

Perhaps she should have asked why the girl had come every day. Perhaps she should have told her she was busy, and she would see her at school soon. But she didn’t.

“Oh, do come in, I have a gift for you”.

Handing over the book and the two postcards, Diane seemed flustered and awkward. By contrast, Connie looked confident and assured, radiant in a simple pink dress, her hair fragrant and flowing. “Silly me, I forgot to get your address, so I brought the postcard home. There’s another one inside the book for you to use as a bookmark, I think you will see why I chose it”. The girl looked like she might burst into tears. “I have never had such a thoughtful gift. I will treasure the cards and book always, I promise you”.

Putting the book down on the coffee table, Connie stepped forward and kissed Diane full on the lips. It was a kiss that was neither too brief, nor too long. And it was a kiss that sent a delicious shudder up Diane’s back. She stepped back quickly, resisting the urge to follow up with a kiss of her own. “Let’s have a cold drink. Look at the book, I have written inside the cover”. In the kitchen, Diane was trembling, and she held on to the old stone sink lest she fall over. With her heart racing, and her head spinning, she had to stand and regain her composure before going back with the drinks.

Connie was sitting with the book on her lap, open at the blank page where Diane had written on it.

‘To my dearest Connie, a girl with the brightest of futures. Diane. XX’

Choosing to sit opposite the sofa on a ladderback chair, Diane knew she could not trust herself to sit next to the girl, close enough to feel the warmth of her body.

Once Connie had left, a wave of relief swept over her, and she poured herself a large glass of wine.

The next morning, Diane woke up determined to break her fast-growing addiction to spending time with Connie. When the knocker sounded on the door just after eleven, she stayed inside, not answering. Connie would obviously know she was at home, as she would have seen the car parked in the lane. But she had to be strong, and not let the girl in. She had her new job, her cottage, the car, and too much to lose.

Peeping from a bedroom window upstairs, she could see Connie standing by the gate next to her bicycle. It seemed she was playing the waiting game, but Diane could play that too. Evetually, the girl tired of waiting, and slipped a note through the letterbox before riding off. ‘Came to see you, but no reply. I will try again tomorrow. C. XX’.

The following day, Diane made sure not to be home, driving to the estuary at Mersea Island, and spending the day reading in the sun. Then the day after that, and the next day too. By the end of that week, Connie apeared to have given up trying, and despite some pangs of guilt over encouraging her, Diane was greatly relieved.

As usual, the teaching staff returned a few days before the end of the holidays. There was some preparation to be done, reviews of exam results, and other general admin to get out of the way. Diane was in before everyone else, hoping that her enthusiasm would be noticed. When the headmaster came into the staff room, she expected some compliment about how well her classes had done in the exams, or praise for arriving long before the others. But he wasn’t smiling.

“Diane, can you follow me to my office, please?”

She sat across the desk from him as he removed some papers from a drawer. “I have a letter here. I am not going to show you it, but I will outline what it contains. It is from Mrs Reilly, the mother of Constance Reilly. You know Constance of course?” Feeling cold in her stomach, Diane nodded.

“She alleges that you have been -shall we say- intimate with her daughter in an inappropriate fashion. Inviting her into your home, driving her around in your car, buying her gifts, making affectionate and flattering remarks to her, and on one occasion even kissing the girl. It seems Constance told her mother she wanted to move out and live with you because you were in love with each other. As a result, the girl has been removed from this school by her parents, who are in the process of moving out of the county to an undisclosed location. I thought I should give you the chance to tell me your side, Diane.”

Her brain was spinning, and she was sure that if she had eaten any breakfast that morning, she would certainly have vomited onto the headmaster’s desk.

“I did invite Connie in for a cold drink on a hot day, but only after she had cycled to my house without being invited. I once gave her a lift home in my car when the school bus broke down, but never drove her around as the letter suggests. Yes, I bought her a novel back from holiday, but only because I know her family is not well off financially, and Connie is truly a bright star as far as literature is concerned. I wanted to encourage her interest in books and art, but when she tried to kiss me, I immediately realised she had misunderstood, and have not seen her since”.

The look on his face told her he hadn’t believed a word.

“You are lucky that the parents have not chosen to involve the police, and so far I have not passed this on to the education authorities. I have replied to the letter in a personal capacity, and given my assurances that you will no longer be teaching here. I suggest you resign immediately, or I will have no alternative but to suspend you pending a formal investigation into your conduct”. He slid a sheet of plain paper and a pen across the desk. “Please write the resignation letter now, giving some kind of reason why you are unhappy here. Maybe you cannot settle in the area, or want to go abroad to teach? I don’t care what you write, but you will write it”.

As Diane was driving home in tears, she knew the cottage would have to go, as she could never afford the mortgage with no job.

And the car too.

Trevor Clemence.

There was little choice for Diane but to reurn to her family home in the small town of Witney, in Oxfordshire. She explained away her resignation by telling them that she had not got on with her colleagues, and had an idea to go to work in Hong Kong, where teachers were usually in some demand. In fact, after only one week at home, she managed to secure an interview with an agency in London that was happy to forward her details for a vacancy on their books. Within a month, she was packing to leave, using the last of her salary to buy an airline ticket.

The house in Essex had been rented through a local company, and that rental income would cover the mortgage costs and management fees. As for the green Consul Cortina, she gave the keys and paperwork to her father, and asked him to sell it for her.

Nigel White had little interest in cars, even though he could drive, and owned a smart Rover car. He placed a classified advertisement in the local weekly newspaper, offering Diane’s low-mileage car for offers around four hundred and twenty five pounds. Then he parked it inside his double garage, and more or less forgot about it.

Trevor Clemence was a man who hadn’t had that much luck in his life. He was fired from a carpentry apprenticeship for always turning up late for work, then had joined the army at the age of eighteen. He didn’t even complete his training, as after knocking out a drill sergeant with one punch on the parade ground, he was thrown out. Not long after, he managed to get work helping a window cleaner in Witney, and he was allowed to drive the van on learner plates, eventually passing his driving test first time.

His boss let him use the van outside of work, and he soon met Shirley, who was working in a roadside cafe on the A40 nearby. They married when Trevor was twenty-one, and went to live with his widowed grandmother in the town. Two years later, the man he worked for offered to sell him the window-cleaning round, and negotiated a weekly payment to cover the cost of buying it, and the old van that came with it. Trevor was very pleased with himself. He now had his own business, and he was only twenty-three years old.

Bad news arrived in the shape of the winter of 1963. With the weather so bad, most of his regular customers didn’t want their windows cleaned. Trade dropped off alarmingly, and his weekly takings were reduced by half. Plans to start a family had to be shelved, and Shirley was unhappy about that. Then one afternoon as he was on his way back from cleaning the windows of the vicarage in Minster Lovell, he crashed the van in a country lane, after skidding on ice.

There wasn’t enough money to pay for the repairs to get the van roadworthy, and with no van, he could only do the windows of a few local shops that he could walk to, carrying the smaller ladder. It wasn’t long before he had lost the majority of his customers, and he had only paid off less than half the money he owed his former boss. Shirley was working at the tea rooms in Witney now, but her wages were barely enough to buy the shopping, and pay their share of the bills. His grandma only had her old age pension, so the new year of 1964 was a dismal prospect indeed. Faced with no alternative, Trevor had to give up the business, and get a regular job.

All he could find was work as a labourer for a local roofing company. They would pick him up in a lorry at the end of the lane every morning, and he spent all day carrying roof tiles up and down ladders, after unloading them from the flatbed at the back. At least the work was regular, even though it was tiring and monotonous. By the end of that summer, he had managed to pay off his debt, build up his strength, and had tried to talk to Shirley about renting their own place and starting a family.

Her attitude surprised him. “To be honest, Trev, I’m pretty fed up. Don’t think I want kids after all. Not with you, anyway”.

Three weeks later, she was gone.

Trevor worked hard for the rest of the year, even going in on Saturdays for extra pay. By the time he was celebrating the new year of 1965 with his granny, he had managed to save almost five hundred pounds. He gave the old lady fifty of that, which seemed like a fortune to her, but that was to soften the blow when he told her he was thinking of moving out.

Shirley had left the local tea rooms long before. Valerie the owner had told him she was living in Oxford, with a travelling salesman who was a regular at the tea rooms. He had just shrugged at the news. Trevor was a man who accepted bad luck as his lot in life.

With spring coming, Nigel White was determined to get rid of his daughter’s car. There had not been a single enquiry from the newspaper advertisement, so he resolved to put up some postcards in local shops and post offices. They were a lot cheaper, and more likely to be seen by people in Witney. He took the canvas cover off the car, removed the battery, and charged it up. Sure it would start and run for any potential buyer, he wrote out some cards and paid for them to be in the windows with all the others.

After helping his gran get some shopping one Saturday morning, Trevor noticed a newly-refurbished shop front. What had once been a dusty old ironmongers was set to become a new taxi office. They had a sign outside, stating ‘Drivers Wanted. Apply Within’. When he had dropped off the shopping at home, he walked back and stood outside the shop. Working as a taxi driver appealed to him as being a lot more comfortable than hauling roof tiles day in, day out. So he went inside.

“No, we don’t have taxis for you to drive mate. This is a private hire company. You supply your own car and insurance, we get the work for you, and take a percentage. You need a decent car with four doors, it must be undamaged, and nice and clean. Come back and see me when you have one, show me the taxi insurance papers, and you can start the same day”. Despite his disappointment at the company not supplying cars for him to use, he couldn’t get the idea out of his head as he ate dinner that night with his gran.

It wasn’t until Tuesday when he spotted the postcard in the window of the corner shop. ‘1963 Consul Cortina. 4-doors. Very low mileage. £400’. He asked the shopkeeper to write the phone number down on a piece of paper for him, then walked to the phone box on the corner. The man at the other end gave him the address, and he agreed to go there and see the car late on Saturday afternoon when he had finished work. It was in a very posh part of town where Trevor had once cleaned windows.

The house was suitably impressive, and the doors of the double garage were already open when Trevor arrived. The shiny green Cortina was in one half, and a grey Rover P5 dominated the other half. He didn’t have to knock, as the elderly man came out as soon as he stopped to look at the car.

“She’s a good runner you know, and such low mileage for a sixty-three car too. Have a look, the door is open. Only six thousand miles on the clock, you won’t find a better one. The spare wheel has never been used, no MOT required until next year, and I have charged the battery for you. There is still a few gallons of petrol in the tank too”.

Remembering he was supposed to haggle, Trevor really couldn’t be bothered. Everything the man was saying was true, and compared to the cost of the newly revamped Cortina model, this one was a real bargain. He hadn’t said much, and the man took that as hesitation. “If you like, I can get the keys and give you a drive around. I am insured to drive it on my policy”. He was back in two minutes, and invited Trevor to jump into the passenger seat. They headed away from the town centre, driving on the country road in the direction of Poffley End. After ten minutes, he pulled into the space next to a farm gate.

“Well young man, what say you?” Trevor smiled.

“I’ll take it. I can bring the money on Monday evening, after I have sorted out the insurance”.

The taxi insurance was at least twice as much as insuring the car normally, but he had to have it. Driving back from the big house after paying the man for the car, Trevor popped in to the taxi office and showed the owner his car and insurance certificate. “I can start next Monday, I have to work a week’s notice”.

His boss at the roofing company had been sad to hear he was leaving. “You’re a good worker, Trev. If this taxi stuff doesn’t work out, there’s always a job for you here”. He handed over his week’s wages, plus his week in hand. “I’ve put an extra ten pounds in there for you”.

The following weekend, Trevor drove his granny out to Oxford, to give her a ride in the new car. They stopped for tea in the city, and he asked her what she thought of the car, and told her about his new job as a private hire driver. She swallowed a big lump of scone before answering. “Fancy, I call it. Don’t you go getting above ourself now”. After tea, he bought a grey sports jacket and some new shirts and ties.

He was determined to look smart when he started picking up passengers.

Ken Millward was the owner of Witney Cars, and explained how things worked. “We find you the jobs. You are not allowed to pick anyone up off the street, under any circumstances. Here are some business cards with our phone number on them for you to hand out. When you are driving past any phone boxes, remember to place them prominently inside. We get a lot of work from phone boxes. The rates are so much a mile for cash jobs, and a bit less for account customers. I take ten percent of all cash fares and fifteen percent of account jobs. You keep any tips. Make sure to have change on you at all times, and you should buy some maps of Oxford, Cheltenham, Gloucester, and even London. We will be taking people all over”.

Trevor had never been to London, and decided not to mention that to Ken, who carried on talking.

“You will get a list of booked jobs, regular pick-ups, and parcel or school runs. When they are done, you come back to the office and wait for a walk-in, or if someone phones for a booking. If you get any runs into Oxford or Gloucester, never park on a taxi rank or pick up anyone who might hail you at a station. The taxis there are all licenced by the Councils, and there will be big trouble if they catch you doing that”.

Then he handed Trevor a large stiff card with the name Witney Cars printed on it and the phone number. “Keep this on the dashboard of your car where it can be seen. And try not to park illegally, as we don’t pay for parking tickets. There’s a kettle out the back, and tea and milk. It’s two shillings a week, and if you want sugar, bring it in. Give the two-bob to Stella, she gets the stuff, and answers the phones on the day shift”.

Walking behind the partition holding a two-shilling piece, Trevor saw Stella sitting at a desk writing things down on small cards. “Ken says I have to give you a couple of bob for the tea”. He placed the coin on the edge of the desk. “I’m Trevor, Trevor Clemence. I’m one of the new drivers”. Stella looked up at him and smiled. “I know, I’m not deaf. You were only standing behind the partition”. He smiled back at her, feeling awkward. She had nice flick-ups in her fair hair, and reminded him of Millicent Martin. He guessed she might be a bit older than him too.

“The two bob is for the tea and milk, but you make it yourself. I’m nobody’s tea lady. And wash your cup up after too”. Her tone was mock-serious, softened by a friendly grin as she spoke. “If you need the toilet, it’s halfway up the stairs, on the first landing. And don’t wee on the seat, or leave it up after. I have to sit on that you know. If you are ready to work, I have a pick-up for you in Crundel Rise, going to the air base at Brize Norton. You know where they are, I suppose?” He nodded, and left immediately with the details on a piece of paper.

Stella called after him. “It’s an account customer, but he normally tips well”.

As he was driving to Crundel Rise, Trevor couldn’t stop smiling. Stella was great, and he was on his way to his first ever taxi job.

Within six weeks, Trevor had become relaxed and experienced as a taxi driver. Some customers had begun to ask for him by name, and Ken was very pleased indeed. One evening, he called Trevor into his tiny office near the back door. “I have heard you mention that you want to move out of your gran’s. There is a small flat upstairs you know, and I own it with the building. If you want, I will rent it to you at a fair price. You will get to park your car in the yard at the back, and have your own entrance using the metal staircase. Want to come up and have a look at it?”

He had never been further up the stairs than the toilet on the half-landing, and Trevor was surprised to find a door on the left, which Ken opened with a key. “There is a double bed they left here, but no other furniture. The bedroom is separate, and you have your own bathroom at the back”. Trevor was surprised how spacious the main room was, with two large windows overlooking the street, and a small kitchenette along one side. The bathroom had an Ascot to heat the water, and there was a thre-bar electric fire in the fireplace of the main room. Ken was realistic. “It needs a touch of paint or new wallpaper, but the lino is in good nick, and you can get some rugs or whatever. What do you reckon, Trev?”

There was no hesitation. “I’ll take it”.

Back downstairs, he couldn’t wait to tell Stella. He had developed a real crush on her, and had become convinced that she felt the same way. “So now you’re living above the shop. Don’t forget it is open for most of the night with drivers coming and going and the phone ringing. You won’t get much peace”. There were only three drivers who worked the night shift, and there was little demand for taxis that late, except at weekends when some part-time drivers made up the numbers. Trevor laughed. “Then I will have to work at night too, earn even more money!”

Then he had to go home and tell his gran.

Her reaction surprised him. “About time you got your own place. You can take what you need from here, as I will be telling the Council I am giving up this house. I will go and live with your Aunt Marion in Cirencester. Since she lost her husband she’s been rattling around in that big house. I only stayed on here because of you and Shirley, and when she scarpered I thought you would find your own place”. Trevor nodded, relieved that she wasn’t annoyed, and happy to solve his furniture issues. His old boss at the roofing company would surely let him have use of a lorry and driver one weekend, and he could give the man a few quid for helping him carry up some things.

His first night in his own flat felt strange. He bought fish and chips in town as he hadn’t connected the gas cooker, and then all the lights went out when he forgot to put any shillings in the electric meter. He didn’t mind though. It was a fresh start.

Two weeks later, he summoned up the nerve to ask Stella out. “You were right about the phones, Stella. I do hear them ringing, especially at weekends. By the way, would you like to go out with me one night, to the pictures, or into Oxford maybe?” He knew it was clumsy, but she was smiling. “Trev, I have a seven year old daughter, I thought someone might have told you that by now. And I’m thirty, a fair bit older than you. My mum looks after Amy when she finishes school, and in the holidays, so I don’t like to leave her in the evenings”. He knew his face was registering disappointment. “Sorry, I didn’t realise you were married. You don’t wear a wedding ring. Sorry for asking”.

Stella shook her head. “I’m a widow. My husband was killed in a road accident on his way to work on a motorbike when I was six months pregnant. Amy never knew him. So I don’t go out in the evenings”. Trevor nodded, and turned to leave. Then she spoke again.

“But you could come and have dinner with us one night”.

As he had never been to anyone’s house for dinner, Trevor settled for overkill. He bought a bottle of Liebfraumilch, even though he couldn’t stand the stuff. Then a large bunch of roses, believing you should always take flowers to the house of a lady. As if that wasn’t enough, he added a jumbo sized box of Milk Tray chocolates, and two bags of Jelly Babies for young Amy. The modern two-bedroom house was neat and impressive, as well as being in a nice part of town. He wondered how Stella could afford it, but knew better than to ask her.

Stella seemed to be impressed with what he turned up with, even though she didn’t miss the chance to pretend to be exasperated with him. “Oh Trev, this is too much, it’s just a normal dinner at home”. Little Amy was shy at first, but soon warmed to the good-looking, polite young man who asked her lots of questions about school, pop music, and things she liked to do. The meal of pork chops and vegetables was nothing special, but he enjoyed it just the same. After dinner, Amy went up to bed, and when Stella came down she made coffee. She hadn’t bothered to open the wine when Trevor had said he didn’t want any. “I’ll save it for another time, if that’s okay, Trev”.

By ten o’clock he was feeling awkward, and checked his watch more times than he should have. He had never been much of a ladies man, and Shirley had made all the running when he first met her at the roadside cafe. Unsure how to behave, he eventually stood up. “Thanks for a lovely meal, Stella. It was so nice to meet Amy too, she’s a lovely girl”. Stella grinned. “Sit down, Trev. You don’t have to go yet, and I have some things to say to you”.

He did as she said.

“Trev, I really like you, but we will have to take things slowly because of Amy. I don’t want her getting attached to you if you are only looking for a fling. I’m sure you are wondering about the house, so I will tell you. We bought it when we got married, and when Danny was killed in the accident, the insurance paid off the mortgage and left me with a bit over for later. I’m not looking to get married again, not yet anyay, but I also don’t want to get involved in any pointless relationships or one-night stands. Is that alright with you?”

Trevor told her about Shirley running off with a salesman, and he was honest about his lack of experience with women. Stella patted the sofa she was sitting on. “Why don’t you come over here and kiss me, Trev? Just kissing though, no more. Not yet”.

Driving home just before eleven, Trevor was grinning from ear to ear. Stella was perfect for him, he could feel it in his bones.

Real dates followed, with Stella paying for a babysitter so that they could go to the cinema, or for a nice meal out in Oxford. Sometimes, they settled for a drink in a pub in Witney, followed by fish and chips eaten in the car. Neither had spoken about love, and their romance had never gone past kissing. Then one Saturday night as Trevor stopped the car outside her house, Stella turned to him. “Would you like to stay over tonight, Trev?” He felt awkward, but nodded. “What about Amy though?” Stella grinned. “You idiot, don’t you know Amy loves you? Not as much as I love you of course, but enough”.

He kissed her there and then in the car. With the most passion he had ever put into a kiss.

That Sunday morning, Amy was awake early. She ran into her mum’s bedroom and leapt onto the bed. Trevor woke up wondering what she would make of him being there, but she acted as if everything was completly normal. As Stella woke up and smiled at her daughter, Amy had a question. “Is Trevor my daddy now?” Stella didn’t answer, instead she turned to hear what he would say. Lifting the girl up above his head, Trevor laughed as he spoke.

“Not yet, Amy. But soon, I promise you”.

Stella and Trevor continued to live separately while his divorce was going through. Shirley did not contest the divorce on the grounds of her desertion, and asked for no money or possessions. That smoothed the process. When the papers arrived just before Christmas of sixty-six, they planned a small wedding for May the following year. Just the registry office in town, nothing too grand.

Stella’s mum Norma was completely supportive, and had urged her daughter to get serious with Trevor as soon as she met him. “Don’t let this one slip through your fingers, he’s genuine, mark my words”.

That April, Britain won the Eurovision Song Contest, represented by Sandie Shaw. Amy asked for the record, ‘Puppet On A String’, and played it so many times Stella got it stuck in her head.

The wedding was a small but happy occasion. Ken and his wife served as witnesses, Amy carried flowers as a bridesmaid, and Norma cried. Even Trevor’s gran and aunt Marion made the journey from Cirencester. After the short ceremony, they all had lunch in a nearby pub.

Although he had often stayed over, returning to the house as Stella’s husband made Trevor feel very proud. Ken had managed to let the flat above the shop to Viktor, one of the drivers who was originally from Poland, and Trevor had said he could keep his stuff so it could be rented as furnished. Stella still walked Amy to school before work, as he was usually out on his first taxi runs well before seven. Now he had a family to care for, Trevor took Ken’s advice and employed a local accountant to sort out his tax affairs, then not long after the wedding, they discussed whether or not he should adopt Amy.

When they asked the girl, she beamed a huge smile. “Yes please! I want a daddy!”

That first summer seemed idyllic. Trevor made sure to never work on a Sunday, and they took trips all over in his green Cortina. Picnics, days at the seaside, and even an outing to Bristol Zoo.

On the Monday following that tiring day, Trevor turned up at work to find Ken’s wife Peggy sitting at the desk at the back. She had been crying, and looked like she was about to start again. “Oh, Trevor. Ken’s gone. He had a funny turn at home early yesterday morning, and I had to call an ambulance. They took him to Oxford to the big hospital, but he didn’t make it. They think it was a brain haemmhorage, but there has to be a post mortem. I didn’t know what to do, I thought I had better come in and tell you all”.

He went to make her a cup of tea, and when he got back, he was calm and reassuring. “Peggy, Stella will be in soon. You can leave it to us to run the place until you sort things out. I will get Viktor to run you home in a minute, you should be with your family. Don’t worry about the business, you can count on me and Stella. She put the tea down and started crying again, so he walked up to the flat to ask Viktor to come down and take her home.

They went to the funeral, leaving just a few drivers to cover the regular runs. At Ken’s house following the service, Peggy pulled them both to one side. “I don’t know anything about Ken’s business, but I know he always spoke well of you, and relied heavily on Stella too. How about you buy the business off me? We can make an arrangement with the solicitor, and you can pay so much a month. It will give me some extra money, and take the worry off me too. I will throw in Ken’s new car. I can’t drive, and he would have been happy for you to have it”.

Stella turned and looked at him, an almost imperceptible nod passed between them. Trevor kissed Peggy on the cheek. “Consider it sold”.

Just a few weeks before his death, Ken had treated himself to a burgundy-coloured Jaguar 3.4, saying as he would never use it as a taxi, it didn’t matter that it was a luxury car. Now Trevor had the keys and paperwork, which he sent off to register himself as the new owner. Taking over the taxi office meant that he would almost never be driving, though the Jag would do nicely for any upmarket jobs that came in. Stella was pleased that he would be selling the Cortina now.

“I never said anything before, Trev, but green cars are supposed to be unlucky. He shook his head.

“Well, it wasn’t unlucky for me, love.”

Adrian and Sally.

Trevor put the car up for sale that September, placing an advertisement in the Exchange and Mart weekly newpaper. He was aware that the car would be five years old the following year, and his taxi driving had greatly increased the mileage. However, it was in great condition, and new cars were getting more expensive to buy all the time. So he asked three hundred pounds for it.

Adrian Lexham had just finished his degree at one of Oxford Univerity’s minor colleges. It was a passable qualification in French, but he had no real desire to start adult life as a French teacher in a private school, something arranged by his father.

As luck would have it, his maternal grandmother had died in July, and left him two thousand pounds in her will. Against the advice of his concerned parents, Adrian decided he did not want to return to the family home in Norfolk. His plan was to buy a car and tour France in it. Perhaps getting down as far as Spain. So he stayed on in Oxford, and began to look for a car to buy before he had to give up his room at the end of the month.

One reason why he was so determined to spend his inheritance seeing Europe was Sally. She was the object of his desire, and had been since he started at university. But she was attractive, popular, and definitely out of his league. Sally Brooks was one of those young women who seemed to break all the rules and get away with it. From a working class background in Kent, she had got into Oxford to study French with a natural flair for the language, and a wide knowledge of the country.

Of course, the fact that her mother was French had helped a great deal.

When she had been chatting to a group of admirers in the local pub one evening, and telling everyone how much she would love to spend a year travelling in Europe, Adrian had heard himself saying, “Actually, I am taking a year out to drive around France, and I may even go down into Spain”. That was the first time such a trip had ever entered his head, but he wanted to impress the girl. She had put down her glass, and called his bluff. “Well if you want a travelling companion to help with the cost of petrol, look no further”.

Unwilling to back down now, Adrian stood up. “You’re on, Sally. My round I think”.

After seeing the advertisement for the Cortina and making an arrangement to view the car, Adrian asked his friend Sammi Singh to give him a lift to Witney. Sammi’s dad was filthy rich, and had bought his son an MG roadster to run around in while he was studying at Oxford.

Arranging to see the potential buyer at his house, not the taxi office, Trevor wasn’t about to mention that it had been used as a taxi, as that would put off too many prospective buyers. The well spoken young man who arrived that Saturday afternoon didn’t even look at the mileage counter on the dial. He just walked quickly around the car, asked to look in the boot, and then suggested a test drive with Trevor driving. After ten minutes driving around the town, Adrian was nodding. “Seems like a good runner. Three hundred you say? If I can use your phone to arrange the insurance, I will take it today”.

The phone call was obviously to the man’s father, asking him to add the Cortina to his policy, and insure the car for his son to drive. He heard some mention of Europe, and that the car had to be insured to drive over there. Then he hung up. Trevor was handed three hundred in ten pound notes. Keen to hand over all the paperwork with the keys, Trevor started to tell him about the service history, the spare wheel and tools and such. But the excitable young man waved away the carefully-prepared folder. “Just the MOT certificate please, and the logbook. I’m not concerned about all the rest”.

Thirty minutes after he had arrived, Adrian was driving off in the car. He didn’t even notice Trevor waving goodbye.

After arranging for his tea-chests of books and a few bulky possessions to be taken to his parents’ home by a local removal company, Adrian packed his clothes into a suitcase, and said goodbye to his rented room. Stopping at the bank, he drew out a large part of his savings, exchanging most of it for French Francs and traveller’s cheques. Then he headed east, to Sally’s parental home in Dartford, Kent. Just after three that afternoon, he eventually found the house on a sprawling council estate, where every house looked depressingly identical.

The man who opened the door was wearing a British Rail uniform. Adrian was polite and chirpy. “Mister Brooks? I have come to collect Sally. We are off to France, as I expect she has told you”. The reply left him confused. “France? I don’t know anything about France. Sally isn’t here. She left a few days ago. Some student friends of hers picked her up in one of those Volksagen camper van thingys. I would ask you in, but I have to go on shift soon, and my wife isn’t home from her job until seven”. Adrian was flummoxed, to say the least.

“Did she say when she might be back? We had plans to leave today or tomorrow for France. It was all arranged before she left Oxford”. The man shook his head. “Sorry, she doesn’t say much to me, tends to do her own thing. Why don’t you come back tomorrow and speak to my wife? She isn’t working then, and Sally usually tells her what she’s up to. You will have to find somewhere to stay I suppose? Try the Royal Victoria and Bull, in the High Street in town. They have rooms above the pub. I’m going to have to go to work now I’m afraid”.

Adrian mumbled his thanks, and walked back to the car in a daze.

It was easy enough to find the hotel, and they had a room available. It was one of the refurbished double rooms at a premium rate, but Adrian was in no mood to search the unfamiliar market town for a better deal. He sat on the bed wondering what to do, and becoming more annoyed that Sally could be so irresponsible and selfish. Imagine leaving like that, when she knew he was coming as arranged? He resolved to speak to her mother the next day, then went down to the bar for a beer and a meal.

After a below average breakfast the next morning, he arrived back at the house just after ten. Mrs Brooks answered the door, and he was immediately relieved to discover she knew who he was. Eyeing the plain-looking young man with his double-breasted blazer and neatly trimmed hair, Charlotte Brooks was wondering how her daughter had hooked up with someone so unlike all her other friends.

“Yes, Adrian. She told me you were giving her a lift to visit my relatives in Normandy. That’s very kind of you. Then she went off with some of her old friends who came to see her. I think they were going to see Stonehenge. I’m sure they will be back in a few days. Would you like a cup of tea?”

Her accent was very French, but after so long in England, her English was flawless. Over tea, she chatted in a friendly manner. “I met my husband during the war of course. He was part of the army that liberated Caen, where I lived with my parents in a village outside the city. I was a young impressionable girl then, and he was very handsome. He drove a tank, you know. Now he drives trains, and maybe he’s not so handsome any longer”.

Adrian had the uneasy feeling that the woman might be trying to seduce him. He had no experience with girls or women, not so much as a kiss, and he felt uncomfortable around this lady, who seemed to be much younger than her husband.

Standing up, he remained impeccably polite as he produced a piece of paper with a phone number written on it. “Thank you so much for the tea, and your kindness. This is the phone number of the hotel where I am staying. I am in room six, and would be grateful if you could ask Sally to call me when she gets home. I am keen to get started on our trip to France”.

She took the paper, and he couldn’t help thinking that her smile was a knowing smile.

After two more nights in the hotel, Adrian was beside himself with boredom. He certainly didn’t want to travel alone to France, and the thought of going back to Kings Lynn and his parents was too dull to contemplate. But he knew he couldn’t just hang around wasting time in Dartford indefinitely. Angry at himself for being so weak as to let Sally use him like this, he advised the manager that he would be leaving the next morning, and paid his bill.

Back in the room as he was packing, the phone rang.

She was so casual, so innocent. He should have raged at her, but of course he didn’t.

“Hi, Adey. Hope you have enjoyed seeing Dartford. Pick me up early tomorrow and we can go to the travel agent and book the ferry for the following evening. We can get an overnight sailing, and arrive fresh”. He was confused. “But the ferry from Dover to Calais doesnt take that long, why do you say overnight?”. She answered in that way of hers, making him feel stupid. “We’re going to Normandy, so it makes sense to travel from Portsmouth to Cherbourg. That takes eight hours, but cuts down on hundreds of driving miles”.

Seeing her the next morning lifted his spirits. Her flowing dress and long wavy hair made her look so feminine, so desirable. The travel agent could get them on a car ferry the next night, but no cabins were available. they would have to do their best to sleep in the lounge, he told them. Before he could suggest an alternative route, Sally took over. “That’s okay, I can sleep anywhere. We will take it”. Turning to Adrian, she smiled. “I’ll wait in the car while you sort it out, can I have the keys?”

Although he had intended to pay, he thought she could have at least offered to contribute, so he could have gallantly turned down that offer.

Back at the house, she didn’t even invite him in. “You have your room until ten tomorrow? Okay, pick me up after that and we can have a slow drive to Portsmouth, stop somewhere for lunch on the way”. Not so much as a ‘thank you for paying’, or a kiss on the cheek.

When his car pulled up outside her house the next morning at ten-thirty, Sally must have been watching for it. She emerged from the front door carrying a huge rucksack, and Adrian opened the boot so she could dump it next to his suitcase. As they settled into the front of the car, Sally produced two ten pound notes. “My share of the petrol, that should cover us to Caen easily, and more besides”. For a second, he was going to refuse the money. But he thought twice, and slipped the notes into his blazer pocket.

Her choice of lunch stop was a cafe just outside the city of Portsmouth. It was a rough-looking place, the kind used by lorry drivers and men on motorbikes. As soon as they had sat down, Sally went over to the jukebox in the corner. She put the record ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ on to play three times. Smiling at Adrian, she asked, “Don’t you just love this?” He nodded, not bothering to tell her that he hated it, and preferred Classical music.

Sally ordered steak pie with vegetables, and though Adrian couldn’t really find anything to his taste on the limited menu, he settled for egg and chips and a cup of tea. They sat in that awful place for ages, Sally playing rubbish on the jukebox, and ordering an ice cream sundae and numerous frothy coffees. When she had finally eaten her fill and run out of music to listen to, she smiled at him. “See you in the car, Adey. Can I have the keys?”

He went up to the counter, and paid the bill.

On board the boat that evening, Sally bought duty free cigarettes and a bottle of vodka, then suggested dinner in the buffet restaurant. “Can you lend me the money please, Adey? I only have a little cash, and didn’t have time to get French Francs or traveller’s cheques”. That time, she leaned forward and kissed him gently on the cheek. He felt a buzz from that, and paid up quite happily.

Sally slept soundly all night, her head in his lap.

But when they docked at seven the next morning, Adrian was exhausted.

On the way to Caen, Adrian saw a sign for Bayeux. “We could turn off, go to see the Tapestry. I have always wanted to see that”. Sally shook her head. “Nah, it’s a bit lame to be honest. Besides, I’ve seen it loads of times”. After driving for ninety minutes being directed by Sally, she told him to take the next left. A few miles on a much smaller road led them to the village of Buron. Indicating he should turn into a tiny lane on the right, Sally grinned. “Just up there, and we are at my uncle’s place”.

The bumpy, rutted road led to a rather large but exceedingly ramshackle farmhouse. Three tumbledown outbuildings formed a dusty courtyard, and he could see a man about sixty years old carrying a large rake. He was standing watching as the car stopped. Sally ran across and hugged the man, shouting out “Lucien” as he lifted her up. Then they engaged in a short conversation before Sally ran back to the car and opened the boot, hauling out her big rucksack..

Getting out of the car to join her and get his suitcase, he almost got his fingers caught as she slammed the lid. “So, shall we say three days? You can go and see theTapestry, have a look around Caen. It’s very historical in the old city. Pick me up when you’re ready, and we can head south. The Atlantic coast is nice, we could have a look at Biarritz, I’ve never been there”.

Adrian had no idea what to say. Her aunt was now standing in the doorway of the farmhouse, shaking flour off of her hands. He had just presumed he would be staying, and having to find a hotel hadn’t been mentioned.

His voice quivered a little as he controlled his emotions. “Three days then. Bye”.

Fortunately, Caen was only a couple of miles south, and the city had a large number of hotels. Adrian drove around until he found one with a car park, and managed to get a single room with a reasonable view of the damaged Norman castle. Wandering around to find somewhere to eat before a much-needed sleep, he eventually convinced himself that it was unrealistic to expect to have stayed with Sally’s uncle. They had family news to catch up on, and might well have not had enough room to accommodate him anyway. He was sure things would be more relaxed once they headed south in three day’s time.

Although he had been to France many times, most of those trips had been to Paris, and usually in organised small groups of students. Being on his own in the unfamiliar city of Caen wasn’t much fun, even though there was quite a bit to see and do. He decided not to drive back to Bayeux and see the Tapestry. That could wait for another time.

On the third day, he was at the farmhouse before ten. He sat in the car, studying a map he had bought the day before. To drive all the way to Biarritz would take around ten hours, allowing for a stop. If he drove all day, they could be there by around eight that night. Such a popular beach resort was bound to have some reasonably-priced small hotels, so he wasn’t concerned about finding a room when they got there.

Sally appeared in the doorway fifteen minutes later, kissing her aunt goodbye, then waving as she put her rucksack in the boot. She jumped into the passenger seat, and grinned at Adrian. “Biarritz, here we come!” As he turned the car round and headed back down the lane, she didn’t even ask him what he had been doing for the last three days.

Just over two hours later, they were approaching Tours. Sally had been napping, using her cardigan as a pillow. She sat up suddenly. “Can we stop at the next service area, Adey? I need a pee”. He nodded. “Okay, I should probably fill up with petrol anyway”.

As he filled the tank, Sally disappeared inside the main service area. There was a sign for a restaurant and shop, and the place was much larger than anything comparable in England, with more than a dozen pumps, and even a small workshop for repairs and tyres.

Twenty minutes later he saw her walking to the car, chatting animatedly wtih a tall man who seriously needed a shave and a haircut. He was also carrying a rucksack. Walking up to the open window, she turned to the man. “Put your bag in the back, there isn’t room in the boot”.

“Adey, this is Julien. He’s from Quebec, and I said we will give him a lift”.

Although he was French-Canadian, Julien didn’t speak French to them as they drove along. He didn’t speak English with an American accent either, as Adrian had heard from some Canadians he had met. No, he spoke English with a French accent, and the sound of him talking set Adrian’s teeth on edge. As well as that, he didn’t smell too good, as if he hadn’t washed himself or his clothes for some time. Winding down the window to let in some extra fresh air, Adrian tried to ignore the big man’s chatter.

“Yees, I hev been in France for sex months now, travelling in a cirque. I know such a great place. Let me show you. Waterfalls, rapids, boootiful woods.” Sally was keen. “Sounds great, where do we turn off?” Unable to hide the annoyance in his voice, Adrian snapped at her. “What about Biarritz? I thought that was OUR plan?” Julien didn’t seem to sense any atmosphere. “It’s the Jura, near the Suisse border. North of Lyon. We can turn off at Tours, head east in direction of Macon.” Sally yelled. “YES, let’s do it!”

As if Julien’s mix of langauges wasn’t irritating enough, Sally’s enthusiasm to follow his suggestion left Adrian’s face set in stone. He turned east at Tours though, hoping they would get shot of him somwehere in the Jura. Over five hours later, after consulting his map and filling up with petrol again, Adrian pulled into the village of Doucier, where Julien said they would find cheap accommodation at a campsite that had tents for hire.

Surprisingly, Julien produced some money to pay for the tent. It was already erected, and came with four sleeping mats, four collapsible chairs, and a small stove powered by a gas bottle. Some mismatched cups, glasses, and cutlery were in a wooden box in one corner. For Adrian, him and Sally sharing a tent with Julien was far from an ideal prospect, but as it had only been booked for three nights, and the weather was surprisingly good, he resolved to make the best of it.

Because it was late afternoon, the small shop on the site was sold out of almost everything. Seeking to raise Sally’s estimation of him, Adrian offered to drive back into the lakeside area of Doucier, where the site manager had suggested he might be able to buy food and drink for the night. Sally shouted after him. “Red wine, Adey. Don’t forget that!” The bakery was almost sold out, and he had to settle for three baguettes that felt far too hard. A small delicatessen proved to be a better find though, and he purchased a variety of cured meats and cheeses, along with two litres of cheap red wine.

When he got back, he noticed the long zip securing the front of the tent was closed. Presuming they had gone for a walk, Adrian placed the car keys and shopping on the ground, then pulled the zip up. What he saw inside made him stagger backwards in surprise. Julien’s naked arse, his filthy trousers around his ankles, and Sally’s bare legs wrapped around his back. Unconcerned by his obvious presence, they seemed determined to finish what they were doing. Adrian turned and ran for all he was worth, a rage building inside.

With no idea where he was going, he found himself on some rocks high above a fast-flowing stream, and sat down heavily on one, his chest heaving and face hot and flushed.

It was dark by the time they found him. Sally walked forward, her tone flat. “God, Adrian, you had us worried. What the hell was all that about? You need to be cool man. It’s not as if you and me were a thing. Come on, it’s just sex, no big deal”. Adrian stood up. He had made up his mind to tell her to clear off, and go her way with Julien. He would go back to Normandy, and see the Bayeux Tapestry before returning to England. But as he turned to tell her that, Julien started laughing. “Hell, Sally. I betting heez never done it”.

Arms and legs flailing, Adrian attacked the grinning oaf, punching and kicking for all he was worth. But it was a lost cause. Not only had Adrian never had a fight in his life, the other man was a head taller, and twice as broad. After laughing at the puny Englishman’s efforts for a few moments, Julien pulled back his right arm and landed a massive punch on his opponent’s jaw.

It was harder than he had meant to punch though. Adrian staggered back, fell heavily onto the rock where he had been sitting, and then slid off into the abyss below.

Grabbing Sally’s arm, the Canadian screamed at her. “Let’s get out of here!”

Edgar Lexham was cutting the extensive grass at the front of his house as the police car stopped across his driveway. When he saw the officer walking in his direction, he turned off the noisy petrol engine of the mower. “Can I help you, officer?” The policeman consulted his notebook. “Does an Adrian Lexham live here, sir? It is shown as his address on the registration of a green Consul Cortina car”. Edgar nodded. “He’s my son, so this is his home address, but he is currently touring France and Spain in that car. Is something wrong? You had better come inside”.

Declining the offer of a cup of tea and a seat in a comfortable armchair, the policeman remained standing. “We have had a report from the police in Switzerland, sir. It appears that this car was left parked close to the main railway station at Geneva”. He looked at his notes again. “The station is called Cornavin, and the car was towed away for being illegally parked. Strangely, the keys were in the ignition, and the Swiss police found a map and some travellers cheques on the floor inside. This information is a couple of days old, but they want to know what to do about the car. Do you have any idea how you might contact your son, sir?”

“I have no idea where he might be. To be honest, we had words before he left. He turned down a perfectly good job, bought that car, and said he was going travelling in Europe for a year, starting in France and Spain. He didn’t tell me where, specifically. Did the Swiss police check the hotels in the area? The car might well have broken down, leaving him no option but to book into a hotel”. The policeman shrugged. “There wasn’t a lot of detail, sir. They mainly want to know about when the car is going to be collected. Apparently, there is a substantial fine to pay, and a bill for towing and storage”.

Shaking his head, Edgar leaned forward in his chair. “It looks like I am going to have to pay up, doesn’t it? How the hell I am supposed to get a car back from Switzerland, I don’t know, but if you have the contact details, I will phone them and arrange something. At least I can pay the fine and fees”. The policeman closed his notebook after reading out the details for Edgar to write down. “I will leave it with you then sir, good day to you”.

In a seedy hotel room in the even seedier district of Sankt Pauli, Sally was counting the remaining money. She should have known better than to trust Julien. He had only hung around for one night after they had arrived in Hamburg. When he had driven the car across the Swiss border to Geneva, it had seemed like a good idea. Then he said they had to get a train to Paris, before transferring onto a train to Germany. He claimed he knew Hamburg well, and they could disappear there. He had booked and paid for the room in the awful hotel, where the other guests all seemed to be prostitutes. Then the next day, he was gone, taking most of Adrian’s French Francs that they hadn’t changed up yet.

She didn’t even know his surname.

For once in her life, Sally Brooks was completely out of her depth. She had less than seventy pounds to her name, and for all she knew, she might be wanted by the police. One thing was for sure, Adrian could never have survived that fall.

Her best guess was that Julien had got on a ship. Maybe back to Canada, but he could have gone anywhere. That huge port city was an international shipping destination, and a big man like him could easily have signed on to do some manual job on board a cargo vessel.

Adrian’s body showed up in the lake at Doucier exactly one week after he had fallen from the rocks. The fast flowing stream had washed it into the lake that night, but into an area where few tourists or locals ever ventured. A recent rainstorm had raised the level of the water, and his battered, floating corpse was spotted by someone flying low in a private aircraft.

When Edgar Lexham saw the police car stop outside his house that evening, he wondered why. After all, he had arranged to pay the fine and fees.

There were two officers this time, Edgar noticed, and one of them was female. “Is this about the car again?” The male policeman didn’t answer the question. “Could we come inside please, sir. Is your wife at home by any chance?”

Edgar and Milly listened to them without interruption, too shocked to take in the enormity of what they were saying. When he realised they had stopped talking, Edgar thought he had better say something. “An accident, you say? Probably a fall from a height with fatal injuries? Are they sure it is Adrian?” The policeman wondered how to phrase his reply.

“All we can say is that they have found the body of a young man in a lake. Inside his jacket pocket was the passport of Adrian Edgar Lexham. There was also a wallet in the inside pocket containing a driving licence in the same name, and around seven pounds in French Francs. His clothes appear to be British, by the labels. This is a French police enquiry, and technically unrelated to your son’s car, though we made that connection of course. It is suspected that someone stole his car from where he fell, and drove it to Geneva, but that was probably after he had fallen, and the car found by chance with the keys inside. I regret to tell you that someone has to travel to France and make a formal identification”.

Milly Lexham finally broke down, and began to sob. The young policewoman did her best to comfort her, and suggested going through to the kitchen and making some tea.

Thinking for a moment, Edgar made a decision. “My brother will drive me there, and then we can continue on to Geneva and collect Adrian’s car. I’m sure it is him, unless someone stole his wallet and passport. But to be honest that is unlikely, he was most careful about such things. Please write down all the details for me, and we will get a ferry tomorrow from Dover”.

When the police officers had left, and Milly was lying down on the bed after taking two aspirins, Edgar rang his younger brother. “Malcolm, I have to ask a favour. Adrian has died in France, an accident of some sort. I have to go there and arrange for his body to be returned, then collect his car from Geneva. Can you pick me up in the morning and drive me down to Dover to get a ferry? It’s going to take a couple of days, I’m afraid”. He knew his brother would help, and have no trouble getting time off. He owned his own haulage company, and could leave the manager in charge.

They had to drive to Macon, a larger town where Adrian’s body had been taken after it had been examined, and was now stored in the mortuary of a small hospital there. It was a drive of over six hours from Calais, so the brothers stopped the night in a hotel and went to see the police the next morning.

The identity confirmation was witnessed by a chubby policeman who spoke no English. Fortunately, they had found a doctor who spoke English well, and he told Edgar he had to sign some documents, and then the body could be released for transport back to England. Edgar thanked the doctor. “Please tell the police officer I will arrange this with a funeral director in England, and have my son collected as soon as possible”.

Back at the hotel to collect their things and check out, Malcolm phoned his manager in England, instructing him to contact Fayers in Kings Lynn. That undertaker could arrange to bring Adrian home. When he had the manager repeat everything back to him, Malcolm seemed happy that it would be done right. “Tell Fayers to send me their bill, I will sort it out with my brother later”.

They drove to Geneva, arriving at lunchtime, and finding a hotel. As they ate lunch, Malcolm looked across the table at his brother. Edgar had been unusually calm throughout, and was dealing with it all as if it happened every day. “Ed, why don’t we relax this afternoon and sort the car out tomorrow? It’s a Seven hour drive to Calais, then we have to wait for a ferry spot. One more day in the car pound won’t make any difference”.

After paying more charges, and having trouble making themselves understood at the car pound, they finally walked up to the car just after eleven the next morning. Malcom whistled, and shook his head. “Why are you even bothering to take this home, Ed? It’s hardly worth what it’s already cost in fines and fees, and now you have to drive it hundreds of miles”. His brother shrugged.

“Because it’s all we have left of him, I suppose”.

Billy Eustace.

When he got the car back to his house near Kings Lynn, Edgar Lexham reversed it under the carport that was over the gap between the house and garage. From one of the garden sheds, he brought out a heavy black tarpaulin, and covered the car, weighting down the corners of the cover with some old bricks. Then he went inside, to talk to his wife.

William Eustace liked to be called Billy. He lived in a caravan behind a closed-down petrol station on the Sandringham Road. It was the only home he had ever known, and this was the first place he had moved it to since his daddy had died. Another caravan was less than ten feet from his, and that belonged to Oliver. He was like an uncle to Billy, though not actually related by blood. But since his old friend Jed had died, Oliver had looked out for Jed’s son.

Oliver was getting old, and in that May of nineteen seventy-three when Billy turned twenty-one, he thought it was time he started to fend for himself.

“You can use my Land Rover pickup, and take that motor mower out back. There are the shears for hedges, and my box of tools too. What you do is drive around some nice streets. Look for big houses where older people live, or bungalows. Old people start to need help with gardens and lawns and such, odd jobs too. You knock on the door and offer to do the job for cash. If they use you, write down the details in a notebook, and book them for the next time you are in the area. You can get started tomorrow, and I will rely on you to pay me a fair cut boy”.

The village of Clenchwarton was Billy’s first destination. He soon found that people didn’t much care for being told that their lawn needed mowing, or the hedge was due a trim. Some of them were openly hostile. “Clear off! I won’t have any gipsy on my property”. Billy wanted to tell the man he wasn’t a pikey, but that might cause a commotion. So he moved on to Terrington St Clement, where an old lady accepted his price to mow her lawns, front and back. She even gave him a glass of lemon squash and some Shortie biscuits. “You look hot young man, and you haven’t stopped for lunch”.

His last stop that day was on the way back, at Walpole St Andrew. He tried the vicarage next to the old church, and the vicar said he could cut the grass around the gravestones in the churchyard. “Make sure it’s neat and tidy, mind. No pay until you are finished, and I have looked it over”. Later, the vicar appeared as Billy was almost finished. “I used to have a parishoner who did this for free, but he had a stroke at Christmas. You can come next month and do it again, as long as the price is the same”.

Billy wrote that down in his little notebook, with the date underlined.

That night, Oliver seemed pleased. “Well you won’t be breaking the bank just yet, but it’s a fair start. Go west tomorrow, try Bawsey. There’s some nice houses down by Bawsey Lakes, boy. Then if you don’t get nothing, you can move on to Gayton. It’s a bigger village and there’s more people living there”.

The houses in Bawsey were a bit spread out, and there was no reply from the first couple he tried. The third one had a big lawn at the front, and it was full of wildflowers and weeds. Backing the land Rover into the driveway, he smoothed down his hair and knocked on the door. The woman who answered looked timid, and peered around the door looking ready to slam it. Billy gave her his best smile.

“Morning lady. I do gardening and odd jobs at a fair price for cash. I see your front lawn could do with attention, and I’m here now with the necessary. Neat and tidy work, and no pay until you are happy”.

She didn’t reply. Instead, she turned in the doorway and shouted down the hall.

“Edgar, can you come and deal with this?”

Billy watched the man walk towards the door. He was hobbling, using an elbow crutch on one side, and a walking stick on the other. By the time he stood next to his wife, he seemed to be breathless. Milly turned to her husband. “He is offering to cut the grass, and has his own equipment. I will let you decide”. With that, she walked back into the house, with no acknowledgement to Billy.

After catching his breath, the man spoke. “Mowing the lawn? Yes, it could do with that, front and back”. Billy smiled. “A fair price mister, and I can do other jobs too, anything you need doing I can turn my hand to. Cash only, mind. No cheques”. Edgar looked him up and down. He was about the same age as Adrian had been when he died, but his bright eyes and good physique made him look very different. “Okay, you can cut the grass now, and then we will talk about other jobs when I see how you work”.

Watching from the kitchen window, Edgar saw the man working tidily, and without let up. He stacked the cuttings on the compost pile at the far end of the garden, and produced some shears to trim the borders carefully. He had done a similar job at the front, carrying the cuttings through the side gate, past the dusty tarpaulin covering Adrian’s car. When he was finished, Billy tapped respectfully on the kitchen door, and waited patiently until the man arrived with the money. As he handed over the cash, Edgar looked pleased. “I have some other things that need doing. Can you clear guttering? How about painting fences? As you can see, there are lots of panels on both sides that need painting”.

Although he wanted the work, Billy was hesitant. “I can do all that mister, trouble is I don’t have no ladder for the guttering”. Edgar smiled. “There is a treble extension ladder in the garage, you can use that. Shall we say eight tomorrow morning to get started? What is your name by the way, young man?” Happy to get the work, Billy beamed back at him.

“Ah, just call me Billy”.

Five days later, and Billy had worked four days at the Lexham house. The man had said to call him Edgar, and the lady brought him a mug of tea and a ham sandwich mid-morning. He had done the guttering, and finished the first coat on the fences, using green paint from one of the sheds in the garden. Edgar let him use the downstairs toilet when he needed, and he could wash his hands there when he had finished. The only thing he wasn’t keen on was that the man would spend most of the day watching him work, standing at one of the windows that overlooked whatever he was doing.

But he was paid in cash every day, no argument, and there was talk of painting the sheds, and rearranging the flower beds too, so he didn’t say anything.

On the Wednesday of the second week, a taxi showed up. As Edgar and his wife went out the kitchen door, he turned and called to Billy. “We won’t be long. The kitchen door is open if you want to make a cup of tea or use the toilet”. That was impressive. They trusted him alone in the house.

When they got back, it was almost finishing time, and they had been away longer than he had expected. Edgar came out to watch as he cleared up for the day. Handing over the daily pay, he seemed to be thinking about saying something. Then he said it.

“I am very pleased with your work. I will have more, if you are free to do it. The woodwork around the windows needs rubbing down and repainting, all the sheds need that too. In fact, I could probably employ you exclusively on a short-term basis for a few months, if that suits you”. Billy grinned. “Suits me just fine, Edgar. I like working here. You pay me every day, and treat me right too. Can’t ask for more”. Edgar rested his walking stick against a fence panel, and put his hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“Truth is, I haven’t got that long. Months, not years. Bone cancer, and it’s spreading, so they told me today. I need to get the whole place in good condition to be able to sell it. My wife won’t want to live in this big house alone after I’ve gone. So I’m counting on you, Billy”.

As he drove home in the old Land Rover, Billy felt really sad for the man.

When Billy got back to his caravan that night, he went over to see Oliver and give him some money. To his delight, Mitzi was there. She flung her arms around him, and kissed him passionately. Oliver pocketed his cash, and winked. “Best you two go to your caravan, boy. Been a while, and you have some catching up to do. There’s two large pork pies there you can take for your tea”.

Mitzi was older than Billy, but they had been sweethearts since he was sixteen. He didn’t mind that she was twelve years older, though he had got angry when some mentioned that she was his cousin. She was the daughter of his dad’s cousin right enough, but as far as he was concerned, that didn’t make her family. Not close family, anyay.

She worked on the funfair, anything from the Hook-A-Duck stall, to standing in for the fortune teller. The fair travelled around, and had just arrived near Kings Lynn for the weekend. Mizi wasted no time. Producing a quart of beer from a carrier bag and nodding at the pork pies, she leered at him. “Get this down us, then we can get to bed”. Later that night, she curled up to him in the dark. “I was hoping you might come and see me when we was working near Lincoln. It’s not that far from here”. Billy shrugged. “You know I’ve only got use of Oliver’s old Land Rover, and besides, I’ve got a regular job now, nice people too”.

Stroking his chest, Mitzi sounded like she was purring. “Old Jed is coming to pick me up in the morning. He said he has work for you on the fair. You can do the dodgems, Jed says, good money in that. Then you could bring your caravan along. Jed will tow it for you with his lorry. We could live together on the road, then winter down near Gloucester, get work in the chicken factory”. Billy nodded. “Sounds good, Mitzi love. Maybe next season, when I finish working for Edgar”.

Some heavy showers interrupted Billy’s work outside the following week, so Edgar found him things to do inside. He cleaned the windows, fixed a couple of cupboard doors that were hanging wrong, and regrouted the tiling in the family bathroom upstairs. The lady still didn’t say much to him, but she never missed bringing him that sandwich and tea. When it stopped raining, it was suggested that he might renew the corrugated plastic roof on the carport. “If you order the new plastic sheeting, I can do that, Edgar. But we will have to move the car that’s under it for me to get proper access”.

Edgar shook his head. “That might be a problem. It has stood there undercover for years now. It was my son’s car. He died. I expect the tyres are flat, and the battery dead too. It is at least ten years old now, and not been driven since I parked it under there”. Billy wasn’t put off. “Tell you what, I will take the battery home with me and put it on charge all night. My friend Oliver has a charger, and a foot pump too. There’s engine oil as well, we use it for the Land Rover. When I come back tomorrow, I will change the oil, connect the battery, pump up the tyres, and see if she starts”.

Underneath the tarpaulin, the car was surprisingly clean. But Edgar had been right about the flat tyres, and the dead battery. Billy took out the battery, admiring the car as he did so. “That’s a nice car, Edgar. Love the colour too, and it’s hardly done much miles”. Edgar nodded. “I once drove it all the way back from Switzerland, and I have to say it was a good runner. Can’t drive anymore now, with my legs in this state. I had to sell my own car three months ago”.

The next morning, Billy changed the oil, draining the sticky stuff from the sump into an old washing up bowl that Edgar gave him. Then he pumped up the tyres using Oliver’s huge foot pump, before connecting the fully charged battery. Edgar handed him the key, and Billy sat in the driving seat. He turned and grinned. “Fingers crossed, Edgar”.

It started first time.

Billy smiled as he gently revved the engine. “Why don’t you jump in, Edgar? I will give you a turn round the block, bring back some memories for you”. Edgar shook his head. “Thanks all the same, but it’s a mission for me to get in and out of a car these days. Just the taxi journey to the doctor or a hospital appointment wears me out”. Switching off the engine, Billy handed the keys back. “Tell you what, next time I’m here I will wash and polish her after I finish work. No charge, okay?” Then he carefully replaced the tarpaulin.

Back in the house, Edgar found his wife watching through the side window. “You might just as well sell that car now, or at least keep it in the garage now that’s empty. There doesn’t seem to be any point in keeping it when you can’t drive. And Billy is not our son, Edgar. He’s nothing like him”. When he didn’t reply, Milly went into the kitchen to prepare some vegetables.

Other than cutting the grass of the old lady in Terrington St Clement and keeping his word to the vicar in Walpole St Andrew to cut the grass in the graveyard, Billy worked on the Lexham house for the next eight weeks. As well as changing the garden layout and painting all the window frames, he worked inside too, painting the bannisters on the stairs, laying new flooring in the bathroom, and clearing out a lot of stuff from the loft. Then one Monday morning, he arrived to find a large ‘FOR SALE’ sign on the front lawn. Milly Lexham answered the door.

“My husband is in bed, Billy. He wants you to go up and see him. It’s the front bedroom, the door is open”. Wiping his dusty boots on the doormat, Billy walked upstairs as requested. Edgar didn’t look too good. His skin had a waxy appearance, and there was a big oxygen cylinder next to the bed. “Come in Billy, sit on the end of the bed”. He reached over and picked up a large brown envelope. “The work here is finished now, and the house is on the market. Our agent is expecting a quick sale, as we are asking a very fair price. I wanted to thank you for all you have done, and give you this”.

Opening the metal clip securing the envelope, he tipped out the contents on the bed. There was a registration log book for the car, two sets of keys for it, and one hundred pounds in ten pound notes. Edgar wheezed as he spoke again. “You will need to tax it and insure it of course, but the car is yours. A gift from my wife and I for all your hard work. And the extra money is a bonus to make sure you have enough to get the car legal. I doubt I will ever see you again, so I would like to take this opportunity to wish you well, and hope that you have a good life”.

I wasn’t often that Billy got emotional, but he fought back some tears as he put the things back in the envelope. He stood up, and extended his hand. “You’re a true gentleman, Edgar, and I thank you for the respect you have shown me, and your kindness of the gift of the car and money. I will go and get old Oliver, so he can drive the Land Rover back when I take the car”. Afraid he might cry in front of Edgar, he sniffed loudly, and took his leave. As he was opening the front door, Milly Lexham appeared, holding a brown paper bag. “Sorry there is no work today or in the future, but here’s your lunch anyway”.

Tears rolled slowly down the young man’s face. One heavy tear from each of his eyes.

Oliver was impressed with the gifts, and happy to drive Billy back to collect the Cortina. Once the tarpaulin was removed, he whistled. “She’s a beauty, right enough boy”.

As the engine started, Billy nodded. “And a good runner too. See you back at home”.

That night as they sat drinking some cider, Oliver chuckled.

“Don’t s’pose you mentioned to him that you don’t have no driving licence?”

With no more work at the Lexham house, Billy had to go back to his door-knocking. He had to go further afield to find work, as far east as Castle Acre, and south to Downham Market too. When that dried up, he tried going further west into Lincolnshire, across to Spalding and Stamford. The jobs were not regular though, and running the old Land Rover around cost money in petrol and maintenance. After counting up all his remaining cash one night, he wandered over to talk to Oliver.

“Reckon I will have to go and find Mitzi, go along with her idea of working in the chicken factory this coming winter, then the funfair during the season. You gonna be all right here, Oliver? You could come along you know, I’m sure Jed will find something for you”. Oliver was rolling a cigarette, and didn’t reply until he had finished. “Don’t you worry about old Oliver now, son. You’re young, and got to make your way in the world. I know someone in Castle Rising who can fit a tow bar on that new car of yours. He owes me a favour, and I’m calling it in. No cost to you, boy”.

There was talk that Oliver was rich, but if that was true, Billy had never seen any evidence of it. He did have a cash box that he kept under the sink in his caravan, and wore the key on a leather lace around his neck. Maybe he was right? He had to make his on way in the world. Oliver must be over seventy, and hopefully had enough put away to get by. He shrugged. “Okay then, Oliver. If he can fit the towbar, I best be on my way to Gloucester when it’s done”.

With the towbar fitted and the caravan hooked up, the farewell was not an emotional affair. Billy shuffled his feet. “I’ll see you then, Oliver”. Oliver just smiled. “You take care boy, and watch out for those fairground people. Them’s not always straight”.

It was a long drive to Gloucester, but Billy had towed a caravan before, and had a good idea where to find Mitzi and the winter camp of the fairground. She was delighted to see him, and got her stuff from old Valeria’s caravan, moving in immediately. “We can drive to the chicken factory in your new car tomorrow, Billy love. They are sure to take us on, depend on us they do, for the Christmas rush. Them’s only pay weekly though, so I hope you’ve got enough to get by”.

Two days later, Billy was working ten hours a day, six days a week. His job was to hook supposedly unconscious chickens onto a plucking machine, before their naked bodies had their throats cut when passing under some razor-sharp blades. He didn’t care that many of them were still wide awake. They were only chickens, after all. Mitzi was on the packing team, so he only saw her before and after work. They had chicken for dinner every single night, eating birds rejected by the factory, and dumped in big containers out back. Everyone took one, sometimes two.

Billy didn’t mind. Eating meat seven days a week free of charge was not to be sniffed at.

The winter was harsh, but the pay was good. They had gas for cooking and light, fuel for the fire, and plenty of beer money. On their Sundays off, Billy sometimes took Mitzi for a drive. They went to Tewkesbury, over the Malvern Hills, and even into the Wye Valley. Mitzi loved her days out, and she would bring a picnic, and some cider. Despite the winter weather, they could often eat outside, sitting by the car on an old travel rug. Alhough Billy hated the factory and the boring, repetitive work, he knew it made sense to earn regular money before next spring. They put away as much as they could, ready for the Easter start to the fairground season.

Mitzi was acting superior though. “I told Jed I don’t want you on the dodgems, too much flirting with them young girls. He reckons you can run the big wheel, and I can take the money in the ticket box. That way, we would be like a couple, you know. Running the big wheel, with you putting them in the cars, and me taking the money”. As she was talking that night, Mitzi was slowly undressing. Billy looked at her in the light from the gas mantle, her body rippling.

“Sounds good to me, Mitzi love”.

Mitzi and Billy left the factory five days before Easter. They had to get up to Durham, where Jed was running his first funfair of the season over the Bank Holiday weekend. On the long drive, Mitzi was outlining her plans for the coming summer. “Reckon you’re of an age to think about us getting wed now, Billy. If we are gonna have kids, there’s no time to waste, bearing in mind I’m not as young as I was. P’raps we can do a season on the big wheel, then tie the knot after, what do you say?”

He turned and smiled. “Sounds good to me, Mitzi love. Be nice to have a little one along on our travels”.

Despite the usual rain over Easter, the funfair did well. Billy soon got the hang of helping Jed and his sons get the big wheel up and running, then dismantling it again before they moved on to the next town. Mitzi took the money in the little booth outside, and before they started each day, she toured the other caravans telling all her friends that Billy had asked her to marry him.

That always made him smile, but he didn’t bother to correct her.

The days on the fair were long, and there was a lot of driving between the towns where Jed had arranged to set up. By the time the August Bank Holiday was approaching, they were back near Lincoln, in one of the regular spots taken by Jed’s fair.

Sitting outside the caravan on the day before set-up, Mitzi was grilling some sausages on a rack over a fire in an old metal barrel. “Billy darling, don’t you think it’s time we got rid of the car? It seems a waste of money to put petrol in it, buy new tyres and such. Jed is still happy to tow our ‘van with his lorry, and there is room for us in the front. If you sold it, we would have enough to buy a new ‘van. Our one is so old”.

Billy grinned. “I know, I was born in it, and my dad bought it when he got married. It was old even then. I like the car well enough, but I will think about selling it at the end of the season, if Jed is happy to tow us back to Gloucester after”. Mitzi nodded, then swallowed half a sausage. “He said he will, we just have to give him some petrol money. But why wait? We could put a sign in the window, and park the car where it will get noticed”.

The next morning, Mitzi went off into the camp, and came back holding a big piece of cardboard. “I got Madame Lucretia to write it up nice for us, look”. She held up the sign, and Billy was impressed. It was written up beautifully, in fancy writing that he didn’t know was called italics.

‘CAR FOR SALE. FAIR PRICE. ASK AT THE BIG WHEEL’.

She was pleased that Billy was happy with it. “How much are you going to ask for the car love?” He shrugged. “Reckon I will let them make me an offer, see how much they say”.

They had a four-day spot at Lincoln, and after two days nobody had asked about the car. On the Sunday, a man came up to the booth holding the hand of a little girl. Mitzi smiled. “Two, is it?” The man shook his head. “No, we are not going on, I wanted to ask about the car”. Mitzi leaned out and shouted. “Billy, get Jethro to cover you, this man wants to talk about the car!” When Jethro came to do the big wheel, Billy wiped his oily hands on a rag and walked over.

The man looked serious.

“That’s a sixty-three Consul Cortina, have you had it long?” Billy was cagey. “Not that long, I got it from someone I used to work for, s’pose you might say he was my boss. She’s a good runner, and the mileage is genuine. I’ll even throw in the tow bar if you like”. He produced the keys. “Let’s go and look at it, and I will get it running for you”.

When it started up first time, the man nodded, looking satisfied. The little girl looked bored as he went over the car with a fine tooth comb. “This spare has never been on?” Billy shook his head. “Never”. The man closed the boot lid. “How much do you want for it?”. Billy was ready. “Make me an offer, see if it’s close”. Rubbing his chin, the man mumbled. “I was thinking two hundred”. Shaking his head, Billy replied. “And I was thinking two-sixty”. Extending his right hand, the man grinned. “Shake on two twenty-five, and I will bring you the cash tomorrow at ten”. Billy took the hand.

“Done”.

Tony Barrett.

He handed over the cash as agreed, and the pikey boy gave him both sets of keys and the log book. Knowing full well it was unlikely to be registered to him, Tony didn’t even bother to ask. He would place the car on his insurance when the office opened on Tuesday. Luckily, Kevin from work had been free to run him over to the funfair, so once the Cortina started up, he called over to his colleague. “Thanks, Kev, see you at work”. The petrol gauge was still showing half full, so that was a bonus.

Anthony Barrett was a collector, and his choice was very specific. He collected Ford Cortina cars. This mainly came from his experience of working on them in his job at Sleaford Ford, where he had worked since leaving school and starting as an apprentice. Now thirty-seven years old, he was the senior mechanic, known to everyone as ‘Foreman Tony’. For some time, he had been trying to buy the early Consul Cortina model. He already had a sixty-six Cortina GT, a Mark 2 1600E from nineteen seventy, and a Mark 3 1600 GXL that was only a year old, and used as the family car. He was very happy with his new find. It was in great condition, and he would have paid a lot more for it, if that boy had known what he was selling.

His wife Annie had put up with his tinkering on cars since their first date. The old Anglia had broken down on the way to taking her home, and Tony had rolled up his sleeves and disappeared under the bonnet for almost an hour while she sat shivering in the passenger seat. Now they lived in something resembling a car dealership, with a row of cars along the side of their council house in Sleaford, and a massive shed at the end of the driveway that looked like a fully-equipped workshop. But Annnie counted her blessings. Tony was a good man. He didn’t drink or smoke, didn’t go to football matches, or play darts with his mates down the pub. He was also a good dad to Melanie, even if it was no secret he would have preferred a son to a daughter.

There wasn’t much money left for holidays or luxuries, as it all went on the cars. Tony told her that one day they would be worth a lot of money to collectors, but she doubted he could ever bear to part with any of them. And now he had another one. Still, she had gone back to work once Melanie had started school, and her job as a school secretary at the secondary modern meant she didn’t have to pay for childcare in the holidays. It hadn’t been an easy birth seven years ago, and when she had talked about having another baby, Tony had shaken his head. “Not worth the chance of losing you, sweetheart”.

The first job was to get the ugly towbar off, then fill and rub down the holes it left, ready for priming and repainting. Then Tony fitted the badge bar and placed his vintage AA badge in position on it. He wanted to get the car looking good for the Cortina Owner’s Club Rally in October. Ron Markham had a Consul version, but it was factory white, and a bit faded. This dark green beauty was sure to put Ron’s nose out of joint. Annie was used to keeping his dinner warm. She had given up going out to call him in when it was ready, knowing he would only appear when he had finished whatever he was doing.

So she dished up for her and Melanie. Then before her daughter’s bedtime, she helped her with placing the new furniture in the doll’s house that Tony had made for her fifth birthday.

When he finally turned up in the kitchen, Annie rescued his dinner from the oven as he washed his hands at the sink. “It’s not very appetising, love. But it’s been warmed up for so long now”. Tony smiled. “Not to worry, sweetheart, I’ll just go up and kiss Mel goodnight, then I’ll eat it”.

Over the next nine years, Tony managed to acquire two more Cortinas One was an early Lotus-engined model, and the other a sixty-eight Mark 2 GT. He only stopped when he ran out of room to park them on the driveway and in the workshop.

But his favourite was still the green Consul version, and he had worked on that to bring it back to better than original condition. It had won two ribbons and a badge at car shows already, and he was preparing it to for its twenty-year anniversary that summer.

Melanie had done well at school. She had passed seven O-levels, and was planning to stay on for her A-levels next term. Tony and Annie talked about the possibility of her going on to university. They were both excited. Nobody in either of their families had ever been to university. Annie was talking quietly in the kitchen. “She’s mentioned that she might like to do teacher training too, and teach English. She might even be able to get a job at the school where I work. Imagine that, Tony”.

For his part, Tony had started to teach his daughter to drive. She had got her provisional licence just after her seventeenth birthday, and he was taking her out in the old Mark 3 that he still used as the main family car. He would smile as he saw her natural ability behind the wheel, and marvel at how grown up she had become. All those years watching him work on cars and being dragged around to car shows seemed to have paid off.

She passed her test first time, and to celebrate Tony sold the troublesome Lotus Cortina and bought her a nice little Fiesta that had come in as a part exchange at work. It was bright yellow, with a sporty black stripe down each side, and the eleven-hundred engine was small enough to get her on the insurance at a reasonable price. Mel loved that car, and drove her friends around in it during that summer holiday.

Then just to put the icing on the cake that year, Tony’s Consul Cortina won the gold ribbon at Donnington Car show. The twenty-year old car looked like it had just come off the production line, and the head judge described it as ‘flawless’.

The next year, Melanie got all three A-levels, and achieved a place at Hull university to study English. As that was nearly seventy miles away from home, she decided to live in the student accommodation there, and they packed up the Fiesta with her clothes, and all she would need for that first term.

Lots of tears were shed when they left her there that day, mostly by Annie. Tony had followed the Fiesta up there in his Mark 3, as Annie wanted to settle their daughter in to her room in the halls. But Mel didn’t want all the fuss, and as soon as her stuff was in the room, she told them to go home. “I’ll be fine, mum. There are lots of first-years like me, and we have a meet-and-greet later”. Assuring Annie that she would eat properly, and be careful of randy boys, she waved them off from the car park. All the way home Annie was going on about how empty the house would seem without Melanie.

That autumn, Annie decided she needed to get out more. With a friend from work, she started to go to Weight Watchers meetings, just for something to do. She wasn’t even that heavy, but she enjoyed the couple of hours away from home as she knew Tony would always be working on one car or another. Then they signed up for an aerobics class that was run on Thursday evenings at the church hall, and Tony found himself heating up his own dinner a couple of nights a week.

Ford had stopped making the Cortina two years earlier, and had replaced it with the Sierra, a car that Tony hated. He bought one of the last Mark 5 Cortinas, a two-year old Crusader special editon with a smooth two-litre engine. He sold the Mark 3 GXL to help pay for it, and even Annie liked it. She teased Tony though.

“They don’t make the Cortina anymore? What will you do when these get too old, love? You will have to find a new car to collect”. He was polishing the green Consul when she said that as she brought him out a cup of tea. He just nodded at the old car.

“Reckon I will just keep this one. She’s still a good runner”.

Melanie got her degree, and a boyfriend too. Not another student, which Annie had once been worried about, but a police officer she met at a night out in Lincoln when she was home for the last summer holiday before graduation.

It must have been fate, Tony thought. Scott was another car nut, and drove a new model Golf GTI. But he also had an earlier version of the same car that he kept under a cover outside, with the intention of restoring it to new condition. Tony teased him about the popular hatchback. “It’s only for boy-racers, Scott. You will need a family car one day”. He was five years older than Mel, and had a two-bed flat in Washingborough, east of the city.

Deciding to return home to take her teaching certificate, Mel was surprised at how independent her mum had got. “You should have learned to drive mum, then you wouldn’t be relying on taxis and buses”. Annie just grinned. “One car nut in this family is enough, love”.

For Tony’s fiftieth birthday that year, Annie bought him a pair of spotlights to fix to the front of his old Consul Cortina. She was a little concerned as he opened the present. “I hope I got the right ones, love”. He held them up, smiling. “Perfect, love. I will put them on the car when I get home from work”.

Scott didn’t hang around, asking Mel to marry him after six months going out together. He bought her a nice ring, and they talked about a wedding for the following year, once she had qualified as a teacher. Annie talked to Tony about it in his workshop one night. “We are going to have to find a fair bit of money for the wedding, love. You must promise not to buy any other cars, you really must”. He stood up and tried to look serious, but started chuckling. “Okay, I will sell the GT, I know someone who wants it, and that will pay for half the wedding. Mel and Scott are going to have to sort out their own honeymoon though”. Annie walked over and hugged him.

Excited about getting a job, Melanie spoke to them one night over dinner. “I have had two offers, and one is from the school in Washingborough. It’s going to make sense for me to move into Scott’s place, as there will be no travelling. Then I can sell my Fiesta and put the money towards the wedding or honeymoon. Will that be okay with you two? And we thought there’s no need for a big white wedding. Me and Scott are happy with the registry office and maybe a nice meal in a hotel”. Annie looked over at Tony and nodded.

He turned to their daughter. “Whatever you want to do is alright with us, love. Scott seems like a great bloke, and you will save everyone a lot of money by having a small wedding. But I’m still going to sell the GT, and give you two the money to spend on whatever you want”.

Mel had something else to say. “What I would really like is for you to take me to the wedding in the green Cortina, and then drive us to the hotel after. I think it will make the perfect wedding car, and be something different we will always remember”. Tony couldn’t have been happier. “I will buy some white ribbons, love”.

Annie wasn’t the sort to nag her daughter about having a baby, but she made no secret of wanting grandchildren. Not long after their fifth anniversary, Mel and Scott arrived with the news that she was expecting the following year. Annie couldn’t stop crying, and Tony even washed his hands and came inside from the workshop to talk about the news. “So, I’ll be a grandfather in ninety-three, will I? That’s the same year as the Consul will be thirty years old. You’ll have to make sure the baby doesn’t arrive on the same day as the Car Show”.

He sounded like he was teasing, but Mel knew he was serious.

Baby Angela missed the car show, arriving two weeks after Tony won the Thirty Year badge for Best Saloon Car.

Baby Angela Reynolds was a delight to both sets of grandparents. Tony would sit with her on his lap in the driving seat of the Consul and place her tiny hands on the steering wheel. “I hope I’m still around when you are seventeen, so I can teach you to drive and get you your first car”. When she was a year old, Annie left her job so that she could look after Angela and Melanie could go back to teaching.

Scott got promotion to Sergeant, and finally finished the work on the old VW GTI. But he sold it to put the money away toward the deposit on a three-bed house on a new development. Then he sold the other one, and bought a year-old Volvo estate car that had loads of room for all the baby stuff.

When he collected the Volvo, he remembered Tony telling him he would need a family car, and smiled.

At the annual Car Show that October, someone approached Tony and offered him six thousand pounds for the immaculate Consul Cortina. He had never thought about selling it, but that was a lot of money. Nonetheless, he shook his head. “Sorry mate, that’s not enough”.

Christmas that year was a delight. Little Angela was at the age that she could enjoy it, and Annie went overboard with the presents. On Boxing Day, Mel and Scott took the baby to see Scott’s parents, and Annie sat at the dinner table looking worried. “Tony, something’s not right. I didn’t want to say anything yesterday and spoil Christmas, but I don’t think Angela is developing properly. She’s nothing like Melanie was at her age, and her eyes seem funny to me”.

Tony trusted his wife completely, but he hadn’t noticed anything unusual about his granddaughter. “Give her time, love. Not every child develops in the same way, at the same speed, and I’m sure Mel would have said something if she was worried”.

As Angela’s second birthday approached, Annie wanted Tony to clear up the garden so she could have a party outside. Scott came over to help, and Mel sat inside with her mum and Angela as they talked about who to invite and what food to prepare.

Scott was using a strimmer to clear away weeds from the fence, but they both heard the scream above the noise of the machine.

Tony dropped the edging spade he was holding, and started to run up the long path to the house. But Scott overtook him, and was inside before Tony got close to the back door.

Melanie was hysterical, and Annie was white-faced, holding Angela tight to her body as the little girl convulsed uncontrollably. Scott took charge, walking over to the phone he rang for an ambulance, then took his daughter from Annie and placed her on the floor on her side, with cushions from the sofa either side of her head. Tony had no idea what to do, and felt helpless.

It seemed to take forever for the ambulance to arrive, but the two men were very professional, and seemed to know exactly what to do. In no time at all, Angela was in the back of the ambulance, with a still-sobbing Mel, and Scott looking intense.

Tony watched as they started to close the doors, then called out. “We will follow you down, see you in Casualty!”

He had always been a very careful driver, but that day he pushed his Mark 5 to the limit, and did some overtaking moves that would normally have had Annie shouting at him to slow down. But he had no chance of catching the ambulance, which was way ahead, its blue lights flashing, and sirens wailing. At the hospital in Lincoln, they had to stay in the waiting room because Mel and Scott were already in the cubicle with their daughter.

Annie finally snapped, and broke down in tears as Tony held her.

After what seemed like an eternity, Scott came out to talk to them. “They are going to transfer her to the Children’s Hospital in Nottingham for tests. We can go in the ambulance, but you should probably go home, as there’s every chance she will have to stay in”. He handed Annie a key.

“Can you go to our place, get us both a change of clothes just in case, and stuff for Angela too. I will ring you from Nottingham later, and let you know what’s happening”.

The phone call from Nottingham came late at night, but neither Annie nor Tony were asleep anyway. It was Scott on the phone, not Melanie. “Angela has been scanned, x-rayed, and examined from head to toe. They even had an eye doctor come and check on her. At least they managed to bring her round, after giving her something to calm the seizures. Mel is asleep with her now. They said we can stay in the room tonight, but I have to tell you Tony, the news is not good”.

Tony felt Annie’s eyes boring into the back of his head, and started to wonder how he would tell her bad news as Scott continued.

“One of the top doctors came to speak to us about fifteen minutes ago. She said they can see something on the scan, a small growth close to the optic nerve. She says it’s in a bad place for surgery. They want to transfer her to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London tomorrow, to see a specialist. I’m going to have to ask you to bring us those things down to London tomorrow, Tony. I will ring you when we know the ward name. Got to go now mate, I’m whacked out”.

Still holding the phone, the buzzing noise after Scott had hung up hadn’t even registered.

Eventually, Annie’s voice made him replace the receiver. “What is it Tony? Tell me! What is it?” When he slowly turned to her and she saw the tears in his eyes, her legs buckled at the knees, and he rushed forward and grabbed her.

The next morning, Tony rang his boss early to tell him he wouldn’t be in. Not that day, and maybe not for a while. When he had explained why, the man didn’t hesitate. “Kev can cover your work, Tony. Take as long as you need, and let me know if there’s anything I can do. I don’t know what else to say mate, but I am hoping for the best for your family”.

Although he had been to London a few times when he was younger, and driven around it to get to car shows more recently, the solid traffic in the centre was something he wasn’t used to. When he eventually found the hospital in a side street opposite Russell Square, there was nowhere to park the Mark 5. He asked a man wearing a porter’s uniform who was outside smoking a cigarette, and he directed him to a car park at nearby Brunswick Square. The man stubbed the cigarette out onto the pavement as he was talking. “Pricey, mind. Gonna cost you a fair bit to leave it in there”.

Leaving Annie waiting in the main reception with the things they had brought, Tony parked the car, put the ticket in his wallet, and ran back as fast as he could. When they got up to the ward, they had to wait in a family room until Melanie came in to see them. Annie hugged her daughter, and they both burst into tears. Once they had calmed down, Mel took them through to the room.

Scott looked shattered, unshaven, and dark circles around his eyes. His own parents hadn’t made the trip. His dad was a retired police inspector, and they had retired to a bungalow in Skegness when he had suffered a mild stroke. He could no longer drive, and Scott had insisted that he not try to make the complicated train journey to London.

Little Angela was sleeping, and a tube ran from a bandage around her arm up to a drip bottle on a stand. Annie stroked the toddler’s head, fighting back more tears. Mel drunk half a bottle of coca-cola before telling them the news.

“Ten minutes before you got here, the consultant came in and told us that it’s too dangerous to do any operation with Angela being so young. He thinks there could be brain damage if he does, and that she could be blind for life too. He wants to wait until she is older, and check on her again in six months. Meanwhile, she will have medicine to control the fits, and regular checks on her eyesight in Lincoln or Nottingham. They said we can go home tomorrow, so if you can get a room near here, you could take us home about eleven in the morning”.

Standing up, Tony was calm and reassuring. “Leave it to me, Mel love. I will find a hotel room somewhere”.

For the next six months, Tony felt as if life was on hold. Mel and Scott made countless trips back and forth to hospitals, even another stay down in London. Scott was back working some shifts as a police sergeant, but Mel had told her head teacher that she was unlikely to be coming back, and she should advertise her job at the school. Annie immersed herself in knitting things for Angela, and started to become obsessive about cleaning the house. As for Tony, he kept working on the old green Cortina, replacing most engine parts and renewing the chrome trim.

Anything to take their minds off what was happening with little Angela.

Then one Sunday evening, there was a knock at the door. Mel and Scott were there with Angela, and Scott’s parents were with them. Mel looked happy. “Sorry to arrive unannounced, dad, but we have something to discuss with you”. Annie made tea, and offered cake and sanwdiches. Mel held her hand. “Sit down, mum, we have to tell you something”.

Scott did the talking.

“On Friday, I took a call from a consultant in London. He had been discussing Angela’s case with a colleague. It seems that man has done similar operations to the one Angela needs. In fact, he has done it six times in the last two years, and has a hundred percent success rate. None of the children went blind, none got brain damage, and all are doing well. He is prepared to see us in Boston next month, and all being well he will operate the same week. We would have to stay there for a while after though, for follow ups and tests. I spoke to my Inspector, and he is prepared to recommend compassionate leave, and Mel is leaving the school anyway, so that isn’t an issue”.

Annie was delighted, and jumped out of her chair to hug her daughter.

Tom Reynolds nodded. “Yes, it’s great news. The best news. Trouble is, it costs a small fortune. We have not long moved to our place in Skegness, but I still have fifty thousand left from my police pension lump sum. Goes without saying they can have that. Then Scott tells me they are not going to buy the house on the new estate, so that frees up the deposit money they saved. But they are going to have to rent somewhere to stay in Boston, or pay for hotels. There might be more money needed for the extra tests later too. By our reckoning, they are still ten grand short”. The silence around the kitchen table was intense. Tony could see everyone looking at him.

Except Annie, who was looking at the floor.

“I will find that money, Tom. leave it to me”. Mel had tears running down her face. “Thanks, dad. And you mum”.

When they had gone, Annie was in a mood. “Why did you tell them that, Tony? You must know we only have a couple of thousand in the savings account. We would have had so much more if you hadn’t spent everything on those bloody cars”. She went up to bed without saying goodnight, and Tony took the bottle of Brandy out of the cupboard in the living room to pour himself his first stiff drink since last Christmas Day.

Early the following Saturday, Kevin showed up at the house. Annie had hardly spoken to Tony all week, and he had been sleeping in Mel’s old room to keep out of her way. He was wearing a jacket when he came downstairs, and carrying a folder. “We are going out for a while, love. Don’t worry about dinner, we will get some fish and chips or something later”. Still grumpy, Annie shrugged. “Do what you want, you always do”.

During the hundred and forty mile journey from Sleaford to Ascot, Kevin followed Tony’s Consul Cortina all the way. Tony had insisted on giving him the money to fill up the tank of his car, and thanked him for his help. At the famous Ascot Racecourse, the Classic Car Auction was about to start not long after they arrived. Tony went to the office and signed the necessary papers, handing over a set of keys so any potential buyers could see the car being driven around. Then him and Kevin watched as interested parties walked up and down inspecting the numerous cars parked in rows.

When it got to the green Consul Cortina, the auctioneer announced he had a commission bid already, and started the bidding at seven thousand five hundred. A few bidders in the crowd pushed it up quickly to almost ten thousand, then they all dropped out except one. He continued to bid against the commission bid until it got to eleven thousand eight hundred, then shook his head.

It was all over so quickly, Tony hardly realised when the hammer came down.

Back in the office of the auctioneer, the man smiled as he opened the cheque book. “My commission bidder had told me to go to fourteen. That is the best example of a sixty-three car I have ever seen, and I’ve been doing this a long time my friend”. He raised his pen, and Tony leaned forward. “Make the cheque out to Melanie Reynolds, please”. As they walked back to the car park, Kevin put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Well, your Angela’s going to get her operation, but I reckon you are gonna miss that old Consul”. Tony shrugged.

“It’s only a car, Kev. But it was a good runner”.

The End.

The Job: The Complete Story

This is all 34 parts of a fiction serial, in one complete story. It is a long read, at 26,310 words.
**It also contains some swearing**

Home from Spain.

London didn’t feel as cold as Alan remembered. Even after twenty-five years in Spain, he didn’t need more than a normal suit that morning. But the tie felt strange, and so did the heavy black shoes. Too long in shorts and a tee shirt, wearing flip-flops for most of the year. Gloria was holding his hand in the back of the car. Her hand felt cold, and he noticed the wrinkles around her neck. She was wearing too much perfume, and he fought back a sneeze.

He wouldn’t have come back if not for mum dying. His older sister had rung him and told him she was ill, but he hadn’t expected her to go that quickly.

Gloria was pleased to see her brother. Since Vince had died, she spent too much time alone.

Some of the locals showed up for the funeral, no doubt mainly for the free drinks and buffet grub at the pub later. Then there were the few remaining relatives, most of whom Alan hadn’t seen since he skipped. Young women came up to him and called him Alan, or cousin Alan, and he didn’t even know who they were.

But he recognised Old Reg, amazed that he was still alive. Reg shook his hand outside the crematorium. “Like to have a chat later, Alan. At the pub, okay?”

On the way back, Alan took in the changes. The area he had grown up in looked the same, but different. The shops were different, the people on the street looked different, and the traffic was bloody awful. Bus Lanes full of buses and taxis, bikes and motorbikes weaving in and out.

Then when they got to the pub, he couldn’t even smoke inside. At least standing outside allowed him to slip the knot on his tie, gratefully running a finger around where his neck was sore from the brand-new unwashed shirt. He had left Gloria inside, doing the meeting and greeting. He put five hundred behind the bar, and told the manager to let him know when that ran out.

Even the pub was different. The Admiral Nelson was owned by a company now, and served cappuccinos and lattes along with the booze. Pie and chips had been replaced by a Panini press, and Gloria said you had to book a table if you wanted to eat. She had arranged for the back bar to be closed to everyone except the funeral party. The manager knew a good earner when he saw one.

A flash motor pulled up. The driver got out and opened the back door. He was a big black guy the size of a grizzly bear, and his grey suit was creased to buggery at the back. Frankie Toland got out of the car, immaculate in a cashmere overcoat and three-piece suit. He still had his hair slicked down, like someone from the sixties. Walking up to Alan, he extended a hand. “Good to see you, Alan. You look like one of the bloody Beach Boys with that sun-bleached hair and tan. How’s life treating you? I just popped in to pay my respects to your old mum. Won’t be staying long.”

Alan returned the firm handshake. “I’m good, Frankie. You’re looking prosperous”. Toland was an old-time villain from back in the day. When everyone had started getting into drugs, he had stayed in the protection rackets, and running girls up West. Looked like he had survived the arrival of the Russians, and still had his spot. But Alan knew gangsters like Frankie were past their sell-by date. He must have been seventy, maybe seventy five years old now, and his time was almost up. Like the dinosaurs, he was set to become extinct.

As he walked inside, Toland turned back for a moment. “You looking for work, Alan? I could find you something”. Alan shook his head. “Heading back to Spain soon, but thanks for the offer”.

On the third cigarette, Old Reg came out to find him. With an arm on his shoulder, he guided him to the street corner, away from any snooping ears.

“Alan, I have to talk to you about something. Can I come and see you at Gloria’s tonight? I want to tell you about it before you go back to Spain, and I think you will want to hear it”. Alan nodded. “Okay, Reg. But what is it about?”

“A job, Alan. A really big one”.

Old Reg comes calling.

Gloria had definitely had too much to drink that afternoon. She was slurring in the cab on the way back to her flat, and Alan had to help her find the doorkey in her handbag. She went straight into her bedroom and collapsed face down on the duvet. Alan pulled her shoes off, then took the coverlet off the chair by the dressing-table and threw it over her.

Sitting in the kitchen with a glass of Black Label scotch, he thought about what Old Reg had said. Did he need the grief? After all, he would be fity-three next birthday. Still, Reg had looked serious, so the least he could do was to hear him out.

The noise of a police helicopter startled him, sounding as if it was right outside the window. Gloria and Vince’s two-bed on Highbury Grove had been a quiet place at one time, and they considered themselves lucky to get it. Now it seemed to Alan that the whole area was under seige. Gangs all over the place, drug-dealing kids on corners, and stabbings becoming an almost daily routine. He might talk to Gloria about going back to Spain with him.

This was no place for her to grow old.

By the time Old Reg arrived, the amber-coloured glass ashtray was full to the brim, the scotch bottle half-empty, and Gloria still snoring. Reg came in and sat opposite him at the tiny formica-topped table in the kitchen. Alan got a glass, poured Reg a drink, and leaned forward. “So, Reg. What’s this about a job?”

Alan had only ever known him as Old Reg. A solid friend of the family who must be at least eighty years old by now. His false teeth were too white to look remotely natural, and they made a clicking sound when he spoke too quickly. He downed half the glass, wiped his mouth, and nodded.

“It’s a big job, Alan. Right up your street. All cash, untraceable, and you won’t need a big crew to tackle it”. Alan sat back and lit another cigarette. “Reg, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Now, what’s this all about, and what’s in it for you?”

The old man ran his hands over his head, as if forgetting he had no hair left to smooth down. “Well, you know my Teddy? He’s fifty-odd now, and still serving time for that jewellery job twelve years ago. Anyway, his girl Carly has a baby now, little Dawn. So she lives with this bloke in a shitty flat in Agar Grove, and they want to buy a place further out. Dagenham or somewhere, it’s got a nice garden. But they don’t have a deposit, do they?” Alan put a hand up to stop him.

“The story of your grandchildren is all very nice, Reg. But what’s that got to do with this job mate?” He topped up both glasses, noticing the bottle might soon need replacing.

“The boyfriend, Alan. Carly’s boyfriend, it’s him that has the tip. All he wants out of it is a nice drink to use as a deposit. Give it a year or two, and they can say they saved it up. Carly works at the school, and he’s a lorry driver”.

Alan went to get another bottle from his bag in the hallway, wondering what Reg was on about. Perhaps he was losing his marbles. He was the right age for that.

“How much is what this bloke thinks is a nice drink then, Reg?” Alan filled the glasses as he spoke. “Twenty grand, Alan. That’s all. He couldn’t explain away anymore than that anyway, and he’s a straight bloke. Never been in trouble. And I don’t want nothing for myself, just looking out for young Carly”. Alan wasn’t the sort to get excitable, or fling accusations about, but he wanted to know something.

“You put this job up to anyone else, Reg? Told any other firm about it? ‘Cause if you have, it’s a non-starter, you should know that”. Reg shook his head. “No, honest. Carly’s bloke mentioned something to me about where he works a couple of weeks ago. Then when I heard you were coming back for the funeral, I thought I would give you first refusal. It’s definitely your sort of work, Alan”. Lighting his fiftieth cigarette of the day, Alan screwed up his eyes as the smoke drifted into them.

“Where’s this bloke work then?” Reg’s top teeth slipped down as he replied with a big smile.

“The Bank of England”.

An Idea Forms.

“The Bank of England, Reg? I presume we are not talking about walking into Threadneedle Street and holding it up? I doubt there is any cash on the premises mate”. Alan lit another cigarette, feeling the pressure on his chest as he inhaled.

Reg took another big swig of the Black Label, and Alan refilled the glass for him.

“No, Alan. This is a warehouse in East Ham. One of the places where old notes are stored from banks all over London. They are counted out into amounts, wrapped in plastic, then put in wheeled cages. The lorry drivers load them up, and take them to sites around the country to be incinerated. The biggest one is in Wales. But the thing is, next year, they are going to start composting them. Chop them up, and recycle them. It’s all this Green thing, you know. Global warming, pollution. You must have heard about all that crap, even in Spain. The bottom line is that this is the year. The last chance before they stop burning them. Once they are chopped up, they will be worth nothing. Fuck all mate.”

Waiting for Alan to say something, Reg tapped the rim of his glass with his unusually long and thick fingernails. But before he got an answer, there was the sound of someone moving outside in the hallway, followed by the bang of the toilet seat being lifted carelessly. Next came the unmistakable sound of someone throwing up, with the accompanying gagging and retching. Alan stood up and switched on the kettle, sliding a mug over before dropping a tea-bag into it from the canister nearby.

Gloria would need a cup of tea after that.

As Alan allowed the tea to brew and spooned in two sugars, the tapping of the glass was irritating him. Reg seemed nervous in a situation where he had no need to be. He added a splash of milk, and stirred the tea. “Won’t be a minute, Reg. Just need to check on Gloria”.

His sister was taking her dress off as he walked into the bedroom. Her hair was plastered flat on one side, and her face was as white as a sheet. He put the tea down on the bedside cabinet. “Drink this, love. Then get some decent sleep. I’m just chatting to Reg in the kitchen”.

Before going back to Reg, Alan leaned against the wall in the hallway, staring at the knitted flamenco dancer ornament on a side table that Gloria had brought back from a trip to Benidorm. If he worked on this plan, it would mean months of preparation. He might even be there well into the new year. Even after seven years, Alan hadn’t got used to seeing a two in front of the year, and two thousand and eight wouldn’t change the feeling that it didn’t seem right.

Alan came back into the room so quietly, it made Reg jump. “So how soon next year does this composting start, Reg? Can your boy find out? It’s never going to happen this year, it will take too much planning, maybe even a couple of dry runs for timings and feasibility. Besides, I don’t know that many blokes still working in the game now, and finding a decent team is going to be the hardest part”. Reg smiled, knowing that Alan must be interested enough to have an idea forming in his mind.

“I can ask him tomorrow, Alan. His name is Graham, but everyone calls him Duke, ’cause he walks like John Wayne. He had a bad motorbike accident years ago, and his hip never set right. Alan lit a cigarette that sent him into a fit of dry coughing. “No phones, Reg. All face to face. And I’m going to need to see this Graham, sound him out, get the feel of him. Okay?”

Gulping down the remainder of his scotch, Reg stood up and felt for his car keys in a trouser pocket. Even though he had drunk the best part of a bottle of Black Label, he seemed like he hadn’t had one drink. There was no way he was walking home, Alan knew that. “Right, Alan. I will set up a meet. Somewhere quiet, away from any big-eared radar”.

The bathroom door slammed again, and they both heard Gloria bringing up her sweet tea.

Richard Alexander.

When Reg had left and Gloria went back to bed, Alan sat in the kitchen thinking about whether or not he could be bothered about the job. It depended on a lot of things. How much was involved. How many he would need to pull it off, and Graham and Carly keeping their mouths shut. He would decide for sure once he had met the bloke.

Alan Gill had been a professional criminal all his life. But he had never once been arrested, had his fingerprints taken, or had to give a DNA sample. In every respect bar one, he had never really existed once he had left school. He had never paid taxes or National Insurance, never been employed legitimately by anyone, and certainly never claimed any social security benefits, or registered to vote in elections.

When there was a census, his mum and dad had known to leave his name off of the form, and he had never applied for a passport, or been abroad on holiday. The only document he had ever had that bore his real name and address was a driving licence. Not to have one of those was asking for trouble if he had been stopped for some mickey mouse driving offence. If he needed a dentist or a doctor, he paid privately for one that asked no questions.

He had watched his dad working for basic pay as a delivery driver for John Lewis. Happy to get overtime for a Saturday morning, acting like the manager was doing him a favour letting him work. Although he could have done well at school, he chose to leave before he was seventeen, and go to work for Frankie Toland. Frankie had the local detectives straightened up, so nobody ever asked who the new kid was when they saw him helping out at one of the warehouses. By the time he was eighteen, he was driving one of Frankie’s vans and delivering juke boxes and gaming machines to pubs and clubs that had been told they had to have them.

Alan had an interest in guns. He read about them in magazines, played around with the ones at Frankie’s place, stripping them down and cleaning them. All of the older blokes working for Frankie carried shooters, though mostly just to wave around and frighten people with. By the time he was twenty, people were calling Alan ‘The Armourer’, and it seemed only logical that he should embark on a new career, away from Frankie’s seedy businesses.

He wanted to be an armed robber.

Permission had to be sought of course. Frankie agreed to Alan branching out alone, so long as he got a good earner out of it. Fortunately, he wasn’t greedy. “Ten percent is acceptable to me, Alan. But don’t you dare stitch me up, or believe me you will be sorry”. With a couple of decent pistols, bought from Frankie on credit, he set up a job with one of the other van drivers, another Alan known as ‘Little Alan’ because he was so short.

Keeping well away from home territory, they hit three post offices on three consecutive days. Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, and Buckinghamshire. Then they went to ground as the news was all over it, describing it as a ‘home counties crime wave’. After that success, everyone wanted to work with Alan The Armourer. He had shown he had a cool head, and was a natural meticulous planner.

The good years that followed started to build up to bigger and bigger jobs, until Alan set up one of the biggest robberies in British history. A robbery that never got any news coverage for fear that it would set off a wave of copycats. It was simplicity itself. Dressed as airport workers, the team were supposed to load bullion into a cargo plane at the edge of Heathrow, using forklift trucks. Naturally, security guards were in attendance, but when the robbers produced a small arsenal of automatic weapons, they did as they were told and lay face down on the ground. Then the gold was simply loaded into another aircraft, already arranged to fly it out of the country.

There had been a lot of ‘fixers’ taking their cuts, and they also had to pay off the genuine airport workers. Too many people were involved, but it was enough to set him up abroad. He already had a new identity, a genuine passport, driving licence, and bank documents. They had cost enough too.

When he drove his hire car onto the ferry to Santander that night, he was Richard Alexander.

Spain, 1982.

The airport job paid out as agreed, eventually. Straight into a bank in the Cayman Islands. Alan didn’t mess around, and transferred the money to two different banks within a week. He had enough travelling money to set himself up with a front, and knew not to act flash, like wearing a Rolex, and checking into a five-star hotel. He exchanged the hire car for a much more boring runabout, and rented a tiny one-bed villa just outside Tossa de Mar.

It was going to take a while to get used to being Richard Alexander.

The passport was top-notch though. They had even got some genuine old stamps in for places like Ibiza and Corfu. For all the world he looked like a regular tourist who had decided to settle in Spain. The UK driving licence and International driving permit were suitably aged, and his date of birth had only been changed by one year older, so it would look convincing.

There had been no problem finding a property agent who spoke English. After a week in a budget hotel, he had rented the modest villa, and had her working on a commercial property for rent. He didn’t need a business to make money, just to look good, and give him a reason to be there. Once the woman found him somewhere suitable, within walking distance to the popular tourist spots, he bought forty mopeds and six VW convertibles, setting up a hire business squarely aimed at tourists.

Not speaking Spanish, and not actually wanting to sit in a pokey office all day renting scooters at a loss, he hired a German girl called Monika to run the place. She spoke English and Spanish as well as German, and she could manage some Italian at a pinch. Her interview speech was all about how she could get lots of German customers. Alan had to stop her in mid-flow and tell her she had not only got the job, but would be paid extra to teach him enough Spanish to get by on.

The fact that she ended up in his bed most nights was an unexpected bonus.

Back then, Spain was full of British criminals living the high life in the full glare of publicity. Alan wanted none of that, hence choosing the down-market Costa Brava instead of the gangster’s domicile of choice, Marbella. After making sure he could rely on the German girl and the two Spanish girls she had employed to help her, he spent some time in Barcelona, only ninety minutes away. Feeling instantly at home in that city, he took a lease on a flat in the Barri Gotic district, intending to spend half the year there.

Sure, he knew Monika would rip him off in his absence. But he really didn’t need the business to make money, just to tick over.

If he had a regret, it was that his parents and Gloria would never know about his new life and new identity in Spain. They would of course presume he had skipped after a big job, and just live with that. The families of criminals were a different breed. Staunch. If anyone had grassed up Alan Gill for the airport job, they would get nothing from his family.

After almost ten years, and no sign of any cops trying to arrest him, he went back, travelling as Richard Alexander of course. His dad looked as if he had been painted battleship grey, and Vince wasn’t much better. He dropped his mum and Gloria a wad of cash, but couldn’t stand life back in London. He only stayed for four days, before returning to Barcelona. They didn’t complain when he said he was going. On the quiet, he told Gloria about his new name, and gave her a mobile number he was sure to answer.

The first time she rang it was almost a year later, to tell him their dad had dropped dead in the street. Heart attack, Gloria said.

The next few years were good years. He had a new Spanish girlfriend in Barcelona, Monika went home to Cologne, and was replaced by Rosa. She actually made money from the hire business, and Alan bought more cars and mopeds, just to make sure the profits were not too obvious. Alan could get by in Spanish, and in German too, thanks to Monika. His tan was like mahogany, and shopkeepers and bar owners in Barcelona gave him a ‘Hola!’ as he walked by.

Then Gloria phoned again. Vince had prostate cancer. Six months if he was lucky.

Spain, 2007.

After almost twenty-five years in Spain, Alan was living in a bigger villa. It had a decent-sized pool, and a local woman came in twice a week to do the cleaning, and his washing and ironing. She called him ‘Senor Ricardo’, which always made him think of the old actor, Ricardo Montalban. He had given up the flat in Barcelona some years before. The winters could be cold and wet, making the city feel dismal, and his girlfriend had long since deserted him for someone who had a nice motor yacht.

Of course, she had no idea how wealthy Alan was. Even though he didn’t stint on his very comfortable lifestyle, he continued to pretend that he got by on the income from his hire business. So when she met some East European waving money around and boasting about his yacht, that was her cue to scarper.

For the last three years, he had been seeing an English woman who had worked as a holiday company rep in Tossa, and then settled there. Chrissy was ten years younger than him, and rented a flat in the old town. She helped out in one of the English bars, serving beer and full breakfasts to sunburnt tourists as they watched British football or cricket on large TV screens dotted around the place. Chrissy was very much her own woman, and knew the area like the back of her hand. She had turned down Alan’s suggestion to move in with him, but regularly stopped over a couple of nights a week.

Rosa was still running the business. She was pushing fifty now, but you would never guess.

The truth was, Alan was lonely. Back in London he had known a lot of people, even calling some of them friends. In Spain, he still had to be careful. Live the life of Richard Alexander, never talk about Islington, or what he did before he arrived in Spain. And he was feeling his age. He had been there so long that one of the restaurants saved a table for him, just in case he turned up. The waiters called him ‘Mister Richard’, and they all knew what he liked to drink.

Before Vince died, Gloria and him had taken their holidays in Spain, but never close to Alan. Vince preferred Benidorm, so Gloria said. That was five hundred miles further south, and although Gloria would always phone him to let him know they were there, it was never once suggested that he drive down to visit them. Alan knew Vince didn’t like criminals. He had never made any secret of his disapproval of his brother-in-law’s choice of career, or the fact that he had skipped to Spain, leaving Gloria to care for their mum and dad as they got older.

Vince worked as a market porter at the New Covent Garden Market, in Nine Elms. He had worked in the old market near Charing Cross, before it had moved in seventy-four. Starting in the early hours, Vince lugged around fruit and vegetables for one of the wholesale companies. He was a man who believed in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. A phrase he was often heard to utter. They never had any kids, even though they were married at eighteen, when everyone thought Gloria must be up the duff. Most people presumed Gloria had something wrong that stopped her having babies. But she had told Alan it was Vince who couldn’t father any.

When he died, Gloria took it hard. Alan offered her to live with him in Spain, but she wouldn’t leave the family in north London.

He had always got on well with his sister before he left England, even though there was no love lost beteen him and Vince. He had to admit that he missed Gloria, but he would never have admitted that to her. He hoped she knew.

The phone call saying his mum was seriously ill shouldn’t have been such a surprise, but it was. He didn’t have long to sort things out with Rosa, transfer some money into an account he could access easily, and book a one-way flight to London.

On the plane going over, he felt anxious, and not just about his mum.

A Meeting Is Arranged.

When Alan told Gloria the next morning that he intended to stay on for a while, he wasn’t specific about how long. She couldn’t hide her delight at having her brother home, and told him he could stay as long as he wanted. After breakfast, he walked up to Holloway Road and used an Internet Cafe to send Rosa an email telling her not to expect him back as arranged.

Old Reg came round at lunchtime, and Alan spoke to him outside the flat. The less Gloria heard, the better.

“Alan, I have set up a meeting with Duke for tonight. He will meet us outside Euston Station, on the forecourt, around seven. We can hang around near the bus stops, look as if we’re waiting for a bus. That okay with you?” Alan lit a cigarette, then nodded. “I take it he knows who I am? Reg shrugged. “Course he does, I had to let him know you were a pro who could pull this off. He doesn’t know about Spain, the airport job, or whatever though. Do you want me to pick you up, Al?”

Shaking his head, Alan replied rather sharply. “No I don’t, Reg. I don’t want to be seen in any cars with anyone from the old days. This place has more CCTV than you can shake a stick at, and I am betting your motor is well known to the coppers”. Reg looked miffed. “I ain’t been in trouble for almost forty years mate. The Old Bill couldn’t care less about me”. Flicking the butt of his cigarette onto the shabby grass outside, Alan turned to head back into the small block. “I’ll get a cab, Reg. See you there”.

It was easy enough to wave down a cab. Alan had walked down to the new Arsenal Football Ground that they now called The Emirates Stadium. It was very different from the old Highbury Ground he had known as a boy. He arrived early, and stood next to a coffee place that was in a kind of caravan outside the station. The area was nice and busy, hundreds of commuters rushing past him to get trains home to the home counties. If Reg was driving his car down, he was going to have a mare finding somewhere to park.

Just before seven, he walked across the front of the station to where all the buses pulled in. He could see Reg at the end of one of the stops, talking to a tall bloke who looked older than Alan had expected. Acting as if he didn’t know them, he walked over and stood nearby, waiting until a bus arrived and everyone else got on. Then they were the only three there, but Alan still stood with his back to them, as if they were strangers. “So you’re Graham? I’m not calling you Duke, I will use your real name. How many security are we talking about? How much can reasonably be expected to be there, and what’s the situation with alarms and that?” Despite the ‘No Smoking’ sign, he lit a cigarette as he waited for the reply.

The bloke was respectful. Reg had obviously had a word with him. “I don’t think it’s possible in the depot, Mister Gill. I was thinking you could hijack one of the lorries. They are pretty big, and most runs have fifty mill or much more in each truck”. Alan choked as he inhaled on the cigarette. He hadn’t had a clue they would be talking about such a sum. Graham carried on speaking. “Not a good idea to take that much though. You could just use a good-sized van, and still get ten mill in easy. They are all twenties at the moment, and you would be surprised what a small pile a mill in twenties is”.

Trying to sound casual, Alan nodded as he spoke. “What about the trucks? Alarms, trackers, radio? All that I suppose”. Graham nodded. “Yes Mister Gill, but I will be able to tell you how to get around all that”. Without turning, Alan spoke to Reg. “Okay Reg, the job is on. I will be in touch”.

He walked straight across Euston Road at the traffic lights and headed into a pub.

Time for a large Scotch.

Planning begins in earnest.

Back at Gloria’s, Alan sat in the kitchen with a notebook while Gloria heated up the dinner he had arrived home too late for. She knew better than to ask him anything about where he had been, or what he was doing.

It might be too much money. Not too much to handle physically, or to get laundered into other currencies. He still knew people who could manage that for around twenty percent, no questions asked. But the sheer amount of cash was going to attract attention, and everyone would be on the job like flies on a fresh turd. Worse still, he would have to sit on the money for a long time, until the investigation and frantic search subsided.

That meant having to trust people he didn’t know, like Graham. And some people he did know. Like Old Reg, and some fixers he would need to use later.

Alan didn’t trust anyone. Except Gloria.

In the small notebook, he jotted down some ideas. It was good to get them down on paper and look at them, seemed to make more sense. Later on, he would burn the pages in Gloria’s kitchen sink.

If he was going to do this job, he might as well go for broke. Two vans would mean three guys per van, so he had to find himself five useful blokes who would keep a cool head, and not blab about it after. Not easy, when you have been away so long. His old mate Little Alan was off the cast list. Gloria had told Alan the news about him when he had come back for that short trip years earlier.

After the airport job, he had gone cowboy, raiding banks and security vans, firing guns in the street, all sorts of crazy stuff. Then he had made a much bigger mistake. Frankie Toland had sent for him, wanting to know where his tribute money was from all the jobs. Little Alan had fronted him up, acted flash, told him he was old school, and that he could fuck off. Frankie said nothing. The next day, Little Alan disappeared. After two weeks, his girlfriend moved out of their flat and went back to live with her mum.

Chances are that Little Alan’s body was in some concrete on a new motorway bridge. Toland didn’t mess around.

The vans used for the job would have to be stolen, and have genuine plates relating to that type of vehicle. He would need to find somewhere in plain sight to store the cash. The cops would search any rural locations, outbuildings, farms, that kind of thing. So it would be best to get it into the city, where there was just too much to search. They would all need shooters, to make the driver and co-driver scared enough not to resist.

He had asked Gloria if Rupert Pennington still had his antique shop in Camden Passage, and he did. Rupert had to be seventy at least now, but he was the most reliable contact for firearms that Alan had ever used. An ex-Army officer, outwardly straight and honest, he had used his military contacts around the world to source all kinds of good stuff, most of which was shipped to his place stashed inside antique furniture. He had never had his collar felt by the cops, and was so respectable, Gloria said he had been on an antiques valuation programme on telly.

Rupert would be getting a visit soon.

First priority was to make sure Frankie Toland didn’t hear about it. No way was he going to take a small percentage from a job that big. He would stitch them up and take the lot. He had the muscle and manpower, as well as eyes and ears in every pub in the borough. As soon as the job made the news, Frankie would know. He would realise why Alan had stayed on after the funeral, put two and two together, and make five. Then he would come after Alan. Gloria would have to skip with him this time, like it or not. She couldn’t be left behind for Toland to use as a hostage.

When he had eaten the congealed dinner, Alan burned the notebook pages, then ran the tap to flush the ashes down the sink.

Tomorrow, he would have to arrange a second meet with Graham.

Alan makes some decisions.

By the time he had woken up the next morning, Alan had made some firm decisions. One meant he would have to see Graham sooner rather than later, so after breakfast he walked to Old Reg’s flat off the Essex Road. The place was shabby, and smelled bad inside. Since Reg had lost his wife to breast cancer over twenty years earlier, he hadn’t kept up any domestic routine to speak of. Hattie had been his childhood sweetheart, and the love of his life. Reg had taken it hard when she went.

Not even wanting to sit down on the greasy furniture, Alan spoke in a friendly manner. “Reg mate, I can’t stop, things to do. But I wanted to tell you that I am going to have to meet with Graham again, soon as. Can you get him to Gloria’s place tonight d’you reckon?” The old man nodded. “Well if it’s important, he’ll have to come, won’t he? Leave it with me, Alan. We will be there”.

Next stop was Rupert’s shop in Camden Passage. As it wasn’t raining, Alan walked there too.

“Alan Gill, well as I live and breathe. I didn’t expect to see you again old love”. Rupert turned the sign on the door to read ‘Sorry, we’re closed’, and slipped the top bolt into place. “Come out the back, and we will have a drinkie to celebrate your return”. As usual, Rupert was immaculate. Fresh flower in the buttonhole of his jacket, and his military striped tie firmly done in a nice Windsor knot. He hadn’t seemed to gain an ounce in weight in the last twenty-five years, and only a large bald patch on the back of his head betrayed his advancing years.

Gloria had been rude about him, when asked if he was still around. “Rupert? You mean that bum-bandit? Yeah, his shop is still going”. Alan didn’t concern himself about the man’s sexuality. He was good at what he did. The best.

In the comfortable office behind the shop counter, Alan was handed a very large whisky in a crystal tumbler. “Single malt old love, only the best for you. I take it you are here on business of some kind? I don’t suppose you came all the way from wherever you got that tan to buy some Ming vases of dubious heritage?” Alan sipped the whisky and made an appreciative face.

“Let’s suppose I had a job that needed a bit of firepower for show. Let’s suppose I wanted four good revolvers and a couple of shotguns. What are we talking about, Rupert old mate?” Smiling, the dealer stood up, his military bearing still very much in evidence. “Bring your drink and follow me”.

The small yard at the back was completely filled by a metal shed the size of a shipping container that left no room to even walk up the side of it. Rupert unlocked the huge padlock with a combination, and switched on a light before walking in. Behind random stacks of furniture and vases were some old trunks, the sort rich people used to take on world cruises. Laying out his wares on an antique Chinese table, he described each one in turn.

“You have your basic S&W .38, short-barrel, completely reliable. Or my recommendation of these Colt Pythons. They take a .357 magnum round, and the six-inch barrel gives more accuracy. And shotguns are so ninteen-sixties, old love. What I have for you are a couple of Chinese-made AK-47 paratroop assault rifles. Stick twenty-eight rounds in the magazine, and let go on full automatic. Nobody will still be looking at you after that, believe me. They are still in their packing grease, never been fired, and I have ammuntion for everything. If you don’t fire any of them, I will buy them back for half the price. But if they are used, dump them somewhere. They are all untraceable, you know me”.

Nodding at the Colt pistols, Alan smiled. “I’ll take four of the Pythons, and two of the AKs. Just enough ammo to load each one though, I don’t intend ending up in a firefight. And I don’t need them yet. If it turns out I don’t need them at all, I will bung you something for your trouble of cleaning them and getting them ready. There is something I need now though. Have you got a smallish .22 automatic? I’ll take a short silencer for it too, and maybe twenty rounds”.

After a quick rummage in a tea-chest at the back, Rupert appeared with what Alan had asked for.

“A .22 with a silencer? Dear me, are you going to actually kill someone old love?”

Alan talks to Gloria.

With the .22 and its silencer tucked away in an innofensive jiffy bag, Alan headed back to Gloria’s flat to deal with another of his decisions. It wasn’t going to be easy to get her to leave the country, but it would be essential if the job came off. She still worked two days a week for Ronnie, in his florist’s shop near The Angel tube. Not that she needed the money, as it had turned out Vince had good life insurance. But she didn’t want to let Ronnie down, so covered Saturdays and Sunday mornings during his busy time.

If necessary, he would have a quiet word in Ronnie’s ear.

As usual, she was pleased to see him, and asked no questions except for one. “What do you fancy for dinner tonight, love? I could make us a nice steak and kidney pie. Don’t suppose you have had one of those since you were last here?” He didn’t hang around with what he needed to say. “Yeah, a pie would be nice. But I have to talk to you, Glor. Sit down and have a drink with me”. He lit a cigarette, and started coughing again. His sister shook her head. “You should really pack those up you know. Hardly anyone smokes these days. It’s too expensive, and not good for you”.

Pouring two glasses of Black Label, he looked straight into her eyes. “There might be a job on. A very big job. If I decide to go ahead with it, you are going to have to leave before it kicks off. I have a very nice villa in Spain. It’s got a pool, cleaning lady, near the beach and town. You could fly out and enjoy some winter sunshine. Chill out a bit. It’s not like you have any reason to stay now mum has gone. And before you mention Ronnie, he could easy train up a school girl to help out with the flowers”.

Gloria pulled a face at the whisky. It wasn’t really her drink of choice. “Are you asking me, or telling me, Alan? Sounds to me like you’re telling me, and you know that’s not gonna go down well at all”. He looked across the small table at his sister. Her hair was dyed too black, and her fingers were getting too podgy for all the rings she was wearing. Her double chin seemed to quiver when she spoke, and her small even teeth could do with some attention. Nine years older than him, but looking more like his mum every day.

“There is no reason for you to say no, and I am going to have to insist this time. If I pull this off we will be made for life, and then if you want you can come back to England and live anywhere you like. But you do have to go. Do this for me, please sis”. She slid the glass over to him. “If we are having a drink to celebrate something, then you can finish this. I’ll get meself a gin and tonic”. Alan watched her leave the room, then breathed a sigh of relief.

When they had finished the pie, Gloria was pleased that he had eaten so much. “I am going to have to renew my passport though, Alan. I will go to the Post Office tomorrow to see about that”. As he handed her his plate and cutlery, the doorbell rang. It was Reg and Graham. He showed them into the front room, and didn’t offer them a drink.

Looking at Carly’s boyfriend, he wondered what she saw in him. He had to be a fair bit older than her, and he didn’t have much about him. Too meek and mild for Alan’s liking. He came straight to the point.

“If I do this job, you have to be driving the lorry. I need to know I have an inside man I can rely on. And the coppers will be all over you after. Give you a right grilling, threaten you with all sorts of shit. And there’s a good chance the company will sack you, even if you don’t get arrested. So I will give you two hundred and fifty grand, as long as you promise to be sensible with it, and splash none of it about. But like I said, you have to be in the lorry, preferably driving it. That, or the job’s off and I walk away”.

Reg nodded at the man, and Graham finally answered. “Okay, Mister Gill. Whatever you say”. Alan stood up, giving them their cue to leave. He put his hand on Graham’s shoulder by the front door.

“And if you grass, that will be the end of you. Someone will come for you. You got that?”

Recruiting begins.

As Gloria was going to bed, Alan popped his head around the door of her room. “Glor, is Teddy Henderson still about?” She shrugged. “Last I heard he was living on the Packington Estate, Danny will know where”.

Daniele Ricci was from an old Italian family in Clerkenwell. His dad had run an ice cream firm, with mobile vans touring all over north London. But that was a dangerous game at one time, with others trying to muscle in on the trade. Danny had been roughed up bad. They took a sledgehammer to his ice cream van, then to him. He had been in a wheelchair ever since. He smiled as he pulled the door open, scooting his wheelchair back to let Alan into the ground floor flat.

“Danny, I’m looking for Teddy Henderson. Gloria told me you know where he lives now”. Wheeling across to a chest of drawers, Danny took an address book from the top one. “He was on the Packington until last year, but now he lives in a flat in Golden Lane, Barbican area. It’s above a shop, so I’ve never been there. Hang on, I’ll write down the address for you”. Alan took the post-it-note, and turned to leave. “Thanks, Danny. Good to see you mate”. The less Danny knew about anything, the better.

The cab didn’t take long to get down to The Barbican at that time of day. There was no reply from the doorbell marked ‘Henderson’, so Alan waited, pretending to browse along the windows of the row of shops. Three cigarettes later, he heard a familiar voice. “Fuck me! Is that a ghost? No, can’t be, ghosts don’t have tans. Alan, you old bastard, you found me. Come on up, I’ve got some decent brandy in the flat”.

Teddy still looked fit, but his face was old. He served the brandy in two mismatched glasses, and sat on the bed. Alan took the small armchair, trying not to look around the shabby studio flat. He came straight to the point. “Teddy mate, I’m looking to put up a team. I need someone like you to sort out five reliable blokes who don’t ask too many questions, and can handle themselves with shooters. And nobody just out of jug, or wanted by the Old Bill. There’s a nice earner in it for you, get you out of this shit-hole”.

Twenty-nine years earlier, Alan had taken Teddy on a job. They used motorbikes and raided a posh jewellers in Knightsbridge. In and out, with a good haul, but Teddy didn’t know the area. He had got himself lost in some back street, and been cornered by two police cars. He decided to shoot his way out, and injured a copper in the leg doing so. Five minutes later, another police car rammed his bike, and put him in hospital.

He went to court for sentencing on a day when the judge was in a shit mood, and got thirty years. Armed robbery, and attempted murder of a police officer. He wouldn’t grass up the others, so got hit hard. Paroled after twenty-two years, his wife had left him, and his flat was gone. Alan had given his wife fifteen grand when Teddy got sent down, then Pauline told him to fuck off, and slammed the door in her face.

He felt he still owed Teddy.

“I was living with my old nan on the Packington, Al. But when she died, I didn’t qualify to keep a two-bed flat. This was the best I could get from the housing trust people. I do know some people who would be up for that, but not me. I’ve had enough mate”. Alan swallowed some more of the cheap brandy. “I just need you to do the recruiting, Teddy. No need to be on the job”. Teddy nodded. “Yeah, I can do that. Got a number where I can contact you, once I set up a meet?” Alan shook his head.

“No phones, Teddy. Come and find me at Gloria’s flat in Highbury Grove when you have something solid”. Reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket, he handed over five hundred pounds. “This is for your time and trouble today, and for using cabs. No hire cars, and like I said, no phones”. He stood up to leave.

“And there’s enough there for a decent bottle of Cognac. Treat yourself”.

Teddy turns up unexpectedly.

Once Gloria had left for work that Sunday morning, Alan got the jiffy bag from the spare room, and checked over the .22. He stripped it, reassembled it, then loaded 10 rounds into the magazine. The long-barrelled Ruger was a very nice pistol, and even with the silencer attached, it still fitted inside the padded jiffy bag. He went back into the bedroom and hid it under his empty case in the small wardrobe. That reminded him that he would have to buy more clothes soon.

It was getting colder in London.

Alan Gill had always used firearms during his relatively short career as an armed robber. They made a lot of noise, and stopped most people wanting to even consider fighting back, or resisting. He favoured revolvers, as they retained the cartridges in the cylinder. Automatic pistols ejected the spent cartridges, and that meant leaving evidence behind, or having to scrabble around to find them. Even weapons that were supplied as untraceable might well have been used in other robberies. So if you got nicked, you could be sure the cops would fit you up with every other crime where the same weapon had been used.

Trouble was, ballistics was getting more accurate every year. That made it harder to be a criminal, no doubt.

During that time, Alan had only ever shot three people deliberately. The first had been a cash-in-transit security guard. The man thought to have a go, by grabbing Alan from behind as they threw the cash boxes into a stolen car. Without hesitation, Alan fired his Bulldog .45 into the man’s right foot, straight through his boot. No chance of killing him, but he definitely released his grip.

The second time, they had been jumped by armed detectives as they came out of a bank with bags full of cash. The nervous young detective had followed procedure, shouting “Halt! Armed police! Drop your weapon!” Alan hadn’t dropped the .38 S&W. He shot the cop in the thigh instead, and they made good their escape.

Following the bank job, they knew they had been grassed. So Alan shot the man who grassed them. And this time, it was fatal.

Lawrence Toomey was known as Larry The Limp. He had been a crappy cat-burglar in Northern Ireland, just about earning a living. Then one day, he burgled the house of a widow in the countryside near Londonderry. She came home from the shops to find a strange man in her house with a calico bag full of her jewellery. Larry thought he might as well rape her while he was there, so threatened her with his crowbar, and told her to strip. But she was made of stern stuff. She spat in his face, fought back like a crazy person, and Larry legged it back to his car parked in a lane nearby.

He had to drive past her house to get away, and she spotted the car. Not many bright red mark four Cortinas in Londonderry back then.

Larry had made a huge mistake. The widow was the wife of an IRA man who had been shot by the British Army while on active service for the cause. She made a phone call. They found him trying to sell some of her Cameo brooches to a fence on the Dungiven Road. In a remote lock-up, he was kneecapped. One shot in the back of each knee, then dumped on the main road. Once he got out of hospital, he did the sensible thing, and left for London. The right knee never healed properly, and left him with a permanent limp.

Nobody in the Irish community in Kilburn or Cricklewood would tolerate him, so he went east, and ended up in Islington. One night, he got Teddy Henderson drunk on cheap brandy, and learned about a bank job that was happening. Better to tell the cops and get a reward, rather than keep trying to burgle basement flats in Barnsbury.

Someone told Alan Larry had been seen talking to Teddy in a pub, and Teddy was drunk as a sack. That was enough for Alan.

The Irishman was easy to find. When Alan knocked on the door of his flat in Laycock Green that night he looked nervous, but let him in. Seeing the old Webley come out of Alan’s coat, he started to plead his case. But it was far too late.

One shot, through the top of his head. He was done. The pistol went into the canal that night, never to be found.

Gloria’s doorbell sounded. It was Teddy Henderson, with a geezer who looked like Arnie, in ‘Terminator’.

Carl becomes number two.

The kitchen was going to be too small for three of them with a bloke that size, so Alan showed the two men into Gloria’s living room. He didn’t ask them to sit down, and there was no offer of any booze. “Who’s this then Teddy? And why have you brought him here?” Teddy knew he should never have brought the big man to Gloria’s place, and sounded sheepish.

“Sorry, Alan, but he insisted on meeting you in person. His name is Carl, and he’s very experienced”. Alan took the extended hand the size of a gorilla’s paw and shook it briefly. “You’re here now, so you better sit down and tell me your story”. Teddy did the talking.

“Carl has been on some good jobs, Al. Never been nicked for any of them either. He is ex-army, did some mercenary work in Iraq, and he knows some blokes who might be right for your project”. Alan smiled at hearing the word project. He had definitely been away too long. “Let Carl speak for himself then”. The man seemed too big for the sofa, and leaned forward awkwardly. Obviously some sort of body builder, with his cropped black hair a little bit too neat. There was a nasty scar puckered above his right eyebrow that looked like he was lucky to have kept the eye.

“Mister Henderson tells me you need men used to guns, and disciplined enough to follow orders, Mister Gill. I can be one of those, and I know two others I can vouch for one hundred percent”. His voice was surprisingy quiet, and a bit squeaky, more like a girl’s. Trying not to smile about that, Alan nodded. “You do everything through Teddy. You never come here again, and tell nobody about this flat, or use my name, got that? And no phones. They can trace those things too easily. You meet Teddy in person somewhere, and he will tell you what the plan is. Okay? And no names used on the job. From now on I am One, you will be Two, and so on. remember that”.

Teddy was nodding and smiling, and so was Carl. Alan didn’t care for too much nodding and smiling. “I asked if you got that”. Carl swallowed before replying. “Yes, got it all”.

He stood up to let them know it was time to go. Gloria would be back soon, and he didn’t want them seeing her. “I will be in touch, Teddy. No more uninvited guests though, yeah?” The men left the flat, both still nodding and smiling. Alan lit a cigarette, wondering when nodding and smiling had replaced conversation. If Teddy spoke for him, then that Carl must be alright. But having three ex-mercenaries on the job was a bit worrying. That type was known for being a bit gun-happy, to say the least. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and he didn’t know many villains who were still around.

Even with Carl and his mates, he would still need two more. But a thought had occurred.

Tony Allison had been the go-to man for motors. He could nick any car to order, make it run faster or quieter, and get rid of it when it had been used. Good with bigger things too, like heavy lorries, or the massive dump-truck Alan had once used to ram a security van. He was known to everyone as Lugs, because he had big ears that stuck out like wing-nuts. When Gloria got home from work, Alan made her a cup of tea, and asked the question.

“Glor, is Lugs still around? He must be seventy-odd now I suppose”. She took the mug, and sat at the table. “Yeah, I saw him a few days ago, coming out of the Londis shop. I reckon he will be in The Alwyne Castle later, he seems to live in that pub. I have got us some lamb chops for dinner, if that’s okay”.

Even early on a Sunday night, the pub was busy. Alan shook his head at all the telly screens around. Why did people go to pubs then sit and watch sport on telly? He would never get used to that. It was the same in Spain, in the bars that catered for the Brits. Lugs was sitting on a stool at the end of the bar, holding a fresh pint of Guinness. His ears were even bigger now, and age had given him droopy jowls that made him look like a rather sad old dog. He didn’t recognise the tanned man in the smart suit walking up to him, but grinned when Alan spoke.

“You want a chaser with that Irish engine oil, Lugs?”

Alan and Lugs have a chat.

When they had finished that first drink, Lugs produced a ten-pound note, to buy the next round. Alan put his hand over it. “Come for a walk around the block, so we can have a chat, Lugs”. On the busy main road, Alan felt happier about talking. “What’s the score with your Kenny? Is he still working? I might have something good for him”. The older man spoke without turning as they strolled along. “Yeah, he does a bit, Alan. Follows in his old man’s footsteps, you might say. He’s getting on now though, you forget. I’m seventy-six now, so that makes my Kenny almost fifty. What are you looking for?”

They stopped at the traffic lights, waiting for them to change so they could cross. “I need two plain vans. Probably white is best. There are so many white vans around, nobody notices them. They should be reliable, and have plates that will pass a road check. Then two other vans, for the swap later. They have to be kosher, and stand an actual stop-check. I would like Kenny as a driver, and someone he will speak for to drive the other one”.

Lugs took a cigarette Alan offered. “I don’t smoke so much these days, but I could do with one. I s’pose there will be shooters? My Kenny’s not much for guns, Al. He’s a car thief, a ringer”. Alan lit both cigarettes before answering. “He will have to carry one, in case he needs to show it. But my plan is for him and his oppo to stay in the vans, ready to drive. Maybe a bit of loading and unloading, top whack. I’m not saying how much for now, but there’s a lot of money involved. Reckon Kenny can buy a villa in the sun, and you and your Patsy can go and see your days out over there mate”.

They started walking again, arriving back in sight of the pub. Lugs stood finishing his cigarette. “Patsy’s in a home, Al. Dementia. She’s fucked, mate. Doesn’t even know who me and Kenny are”. Alan put his had on the old man’s shoulder. “Sorry to hear that, Lugs. But you will get a big enough bung to get Patsy into somewhere private, see her looked after properly”. Lugs threw the butt of the cigarette into the road. “Okay, I’ll talk to Kenny. You got a number so I can let you know a yes or no?” Alan blew out a cloud of smoke. “Nah. No phones, Lugs. Tell Kenny to come and find me at Gloria’s place. You know where she lives”.

Halfway home, a car pulled up next to him. The windows were tinted, but as one of the back ones slid down, he saw Frankie Toland in there. “I thought you would be back in Spain by now, Alan. What’s keeping you here? Not the wonderful architecture, or Gloria’s luxurious flat, I’m sure”. Alan leaned into the opening, smiling and acting casual. “I thought Gloria could come back with me, Frankie. Nothing to keep her here now mum’s dead. But she’s taking some persuading”. The look on Frankie’s face told him he didn’t believe a word.

“Well like I said, I can put some work your way if you need it. You know where to find me”. The window started to go back up, and the car drove off.

Stopping off at a shop to buy more cigarettes, Alan picked up a box of Lindor chocolate truffles for his sister. They were her favourite. As he put his key into the lock on the front door, it opened before he could turn it. Gloria looked scared as she whispered. “Frankie Toland’s here. I put him in the front room and gave him some of your Black Label”. Smiling to reassure her, he gave her the chocolates. “Stay in the kitchen, Glor. I’ll see what he wants”.

Alan was annoyed. Frankie shouldn’t involve his sister. He could have told him to get in the car if he wanted a serious talk. The fact he had driven straight to her flat was provocative, and a threat. He knew Toland would know he realised that. He opened the door to the front room, and strolled in, sounding cheery. “Frankie. Twice in twenty minutes, I am in demand. What is is now?” Pointing at an armchair, Frankie spoke with a very serious tone.

“Sit yourself down, and tell me what you and Lugs were talking about outside The Alwyne Castle”.

Alan gets tough with Frankie.

Taking a glass from inside the sideboard, Alan poured himself some of his own Scotch, and sat down. “I heard Patsy was in a home. Went to see Lugs for old time’s sake, and offered to bung him a wedge to get her some proper care. We had a drink, and walked round the block chatting ’cause it was so noisy in the pub with al the telly screens blaring. That’s the long and the short of it, Frankie”. Toland was sipping his drink, and he suddenly leaned forward.

“So if I take old Lugs down to my lock-up and start slicing off one of his Dumbo ears, do you reckon he will tell me the same story?” Alan shrugged. “Start slicing his ear, and he will tell you any story you want to hear, Frankie. You know that”. In the old days, Frankie had been known to favour using a cut-throat razor on people. But he was old now, so would probably get one of his goons to do the job. He leaned back again, relaxing against the headrest.

“Little birds, Alan. Little birds tell me things. Things like you have been spending a lot of time with Old Reg. Things like you have been to visit Teddy Henderson. I have a lot of little birds helping me, Alan”. Putting his glass down on the coffee table, Alan set his jaw.

Some rules from back in the day never left him. Don’t back down. Never show weakness. Never change your story. Front it up.

“Why shouldn’t I go and see Teddy? He was one of the best back then, and he did his time solid. No squawking. I owe him. So I dropped him a few quid. And Old Reg has been a family friend all my life, he was good to my mum. He will be pushing up daises before too long, so of course I will spend time with him before I go back to Spain”. This time, it was him leaning forward, and he lowered his voice to sound more menacing.

“You don’t come here and frighten my sister, Frankie. That’s fucking well out of order, and you know that. Got something you want to say to me, then get a message to me and I wil come and see you. And as for those little birds, fuck them. And while I’m at it, fuck you, and the horse you rode in on”.

Toland was trying to smile, but Alan’s aggression had unnerved him. It was well known that he had shot Larry The Limp stone cold, and without any solid proof that the Irishman had even grassed him. Even in his fifties, Alan Gill wasn’t a man to be messed with when he had no bodyguards around. Gill could be a hard man, and fearless.

“Calm down, Alan. I was just asking a fair question. You’re back on my manor, putting yourself about like you own the place, and you have hardly been to see me or talked to me. It’s a question of respect, you know that, and don’t need me to tell you”. Alan was still fronting up, no way was he going to calm down.

“If you want respect, you don’t come to my sister’s place and threaten Lugs. You talk to me man to man, ask your questions without threats, and you might get the answers you want. But they will already be the same as the answers I have given you. I’m out the game, Frankie. I have a life in Spain, and a good business. I should be entitled to visit my sister and ask her to come and live there with me, and to catch up with any old friends while I’m here. I don’t want trouble with you, but I’ll be fucked if I will lie down and roll over because you’ve got some arseholes following me around”.

The tension in the room was overwhelming. Alan kept direct eye contact with Frankie as the older man seemed to be thinking of something clever to say. When he couldn’t think of anything, he stood up, extending a hand. “We know each other too well to fall out, Alan. You know I had to ask. Thanks for the drink, I will be in touch”. After the brief handshake, he left the flat, nodding to Gloria who was standing in the hallway like a frightened rabbit.

When enough time had passed that he would be back at his car, Alan turned to his sister.

“Glor, as soon as your passport arrives, you’re off to Spain. No arguments”.

A busy day for Alan.

Early the next morning, Alan was in a cab heading for the City of London. In his former life in London, he would have had no reason to enter the financial district, other than to commit a robbery. This time, his business was legal banking.

On a narrow side street in a somewhat unimpressive Victorian building, he entered a Private Bank. Not a bank with counters, cashiers, and ATM machines lining the walls, this was the kind of bank where you gave an account number to the receptionist, and she showed you to a comfortable chair while she made a phone call. Its head office was in Vaduz, the capital of tiny Lichtenstein, a European city that Alan had visited just once.

Five minutes later, he was in a comfortable office, watching as the professional middle-aged man in the chair behind the desk arranged transfers using a computer, and made phone calls on a speaker so his customer could hear the conversation. Twenty minutes later, a young woman entered the office and handed Alan a complimentary briefcase containing fifty thousand pounds. As well as the cash, he had transferred funds to a mainstream bank that he could access using his identity as Richard Alexander.

Ten minutes after that, he was in another cab, heading for Oxford Street. He walked into John Lewis, the department store where his father had once worked, and headed straight to the menswear department. He bought a heavyweight wool suit, navy blue with a pinstripe. Then added seven brand new white shirts, four assorted ties, and finished with a wool and cashmere overcoat in matching navy. In other sections, he bought underwear and socks, and a pair of strong black lace-up brogue shoes.

All transactions were made using Richard Alexander’s completely legal credit card.

Walking back in the direction of Tottenham Court Road carrying the shopping bags, he headed to the seedier end of the shopping street. One small shop that was little more than a booth sold phones and accessories. He stopped there, and ten minutes later had purchased a refurbished i-phone with charger, and a SIM card. The phone was unlocked and unregistered, and the SIM card was of the pay-as-you-go variety. He asked the young Indian guy to make the phone call to put one hundred pounds of credit on the SIM card, and handed over cash for all of it to the happy young man who said, “Have a nice day, sir”.

As he flagged down another cab, he wondered when saying that Americanism had become acceptable in London.

Gloria had convinced him to get the phone, worried that she wouldn’t be able to contact him when he was out. He knew he would have to make phone calls to Spain too, to speak to Chrissy and Rosa. At least the unregistered phone wouldn’t be traceable back to him.

The third cab of the day took him to a letting agent in East London. He told the sweaty man who ran the place that he needed a secure premises to use to store classic cars that he was buying and shipping over to America. He presented bank credentials in the name of Richard Alexander, as well as his passport to confirm his identity. The agent sensed money, and presented a pile of papers showing his flagship rental, a stand-alone warehouse on an industrial estate in Leyton. It had an alarm, and electric roller shutter doors. There was the added benefit of a staff bathroom, and separate office. He told Alan it was up for nine-fifty a month, six month minimum. When Alan didn’t reply, he said he was sure he could get it for eight hundred.

Letting his silence do the negotiating, Alan held the man’s gaze, lighting a cigarette without asking if smoking was allowed. By the time the man was mopping the sweat off of his head with a creased handkerchief, the counter offer was made. “Seven-fifty, to include all electricity. I will take it for six months, and pay you it all in advance now. Cash. You give me the alarm code and the keys, job done”. The man smiled and nodded, and Alan turned and removed four thousand five hundred pounds from the briefcase. Handing over the paperwork, code, and keys, the man extended a hand. “Pleasure to do business with you, Mister Alexander”. Alan ignored the sweaty mitt. “Can you phone me a cab from here? I doubt one will be passing. I will wait outside”.

He smoked two cigarettes before the minicab arrived. A fifteen year-old Mercedes diesel driven by an Arabic-looking bloke wearing a little white lace cap on his head.

Gloria takes a trip.

Over dinner that evening, Alan had a question for his sister. “Glor, your mate, Angie. Does she still live in Clacton?” Gloria swallowed a new potato before replying. “Yeah. She’s divorced now though. They sold up the big house, and she bought one of those timber lodges on a residential park. Very smart it is, all furniture included, and two nice bedrooms”. Dobbing some mint sauce onto his last lamb chop, Alan smiled. “Sounds nice. I think you should contact her, go down and see her for a few days. At least until your passport arrives. I’ll book a cab to take you there, save the hassle on the train”.

Gloria was no fool. “Is this about Frankie Toland? Is there going to be trouble?” He picked up the chop, intending to bite the meat out of it. “Yes, and yes”.

When the doorbell rang later, he looked out the side of the net curtain hanging in front of the glass panel before opening the door. It was Teddy Henderson.

In the front room, Teddy declined a drink. Maybe he was taking this seriously after all. “Al, Toland has eyes and ears all over, so I have come to let you know what I have sorted. Carl has his two men ready to go. One’s called Panda…” Alan stopped him. “Panda? What sort of name is that, Teddy?” Teddy seemed surprised that Alan didn’t know why. “’cause he has dark circles around his eyes. And the other is Mickey Moon. Remember his dad, Charlie? He was useful in the sixties. Lugs’s boy Kenny got in touch, and he has a straight-up bloke called Duggie as his number two. It’s all in hand, just waiting for the word”.

Alan didn’t remember Charlie Moon at all, but took Teddy’s word for it. He gave him another five hundred. “Thanks Teddy. All quiet for now, but I will be in touch once I have got Gloria off the manor”.

The taxi was booked for the next morning, and Gloria was packed for at least a week away. “Let me know when the passport comes, Alan, and I will come back”. He gave her two hundred extra for food and drink at Angie’s. “I’ll let you know, love. But you’re not coming back until it’s safe, okay?” When her case was in the taxi, and he was waving her goodbye, he felt more relaxed.

He had spotted the teenager sitting on the bmx bike at the side of the flats, and already knew that Toland would be having him watched. That was fine, let him know Gloria was out of the picture now, see what he did next.

Walking to Old Reg’s place, he deliberately didn’t look around, or behind him. He had told Frankie he would be seeing Reg, so it seemed normal enough. In the flat, Reg seemed relaxed. Alan tried to tell if he had maybe had a visit from Frankie, but if he had, he was covering it well. “Reg, it’s all in place. Now I just need a date from your man Graham. I want to be out of here by Christmas if I can, second week of January at the latest. Obviously I need a route to study, and some info from Graham on where to pull the job. I have the bolt-hole arranged, and the shooters can be delivered after one phone call. So get Graham on that as soon as, and no phone calls, okay?”

Pouring some more whisky, Reg nodded. “Leave it with me, Al”. Well, he was still nodding, but at least he wasn’t smiling too.

On the way back to Gloria’s, there was a really cold wind, and Alan was glad of his new overcoat. He had a lot to think about, so stopped off in a pub he didn’t know, ordered a large malt, and sat at a table in the corner. One good thing about all-day opening now, you didn’t have to wait until half-five to get a drink. Halfway down the second double, he had come to a decision. Frankie Toland was never going to let it go. With him still around, the job would either never happen, or go bent after. He swallowed the rest of the drink in one gulp, and left the pub.

It had started raining, and even the rain felt cold. He lit a cigarette, sheltering the flame of his lighter against the gusts on the corner.

He was going to have to deal with Frankie. No way round that.

Alan gets mobile.

With the rented warehouse in Leyton not easily accessible by taxi, Alan reluctantly decided he would need a car. He could have gone to see Lugs and sourced a motor that would pass muster for a couple of months, but he wasn’t going to chance having moody wheels while driving around getting things in order for the job.

Using the Internet on his phone, he checked out some car sales places, settling on one just outside Chelmsford, in Essex. He packed some things into a holdall he found in Gloria’s hall cupboard, and added a wad of cash too. Then he flagged down a cab at Highbury Corner and went to Liverpool Street Station where he caught a train to Chelmsford. Outside the station there, he took a local taxi to the car dealership.

He had deliberately chosen a rather downmarket place, as he didn’t want to be seen in one of the main franchise dealers, or the huge car supermarkets nearby. The car he had spotted on the website was still on the front. It was a six-year old Audi A4 in white, and the basic model. Marked up at a quid under four grand, it showed fifty-four thousand miles on the clock, which Alan didn’t believe for one second was genuine.

Seeing him walking around the car, a man quickly exited the blue-painted portakabin that served as an office. “Lovely little car there, sir. Full service history, all the papers in order, and it has been checked for oustanding finance. Ten months on the MOT, and immaculate inside. It’s ex-company, and nobody has ever smoked in it”. As if on cue, Alan lit a cigarette. “Drive me round the block in it, and if it doesn’t fall apart, we can talk a deal”. The car ran well enough, and sounded nice and quiet. It was a common model, in an unobtrusive colour. Just what he wanted.

Back at the portakabin, the salesman started to talk about finance, stopping when he saw the raised hand. “No finance, it will be cash. I am not interested in your extended warranty, or servicing deal. Three two for cash and I will pay you now”. The young woman sitting at the back waiting to answer the phones that didn’t seem to ring raised her eyebrows, and stopped filing her nails. The sound of Alan’s voice had thrown her. He sounded like someone not to mess around with.

The salesman tried to counter. “It has got five months remaining on the road tax you know, so how about three and a half?” Alan lit another cigarette, despite the sign on the desk that indicated no smoking. “Three-three, or I walk up the street and buy someone else’s car”. He reached into the holdall and dropped three one thousand pound piles onto the desk, adding six fifty-pound notes from inside his wallet.

With both keys, and the owner’s folder containing the MOT and service paperwork, Alan checked the registered keeper. It was a company name in Solihull, in the midlands. Ideal. He wouldn’t register it in his name, and any grief would go to the company. The man wrote him out a receipt. “Just your name and address for my paperwork, please sir?” Alan smiled. “Francis Toland, number eight Stonefield Street north one”.

He had given Frankie’s name, and his home address in Barnsbury. Outside sitting in the car, he rang Rosa in Spain. He gave her the registration number of the Audi, and told her to add it to the company insurance, making sure it would be noted that it was being driven in England. She should also email him a photo of the certificate.

Then he drove out onto the main road, in a completely legal vehicle.

After filling the car with petrol in the first garage he saw, the A12 road took him to the M25 motorway, and from there he turned off into Lakeside Shopping Centre. On a trading estate nearby, he parked outside a big camping shop. In there, he bought an inflatable mattress, some gloves, and a camping table with six folding chairs. On the way out, he stopped at the Tesco supermarket, buying a bulk pack of bottled water, some hand soap, shower gel, toothbrush and toothpaste, and toilet rolls. In the grocery area, he bought a box of tea bags, a jar of instant coffee, packet of sugar, and some biscuits. It was a really big Tesco, so he was happy to find he could get an electric kettle, a toaster, six mugs and plates, and some teaspoons and knives.

With the boot of the car full, and two of the folding chairs on the back seat, he headed for the warehouse in Leyton.

Frankie gets a payoff.

After dropping off the things he had bought in Essex at the Leyton warehouse, and making sure everything inside was working, and clean and tidy, Alan headed back to Gloria’s flat. Because he hadn’t registered the car yet, and had no intention of doing so, he couldn’t apply for a council permit to park on the estate. Instead, he left the car on a single yellow line on the street behind. He would move it later, so it didn’t get clamped. Meanwhile, if he got a parking ticket, it would first go to the company in Solihull for payment, and eventually pitch up at Frankie’s house.

That made Alan smile.

The kid on the bmx bike was still on the corner. As he spotted Alan walking in his direction, he kicked the pedal, intending to leave. Alan called out to him to stop, waving a fifty-pound note that the boy could see. That stopped him. “Whoever you’re working for, tell them to get it back to Frankie to meet me here in his car at eight tonight. I’ll be outside. Okay?” The boy nodded and reached out for the money, riding off as fast as his legs would turn. Then Alan walked to the Londis shop, where he bought a loaf of bread, some butter, and four pints of milk.

Back in the flat, he packed some more stuff into his suitcase, then rolled up the duvet and pillows from his bed before stuffing them into a bin-bag. In the bedroom, he got the jiffy bag out, checked the Ruger pistol once again, and added a pile of twenty-pound notes into the top of the padded envelope. With an hour or more to kill, he sat and watched the news on TV, drinking Black Label from a tumbler. At five to eight, he was dressed in a suit and overcoat, waiting on the corner outside. Carrying the well-stuffed jiffy bag, he was wearing a pair of Sealskin brand gloves he had bought in the camping shop. Not that smart, but warm and comfortable.

One of Frankie’s many luxury cars turned up, and he walked over to it. The big black guy got out and opened the back door. Frankie was inside, sitting behind the driver’s seat. The black guy pressed a hand against Alan’s chest. “Arms up, please. You know the drill”. He was very polite, and Alan held the jiffy bag aloft as the man patted him down to make sure he wasn’t carrying any weapons. Then he nodded at the envelope. “What’s in there?” Alan smiled, peeling back the opening to reveal all the twenties. “What you boss is here for old son”. When the big man nodded, he got in the back next to Frankie. “Let’s go for a drive somewhere quiet, Frankie. Ive got something for you”.

As the car drove off, Frankie held out his hand, a smug look on his face. Alan shook his head. “Not so fast, I want to talk about this first, I want some assurances”. Obviously content that he had the upper hand, Frankie Toland pulled his hand back. “It’s obvious you are planning a job, and all I am asking for is my fair share”. The car was heading east, along the Balls Pond Road. Halfway down, the driver turned into a housing estate and drove into an underground car park that provided shuttered parking for the residents. Then he turned off the engine.

Alan put his hand down inside the padded envelope and lifted it up level with the top of the driver’s seat. “This is just a sweetener, Frankie. Something to keep you off my back for now. I’m not sure the job will happen, but if it does, you can be sure you will earn well out of it”. He glanced at the driver, noticing the huge roll of shiny fat above the too-tight collar of his shirt, just below the base of his skull. Frankie shifted in his seat, keen to get the money. Alan reached down further, his gloved finger finding the trigger.

He shot the bodyguard twice in the back of the head. Firing through the padded envelope with the short silencer attached, it still made a loud crack inside the vehicle. The small-calibre bullets weren’t powerful enough to exit the skull, but they bounced around inside the man’s head, tearing up his brain.

Frankie was turning already, grabbing the door handle, hoping to escape. Alan shot him twice through his left eye, watching as Toland’s left leg jerked in some kind of spasm, trapping his shoe under the seat in front.

Making sure the ejected cartridges were inside the jiffy bag, Alan waited just long enough to be certain that both men were dead.

Alan goes to ground.

From his overcoat pocket, Alan removed the supermarket carrier bag he had brought with him, and placed the jiffy bag inside it. Only two pieces of the padded envelope wrapper had been blown away by the gunshots, and he picked those up and put them into the plastic bag. There might well be much smaller particles that forensics would find, but by then it would be long gone anyway. Unable to risk taking a taxi or public transport, he had a long walk back to Gloria’s, using small side streets to avoid the CCTV cameras outside most of the shops and larger buildings.

In the flat, he packed away the rest of the money into his case, and took the things he had bought in the Londis shop together with the duvet and pillows down to his car. One last trip back to lock up, and grab his case, and he was gone from the estate.

As he was driving to the warehouse in Leyton, a phone was ringing in a house in Bishop’s Stortford, north of London in Hertfordshire.

Detective Superintendent William ‘Chalky’ White hadn’t gone to bed yet. Just as well, as he was soon to be back out of the house, and driving down to Islington. Someone had shot Frankie Toland and his bodyguard, and the bodies had been found by a bloke coming home from a late shift and finding a fancy car parked across his space. On inspection, he had found two dead men inside. The first officers on scene knew full well who they were.

With less than nine months to go until he retired, Chalky wasn’t about to make much of a fuss over a couple of dead gangsters. Someone else would soon step into their vacant territory, and by next week, Toland would only be a memory, with old criminals boasting about how they knew him back in the day.

The crime scene was a nightmare. A detective inspector met his boss at the opening to the garages. “It’s a mess, guv. The local kids have been in and stripped everything portable. The wallets have gone, watches if they wearing them, and both mobile phones that they were probably carrying. If the driver had a shooter, that’s gone too. I reckon he did, ’cause we found a spare magazine in his inside pocket. Looks like a nine-mill. The car is covered in fingerprints, and there are footprints everywhere too. The scene of crime lot are shaking their heads already”. Chalky shook his head too. He needed a coffee.

In Leyton, Alan switched on the electric heater in the office. Then he walked into the staff toilet and knocked the smoke alarm off the ceiling above the door, using the handle of a mop he had found propped in the corner. Once he was sure he would not have the Fire Brigade calling, he burned the jiffy bag in one of the sinks, using some of the fuel for his Zippo lighter. When the office was warm enough, he used the built-in compressor to inflate the camping mattress, then made himself a cup of tea and some toast with the new kettle and toaster he had left there. There was no fridge, so he left the four-pint container of milk outside, where it was cold enough for it to stay fresh.

Sitting at the small folding table on one of the camping chairs, he opened a bottle of Black Label, poured a good slug and drank it from his tea mug. After returning to the toilet to brush his teeth, he got undressed and slipped under to duvet onto the squeaky and crackly plastic mattress.

Surprisingly tired, he fell asleep almost immediately.

At the three in the morning briefing for the murder squad, Chalky White surveyed the bleary-eyed group of police officers sitting around the table. He kept it short. “This is one hundred percent a contract killing we’re dealing with here. You will have to do the usual round of CCTV checks, black cabs, minicab firms, bus companies, traffic cameras, you know the drill. Check your informants, grasses, snouts, whatever you call them these days. But I will bet my left bollock that it will be an unknown hitman. Even if he’s smiling at the camera, we won’t have a fucking clue who he is”. He sat on the edge of the big table, and rubbed his wrinkled face.

“Our biggest problem is going to be the turf war, when they all try to claim Frankie’s territory”.

Keeping a low profile.

The inflatable mattress wasn’t the best thing Alan had ever slept on, but it was far from being the worst. After more toast and tea for breakfast, he used the mobile to ring Rupert Pennington at his shop.

“Hello, this is Mister Alexander. You may recall me ordering six items from you recently? I am now in a position to take delivery. I will text a post code to your phone, and if you reply with your bank details, I will arrange to have the money transferred this morning”. Rupert was savvy. “Oh yes, the Ming vases, the ones with no provenance. I remember, sir. Would around three this afternoon be convenient? I have a reliable courier who will be in an unmarked blue van”. Alan smiled. “I will be here, thank you”.

The text messages were sent, and a phone call made by Alan. Rupert’s money was in his account of choice by eleven that morning.

With time to spare, Alan washed and shaved in the staff bathroom, got dressed quickly, then walked up the street to a general store on the corner. He couldn’t live on toast forever. Buying some packets of ham and beef, he picked up some cheese snacks from the counter, and asked for six packets of cigarettes. The only other customer in the shop was an old lady trying to decide between two different chocolate bars. Returning to the warehouse, he made a beef sandwich that tasted so good, he made another one.

When the blue van turned up just after three, he opened the big front shutter so it could reverse in. The driver looked tough and stocky, probably ex-military. Alan helped him out with the long packing case, noting it was covered in some authentic-looking Chinese characters. The driver said just four words before leaving. “Nothing to sign for”. When the shutter was closed again, Alan realised he was going to need a claw hammer or crowbar to open the thing, and cursed himself for not thinking of that.

He drove the Audi east, until he found a small DIY shop on Lea Bridge Road. Risking parking on the main drag outside, he was in and out quickly after buying the claw hammer, and a couple of screwdrivers in case they came in useful later. Using both on the packing case, it still took some effort to get the lid off.

Keeping a low profile for a few days was going to be boring, but he had hunkered down in some worse places in the past. At least he could get things organised, starting with stripping down and cleaning the four pistols and two assault rifles. So far, only Rupert and the delivery driver knew where he was, and they could definitely be counted on to keep shtum.

Back on the borough, Chalky White and his team were dealing with the fallout of Frankie’s murder. Toland had never had a real number two man, preferring to run the show himself with his goons and strong-arm men to do the nasty stuff. Now everyone wanted a piece. Old-school East End gangsters were moving in on the gaming machines, and Albanians were after his girls. The big Somali gang wanted the street corners for drug dealing, and those guys were crazy. There were three non-fatal shootings and nine stabbings in two days, leaving the borough commander no option but to call in extra cops from other districts.

It was worth risking a quick visit to Teddy, to make arrangements. He lived in the City of London, far enough away from Islington not to be in turmoil. Alan parked legally on a meter some streets away, and walked for ten minutes to get to Teddy’s. “I will be calling the first meet this weekend, Teddy. I need your blokes, and you will have to get a message to Old Reg for me. Tell him to get Graham and come to my warehouse on Saturday morning. And Lugs needs to tell his boy Kenny to be there with that Duggie. I want everyone there at the same time, say eleven, okay?”

Writing the address down on the back of an envelope, he held it up to Teddy’s face. “As soon as you have passed this on, burn this envelope. And no phones or text messages, Teddy. You tell them face to face. They can write it on their hands and wash it off after. You got that?” Teddy smiled. “Count on me, Alan”. Leaving him another hundred for cabs, Alan left before his meter time expired.

As he walked back to the car, he was hoping he really could count on Teddy.

Saturday, 11 am.

First to arrive that morning were Kenny Allison and his mate Duggie. Alan had the shutter open, and waved them in. They had turned up in a newish Range Rover, and he was straight on them. “Kenny, this motor better not be bent mate. I can’t have you fucking this up before it’s even started”.

Kenny looked offended, but replied respectfully. “No chance, Mister Gill. This motor is pukka, registered to me at my business. You can think of it as a company car”. Duggie looked useful. Young, but then Alan guessed he might be. “You up for this, Duggie? Tell me now, no shame son”. The young man nodded. “One hundred percent, Mister Gill”.

Five minutes later, Reg drove in with Graham in the passenger seat. Alan had set up the six chairs in front of the folding table, and told them to take a seat. “Just waiting for Teddy and his crew now”. They had to wait for another fifteen minutes before Carl drove in. He was driving a campervan of all things, and Teddy got out with another bloke. As he didn’t have dark circles around his eyes, Alan presumed he must be Mickey Moon. He walked up to Carl sitting in the driving seat. “Where’s the other one, this Panda geezer?”

Carl looked sheepish, and his voice was squeakier than before. “Sorry, Mister Gill. He’s got toothache, abcess or summat like that”. Unable to contain his anger, Alan shouted loud enough to make the others turn round. “Toothache? What have you got a note from his fucking mum? Go and get him, and don’t come back without him. Or I will find him and knock all his teeth out with a fucking hammer. Then he won’t have to worry about them aching”.

The campervan reversed out at speed, and Alan turned to Teddy, shaking his head at him. “Go and make the teas, Teddy. All the stuff’s in the office over there”.

They had to wait a full forty minutes until Carl returned with Panda. Despite the size and build of the man, Alan was openly sarcastic. “Where do you live, Panda? Fucking Southend? Or did Carl have to get you from London Zoo”. He wanted to tell Alan that there are no Pandas in London Zoo, but instead just replied, “Sorry, Mister Gill”.

Once everyone was sat down, except Carl and Alan, he closed the shutter.

“Right then, we all know why we are here. More to the point, I want everyone to take a good look at everyone else. This is it. The crew, the team, whatever you like. Memorise everyone’s face, because if anyone grasses, you will know where to find them and what they look like. Graham, get up here and tell us us something. Like a date, a location, stuff like that”.

Graham stood in front of the table, holding a folded map. He was so nervous, you would have thought he was addressing a crowd of thousands, rather than a small group of disparate criminals in an East London Warehouse. “We have a run to Debden, before Christmas. They issue a lot of new notes for the Christmas season, so usually get rid of a lot of the old ones beforehand. The date is almost four weeks from now, on a Thursday morning. As for the place, I marked it on this map. It’s a lay-by, so there’s no address or postcode”. He unfolded the map, showing them a small area outlined with a yellow highlighter pen. Then he continued.

“We go up the M11, then turn off. On the London Road, a few miles from the works, there’s a lay-by. I will tell my number two I need a piss, and stop in there, leaving the door open for a while. I can switch off the tracker/locator, but that would alert security. Best to leave it on, as they won’t query me being in the same place for at least twenty minutes. Could be stuck in traffic, something like that. Your vans should already be in the lay-by. When I get out, you jump us. Threaten me with a gun, and I give you the code to disable the alarm when you open the back. But you will really only have about fifteen minutes to be safe. Then when you’ve gone, we can call it in as a robbery, on the radio in the lorry. I will be in the shit for that, and might get sacked. But there’s enough money in it for me to take my chance”.

Reg was nodding, but fortunately not smiling.

Saturday, 3pm.

“Before everyone goes today, I want to mention one last thing”. Alan was wondering how much everyone had taken in, and had gone over the details so many times he was sick of listening to his own voice. “On the day of the job, there will be no names used. If you need to say anything to someone else, use a number. That should be easy enough to remember, so get used to it. I am One, Carl is Two, Panda Three. Mickey, you’re four. Kenny is five, and Duggie six. Get those numbers inside your heads, and from the time we leave on that morning, no names at all”.

Panda’s hand was raised, like some kid in a classroom.

“What is it, Panda? Alan was in no mood for his nonsense after the toothache thing earlier. “Well, could I swap with Mickey? Only I don’t like odd numbers. Reckon they’re unlucky”. Alan lit a cigarette, shaking his head with exasperation. Then he shouted his reply. “No! You’re three. Grow up, and live with it! First the teeth, now this! Come on, for fuck’s sake!” He turned to the others. “And while I am talking about people being late and no-shows, remember this. If anyone doesn’t show up on the day of the job, take it from me you will be in deep shit. I don’t care if your old mum has dropped dead in front of you, or your house is on fire. You will be here, okay? Right, that’s it until next time”.

As they were leaving, he pulled Kenny to one side. “Can you get me a parking permit for Gloria’s estate, Kenny? I’m fed up eating toast and sleeping on an air-bed. I need to get back on the manor next week. The reg number is the one on that white Audi parked at the back. It’s a straight motor, so the permit has to be kosher”. Kenny smiled. “Leave it with me, Mister Gill. I will put it in an envelope and post it through your sister’s door on Monday afternoon”. Alan gave him two hundred pounds. “That should cover it, Kenny”.

When everyone had gone, he phoned Gloria. She was at the bingo with her mate. “I will be back at your flat on Monday afternoon, Glor. If you want to come home next week, let me know, and I will send a cab for you”. There was a pause. “Is it alright if I stay a bit longer, Alan? I’m having a really nice time”. He was pleased to hear that. “Stay a bit longer if you want, darlin’. But remember you will have to go to Spain by the end of next month”.

Unable to face any more sandwiches, at six that evening he drove up to the High Road and bought himself some fish and chips. “Stick a wally on that, and two of those big pickled onions please, love”. They were eaten sitting in the car, while they were still hot. Fish and chips had never tasted so good, even though they served them up in a polystyrene box these days.

The last two nights in the warehouse were really boring, but Alan studied Graham’s map until he thought his eyes would bleed, and made a lot of notes so the details would get into his brain. They were all burned in the sink before he left on Monday morning. The packing case with the guns inside was covered with some blue plastic sheeting he had found up the side of the building. If anyone broke in, it should just look like a pile of rubbish in the corner.

Locking up securely, he drove east, heading for the M11 motorway. Before returning to Islington, he wanted a look at the lay-by Graham had marked. Pulling into it less than an hour later, he had to admit he was impressed. It was certainly long enough for three large vehicles, and screened from the main road by some bushes and trees. To the left of it was a field, and the nearest houses were right over the other side of that. Graham had chosen well. Alan had to consider that he had underestimated the bloke.

By the time he got back to Gloria’s and unloaded his stuff, the envelope containing the permit was on the mat. He went straight back down to the car and stuck it on the window.

One less thing to have to worry about.

Going over things.

If the police were still interested in Frankie’s murder, they weren’t putting themselves about much in the area where he used to live. Alan was relieved to see no more coppers than usual around the estate, and presumed they were concentrating their investigation on the area where the bodies had been found, off the Balls Pond Road. He was keeping away from the usual pubs, not wanting to get involved in any conversations about Toland’s sudden departure from this life.

Being in the flat on his own gave him time to think. He was about to embark on a very serious bit of work with a crew that he didn’t really know. Kenny seemed up for it, and his mate Duggie looked the part. Despite his squeaky voice, he reckoned he could count on Carl, but his mate Panda was a worry. Mickey Moon was trading on his old man’s reputation, so he was an unknown quantity. As he sat sipping a large scotch that Monday evening, he thought seriously about jacking it all in, sending the guns back to Rupert, and cutting his losses.

So far, the front-money hadn’t been too much to walk away from. He could pick up Gloria, leave the Audi at the airport, and be back in Spain by next weekend. The thought was tempting.

But not as tempting as the money he might get from that job.

Graham’s idea was basic, but very workable. They would need to drop the two changeover vehicles somewhere not too far early that morning. Fifteen minutes on scene was plenty of time. Ten would be enough, five at a pinch. But it all depended on everyone doing as they were told on the day, and after the event. Alan’s trump card was that he was unknown to the police, and that was mainly thanks to Teddy Henderson. But his name would now be known to the five others on the job, as well as Graham, Reg and Lugs. And Teddy of course. That in itself didn’t matter too much, as long as he got his sister away so they couldn’t trace him through her.

Nobody knew about Richard Alexander, except Rupert, and the letting agent. But Rupert couldn’t grass, not if he wanted to stay in business. And stay alive. As for the agent, he would get his keys back, and a nice clean warehouse with just one broken smoke alarm. No reason to think he would be any the wiser, or associate the rental with a robbery near Debden.

He woke up with a start, just before five in the morning. He had forgotten something. It was a detail, but a crucially important one. He sat on the edge of the bed and punched the side of his head in frustration. How could he have been so stupid?

The kid on the bmx bike. He had taken the message about Frankie meeting him that night.

Alan had told him to get Frankie to pick him up on the corner at eight. And he had no idea who the kid had passed that message on to, before it filtered up to Frankie himself. If that kid had any sense, he would know full well that Frankie was picking up a bloke not long before he was shot, even if he didn’t know the bloke’s name. Someone else might know it. Someone higher up in the chain of command.

After that, he couldn’t get back to sleep. No chance he could shoot a kid who was probably only about thirteen, and avoid a huge police investigation on Gloria’s doorstep. Paying him to keep quiet wasn’t an option, as he was bound to brag about that to someone. He decided to go and have a bath, despite the hour. No point dwelling over something he couldn’t change. There was no option but to wait and see if anyone came calling.

Just as well Gloria had decided to stay in Clacton for now.

Not long after ten, he was ringing Teddy’s doorbell. If his old friend had been on the booze again, he didn’t look like it when he opened the door. Upstairs in the flat, Alan went over some things he needed to be done.

“We are going to need some sort of overalls. The zip-up type, dark colour, all the same. Then boots, like army boots. Matching gloves, and some face coverings like those SAS soldiers wear. And sunglasses, each pair the same. The only thing different about any of the team on the day will be height and size. Can your man Carl sort all that, Teddy?” He removed a pile of cash from his coat pocket and placed it on the coffeee table. “This should be enough. Oh, that Panda character. You sure he’s staunch? He seems like a complete fucking idiot to me, Teddy”. Teddy picked up the money, and smiled.

“He’s as thick as two short planks, but as tough as nails. He’ll do what he’s told, Al”.

Things to do.

The following Monday, Alan was at Rupert Pennington’s shop moments after opening time. Rupert seemed surprised to see him. “Any trouble with the goods I sent, old love?” Alan turned the ‘OPEN’ sign, and slipped the bolt on the door. “Nothing like that, I need some information”.

Rupert showed him through to the back room, and poured some whisky from a decanter into two glasses. “I know it’s early, but why the hell not? What can I do for you, Alan love?”

“I am going to need to get something out of the country before Christmas. By boat, for choice. I’m not asking questions about how you get your guns in, but I’m guessing that they don’t arrive by parcel post?” The debonair man smiled as he sipped his drink. “How big might this something be? Are we talking a back of the car something, or a full ship’s hold something?”

Alan put his glass down, and lit a cigarette. “Something square, that will fill up the back of a normal light van”. Rupert relaxed. “In that case, it’s no problem. I have a contact who does reglular runs from Felixstowe to Rotterdam, and he’s sure to be able to fit that in”.

Alan was shaking his head. “Not Rotterdam. I need it to go to Bilbao, in Spain. Can you sort out the customs paperwork too, Rupert?” Waving a hand in the air, the dealer replied. “Paperwork is not an issue, leave that to me. You will be best to put your load into a small container, and hide it under something with a strong odour, in case the cargo is searched by sniffer dogs,. They are trained to smell out all kinds of things these days. Fish-meal fertilizer is a favourite, horrible pong from that, old love. But Bilbao will be a chore for my man. That will double the price, I’m afraid”.

Thinking quietly for a while, Alan risked asking another favour. “Can you do all that arranging for me? There’s a good earner in it for you”. Rupert was shaking his head. “Not all, Alan love. I can get a container delivered, and the fish-meal. The paperwork can be left up to me too. But you are going to have to go to Felixstowe and see my man with the payment. Cash only, and he won’t work for anyone he hasn’t met in person. Even on my recommendation. He will know it’s bent, whatever it is, so I’m sorry to say you are looking at fifty grand for him, old love”. Rupert might well be beefing up the price to get some bunce for himself, but Alan was in no position to argue.

“Okay, write down the contact details for me. If he is going to be in Felixstowe next Saturday, I will meet him somewhere and pay him. The date is not fixed in stone yet, so it will have to be short notice. I will ring you here at the shop and give you the date in some sort of code, like a phone number or something. What do I owe you for your end, the paperwork and such?” He swallowed the last of the scotch and stood up, reaching into his coat pocket.

Rupert shrugged. “Call it fifteen hundred, old love”. Laying the cash on the desk, Alan realised he was going to have to go to his bank again, and get the cash out for the ship’s captain. “I will give you the date when the shipping container should be delivered, and arrange to be there on the day. It’s the same address you sent the vases to”.

The men shook hands, and ten minutes later, Alan was in a taxi heading for his bank. Less than an hour later, he was back on the street holding another complimentary briefcase, this time containing sixty thousand pounds. He had got the extra ten, just in case something came up.

After getting back to the flat and stashing the cash, he got his phone and rang his sister. She was in a cafe, just finishing a late breakfast. “Glor, text me the address of your mate’s place. I will come and pick you up next Saturday. I’ve got a car now, so no need to send a cab. I should be there late afternoon, okay?” She sounded a bit cool, but agreed. “Alright, love. See you then”.

He had the feeling that Gloria was disappointed about having to come home.

A road trip to Suffolk and Essex.

The call came from Rupert. The ship’s captain would meet him at the old Martello Tower in Felixstowe, south of the beach. The time arranged was midday, next Saturday. Alan had a question. “How will I know him, Rupert?” The dealer chuckled. “It’s off-season, and the old tower is in a kid’s playground. I’ve given him a rough description of you, but I’m guessing you two will be the only middle-aged men there, old love. By the way, your small container is arriving on Friday morning, I trust you can be there?”

Making sure he was there by eight that Friday, he only had to wait an hour until the truck turned up with the container on the back. There was a lifting device on the side of the truck to take it off, and Alan waved the driver into the warehouse before closing the shutter. It was the same bloke who had delivered the guns in the blue van, and he connected some straps on the container to his small crane thing, and lowered it onto the floor at the back of the building.

“The fish-meal is already in there. If you give Mister Pennington a ring when you want it collected and taken to Felixstowe, I can be here within an hour after the call”. Alan offered the man two fifty pound notes as a tip, but he shook his head. “No need, it’s all covered”.

After locking up, Alan drove down and parked near Teddy’s place. He was at home, and they had a very short chat. “Teddy, I need you to arrange a meet. Sunday week, at the same place. No Reg or Lugs this time, or you. Just the team for the job, and Graham. Reg can drive Graham if he wants, but he will be staying in the car”. Teddy nodded. “Okay, Al. Carl has got the overalls and that other stuff, I’ll tell him to bring it”.

On Saturday morning, Alan got to Felixstowe early. He parked in a seafront car park that was almost empty, then walked south to find the Martello Tower. He wanted a good look around, to make sure there were no suspicious characters loitering nearby. It was so cold and windy that morning, the playground was deserted, and there was hardly anyone on the seafront except a few dog-walkers on the beach. Finding a cafe open, he sat at a table near the window, taking his time over tea and a fried egg sandwich.

He was back at the park well before twelve, and saw someone standing by the side of the old tower. Not what he expected, but then his idea of sea captains came from films and books. The man was wearing a dark padded coat, and one of those hats with ear-flaps. When he spotted Alan, he waved him over.

The conversation was brief. “I’m Visser. I wanted to see you, but I will only deal with Pennington, okay? You tell him when the container is ready for collection, and he will give me the details I need to get it on my ship. Bilbao is a pain in the arse for me. That’s why it costs more. I don’t want no trouble with you, okay? So we won’t meet again. I will tell Pennington the load number and references, and where it can be collected in Bilbao”.

His Dutch accent was strong, but he spoke perfect English. He held his hand out for the briefcase Alan was carrying. Deciding there was nothing more to say, Alan gave him the case, then turned and walked back to where his car was parked. Rupert must have told the bloke not to cross him, there was no need to threaten him twice.

The drive from there to Clacton took less than an hour, but it took him another twenty minutes to find the lodge park where Gloria was staying. He hadn’t seen Angie for over thirty years, but would have still recognised her. Gloria looked grumpy. “What’s wrong, Glor?” She shrugged. “I was having such a nice time here with Ang, and now I’ve got to go to Spain and be on my own ’til you get there”. Alan had an idea.

“Ang, you got a passport?” She nodded. “Okay, pack a case, get your passport, and lock your place up. You can go to Spain with Gloria. I’ll get your tickets next week”. Gloria squealed with delight, and her friend scampered off into her bedroom to start packing.

His sister hugged him, and kissed his cheek. “Thanks, love. You’re a diamond”.

The second meet.

Alan went to the travel agent near Islington Town Hall and bought two Iberia Airlines direct flight tickets from Heathrow to Barcelona for Gloria and Angie. One way, that was all that was needed for now. They were due to fly out on Friday, and he had managed to arrange for Chrissie to collect them at El-Prat airport and take them to his villa. Rosa had been told to make sure she looked after them when they got there, and money had been transferred so Gloria could ask Rosa for whatever she needed.

After almost a week of having them both fussing around at the flat, he was pleased to wave them goodbye when they got in the taxi that morning. Gloria had a couple of thousand in her handbag to keep the pair ticking over until he got there.

With no more to do until the next meet, he took himself into Chinatown by cab, and had a slap-up meal in one of the best restaurants there.

On the Sunday, he was at the warehouse early. Once everyone had arrived, he stood at the folding table and addressed the smaller group. “Okay, gents. Strip off down to your underpants, and put all your phones into this”. He walked around each person holding a plastic box with a hinged lid. When every mobile phone was inside, he took it into the office and left it there.

Graham was still dressed.

“Down to your skivvies please, Graham. I have to be one hundred percent sure nobody is wearing a wire. Especially you. Don’t make me come over and undress you. You won’t like that, I can tell you now”.

When he had inspected the assembled crew, he was satisfied. “Okay, get dressed, and listen up”.

“We are going to work next Thursday. Kenny, what’s happening with the vans?” Kenny stood up, still buttoning his shirt. “Got them all. The two white vans are in our yard. False plates, but relating to similar white vans. We have a Post Office van and a Telephone Company van for the switch. Again, false plates, but they come back as the proper vans. They are in one of our lock-ups, and we will drop them off in a car park in Epping Forest before the job. I have one bloke extra to ferry us around on that morning, but I am vouching for him, and paying him from my cut”.

Nodding, Alan continued. “Good man, Kenny. The extra bloke is down to you, so make sure he’s solid. Graham, is it all still on as planned?” Graham stood up. “Yes, Mister Gill. We will be in that lay-by before ten that morning. I guarantee that”. Alan smiled. “Don’t forget you are guaranteeing that with your life, Graham. Stitch me up, and you won’t ever find any place to hide”. Graham sallowed hard, and sat down.

His voice hard and menacing, Alan continued. “There is going to be a lot of cash knocking around after this job, and I will be taking fifty percent before any sharing. I have put up a shitload of front money. Talking of which, Carl, I will weigh you up for the kit before you leave, okay?” Carl nodded. “So we meet here on Thursday morning, at four. You had better all set an alarm, because a no-show is not going to cut it with me. You will all get the guns then, and I will say this just once. Don’t fire them unless there is absolutely no alternative. Graham, you and your mate are going to have to be roughed up a bit, so it looks good. Okay?”

Graham swallowed even harder. He was a man who had never been roughed up. “If you say so, Mister Gill”.

Alan lit a cigarette. “Right, you can all fuck off until Thursday. Not a word about this job to anyone. And I mean anyone”.

After locking up and driving back to the flats, Alan went to the Londis shop to buy cigarettes and whisky. He decided to grab a pizza while he was there. Ten minutes to cook, and no messing around with veg or anything.

As he walked back to Gloria’s, he didn’t notice the kid on the bmx across the road.

Final preparations.

News from Spain was good. Gloria and Angie loved the villa, and Chrissie was showing them around the town. Despite being out of season, there were still enough tourists to make the place feel lively. Letting his sister her take her friend had definitely been a good idea.

Another run out to the lay-by would have been nice, but Alan resisted the urge. He didn’t want his car showing up on traffic cameras in that area so soon before the job. Although everything seemed to be going to plan, there was so much to think about. No cops had come around asking questions, so he was fairly sure nobody had mentioned his name or description, not even that kid on the bike.

Time to be thankful for Frankie having those blacked-out windows in the backs of his cars.

By Tuesday, he had packed up all of his stuff except for what he needed until Thursday. He would leave it in the flat, then collect it that night. His flight to Spain had been booked in the name of Richard Alexander, a scheduled flight with British Airways for Friday evening. He would be travelling like a regular businessman, returning from a trip to London. If he did get a spin because of the robbery, no chance they would consider him to be a suspect. Well, hopefully not, anyway.

It was a chance he would have to take. No way was he hanging around in London any longer than necessary.

On Wednesday, he made his last visit to Rupert’s shop. The collection of the container was booked for four in the afternoon on Thursday. Rupert told him the container would go on board the ship on Friday sometime, and then there were seven sailing days to Bilbao. Once it was off-loaded, he would get a text with the container number, and a fax sent to his company in Tossa with authorisation to collect it. Then Alan would have to hire a local trucking company to do the pick up. It all seemed right.

He spoke to Rupert about the guns. “If we don’t have to use them, your man can collect them with the container. Don’t worry about the refund, that’s my present for all your help. If any are used, I will give them all to one of the blokes on the job. He’s ex-army, and will know what to do with them. If I don’t see you again, thanks for all you have done”. The dealer extended a hand. “The pleasure was all mine, Alan old love”.

Looking over some maps that evening, Alan went over routes from where they would spring the job, back to the warehouse. One of the swap vehicles would take the long southern route back, the other direct along the main road. He didn’t want them to be seen together, or driving in some kind of convoy. Kenny and his mate would get rid of the white vans, then meet the others back at the warehouse using straight cars.

Carl had his instructions to take away all the overalls, boots and disguises, as well as any maps and paperwork. The warehouse would be left completely empty. Alan would go to the office of the letting agent before it closed, drop off the keys, and bung him twenty quid for a new smoke alarm. Then give him some excuse about having to wrap up his business before Christmas, and not ask for a refund of the unused rental period.

Chalky White was briefing his murder investigation team. “Okay, two men shot, hit-man style, very clean and neat. No suspects, but obviously someone paid this guy to hit Frankie. His bodyguard had to go of course, just because he was there. Nothing worth looking at on CCTV, and a shitload of grief as other arseholes try to pick over Toland’s scraps. That’s calming down now, and it seems like the Albanians have grabbed his hookers, and the Somalis are now able to deal drugs on street corners without getting their arses kicked. Jimmy Reid’s lot have moved into the gaming machines and protection rackets, but we know about those fuckers, so that’s manageable”.

He rubbed his face, and took a sip of his coffee. Everyone watching knew that he would have a large scotch in there.

“We have to ask the question. Why? Why now, after all this time? My guess is that Toland’s lot were planning a big job. Another safe deposit caper, ot something like the Brinks Mat gold robbery. Someone else wanted in, and didn’t get in. So he took Frankie out, and now he’s going to do it himself”. The team were staring at their boss as if he was talking in a foreign language, which upset him.

“Get your arses out on the ground. Shake a few trees, and see where the coconuts fall”.

Thursday, early morning.

For Alan, the easiest way not to oversleep was to not go to sleep in the first place. So he was at the warehouse not long after three in the morning. There had been no message from Teddy or Reg that would have meant a cancellation, therefore he had to presume that Graham was going to work and doing the run as planned. Everyone knew their routes, and Kenny would show up later, after dropping the changeover vans in Epping Forest.

It was around a thirty minute drive from Leyton to the lay-by. At peak time, most of the traffic would be heading into London, not out of it, so he didn’t anticipate any problems, unless there was some kind of bad accident on either the M25 or M11. He was feeling surprisingly calm, but then he always had been like that in the old days.

Fifteen minutes before four, he opened the shutter high enough to let cars in. His Audi was parked up the side, out of the way. No sooner had he raised the shutter when Carl appeared in his motor-caravan. He drove straight in, and Alan could see Panda and Mickey Moon in the front too. Panda got out holding a cardboard box. “We stopped at an all-night cafe near Smithfield Market. Bacon sandwich each, and tea for everyone”. He seemed surpised that Kenny and Duggie were not there. “They will have to have theirs cold then”.

The two white vans appeared just after four-thirty. The shutter was raised a bit to let them reverse in, then closed for privacy.

Alan waited until sandwiches and teas were finished before speaking. “There are bin-bags over there, everything goes in them. Get your gloves on before changing into the overalls and boots Carl has brought. Let’s try to keep fingerprints and forensics down to a minimum. Don’t put the sunglasses on yet. It’s December, and cold. But put them on before we jump the truck, and don’t take them off until after the swap in Epping Forest”.

He pointed to the guns laid out on the camping table. “Don’t touch those without gloves. Carl and Panda, you take an AK each. There is only one magazine, no spare ammo. Mickey, you, Kenny, and Duggie take a pistol. They are already loaded, so don’t play with the triggers”.

After putting on the gloves, each man took the weapon allocated to him. Ten minutes later, they were all dressed in identical overalls, wearing identical boots. Alan was stuffing their clothes, including his own, into black plastic sacks. “We will change back later, and Carl will take the overalls, boots, everything else, and burn them. Kenny, here’s a key for the white Audi. Can you arrange to have it picked up tomorrow from my sister’s estate? Crush it, or sell it, I don’t care. It’s a clean motor, but I will have no use for it”. Kenny nodded as he took the key.

Just after six, Alan put a Colt Python into the leg pocket of his overalls. “Right boys, let’s make a move. Carl, you ride with Duggie, Panda in the back. I will go with Kenny, and Mickey in the back. No need to stay in sight. There are plenty of white working vans around at this time, but let’s not look like we mean to be together. Duggie, you set off now. I will lock up, then we will see you in the lay-by”.

When Kenny pulled into the lay-by at ten minutes before seven, Duggie’s van was already there, at the other end of the space.

They just had to sit and wait. Everyone had taken a piss before leaving, so nobody was allowed to get out and walk around. The three-hour wait felt like ten hours, and Alan had to stub his numerous cigarettes out inside the van, rather than fling the butts out of the window. It was almost ten before the white lorry pulled in. It was bigger than Alan had expected, and just about had room to park in the gap left between the two vans of the robbers.

When the passenger door opened, Alan shouted. “GO! GO! GO!”.

A busy ten minutes in Debden.

Graham did his best to look surprised, even though he raised his hands a little too early. Carl pointed the AK through the open door at the driver, and Panda opened the other door and dragged him out unceremoniously.

Both men were taken behind the lorry, and Carl shouted at Graham. “Come with me! What’s the code?” Kenny and Duggie were positioning the vans as best they could as Graham gave the code to Carl, who pressed the six numbers into the keypad at the rear.

As the door was swung open without setting off any alarm, Panda smacked the terrified driver over the head with the AK, then dragged him underneath the vehicle.

Inside, they could see the wire cages full of notes wrapped tightly in plastic. Alan shouted at Graham. “How much in each packet?” Visibly trembling, Graham replied after wetting his dry mouth with his tongue. “Two hundred and fifty grand in each one. Five mill in each cage, eight cages”. Alan nodded at Carl, who cracked Graham over the head with the AK, then rolled him under the lorry next to the driver. “You two stay still, and not a word!”, he bellowed at them.

It was easy enough to work out. Eight cages amounted to forty million quid in unmarked, used twenties. Alan’s heart was beating faster now.

He turned to Carl and Panda. “We will take half. Empty two cages into each van. Any longer, and we might get rumbled”. With Mickey Moon helping, the four men got busy. Carl was inside the back, throwing out the plastic-wrapped bundles. Alan, Panda and Mickey grabbed them and ran to the vans, flinging them into the back through the open doors. As soon as one van had forty packets in the back. Alan closed the doors and shouted at Duggie. “Off you go, and take it easy!”

The second van was loaded even faster, with Kenny helping. Then the others jumped in the back, sitting on top of the stacks of cash. Kenny slammed the doors, and drove out of the lay-by, taking it steady, and using his indicator as he rejoined the road. Nobody was talking, and all of them were breathing very hard, pulling off the masks that were making their faces hot.

From the time they had threatened Graham and the driver, until they were almost a mile away from the scene, only ten minutes had passed. Panda started chuckling as he patted the stacks he was sitting on. Alan waggled a finger at him. “No laughing until we are clear, and back at the warehouse. And let’s all hope that Duggie hasn’t driven his van to somewhere we don’t know about”. That wiped the smile from Panda’s face.

Although the drive to Epping Forest was less than ten miles, they had to use back roads and lanes where possible, to avoid too many CCTV camera captures. When Kenny drove into the forest car park almost forty-five minutes after the job, Duggie had already loaded the cash into the Telephone Company van and opened the doors of the Post Office van to be ready. With all six men helping, the job van as soon unloaded. Alan nodded at Kenny and Duggie.

“Well done boys. I will drive the red van, and Carl is driving the Phone one. You lose the white vans and I will see you back at the warehouse, okay?” He turned to the others. “Panda, you’re with me, Mickey, you go with Carl. Don’t forget, you’re going south, the long way round, and we will go straight from here to Leyton”. As they drove out of the car park, Panda turned to Alan. “We didn’t need those numbers after all. So I was number three for nothing”.

Lighting a cigarette. Alan let that remark go.

There were so many Post Office vehicles on the road into East London, the van never got a second glance. They were back in the warehouse less than an hour after leaving the forest car park. Opening the heavy door of the shipping container, Alan unloaded the packets from the van and stacked them inside. Then he covered the stack with the bags of fertiliser that were already in there. Panda was screwing up his face. “What a stink!”

Carl didn’t get back for another hour, and he looked nervous. “It’s bound to be all over the news by now”. Alan smiled. “Calm down. Reg will be here soon, to collect Graham’s cut, and Teddy’s too. Meanwhile you can sort out the rest. One stack for Graham, one for Teddy, another for Lugs. One each for Duggie and Kenny when they show up. Then the rest is a three-way split for you blokes. I’ve already got my half”. He looked at the three men carefully.

If they had intended to jump him and take everything, now would be the time.

Thursday afternoon.

Chalky White was banging a fist on his desk as he shouted at his team. “See? What did I tell you? One of the biggest cash jobs in living memory. Twenty plus mill in untraceable wonga, smooth as a snake sliding across shit! Has to have Toland’s name on it. Everyone else capable is either too old, or banged up in clink. Get Essex on the phone for me. I will tell those country cops we will be shaking every bush and rattling every cage. I bet my left bollock that money is in London”.

As Chalky raged in his incident room, a few miles away in East London Alan Gill was tidying up. Kenny and Duggie had arrived for their cut, and to collect a packet for Lugs. Reg had already been and gone, taking the cuts for Graham and Teddy Henderson. Carl, Mickey, and Panda had stripped out the fittings in the motor caravan, loaded all the money in, then refitted them with considerable difficulty.

There had been no trouble. No hijack by the mercenaries. Alan had been relieved, in all honesty. They could have taken him out and scarpered with the lot. But they weren’t real criminals, not like him. Maybe it just never occurred to them. He had given Carl all the guns. “You take these, Carl. I’m sure you will know someone who will buy them off you”. The big man seemed touchingly grateful. “Thanks a lot, Mister Gill, that’s kind of you”.

Alan had made only one speech, and he had made it to each of them before they left the warehouse. “Don’t flash the money. Keep your cool, and for fuck’s sake, whatever else you do, leave it until after Saturday, when I am back in Spain. After that, it’s up to you. You’re all grown men, so if you get rumbled, it’s your own fault”. Truth be told, he wasn’t unduly worried about any of them being caught, or grassing. They only knew him as Alan Gill, and where his sister Gloria lived. But she wasn’t there, and he was Richard Alexander.

By three in the afternoon, Alan was alone in the warehouse. As he waited for the container to be picked up, he cleaned everything anyone might have touched. Even though his fingerprints were not on file, he didn’t want them to be found, or any DNA samples either. Carl had taken all the work clothes, gloves, boots, masks, and sunglasses. He had to be trusted to get rid of them. Kenny had left both the job vans at a breaker’s yard in Dagenham, where they would be crushed. Then him and Duggie had left in the swap vans, taking them to the same place.

He reckoned he had covered everything. Just the container collection to come. There was a niggle though. As he took a break from cleaning, and stacked the table and chairs he would be leaving behind in the warehouse, he couldn’t help thinking it had all been too easy. Even that twit Graham hadn’t messed up, and taken his clump over the head with no trouble. Panda had done okay, despite worries that he would do something stupid. He stopped and lit a cigarette, knowing he would have to put the butt in the rubbish bag he would take when he left.

Ten million was a lot of money, even now. The airport job had netted him just over a million-two, twenty-five years earlier. That was a shitload of money back then, and this was easily on a par. Him and Gloria would never have to worry about anything, ever again. As long as it showed up in Bilbao, as arranged.

The arrival of the lorry to get the container snapped him out of it. The same bloke, a bit chattier this time. He closed the container properly, and put a seal through the handle. “This should be in Felixstowe before seven tonight. I will give Mister Pennington the storage number, and he will contact the captain for you, okay?” Alan nodded, not feeling talkative. Once the small container was on the lorry, Alan put his suit jacket and overcoat on, then had a last look around.

Two of Chalky’s detectives found Teddy Henderson in a Tesco Metro near Liverpool Street Station. His was one of the few names that had come up. An armed robber, not long out of prison, with a weak link to Frankie Toland in the old days. They got him into their car, and said they were going to nick him for the Debden job. Teddy laughed. He had the best alibi they had ever heard, he told them. He was so drunk last night, he had fallen over in Fortune Street, on his way back from the pub. An ambulance had taken him to hospital, unconscious, and with a large cut over his right eye.

He hadn’t been discharged until eleven-thirty that morning. Ninety minutes after the Debden job had gone down.

Thursday evening.

To the bits of rubbish in the black sack, Alan added the kettle, toaster, mugs and everything else he had used during his earlier stay there. The bedding and inflatable mattress had already been left at Gloria’s, where they would not seem to be remotely suspicious. All he was leaving behind were the chairs and folding table, and after a last-minute sweep, he locked up, activated the alarm, and dumped the sack in the boot of the Audi.

He made the journey to the letting agent in good time, arriving ten minutes before the place was due to close. The man gave him no argument about the smoke alarm, accepted the twenty for it, and took the keys with a smile. “I hope to do business again when you are next in London, Mister Alexander”. In an alleyway behind the agent’s shop, Alan dumped the rubbish from the warehouse into an industrial sized waste bin.

Graham and the man who had been driving were being given the third degree by Essex cops. As the site of the robbery was on the border of a London Borough, the Metropolitan Police had been requested to execute search warrants at Graham’s house. Carly watched in tears as they quite literally tore the place apart in a fruitless search for the stolen money. The same thing was happening at the house of the driver, in Beckton. It took them a long time to make the connection through Carly to Reg, but when they did, a search team turned up at Old Reg’s place too.

Reg had been expecting it. He let them in, showing no concern or alarm. The money wasn’t there, or at Graham’s. Graham didn’t even know where Reg had hidden it. Across the borough, Chalky White turned up to watch the search team turn over Frankie Toland’s house. His still-grieving widow stared stone-faced at them. Chalky knew full well there would be no money there.

He was just sending out a message.

Alan was back inside Gloria’s flat by just after six. He had left the Audi parked conspicuously at the front parking area of the flats, where Kenny would be sure to find it when he turned up to get rid of it. A quick trip to the Londis shop had provided a couple of steak pies to warm up in Gloria’s oven, and another bottle of scotch. He would have a very personal celebration tonight.

As the pies were heating up, he watched the news on the TV. It featured the robbery, but only after some political stuff. The reporter said the usual stuff. “People helping police with their enquires”, “It is believed that in excess of twenty million pounds was stolen”. An Essex detecive was interviewed briefly, and he came out with the old classic. “Investigations are ongoing, and we are currently following up on many leads”.

In other words, they didn’t have a clue.

If Graham didn’t crack, they were home and dry. Alan had to hope that the lure of a quarter of a million quid would make him keep his mouth shut. At least until his plane landed in Barcelona tomorrow night, anyway. The pies were tasty, and the scotch was going down well. One thing about a nice drop of scotch, it made you forget all those niggles and worries. He imagined himself back in Tossa, enjoying some tapas for lunch on Saturday, showing Gloria and Angie a few of his favourite spots, and reconnecting with Chrissy.

All being well, it should be a memorable Christmas.

For the rest of the evening, he kept an eye on the news, and checked over all his packing. Leaving out the clothes for Friday, he stuffed his dirty laundry into a separate case. He would happily pay the excess baggage at the airport tomorrow. There was still a fair bit of his own cash left over, and he put some of that into his main case, then crammed his wallet full. He would walk out onto the main road tomorrow afternoon, and flag down a cab to get him to the airport early.

There were plenty of places to eat and get a drink there, and he could buy something nice for Gloria in one of those swanky shops. Well before eleven, he finished his last glass of scotch, and went into the bedroom.

Nothing like a good night’s sleep after a very busy day.

Friday morning.

Awake just after nine, Alan had a lot of time to kill, and not much to do. With his flight departing after six that evening, he planned to get there about three. So allowing at least an hour to get to the airport, he would grab a cab just before two that afternoon. Five hours. Not too long, in the grand scheme of things.

Before ten, he was in a favourite cafe on the Essex Road, ordering a full English breakfast with extra black pudding and fried bread, and a mug of tea. He hadn’t bothered to get anything in at Gloria’s as he would have had to throw away whatever was left.

The weather was like he remembered it in London in mid-December. Very cold, but dry. There was no snow forecast, but it would start getting dark just after two, and feel like night by three-thirty. One of the things he liked about Spain was that it was rarely that cold on the coast, even though the Spanish locals complained about winter.

The big breakfast warmed him up, and filled him up too. Walking back to Gloria’s, it didn’t feel as cold as on the way there.

It seemed sensible to turn off Gloria’s electric before he left. She wouldn’t be back for some time, if at all, and it would keep any bills at a minimum. If she stayed on in Spain, as he hoped she would, she could phone the local council and give up the flat in due course. If she wanted Angie to stay with her for company, he could buy them a nice villa near his.

It wasn’t as if he would be short of money, after all. He might even give the business to Rosa. She had worked hard enough, and deserved it.

The next forty-five minutes were spent doing some cleaning up at the flat. When that was finished, he put on the sealskin gloves, so he didn’t leave any prints around if the cops broke in at some stage. Then he sat waiting for the time to leave.

Chalky White wasn’t talking to anyone. He was sat in his office pretending to drink coffee that was ninety percent scotch. There wasn’t a single lead so far. The two blokes from the lorry had had to be released without charge, after spending twenty-four hours in custody and sticking to their stories. Teddy Henderson had a cast-iron alibi, and was tight-lipped about anything else. Searches of various flats and houses had turned up ziltch. Chalky took a couple of paracetamol for his growing headache, and wondered what he was going to say to his boss at the midday briefing.

Sitting in Gloria’s now cold flat, Alan suddenly thought of something.

The Ruger.22 was still in the supermarket bag in the wardrobe. How had he forgotten that? He would have to dump that before leaving, as ballistics would undoubtedy match it to Frankie’s shooting, if it was found during a search. Before he left that afternoon, it would have to be disposed of. There were no prints on it, so he didn’t have to go to too much trouble to get rid of it.

The playing fields nearby called Highbury Fields would be good. Lots of rubbish bins, and they might well have already been searched by the cops, even though they were a long way from where Frankie had been shot. That would do nicely.

Francis Liam Toland was only a few days short of his sixteenth birthday. Despite his age, he looked younger, and could have passed for twelve or thirteen. His mum didn’t really know who his dad was, so had christened him with the first name of her uncle, Frankie Toland. After that, he was always called Little Frankie. He had no male role model, other than his great-uncle Frankie. He wasn’t that well-behaved, and had been expelled from two schools before the authorities more or less gave up on him.

Little Frankie adored his uncle. He gave employment to his mum, in an amusement arcade on the Holloway Road. And he eventually gave employment to Little Frankie too, running messages on the bmx bike he had bought for him. Old Frankie Toland believed that everyone should work for their money, even a teenage nephew. If his mum was working late, Little Frankie could go to his uncle’s house. Aunt Mary would cook a dinner for him, and if his uncle was there, he would give him ten quid, and tell him he was a Toland, through and through.

The last time he had seen his beloved uncle was a few hours before he got shot. Little Frankie had worked it out. The bloke from Highbury Grove must have done it.

The smartly-dressed bloke who had given him a fifty as if it was nothing.

Little Frankie.

When your uncle was one of the most feared villains in London, you could pretty much say and do what you liked, as long as you stayed within his area of influence. Little Frankie wasn’t silly though, he didn’t push his luck. He could get some sweets and a can of drink in most of the local shops, and just walk out without paying.The owners all knew who he was, and never said a word. The tough kids and bullies at school gave him a wide berth, and once he stopped going to school and was being seen on the streets, the minor criminals in the borough gave him no grief at all.

Riding around on his bmx, the hood up on his hoodie in all weathers, it was well-known he was one of the eyes and ears of the famous Frankie Toland, and he could go wherever he wanted, no questions asked. But now his uncle was dead, that had all stopped overnight.

Now, Little Frankie’s life was shit, as far as he was concerned.

The rest of the Toland mob had either gone to ground, or defected to some other gang. There was no protection, no more free stuff, and he was fair game for any petty thug who had a grudge against him. At fifteen, he was far too young to do much about that, and it wasn’t as if he could decide to work for anyone else. He had made too many enemies in his fifteen short years, and now he was on his own.

His mum didn’t have a job now that someone else had taken over the amusements. They didn’t want a Toland managing the arcade. Aunt Mary was already talking about going to live with her sister in Ireland, once the cops allowed her to leave the country.

Alan was on the phone to his sister, giving her the flight number to pass on to Chrissy, who was going to pick him up at the airport in Barcelona. Gloria was upbeat. “Oh, we love it here, Al. Angie says she wished we could come and live here. She’s talking about selling her lodge next year, and buying an apartment here”. He was smiling as he listened. “Glor, didn’t I tell you? I knew you would love it. Tell Ang not to rush into anything. I’m sure I can sort you out a house once I get back. You can give up the flat here, and Ang could rent out her lodge and get an income”.

Gloria rushed off the phone, keen to tell her friend the good news.

It was colder than Little Frankie liked, too cold for the hoodie. He was wearing his waist-length black puffa jacket instead, but it felt tight since he had grown a bit. He biked over to the Londis shop, then twice around the flats where that bloke was living. No sign of him anywhere, and he didn’t want to chance knocking on the door of the flat where he was staying. He would bide his time, sure the bloke would show up sooner or later.

He carried on pedalling around the same circuit, with nothing else better to do.

After chatting to Gloria, Alan went into the bedroom and got the supermarket carrier bag out of the wardrobe, still wearing his warm gloves. He put his overcoat on in the hallway, and turned up the collar. It was grey and dull outside, and he could feel the cold wind as he double locked Gloria’s front door. It was only a short walk to Highbury Fields, but he intended to go right to the far end, by the leisure centre.

Little Frankie was blowing onto his hands to warm them up when he saw the man with cropped grey hair appear on the corner to his right. He was wearing his expensive overcoat, and carrying a Waitrose shopping bag in his left hand. Forgetting his cold fingers, he grabbed the handlebars and set off after the bloke, keeping a good distance.

Toland’s didn’t grass. His uncle had drilled that into him from the time he could walk. Easy enough to make an anonymous call to the cops, then hide somewhere and watch as the squad cars turned up to nick the man who killed his uncle. But a Toland doesn’t do that. They settle things themselves. He watched as the man walked around near the leisure centre, and saw when he turned to walk back that he no longer had the bag. Then he followed him back to the flats, staying well behind him.

Stopping outside the entrance, Alan opened his overcoat to get the keys from his trouser pocket. All he had to do was collect his case and holdall, then he would be back on the street looking for a taxi.

The impact knocked him down, as he felt a blow to his right side. Looking to his left, he saw the kid righting the overturned bike, jumping back on it, and pedalling away as fast as he could. As he got to his knees before standing, he saw the handle of the knife protruding from his belly above the pocket of his suit jacket, and felt the blood running down over his body inside his clothes. Unsteady on his feet, he pulled open the outer door to the flats and walked inside. But he got no further than Gloria’s front door before collapsing again, the blood pumping from the wound was pooling on the concrete floor around him.

His legs felt cold, and it seemed to be getting darker. Pulling his cigarette packet out of his overcoat pocket, he pushed one between his lips. Then he reached for the lighter.

One last cigarette. The thought made him smile.

The End.

My Recovery: The Complete Story

This is all 24 parts of my recent guest serial in one complete story, including a link to the final ‘Author Reveal’ post with photos.
It is a long read, at 18,226 words.

The Beginning.

Shortly before Christmas, in 2016, I was unwell with a common cold and sickness. From thereafter, family members began to notice I was mis-hearing words and sentences. I went to see my GP who put my hearing, well lack of it, down to the after effects of the cold I had, and then prescribed me some nasal spray.

After using the nasal spray for over a fortnight and with no improvement, I went back to my GP. Again, she said it was down to my cold and to keep trying with the spray. I persisted until I actually noticed my hearing issues, and this was coming up to a month and a half since the issues began. My GP referred me to an ENT Consultant at Norwich Hospital, which I thought was odd as that’s not the hospital I go to for anything. Then the waiting began…

I was employed during this time, I started a new role as a Sales Assistant in a charity shop, I felt like I was in my prime as I had fought hard to overcome my social anxiety and despite having these hearing difficulties, I was happy, I was content. I felt the best I had ever felt, especially mentally.

But it was too good to be true…

Work started to treat me differently because of my hearing. I remember one shift that made me feel extremely isolated, it was lunchtime and there was about 4 of us sitting around a table, they knew about my hearing difficulties and I watched them, in disbelief, while they were talking and laughing. I spoke up and said “What did I miss?”, to which one of them made the effort to make me understand and replied with, “It doesn’t matter”.

I was devastated. I thought I fitted in well with my colleagues, but it turned out that when I needed their support the most, they were ignorant, they didn’t bother with me anymore. I thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse.

But again, I was wrong.

Towards the end of March 2017, I woke up one morning with blurry central vision, I didn’t think nothing of it as I assumed it was because I had just woken up. When I went into work, I felt different – I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but I tried to carry on as normal throughout my shift.

The ‘blurry spots’ had not changed, I had to rely on my peripheral vision (side vision) which was really difficult. I kept feeling ‘off-balance’, not to the extent of dizziness but I couldn’t walk at my normal pace without feeling like I was tipping over.

I had no idea as to what was going on.

It wasn’t until roughly 3pm that day, that I reached breaking point, tears filled my eyes and a colleague took me into the office so I could let the tears flow. After telling her everything that had been happening, she suggested for me to go to A&E. She was worried about me, and frankly, I was petrified. That was my last ever shift there.

I don’t like to waste doctors time and I felt guilty about the thought of going to A&E for something I didn’t feel was an emergency, I strongly felt something was really wrong but not to the point that I would have considered it to be an emergency. So, I didn’t go to A&E that night.

The next day, my colleague’s concerns kept going over and over in my mind and I spent most of the day in tears. I told Mum about what had happened at work the day before, and like me, Mum didn’t feel like it was an emergency. I became more terrified, which I didn’t think was possible, and I got to the point where I begged Mum to take me to A&E because I was thinking the worst.

But I should have guessed, they had no idea what was causing my symptoms. All they could do was blood tests and observation tests, which resulted to nothing, but they did send off an emergency referral to a ENT Consultant.

They sent me home, but advised to come back if my symptoms worsened.

Within a few days, I received an appointment, for the 31st March, to see a Consultant, I was relieved as I thought I would finally get answers. The night before my appointment, I was extremely irritable and restless, I managed to get an hours sleep. Nervous because of the appointment and anxious due to who would be taking me to the appointment.

I slept on the journey to my appointment, which was about 25 minutes. I was struggling to walk without holding on to something and yet the person I was with kept telling me to hurry up and walk at their pace. I was relieved to finally sit down in the waiting room despite this person demanding my phone so they could play a game while we waited.

After some time, it was my turn to be seen. The consultant I saw was lovely, she carried out basic tests to do with my hearing and asked me questions about my health. Most of the time, I tried to answer the questions myself, but the person who I was with kept belittling me and putting it across to the consultant that I do not care about my health.

I never thought a relative would be that unsupportive.

The Consultant wanted me to go to the audiology department to have a hearing test but the relative refused as they had somewhere else to be. I left the appointment knowing that an appointment for a hearing test had been requested and I also knew I was more drained after I left the hospital – but this wasn’t because of the appointment.

I slept on the way home too, a mixture of feeling drained and not wanting to make conversation as I was livid as to how I was treated. I couldn’t wait to get home.

Throughout the rest of the day, I was in and out of sleep. In the early evening, I woke up really confused and mum had noticed the left side of my mouth had fallen. Mum started crying and rang 111, and asked my sister to come round so she could keep an eye on me whilst Mum was on the phone. The operator advised Mum to take me to hospital ASAP.

On the way to Kings Lynn Hospital, the confusion faded but the left side of my mouth still felt like it had fallen. When I was told what had happened, I was convinced I had a mini-stroke (TIA – Transient Ischemic Attack). My Nan had experienced these a few times within the last 2 years so I knew of them and the warning signs.

It made sense with how much stress I was under.

I didn’t wait long, more blood tests and observations were taken and I also did a balance test, which involves trying to walk in a straight line by placing one foot closely in front of the other. I couldn’t place my foot in front of the other without losing my balance. This made me break down in tears as a few months prior to this, I could walk perfectly fine and had no balance issues.

The nurse was perplexed as I was, apparently, too young to experience a TIA but all the symptoms added up. He asked Mum her opinion on what it might be and she replied “a mini-stroke” and the nurse nodded.

We sat waiting in one of the bays as he referred me for an emergency MRI. Half an hour later, he came back to tell us there was nobody available to do the MRI so sent us home with an appointment for the following Monday.

We went back to A&E on the Monday and ended up waiting 2 hours just to be told the earliest emergency MRI appointment would be in a fortnight and in the meantime, I had to be signed off work. The wait felt like forever.

I became really depressed very quickly, everything was just becoming too much.

The day of the MRI appointment arrived; I was so nervous as I’d never had an MRI before. When I went into the room with the MRI scanner, I was taken aback as it looked so much smaller than I had imagined. Not ideal for someone who doesn’t cope well in small spaces. Ear plugs were put in, a button to hold and press if I started to panic and needed to get out, I laid down on the board and the nurse placed this cage-like structure over my head – which did not help my anxiety at all! – and was moved into the scanner.

The loud tapping noises were very loud and daunting at first and I tried to create a beat, from the pattern of the noises, in my head. I imagined myself dancing to the beat – which was interesting considering I could not dance at all! By the time my anxiety had calmed down, it was time to come out. I disposed of the ear plugs and went to get changed back into my clothes. Before we left, we were told that the results would take up to 2 weeks.

The following day, I received a phone call. I had to ask someone else to answer on my behalf as my hearing difficulties now affected phone conversations. After the call ended, the person who had taken the call, wrote down on a piece of paper.

‘That was about your MRI results, they want to see you this Saturday”.

Instantly, I felt sick to my stomach.

So many questions were running through my head, “Is it a brain tumour? Am I dying? How long have I got left?” and many more. It was difficult to try and be positive.

I barely spoke to Ewan or Mum over the next couple of days. I even struggle to this very day to explain how I felt. Even though the days leading up to the appointment were a blur, the world just felt very still. This was a completely new level of isolation, it was horrible.

Even Ewan said to Mum, “This isn’t looking good, is it?”

I remember the night before my appointment, I was lying in bed with Ewan, crying. He didn’t know what to say, instead he just comforted and cuddled me. I cried myself to sleep.

I tried to eat two slices of toast, but I felt too nauseous to eat. Ewan cuddled, and kissed me before I got in the car. My head was telling me that this was goodbye.

Mum drove me to King’s Lynn hospital; I was quiet the entire journey. Thankfully, we arrived with time to spare, this meant I could take my time with walking and not put myself at risk by trying to walk faster. Understandably, for a Saturday morning, the waiting room was empty. We sat outside the room I was going to be seen in, and I placed my head in my hands.

I wanted to lash out and scold myself because I was incredibly frustrated. No doubt, whatever was wrong, would be my fault. Everything always was my fault.

The door opened, and a tall man called my name. Mum tapped on my arm to get my attention, I felt like I couldn’t breathe when I walked into the room, “I’m going to be told the worst”, I convinced myself. Given the circumstances, it was easier to think negatively.

We sat down and the man introduced himself, he was a neurologist. He asked about my symptoms, when did they start, how often do they occur, etc. He was confused as to how I could only understand what Mum was saying, and not him – to be honest, I was confused too. It was easier for me if he spoke to Mum directly as I was getting more upset and frustrated with not being able to hear.

Mum turned to me and said, “Right, the results of your MRI…”

Before she carried on, I thought, “This isn’t right, how can a mother tell her daughter bad news like this?”. She continued, “…is clear and there’s nothing to show a TIA”. I felt like I was going to explode with relief. I was in shock; I really thought the worst.

The neurologist told Mum that he would see me in 2 months to check up on my symptoms. One thing he did say was that, apparently, a lot of females my age, experience a phase of hearing difficulties which is caused by stress.

We left and headed to the car. I cried all the way home, because of relief and frustration. I was still left not knowing what was causing all this. But this appointment, it was just the beginning of numerous appointments.

In May, I had my first hearing test. Wearing a set of headphones, I had to press a button when I heard a noise, which was at different levels (high pitch, low pitch). Then a follow-up appointment was booked with an ENT Consultant. That quickly come around and I was diagnosed with Bilateral Hearing Loss. Yet, no further forward as to what had caused it.

Also, in May, I had to attend a medical to be assessed on whether I was fit to work. The assessor asked me about my Sales Assistant role and what duties I had. After she assessed me, she tried finding a role that I could safely do before giving me the news that I was no longer fit to work.

This broke me.

Eye appointments began in June. Initially, I saw an Optometrist who carried out a few in-depth tests (I can’t remember the correct names of them, sorry!), but the results did not show anything so he referred me to an Ophthalmologist. It was also in June that I began bleeding daily, I never knew when I was on my period anymore. I was in no pain or discomfort which worried me so I asked to see my GP who told me to keep a diary of the bleeding and come back in a fortnight.

I had never heard of so many different ‘ologists’!

On the 13th of June, I attended a meeting with my Manager and Area Manager, along with Mum who relayed everything to me. Mum updated them on all of the upcoming appointments and that there was no improvement with regards to my symptoms. They dismissed me.

Could my life really get any worse?

The Ophthalmologist wanted more tests to be done, but this would mean a referral to a specialised eye hospital. This was when I first learned of Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, and the waiting list was long.

I went back to my GP to show my diary, she examined me, took some swabs and arranged for a follow-up appointment in a week or two to discuss the results and where to go from there.

A kind woman offered to pay for me to go to the private Moorfields Hospital, and with how fast my vision was deteriorating, I accepted. An appointment was made for 17th August.

Mum and I had to leave between 3am and 4am to get the train, my appointment was at 9am and didn’t want to chance any delays. The walk to the entrance of King’s Cross seemed like it had taken forever. I really struggled and the more I tried, the more it was affecting my balance. All I could do was hold on to Mum’s arm.

After a while, we eventually found the private clinic. The next few hours consisted of a variety of assessments and in-depth tests, and then I was to see a consultant at the end of my appointment. She was really lovely and took her time to help me understand everything she was doing. After a few tests, she discovered my Optic Nerve was pale, and again, more tests needed to be done.

Mum told the Consultant that I had been referred to the main Moorfields Eye Hospital and was on the waiting list, she then sent another referral to request if I could be seen any sooner. That’s all she could do for me, she wished she could have done more for me after seeing how upset and frustrated I was.

The walk back to the platform seemed to take twice as long as the first time round. Within seconds of settling into my seat on the train, I was asleep.

A week or so later, I received an appointment at the main Moorfields Eye Hospital for the 3rd of November to see a Professor. I never thought all of this would get so complicated.

Again, I went back to my GP to find out the results from the swabs, thankfully they were all negative. So, she referred me for an Ultrasound and an internal scan.

By this point, I had more referrals than I had hot dinners during my years at school!

At the beginning of September, my walking was deteriorating rapidly, I couldn’t do anything myself, I couldn’t go to the toilet without assistance, or using a shower. I could no longer hold a cup without dropping it or spilling the drink. My hearing difficulties were driving me insane, as were my ‘blind spots’. The bleeding continued and my mental health took a bad turn.

The moment I hit rock bottom, was when I became wheelchair bound. I’m not going to lie, I was suicidal. Was this really my life now?

Things couldn’t possibly get any worse, right?

Since March, I had been keeping track of my weight, I was almost 18 stone. By September I was 12 stone.

I thought I had a UTI (Urinary Tract Infection) as weeing was really painful. With everything else going on, health-wise, I knew it was best to get checked. Mum took me to see a nurse and after doing a sample, she tested it and the result was that she “thought” I had a slight UTI, so she prescribed me some antibiotics, more specifically, Nitrofurantoin.

I took the first tablet at around teatime, my instinct, when I first saw the capsule, was telling me that something bad was going to happen if I take this – despite being reassured it was safe to take. I reluctantly took the tablet.

I woke up the next morning to tingling in my left arm, I had a habit of sleeping awkwardly so I put it down to that. I asked if someone could read the side effects in the leaflet. Nobody was willing to read them because they knew I would have been paranoid – I always read the leaflets; they are there for a reason!

My instinct still carried through and I refused to take another tablet. After a short nap in the late morning, I woke up to tingling in my right arm. Now both arms were tingling, and because I didn’t know the side effects, I put this down to not doing much since I first woke up. Still very tired, I had another nap.

I woke up late afternoon and my upper torso was tingling. I couldn’t ring anyone. I decided to try and push myself to walk into the kitchen, I found it very difficult to maintain upright whilst walking – I had already noticed that I had been ‘walking like a drunk’ for quite a few weeks now, so this new symptom really confused me. It took all my energy and a long time that by the time I had got into the kitchen, I had forgotten what I wanted. Frustrated, it took me the same amount of time to get back into the living room. I flopped into my recliner, exhausted and instantly fell back asleep.

I woke up in the early evening to discover my entire body was tingling, even my head which scared the hell out of me! I tried telling my family about how I felt and that this tingling sensation had spread throughout my body since this morning, but my speech was very slurred. I wasn’t sure what was worse, how I was feeling or the fact nobody believed me.

I remember being really angry and tried to get up from my recliner, but as I tried to stand my legs were wobbly, I couldn’t feel any strength in them and I felt very off-balance. After several attempts, I managed to stand up – how I don’t know. All it took was one attempt to take one step and I collapsed.

I landed in our dog’s basket – I know it sounds funny but at the time it really was painful. I was in a very awkward position, my head was against the staircase, the rim of the basket was digging into my back, my arms were flailing. I felt the entire left side of my face drop and I really thought I’d had a full stroke. I’d never been so scared in my life.

Still, nobody believed me.

After a while, I managed to roll onto the floor and remained laying on my front for the next hour. Crying. Wishing somebody would help me or even ring for an ambulance.

It took me over an hour to crawl to our downstairs toilet, which is a 3 second walk from our living room. From thereafter, my sleeping pattern became erratic.

Still tingling the next day, I felt a bit more ‘with it’ so I went onto my iPad and looked for Nitrofurantoin side effects, and what I discovered, sent alarm bells ringing.

Every person that had commented on this page, regarding the side effects, had experienced a bad reaction to the antibiotic and 90% of them ended up in A&E.

My instinct was right from the moment before I took that tablet. I try not to think of what could have happened if I’d taken the full course of tablets.

I showed Mum the comments and she rang 111 straight away. They sent out paramedics who carried out an ECG, tested my blood sugar, blood pressure and oxygen levels. After Mum had told them about all the symptoms, they said it was best to go to A&E to be monitored. Ewan supported me whilst walking to the ambulance.

This was my first ever ambulance ride and I sure as hell hoped it would only just be the once!

I laid down on the stretcher and the paramedic put a blanket over me then strapped me in. Ewan sat in one of the seats opposite to me. Due to a past experience from when he was younger, Ewan felt very anxious about the journey. I knew this would upset him and I felt guilty, I kept saying “I’m sorry”, even though I couldn’t help what had happened. I always think the worst in any situation, and I asked the paramedic if something really bad was going to happen or if I was dying, she tried to reassure me that it was a reaction to the antibiotic. We got to A&E about 10pm.

I was taken into a side room, the next hour was a blur of blood tests, ECG’s, observations, etc. They asked for my medical history and that in itself had taken about 20 minutes to sum up what has been happening throughout the last 9 months, and even when they left the room, I forgot to mention something!

The results came back normal but they wanted to continue to monitor me for the next few hours. I slept on and off until 4am, we were told that as the results didn’t show anything, they were certain it was a bad reaction and discharged me. Ewan and I sat in the hospital entrance for the next 2 and a half hours as Mum was unable to pick us up until 7am.

While we waited, we watched hundreds of nurses and doctors arrive around 6am. My heart went out to them, knowing they would soon be starting a 12-hour shift, caring for people, saving lives. The real superheroes.

October passed by quickly as I spent more time sleeping than being awake.

The day of my appointment at Moorfields Eye Hospital, in London arrived. Thankfully, the time of my appointment was near lunchtime and didn’t have to get a ridiculously early train. This was my first train ride as a wheelchair user and the first time Mum witnessed my involuntary movements while I was asleep. I kept, without knowing, kicking the woman opposite me – if you ever read this, I’m still so very sorry!

Moorfields is a maze! We were directed to different areas throughout the next few hours while an array of specialised tests was carried out. Some were standard eye tests, but the more I had, the more detailed they were and the more my eyes were put under so much strain that by the last test, I was crying hysterically because I could not handle anymore. All the tests were painless, but they drained every ounce of energy I had.

I’m very thankful for my wheelchair that day because there was no way I would have been able to stand for more than a minute.

A few days later, I had to go back to King’s Lynn Hospital for the ultrasound and internal scan. The nurses were very lovely and put me at ease within minutes. Both were painless, but cold – the tests, not the nurses! By this point, I had lost track of what results I was waiting for – hearing, vision, bleeding, and possibly more.

The following week, on Monday, Mum received a call from Moorfields, they wanted to see me on Friday.

I thought, “What now??”

Fortunately, my best friend, India and her boyfriend were in London that week and offered to come with us to the appointment. I hadn’t seen India for 2 years and I was worried as to how she would react to actually seeing me. We always were in contact with each other, and she knew about my health, but this would be the first time she actually saw me.

As soon as she saw me, she ran up to me and cuddled me. In that moment, I could forget everything and focus on the love I had for this girl. We always carried on from where we left off. It was a good hour or so until my appointment so we talked and had a laugh, which was refreshing as I had not genuinely smiled in so long.

While we were in the waiting room, I was trying my hardest to hold back my tears – I was scared of what news I would be given.

Time passed and I was called in. The four of us sat there whilst a consultant told them my results. I kept asking what was happening but I just got told that it would be explained to me soon.

It’s frustrating, it was my appointment and nobody would tell me my results there and then.

After ten minutes, we were told to go to an office. But in the corridor before the office, my wheelchair suddenly stopped. I turned around to see what had happened and saw Mum burst into tears with India comforting her. That was the last straw, “What the hell is wrong?”, I snapped.

Mum couldn’t tell me. India pushed me towards the seating area in front of the office we had to go in and sat next to me. She told me, “Your optic nerve is severely damaged, they can’t do anything to reverse it”.

I couldn’t speak, I just cried.

The office we were about to go in, was where I would be registered as severely blind.

There was no disputing the fact now; I was disabled. A person with a disability.

How did it all come to this?

I was adamant that this was my fault, but kept questioning myself as to what had I done so wrong to deserve all this?

Moorfields had referred me to The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, in London, to undergo a variety of tests to, hopefully, find the cause of all that had happened. Hmm… wishful thinking!

Over the next fortnight, I was constantly sleeping on and off, I received an appointment to have hearing aids fitted – at last, something to hope for!

I really tried to be positive on the day of my appointment, I kept telling myself, “This will work, it has to!”. Doubts started to etch in my mind, whilst we sat in the small waiting room, “What if this doesn’t work? What am I going to do?”

A short man came into the waiting room and called my name, I only knew it was my turn as Mum stood up and had taken the brakes off my wheelchair. The audiologist placed my hearing aids in each ear and started testing different volumes, levels, and frequencies, etc. He explained to Mum that, even with hearing aids, my hearing will never be 100% perfect. To me, this just seemed like he was trying to reassure me, if the hearing aids were not to work. I knew, deep down, that my hearing would never be perfect, but I just yearned to be able to have a conversation without misinterpreting or not being able to understand.

The first time he tested, no change apart from increasing the volume of the background noise. Second time, no change. Third, nothing. After a few more attempts, it was clear that hearing aids would not work for me.

What was I going to do?

I slept for the next few days; the outcome of the appointment had drained me in more ways than one. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.

When I was awake, I looked for disability aids online, to try and restore some of my independence. After scrolling through several pages, I almost threw up. It hit me, like a ton of bricks, that this was it. This was going to be how my life would pan out. A miracle would never happen to me.

I remember one afternoon, Mum tried to help me shower but it was upstairs, and I could no longer walk upstairs, so instead, I had to crawl up. I had central chest pains by the time I reached the top of the staircase which terrified me, I wasn’t sure if it was a panic attack or something else. I dragged myself into the bathroom and tried to pull myself up, by using the side of the bath, but with each pull I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I tried three times but by the third time, it felt like something was blocking my airway.

I gave up trying.

After breathing deeply to try and regulate my breathing, I mustered up enough energy to turn myself around with my back against the bath. I cried like I’d never cried before.

I convinced myself that this was going to be my last Christmas. I was weak, all I did was sleep. My eating disorder emerged from the shadows once again. To be honest, I did want my life to end, what was I living for? My health, my relationship, my job, everything was disappearing, fast.

I even started to write down what I wished for, in terms of my funeral.

Of course, I was scared, but I wanted to be free of all the pain and misery. I had no quality of life.

I can’t remember Christmas; I must have just slept the majority of the day.

The night before London, I barely slept. Knowing I was about to stay in London, in a hospital that I’d never been to nor heard of before now, for 5 days, to have a load of tests… I can’t describe how I felt, it’s not that I don’t want to describe it but I simply cannot think of a way to describe the feelings I had.

The initial plan was that Mum would be with me from Monday morning until Wednesday lunchtime, then Ewan would stay with me from Wednesday afternoon until it was time to leave on Friday. It broke my heart leaving Ewan on the Monday morning, I just wanted to stay at home, in the warm, cuddled up with Ewan. But I had to go, for the sake of my health.

Mum drove us to King’s Lynn train station, then we had to get the train to London King’s Cross. We got a taxi from the station to the hospital; we had no idea which way to go.

Upon arriving, it didn’t look like a ‘typical’ hospital. The entrance was quite small too. A man greeted us and Mum spoke to him, handing my appointment letter over to him so he could direct us to where we needed to go. He could tell I was freezing so he kindly let me go into a warmer room whilst he took Mum to the reception desk. I had my head down, for some reason, as we entered the room, but I turned to watch Mum shut the doors behind her. When I turned my head back, to face the room, I felt indifferent.

I was in their chapel.

I’m not a Christian, but I do believe there is a God. For the first time in over a year, I felt at peace. I acted selfishly and prayed for myself.

I prayed that by the end of my stay here, that I would have answers. Closure.

I prayed that God, and loved ones who have passed, would give me the strength to get through these tests.

I also prayed, that if nothing would become of my time being here, then I hoped I wouldn’t suffer much longer. I wanted to be free of pain and misery.

I know I was selfish. But all my life, I’ve been selfless and it had got me nowhere. Now was the time I needed to be selfish.

Mum, and the man who greeted us, came back in to take me onto the ward, where I would be staying for the next 5 days. I thought Moorfields was a maze, but this hospital was in a league of its own! Either that or Mum gets lost easily (Love you Mum!)

There were so many levels, corridors, all which seemed small and narrow. Quite daunting, actually.

We arrived at the ward, I can’t remember the name of it, and the kind man went to the reception desk to tell them I had arrived, we thanked him before he left to head back to the hospital entrance.

A nurse showed us into one of the side rooms, which we were told that’s where I would be staying. Obviously, everyone would love to have their own side room, so I was annoyed to then be told I wouldn’t be staying in the side room, instead I would be staying in a bay which was in direct view from the reception area.

Thankfully, it was only a small area which fitted 2 bays. There was a view, from the window, of a church or cathedral, from what I could make out.

The rest of Monday was spent settling in and meeting the Doctor who would be taking on my case for the week ahead. My hearing was at its worst so I asked others to communicate with me via a handheld whiteboard. He wrote down what tests I would have over the course of the week. He also said that he would need to do a blood test shortly.

Is it just me that when nurses take bloods, they aren’t really painful plus they are quick, but when Doctors take bloods, it takes ages and is really painful?

The blood test was enough to wipe me out for the rest of the day. Mum bought a load of crisps with us as, let’s be honest, hospital food isn’t that great! I can’t remember what I had for tea that Monday night. When I was settled in bed, it was time for Mum to go, she was booked into a hotel nearby.

I cried because I didn’t want to be on my own, I was scared.

My sleeping pattern was still erratic so I kept waking up during the night. At one point, I woke up and looked at the chair beside my bed. From what I could make out, it looked like someone had unpacked all of my clothes and just dumped them on the chair. But then, the ‘pile’ started to shuffle.

“Mum?”, I whispered.

She turned to face me and could see from my expression that I was confused as to why she was sleeping next to my bed, she said, “I’ll explain in the morning”.

I was able to sleep a bit better knowing Mum was beside me.

Mum had to go to the main reception, near the hospital entrance to see if they could help her find somewhere to stay. She didn’t have time to explain what had happened before she went so, I had to wait until she came back. In the meantime, I was waiting to be taken, by a porter, to have eye tests.

A woman stood at the end of my bed put her arms up as if to say, “well?”, I asked her to use the whiteboard as I can’t hear. She wrote, “What do you want?”. I thought, “Erm… hold on. I didn’t know this woman, she had nothing with her, no trolley or papers with her, I had no idea who she was”. So, I said, “Sorry, what do you mean?”. She got angry and quickly wrote, “BREAKFAST!!”. I thought, “Wow, I’ve not been here for 12 hours and I’m already being treated like crap!”

It really annoyed me how she just assumed I knew who she was and what her job was!

After taking a deep breath, I politely said, “2 slices of toast with just butter, please’. Then she went. I thought, “Can I go home already?!”. She came back 45 minutes later with a plate that, apparently, had ‘toast’ on it. It looked green! I reluctantly took a bite and I couldn’t even chew it, inedible was an understatement!

Thankfully, a porter soon came to collect me. A few lifts later and I was taken into a room with a lady welcoming me in. She really took my hearing difficulties on board and took her time to help me understand. There were so many different tests done during the next 2 hours. Some were simple but the rest were draining. By the time we had finished, I was nodding off in my wheelchair.

I didn’t have to wait too long before Mum came to meet me. She took me back to the ward because all I wanted to do was sleep. Mum ordered me tomato soup for lunch and when it arrived, it turned my stomach. It smelled vile! Crisps it was again for lunch.

Mum eventually told me what happened the night before. There was someone who kept knocking on her door, in the early hours of the morning and it frightened her. She didn’t feel safe there so she got a taxi back to the hospital, she then explained what had happened at the hotel and the nurse let her stay beside me. Reception couldn’t find any hotel nearby, at short notice so they allowed her to stay for as long as I was there.

I hated knowing I couldn’t protect her and reassure her that everything was OK.

By Tuesday evening, Mum wanted to stay with me for the rest of the week, so Ewan stayed at home.

I told Mum about what happened with breakfast, she only went to Gregg’s to get me a couple of sausage rolls! I scoffed one and a half because I was bloody hungry! That’s what I had for breakfast each morning that week, except for Friday as I was sick of them by then. I avoided the hospital food; I don’t know what oil they used but it just made everything sickly.

Wednesday morning, I had to have nerve tests (again, I can’t remember the names). I was connected to all these different wires, and then the consultant would place this object against my skin which would cause an electric shock. Some I could feel, some I couldn’t feel.

And before you wonder, yes, I did say to the man that I was having a shocking time.

He didn’t laugh so that kind of ruined the atmosphere…

Depending on the different areas of my body, that he tested, some areas would affect my eyes and they would start shaking really fast. It felt bizarre as I had no control over it. After all that was done, he went to get another consultant to see if any more tests needed doing.

About 10 minutes later, he came back with a man. They were talking with Mum and I kept nodding off.

The other consultant wanted to do a blood test, I thought, “But I had one 2 days ago!”. They could sense my irritation. Good! They spoke with Mum for a few more minutes, then she turned to me and said, “They need to do a blood test from your leg”

“My what now?”. “Is that even normal?

“How??”, I said, calmly… I was not calm; I was bloody freaking out! “From your shin”, Mum said. My eyes widened in horror, the thought of a needle going into my shin made every single part of my body cringe.

And honestly? It was painless. I didn’t even know they had done it!

That traumatised me for the rest of the day, every so often I kept saying, “I can’t believe they done that!”. Wednesday afternoon was busy with someone from the genetics team wanting my family medical history. The poor bloke kept running out of paper because our family is so big.

We woke up Thursday morning to discover London was covered in snow. Brilliant, not! We were due to get the train back home the next day, we hoped it wouldn’t cause any cancellations.

Thursday was MRI day, specifically brain and spinal MRI. I laid on the board, to be moved into the scanner. I was crying, the last few days were catching up with me and I felt physically and mentally drained. The nurses didn’t do anything to comfort me. I kept nodding off but woke up, at one point, to find a man injecting this coloured fluid into my IV, and it instantly made me feel sick.

“Get me out!”, I shouted, I thought I was in a horrible nightmare. The bloke looked at me, confused. A nurse tried to reassure me that it was something that makes, if there’s anything wrong, stand out in the scans. I was hyperventilating at this point; I wouldn’t have minded as much if I had of been told beforehand.

I laid back down and they moved me back into the scanner. Thankfully, I slept through the rest of the MRI and avoided any further feelings of nausea.

As we were due to go home on Friday, they tried to do a lumbar puncture on Thursday afternoon, but by the time I had come back from the MRI’s, there was nobody available to do it. I was thankful that it was delayed, I definitely was not ready for a lumbar puncture.

On Friday morning, it was still snowing heavily, which meant all the trains were cancelled. So, we had to stay an extra day. A nurse came by and told Mum that I would definitely be having a lumbar puncture today.

When the woman arrived to do the procedure, I was crying before she set it all up. In my head, none of this was normal. I was anxious as, during the procedure, you need to lay still and I’d been experiencing involuntary jerks/movements for a few months and I was petrified that this would jeopardise it.

I laid on my left side, facing Mum, she tried to keep me calm. I won’t go into detail about the procedure as, to me, it was horrible and I don’t want to relive it. I’m sure you all know what it involves. She wasn’t even halfway through the lumbar puncture before I started shouting, “I can’t do this anymore, I’ve had enough”. Mum had tears in her eyes because she knew I had been through hell and she wanted to help but she couldn’t.

Eventually, it was done. I hope I never have one ever again.

Friday evening, a man with a few students came to see me. It turned out he was one of the top neurologists in the hospital. He spoke with Mum for quite some time.

From the moment I noticed my walking ability deteriorating back in 2017, I just knew it was Ataxia. My step-grandad had Ataxia and I had all the symptoms that he had.

All the tests and scans confirmed it. I had Ataxia and severe nerve damage.

Reality hit me quite quickly and I broke down in tears. I got what I came for, answers. But I left the hospital with no further support or advice.

I couldn’t wait to get home on Saturday. Thankfully, the trains were running. So as soon as we were given the go-ahead to leave, we left in seconds. I was freezing and starving on the train journey back to King’s Lynn, Mum asked the person who was picking us up from the station, if we could pop into McDonald’s on the way home.

Bad choice I know, but I was starving. I felt so sick but I didn’t know what was causing it. The stress of all the tests? The food or lack of it? The travelling? Not knowing where to go from here?

Whatever it was, I couldn’t wait to get home. Hopefully some sleep would make me feel better.

The day after I came home, I woke up with a horrible burning feeling in my stomach, maybe I caught something from being in hospital? It wasn’t long until I began vomiting bile. I’d never experienced this before so it did freak me out. I actually have a fear of vomiting and, each time in the past that I have been sick, I usually say afterwards, “Well, I hope that’s got rid of my fear now!” But it never did.

Once I had been sick, I did feel more myself. I don’t remember any noticeable changes or showed any other symptoms. Although, I remember falling asleep at lunchtime on the Sunday.

The following is spoken by my Mum,

“You slept for hours, which was normal. It was around teatime that I tried to wake you, as I had made you some toast, I knew you wouldn’t have wanted much to eat as you’d been sick earlier in the morning. You woke up briefly and tried to take a small bite, but you fell back asleep. I knew, deep down, that something wasn’t right.

At night, you started getting agitated and began throwing your arms about. I phoned 111 to ask for advice, after explaining how you’d been feeling that day, they advised me to give you paracetamol because they said it sounds like you had a fever. You managed to take 2 tablets.

We noticed that your clothes were wet, you’d had an accident. So, Ewan and I cleaned you and changed you into a fresh set of clothes.

Later on, that night, there was still no sign of improvement. I phoned 111 again and they sent a doctor out to come and see you. He tried to get a reading of your oxygen levels and blood pressure, but he couldn’t get a clear reading. The doctor came to the conclusion that it was best to get you to hospital, to get checked over.

Paramedics arrived and they tried to get you to stand, but you just fell to the floor. You were carried out on a stretcher.”

The following is spoken by Ewan,

“When you were sleeping in your recliner, and getting agitated, I held you in my arms as you were trying to throw your arms about. It seemed like you were having some sort of fit or seizure. I knew something was wrong, but I know you, I knew you were going to pull through.

I came with you in the ambulance, to King’s Lynn, I was there with you all the way.

I continued to stay with you, until the early morning. Doctors and nurses were flitting in and out. They had to put you in the resuscitation area, only because there were no other beds available. It broke my heart seeing you like that, but I knew you were a fighter.

Mum came up in the morning to stay with you, and I went home. I hated leaving you but I promised you I would come back.”

The following is spoken by Mum,

“Ewan got in touch with me to say you had been admitted to Critical Care.

On the Monday, we came to see you, the nurses had made you comfortable. They kept a close eye on your oxygen levels and blood pressure. But over Tuesday and Wednesday, there was still no change.

On Thursday, the hospital rang me, at lunchtime, to advise me they were going to put you on a breathing machine because you were getting very agitated and they needed you to rest, to give your body a chance to survive whatever was doing this to you.

As soon as I got off the phone, I came up to be with you. When I saw you, you had an oxygen mask on, you were throwing your arms about and rocking your head from side to side. The nurses said they were going to put you in an induced coma, to let your body rest.

Doctors took me into the relatives’ room and told me they did not know what was wrong or what was causing this, but they did mention it could be a type of Mitochondrial disease.

After you were asleep, they let us see you. It was very upsetting to see you laying there, with 6 different machines around you.

The doctors didn’t know if you would pull through. They moved you to the other end of the ward as that was where the patients, who are in more critical condition, stay.

A chaplain came in to say prayers for you, he went to your beside and prayed.

We thought we were going to lose you.

Jill and I stayed in the visitors’ room for a few nights, so we could be close to you. The nurses kept you stable.

You developed Pneumonia. You were put on antibiotics. You were also on dialysis.

They tried to remove the breathing tube on the Sunday, but you couldn’t cope without it. They were weaning you off the sedatives that kept you asleep. We had bought up your microphone and headset, which you could hear through sometimes, to see if that would bring you round. I said your name and you opened your eyes.

You woke up on Mother’s Day, that was the best present any mother could have wished for. You knew we were there.”

I woke up to realise I was in hospital; I had no recollection of what had happened since I fell asleep on the Sunday before…

Forgive me, if this post seems to be all over the place. During this time, I was heavily sedated, and I couldn’t tell the difference between what was real or not. Some parts I do remember but some I also remember hallucinating.

I remember waking up briefly, on the Tuesday after I was admitted to hospital, because I recall watching Mum write in a Shopkins birthday card for my niece. I’m sure it wasn’t a dream. Then I realised I was lying in a hospital bed and I started to panic. I don’t remember what happened after that.

I started to panic again, and Mum tried to calm me down as my heart rate was going up and up, which then caused me to struggle even more to breathe. I really tried to calm down but I didn’t have any idea as to what was happening.

When I get really scared, I always tell Mum that I love her. After I said, “I love you”, she said it back. And she has never said it back to me before, so that’s when I knew something really bad had happened but I just didn’t know what.

Possible hallucination – I remember shouting, “I need a drink!”, several times but nurses kept walking past me and ignoring me. I also shouted, “I haven’t had a drink for 15 hours!”, I have no idea where I got 15 hours from so that’s why I think this was a hallucination.

I told Mum, the next day, that nobody had given me a drink for 15 hours, and she replied, “You’re on an IV to get fluids into you”. That’s when I tried to lift my head up and saw the IV. It still didn’t register with me.

The nurses kept trying to get me to cough but I just couldn’t. So, they gave me this big tablet, I think, and I had to swallow it. It caused me to cough and once I started, I couldn’t stop.

Late at night, 2 nurses took me into a small room. I remember screaming and trying to lash out because, to me, it looked like one of the nurses was trying to suffocate me. Plus, they were putting cannula’s in everywhere.

When I next saw Mum, I was really upset and she asked me what was wrong. I told her what happened the night before and, at first, she was genuinely quite concerned, and then she went to go and speak to a nurse. A little while later, she came back and told me, “They weren’t suffocating you, they held up a sheet up in front of you to stop you from getting frightened because of all the wires and tubes that were attached”.

It made a lot of sense.

When I woke up from the coma, from what I assumed was just a nap, I felt very unaware of my surroundings. The first person I saw was the relative who had taken me to my first ENT appointment – I initially thought, “What the hell are you doing here?”, because the last thing I knew was that they hated me. Also, it was how I knew I was still ‘me’.

Then I saw Jill, then Mum. Then my other sister and Ewan came to see me.

I quickly realised that I couldn’t speak, or when I tried, it would sound very distorted. I went to touch my mouth, very shakily, and felt this big chunky object which was keeping my mouth open. I tried to bite my teeth together and felt something plastic. My eyes widened in horror and Mum stood by my beside and said, “It’s helping you breathe; I know it looks scary but you’ve got to try and stay calm”.

I looked at her and thought, “What?!”. That’s when I also discovered how many machines I had around me. I tried to touch my nose, as it felt like there was something stuck, and felt a tube coming out. I thought, “Please, please, I hope that isn’t going where I think it’s going!”.

I didn’t know what day it was but I always kept asking what the time was. I think that’s where my obsession with time started.

Trying to communicate with strangers was daunting. I couldn’t speak, nor hear, and my vision was terrible. Nurses tried to use my headset and microphone, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They tried to get me to communicate by pointing at letters, to spell out words I was trying to say, but my coordination was atrocious and combined with my vision loss, I couldn’t see to point at the letters.

The last resort was for me to try and write on my whiteboard, I really struggled to grip the pen. I went to write but I couldn’t control my hand. Tears began to fill my eyes, “why can’t I write anymore?”

Memories of when I had taken calligraphy lessons in school came into my mind, and the tears just flowed.

I can’t put it into words how it felt to not be able to communicate with anyone.

I still didn’t know what was wrong, but I could sense that whatever this was, it was trying to kill me.

Very early hours one morning, I was woken up by nurses, and saw paramedics around me. I thought something bad had happened. I was moved onto a stretcher by a transfer board and all of my things were either put by the sides of me or near my feet. I had no idea where I was going.

I was wheeled out of a set of automatic doors and the cold air instantly hit me. I was taken into an ambulance and a lady sat near me. It felt like a really long journey and I remember coughing a lot and nodding off.

When I woke up, I assumed I was in another hospital, but there were no signs to say which hospital, well, not large enough for me to be able to read them. The corridors were endless, I started to think I had died because it seemed like I was going nowhere.

I was wheeled into a small room, which had about 3 or 4 bays side by side. I was transferred from the stretcher to a hospital bed, again by a transfer board, and then everybody left me. I was in the bay next to the window.

Nurses came by, later on, and was changing the cannula’s and putting new ones in, and God knows what else.

“Nobody will know I’m here, I’m never going to see anyone ever again” I cried. Dying alone really dawned on me and I’ve never been more scared in my life.

I was pleasantly surprised to wake up and see daylight shining through the blinds. A man came and stood by the side of me, he tried speaking to me via my headset and microphone, but he was speaking so fast that I had no idea what he was saying. Despite feeling groggy, I just kept slowly nodding and shaking my head while he was talking to me. I don’t know what I agreed to but I did understand one word.

“Addenbrooke’s”.

While he was still talking to me, I thought, “Where have I heard Addenbrooke’s before? I know it’s a hospital and its somewhere in England. So, I am definitely still in the same country.”

Once he left, I thought, “Well, I don’t know who he was, or what he said but at least I know where I am now! But will everyone still not know where I am?”

A nurse came by, not long after, carrying some towels. She bought some shampoo with her too, and helped me to understand that I was going to be washed, and my hair too. She was very gentle and, despite everything that was happening to me, she made me feel really comfortable which helped to reassure me. Then after she cleaned everything up and changed my sheets, she left.

Some time went by before 2 women came in to see me. One of which wrote on my whiteboard, “We are physio’s and we want to try and put a small tube up your nose”. Despite the fact I still had a breathing tube in, I thought, “Well how are you going to do that with everything else that’s either on me or in me! But they know what they’re doing so let them get on with it”.

That’s until they started to put a tube/pipe up through my nose, I’m going to call them pipe cleaners because at the time, I didn’t know what they were, and kept pushing for it to go up further. “What on earth are they doing?! Am I really awake for this?” I winced as it caused a lot of discomfort. After several attempts, and so much more wincing, they stopped. Thank God!

They then started trying to clear my chest by this weird manoeuvre, it was really bizarre!

Anyway, that wiped me out and I fell asleep soon after they left.

Throughout the day, more people were coming in and out, and I still had no idea what was happening.

I was staring out of the window, when I saw two people walk closer to me. It was Mum and Jill.

They could tell I was surprised to see them, and I bloody well was! “How on earth did they know I was here?” I mumbled, and after many attempts, Mum understood what I was trying to say. “You got here alright then?” she asked. I just shrugged because it felt like I was on a magical mystery tour. I think it’s clear that I was still sedated. “They phoned me this morning to tell me you got here”, Mum added. I kind of forgot at the time that we were in the day and age where technology is used.

Like I said, I was sedated.

I was so relieved to see them! Jill kept trying to make me smile by writing random things on my whiteboard. She has a tendency to come out with random crap a lot of the time.

As daylight faded, doctors were standing around me. A male nurse sat beside me watching the monitors. I didn’t know what was happening. Mum and Jill went out of view, and because they didn’t tell me where they were going, I started to panic. I tried to look at the monitors that the nurse was staring at, I figured they were all my STATS.

A man came in with this heavy object and placed it near my feet. After attaching wires and stickers to me, the machine started to light up. It was a heart monitor. I realised that, from nurses and doctors watching the monitors, for which it felt like forever, this wasn’t good.

I asked the nurse if he knew where Mum and Jill were, if the inevitable was going to happen, then I really didn’t want to be on my own.

I could feel my heart break, I needed Ewan and he wasn’t there.

I remember being moved to a bigger ward, it seemed more busier too. It was getting really late at night and a nurse moved a recliner alongside me. They let Mum stay because nobody knew if I was going to make it through the night. She held my hand and I never wanted her to let go.

I kept waking up throughout the night to check if Mum was still next to me holding my hand. Despite everything, I felt safe knowing Mum was holding my hand.

At one point, I woke up to see a nurse talking to Mum. She then wrote on my whiteboard, “You’re being moved to another ward”. I nodded and watched on as the nurse and Mum got everything ready to be moved.

The corridors were really dim at night, but enough light for people to see where they were going. I remember squinting as we entered the lifts, the ceiling lights were so bright.

We arrived in a small square-shaped room and Mum started unpacking my things.

The nurse, who took us there, was talking to Mum for a few minutes, then she started to write on my whiteboard. “They’ve found a room for me to stay in, I will still be nearby”.

I didn’t see Mum for hours after she left, then again it could have been minutes as it felt like time was going so slow.

I remember wearing an oxygen mask, and it was really overwhelming, especially with also having a breathing tube in. When the oxygen mask was taken off, the nurse tried putting a tube up my nose again, and still it was really uncomfortable. She stopped trying after a few attempts.

I know I kept nodding off, I just couldn’t fight the tiredness.

I woke up and was instantly emotional. I knew it was March but I didn’t know the date, I frantically tried working out what day it was, in my head, but I was becoming more stressed out. I was worried that I’d missed Ewan’s birthday. While sobbing, I kept shouting, “I’m sorry!”

I was so relieved when I saw Ewan walk up to my bed, but he was wearing the t-shirt I had got him for his birthday, so that answered my question. I had missed his birthday. The realisation made me cry even more and I kept telling him that I was sorry and that I had let him down. He tried his best to reassure me that it was OK, but I still felt guilty.

Mum arrived shortly after and when she saw me, she started crying. I think it bought back memories of her step-dad (my step-grandad) as he had also had Ataxia, but he died from Pneumonia. Then seeing me in the exact same situation, I guess she thought the same would happen to me. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like seeing me like that.

It’s true when people say you don’t know what is around the next corner.

Suddenly, a group of nurses and a short thin woman came up to me. I remember the woman clearly as her glasses were almost bigger than her face. She was actually quite scary looking!

A machine was bought into the room, it looked like a huge robot arm. I thought, “I hope that don’t come anywhere near me, I don’t even want to think what it does!”

And it bloody well was being wheeled over to me.

Eventually, I realised it was a portable X-Ray scanner. I thought, “That’s a clever contraption!”. Once the X-Ray was done, everybody crowded around me again. I looked at Ewan, scared, not knowing what they were going to do. He tried to be strong for me and smiled gently.

The scary looking woman put a new oxygen mask over me. This one seemed more powerful and overwhelming than the last. I was becoming more and more sleepy with each breath I took.

Then it all went black.

I don’t know where I was when I woke up, but it seemed like somebody had put a filter over my vision (what’s left of it) and everything was grey. I remember seeing a bunch of people, I assumed they were nurses, standing around a bed. It’s bizarre to explain, I remember what I was thinking, and it felt real but it didn’t at the same time. It’s clear now, I was very heavily sedated. Bear in mind, I had the breathing tube, IV’s, wires, tubes, machines, NG tube, etc. and I thought to myself, “Do you know what? I feel bloody fantastic!”

Clearly not!

As soon as I had said it, I was asleep again.

There was a water fountain, next to the double doors, just in front of my bay and all I wished for was to have a drink. At the time, I was jealous and hated watching people get a drink from there. I was in a bay which was alongside a wall, I was allowed to have photos put on it. Photos of my Guinea pigs, my dogs, nieces and nephews, I could never look at them without crying because I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.

I remember being more unsettled at night, I think the loneliness hit me hard. I got so frustrated one night, that I was violently shaking the bed guard. I wanted to go home; I still didn’t understand clearly all that happened. Why did I have no energy? Why couldn’t I sit up by myself?

Loneliness, and being in a unfamiliar place, with nobody I knew, was beyond horrible.

I was surprised when my best friend, India, came to see me. I had no idea that she knew I was in hospital. She gave me a really big cuddle and all I could do was put my head against her, I didn’t have the strength to lift up my arm and hug her.

India wrote funny things on my whiteboard which made me smile. It was the same day I met my Speech and Language Therapist, Nicki, she was very bubbly. She showed me how to communicate via a tablet, I had to point to words and pictures to practice communicating with it. My brain understood what to do, but my body didn’t, if that makes sense?

Nicki left after she knew I got the gist of how to use the tablet. Mum arrived shortly after. All of a sudden, I wanted to go to the sea life centre, God knows where that came from. Trying to demonstrate by acting like a fish was interesting. I tried saying ‘Sea’ but neither Mum or India could understand me. Until later on, it clicked and they figured out what I was saying.

Still need to go to a Sea Life centre with India…

During the time I was heavily sedated, I had a tendency to wave to anyone and everyone. Along with shouting (well, trying), “NOOT NOOT”. Just imagine a royal Pingu… I’m never going to live that down.

Early one morning, I woke up and realised nurses were cleaning and changing me, and I became really confused as I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to the toilet. Before I started to wonder if I was no longer able to tell when I “went”, excruciating pain took over my entire body.

My pain threshold, at the time, was extremely sensitive and anything that touched me, I would end up screaming and crying. Not going to lie, I lost all my dignity when nurses had to clean me but I knew I couldn’t help it. I did have a catheter in, which still made me feel like I had wet myself most of the time. But poo-ing myself, that took a long time to get used to. Especially when people came to see me, it was embarrassing.

But like I said, I couldn’t help it.

I can’t remember who arranged it but it was arranged that a dog would visit me, I don’t know the correct name for them but they come in to try and cheer up patients. Anyway, I wasn’t expecting the dog to be HUGE! He was incredibly soft and gentle, and seeing him did cheer me up.

I remember this photo being taken, although I couldn’t see myself clearly when they originally showed me. Seeing it now, it still leaves me speechless as to how far I’ve come.

It was frightening to wake up at one point and see a lot of people crowd around my bed, they were wearing green scrubs and had surgical hats on. I didn’t know I was going to have an operation; a young nurse held my hand because she could see I was scared and confused. She explained that I would be very sleepy while they performed a biopsy on my thigh. I didn’t know her name but I asked her if she would still be there when I woke up. She said she would be.

But she wasn’t, none of them were. Rude!

When Ewan came to visit me one time, the nurses adjusted my bed so I was able to sit up, I cried because I could see the floor. It’s the little things in life.

Another dog came to visit me, I can’t remember if the dog was a girl or boy. It wasn’t as big as the first one because I remember it lying next to me on my bed.

I kept wondering how the nurses were administrating all of my medication, I know they kept standing alongside where my head was, I thought they just put it via my IV. At one point, my neck was quite itchy, but because of my poor coordination, I didn’t know where my hand was so I couldn’t itch it. It was making me very agitated and I tried to demonstrate scratching and pointing to my neck. Thankfully they understood what I meant.

That’s when I found out I had a cannula in my neck… still makes me shudder. My eyes have never gone wider in horror and surprise!

I shouldn’t have said (well, demonstrated) that my neck was itchy because they then decided to take the cannula out and put an A-line in my left arm instead! I don’t mind needles as long as the procedure is quick, but when it takes a while… yeah, no thanks!

I was really hopeful one night, as the nurses were going to try and remove the breathing tube. Yay! They had to check my throat first to see if there was any swelling or irritation, if there was then they wouldn’t take it out.

My throat showed slight inflammation. I was gutted, I really thought it was a huge step forward.

I had my first physio session with a lovely lady, I can’t remember her name, she helped me to do some very small, but effective now I look back at it, bed exercises. I think it was in the next session, a few days later, she got me into a chair (with assistance). It was like watching Transformers, well a slower version, but they took this recliner apart so they could transfer me via a transfer board. I was laying down at all times until I was safely in the recliner and they put it all back together, then they tilted the back rest at an angle I felt comfortable with.

I was impressed! Mind you, it doesn’t take a lot to impress me!

Progress was slow but I was showing signs of improvement! Plus, I was no longer heavily sedated. No more crazy antics!

Day by day, everyone was becoming more hopeful, I was still scared, especially with knowing how close to dying I was.

A tracheostomy was mentioned quite a lot at this point, and when it was explained to me, I was against it.

I was petrified of having a hole in my throat.

The more the tracheostomy was mentioned, the more I was getting freaked out about it.

But I wanted to get better.

It had taken me a couple of days to agree to go ahead with it. My physio was trying her hardest to reassure me by saying how much she loved tracheostomies! Alright love, I think that’s going a bit overboard!

The morning of the tracheostomy procedure arrived; I was petrified. I was moved to a different bay and the nurses started to get me ready to go down to theatre. Ewan and India were there with me and they held my hands to comfort me. Then my physio came to see me while the general anaesthetic was being administrated. Ewan told her about my love of superheroes and she started talking about Marvel, but I fell asleep. Not because she bored me but because of the anaesthetic taking effect. That was the last time I ever saw her.

I woke up to find Ewan and India still holding my hands, but this time I didn’t have a breathing tube in. It felt really bizarre to be able to close my mouth. It felt odd not having this big, chunky thing in my mouth – get your mind out of the gutter!

I went to speak, but Ewan told me to rest, I wasn’t able to speak just yet. By this point, I hadn’t spoken for about 2 weeks. Safe to say, I put my voice to good use now, I don’t shut up! I was able to mouth what I wanted to say, but whoever I was speaking to would have to be very close as my voice was a quiet whisper. Ewan said the operation went well and there were no problems.

Apart from my NG tube, there was nothing else in or on my face, just the rest of my body to go!

I was still sleepy from the anaesthetic throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening. Later that night, I was moved to a different bay, which was opposite the original bay I first stayed in. As I’d slept through the majority of the day, I was awake most of the night and during this time, I became really anxious about the tracheostomy.

The tube was connected to a ventilator, quite a few of them if I remember. What I didn’t realise was that the tube could easily detach from the opening of my tracheostomy. I didn’t think it was possible to reach this new level of fear. The first time it happened was when I finally started to fall asleep and the tube disconnected, I instantly panicked thinking, “what’s going to happen now?” or “Am I going to stop breathing?”

The nurse came rushing over and quickly reconnected the tube, and then held my hand to calm me down. She then wrote on my whiteboard, “I know that was scary but it is normal for that to happen”. That did reassure me enough to prevent any further panicking.

That was scary.

The next day, I was moved into a side room. I preferred having my own room but at the same time, I hated being on my own. That night was rough, I kept coughing a lot and gagging when they had to clear the tracheostomy tube when it was blocked. The process of it isn’t nice at all, but it’s a lot more comfortable than having the breathing tube in.

Ewan came to see me and I was very teary, I really missed being at home with him. All he could say was, “You’ve got to get a bit stronger first”. To try and cheer me up, he painted my toenails while I nodded off. I think they were purple.

A nurse encouraged me to try and drink some water, I’d forgotten what having a drink was like. I was only allowed some via a syringe to begin with, due to prevent any choking. It was so nice to be able to finally have a drink, but one syringe-full was enough. I’m still not overly happy about what happened later that day, when my mum came to see me. The nurse kept telling me to show Mum that I could take some fluid orally, but I really didn’t feel like having any. I kept shaking my head to get the message across that I didn’t want any.

But the nurse wasn’t having any of it, and put the syringe in my mouth, I didn’t have the strength to keep trying to get my point across. I reluctantly swallowed the water and waved my hand to say ‘No more!’ but she continued with 2 more syringes. Not long after, I threw up. No surprise. Thankfully, that was the last time she looked after me.

A couple of days later, Mum and Jill came to see me. I was feeling really low and anxious that day. A nurse administrated some medication that would, hopefully, calm me down. Within seconds, I suddenly started to feel like I was vibrating, which terrified me. I quickly tried to get it across to everyone that I really didn’t feel right.

But then it was too late.

I opened my eyes and realised Mum and Jill were no longer in my room. I looked at the nurse and mouthed, “what happened?” She replied, “We think you had a reaction to the medication”. I just stared at her, bewildered. I mouthed, “Where’s Mum and Jill?”, the nurse replied, “Outside, do you want me to go and get them?” I nodded.

Seconds later, they came back into the room. Mum had been crying, which worried me. Again, I mouthed, “What happened?” Mum replied, “Your eyes rolled back and your arms were flailing, like a small seizure”. I started to cry and Mum gave me a hug.

Throughout the next several days, whenever I nodded off and suddenly woke up, I would panic and then the nurse would rush over, I try and ask if I’m OK, the nurse would then reassure me. It was a long, continuous cyccle. I was too scared to go to sleep, and very anxious if I suddenly woke up. Even with visitors, I would need reassurance. I was beyond petrified of having another seizure, and even to this day I am still scared.

Despite the very disrupted sleep pattern, I continued to make small improvements. Ewan came to see me, while he was there, I was transferred into the recliner. I really wanted to try and drink, but I was still skeptical after the last time. I was offered a syringe of lemon squash, I had never tried it before but as soon as I finished the first syringe, I wanted more! I’ll never forget the first taste of lemon squash; it was like having a drink for the first time.

I could not get enough of it, I ended up having nearly 3 syringes, thankfully I didn’t throw it up!

Although I was making small improvements, I was still coughing and was constantly hot. I needed the fan on non-stop, if someone turned it off then I would tell them to put it back on. Manners went out the window when I was drenched in sweat. Even if I nodded off, I could sense if someone had turned the fan off, so I would instantly wake up and point at the fan so the nurse would put it back on. Demanding even when I can’t speak.

I still had no idea I had double pneumonia, with all the coughing I just assumed it was a bad chest infection.

I was moved to a smaller ward with 3 bays and a side room. It seemed to be more quiet, ironic considering I have hearing difficulties, but you get my drift. I thought I would prefer less people about, but it made time drag on even more.

The next day, I had physio. This was the first session where I tried to sit up, with 3 physio assistants. This was also the first session where I realised, I couldn’t sit up by myself without a lot of support. I had no control or sense of balance whatsoever. I only managed a few seconds before I really struggled to breathe and felt very dizzy. They helped me to lay back on the bed and then manoeuvre me using the sheets.

Later on, that day, I was moved to the ward below, it was the exact same layout as the one I had just came from, which confused me. Then again, it doesn’t take a lot to confuse me.

By this point, I was no longer on any sedatives so I was very aware of myself and my surroundings. The first night on this ward seemed to be OK, I think physio had completely wiped me out so I did have a long sleep. I kept waking up during the night but I wasn’t overly distressed.

After being washed in the morning, the nurse wrote on my whiteboard, “As you’ve been improving, we want to try and wean you off the ventilator. If you become too tired and find it difficult, then we will put the ventilator back on”.

I didn’t feel ready, I’d been dependent on a breathing tube, oxygen masks, and ventilators for what seemed like forever, but it was actually 3 weeks. I admit, I felt more aware of things but I still felt very unwell. I was very hesitant but if they had been closely monitoring me and I’d been improving, then maybe I was getting better. I trusted them so I agreed.

The first time, I lasted 2 hours without the ventilators. Boy, did I know about it! I thought I couldn’t get any hotter than before, but damn! I was coughing so often that I lost count how many times they had to clear my tracheostomy tube. This was also when I started to realise how ill I had been, the number of times they had to clear my tube, which basically collected all the crap from my chest.

That really shocked me, and still does.

Tests for Mitochondrial Disease were ongoing, Mum had to have a blood test which would show, if anything, that I could have inherited. I just had to wait for someone else to be tested.

With being constantly hot and sweaty, I hated how my hair felt and looked. One afternoon, a nurse washed my hair and I genuinely felt like I was being pampered! Head massage and a thorough wash, it was lovely. I ended up falling asleep because the head massage was so nice. I could really do with another massage, especially my neck and shoulders.

Mum came to see me but I could tell she wasn’t feeling well, she was more tired than usual, and kept nodding off. I’d been struggling with being off the ventilator that day and I thought I was going downhill again. I was convinced I was dying again. The anxiety of it all made me really tired so I fell asleep not long before Mum had to leave. I panicked when I woke up later that night, realising Mum had gone and I didn’t get to say bye to her.

I was very upset and the nurse spent ages reassuring me that Mum did give me a hug before she left. After how I had been that day, and feeling really anxious, I convinced myself that I would never see Mum again.

The next day seemed to drag, I wondered where Mum was as it was nearly 6 in the evening. “Maybe she’s had enough of seeing me’, I thought, I felt really low again and had quite a lot of horrible thoughts in my head. It was hard not being able to talk, about how I felt, purely because I was still recovering and could not speak.

When a nurse came over to me, I mouthed, “Where’s Mum?” The nurse took a while to write on my whiteboard, “Your Mum isn’t able to come and see you today as she’s not very well, but she sends her love”. I was devastated. I wanted to be at home to help her, but I was also selfish and wanted her to be with me. Yes, I’m a mummy’s girl. It was my first night without any visitors and it scared me.

The next day, Mum had already phoned, before I woke up, to say that she wouldn’t be able to come and see me, but her friend had arranged for another support dog to come and visit me.

I managed 6 hours without the ventilator that day!

I met Merlin, the Labradoodle, in the afternoon. He was very soft and friendly. He even licked my nose, bless him!

Meeting Merlin did cheer me up for a while, but the man, who visited me during my first morning at Addenbrooke’s, the one who I didn’t have a clue as to what he was saying, came over to me with a group of people. He wrote on my whiteboard, “These are my students, do you mind if we examine you?” At this point, I just wanted all the examinations to stop. In the space of a few weeks, hundreds of different people had seen me, cleaned me, washed me, examined me. For someone who doesn’t like to be touched, I’d just had enough.

‘But how would that make me look if I refused a simple examination?’

I nodded and thankfully, it wasn’t invasive. It was a standard test where they bang that circle thing against your wrists, elbows and heels. Plus, the sharp end they run across the soles of your feet, they’re lucky they didn’t get a kick in the face because my pain threshold was still oversensitive!

After they left, I got very emotional. Nothing had been explained to me, I still didn’t know how I ended up in hospital. I still assumed I had a ‘bad chest infection’. It all just got to me and I wanted answers. It took me a long time to get the nurse to understand what I was saying, but she arranged for someone to come and see me to give me some answers.

Finally, hopefully within the next few days, I would know the truth.

Mums’ friend, the one who arranged for Merlin to come and see me, visited me and stayed with me for a while. She was the closest thing I could get to having Mum there with me, and I’m grateful for her visit. She was writing on my whiteboard, telling me of her recent trip, with her son, to China (I think it was China). I remember Las Vegas and riding in a helicopter being mentioned, I can’t remember how they got into the conversation.

Her hugs were what I needed. They were comforting and reassuring, and they meant so much to me.

The next day, I was transferred into the recliner, and this was the first time I used a hoist. It felt really weird to be swinging there (not like on a swing at a park). I don’t like being off the ground anyway, so it was a bit nerve-wracking!

From where I had been lying in bed for weeks, even though I was supported with lots of pillows, sitting in the recliner made me very sore. I could only manage about 15 minutes before I started crying and wincing in pain. Before they tried to transfer me back into bed, a group of people approached me. A tall man knelt down in front of me and began writing on my whiteboard, “I have been asked to see you, to explain about Mitochondrial” I nodded, then mouthed (several times), “All I’ve been told is that its genetic”. The bloke nodded.

With everything that had happened throughout the past year, I felt like my time was limited and if Mitochondrial was the cause of it all, and with how quickly my health deteriorated, I assumed it was just going to get worse and worse.

“Am I dying?”, I mouthed. I started crying, dreading his answer. “No”, he reassured me, shaking his head.

As much as I wanted to know more, at that moment I only had one question to ask, and it was answered. I just needed reassurance.

The following morning, when it was handover, I met Will. He was absolutely beautiful, not that I liked him in that way, but you know when some men are just beautiful. He was. Anyway, he was an incredible guy and one of the best nurses that had looked after me.

I had done really well with being off the ventilator, I can’t remember how many hours I had managed but it was steadily improving.

That night, Ewan stayed a bit later after visiting hours. That was the night the nurse had to change my NG tube. I wasn’t awake when they put the first one in, so I had no idea what it felt like. I think the nurse’s name was Dan, he was lovely. When Ewan explained to me that Dan had to change the tube, I just laid there shaking my head. Nope. Not having it.

But I had to.

To my surprise, when the NG tube was removed, it wasn’t painful, it felt satisfyingly weird! But then the dreaded moment came when Dan tried to put the new one in. He explained to Ewan what I needed to do, then Ewan repeated to me, “When Dan puts the tube up your nose, he will tell you to swallow so the tube can go down into your stomach”. Mental images did not help at this moment but thanks to my brain, they sure appeared in my head!

The first attempt, I struggled to allow the tube to make its way up through my nose, more like my brain was telling it to go back where it came from, it wasn’t exactly painful, it was really uncomfortable.

The second attempt, the same again. Third time lucky and I was brave! It finally went in, hooray.

I hope I never have to relive that again.

Jill came to visit me at the weekend, she always knows how to make me smile. She loved writing on my whiteboard, what made me laugh (well, silently) is that when she writes, you can see in her expression what she is writing, if she’s happy about something then she will smile or laugh while writing, or if she’s annoyed or being sarcastic then she writes really fast. Anybody who knows her will know what I mean.

There was this male nurse, and he just sat on the reception desk not doing anything. Anyway, the nurse who was looking after me asked if I wanted to be transferred into the recliner. I nodded, as I wanted to show Jill because all she had seen of me in the last few weeks was me lying in bed. I was safely transferred into the recliner, all for about five minutes as I became really sore and it was more painful than the last time. Back up in the hoist I went.

The male nurse, who was sitting on the desk, had control of the hoist, and the idiot looked elsewhere while I was being lowered back into bed which meant he didn’t stop the hoist from lowering further, which as a result, squashed my hand! I couldn’t scream as nobody would hear me. Thankfully the other nurse who was assisting noticed before it could completely crush my hand. That left a bloody bruise though.

I kept giving him the evils when he walked near me. I was not happy. Thankfully he left not long after.

Jill left a few times to get some fresh air. But the second time she came back in, there was something different, not about her but about me.

While she went out, a nurse came over and wrote on my whiteboard, “Shall we try you with a speaking valve?” I looked rather, hesitant. She knew what I meant from the expression on my face. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt, it’s the same as changing your tracheostomy tube but with the speaking valve, you can try to speak, but you might cough a lot” she wrote down, reassuring me. I nodded.

The nurse was right, as soon as she connected the speaking valve, I couldn’t stop coughing. I really tried my hardest to stop myself from coughing so I could surprise Jill when she returned. But I was still coughing by the time she got back, thankfully she didn’t notice any different. As she sat down, she started looking in her bag.

“Hello” I said, very husky, huskier than Rod Stewart.

Jill looked at me in surprise and put her hands up as if to say, “What the??” I tried to reply with “They let me try the speaking valve” but I couldn’t manage all them words without choking. The nurse quickly rushed over and changed the valve back to the tube that was helping me breathe.

Talking, well saying a few words, really wore me out! Some random nurse came over to Jill and asked if I was Jill’s Mum! Cheeky sod! Bear in mind Jill is 7 years older than me – I thought, “Bloody hell, have I aged that much being stuck in here?!” Jill told me what was said, after laughing so much. Well, revenge is sweet, the nurse came back and asked if Jill was my Mum! Ha!

I hope that nurse doesn’t create family trees as a side job!

In the 6 hours that Jill had spent with me, she went through 3 whiteboard pens! 3!!

Ewan came to see me on the Sunday. I cried when he came to visit, I just yearned to be at home with him. He sat beside my bed and held my hand. He hadn’t heard me speak since the day before I was admitted to hospital, he must have enjoyed the peace and quiet. I was hoping, at some point during his visit, that I could try and speak to him. So, I was relieved the nurse came over to ask if I wanted to try and speak to Ewan.

I’m not going to lie, while the nurse was changing my tube to the speaking valve, I had butterflies. I knew what I wanted to say.

Within seconds of the valve being connected, I was coughing. Once it had calmed down, I turned to Ewan, and said,

“I love you”

He put his hand over his mouth in shock and closed his eyes, blinking back tears. The nurse bought over some tissues and I just laid there in disbelief. I never thought he would cry because of hearing my voice. This was a turning point for me, it made me realise what the odds were against me, how ill I was, but most importantly, it reminded me that Ewan still loved me and still thinks a lot of me if hearing my voice made him emotional.

Finally, he said, “I love you too”. I still remember that moment like it was yesterday and it’s definitely one I’m not going to forget in a hurry.

A few hours later, Ewan found my iPad – I couldn’t believe I’d had it with me this whole time! Nearly 3 weeks without it, blimey that’s a world record for me! Anyway, he turned it on and tried to see if there was any WiFi, thankfully there was! He did ask if it was OK to use my iPad while in ICU and it was fine.

Ewan held the iPad as I didn’t have the strength to hold it, I really struggled to type even with one finger. This was going to be a long recovery, learning to write again, type, sit up, stand up or walk, it all overwhelmed me but I tried my best to fight back the tears. I tapped on my emails, in my 3 weeks of unforeseen absence, I had accumulated over 600 emails. Wow.

I dreaded to think how long this would take me to go through them all.

Even though I was still coughing a lot, I was slowly getting better, I was weaned off the ventilator more gradually.

There was hope.

Ewan came to visit me again on Monday, Mum was slowly getting better but still unable to see me. I already had the speaking valve connected before he arrived. After we had a long hug, I asked if we could FaceTime anyone, I wanted to try and speak while the coughing was minimal.

First, we spoke to Mum, my Nan was also with her. They were shocked when they heard my voice and cried. Secondly, we spoke to Ewan’s Aunt, I remember crying when she appeared on the screen – I will refer to Ewan’s Aunt as Auntie J – ever since I met Auntie J, we’ve had a close relationship and she’s an amazing woman. She helped me through some of the darkest of times. I managed to say “Hello” but Ewan spoke throughout the rest of the video call as I couldn’t stop crying. I can’t remember who else we called.

I had a little nap not long after we finished speaking to everyone. I felt really overwhelmed with how tired I was from just saying a few words. I woke up an hour or so later to realise that Ewan had gone, but it turned out he just popped outside. Another nurse had appeared during my nap, not sure why I ended up with 2 nurses.

The male nurse began writing on my whiteboard, I was looking at Ewan thinking, “Oh God, what now?” When the nurse turned my whiteboard around, so that I could read it, I was taken aback and tears filled my eyes as I finished reading what he had written.

“Do you want to go outside?”

I really couldn’t believe it, the thought of being able to go outside, to see different surroundings, to feel the cold air, it made my heart fill with so much joy. It’s the little things we take for granted, my head was telling me this would be the last time that I would get to go outside, but it was my heart that was saying, “No, this is a new beginning”.

Ewan held my hand as I gathered my thoughts, and truth be told, I was excited and I didn’t need to be asked twice. I nodded, as my speaking valve had been disconnected before I had a nap earlier, and the nurses rallied round to get everything prepared, I was wrapped up in a blanket, had 2 small oxygen tanks beside me on my bed, a portable monitor that was placed by my side. Once all set, we headed down corridors, and lifts, until we approached a door.

I’d never been to Addenbrooke’s before, this was all new to me. The female nurse opened the door, and the male nurse pushed my bed outside. We were in the middle of a small garden with a few benches, lots of greenery too. The garden was empty, it was just the four of us. The nurses moved my bed into the centre of the garden, put the brakes on and then walked around.

Ewan leaned on the bed rails to be closer to me. He looked at me, and I to him. His eyes were the most beautiful colour of blue, he leaned close enough so I could see all of his facial features. These little moments felt like we were back on the bench, 5 years ago (now nearly 8), where we shared our first kiss. It felt like the world around us had stopped and it was just the two of us.

I may have been slowly getting better, but looking at all the equipment, and the tubes, it bought me back to the reality of how close I was, to losing everything. But this moment, with Ewan, right here, if this would have been my last then I would be happy.

Our gaze was averted as the male nurse approached my bed; he had picked a few flowers from the garden. I think they were purple. He handed them to me, I looked up at him and smiled, and mouthed “Thank you”. I had lost the use of my grip and I found it difficult to hold the stems, but I really tried.

I didn’t realise my iPad was on my bed, I thought it was left inside. I turned to Ewan and mouthed, “Can we get a photo, please?” he smiled and asked one of the nurses if they could take a photo.

Once the photo was taken, the iPad was placed back on my bed, I wanted to wait until we got inside to see the photo. I looked up at the buildings around me, only to find out 10 months later that this was only a small part of Addenbrooke’s, it was huge! and despite all that had happened in the last few weeks, all the scary stuff and not knowing if I’d make it, I made a promise to myself that things would change.

I would make things happen from now on.

I started to believe I was a survivor, a fighter. This was just the beginning of showing everyone how strong I was, what I’m capable of.

I was taken back to the ward, checked over to see if I had to be cleaned and then I could rest. Ewan stayed with me for a few more hours and then it was time for him to go home. Despite an emotional start to his visit, it had been a nice day and I continued to make progress with being weaned off the ventilator. Plus, taking in the fresh air for the first time in a few weeks was beautiful.

India came to visit me on the Tuesday, she’s the best friend I could ever ask for. This was her third visit, I was able to use the speaking valve throughout her visit, even though I spent most of it coughing. I’m not sure if she noticed, but whenever I coughed, I farted. I couldn’t help it; I blame it on all the medication I was on. It was embarrassing but funny at the same time. India kept telling me to sleep if I needed to, which I’m glad because she kept making me laugh and it was tiring me out! When I woke up, she was still by my side, I really appreciated that.

On Wednesday, I realised this had been the longest that I had not seen Mum for, it felt strange and it upset me. Like I’ve said before, I’m a mummy’s girl.

A familiar nurse came and stood by my bed; it was Will! He was looking after me again. Despite a few tears beforehand, the day started off well. I had been off the ventilator for… I lost count how long. Then Will appeared, and a short while later he came over and told me that Mum was able to visit. I was so pleased!

All this joy quickly passed as it made me tired and I soon nodded off. But not for too long, I was awoken by Sam, a neuro-physiotherapist. She was lovely and funny. They wanted to try and get me to sit on the edge of my bed again. Once hoisted and placed in position, there were so many nurses and physios around me, supporting me. I still felt very wobbly, and this was the first session without the ventilator.

I thought it was going well, I was slowly leaning forward to help control my balance but I became panicky, which in affect played havoc with my breathing and had to quickly be connected to the ventilator. The session didn’t last very long at all, but it was a lot more than I could have done a few weeks ago!

Sam said that she would come back later in the day to see if I wanted to sit in the recliner.

Soon after Sam and her team left, Mum arrived! She was looking a lot better too. It was nice to be able to speak to her, even though my voice still sounded like Rod Stewart. After a while, with Mum bringing me up to date with things that had been happening at home, Sam returned. She asked if I felt strong enough to sit in the recliner. I nodded as I really wanted to show Mum.

When I was hoisted into the recliner, I was sitting on a pillow to help take the pressure of my sore, and I had a couple of pillows propped up behind me. I was quite comfy. Everyone was chatting amongst themselves for a few minutes before Sam came back over to me and asked if I would like to go outside in the garden.

I quickly replied, “Yes please!” The sun was shining through the windows which made me excited that I would be able to experience sitting in the sunshine again! Oxygen tanks prepped, everything else that I may have needed was ready to go. I felt like the Queen being pushed, in the recliner, throughout the hospital!

It was early afternoon so there were a lot of people about, but it was refreshing to see. I was pushed towards just in front of the bench. The sun wasn’t directly on me, which was good because the heat quickly caught up with me! Nevertheless, it felt lovely to feel the warmth around me. Mum wanted to take a photo of me.

I started to feel really sore, and I tried my hardest not to let it show because I enjoyed being outside, and taking everything into consideration, I didn’t know how much more I would get to go outside. But I could only endure being uncomfortable for so long, I told everyone that my sore was playing up, and thankfully they swiftly pushed me back onto the ward.

While I was being hoisted back into bed, Will had to dash off to receive a phone call at the desk. He came back over and told us that was King’s Lynn Hospital on the phone, there was a bed available for me!

I was going to be closer to home!

This is the end of the guest serial. Although, most definitely not her recovery.
If your readers would like to ask any questions then I would be happy to answer.

(If you would like to read the ‘reveal’ post to find out who the author is, and how she is doing now, please follow the link. You ill be rewarded with more of her personal story, and some lovely photos too.)

Guest Serial: Author Reveal

“Come And See”: The Complete Story

This is all 30 parts of my recent fiction serial, “Come And See”, in one complete story. It is a long read, at 22,450 words.

Things were alright until his dad left home. That was when Jimmy’s mum found God.

Well, not in the sense that she woke up one morning and suddenly felt all religious. But when someone she worked with suggested she go with them to a prayer meeting, as a way of getting over the shock of her husband walking out after nearly twenty years together. It wasn’t long before she was really into it. Jimmy was only fifteen when she brought the first Bible home. She turned off Top of The Pops, and started reading it out loud to him while he was eating the pie and chips she had carried in the same bag.

Of course, his first reaction was to laugh out loud. But when she carried on, he concluded she must have gone mad. If only his dad had told him where he had gone to, he would have walked out and caught a bus there and then. What was he to do? He didn’t know anyone else he could go and live with, and he didn’t have any money, except what she gave him to buy lunch. So he sat there drinking his can of Tizer, and let her ramble on about God creating every creature and every living thing, hoping she would soon get fed up.

But she didn’t get fed up. So Jimmy waited until she had to use the toilet, and went up to his room to have a look at the copy of Men Only that he kept hidden under the sports bag in his wardrobe.

That went on for a long time. One day when Jimmy got home from school, the telly had gone. He asked his mum what had happened, and was shocked to hear she had sold it to someone up the street. She started to trap on about how it only broadcast evil stuff, and was probably the work of Satan. He didn’t hear the rest of her ravings, as he was already heading up to his room to sulk.

For his sixteenth birthday, his mum put two wrapped presents on the table when she got in from work. The first one was a large box of toffees, and the second contained a huge embossed Bible. Inside the front cover, she had written his name, and the date. Underneath that, she had added the words ‘MAKE A DIFFERENCE’ in capital letters. Jimmy took the presents up to his room and started to munch the toffees. Then he reached under his sports bag to grab his girly magazine. But it was gone. He felt his face flush.

She must have known, all along.

So he did his homework instead. Chemistry, Maths, and Physics. Then for want of anything else to do before dinner, he flicked through the new Bible. It was a fancy edition, no doubt. Nice clear print, and some border illustrations down the side of each page. And it had the Old Testament and New Testament combined in that one volume. No wonder it was so big. He remembered Genesis from his mum’s readings, and some of Exodus too. But skimming down the pages until he didn’t recognise the words, he started to finish Exodus, trying hard not to fall asleep before his mum called him down to eat.

On his way home from school one day after staying late for cricket practice, Jimmy was mortified to see his mum standing outside the Londis shop. She was holding a big placard with the words ‘REPENT NOW AND BE SAVED’ printed on it. And she was shouting out quotations from The Bible. People were avoiding her as they went in and out of the shop, but some local teenagers on bikes were mocking her from the kerb; repeating everything she said, and laughing fit to bust.

Hoping she hadn’t spotted him, Jimmy turned around quickly, and headed for the service road behind the shops. Letting himself in the house, he was wondering if any of the boys from school had seen her. He could do without them making his life at school any more miserable than it was already.

As if not having a telly wasn’t bad enough. Now this.

By the weekend, things got a lot worse. Jimmy’s mum took the three-step kitchen stool with her, and headed to the new shopping precinct in the centre of town. She told him she was going to use the pedestrianised area there to get her message across to the Saturday shoppers. He had a vision of her standing on top of the stool with her placard, scattering her leaflets, and everyone laughing at her. All he could hope was that nobody they knew noticed her. But that seemed inevitable.

The weather was unusually cold, and by lunchtime it was raining heavily too. Jimmy had cracked on with his homework, and then stopped to make some slices of toast for lunch. Then the house phone rang, and that made him drop a slice of toast as he was buttering it. Nobody ever rang the house phone.

His mum was in hospital, and a nurse was ringing. She told him mum’s leg was in plaster after falling and breaking her ankle, and that he should come and fetch her in a taxi. She had slipped off her step-stool in the precinct, and a shopkeeper had phoned an ambulance. Jimmy had never used a taxi, and didn’t even know a number for one. But he did know that if he walked to the station, there were taxis there.

He asked the taxi driver to take him to the Royal Victoria, and told him he would need to wait while he picked is mum up, and that she would pay when they got home. The elderly man eyed him suspiciously at first, then eventually decided he was genuine. Jimmy’s mum was in a wheelchair by the entrance. They had given her crutches, and he had a difficut time getting her into the taxi. Especially as the driver just sat in his seat and made no effort to help. They had to leave the wheelchair behind, but his mum told Jimmy that he would have to go and ask Mrs Faraday for a loan of her husband’s old one. As he was dead, he wouldn’t be needing it.

She paid the taxi fare, but told the driver he was getting no tip as he hadn’t tried to help at all. Then she lectured him about the Good Samaritan, and how Jesus would be ashamed of him for not helping a woman with a broken ankle. Once she was settled in her armchair, Jimmy walked up the street to ask Mrs Faraday about the wheelchair. She told him he could borrow it, but that she wanted it back in good condition, and clean. Mum said that if she was a truly Christian woman she would have just handed it over without any conditions and been grateful to help.

Then she moaned about breaking her placard, and snapping the metal foot off the step-stool. Both had been thrown away by the shopkeeper who rang the ambulance, and he hadn’t even asked her permission to chuck them. Once she had worked out how to get herself in and out of the wheelchair, she gave Jimmy more bad news. He was going to have to wheel her to the prayer group on Sunday morning. She couldn’t possibly manage to get there by herself.

Funnily enough, she did manage to cook dinner though, standing in the kitchen supported by the crutches. She told Jimmy that she had to go back to the hospital next week for a plaster check, and would likely have the cast on for six weeks. He could only imagine what a pain it was going to be to have to cope with her for those six weeks. So he went upstairs to try to stop thinking about it, and started to read the book of Numbers. He had already skimmed through Leviticus, and hadn’t though too much of it, to be honest.

God was really harsh to those Israelites, he decided. Just for complaining about the conditions on the way to the Promised Land, he killed so many of them. Not someone to upset, that was for sure.

But he got to the crossing of the Jordan before he fell asleep.

The prayer group meeting was nothing at all like Jimmy had imagined it would be. For one thing, it wasn’t in a church, but in the hall next to the Working Men’s Social Club. He had hoped to be able to wheel his mum in and make his excuses, but after he got her inside, a scary old lady bolted the door behind him. She said to take a seat at the front, so the wheelchair could be in the aisle.

Looking around, Jimmy guessed that his mum was the youngest in the group. Everyone else looked really old, and the whole place reeked of lavender water and smelly feet. He counted just eighteen people, besides him and his mum. They were sitting on the old wooden chairs arranged in rows, but everyone was in the first two rows. There must have been fifty chairs with nobody in them. He presumed it must be a slack day that Sunday.

Above the stage was a banner with ‘MAKE A DIFFERENCE’ printed on it in huge letters, and a black cross in each corner. Just like mum had written inside his Bible. Nobody seemed to be doing anything. There was no praying, and no hymn singing. Everyone was sat there just staring into space.

Then a man walked out onto the stage. He must have been standing to the side out of sight. As he appeared, the people all raised their heads and started smiling, including his mum. He was a big man. Tall, and stout too. He looked to be about fifty, and he was dressed in a three-piece black serge suit. In his left lapel was a silver cross, shining in the overhead lights, as was the greasy stuff he had used to stick his hair down. He looked around the room, nodding.

Someone behind Jimmy called out “Praise the Lord, Reverend George!” Then the rest of the people shouted the same thing. His mum reached out and grabbed Jimmy’s hand, beaming a smile at him, and inclining her head to suggest he join in. But he didn’t. Reverend George started speaking, and his voice was so loud, Jimmy wondered if he had a microphone hidden somewhere. He welcomed everyone, and thanked them for their preaching work in the community. Then he made a short speech about mum breaking her ankle, as she was preaching in the shopping precinct. How her willingness to injure herself to spread the word of God was an example to all.

Jimmy found that rather over the top. It wasn’t as if she had intended to fall off the three-step stool.

Everyone closed their eyes while Reverend George said a prayer about preaching salvation and repentance to those who had not seen the light. Jimmy kept his eyes open a bit, watching the man on the stage. When he finished speaking, the Reverend suddenly focused on Jimmy. He spoke even louder. “Today we have to welcome a new member of the congregation, young James. He has accompanied his mother to make her journey easier, and joined us for our service. Welcome to you, James”. Everyone repeated what he said, even mum. Jimmy felt his face go hot as he blushed.

For the next thirty minutes, George blabbed on about who should be going where to spread the word. He mentioned that there were plenty of leaflets available, and everyone should take some when they left. He kept on about how important it was for everyone to keep preaching in the town, claiming that the regular churches had been consumed by vice and greed, and only his group could make a difference.

Then he bent down and picked up a wooden box with a handle. Walking down the steps from the stage, he passed along the rows as the people stuffed money into the slot on top of the box. Jimmy was amazed to see his mum put two ten-pound notes into it. She didn’t earn much more than fifty a week, so donating twenty of that was a lot. When everyone had put in, George went back onto the stage to give the final prayer and blessing. It was more of a pep talk really, promising all the oldies a place in Heaven at the right hand of God if they continued to do their good work.

Just before they stood up to go, he suddenly called out Jimmy’s name.

“James! Be aware, young man. The Lord has special work for you. You will make a difference!”

After that first experience of the prayer group, Jimmy did a deal with his mum. He would wheel her there on Sundays, but not stay for the meeting. He had to tell the scary old lady not to bolt the door, and then made his escape before Reverend George appeared. There was something about that man he really didn’t like. He would hang around for an hour, then collect her for the trip home.

At least the broken ankle stopped his mum from going to the shopping precinct, or standing outside the Londis shop.

The downside was that she was off sick from work, and around all the time. At least he had school to get a few hours away from her, but she started going on about God as soon as he got home, so he retreated to his bedroom at the earliest opportunity. More used to the the very old-fashioned style of writing by now, he had got as far as Judges, and was almost up to Ruth. The main conclusion he had reached so far was that God was a very vengeful God, and anyone who crossed him was in serious trouble.

School was going well though, as long as he could avoid the taunts of the boys who teased him about his mum. They called her ‘Bible-Basher’, or ‘God-Botherer’ and one asked Jimmy why Jesus hadn’t just reached down from Heaven and healed her ankle, to save her having it in plaster. Good news was that he won a prize in Chemistry, and when he told his mum she said she would buy him a small statue of Jesus to keep in his bedroom. Jimmy would have preferred some chocolate-covered Brazil nuts, but said nothing.

He took his exams that summer, and when the results came in, he had Grade One O-level passes in Chemistry, Biology, Maths, and Physics. The passes in English, French, and Geography were not so great, but that didn’t bother him, as he intended to be a scientist. He would be going on to the A-levels the following year, and the Chemistry teacher told him to start thinking about university. But Jimmy’s mum had already fixed him up with a job after the A-levels, at the pharmaceutical company here she worked as a typist in the office. They would take him on as long as he got A-level Chemistry, which he was certain to get. Then he would get paid, be able to learn to drive, and hopefully save up enough money to rent his own place, and get away from his mum.

During the summer holidays, with mum no longer in a leg cast and back at work, he had more free time. But with no friends to speak of, and no telly to watch, he was soon up to the book of Proverbs. One line in that caught his attention. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”. There it was again. Fear. You had to fear God, and if you didn’t you could be sure you were in trouble. Once Proverbs was finished, Jimmy realised he was still only halfway through. They certainly knew how to write a book in the old days.

Of course, with mum mobile again, she resumed her preaching. She didn’t bother to buy another three-step stool though. Just in case. Some days, three or four of George’s group would work together. They went knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, and generally bothering all the neighbours. It wasn’t long before almost nobody talked to Jimmy, and when they saw his mum approaching, they would cross the street to avoid her. No telly, no friends, and now nobody talking either. Jimmy was starting to feel like an outcast.

By the time he had taken his exams the following year, he felt lonelier than ever. Mum had taken to preaching after work every evening, and all over the weekend. She told him she was guaranteeing them both a place in Heaven. But he had to cook his own dinner every night, and sit in the silent house on his own.

More time for reading meant he had almost finished The Old Testament. He was nearly at the end of the Book of Daniel, and there were only the Minor Prophets to go. Keen to get onto the New Testament to see if it was more interesting, he thought he might skip those.

They were only Minor, after all.

For Jimmy, the best thing about the new year of 1970 was that he would soon be eighteen years old, leaving school, and starting work. He had got the good pass grades he expected, and should be starting at Hopgood Pharmaceuticals just after Easter. For his mum, the best thing for her was that it was no longer the ‘Swinging Sixties’. She had hated all that pop music, free love, mini-skirts, and girls being on the pill. She was hoping for a better decade, a more God-fearing time to come.

Jimmy hadn’t had any of that free love, and since mum had sold the telly and thrown away the transistor radio, he hadn’t had any pop music either.

Mum’s prayer group had expanded a little. His mum said they now had twenty-six members, and Reverend George was better than ever with his fiery rhetoric. Jimmy had never been inside after that first time, and he had eventually got used to his mum always being out. He had also read a fair bit of the New Testament, though he had found it rather disappointing.

Jesus had started out well, throwing out the money-lenders and stuff, but Jimmy had found it hard to tolerate all those miracles. They seemed too far-fetched for his liking.

With the end of his schooling coming up, and a new job to prepare for, he had closed his Bible for now, reading up on his chemistry books instead. He was determined to make a good impression, and carve out a genuine career for himself in the Testing Department at Hopgood’s. As well as testing the efficacy of any new drugs, they also had contracts for blood tests, and bacterial testing. They would get samples sent in from hospitals, local councils, and even the police.

He had read up on that forensic side; establishing blood groups, identifying possible suspects, detecting poisons in tissue samples. It was all still rather new, but he hoped to get involved in that area, as it interested him.

The first day at work was rather embarrassing. Jimmy’s mum insisted they travel in together, then she walked him up to the head of his department, and introduced him as if he were a child on his first day at school. He could see his new colleagues eyeing her, and raising their eyebrows. She was not averse to expounding her salvation theories during the lunch break, something she had already told her son. Jimmy resolved to take the latest break allowed, as his mum sitting with him would tar him with the same brush.

That first week was something of a blur. He met a couple of dozen people whose names he was sure he would never remember, and was shown around the whole complex of buildings, even parts he would never be required to work in.

Then he was assigned a mentor. Lesley was a woman in her late twenties, and she had been working at Hopgood’s since leaving university. Jimmy got the impression she was unpopular, but his experience with women was no experience, so he didn’t notice the fact that she was overweight, wore thick-lens glasses, and had greasy hair. He treated her with great respect, and was keen to learn from her.

Very soon, Lesley liked Jimmy. She liked him a lot.

Once Lesley was on his side, Jimmy got to finally do some science. She mentioned extending his mentorship past the first week, just to be certain he was comfortable. He was happy to accept that, and she was soon showing him lots of the different aspects of the job, including the forensic analysis, which was her speciality. Because of her age, Jimmy naturally assumed she was married. But during a conversation when she mentioned living alone, he found out that wasn’t the case.

On Thursday, Lesley asked him outright if he was as crazy about religion as his mum. He explained about his dad leaving, having no television, and only having The Bible to read. But he was quick to critisize the prayer group and Reverend George, telling her he thought it was just a way for George to get money. Lesley looked very pleased by his answer.

On the way home that night, Jimmy’s mum complained of a blinding headache that she couldn’t shift. Back in the house, she prayed for The Lord to take away her headache, and went to bed early, unable to eat any dinner.

The next morning, Jimmy couldn’t wake her up.

Jimmy checked that his mum was actually breathing. Then he rang 999 and asked for an ambulance, telling the dispatcher that his mum seemed to be unconscious. After that he ran along the street to Mrs Faraday, gave her his mum’s keys, and asked her to wait in his house for the ambulance. He told her he had to go to work, and couldn’t possibly be late. Giving her no time to argue, he headed off to the bus stop.

At the eleven o’clock tea-break, he mentioned to Lesley about his mum, and she was shocked to hear that he had still come into work. She went to tell the head of department, and he insisted that Jimmy leave work immediately, and go to the hospital. Jimmy was reluctant to go, telling his boss that he would call into the hospital after work, and see if she was still there. But with Lesley joining in, he had no alternative but to go and get the bus to The Royal Victoria.

Casualty reception was quiet that morning, and a kind older woman said she would get one of the nurses to come and speak to him. Ten minutes later, a crisp and efficient Nursing Sister appeared. She took Jimmy into an unoccupied cubicle and told him that his mum had suffered a serious stroke. She used the word ‘catastrophic’ in fact. Although she was still alive, and likely to stay alive, she would probably be unable to speak or move. She asked Jimmy about family who could help, and he told her he was it. Then she took him to see his mum in a side room.

Norah Walker looked like she was sleeping soundly. In fact, she was snoring. Jimmy looked at her, thinking she looked a lot older than she did yesterday. Behind him, the nurse talked about long-term care, possibly in a residential facility. She was sure Jimmy could never cope alone, and said the doctor would come to speak to him soon. She left Jimmy siting by the bedside, without a clue what to say or do.

The doctor looked tired. He said his name was Doctor Singh, and he was wearing a turban. But his accent was the same as Jimmy’s. He repeated what the nurse had said. Mum might never recover, but she could possibly live for many years yet, maybe as long as twenty years.

When he concluded by asking if Jimmy wanted him to try to get her into long-term care, Jimmy was nodding before he had finished speaking.

That night at home, Jimmy did something he had never done before. He went through all of his mum’s papers, which were stored neatly in a drawer in her bedroom. There was a life insurance policy, but as she was still alive, he ignored that. Then he found some papers from a solicitor in town. Patrick Killane Solicitors seemed to have dealt with all of his mum’s business, and he thought he had better contact them.

He phoned the number on the headed notepaper, and he was eventually put through to Patrick himself. He didn’t have the expected Irish accent, and spoke softly in a very cultured way. “Mister Walker, I think you should come in and see me. I have things to discuss now Norah is in this condition. Will tomorrow at six be suitable?” Jimmy confirmed that appointment, and hung up.

That night, he carried on reading the New Testament, and got as far as 1 Peter before falling asleep.

Lesley was all over him the next morning. She wasn’t talking about work at all, just telling him she would cook him dinner, even come to his house to do it if he wanted. She said he shouldn’t worry about work, as she had spoken to the boss. He was happy to give Jimmy as much time off as he needed. Norah was a long-term employee, and much valued. Lesley said that if he wanted, she could stay in a spare room at his house, and look after him.

Preoccupied with the meeting with Killane later, Jimmy just nodded, and gave her his door key.

Lesley was beginning to get on his nerves. As he tried to concentrate on learning the new job, all she wanted to talk about was what he liked to eat, and what his house was like. She told him not to worry if his mum never came home, as she would look after him for as long as he needed her. He had to actually ask her to talk about work instead, and he noticed that she was rather miffed at that comment.

By the time he got to Killane’s that evening, the staff had gone home, and the solicitor was waiting for him in the outer office. He treated Jimmy with respect, ignoring his age, and the fact he had no experience with legal matters. “Your mother recently changed her instructions to me. I know she is still alive of course, but given her condition, we may be looking at trying to get you a power of attorney, so you can access any finances should you need to. Are you happy for me to do this on your behalf?” Jimmy nodded, and had to sign three different pieces of paper on the line marked with an ‘X’ in pencil.

Killane was looking at him seriously. “Are you aware of your mother’s instructions in the event of her death?” Jimmy shook his head. “Well you should probably be aware that she has left everything to someone called George Greaves. She added a note that he should use the funds to continue to spread the word of God. In all honesty Mr Walker, you are in a far better situation if she remains alive, that’s the truth of it”. Jimmy didn’t find that very surprising. Though his mum had never mentioned leaving her savings to anyone else, it was just the sort of thing he would have expected.

The solicitor told him he would be in touch about the paperwork, and mentioned his own fee of course. Then he shook Jimmy’s hand and wished a speedy recovery for his mum.

It was past seven by the time Jimmy got home. Lesley opened the door for him, suggesting she had been looking out for his arrival. He would have to get mum’s key back from Mrs Faraday, he reminded himself. She had cooked a spaghetti bolognese with some garlic bread, and had a bottle of red wine open too. Jimmy had never eaten garlic bread before, nor drunk red wine, but he tried both, just to be polite. And as they ate, he noticed something different about Lesley. Her hair looked nice, she seemed to have a lot of make-up on, and her skirt was much shorter than she usually wore them at work.

He decided he should probably say something, so he thanked her for doing the cooking, and said she looked pretty. That was all he could think of.

“Well I had a wash and blow-dry on the way home from work, and bought a new outfit to wear. I’m glad you noticed, Jimmy. I can go to my flat after work tomorrow and pack a bag, presuming you would like me to stay and look after you of course”. Jimmy shrugged, and with his mouth full of pasta, settled for a nod. When they had finished eating, Lesley cleared away and went into the kitchen to do the washing up. When she went back into the living room, she was surprised to find he wasn’t there.

She found him in his bedroom, reading a huge Bible.

“That’s not very nice, leaving a girl sitting on her own downstairs. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming up to your room to read?” It hadn’t even occured to him that she had expected him to stay downstairs, so he apologised and told her he was close to the end of the New Testament, and hoping to finish it that week. “Are you Bible-crazy then, like your mum?” She seemed unhappy. Jimmy told her that he was used to being alone, and he only had The Bible to read. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and why his mum and her friends were so obsessed with it.

She reached over and closed the book. Slipping off her shoes, she knelt on the edge of the bed and began unbuttoning her blouse.

“Oh I think we can do better than reading that old thing, Jimmy”.

All Jimmy knew about women was what he had learned from his one copy of Men Only magazine. In other words, he knew nothing at all about women. After thirty minutes with Lesley, he decided that the real thing was far preferable to a photo in a magazine, and she had also taught him more in that time than he had ever imagined. Following a short pause to finish the bottle of wine, she grabbed his hand and led him back upstairs.

“Your mum’s room this time, for the double bed. That tiny bed of yours will give me cramp otherwise”. Jimmy was tired long before his usual bedtime, and as Lesley curled her body around him and stroked his hair, he could feel his eyes closing. “Don’t worry, Jimmy. I am on the pill, so no little Jimmys to worry about. Not that I’m easy, you should know. There was only one before you, and he was a complete bastard”.

If she said anything else he didn’t hear it, as he was already asleep.

The next day at work, he felt awkward around her. She hadn’t bothered to make herself look nice that morning, so it was unlikely anyone suspected anything. Though on the way in, she had mentioned about packing a case again, and reminded him to get the key back from the neighbour. “And you really should ring the hospital today, and ask how your mum is”. He had almost forgotten about mum, so agreed he should do just that.

Mrs Wilby in the general office let him use the phone, and when someone was finally free to talk to him, he was told there was no change. That didn’t tell him much, but at least he had made the effort. Back in the laboratory, he told Lesley what the nurse had said. She seemed happy about that. “Oh good, I can come round tonight as planned then. I might just pick up fish and chips for dinner though, is that okay?” Jimmy was studying a slide under a microscope, so simply nodded.

Because Lesley had to go to her flat and pack, then queue for the fish and chips before she got to his house, Jimmy had plenty of time for reading when he got in from work. He was on the last chapter of the whole bible, The Book Of Revelation. Once he had finished that, he would have managed something few people have ever done. Read the whole of The Bible, Old Testament and New Testament too. Less the Minor Prophets of course, but they were probably best skipped.

He found a passage that really interested him, and read it twice.

‘And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.’

Now that was his kind of God. No messing about, take out a whole quarter of the human race, because he could. That was so much more interesting than parables, miracles, and all the ‘do unto others’ stuff he had put up with for years. A different reader might have interpreted that as a warning. Be God-fearing, or the fourth seal will be opened and Death will appear on a pale horse to punish mankind. But Jimmy wasn’t that sort of reader.

For him, it was a suggestion. Perhaps even an instruction.

When Lesley got back with her case and the fish and chips her hair was greasy, and she had no make-up on. Jimmy was hungry, and ate the food straight from the paper. She was a bit flustered, and looking at him with a worried expression. “What’s up with you, Jimmy? Sorry I’m not dressed up, but I’ve been busy. You didn’t even help with my suitcase, and I paid the taxi myself too. You have to learn to be a gentleman, to be kind. I’ve been very nice to you”. She didn’t like the strange look he gave her, when he turned round and said.

“Come and See”.

Lesley wasn’t at all sure what Jimmy was on about. “Come and see. See what? What are you talking about, Jimmy?” He smiled at her, making her feel even more uneasy. Then he told her that it was just a thought he had. Something he needed to do. His mum wanted him to make a difference, and he had worked out what that meant. Lesley was relieved, presuming he was talking about charity work or something, so she went upstairs to have a bath.

Jimmy took out an old notebook, and started to jot things down.

Swords were not really an option. You didn’t exactly see many swords, and trying to buy one might be noticed. Still, big knives were like swords, and you could buy a big knife anywhere. Hunger was a possiblilty, and he would look into that. The third option was Death. That was easy enough, as it encompassed any form of death. Definitely the most flexible option. Beasts of The earth. That was a tricky one. No locusts in England to cause starvation, only one kind of poisonous snake, and no man-eating beasts outside of a zoo. But he thought of a couple of possibilities, even so.

A Fourth Of The Earth was a big ask. Even a fourth of that town was over ten thousand people. He wouldn’t have time for that, and it would sure to attract attention. He concluded that he would have to settle for what was practical. Even a few would be making a difference, and sending a warning to people to fear God into the bargain.

When Lesley came back down, she had made an effort. Hair washed, make-up on, and a nightdress that was almost transparent. She had decided that if she was to keep Jimmy’s affections, she had to make sure she looked her best. Convinced his mum was never coming out of hospital, she saw her chance to move in and be a couple. The fact he was ten years younger didn’t seem to bother him, and it certainly didn’t bother her.

He was writing in a small notebook. “What you writing about, Jimmy, is it work stuff?” She was hoping he would turn around and look at her, notice how sexy she was. But he carried on scribbling, and shook his head. He told her it was just a few ideas for a project, and if she wanted to, she could help. She was more interested in her own current project though. That of keeping Jimmy attracted to her. “Why don’t we go upstairs? We could have some fun, before an early night”.

Closing the notebook he nodded, then followed her up to his mum’s bedroom.

She was sleeping soundly when the voice woke him up, and she didn’t seem to have heard it. It was a man’s voice, in what was best described as a loud whisper. “Make A Difference”. Jimmy wasn’t remotely afraid. He knew what it was. God was finally talking to him directly, and confirming what he needed to do. He turned over and went back to sleep, a wide smile on his contented face.

There was a good library at work. Lots of books about chemicals, poisons, contaminants, and bacteria. It wasn’t permitted to take them home, but they could be read at anytime, and as a new employee, he was expected to study. Whenever he had a spare moment, he would be in the small library, making notes and flicking thorough large textbooks until he found the sort of things that interested him. The head of department even mentioned to Lesley that Jimmy was an excellent employee. Hard working, keen to learn, and no clock-watcher.

Sounding proud about that, Lesley told him what the boss had said, as they were on the bus home from work that evening.

After cooking a nice chicken dinner, Lesley cuddled close to him on the sofa. “Why don’t I bring my television from the flat? We could watch it in the evenings, maybe a film, or a nice play? I could bring it over in a taxi, it’s not very big.” Jimmy shrugged and told her she could if she wanted to, but he was going to be busy with notes on his project. Lesley pressed her advantage. “Maybe I should think about giving up my flat, and moving in here full time? It doesn’t look like your mum will be coming back to live here”. He shook his head, and told her that wasn’t going to happen.

Unless she really wanted to help him.

“You know I will help you, Jimmy. I would do anything for you, you must realise that. What help do you need? Just tell me”. Lesley sounded desperate. She had been surprised by Jimmy turning down her offer of moving in permanently, and that showed in her quivering voice. He explained that he would need someone to look after him, but to ask no questions about where he went, and what he did. And if anyone came to the house asking about his movements, she was to say they were together at the time mentioned.

That sounded easy enough to Lesley, and she nodded vigorously. “I can do that, Jimmy. I will look after you, and tell anyone anything you ask me to tell them”. To seal the bargain, Jimmy led her upstairs to mum’s bedroom, and rewarded her with what he knew she liked best.

He got the afternoon off the next day, to go and see the doctor at the hospital. Lesley said she would get more things from her flat, including the television, then bring them over by taxi that evening. It was a different doctor who Jimmy was shown in to see. A young man who had already lost most of his hair, and seemed stressed during the conversation. “Well, Mister Walker. I think you are aware that there is little more that we can do for your mother at the moment. Our plan is to move her to the Edith Cavell unit, where long-stay coma patients are cared for. I would caution you to not expect to see any improvement, even in the long term”. Jimmy took the leaflet he was offered, explaining visiting times and procedures at the unit. Then he thanked the doctor and left.

On the way home, he called into Killane’s Solicitors, taking the man by surprise. “Mister Walker, I wan’t expecting you, but it just so happens I have some papers for you to sign. By the end of the month you should be able to control your mother’s money, both her current account, and deposit account too”. Jimmy told him about his mum moving to the long-stay unit, signed two documents at the bottom of the page, and then looked Killane in the eye. He said he was trusting him with all this, and sincerely hoped that it was all above board. Something in the young man’s gaze made the solicitor decidedly uneasy. “I assure you, it is all legal and straightforward”.

Lesley was flushed and excited when she turned up in the taxi. Jimmy helped her carry the portable television in, then paid the taxi fare as she dragged another large suitcase into the house. She produced a bottle of wine from her shoulder bag, and stood a carrier bag on the table. “I got us two nice steaks for tonight, and I will make some chips to have with them. I have sent my landlord a a letter giving notice on the flat, so by the end of next month it will just be you and me, living here”.

She headed off into the kitchen to peel potatoes and start preparing the meal. Calling to him from there, she sounded happy and upbeat. “I am going to have to change my address and phone number with work of course. That might cause a stir, so I thought we should say that you are renting me a room here, you know, just as a lodger. We can explain that you need the money to pay the rent once your mum’s sick pay stops. What do you think, Jimmy?”

When he didn’t reply, she carried on peeling the potatoes. Jimmy was writing down names in his notebook. George Greaves was already in there, and now he added the surname Killane, with a question mark next to it.

Over dinner, Jimmy said that the idea of her being a lodger was a good one, and they should stick to that story for now. Later on, they could start to let people know they were a couple, and it would seem like a natural progression of their relationship. Lesley loved the sound of that, imagining that she might even get an engagement ring to wear. If she had to buy it herself, she didn’t mind. With dinner over, it was still a little early to suggest going upstairs, so she had another idea.

“Why don’t we set up the telly, Jimmy? See what’s on”.

Jimmy soon discovered that Lesley liked to watch a lot of television. She had many favourite programmes, which she also liked to talk about all the way through them. He didn’t mind too much, as every so often he would get a familiar message from the screen. One of the soap opera characters might be spouting the lines that Lesley expected to hear, but Jimmy would hear them saying “Make A Difference”, in that same voice he had heard in bed that night.

Reverend George wasn’t in the phone book. That meant Jimmy would have to go out on Sunday. He told Lesley he was going to visit his mum in the new unit. He would do that too, just so he was seen there by staff. Lesley was looking forward to cooking them a Sunday dinner. “I got a nice half leg of lamb, and I make my own mint sauce. Yourkshire puddings too, if you want. Try to be back by two, so I can time it all”.

Finding a place across the road from the hall where the prayer group met, he managed to wait out of sight on the corner. Knowing what time they usually finished, he only had to be there for a few minutes, so was unlikely to attract any attention. The scary old lady was out first, after unbolting the door, then a dozen or so followed her before George Greaves appeared and waved them goodbye. Then he locked the outside padlock, and took the key into the social club before walking away at a brisk pace.

Following at a reasonable distance, Jimmy had to be careful not to be spotted. The streets were quiet on that Sunday morning, and it would have been easy for Greaves to suddenly turn and spot him. Fortunately, he didn’t turn, keeping up his fast pace until he got to a row of shabby-looking shops that were all shuttered up. Between two of them, George stopped and let himself in with a key. Presumably, he lived in a flat above one of them, Jimmy concluded. Checking the time on his watch, he wondered if he should get on with things now, or come back another time.

In his head, he heard one of his mum’s favourite sayings. “No time like the present”.

There were two doorbells. One had a faded paper name-plate with ‘Strickland’ on it, so Jimmy pressed the other one. It took some time for George to answer, and he seemed very surprised, almost startled to see Jimmy. “What can I do for you, young James?” Jimmy explained about his mum being in the long-stay unit, and that he had hoped to talk to George about the special work that the Lord had for him. Checking his own watch, he stood back from the door. “Come on up, but I don’t have long I’m afraid”. He didn’t ask Jimmy how he knew where he lived.

Inside, the pokey flat looked nothing like a residence you might associate with a man of God. Piles of clothes covered most surfaces, and a glipmse into the kitchen as they walked past had showed that no washing up had been done for a very long time. George sat down on a greasy-looking armchair, and pointed at the one opposite. Jimmy didn’t sit. Instead, he asked George if he could use the toilet, and the man nodded. “Just by the front door, opposite the kitchen”.

In the small bathroom, Jimmy removed a plastic carrier bag from his coat pocket. It contained a knife he had brought from home, with a blade about eight inches long. He inverted the bag until it covered his hand and sleeve, then grabbed the knife through the plastic.

George was pouring himself a whisky when Jimmy returned, his right hand behind his back. Before he could offer a drink to the young man, Jimmy stabbed him once in the side of the neck, turning the blade flat as he withdrew it. As George dropped the bottle and glass, a mystifed look on his face, Jimmy stepped smartly to one side, carefully avoiding the jet of blood that spurted from the neck wound. George tried to stand, but fell forward onto his knees, the colour draining from his skin.

Leaving the reverend face down on the floor making a strange gurgling noise, Jimmy turned and went back into the bathroom. Running the plastic bag and knife under the tap, he waited until there was no chance of any blood drips, then turned the bag inside out, and put the knife back inside. Before leaving, he went to check that George was dead, waiting a full two minutes to be certain his chest wasn’t moving. Then using his sleeve on the catch, he opened the door and let himself out.

On the way to the hospital unit, the thought of that roast lamb was making his mouth water.

Detective Inspector Jo Drummond had worked hard to get where she was. Twelve years a copper, putting up with all the sex talk, and being told to make the tea, or look after lost kids. She had stuck with it, and even though most of the experienced men on her team obviously resented having a woman in charge, they had to admit she got the job done. That Sunday afternoon, she was on call, and not expecting anything much to happen in that sleepy town. So when the Control Room rang to tell her about a murder, she was as surprised as the victim had been.

The first two uniforms on scene had responded to a three-nines call from a local prostitute. She had been supposed to call on one of her regular clients, even had a key to his flat, it seemed. Jo had a chat with her outside. Mandy was pushing fifty, and had started to do house calls when street trade dropped off because of her age. She had been seeing the dead man, George Greaves, every Sunday afternoon for over a year. He had given her the key in case he was late back.

Once an officer had taken her statement, Jo let her go home. She was never going to be a suspect, and her fingerprints were on file anyway. Then Jo went upstairs to look at the scene. No sign of forced entry, and what seemed to be one stab wound to the neck. There was a lot of blood around, so she was careful not to step in it. Using the radio in her car, she requested the forensic team, and asked for the rest of her squad to be called in from home.

Jimmy made sure to talk to the receptionist at the Edith Cavell Unit, asking her for his mother’s room number. She seemed amused. “You mean what Ward, not what room. She is on Mollett ward, just along the corridor to your right. See the nurse on duty at the desk”. Jimmy thanked her politely, and soon saw the sign above the double doors halfway down. The nurse was checking drugs in a trolley, and smiled as Jimmy came in. “Mrs Walker? Oh yes, she is in the last bed on the left, by the window. Please go and see her”.

There were six beds on each side, and they were all screened off by curtains. He could hear the machines beeping at different rates as he walked along. Opening the last curtain on the left, he saw his mum lying there. Her eyes had tape on them to keep them closed, and she had an oxygen mask over her face. A tube ran from under the bedcovers to a big bag full of yellow fluid, and a glass bottle of clear fluid was hanging from a stand, a long plastic tube was leading down from it, attached to her arm with a taped-over needle of some sort. As he stared at her, the nurse’s voice behind him made him jump.

“You should talk to your mum you know. She can probably hear you, even though she is unable to respond”. The nurse injected something into the plastic tube, and went back to her desk.

Thinking he had better make it look good, Jimmy chatted to his mum. He told her that Lesley was looking after him now, and that he had been to see the solicitor about her money. Not really having a clue what else to say, he started to recite some of her favourite sections of The Bible, checking his watch to make sure he stayed long enough to convince the staff. Then some kind of alarm went off, and people rushed in to help the nurse. In all the commotion, he slipped out of the ward, making sure to say goodbye and thank you to the receptionist as he walked out.

It was only ten minutes after two when he got home, so he wasn’t that late for his Sunday dinner.

Lesley was dressed very nicely, and wearing a striped apron over her clothes to protect them as she dished up the meal. As well as the Yorkshire puddings and home-made mint sauce, she had done roast potatoes, carrots, and peas. As Jimmy tucked in heartily, Lesley beamed with satisfaction.

“There’s an apple and blackberry pie for afters. I made that myself”.

Patrick Killane sent Jimmy a letter about the power of attorney. He had to take it into the bank and show it to them. Lesley arranged for him to have an afternoon off, and the bank manager saw him privately, in a small office at the back of the branch. “You will be able to draw on your mother’s account should you need to, Mister Walker. Also access her deposit savings account”.

The man slid a sheet of paper across the desk. It showed that Jimmy’s mum had almost one thousand pounds in her current account, and close to eleven thousand pounds in her deposit account. Jimmy caught his breath. He could buy a small house for that much, and it intrigued him how his mum had managed to save it. He asked the bank manager if his absent father could access that money.

He smiled, and shook his head. “As I understand it, your parents are divorced. In that case, he has no claim on any money whatsoever. Please bear in mind that should your mother recover, it will be up to you and your lawyer to explain to her why you have gone ahead with the power of attorney. I trust you will not be taking out much more than you need to pay your bills and live normally?” Jimmy was rather annoyed at the man’s tone, so he thanked him for his time, and left.

After a late night and a long day, Joanne Drummond was briefing her team before they went home that evening. She had already been in to see the Chief Inspector, and he had told her to carry on with the usual routine for now.

“Okay, so we have a victim, George Greaves. His real name was George Gardiner, born in Bristol, in ninteen-nineteen. He was fity-one years old, and recently moved to the town from Birmingham, after being released from prison. He had served three years for fraud. George was well known to us, it seems. He was originally arrested as long ago as forty-two, during the war. He had been selling Army rations to black marketeers. He served time for that in military prison, before being dishonourably discharged at the end of the war”.

Jo moved away, signalling Sergeant Bernie Cohen to come up and speak. Bernie held up some papers. “Fraud, Deception, Theft, Burglary. George was a busy boy. Three more spells inside before the last one, and just occasional cash-in-hand jobs in between. According to Mandy, his regular pro, he was running a nice little scam being some sort of Evangelist. She says he used to pay her with cash from his collection box every Sunday. She also tells me he boasted about a few of the old women leaving him money or property in their wills. Derek has already looked into that, and one of the worshippers gave him a list of five women who agreed to make him a benficiary”.

Walking over to stop him continuing, Jo waved her arm. “Okay you lot, off home for now. Thanks for all your hard work so far. We will get onto that list tomorrow”.

Jimmy had something to do before Lesley got home that evening. He made a few notes in his book, then placed that in the carrier bag with the knife he had used on George. Taking the bag out to the garden shed, he lifted the grass box on the front of the lawn mower, and hid the bag underneath. No chance Lesley would find it there.

While he was waiting for her to come home and cook the dinner, Jimmy settled down with a new book he had bought in a second-hand shop. It was about the history of biological warfare, and he was fascinated to discover that the idea went back to ancient times, when rotting carcasses were used to pollute water supplies, and the tips of arrows were coated in human faeces to infect wounds. He was still reading it when she came in. “How did you get on, love? Everything okay at the bank? Dinner won’t be long, just sausages, egg, and chips tonight”.

He nodded a yes to each thing she had said, as he had got to a good bit about how Roman soldiers would place their swords into decomposed bodies, so that anyone wounded by them later would die of Tetanus.

Sergeant Bernie Cohen put his head around the door of Jo’s office. “I have been through that list with Derek. Four of the women are widows, and have no relatives. But the other one has a teenage son. Maybe he found out about her leaving everything to Georgy boy, and decided to make sure he wasn’t around to inherit. I have the address, do you want me and Derek to check it out?” Jo thought for a moment. “No, tell you what, Bernie. I will come with you”.

There was no reply, but Mrs Faraday had spotted the strangers outside Norah’s, and came along to find out what was going on. “Oh, Norah is in hospital. But her son Jim still lives here. He is at work though. There’s a woman living here too now, she moved in when Norah didn’t come out of hospital. I saw her bring suitcases, and a television too. She brought them in a taxi”. Jo thanked her and said, “We will come back this evening when her son is home”. As they got back in the car, Bernie smiled. “Thank heaven for nosey neighbours”.

Jimmy was doing so well at work that the head of department suggested they send him on Day Release to college once a week. He felt Jimmy should definitely work on his degree, as he seemed to have a natural talent for the job, and could go far with the right qualifications. Jimmy graciously accepted, though he was concerned that his work was going to get in the way of his need to make a difference. The next time God spoke to him through the television, he would be sure to say sorry for his slow start. Not out loud of course, but God would surely hear his thoughts.

As they walked from the bus to the house that evening, Lesley was holding Jimmy’s arm. She had been out at lunchtime and bought some nice fishcakes, and she was telling him about the cheese sauce she was going to make to serve with them. The man and woman got out of the car parked outside the house, and smiled as they both held up small wallets containing badges and identity cards. “James Walker? I am Detective Inspector Drummond. This is my colleague Sergeant Cohen. Can we come in and ask you some questions?” Jimmy smiled and nodded, taking his key from his jacket pocket.

Lesley offered them a cup of tea, but they declined. Jimmy waved a hand at the sofa, and they both sat down. The Sergeant took out a notebook, and clicked his pen, ready to write. Jo was formal, hoping to take the young man off guard. “Do you know a man named George Greaves? Your mother knows him. In fact she left him all of her money in the event of her death”. Jimmy was completely relaxed. He said he had met George once at the prayer group, and that his mother’s solicitor had told him that mum had left everything to George. But his mum was in a coma, so the same solicitor had arranged for him to have a power of attorney over her money. That was all he knew. Jimmy was still standing, and watched as the man wrote down everything he said. Then the woman continued.

“Could you tell me where you were last Sunday morning, James? Specifically around eleven-thirty to midday?” Jimmy answered without hesitation, telling her he was at home until at least eleven thirty, then he walked to the Cavell Unit of the hospital to see his mother. He told her there were no visitor records, but he was sure that the receptionist would remember him, as well as the nurse who spoke to him and suggested he have a conversation with his mum. Then he turned to Lesley sitting in the small armchair, and smiled. Jo took the hint, and said “Were you here at the time miss? Can you confirm what James has told me? What is your name by the way, and your relationship to James?”

“I’m Lesley Keane, and I can confirm everything Jimmy has told you. He was back from the hospital by two in the afternoon for dinner. It’s a long walk you know. And my relationship is, er, well, I’m his girlfriend and I am currently staying here while Norah is in hospital”. She looked up at Jimmy to see if it had been okay to say she was his girlfriend, but Jimmy was already telling the policewoman that she was his fiance, and he just hadn’t got around to buying a ring.

On the way back to the police station, Bernie turned to Jo. “What do you think?” She changed gears with a flourish as she replied.

“Creepy and weird. And what’s that with the older woman? I reckon it’s him, one hundred percent”.

Four weeks after the murder of George Greaves, Jo Drummond held a briefing for her team. “Okay, thanks to everyone for your hard work. We have been working on the theory that George was killed by James Walker, to stop him inheriting his mother’s money. But we have nothing on the suspect. We cannot place him at the scene, and there are no fingerprints of anyone in the flat except for George himself, and Mandy, his working girl. Young Walker has no form, and appears to be clean as a whistle. I couldn’t even get enough on him to justify a search warrant for the house. If he didn’t kill George, then we have the prospect of the famous ‘unknown stranger’, and that leaves it all wide open. The boss has told me to leave it pending for now, and for us to work on the two recent Post Office robberies. Bernie”.

Sergeant Cohen stood up. “Looks like we will have to wait until James kills someone else, and he’s sure to do that. He has a great alibi too. The receptionist and a nurse at the Edith Cavell unit both place him on Mollett ward at around the time of George’s death. Then his bird backs up him arriving home at two. But then she’s bound to do that. Anyway, on to those two robberies”.

On the day when the police had called round, Lesley had been left speechless when Jimmy had called her his fiance. He had never mentioned being in love with her, or getting engaged. She had always hoped that would come in time, and had no idea he had fallen for her so quickly. After they had left, she had been getting dinner ready, but the need to say something overwhelmed her. “Jimmy, you told that policewoman I was your fiance. Is that a proposal? Are you going to buy me a ring then?” Jimmy’s reply made her drop the cheese grater she was holding.

He said that they might as well just get married. If it was going to happen after an engagement, why not just do it now? He suggested they have a registry office wedding in about a month, to give everyone at work time to get used to the fact that they were together. After showering his face in kisses, a delighted Lesley couldn’t stop talking. “Oh they will all be convinced I am pregnant, you wait and see. Then there’s the age difference, everyone’s sure to have something to say about that”. Jimmy told her he was hungry, and she went back to finish preparing the best fish cakes with cheese sauce ever served to anyone.

Two days later, he bought her a ring in the local branch of H. Samuel. A solitaire diamond engagement ring that cost him a whopping two hundred pounds. Lesley burst into tears when the girl in the shop put one the right size on her finger. On the way home, Jimmy said he would phone the Registry Office from work tomorrow, and book the wedding. Lesley was excited, but worried. “You know I haven’t spoken to my parents for years, Jimmy. Not since that business with that horrible man I was going out with. He was my Mum’s second cousin, and he treated me like dirt. They expected me to stay with him, and we had a falling out when I said no”. Jimmy told her that he would ask Patrick Killane and his wife to be the witnesses, but there would be no party, or big cake. Then he gave her thirty pounds to buy a new dress and shoes to get married in.

Back at the house, Lesley sat admiring her ring, hardly able to believe she was about to get married. And to someone as good looking and clever as Jimmy too. He took out a very small notebook, and asked her the name of the second cousin who had been bad to her. It never occurred to her to ask why he wanted to know.

Jonathan Carrington hated being a bank manager. He hated his stupid wife too, and the greedy son who didn’t want to go to work. All he had to do was put in his time, and get the pension. Then he intended to leave the silly cow and her spoiled parasite of a son and go to live somewhere warm, like Spain. Eight more years seemed a long time. But they would soon pass.

He was thinking about drinking a beer on a beach at sunset. Or maybe some Sangria, followed by a plate of Paella. Perhaps with a dark-haired beauty by his side.

That meant he didn’t notice the young man following from a reasonable distance.

As they kept walking south, Jimmy realised that they were heading for an area known as The Limes. It was a private estate bordering the town Golf Club, perhaps less than thirty houses mostly bought by people who wanted to be near the club. Suddenly, the bank manager turned right, heading up a pathway. Jimmy hesitated, as he would be very obvious. Giving the man time to walk ahead, he eventually followed, only to find himself on the edge of one of the greens, and a sign that said ‘Members Only’. The manager was walking ahead, and Jimmy assumed he had access to his house from the grounds.

Only needing to know which house he was heading for, Jimmy carried on, keeping close to the trees. A voice from behind startled him. “Excuse me. Can I help you? This is a private club you know. Are you a member?” He turned to see a man about sixty, dressed in golfing clothes and pulling a trolley with a set of clubs in it. He had no idea that people would be playing golf at this time in the evening. Jimmy smiled and said he was sorry, but he had been looking for Lime Crescent, and must have got lost. “There is no Lime Crescent around here, young man. You must indeed be lost”. Jimmy thanked him, and went back the way he had come.

Now there would be a witness, and that ruined any plan he might have had.

It was a long way from the dream wedding that Lesley had imagined, but it was still her wedding, and she had never felt happier. That Saturday morning was even sunny, and Jimmy looked so smart in the new suit she had made him buy. Patrick Killane introduced his wife Brenda to them outside the Town Hall. He looked awkward, probably wondering why he had been asked. But his chubby wife was friendly, and she had brought a plastic horseshoe tied with white ribbon, for Lesley to hold for good luck. Jimmy had the rings in his trouser pocket, and as he slipped the gold band onto her eager finger, Lesley failed to fight back a flood of tears.

The celebration, such as it was, consisted of a meal in a nearby pub, after which a relieved-looking Killane took his leave, wishing the couple well. Back at the house, if Lesley was expecting wedded bliss, she was sorely disappointed when Jimmy sat deep in thought. He was considering that the task he had taken on might be impossible, as long as he lived in such a small town, and had come to the notice of the police. The next time God instructed him to make a difference, he was going to have to ask him to wait a few years.

Still there was one job he had to do in the meantime, but he would wait until Lesley’s excitement over the wedding calmed down.

Simon Tobin was not a nice man. He would have been happy to have admitted that too, if anyone had ever asked him. His rugged good looks had gained him many female admirers over the years, but he had little time for women, other than to use them for pleasure. Their inane chatter drove him crazy, and they took such delight in wandering around shops, even when they bought nothing. As a result, he was now in his late forties, and lived alone. His only living relative was his cousin, Valerie Keane.

Her and her husband had loaned him money in the past, trying to set him up with their goofy-looking daughter. But Lesley had refused to put up with his physical and mental abuse, eventually rejecting his offer of marriage.

Now Simon spent his days working as a tyre fitter, and most of his evenings spending his wages in the local pub. People there tended to avoid him. He had a lot to say, and generally said it loudly. Only a few of the more timid regulars tolerated him, and sometimes bought him drinks. That night he was shouting his mouth off about how useless the local football team was, with his little gang of friends nodding in agreement.

The young man who had been sipping a shandy in the corner bar left early, long before the pub closed.

But he was outside, waiting.

Lesley had told Jimmy about Simon. How he had tried to control her, had taken money from her, and been violent to her sexually. She was ashamed that she had tolerated it for so long, but the thought of becoming his wife had filled her with dread, giving her the strength to move out of her parents’ house, split with her family, and rent her own small flat.

Jimmy watched as the man left the pub just after eleven. He was unaccompanied, and stopped to light a cigarette before walking off into the darkness. Jimmy already knew which way he would go. Lesley had mentioned where he worked, and Jimmy had followed him one Saturday afternoon when they closed. He had seen him go home, then watched as he came out again to head for the pub. He knew the route Simon would take, and he was prepared. There was no need to follow him, just be in the right place when he got there.

Earlier, Jimmy had concealed a large piece of wood under the approach to the bridge over the canal. It was part of a tree branch, probably left by a dog. It was heavy, and over four feet long. Wearing gloves, he had walked back to the pub and sat alone in the small bar after ordering a shandy. The main bar was very busy with people watching the football match on a TV fixed to the wall, and the man who served him the drink hardly paid him any attention at all.

The fresh air had hit Simon by the time he got to the bridge, and he stopped for a moment, holding onto the handrail. Jimmy stepped out from his hiding place under the approach, and struck Simon’s head with the branch, using all his strength. The bigger man let out a groan, and rolled down the side of the bridge and over the paved edge of the towpath. He slipped into the deep water feet first, and disappeared under with a gurgling sound.

Looking around to make sure nobody else was nearby, Jimmy crouched down to watch in case Simon surfaced. When he was sure he had been in the water long enough to drown, he stood up and walked back along the towpath to the main road, discarding the branch into the water a long way from where Simon had gone in.

It was a long walk home, and well after midnight when he got in. Lesley knew better than to ask where he had been, and offered to make him a sandwich and a cup of tea. When she came back into the room with them, Jimmy told her that if anyone asked, he had been at home with her all evening.

On Saturday, he took a bus to the other side of the town, and walked around to the back of a small block of flats that had a communal waste bin. In the carrier bag that he dropped into it were the gloves, and the old shoes he had been wearing. He had chosen a pair with a distinctive rip on the side of one sole, so that the footprints he had left by the canal bridge would be obvious. When he got home, he suggested to Lesley that they go to the cinema that evening, and she was delighted.

People like Simon don’t get missed. But he hadn’t shown up for work for almost a week, so his boss went to the flat. Getting no reply, he rang the police to tell them of his concern. The young woman at the end of the phone took some details, and asked him to go into a police station and file a missing persons report. But he wasn’t too bothered. The man was a pain anyway, a loudmouth. So instead of going to make an official report he phoned head office to ask them to place an advertisement for a job vacancy, saying that Simon had not turned up for work, so could consider himself sacked.

Declan Leach was once a hippy, and might later be described as alternative. He lived on a canal boat, and moved it up and down the country between jobs. He looked for cash work. Fruit-picking, window-cleaning, day labouring, anything that didn’t involve tax and insurance. After escaping almost being caught for not paying mooring fees the day before, he had headed north along the canal, stopping at an unfamiliar town when he ran out of tobacco and milk. After finding a shop up on the road, he walked back to his narrow-boat and noticed something caught up at the back of it.

The briefest look told him it was the body of man.

Simon’s body had not travelled too far from where he went into the water when it became snagged against an old motorcycle. That motorcycle had been in the canal since the end of the Korean War, after some celebrating soldiers had stolen it to ride back to barracks on, then run out of petrol. Rather than leave it where it could be found, they had dumped it into the canal.

The body might have stayed trapped there for much longer, if Declan’s narrow boat had not disturbed the water just enough for it to float to the top. As some ten days had passed, it was in something of a state.

Once Declan had given his statement to the police who arrived, he started his boat and got out of there before anyone turned up to ask for mooring fees.

The pathologist examining the body came to the conclusion that the man had hit his head after falling over drunk, and rolled into the canal where he had drowned. Wood fragments found in the wound were not deemed to be suspicious, as all sorts of things were under the murky water, or floating on it. The rats had nibbled at Simon too, but the police concluded he could still be formally identified. There had been no reason to search for footprints, or any other evidence along the canal.

Using the driving licence found in his wallet, it took them just over a week to find his only living relative, Valerie Keane. After she made the identification at the mortuary, she asked the officer how she could get back the money that Simon still owed her.

When almost two weeks had gone by and no police had called asking where he was that night by the canal, Jimmy concluded that there was no investigation into Simon’s death. He also concluded that killing people using violence was not the way forward. It involved the police, and they almost certainly still had their eye on him for George’s murder.

He wasn’t to know that the killing of George Greaves had been classifed ‘unsolved’, and added to the small file marked ‘Pending’. He also wasn’t to know that Jo Drummond had passed her interview board for promotion to Chief Inspector, and was moving to a uniform job at the Police Training School.

Jimmy threw himself into his studies. The next time God spoke to him was during an episode of Opportunity Knocks, a talent show that Lesley enjoyed watching. When the compere Hughie Green told him to make a difference, he answered in his head, telling God he was just going to have to wait.

Married life suited Lesley. She loved the regular sex, and even tolerated the lack of romance and genuine affection. She was destined to be a happy housewife, keeping the place clean, and making nice meals for them every night of the week. She carried on taking the pill though. She didn’t think Jimmy was quite ready to be a father, and truth be told, she didn’t want the encumbrance of a child in their life.

Jimmy worked hard and studied hard, and she used her experience to help him. He had developed an interest in the forensic side of biological hazards, and his first paper on that subject had earned him a merit.

She was so proud of her handsome husband, and was planning something special for his twenty-first birthday. He would get his degree later that year, so it was such a special year all round. The tutors had said they had never seen anyone so talented in the field, and they were amazed how fast Jimmy had progressed.

God was less pleased. During an episode of Coronation Street, a soap opera Lesley never missed, Elsie Tanner told Jimmy that he had let her down, and was no longer making a difference. It was God speaking of course, and this time Jimmy refused to respond. God was going to have to wait. Because Jimmy had a plan.

The evening before his twenty-first, Jimmy got a phone call from the Edith Cavell unit. His mum had just died. He thanked them for the call, and smiled to himself.

That was exactly the news he had been waiting for.

Jimmy’s degree had caused something of a stir in the scientific community. It was almost unknown for someone studying part-time to finish so quickly, and to get a first class degree too. He declined to attend the graduation ceremony, instead receiving the impressive document in the post.

Lesley felt so proud she thought she would burst, but she admitted to great disappointment that there would be no photo of her young husband in the usual graduation regalia.

That was of no concern to Jimmy. He wanted the qualification, not the acclaim that might have gone with it. With a letter of recommendation from his tutor to include, he sat quietly one Sunday afternoon and wrote out a job application. When it was ready to post, he chatted to Lesley about her thoughts on moving to another part of the country. She had no hesitation when she replied. “I will go anywhere with you, Jimmy. You’re my husband, and I love you. There is nothing to keep either of us here, after all”.

With the reassurance that Lesley would make no objection, he walked up to the post box on the corner, and slipped the large envelope into the slot.

Norah Walker’s funeral had been a sad affair. One of the nurses from the hospital showed up for the fifteen minute service before the cremation, and other than her, only Jimmy and Lesley were in attendance.

The following week, Jimmy had gone to see Patrick Killane about the will. “With George Greaves dead, you are the next of kin, and the power of attorney should help probate go through quickly, James. I will be in touch, once you have been confirmed as the sole heir”. Killane felt relieved when Jimmy left his office. There was something about that intense young man that made him feel very nervous.

Since Lesley had moved in, Jimmy had taken no rent from her. Although she bought most of the food, every now and again Jimmy would give her some money, saying he was sure she must need it for groceries. As a result, she had saved a tidy sum, added to the deposit from her flat that had been returned after she gave it up. So for his twenty-first, she had bought him a gold watch, an Accurist, with an expanding bracelet. He had accepted it graciously enough, but material things didn’t really concern him that much.

As an extra present, she had bought herself some delicate lingerie, including some old-fashioned stockings and suspenders. Then she had revealed herself in the bedroom, saying she was his ‘special gift’.

One evening, Jimmy talked to her about jobs. If they moved, she might have to do something different, and he wondered how she felt about that. Lesley was very positive. “I have always really fancied being a Pharmacist. Perhaps I could train for that, and get a job in a chemist’s shop, even in a big one, like Boots?” Jimmy told her he thought that was a perfect idea, and that he would support her doing that one hundred percent.

Even though she had no idea what job Jimmy had applied for, or where they might be moving to, Lesley had never been happier.

A month went by, and the money from Norah’s estate went through to Jimmy’s account. He paid Killane’s fees, and arranged for his mum’s now empty accounts to be closed. Every bill had been paid, and there were no outstanding debts. When Norah’s ashes were returned in an urn, Jimmy spinkled them in the lake in the local park. Lesley looked on, smiling. She had no idea that Norah had never liked the local park, and had only been there once in her life. She just thought that Jimmy as doing a wonderful thing for his mum.

Two weeks later, Jimmy received a letter. He had to supply a lot of personal information, for a vetting procedure. Based on that being successful, he would be asked to attend for interview. Lesley was shown the letter, and was suitably impressed. “Oh that’s wonderful, Jimmy. I had no idea that’s what you had applied for. I hope you get it, darling”.

The heading on the letter was from Porton Down. That was what everyone called it.

But the offical name of those govenment premises was the Ministry of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

It took a month for the vetting and references to go through. During that time, Jimmy discovered that Lesley had a driving licence. She had passed her test aged eighteen, but never had the money to buy her own car. Jimmy suggested he buy her one, using some of the inheritance money from his mum. They went to the nearest main dealer, and he paid by cheque for the car that Lesley chose, a Mini Clubman 1275 GT. She picked a rather garish orange colour, and it had a black stripe across the bonnet. As Jimmy cared nothing about cars, he allowed her to choose all the extras, then paid the salesman without haggling.

Before she collected the car, Lesley thought she had better have a refresher lesson. She hadn’t driven since the day she passed her test, so arranged for a two-hour lesson with a local driving school. That went well, and the instructor dropped her off at the dealer to collect her new Mini. Now she had the car and had arranged the insurance, they would no longer need to get the bus. They could also drive to the new large supermarket to buy their groceries. Lesley was beside herself. Nobody had ever been so generous to her in her life.

For Jimmy, there was another agenda. If he got the job he had applied for and they moved to Wiltshire, a car would almost certainly be essential.

The interview date came through by letter. Jimmy had to take two days of his holiday entitlement, and arrange train tickets for the journey to what was almost the other side of the country. Using a copy of Dalton’s Weekly, he found a respectable bed and breakfast establishment in Salisbury, and phoned them to book an overnight stay. That was around eight miles from Porton Down, and he would book a taxi once he got there.

On the day, the taxi had to drop him at the entrance, and he showed his letter to the guards at the gate. A lady came to get him, and gave him a temporary identity card to clip to his jacket lapel. She took him to a rather unimpressive office, where two men were waiting. Unknown to Jimmy, they were excited. His interview was little more than a formality, as his qualifications and references were exceptional, and his background vetting had been one of the cleanest they had ever seen. They asked him some questions about where he might live, and what his wife would be doing. Lesley had been checked secretly by them, and she had also come up squeaky clean.

Giving no indication of his success or failure, they thanked him for coming, and he was shown back to the gatehouse, where one of the guards allowed him to ring the same taxi firm to collect him. He had been told that the decision on his application would be sent by letter. The taxi took him to Salisbury station, where he arrived almost two hours early for the train. He bought a selection of the available local newspapers, two of which had property advertisements. A quick browse while he waited showed him that property in the outlying villages was affordable, and with a good deposit from his inheritance, they would have a very small mortgage.

That evening, he spoke to Lesley about them leaving Hopgood’s. They both had to give three month’s notice, so even if he got the job, he would not be able to start that year. He had told the men interviewing him that, and they hadn’t seemed concerned. Lesley told him she was going to write to Boots, and ask about work as a trainee pharmacist. Jimmy told her there was a really big branch of Boots in Salisbury, and she seemed excited about the prospect of a move, and a new job. She said it all seemed too good to be true.

But it was true, Jimmy knew that. And he knew for sure that God was fixing it for him.

The letter arrived in less than a week. A full job offer, including details of salary, pension arrangements, and a contract to sign and return. The pay was fifty percent more than he was getting at Hopgood’s, and that was a nice surprise, as he hadn’t even asked about the salary. Lesley jumped up and down with excitement, wrapping her arms around Jimmy.

He told her that they had to give notice the next morning, as he would be starting at Porton Down the first week in February.

Their head of department was very upset to hear the news that they were both leaving. He told them he could see why though, and wished them well. Jimmy turned down the offer of a leaving party, though Lesley was very gracious when she received the leaving gift of a set of cutlery for the new home.

Jimmy had informed the council of his moving date, and arranged to sell or give away most of the contents of the house. He agreed with Lesley that they should buy new things once they had bought a house. For the time being, their plan was to stay in a nice bed and breakfast until the mortgage was approved, and the house sale had gone through. Lesley had no firm offer of a job, but she was sure something would turn up.

They had settled on the village of Boscombe, close to Porton Down, and around ten miles from Salisbury. Lesley could take Jimmy to work on the way to the city, and pick him up on the way home. After spending the weekend there, Lesley had fallen in love with a two-bedroom Victorian cottage. It was small, and only had a courtyard garden, but the house was full of character and original features. The mortgage was easly affordable, and that meant Jimmy could manage it on his salary, even if it took some time for Lesley to find work.

Lesley Walker was under no illusions about her married life. Jimmy was young and attractive; she was ten years older, and looked more like fifteen years older. But he was kind to her, even though he was often distant, and showed her scant affection. He didn’t enjoy watching television, but at least he no longer only read The Bible, and he never spoke to her about religion.

In her heart, she just knew he had killed George Greaves. She was sure the police knew that too, but they had no evidence. Lesley didn’t care. Greaves was a heartless con-man, and had deserved what had happened. Jimmy had just been putting things right.

There was so much to be grateful for. Jimmy never so much as looked at another woman. He seemed to have no idea how attractive and eligible he was. For her, life was exactly what she had hoped for, ever since freeing herself from that awful Simon, and her uncaring parents. She had married a man who asked little from her, and had started to carve out a great career for himself. He had bought her a car, and provided the deposit for the little house of her dreams. And he was paying to furnish it exactly as she wanted, with no arguments. In her mind, she was the luckiest wife in England.

And he was buying a colour television for the new house. She had so wanted to watch in colour.

Moving day didn’t happen until the furniture and everything else had been delivered. Lesley felt like a princess in the small house, but Jimmy was more interested in his first day at work, the following Monday. As Lesley still had no news about any employment offer, she would get up with him and take him the short distance in the car. He would get his official pass at the gatehouse where it will have been left for him. As his working day was from eight until five, Lesley could easily pick him up at the gate when he finished.

Jimmy was rather disappointed to be told that his first week would be one of familiarisation, safety training, and tours of the site. As there was no other new starter, he had been assigned a mentor for that week, a serious woman called Eileen. She told him she had been there since nineteen-sixty, and there was nothing she didn’t know about what went on at Porton Down. Jimmy didn’t much care for the way she spoke to him, which reminded him of an officious female Geography teacher at his school. But she was right about being well-informed, and as she divulged secret after secret, he realised why he had been compelled to sign The Official Secrets Act.

Great Britain was a signatory to the Geneva Protocol, banning the use of chemical weapons in warfare. But that had failed to deal with the storage and testing of them, and despite Britain claiming to have destroyed its stock, Jimmy quickly discovered that was far from the truth.

Eileen told him about the special rooms that held stocks of mustard gas, and various biological contaminates, including a sample of the Plague bacillus. That made Jimmy raise his eyebrows.

The Black Death. Now that had made a difference.

That night at home, Jimmy was in a bad mood. He had read up on the black death, and was upset to discover that it could easily be cured now, using modern antibiotics. He was going to have to think of something else.

Lesley was watching the news after dinner. There was a sports report about a British Tennis hopeful. They were showing his debut at Wimbledon the previous year. All she kept on about was how green the grass was, making Jimmy exasperated. He spoke quite harshly to her, suggesting she could go and look outside to see green grass. His decision to allow her the colour television was proving to be a bad one. She sat in front of it all evening, going on about how rich the colours were.

Misunderstanding his grumpiness, Lesley suggested an early night, and some of what she called ‘bedroom fun’. Jimmy reluctantly agreed. At least that might relax him.

Day three at work involved being shown the protective gear and safety equipment. In some rooms, that involved using a full suit and helmet, with a tube connected to air mounted on the wall. Eileen put on her own suit, to show Jimmy how it worked. “You will get your own suit for each relevant area. There is a double-glove rule, and it also covers your shoes. Under no circumstances should you enter these specific rooms without being fully suited-up. Then whoever is working with you will check your suit for tears or damage, and make sure your breathing apparatus is working. Nobody goes into those rooms alone. Do you understand that, James?”

Jimmy told her he understood fully, then asked her if he would be working with her. “Sometimes, yes. You are being seconded to the biological warfare section, as I understand it. I mainly work in corrosive and toxic chemicals and gases. You must have impressed someone to go straight into that division”. Jimmy smiled, and shrugged. Always humble.

When they got home, Lesley proudly showed him a chicken and mushroom pie she had cooked for dinner. As she prepared the vegetables, she asked how he liked it at Porton Down. Jimmy told her it wasn’t exactly what he had expected, but he was sure it would work out well once he was used to the strict procedures. During the BBC News after dinner, the weather man spoke to him with God’s voice, asking why he had failed to make a difference. Jimmy told him he had to be patient.

This was going to take a lot longer than he had realised.

Friday was his last day with Eileen, before starting full time in his section. She took him into the animal laboratories to show him what went on. Jimmy wasn’t keen on those experiments. Pigs, monkeys, rabbits, rats, even birds. They hadn’t done any harm to anyone, yet they were being horribly killed here. People needed to know about God, but animals were just animals.

Eileen was almost boastful as she described how pigs were horribly burned with mustard gas, and monkeys choked to death with chlorine gas. Both had been around for decades of course, but she explained that they were constantly being refined, and were a good source of income when secretly sold for use by other countries, like Iraq and Syria. She almost laughed as she added, “The funny thing is that we get to sell them abroad in secret, and then the Foreign Secretary makes a big fuss about it when the countries use it on their enemies or their own people. He gets their ambassadors in and gives them a telling off, but it’s all wink-wink, and just a game”.

The last thing on her list that day was to show him an experiment using her much-improved chlorine gas on a monkey in a cage. In a sealed room, she made sure they suited up carefully. “This is the latest version. The effects happen in seconds, and there is no cure or antidote, James. It kills very quickly”. The creature looked unconcerned, and was holding onto the bars of a cage that seemed too small. When they both had their suits on, Eileen indicated that he should plug his airline into the receiver on the wall, showing him how to do it with her own one. When she was sure he was safe, she opened the valve on the small cylinder of gas next to the monkey.

Seconds later, unaware that Jimmy had quietly unplugged her airline, Eileen was writhing around on the floor, staring up at the dead monkey in the cage.

Jimmy waited two more minutes, then pressed the big red alarm button next to the door.

It was easy enough to quickly plug Eileen’s airline back into her suit before people appeared outside of the sealed room, and gestured through the glass that Jimmy should stay where he was. Immediately, he heard the sound of a very loud extractor fan in the ceiling overhead, and another alarm sounding, different to the one that had gone off when he had pressed the red button.

Two people showed up in full protective clothing, and one held a printed card up to the window, for him to read.
DO NOT REMOVE ANY PART OF YOUR SUIT OR DISCONNECT YOUR AIRLINE
WHEN IT IS SAFE FOR US TO ENTER WE WILL DO SO.

Although it felt like a long time before the outer door opened, it was probably only a matter of minutes. Both alarms were silenced, and he could hear them talking through the helmets of their suits. “James, disconnect your airline and follow us. Do not touch anything. Do you have any difficulty breathing? Are your eyes watering? Do you have any congestion in your mouth or nose? Don’t try to speak, just nod or shake your head”.

Jimmy shook his head in reply to all the questions, and they beckoned him to follow them. As they left the area, others went in to look at Eileen’s body, and also to retrieve the cage containing the dead monkey.

Following them at some distance, he was shown along a corridor and directed into a room. It contained showers. One of the men spoke to him. “Walk into the shower and stand still, we will operate the control. He did as he was told, standing under the running water for a very long time, so it seemed.

Then the first man gave him a thumbs-up, and said “Okay, remove the suit slowly, we will help you”. Jimmy stripped off the protective clothing with their help, leaving him standing in his own shirt and trousers that he had been wearing underneath.

After that he had to follow them down another corridor, to where a doctor and nurse wearing protective clothing gave him a full examination, including taking blood for a blood test.

A full hour after leaving the room where Eileen had died, he was allowed to dress properly, and taken to see a man he had never met. The sign on his door read ‘Contamination Officer’. The man seemed remarkably relaxed. “Sit down, James. I’m happy to see you appear to be unaffected by this tragic accident. There will be a full investigation of course, there always is. But meanwhile you are of course aware that you are not to discuss this with anyone outside of your department?” Jimmy nodded, trying his best to look suitably shell-shocked by the whole experience.

Leaning forward, the man asked him, “What do you recall of what happened in there?” He had no recording device or notebook, so it seemed to him that this was all a very long way from being official. He told the man that he and Eileen had plugged in the airlines of their suits as she was going to demonstrate the new form of chlorine gas by showing him how quickly it killed a monkey. The next thing he knew, she was on the floor, and he had pressed the alarm as he had been shown to do on Tuesday.

As the man was nodding to his replies, someone else came in and handed him a file. It only contained one page of type.

“Well, James. Your blood test is fine, and you do not seem to have been affected in the least. We are working on the theory that Eileen’s suit was somehow compromised. It doesn’t take much, a weak seam, or a loose connection in her airline. And it happens quite often. Well, not that often, but it happens. It’s a tragedy of course, but we are all aware of the dangers of working in this environment. If the head of department thinks it is necessary, he may take a statement from you later, for the formal enquiry. Meanwhile, you should go and get your things, and head home. Try to put this behind you, and have a relaxing weekend. I sincerely hope this hasn’t upset you too much, or put you off working here?”

Jimmy shook his head, and told the man it had made him more determined to make a difference.

Not long after Jimmy started in the Biological Warfare section, Lesley made a decision. She would train to be a teacher, and become a Chemistry teacher at a secondary school. Her application to go on a Teacher Training Course at Salisbury Training College was accepted, and she would still be able to drop Jimmy off at work, and pick him up on her way home.

It would be a full time course for one year, and additional training part-time later. Jimmy was very encouraging, telling her that it would be a good thing for her to do, and a long-term career.

Eileen’s death had been handled by people at the top, and the conclusion was that it was accidental, following some unexplained failure of her protective suit. Jimmy was asked for a written statement, but not called to give any evidence at the internal enquiry. As far as he could tell, it had been decided that he was too inexperienced to have been in any way responsible or negligent.

But he was annoyed with himself for his impulse to kill Eileen. He knew for sure that he couldn’t do anything like that again at work for a very long time, if at all.

When Lesley was watching the TV chef Delia Smith one evening, Delia spoke to Jimmy with God’s voice, asking him why he was taking so long to make a difference. As he was about to reply, Lesley broke his concentration. “Ooh, look at that delicious pie, Jimmy. I will make you one of those. I might buy her new recipe book too”. Before the programme finished, Delia told him he had to get a move on, or accept that he had failed in his mission. He decided not to reply.

God was becoming really annoying.

All Jimmy could do was to work hard, become accepted, and study to improve himself. He was in it for the long haul, no matter how impatient the supreme being was. God was going to have to like it or lump it. Lesley settled into her course realy well, and told him about it on the way home in the car every evening. Everyone else was significantly younger than her, but she wasn’t worried about not being invitied out with them, or not going to the occasional social events. They were both lost in their books most nights. Lesley even stopped watching Coronation Street as it delayed her studying.

The big Bible had been put away in a box in the loft, along with the old notebook from under the lawn mower, and the knife he had used on George Greaves. He didn’t need to read The Bible any longer, as he had memorised the only part that had really interested him.

With the summer coming, Lesley spoke to him about a holiday. Jimmy had never been on a holiday that he remembered. His mum had told him that they had gone to a holiday camp in Skegness once, but he had been too young to remember it. Lesley had her heart set on a caravan park in Weston-Super-Mare. She had sent a deposit for a week in late July, and they sent a colour brochure by return. “Look, Jimmy. There’s a shop, a social club, a small outdoor pool, and a playground for the kids. And it’s only a short walk to the beach too. I think we will have a great time”.

Jimmy couldn’t see the point of driving all that way just to sit in a caravan that was smaller than their house. But he smiled in agreement.

Arriving at the park that summer, Lesley tried not to look too disappointed. The pool was concrete-lined, and the water looked filthy. The caravans were very close together, and she had to park the Mini across the front of the one they had been allocated. That short walk to the beach was closer to two miles, and the stuff for sale in the park shop looked like it had all been found in a bin behind a supermarket.

On top of all that, it had been raining hard as they unloaded the car, and the toilets and shower block was all the way up near the entrance.

As they spent their first night listening to the rain on the roof, Lesley downed a full bottle of white wine, wishing she had brought her old portable television.

Lesley suggested an early night, and after taking ages to get comfortable on the thin mattress, they were eventually asleep just after ten-thirty. Less than an hour later, they were awake again, disturbed by the noise of the people in the next caravan returning from the social club. There was shouting and swearing at first, followed by lots of laughter, and then some loud music being played, presumably on a radio. Lesley was in an unusually grumpy mood, and when the neighbours failed to quieten down, she turned to Jimmy.

“You have to go and say something, Jimmy. We can’t have that nuisance, it will ruin our holiday”. Jimmy got up and put on the shirt and trousers he had taken off earlier, then slipped into his unlaced shoes without bothering with socks. As he opened the door of the caravan and walked down the two steps, he could see three young men urinating against the side of their caravan, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. Not getting too close, he called out to them in a strong voice. “Can you keep the noise down please? We are trying to sleep next door!” One of them stepped back, not bothering to sort himself out and zip his fly.

“Calm down mate. Why don’t you come in for a drink? Got plenty of beers in there”. Before Jimmy could reply, a side window opened, and a rough-looking girl leered at him. “Got some nice girls in here too, darling. Come in and have some fun”. Jimmy replied politely but firmly. “No thank you. Please just keep the noise down, and turn the music down too. It’s getting late, and I really don’t want to have to go and get the site manager”. The tallest one of the men walked over, Jimmy could smell the beer on his breath. “Manager is it? We invite you in for a drink, all friendly like, and you threaten us with the manager. Why don’t you just piss off back into your caravan, unless you want real trouble”.

Jimmy smiled at him, staring straight into his eyes. The man stopped talking and turned back to his friends. “Come on, let’s go inside, this killjoy is ruining my evening”.

The noise continued for at least another hour, and Lesley nagged at Jimmy, not like her at all. “You should have got the manager. Perhaps we can ring the police and complain? This bed is bad enough to sleep in without having to put up with those hooligans”. Jimmy didn’t bother to remind her that coming to this awful place had been her idea. He waited until her ranting had calmed down before he replied that she should leave it to him, and he wasn’t going to involve the management.

At least it had stopped raining the next day. Lesley suggested they drive into town and explore the promenade and shops. “We can do the beach on a warmer day, Jimmy. I’m going to need my cardigan this morning”. Jimmy stood outside while Lesley was getting her things.

There was no noise from the troublesome neighbours, but every now and again, one of them would flick the still-lit butt of a cigarette through the open window. There was already a decent sized pile of them on the ground outside. The grubby Volkwagen van they had parked next to their caravan had a flat tyre at the front. He guessed they were intending to stick around the park, as nobody was bothering to change it for the spare.

Before Lesley appeared, Jimmy crouched low down and walked to the back of the neighbouring caravan. Working quickly and quietly, and using all of his considerable strength, he unscrewed the valves from both canisters of propane gas that were stored underneath to supply fuel for the cooker. When Lesley appeared with her car keys, handbag, and cardigan, he was standing by the passenger door of the Mini.

They found a nice fish and chip place to have a sit-down lunch. Lesley had bought some small souvenirs for the house, and she was looking at them as they waited for the food to arrive. Jimmy said that after lunch, they should walk out onto the Grand Pier, perhaps have an ice cream. Lesley was in a better mood than last night. “Sorry about this holiday, Jimmy. I thought it looked like a nice place, but I know it’s horrible. I will choose somewhere better next year, promise.

From inside the restaurant, they couldn’t see the smoke rising almost three miles to the south.

When they got back to the caravan park, the fires were out. But they were stopped by a policeman at the entrance, and told they could only drive as far as the office. “You have to go and see the manager, madam. Nobody is being allowed back into their caravans for the time being”. Lesley thanked the policeman, and drove up to the office.

Inside, the manager seemed releived to see them. “Thank God you were out for the day. Terrible, terrible. The caravan next door to yours exploded, and that set off another explosion that destroyed your caravan too. I’m afraid anything you had inside has been destroyed. The one the other side caught fire, but luckily that family had gone to the beach”.

He slid a form across the counter. “If you can write down what you lost inside, I will send it to the owner. He is going to have to claim on the insurance. Lesley shook her head. “Oh dear, what about the people next to us, the noisy people?” The man lowered his head.

“There were seven of them in a four-berth. Shocking. I only saw the four of them, the rest must have been hiding inside their shitty old Volkswagen. All dead, I’m sorry to say, even though they cheated us with their booking. The fire brigade reckon they had been fiddling with the gas canisters while smoking cigarettes. I do have to tell you that you are going to have to go home. I have no alternative accommodation, and the police say there is going to be a safety inspection. But you will get five days refunded, once the owner has had time to process your form”.

While Lesley was filling in the form, listing what items she could remember were inside, Jimmy walked out and surveyed the smouldering remains in the distance. Two fire engines were still over near the caravans, and the old VW was burnt out too. Only seven. Better than nothing, but not as many as he had hoped for.

Five days back at home suited Jimmy very nicely. The weather was actually better than it had been on the west coast, and Lesley was happy to be able to watch television again. During an episode of the game show, ‘Sale of The Century’, the presenter Nicholas Parsons spoke to Jimmy as he was showing off a speedboat. He said that God was pleased, but not happy. Seven at once was an improvement, but he needed more. A lot more. Millions more. Jimmy was so exasperated, he refused to reply, and he went into the spare bedroom to continue to study for his Masters Degree.

Years passed, and it seemed God had finally given up on Jimmy.

Lesley had got a job as a Chemistry teacher at St Edmund’s School. It was an all-girls school on the edge of the city. By the time she started, Jimmy had gained his Masters Degree in microbiology, and was promoted to head of his section in Biological Warfare. They told him that he was thirty years younger than his retiring predecessor, but they were so impressed by his dedication and drive, that they were not about to turn down the chance of using his full potential. They also recommended he start to study for a doctorate as soon as possible. They would give him extra leave for study time, as they were sure he was something of a potential genius in that field.

Home life with Lesley had settled into a routine. She still dropped him off at work and picked him up, even during the school holidays. As expected, she was also a lot older than most of her colleagues, so she was happy to spend all her free time with the husband she adored, and help him in any way she could. That included doing all the housework, and all the shopping and cooking. With two good incomes, they decided to change the car for something bigger. Lesley chose a Citroen GS Estate, with plenty of room in the back for shopping, and four doors. Jimmy told her that it had an exceptionally comfortable ride, and he was pleased with her choice.

For some reason, God had completely stopped talking to Jimmy. That was okay with him, as God always wanted more than he could deliver.

And since that time at the caravan park, Lesley had never once mentioned another holiday.

“Doctor James Walker. Oh, I love the sound of that, Jimmy. I’m married to a doctor. Maybe not a medical doctor, but a doctor all the same”. Lesley’s delight and enthusiasm was infectious, and Jimmy had to admit he was suitably proud. His thesis was not exactly the sort of work that could be publicised though, so his honour was received in private, with a low-key ceremony at Porton Down that Lesley was unable to attend.

‘The Use Of Malaria As A Biological Weapon’ was the kind of headline the tabloids would have loved to use. But that title of Jimmy’s thesis came as the result of years of specialist work based on an idea that he had taken to his immediate superior. Malaria killed around half a million people every year, mostly in Africa. If the disease could be weaponised, then that could expand British power and control of certain African countries that would be completely unaware of how it had been spread.

Although his bosses had been excited by the idea, the practicalities proved to be another matter. It needed the victim to be bitten by the female mosquito to spread the infection, and synthesising that outcome was incredibly difficult, given the technology of the day. However, Jimmy’s theories excited those in power, and more funding went to the Porton Down facility as a result. This made him something of a golden boy at work, giving him more or less carte blanche to work on anything he chose.

Jimmy’s work of choice was on fevers and diseases that were effective people-killers, and could be spread widely, due to their ease of transmission. Ebola, Viral Haemorrhagic Fever, Marburg’s Disease, and Lassa Fever. All of those had great potential, especially for use against countries that had poor medical infrastructure, and little money to combat outbreaks without international help.

His work soon got the attention of some people in government. They were not people anyone knew about of course. Best known as ‘The Dark State’, they worked tirelessly to further the interests of British companies and the British government in areas usually described as ‘The Third World’.

One day, he was called into the office known as ‘The Boardroom’ to speak to two very quiet men. They asked few questions, and listened to his answers without interrupting him. After just over an hour, the tall thin man stood up, and shook Jimmy’s hand. He only said one thing. “Thank you, Doctor Walker. The money you need is immediately available. Please go ahead with your research”.

Lesley never asked Jimmy about his work. She was just happy that he was doing so well, and had even stopped mentioning the fact that he might want to learn to drive. He had applied for a passport though, the first one he had ever owned. That had been at the suggestion of his boss, who had hinted that he might soon be travelling on behalf of the British Government. Jimmy had never been in an aircraft, but didn’t tell anyone the thought of that made him rather nervous.

His friendly boss had told him it would be in an RAF aircraft. “No formalities, James. No baggage restrictions, or Customs and Immigration checks. It will all be very hush-hush”.

Approaching his fortieth birthday, Jimmy almost forgot that Lesley would soon be fifty. The Citroen car had long gone, replaced by a sturdy Volvo Estate, and Lesley had developed an interest in gardening, albeit in pots and containers, which now filled their small courtyard area. The sex had stopped a few years back, but Lesley never complained. How many women like her could boast of such an attractive and intelligent husband? She told him she would miss him when he went abroad, but he wondered if she secretly relished more time to watch nonsense on television.

The trip to Africa was dressed up as a ‘fact-finding’ tour. They were supposedly looking at certain countries to see where disease control could be improved, and the British government could help with that. But Jimmy knew better. The whole point of the three-person tour group was to identify the possibilities of completely destroying the economy of the countries concerned by introducing diseases that affected their infrastructure by reducing their available workforce.

Most of this would involve killing the children. The next generation of workers.

The tour of Africa the following year proved interesting, though Jimmy’s two companions were not very talkative. The man looked like he might have been ex-army. He introduced himself as Standish, not adding his first name. He told Jimmy his interest was in the financial situations he could glean from the visit. The woman named Dorothy Glendenning was more concerned about the medical knowledge of the doctors they would meet. Jimmy’s brief was to test the capacity of those countries on the itinerary to deal with an outbreak of a dangerous contagious disease.

Three countries were of main interest; Zaire, Nigeria, and Sudan. It wasn’t explained to him why those particular countries, though he soon found out that they all had significant problems with infrastructure, tribal differences, or religious issues. They were warmly welcomed each time, and shown great respect bordering on embarrassing deference. The Foreign Office and the local ambassadors had done their preparation well, and the officials showing them around talked about how British aid money would improve their capacity to deal with any outbreaks of disease.

Being a traveller didn’t suit Jimmy one bit. He didn’t like the humidity, detested the local food, and found the endless table-talks boring in the extreme. But when it came time to fly back to RAF Brize Norton, he had done what he had intended to do all along.

During a visit to Kikwit in Zaire, he managed to discard a smart fountain pen that he had brought concealed in a special metal container. The pen was packed with material containing the Ebola virus. When picked up by someone, they would find it didn’t work, and no doubt unscrew it to see if it needed ink, thus exposing themselves and others in due course.

Any Ebola outbreak would be put down to the usual cause of consuming monkey flesh. The pen would have been long forgotten. It might come to nothing of course, but then it was merely a test run for Porton Down.

Lesley was delighted to see him back. The three weeks had seemed like an eternity to her. “I hope you never have to go away again, Jimmy. I felt so lonely without you around”. After dinner that night, she settled down to watch the latest TV channel, Channel 4. Jimmy went up to the spare room to make some notes ready to complete his report on the African trip.

His bosses were delighted with the feedback they had received, and interested to know if he had been successful in delivering the contaminated pen. The quiet men came to see him again, and wrote down the location he had described to them. One of them shook his head though. “We had been hoping you might have left the sample somewhere more conspicuous, and in a larger city, like Lagos. But never mind, we will see what happens, Doctor Walker”. Jimmy stayed calm, but inside he was furious. First God pestering him, and now these faceless men in suits implying he hadn’t done his job properly.

On the drive home that night he sat quietly in the car, wondering if it was time to change careers.

It took a year, but someone must have found the pen. News came of an Ebola outbreak in Zaire, causing great excitement in Biological Warfare Section. The first cases were reported in Kikwit, and had soon risen to over two hundred infections. With people going into local hospitals, and poor handling of the bodies of those who died, cases soon hit the three hundred mark, causing intervention from foreign aid medical organisations, and attracting interest from the United Nations.

By the end of August that year, two hundred and eighty people had died. But the outbreak was contained in that region, much to the disappointment of everyone involved with starting it. Jimmy had to go to London, to a special meeting. They sent a car to take him, and bring him home after the meeting. Standish was there, and Dorothy Glendenning, along with four other men who were not introduced.

They concluded that the experiment had been a success, marred only by the remoteness of the area concerned. One of the men thanked them after the short meeting, adding. “I hope we can count on you to go back some time in the future, for something bigger?”

In the car on the way home, the government driver asked permission to have the radio on. Jimmy nodded. After the first song had finished, the disc-jockey spoke to Jimmy in God’s voice.

He told him that almost three hundred in one go was good, but he had to do a lot better.

By the middle of 2012, Jimmy was approaching his sixtieth birthday, and Lesley had retired from teaching five years earlier. Since his trip to Africa, Jimmy had been ignoring God’s commands, and becoming more involved in his research at work. Lesley kept busy with her garden in good weather, and her new love of baking in the winter months.

She now had a fifty-inch LED television, and access to hundreds of channels via the Internet. Although she no longer had to go to work, she got up every day to drive Jimmy, using the Audi four-wheel drive car she had bought using her pension lump sum.

Financially, they were very comfortable. And both healthy too, though Jimmy had noticed a considerable weight gain due to Lesley’s constant delight in serving him large slabs of her latest cake. Although they had never been on holiday, Jimmy had continued to renew his passport. There was talk of a more extensive trip to Africa next year.

When he had been promoted to overall head of the biological warfare section, Jimmy had been able to interview his own replacement. He hadn’t hesitated to state his first choice, a young masters graduate named Sylvia Leung. She had been born and brought up in Berkshire, the daughter of parents who had emigrated from Hong Kong. She gained a double first in Microbiology at Oxford, and her Masters had concentrated on the Flu virus, especially the one that caused the Spanish Flu disaster in 1918.

During her interview, she spoke about how a simple virus could be clinically mutated so that conventional medicine would have no defence against it. Then subsequent mutations and strains would continue to confound the medical profession. She thought it might be a very effective weapon, if handled carefully.

That was enough for Jimmy, and he offered her the job before she left the building. Despite her lack of experience, she was just the sort of young genius his department needed. As soon as she started, he put her to work on a new strain of Ebola Virus, one that could spread more easily. In the laboratory working alongside her, he was stunned by her natural grasp of the concept and possibilities. So he sent a message to the quiet men, and they came to talk to her.

The next mission to Africa was sheduled for November the following year. This time there would be three teams operating separately, and they would be travelling to Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria. All three countries were still keen on the chance of receiving British aid, and the groundwork had been arranged by the local diplomats. No Standish or Dorothy Glendenning this time though. Jimmy would lead the Nigerian Group, and he nominated Sylvia to travel to Guinea.

Liberia would be visited by a team from the military, pretending to be epidemiologists. Better prepared this time, they had the deadly virus concealed in boxes of medical research equipment like pippetes and flasks. They could easily be left behind, infecting laboratory and medical staff who gratefully opened the boxes when the teams had left.

They flew in three separate RAF aircraft, planning to spend only a few days in each country before returning. Lesley was pleased that Jimmy would only be away for less than a week. They had been married for well over forty years, and she still loved him as much as on that day at the Registry Office.

Jimmy didn’t mind it so much this time. A relatively smart hotel in Lagos, official cars to run them around, and no contact with the run-down slum districts that the city was notorious for. For his purpose, those same slums were ideal. No sanitation, little or no medical care, and the perfect breeding ground for easy transmission of a deadly disease.

The gifts of medical supplies were gratefully received, and each team left their respective countries before any of them would be opened. A debrief in London concluded a triple success, and Sylvia received additional praise for her professionalism and cool head.

All they had to do was wait. And they didn’t have to wait too long. Before Christmas, Guinea reported the first cases. By the time Lesley was serving up her own well-constructed three-bird roast on Christmas Day, there were news reports of cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Nigeria. Speculation by reporters on the ground was that the outbreak had started in Guinea, and travelled across almost the whole of central Africa at lightning speed.

Of course, Jimmy knew better. Smiling to himself as he turned down a second helping of pigs in blankets.

The Ebola outbreak lasted for years. Estimates of those who died in all the countries concerned ranged from eleven thousand, to over twenty thousand. That number included some foreign medical staff who had visited the countries and tried to help. They had no idea that this was a new, highly-contagious strain.

Lesley watched it on the TV news, oblivious to her husband’s involvement. As far as she knew, Jimmy was working very hard trying to find a cure for the Common Cold.

A visit from the quiet men confirmed their success. But like God, they wanted more. Sylvia Leung had come up with a fantastic idea, fully supported by Jimmy. She obviously had an issue with China, based on what her parents had experienced before the official handover of Hong Kong, in 1997. She still had relatives in the former colony, and she was keen to get them out, and living in Britain.

Jimmy told her that could easily be arranged. He had the contacts.

One night, Lesley was watching The Great British Bake Off, and presenter Paul Hollywood told Jimmy in God’s voice that he was very satisfied with his work in Africa. For once, Jimmy replied. He told God that his protege, Sylvia, had a plan that would bring on armageddon. God chuckled at the thought of that, and told Jimmy it was long overdue.

At the end of 2018, Jimmy was sixty-six years old. The top men at Porton Down called him in. He was a year past retirement, but they had let him carry on, as his work was so valuable. In fact, he had been recommended for an elevation to the peerage, for ‘services to science’. Lesley was so excited. Her husband was going to be a Lord. That made her a Lady by default, a very big deal in British heirachy.

As he was allowed to choose his name, Jimmy chose ‘Lord Boscombe’, in honour of the village where they lived. Lesley would become ‘Lady Boscombe’, ensuring them a table at any restaurant they cared to book. Lesley’s only regret was that she had nobody left to boast about it to. But for Jimmy, the downside was that he had to leave his prestigious position at Porton Down to accept his place in the House of Lords.

With no hesitation, he recommended Sylvia Leung to take over his role. He had never met anyone more capable, or more suited for the job. The quiet men then managed to arrange for Sylvia to join an intenational inspection team going on a tour of one of China’s biggest biological research facilities. It would probably happen sometime the following year.

Prouder than ever, Lesley finally got to see her husband honoured, with his Ceremonial Introduction at the House of Lords in the autumn of 2019. She was next to him in the official photographs later, even though when they received them she was horrified that to see that she looked more like his mother, than his wife. Even at the age of sixty-seven, there was a sparkle in his eye, and he still had a full head of grey hair.

As far as the outside world was concerned, Doctor James Walker, now Lord Boscombe, was a retired academic. In truth, he was still in daily contact with Sylvia Leung, who felt she owed him everything. And he could visit Porton Down any time he felt like it, no questions asked. Lesley was seventy-seven years old, and slowing down considerably.

Jimmy engaged the services of a local gardening company to continue her hard work with the containers, and a local taxi firm took care of any driving required. Lesley was still baking, but her cakes and pastries were mostly either undercooked, or burnt. He ate them anyway. He owed her that much for a lifetime of devotion.

Just after Christmas of 2019, the TV news was obsessed with an outbreak of a deadly flu virus in Wuhan, China. Lesley was upset, wondering if it would reach Britain. Jimmy consoled her that it would only be in China, because they ate bats, and other strange food. That evening as she watched television, he went into the bedroom, to talk to God.

God told him that Sylvia Leung was now doing his work. Jimmy had tried hard, but had not fulfilled his promise. God was happy though.

Sylvia would make a difference.

The End.

3:17 The Complete Story

This is all 28 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one post.
It is a long read, at 20,550 words.

3:17. That was the time shown by the red numerals on the digital alarm clock next to the bed when I woke up for no apparent reason. The little dot next to the number three was at the top, indicating it was morning, not afternoon. I had never got around to changing the setting to a twenty-four hour display.

The feeling I had was more uneasy, than scared. I hadn’t been dreaming, at least not that I could remember, but I definitely recalled sensing a presence of some kind next to the bed. Once awake, I felt thirsty, though I was reluctant to get up to go and get a drink. Whenever I did that, I rarely got back off to sleep, and I had a long day ahead of me. So I settled back onto the pillows, but as predicted, sleep didn’t come.

Once I was on the crowded train, having to stand was a blessing, as it kept me awake. It was my second day working at the smart new development, and yesterday I had met Janice, who was in charge of the sales there. Dockside View was one of the company’s prestige blocks, and Janice was determined to get all the flashy apartments sold by the deadline. They were throwing a lot of staff at the project, which was why I was now commuting into the centre, instead of walking to the corner to sell semi-detached identical houses, and commercial lots nobody was interested in.

Janice was a woman who didn’t tolerate fools, and she had made it clear she hadn’t asked for me, so expected me to impress her. To be honest, the demand for the property was high, and I had spent the previous day juggling viewing appointments. Getting the deposit was everything. Our performance targets were based on deposits taken. If the sale fell through later, nobody on the sales team cared. We had done our bit.

From the station to Dockside View was a twenty-five minute walk. So I bought a coffee from the vendor outside to perk me up enough to face it. In our brochure, it was described as a ‘Pleasant fifteen-minute stroll’. That made me smile, after walking fast for twenty-five minutes yesterday, and only just getting there by my start time. And the scenery on the way was hardly pleasant. Lots of building work going on, cement mixer lorries crammed into small cobbled streets, and builders shouting up at crane operators.

Neil smirked at me as I walked in. He was standing close to Janice, and he had worked with her on the Britanna House development previously. I marvelled at how he could look so crisp and fresh after travelling in all the way from Kent. Not a crease in his suit, and his white shirt was so clean, it seemed to reflect the light.

He jumped in before I could dump my empty paper cup in the bin. “No drinks in the sales area, Darren. You were told that yesterday. Don’t forget you have a nine-fifteen, you should ring them to let them know you are ready and waiting for them”.

I would dearly loved to have leaned across and head butted him. But I needed the job.

Walking outside to ring the client on my company-supplied mobile, I suddenly realised I had only four percent battery, and had left the charger at home. I couldn’t even creep around the corner for a cigarette, as Janice had banned smoking for the duration of the sales. “They will smell it on you, Darren. That’s a sales-killer, believe me”. My Russian customer had a name I couldn’t pronounce, so I just called him ‘Sir’. After assuring him I was at his service for the nine-fifteen appointment, he just hung up with no goodbye.

Now I had to face going back inside and asking Neil or Janice if they had a phone charger. I hung around for a few minutes, hoping Desmond would show up. He carried a big rucksack that they made him store under one of the sales desks. He probably had everything in there, incuding a charger, I bet.

Then I remembered he had the day off, because he had worked last Saturday.

When I had to ask Neil if he had a charger, he had a strange look of victory on his face. His perfecly trimmed and oiled hair repulsed me, and I wanted to mess it up, with a rough hand.

“I do have a charger, Darren. But you might want to think about bringing your own one in, or at the very least charging your phone while you are sleeping. Here. Take it into the storeroom, you can plug it in there”.

I thought that if I started hitting him now, the police would have to drag me off of him before I killed him.

While my phone charged, I had fifteen minutes to kill. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and go around the back of the building and enjoy a cigarette. If Janice could smell it on me, I would blame it on the crowded train carriage and hope for the best.

How was I to know that the Russians would turn up early?

When I went back inside, sucking two mints, Neil was euphoric. “Oh dear. Your Russian couple turned up, and you weren’t here. Janice has taken them up to view the apartment. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when she comes back down”. If I had been carrying a knife, I am sure I would have stabbed him, there and then.

Not once. Probably more than fifty times. Until I was sure he would never utter another word.

But I ignored his jibe, and checked on my ten o’clock clients. They had sent a text to tell me they were cancelling. I wondered if the day could get any worse.

Then it did.

Behind what would become the Concierge Station, red lights were flashing, and a high-pitched beeping sound was going off. Neil was finally in a flap, and on the phone to the Fire Brigade to confirm the alarm had gone through to them, as it should have done. He turned to me. “They are on the way! We have to follow the full fire evacuation procedure! Assemble fifty yards away, in the car park outside!”

There was only me and Neil, so we went outside as directed, and stood in the almost empty car park. I took the chance to light a cigarette, and smiled as I asked him. “What about the two Russians, and Janice?” He grabbed his phone, and dialled Janice, turning to me looking pale. “The lifts won’t work during a fire alarm. They will have to walk down. I’m sure they will be alright, if they take their time”. He shook his head at the phone. “She’s not answering”.

As he said that, there was a hollow boom from high above us, and we looked up to see a flash of yellow flame, followed by a plume of smoke reaching up to the top of the building. I took a drag on my cigarette, secretly hoping that the next thing I saw would be Janice deciding to jump, rather than burn.

The fire engines turned up before Janice appeared. It was a long walk down, and her smart suit was smoke-stained. The two Russians looked very exhausted, and walked to their limousine with white faces, ignoring the shouts of the firemen that they should be seen by the paramedics, who had just arrived.

I made a mental note that I had probably lost that sale.

Janice was remarkably calm, to give her her due. She was still on the ball too. “Darren, Neil. Get onto your next appointments. Cancel them, and try to rearrange. Whatever you do, don’t mention anything about fire and explosions”. Neil was straight on it, but I didn’t bother to tell Janice that my phone was still on charge in the store room, and the firemen were not about to let me in to get it.

When we saw the firemen had tackled the worst of the smoke and flames, I turned to Janice. ” I forget now, what apartment were they viewing, Jan?”

She didn’t even turn to look at me as she answered.

“Number three, on the seventeenth floor. 317”.

At first, what Janice had said didn’t sink in. We hung around for a while, and then the fireman in charge said we could go and retrieve our personal possessions. They suspected a gas leak in the apartment, and an electrical fault, but that had to be investigated by the Gas Company, and the Fire Investigation Branch. Police officers had sealed off the approaches to Dockside View with their striped tape, and we were not going to be allowed back to carry on working, obviously.

It was when I had got my phone and given Neil back his charger that the number clicked inside my brain.

Seventeenth floor, flat three. 3 and 17, just like the time on my bedside clock when I had woken up that morning. Janice was gabbling into her phone, arranging for head office to send security guards down to watch the development over the full twenty-four hour period. With the investigators coming and going, we were not just going to be able to lock up the sales floor as usual. And once the news got out, it was unlikely we would have any potential customers to worry about anyway.

When her call was over, Janice turned to us. “There’s not going to be anything happening work-wise here today. Darren, you might as well go back to where you usually work and report in there. Neil, you can stay here with me, help fend off any enquiries about flats, and make sure all the viewings know they are cancelled. Can you go and find me a coffee and a sandwich, honey? Large Americano, and maybe a chicken and pesto panini? There’s a love”.

I grinned at Neil’s chances of finding anything like that around there. The nearest decent coffee places were inside or near the station. He had a long walk. As I had already been dismissed, I set off for the station. The last thing I wanted was to have to do that walk with Neil crowing about staying behind to help Janice.

Diverting into a couple of shops on the way, I picked up two special offer DVD films for two ninety-nine each, then a microwave Chinese and a six-pack of Stella for later. No way was I intending to go back to where I usually worked. They wouldn’t be expecting me in, and I was sure Janice would be too busy to ring my manager to tell him. Once the news got out, he would probably know anyway, but I would just say that by the time I got back, it was close to finishing time. John was okay, he wouldn’t care.

By the time I got to the station, it was mid-afternoon, well before the rush hour. The place was almost deserted. Along the concourse a guy wearing the hi-vis coat of the train company was fixing a large paper sign into a display case. I walked up to him, and waited until he had finished, and had closed the case. Then I asked him when the next Southend train was due to depart. I was only going to Basildon, but needed that line.

He checked a huge Casio digital watch that looked like a museum piece, then turned and pointed. “You can check on the indicator board you know. But seeing as you asked so nicely, it leaves at fifteen-seventeen. That’s three-seventeen to you mate”. I thanked him and walked away, then realised I hadn’t asked which platform. Heading for the indicator board to check, I suddenly stopped dead. 3:17? Not again.

On the train, the uneasy feeling I had during the night came back. But this time with knobs on.

I had woken up thinking someone was in my bedroom at 3:17 AM. Then the flat that had caught fire and exploded was number three, on the seventeeth floor, 317. I wasn’t supposed to be getting a train home this early, and my arrival at the station had been completely random, delayed by the short shopping trip. Only to find that the next train home was at 3:17. That was a lot of coincidence to swallow, even for someone as sceptical as me.

Now I was beginning to wonder if I should have actually got on this train.

When I got home and sat down, I could feel my eyes were heavy. But I wouldn’t let myself sleep that early, or I would regret that later. I opened my laptop. Not my work one, the older one I rarely used now. Then I started a word document and began to make notes about all the 3:17 coincidences. I had a feeling there were going to be more, but I had no idea what any of it meant.

That done, I blitzed the Chinese, and necked it while watching the first of the two films I had bought, washed down with a couple of the cans of lager. It was one of the Fast and Furious films. I loved films about cars, especially films you could watch without having to think too much about what was happening on screen.

My mate Joel rang my mobile when I was on my third can, wanting to know if I fancied meeting him down the pub. I fobbed him off, telling him quickly about the fire at Dockside View, and lied about having a busy day because of that. He was impressed, as he had seen it on the news. “Wow, you were in that? Tell me more”. I said I would tell him next time we met up, and got back to the film, opening a fourth can.

Lack of sleep, and the lager, meant that I didn’t see the end of the film.

I must have just curled up on the sofa and conked out, until the noise woke me up. The telly was a blue screen, and the lamp was still on beside me. The sound was coming from outside the door, on the stairwell leading up to my flat. It was immediately apparent what it was. A ball bouncing down the stairs.

I didn’t even need to check the time on my phone to guess it would say 3:17. But I did anyway.

And it was.

Surprised that none of my neighbours were up complaining about someone bouncing a ball down two flights of concrete stairs, I went to my front door and opened it. The motion-sensor light lit up the landing, and there was nobody to be seen. The door of the flat opposite was closed, but Philippa was a stewardess, so might well have been off flying somewhere. Or sleeping soundly and not heard the ball. Not wanting to call out, I walked down the first flight to the centre landing. There was nobody to be seen.

Then the light went out.

As I turned to walk back up to my flat, the noise of the ball bouncing down the stairs in my direction was so close to me, I swerved to the side, expecting the heavy-sounding ball to hit me. But there was no ball, just the sound. I went back in my flat and locked the door behind me with the deadbolt. I had no idea why I was so scared, but I was, and feeling cold too.

After getting undressed and brushing my teeth, I went to bed. I set my phone alarm to wake me in time to get ready for work, but when I lay down in the dark, I no longer felt sleepy. For the next hour or more, I went over everything in my life that might relate to the number 317. I even broke it down to the 3, the 1, and the 7. No birthday matched. No address I could think of matched, and nothing that I knew about had ever happened at that exact time.

Just when I was drifting off to sleep again, I suddenly added the numbers together in my head, and got 11. So I went through it all again, but could come up with nothing where a number 11 was significant.

When the alarm went off, I had probably only been asleep for an hour.

It was nice to have a lie-in and then casually wander up to the corner where I worked. Mason and Walker sounded like a good name for an estate agent, though of course there was no real Mason, or Walker. Just another gimmick of the huge property company we worked for, along with the stylish dove grey paint work, set off by the pale yellow pinstriping. Although I was on time, I was the last one in that morning.

It was often mentioned that I lived the nearest, but was the always the last member of staff to appear.

John the manager was at his larger desk at the back, and grinned as I walked in. “What did you do to upset Her Highness, The Lady Janice? She rang first thing to tell me she doesn’t want you back at Dockside View once sales start again”. I shrugged and told John that she probably fancied me, and wanted to resist the temptation. Junior was already on the phone hustling. Standing up as normal, which he claimed energised him. His pink shirt and lime-green tie combination looked like a kid’s sweet.

I doubt the bosses would have been so keen on his new braided hair look, if he hadn’t been the top salesman at Basildon branch.

Kelly asked if I wanted coffee, and I nodded. Then I forced myself not to look up her skirt as she leaned over to get the mugs out of the cupboard. She was only eighteen, and I was far too old for her. So I had to keep telling myself. Behind me at the window desk, Penny was jingling the keys to the company Mini. “John, okay if I take the car? I have an early valuation in Wickford”. John nodded, adding “Come straight back though. Darren will need the car for a job later”.

I didn’t much care for driving around in that grey and yellow mini, with the company name and number plastered all over it. But it was a better option than using my own car and having to pay extra for business insurance. At least it was only six months old, and had a great satnav in it too. I liked to get out in the country lanes and give it some stick around the bends. When Kelly brought my coffee over, I thanked her and fixed my gaze on her face. Anything rather than be distracted by how low-cut the front of her top was.

When she got out of the admin side and into sales, she was going to sell a lot of property, no doubt.

John dropped a folder on my desk. I could tell by the buff colour it was another commercial. I only got the crap jobs. “Mr Coughlan, midday. The address is in there, a vacant lot with no residential planning. He reckons it might be ideal for used cars. He wants it priced for rental, or selling complete. As usual, he will do a good deal for cash”. I flicked through the folder, and pulled a face at the photo of the lot. On the corner of a busy main road, what looked like a half-sized field of mud surrounded by a mostly collapsed wire-mesh fence.

Coughlan was a nasty bit of work, who used our company all the time. He was a so-called Traveller. Or in my words a Pikey, an Irish tinker. He did all sorts of wheeling and dealing, just barely the right side of the law, and the wrong side too. I had no time for Pikeys. They didn’t pay tax, cheated old people with dodgy roofing jobs or tarmac drives that never got finished, and many of them were notorious fly-tippers, shitting up the few nice areas of countryside we had left. That was his main business, disguised as waste removal contracting. But as far as the company was concerned, he was a good customer.

When I checked the address where I had to meet him, I spat a mouthful of coffee all over the paperwork.

317, London Road.

Until Penny got back with the car, I went through the motions of ringing a few prospects, and chasing up the outstanding offers on some terraced houses in Pitsea. With the market doing well, sellers were geting edgy about accepting low offers, and playing the dicey game of holding out for the full asking price. There was no point talking to anyone at work about the weird 317 business. They might think I was losing it.

In between calls, I jotted down almost every combination of the numbers, realising I had forgotten to reverse them. So I ended up trying to think if 713 had any relevance, then I tried 731. But for the life of me, my mind was blank on all of it.

Penny dropped the keys on my desk. “The tank’s half full, so you should be okay”. She never had a lot to say to me, and made it very clear she didn’t think much of me. When I started there, she had only been there a few weeks herself, but that didn’t stop her acting like she was somehow in charge of me. Her husband was a copper in London, a detective of some kind. She liked to boast about all the serious cases he was involved with. She was his second time round, so considerably younger.

Coughlan wasn’t there when I parked the Mini outside the dismal-looking lot. I got out of the car and made my site appraisal in ten seconds flat. It would need a lot of work on the ground before anyone would use it, and once you allowed space for a portakabin or office shed of some kind, you would be lucky to squeeze ten cars onto the front. Then there was water, sewage, and power. It would cost a fair bit to have all those reconnected.

The big four by four arrived, and he put two wheels up on the kerb as he parked it. I looked at the shiny car, less than six months old, by the registration number. Not much change out of sixty grand for that top of the range model, and I doubt he even had insurance. How come nobody ever asked where some Pikey got all the money to pay for that?

His face was red as usual, high blood pressure probably. The beer-belly strained his shirt buttons, and hung down over his belt almost covering the fly on his trousers. As he walked forward with his hand extended, someone got out of the passenger side of his car. A woman. He had seen me a few times previously, but never asked my name. After the briefest of handshakes, he got straight to business. “Well, what do you reckon? How much are we looking at? Straight sale, or better a monthly rental”.

Before I could answer, the woman walked forward from the car. She was wearing a black coat over a black dress that reached down to her ankles. Her long hair was also jet black, and certainly dyed. She seemed to be about a hundred years old, but when she spoke, her voice boomed. “GERRY! STOP! COME BACK!” Coughlan jumped at the sound, and turned quickly, walking back to the woman. He bent down to listen as she whispered in his ear. Raising an arm, she pointed a bony finger in my direction, then moved it slowly to my left, then my right. He bent down again to hear her next whisper, then nodded his head.

Without walking back, he called to me from the side of his car. “Don’t bother. The deal’s off, we will use someone else”. With that they both got back in the car, and he drove off at speed, as if being chased by the police. Part of me was glad to see the back of him, but I knew John would be pissed off that I hadn’t secured the sale.

Back behind the agency, I parked the car, and walked down the alley. Then I popped into Sammi’s and bought a packet of cigarettes, a diet coke, and a Twix. That would be my lunch. I handed over two notes, a tenner and a fiver. As was his habit, Sammi counted the change into my hand, as I watched his turban bob around.

“Two pounds, one pound, Ten, fifteen, seventeen”. I looked at the coins in my hand. A two-pound coin, a one pound coin, ten pence piece, five pence piece and a brown two pence.

£3.17.

John waved me over when I walked in. He took me into the corner and spoke very quietly. “I have just had Mary Coughlan on the phone. They are taking all their business away from us. That’s rental management of twenty-six properties, plus anything they buy or sell. She says she is transferring it all to Drake and Molloy, and wants me to send the files over in a taxi. I asked her what the problem was, and she said to ask you. So I’m asking, and I want the truth”.

My story was true, and I told John that, and exactly what happened. Before I could talk to Gerry Coughlan about anything, the old lady called him back. She whispered something to him, pointed at me, and he said the deal was off. That was all I knew, and I swore to John I hadn’t done a thing wrong. John sighed. “Old lady Coughlan might be in her eighties, but she’s as sharp as a tack. Her son Gerry never goes against her over anything. She pretty much rules the roost. I didn’t bother to tell her that Drake and Molloy is part of the same company as us, but that’s not the point. We will lose branch revenue, and that won’t look good”.

As I didn’t know what else to say, I shrugged and went back to my desk. Better make it look as if I was trying to sell something. As luck would have it, the next phone call was from the prospective buyer of a smart two-bed semi with a conservatory, a short walk from the station. It was a corner plot, so was unusual in that it had a double garage to the side. He had viewed it twice, and wanted me to make an offer to the seller. One of the best properties on my own list, it was for sale at three hundred and twenty thousand. The buyer wanted to offer ten grand less, so I told him I would put that to the owner and get back to him.

It took me three calls to track down the guy, who was driving on the M25 and speaking from his car. “Three-ten you say? No, that’s not enough. We have had seven viewings, and the interest is still high. Ring him back and tell him three-seventeen, and it’s off the market. Let me know what he says”. I looked down at the pad on my desk, and the numbers I had written down during both conversations. 320, 310, and the last one, 317. Even before I rang the buyer back, I knew he was going to say no.

And of course he did.

Many people might have been shaken up by all this 317 stuff, but I was beginning to find it just plain annoying. That many number coincidences were just impossible, but they were all there, and could mostly be explained. As for Ma Coughlan, I had no idea what had rattled her chain. Maybe she hadn’t liked my crumpled grey suit and striped tie.

Time to talk to someone about it, and I knew the only people who would take me seriously were Joel and Mark. On the way home from work, I rang both their mobiles, suggesting we meet at the KFC for some grub, then head into the White Horse for a few beers. Unlike any of the chain pubs in town, The White Horse was old school, and we could still find a quiet corner to sit in. They both jumped at it, as I suspected they might.

My only two friends from school, Joel and Mark had been around since we were all eleven years old. We stuck together to avoid the bullies, none of us were any good at sport, and we didn’t attract any of the cool guys, or the better-looking girls. Joel had left without taking any exams, and gone into his dad’s business as a kitchen fitter. After having a trial for Colchester in his teens, and not being picked for the squad, he nonetheless became a self-proclaimed football expert. An avid fan of Southend United, he went to every home game, and most of the away matches too.

Mark never went anywhere. He worked from home in a converted garage, as a software support person for a tech company. To be fair, he earned well, much more than me, and he could do the job in his underwear if he wanted to.

Outside the KFC, I saw them coming toward me, both grinning.

We ate the KFC out of the box as we walked to the pub. Joel and Mark were both happy to be out, and were acting like going for chicken and a few pints was a big deal. Neither of them had a girlfriend of course, and none of us had any real mates except each other. Mark had never been out with a girl. He just couldn’t handle the chat, and froze up completely around women. Joel had a girlfriend once, but she got fed up with football being more important, and dumped him after six months.

Compared to those two, I was mister lover man. Two girls when I was still in my teens, though neither lasted long. Then I met Danielle. She was out on a hen night for one of her friends, and they had surrounded me and Joel, insisting we kiss the bride to be. After that, Danielle hung around chatting, and eventually asked me to be her date at the wedding the following Saturday. She was one of six bridesmaids, not an unusual number at weddings around Basildon.

I was flattered by her asking me, so made a good job of being her date. After that, we became a couple. Though we seemed to spend most of our weekends at her friend’s weddings, as almost everyone she knew got married in those first two years we were together. By year three, we had started getting serious, and her dad gave me a talking to about never upsetting his lovely daughter, and needing somewhere better for us to live than my one-bed flat.

Then she went to a hen weekend in Ibiza and met Gregory, a fitness instructor from Stanford-Le-Hope. She broke up with me over the phone soon after she landed back at Stanstead, and I always had a sneaky feeling he was standing next to her when she did that. Since Danielle, I had more or less stopped bothering with women. But that didn’t stop me wishing that Kelly at work was older than eighteen.

In The White Horse, I got straight to the matter over our first pint. I didn’t want to wait until those two were sozzled, and talking nonsense. I told them all about the 317 stuff, from the first dream-like experience, down to the change from Sammi in the shop, and the seller saying he would take three one seven for his house. Mark was wide-eyed. He spent a lot of time reading crap online, and was well known to believe anything. At one time, he had seriously tried to convince us the world was flat. Joel was shaking his head. “It’s bollocks, Dazz. Just coincidence, that sorta fing”. He gestured to our glasses. “Same again, boys?”

Joel didn’t have much education, and even less class. He adopted the harsh manner of talking that he got from his dad, who was originally from East Ham. Mark was deep in thought. When Joel got back with three more pints, Mark slipped a pen out of his coat pocket, and walked over to grab a paper napkin from the bar. Joel was grinning like a loon. “That bouncy ball fing, Dazz. Don’t reckon it’s anyfing to do wiv me, and my footy career, do ya?” I ignored that rubbish, and looked over at Mark. He was busy scribbling down some numbers. He had done a lot of computer courses for his job, and was great at things like Code, and other stuff I didn’t understand.

When he had finished, he slid the napkin over to me, and tapped it with his pen. “Lottery numbers mate. You should get a ticket for Saturday. There’s a rollover jackpot this week”. I looked at the paper. You had to choose six numbers for entering the lottery, and he had made them up from 317.

1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 31. Keen to explain, he talked me through it. “The one, three and seven are self explanatory, mate. Then add the one and three to get the four, add them all together to make eleven, and use the thirty-one as your biggest number. Joel’s eyes were wide at that point. “Bugger me, Dazz, I reckon fat boy’s cracked it”. Mark winced at the nickname. But he only had himself to blame for stuffing his face for the last twenty years, and never going out except to drink or eat.

But the lottery though. Why the hell not?

Joel was obviously getting bored. He said he had to leave, as he was up early for a big kitchen job in a barn conversion out near Battlesbridge. Once he had left, Mark got two more pints in, and came back with a pile of napkins. He wanted to know lots of dates and numbers. My birthday, my mum’s birthday, the address of my parents’ house and their landline phone number, and any number I could recall that might ever have pertained to me that I could remember without going home to look it up.

I rattled them off, his head nodding as he jotted each one down, shuffled the numbers around on the paper, and then asked another question. Then he suddenly stopped and looked up. “Show me your bank card, I’ve just had a thought”. I reached into my inside pocket for my wallet and got my bank card out. Mark grabbed it and gave it a quick scan. Then he punched the air, and shouted “YES!” so loudly, the barmaid looked over to see what the fuss was about.

“Look at the expiry date, Darren. 03/17. March next year. But it’s 317! And the three-digit security number on the back? Go on, look”. I looked, it was 713. That gave me a chill, I must admit. I hadn’t thought of checking my bank card, and could never remember the expiry date or security number anyway.

But try as he might, he couldn’t make anything from all the other numbers I had given him, even though he resorted to using the calculator on his state-of-the-art new phone. “I’m sure this is all good though, Darren. An omen yes, but a good omen. Leave it with me, and I will text you tomorrow if I come up with anything”.

When we finished the fourth pint, Mark offered me a lift home to save me walking, or jumping a cab. He ran around in an almost new Audi A5 that rarely left the driveway outside his dad’s place. It was the best one they sold, and cost a mint. I wondered why he bothered, as he only seemed to use it when he met me. He could have used a limousine service, and still saved pots of money. He also seemed oblivious to the drink-drive laws, as four pints would surely mean he would blow over the limit, and get a ban. But he had never had so much as a speeding ticket.

As I got out of the car ouside my block, he grabbed my arm. “Don’t forget to buy that lottery ticket, whatever you do”.

Inside, my mind was buzzing. The thing with my bank card was really spooky, and unlike so much of the other stuff, it wasn’t so easily explained as a coincidence. Still, tomorrow was Friday, and I would be sure to buy a ticket for Saturday’s rollover lottery draw.

The impact on my legs came before I heard the sound. Something hit my thigh, as I slept soundly. Hard enough to wake me up, and see the red numbers on the clock reading 3:17. Then I heard the sound, closer this time, actually in my bedroom. It was a ball, bouncing off the wardrobe, and then hitting my hip as I moved. Instinctively, I switched on the lamp, already suspecting I would see nothing. As I turned to look at the wardrobe again, the ball hit me in the centre of my chest.

That really made me jump, and I got out of bed and went into the living room. From there, I could hear the ball bouncing against the bedroom wall, rhythmically, as if someone was kicking it at the same spot, over and over again. I almost ran out of my flat, but had no idea where I would go if I did that. So I lay down on the sofa, waiting for the noise to stop.

That was where I woke up the next morning, feeling very chilly in my Calvin Kleins. The shower warmed me up, and I got to work just on time, as usual.

Penny was plastering on some more make-up, until her Groucho Marx eyebrows started to resemble garden slugs. Kelly was brushing her hair, and there was no sign of Junior, or John. I asked where John was, and Penny replied, still applying crap to her eyes. “John had a heart attack last night. He’s in hospital having tests. Head Office has sent over a temporary manager until we know what’s happening”.

With that, I heard the sound of a toilet flush, and the door to the staff area at the back opened.

And in walked Neil.

Neil was checking his watch, but he didn’t have the satisfaction of saying I was late. So he talked about Junior instead.

“Junior is out already, an early viewing before they catch their train to work. You would do well to follow his example, Darren. The early bird, and all that”. I wanted to have a pump action shotgun to hand, so I could blow him against the back wall, watching the blood spatter against the photos of the houses we had been trying to sell for so long, they were relegated to what we called ‘the dead zone’.

What the hell was he doing here? He must have had a ninety-minute drive from Kent, in terrible traffic. My day could not get any worse.

But it did of course, starting with having to watch Kelly and Penny flirting with him, as if he was the greatest catch in Essex. Then if that wasn’t bad enough, he wanted to go through all my unsold commercial lots, and tell me why he thought I wasn’t selling them.

Obviously the fire at Dockside View had shut down the development for now, leaving him at a loose end. He had jumped at the chance to fill in for John, which was his first offer of management. Even though it was temporary.

I was hoping he might change his mind, when he found out it took him over two hours to drive home in solid rush hour traffic.

After Neil’s pep talk, I had to spend all morning on the phone to people who didn’t want my commercial premises, and had no intention of ever buying them. Lunchtime came as a relief, and I went to Sammi’s to get that lottery ticket. I still had the napkin, and made sure to choose the numbers exactly as Mark had written them down. While I was there, I also bought a Ginster’s Steak Slice, two packets of plain crisps, and a creme egg. I stood in the alleyway and ate the lot, reluctant to go back inside and let Neil lord it over me.

The truth was, I might well have battered him senseless. Not only losing my job, but getting arrested for assault into the bargain.

That afternoon felt like a week. I still don’t know how I lept my temper. At least I didn’t have to work over the weekend, thanks to my two days at Dockside View. I had that lottery ticket safe inside my wallet, and could only hope that I got a result, and could tell Neil where to shove his job. Then maybe give him just a playful slap as I walked out.

As slaps go, I could have happily slapped both Penny and Kelly. Penny conned the Mini out of Neil, stroking his arms in the process. She disappeared without having to say where she was going. Though I suspected she was off home, for a sex session with PC Plod. Then Kelly made him three different cups of coffee, until he decided she had got it just right. That reminded me of the three bears, and Goldilocks. I could have spit, I tell you.

Finishing time couldn’t come soon enough, not helped by Junior showing up, claiming to have sold not one, but three houses.

Walking home, I was praying that John would be alright, and be back at work soon. The prospect of Neil taking over full time would have been too much to bear, and I considered quickly researching some vacancies online when I got in.

Just about to ring and order an Indian takeway, the phone rung in my hand, and I saw it was my mum calling. I usually phoned her on a Sunday, and it was unknown for her to ring me.

“Darren, it’s mum. Can you come and see me this weekend? I have something important to talk about. Why don’t you come for Sunday dinner, shall we say about two?” I told her I would be there, then rang the Indian to order my food. As I was waiting for the delivery, I couldn’t help wondering why mum wanted to see me. She almost never asked me over, except on her birthday and at Christmas.

It occured to me it might have something to do with Auntie Jean, and I felt my face flush at the memory.

My mum met my dad when he came to fix the land line phone at the big house where she lived with her mother and her older sister, Jean. She already had a good job, working at the Inland Revenue in London. He was only a phone engineer, but she had never had a boyfriend. So when he asked her out, she said yes. He was twenty, and she was eighteen. They got married the following year, then moved near Basildon and bought a house. And when she was twenty-four, she had my brother, Terry.

Not long after Terry was born, my grandmother died. Mum did a deal with her sister. Jean would keep the big family house near Danbury, and my mum would get the money. There was quite a lot of money. My grandmother had good life insurance, and still had a big stash from when her husband had died ten years earlier. Jean also kept the family car, a classic Jaguar. That made sense, as my mum had never learned to drive.

They doted on Terry, and he turned out to be a good kid, by all accounts. The years went by, and they were happy. Mum got promoted twice at work, and dad came off the vans and went to work inside, in the telephone exchange in Basildon. Then they got a shock. Mum was pregnant. Certainly not planned, as she was thirty-eight years old. According to Auntie Jean, there was some talk of an abortion. Mum didn’t want to take time out of work, and Terry was nearly fourteen. But that didn’t happen, and I was born when she was thirty-nine.

I don’t remember my dad, or my older brother. They were both killed in an accident, on the day of my first birthday.

It was some years before I even found out about them, and only then because Auntie Jean insisted on telling me some things. But not everything.

So I was brought up living with two women. Or it seemed like that anyway, as my aunt was at the house a lot of the time, or I was at her house in Danbury, being looked after. I was never sure what my aunt did. Ten years older than mum, she was very different. A heavy smoker, liked a gin and tonic, and was always dressed up and made up. She played records instead of watching telly, and never seemed to go to work. Compared to my mum, she was great company. She was fun.

The way my mum dealt with her grief was to never talk about my dad, or Terry. I wasn’t allowed to ask anything about them, and Jean never spoke about them in front of mum when I was in the room. There were no photos, and none of their stuff around the house. Mum looked after me, but I never once felt she loved me, and she found it impossible to show me any affection. There were no birthday celebrations for me either, not one.

Because my birthday was the same day she had lost her beloved husband, and her first born.

By the time I was almost ten, Jean was looking after me more and more. Although she was fifty-nine by then, she looked years younger than mum, who had already let her hair go grey, and spent her days in a joyless trance. For my tenth birthday, it was Auntie Jean who took me out. She picked me up in the lovely old Jaguar, and took me into Chelmsford, to the cinema. After the film, we went to a burger place, and I could choose what I wanted, plus ice cream after.

Then that night when I was staying over at her house, she took me into her bed, and interfered with me.

The law would call that child abuse, and would have put my aunt in prison. She told me that would happen if I ever told anyone. But she needn’t have worried. The truth was, I enjoyed it. The attention, the affection, and feeling grown up. And the presents were great too. She started to buy me really expensive gifts, not just for special occasions, but randomly. If my mum noticed, she certainly didn’t care. And Jean took me off her hands most weekends, leaving her to think about my dad, and Terry.

That lasted until I was thirteen. Weekends in bed with my aunt, and some occasional holidays too. Then mum decided I was old enough to not need looking after when she was out, and it stopped. I never mentioned it again, and neither did Jean. But now mum had asked me to go and see her, I was wondering.

Had Jean said something?

I left school before I was eighteen, with five very average O-levels, and a place at Technical College, where I wanted to study automotive engineering. I had some idea of working for Fords. They were one of the biggest employers in the county, and I was sure I could end up designing a wonderful new engine for them. For my seventeenth birthday, Auntie Jean had paid for driving lessons, and I passed my test first time. After that, all I could think about was getting a car, and the freedom that would give me.

Turned out I wasn’t really suited for automotive engineering. I didn’t get on well with the boring teachers, and there was too much writing about combustion and stuff, and not enough actually messing around with cars and engines. Before I was nineteen, I had seen an advert in the local paper for a junior car salesman at the main Ford dealership, and got the job without finishing Technical College. I had to ask mum to buy me a suit, and she didn’t seem at all impressed with my choice of career.

But she bought me the suit, some smart black shoes, five white shirts, and two striped ties.

Being around the cars was great. But I soon found out that a junior car salesman doesn’t get to close any deals, and spends a lot of time helping to prepare new cars for delivery, wearing an overall over his suit. At least I got to drive a few around; delivering them back after services, or moving them to other dealer’s premises. They kept telling me that once I was twenty-one, I would get to use a company car and start to actively sell, based on what I was learning. Except I wasn’t learning anything.

Two days before my twenty-first birthday, Auntie Jean showed up at the house and gave me two hundred quid. “Spent it on anything, Darren love. Spoil yourself”. When she had gone home, my mum switched off the telly halfway through a programme I was watching, and said she had something to say.

“Now you are twenty-one, I think it’s high time you got your own place, and moved out. I am going to be sixty soon, and I intend to retire. The pension is very good, and I still have all the money your gran left me. So this is what I’m going to do. I will buy you a flat, nothing fancy mind. And a car. Something reliable, but not brand new. You can choose both, and I will pay for them. You won’t have a mortgage or car payments, and it will give you a good start in life”.

To say I was flabbergasted was an understatement. I knew my mum was well off, but I had never expected anything like that.

The next day at work, I arranged to buy an ex-demonstrator Fiesta S. Eight months old, metallic black, low mileage. I got it for staff rates, so no profit for the company. Then I went into town on the Saturday afternoon, and had a look around the estate agents. I found a nice flat in a window of one of them. A small sixties-bult block, nothing much to look at. One bedroom, car parking space, and open to offers for a quick sale.

A a friendly bloke talked me through it. Flat number five of six, second floor, no lift. Central heating, double glazing, and cheap council tax. Service charges were negligible, and the woman selling was keen to get rid of it as she was getting married and moving to London. He offered to take me to view it then and there. She had obviously tidied up before we arrived, and as soon as I started to look around, she was trying to sell me everything in it. Seemed her move was to some posh houseboat on the Thames, and there would be no room for any of her stuff.

Back at the estate agent’s, I made an offer that included leaving everything in the flat. All she would take with her were her shoes and clothes.That would save me a fortune trying to furnish it and kit it out. Although the offer was cheeky, the prospect of a cash buyer sealed the deal straight away. The agent shook my hand, and then offered me a job.

His name was John, and the company was called Mason and Walker.

On the day I moved out, all I had to take were my clothes and some books. When I had loaded up the Fiesta, mum came out with a carrier bag containing her old clock/radio, the one with the red digital numbers that had been beside her bed to use as an alarm clock. “You might as well have this, Darren. Now I’m retiring, I won’t need an alarm clock anymore. You can come back for dinner next Sunday if you want, up to you”.

And with that she went back inside, and closed the door.

Mum hadn’t asked me anything about the flat, other than how much money she had to pay the solicitor arranging my purchase. Same with the car, just asked who to make the cheque out to. I had a vision of her enjoying being alone with her memories of her dead husband, and the other son that she had truly loved.

Now ten years later, the clock still worked, I had the same car, and lived in the same flat, using all same the stuff the young woman had sold me. The television was new, as the old one had too small a screen. And the kettle had died, so I had bought a flashy new one four years ago.

The Indian meal was surprisingly good, and I washed it down with four cans of lager. That didn’t turn out to be such a good idea, as I woke up in the middle of the night, needing to pee. I was relieved to discover the clock said 3:01, not 3:17. Perhaps that spooky spell had finally broken.

No such luck. Not long after, before I was really back off to sleep, I heard a strange whirring noise. At first it sounded like one of the neighbours was using a drill. But at past three in the morning? That was unlikely. Besides, it was coming from above me, near the ceiling, and I lived on the top floor. It stopped, started again, then stopped. The next time, it went on a bit longer, and was then followed by a clickling sound, like someone slowly winding up something that had a clockwork mechanism.

Of course, the clock was reading 3:17, just as I knew it would be.

It was almost four when it stopped, and I eventually got back to sleep. I was woken up by my mobile alert going off just after nine. I checked it, and it was a text from Mark. He wanted to come over later, and said to text him when I was up and about. That threw me. I couldn’t remember when or if Mark had ever been to my flat. We always met at the pub or some food place. I replied to his text, telling him to come over after two. Then I went back to sleep.

He was quite excited when he turned up, and after accepting my offer of a cold beer, he sat down to tell me what he had been doing. “I had no luck with those other number combinations, Darren. Believe me, I tried. I even put them into a numerology programme I downloaded, but it kept coming back to 317 all the time. There has to be something connecting that number with your life, I’m sure of it. You have to think hard, it must be in your brain somewhere”.

His beer was already drained, so I went to get him another one, assuring him that I had thought of nothing else since that first group of coincidences, but I honestly didn’t have a clue. Then I warned him that was the last beer in the house.

Reaching into his shoulder bag, he pulled out a small sleek laptop that must have cost a fortune, and asked for the wi-fi password to connect it. “I have been doing some research, and I want to show you this site. I have sent a link to your email already, but I know you almost never look at personal emails”. Tapping away while complaining about my broadband speed, he eventually got up what he wanted to show me. “Check this woman out. She has a good reputation, and yes she’s a psychic, but look. She specialises in numerology, the psychic connections involving numbers”.

I looked at the website. ‘Sylvia Townsend’. She was based in London, had numerous glowing testimonials and she did private investigations into what she called ‘Psychic events, especially those involving numbers’. Mark was finishing the second beer. “You got a shop near here where I can get more beers?” I told him where it was, and he left me looking at the laptop.

Wondering how much Sylvia charged for her services.

Mark came back holding three carrier bags containing twelve cans of lager, and four large ready to cook pepperoni pizzas. It dawned on me he was expecting to hang around for some time. He nodded at his laptop. “What do you think? You should ring her”.

After we had both eaten a pizza and he had more lager, I rang the contact number on the website and got a message telling me to leave a name and number. I put on my best serious voice, and did just that. When Mark was eating his second pizza, my mobile rang. “This is Sylvia Townsend, you left a message. Please tell me the nature of your psychic incident, but only that. Do not mention any names or places, or any dates. I would not want you to think I was using any supplied information in my conclusions”.

I gave her all the facts about the 317 connections, how many times the number had cropped up, and that I couldn’t see why it had anything to do with me. She replied confidently, sounding like a mature, well-spoken woman.

“I am sure I could help you, it seems to be very straightforward to me. I would have to be in your flat at three-seventeen in the morning. That would mean me getting there an hour before. Including my travelling time and expenses to and from London that would cost you four hundred in cash. If that is acceptable to you, I could come next Friday. I suggest you get some sleep before I arrive, as you will need to stay alert”.

Swept away by her confidence, I gave her my address, and agreed next Friday. Then she asked for a credit card number, in case I turned out to be a prankster. “I will not charge anything to the card, unless you are not at the address given, or thinking to play some kind of joke on me. I warn you now, I do not travel alone, and my husband is a very large man who can take good care of me”.

When I had given her the details and hung up, I glared at Mark. “You better hope she’s not a con-artist, or you will owe me anything she steals”. He chuckled as he went into the kitchen to heat up his third pizza.

Once he had gone home, leaving behind just two cans of beer. I decided to relax and watch the telly. I had to get the idea out of my head that I had just given my credit card details to a con-woman who was sitting in London thinking about how she was going to spend my money.

Then I remembered the lottery ticket. I had just missed the televised results, so used the Internet on my phone to get on the website and check the winning numbers against mine. I was excited, imagining moving into a luxury pad, cancelling Sylvia Townsend, and telling Neil what he could do with his job.

Not even one number.

Flicking around the channels to find something to watch to make me forget my disappointment, I noticed that the film Jaws was just starting. I had seen it before of course, but not for years. It was always worth another watch. Robert Shaw, and the big rubbery shark.

I was well into the film when it got to the bit where Quint is strapping into the chair to fish with the huge rod. Then I had to go for a pee. As I walked back into the room, I heard a sound I remembered.

But I didn’t remember it from the film. It was the sound I had heard on the ceiling of my bedroom.

Watching the screen, I saw the big fishing rod reel whirring as the line was taken up. Then it stopped, then whirred again. The exact same noise I had heard at 3:17 in the morning. Then he was was slowly winding back the slack on the line. Click, click, click. The sound that I thought was someone winding up a clockwork motor. I got a chill all over my back. That was most definitely the sound. But surely all this could have nothing to do with a film?

Despite that, I slept right through the night, with no disturbances.

That refreshing night’s sleep left me in a good mood for the visit to my mum later. I got ready early and skipped breakfast, knowing mum would provide a huge Sunday meal, and a big stodgy dessert too. On the way to the house, I stopped off and bought her a bottle of the sweet white wine she liked. She wasn’t much for drinking, but she did enjoy a glass of that sticky sweet stuff with dinner.

No traffic locally meant that I was there just before two, and she was ready for me. Roast leg of lamb with all the trimmings, home-made mint sauce, and a bread and butter pudding with custard to follow. I was hardly through the door before we were sat at the table eating.

For someone who lives on easy microwave meals, fast food stuff, and far too much pizza, the traditional Sunday lunch was something I anticipated with my mouth watering at the thought of it. I accepted her offer of three more slices of lamb, and then ate a huge portion of the pudding, completely covered in home-made custard. Still seated at the dinner table, feeling a belly full of wind brewing, mum started to tell me the real reason why I was there.

“You will be thirty-one soon, and I will be seventy. Your aunt Jean is eighty now, and she isn’t well. In fact, she has liver cancer, and probably less than a year to live”. That shook me a bit. I had last seen Jean at Christmas, and she had looked the picture of health, even though the chestnut hair dye was more obvious than ever.

“So next week, I am moving from here and going to live with her in Danbury, to help her though the last months of her life. This house is sold, and most of the things are being collected by charities, as I won’t need them. If you want anything, you can take it with you today. I have some boxes in the garage that I want you to have, but the rest is up to you. And before you ask, I used an agent in Colchester. I didn’t want your firm involved, as to be honest, I think they have treated you badly”.

Well she was right about that. After a couple of golden years at the start, the company had sold off the commercial premises side, and then stuck me with getting rid of any new commercials that came in after. I had gone from hero to zero, in the course of three years.

Mum was still talking.

“This house fetched three-eighteen, more than I expected. Jean tells me the Danbury house is worth around six hundred thousand, but it is much larger of course. She will leave that to me, plus any personal money. Then I will leave everything to you. It’s not like I have anyone else to leave it to, after all. I know you will have to wait for that, as I have no idea how long I will live. But you can count on a very substantial inheritance once I am gone”.

That was food for thought. At least nine hundred grand when my old mum passed, probably closer to a million by the time she popped off. I should have felt guilty thinking that I suppose, but I didn’t. Jean had definitely had her fun with me, and mum was still on a guilt trip for not giving a shit about me. But it was a long time to wait, nonetheless.

Before I had even surreptitiously sneaked out the wind filling me up, mum was ready for me to go.

“Come to the garage on your way out, and I will show you those boxes. You will be interested in what they contain, but please don’t ring me and ask me about what’s in them. Promise?”

I promised.

Two of the boxes were light, and one fairly heavy. They were sealed down with packing tape, and very dusty. Once I had loaded them into the Fiesta, mum reminded me. “Don’t forget your promise, I don’t want to discuss anything in those boxes. Remember that, Darren”.

On the way home, I could feel myself accelerating for no good reason.

I really couldn’t wait to open those three boxes.

Two trips were needed to get the three boxes into my flat. I took the two lighter ones together, then went back for the heavier one. Before I opened any of them, I decided to make a detailed note of the contents on the record I was keeping on my laptop. So I fired that up, and got it ready.

*Box One. The lightest.
Contents;
One England Football Shirt. Size medium.
One pair of matching football shorts. Size medium.
One pair of football socks. Unwashed.
One yellow leather football. Partially deflated.
One Timex watch. Glass broken, not working.
One pair of football boots. Size eight. Muddy.

*Box Two. Next lightest.
Contents;
Assorted newspapers in plastic covers. Thirty in total.
Assorted photos, three in frames. Perhaps fifty in total.
Four very large fishing reels, line still attached.
Two boxes of large fishing hooks, assorted sizes.
One pair of heavy leather gloves. Well worn. Size large.
Two Post-Mortem reports, in plastic wallets.
A report from a Private Detective, in a blue folder.

*Box Three. The heaviest.
One VHS camcorder, large shoulder-mounted variety.
Four spare batteries for the camcorder.
One dedicated charger for the batteries.
Leads and plugs to connect it to the mains, and to a TV.
Six VHS tapes. TDK 30-minute chrome type.
Four more much bigger fishing reels, line still attached.
Six spare fishing lines. New in packets.
Four football achievement medals.
Two small trophy cups for football achievement.
Two small trophy cups for fishing.

I made the presumption that the football kit was my brother Terry’s. That was confirmed by finding his name on the cups. And the fishing trophies bore the engraving ‘Brian Cook’, meaning that the fishing stuff was to do with my dad. But it was the VHS camcorder and tapes that I went to first. They had to hold a clue, or so I thought. The camera battery was flat of course, but easily remedied by just plugging the huge camcorder directly into the mains.

Before I even put in a tape, I knew the bouncing ball noise and the way it had hit me in bed was something to do with Terry, and the whirring fishing line related to the dad I had never met either. But I wasn’t remotely scared, just interested. And I already knew enough not to mention anything to Sylvia Townsend next Friday.

I didn’t have a VHS player. Nobody had one of those anymore. But that didn’t matter, as the camera had a flip-out screen, and controls built into the body. I was thinking about how much my dad must have paid for this, back in the day. A substantial investment at the time. My mouth had gone dry, so I went into the kitchen to get a Diet Coke. Then I sat on the floor, wondering which tape to insert into the machine. There was no writing on the sides of the boxes, or on the actual tapes. So I just picked the first one off the pile. slid it into the camera, and pressed ‘Play’ on the side panel.

There he was. The brother I had never met. Not so much as seen a photo of him. He was in the garden, at least that was familiar to me. Kicking a football around with obvious skill, and running down in the direction of a small goal, which had been placed against the back fence. He was wearing the same football kit that was in Box One, and he looked nothing like me at all.

My dad appeared in shot, urging Terry on. Was my mum holding the camera now? I could never ask her. I had promised. In my family, a promise was a big deal. Brian looked much more like me. Tall, thick dark brown hair, and the same slightly crooked bump on his nose. That made me feel really weird, watching the dad I had never known, and him looking like a slightly older version of me. I stopped the tape, and ejected it.

I needed a drink. A real drink.

In the absence of beer, I searched out what was left of some Jack Daniels remaining from last Christmas.

Swallowing a whole glass of the JD, I reached for another tape.

It was going to be a long night, and I already knew I would be ringing in sick tomorrow.

Working through the VHS tapes took a couple of hours. Two more just of Terry kicking footballs around, much to the delight of my dad. Then two showing fishing trips. They were on boats, off what looked like the south coast. Dad with massive rods, those huge reels in the boxes attached. Terry looking on, sometimes being shown how to work the rod once something had taken the hook. Some big fish being landed, not the sort I had ever seen on a slab in Tesco.

Father and son having fun, and sharing activities. That had never happened to me of course.

By the time I put in the last tape, there was nothing left in my flat to drink. I had even found a drizzle of Grand Marnier in a very old bottle, and tipped the bottle high until it ran down into my mouth.

That last tape was hard to watch. My mum in our garden, holding a baby. As Terry was standing next to her, I knew the baby had to be me. Strange to imagine I had ever been that small. My dad’s voice on the tape. “Give him a hold, Terry”. Mum handing me over carefully, and my brother holding me as if I was made of glass. Then mum and dad in shot, presumably filmed by Terry. Dad lifting me high and laughing, then kissing my head as I came back down.

I had to turn it off. It was all too much.

Although I had intended to work through the other boxes, I was choked up after watching the videos, and went to bed instead. When the alarm went off, I grabbed my mobile and rang Penny’s number. I knew she would be on her way in. She always arrived first. I told her I had a stomach upset, and wouldn’t be in for a few days. She was surprisingly friendly.

“Oh, Darren. John’s coming back on Wednesday. Seems it was just a mild Angina attack. They have given him some tablets, and he’s coming back. To be honest, I will be pleased to see the back of that Neil. We thought he was nice at first, but he’s a complete arsehole, if you want my opinion. Get well soon”.

Neil must have shown his true colours over the weekend, and upset Penny, probably young Kelly too. It was good news that John was coming back, but I had other things on my mind now. I had suddenly discovered my family, thirty years too late.

With the day free, I cleared a space in front of the telly, and started to lay out some of the things from the boxes. It wasn’t usual to have post-mortem reports, and I guessed that mum must have had to request copies, and pay for them. I decided not to read them just yet. I wanted the memories of dad and Terry alive on those tapes to linger a while before I read about how they had died.

The report from the Private Investigator intrigued me. That would have cost a lot, even thirty years ago, and why would mum have bothered? I made some strong coffee and sat on the floor in my underpants, gingerly opening the file, unsure of whether or not I wanted to know what was in it.

Not a lot, was the answer. A few pages of spaced reports, mostly times and locations. A photo of a policeman in uniform outside a police station, and another of the same man in normal clothes, getting into a car. Some very clear long-range photos of a suburban house, one zoomed in to show the door number. From what I could see, the detective had been hired to find a police officer, watch him, and find out where he lived and worked. Then he had followed him for what appeared to be two days, and noted down his movements.

The last page in the file was the bill he had sent to mum. One hundred and forty-eight pounds, including some itemised expenses.

Feeling hungry, I made myself a fried egg sandwich, and added all my notes to the laptop as I ate it. Then I decided to start working through the newspapers. There must have been a good reason why mum had bought them, and kept them.

On top of the pile was a copy of The Surrey Comet, dated a few days after my first birthday. Above a photo of a completly wrecked car was the headline. ‘Two killed in fatal crash. Police investigating’. I read the next line, then dropped the paper.

‘The crash happened not far from Chertsey, on the A317’.

Promises had been made to my mum, but I hadn’t promised not to ring Jean. I rang her house phone, hoping that she wasn’t so ill as to not be able to talk. She sounded really chirpy when she answered, and pleased to hear from me. I started with the usual stuff; sorry to hear her news, glad that mum was moving in to look after her, pretty much what would be expected in that situation.

Casually, I slipped into what I really wanted to talk about. The boxes, and the reason mum had kept certain things, as well as hiring a detective, and paying for post-mortem reports. Jean made me swear never to tell my mum, then spent twenty minutes filling in the details of what I wanted to know.

“Terry had a trial for the junior team of a top football club. I forget which one now, but it was a big deal. Big enough to mean that Brian was taking him there on your first birthday. It was at a training ground somewhere in Surrey, which is why they were so far from home when the accident happened. Your mum was never convinced it was an accident. For one thing, the first policeman on scene was off duty, but he still ended up investigating it. I mean, that didn’t sound right. How would that ever happen? Then there were what they called inconsistencies in the cause of death. Despite that, the coroner ruled the cause of death as accidental, and praised the policeman for trying his best to help them”.

Carefully avoiding any reference to the 317 coincidences, I asked her why mum had paid a private detective to follow the policeman. Jean said she didn’t know about that. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her, so went on to ask about the other things in the boxes.

“Well Terry had been wearing the football kit for his trial, but had changed for the journey home, presumably, as he wasn’t wearing it when he got killed in the car crash. The fishing reels were kept in case you ever became interested in fishing, like your dad was. As for the medals, trophies, camera and tapes, well your mum could never bring herself to look at those, so saved them for you. You were supposed to get them after she was dead, but the decision to move in with me must have changed her mind about that”.

I thanked her for telling me what she knew, and said I would go and see her soon.

Reading through the newspapers, I found they all contained slightly different reports of the accident. One mentioned a Sergeant Holloway, from Traffic Division. Another small piece said that a police sergeant had come across the accident when off duty, and had attempted to resuscitate the youngest victim, after realising the driver was beyond help. I wanted to talk to someone else about all this, and there was only Mark. I sent him a text, asking him to come round after he finished work.

Then I got busy taking notes on my laptop.

My dad and my brother had been returning to Essex from Surrey, and were on the relatively busy A317 road. There was an accident that had wrecked the car, and an off-duty policeman had stopped to help. My mum hadn’t accepted the findings of the inquest, so had employed a detective to investigate the off duty traffic sergeant. He hadn’t come up with anything, so it seemed from his report.

Thirty years later, I was experiencing spooky happenings all relating to the numbers 3,1, and 7. Plus hearing the ball, feeling it bounce on me, and then hearing the whirring fishing lines just like on the tapes. Dad and Terry were tring to communicate, I didn’t have to be a psychic to realise that. Even so, that was hard for me to believe. Not only did I not generally believe in all that stuff, but why would they have waited thirty years to try to get my attention?

Sorting through the stuff on the floor, I tried to arrange it into some kind of timeline. Then when I was happy that I could make some sense of that, I quickly got dressed to walk to the local shops. Mark was going to need a lot of beer, and more than a few pizzas.

By eight-thirty that evening, Mark had demolished three nine-inch pepperoni pizzas, and was on his sixth can of lager. He tapped a file, and gave me a serious look.

“The detective agency. That’s where you should start”.

Coastal Investigations was surprisingly located in the quiet seaside town of Frinton. That was over fifty miles away, and I wondered what had made mum choose that place. It was still operating, which was something. The basic website didn’t exactly entice customers, mentioning ‘Matrimonial’, ‘Divorce’, and ‘Fraud’ as it’s main specialites. Under the name, it had “Serving Essex for over forty years” as its tagline.

When I rang the number that morning at nine, I got a taped message. I didn’t leave my details, choosing instead to ring back once I had showered and dressed. A woman answered, her voice rather gruff, but her manner and tone respectful. I mentioned that I was following up on an old case they had handled, and had the name of their operative written down to tell her. His name on the report was Trevor Macmillan.

“That would have been my dad. I took over when he died, fiteen years ago now. If you want me to look into something that old, you had better bring the file to the office. Today at two alright for you? By the way, I charge two hundred a day, and that’s a minimum, but I will see you this afternoon for the consultation fee, seventy-five. In cash please”. Then she let out a series of hacking coughs, loud enough to make me move the phone away from my ear.

I told her I would be there at two.

Stopping at a cashpoint on the way, it took me almost ninety minutes to drive to Frinton. Their office was above a hairdresser’s shop, as the far end of the High Street. I pressed the intercom with the dymo-tape name above it, and was buzzed in with no questions asked. She was waiting for me at the top of the stairs, smoking a cigarette. I took her to be around forty, heavy build, and overdressed for a job like that. She looked more like she was on her way to a party.

“Come straight up. Mr Cook, is it?”

In the front room that served as an office, she pointed at a cheap plastic chair, indicating I should sit in front of her desk. Then she hauled her bulk in opposite me, and held out a hand. “The file, and the seventy five, please. I like to get the money out of the way”. I handed her four twenties on top of the file, and she hesitated over the change, probably hoping I was going to tell her to keep it. Eventually she dug five one-pound coins out from the bottom of her handbag, and slid them across the desk as she opened the file with her other hand.

As she read through the slim file, you would have thought she was reading War and Peace. She finished her cigarette and immediately lit another one, without offering me one. So I lit one of my own, and she moved the overstuffed ashtray into range for me. Still taking her good time over the file, I had almost finished my cigarette when she lit her third, and closed the file with a snap.

“Is this a complaint, Mr Cook? ‘Cause if it is, I should tell you now that will be down to my dad, and he’s long dead”. I assured her it wasn’t. I just wanted to know more about her dad’s investigation, and anything else she could tell me about the policeman and the accident. She gave a satisfied nod. “Okay then, let me go and look in the old files next door”. I thought the offer of a coffee might be nice, even water. But there was no mention of refreshments as she lumbered out the door, her shoes slapping against her feet as she walked, as if they were a size too big.

She came back holding a thick file that left me wondering how come her dad’s report to my mum had been so slim. Then she sat on the desk right in front of me, and seemed to be almost flirting, definitely suggestive in her body language. “I can probably help you, Darren. I still have lots of contacts in the police around here. My dad was a copper before he started this business you know. Leave it with me for now, and I will ring you tomorrow. If I take it further, then we start on the two hundred a day, okay?”

When I was sitting back in my car, I thought I hadn’t had too much for my seventy-five quid.

At home that night, I worked out my financial situation. Having had no mortgage, credit card, or car payments to worry about, I had managed to save a great deal of my income over the last ten years. Even allowing for the fact that I wasn’t in a well-paid job, and rarely qualified for any bonus payments, I was quite well off compared to some I knew. In a couple of savings accounts, and a very healthy current account I had total of a little over seventy-three thousand pounds. That equated to having saved around six hundred a month since I started at Mason and Walker.

With a present salary of twenty seven thousand before taxes and other stoppages if I got no bonuses, that meant I had a three year buffer, if I just lived on my savings. I opened the new bottle of Jack Daniels I had bought earlier, poured a large one, and rang John’s mobile.

He didn’t seem that surpised that I was resigning. Being stuck on commercial properties and hard to sell houses was no way to live. “What will you do with yourself now, Darren?” I told him I had no idea, but was in no rush. If I included my oustanding holiday time in my one month notice, there was no need for me to even go back to the office at all. John was very kind.

“I’m sorry to see you go, but I fully understand why. Please email me an official resignation, and I will sort out the paperwork with HR when I go in tomorrow. On the bright side that means Neil will have to stay on for now, to cover you. I can’t wait to stick him on your desk, trying to shift commercial units. Let me know personally if you even need a reference, Darren”.

The news that Neil would be on commercials from tomorrow was worth another drink.

Whatever I had been finding out about dad and Terry seemed to have calmed things down. I slept all through the night again, with no interruption at 3:17. Waking up the next morning, it felt strange to know that I would soon be a free man, at least for three years as a maximum. No more putting up with being an Estate Agent, I was going to think about a complete change of career. My phone ringing interrupted my thoughts. It was Selina Macmillan.

“Right, Darren. You are going to want to come and see me again this week, as I have a lot to tell you. For one thing, my dad’s file on the case is all copies, so your mum would have had one exactly the same. He did her proud, considering how little he charged her. She must have either decided to destroy the rest, or she just hasn’t given it to you yet. So come and see me tomorrow, about midday, and I will go through what I have found out. And you had better bring me two hundred in cash to cover my time. I spent hours on this, and had to promise someone a bung too”.

Before I handed over more money, I told her she would need to give me some idea that what she had was worth paying for. She didn’t seem pleased.

“Okay, I will give you this much, over the phone. I’m betting you didn’t read the post-mortem results. If you had, you will have seen that they are both on your brother. Your mum paid privately for a second opinion that concluded Terry didn’t die in the accident, but died soon after. What is written down is manual constriction of the airway. In other words, he was strangled. When your mum tried to get the case reopened on the basis of that, Sergeant Holloway came up with a plausible explanation, and they threw out her appeal”.

For quite a while, I didn’t reply. That was a lot to take in. Her gravelly voice shook me out of it.

“What do you say, Darren? Still interested?”

I told her I would be there the next day at twelve.

Selina Macmillan couldn’t have looked more different that second time. Wearing a pinstripe business suit, and her hair in a bun, she looked more like the headmistress of a swanky school, than the blowsy party animal of a few days earlier. I had a feeling that she had arrived straight from a date last time. The sort of date where you stop over, and don’t get much sleep.

The two hundred was ready in a sealed envelope, and I handed it over before she had time to ask for it. She dropped it into a desk drawer without counting the notes. I thought that was a nice touch.

“Well, Darren. I told you about the post mortem report over the phone. I have also been through the reports surrounding the police investigation into the accident, as well as the transcript of the inquest and the Coroner’s summation. All of that had to be requested by your mum, and the copies paid for. She must have been quite determined at the time, as she didn’t involve any lawyers, and did it all herself”.

There was no doubt that I was seeing a totally different side of my mother. All of this had been going on before I was even two years old. I was sure that Auntie Jean must have been heavily involved in looking after me back then. Mum would have needed a lot of time to have done all that stuff.

Selina was tapping something on her desk.

“This file from my dad is interesting. You don’t seem to have it in your papers. Sergeant Holloway was in the traffic division of Surrey Police. They investigated his conduct following the accident. Off duty, in his own car, It seems he stopped at the scene which he saw happen on the other carriageway. He claimed the driver was dead, which was confirmed by the medical reports of a broken neck that caused instant death. The passenger appeared to be dead too, but as he was so young, Holloway attempted resuscitation after extricating him from the damaged car with some difficulty, as it had rolled over during the crash. The conclusion is that he did his best, and he was actually praised for his response and professionalism”.

Stopping her before she could go on, I asked about the strangulation, and how Holloway had explained that. She opened another file, and tapped a paragraph on a typed page.

“During his evidence at the original inquest, he had spoken about having to drag your brother out of the car, and having some difficulty attempting resucitation in a confined space. When your mum tried to get it reopened with her new evidence about strangulation being the cause, Holloway made a statement that he might well have damaged Terry’s neck getting him out through the window of the car, and dragging him up the verge to make space to carry out CPR. They believed his version, and refused your mum’s appeal”.

Next I wanted her to explain how Holloway had got involved in an investigation when he was technically off duty. Selina grinned.

“You don’t know much about the way cops work, Darren. He was a trained Accident Investigation Officer. The next available one was tied up on a serious crash involving a lorry, fifteen miles away. So they took the easy way out, which was to let him investigate the accident. The control room showed him back on duty on their record, and other officers helped him start the full investigation. Technically speaking, he wasn’t involved, as he was a witness who had stepped in to help. So by default, they let him investigate an accident that he was later implicated in. So it is no surprise that any appeal was thrown out. Everyone was covering their arses”.

As I took that in, she carried on.

“Remember I mentioned my contacts? Well I dropped a few quid to one of them, and he did some digging. Holloway retired with the rank of Police Inspector. He is sixty-eight years old now, and still lives in the same house in Surrey. His wife died over ten years ago, some kind of cancer. He spends his time playing golf, according to my contact. Rarely misses a day on the golf course”.

My expression must have been blank, as she had leaned forward to get my attention.

“But there’s more, Darren. The best is yet to come”.

Before Selina could continue, I held up my hand. I told her I needed a drink. I was talking about tea or coffee, maybe water, but she nodded and produced a half bottle of Martell from a desk drawer. Unscrewing the top, she passed it to me. No glass or cup. I lit a cigarette, and took a big swig of the Cognac. She was also blowing out clouds of smoke from her fourth cigarette, making me feel like I was in one of those old film noirs, sitting in a smoky detective’s office drinking from a bottle.

I handed the bottle back, and she left it sitting there on the desk as she continued.

“When you hear this bit, you are going to be glad you had that drink, Darren”. She was pleased with herself, relishing the moment when she was going to impress me with her discovery.

“Do you follow football, Darren?” I shook my head, not bothering to mention Joel, who lived his life for football. She slid a newspapaper across the desk. It was the back page, and the paper looked recent, almost new. She tapped the head and shoulders photo below the headline that read ‘Southampton confirms their youngest manager’. “Recognise him? Silly question. You don’t follow football, so you won’t”.

Sitting back in her cheap office chair, she folded her arms under her substantial breasts, then hit me with her big news.

“Brendan Holloway. Son of our Sergeant Holloway. Former youth team player for Chelsea. Former member of the England under-21 squad, and later a full-time professional midfielder for Brighton. Following a knee injury when he was at Brighton, he went into coaching. Last month, he was the surprise pick for manager of Southampton”.

As I was still looking goggle-eyed at the smiling man in the photo, she suddenly lifted both legs and rested her feet on the corner of her desk.

“Oh, but here’s the best bit. He is forty-four, not quite forty-five. The same age as your brother would have been if he was still alive. And the Chelsea youth team was the one Terry was trying out for the day he was killed. Guess who else was trying out for that team that same day in Surrey? You don’t need to answer, it was Brendan Holloway. According to my source, Holloway was second choice, with your brother offered the place. Brendan only got the place because Terry died. Now tell me that doesn’t smell fishy. It got my nose twitching, I tell you”.

Reaching for the Martell without asking, I lit another cigarette. I was almost in danger of catching up with Selina. There was no denying she had done well. I was amazed how much she had found out in such a short time, and impressed with the quality of her contacts, considering she was in a depressing little office in a half-dead seaside town. Sliding papers into a box file, she told me what they were as she added each one.

“These are for you to take. My notes on the information from my two contacts. Holloway’s home address, and location of his golf club. The copies of the police investigation at the time, and the details of the appeal instigated by your mum. There are also some photocopied police photos of the car, but be warned. They show your dad dead in the wreckage before the bodies were moved. That’s it for me, I’m afraid. you’re on your own from now on. I don’t want to get any deeper into investigating a policeman, even a retired one. That will bring me a whole world of grief”.

Closing the file, she put her legs back down from the desk, and stubbed out her cigarette. My mind was whirring with all the information, not helped by the two big glugs of Cognac. But I seemed to be being told to leave.

So I left.

Sitting in the car for a long time in the pay-and-display car park, I had no inclination to start the engine, and drive home. Would a serving police officer really stage an accident, then kill my brother, just because of a place on a youth team?

It sounded far-fetched to me, but the combination of circumstantial evidence and inconsistencies in the cause of death certainly pointed to that. And a career in the top flight of the football league was worth big money.

A lot of money.

On the way home from Frinton, I decided to make a stop. I knew the address of where Ma Coughlan lived, as I had seen it enough times on the paperwork. It was on a Gipsy site provided by the local Council, but it wasn’t a caravan, more like a substantial static wooden lodge, painted in a trendy dove grey. Avoiding some chained-up dogs that ran at me barking noisily, I knocked on the glass door. It was answered by a girl who looked to be about ten, and she was only wearing underwear. I asked if Ma Coughlan was home, and the girl closed the door without replying.

A couple of minutes later, old Mrs Coughlan opened the door, waving her hand to gesture that I should step back, She held onto the big crucifix hanging from a chain around her neck as she spoke. “What’s your business here? I have nothing to say to you. We no longer use your company”. I told her that I had resigned, and was there on personal business. I wanted to know why she had called Gerry away from me outside the commercial premises on London Road that day. She said nothing, so I asked her what she had been pointing at.

When she didn’t slam the door, I wondered what she would do next. “I will tell you this once. Then you must never come back here, or talk to me or any of my family ever again. If you do, my Gerry will make you sorry, believe me. That day there was a boy on your right. He was dressed in football player’s clothes, and holding a ball. On your left was a man, tall, dark haired. He was holding a fishing rod. You didn’t know they were there, neither did Gerry. But I see things, whether I want to or not. Now go”.

With that she backed inside, and closed the door quietly. It would have been nice to know if she could still see them next to me, but I wasn’t about to push my luck in a site full of Pikeys.

Back in my flat that afternoon, I added what she had said to my notes. There was now a great deal of information that would tell me whether or not Sylvia Townsend was a fraud, or if she really knew her stuff. I found myself constantly looking from side to side, wondering if dad and Terry were going to appear to me. I had no idea what I would have done if they had. Probably shit myself with fright.

That evening, John phoned to tell me that they had bought me a leaving present, and asked if I could pop round on Friday sometime to get it. I told him I would, then microwaved a lasagna to accompany a very large Jack Daniels.

Friday morning found me feeling jittery. I was edgy about Sylvia coming in the early hours, and becoming more and more scared at the prospect that dad and Terry might appear in the living room. But I was sure that wasn’t her style, so I did some housework to make the place look respectable for her arrival. Then I walked down to the bank and got the cash out for later, popping into Mason and Walker on the way home.

John was there with Kelly. The others were all out on viewings or prospects. Kelly gave me a big card with ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’ on the front, and they had all signed it, even Neil. Then John handed over a nicely wrapped gift box containing a lovely Seiko chronograph wristwatch. I admit I was surprised. That must have been worth well over a hundred and fifty quid. John looked awkward. “We all chipped in, Darren. Even Neil stumped up, which considering Janice doesn’t want him back was good of him, I suppose. He’s out now, trying to shift those lock up garages in Gardiners Way. They have been on our books for over four years”.

Kelly started giggling, then John began chuckling, and soon we were all having a good laugh about Neil.

In advance of Sylvia’s visit later, I packed away all the stuff into the boxes, added my laptop, and stashed the lot in the hall cupboard. I had to take the hoover out to get them all in, but I just stood that in my bedroom. Then I had an early dinner, and sat clock watching. She had warned me to get some sleep before she turned up.

Like that was ever going to happen.

Although I hadn’t expected to, I did go to sleep. I was sitting upright on the sofa when I woke up with a start. The room was dark, and I checked my phone to discover it was past one in the morning. I hadn’t thought to start wearing the watch I got as a leaving present. It was still in its box. I put the lights on, then went into the bathroom to splash some water on my face. In the kichen, I made some strong coffee, and ate a couple of muffins so the sugar would liven me up.

By the time I heard the quiet knock on the door at exactly two in the morning, I was wide awake again.

Mister Townsend wasn’t as large as I had expected, but he looked as tough as a Commando. Hair cropped so short he seemed almost bald, and unblinking eyes that were boring into my skull. Black leather jacket and black T-shirt, with black combat trousers to complete the image. “I will come in first and check the place, okay? Sylvia will only come up when I text her it’s safe in there”. I stood aside and allowed him to walk in. Then he did a thorough search of my small flat as I followed him around, even lifting the bed and looking under it. Satisfied, he sent the text.

Sylvia looked nothing like I imagined a psychic investigator to look like. She could have been any dyed-blonde working-class housewife in one of many districts of London, though her accent marked her as someone who knew how to speak properly.

“Good evening, Darren. No, good morning. Now please don’t tell me any more than you have already, and you may want to have paper and pen handy, to take notes. I do not allow any recording devices I’m afraid”. They both declined my offer of refreshments, then Sylvia sat on the sofa as her husband left the flat and stood outside on the landing. At a nod from his wife, he closed the door.

She had no equipment. None of those flashing lights or speaker boxes I had seen ghost hunters using in the TV shows.

I had gone to get a notebook and biro from the bedroom, and she was smiling as I came back in. I realised I hadn’t handed over the money, and went to get the envelope from the kitchen drawer. Unlike Selina Macmillan, Sylvia opened the envelope and counted the notes carefully. Then she stuffed them into her shoulder bag, before turning back to me, still smiling.

“Well it would seem we do not have to wait until three-seventeen, Darren. Your dad and Terry are already here. They are standing in front of the television”.

Of course, I turned and looked at my telly, but couldn’t see them. What followed was the strangest experience of my life. Sylvia was looking at them, no doubt about that. Her eyes and head were moving, and she was nodding and smiling. And then she started to talk to them too. “I see. Yes, I will tell him. You know about the detective. Okay, that’s good. Yes, I will tell him all that you are telling me, word for word”.

The need to sit down overwhelmed me, and I flopped onto the sofa next to her.

When there was a pause, I asked her why I couldn’t hear them, and also told her to ask them why they had waited for thirty years.

“Darren, they are not talking in the way that we do. They are communicating with me in my head. I can hear their thoughts, as it were. It’s more complicated than that, but that gives you an idea. I am only replying to them for your benefit. So, to make it clear that you are not wasting your money. Your dad and Terry were driven off the road by someone who swerved in front of their car. It was a man named Holloway. They recognised him, from the car park at the trial ground. It was your first birthday, and the location was the A317 road, near Chertsey. They were returning from a football trial for Chelsea, and Terry had been selected”.

To say I was impressed was an understatement.

“Your dad was killed instantly, but Terry had only banged his head hard, and was semi-conscious. The man saw that, and dragged him from the car. Because Terry had no injuries that would end his football career, the man panicked and strangled him. Now they want you to take revenge, so that they can pass over in peace. Your dad says to look at the daily newspapers, as they will tell you what to do”.

My mouth was dry, but I remembered to ask again why they had waited all this time. She grinned.

“Terry says it’s because the Holloways now have something to lose”.

Sylvia Townsend stood up. “They have gone now, Darren. It’s up to you to work out what they meant, but I’m sure you have a good idea”. I asked her why I couldn’t see them, and if they would appear again to help me. “They wanted your attention, and they got it. You will never see or hear from them again. They trust you to do the right thing, and find them peace. Anyway, you are not a true believer, despite what has happened. So you would never be able to see them”.

With that, she walked to the door, and opened it. Her husband raised his eyebrows, and she nodded. Turning to me as she closed the door, she spoke quietly.

“Good luck”.

There was no chance I was going to get more sleep, so I went and made myself a bacon sandwich, still trying to take it all in. Sylvia had been right about all the details, and though I had found out most of them before her visit, I was pleased to have it all confirmed. And she had earned her money, as dad and Terry had undoubtedly communicated with her, and added that they wanted me to do something bad to the Holloways to give them peace.

I was outside the newspaper shop as soon as they opened the door to customers. Barging past the owner, I grabbed a copy of each one of the papers he had just finished laying out on the counter. That amounted to five popular tabloids, and three broadsheets. I also bought two packets of cigarettes and a Twix. I ate the Twix on the way home, still feeling hungry despite my pre-dawn sandwich.

Mark sent me a text as I was laying out the papers on my living room floor. He wanted to know how it had gone with Sylvia. No doubt he had been up all night fiddling with his computers. I replied that I would call him later, and pretended to still be in bed.

Each paper took a slightly different slant on the news. Being a Saturday, they also had some feature articles, and things like cookery columns and ‘where to go’ suggestions. The back pages were full of sport, as most football was played on Saturdays, as well as Rugby, and Cricket news from abroad.

But most of the stuff was, as always, about Royals and celebrities. It didn’t seem to matter if the paper was a cheap rag, or a supposedly ‘serious’ traditional one, all they seemed to do was to trap on about who was dating who, and who had been a bad boy, or a bad girl.

There were paparazzi photos of course. Slaggy-looking girls I had never heard of, showing their bits as they got out of cars. Film stars being where they were not supposed to be, and with someone who wasn’t their wife. And one very famous politician in disgrace due to a homosexual affair, with a photo of him leaving his boyfriend’s flat.

The back pages were better. I found a decent article in The Express about Southampton’s new manager, Brendan Holloway. It said he had a three-year contract that was worth over seven million pounds. It also mentioned that he had his own agent.

Football had changed a lot since I was last interested in it.

All of the papers seemed to be interested in the same main story though. A very famous British disc-jockey who had been accused of messing around with underage girls in his heyday. They had all crucified him. Photos outside his house, trying to doorstep his wife and teenage kids, and demanding a full investigation into what were basically unsubstantiated allegations.

He had been fired by the BBC without real proof, and was quoted as ‘Refuting all allegations, and standing by his family at this difficult time’.

That was about the time the penny dropped. Despite the fact it was still mid-morning, I celebrated with a large Jack Daniels.

‘No smoke without fire’ came to mind.

The other thing that came to mind was former Inspector Holloway boasting at the golf club about his wonderful son who had just been made manager of Southampton. And Brendan himself, though techincally blameless, I reckoned he must have known what happened.

Let’s see how his seven million salary looked after what I was about to unleash.

As promised, I rang Mark to let him know what had happened. Swearing him to secrecy, and not to mention anything to Joel. Because Joel thought he was the world authority on football, I felt sure he would blab to his mates about Brendan, and ruin my plans.

That Sunday, I drove to Danbury to visit Aunt Jean and my mum. I didn’t ring in advance or expect dinner, and I had no intention of trying to discuss anything that had been going on. Nobody could know anything until I had put my idea into operation. My real reason for the visit was to use Jean’s old typewriter. I didn’t have a printer at home, and no need to buy one. Besides, using my emails via laptop wasn’t an option, as that could be traced.

So a typewriter was ideal for my purpose.

Mum looked unsurprised when she answered the door. I told her I had promised to come and see Jean. “You had better let me go and spruce her up a bit. She won’t forgive me if I let you see her in the state she’s in”. The old house was looking in need of a good clean, as well as some serious redecoration. It was like going back in time walking in there. Twenty minutes later, mum came into the living room and handed me a cup of tea. “Here, take this up to her. I should tell you, her appearance might shock you”.

She was right about that. Jean’s hair was white, and her skin was yellow. She looked about a hundred years old, and the smell in the room was so sour it got me right in the throat.

“Darren love, thanks for coming to see me. How you doing? As you can see, I’m not doing so good”. I engaged in some chit-chat, mentioning that I had resigned from my job. I chose not to say anything about how long she had left to live. “I’m glad you left that place, love. You can do better for yourself than being an estate agent”. After I ran out of things to say, I casually brought up the old typewriter, hoping it was still around. “Yes, I’ve still got it. It’s in the hall cupboard. There’s paper too, and the ribbon should be alright. You can have it if you want”.

I told her to drink her tea, and I would say goodbye before I went home.

Typical of my mum, she never asked me why I was using Jean’s typewriter on the kitchen table. Though she had almost certainly guessed that would have been my main reason for showing up that day. When I had finished typing, I put the machine and paper back in the cupboard, and went up to say goodbye. But Jean was fast asleep. I kissed her on the forehead, for old time’s sake.

My mum was reading a book, sitting in the big old armchair. “It was nice of you to come and see her. I doubt she has much longer to go. Days, rather than weeks. I haven’t prepared anything for dinner, but I can make you a ham and tomato sandwich if you want one”. I declined the sandwich, telling her I had things to do. As I was leaving, I told her to keep a close eye on the TV news next week. She didn’t even ask me why.

In the car, I had the copies of the old police investigation, and the post-mortem report arranged by my mum, the second one. Adding my typed sheet, I stopped at Sammi’s shop on the way home. He had a photocopier at the back, and charged ten pence per copy. I did ten copies of everything, and bought ten large Manila envelopes as well. Back home, I made ten piles of the copies, and slid each one into an envelope. Then I wrote the names of the Sports Editors on each envelope, followed by the address of the newspaper it was going to.

The next day, I would drive into East London, and post them from one of the big Post Offices. They were so busy, nobody working there ever remembered anything, I was sure.

On my typed page, I had kept it short and sweet. But there was enough potential scandal to interest them.

No doubt about that.

I had the packets posted by just after eleven the next morning. I paid the extra for next-day delivery, and with nothing else to do I drove home and stopped at a supermarket on the way to stock up. I had a feeling I was going to be watching a lot of television from tomorrow, and didn’t want any reason to have to go out for the rest of the week.

Mark phoned that night, keen to chat about everything. I gave him the basic facts about what I was doing, and double-chekcked that he hadn’t said anything to Joel. He told me he was going to record all the news bulletins and sports reports on his bank of hard drives, so I would be able to revisit the moment when the Holloways were confronted with whatever the papers made of my anonymous allegations. Before he hung up, he gave me a warning.

“You better get your shit together, Darren. It won’t take them long to work out it must have been you trying to rake up the past. They will be at your front door, and trying to dig up any secrets from your background too”.

That was one time in my life that I was grateful for being such a dull bloke.

When you are expecting something exciting to happen, it gets hard to focus on anything else. I found myself imagining all sorts of stuff, and hoping for the best outcome, obviously. When Tuesday came, I rushed to the shop to buy all the newspapers, and had the 24-hour rolling news on the telly non-stop.

Nothing.

Nothing in the papers, nothing on the news. I rang Mark after drinking half a bottle of Jack Daniels that evening. I told him it had all been for nothing, and they weren’t interested. He was more positive. “It’s too early, mate. They will be checking the authenticity of the reports. They might even be approaching Southampton Football Club, requesting a reaction to a story being published tomorrow. Wait until Thursday, that’s when the shit will hit the fan. Southampton has a big game on Saturday. They are close to the relegation zone, that’s why Brendan was brought in. You know those news guys, they will love to tie in both stories at once. Saves airtime”.

One thing about the news in Britain is that the TV news picks up on anything in the papers. Then there are the local news channels, on the heels of the big boys like the BBC and ITN. Thursday morning at just after eight, I was watching the rolling news. Not much going on in Britain, but then, almost as an afterthought, they mentioned a story in The Sun. A football manager had been accused of involvement in an historic crime. The paperwork had been passed on to the police by The Sun, and they were waiting for a statement. The manager and club were not named, but twenty minutes later, the story was updated.

The female newsreader read her autocue with her voice trying to sound dramatic. ‘Brendan Holloway, the new manager of Southampton Football Club, has been named in a newspaper story concerning his father, a retired police officer. It concerns an accident thirty years ago, that the newspaper alleges was in fact a deliberate act. Because of that accident, and two subsequent deaths, Holloway went on to play for Chelsea and Brighton, as well as the England under-21 team. And he was recently appointed as Southampton manager, with a seven million pound contract’.

That was all. But it was a start.

By the time the main news came on at one, it was second after the war in Syria. The liberal Guardian newspaper was calling for an enquiry, and the case to be reopened, and there were telly crews outside the house of both Brendan and his dad. That was more like it. Brendan wasn’t home, so they badgered his young wife, before changing tack, and getting some local guy to pitch up at the Southampton training ground, where he refused to give a statement.

That made me think he knew.

They found former Sergeant Holloway at his golf club, and his face was a picture of guilt as they shouted the allegations at him in the car park while he was loading his clubs into his car. Mark rang. “Are you seeing this, Darren? They are on it large. Both of them are going to have to come up with something”.

I told him I was seeing it, and enjoying it too.

The six o’clock news was the best. Many people home from work, and more effort put into the report. Reporters had hit the headquarters of Surrey Police, and a flustered Assistant Chief Constable was making a statement on camera. He fluffed on about Holloway had been exonerated back then, and was now retired with the rank of Inspector. He denied any knowledge of a cover-up, and told them the Chief Constable at the time had died almost twenty years ago.

When pushed about the possibility of an enquiry, he stated that he would be happy to cooperate with any investigation, but that the Holloways should be given their privacy while that was decided. Not much chance of that.

Brendan finally faced the cameras outside the home ground of Southampton. He claimed to know nothing, and said he had been a boy when the incident happened, and all he knew was that his dad had helped some people after a bad car accident. The Chairman of the club was standing next to him, looking decidely uncomfortable.

There was more on the ITV News At Ten programme, with a football pundit roped in to talk about how Brendan had only got his youth team spot because Terry had been killed in the car accident. That was the sort of thing I wanted to hear. It wasn’t until after that when I got the first phone call, from The Sun newspaper. They had a reputation for tracking people down.

I was happy to give my story over the phone. Not that I let on I was involved in the revelations, just told them how I had never known my dad or brother, and had grown up missing them, with a mum who was heartbroken.

Naturally, I laid it on a bit.

My appearance in the newspaper the next day, minus a photo of course, generated calls from Leon and Mark, also John from the Estate Agency. Then a local TV crew knocked on my front door, and I let them in to do an interview as I sat on my sofa looking suitably sad. I made sure to get in the line that all I wanted was justice for my dad and brother.

Mum didn’t ring. Either she hadn’t seen anything about it, or more likely knew what I had found in the boxes.

That afternoon, Southampton played with their assistant manager in charge. They lost 3-0. Then there was some ‘Breaking News’ on the BBC just before five. Former Inspector Holloway had suffered a heart attack during a game of golf. He was in Intensive Care, and described as ‘Poorly’. I didn’t know whether or not to be happy about that. I would have liked him to suffer more.

At just after eight that night, the BBC News 24 reported that Brendan Holloway had parted company with Southampton Football Club, by mutual arrangement. Seemed like that Chairman hadn’t believed him either. By ten, the story was slipping down the schedule, and the fact that Brendan’s dad had died that evening only got a passing mention.

After all the mystery, the intrigue, psychic investigators, and private detectives, the end seemed to be something of an anti-climax. Brendan was on the football scrap heap, minus his seven million contract, and his dad was dead. Hopefully, my dad and Terry had now moved on to something or somewhere better. As for me, I had my notes. I thought I might write a book about it all.

Before that though, I was going to apply for a job. I fancied a career in London, in The Metropolitan Police.

I had a feeling I would be good at that.

The End.

My Bundle Of Joy: The Complete Story

This is all 44 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story
It is a long read, at 34,043 words.

You know how you start to notice that everyone around you has a baby or a toddler, and it suddenly occurs to you that you seem to be the only one who never got pregnant?

Well, that was me.

It wasn’t that we were trying, you understand. It was rather that we took no precautions, and presumed it would happen.

And then it didn’t.

Not long after I started to notice, my mum noticed too. “You don’t want to leave it too late, Angie love. Get some joy from them while you’re still young enough to make the most of it”. Oliver hadn’t mentioned it, so I spoke to him after dinner one night. Like he was about most things in life, he was casual. “If it happens, that’s great. If not, that’s great too”. Then he carried on watching the football.

I made an appointment with my doctor. She agreed with me that almost four years with no conception was unusual, to say the least. And I had turned thirty six weeks earlier, so she agreed to send me for tests. She also said that it might be an idea for Olly to have his sperm count tested too.

I wasn’t looking forward to that conversation.

That all took a while, and I have to admit that Olly was surprisingly good about taking the test. But the specialist smiled when we went to see him. “Nothing wrong with either of you, I’m happy to say. Just one of those things. I’m sure it will happen one day, just try to relax and not worry. Stress doesn’t help”. I looked across at Olly, who was displaying the textbook definition of someone who wasn’t worrying in the least.

Handshakes and an exchange of platitudes later, we were in the car driving home.

The specialist had been right of course. Not long after my next birthday, I missed a couple of periods, then had that ‘feeling’. I bought three pregnancy test kits from my local Boots, and they all came up ‘Pregnant’. I expected to feel overjoyed, but my first reaction was fear. My next reaction was to phone my parents, and then my brother. I would tell Olly when he got home from watching the match.

I had to wait for him to finish moaning about his team losing one-nil to a disputed penalty, and I followed him out to the kitchen and watched as he got a beer from the fridge. Then I placed the positive test kits on the table, laying them on a sheet of kitchen roll. He put the beer down, and smiled. “Really?”. When I nodded, he wrapped his arms around me, and I had this strange feeling that we were finally complete.

If you have been pregnant, you will be well aware of how it takes over your life. My brother was looking forward to having a niece or nephew, and my mum and dad were ecstatic at the thought of a grandchild to spoil. Olly was already suggesting names before we ate dinner, and suddenly it was the only thing any of us talked about.

Literally the only thing. All other life had stopped, frozen in time.

My colleagues at work squealed like piglets when I told them. Those who already had children began to offer serious advice, and Jan even started to tell me about how baby should sleep on its back. Then Caroline contradicted her, arguing in favour of putting a baby down on its stomach. They had soon forgotten all about me, and the debate continued between them until lunch time.

When I got home, I was amazed to discover that Olly had been shopping. He had bought all sorts of healthy stuff we would never normally eat, as well as a recipe book for expectant mothers. He said I should stop drinking wine immediately, and he would give up his beers to support me. We hadn’t even sat down to dinner before the phone calls started. Mum checking up on me, and Olly’s sister calling from Canada, actually screaming over the phone. “Oh if only mum had been alive, she would be over the moon”. With never knowing his father, and his mum having died before I met him, I felt Olly was missing out on that. So I let his sister ramble on.

That night, I had trouble geting off to sleep. But it was nothing to do with the baby.

Just a feeling of being overwhelmed. I was no longer Angela, the busy proof reader and occasional fun runner.

I was pregnant Angela, and that would take some getting used to.

Olly was driving me mad, right from the start. A man who used to have to be bribed with the promise of sex to run the dry-mop around the laminate flooring had become a clean-freak almost overnight. He was bleaching surfaces constantly, and even cleaning the loo every time one of us used it.

When our flat started to smell something like an operating theatre at the hospital, I had to sit him down and tell him to stop.

And I couldn’t win with the phone calls. My sister in law seemed to forget the time difference, waking me up one night just after I had dropped off into a sweet sleep. I had to tell her to check the fact that Vancouver was eight hours behind us, before ringing my mobile at one in the morning. Olly said I was sharp with her. Well, maybe I was. My mum rang me at work in the mornings to make sure I was feeling okay, then she rang me as soon as I got home from work to make sure I was still okay. If I ignored her call, she rang Olly on his phone, to make sure there was nothing wrong.

Luckily, my brother didn’t ring at all. The novelty soon wore off for him.

The doctor had referred me to the local hospital, and I had to go in for blood tests. They also went through the routine that I could expect; including scans, a chat with the midwife about healthy habits, exercise, antenatal classes, infections, and vaccinations. I got a ‘Maternity Record Book’ that I was supposed to keep near me at all times, and a surprisingly elderly midwife also spoke to me about anxiety, depression, hormone changes, and what she called ‘natural worries’.

I left the appointment with enough leaflets to paper a large wall, and the feeling that I had just jumped onto a rollercoaster ride that was going to last for the rest of my life.

On the way home on the bus, I suddenly realised the enormity of what was happening.

I was having a baby, and nothing would ever be the same again.

The weekend after that, Olly didn’t go to the home match for the first time since we had lived together. He seemed very serious, and said he wanted to talk about moving, as our flat might be perfect for us, but it was totally unsuitable for raising a child in.

He did have a point. When we bought our trendy canal-side flat three years earlier, it cost a small fortune, but we just presumed it would be our dream home. Converted from old warehouses, it had a small balcony overlooking the canal, large windows that let light flood in, and it wasn’t overlooked. We had a lift, an entryphone video system, and all the things we had wanted. Wood floors, two-person shower, separate kitchen with room for a big table, and our own car park space underground for Olly’s ancient Citroen Dyane. It was easy to walk to the shops, and a selection of buses ran down the main road nearby that enabled us to get to anywhere in the city.

But the main room was open-plan. The selling agent called it ‘New York Loft-Style Living’ in the brochure. That meant we spent most of our time in one huge room with a very high ceiling, which was sectioned off according to our requirements. A sofa that was bigger than our car dominated one area, in front of the fifty-five inch telly that Olly loved to watch his football on. Then we had our so-called office space, with two desks opposite each other for our laptops, a printer, and small filing drawers. There was no bedroom as such, just a built-in division of glass bricks in an L-shape. We had our king size bed and two shabby-chic wardrobes behind that.

Olly was right. Top floor, no outside space except a potentially dangerous canal path, and no separate room for a child to have as their bedroom. It might be alright as long as baby was in its cot, but it would be best to think about selling up and moving to a proper house sooner rather than later.

I made the mistake of mentioning it to my mum that Sunday night. Her reply made me turn and look at Olly, sure that there had been some collusion between them.

“Well for what you could get for that luxury flat, Angie, you could buy a house back here, and have a much smaller mortgage. In fact there is a three-bed detached for sale at the moment, only four doors down from here”. I told her I would think about it.

Like that was ever going to happen.

What followed was what I started to think of as ‘the quiet time’. I had a scan appointment to look forward to, which immediately started the debate with Olly about whether or not we wanted to know the sex of the baby, if it was obvious to the person doing the scanning. Olly couldn’t even contemplate not having a son. Someone to take to football, and buy tiny football kits for.

He was an unusual football fan, in many respects. Something of an intellectual, he looked like a nerd, and favoured a duffle-coat for attending the matches. He was in charge of all the non-fiction output for one of the most famous publishers in the country, and when he wasn’t going on about football, he usually had his head in a book. Or many books.

But he had grown up without a father, and I always believed his obsession with ‘his’ team from a young age had given him the feeling of belonging to something. He made no friends in the crowd, and didn’t socialise with any other supporters though. His being a fan was a very personal thing.

We finally agreed not to know, at least until the second scan. But I told him I thought it was just practical to know the sex these days, as people were sure to buy gifts based on gender, whether or not we wanted them or asked for them. And we would obviously be buying things for baby’s room in the new house. I also quizzed him on whether or not he would be disappointed if it turned out to be a girl. He just smiled. “Girls play football too, you know”.

Determined to never live close enough to my mum for her to be able to walk to our house, we started looking at the suburbs to the east, the opposite side to my parental home. Five minutes with our local estate agent left us reassured that he could sell our flat for the inflated asking price in the same day it went on the market. “I have a list of people wanting flats in that building, Mister Woodman. They will snatch your hand off to buy it, and no haggling”.

That meant we could find somewhere we liked the look of, knowing there would be little delay in selling. I didn’t want to end up having to rent while we looked, moving twice in the same year, so I told Olly to decide on an area, and we would choose a house there together.

Names came up next. I didn’t even have a bump showing, and everyone wanted to know what we were going to name what I still just called ‘It’, or ‘baby’. My parents had all sorts of crazy suggestions, ranging from the names of long-dead grandparents, through to some favoured by members of the Royal Family. Olly went all literary on me, suggesting names like Emile, for Zola, and Simone, after de Beauvoir.

I told him we should wait and see what sex it was, and maybe even wait until he or she was born, then see what inspired us. His mother had told him that he had been named Olver after the Swiss actor Oliver Tobias. She said she had a one-night stand with him back in the day, and thought he might be the father.

But she had put it about a bit at the time, and couldn’t be sure.

We got a good feeling in only the fourth house we looked at. It was one of those solid nineteen thirties houses, in a side street where they all looked the same. Bay windows, small garage, and a decent-sized garden at the back. Semi-detached, but even the third bedroom was a good size, as it was built over the garage. I didn’t like the small galley kitchen, but Olly was full of ideas about opening it up into the dining room, bi-fold doors onto the garden, and ending up with a nice open plan family room.

It was cheap, and cheap for a reason. The old lady who owned it had gone into a care home, and nothing much had been changed in the house since the fifties.

Work would be needed. New central heating for sure, and probably a rewiring job too. But it had marvellous parquet flooring throughout, and a stained glass sunburst in the window above the front door. We put in a cheeky offer, and were pleasantly surprised when it was accepted immediately.

Late that afternoon, we put our flat up for sale.

The person who bought our flat didn’t even come and look at it. In fact they didn’t even live in the country, and had bought it purely as a rental investment, so the agent told us. Full asking price, no haggling, and only awaiting legal stuff and a survey. That gave us a possible moving date of six to eight weeks, and as soon as he got home from work the next evening, Olly started stacking up all the books ready for packing.

My mum was less than delighted when I told her that we would be moving almost thirty miles from her, and ended the call earlier than usual, claiming to have to get dinner ready to serve. My comment that both her and dad had cars and could easily drive over to see us hadn’t gone down well. She had snapped back with what I suppose she considered to be a warning. “Wait until you are at your wit’s end with a baby, and need some help. It’s going to take me well over an hour to drive to that part of town”.

That night in bed, we both had something serious to talk about. Olly grinned. “Ladies first”. I wanted to make sure that he was okay about knowing the sex during the second scan. It had suddenly become important to me, though I had no real explanation as to why. He gave in so easily, I wondered what it was he wanted to say. For a split second, I had a terrible feeling he was going to say he was leaving me. That must have had something to do with the hormone changes I had been warned about.

But it was nothing so dramatic, though still reasonably serious.

He wanted to talk about marriage, and surnames. We had always thought marriage was unnecesary. If you love someone, and are committed to them, why the need for some socially-acceptable formalisation? Besides, we knew enough couples who had been divorced already, and national divorce rates were approaching fifty percent. I went back over that old ground in reply, and he nodded as I reminded him of everything we had said four or more years ago. Then he wanted to know what the baby’s surname would be, when it came time to register the birth. Would it be his, Woodman? That wasn’t his father’s name of course, but his mother’s maiden name.

I could tell from his expression and tone that this was important to him. I cast my mind ahead to arriving at school with a child that had a different surname to mine. My surname was Mackie, a legacy of my paternal grandfather originally coming from Scotland. I had few memories of him past a wizened-looking, rather scary man who had a hacking cough every time I ever saw him. Olly was leaning forward like a Heron about to take a fish. He obviously wanted an answer. I settled for the best I could come up with when I was ready to get some sleep. I agreed to hyphenate it, Mackie-Woodman.

It was obvious from the way he turned over and switched off the lamp that this hadn’t been the answer he had been hoping for.

Not long before the second scan, I started to notice a few changes. Some tenderness and fullness in my boobs, though I wasn’t sure if that was psychological. And even though I had not had anything like the morning sickness everyone told me to expect, I was getting hungrier and eating a lot more. The think I disliked most was an occasional bad taste in my mouth, and what felt like velvet covering my teeth. I started to take more calcium supplements, and stopped drinking so much fruit juice.

Then my hair started to get oily and lank. I was never that vain about my looks, in all honesty, but I had always liked my hair. Now it began to look as if I had dipped my head in the deep-fat fryer before leaving for work. And I convinced myself it was getting thinner too. I would end up as a bald mum with foul breath and velvety teeth, I had no doubt.

The cheerful woman doing the ultrasound scan was from Northern Ireland, judging by her accent. She turned the screen around so we could see, and beamed a dazzling smile.

“It’s a wee gurly”.

After a lot of arguments about what to take to the new house and what to recycle to charity shops, Olly decided we would take the lot, and sort it out later. He got some estimates from removal firms, and decided to splash the cash on one that came in and packed everything carefully into boxes. To be honest, that was a relief for me, as I was now getting to the stage of feeling unreasonably tired when I had done next to nothing.

When the paperwork started to come through regarding the sale and purchase, it was something of a revelation. Moving to a cheap house in the suburbs was going to make us comparatively rich. Don’t get me wrong, we were already lucky enough to not only cope well, but live a very comfortable life. But our mortgage was going to be less than half of what we were paying then, a lot less than half, once we used some of the crazy profit from how much our flat had increased in value.

With the move imminent, I was starting to feel a tightness in my clothes, and noticing the considerable bump appearing above my knickers. As well as the natural weight increase allowed for carrying an admittedly tiny baby at the time, I was eating as if the world as going to run out of food at any moment. And with Olly resisting the urge to complain about eating crap like doughnuts and pretzels, I was stuffing myself like somoene heading for a gastric bypass.

Leggings became my friend too.

Once I realised that skinny jeans and pencil skirts were no longer going to cut it, I went down the route of ‘comfortable’ flared skirts and maternity tights. That didn’t last long, and soon I was embracing cheap leggings like a single mum of four on a council estate in Manchester. And then my only maternity craving kicked in, when I least expected it. I thought it had arived too early, but my mind and my mouth both told me it was the perfect time.

Fish and chips. Something I hadn’t eaten for years, and certainly not since meeting Olly. Not only the fish and chips, but the huge gherkins and pickled onions that went with it. Then I covered the whole lot in salt, until it looked as if I had dropped my dinner at the beach. I could scarf the lot down like I was a refugee or something, and it wasn’t unknown for me to add a battered sausage to the order. I was sure our little girl was depriving me of fat and salt, and it was very easy to ignore Olly’s head-shakes of disapproval as he slowly ate a sensible salad.

I didn’t give a shit.

Of course, names came up. My mum was delighted at the prospect of a granddaughter, and knew enough that it would not be named after her. She tried the names of so many relatives on me, I asked if she was just reading them out of her address book. To be fair to Olly, he said he would leave it to me. But only after I rejected his suggestions based on female names in The Lord of The Rings. I wanted something short, and easy to call out. I mean, who do you hear shouting “Stop that, Philomena” in a supermarket? Unless you live in Chelsea or Weybridge, I suppose.

One morning, I woke up, and had the name in my head. Leah. You couldn’t really abbreviate it, and it was easy to say. Not that it was that rare, there were quite a few small Leahs around. But it seemed to me to be perfect. Olly actually liked it, even though he thought it didn’t go with the double-barrelled surname. “Leah Mackie-Woodman, does that work, Ang?”

I replied instantly, in the affirmative. “Works for me, Olly love”.

My mum loved it, Olly’s sister loved it. And my brother couldn’t pronounce it when he saw it typed on a text message.

When the men arrived to start packing up the stuff, they said we could go and leave them to it. But there was no way someone like Olly was going to let that happen. It took hours, and when we were finally following their huge truck into the suburbs, I decided it was time to give Olly the bad news, something I knew he was dreading.

“This Citroen has to go, Olly. It’s just too unreliable”.

I had two days off to cover the house move and had the weekend in between. Olly had taken the whole week off, with good intentions to sort things out. The moving men stacked most of the boxes in the garage, except for the kitchen stuff and some bits we needed left out. The main problem was the sofa. It had come up in the large lift in the flats with no problem, but when we got to the thirties house that morning, it wouldn’t fit through the front door. They said there was no point taking the door off, as it would still be too big.

After a lot of head scratching, Olly gave them an extra ten quid each to carry it around the side into the garden, and bring it in through the old French windows. But from the dining room, it was never going to make the turn in the hallway to get into the living room.

So there it stayed, for the time being.

Olly’s main concern was getting his huge telly inside in one piece. There was going to be a delay getting the Internet and satellite service connected, but once his giant screen was in pride of place at an angle in the front bay window, he was happy.

No doubt most of you will have moved house at some time in your lives, so you don’t need me to tell you how stressful it is. Luckily, Olly is a master of the mobile phone, and was arranging for people to come in and do things next week, even before the removal lorry had left. I had managed to put my parents off coming to see the house on day one, as I could never have coped with them fussing around too. To be honest, I was worn out by it all, even though I hadn’t carried so much as a side-lamp.

Starting back at work the following Tuesday, I had my first taste of proper commuting. Almost fifteen minutes to walk to the train station, then packed in like sardines for the ten stops into the city. At least I could walk to the office once I got there, and didn’t need to take a bus. Olly would have to do that though, and he had talked about getting a folding bike. As I looked around the crowded carriage, I wasn’t happy at the thought of having to tell him he had zero chance of getting a bike in there. And I was also very aware that I would soon be heavily pregnant, with little chance of getting a seat on the way to work.

When I got home that night, Olly ordered takeaway pizzas, and told me that he had agreed for an electrician to start on Thursday, and the new central heating to be installed the week after. We were going to have to leave them a key of course, as we would be at work.

I talked to him about shopping. We had been used to a selection of shops close to the flat, including a decent-sized supermarket, and some nice delicatessens. Now we faced a four mile drive to an industrial estate, where two huge supermarkets provided the only local opportunity for groceries. Alongside a Pets At Home, Toys-R-Us, one car dealership, a tyre and exhaust centre, and two large DIY chain shops.

He agreed that we should go shopping on Saturday, but I could see from his face that he was dreading the big-shop routine already.

As far as me being pregnant was concerned, I did finally have some bloody awful morning sickness that resulted in me not going into work. But part of me had to admit that I wasn’t enjoying the trains, and also not too happy about the fact that my feet seemed to be swelling over the sides of my shoes, and even the cheap leggings were starting to feel tight. How could I have fat feet? My boobs were definitely uncomfortable, and on more than one occasion I had told Olly to forget it, when he had turned over in bed with that glint in his eye.

Then all of a sudden, I got bigger, and I started to pee. A lot. And when I needed to go, I took no prisoners. It had to be there or then, or I would definitely piss my pants. I knew I was supposed to be happy, and feeling broody and motherly.

But all I could think of was piddling, and having stupid fat feet.

If Olly hated his commute to work, he didn’t complain. The work was done quickly on the house, and despite some considerable disruption with the installation of the wiring and new heating system, the worst was soon over. He had given up on the idea of the folding doors, as that involved major reconstruction, but new double-glazed doors and windows had been ordered, and everything was slowly starting to feel like home.

The glazing company claimed that they would replace all the windows and the back door in one working day. I thought that was a boast, but when six blokes turned up at seven one morning, I was amazed to discover that they had fitted the lot before I got home from work. Olly had taken the day off to be around, and he had nothing but praise for their efficiency. Just as well, as it had cost a mint.

And as I got bigger, I felt better. I started to embrace my bump, which we both now called Leah, and to even feel sexy again. That certainly pleased Olly. Mum and dad had been over twice, and I managed not to argue with her about her unwanted suggestions regarding decoration and furniture, The early insecurities were wearing off, and I really felt like a mum-to-be.

Even though I had started to walk like a duck.

The far too big sofa went up on Gumtree, and Olly warned the prospective buyers that they would need a big van and some strong hands to get it around the side entrance. Two dropped out when they realised we were not about to deliver it, but the third couple actually turned up, and bought it for fifty quid less than the asking price. That left us sitting on big cushions until the two smaller sofas arrived four days later. With the dining room empty, my dad came over to help Olly set up the dining table, which had been dismantled for the move. Once we had that back in play, I felt we were finally in a home, and not a warehouse.

I did feel gulty when Olly finally put his Citroen up for sale. But it was over thirty years old, and it had got to the stage that if it started first time, Olly would do a fist-pump with joy. The funny thing was that it attracted a lot of attention, and became involved in something of a bidding war. Olly was very pleased to tell me that confirmed its classic status. He had owned it for almost twelve years, and it sold for twice that he had paid for it.

We got a taxi to the Ford dealership next to the supermarkets. There was a bus, but it was a long walk to the trading estate from the bus stop. I liked a Focus that was an ex-demonstrator, top of the range model. Olly had to admit that the otherwise dull-looking grey car was indeed packed with features that his Citroen could only dream of. Heated windscreen, electric mirrors, reversing beeper, and air conditioning. And that was only the start. Built-in Satnav, amazing fuel economy, and a very quiet engine. I stood back and let him haggle with the salesman, and he was happy once the deal was done.

It would be sorted out for us to collect in a couple of days. On the way home, I asked Olly to add my name to the insurance. Although I had passed my test when I was eighteen, I hadn’t owned a car, and had no desire to ever drive Olly’s Citroen. But I was quite looking forward to running Leah around in the new Ford. When I told my parents, mum insisted on ordering a swish baby car seat that lifted out to become a carry-cot. Olly laughed at the news. “Bloody Ford Focus, and a baby seat in it too. Now I know it’s all over, Ang!”

We had both kissed goodbye to the last vestiges of youth, that was certain.

The decorators that Olly found online were surprising efficient. In the first three days, they stripped off all the old wallpaper using some fierce-looking steam machines, and filled in all the holes caused by the rewiring. When they came back the following week, they started to paint the rooms using the colours we had chosen, and did the lot in ten days. Two coats.

I was even getting used to having to stand on the train journey to work. People don’t give up seats to pregnant women, even those with big bumps. They look at their phones or newspapers, and pretend they can’t see you. One night I got home with a bad backache. Olly sometimes got back later than me, so I decided to go and have a hot bath. As I got undressed, I noticed something in my knickers.

Tiny spots of blood.

Despite the discovery in my knickers, I was surprisngly calm, and decided to enjoy that hot bath anyway. But when the water turned pink, I lost my nerve. I wanted to be sensible. I already knew that such bleeding wasn’t that unusual, so I rang the NHS non-emergency helpline as I sat wrapped in a towel. The young woman went through her prompt screens in a very sympathetic tone, and I managed to answer all her questions without raising my voice. But when a peek under the towel showed fresh bright red blood, I lost it. “It’s starting again! I’m bleeding onto the towel now!”

It was decided to send an emergency ambulance, so I quickly dragged on some clothes and sent Olly a text telling him to meet me at the hospital, but not to worry. How stupid was that? Like he wouldn’t worry reading that text.

The ambulance arrived in less than twenty minutes. The man and woman crew were very nice, but insisted on going over all the questions I had answered on the phone, as well as taking my blood pressure a couple of times before they got a small wheelchair to take me to the ambulance. They had left the blue lights flashing, and I got the first sight of the immediate neighbours when I saw them standing in their open doorway watching the proceedings.

We had met Mariusz, the retired widower who lived on the unattached side, but had never even seen the neighbours in the house attached to ours. They looked to be either Indian or Pakistani. The woman had a veil covering her face, and the man was wearing one of those little white cotton hats.

Unbelievably, I waved to them as I was wheeled up the ramp into the ambulance. Why did I do that?

Before the ambulance drove off, the girl got me to lie flat on the stretcher, then inserted a needle into the side of my wrist and attached a bag of fluid to the connector. “Just normal saline, nothing to worry about”. I was clutching my Maternity Book as if it was a first edition of the Gutenberg Bible. Nothing would have prised that out of my hand. The drive was sedate, no sense of urgency. The ambulance girl wrote all my details down onto something, and chatted amicably on the way. When she asked me if I had ever been to The General before, I suddenly panicked. “No, no. We are supposed to be going to Saint Mary’s. That’s my hospital. Look, it’s on my book”.

She patiently explained that they had to take me to the nearest hospital, unless I was full term, and in labour. The County General was easier to get to than driving into the city, and closer in terms of miles too. Then I got in a flap about Olly, who I knew full well would be heading across the city, and might even be at Saint Mary’s already. I asked if I could send him a text, and she nodded.

When they got me into the Casualty Department and spoke to the nurse in charge, she decided to send me to Maternity, to see a midwife. The ambulance people put me in a wheelchair, and a chirpy porter wheeled me along a maze of corridors until we got to where I could hear women yelling and swearing from behind a row of closed doors. An enormous West Indian midwife came up to me. “Okay, lets go in here and have a look at you, my darlin’”. And she had a good look. Someone else arrived with a monitor that was attached to my belly, and we could soon hear the fast beep of Leah’s heart. The first midwife smiled, perfect white teeth glinting in the bright lights. “Ah, baby’s doing okay, honey”.

They had bleeped a doctor to come and see me, but the next time the door opened, it was Olly who walked in. He looked ashen, and was visibly trembling. “Are you alright, Ang? The baby? Have we lost her?” I managed to calm him down, and listened as he told me how he had actually run all the way to Saint Mary’s from work, before reading my text. He had then stood in front of a taxi to make it stop for him, telling the driver his partner was ‘critically ill’ in County General.

Then I started to sob uncontrollably.

A very tired-looking female doctor turned up twenty minutes later. Reading through some notes, and inspecting the two monitors, she smiled. “We are sure everything is okay, but I am going to keep you in tonight, just to make certain. You must rest, try not to worry, and trust us to look afer you. You will be allowed home tomorrow lunchtime, I expect. I am suggesting lots of rest and feet up though. No heavy lifting or exertion, and avoid driving or standing for too long”. She breezed out of the room before I could ask her any questions.

But I had forgotten what I was going to ask her anyway.

Olly stayed for about an hour, until the big midwife returned and suggested he should leave me to try to sleep. Given all the shouting and toing-and froing outside the room, I doubted I would. Olly said he would phone my boss for me, and take time off tomorrow to come and collect me. I told him to get a taxi home, and not to try to work out what buses he might need.

The same doctor came to see me not long after I had hungrily demolished a breakfast they brought me. The monitors were taken off, and I had another ‘downstairs inspection’, before I was told I could go home as soon as Olly could collect me. I wondered how long that doctor had been awake, and whether or not she had got any sleep during the night. A porter was arranged to wheel me to the main reception, but I had to get dressed in the same clothes I was wearing when I arrived the previous evening. I just wanted a proper sleep, after a much needed shower or bath.

On the drive home, Olly spoke to me seriously, after first asking me not to interrupt. He talked about the possibility of me leaving my job. With the cheaper mortgage, it wasn’t as if we needed the money to get by, and last night had given him such a bad shock, he had been awake most of the night deciding to broach the idea of me becoming a stay at home mum. At least until Leah started school. When he had finished, he looked over at me anxiously, probably expecting me to reply with a flat out no.

If so, he was wrong.

I told him that I had been thinking too. We had already both taken some unscheduled time off, and there was a long way to go until I qualified for maternity leave. I agreed to call my boss that afternoon, and ask her whether or not I could work from home using my laptop. I confessed that I hated the train journey, and being squashed in the carriage with so many people. I couldn’t imagine how horrible it would be once the weather warmed up, and I was much bigger. By coincidence, Olly’s suggestion had provided me with a way out that I hadn’t wanted to talk to him about myself.

Work was not as accommodating as I had hoped. At first, she suggested I go in part-time. Just in the afternoons, to avoid the crush on the rush-hour trains. Olly shook his head at that, so I pressed the work from home idea. She said that just wasn’t suitable, and admitted that if she let me do it, she expected a few others to ask for the same concession. After leaving the call hanging in the air for a while, she dealt her last card. “Maybe you should rethink if this job is something you really want to do, Angela? Why not take a week off, and let me know whether or not you want to come back?”

It had been on speaker, and as soon as I hung up, Olly shook his head. “No way. Just ring her back next week, and tell her you’re resigning. Once Leah goes to school in five years or so, there might be other things you want to do. We can manage perfectly well on what I earn. In fact, we are better off than we were living in the flat, even without your salary”. I nodded, and agreed to think about it.

Becoming a pregnant housewife was a big change, and not something I had ever considered.

I have to confess that ringing my boss and hearing her reaction was very gratifying. She had obviously expected me to roll over and accept her terms, but when I said I would confirm my resignation by email, she appeared to be stumped for a reply. After another pointless attempt to get me to come in from midday to five, she said she would work out any oustanding annual leave, and contact the HR department about any pay that was due, and my pension entitlements.

I would like to add that she wished me well, and asked me to reconsider. But she didn’t.

I wasn’t going to count on much of a reference from her in the future.

Olly threw himself into making sure that I didn’t do anything remotely strenuous. Without even asking me, he employed a local company to send someone in to clean the house. Four hours on Mondays, and two hours on Friday afternoons. It was good to see him being in control for once, to be frank. He had long left almost everything to me, even the bills and paperwork.

The cleaner’s name was Rosa, and she was from Poland, like Mariusz next door. There was quite a large Polish community in the area, as we had soon discovered.

When she found out that I had quit my job, my mum seemed to see that as a signal that she could come over more often. Every time she arrived, she had bagfuls of things. Clothes for Leah, groceries that I didn’t need, as well as gadgets like a baby monitor and a thing that hung over the cot side to play lullabies. I didn’t mind those visits as much as I thought I would. Being at home all day had been fine at first, but only seeing Rosa for a few hours left me devoid of company until Olly got home. I had started to watch too much daytime telly, and stuff myself with unhealthy snacks.

Although I had never kept in touch with most of my friends from my teens, even those few I saw now and again didn’t fancy the drag out to the suburbs to visit. Most of them seemed to be waiting for the birth, when they could show up wth a suitable gift, cuddle the baby for a while, then think of a reason why they had to leave. Mum wanted to arrange a baby shower, but I told her not to bother.

There was every likelihood we would be the only ones there.

By the time I got to thirty-five weeks, Olly had built the cot from a flatpack, and my baby bag was packed and ready by the door. There was a stock of newborn nappies in the second bedroom, as well as a pile of baby clothes. Olly had become an expert shopper in just a couple of months, refusing to hear about me accompanying him, even when I told him that there was only so much rest a person could have.

I was wearing bigger bras, and a size larger shoes. And I was still peeing at an Olympic Gold Medal level.

Some occasional sharp pains had scared me enough to contact the midwife at Saint Mary’s. She rang me back and reassured me that everything was normal, and told me I would know the difference when I was in labour. I told her I couldn’t feel Leah moving around that much, and she glossed over that too. It seemed that whenever I had any doubts or fears, I ended up feeling like a panicky time-waster.

I avoided asking my mum anything, as she would launch into a monologue about how she had me and my brother as easy as shelling peas. I doubted that of course, and knew that she thought she was sparing me the worst in case it upset me.

Olly and I had a talk about not calling an ambulance when I thought I was in labour. I was scared they might take me to County General again, and though everyone had been lovely there, I wanted to stick with my first choice. He said I should ring him first, then ring a taxi. No point him commuting home to take me in the car, unless it happened while he was at home of course.

But when it happened, he wasn’t at home.

My thirty-ninth week got off to an unremarkable start. I had noticed a lot more movement, and a change in position of the bump. It wasn’t anything too drastic, but enough to make me notice the difference. Indigestion had got me up during the night, as well as two separate trips to the toilet needing to pee. Another lazy day followed, spent chatting to Rosa as she did my housework, me flopped on the sofa in front of the telly.

It was remarkable how quickly I had lost any feelings of guilt about another woman being paid to clean for me.

I must have dropped off watching some nonsense afternoon film, when I woke up feeling very thirsty. As I reached into a kitchen cupboard for a drinking glass, my waters broke with a gushing sound. It made me jump, and I dropped the glass onto the worktop. With my leggings and socks saturated, I felt like that time I had been paddling in the sea, and an unexpected wave had soaked me from the waist down. Pushing the pieces of glass away from the edge so they didn’t fall under my feet, I started to peel off my clothes right there, not wanting to drip everywhere on the way upstairs.

The main sensation was one of complete calm. It was happening, and I was ready for it.

After dumping the wet clothing on the floor, I walked slowly upstairs to have a wash, and put on a change of clothes. Still thirsty, I forgot about that for the time being, and rang the hospital. As always, they were completely unimpressed, telling me it could be a very long time yet. But as my waters had gone, they suggested I should come in and be checked.

The guy in the taxi firm was very efficient. “Ten minutes, love. He will sound his horn”. I scrolled down to dial Olly, and got a massive cramping pain across my lower abdomen that made me gasp. They had been right when they said I would know the difference. All the instructions came to mind, and I knew I had to time it. I checked the time on my phone, and started to walk to the door. In my head, I was doing my checks. Hospital bag. Yes. Maternity Book inside bag. Yes. Keys to lock the door. Yes. I hadn’t bothered to turn off the telly, that was the least of my worries.

I was standing behind the front door like someone waiting for a train on a platform, just in case I missed the taxi driver’s sounding of his horn. Then it came again, hard enough to make me bend double, and have to rest against the door to stop sinking all the way to the mat. A voice in my head yelled to me. ‘Too soon!’ Luckily, the taxi turned up just as I had recovered sufficiently to stand up. Blowing the air out of my cheeks, I went out and locked the door behind me.

As I walked to the car, the driver jumped out and ran over to grab my bag. “You okay, lady? Is the baby coming?” He spoke English with an accent that I took to be from the Middle East, judging by his physical appearance. I managed a weak smile, and told him he could relax. It was my first. I didn’t so much as sit in the back, as fall into it. I felt more like an Elephant Seal than a human, as I struggled to right myself. Unlike most cabbies of my experience, he didn’t tell me his life story, or say much at all. But he did say the same thing at least three times, perhaps four. “You go to Saint Mary’s, yes? In the city, yes?

After he had asked me the third time, I got a searing pain in my crotch, and shouted out loud. It made him jump, and he almost didn’t stop at a red light. I could see his eyes in the rear-view mirror, checking me out. He looked worried. Then I made the connection of a worried man, and me having a baby.

I had forgotten to ring Olly.

Pulling my phone from the handbag, I dialled his number. But it was answered by one of the juniors, who told me he was in the afternoon meeting. I asked them to go and interrupt it, and tell them Olly was about to be a father, if they tried to stop him.

When the taxi pulled into an ambulance space outside the hospital, I paid the driver and told him to keep the change. He handed me my bag after I struggled out, then wished me good luck.

It was a toss-up as to who was most relieved. Me for arriving at the hospital, or him for getting me out of his cab.

As I went up in the lift to the Maternity Department, I smiled to myself. The next time I was in this lift, I would have Leah with me, and be starting a whole new life.

The midwife who took me into a room had a strong Irish accent, bright red hair, and those red cheeks you see on people who work outside, or live on farms. Her accent was very strong, but I could understand her well enough. But like most of her colleagues, she was unimpressed, and showed zero sense of urgency. I presumed student midwives must have had a training module called ‘Never act impressed’.

I hadn’t had any pains since that one in the taxi, and I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved, or worried. I was soon undressed and in a gown, and following a brief ‘look’, she ran through a few questions before confirming my preference for a natural birth.

Then she disappeared.

The next pain came five minutes later, and caused me to shout out a swear-word that I don’t think I had ever used before. Then I was grabbing the call-button, and pressing it like mad. Red cheeks came in with a colleague who was wheeling a tall cylinder on a trolley. They showed me how to suck in the gas and air through a black rubber mask, and before too long I felt as if I had drunk a few gin and tonics. As they put a needle into my wrist, I had to suppress a giggle that came from nowhere. Then red cheeks told me her name was Moira, and talked about first babies, long labour, and how I might yet be sent home.

It hadn’t occured to me I might be sent home, and I thought I should make Olly aware of that. But as I was thinking that, he came into the room. They had made him put a plastic apron on over his work suit, and given him a blue hat to wear over his floppy hair. I couldn’t help myself, and started to laugh at him. Moira grinned, and winked at Olly. “Too much gas and air, daddy”. I wondered why she had called him daddy, but was soon to discover that she called me mummy, and would refer to us both like that throughout. I suppose it saved her having to remember a lot of names in the course of her shift.

Olly told me had had sent a text to my parents, and to my brother. He had also told them not to come to the hospital, as he wasn’t sure they would be allowed in anyway. Besides, there was nowhere to park anywhere in the area, as it was in the centre of the city. Then he held my hand, leaned over the bed, and kissed me. Moira spoke to him, explaining most of what she had told me, including the fact that I might be too early to deliver that afternoon.

Then she disappeared again.

When the next pain came, I grabbed the mask and sucked on it like an astronaut running out of air in a space film. I took in so much of the gas Olly thought I was unconscious, and pressed the button. A slim black nurse arrived, her hair braided and pulled back so tight, it made her face look surprised. She told Olly it was normal, and pointed to the fact that I had come round before she had got to the room. Once again, I was left feeling as if I was wasting everybody’s time.

Time seems to stand still in situations like that. I lay there waiting for the next cramping pain, and it felt like two hours before it happened, even though it was only twelve minutes. Moira came back in and had a good feel of my baby bump, pushing and squeezing like she was trying to burst an enormous spot. A quick inspection between my legs preceded another pain strong enough to make me grab the gas mask. Moira grinned. “I don’t think you’ll be going home, mummy. Baby’s in the right position. She’s ready to see the world tonight”.

A monitor was attached to my belly, and it started to bleep reassuringly. I was told to keep calm between the contractions, and use the gas as much as I wanted. Olly’s phone kept going off, and he dismissed two calls from my mum, and one from his sister in Canada.

Then he grabbed my hand and gave me his best serious look.

“It’s happening, Ang”.

People often use the expression ‘That was the longest day of my life’. I used to smile at that, and say that every day only has twenty-four hours in it. But by seven-thirty that evening, I knew what they meant.

Almost five hours had felt more like thirty-five. And the midwives were quick to let me know I could be in labour for another five hours, if not more. The pains came and went, and the gas stopped helping it. Olly looked as if he was going to fall asleep, jolted out of his dozing by the occasional scream from me. I told him to go out and get something to eat, walk around in the fresh air. But he was determined to stay.

And I had to get used to some new faces, once the night duty staff arrived. No longer red-cheeked Moira, or the girl with the surpised look on her face. It was now Tanya, a stunningly attractive young woman who looked more like she should be on the cover of a fashion magazine. The most unlikely midwife I had ever seen.

Tanya had a businesslike manner, and wasn’t about to take any nonsense from me. She was local too, and listening to her accent was like hearing myself talk. When she didn’t come to check on me, Elizabetta did. Short, dumpy, and Filipino, with a big smile and caring nature.

She told me she had three children. I told her I just wanted to have this one.

By eleven that night, I was starting to panic. How long could this take? Surely Leah should be out by now? The pains got so bad, I felt like I had a bowling ball stuck between my legs. I tried getting on all fours, and even got Olly to help me walk around and kneel by the side of the bed. Nothing seemed to help. Leah was happy where she was.

The noise of the screaming and grunting was getting on my nerves too. I was quite shocked when I realised it was me making it.

Olly was getting distressed to see me in such a state, and pressed the buzzer. Tanya listened to him rambling on about my intense pain, and then left the room. She came back with an Indian doctor who was wearing surgical scrubs, and she asked me if I wanted stronger pain relief introduced through an epidural needle in my back. I had been determined not to have that, but felt so exhausted, I just nodded.

When that was done, I couldn’t feel anything below my waist, and became worried I might not know when Leah finally came out. Then I actually went to sleep.

I had no idea how long I had been sleeping, when a strange noise woke me up. It was coming from one of the two monitors attached to me, and I didn’t like the sound of it. As if to confirm my suspicions, Tanya suddenly appeared, looking serious, but her make-up still perfect.

She ignored my panicky questions about what was wrong, then pressed the nurse call button. Olly still looked drowsy, but the urgency around me had made him recover his wits quickly. Elizabetta appeared, and exchanged a nod from the doorway with Tanya. Moments later, the Indian doctor came into the room, and had that same look on her face. I know I was asking all sorts of questions, but if anyone actually answered me, I don’t remember what they said.

The three of them began to rummage around between my legs like a team of mechanics trying to fix a car that wouldn’t start. I only heard bits of hushed conversations.
“Emergency section?”
“Not sure there’s a theatre free”.
“We could do it here”.
“Get the cord off her neck”.
“I’m going to try vacuum”.

With each snippet I heard, I fired a question back. But it was as if I wasn’t in the room.

Only the back of the doctor was visible as I saw her standing in the doorway talking to someone. Then a male doctor appeared, fully gowned up, and holding something that resembled a plumber’s plunger attached to a grease gun. He looked more like he had been disturbed whilst unblocking a toilet, than someone who should be in a Maternity Department delivery room. They all hunkered down between my legs again, and I heard a pumping sound of air, like when you pump up your tyres on a bike.

Moments later, Tanya stood up straight, holding a baby that was covered in gunk, and its skin a funny grey colour. Olly started crying, so I did too.

There she was, my little girl.

Some of the reading I had done told me what was going to happen next. Leah would be handed to me, put to my breast to suckle, and that would help expel the placenta naturally. Through watery eyes, I felt myself smiling, and opened my arms, reaching out to receive her, just as I had imagined I would.

But that didn’t happen.

What did happen was that a worried-looking Tanya walked away into the corner of the room, followed by both doctors. They placed Leah inside a plastic box that was on a trolley, and then turned their backs to me as they started to do stuff. Elizabetta came and held my hand. “Just checking the little one, dear. You will hold her soon”. Despite her reassuring smile, I sensed she wasn’t telling me everything.

Whe Tanya came over to connect a drip to the needle in my arm, she managed a grin that was completely unconvincing. I could hear the sound of air rushing fast, and knew they were giving Leah oxygen. Then Tanya stuck a needle in my thigh, and said, “Just something to help you expel the placenta, Angela”. I asked her what was going on with Leah, and she glossed over that. “The doctors are just checking her over. Won’t be long. I am going to give you a few stitches down below before the anaesthetic wears off, okay?”

It seemed to take forever until they had stopped fiddling around in the corner, though it might have only been ten minutes, for all I knew. Olly started to feel dizzy, and said he had to go outside for a while. The poor man hadn’t had anything to eat since yesterday’s lunch, and only one bottle of water to drink since he had arrived. He checked his phone. “It’s almost three forty-five, I won’t text your parents or my sister just yet, far too early in the morning”.

When Elizabetta brought Leah to me, cleaned up a little, and wrapped in something soft, she looked relieved. “Here she is, your bundle of joy. Be happy, mama”.

That was the moment that everyone talked about. That strange rush of emotion when I suddenly felt undying love for that funny-looking baby in my arms. I ignored the strange shape of her head, which looked like the hats worn by garden gnomes. I ignored her screwed up face, sparse hair, and the mucky white stuff still stuck around her tiny neck. I loved her more than I ever thought it possible to love anything. I would have willingly jumped to my death from the roof of that hospital if it meant she would be alright.

Tanya came over with a small hat that she placed on Leah’s head. “Dont worry about the shape of her head, Angela. That was caused by the vacuum device, and it will go back to normal soon. Get her on your skin, and let her feel your heartbeat”. I pulled up the gown and pressed her to my breast, but she didn’t seem to want to suckle. She was just lying there, tiny green eyes not focusing on anything. In case Tanya decided to disappear, I asked her my questions while I could still think of them. What had they been doing in the corner? Why wasn’t Leah crying? Could someone go and find Olly so he can see his daughter?

“The umbilical cord was tight around her neck, Angela. Don’t worry, that’s not at all unusual. But we gave her some oxygen to help with her breathing, and as you can see, her colour is getting better already. As for crying, some babies just don’t cry. I should know, shouldn’t I?” I didn’t believe her about the crying, but wasn’t in the mood to argue. I couldn’t stop looking at Leah, and finding it hard to believe she had just come out from inside of me.

Olly came back, still crying. Lack of sleep and food had made him more emotional than ever, and when I told him to hold his daughter, he cried even more. Not bad, for a man who had never said he wanted children. They fussed around me some more, and Elizabetta took away a bowl containing the placenta. Then they cleared up all the swabs and dressings, before leaving us alone with Leah.

I stared lovingly at my baby, watching every twitch, and the slight movement of her head.

But I so wanted her to cry.

A different midwife came to see me after the morning shift came on duty. She talked to me about breastfeeding, which I wanted to do, and how a health visitor would come and make regular checks on Leah for a few days. She said I could go home that afternoon, and then asked me if I had any questions.

I couldn’t think of anything, it was as if my mind had gone blank.

Olly looked awful, so I told him to go home by taxi and get some sleep. I would ring him when he could come and collect us in the car.

Us. It felt funny to say that. Before Leah, ‘Us’ had only meant me and Olly.

Before the midwife left me to it, I finally managed to get Leah to feed. The feeling was both weird, and fantastic at the same time. She was hungry too. Although she still hadn’t made any noise remotely resembling crying, she did make some gurgling sounds that reassured me that at least her vocal chords were working. I had told Olly to ring everyone and ask them not to visit the house until the next day, at the earliest.

There had never been a time in my life when I had felt so tired.

Being alone with my little girl mainly made me anxious. What should I be doing? I spoke to her, kissed her and cuddled her, and didn’t let on to her that my belly and my lady bits were still hurting quite a bit. Once the anaesthetic had worn off totally, everything below my hips felt as if I had skidded down a tarmac road naked. Not quite enough for agony, but far more than sore. I hadn’t asked for anymore painkilers, as I didn’t want to ingest any more medicine than absolutely necessary while I was breastfeeding.

By the time I was allowed home and Olly was there with the carry-cot, I had started to feel like a mum. Millions of women did this every day, I kept telling myself. I had to stop over-thinking everything, and making such a big deal of it. We waited in the main reception while Olly went to get the car from where he had parked on a meter.

The cot fitted onto the car seat base in one slick movement, and he looked at me with such a look of pride on his face, you would think he had just constructed the Forth Bridge. I had been walking like John Wayne after a long ride on his cowboy horse, and it was a relief to flop into the seat.

As the car headed off into the early rush-hour traffic, I had a wobble. This was it. We were going home with a tiny baby, and it was all up to us now.

For the rest of our lives.

To give him full credit, Olly had done wonders while he had been at home. I doubted he had slept at all, as he had tidied up, prepared a basic meal for later, sorted out everything in Leah’s room, and had the nappies and wipes all ready downstairs. The machine for expressing my milk was there too, along with the bottles all sterilised, in case I wanted to use them. I thanked, him and told him I was going to try to stick with breast feeding. Then as if to prove a point, I gave Leah a feed while he watched. At least one of us would get some sleep later that night.

With Leah asleep next to us in her carry-cot, we sat and ate together. Olly said he had sorted out the baby alarm, and also the vibrating alarm that would wake me when I needed to feed her. He said he would watch her after dinner while I had a bath. But there was no way I was going to try to sit in a bath, and just stood there with one hand against the wall using the shower attachment. When I came down, Olly was trying to amuse Leah with a stuffed toy that had bells attached. But she wasn’t taking any notice. I suggested he wait until she was just a little bit older, and he laughed, saying he felt silly.

That was such a happy night, that first night at home.

For most of the night, I had stayed awake. Every time I felt my eyes closing, I jumped, trying to wake myself up. The baby monitor was making no noise, and there had been no crying. Olly was dead to the world, but I didn’t need the vibrating pad under my pillow to wake me up.

I went into Leah’s room more times than I can remember now. If she was awake, I sat in the nursing chair and fed her. If she was asleep, I sat staring at her, wondering if she was alright.

When Olly got up to get ready for work, I had just gone to sleep. But I dragged myself up and went to check on Leah. Olly could have probably got away with taking the day off, but they had been very understanding, and he didn’t want to take advantage. He made me a coffee and brought it up to me, tactfully not asking me if I was going to be alright on my own that day.

Not that I had much chance to be alone. Mum and dad turned up just after nine, with my brother in tow. They had made him take the day off to see his niece, and he grinned as I opened the door. “Where is she then?” Mum was carrying two huge balloons, one with ‘Baby Leah’ printed on it, and the other in the shape of a pink unicorn. Dad handed me a bouquet of pink roses, and they both brushed past me in their eagerness to see their granddaughter.

My brother looked over their shoulders, and one glance was enough. He sat on the sofa and said “Tea and toast would be nice, sis”. I told him he knew where the kitchen was.

Mum was already fixating on the shape of Leah’s head, and she was multi-tasking as she told dad to find a vase for the flowers in the same breath. I kept my temper as I watched mum examining my baby as if she was a pedigree piglet she was thinking of buying.

“Green eyes. That must come from Olly’s family. Nobody on our side ever had green eyes.
Does that mean she will have ginger hair? I hope not.
Mind you, she hasn’t got much hair to speak of at the moment anyway.
Does she feed alright?
Did she keep you awake all night? You look terrible.
Why don’t you get some sleep while we are here? I will look after her.
How long before her head looks normal?”.

Her words were tumbling out like the sound of a machine gun, leaving no pause for me to answer. I just sat on the sofa and let her get on with it. Then the smoke alarm went off, because Ronnie had burned the toast. Dad put his arm around me as Ronnie flapped a tea-towel at the ceiling.

At least my dad understood.

It got to almost one in the afternoon, and they showed no sign of leaving. I decided to take executive action, and told them I was tired, so could they go and let me rest. Mum looked very miffed, and pushed her lips together in an expression I knew all too well. But Ronnie was pleased, and took my words to mean he could leave immediately. He was on his feet in seconds, reaching for the car keys.

They managed to drag out the departure for another twenty minutes, Ronnie standing by the front door jiggling the keys as mum made her last checks and asked her last questions. I took Leah up to her room and fed her, stretching out in the new nursing chair, cuddling her close. I hated appearing to be unkind to my family, but if I didn’t get some rest, I would be good for nothing.

I should have known I would go to sleep, and of course I did. It must have been some kind of instinct that stopped me dropping Leah, because when I heard Olly close the front door I was still holding her tight. He had got off early, but I had still been asleep for almost three hours. I thought I should feed Leah again, and Olly sat on the floor of the room watching me, listening to my story of the family visit. He asked if it was alright to call his sister now, and she would be busting to hear the news. I had forgotten about her, and felt guilty that it was all about me, and my family.

I could her her screams of pleasure as Olly told her the news.

The next morning, Rosa arrived at the same time as the health visitor. She got on with tidying and cleaning after a brief look at Leah. “I hold her later, yes?”

Doreen was a smart looking nurse who told me she was originally from Antigua. She gave Leah a detailed once-over, and asked me quite a few questions about how I was feeling, whether I was tired, and how my moods were. She was pleased to hear that Leah was feeding okay from the breast, but suggested that I express some milk later, so that Olly could do some night feeding and I got some sleep. When she measured Leah’s head, I asked her how long it might retain the obvious cone shape.

“Should only be a few days, darlin’. Though some stay like that for a few weeks. This don’t look so bad”. While I had her attention, I asked her why Leah hadn’t cried to be fed. That seemed to interest her. “No crying at all? Not for soiled nappies, or feeding? Not even to be picked up?” I shook my head, and asked her if I should be concerned. She gave me a reassuring smile, and held my hand briefly. “That crying should come soon. Might just be the fact that she had a hard time coming into this world. I will be around to check on you for the next few days, and you can let me know when she has cried”.

When she left, Rosa appeared, excited to hold the baby. She didn’t have any children, but was hoping to once she went back to Poland to get married. She spoke to Leah in Polish, and sang her a little song. Then she handed her back, asking “Why her head like that?” I told her about the vacuum delivery, and she went over to her bag in the hallway, returning with a small box. “This is for her. Good protection”. Inside was a tiny silver cross, on a chain. Olly and I were not religious, but I was touched by this kind gift from someone who was just paid to do my housework.

Mum phoned twice that afternoon. Once to ask about the shape of Leah’s head, and the second time to tell me her friend Barbara knew a woman whose baby had been born with the same shaped head, and was fine after less than a week. I imagined her and Barbara having a good gossip about Leah’s head, but I didn’t let it get to me. She was only trying to do her best to make me feel alright about it. One thing I soon found out was that everyone knows someone who had either a worse time than you, or had some advice about things you hadn’t even asked them about.

After Olly got in that evening, he said he would go back out in the car and get a Chinese takeaway. I had completely forgotten about preparing any dinner, probably because I had stuffed myself with biscuits and cake all afternoon. Or I was already suffering from what my mum called ‘baby brain’. Over dinner, I asked him how it had gone at work. I was very aware that Leah had fast become the only topic of conversation, and I didn’t want that to change our previous relationship. Olly thought that doing the bottle feed at night was a good thing, and said he would go to bed early to make sure he was up and about in time for it. But when the vibrating alarm went off, I stayed awake anyway. Might just as well have let him sleep, and fed her myself.

Doreen’s visit the next day was brief. She was pleased to hear that Olly had done a feed, and wanted to know if we had heard her crying yet. I shook my head, and told her that she made small gurgling noises, but still had not cried. Then Doreen took Leah and checked her hearing. She turned in response to noises made either side of her head, and Doreen wrote something down on the record sheet. Then she checked her eye movement, and wrote something else down. I asked her if it was all normal, and she smiled and nodded. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to believe her.

She had only been gone for thirty seconds, when I felt an overwhelming need to start crying.

When the screaming came over the baby intercom, it took me a moment to come round, and realise it was Leah. I was out of bed in a flash, overwhelmed by a feeling of joy that my baby was finally crying. She shouldn’t have needed a feed yet, so I checked her nappy, which was dry. Holding her close, the noise was incredible. Her face was red, and her back arched in a shape like a banana. I moved her round into the feeding position, but she would not take my nipple, no matter how many times I tried.

And no amount of cuddling or rocking would console her, as the screams continued to increase in intensity.

Eventually, Olly could stand it no longer, and walked into the room, bleary eyed. He was smiling though, as just like me, he was overjoyed that she was crying. He reached out to take her, holding her high up against his shoulder, and patting her back gently as he walked in small circles. He asked the obvious. Was her nappy wet? Did she need a feed? I could hardly hear him above the noise. It didn’t seem possible that such a tiny baby could generate that volume. After a while, Olly furrowed his brow, and gave me a serious look.

“Should she be stiff like this? She is rigid.”

I was so tired, I couldn’t think straight. And I still had a lot of pain down below, as well as occasional cramps as my insides were shrinking. I wanted to go back to bed and sleep. It didn’t hurt once I was asleep. And as much as I loved to hear her cry, it had gone on too long, and was uncontollable. Then Olly made a decision.

“Get dressed, Ang. I think we should take her in”.

Alhough I had visions of being thought of as a panicky time-waster again, I knew Olly had made up his mind. We both threw on some casual clothes, wrapped up the still-screaming Leah, and headed out into the quiet night, probably waking up half the street as we struggled to get her into the car seat. No time to brush my hair, or my teeth. I felt dirty and horrible as we headed for the hospital.

The Casualty Department staff took it all very seriously, no doubt prompted in part by the ear-splitting noise of my baby’s screaming. We were taken through to a children’s area, and told a paediatric doctor had been called down as a matter of urgency. A tiny young woman appeared, dressed in green scrubs that looked too big. She must have been well under five feet tall, and had the body size of a child. But she seemed to know her stuff, and there were soon some nurses around Leah, later joined by another doctor who looked as if he had just been woken up. We sat on the hard plastic chairs in the corner and watched as they did tests, and attached monitors.

One of the nurses appeared to be in charge, and every now and then would turn to me with a question. Has Leah had a rash? Has she been taking milk? How long as she been crying? How long as she been arching her back? I gave her my best estimates, and then sat worrying about whether or not we should have brought her in sooner.

The crying suddenly stopped.

The tiny female doctor turned and smiled. “We have given her some rectal medication to calm her down. She will relax now”. They carried on working on whatever they were doing for another few minutes, and then they all left, except the tired-looking male doctor. He came over and stood in front of us.

“We want to keep an eye on Leah for a couple of hours. No need to admit her to a ward, but I want to see her reaction when the sedation wears off. This may have something to do with the difficult birth. I am not considering meningitis, or anything sinister”. I should have been relieved, but my first thought was to kick myself for not thinking anything like he had mentioned. Olly thanked him, and walked over to look at Leah.

I was feeling achey and sore, so stayed sitting. Yearning for sleep.

While Leah was calm, I managed to feed her. The doctor came back when it was already light outside. “You can take her home now. It might have been that she was too hot, as we can’t see anything that concerns us right now. She has taken a feed you say? Good. Keep an eye on her, and get some rest. If you are still worried later on, perhaps take her to see your family doctor”.

There was no chance Olly was going to go into work that day. As soon as it was a reasonable time to ring anyone, he phoned his boss to tell her about what had happened, and agreed to take the day as holiday. Leah had gone to sleep in the car on the way back, and I decided to break my own rules by taking her into bed with us that morning.

After that scare, things calmed down, and I got into a routine as soon as I was no longer feeling the pain. I had told Doreen about the hospital trip, and she tried to reassure me not to worry too much. Then she was more or less finished with her checks, but gave me a number to call if I thought I needed a visit. Remembering what the doctor had said about seeing a GP, I decided to change doctors. Up to that point I had stayed with the one in the city, but that was no longer going to be practical, having to take Leah with me everywhere.

I found one about fifteen minutes walk from us, and they said they would register us if I went in. The place was packed out with people waiting to see doctors when I arrived, but an elderly receptionist was happy enough to get us registered. Olly was going to stay with his old one, as he was in the city most days anyway. I made an appointment for having myself checked over, and they offered me one seven days later.

Trying to get some order into my day was very difficult at first. Leah had no more screaming fits, but she had stopped crying at all, and that preyed on my mind. At least she was feeding, and sleeping. That allowed me some rest between feeds, and I stopped Olly getting up to bottle feed, so he could go to work feeling fresh. My Mum had been miffed at my asking her to leave, so to build bridges there, we suggested that we visit them every Sunday. At least that way we could decide what time to leave, and not have any showdowns.

The first Sunday visit went well. Mum had prepared a lovely roast lamb dinner, and it was nice to be able to sit and stuff myself without worrying about who was cooking, or having to wash up afterwards. I had to laugh at my dad and brother. When it came time to feed Leah, as soon as I reached under my top for my boob, they both made themselves scarce. Ronnie remembered he had a borrowed DVD to watch in his room, and dad had something he needed to attend to in his garden shed. Leah’s head had changed shape too, even though her forehead looked unusually large, the cone shape above had almost disappeared. That stopped my mum trapping on about her head at least.

Going anywhere with a baby was such a mission. There was the baby bag containing anything I thought I might need, as well as many things I would probably never need. Then the folding wheels for the portable cot, in case I had to wheel Leah around. The carry cot/car seat itself, which looked tiny, but was surprisingly heavy. All that without my own huge shoulder bag, which I still hadn’t got around to sorting through, and emptying out.

On the way home that Sunday, it seemed like Olly was reading my mind. “This car isn’t going to work, Ang. I reckon we need something much bigger, preferably with a sliding door. I will investigate what’s available, and sort it out”.

Late the following Saturday afternoon, he returned home driving a bright red Japanese people carrier that looked more like a minibus than an actual car. It had sliding doors at the back, and a huge hatch that opened up to reveal a space that I could easily lie down in. It had a high roof too, so no bending and stretching. The gears were funny, fully automatic, with a lever on the dashboard next to the steering wheel. In front, the driver’s seat looked like an armchair, and the seat next to it was a double one. After showing me around it, Olly asked, “What do you think then, Ang?”

I told him it was never going to fit in the garage.

By the time Leah was three months old, I felt better physically, although I continued to experience mood swings that often involved crying when I was alone. Sitting on the bed while Leah was asleep, or relaxing in the bath when Olly was watching her in the evening. The tears would come for no apparent reason, leaving my face red and blotchy enough to usually have to explain to Olly that I didn’t know why I was crying.

As for Leah, she stayed much the same. I instinctively knew that wasn’t a good thing, and I had my mum to remind me too.
“She doesn’t pay much attention to anything, does she?”
“Shouldn’t she be holding her head up on her own by now?”
“I know she doesn’t cry much, but have you heard her laugh yet?”

There was nothing mum said that hadn’t already crossed my mind. Not least the fact that my baby didn’t seem to ever look at me, unless I physically turned her face in my direction. She had almost no interest in toys, silly noises I made, stupid faces I pulled, or songs I sang to her. If I playfully pushed a fluffy toy against her face, she made no attempt to push it away. I didn’t like the feeling I had, and told Olly I was going back to see the GP.

The doctor I saw that time was an elderly lady. Like many of my neighbours, she was originally from Poland. She listened sypathetically, gave Leah a good examination, then told me she would write to the County Children’s Hospital, and ask them to arrange an appointment for me. As I was leaving, I must have looked as worried as I felt. She put her hand on my shoulder and smiled. “Early days yet, my dear. She will probably be fine”.

Olly had a lot on at work, with the imminent publication of the supposedly eagerly-anticipated autobigraphy of a famous actress. He had looked at me wide-eyed when I confessed I had never heard of her. I didn’t want to add to his concerns by saying too much about the visit to the GP, so I just told him she had referred us to the hospital for checks. Whether he didn’t want to think too much about it, or he was just overwhelmed with work, he didn’t ask me anything else.

That Sunday morning, something else happened. Olly cuddled up to me, and I realised he was expecting sex. In all fairness, he had been incredibly patient, and did as much as he could to help me when he wasn’t at work. I shocked myself by suddenly being aware that I hadn’t even missed sex, let alone thought about it. I had to stop him though. I reminded him that I had never been on the pill, and that if he wanted to continue, he would need to buy some condoms. There was no way in the world I was going to risk getting pregnant again so soon, even though it was a longshot.

The thought of driving to find a shop open that sold condoms then coming back to take up where he left off proved to be a passion-killer that morning. He said he would get some in the city next week.

Leah was four months old when the appointment letter arrived. She still didn’t hold her head up, or giggle and laugh, or move herself around when I put her down on the play-mat. I was due to see some kind of specialist, in eight days time. I spoke to Olly about it, and his reaction upset me, to be honest. “Will you be alright to drive there, Ang? I can’t keep asking for time off with all that’s going on at work just now”. I wanted to ask why he didn’t care enough about his daughter’s development to come to the appointment. I wanted to get damn angry, and have it out with him.

But I didn’t.

One thing I had to admit, the new jumbo-sized car made life easier. The comfortable seat, high driving position, and not having to change gear made it a breeze to drive. I did the fifteen mile drive to the Children’s Hospital in just twenty minutes. It was so much easier driving in the direction away from the city, than into it.

The doctor was a woman with a strong South African accent that made me have to concentrate on what she was saying. As well as a full examination of Leah, she also watched her on the floor, and her interaction with toys, as well as with me. But there were no obvious medical tests. No blood test, no monitors, no scans or x-rays. After what felt like a long time in the big room, she pressed her hands together and started to tell me her conclusions.

Despite being embarrassed at having to ask her to repeat some words because of her accent, I got the gist of what she was telling me, and when she got to the end of her little speech, I certainly understood what she said then. Accent or not.

“Of course, Angela, we kinnot rool ett Brine Dimige”.

When the doctor asked me if I had any questions, I was still in a daze. I had a hundred questions of course, maybe more. But I just shook my head. She said that I would get another appointment when Leah was six months old, as she would be able to tell more by then.

Sitting in the car in the car park, I couldn’t bring myself to turn the key to start it. I didn’t cry, I just felt numb.

On the way home, I started to think about having to tell Olly what she had said. Then there were my parents and brother, the few friends and former colleagues that bothered to stay in touch, and Olly’s sister in Canada. I decided we should not say anything to anyone until after the next appointment, and that was what I would discuss with Olly when he got home.

He was so casual about it, I wanted to hit him. “Well she said she couldn’t rule out brain damage. She didn’t say Leah has it. Maybe she’s just a late developer? I think we should give it more time, and I definitely agree we shouldn’t say anything to anyone else about this for now”. With that, he turned on the television to watch the evening news, and it was all I could do to stop myself screaming hysterically at him.

I went upstairs with Leah, and sat in her room for two hours, staring at her.

There were two ways I could deal with this in my own head. I could adopt a ‘why me’ attitude, cry about it, feel hard done by, and probably end up resenting my child at some stage. Or I could stay strong, and deal with it. Whatever else happened, I couldn’t love her any the less. And none of it was her fault. I decided I would cope. I would not allow the negative thoughts to intrude on my mind, and would be Leah’s mum, through thick and thin.

The second letter from the hospital arrived sooner than I had expected, and gave me an appointment for exactly three months after the first one. At least they were efficient, and I wasn’t going to have to resort to phoning up to check. I started to do some research too. Meanwhile, I took her in for her booster jabs, and grabbed a few leaflets while I was at the doctor’s.

Two days before the hospital appointment, I had a checklist written down. All the things Leah should be able to do by now.

Roll from her back to her tummy
Sit up with support
Be able to get into a crawling position
Grasp a toy using both hands at once
Reach a small object using her finger and pick it up using her thumb and all fingers
Pick up a small toy with one hand and pass it to the other
Play with her feet when laying on her back
Hold her hands up to be lifted
Make sounds like ‘Da’, ‘ga’, ‘ka’
Squeal and laugh
Like to look at herself in a mirror

Eleven things. Simple enough things that any baby should be doing at six months old. Checking them off against my close observation of Leah made for depressing reading. I could only confirm ‘Making sounds’. Leah said “Gah”. It was all she ever said, and it just came out at random, never in response to anything I was doing with her or saying to her. She said the same thing to Olly when he was holding her, and he had joked about changing her name to ‘Gah’.

I didn’t think that was remotely funny.

Arriving at the hospital for the six-month check, I was forewarned, and forearmed. I had toughened myself up over the last ten weeks, and had a new focus. As expected, the South African doctor went through the motions of assessing those eleven checks, though she did them without telling me what she was doing. Then someone else came into the room, and introduced herself as Polly. She went through much the same routine with Leah after the doctor had left the room, though she spoke to me all the time, explaining what she was doing, and why.

When she seemed to have finished her examination, I came right out and asked. her. Is it brain damage? Was it caused by oxygen deprivation at birth? Can anything be done? Polly looked very sympathetic as she listened to me. Then she told me what she thought.

“It is still too early to tell, Angela. But I think you have to prepare yourself for some severe developmental issues”.

After what Polly had said about Leah, I was stil strong, and determined to not only make Olly face facts, but also to tell the family what to expect. The last thing I was going to need was my mum saying things like “She should be doing that by now”. To be honest, I was rather relieved. Now I could stop worrying about what might have been wrong with my baby, and deal with what was going to be wrong with her as she got older.

Driving home, I pondered the reality of ‘severe developmental issues’. Walking might come late. Speech and communication could be limited. Vision and hearing might be impaired; either, or both. Feeding, safety around the home, all the expected problems were going to be twice as hard to deal with. Maybe ten times as hard. And what about schooling?

I stopped there. I was getting ahead of myself.

Another check-up in three more months, more depressing lists of things that she might not be able to do by then. Strange how I took some comfort from that dire diagnosis. The fact that Leah didn’t laugh, didn’t attempt to communicate, didn’t focus on me, or enjoy play. I had thought that was all about me, that I was doing something wrong. Now I had some kind of diagnosis that exonerated me from blame, I actually felt more positive.

It was all presented to Olly after dinner. I let him enjoy his food first, raging inside that he had forgoten to ask how the check-up had gone. I knew he was feeling that ‘breadwinner’ responsibility, and at a particularly busy time for him at work. But if he thought he was just going to leave everything else for me to deal with, he was very much mistaken.

His first reaction was to well up, and I thought he might cry. But he swallowed hard, and set his jaw. “Right then, Ang. We will deal with that, we can do it. I’m going to ring my sister now, and tell her. But I will leave your parents to you if that’s okay”. I was greatly relieved. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but it hadn’t been him finding his strength again.

Olly’s sister had worked as a trained physiotherapist in hospitals. Now she was semi-retired, she worked privately from home doing sports injuries and back pains, that kind of thing. She was immediately one hundred percent positive, and moments after finishing the call with Olly, she was firing off emails to me, with links to all kinds of organisations, therapists in Britain, self-help ideas, and groups that got together to help each other. It was early days of course, but it felt good to have things to latch onto.

While I was feeding Leah, Olly was online ordering an expensive home CCTV system that he could set up in her room. We could watch it live on a laptop, and record it to watch later too. He thought that being able to see her when we were not in the room might give us some tips on what she did in there when she was awake. He told me to get an email address from Polly too, in case she wanted him to email some footage once it was up and running.

By the time we went to bed that night, I felt better than I had on any single day since Leah was born.

Instead of phoning my parents, I decided to drive over with Leah and tell them the next morning. Ronnie would be at work, so they could fill him in later. But I wanted to do it face to face, as I had to ask my mum something. I was going to ask for her help. For the first time since I had left school.

Her first reaction was denial. “Far too early to say, Angela. Why have they worried you with that, when she is still so young? How can they possibly tell so much from what they have seen? Surely they won’t be able to tell much until she is at least one?” I raised my hand to stop her. Dad put his head in his hands, so I knew he got it. I told mum that she had to listen instead of talking. Her only grandchild was going to have issues. Even at the mildest end of the scale, she had to face facts that Leah was not going to be a normal baby. And in the worst-case scenario, I was going to be needing a lot of support.

My dad walked over and put his arm around me.

Although Olly started to help out more, he also retreated into technology in what seemed to me to be a form of escape. The smaller third bedroom was kitted out like an office already, but he seemed intent on making it into a kind of module like something from a futuristic film. Spending money because he had it to spend, a new Apple computer arrived, with a combined printer/scanner/copier that was placed next to it on the new metal desk he bought from IKEA. The camera that watched Leah in bed was soon replaced by one that had an infra-red capability, so we didn’t need to leave a light on in her room.

As the nine-month appointment approached, I was keeping a diary of what I had noticed Leah could, and could not, do.

Saying actual words.
That was still a definite ‘No’. She only ever said “Gah”.
Crawling.
No. But at least this meant she wasn’t investigating cupboards or switches.
Eating proper food in addition to milk.
That was a ‘Yes’. She ate or drank anything I put in her mouth. But she didn’t hold it if I placed it in her hand.
Pincer-grip with fingers.
No.
Teething.
She was getting her first teeth, but never seemed to be in pain. She certainly wasn’t crying.
Communication by gesture. Clapping, waving, and so on.
No.
Clinging on to soft toys or blankets for comfort.
No. She dropped anything I gave her.

I gave up after that, as I wanted to stay positive. Her weight was good, she looked healthy, and she slept well. She took her feeds, and rarely cried.
All of those were taken as good signs, and I acted as much like a normal mum as possible. I played with her, spoke to her, sang her songs, and interacted with her whenever she was awake. Even though she never responded in the way other babies might have done, I made the best of my time with my little girl. And when Olly got in from work, he did the same.
At least for a while.

The next appointment was with Polly. I showed her my diary, and we discussed the fact that Leah should be crawling at the very least, and making more sounds than an occasional “Gah”. The general health check went well, so we concentrated on the development issues. Polly tried to stay upbeat, suggesting things might change once Leah passed her first birthday. But she had to agree when I said that would always leave her behind other kids of the same age, whatever happened later on. She didn’t seem very interested in Olly’s idea of sending her CCTV footage of Leah at night. I supposed she had enough to do, without scrolling through hours of that. But she gave me the email address anyway.

That night, Olly had to work late, so I ate alone. When he got home with a pizza, he remembered to ask how it had gone, and showed great interest in Polly being so positive. Nodding enthusiastically as he wolfed down the lukewarm meal.

But I couldn’t shake the idea that he was just pretending to care.

Two weeks later on the Sunday, we made the trip to my parents’ house for dinner. Ronnie was out, and dad winked as he told me, “He stopped over. Got a new girlfriend”. Mum was quick to jump in “Yes, and she’s thirty-four, and divorced”. Her expression and tone let us all know she didn’t approve. Ronnie was twenty-seven, and should probably have left home years earlier. But life was easy, with mum doing the cooking, and his washing and ironing too. He was not a man of ambition. He had left school at seventeen with two ‘O’ levels, and got a job with a big DIY shop chain. But he worked in the head office, in the ordering department, and his main aim in life was to own a souped-up GT car.

Now he had met Lauren, the sister of one of his work colleagues. And he was head over heels in lust. And as for dad saying he had a ‘new’ girlfriend, well other than two weeks with a girl up the street called Emma Thoroughgood when he was thirteen, I think we could rightly say that Lauren was his only girlfriend. I went through the motions of telling my parents some more about Leah’s clinic visit, concentrating on the positives. Mum latched onto that too. “I told you it was too soon to say. You wait and see. Give her time”

In bed that night, I turned over to find an empty space next to me. Wondering where Olly was, I got up and walked out onto the landing. He was standing in the open doorway of Leah’s room, holding a small video camera that I didn’t even know he had bought. When he saw me, he turned and grinned. I walked across to him, and saw what he was filming.

Leah was standing up in her cot, holding the sides for support.

As I watched, tears welling up in my eyes, Leah dropped back onto the mattress. Olly stopped filming, and I ran into the room, scooping her up into my arms. Olly was grinning, his hair sticking up like some mad professor. “I heard her doing some loud ‘Gahs’ over the monitor, and came in to check on her. When I saw her standing, I went to get the camera from the study”. Calling the fitted-out boxroom a study was a stretch, but I let that go, saying she must have been hungry. I sat down in the chair and started to feed her. As I did that, Olly sent his sister a text message telling her.

I couldn’t stop crying. But at least they were happy tears.

At a reasonable hour the next morning, I rang Polly to tell her the news. But I had to leave a message, as she wasn’t in yet. When she rang back an hour later, she let me blab on excitedly, waiting until I finished speaking. “Angela, you mustn’t read too much into that at the moment, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen again today”. Talk about a downer, she crashed my mood with one sentence. But I took her warning seriously enough not to bother to ring my parents and tell them.

The temptation to hold her up in the cot and see if she did it again was overwhelming. But Olly was at work, and I had grocery shopping to do. I got ready, and then loaded Leah into the car seat before throwing her baby bag into the back. I never went anywhere without that bag. Using the parent and child spaces in the supermarket car park was a boon. They tended to be closer to the shop, and the extra width of them made life easier. I had become something of a busybody, very protective of those spaces. If I saw someone trying to park in one when they obviously had no baby or child with them, I would walk over and stare them out.

With the removable baby seat wedged into the trolley, I wandered around the aisles flinging stuff in. I had never been an organised shopper, someone with a list, and meal plans. I just got whatever I liked the look of, and thought about actual dinners later. That meant I normally bought too much stuff, but what the hell.

Fully-laden, and looking for a free checkout, I stood behind an elderly woman who only had a few items on the conveyor belt. She turned to look at Leah, and smiled. “How old is she, about nine months?” I told her she was almost spot on. Then she nodded like some wise sage. “Shame about her, though I’m sure you are coping well”. I would like to have replied with an aggrieved ‘What are you talking about?’ or something similar. But the look on her face told me that she could see there was something wrong with my baby.

I said nothing, and stood with my face flushed until she paid and left.

For some reason, I didn’t want to go home. I took my shopping bags out to the car, grabbed the baby bag, then carried Leah in her seat to the coffee place in the row of smaller shops opposite. I went into the baby changing room in there and changed and fed her. Then I bought myself a cappuccino, and a huge chocolate muffin. I felt a desperate need for some woman to come up to us and compliment me on my lovely daughter. But nobody did, so I stared out of the window until my coffee got cold.

When I had put the shopping away, leaving out the stuff I was using for the meal later, I could resist the temptaion no longer. I picked Leah up off the playmat where she was lying staring at the ceiling, and carried her up to her cot. I stood her up inside, and placed her tiny hands around the wooden railing. She fell onto her back with a “Gah”. I did it again, talking to her encouragingly. She fell again. I thought the third time might be lucky.

But it wasn’t.

Olly got in at a reasonable time, and as he walked through the door, he was beaming. “How did it go today? Was she crawling or standing?”

I told him I was cooking his favourite for dinner, Pesto Chicken.

Olly saw through my bluff of course. Ignoring his question, busy cooking his favourite meal, and a glass of Valpolicella already poured for him. “So what’s happened, Ang?” I told him what Polly had said, and about trying to stand Leah up. About the old woman in the shop who instinctively knew something was wrong with her, and the fact that nobody ever came up to me to say something nice about her when I was out.

People always did that with babies. At least they always did until I had one. I didn’t cry. I was fed up with crying.

“So we get on with things as they are, and stop expecting good stuff. Then we won’t be disappointed. My sister replied by text saying much the same thing as Polly. It might have been a one-off, something instinctive because she was needing a feed. If we have to cope with the fact that life with Leah is going to be different to our expectations, then we will cope”.

Okay for him to say that, he was out at work all day. I didn’t say that, just thought it.

I had to have a conversation with Rosa too. She knew enough about babies to realise that Leah should have been scooting around the floor and getting into mischief by now. But to her credit, she never mentioned anything. I told her the provisional diagnosis, and she crossed herself, mumbling a little prayer thing in Polish. In English she said, “God will have wanted her to be like this. God will look after her”. I knew she meant well, but I almost told her to cut the crap.

A phone call from Ronnie surprised me. He wanted to come over that night, and bring his new girlfriend to meet us. “And I have something I want to talk to you about, Ang. Well, ask your advice on really”. Ronnie had never asked me about anything before, so I guessed it must be something serious. I told him to come after eight, so we could have dinner first. I wasn’t up to preparing a nice meal for four people just yet.

When Olly got in, I fed him something quickly, apologising that Ronnie and Lauren were expected within the hour. He rarely had much to say to my brother. Their interests were very different, and Ronnie didn’t even follow football, so they couldn’t talk about that.

On the dot, the doorbell rang. Leah was awake, and lying on her play mat. Olly answered, and they came in carrying two bottles of wine, and a huge bunch of flowers. That must have been Lauren’s doing, as Ronnie would never have thought to bring anything. I was impressed. Lauren was very attractive. Smartly dressed too, with a wonderful short bob haircut. I could have laughed out loud when I saw Olly trying not to look at the shapely legs protruding from a seriously short skirt.

My first thought was to wonder what the hell she was doing with my hopeless brother. But then siblings rarely see any physical attraction in each other. Too many years of being assailed by the smell of his socks, or arguing about who used the bathroom first.

But really, why did she like him? She was such a knockout, even I fancied her.

They went through the motions of taking about Leah, as Olly got some drinks and put the flowers into a vase. Lauren made the right noises about liking our house, and lamenting the fact that her and her ex hadn’t had any children. She sat next to Ronnie on the sofa, acting as relaxed as if they had been a c