Phyllis: The Complete Story

This is all 23 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 17,900 words.

Phyllis Harvey. That would be a good name, he decided. A name that spoke of maturity, but not old age. A name associated with a certain class of woman, one who had made her way in life. Fifty-something, maybe sixty, but perhaps not being completely honest about her age. Terence was fifty-three, and according to his agent, he was washed up.

Despite the walls of his small flat being lined with framed copies of his best reviews, the casting agents were no longer calling, and his agent had told him it was time to seek another career.

What do you do though, when you have been acting since your teens, and drama school had opened up a world of opportunities? Go to work in a DIY store? Deliver online groceries for a supermarket? Try to find a very old sugar daddy?

Terence Halloran was at one time the ‘coming thing’, the young actor who stirred interest in the Arts Review columns of the serious newspapers. He was not about to start selling paint or delivering groceries, even though the money was running out.

Sugar daddies might be the answer, but he would have to prepare carefully.

Monty Rosenberg had been his first and only agent. Monty had got him some great work, back in the day. The reviews spoke for themselves. Terence gazed at the walls of his flat, seeking confirmation from his reviews.

‘As the villain, Halloran convinces completely. He inhabits the persona of a young gangster in every way imaginable’.
‘Terence Halloran is a revelation. I was completely convinced that he was Andrea, before the jaw-dropping reveal’.
‘Young Halloran will go far. He can convince in both hard man and vulnerable female roles, something this critic has never seen before’.

Oh yes, Terence had been in touch with his feminine side years before anyone had ever heard of that expression. Playing female roles as a man went back to before Shakespeare, but he revitalised that tradition at a time when nobody else was doing it. It helped that he had no interest in sex, whether with women or men. It had never seemed important to him as a young man, and that progressed as he got older and found work.

There were times when he would sit at the mirror in the dressing room, amazed at how convincing he looked. He had a ritual before going on stage. He would look at his completely feminised self after the five-minute call, and say, “Go girl!”.

Those were the good years. In one play he might portray a despicable wife-beating man, and in the next run he would swap roles and play the abused wife. The critics loved him, and so did the audiences. But small theatres in the provinces rarely made stars though, and he needed fame.

For that, television came knocking. Over eight years in the most popular soap opera in Britain, playing a female role that was eventually exposed as a man in a Christmas special. The audience reaction was phenomenal. He found it hard to believe that over ninety percent of his devoted viewers hadn’t guessed he was a man.

But the fallout was tragic. Terence was forever typecast.

Monty started to offer him roles as a crossdresser and transvestite. Not long after those, he was happy to accept one-night-stands as a female impersonator. Life had turned him into a drag queen, and no other chances had been open to him. He did guest appearances on chat shows, occasional cameos on mainstream programmes, always as a woman. Then as attitudes to sexuality changed, he became an unwilling spokesperson for crossdressing and drag culture.

It paid the bills, and Monty still took his fifteen percent.

Then it all ran dry. With the acceptance of so many new kinds of sexuality, even the tabloids didn’t want to pay him for interviews. He tried to headline a few parades, but they didn’t want him. Who needed female impersonators when they had outspoken transexuals willing to be seen for nothing?

Then Monty offered him some awful live appearances as a drag act. At first he said a flat no, but when the bills piled up, he reluctantly agreed. Horrible social clubs or busy pubs, with the audience cat-calling and throwing things. At two hundred a night, less his travel expenses, it was hardly worth getting dressed up for.

Once Monty cut ties with him, Terence knew it was time to do something drastic.

Two wardrobes and one chest of drawers stood in the cramped bedroom. Terence had them all open, and was pulling out various items. One wardrobe was for his female clothing, along with three of the six drawers. On top of the wardrobes stood a row of wig stands, each topped by a different coloured wig in a different style. One good thing about his former success was that he could afford the best, and they were all made from human hair which was so much more convincing.

However, when he had been performing in plays, or on TV, the costume departments had made or hired his clothing. The dresses he was spreading out on the bed were from his impersonater days, and some lurid ones used in drag shows. They would not do, definitely not Phyllis.

The morning had been spent carefully eaxmining his finances. If he was careful, he could manage six months before the money ran out completely, and he would have to completely ignore the last demand from the taxman for the time being. The website he had chosen to use had the great advantage that females did not have to pay to join. The male admirers had to pay to get contact details, so that saved him some money on the registration fee.

Choosing a photo had been easy enough. He had hundreds to pick from, and wanted one that showed a demure lady of a certain age. A nice off the shoulder dress that made him look quite busty, thanks to the silicon-filled falsies inserted into the bra. Nice jewellery that was completely fake, but looked the part. Wearing two pairs of nylon tights and some tight panties dealt with any potential issues of showing a masculine bulge, and the short blonde wig with dark contrast was eminently suitable for a woman in her fifties.

The online profile for Phyllis had to be worded carefully. Only so much space was allowed, and it was important to make sure the implications were not too blatant. Just enough personal detail, but nothing that would give too much away. After many revisions, Terence typed into the box next to the photo he had uplaoded.

‘Fifty-something lady, formerly the headmistress of a private girl’s school. I consider myself to be elegant and refined, and enjoy the good things in life with the right company. Now looking for a long term relationship with a kind man aged 65-75. You must be unmarried, and financially secure. Your own house or flat would be desirable, along with being a car owner as I do not drive. I am based in the London area, but willing to travel to meet the right man. I do not accommodate at my own address.’

Satisfied, he pressed ‘Create Profile’.

He didn’t live anywhere near London of course, he could never afford the rents down there. But the slightly better part of the city of Nottingham didn’t have quite the same panache as the capital, and he could get a train to anywhere he needed to be. He had chosen to say Phyllis was a retired headmistress, as he knew that would feed into the fantasies of a certain type of man. The type who liked the woman to be dominant, and be in charge. And he had chosen the older age range for the men because they would be more desperate, and not as strong physically.

That done, he wanted to get out to the shops before they closed. His budget was only going to stretch to some well chosen Charity Shops in the city, but he knew he could pick up some decent dresses at a good price in those. Once they were dry-cleaned and pressed, they would look as good as new.

Four dresses and a pair of high-heels later, he was back from the shops with a pizza to put in the oven for dinner. As well as the clothes and food, he had purchased a large jar of hair removal cream, and a multipack of disposable razors. Any body hair was definitely a non-no, and would scupper his plans.

Eating the pizza portions with his left hand, Terence logged on to the dating website to check if Phyllis’s profile was active. He almost dropped the food onto his old laptop as he saw that he had sixteen messages already. As he continued to look at the screen, the number kept rising. By the time the pizza was finished, it had risen to twenty-nine. Smiling to himself, he relaxed back into the armchair.

This was going much better than he had expected.

It was easy enough for Terence to whittle out the unsuitable contacts. Some sent unsolicited photos of their private parts with lurid messages about what they would like to do to Phyllis. They were all rejected out of hand. Others were far too young, even though he had stated 65-75, nine of them were under forty. He presumed they were looking for an older woman who might be grateful for sex.

Only one of the messages was from someone who suspected he was not female, but even that was positive. ‘Are you a man dressed as a woman? That doesn’t matter to me, I would still love to meet you’. He was blocked too. The whole point was to convince as a female, not to indulge the sexual fantasies of someone who liked crossdressers.

Although Terence had no real interest in sex, he had certainly had his fair share of it over the years. The casting couch was a reality in his younger days, and he had quickly learned to please both male and female producers and directors to stay in their good books. He considered himself to be a consummate actor, and his skill extended to being able to convince as a willing participant in whatever turned them on. But a long term physical relationship with someone of either gender held no interest for him.

He was a loner, in the real sense of the word.

After a long evening at the laptop, there were four particular persons of interest for him. Even as he re-read their profiles, more messages were arriving. Over sixty by the time he logged off and climbed into bed. He would explore his main choices the next morning.

Some of the profile photos were hilarious, and obviously taken years ago. One man who was seventy-two used a photo of himself on a golf course when he must have been around forty-five. By lunchtime, he had chosen his first target, the one he would get in touch with showing some serious intent to meet.

Geoffrey Lawson described hmself as a ‘Fit and active 74 year old with an outgoing personality, keen to meet the right lady for outings, holidays, and hopefully much more’. His photo was seemingly genuine, showing him sitting on a boat with a drink in his hand. He looked his age, was slightly overweight, and had not tried to change his full head of white hair by using dye. Googling the name, it took a while to find the right person. Retired from one of the major banks, widowed with two grown up children and five grandchildren, and living in an affluent part of Surrey, in the Home Counties near London.


There was no reply to the contact message until almost six that evening. It came with profuse apologies.

‘So sorry to get back to you so late, dear Phyllis. I was at the golf club this afternoon. Please do not think for a moment I was ignoring you. I am not used to this at all, my children suggested I join a dating website, and you are only the second lady I have tried to contact. The first one did not reply, so I hadn’t checked again before I left home earlier. I would very much like to meet you at a place of your choosing. Perhaps a nice dinner in London? I will let you decide. If you have other photos, I would love to see them’.

Terence had no shortage of photos, and scrolled though some that were just that little bit sexier. He sent Geoffrey three photos of himself wearing a short black cocktail dress and black stockings. One front view standing, one rear view standing, and then one sitting down with his legs crossed showing a little too much thigh. He kept the message short. ‘A meal in London would be lovely, Geoffrey. If you want to go ahead with a meeting I am free this coming weekend’.

The reply was almost immediate.

‘Wow, you are gorgeous! I have heard good things about The Oxo Tower restaurant in London. I could meet you there on Friday at seven, if that suits. Let me know, and I will book a table. Here are some recent photos of me on holiday last summer’.

No less than six photos were attached, all showing him wearing very small swimming briefs on what appeared to be an exotic beach, judging by the palm trees and powdery white sand. No doubt he thought his suntanned hairy chest would be enticing to Phyllis. But he had suggested a very good restaurant that was reasonably expensive. So Terence replied that would be ideal. Again, the reply was very fast.

‘Fantastic. I am so excited to meet you, dear Phyllis. I can’t wait for Friday!’

With the date arranged, Terence had three days to make his plans. A cheap hotel room in Bayswater was secured for sixty pounds for the one night. A train ticket was booked, and once he arrived at St Pancras it was an easy journey by underground to his down-market hotel. Although he knew in advance that many of his fellow guests might well be asylum seekers, homeless families, or sex-workers, that didn’t matter. Geoffrey was not going to be invited back there.

Because Geoffrey had been excited by the cocktail dress, another visit to one of the better Charity Shops produced a burgundy off the shoulder number that was sparkly, and rather too short for the age of Phyllis. No matter, combined with some hold-up black stockings, it was sure to get the old man’s juices flowing. Terence would travel as a man, and get ready in his hotel room before taking a taxi to the Oxo Tower restaurant as Phyllis. Those cheap hotels rarely had anything resembling a proper concierge, and modern-day London would completely ignore him arriving as a man and leaving as a woman.

Besides, he had already paid online, no breakfast included.

His old overnight bag would do nicely, with a change of clothes for the Saturday and Sunday, in case Geoffrey followed his lead. Terence was pretty sure that he would follow that lead, as he knew exactly what to say, and how to behave. By the time he had finished with him, Geoffrey would be hooked, and unable to resist. In anticipation, he had booked his return ticket for the Monday night, which would give him time to fully implement the plan.

The train ran on time, and he was at the Bayswater hotel ten minutes early. The Eastern European girl behind the formica-topped reception desk gave him a key. Disinterested, she mumbled “Third floor, room nine, a single”. There was no lift, but that was expected. The room was like a prison cell, and the view from the small window looked over the street, choked with cars parked on the resident’s permit spaces. Terence was already down nearly ninety quid, and he was still a long way off from convincing Geoffrey.

No matter. He had some very thick foundation make-up to cover any chance of a five-o-clock shadow later, and a perfume strong enough to stop a clock.

By the time he was ready to leave for the restaurant, he looked so sexy as Phyllis, he almost fancied himself. Hailing a cab outside was easy, and he had timed it to arrive about ten minutes late for the date, though the fare to South London from Bayswater was eye watering.That made him glad he had decided to draw out one hundred pounds in cash.

Because you never knew when you might need cash.

Geoffrey was standing outside the entrance to the restaurant, and was effusive with his praise as Terence emerged from the taxi as Phyllis.

“Oh, you look so wonderful. More than my wildest expectations, dear Phyllis”.

The meal in the restaurant went well. If Geoffrey had the remotest suspicions that Phyllis was not female, they were not apparent. Terence let him do all of the talking, and it was pure gold. A five-bedroom house in the best part of Surrey. Membership of the local golf club, and the local Masonic lodge. Close contact with his children and grandchildren. all of whom lived nearby, and were equally minted.

Keen to impress, Geoffrey ordered the most expensive items on the menu, and excellent accompanying wines regardless of price. By the time they had finished the desserts and moved on to liquers, he was making his move.

“I would love to show you my home, Phyllis. Do you think that if I collected you by car tomorrow you would be willing to stay overnight?” Terence was suitably cautious. “Well, I would have to have my own room of course, but I think that would be lovely, Geoffrey”. As he was speaking, Terence crossed his legs to show some stocking top. That wouldn’t hurt.

Geoffrey was stil excited.

“Well, shall we say eleven? Give you time for breakfast and getting ready? Let me know where you want to be picked up from.”

Terence told him he would wait outside Paddington Station. No need to be specific about where he was staying.

Outside of the Oxo Tower, he allowed Geoffrey to flag down a cab, and kiss him briefly on the lips. As he got into the taxi, he blew the old man a kiss.

“See you tomorrow, dear Geoffrey”.

When the car pulled in outside Paddington Station, Terence was impressed. Geoffrey wasn’t driving, it was a suit and tie driver in the front. A chauffeur driven hire car, much more luxurious than a taxi. The driver took the bag and put it in the boot. He gave Terence a knowing look that told him the man had sussed him immediately. But that didn’t matter, as Geoffrey was acting like a sex-starved teenager, keen to get Phyllis next to him in the back of the car.

Terence had chosen a respectable day dress for the journey. He could tell that Geoffrey was eager to touch him, and allowed a stroke around his left knee with no protest. On the way to Surrey, the old man couldn’t keep quiet.

“I have booked a table at the Country Club for dinner this evening. My housekeeper has left us a prepared lunch, and I have given her the rest of the weekend off. She won’t be back until Tuesday, so I really hope you can stay for two nights, if that suits your other commitments?” Terence confirmed that he could stay until Monday afternoon, and his new boyfriend beamed with delight.

“Oh, that’s more than I had hoped for. I have my own car at home, and will be happy to show you around. In fact, my oldest daughter has suggested a family meal on Sunday lunchtime. Everyone will be there to meet you, I admit I have already told them how lovely you are”. Terence smiled his acceptance, even though he already knew there would be no family meal on Sunday. By then, Geoffrey would have realised the truth.

Just over an hour later, the car turned into a long driveway leading to Geoffrey’s house in Virginia Water. Terence had smiled at the name of the area. He was a long way from being remotely virginial. But his online research about the area had told him that it was an enclave of the rich. So that suited his plans. He was feeling tired, as last night in the cheap hotel had been disturbed by fights on the landings, and the eventual arrival of the police at three in the morning. At least the turbulent night had given him time to do some more Internet research, using his phone on the hotel’s wi-fi.

Once the smirking hire car driver had departed, Geoffrey was keen to show him around the house. He was settled in his room, which was as big as his flat in Nottingham, then they ate the prepared lunch in a huge conservatory overlooking a garden as big as two football pitches, washed down with an expensive rosé wine. To give him some credit, the man kept his hands to himself in his own house. Terence had concluded that he would wait until they returned from the Country Club to make his move.

With the table booked for seven that night, Phyllis was given adequate time to prepare in her room. The black cocktail dress that Geoffrey liked so much was the chosen outfit, along with some very expensive black stockings, and a push-up bra that accentuated Phyllis’s fake cleavage. By the time the taxi arrived to take them to the Country Club, Geoffrey was almost salivating with desire.

He knew many of the people there, but seemed oblivious to the occasional stare at Phyllis. A small booth tucked away from the main dining area had been chosen. And he had also selected the menu and wines in advance, presumably to impress Phyllis. There were five courses, each accompanied by a different wine, and all impeccably cooked. During the meal, an effusive Geoffrey told Phyllis almost all of his lfe story, without any prompting.

Before the desserts arrived, Terence knew more about the children and grandchildren than he would ever need. He had also gleaned a huge amount of information about Geoffrey’s financial situation, all volunteered. It seemed he had an account there, as he just signed for the bill. The taxi arrived before eleven, and Geoffrey escorted him out like a gentleman.

During the short drive back in the taxi. Terence allowed a lot of leg-stroking as the tipsy man divulged much more information. “I would love to take you on holiday to my second home in The Maldives, Phyllis. I once considered retiring to live there, but my children were against it. So now I holiday there twice a year, but it would be so much better if you were there with me”.

That was impressive, and Terence was re-thinking just how much he would take from this mug.

As Geoffrey had taken off his suit jacket and excused himself to use the bathroom, Terence had a quick look through the pockets. As well as a wallet, he found a packet of Viagra, with one tablet missing. Smiling, he imagined Geoffrey standing in the bathroom taking the tablet, and psyching himself up for the planned seduction of Phyllis. A mobile phone was also in the inside pocket, and he took that, placing it in his handbag.

He needn’t have worried, as Terence planned on making it very easy for him.

The new boyfriend return holding a bottle of expensive Cognac, and two brandy bowl glasses. “I thought a nightcap would be in order my dear”. He sat close after filling the glasses with a hefty measure, and gently tapped the rim of his glass against Terence’s. “Here’s to beauty, and to us”. After their first sip, he leaned forward, planting a rather clumsy kiss on Terence’s lips. His face was flushed and warm, and the kiss was allowed and returned.

It was important to make him think he was going to get somewhere.

There didn’t seem to be any point beating about the bush, so he closed the deal with a prepared speech. “Geoffrey dear, you really don’t have to try to seduce me. I am more than willing to share your bed tonight. Let’s finish our drinks, and then give me time to get ready, okay?” It seemed to come as a surprise, but a welcome one. Follwing a large gulp of the Cognac, he replied.

“Oh, that would be wonderful. It has been a long time you see. My wife was unwell for many years before she died. Take as much time as you need”. Terence gently stroked the man’s hot face, then placed his glass on the table. “Why don’t I go up now? Come and join me in fifteen minutes, and make sure you are ready for action”. He thought Geoffrey’s eyes would pop at that, and his nodding agreement was shaking the jowls on his face.

Up in the master bedroom, Terence removed all his clothes except for the stockings, then put a silky black nightgown gown loosely around his shoulders. using Geoffrey’s phone, he took selfies as he wandered around the bedroom. Making sure the background showed exactly where he was, and even including a large framed family photo hanging on the wall. With the self timer, he placed the phone on a side table, and draped himself across the bed, looking rampant and blatant as he stared into the camera.

That done, he sent all the photos to his own phone as a backup, then started to send Geoffrey’s contacts to his phone too.

Hearing footsteps, he put the phone on the bedside table and wrapped the flimsy nightgown around his body. Lying back against the sumptuous pillows, he called out through the half-open door. “Is that you, my lover? I am ready for you”.

Geoffrey had been emboldened by alcohol, and walked into the room stark naked. One glance showed the Viagra had started to do its job very well. “Oh, my word, let me take a photo please. What a magnificent specimen”. Flattered, Geoffrey put his hand on his hips, and posed smiling for two photos.

Then Terence put the phone down, flung open the nightgown, and revealed all. “Come and get me”.

Frozen to the spot, his jaw dropped, and didn’t close again for a long time. Terence pretended to be hurt. “What’s wrong my dear? Don’t you want your lovely Phyllis?” Unable to reply, Geoffrey backed out of the room, still staring at the vision draped on top of his bed. He didn’t return to the bedroom for at least ten minutes, and when he did he was fully dressed. More confused than angry, he spoke calmly.

“There has been a terrible mistake, I’m afraid. I mean, I had no idea. This isn’t what I wanted at all”. As he was trying to explain himself, Terence tried not to laugh. He could see that the Viagra was still working, and poor Geoffrey was in such a state. He continued to act offended. “But are you sure you don’t want me, my darling? I assure you it would be a night you would never forget. Why not just lie next to me for a while, and let me change your mind?”

Setting his jaw, Geoffrey replied, still polite. “No, nothing like that is going to happen. I think you had better go. I will order you a taxi, you can take it wherever you need to go, and I will pay the driver in advance”. Terence changed his expression, and his voice.

“I don’t think so old love. Why don’t you sit down? We need to have a talk about something”.

Sitting on the bed with his head in his hands, Geoffrey was overwhelmed by the situation he found himslef in. He was unable to look at the almost naked man who was talking to him in a very different voice to the one he was used to. How could he not have realised? Now the truth was out, it was all too easy to see. The larger feet and hands, the hair that was now so obviously a wig. He had been taken in completely, and now he felt stupid and broken.

Terence was taking charge.

“Okay, this is what’s going to happen. Tomorrow morning, you ring your daughter and tell her Phyllis is unwell, probably something she ate. You cancel the family gathering, and on no account do you let them come here. Try to be positive, suggest a meeting another time. Tell them I am keen to meet them, that kind of thing. Then you are going to go online, transfer twenty thousand pounds to my bank account, and set up a regular monthly payment of five hundred pounds until further notice. Once you have done that, You will give me your laptop and your phone. You can tell anyone who asks that your laptop stopped working, and you lost your phone somewhere. Are you listening?”

His head was nodding, and he sounded as if he was crying. Terence continued.

“If you tell anyone, all the photos I took will be shared to your contact list, and all your family too. Don’t think about trying to delete them, I have copies on my phone, and they are all stored in The Cloud somewhere. You will not contact the dating site again, and as far as your relationship with Phyllis goes, you can give it a couple of weeks and just say it didn’t work out. On Monday, you can drive me to a station, and on the way stop at your bank and get me five thousand in cash. I doubt they will even blink about someone as rich as you taking out such a sum.”

From behind the hands came a muffled reply. “Alright”. Terence was getting ready for bed as Phyllis, and adopted the feminine voice as he replied.

“In the meantime, we stay civilised. Go and sleep in the spare room you gave me, I’ll sleep here. Don’t even think about any violence. I am fitter and stronger than you, and besides I would call the police, tell them I was being attacked, and answer the door naked. Try explaining that to the next meeting of the Masonic Lodge, Geoffrey dear”.

When he got downstairs after nine the next morning, Terence found Geoffrey slumped in an armchair, staring into space. He looked at least ten years older than he did yesterday, and was unshaved, wearing last night’s clothes. Without turning around, he spoke quietly. “The lunch has been cancelled. Give me your bank details, and I will do as you ask. But please do not stay another night. I will transfer the extra five thousand you requested now, and then order you a taxi. There is cash in the house, around five hundred I think. You can take that with the phone and laptop. But please leave, at least do that for me. I couldn’t stand another twenty-four hours of humiliation”.

The transfer of the funds went through easily, and the monthly payment was set up. Using Geoffrey’s wireless printer, Terence made a hard copy for reference. The laptop and phone would both be destroyed next week, leaving no trail behind. When he had packed his bag upstairs and the taxi had been ordered, Geoffrey gave him the cash, four hundred and fity pounds in fifty pound notes. “I would appreciate you waiting outside for the taxi, it will be here in ten minutes”.

He decided to take the taxi all the way back into London, and straight to the station. There would be time to get something to eat before his afternoon train back to Nottingham. The taxi driver hardly spoke a word all the way, which suited Terence nicely.

There was lots to think about on the two-hour train journey. He could pay off the tax bill they had been hounding him for, hopefully before any bailiffs became involved in debt recovery. The five hundred a month would pay the rent on his flat, with a bit over to help with the electricity bill. For the first time since he had worked in the TV soap opera, Terence had more than five grand in the bank.

When he got home early that evening he was soon on his old laptop, carefully choosing the next target.

With the number of messages now well over two hundred, Terence had to spend time whittling out the chaff. By the time he had done that, he was still left with over thirty that looked promising. That left him with the conclusion that the real over-fifty women must be lacking appeal, for some reason.

Lawrence Colman-Tolliver was definitely worth trying. Seventy-seven years old, and looked every minute of it. Privately educated, and related to the family that once owned Colman’s Mustard in Norwich, he still lived in the county of Norfolk. He listed his interests as ‘Fun’ and ‘More fun’. The profile photo showed him on a pheasant shoot near Sandringham, blatantly suggesting he was one of the monied clique that surrounded the Royal Family. Whether that was true, or bluster, remained to be seen.

The trouble was, Norfolk was a pain to get to. So when he replied to the direct message, Terence suggested London as a meeting point. He could afford a better hotel since he had fleeced Geoffrey, and might as well speculate to accumulate, by appearing to Lawrence as not to be concerned about money. Annoyingly, the old man took his good time to reply, and not until eleven the next morning. His message read like something that could have been sent in the nineteenth century.

‘That would suit, M’dear. I can stay at my club in Pall Mall, and meet you at Rules restaurant, Covent Garden. Would seven on Saturday be good with you? I can send a car if need be. I have to say you look like a jolly attractive lady indeed. Don’t be fooled by my age, I am very active, and can guarantee you would not be at all disappointed.’

Well, he was full of himself, Terence thought. Probably another Viagra-swallower. But the Colman’s mustard connection suggested some inherited wealth, so he replied quickly.

‘Why Lawrence, that sounds wonderful. I know Rules of course, wonderful English food in an intimate atmosphere. I will arrange a taxi from my hotel, and meet you inside at seven as you suggest’. The old bastard took over an hour to reply. ‘Looking forward to it, M’dear.’

A hotel in Kensington was a step up from Bayswater, and even at twice the price, at least it included breakfast. Seeing as the old man was staying at his club, Terence booked two nights. After all, Geoffrey was paying, even though he didn’t know that. To seal the deal, he sent Lawrence the photos of himself as Phyllis in the black cocktail dress, They had worked so well with Geoffrey. Annoyingly, it was a good hour before he got a reply, and he had been on the verge of going to bed when it arrived.

‘I say! Outstanding, dear Phyllis. You have definitely got my interest, and much more’.

Terence went to bed happy. He had the old git hooked, if not landed in the net.

Having made the decision to change his profile photo, Terence was up early the next morning. After booking the hotel, and a one-way train ticket, he put on the black cocktail dress and black stockings thst seemed to work so well. Then he chose a better wig, a black real hair wig that had a short bob style. With pale make-up and dark eye shadow, he looked much younger than his fifty-three years, more like a thirty-something model from the swinging sixties.

Re-launching his online profile, he could not help but smile as the message counter ticked over at an alarming rate. No doubt greatly helped by making sure some stocking-top was apparent in the three photos he used. If things didn’t work out with Lawrence, he had so many more to choose from. With almost a week to prepare, there was no need to rush.

First, an appointment with a beautician in the city who dealt with hair removal and asked no questions, some new underwear at Marks and Spencer’s, followed by a leisurely lunch at one of the better hotels in Nottingham. With the tax bill paid, and plenty left in the bank, he was actually looking forward to seeing what old Lawrence had to offer. Meanwhile, he had saved three more contacts on the dating website.

It was all going so well. Much better than he had ever imagined.

On the train to London that weekend, he even attracted some admiring glances in his new outfit and black wig.

The signs were favourable, that was definite.

Travelling as Phyllis was a refreshing change for Terence. It also saved having to pack changes of clothes to wear as a man. The hotel in Kensington was definitely a step up from the one in Bayswater. Although nothing grand, it was next door to one that was, so the atmosphere on the street felt good, with many foreign tourists as guests, including some very polite Japanese men who nodded respectfully as he checked in. The room was adequate, and three times the size of the shoe-box in Bayswater.

With no need to change before the dinner date, he did some more Internet research on Lawrence Colman-Tolliver. The man had no social media profile at all, not that unusual for someone that old. There was an entry for a Lawrence Tolliver that he had seen before, but that just related to a newspaper article from the 1980s about a planning dispute in Norfolk. There was no photo, but the similarity of the name made Terence uneasy. Why no Colman in that double-barrelled name? It was the usual stuff. Tolliver had been challenged over some property improvements that did not have permission. He went to court over it, and lost the case.

Dropping the name Tolliver, he found a Lawrence Colman listed as a cousin of the famous mustard family, and presumed that would likely be his man’s father. Maybe the Tolliver had been added after a second marriage before Lawrence was born?

On the way to Covent Garden in a taxi, Terence had to suffer the driver telling him that the restaurant was overpriced, and not as good as it had once been. He smiled politely, but had the feeling the cabbie had never actually eaten there and was just making conversation. The place had a uniformed doorman, which was impressive, and also a claim to be the oldest still surviving in London, dating back to 1798. There was a reservation in the name of Colman-Tolliver, but he was told the gentleman had not arrived as yet. Terence was seated at a table for two, and he asked to wait for the arrival of his dinner date until the menus were brought. Feeling awkward as the only person sitting alone, he asked the waiter to bring him a glass of Chablis.

Even that early, the restaurant was full. Most of the diners appeared to be foreigners, and everyone was very smartly dressed. Sipping his wine carefully, he noticed a few glances in his direction, most of which appeared to be favourable. Halfway down the glass of wine, the head waiter suddenly arrived at the table. “Madam, we have a telephone call for you, please follow me”. He was shown into a cloakroom and handed a portable phone handset. The waiter walked off a few paces, giving some privacy. Terence knew it had to be Lawrence, nobody else could possibly know he was there.

“Phyllis, m’dear. Profuse apologies. I got held up on the way to London, and I am still almost an hour away on a train. Would it be at all possible to meet at your hotel later? I am sure we could get something to eat there. I feel awful, I really do, but I had no contact number for you to alert you of the delay”. Terence smelled a rat. The voice didn’t sound old enough, and the hint of a badly-disguised Norfolk accent was unlikely in someone who claimed to be privately educated. So he gave the address of the swanky hotel next to his, and agreed to meet there in just over an hour. Then he paid for his glass of wine, apologied to the head waiter, and left. The uniformed doorman referred to him as ‘Miss’, as he stepped forward to summon a cab passing by.

Back in his room, Terence went over the situation. He didn’t believe a word of it. Someone was trying to con the con man. But why? he hadn’t given the impression he was that well-off, and the messages had seemed normal, with no hint of deception. Could it be sex? Was old Larry hoping to jump him in his hotel room after a hurried dinner? Mainly, he was annoyed at the waste of time, and the waste of money travelling down to London and booking the hotel. He was hungry too, but wasn’t about to splash out on an expensive hotel meal.

No, he would do something else. He would wait and see if Lawrence turned up next door

Terence strolled into the lobby of the nice hotel and sat down on a plush armchair with an oblique view of the long reception desk. When a waitress appeared moments later, he ordered a coffee, pleased that you did not need to be resident in the hotel to use the facilities at a price. The coffee was still warm when he saw a red-faced man walk in alone and enquire at the desk. He certainly wasn’t seventy-seven, more like fifty. His suit was crumpled, and he was mopping his face with a handkerchief, even though it wasn’t hot inside.

The receptionist checked her computer, and shook her head. The man said something, and she checked again. Looking confused, he nodded, and turned to leave.

Leaving enough money to cover the bill for the coffee, Terence stood up and followed the man out onto the street. When he was a few feet behind him, he spoke in a loud voice. “Lawrence, I presume? You look nothing like your photo, I have to say”. The man turned and smiled, but Terence wasn’t smiling when he spoke again. “Let’s walk and talk”. As Lawrence hadn’t replied, he led the conversation.

“So what’s the deal? You are obviously the man claiming to be Colman-Tolliver. Don’t deny it, I can sense it. What’s with the profile photo and the other nonsense. How did you expect to explain yourself to me?” The man stopped in the gateway of a big house, seemed to think about what to say, and then came right out with it.

“You’re a man, that’s obvious to me. This is what I do for a living, searching the dating sites for likely people. I spotted you right away, and knew what your game was. What if I was to mention a man named Geoffrey? That rings a bell, yes? I was trying my best with him, using a profile photo of a mature actress, hoping to drag him into something favourable to my situation. I saw that he liked your photo, then all of a sudden he disappeared. deleted his presence on the website. It didn’t take me long to work out what had happened, so I thought I would reverse the process”.

It hadn’t occurred to Terence that others were doing the same thing as he was. He started walking again.

“What do you expect from me, whatever your name is?” He was stopped by a firm hand on his shoulder. “Well I reckon it must be worth five grand to you for me not to expose you on the site. You must have other contacts saved, and you will get more than that from them, I bet. Then again, maybe not, considering you were stupid enough to fall for my alter-ego of Lawrence. The profile photo was of some old Scottish bloke, long dead. He was fond of shooting and fishing, judging by the photos I found online. I used to live in Norfolk years ago, and knew about the Colman family having big money. I dangled the bait, and you snapped it up”.

If they had not have been on a public street, Terence might well have broken the man’s nose. But he did have a point. He had been careless, and fallen for it exactly as had been described. But he was not about to fall at the first hurdle. Changing his voice from the gentle tones of Phyllis, he laughed as he replied.

“Do it then. Tell who you want that I am a man. Believe me, I get enough offers from those who don’t care either way. Besides, there are other sites, and marks have short memories. You’ll get no money from me, so you might as well crawl back into whatever shithole you came from. As for Geoffrey, you will never get an admission from him. He will back me up one hundred percent. He would sooner die than anyone find out the truth”.

His face getting redder, the man seemed to be deflated. He had obviously expected an easy victory, a speedy payment, and would have come back for more. He wasn’t as good as he thought he was at this game, Terence was sure of that. The best he could manage was bluster. “You’ll be sorry, mark my words. I will make sure anyone you go after knows what you are”. With that he turned to leave, mopping his face. As he walked off, Terence called after him.

“Get your blood pressure checked. Looking at your face, I doubt you are long for this world”.

But as he walked back to his genuine hotel, he realised he had learned a valuable lesson.

On the way home in the train, Terence was angry. Angry at being duped by the man purporting to be Lawrence. Angry that he would now have to change websites because of that mistake. Angry at wasting time and money travelling to London to meet the faker. And angry that the hotel refused to refund the cost of the second night when he checked out early.

The man sitting opposite him on the train was definitely checking out Phyllis though. Frequent glances from behind his book at her legs, and an occasional smile when their eyes met. On any other day, Terence might well have engaged him in conversation, gone home with him, then hit him with the reality. After all, he looked financially stable. An expensive watch, tailor-made suit, and the latest phone and laptop. The fact that he was reading a hardback book suggested some class, and a wedding ring indicated he was potentially open to be willing to pay to avoid exposure.

But he was too angry.

In the taxi from Nottingham City Station, he then got angry that he hadn’t gone with his instinct, and tried to secure the fellow passenger for a date. He was going to give himself a night off, drink a bottle of wine after a hot bath, and have a serious re-think about his next move after a good night’s sleep.

It wasn’t until eleven the next morning that he found his online Utopia. A more obscure, slightly kinky website for mature people who wanted to meet others for casual relationships. It had no fees, as it was ad-supported, and the private messages were encrypted, so no other con-men could see who you liked or sent messages to. He signed up using the black dress and short wig photos, but left out Phyllis’s age, instead going for ‘Mature and Experienced’. Sticking with the sixty-five plus age range for what he was interested in, he didn’t have to wait too long until the likes appeared on the photos, and the first messages came in.

Seventeen of the first twenty were predictably sexual. Photos of genitalia, men who were too young for him, and some kinky people who wanted things done to them that Terence was not willing to do, even for the chance of twenty grand. But one of the rest stood out like a whore at a wedding. Clive Gibson said he was sixty-two. Under the desired age range, but possible. He lived in Derby, only a thirty-minute journey by train, and his proflie photo showed a chubby guy with a big smile.

The profile text was appealing. ‘Looking for a kind but strict mature lady. Happy to meet in your home or a hotel, but cannot accommodate. Mutual enjoyment but no long-term commitment. And as a gentleman, I always pay for the lady’. That suggested a few things to Terence. Clive was probably married, financially stable, and was looking for some kind of domination-sex game.

Worth a try.

He sent a basic message. ‘Hi there Clive. I see you liked my photo and invited me to message you. I am fifty-something, live alone and can be strict when required. Also broad-minded, and open to new experiences. Like you, I am not looking for anything long-term, just some mutual fun’. Terence had time to make a sandwich for lunch, and was eating it when the reply came in.

‘Oh, that sounds wonderful. I am very interested, but I see you are based in London. That might make things difficult, as I have to be in the Derby area most days’. Terence had thought of that, and was ready. ‘I can get to Nottingham, not far from you. I know someone who has a small flat there. It’s nothing grand, but comfortable. Would meeting there suit you?’ It was a risk, as it meant giving the mark his actual address. But he wasn’t going to waste any more money on train fares and hotels to operate to London. He made a mental note to change his profile information to ‘The Midlands’. That would make life easier.

Twenty minutes later, Clive bit.

“Nottingham would be perfect, Phyllis. I can drive there easily, and I know the city well. Would a long afternoon suit? I would have to leave by six in the evening’. Terence let him stew for a while. A long while in fact. He didn’t bother to reply for almost four hours. Clive would be at home by then, and no doubt checking the site surreptitiously.

‘Yes, Clive. A long afternoon would be lovely. Shall we say next Friday?’

The reply didn’t take too long to arrive.

‘Friday at one? That would give us five hours. Please send me the address soon.’

Before Clive was due to turn up, Terence decided to buy some suitable attire. Deciding he should look something like a strict school-teacher or governess, he toured the charity shops for the right look. A tweed skirt and matching jacket, a high-necked blouse to go under that, finished off with some fake pearls. The whole outfit only cost him eight pounds, and he managed to get some lace-up heavy female shoes in another shop for just a pound. They were a bit tight, but he could bear them for one afternoon.

In a garden supplies shop, he bought a couple of bamboo canes, the type used to support plants. It might be that Clive wanted some corporal punishment on Friday, and though he had a large flat hairbrush in the bedroom, the canes would deliver extra pain if required. He already had some old brown spectacles in his flat, and they would round off the look very nicely. His acting ability would easily deal with the right tone of voice and dominant behaviour mentioned by Clive, so when Friday morning arrived, he was quietly confident.

Clive arrived five minutes early, but Terence was already dressed as Miss Phyllis. If he said so himself, the woman looking back at him in the mirror was very scary.

He looked just like his photo, and was carrying a large sports bag when he walked in. His attitude was strangely businesslike, and Terence could tell he had done this before. “I would like to change in your bedroom if that’s okay, Phyllis”. Terence showed him into the tidied-up bedroom, and waited. When the tubby man emerged, it was all he could do not to laugh out loud. He was dressed as a scholgirl, in a uniform that looked completely authentic. Not bothering with make-up, he was wearing a cheap, straw-coloured blonde wig. He smiled, and asked casually, “Is this okay for you? I’m a naughty schoolgirl sent to be disciplined”.

Terence couldn’t trust himself not to laugh, so nodded. Regaining his composure, he called upon his acting ability to play his part.

“Go and stand over in the corner, until I decide what to do with you”. The man bit his bottom lip exaggeratedly. “Yes Miss, sorry Miss”. Terence stared at the grown man trembling in the corner. He wasn’t surprised, as over the years he had heard of just about every kink imaginable. This one was actually quite easy, and was unlikely to involve any sexual activity on his part. After leaving Clive in the corner for ten minutes, he raised his voice in apparent anger.

“This is not the first time you have had to be sent to my office. But this time you need to be taught a lesson”. He sat on the small sofa. “Come here and receive your punishment”. As Clive reached the sofa, he assumed the position without being told what to do. Stretched out across Terence’s lap, waiting for whatever happened. Lifting the pleated skirt, Terence smacked him hard across his thighs and bum cheeks, over his underwear. Surprisingly, that hurt his hand, so he pulled down the underwear just far enough, and reached to the side of the sofa for one of the canes.

The first hard stroke of the cane made Clive gasp, the second made him wince in pain. But he also became aroused, which Terence was left in no doubt of. By the time he had hit the man six times, his skin was bright red and starting to swell. But he didn’t complain. “You want more, you bad girl?” Clive replied with a nod. Six more strokes were as much as he could take, calling out “Enough Miss!” as Terence noticed a thin cut appearing across one of the weals. He couldn’t help but wonder how Clive explained such injuries to his wife. Maybe he wasn’t married, after all?

Standing up and adjusting his underwear, Clive looked happy. “That was wonderful. Could we do it again next Friday, something different? You really get it, so many don’t understand”. It was easy work for Terence. The man had only been there for an hour, and was already heading for the bedroom to change. He called after him. “That will be acceptable, next Friday at one then”.

Dressed again as Clive, he reached into the sports bag, producing a large envelope. “Is five hundred alright? You certainly deserve it” Terence took the envelope, and nodded. That was the easiest cash he had ever earned in his life, and a very nice hourly rate too. On top of that, he had neither asked for it, nor expected it. He stood up and kissed Clive on the cheek.

“See you next Friday then”.

Terence had some thinking to do. If Clive could become a regular, five hundred a week was good enough, and showed he had money to burn. It would be no problem increasing the prices over time, and if he could afford it, which seemed very likely, he might get him to two meetings a week at seven-fifty a time. Much better than treading the boards in a provincial theatre, or a walk-on part as a drag queen in a drama that hardly anybody watched.

Also preferable to travelling around the country in the hope of fleecing some desperate old men. As for Clive’s fetishes, there was nothing he couldn’t handle. He had certainly done worse than spank a man dressed as a girl, and that was only to get a job touring in a bad play. Perhaps he should diversify? Advertise his domination services on the website at a price. If he could get three regulars, that was fifteen hundred a week minimum, without leaving home.

There were dozens of direct messages on his profile page, but he decided to ignore them for a while. He would order in a nice Chinese meal, and wait to see what Clive wanted next week.

Clive messaged him on Wednesday. ‘Okay for Friday still? Mind if it gets a bit dark?’ Terence relied immediately. ‘Friday is fine. Dark as you want to take it’. After he sent that reply, he opened some decent wine and chuckled to himself. The darkest he could imagine was probably that Clive had some kind of cannibal kink. Well he wasn’t about to eat the chubby man, even if he probably tasted like pork.

The Miss Phyllis outfit could get a second outing, Clive was unlikely to care, and that saved buying any other clothes. Terence had checked out some domination websites, and they seemed to infer that you had to dress up in shiny PVC, with laced-up corsets and studded neck chokers. He wasn’t about to waste money on that, so Clive would have to make do with the tweed suit and blouse.

When Clive turned up he was carrying the sports bag, and seemed happy. “Can you come into the bedroom with me please, Phyllis? I need your help this time”. Terence stood in the doorway of the bedroom and watched Clive strip naked. Then he reached into the sports bag and produced a number of long leather straps with buckles on them, also digging out a black leather mask, and a leather gag.

“I’m going to put the mask and gag on, then lie down on the bed. I need you to secure my wrists and feet with the straps, making sure I cannot possibly escape, okay?” Terence nodded. “Then just leave me here, helpless. I don’t have any deadline to get back to Derby, so you can choose how long you leave me in here. It’s the not knowing you see, the anticipation”. Terence nodded again. He didn’t have to play Miss Phyllis this afternoon.

Though not as easy as it looked, he finally got Clive secured on his bed. Checking the tightness of the straps to make sure he couldn’t move, he closed the curtains. Before he left the room he looked inside Clive’s jacket, removing his wallet, house keys, and car keys. It was already working well for Clive, judging by the scene on the bed.

There was a couple of hundred in the wallet, as well as three credit cards, a bank debit card, and Clive’s driving licence.

Terence had an idea, and quickly formed a plan. Although he didn’t own a car, he could drive, having passed his test in his late teens. The car keys had an Audi logo on them, and there wouldn’t be many of those parked near his flat. Clive’s driving licence had his address on it, and there was almost certainly a Satnav in the Audi that would guide him there. It was only a thirty-minute drive, so Terence decided that he would go to Derby and find out all about the naked man lying on his bed.

Going out as Phyllis, he took the next right past his flat, the easiest street to park on. Five cars up, there was a shiny new black Audi saloon. He pressed the button on the key fob, and it unlocked. Over half a tank of petrol, more than enough. He pressed a button on the media screen in the car, selected ‘Navigation’, and scrolled down the list until he found ‘Home’.

The voice on the Satnav was that of a very posh mature woman.

No surprise there.

The house was a double-fronted detached 1930s style in a nice area of Derby. Terence parked the car in front of the separate garage, and ran his gaze over the property looking for any sign of a burglar alarm. The house next door had a ‘For Sale’ sign at the front, and appeared to be empty. In a street with only ten houses, all identical, nobody was around at that time of the afternoon.

There was no visible alarm box. Maybe Clive wanted to give the impression that there was nothing inside worth stealing? He picked up the house keys, locked the car, and went in.

It had been left in more or less original condition, with many period features. His best guess was that Clive had inherited the family home, and decided to make no modern improvements. There was some post on a hall-stand, all addressed to Clive. No sign of a wife or children, no photos on display, and a rather sterile feel. On the left, a door led into a spacious living room, with a dining table at one end next to French windows overlooking an average sized garden. The television was nothing special, and the room had little atmosphere or style.

Terence went back to the hallway and into the room opposite. That was more like it. A dedicated office area. Computer, monitor, printer, fax machine, large desk, and two filing cabinets. After thirty minutes going through everything in the cabinets and desk, he had the measure of Clive.

Owner of no less than four car dealerships in the immediate area. Audi, which was predictable, but also Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Lexus. Clive had an impressive portfolio indeed, and bank statements showed he had a great deal of money. Payments into his current account ran between twelve thousand to forty thousand a month. Much of that was transferred out to savings accounts, and just one statement showed him with a stash of eighty thousand in one account. His current account alone had a balance of no less than thirty-three thousand pounds, and there were business account statements that Terence didn’t even bother to look at.

Small wonder he could afford five hundred quid for one hour of service to his current kink. Compared to Geoffrey, this bloke was seriously minted.

Upstairs, he found two bedrooms ready for use, including the main one at the front which was obviously where Clive slept. The third room was empty, save for an ironing board and iron. There was no ensuite in the main room, just the one dated family bathroom with sixties decor. Clive might be a man who had money, but he didn’t spend it on his accommodation, that was for sure. The fourth room was more interesting. It had a hasp and staple on the outside of the door, allowing it to be secured with a padlock.

But there was no padlock.

Inside, Terence turned on the lights, being temporarily blinded by three incongruous flourescent tubes that lit up the place like an airport terminal. He whislted softly when he saw the scene, and shook his head.

The room was about fourteen by twelve, and the window at the back covered by a solid shutter. Racks lined the walls, and in the centre of the room was what looked like a weight-lifting bench. But the variious straps and shackles attached to that bench told him it had nothing to do with weight-lifting. And the old-fashioned video camera on a movable dolly confirmed what he suspected. The room was some sort of torture chamber. Whips and canes were fitted to the racks, along with shelves containing leather clothing of great variety. Along with gags, hoods, and clubs.

It was a punishment room. Terence had heard of those, but had never seen one before.

Next to the camera was a small shelving unit, a DVD player, and a small television. The unit was full of DVD discs in white covers, each one with dates, times, and names of the people involved. Taking one at random, he put it into the DVD player below the television, and pressed play. Smiling, he chose another. And after that, another.

Clive was always the victim. Many of those handing out the required punsihment were older women. In some cases, they appeared to be kindly grannies. In others they were dressed in PVC clothing and thigh-boots, weilding whips. But it was the third DVD that interested Terence the most.

Some young boys, and young girls. They appeared to be underage, as far as he could tell. Terence started to take photographs on his phone, and then picked up a dozen or more of the DVD films. As he went back downstairs, he couldn’t stop smiling.

He had hit the jackpot, and that jackpot’s name was Clive.

Terence was able to park the car very close to where he had taken it. Once back inside his flat, he was pleased to see that Clive had not soiled the bed during his absence. After stashing the DVDs and his phone in a box placed inside his fridge, he went back into the bedroom to talk to the man tied to his bed.

Pulling off the leather hood and gag, he sat on the end of the bed. Clive spoke first. “That was amazing? How long have I been here? You have no idea of time in this situation”. Staying in character as Phyllis, Terence dangled the car keys in front of Clive’s face.

“It’s been a while, dear Clive. I took a little trip to your house, and found it very interesting. We are going to have to have a serious talk about what I found there”. Clive looked confused at first, then his face flushed with embarrassment as realisation set in. Terence smiled as he continued. “Nice little torture chamber you have there, and the DVDs were very interesting to watch. I’m assuming that those schoolkids were around fourteen or fifteen? I’m sure you paid them handsomely for their services, but tut-tut. They are underage, and you must have known that”.

Clive pulled at the straps. Considering they were his straps, and he knew how strong they were, that seemed futile. He glared at Terence without speaking.

“Dear Clive, this is what is going to happen. You are going to log into your online banking, then I am going to transfer eighty thousand pounds to myself. If you fail to do this, the photos I took and the DVDs I stole will all be in the hands of the police in Derby before nighfall. And don’t even think about becoming violent, or refusing the transfer, as I have left my phone and your details with my solicitor, along with the DVDs. I called in on him on the way back. He will open the parcel in the event that he doesn’t hear from me by nine tomorrow morning”.

That was all nonsense of course. Terence didn’t have a solicitor, but Clive was talking to Phyllis, and as far as he was concerned, he presumed she would have one.

Still refusing to speak, Clive nodded. Terence freed Clive’s right hand from the restraints and passed him the laptop. After a few taps, Clive looked away, and pushed the laptop back to him. Terence hesitated for a second. The banking details would be accessible to Clive, as would his real name. Phyllis as an identity would be lost. But it was a lot of money, so he completed the transfer, waiting until the confirmation appeared on the screen.

“Okay, I am going to untie you now, and leave you to get dressed. Don’t forget, any funny business, and it all comes out in the open. I don’t think you would enjoy being in prison as an abuser of underage kids, do you?”

He freed the man from the straps carefully. He was chubby, and unlikely to become violent. But you never knew how someone might react in that situation. So he stayed in the bedroom and waited until Clive was dressed and ready to leave. Clive had said nothing since it had all started. But when he got his keys back, he stood quietly for a moment before speaking.

“Whoever you are, you have made a big mistake. I know people. People who will do very bad things to you for not much money. Certainly not as much as you have taken me for. And you think you are clever because you know I thought you were a woman? Well, that has made it twice as bad as it could have been, believe me. I can take my revenge on you without being remotely involved, you should know that. I will have solid alibis, witnesses, and a flawless character with no police record. You chose the wrong man, Phyllis. Or whatever your name is”.

Deciding to brazen it out, Terence scoffed. “Oh yeah. Big man. You know people. Blah, blah, blah. You’re a car salesman, Clive, and you live a twisted lifestyle. You want all that to come out? Go on then, bring it on!”

It was only once Clive had left the flat that he started to worry.

Terence didn’t dwell on his concerns for too long. After all, he had the best part of a hundred grand in his bank account. That might attract the attention of the tax man at some stage, but he could say it was a gift. Geoffrey and Clive were unlikely to argue. If they didn’t believe him, he would worry about that when it happened.

In the meantime, he could afford to move out of his dingy flat, buy a small car, and live in a part of England less grungy than Nottingham. A look around a map online left him deciding on Horncastle, in Lincolnshire. Off the tourist trail, but still close to the coast, he would be anonymous there as Terence. He found a nice two-bed bungalow to rent, and it came with a garage and small garden. That might be just what he needed, at his time of life.

Before he gave notice on the flat and had a moving date, he checked in with his contacts on the website. Someone had caught his eye, and it had to be worth a final throw of the dice before moving.

Alan was forty-six, probably not using his real name. He wanted to know if Phyllis was available to help him dress as a woman, show him how to do make-up, and behave in a feminine manner. He was supposedly straight otherwise; not interested in sex, simply had a desire to dress as a woman for a few hours. As he was willing to pay, Terence could see some easy money. And he might not have to get involved in any blackmail attempt. He replied that he could easily help him, at five hundred a session.

The reply arrived very quickly. Could Phyllis manage two sessions this week, as he had some time off work. Terence saw an easy thousand, and sent him the address. They settled on two consecutive days, Thursday and Friday, with Alan stopping over and sleeping on the sofa. He said he would bring his own shoes, clothes and wig, but would arrive as a man. Terence decided to stick with his identity as Phyllis while he was there, and carefully hid any post relating to Terence.

Obviously keen, Alan arrived an hour early. “Sorry, it didn’t take too long, I live quite near here”. Terence showed him into the bedroom to change, reassuring him. “You get dressed up and then I will show you where you went wrong, okay?” Alan looked nervous, but he also seemed to be genuine. He looked like his photo, and had brought a suit-carrier with various dresses and underwear crammed inside. He also had a smaller bag full of toiletries.

When he came out of the bedroom, he looked a fright. One of the very worst crossdressers Terence had ever seen. His legs were unshaved, his wig was plonked on his head, and his idea of looking like a normal woman was to wear a too-short dress and a pair of fishnet tights. Terence kept a straight face when he spoke to the man. “Oh no, that won’t do at all my dear. You are not a twenty-year old punk, far from it. Let’s go in the bedroom, and we will start again. But you should really shave your legs first, dear”.

Shaking his head, Alan was firm. “No that can’t happen. It will have to be with unshaved legs, sorry”. That told Terence all he needed to know. Alan might have taken off his wedding ring, or might not be married. But he was definitely living with a woman. Shaving his legs would require an explanation, and he wouldn’t have one that would convince any female lover. Terence was kind. “No problem, I will do my best, and have you looking convincing in no time”. He had his fingers crossed when he said that.

After over an hour in the bedroom, Terence had his new friend kitted out in one of the better dresses. Black opaque tights sorted the issue with the hairy legs, and a first-rate make-up job made him look almost female. Okay, almost might be a stretch. He looked like a man dressed up as a woman, but as far as Alan was concerned, he looked amazing.

“Oh wow, you have done a great job. Can we order in a takeaway for dinner? I will pay”.

Before the meal arrived, Alan was shown how to sit like a woman. How to moderate his voice, slip a shoe on and off, and occasionally recross his legs as they chatted. He seemed very happy, and Terence was relaxed enough to open a decent bottle of red wine for them to share over dinner.

Later, Alan rambled on about how he wasn’t gay, but had always wanted to wear women’s clothes.

After two hours of that, Terence was checking his watch, praying for bedtime.

Making sure he was up early the next morning, Terence was not surprised to find Alan still sleeping in his wig, and wearing a nightdress that would have suited an eighty year-old woman. After serving coffee and toast, he took Alan into the bedroom for a make-up masterclass.

Some men just didn’t get it, and Alan was one of those men. He thought that being made-up as a woman involved ridiculously large false eyelashes, eye shadow as thick as tar, and blusher on the cheeks resembling an allergic reaction. By the time Alan had removed unacceptable make-up three times, and finally learned what was acceptable, lunch was late.

Not that it was much of a lunch. Terence hadn’t bothered to get anything in, so it was cheese toasties with a side of wilted salad leaves, and some tomatoes long past their best. But Alan wasn’t complaining, and when he started to be instructed in how to buy the right type of underwear and a much better wig, he was visibly excited.

“This is just what I needed, Phyllis. I mean, when you are like me, there is not exactly an instruction manual, is there?”

At no time did Alan appear to suspect that Phyllis was actually a man. He certainly gave no indication of that, and hadn’t mentioned any suspicions. Terence was pleased that there was definitely no sexual motivation, not even a hint of it. He suspected that Alan was essentially a straight man who had perhaps tried on his mother’s clothes as an inquisitive child. Since then, the desire to repeat that process was overwhelming him. But probably because he was married, and well-respected in whatever job he did, he could not face the thought of the shame if he declared himself.

After lunch, Terence gradually wound down the session. He was complimentary, even though he was lying.

“Well, I’m sure you will agree that’s a one hundred percent improvement, Alan. You now look like a mature woman, and could probably pass unnoticed along a busy street. You have to get a better wig though, which will cost you. But as far as I can see, my work here is done”. By three that afternoon, Alan had reverted to his male persona, packed up all of his things, and was ready to leave. “Can I come again, once I have the new wig and better dresses?” Terence kept him on the hook. “Message me once that is all done, and we will arrange a time”.

He was wondering when Alan would hand over the cash, and didn’t want to ask for it. But the man reached inside his jacket pocket, and produced an envelope. “No need to count it it’s all there, in twenties”. Terence accepted a friendly kiss on the cheek, then bade his new friend farewell. An easy grand. He had worked three weeks in shows for less than that.

It had been a good week, as far as Terence was concerned. Easy money, and a move on the horizon. The following day he got most of what he wanted to take packed up in some boxes, and phoned to arrange to hire a van for the weekend. He could drop the van off in Lincolnshire, and the same day he would buy himself a nondescript small car somewhere local.

There was more to move than he had anticipated, but all those years in the limelight meant he had accumulated a lot of stuff that had memories. He wasn’t about to leave those behind, or his expensive clothes and wigs. After a busy morning packing the van, he only just managed to close the doors at the back. All that was left was to drop off the keys at the letting agent’s shop, and drive across country to his new life.

With less than a two-hour drive to Horncastle, he knew he would arrive at the agent’s place in time to collect the keys. They didn’t close until five, so there was plenty of time. He would leave most of the things in the van overnight, unload on the Sunday, and return the van to a depot in Lincoln on Monday. There were lots of car dealers around that city, and he was sure he would be able to drive away a car by Monday afternoon, once he had sorted out some insurance.

When he got into the bungalow that afternoon, he was pleasantly surprised. As he had rented it based on the Internet photos, he had wondered what it might be like when he got there. But it was very pleasant. Not that large, but three times the size of his horrible flat in Nottingham.

Getting changed into some smarter clothes, Terence decided to check out the centre of Horncastle. There had to a decent pub where he could get dinner.

As he sat eating a tasty Steak and Ale Pie with vegetables in a decent pub, Terence suddenly had an idea. It was one of those light-bulb moments, and a smile spread across his face. There were so many men like Alan, more than any straight people could ever imagine. So many in fact, that there was a market for places that allowed those men to become women for the day, dressing up as they wished, learning how to sit, walk and talk, apply make-up, choose wigs, and be themselves for a few hours in like-minded company.

Such places already existed in London, Manchester, and Edinburgh, probably in other cities too. He had once seen one on Eversholt Street, near Euston Station. Blacked out windows, but an obvious name, ‘Transformation’. Was there one in Lincolnshire? A quick search on his phone showed nothing similar, just ads from crossdressers actually looking for the service. After dinner, a stroll around Horncastle revealed a few shops to let, but they were all quite central, and not really secluded enough. He decided to go home and do some research.

By Wednesday, he had signed the lease on a former solicitor’s premises at the edge of town. Parking for four cars, and six rooms that could be used however he wanted. Another online search had bought him a custom-built website, using his chosen name of ‘New You’. It was going to take some interior decorating, and removal of some partitions, but he reckoned he could go live by the end of the month.

Everything he needed could be bought online and delivered. Mirrors, make-up, wigs, some dresses and skirts, underwear in assorted sizes, and shoes in larger sizes. He sat and worked out the charges. The basic service would be one hundred pounds an hour, with a minimum of three hours. That would include the tuition, but the hire of clothing and wigs would be extra if they didn’t have their own. No more than three men at a time, to ease any parking issues, and to make it feel spacious and relaxed.

Advertising could be mainly done online, using Facebook and other social media. Links to the website allowed potential customers to ask questions, and book sessions. A new mobile phone with a different number reserved only for the business, and he would always be Miss Phyllis as far as they were concerned.

It took seven weeks and over nine grand, but when he went live he had his first booking within the hour. By the time he logged off to cook some dinner, eight bookings. As he sat at the dining table, Terence was pleased with himself. He had gone completely legit, used his skills honed after years of acting, and didn’t have to worry about blackmail and revenge any longer. He knew once those first customers gave him a good review or spoke to their closeted friends about New You, he would be as busy as he could cope with.

For maximum discretion, he didn’t advertise around Horncastle, and he had no exterior signs that gave any idea what business was going on inside the refurbished bulding. Terence would go to work as himself, changing into Phyllis before the customers arrived, and back again before going home. A video entry system would make sure no unsuspecting shoppers turned up out of curiosity, and the door would be locked before each arrival. He had a toilet and shower facility for them to use, as well as a machine that made tea and coffee which he would give out free of charge. One of the rooms was done out as a comfortable lounge area, where they could get together and relax. Talk among friends, swap life stories, or just sit around feeling female.

Other than the builders who had made the changes, painted the walls, and installed the mirrors, nobody had any idea what he was doing. He had told them he was getting the property ready for a friend who had a dressmaking business, and they seemed to accept that.

He had also worked out some figures. Open six days a week, closed on Mondays, he could make a good living even if he only had three customers a day at the basic rate. That was nine hundred a day, potentially much more if they hired the outfits or wanted to stay longer than three hours.

If it all worked out, he was going to need a good accountant.

Terence hadn’t forgotten Alan. Although it was a bit further for him to drive, he felt sure Alan would be keen to be part of New You. He had kept him informed of developments by messaging him on the old fetish site, and sure enough he was one of the first to book sessions after they went live. This was Terence’s main reason for keeping his Phyllis Harvey identity, when it would have been logical to change the name of the proprietor.

Alan seemed to favour Fridays, and booked a four-hour session for the next ten Fridays. Occasionally, Terence wondered where seemingly ordinary men got the money from to indulge their fantasies, but then he remembered that many straight men spend as much on gambling, alcohol, or constantly changing their cars for new ones. And Alan had some contacts in the crossdressing world, as well as some good ideas about how to keep customers happy.

Female names was a good one. Although they had to pay using their real names on their cards if they didn’t bring cash, they all loved to use female names when they were dressed up as women. Alan had asked to be called ‘Barbara’, and others who had booked were excited to use their chosen names at the sessions. They were mostly old fashioned names, like Patricia, Monica, Susanne, and Vanessa. The age range of the customers was extreme. The youngest just twenty-two, the oldest seventy-three. But even that youngster chose a really old name, Shirley.

Having to get a card reader was a pain, but with half the bookings saying they would pay cash, Terence could pocket that, and just declare income on the card payments. That would save him a lot of tax. The first bookings went well. He was able to keep a straight face when a seventy year-old looked more like a circus clown than a woman, but young Shirley was a revelation. The most convincing transvestite Terence had ever seen. The only downside was that he recognised Phyllis was a man within seconds.

Not that he cared about that.

One day after everyone had left, someone rang the doorbell. On the camera, he looked about sixty, and was dressed in a tweed jacket, casual trousers, and shirt and tie. With nobody expected, Terence was reluctant to answer. But as he had already changed out of his Phyllis persona, he let the man in. The red faced man was overweight, and had bad breath. His accent was definitely local. He extended a podgy hand.

“Norman Tompkinson, pleased to meet you. I am your local councillor, and wanted to welcome you and your business to Horncastle. By the way, what exactly is your business?” Terence used his real name. “Hi, Terence Halloran. I am running a bespoke dress shop. I have a partner who makes the dresses to order. She likes exclusive clientele, and it is going well so far”. Norman wandered around. “Perhaps I could recommend her to some ladies I know? For a small percentage to cover my expenses of course”.

Not about to tolerate being shaken down by this pot-belied idiot, Terence nipped it in the bud. “Sadly, she already has more work than she can cope with. I would ask you to please not recommend her, as she could never cope with the work. But it was nice to meet you”. Norman was miffed. “Perhaps I could deal direct with the lady? What’s her name?” Terence was already ahead of him. “She is Phyllis Harvey, but I act as an agent for her. She doesn’t work in Horncastle, she uses me to take measurements, decide on styles and fabrics, that sort of thing. Anyway, Norman, thanks for stopping by. I will be sure to voote for you in the next council elections”.

As if.

Norman was deflated. Expecting some sort of payoff, he had been second-guessed.

After he had left, Terence was left wondering about who else might turn up and stick their beak into his business. He was legitimate, but not public. If the locals found out he was running a crossdressing parlour, no doubt he would have a few crazies protesting outside, crippling his new business.

He decided that he would look up Norman online, then make a substantial donation to his next re-election campaign. The first month had gone better than he had anticipated, mainly thanks to Alan’s regular bookings, and the introduction of a few crossdressers Alan knew in Nottinghamshire. No need to spoil things by ignoring Norman.

As he knew all too well, greed could be good.

A year later, and Terence had a thriving business. He was turning down bookings, and had a core of over thirty regular customers who came back week after week. One of them, who liked to be known as Diane, even paid just to sit around and help out. He did the cleaning, made the others welcome, and spent most of the week hanging out in New You. His bill for that was astonomical, and when Terence asked him where he got so much money from, he was amazed at the answer.

“I sold my house, Miss Phyllis. I live five miles away in a caravan now, and I have never been happier. This place is my dream world”.

Alan kept up his bookings too, but Terence had soon discovered that Sundays were a waste of time. Rare bookings, and presumably because so many married men had to do family stuff at weekends. So he closed on Sundays, then saved even more money by giving up the rented bungalow and moving into a large room above the business. It wasn’t licenced for use as accommodation, but his regular donations to Norman on the local Council ensured that he would get no interference.

As predicted, he had to get an accountant. As far as Simon Drew was concerned it was a dressmaking business, and the takings were doctored with fake invoices to made up names for wedding dresses and fancy frocks that Terence created on his new computer and printer. That was a business expense too.

Keeping his head down in the small town was not that easy, but he managed it by being stand-offish and evasive. It didn’t matter that some of the other traders thought he was rude and arrogant, as he never had any intention of befriending them, or becoming part of that community.

The tax man was happy with Simon’s accounts, and he was completely legal. He reckoned that another five years would see him squirrel enough money away to retire quite comfortably, but he intended to keep running the business on reduced hours after that. It was easy money, and he had a long list of men waiting for appointments as soon as any became available.

For a while, he considered expanding. Perhaps opening a second branch of New You in Leeds or Hull. But why make stress for himself by running two businesses when just one made so much money?

New You had undergone a few changes too. It was much smarter inside, and the walls were decorated with professional photographs of his best-looking transvestite clients. The hire side had expanded, and he had invested in accessories like leotards, ballet outfits, school uniforms, wedding dresses, and other female costumes that some customers had spoken about to Diane. There was no limit to the fantasies whirring around in the minds of those men, that was for sure.

Only Alan stuck to his original desire to look like a forty-something housewife. He had upped his game though, and could occasionally look more like your best mate’s mum that you might have had the odd dream about when you were at Secondary School. His confidence had grown as a result, and he considered hiself to be one of the mainstays of New You. The downside was that he also seemed to be physically attracted to Miss Phyllis. He was a bit ‘touchy-feely’ on occasion, and had once suggested stopping the night, even though he knew there was only one bedroom upstairs.

Terence had managed to let him down gently, by saying he didn’t want to complicate their friendship. To sweeten that bitter pill, he allowed Alan an occasional snogging session when nobody else was around, always amazed that the man seemed to not have a clue that he was also a man.

He had to conclude that things had never been better, and he kicked himself for not coming up with the idea ten years earlier. Thoughts of a franchise were on his mind too. He could roll out the New You model all around the country. Edinburgh, Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton, Brighton. The possibilities were endless. It was an expanding market, no doubt about that. Although open transexuals were the flavour of the month, that made things worse for the closeted crossdressers. They needed somewhere discreet. They were not about to advertise their lifestyle on the evening news, after all.

When the doorbell rang on a Monday when he was closed, he checked the camera. Two uniformed police officers, one male, one female. What could they possibly want? He went down and opened the door. The woman did the talking.

“Terence Halloran? Formerly of Victoria Road, Nottingham?” He nodded.

“Can you come with us please, sir? We have a warrant for your arrest”.

Sitting in the back of the police car in handcuffs, Terence considered his options. He had been cautioned, and told he was being arrested ‘To allow further investigations into a serious allegation’. He decided to ask no questions of the policewoman, and say nothing on the journey to Lincoln Police Station. Best not to blurt out anything they didn’t already know or suspect.

At the police custody, he was released from the handcuffs, listened to a routine speech from the Sergeant in charge, and had his fingerprints and photograph taken. He also consented to a DNA swab, and when that was taken he was given the opportunity to make a phone call. He rang his accountant, asking him to contact a solicitor with some experience of criminal cases and ask them to come to Lincoln Custody Suite. Then he was put in a cell awaiting the arrival of that solicitor, and the detectives who wanted to interview him.

Ninety minutes later, the cell door opened and he was taken to a room along a corridor. Inside, a smartly dressed woman stood up as he entered. “Terence, I am Rosa Martinez. Let’s sit down and go over what this is about”. She opened a notebook, quickly jotting down a few lines. Terence told her he had no idea why he had been arrested. He hadn’t done anything wrong that he knew about, and his reason for being detained was vague. She seemed surprised.

“They have received an allegation of sexual assault on an underage child, a boy. He alleges it happened at your former address in Nottingham. Can you tell me anything about that? Please tell me everything truthfully, I cannot represent you properly if I don’t know all the facts”. The realisation washed over him like a cold wave at the seaside. It was Clive, no doubt about that. He had taken his time to find him in Horncastle, but once he had, one of his flunky boys had been paid to set him up. Still, he could hardly tell her that.

Being a good actor came in handy, and the fact that he could partly answer truthfully helped too. Terence told her he had never had any underage person in his flat, male or female. He had no idea why this boy had made such an outrageous allegation, and unless it was a case of mistaken identity, he could not help with any more details. She kept nodding, and as far as he could tell, she believed him.

“They will be coming in to formally interview you soon. I advise you to say No Comment to every question, whatever the question is. Let’s see what evidence they have, if any. I will also insist on bail, whether or not you are charged. This is a serious allegation, but you have an unblemished record. Even so, I should warn you now that if they charge you, there is every likelihood that you may go to prison on remand, so be prepared for that to happen”.

Rosa continued making notes, and had no other questions for him. Ten minutes later, a uniformed officer came into the room. “Sorry for the delay, the detectives have been delayed in traffic. There’s a big pile-up on the A15, apparently. Can I get you tea or coffee?” They both asked for coffee, and he left the room smiling. Rosa shook her head. “He seems very happy, I’m guessing he doesn’t know what you might be charged with. In my experience cops don’t like child sex cases, and it’s even worse in prison”.

Terence wanted to make a sarcastic remark about her comment not being very reassuring, but instead he asked her about the origin of her surname. “My mum went on holiday to Mexico twenty-nine years ago, with her parents. Cancun, you might have heard of it? Well, she fell for a tour guide there, and came home pregnant. He actually stood by her when he found out, flew to England, and married her. But less than six months after I was born, he skipped off back to Mexico. Neither of us have ever seen or heard from him since”.

The door opened and two men walked in. One was holding a file, and they both sat down. The older one had his head down, and left the talking to his colleague. The younger one switched on a recording device, and spoke loudly. “Interview with Terence Halloran at Lincoln Custody Suite. Present are the accused, his solicitor Rosa Martinez, myself, Detective Sergant Ian Phillips, and Detective Inspector John Digby”. Leaning back in his chair and relaxing, Terence smiled.

Inspector Digby was Alan.

Alan, now exposed as John Digby, looked mortified. He must have known from Terence’s address that he must be Phyllis. The times he had lusted after him, believing him to be a woman, the passionate kisses leaving him wanting more. Now Phyllis was sitting in front of him as a man, accused of sexual assault on a minor. If he said anything, Digby’s career would be over, as would his marriage, family, and reputation. Digby appeared to be trembling a little, and his face was incredibly pale.

But Terence didn’t say a word about the intimate moments in Nottingham, or at New You in Horncastle. He stuck to Rosa’s advice, and answered “No comment” to every question. When the two detectives concluded the interview and switched off the tape, John Digby looked extremely relieved. Before he was taken back to his cell in the custody block, Rosa had a brief chat with him.

“They don’t seem to have anything concrete. Just a he said/you said statement, with the fourteen year old giving a fairly accurate description of your flat. But since you moved out, there have been two other tenants, and nothing the boy said can be proved now, unless they had photos from the time. Which they don’t. There is obviously no DNA evidence, or they would have hit you with that. The best they have is that the boy said you asked him to come to your flat, made him dress as a woman, then performed a sex act on him. To be honest, it’s weak. No independent witnesses, no physical evidence. They have twenty-four hours to charge you or let you go, and I’m betting that Detective Inspector will not even be taking the case to the Crown Prosecution Service. I’m going to go home now, but ring me if they want to interview you again. I will send my bill in due course”.

Terence wasn’t too concerned as he sat in his cell waiting for the outcome. Rosa seemed to know her stuff, and he was sure she would be able to get him off if it went to court. But the ace in the hole was Alan. If he went ahead with any charges, Terence would crucify him. Get the case thrown out because of his personal connection. Grass him up totally, and even get witnesses like ‘Diane’ from New You to confirm that ‘Alan’ was always around, dressed up and lustful.

He half-expected Digby to appear in his cell, maybe try to find out what he intended to say, perhaps even rough him up out of anger. But to do that he would have to walk past the Custody Sergeant and his team, then justify why he was wanting to talk to a prisoner alone. So he sat quietly, thinking about Clive. He couldn’t blame him for trying to take revenge, but he had gone about it quite clumsily.

Once this got sorted out, Terence would make sure that the Nottingham newspapers and the business community knew about Clive’s perversions. It would have to be anonymous of course, but as everyone knows, mud sticks. Besides, he still had the photos and DVD films. They would sink him.

Less than an hour later, the detective who had asked the questions opened the cell door. He didn’t seem at all happy.

“You are free to go, follow me”. At the desk of the Custody Sergeant, his personal possessions were returned, and he had to sign for them. Then the sergeant pointed at the exit. Terence was on the verge of asking for a lift back to New You, but decided not to push his luck.

It was a long walk back into the part of the city where he could find a taxi on a rank, but on the way he left a message on Rosa’s answerphone, telling her he had not been charged and would happily pay her bill.

Back in his room that evening, he reflected on the day. It could have gone so badly, but it hadn’t. He saw that as a sign. Next month, he would start working on rolling out the franchise model for New You. But not until he had made copies of all the photos and DVDs that Clive starred in, and sent them to anyone who might be interested. He would drive over to Grantham to post them, just to put anyone off the scent of his real location.

Then he heated up a microwave lasagna, opened a botle of cheap Chianti, and sat relaxing.

When the doorbell went at almost ten at night, he checked the camera.

It was Alan.

If he was expecting Alan to be angry, Terence was wrong. He was both apologetic, and very affectionate.

“I am so sorry about what happened today. It was a trumped-up accusation at best, and that Clive was behind it, I’m sure. My Chief Inspector made it work for him. He must be involved in Clive’s life somehow, as we have been trying to nail that weird bastard for ages, but no charges or warrants ever get past my boss. As soon as I saw your name and address on the warrant, I just knew it must be malicious, but I had to go through the motions. We always knew that it would never result in a charge, let alone a prosecution, so I’m guessing it was a half-arsed scare tactic. I beg you to forgive me”.

With that, he flung his arms around Terence, and showered him with kisses, even though he was not dressed as Phyllis. That made one thing obvious, and irrefutable.

Alan had always known Phyllis was a man dressed as a woman.

He hadn’t asked Terence not to tell on him, and never even mentioned the possibility that he might. That not only meant he had some trust that would not happen, but also a desire to retain the status quo in their relationship, such as it was.

Terence decided to take him up to his room for a drink, keen to know more. He didn’t have to wait long for Alan to explain.

“That allegation would never have got off the ground, if it wasn’t for whatever hold Clive has over my boss. No evidence, nothing at all. Just an unsubstantiated claim by a boy that could not be backed up by anything whatsoever. I don’t know how or why you upset Clive, and I don’t want to know. But I can assure you nothing will be continued in the case, and I really hope nothing will change at New You, or between us. I cannot stress how much coming here means to me. It is all that I live for now”.

Assuring him that everything would be okay, Terence told him about what he knew of Clive, and that he intended to expose him with the photographs and the DVD films. He thought Alan would be pleased, but he wasn’t.

“Please, please, don’t do that. Clive tried and failed, and he will fade away. He used his ace in the hole, and it didn’t work. If you try to expose him now, my boss will be caught in the crossfire, and who knows who else. God forbid they should find out about New You, and expose all of your customers. That is likely to happen, and you must know that. Leave well-enough alone, and we have a chance to be happy here”.

Pouring him another drink, Terence reassured him that he would think it over. But he had already decided to take that advice. Life was good in Horncastle, and rattling cages or raking over old wounds would almost certainly change everything. When he had calmed down, Alan made a surprising request.

“Can we both go and dress? I badly want to feel feminine, and I need you to be Miss Phyllis. I have told my wife I am tied up on a case, so I can stay all night if that’s alright with you. I really don’t want to be alone as John Digby, and even though I always guessed you were a man, I would never have said anything if all this hadn’t come out today”.

For the first time that he could remember, Terence felt something. He had feelings for the man he knew as Alan, and that worried him. He realised that Alan being upset made him upset too. He readily agreed that they could both dress as requested, and that Alan could stay overnight. When they were both in their familiar characters, Terence took his hand and led him back up to the bedroom. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to.

The next morning, they were both awake early, and Alan had something he wanted to say.

“In less than six months, my daughter will be going to university, my mortgage will be paid off, and I can take my thirty-year police pension. I have been unhappy with my wife for years, but needed a push to make me do something about it. You are that push. I want to finish it with her, sort out the finances, make sure my daughter is financially stable, and then sell the house. I will have my pension lump sum, the house is in good equity, and my monthly pension is more than enough to live on, even after I pay off my wife. My dream is to come and live here with you, maybe invest in the business and develop it. What do you say, Phyllis?”

Smiling and happy, Terence said yes.

The End.

Life With Mabel: The Complete Story

This is every episode of my recent fiction serial, compiled into one complete story.
It is a long read, at 24,200 words.

She was all in a fluster, as she knew she would be. Why had she agreed when Elsie suggested the day trip? It was an early start, and she wasn’t that bothered about Highclere Castle, even if it was the location where they filmed Downton Abbey. To tell the truth, she had only watched a bit of the first series before getting bored with it, but she daren’t tell Elsie that, as it was her all time favourite television programme.

It had to be said, the cost was very reasonable. Only forty-nine pounds, and that included admission, and a light lunch somewhere after. It was a three hour drive each way too, in what was described as a luxury air conditioned coach. Not that they would need airconditioning today. It was chilly enough for Mabel to make sure she had a thick cardigan in her shoulder bag.

Most of the group from the Pensioner’s Club were going, and Mabel hadn’t had the heart to say no. Nor a decent enough excuse. She had thought about saying she had a hospital appointment, but Elsie always went with her to those, so she would know it wasn’t true.

If only Reginald had still been alive. She could have used him as a reason not to go, considering how bad he was after the stroke.

They had to meet the coach in the town car park at eight. At least the car park was free all day, but Mabel so rarely drove anywhere these days. She had only bothered to learn to drive after Reg’s stroke, and although she passed on her third try, she was never very confident. Going to the shops or the hospital was about all she could manage, and she had to do that, like it or not.

It was alright for Elsie, her son Terry would drop her off. Workshy, he was. Still lived at home, and in his sixties. Never did anything, never had.

After checking the contents of her bag, and making sure everything in the bungalow was switched off, she went out to the garage. The best thing Reg had done before he died was having an automatic door installed for the garage. She could never have managed pulling up that old metal door.

When she turned the key in the Honda Jazz Reg had left her there was no starting noise, only a red light on the dial. Mabel knew nothing about cars, so she tried again. Just the same red light, and a faint clicking sound. With no time to mess around, she went back inside to ring a taxi.

“Sorry, all the cabs are out doing the school runs. We can fit you in after nine, if that helps”. She told the lady that was too late. What to do now? It was over three miles to the town car park, and with her hips that was too far to walk. Besides, she was eighty-one, and didn’t walk anywhere these days. It would take her too long, maybe two hours with stops to rest her hips. No chance she was going to do that.

Elsie had one of those mobile phones. She could ring her and explain. The number was in the book in the drawer under the telephone, and she misdialled it the first time. The second time there was just a beeping noise, and it cut off. She wondered if Elsie even had the bloody thing switched on.

Then she had a thought. Ring the coach company, and see it they could pick her up. It wasn’t too far out of the way. She got the Yellow Pages from the drawer, then realised she didn’t know the name of the company. Elsie had sorted all that.

On the clock in the hallway, it was ten past eight. She had missed the coach anyway, and she was sure Elsie would be furious, having to sit on her own.

Mabel smiled, then went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for a cup of tea.

She never liked Downton Abbey anyway.

Sitting with her cup of tea, Mabel did what she liked to do best.

Thinking about the past.

It was the year 2012 now, and she would soon reach the milestone of her eightieth birthday. Reginald would have been two years older, if the second stroke hadn’t taken him. He hadn’t just been her husband, but the only man she had ever really known. They used to say childhood sweethearts at one time, but Mabel knew they were not that. He had just been around, and the first boy to ever ask her out on a date.

You couldn’t say he was good-looking or fashionable, but then neither was she in her teens. Maybe it had been the war, that had aged people, no doubt. Not that Reg had to go into the forces, he was only fifteen when it ended. But he hadn’t been evacuated as she had, and the Blitz had made him grow up fast. When she got back to London from Wales, everything looked different. Although their house had survived the bombing, the area was unrecognisable.

She knew him from Primary School, and he lived in the next road to theirs. His older brother Colin had been killed early on, somewhere in a desert in North Africa. Reg didn’t like to talk about that though. He first spoke to her seriously outside the baker’s. She was going in as he was coming out. Only fourteen at the time, she was already working at the local cinema as an unsherette. She got to see all the new films, and wear a smart uniform too.

He was awkward at first.

“I see you are working at The Roxy now, Mabel? No point asking to take you to the pictures, but we could go to the boating lake in the park on one of your days off. If you like.”

People would describe Mabel as ‘Stout’. She looked older than fourteen, with a prominent bosom, and larger than average build. No boy had ever seemed to notice her, and when her friends started to become interested in boys, she avoided the subject. She knew what to say to him though, her parents had told her.

“You would have to ask my dad if you want to take me out. He’s funny about that sort of thing”. Reg nodded. “That’s fine by me, I will go round and speak to him later then”.

She had smiled as he walked away. Could she really have a boyfriend?

Her dad had approved. Reg Price came from a respectable family. They had lost a son in the war, and Reg had an apprenticeship on the railways as an engineer.The prospects were good, as far as he was concerned. “You could do a lot worse, Mabel”, he told her.

One week later, he had rowed her around the boating lake, bought her tea and cake in a cafe, and walked her home. The doorstep pause was awkward, but he didn’t try to kiss her. She was grateful for that, as she had never kissed anybody. “So, can I see you again next week, Mabel?” He sounded like he expected her to say no. She had practiced her reply, in case he asked. “Does that mean we are courting then?” He gave a rare wide smile. “S’pose it does”. Then he leaned forward and kissed her cheek.

Dad was reading the paper in the kitchen when she walked in. “Tell me. Did he behave himself?” He tried to sound stern, but couldn’t help a smile. Her mum gave him a friendly slap with a tea towel. “Come on now, Chalky. Leave the poor girl alone”.

Mabel went out in the back yard to use the toilet. She sat on the seat for a long time after, excited to remember her date, and still feeling Reg’s awkward kiss on her cheek.

Having a regular boyfriend made her think about her job. She worked at the cinema most evenings and weekends, and Reginald was usually home from work by six, only working during weekdays. She made up her mind to get a different job with regular hours, otherwise they were hardly going to get the chance to see each other.

Three weeks later, she was working as an assistant at Woolworth’s in the High Street. It was a short bus ride, and she only had to work every other Saturday.

Now that Mabel no longer worked at the cinema, she could enjoy being a customer instead. Her twice-weekly dates with Reg fell into a pleasant routine. He would pop round after work on a weekday, and they would just sit and chat in the parlour. Then he would join the family for dinner, before going home.

He mostly talked to dad about work, and dad would talk to him about saving money for when it was necessary. Mabel knew what her dad meant of course, saving for a place of their own, after the wedding. She had not long turned fifteen, so was still much too young, and Reg hadn’t even talked about getting engaged. But they were courting. It was accepted that they would marry in time.

It wasn’t long before Mabel started to wonder why Reg wasn’t very romantic. His idea of smooching was to press his lips ahainst hers, and leave them there. He never tried to feel her up, even though she wouldn’t have let him. But she liked to imagine he would try, at least once. When they went to watch films at the weekend, most young couples sat in the back row, lips glued together, ignoring the film.

She was sure that most of them wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about both the films that had been shown. Reg was content to sit in the circle, near the front. Tickets were more expensive than downstairs, and there was no chance of any kissing and cuddling without being seen from behind. She got used to it in the end, and he always bought her an ice cream during the intermission.

At work in Woolworth’s, the older women talked about sex a lot when they were together in the staff room. Most of the older ones didin’t seem to like it much, and moaned about their husbands still wanting it after so many years together. But some of the women, usually the type you least expected, would smile when they talked about it. Quite a few of them had been with many men, especially during the war. They weren’t embarrassed to discuss it either, not in the least bit ashamed.

Mabel knew enough. How you got in the family way if you weren’t careful. How you were a virgin until your wedding night, and how the man knew what to do. Her mum had told her after her first monthlies, even though she hadn’t wanted to hear it at the time and had a red face for hours afterwards. She had also warned her about what she called ‘giving it away too easy’. Mum’s words were seared into her brain.

“You might think you love him. You might think he will stick by you. But let him do it before a ring is on your finger, and mark my words he will be off as fast as if he had a rocket in his pants. He has to respect you, show some serious intentions. Even then, don’t go all the way. Come and talk to me when it happens, and I will tell you how to keep him happy”.

Thinking about that long chat with mum, Mabel came to the conclusion that Reg had probably never had a girlfriend before. Or maybe his dad had given him a similar talking-to? As her own dad was fond of saying, “The Prices are a respectable family”.

Given all that, there were still times when they sat together in the parlour that she wished Reg would act a bit more excited, and chance his arm for a feel. After all, they were still teenagers. If they didn’t try all that stuff now, when would they? She at least wanted to have to tell him no a couple of times before the wedding. And three years seemed a long time to wait to discover what it was going to feel like.

She couldn’t help but remember the times when she got frustrated with him. Blatantly showing her stocking tops when they were in the parlour, or hugging him tight when they kissed. Reg was either amazingly good at controlling himself or didn’t have a clue what to do, as he showed no reaction at all. There were a few times when she was determined to touch him, to see what happened. But with her parents probably listening at the kitchen table, she didn’t want to chance any dramas.

Her main worry was that he didn’t find her remotely attractive. But then why had he asked her out?

On Mabel’s sixteenth birthday, Reginald proposed officially. Unable to afford a new engagement ring he used his grandmother’s, with the blessing of his mum. He waited until they were alone in the parlour, and showed her the ring in its ancient box. No getting down on one knee, no talk of undying love, just a simple, “It’s my nan’s old ring. Will it do?”

It would do for Mabel, and she dragged him excitedly into the kitchen to show her mum and dad, and break the news. Dad shook his hand and said, “Welcome to the family, Reg”. Mum examined the ring in the box and was more practical. “It will need to be made bigger to fit your ring finger, love. I will take it to Jenkins’ in the High Street and get him to sort it”.

Further discussion settled on a decision to wait until she was eighteen. Reg had finished his apprenticeship and would be twenty. He would be earning good money by then, and had been excused National Service as he worked on the railways. Mum allowed herself to get excited.

“Just imagine, getting married in nineteen-fifty. A new decade with no war, and everything to look forward to. You are lucky young people, you really are”.

Then they went to see Reg’s parents, to make it offcial with them. Henry and Edna Price really liked Mabel, and both embraced her warmly. Edna nudged her, and winked. “Won’t be long before we hear the patter of tiny feet, eh? I’m so glad I survived the war to live to see grandchildren”. Mabel was nodding excitedly, but Reg had gone all red-faced.

Once Mister Jenkins had altered the ring, Mabel showed it off to her colleagues at Woolworth’s. The diamonds surrounding the central Ruby were only like sparkling dust, but the Ruby was a decent size. They said all the usual things.

“Ooh, so he’s making an honest woman of you”.

“Make sure you don’t get up the stick before the big day”.

“Now he will expect you to go all the way, mark my words”.

“Don’t rush into anything. You’ve got two years to change your mind”.

She happily ignored all that. She had Reg now, and her future was secure. No having to go to dances or hanging around the park at weekends to see if anyone chatted her up. No explaining why she didn’t have a boyfriend. Mabel had gone straight to the next stage. She had a fiancé. Now she had to get him into shape.

On the next trip to the cinema, she suggested they sit in the back row of the stalls. Reg was surprised. “You don’t get a very good view from there, and we always go in the circle”. She stuck to her guns. “Back row tonight, Reggie. It’s what I want”.

They were soon settled, along with all the other couples who claimed the back row for the same purpose. As soon as the lights went off and the film started, Mabel reached over and lifted Reg’s hand onto her leg. When he looked round at her, she kissed him passionately, almost climbing over the armrest as she did so. That seemed to work, and he didn’t push her away. So she moved his hand further up under her skirt, until she could feel it touching the top of her stocking. That was far enough for now.

Reg just left his hand there, so she kissed him again. Suddenly he stood up, whispering “I need the toilet”. While he was gone, Mabel looked along the row at the other couples. Most of the boys had their arms around the girl, and all were so close together, you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between them. When he came back, he sat with his arms folded, staring at the screen. She put her head on his soulder, but he made no effort to put his arm around her.

Walking back from the cinema later, she decided to ask him the question.

“What’s the matter, Reggie? Don’t you fancy me?” He looked angry, and stopped walking. “Course I do, I’m getting married to you, ain’t I? Just don’t see the need for all that other stuff yet. There will be time enough for that once we’re married. You’re not one of those easy girls, after all”.

It wasn’t really the answer she had hoped to hear, but she held his hand as they started walking again.

They got into a routine, and Mabel settled for planning the wedding to take her mind off of Reg’s lack of ardour. She was going to wear mum’s old wedding dress, which had been carefully stored in a box for years. A lady up the street was going to alter it to fit her, and only the veil would need to be bought, as the old one had become discoloured.

Dad knew the man who ran the Scout Hut, and they could have that for a reception after the service at St Cuthbert’s. The mums would make the food for the buffet with what they could scrape together, and both dads agreed to buy the beer and other drinks. Harry Price knew someone who had a black Humber car, and he would drive Mabel and her dad to the church with some white ribbons on the front. He said he would do it for the petrol money, and an invitation to the buffet after.

Both sets of parents were happy for the newleyweds to live with them after the wedding, but Reg was against that. “We should have our own place, Mabel love. A fresh start without any mums and dads breathing down our necks”. As a result, he was saving hard, and evenings out were strictly limited to the cinema once a week. By contrast, Mabel spent most of the spare money she had after giving some to her mum for her keep. She bought new stockings, different lipsticks, and paid to have her hair done regularly too. Fortunately, Reg never questioned her extravagance.

Molly White was fond of saying to her daughter, “Mark my words, Mabel. That wedding will come round so fast, you’ll wonder where the time went”. After hearing that so many times, it sudenly came true. The wedding was only three weeks away, the dress had been made, and they had arranged for a plaster of Paris fake wedding cake to sit on top of the square fruit cake that was all they could make with rationing still on. It would look nice enough in the photos. Eric White was paying for everything, as custom decreed. He had dipped into his meagre savings to make sure his girl had a memorable day. Everyone called him Chalky, and he was a popular man in the borough.

The guest list had not been much of an issue. The Prices had a maiden aunt, the spinster sister of Harry. Other than that, there was a distant cousin who lived in Kidderminster who couldn’t make it as he had gout. Mabel had one uncle on her mum’s side who was a widower, and the two cousins that were his teenage children. They were coming, along with some of the girls from work, and the one bridesmaid. Lizzie was a girl Mabel knew from school, and she only asked her to be the bridesmaid because she couldn’t think of anyone else. Her dad said he would pay for Lizzie’s dress, seeing as he hadn’t had to fork out on a new one for Mabel.

One of mum’s friends was going to play the piano in the Scout Hut, so at least they could have a dance and a sing-song.

Reginald had asked his foreman at work to be the Best Man. He didn’t have any close friends his own age, and Norman was in his forties, married with three kids. So his lot had to be invited too. There was to be no honeymoon. Reg had paid the deposit on a one-bedroom flat in New Cross Road. It had a kitchenette, a small living room, and one bedroom. It was on the second floor of a house, and it would mean a longer bus journey for Mabel to get to work. He took the flat without even telling her about it saying, ‘It’ll do us for now, Mabel love”. At least it was furnished, so they wouldn’t need to buy much except bedding and some crockery.

As the big day approached, the weather turned. The forecast for the twenty-fourth of June was rain. Mabel tried not to worry about that. At least it was going to be warm.

She had her hair done the day before, and slept sitting upright. The man with the Humber car turned up early the next day to run the food to the Scout Hut, and collect the fake cake top from where they had hired it. His name was Dennis Elliot. He had been a Commando during the war, and had got married before leaving to land on D-Day. While he was fighting over there, his wife had been killed in a V2 rocket attack that destroyed where she worked. He had come back with medals, but as a widower. He was very chatty, and also very good looking.

He winked at Mabel. “You look like a million dollars, darling. So pretty”.

Reg had never said anything like that.

To say the wedding was not the best day of her life was an understatement. The vicar got her name wrong in the church, calling her Mary instead of Mabel. And he kept doing it, even when she corrected him. Norman had trouble getting the rings out of the top pocket of his suit, then dropped them. One rolled under the front pew and was eventually found after an embarrassed silence.

It was raining as they left so the confetti stuck to everything, and the photographer said he would take the photos in the Scout Hut instead. Reg was so nervous, she could feel his legs trembling in the back of Dennis’s car.

The reception just piled on the agony. Reg had no speech prepared, so just raised his beer and said, “A toast to my lovely bride”. Mabel’s dad rambled on with all the old stuff. “I’m not losing a daughter, but gaining a son”. “Mabel will be a good wife to Reg, just as she has been a good daughter to us”. He finally finished by lifting a glass and saying. “The happy couple”.

But neither of them looked very happy.

Once the food was served, the egg and cress sandwiches had been in the warm room for too long. The smell was like everyone in the room had farted, and it didn’t go away. The real wedding cake under the plaster fake tasted like suet pudding, as it had also got too hot in the stormy weather. It wasn’t until everyone had a few drinks inside them and the piano playing started that things livened up. Mabel was putting on false smiles for the photos, then Reg fumbled the cake cutting shot and knocked over the fake plaster one. It smashed into pieces on the wooden floor, and her dad groaned.

“There goes my cash deposit!”

In a very short time, Lizzie’s boyfriend had had far too much to drink, then spewed up all over her dress. She was so upset, she ran out of the hut crying, and didn’t come back.

When the dancing started, Reg was hopeless. He grabbed hold of Mabel while everyone was watching, then just walked around, making no attempt at dance steps. He stepped on her feet so many times, she was pleased when the song was over. After that, it seemed to stop being about their big day, and become a drinking contest. Even Edna Price was drinking so many Port and Lemons, Harry had to have a word with her when she fell over on the dance floor. Mabel’s mum was the only one who was sober, as she had been making tea in the little kitchen out the back, and that was all she had been drinking.

They had the hall until eleven, but it was traditional for the married couple to leave early. So by nine-thirty, people were suggesting they take their leave, and they spent thirty minutes saying goodbye to everyone, and thanking them for their presents that Mabel’s dad was in charge of taking home at some stage.

Mabel was so tired by then, she was pleased to get into the back of the Humber and take her new shoes off. Reg was as white as a sheet, and holding on to the key of their flat like it opened the case for the Crown Jewels.

As the car stopped in New Cross Road, Dennis winked at Reg. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do mate”. Reg slipped him a few quid and mumbled his thanks. As she got out of the car, she saw Dennis wink at her, and felt awkward. It was her wedding day, after all.

In the flat, it felt cold, but she wasn’t about to suggest lighting the fire. Mabel said to Reg, “Give me five minutes, then come into the bedroom”. Even with her new fake satin nightie, she felt cold. She was counting on Reg to warm her up. But he came in wearing some striped pyjamas, looking like a man about fifty. When he got into bed, he gave her a sloppy, beer-tasting kiss. After that, he lifted her nightdress and got between her legs.

She had expected it to hurt, her mum had told her it might hurt. But there was no pain, just a spongy feeling. Reg was moving on her like he was running a race. But if it was a race, it was only the hundred yards. Less than ten seconds later, he groaned, and turned over in bed.

“Night love”.

She lay awake for a good hour before giving in to sleep.

Was that it?

The first week of her marriage came as a shock to Mabel. There was a bathroom on each of the three floors in the house, but each one was shared by the three flats occupying the floor. Reg came home from work on the Monday with an enamel pot that was going to be used if they got taken short during the night, but the morning routine of getting washed and ready for work was chaotic. There always seemed to be someone using the bathroom, no matter what time she went to try to get in there. It was alright for Reg, who washed and shaved at the kitchen sink.

But Mabel wanted some privacy.

She was also expected to do everything. Washing, ironing, shopping, cooking, keeping the flat clean and tidy. Getting home from work after a long day on her feet, she had to get Reg’s dinner ready as he expected to eat it as soon as he got home. And she was not a natural cook. Despite helping her mum out on occasion, she never took much interest in the cooking process, and Reg soon got fed up of eggs and chips, or a chop and boiled potatoes. He expected some sort of afters too, and she had no idea how to make a jelly, or a steamed pudding.

Just seven days after becoming Mrs Price, she was exhausted.

Most evenings were spent listening to the radio, a wedding present from her parents. Reg would read the newspaper from cover to cover after his dinner, and didn’t have much to say unless it was about trains or train tracks. And it seemed his idea of married love was once a week on a Saturday night, with the lights out and not making any noise in case the neighbours heard. At least they still went to the cinema once a week, and Mabel lost herself in the glamour of the romantic dramas she loved to watch. No more sitting in the back row either.

Now they were married, it was back to the front row of the circle upstairs.

There was always the books. Reg liked to go to bed early, and reading in bed disturbed him. So Mabel would sit up late in an armchair, devouring the cheap romantic novels with their lurid covers. She imagined herself as the femme fatale, the irresistible heroine. And the private detective or caddish playboy would always look like Dennis in her mind.

Sundays were for visiting both sets of parents, on alternate weeks. At least they were guaranteed a slap-up meal in each house, and they both said how much they loved being married. Reg never complained about her cooking, and she never complained about the lack of romance in their life.

After a few months had passed, it dawned on Mabel that she was still having her monthlies. Reg’s weekly attentions did not seem to be bearing fruit, and it wasn’t as if they were using anything to stop her getting in the club. Children were expected, and it wouldn’t be long before someone mentioned that she hadn’t got pregnant yet. To try to hasten things along, she started going to bed early with Reg, and being sexually suggestive. He raised his eyebrows and looked at her like she was a two-bob prossie.

“On a Wednesday, love? Can’t you wait until Saturday, for God’s sake? What’s wrong with you? I’ve got to be up and out by half-five”.

Waiting until she could hear his low snoring, she would creep out into the living room and read one of her books.

Five months after the wedding, Dennis showed up at Woolworth’s one day. “Still here then, Mabel? You look really good, I like a girl in uniform. It’s pouring down outside, how about I give you a lift home? My car’s in the street behind the shop, I can wait until you close”. She knew she should say no, but she nodded instead. Then she blushed.

Nobody really knew what Dennis did for a living, but she had heard enough rumours to know it wasn’t strictly legal. He had a new Humber car, and there wasn’t anyone else she knew that had a car at all, even the men with good jobs. Harry Price had mentioned that he had a television set too. Mabel had never even seen one of those.

She touched up her lipstick and powder before leaving the staff room. Didn’t hurt to look your best when riding in a car.

Dennis was standing by the car smoking a cigarette when she got there. He flicked it into the kerb and opened the back door for her. “Lovely ladies travel in style, in the back”. He smiled as he said it, and she noticed his teeth were very white in the darkness.

It was warm and comfortable in the car, and she felt rather grand being driven home. But he wasn’t heading in the right direction. Mabel thought he must know a shortcut, so said nothing. When he turned into the gates of a bombed-out factory, she sat forward. “Where are you going, Dennis? This is the wrong way”. The car stopped in front of a big wall, and he turned and smiled. “Thought we could just stop and have a little talk, Mabel love. You won’t be home late, don’t worry. Why don’t I get in the back?”

Without waiting for a reply, he got in the back next to her. She had a good idea what was about to happen, but thought she should try to say something. “What do you want to talk about Dennis?” He grabbed her and kissed her. There was real passion in his kiss, and she could feel his strong arms gripping her. It was just like something from one of her books, but she pushed him away. “Steady on now. I’m a married woman. And you know that only too well. You took me to my wedding in this very car”.

He was so relaxed. “Okay, I don’t want to force myself on anyone. Tell me you don’t want it, and I will go back in the front and drive you home. Simple as that. It won’t be mentioned, and you will never see me again. Okay?” She tried to say she didn’t want it, but the words wouldn’t come out.

Because she did want it.

So she gave in to her feelings, leaned forward, and kissed him back.

When he was driving her home twenty minutes later, her face was still flushed, and her whole body was tingling. She realised that was what some of the women at work had been talking about, and it was the complete opposite of what Reg did. Dennis had controlled it all, but in exactly the way that Mabel had hoped a man always would. She had abandoned herself to him completely, just like the heroine in her new book had done in a similar situation.

For the first time in her life, she really felt like a woman.

Before they got close to her flat, the car was stuck in some traffic. Dennis leaned over from the front. “You were fantastic, Mabel. I want to see you again. Can we make it a regular thing? Maybe take a day off when Reg is at work, and I can come round. I will give you my phone number when I stop the car”.

She was impressed. He had his own phone at home too.

Unsure how to reply, she said, “Reginald must never find out. It would destroy both families”. Dennis just chuckled. “I’m not in the family-destroying business, honey. I just want some fun, and I reckon you do too. Tell me I’m wrong”.

Mabel could not tell him he was wrong.

Something else occurred to her. “You didn’t use a Johnny though. What happens if I get up the spout?” He laughed out loud. “You’re a married woman, Reg will think it is his, and if you do, we can carry on without worrying. That’s why married women are the best, no need for Johnnies. I will drop you across the road, in that side street. No need for Reg to chance seeing the car”. When the car stopped, he wrote his phone number on the page of a tiny notebook, and ripped it out to give to her.

“Keep that to yourself. But ring me soon, I am ready for as many sessions as you can manage. Don’t make me wait, honey”.

As she crossed the road, Mabel knew that she should feel bad. She had been easy, cheap, a bit of a slag. But in all honesty, she didn’t care. And she couldn’t wait for the next time.

To make sure Reg had something to eat when he got home, she walked all the way to the fish and chip shop. Two cod and chips was quite expensive, but what the hell.

She would tell Reg there was a till difference, and she had got off too late to go to the shops.

Two weeks after that time in his car, Mabel rang Dennis from a phone box on her way home from work. “I will go sick from work on Friday if you want to come round about ten”. He was non-committal. “Friday? Depends if anything comes up by then. If I’m not too busy I will be there”.

On Thursday afternoon, Mabel went to see the store manager before leaving for home. “I’ve got a bad tooth, and I’m going to the dentist tomorrow to get it taken out. I should be alright to come in next Monday of course”. The staff called him Old man Adams, and he was known to be very kind. He knew Mabel wasn’t a girl to take time off for no reason. “Okay, Mabel. Not to worry. Don’t forget to rinse your mouth with salty water afterwards”.

She told Reg a different story later that evening. “Got an awful bellyache, Reg love. Don’t think I’ll go in tomorrow. Old man Adams will be alright about it”. He was still reading the evening paper, and just grunted something in reply.

Friday morning Mabel was very nervous. She managed to get the bathroom to herself after the other tenants had gone to work, and took extra time to make herself nice and presentable. Unable to decide which of her two best dresses to wear, she picked the flowery one, and used a new lipstick that was poppy red. Once ten o’clock had passed she started to look out of the window, in case she didn’t hear Dennis knock.

It was over an hour later when she spotted his car, seeing it turn left across the road, and park near the corner. She hurried downstairs to open the door, not wanting anoyne else to let him in and know he was coming to see her. In her flat, he reached into his overcoat pocket to take out three pairs of nylons and a big bar of chocolate he had brought her. “Got anything strong to drink, love? A beer will do if you haven’t got any brandy”.

Mabel was embarrassed. “All I have is what’s left in a bottle of Port, Dennis. Sorry”. He took off his coat and threw it over the armchair. “Okay, that’ll have to do then, won’t it?” He swallowed the Port in one gulp, and grinned. “Shall we get on with it then? Lead the way to the bedroom”.

For the next two hours, he made her feel incredible. All sorts of stuff she hadn’t even known that men and women could do together, and at least three times too. It was so different to sex with Reg, Dennis was almost like another species to her. She reckoned he must have learned things from those girls in Europe when he was over there in the army. But once he decided it was over, he just got up and got dressed. “Well, must be off. Things to do, people to see, money to be earned. Ta-ta, Mabel love”.

He let himself out, and she could hear him whistling as he walked down the stairs. She allowed herself the luxury of lying there for another thirty minutes, thinking about what they had done. Then she got up, cleaned the make-up off of her face, changed the sheets on the bed, and put some everyday clothes on to go down to the shops and get Reg something for his dinner.

Deciding to treat her husband to some pork chops, she chatted to the butcher’s wife as the woman wrapped them up. Then on her way to the greengrocer, she stopped as she saw a Humber car drive past slowly in the other direction. But it wasn’t Dennis, the driver was wearing a chauffer’s uniform, and was years older.

Feeling gulty when Reg got home, she made a fuss of him, and gave him an extra chop. She was in a great mood, but still worried that someone might have seen Dennis come to the house. So she talked to Reg about his day as they ate, and even pretended to be interested in his story of how some bloke had nearly been hit by a shunting engine, until one of the others saw the danger and pulled him out of the way.

That night in bed as Reg was sleeping, she lay there in the dark wishing Dennis was next to her.

Of course, she wasn’t to know then that was the last time she would ever see Dennis Elliot.

When she hadn’t heard from Dennis in nearly two weeks, Mabel rang his house from a phone box in her lunch break. It just rang and rang. She tried again on the way home from work, and got the same thing. It upset her that he had had his way with her and was now ignoring her. But she was married to Reg, what could she do?

Then she didn’t get her monthlies. Reg was still doing what he did on Saturday nights, so she had no idea who might have got her pregnant. She confided in her mum, who told her to wait for twelve weeks, then go to see her doctor.

Sure enough, the doctor told her she was expecting.

Both families treated the news like nobody before had ever had a child. Reg was flushed with pride, and acted like some sort of fertile lover. On the plus side, he started to treat Mabel right for the first time. He looked after her, said he would do extra shifts at weekends, and that she should stop working at Woolworth’s soon. He still expected her to cook and clean though, casually mentioning that his mum would step in when she was fully pregnant.

Old Man Adams took the news well when she handed in her notice. “Come back once the baby is born, Mabel. I’m sure one of the grandmothers will look after it for you. You are a good worker, and I don’t want to lose you”.

Reg became obsessed with names. He chose Peter for a boy, and Susan for a girl. Mabel wasn’t consulted about the names, Reg seemed to think it was his place to choose. “You can pick the middle names, love. That’s only right”.

All Mabel could think of was Dennis. She was sure he was the father, and convinced he would want to know that. But no matter how many times she phoned him, he never answered.

Now working seven days a week, Reg was almost never at home until eight. The money was good, but Mabel was lonely. So she went to see her parents most days, but all they talked about was the baby, and Reg. She wanted to tell them that she felt ill a lot of the time, and so tired after cleaning the flat, shopping, and looking after Reg. But she knew better than to complain, as they thought Reg was a great husband.

Sometimes, she wanted to ask her dad about Dennis, but she was scared that they would ask why she cared what had happened to him.

By the time she was seven months pregnant, she finally found out.

Reg was reading the evening paper. He shook his head. “Well, who would have thought it? Remember that bloke Dennis who did our wedding car? They only found him dead in Kent. He had been shot three times in the head, and the car dumped in some marshes near Rochester. Serves him right for being a spiv and a a gangster, if you ask me”.

Mabel had to go in the bedroom to cry. She told Reg she had pains in her tummy, and had to convince him not to go and phone for an ambulance.

Two days after her due date, Reg took her into hospital in a taxi. It was almost midnight, and she was definitely in labour. Ten hours later, with Reg sitting in the waiting room, she gave birth to a little girl. He was so overwhelmed, he didn’t complain when she said she was calling her Denise. It seemed appropriate to Mabel, and he knew no better anyway.

It wasn’t that long before nurses and doctors were crowding around little Denise, and then they took her away somewhere. Reg hadn’t even had time to phone both sets of parents before a stern-faced doctor appeared on the Labour Ward. “I am sorry to tell you that baby Denise is suffering from some complications. We are going to have to take her over to Guy’s Hospital in an ambulance. Mum can accompany her of course”.

Neither of them asked any questions. In those days, you didn’t question a doctor.

Mabel turned to Reg. “You go home, love. You’ve got work tomorrow. We will be alright, and you can come and see us at Guy’s after work”. Reg kissed her on the cheek, nodded at the doctor, and took his leave.

After the transfer to Guy’s hospital, Mabel slept like a log. A nurse woke her up to tell her that her mum had come to visit her, and she couldn’t believe how long she had been asleep. Mum looked like she had been crying. “What’s going on with baby Denise, Mabel? Can I see her? Reg rang me at work to let us know. He has gone to work on the railway, but the poor bloke must be exhausted”. The nurse intervened.

“Baby is sleeping at the moment. She has been examined by specialist doctors, and they will be coming to talk to you soon. Would you like a cup of tea, Mabel?”

When the serious older doctor arrived about fifteen minutes later, his expression said it all. “Not good news I am afraid, Mrs Price. Little Denise must have had the umbilical cord around her neck before delivery. As a result, her brain was starved of oxygen for some considerable amount of time. She is alive, but suffering from serious brain damage. It will be highly unlikely that she will be able to see or hear, she may not be able to speak or make sounds, and her development will be far from normal, if she survives”.

He waited for a while as Mabel tried to take it all in. Mum started sobbing.

“You must understand the seriousness of the situation. Denise is unlikely to survive the week, and even if she does she will never be normal. Blind, deaf, mute, unable to feed herself, most likely unable to walk properly. She will be completely dependent on your care, every single moment she is alive.

Then Mabel started sobbing.

The nurse stepped forward and held Mabel’s hand. “You might want to think about getting her christened. That can be done by the hospital chaplain in the chapel here. You know, just in case”. Mabel nodded through her sobs. “Wait until Reg comes in to visit. I will talk to him then”. The doctor straightened up. “Do you have any questions for me before we bring Denise back, Mrs Price?” She had hundreds of questions, but couldn’t think of one to ask at that moment.

So she shook her head.

Denise was brought back in, wrapped in a little fluffy blanket. Molly White held her, her tears falling onto the tiny head. “But she looks so beautiful, Mabel. She looks like any normal baby I have ever seen”. The nurse suggested that Mabel feed her. “Put her to the breast, it will help with your milk”. Denise suckled happily, but her gaze was vacant, and she made no noise. No noise at all.

By the time Reg got in to visit, it was close to the end of visiting time. The nurse told him not to worry, she would ignore the rules for one evening. He looked worn out, but was eager to see and hold his little daughter. As he rocked her, his mother-in-law told him the bad news. Mabel was too upset to tell him herself. He acted strangely, not willing to accept it. “Well just look at her, she’s perfect. That doctor don’t know what he’s talking about, I reckon. Can’t we see another doctor? That one surely ain’t no good at his job”.

His bravado soon broke down, and he handed Denise to Mabel as the tears started. He rushed out of the side room, and they could hear him crying in the corridor. Reg wasn’t the sort of bloke to cry in front of women.

Once her visitors had gone, and Denise was sleeping in the little cot next to her bed, Mabel spoke to the nurse as she came in to do her checks.

“Can you arrange that Christening please? I think it’s going to be the best thing”.

On the Thursday afternoon, Denise wouldn’t take a feed. The milk just dribbled out of her mouth. When Reg came in that night, she told him about the Christening the next day. He looked very serious. “I will call in on Norman on my way home, tell him I won’t be in tomorrow”. Her in-laws and her parents came to the chapel on Friday afternoon. They were all crying as the Chaplain held the unresponsive baby in his arms and recited the service. Harry and Eric came forward as her godfathers, hardly able to speak for all the upset.

Reg sat with her next to her bed after the others went home. A nurse came in with a doctor just after eight that night, he examined Denise, and shook his head.

“Sorry to tell you, she has gone”.

Reg was patient. He waited six weeks before resuming the Saturday night conjugals. After the tearful funeral, Denise wasn’t mentioned. In those days, everyone was used to losing babies, even older children. It was just accepted as the way of things.

When she didn’t fall pregnant again, Mabel knew that it was Reg who was not able to father children. For his part, he never asked, and may have thought that her birth problems might be involved. It was something else that was never discussed, not even by her parents or the in-laws.

Something else came along to change their life. They were intending to electrify the railways on the lines through Cambridge to London, and Reg was offered a course to learn the system. He was going to be away for a month, staying at a bed and breakfast near Cambridge. Mabel had gone back to work long before then, ignoring the averted eyes of her colleagues, who never mentioned the baby.

When Reg came home, she had never seen him so excited.

“It’s the future, Mabel love. And you should see the area around Cambridge. Clean air, lots of countryside, and lovely small towns and villages. New Cross doesn’t compare, believe me. They have offered me a start on the first of the month. I will be based in Cambridge, and the pay rise is almost double what I get now. We can afford to live somewhere nice, even buy our own home. The prices there are half what they cost in London. There’s a lovely little town, Huntingdon. We can buy a place there for the same rent we pay for this awful place. And they have a Woolworth’s, so I reckon you could get a job there. I am going to buy a motorbike and sidecar to get to work. It will be cheaper than a car, and enough for us”.

Mabel had never heard of Huntingdon, so asked him how far it was. “Just seventy-seven miles from here, love. But another world. Your mum and dad can come up on the train if they want, it doesn’t take long. Even quicker once we get started on the electrification. Honest, Mabel, it’s lovely up there, you are going to love it. It’s only twenty miles from where I will be based, so less than half an hour on the motorbike”.

Not knowing what to say, she just nodded. Men made the decisions, and wives didn’t question them. So she was moving to Cambridgeshire, like it or not. And very soon too.

It was surprisingly easy to get a transfer to the Woolworth’s there. Her boss helped, as she knew he would. “They will be lucky to have you, Mabel. It’s much quieter there, and your experience will be invaluable. I’m so sorry to see you go, but I reckon it’s a good move for you, and I am sure you will be happy”. Her parents were also surprisingly positive, urging her to go with no regrets.

A month later, Reg came back from Cambridge on his new motorcycle and sidecar. He told her he had bought a two-bedroom house in Huntingdon, using up every pound of their savings. They would have to buy all the furniture, and everything else that made a home, but he had signed up for three years of hire purchase to cover everything. All they had to pack were their clothes, and he had paid one of his colleagues to take them up to the new house in his small van.

Every decision had been made for her. They would move there on a Saturday, and she would start work in the small town on the Monday. For Mabel, the worst part of it was having to sit on the back of the motorbike all the way.The sidecar was full of stuff they would need until Reg’s mate turned up on Sunday with their personal things. On the Friday, she said goodbye to her parents, acting as if she was going to Australia. Her dad just laughed.

“We will be up to see you, and now you have a spare room to put us up in. I hope Reg finds a decent pub in the town, one within walking distance”.

She couldn’t feel excited about a place she had never even seen. But she knew her life was going to change beyond recognition.

She had to admit, Reg had chosen well. The house was at the end of a small terrace, with room at the side for the motorbike, and a small front garden that had a painted wooden fence. Inside, the steep stairs led up from the hallway to the two bedrooms, and the bathroom that would once have been a smaller third bedroom. Because the conversion was very recent, the bath, toilet, and basin all looked brand new, and there was a gas Ascot to run hot water into the bath too. The seller had left the curtains and rugs behind, included in the price.

At the back, the old outside toilet was still there, and there was a little garden running down two strips separated by a path. The most amazing thing to Mabel was that over the back wall she could see no other houses. Close to the edge of the town, all she could see were trees. The lady next door came out to speak to her over the fence. “Hello, I’m Winnie. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea? You must have had a long journey”. They soon found out that Winnie was single, and had lived there with her old dad before he died. She was probably about twenty years older than them, as she seemed quite old-fashioned.

Mabel took to her immediately. There was a warmth about her.

Because the furniture wasn’t arriving until Monday afternoon, Reg had booked them in to a pub in the town for bed and breakfast. He had arranged to take Monday off, to get it all sorted while Mabel was at work. Winnie wouldn’t hear of it. “No need, no need at all. I have plenty of room, you can stay with me and save your money. Reg, why don’t you walk down and cancel the booking, tell them your plans have changed?” Mabel nodded at her husband, and he agreed to do that.

Winnie was very chatty. She said she worked as a nurse at the County Hospital, the main one in the town. “I do the Out-Patient clinic mostly now, just daytimes. But I worked shifts on the wards for years before that”. Mabel asked her if she was married. “No, never had time for that. Mum died when I was still at school, and I looked after my dad until he went. This must be a change for you from London, but I reckon you will like it here. It’s a friendly little town, and you will soon get to know everyone, working at Woolworth’s”.

Reg was gone for quite a while. When he got back, he was grinning. “They were nice as pie about cancelling. I had a couple of pints while I was there, and met some of the lads. One of them works on the railway too, but not where I will be. He’s a guard on the trains”. Winnie stood up. “How about a nice rabbit pie for dinner? It won’t take me long to get it ready, and I’ve got a lovely cabbage to go with it”. Mabel offered to help, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Reg looked tired. He wasn’t much of a drinker, and it had been a long day.

He had dozed off when Winnie came in from the kitchen. “Leave him, he’s okay. You can help me make up the bed in your room. It used to be mum and dad’s room, but the mattress is still good, and we can give the pillows a good plumping. Once we’ve done that, dinner will be almost ready and we can wake him up”. Her third room had also been converted to a bathroom, but longer ago. Everything in the house was spick and span, and Winnie was dressed very smartly, with immaculate hair and make-up. As they made up the bed, Mabel felt like she had always known her. They talked easily, and then sat on the bed as Mabel told her about what had happened to little Denise.

Holding her hand, Winnie was kind.

“That’s all in the past now, you have to look forward to a new life. I am so pleased you bought the house next door, as I think we are going to be firm friends, dear Mabel”.

There was something about the tone of her voice, and the way she was holding her hand. Mabel had only heard about women like that, and had never met one.

But she had to admit, she liked the feeling it gave her.

Her job at Woolworth’s was much more relaxed. She wasn’t going to have to work on Saturdays, as most of the staff were part-time, and that shift was covered. She was one of the few full-time staff there, and now she would get every weekend off. It was so quiet too, compared to where she had worked in London. If anything, she found herself getting a bit bored by mid-afternoon.

But Old Man Adams had been right, they valued her experience in London. The manager had only been there for a couple of years, and he seemed happy to let Mabel do a lot of supervisory roles that Adams would never have dreamed of. She mentioned it to Reg over dinner one night.

“If he keeps getting me to do half his job, I’m gonna ask to be made up to supervisor. Can’t see him saying no, he’s so lazy”.

Once the furniture had arrived and they had the place looking like home, life went on happily enough. Reg was getting home much later, having to ride his motorbike from Cambridge, and with the project being regarded as so important, he was working all day Saturday too. On top of his pay rise, he got overtime pay for Saturdays, so they were doing well financially. Just as well, as the payments for the furniture and the mortgage were a lot more than Mabel had expected. And now Reg was talking about changing the motorbike for a small car. The weather was getting him down, he said.

Winnie was happy to show her around. They went for walks along the river, and all over the small town. By the end of the first month, Mabel was confident that she knew her way around, and was on first-name terms with the local shopkeepers too. Reg had said he would take her into Cambridge one Sunday, but working late every night, and six days a week, he always complained about being too tired on Sundays.

So Winnie went there with her on the bus one Saturday. Mabel loved that trip, looking at all the shops, the old buildings, and the historic university colleges. Winnie brought a picnic lunch in a big bag, and they sat on the grass by the river and ate it.

With Reg not geting home until well after seven most nights, Mabel got used to eating alone, leaving his dinner on a low heat in the oven. Then he told her he would get fish and chips on Friday nights, so she took up Winnie’s invitation to eat with her before he got home. She had been right about them being firm friends. Mabel had come to adore spending time with her, and was impressed by seeing her in her nurse’s uniform, looking so smart.

One Sunday morning, Reg casually mentioned that he was going to look at a car. “They will take the motorbike in part exchange, give me a good price for it. Do you want to come and look at it with me? It’s at a dealer’s near Cambridge”. Mabel knew nothing about cars, other than Dennis’s Humber of course. She shook her head. “No need, Reg. If you want it so much, you will buy it, whatever I say”.

Sure enough, he came home in the car. It was a Ford Prefect with four doors, all shiny black. He was dancing around it like an excited child. Get your bag and keys, Mabel, we’re going for a ride”. He drove down the main road to St Ives, then back along the country lanes. “We can go on holiday in this next year, Mabel love. No need to freeze on the motorbike. I was thinking we could get a caravan on the coast in Norfolk. Hunstanton might be nice”.

As much as she wanted to be happy for him, Mabel had no interest in the car, and didn’t even want to think about how they could afford a holiday, the way Reg was spending money. She didn’t ask how much he had paid for the car, and he didn’t tell her. That suggested to her that he had paid too much for it, and there would be costly monthly payments. When they got home, she knocked on Winnie’s door to show her the car. Winnie winked at her. “Ooh, that’s lovely, Reg. You’ll have to let me come along for a ride out one Sunday. Mabel jumped at that.

“Yes, let’s take Winnie out next week. Me and her can sit in the back like classy ladies”.

Then she turned and winked back at her friend.

It was a long time coming, but Mabel had always known it was going to happen eventually.

On her birthday the following year, Winnie bought her friend an expensive gift. It was a dress watch on a bangle, not the sort you would wear every day, really fancy. And it was gold too. She gave it to Mabel in the kitchen, when Reg was still at work. Reg had left her a birthday card when he went to work that morning, just a small one with Happy Birthday written on the front, and a drawing of a country cottage. Inside, he had written ‘Have a happy birthday’. That was it. No present, and no fuss. Typical of Reg.

She was overwhelmed by Winnie’s present. A gold watch was beyond her dreams. “It’s too much, Win. You didn’t have to spend all that money on me”. Winnie stroked her face. “What else am I going to spend it on? My dad left me well provided for with insurance money, and I have the money from my job. You don’t need much when you’re on your own”.

Mabel hugged her, and kissed her on the cheek. But Winnie didn’t let go, turning to kiss her on the lips. A proper kiss.

Nothing was said. Putting the watch down on the table, she took Winnie’s hand and led her upstairs. She presumed Winnie would know what to do, and hoped she was right about that.

When it was all over, and only twenty minutes before Reg was due home, Mabel watched as Winnie got dressed. The older woman turned to her, a warm smile across her face. “I want you to know I love you, Mabel. I mean really love you”. Without having to even think about it, she replied. “I feel the same, but what can we do? I’m married”. Kissing her cheek, Winnie whispered softly. “We’ll work something out, leave it to me.”

Reg was soon home, and wondering why dinner wasn’t ready. “We’ve got sausages and mash, won’t take long. Winnie popped round to give me a present. Look, it’s a lovely watch, real gold too”. Giving it a cursory inspection, Reg snorted. “She must have more money than sense. I mean, when would you ever go somewhere posh enough to wear that? Might as well sell it, buy something useful”. She snatched it back. “I’ll never sell that watch, do you hear me, Reg Price? And you better not think about selling it behind my back, or there will be real trouble”.

They didn’t say much else to each other that night.

When Saturday night arrived, Reg made his usual move to climb over and get between her legs. Mabel was ready. “Not tonight, I’m feeling a bit sick”. With that, she turned over and pretended to go to sleep. He didn’t try again.

Perhaps if he had known that it was never going to happen again, he would have.

They settled into a routine that no longer involved the Saturday night sex. If Reg was annoyed, he didn’t say so. He was not a man to talk about such things, and Mabel suspected that he might have been relieved not to have to try to perform once a week. He did what a lot of men in such situations did, he found a hobby. The bloke who was a guard on the railway was called Clive and he suggested it one night at the pub. Fishing.

Never having fished, and knowing nothing at all about it, Reg soon became a dedicated fisherman. He loved to spend money, and now he had an excuse to buy more stuff. Rods, reels, waders, nets, hooks, and all sorts. And he had the car, for him and Clive to go all over to fishing places. Once he discovered that Mabel didn’t care where he went, he would set off with Clive every Saturday night for overnight fishing, not getting home until late on Sunday evenings.

That was fine with Mabel. “I’ll stop over at Winnie’s then. I don’t like being here on my own at night”. He had taken that without a murmur. There was some mumbling about fishing seasons, resulting in Reg telling her they would have to drive to the coast sometimes, for sea fishing. “Might be able to bring you back some mackerel to cook for dinner. In the rivers, we have to put them back”. She couldn’t care less about mackerel.

All she could think of was more time spent with Winnie.

Winifred Finch was the only child of doting parents. But they didn’t spoil her, and made sure she knew right from wrong and was never badly behaved. From her first day at school she decided she didn’t like boys. They were naughty, dirty, smelly, and annoying. So she made sure to sit next to Margaret, the girl with the wavy hair and dimples. If Shirley Temple had been English, she would have been Margaret. Confident, pretty, and as bright as a button too.

When they both went to the girl’s Grammar School, she stuck with Margaret. They became inseparable, and helped each other through the problems of puberty. By the age of thirteen, they had experimented during sleepovers, and Winnie was sure she had found her way in life. But Margaret’s dad was in the Air Force, based near Cambridge. They moved him during the war, and he was sent to Coastal Command, in Kent. Winnie cried for two whole days after she lost her best friend and sometime lover, and her parents had no idea how to comfort her.

Choosing a career in nursing was a lifesaver. They were crying out for nurses close to the end of the war, and she went away to train in Cambridge. Her world was full of women her age, and they shared dormitories, bathrooms, and secrets. Though she never saw Margaret again, she found others to crush on. But there was a real problem. They all talked about men. They wanted to get married to war heroes, and have lots of children. For some years, Winnie was desperately lonely.

Then she went to work at the County Hospital, and met the new matron, Miss Harrison. As soon as she saw her, she knew the older woman was looking at her in a particular way. A way that only women like her understood. It was surprisingly easy at that time. Two women friends were considered to be companions. They could spend holidays away together, see each other socially, go on day trips, and sleep at each other’s houses. Nobody seemed to think that was remotely unusual. They just assumed that the women would marry, when the right man came along. And there was a shortage of men, with so many killed in the war.

Those years with Barbara Harrison were the best years of her life. They kept up the pretence at work of course, but their free time was like paradise. Whenever Winnie became annoyed at their unspoken love, Barbara would calm her down, reassure her, make her feel so special. They could never take it to the next stage of course. Winnie’s mum had died, and there was no question that she would stay at home and look after her beloved father. But Barbara was welcome at her house, and if her dad suspected anything, he never once questioned her.

Then Barbara found a lump on her breast. The doctors investigated, but nothing could be done. The cancer had already spread to her liver and lungs, and the end came quickly. Winnie’s heart was so broken at the death of her one true love, she thought she would never recover. But soon after that her dad became ill, and she had to focus on caring for him, and living on memories.

That was her life until he died. Dedicated, caring, and selfless. By the time her next door neighbour died, and the house went up for sale, Winnie felt that she was due for some happiness.

Then when she met Mabel for the first time, she hoped she had found it again.

It was so easy to deal with Reg. He was obviously inexperienced, and had no idea about being married, or how to act with women. She had told Mabel she would work something out, and she did just that. Asking Reg to help her with a fuse box situation one evening, she discovered she was right. He was so easy to seduce, she didn’t even have to go all the way with him, which would have been her first time with a man.

He was breathing hard after that incident, and red in the face. “Please don’t tell Mabel, she would never forgive me”. Winnie assured him she would never tell Mabel. It would be their secret. But perhaps he could see his way clear to giving Mabel more freedom? She could stop over at her house more frequently, and they could go on trips together? Reg was nodding so fast, happy to accept any arrangement.

The next day, Winnie told Mabel, and they both laughed so hard, they couldn’t speak.

Once Reg had been sexually compromised by Winnie, life for Mabel became much more relaxed. He agreed with everything she said, and when she suggested he move into the spare room as sleeping next to him was disturbing her sleep, he said he would make up the spare bed himself. He also started to buy her small gifts. Nothing fancy, just an occasional box of chocolates, or small bunch of flowers, but he had never done that before.

The weekend before Christmas, they drove down to visit both sets of parents. Nothing much was said about Winnie, or that he had moved into the spare room. They spent the time talking about how much they were enjoying living in the new house, and how good their jobs were. The new car impressed everyone, and they had an enjoyable day.

Winnie had a surprise. She had bought a television. Mabel and Reg had never seen one before, and were invited in to watch it one evening. They saw a variety show, and a classical concert, and Mabel was entranced. Reg didn’t seem so bothered. “Not as good as going to the flicks, I reckon. The screen’s too small”. Although there was a cinema in the town, they hadn’t been since moving there. Reg got home too late from work to make it worthwhile, as they would miss the start of the film. Mabel had asked Winnie to go with her, but she hadn’t been keen. “I’m not really bothered about films, Mabel love”.

But now Winnie had a television, they could spend evenings in watching it before going upstairs. Reg asked no questions about their relationship, even when his wife was stopping over at least two nights a week, supposedly in Winnie’s spare room. Mabel had the notion that Reg didn’t even know about women like her and Winnie, or what they did together. She always served up his dinner before leaving for Winnie’s, and he would look at his fishing magazines when she left.

There was no guilt on her mind. She had felt guilty about Dennis, but it was different with Winnie, as far as she was concerned. After all, she was a woman, not a fancy man like Dennis. And they were in love. Not that she would ever tell him that.

After Easter the following year, Mabel felt bold. She had been primed by Winnie, and marched into the manager’s office one morning before the shop opened for business. “I reckon I should be made a supervisor. The truth is I do more of your job than you do, and look after the shop floor most days. So what do you say?” He gave her a pained look. “Well it’s not up to me, Mabel. I would have to contact Head Office, and justify any promotion”. Standing her ground, she shrugged. “Well do that then”.

On the first of June, she was officially promoted.

The extra money came in handy of course, but it was the principle that really mattered to her. The rest of the staff were nice about it. They said things like “About time”, or “You deserve it”. Winnie opened a bottle of good Sherry that night, to toast her success. “You will be manager of that branch one day, sweetheart. Mark my words”. Mabel thought she was going too far there. Women were never branch managers. But it was nice to dream about it, over a large glass of sweet Sherry.

Reg came home one night, looking worried. “I have to go abroad, love. They are sending a team over to the Continent to look at overhead electrified railways. You could have knocked me down with a feather when they told me I was going. I’m gonna have to apply for a passport tomorrow. Three weeks, they said. Putting us up in hotels and everything. Even paying for our meals”. Mabel was kind to him. “I’m so pleased for you, Reg love. They must be recognising your hard work, and being sent abroad must mean they have better things in mind for you. Well done.”

She told Winnie that night as they were watching television. As she had expected, her lover was delighted. “Three weeks with no Reg? Wonderful! You can just move in here for the whole time he’s away”.

That was just what Mabel had hoped she would say.

With Reg packed off to Europe, Mabel and Winnie were free to experience the joys of living together full time. Sharing the cooking, cuddling on the sofa as they watched the television or listened to records, then finally ending up in bed together, swearing undying love after the time of passion.

By the first Thursday, Mabel was already wondering if they could possibly arrange it to move in permanently with her lover, and make Reg live on his own next door. She fantasised about leaving him dinners to warm up, and didn’t even bother to think of a reason to give him about why she would no longer be his proper wife. Winnie tried to calm her down.

“You must never do that. Reg can never know about us for sure. He can suspect what he likes, but I don’t think he has a clue, to be honest. Should you confront him with the truth, his world would crumble. And don’t forget about your parents, and his. They would never accept it. You can forget your job too, and mine. We would have to move away to a big city, and even then the stigma would follow us. Let’s leave things as they are for now. We have more freedom than most women like us can ever imagine in their wildest dreams”.

That made Mabel grumpy, but when she calmed down, she knew Winnie was right.

On the Thursday evening, she told Winnie she would calm down. “I reckon we can get him to let me stay over three nights a week at least, he’s always off fishing with Clive at the weekends anyway, so one extra night never hurts. But I will need more in time, and if that means moving away, even leaving Reg alone, I would definitely prefer that to keeping on pretending”. Winnie knew how to really calm her down, and did that in the way she knew Mabel liked best.

Friday morning was nice and sunny. Mabel was a bit miffed that the first week was almost over, but cheered up to know they had two more weeks of bliss. She turned up at work in a good mood, feeling bright and breezy. Fridays were a fairly busy day, and she was soon preoccupied with everything a supervisor had to do. It was one of those days that just flew by. No dramas, lots of sales and happy customers, and she could even forgive the manager for sitting in his office doing sod-all.

Just after four-thirty, there was a commotion in the High Street outside. Mabel wanted to see what was going on, but couldn’t leave the shop floor when it was near the end of trading. Ten minutes later, a customer came in, an older lady who shopped there almost every day. Before she even purchased anything, she spoke to the young salesgirl behind the counter.

“Oh, what a terrible thing. Some poor woman has been run over by a lorry. It doesn’t look good, they have covered her in a red blanket, right over her head too. But I could see she was wearing a nurse’s uniform before they covered her up. It was blue, and her black stockings were torn at the heel”.

Mabel felt the cold feeling in her insides. This was the time Winnie got home from work on the bus, and she wore a blue unifrom and black stockings. It had to be someone else, another nurse. But she didn’t know any other nurses, so was terrified it might be Winnie. Without thinking, she ran out of the shop, and along the High Street. She could see the lorry stopped in the road, causing problems for local traffic. And the police were there too, but the ambulance had already left. She ran up to one of the policeman.

“Can you tell me if it was Winnie Finch? She’s my best friend and neighbour, and she’s a nurse”. He shook his head. “I’m afraid we have no idea, madam. I can tell you the victim was female, aged in her forties, and wearing a nurse’s uniform. But other than that, I don’t know. If you can help, perhaps you can go to the County Hospital? They are taking her there”. Mabel nodded, then turned and started to walk back to Woolworth’s.

When she got outside the shoe shop, she fainted.

People rushed to help Mabel up, and without even taking time to thank them, she hurried into Woolworth’s. Grabbing her bag and coat, she went into the manager’s office without knocking. “Sorry, I have to go. My best friend has been knocked down, and I need to get up to the hospital”. Without waiting for a reply, she almost ran out of the shop.

By the time she got to the Casualty Department, she was out of breath, and panting hard. At the reception desk, she spoke very loudly, almost hysterical. “Winnie Finch. She was knocked down by a lorry. I have to see her. Is she okay? Where is she?” The nurse at the desk paused, giving her time to calm down. “Are you a relative?” Mabel was angry at the question, and felt it was wasting time.

“No, I’m her best friend. She hasn’t got any relatives. I live next door to her, my name is Mrs Mabel Price”. The nurse stood up and showed her into a small room. “Wait here please, have a seat. I will get one of the doctors to come and speak to you”. Mabel couldn’t sit, so she just stood staring at the door for what seemed like ages. It wasn’t a doctor who came in, but another nurse.

“Mrs Price, I am Matron. I am so sorry to tell you that your friend was dead on arrival, and her body has been taken to the mortuary. As you say she has no next of kin, it will be referred to the coroner for a post-mortem and an enquiry into the accident. I think the best thing you can do now is to go home”.

Walking home felt like a dream, and she had to keep stopping to make herself believe it was all real, and actually happening. It had been such an idyllic week, and it seemed impossible to consider that she would never see Winnie again. Before she got to the end of her street, she had to lean against a garden wall and sob uncontrollably. A woman coming down that street crossed over to the other side, probably thinking she was either mad or drunk.

That night she couldn’t eat. She stayed in her own house, terrified to use her key and go back into Winnie’s. Seeing her things in the house would make it even worse. There was nobody to talk to about it either. And even if there was, they would never understand why she could be so distraught about the death of a next-door neighbour. Mabel took some comfort in the fact that she didn’t have to go to work the next day. She could never have explained to her colleagues why she was so upset.

The other thing that made it worse was that she could have no involvement in what happened after. She would not be asked to attend the inquest, or told when and where it was. She would not be notified about any funeral arrangements, because she was not a relative. Winnie had been her life, and now she felt she no longer had a life. Even worse, she no longer had real love, or hope for the future.

There was some information in the local newspaper. They carried a short story about Winnie some time after the accident. There was a photo of a much younger Winnie in a wartime nurse’s uniform under the headline, ‘Much loved local nurse killed in tragic accident’. Mabel wondered where they had got the photo from, as she had never seen it.

Reg was back from the Continent, full of how great his trip had been. “I am going to be wearing a suit to work from now on, Mabel love. They have seconded me to the management team”. Mabel wanted to be happy for him, even though he hadn’t brought her back a single gift from his visits to three different countries. So she told him what had happened to Winnie, in part to explain her subdued mood.

She was annoyed when he looked relieved, mainly because she knew exactly why he did. “Oh, that’s terrible. Poor Winnie. Did you see it? I hope not, it must have been awful”.

Fortunately, he was happy to go back to sleeping in the spare room, and said he would walk down to the pub and have their pie and chips for dinner to save her having to cook.

Doing her best to get on with life, Mabel tried to throw herself into her work. That was easier said than done in a provincial branch of Woolworth’s that was only really busy late in the week. Reg was riding high in his job. They sent him on training courses around the country, and he even got to go back to London for a week. The company put him up in a hotel, but he took the opportunity to visit his parents, and Mabel’s mum and dad too.

That week he was away, Mabel received an official-looking letter. She almost never got letters, so sat looking at it for some time before she opened it. It was from a solicitor’s office in the town, Harrison and Colyer. Albert Colyer asked her to make an appointment to come and see him about ‘something to your advantage’. She read those four words over and over, wondering what they could mean. The next day at work, she used the manager’s office phone to ring him, but had to make the appointment with his secretary for after work the next day.

Mabel had never been inside such an office. It was like something from Victorian days; all dark wood, lots of books on shelves, and leather-covered chairs. Albert Colyer was smoking a pipe, and he was very welcoming. She declined his offer of tea, and sat quietly in the proffered chair as he skimmed over some papers on his desk. He seemed quite old, by her estimate. At least sixty-five.

“Well then, Mrs Price, I have some good news, news that you might not be expecting. I am handling the affairs of Nurse Finch, who was sadly killed in a traffic accident. It seems she had no remaining family, at least none that we can trace. So I am pleased to be able to inform you that she left everything to you”. He paused, consulting the paperwork. “Just to you, you alone, and not to include your husband Reginald. Is that a surprise to you?”

With her eyebrows almost touching her hairline, Mabel replied in a shaky voice.

“Really? Yes, that is a surprise. She was our next door neighbour, and my very good friend. She was very nice to me and my husband when we moved here from London. But she never spoke about leaving me stuff in her will”. Colyer smiled, and banged out his pipe in the large ashtray in front of him.

“Oh, it is much more than stuff, I assure you. Not only does it include the house, and all of its contents including a television and a new refrigerator, there is the handsome sum of almost two thousand pounds”. Mabel had to compose herself. “I might take that tea after all, Mister Colyer. With sugar if you have enough”. As she sipped her tea, Mabel tried to take it all in. They had paid less than four hundred for their house, and now they could pay off the mortgage. Then there was the value of Winnie’s house, if they decided to sell it. On top of that, the two thousand pounds was an absolute fortune, and would change their lives completely. But she already knew she would have to be firm with Reg, or he would try to spend it all.

There were some papers to sign, and Winnie knew she would have to open a bank account in her name to cash the cheque that was handed over. The solicitor could see that she was overwhelmed. “Take your time, there’s no rush. I recommend the Midland Bank. The manager is very reliable, knows his stuff”. After shaking his hand, Mabel left the office holding Winnie’s keys to her house, and the cheque for one thousand, nine hundred and seventy pounds. She had agreed to leave the deeds in safe keeping with Mr Colyer for now.

Before Reg got home at the end of the week, she sat as if in a dream. Winnie had secured her future, a sign of the true love they shared. The tears flowed, and she knew she could never have thanked her enough. Then she put her coat on and walked down to get fish and chips for dinner. When Reg arrived, she told him what had happened. He dropped a chip out of his mouth with the shock. Then Mabel brought him back to reality. “She left it all to me, Reg. Just me. She was very specific that none of it was for you”. He took that without complaint, but sat thinking for a moment.

“I can go and get her television though, can’t I? Nothing to stop us having that”.

Surprisingly, Reg loved the television. After previously dismissing it that night at Winnie’s house, he became an avid watcher. Mabel thought something had happened with Clive, as Reg stopped going fishing at weekends. When she asked Reg about it one day, she was surprised at his answer. “Well, I am junior management now. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t do for me to hang around with a train guard like Clive any longer”.

Although she had married him, Mabel found her husband very hard to like as a person.

She knew he was involved in modernisation of the main lines, but Beeching was slowly dismantling the more rural services, and closing down so many small stations. The railways were changing beyond recognition, and Reg was fully on board with the changes. He was a different man.

Using some of Winnie’s money, they bought a nice refrigerator, and an expensive twin-tub washing machine. Both sets of parents were amazed, but also pleased for them. Then Reg came home one night with more news. “We are going to need a home phone, Mabel. Not a party line, neither. I have told work to arrange it, and they are going to sort it out for me. Mabel was miffed at not being consulted. “Are they going to pay the bill as well then?” Reg smirked. “Actually, they are. I can claim all work calls on my new expenses account”.

The other surprise was that Reg didn’t ask for any of the money. That concerned Mabel a bit, as she had been sure he would ask. So she decided to offer him an olive branch.

“If you want to buy a different car, Reg, I will get the cash out for you. Nothing too fancy, mind. No Jaguars or Humbers”. He couldn’t stop smiling. “Funny you should mention that, love. The place where I bought the Prefect has got a smashing Zephyr Six in stock, lovely cream colour. Only nine months old, almost no mileage, and it’s in mint condition. They are sure to give me a good part exchange on the Prefect. I will go and look at it on Saturday”.

He suddenly stood up, and leaned over to kiss her. It felt strange, as it had been so long since they had kissed. Then he said something unexpected.

“I’m happy for you to keep your money, love. And the money from selling Winnie’s house, if that’s what you decide to do. I really appreciate you thinking of me about the car, I really do. It won’t be too long before I am on very good money. I will be earning enough that you won’t even have to go to work if you don’t want to. You wait and see. By the time I’m thirty, I will be in top management”.

Mentioning Winnie’s house made her feel sad. She hadn’t had the heart to put it up for sale, as that somehow seemed disloyal to Winnie. Besides, house prices in the town were increasing steadily. Some people were moving out from North London, and commuting by train into the city every day. Mabel couldn’t imagine having to do such a journey, twice a day, five days a week. But the town was growing, there was no denying that. She spoke quietly when she answered Reg.

“Her house will have to be sold soon. I am paying the rates and standing utility charges for an empty house, that’s silly. But I just wish I could have some say about who buys it. I dread getting neighbours I don’t like. But I know I can’t do that. Give me a bit more time, and I will ask Mr Colyer about a good estate agent who won’t charge too much commission”.

Even a lot of money soon disappeared. By the end of the year, hundreds of pounds of Mabel’s inheritance had been spent. But Mr Colyer said Winnie’s house was worth a thousand pounds now, because of the commuters. Even with all the work that needed doing, he thought she should hold out for twelve hundred. He recommended Walker and Son to sell the house. “They will only charge you one percent commission, and they have a presence in London, Mrs Price. It’s the commuter market you should be looking at, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the house reached as much as fifteen hundred. Demand is high”.

On the third of August the following year, Mabel instructed Mr Walker to sell the house next door, and signed the contract.

Although she hadn’t noticed anyone viewing the house, Mabel received a call about an offer. Still not used to having a phone, it always made her jump when it rang. It was the younger Mr Walker. He had set the asking price at seventeen fifty, though Mabel thought that was outrageous. “Things have changed in the short time since you bought your house, Mrs Price. The property market is booming, and home ownership is all the rage, Yes, I know that’s too much, but it gives us room to accept lower offers”.

He sounded very cheery.

“We have a good offer, Mrs Price. The couple have a mortgage agreed, and the required cash deposit. They are professionals too. He is a teacher in Cambridge, and his wife is an accountant for a publishing company in London. They have asked for the curtains and all flooring to remain, and their offer is fifteen hundred. Non-negotiable, so they say. But I am happy to haggle, if you woud like me to”. Mabel didn’t want to get into that.

“Accept the offer, Mr Walker. That sounds very fair to me. The curtains and carpets and lino will remain, as well as all other fixtures and fittings”. He sounded very pleased. “I will give them the good news, and take the house off the market. Thanks for your good judgement”.

Some six weeks later, Mabel came home from work to see the removal men packing away next door. The sale had all gone smoothly, overseen by Mr Colyer. She had had to go to his office to sign some paperwork and hand over the keys, and he had advised her it would all go through officially on the day she saw the removal van. After giving them an hour to do whatever they were doing, she went and knocked on the door. The man who answered had a beard, needed a haircut, and was wearing corduroy trousers. She introduced herself as both the vendor, and his new next door neighbour. He was very friendly.

“Come in and meet my wife. My name is Simon, Simon Telfer, and my wife is Helen”. The woman who walked through from the kitchen was very thin. Mabel would have described her as ‘very skinny’. Her hair was very long, and her flowered dress had a pattern of yellow daisies on a dark green background. Reg would have called them Beatniks. They were almost certainly both older than her, but Mabel felt old in their company. Mabel asked if she could get them some tea, perhaps some biscuits too.

Helen was grinning. “Oh no, we don’t drink tea, and we don’t eat biscuits. They are all sugar and fat you know, Mabel”. Mabel thought they were posh, and a bit strange. What did you drink, if not tea? And who cared if biscuits were sugary? That’s what made them taste nice. So she told them about bin collection days, and where the good shops were in the town. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t interested, so politely took her leave.

“Well, I am only next door, if you want to ask me anything. I work in Woolworth’s, so you might see me in there”.

Waiting for Reg to get home, Mabel was beginning to regret selling Winnie’s house. The new neighbours were nice enough, but it was clear they were not her sort of people.

Reg came in, smiling. “I see the people next door have got a foreign car, a Citroen. It’s parked right outside, so must be theirs. Left-hand drive too. Maybe they are French?” As he ate his sausage, eggs, and chips, Mabel told him about Simon and Helen. He shook his head. “A beard, you say? And corduroys? I reckon they are probably Beatniks. I bet they love poetry too. Oh well, let them get on with it, we could’ve got worse neighbours, even if they are not our sort of people”.

That night as Reg settled in front of the television, Mabel was still feeling sad. Winnie would not have wanted Beatniks to be living in her house, she was sure of that. In bed that night, she remembered those nights of passion and affection she had shared with Winnie, and secrely confessed to herself that she had been hoping for a housewife a lot like herself to buy the house next door.

But nothing was ever going to happen with Helen, she knew that for sure.

The Swinging Sixties passed Mabel by. Life with Reg had settled into a routine, and the new car had made trips down to see both sets of parents more comfortable. Reg had been right about doing well by the time he was thirty. Assitant Project Manager became Operations Manager, along with another big pay rise, and a company car, a Rover. Reg had to sell the Zephyr, but got a surprisingly good amount for it, which he duly gave to Mabel, as she had paid for it in the first place.

He discovered a new hobby too. With his fishing gear tucked away in the loft, he joined the golf club. “All the managerial types are members, Mabel love. It’s the ideal place to socialise with people of the same sort.” His increased pay meant he could afford the set of golf clubs and membership fees, though he had to pay someone to show him how to play it first. She accompanied him to a social evening there once, but the wives of the other men all looked down their noses at her. Probably because she worked in Woolworth’s, was her conclusion.

Simon and Helen still lived next door, though as expected, they had never become firm friends. But they did have a baby, a little girl they named Olivia. She was almost nine now, and she reminded Mabel of little Denise, and how grown up she would be. It wasn’t that the neighbours were not friendly, they just liked to live quietly. When Mabel had first told Helen about the best Butcher in town, she had laughed. “Butcher? Oh no, we don’t eat meat, we are vegetarian”. And they didn’t own a television either. When Reg ordered a modern replacement for Winnie’s old set, Mabel mentioned it to Helen. She was dismissive. “They don’t interest us, I’m afraid. We read books, or listen to music on the record player”.

Funny people, Mabel thought.

They still had that old French car too, and Simon drove it to work every day. Reg was amazed it was still running. “Has to be ancient now. You only have to listen to the racket it makes”. After Olivia was born, Helen gave up her job in London, and did part-time accounting for a company in the town. They dropped all the books off at her house, and collected them when she had finished. But it was a mark of just how little they knew about their neighbours that Mabel didn’t even know who she was working for.

With her fortieth birthday coming up, Mabel mainly sat alone waiting for Reg to get home, or when he was at the golf club. Her dad was ill, and her mum worn out looking after him. Harry Price had died the year before, dropped dead from a heart attack on his way to get the Sunday paper. They went down for the funeral, and Edna was remarkably chirpy. “It’s the way he would have wanted to go”. Not long after that, she went on a coach trip around the Italian lakes, flush with Harry’s insurance money. According to Reg, she had a fancy man now. He wasn’t happy about that. “Mum’s showing herself up. He’s only about fifty, they say. Don’t know what she’s thinking of”.

Other times, she wallowed in the fond memories of her short time with Winnie. The stolen kisses, the secret smiles, and those nights when they let go to passion. Reg wanted to take her to some restaurant in Cambridge for her fortieth. “It’s the bees knees, Mabel love. Derek told me the menu is in French, and everything”. Derek was Reg’s new pal at the golf club, married to Henrietta, the snootiest of the wives. He was retired, so she had no idea what him and Reg could have in common. She nipped the idea of that restaurant in the bud.

“Seeing as neither of us can speak French, and our favourite dinner is fish and chips, I can’t see the point of going to some fancy-pants place in Cambridge. Everyone will be looking at us, Reg. That’s not our sort of place”. His face flushed, and he got grumpy. “Maybe not your kind of place, but I’m managerial now, and I’ve been abroad. The waiter will tell us what the French means, I’m sure”. She wasn’t having it. “Well if Derek likes it so much, you take him. I ain’t going, and that’s an end to it”.

With that, she switched on the telly and ignored him for the rest of the evening.

Almost a month after her fortieth birthday, Mabel was in the office at work when one of the salesgirls came in. “Can you come out and see a customer, please? She wants to change a blouse, but it has been worn and is dirty. I told her no, so she asked to see my supervisor”.

The customer was standing at the back of the shop, still holding the blouse in question. Mabel guessed she was a little older than her, but she was smartly dressed, and wearing heavy make-up. She gave the woman her best smile. “How may I help you, Madam?” The blouse was pushed into her face. “I opened this yesterday to wear it for work, and the collar was all dirty. I couldn’t get back in with it yesterday, so I have brought it to return today”.

Mabel examined the garment, noting a dark line inside the collar indicating it had been worn more than once, or that it might have been made my some kind of make-up. But when she looked back at the woman, she was tongue tied. She was getting that look. The look that only women like Winnie and Mabel recognised. And that look made her heart beat faster, and completely changed what she had been about to say.

“Would you like to change it for a new one, or do you require a refund?”. The woman’s face softened. “Oh, a refund please. I am intending to go to the cinema on Friday evening. There’s a good film on and I want the money for my ticket and some ice cream”. Then she held out her hand, and gently squeezed Mabel’s arm.

“Thank you for being so kind”. Despite the obvious look of disapproval on the face of the salesgirl, she told her to arrange the refund. Then she stood watching as the woman left the shop with her money. If she looked back, that would confirm what she thought.

She looked back. And she winked too.

Before Reg left for work on Friday, Mabel stopped him as he picked up his briefcase. “I’m going to the pictures tonight, Reg. You get your fish and chips, I will have something later.” Reg was fine with that. “Okay, Mabel love. I might drive down to the golf club on my way home, have a bar snack there, and a few drinks with Derek”.

After work on Friday, Mabel went home and changed into something nice. She did her hair and make-up, and walked back into town. Outside the cinema, a small queue was forming for the evening performance. Sure enough, the woman was there, second in the line. She smiled when she saw Mabel, and called out to her. “Saved your place love, come up here”. After they had bought their tickets for the circle, the woman took her to one side of the auditorium doors.

“My name’s Elsie, Elsie Hughes. You okay to sit at the back of the circle, love?” Mabel nodded. “I’m Mabel, let’s sit anywhere you like”. When they got settled high up in the circle, there was nobody next to them. The closest people were sitting at least four rows in front. Mabel realised she didn’t even know what the film was, but she really didn’t care. Elsie leaned in close to her, whispering. “Thanks for helping me out with that blouse. I’ve been working as a part-time waitress for pin money, and didn’t have time to wash it. Sorry and all that, but I have a disabled son to keep, and I’m hard up. I was so glad it was you, I know we are the same, I saw it as soon as you came out from the back of the shop”.

They had their overcoats over their laps, and Elsie hardly waited for the film to start before sliding her hand up Mabel’s skirt. It felt like Winnie all over again. Mabel had waited for so long, she thought she might pass out with the pleasure. They had ice cream during the intermission, and when the film started again, Mabel returned the favour. By the time the film had finished, she couldn’t even remember what it was, or what had happened in the story.

Outside on the High Street, Elsie was direct. “I go this way. Can I come to yours another time? No good at my place, as my son is always around. What about you, can we make it happen”. Mabel was excited. “Sundays are good. My husband goes to the golf club at ten, and he rarely gets home until after dinner”.

Then she gave Elsie her address.

Elsie Hughes was not much like Winnie. She wasn’t one for sitting chatting, or watching television. Her style was to go straight up into the bedroom and get on with it. But she was much more experienced than Winnie, and Mabel was breathless after the tricks Elsie used on her. There wasn’t much of a pause before she wanted to start again, but long enough for Mabel to find out more about her.

“My dad was in the Air Force from the early days. He was a sergeant mechanic, so we got moved around a lot. I was born in Wales where my parents came from, but don’t remember it. I was still very young when we got moved to Lincolnshire, that’s where I went to school. Then when the war started, we were moved to Oakington, and that’s how I ended up in Cambridgeshire to start with. I always hated boys, rough and unattractive. But what could you do? back then there was no outlet for a girl like me, and I couldn’t exactly tell my parents I fancied girls. Reckon they would have locked me up”.

At that point, she stopped talking, and started the love-making all over again.

Mabel was thrilled, but exhausted when it was all over. Elsie didn’t seem satisfied, and stayed in bed chatting for a while. “I could only see one way out of it, getting pregnant, and having a man who had to marry me. But my mistake was choosing a Yank. He was keen enough to do the business, but when I told him I was expecting, he suddenly disappeared. I always thought he must have put in for a transfer back to the States. And he was probably married over there. But my mum knew I was up the duff, and wouldn’t hear of me trying to get rid of it. Terry was born in fifty-one, and mum took us in. Dad was already in hospital with lung cancer by then. Mum told him all those fags would kill him, and they did.”

She paused again, and Mabel knew what to expect. The woman was insatiable. Not a bad thing, after such a long dry spell.

Before she left for home, Elsie accepted a glass of Port in the living room, and continued her story.

“Once dad was gone, mum lived on his RAF pension, and a few cleaning jobs. I was working as a waitress wherever I could get a job, and between us we raised Terry as best we could. I tried looking for girlfriends, but it was bloody hard. Even the ones I knew were interested wouldn’t give in to their desires. I had to get buses into Cambridge to try my luck with the girl students at the colleges there. I had some good nights, but they were mostly bad. Mum had applied to the council for a three bed house, and they finaly offered us one here in Huntingdon when Terry started school. I managed to get full-time waitressing work at a hotel, and mum cared for Terry in the evenings. We are still there now, all these years later. Anyway, I had better go, Mabel. I wanted to say that I am glad we have found each other”.

Feeling worn out after three sessions, Mabel had a long bath. She was still soaking in it when Reg came home from the golf club.

“Mabel love, I have just had a good tip from a local councillor at the golf club. They are building some lovely three-bed bungalows in a cul-de-sac just up the road. We could buy one off-plan, no questions asked. It’s up to you, but I reckon we could get almost two grand for this house, and you wouldn’t need much more to buy one of those new builds. They are detached, and all have garages and a good sized garden. Two thousand seven hundred if we act now. What do you reckon, love? They might be more than three thousand if we wait until they are officially released”.

She shouted through the bathroom door.

“Tell them yes, Reg. I fancy a bungalow with a garage and good garden. By the time we sell this place, we won’t have that much more to find. I will give you the money for the deposit next week”.

Once he had gone back downstairs, she thought about her time with Elsie. And that made her tingle all over.

As she was drying herself in the bathroom, something occurred to Mabel. She had not been keeping up with the increase in house prices, but what Reg had said was the cost of the new house semed remarkably cheap to her. So she went downstairs in her dressing gown to speak to him about that.

He was eating a cheese and tomato sandwich sitting in his armchair, and reacted to Mabel’s question with a smile.

“Where’ve you been, Mabel love? Of course that’s not the total price. Houses are going up a lot, and that’s just the price for the building plot The finished bunglaow will double that, but our house is worth quite a bit too, and we can get a small mortgage for the difference, pay it off over fifteen years”. Mabel hadn’t been expecting to have a mortgage in her forties, but the idea of that new bungalow in the nice part of town really appealed to her.

“Okay, Reg. As long as the payments are reasonable, let’s do it. I will be coming to the solicitor to make sure my name goes on the deeds though”. Reg looked a bit hurt that she had said that, but he was so keen to improve his status in the town, he let that go. “I will see my builder friend at the golf club next week, get it all sorted. You can talk to Mr Walker and get our house on the market once we know the completion date of the build”.

While he was in such a good mood, Mabel added something.

“By the way, I have a nice new friend, Elsie Hughes. I met her at the cinema the other day, and we are going to be good friends, I’m sure. And before you complain, I can tell you she is not your sort of person. She works as a waitress, and has a son. But she’s not married”. Reg actually looked relieved. “That’s nice for you, Mabel love. You can get out and about a bit now, be good for you to have some company”.

The next few months were good ones for Mabel. She saw Elsie most Sundays, and they went to the cinema at least once a week too, whatever was showing. Her and Reg paid visits to the building site, and were able to choose the kitchen units, and the configuration of the bungalow to their own taste. Or Mabel’s taste at least, as Reg had little say in her decisions. They saved some money by having the garage attached to the house instead of being separate, and chose a wrap-around garden instead of a large one at the back.

She was getting used to the differences between Elsie and Winnie. There wasn’t the same affection, and never any mention of love, but the rest was far better, and more satisfying. People started to accept them as mature friends. The women at work asked Mabel what her and Elsie had done over the weekend, and she finally met Elsie’s mum and son. She couldn’t take to the boy though. He was spoiled rotten, and despite being in his late teens, he didn’t do any work.

Elsie made excuses for him, saying he had nervous problems, or his weight affected his ability to do certain jobs. Mabel could see through the lazy young man, but kept her opinions to herself. Reg met Elsie one day too, when she was invited round before the move to the new house. He seemed to be afraid of her, and made an excuse to go and see Derek about something.

Not long after, their house was sold, for much more than they had expected. The mortgage was going to be very small on the new bungalow, and easily affordable with Reg’s last pay rise. They got a moving date, and ordered some new furniture. Mabel was happy. A nice new home, a new lover, and everything going smoothly with Reg.

Then just before they were due to move, Mabel received bad news from London, and Reg received news he didn’t like.

Her dad had died, and the same week, her mum had a stroke. Reg got a wedding invitation as his mum was marrying her fancy man. Their world was turned upside down overnight, and they had to take time off to go to her dad’s funeral. With her mum unable to cope alone, they were going to have to put her into an old people’s home, or Mabel would have to take her in. Reg refused to attend his mum’s wedding, cutting off all ties with her. Mabel was sad, and not only because her dad had died. It was awful to see her mum in such a state. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t walk properly, and would need round the clock care.

Everything had been going so well too.

As it turned out, Molly White made the decision for her daughter. Unable to speak, she was still able to write, so when Mabel told her she was going to take her to live with them in Huntingdon, she made a writing motion with her hand. Reg handed her a pen and opened his diary at the back for her to write on. The message was clear.

‘Not your house. Your life. Not mine. Home is OK’. Mabel asked her outright. “So you would sooner go into the care home than live with us, mum?” Molly nodded vigorously, and managed a crooked smile to confirm her wishes.

As Reg drove them home that evening, Mabel had to admit to being overwhelmingly relieved. Having to care for her mum for however long she lived was not a prospect she had been relishing, but she would have done that had the decision gone the other way. Reg was obviously happy too. “I wil drive you down to see her whenever you want, Mabel. Promise”.

So the move went ahead, and she felt rather grand in the spanking new bungalow. Reg employed a local company to do the painting and wallpapering before the carpets went down, owned by another one of his golf club friends who gave him a good price. She took a week’s holiday from Woolworth’s to get it all arranged as she wanted, then Elsie came round as usual on the Sunday, keen to christen the new bed in Mabel’s room.

Elsie also had some ideas to discuss, mainly about trips and holidays. “I was thinking we could go on some coach trips, Mabel. Nobody thinks anything of two women friends sharing a room, and I have seen some advertised for nice spots in Yorkshire, or Devon if you prefer. They are not expensive, and I can pay my way”. One good thing about Elsie, even though she knew Reg and Mabel were well off, she never once asked for a penny from her friend, or expected her to pay more than half for anything they did. “And next summer I thought we could get a caravan in Scarborough for a week. Reg won’t object, and we can spend some extra time together with no work or distractions”.

By the end of the month, they had a coach trip to Devon to look forward to, and had booked a caravan for the following summer, within walking distance of the beach at Scarborough.

But Mabel couldn’t go on the coach trip to Devon, because her mum died two days before. Elsie understood, but went anyway. “No point wasting two tickets”. Mabel and Reg had to pay for the cremation and service, and drive down to South London on the day. They were the only mourners, along with an African woman who worked at the care home. She had only come along in case nobody was there to see mum off. Mabel cried a bit on the drive home. She wasn’t really crying for her mum, but because all she had left in the world now was Reg and Elsie.

Still, she now had Scarborough to look forward to.

Molly White had left her daughter some life insurance money. It was only one thousand pounds, but must have seemed a lot to her. She had paid the insurance man every week at the doorstep, and he had ticked off the payments in her little book. Other than the money, there were some framed photos that were boxed up by the home. She agreed to pay to have them posted to her. In the box was her mum’s wedding ring, a rolled-gold bracelet that dad had given her the day they got married, the four photos, and mum’s false teeth.

Sitting looking in the box made Mabel sob loudly. That was the sum of her mum’s entire life, right there. Reg felt sorry for her. “Don’t bother cooking tonight, Mabel love. I will go and get us fish and chips. Why don’t you have a glass of Port? Make it a large one”. She had two large ones before he got back with their dinner.

After they had eaten, Mabel poured her third large Port.

“I’m not ending up like mum, Reg. Not never, I tell you. I won’t end up like that”.

The week in Scarborough went well. The caravan was very nice, and considering they only needed one bed, very roomy too. They walked along the seafront, played Bingo, went to the cinema the only afternoon it rained, and spent most of the rest of the time in bed. Elsie really was up for it. Mabel couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been. On the way home on the coach, Elsie had come to a decision.

“Once my mum has gone, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t stop over at mine sometimes. Terry won’t care, all he does is watch telly anyway. And with mum being diagnosed last month, it’s not going to be too long”. Mabel was confused. Elsie hadn’t mentioned anything about her mum all week, so she asked her what was up. “Colon cancer. She left it too late, so they say it’s inoperable. Won’t be long before she has to go in for terminal care, so she tells me”. Mabel nodded. Elsie was a hard woman, and showed no emotion at all.

Elsie’s mum lasted six weeks, most of that spent in hospital. Mabel went to the funeral out of respect, even though she had only met the old girl once. They had a few drinks in a pub after, and Terry and Elsie were both speculating about the insurance money. Mabel listened in, but didn’t comment. “Mum told me it is ten grand, Terry. That’s enough for your driving lessons, and getting you a small car. You’ll have to run me around though, no saying you’re too busy watching your programmes”.

Not long after that, Terry got his car. It was only a four-door Fiesta though, and a few years old too. Elsie wasn’t about to spend too much money on him, seeing as he had never worked. And Elsie got a full-time job, working in the baker’s five days a week from eight until four. She was able to give up the waitressing, and was better off than she had been in years. As for Terry, he still played the system. If there was an illness, he had it, whether physical or psychological. When they tried to cut his benefits, he claimed to be depressed and suicidal. After he spent a week in a psychiatric hospital in Cambridge, the authorities gave up on him and resumed his benefits. They even paid Elsie some money to be his carer, which stunned Mabel.

But the sleepovers at Elsie’s really made a difference. No worries about Reg coming home unexpectedly, and Terry didn’t seem to care less that they both slept in the same room. All he did was to watch telly and eat. It must have been obvious to a blind man what they were up to, but Terry was so made up about his car and resumed benefits, he never once mentioned it. And Reg didn’t care either. He had been made secretary of the golf club, and was hoping to become chairman soon. It was all he ever talked about, despite Derek having developed Angina, so no longer bothering to go to the club. Reg had a new best friend, Malcolm. Malcolm was single, and lived with his widower dad. Whenever she stayed over at Elsie’s, Reg and Malcolm seemed to have something planned too.

He made chairman two years later, greatly helped by Malcolm. “I’ve got my own car park space, reserved for the chairman. Can you believe that, Mabel love?” It seemed to her that it had become less about playing golf, and more about small town politics. But that same year he was promoted again. The railways were changing, and Reg was ahead of the game. They made him Operations Manager for the whole of Eastern England, and his salary doubled. “We have never been so well off, Mabel love. You sure you want to keep on working?”

Mabel was sure she didn’t. She had enough years in for a decent pension, and there were so many rumours about Woolworth’s closing down their operation in Britain. So she grabbed at his offer. “If you’re sure, Reg? Okay, I will hand in my month’s notice tomorrow”. They said they were sorry to see her go, and the manager told her that the pension would not be released until she reached sixty. But she resigned anyway

She took Elsie with her to her leaving party. Reg was staying overnight in Norfolk, for work.

Mabel soon settled into the new life of a housewife. Not having to hold down a full time job, she found her everyday chores quite pleasant, for the first time ever. The purchase of some cookbooks even saw her experimenting with some new dishes for dinner, many of which were not to Reg’s taste.

“What’s that flavour, Mabel love?” His face was screwed up as he spoke. “Garlic, Reg. It’s good for you, and adds something to a normal casserole”. He held up a spoon to show her what was on it. “I don’t think these peas are cooked properly, love. And they have gone a funny colour too”. She shook her head. “They are chickpeas, Reg. Good roughage”. To be fair to him, he carried on eating. But she wasn’t surprised to hear him making a cheese and pickle sandwich after she had gone to bed.

Reg’s job took him away from home more and more, with frequent overnight trips to attend meetings, mainly in London. He still refused to have anything to do with his mum, so stayed in hotels arranged by the railway. On those nights, Elsie would stop over. They would listen to records and drink Port, sometimes they even danced together. The occasional coach trips were more Elsie’s thing. Mabel wasn’t so keen on visiting stately homes, but she enjoyed the seaside trips, and the ones where they stopped overnight. They went back to Scarborough the next summer, and it was even better than the first time.

It seemed her and Reg had worked out a pretty good way of living apart together, with nobody apparently suspecting it was all a sham. He never asked her about Elsie, and she didn’t mention Malcolm. Then one day Reg announced him and Malcolm were going on a golfing holiday. Two weeks in Florida. Mabel was stunned. “All the way to America? Are you going on a liner?” He chuckled. “Course, not. We are flying. Gonna get a taxi from here down to Gatwick Airport, and fly on Panam”.

While he was away, Elsie moved in for the whole two weeks. She had to go to work still, but came home every evening and they sat and ate dinner like a real couple. Elsie was not so fond of garlic either, as it turned out. “I can’t eat this, darling. It’s got a funny smell”. After that, Mabel cooked her traditional food.

The years slipped by, each one much the same as the one before. It shocked Mabel when Reg started to talk about retirement. “I might as well go at fifty-five in a couple of years, Mabel love. The pension is bigger if I wait until I’m sixty, but we can manage well enough either way”. The last thing she wanted was for Reg to be around the house all day. Hopefully, he would just spend more time at the golf club, but you never knew. She gave it a few days, then broached the subject.

“Been thinking, Reg. I don’t get my Woolworth pension until I’m sixty, nor my State Pension until then neither. So why don’t you wait until you’re sixty, get that bigger pension? At least that way if anything happens to you, I will be alright. And you should increase our life insurances too, just in case”. Reg nodded. Okay, whatever you say, love. Though the house will be paid off soon, and we ain’t got nobody to leave any money to”. She smiled. “We’ve got each other to leave it to. When we’re both gone, I don’t care what happens to the money”.

Elsie was seven years older than Mabel, so she got her State Pension and retired when Mabel was fifty-three. With no intention of carrying on working in the baker’s, Elsie became a daily visitor to Mabel’s house. She would get Terry to drop her off after Reg had left for work, and then collect her in the late afternoon if Reg was due back, or stop overnight if he was away working. They were happy times, with the women completely relaxed in each other’s company, living something of their fantasy where they were always together. Some days, they didn’t even bother to get dressed again, after the first time in the bedroom. Mabel joked that they were like those Hippes in America, wandering around in the buff.

She tried not to think about Reg’s impending retirement.

That was going to change everything.

Mabel didn’t go to Reg’s retirement party, as it was held at his head office in London. It would all be work people, and she didn’t know any of them anyway. Instead, she sat at home wondering what it was going to be like, having him at home every day. He got back late, in a taxi. They had given him a swanky new set of golf clubs as a leaving present, and had all signed a huge card that had got bent up on the train home. He went straight up to bed, the worse the wear for a day of drinking.

As it turned out, her fears were groundless. Reg had plans, most of them involving the golf club. He was going to oversee a lot of renovations to the buildings, and bring the club up to date to attract more members. By the end of his first week of retirement, he was at the club more or less full-time, seven days a week. Greatly relieved, Mabel was able to carry on as normal. Reg even employed a part-time gardner to take care of the outside jobs.

The next ten years seemed to fly by. For her and Elsie, the trips continued, and the occasional holidays too. Though their sex life tailed off, as they both got older. More like sisters now, they spent most of their free time together. When all the work had been completed at the golf club, Reg was off on golfing holidays. Scotland, Florida again, and Spain. He even talked about part-ownership of a flat on a golf course in Spain, which he said he might buy with Malcolm. Mabel encouraged him to go ahead with that, as he mentioned they woud be there for at least six weeks every year.

He was away to look at properties in Spain, when Mabel got a call one evening. It was Malcolm on the phone. He never rang her.

“I’m sorry to tell you that Reg had a bad turn in the hotel this afternoon. They got a doctor in to see him, and he sent him to hospital in an amubulance. I’m phoning from the hospital now, I’m afraid it’s a stroke. He is conscious, but he can’t speak properly, or move his right arm. I will ring you again tomorrow and let you know the progress”.

She was thinking about her mum. After a long silence, she thanked Malcolm for calling, then rang Elsie to tell her. Elsie voiced her fears. “That means you’ll be looking after him, darling. Doesn’t sound good, does it?”

When Reg got home almost a week later, he looked like a different person. He could only speak what sounded like babbling. He dragged his right leg, and had limited use of his right arm. Malcolm brought him home in a taxi. “Here is all the paperwork from the Spanish hospital, Mabel. Your doctor here will have to make an appointment for Reg to be seen in hospital in Cambridge. Let me know if I can help”. He handed her a business card with his number on it. She had to get Reg undressed, and help him into bed. Then she sat wondering how she was ever going to cope with an invalid to look after.

Elsie turned up the next morning with a full shopping bag. She had bought a plastic cup with a spout, a plastic device for Reg to use to pee into, some disposable gloves, and a big plastic bib that was washable. “I’ve been to that disability shop in town, Mabel. You are gonna need all sorts of stuff. Reg won’t be able to hold a cup properly, and he’s not about to manage keep going to the toilet without waking you up. There’s a phone number on the receipt, they said they can send someone round to fit bars for him to hold on to, and a seat that goes under the shower. Don’t worry about the money, I paid for these things”.

She stayed for a cup of tea and a piece of Manor House cake, then popped into Reg’s room to say hello before Terry came to collect her. Lowering her voice to a whisper, she spoke to Mabel in the hallway. “He doesn’t look good, does he? No more golf club for him. And you had better think about driving lessons now. He won’t be driving you anywhere ever again, that’s for sure”.

For what seemed like ages, Mabel sat staring at the receipt, wondering whether to ring the disability shop. But when she heard some incomprehensible yelling from Reg’s room, she realised it was time to start looking after him.

What else could she do? He was her husband.

Managing life with Reg gave Mabel so much to do. They had to go to the bank to arrange for her to get a power of attorney, so she could pay the bills and draw money from his account. Getting into and out of taxis was a mission, and the smallest journey started to wear her out. The disability shop was a godsend though. After a couple of phone calls and one trip to the shop, they had soon sorted out so much. There were rails around the house and next to the toilet, a ramp at the front to cover the two steps, and a new recliner chair for Reg that was electrically operated.

Later on, they got a commode chair to leave in his room so he didn’t have to keep going along the corridor to the toilet, and then had the bathroom converted into a shower-only wet room with a seat and rails for Reg. Then a grab bar was fixed to the ceiling over his bed, so Mabel didn’t have to keep hauling him in and out. It all came at a price of course, and it was lucky that Reg had got a rather large lump sum on top of his monthly pension. Money wasn’t a worry, even though everything else was. The best thing they suggested in the shop was a device that Reg could use to talk. As soon as Mabel saw that demonstrated, she bought one.

Reg could type into the small machine, using his left hand. When he had typed what he wanted to say, he pressed a button, and the machine spoke to Mabel. It had a voice a bit like a serious robot, but having it made such a difference. Using that device, he told her to sell his car, learn to drive, and get something smaller that would suit her. He recommended a Honda for reliability. First things first, she had to apply for a driving licence by visiting the Post Office. When that came, she contacted one of the local driving schools. It had never entered her head to learn to drive, but the alternative was relying on taxis all the time.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Elsie was going downhill fast. She couldn’t leave Reg on his own for too long, and Elsie felt uncomfortable about doing anything with Reg in the house. Elsie was her usual tough self. “We can keep in touch by phone, but let me know when you think you can go on some trips, or stop over at my place”.

Ricky was the driving instructor assigned to teach her. But after six lessons in his Ford Focus, it was very obvious that Mabel would never understand how to use a manual gearbox, and keep her eyes on the road at the same time. He recommended she went for an automatic-only licence, and he also recommended a different instructor. It was much better with Elaine. She was very patient, and Mabel soon got used to the automatic car. “It’s like a bumper car at the funfair”, she told an unconvinced Elaine. After failing her test twice for the approach to roundabouts, Elaine took her out for a two-hour lesson before her third test, and spent almost all of it going around roundabouts.

She was as pleased as punch when she passed, though she didn’t confide her lack of confidence to Elaine, or Reg. He was delighted though, and used his machine to tell her to contact the Honda dealer. They brought a car to the house, and agreed to take Reg’s two year-old Mercedes in part-exchange. It was too big for her, even though it was automatic. Reg did most of the deal using his machine, and because the Mercedes was worth a lot of money, they didn’t have much more to pay. Reg paid for it, and typed into his machine. ‘A present for you, Mabel love’. Three days later, a brand new Honda Jazz automatic arrived, in a nice shade of metallic blue.

Not long after that, Reg typed that she should contact a company he knew, and get an automatic garage door to replace the old one. It would make life easier for Mabel, and it wasn’t as if they couldn’t afford it.

Mabel’s first trip in the new car was to the Doctor, to collect Reg’s prescription from the pharmacy. While she was out, she went to see Elsie. But Elsie wasn’t interested in the new car. She whispered to Mabel in the kitchen.

“Let’s go to my room. It’s been a long while”. Terry was watching television.

Although she never really had the confidence to travel far outside the county, Mabel soon got used to driving her new car. She took Reg to the hospital for his check-ups, got her shopping from the supermarket on the edge of town, and occasionally took Elsie for a half-day trip when the weather was nice.

Reg had a few visitors at first, mainly pals from the golf club. But Malcolm never came back after that day he brought Reg home from Spain. After a while, Reg didn’t want any visitors, telling Mabel he could see the pity in their eyes. Besides, it was hard work using his machine to have a conversation for more than a few minutes.

Having established a routine, Mabel would wake Reg around eight, empty his commode, and help him into the shower. Once he was dressed, she was usually exhausted, and would make some breakfast before they just sat in front of the TV before she went out wherever she had to go. He couldn’t really be left for more than half a day, as he couldn’t make himself any hot drinks or something to eat. And Mabel had her own problems. Arthritis in her knees and back was making life difficult, so much so that Reg suggested she pay someone to come in and do his care routine.

She agreed to look into that on the Monday following, but on Saturday morning she found him dead in bed when she went to wake him up.

Sitting in the living room, Mabel wondered what to do. He was obviously dead, as his body was cold. Should she ring the doctor? The Police? An ambulance perhaps? In the end, she rang 999 and asked for the police. “My husband is dead. I just found him in bed”. They sent an ambulance anyway, and a young man told her he had been gone too long so they couldn’t do anything. As they were talking, the police turned up. Mabel made them all a cup of tea, and as the kettle boiled, she was wondering why she hadn’t cried.

He was taken away by the undertakers, and they said they would talk to his doctor. Cause of death was given as a second stroke, and the body was released for the funeral with no need for a post-mortem. The golf club hosted the wake and paid for it too, and the crematorium was packed with Reg’s friends from the club. Mabel sat with Elsie, thinking about how she still hadn’t cried.

After that, Elsie more or less took over her life. She went with her to the doctor’s, or the hospital, and accompanied her on the trips to the supermarket too. There was no sex any longer though. That had all stopped while she had been forced to stay at home and look after Reg. But they still went everywhere together, including the regular coach trips to places Elsie was keen to see. Mabel didn’t mind too much. It was company for her, and it wasn’t as if she had any other friends or family to spend time with.

Still, she had been grateful for the car breaking down that morning, and not having to go to Downton Abbey. Her knees hurt too much if she was walking around for too long. Sitting with her cup of tea, she opened a packet of Fig Rolls, and ate four of them before her programme finished. Then she switched over to watch the early news, expecting Elsie to ring at any minute to moan at her for not going on the coach trip.

It didn’t register at first, so she had to watch the bulletin again, when it all got repeated fifteen minutes later. Coach crash. Four dead, six injured. It had been returning to Huntingdon with a pensioner’s group, after they had visited Highclere Castle. That was the coach she would have been on, the one that Elsie had actually been on. No mistake.

Then the phone rang. Mabel smiled. That would be Elsie, using her mobile phone to tell her she was alright.

But it was Terry, and he sounded upset. “My Mum’s dead, Mabel. Killed in a coach crash. The police came round to tell me, and I had to go to the hospital in Cambridge to identify her. I don’t know what to do, Mabel”. She hung up without saying anything, and went back to sit down.

Suddenly, tears flowed down her cheek, and she reached for a tissue from the box on the side table.

But she wasn’t crying for Elsie, she was crying for herself.

Because now she was completely alone.

The End.

The Blue Light: The Complete Story

It has just occurred to me that I forgot to compile my last serial into one long post. So here it is.
A long read, at 19,164 words.

George hadn’t been sleeping that well since retiring. Losing the routine of working all day had upset his body clock, and left him restless at night. And being around Eileen all day felt strange too. He had realised that you can be married to someone for forty years, and hardly know them. Forty-three years in the same job, doing it well, but with no ambition to change. What did that say about him? He thought about that a lot now he wasn’t working.

Still, they were only sixty, and probably had a good twenty years ahead of them doing things that they had always said they would do once they could. But so far, they had done almost nothing. The days passed by in a blur, and before he knew it, George was coming up to his first anniversary of retirement, and they hadn’t even been on a holiday, let alone done anything remotely exciting. Perhaps if they had children it might have been different. But one or the other of them hadn’t worked properly, the children had never come along, and they never bothered to find out why.

Eileen had resisted the idea of moving. Their small semi-detached on the edge of a market town suited her nicely, so she said. George wanted to sell up and move to a completely different part of the country, but his wife liked the neighbours, and enjoyed her moderate social life. He used some of his savings to change the car, and Eileen had chuckled when he came home with the two-door fastback. “Will we even get all the shopping in the back of that, George? What were you thinking, love?” So she didn’t really want to go for drives, and George ended up washing and polishing the car every weekend, dreaming of swooping around sharp bends and enjoying country lanes.

But so far the only place he had swooped to was the new Aldi on the trading estate. Sitting inside the car waiting for Eileen to return with a trolley load of groceries.

It wasn’t long before she started to suggest that he found himself a hobby. She had her crochet, her lunch club, and she helped out at the library too, reading to illiterate adults. The husbands of most of her friends went fishing, or spent the day in garden sheds making things. Some of them made models, collected stamps, or followed the local football team. None of that interested George though. He had hoped they would do things together, explore new places, just drive off somewhere and find a hotel, come home when they liked.

Then she talked about him landscaping the garden, or decorating all the rooms in the house. She bought him books to read, without even asking if he wanted to read them. Very soon the bookcase was full of books he had no intention of ever reading. The final straw was when Eileen bought him a new electric drill with all the accessories for his birthday. What did she expect him to drill? The house already had every hole drilled it would ever need. That went up into the loft, never to see the light of day.

He still loved her of course. His first, and only love. They had been together for so long it had become a habit. It was a good habit, he had always thought, but forced together twenty-four seven, he could see the cracks starting to emerge.

There were also the differences he could also feel in himself. After a year of doing almost nothing, he was slowing down, feeling his age. Many of the people they knew had carried on working, determined not to retire until they had no other option. But he had always planned to leave at sixty, while he still had some life left in him. He had planned for it, saved hard, and paid extra into his job pension. Eileen had gone part-time when she was fifty-five, mainly so she could do more of her other activities.

Sometimes, he thought she had given up, and couldn’t wait to be an old lady, sitting in a chair working her crochet hooks, and staring out the window at the garden.

Another unsettled night. Eileen snoring softly next to him as he tossed and turned, trying to get off to sleep. No sooner had he managed to do that, when the room was bathed in a blue light. It was strong enough to show through the curtains, and seemed to be directed at his face. He got out of bed and opened one side of the curtains, amazed to see the blue light illuminating the garden and boring into his eyes through the window. What could it be, at three in the morning? Something one of the neighbours in the street behind had set up perhaps? Eileen hadn’t noticed it, and was still sleeping soundly.

Closing the curtains and going back to bed, George decided he would walk around the corner and have a word with that neighbour tomorrow.

Then the light went out.

Eileen woke up with George on top of her. He was definitely amorous, and she struggled to remember the last time he had done anything like that. It had to have been at least five years earlier, after too many whiskies on his fifty-fifth birthday. Despite the surprise, she had to give him credit for performance. He was like a tiger, and she definitely could not recall the last time she had ever thought that about him. When it was over, she was left flushed and breathless.

“What was that about, George?” He shrugged. “Just in the mood, woke up feeling good, so why not?”

Over breakfast, she could definitely sense a twinkle in his eye, and she added that to the rest of the memories. Eye-twinkling was something that used to happen, but had not happened for a very long time. He ate his breakfast like a man who had never seen food, demolishing it, then asking for extra toast and marmalade.

“I might go for a drive later, love. I fancy giving the car a good run”. Eileen smiled and nodded. She had crochet club at eleven, so it didn’t concern her if George went out.

It took him two hours to get to the south coast. Two hours of driving on the edge, and ignoring speed limits as he changed up and down through the gears like he was driving in the Monte Carlo Rally. When he got to Brighton, he pushed on to Worthing, finally deciding to park for a while, and have a nice walk along the seafront. He was hungry again, and found a nice fish restaurant. Nothing like fish and chips at the coast, freshly-caught and cooked, and eaten from a proper plate in an upmarket chippy.

The waitress was in her forties. Black hair that was probably dyed, a bit too much eye make up, and a uniform rather too short for her age. But when he gave her the eye, she returned his gaze, and smiled. “What time do you finish, love?” It was as if someone else was saying it, but he was glad they had. She checked her watch. “I’m off at four, why?” There was a smile included with the question. He smiled back. “Well I thought I might offer you a lift home, save you walking or taking the bus”.

When she brought the bill, she presented it upside down. On the bottom, she had written, ‘Okay, meet me outside at four’. He left her a very large tip, almost as much as the food had cost. He only had to wait until ten past, and she appeared from the back, smiling. George was feeling great, and in charge. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt in charge of anything. “Not far to my car, just along the front here”. She held his arm. How long was it since Eileen had held his arm?

“I don’t live far, only about ten minutes from here. You can come in for a cup of tea if you like”.

George liked.

He name was Valerie, and she liked it too. She liked it enough that George didn’t leave her bedsit flat until it was almost seven at night. She puffed on her cigarette as she spoke. “Will I see you again?” George was getting dressed, and felt amazing. “Yes, you definitely will, I just don’t know when”. Then he kissed her and left.

It was almost nine-thirty when he got home. Eileen was angry.

“You could have phoned and let me know how late you would be, George. I was worried, and your dinner is in the oven, but it will be ruined now”. He was not fazed by her moaning. “I told you I was going for a drive, and that’s what I did. I went to Worthing, and had fish and chips. Then I carried on along the coast, and really enjoyed the drive. What’s your problem with that, love? You went to crochet club, and I didn’t complain about that”.

She was grumpy. “Well, I’m going to bed, so goodnight!”

George stayed up until after midnight. He felt energised, and he was buzzing. Valerie had been the only other woman he had been with in his life, and compared to Eileen, she was a revelation. She hadn’t cared about the age difference, and had made him feel like he was the best lover in the world. Eileen needed to step up, no doubt about that.

Sleep was hard to come by, as usual. When the blue light flooded the room, it was later, just after four. He opened the curtains fully, to get the complete effect. He could feel the energy coursing through him, something he hadn’t been aware of since he was in his twenties.

The light went out fifteen minutes later, and he slept the sleep of the dead.

When George woke up late the next morning, Eileen was already busy in the living room. The crochet club had a new project, and she was occupied with the squares that were her contribution. So he cooked his own breakfast of three sausages, three fried eggs, and four slices of toast. She was still being sniffy about him returning late last night, so he decided to take no notice of her. Instead, he went out into the garden, and got to work.

By the time he came in for a cold drink four hours later, George had transformed the garden. The small lawn had been cut, the edges trimmed, and all the weeding done in the flower beds. He had finally cut back the overgrown shrubs too, something he had been promising to do for at least seven years. When he finished his cold drink, he went out there again and gave all the fence panels two coats of wood stain. Feeling very pleased with himself, he went inside and asked Eileen what was for dinner, as it was almost six.

She was still working her hooks, and trying to make a point, obviously. “I haven’t thought about what to do yet, might warm up that casserole I saved from Sunday”. In no mood for a warmed-up casserole, George picked up his wallet and car keys. “Right then, you can have that if you want, I’m going for a Chinese takeaway”. He knew Eileen hated Chinese food. There were some people in the queue in front of him, so George perused the menu written above the counter as he waited. When it came to his turn, he smiled at the grumpy-looking Chinese lady, and placed his order.

“Right then, I will have some sweet and sour chicken balls, two spring rolls, beef in black bean sauce, and special fried rice”. He was unusually hungry, probably all that work in the garden.

Back at the house, Eileen was continuing the spat. “Please don’t eat that around me, you know I can’t stand the smell”. He took his food into the rarely-used dining room and laid it out on the mahogany table. His wife shouted from the kitchen. “Use the table mats, and don’t spill any of that muck onto the wood!” He didn’t use any mats, and he didn’t spill a drop onto the table, as he ate it at great speed, surprising himself when he realised he had finished it all.

Eileen couldn’t keep her bad mood going. She wanted to watch her favourite soap opera on TV, and George usually sat with her on the sofa as she watched it. He didn’t care anything about the characters, and who they were related to, but Eileen would give him a running commentary nonetheless. “That’s her sister, and she had sex with the blonde’s husband. But of course, the blonde doesn’t know yet. There is going to be hell to pay when she finds out”. George was zoned out. The northern accents of the cast seemed like a foreign language to him anyway, but watching it with Eileen had become a habit.

At least he didn’t have to wait too long to turn over to the news.

It was well before ten when he started to feel very tired. Perhaps he had overdone it in the garden? His muscles would probably ache tomorrow. “I’m off to bed love. reckon I did too much gardening today”. He kissed her on the cheek and made his way upstairs. So tired, he didn’t even bother to brush his teeth before collapsing into bed.

The light woke him. He checked the time on the digital alarm clock, and it was four-fifteen. Standing at the window listening to Eileen snoring, he felt rejuvenated by the blue light. Well, he had just had over six hours sleep, so that might have something to do with it. When the light went out, he didn’t want to go back to bed. He went into the bathroom and had a wash and shave, before grabbing some clothes from the bedroom without waking his wife.

Downstairs in the kitchen, he had a cup of tea while writing a note. ‘Gone for a drive. Not sure when I will be back’. He left the note next to the kettle, sure that Eileen would see it when she got up.

By five thirty, he was forty miles away, heading north. Time to go somewhere he had never been before. Just after eight that morning, he was looking for somewhere to park in Lincoln.

He had seen photos of the castle and cathedral there many years ago, but Eileen said it was too far for a day trip.

Enjoying his walk around the unfamiliar city, George got to see the castle and the cathedral just as he had hoped, stopping for lunch in between. It was a nice day, so he decided to head east to the coast, and the seaside town of Skegness. That took him longer than expected, so by the time he got there he realised he wasn’t going to have time to drive home that evening. There were plenty of small hotels along the seafront, and he chose the nicest looking one that had a ‘Vacancies’ sign in the window. After booking a room, he walked up to the shops and bought some toiletries and a change of underwear.

On the way back to the hotel, he stopped at a phone box. He anticipated problems with Eileen when he told her, but was pleasantly surprised when she seemed alright about it.

“I’m glad you left me a note, or I would have been worried. Lincoln, you say? Well, you did always want to go there. And you are in Skegness now? I have always heard that is a rather run-down place, so I hope you found somewhere decent to stay. So I will see you tomorrow when you get home. Goodnight, George”.

He had to admit it was just as his wife suspected. Run-down, rather seedy, and also unusually crowded for the time of year. He had seen many caravan parks on his way through, and guessed that most of the people thronging the streets would have been staying in a caravan. That was probably why so many of the hotels had vacancies. His hotel had a restaurant, so he booked a table for one and went down to eat. It was rather disappointing,, offering a bland set meal, three courses at a fixed price.After dinner he went and sat in the bar, but his only companions were two much older couples who sat sipping their drinks and staring into space.

The Lincolnshire adventure had fallen flat, and he decided to go to bed early.

Eileen used the absence of her husband to crack on with her crochet project. Then she cooked a fillet steak for dinner, and decided to have a glass of Port while she ate. After two more glasses of Port, she could feel her eyes getting heavy, so she turned off the television and went to bed.

When the light woke her, she checked the time. It was just after three in the morning. Wondering what it could be, she put on her dressing gown and went out into the garden. The light was concentrated there, feeling like one of those floodlight football matches you saw on television. It wasn’t shining on the adjoining house at all, and it also didn’t scare her, or make her annoyed. After trying to see the source of it for some time, it suddenly went out. Eileen went back to bed feeling remarkably peaceful, and she had no trouble getting back to sleep.

George was down in good time for the full breakfast provided by the hotel. He paid the bill after eating, and walked to his car to drive home. Only then did it occur to him that he had not been awakened by the blue light during the night. The traffic was bad all the way home, and even trying to change his route didn’t help. He had got as far as Bedford when he suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired, so stopped at a roadside cafe for some strong coffee.

After that stop it still took him over two hours to get home, and when he went inside, he was surprised to find Eileen was out. There was no note, and as she didn’t drive, he presumed she had been picked up by one of her friends, or taken a bus or taxi somewhere. He had been home for more than an hour when she came in. Not wanting to start any arguments, he didn’t ask where she had been, but she told him anyway.

“Oh I had a lovely day, George. I joined the new health club out on the Ring Road. They have a lovely pool there, and I have been swimming on and off most of the day. The people are very nice, and they have a restaurant too. It’s a bit pricey of course, but very upmarket. She produced a sports bag with the logo of the health club printed on it, and removed a one-piece swimming costume and towel from inside. “I bought these there, they can go in the wash”.

As she loaded the washing machine with her swimming things and other items to make up a load, Eileen was singing. An old song they used to listen to almost forty years earlier.

He couldn’t remember when he had last seen her looking so relaxed and alive.

That evening, Eileen cooked a Beef Stroganoff for dinner, something she hadn’t served up for years. Then she got the Port from the cupboard, suggesting they had a glass or two. George couldn’t fail to notice that she hadn’t turned on the television or mentioned her soap opera. But he didn’t remind her. She was full of chat about the health club, and hadn’t asked him anything about his trip to Lincolnshire.

“Oh, George, you wouldn’t believe how accepting they are, those health club people. Nobody mentioned my age at all, it was as if I was twenty-five again, I tell you. One young man who sold me the bag, towel and costume even asked me if I was busy later. Can you imagine that!”

He couldn’t imagine it at all.

“Naturally, I told him I was married, but I thanked him for the compliment of course. That seemed to be the right thing to do. I might tell the crochet club that I have a touch of arthritis in my fingers. It’s much more interesting at the Health Club, so much going on, and lots to see and do. Who knows, I might even start working out at the gym. They have those exercise bikes that tell you how far and how fast you have pedalled. I reckon I could manage some time on one of those. But before I go again, I am off to town tomorrow to get some sports gear. I felt quite overdressed, I can tell you”.

He told her he might take another drive, exploring places he had never seen. She didn’t hesitate to agree with him. “You do that, love. That’s something that interests you more than me. Besides, I intend to get full value out of the membership fees, so you can expect me to be spending much more time at the Health Club from now on. George couldn’t help feeling a little jealous. Okay, he had gone home with the waitress in Worthing, but now it seemed his wife had a new found exuberance, almost a lust for life. And his trip to Skegness paled by comparison.

That night in bed, Eileen’s glasses of Port had taken their toll, and she was snoring soon after her head hit the pillow. George was tired too, but after a night with no blue light, he was intrigued to see if it came back once he was at home. He lay awake in bed for ages, and didn’t realise he had gone to sleep until the light woke him up at three-thirty. Standing at the window, he could feel the sense of well-being as the light flooded over him. Tomorrow would be a good day, he was sure of that.

But he woke late. Eileen had already left, and as there was no note, he concluded she was off on her shopping trip for sportswear, followed by a day at the Health Club. He just had toast for breakfast, then after his bath he packed an overnight bag. Sitting in the petrol station after filling up the car, he decided to head west, and see where he ended up.

George had never been to the ancient Roman city of Bath, and it was only two hours away by car. Definitely west of where he lived, so that worked into his plan. He was there by midday, and although it was cloudy, it wasn’t cold. Finding a hotel, he had an intake of breath when they quoted the price for one night, and that didn’t include breakfast, which was extra. But he was there now, so accepted the rate. Unfortunately, parking for the car was difficult in Bath, so he decided to drive out and visit the caves at Cheddar Gorge, as the hotel receptionist had told him he could park outside after six in the evening.

It took just under an hour to find Cheddar, and he parked close to one of the big caves and bought an entrance ticket. There was quite a crowd, mostly old people, but one group was being shown around by a female guide, and he was sure that the woman kept looking back and giving him the eye. So he tagged along, litening to her commentary, and it wasn’t long before his guess was proved correct. Outside the cave, the woman waved goodbye to the minibus full of her tour party. Then she turned and smiled at him. He walked over and spoke to her, thanking her for the tour, even though he hadn’t been part of her group. She was very forward.

“Well, if you really enjoyed it, you can thank me by taking me to dinner later. I live in Wells, not far. I can give you my address and you can pick me up at seven. I know a nice place where we can get a table”. He was happy to agree, even though he was surprised by how obvious she was. And he doubted she was more than thirty years old. As well as her address, she gave him directions once he got to Wells. Not bothering to drive back into Bath, George decided to explore the area. An empty minibus had turned up to collect her, and she waved at him as it drove off.

Weston-Super-Mare was on the coast, and not far. He thought he might have a look at the seaside while he waited for his dinner date.

While George was in Bath, Eileen made the most of a day on her own. Although feeling out of place in the sportswear shop, the staff were very kind to her, and she was soon kitted out with three changes of appropriate clothing for wearing at the Health Club, as well as two new swimming costumes. She had a locker provided there, and the new outfits almost filled it. The young man at the sales counter had winked at her when she was signing in, and called out as she walked past. “Good morning! Lovely to see you back with us!”

That had made her blush.

Relaxing after a swim, she considered trying out the gym after a light lunch. There were both female and male instructors in there to guide you through a proper regime, and she had spotted a very muscular young man when she had looked through the perspex doors leading to it. Once she was changed and had walked through those doors, she didn’t have to seek him out. He walked straight over to her, his white-toothed smile dazzling. “New to us? I’m Floyd, and here to help”. Eileen had not had much to do with black people during her life, but she could feel herself tingling in his presence as she admired his tall frame and easy manner.

Although she had expected to be embrarrassed at her ability to use the equipment, it turned out to be relatively easy. In fact, the harder Floyd made it, the more invigorated she felt. And he was so encouraging. “Well done, Eileen! You can do more. Come on, five more minutes”. When she had signed up, they had measured her and weighed her, suggesting an easy start to the exercises. But she exceeded both their expectations, and her own. After an hour with Floyd, and before she went to shower, he stood close to her and gave her a business card.

“This has my number. I am freelance, and would be happy to give you some one-on-one training at your home, if that is something that would interest you”. Surprising herself, Eileen looked him straight in the eye. “Yes, that would interest me a great deal. Would you be free this afternoon by any chance?” Floyd grinned. “Absolutely. Call my phone and let me have your address. Shall we say three o’clock?” Getting dressed after showering, Eileen could feel herself trembling with excitement. She was going to get a taxi home, so she had time to get ready.

As she chose the most modern-looking outfit in her wardrobe, Eileen started to feel very tired. Her legs were aching after the morning exercise, and she began to worry about whether George might suddenly return home. But she had crossed a line she never imagined she would cross, and was determined to see it through. So she rang Floyd’s phone and left a message with her address. He arrived exactly at three, wearing a different outfit, and carrying a sports bag. He declined her offer of something to drink, and rolled out a rubber mat that was under his arm.

“Shall we get started? I find a nice relaxing massage is the best way to start. Why don’t you lie down on the mat?”

Floyd abandoned all pretext of massage or exercise as soon as she was lying down. He began to kiss her, undressing her with practised hands that had done this so many times before. She could feel herself surrendering to him completely, as his strong arms moved her around as if she was weightless. When it was all over, she was breathing heavily, and exhausted. No experience in her life had ever come close. She had no idea it could be like that. She looked up at him as he got dressed, hardly able to believe what she had just done. He turned and smiled.

“I will have to ask you for the hourly rate, I’m afraid. I know that sounds horrible, but I have to book out my hours, and account for my time every day. That will be seventy-five pounds, if that’s okay with you”. Pulling on her dress, she found her purse and gave him four twenty-pound notes. “Don’t worry abouth the change. Perhaps you could come round again next week?” He nodded. “That would be my pleasure, Eileen”.

On her own once he had left, Eileen made a cup of tea. She was still trembling, but felt no guilt or shame at having paid for sex. Speaking out loud, she smiled as she addressed the empty room.

“Well it’s only money, and you can’t take it with you when you die”.

Before he left Weston, George phoned the house to let Eileen know he wouldn’t be home that night. But there was no answer, and he left a message on the answerphone. It wasn’t like his wife to not answer, and he wondered if she might still be out. Of course, he had no idea that she was sleeping off the excesses of her encounter with Floyd.

Finding the house in Wells was easy enough. A small cottage, full of character. She came out as soon as he stopped the car, and got into the passenger seat before he had time to open the door for her. “I forgot to say, my name is Anne. I have booked us into a nice inn a few miles away, we are eating in thirty minutes, and you will be pleased to know that they had a double room free, so I took that”. George told her his name, and followed her directions. He had never encountered such a forward and no-nonsense woman before, and had to admit to himself that he had no idea what she saw in him.

As they arrived on the gravel car park of the inn, she placed her hand over his. “I won’t be able to stop over, unfortunately. I told my husband it was a work thing, so I will have to be back before midnight. We should skip the starters and dessert, and just have a main course. You can have me for dessert”. George actually blushed when she said that. Anne was out of his league, in every way.

During dinner, she kept it very professional, talking to him about travel plans, prices, and group numbers as if she was arranging some kind of excursion. He presumed it was because she knew people in the restaurant, and wanted to keep up some pretence. When the bill came, he signed for the food, and left a cash tip for the waitress. Anne leaned forward and spoke in a whisper. “Get your room key from reception. The rooms are at the back in an annexe, and I will pretend to leave and wait for you there”. He nodded.

She had done this before, undoubtedly.

When he got the key, he had to leave his credit card details to pay for the room and dinner. The man behind the desk was rather cold-mannered. “Breakfast is from seven until eight-thirty. It is served in the bar”. Walking to the annexe at the back, it dawned on George that he was going to have to return to Bath the next day and pay the bill for a room he hadn’t used there. It also occured to him that he had no luggage of any kind, so perhaps the reception desk man knew exactly what was going on.

In the room, Anne wasted no time. Flinging off her clothes, she sprawled out on the bed, laughing at him. “Come on, get your clothes off. Unless you like to leave them on. I don’t really care either way, but let’s get on with it”. When Anne had finished with him, he lay back on the bed feeling wonderful. Choosing to ignore why this attractive young woman had decided she wanted him, he listened to the water running in the bathroom as she washed. When she reappeared, she was fully dressed, and back to being businesslike.

“You are going to have to get dressed and drive me home, George. I’m never going to get a taxi around here on a weeknight”. He stopped the car a few doors from her house, and noticed a curtain move in a window at the front. “He’s spotted me, so no goodnight kiss. Thanks for a lovely time” Then she was gone.

Sleep came easily to George that night, and no blue light disturbed his slumber. After breakfast, he drove back to the hotel in Bath, collected his things, and paid the bill. Driving home that morning, he reflected on what an expensive trip it had been, but Anne had certainly been worth the expense. He had seen nothing at all of Bath, but that hardly mattered. He felt alive, desired, and youthful again, and there was no price you could put on that.

Eileen was at home when he got back. She seemed distracted, asked nothing about his trip, and didn’t mention the Health Club, or why she had not answered the phone. At just after two in the afternoon, she came into the living room carrying two cups of tea. As she handed him one, her face looked blank.

“We have to talk, George. A serious talk”.

George waited as his wife appeared to be composing her thoughts into words. He had no idea why she wanted a serious talk, or what that might be about. When she started talking, he was genuinely shocked.

“I think we need to talk about splitting up, George. Ever since you retired it is obvious to me that we have so little in common. I don’t want to travel around the country every week, and I have my own hobbies and friends that hold nothing of interest to you. When we were both working, we went through the motions, because that’s what people do, isn’t it? But stuck together in the house day in and day out, surely you can see that it has all become rather pointless?”

He didn’t know what to say in reply, so sipped the hot tea carefully and waited for her to continue.

“It’s not that we don’t love each other, but that love has become a habit. There is no passion, no spark, we don’t even really argue. Every day was the same, at least until recently. Then you bought that silly car and started travelling around, and I think that’s when I realised we certainly don’t want the same things out of life. The house is worth twenty times what we paid for it all those years ago, and we don’t owe a penny to anyone. We could sell up and both buy a nice flat, as well as having some money left over. There would be no need not to see each other, we could remain friends, but I suddenly feel the need for some freedom, to explore something different in life. Much like you have been doing, but in another way”.

She seemed relieved, almost as if she had made a confession. Her face relaxed, and she managed a smile.

“What do you think, love? It must make sense to you, I’m sure. Think about it for a while while I do some of my crochet in the dining room, and we can talk later”.

Left on his own with his thoughts, George was conflicted. A new flat and freedom to do anything sounded good to him, but he also liked the comfortable life, the company in the evenings, and he loved their house. He was sure they could work something out around staying together, each doing their own interests and still being a couple. When Eileen came back into the room an hour later, that was exactly what he said to her. Her reaction was surprising.

“That won’t work for me, I’m afraid. I have given it a lot of thought, and quite frankly, I don’t need your approval to do what I want. I have made an enquiry about renting a place until the house is sold, and we need to get someone in from town to value the house and put it on the market. Let’s not waste our latter years in retirement by dragging this out, George. You can stay here if you want, but you will have to agree to show potential buyers around, and keep the house tidy. Or if you prefer, you can take on the rental flat, and I will stay here. What do you say?”

For the first time in his life, George felt rage. Not annoyance or irritation, not even anger. Pure rage. Then he did something he had never even thought he would do.

Standing up, he walked to where his wife was sitting and slapped her hard across her face. Harder than he had intended, hard enough to knock her out of the armchair onto the floor. As soon as he realised what he had done, he felt terrible. But it was too late, he could see that in her face as she got slowly to her feet.

“That is never going to happen again. You are going to have to leave today, and take on the rental flat. Stay in a hotel until you sign the papers, I don’t care what you do. I am going upstairs to pack some of your things, and I don’t want you to speak to me”. Her face contorted into something resembling a sneer.

“Now I didn’t want to tell you this, but I have been seeing someone. A younger man, a man who makes me feel desired and alive. I want to continue to see him, so that’s it. We are over”.

She was at the top of the stairs by the bedroom door when he caught up to her. He wanted to shake some sense into her, vent the frustration he felt. But as he reached out to grab her, his hand caught the material of her dress and tipped her backwards. He watched as if in a dream as his wife tumbled past him down the stairs, falling over and over until she hit the bottom step. When he walked down, he noticed something strange. Her head was facing the wrong way.

Even someone with no medical knowledge whatsoever could tell her neck was broken.

George sat on the sofa looking across at the crumpled body of his wife. For some reason, he felt if he looked at her long enough, she would be alright. After almost forty minutes had passed, he realised that wasn’t going to happen, and walked across to pick up the house phone. Dialling 999, he waited for the operator to ask which emergency service he required.

“Police, please. I have killed my wife”.

Less than ten minutes later, there was the sound of fists hammering on the door, and shouts of “POLICE!”. He opened the door, and four officers charged in, one of them grabbing him by the arms so he couldn’t move. Soon after, an ambulance arrived and the two women came in and looked at Eileen. The younger one turned and shook her head at the policeman standing next to her. “Broken neck. Nothing we can do”. The policeman who seemed to be in charge then turned to George, and formally arrested him on suspicion of murder. He was led outside, searched, and put into the back of a car in handcuffs, a young officer sitting close next to him.

The rest of the day was a blur. He was driven to a police station, fingerprinted, told he was being detained pending investigation, and asked if he wanted a solicitor. When George shrugged, the desk sergeant said, “I will take that as a yes then”. Then he was put into a cell and told he would be questioned when the lawyer arrived. He sat on the blue mattress, and burst into tears.

Given ten minutes with the duty solicitor until the detectives came to question him, the weary-looking man advised him to say nothing. “Just reply No Comment to every question”. But when a male and female detective came into the room shortly after and began to ask him questions, George ignored the advice, and answered them. He told them about the argument, denied intending to kill her, and described how he had grabbed her and she had fallen downstairs. The solicitor shook his head in frustration as George rambled on, finally closing his notebook and folding his arms.

Both detectives seemed pleased with themselves when George happily signed the statement. The female one escorted him back to the front desk, where she charged him with manslaughter, having accepted it was not pre-planned. He had to go back into the cell overnight, before appearing at court for arraignment the next morning.

As George tried hard to sleep that night, over one hundred miles away in the Worcestershire countryside, Adam Brice woke up in the early hours, his bedroom illuminated by a blue glow from the west. When he opened the window, the land in front of the farmhouse was bathed in a deep blue light. He started to get dressed to go and see what was causing it, but before he could get his boots on, it went out. As far as he could tell, it was coming from the direction of the farm of his neighbour, old Jess Inchcape. He would go and have a word with the grumpy old bugger tomorrow.

Adam was a reluctant farmer. In fact, it was only circumstance that had led him into farming. His mum had died young, when he was still at junior school. Dad never really explained all the details, saying only “Women’s problems, boy”. Adam did alright at school, but was never happy at home. He thought he might join up when he was old enough, if not the army, then the air force. That would get him away from his miserable dad, and the run-down farm that struggled to make a profit.

That was not to be, as on his seventeenth birthday, Adam’s dad suffered a serious stroke that left him unable to move or speak at first. With the guidance of the farm-hand, Callum, Adam had to leave school, and learn to run the farm. They sent his dad home eventually, when he was able to just about get around using a walking frame. A nurse came in to check on him every week, but Adam was left to do everything else.

By the time his dad had died four years later, Adam was almost twenty-two, and inherited a farm he didn’t want. But he knew nothing else by then, so stuck with it.That was ten years ago, and now he lived alone, hating every single day he had to go out into the fields.

Unable to get back off to sleep, he felt himself getting really angry. If this was something to do with old Jess, he would make him sorry.

Jess Inchcape had also had a disturbed night. Some kind of blue glow had illuminated his bedroom, but by the time he had woken up Hilda to see it, it had gone. She wasn’t happy. “You imagining stuff, Jess? Now I’m awake for no reason and I need the toilet. If I don’t get back off to sleep, it will be your doing”. As his wife stomped off to the bathroom in a bad mood, Jess felt himself getting angry. It will be something to do with Brice, he was sure of that. Their feud had been running since old man Brice had died, and Adam had refused to sell the land to him to expand his farm.

Once Callum had arrived to get started in the field with the tractor, Adam climbed into the old Land-Rover and made the short drive to the Inchcape farm. As soon as he stopped the car near the farmhouse, Jess appeared, walking fast in his direction. “I gotta have a word with you, young Brice. What’s your game with this blue light nonsense? You woke my Hilda up with your prank, and I’m telling you it’s not good enough”.

Holding up a hand to make Jess keep his distance, Adam was confused. So Jess had seen the light too? Maybe it wasn’t him after all. But Jess didn’t stop walking, and when he reached Adam he pushed him hard with both hands, taking the younger man by surprise. He tried to reason with him. “Calm down now, Jess. I thought it was you shining that light, but if it bothered you as well, then we are have to going to see what it’s all about”. Jess didn’t believe him, and pushed his face close enough for Adam to smell the foul breath from the brown stumps of the old man’s teeth”.

“You better get going, young Brice. And if you know what’s good for you, don’t mess around with any lights at night from now on”.

When he was back in the Land-Rover, Adam couldn’t remember hitting the old man. But there he was, close to the car, spark out unconscious. Seeing Jess’s chest rising and falling, Adam decided not to be around when he woke up, and he drove home quickly, before joining Callum in the fields.

Hilda Inchcape wondered where her husband had got to. She hadn’t heard the shouting earlier, as she had been having a bath. But Jess was normally back inside for tea and toast by now, so she thought she had better go out and call him. When she found him flat on his back in the front yard, she slapped his face a few times until he looked up at her. She was confused. “What happened, you old fool? Did you fall over? Have you got pains anywhere?” He struggled to his feet, rubbing the left side of his jaw.

“No, it was that bastard Brice from next door’s farm. Punched me, he did. And for no good reason, I tell you”. Hilda was still confused. “What would make him do that, for God’s sake? Shall I ring the police?”. Jess shook his head as he walked inside for his tea and toast. “No police, I’ll sort him myself”.

In the Scottish town of Falkirk to the west of Edinburgh, Kirsty Douglas woke up feeling different. During the night, she was sure she had seen a blue light lighting up the bedroom window, but before she had got out of bed to see what it was, it went out.

She was a quiet girl, an only child, and being fourteen wasn’t much fun for her. With no friends at school, her days felt lonely, and the former friends who had gone to a different school almost never contacted her now. The girls in her class used to bully her, but then they had discovered that boys were more interesting. So now they just ignored her, and she wasn’t sure which was worse.

But this morning, she felt a new confidence, and a tingling sensation all over her body. When she was doing her make-up for school, she sensed a different look in her eyes too. Spending more time than usual on her hair, she put on her school uniform and went down for breakfast. Since dad had run off with the woman from work, mum was like a beaten woman. She wandered around feeling sorry for herself, and never bothered to look nice. Kirsty watched her as she ate her Coco-Pops. She didn’t ever want to end up like mum.

On the short walk to school, she stopped and turned over the waistband of her skirt to make it shorter. Much shorter. Looking down at her legs after, she smiled to herself.

Today was going to be very different to yesterday.

After eating his toast and drinking his tea, Jess could feel his jaw aching, and he was sure that one of his teeth was loose. But as he hadn’t been to a dentist since he was at school, he decided not to worry about it. If it became unstable, he would just pull it out with some pliers. That had always served him well-enough in the past. His anger had not subsided though, and he could feel a pulse beating in his temples as he remembered Adam Brice knocking him out with one punch.

So before going out to the fields, he went up and loaded the old twelve-bore shotgun that he had inherited from his father. If that bastard Brice came near him again, he would get both barrels, and to hell with the consequences.

Across from Inchape Farm in his own field, Adam could also not contain his anger. He was unable to concentrate, and left Callum to drive the tractor and get on with the harrowing. Back at the house, he went up to the bedroom and took his dad’s double-barrelled shotgun out of the wardrobe. Adam had used it quite often in the past, mainly to shoot pigeons and crows on the crops, or at least to scare them off. But it still worked well, and he had twenty cartridges left in the box. He would leave it in the Land-Rover, just in case old man Inchcape turned up.

Around the same time in Falkirk, Kirsty was sitting in Maths class smiling at her teacher. She had attracted some attention when she arived at school, her hair and make-up near perfect, and her skirt much shorter than was actually allowed. Now she was sure that her Maths teacher had also noticed the change in her, as he stumbled over his words every time he caught her eye, or looked at her deliberately splayed legs.

Tom Corcoran was almost thirty-three, and had been teaching for nearly nine years, six of them at this school. His wife Sarah had decided to give up work once she had the first child, and the second baby had come along soon after that. Money was tight, and life at home was all about crying children and Sarah’s moaning. He was struggling to run his old car, pay all the bills, and deal with Sarah’s increasing demands for things they could never afford. He had been overlooked for promotion, and knew full well that he had little respect from his colleagues. He was an unhappy man, in every sense.

Kirsty Douglas was not one of his brightest students. She normally sat alone at the back, said nothing, answered no questions, and handed in below average home-work. But today, she was sitting right at the front, still alone, but exuding confidence. Her skirt was far too short, but he hadn’t sent her to the Headmistress. He couldn’t be bothered with petty discipline or school politics. It seemed to him that his colleagues had all forgotten they were young once, even the ones still in their twenties. All he wanted to do was to get through each day, and get home. Not that home was that attractive, with the prospect of two screaming kids and a wife who nagged him until he switched off his brain to shut her out.

He had no idea why she kept smiling at him this morning, and it was disconcerting. So too the way she kept crossing and re-crossing her legs, wiggling her shoe in her black tights until it seemed it might fall off of her foot. Why had she suddenly started this? Probably her age, he concluded. In his experience, there was a huge difference between thirteen and fourteen. The boys started to rebel and become aggressive, and the girls became knowing and sly.

The bell went for the end of class, and the kids rushed out as always. But not Kirsty. She took time to pack her books into her bag, still smiling. When the room was empty except for them, she gave him a big smile, and spoke in a husky voice. “Sir, I didn’t understand any of that today. Can I come back after school later and go over it with you?”

Against everything his mind told him to say, he found himself nodding. For the rest of the school day, he wondered why he had agreed. After school classes had to be notified to the Headmistress, and agreed by the parents.

But surely one couldn’t hurt?

At the end of the school day, Kirsty appeared in the empty classroom. Tom smiled at her, and indicated that she should sit at a desk. “Now, Kirsty. What didn’t you understand earlier?” The girl shrugged. “Well that Geometry stuff leaves me cold, to be honest. I think you could explain it twenty times, and I still wouldn’t get it. Actually, there’s no point in me being here, but thanks anyway”. She stood up and left the classroom, leaving Tom confused.

A few minutes later, she was in the office of the Headmistress, Elizabeth Pilbeam. The woman looked up at her standing in front of the desk. “What is it, Kirsty? I am very busy you know”. This time, Kirsty wasn’t smiling. “It’s Mister Corcoran, Miss. He said I had to come back after school because I couldn’t understand Geometry. But when I sat down he stood next to me, and put his hand up my skirt. Then he touched me between the legs, you know, right on my thingy”. Miss Pilbeam told her to sit down, then left the office to get someone to stay with the girl while she went to speak to Tom.

He denied it of course, and was flabbergasted that Kirsty had made such an accusation. But Miss Pilbeam was resolute. “You don’t deny being alone with the girl in this classroom. What were you thinking of, Tom? You know the rules. I am going to have to suspend you on full pay, pending an investigation, and I am sure the police will be involved once I speak to her mother. You have to leave the school premises now, and I will have to escort you to your car and watch you drive off”.

The colour drained from Tom’s face, and he put his head in his hands.

That night, Adam was woken up at just after three by the blue light. He managed to get the bedroom curtains open before it went out, and could definitely tell it was coming from the Inchcape Farm. It was also flooding Jess’s place with light, and it was impossible to see where it was coming from. For a second, he wondered if it was nothing to do with Jess at all, then his anger returned, and he was sure it was something to do with the old bugger. Something would have to get sorted, he thought. He needed his sleep to be able to work properly the next day.

In Lanark, Kirsty had provided a detailed statement to Miss Pilbeam, and then her mother arrived at the school, looking like some old dishrag. Not long after that, the Police arrived, and they also went through the whole thing again. After hearing her side of things, they drove to Tom’s house and arrested him for the sexual assault of a minor. Sarah was still screaming as the police car took him away. Kirsty was told not to come in the next day, as the police would be visiting her at home for a full statement, then Miss Pilbeam ordered them a taxi to take them home. Mum didn’t say anything to her on the way home, and when they got in she just shook her head and mumbled “Men”.

She was too excited to get to sleep. Kirsty had done her bit, getting back at men for how her and her mum had been treated by dad. Corcoran should have known better, but he was too lustful to turn down the chance to be alone with her. Lying in bed smiling, she was very pleased with herself. He was going to be the first of many, she was sure of that. When the light appeared, she opened the curtains and felt the tingling as it came in through the windows. Whatever it was didn’t scare her at all, quite the opposite.

It made her feel powerful.

Early the next morning, Adam Brice was driving his tractor on the top field, adjacent to the boundary with Incape Farm. He started chuckling as he thought of something, then turned the tractor around and got close to the fence dividing the properties. It was an old fence, and poorly maintained by Inhcape, so as he drove the tractor hard against it, it fell down easily. He didn’t stop until he had completely destroyed the fencing all the way along the top boundary.

Still laughing, he shouted out of the tractor window. “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, you old bastard!”

Tom was released on bail, pending investigation. But by the time he got home that night after collecting his car from the school car park, there was no trace of Sarah and the kids. He eventually found a note on the pillow in the bedroom. She was at her parents’ house and would not be coming back. Unable to understand why Kirsty had said what she had to Miss Pilbeam, he felt his life unravelling around him.

Sarah would never believe he hadn’t touched the girl, and he doubted whether Pilbeam or the local Education Authority would either. In all his years of teaching nothing remotely like this had happened before. What was it about Kirsty today that had made him agree her to see her alone?

Looking out the window of the farmhouse, Adam was expecting old Jess to arrive to complain about the fencing. But so far, there had been no sign of him. Maybe he hadn’t been in the top field to notice? Time would tell, he was bound to discover the damage soon. That night, he slept through the blue light, but it still illuminated his bedroom. When he woke up the next morning, he felt full of energy, and ready for anything.

Detective Constable Frazier was glad that he was accompanied by a female officer, Sergeant Carlyle. There was something strange about this Kirsty Douglas, and the girl made him feel uncomfortable. She kept crossing her legs, and spreading her knees, and as the Sergeant questioned her, she was looking at him, not Carlyle. He started to feel very warm, and kept fiddling with his tie.

Kirsty’s mother had to be there for the official statement, but she was of little use. She sat chain-smoking in her armchair, staring out of the window. Unlike her dauughter, she had made no effort for the visitors, and was still in her dressing gown, her hair flat on one side from where she had slept on it.

By contrast, the girl appeared to be dressed for a night out. Short black dress, polka-dot nylon tights, and far too much make-up for someone who was still legally a child. It seemed to him that the Sergeant was trying to catch her out, but the girl was more than a match for her.

“Like I told you, I’m not much good at Maths. He told me I had to come back after school to go over the Geometry, so I did. As soon as I sat down, he put his hand up my skirt and touched me. Well, rubbed me really. It couldn’t have been an accident, and he looked like he enjoyed it. I told him straight away that I wanted to go, and he let me leave”.

Carlyle had done some research on Tom Corcoran. Not one complaint after all those years in teaching, and nothing about him had ever come to the attention of the police. He had never so much as had a parking ticket. Not much of a go-getter by all accounts, but a family man with long service at the same school. As far as she was concerned, he just didn’t feel right as a sex offender. She pushed the girl further.

“You’re telling me he touched you over your tights and panties. That means ther is no forensic evidence that we could discover. But I will take away the tights you were wearing yesterday, in case there is any DNA on them from his fingers”. Kirsty shrugged. “They are in the wash now, along with all my uniform. Seemed a good time to wash them, as I was given the day off”. The Sergeant pushed again. “In that case, it is your word against his, and we may not have enough to prosecute him. What do you say to that?”. This time, she smiled, a smile that made Constable Frazier even more uncomfortable.

“Well if you want to leave a pervert free to touch other schoolgirls, we will see what the newspapers and local TV have to say about that. Let him go, and I will be contacting them, believe me”.

Sergeant Carlyle believed her.

“Okay then, Kirsty. I have your statement, and will continue to investigate your allegation. I will of course let you know what happens”. With that, they both stood up and left. Kirsty’s mum didn’t even acknowledge their goodbyes. In the car, she turned to Frazier. “Was it just me, or is there really something creepy about the girl?” He turned the ignition key. “Not just you, Sarge. I felt it too”.

As they drove off, Kirsty was waving to them from the doorway. He could swear she was laughing.

As Kirsty was waving goodbye to the police officers, Adam Brice was drinking tea and eating bread and jam, wondering why old man Inchcape had not showed up to complain about the fencing. But Jess Inchcape was biding his time, waiting until it got dark. He had discovered the fence just before midday, and that had made him lose his appetite for lunch. Hilda had just shrugged, and put his meal to one side. She was used to his moods, after being married to him for almost fifty years.

She went into the sitting room, and thought about her only child. Matilda Inchcape had been named after a great aunt, as they hoped the old lady might leave her something in her will when she heard about it. Matilda never forgave them for calling her by that archaic name, and went by Tilly as soon as she was old enough.

But the old aunt came good, leaving the girl a house worth many thousands that her namesake soon sold as soon as she was eighteen. Then Tilly took off on a trip around South-East Asia, backpacking in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. That was where she met Rob, who came from Australia. He invited her back to see his home town, and that was where she had stayed.

Hilda had wanted to attend the wedding, but Jess said there was no money for that foolishness. Now she never contacted them at all, not even phone calls. Calling her after the great aunt had backfired, as Jess was happy to remind her a few times a year.

Jess took the big trailer on the back of his tractor, to clear away the ruined fencing. It was hard work, harder than he expected, and he was back late for his dinner. When he realised it was just his lunch warmed up, he refused it, eating cheese and bread instead. Hilda seemed grumpy, not unusual, and she went to bed early. But Jess stayed downstairs, his anger building minute by minute. Brice was going to get what was coming to him.

As soon as it was completely dark, Jess took the pickup truck, and drove to the Brice farm. He had put the old shotgun in the back, just in case.

Adam was not surprised when the headlights of a vehicle shone across the windows of the living room. He already had his dad’s shotgun across his lap, determined to settle this thing once and for all. Jess saw young Brice walking fast in his direction carrying a shotgun, and reached into the back of the pickup to grab his. But Adam fired first, both barrels at fairly close range.

It was like being hit by a car, and the impact knocked him off his feet, leaving him lying on his back. There was no pain at first, but he couldn’t move his legs, and his underwear felt wet. Brice acted as if he had just shot an animal, not bothering to come any closer, and turning round to go back into the farmhouse.

That was when Jess fired at his back, the aim high because of his awkward position. The pellets hit Adam in the head and neck, killing him instantly. He fell forward into the doorway of his house, and didn’t move. Jess felt suddenly cold, colder than he had ever felt. He started to feel the pain in his gut, then it got march darker.

In Falkirk, Tom Corcoran answered the door, to see the police Sergeant standing in the outside light. Carlyle didn’t ask to come in. “Just to let you know that the prosecution will not go ahead, for lack of evidence. But I understand the Education Authority will be contacting you about an internal investigation into the girl’s allegations. If I were you, I would start looking for another job”.

Tom went back into the living room, and opened a bottle of Cognac that had been hanging around since last Christmas. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but he filled a tumbler to the brim, and drank half of it down without pausing for breath. The he sat down heavily on the sofa, and said out loud, “Heads you lose, tails you lose”.

Sleeping heavily, Hilda Inchcape had not heard Jess leave in the car. She was also unaware of the blue light that had filled the room just after three in the morning. When she woke up just after six, she felt determined to do something. It would mean tackling Jess, but she felt very ready for that. One thing was on her mind that day.

A long-overdue trip to Australia, to see Matilda.

When Sergeant Carlyle told Kirsty the next morning that no prosecution would go ahead, the girl closed the door in her face. Five munites later, she had looked up the phone numbers for the newspaper and TV news covering her area, and took out her mobile phone. They were both very interested in her story. The newspaper man said he would come round this afternoon with a photographer, and said her mum had to be there. The TV news woman said she would be there in an hour, so they could get the report on the lunchtime news.

Running upstairs to get ready, Kirsty went into her mum’s room and shook her awake. “Get up and get dressed, mum. You’re going to be on telly”.

Just under an hour later, Kirsty was dressed in her school uniform, and wearing no make-up. She had knee socks on, and looked even younger than her fourteen years. Her mum was slumped in an armchair smoking, wearing a sweatshirt and jogging bottoms. When the doorbell went, Kirsty was ready. Moderating her voice to sound as childish as possible, Kirsty went over the fictitious incident in great detail, naming Tom Corcoran, and occasionally wiping her eyes with a tissue. If the reporter could not see any tears, she didn’t care. The girl looked vulnerable. Her mum looked mentally ill, and the house was like a rubbish tip.

It was going to be great TV.

Before she had a chance to watch herself on the news, the newspaper man arrived early, with a woman photographer. He listened to the same tale, and the woman took dozens of photos using a flashgun. He also tried to get her mum to comment, but she remained completely silent.

An hour later, Tom Corcoran answered insistent knocking on his front door, wondering if it was the police again. But all he saw was a flash going off on a camera, a bright light on a video camera, and a large microphone thrust in his face. He closed the door again without answering any questions, then went around the ground floor oh his house closing the curtains.

By four that afternoon, the newspaper man and TV crew had gatecrashed the school, managing to get a comment from Miss Pilbeam outside the main gate. Then they went after Carlyle, who refused to answer any questions. On the six-o-clock news, it was the main story locally, and by the nine pm news, it even featured nationally, albeit less sensationally. Kirsty received so many phone calls that evening, she had to finally switch her phone off. In Tom Corcoran’s house, he stayed in the dark. He had also muted the volume of his mobile, and unplugged the house phone.

Sitting shaking on the sofa, he didn’t even want to know what Sarah was thinking.

Miss Pilbeam had tried ringing Tom so many times, she decided to leave a message on his mobile and tell him to call her. “Tom, you have to contact me. Have you seen the news on television? I think your only option is to resign. There is going to be no hope of your job surviving an internal disciplinary hearing, and at least if you resign, that might put some closure on this”.

Kirsty stayed off school for the next couple of days. She wanted to make it look as if she was too traumatised to go in. On the thrid day, there were no more phone calls, and no reporters near the house. Looking out of the window, she felt a twinge of disappointment. It had been fun while it lasted.

Tom finally listend to Miss Pilbeam’s message, and knew she was giving him the best option. He rang her directly, and tended his resignation. Then he rang his in-laws, hoping to speak to Sarah and explain that it was all a lie. But his mother-in-law answered, and refused to hand her the phone. “Give it up, Tom What you did was vile, and Sarah will never speak to you or see you again”. He decided to drive to their house, and stay outside until his wife agreed to speak to him. Looking out of the curtains, he could not see any journalists hanging around. So he grabbed his car keys and walked quickly over to his car.

Every window was smashed. All four tyres were flat, and someone had painted the word ‘Pedo’ in huge letters along the side with a spray can. Someone else had scratched the word ‘Pervert’ on the tailgate using something metal.

Glancing around to make sure nobody had seen him, he ran back inside the house.

When Callum arrived for work early that morning, he was shocked to discover the two bodies in the front yard of the farm. He wasn’t the brightest man in the county, but he knew enough not to walk across a crime scene to use the phone in Adam’s house. Getting back on his bicycle, he rode off into town to raise the alarm.

Hilda Inchcape looked out of the window. The pickup was gone, so no doubt Jess had made an early start somewhere around the farm. That suited her, as it gave her the chance to look up flights to Australia on the old laptop. Jess couldn’t cope with computers, and it had taken Hilda a long time to discover how they worked. But now she could buy things online, and contact the relevant authorities to do with farming by email. The previous year, she had even set up online banking, and had been very pleased with herself when that worked.

Detective Inspector Harris arrived at the farm, having been phoned at home to take the job. When he saw the two bodies and the inexperienced uniformed constable looking white-faced, he knew it was going to be a long day. Using his personal radio, he contacted the control room. “I’m going to need a full forensics team with two tents, a uniformed search team to cover the search of the house and farm, and at least two more from my team to assist for now. Can you jack that up for me?”

Harris had transferred from London as a Detective Sergeant twelve years earlier. His wife had originally come from Stroud, and wanted to be closer to her family as they got older. He had thought it might be a nice change from London. A quieter life, with less stress. He had been so wrong about that.

These country people were nutters.

Remembering she had to renew her long-expired passport, Hilda was just researching how to do that online when there was a knock at the door. Not a pleasant knock, a loud one that made her jump. There were two men in suits at the door, and a policewoman in uniform. “Mrs Inchcape? I’m Detective Inspector Harris. Could we come in and talk to you please?”

As Hilda showed them in and put the kettle on for tea, Callum was giving the same version of his statment for the third time, and wondering why he had bothered. Those coppers were acting like he had done something, and he wasn’t pleased about that. Finally losing his patience, he folded his arms across his chest, and shook his head. “Enough’s enough. I reckon it’s time I had a lawyer, and I ain’t saying no more until I get one”.

The Inspector was a nice man, respectful and considerate. Hilda could tell from his accent that he wasn’t from those parts, but that wasn’t a bad thing, in her opinion. When he told her Jess had been found dead, and had likely killed old man Brice’s son too, she had to suppress a smile. At last! Jess had gone too far, and she was finally free. No need to argue the toss with her husband about visiting Matilda. And she could finally sell the farm that had been like a millstone around their necks since her wedding day.

When he said she would have to go and identify Jess at the mortuary, she reacted a little too soon. “No problem. Just let me get my coat, and my outside shoes”.

A cursory examination of the crime scene had led Harris to an instant conclusion. Two farmers, known locally for decades of grievances, had finally taken it too far. One had shot the other, then been shot in return. It didn’t matter who fired first, as there was nobody left alive to try to lie about that. He made the decision before escorting Hilda to the mortuary, and informed the control room. “Stand down everyone else. This is a tit-for-tat shooting, and I am not looking for any other suspects”.

That was a lifeline for Callum, who was immediately released before the solicitor arrived, and was on his way home long before he would have finished work. It didn’t occur to him until later that day that he was now unemployed.

After Hilda got back from the identification, she turned on her laptop and began to compose an email. She was hoping Matilda still had the same email address when she pressed ‘Send’.

In a quiet village due west of the town of Dorchester in Dorset, Emma Howard was looking out of her bedroom window with a puzzled look on her face. It was hundreds of yards in every direction to another house, and she had no idea where the strange light could be coming from. It reminded her of the floodlights that illuminated sports grounds, but this light was only shining across her garden and into the room. Although it didn’t scare her, it made the room too bright for her to continue to sleep in. As she went to get her watch from the bedside table to check the time, it went out.

Three in the morning was a strange time for aircraft, helicopters, or anything else, to be shining lights around the village, but at least it had gone out and she could get back to sleep. And there had been no sounds suggesting aircaft anyway, so she forgot about it and slept soundly.

The next morning, Emma woke up feeling full of energy for the first time since she had retired last September. After forty years in the Library Servioe in Dorset, the rumours that her library was going to be closed down came true. As she was already sixty, she took the opportunity to retire and take her pension. Not that she had much need of money, as her father had left her comfortably off when he had died fifteen years earlier, and she still lived in the five bedroom family home that she had been born in, with no debts.

Her mother had died when Emma was a child, and she had little memory of her. So as soon as she was old enough, Emma assumed the role of housekeeper, and later became the carer to her father. Because of that, she had never married, and had not even had so much as one date with a man.

That feeling of well-being extended to cooking an unusually large breakfast, then taking time to look her best for the day. Having used the last of the eggs, and needing some other groceries, she decided a trip into Dorchester for a supermarket shop was how she would spend her day. She might even have lunch in the town while she was there, something she hadn’t done since she worked at the main library.

Father’s car might have been well over twenty-five years old, but it was a very good car. He had maintained it well, and she had carried on using the same dealership when she inherited it. No longer needing her small Fiat, she had sold it for cash after advertising it in the Post Office. Starting the engine of the Daimler Double-Six, she smiled at the purring, burbling sound it made. You couldn’t buy cars of this quality any longer, and she didn’t care that the petrol consumption was so high, as she rarely used it anyway.

Emma’s preferred supermarket was Waitrose, to the north of the town. More expensive, certainly, but much better quality. The journey took less than thirty minutes, even in unusually heavy traffic. In the car park of the store, she spotted a good space fairly close to the entrance, and swung the front of the car in to claim it. The blast of a horn made her jump out of her skin, as a small Japanese car drove into the same space at speed, almost hitting the Daimler. Feeling shaken up, she reversed back, eventually finding a space nearer the back. As she locked the car, she could feel herself getting very angry.

In her entire life, Emma could not remember ever being angry. It was a weird feeling, but also felt surprisingly good.

Once she had bought her shopping, she was heading back to the car with her bags when she spotted two women walking to the Japanese car that had stolen her original parking spot. They were wearing vest tops and leggings, and one was smoking a cigarette. She also had tattoos all over her arms and neck. Just the sort of white-trash newcomers that were lowering the tone of the once sedate town. Too many new housing developments that included social housing, that’s what Emma blamed it on.

As she was driving out, so was the small white car, and she stayed behind it. The women headed west, past Poundbury, and onto the A35 main road. Still driving behind them, Emma slowed a little to make some space between the cars. Two minutes later she accelerated rapidly, reaching over sixty as she rammed the car from behind, careful to make contact with the rear corner of the bodywork. The small car lurched to the left, then rolled over. It rolled again, then came to a halt on its roof. Nobody tried to get out.

Other cars were stopping to help as she got her phone out of her bag. Sitting in her car in the inside lane, she dialled 999.

“Police, please. I appear to have been involved in a traffic accident”.

Emma was impressed by the turnout of the emergency services. Three police cars, two ambulances, and a fire engine. A smart traffic policeman spoke to her through the window of her car, to make sure she wasn’t injured. “I think we will have to get your car recovered to a repairer, madam. The nearside lights are broken at the front, and the impact may have damaged your steering. Someone will give you a lift home once that happens”. The he asked to see her driving licence, and took details of her insurance before asking her what she remembered about the accident.

“Oh, I remember it clearly, officer. I was heading home from Waitrose, and I was about to overtake that car when it pulled out from the inside lane unexpectedly, for no reason I can think of. There was no chance I could avoid hitting it in that situation. I didn’t even have time to apply the brakes. I hope the people in the other car are going to be alright”.

Surveying the scene in front of her, she saw one stretcher being loaded into an ambulance with the body completely covered by a blanket. Before the recovery truck arrived to take her, the second woman was removed from the car apparently still alive, an oxygen mask over her face and a stiff medical collar wrapped around her neck. The traffic policeman came and told her they would call on her at home to talk to her, perhaps tomorrow.

She told the recovery driver to take her to the main Jaguar dealership in Christchurch. Despite that being some distance away, it was the one her father always used. She would pay whatever it cost to have the Dailmer repaired, and they would give her a replacement car to use while it was in the workshops.

By the time she got home in the loan car late that afternoon, Emma was feeling very pleased with herself. She decided to have some of the good vintage Claret with her meal that evening. As she ate, she sat and thought about things. An intelligent woman, and quick-witted too, it soon occurred to her that the mysterious blue light must have something to do with it. After spending her life being so meek and mild, such a change in her character could not be explained by anything else.

That night, she slept naked for the first time in her life. When the light illuminated the curtains and woke her, she rushed to the window and opened them, standing in the blue glow. Once the light went out, she felt wonderful, and soon managed to get back to sleep.

Up bright and early, Emma opened the door to the police officers just after ten. They were very professional, declining her offer of tea or coffee, and asking her to make an official statement about the accident. Once that was noted down, she showed interest in the proceedings. “What will happen now, officer?” He looked across at his colleague before replying.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you that the driver was killed in the accident, Miss Howard. The passenger is still unconscious, so we cannot get her version of events. To be completely honest, it doesn’t look too good for her, she is on a life-support machine. I also have the information that the female driver had no driving licence, so the car was technically uninsured. You should inform your insurance company of that”. Emma made herself look suitably shocked and upset. “Oh, those poor women. Were they not wearing a seat belt?” He shook his head, and stood up.

“There are no traffic cameras on that stretch of the road, and we cannot find any other drivers at the time who actually witnessed the accident. So as things stand, there are no charges being made against either driver at the moment. Unless the passenger wakes up and has anything to tell us, it will be resolved as a tragic accident and dealt with through your insurance company. You may be required to appear at the Coroner’s Court in the future”.

Thanking them as she closed the door, Emma turned and smiled. She would inform her car insurance company, and tell them she was not intending to claim. She had more than enough money to pay for the repairs, and she didn’t want to get into any legal entanglements over a compensation claim. Although tempted to go out for a drive in the replacement car, she knew that might not be a good idea.

Best to make it look as if she was too upset to venture out so soon after an accident.

On the fourth day of her self-imposed house arrest, Emma received a phone call from the policeman dealing with the accident.

“The passenger has woken up, and her account is that the driver was her sister, and that she was using her mobile phone to ring her husband at the time of the accident. Apparently they come from a traveller community, and were living in a caravan on an illegal site when the accident happened. As a result of this information, and considering that using her phone was an offence under law, there are no further investigations into the accident”.

Emma thanked the officer, remembering to add that she was pleased to hear that the passenger would survive. To celebrate, she drove down to nearby Weymouth, walked along the beach, and treated herself to a high tea in a very nice cafe in the town. Five nights of the blue light had made her feel very different, and as far as she was concerned, in a good way. As she drove home, she was thinking about Internet dating. Although she had never considered it previously, she was wondering what value might be placed on a sixty year-old virgin with her own house and comfortable financial situation.

That evening, some brief research led her to a dating site specialising in older members. She paid the fee to sign up for three months, and took some photos on her phone to add to her profile. Some of them were slightly provocative, at least by her standards. A low-cut dress once worn to a Christmas event, and a relatively short skirt that she had only ever worn once, many years ago. As she was compiling her profile, she noticed an email from the car repairer. They might have some trouble sourcing some parts, but the work should be completed in two weeks if they could get them. The estimate was almost three thousand pounds, but she replied by telling them to proceed.

By the time she was thinking of going to bed, the dating site had already produced five suitable matches. She discounted three of the prospects, as they were all over seventy. The last two were accepted by her, and she gave permission to disclose contact details. One, named Dennis, was a similar age, and a widower who lived in Dorset. The other was only forty years old, and looked younger in his profile photos. She liked the look of him very much, especially his bright smile and taut physique.

Not stupid by any means, Emma knew full well that if he was genuine, ‘Mark’ was not interested in her for her company, or desire for her sixty year-old body. He would be a money-grabber, perhaps a gigolo, that was obvious. But when she approved his request to contact her, she was smiling.

Two could play that game.

In the early hours, she stood naked in front of the light once again. During the short time before it went out, she experienced the delicious nerve tingle, and the brain activity that made her think about sex again. The light had awakened long-dormant feelings that she vaguely remembered from puberty. It made her realise that life was indeed short, and it was time to discover things she had denied herself.

Dennis contacted her by email the next morning. He suggested they meet in Christchurch, and mentioned a restaurant with a good reputation where he would book a table. So he didn’t want to collect her from her house. He lived in Christchurch near the restaurant. And expected her to walk into a restaurant alone to meet him. No, that wouldn’t do. Her reply was rather curt.

‘Try again, Dennis’.

Mark’s email was so predictable, it was laughable. He addressed her as if she was twenty-five, and used phrases hardly appropriate for a woman of her age.

‘Hello lovely sexy lady! I see you live in Winterbourne Abbas, not far from me in Dorchester. I have to say I don’t normally do this kind of thing, but I definitely could not resist your profile as you seem incredibly well-suited to me, classy, and very attractive. Please say you will meet me. I am happy to collect you from your home, or if you prefer I will meet you outside the Coachhouse Inn. We can start with a drink, and if you like what you see, stay on there for dinner. On me of course! Let me know soon, as I can be free tomorrow night, and I am so excited! Mark. xx’

Still lauging at that, Emma ignored Dennis’s second try and replied to Mark. ‘Yes. Shall we say six tomorrow evening at the Coachhouse Inn? That will suit me nicely’.

His reply took less than one minute to arrive. She had her first date.

The man who liked to call himself Mark was in fact named Martin. And he wasn’t forty, he was fifty-one next birthday, in five weeks. Hard work at the local gym, and copious amounts of black hair dye, kept him looking presentable. Add a lot of money spent on cosmetic dentistry, and using old photos on his profile, and so far he was doing okay. He usually preferred the older section of the dating site.

Seventy-plus guaranteed success, and often came with financial rewards too. In his opinion, there was no fool like an old woman. Viagra helped of course, and he regularly gave thanks for the invention of that wonder drug. This latest one was a bit younger than his recent conquests, but he was sure he could live up to her expectations.

Although the pub was in walking distance at less than a mile, Emma didn’t do walking. And she didn’t drive to meet someone she had never met before, not even in a loan car. So she had booked a taxi for the short journey, asking them to arrive at her house at five-fifty sharp.

Martin allowed twice as much time as he needed to drive from Dorchester. He wanted to be there outside the pub, when she arrived. No lady should ever be expected to walk into a hostelry alone, he knew that. Touching up the sides of his hair with black dye, fretting slightly about how it was receding at a widow’s peak, he decided he would do, and made sure to slip the packet of little blue pills into his suit jacket before leaving.

Her taxi was a few minutes late, but Emma thought that was appropriate. Although she had never been on a date with a man, or so much as kissed one other than her father, she knew that women would be forgiven for not being on time. He was there when she arrived, standing outside but looking significantly older than his profile photos. Oh well, he was still younger than her, so he would do. The twelve red roses were too much though. She might have had no experience with men, but she knew that instictively. Nonetheless, she was gracious.

“Thank you, Mark. The flowers are lovely”.

In the bar, he seemed to know how it worked, so she followed his lead. Her white wine was handed to her with just the gentlest touch of his fingers. His eyes never left her face, seemingly ignoring her ample breasts, or her exposed knees in nylon stockings. After two drinks, he suggested a meal there. Emma was ready.

“Why don’t we just go back to my house? I had a sufficient lunch, and I am happy for us to continue this meeting in the comfort of my home”. Martin was greatly relieved. He had less than one hundred pounds in his bank account, and a meal at this place might have left him without enough to put petrol in his car later. Keeping up the facade, he appeared to be surprised, but grateful. “Dear lady, that would be my pleasure”.

His ten year old Peugeot car was less than impressive, but he remenbered to open the door for her to get in, and to make suggestive hand movements as he fastened her seat belt. On the short drive back to her house, Emma let loose with a prepared speech. “Mark, you don’t have to seduce me, I am already seduced. Let’s just get into my house and get on with it. Is that acceptable to you?” He swallowed hard, and nodded.

“More than acceptable, lovely lady”.

One hour later, and Martin was breathing hard, more thankful than ever for the Viagra. He had given her his full repertoire, but she showed no sign of being even remotely satisfied. “Is that it? I will go down and get us something to drink, and then we can start again”.

He had been given little time to scope out the house and the things in it, but the cursory appraisal of the size and location, along with substantial grounds outside, confirmed she was worth plenty. The house alone woud sell for not much change from a million, and it was packed with genuine antiques inside, from what he had seen so far. Resisting the urge to open a few drawers in the bedroom to see if they contained valuables, he waited for her to come back with the drinks.

This one was worth taking his time over. He was going to try the long-haul approach, make her fall in love with him.

Martin had hardly slurped down a mouthful of his wine when Emma took the glass off him. “Come on now, Mark. Time to try again. I’m sure you can do better this time”. He looked up at the intense expression on her face as she slid back and forth on top of him. He had never known a woman of that age he could not satisfy, and was beginning to doubt himself for the first time.

His mouth was dry, and he could feel a pulse pounding in his temples. And Emma was no lightweight, the pressure of her body bearing down on him felt as if someone had but a sack of potatoes on his belly. Soon wishing it could all be over, he struggled to finish, hoping that his own satisfaction would coincide with hers.

But it was not to be.

“Perhaps you are hungry, Mark? It is getting rather late, so I will make you something to eat and bring it back to the bedroom”. This time he didn’t hesitate to check through the drawers and wardrobes, but found nothing more valuable than some old brooches that he quickly secreted in the inside pocket of his jacket. They were probably her mother’s as the stle was very out of fashion.

He was back on the bed trying to look keen when she returned with a plate containing two sandwiches. “Get these down you, they are both for you. I am not remotely hungry, at least not for food!” When he had eaten them, he excused himself and slipped into the bathroom, stopping to take something from his trouser pocket on the way. With a mouthful of water, he took another Viagra tablet, determined to prove to this insatiable woman that he was up to her demands.

Emma was lying on her back when he returned. She raised her head and grinned. “Ready when you are!”

Screwing his eyes closed tight, he tried to imagine the sexiest moments of his life, and was able to do the deed with some vigour. But the woman gave no indication if his extra efforts were working for her, and no sign that she had any intention of stopping.

A sharp pain around the left side of his chest reminded him that he had recently eaten two beef sandwiches very quickly. He put it down to indigestion, and continued. But then his left arm went numb, and a crushing pain spread all over his chest. It caused him to stop what he was doing, and moments later he was struggling to breathe. Emma noticed of course.

“Oh dear, you have gone very pale, Mark. What’s wrong with you?” He tried to reply, but then fell sideways off the bed onto the floor, gasping for breath. Shaking her head in annoyance, Emma picked up the house phone extension next to her bed, and dialled the emergency number. “Ambulance please, I think my friend is having a heart attack”. Then she gave her address and the person at the other end told her to look out for the ambulance in around fifteen minutes.

Sufficient time to make herself presentable and get dressed.

When the ambulance arrived, she showed the two men up to the bedroom, describing vaguely what had happened. The men looked at each other, hiding their smiles. They didn’t need the full details. After wiring him up to some machines, and placing oxygen on him, one of them turned to her. “I think he’s going to be okay, but he has definitely had a heart attack. We are going to take him to the County Hospital in Dorchester, you can come with us if you want”. Emma looked confused.

“Why would I want to do that? Just take him please”. As she showed them out, with Mark wrapped up in a blanket on the small stretcher, she noticed his car on the driveway. Closing the door, she wondered what was going to happen to that, if he didn’t make it. She had put his clothes and shoes into a plasic bag and given them to the men, but now she realised his car keys would still be in his jacket. Rather irritated, she went into the kitchen to make some tea.

The clock on the microwave told her it was two-fifty-three in the morning. That surprised her, and made her realise just how long they had been at it. Forgetting the tea, she rushed upstairs, pulled off her clothes, and stood naked in front of the window. The light should arrive in less than a minute, making her feel wonderful again.

She stood there intil three thirty, then sat on the edge of the bed until four.

But no blue light shone.

Roger Calthorpe was really beginning to tire of looking at the back of the driver’s head. It had been a long drive from London, and various traffic problems had almost doubled the expected travelling time. Ministry drivers were not expected to make conversation, so any talking in the car had been limited to why it was taking so long to get to their destination.

He held the briefcase on his lap, almost afraid to let go of it. There were too many stories of top secret papers being lost, and he wasn’t about to let himself become the next newspaper headline. When the whole project had been cancelled abruptly, six weeks earlier, he was given time to prepare his full report. But the sudden summons to see the director had still made him nervous. His whole company was at stake, along with his own future.

As the car slowed and the driver indicated to turn right, Roger was a little surprised. They were turning into a service road on the edge of a run-down industrial estate just outside the town of Walsall, part of the West Midlands conurbation that seemed to be endless. Driving around the back of what appeared to be a closed-down factory, they entered a narrow service road leading to a nondescript building in the distance. The car slowed at a security barrier, and the driver showed his identitiy card to a guard who peered into the back and gave him a cursory look.

When they drove under the open barrier, Roger noticed the guard was wearing something similar to a police uniform and was also armed, as he could see a holster with a pistol visible inside it. He should have known of course, Ministry of Defence Police were protecting the facility.

When the car stopped, the driver opened the back door for him, and pointed to the centre of the building where he could see a shabby-looking sign that said ‘Reception’. “In there, sir. Someone is waiting for you”. A smartly dressed but sour-faced young woman was waiting for him. “Follow me please”. As he walked behind her, listening to the sound of her short-heeled shoes on the concrete floor, he looked around to see a completely empty industrial area that might once have housed lots of machinery used for some sort of manufacturing or distribution. At the end of the room was a long corridor, and a large metal door at the end of that guarded by another MOD policeman. He nodded at the woman and opened it before they got there.

The door closed with a loud clang behind them, and he found himself in a very different place. Hundreds of screens and computer terminals shone inside a vast room that had no other lighting and no windows. Perhaps twenty or more operatives were sat in front of curved desks, all wearing headsets and typing on keyboards. At the end of the room, twelve huge screens showed random scenes. From what appeared to be a very untidy kitchen in a house, to a lecture hall at a university full of attentive students. The woman was getting ahead of him, so he quickened his pace to keep up.

They went up a flight of stairs at the end of the room, and the woman knocked on a wooden door at the top of them. She didn’t wait after the knock, opening the door immediately, and indicating that he should go in. Roger walked into a well-appointed office that was larger than he had expected it to be. Sitting behind a desk at the end was William Furlong, also known as Director of Projects. Roger had met him before, in London. He looked up at them. “Thank you, Isla. Could you organise some tea please? And sandwiches for mister Calthorpe. He has had a long journey. Please sit down, Roger”.

There was no handshake.

Furlong went back to what he had been doing, ignoring Roger for quite some time. Long enough for the tea and sandwiches to arrive, brought in on a wheeled trolley by Isla. Then he looked up, closed a document folder, and smiled at the woman as she left the room. “Help yourself please Roger, I have already had my lunch”. Feeling self-conscious, and the briefcase still on his lap, Roger poured himself a cup of tea, which was welcome after the long drive. But he had no appetite for the sandwiches. When he saw that nothing was going to be eaten, Furlong sat back in his leather chair, and folded his arms.

“Well then. Shall we start?”

Before Roger could say anything, or even open his briefcase to show the report, Furlong launched into him.

“So, just to summarise. Your company goes to a government office with a plan, and a device to make that plan happen. For some reason unfathomable to me, the idiot you see thinks it’s a great idea, and gives you the go-ahead to implement it, along with enough funding to build a new hospital, which I am sure you will agree would have been a far better use of the wasted millions. Your crazy idea is some kind of beam that can alter the brainwaves of those exposed to it, making them feel younger, invigorated, and convinced they can do almost anything. Am I right so far?”

Feeling himself shrinking in the chair, Roger nodded, almost imperceptibly. Furlong was shaking his head as he continued.

“Stop me if I am getting this wrong, but your plan was that this would encourage older people to either stay on in their jobs, or go back to seeking work following retirement. In your addled brain, you somehow thought this would save money on pensions, as the pension age could be increased with no protest from the suddenly lively old folks. It would also compensate for the loss of the available labour market following Brexit, and provide a huge potential workforce of grey-haired people keen to work for a lot less than they might have earned before they retired”.

Roger finally got the briefcase open, but only managed one word before he was interrupted.


The director carried on, ignoring his ‘but’.

“A test sample was authorised, with surveillance run from GCHQ at great expense. This was because your only evidence that it would work was based on laboratory apes that appeared to act much younger after exposure to the beam concealed in the blue light. But now we had to have cameras and microphones in houses, teams to follow and report on individuals, and stump up a great deal of money for your stealth drones that hovered silently above the houses to project the blue light. I also note that the tests with the apes lasted a matter of seconds, but you wanted to expose humans for between ten and fifteen minutes.”

Nodding fiercely, Roger attempted to read from his lengthy report, but he gave up when he was interrupted again.

“I cannot even imagine why you thought this would work. From what I have read about the experiment, the beam mostly induced an abnormal sex drive, with the strange effect of making those exposed to it more attractive to the opposite sex. It also increased temper and anger in most subjects, and as I understand it, not one of them felt a desire to continue working into old age, or look for a job post-retirement. Your test sample was small, and your subject choices ill-advised. Anyway, go ahead, read your report.”

It took Roger over an hour to carefully read the report, finally adding his own conclusions, and admitting some liability. He had to be very careful, as he had committed his company resources totally to the failed project, and he knew that if this interview went bad, the whole company would close down overnight. And he might never secure another government contract. In fact, there was no might about it. He would be bankrupt.

Furlong sat quietly, listening to the report. When Roger finished, he was unimpressed.

“Excuses don’t cut it, I’m afraid. One of these days, a junior minister is going to have to account for the extravagant expenditure to a parliamentary committee. And they are going to roast him alive, believe me. If you want your company to survive, you are going to have to do better than that pile of shit you have just read out to me”.

There seemed to be no way out. Roger had banked everything on the report, and the truths and half truths. He knew he had no definitive answer for Furlong, but tried his best to counter the facts.

“There are some genuine positives to take from the project, William. Some of them might even have a military application, think of that”. Inside, he knew he was clutching at straws, and Furlong’s response felt like the first nails in the coffin of his company.

“Roger, we have booked you into a hotel in Walsall tonight. I suggest you take the time to re-think what you have said this afternoon. The driver is waiting to take you to the hotel. Go and have a bath, a nice meal, and spend the rest of the time thinking about how you can possibly justify this nonsense to me tomorrow. The car will collect you just after nine, so have a good breakfast. And come prepared.”

Walking back to the car, Roger did not have a clue what he was going to say the following morning.

Sitting in the small restaurant of his two-star hotel, Roger considered drowning his sorrows by ordering a bottle of Valpolicella to accompany his -probably microwaved- lasagna, then finishing off with a few large glasses of Cognac. But not wanting to face Furlong with a hangover tomorrow, he settled on sparkling water instead.

The car was there after breakfast, and he had steeled himself to expect the worst once he arrived at the clandestine factory complex. The young woman was waiting once again, and he fancied her expression was less sour than it had been yesterday. Repeating the same routine, he followed her up to the door of Furlong’s office and went inside. But the man behind the desk was not Furlong. He was younger, casually dressed, and looked more like one of those people who played computer games. Smiling genially, the man looked up.

“Please take a seat, Roger. My name is Jonathan Spencer, and I will be reviewing the project today”. He reached across the desk and shook hands without standing up. For a long time, he read from a file on the desk in front of him, then sat back and clasped his hands.

“Okay, let’s get on with it. Your subjects had some unexpected reactions to exposure to the beam, to say the least. One man became obsessed with having sex with younger women, and driving around the country to visit random places. It’s worth noting that this was a total change of personality for him. Then his wife was accidentally exposed, resulting in frantic exercise, followed by extra-marital sex with a much younger gym instructor. As a result, she was killed by her husband, who is now serving twelve years for manslaughter, and according to the prison authorities is on suicide watch because of his depression”.

Roger said nothing, so the younger man continued.

“Now the farmer, Inchcape. Run-down farm, and chosen in the hope that the beam would inspire him to increase productivity. But for some reason not clear from your report, the beam extended to the farm of his neighbour. That ignited a fued that had been brewing for years, and they both ended up dead. Then Inchcape’s wife must have been exposed, because she decided to sell her land to a property devoloper and move to Australia. So whatever was grown there before will be replaced by expensive houses. Not looking good so far, is it?”

Spencer stopped for a moment to swig from a plastic bottle of water.

“Next we have a teenage girl whose personality changed, making her into some kind of sex kitten overnight. That destroyed the career of a reliable teacher who is now unemployed, and living in a bedsit flat. I note that she recently accused a delivery driver of asking her to get into his van for sex. Luckily for him, CCTV showed that he was nowhere near the location where she claimed it had happened. What do you say about that, Roger?”

Dry-mouthed, Roger replied. Feeling fortunate that he at least had a reason for that.

“Well, we discovered later that the girl Kirsty was sleeping in her mother’s room. Our intention had been to shake the mother out of her malaise, and get her back to work. We were not to know then that she was sleeping in the smaller room, or passing out on the sofa most nights”.

The man opposite was trying not to laugh out loud, but his shoulders were moving as he failed to control his obvious laughter.

“Let’s move on, Roger. A retired woman, who discovered her sex drive following exposure to the beam. At no time did she think about going back to work. In fact, you seem to have failed to notice that she was a librarian in a town where the library had been closed down. Did you expect her to go to work as a checkout woman at the local supermarket? Come on, the woman is as rich as Croesus. That was never going to happen. Instead, she almost sexed a sad gigolo to death. He has had to have a triple bypass operation, and has sensibly removed himself from the dating site where they met”.

Closing the folder on the desk, he sat shaking his head.

“I don’t think I have ever seen such a catalogue of catastrophe. The only positive is that it gave me a good laugh last night before I had to get up early to drive here”.

A cold feeling crept over Roger’s stomach. This was it, the end of his company. He decided to speak up.

“It falls to me to apologise. The blame is all mine, and if I could go back in time, I would have been far more careful in the choice of subjects. I understand that we will never get a government contract again, and I don’t know what else to say”.

Spencer’s reply left him open-mouthed.

“Not at all, Roger. Why don’t I order some tea? And then we can talk about those military applications you mentioned”.

The End.

The Four Musketeers: The Complete Story

This is all 26 parts of my recent fiction serial, compiled into one complete story. It is a long read, at 21,471 words.

We had all read the novel at school. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas. But there were four of us, so we called ourselves the four musketeers. Childhood friendships don’t necessarily last a lifetime, but in our case they lasted until we became adults. Living in the same district, going to the same junior school. Always in each other’s houses, swapping toys and books, lending each other comics.

Despite the different living conditions, we formed a bond that endured.

If one of us had money for sweets, we all got sweets to eat. Our parents tolerated having all of us around in some kind of informal rota. We shared bottles of lemonade, went to see the kid’s films together, and played out in the local park, or rode around the streets on our bikes. Our four sets of initials were carved in the bark of the biggest tree at the park, and older boys left us alone, knowing we would defend each other, win or lose.

Each of our mums was like another mum to the rest. Cleaning up scraped knees and small cuts, giving us dinner if we were in the house at dinnertime. It was like each of them had another three unofficial sons.

So, who were we?

Me of course, Danny Wellman. Average height and build, sandy hair, and blue eyes. Not good looking like an actor or a film star, but attractive enough to some.
Keith Rainsford. A bit serious, lanky, skinny, and had to wear glasses from childhood.
Terry Wright. Always slightly overweight, a mop of brown hair, and the comedian of the group.
Then there was Johnny Simpson. He was the coolest one. Always wore the right clothes, even when he was 10. His dark hair was thick and cropped, and he had an easy confidence well beyond his years. Despite his very English name, he looked like an Italian, and was the popular one.

Unlike most groups of boys at the time, we didn’t have a natural leader. None of us were into fighting, and we couldn’t be bothered about being good at sport. There were occasional arguments of course, but we always worked things out. Keith and Terry spent the most time together outside of school. Keith thought Terry was hilarious, and even laughed at his worst jokes. And they lived on the same street, four doors apart.

When the four us us were not together, rare ocasions during the school holidays, I was usually at Johnny’s house. Truth be told, I liked to be around him, and hoped that some of his confidence and wide appeal would rub off on me. I watched him, and I learned from him. I might even have had a bit of a crush on him, if I am being honest. Keith and Terry were lost causes by the time we hit our teens, but we never let them down. They were always welcome in our company, even though they didn’t seem to understand that we had to grow up.

Looking back now, it was girls that changed everything. That is no surprise of course, but it was at the time. By the time we were fourteen, Johnny already had a girlfriend. Janice was sixteen, and seemed so much older. She had already left school, and Johnny took advantage of being told that she fancied him. So he had snogged a girl and felt her up, while the rest of us were still looking at some girlie mags we had bought under the counter from the man in the corner shop.

Was I jealous? You bet I was. The others didn’t seem to care. They were both afraid of girls anyway, and Terry put them off with a combination of his chubbiness, and his constant bad jokes. As for Keith, he looked like he would drop dead with fright if a girl even spoke to him. I asked Johnny if Janice had a friend who I could go out with. He was brutally honest, grinning at me as he replied.

“You will have to get better clothes, look older, and have more about you, Danny. All of her friends are sixteen or older, and they don’t want to be seen out with someone who looks like a schoolkid”.

That’s when I started to hate him.

But I didn’t let on. Not then. I would bide my time.

Keith was undoubtedly the brainiest of the group. He found school-work easy, and once we were in Secondary School it was obvious he would outclass the rest of us. He helped us with our home-work, and though he tried to show us how to work things out for ourselves, we ususally ended up copying his answers without really understanding them. His parents were a bit older than mine, and his older sister Susan still lived at home. Susan was the main reason I used to like hanging around at his house. Seventeen years old and great to look at, the fact that she thought of us as kids was a real bonus.

That meant we got to be around her when she was completely relaxed. Sprawled on the sofa watching telly, completely unaware that I was looking up her skirt, or sitting close to smell her perfume. Susan was choosy too. Despite being asked out by almost every older boy who lived nearby, she never wanted to have a boyfriend. Keith said she was waiting for the right man. Someone to take her away to the suburbs, and get her out of her boring job in the typing pool at the local jam factory.

I remember the day Keith said he was going to go to university. We laughed at first, then realised he was serious. Kids from our area never went to university. You took the basic exams, and then got out of school to get a job. It was expected of you, and you were prepared for that at a young age.

Johnny was going to work with his dad on the street markets. Georgie Simpson had three stalls selling leather goods, and Johnny had been helping out on them during the holidays and at weekends since he was old enough to count money. My future was similarly cast in stone. Mum was obsessed with me having a ‘clean job’, working in an office. She had asked around some family friends, and one had promised to give me a start where he worked, in a big insurance company. I could get a bus there easily, and as long as I passed in Maths and English, it was guaranteed.

As for Terry, his dad was a plumber. So Terry would help him once he left school, and study for his trade qualification at night school. Terry’s dad was likeable, but always said the same things. Things like, “People always need toilets, son. Learn to fix them and you will always be in work”. Because Terry had a much younger brother, his mum Alice didn’t work. She stayed at home to look after little Tony, and seemed to love being a housewife.

A natural choice for a market trader, Johnny was full of chat, had the gift of the gab, and acted much older than he was. The customers on the stalls loved his cheeky banter, and he could sell a handbag by telling some dowdy lady that it made her look beautiful just holding it. Though he had an older brother, nobody ever talked much about Graham. Johnny said that Graham didn’t get on with his dad.

He had wanted to be a painter, a real one, like portraits and landscapes. So had left to go to Art School when we were much younger, and now lived in Brighton, on the coast. According to Johnny, he shared a flat there with another bloke who had been his best friend at college.

We didn’t know what that meant back then, but I found out later.

Not talking about an older brother was something I was also used to. My older brother was only a vague memory. Someone I shared a room with when I was too young to really work out who he was. A tall young man lifting me up until my head touched the lampshade. My last memory of him was when he came home on leave wearing his army uniform. He was being posted to Germany, I found out later. Not that there was a war then of course, just a barracks at a place called Paderborn.

My mum cried for two days after the men came to tell her that Kevin had been killed in an accident. His army lorry had turned over in icy weather. I had to go to the funeral when they brought him home. Mum bought me a suit for the occasion, and everyone was crying. Later on, they put a big framed photo of him over the mantlepiece, smiling in his uniform and beret. After that, we never talked about him at all.

But I was always aware that I lived in his shadow.

One afternoon, I was outside the corner shop chatting to a couple of girls I knew. We were close to turning fifteen, and the girls appreciated being chatted up at that age. But when there were two of them, it was tricky.

Which one do you try for? Pam was the cute one, and her friend Caron was chubby. But Caron was definitely the more interested of the two. Anyone knows that girls who are close friends are almost impossible to split up, especially at that age.

Luckily for me, Terry showed up. He was heading for the shop to buy some sweets, and the four of us got chatting. I didn’t really care which girl I ended up with, so suggested a walk to the local park. Okay, nothing life-changing was going to happen, but we might have got a snog, maybe even a feel. I lived in hope.

Terry dished out the sweets, and the girls agreed to see what was happening at the park. But we hadn’t gone a hundred yards before Terry bent down, grabbed his legs, and let out an enormous fart.

He thought it was funny. He actually thought he was entertaining those girls.

Pam pulled a face. “Come on, Caron. These boys need to grow up”. With that, they turned around and walked off. I shook my head at the grinning idiot. Terry was oblivious to the reason for my disgust. “What? It was only a fart. Don’t blame me if they haven’t got any sense of humour”. I crossed the road, waving my hand at him in a dismissive gesture. He was so thick, he shouted over, “We’re not going to the park then, Danny?”

I resolved to get him back for that, and the opportunity arose the following year.

It was the last summer school holidays before I started work. Keith was studying hard, Johnny was working on the market stalls by then, so I popped round to Terry’s house to see what he was doing. His mum let me in. “Sorry, Danny. He’s out working with his dad. He won’t be home until after six. Come in and have a cold drink, I could do with the company. Go through to the front room”.

By then, I was calling her Alice. Only Keith’s parents still wanted to be called Mr or Mrs Rainsford by his friends.

She seemed to me to be a bit upset, and when I heard little Tony bawling from another room, she put her head in her hands. “He never stops crying, Danny. I have been to the doctor’s with him, but they said there’s nothing wrong. I am up half the night with him, and I can’t get much done during the day. They say it is just teething, but he has almost all of his teeth through. I’m at my wit’s end, I really am.” She went next door to calm him down, and it was ages before she came back.

When she sat down next to me on the sofa, she looked worn out. Red-eyed, and at the end of her tether. She picked up the glass of Tizer she had poured for herself, and put it down again. “Don’t say anything to Terry please, Danny, but I just can’t cope. Terry was such a happy and easy baby, but little Tony has got me to the stage where I am starting to hate him, I really am”. I felt this conversation was both out of my league, and none of my business. I was regretting staying for the Tizer, but felt I had to do something. So I put my arm around her, and she put her head on my shoulder.

What happened next was both totally unexpected, and beyond my wildest dreams.

Ten seconds after her head rested on my shoulder, she started kissing me. My first real snog, serious stuff. Tongues and everything. Before I had time to react, she was undoing my trousers, and pulling off her underwear. I had uttered just one word, “Alice”, and she was astride me, and I knew exactly what was happening. My only regret was that it hadn’t lasted longer. Nothing was said during those few minutes, and I could feel the heat coming from her neck and face. It had all been over a long time for me before she stopped, and I was completely amazed that this woman I had known all my life was half-naked on my lap, panting.

The enormity of it all must have dawned on her. She grabbed her clothes and turned her back to me. “Sorry Danny, I don’t know what came over me. You had better go, and I beg you not to say anything to Terry. Please, I beg you”. I walked out of the house in a daze, but I felt ten feet tall.

By the time Terry spoke to me about his mum, I had started my job at the Insurance company. I bumped into him coming out of the shop, and he beckoned me over to speak quietly.

“My mum’s only gone and got herself pregnant. Dad’s furious, and he won’t speak to her. It’s bloody awful at home at the moment, I can tell you”.

I grinned all the way home.

Work at the insurance company was easy enough. I received claim forms for all sorts of things, wrote them up properly on company documents, checked the policy was valid for what they were claiming, then stamped a box at the bottom of the form before putting it in a tray for the manager to countersign. I worked in a large building right in the centre of the city, in a divided office with five others. I was the youngest by a mile, but the girl who typed up our letters was only twenty.

She was engaged, and never stopped talking about her boyfriend. No chance.

Hours were nine-to five, no weekends of course. Most days I could get away by just after four-thirty, as long as the day’s pile of claim forms had all been checked and stamped. We had an hour for lunch, and I was given one ’til two. That suited me, as it made the afternoon fly by. And we had a staff restaurant that served good meals at subsidised prices. The salary was average, but considering my age, it was enough for what I needed. My mum and dad said I had to give them housekeeping, but when I got my first month’s salary, mum said not to bother until next month.

Now I had my own money, I spent it on clothes and records. The old portable record-player in my bedroom had never seen so much action, and my suits were on trend with fashion. The typist told me she thought I looked nineteen, when I still wasn’t seventeen for a couple of months.

The Four Musketeers were not the same though. Johnny was insufferably cocky, and working one stall on his own seven days a week. I saw Terry now and again, but stopped going to his house because of Alice. If she saw me on the street she used to turn bright red, and cross the road. I had a soft spot for her, as she would always be my first. She was also going to be the mother of my child.

It felt strange to think of that, so I didn’t.

Keith was busy, planning to take three A-levels and study PPE at University College London when he was eighteen. He had to tell me what PPE was. Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. That sounded a lot for one qualification, too much for me. It wasn’t that I lacked intelligence. I just lacked motivation and application. At least he wouldn’t have to leave home to attend university. One bus and a ten-minute walk would get him there.

With Terry plumbing twelve hours a day, and his mum a no-go, and Johnny on the markets all weekend, I started to spend more time at Keith’s when I wasn’t working. He wasn’t that interested in going to the pub or the cinema, so it was a bit boring sitting in his living room with his mum and dad while they all trapped on about how well he was going to do at university. Then again, my house was like a mortuary most of the time, with mum and dad staring into space, and my brother Kevin smiling down from his photo above the mantlepiece.

There was a bonus at Keith’s too. Susan. Almost five years older than me, she still looked great. But Susan had missed the boat, so it seemed. All those years of being choosy had come home to roost. Most of her friends had boyfriends, and some were already married. One of them even had two kids. She was still at the jam factory, and still living at home. Then after my seventeenth birthday, she noticed me. Really noticed me.

One Saturday afternoon, she answered the door. “Keith’s out. He’s visiting my nan with mum and dad. He shouldn’t be long though, you can come in and wait if you want”.

I did want.

Sitting in the front room listening to music, she gave me a funny look. “You’re quite the young man now, Danny. Very grown up. How come you don’t have a girlfriend yet?” I shrugged, and replied that I hadn’t seen anyone I fancied. She leapt on that. “Well you always fancied me, no point denying that. Don’t think I have forgotten you looking up my skirt all the time, or sitting too close to me on the setee. You might as well have been holding up a sign”. She was full of herself, but undeniably right.

So she had known all along. I let the conversation hang in the air for a while, waiting to see what happened. I didn’t have to wait long.

“Your job at the insurance company sounds good. You will get promotion if you stick at it, and a decent pension later too. You have quite a lot to offer someone. How come you have never asked me out?” She didn’t wait for a reply. “If it’s the age difference, that doesn’t matter to me. It won’t seem so much when we are older”. She patted the seat next to her. “You can kiss me if you like, I don’t mind”. I moved over to sit next to her.

Twenty minutes later, Susan was my first girlfriend.

When the rest of the family got back, Susan didn’t hesitate to announce that I was now her boyfriend. I was suitably quiet, and not a little embarrassed. Although she had stopped short of doing the deed, she had definitely confirmed her serious intentions when we had been alone together, much to my delight. I was also left wondering how a young woman who had supposedly never had a boyfriend had developed such talents.

Keith’s mum and dad looked less than impressed, but his mum did agree with Susan that my prospects were very good, and that I came from a respectable local family. Her dad went out the back to do something in the garden shed, and Keith looked very happy. He shook my hand. Very formal, and not something The Four Musketeers had ever done.

He was getting rather posh.

Back at my house, I arrived with Susan, much to my mum’s surprise. She had come back with me to tell my parents that we were now officially a couple. Mum decided that she should offer Susan a drop of Port to celebrate the occasion, then sat chatting to her about Keith going to university. When I walked her home, Susan kissed me passionately on the doorstep, like some actress in a film. It was blatant, for anyone to see. And she hoped everyone did see. Then she told me to pick her up on Friday evening, to take her to the cinema.

If Susan thought she was calling the shots, then she was right. But only for now.

In just over a year, I had suddenly become attractive to women. Even ones I thought I had no chance with, like Susan. I soon realised that gave me the power that I had often envied about Johnny. It also came with some new responsibilities of course.

But I decided not to worry about those.

My new-found confidence knew no bounds. Back at work the next week, I started to flirt with the office typist, Helen. I half-expected her to fob me off with more guff about her wonderful boyfriend, but her reaction was the opposite. She sat with me at lunchtime, and asked me where I lived. Then she pulled a face when I told her. “South of the river? That’s miles away from me. I live with my mum in Islington”. North London was unfamiliar territory for me, especially as I wasn’t driving, and didn’t have a car. But it wasn’t impossible, using a couple of buses.

So I brazened it out, asking her out for a drink on Friday night after work. She smiled a lot, and took her time to reply. “Well my Trev always goes to the pub with his mates on Fridays, then usually football at Arsenal on Saturday afternoons when they are playing at home. So we could have a drink, just as long as you know I am spoken for, and don’t tell anyone at work”. Before we had finished lunch, it was agreed.

I knew I was supposed to be taking Susan to the pictures on Friday, but I would just tell her I had to work late, and change it to Saturday instead. She had already made her big announcement that we were together, and I very much doubted she was going to go back on that in less than a week.

A couple of days later, I decided to pop round and tell Johnny I was now Susan’s boyfriend. We hadn’t seen that much of each other for a while, and I wanted to remind him about our previous plans to have party when we all turned eighteen. They had been made many years earlier, and although things had changed since, I saw no reason not to go ahead with it.

Johnny’s mum and dad were watching telly, so we went up to his room. He was worse than ever, turning into a real Flash Harry. Boasting about how him and Georgie were selling knocked off leather coats and shoes, and making a small fortune in ready cash. Then he showed me his provisional driving licence. “I’m starting lessons next month, and after I pass, dad’s buying me my own van. I dunno what you earn in that office job, but I reckon I could buy and sell you, no problem”.

When I told him about Susan, he whistled. “Wow, she’s a right sort. You done well there, Danny. How did someone like you ever manage that? Have you knocked her off yet?” I tapped the side of my nose and winked. Let him draw his own conclusions. I asked how things were with Janice.

“She’s just Janice, you know what I mean? She reckons we are gonna get married, have kids, all that. She won’t go all the way until I put a ring on her finger. She don’t want me to get a van, neither. Says I should get a proper car. I mean, how stupid is that? I told her I need a van for work, to earn money, if she wants that diamond ring on her finger. Between me and you mate, I’m pretty fed up with her”.

That gave me an idea. And I didn’t mention the eighteenth party.

As expected, Susan agreed to change the day of our date. I didn’t go with working late, as she knew that never happened. I told her that some old bloke was retiring, and I was expected to go to his leaving drink.

There were now three women to consider. Helen, the typist at work, Susan being my actual girlfriend, and Janice. I can be honest now, and say that I never really fancied Janice. Before she started seeing Johnny, she had been around a bit, and it showed. I wouldn’t say she was known to be ‘easy’, but some of the much older boys in the area had definitely sampled her charms.

My anger at Johnny’s attitude to me might seem misplaced, in current thinking. But you have to remember that I was still young, and such things held an importance to me far beyond what they actually represented. We had been the Four Musketeers, and he had considered himself to be the best of us.

And he still did.

Even though he worked a market stall, and his girlfriend had a dubious background. The fact that she wouldn’t go all the way until they got engaged spoke volumes to me. I wonder how many others had promised to do just that, then dumped her when they got what they wanted.

All of this was happening in a very different era. Most kids of that age these days would still be at school, and not really thinking about having a regular girlfriend or boyfriend. They would be playing video games, chatting on mobile phones, thinking about where to go on gap years, and be determined not to get involved with anyone too soon.

For us back then, we were expected to act like adults. Get a job, bring in the money. Settle down with someone, have kids, and repeat the cycle we had observed in our families. And let’s face it, we were keen to do that. Being thought of as immature was one of the worst things that could happen to us. The faster we grew up the better.

Friendships mattered to me too. I had stuck with all of them, only to find that Terry was a clown, Johnny was a big-head, and Keith wanted to be posh. So I reasoned that if that was how it was going to be, then I would get one up on all of them. Hopefully without any of them ever realising. Then I would revel in my secret satisfaction that none of them were better than me, whatever they might have thought.

It was going to be a long process, but I thought it was worth the wait.

Helen was an impulse. She didn’t owe me friendhip, or anything else to be honest. But she had simply irritated me by going on about the wonderful Trev. He was a football fan who had qualified as a lift engineer. He spent his days driving a van around North London fixing or installing lifts. He went out with Irene because he had known her a long time, and because he thought he should have a girlfriend. He would sooner be out drinking beer with his mates, or watching football at Arsenal.

But like the rest of us, he was a product of his background.

Not that I meant him any harm, I didn’t even know him. But if I got my way with Irene, then Trev would have the wake-up call he so badly needed. And Irene would discover that there might be more to life than a lift engineer who lived in the same postal area.

Janice came first, purely by chance. I jumped off a slow-moving bus on my way home from work that Wednesday, and almost knocked her over as she walked along the pavement. Whe she saw it was me, she softened. “I was just about to have a right go at you. Just as well it was you, Danny”. I walked along with her, even though it was the wrong direction. I asked her how Johnny was, casually conversational.

“I hardly see him these days, Danny. Once a week if I’m lucky. If he’s not on his stall, he’s out with his dad buying stock. I’m starting to think he takes me for granted, I really am”. It was like taking candy from a baby. I suggested we go and have something to eat at the Wimpy Bar, then a drink after. Her eyes lit up.

“Yeah, why not? That would be lovely”.

Things didn’t work out as I had expected with Janice. She was happy to eat a Wimpy cheeseburger and chips, then drink two vodka and limes in the pub after. But when I said I would walk her home, she was prepared with her answer. “That’s okay, Danny. Thanks for the dinner and drinks, but you live in the opposite direction. I’m only a couple of minutes from home, and it’s not that late. I’ll be alright. We should do this again sometime though, it was nice”. Then she kissed me on the cheek and walked away without looking back.

Unconvinced, I still felt sure she was interested. But lots of people we knew might have seen us in the Wimpy or the pub, so she was probably worried about someone telling Johnny before she had a chance to concoct a story. Janice could wait.

My Friday night date with Helen didn’t go that well either. She seemed keen enough in the pub, and expected me to see her home all the way to Islington. But when we got close to where she lived, she pulled me into an alleyway between two houses. “Better not come all the way. My mum loves Trev, and is friends with his mum. She wouldn’t be pleased if she saw me with you. It’s been nice though. Maybe we could do this again when she goes to my aunt’s caravan? I’ll be in the house alone then”. She sealed the offer with some snogging that took my breath away.

It was a long haul home after that, but I was happy with the promise of more to come once her mum had her holiday.

When I went out with Susan on the Saturday, I had to have a story ready about the leaving drink. Naturally, I told her I was bored to tears. Everyone had been at least forty, and of course I would much rather have been out with her. She seemed to accept the lie, as when we were in the cinema we only saw about ten minutes of the film, with her snogging me like a maniac in the back row. Back at her place later, her mum had stayed up late to make sure there was no hanky-panky. She made me a ham sandwich and gave me a cup of tea, but there was no chance she was going to leave us alone together.

On Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on my bed reading when my mum came to tell me that Johnny was downstairs. I hadn’t even heard the knock on the door. I said to tell him to come up, but when he walked in the bedroom, he had a face like thunder. I knew immediately that someone had told him about me and Janice. What I didn’t know until later was that it was Janice who had told him. He couldn’t shout, but his soft voice was very threatening.

“Honestly Danny, I could slap you. What are you doing up the pub with my bird? I mean to say, we are The Four Musketeers, we don’t mess around with each other’s birds, do we?” I knew better than to deny it, so just shrugged. I said how I had bumped into her getting off the bus. I was on my way to the Wimpy Bar, and it seemed to be the decent thing to ask her to join me. He shook his head. “That’s not how she tells it. She reckons you followed her along the street asking her to go to the pub. She said no, but you kept on. So she agreed to go to the Wimpy, then you pestered her to go on to The Anchor. That’s how she tells it”.

The advantage on my side was that Johhny was well aware of Janice’s past. Even as he raged at me, I knew instinctively that he didn’t believe her. So I told him that she was trying to make him jealous. It was just a burger and two drinks with my mate’s girlfriend. I didn’t touch her, didn’t even walk her home. He knew he had overdone it, but his pride kept him going. “Well I have to take her side, you know that. But what you say sounds fair too. Let’s leave it at that, but don’t try it on with her again, or there will be trouble”.

After he had gone, I went back to my book.

But I was going to have to have a word with Janice.

What followed was something of a quiet period, in my recollection. Helen didn’t mention her mum going on holiday, though she was much friendlier at work, and occasionally touchy-feely when nobody was looking. I presumed she had decided to throw all of her eggs into Trev’s basket, and trust to luck.

But there was still time.

The next time I spotted Janice, she went red-faced and tried to pretend she hadn’t seen me. But I crossed the road to tell her that she had made the wrong choice. I said I knew for sure that Johnny would dump her in due course, as he would never get past her background, whether that was gossip or not. She looked sad when I said that, almost teary-eyed. As she walked away, she turned and said “Sorry”. She said it very quietly, and that was the last time we ever spoke to each other.

So I was left with Susan, though she wasn’t a bad option to be left with.

Susan was as keen as mustard, and happy to keep me on side with some delightful feminine wiles that I enjoyed immensely. She was also teaching me things that would keep me in good stead when I was older. The icing on the cake was that she looked amazing, and everyone who found out we were a couple thought I was punching above my weight.

Big time.

Of course, she didn’t stop talking about us getting married, but she was also very sensible. Her idea was to save the deposit on a house somewhere, have a cheap Registry Office wedding, and no expensive honeymoon. The more time I spent in her company, the more I liked her. And the five years age difference didn’t matter to me at all.

We had to use precautions of course. No point her getting pregnant and ending up with a shotgun wedding. Especially with her brother riding high. She was on The Pill, and Keith had exceeded all expectations by being offered a place at Oxford. Bye bye, London University. Keith was going up in the world. He was getting a scholarship to study with the toffs and rich kids. At the time, I was really pleased for him. When I told him that, he hugged me.

I told him to calm down. The Four Musketeers were not huggers.

Even Johnny was delighted for Keith. We had a drink to celebrate his acceptance to Oxford, meeting up at The Anchor.

That’s when Terry stole Keith’s thunder. He announced he was getting married. We were all eighteen, and Terry had jumped the gun on all of us. He had met a girl on a plumbing job down in Sydenham, the daughter of the house. She was nineteen, and chubby would have been a compliment. But she adored Terry’s awful jokes, and they were both besotted.

It was a match made in heaven, as the saying goes.

Maria was from a family with a Spanish background, and they had welcomed Terry into the fold like you would not believe. The black-haired fat girl adored our idiot of a friend, but her welcome had been a bit too warm for our inexperienced Musketeer, and she was three months gone.

When we were supposed to be celebrating Keith’s rise in English society, Terry was asking Johnny to be the Best Man at his wedding. We bought another round, and toasted Terry and Maria. Keith looked a bit put out, but joined in. As for me, I was thinking about Terry’s mum, Alice. I often wondered if his dad had worked out she must have gone over the side to get pregnant. I doubted her and Georgie were up to much bed action back then.

Still, it was a rare night at the pub for the original Four Musketeers. Even Susan was okay with it. “Keith has done so well, he needs a celebration with his mates, Danny”. Naturally, where her younger brother was concerned, she was happy for us to all be out on a Friday night. And for my part, I was happy to be reunited with Johnny, and no mention of Janice. He hinted that he was going to finish with her soon, as the business was exceeding all expectations.

“To be honest, Danny. I have more money than I know what to do with. Janice is no more than a habit that I can do without. The stolen gear is coming in vanloads. Me and dad are minted, and I don’t see why a slag like Janice should benefit. I’m setting my sights higher than her, I tell ya.”

Well, as you might suspect, he should never had told me that.

Then again, he had drunk seven pints of beer.

After that night at The Anchor, life took a mundane turn for a couple of years. Keith met a girl in his first year at Oxford, so we saw nothing of him. Susan told me that he spent all of his holidays staying at her parents’ house. They had some huge country pile somewhere near Maidenhead, and were obviously minted. Keith had told her on the phone that the house had a river frontage, and the dad took them out on a speedboat.

Terry’s wedding to Maria was so low key that two of us didn’t get an invitiation. Johnny did the Best Man thing, but they had a meal in a restaurant after, so no party. He had moved into the family home with his pregnant wife, and was running a plumbing business from there. We heard when the baby was born. It was a girl, and they called her Sophia. With Johnny hardly ever around, I at least had Susan for company.

And she was good company.

She was also still planning. The quiet wedding she hoped for was to be after my twenty-first birthday, by which time she would be twenty-six. That was mainly because I had to be that age to apply for a mortgage with her. I had been promoted at work, and was now checking claims instead of writing them up. It was only a modest promotion, but came with a salary increase of one third, all of which went into the house deposit fund.

Although we never talked about love, I was in love wth her. At least as far as my understanding of love extended at the time. I missed her when she wasn’t around, worried about her when she was ill, and never once stopped fancying her sexually. The prospect of a life together appealed to me, and I had stopped chasing other girls. To me, that all added up to love.

Helen was out of the game anyway. She had left the insurance company for a better-paid job at the head office of the firm where Trevor worked. I suspected that was also so she could keep an eye on him. She was destined to be a weekend football widow, and spend every Friday night on her own while he got pissed-up with his mates. She couldn’t see it, or maybe she could, and didn’t care.

Not that I wasn’t tempted.

The replacement for Helen was a perky girl called Nancy. She was only eighteen, and very lively. On day one, I could tell I was in with a chance. One of the benefits of working somewhere where eveyone was at least ten years older than me, most much older than that. Strangely, I didn’t make a move. I was actually fond enough of Susan by then to not want to cheat on her. Or perhaps I was just growing up at long last.

Then Johnny upset me. Really upset me.

We were in the Anchor one night, Susan and I. We had been to see a film, then popped into the pub for a couple of drinks before closing time. Johnny was at the bar with his dad, and looking the worse for drink. He left his dad spinning some tales with a few old blokes at the bar, and wandered over to where we were sitting.

“Janice is history. I told her that no girl of mine goes out drinking with someone else, oh no!” I knew about him splitting up with Janice over a year earlier, and wondered why he was telling me all over again. Could it be that he was going to grass me up in front of Susan? He sat down heavily on a spare chair, and leaned forward, grinning at Susan.

“So you reckon you and Danny here are gonna tie the knot, Susie?” She hated being called anything except Susan, and he knew it.

“Well, Susie girl, you should think again. I mean, you’re years older than us, ain’t ya? Do you wanna end up with a younger husband when you have lost yer looks and stuck at home with kids? You should see sense now, before it’s too late”. Susan shot me a look. So I asked Johnny to calm down, and to stop being rude. He stood up, scraping the chair noisily. People at the bar turned round as he shouted.

“Calm down? I still owe you a good hiding. You want it now? I’ll give you a slap in front of your bird, or we can go outside if you’re man enough”.

Before I could answer, Georgie had come over and grabbed his son, before the pub landlord could consider throwing Johnny out. We left then, and as we walked home, Susan started to cry. “Why was he so horrible to me? I have never done anything to him. And you are supposed to be his best mate. Why is he saying he wants to beat you up?” I told her he had too many drinks, and I would have a word with him next week.

But it was the police I had a word with. An anonymous tip-off, using a phone box near work.

They took Johnny from his home at six in the morning. It had been a long time coming, as the police took their time building a case by watching Johnny and his dad for close to three months, accumulating evidence on them and the men delivering the stolen goods.

Georgie was arrested at dawn too, but he was in the bed of Big Viv, another market stall holder. Viv deserved her name, with breasts that arrived a few minutes before the rest of her, and a huge mop of home-dyed auburn hair. She must have been getting on a bit, but Georgie had obviously fallen for her charms, and was tracked down to her flat by the cops. She was arrested too, but released for lack of evidence.

With Johnny and Georgie getting bail, and determined to plead not guilty at their trial, everyone in the district was speculating about who could have grassed them up. Receiving stolen goods and tax evasion didn’t add up to a long stretch, but it would mean the end of their careers as market traders, as their licences would be withdrawn. They also had to worry about the actual robbers who were implicated, as four of them had also been arrested.

Safe to say I was not even considered as a suspect for grassing them. Where we came from, you didn’t grass, so it was simply presumed that someone from outside the borough had done it, probably to get a lesser sentence for whatever he had been charged with. Not grassing also applied to Johnny and his dad. No chance they were going to name names to get any charges dropped or reduced. Their lives wouldn’t have been worth living if they had done that. The local criminals had a long reach, even from behind bars.

For a few weeks, everyone was talking about it. I did the decent thing, and went to see Johnny at home. Him and his dad looked scared, and his mum couldn’t stop crying. They had phoned his brother in Brighton, but Graham was not coming up for the trial. He was getting his own back on Georgie for how he had been treated in the past. Johnny told me that Terry had driven over to offer his condolences, but hadn’t stayed long before rushing back to his wife and baby.

Keith probably didn’t know what had happened. He was totally immersed in his life in Oxford. He wouldn’t have cared even if he did know.

When I told Susan, she was unimpressed. “Serves him right. He was getting really flash, and above himself. Reckoned he was some sort of gangster if you ask me. A bit of time inside won’t hurt him, and might teach him a lesson”. She had never forgiven him for his outburst at The Anchor. And neither had I of course.

Neither Johnny nor his dad had any preious convictions, but electing for a trial by jury must have upset the powers that be. They were found guilty by that jury, and the judge was in a bad mood when sentencing arrived. Georgie got eighteen months, and Johnny twelve months. They were also heavily fined, fifteen hundred each. That was a considerable sum back then, and wiped out their savings.

Johnny’s mum didn’t take it well. Not only were her husband and son going inside, there was the extra bad news that Georgie had been found in bed with Big Viv. Susan felt sorry for her, and I said I would pop round occasionally, and see if she was alright. Jean Simpson liked to be called Jeannie, and she was alright for her age. Alright enough to make you wonder why her husband was over the side with Big Viv, a woman who could easily take on a regiment of soldiers if she was in the mood.

I kept my promise, and checked on Jeannie at the first opportunity. The experience had definitely hardened her. “I won’t be taking Georgie back when he gets out, Danny. He can go and live at his sister’s place in Charlton, for all I care”. I was very sympathetic. Sympathetic enough that on my third visit, Jeannie suggested going upstairs to the bedroom, and I willingly followed her.

When it was over, she lit a cigarette and cuddled up to me. “If it’s good enough for Georgie, then it’s good enough for me. Will you come and see me again next week, Danny?” I said I would.

Well it was the least I could do, wasn’t it?

While Johnny was away in jail, I learned to drive. Susan did it at the same time, and we used the same instructor. We both passed our tests one wekk apart, and because Susan passed first, she never let me forget that. My dad was in the process of part exchanging his old Ford Escort Estate for a new Cortina, so I offered him cash for it instead. The car was cheap, but the insurance for me and Susan to drive it was very expensive.

We left the car parked outside my parents’ house, and started to get out and about in it at the weekends. Most of our trips were house-hunting, checking out affordable areas where we could buy a house once we were married. As we already lived in Deptford, south London was our first choice. We didn’t want to venture too far from what we knew, and we would need to be near a train station to get into work. Susan was still at the factory, but hoping to change jobs. There was a rumour the factory was closing down and moving far away from London, and she was keen to get out before that happened.

Johnny got out too late for our wedding. As planned, it was a small affair at the Registry Office, followed by a buffet and drinks in the upstairs function room of The Anchor. There were some cousins on both sides we hadn’t seen for years, an elderly great aunt of Susan, and some friends. Terry and Maria showed up, but they left little Sophia at home with Maria’s parents. Keith came, and he brought his girlfriend too.

Madeleine was introduced as Maddy. She was very tall, taller than any of us, and stick-thin. Her accent was so posh, I had trouble understanding some of what she said. And I had to smile at how Keith had adopted a very similar accent, making him sound completely ridiculous to the rest of us. Maddy spent the evening sticking close to Mr and Mrs Rainsford, and declined to eat most of the buffet food on offer. I saw her nibbling a bridge roll containing gammon ham and gherkins, then wrapping it in a paper napkin and leaving it behind a chair.

Keith had his degree, and there was talk of him going to work as an assistant to an M.P. We had never really discussed politics, but my dad told me the M.P. in question was a Conservative. Dad didn’t approve of that party. Keith’s parents were suitably chuffed, as their son would now be working in an office inside the Houses of Parliament. They spent the wedding party telling that to anyone who would listen

The house we had decided on was an old two-bed terrace in Brockley. Not far from from the cemetery, and an easy walk to the station. It would have been three beds at one time, before the smallest one had been converted into an inside bathroom. Parking was on the street, and the small garden was just big enough for sitting outside in the summer. With no honeymoon arranged, we were going to spend our wedding night in that house, then we would both be back at work on the Monday.

The previous owners had done a good job of making the house nice, and all we had to do was get our furniture in before the wedding. We had bought everything from the same department store, and taken their credit option over three years of easy payments. My mum and dad had been over to see it, and were so proud that their son had his own house, and would not be renting from the council like them. Susan’s parents said they would come for tea once we were settled in. I told them there was no rush.

With Johnny back at home and out of work, my visits to Jeannie had to stop. Besides, it wouldn’t have been so easy once we were in Brockley. We had managed an enjoyable few months though, and Susan had never found out about what happened on my visits to console Jeannie.

The next time I saw Johhny I was visiting my parents and he was standing outside the corner shop. I stopped the car and spoke to him through the window. He looked ill. He had lost a lot of weight, and all of his confidence. Prison had taught him a lesson, right enough. He congratulated me on the wedding, wished me all the best, then walked across the street without looking back.

Maybe I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t.

Married life suited me well enough. Susan took to it like a fish to water, and became a real housewife. She cooked nice meals every evening, and at weekends we usually went back to see my parents, and hers. Her mum and dad had never come over for that tea, but she couldn’t be bothered to argue with them about them not seeing the house. She thought she knew why they had never visited.

“They’re just jealous, Danny. They could have bought a house years ago, but chose to stay renting off the Council. Now they are embarrassed because Keith has an upper-class girlfriend, and they are ashamed of Deptford”.

She found out that Graham Simpson had an art exhibition in Brighton, and one Saturday,we drove down to see it. Because she was that few years older, she had known him briefly back in Deptford. I hardly remembered him, but we got on well. He introduced his friend to us, but the bloke was a shade too effeminate for my liking. He made me feel uncomfortable, talking like a woman, and his long hair perfectly styled.

As for the art on display, well that was a matter of taste, and it wasn’t my taste. It looked like a little kid had got paint on its feet, then run around the canvas. But I kept my opinion to myself, and when Susan whispered that one of them had been sold for two thousand quid, I was suitably impressed. We even had our photo taken with him, and he told us it was going to be printed in the local paper.

Before we left to drive home, I had a chat with Graham about his brother and his dad. He seemed to be fully aware of what had happened, and it was soon obvious that he was in regular contact with his mum.

“Yes, I hear that Johnny is not doing well. He is working part-time in a warehouse in the railway arches, and spending a lot of time alone in his room. By the way, I wanted to thank you for being so kind to my mum when all that happened. She speaks so well of you Danny”. Then he hugged me, and I let him. He didn’t know that musketeers don’t hug.

In work on the Monday, Nancy came and sat on my desk. She didn’t care that I could see right up her skirt, even opened her knees a bit to make sure I could. “Tell me you are coming to the Christmas party this year, Danny. I’m organising it, and there’s going to be a nice meal followed by a club night. I doubt most of the old geezers here will show up at the club, so I am counting on you. Can you give me a tenner deposit to confirm?”

Handing over the tenner, I grinned at her. How could I resist?

Three weeks later, Susan had an interview for a new job, and she was offered it there and then. It was in a new Estate Agents that had just opened up in Brockley, and she would be doing the typing and some secretarial work. The pay wasn’t much more than she got at the factory, but she could walk to work in five minutes, and save on the train fares. We went out to celebrate when she handed her notice in. I took her to an Indian place in Lewisham, and we got a taxi both ways so we could both have a drink.

After a couple of months in her new job, she started to talk about kids.

“With me working so close, it would be easy to find a nursery. You don’t need the car during the week, so I could manage to still go shopping and everything else would get done. If I come off the pill now, we might get lucky next year. Is that okay with you, love?” I said it was. I didn’t want to upset her by saying no.

I thought about Terry, still living with his in-laws. Keith, trying to act posh for his new bird and his job with the M.P. Johnny, stuck in the house scared of his own shadow as people thought he might have grassed up the real criminals. Alice, bringing up a kid her and her husband both knew was someone else’s. Georgie, released from prison but living in his siter’s spare room in a Charlton flat.

Then there was me. With a nice wife, our own house, decent jobs, a car, and a future.

No doubt I had come off best. As far as I was concerned, anyway.

Susan proved to be remarkably fertile. Within four months of coming off the pill, she was expecting. My parents were beyond excited, and even her mum and dad seemed to be genuinely pleased. She was starting on names the day after the positive pregnancy test. She wanted Joanna for a girl, and Stephen for a boy. I didn’t mind what name she chose, if it made her happy.

I would be a father at the age of twenty-two. Not counting Alice’s baby of course.

Not only did I have to grow up fast, I had to think about the responsibilities of being a parent. Susan had already found a child-minder willing to take the baby, a local lady with an excellent reputation. She resolved to get back to work at the earliest opportunity, but I also had an idea.

Despite the fairly recent promotion at work, I had a feeling I could do better. I looked around and found a different insurance company advertising for staff. They were branching out into every area of insurance available, and were looking for someone to take over a new car and commercial vehicle department. At the time, someone of my age was never going to get a job like that. But I applied anyway, and really worked hard on my interview preparation.

They gave me a grilling on the day, and I was left undecided whether or not I had a chance at getting the job. It took over a week until the letter arrived, and I was overjoyed to be offered it. It was twice my previous salary, and only two streets away from where I was already working. Susan was very happy for me, and I told her she didn’t need to work after the baby. So she agreed to wait until the child was of school age, and then get a part-time job locally.

When I handed in my notice, the only one who was visibly upset was Nancy. I knew I would have ended up having it off with her, and felt quite relieved to remove myself from temptation.

Even Keith was pleased to hear the news, and said he was looking forward to having a niece or nephew. When I phoned Terry, he made the right noises, but didn’t seem that excited. I suspected that things were not great for him and Maria, and suggested he should think about getting their own place. “I would love that, Danny. But Maria is stcuk like glue to her parents. It’s her mum who is really bringing up little Sophia, and Maria acts more like her older sister than her mum”.

The problems of dealing with a different culture.

It seemed only right I should tell Johnny. Jeannie looked awkward when she answered the door. “He’s upstairs, Danny. Go on up, love”.

Johnny’s bedroom smelled bad, and he looked shabby. But he also seemed pleased to see me, and genuinely happy about my news. “Tell you what, Danny, everyone’s moving on. Sorry about that night at The Anchor, by the way. I was out of order. But I was thinking. What with you married and living in Brockley, Keith tied up with that Maddy and his new job, and Terry under the thumb in west London, how about a boy’s weekend? Just the four of us, the original musketeers?”

Before I could say anything, he carried on.

“My mum’s older sister has a caravan near Eastbourne. Sunnyside Site, not far from Beachy Head. We could go down on a Friday night, come back Sunday afternoon. Take a load of beers, eat fish and chips, and kinda make it our last time all together. What d’you reckon?” I told him I was up for it, if he could arrange it with the other two. That really brightened him up.

“Yeah, leave it to me. It will give me something to do. Spring time might be good. Not too busy down there, and the weather should be okay”.

Even though she would be well-pregnant by then, Susan thought it was a great idea. “You four really need to get together again. Settle all your old differences, and remember what things were like before they all changed. Well done to Johnny, he came up with a good plan. I can even forgive him for being horrible to me that time”.

Sleep didn’t come easy that night. To be honest, I was wondering what we would all talk about for a whole weekend.

Susan surprised me by having a very difficult pregnancy. Her morning sickness was terrible, and long-lasting. She also had some spotting that caused frequent scares, and trips to King’s College hospital. Her back ached constantly, and she sometimes took to her bed for most of the day. She went into work so rarely, her boss had to get a Temp in to cover, and he eventually suggested she leave the job until she was fit enough to come back after the baby was born.

Her mum was useless, offering little sympathy, and no advice. By contrast, my mum was great. She spent most of the week at our house, even doing the cleaning in between caring for Susan. Then again, my mum was obsessed with having a grandchild, and determined to do whatever it took to guarantee a safe delivery.

I had my new job by then. It was much more pressure, as most of our business was telesales, something relatively new then. I had targets to meet, call-to-sale ratios to explain, and I was expected to keep hounding my Motors team to get results. As you might imagine, that made me about as popular as Hitler. But I did it, and it worked. When the whole team got a huge bonus, everyone decided they liked working for me after all.

There were at least four women at work who were seriously showing out to me, but I kept my distance. Life was beginning to get quite complicated, and I didn’t need any distractions at the time.

Johnny finally came up with a date in May. Terry and Keith could make it, so it was up to me to get a Friday off, or at least finish early. As I was flavour of the month at the time, my line manager allowed me the whole day off, as long as I was back in control on the Monday.

That was only going to be a couple of weeks before the baby was due during the first week in June. Possibly earlier than that, given Susan’s constant complications. But when Johnny phoned me, I confirmed. Best get it over and done with, even though I had seriously gone off the idea.

My mum agreed to spend the weekend at our house to look after Susan. By then, I was getting a bit fed up with the drama of it all, and a weekend away might be just the ticket. Okay, I had expected Susan to breeze through the pregnancy, and pop out the baby like she was shelling peas. But it hadn’t worked out like that, so I had to deal with what was happening.

There was no point Terry driving, as he only had a van with three seats in the front. Johnny didn’t have a car, and Keith hadn’t learnt to drive yet. It was down to me, and the elderly Escort Estate. They all came to my house on the Friday. Keith and Johhny by bus, Terry in his van, which he left parked outside. We didn’t get away until after three, which meant we arrived at the caravan around five-thirty.

There was a social club on the site, so we agreed to have a drink there later, and the chicken in a basket that they served up. Johnny had brought a pack of beers, and so had Terry. But Keith kept insisting he wasn’t going to drink, so had turned up with nothing. I had sprung for two boxes of lager, as well as a few family packets of crisps. On the way to Sussex, conversation was strained, to say the least. I kept asking them pointless questions, as I couldn’t stand the silence as I drove along.

The caravan was quite modern, but had one double bedroom and two single beds made up from the cushions in the seating area. We bought some milk, bread, butter, sugar, and tea from the site shop, and were told we would have to book a table in the social club to get food. So we did.

Terry was happy to share the double bed with Johnny, and me and Keith took the two singles.

By the time we were in the club eating chicken and chips, we had run out of things to say. Just as I had feared we would.

So we had too much to drink, to compensate for the silence.

Despite saying he was not going to drink that weekend, Keith had a few whiskies at the social club. They gave him some alcoholic bravado, and also showed the rest of us that his tastes had changed since he started hanging around with Maddy’s family, and various bigwigs in parliament.

On our way back to the caravan, Johnny was walking like a sailor, and Terry kept saying he wanted to go to bed. But more beers were opened, and it wasn’t long before Johnny wanted to pick on someone. He started with Keith.

“You really reckon yerself now, don’t ya. Posh bird with her minted family, and your Tory mates at work. I bet they wouldn’t piss on you if you was on fire, Keith mate. You forgetting where you come from, or what?” Keith chose to ignore him, but Johnny was not to be ignored.

“Next thing we know you’ll be standing for election, joining those Tory bastards that keep us ordinary people down”. He had obviously hit a nerve, as Keith turned bright red. I jumped in and asked Keith if he had joined the party in the hope of becoming selected to be an M.P. in the future. I stared him out until he replied.

“And why not? Why shouldn’t I try to better myself. It may not happen for a few years of course, but I see no reason why someone with my background should not be a member of parliament”. Johnny slapped him round the back of his head. Not that hard, but enough to show he meant it. Then he really launched into him.

“Why not, you ponce? Because. Because yer mum and dad rent a council house. Because yer sister used to work in a jam factory. Because yer supposed to be one of us, not one of them. I’m telling yer, it won’t end well. You fink that bird’s family are interested in you? Nah. They just want to get you into parliament to use you. Make you talk about their business, maybe wangle a few planning changes or government grants for them. You need to open your eyes, you really do”.

Despite his drunkenness, and seriously slurring his words, Johnny was talking some truth there, and Keith got redder and redder as his anger replaced the embarrassment.

Terry suddenly stood up and lurched into the tiny bathroom at the end of the caravan. We could hear him chucking up his chicken and chips, along with more than a few pints of beer. Not long after, he reappeared, white-faced. “I’m gonna go to bed. What a shit idea this was. Danny, can you drop me at a train station in the morning? I’m going home”.

He had no sooner closed the bedroom door when Keith suddenly launched himself at Johnny. Fists flailing and completely silent, he surprised us both, and pummelled Johnny once he was on the floor. I managed to pull him off and had to wrap my arms around him until he calmed down. Johnny sat up slowly. His lip was cut, his nose was bleeding, but he was laughing. “Well, well, well. Keith the swot has finally become a man. Who would ha’ thought it?”.

Standing up to his full height, Johnny spat out a tooth into his hand, and threw it at Keith. Then he delivered a strong kick straight into his crotch. I was still hanging onto Keith, but had to let go as his legs buckled with the pain. When he was on his knees, Johnny stepped back to kick him again. But I ran forward and grabbed Johnny, both of us falling onto the small kitchen worktop next to the sink.

The commotion had brought Terry out of the bedroom, and as I walked back to see how Keith was, I heard him say something behind me.

“What’s going on? Johnny’s not moving”.

We couldn’t rouse him. Terry tried slapping his face like they do in the films, then got some water from the tap on the sink and splashed it on his face. Kneeling down next to Johnny, Terry looked up at me, his skin still pale.

“I don’t think he’s breathing, Danny”

I went over and had a closer look at Johnny. Other than the cut lip and swollen nose, there seemed to be no injuries. But he had fallen hard against the worktop, with his back to it. His head was floppy when I lifted his shoulders, and I could tell Terry was right.

He definitely wasn’t breathing.

Terry was the first one to panic.

“We have to ring for an ambulance. There’s a phone box near the social club. I’ll get dressed and go now”. I was still holding on to Johnny, but Keith walked over and stopped Terry. “What are you going to tell them? That Johnny died in a fight with his mates? That’s still manslaughter you know, even if Johnny started it. Ten years at least, maybe more. And you think they will believe you weren’t invlolved? We were all here, so all responsible in the eyes of the law”.

Keith had dropped his posh accent, and succeeded in making his point. Terry flopped down onto a seat at the side, and put his head in his hands. “What we gonna do then?” Keith had worked out his response incredibly quickly.

“What we aren’t going to do is to panic. Everyone knows Johnny hasn’t been the same since he got out of jail, and his dad had to leave home after that thing with Big Viv. Sitting in his room, not washing, failing to show up for his crappy part-time job. That’s depression, that is, the classic signs. Withdrawn, not seeing his friends, not going out of the house. His mum will back that up, one hundred percent. So he arranges a farewell night with his best friends in the world. Goes out and gets pissed, then when we are all asleep, he walks down to Beachy Head and jumps off a cliff”.

I had to give it to Keith. He thought on his feet, and that was a great plan. Terry was less convinced.

“Nobody’s gonna believe he would top himself, not Johnny. He wouldn’t do anything like that. He started the fight, you two were only defending yourselves. A jury would see that”. Shaking his head, Keith continued to block the door, just in case Terry ran out to the phone box in his underpants. “You want to chance that, Terry? Really? Working-class kid from a dump of a London borough, and you reckon you can get justice in a Crown Court? Think again, old friend.”

It was time for me to speak up, so I told Terry to leave it to us. We would sort it, all he had to do was to stick to the story we would concoct later.

Outnumbered, he finally gave in, and nodded slowly. Keith was already in action. He found the tooth Johnny had thrown at him. and placed it carefully in Johnny’s mouth, under his tongue. Then he got a bottle of bleach from the bathroom, put some on a cloth, and cleaned up the few drops of blood and spit that were dotted around on the floor.

This was a very different Keith to the one I had grown up with. Absolutely cold, and quite heartless.

“Right. Me and Danny are going to take Johnny in the car to Beachy Head car park. At this time of night there shouldn’t be anyone around. Then we will have to carry him to the edge of the cliff, and throw him over. If you call anyone while we are away, I promise we will chuck you over the cliff next, okay?” Terry nodded again, his face glum. Keith carried on. “Then we do nothing until tomorrow morning. About nine should be early enough”.

He was so relaxed, it gave me the chills..

“We go to the site office and ask if they have seen Johnny. Say he must have gone out during the night. He was very drunk, and acting depressed. They won’t have seen him, so the next stage is to ring the police, and report him missing. We don’t contact anyone until after they find his body”.

Cool, calm, and collected. I was sincerely impressed. He was going to make a first-rate member of parliament one day, being able to come up with lies so fast.

He turned to me. “Right, get the car started. Don’t rev it up or anything, we don’t want to wake up any nosy neighbours. I found this crappy torch under the sink, it will have to do”. He held up an ancient rubber-covered Ever Ready, clicking it on so I could see it worked. With one of us holding him up either side, we carried Johnny out to my car and put him in the boot area. I had dropped one of the seat backs so we could lie him flat. Whoever was in the adjacent caravan had the lights out, and was probably asleep. Maybe it wasn’t even occupied. That would be a touch.

Driving slowly so as not to attract attention, I headed the car in the direction of Beachy Head. Keith turned to me just before we got to the deserted car park.

“Sure you’re up for this?”

I nodded.

As expected, the car park was empty at that time of night. Keith put Johnny over his shoulder, like a fireman’s lift, and I held the torch in the almost complete darkness. We had to be careful as we got close to the edge, so Keith put him down a good foot or more away from the drop.

The waves could be heard a long way below, but I had no idea if the tide was in or out. The old torch wasn’t powerful enough to illuminate the view down there, and only just about gave us enough light to see where we were walking.

Keith was ready with his instructions.

“You take his arms, and I’ll get the legs. We need to give him a good swing before we let go, make sure he is clear of the cliff. Put the torch down over there, so we can see what we’re doing. Then I will say one, two, three, and we let him go on three”

With the torch propped up on the grass, it cast an eerie light over the top of Johnny’s head. I held his wrists carefully, watching as Keith grabbed his ankles. When he was sure we both had a firm grip, he muttered “Ready?”

Without waiting for a reply he swung Johnny backwards, and I went with the swing. I heard Keith counting. “One, two”, but before he said three, I glanced down at Johnny’s face.

His eyes were open.

But it was too late. Before I could say anything, Keith said three, and we both let go automatically on the forward swing.

I imagined there would be a noise when Johnny landed at the bottom. But it was a long way down, the sea was loud, and we heard nothing. Both standing by the edge, I decided to tell Keith that Johnny’s eyes had opened before we let go. He just shrugged.

“Too late now. He won’t survive that fall. That’s why so many depressives choose this place to commit suicide. They know they won’t just be injured. Anyway, it was you and Terry who both said he wasn’t breathing. So if he was just unconscious, that’s down to you two. Come on, pick up the torch and let’s get back”.

That short journey back to the caravan site seemed to take forever. I couldn’t get the look on Johnny’s face out of my mind, and me and Keith both agreed that there was no way we were going to mention that to Terry. Keith was still so calm, you would never have imagined what he had juts been a party to. “We don’t want Terry to get any funny ideas. As far as he knows, Johnny died in the caravan. That way, Terry was there, and is implicated. As long as he worries about that, he will keep his stupid mouth shut”.

When we got back, Terry was fully dressed, and had his stuff packed. He didn’t ask us what had happened on Beachy Head, but he seemed intense. “I want you to know that I have to go home as soon as the trains start. If you won’t take me to the station, I’ll get a taxi”. Keith was ruthless. “You will do no such thing. You will stick with us, see it through. You act worried about Johnny, you give the agreed story to the police, and we will get you home as and when it is convenient. Don’t give us any trouble now, Terry”.

Although far from happy, Terry knew it was two against one, and he sat down again.

That meant me and Keith had to go to the shop the next morning. Terry could not be relied upon to stand firm out in public, so we wandered over casually just after nine. Both very tired, we looked suitably shabby and hung-over when we spoke to the site manager. He said he hadn’t seen anyone fitting Johnnny’s description. Then suggested Johnny might have hooked up with a girl, and could be in another caravan. He wasn’t that helpful, and didn’t seem to think it was out of the ordinary.

So Keith went into the phone box and rang the police. At first, they just told him that he had to wait for twenty-four hours to report a missing person. But when Keith mentioned that Johnny had suggested the trip to Beachy Head, and had been acting very low and depressed for months, they said they would send someone to talk to us. They asked us not to leave the site, and they would be there within the hour.

We sat in the caravan in silence, waiting.

A patrol car finally showed up after two hours. There was the classic cop combination, a weary old-timer who had seen it all, and an excited female copper who was probably brand new. The old-timer handed it over to her, as he wandered around the caravan looking completely disinterested.

Keith did most of the talking, even managing to get in a reference to his job with the influential member of parliament. The girl was impressed, the old-timer just grinned. Halfway through taking her notes, the girl’s radio went off, calling her number. She went outside to speak. When she came back in she was white-faced, and spoke directly to her partner.

“A dog walker has found a body on the beach at the bottom of the cliffs. They want us to go to Beachy Head to secure the scene for the helicopter”. Old timer looked at us. “You lads stay right here, we will be back”. I suspected that Johnny was going to be that young woman’s first dead body.

We heard the helicopter fifteen minutes later, but we couldn’t see it. Probably air-sea rescue coming in from the other side.

Feeling really tired, I suggested some breakfast. Terry shook his head, and so did Keith. So I made do with a family packet of crisps that we hadn’t eaten the night before, and Keith made us all a strong cup of tea. It was another two hours before the cops returned, and by then I was almost asleep on my feet. This time, the man did the talking.

“The young man seems to fit your description. They are taking the body to the mortary in Eastbourne. You three will have to come with us and make statements at the police station, and the police in London will contact his parents to come down and make a formal identification. I reckon it is going to be a long day, lads”.

He was right about that. Most of the day went by in a blur, and I was having trouble staying awake. Unlike Keith, who apparently gave a word-perfect version of the depression and possible suicide story, and Terry who said he had drunk too much and only realised Johnny wasn’t there when he woke up. I mumbled something about Johnny being very depressed in London, but I was adamant I had not expected him to commit suicide.

It wouldn’t have done for us all to say the same thing.

Johnny’s dad drove Jeannie down from London. Even though they had split up, the possible death of their son reinstated their bond, albeit temporarily. We didn’t see either of them that day. We heard later that they identified the body as Johnny, both agreed that he had been depressed, then told the cops what great friends we all were. There was going to be a Coroner’s Inquest at some stage, following a mandatory post-mortem.

Old-timer drove us back to the caravan site, had a word with the manager to confirm that we had asked about Johnny, then said we could go home if we wanted to. They might need us back for the Coroner’s Court at some stage, and if so, we would get letters in the post.

Driving home in the car that evening, Keith was talking non-stop. He was saying how we would never be suspected of anything, and we should all go and see Johnny’s mum and dad next week, to offer our condolences. Terry didn’t speak for the whole journey, not even after I dropped Keith off in Central London. Back at my house, Terry wouldn’t even come in and see Susan. He just got in his van and drove off without looking back.

Susan didn’t cry when I told her. She just shook her head. “So sad, love. Johnny has never been the same since he went into prison. I reckon Keith is right. He set up the boy’s weekend like some final farewell. He knew he was going to kill himself, and he must have walked to that cliff intending to jump. He had been to his auntie’s caravan a lot over the years, and knew Beachy Head really well. No wonder he chose that spot for your weekend break.”

She made me something to eat, and sat with me at the table while I was eating. “What do you think, love? I reckon he knew exactly what he was doing, don’t you?”

I told her I thought she was right.

So now there were three musketeers. Only two really, as Terry was a loose cannon.

He didn’t even come to the funeral, though Keith did, and brought Maddy too. He hinted at a possible engagement later that year, and I said they were made for each other.

Not sure he got the irony.

Baby Stephen Kevin Wellman was born by Caesarean Section in King’s College Hospital. He was four days over his due date, and Susan elected for surgery. He had my fair hair and blue eyes, but like most new-born babies, he mainly looked like a cross between a mole rat, and Winston Churchill.

Just as she had taken to being a wife, Susan was a natural mother. Brushing off the pain of the surgery, breast-feeding from the start, and totally in love with her screwed-up face bundle. Giving him Kevin as a second name after my dead brother was a delight for my parents, and as Stephen had been the name of Susan’s paternal grandfather, her parents were also on board.

Keith showed up once Susan came home, and brought inappropriately large toys for a baby. He suggested we go and speak to Jeannie Simpson. She hadn’t let Georgie back into her life, and was living alone in the family home. I said I would go round on my own that Saturday, so he left early to go and pay his respects. Outside, he mentioned about Terry.

“I heard they are moving further west, as his wife wanted a bigger house, and to have more children. I ring his mum occasionally, just to keep tabs on him”. I said nothing, just waved as he left in a taxi. It made me think about Alice though, so I put that from my mind as I went back inside.

My mum was great. She got two buses each way to come round on a couple of days a week and help out with the baby. Susan made a quick recovery, and liked to go out shopping in the car. Mum looking after little Stephen for a few hours made all the difference. And we almost always still went to their house for Sunday dinner. Though her parents never once invited us to their house, Susan kept them updated on the phone, and her mum even got a cab to visit us one time. Her first sight of our house. She only talked about Keith though, and his bride-to-be, Maddy. I didn’t know how Susan kept her temper.

Unfortunately, Susan’s natural aptitude for motherhood put ideas into her head.

“Why don’t we have another one, while Stephen is still young? He could have a lille brother or sister to grow up with, and they wouldn’t be too far apart in age. Of course, we would need a bigger house, and it might be an idea to change the car. But you are doing well at work, and money isn’t a problem”. I thought she was jumping the gun, and made sure to use protection once we started to have sex again.

But I had to agree she was right about a bigger house, and that I was doing well at work. Performance bonuses had increased my salary by thirty percent, and house prices in England had never been higher, especially in London. Small houses like ours were selling for over twice what we had paid for it such a short time ago. People were buying their council houses, including Susan’s mum and dad, but not mine. Houses closer to the centre of London were changing hands at prices that would have seemed incredible just five years earlier.

Eventually, I went round to see Jeannie Simpson. Not on that Saturday as promised to Keith, but some time later. She wrapped herself around me after closing the door, and sobbed uncontrollably. She had held it together at the funeral, but on our own, she broke down. Later, she told me that she had been in touch with Graham a lot, but he hadn’t come to the funeral because of Georgie. Years earlier, Graham had told his dad he liked men, and Georgie had beaten him so badly, he had left home the next morning.

We had a couple of cups of tea, and I sensed that a visit upstairs to the bedroom was inevitable. When she whispered that suggestion in my ear, I took her hand and led her up there. Cuddling me later, she seemed very sensible. “I don’t expect anything, Danny. But any time you get the chance to come and see me, I will be very grateful. I do love our short sessions”.

You had to give it to her. She understood the situation.

We sold our house to the third person who looked at it. No haggling, no hassle, full asking price. We had only viewed one house, and Susan had fallen in love with it. A nineteen- thirties semi on the good side of Honour Oak, close to Dulwich Village. It was close enough that we had to pay a premium, and that extended us on the mortgage.

Then she pestered me to change the car, so I bought a nice clean Volvo Estate, only twelve months old. With Susan not working, my salary was more or less accounted for, so she gave up the idea of another child for the time being.

Moving less than three miles was not much cheaper than moving twenty. But the house was nice. Two large reception rooms, and a small extension at the back to make a bigger kitchen. The three bedrooms would be handy if we had more kids later, and there was an attached garage. It wasn’t big enough for the Volvo, but provided great storage, and an off-road driveway. The garden was a decent size, and gave some scope for little Stephen once he had started playing and walking.

Keith kept in touch, though he didn’t visit for a long time. He had announced his engagement to Maddy, with a wedding to follow the next year, in Maidenhead. I half-expected him to ask me to be the Best Man, but of course he didn’t. He told me that Terry had moved to West Ealing, still running a plumbing business. As Terry was no longer talking to either of us, I had to presume Keith found that out from talking to his parents.

It was a busy time for me. A longer walk to the station, lots going on at work, and Susan consumed with the new house and Stephen. To be fair to her, I never wanted for anything. She still did all the housework, cooked me a nice meal every evening, and seemed to really love me.

For a long time, I was very content.

The wedding in Maidenhead was a posh affair. A local church, followed by a lavish reception at a hotel on the river. Keith’s choice of Best Man turned out to be some upper-class twit that Maddy knew. He gave a shit speech, and only Keith’s parents thought he was funny. As Susan was family, we were on table one, next to the top table, but there were no other guests from Deptford. Terry hadn’t even been invited, as I found out later.

I had declined to stay in a hotel, because we took Stephen. So we left before the last dance, and I drove home.

Things carried on as normal. We settled into our new life close to Dulwich Village, and my mum still came round a lot. I worked hard, determined to get a promotion, and Susan proved to be a wonderful wife and mother. So good in fact, that I never went back to see Jeannie, or anyone else.

Truth be told, I had almost forgotten about Johnny, and the incident near Beachy Head, when the phone rand one evening not long after dinner. Susan was upstairs with baby Stephen when I answered. It was Keith.

“Danny, I have to talk to you about Terry. I recently heard that he is acting strangely. His wife is really worried. It seems that he isn’t working regularly, and has gone into arrears with his bills. Alice tells me that he doesn’t seem to be interested in little Sophia, and his wife is on the phone to her, crying. Seems to me that he isn’t coping well with what happened, if you get my drift. I think we need to get over to Ealing next weekend, and have a serious talk with him. Maybe take him out for a drink, and tell his fortune. Are you with me?”

Of course I was with him, in as much as I knew what he was suggesting. We had to put the frighteners on Terry, in case he cracked up and spilled the beans.

By then, Keith and Maddy were living in a trendy flat in Pimlico. It was close to work for him, and Maddy had some notion of becoming a celebrity photographer. Sounded to me like Keith was paying all the bills for his new wife. But he was right about Terry, we had to have a talk with him. I told Keith I would pick him up on Sunday morning. We would turn up and surprise Terry, take him to a local pub for lunch. Keith chuckled when I told him that.

It wasn’t a good chuckle, and made me feel cold in my stomach.

It dawned on me that Terry didn’t seem surprised to see us when we turned up at his end-of-terrace in West Ealing. He answered the door, didn’t invite us in, and said he would come out with us but we had to wait in the car. Then he directed us to a boring little pub five minutes away, where only bar snacks were available because we hadn’t booked in advance.

Once we had bought a drink and sat waiting for the uninspiring snacks, he spoke up.

“So, you two have come to check on me, I suppose? To find out if I’m going to grass you up, or if I have told anyone? You both seem to be doing alright, and I don’t s’pose you ever think about Johnny. Well I do. I can’t get that night out of my head. I find it hard to sleep, then I’m too tired to work regularly, and if I ain’t careful, I’m gonna lose the house. We are already four months in arrears on the mortgage, and I get my ear bent by my missus morning, noon, and night. Well she don’t know, does she? I ain’t told her what happened. Reckon she would leave me if I did”.

His flow was stopped short by the arrival of three very sad-looking Ploughman’s Lunches, plopped down onto the table by a mature waitress who winked at me as she did so, then flashed me a knowing look as she walked away. I decided I definitely would, but it would have to be another time, if ever. West Ealing was too far from where I lived.

Keith took over.

“Actually, Terry, I have come to offer you something. As you know, I have the ear of a member of parliament, and many of his colleagues in the house. I happen to know that a friend of a friend is looking for a plumbing company to service his portfolio of rental properties in the West London area. Naturally, I have suggested that I know someone. You would have to employ some people, as it is a big contract. But I have every confidence you could cope. It could change your life”.

Not only was I surprised by Keith’s offer, I remained completely surprised by the way he talked by then. Being maried to Maddy had honed his skills at speaking posh, and he sounded completely convincing. Terry didn’t seem remotely excited, but he thought about it for a long time before replying.

“Course, I would love to build up the business. Show my in-laws I’m not a waster, and provide some sort of future for little Sophia. But I don’t trust you, Keith. How do I know it’s not just a way to stitch me up? Get me involved in something that you end up controlling?” Keith managed to look very offended.

“Why the hell would I do that? I have my own career to think about, and it doesn’t include plumbing, believe me. I got Danny to bring me all this way to make you a genuine offer that even includes a few grand up front, so you can get another van and more stock. But if you think I’m not to be trusted, then forget it”.

Terry looked at me. “What about you, Danny. You think it’s a good idea?” I told him I had no opinion. He was the businessman, and could work things out with Keith. He knew about plumbing, and a contract servicing rented places seemed like a good regular income to me. I didn’t say it was the first I had heard of it. Terry got up to get three more beers. None of us had so much as touched the unappetising cheese and bread.

The waitress reappeared, nodding at the untouched food. “Anything wrong, lads?” I told her that there was nothing wrong with her, only the food. Her smile went up to her ears. Well, I couldn’t resist it, especially as I might never see her again.

Whe Terry got back with the drinks, he had made a decision. “Okay, let’s say I go for it. How soon does this all happen? Keith produced an envelope from his inside pocket, and slid it across the table. “This is enough for another van, and more spare parts. Once you have taken on a second plumber, I will get the company to send you the contract and the jobs by post”. Terry took the envelope, and seemed pleased.

As for me, I knew it wasn’t Kosher.

The next years pased peacefully. Little Stephen coped well at school, and Susan was happy to go back to work part time, working in the office of the same primary school. It was her ideal job, and during the times she had to work during the school holidays, my mum came over to watch him. I got the promotion at work, and we moved offices to a new development close to the construction of Canary Wharf. A longer journey for me, but twice the salary.

Enough to buy a second car, even though we only needed two cars occasionally. I left Susan using the Volvo, and treated myself to a Golf GTI. They were all the rage then, real boy racer cars. Susan didn’t like to go in it when I was driving. “You drive too fast, love. Slow down”.

John Major won the election that year, and I had my thirty-second birthday. Susan was already thirty-seven, and had never again spoken about a second child. We didn’t need to move, as we had already installed a modern kitchen, and there was plenty of space for the three of us. Life was good, we had plenty of money, and even took two holidays a year.

But I still had Keith to consider.

He had made good with his dodgy contract to Terry. The last I had heard, Terry employed five staff and ran four plumber’s vans. Keith had stood for the Conservatives in the election, but they had put him up in a safe Labour seat that he wasn’t expected to win. Meanwhile, he had got elected to Westminster Council, and was making a name for himself. Next election, they would find him a safe seat for sure. I couldn’t get the problem with Terry out of my mind. I didn’t trust Keith not to eventually ruin him, or worse, kill him in some way.

It would probably look like an accident. Or maybe a burglary gone wrong. Suicide wasn’t an option, because that was too close to how Johnny was supposed to have died. The deeper Keith became involved in politics, the more I became convinced that he wouldn’t risk Terry buckling in the future, and causing some fuss about Johnny. If he did that, Keith would undoubtedly silence him.

And I was not going to let that happen.

Not that we saw much of him. Susan kept in touch by phone, and we all had one of those new mobiles that were all the rage. Him and Maddy hadn’t had kids, and her photography business hadn’t worked out. She was now working as a party arranger. When I asked Susan what all that was about, she told me Maddy got paid for arranging functions for companies and rich people. I remarked that it was a good way to earn a living, basically going to parties.

My dad had to go into hospital late in the year. Mum made light of it, but they put something into his heart to improve his breathing. She didn’t say what, but I thought it must be a new valve. We went to visit him before he was discharged, and he was as upbeat as ever. He wasn’t one to complain. After that, he couldn’t work for a long time, so I slipped mum a few quid on the side to help them out.

Keith rang one evening. He suggested a night out with Terry closer to Christmas. “Let’s get together again, the old musketeers. What do you say, Danny? We could get Terry up to the West End one night, I can get into some pretty exclusive clubs you know.” I didn’t like the sound of it, so put him off by saying I was too busy at work. He didn’t give up. “Let’s make if for the new year then. We are all getting older now, and all three of us are doing okay. High time we rekindled that friendship, Danny mate”.

Far too jolly for my liking.

Leaving it that we would be in touch at some time over the Christmas period, I said goodbye. Susan asked me what her brother had wanted, so I told her. She shook her head. “It’s up to you of course, but I can never forget what happened the last time you all met up. I hear Johnny’s mum is not doing well. She gave up the house and moved into a one-bed flat in Kidbrooke. The last I heard she was drinking too much, and Georgie had washed his hands of her. He told my dad she had all kinds of men in there, and he thought she was doing more than boozing, if you get my meaning”.

I got her meaning. Jeannie was using sex, drink, and drugs to ease her grief. And at her age, that wasn’t good. But where was Graham? he should have been helping his mum.

So I decided to try and contact him.

When I finally got a phone number for Graham that he actually answered, he told me he knew that his mum was on a downward spiral. He had travelled up from Brighton to see her in her small flat, and she had been more or less out of it. He even offered to take her to live with him and his friend on the south coast, but she had pushed him out of the flat, and told him to leave her alone. He thanked me for thinking of her, but was adamant at the end of the call.

“She has to get herself straight, or she can’t be helped, Danny. She has never recovered from Johnny’s suicide, and my dad is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. He went to see her once, and found her in bed with two men. Since then, he has washed his hands of her”.

The new year came and went without me contacting Keith. He didn’t try again, as he had other fish to fry. A long-serving member of parliament in a very safe Conservative constituency had died, and they had put Keith up for the by-election. Not only did he win, he increased the majority. He was portrayed in the media as a young, go-ahead politician with a right-wing agenda. If he made a name for himself, who knew how far he could go?

But the opposition had a new leader, Tony Blair. In the run-up to the next election, he increased the popularity of his party by adopting a middle-of the road, moderate stance. By then we had the computer age of course, and the world-wide web. The world was changing, and my job changed with it. They sent me on courses, started an online option to do away with the paperwork, and my company became the leader in the field of insurance. I had bonuses, share options, and enough money to trade up from the Golf to an Audi. I even got Susan the new model of the Volvo estate.

By the time Blair won the next election, we were considering moving from our house to a better one actually in Dulwich Village, near the park. Although his party lost, Keith retained his safe seat, and got a job as an opposition minister on the front benches. He and Maddy moved from the Pimlico flat to a house in Notting Hill, which was super-trendy at the time. They invited us to a house-warming party. I didn’t want to go, but he was Susan’s brother, so she couldn’t say no. My mum took Stephen for the day, and as always was delighted to have him.

He was soon to start in his first year of Secondary School, and showing great potential. Enough to be considered for a scholarship place at Dulwich College.

The party was one of those wandering-around eating canapes kind of occasions, and Maddy had of course arranged it. There were waiters and waitresses walking around with tray of drinks and nibbles, and most of the other guests seemed to be chinless wonders. Public-School posh boys born with silver spoons in their mouths. I tried to avoid them, after the first few “And what do you do?” questions.

Keith cornered me at the end of the courtyard garden, not long after it had got dark.

“So, mate. What are we going to do about Terry? He is drinking, gambling, and not keeping up his end of things with the plumbing contract. Two of his staff have already left, and I am geting earache from the contact who gave him the job. You would think after all this time he could forget what happened near Beachy Head. But it seems he is determined to self-destruct. He will take us down with him, mark my words”.

When Keith called me ‘mate’, it sounded wrong now. Too much water under too many bridges for him to use that word, even though I was married to his older sister. His parents were there too, but all they could do for me was to manage a cursory nod to acknowledge my existence.

It had been a nightmare trying to park near the new house. Everywhere was ‘Resident Only’ parking, and we had walked over fifteen minutes after finding a space. I wasn’t in the best of moods when I replied. I told him to leave Terry alone. If he made a mess of things, then cancel the contract, and let our musketeer sink or swim on his own. Keith looked a good ten years older than he was, when he put his hand on my shoulder and whispered out of earshot of the other guests.

“No can do, I’m afraid. I simply cannot allow that fool to ruin my life”.

After the conversation with Keith at his new house, I was getting very worried about Terry. There were so many ways that Keith could affect his life, I started to imagine what he might do. Perhaps invent some corruption around the plumbing contract, or maybe grass him up to the income tax people. I didn’t expect that Terry’s tax situation was in very good order. But what would be achieved by ruining him?

If Terry had no future left, he was far more likely to break down and tell someone what had happened to Johnny on that fateful night in the caravan.

Then life got in the way of my worries. A boom time for me at work, the swish house close to Dulwich Park had become a reality, and Stephen was doing so well at Dulwich College, he seemed to have a great future ahead of him. Susan became rather snobbish following the house move, but remained a great wife to me, a wonderful mum to Stephen, and a real home-maker. We had dragged ourselves up from the back streets of Deptford, and were now decidedly upper-middle-class in one of the best districts south of the Thames.

Terry slipped my mind for a while, and Keith was still being touted as a potential leader of the Conservatives. We had less and less to do with him and Maddy. Though we had elevated our social status, my brother-in-law’s right wing views didn’t sit well with either of us. He seemed determined to push his party further to the extremes of its policies, and loved to appear on political talk shows causing controversy with his openly racist and classist comments.

In the middle of all that, we got a double shock in the same week. My mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was facing drastic surgery to attempt to cure her. On the Friday of that same week, my dad dropped dead of a heart attack just after eating his breakfast. For a long time, Terry was the last thing on my mind.

The new house had four big bedrooms, so Susan suggested moving my mum in with us. Mum didn’t want to give up the Deptford house, but agreed to stay with us to recuperate from her surgery. Susan was marvellous. Driving mum back and forth for radiotherapy, and sitting up at night with her when she was sick from the Chemo. When mum’s hair fell out, Susan bought her an expensive wig from a place in the West End, and helped her style it.

I was feeling very grown up and responsible by then, and the old days of The Four Musketeers were becoming a distant memory.

Then following a speaking engagement at Oxford University, Keith was attacked by a group of left-wing agitators. He ended up in hospital and made a publicity event out of it. I was left wondering if he hadn’t engineered the whole thing, as nobody was ever arrested for the assault on him. When I mentioned that to Susan, she said she had thought exactly the same thing.

Mum went into remission, and insisted on returning to her old house. Susan helped where she could, but mum was stubborn, and sure she could cope. The doctors said that if she remained cancer-free for five years, they would consider her cured. So she became fixated on making those five years, and the first year went by without incident.

Another promotion followed for me, and that meant I had to move to a new call centre that I was to manage. It was outside Central London, close to Croydon, so I was now commuting by car. And that car was now a company car, a Mercedes. Susan loved to travel in that silver Merc, feeling like we had really arrived. With the new job came longer hours, and much more pay. We talked about moving to a bigger house, but I was reluctant to do that. The house we had was certainly big enough, and the area was such a great place to live.

So we stayed in Dulwich Village.

One thing we did splash out on was a new television, a top-of-the-range Sony. The day it was delivered, I was expected to set it up when I got home from work. Susan hated to mess around with anything technical. By the time I had it tuned in, she was in the kitchen preparing dinner, and I waited until we had eaten to sit and watch something. I chose the nine o’clock news.

Halfway down the day’s news, there was a report from Harlesden. There had been a gas explosion at a house undergoing renovation. The house had been more or less demolished by the blast, and two men had been killed. It was believed that they were plumbers installing a new central heating system, but their names were not given. As the camera panned around the scene away from the news reporter, I caught my breath.

The van parked in the street outside was Terry’s.

As soon as I saw the news report, I immediately knew that Keith had been involved somehow. I said as much to Susan, but she didn’t agree. “Danny, he is not the nicest person, but I don’t think he would ever do anything like that. You are taking things too far now”.

Of course, Susan had no idea what had happened at Beachy Head that night, and she was not going to want to think that her brother could kill someone, even if he only arranged it.

That now left me as the only person who could ever implicate Keith. Not that I had any intention of doing so, as I would also be an accessory. Keith should have known that, but I was sure he didn’t trust me. I resolved to meet him somewhere, and talk it through.

We were not invited to the funeral, but it was reported on the news that the Health and Safety Executive had investigated the incident, and concluded that it had been carelessness on the part of the plumbers, as a blow-torch had been found close to an unsecured gas pipe. I didn’t believe it was negligence for a second. No plumber would be using a blow-torch in such a situation, or leave a disconnected gas pipe uncapped.

It took some months before I could get a private meeting with Keith. I had to go and see him at his constituency office, on a Friday evening. He was cagey. “So to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, old musketeer?” I didn’t mince my words, and told him that I was sure he had arranged the explosion that had killed Terry and one of his employees. He could have blustered, could have acted outraged at my suggestion. But he didn’t.

He just smiled.

“You should know that I was almost one hundred miles away at the time, attending a meeting in Peterborough for the selection of a new candidate. Besides, how could I have possibly caused a gas explosion without endangering myself? And not forgetting that I know absolutley nothing about plumbing, central heating, or gas pipes. You must be delusional, Danny, you really must”. From the expression on his face, I knew I was right. He had arranged it somehow.

I made it clear to him that I didn’t believe him, and thought that what he had done was completely outrageous and unacceptable. But he had a cast-iron alibi, with many witnesses, and he probably hadn’t been within miles of Harlesden in his entire life. Knowing was one thing, proving it was another. There were people waiting to see him, so I was more or less dismissed.

“If there is nothing else, I am very busy. You and Susan should come for dinner one night. Bring young Stephen, I understand he is doing well at school? Maddy would love to see you, I’m sure. Meanwhile, try to rein in your paranoia. It won’t help our relationship, and it is far too late to do anything to help Terry now”.

Naturally, I didn’t tell Susan about the meeting, and certainly didn’t mention his dinner invitation. I decided that even if he was my brother-in-law, the less we saw of him the better.

Events took my mind off Keith. After less than two years in remission, my mum was diagnosed with secondary tumours. This time they were in her vital organs, and her prognosis was bad. So bad in fact, that she didn’t see the summer. I didn’t invite Keith and Maddy to the funeral, though Susan’s parents attended to pay their respects. I doubted Keith would come anyway, as he was still very busy trying to become the leader of the Conservatives. He sent a card with a printed message. No doubt one of his admin assistants sorted that out for him.

Stephen was now playing in various sports teams for Dulwich College. Susan drove him to training, and to matches when no transport had been arranged. One Saturday morning, she asked me for my car keys, as she was taking him to Crystal Palace Sports centre, and my car was behind hers. “I might as well take the Merc, if you are going to be at home”. I nodded, and handed her the keys. She was on the insurance for my company car, something I had arranged and paid for.

They left just after nine that morning, and I did some admin work on my laptop while they were out. When the house phone rang at just after midday, I was surprised to hear a serious voice at the other end. “Mister Wellman? This is Sergeant Jones from the traffic division. I am sorry to tell you that your wife has been involved in a serious accident, and is currently at the Mayday Hospital. They are just being checked over, but I think you will need to go and collect her and your son.”

I found her keys for the Volvo, and drove to the hospital. I had an inkling it was bad.

Susan and Stephen were very shaken up, but the car had saved them from any injury. A nice piece of solid engineering. It had been taken away for examination by the police, and Susan had been cautioned that she might be charged with causing death by dangerous driving.

After leaving the sports centre, she had driven down the hill, seen a red traffic light ahead, and braked. But according to her, the brakes had failed completely, and she had struck a motorcyclist sitting at the red light. The car had run over him, and he had died from his injuries. I was allowed to take them home, as the police had said they would notify her if a prosecution was to go ahead.

As I drove them home slowly in the Volvo, I knew for sure that Keith had been involved. After all, it was my car, not hers, and he would have been expecting me to drive it. How they managed to tamper with the brakes when the car was parked outside the house, I would never know. But they surely had, and not set off the car alarm in the process.

Keith had gone too far now. My wife and son might have been killed, and at the very least she now had the death of an innocent person on her conscience. Stephen sat in the back, and was very quiet. I was wondering how much being in this accident might affect him in the future.

After making various phone calls, I managed to get a replacement car delivered by the firm my company used. Almost identical, but black instead of silver. The next morning, I said I had some things to do, and drove straight to Keith’s house in Notting Hill. I didn’t want to phone him first, and was hoping to catch him unawares. But he wasn’t home. Maddy was surpised to see me, so I told her about the accident involving Susan and Stephen.

She looked suitably shocked, enough to convince me that she had no part in whatever Keith got up to. When I got home, Susan’s parents were there, as she had let them know. Her dad made some stupid comments about foreign cars, and once he realised that there was going to be no dinner cooked, he left with his wife.

Later that night, Keith phoned and spoke to Susan. He didn’t mention my visit to his house, telling her the lie that his parents had told him what had happened. He was out of London, campaigning in a by-election in the West Country. He told her he would visit when he got back.

Another alibi, and more witnesses.

He never did come and see her. Some time later, the police called to say that Susan would not face any charges. She had been driving at the speed limit, and an engineer’s inspection had discovered a badly-corroded brake pipe that had allowed all the fluid to leak from the braking system. That seemed unlikely in such a new car, but the blame was laid at the door of Mercedes, and the company insurance dealt with the claim from the family of the man who had been killed. I kept the black car, and we never saw the silver one again.

No longer feeling confident to drive, Susan started to use taxis to run Stephen around. There seemed to be little point in keeping the Volvo, so I sold it back to the main dealer where we had bought it. Things changed after that accident. Stephen became withdrawn, and did not progress so well at school the following term. Susan was scared of being in a car, and seemed to blame me because it had been my car she was using. I saw no point in telling her my suspicions that Keith was trying to kill me. That would have involved having to tell her the full story about what had happened to Johnny.

What really annoyed me was that I had the most to lose if the Johnny story had come out. I had been the one who had grabbed him and struck him against the kitchen in the caravan. I had been the one who had seen his eyes open and had still thrown him over the cliff. Yet Keith seemed intent on removing any witness to the event.

First Terry, then me.

It wasn’t as if I could just go out and kill Keith. I would surely be found out, and I didn’t have his network of contacts provided by his high-powered political situation.

I would have to think of something, as I was sure he would try again.

There were times when I started to question my own sanity. After all, Keith had solid alibis for both of the incidents that I had attributed to him, and would he really have the clout to get some kind of black-ops organisation to carry out such things on his behalf? Had my paranoia clouded my judgement? Overruled my common sense? But I couldn’t shake the feeling. I was unable to get the look on his face out of my mind when I met him. And I couldn’t forget the tone of his voice that evening he spoke to me at his housewarming party.

If I was on the right track, his plan to kill me in the car had backfired, and that could only mean one thing. He would try again.

But I had other fish to fry. A shaken-up wife and a withdrawn son, both exhibiting major changes in their personalities. The best I could come up with was a holiday. Somewhere exotic, and warm and sunny. A carefree trip with no mention of what had happened in Crystal Palace, and definitely no talking about Keith. Susan was unimpressed.

“It’s up to you. I’m not bothered, but if you want to go away, then you pick somewhere. The ladies in the village often talk about The Maldives, that seems to be a real destination these days”. So I did my research, and booked a two-week holiday to The Maldives. An idyllic hotel that offered luxury cabins on stilts actually in the ocean, with five-star service. There was snorkelling, boat trips, and an international menu of fine food. It cost an arm and a leg for the three of us, but off we went.

It was all it promised, but as far as Susan and Stephen were concerned, we might just as well have spent two weeks in a caravan in Clacton. She sat reading all day, and went to bed not long after dinner. Stephen wasn’t interested in my plans for snorkelling or any water activities, complained about the exotic food on offer, and spent most days griping about the poor wi-fi signal for his laptop. All in all, it was an expensive flop, and I was actually looking forward to the flight home.

We checked in for the flight back to Heathrow, and Susan had her book ready to read on the long flight. As we taxied into position for take off, there was a huge bang that made everyone on the aircraft gasp. Moments later, there was a broadcast on the intercom to inform us that there had been a problem with one of the main engines, and we were returning to the terminal to await a replacement aircraft.

As we sat inside waiting for the second flight, I couldn’t stop myself thinking. Keith had known we were going. Susan had told him on the phone, and her parents knew too. Could Keith’s reach extend this far? Was it at all possible that he had hoped to crash our plane after we had taken off, but something had happened too early?

By the time we arrived back in London, I had managed to convince myself that was fact.

Before I went back to work, I sat in the spare room I used as a study, and wrote down everything that had happened, right back to the start when we were kids. I was in there so long that Susan came in and asked me what I was doing. I gave her a lame story about writing a report on how to completely revolutionise the call-centre system for insurance companies. She stood in the doorway and smiled. “Well I hope they give you another promotion once they read it. Dinner’s ready in ten minutes”.

On the Monday, I left work early. In my pocket was a memory stick with the whole story written on it. If anything happened to me, Keith’s ambitions would come to nothing. There might be no proof of anything, but mud sticks, and sticky mud destroys political careers. I had an appointment with the solicitor who had arranged our house sale. I told him I wanted to make a will, ensuring security for Susan and Stephen if anything unusual should happen to me.

He wrote it up just as I asked. Susan would get everything. The house, life insurance, savings, all personal possessions. When I died, she would be set for life, and she could pass it all down to Stephen eventually.

Once everything was prepared and printed off, I signed on various dotted lines, witnessed by a member of staff and the solicitor, neither of whom were beneficiaries. Before I left, I handed over the memory stick, telling him that it should be stored securely with the will, and in the event of my untimely death it should be emailed to every major national newspaper and television station. Unknown to him, this also included everything right up to that meeting.

So if you are reading this now, you will know that my suspicions were correct.

The End.

Four Lives: The Complete Story

This is all 30 episodes of my recent serial in one complete story. It is a long read, at 24,536 words.


It was pouring all the way home, and the walk from the bus stop had soaked her feet. All she could think about was getting in, and putting on some cosy pyjamas. There was half a bottle of Chablis left in the fridge, and the Brie would have to do for dinner, with some of those nice sesame seed crackers.

Leaving a wet footprint on the pile of post behind the door she flipped off her shoes without bothering to bend, and took her wet tights off before she had even removed her coat. Her umbrella went into the bath to dry off, and she had the wine open less than three minutes after closing the door.

Once she was in the panda pyjamas and fluffy socks, Marian stretched out on the sofa and thumbed through the post as she sipped her wine. Credit card bill, phone bill, and a reminder to book a cervical smear test. She kept forgetting to go online and arrange paperless bills, and as for the smear test, that would have to wait. Work was much too busy, and the clinic didn’t do tests at weekends.

Feeling the dent in her finger where her wedding and engagement rings had sat for so long, she wondered for a second what Steve was doing at that moment.

Just for that second though. No point dwelling too long on the past.

The wine was going down too easily, and she knew that it was time to put another bottle in the fridge for later. It always had to be as cold as possible, for her to enjoy it. The cheese and crackers could wait though, as she wasn’t very hungry yet. The chicken pesto panini she had for lunch was repeating on her, but she knew that would calm down soon. The bottle of Chablis in the wine rack was her last one, so she stuck a post-it note on the fridge to remind her to buy more.

Forget switching on the TV, she had been looking at screens all day. But one screen was calling, and that was on her mobile phone.

No matches on the dating app, and nothing much going on with Facebook, except everyone complaining about the rain in London that evening. Just as well she didn’t take the tube, as some stations were closed because of flooding. She put the phone on charge, and rested her head back against the far too expensive cushion that had tempted her. It wasn’t even seven, and she was contemplating a very early night.

Her legs needed shaving, but she knew that was never going to happen tonight. She would wear her pinstripe trouser suit tomorrow, and nobody would be any the wiser about leg hair.

Music might help, and she had the new Ed Sheeran CD in the machine. Pressing play, she drifted away to his voice. Steve had never liked him, not even at the beginning of his fame when everyone thought he was great. He stuck to his shitty rock stuff, and she would watch TV in the bedroom when he played AC/DC and Def Leppard.

Sometimes, Marian wondered how they had ever got together. They didn’t like any of the same things, whether music, films, TV, or even food. He hated foreign food, and she detested fish and chips, his favourite. But when you had been school sweethearts people expected you to get engaged, then marry eventually.

Marian had gone along with it. Dad walked her down the aisle, and they had the full deal. A white Rolls-Royce, the huge reception at a nice hotel, and a honeymoon in Las Vegas so Steve could play on the machines while she sat bored watching him. By the time they got back from America, she knew it had all been a terrible mistake. But she stuck with it for the sake of both families, and because she felt she owed it to her dad after he had spent most of his redundancy money on the wedding.

And because you did all that, when you were a woman. You just did.

Perhaps it was the third glass of wine from the second bottle, or because she hadn’t eaten anything since lunch, but she was out cold on the sofa when the door buzzer sounded.It took her a while to come round, and her head was fuzzy. One good thing about her rented flat, it had a camera on the entryphone.

She could make out her younger sister, Ros. She wasn’t dressed for the rain and was soaked to the skin. If she had come from home, it would have taken her the best part of two hours. She was looking into the camera, her eyes swollen, hair lank from the rain, and a huge bruise visible on her cheek. Her loud voice on the intercom made Marian jump.

“Let me in, Mal. For christ’s sake, please let me in!”


Being the youngest of three used to mean you got spoiled, at one time. But Ros had a lot to live up to. An older brother who was a military hero, killed in Afghanistan. His photos were everywhere around the house, and she could hardly remember what he was like.

Then there was the older sister. Not that much older, but enough to have done so well at university when she was still struggling with poor results in her ‘O’-levels. Her parents were proud of their dead son, equally proud of their academic daughter, but not so proud of the one who couldn’t concentrate at school, and wanted to spend time around boys when she was too young.

So they came down hard on her, making her take a weekend job, and stopping her coming home late after school. By the time she turned seventeen, she had started to feel old before her time. However, she had to admit that working in the shoe shop at the shopping mall in Watford had turned out okay. She seemed to have a flair for convincing people to buy shoes, and even the full-time older staff liked her being around.

Exam results were worse than expected, even by her standards. It wasn’t that she didn’t get a pass grade in any of them, just that the grades were the lowest acceptable for a pass. Most of the teachers didn’t even try to encourage her to stay on at school, so when the shoe shop offered her a full-time position, she decided to leave school that summer, and start the job in September.

Hoping to make the post of the summer break, she soon discovered mum and dad were not going to let that happen. They were so pissed off that she wasn’t going to university, they said she might as well start her job straight away.

Ros walked out of school on that Friday, and was working full-time the following Monday.

At least Marian didn’t judge her, and she didn’t seem to resent that she was better-looking, either. Besides, she was doing so well in her finance job at the insurance company, putting her Maths degree to good use. But as Ros started her new job, Marian moved out of the family home, leaving her alone to face the moans of her parents. Then there was talk of her marrying Steve, the strange guy she had been with since she was fifteen. Ros understood. When you looked like someone had hit you with the ugly stick, you took the first solid offer.

Over the next few years, Ros drifted further away from her parents, and hardly spoke at home. Then when the company asked her if she wanted to take over as manager of the shop at Hatfield Galleria, she jumped at the chance. That would mean moving away, but rents near Hatfield were just about affordable, and she relished the prospect of living alone.

At the age of twenty-three, and with no current boyfriend, she signed an agreement to rent a smart one-bed furnished, pleased that the bus stop she needed for work was right outside on the street. Mum and dad helped her move, seemingly keen to get rid of her.

They sneered at the flat of course. Dad said it was “On a busy road”. Mum sniffed at the sight of a mixed-race neighbour and said, “I don’t like the look of the others living here”.

The freedom was wonderful though, and the icing on the cake was that she took to her managerial role like a duck to water, her young team of staff all warming to her immediately. Meanwhile, things were not going so good for Marian, who always looked depressed and fed up whenever they met. “Steve doesn’t want kids, apparently. First I knew about that. And I will be thirty soon. Might just as well try for the promotion in my job, if I’m never going to be a mother”.

She always saw the same guy on the bus on her way to work. Ros knew he was a security guard by his uniform, and he was already on the bus when it got to her stop. He used to chat her up, get flirty with her. Tell her she looked sexy, and he liked her hair. The first time he asked her for a date, Ros checked his ring finger. No wedding ring, but he seemed to be a lot older, maybe forty. She said no thanks, but that didn’t put him off.

Being honest with herself, she did find him attractive, but the age diference worried her. Then one day when she was shopping in town, someone called out to her as she left a supermarket. It was Lee, the bus guy. “Want a lift?” He was standing next to a big car, electric blue in colour. Ros smiled back. “Okay”.

On the way back to her flat, he asked her out again. She was cagey. “You married, Lee?” He grinned. “Was once, not now”. As she got out of the car, she said yes to the date.

It was okay, as dates go. A nice burger place, followed by drinks in the pub. But Ros didn’t feel a spark, and when he tried to kiss her in the car, she ducked away. “Thanks, Lee. I had a nice time, but I don’t think I want to take it any further, or see you again”. He had mumbled “Your loss”, then driven off as she closed the door. And she hadn’t seen him again.

Not until last night.


Heading for the pub on the corner after leaving the Crown Court, Lyndsey had a large gin and tonic in her sights. Yet again, the witness statement had been withdrawn at the last minute, and the victim had refused to give evidence. She wondered what the point was any longer. All those years of training to become a barrister, and half the cases she specialised in never got to court in the first place. Even when they did, the accused either got the benefit of the doubt, or the victim failed to show up.

Small wonder that the police were so cynical.

The defence barrister had shrugged, then smiled. To make her feel better, he had offered to buy her a drink, but she had shaken her head. She couldn’t stand the oily bastard, and she had put her head in her hands when she heard he was defending.

After ordering her drink and a ploughman’s lunch at the bar, she sat alone at a table at the back. The others at chambers would no doubt make the right noises when she saw them, but she knew they all pretty much regarded her to be a failure. If the partners kept her on next year, it would be a miracle.

Tom Alfriston had never been that happy about her taking on so many domestic abuse prosecutions in the first place. He liked his team to defend. Then you could string out the cases by questioning witnesses’ authenticity, and the quality of evidence. More days in court, more extra money on the brief.

Tom couldn’t care less whether or not they had actually committed the crime.

After eating the tired-looking ploughman’s, she had another large gin to finish off the tonic and decided not to bother to go back into the city that afternoon. Better to go home and look through the papers on the case she was prosecuting next week. Crown v Fowler, in St Albans.

Denise Fowler had been badly beaten by her husband, Lee. And not for the first time. As it had been outside a pub in Hatfield, there were some witnesses. And Denise must have finally had enough, as she had made a statement and agreed to give evidence. Ex-soldier Lee Fowler had been dishonourably discharged from the army after beating up a prostitute in Germany. He served time for that in Military Prison before being thrown out of his regiment. Returning to Hatfield, he had taken up with his former girlfriend Denise, and found work as a security guard. They married the following year, when she was pregnant with their daughter, Daisy.

After that, he had come to notice on many occasions. A driving ban for drink-drive, emergency calls to the house after Denise had been punched and kicked. But it was always the same outcome. She either refused to make a statement, or retracted one before the case proceeded. This time, he had put her in hospital for three days, as she had to have her broken jaw wired. The Magistrate’s Court had sent him for trial because they considered he needed a custodial sentence. He had gone back to live with his mother, and been told not to approach his wife, or any of the witnesses.

Lyndsey already had a sinking feeling. The defence would undoubtedly try for PTSD, considering his service in Afghanistan. But that could only be in mitigation, as four witnesses to the attack on his wife would make the assault irrefutable. It all depended on Denise holding firm, and actually showing up. During the meeting with her at the solicitor’s Lyndsey had been hard on her. Anyone who had retracted five previous accusations could not be relied upon. And she had been worried about Lee’s family. He had three brothers who had something of a reputation in the town. If they got to work on the witnesses from the local pub, it could all fall apart.

And just as she feared, that was more or less what happened. The CCTV of the pub car park showing the attack failed to adequately cover the corner where the incident took place, and the two main witnesses who had previously been certain that they saw him punching her had now decided that she may have fallen against a concrete post, and Lee was probably trying to help her up and calm her down. The worn-out looking casualty doctor who treated her said she told him she had been punched by her husband, but the judge threw that out.

Admittedly, Denise stood up well though. Until the defence questioned her morals by suggesting a sexual affair that had never happened, and asked her about money she spent on scratchcards instead of buying adequate food for the family. Lee was portrayed as a caring father who had contacted social services with worries over her treatment of Daisy, and she had to admit he had done that. Then it all went downhill when she admitted that she had left Daisy with a casual friend so she could go out drinking with Lee. When pressed, she admitted to being very drunk that evening, but she was adamant that she had been punched, not fallen over.

A majority verdict of ten to two had got the bastard off. Not guilty.



There was a time when Amanda liked to be called Mandy.
A time when she used to enjoy going out with friends for drinks, or a meal.
A time when she liked the company of men, and having a regular boyfriend.
A time when she had a great job, and actually enjoyed going to work.

But not any longer. Not since Lee.

He had seemed so nice at first.
Older by a few years, but not too old.
Confident without being cocky.
Good looking without being vain.
Tough and manly without too many muscles or tattoos.

That sort of man rarely looked twice at her, let alone ask her out.

Okay, so he didn’t have a car. Some issue with his licence after leaving the army, so he said. But she had her car, and was happy to drive them around. His job sounded mysterious too. Security Consultant. Being ex-army that probably meant he worked for the Secret Service or something. He didn’t take her to any grand or fancy places, saying he had to be careful where he was seen. But country pubs were nice enough, and he always paid for both of them. So when he suggested an overnight stay in a rural location, she booked the small hotel, and paid for the room in advance.

Her treat.

She couldn’t tell anyone she was seeing him, as he had warned her not to. Her friends started to call him ‘Mandy’s Mystery Man’, and that added to the sense of fun. No photos or selfies either, confirming her excited suspicions that he was doing some cloak and dagger work.

After the weekend away, she knew she was in love with him. He had been a wonderful lover, and attentive and caring all the time. The difference between him and the last man in her life, Richard, was incredible. After work on the Monday, she bought him an expensive watch as a gift. But when she gave it to him that Friday evening, he just closed the box, kissed her, and said he couldn’t wear it at the moment.

On the way back to her flat after drinks, she had become niggled about that, and started to ask him why. As they got out of the car in the underground garage, he suddenly turned and pushed her violently, shouting as he did so. “Stop going on about the shitty watch!”. She fell hard enough to graze her elbow, and tears filled her eyes at the shock of the sudden change in him.

There were apologies of course, but she wasn’t convinced. “You can come in and phone a taxi, but I don’t want you to stay over tonight”. He had sat quietly waiting for the taxi, and left without incident. Flowers were delivered in the post for her, and a card with butterflies on it contained one word. “Sorry”. When he rang her for the tenth time, she answered. He explained about the stress of his job, the danger, constantly feeling on edge. He was sorry he had taken it out on her, but it would never happen again. He sounded sincere, so she accepted his offer of a meal the following night.

Mandy met him outisde the pub, and was upset to find him already drunk at seven in the evening, slurring his words. Alarm bells went off in her head. “Sorry, but I am going to go home. Contact me when you are sober, and I will decide if I am going to see you again”. She headed back to her car parked in a side street, confused and angry. As she got into the driver’s seat, a rough hand grabbed her. She looked up and saw Lee, a horrible smirk on his face. Then he pulled her into the gap of the open door and slammed it against her head.

Three times.

When the dizziness went away, she wiped her eyes and nose on a tissue then drove straight to the police station. They took a statement, and arranged for a police doctor to come to see her there. Photographs of her head were taken, and dressings put on the two cuts caused by the edge of the door. Then two policewomen drove her home, telling her to leave her car where it was and collect it when she felt better. They said they were going to arrest Lee at his house that night, and charge him with assault. She would be hearing about the court case in due course.

But after three days off sick at home, she rang the police and withdrew her statement. They pressed her, even mentioning wasting police time, but she stuck to it. There was no way she could face him in court and have all her past life dragged up by the defence. Another policeman phoned her later, and when she convinced him that she was not going to give evidence under any circumstances, he told her they would have to drop the charges.

After that, she just stopped going out anywhere.

“Come in and get out of those wet things, Ros. What the hell happened?” Marian went into the bathroom to get clean towels as her sister stripped off the saturated clothes in the hallway. When she still hadn’t answered the question, she asked it again. “What happened? How did you end up here, bruised, bleeding, and soaked?” But with her bottom lip quivering, and tears still streaming down her face, Ros was unable to say anything.

Marian rubbed the sobbing woman’s hair with a separate towel, and softened her tone. “Okay, love. It’s alright, you’re here now. Go and get warm in the living room, and I will bring you a drink”. She picked up the wet things and took them into the bathroom, draping them over the wire airer. The she went into the kitchen , returning with a glass of Brandy. “Get this down you and calm down, then tell me in your own time”.

Since splitting up with Steve and moving into London, Marian had not seen so much of her sister. Neither of them had a car, and it was a mission to get up to Hatfield, or for Ros to visit her in Hackney. Keeping in touch on Facebook seemed a better option, and they had drifted apart gradually. When they met up again at dad’s funeral, the mood was tense for everyone. He had died suddenly and unexpectedly, and mum had seemed almost happy about that. When she announced her intention to marry one of dad’s best friends less than six months after his death, both the sisters had more or less cut her off.

It was almost thirty minutes before Ros felt okay to talk about it. She told Marian about the date with Lee that had happened ages ago, and how she had told him she didn’t want to see him after. When the Brandy was topped up, she relaxed and explained why she was there that night.

“The rain was awful today, and when I finished work I couldn’t face the walk to the bus stop to get the bus home. I hadn’t taken an umbrella, as it had looked fine this morning. So I rang for a taxi, and they said it was a fifteen-minute wait. I walked to the main entrance of the shopping mall, and stood under the canopy out of the rain. When a car pulled into the drop-off area instead of taking the exit for the main car park, I ran across to it, sure it must be my taxi. It was raining so hard, I didn’t even stop to check.”

She picked up her glass and swigged down some more of the warm spirit.

“As I closed the car door, it drove off really fast, and I looked at the driver only to realise it was Lee. I screamed at him to stop and let me out, but he had taken the turning onto the A1 and was driving fast in heavy traffic, heading south. I tried to reason with him, saying I wouldn’t tell anyone if he just dropped me off and left me alone. But he just laughed at me, saying I had got in his car willingly, and he hadn’t done anything to me. So I asked him to get off the motorway at the next junction, and at least take me home to Hatfield. He shook his head and said he was taking me for a nice meal, and I would enjoy it”.

Placing the now empty glass on the coffeee table, she turned back to her sister.

“I was really scared, Mal. I took my seat belt off, ready to try to jump out of the car when he slowed down, and when I did that he suddenly slammed on the brakes. My head went forward and smacked onto the dashboard. That really hurt, my eyes were watering and I had terrible pain in my nose. I was half-unconscious, and he pushed me back in my seat and told me to put the belt back on”.

Shaking her head in disbelief at what had happened to her sister, she went to get them both another drink. “I have some cheese and crackers, but I can ring up for a delivery, pizza or something, you should eat”. Ros shook her head. “I couldn’t face eating anything, I’ll tell you the rest”. Marian sat down again, and held Rosalind’s hand.

“Once we hit the traffic around North London, Lee had to slow down a lot. A couple of times I thought I might have a chance to jump out, but he accelerated into a different lane. Then there was a big traffic jam on the roundabout at Millhill, so I got my phone and bag and opened the door. He grabbed the collar of my jacket and pulled me back, that’s when I cracked the back of my head against the door frame and cut myself. But I managed to get out and run, though as I ran along the pavement I dropped the phone, and smashed the screen. So I couldn’t ring anyone to help me. Then I was walking along the main road for ages until I saw a London Taxi with it’s light on and waved him down. I don’t know how I remembered your address, but I did”.

Marian sat up straight. “Right then. Now you have calmed down, I’m going to ring the police”.

The police told Marian that they couldn’t send anyone for up to three hours, and suggested she take her sister into the nearest police station to make a statement. But she was in no mood to be messed about, and insisted they come to her when they were available. Both her and Ros had already written off being able to go into work the next day, so it didn’t matter how long they sat up that night. She made a pot of strong coffee, and gave her sister some thick pyjamas to wear so she looked decent when they showed up.

It was well after midnight when two cops arrived. One was a stern-looking woman, the other a boyish-looking young policeman who didn’t really seem to know what to do. The stern woman took charge.

“So, have I got this right? You got into the car of an ex-boyfriend who wanted to take you for a meal in London. Then you took off your seat belt as he was braking hard in traffic on the A1 and hit your face on the dash? Later on, you jumped out of the car in North London and took a taxi to your sister’s flat here. Is that about it?”

Marian jumped in, raising her voice.

“No, that’s not right. She got in a car thinking it was a taxi, and when it turned out to be some bloke she had been on one date with ages ago, she wanted to get out. But he drove off fast, and when she was finally able to get out of the car, he grabbed her so hard she cut her head. You should be sending people to arrest the bastard, not mocking my sister”. Ros started crying again, and the young policeman stared out of the window of the flat, looking awkward. The stern woman sighed.

“Someone will go and get his side of it, I assure you. But see it from my point of view, if you can. What had he actually done, other than to pick her up from work and try to take her to dinner? He didn’t take off her seatbelt, and he may well have grabbed her to stop her getting out of the car, but that was at a busy junction where she could have been run over. That’s going to be his side of it, I promise you”. Marian was furious, and Ros carried on crying.

“If that’s the best you can do, then you might as well fuck off!”

The policewoman stood up, and wrote something on a pad. “I will ring you tomorrow with a crime reference number, then update you once someone has spoken to this Fowler bloke. If I were you, I would take photos of the injuries, and take your sister to see a doctor tomorrow”.

With that, they took their leave. Marian looked at her sister, who was shaking and crying on the sofa.

“Let’s get some sleep, you can share my bed tonight. I’m going to take the photos in the morning. Give me a number for your work, and I will ring them early to say you can’t come in. I have to get up anyway, to call my boss”.

Although she had set an alarm for seven, the phone rang thirty minutes before that, waking her up. Ros was still fast asleep next to her.

“Mrs Davidson? It’s Constable Hall here, I spoke to you last night in your flat. I have heard back from the county police, five minutes ago. As I suspected, they are not prepared to charge Fowler with anything. He says he had arranged to pick your sister up after work and take her out, but she became angry and aggressive on the way, took her seatbelt off and tried to get out of his car on a busy road. He braked in a panic, and she hit her face. So he wanted to take her to a hospital to get her looked at, but she jumped out of the car at Millhill Circus. He tried to stop her because it was so dangerous, and she caught the back of her head on the door frame”.

Trying to talk over her got Marian nowhere, and she carried on.

“He says he tried to find her, but couldn’t stop anywhere on that main road. He rang her mobile number numerous times to see if she was okay, the local police confirm they saw the dialled calls on his phone list. But he couldn’t get through to her. Now I know what your sister told you, but it will just be his word against hers, and any CCTV from the shopping mall will show her getting into the car of her own volition. Sorry, but that’s the real world. He won’t be arrested on this occasion. If you have a pen handy, I can give you the reference number”.

Too angry to reply, Marian hung up.

By the time Ros woke up just after eight, Marian had already phoned in to both jobs. She explained that her sister had suffered a bad fall, and could not come in for a few days. Where her own boss was concerned, she laid it on thick, suggesting the injuries were much worse and she would need time off to care for her sister. He was very understanding, and immediately gave her three days of compassionate paid leave, saying she could have the whole week off if she took the extra two days as holiday time..

The sisters were both shocked at the state of Rosalind’s face. The bruising had come out, giving her two black eyes and a swollen nose. After they had prodded and wiggled the nose, it was agreed that it was not broken. Marian told her what the policewoman had said early that morning, and Ros nodded. “I’m not completely surprised, but no way am I going back to work while Lee is free to terrorise me whenever he wants. He knows where I live too”. Marian said she would hire a car and go and get some things from her sister’s flat later. “You can stay here for a while, until you feel better. Meanwhile, I am going to see what we can do about Lee”.

After breakfast, Marian got on her laptop and started Googling everything she could find about Lee Fowler. She got plenty of hits, mostly court appearances reported in local newspapers. Digging deeper by using other search engines, she even found a reference to the case in Germany, and a newspaper report about Denise being charged with being drunk and disorderly, assaulting a police officer when she was arrested. She showed the laptop screen to Ros. “They seem like a right pair”.

One hit interested her. The prosecuting barrister, Lyndsey Buller. Checking her out, it seemed that she had a thing for prosecuting domestic violence. She was also on a couple of committees, and there was a video clip of her being interviewed about Police leniency on the local news show, London Tonight. It was easy enough to get the details of her chambers, as well as an email address and contact number. When Marian phoned and asked to speak to her she was told she was in court, and asked to leave a message. Marian left her mobile number and said she would tell Miss Buller what it was about when she phoned back.

It was easy to hire a car over the phone, and they said they would deliver it to her address a couple of hours later. So they both got showered and dressed, as Ros was insistent on accompanying her sister to Hatfield. Before they left, Marian took photos of the injuries on her phone, and tried to make a doctor’s appointment for that evening. But the first they offered was the same day next week, so she told them not to bother. Before the car was delivered, Marian took the smashed phone to a local shop and had the screen changed. Once that was done it worked well, and they were able to see the missed calls from Lee’s number.

The car was very nice, and much bigger than she really needed. But she could afford it, and it felt good to be driving again. She had left their old car with Steve, intending to buy one once she was settled. But she discovered that she didn’t really need one in Hackney, so hadn’t bothered. On the way out to Hatfield, she stopped at the council offices and bought daily car park permits for a week. The parking in the street outside her flat was Residents Only, and she didn’t want to get the hire car towed away.

Ros packed a suitcase with enough clothes and things for a week. She was edgy in her own flat, feeling nervous and keen to get back to Hackney. Ros also took all of her private papers and her passport, placing them in a vanity case. “I am not leaving anything here he might use to find me if he breaks in”. Marian hadn’t though of Lee actually breaking into her sister’s flat, but that could not be discounted.

As they were putting the things into the back of the car, Marian’s phone rang.

“Hello, this is Lyndsey Buller, returning your call. I am not actually working at the moment, as I decided to take a much needed break. But I can recommend someone very good to help you. What’s the name of your solicitor?” Marian explained that there was no court case, but she wanted to know more about Lee Fowler. She told the barrister she was prepared to pay for her time. The phone went silent for a moment, and Marian asked, “Hello, are you still there?” Lyndsey’s voice came back on the line.

“Lee Fowler you say? Well, there will be no charge for my time, and I will be happy to help. Come and see me tomorrow, but don’t tell anyone else you are seeing me. I will text you the address”.

Lyndsey Buller forced herself to eat some breakfast before smartening herself up. The women were coming to see her this morning, and she needed to look the part. It was going to take them a while to get from Hackney to Wimbledon Park, so she might have time to tidy the place up and run the hoover around too.

For the last few days she had been in a funk, during her self-imposed absence from work. Chambers had told her they would say she was in court if anyone phoned, and as she was essentially self-employed, it didn’t matter how much time off she took. But she knew better than to take too long. The Head of Chambers, Tom, would be happy to see her go, and he would not need too much excuse to suggest she went elsewhere. Ever since the scandal of her affair with Hugo, she had often considered herself to be on borrowed time.

So many years wasted on Hugo Fentiman. How could she have been so blind? But she was newly-qualified, excited to be accepted at a Chambers with a great reputation, and Hugo had been so helpful and charming. She knew he was married, and she also knew he had three children. But he had promised to leave his wife and kids as soon as they started at senior school, which meant only four years to wait.

And she had waited.

Lonely nights imagining him in bed with his wife. Feeling wretched when he took his family holiday to the villa in Tuscany for four weeks. Then elated when he came to see her on his first day back. More promises, more gifts. Then a suggestion she bought the Wimbledon Park house. Why not? It was near a tube station, not far from Hugo’s house in Putney, and she could afford it. That left her with a huge mortgage, and a three-bedroom house she didn’t need.

But oh, those nights when Hugo visited. It was as if they were actually living together. Drinks in the small garden, eating and laughing around the dining table, then the bliss of going upstairs to bed. Okay, he had to be home by eleven, but those four hours felt like a week to Lyndsey.

Then, that day. The terrible news. Hugo had accepted a corporate job in Dubai. The children were still too young, so he couldn’t possibly leave yet. But he would be back, he assured her of that. Sealing the deal with a huge gold chain and heart locket, he told her she was his only love, and he would be returning to claim her. She believed him completely, and swore lifetime devotion to him.

But that was the last time she had ever seen him.

Everyone at Chambers seemed to know. How could that be? They had been so discreet. It took her a very long time to realise that Hugo had been boasting about his young conquest, bailing out to Dubai when it became too awkward. The looks, the sniggers, but worst of all, the pity.

Throwing herself into work was the only option, short of suicide.

Campaigning for abused women, joining organisations, speaking out on television and in newspapers. Hugo may not have been violent, but he had abused her nonetheless. Emotionally scarred, she dedicated her life to getting justice for other women.

Then she failed to do that. So what was the point of her at all?

Fingering the heart locket for the thousandth time, she put it back in the drawer, and plugged in the hoover.

The noise and routine of housework failed to divert her thoughts. What use was she to anyone? The women coming to see her later offered an opportunity, as long as they were sensible enough to do exactly what she told them. But who was she taking revenge for? Denise, Rosalind, or herself? Hugo would still be living in Dubai earning a million dolars a year, whatever happened to Lee Fowler. And Hugo wouldn’t even know what she had done, let alone be thinking about her.

For the first time since she had gone to university to study law, Lyndsey was considering a change of career. Maybe she could retrain to become a social worker? Or work at a Law Centre, giving advice to poor people who could never afford her fees. Give something back to society, after failing at prosecuting violent offenders. As long as she could cover her mortgage and bills, she no longer cared what her job title was.

She was winding the cord back around the clips on the hoover when the doorbell rang.

Once her guests were seated around the table drinking coffee, Lyndsey got to work. Using a large notepad, she wrote down as much detail as Ros could remember, going right back to the time she had first encountered Lee on a bus. She also noted everything Marian could remember about the night when her sister showed up, soaked to the skin and in a panic. Then she got Marian to send her the photos of Rosalind’s injuries from her phone. Once she was satisfied she knew all the details, she addressed the sisters in what sounded very much like a prepared speech.

“First things first, you haven’t met me. You haven’t been to my house or spoken to me about this case. You rang my chambers and left a message, which I did not return. Is that clear to both of you?” They nodded in agreement, and Lyndsey continued.

“As you know, I prosecuted Fowler after he was charged with assaulting his wife. I am aware of at least three other cases where he was prosecuted by other barristers and got off scot-free. Police contacts also made me aware of many women who had made statements alleging he had attacked them, and later withdrew them. This man is undoubtedly a serial offender since his youth, and you probably know from online research about his only conviction for beating up a woman in Germany?” Marian nodded again.

“Well I am going to suggest some things that are far from conventional. To start with, I think you should go and talk to his ex-wife, Denise. She may well be a mine of information about the man. Between us, I have no confidence in her police statements in the past, but I reckon she will be very happy to gossip. You have to assure her that she will not have to make a statement, or appear in court. And it wouldn’t hurt to bribe her, I suggest you be ready to give her two hundred for any useful information, as that is enough to get her attention. I can supply you with her address, and it might be best to doorstep her, catch her unawares. But you did not get that address from me, is that clear?. I also have the details of another woman you can go and see, but as she is now a shut-in, that might be harder”.

Marian finished her coffee, and put down the cup.

“How does any of that help us press charges against Lee though? Denise will do nothing, and presumably this other woman didn’t proceed with her charges either. We were hoping that you could tell us a way to get Lee to court for attacking Ros. Maybe a private prosecution, something like that?”

Lyndsey reached into her bag and produced a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. After not smoking for over ten years, recent events had got her back into that bad habit. She lit one, turning her head to blow the smoke away from the women.

“Far be it from me to burst your balloon, but that is unlikely to happen. Even if you got it to court, it could cost you both every penny you have. Then if he counter-sued for defamation and won, you would be facing a huge amount in damages. For one thing, the police evidence would not be helpful. It seems to me that the policewoman just didn’t believe a word of what happened to Rosalind. I suspect she gave the county police the nod too. Told them how to ask the questions, if you get my drift. And unfortunately they were on the right track. If it came to both versions of the events, his story is just as believable as yours, as far as Joe Public juror is concerned. If only he had forced you into the car, and that was on CCTV, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, ladies”.

Ros hadn’t said a word since the lawyer had started talking. Now she had her say.

“As I see it, women who have been attacked like me have no recourse in law. Not unless they have completely independent witnesses, or the whole thing has been recorded on a CCTV camera somewhere. Lee can literally do something like this every week, and just walk away laughing. If I thought I could get away with it, I would just kill him. Stab him, or something. Then plead trauma, or diminished responsibility”.

Shaking her head, Lyndsey smiled.

“If you did that, you would either serve long prison time, or find yourself detained in a mental hospital, believe me. Besides, it would all be over for him in moments, and that’s not really punishment. Keep listening to me, and I can arrange something much more satisfying”. She took a long drag on the cigarette, and the sisters could hear the paper burning as the red tip got longer.

“We can completely ruin his life”.

Having nothing in for lunch, Lyndsey phoned a local Indian restaurant and had some food delivered. There was still a lot to go through, and the two sisters were happy to stay for as long as it took. Once they had eaten, she started to lay it out for them.

Handing over a pair of rubber kitchen gloves, she spoke first to Marian. “Over there is a plastic folder, new in the box. Next to that is a box of large brown envelopes. I want you to carefully pick up all the press cuttings concerning Lee Fowler, place them inside the plastic, then put that into the envelope. When you find out from Denise where he is working at the moment, send the envelope to his employer with no covering letter or note. I haven’t touched any of them without gloves, and you can keep the ones I just gave you. Use a post office a long way from both Hatfield and Hackney. Maybe drive into Essex, and post it from there”.

As Marian started to do what she asked, Lyndsey continued speaking.

“First off, we need to lose him his job. Without a regular income, he won’t be able to make the payments for Daisy, or run whatever car he is driving at the moment. This is going to take time, and also involve some personal sacrifice. Over the next week, I want you to discuss which one of you is prepared to make that sacrifice. Believe me, it will be a big deal, but there is no other way to make it work. If he gets another job in the meantime, we repeat the process, and make sure he doesn’t stay employed. You are going to need a camera too, not just a phone. We will need photos”.

Rosalind was confused.

“What do you mean, ‘sacrifice’?” Lyndsey lit a cigarette.

“One of you is going to have sex with him, apparently willingly.” Ros stood up, and picked up her handbag.

“Then we might as well stop this now, because that is not going to happen. Is that really the best you can come up with, Lyndsey?” But Marian held her arm, to stop her leaving.

“Let her speak, Ros. I think I know where she is going here”. Ros sat down again, and Lyndsey went to get a bottle of wine from the fridge.

For the next hour, the overall plan was discussed. They would not only get in touch with Denise, but also the shut-in, who was called Amanda O’Neill. She could potentially offer accommodation, and she had every reason to help them get the man who had destroyed her confidence, and ruined her life. Lyndsey seemed to know a lot about her.

“She comes from money, and now lives in a nice house on the edge of Welwyn Garden City that once belonged to her parents. That’s close to Hatfield, but not too close. Her recent inheritance enables her to not bother with working, and she does nothing all day except to sit behind her numerous door-locks and alarms, being terrified of Lee Fowler. I suggest you put a letter through her door outlining the case with Rosalind, then wait and see if she agrees to meet you. I think you should do that tomorrow, before contacting Denise another day”.

Marian seemed to be completely on board, but Ros remained unconvinced.

“How does this help anything, Lyndsey? That woman refused to press charges all that time ago, so what makes you think she will help us now?” It was her sister who answered her question.

“Because she doesn’t have to do anything. Only give us some kind of base of operations. We will do all the hard work, and she will never have to see or contact Lee again. By helping us she gets some justice, and satisfaction by proxy. I agree with Lyndsey, and I reckon Amanda will go for it”. Ros slurped down half her glass of wine, and held it out for a refill. Then she nodded at the cigarettes. “Can I have one of those, please?”

Watching her sister light the cigarette, then smoke it as if she had always been a smoker, Marian was surprised.

“What, you’re smoking now? When did that happen?” Ros laughed.

“Since I was sixteen. But everyone around me was always so disapproving of anything I did, I never told anyone, not even you”. I was the shit daughter. There was the beloved son who got a medal for being killed in Afghanistan, then the wonderful older daughter who did so well in her studies. Then there was me. Shoe-shop girl who had boyfriends, and couldn’t give a stuff about qualifications. So I smoked, and I liked a drink too. Even now I am just a bloody hindrance, leaving you to sort out the problems in my life. And this woman wants me to become some kind of sacrifice, to solve what happened with Lee. What’s the point of me?

Reaching out to hold her sister’s free hand, Marian sounded very serious.

“You are my sister, and I love you. I am going to be the sacrifice, Ros”.

On the long drive back to Hackney, Marian and Ros hardly spoke. It had been a long day, and so much had already been said. But as they crossed the river, Ros broke her silence.

“I can’t let you do it, Mal. I just can’t. There must be a better way than you having to have sex with him and pretend you like it”. They had stopped earlier so Ros could buy cigarettes and a disposable lighter, and ignoring the No Smoking sign in the hire car, she opened the window fully, and lit a cigarette. Marian didn’t bother to complain.

“The thing is, Ros, it means nothing. I can shag a stranger to get justice for my sister, and I think Lyndsey’s plan is solid. In fact, I think it’s a great plan. It really won’t bother me, I promise you that. I will be thinking of the revenge, for as long as it lasts. And I doubt that will be long. Just one moment in my life, then it’s the beginning of the end for Lee Fowler”.

Back at her flat, Marian sat composing the letter to Amanda. They had agreed it should be handwritten, as that was more personal. And the surnames were left off, but she used their real first names. No point lying to the woman, she was already traumatised enough, judging by what they had been told. There was no need to wear gloves either, as Amanda had zero confidence in the police, and she would be asked to burn the letter after reading it.

The sisters both read through it before Marian added the last line.

‘We are outside, sitting in a grey car. We will wait for one hour for your decision. I hope you make the right one.’

Then they went to bed. Not bothering with more food, as the Indian meal had filled them up.

Waiting until the rush hour had subsided, they left for Welwyn Garden City just before ten the next morning. On the way, they discussed how they would approach Lyndsey’s plan when they outlined it to Amanda. Essentially, her only involvement was to provide a spare room for them to stay in, and tell them everything she could remember about Lee. They could mention a barrister was involved, but were under strict instructions not to give her name or contact details.

Just in case Amanda flipped out.

The house was nice. Built before the new town, and probably ninteen-thirties. The white painted stucco was fresh, and the metal frames in the windows looked original, or sympathetically restored. Marian did not take the car into the semi-circular driveway, choosing to park on the street outside. It was a private road containing only six detached houses, three on each side. Ros was almost chain-smoking by now, and Marian opened her driver’s side window as she got out of the car to walk up to the front door.

Turning back, she spoke through the window to her sister.

“Don’t forget, you stay in the car until we have some sign that she is interested. If the door doesn’t open in an hour, I will take you for lunch at that place we saw on the A1, and we can have a rethink before contacting Lyndsey.”

The letter fell into a cage behind the door, and Marian retreated to the car, not wanting to appear to be intimidating.

Staring at the front door soon became boring, so they chatted about how they were going to get more time off work until this was all sorted. Ros was adamant that she was not going back until it was all over, and Marian decided she would ask for her five weeks of holiday time, unpaid if necessary.

The time dragged, and then seemed to have gone in a flash. Marian was just about to turn the key in the ignition, when the door opened.

In the doorway stood an overweight woman wearing a dress that looked more like a nightie. Her hair was all over the place, and she was barefoot on the doormat. But she was holding the letter, and gently waved to the car. Then her hand turned over, and changed to a beckoning gesture.

Marian operated both electric windows, then grabbed her handbag. Turning to Ros, she smiled.

“Come on sis, we’re in”.

After closing the door behind them, Amanda slid two large bolts across it before double locking the expensive Banham latch. Marian looked at her sister, and Ros raised her eyebrows. This was a woman who took her home security seriously. When they were shown through into the large living room, that was further confirmed by the image on the huge TV screen. It was divided into squares, each one representing a CCTV camera. Amanda had twelve to choose from, covering everything from the approach to her front door, to the view over the back fence of the large garden.

She noticed them looking.

“There are also internal cameras. When I go to bed at night I can check every room from my bedroom computer, just in case”. Marian nodded, realising just how damaged this poor woman was. After asking them to sit down, Amanda excused herself, reappearing wearing a thick dressing gown and some matching slippers. “I don’t usually bother to get dressed after my shower. When you are not going anywhere, there seems to be no point. Now, let me offer you some tea”.

When she returned with a fancy teapot and some matching cups on a nice tray, she chatted to them as she began to pour. “You must be aware that there is little I can do to help you physically. But one of you is welcome to stay here while you go ahead with your plan. I cannot allow both of you to stay though, sorry. I don’t really enjoy being around other people any longer, even women. So just one of you, I don’t mind which one”. Marian jumped in before Ros could speak.

“That will be me then, Amanda. I promise not to make a nuisance of myself. I can eat out, and keep to my room, if that suits you. It just makes life easier for me not to have to drive back and forth from Hackney, and it should only be for a few days”.

Amanda looked at Ros, and the bruising on her face.

“It was you then, the one Lee attacked? I can tell from your face. I still have two small scars on the back of my head from when he slammed it in my car door, so I know what he is capable of. The strange thing is that I really liked him. If he hadn’t been drunk that night, I would have happily stayed with him. I bought him a beautiful watch, and we had a fabulous weekend away in the Cotswolds. I thought he was the one, and I expected it to last. He wouldn’t even wear the watch, and called it shitty”.

Ros could tell the events were imprinted on her mind, and as she spoke, it was obvious she was reliving them. She tried to reassure her.

“The reason he wouldn’t wear the watch is because he was still married then. His wife Denise would have asked where it had come from, knowing he couldn’t afford it. The bastard probably sold it, and spent the money on the next girl he picked up”. That failed to comfort Amanda, and tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I feel so stupid. I was actually in love with him, can you believe that? Not long after I sold my flat and moved here. I spent a lot of money on making it as secure as I could. I have everything delivered, the gardener is only allowed through the side gate, and I pay him by direct debit, same with the window cleaner. I have only ever spoken to him through an intercom, and he must be at least sixty-five. I sold my car too, no need to have a car when you have no intention of going out. My life now is cleaning the house and watching SKY TV. I have the full package, every channel available”.

She stopped to get a tissue to wipe her eyes.

“When the man came to install the satellite TV system and the CCTV cameras, I locked myself in one of the bathrooms while he worked. He must have thought I was barking mad. Regaining her composure, she sat forward on the armchair and spoke directly to Marian.

“I don’t want to know what you do, but I will help you do it. I will burn the letter as you asked, and you can stay here for as long as it takes. But you have to promise not to touch me, to hug me, or anything like that. And you cannot have any keys. You won’t need them anyway, as I am always home. If that is acceptable then you can come back alone tomorrow, in the afternoon. Don’t worry about eating out, I have enough food for both of us”.

Marian looked her in the eye. “Agreed”.

Before going to stay with Amanda, Marian decided to pay Denise Fowler a visit. Lyndsey had suggested doorstepping her, and provided the address on a council estate in Hatfield.

The estate was not that bad, but when Marian stopped the car outside the right door number, the condition of the small house left a lot to be desired. Unwashed net curtains hung adrift in the main window. The front door showed evidence of having been kicked in and patch-repaired, and a wheelie bin near where there should have been a gate from the street was overflowing with rubbish. Her first try on the tarnished chrome door-knocker was a no-show, so she went back to the car and sat waiting.

Scanning the street behind using her wing mirrors, there was no sign of anyone for the first thirty minutes. At that time of day, most people who had a job would be at work. Maybe Denise had a job now? In which case, it was going to be a very long wait. But the last information, obviously out of date now, was that Denise was unemployed.

The woman she spotted was coming in the other direction, carrying a plastic shopping bag bulging with something. She was wearing grey marl leggings, cheap trainers, and a T-shirt under a stained purple short puffa jacket. Her hair was dyed blonde, and put up in a clump on top of her head. Despite not wanting to jump to conclusions based on lifelong class prejudice, Marian was willing to bet all she had that this was Denise approaching. That was confirmed as the woman turned into the gateway, without so much as a glance at the car parked outside her house, pulling a set of keys from the pocket of her jacket.

Marian was out of the car before Denise had the key in the lock.

“Hello. Are you Denise Fowler? I wondered if I could have a word with you?”

Denise turned and looked the woman up and down. A tailored trouser suit in dark grey, expensive shoes and handbag, and a car too smart for her estate.

“You a cop? Police?”

Shaking her head, Marian tried a reassuring smile.

“No, nothing like that. I just wanted to speak to you about your ex-husband, Lee. It might be best if we go inside”.

Denise made no attempt to open the door.

“Who are you then, his new bird or somefink?” Marian was walking closer, still shaking her head.

“Absolutely not. He attacked my sister, and got away with it. Sound familiar? I need some information,and I am willing to pay for it”.

A wide grin spread across Denise’s face, and she put the key into the lock.

“Pay, you say? In that case, come on in.”

Inside, the place was as filthy as Marian had imagined it would be. Reluctant to sit down, she did so when asked to, thinking about putting her trouser suit into a dry cleaner’s tomorrow. Denise rummaged in her jacket pocket and produced a packet of cigarettes. She lit one, and then discovered her manners.

“Sorry, did you want one?”

Sticking with a head shake, Marian got to the point.

“What can you tell me about Lee? Do you know where he works? Does he even have a job? Is he paying for your daughter, Daisy? How are you coping?”

Ignoring the barrage of questions, Denise extended her left hand.

“You mentioned money. No answers until I see the readies”.

Opening her bag, Marian produced four fifty-pound notes, and leaned across to place them into Denise’s hand. Lyndsey had been correct in her assumption. two hundred had got her attention. Folding them and placing them in her bra under the T-shirt, she started talking like a trained parrot.

“He’s got a security job working at a call-centre. Don’t know where though, but I know it’s run by Group Four. He came here to pick up Daisy, and was wearing that uniform. Is he paying me for her? You must be fucking joking. I got a court order for his payments, but he is always pleading poverty, and paying me in arrears. I reckon he spends all his money on his car, told me it was a Subaru Impreza. He finks I know nuffink about cars, but I know those ones cost a lot. Your sister went with him? She must have been desperate, or mad. He’s poison, I tell you straight”.

With that, Denise opened the shopping bag, and pulled out a can of cheap lager.

“You want one? I ain’t got tea or coffee, so it’s this or nuffink”.

She glugged down several mouthfuls of the beer as Marian replied.

“No, I’m good thanks. Let’s talk some more. There is even more money in it for you, for the right answers”.

By the time Denise was halfway down the third can of lager, Marian was well and truly stuck to the seat of the greasy sofa. But she had found out quite a lot.

Lee was working on a no-hours contract for a security firm that was contracting men out to Group Four for static security work. He was mainly working day shifts, guarding supplies at building sites. Occasionally, he would get an extra night shift sitting on the gate of a distribution depot or empty warehouse, and when that extra money came in, he would pay off some of what he owed her for child support. But there was no holiday pay or sick pay, and if he took any days off he didn’t get paid either. Denise swigged down the last of the beer in that can, then held her chest as she burped up the gas.

“The most recent job I heard him talk about was on a site near Welwyn. He lives there now, you know. A Housing Trust bedsit is all he’s got, and Daisy hates having to stay there because she has to share his bed when it is his weekend to have her. She said he farts and snores all night, keeps her awake. And he only ever buys her fish and chips to eat after taking her to the cinema before that. He has a crap telly. No SKY, just Freeview, and he has no Internet. Well you can imagine, no Internet drives Daisy mad. That girl lives on her phone”. Marian produced a small notebook from her shoulder bag.

“Can you give me his address and current mobile number please?”

As Marian jotted down the details, she couldn’t help but wonder how an unemployed woman could afford SKY TV, Internet, phones for herself and her daughter, cigarettes, and beer. Small wonder Lee had once complained about the way his daughter was being brought up. Not that he was doing a better job of course. At this rate, Daisy would grow up to be a carbon copy of Denise.

She decided to plant a seed.

“I’m not sure how to put this, but does Daisy ever mention that Lee touches her? I mean inappropriately, sexually. After all, it’s not normal for a father to share a bed with his daughter, at least not in my experience. And Daisy is growing up. She’s not a baby any longer”. Denise lit a cigarette and opened the fourth can of the eight in the shopping bag.

“Well, nothing definite. But when the weather was warm, he did tell her she didn’t need to wear her pyjamas. And she said he slept in the nude, and she saw his willy. But he was also drunk, so that’s nothing unusual for him”. Marian was excited, but stayed calm.

“So it would be fair to say that he expected his daughter to sleep just in her panties, and got in bed next to her naked?” Denise shrugged. “S’pose so”. Marian tried to sound casual as she replied.

“Would you be prepared to make a statement to that effect? There would be payment for your time, a generous payment. And the statement would be to the Social Services, not the Police”. By now, Denise was the worse for four cans of beer, and she nodded vigorously.

“Absolutely. If you show me the cash first”.

Marian could feel she needed to pee, but was reluctant to use the toilet in that house.

“Is it alright if I come and see you again? If you give me your phone number, I will ring beforehand, and you can tell me a convenient time”. Denise sat back, blowing smoke up to the ceiling.

“As long as Daisy is at school, and you bring some more cash, you can come as often as you like”.

Marian took her leave, saying she would be back soon. She had not given Denise her name, or anyone else’s name. And Denise had not bothered to ask her.

This time, she drove the hire car onto the driveway, sure that Amanda would be monitoring the CCTV. As expected, the door opened with a click before she could press the bell.

“Come in. Have you got your stuff, everything you need? I don’t want you going out again once I lock up”. She seemed to be just as manic as she had been the day before, worse if anything. She was wearing the same dressing gown and slippers, and her overgrown hair hadn’t seen a brush or comb.

“I will make us a big lunch, then you can stay in your room if that’s okay. I have my TV shows to watch, and I cannot be doing with chat, or distraction”.

The food was surprisingly good. Home-made Lasagna, and plenty of it.

Over the phone that evening, Marian told Ros what had happened with Denise.

“To be honest, I’m excited. Once I find out where Lee is working, I can send the stuff to his boss, then get Denise to complain to the Social Services about him and Daisy sleeping together. It will hit him with two things at the same time, before I put the main part of the plan into operation”.

Ros wanted to know what it was like staying with Amanda.

“A bit weird. She made a delicous lunch, then asked me to stay in my room. Luckily, there is an en-suite, and I bought some bottled water on the way here. But she hardly spoke during the meal, and stopped me saying anything about my trip to see Denise. I pushed her on that, and she held up her hand before speaking. She said we were taking a big chance by tackling Lee. He had always got away with everything, and she feared that would happen again. I told her straight, he was dealing with some very angry and capable women now. Then I realised that sounded bad, as she hadn’t agreed to his arrest when he attacked her, and withdrew her statement”.

When her sister made no comment, she continued.

“I’m getting up very early in the morning, so I can get to Lee’s bedsit before he leaves for work. He doesn’t know me, or the car, so I am hoping to be able to follow him. Then I can try to see a company name or something, somewhere to send the press cuttings. After that I will get some more cash out, buy some lager, and go back to see Denise. I will be wearing some jeans though, her place is absolutely filthy”.

The blue Subaru was still parked outside the house when Marian arrived just after six. That was possibly a good sign that Lee hadn’t left yet. Parking a few cars back, she sipped a coffee that she had bought in a petrol station, and nibbled the too-dry croissant that had to serve as breakfast. Amanda had still been in her room when she left, so she had to find the key to the Banham lock before she could get out. Luckily, she had noticed it hanging on a hook in the hallway the previous day, and remembered that just in time, before she was about to try to wake Amanda up.

He looked exactly the same as he emerged from the front door twenty minutes later. She had seen his photo on papers shown to her by Lyndsey, and the press cuttings. There was little sign that he aged since, and the blue security uniform fitted him well. If not for what she already knew about him, she could agree that he had a certain attraction.

Keeping up with his car was not as easy as she had expected. On more than one occasion she lost sight of him, and was relieved to catch up by staying on the main road. It wasn’t like that in the police films. When he indicated to turn into a large building site she carried on straight, taking the next left and parking the car. It looked like a big development was in progress, and the signs around the perimeter boasted of ‘new luxury homes’.

Trying not to be spotted, and not looking remotely like a builder or workman, Marian walked the entire perimeter. But the only sign she could see mentioning security was for Group 4. Whoever Lee was sub-contracting with did not get a mention. No point hanging around then. She would send the cuttings to the head office of Group 4, and mention the address of the site. It would get to someone, sooner or later.

Too early to call Denise yet, she drove into Hatfield and found a MacDonald’s located in a branch of an ASDA supermarket. Inside, she sat eating a breakfast and drinking a coffee, making notes. When she rang Denise over an hour later, the woman sounded fuzzy. “What’s the time? Christ, I’m still asleep. Leave it another hour and then come round”.

Marian concluded that Daisy had to get her own breakfast, and walk to school alone. She found a cashpoint at the front of ASDA and got some money out, then she went into the shop and bought twelve cans of lager that were on special offer.

By the time she found her way back to Denise’s house, it was still well off the hour she had asked for.

But she knocked on the door anyway.

Denise was only wearing a vest and panties when she opened the door, and her hair was completely flat on one side. Marian could smell alcohol on her from last night, and noticed that she was already smoking a cigarette, despite having just opened her eyes.

“Come in. D’you want tea?”

Marian declined the tea, not wanting to trust either the freshness of the milk, or the cleanlness of the mug. She waited until the woman was sipping her tea, and appeared to be fully awake.

“I have the number of the local Social Services office, which is the main one in Welwyn. When you have finished your tea, I want you to phone them and report that you think your ex-husband is sexually molesting Daisy. Tell them why, about him sleeping naked, and suggesting Daisy doesn’t wear her pyjamas. If you make it convincing, I will give you another two hundred before I leave”. She opened her bag, showing Denise the money.

“He’s not actually me ex, you know. We never did get divorced, not on paper, like. Legally separated, I think we are, I have some papers somewhere, but don’t ask me to try and find them. I spoke to Daisy last night. She said sometimes her dad’s willy touches her when he turns over in bed. But not in her privates, just her leg, or arm. I’m not sure she is gonna tell the sort of story you’re looking for, but give me the number, and I’ll ring ’em now”.

Listening to her on the phone, Marian had to admit she was surprisingly convincing. After sounding genuinely concerned about the situation, she told the real truth, not wanting to rely on Daisy to confirm any exaggerations. She concluded with something very plausible.

“You know it’s not that I know for sure that he touches her. But showing himself naked and allowing his bits to come into contact with her in bed, well I mean, that can’t be right, can it? I want her to stop seeing him, right now. And Daisy wants that too”.

Whoever was on the other end obviously agreed, and told Denise someone would be visiting her at two that afternoon.

Standing up and handing over the two hundred pounds, Marian smiled.

“Well done, Denise. I am going to ring you this evening, about six. Try to remember everything that is said later, I will want to take notes”.

With that she left, and telephoned Amanda from her car. “I won’t be back at your place tonight, I’m going home to see my sister. I will let you know when I want to stop over again”. That was left as a message on the answerphone of course. Amanda never answered her phone.

Back at the Hackney flat, Marian told Ros what had happened as she typed out a document on her laptop. It was a simple covering letter to go with the press cuttings, containing no name or contact details of who had written it.

‘I think you should be aware that your sub-contracted security employee, Lee Fowler, is a convicted offender, and historical abuser of women. He is working at a new housing development under construction in Welwyn Garden City. The enclosed press cuttings will show you what sort of man he is. He is also being investigated currently for suspected sexual abuse of his own schoolgirl daughter, and if charged, your company will be named in court as his employer. I suggest you dispense with his services before your company name is tarnished by association with him’.

After printing off the document, Marian put on the rubber gloves and placed everything into the large envelope, which had a pre-glued seal. She then addressed it in block capitals, using her left hand. It was for the attention of the head of the personnel department, at the registered head office of Group 4. She turned to her sister.

“Amanda knows I am not staying there tonight. I am going to drive up to Loughton in Essex now, and post it there in the first Post Office I find. I will wear those brown leather gloves you bought me one Christmas, so no prints will be on anything. When I get back, we can wait to find out what happened with Denise and the Social Services, then I will phone up and order some Chinese food, okay?”

The Post Office was inside a Spar Shop. It would certainly have CCTV, but who would be looking? Marian handed the envelope to the Indian lady behind the screen, said “First Class please”, and paid in cash. On the way home, she stopped at a big Tesco and bought two bottles of wine and some Maltesers. Her and Ros could have a drink and some chocolates later, after dinner.

Denise answered the phone at exactly six-o-one after just two rings. Marian didn’t waste time on pleasantries.

“So tell me, how did it go?”

Denise sounded excited.

“Two women came. They seemed really concerned when I told them about Lee’s history and what Daisy had said. They want to talk to her too, but we have to go to a special room in some place in Welwyn for that. I can go with her, but I’m not allowed to be in the room while they speak to her. It will be on Friday, and they are going to contact the school to tell them why she won’t be in. One of them is coming to pick us up in a car at nine. The other one was a bit of a cow. She asked me about Lee’s complaint that I didn’t look after Daisy, and that I was always drunk. I told her that was years ago, and I only have the occasional lager these days. Hang on”.

Marian smiled at the irony as she heard the ring-pull pop on the beer can that Denise was opening.

“Anyway, I gave them all the details like you said, and they wrote it all down on one of those little laptops. The cow said I would get a printed copy and have to sign that it was all true. They are giving it to me on Friday when they speak to Daisy. They had been here for almost an hour when the nicer one went outside to make a phone call. When she came back, she said they had been compelled to inform the police. I asked her who compelled them, it seemed a funny word to use. And she just said it was the circumstances that compelled them”.

There was a pause as a lighter clicked several times, then she came back on the line.

“Well, you’ll never guess what happened next. Only about a half hour later, her phone rings and she tells me the police have arrested Lee where he works, and taken him to Welwyn Police Station. If they let him out tonight he will be after me, sure as shit”.

Knowing she needed to keep her calm, Marian spoke with some authority.

“Why would he do that? It will only make things worse for him, and he knows that. It will scare Daisy as well, so that won’t help him. Keep the door locked, don’t drink too much beer, and if he shows up, call the police. My guess is he will be told not to approach you or Daisy, so he will be in breach of that if he turns up at your place in a temper. On the plus side, him being arrested at work is good news. They will definitely not keep him on in that job now, especially once they get the information I sent tomorrow. Okay, stay strong, and I will call you in the morning, Denise”.

After hanging up, Marian rang Lyndsey, and went over everything that had happened. The lawyer was non-commital.

“Yes, he is likely to lose his job, I agree. But they will have to give him bail, and he is certain to deny anything ever happened with his daughter. I’m surprised they arrested him on the say-so of Social Services, to be honest. But where chld sex allegations are concerned, things are changing here for the better. In short, there is really nothing to charge him with, unless Daisy speaks up on Friday, which seems unlikely. No doubt they are hoping against hope for a confession of some sort. But knowing Lee, they will have to wait until Hell freezes over. And Denise is going to be investigated too, that’s certain. Daisy may well be taken into care until this is resolved, but if you want to keep Denise on side, best not to mention that”.

Disappointed with that conversation, Marian stood up.

“Time to open the wine, Ros. You can phone for the Chinese, my bank card is in my bag, and the phone number is on the menu I showed you”.

Once the food had been delivered, they had already gone through the first bottle of wine, and Marian was opening the screw-top on the second bottle. Munching Maltesers later, she spoke to her sister, who had been unusually quiet all evening.

“What is that with taking Daisy into care? Denise hasn’t done anything, besides being a useless mum. And there are millions of those in this country. If she finds out that might happen, she will withdraw her statement to Social Services and Lee will have no case to answer”.

Ros took a handful of Maltesers from the big box.

“Too late now though, Mal. The wheels are in motion. Best thing you can do is to offer Denise more money. A lot more money. Otherwise she will shit herself, and bail on us. Do you have that sort of money, Mal?” Marian looked determined.

“As much as it takes, believe me.”

At eight the next morning, Marian answered the phone to Denise. She found it hard to believe the woman was up so early.

“They let him out. I got a phone call late last night, and they want me to go in and make a statement, ’cause he won’t admit nuffink. I told them Daisy ain’t well, so I can’t go yet. But you said no police, now I’ve gotta deal with them too. I ain’t slept a wink all night, I was sure that Lee would come round raging. I can speak to Daisy, tell her what to say, like. And I will go in and give the statement. But you’re gonna have to come up with more money, and I mean a grand”.

Thinking fast, Marian stayed firm.

“Okay, you need to calm down. You are going to have to keep Daisy off school now you have said she is ill. Don’t do anything else today, just stay in. I’m coming up there this afternoon, and I will bring your money”.

The thought of getting a thousand pounds did the trick for Denise, and she agreed.

Marian’s next call was to Amanda’s answerphone.

“Hi, I will be at your place this afternoon and possibly stopping over, just so you know in advance. Don’t worry about food, I will sort myself out for dinner”. She thought of phoning Lyndsey for advice, but couldn’t face the I-told-you-so that would inevitably happen.

After telling Ros what she was doing, Marian got busy. She had a bath, and did her make-up party style. Then she put on a nice dress, short and low-cut, the kind she would wear to an evening out, or on a hot date. Ros whistled when she saw her sister emerge from the bedroom.

But Marian wasn’t smiling.

“If you want to catch a fish, you have to use the right bait on the hook”.

Before Ros could process what she had said, she was out the door, holding an overnight bag.

Marian’s next stop was at the bank, where she drew out the money Denise had asked for. She had to admit to herself that she had got off lightly, having expected to be asked for five times that amount. Then she headed off to Amanda’s house, where she would wait until the evening.

It was time to implement her original plan, the one she had shelved when Denise had mentioned about Daisy and Lee sleeping together. She wasn’t sure that Denise would hold up, so decided to go with both belt and braces to make sure Lee got what he deserved.

On the way to Amanda’s, she diverted to see Denise and drop off the cash. But she didn’t go inside, not wanting Daisy to see her. She told her to wait until the meeting with Social Services on Friday before making any statement to the police, then added that she was to wait until she was contacted, not ring without warning. The sight of the money made her agreeable, and she nodded vigorously.

Amanda was her usual self, making no remark about Marian’s smart outfit, and asking her to stay in her room. “And if you are going to be very late tonight, please make sure I know. Or I will bolt the door and be asleep”. Already fed up with the woman, Marian just smiled nicely and nodded.

It was an offchance she knew that. But surely Lee would go out at some stage? Marian had little alternative but to sit and wait in the hire car close to his house. She had parked blocking his Subaru, so he would have to say something to her if he wanted to get past. She had got there at just after five-thirty, after filling up with petrol at a nearby service station. Making sure she was seen on CCTV as she bought some bottled water, she also asked the cashier for a receipt.

Her backstory was flimsy at best, and based on a casual acquaintance that she knew lived in Hertfordshire, but had not been in contact with for years. A check on an online map showed that Penny lived about five miles from Lee, at least at the last address she had for her. It would have to do, as she had no other reason for being there.

It was well after seven when the door opened, and he walked out dressed casually. He wandered over to her car.

“You can’t park there, love. I need to get my car out”.

She was all smiles.

“I got a bit confused on the way to my friend’s place. I stopped to fill up the car, and ended up here, totally lost. Now it won’t start”.

He shook his head and smiled.

“Jump out, I’ll have a look”.

Marian stood by the car as he moved the gear selector, then turned the key. He shook his head again.

“It was in Drive. You have to be in Neutral or Park to start it, didn’t you know that?”

“Sorry, it’s a hire car. I forgot. Thank you so much. Can I give you something for your trouble?” She opened her handbag.

He was confident, she had to give him that.

“How about you just take me for a drink? That’s where I was going, I can show you the way”.

On the short drive to the pub, Marian had to marvel at how Lee had such relaxed confidence around a stranger. Surely that was something you had to be born with? He was so completely different to Steve, in every way. Yet knowing about his ability to control women, and his violence when it didn’t go his way, she was relieved that she had not chosen someone like him for a husband.

In the pub, she made sure to appear awkward, and to show no outward affection to Lee. He knew quite a few of the others drinking in there, and they all seemed to assume that he was with his new girlfriend. She stuck to bottled water too, citing the fact she had to drive home. But she gave him her real first name, as that wouldn’t matter tomorrow. He was drinking quite quickly, gulping his beers rather than sipping them. And she didn’t need to make conversation, as he was happy to do all the talking.

Unsurprisingly, he talked about being a security consultant, adding that he couldn’t tell her much more because it was ‘hush-hush’. How he expected to carry that off when he was dressed in cheap clothes, drove an outlandishly flash car, and lived in a shared house, God only knows.

But enough women had fallen for it before.

The party dress seemed to be working. His eyes kept wandering to her ample cleavage, and each time she crossed her legs, his gaze followed. But she kept her cool, twisting to one side when he tried to put his hand on her thigh, and leaning forward when he attempted to slip his left arm around her shoulders.

His vanity continued when he asked her nothing at all about herself. She had some white lies ready, but didn’t need them. Other than asking her name, he was not remotely interested in anything else about her. After she had carefully sipped one glass of mineral water, and Lee had almost polished off three pints of lager, she made noises about having to leave.

“I live in London, and it will take me a long time to get back. I don’t want to be out too late, driving alone”. He made no argument about that, and lifting the glass to drain the last of the beer, gave her a very friendly smile. “You can drop me home on the way, I can show you a short cut to get back onto the main road to London”.

Alcohol had made him bolder, and as she drove along he stroked her leg. “I hope you are going to come in for a coffee? Fifteen minutes won’t make much of a difference”. This time she didn’t shy away, or move his hand. It was time to try her plan.

“I’m not keen on going inside a flat with someone I don’t know that well, but I will be okay in the car. You must know somewhere nearby where we can park unobserved for a while?” Most men would not have been able to believe their luck, but he took it all in his stride.

“That suits me. Drive past my place, then take the next on the right. There’s an old closed down shop there, with a car park behind”. Marian had guessed right. Somewhere he had brought other women.

When she stopped the car and switched off the lights, Lee casually opened the door and got out. “More room in the back”. She took off her shoes and got in the other side and he was immediately all over her, hands down her dress and up inside it too, slobbering, beery kisses. Foreplay was not in his dictionary, obviously.

Fumbling with the belt on his canvas trousers, he spoke without looking across at her. “Take your tights off, we can’t do anything with them on”. Marian acted as if she was turned on. “Just rip them, I’m not wasting time”.

As he was grunting away on top of her, she reached down and placed his hands around her neck. He spluttered saliva as he spoke. “Oh you like it rough do you?”, squeezing her throat as he carried on. She waited a while then brought her left hand up and dug her nails into the back of his hand, and along his wrist. He soon finished, and sat back grinning at her.

“Well you were a surprise and no mistake, a real tiger”. Fixing his shirt and trousers, He sat back against the door. “What now? You coming in for that coffee?” Marian shook her head. “I want to get home. You go, I will clean myself up and then drive home. Who knows? I might see you again one of these days.” He didn’t complain. He had got what he wanted, and his ego took over. “Then again, you might not. You weren’t that good, love”.

With that, he got out of the car and walked back in the direction of his flat.

Marian gave it less than ten minutes before she picked up her phone and dialled 999. She hyperventilated for a few moments before speaking.

“I need the police. Please help me, I have just been attacked and raped”.

Two police cars arrived quite quickly. Marian had given the name of the road she had seen on the sign, and said she was parked behind the closed-down shop. By the time they got there, her dress was torn at the cleavage and back pleat, and she had rubbed her eyes to smear the make-up.

After messing up her hair when she saw the blue lights flashing, she jumped out of the car and ran toward them before they could get out of their vehicles. Suitably hysterical, she fell into the arms of the first policeman to emerge, and sank to her knees on the ground.

A policewoman walked over and lifted her gently, taking her over to the second car and helping her sit in the back. After a brief barrage of questions, Marian pointed to the end of the road. “He lives on the left, just past the junction. A big house, with a Subaru car parked outside. He told me his name was Lee Fowler”. The policewoman shone a torch over her, checking for injuries. She spoke quietly, her tone gentle.

“We are going to take you to a special place, it’s called a rape victim’s suite. You are safe now, and will be looked after. Trust me”. Pointing at her car, Marian let some tears flow. “He dragged me over the driving seat. My shoes fell off, and they are still in there. My handbag too, and the car keys”.

The policewoman nodded. “I know, but your car is a crime scene now. We are getting experts to come and inspect everything and take photographs. All your things will be returned to you”. Another policeman got into the driving seat and started the car.

As the police car turned around behind the shop a third car arrived, and two more officers got out and stood by the hire car. The second car that had come to the scene drove away in the direction of Lee’s flat.

For a while, it was all a blur. The crackling of the police radios, numerous acronyms of letters that meant nothing to her, code numbers being called over handsets, and the bumping of the car as it drove fast to wherever they were going. The policewoman was saying something. “Do you want anyone notified? A partner? Husband? relative?” Marian shook her head. “No, I live alone”.

The special room she was taken to was laid out like a living room, with sofas, a coffee table, and even side lamps. Everything was explained to her in detail. All of her clothing would have to be taken as evidence. She would be provided with a tracksuit to wear, and some disposable slippers. She was given water, after decining tea or coffee, and then told that a female doctor and nurse would be coming to take photographs and swabs. “Don’t worry, you will be alone with them, and somewhere private”.

Swabs were taken between her legs, inside her mouth, on her neck, on her hands, and under her fingernails. Each one was put into a tube and marked with some numbers, her name, and date of birth. Her clothing went into large brown paper bags marked ‘Evidence’, and her name and different numbers were written on them.

Wearing the tracksuit and oversized slippers, Marian turned to the policewoman. “Can I have a shower, or at least a wash?” The woman patted her hand. “Once everything has been recorded, we can allow you to have a shower. It just has to be checked by CID first”.

Over an hour later, a young Indian woman came in, accompanied by an older woman with a kindly face.

“My name is Detective Inspector Banerjee, and this is Detective Sergeant Scott. We will be looking after you, Marian. You can go with the uniformed officer and have your shower now, but then we will need to ask you a lot of questions, okay?”

When she got back in the room, the detectives had set up a video camera on a tripod, and placed a laptop on the coffee table. They also had a voice-recording device next to the laptop. Inspector Banerjee motioned for her to sit on the sofa opposite.

“Just to let you know, the man you named has been arrested at his flat, and taken to a different police station. We are going to need a full statement, the best you can manage. I appreciate it has been a very difficult time for you, but I want you to tell me everything you can remember, from the first moment you met him this evening”. Marian sat down and took a deep breath

It was going to be a long night.

At no time did Marian feel she was not being believed, but the questioning was no less intrusive.

“Why did you go to the pub with a stranger?
“Why did you give him a lift home?”
“What were you doing outside his house in the first place?”
“Why did you get dressed up and drive all the way to Hertfordshire to visit a friend at an address you were not sure she still lived at?”

There were many more, but she was prepared with plausible answers, and stood her ground. The best thing was that there was no mention of Ros, Lyndsey, or Amanda. Retaining her married name had been useful on this occasion. It seemed that not one of the police officers had made any connection with her sister, or the barrister. When the same questions were repeated, she gave the same answers, unflinchingly.

“He seemed like a nice guy, and I felt bad about blocking his drive. I also felt stupid for forgetting the hire car would not start in Drive”.
“It seemed only right to give him a lift home when he had been so helpful”.
“I was outside his house because I took a wrong turning after filling up the car. I stopped to look at my phone, and then the car wouldn’t start”.
“I wanted to connect with my old friend again because I missed her, and the phone number I had for her wasn’t working. I had the hire car, some time off work, and that was how I decided to spend it”.

Inspector Banerjee tried to be kind.

“If I don’t ask you these questions now, the defence barrister is going to spring them on you, be aware of that, Marian. So why did you drive past his house and park behind the old shop?” Marian gave the same reply.

“Because he suddenly grabbed my throat, and said ‘Keep going, take the next right’. I could have tried stopping the car, but there was nobody around and I had never been in that situation before”. The police detective continued.

“So why did you get into the back with him”. Marian was firm.

“As I told you, I didn’t. He got into the back still holding my neck, and then dragged me over the seat. I guessed I was going to be raped, but that was better than being murdered. Have you ever been in that situation, Inspector? No? Then tell me what you would do. I tried to get his hands off my neck as he was doing it. I’m sure you will find scratches on him, if you bother to look”.

Marian kept her responses just the right side of outright anger at the questions.

That went on for almost another hour, then Banerjee turned off the voice recorder, and Sergeant Scott switched off the video camera.

“Okay, Marian. I have asked the CPS to charge Fowler with forced abduction and rape. The evidence is overwhelming, but is only as good as your statement holding up in court under cross-examination. Please don’t let me down, this could take weeks to come to trial. Can I count on you?” Marian nodded.

“Absolutely, one hundred percent”.

The women sat back, apparently convinced, and Sergeant Scott took over the conversation.

“Your hire car has been impounded for forensics. I will let them know, so you won’t be charged for the hire after tonight. I will get someone to drive you home soon. You can have your handbag and phone back, but the clothes and shoes will have to stay with us pending a trial and any subsequent appeal. It is called ‘Chain of evidence’, and is crucial. You must not speak to anyone about this case, especially any reporters or casual friends. Once Fowler appears to be remanded in custody, your name will be witheld until the trial. If you need more time off work, you can explain what happened to your doctor, and get a certificate. But you must not mention Fowler’s name, or any details that we might rely on in court”.

Amanda O’Neill had bolted the door as soon as it was dark. If the woman couldn’t be bothered to let her know if she was staying over, then she could bloody well sit in her car all night. Despite telling her she didn’t want to know what was going on, she really did want to know.

Perhaps more than she had ever wanted to know anything.

After the police car had brought her home to Hackney, Marian was unable to get any sleep until she had told Ros everything that had happened. After sleeping through most of the day the first call she made was to Amanda, to apologise for not turning up the night before. She gave her a rough idea of what was happening, and was surprised by her reply.

“When he is found guilty, I want to be there. Please let me know the date, and I will be in court”.

The next call was to Lyndsey, who was not as excited by the news as Marian had hoped she would be.

“He will appear at Magistrates Court this morning, and be held on remand awaiting trial. Given the severity of the charges, there is no way he will get bail. The police will prosecute, and if I am approached I will turn it down. It would seem far too obvious if I prosecuted him again. They will give you a hard time in court, so as soon as you have a trial date and witness warning, I want you to contact me. You can come over to mine and we will go through all the possible variations of his defence”.

Her third call was to her boss. She told him what had happened, and he immediately told her to take as much time off as she needed. At the same time, Ros was calling the shoe shop company, telling them she would be back to work on Monday. With Lee off the streets, she felt much more relaxed about returning to her own flat.

Marian then rang the car hire company, and arranged delivery of a replacement car. If they knew why the previous car had been impounded, that wasn’t mentioned.

Ros was packing up her personal things, when she suddenly turned to her sister. “You should let Denise know Lee is in prison. That might help her case with Social Services on Friday”. But Denise didn’t answer her phone. Not that first time, or on the next four times Marian tried during the evening. Once the hire car had been delivered, Marian got changed and drove Ros home. They ordered a takeaway pizza and ate it in Ros’s flat before she drove back to Hackney.

Alone in her flat that evening, she sat drinking white wine, and thinking about the last twenty-four hours. The one saving grace was that Lee could not have got her pregnant, as she had stayed on the pill after splitting up with Steve. Now that she had taken her revenge, it all started to overwhelm her, and she broke down in tears.

By late Friday afternoon, she had heard nothing from Denise, and had stopped trying to contact her. She was not about to leave an answerphone message, and didn’t want her number to appear so many times on the phone records, just in case anything went wrong later. But by Saturday morning, she had lost all patience, and drove over to Denise’s house. Wearing a beanie hat covering her hair, and an old scruffy raincoat she had not got around to throwing away, she walked up to the front door.

“She’s gone, love. Ireland, she told me. Staying with a cousin, I think. Cork maybe, somwehere like that anyway. She got a taxi to the station on Thursday morning with Daisy. They had a case and bags. I asked her what was up, and she said a cousin was ill in Ireland. If you ask me, I reckon she’s skipped on the rent”.

The loud voice startled her, and she looked around to find it was coming from the house next door. A woman about sixty was leaning out of an upstairs window, partially obscured by a curtain. Not wanting to engage with her, Marian nodded, waved, and walked back to her car.

Driving away from the woman’s sight, Marian stopped at the end of the street to compose herself. She was furious with Denise, but also with herself. She should have known. Once she had the thousand pounds, Denise had fled to Ireland, rather than face the questioning from Social Services. She was also probably terrified that Lee would come after her.

Oh well, she had her abduction and rape case. The child molestation would have been the icing on the cake, but that was not to be. No doubt the Social Services would be after her, and eventually find her in Ireland. But that was no longer her problem.

She would run with what she had, and be the most convincing witness in legal history.

Inspector Banerjee contacted Marian a couple of weeks later. She wanted her to meet with a police appointed solicitor who was to instruct a prosecution barrister, but only once they had a trial date. To make life convenient, the meeting would be held in a London office, so she wouldn’t have to travel to Hertfordshire. She warned Marian that a trial date could take months to be arranged, but would be in the Crown Court at St Alban’s. Accommodation would be arranged if she wanted it, as the trial was expected to last at least a week, if not longer.

“You will have to pay for it yourself, I’m afraid, but it has to be better than travelling up from London every day. But if you prefer to do that, it is your choice. Of course, he might plead guilty, in which case you will not have to appear at all. But given his history, I think you should expect a not guilty plea, and a defence of consensual sex”.

Marian realised that life had to return to normal, in as much as it could. It was unacceptable not to go into work for months, and Ros had already started to carry on as if not much had happened. That included very little contact with her sister, who started to feel rather resentful that she had done all this to try to get justice for Ros, who had quickly slipped back into her normal routine of life before Lee attacked her.

That resentment came with doubts. Had it really been that bad for Ros? She had hit her face in the car because she removed her seat belt. Then the cuts on her head because she jumped out of the car in a dangerous location. Was her anger really directed at the police? After all, it was the original policewoman who had written off any chance of Lee being charged that night.

But when she was thinking straight, she was resolute. Men like Lee could not continue to treat women like that, and she felt a responsibility to protect her younger sister, even if she hadn’t seemed to be very grateful since. Then there was Amanda. Her life ruined by contact with Lee, a man she foolishly believed she was in love with. Lyndsey had tried her best for years to get justice for victims, only to be foiled by the fear of the victims themselves, or the inadequacies of the investigating police officers.

She would make a difference. She would be the one to put Lee behind bars, and hopefully send out a message to other victims. Be strong. Make them pay.

The next Monday, she went back to work. Her boss called her in and asked if she needed anything, before thanking her for coming back. She warned him that once there was a trial date she might need to be absent again, for up to three weeks. He waved that away.

“Whatever we can do to help. That man needs to be in prison. How about we arrange a car to take you to and from St Albans? I am sure the company can spare one of the chauffeurs”. That solved the issue of staying in a hotel, or using trains. Marian accepted gracefully, and assured him she would work hard up to the trial, and even harder after it was all over.

For the next month, she lived in a strange kind of limbo. Other than her boss, nobody at work mentioned anything about the rape. But she saw the faces, and heard the soft tones in their voices. They all knew, and she was certain of that. Ros rarely phoned her, Amanda was completely silent, and there was no point contacting Lyndsey until she had a definite date. As for her friends outside of work, none of them were aware what had happened. When they got in touch, invited her over, or out for drinks, she pleaded being too busy at work, and too tired.

She didn’t want anyone knowing until it was actually happening. She could make her apologies later, tell them that the police had forbidden her to speak to anyone about the case.

Evenings in the flat settled into a routine. Drinking a little too much wine, eating easy ready-meals instead of cooking, and watching mindless crap on TV, to stop her thinking about standing in a witness box. Seven weeks after that night in her hire car, her phone rang one evening on her way home from work. It was Inspector Banerjee.

“Eight weeks from today, Monday the fourth. We were lucky, getting an early trial date. I will arrange the meeting with the solictor for next week.”

Hanging up, she swallowed hard. Now it was real.

The meeting at an office in London was not only with the solicitor, but also the prosecuting barrister. Both men were upbeat about the chances of a conviction, but after the usual pleasantries, they were also adamant that it all depended on Marian staying strong in the witness box. The barrister was an elderly man named Pettifer, and he didn’t mince his words.

“We have one prosecution witness who matters, and that is you, Marian. The others are police officers and forensic experts, and juries tend to gloss over what they say, as it is usually too technical. You have to take those jurors inside that car with you, make them feel the fear, let them know that you could not fight off a stronger man, and that there was no point screaming for help in a remote location. Don’t be afraid to look at them as you give your evidence, and if the defence ask you anything unacceptable, don’t answer it. Leave it to me to object”.

The solicitor added a few tips.

“You do not have to explain why you went for a drink with a stranger. It is perfectly acceptable to do that, if the man appeared to have been agreeable, and you felt you owed him some company for helping you start the car. It was also perfectly okay for you to give him a lift home, as he had said he would show you a quick route onto the motorway. You were not intoxicated, had given him no encouragement, and had he not forced you to drive to the spot behind the abandoned garage, you could fully have expected the evening to have ended on a friendly farewell”.

There was a lot of other legal stuff of course, most of which went over Marian’s head. She had never appeared in a court, never been convicted of any crime, not even a motoring offence. Even her uncontested divorce had not required going to court, as everything had been done by a family solicitor, and she had just had to sign a lot of paperwork. If she had hoped the meeting would reassure her, she had been wrong. Everything was on her to be convincing. Or Lee Fowler would get off, and it would have all have been for nothing.

After what seemed an eternity, the men appeared to be happy that she would be strong in court, and said they would see her on the day. There were handshakes, then a belated mention that she should dress appropriately, and then she was on the street, her mind a blur. After a large gin and tonic in a nearby pub, she travelled back to Hackney and telephoned Lyndsey.

“That’s good. They have picked an older man to prosecute, not a woman. That will get the jury onside. He will have some gravitas, and they will not presume he is fighting a cause, as they so often did with me. Don’t worry about the legal stuff, that will all be done in your absence. But you can expect at least two days in the witness box, possibly three. Come and see me this week, and I will talk you through it, act like the defence, and see how well you answer my questions. Don’t tell anyone you are coming to see me, and keep phone calls to a minimum”.

Marian agreed to visit Lyndsey the next day, while it was all fresh in her mind.

Back at her flat, she rang Ros to tell her what had happened.

“You will be fine, sis. I have complete confidence that you will put that animal away where he belongs”.

That wasn’t really the answer Marian had hoped for.

Her next call was to Amanda, leaving a message on her answerphone. To her surprise, Amanda picked up before the recording kicked in.

“Hello. I don’t know how to thank you. I could not possibly go to the trial, but I am determined to go to the sentencing once he is convicted. If he is”. That was not the answer Marian had been hoping for.

That night, a bottle of Chablis slipped down too easily. After a very small dinner of cheese and crackers, she went looking for more wine and only found some Soave left over from last Christmas.

But she drank all of that, and went to bed early.

Marian was up early to drive to Lyndsey’s house on the other side of London. A nagging headache reminded her she had drunk two bottles of wine the night before, so she took two paracetamol along with three cups of espresso.

Typical London traffic did not improve her mood, and it took her a ridiculously long time to traverse the twelve miles across the city.

Lyndsey was still wearing a dressing gown when she answered the door, but other than not bothering about her appearance, she was well-prepared for the business in hand.

“Come in, I have a pot of coffee going, and there are some croissants from yesterday. I will warm them up, they will be fine, I promise”.

What followed was three solid hours of interrogation. It was so intense, there were times when Marian actually forgot Lyndsey was on her side. At times, the questioning was so personal, so rude, she had to reach into her bag for tissues when she felt tears forming. Lyndsey was relentless. “If you think I’m bad, wait until you get into the witness box. You may not realise it now, but you will thank me once the defence barrister starts grilling you”.

There was a break for lunch, paninis served with bacon and brie that were very welcome.

After that, Lyndsey went through procedure in court. “Don’t expect to be called for a few days. I am presuming he is pleading not guilty, so that will involve a lot of legal arguments. The jury will be removed for that, and no witnesses -that’s you- will be called. Then there will be the police officers, the technicians talking about forensics, the evidence from the swabs, DNA and such, You could be there for days before being called. But your solicitor and barrister will be around to hold your hand between arguments”.

By four in the afternoon, Lyndsey concluded that she had no more to say. Marian declined her offer of more coffee, and promised to ring her if there were any questions during the trial. She was back in her car and on her way back to Hackney before five, feeling totally drained.

On the day of the trial, her boss came good. The chauffeur collected her early, and gave her his mobile number. “I will have to find somewhere to park, get lunch and that. So whenever you are ready to be picked up, just let me know”. On the way to St Albans he made no comment about the trial, keeping his occasional conversation to traffic issues, and what had been on TV the previous night.

Somewhat overwhelmed by the busy court building, Marian was relieved to see the solicitor in the lobby. He took her to a small room where she met the barrister again. What he said then made her question why she even needed to be there.

“I doubt much will happen today. We have jury selection, some small legal arguments, and he has pled not guilty, as expected. From what I can gather from mutual disclosure, he is going with a standard defence of consensual sex, followed by regret. The DNA is not contested, as he admits to having sex with you. As for the rest, he is claiming you asked him for rough sex, and he went along with that. Don’t worry, we have overwhelming evidence, including CCTV from the pub. Just stay strong, my dear”.

It went more or less as expected. Marian sat around in different parts of the courtroom until it was suggested she go for lunch, then shortly after the solicitor appeared to tell her to come back tomorrow. He was strangely upbeat.

“This could be a short trial after all. The other witnesses are called to appear tomorrow, so you could well be on in a couple of days”.

If that was supposed to make her feel better, it had the opposite effect.

Back at her flat that night, she microwaved a lasagna, and drunk a bottle of Prosecco in twenty-five minutes. Her mind was whirring with possibilites. What if the jury believed Lee? What would his legal team ask her? Would she stand up to the questions in a packed courtroom? It could now be reported by the press. How would they deal with that? Would it go national, or only be relevant to Hertfordshire?

Sleep was not easy to come by, and she was grateful for the oblivion provided by the wine.

By Thursday afternoon, Marian was on edge. Nerves mixed with boredom, four days spent sitting around in court and wondering what was happening. Both the solicitor and the barrister were occupied in the courtroom, and one or other of them would appear during the lunch break to reassure her. But they could not really explain what was happening, other than to placate her with phrases like, “It’s going well”.

All week she had avoided drinking any alcohol. Not good to have to give evidence with a hangover, no matter how much she felt she needed a drink to relax her in the evenings.And she had heard nothing from Ros or Amanda. Nor from Lyndsey, but that was to be expected as she was keeping a low profile.

Friday started off much the same, then just before lunch, the solicitor appeared. “Be ready for the call after lunch. The preliminaries are over it seems, and you will be called this afternoon”.

Marian headed straight for the toilets, and stood by the sinks with butterflies filling her stomach. She could not face eating anything, sure it would make her feel sick. She settled for a strong coffee, and stood outside the court in the fresh air for a while to gather her thoughts.

When the clerk of the court shouted her name over an hour later, it made her jump.

Inside, the courtroom was more modern than she had expected. It felt nothing like the old films she had watched as a child, and was strangely quiet as she went into the witness box to take the oath in front of a curved microphone. Lee was sitting in the dock dressed in a suit and tie, flanked by two prison officers or court officers, she wasn’t sure which.

And he was staring straight at her, with a wide grin on his face. She looked across at the jury, quickly counting seven women and five men. They seemed distracted, making notes on paper pads, or looking across at the judge in her robes as she invited Mister Pettifer to begin questioning. So it was a female judge, and more women than men in the jury. That seemed positive to Marian, and she stood up straight, ready for the first question.

The question did not come. No sooner had the barrister stood up, when the other barrister, the one defending Lee, also stood up. Pettifer sat down as the younger man asked the judge for time to discuss some legal mumbo-jumbo. Both barristers walked over to the judge’s chair and spoke very quietly. She eventually nodded her head, and delcared an adjournment until Monday morning.

Outside in the lobby area, the solicitor came and took Marian to one side. He was smiling. “I cannot say for sure, but it appears we might have a change of plea. Come back on Monday, and we will know for sure”. Feeling dazed and confused by it all, she went outside and phoned the chauffeur.

With no court for two days, Marian allowed herself a bottle of wine to accompany a delivered pizza. There was no way she could concentrate enough to cook a meal. The wine made her bold, and she telephoned Ros, spoiling for an argument. When she got her sister’s answerphone, she left a scathing message.

“Please don’t worry about me. Don’t bother to contact me to see how I am. After all, I am only doing all this for you, because of what happened. To be honest, I don’t know why I bothered, I really don’t”.

Just after eleven that night, the ringing of her phone woke her up from a hazy sleep on the sofa. It was Ros, who seemed to be in an equally shitty mood. She also sounded drunk.

“I didn’t ask you to do anything. I just came to see you because I was upset and injured, but you took over, took over like you always did. The wonderful older sister, the clever one, the one in charge. You made the plans, you contacted the others, I was happy to leave it as it was, but you had to make the big sacrifice. What were you trying to prove? I already knew that you thought you were better than me, thought I was an embarrassment. Now I wish I hadn’t bothered, because you are exactly the same as you have always been, the big I Am”.

Not wanting to listen to more of the same, and too tired to argue, Marian hung up.

As soon as she arrived at court the following Monday, Marian was met by the solicitor, who was waiting outside.

“It’s good news. Fowler has changed his plea to guilty. As well as the defence being sure that you would be a convincing witness, the forensic evidence was overwhelming. If they had continued with a not guilty plea and lost, the sentencing would have been far more severe”.

Marian did not feel she should be pleased to hear that Lee might get a lighter sentence. “So I don’t get to say what happened? Take the jury inside the car, and all that other stuff? Why did the court accept the change of plea? Pettifer should have pressed for the trial to continue”. The man seemed a little peeved by her attitude.

“Take it from me, you have been spared something of an ordeal in the witness box. Besides, it is the law of the land to be allowed to change your plea to guilty. It saves court time, and also a great deal of money. Mister Pettifer is in court now, asking for the maximum sentence for Fowler. There will be reports to be considered before sentencing, which will be two weeks from today. You can go home now, and try to put this all behind you”.

Her first call was to Lyndsey, who confirmed what the solicitor had told her. “He has no previous convictions for sexual offences or rape, so don’t expect too much. If he stayed not guilty and was convicted, he might have got fifteen years, even more. This way, it will definitely be less than that. But he will go away for a long time, be on the sexual offender’s register, and you can all go back to your normal lives. As for me, I have had enough. I am going to open an advice centre for victims of domestic violence. I have applied for funding from a charity to get started, then there are grants that I can explore”.

With no interest in Lyndsey’s future career, Marian had already tuned out of the conversation. So she finished the call and rang the chauffeur to collect her. Waiting until she was home, she called Amanda. As soon as she heard the voice on her machine, Amanda picked up.

“Okay, so he changed to guilty, and will be going to prison. That’s good. I will come to the court by taxi on that Monday, and watch him get sentenced. That way I will know he won’t be around. Hopefully I can relax after that. Don’t approach me around the court though, nobody must be aware that we know each other”.

By late afternoon, Marian decided to call her boss and update him. He was so nice to her, it made her tearful.

“Take the two weeks. Go in for the sentencing and see it through. Then you can come back to work and have a fresh start. No need to come back full-time to start with, ease back into your routine gently. Please ring me if there is anything else I can do, you have my home number, and my mobile too. The driver will collect you on the Monday, and wait to bring you back”.

The hire car was no longer going to be needed. She didn’t have to go back to see Amanda or Lyndsey, and as far as Ros was concerned, she was on her own from now on. After arranging to send it back, and a time for collection, she realised just how much she had been spending on it. What with that, and using up an entire year of holiday, pursuing this plan had cost her a lot.

It had also cost her much more, psychologically.

The pressure was off though. No more coutroom drama, or worries about being caught out by cross-examination. She stopped drinking every night, got back into cooking, and even telephoned some of her old friends. The case had made the local TV news in Hertfordshire, but luckily had not warranted national coverage, as far as the media was concerned. Once life got back to something resembling normal, she would tell her friends what had happened.

On the day of sentencing, she had to sit in the public gallery. Amanda was already there when she arrived, and despite wearing sunglasses inside, it was so obviously her. Marian sat at the other end of the row, and didn’t glance at her. There was some legal stuff at first, but she wasn’t really listening to that. She was staring at Lee, as he stood in the dock with his head bowed. Presumably trying to look repentant.

Raising her voice, the judge made some remarks about a ‘heinous attack’, ‘abuse of an innocent woman’, and having to ‘set an example’.

Then she gave him nine years.

Lee fowler considered himself to be a tough guy, but he soon found out that life in prison was tougher than he had ever imagined. For one thing, the other inmates were not women, and Lee had only ever brutalised and intimidated women. For another, he was a sex offender, a convicted rapist guilty by his own admission. Neither the guards nor the other prisoners cared what happened to him, and he would have no friends inside, not one.

His only option was to apply for Rule 45. That would mean he would be confined in segregation with other sex offenders. Those even worse than him. The paedophiles, those who had committed incest with their own children, the baby rapists, and assorted other nut-jobs and crazies. If he didn’t do that his food would be spat in, or worse, and he could be attacked at will, or raped, with the guards turning a blind eye. If he wanted to get out unscathed, and alive, he had to apply.

He was told that he had to show good behaviour. Being involved in any trouble in prison would say goodbye to being paroled, and he would have to serve the full nine. As well as that, he could be charged for additional offences committed in prison, and get more time added on.

So he set about being a model prisoner.

A surprising benefit of being in segregation was that he quickly learned a great deal. The Stalkers told him how to stalk someone. Other more accomplished serial rapists told him how to find good targets once he was on the outside. Those who had been out before and were back in for repeat offences told him how to behave on the outside, and how to avoid attracting the attention of the police once he was released.

It was a veritable college for perverts.

And despite not being allowed Internet access or mobile phones, the prison was full of them, hidden in the most ingenious places. Lee received lessons in how to track people from their Facebook posts, or photos publshed on Twitter and Instagram. He discovered how to do basic hacking to find mobile phone numbers that had been changed, even names that had been changed. You could find out when a house or flat had been sold, and how much it had sold for.

Social media was a marvellous tool, because people were so careless.

Online Friends and contacts were like skeleton keys into a life. Find the friends, look at the lists of contacts, and sooner or later you would find the person. Photos of parties at work, photos of weekend breaks and holidays. They put it all out there, seemingly oblivious to the potential dangers. Lee was like a greedy child in a sweet shop, eager to take it all in, and learning fast.

There were more lessons to learn. How to avoid leaving behind any DNA evidence. What kind of clothing did not shed fibres easily, get your hair cropped or shave your head so there would be less chance of hair samples. Use plastic shoe-covers that left no footprints. Not only was Lee becoming a trouble-free, model prisoner, he was also one of the best students. He studied at the feet of the masters, conveniently overlooking the fact that those self-styled experts had all been caught and convicted.


Marian’s boss Michael had been good to his word. She settled back into work slowly, eventually finding her old self in a mind jumbled by trauma. After almost a year, he told her to call him Michael, and then invited her out for dinner. She knew he was divorced, and had never thought of him that way, but she accepted graciously.

Away from work, Michael was a revelation. He was funny, great company, well-travelled, and generous to a fault.

The dinner date led to a few more dates, and six months later, a weekend away in Dublin. He had been to the city many times, and showed her the sights like a native. In the office, they had maintained the working relationship, but everyone knew they had become an item.

Biding his time, Michael left it another year before suggesting they move in together. They could pool their resources and buy a nice flat, maybe even a small house. Despite paying for the upkeep of his sixteen year-old son, that wouldn’t last forever, and dividing time between her Hackney flat and his place in Barnet seemed pointless.

When she agreed to discuss that plan, he told her he was in love with her.

As Lee aproached the end of his fourth year of imprisonment, Marian was preparing for her wedding. Once her and Michael had bought an attractive two-bedroom cottage in Arkley, not far from where Michael had been living, he didn’t wait that long before proposing. His son was at university now, and they had been getting on so well that Marian accepted without hesitation.

They were of an age where children would not feature, so once they had settled into married life they could travel, and just enjoy the companionship.

Things with Ros had remained shaky for a year after the trial, but she had eventually come round. Once the wedding was in the planning stage, she was keen to be a bridesmaid and to trek around with her sister choosing a wedding dress. It was going to be a small affair, held at the Country Club north of Barnet. Marian had gone so far as to issue invitations to both Lyndsey and Amanda, but neither had replied. Their loss then.

Although they still worked together, Michael had suggested a move for Marian. He had recommended her for a better job at the company of one of his university friends. She was excited to be starting in her new post following the honeymoon in Italy.

Ros was still managing the same shop. Most of her team were still there, sales were good, and she was well thought-of. There had been some talk of her moving to head office to train as a buyer, but she was happy where she was, and still enjoyed living in her flat. She didn’t want to contemplate a move to Northampton.

Still living behind closed doors and rarely venturing out, Lee’s imprisonment had not provided the closure that Amanda had hoped for. Feeling ever-growing guilt about her involvement in framing him, she was conflicted. How had lying about a crime that never happened been fair? Whatever Lee had done in the past could not justify that in her mind. Even though she knew he was in a prison a long way from where she lived, she was unable to relax. What if he escaped? What would happen once he was let out on parole? So she stuck to her old routine, checking her cameras and not answering the phone.

Lyndsey was running a legal advice centre for abused women in West London. She was often featured on the TV news, and made it her priority to speak out for battered wives and girlfriends whenever possible. Her public profile was large, very active, and well-known. As for the Lee Fowler case, and Marian and Ros, she barely remembered that period in her life.

Denise Fowler was in prison in Ireland for fraud. She had taken work as a carer, befriended an old man she looked after, and used his bank card to steal over eight thousand euros from his bank account. There was some implication in the court that she had given him sexual favours to avoid suspicion, and she received two years.

She had not been intelligent enough to realise that bank cash machines had cameras in them, and that evidence had convicted her easily. Her defence that he had willingly given her the money because he was in love with her had not been accepted by the jury. Daisy had been taken into care, and was living in a children’s home just outside Dublin.


Lee had a new cellmate. Duncan was originally from Scotland, but had committed his crimes around North London. He was a woman-hater, and a serial rapist. On their first night in a cell together, he planted a seed in Lee’s mind that grew and grew. He had not raped that woman Marian. She had suggested sex in the car, and he had only changed his plea to guilty to avoid a much longer sentence because of the forensic evidence.

Up to then, he had put that from his mind. He knew he had got away with similar crimes, and worse, so had accepted he could do nothing when faced with Marian’s determination to put him away. But why she did that had remained a mystery for four years.

As the weeks went on, Lee became obsessed. He wanted to know why. Why had that woman ruined his life? But then something happened on the prison wing that caused disruption. Duncan killed someone after an argument about using the pool table, so Lee was moved. The prison he was moved to had no suitable segregation place, and suddenly he was plunged into the horror of the general population.

He soon realised that everyone knew his story, and seemed to be out to get him.

Despite doing his best to claim he had been framed, and avoiding the various tough guys in the new prison, he was finally ‘kettled’ one afternoon. A kettle full of boiling water, mixed with a large amount of sugar, was thrown over his face by John Murphy, the top con on the wing. Lucky not to lose his sight, Lee spent two weeks under guard in hospital, followed by various trips to the Regional Burns Unit. When it was all over, he was badly scarred, and full of hatred for the woman that had put him in there.

The authorities quickly transferred him to a segregation unit, and on his second week there, he received a letter. It was a personal letter, hand-written on nice paper.

After reading it, he smiled. Then he read it again.

After serving five years and one month of his nine-year sentence, Lee Fowler was given parole. There were the usual restrictions. He had to report to the local police station, and attend meetings with his probation officer. If he failed to do that, or got into any trouble, he would be returned to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence.

He no longer had his small flat, as he had been unable to pay the rent in prison. His car had also been impounded, as it had not been taxed or insured. Naturally, he had no money to get the car back, and had to accept accommodation at a probation hostel until he could find somewhere to live. He had to leave prison with the clothes he had arrived in, the few pounds on him when he was arrested, and a small prisoner discharge grant to get him started.

The future was potentially bleak. Now having to disclose he was on the Sex Offender’s Register meant there were many jobs he could not apply for. Finding a place of his own with no job would not be easy, and being away for those years meant much had changed out in the real world.

But Lee was remarkably upbeat, and smiling as he walked through the gates to freedom.


Marriage to Michael had been better than Marian had expected. They had both experienced failed marriages in the past, and had learned lessons about compromise, and living with someone else. The honeymoon in Tuscany had been memorable, and her new job was everything she had hoped it would be. Being in charge of her own department allowed her to implement new ideas and changes, and all were well-received by a team of staff who seemed to be delighted to work for her. On their first wedding anniversary, Michael had surpised her with a long weekend in New York, and it had been a thrilling experience.

Ros had to admit that her sister had changed. She liked Michael too, he was really good for Marian. She seemed younger, eager to try new things, and their relationship had blossomed into what Ros had always hoped it could have been. And she had a new man too, the man in charge of all the property at the shopping centre. He oversaw the maintenance of the building, the cleaning, the escalators, and everything to do with the smooth running of a large shopping mall. Nick was a go-getter, and not yet forty. After nine months together, he was talking children in the future, and a nice house in Hatfeld once they had saved the deposit.

The legal advice centre had been such a success, Lyndsey had opened two more offices; one in Manchester, the other in Birmingham. Council grants, donations from concerned individuals, and charitable appeals had made it all possible. There had been no shortage of lawyers wanting to work in them either. So many were disillusioned with the current legal process, she had more applications than vacancies. And volunteers ran the ancillary roles, answering helplines, arranging interviews, anything that was needed. She finally felt that she had discovered her purpose in life.


Amanda had a car now. Nothing fancy, just a little Smart Car. But it was brand new, and she used it to run around to the shops, or anywhere she neded to go locally. The past year had changed her outlook on life completely. Although she still had the cameras, she no longer set the alarms at night, and used just one lock on her door. The fear had not gone completely, but she felt sure it would soon.

No more spending all day in her pyjamas either. Her new short bobbed hairstyle suited her, she thought. The outfits she had bought after losing weight at the gym set off her figure, and she felt whole again, an attractive woman in her prime.

Using the built-in Satnav, she found the prison easily and waited by the gate, staying in the car. She had got up early to get ready, wanting to look her best. When he walked through the gates he looked heavier. Prison food, probably, and lack of exercise. She had known about the scarred face of course, but it was a shock to see the twisted skin on the left side. He smiled as he saw the car, and quickened his pace.

Sending the letters had been cathartic for her. She had washed away the guilt, then rediscovered the love she had felt for him before that fateful night. Looking back, what had been that terrible? Yes, he had pushed her over in the garage, but he had been upset about the watch. Yes, he had hit her head in the car door, but only because he had been drunk. Why not give him a second chance? She had never lost those intiial feelings for him, even during the years when she lived as a shut-in.

As she drove off with him by her side where he belonged, she was already chatting happily.

“I know where they are, all three of them. I will help you make them pay for what they did to you”.

The End.

The Prodigy: The Complete Story

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

The story was suggested by a first line supplied by Chris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger started to become angry.

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

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

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

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

She had definitely created something totally original.

That night, the thought of that kept him awake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he had his books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now he was running out of excuses.

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

It was giving him a headache.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And none of them were fitting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily was disrupting his routine.

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

Too late now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Delia made her move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wanted her reward, and Roger paid in full.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That proved that he definitely had something to hide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily had taken his bait and swallowed it whole.

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

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

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

It just didn’t feel right.

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

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

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

He knew nothing about boats.

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

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

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

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

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

He would do it as soon as term resumed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, he just said thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily appeared to be delighted.

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

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

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

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

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

His next destination was Delia’s house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if they got it wrong.

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

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

But he still rang the doorbell.

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

They were all locked.

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

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

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

But they were.

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

He nodded, much relieved.

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

It was Riku Yamada.

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

They both agreed, without hesitation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delia had a question that wouldn’t wait.

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

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

Riku sat down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delia had something to say once the fresh coffee arrived.

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

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

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

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

Putting down her cup, Delia wanted to know something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was going back, and nothing would stop him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When he nodded that he understood, she continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End.

Just The Driver: The Complete Story

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

**Contains some swearing!**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So much for me being just the driver!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another one with a name ending in Y.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you up to here, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I’m just the driver”.

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

Anything to take my mind off encountering Brian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first ‘modern woman’.

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

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

I could no longer be just the driver.

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

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

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

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

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

And no criminals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me? No. I’m just the driver”.

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

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

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

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

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

Upset her, and someone would find you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was good advice, and I took it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was completely out of his league.

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

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

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

That was the last time I ever saw her.

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

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

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

They would be told I was just the driver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We never saw him again.

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

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

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

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

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

The End.


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

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

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

The Pubs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Characters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street Life: The Complete Story

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


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

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

View original post 18,349 more words

Longer Stories: Travelodge

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


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

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

Part One: Chris

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

View original post 11,008 more words

A Real Spy Story: The Complete Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded to agree that I understood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen’s face lit up as she continued.

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

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

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

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

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

I had questions, but she wanted to keep talking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lighting another cigarette, Helen leaned forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She swallowed the rest of the vodka.

“Good evening Miss Renton. Welcome to Odessa”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She poured more vodka, and lit another cigarette.

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

Helen stopped to swallow half the tumbler of vodka.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She lit a cigarette, and grinned at me.

“And that is exactly what I did”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen paused to drink some vodka.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen stopped to go into the kitchen and refill her glass. When she came back, she remained standing.

“Why don’t we sit in the lounge for a change? I have never taken you in there, which is remiss of me”.

Following her back into the hallway, we went into the small living room at the front of the house. It was sparsely furnished, and had a musty, unused smell. Garishly patterned small sofas stood opposite each other, with a formica-topped coffee table in between. On a small writing desk under the window, there was a fairly modern Dell laptop, and in the original fireplace was an ancient electric convector heater. I would have preferred to have stayed in our usual spot, but sat down opposite her and set up my camera.

“I suppose you must be wondering how I ever got out, and what I am doing in this shabby little house in Hastings? Well, all will be made clear. Three years after Natalia left Penal Colony Four, Anna came to tell me I had a visitor. The parcels had still been arriving, and Anna particularly liked to see the glossy magazines that sometimes came in them. But nobody had been to see me for almost four years. That new century Natalia had gone on about wasn’t proving to be very hopeful for me. It was Barbara in the visiting room. Her hair was turning grey by then, and she had lost a lot of weight. I also had grey hair, but unlike her, I was getting fatter on the stodgy prison food and the extra parcels sent in”.

She grabbed her belly, and squeezed it, to demonstrate the fat was still there. Then she lit a cigarette, sliding a large amber glass ashtray from the centre of the coffee table.

“Barbara was going home. She needed medical treatment, and had been posted back to England. But she said she wanted to give me some encouraging news before she left, and to let me know that a man named Desmond would be coming to see me in future. I confess that I was cold to her. After being dumped and ignored, left rotting in prison for so long, I could see no point in being civil in my dealings with those minor diplomats, Martin. Anyway, she told me that the Foreign Office had submitted a formal application for my release. Of course, they didn’t mention spying, just that one of their employees had been ‘mistakenly detained’. How do you like that turn of phrase, mistakenly detained? I had been in Russian prisons for forty-one years, that’s longer than a murderer gets in England. Now my employers were trying to have it written off as some kind of administrative error. Barbara went on to say that when I was eventually released, I would receive a lump sum in back pay, help with accommodation, and a full Civil Service Pension. She seemed to think that being financially well off should make me happy”.

Pausing to drink more vodka, Helen was shaking her head.

“All I could focus on was that she had used the word ‘eventually’

“Well it turned out eventually was going to mean never. I got very down when nobody came from the British Consulate. The parcels stil arrived, but I only kept the cigarettes, exchanging everything else for vodka, which Anna managed to smuggle in for me. I still hadn’t seen the Chief Warden of the camp, and two years after Barbara’s last visit, I made a formal application to do just that. Anna told me it would be at the start of the next week, and she would have to handcuff me to take me to the administration block. On the day, she was very apologetic, telling me she thought it was so silly to have to put an old lady into restraints. I was surprised how far away the offices were, as we had to walk for at least ten minutes, possibly almost fifteen. That walk made me realise just how vast the camp was. I could only imagine how many prisoners were held there. Outside the Warden’s office, Anna warned me to speak softly, and not to become angry”.

Helen leaned forward, lit a cigarette, then blew the smoke away from me, up at the low ceiling. I had started to become genunely concerned about passive smoking, after all the hours I had spent with her.

“In the office, a surprisingly young man sat behind a small desk covered in files. He had one open in front of him, which I presumed was mine. I had to stand in front of him, looking respectful. He asked me if there was anything I needed, so I said I desperately needed glasses so I could read properly. Even holding books as far as my arms would reach, I had started to give up after one chapter. He made a note in the file, and asked me if there was something else. His tone was kind, so I chanced saying what I was really there for. I mentioned what Barbara had said, the formal application for my release from detention. I respectfully suggested that it was taking a long time to arrange, and that I would appreciate his help in making that happen. He looked very confused, Martin. Flicking through the file, he raised his eyebrows. I can never forget what he said next.

“You appear to be misinformed, prisoner Renton. If fact, it was the Russian Federation that contacted the British Consulate, asking them to arrange for your collection from this facility as we no longer had any need to keep you here. I have the name of the person we spoke to, a Mister John Holdsworth. He is listed as one of your visitors. You understand these things have to be formally arranged. We cannot very well just open the gate and say farewell. Documents have to be signed, and you have to be handed over officially”.

She paused as I sat taking that in.

“I was in shock, Martin. They had lied to me, pretending that the Russians were causing the delay. Then after they were notified and realised they had just forgotten me, they were paying me off with food parcels and cigarettes, leaving me hoping that release was a real option. You cannot imagine how much I hated them that day. I thanked the Warden, and agreed that I would raise the matter with the next visitor from the Consulate. On the way back to my block, my legs felt like jelly, and Anna had to hold me to stop me from falling over. I asked her to get me some extra vodka, and I would make sure she had everything from my next parcel. She came to my cell after dinner, and produced two bottles, telling me to try not to be too sad”.

Talking about the vodka must have jogged her memory that her glass was empty, and she left me in the room as she went to fill it up.

“That night I got roaring drunk, and I swore that one day I would get my own back by telling my story. The next day I felt awfully hungover, but had to act sober when an optician came with equipment to test my eyes. Three days later, I received two pairs of metal-framed glasses. Anna let me look at myself in a small mirror she had in her bag, and we both laughed when she said I looked like a college professor. Everything had snapped into focus, but I had to take them off unless I was reading, or they made me dizzy. Shall we call it a day now, Martin?”

After getting my stuff together, I walked down to the seafront to read through my notes in the fresh air.

Helen was ready for me the next morning, reasonably well dressed, showered, and wearing some make-up. But she was clutching a glass of vodka as she opened the door, and I felt sure she had been drinking for some time before I arrived. She led me into the back room, obviously happier there than in her rarely-used small lounge. She had already smoked one cigarette by the time I set up, and lit another one before starting to relate her story.

“So, there was no contact from the Consulate. No visit from the never-seen Desmond, and only the parcels of food and luxuries denoted that they still knew I existed. Anna stuck by me, making sure I didn’t descend into a mental black hole, and treating me like I was an extra grandmother. On her days off, Olga was not so friendly. I got the feeling she had long ago tired of having to babysit me when my special guard was off duty. Nothing changed for me, nothing at all, though I was grateful for the reading glasses which enabled me to read the books sent in every month. The night before my seventieth birthday, Anna brought me a present. Ten years together, and she never forgot a birthday. It was a Matryoshka nesting doll, a very nice example in black laquer with different designs on each of the seven dolls. She told me that it showed love of family, respect for elders, and was traditional. I cried at her thoughtful gift, and she hugged me until I regained my composure”.

She poured more vodka, and as she hadn’t mentioned food, I was concerned that she might get drunk. But there was no sign of that as she carried on.

“It was two thousand and nine, Martin, six years ago this month. I had been shut away in Russia for almost fifty years. Even now that is hard for me to take in. I had never married, never had children, not even the chance of love with Desi. My parents were long dead, I had no living relatives, and any friends I had from the old days were either dead, or had forgotten me. I hope you never have to experience that feeling of complete loneliness, where your only friend in the world is a woman paid to guard you and keep you locked up. I contemplated suicide all the time, I really did. Do you want some toast? I’m having some”.

I shook my head as I made notes, and she came back later with four slices of toast smothered in what looked like strawberry jam. Two of them were eaten in seconds, before she started talking again.

“So I did something unusual, at least as far as their prison sytem was concerned. Obtaining some plain paper and a propelling pencil from Anna, I started to send notes to the Warden. Anna told me it was the same man, and I addressed them respectfully. With no envelopes, I wrote his name and designation on the outside of the folded paper. Each note was a variation on the previous one. Had he heard any more about my release papers? Would he possibly have a chance to contact the Consulate and ask them to expedite the necessary documents? That kind of thing. Anna said nobody ever did that, but she delivered them to his office for me. I never got a reply, and didn’t expect one, but I sent one every week, and nobody ever told me to stop. I did that for a year, Martin. My seventy-first birthday came and went, and still I sent those notes”.

Helen stopped to eat the other two slices of toast, then she lit a cigarette, and swallowed half a tumbler of vodka.

“Then one morning, Anna came through the open door of my cell. She appeared to have been crying, and she told me to smarten myself up as I was being taken to see the Warden. That time, there were no handcuffs, and on the way, Anna wouldn’t answer my questions about why we were being summoned. She only shook her head in reply to each one. Inside the office the Warden smiled at me. He applied a rubber stamp to a document, and handed me the top copy. I had to find my glasses in my uniform apron pocket to read it. But I didn’t get past the first line, which said ‘Prisoner release’, before the tears were flowing down my face. The Warden was grinning, Anna was standing by the door openly weeping, and he said this to me”. ‘Pack your personal belongings, prisoner Renton. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken by car to the British Consulate. We have heard nothing from them, but no longer wish to detain you in our custody. As of tomorrow, you are a British problem, no longer a Russian one. Just read and sign this form, and I wish you good luck’. The form was basically a statement that I had been treated well, never subjected to physical or psychological torture, and that I agreed to leave custody at nine the next morning”.

Before she spoke again, Helen looked up across at the small window, as if remembering something.

“The hardest thing was leaving Anna. On the way back to my cell, she broke down and told me she would miss me”.

“One regret was that Anna was not working the next morning. Olga came with another guard, handed me a canvas holdall and told me to pack my things. I took just my cigarettes and matches, a hairbrush, and the doll Anna had given me, along with all the paperwork I had accumulated over the years. The documents you have seen, Martin. I had to wear my prison uniform and rubber shoes, no outdoor clothes were provided. Olga accompanied me in the car, which was driven by a soldier who said nothing on the way. When they arrived at the small Consulate office, Olga turned and said. ‘This is where you get out, Renton. And you are not allowed to return to the Russian Federation, ever’. She handed me a large brown envelope containing my original and long-expired passport, along with my Foreign Office identity credentials. The photo on those was taken when I was twenty-one, and I didn’t recognise the young woman looking out at me”.

Helen stopped for the usual refill of vodka and lit another cigarette.

“The car drove off, leaving me standing alone in the street. I was free to go anywhere, but had no money, no valid passport, and I was hungry, as they had not given me breakfast after my shower. I walked up to the office door and pushed a button on the side. I was surprised when someone spoke to me on a speaker above. I had never seen such a contraption. I said I was Helen Renton, and wanted to talk to someone called Desmond. I was surprised when the door clicked open. That seemed very futuristic to me, Martin. I had to walk upstairs, and at a desk at the top sat a suspicious-looking young man who asked me what I wanted. I told him I had been in prison for just over fifty years, I was a Foreign Office employee, and a British Citizen. I added that I had to talk to someone called Desmond. then showed him my old passport and credentials, and he asked me to sit on a chair at the side, as he seemed to have taken me seriously”.

More vodka drinking followed, and I sat waiting for her to speak again.

“Five minutes later, he returned with a middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Nicola Desmond. She looked embarrassed, as well she should have. She asked me to follow her through to her office, and once I had sat down, she asked me what she could do for me. Can you believe that, Martin? Well I can tell you, I gave her a piece of my mind. I did nothing less than ranting, for a good thirty minutes. To give her a little credit, she didn’t interrupt me. When I had finished, I lit a cigarette, and she said, ‘Sorry, there is no smoking here’. I told her to go and F herself, I don’t mind admitting. She left to make some phone calls, then returned with a sickly smile. She said that they were going to put me up in a hotel, find me some decent clothes, and make sure I had all I needed. Then in two days, she would be accompanying me to England on an aircraft, where I would be ‘fully debriefed’. If my mouth had not been so dry, I would have spat in her face, Martin”.

It was obvious that recalling that meeting was upsetting her. I waited as she lit another cigarette, obviously remembering her encounter with Ms Desmond.

“I was driven to a decent hotel, and not long after I arrived in the twin-bedded room, Nicola arrived with a weekend case. She was staying with me until we flew, and produced a far too large dress, and a pair of shoes that were too tight. She was apologetic, telling me she hadn’t been expecting me, and knew almost nothing about my situation. She said that we would be flying back to the military base at Brize Norton, and when we arrived, I would be handed over to John Holdsworth”.

At that point, Helen began coughing heavily. It was some time before the cough calmed down, and she was ready to carry on. Before speaking, she swallowed more vodka, and lit a cigarette. I was tempted to ask her if both were good for her, but said nothing.

“Another John Holdsworth, Martin. I asked Nicola how many there had been, and she smiled”.

At that point, I said I was finished for the day, and started to gather up my notes.

That evening, I spent a lot of time going through my notes. It seemed Helen was getting close to the end of her story now, so I began writing them up in some semblance of order. Then I made sure the camera was fully charged and had a new memory card, ready for the next day. Next morning, I had a light breakfast before returning to my room to go through all the papers I had copied. I was convinced that they were all genuine, one hundred percent. When I approached her door later, she opened it before I knocked. Once again very presentable, she seemed to be in a very good mood.

“In you come, Martin. I am keen to get on and tell you what happened when I got back to England”.

As usual, she drank vodka and smoked as I set up.

“Nicola and I were the only two people on the RAF flight to Brize Norton. There was no passport control or immigration check, and our baggage went through as diplomatic. Inside the aircraft, I was amazed that nobody elese was in the medium-sized passenger jet, and suspected that they didn’t want me to be seen by any other staff who might normally fly home using that service. Less than four hours later we landed, and when we walked down the steps our bags were ready for collection. There was a fancy-looking car waiting at the edge of the runway, and a well-dressed man standing next to it. He approached and shook my hand, saying ‘Welcome home, Helen, I am John Holdsworth’. Another one of course, not my one. He was close to fifty, politely spoken, and so obviously security service. I got in the back of the car with him and Nicola put my canvas holdall on the front seat then walked in the direction of the airport buildings, wheeling her small case. She didn’t say goodbye, didn’t even look at me. Then we left for London, and I soon found myself travelling eastbound on the A40”.

Helen stopped for a moment, and she seemed to be deciding whether or not to add something.

“Holdsworth didn’t say much at first, and I sat gawping at the changed surroundings. So many cars, so much new housing. And as we got closer to London, the amount of high-rise developments took my breath away. Once we were held up by gridlocked traffic in the suburbs, Holdsworth became chatty. He spoke about things that would be new to me. When I had left England, we were not in the EU. Now I was back, we were on the verge of trying to get out of it. Decimal currency would be new to me, as would multi-channel colour television, buses and tube trains no longer taking cash, and so much more that I would have to get used to. One thing I had forgotten was how much warmer it was, and when I tried to open the car window, I couldn’t find a handle. He smiled, and told the driver to switch on the air-conditioning. In seconds, i could feel the cold air refreshing me. I wasn’t allowed to smoke in the car, and that was making me edgy. Then when Holdworth told me that I was going to be debriefed for six weeks, I got plain angry. Pause there, Martin, I need something to eat”.

She had obviously been out that morning, as she came back from the kitchen with two large pork pies still in the shop’s bag. After muching her way through one, she carried on.

“Once we were at Paddington, I started to recognise some streets. But there was a huge new hospital, and many more tower blocks and skyscrapers. London felt closed in and oppressive, so different to when I had lived there. We turned off before Baker Street, and I could tell we were going north. Twenty minutes later, the driver turned into a quiet road near Swiss Cottage, and stopped the car outside a double-fronted house with tall gates across the driveway. The gates opened by themselves, and we walked from the car to the front door. It was already open, and a stern-looking woman was standing there. Holdsworth introduced her to me as Mrs Lee, then without another word, he turned and walked back to the car. I followed the woman inside into a large hallway, and she turned and said ‘Welcome, Miss Renton. This will be your temporary home’. ”

Helen paused at that point, and ate the second pork pie.

“Mrs Lee was nicer than she looked, but wouldn’t call me Helen, or tell me her first name. I had a lovely room on the first floor with a comfortable double bed, my own small bathroom, and a view over the garden. I was only allowed to smoke in the conservatory, so as you can imagine I spent most of my time there, Martin. For the first week, Mrs Lee went through the things I needed to know about in everyday life. She showed me how to use the Internet, and gave me a laptop to keep. The same one you saw in my lounge. I thought it was like a magic trick, and spent hours sitting in the conservatory looking at historical sites so I could find out what had been happening while I was in prison. There were lots of practical things too, like bank cards and PIN numbers. She told me nobody used cheques any longer, or carried more than a few pounds in cash. I had to create one of those PIN numbers for security, so used the first four numbers from my Soviet prison number. Nobody would ever guess that. Back in a minute”.

Helen returned with a plate of cream biscuits and a refilled vodka tumbler.

“On the Saturday morning, Mrs Lee took me by bus to the shops in Oxford Street. She showed me how to take money out of those wall-mounted machines, and we went into John Lewis so I could buy new clothes and underwear. They had set me up a new bank account, and were paying the Civil Service pension into it monthly. There was also a lump sum payment of twenty thousand pounds, so I felt incredibly rich. Mind you, I was determined to have a word with someone about that, as it didn’t really seem enough compensation for all the years I had been locked away. With so many bags of clothes, toiletries, shoes, and some assorted luxuries, we took a taxi back to the house. Mrs Lee appeared with a camera, and took a photo of me that was going to be used on a new passport. Although I had no intention of ever leaving England again, she said it would be useful as a form of identification. She also gave me a copy of my Birth Certificate and a new Medical Card, saying I should register with a doctor once I had moved into my permanent home. Then she suggested that I should think about how much I was eating, as it wasn’t good for my health. I was a bit snappy with her, and told her to try to imagine eating almost the same two things for dinner every day for nearly fifty years”.

As if to confirm Mrs Lee’s fears, Helen stopped to cram two cream biscuits into her mouth, holding a third ready for when she had made room.

“Once I had decent clothes lots of cigarettes, and I felt almost normal again, I asked about getting some Gorlovka Vodka. There was some Smirnoff in the house, but it wasn’t to my taste, nowhere near strong enough. She said she would pass on my request, but it took a week until a case of twelve bottles arrived. Mrs Lee cooked a nice meal every evening, but I was always hungry, so used to help myself to things from her huge fridge after she had gone to bed. She only sat with me when she had to, and i tended to eat, drink, and of course smoke in the conservatory. I spent my time looking at the laptop and reading the news from the last fifty years. I had no interest in television, so she used to sit in the large living room to watch her favourite programmes. For the first two weeks I was in the house, I never heard a phone ring, and there were no visitors except deliveries made from a white van. When I asked if there was a phone in the house, she showed me a mobile phone, telling me I would be provided with one when I left and shown how to use it. I smiled and said I no longer had anyone to ring, but it might be useful in an emergency”.

Three more biscuits descended down her gullet before she looked across at me again.

“Then on the Monday of the third week, two men arrived. Mrs Lee said they had come to interview me”.

“I told Mrs Lee I would talk to the men in the conservatory, so I could smoke. I also took a bottle of vodka and a glass through there, as I was sure I was going to need fortifying. They intoduced themselves as Richard and Quentin, no surnames. Stuffy, pallid-skin types, with dead eyes. It seemed Quentin was the main man, as he kicked off the conversation by telling me that I was still subject to my signing of the Official Secrets Act back when I joined. As Richard took notes in a large folder, he added that there was no statute of limitations on that, and I was not to speak to anyone about anything unless they worked for MI6. Before he could say anything else, I let him have both barrels. I screamed at him about how I had been ignored and disposed of, and how they hadn’t even bothered to reply when the Russians had asked them to agree to my release. For what must have been at least an hour, I swore like a trooper at them, and asked them to explain how I had come to be dumped in Odessa, then Moscow, then Leningrad, without any intervention on their part. Why had I never been exchanged, when I knew full well that such exchanges were frequent? And how dare they scatter my dad’s ashes on some muddy bank on the Thames. I went on for so long, Mrs Lee brought a pot of tea in for them, and they had long finished that before I stopped talking”.

Helen saw me taking notes, and paused until I looked back at her.

“Quentin told me it was unfortunate that things had turned out the way they had. I just hadn’t been important enough to exchange, and until they heard from the Russians that I was in St Peterburg, they had no real idea where I was. He went on to say that I would be given a house to live in free of charge on the south coast, that all my bills would be paid, and my pension would be paid until my death, with another fifty thousand lump sum to be deposited in my account once I had moved to Hastings. Unfortunate, that was the word he used, Martin. My life written off with that simple word, unfortunate. Then he passed me a card with a phone number written on it, telling me that I could order anything I wanted by ringing that number, including my cigarettes and favourite vodka. I would only need to spend money on clothing, personal items, and any food I decided to buy in addition to my order. It would be delivered in seventy-two hours, stocks permitting. I had to break for the toilet, and while I was up there, I decided I would get nowhere with those two, so I would appear to play their game, bide my time, and publish my own story later to shame them. Talking of which, I do need the toilet. Won’t be long”.

She settled back in her chair, lit a cigarette, and started smiling as she remembered that day.

“When I came back, Quentin started asking me lots of questions about my time over there. He wanted names that I could remember, wanted to know what they had asked me, and more importantly, what I had told them. He seemed perplexed when I told him there had been no interrogation, very few questions, and that I had stuck to my story about being a Foreign Office translator throughout. He obviously didn’t believe me, and exchanged a look with Richard that said more than words. Then he changed tack, asking me to describe the prisons I had been kept in, the appearance and names of the Wardens, anything I could remember about locations. I gave him crumbs, Martin. Bits and pieces of incomplete details, pretending not to remember much after fifty years. That was all those bastards deserved, after leaving me to rot for most of my life. Quentin knew about the parcels that had been sent in, and tried to justify those as ‘taking care’ of me. He asserted that I knew what I was getting into when I completed the training course in Scotland, and that it was all just a part of ‘The Great Game’. I had heard that phrase used before, and I didn’t accept it as an excuse. Then they suddenly stood up, and said they would be back on Tuesday morning”.

As she lit a cigarette, I sensed she was pausing for effect.

“But they never came back, Martin. Not ever”.

Helen was keen to work late that day. She suggested ordering a Chinese meal from the restaurant in the next street, and said I could go and collect it. I agreed, knowing I would be too late for bar food if I didn’t eat then. When I got back, she had even found two very clean bowls, along with some cutlery that looked like it had never been used. I had bought myself a beer in the restaurant, knowing she would only have vodka to offer. When we had both finished eating, she lit a cigarette and continued talking, not bothering to clear the table.

“The day after the men left, Mrs Lee gave me a mobile phone, and showed me how to use it. It wasn’t one of those fancy phones connected to the Internet, it could just make calls and send text messages. She told me the number I had to ring for deliveries was the first one in the contacts list. I didn’t have to pay the bill for using it, as it was on government contract. That told me I would be monitored every time I used it. I still have it, it’s the one I used to ring in the food order. Then she told me I would have to pack, as the next day we were leaving for Hastings to get me settled into my house. Three suitcases were provided for me, rather old and battered ones, I have to say. The following morning, a man was parked in the driveway in a very large car, what they used to call station wagons when I was young. He loaded the cases into the back, and I could see the name of the car, a Volvo. The drive took over three hours, and I wasn’t allowed to smoke. I asked the driver to stop so I could use the toilet. He stopped at a service area, but I didn’t need the toilet. I just stood outside the car and smoked two cigarettes, one after the other, much to the obvious annoyance of Mrs Lee.”

Chuckling as she remembered that morning, Helen refilled her glass with vodka.

“When I saw this house as the car stopped, I have to say I was very disappointed. I certainly hadn’t expected anything fancy, but would have liked something more modern, perhaps a smart flat with a balcony facing the sea. The driver took the car to a public car park to wait for Mrs Lee, and she came inside to show me where everything was. When I asked her how long I would be expected to live there, she said I sounded ungrateful, and that houses like this one were very sought after on the south coast. Then she said I would be expected to live there for the rest of my life, and it had once been a popular MI6 safe house, used long before the last war, and as recently as the year before they gave it over to me. Reaching into her handbag, she gave me a small sheet of paper. There was the name of a local doctor on it, as well as a dentist, then a third number that she said I should call for any general repairs or failure of equipment like the washing machine or cooker. Then she suggested I walk around the town later, to locate the nearby shops and buy some food and provisions. After that, she gave me one hundred pounds in cash, wished me luck, and left. That was that, Martin. I haven’t seen or heard from any of them since”.

I had a few questions for her, but before I could even think about asking them, she started again.

“That afternoon, I went out and found a Post Office. I bought some notepaper and envelopes, and four books of postage stamps. Then in a newsagent’s, I purchased a copy of every newspaper they had for sale. I had something to eat while I was out, then came home and logged onto the laptop, using the password for the wi-fi that Mrs Lee had written on a card for me. I looked up every major publishing house still in business, and made a note of their names and addresses. I was determined to start trying to get my story told, and made up my mind to write to all of them, starting the next morning”.

She started coughing, and I decided it was getting late for her. I began to pack away my things, telling her I should leave. She nodded, waiting until the coughing had subsided before adding the last statement that night.

“And that’s just what I did. I wrote to all of them. It took all day”.

The next morning I told Helen I would be completing the interview that day, and would stay as long as was needed. I mentioned that I woud pop back the following day with papers for her to sign that gave me permission to ghost-write her book, and I would have credit as co-writer. She was happy about that, and settled straight in to the conclusion of her story.

“Very soon, I learned the reality, Martin. I received more replies than I had expected, but I could tell from some that they thought I was either a charlatan, or a crazy old woman. A couple of the newspapers took me more seriously and said someone would be in touch. When someone phoned to ask me to talk him through the story, he said that there was no chance it would be printed. The government would issue a D-Notice to stop publication, and by cooperating with someone breaking the Official Secrets Act, the newspaper could find itself in court. As for the book publishers, their replies varied. Most wanted me to have an agent to use as an intermediary, others asked for three full chapters, a synopsis, and a personal biography before they would even pass it to an editor. I didn’t feel up to that, Martin. It’s one thing sitting and talking about it, quite another getting it down on paper as something coherent and interesting. I will make you some tea”.

Helen came back with the tea, and the usual full glass of vodka for herself.

“They were also wary about me not asking for any money. I tried to explain that I was unlikely to be long for this world after a lifetime of poor diet, heavy smoking, and copious amounts of vodka down my neck. I wanted to leave my story as a legacy, hopefully see it hit the headlines before I died. But I wasn’t doing it for gain, I just wanted to shame the Establishment. As for the literary agents, they showed no interest whatsoever. Only four replied, and all wanted to see some examples of my writing. I wondered if they had even read my letter, in which I clearly stated I would need someone else to help me. So I let it go, thinking I might just eventually get around to writing my own story. But of course I never did that, or you wouldn’t be here”.

She was answering most of the questions I had wanted to ask the previous night, but I still had one needing an answer. So I asked how she came to contact Colin Magee.

“Some months back, I forget exactly when now, I received a parcel one morning. Someone at the Foreign Office had sent it to me at my old address. Shows how lax they were at updating records. Whoever lives in that south London flat now refused to accept it, and it had languished back at the Foreign Office until someone asked some questions. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect some MI6 mole found out about it, and arranged to have it sent on to me here. There was no note or covering letter. It contained my late father’s personal effects, well some of them. His wedding ring, his very old watch, and six copies of books he had published after I had disappeared. They were dry stuff, I’m sad to say. Justifications of Stalin, memoirs of his travels in the Soviet Union before world war two, and one about why he believed Marxist theory would be the best way to educate children in schools. He was very old when they were writen, and I doubt anyone ever bought a copy. But the publisher was Colin Magee. So I thought if he had bothered to try to sell my dad’s books, he might do the same for me. I think they call that serendipity, Martin, and it seems to have worked”.

How her letter had arrived on Magee’s desk had long worried me. Now I knew why. I told Helen that it would take at least three months for me to get the draft to an editor. Then there would be the usual re-write after that, choosing a title, and sorting out a cover photo. But that would all come in time. Meanwhile, I would be back with the paperwork the next day, then return to my flat and begin the first draft. I would contact her by telephone if I needed to ask any questions. As for the chance of a documentary, that would take longer. I would need to get all the hours of camera footage to someone who knew what they were doing, and that would have to be tied in with any book launch. She seemed happy as I left.

“Okay, I will see you tomorrow. Don’t even think about using a photo of me on the cover though. I look bloody awful”.

Field Report.

To: Quentin Hughes. MI6 London
From: Field Operative Martin Green-Tompkins
Subject: Helen Renton. MI6 (Retired)

Sir, I would like to thank you for this opportunity. After so long monitoring Russian interest publications at Magee Press, it was rewarding to be back in the field. Enclosed is my full report, including all relevant original papers, sound and video recordings, along with my claim for out of pocket expenses. (Receipts attached)

As for the last day, Renton was welcoming and hopeful. I went back over our long sessions together, perpetuating the idea that I would be writing her book and that it would be published. I showed her some notes I had made, including ficticious names of documentary makers, film producers, and publishers who might show an interest. She was very bullish about who should play her in any film adaptation, so I noted her suggestions.

Once you have read the report in its entirety, you will see that she was unlikely to stay quiet about her experience. She was aware of self-publishing online, and blogging too. I suspect she would have eventually got something published on a conspiracy website, and she had even spoken briefly about approaching Russian organisations such as Russia Today TV to offer them her story. There would no doubt have been much embarrassment, and questions to answer.

It seems we have little to learn from my extensive interviews with her. She told nobody anything during her detention, and I believe that.

Once I was convinced that she had nothing hidden away, I went ahead with the agreed arrangement.

The bottle of Gorlovka Vodka I took along was a nice touch, as she was happy to toast the forthcoming book by swallowing a large glassful from the bottle I offered her. The Potassium Cyanide worked very quickly, probably because of her poor health. She expired without a word, and I left her slumped in her chair. Once I had waited long enough to be sure she was dead, I carried out an extensive search of the house, including the loft. All the original papers, the Russian doll, her mobile phone and her laptop are in the box accompanying this report.

Naturally, I wiped all surfaces before leaving. Even though my fingerprints are not on record, I left little trace of my presence, short of some DNA on her furniture that will be of no consequence. As when her body is eventually found, it will certainly be judged to be the suicide of a lonely old woman with poor health, and nothing to live for.

No doubt by now you have cancelled her bank account, and her Foreign Office records and pension. So in most respects, Helen Renton never existed.

As you know, I resigned from Magee’s as planned, and now await your next instructions.

Martin Green Tompkins.