Vera’s Life: The Complete Story

This is all forty parts of my most recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 31,350 words.

Vera Elspeth Dodds arrived in this world on a cold Friday evening in January, 1924. Her mum Elsie had left it late after the labour pains started, and had to shout for old Mrs Simmons downstairs to go and get Mrs Strickland from number eight. Before they got back, baby Vera had already arrived, on the chipped linoleum floor of the first landing. Mrs Strickland told Clara Simmons to boil some hot water to wash the baby in, and make some tea while she was at it. Then she used two small hairclips to clamp the cord before cutting it with her small fish-cleaning knife and handing the baby to Elsie.

“Get her on the breast, Elsie love. Get her suckling and that will get the placenta out”. Elsie Dodds did as she was told, trusting the unofficial midwife who had delivered all of her other chldren. She watched as the older woman ran a match under a darning needle before threading it with strong cord. “She’s torn you a bit, Elsie. Just a few stitches once the placenta’s out, then we can get you to bed with some hot sweet tea”. Vera’s dad Albert was at the pub, playing darts for The Coach and Horses’ team. Clara wasn’t keen to go out again on that cold night to fetch him, so Elsie said to leave it. “He will see her soon enough, when he gets home. Let him have his night out”.

Little Vera was the fourth child born in that house. Though her oldest sister, Rosie, had not seen her second birthday, taken by scarlet fever. Her other sister, Vivian, was at the pictures with a friend. At the age of fifteen, she was already at work of course, a decent job in the vinegar factory. She liked to go to the pictures with her friends every Friday after work, and would get some fish and chips on the way there. It would be some years before baby Vera would notice the smell of vinegar that no amount of washing could ever quite disguise. Her older brother Teddy was nearly eighteen, and already at sea in the Merchant Navy. If he heard about the new baby sister before he returned from the voyage, he might bring her back a small gift.

Albert Dodds got home just after eleven, hoping a sandwich might have been left on a plate for him. Despite enjoying a few pints with the team, he wasn’t drunk, as he had to go to work in the morning. Shame they had lost, but The Cross Keys was top of the league, so it would have been a wonder if they had beat them. Viv was sitting at the top of the stairs, smiling. “The baby’s come, Dad. Mum’s called her Vera”. He smiled at the news that she had been named after his sister, who had died of disease while nursing the troops in the Dardanelles in 1915. When he got into the bedroom, Elsie and the baby were both sleeping soundly. He got undressed and slipped in beside them, glad of the warmth under the covers.

Baby Vera hadn’t been intended, and when Elsie found out she was expecting, they were none too pleased. Another mouth to feed when times were not so good. She had no option but to leave the jam factory once she was six month’s gone, as the work was too heavy. At least Albert still had his job at the Iron Foundry in Deptford Creek, and could work extra hours on Saturdays when they had a big job on. That had saved him from the Great War too, as it had been a reserved occupation. But they were geting on a bit to have a new baby in the house. Albert was forty-two next birthday, and Elsie would be thirty-seven in four day’s time.

When the crying of his new daughter woke him up just before four in the morning, Albert yawned and stretched. He had to be up by five anyway, to walk to work that morning. As Elsie put the baby to her breast, he leaned over and kissed his wife on the head. “Well done, old heart”. When he was lacing his boots, she spoke quietly. “Bertie love, there’s a sandwich made in the cold larder, you can have it for breakfast, or take it to work. It’s the last of that boiled ham, with a nice thick spread of mustard. If you are having tea before you go, can you make me one?”

When he came back with the tea, he smiled at the happily feeding baby, and kissed Vera very gently on her cheek.

“Welcome to the family, little Vera”.

For a long time, baby Vera slept in an old drawer in the bedroom. Mrs Simmons had given it to Elsie, as she didn’t have enough clothes to fill her tallboy any longer. Once she was big enough to need her own bed, Albert bought one from a friend at work, and they carried it all the way from Deptford between them. Viv wasn’t happy though, as it meant she now had to share her small room with her little sister. But she knew better than to make too much fuss.

That was about the time of Vera’s first memories. The smell of her sister’s cheap perfume, used sparingly of course. Her stockings discarded on the floor after a night out with her friends, and the smell of tobacco smoke and vinegar that seemed to cling to all of her clothes. Happy memories too, of wearing Viv’s shoes when they were far too big, and rushing into the living room covered in the lipstick that she had found on the window ledge, everyone laughing at the sight of her.

She had only been one year old when Teddy came home on leave, so didn’t remember him. But she hadn’t let go of the toy camel he had brought for her for weeks. The next time he was back, she vaguely remembered the settee being pulled out for him to sleep on, and the smell of his socks when he took his shoes off.

One thing she never forgot was the Christmas when she was old enough to realise what was going on. Mrs Simmons let Albert put up the trestle table in her parlour, and everyone was there to eat a big capon, followed by a pudding that Clara had tended carefully for months. Vera had woken up to some presents at the end of her bed, including some new mittens, and a hand-made knitted dolly. There was even a small red wool stocking that had some Brazil nuts and a tangerine inside. Although there was no tree, paper decorations lined the walls, and little Vera thought it must be the best day of her life.

Vivian had a steady boyfriend by then, someone she had met in the queue outside the cinema. His name was Roy, and he had a habit of running a hand through his hair constantly. He came for Christmas dinner too. There were no grandparents though. Albert’s parents had died when he was a teenager, soon after each other. Elsie’s mum had been deserted by her husband long before the war, and had died the year before Vera was born. But what she didn’t know, she didn’t miss, and she had great fun watching them all trying to keep the paper hats on their heads as they laughed and joked. Auntie May was coming to visit on Boxing Day. Elsie’s older sister May had married well, and Vera had been told to expect something nice from her as a present.

As the rest of them enjoyed their beer or gin, and sung songs at the table, Vera was taken up to bed, soon asleep clutching her new doll.

Auntie May arrived the next afternoon. Her husband was called Derek, and he had a car. The older kids ran along the street behind it, keen to see where it was going to stop. As Derek and May got their things from inside, the kids stood on the running board and peered through the windows at the luxurious interior. Vera looked up at the aunt she hardly remembered, fascinated by the fox fur stole she was wearing around her shoulders. The dead animal’s head lolled to one side, and Vera was convinced it might suddenly come to life and bite her.

It was an awkward hour or two, and even little Vera could sense the strained atmosphere. She wasn’t to know that May considered herself above all this now, and was rather ashamed of her background. Derek talked to her dad about roses and fertilizer, then pretended to be interested in how the darts team was doing. When it was time for them to leave, no present had appeared. Then almost as an afterthought, May produced a large box, wrapped in bright paper. Elsie nodded at her daughter. “Open it, love. It’s for you”. Inside was a large doll in a cardboard box. It was a black doll, with curly black hair, and wearing a red and white check dress. Vera had to give her aunt a kiss to thank her, and wrinkled her nose at the strong perfume, and the taste of heavy face-powder.

She didn’t say anything of course, but she preferred the wool dolly her mum and dad had given her.

Once she was old enough to have to go to the lavatory by herself, Vera used to try to hold it as long as possible. Walking downstairs and through the side door to the garden, she approached the black painted wooden door of the outside convenience with her lip trembling. She knew there would be spiders inside, sometimes big fat ones squatting in the corners.

As she sat high up on the seat, she would stare at her shoes, hoping to stop herself looking up. If that failed, she would flick through the squares of newspaper hanging on the nail, the paper they used to wipe themselves. There might be some with photos, or interesting pictures on advertisements. They would help divert her attention from the spiders until she had finished. Her dad had tied a long piece of cord to the chain so she could flush it without having to reach up high, and she would pull that without looking back as she did so.

It was worse at night, or in the winter, because she needed to have the light on, the bare electric bulb that cast a harsh glare inside. Then she couldn’t help but see the spiders, and sometimes there were moths or other flying things fluttering around the bulb. One night, the money ran out in the meter while she was sitting there. Before her mum could get the sixpence in, Vera ran outside, terrified. She stood sobbing in the garden until mum came to find out where she had gone.

It wasn’t really a garden, although Elsie and Albert liked to call it that. In theory, they shared the space with Clara who lived downstairs, but she only used it for her mangle and the washing line, and had litle interest in it. Albert had built two low brick walls creating containers, one on each side of the small yard. Filled with earth, he grew his treasured roses in them, then started to call it the garden. When the milkman or coalman came down the street in their horse and cart, Elsie would try to be first out with a shovel, to scoop the horse manure off the road before anyone else. Albert prized it for use as fertilizer on his roses, and would always have a big smile when his wife told him she had got some that day.

The same year that Vera had to start school in September, Vivian and Roy got married the week before. Viv told her sister that she would have the room to herself now, except when Teddy came home from sea. Her and Roy were going to live with Roy’s mum, all the way over in Kennington. His dad had been killed at the end of the big war, and they would share her two-bedroom flat. Vera wasn’t sad to see her sister go, as she was sure they would see a lot of her. And she would have a lot more room, as Teddy was hardly ever home. He couldn’t even get back for the wedding, so was going to miss Vera being a bridesmaid.

In her little world, her sister’s wedding was a marvellous, almost magical day. Mum had a special dress made for her, and she was to carry confetti, and a wooden horsehoe covered in silver paper, to wish them luck. Vivian was up early, with her friend Madge curling her hair at the kitchen table. The only person in their street who owned a car was Mr Fleming, who was a taxicab driver. He had been paid to take Viv and dad to the church, even though it was less than a mile away. He had put some long white ribbons from the front bumper to the top of the windscreen, and polished up the taxi until it was shining. Mum had been up since it was still dark, making sandwiches that were put into tins, to go with the cakes she had been making all week.

Dad wore his best suit, which was also his only suit. Mum pinned a white carnation onto his lapel, and gave him a packet of cigarettes she had bought, as she didn’t like him rolling his own in company. Aunt May and Uncle Derek turned up in their fancy car, but she looked a bit miffed when Elsie started to load her tins of cakes and sandwiches inside it. They had come early, to be able to give Elsie and Vera a lift to the church, along with Clara Simmons, who of course had been invited.

Trying hard to keep her white silk shoes clean, Vera was almost overwhelmed with excitement.

Elsie walked Vera to school for her first day. On the way she explained that Clara would be picking her up after, and looking after her until she got home. “I’m going back to my job at the jam factory, Vera love. Now Viv has moved out, we need to make up her housekeeping money. So Mrs Simmons will look after you until me or dad get home, okay?” Vera was not exactly in a position to debate that, so she just nodded.

One good thing about school was that it was full of other children she either knew, or had seen around. Less than a ten-minute walk from home, the building was a familiar local landmark. There was a ‘Girls’ entrance, and another marked ‘Boys’, though once they got across the playground and inside, the classes were mixed. Elsie was told that Vera would be in Mrs Chiltern’s class, and she turned to her daughter. “Now be a good girl, do as you’re told, and whatever the teachers say is the same as if it’s come from me and dad”. Some of the other children were crying, and hanging on to their mums. Not Vera though, as she was keen to get into the class and see what school was going to be like.

Nodding at Lizzie, one of her best friends from the street, Vera grabbed her and made for the two seats at the front left, by the window. The Fuller twins, Jean and Joan, got the places behind them, and the class filled up quickly, except for one seat. Little Georgie Baker came in last, almost late but not quite. When everyone had answered their names as they were read out, Mrs Chiltern took them all to the assembly hall. All the children who had just started that day were there, and Vera was one of the oldest, as her birthday had been nine months earlier. Mr Lloyd, the headmaster, made a long speech about behaviour, being on time, and not talking in class. Then they all had to stand up when he left. Vera thought he must be very old, as he was walking with a bad limp, and his face looked sad.

The rest of the morning, they learned their numbers up to fifty, and the ABC. As Vivian had bought a book about the ABC and kept going over it with her, Vera had a head start. By playtime, it was starting to feel familiar, and the four friends rushed over to the girls’ toilet block at the far end of the playground. Vera loved the school toilets. They had real toilet paper, which was a bit like the greaseproof paper mum used when she was baking. And the toilet bowls were low to the ground, so her legs weren’t swinging. Best of all, they were not draughty, and there were no spiders inside.

In the afternoon, they learned how to do papier mache, using flour and water to make glue, then sticking strips of paper onto wire frames bent in the shape of animals. It was messy, but they all enjoyed it. They had been given brown aprons to wear to save their clothes, but Vera was worried that her mum would tell her off for the spots of glue on her shoes. Mrs Chiltern told her not to be concerned, as it would wash off. At home time, Clara Simmons was waiting at the gate, and held Vera’s hand as they walked home. Clara gave her a drink of orange squash when they got back, and two home-made shortbread biscuits. Vera would have loved to have been given another one, but Clara told her “No more, or you will spoil your dinner”.

When Elsie got home, she thanked her neighbour, and took Vera upstairs. She got busy peeling some potatoes for the evening meal, and Vera sat at the table looking at an old encyclopedia that dad had got from someone at work. She couldn’t read that many of the words, but enjoyed looking at the drawings and maps inside. At the back, it had coloured drawings of the flags of all nations, and Vera loved to look at the different designs, trying to remember what country they stood for.

Dinner was almost ready when Albert got home. As he had a wash at the kitchen sink, he winked at his daughter. “First day at school then, Vera love. What did you like best?” Without turning away from the pictures of the flags, she answered without hesitation.

“The toilets, dad”.

One of the things that Vera soon discovered about school was that the friends you start out with are not always the ones you end up with. After a couple of years, she had bonded with Kathy Frazer, a girl she hadn’t known very well before. As the twins and Lizzie began to fade away, Vera spent a lot of her free time with Kathy, often in each other’s houses. Kathy’s dad was from Belfast. He had stayed in England after fighting in France during the war. Kathy said it was because he hated Catholics, and didn’t want to go back to Belfast. He got a job on the docks as a Dock Policeman, which made him pretty unpopular in the area, as so many men worked as dockers and stevedores.

Vera couldn’t understand much of what he said, due to his heavy accent. He called her ‘Virrah’, and his wife Lilian had to translate anything else he said. But he was a kind dad, and friendly too, even though Vera’s dad Albert had told her to “watch him”. Any police were always avoided by the people she knew, especially the Dock Police. Kathy was good at sums, and Vera best in English. So they helped each other whenever they could. Neither of the girls was too bothered about academic prowess though. By the age of nine, Vera was already expected to go and work with her mum Elsie at the jam factory when she finished school. Elsie had told her that she would get her a good job there when she was fourteen. Kathy had an idea to become a nurse, and used to practice looking after her dolls, pretending they were ill.

The best thing about Vera’s day was when her dad got home from work. Sometimes, he might have made her something from scrap iron. Perhaps a small animal in relief, or a simple bracelet that was special to her. She would sit on his lap as he rolled his cigarette, and turn her face away from the cloud of bitter smoke that he exhaled as he lit it. He rarely had a beer with his dinner, but if he did, Vera would rush to bring the bottle opener and glass, asking if she could be given the job of opening it, and pouring it. Her dad always forgave her when the foam was too high in the glass. He would wink at her and say, “It tastes better when you pour it, Vera love.”

She loved both her parents, but mum as always the one who moaned about having a tidy room, washing properly all over, and keeping her clothes clean at school. Dad never bothered with that stuff, and was just pleased to see her, hugging her tight once she had climbed up on his lap. He would tell her, “You’re my girl, Vera love”.

Not long after her ninth birthday, she learned that her sister Vivian was pregnant. Dad made her laugh when he said, “That Roy took his time, probably too busy running his hands through his hair”. Viv came and sat in the bedroom, explaining that she was going to have a baby in the summer, propbably in August. She told Vera that she would become an aunt, which seemed very strange to a girl who was only nine. Viv told her not to worry. “By the time she is your age, you will be nearly twenty, and she will think of you as Auntie Vera.” Young Vera wasn’t so sure that was a good thing, but she hugged and kissed her sister anyway.

Teddy came home on leave that summer. Vera blushed a bit when she saw him, as he was sun-tanned, so good-looking, and grown up. When he hugged and kissed her, she flushed with embarrassment, realising that she hardly knew her big brother. He brought her a porcelain-faced doll with a Chinese face, and a blue dress. Albert hung a curtain between the beds in her room, and Teddy slept on the smaller bed. Vera felt strangely grown up when mum told her she shouldn’t get dressed or undressed in front of him. “You’re a young lady now, Vera love. Teddy doesn’t need to see you in your underwear”.

He was only home for eight days that time, and Vera felt really sad when he went back to sea.

The following year, something exciting happened. One of Albert’s foremen bought a new radio, and offered to sell him the old one. It was discussed with Elsie, as it meant using their meagre savings. Things were not going that well in the world, with mass unemployment in America and Europe. Fortunately for the Dodds family, Elsie’s job was secure, and though there were no extra Saturdays being worked, Albert was fully employed too. It seemed that England still had need of cheap jam, and things made of iron.

Albert borrowed a sack barrow from work to wheel home the heavy radio, and Elsie helped him carry it upstairs. Clara Simmons came up, and she sat next to Vera and Elsie as they watched Albert waiting for it to warm up. The huge dial on the front listed lots of numbers and the names of faraway places, and the big cabinet it was fitted into took up a lot of space next to the fireplace. After some high-pitched whining sounds, and a lot of crackling noises, they finally heard the sound of orchestra music coming from the front. Elsie smiled. “Turn it up louder, Bert, don’t forget Clara is a bit deaf”.

Vera had heard radios before of course, as Vivian and Roy had one at his mum’s place. Roy was paying it off on hire purchase, so much a week. But to have their own one in the front room was something so exciting. Albert fiddled with the dials, trying to find a news broadcast, but Elsie yelled at him. “Leave it, Bert. Let’s just enjoy the music for now. Read the evening paper if you want to know what’s in the news!”. Reluctantly, he twisted the dial back to the music, then sat down and rolled a cigarette. Vera sat back and closed her eyes, trying to identify each instrument as they played their solos. Violins, piano, cellos, it was just wonderful.

That Sunday, Viv and Roy came round with baby George. Vivian had been sure all along she was having a girl, but there were problems at the end, and she had to have an operation at the hospital to get the baby out. He had been named George, after the King, and Albert, after dad. Roy was a mechanic by trade, although he aways kept his hands so clean, you would never know that he worked on cars for a living. He had bought a motor bike and covered sidecar after little George was born, and when they turned up, Viv was sitting in the sidecar holding the baby. It made so much noise that Vera put her fingers in her ears until the engine stopped. Her dad said Roy would never have any money, as he spent everything he earned.

When George was seven months old, Viv had gone back to work at the vinegar factory, and Roy’s mum looked after the baby. But it was two buses to get to work now, so as they ate the meat paste sandwiches and fruit cake, she was telling them that she was looking for a job closer to home. She had heard that there were jobs going at Kennedy’s sausage factory, and she could walk there. So she was going in to ask them about a job the following week. Vera held the chubby baby on her lap, constantly whispering into his ear. “Auntie Vera. I’m your Auntie Vera”. She was hoping it might be the first words he said.

Just as Elsie was making the third pot of tea, and Roy was droning on about how he would ideally love to buy a car, there were two knocks on the door. One knock would have been for Clara downstairs, but two knocks was for them. Albert went down, and came back up with Uncle Derek. His overcoat smelt so strongly of mothballs, it made Vera’s eyes water. His face was grim. “It’s May. She’s in a bad way. They have taken her to St George’s Hospital. Get your things, and I’ll take you in the car”. Aunt May lived in Pimlico, in a nice house that Derek had inherited. After collapsing at home, her doctor had not wasted any time, and had sent her to the hospital at Hyde Park Corner in an ambulance. It was so serious, the doctor had suggested Derek inform the family.

Vera had to stay home with Viv and Roy, and as the car left with her parents and uncle inside, she could see her mum was crying.

May didn’t last the night, and not long after, Vera got to go to her first funeral. Because Derek’s family had money, at least more than the Dodds, it was a fancy affair. As it was her older sister’s funeral, Elsie insisted that they all wear black, though Albert had to make do with a black tie worn with the blue suit. A new suit was a step too far, financially. Vera was given a black wool dress that was someone else’s and was altered to fit her for the day. Her mum told her not to get it messy, as it was going back in the morning. It was far too long, but it wouldn’t matter on such a young girl. Elsie also bought her some black wool stockings from the market, with white elastic loops to hold them up, and a black beret. Vivian left little George with her mother-in-law, and turned up looking very glamorous, with a black veil hanging from the brim of her hat.

Elsie wasn’t amused. “You’re not going on a date, Vivian. Black silk stockings indeed! And take some of that make-up off before we leave the house, you look like a showgirl.” They got two buses to the Pimlico house, and joined the other mourners inside. Most of them were serious looking people from Derek’s side, and Vera didn’t know any of them. But Uncle Ernie had turned up, much to everyone’s surprise. Derek had sent him a telegram, and had deliberately not told Elsie.

Ernest Baker was the oldest on Elsie’s side. The brother who was ten years older, and never spoken about. He had once sent Vera a five shilling postal order for Christmas, and she had asked about the uncle she had never met. Mum and dad told her to mind her business, but Vivian told her the story when they were in the bedroom later that night. Uncle Ernie was a theatrical, Viv said. He had never married, and moved around the country in touring shows, pantomimes, and revues. When he couldn’t get a steady role with a company, he used to sing in pubs in East London, dressed as a woman. According to Viv, he had a dingy flat off East India Dock Road, and lived with a much younger Chinese man.

When Vera could see nothing wrong with that and shrugged, Viv dropped to a barely audible whisper. “Don’t you get it? He’s queer, bent. You know, a fairy”.

Vera had absolutely no idea what her older sister was talking about, so just nodded.

The fancy hearse turned up not long after they arrived, pulled by four black horses. May’s coffin was carried out of the parlour and slowly loaded inside, visible through the glass. Elsie had brought some white flowers, and a man in a black top hat took them from her and placed them inside. Black funeral cars had been hired to take everyone, and they had their own one for the four of them. They followed the hearse at the same pace as the horses, all the way to the church, and then on to The Brompton Cemetery in Chelsea.
In the car, Vera watched as her mum got increasingly upset, and although she didn’t feel that sad about Aunt May, she was worried for her mum.

When the coffin was lowered into the grave, some of those who had been listening to the vicar went forward and threw dirt on top of it. Vera stayed at the back with Viv, trying to keep her dress clean. There was a bit of a do after, at a hotel in Kensington. It was the fanciest place Vera had ever seen in her life, with carpets so thick they made her feel like she was bouncing as she walked on them. The food was good too, and Vera smiled as she watched Vivian stuffing some sausage rolls and vol-au-vents into her handbag to take home for Roy. She could tell her dad had probably had one too many beers, as his voice was getting louder, but her mum made one glass of sherry last for the two hours they were there.

The sweet stuff was some of the best Vera had ever eaten, with tiny cakes covered in fondant icing, and small pastries full of sultanas and crunchy sugar on top. She had to stop herself eating any more of them, as she had started to feel a bit sick. The best thing to come out of the funeral was that Uncle Ernie seemed to have made up with her mum, and they had a cuddle before everyone left. Then he came and found Vera, and gave her half a crown as he patted her face. Viv had been right though. He smelled of perfume, and had powder on his face. But Vera really liked him anyway.

In the bus on the way home, Elsie stopped crying, and Albert sobered up. He turned to his wife, and smiled. “Reckon that’s the last time we’ll ever see Derek, anyway”.

He was right of course. They never saw him again.

The same week that Vera celebrated her twelfth birthday, the King died. Everyone was very sad about that, but Vera had other things on her mind.
She had started her monthlies, and had an accident at school. Mortified with embarrassment, she had walked home and gone to see Clara, letting it all out in floods of tears. She knew about such things of course, having shared a bedroom with her older sister for long enough, and also having sat through a talk from her mum all about it.

When Elsie got home and heard what had happened, she made the necessary arrangements, and cuddled her daughter. “You’re a woman now, love. You have to get used to this for the rest of your life. Well, until they stop when you’re older”. Something suddenly occurred to Vera, and she looked up at her mum. “Please don’t tell dad, I couldn’t bear it”.

On the radio, there was a lot of talk about the new King, who was going to be called Edward the Eighth. He had an American girlfriend, and Albert said she could never be our Queen. Still, everyone forgot about that for a while, when Vivian came round all excited, to tell her family that she was expecting another baby in the summer. She had been enjoying her job at the sausage factory and always managed to get cheap sausages for everyone, as employees got a big discount. The sausages were loose in big bags, and at least half the price of the ones sold in the butcher’s, or the small shops. Vera was hoping Viv hadn’t brought any with her.

She was geting a bit fed up of eating sausages by now.

Before the Easter holidays, Vera won an essay prize at school. She had written a long story about the British Empire, and even drawn the flags of the countries that were part of it. Albert had bought her some coloured pencils to do them, and a ruler to get the edges straight. The prize was a book, and she got to choose from a selection laid out in the school library.

Without hesitation, she picked an Atlas of The World. It had all the empire countries shown in red on the big double-page map, and then all the maps in alphabetical order, with each country’s capital city, population, currency, and main industry detailed underneath. She turned straight to the back, where there was a lot of text giving the highest mountains and longest rivers of each country too. The librarian Miss Clarkson pasted her prize certificate in the front, and wrote Vera’s name in beautiful italics.

It was always going to be her favourite book, even better than the old encyclopedia. She was sure of that.

Vivian had another boy, and they called him Edward, after the King, and Roy, after his dad. Vera now had two nephews, and had started to feel very grown up. A few days later, Albert got a telegram. They never got telegrams, so it was definitely going to be bad news. Elsie was already tearful before he had opened it. It was from Teddy. He had broken his leg in an accident on board ship, and was in hospital in Hong Kong. It was his thigh that was broken, so it would be a long recovery. He wouldn’t be home for Christmas, he was sure. Elsie was relieved, and made a pot of strong tea. “Oh my gawd, I was sure he was dead, Bert.”

There was more bad news on the radio. There was a war in Spain. A man called General Franco had invaded the country and was fighting the government with his army. Albert shook his head, his face glum. “That Franco’s no better than those Nazis in Germany. Mark my words, this is going to mean trouble”. Vera already knew about a war in Abyssinia, caused by Mussolini and his Italians. Dad had told her that the Emperor of Abyssinia had no chance, as his soldiers only had spears, and very old guns. Now there was a war much closer to England, in Spain. Vera had already looked up Abyssinia in her Atlas, and now she refreshed her memory about Spain. It was so much bigger than England, so it would probably be a really big war.

Kath was having a birthday tea party that Sunday, and Vera was invited of course.

Thinking about what she was going to wear soon took her mind off Spanish men fighting each other.

Vera only had two dresses suitable for Kath’s birthday tea. Both were rather small now she was getting older. Elsie told her to wear tha pale blue one, but it came up very short, well over her knees. So Elsie went to East Street Market and bought some fake white lace which she sewed onto the bottom, and around the edges of the sleeves. She also picked up a blue ribbon that matched the dress for Vera to wear in her hair, and a tortioseshell Alice Band to give Kath as a present.

When she got to Kath’s house, it was all a bit formal. Some of her relatives were there, with some cousins who were very young. Everyone was sitting around sipping orange squash and eating cakes and biscuits, but there were no party games or songs. Mr Frazer was talking to some men in the kitchen, and Mrs Frazer was looking flushed and busy. When Vera handed her friend the present, Kathy gave her a funny look, and didn’t even open it. When she had sat around like that for over an hour, Vera got fed up, and went and stood behind Kathy. She cupped her hand and whispered into the girl’s ear. “What’s wrong, Kath?”

Her friend’s reaction startled her. “You, that’s what’s wrong. You come to my party in your fancy dress, ribbon in your hair, and sit there like lady muck. It’s my party, not yours, and you’re not supposed to show off wearing your fancy clothes and make me look bad”. Kathy hadn’t recognised the old dress, as Elsie had done such a good job of making it look rather grand. But before Vera could tell her, Kathy turned on her again. “And you might as well go home, ’cause you’re not my friend anymore. And you can take this with you.” She held out the brown paper parcel containing the Alice Band.

Grabbing the parcel, Vera ran out without even stopping to thank Mrs Frazer, and cried all the way home. Her mum told her it was just a silly argument, and it would all be forgotten at school the next day. But she was wrong, and Kathy never spoke to her again.

A week after the summer holidays ended, Vera came home from school as usual. She was old enough to take care of herself now, but still liked to pop in to see Mrs Simmons before going upstairs to her place. She was sitting in the old wooden armchair in the scullery, and at first Vera thought she must be asleep. But one of her shoes had slipped off, and her left arm was hanging down the side, the fingers of her hand almost touching the floor. Vera went over to shake her, to see it she was alright, but her body was hard and stiff.

Running straight back out of the house, she went to the tobacconist and newsagent shop on the corner, owned by Mr Lewis. She told him Clara Simmons wasn’t moving and felt stiff, and he used the phone in his shop to call the doctor. Then he got his son Colin to watch the shop and went back with Vera. Leaving her in the hallway, he went into the back room to look at Clara. He came back shaking his head. “She’s gone, Vera love. You had better go back and wait in my shop. I’ll stay here to see the doctor”. Vera walked back to the shop in a daze. It was the first time she had seen a dead person, and she had even touched her.

Colin Lewis raised his eyebrows when Vera told him what had happened. He was twenty-two years old, and worked in the print trade, doing night shifts at one of the newspapers. Vera thought he was very good looking, but her dad had teased her about him. “Don’t set your cap at Colin, Vera love. He’s a political, that one. Goes marching against the Blackshirts and everything. Trade union man too, bit of an agitator if you ask me. Don’t reckon he has time for romance, especially with some girl as young as you”. She had blushed so hard, her face felt warm all evening.

By the time Elsie got home from work, the undertaker’s big van was there to take Clara away. Elsie gave Mr Lewis the phone number of Clara’s brother in Kent. He was in his nineties, and agreed to pay for the funeral but said he was too ill to travel up for it. That night as they ate dinner, Albert seemed deep in thought. Suddenly putting his knife and fork down, he leaned across the table, speaking quietly to his wife. “I think we should go and see the landlord, Elsie love. Offer to take over the whole place. Otherwise, you never know who might move in downstairs. We can just afford the extra rent, if we’re careful.” Elsie smiled at the thought of it, and nodded.

When Vera went to bed that night, she was thinking about Clara, but smiling about maybe having the whole house just for them.

The last Christmas before she left school, Vera’s family celebrated together in the whole house. Albert had made the best of his days off by painting all the rooms, and trying to make the two separate homes into one. Clara’s old scullery and kichen was now converted so they could all eat around the table, and that left a proper parlour at the front which was only used on highdays and holidays. Upstairs, Vera now had a nice big bedroom, and Albert and Elsie had what used to be the living room, across the front. Vera’s old room was spare, for when Teddy came home from sea on leave.

Vivian and Roy came round with the boys, and Elsie even invited Uncle Ernie for dinner. Though she conveniently forgot to extend the invitation to his Chinese friend. Vera thought it was the best day she could remember. Nobody argued, there was plenty to eat, and Ernie made everyone fall about laughing with his saucy jokes and cheeky songs. He even brought Vera some stockings as a present, telling her she was a young lady now, and would soon be out in the world of work. Albert had gone to Mr Lewis’s shop the day before, and asked him round for drinks. Colin had gone to Spain to fight with the International Brigade, and nothing had been heard of him since. With his wife long dead, they felt sorry for Mr Lewis, but he declined the invitation anyway.

Later on, Roy said he would give Uncle Ernie a lift home in his sidecar, and there was more hilarity as he tried to squeeze into the thing. He ended up on the small pillion seat instead, with his arms wrapped around Roy as they waved him goodbye.

On her fourteenth birthday the next January, Vera sat and thought about how she would be leaving school at Easter, missing out on the holidays, and starting her job. She still felt like a little girl sometimes, even though it was a long time since she had played with any toys or dolls. As it was now 1938, she realised it wouldn’t be too long before the start of a new decade, and she hoped it was going to be the best one the family had ever known. And she couldn’t help thinking about Colin, as that war in Spain was still going on. Colin’s side was losing too, according to the reports they heard on the radio.

Then before Easter, Germany took over Austria. It was on the BBC radio, and Vera watched as her dad sat shaking his head. “I don’t like the sound of this one bit, Elsie love. I reckon that Hitler bloke won’t be happy until he starts another war”. Elsie cleared away the tea cups, muttering. “You’re always on about something, Bert Dodds. Just leave all that stuff to Mr Chamberlain and the politicians. They will sort it out”. Not really wanting to think about any wars, Vera went up to her room to read. But she soon took down her atlas, and looked up Austria again. Then she looked at Czechoslovakia, as they had been talking about that country too. Her feet felt chilly, so she flipped the candlewick bedspread over them, wondering if Colin would only get back in time to have to go and fight another war in Austria.

Leaving school was something of an anti-climax. She just went home on the last day before the holidays, and never went back. There were no real goodbyes, or fond farewells. Another girl from her class was starting at the jam factory the next Monday. Her name was Janet Reid, and although Vera didn’t know her that well, she came up to her as they were walking home. “See you on Monday, Vera. Your mum works there, don’t she? She gonna look out for us then?”. Vera told her that her mum would be at work, but too busy to worry about new girls. Janet smiled. “We’ll just have to look out for each other then”.

Elsie got her daughter up early, and walked with her into work. She found her time card, and showed her how to clock on and off. “You have to do that at lunchtime too, don’t forget. And you’ve got your money for the canteen, haven’t you?” She then took her to meet Mrs Oliver, who was going to show her what to do. Janet was already with her, and winked at Vera when she saw her. As they walked into the main factory, Vera could hardly believe the noise in there.

She was sure it would drive her crazy.

After just two weeks in the factory, Vera no longer noticed the noise. The radio played over loudspeakers jangled with the constant clinking of glass jars and tins, and the women shouted over it all, their hair wrapped up in headscarves, and large aprons tied over their clothes. Very few men worked there, except those doing the heaviest work in the warehouse and the ones who drove the delivery vans. Mrs Oliver swapped the women around a lot, so they didn’t lapse into gossiping instead of working. That meant Vera met others of all ages, and from different boroughs too. She always went for lunch with Janet, who had turned out to be very grown up, even having a boyfriend called Frank. She would make Vera blush, talking about kissing and cuddling, smooching in the cinema, and finding places to hide in the park.

When Janet found out that Vera had never kissed a boy, she was determined to fix her up wth one of Frank’s mates. Frank was seventeen, and worked with his dad and brother as a plasterer. Janet said he knew a boy at the plastering firm who would like Vera, and she should fix up a date as a foursome. Feeling nervous, and hoping to get out of it, Vera invented an ‘understanding’ with Colin Lewis. She said that when he got back from Spain they would be seeing each other regularly, so she had better wait. Janet was suitably impressed, because Colin was so much older and his dad had a shop, so she let it go.

Not long after that conversation, the newspaper shop was closed when they walked past it on the way home from work. People were standing outside, peering through the glass panel in the door, and nobody knew why it wasn’t open. Elsie thought Mr Lewis might have been taken ill, and went around the side to knock on the door to the flat above where he lived. But there was no answer. When Vera’s dad got home, he was carrying an evening paper. Elsie mentioned that the shop had been closed not that long before, and Albert sighed. “He had some bad news earlier. Got a letter saying Colin was killed in February, at a place called Jarama. He had to open up again for the evening papers trade though, what else is he supposed to do?”

Vera felt the tears roll down her cheeks at the news. It was made worse by her lie to Janet earlier, which made her feel incredibly guilty. Albert spared his daughter’s feelings by not teasing her about Colin ever again.

Payday at the factory was on Friday afternoons. Vera got a brown pay-packet with the amount of her wages written on it in ink. On the way home, she would give it to her mum, and when they got in, Elsie would open it, take some money for Vera’s share of the housekeeping, and give her back the rest. Vera had opened a savings account at the Post Office, and used to pay in so much a week. Then there was the small payment to the Christmas Club at the factory, which paid out the week before Christmas day. What little was left was hers to spend, mostly on clothes and make-up.

Because Janet’s Frank went to the pub with his mates on Fridays, her and Janet started going to the cinema after work, always getting pie and mash in Tower Bridge Road before the programme started. Sometimes on the way home, Vera would share one of Janet’s cigarettes, but she didn’t let on to her mum that she was smoking.

That summer, there was more talk about trouble with Germany. Czechoslovakia was mentioned again, and Vera looked up a place called the Sudetenland in her atlas. Everyone was worried about the possibility of a war, and then in the first week of July, it got very real. Albert came home and said he had registered for the Civil Defence, and they were going to issue gas masks to everyone in the country in case Germany attacked. The masks were horrible; smelly rubber things kept in a cardboard box with a string to wear it on your shoulder. Vera’s dad told her that Londoners had to be careful to carry them at all times, because London was sure to be attacked with gas bombs.

That night she went to bed in such a state, she couldn’t sleep.

That August, Vera and Elsie were surprised to find her brother Teddy outside the house when they got home from work. He wasn’t in his uniform, and had two kitbags full of his stuff. After the excitement of seeing him had died down, and they had stopped telling each other how well they looked, he told them the news that he had resigned from the Merchant Navy. His intention was to join the Royal Navy, and he had already spoken to the recruiting office. He was convinced there would be a war, and wanted to do his bit in the navy once it started. He had a couple of days before he had to get the train to Portsmouth, and had come to say his farewells.

“And to get your washing and ironing done, I expect”, joked Elsie.

Albert was delighted to see his son at home, though more than a little worried about his transfer to the Royal Navy. Teddy had a very slight limp after breaking his leg, but he was so experienced as an engineer, they had told him he would be a Chief Petty Officer after training. He was almost thirty-two now, and said he didn’t want to be thought of as being too old once the inevitable war started. Albert was less convinced there would be a war. “Mr Chamberlain will sort it out son, you mark my words”. Her brother was only staying one night, leaving the next day to spend time with Vivian and the boys before getting his train. Vera had to say an unusually tearful goodbye before she went to bed. She agreed with him, though she wouldn’t argue with her dad. That Herr Hitler was going to have his war, whatever the Prime Minister did.

For the August Bank Holiday Monday, Vera went on the factory outing to Margate. She had never seen the seaside, and was quite excited about going to a place designed for visitors to just enjoy themselves. There was one worry, and that was the long journey by coach. Vera hadn’t been that far on the road before, and was glad to have Janet next to her. But despite the singing, it wasn’t long before the heat and cigarette smoke inside started to make her feel sick, and she was very relieved when they stopped at a roadside cafe, and they could get out and walk around a bit. Once they could see the coast, and knew they had almost arrived, that stopped her feeling ill soon enough.

It was better than she had ever expected. Despite the crowds, there was so much to do. Janet had been before, and knew all the best places. They had cockles to eat, and fish and chips later too. Janet even had candy floss and an ice cream, but Vera thought she had best avoid those. They had a ride on a donkey, and went on a big swing that looked like a boat. Before it was time to go back and meet the coach, Janet decided they had to paddle in the sea, and they took their stockings off and stuffed them in their shoes before running into the cold water. The hem of Vera’s dress got wet, but she didn’t care.
It was such a fabulous day.

On the way home, there was more singing, and some of the men at the front were drinking beer. The coach had to stop in a lay-by, so the men could get out and have a wee, and Vera laughed hysterically at the sight of them all lined up, piddling onto the grass. For the last part of the journey, Vera went to sleep, her head on Janet’s shoulder. She woke up when they pulled up outside the factory gates, and Janet laughed as they got out. “I hope you haven’t ruined your sleep. We’ve got work in the morning”.

At the end of September, Mr Chamberlain was on the radio, and his photo was on the front page of the newspaper, holding up a piece of paper. Vera’s dad told her there would not be a war. “See, what did I tell you? He has met that Hitler fellow in Germany, and they have made an agreement. No war. Look, here he is with the King and Queen. See, they’re smiling”.

Two weeks before Christmas, a letter arrived from Teddy. He wouldn’t be home, as he was going to be serving on a wonderful new ship. It was an aircraft carrier, one of those enormous ships with planes inside. He sent a photo of him standing next to it. It was taken just before it was launched, in Liverpool.

They had named it HMS Ark Royal.

Janet was determined to celebrate Vera’s fifteenth birthday, despite the weather being awful. She invited Vera to her house after work, and they sat in her bedroom as Janet tried to convince her to go on a double-date with one of Frank’s friends. “We can go to the pub with them. It’s up near the Elephant and Castle, nobody knows us up there”. Vera was thinking it over when there was some commotion downstairs. Janet’s brother had arrived home on leave from the army, and it was a surprise visit.

Vera had never met Leslie before, though Janet would talk about him a lot. He was twenty-one, and had been in the regular army for almost five years. They went down from Janet’s room so she could greet him. Vera took one look at Leslie Reid, and wondered if her legs would stop trembling. Tall, fair-haired, and blue-eyed, he looked nothing at all like his parents or sister. Vera thought her mum would have joked that he had to be the milkman’s son. He had two stripes on the sleeve of his uniform, which Vera knew meant he was a corporal. He was in the Grenadier Guards, and sometimes guarded the palaces wearing a red jacket and bearskin hat. He stopped cuddling his sister and turned to Vera.

“Where have you been hiding this little beauty, sis? She’s a cracker”. Vera blushed so hard she could feel the heat coming from her face and neck. She reverted to formality to cover up her embarrassment. “I’m Vera Dodds, I work with Janet. Nice to meet you Leslie”. He took her extended hand. “Call me Les, darlin’. You’re gorgeous”. She blushed again, and suddenly realised she understood the meaning of love at first sight.

All thoughts of double-dating with Frank’s mate disappeared as soon as she looked at Leslie. Janet could see it too. “Its her birthday next week, Les. You should ask her out, take her dancing or something”. Vera could have punched her, but was secretly glad she had said that. “Why not? What do you say, lovely Vera, is it a date?” She nodded, trying not too appear overly enthusiastic. “I would like that, Les”. He grinned. “Okay, I will pick you up at six, and we can go for some nosh before dancing. Will it be alright with your dad though?” Vera had no idea what her dad would say, but she was a working woman who paid her own way, and fifteen or not, she was going on that date. “Course it will”.

Albert and Elsie just had to smile as they listened for the third time to Vera’s story of meeting Leslie. They had never seen their daughter so excited, even when she told them all about her trip to Margate. Albert thought about it. “Grenadier Guards you say?. I think he’s a bit old for you though, love. Elsie stepped in. “The Reids are a good family, Bert. I’m sure no harm would come to our girl. You can always have a word with Les before they leave”. Albert knew he was outvoted. “Well, alright, but you have to be home by eleven at the latest, and no smooching on the doorstep mind”. Vera hugged him, and kissed him on the cheek. As she went up to her room, she turned and winked at her mum.

On the night, Albert decided not to say anything. The young man was very respectful. He had brought Vera a nice present, all wrapped up with ribbon and everything. It was a pair of quality stockings, the sort wrapped in tissue paper in a smart box. And he was serious with Albert too. “I know Vera is young, Mr Dodds, and you have my word she will be safe with me”. He had even brought a quart of sweet stout for Elsie, who gave him the same doe-eyes as Vera.

The next day, Vera was wishing she could have remembered more of the night before. It had all seemed like a dream. Leslie knew his way around the west end, and they had dinner in a chop house before dancing in a smart place she had never heard of. Nobody questioned her age, even when Leslie ordered her a port and lemon from the waitress. Vera had learned to dance by practicing with Vivian years before, and Les whirled her around like someone who really knew what he was doing. At twenty past ten, he said it was time to go, and he hailed a taxi from the street outside. In the cab on the way back, he gave her one soft kiss on the lips, and held her hand.

She thought her heart would burst.

After paying off the taxi, he stood outside as she opened the door. “I have to go back to the regiment soon, Vera. Would you write to me? Janet will give you the address. Maybe you could send me a photo too? I would love to have a photo of my sweetheart to keep in my wallet”. Vera ran the few steps from the door, and kissed him. Just a quick kiss, but one hadn’t been enough for her.

“Course I’ll write to you Les. Course I will”.

The following Saturday afternoon, Vera and Janet went to the photography studio in Rotherhithe. She paid for two copies of each photo, one full length in her best dress, and the other one a full-face portrait. Janet had helped with her hair and make up before they left home, and even though the photo wouldn’t be in colour, Vera used some bright red lipstick. The man in the studio said she could pick them up on Monday after work, and he would fit a nice cardboard frame around them, included in the price. “That will stop the corners turning, young lady”.

That night in her room, Vera wrote Les a letter to include with the photos. She kept it quite formal, asking after his health, and hoping he was enjoying his extra training. At the end, she signed it ‘Fond regards, Vera Dodds’. She was happy with the photos when she collected them, and slid two of them into the envelope with the letter. She had only asked for small prints, otherwise they wouldn’t fit in Les’s wallet. She showed her mum the spares, and Elsie turned and showed them to her husband. “Look, Bert. Our Vera is quite the smart young lady now”. Albert smiled, continuing to read a pile of papers he had collected from the Civil Defence. Elsie walked over to the mantlepiece, then changed her mind. “I am going to put them over the nice fireplace, the one in the parlour”.

At the end of March, Albert came home from his Civil Defence meeting pushing a big cart with the help of two friends. It was full of curved sheets of corrugated iron, something his company were flat out making thousands of. He unloaded it, carrying the sheets through into the garden with great difficulty. When Elsie and Vera came to see what he was doing, he turned and smiled. “It’s a bomb shelter. They call it The Anderson Shelter. Better to be safe than sorry, I reckon. Sad thing is, I will have to dig up me rose bushes on that side”.

On Sunday, Albert was up early, taking his spade to the ground on the right hand side of the garden. Very soon, his rose bushes were dumped, and he was up to his knees in a deep trench of dirt. He stopped long enough to enjoy a Sunday roast, downed a glass of light ale, then went back to work. By the time it was getting dark, he had excavated a huge pile of earth, and was banging the floor flat with the back of the spade. Then he covered the ground with the big sheets of iron, in case it rained. As Elsie handed him an enamel mug full of tea, he brushed the dirt from his hands. “I will have to get back to this after work tomorrow, dark or not”.

By the end of the week, Albert had constructed his shelter. It had two benches inside, and some old wood placed around to make a sort of floor. He had used all the excavated earth to cover the top, and showed his family the result of his labours. Vera and Elsie had to stoop down low to get into it, and it smelt something awful inside. Elsie, shook her head. “Albert Dodds, you are not geting me inside this thing, I’m sure”. Albert grinned. “Better than being blown to bits, old girl. Get a few blankets in here, and my old hurricane lamp, and we will be nice and cosy”. Vera held her nose, and her mum giggled.

At the end of the month, Mr Chamberlain was on the radio. He said that if Herr Hitler and his Germans invaded Poland, England would help Poland. Albert smiled. “See, what did I tell you? Those Nazis will think twice now”.

The letter from Les arrived in April, and Vera rushed up to her room to read it in private. He was very happy with the photos, and had sent her one of him, holding a rifle with a bayonet fixed on it, and a serious look on his face. It had been cut around the edge with pinking shears, and Vera immediately placed it in her keepsake box. His words were full of romance, enough to make her blush. He was easy with his compliments about her ‘sweet lips’, ‘attractive face’, and how much he liked her legs in the bigger photo. At the end, he signed it very romantically. ‘To my sweetheart, Vera. With all my love, your Les’.

Later that night, she couldn’t sleep for excitement.

That summer, letters continued to be exchanged between Vera and Les. She allowed herself to become increasingly romantic in her replies, and started to sign them ‘With love, your little Vera’. Albert had to attend more and more meetings at the Civil Defence, and even got allowed time off from the Iron Works to go to them. Then one Saturday afternoon, Vera got back from an overtime shift at the jam factory to find her sister Vivian at the house in floods of tears. “It’s Roy. he reckons they are gonna bring in the call-up, so he’s only gone and joined the Army. Says he will be a driver and mechanic, bound to be, ’cause of him being a car mechanic. He’s sold the motorbike and waiting for his orders. He says I’ve got to stay at home and look after his mum”.

Vera told her that Janet’s Frank had been saying the same thing only last week. Better to join up than to wait and be called up. Viv snapped back at her. “S’alright for him, he ain’t got two kids and a wife to worry about, has he?” Deciding not to get involved in an argument, Vera went up to her room and wrote a letter to Les.

Near the end of August, the reserves got notified of the call-up for them, and Albert had to go to a meeting where the Civil Defence was placed on full alert. He came home looking glum, no longer able to keep insisting a war wasn’t going to happen. That night, he spoke to Elsie and Vera about preparing the Anderson Shelter properly, and how they would have to glue strips of brown paper to the windows to stop being injured by glass when the bombing started. He also told her they would need thick black curtains for the windows, so as not to show a light at night.

Elsie was made of strong stuff, and just nodded. “I can get some nice material down the market next weekend, and ask Mrs Ryan to run up the curtains for me on her sewing machine”. Albert shook his head. “You have to do it sooner than that, love. The orders will be broadcast soon”. Vera didn’t want to let them see she was worried. “I can cut the paper strips up, dad. And there’s glue at work, for the labels. I’m sure they will let us have some”.

Three days later, a letter arrived from Teddy. They had received war orders, and he didn’t know how often he would be able to write, or where he would be. He said not to worry if they didn’t hear anything for a while. So of course they immediately worried. The same day, Roy came round to say his goodbyes. He had received orders to report to the Royal Artillery barracks in Woolwich, and looked pretty fed up about that. “Typical, ain’t it? Here I am, a car mechanic, and the Army sends me to learn how to fire cannons”.

On the radio, and in all the newspapers, there was nothing but war. Vera got fed up listening to all the war talk, knowing full well that Les would be involved, whether she liked it or not. She hadn’t had a reply to her last letter, so was sure that Les would have already had orders and probably couldn’t tell her where he was being sent.

On the first day of September, the Germans invaded Poland. Elsie and Vera were hanging the blackout curtains as best they could after work, as Mrs Ryan hadn’t had time to use her sewing machine on them. They were using tacks, and nailing them to the window frames. Albert came home from work, holding a newspaper. “It will be war this weekend, Elsie love. Mark my words. That Hitler’s gone and done it, so he has”. Two days later, Britain declared war on Germany, and they listened to Mr Chamberlain on the radio, remarking on how serious and upset he sounded.

Elsie was crying quietly as she peeled the potatoes in the scullery, and Vera went in and cuddled her. “It will be alright, Mum. We have each other. We’ll get through this”. Then she went upstairs and thought about Les.

Moments later, she was crying too.

By the end of September, the British Army Expeditionary Force had been sent over to France, and Poland had surrendered to Germany. There was a meeting at the jam factory, and the manager told the staff that they would now be making big tins of jam under contract for the army, navy, and air force. Full-day Saturday working was being introduced, and anyone who worked six days would of course be paid more. Vera didn’t know for sure that Les was in France with the army, but she put her hand up to work on Saturdays, as she liked to think of him eating the jam she made. Elsie declined to work the extra day, telling the manager that she had a house to run.

When a letter arived from Les, she was glad she had made that decision, as he was in France. He couldn’t write about where he was, but told her everything was fine, and there was no war there yet. He mentioned some of his mates, including another Londoner called Lucky, because he always won at cards. Les said he was going to stick close to him when there was trouble, so his luck would rub off. The following week, the call-up was announced, and it seemed Roy had been right all along.

Janet came into work in tears, because Frank had joined up. He had already been sent off to basic training, and wouldn’t get leave until that finished. Vera told her she was better off than her, as her Les was already in France. They agreed to go to the cinema as usual on Friday, hoping to get more information from the newsreels. They had also had to register for the new National Identity Cards, which were supposed to stop German spies from operating in the country.

Everyone knew there was going to have to be food rationing, so Elsie and Vera started to buy up as much jam as they could carry home. Vivian was still able to get cheap sausages, and sausage meat, but they wouldn’t keep so well until the winter. At the Iron Works, Albert was now on a full six-day week, and had also signed up to work on the Civil Defence Heavy Rescue, in case any bombing started. It felt strange to Vera that there was all this war going on, but nothing much seemed to be happening. Her dad told her that the government were keeping a lot of it secret, because of spies and foreign agents. But life still felt normal, in so many ways.

Not long before Christmas, the papers and radio news were full of the story of the sinking of the German battleship Graf Spee, after a battle called The River Plate, near Argentina. It was a big victory for the Royal Navy, but they had no idea whether or nor Teddy’s ship was involved. The celebrations were very subdued that year, and they had a quiet lunch at home. Viv and the boys stayed with Roy’s mum so she wouldn’t be on her own. Elsie had invited her, but she had said no. Viv said she was too upset from worrying about Roy.

Up in her room later, Vera thought about the fact that she would soon be sixteen years old, and there was a war on.

To get those ideas out of her head, she wrote a letter to Les, not caring whether he would ever get it.

On new year’s day 1940, the call-up was extended to men up to twenty-seven years of age. Vera noticed how many young men were no longer around the familiar streets, and missing from the factory too. One of the shop-floor girls, Madge Waring, even got to go and train as a delivery driver because they were so short of men. At home, Albert used to listen to the famous traitor, Lord Haw-Haw, on the radio. He was broadcasting from Germany, and spreading lies about how well the Germans were doing, and how they were sinking dozens of ships. Elsie thought it was disloyal to listen to him. “You should turn that off, Bert. That man’s a traitor, nothing less”.

One day, Janet brought some letters into work to show Vera. One was from Les, sent to their parents. It said much the same as he had written to her, and even mentioned Lucky. The other was from Frank, saying he was doing pretty well in the army. He had enclosed a photo of himself in uniform, and they both agreed he looked a lot older.

That reminded Vera that everyone now looked a lot older. Even her.

By March that year, meat rationing was in. Although they had the extra jam, and Viv’s sausages, they certainly had to tighten their belts where food was concerned. Albert reluctantly dug up the rose bushes on the other side of the garden. Elsie thought he was going to plant some vegetables, but instead he used some scrap wood and wire from work to build ten rabbit hutches in the space. One Saturday, he brought home four rabbits in an old cardboard suitcase with holes punched in the top. He had bought them from a colleague at the iron works, and the man had assured him that two bucks and two does would produce a lot of baby rabbits.

Vera stroked the bunnies, but couldn’t imagine eating the rabbit stew when the time came.

Not long after, Mr Chamberlain resigned, and Winston Churchill became the Prime Minister. Albert was overjoyed. “He’s a fighter, that man. Saw action in the Boer War, and again in France in fourteen-eighteen. We can count on him to liven things up”. Elsie wasn’t so sure. “But he’s rich, Bert. One of those aristocrats, ain’t he? How can we rely on him to sort things out?”

There was a letter from Les, and it worried Vera. The Germans had moved into France and Belgium, and there would be fighting soon, he was sure of that. He couldn’t say where he was, but concluded by writing, “There will be some trouble soon, Vera love. Think of your Les, and I will write to you when I can”. Vera could not stop the tears when she read that.

As the summer started to warm up, the newsreels began to talk about a place called Dunkirk. It seemed all the British and French soldiers were heading to that town, to make a determined stand against the Germans.

Albert came home from work and told them he was going to get time off to train for Heavy Rescue. They expected the bombing to start soon, and they would need trained crews to dig out the survivors, along with the bodies. Everyone had seen what the bombing had done in Spain, and then Poland. In a crowded and populous city like London, or even Bristol and Birmingham, they could only imagine the devastataion.

Janet kept crying about what was going to happen to Frank, and Vera had to remind her that her own brother was already in the shooting war, and likely going to Dunkirk with the others. “So what if Frank has to peel spuds and clean up the camp, Janet? At least he isn’t facing German stormtroopers”.

When they went to the cinema on Fridays, everything looked pretty bad. Barrage ballons and searchlights were being set up all around London, and although the newsreader tried to make it all sound funny, they both knew better. They had seen the workmen digging out public bomb shelters, and putting signs up in the railway and underground stations. Those big signs with an ‘S’ were everywhere, and all the important buildings had their fronts covered in sand bags.

Elsie was already getting frustrated with the meat rationing, and showed them the small amount they were allowed for the week. “You can forget your Sunday roast, Bert love. The rabbits aren’t big enough yet, and if we use all our ration, there will be nothing to get through the week with”. Bert and Vera put on brave faces. She turned to her troubled mum. “We can have jam sandwiches a couple of nights, mum. There’s still plenty of jam”.

Vera couldn’t really think about eating, with Les in such danger. But she ate what her mum served up, as she knew how hard it was going to be to manage.

That Sunday, Vivian brought the boys round to see them. She was annoyed with Roy. “I’ve had a letter that tells me nothing”, she sniffed. Seems my Roy has volunteered for something special, and he can’t tell me what it is. Sure I don’t know what he’s thinking of, with a wife and two kids left behind here. I reckon he must have lost his head, Mum. How can he do such a stupid thing?”

Nobody knew what to say to Viv. Roy was a man, and had to do what he thought best. But that was all soon forgotten, when Albert switched on the radio.

It was about Dunkirk, and the news was terrible.

As well as the radio, the newspapers were full of photos and articles about Dunkirk. They had no idea if Teddy’s ship was involved, but if it wasn’t, it must have been the only ship in Great Britain that wasn’t heading out to France to collect the soldiers from the beaches. Even seaside pleasure cruisers from Margate and Southend were being used, and her dad told Vera that hundreds of boats were passing along the Thames on their way to the sea. “Just little ones, love. You know, cabin cruisers like those rich people have tied up behind their houses”.

Janet was relieved that Frank was still in training camp. waiting for a posting to a regiment. Viv had heard that Roy was in Scotland of all places, happy to have escaped the Artillery for whatever special job he had volunteered for. She read out part of his letter, then stopped when she started to blush. “The rest is personal stuff, you know the sort of thing. Well, he misses me, don’t he?”

Almost every port or harbour of any size was starting to receive weary-looking soldiers who had been brought off the beaches. Some of the ships had been sunk, and it made Elsie upset to think of those boys believing they were safe, and then those awful dive bombers sinking them at sea. “Why can’t our RAF do more to help the boys, Bert? I mean to say, we have a lot of planes, don’t we?” Bert stopped rolling his cigarette, and looked solemn. So do the Germans, Elsie love. And they have had a lot of practice”.

For nearly two weeks, it seemed Dunkirk was the only thing anyone talked about. They got so many off those beaches, including a lot of Frenchies too, Vera read. Albert had something to say about that. “Well, I hope those Frenchies don’t expect to sit out the war in Dover or wherever. They can bloody well fight, and help defend us when the invasion comes”. Elsie said nothing, but she thought her husband could sound very silly sometimes. That week at the cinema, Vera watched the newsreels holding Janet’s hand tight. For some reason, she was convinced she was going to spot Les, climbing on a ship to safety, or returning to Dover with a big smile on his face as he disembarked. But they talked about the rearguard, and how so many had been killed, wounded, or captured. Now convinced Les was in the rearguard, Vera cried all the way home from the cinema.

Frank came home on leave, with the news that he was being posted to Dorset, to join the 1st Royal Tank Regiment. Janet spotted him standing outisde the factory gates as they finished work, looking older and more serious in his uniform. He seemed excited about being in the tanks. “They might even let me drive one, and it’s better than footslogging. Besides, those new tanks stop bullets, so my chances are better”. Vera didn’t want to mention the shattered tanks in France they had seen on the newsreels, and kissed Frank on the cheek before leaving them to go off to spend time together.

That Sunday, Vivian came round with the boys. She brought some sausages with her that she had smuggled out of the factory, and they had them for tea with mashed potatoes. “I will have to stop pinching the sausages soon, Mum. They are getting very careful about stocktaking since the rationing”. Albert wasn’t amused. “I thought you got them cheap. You stop that right now, young lady. No Dodds has ever been a thief, and I won’t have it”.

Another letter had arrived from Roy, and his big secret was now public knowledge. He was in a new unit called The Commandos. They were to be used for special raids, and had lots of extra training. Viv sounded impressed. “He’s got a special knife, and he gets to carry a tommy gun instead of a rifle. He says they are a really tough bunch, and those Jerries had better watch out once they get started. Lots of them didn’t get through the course, but my Roy came out in the top ten of his class”. Albert nodded his approval, wondering how such a wet-looking article as Roy had managed to become part of an elite unit.

There was still no news about Les, and Vera was increasingly worried when she heard that The Grenadier Guards had been part of the rearguard.

That night in bed, she prayed to God for the first time since she was a little girl.

It was a long time before Vera found out anything about Les, and then it was from Janet, not by letter. “You had better know that my dad was informed our Les is a prisoner, Vera. Seems he was wounded in the hand during the rearguard action, and got captured. Dad says they will treat them fair, put them in a camp or something and feed them. Dad reckons they will get a doctor to look at his hand too, but God knows how long he will be held over there”. The news made Vera’s legs weak wih relief. At least Les hadn’t been killed, as she had been dreading. Janet put her arm around her friend. “I’ll let you know once we can write to him”.

Later that summer, the Germans took over the Channel Islands, and the city of Birmingham was badly bombed. Vera had never been to Birmingham, but she knew it was a big city, and a long way from London. It felt funny to think that those German planes were now in France, and they could probably see across to Dover, on a clear day. The air-raid warning sirens were tested again, and the sound of those made Vera feel physically sick. The way they started low, then reached a terrible wail. It made it all feel real. Down in Southwark Park, and along the river in Greenwich, they practiced with searchlights, illuminating the night sky like giant torch-beams. Albert and Elsie started to get the Anderson Shelter prepared, stacking old blankets in there, with flasks full of fresh water, and a big metal bucket to use for a toilet. Vera looked at her mum, and shook her head. ” I could never use a bucket in front of my dad, never. I will have to chance using the lavatory. I will, I tell you”.

Near the end of August, German bombers reached London, and bombed some unexpected places, like Harrow, and Croydon. Then one plane bombed the City, and they heard the explosions across the river. Vera thought it sounded a bit like really loud thunder, and wanted to walk down to the river to see the smoke. But her mum made her sit in the shelter with her until it stopped. Albert had gone in to his Civil Defence job that day, but they didn’t get called out.

Then on the second Saturday in September, Vera heard the sirens while she was at work in the jam factory. All the workers had to stop, and the machines were turned off. Old Mr Prentice came in and blew a whistle, and everyone had to go in single file down to the huge basement. It was very hot down there, as all the pipe-work ran over the ceiling, and once everyone was packed in and sitting down, it got even hotter. Vera was scared about being there, imagining what would happen if the factory was bombed, and collapsed on top of them. Hattie O’Connor, one of the older ladies, saw her shaking and came and sat in front of her, grasping both her hands. “Talk to me, Vera. Just talk to me, and it’ll be alright”. But Vera couldn’t think of anything to say.

When the sirens stopped, the bombs started to fall. But this time they didn’t sound like distant thunder, more like you were sitting under a speeding steam train that was rolling over you. One, two, three, four, five. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang! The last bang was closer, and she sensed a trembling in the ground like you get when a big lorry drives past on the street. The explosions were so close together, they seemed to roll into one. Vera was aware of someone screaming, but until Hattie wrapped her arms around her, she hadn’t realised it was her. Despite the heat, she was shivering, and felt embarrassed when she knew she was dribbling too.

Hattie raised her voice above the din. “They are going for the docks, Vera love. You know, the ships and the wood stored there. They don’t want to bomb a silly old jam factory, do they?” The Surrey Docks were not far from where Vera lived, just the other side of the main road. Hattie’s attempt at reassurance didn’t make her feel better when she realised that. Even when it seemed the bombing had finished, she could hear the sound of the big anti-aircraft guns from the park, as they tried to shoot down the bombers as they turned round.

The sirens sounded again, meaning the all-clear, and they started to stand up and get ready to go back to work. Vera leaned over to Hattie, whispering in her ear.

“I have to go to the lav, Hattie. I’ve wet me knickers”.

For almost two months, Vera had to live through what would later be known as The Blitz. But Vera never used that term then. For her, it was Hell on Earth, pure and simple. From that first day when she got home from work with her knickers folded in her handbag, the bombing didn’t stop. As soon as it was dark, the Germans returned, and as the sirens started up, Elsie almost had to drag her daughter into the shelter in the garden. Albert hadn’t even been home yet, as his Heavy Rescue crew was busy all day, with no let up.

Through the small cracks and nail holes inside the shelter, Vera could see the constant flashes of the bombs falling onto the docks, and the nearby streets. What with that, and the searchlights sweeping right and left, it was as bright as daytime, except between the waves of the enemy planes arriving. The noise was bad enough, but there was also the concussion. When the biggest bombs exploded, there was something like a wave of pressure that went through you, making your ears hurt, and your chest feel compressed so you couldn’t get your breath. She thought it was a miracle that the flimsy-looking shelter wasn’t blown away over their heads, like an umbrella on a windy day.

When her teeth began to chatter uncontrollably, Elsie moved across to sit next to her. She stroked her hair and nodded, no point trying to speak above the din. Elsie had her own worries. Bert was out somewhere in amongst all that horror, and she couldn’t believe he would live through that night. Despite being exhausted, sleep was out of the question. Glass was shattering everywhere around them, and roof tiles were clattering onto the street further down as the houses literally shook from the blasts. Scared of wetting her underwear again, Vera used the lidded bucket to relieve herself, hardly able to see what she was doing in the gloom. Her mum had thought it best not to light the old hurricane lamp, although worrying about showing a light when the sky itself was on fire seemed just plain silly to Vera.

It was getting light when the all clear sounded, and as they emerged from the shelter they immediately felt the heat in the air. The docks across the other side of the main road were still burning. You could hear the wood cracking in the timber wharves, and smell the resin on the breeze. The bells of the fire engines had stopped sounding, as they had run out of fire crews to tackle the numerous blazes.

They went into the scullery, and Elsie put a kettle on the cooker to boil water for tea. But there was no gas coming out of the burner to light. Dropping the match before it burned her fingers, she went over to the sink to run some cold water to drink. Nothing came out of the tap. She turned to her daughter. “Looks like they’ve hit the gas mains and the water mains, Vera love. Doubt there will be any electric either”.

Vera flicked the light switch, and the bulb didn’t come on.

By the time Albert got home that afternoon, the gas and water were back on, but there was still no electric. Elsie managed to start making something for them all to eat, and watched as her husband stood at the sink in his vest, scrubbing at his face with soapy palms. He hadn’t said much, so she knew it must have been bad. As he dried off, he tried to manage a smile. “I’ll eat as soon as it’s ready, Elsie. Got to be back out again soon”.

No sooner had he spoken those words, the sirens sounded again. Vera burst into tears, and Elsie shouted at her. “No use crying. Pick your dinner up, and take it into the shelter. I’ll bring some tea in a flask when I come”. Albert was already putting on a clean shirt as Elsie stuffed some sausages between two slices of bread and wrapped the sandwich up in some paper. “At least take this, Bert. You’ve got to have something love”.

He pushed the packet into the pocket of his uniform overalls, and kissed his wife on the forehead before turning to leave.

Elsie didn’t like the look on his face. It made her feel sad.

Walking into work on Monday morning, Vera felt as if she had been transported into another city. She was exhausted from having had little sleep, but the familiar streets were no longer so familiar. Evie Tyler’s house at the end of the street was gone. It was just a pile of bricks where a house had once stood. In the rubble was a half of a large doll, the clothes blown off, and it sent a chill through Vera to think that little Jessie had been under all that.

Mr Lewis’s shop had wood nailed all over the main window, which had obviously shattered. He had written on the wood with chalk. ‘Open As Usual’.

The docks were still burning, and the smoke rose up so high into the sky, Vera couldn’t see the top of it. As they reached the main road, she heard her mum gasp. The butcher’s shop on the corner was gone, along with most of the houses that had been in the same row. Men were throwing debris into carts next to the damage, and one house at the end remained, like a single tooth in someone’s mouth. Other men were jamming huge wooden beams against the side of it, and hammering supports against them with sledgehammers.

The jam factory came into sight, and appeared to have been spared the worst. From the gate, Vera could see Mr Prentice nailing boards across some windows that had been blown out, but the building looked sound.

And everywhere was dust and ash. It was floating down constantly on the hot morning air, covering their clothes as they walked like light snow. Vera shook her head constantly, hoping to get the worst off her hair. The other people walking into work were not even trying to smile. Everyone looked drawn and tired out, their faces turning in the direction of the docks as they heard more cracking and crashing sounds.

Inside the factory, work started up as normal. The radio played through the speakers, and the women got on with their jobs. Nobody talked about the weekend, or mentioned the devastation that had occurred. There was no point, as they all knew it was going to get worse.

They had to go into the basement during a daytime raid, but it wasn’t too bad. Nothing like it had been over the weekend anyway. Mr Prentice had stayed on the roof in case of incendiaries, and after the all-clear he told them the Jerries had dropped a few bombs on the East End across the river, but been chased off by RAF planes appearing. At lunchtime, Janet told Vera that there was no more news about Les, and that her house had not been hit. Her and her parents had gone down to the arches near London Bridge Station, and sat out the night raids there. Vera said she could stay with them, but Janet didn’t want to leave her mum.

When they got home from work, Albert was sitting at the table. He looked so old, Elsie thought. He told them that Evie Tyler and little Jessie were dead, and their bodies had been dug out of the ruins and brought to the church hall. Evie’s husband Ron was a fireman, and had been on duty all weekend. “I can’t imagine what Ron will do, when he finds out. He’s been out fighting fires all night and day with his crew, and has to come home to no house, and his wife and daughter dead, poor man”. Elsie had tears in her eyes. “I expect he will go to his mum’s in Camberwell, Bert. That will be best for him”.

As Vera was chopping up some carrots, she heard her dad carry on talking. “Did you see the butcher’s? Norman and his missus were in bed when it got hit. What we found of them was barely recognisable, caught up in the springs and bedrail. Their daughter is in training with the Wrens. Someone’s going to have to tell her”.

Vera thought of June Walters in her Wrens uniform, being called in to be told her mum and dad had been killed, and her family home and business destroyed. Then she thought about how her dad had suddenly started talking about what he had been doing all night, and how he spoke as if it was somehow normal.

Some of her tears splashed onto the pile of carrots.

Vera settled into the same routine every day. It even occurred to her that she was actually getting used to the constant bombing, but then a particularly bad night shook her back into a feeling of gloom. It seemed the whole of the eastern side of London was on fire, on both sides of the Thames. The sky glowed red as more incendiaries cascaded down from German bombers, and the hundreds of firemen were unable to cope. Tower Bridge was illuminated by the fires in the surrounding docks, and the droning of the enemy aircraft engines got inside her head until it felt like she had a wasp’s nest in her skull.

When the noise of the explosions just combined into one huge roar, louder than the loudest thunder imaginable, she pushed open the door of the shelter, and ran to the back wall, screaming at the sky. Elsie tried to pull her back inside, but couldn’t manage her. Then she stood next to her daughter, and stared at the sky as if she had seen a vision of Hell. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could survive under that, and her heart sank as she feared for Albert. The next moment, a German bomber was caught in the cross-beams of two searchlights, and they saw one of their tormentors for the first time, as it seemed to be trying to twist its way out of the sight of the guns firing up at it. Vera tried to imagine the men inside it, what they were thinking, and why they were doing such a terrible thing.

The next evening, Albert looked awful. He appeared to be trembling, and despite constant washing, the soot and muck was ingrained into his face and hands. Elsie could only imagine how tired he must be. Working at the Iron Works as normal, then out most of the night and all weekend with his Civil Defence duties. He looked old enough to be her dad, rather than her husband.

As they sat around the table, none of them wanting to break the silence, Vivian walked in. She had braved the chance of getting caught in a raid, and taken the bus from Kennington. “I’ve decided to send the boys away after all, mum. I went to the evacuation people, and agreed they can go to Wales. There were bombs near The Oval last night, and I’m not chancing it any longer. Got to get them away. There’s a train on Saturday morning at ten, if you want to come with me to see them off”.

Elsie was pleased to hear that. So many children had already been evacuated from the areas likely to be bombed. Many had even been sent on ships as far away as Canada. But Viv had been stubborn, saying she wanted the boys near her, and Roy’s mum could look after them when she was at work. The last few days had changed her mind, as she had never expected it to be as bad as this. Albert nodded. “Best thing, Viv. Get them safe in the countryside. Fresh air, decent food”. Elsie knew the sort of things he had been seeing, and it would give him some peace to know his grandsons were out of London. “Alright, Viv, I will meet you at the station on Saturday. Now have a quick cup of tea, then you had better get home before they come over again”.

Vera worked that Saturday, tired out after another sleepless night. When she got home, her mum looked sad. “Oh you should have seen the tears, Vera love. Viv was in a terrible state seeing the boys off. They were alright at first, excited by seeing the trains, and all the other kids, but when she started howling they got so upset. I almost had to drag them off her, to put them on board. Then as they waved out of the window I started bawling too. At least they’ll be safe in Wales, though I wonder how Viv will get on, stuck there with Roy’s mum. She can be a miserable cow at the best of times”.

It was Janet’s birthday at the end of the month, and Vera showed her mum the compact she had bought her friend as a sixteenth birthday gift. “Ooh, that’s lovely. Looks like real gold, love. The mirror is just big enough too, and that’ll fit nicely in her handbag. I’ve got some nice lavender paper in a drawer upstairs you can wrap that in”.

But before Elsie got to the stairs, the sirens sounded again.

As the year dragged on, it started to get dark earlier, which meant the bombers came more often. It was now more dangerous for Elsie and Vera to walk home from work in the dark, and a few times when the sirens sounded, they went to London Bridge Station instead, and took shelter in the underground station. Vera started to feel hungry too. They still ate in the canteen for lunch, but the food was less satisfying, and the portions smaller. Elsie did her best at home, trying to make a lot of vegetables tastier by adding gravy or some herbs from pots in the garden. They ate more bread too, when they could get it, and used up a lot of their stockpile of jam.

Janet was feeling stressed. Her dad had received a card from the Red Cross telling them that Les was in a camp in Germany, near the border with Czechoslovakia. That meant there was no point trying to escape, as it was too far to travel to any coast to try to get home. At least they could now send him letters and parcels through the Red Cross, so Vera wrote him three letters with all the news, and included two pairs of socks and a knitted scarf in her small parcel. She knew it would get very cold in Germany that coming winter. As well as the worrying news about her brother, Janet got some better news. Frank had finished his training, and had some leave.

Vera didn’t accept an invitation to meet up with them both, as she thought it best to let them have the short time together. At work the next Monday, Janet told her that Frank was being sent abroad. There was nothing official, but they had been issued with shorts, and the tanks had all been painted in light colours. Frank told her it didn’t take a genius to work out that they were probably going to Egypt. He had also been issued with sleeve patches for the 7th Armoured Division, which meant he would probably be fighting Italians. That seemed to calm Janet down. “Frank says the Italians aren’t up to much, so it might not take long to beat them”. When Vera asked if she had enjoyed seeing him, Janet blushed. “What do you think? Course I did”.

The next time Viv came round, she had news of her boys. There had a been a letter from a a nice lady called Mrs Davies. The boys were living with her and her husband in a place called Llangurig. He was a sheep farmer, and the boys loved their two dogs, and going out on the tractor. She said they were good boys, and slept together in her son’s bed in the attic. He was away serving with the Fusiliers, and was nearly thirty. The three women sat around trying to imagine George and Eddie running around some hills in Wales with two sheepdogs, and what they would make of big herds of sheep. Viv started to get tearful, so Elsie grabbed her hand. “Think of all that roast lamb and mutton they get to eat, love. With mint sauce too, I bet!” Viv told them she had sent the lady a nice letter thanking her, and a parcel with a toy plane and some picture books for the boys.

There was also news about Roy. he was not getting leave, as the Commandos had something on, and he couldn’t say what it was. When Albert came home and they told him, he thought for a moment. “Bet it will be Norway. The boys will be up to something in Norway, I’m sure”.

In November there were reports of a terrible bombing raid on Coventry. The radio said the city had been almost totally destroyed, and nine hundred people had been killed. Albert showed them the photos in the newspaper, and Elsie looked pale. He was furious. “No need for that. Those Jerries are going to get it now, mark my words. They have started something, and we will bloody well finish it. Bastards!” Vera had never heard her dad swear like that, or seen him so angry. This war was changing everything, she thought to herself.

After Coventry, things calmed down a bit in London, as the Germans started on Bristol, Birmingham, and other cities around the country. Vera actually got to sleep in her own bed once again, and wasn’t woken up by the sirens. Despite the cold in her bedroom, she stretched out and wiggled her toes under the sheets and blankets.

It felt like luxury indeed.

It seemed that Albert had guessed right. Before Christmas, the Commandos made a raid on Norway. Viv went to watch the newsreels, trying to see her Roy, but after watching it through at least three times, she couldn’t be sure she had spotted him. Vera didn’t really feel the season that year, but she sent Les a small parcel containing some cigarettes, knitted gloves, and three letters. She hadn’t heard back from him since the last one, but Mr Reid said that the prisoners had to wait for Red Cross visits to get mail out.

Christmas was quiet, with the raids still on and off, and nobody feeling in the mood to celebrate. And with her birthday coming up, 1941 on the horizon, and no end to the war in sight, Vera was struggling to keep cheerful, if only for her mum’s sake. The day before New Year’s Eve, she found Janet crying in the toilets at work. “Is it Frank? Is everything okay, Jan?” Janet pulled her into a cubicle, and showed her a photo of Frank sitting on a camel. “S’alright for him, Vera, sunning hmself in the desert. But I’ve missed two monthlies, and had to tell my mum. Oh, she did carry on so”. Vera was shocked. “How’s that then, Jan?”

Janet raised her eyebrows. “Well how d’you think? I let Frank go all the way, when he was home on leave. His mum and dad were out, and it just went too far on the living room floor. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t force me. I wanted it too. You don’t think about babies at times like that, I can tell you. Besides, I know he loves me, and wants to marry me, but now he’s fighting in the desert, and might get killed in his tank and never come home”. Vera put her arm around her friend. “You gonna have it? Maybe get it adopted or something?” Janet shook her head. “No, me dad would go mad, don’t know what he would say. He might even throw me out. Mum’s taking me to some woman in Peckham next Friday night. She says it won’t hurt much, and I will have the weekend to rest. Can’t do nothing else, Vera. If me dad finds out, I will be for it, and so will Frank. I can’t even write and tell Frank, ’cause he’s sure to tell me to have the baby”.

Vera was left wondering how Janet’s mum knew about a back-street abortionist in Peckham. But better not to think about that, and worry about her friend instead.

There was a letter fom Teddy, when she got home. It was full of the usual stuff. He couldn’t say where he was, but he was doing well, and enjoying life on the huge aircraft carrier. Leave was out of the question, as the navy had so much to do. But he wished them well, and asked about life at home. Elsie decided to send him a parcel, even though she had no idea when or if he would receive it.

Vera’s birthday went almost unnoticed, with so much going on. Her parents bought her some lipstick and a hair-comb. But Janet forgot, as she was still getting over her trip to the woman in Peckham.

Not long after, there was a big battle at a place called Tobruk, in the desert. Janet was sure that Frank must be there, and was beside herself with worry when she read the news.

Then in April, the Germans came back to London, with the biggest raid for months. The street behind the Dodds’s house was hit bad, and one of the back windows cracked in both panes. Albert just put some putty in the crack, saying there was no point paying for new glass, as they would surely be cracked again before it was all over. When Vera and Elsie got home from work, they heard that Tony Wright’s house had been hit. His garden was only four doors away from theirs, and Albert said both his parents had been badly injured. Mrs Wright was not expected to survive, and Mr Wright might well lose his legs. Tony was in the Royal Engineers, and nobody knew how to contact him.

Vera and Elsie sat in the shelter that night, just in case. Vera was worrying about Les, and wondering when it might ever be over.

That summer, things started to get serious all around the world. At home, clothes rationing came in, so Elsie told Vera to be careful of her clothes, and perhaps wear an overall to work instead of an apron. She was going to do that, and so were other women at the factory. “We can get two each while they’re still easy to get hold of, then we have a spare for when one’s in the wash”. Then there was the unexpected news that Hitler had invaded Russia. All of a sudden, the Russians were our friends. Albert liked reading about that. “Ha! You can tell that Hitler’s no student of history. He should have read about Napoleon. Nobody beats the Russkies”. But Vera read the paper when he put it down, and it looked like the Germans were already doing just that.

Janet wasn’t the same after the visit to Peckham to get rid of the baby. She looked older and tired, with dark circles around her eyes. She had heard from Frank, and he was in action in the desert, but couldn’t say where. He mainly wrote about the flies, and the boring food. Frank was never to know about her being pregnant, she made Vera swear an oath to never let on about that. Vera was a bit annoyed with her, because she would never have told. There was nothing from Les, which worried the Reid family, and Vera too. Mr Reid said the same old thing, every time. “No news is good news, Vera love”.

The bombing continued, but they no longer just concentrated on the docks. Places in the suburbs were being hit too, and incendiary raids and delayed action bombs caused havoc at times, with fires and road closures. The worst day yet had been in May. They hadn’t been able to do any work, and sat all night in the shelter. Albert was out most of the night, and came back looking ashen. “They say this is the worst it’s ever been, Elsie”. Vera thought she must be getting used to it, as when she saw the newspapers a few days later, she could hardly believe it had been all around where they lived.

One day, Vera and Elsie had to walk a very long way round to work, as the bomb disposal were trying to defuse a timer-bomb hanging from a parachute against the side of the church next to the Coach and Horses. Elsie tried to lighten the mood. “Hope those boys get that bomb safe, or your dad’s gonna be looking for somwehere else to have a pint”.

Then when it hardly seemed things could get any worse, Albert came home from work with his face set, and he looked like he had been crying. It took him some time to compose himself, not helped by Elsie constantly repeating “What is it Bert? Tell me what’s wrong”. Vera had never seen such a look on his face. “It’s the Ark Royal, Teddy’s ship. They’ve only gone and sunk it”. Elsie let out a piercing scream, and Vera felt the tears suddenly run down her face. She tried to imagine that huge ship under the sea, but didn’t want to think about her brother being inside the wreck. Albert tried to calm them down. “Don’t take on so, they say everyone is safe, but reports are unconfirmed so far”.

Elsie made some dinner, but couldn’t face eating anything herself. Albert gave her a big glass of port from the bottle in the parlour, and she sat for a long time holding it against her mouth without drinking any. For the rest of the evening, they sat glued to the radio, hoping for more news. When nothing came, Albert said what Mr Reid always said, and Vera felt like telling him to shut up. Then he tried to change the subject. “At least they defused the bomb that was near the pub”. Nobody smiled.

The following day, there was news on the radio that only one sailor had been killed. They didn’t give his name, but Vera was certain it was going to be Teddy. She couldn’t think straight for days after that, but her dad was equally convinced Teddy would be alright. Elsie said nothing.

All they could do was wait for news.

At the end of the first week in December, they finally heard that Teddy was safe. He wasn’t saying much, just that he was alright, and would soon be posted to another ship. When her dad read the letter, they all danced around in a circle like little children, and her mum cried tears of happiness.

Then the next morning they woke up to hear some big news on the radio. Japan had attacked America, at some place called Pearl Harbour. The Japs had also attacked British troops in the Far East, so the government declared war on Japan too. Vera’s head was spinning. Now they had to fight the Japanese, as well as the Germans, Italians, and other countries on their side. How could they possibly survive? She felt her lip quivering at the thought of German and Japanese soldiers marching down Tower Bridge Road, and her mum was looking glum.

By contrast, Albert was delighted. “Cheer up, you two. This is the best news ever. Now the Yanks are going to have to fight the Germans too, I bet. Wait until all them millions of Yanks get over here and get stuck in. Bloody hell, what a day!” But Vera saw her dad wasn’t looking so chirpy after listening to the radio on Christmas Day. Hong Kong had been captured, and lots of prisoners had been taken. He didn’t even finish his dinner, and Viv got up and put her arm around him. “It’ll be alright, dad. The Americans will be there soon”.

However, the Yanks had other problems, and Hong Kong wasn’t on their list of priorities.

The week before her eighteenth birthday, Vera got the best news of the war so far, and it came in the post. There was a packet forwarded by the Red Cross, containing four letters from Les, and a small gift wrapped up in a piece of a German newspaper. It was a carved piece of wood, and had the initials V and L either side of a heart. Just a scrap of wood, probably taken from a pile of firewood, but it was the best thing she had ever received in her life. She showed her mum the carving, then ran upstairs to read the letters in her bedroom.

Les couldn’t say where he was, but he did talk about how cold it was, and that there was a lot of snow. He thanked her for the socks and scarf, but didn’t mention the other parcel. She presumed he hadn’t got it yet, or it had been stolen by the guards. He said there was enough food, mostly cabbage soup or potato soup. Sometimes they had black bread, but it was so hard they had to soak it in the soup for ages before they could bite into it. The second letter wasn’t so cheerful, as he told her that his pal Lucky had died of pneumonia. He hadn’t been right since Dunkirk, and when the weather turned bitterly cold, it had finished him off. But he did mention that they had played football and cricket when they could, and some of the blokes put on plays and shows when the Germans allowed it.

In the third letter, he asked if she could please ask his parents to send him some cigarettes. They were what everyone missed the most, and there were never enough to go round in the camp. He said the guards left them alone much of the time, and although they had to parade morning and evening to be counted, the rest of the time they could play cards, chess or draughts, or read books. The fourth letter hurt her feelings a bit. He said that he loved her a lot, and always imagined them getting married, but he wasn’t about to ask her to wait for him. He reckoned a girl like her ought to make a life for herself, and that if she found another bloke, he would understand.

Vera was going to tell him all right. She would write and let him know that she was his girl, and would wait for him until Hell froze over, if need be. Then she walked over to Janet’s house, to show Les’s family the letters. Well the first three, anyway. Not the romantic one.

Mr and Mrs Reid seemed upset that Les had written to Vera, and not them. Still, they were glad to know he was doing well, and listened attentively as she read out his letters in order. They told her they would get a tin of fifty cigarettes from someone they knew on the black market, and send them as soon as possible. Mrs Reid still had half of a small fruit cake she had made for Christmas, and said she would wrap it in waxy paper and send him that too. Janet laughed. “Mum, by the time Les gets that, it’ll be rotten”.

They decided to send him some shaving soap and a new brush instead.

Within a few months of her birthday, so much was happening that the family sat listening to the radio every evening. Teddy had written to say he was now on one of the big battleships, and doing well. But of course he couldn’t say which one, or where he was. The RAF were hitting back at Germany, much to the delight of Albert. “Give them some of their own medicine, see how they like that!” There was no more from Les, but Vera felt calmer now she knew he was safe in the POW camp.

At least the Russians were counter-attacking, and it looked like the Germans had indeed made a big mistake invading that country. Albert had something to say about that too. “Told yer so, didn’t I? Old Joe Stalin will give those Jerries what for. They didn’t think it through, don’t you see? The Russkies just retreated to regroup, now they will show those bloody Krauts!” Vera and Elsie sat quietly, letting him go on about it. He seemed to revel in the ups and downs of the war. For their part, they just wanted it all to go away, and life to get back to how it had been before.

Almost everything was being affected by the rationing. There was less coal, and even the gas and electric was erratic. When soap went on the ration list Vera felt like crying, as her hair was so dirty and greasy. Without telling her husband, Elsie got involved with some local black market characters, so she could get some decent soap for their hair-washing, and weekly bath. She traded jam that she stole from the factory, knowing full well Albert would go mad if he knew. Sharing the hot water for three baths made Vera upset. She felt dirty after using the same water as her mum and dad, and sometimes cried because she never felt really clean. Even though she was now a young woman, in every respect, she had real problems understanding what the war was about, and why they had to suffer so.

It developed a real hatred of the Germans in her. She could never work out why they had done all this, and she thought that if she ever met a German, she would bash them hard, or worse. The thought that they might invade and be walking along the main road, drove her crazy for revenge.

The worst thing that happened was that the Japanese captured Singapore. Albert went into a slump after that, as it was the biggest surrender of British troops in history, so he said. Vera saw about it on the newsreels, and knew it was getting her dad down. But all those prisoners, and without much of a fight too! He was very quiet for a long time after that, and he seemed to have lost all faith in the army, and the empire.

Then there was all the news about the German submarines sinking ships in the Atlantic, and in the Arctic convoys too. Some nights, Albert would throw the paper onto the table and slap it, as if he could slap some sense into life. Vera read it after he had finished, and was surprised to see that all the Nazi subs were called ‘Wolf Packs’. Considering the damage they were doing at sea, she thought Shark Packs would be a better name for them.

Janet was still obsessed with the newsreels, hoping to see Frank in the desert. But they never did.

Then in the summer, there was big news in the papers, and on the radio. There had been a raid on Dieppe, on the French coast. The Commandos were involved, and it had supposedly been a great success. Albert finally cheered up. “Well look at that. We can do as we please on the French beaches, give those Jerries a good hiding, and then come home again”.
It wasn’t that long before the family found out the real truth.

Vivian turned up one Friday evening, and Roy was with her. Vera hardly recognised him. He looked so tough in his uniform, and so much older. And he had a large bandage covering most of the left side of his face, which he told them was because of more than thirty stitches, from his mouth almost up to his ear.

He told them that the raid was a complete mess. Half the force had been captured by the Germans, including many Canadian soldiers who had been used without enough training. He had been lucky to get away, according to him. He had been hurt by a German soldier who had hit his face with an entrenching tool. But Roy lit a cigarette and smiled. “Got the better of him though. Stabbed him in the neck with my knife, then shot the bastard with my Thompson”.

Vera had never imagined battle being so personal. It made her shiver.

Using his extended leave, Roy had arranged for him and Viv to go to Wales and visit the boys. They couldn’t stay at the Davies’ farm, but she had booked accomodation for them in the local pub. It as a long way to go for just two nights, but Viv was beside herself with excitement at seeing Georgie and Eddie.

The newspapers and radio talked about the extending of conscription to all men and women up to the age of forty-five. Albert was too old for that of course, but he reckoned that some of the blokes from his Iron Works might have to go, as not all the jobs there were essential. Elsie and Vera already knew that they would be exempt, as they worked in the food industry, and the same applied to Viv too. But even Princess Elizabeth had joined up, and the newsreels showed her learning how to drive a lorry, and fix the mechanicals on it as well. Some of the office girls in the factory would have to go, and Sylvia Pinn had already left and joined the WAAFS. She might have expected to be doing something glamorous like helping the boys flying spitfires and such, but the last Vera had heard from Mrs Pinn, Sylvie was learning how to do morse code for sending messages, and was stuck in some shed in Scotland somewhere.

Viv got back the next week full of tales of the boys and their life in Wales. Eddie had a sort of Welsh accent that sounded funny, and George was playing rugby at school. She said it rained all the time they were there, and the boys were scared of the bandage on Roy’s face. The Davies family seemed very kind, and the boys were not only well fed, they were well behaved too. Eddie had asked if Viv could move to Wales, so they could live there all the time. In the train on the way home, Roy told her that once the bombing stopped, she should bring them home to his mum’s. He was worried that they would be like strangers once the war ended, whichever side won.

The Americans and the Japs were fighting some big battles in the Far East, and the war was going bad in Burma too. But later that year, there was some very good news, and this time it was a big victory for the Briish. It was so big, it not only made the papers and the radio, but Vera and Janet saw it on the newsreels when they went to the cinema on that Friday. There was film of all the guns firing to start the battle, and it was unbelievable. Vera didn’t even realise the army had so many big guns, and felt sure it must have been the biggest battle in any war, ever. They said the place was called El Alamein, and it was in the desert. The soldiers who beat the Germans were the Eighth Army

There was a squeal, which was Janet getting excited, She almost jumped out of her seat, yelling. “The Eighth Army! That’s my Frank. His division is in that army”. The man in the seat behind tapped her shoulder and shushed her. There was news of a terrible battle in Russia too, in a big city called Stalingrad. The announcer said the Russians were winning. On the way home, Janet asked if Vera knew where El Alamein was. She told her it was in Egypt, which was in North Africa. Her old world atlas had served her well. Janet was about to light a cigarette, and stopped. “Africa? I thought Frank was in the desert, not the jungle”. Vera laughed, and told her there was more to Africa than jungle. Janet asked to pop in and see it on the map, so she could imagine where Frank was.

The weather turned much colder the following week, and Vera started to think about Les in the POW camp with the winter coming. She would be nineteen next birthday, and some days she could hardly remember being at school.

Not long after that, Janet didn’t come into work one day. Vera asked Mr Prentice if she had gone sick, and he shook his head. “It’s her Frank, Vera love. His folks got a telegram. Missing, believed killed”. That night Vera decided not to go round to the Reid’s and left Janet alone. She wouldn’t have known what to say to her anyway. When she came back into work she didn’t seem too bothered, which surprised Vera. But she thought it was just her way of dealing with it.

The letter came addressed to Janet, not Frank’s family. The captain had found her letters in Frank’s pocket, and wrote to her at the Reid’s house. He said that Frank’s tank had been found after the battle, and him and two others were dead inside it. He wrote that he had been very popular, and a good comrade to the men in his troop. He reckoned she should have been proud of him, and he expressed his condolences, and all that stuff. Frank was buried with his mates, in the desert.

So they had won the big battle, but lost Frank doing it.

Janet didn’t even cry.

The milk rationing was beginning to get everybody down. There was no rice pudding anymore, and no desserts of any kind that required milk. But what they hated most was not having enough milk to put in their tea. Vera just couldn’t stomach drinking it black, and the tinned and condensed milk soon became hard to obtain too. Even Albert was beginning to abandon his once-lofty principles, and accept that Elsie could try her best to get extras of everything on the Black Market. He had something to trade at least, as the rabbits didn’t seem to be affected by the bombing, so were producing a lot of offspring.

Her dad had killed the old buck first. Vera had named him ‘Snowy’ as he was pure white. But once the young males could do the business, Snowy’s days were numbered. Albert grabbed him and lifted him out of his hutch. As if he knew his fate, the rabbit squealed like an opera singer, and Vera had to put her fingers in her ears as her dad struck him across the neck with an iron bar. When her mum took him into the scullery to clean and skin him, Vera had to go up to her room. She was sure she could never eat him, but the rabbit pie tasted so good when you were hungry, and so did the casserole two days later.

Snowy was a big rabbit.

Vera still couldn’t really understand why Janet had been so calm when Frank had been killed. There were days at the factory when she actually seemed happy, which felt strange. Then Vera heard that she was spending her Saturday nights with Pauline Collins. Pauline was older, and her husband had been killed quite early in the war, before Dunkirk. One of the other ladies at the factory gossipped about Pauline being ‘easy’, and getting younger girls to go to pubs and dance-halls with her. It didn’t take long for Vera to find out that Janet had been hanging around with her for some time, so one day she confronted her about it.

“Yeah, so what? I go out with Pauline. She’s fun, and she knows some great blokes. Lots of them are in the Black Market, and they give you stuff. And they’ve got gin, cigarettes, perfume, all sorts. They appreciate a girl, they do”. Vera had a bad feeling, and she spoke about it to her friend. “So was one of those blokes the father of the baby you got rid of? Did you just pretend it was Frank, and make up that story about letting him go all the way?” Janet was defiant. “What if I did? What’s it to you?” Best that he didn’t come back. Someone would have told him that I got rid of a baby eventually, and he would have known full well it wasn’t his, ‘cos we never did it”.

Although she was fuming, Vera remembered that Janet was Les’s sister, and if things worked out would be her family. She shook her head in disgust, but at least she now knew why there had been no tears. She learned a valuable lesson that day. The people you think you can trust the most can still let you down. She never forgot that.

There were a lot of Americans in England by now, and many made their way to London as soon as they got leave. They were good-looking, confident, and had smart unifroms. They also had cigarettes, lipstick, chewing gum, and the new nylon stockings. Vera got used to avoiding those who ventured south of the Thames, but it wasn’t long before Janet had gone up west to meet some of them, accompanied by the awful Pauline. Very soon, she was missing shifts at work, boasting about having ten pairs of nylon stockings, and flashing around American cigarettes called Lucky Strike.

It made Vera shudder to imagine how many men she had been with up dark alleys, or in hotel rooms. And her brother a POW too. But she didn’t confront her about it. They hardly talked about anything anymore, as Janet spent her free time with Pauline, who was almost old enough to be her mum.

As the end of that year got closer, all Vera could think about was being hungry, and feeling dirty.

By the end of the summer, Albert was finding life difficult on the Heavy Rescue unit. Although the bombing was no longer as bad as it had been, there were still enough raids to deal with, and he wasn’t getting any younger. Vivian was almost thirty-four, and starting to look it. Vera thought her parents had never looked so old and tired, but never mentioned it of course. After a chat with his wife, Albert changed his role in the Civil Defence to become an air-raid warden. No more digging in the rubble, now he would just be just checking that people were not showing lights in the blackout, and directing them to the nearest shelters if there was an attack. Because the raids were so far and few between by then, Albert was lokking better in no time, and obviously a lot less stressed.

A letter from Teddy told them he was doing well on his new battleship, but he still couldn’t say which one it was, and where he was in the world. Vera hoped he wasn’t in the Far East, as there had been some reports of ships being sunk by the japanese out there. The family were getting used to the rationing, using vegetables to make pie fillings, as well as adjusting to the substitues for sugar. At least half of the meat from the rabbits had to be used for trading. Albert got his tobacco, and Vera and Elsie were able to get some second-hand clothes that were quite high class. Nobody cared much aboout the Black Market any longer. If you didn’t take advantage of it, you went without.

However, Albert drew the line when he was offered tins of corned beef marked for use by the army. He didn’t want any part of taking food that was intended for the fighting men.

Then came the big news of a huge invasion of Sicily. Albert nodded as he heard the announcer on the radio. “If we can get into Italy, that’s them out the war. That Mussolini will soon be packing up and leaving, mark my words”. His pronouncements always made Vera smile. He had never been in the army, but talked like he knew exactly what the generals were planning.

Two letters came from Les. One was written in the early summer, and the other a month later. He was a lot better off now the weather had warmed up, he told her. Some of the prisoners had been moved, and been replaced by some blokes captured in North Africa the previous year. There were rumours that the camp might close, though that could mean them being moved deeper into Germany. In the second letter, Les got all romantic, talking about how much he missed her, and how he couldn’t wait to see her again one day. Vera loved to read those parts, and they made her feel all warm inside. She went round to the Reid’s house to tell them his news. Mrs Reid welcomed her warmly, but Janet was out, and Mr Reid was at the pub. Janet’s mum wanted to ask her what she knew about Janet and Pauline, but she just said her and Janet didn’t go around together so much now.

On Sunday, Viv came to tell them that she had asked for the boys to come back from Wales. If necessary, she would travel there by train and fetch them. She had written a thank you letter to Mrs Davies, explaining that she needed them at home now, and that Roy had insisted on them being back in London now the bombing wasn’t so bad. Elsie wasn’t so sure it was a good idea, but didn’t interfere. Her daughter was a married woman, and what she did was up to her. Albert gave her half of a rabbit to take back for Roy’s mum to cook for them, and Elsie gave her one of the tins of jam they had stored.

That evening, Elsie and Vera started to take in some of their clothes. They had both lost a fair bit of weight in the past year, and a lot of their stuff was loose on them. Vera sat carefully unpicking the seams, and Elsie folded them in and sewed them. Albert had gone to the pub to meet up with some of his mates on the darts team. As they chatted and worked on the clothes, Vera was thinking how nice it was.

Almost like before the war.

Christmas that year was more cheerful. Viv had the boys home, and brought them round for dinner on the day. Roy’s mum had been invited too, but as usual she had wanted to stay at home. They seemed so big now, and everyone laughed at the words Eddie said that sounded Welsh. Elsie had managed to find a big chicken from somewhere, and Albert didn’t ask her where she got it. They called Vera ‘auntie Vera’ now, which made her feel quite old, but she secretly liked it.

They stopped the night, and when the boys were asleep, Viv told them that Eddie had cried when he had to leave Mrs Davies. “I think Roy was right, you know. If we had left them there any longer, it would have caused a lot of problems”. There was no news about Roy at all, and Albert speculated that meant he was in training for something special. Elsie gave him one of her looks, not wanting him to say anything to worry Viv.

Before the new year, there was news that the big German battleship Scharnhorst had been sunk by the Royal Navy. It was seen as a real victory, as those big battleships had sunk a lot of merchant ships over the years. A few days later they got a telegram, which made Albert’s hands shake as he opened it. But it was good news from Teddy. He just said he was alright, in case they were worried. Albert smiled, and said he had worked out why Teddy had sent it. The Scharnhorst had been sunk by the navy battleship Duke of York. That must have been Teddy’s way of telling them what ship he was on.

Vera’s twentieth birthday was mostly spent in the Anderson shelter, after the sirens warned of more air-raids. Albert put on his uniform and steel helmet, and walked up to the main road to show people into shelters there. But there was no bombing nearby, and it seemed most of the German planes hadn’t managed to get through. The next time she was at work, a girl called Shirley Thomson came up and spoke to her in the canteen. She asked if she would go on a double date. Seemed she had a Canadian soldier as a boyfriend, and he was getting leave. He wanted to bring a friend up to London, and asked her to find a date for him. Vera shook her head. “Sorry, I have a boyfriend, he’s a prisoner in Germany, so I just couldn’t. Actually, I should call him my fiance, as he wants to marry me when he gets home”.

Shirley kept on though. “It’s only a date, Vera. You don’t have to kiss him or anything. Just dancing, maybe a bite to eat first. Oh come on, otherwise I have to hang around with both of them, and it’ll be really awkward. My Jaques is very nice, respectful like. He’s a French Canadian, and his accent is so dreamy. Come on, Vera, please. I don’t know anyone else to ask as my sister is off in the Land Army”. Vera thought about it. It would be nice to get out. Now she didn’t see much of Janet, she didn’t even get to the cinema that often, though sometimes her mum went with her. “Alright then, but just a date. No funny business though, you tell them that from me. And he’s not to come to my house, I’ll meet you somewhere”.

His name was Pierre, and he was very good-looking, Vera had to admit that. But he seemed so much older. Vera thought it was too rude to ask his age, but she guessed he might be as old as thirty-five, even more. Shirley and Jaques were all over each other in the dance hall, so Vera made sure to just keep dancing, and not let Pierre get any ideas. When it was time to go, Shirley whispered that she was going back with Jaques to his hotel, and that Pierre would look after her, and make sure she got home alright. They went out onto the dark street, and Pierre tried to find a taxi. But they all seemed to have fares on board already, and by the time he got one to stop, they had walked as far as Westminster Bridge.

Pierre asked if he could see her home, but she said no, and extended her hand for him to shake. “Thanks for a lovely evening, Pierre, but I am spoken for”. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek, looking disappointed. As she closed the door of the taxi and waved him goodbye, he said one word. “Dommage”.

She was going to have to look that up when she got home.

The next month, some big raids started again. The Germans got through this time, and the sausage factory where Viv worked was hit. Luckily, it was during the night, so she wasn’t at work. But some of the workers on night shift were hurt when they didn’t get into the shelter in time. The bombing was all over the place again, not just in the centre, or the docks. Some areas in the suburbs got bombed for the first time ever, and nobody felt safe. Albert got a cut on the face from a falling roof tile, but he wouldn’t go anywhere to get it looked at, as he said so many were worse off than him. Elsie cleaned it up for him, and tore up an old pillowcase to make a bandage. Vera hated being back in the Anderson shelter, but by then she knew it had been a good idea when her dad built it.

After that, there were no raids. By early summer, Vera was happily sleeping in her own bed again, though she was increasingly concerned about the fact that she hadn’t heard anything from Les in reply to her letters. Albert knew she was worried, and tried to explain things to her. “Listen love, he’s in Germany, ain’t he? Well the Russians are getting close, and the Germans are losing all over. On top of that, the Yanks and the RAF are bombing the hell out of Germany every single day and night. So you can’t expect those Red Cross people to manage to get through to collect or deliver letters now, can you?” She knew her dad was right. News of the bombing of Germany was always in the papers and on the newsreels. They had certainly had a pasting.

But that only made her worry in case the POW camp got bombed by our own side.

There was news of something very big. After keeping it secret for a very long time, the army and the Americans had landed in France. According to the radio, it was a big surprise for the Germans, as they didn’t land near Calais, and had gone to Normandy instead. Vera was shocked at the news, but it lifted her spirits to imagine that Les might be free before the end of the year. Albert was having his say as usual, not even waiting for the announcer to finish. “That showed ’em. And those collaborating Frenchies too. Went in through the back door, down near Caen. Those bloomin’ Jerries weren’t expecting that, were they?”

Elsie was less impressed. “Well there’s still a lot of Germans in France, Bert, and in Germany too. Then there’s the Japs to deal with. Don’t you go counting your chickens too soon, Albert Dodds”. As more news was released, the scale of the invasion was hard for Vera to comprehend. So many soldiers, so many ships, and paratroops too. It seemed to her that the army might be in Paris by the end of the month. It was very hard not to get her hopes up about Les, but that was tinged with concern for Teddy, in case his ship was involved. Then her mum was all doom and gloom. “What about Viv’s Roy? You can bet yer life his Commandos would have been in on that landing. Probably in the first couple of boats. Oh gawd, I do hope nothing happens to him. Poor Viv and the boys”.

The next day, there was the sound of an air raid siren, followed not long after by one almighty explosion on the other side of the Thames. Everyone in the jam factory was heading down to the shelters when they heard it. But before they got there, the all-clear sounded, and they went back up to the machines. Ten minutes later, another warning had them back in the shelter, where they heard half a dozen more big bangs, and the sound of low-flying aircraft firing machine guns. It was a tiring day, back and forth, and nobody understood why they couldn’t hear the bombers.

When Albert got home, he had the answer, as he had left work to help out as a Warden. “It’s a new thing those Jerries have got. Like a small plane, but with no pilot. It’s like a big rocket, and just drops out of the sky anywhere. More or less a flying bomb, as it isn’t designed to go back to where it came from. They reckon a few people got killed in Canning Town earlier, and some of our boys were out in fighters tryng to shoot the things down over the river”. Elsie was getting dinner ready, and turned from the sink.

“Flying bombs indeed. Whatever will they think of next?”

After those first encounters with the new flying bombs, they became a daily terror. Almost one hundred a day fell on London, mostly in the southern suburbs. The random nature of their arrival caused a lot of casualties too, and the dock areas were not spared. One afternoon, Vera was out in the garden feeding the rabbits, and heard the noise of one overhead. It spluttered and popped, as if the engine was going to stop. That was the dangerous time, according to her dad. Once the engine ran out of fuel, the bomb would just fall out of the sky. Turning around, Vera saw the thing, like a small black aircraft, heading south of where she was. At that distance, it looked almost like a toy. It made some spluttering noises again, and then there was silence.

Moments later she heard the explosion, and saw the smoke rising a couple of miles away. Her dad ran out of the house when he heard the bang, and she pointed over the back wall. “Look, dad. It hit in Peckham, I reckon”. People started to call them ‘Doodlebugs’, though Vera never found out why. For many Londoners, it was worse than the relentless bombing years earlier, as at least you knew when the bombers were coming, and when they had left. The new doodlebugs were unnerving, and there was something about that sound they made that gave you a chill up your spine. Evacuation started up again, and so many people were geting out of the city, they had to do overtime at the jam factory to make up for the absences. Viv was not about to send her boys away again though, even though one of the flying bombs had landed less than a mile away from Roy’s mums.

Vera’s hope for a quick end to the war after Normandy came to nothing. Heavy fighting continued, Cherbourg was not captured until the end of the month, and progress was slow. The radio had better news of the fighting in the Far East, with success in Burma, and the Russians were moving ever closer to Germany too. She had still heard nothing from Les, but continued to send letters anyway, on the offchance he might get them.

Rumours started up about Janet, when she stopped turning up for work. Despite the cooling down of their friendship, Vera decided to go round to the Reid’s, to see if she was alright. One day she would be her sister-in-law, all being well, and there was no point in having any bad feeling between them. Mrs Reid was acting funny, and talked about not hearing from Les. She said Janet was in her room, and Mr Reid was on shift. But she offered a cup of tea, and as Vera waited for that, Janet appeared, needing to go out to use the lavatory.

Anyone could see she was having a baby. Her belly was sticking out, and there was no chance it was because she was eating too much. When she came back inside, she smiled at Vera. “Bring your tea up to my room, and we’ll have a talk”. She seemed keen to talk to her former close friend, and was brutally honest. “Tell you the truth, Vera, I don’t know who the father is. But I was also seeing a Yank called Louis, and managed to convince him it was his. He wanted me to have it, and says he will marry me and take me to live in Oklahoma after the war. But then he went and got dragged into that D-Day thing, and now I don’t know where he is”. Vera had lots of questions, like what did her dad think, and how had her mum reacted. But she decided to ask her something else. “What will you do if he gets killed?”

Janet shrugged. “Have it adopted, I ‘spose, I haven’t thought that far ahead. But if he comes back from France okay, he reckons we can have a good life on his family farm out there. He says it is so big that it takes all day to drive from one end to the other”. Vera couldn’t help but laugh. “What will you do on a bloody farm, Jan?” Janet shrugged her shoulders. “Have lots more kids probably”.

Three weeks later, Paris was liberated, and Vera hoped it would really end now.

The following month brought some good and bad news about the war. France was back under allied control, and the fighting was moving into Belgium and Holland. However, the British lost a big battle at a place called Arnhem, where the paratroops were heavily defeated. Albert was on his soap box about that, as soon as the news came. “They should never have sent those lads in without proper support. How were they expected to fight tanks and SS with no artillery or air cover? I don’t know what they were thinking of, I really don’t”. Vera looked up the town in her world atlas. It was in Holland. All she knew about Holland was tulips, wooden clogs, and windmills. It seemed strange to think of men fighting and dying for those.

Then something terrible happened.

There was a new German rocket, much worse than the doodlebug. Albert told them it was called a V-2, and it went up into space before coming down with no warning. Vera presumed he had heard about that from being an air raid warden, as there had been nothing in the newspapers about it. “Well they don’t want to scare people, do they? So you keep this between us for now, alright?” The impact of those things was terrible, much bigger than the smaller rockets. The sudden explosion with no warning at all made people on edge, and Vera saw many locals walking around staring up at the sky. She wanted to tell them there was no point, but kept quiet.

Janet was getting bigger, and there was no chance of her returning to work, as her parents would never tolerate the gossip. She had received a letter from Louis, and it said he had an easy job as the general’s driver, so was almost always behind the lines. He had repeated that he would marry her, and told her more about Oklahoma. Janet smiled. “He says the nearest town with a shop is almost forty miles away. Imagine that, Vera”. Vera couldn’t imagine Janet living in Oklahoma at all, but didn’t tell her that.

In October, there was news on the radio that the Russians had got into Czechoslovakia. Vera was so excited, as Les was in a camp not far from there. She now had to hope that the prisoners would not be moved deeper into Germany. For a change, Albert was positive. “They will be too busy fighting those Russkies to bother about a POW camp, Vera love. I reckon that when they get close, the Jerries will just run away and leave the gates open. ” Vera knew he was just being comforting, but really hoped he was right. Later that month, she got excited when there was news that the war was now in Germany itself, and a town called Aachen had been captured by the Americans. She imagined Louis might be there, driving his general around in a jeep.

On their way to the market in East Street one Sunday morning, Elsie and Vera saw the huge crater left by one of those new rockets that had landed. Elsie pulled her old coat closer around her neck, and shuddered. “Oh, those poor people. Imagine being under that, Vera love.”
Vera didn’t want to imagine that at all. Not one bit.

Albert had a lot less to do now there was no regular bombing. He still went out most evenings after work to check on the blackout in the streets he had been assigned to, but was otherwise able to resume something like a normal life. He managed to get back into his routine at the pub, playing darts with his friends. The matches with the other pubs were put on hold though. At least three of them had been so badly damaged by the bombing, they were no longer open. On Sundays, he built more hutches, as there was unlimited wood available, easily picked up in the street from the sites where bombs had hit houses nearby. Though their street had been spared, the whole row of houses just two streets away had been completely flattened by a stick of bombs during the Blitz.

There were now so many rabbits, Elsie was doing the rounds of friends and neighbours to get peelings and scraps to feed them. Albert brought home sawdust from work for them to sit on, and Vera was actually getting fed up with eating rabbit in all its forms. She would never complain though.

Food was food.

By the end of October, there was still no news from Les. But Teddy had written his usual short note to say he was well, and still enjoying his new ship. Viv came round with the boys, and showed them a letter from Roy. He couldn’t say where he was, but described his situation as being ‘right at the front, and in the thick of things’. He also mentioned that they had been heavily involved for the D-Day invasion, by writing, ‘we had a high old time of it in June, I can tell you. It’s been very lively since then too’. Viv turned over the next page, and blushed. “Then just the usual stuff”.

Albert took the boys outside to see the rabbits, and Viv was able to confide in them that she was heartily sick and tired of living with Roy’s mum. “I would do anything to get out of there, but I know Roy will be annoyed, as he expects me to help her out. Besides, she minds the boys when I’m at work. Then when I get home, she treats me like I’m her bloody housekeeper. I tell you, I won’t be carrying on living there when Roy gets home from the war”.

An unexpected knock at the door saw Elsie return with Uncle Ernie. He was looking well, smiling and happy. He said he was getting ready to appear in a pantomime that Christmas, and doing some shows at weekends in the meantime. Elsie made him a sandwich and poured him some tea as he was saying he wanted them to come and see him at the theatre in Greenwich. “It’s just a variety show, but I have a decent part, and get to sing two songs. It should be good”. He produced four tickets, complimentaries. Viv said she would ask Roy’s mum to watch the boys, but couldn’t see any reason why she couldn’t come. When the boys came back in with Albert, Ernie started to sing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, and he had them marching around the room behind him, like soldiers on parade.

Ernie’s show was on the next Saturday, and they got the bus down to the theatre, meeting Viv outside. Vera hadn’t been to a live show since she was little, and loved the atmosphere inside, so different to the cinema. Ernie had got them great seats too, the last four on one end of the front row of the stalls. It was completely full, and some people were standing at the back too. As the orchestra were tuning up, Ernie appeared next to Albert at the end. he was dressed up like a fat old lady, with a huge wig, and lots of make-up. “Just checking you made it my loves, it will be starting soon”.

They all agreed it was a great night. There was a magician, some tumblers in striped costumes, and a violinist who played classical music. Then Uncle Ernie came on, and told a couple of quite racy jokes. That got the crowd going, and then he sung ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Balcony’. They put a spotlight on a man who was at the front upstairs, and he looked most uncomfortable as Ernie pretended to sing only to him, and blew him kisses. His second song was a stirring rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’, and as he started to sing it, a lady in tights came out and draped a big Union Jack round him. The audience joined in of course, and Vera spotted her mum beaming with pride at her brother. The top of the bill was a man who had a radio show, but to her surprise, Vera had never heard of him. He sung some show songs in a shaky voice, and it quite affected her. She especially liked him singing, ‘You’re The Top’, as that was one of her favourites.

After the curtain call, Ernie came and said his goodbyes. He was going into rehearsals soon, and would try to get them some pantomime tickets if he could. Viv left to get a bus home, but Vera and her parents walked the couple of miles back to the house in the dark. It was a cold night, but nice and dry.

Three weeks later, a V2 rocket hit Woolworth’s at New Cross Gate. it was packed with staff and shoppers that Saturday, and over two hundred people were killed or badly injured. The newspapers reported the utter carnage at the site, and said one hundred and seventy were dead, including children. Elsie looked as white as a sheet. “Oh gawd, a lot of the women from work go shopping there, and Mrs Fielding’s daughter Rose works there. I reckon she will have had it”.

Her gloomy prediction was proved correct.
Four of the jam factory women were killed that day, along with Rose Fielding.

As Vera prepared to mark her twenty-first birthday, she wasn’t feeling very happy. There had still been no news about Les, and Christmas had been cold and dull. The pantomime tickets mentioned by Uncle Ernie hadn’t appeared, and she felt as if the war had lasted her whole life. On the worst days, she tried to remember good things that had happened before 1939.

It did seem that it actually might end though. The RAF and American bombers were flattening Germany on a daily basis, and the Russians were well into the east of Germany. Albert perused the newspapers, then made his usual declaration. “The Jerries have had it, I tell you. They can’t possibly win, and it beats me why they are bothering to keep fighting. I ‘spose it’s because they’re fanatics. Must be”. But Japan was still fighting in the Far East, so nobody knew how long it might drag on.

The V-2 rockets still came down now and again, but not as many as before, once most of the launch sites had been captured. And there was no longer any fear of bombers, as it looked as if the Germans had run out of planes to use. Vera loved being back in her bed every night again, as there were no more sirens. No point, as nobody knew when the rockets were coming until they exploded. The blackout was still in force though, so Albert had to carry on doing his rounds every evening. Vera listened to the radio most nights, hoping to hear news that Czechoslovakia had been liberated. But the Germans were still there, so she presumed Les was still a prisoner in the camp near the border.

Everyone was feeling unsettled. So close to the end, and soldiers and sailors and fliers were still dying. Mr Prentice had the bad news that his nephew had been shot down over Germany. He was a rear gunner in a bomber, and listed as missing presumed killed. That was because one of the other planes in the squadron reported the plane exploded in the air, and they saw no parachutes. He told them that his younger sister was inconsolable, as her husband had died of a heart attack in 1940.

Vera had almost forgotten that people still died of natural causes. She had become used to people being killed in the bombing, or killed on military service, but she hadn’t really heard of anyone dying from anything else for so long now.

Janet was really showing big now, even though she had a while to go. When Vera popped round to see her, she was very cheerful. Louis was still driving the general, and having a great time in Paris. He had written to his parents telling them about her, and had also applied to his commanding officer for permission to marry. He was sure it would be granted as soon as the fighting was over. Her parents still didn’t let her out the house though, even though everyone had caught on that she was in the family way by now. Janet told her that her mum had arranged for a woman to come to the house when it was her time. “She’s a retired nurse, and I will be in good hands”. Vera could only think of the last time Mrs Reid had arranged a woman for Janet.

The were still working flat out at the jam factory, sending the big tins of jam out for the army. Elsie used to imagine they must have so much jam by now, each soldier could sit and eat a whole tin to himself. With all the young women who had left to join up, and some who had been killed in the bombing, they had had to recruit some very elderly women to fill the gaps. One of them walked into work using two sticks, then sat down packing boxes with jars filled with jam all day. Elsie was sure she must be in her late seventies, by the look of her.

One night when they got home from work, Viv was already there. She looked very anxious, and wasn’t wearing any make-up. Her hair was still tied in a scarf from where she had been at work. As Vera put the kettle on for tea, Viv wrapped her arms around her mum. “Oh mum, it’s Roy. He’s in hospital over there. He got the officer to write to me to say I shouldn’t worry but he has lost a part of his foot. Oh mum, poor Roy”. Elsie pushed her daughter back, and looked her in the eye. “Don’t take on so now, Viv. He’s alive, that’s the main thing. And with a wound like that, it means the war will be finished for him now, won’t it?”

Albert walked in from work as all the crying was going on, and Vera quickly told him the news. He sat rolling a cigarette, with the newspaper still tucked under his arm. When Viv had calmed down, he lit the cigarette, and slowly turned to speak to to his older daughter.

“Which foot?”

On the first of March, Janet had the baby in her bedroom at home. It was a big bouncing girl, and other than some bleeding that was difficult to stop, Janet did well. Vera went round to see her and the baby, which had blonde hair that was almost white. Janet smiled. “What a relief. Louis has blonde hair, so maybe it is his after all. I was hoping and praying it wasn’t one of those black soldiers. Don’t know what the hell I would have done then. Reckon my dad would have thrown me out”. Vera raised her eyebrows at that, and Janet grinned, seeing her friend was uncomfortable. “They’re such good dancers, Vera, you should try one”. Deciding not to reply, Vera had a vision of what her dad would think about her being seen out with one of them.

The baby was called Mildred. Janet didn’t like that name at all, but she had promised Louis she would name the baby after his mum or dad, and she could put his name down as the father on the birth certificate too.

By the end of the month, the rockets and bombing had stopped completely. There would be no more attacks at all after that. Albert was still acting like some authority on the war, even after all this time. “THose Jerries must have run out of petrol by now. That, and the launch sites have all been captured”. Elsie was not so quick to stop worrying. “What about in Germany, Bert? They must still have places where they can fire them from”. Albert shook his head. “Mark my words, the Russkies will have sorted them out. You can forget about any bloomin’ rockets from now on”. When he was proved right, Elsie didn’t mention what he had said.

Most news from the war was positive now. It was heartening to read about successes in Burma, and the Yanks were doing well, getting ever closer to Japan by capturing islands. Her dad read the paper out over dinner most evenings, then they listened to the radio news when they had finished eating. The Russians were deep into Germany, heading for Berlin, but they said the fighting was terrible, some of the worst of the entire war. American soldiers were doing well in the south of Germany too, with that General Patton advancing really fast.

Then Roy came home. They got the bus to his mum’s place, to save him struggling with his crutches. He looked tanned and fit, and other than a big bandage covering his left foot, he seemed to be his old self. He tapped his foot with the tip of one crutch. “Lost the three smallest toes, and a bit of the side of me foot. Still got the big toe, and the one next to it. Hurt like a bugger, I can tell you”.

Albert wanted to know more about how he got the wound.

“Well, we was under fire, and went to ground. Big mortars they had, regimental ones, them sort. I rolled down a verge and laid on me back, didn’t I?” Viv nodded a yes in reply, as if she had been there. “Well it carried on with a heavy machine gun firing from somewhere, so we can’t get up. Then there’s this whoosh noise, and I feel like someone’s stamped on me foot, but really hard like. I turned around and saw the staff sergeant, and he looked bad, blood all over. So I goes to get up to help him, and fall over. The boot and sock has gone off me foot , and it was covered in blood. When the second platoon finally took the position, they came back and took me to the dressing station on a stretcher”.

Albert was more impressed by the two stripes on Roy’s uniform. “You made corporal then. Well done”.

When they got back home after the visit, Janet was standing outside the house, holding baby Mildred. Elsie shook her head. “You should have let yourself in love, you know the key is on a string inside the letterbox”. Janet was beaming. “It’s okay, Mrs Dodds, I haven’t been here long”. She turned to Vera. “It’s Les. The Americans found him in a POW camp in Germany. The Red Cross contacted the army, and they sent a telegram to dad!”

Vera felt her knees buckle, and tears of joy run down her face.

Nobody knew how long it would be before Les got home, or whether or not he was ill. Vera refused to think about anything bad, and started to make preparations for his return. She got her dad to drill two tiny holes in the small piece of wood Les had sent, the one carved with their initials around a heart. Using an old thin silver chain, she managed to make it into a necklace. Then she bought a green velvet dress, and her mum altered it to fit her. It wasn’t new of course, but it was such a quality garment, a good clean would get it up as good as. Through one of the black market contacts, she exchanged some jam for a pair of the new nylon stockings, and the same man managed to find her a pair of green suede shoes that were a good enough match. She had to fork out cash for those though. She was determined to look her best once she had some idea when he would be arriving.

Roy was still limping around, but managing on one crutch. He had contacted his former boss, and it looked like he could have his job back as soon as his foot had healed. Albert had got some rubber from work, and made a wedge that Roy could put inside any shoe, to make up for the missing toes. He had already tried it out, but it had made his foot hurt too much. He said he would have another go when the wound had hardened up. Then the civil defence said that Albert could hand in his air-raid warden stuff. The blackout was likely to be ending soon, and there were no more raids anyway.

As more news started to filter through, Albert was sad to hear about one of his mates from the dart team. Stan was younger than Albert, and had joined up early in 1940. He had gone off into the army, and nobody really knew what had happened to him since. One afternoon, Albert made the long walk to the other side of the borough, where Stan’s wife was living with her mum. She was now working in the same sausage factory as Viv, and had told her that Stan had been badly injured. Albert took some jam for them, and some rabbit meat too.

When he got back, he was upset. Stan had been in a Sherman tank that had been hit in Holland. It had caught fire, and he had suffered terrible burns. They had got him back to England barely alive, and he was in a special hospital in Birmingham. His wife Agnes hadn’t been up there to see him, as they had said she should wait until he had more operations. Albert could only imagine how bad it must be, when they said that.

Then in the first week of May, there was some staggering news. Hitler had killed himself in Berlin, and the war was over. Vera could hardly believe it, it just didn’t seem real. Elsie was more concerned about the Far East. They suspected that Teddy’s ship was out there, although they hadn’t heard anything from him for a while. “What about those Japanese though? They’re not giving up, are they? You know what them Japs are like, they are going to carry on”.

There was going to be a big celebration. Mr Churchill had called it VE Day, which stood for victory in Europe day. Viv wanted to take the boys to Buckingham Palace to see the King and Queen, and asked her mum and sister to go too. Elsie agreed, but Vera flatly refused, determined not to celebrate anything until Les was home. When Elsie got back, she looked exhausted. “Oh, what a palaver! We didn’t get even halfway down The Mall. I have never seen so many people in one place, never. The boys couldn’t see anything, and the noise of the cheering has left me with a shocking headache. Put the kettle on, Vera love. I’m parched”.

By the end of the month, lots of the soldiers were starting to come home. Some had to stay behind, as an army of occupation. Albert said they would mostly use the regulars for that, as they were staying in anyway. “Like your Les. I mean, he was in the army before this all started, so I s’pose he’s staying in after”. Vera hadn’t really thought about that. If Les stayed in the Guards, she would have to move to married quarters outside London. She sat quietly, wondering why that had never entered her head in all that time. Elsie had her say too. “And our Teddy. I wonder if he will stay in the Royal Navy now, or go back to merchant ships? After all, it’s all he has known. I can’t imagine him doing anything else”.

Two nights later, Janet came around. She was in floods of tears. Louis was being sent home by boat direct from France, and had been refused leave to come and marry her in London.

“That means I have to wait until he gets out the army and can sail back to fetch me”.

The first week in July saw election day. For the first time in ten years, the country was going to vote. Vera and Elsie both said they couldn’t be bothered, but Albert was keen. “I’m voting for that Mr Attlee, he’s got a lot of good ideas to help working people like us. And after all this time, I reckon a change will do the country good”. Elsie looked up from her sewing, eyebrows raised. “And what about Mr Churchill then? He’s done a very good job, kept us going he did”. Albert wasn’t interested. “At the end of the day, he’s a rich toff. I’ve had enough of him and his cigars, and all his blood, sweat, and tears. Time for a change, Elsie love”.

Vera was even less interested in politics when she got a letter from Les, the first one in such a long time. She took it straight to her room, and read it a dozen times. He was in a British army field hospital in Germany, due to being very weak and thin, and having an infected ulcer on his leg. He said that he hoped to be fit to travel in few weeks, and would get transport to France, then a ship to Dover or Portsmouth. He he had managed to hang on to her photo, though his wallet had been taken. But he wasn’t very romantic, and even said he would understand if she had moved on with her life after all that time.

The letter had taken ages to arrive, which made Vera excited. It meant he might already be on his way, perhaps even back in England by now.

There was no election result the next day. It was being delayed until the end of the month, to allow returning soldiers to cast their votes. Albert was bullish though. “He’s done it, I tell you. Mr Attlee will be in charge, and we will soon see how much better things will be”.

It was easy to forget that Japan was still fighting. The newsreels showed the bombing raids on big cities there, and everyone wondered how much longer the Japs would carry on. Albert had his say about that too. “I reckon we will have to invade Japan. Fight every inch of the way across those islands, and wipe out every last soldier. Those buggers don’t know they’re beaten, and will fight to the last man. It’s going to go on for years out there, you mark my words”.

The next morning, there was a letter from Les in the first post. He was in England, at Windsor barracks. Still not fit enough for full duties, he would be given leave soon, and allowed to come to London to see his family. This time he seemed more positive, and mentioned how he had never stopped loving her, and wanted to know if she still felt the same. That made her cry with happiness. She replied immediately, and posted the letter on her way to work. She told him that nothing had changed, she still wanted to marry him, and couldn’t wait to see him.

A few days later, Albert was proved right for once, when Labour won the election with a landslide victory, and Mr Attlee became the prime minister. Albert did a funny little dance around the room, and told them he was going to the pub to celebrate with his friends.

Viv came round with the boys, and said how she had voted labour too. “Things are gonna be better, mum. I’m hopeful for the boys to do well later, and if Attlee does all he claims, I reckon the future is definitely something to look forward to”. Elsie was surprised by her eldest daughter, as she had never once spoken about politics before. Janet turned up just before Viv left. She was carrying baby Mildred, and looking happy. “Louis has been discharged. He wrote and said it shouldn’t be long before he can get here now, once all the ships get back to normal on the Atlantic crossings”. Elsie made some more tea, and wiped away a tear as the kettle boiled. So much good news in one week was almost overwhelming.

The following week, Japan surrendered. Albert said the Yanks had dropped two super-bombs on the country, and they couldn’t go on after that.

That same evening, there was a knock on the door.
Vera answered it, to find Les standing there.

Vera almost couldn’t believe her eyes. It was Les, though he was half the size he had been the last time she saw him. She had forgotten how tall he was, and as he swept her into his arms, her face pressed against his chest. Her first reaction was to scold him. “Leslie Reid, fancy you turning up when I look such a state. I had a new outfit ready and everything, and now I’m standing here with a scarf around my hair, and an old cotton dress on”.
Les kissed her, to shut her up.

At least the army had given him a new uniform, so he still looked smart. He had three stripes too, and as he had a cup of tea with Albert and Elsie he explained that he had been offered the job of Armoury Sergeant at Chelsea Barracks. “There’s married quarters too, a flat near Victoria Station”. Vera had been tidying herself up, and came back downstairs. She pulled a chair over next to Les, and sat holding his hand. He straightened up, and spoke seriously to Albert. “Mr Dodds, you know me and your Vera have talked about getting married before, but I would like to do the right thing, and ask if that’s okay with you”. Albert stood up, and offered his hand. “Welcome to the family, Les”.

Reaching into his trouser pocket, Les produced a small fold of tissue paper. He opened it, and showed Vera the gold band inside. “I can’t get an engagement ring just now, Vera. But this was my granny’s wedding ring, and if that’s alright with you, we can get it sized for you to wear on the day”. Vera was too happy to speak, and just nodded. Les had been busy, it turned out. He had been to St James’s church, and the vicar said he would marry them, even though they hardly ever went inside a church. He had booked the wedding for three weeks on Saturday, as the married quarters would be available the week before. He was getting help from his army mate Jimmy to sort out the flat once he had the keys, and Jimmy was also going to stand up as best man.

The next couple of weeks seemed to pass by in a blur for Vera. She handed in her notice at the jam factory, as she didn’t fancy the two-bus journey to and from work from Victoria. Besides, Les had said she wouldn’t need to work unless she wanted to, and he had even talked about them having a baby as soon as possible. Viv came round with her wedding dress, and between her and Elsie they managed to alter it to look nice on Vera. Roy had started back as a car mechanic, and there was a lot of work now people had started to get their cars back on the road. Despite all the rationing still being in force, including petrol, lots of people were eager to start trying to live as they had before the war. Les turned up with Jimmy one night to introduce him. He was from Newcastle, and nobody could understand his accent. They kept laughing at him, but he took it in good part.

Vera went with them to see the Victoria flat, and was most impressed. It had a small kitchen, an indoor bathroom, a decent-sized living room, and a big double bedroom. Les was getting it furnished by mostly buying second hand stuff from around the housing estate, but Vera didn’t care. It would be their place. Les still had to see the army doctor about his leg. There was a big bandage around where they had removed the ulcer, and it needed changing regularly. He was also booked in to see the dentist, as the poor diet had played havoc with his teeth. The German medics in the camp had pulled two of them out, after he complained of toothache. “No gas or anything, just one bloke holding me down while the other one yanked them out with what looked like electrical pliers”.

The wedding day weather was dull, but it didn’t rain. Vera walked to the church with her mum and dad, as they could see it from their front door. Viv met them there, with Roy and the boys, who were both looking smart with little bow ties on. Janet and baby Mildred were there with Les’s parents, and Uncle Ernie too. Teddy hadn’t been able to make it, as his ship was still in the far east. But he sent a telegram that arrived the day before. Les and Jimmy looked so smart in their number one uniforms, with peaked caps. But Elsie was upset to see they were not wearing the redcoats and bearskin hats like you saw outside the palace.

After the ceremony, they had sandwiches and drinks in The Coach and Horses. Uncle Ernie played the piano, and sung a lot of old favourite songs. Les had booked a taxi for six that evening. He had arranged an overnight hotel room and dinner at the Strand Palace Hotel. Said it was the least he could do, as there would be no honeymoon. Vera walked back home with her mum to change into her going away outfit of the green velvet dress and suede shoes. Elsie started to have a talk with her about men and sex, but Vera stopped her, touching her arm. “It’s alright mum, Les will be kind to me, I just know he will”.

As the taxi drove away that evening, Vera looked out of the window at the familiar streets where she would no longer be living.

Her life was finally beginning.

The End.

The Fear: The Complete Story

This is all 30 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 24,060 words.

My first memories are far from happy ones. They are mainly of feeling constantly hungry. Then the faces of babysitters and child-minders, names unknown, or since forgotten.

And from the time I could understand a sentence coherently, I knew I was bad.

I was a killer. I had killed my mother. I knew that because my father told me. He told me at least once a day, sometimes twice. Killing mother wasn’t intentional, you understand. It was just that I was such a big baby, and she was such a tiny woman. After a long and weary labour, I was finally released from her body by means of surgery. That operation should have been routine of course, but she didn’t survive it, despite their best attempts to save her.

Father told me that my weight at birth was record-breaking in the county, at almost twelve pounds. As their colleagues fought in vain to save my mother’s life, the maternity ward nurses crowded around the scales to marvel at my size.

I would never be overweight again, father would see to that.

Under his strict observation, I was fed just enough to keep me alive and growing, not one ounce more. I had killed the only woman he had ever loved, and he would forever hate me for that. I suspected the only reason he didn’t murder me in retaliation for my unintentional crime was in memory of her. Because he did seem to truly love her.

Although I never met Paula, I came to know her well. The house was adorned with photos of her, in every room save the lavatory. Her things still hung in the wardrobe of her dressing room, and her dressing table was as she left it the day she went into hospital to give birth. And I was named Paul, after her. The guilt was all-encompassing, and overwhelmed my childish brain.

My father married late in life, having met Paula on a short-haul flight to Brussels to do a business deal. She was an air hostess, he a wealthy passenger in Business Class. And she was a full twenty years younger than him, a prize catch indeed. She wanted children, he didn’t. He was used to getting his way, but not that time. So I came along, and killed the mother who had loved me for nine months before I appeared. She didn’t even get to see me, as she was still sedated when I was grappled from her womb.

Father would talk about that night in the hospital over dinner, usually as I watched him eat after I had finished the tiny portion of food I was allowed. He talked about it to make me understand why I had killed her, and why I could never be allowed to become fat again.

When he finished the story, no matter how many times he told it, he would point his fork at me, and ask the same question. “Now do you understand, boy?” I would nod that I did, but truthfully had no idea what he was talking about. How could I have known how big I was? What possible reason could an intelligent man have to blame his only child for a medical emergency surrounding a birth? But he did his job well, as no amount of rational explanation could assuage the overwhelming guilt I felt, looking at the photos of Paula as I walked upstairs to bed.

My family was rich. Grandfather, who had died long before I killed my mother, had invented something that revolutionised the car industry. I was never too sure what it was, but it was tiny, and had made him wealthy. Father continued the family tradition of inventing, in his case a computerised machine that operated a bench drill, and did away with the need for a person working that drill. I had no interest in the thing, and only knew what he liked to boast about.

Part of the land backing onto our subtsantial house had been used to build a complex of workshops, and that was where father spent most of his time. He only appeared in the house for meals, prepared by the timid housekeeper, Mrs Foyle. She always seemed terrified, and eager to get out and go home as soon as we had finished eating.

I sensed her fear, that fear of my father.

And I wondered about that fear.

Father did not appear to do anything to cause Mrs Foyle to be so afraid of him. Admittedly, his manner seemed curt, and his interaction with her was businesslike and superior. But to my knowledge, he never shouted at her, threatened her, or intimidated her in any way. He paid her well too, and allowed her time off when required. She didn’t have to concern herself with me, as sitters and minders were employed separately. But despite all that, she was undoubtedly terrified of him. Perhaps she needed the job so badly that she feared losing it? She was a widow, and not well off, by the look of her. She had never once seemed to be afraid of me, despite my facial similarity to father.

For some reason, that upset me. I wanted her to fear me.

I continued to grow slowly, always feeling rather weak and tired from lack of nourishment. My performance at school suffered as a result of course, but my poor school reports were never a matter of concern to my father. However, I grew something inside, a burning resentment of father’s poor treatment of me that became a quiet hatred as I passed into my teens. Sports and games at school were beyond my capability, and that was eventually noticed by the authorities. Letters were sent, and I was called into father’s study one day. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to engage with anyone at the school about my weight or development. It should always be referred back for him to deal with.

Some years later, I discovered papers revealing that he had paid a doctor friend of his a substantial sum to verify that I had some kind of illness that could not be accurately diagnosed. He referred to it as M.E., and added sufficient scientific mumbo-jumbo to dissuade anyone from investigating further. After that, I was excused any physical activity at school, though I received extra support with my studies, treated as if I was some sort of invalid.

There were no friends in my life. Nobody was allowed to come to the house, and I was banned from visiting anywhere else. Both were pointless anyway, as no other boys at my school showed any desire to befriend me. If anything, they avoided me, presumably thinking that they could catch whatever it was I was supposed to have. Sometimes when I got too close to someone, I could sense a moment of fear as they thought I might touch against them. They didn’t exactly fear me, but feared what I might have.

That was a good thing. I enjoyed seeing their fear.

The only social life I had known was the company of those minders and babysitters when I was young. But they mostly watched television, earning their money easly, and leaving me to read a book, or play with some of my few toys. One of the kinder young women remarked to me that I never cried. She asked me why I didn’t, and I had to admit that I didn’t know. Once I was ten years old, father told me that I no longer needed watching, and I should learn to look after myself.

As a result, I spent most of my time at home sitting alone in my room. It was a good room, it has to be said, probably larger than the flats many people lived in. It had once been two large rooms at the top of the house, and at the insistence of mother Paula, it had been converted into a subtsantial sleeping area and adjoining playroom, ready for my arrival. What had once been a walk-in dressing room had been made into a bathroom before I was born. She had been thinking ahead. So I was self-contained, with the only change over the years the replacement of my cot for a single bed.

I only ever left that room to go down for meals. It was where I felt at home.

There was no TV in my room. I didn’t really like to watch anything, as most shows or films eventually showed families or couples being affectionate, joking, or enjoying activities together. That sort of thing had never been a part of my life, so I chose not to be reminded that it was normal for almost everyone else. I preferred books, non-fiction ones. Other than the compulsory books for school, I didn’t read novels.

They often had happy endings.

Eventually, I did become closer to my father, though only physically, not emotionally. He informed me that I was expected to take over the family business one day, so when I left school that summer, I would be trained by him. University was out of the question anyway, due to my poor academic performance, so being taught how to invent things and continue to run the existing company was my only option.

There was to be no salary of course. I was provided with bed and board, and Mrs Foyle was given money and intructions to buy my clothing and toiletries. But as a concession to my new status, I was given a password and account details so that I could buy books online. The bill would obviously pass through father’s account, but as his finances were managed by an accountant and lawyer, it was unlikely that he would ever check what I purchased.

Just in case, I began by buying some technical books on electronics and computing. I already had a laptop that had been used for school work, and a basic knowledge of how computers worked. I struggled to understand them at first, but constant re-reading helped me to work out many things that had previously been a mystery to me. Once I found out that he definitely was not checking the parcels of books arriving, I started to buy books about things I was actually interested in.

Psychology, phobias, and fear.

The day would begin with me accompanying father to one of the many workshops on the property. Though drab outside, the interiors were bright and spacious; well designed, and packed with anything a modern inventor might need. I wondered why he bothered, as the computerised drill business was booming, apparently. But I wasn’t about to ask him. Once a month, we went by taxi to the factory, twenty miles west. The manager would fawn over my father, and the workers at their benches look down deferentially as we passed. As far as I could tell, he was a decent employer. Fair rates of pay, good conditions, and pension benefits. People liked working at Wilkins Engineering. They just didn’t care too much for the arrival of my stern father on his regular inspections.

Lunch was always taken at midday, though father remained in the workshop while I went back into the house to eat my pathetic repast. Mrs Foyle would take him a tray containing a substantial lunch, avoiding my gaze as she prepared it. From 1 pm, I would continue to be trained by father. That mainly consisted of me being told to watch carefully what he was doing, as I took copious notes in one of the large books he had provided for that purpose.

The same kind as the one I am now using to write this.

Precisely at six, we finished for the day, and went back into the house to eat the meal prepared by Mrs Foyle. Conversation was non-existent, and as soon as I had finished I would go up to my room. At weekends, I was not required to accompany him, though he worked seven days of every week. He suggested I use my free time to study the notes I had been taking. I nodded agreement, but as soon as I was alone, I would open my psychology books, reading avidly late into the night. On Sunday afternoons, I allowed myself some time on the Internet, to discover the society that was progressing well in my absence. It was fascinating what people wrote about themselves for anyone to read. Those who would never dream of leaving their front door open were happy to discuss their deepest secrets with strangers.

It wasn’t long before I joined many of the groups and associations. Using false names and identities, I became popular online in a way I never could have been out in the world. I took photos from the Internet, and used them to represent me. I was hardly going to post an actual photo of the emaciated, pale skinned young man that I really was. I learned how to ‘chat’, something new to me. I picked up colloquialisms and expressions, and how to appear to be flirting with someone when I knew nothing at all about romance or sex.

There had never been any celebration of birthdays or Christmas in the house. After all, my birthday was also the day of mother Paula’s death. And Christmas was just a reminder of how much she had loved that season. However, I was coming up to a significant birthday, according to a telephone conversation I overheard. Standing outside the door of father’s study one morning, waiting to accompany him to the workshop, I heard him talking to the family solicitor, Mr Dean.

“That’s correct, Dean. He will be the only living relative, and will inherit everything. He is twenty-one next month, so time to write him into the will. Get it done”.

That was music to my ears. I could now plan his death.

Naturally, the actual day of my twenty-first passed wthout remark. It was just a normal day in the workshop. As I watched father busy himself with his new project, the idea came to me immediately. That was what I would do, as soon as I had learned enough about the equipment to be able to make an accident look convincing.

There would have to be a decent time delay allowed as well. I wouldn’t want anyone suspecting a coincidence between my coming of age, and father’s death. I was used to a lot of things. Hunger, humility, solitude, and patience. And it would be patience that I relied on for over a year as I carefully studied the new machinery, and father’s habits around it. I also needed a short time window of opportunity, and that came three weeks after my unnoticed and uncelebrated twenty-second birthday.

Father announced that I no longer needed to accompany him on the factory inspections. Everyone knew who I was now, and he wanted me to start work on a new device for a drill that replaced its own bits, by sensing when one was worn out. This involved designing and building a cartridge system not unlike the magazine of an assault rifle, though on a much larger scale. It would remove the need for someone to constantly have to replace the bits in the automatic drilling machines he was still selling all around the world.

Having already practiced assembling the metal box that held the drills, I had it done very quickly. I only needed one more hour to work on sabotaging his latest project, and knew he would not be back for at least three. As I studied the circuits of the computer-controlled device, I reflected that I was glad that I had spent so much time alone reading about electrical engineering. It had served me well.

On his return, he wanted to inspect my work on the drill-holder. His expression inscrutable, he made no complaint, but I knew he would have to find some reason to make me reassemble it. And of course he did. I worked quickly, suppressing a smile. My plan was set, and tomorrow would be the day I would free myself of this man.

That day started like any other. I ate a meagre breakfast as I watched him devour three sausages, two eggs, and four slices of bacon. Mrs Foyle hovered in the utility room, waiting to start her cleaning regime as soon as we had eaten. Once in the workshop, father directed me to continue working on the small part that would attach the new holder to the existing drilling machines, and he wandered over to his latest project, taking measurements, and nodding with satisfaction.

He was constructing the prototype of an automatic circular saw, fitted in a portable bench. The computer that controlled the machine had been reduced to the size of a mobile phone, and enabled anyone to use the saw with no training. The simple icons were self-explanatory, and the saw itself was full of innovations. It knew when to stop cutting, as a safety measure, and to save electricity. It self-adjusted the speed of the large spinning saw blade, depending on the thickness of the wood, and a photo electric cell immediately cut off the power if anything other than the wood in contact with the blade crossed the beam.

Undeniably, father had almost finished inventing a useful saw that would be a boon for the retail domestic market, as its safety features were second to none. It would also be very affordable, portable, and could use any blade currently sold.

An hour later, he was running another test. I walked over, feigning interest as he watched the blade sawing through different lengths and thicknesses of wood. But when he tested the safety beam to shut off the power, it didn’t work. Becoming increasingly annoyed, he waved his hand back and forth through where the beam should operate, frowning as it quite obviously was not going to shut off the still spinning saw blade.

Back then, I was not very strong of course. Much lighter than father, and a full two inches shorter. But surprise is a useful weapon, and the one I employed that day.

As he peered onto the place where the beam should be working, I grabbed the collar of his warehouse coat and pushed him violently to his right side. He wasn’t expecting it, so had no time to even shout or resist before the jagged blade made contact with his neck. Even though I arched my back, jets of blood and ragged lumps of sticky flesh still hit my face and neck, as well as covering my hands and arms.

It would not have been realistic to allow the saw to sever his head completely, as much as I would have enjoyed watching it roll onto the bench.

When he had stopped making the strange gargling noise, I pulled him back off the saw, and let his twitching body drop to the floor. There was a huge hole in his neck running from under his right ear, all the way to the left side of his chin. Blood was still pouring from it, and I could clearly see his jawbone through the opening.

I stood and watched for a moment, until he was no longer moving

Mrs Foyle took one look at me as I ran through the back door and dropped the bucket of soapy water she was holding. Her mouth wide open, she crossed herself, muttering something unintelligible. Pushing past her, I went to the telephone extension on the kitchen wall. I rang 999, asked for an ambulance, and ignored the barrage of questions from the call-taker. I said there had been a terrible accident, gave the address, and told her I would wait outside.

It took a long time before a motorcyle paramedic turned up to find me waving frantically at the end of the driveway. Looking at the state I was in, he presumed at first that I was the victim, then huffed and puffed behind me carrying his heavy equipment as I showed him where my father’s body was located at the rear of the property. An experienced man, he took one look, and immediately decided he could do nothing. Then he reached for his portable radio and put in a request for the police to attend, before suggesting we should wait outside.

My role of being a shocked and distressed son had been as carefully planned as the deed itself, and I gave a very convincing performance of acting confused and terrified. For the next few hours, the industry of death meshed its gears around me, as technicians and detectives joined the two police officers who had originally attended. Statements were taken from myself and Mrs Foyle, some background established, and with my permission, a rudimentary search of the workshops was carried out. When father’s body was eventually removed into a black unmarked van, it was close to Mrs Foyles regular time to leave.

Findng her with her coat already in her hand, I requested that she cook me two rump steaks, medium rare, along with four fried eggs. I was going for a shower and would be down to eat the meal before she left. Finally clean, and wearing a dressing gown, I told her she could go home as I began to slowly eat the meal. I intended to relish every mouthful, and was not about to spoil the experience by gulping it down. After I had eaten, I sat and made a list of everything I would need to do after the Coroner’s Inquest.

1) Sell the company.
2) Sell the equipment in the workshops and convert them.
3) Give Mrs Foyle notice, and pay her off.
4) Learn to drive.
5) Become fit and strong.
6) Get a job.
7) Continue my studies.
8) Learn to swim.
9) Get a passport.
10) Travel.

Number six might seem strange, given that I would inherit the company, the house, and a lot of money. But I wanted to be around people, and get to know how to behave in society. It seemed to me that a menial job of some sort would be ideal for this. My explanation for number three was that I did not want nor need to have a nosey housekeeper around. I could learn to cook and clean, I was sure of that. As for number ten, I had never been anywhere except this house, my school, and the factory where the drills were assembled. Once I was fit, and had worked out my routine, I thought foreign travel would be the perfect thing.

A detective came to the house to tell me that it seemed likely the cause of death would be confirmed as an industrial accident, but it would all take time to be official. He was very sympathetic, it has to be said. Meanwhile, I told Mrs Foyle that she was no longer required, and arranged with the company to pay her salary until the end of the year, by way of compensation. She gave no argument, and asked for no reason. It seemed to me that she was pleased to go.

As she left that afternoon, she handed me the house keys, and the spare money from her housekeeping box. There were no fond farewells, no parting gift or speech. Halfway along the drive, she turned and stared at me as I stood in the doorway. She looked at me in the same way she always looked at father. I closed the door and stood with my back against it, grinning.

Now she was afraid of me.

Three years is a long time when you have not had much of a life. But I saw it as an investment. Three long years to learn, build, develop, and study. Three years to allow people to forget Andrew Wilkins, and his accidental death in a workshop at his home. Three years to learn how to be alive, and explore the possibilities of that life.

The first year, I waited deliberately; acting bereaved, confused, and in need of support. I got that from Mr Dean, the family lawyer, after he told me my father’s death had been ruled accidental, and I would inherit everything. I asked him to arrange the funeral, a quiet cremation. Naturally, I was too upset to attend, so father left this world in the presence of the staff from the undertaker’s, the officiating clergyman, and the manager of his factory. Dean told me that there was so much money, I would never want for anything. When I saw the figures, I knew he was telling the truth.

So I waited that full year, before asking him to arrange the sale of the factory as a going concern, knowing that our biggest competitor would be keen to acquire it, if only to close it down. I learned to drive by paying for an intensive course, and applied for a passport by visiting the local post office and filling out some forms. There was no need for me to own a luxury car, so I bought a small commercial vehicle that would appear innocuous to anyone passing.

Year two saw me clearing out the workshops, using a local company to sell off most of the equipment. The things I wanted to keep, I stored in the smaller one, as I got busy converting one of the others into a home gym. Shopping online worked well for me, and I maintained my high-protein diet carefully, to ensure I could build muscle, and start to look like someone my age should, if they had led a healthy life. I paid for swimming lessons in a private pool, using the new-found skill to increase my strength further. And through it all, I continued to study the things I was interested in.

I even purchased a new television, so I could learn about what the people around me were watching. Most of it was appallingly inane, but I took notes, and studied the popularity of the shows that were supposedly all the rage. I stopped keeping up with the social media groups I had once belonged to, and they soon forgot about me.

Once I no longer looked like the Paul Wilkins I remembered, I kept up with my exercise regime, and sensible eating. I certainly didn’t want to become one of those musclebound stereotypes. I wanted to look as normal as possible, not stand out. Then year three was occupied with my own building projects, converting the largest workshop into the laboratory I had carefully designed using some of father’s graph paper. In some way, I followed in his footsteps, working long into the night, seven days a week. What I didn’t know how to do, I learned by reading how to do it, and by trial and error.

The day after my twenty-fifth birthday, I was ready.

Mister Dean was still the family lawyer, though we had little contact. I telephoned him and asked him to supply me a reference, stating that I was of good character, and had previously been employed in the family business as assistant to my father. If he was confused as to why I wanted it, he didn’t say. I already had a National Insurance card, discovered during an extensive search of my father’s study, though my employment and tax history had been dealt with by the company accountant. I had to presume that they had kept records, and started to look for a real job.

One of the huge online goods suppliers had opened a distribution warehouse some ten miles north of the town, at the junction of two major roads. Watching the local news on TV, there had been a report about them soon becoming the largest employer locally, so I applied for a job there. It was a simple job, picking and sorting deliveries. There was no fixed contract, and the wages were just the national minimum. I was asked how many hours I wanted to work, which suited me. I chose a four day week, from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon.

That left me three days a week and every evening to do anything else I wanted.

Most people know about phobias. Common fears include spiders, snakes, heights, even flying in aircraft. Some brush them off, by saying things like “I don’t like spiders”. But for a few, the sight of a single spider can leave them paralysed with fear. One person might be afraid of a snake, and transfixed by terror. Another equally terrified of the snake can yet muster the courage to kill the serpent. Knowing the difference was the main object of my study.

Then there are the lesser-known, but equally powerful fears. Hemophobia is a morbid fear of blood. It might make someone unwell, but is unlikely to induce the sort of fear that can cause their death. Coulrophobia is a fear of clowns, something exploited by films in the horror genre. In the right circumstances, that can induce real terror in the sufferer. I included fear of dolls and puppets in that category, especially that rare fear of a ventriloquist’s dummy. It was obvious that all four had something to do with the faces. A very serious fear was claustrophobia, whether involving the ancient terror of being buried alive, or simply being confined in a small dark space.

That one was of special interest to me.

Being out in the world at work felt as if I had been dropped inside a madhouse. The noise, the people, the vast spaces inside the warehouse, and everything appearing to move at breakneck speed, I thought it might be impossible for me to endure. I learned to pretend though. I became a very good actor. After the shortest of training sessions, I was assigned to a team. We had to literally run around pushing a huge cart, using an electronic barcode device to register items listed on computer screens attached to the cart as we loaded them in. Then we rushed to the packing benches to unload, where another line of people began to wrap them up, and place them inside cardboard boxes.

Just to receive our hourly rate, we had to pick a set amount of items in a given time. Failure to do so resulted in a warning, and after two warnings, most were dismissed. There was no shortage of unemployed townsfolk waiting to take the job. The young man who trained me was called Adam, and the leader of our team was a woman named Shell. When I said I had never heard of that name before, they both laughed, and told me it was short for Michelle. During the whole shift, we were given just two breaks of twenty-five minutes each, and if we had to use the toilets in between, it was frowned upon.

Most of my colleagues were unhappy with the job, and constantly dreamed of the time they could leave to do something else. I didn’t mind it at all. Though it was physically demanding, I was fit enough, and I was rather fascinated to see the vast array of items that people were buying online. Once I got used to the noise and the number of people, I settled down, strangely feeling that I was part of something real, at long last.

It took a while for me to notice that Shell seemed to like me. According to Adam, she liked me a lot. He winked at me, warning that she was known for having a roving eye, and that in his opinion she would eat me alive, given the chance. It had never occured to me that I might be attractive to anyone, let alone this popular divorcee. And though I had no experience of carnal pleasures, or any desire to experience any, I knew what he meant when he said she would ‘eat me alive’.

After I had been there for a month, Shell came to talk to me one morning before we started the shift. The depot manager had noticed that I had a driving licence, and asked her to find out if I wanted to drive one of the delivery vans, instead of being a picker. She looked worried, and I immediately realised that she was afraid I would say yes. I shrugged, and told her I was happy being on her team as a picker, and she should tell the manager that I didn’t want to be a delivery driver. Looking around quickly, she reached up and stroked my face, her mouth opening up in a huge smile as she spoke.

“Right answer”.

Experiment One. Part One.
Subject: Michelle O’Connor.
Age: 44.
Gender: Female.

At work one day, I heard Shell on the phone to Emma. It seemed that Emma had fallen off of her bicycle on the way in, and had to go for treatment on cuts to her leg. Michelle was not pleased that Emma would not be coming into work, but was sympathetic about what might happen at the hospital. “Oh no, not stitches? That means lots of pain-killing injections, and a big Tetanus jab in the bum after. Ugh, needles make me shudder, I’m terrified of them. One of the reasons why I never had kids, I’m sure”.

Without even having to resort to subterfuge, I had discovered Shell’s weakness. She had a morbid fear of hypodermic needles that was sufficient for her to forego childbirth to avoid them. I doubt she knew the name of that phobia, but I did. Trypanophobia. It was so extreme in some sufferers, that they deliberately refused medical treatment involving those needles. No doubt some may well have died of self-neglect, rather that tolerate being injected.

It was very easy to become closer to Shell, knowing already that she found me attractive. I smiled at her a bit more, came back early from my breaks to appear keen to be around her, and one day I noticed that her hair was shorter, so said that it suited her. Not long after that, she passed me a note instructing me to meet her in the rest room after the shift, for a performance appraisal. She asked the two other people there to leave and give us some privacy, and immediately cut to the chase. There was no performance appraisal of course, and instead she suggested that we might go out on a date. “I know I’m a lot older than you, but I think I look good for my age, so what do you say, Paul?”

She was nothing if not confident.

I said what she wanted to hear. I liked her, didn’t care about the age difference, and would be happy to collect her at her house and take her out at the weekend. I lied about my own circumstances, telling her I only lived in a rented room in a big house, and my accommodation was embarrassingly poor. She wrote her address down on a napkin, and said to pick her up at seven on Saturday. As I left she spoke quietly. “It has to be our secret though, honey. After all, I am your team leader, and I don’t want anyone to know I am seeing you outside of work”.

That suited me perfectly.

Parking my car in a side street nearby, I walked to her house as it was getting dark. A busy road, with lots of cars on it, but few people. Nobody noticed me in my dark raincoat, I was sure of that. I had brought along a screw-top bottle of wine, carefully resealed on one of the work benches before I left. After she invited me in, I suggested a drink before we left to go to the Chinese restaurant that she had recommended. Opening the top of the bottle in front of her, I almost filled her glass, pouring myself little more than a mouthful. As I was driving, that was a good enough excuse. The strong red wine contained enough sleeping tablets to knock down a bull, but she didn’t notice the finely-ground powder as she quaffed it down.

During the time I had been pretending to be depressed and upset about father’s death, the family doctor had gven me a lot of medication quite happily. Sleeping tablets, sedatives, even drugs to control depression. I hadn’t taken any of course, saving them all up for other uses.

As she seemed to be in no rush to go out, I topped up Shell’s glass, and engaged her in innocent conversation about her background. Divorced for over ten years, she had no siblings, and her elderly mother was resident in a care home some distance away. She told me she had once wanted to be a teacher, but hadn’t done well enough at school. When I saw her grab the arm of the sofa to support herself, I guessed my concotion was working.

She excused herself and went up to the bathroom, obviously wondering what was wrong with her. I waited long enough to appear respectful, then went up to find her collapsed and unconscious on the small bathroom floor, breathing loudly.

As I had no intention of getting my car and moving her until everyone was at home with their curtains closed, I went back downstairs and made a few notes in a small notebook. After that, I boiled a kettle, and washed out the wine bottle and glasses, placing them inside one of the kitchen cupboards.

Checking my watch, I decided to wait for one more hour.

Experiment One: Part two.
Subject: Michelle O’Connor.
Age: 44
Gender: Female.

Healthy eating and exercise meant I was sufficiently strong to be able to carry Shell downstairs easily. I took her handbag, coat and shoes, leaving her mobile phone connected to its charger in the kitchen. My small van had a folded duvet placed in the back ready, and I reversed it up the short driveway, close to her house. Wrapping her in the duvet, I placed her still unconscious onto the floor of the vehicle, then locked her front door after turning out the lights. The route back to my house had been chosen carefully, avoiding main roads with traffic cameras and speed traps. I drove carefully, giving no passing police cars any reason to stop me.

The container I placed her in was not unlike an incubator, except that it was adult size of course. A circular hole at the bottom would enable any human waste to be collected easily, and strong manacles would secure wrists and ankles. The lid could be locked in place if necessary, and two video cameras would record every reaction. Shell had to be naked of course, but the workshop was heated and air-conditioned, so clothing was not necessary. The reinforced perspex could not be easily damaged by anyone inside it, even if they were able to get free.

As I fastened the metal restraints, her naked female body obviously got my attention, as it was the first I had ever seen. But it did not arouse me in the least, and my only interest in it was clinical. When she was secure, I went to the back of the workshop to find the box I had prepared earlier.

Father has collected syringes of all shapes and sizes over decades of experimentation and invention. He used them for injecting lubricant into tiny gaps, or inserted them through spaces to be able to apply fine oils to complex parts. My intention was to use clean new ones, which I had found in abundance when clearing out his workshops. But I had kept the old ones too, in anticipation of just this situation arising. While Shell was still deeply unconscious, I scattered some around her, and on her body too.

It would be interesting to see the effect of them when she woke up. She would be unlikely to rouse for some hours, so I unfolded a camp-bed next to one of the benches, and got some sleep.

Her screaming seemed to be in my dream, and it took some time to realise it was actually happening. I wasn’t concerned of course, as the extra insulation I had built in not only kept the workshop much warmer, it served to deaden any sound too. Rolling off the camp-bed, I went and set the cameras to record, ignoring Shell’s hysterical babbling. Then I opened a notebook and began to jot down my observations.

She soon seemed to work out that struggling against the restraints was pointless. Instead, she tried to appeal to my better nature, asking to be freed, why I was doing this to her, and vowing to never tell anyone what had happened if I would only let her go. My refusal to engage with her in any way apparently made her angry too, and it was some time before the tirade of swearing and personal abuse subsided. Shell then resorted to offering me sexual favours in return for her release. All manner of strangely perverted sex acts were discussed in detail, with her assurance that I would find her both willing and enthusiastic.

I was careful to note those down, so I could look them up later.

When she finally stopped talking, I brought a bottle of water, and poured some into her mouth. She gulped it down greedily, dried out by the drug I had given her, and more than thirty minutes of screaming and chattering. There was a very interesting expression on her face as she watched me writing calmly. That caused me to change the lens setting on the camera above her head, zooming in to record the upper half of her face, including her eyes. I wanted a record of what I was seeing, so I could study it at leisure.

Thinking what to write down about my impression of this, I settled on the correct two words.

Abject terror.

Once the notes on her awakening were complete, I opened the box of new syringes and needles, choosing a suitably impressive 60 mm syringe, and attaching a large hypodermic needle, similar to the ones used for lumbar punctures.

As she saw me approach with it, Shell didn’t even scream. She just shook her head from side to side, the tears streaming down her face.

Experiment One: Part three.
Subject: Michelle O’Connor.
Age: 44.
Gender: Female.

Shell screamed as the long needle went into the side of her right buttock. I was using one of the circular holes running along the side of the container, which gave me access without having to open the lid. The sight of the syringe and needle had made her very scared, but not as much as I had thought it might. So I decided to insert the needle itself, and watch her reaction. Despite her yelling, and begging me to take it out, she did not pass out from fright, and she certainly did not die of it either.

Leaving the first needle in place, I chose a smaller, conventional combination, holding it over her face so she could see it. That only brought on more head-shaking, and further pleas for me to desist.

By the time there were six more needles placed into various parts of her body, she was no longer shouting or screaming. I hurriedly made some notes, interested that continued exposure to her greatest fear seemed to have removed that fear by familiarity. I gave Shell more water, and offered a sandwich up to her mouth, so she could eat. But she clamped her jaws shut, and shook her head, refusing the food. Turning off the cameras, I left that area, and went into my newly-constructed office along the corridor, to review the film footage on a computer screen.

One thing was abundantly clear. The fear was not going to make her die. She was not about to expire from panic or shock, and appeared to have learned to tolerate the injections, as well as the needles being left in situ. After spending three hours watching and re-watching every detail of the filmed evidence, I wrote my detailed notes into the book reserved for this first experiment, then decided to return to the house for some lunch.

Feeling surprisingly hungry, I ate four fried eggs with some toast. All the while I was considering my next step. The experiment had failed in its intention, but had been no less interesting for that. Now I had the problem of what to do with Shell, as it was obvious that I couldn’t just let her go. I had a plan in place, and decided I would implement that the following day. For the time being, I would leave Shell where she was, and spend the rest of the day in the house.

Waking up late on Sunday, I didn’t bother to shower, and dressed hurriedly. Shell had been on her own in the container since the previous day, and would surely be thirsty and hungry. I prepared a bottle of water for her, and took some chocolate bars too. As I understood it, most women had a weakness for chocolate.

She was undoubtedly distressed when I arrived, though my appearance in the workshop seemed to calm her down. Perhaps she thought I was just going to leave her there with the various needles in place, until she died of hunger or thirst? Anyway, she actually smiled when she saw me. That smile soon faded when she realised I had not come to release her. As I removed the needles and syringes, she tried to talk to me, but her lips were swollen and cracked, and her voice croaky from screaming. I presumed she must have spent a great deal of time screaming while I was up in the house. No doubt she had some idea that someone would hear her.

Pouring the water into her mouth, I showed her the chocolate bars, and she nodded as she swallowed the cool water. When her thirst was satisfied, I broke off pieces of the creamy chocolate and fed them to her one at a time. When one bar was finished, I checked my watch. No time for more chocolate, as the drug in the water would act in less than ten minutes. I walked to the back of the workshop, and began my preparations.

Father had stored a variety of industrial acids during his years as an inventor, and I had kept them safely hidden away since his death. I had also held on to his protective clothing and mask needed when using such dangerous and caustic chemicals. I knew from my own research that untreated sulphuric acid can dissolve a human body completely, in twenty-four hours. But you had to remember any dental work, fillings, and metal implants. Also prosthetics, like artificial joints. They would not be dissolved, and had to either be removed before immersing the body, or strained out after. Even after there was no trace of the body, microscopic remains would still offer forensic evidence to any investigators.

With the container filled, I wheeled the hoist back to Shell. Deeply unconscious, she had no idea what was happening as I removed her restraints and attached the straps of the hoist around her. I lowered her into the acid head first, and very slowly.

I had to be careful of splashes.

It wasn’t long before everyone at work was talking about Shell not turning up that Monday. She hadn’t phoned in sick, so I was told, and she wasn’t replying to messages left on her phone. As she had been so secretive about our date, I had no worry that anyone would associate me with her, so just got on with my job. Adam stepped up to replace her as Team Leader until she came back.

By Wednesday, another Team Leader had called at her house, reporting back that there was no answer to repeated knocking. That afternoon, the depot manager phoned the police with his concerns, and they took a missing person report over the phone, advising him that they would investigate. It took over a eeek for the rest of the news to filter down to me, through Adam gossiping. Shell’s phone had been traced to inside her house, and her car was found parked in the next side street. Concerned police officers had forced entry using a locksmith, but found nothing to give them much concern. There was no trace of a handbag or purse, the house was clean and tidy with no evidence of a struggle, or break-in. They concluded that she must have gone to visit a friend or relative, and not bothered to tell her employer. It was even suggested that she might have run off with a lover.

The fact that this was abnormal behaviour for her didn’t seem to impress them.

Of course, I had to look surprised and concerned, every time a snippet of what was going on was told to me. I think I did very well, considering that I knew her handbag was under the metal drum full of acid containing her dissolved body, and that was stored in the false floor of my second workshop.

Some ten days later, there was a short appeal on the local news for anyone with information about her disappearance. She had not visited her mother in the care home, and she had also not used her bank card or credit card. There was no CCTV evidence of her moving around the town on the night of her disappearance, or since, and she had not boarded a bus or train. They were finally treating the case as suspicious, with no leads to follow. The next morning, two officers arrived at the depot to take statements.

They got to me after the first break, and I was allowed the time away from picking to talk to them. From the start, I could tell they were not that interested in me, and they asked me a lot of questions about Eddie, one of the delivery drivers who had apparently once been Shell’s boyfriend. That was easy, as I didn’t know him, and had never met him. The female detective smiled at me quite sweetly as she told me I could go.

If I was to continue my experiments, I couldn’t stay working there of course. Another person going missing would be too much of a coincidence. But I had to bide my time, as my sudden resignation while they were still looking for Shell might have been noticed. For four months, I turned up for work every day as usual, and one day I was told to report to the office of the manager. Momentarily, it crossed my mind that the police were going to be waiting there, ready to arrest me and haul me off in handcuffs. But I knew better, so was unconcerned as I entered after knocking.

Far from any prospect of arrest, I was actually offered Shell’s job as Team Leader, to my obvious surprise. I thanked him politely, suggested I wasn’t ready for the responsibility, then mentioned that I was thinking of leaving anyway. That caused him to change his manner completely. He said that I might as well give notice officially, and leave at the end of the day. He didn’t want anyone working there who was thinking of quitting.

Perhaps I should have told him that most of the staff were doing exactly that. But I left him in ignorance.

That weekend, I took a rare trip to the coast, just to walk along the beach and have a change of scene. Something my father had never allowed when I was young. Driving back through a country district almost sixty miles from home, I spotted a large hand-written sign at the entrance to a track.
HELP WANTED. LIVE-IN.

I stopped the car, reversed back a short distance, and turned left up the rutted path next to the sign.

The house at the end of the long track was well hidden from the road. It was more a collection of buildings, one of which appeared to be inhabited, judging by the curtains in some windows, and a pair of boots outside the main door. In the distance were two large barns, at the end of the continuation of the track. Old machinery was scattered around, mostly rusted and bent. I stopped the car fifty feet from the house, and looked to my right as I got out.

There were some large fields bordering the property, each planted with neat rows of small bushes. In contrast to the buildings, the fields were neat, and the bushes stood in their rows like soldiers on parade. I knocked on the door with my fist, and stood back.

With a scraping sound the door opened slowly, and a man’s voice called out. “What you want? I’m resting”. I couldn’t see anyone, and felt awkward speaking into the gap. I told him I was there to see about the job, and mentioned the sign on the road. With that, the door opened all the way, revealing an elderly man in filthy blue overalls. He looked me up and down, with no effort to introduce himself, or excuse his rudeness.

“Well you look young and strong. I need help with the blackcurrant bushes. Weeding, watering, and such. Then harvesting when they’re ready. And some help around the farm fixing up buildings and such. You get lodging and food, but no pay until the crop is sold. How would that suit you?” He was certainly blunt, and had offered me the job with no formal interview, and not even a single question about my situation. When I didn’t reply, he carried on. “You would have to bring your own bedding and such, but there’s the first floor, you can have that for yourself. No hours as such, and we work until the work’s done. Yes or no?”

Smiling inside at how many times he could say the word ‘such’, and how an old-fashioned shabby looking man like him still managed to run a fruit business in the modern world, I had already decided. The remoteness of the location appealed to me, and I told him I would take the job, returning in two days after I had gathered my things, and made arrangements. I extended a hand to shake on the agreement, but he was already closing the door as he spoke.

“Take down the sign on your way out”.

The next day, I packed some clothes, towels, and bedding before telephoning Mr Dean to inform him I would be away for some time. He assured me that he would see to my house and property while I was gone, and I made him take a note that nobody was to try to enter any of the workshops. The grounds would be maintained, the windows cleaned, and utility bills paid. He sounded happy to hear from me again, no doubt pleased that he would be able to send me a substantial bill for his services at some stage. I also asked him to engage an accountant on my behalf, to show me as being self-employed, for the purposes of tax, and other matters. He could supply most of the information required, and I would provide some evidence of what I was doing, in due course.

From the workshops, I took some good tools that I suspected I would need at the farm, and packed them into a smart toolbox. All my notebooks and video recordings were sealed in a locked box, and placed under the false floor of one of the workshops, next to the large drum containing what was left of Michelle O’Connor. Then I took the sign that I had removed from the road near the farm, and burned it in an incinerator in the garden.

When I got back to the farm the following afternoon, the door opened without me having to knock. Still wearing the same overalls, the man appeared outside, his mood greatly changed. This time he extended a hand and smiled warmly, showing many missing teeth. “I forgot to tell you my name. Edward Cobden, of Cobden’s Fruits. You call me Ted. I used to run this place with my brother before he died, and can’t manage it now, being on my own and such. Come in, and I will show you your rooms”.

My best guess was that he was at least seventy years old, maybe more. As I followed him upstairs, he held his hand against the wall for support, and appeared frail.

I was wondering what he might be afraid of.

Considering his personal appearance, and the run-down exterior of the farm buildings, Ted’s house was remarkably clean and tidy inside. Upstairs there was a small living room, a double bedroom, and a bathroom and toilet combined. The fixtures were dated, but all serviceable, and the small flat screen television in the living room was a modern one.

As he watched me moving my stuff from the van, he called out various things as I went up and down the stairs. “Dinner is at six. Nothing fancy, you understand, but I’m a fair cook”. “The phone signal is not too good here if you have one of those mobiles. There’s a phone in the house, but make sure you leave the money for the call in the box next to it”. “Oh, and I don’t know if you have a computer or such, but we don’t have that Internet here”. “Breakfast at seven sharp, I can wake you if you want”.

While making my bed, I tried to imagine how anyone could run a business, even a farm, without Internet access. By the time I had unpacked, I could smell the dinner wafting up the stairs. And it made my mouth water.

The portion was huge, and I ate heartily. Sausages and onions, served in a fluffy Yorkshire pudding, accompanied by mashed potatoes and peas. There was bread and butter on the table too, and the promise of a dessert. “There’s steamed sponge and treacle after, boy. You will eat well here, I promise you”. As we ate, he chatted as if we were old friends. I was amazed how trusting he was, as he hadn’t so much as even asked my name.

“The main job here is keeping the birds and vermin away from the fruit. As soon as those blackcurrants start to appear, they are all over them. Then there’s watering, I have a cart for that, and some weeding. But I mainly use chemicals and such around the bushes, to save the back-breaking stuff. Once the season warms up, we will have to get the netting on the bushes. That’s one hell of a job, I tell you boy. I see you have some decent tools, so I was wondering if you could fix the doors on the main barn? Otherwise it wil be hard to store anything in there, come harvest”.

He talked like this throughout the meal, never waiting for me to reply or comment. He also told me that he lived downstairs, with a small living room and bedroom combined at the back, and a toilet too. “I don’t need any bath, shower, or such. I just have a good wash in the sink”. After we had finished all the food, he offered me beer, which I declined. Then he suggested Port Wine or Brandy, but I said no. When I offered to help clear away and wash up, he surprised me by telling me he had a dishwasher in a utility room at the back. “Also got a nice washing machine and tumble drier there boy. Next to the freezer”.

I had imagined that he would have no such conveniences.

Ted remained sitting at the rough wooden dining table for some time, drinking his beer. He told me about how he, his father, and his older brother had run the farm together after his mother had died of cancer. His blackcurrants were all sold in advance, used for fruit drinks made by the brand leader in those products. But the price depended on the abundance of the crop at harvest, and could fluctuate wildly every year. “What we want is a good crop, in a bad year. Do you get my meaning, boy? Then we have the edge, something to sell that they need”.

I slept well that night, with Ted telling me he would wake me in time to bathe before breakfast. I couldn’t recall eating such a big dinner in a long time, and I had quite warmed to my new employer.

It almost seemed a shame that I would have to discover his weakness, before he died of it.

Working for Ted, I soon found out that I was the one doing the real work. I tended the bushes after the briefest instruction, hauling the hose on its trolley to the standpipes dotted around for watering. Then spraying the roots with weed-killer using an ancient hand pump attached to a tank I wore on my back like a rucksack. After lunch, I was expected to fix up the buildings; rehanging doors, and stopping up leaks and gaps in the woodwork. It was just as well he fed me such a lot of food, as I had never worked so hard.

For his part, Ted kept the house clean and tidy, did the washing, and prepared the food. He drove into the nearest town every morning after breakfast, insisting that he liked to buy the food fresh every day. He had a big panel van which was signwritten with ‘Cobden’s Fruits, Cobden Farm’. It didn’t even have a contact phone number on the side. He kept it parked out of sight, behind the biggest barn. In the afternoon, he had his ‘rest’, while I carried on with whatever task he had assigned me. I was allowed to finish at five-forty-five every evening, so I could have a quick wash before dinner at six.

After the evening meal, he always liked to chat for a while before I went upstairs. But despite showing willingness to engage in conversation with him, I never managed to find out that much personal information, and nothing at all about whether or not he might have some genuine phobia, or fear. It went on like that much the same every day for weeks, until the fruit started to ripen.

That morning, Ted accompanied me to inspect some of the bushes, and seemed to become agitated. “We need to get back and get the netting, boy, right quick”. I followed him to one of the low outbuidings, where he showed me lots of rolls of fine mesh black netting. He explained that I should load one onto the big metal handcart, and walk along the rows of bushes unravelling it. It was wide enough to completely cover the bushes once it was dragged up and over them. Then every dozen or so bushes, it had to be secured into the ground using metal pegs, not unlike tent pegs.

I came to hate that job. The netting was difficult to get into place, as it caught on anything and everything. Then hammering the pegs into the hard ground between the rows was back-breaking. It took me all of that week to finish off, using every roll of netting in the storeroom, back and forth collecting each roll in turn. On the Saturday, he made me what he called a ‘special meal’ of sirloin steak, and thanked me for my hard work. Following a substantial dessert of bread and butter pudding with custard, he informed me how to set up and use the bird-scarer. This device consisted of a long tube of plastic attached to an electronic box, and according to Ted, it made a sound like a gunshot at random intervals.

Sure enough, Monday saw the arrival of many birds. Starlings and pigeons in the main, but also crows. Lots of crows. The birds could sense that the fruit was ripe enough for them to eat, but it was not yet ready for harvest and sale to the juice manufacturer. Ted remained edgy. “This is the crucial time, boy. We have to keep them bloody birds off until harvest time soon. Those buggers will ruin the crop, given half the chance”. He told me that the netting was enough to protect the fruit from the smaller birds, but the large crows would hang onto it, and tear it with their beaks. That’s why he needed the scarer. Even with that, the crows could become accustomed to the noise, so a large part of my job would be to keep a presence in the fields, to frighten them off. I was even excused the afternoon repairs for that.

After hauling the scarer and its long cable out into the fields, I set it up and switched it on as he had shown me. The loud bang made me jump, and sent the flocks of birds flying out of the trees where they sat waiting. But not for long. They circled for a while, and then returned to their perches. After a dozen or more of the bangs, less and less birds left the trees, so I made sure to patrol the rows so they could see me.

Over dinner, I suggested to Ted that it might be a good idea if he patrolled with me the next day, as two men in the fields could cover more ground, and distract more birds. He put down his knife and fork, shaking his head. “No boy, not me. Got a thing about them birds, especially the big crows. Sounds silly to tell at my age, but they terrify me, with their flapping wings, and squawking. I’m likely to piss myself with fear if they get around me. You’ll have to do your best”. Cutting into my chicken pie, I smiled.

So that was his fear.

According to Ted, it was now necessary for me to get out into the fields at first light, as the birds could do too much damage before my normal arrival after breakfast. He woke me up extra early, and sent me out with a flask of tea and some sandwiches while it was still dark. As there were no neighbours nearby, he was also unconcerned about the noise from the scarer, telling me to use it as early as I liked. I set the machine to a random programme, and retired under some trees to enjoy my tea and sandwiches.

Just after nine, I saw his big van drive along the track, heading for town. Once he was out of sight, I switched off the machine, and began to walk along the rows, loosening the pegs that held the netting in place. It was hard work, and I used a big screwdriver in the eyelets, twisting them around until they were no longer holding in the soil. The birds were congregating in the trees behind me, unsure what was going on, but emboldened by the lack of noise from the scarer. I knew that harvest was imminent. The fruit looked plump and ripe, even to my inexperienced eye, and I could smell the sweetness in the air too.

I had managed almost one full row before I heard his van return.

It had obviously occurred to me that I could not capture wild birds in sufficient quantity to transport them to my house for a proper experiment. For one thing, I had nowhere to store them on Ted’s property. I considered buying a large number of birds like parrots, or other types kept as pets, but that would leave a suspicious trail of purchases. My conclusion was that I would have to see the effect of Ted being scared by the birds actually at his farm, and not drug him and remove him to my workshops. So my first idea was simple enough.

As I was not allowed to return for lunch because of the imminent harvest, I knew that Ted would be bringing me something to eat and drink in the blackcurrant fields. So I secreted myself out of sight, and waited until the birds had discovered the loose netting and the absence of a patrolling human. It wasn’t too long before they did, scuttling under the billowing nets in large numbers, and squabbling among themselves as they gorged on the fruit. By the time that Ted appeared carrying a plastic lunchbox and flask, almost half the row was full of birds.

Ted didn’t notice at first, as he was looking around to see where I was. After a while, he stopped and shouted. “Boy! It’s lunch, boy! Where are you?”
After all this time, he had still never asked my name.

Venturing into the second field, closer to where I was hiding, he noticed that some of the netting had come adrift. Setting the lunchbox and flask down on the ground, he grabbed some of the loose pegs and began to push them back into the ground, using the heel of his boot. As he worked his way along the row, he suddenly noticed the birds on the bushes some fifty yards ahead.

Without hesitation, he turned and began to run back in the direction of his house. A man of his age and physical condition does not run that well, especially over broken ground in a field. Even more so, when he kept stopping to look back to see if any birds were in the air close to him.

For me, this was very interesting of course. Would his heart give out with fright? Would he fall and injure himself, unable to get up again? I had to get up on my knees as he got further away, so I could see every moment of his escape. But he made it off the fields eventually, and I watched as he ran into the smaller of the two barns. I had expected him to remain there until I got back, so I was very surpised to see him making his way back to the bushes within a few minutes.

As he got closer again, I could see he was carrying something, stopping to fumble with it. It was a double-barrelled shotgun, and he was trying to load some shells into the open barrels as he was walking. Eventually, he had to stop to make sure the shells were seated properly, then I heard the metallic sound as he snapped the weapon closed. He started off again, making a bee-line for the bushes that were still covered in feeding birds. But as he raised the weapon without stopping, he dropped it.

The noise of the gunshot made me jump, and also caused some panic in the birds. I stood up, and could see Ted lying on the ground some one hundred yards away. I ran over quickly, yelling that I was sorry, but had fallen asleep. I thought a cover story might be necessary. But as it turned out, it wasn’t.

The effect of both barrels of a shotgun at close range is most interesting to observe. Falling with the barrels pointing upward, the jolt as it hit the ground must have caused the ancient firearm to discharge. Ted had a hole in his body just above the belt around his overalls. It was big enough to be able to put my fist into, had I chosen to do so. His sightless eyes stared up at the sky, as the noisy birds circled above. I was rather annoyed.

That wasn’t supposed to have happened.

So there was to be no valid experiment involving Edward Cobden. Even his fear of the birds did not overcome his rage at them stealing his fruit, and he had been determined to scare them off with his shotgun.

I disconnected a cable inside the bird-scarer, so that it would fail to work if tested. That would provide a reason for Ted to have arrived with his shotgun, and the accidental shooting that followed. Naturally, I would leave his body in the field, to be discovered in due course. As nobody had any idea that I was working there, I could take my time removing any trace of my stay at the farm.

There was reason to be thankful for Ted being such a private man.

Packing away my clothes, bedding, and toiletries was easy enough. I contemplated removing fingerprints, but that would also have removed Ted’s, making it suspicious. And there would be no reason to treat the house as a crime scene, once it had been concluded that it was simply an accident. After loading everything into my van, I went back inside, and wandered around. I imagined that I was a policeman, looking for any trace of someone else being there. At the last moment, I remembered to check the washing machine and drier, finding some underwear of mine still inside. As time was getting on, I thought about staying the night and leaving first thing. But I was reluctant to tempt fate, with Ted’s body nearby.

Back at home, I ordered some Indian food to be delivered, and left a message on Mr Dean’s answerphone to tell him I was back. After eating, I looked online at local job advertisements. Ted hadn’t paid me of course, but that wasn’t an issue. I had more money than I could ever spend, but I wanted to get back out into the world to find a new subject for the next experiment. Office work didn’t appeal, as there were too many people gossipping about your business. And I didn’t want to work so close to home again, particularly as Shell was still officially missing. At the end of the vacancies, I spotted a different category.

Volunteer Opportunities.

Most of the advertisements were for charity shops looking for volunteer staff. In the middle of the page, I noticed one for help wanted at an animal sanctuary, and clicked on the link. The place was little more than a large detached house, about fifteen miles south. The gardens had been taken over by a series of enclosures and sheds, and according to the blurb written by the owner, she was in need of someone else to help, for as many hours as they could offer. There was no pay, obviously, and also no expenses paid. The woman ran the place on a shoestring by all accounts, and scraped by on whatever donations she could get. There as a short personal bio of her too, with a photo.

Danielle Goldman. She looked to be around thirty, and to go along with her name, had the appearance of someone who might be Jewish. I thought that it was unusual to find a Jewish person running a sanctuary. Father had always told me that Jewish people were sharp in business, and were good to have as friends. Danielle’s dark hair and brown eyes were accompanied by a prominent nose, and a wide smiling mouth. She was not conventionally attractive, and quite obviously very overweight. There was no mention of any other staff, or of a husband or children. I sent her an email offering my services four days a week, from eight until four.

When I checked my emails the next morning, I saw that she had replied during the night. She obviously stayed up late.

The reply was enthusiastic, asking me to call on her any day before six in the evening, to look around and see if I would be happy to work there. I telephoned the number she gave on the email, and arranged to visit her at four that afternoon. Danielle answered the door wearing a stained tracksuit, and Croc sandals on her feet. The smell of animals from inside was overwhelming as she ushered me in. She was surprisingly short, definitley under five feet, and almost as wide as she was tall. After showing me around the various cages and pens containing cats, dogs, hedgehogs, injured birds, and even a miniature pony in a shed at the end of the large garden, she turned and smiled. “Well, Paul. What do you say?”

I told her that I would be happy to start the next day, and was surprised when she leaned forward and hugged me.

Danielle had a list of jobs ready for me once I arrived the next morning. My role was mainly to let the dogs out of their runs or cages, and clear up whatever they had deposited on the floor. Then I replenished the water in their bowls, gave them some food, and had to take them out two at time for a walk across the field at the back of the house. I had never had a pet of course, and it seemed that the dogs sensed something different about me. An old greyhound bared its teeth at me, and Danielle put a muzzle on it. Even a tiny one-eyed miniature Schnauzer was reluctant to walk with me, and kept its lead at right angles all the time.

I had little to do with the animals inside, though I did have to muck out the small horse and feed it. That animal appeared to be happy enough in my company, though probably because I was giving it extra carrots and apples. Danielle provided me with a lunch of sorts, which on that first day was three nut bars and an orange. She didn’t care for tea or coffee, so offered tap water to drink. I decided that I would bring my own refreshments in future. Over that lunch, she explained something of her life story.

The house we were in had belonged to her grandmother. Whe she died, she left a reasonable amount of cash, and the house, to Danielle. She had recently married an accountant friend of her father, a much older man. He wanted her to sell it, and for them both to continue living in his smart flat in town. But she had her dreams of an animal sanctuary, something her new husband thought was ridiculous. So the marriage was over almost as soon as it had started, and she moved into the old house, using the money to set up the sanctuary, and what was left of her own savings along with any donations she could beg. Seven years later, and she was struggling financially, as well as running out of space. Vet bills were one issue, and inspectors from the local Council also made her make constant improvements.

She was now living in one room of the large house, as every other inch of space was given over to the rescued animals.

To be honest, there wasn’t that much work. Walking the dogs took the most time, as there were seventeen of them. But the routine cage-cleaning and feeding was far from arduous, and I was convinced she could easily have coped alone. I concluded that she was lonely, and required the company of a volunteer more than the help with the work. She stayed inside most of the time, looking after the small animals and cats. Because the Vet charged to come out to her house, she now took all the animals, bar the miniature horse, to the Vet in her own car, a delapidated Peugeot. I didn’t offer the use of my van, as I didn’t want anyone to know I was working there.

When a month had gone by, we had settled into a routine on my four days there. The dogs still didn’t like to be around me, and one of them, a Lakeland Terrier, became so agitated when he saw me that I was no longer able to take him for a walk. Inside the house, the cats didn’t trust me that much either, so Danielle made sure to always handle them. She made no effort to find homes for any of her charges. She didn’t want to chance them being neglected, so continued to take in anything that someone brought to her door, or dropped off in a box outside. Knowing how low she was getting on animal food, I gave her one hundred pounds one afternoon, and told her to use it for the animals. That brought tears to her eyes, and she hugged me again.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, the doorbell sounded. She left me in the kitchen, and went to see who it was. After a long conversation with someone, I heard the door close, and she came back into the room. “It was some guy with two chameleons. He is having to move with his job, and can’t take them. He tried selling them, but no luck. I told him to try a zoo, as I can’t take them”. I asked her why she wouldn’t take them, wondering if she had some fear of lizards and reptiles.

“It’s what you have to feed them. You know, grasshopppers, bugs, grubs and the like. I cannot stand anything creepy-crawly, Paul. I am terrified of all those things, even earwigs and spiders. Funny really, considering how much I love animals”.

I drove home smiling.

In the space of six weeks, I managed to accumulate a great many insects and spiders from numerous sources. The neglected greenhouse in my garden was full of spiders of various types, as was the wooden shed, which hadn’t been used for years. Some digging in the borders provided an assortment of beetles and grubs, and I was able to find some caterpillars on the bushes and trees at the back of the property.

Nothing exotic though, naturally. For that, I ventured over fifty miles away, to a specialist pet shop I saw online. Pretending to be keen to start a collection, and paying full price in cash, I rapidly accumulated a considerable number of creatures, mostly quite repulsive things. I also needed the tanks, heaters, and lights to keep them alive as well as various disgusting foods for them. The shopkeeper thought he had an easy target for his suggestions, and kept promising me more and more exotica. After spending a substantial sum of money, and also buying books about how to manage all the different invertebrates, I had enough to have opened my own attraction, I was sure. The best thing was that the owner of the shop didn’t have to know my address or real name, as I always went there in person.

Hundreds of locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers, as well as a selection of exceedingly large tarantulas. There were massive centipedes and millipedes, and an assortment of cockroaches, including an enormous hissing cockroach; also stick insects and praying mantises of different sizes. At the prompting of the shopkeeper, I had also bought some large black scorpions, though because they were potentially poisonous, they would mainly be for show.

My next problem was how to arrange to get Danielle to my house. She rarely had anything to drink except tap water, and that usually from a glass that she filled herself, and drank immediately. She had never shown any interest in me romantically, so suggesting a date was out of the question. But when she offered me the chance to stay behind one evening to join her in Chinese food as a thank you for my hard work, I pretended to be busy that evening, immediately suggesting that we do it on the following Monday instead. I also told her that I would go and collect the food, and she could pay me later. She agreed happily, which gave me the chance to prepare.

That day, I arrived with a hefty dose of sedatives already diluted into a syringe. We worked as normal, and later on she showed me a menu, and where the restuarant was. She chose a very spicy dish, chili king prawns, accompanied by fragrant rice. I drove off in my van to get the food, waiting for it to be cooked fresh, and paying in cash of course. On the way back, I stopped in a quiet lane, and injected the sedative solution into the sauce surrounding her prawns. Back at the house, I served it onto plates, strirring well as I did so. My own bland meal was completely different, so no danger of any confusion.

Danielle wolfed the food as if she hadn’t eaten for a week, washing it down with some apple juice drunk straight from the container. I watched her as she ate, her sweatshirt and leggings completely covered in animal hair of various shades and lengths, her legs pushing away the collection of cats gathering at her feet under the table. No doubt she had a habit of sharing morsels with them, when I wasn’t there. When we had finished eating, I gathered up the containers into a plastic bin bag, saying it was to stop the cats from still trying to get to them. I took the bag outside to the bin, but put it into the back of my van instead. Then I offered to wash up the plates and cutlery, and she was happy to let me do that.

As it was getting dark by then, I said I had better go home. She insisted on giving me the money for the food from her purse, telling me she felt unusually tired, and might go to bed early. I walked to my van, saying I would see her the next morning. But I didn’t go home. Instead, I drove to the nearby supermarket, and parked at the edge of the car park. I sat there for over an hour, just to make sure, returning to Danielle’s house just before nine. I knew the side gate was never locked, and reached over to flip the latch. She was where I expected to find her, slumped over the kitchen table, with the back door still unlocked.

I had guessed that the sedative would work quickly, and it had.

Before I bothered to deal with Danielle, I had to make sure the animals were okay. I opened the back gate at the end of the large garden, leading onto the field beyond. Then I filled all the food and water containers, before opening all the cages and sheds containing every animal. For those kept inside, like the cats and hedgehogs, I left the back door wide open, and emptied the surplus food onto the lawn. At least they could all make their escape, if they chose to do so.

Danielle was short, but she was heavy. It took some effort to carry her out to my van, and roll her onto the duvet stored in the back. Once she was on her side, and covered by the quilt, I went back to retrieve her handbag and mobile phone. I wanted the outside world to believe that it had all become too much for her, and she had just freed all the animals, then left. I didn’t even bother to lock the front door with her keys, just closed it behind me.

Guessing that she would be asleep for up to twelve hours, I had plenty of time to get some rest before arranging things. I undressed her and put her into the same container that had stored Shell, before going up to the house to get some sleep. I set an alarm for six in the morning, which I was sure would leave me sufficient time. Danielle had been a tight fit in my container. Despite her short stature, the amount of fat on her sides and legs had necessitated stuffing some of her flab tight against the reinforced perspex. I was hot and tired by the time I got up to the house, so had a shower before bed.

The next morning, I was up before first light to check on Danielle. She was still sleeping soundly, so I attached my recent purchase of a blood pressure monitor that also gave an indication of her pulse rate. Then I went to collect my insect and arachnid menagerie from the heated storage. I opened the main lid of Danielle’s container, and carefully placed some of the larger creatures inside using tongs. Then with the lid half closed, I added the numerous crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts before quickly securing the lid in case some escaped. Increasing the heat and humidity inside the container, I watched as the various different creepy-crawlies walked around her unconscious body, finding places for themselves in the crowded space.

Some of them began to fight, others were obviously eating each other. The full horror and carnage of the insect world was being played out before my eyes, and I switched on the cameras, sure that Danielle would soon be awake. My notes were compiled in a fenzied manner, completing a full page in moments. Even though I knew I could review the video footage later, I was keen to write things down as I saw them happening. As she still appeared to be deeply asleep, I placed the scorpions into some perspex boxes, and put them on top of the container, just above her face.

With her seemingly unable to be roused, I went to deal with the dilemma of an acid container. It was plain to see that the one I had used for Shell would not be big enough, so I took up my welding torch, and began to fashion one suitably large enough from three metal plates in the corner. It had to be completely watertight of course, as I would not have wanted the acid to leak later on. The one I was constructing would then need to rest for at least one hour before use, to harden.

I was sure that I would have that time to observe Danielle, and more besides.

Once my construction was satisfactory, I used a wheeled dolly to get it into position under the tank full of acid. Sure it was reliably seated, I went back to watch Danielle wake up. She was still snoring, and I had an idea that I might have to physically wake her. But my access portholes were closed tight, to stop all the invertebrates from escaping. I sat back and made some notes, so this problem would not happen in future experiments. Then a rattling sound from the container attracted my attention.

Danielle had woken up and was pushing against the sides, as best as he could, She was making no sound though, so I looked over at the view inside.

The giant hissing cockroach was completely covering her mouth.

Experiment Two: Part One.
Subject: Danielle Goldman.
Age: 36.
Gender: Female.

Her eyes were so wide open and bulging, I thought the eyeballs might burst. The blood pressure and pulse rate monitor attached to her showed both were above normal, especially her pulse. When the hissing cockroach finally crawled off her mouth, she began screaming. No words, and no pleas for help, just constant screaming, at a volume I hadn’t thought possible from a human voice. Then she spotted the black scorpions scuttling around in their clear containers abover her face, and for a moment, I thought she might stop breathing.

The creatures inside with her didn’t appear to react to the noise at all, which interested me greatly. But when a giant millipede began to crawl across her breasts, Danielle lost control of her bladder into the container below. Although she could clearly see me by turning her eyes to her right, she made no appeal to me, and did not use my name. It was as if she had always known this might happen, though of course I knew that wasn’t possible.

Some of the bugs that could fly began to do just that. Crickets and Locusts started to try to escape the attention of some of the more voracious predators in Danielle’s container, and most settled around the top section, in her hair. This caused the Mantises and Spiders seeking prey to start to crawl up her legs in the direction of her head, and with that, her screams began in earnest. I had to step back a few paces, to protect my hearing. Even confined in the container, the sound was incredible.

Rumbling in my stomach suggested it was time I had something to eat. Leaving the cameras running, I went back up to the house and made a toasted cheese sandwich. As I ate, I pondered her reaction. Definite fear, bordering on terror. This might be the most successful of my three experiments so far, considering Ted had stopped his short accidentally.

Back in the workshop, I could see that Danielle was almost able to move her container by the actions of her body inside it. I immediately noted that, deciding that I would have to make some kind of frame to secure the container on its stand. Her pulse rate was approaching 200, and I guessed she would be unable to maintain that, together with a blood pressure of 190 over 100 for too long, before some damage was done.

Perhaps fear could kill after all?

Opening one of the ports carefully, so as not to let anything escape, I offered some water in a plastic bottle. She shook her head violently, no doubt fearing more drugs in the fluid. A piercing scream shook me away from my note-taking, and I stood up to see that a Praying Mantis was on her left cheek, eating a live cricket. It was so close to her left eye, it was all she could see. Then when a red-kneed Tarantula settled on her right collar bone, she passed out.

I knew she wasn’t dead, as the monitor continued to show her pulse and blood pressure. But the arrival of the arachnid had obviously been too much. Her troubled brain had shut down, and she was deeply asleep. Excited by the first day of the experiment, I retired into the computer room to review the film footage.

Danielle was proving to be an excellent subject for my studies.

Leaving her overnight was the next step. I left all the lights on, as I didn’t want her not to be able to see her tormentors. Before I retired to bed, I offered some water, and food in the form of a cake and nut bar. But she shook her head, no doubt unable to think of food at such a time in her life. She had still not said my name, or requested that I remove the creatures, ceasing her torment. I concluded that she knew her fate, and welcomed it as a release from her terror.

Sleep was hard to come by for me that time. I was busy taking extra notes, and drawing some conclusions based on the video evidence I had spent so long watching.

This time, I was absolutely sure that fear could kill.

Experiment Two: Part Two
Subject: Danielle Goldman.
Age: 36.
Gender: Female.

Having set an alarm to wake me, I was up early, keen to check on Danielle and review the camera footage from the overnight recording. My initial observation was that none of the creatures inside her container appeared to have harmed her in any way. During the night, they had congregated by species in distinct areas, with only the single creatures and spiders choosing to rest alone in the corners. The monitor attached to her arm showed she was not doing very well. Her pulse rate was dangerously low, and the blood pressure hardly registering. Whatever terrors she had experienced as I slept had taken their toll, and she was barely conscious.

Using a long spout attached to a bottle of water, I tried to force some into her mouth, sure she must be incredibly thirsty by now. But she clenched her jaw, and moved her head to one side, her eyes firmly closed. I thought I might need to stimulate the insects into activity, so I increased the heat setting inside the container, and threw in some vegetable matter that they might feed on. Within moments, the plant-eaters were scurrying around, keen to eat, and the predatory creatures attacked them, attracted by the movement.

Despite the veritable hive of activity happening on and around her body, Danielle did not stir. I was beginning to wonder if anyone can become used to their greatest fear if exposed for long enough, when the alarm sounded on the monitor. I walked over and muted the high-pitched sound, noting that the pulse and blood presure were no longer registering, and the numbers had gone, replaced by a flashing red warning.

After waiting a few moments with my notebook poised, I concluded that Danielle had just died, and wrote down the time.

Reviewing the video footage took a long time. For most of the night she could be seen wriggling around as best as she could, trying to dissuade the insects from settling on her face and head. But by five-fifteen, she was undoubtedly exhausted, and seemed to be deeply asleep. By contrast, her companions in the container were active for most of the time, before settling into their chosen spots by six fity-eight, not long before I arrived in the workshop.

It was midday before I had finished, and I decided to go back to the house for lunch before the task of clearing away the experiment began. I was distracted as I ate, very excited by the prospect that my second experiment was successful, in that it might well have proved that someone could indeed die of fright, given the right set of circumstances.

When I had dressed in the protective clothing, I went to the container and removed the cuff and monitor lead from Danielle’s arm. Then I sealed the access ports tight, before attaching the nozzle of a compressor to the underside. With that in place, I connected the hose to an extraction pump, and turned it on. Though very noisy, it would suck all the air out of the container in a very short time, killing all the creatures inside without me having to resort to using insecticide or other means to dispose of them.

When nothing inside was moving in the newly-created vacuum, I unlocked the lid and opened the container. It took some time for me to go and retrieve the drum of acid containing what was left of Shell, but I could see no point in using up any more of my supply. Using the hoist and chains, I poured that into the larger box I had built the previous day, and allowed it to settle as I swept out the insects using a dustpan and brush. After filling a large plastic box with the dead creatures, I added the boxes containing the scorpions, and dropped the whole thing into the acid. That bubbled away nicely as I began to attach some hoist straps to Danielle’s body.

The creaking sound given off by the straps as the body was lifted out of the container gave me cause for concern. It seemed that her weight was close to the maximum that the hoist would bear. Once her body was lowered into the new tank, I went and made some notes and calculations. I would need a stronger hoist, I was sure of that.

There was not much more I could do that day, as I now had to allow a full twenty-four hours or more for Danielle to dissolve before I could pour her back into the drum and return it to its concealed place. So I changed out of the protective clothing, and went back into the house, satisfied with my work.

Something nice for dinner would be in order. I decided to drive into town and buy some Chinese food to bring home.

I might even try chili prawns.

Emptying the new container back into the drum was a tricky task, trying to get everything in without spilling the dangerous acid. When it was done, I used the wheeled trolley and small hoist to get the sealed drum back into storage under the floor of the smaller workshop. Before going back up to the house, I cleaned and disinfected the container where I had kept Shell and Danielle, ready for the next experiment.

There was nothing substantial in the house to eat, and I needed to drive to the supermarket for groceries. On the way, I wondered how long I could possibly wait until exploring the next opportunity for an experiment. Of course, writing up my notes and editing the video footage would take some time, and I wanted to be completly certain nobody had associated me with Danielle’s disappearance, and the freeing of the animals from the sanctuary. Back at home as I ate fresh some soup and warm French bread, I searched my mind to try to think if anyone who called at her house might have seen me. Happy that they had not, I still had to consider that she might have told someone about me working there.

I would have to wait for a while, to make sure she hadn’t.

Over the next few weeks, I was certainly tempted at times when it seemed I could easily take advantage of a situation. The man who delivered most of the parcels I ordered online was middle-aged, and small in stature. I felt he might be easy to overcome physically, if I had no chance to drug him. But his vehicle would be tracked, and his deliveries too. It would be so obvious where he had gone missing. Besides, I would have to engage him in a long conversation to discover his secret fear, and that might make him suspicious.

Then there was the woman cashier in the small petrol station where I habitually filled up my van. She made no secret of being attracted to me, and was keen to tell me as much of her life story as possible, in the short time it took to pay for my fuel. She would have been so easy, as she would undoubtedly have willingly met me elsewhere, had I suggested it. But even that humble business had CCTV, covering both the forecourt and the interior of the payment area. Should she go missing, I would become the number one suspect immediately.

Finding a new job and going back to work was definitely necessary. I had to be around a wider selection of other people to be able to pick someone suitable. Casual work seemed to be the best option, and I looked online for employment where there would be few questions asked, and nobody would care too much about my tax and insurance records. But there was nothing that felt safe for me, and the weeks passed, leaving me frustrated.

Taking a trip to the coast one day for a change of scene, I saw a notice attached to a tree in that small town. As I walked along the street, I saw other identical notices stuck on walls, or attached to cardboard hanging from some railings. Cheaply printed, the message was simple. ‘Agricultural Work Available. Cash Paid Weekly. Accomodation Provided.’ Underneath was a mobile phone number, and I entered into my phone contacts before driving home.

The man who answered my call was gruff, and had a heavy foreign accent. He told me that he was recruiting people to work tending crops in greenhouses. All he required from me was the ability to work hard, make no trouble, and be reliable. I would be paid in cash weekly, and static caravans were provided for the workers to stay in. He gave me a postcode for use in a Satnav, and told me to turn up anytime before Friday to be shown around. Checking the location online, I discovered it was almost one hundred miles from my house. The weather was changing, so I packed some warm clothes. The next morning, I telephoned Mr Dean, and told him I would be away for a while. He assured me he would look after the property in my absence.

The greenhouses were nothing at all like I had expected. There were six of them, each the size of a football field. Purpose built on some unattractive land in the middle of nowhere, they looked new, and inside they were very hot. Though I had never been abroad, they felt just as I imagined the tropics to be. The man I had spoken to showed me around. He said his name was Anton, and he looked more like a soldier than a farmer. Although his European accent was strong, he was easy to understand, and used colloquialisms that suggested he had lived here for some time. Behind the greenhouses were rows of unattractive static homes that looked shabby and unloved. He told me that each one held four people, and if I stayed there some rent would be deducted from my pay. I would also be provided with food, as they ate communally after work.

He looked surprised when I accepted the job without even asking the rates of pay, and seemed delighted when I told him I could start as soon as he wanted me to. He gave me a black overall, and said I had to wear my own shoes. I could settle into the accomodation that day, and start work at seven the next morning. There was no Internet access, and any mobile phone signal was erratic in that area. I shrugged at that, as it didn’t concern me. He produced a notebook from his trouser pocket, and asked my name so he could add me to his gang list. I told him my name was Richard Turpin, fairly certain he wouldn’t know the name of a famous historical highwayman. He smiled.

“I call you Ricky, okay?”

The old mobile homes had been stripped out inside, leaving room for two mattresses in the front section, and two more at the back, behind a sliding door. The small kitchen area had just enough utensils for four people, and the tiny toilet cubicle also had an overhead shower that ran away through a drain in the floor. Basic wasn’t enough to descibe the dismal interior, with dirty curtains that didn’t fully close, and one small electric fan heater in each of the sleeping areas. No table to eat at, and no television or radio. I wondered how long I could stand this place being my home. There were some things piled in the far corner, and the crumpled bedding suggested one person was already living there.

My van was parked out of sight of the complex, and I had brought along a rucksack containing my clothes, not wanting anyone to know I had access to a vehicle. I took some cans of soft drink from that, and opened the miniature fridge to find it empty. Thinking better of putting my cans into the dirty fridge, I opened one and drank it, putting the rest back. Trying to kill some time, I walked around a bit, but there was little to see. At the rear of the first greenhouse, I discovered two very smart motor-homes, which I guessed where were Anton and his fellow gangers lived. I got back into my dingy slum to find a young man sitting on a mattress next to the stuff in the corner. He was eating something from a large plastic container, and spoke to me with his mouth full.

“Yours is over there. You Ricky, Yes? My name is Roman, I speak good English. You English? Nobody English work here but you”. I turned to where he had indicated I could find my meal, and picked up the container, which felt microwave hot. Taking a spoon from the small drawer, I opened the lid, and looked at the contents. It was a red-looking stew of sorts, with visible chunks of beef and potatoes, all sitting on a big portion of white rice. Roman spoke again. “Eat. Good. Goulash. Nice food.” I took it over and sat next to him, eating slowly as it was so hot. “Just you and me here in this house, Ricky. More come next week, then we be full. Maybe you and me take room with the door? We share, yes?” I nodded as I ate. He looked to be younger than me, maybe only eighteen or nineteen. “I from Poland, Ricky, near Lublin. No work. Where you from?”

I decided to lie, and told him I was from Bristol. “Not london then? I want go London. Lots of Polish there. When I pay back my loan to Anton, I move to London”. When we had finished eating, he took a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, offering one to me. I shook my head, and he lit one, blowing smoke all over me. “I have beer, Ricky. You want beer?” I shook my head again and watched as he reached under the pile of clothes and retrieved a can. “Tomorrow, I go get our breakfast and bring it back, okay? Then we have lunch break at job. Start seven-thirty, finish five thirty. Day off Sunday, okay?” It seemed he had been designated to be my mentor for now, so I nodded and smiled.

The evening dragged, to be honest. Roman told me a great deal about his life in eastern Poland, his family, and his decent education. Then we moved his stuff into the closed off bedroom, and I joined him in there with mine. He seemed to want to talk all night, but I was aware that we had to get up early. With no Internet to speak of, the evening was dull, and I used what was available on my phone to look up the places he was talking about, and his reminiscences of life in Lublin. At no time did he mention being afraid of anything, despite my occasional prompting by lying about having various phobias.

Then as we started to settle down for the night in our shared room, he rolled over and looked at me.

“Do you like boys like me, Ricky? It’s okay if you do. I like you a lot”.

After thinking about what Roman had said for a moment, I explained to him that I was not at all bothered about sex, whether with other men, or women.
I assured him that I was not offended by his own sexuality, or his offer, and that now we were sharing a room he should know my feelings. He thought that was highly amusing, chuckling away and talking in his own language. As he turned over to settle down to sleep, he called back to me. “You try it sometime, Ricky. Very good, you will see”.

He woke me the next morning, holding a small thermos flask containing coffee that was already sweetened, and a plastic box in which there was a piping hot substantial omelette and two slices of buttered toast. “Eat quick now, Ricky. Work start in twenty minutes”.

There was no time for anything other than a cursory wash, before getting dressed to report to Anton. He assigned us to a group with four others, and told us in English that we would be picking cucumbers in the second greenhouse. I watched my colleagues as they went inside, stripping off any warm or heavy clothing as they entered the humid interior. I followed their example, and Roman gave me a small knife and a bottle of mineral water. “No crooked ones or too small. Only the long straight ones. Fill the box and place it on the trolley in the centre, get another box.”

That seemed to be the extent of my training, and I took my place at one of the rows, opposite a dark-skinned woman who looked like a gypsy. I watched her work for a few minutes and quickly got the idea. It wasn’t as difficult or as frantic as I had expected, but it was mind-numbingly dull. With Roman working across the other side, and the gypsy woman appearing to speak no English, I just got on with the job. Lunch was a bauguette containing something resembling salami, with spicy pickles inside. We ate it leaning against the trolleys in the greenhouse, sweat dripping down our faces from the humidity.

When all the boxes were full, some other workers arrived to wheel them out, and bring fresh empty ones. The gypsy woman looked at me, and startled me by speaking in perfect English. “They take them to the sheds at the back, for the machine that wraps them in plastic.” As we carried on that day, I spoke to the woman, finding out more about her. Her name was Marta, and she was from a city called Craiova in Romania. Despite her appearance, she was well-educated and had once worked as a teacher. But the regime change in 1989 had left her unemployed and unpopular, and she had moved to Britain as an illegal immigrant with no work permit in 1990. Since then, she had drifted around doing casual work all over the country. And she was older than she looked, stating her age to me as ‘over sixty’.

Over the next few days, I spent some time in her company after work, sitting in her static home with the three other Romanian women she shared with, listening to them talk about their hard lives in that country, and how they had hoped for better things in Britain, but were little more than slaves to Anton and his company. They told me that they were charged a lot of money for the food and accomodation, the bottled water, even the overalls they had to wear. On Sundays, Anton would open his ‘shop’ in one of the storage sheds, and allow them to buy things like sweets and cigarettes, toiletries and other essentials. They were not allowed to go into town, and were moved around from job to job in minibuses. All of them owed Anton money, so received no actual pay for the work done, just an allowance against the ever-increasing debt.

Each night when I got back to my room, Roman would laugh. “You been with that old lady girlfriend again, Ricky?”

That Sunday morning, I went with Roman to Anton’s shop. I was surprised to see some new faces, tough-looking older men that appeared to be in charge of Anton. They were arguing with him in a foreign language, and as the queue of workers waited patiently in the cold morning, the argument erupted into a fight, with Anton punching an older man very hard. The man got up off the floor and walked over to a black-painted van, returning with a fierce large dog that was snarling at everyone and pulling hard at the strong chain around its neck. As it got close to Anton, it jumped up, jaws snapping. We all backed away, in case the old man released it.

With his back against the wall of the shed, Anton scrabbled around inside the chest pocket of his coat, and handed over a large wad of money to the man holding the dog. In that moment, I clearly saw the terror on Anton’s face.

And I knew he was afraid of dogs.

When the older men with the dog had left, Anton opened his shop. Calling me over, he checked his notebook. “Okay, Ricky. You good worker, now you get paid. Less your food and rent, the water and clothing, I owe you forty pounds, okay?” He gave me four ten-pound notes, and turned back to his line of cutomers. I had worked for four days, and forty pounds was an insult of course. I said nothing, and put the money in my pocket. When my turn in the queue came, I told him I didn’t want anything from his shop, and he looked angry. “You should buy something. Here, how about vodka? I like vodka, Ricky. You will too. Make you relaxed.” I agreed to buy the half-bottle of vodka at his inflated price of ten pounds, and walked back with Marta to her place.

It wasn’t difficult to get Marta into conversation about Anton. She had worked for him for years, and knew all about him. When I tentatively suggested it might be possible for us to collude in her escape, she jumped at the idea. Taking me into the room at the back, she asked the woman she shared with to give us some privacy. The woman smirked as she left, saying something to Marta in her own language. Marta grinned, and when the woman had left, she leaned in and spoke quietly. “They think we are going to have sex, but don’t worry, I will let them think what they want”.

She was very keen on my suggestion that I could employ her as a housekeeper, though obviously confused why I would be working picking cucumbers when I had a big house all to myself. I told her it was because I had led a sheltered life as a child, and wanted to get out in the world to meet people, but I had no idea whether or not she believed that story as her face seemed to hold the same expression whatever she was saying. “He used to rape me you know, Ricky. Some years ago, when I was still good-looking. That’s why I stopped trying to look nice, so he would choose someone else. He is a bad man, and deserves a bad fate”. I put my arm around her in a consoling gesture, and said that a bad fate for Anton could be arranged, if we planned carefully. At that her eyes lit up, and she kissed me softly on the cheek.

“Then we will plan carefully, sweet Ricky”.

After that conversation, we were more careful not to be seen together that much. Though Anton didn’t seem to be that interested in any of us, it was wise to take precautions. Marta deliberately contrived to appear to be generally happier, and I was always very friendly to Anton whenever I saw him around. Roman noticed that Marta was in a better mood, and teased me relentlessly. “So you make the old lady very happy, Ricky. I think you and her do boom-boom a lot, and she feels she is young again”. I didn’t rise to his jibes, though they became tiresome after a week of them.

Marta and I decided that a simple plan would be best. No need to over-complicate things. She told me that he was not paying his bosses the full amount he should, and that was why the older men had come to humiliate him in front of everyone. She was sure that if he disappeared one day, nobody would be looking for him. And if we both left at the same time, it was likely they would think he had taken us to work elsewhere. One good thing about the black economy that was becoming clear to me was that when you are cheating illegal workers and not paying any taxes, there is no chance of resorting to the authorities for those involved. The police would not be informed, and nobody would be listed as a missing person.

Anton’s love of vodka was legendary, and Marta told me that he got drunk on his own almost every night. She thought it would be easy to suggest a small party in his motorhome, if we supplied the vodka. So for the next two Sundays, we both bought vodka from his shop. He noticed that I was spending all my pittance of wages on it, and winked at me. “So, you like your vodka now, Ricky? I told you it was good, didn’t I? Don’t let it affect your work now.” For her part, Marta had bought various foodstuffs from him, and stored them away. He smiled at her one Sunday as she bought more. “Looks like you are going to cook something good, Marta. You make sure to save some for Anton, okay?”

The scene was set, and we picked the time and place.

Working on a plan with someone else was a new experience to me of course, but Marta seemed to have embraced the idea with a real sense of purpose. Although I had told her something of my background, I had not let on about my previous experiments, naturally. She left it to me to suggest a meal and drinks to Anton, with the venue to be his motorhome the following Sunday. Few of the workers were around on Sunday evenings, as they mostly enjoyed their one day of rest by spending it with their housemates. And the other men who were supposed to be supervising things left every night, driving the two cooks to somewhere where they all stayed.

One other man had joined me and Roman in our hovel. He was small and wiry, perhaps forty years old, and spoke only broken English. Roman told me his name was Bogomil, and he was from Bulgaria. I kept away from him as much as possible, unsure how well he knew Anton.

Just when I was wondering how to broach the subject with him, Anton came and spoke to me as I was leaving work in the greenhouse the next day.
“Hey, Ricky. A little bird tells me you have hooked up with old Marta. I tell you, she was good once, but now she looks bad. You like her? I am surprised”. I lied easily, telling him that we were indeed romantically involved. No point trying to keep our friendship secret now that someone else had told Anton.

I suspected Roman of course, as he liked to joke about it. Then I said that we were thinking of inviting him for a special meal that Marta was cooking on Sunday, a speciality of her homeland. I reminded him that there would be as much vodka as he could drink too.

He seemed to be genuinely touched. “You invite me? Nobody ever invites me. But I am not coming to your stinking house, Ricky. I tell you what, why don’t you two come to my place? I have a nice table with benches, and it’s warm too. Good heating in that motorhome you know”. I hadn’t even had to suggest we go to him, he had cooperated with our plan without even knowing about it.

That Sunday morning, I took my bag and Marta’s and stored them in my van. We both left enough things around to avoid any suspicions or questions. She spent most of the day preparing the food to take, before making an effort to look nice, with what she had available. An old-fashioned dress, clean hair, and some make-up took ten years off her, but no amount of cosmetics could hide the steely hatred in her eyes as we approached Anton’s motorhome just before seven that evening. He opened the door before we knocked, and seemed to me to already be drunk. Marta allowed him a continetal style kiss on both cheeks, though I saw her back stiffen as he touched her.

She walked past him, and went inside with the large covered dish of food. He went to get three bowls and some cutlery, which he casually dropped onto the small table under the window. Finding a big spoon in his kitchen area, Marta dished out the spicy-smelling casserole, adding noodles from a separate container she had carried underneath the pot. Anton poured me a vodka, splashing the drink into a shot glass. Marta refused his offer of a drink, and got some water from the kitchen.

Tucking into the food, he failed to notice that I wasn’t drinking at all, and when he drained his glass and shook the now empty bottle, I brought one out from the carrier bag next to my leg. It was full of diluted sedatives, and though the seal was already broken I made a show of opening it, wrapping my hand around the top. When he downed the first one in one gulp, I refilled it immediately, distracting him by asking meaningless questions about his life in Poland which he answered with his mouth full.

With his bowl still half full of food, he had drunk four large shots of my spiked vodka on top of whatever he had consumed before our arrival. Rubbing his eyes, he shook his head, gazing around the inside of the motorhome as if trying to focus on something. Then he slid sideways off the upholstered bench, and hit the floor heavily.

Marta was up in a heartbeat, clearing away the plates and cutlery. She stepped over the unconscious form of Anton and scraped the uneaten food into a carrier bag, before taking the crockery and cutlery over to the small sink and carefully washing it up. By the time she came back for the drinking glasses, I had him securely wrapped in duct tape, taken from one of the greenhouses earlier in the week.

Her eyes gleaming, she grabbed my face with both hands and kissed me full on the lips.

“Now you go and get your van, Ricky”.

By the time I drove along the lane at the back, to get to Anton’s motorhome, Marta had cleared away the crockery and cutlery, the bag of uneaten food, and any other sign that Anton might not have been alone. She helped with his legs as I got him into the back, then covered him with the old duvet I kept there. Then we drove off, keeping to the traffic regulations for the three hour journey back to my house.

Marta was excited and impressed by the size of the property, and the spacious house. I left her looking around inside while I drove to the workshops at the back. Using a wheeled trolley, I took Anton into the back of the smaller one, locking him securely inside a windowless metal storage container. I estimated he would be asleep for at least nine more hours, so I would see to him in the morning. I wanted him to be thirsty enough to drink some water.

Up in the house, I showed Marta to a guest room, and she seemed surprised. “That’s okay, Ricky. I sleep with you, keep you warm sweetie”. I hadn’t bargained for that, and had to tell her that wasn’t part of the deal. She just grinned. “I wait, no problem. You will soon want my company”. She had no idea how wrong she was. After sleeping for just five hours, I went over to the workshop. Freeing the still unconscious Anton from the tape bindings, I placed a large bottle of water next to him, and locked the container again, leaving the interior light on.

Chatting to Marta over a rudimentary breakfast, it seemed to me that she had some expectation from living here that exceeded my offer of her being the housekeeper. I had to tread carefully, so as not to give her the wrong idea, but to leave her willing to stay on. I told her that she would just have to do some light housework and cooking, and she would be well paid, living as if family. She smiled as she accepted my offer. “Ricky, I will do as you say, but when you want more, you only have to ask. Her high opinion of herself as a prospective sexual partner confused me immensely, given the difference in our ages.

I told her to stay inside when I drove to the supermarket to stock up on food the next morning. I didn’t want anyone to know she was there of course. In the shop car park, I telephoned Mr Dean and advised him I was back, and he should cancel any arrangements regarding the care of the house. When I returned, Marta was already busy dusting and cleaning, though she was acting more like a housewife than a housekeeper. The provisions I had bought impressed her a great deal, and she droned on about all the delicious food she would be preparing over the coming winter. Leaving her to arrange things in the kitchen cupboards, I went across to the workshop to check on Anton.

As I had suspected, he had drunk a lot of the water. The half-empty bottle was on its side next to him, and he was once again deeply unconscious from the sedatives I had put in it. He had wet himself too, and I could see the stain across the front of his trousers. I placed a rough travel blanket over him, and took off his left shoe. Attaching a circular metal hoop tight around his ankle, I threaded a strong chain through that before securing the chain to a metal ring on the wall of the container using a stout padlock.

He was good for another twelve hours in that position.

True to her word, Marta was combining various ingedients into a delicious-smelling meal by late afternoon. She said we would be eating at six-thirty, and that we should have some white wine with the chicken dish she was preparing. As she left it cooking, she said she was going upstairs for a bath. “You could join me if you want, Ricky. The bath is big enough”. The strange leer that accompanied her invitation made her face contort in a very unpleasant fashion. I acted shy, and laughed it off.

She came back wearing the same dress she had worn to Anton’s place, with a great deal of make-up on her face. As she served the food, I poured the wine, and lit two candles that I had taken from the mantlepiece in father’s study. Marta seemed put out that we were eating in the kitchen. “You have such a grand dining room, Ricky. From now on, I think we should have dinner in there”. During the admittedly delicious meal, she chattered on about how we would deal with Anton, and what a great time we would have living in my big house, and spending my money. “I will need some new clothes, nice ones. You take me to the shops this week, yes?”

Fortunately, they were the last words she said that evening, as her head slumped forward, almost ending up in her dinner.

I already knew enough about Cynophobia to be aware that fear of dogs was never going to kill anyone in itself. In Anton’s case, he would almost certainly resort to fighting any dogs that I acquired to scare him, left with no other option. The only thing likely to happen was that the dogs would eventually kill him by biting him, which was of no use in my field of interest whatsoever. He was not a good person, as evidenced by his shady past, but his only use to me had been to provide a reason to make Marta want to leave the workplace with me, believing herself to be colluding in his demise.

Now she was unconscious, and would not be asking to see him, I could just leave him locked in the container without food and water. Nobody would hear him shouting for help, and unless he was capable of biting off his own leg, he could not get free from the chain. Even if he did, the lock on the door would not allow an escape. It would be of minor interest to me to see how long it took him to die, as I suspected thirst would kill him before hunger. For now, I had to prepare Marta for my next real experiment.

Father had constructed a large metal-framed watertight glass tank some years earlier. I had once asked him what he intended to use it for, and he had touched the side of his nose and grinned. “That’s for me to know, and for you to find out”. It was stored in the back of the largest workshop, as I had a feeling it might prove to be useful one day. Leaving Marta unconscious at the kitchen table, I went out to the workshop and uncovered it. Using the hoist, I manouevered it into position on top of the biggest workbench, as the elevated position would enable me to observe what was going on inside from every angle, and also allow my cameras to record the images through the glass.

There were lots of metal plates in the workshop, and it was easy to find one heavy enough and big enough to place on top once Marta was inside. It would be too heavy for her to dislodge, I was sure of that. Using the industrial pillar drill, I made a suitable sized hole in it, and used the hoist to move it closer to the tank. When everything was prepared, I set up the video cameras on tripods and stood back to check on my work. The glass tank was almost six feet long, five feet deep, and four feet wide, covering the bench and overhanging the edge slightly. It was ideal for what I had in mind.

Although I was getting tired, I had to go back to the house to get Marta. I was strong enough to carry her over my shoulder, and laid her on the workshop floor as I undressed her. A small set of steps gave me the extra height needed to place her body inside the tank as gently as possible. I didn’t want to injure her. Using the hoist to move the heavy metal plate in position was trickier than I had expected, and I had to stop it swinging around in case it cracked the side panel of glass. When I was satisfied that it was in position and secure, I turned off the light and went back to the house to have a shower and get some much-needed sleep.

Obviously, Marta was awake when I got back to the workshop after breakfast. She was visibly afraid, and also looked confused. “Ricky, what’s going on? Where is Anton? Why am I here? Did you drug me? Tell me what you want from me”. Although the heavy lid and glass walls muffled her voice considerably, I could still hear her through the glass. I deliberately failed to respond, instead busying myself by turning on the cameras before walking to the back of the workshop. I returned with a hose and a connector, the exact size of the hole I had drilled last night. Once it was secure in the lid, I walked back to turn on the tap. Slowly at first, little more than a trickle.

During one of our conversations in her static home, she had told me that she had crossed the English Channel illegally in a small boat. Shuddering as she recalled that night in rough seas, she closed her eyes. “I don’t know how I survived that night, Ricky. I hate being on the water, as I have always been terrified of drowning. I couldn’t even learn to swim as a child. Even being close to lots of water makes me feel like I might just die of fright”.

She should never have told me that.

Experiment Three: Part One.
Subject: Marta Dalca.
Age: Approximately 65.
Gender: Female.

After the tank was half full, I changed the hose input to warm water. I didn’t want Marta to die of hypotherimia. Nobody is scared enough of hypothermia to die from that fear. They just die of the cold. She had soon worked out that I was not going to engage in conversation with her, so stopped trying very quickly. As the tank filled, she seemed to be remarkably unconcerned. Her age and life experience had taught her that whatever happened, she could not survive to tell the tale. I made an excited notation in my book.

‘Resignation’.

Marta was undoubtedly aware what was going to happen. Even as the water reached above her shoulders, she remained remarkably relaxed. Looking at me through the glass, she raised her right arm, and pointed at me. With a glint in her eye, and a firm set of her jaw, she began to speak in her own language.

“Te blestem, băiat rău. Ești rău și nu vei ști niciodată pacea. Îi chem pe strămoșii mei magici să-mi păstreze spiritul pentru a vă bântui până în ziua morții tale!”

Naturally, I did not understand the Romanian language, so I translated it on my laptop.

“I curse you, wicked boy. You are evil, and will never know peace. I call upon my magical ancestors to retain my spirit to haunt you to your dying day!”

She repeated this constantly, like a mantra. When the water was up to her bottom lip, she still kept on saying it. As it started to enter her mouth, her words changed, and were less intelligible, but she repeated them enough that I could note them down.

“Nu vei cunoaște niciodată pacea. Eu, Marta, voi fi cu tine mereu și nu vei putea să părăsești această casă sau să cunoști compania umană. Voi fi aici întotdeauna, și mă veți vedea tot restul vieții”.

I quickly translated that, though of course I was unconcerened.

“You will never know peace. I, Marta, will be with you always, and you will be unable to leave this house, or to know human company. I will be here forever, and you will see me for the rest of your life”.

I didn’t want to drown her of course. My interest was in seeing if the fear of the water would cause her to die from natural causes. She spat water from her mouth as she spoke again.

“Ești un monstru, iar Marta știe asta. Te voi bântui până când veți fi vechi și gri. Am o strămoșire a vrăjitoarelor vechi. Ai ales un tânăr prost, prost. Vei regreta această zi, deși nu știi asta acum”.

I made some notes, and waited to translate what she was saying.

“You are a monster, and Marta knows that now. I will haunt you until you are old and grey. I have an ancestry of old witches. You have chosen badly, foolish young man. You will regret this day, though you do not know that now”.

I was becoming rather bored, and went to the back to increase the flow from the hose. I got it just below her nose, and she turned and smiled at me.

To be honest, I had been hoping for a great deal more fear.

Frustrated, I waited until the water covered her head, and reached the top of the tank. Even as she fought for breath, and bubbles rose around her mouth, she continued to stare at me with a terrible glare. As the water began to spill from under the firm lid, I rushed to the back to shut off the tap.

The experiment had failed badly. She had chosen to drown.

Now I knew that I had no choice but to pump out the water from the tank, and consign Marta’s body to the acid the next day. I was displeased, to say the least. I had been unable to induce sufficient fear in the woman to make her die before she drowned naturally, and by choice.

It was time to rethink my tactics.

Disposing of Marta’s small body was easy enough. After just eighteen hours in the acid, she had completely dissolved, and was poured into a new drum that I stored next to the one containing the previous two experiments.

As for Anton, I decided to just leave him alone to his fate, and let him die without further human contact. I didn’t go back to the container, and never opened the door again. After all, he was never one of my experiments, and I hadn’t even bothered to open a file on him.

For a few days, I scanned the job vacancies, not really finding anything suitable for my purposes. I considered advertising for an assistant, hopefully someone who would have a dark fear of something, and could become my next project. But anyone who came to be interviewed would undoubtedly tell someone about it, and if they went missing, I would be suspected. Up to now, I had managed to avoid any hint of suspicion and I did not want to let my desire to continue my studies create a situation where I could not work unhindered for fear of discovery later.

After two weeks of sitting around getting restless, completing all my files and video edits of my previous experiments, I realised I was running short on basic supplies, and decided to head out to the supermarket to re-stock. I might even see if that company had any vacancies in a branch somewhere else, where I wouldn’t be known. As I opened the door to leave the house, I stopped at the sight in front of me, unable to move.

Marta was there.

She was hovering just in the entrance. Her feet were off the gound by a good few inches, and her expression was a knowing smile, with that glint of hatred in her eyes that I had seen when she looked at Anton.

I slammed the door, and stepped back, hardly believing what I had seen with my own eyes. Pausing a moment, I opened it again, jumping back voilently with the shock of her being just inches from my face now. I was shivering violently, and had dropped the car keys on the hall floor. I grabbed them up and headed for the back door in the kitchen. As soon as I arrived in that room, I could see her face at the window, still grinning. I considered just barging through the door and ignoring the apparition, but something held me back. It was something that I had never experienced before that day.

Fear.

It was obvious what to do. I would order the food online, and it would be delivered. No need to go out. As I logged on to my laptop, the usual screensaver provided by the software had been replaced by Marta’s face. The small jingle that usually accompanied the startup was absent also, replaced with a cackling laugh that I knew was Marta’s. I went over to the house phone, and dialled the number of a local shop I used on occasion. They would deliver all I needed. After three rings, it was answered.

But by Marta, not the shopkeeper. She didn’t speak, just laughed. When I tried to call Mr Dean to arrange food deliveries, the same thing happened. I tried some other numbers at random, and every time they were answered it was Marta. I tried using my mobile phone, and Marta’s face appeared on the screen as I was tring to dial. It was getting dark by the time I decided to try going out the front door again. I went downstairs to get my keys, but stopped at the first landing.

On the bottom step was Marta, floating gently above it.

I turned and ran back up, looking over the bannister rail from the top. She was already on the first landing, so I retreated into my room. I was shocked to discover that I had wet myself, and pulled off my soiled clothes. As I turned around to walk to the wardrobe, Marta was floating outside the window, and I could hear that cackling through the glass. I ran over and pulled down the blinds, so I didn’t have to see her.

By my estimation, that was almost three weeks ago. I am ravenously hungry, but at least I have water from the sink in my en-suite bathroom. Marta is outside the bedroom door now, her cackling never ceases, day or night. I don’t know how much longer I can go on, so I am making a record of this for posterity. You might think I should just open the door and walk past her, I understand that.

But I am too afraid.

The End.

Becky: The Complete Story

This is all 30 parts of my recent fiction serial in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 23,100 words.

I remember the afternoon when Becky finished with me like it was yesterday. Perhaps that’s because it was yesterday.

She turned her back on me after she told me to go, and refused to turn around and discuss it further. I thought about pleading. You know, the usual stuff.
“But I don’t understand”.
“What have I done wrong?”
“Can’t we just sit and talk about it?”

They all ran through my head, but I decided against any of them. Something about her posture, or perhaps just how her hair looked so thick as she ran her hand through it, but I had only just noticed, I don’t know. I sort-of understood, even though I wasn’t happy about it. I picked up my car keys.

“Okay, I will crash at Luke’s tonight, and get some more of my stuff tomorrow, when you’re at work”.

She stood stock still, without turning or replying. I wondered if she was crying.

I hoped she was crying.

“I will take that as a yes then”.

I drove to Luke’s in a dream, and can’t remember the journey at all. He was fine about it of course, always happy to have the company. Secretly pleased to have his best friend back, he carefully avoided any I-told-you-sos, and went into the kitchen to get us both a beer. When he suggested a curry be delivered later, and he had a new game to play on the Playstation, I nodded without adding a comment.

“Your usual? Lamb Pasanda, Garlic Naan, and boiled rice?”

A nod. I had already finished the first beer, and he went to get me another one.

“Got the latest Red or Dead game too, if you fancy that?”

Another nod. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were too old for video games now.

“Or we could watch a DVD. You know I have dozens you will never have seen. I got a great Chinese martial arts one last week. I’ve already watched it twice, but more than happy to see it again”.

Another nod. Had he forgotten I hated martial arts films?

He sat back down, looking awkward, sipping the beer through the bottle top. I had known him since we were five years old, and there were times I seriously doubted that he had ever grown up. He was wearing a heavy metal t-shirt that was so tight, it was lifting up showing his belly. And he didn’t even like heavy metal. His flat was like a tip, and smelled of his trainers which were arranged in a row along one wall. He loved to wear those trainers, and I couldn’t remember a time when he had worn anything else.

Except at our wedding of course. I told him not to show up as my best man unless he was wearing proper shoes.

“I can sleep on the sofa, Frankie, you can have the bed. Then I won’t disturb you when I get up for work”.

Another nod. I was wondering how dirty the sheets would be.

He had called me Frankie, just like Becky did. Becky and Frankie. I wouldn’t be hearing that anymore.

My parents always called me Fran, and pronounced it ‘Frarn’. I hated that, as it made me sound like a girl. They had named me Francis after grandad Frank, Mum’s dad. I had never even met the man, and I was stuck with his stupid name forever.

I ate my curry as I watched Luke trying in vain to kill cowboys on his Playstation game. After finishing the sixth beer, I told him I was having an early night, and got my stuff from the rucksack.

I was right about his bedding, so I slept on top of the bed, covered by my coat.

Not that I got much sleep.

I waited until Luke had left for work before emerging from the bedroom. Sleeping on his bed had made me feel dirty, but there was no way I was going to use his shower, as that looked even dirtier. A quick glance showed that a large percentage of his too-long dark hair was living around the drain and the base. Using the toilet to have a pee was bad enough. I reckoned I could have had a competition to estimate when that had last been cleaned. The inside of the bowl looked as it it had been varnished. I would use the shower at home, when I went back to get more stuff.

Wandering around Luke’s small flat, I shook my head at the mess, and the stuff piled up everywhere. He even had his old Transformers, from the days when we played with them as kids. It felt as if he had never thrown anything away, and had lugged it all with him from his mum and dad’s when he bought the flat.

I didn’t understand why he didn’t employ a cleaner. He had a great job, and earned twice as much as I did. He could have even bought a much nicer flat, with spare rooms to hide all his crap away. But he said he didn’t like the idea of anyone looking around when he was out, so obviously preferred to live like a pig in his sty. The fact that he had money was evident in many other ways. The enormous television, the latest and best you could buy. The new car parked in the underground car park, a rare import that turned heads whenever he drove it. Fancy pairs of trainers that cost as much as one of my whole outfits, and the most expensive mega-speed broadband and streaming package on the market.

I knew I had to get moving, or my car parked on the street would get a ticket. Might even get towed away if I wasn’t quick.

Driving back, I took a stupidly long route, as I wanted to be sure Becky would have left for work when I arrived. That gave me too much time to think about the fact that I was going to have to go to my mum’s later, and ask her if I could move in until things were sorted between us. There was no way I could tolerate staying at Luke’s. Not unless I got a firm in to deep-clean the place first. Besides, I didn’t intend to make the split too final, too soon. Going back to my family home would give a better impression than moving in with a single friend. Let her stew about things for a while, and hope that we could get back together before it became accepted that we weren’t.

So much to consider. Mutual friends, both of our extended families. Ten years of being together, almost like one person.

Maybe that was the problem. People said we were inseperable. Not just husband and wife, but best friends too. How many times had I heard both of us say that we no longer needed anyone else, now we had each other?

Even after one night away, walking back into my own place felt strange. Like I was a burglar, unwanted.

An empty bottle of Pinot Grigio on the coffee table told me that Becky had probably had to drink herself to sleep, and the smell of her morning routine was still clinging to the bedroom, making me miss her more than I had ever thought possible. At least she hadn’t packed up all my things into suitcases. I sat on the bed, my body feeling strangely heavy. We should have been going away for five days today. I had taken the time off, and booked the trip as a surprise. Becky’s face had fallen at the news, and she was adamant that there was no chance of her getting away. Work was too busy to allow unexpected leave, and she said I must have been crazy to think she could just ring in and say she was on holiday.

She was right of course. I had been impulsive, stupid. I hadn’t thought it through.

That was how the argument had started.

I was aware that I had sat down on ‘my side’ of the bed. I smiled a grim smile, wondering how soon it might become someone else’s side. How had it come to this? It had been so different at the beginning.

When I met Becky, I was twenty-six years old. Unlike some of my friends, I had decided not to go to university. I wanted a job, not the chance of a career when I was almost thirty. I coasted through school, disappointing my parents with average O-level results. So I left and went to sixth-form college, where I worked a bit harder and came out with three pretty good A-levels. That got me a start with the biggest of the big four banks.

It also proved to be the kiss of death for the relationship I had enjoyed since we were fifteen. My girlfriend Paula was the only Chinese girl at the school. She was clever, much cleverer than me, and her parents didn’t really approve of her having a regular boyfriend at that age, especially one who was not Chinese. They owned four prosperous retaurants in Soho, and lived in a house three times the size of ours. Her older brother was a research scientist in some lab at Cambridge University, and they expected great things of her.

But she adored me, and they hadn’t counted on that.

So they did what rich people can do, and paid for her to go to college in America. Berkeley, the one in California. It was a big carrot to dangle, and I didn’t blame Paula for grabbing it with both hands. Maybe if I had decided on an Englsh university, she might have followed me there.
Then again, maybe not.

The same time I lost her, I lost Luke, my best friend. He went to university to study computing and electronics. As he had never so much as kissed a girl, he had very little to leave behind.
Except me.

But I had new friends at work. Or so I thought. It took me a while to realise that colleagues are not the same as friends, even if you go to lunch with them, then out for drinks after work. For one thing, they live all over the place, so it’s unlikely you will meet up at weekends. And for another, you put up with each other because you have to. You need to be able to cope with being with them for around nine or ten hours a day, so it seems only natural to continue that connection by going to the pub on your way home, or all grabbing a meal at TGI Fridays.

Even in my late teens, I worked out that most of those guys were not the sort who I would usually choose to be friends with. They judged on appearances, talked a lot about gadgets, cars, and money. They discussed women by type, as if they were pedigree dog breeds, and looked down on anyone who actually loved their girlfriend. My dad had a word for those kind of guys.

Shallow.

But I liked the job. I liked wearing a suit and tie to work, and didn’t even mind the boring train journey from Gidea Park into the city. I felt grown up, and the pay was pretty good too. I learned stuff. Stuff about money, and the money markets. How to buy Yen when the market closed in Japan, and then to hang on to sell it until the market opened in New York. Not real money, in the physical sense. Numbers on a computer screen, with some in red, others in green, and many in white. There were plus and minus signs, graphs, trends, and predictions. I was a junior in the section dealing with predictions. Millions made or lost in the course of a working day. Stress on steroids.

I looked over their shoulders, listened in on their phone calls. Always learning.

They worked late, so I stayed late. Even though I didn’t have to. Three years later, and I was sitting in front of a screen wearing a headset. I was talking to customers and agents, buying and selling international currency as if I knew what I was talking about.

And fortunately, I did.

Before Becky, there were a couple of others. We flashed our money around back then, and could often take our pick of the Essex girls who were also hanging around after work, or sometimes the posh birds looking for a bit of rough. I got regular with a girl named Charly who it turned out lived quite close to me. I thought her name was short for Charlotte at first, but it turned out her parents had actually called her Charly.

She was big on fake tan and tattoos, and spent over half her salary on beauty treatments and clothes. Her parents treated her like an Essex princess, and she acted like one too. I had learned to drive in college, and finally had enough money to get a car. But it sat on the driveway of the house all week, as it was no good even thinking about driving into work. So I used it at weekends to take Charly around, and her destination of choice was usually Lakeside shopping centre, or the snazzy one called Bluewater, across the river in Kent.

It seemed perfectly normal for her to want to spend every date in a shopping mall, as we could also see a film, and have a meal there. But getting together for sex was tricky. No chance in her house, and awkard in mine, even though I knew they wouldn’t say anything if she stopped over. So it had to be a quickie in the car, mostly in the sports ground car park near where I lived. Then after six months, her dad had a word with me about where we were going to live when we got married. He was thinking about an extension over the garage, he told me, and said it was ours if we wanted it.

I ran a mile after that. Well not literally, I worked out a plan for her to chuck me. Started by saying I wasn’t well and missing two dates. Then forgetting to ring her when I said I would. I waited to deliver the killer blow one night when I left her at home waiting for me to pick her up. When I was half an hour late, she rang me, and I said I had to meet an old mate. Well, a princess like her isn’t going to be messed about, so she told me. And at least I gave her the satisfaction of being able to convince herself she broke up with me.

That did make me realise something though. I needed my own place. I earned enough to get a mortgage, and I had the ten percent deposit saved, as my mum never took anything off me for living at home. She said she wouldn’t, as long as I saved it up for something sensible. Well a one-bedroom starter home in Beckton was sensible enough, and that was what I bought. My own dedicated parking space, open-plan ground floor with a small patio garden, and a bedroom with en-suite upstairs. Then I could get the DLR into work, and have an extra twenty minutes in bed.

My parents helped with furniture and stuff, and my dad took a week off to paint all the walls and ceilings for me. My first night alone in my own house felt really weird. I sat out on the patio and ate a pizza from its box, washed down with two beers. Beckton was a soulless development, with little going for it. But it would do me for now.

I found out that fending for myself was bloody expensive. Electric bills, council tax, water rates, all on top of the mortgage. I stopped eating out after work, and started to be careful with money for the first time in my life. The guys in the office ribbed me about not going out for beers, but I knew that would end up with a meal, maybe a club, then a taxi home. I might be able to do that once a month, but not four nights a week, like those guys. Of course, they did most of it on credit cards, but if I used a card to buy anything, the debt started to play on my mind.

I settled for lonely nights in front of the telly, and Sunday dinners at my parents’ house. They praised me up for being sensible, but I felt like I had already given up, and got old before my time.

Then I met Justina.

I was staying late at work one night, trying to make a few grand for the bank with some stragglers. Those dealers who waited until the last moment, the time just before the operation changed over to our night shift guys who worked on the floor above. The last-minute deals were sometimes lucrative, as they would haggle less, and often drop down to as low as half a cent on the dollar commission on any subsequent profit. And it didn’t hurt that I was still logged on to my terminal at nine at night, when everyone else had left the floor.

That wouldn’t go unnoticed.

As I stood up and closed down the screen, I turned to reach for my jacket, and saw her standing right by the back wall. She was wearing a green tabard over a simple dress, and carrying one of those plastic things that hold spray bottles and cloths. Encouraged by my screen going dark, she walked forward. “Okay to clean now, please?” The accent sounded Russian, maybe Polish. I apologised for making her wait. I had never noticed any cleaners waiting before, but I was normally gone by eight.

She just smiled, and started spraying something on the nearest desk.

When I got across to the row of lifts, I turned back before pressing the button. I watched as she cleaned rythmically, her natural black hair shining in the lights left on by the terminal. Older than me, maybe thirty-five. Neither skinny, nor overweight. I pressed the button, and carried on looking. When the ding sounded to announce the lift had arrived, she turned and looked at me. I smiled, and she smiled back.

The next night I joined the guys for a quick beer after work, then went back into the building. Checking my watch, I hoped I had guessed right. I almost missed her, as she was just walking into the service corridor entrance as I got to my floor. She stopped when she saw me. “You forget something? I get it for you?” I smiled and told her that I had come looking for her, and would she give me her number, so I could call her to arrange a date. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might be married, or have someone regular, and I was embarrassed as she hesitated. “Okay, I’m Justina. You can have my number sir”. I grinned like a kid, and told her my name was Francis, and she didn’t have to call me sir.

When I got my phone out, she called out the number loudly and slowly, as if to make sure I got it right. Then when I nodded, she took the phone out of my hand and checked it to make sure I had.

I rang her at five the next afternoon, and agreed to meet her on Saturday, though my heart sank when she told me she lived in Neasden. From Beckton to Neasden is a bad enough journey by public transport, but driving there would be a nightmare in shopping traffic. So I was very pleased when she suggested meeting in Trafalgar Square outside the National Gallery, by the steps. I wouldn’t have to drive, and with her suggested time of midday, we could make it into a long date. She was already there when I arrived, and suggested we go in to look at some paintings. As we went back up the steps, she held my arm, as if she had always been my girlfriend.

By the time we had walked across the bridge to see more paintings at the Hayward Gallery, then headed back to settle down for a drink in a pub on The Strand, I already knew that she was thity-seven, divorced, and from Lithuania. Despite her heavy accent, her English was fine. She had been to university in Vilnius, where she had studied English, got a degree, and then discovered there was no work. So she got married to the former boyfriend from her small town instead. She had been in London for over eight years, renting a room in a shared house, and doing crap jobs for minimum wage. I suggested a film in Leicester Square, then a Chinese meal in Soho after, and she nodded enthusiastically.

Between the film and the restaurant, I stopped in Newport Place and kissed her. She kissed me back.

As we waited for the crispy duck pancakes to arrive, I looked across at her, and she blushed.

That’s when I fell in love with her.

I wanted to send Justina home in a taxi, and offered to pay. But she got the late bus instead, after telling me she had really enjoyed herself, and would be very happy to see me again. Due to her punishing work routine, it was only weekends at first. She was up in the dark, to go into the city and clean in offices before they opened. Then she went home for a rest in the aftenoons, before doing it all again in offices that had just closed. I thought it must be an awful life, but she just shrugged and said it was a good way to make money, as it racked up a lot of hours. And she knew more about buses in London that I had ever learned.

The working week was now spent looking forward to seeing her at weekends. I deliberately avoided waiting around to see her at the office, just so she wouldn’t think I was getting creepy. By the end of the month, I had seen her three more times, and at the end of that date she brought up the question of sex. “You don’t ask me back to your house, Francis. What’s wrong? You don’t think Justina is attractive?”

I loved the way she pronounced my name. ‘Frannn-ssiss’.

After blabbering on a bit about not wanting to be pushy, and being respectful. I told her I didn’t want to rush things, and was waiting until she was ready. She had an answer for that. “Well I am your girlfriend, no? And I am ready now”.

Everything about that night seemed natural, and perfectly normal. Neither of us had anything to prove, nor sought to impress with stamina or showy antics. It was as if we had always been together, and for the first time in my life I made love instead of having sex. She was relaxed and unembarrassed around me. Walking around the bedroom naked, and using the bathroom without closing the door. I loved that closeness, that easy familiarity.

Over breakfast the next morning, she sat grinning at me wearing one of my sweatshirts. She wiped her mouth using the back of her hand, and stared straight into my eyes. “I think you really love your Justina, I feel it’s true”. I might usually get fed up up with someone referring to themself using their own name, but in her case it was just so cute. I told her she was right, and her wide mouth spread into a huge smile. “Then good. Because Justina loves you too. Very much”.

After that, we didn’t have to keep saying it. We both had the confidence of knowing it just was.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before I suggested that she move in, and try to get a job with better hours. I looked online and found that Newham Council were looking for bilingual classroom assistants. The pay worked out about the same, but the hours were far more civilised. I helped her with the application forms, and she got an interview. When she took time off from her cleaning job to go to it, they didn’t pay her. Luckily, she passed the vetting process to work with children, and was offered a job. It made her so happy, and she kept telling me she had never even thought about applying for anything else before.

The Sunday before she was due to start, I drove her over to her room in Neasden to collect her stuff. She didn’t want me to go inside with her, so I waited in the car parked a few doors up the street. Forty-five minutes later, she appeared carrying two large carrier bags, and a big sports holdall. That was it. Nothing else. All those years working and living in London, and that was all she had to take with her.

The drive back was tiring, with solid traffic everywhere, even on the short cuts I had worked out. Justina reached over the gearstick and squeezed my knee all the way home, her arm moving up and down as I changed gear. When I finally pulled into my parking space at close to six at night, she turned and gave me a serious look. I wondered if she had regrets about leaving her friends in the shared house, but she wasn’t thinking about that at all.

“Thank you, Francis. You have changed my life”.

It might have been the first time I had lived with a girlfriend, but Justina settled in very happily, and very quickly too. Her relaxed attitude made me feel very pleased about having asked her to move in. She had her buses to and from work sorted, and when I got home the next evening, she was already cooking a delicious meal with ingredients bought on the way back from her induction course. She was animated, and excited to tell me how good the course was, how nice the other new entrants were, and how she was looking forward to starting in schools.

As we ate, I mentioned that she didn’t have to contribute to rent or bills. I was already managing okay, and if she was prepared to just buy some of the food, that would be fine with me. She decided that she would buy all of the food, and suggested a big supermarket shop at the weekend, using the car. By the time we had settled down on the sofa to watch an old film, I had decided that living with a confident older woman was a very comfortable situation indeed.

What I liked most about her was her cultural interests. I had never paid much attention to Art, and my idea of a holiday had been two weeks sweltering on a beach in Spain or Greece. In her forthright way, Justina drew me in to her interests, and we started to visit galleries and exhibitions at weekends, also going to watch foreign films in the West End cinemas. Despite my curiosity, I avoided quizzing her about her past, though she asked me lots of questions about my previous girlfriends. She would nod or shake her head as I told her about those relationships, often adding comments like, “Not Justina. She won’t be doing that”.

One saturday morning I woke up early, needing the toilet. It was just after six, and she wasn’t in bed next to me. I could hear her voice though, and when I looked out of the window, I saw her in the small garden, talking on her phone. She was frowning, and her voice fluctuated between what seemed to be frustration, followed by anger. I couldn’t understand what she was saying though, as she was speaking in Lithuanian. Or it might have been Russian, for all I knew. I went downstairs later, and she was already cooking some pancakes for breakfast. She suggested we get to the supermarket early, then maybe drive out to the Essex coast for the afternoon.

On the way to Frinton that lunchtime, I was very tempted to mention the phone call. But I let it go.

Every time I glanced round at her during the journey, she was looking at me with a warm and happy grin. There was something else too, and as I looked for a space in the pay and display car park, I found the word I was looking for. Knowing. It was as if she knew we were just right, perhaps even meant to be.

The week before, I had taken her to meet my parents, and have the traditional Sunday roast. My mum went overboard with the food, even serving a starter, and enough different vegetables for ten people. They took to her immediately, and when Justina insisted on helping my mum clear away and wash up, dad grinned at me and gave her a double thumbs-up. I had asked my mum not to interrogate her about her past, and not to mention the age difference either. Amazingly, she managed to avoid doing either. As we left that day, mum pulled me in to kiss my cheek, and whispered in my ear. “She’s so lovely, don’t mess this up”.

The new job was everything she had hoped. She got to speak her own language, and Russian too, which she was fluent in. The kids she helped translate for and worked in class with all took to her immediately, and she came home every night with stories about how much she loved what she was doing now. She still gave me all the credit for getting her the job, and I am a bit ashamed to say that I was happy to take it. She always got home from work before me, and had a meal on the go when I got in. So I decided that we would have a takeaway meal on Fridays, and go out to eat somewhere on Saturdays, to give her time away from the kitchen.

The next Friday, I drove the short distance to collect an Indian meal. But when I got home, I found her sobbing inconsolably, kneeling on the carpet.

I was so shocked, I dropped the curry on the floor.

When I finally managed to calm her down, I got to hear what was wrong. Her grandmother had died in the town where she came from, and she had been very close to her. It had been her ex-husband who had called to tell her, as he had got the number from her grandfather. I was a bit surprised at just how upset she was, to be honest. I had cried when all of my grandparents had died, but nothing like the display of grief I had just witnessed. I put it down to different culture or whatever, and suggested that she go up and wash her face while I made her something to drink.

As soon as she came down, she asked me to look online for flights to Lithuania, insisting that she had to go home. I told her it wouldn’t look good with her new job, but she didn’t care, and said she would take some urgent leave due to bereavement. She even started to send her work an email as I was looking at flights. I found a one-way flight from Luton Airport leaving the next afternoon, and she reserved that, paying online with her bank card. Then she asked if I would drive her to the airport, and of course I agreed. The curry was dumped, and I cleaned up the stuff that had leaked as best I could. Justina went upstairs to pack, refusing all offers of food, and I settled for six slices of toast instead of the anticipated Indian feast.

On the way to the airport, I tried to chat about her grandparents in a friendly way, and also asked about her parents. She had already told me her mum was dead, and had been divorced from her dad, who Jusitna had never really known. Apparently, her grandmother had more or less raised her, and the shock of her death had hit her hard. She wanted to get back to her town to help out her grandfather with the funeral, and make sure he was okay. I would like to have askd her a lot more, but she kept crying, so I left it.

In the short time we had been togther, I had deliberately avoided probing into her background. If it was going to work, I had to trust her. There had been some questions that day I took her to Neasden to collect her stuff. Like why wasn’t I allowed in, and why she hardly had any personal posessions. I hadn’t asked them at the time, so I wasn’t about to go backwards now. When we got to Luton, there seemed no point in parking, then hanging around until her flight left. So, I just dropped her outside the terminal, and she kissed me goodbye as she grabbed the holdall off the back seat. “Francis, thank you. I will phone you soon”. At least she hadn’t said “Justina will phone you”.

Then she went into the building, without looking back.

I didn’t hear anything later that night, and spent Sunday worrying that she was alright. That was a new experience for me, missing someone. I gave in at six that night, and sent her a text. Nothing heavy, just checking that she was okay. By the time I went to bed, there was no reply, and I didn’t get to sleep easily.

On the Monday, I phoned my mum, and told her the news. She said all the right things, then told me to leave Justina alone for a couple of days, to let her sort things out. Going home to the house to be on my own felt strange. How soon I had got used to walking in to the smell of food cooking, and a welcome hug and kiss. The place felt small and cold without her standing there, so I phoned up for a pizza delivery and sat checking my phone as I waited for it to arrive. I had eaten three of the four sections when a beep from the phone made me jump, and I grabbed it as if someone was tryng to steal it.

To say I was disappointed with the text was an understatement.
“Dear Francis. The journey was fine, funeral on Thursday. I am busy. Justina. xx”
Not what I had expected from someone I lived with, and claimed to be in love with me. Three beers later, I just rang her number. I knew I was going to get angry if I didn’t speak to her.

It went straight to answerphone.

On the Thursday, I sent a polite text message, hoping the funeral had gone well. I had resolved to not ring her again until she rang me, and my mind was racing with all the possibilities of why she had not contacted me as she had promised. My first thought was that she had got back with her ex, drawn together by the family bereavement. And I had that other earlier phone call on my mind too. This was a new experience for me, a combination of concern and jealousy resulting in an emotion I had never had before.

By the time I got in from work, my ideas were getting more and more random. Perhaps she was connected with the Russian Mafia? You read about how they got people involved in trafficking for prostitution, even drug-smuggling. The Justina I had already become so close to didn’t seem to be the sort of woman who would do anything like that though.

But you never know.

When I got up on Friday, I was more upset than worried. How hard could it be to phone me? How long would it have taken to just say hello? If we were going to be together long-term, then surely we would have to discuss things like her family, and even the prospect of me travelling over to meet them. I walked into the office having resolved not to become some sort of doormat boyfriend, and phoned Luke during a coffee break to arrange a visit to his flat that night. He was pleased to hear from me, and talked about food deliveries, lots of beers, and a new computer game.

Luke had done so well at university, companies were contactng him based on his degree and the projects he had been involved in. He didn’t have to apply for a job, just choose from the ones on offer. During his time at Warwick, he had invented some innovative apps that could be used on mobile phones, as well as a PC. One time, he had even been featured on a BBC News report about the bright young things of British computer science. American companies had come calling after he graduated, but Luke was a home bird. He took a job with a new app developing outfit starting up in Shoreditch, and had a salary package as well as a share in the company.

Very soon, he was earning a mint, and had bought the small flat not far from where he worked. Like many of those techy nerds at the time, you would never have known from looking at him just how successful he was.
Unless you saw him driving around in his seventy-grand car.

After work, I jumped a cab to his place, and overcame my objection to the mess and smell to have a boys night in. We drank too much beer, played computer games I soon tired of, and stuffed our faces with pizza, garlic bread, and dough balls. He was still trying to finish a level when I passed out on the sofa.

My phone woke me up. I had turned off the answerphone function earlier that week, so it kept ringing until I answered it.

Justina sounded a little upset, speaking quickly. “Francis, I will be home tonight, landing at Stanstead. Can you pick me up?” I wanted to launch into a barrage of questions, and tell her off for not contacting me. Instead, I asked her to text me the flight number and arrival time. She could obviously sense I was deliberately being off with her. “I will tell you everything when we get home, darling. We will have a long talk tonight, I promise”. I stayed frosty, and just said I would meet her at the arrivals.

Not bothering to wake Luke, I just left, still in my crumpled suit, and yesterday’s shirt. I managed to flag down a cab in Shoreditch High Street at the junction with Bethnal Green Road, and had to get the driver to stop at a bank machine on the way to get the money out for the fare. After a shower and a change into something less formal, I checked my phone.

I had four hours to kill before her flight landed.

Deciding not to hang around at home and chance any traffic, I drove to the airport early. I had something to eat in the terminal, and browsed the shops there too. Even after doing all that, and going for an extra coffee, I still had too much time before the plane landed. I had been standing right at the front of the arrivals gate for a long time before Justina emerged, her face spreading in a smle as she saw me.

On the way home in the car, I was being deliberately cool. I asked if she wanted to stop for something to eat, but she shook her head. “Lets’ get back to the house, Francis. Don’t be angry, please. I will tell you everything when we get back, I promise”.

Once we were sitting down on the sofa, she drew up her shoulders. “So this is my story, please let me tell you it, without interruption. It will answer all your worries”.

She talked for around an hour, and I tried my best to keep my expression neutral, though raised eyebrows and the odd shake of the head brought small tears to the corners of her eyes. When she had finished, she took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. “Well?”

The short version of what she said started with the trip to Neasden, and the angry phone call. It seemed the people she was renting the room in the house from were also Lithuaninan, and knew her family back there. They had come to depend on her rent, and were angry when she told them she was moving out. She hadn’t wanted me to come into the house and witness any argument she had with them that day. Then the phone call I had overheard was from her sister in Lithuania. The couple from Neasden had grassed her up, and her sister had got on the phone to complain that she was stitching up the old family friends by moving in with me and denying them her rent.

I was thinking that wasn’t such a big deal, when she hit me with the real truth about her.

She had two children, who had been living with her grandparents in Lithuania. Her whole reason for moving to England to work was to be able to send money home every week to pay for their keep. Since coming to London, she had only been back three or four times, and usually only managed a long weekend. She showed me photos of them on her phone. A boy who was almost fourteen, and a twelve year old girl who looked uncannily like Justina. She told me that she was intending to tell me about them, when and if our relationship worked out once we were living together.

But with the unexpected death of her grandmother, everything had changed. Her sister had moved in to help for a while, but she had her own life to lead. As her elderly grandfather could never be expected to cope, Justina had no option but to move back, and look after them as best as she was able. The flight home had already been booked, and she was leaving in four days time. She had already resigned from her new job by email, telling them about her family situation and apologising. There was no possibility of moving her kids to England. They were doing okay in school over there, and neither spoke enough English to get by here. Besides, Justina could not afford the rent on anywhere big enough for all of them, and it would leave her grandfather stuck alone too.

After all the weird things I had been imagining, all the jealousy and worry, it had come down to having two kids, and choosing not to tell me about them. She didn’t ask me to help in any way, never suggested that we might make a family home for them together, or even that I go with her to Lithuania and start a new life. She knew that was never going to happen, and so did I.

The next few days were strange. I felt almost like a condemned man as the days counted down to her departure. We made love a lot, and never talked about the future. Keeping in touch was never discussed, and me visiting her in Lithuania at some stage didn’t come up in conversation either. She cried a lot, but I didn’t. I still loved her, but a profound sense of distrust had crept in, and was eating away at me. The day before she was due to leave, I gave her the money for a taxi to the airport.

I wasn’t going to say goodbye to her at the terminal again.

Being on my own again was something I adapted to quickly enough. Not that I was over Justina, far from it. She is someone I will never get over. The first woman I truly loved.

The dating scene at the time was going through a huge change, driven by mobile phones. The guys at work were showing me photos on their phones of girls who had matched them as possibles or definites, and it felt as if everyone was dating someone different most nights of the week. Just going to a bar in a group, chatting up some girls and getting a name and phone number no longer seemed to be happening. It was so ‘last year’.

I did try it, and more than once. Sitting opposite an attractive girl who spent most of the date looking at her phone, talking to friends on her phone, or taking photos of what she was about to eat. Others told me about how many dates they had been on that month, what their ratings were on the dating apps, or sneered at my old phone for being out of date. This was the start of something that was about to change the way everyone dated, whether they were twenty-one or seventy one.

And I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

Then something happened that made dating seem unimportant. We got hit with the big financial crash. While traders were not exactly jumping out of windows in despair, many of them were making downcast exits from the office, holding cardboard boxes full of personal stuff, and escorted by security, as a ‘formality’. That was the time of paranoia. Nobody had any friends anymore, and we were getting a crick in our necks from looking over our shoulders. Some banks had to be bailed out by the government, and many other financial institutions just collapsed.

Looking back, I suppose I was lucky to be working for one bank that never needed a bailout. I was also low enough down the pecking order that my salary didn’t warrant them having to do away with me. In the midst of the whirlwind that was sweeping through The City of London, I survived. House prices were tumbling, and houses were being repossessed. That sadness for home owners spelt out profits for anyone with the guts to cash in on it.

I was sent for retraining, and then moved to the mortgage department, six floors below. I had to start again from scratch, but my salary was the same, less the occasional big bonuses, and I had a job. I breathed a sigh of relief the day I started back, as most of the faces I had known around that huge office building had vanished. Those of us that were left kept our heads down, and worked hard. I had a good few years invested in the pension scheme, and every intention of sticking it out as long as I could.

One day I got a text from some of those who had been let go. They were having a farewell drink in Soho, and I was invited. I wasn’t that bothered, but one of them was my former floor manager, a nice guy who had given me recommendations for promotion. I replied that I would be there. At least it was a Friday, so I wouldn’t have to get up for work the next day.

By ten that night, I was already on the way to getting really drunk, and when someone suggested moving on to another bar I cheered the idea along with the rest. Wandering through Chinatown on the way, some idiot decided to start playing football with a discarded can, and I heard a shout of “On your head, Frankie”. Of course, I missed the can completely, and my enthusiastic jerk of the head connected with the underside of a metal fire escape instead. The next thing I remembered was my suit and shirt covered in blood, and two of the guys arguing with a taxi driver about taking me to hospital. One of them calmed him down by stuffing a few tenners through the window, and a few minutes later, I arrived at University College Hospital.

A Friday night in any London Emergency Department is always going to be busy. Luckily, I had got in before the big rush later on, so only had to wait for an hour. I was seen by a male nurse who told me I would need stitches and an X-ray. He stuck a flat bandage on my head, and told me to wait outside again to be called through. The first call was well over another hour later, and by then the place was filling up. I was taken down a corridor and X-rayed in a room, then sent out to wait again.

By the time I heard my name called for the third time, it was close to two in the morning, and I was struggling to stay awake. It made me jump as I heard it, and I stood up fast, steadying myself on the metal seat back.

There she was, beautiful red hair flaming in the lights, and such a lovely smile.

I followed the ginger-haired nurse into her room, and gazed at her green eyes as she asked me questions. I was trying to focus on her name badge, and finally worked out that it read ‘R. Maclaren’. Ignoring her question about whether or not I had lost consciousness, I asked her what the ‘R’ stood for. She carried on without answering, looking at the cut with a slim torch, and telling me I was going to need stitches. The rest was a blur, to be honest. The combination of beer and a long day had kicked in, and I was having trouble keeping it together.

There were some small injections, and I had to lie down on a small bed. A feeling of pulling above my left eyebrow, as I ran my eyes up and down the blue surgical clothes she was wearing. I mostly remembered her teeth, which were white and even, and that hair of course. I didn’t feel any pain until I got the Tetanus injection in the top of my right buttock. That seemed to snap me back, and I stupidly just blurted out a request for her phone number. My speech was slurred, and I must have looked like shit, and stunk of beer. She politely told me that she made it a rule never to date any patients she treated, as she stuck something over the stitches.

Then she gave me a sheet of information about head injuries, and said I should see my own doctor to get the stitches removed. The next thing I knew I was standing in the car park, shivering in the early morning air. When a taxi dropped someone at the entrance, I walked over and asked if he would take me home. Seeing as I looked like I had been on a battlefield, I thought he might decline. But he smiled and nodded. It was late that night when I woke up. My head was throbbing, and I took a long hot bath thinking about that nurse. As I ate my way through half a loaf of bread and four eggs later, I hatched a plan.

That Sunday, I spruced myself, looking as best as I could with a big white bandage stuck to my face. After a microwave meal early evening, I drove into town, and parked around the back of Euston Station on a meter bay. After half past six, and on Sundays, you didn’t have to pay to park there. I walked up to the Tesco Express on the main road, and bought all the bunches of flowers still for sale in the buckets outside, along with a very big box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. I also got a blank card, with an abstract design on it. Using a sheet of wrapping paper brought from home, I combined all the bunches into one huge bunch of flowers, and wrote a little message on the card.

‘Sorry about last night. I would still like to know what the ‘R’ stands for, and maybe you could give me your number, now I am not a patient you are treating?’ I signed it ‘Frankie’, and wrote ‘For Nurse R. Maclaren’ on the envelope. I waited in the short queue to get to the reception desk, and when I handed it all over, the elderly woman grinned at her colleague on the next seat. “Pop out the back and give these to Becky, would you?” She looked back up at me and said, “I suppose you had better sit down and wait”. I sat down with a grin. I knew the answer to that ‘R’ now. Rebecca.

Five minutes went by, and the second receptionist returned with the card I had sent through. “Becky says she is too busy, but she wrote something in this”. I thanked her, and walked outside, slipping the card out to read it immediately. ‘Thanks for the flowers and chocolates. Here’s a number you can get me on, but I am making no promises. Best to text first, as I never know when I can answer the phone. B.’ I put the number into my phone straight away, and walked back to the car with a smile so wide it made my face ache.

And I was patient. I didn’t text her until I was on my way to work the next morning.

It was my only experience of trying to get a date with someone who worked shifts. My first few texted suggestions were met with simple ‘Sorry, working’ replies, and I started to think I should just stop messaging her. Ten days later, I got a text on the way home from work on a Friday. It was from her, with the address of a social club in North London, and one line after. ‘I’ll be there at 7 if you can make it, B’.

I got off the train at the next stop, and left the station to try to hail a taxi. It was already almost eight, and the venue was a long way from where I was. As the cab tried all the short cuts to get through the traffic, I watched the hefty fare ticking up on the meter, and wondered about why a young woman went to a community social club on a Friday night. When we got there, I used my card to pay the cabbie, or it would have cleared out all the cash in my wallet. I often had reason to be pleased about the introduction of card payments in London taxis.

I could hear the noise as I approached the club entrance, and from the balloons outside, I guessed a celebration was in progress. An old man sat at a table inside the door asked me if I was a member, and I shook my head and told him I was meeting Becky. I used her full name. He smiled, obviously knowing who she was, and pointed at the double doors. I walked in to what looked like a night out in Glasgow, at least as I imagined it. The room was festooned with Scottish flags, banners supporting Rangers football team, and a massive sign above a guy doing a disco that read ‘Happy 70th Archie’.

One thing about Becky, she was easy to spot. Twirling around on the dance floor in a fetching green party dress, her red hair catching the lights flashing from the front of the disco setup. I watched her for a while, and she suddenly spotted me. She ran across, her shoeless feet slipping on the polished dance floor. As soon as she spoke, I could tell she was already a bit drunk. She yelled loudly next to my ear, above the noise of the music. “Ah, you made it. It’s my uncle’s birthday party. Get a drink and come and join us. The bar’s free”.

Once I had got my beer, I turned to see her waving from a table over on the left, and made my way across. She patted an empty chair next to her, and I sat on it. The faces around the table were all pretty old ones. I guessed the youngest two sitting there were both over fifty. Cupping her hands around her mouth, Becky bellowed. “Everyone, this is Frankie”. I grinned and nodded, which is about the only thing to do in those situations where the music is playing so loudly conversation is impossible. Then I sat there like a spare part for an hour, feeling hungry. It was a very long way from my idea of a first date with Becky.

When the DJ took a break, I was introduced to the two youngest people on the table, who turned out to be Becky’s parents. Neither of them had a Scottish accent, but her mum called me ‘laddie’, and her dad referreed to me as ‘son’. Then Archie appeared, and I met the birthday boy. He winked at Becky. “Is this your fella, sweetheart?” She looked me up and down as if I was a racehorse. “He might be, uncle Archie. Let’s see how he works out”. Even Archie didn’t have a Scottish accent, but there was no doubt that everyone there considered themselves to be as Scottish as anyone north of the border. That was confirmed when some bagpipe music started up, and they all started whooping and clapping.

Fortunately, Becky slipped on her shoes, and said we had to be somewhere. She waved goodbye to her parents, and kissed Archie on the cheek. As we got out into the fresh night air, she said she was hungry, and couldn’t stand the stodgy party food. She suggested a Greek place she knew that stayed open late, and we could walk to it. After a few steps in awkward silence, she turned and laughed.

“You actually came to that social club. And you sat it out without complaining, or getting up and leaving. It was sort of a test, and if you are interested to know, you passed it”.

With that, she reached across and held my hand.

As she stuffed pitta bread covered in hummus into her mouth, Becky wasted no time telling me the short version of her life story. She was Scottish, (of course, but not really) and had an older brother who was living and working in Holland. She had always wanted to be a nurse, and had done nothing else. She loved working in Accident and Emergency because of the variety, and intended to stay in that speciality. There had been one serious boyfriend in her life, from the age of fifteen at school, until they were both twenty-two.

The relationship had survived university, and she had expected to eventually get engaged, and married. But they didn’t survive a New Year’s Eve party when she had to work, and he ended up sleeping with her best friend. She lost both of them that night. Since then, she had been on a couple of dates, and had sex with one random bloke she met at a dinner party. Swallowing some more pitta, she looked at me across the table. “And you?”

I told her the truth about my love life, or lack of it, finishing up with the sorry saga of Justina and her two kids in Lithuania. After sipping some of her Demestica, she nodded. “I believe you”. I wanted to reply to that, but let it go. During the main course, she chatted about work. Her work. Then it dawned on her to ask me what I did, and when I mentioned banking and mortgages, her eyes glazed over a bit. Her considered reply was, “Oh well, I suppose someone has to sort out mortgages, and I’m sure it pays better than my job”.

I suggested a dessert, and she shook her head violently. “No, I think we should go back to mine for sex. I don’t know you well enough to risk going to your place”. I was completely floored. I would never have expected sex on that first date, let alone suggested it. But I certainly wasn’t going to turn down her offer.

She gave her address to the cabbie, and on the way she was upbeat. “I hope you don’t think badly of me, Frankie. But as far as I am concerned, if I like you enough to spend time with you, then I don’t see why we shouldn’t have sex. Do you agree?” I nodded, having no idea what to say. As we got close to her place, she suddenly remembered something. “Have you got condoms? I don’t have any at the flat”. I nodded again. There was one in my wallet, and now I was worried about her use of the plural.

Despite my intention to settle the fare, she insisted on paying for the taxi, and I surveyed the big house on a main road in Chalk Farm as she sorted out the money.

Becky shared the place with two others who worked at the same hospital. They had the top floor, plus the attic extension. Although the inside was rather shabby, the age of the building provided large rooms, with huge windows. After walking up the stairs with her carrying her shoes, we entered the flat to hear some shouting coming from a television. Off the wide interior hallway, an open door led into a massive living room, where three saggy and battered sofas surrounded a square coffee table, opposite a very large plasma-screen TV.

Two women were sprawled over each other on the centre sofa, with the head of one resting in the lap of the other. The one lying down was introduced to me as Fliss, and I was told she was a radiographer. She grinned and waved. The other one was called Jackie, a nurse who worked on the Coronary Care Ward. She looked older, maybe thirty-five, and spoke with a Northern Irish accent. Fliss was enromously fat, and she filled her Primark pyjamas to the extent that it seemed she might soon burst out of them, like overripe fruit. Becky sensed my akwardness, and confirmed what I was wondering. “They are a couple, as you can see”. Then she grabbed my hand and led me back out and down the hall into her room.

Inside, her large room overlooking the garden resembled a rubbish tip for clothes. Piles of tights, underwear, and socks were dotted around, and various pairs of shoes and boots seemed to be lying where they had been thrown, some with crumpled jeans on top of them. The doors of the old double wardrobe were wide open, unable to be closed because of the sheer number of items inside. She made no apology for the state of the place, as she turned her back to me, and knelt on the bed.

“Unzip me please, Frankie”.

I was woken up the next morning by Becky softly saying my name, and the smell of coffee. She was kneeling naked on the bed, and smiling. “It’s real coffee, but there’s no sugar. Nobody takes sugar, sorry”. I told her that was fine, and sipped the hot drink, wishing it had just a little milk in it. She didn’t mention anything about the previous night, and adopted a businesslike tone. “Sorry to sound like I’m rushing you off, but I am on nights tonight, and have to do loads of washing and stuff later. So when you finish your coffee, is it alright if you get ready and leave? There’s a new toothbrush in a packet on the sink, and don’t worry about Jackie and Fliss, they are already both at work”.

To be honest, I did feel as if I was being rushed off, but kept my cool and asked her about another date. “Of course I want another date. I’m not a one-night stand sort of girl. Well, except for that one time I told you about, but I’m not proud of that. Trouble is, I have to do five twelve-hour nights, so it won’t be for a while. Is that okay with you?”

Nodding through a sip of coffee, I removed the cup and told her it was fine with me. “Great. Then maybe next time I can stay at yours? Make a weekend of it, go out and do something. Text me your address, and I will make my way over next Friday night. What time do you get back from work?” I told her I would make sure to be home before eight, and she leaned over and kissed me. “Okay, next Friday at eight it is”. As soon as the coffee cooled down, I gulped the rest of it, and quickly used the bathroom. By the time I was dressed and ready to go, she was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, kneeling down piling clothes into a washing machine in the surprisingly small kitchen.

She didn’t get up to say goodbye, just turned and smiled. “See you Friday then”.

As I travelled home by train, I was thinking about how matter of fact she seemed. I definitely had a new girlfriend, but her job made it certain that I wouldn’t be seeing that much of her. I wondered if I should have said more. Told her how pretty she was, and how she looked as good in jeans and a sweatshirt as she did in a party dress. I could have told her she had captivating eyes, or wonderful hair. I decided against all that. She didn’t seem to be the sort of girl who needed it, or wanted it.

Becky had a self-confidence that I wasn’t really used to. But I liked that about her.

The week went by slowly. I tried not to keep looking at my phone, and resisited the urge to text her. Then on Thursday, I got a text early, and spotted it when I was just out of the shower. ‘Hi Frankie! Looking forward to seeing my boyfriend tomorrow. Excited! B. xx’ I felt my stomach lurch, and the grin spreading across my face. I suddenly remembered I hadn’t sent her the address, so quickly typed that to her, and added that I was equally excited, and really looking forward to seeing her. I thought about offering travel instructions, but decided that she was too independent for that, and would find my house easily enough.

And she did.

Any worries I might have had about how I should play it were dispelled by her giving me a huge hug and kiss after dropping a large holdall on the doormat. She kicked off her shoes, handed me her jacket, and strolled into the house as if she had been there many times before. Perching on the sofa, she called out as I hung up her coat. “If you’re offering, I will have a very large glass of wine. Don’t care what colour it is”. I went and poured two big measures of a decent Chianti, and as I walked over to the sofa, she carried on chatting animatedly. “Is that your car outside? Great. If it’s okay with you, could we go to a beach somewhere tomorrow? I haven’t been to a beach for ages. I know the weather isn’t up to much, but what the hell. It’s a beach!”

When I sat down next to her, she grabbed her wine, and swung her legs up across my lap in a very natural way. Looking around my tiny house, she beamed a big smile.

“I love it here. Feels like home”.

It hadn’t escaped my notice that Becky was what some people refer to as controlling. She decided when we went to bed that night, and also that we had to get up early to drive to the beach. Then she suggested that it would be nice to go out for a Chinese meal when we got home, although she did insist on paying for it. I wasn’t really that bothered, to be honest. She was good company, the sex was great, and she was easy to be around. The fact that she was very nice to look at didn’t hurt either.

After the shock of what had happened with Justina, I also enjoyed the fact that Becky was very open about things. She wanted to stay in the flat with her friends, was in no rush to settle down and get married, and had already decided she didn’t want any children. Her brother had three kids, so her parents had enough grandchildren to fuss over. When I mentioned that she might like to meet my mum and dad at some stage, she nodded. “Fine with me”. During the Chinese meal, she had made just one stipualtion about us being together.

“Frankie, just one thing. I don’t do open relationships. I know my work makes it hard for regular dates, but if you want to see other girls besides me, I can’t be doing with that. For my part, I guarantee I will not see anyone else while you are my boyfriend. I don’t mean friends, I mean women you might have sex with. Is that acceptable to you? Because if not, it’s a deal-breaker”. I thought that was fair enough, and extended a hand, making a little joke about formalising that agreement by a binding handshake, then insisting on hooking our pinky fingers together to make it official.

That Sunday, she didn’t have to be anywhere. I had a loose arrangement to go to my parents for lunch, so sent mum a text that I was seeing someone, and wouldn’t be coming. I offered to drive Becky home, by way of a trip to London Zoo. I wondered if she might think that childish, but she squealed with delight. “The Zoo! Fabulous! I haven’t been there since I was really small”. Secretly pleased with myself at my bright idea, I added that we could go for Tapas in Camden Town after. She gave me a huge kiss. “Tapas, and The Zoo! It’s like you already know me so well”.

We used to look back on that day as one of the best days. The weather played ball, and we had fun looking at the animals. After that, we walked around the lake in Regent’s Park, and she held on to me as if I was trying to escape. Then we wandered up to Inverness Street for tapas, and she talked about wanting to visit Barcelona one day. She hadn’t been on many foreign holidays, as they mainly went to Holland to visit her brother. There were bad memories of one trip to Greece with her long-term boyfriend, as he had got the shits on the second day, and they spent almost all of their time there inside a cheap hostel.

I could have rushed in and suggested that I would take her to Barcelona, but I stayed calm. As we were walking back to the car, she suggested it instead. “How would you feel about us going to Barcelona, Frankie? We could make a long weekend of it, before the place gets packed with tourists in the summer”. I nodded and casually replied that it sounded good. I told her I would definitely think about it.

Inside, I was leaping with joy.

Ouside her house, I kept acting casual. I didn’t ask to go in, and didn’t act like it was expected. She kissed me goodbye in the car, and got out clutching the holdall. Holding the door open a long time, it seemed she didn’t want to leave. I was told a list of her forthcoming shifts that I knew I would never remember, and she made me promise to text her when I got home, to let her know I had arrived safely. I laughed and told her I was only driving to Beckton, and she gave me a friendly punch on the leg.

On the way back along East India Dock Road, I was feeling happy. It was working out fine.

Following the Zoo date, things moved on for us. Although Becky’s job made meeting up hard, she got around that by suggesting I stay at her place when she was on early shift. We both got back there around the same time, and I soon got used to Fliss and Jackie when they were there. Fliss was actually very amusing, self-deprecatingly hilarious in the way that some very fat girls are. Jackie was okay, but wary of me, as Fliss used to date men before meeting her. I would have liked to have told her that there was no danger of me trying to get off with Fliss, but didn’t want to appear rude.

What started with me bringing a few toiletries and a change of clothes ended with me having my own space for stuff in Becky’s wardrobe. I laughed out loud when she showed me the three-inch gap that she had managed to create for me, and usually hung my things on a hook on the back of the door instead. She certainly didn’t get any tidier in honour of my presence, and creeping out during the night to pee, I had to be very careful to not trip over the usual piles of her stuff. Most weeks, I was there at least three nights, and when her shifts had finished, Becky would usually stay at mine for three in return.

Fortunately, she didn’t mess up my place quite as badly, but some nights when I got home from work, I would find the small house a lot worse than I had ever left it.

And she got to meet my parents one Sunday, for the usual blow-out lunch. My mum was excited to see her, and chatted as if she had always known her. But that was my mum all over. Dad was less impressed, it had to be said. I didn’t need to discuss it with him, as I had a good idea why. Becky didn’t rush to help to clear up. She didn’t bring anything, like wine, or flowers. And she talked a lot about her job. All the time. Despite his outward friendliness, he was something of a traditionalist, and he wasn’t used to young women like Becky. Not at all.

We also managed that long weekend in Barcelona, at the end of May. We both took enough time off to get there on the Friday, and come back on the Monday. Becky had a guide book, and a list of things she just had to see. The thought of relaxing on the city’s beach was very far from her mind, and we hit all the spots from just after breakfast, until they closed. Parc Guell, Tibidabo, the central market, Sagrada Familia, Gaudi Museum, up and down the Ramblas, and even the illuminated fountain at night. It was amazing what she managed to squeeze in to that short time, and she took countless photos on her phone too.

Despite all that rushing around, we had a great time. Staying at a small hotel in the old gothic quarter, and eating far too much tapas whenever we spotted a nice place. There was no sense of awkwardness at all, and it felt like one long wonderful date. On the plane home, she told me she was going to start a blog. I had heard about those, but didn’t know anyone who did one. She was going to call it ‘Becky and Frankie’s World’, and keep a record of everything we did together. I really liked the sound of that. It had a ring of permanace about it.

Once we got back, I finally got invited to visit her parents for dinner one Saturday night. It was a mare of a drive though, all the way out to Hertford. They had a nice house, bigger than my family home in Gidea Park, and it was full of expensive things. I was told to call her dad Dougie, and her mum Marie. I later found out that their names were Douglas and Maria, but they were sticking to their claimed Scottish background. I also discovered, much to my delight, that they hardly knew Scotland at all. Even their grandparents had been born in London, and although they had spent a two-week holiday near Loch Ness once, they hadn’t even been to Edinburgh. I never did get why they were so desperate to be Scottish, just because their name was Maclaren.

But I learned never to mention that to any of them.

There were times when I wondered why I had become so keen on Becky so quickly. I had to ask myself to be sure I wasn’t just latching on to the first girl to come along after Justina. There was that confidence, which was new and refreshing, but she also had a vulnerable side, and could be deeply affected by what she saw in her job. Awful injuries, dead children, all kinds of trauma and upset. That was her daily routine, in a busy Emergency Department of a hospital right in the centre of London. She was caring, kind, good-natured, yet professional. The ideal nurse.

Her colleagues liked her, and her managers thought highly of her. She had a large number of friends too, mostly nurses she had trained with, but others from her school days who had stayed in touch since. If you were to ask anyone to sum her up in one word, the likely answer would be ‘popular’. As her boyfriend, I saw that side of her, but also her other side too.

She was very sexy, without being slutty. Enjoying sex, and knowing what she liked, she wasn’t afraid to ask for it, or to regularly take the initiative. She was adventurous without being too kinky, and understanding when things didn’t always go as she might have expected. She paid her way on dates too. Although we balanced each other out when it came to staying over at hers or mine, she not only took her turn in paying for tickets, meals, or trips, but also insisted on contributing to petrol money when we used the car. She could drive, having passed her test at eighteen, but there was no point her having a car, considering where she lived, and where she worked in relation to that.

On a personal level she was untidy, but scrupulously clean. Her hair was amazing, as was her skin, and those green eyes. She could look fantastic dressed up to go on a night out, and just as wonderful in a T-shirt with no make-up and her hair all over the place. She was a career girl in a career worth having, liked by anyone you might meet. With the exception of my dad, who remained unconvinced.

Is it any wonder, that within six months, I thought I had found the perfect girl, and could no longer imagine life without her?

And I didn’t have to do that, as our relationship carried on getting better, until both of us felt connected in a different way to just being boyfriend/girlfriend. The routine forced on us by her shifts became normal. It just became our routine, and we didn’t have to think about it. If she got off late, it didn’t matter. I would sit and chat to Fliss and Jackie as if I was part of the gang. They accepted me as readily as Becky did. Even Jackie had calmed down, once she realised I had no intentions on Fliss.

By the end of our first year as a couple, we started to talk about the idea of living together. Beckton was never going to work for her. The commute into work was a pain, with too many changes of transport. She couldn’t use the car, because there was nowhere for the staff to park. Even though I had added her to my insurance so she could drive now and then, we knew that we had to move somewhere more convenient. My house had increased in value, but the price of even a small apartment closer to both our jobs was still prohibitive, and not even manageable on two salaries.

After long hours of discussing various options, marriage was mentioned in passing. At first, Becky casually let slip that her parents had money saved for her wedding, that could be put to good use if we took it as a deposit on a place instead. Then that changed to both parents stumping up together for a deposit, and a decent, but not excessively expensive wedding. When I mentioned engagement, she shook her head. That would mean a ring, and we could save that money to put towards buying a house. Looking at all the transport options online, we settled on the area around Colindale. The Northern Line tube would work well for both of us, and house prices were just on the side of affordable.

When I thought about it the next day, I realised things were getting serious.

Things moved fast after Christmas. During the celebrations, we told both sets of parents of our intention to buy a small house in Colindale, and get married next year, probably in May. Becky’s mum doubted we could book anywhere with such short notice, but she hadn’t reckoned with the fact that Becky had already placed a provisional booking at a hotel in Hertford, and also reserved a reception suite and some rooms at the same place. My mum went on about who should be invited, and even my dad seemed sold on the idea. He did moan a bit about the distance from Gidea Park to Colindale, so I joked about him not being asked to come over anyway.

Nodody was surprised, and they all seemed happy about it.

Becky was still adding things to her blog, so naturally wrote something about the forthcoming wedding, and the fact that the offer we had made on the Colindale house had been accepted. Working for the bank, I could get a reduced-rate mortgage as a staff perk, with no fear of having it declined. When she was at work one night, I sat in my house and read her blog on my phone. I didn’t normally bother, but I wanted to know what she had written about the wedding, and her plans, see if it was any different to what we had discussed.

I was really shocked to discover it was all incredibly romantic and touching. She referred to me as ‘my wonderful boyfriend’ on the one about Barcelona, and on the wedding plans page she had added a good photo of me and called me ‘The gorgeous man who will become my husband, the love of my life’. I was rather taken aback. We didn’t go in for a lot of that kind of talk. She had even once said to me, “I don’t do lovey-dovey chat, so you will just have to take it as read”. On her blog, she was writing like someone besotted with me, as if I could do no wrong. I was definitely pleased, if a little confused. There were other blog pages too. On one about the trip to the Zoo, followed by Tapas, she had noted, “I knew as I watched him drive away that he was the one I wanted to be with always”. She had even had a little go at herself on a page about staying at my house. “He even forgives me for being untidy, and messing up his smart little house. How brilliant is that?”

I read all of it that night, and learned something completely new about someone I thought I knew well.

After that, it all seemed to happen very quickly, and I had little to do with any of it. The two-bed semi in Colindale went through smoothly, and my place sold at the asking price on just one Saturday afternoon. It all seemed too good to be true. And it was.

The arguments had started about wedding guests, with both lots of parents getting involved. Becky had said a maximum of sixty, including Fliss and Jackie, and one of her best friends who was going to be the only bridesmaid. Her name was Fiona, and she was a nurse too, except she lived in Scotland now, and worked at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. So I had never met her, which wasn’t a problem. Luke was to be my best man, as long as he wore shoes and a suit. Other than that, I didn’t care who came, but our parents did.

The deal was that Becky’s parents would put in her share of the deposit on the house. I was using the capital from selling the Beckton place as well as some savings, and they were matching that so we went in equally. My parents said they would pay for the wedding instead of giving us money, and it had been agreed. Unfortunately, my mum took that to mean that she could invite whoever she wanted, including some distant relatives I couldn’t even remember meeting. During a very fractious Sunday afternoon in Gidea Park, tempers flared when mum suggested that my parents were actually spending a great deal more than Becky’s so should be allowed to invite whoever they liked. Becky retaliated by saying she was prepared to scrap the whole wedding plan and just get married in a Registry Office with two witnesses.

On the silent drive home, I developed a pounding headache that I still had the next morning when I woke up.

Another thing I soon learned was that big dramas like the argument over the wedding guests can soon be forgotten by those involved. By the end of the week, both sets of parents had spoken on the phone, and each in turn to Becky. Unsurprisingly, I was left out of it except for being told of the outcome. Each family was to be allowed twenty-five guests, and there would be no extras coming just for the evening. Anyone invited would be there for the whole thing.

We had to move into the Colindale house before the wedding. For the time being, we used all the things from my place rather than buy anything new. My dad hired a big van, and we did the removal ourselves, cramming everything in so it took just one trip, with Becky following in my car filled with most of our clothes. That first night in our own place was a good feeling. My dad stayed around for fish and chips that Becky drove to get, and she thanked him warmly for all his help before he left. The new house seemed to suit us well, and having familiar things around definitely helped. We got most of it sorted on the Sunday, and went out to Pizza Hut to eat that night. As we both had to be at work the next day, we flopped into bed worn out before eleven.

Surprisingly, the new commute and returning to the house in the unfamiliar area didn’t take too long to start to feel very normal. We let the small garden go for now, and kept the car in the garage, out of the elements. The wedding date seemed to be approaching fast, and I was increasingly pleased that I had little or no say in any of the arrangements. We did have a conversation about names though. Becky’s nursing qualifications were in the name of Maclaren, and she asked if I would mind her not changing her surname to mine when we married. I hadn’t given that any thought, so just agreed.

My parents were less than happy when they found out though.

The actual day of the wedding was something of a blur, and it was only later that details popped into my head. Luke had done very well, which shocked us all. Not only did he wear a suit and real shoes, he gave an amazingly witty and affectionate speech which received cheers and applause. After some annoying Scottish music was played at the start of the disco, the DJ then got into the usual stuff guaranteed to fill the small dance floor, and a good time was had by all. The only weird thing about the whole day was Fiona. She arrived on the Thursday, and stayed with Becky’s parents. Then she turned up with them and Becky that morning, and hardly looked at me or spoke to me all day. The next morning she was off back to Scotland in her car, not even swinging by the hotel to say goodbye.

Athough I was desperate to ask what all that was about, I decided not to.

On the drive back to Colindale, the wedding ring felt strange on my finger. Becky couldn’t seem to stop grinning, and it was obvious that she was very happy to be married. We had agreed to skip a honeymoon, and go on holiday later that year instead. We wanted to go somewhere hot, and had settled on ten days near Bodrum in Turkey, in September. It was easy to get time off once the schools went back , and it was booked and paid for, with flights from Gatwick included.

At work the next day most of the team congratulated me, and Stella handed over a card with a voucher for John Lewis inside it. Considering none of them had been invited, a hundred quid was quite generous I thought. Then that was it. It was all over. We were a married couple, with a mortgage and a house. Two people who had already decided we didn’t want any children, and one person dead set on making a good career out of her job. On the Saturday morning, we got up early to go to the garden centre to buy some tubs and a bench.

I was feeling very grown up as we loaded the car.

Being married was a lot more than just sleeping in the same bed, and spending more time with just one person. Especially when you were married to someone who worked shifts, and you worked nine-to five on weekdays. It wasn’t long before I got some idea what that was like.

Arriving home one Wednesday, I was surprised to find Fliss and Jackie there with Becky. She hadn’t mentioned they were coming, and the three of them were already quite tipsy even though it wasn’t much after six. Dinner turned out to be an assortment of cheeses, followed by chocolates and ice cream, all washed down with copious amounts of red and white wine. Conversation was all about the hospital, and was quite raucous too.

I went to bed after midnight, facing a full day at work, and I could still hear them chatting until three in the morning. It wasn’t worth a huge argument, but when I got back worn out that night to find them still there, I wasn’t amused. They all had the same three days off, and had decided to make the most of them together. Becky dragged me out with them to a Mexican place in Hendon, and I sat nibbling my chimichangas as they prattled on about who they didn’t like at work, and who they did, before deciding to neck a shitload of Tequila. Another day tired at work.

Fortunately, that sort of thing didn’t happen too often, though the additional downside was that Becky then had to work nights all weekend, leaving me feeling at a loose end.

The money was running out too. Bit by bit, my old stuff had been replaced, with Becky and her mum deciding it was all too ‘masculine’. I came home one day to find all new stuff in the kitchen. Fridge-freezer, washing machine, and dishwasher, all in a steel-grey colour. Becky said it was more modern. I though it looked industrial, like a company canteen, or a restaurant kitchen. But she hadn’t spoken about it, and hadn’t told me she had bought it.

Ultimately, it was her money. We didn’t have a joint account, and both paid half of the bills by direct debit. Shopping for groceries was paid for weekly, taking turns, and the only joint money was in a savings account that hadn’t been touched since the wedding. The truth was, I didn’t really care if the toaster matched the microwave, and that matched the washing machine.

But it would have been nice to have been asked.

Our first annversary came and went. Becky had to work, so we agreed not to bother to celebrate. A few cards arrived, and there were phone calls from some friends, and both sets of parents. The weekend after, we bought a table and chairs for the garden, and some more plants for the borders. Although the garden wasn’t that big, we had finally turned it into a nice place to sit and relax. Except that rarely happened, between the days when it was cold and wet, or Becky was at work. Then that summer, I had a new lesson to learn, one about jealousy in a marriage.

Some guy at the bank was having a barbecue at his house, to celebrate his fortieth. I was surprised when he invited us, so accepted without thinking. When I told Becky the date, she said she was working that weekend, but that I should go. She even suggested that I get a taxi both ways so I could have a drink, even though that would cost me close to eighty quid, plus tip. I told her I wasn’t bothered to go alone, but she kept on about it until I decided to go.

To tell the truth, I had a good time. Far too many beers, a good laugh about some characters at the bank, and a lively crowd of friends and neighbours who I had never met, but enjoyed the company of. Full-on drunk at the end, I eventually cancelled the return taxi and stayed until the last knockings, accepting the bloke’s offer to crash on his sofa.

The next day I crept in sheepishly, fully expecting a barrage of questions once Becky woke up. But she didn’t say anything, and seemed really pleased to see me. She said she guessed I had drunk too much, and stayed over, and was just really glad that I had got out and enjoyed myself when she had to work. Instead of being happy about that, I was strangely disappointed.

I realised I had wanted her to be jealous.

Jealousy worked both ways, as I found out later that year. It turned out that Fiona was getting married the following summer. As the wedding was to be held in St Lucia on a beach, no friends had been invited, mainly to spare them the high cost of travel. So there was to be an extended hen weekend before, and that fell on our second anniversary. Becky busted a gut to get the time off, and it didn’t concern her that our second anniversary would pass without celebration, just as the first had. I found the thought of eight women on a free-for-all in Ibiza to be quite worrying, and had my doubts about why they needed to go for seven nights.

Like most things in our marriage, it was arranged and paid for long before it was mentioned to me. This time, I did make it clear that I wasn’t happy, and when Becky suggested I do something with Luke while she was away, I thought she wasn’t getting my point. We had to agree to disagree, and she accused me of sulking, which made me angry. Mainly because she was right, I was sulking. Not only because of her going on a monumental piss-up with a gang of girls I hardly knew, but also because she had decided that it would be her main holiday that year, and we didn’t need to go anywhere together. It also made me conscious that I had few friends, and no inclination to go on holiday with my best one, Luke.

So off she went, leaving me sitting at home or at work convinced she would be the centre of attraction for any randy guys over there, and might well end up copping off with one or more of them during a week of binge drinking. I didn’t even get to see her off at the airport, as she was going with two of the others in a taxi that had been booked. The first night, she sent a text to tell me that she had arrived okay, and then I didn’t hear anything for two days after that. I was reminded of Justina, though at least I knew Becky didn’t have two kids lurking anywhere.

And I also realised just how quickly I had become used to being a couple.

It passed soon enough, and I went to collect her from the return flight. She looked tired, and told me that two of the girls in her room had been laid low with Diarrhoea, and had not been able to go out after the first night. Fiona and her had an argument about something on night three, and the last two days it had rained heavily, trapping them all inside during the day. The hotel had been a shabby place, and so far from the bars and clubs they had to get taxis everywhere. I felt a little guilty that her news made me happy.
But not too guilty.

We had a quiet Sunday before she went back to work on Monday night. Becky cooked a roast dinner with a huge chicken, and we sat chatting after, finishing a bottle of wine. That felt like the marriage I had expected. A couple together, talking about anything, and relaxing after a nice meal. I wasn’t stupid, and knew there was more to making a marriage work than that, but I couldn’t help but be very happy that evening. As the mood was so good, I brought up the fact she had argued with Fiona, and mentioned how strange that woman had acted around me at the wedding. I added that she seemed to have been an unlikely choice as bridesmaid, and I was also surprised that Becky had not been invited to return the favour in St Lucia next year.

Then she told me something that really surprised me.

Fiona had been the best friend that had slept with her first long-term boyfriend on that New Year’s Eve. She was the reason they had split up, and it had been all the more painful because Fiona had been her closest friend until that happened. That was why she had gone back to Scotland to work in Edinburgh, after Becky told her she would never forgive her. Of course, that confused me. Then why invite her to our wedding, and to be the only bridesmaid? Becky told me that she had wanted to build bridges, and make a fresh start with her old friend. And she had concluded that the reason Fiona had been so weird around me was so that she couldn’t be accused of flirting with me, or even so much as having an opinion either way about me.

After they had all had too much to drink one night in Ibiza, Becky had dragged it all up again, and caused a huge upset with the hen party. I suggested that it might blow over, and that they could try again to rekindle that good friendship, but Becky was shaking her head as I spoke.

“No, I’m done with her. Should have known better than to try”.

As we got into our third year of marriage, some things were becoming easier.
I had got to grips with the fact that Becky had friends separate from our relationship, and learned to deal with the odd night out or celebration that didn’t include me just because we were married. But the parents were always a problem, on both sides. Working shifts, her weekends off were rare, so treasured. It was her natural inclination to want to see her parents, and mine to visit mine. When her brother was over on business, I got to meet him again at a Sunday lunch. But with such a family reunion, I was very much the outsider as they chatted about things in the past, without the slightest effort to include me.

The next time she had a Sunday off, I wanted us to go to my mum and dad for lunch, but she said she was tired and just wanted to chill out. So I went on my own, and had an awkward couple of hours fending off my mum’s questions about why Becky hadn’t bothered to show up.

Transport also became an issue. My old car was beginning to need money spent on it, and we talked about replacing it. Becky was all for buying a brand new car, as that would be more reliable. I could see her point, but I was reluctant to use such a big chunk of our savings to buy one.

Then on her days off during that week, she went and bought a Fiat 500, ex-demonstrator model. When I got home, I saw it parked there, and wondered who was visiting. When she told me she had bought it on low-rate forty-eight month finance, I was flabbergasted. Yes, I understood that she earned enough to pay the monthly cost, but yet again she hadn’t spoken to me about something that was a big financial commitment. I was then stuck with having to try to sell my old car for next to nothing through an online ad, and let it go to the first guy who made me an offer for cash.

I wasn’t happy, and even less so when she began to refer to the Fiat as “My car”, and we could just about get our weekly shop into the tiny vehicle. I also felt more than a little silly running around in that mint-green car that felt about as solid as a roller skate with a cover. Luke had just bought what he described as a ‘vintage classic’, a Nissan Skyline 240K GT. It had huge performance and a mean exterior, and he couldn’t stop laughing at me having to drive the Fiat. Though I made all the right noises about him having no need for an over-powered gas guzzler, I couldn’t even convince myself.

It didn’t take long for me to calm down. We hardly used a car, and the little Fiat was actually ideal for the crowded roads where we lived, and the traffic-heavy journey to visit either set of parents. I had to admit, albeit releuctantly, that Becky had made the right choice. So I had a chat with her, and we agreed to pay off the finance using some of the savings, freeing up the couple of hundred a month she would have been paying out for four years.

Becky being Becky, she saw that as a green light to book an autumn holiday and came home one day excited about the fact she had booked a week away to Cyprus, in late September. She hadn’t even asked if I could get that time off work, just presumed. She didn’t think much of my job, and made that obvious. Even though it meant we got cheaper mortgage payments, she didn’t consider it to be a worthwhile career, not like being an Emergency Department nurse, anyway. I had to go in the next day and act all creepy to get the week off, eventually helped by one of my colleagues cancelling the same week she didn’t really need.

But it was irritating, never to be asked. I decided we were going to have to talk about that.

Annoyingly, it was a great holiday. The weather was perfect, we got on really well, and the hotel and choice of area was the best on the island.

Once again I found myself eating my words, and didn’t bother having that talk.

If you let it, married life becomes a habit. And for a couple more years, we were guilty of doing just that. Becky applied for promotion to Ward Sister in the Emergency Department, and got the job. That meant she was in charge on her shifts and had a lot more responsibility, including more paperwork and supervision. She got a bit puffed up by that, and started to use expressions like “My team”, and “In my department last night”. Meanwhile, we drifted through our marriage, making appointments to do things together based on whether or not she was working. I still spent a fair bit of time on my own in the house, and often when she was at home, she would be sleeping after a night shift.

Becky had the idea to write her forthcoming shifts down in a big diary, which she left on the coffee table for me to check. But I soon learned not to trust that, as she frequently changed those shifts because someone had gone sick, or worked extra shifts when people were on holiday. I got used to eating alone some of the time, and her going to bed earlier than me after a long day shift. She did throw herself into her days off though. Doing her share of the housework, getting the supermarket shop when she was at home midweek, and even tidying up the garden that we never spent any time in.

Before I knew it, our sixth anniversary was approaching, and sure enough she was going to be on night duty on that date.

I spent the evening alone reading her blog. She still wrote it, mostly in fits and starts, but I hadn’t read it for a very long time. She had written a post about it being our anniversary, and how she was upset that she couldn’t be with me to celebrate it. There was a wedding photo, and a lot of very gushy stuff about what a great husband I was, and how blissfully happy she was. Scrolling back over most of the posts I had missed, I hardly recognised the Becky and Frankie she was writing about. There were photos from the holiday to Bodrum, and the later one to Cyprus. Also our holiday when we stayed in England, and drove around the Lake District. It had rained all the time, and she had complained non-stop.

But on her blog, it was described as ‘magical’, ‘romantic’, and ‘just perfect’.

There was everyday stuff too. Photos of the garden, captioned ‘Our little garden, the place we love’. Most times we had been to a restaurant were featured, and they were never negative. Captions like, ‘Great food in the company of my perfect man’ had me shaking my head as I remembered her arguing with the waitress about how long it had taken for the food to arrive. Then we argued because I remarked that we were not really in any rush. A couple of hours reading through her blog had me convinced that what she was writing about was for the benefit of any friends and family reading it, and was only a half-truth about the life we really led.

The next Sunday, we stayed at home as she slept off her last night shift. Then she got up and had a shower, coming down wrapped in a towel with her hair still wet. I had made up my mind to have a talk with her, and this time I did.

In a reasonable tone of voice, it all came out. Why the blog didn’t seem real, the fact that she booked things and bought things without ever checking with me first. How her job was the only thing she ever talked about, and how I felt that sometimes I was just along for the ride. While I was at it, I threw in my annoyance at her and her family claiming all those Scottish connections, when they were all from the London suburbs, clinging to a heritage that was essentially non-existent, other than a surname. To give her credit, she sat and listened to all of it without interruption, and I was completly surprised by her reaction.

She cried a bit, then apologised. She told me I was right, and she felt guilty about excluding me. But she maintained everything she wrote on her blog was exactly as she felt inside, and was how she felt about me all the time, every day. We had a cuddle, and she vowed to make more effort, even apologising for not realising how she had upset me. I felt pretty good after that, like we were finally communicating properly. Then she was going upstairs to sort her hair out, and turned before walking through the door.

“Frankie, I am Scottish you know”.

After our talk, there was a long period where things worked a lot better. Becky’s blog was less like a fairytale, we arranged our time together to do more, instead of her preferred activity of ‘chilling out’. The parents were put on a rotation, and we stuck to the arrangements fairly. Although she never brought it up, I knew my mum had expected us to change our minds about having children, and she was disappointed when we didn’t. Becky’s dad often asked why I hadn’t sought promotion at the bank, and my answer that the biggest jobs were usually the first to get the chop didn’t seem to satisfy him.

I now had what we called a ‘Luke Night’ during one of the shifts when Becky worked nights. I would go to his place after work, take a change of clothes for the stopover, and we would have beers and a takeaway while I watched him play on one of his latest video games. Becky had thought it would be good for me, but it just made me realise all the more that Luke and I were growing apart. In turn, she would have an ‘Old Place Night’ when she was off during a weekday. She would stay the night with Fliss and Jackie, and their new flatmate Antonia, who was a medical secretary. Apparently, they all got their pyjamas on early, and binge-watched reality TV. The one positive about that was that it made her realise just what a mess the old flat was in, and encouraged her to help keep our house really tidy.

It was hard to shake the feeling that we were getting boring though. Our life together was safe, and well-organised. But to say it lacked excitement was an understatement.

Early that summer, I bought a small kettle barbecue, and suggested we make some more use of the garden. Becky came home from a shop with lights on a string, and we fixed them around the fencing. After some fiddling, I got them working, and we sat outside eating burgers, and drinking wine. I had thought of inviting the immediate neighbours, but the lady didn’t speak English, and her husband, who had only told me his name was Ali, was a taxi driver, and always at work. As for the rest along the street, we hardly knew them. That’s London for you. I also suggested that we invite Jackie and Fliss, even Luke. But as usual, shifts ruined any plans, and they couldn’t all make it on the same day.

When it had cooled down, I put the vinyl cover over the barbecue, and we never used it again.

Our holiday had also been discussed in advance for a change. We rented a place in Brittany, and drove over in our car, taking the ferry from Portsmouth. The car managed the journey well, and it was a really good holiday. The small apartment was part of a large house, and close to Quimper. We got out and about every day, and had exceptionally good weather. Away from both of our jobs, free of the bank targets and her shifts, we got on really well. On the way to the port to go home, chatting happily about how good it had been, Becky said something that hit a nerve.

“Yeah, I agree, it was really nice, Frankie. But it wouldn’t hurt to be more spontaneous at times you know. You do get stuck in your plans and routines, and I can’t remember the last time we just did something without making a big case about it”. I was concentrating on driving on the wrong side of the road, so let it go. But it didn’t escape my notice that it was her shifts that were the cause of all that planning, and the lack of me doing anything spontaneous. As well as the days and nights on her rota, there were the others that cropped up, alongside training courses and management meetings on her days off. I was reluctant to even book cinema tickets, without being completely sure she would be off duty.

After driving onto the ship, we made our way upstairs for some lunch. Sitting smiling at each other over deliciously fresh baguettes, I made up my mind.

If she wanted spontaneous, then that’s what I would be.

Not long after we got back from the holiday to France, I did three spontaneous things in quick succession. It wasn’t long before Becky had changed her word for it though. She preferred ‘Impulsive’. Not quite ‘Reckless’, but indicating that she thought the sudden change in my attitude was less than desirable. She had conveniently forgotten that it had been her suggestion in the first place of course.

And there was a fourth thing too, but I didn’t tell her about that.

My first decision was to change jobs. I heard about a new online bank opening. No branches, no chequebooks, just online with a call-centre backup. They were looking for department managers, and I applied to be head of the mortgage section. I got an interview, where I impressed with apparently knowing the demographic of the customers they were hoping to grab from the traditional banks.That generation who were ‘coming up’. Young professionals who couldn’t be bothered to queue in a branch, had never signed a cheque, and lived their lives online. I predicted an easy and secure phone app, text message contact, and a big push to offer students good banking facilities to keep them as customers once they were earning well.

That got me a second interview which involved some annoying role play, and an assessment of my understanding of social media and computer skills. The next day, I got a phone call offering me the job, with a start date at the end of the following month. The headquarters was in a trendy brownfield site in North London, still accessible from the Northern Line train. But the big draw was the salary, almost twice what I was getting, and no targets as the manager. I would have to inspire my team to reach theirs of course, which was one of the main roles of the new job. I would still get the staff mortgage benefit, as it would just be transferred across for the usual small fee and paperwork.

I hadn’t told Becky, as I didn’t want her to know if I didn’t get it. But I would have to get her to sign the paperwork eventually, so suggested a meal out at a nice Indian restaurant, where I broke the news. She tried to look pleased for me at first, but then slipped into doubts about my previous pension, whether or not the new bank would stay in business, and loads of other negatives that were a complete downer. I suspected that her main gripe was that I would now be earning so much more than her. She had always liked to mention that she earned more than me, even though the difference was only two hundred a year.

When I said that the extra money would mean we could do a lot of nice things, she just nodded.

Then I changed the car one Saturday, when she was at work. I knew she wouldn’t be happy about that, but it was exactly what she had done, and it was certainly spontaneous. I didn’t go crazy, just bought a nice Honda hatchback with a slightly bigger engine. It was one year old, low mileage, and the difference in the part exchange price was easily paid out of my own savings account. She didn’t complain that much, especially after she had driven it around the block a few times on the Sunday morning. But I knew there had to be something.

She didn’t like the colour.

Once I had settled into the new job, I planned my third surprise. Her birthday was coming up, and I asked a lot of questions about whether or not she definitely had the day off. She said she did, as her parents were planning a dinner for her at their house. I had already taken the time off, telling my new bosses as soon as I started. I rang her mum and dad, explained what I was thinking of doing, and swore them to secrecy. The night before her birthday, I told Becky we might be doing something special, and that she would have to get up early, and wear something nice. She still insisted on phoning her mum to make sure she knew we wouldn’t be going there, but I had her intrigued.

On the morning, I drove us down to a private airfield, where we had our own helicopter flight across the Channel to France. A taxi from the airfield there took us into the centre of Paris. Lunch was booked at one of the latest trendy restaurants in Montmartre, and we had time for some sightseeing before. She was definitely impressed, as well as being completely gobsmacked. When we finished eating, I presented her with a gold bracelet made from links in the shape of hearts, and a waitress brought out a little cupcake with a candle alight on it.

It was all pretty much perfect, even if I say so myself. On the late afternoon flight back to England, she held my hand tightly, and told me she loved me.

But in the car on the way back to the house, she finally cracked, and asked me how much it had all cost. There was no way I was going to reveal the astronomical price of that one day, so told her that was my secret. Her response was to stare out of the window and mutter, “But it’s so extravagant, Frankie”.

Oh, that fourth thing. I started my own blog, which is how you are reading this. That’s if anyone is reading it of course. I didn’t allow those likes or comments, and have never actually checked if anyone has read so much as a word.

And like I said, I didn’t tell Becky about it either.

For the next couple of years, life was pretty good. By a twist of fate, my old bank bought out the new one I was working for, so I amalgamated my pensions and carried on as manager of mortgages. I even did a local TV interview about the way our brand was appealing to the younger home buyers, and got myself on the front page of the company magazine as a result. All the extra money coming in meant more treats too, but I eased up on the spontaneity. We talked about moving to a bigger house, and went so far as to go and view some a bit further out. But we ended up agreeing we didn’t need anything bigger, and it would just be more to clean and maintain.

I still checked on Becky’s blog during that time, smiling when she raved about our Paris day trip, and how much she loved the bracelet I bought her. She even posted something about what a good idea it had been to change the car, and how much she preferred having four doors to two. The photo on that page was a selfie of her sitting in the driver’s seat. Although she mentioned me on almost every blog post, she never wrote about my job, or my promotion. Her dad seemed to be the only one interested, and when he talked to me about it, she usually tried to change the subject.

Then just before last Christmas, I was shocked to get a early morning phone call from my mum to tell me my dad had died. He wasn’t that old, and had never been ill. She just woke up and found him dead next to her. Becky was at work, so I sent her a text, and another to my work, then drove straight over to see my mum, hardly able to believe what was happening. She had called an ambulance, but they had pronounced him dead, then informed the police who had advised the local coroner. There was going to have to be a post-mortem, and by the time I arrived after struggling with the solid rush hour traffic, the undertaker appointed to remove him had already left with his body.

It was all rather surreal. Neither of us were crying. Mum kept making tea until I thought my bladder would burst, then she asked me to ring around a few friends and relatives. She had already called in to his job and told them. He had been due to retire in two years when he hit sixty, and mum sat and told me about the plans they had discussed about moving to the coast, and doing some travelling by buying a campervan. It sounded as if she was talking about some other people though, not about her and dad. She was detached, drinking cup after cup of tea, and leaving me to answer the calls from anyone who phoned.

Becky had rung me as soon as she finished her shift and saw the message. She was the only one crying. I told her to go home and get some sleep, as there was nothing she could do, so no point in coming over. Mum had told me not to bother to stop over, adamant she would be okay. So I stayed with her for the evening, refusing her offer of making me a huge dinner. We settled for toasted cheese sandwiches, eaten in silence. Both of us had talked enough for one day. Christmas was going to be grim.

Dad’s death was caused by a brain bleed, described as ‘catastrophic’. I took some time off to help mum sort out dad’s things and the funeral, which was a simple cremation held early in January. Freezing cold, and light snow on the ground, followed by light snacks and a few drinks in a reserved room in a Romford pub. Mum wanted to be on her own after, so Becky drove me back to Colindale, constantly asking if I was okay. I think my dad’s death had brought home the mortality of her parents, who were both a few years older than mine.

That was a shitty start to the year. A year that was only going to get worse.

But I didn’t know that at the time.

A few days after my dad’s funeral, Becky mentioned the Burns Night celebration. She was going to the social club with her family, the one where we had our first date. They had that big Scottish party every year, but as she had almost always been working, she hadn’t gone to one since we got married. I had forgotten it, what with my dad dying, and my mum acting all withdrawn and quiet. I told her I wouldn’t be going. The last thing I needed was to spend the night eating haggis while a lot of pretend Scots danced around to Highland music.

Becky sulked a bit, then suggested it might cheer me up to go. But I stuck to my refusal, and didn’t think it was a big deal. She could stop over at her parents’ place, or get a taxi home. I certainly didn’t have any objection to her going.

But for some reason, she assumed I did.

I was woken up at almost two in the morning by the doorbell ringing. I wondered what was going on, sure Becky would have stayed with her parents, so didn’t think it would be her. It was a grumpy looking cab driver. “You will have to come and get this woman out of my cab mate. I can’t shift her, and she hasn’t paid the fare either”. Wearing only my boxers, I walked across to the car and saw her flat out on the back seat. Her tartan dress had ridden up over her hips, and she was mumbling incoherently. I dragged her out, and she collapsed onto her knees on the driveway. I had to bend down and get her over my shoulder, telling the driver I would be back with his money. I took her straight upstairs, and dropped her onto the bed.

The generous tip pleased the cabbie, and I was relieved that Becky hadn’t been sick in his car. He shook his head and smiled. “She seemed okay when she got in, gave me the address fine, and chatted about all sorts of stuff. Then halfway here, she just passed out. I was glad when you answered the door mate, I can tell you”.

Getting her undressed was a struggle, but I eventually got her into bed. I brought a glass of water from the kitchen, and a bucket too, in case she was sick. It took me ages to get back to sleep, and when I woke up the next morning she was still flat out, in the same position. The smell of whisky coming off her was overwhelming. I knew she rarely drank that, so that might explain why she had been so bad. I was glad that the party had been on a Saturday, and not on the actual Burns Night itself, as I would have had to have skipped work that day otherwise. But Becky was due in that night, and showed little sign of rousing.

I left her until just after one, then went up to wake her. She was in a foul mood, terribly hung over, and snapping at whatever I said. She refused to get out of bed, and later that day she rang in sick for her shift, the first time she had ever done that without being ill. I tried talking to her in the bedroom, but she just kept turning over. So I went down and watched a film, sticking a pizza in the oven at six when I got hungry. The day had been a complete write off, and the evening wasn’t looking too good either.

She finally came downstairs at close to nine. Wrapped in a blanket, and with a scowl on her face. I was watching the news, and she suddenly reached for the remote, and switched off the TV.

“Frankie, I was so annoyed that you didn’t come last night. Everyone was asking why you weren’t there, it was really embarrassing. I had to make out you were too upset about your dad to come out. Christ, that’s the first time I went to one of those since I met you, and you couldn’t even be bothered to come. That’s why I got so drunk you know, it was your bloody fault”. I let her ramble on a bit more, until she had exhausted her moans. I knew full well that she was feeling guilty about the state she had been in, and blaming me made it easier for her to deal with. But my refusal to engage in the argument made her even angrier.

She went into the kitchen and made a cup of tea, then went straight back up to bed with it. I debated whether or not to go up there and get the argument over and done with, and decided I didn’t need the aggravation with work in the morning.

That night, I slept on the sofa.

Some arguments are hard to get past in a marriage, and the drunken Burns Night was one that dragged on. For a few weeks, the atmosphere was frosty. I didn’t bother to go and see Luke, but Becky stopped over with Fliss and Jackie for the whole three nights of her days off. There was no holiday planned, so I tried to sit down with Becky and talk about one. With all the extra money coming in, we could have afforded to go anywhere, but she just shrugged. “Anywhere you want, I’m not that bothered”. I realised we needed to work on what was going wrong, but she wouldn’t be drawn into conversation about it, and just left the room if I pushed it.

Staying over with my mum when Becky was on nights, I tried to talk to her about it. She was of the opinion that we should have had children, and that was what was wrong with Becky. But mum’s main concern was with moving away to a bungalow on the coast somewhere. She was even thinking about buying one of those log cabin style Park Homes, and had a brochure for a site in Lincolnshire, near Cleethorpes. I dreaded the idea of her moving away that far, imagining the awful traffic when I had to drive all that way to visit her.

Then Becky started to act normal again, out of the blue. She mentioned we had been invited to her mum and dad’s place for a Saturday dinner, and it had been arranged for the end of the month. When we got there that night, her parents had pulled out all the stops. Four courses of great food. lots of wine and liquers, and the offer of stopping over so we could both have a drink. Her dad was praising me up for my new job, and even Becky chimed in, with “He has done so well”. During after dinner conversation, I chatted with her dad about cars, and he suggested we get something better than the Honda. “After all, Frankie, you are doing well, and can afford it”. Becky overheard, and shot us a huge smile. “That’s a great idea. We could get something new, and have a driving holiday in Scotland”. I almost laughed out loud at her bringing up Scotland, but nodded as I sipped at a large Port instead.

After perusing the car market for a few days, we agreed on something extravagant. Trading in the Honda and adding a hefty deposit from savings, we bought a new car, with three-year finance on the balance. An Audi Q5 in pearlescent white, that looked pretty amazing parked on the driveway. Even Luke approved, though he jokngly referred to it as a ‘Tart’s Wagon’ just to wind me up. Becky had bought guidebooks and maps online, and was busily planning the trip. She had decided we should take almost three weeks, starting in Edinburgh, up to Inverness, and back down along the west coast. She was really into it, booking hotel rooms or bed and breakfast places, with the itinerary looking very tight. I asked her if we were visiting wherever it was her family came from. It was a test really, though also a bit of wickedness on my part. But she missed the implication.

“Well, dad mentioned Ayr, but we haven’t got any addresses there now. It was too long ago. Still, we could go there, it’s on the coast”.
She said it with such sincerity, she almost managed to convince me.

Sadly, it was a disastrous holiday, mainly because of the weather. The new car was fabulous, and the four-wheel drive helped, but that early summer in Scotland was one of the worst in decades, and wherever we went, it never seemed to stop raining. I remember spending most of that trip completely covered in a knee-length parka, with the hood up. Becky was determined to see everything she had planned, even if much of it was in either mist or cloud. I checked her blog one night when she was in the shower, and it was full of photos of wet places in Scotland, with captions like ‘Amazing’, ‘Soulful’, and ‘So historic’.

But on the long drive home, she moaned constantly about the weather, bitterly regretting we had not chosen somewhere warm and sunny.

That gave me an idea.

Is anyone reading this, I wonder? If they are, then maybe they might remember the blog post where I wrote about Becky going crazy when I sprung a surprise holiday on her that autumn. I thought she would love it. Five days in Dubai, including a balloon ride, and a trip into the desert to ride camels. Guaranteed hot weather plus lots of shops for her to check out, and only five nights away, so easy to ask for time off. She covered other shifts at the hospital all the time, so it would be the least they could do to get hers covered. I wasn’t about to even hint, as I liked the idea of surprising her with some sun and fun, after the wet and miserable holiday in Scotland.

And I wanted to be spontaneous.

But of course, I had to tell her eventually, as she had to ask for the time off. I was so excited when I laid it all out for her, and that disappeared as soon as I saw her face. She wasn’t going to ask for time off at short notice, and didn’t want to owe a favour to one of her colleagues. I should have asked her, and now I wouldn’t get a refund, and would lose the money too. She called me ‘stupid’, ‘thoughtless’, even ‘inconsiderate’, then berated me for ‘wasting money’.

That turned into the mother of all bust-ups, as we took turns telling each other home truths, like boxers coming out for the next round. Most of what was said had never really been fully explored before. I discovered that she felt I was smothering her, and not allowing her enough time to chill out, or visit friends. Then she spitefully suggested that I had made a ‘meal’ out of my dad’s death, and had gone on and on about my mum wanting to move to Lincolnshire. It was one of those arguments when voices were not really raised, and the words that came out sounded like they had been saved up for just such an occasion.

They are the worst kind of arguments, don’t you think?

I hit back with they way she had controlled everything at the start, from buying furniture, to changing the car on a whim. Next, I released all those years of pent up annoyance about the mysterious Scottish heritage, and that really sent her over the edge into floods of tears. That was when she told me to go, and said she was finished with me. I ended up in Luke’s flat, then came home to collect some of my things the next day.

The rough night at Luke’s had taken its toll, and as I sat on the bed thinking about how Becky and me had got to this, I stretched out, feeling exhausted. The next thing I knew, the sound of the front door closing woke me up. It had to be Becky of course, home from her shift. I had slept through most of the day, and hadn’t even packed any stuff to take to my mum’s. I felt strangely awkward in my own house, and didn’t know whether to wait to see if she came up, or go downstairs to face her. She knew I was there of course, as the car was outside, and I had taken it last night. The sound of her feet running up the stairs made me uneasy, with no idea what was going to happen.

What did happen was the last thing I expected.

She ran into the bedroom and flung her arms around me, gripping tight. Before I could apologise for being there, she launched into a monologue about how bad she felt, how sorry she was for the things she had said, how much she loved me, and really wanted us to work out our marriage. She finished with something that weirdly made sense. “That was such a terrible argument, and it has made me feel ill all day. But on the way home I realised that it’s all out of the way now. We can forget all that stuff, and work together to stop all those mistakes and lack of communication happening again. We can do it, Frankie, I know we can”.

And that is what happened. I was back, after one night away, and we both acted as if the argument hadn’t happened. Mum moved to Linclonshire in late November, and I spent Christmas with her as Becky was working. On New Year’s Eve, we went to a party at Becky’s parents, as her brother and his family were over. For those few months, we had never been happier, or more together. The morning after the party we went for a walk, declaring that 2020 was going to be a great year for both of us.

So here I am, writing this in February. Valentine’s Day last week was great, as Becky was off and we went out for a really romantic meal in Soho. I don’t often get the chance to write so much on my blog now, but I am off sick from work today, as I can’t seem to shake this really annoying cough.

I hope it’s not that virus thing they have been talking about on the news.

The End.

Runs In The Family: The Complete Story

This is all 35 parts of my recent fiction serial in one complete post.
It is a long read, at 31,250 words.

Isiah Dakin was a righteous man, and respected in the town. When he decided to marry quite late in life, many were surprised. He spent a lot of time in the church, never took strong drink, and was respected as one of the foremost leather merchants in the county. But he had never shown interest in women before. His choice of bride was unexpected too. Clara Fernsby was the orphan daughter of Christian Fernsby, who had recently been killed fighting against the king in the service of the Earl of Essex. With her mother long dead, she had been forced to find a home with her elderly aunt, who did not welcome the burden of a young girl to provide for.

It wasn’t long before the elderly spinster was trying to marry Clara off. She was only sixteen, but her plain looks and dumpy figure failed to attract willing suitors. Aunt Elizabeth went to see Mister Dakin. She put it to him that it was his religious duty to marry and bring children into the world, and although Clara had no dowry, he was rich enough that it was of no consequence. She also sought the support of others in the church congregation, suggesting that it was not right for a man like Isiah to live alone with only a servant for company.

With his marital status becoming the talk of the town, Isiah finally crumbled, and agreed to marry the girl within the month. The date chosen was two days after his forty-ninth birthday.

The service was short and sombre. Clara looked terrified throughout, and Isiah was shuffling his feet uncomfortably. There were many in the congregation who later remarked that neither bride nor groom had so much as exchanged a glance during the ceremony. The spinster was relieved to be rid of her financial responsibilities to the girl, and to now be related to a wealthy gentleman of standing.

Clara was rarely seen in the town after that. Isiah would come to the church services, excusing his wife as being unwell, or over-tired. It wasn’t done to pry of course, but the town gossips were well-served by the Dakin’s servant, Goody Tuppy. She worked in the house from early in the morning, preparing cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. By late afternoon, she would have left a meal for the evening, and started to make her way home. On the way, she liked nothing better than to stop and tell tales to her friends. And her latest news was that the mistress was with child.

It was not an easy confinement, according to Goody Tuppy. Mistress Clara never left her room, and the Master carried on as before, with little sign he had a wife to care for. The girl could keep no food down, and constantly complained about everything, with her mood turning foul, and her attitude toward the servant lacking in good manners. When she was almost due, Isiah left town to visit leather-skinners in London. He explained that he had to make advance bids for the best skins, and expected Tuppy to take care of Clara in his absence. She might well have complained, had he not handed her a fat velvet purse full of coins for her trouble.

The child was a boy, and Clara recovered quickly. When Isiah returned two weeks later, he named his son Matthew Isiah, and sent out to local craftswomen for the best baby clothes. He also hired a wet-nurse all the way from Great Dunmow, and gave her an attic room in his fine house on the edge of town. Goody Tuppy reported that Clara was a good mother, and delighted in her son.

As the years went by, the town talked much of Isiah’s virility. He and Clara produced two more sons and he paid for a family pew at the church, adding a generous donation too. Clara was seen more regularly, and the family now had a maid just to care for the children. Then sad news reached the town. The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, had died. They met at the church to pray for the soul of the righteous man who had governed England. Not much later, Clara was with child again. Goody Tuppy spread the news that if it were to be a boy, it would be named Oliver. But it was a girl, so they settled on Olivia.

Young Matthew was growing fast. Isiah took him under his wing, training him from an early age in all the necessities required to take over his leather-trading business. According to Goody Tuppy, he paid little attention to Olivia, leaving her with Clara, or the maid. When the monarchy was restored under the new King, Charles II, the town feared the worst. Most were certain they would suffer for their support of Parliament. But the new reign ushered in an era of prosperity, which Isiah took full advantage of. He embarked on travels around the country, accompanied by Matthew. Together, they bought up struggling leather merchants, including saddlers needing investment now there was no war.

When they eventually returned home, Clara announced that she was once again expecting an infant. Instead of joyously welcoming the news, Isiah shut himself away in his room, and even ate his meals there. Each evening in the town square, Goody Tuppy would tell all, to anyone wanting to hear the latest news. Master Matthew had taken over the leather trading, despite his youth, and there was talk that Isiah might have a malady of the mind, or a dysfunction of the brain. When he failed to turn up at church for the fourth week running, tongues began to wag, and the Minister was urged to pay a call on the Manor House.

The wails from the Town Square quickly brought out a crowd. The Minister was on his knees, his vestments bloody, and shouting loudly. “Foul Murder! Summon the Magistrate and The Watch!” He could not be calmed, so the Magistrate rode out to the Dakin House, accompanied by two constables armed with pistols. He found the terrified younger boys cowering in the bushes outside with the maid holding her arms around them. In the dining room, they discovered the body of the pregnant Clara, her throat slashed open by a knife that was lying next to her on the floor. Isiah Dakin stood calmly, holding onto a chair.

“I could take no more humiliation, Sir. You see, I had never laid with her, not once”.

Isiah Dakin was held in the town gatehouse overnight, then sent to Moulsham Goal, in Chelmsford. His trial for the murder of his wife and unborn child was held within the week, and was a brief affair. He admitted his guilt, and said little more. He was hanged two days later, and that devoutly religious man was buried in unconsecrated ground within the prison walls.

Of course, the town was alive with gossip. If Isiah was not the father of his children, then who could it be? Goody Tuppy denied knowing of any male callers or admirers, telling folk that Master Matthew had claimed his father was deranged, and didn’t know what he was saying. All the same he dismissed the stable lad and the gardener, just in case, then sent Ned the handyman a note telling him his occasional services would no longer be required.

Goody Tuppy had said too much, to too many, and she was also told to go, as she could no longer be trusted. Matthew Dakin employed a French widow, a Huguenot refugee. She became live-in housekeeper and cook, with a stern warning never to gossip. He also engaged the services of a tutor for his brothers, a stick-thin, sallow faced man from Colchester who was given the room once used by the wet nurse. With the family business now larger than ever, Master Matthew was rarely at home, and had matured quickly, easily able to manage all his assets.

With the Dakin family fast becoming the most influential in town, gossip all but ceased, and respect was shown to them, with hats tipped in servile greeting. As the town was growing, the Dakin household grew with it. Two housemaids were employed, relatives of the French woman. Matthew had a wooden hut built at the back of the wooded area of his land, and employed a gardener who lived in it. He also did odd jobs, and with no lady of the house to worry about, Matthew was happy to let the man have free run of the estate.

After another long business trip, he returned in the company of a Scottish man, John Hardie. Matthew summoned his brother Christian to the study, and told him he would be travelling to India with Hardie, to expand the business interests with trade from that country. He had arranged a position with the East India Company, but because of his youth, Hardie would accompany him as an adviser. Christian blanched at the prospect of a long sea voyage to an exotic foreign land, but knew better than to refuse. Matthew had become confident, and with that confidence had come an occasional fierce temper. One thing was for sure, he was not the mild-mannered man of religion his father had once been.

Despite being sure he would die on many occasions during the voyage, Christian made it to Calcutta alive. He had lost a considerable amount of weight, and his skin was sore and red from insufficient nourishment. But the suffocating heat in India felt good to him. He marvelled at everything around him; from elephants, to the aroma of spices, and the smiles of young women in their fine silk clothes, with painted eyes. In less than a week, he had regained his strength, and was sure that Calcutta was the place for him.

Hardie had been given charge of the purses of money, and secured fine lodgings for them both. Christian took his letter of credentials to the shabby office of the East India Company, and they confirmed that they would trade his goods for a percentage of profits, and arrangement fees. Being so far from his home in south-east England, Christian discovered much in himself, and was determined to enjoy his time there. No watchful eye of his stern older brother, or gossiping townsfolk to hold him back.

But Hardie was more than an adviser. He was also paid by Matthew to watch his brother.

Being a wealthy English businessman in India was luxury beyond comprehension. Most people were so poor, Christian felt like the richest man in the world. For next to nothing, he could buy the services of anyone, from sedan-chair carriers, to willing young women who showed him the delights of the flesh. Happy to let Hardie make all necessary arrangements for trade, the young man became something of a notorious libertine. Not content with buying the cheap favours of local girls and women, he also pursued the wives, widows, and daughters of English settlers and traders, using his boyish good looks and obvious wealth to great advantage.

In less than three years, it was said that he had fathered at least five children. Four with Indian girls, and one with the plump daughter of a tea trader, the unfortunate girl sent home in disgrace, refusing to name her lover. Hardie managed the trade, and profits rolled in. Matthew was impressed. Even after the extortionate commissions and bribes necessary, the new venture in India was going much better than he had expected. Along with the accounts, Hardie sent a letter. He respectfully suggested that Christian was out of control. Whoring, drinking, and doing no work. His behaviour was alienating other traders, and even the local Indian men of influence.

The news made Matthew furious. It took almost six months for mail to come from India, so it was impossible to know what had happened since Hardie wrote the letter. And it would be the same time before his reply reached his errant brother. He even considered taking ship himself, to bring back the wayward sibling, but he was needed there, as young Benedict had yet to complete his studies. Fuming with rage, he composed a letter to Christian and another with instructions for Hardie. His brother was to return to England on the first available ship, and Hardie was given authority to continue with the business affairs.

It was the following December when the reply finally came. It was not from either Hardie or Christian, but from the office of the Provincial Governor.

He had to sit down as he read it.

It seemed that Christian had not received the news well. In a drunken rage, he had attacked Hardie, cutting his throat with a knife. He was found covered in blood in a stupor, next to the Scotsman’s body. Taken into custody by the troops of the East India Company, he had been hanged for murder, in July.

The town did not hear of the event for over a year, when gossip filtered down from sailors returning home. Goody Tuppy was in the town square, with a group of nags and gossips.

“Mark my words, it runs in the family, so it does”.

The new year brought two resolutions from Matthew Dakin. The first, he decided to marry. The second, he wound up all business with The East India Company. Ever a realist, he concluded that he had tried his luck in India, and it hadn’t worked out for him.

His choice of bride was Purity Hobbs. The daughter of a London shoemaker of renown, a man who was one of his best customers too. Thomas Hobbs agreed to travel to the town for the wedding, with his daughter and her widowed aunt. His wife had died giving birth to Purity, and that aunt was the only mother she had known.

Matthew put on a fine spread following the short marriage service, inviting the Minister and the Magistrate, along with some of the town’s more prominent citizens. Hobbs was merry on port wine when his coachman took him home late that night. And when Matthew retired to the bedchamber after bidding farewell to his guests, he soon discovered that Purity was nothing but a name, as the willing girl welcomed the performance of his nuptial duties, and asked him to stay in her room all night.

There was no denying it was a good match, as the couple seemed happy at all times. In the first week of March, Matthew was presented with a fine son. He was named William, after the Parliamentarian general William Waller, with the second name of Matthew, as was family tradition thus far. With business still doing well, new furniture was bought for the house, and painters engaged to decorate every room. Purity was very happy there, and had become firm friends with Matthew’s young sister, Olivia.

That summer, Matthew took Benedict on a trip to London. The city was being rebuilt to a fine standard after the Great Fire, and he had a mind to establish a new business, cutting out the middlemen who ate into his profits. He had been investigating a skinning and tanning business just south of The River Thames. News had reached him that the owner was an incorrigible gambler, and had debts that needed settling. After taking rooms at The George Inn in Southwark, Matthew and his brother paid a visit on the impoverished tanner, and bargained to clear his debts for the controlling interest in the business. A lawyer was engaged to compile the documents, and the two men shook hands as the banker’s draft was handed over.

Behind his smiling countenance, Matthew concealed his sure knowledge that the gambler would soon lose his share, and he would end up owning it all.

Benedict was startled to be told that he would now be living in London, representing the Dakin family in this new venture. His brother counselled him to watch and learn, until he knew the trade of skinning and tanning well enough to manage alone. Respectable lodgings were secured for him, and enough funds left behind for his everyday needs. Matthew had sent for his clothes and belongings, and they would be arriving soon. He left him with strict instructions to never take strong drink, and to avoid the company of harlots at all costs.

Before leaving London, he also made a call on his father-in-law, to ask him to look out for Benedict. Finding Thomas Hobbs most unwell, he gagged at the sight and smell of some suppurating abscesses around the man’s mouth and throat. But a servant assured him that the best doctors were in attendance.

On the way home in the coach, it occurred to Matthew that if Hobbs were to die, his wife would inherit the lucrative business. And as his wife’s property was his by rights as a husband, he would not only now have the source of the raw materials, but also a leather goods making business too. Regardless of the uncomfortable journey, he arrived home in an excellent mood.

London life suited Benedict well. He made some good connections, and soon became well thought of. But his business acumen and head for figures was less popular with their partner in the skinning and tanning trade, James Holdaway. He resented the young man, and was never afraid to show his disdain for the Dakin family. In letters to his brother, those matters were reported by Benedict in detail, but Matthew wrote back and told him to bide his time. Meanwhile, Purity delivered a second son, a healthy boy who was named Thomas Matthew. It didn’t hurt to include his father-in-law’s name, as news from London was that he was fading fast. He was too ill to travel to see his new grandson, and the doctors could do no more.

The leaves were falling when news of Hobbs’ death reached the town. The man was hardly in the ground before Matthew was at the office of his solicitor arranging transfer of his name to Hobbs’ thriving business. Leaving Benedict still in charge of their other interests, a manager was appointed to run Hobbs’ leather works. As well as the fine boots and shoes worn by the best people, they also made horse harnesses, and saddles. Using a contact in the County Yeomanry, a contract was secured for the supply of all the leather goods needed by three regiments of foot, and Matthew instructed his new manager to take on more craftsmen. It seemed that life couldn’t be better, then Purity announced that she was with child again. He had never been happier.

A letter arrived a week later, delivered by a horseman, such was its urgency. Something terrible had happened in London, and Benedict was being held in The Clink Prison. The letter was from the manager he had appointed to run Hobbs, suggesting Matthew come to London post haste, and also arrange a lawyer in criminal affairs.

After bribing a jailer to leave them alone, Matthew and the lawyer listened to the distraught Benedict tell his story. Holdaway had arrived at the tanning pits in a foul mood. He accused the Dakin family of robbing him blind, and called Benedict a Puritan pansy, and the son of a pansy murderer. When a scuffle ensued, Holdaway had got his hands around the younger man’s throat. Benedict had reached out for something to use to get him away, and had unfortunately picked up a razor-sharp skinning knife. When he struck his blow, the knife punctured his assailant’s neck, and he had died in moments.

The judge refused to accept his plea of self defence, after arguments from the prosecutor that the Dakin family stood to gain from the death of their partner. He was tried for Capital Murder.

Matthew was able to bid a brief tearful farewell to his brother, before they took him to be hanged at Tyburn.

On his return, Matthew Dakin’s mood was dark indeed. Even his pregnant wife could not shake him from his depressed state. He was now convinced that his family must have been cursed. First his mother murdered, then his father executed. His brother Christian hanged for murder in India, and now Benedict suffering the same fate in London. In his deep, dark thoughts, he wondered how one family be so afflicted by fate.

Work took his mind from the gloom on occasion. A manager had been appointed to run the tannery, and with Hobbs enjoying a booming trade, he could at least concern himself less with business affairs. After Holdaway had been killed, Matthew settled his debts in return for the full control of the company, and made arrangements to visit London four times a year to check on accounts, and outstanding matters.

By the time of Purity’s confinement, he was more settled in his moods, and contemplating the building of a larger house on land he had acquired on the outskirts of the town. When her time came, Purity was in great distress. The town midwife was summoned, and she then sent for Doctor Milton. Matthew was distressed by her screams, and when Milton emerged with his hands and cuffs blooded, he feared the worst. But as the good doctor walked toward him, he heard a baby crying, and gasped with relief. The news was all good. The baby was a boy, and had arrived feet first, causing difficulties with the delivery. But mother and baby were alive, though weak, and they would both recover well.

The baby was named Josiah Matthew, and all agreed he had a remarkable resemblance to his father. Matthew went to see Purity in her confinement room. He had been so scared of losing her, he suggested that they should have no more children. But Purity told him not to concern himself. She felt strong, and would soon be ready. Nonetheless, a wet nurse was sent for, and she was lodged in the attic.

That new arrival lifted his mood completely. He summoned architects and builders to begin the design and construction of a larger house and managed estate, situated on the fine riverside land he owned. It was a time of happiness and prosperity for the Dakin family. Nursery maids and tutors were employed, and they began to return to church for services. As the family grew, Matthew paid for their pew to be enlarged, and agreed a substantial stipend for a new minister to replace the one who was now old and sickly.

With the new house rising from the foundations, he allowed himself the luxury of hoping that he might have escaped the terrible curse that had claimed so many members of his family.

For a number of years, the family lived a settled life. No more children came as Matthew and Purity grew older, but they settled happily into the fine new house, with a large staff of servants and estate workers ensuring a contented, easy life. But Matthew still had plans to keep the business growing, and read a great deal about Canada. There was much opportunity there, whether trading with the natives, or dealing with the French trappers. Furs were being used on fashionable clothes, and beaver pelts and bear skins were increasingly in demand for fine hats resistant to the climate in England. But he felt he was getting too old to embark on a long voyage and the foundation of a trading business so far away.

His oldest son William was now of age to become involved in the Dakin business. Well schooled in financial matters, and a level head on his shoulders. He had also been tutored in French at his father’s insistence. Matthew advised him to immerse himself in studies of Canada, and the demand for furs and pelts. He told him that he would be leaving the following year to establish a trading post in the Dakin name. William was excited at the news, keen to get away from the constant control and supervision of his father, and hoping to make a name for himself in the New World.

As for Thomas, he had expressed an interest in religion from an early age. It was decided that he should go to Cambridge, to study Theology. Matthew promised to arrange that as soon as he could. But another black cloud descended on the family, when Olivia became very ill. She had never expressed any desire to marry, and Matthew respected her wishes to remain in the household as a spinster. It was Purity who told him that his sister had a large growth on her breast. The best doctors were brought from London, but could do nothing. Olivia faded before their eyes, and her death overwhelmed the entire family with sadness.

But after a suitable period of mourning, Matthew got back to business. He equipped William with all he would need for the venture in Canada, and engaged two strong men to travel with him to be his servants over there. At the end of Spring, William said his farewells, and left for the long trip to Plymouth.

He would be taking ship on The Matilda within the month.

It was over five months later when the letter arrived from the agents in London. The Matilda had never arrived in Canada. It was feared lost in a storm, with all aboard.

Matthew retired into his room with a bottle of fine Cognac, and locked the door.

Goody Tuppy could no longer walk without assistance, and had lost all of her teeth. She claimed to be the oldest living person in the town, perhaps even in the county, stating her age as four score and ten years. Whether that was true or not, she certainly looked old enough to warrant the claim. Despite all those years, she loved to sit on a chair in her doorway, and listen to the gossip. Much of it was supplied to her by servants from the Dakin house, when they came into town on errands. When she was fully apprised of recent events, she would happily pass on her stories to any who would listen.

Matthew Dakin was negelecting his business. His dark moods and heavy drinking had left affairs in the hands of managers. Purity was sufering badly with her nerves, and young Josiah was mostly left in the care of a maid, and his tutor. Life in the grand new house had been blighted by the misfortunes that had befallen the family. Goody had a theory of course.

“It must go back to the old master, Isiah. He never conceived any of his children, so their real father is unknown. Surely that must have been a rogue of some measure? I tell you, whoever was the father has a lot to answer for. His sins are being visitied on his offspring, I speak the truth. Is it not written in the Bible?”

That same afternoon, the old widow retired to her bed for a nap, and died peacefully in her sleep.

Thomas returned from his studies at Cambridge three years later. There was no time for him to try to take up religious duties anywhere, as regardless of his youth and inexperience, he was forced to step in to try to manage the failing business. He spent many hours with his father in the study, trying to get some grasp of all the affairs, and visited London to meet with the men managing Hobbs and the tannery. After some weeks had passed, he concluded that his father must be shaken from his mood, and arranged for Josiah to go to into the army, his commision purchased as a junior officer of foot. The tutor had been a lazy person indeed, evidenced by Josiah’s apparent lack of good learning, and he was not suited for business. The army was the best place for him.

Good Queen Anne died the following summer, and a new king, George II, took the throne. By that time the attentions of his son had restored much of Matthew’s good nature, and he returned to the correct and proper running of his business. He also secured a parish for his son to become minister of, finally allowing Thomas to persue his religious life. Generous donations saw Thomas installed as the new minister of All Saints Church in Maldon, and that came with a comfortable residence nearby. What was going to happen to the previous minister was of no concern to Matthew, and his substantial generosity to the Bishop of Chelmsford guaranteed that no questions would be asked.

The new young minister was soon very popular. His fresh sermons and genial manner earned him a good reputation in that growing town. And the wealth of his family didn’t hurt either. It wasn’t long before he had caught the eye of a few local spinsters looking to make a good match for themselves. Thomas eventually settled on the rather portly Arabella Turgoose, the youngest daughter of a wealthy boat-builder. The substantial annual income bestowed upon her by her father had tipped the scales in her favour, so some remarked.

Josiah arrived for the wedding looking fit and handsome in his fine uniform. Army life had suited him well, especially as his regiment was not called upon to engage in any conflict. Matthew and Purity travelled down for the ceremony, and Purity whispered that Arabella had the body for child bearing indeed. His mind ever on business, Matthew took the opportunity to learn something about the boat building industry from Jeremy Turgoose, and paid a visit to his boat yard and workshops. Before his return to barracks, Josiah made calls on many eligible young women in the district, flirting outrageously. He left many flushed cheeks behind him in that town.

Upon their return, Purity remarked that she was happy life was now settled, and the future of their remaining sons secured.

The next month, Matthew wrote to Jeremy Turgoose, and offered to invest heavily in his business, for a one third share. It was accepted readily, and the two men met with lawyers to discuss the terms and sign the necessary contracts.

It had not escaped Matthew’s notice that the elderly Turgoose had no sons to inherit his wealth.

Purity was proved right about Arabella’s child bearing ability, when a healthy grandson was produced within the year. He was named Justin Matthew Jeremy, so as to include both grandfathers. At the end of that same year, Josiah caused a famous scandal, by impregnating the well-known actress, Helena Morley. Some years older than him, she insisted he do the right thing by her, and a hurried wedding was arranged in London. Matthew reluctantly paid for everything, including lodgings for the newleyweds close to Josiah’s regiment.

Now almost seventy years old, Matthew Dakin would let nothing like age slow down his thirst for business. When Turgoose died suddenly, he secured the remaining two thirds of the boat-building business by arranging a pay off to the older daughter and her husband, as well as settling some outstanding bills. Unwilling to spend too much time at the boat yard, he promoted the foreman to the role of general manager, and continued life much as normal, albeit slightly wealthier.

But the condition of Purity concerned him. She had become forgetful, unable to remember the names of long-standing servants, and even mixing up those of her own sons. During the harsh winter that followed, she insisted that William had returned, and she had seen him around the house. The new young doctor suggested summoning a specialist, and came to the house a week later in the company of a famous surgeon from Cambridge. That man suggested that Purity might have a malignancy in her head, affecting her brain. He prescibed a sedative linctus of his own concoction, and bed rest in a dark room. As he received his payment, he advised Matthew to prepare for it to get worse. He also recommended that when that happened, he should double the dosage of the poppy syrup.

In Maldon, Arabella was concerned. Despite happy conjugal relations with her husband, there was no sign of a second child, and young Justin was past his first birthday. Her brother in law had not long ago been happy to receive a son from Helena. The boy had been named Percival Josiah, and had been christened at the church by Thomas. Now Arabella wondered if there was a problem that meant she might no longer conceive. She resolved to discuss the matter with Thomas, when he returned from evening service. Her husband was a devoutly religious man, and she knew he would pray alone once the congregation had left. By the time she had settled little Justin, he should be home.

The two men entered the church as Thomas walked down the aisle toward the door. He smiled as he saw them enter, then his smile faded as he realsed they had cloths tied around their faces. Running straight at him, one pushed him over violently, and the other rushed to the altar to seize the cross, candlesticks, and chalice. By the time they were running back past him to make their escape, Thomas had recovered sufficiently to instictively grab the ankle of one of them. Without hesitation, the ruffian struck the minister about his head with one of the heavy candlesticks, leaving him unconscious as they ran off.

When her husband was much later than expected, Arabella told her maid to go to the church and ask him to come home for his supper. Shortly after, the girl returned in an hysterical state, screaming that the good minister was dead. Refusing to believe the ignorant girl, Arabella wrapped Justin in a shawl and walked to the nearby house of the sexton, where she asked the man to accompany her to find her husband. Thomas was still unconscious, but at least he was breathing. Men were sent for to help get him into the house, and the sexton went to fetch a doctor. As the wounds were cleaned, Thomas roused briefly, mumbling something about two robbers and candlesticks. The doctor looked glum. He feared the skull was broken in more than one place, so he wrapped Thomas’ head tightly in bandages, and told Arabella to keep him comfortable.

Her husband died less than ten hours later, and Arabella cried for two whole days.

After the sombre funeral, Matthew Dakin did not hesitate to offer a home to his daughter-in-law and grandson. He sent carters to collect her belongings, and his new coach and four to bring her and the child back to the town, where she would live in the grand house with him and Purity. It proved to be a very good decision, with Arabella happy to take over as the lady of the house, making up for Purity’s failing mind and poor health. Matthew left for a trip to look over his businesses in London, and to call on his new banker there, to discuss investments.

On his return, he found the servants disressed. One of the maids had a bad cut on her face, and the housekeeper was caring for Justin. Arabella was upstairs outside Purity’s bedroom, calling to her through the door, apparently afraid to enter. Upon seeing Matthew, she relaxed. “Mistress Purity is in a bad way. She hit one of the maids with a hand mirror, and the glass cut the poor girl severely. Perhaps now you are home, you can calm her?” He gave a heavy sigh. “Have the maid taken to see a doctor, and tell her there will be a whole five shillings for her trouble. Leave my wife to me now”.

It made his eyes wet with tears to see his beloved wife so confused and distresed. Her white hair dishevelled, and the staring eyes no longer likethose of the woman he loved so. There was definite recognition in them though, and she put the mirror down on the bed cover. He sat next to her, stroking her head, and she pointed at the bottle containing her sedative. Reaching out to pick it up, he made a decision. Instead of using the spoon to dose her, he pulled the small cork, and handed her the bottle. She moved away, drinking it all down greedily.

Once she was sleeping soundly, he left her room.

Those tears were now running freely down his face.

When a maid found Purity dead on her bed the next morning, nobody was that surprised. The doctor pronounced death by natural causes, and advised Matthew to dispose of the empty bottle of poppy syrup. Matthew knew he had done the right thing for his tortured wife, but could not help but think how his own father had killed his wife, and now he had done the same. Even though his motive was mercy, the shadow of Isiah loomed large in his mind.

Without Purity in the house, Arabella stepped up her control of all the necessary tasks involved in the smooth running of the home. She took over financial affairs, leaving the housekeper disgruntled. Matthew allowed her to engage with the tradesmen, and she proved to be a woman who could bargain hard for fair prices and efficient services. Josiah was still away in the army, now promoted in rank, and showing no interest in taking over the family business. Matthew took Arabella into his confidence, and instructed her in many aspects of managing such a diverse company. He suggested that she should prepare her son as he got older, as Justin was the most likely candidate to take over.

Late the following summer, when her husband was on duty at the barracks, Helena Dakin ran off with a young Italian musician, abandoning young Percival. She left with her few jewels, and all the money in the house. The maid watched them leave, and no note was left for Josiah. If he was surpised or upset by his unfaithful wife’s behaviour, Josiah did not show it. Instead, he contacted his father and Arabella, arranging for his son to go and live in the family home. Araabella was more than happy to help raise the boy, and allowed his faithful maid to accompany him to his new home. Matthew now had both his grandsons under his roof, and vowed to make sure they were brought up well.

On a humid October day, Matthew was walking with his Estate Manager, when he suddenly clasped the side of his head, and fell onto the path. When workmen had got him up to the house and into bed, the doctor was sent for. After seeing his patient had no use of his left arm or leg, and was unable to speak clearly, it was a simple diagnosis that he had suffered a severe stroke. The doctor gave the news to Arabella. “Considering his age, it is remarkable that he survived. He will now need constant care and attention, I’m afraid, though he may well live for many years yet”.

She wrote to Josiah, but he had no time to get away to see his father. He recommended that Arabella appoint managers, or arrange the sale of those parts of the business that she could not cope with. But Arabella was made of sterner stuff, and threw herself into the daily running of the Dakin interests. Even though many of their staff and some of the customers disliked dealing with a woman, they valued the connection with the Dakin family highly enough to overcome their reservations. Arabella hired a nurse to see to her father-in-law, and a strong man to help carry him around. The estate carpenter fashioned a small wheeled cart, and Matthew could be taken out in fair weather, to get fresh air as he was pushed aound the grounds.

England was enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, and Arabella delighted in watching both the boys grow, bonding together more like brothers than first cousins. The town was still growing too, and Matthew’s decision to build the riverside house had been a good one, as the old house had now been surrounded by newly-built dwellings.

Mathew Dakin died peacefully in his sleep at the considerable age of seventy-eight. He left behind one of the wealthiest businesses in the south of England, all of which was inherited by his son Josiah. Arriving for the funeral looking elegant in his new Captain’s uniform, Josiah took Arabella to one side. He told her that he had no intention of leaving his army life for the dull business, and promised to make arrangements to see that her and Justin were financially secure, if she would consider staying on to run the house and dealing with the company affairs. That suited her well, as she was now something of a pillar of the community, and had turned down many offers of marriage since Thomas had been killed. She told him she had no intention of marrying ever again, and promised to care for Percival as if he was her own.

Tutors had been hired to educate both boys, and as they got older, it was clear that Justin had a head for figures, and an interest in mercantile matters. By contrast, Percival was obsessed with following his father into the army, and they agreed that he could go to military college when he was of age.

In the summer of seventeen forty-five, Josiah came to stay for the weekend, to see his family. As they enjoyed a picnic by the river, a messenger arrived. Josiah read the note, and jumped up.

“I have to rejoin my regiment. There is trouble in Scotland”.

With much of the army away fighting in Europe, Josiah’s regiment was sent north with little preparation. Edinburgh had already fallen to the Scottish army led by Charles Stuart, and by the time Josiah’s regiment had crossed the border, there was news of Cope’s defeat by the Scots at Prestonpans. Captain Dakin was nervous indeed. Not only had he never been tested in battle, but with the exception of a few of his sergeants, all of his troops were inexperienced. News was that troops were being recalled from the continent, but that would take time. Meanwhile, the Scots had bypassed Josiah’s position, and invaded England. Josiah spent a nervous winter expecting to be engaged in combat at any time.

After going south as far as Derby, the Scots returned before Christmas, fearful of the large approaching force led by the Duke of Cumberland. As the new year was celebrated in camp, Josiah relaxed, considering himself lucky that the regiment had not been involved. Cumberland was determined to do battle though, and Josiah received orders to prepare his company for the journey north to Inverness. On a misrable cold wet day that April, his stomach turning somersaults with fear, Josiah found himself with the army on some bleak moorland at a place called Culloden.

He was nonetheless cheered by two things. The first was that the English outnumbered the Scots considerably, and also had cannon in numbers. The second was that his regiment was designated a position at the rear, to be called upon as reinforcements if necessary. The artillery exchange was brief but noisy, and soon followed by the ragged charge of the Scots, their advance slowed by the sodden ground of the boggy moorland. Straining to see through the smoke from the musket volleys, Josiah bit his lip as the front ranks clashed. Not knowing what else to do, he drew his sword, if only to appear ready to fight.

But no order came to advance. The Scots were soon wavering, and that later deteriorated into a flight from the battlefield. English troops and cavalry pursued the retreating Scots, inflicting many more casualties. But for a relieved Josiah, it seemed to be all over. Not one of his men had so much as fired a shot.

Following some more time encamped in the area, Josiah received two pieces of good news. His company was to be used to escort Jacobite prisoners back to captivity in the south. They were destined for prison hulks, floating in the Thames estuary close to his home. And when they returned to barracks, he was to be promoted to the rank of Major. Irrespective of the fact that he had not taken part in a single engagement, his presence in the campaign against the Scots was to be rewarded.

When he had handed over the prisoners as instructed, Josiah returned to barracks and instructed his tailor to make him some fine new uniforms, as befitting his elevated rank. He also purchased a large white stallion, so that he would look his best on parade. His previous dull brown horse had never seemed fine enough to him, and it appeared to have lost its wind after the long winter in Scotland. On a sunny morning, he set out to impress his fellow officers with a ride around the area, leaving them lagging behind as they raced across the nearby fields. But the stallion balked at a stone wall, and he was thrown forward out of the saddle.

Lieutenant Foxworth reached the major first, finding him dead from a snapped neck.

Arabella took the news with her usual resolute manner. She arranged the funeral at the town church, and it was attended by the Colonel of the regiment, along with many of his fellow officers. The Colonel told her that he would arrange for Percival to get a commission as soon as he was of age, and with Justin soon ready to leave for college, she reflected that the house would feel empty by the end of the following year.

That December, a letter arrived from the boat yard manager. He had been approached with an offer to buy the business. Arabella thought she should at least investigate, and made the journey to London in snowy weather to meet with her lawyers, and the potential buyer. The offer was more than she had imagined, and getting rid of the boat-building business made sense to her, with both Percival and Justin occupied with other matters. But Percival was now the heir, as the son of Josiah, and she had to seek his agreement to conclude the sale on his behalf.

Still excited by the prospect of a commission, and consumed with his interests at the local military school, Percival was happy to follow her advice. The agreement was signed, with the huge sum doubling the wealth of the Dakin family overnight.

Arabella was very happy. The future of both boys was assured.

Three peaceful years had passed, with the Dakin family still properous under the careful guidance of Arabella. Justin returned from university, and took over the running of the companies, supervised by his mother. He became familiar with the various managers, bankers, and lawyers needed to continue the smooth running of the family interests. It was not long before a new arrival caught his eye. Hope Armitage was the daughter of Reverend Armitage, the recently appointed minister of the town church. They had arrived from Yorkshire that winter, and the rosy-cheeked young woman seemed to appreciate the attentions of the eligible Justin. He paid court on her respectfully, chaperoned by her maiden aunt, and it was soon agreed that the pair would marry when he was twenty-one.

In London, Percival had secured a commission in one of the regiments of foot guards, and was taking to his new role with relish. As well as cermonial duties around the city, he excelled on manoeuvres, and earned a name for himself as a student of military history and tactics too. He avoided the social circles in the capital, and showed no interest in the many balls and gatherings frequented by his fellow officers. After a trip back to the riverside house to visit his family, Justin asked him to deliver some important papers to the home of a London lawyer on his return. At the house, he was introduced to that lawyer’s sister, and was instantly smitten. Agatha Royston was a few years older, but that didn’t seem to bother Percival.

When a double wedding was suggested, Arabella was overjoyed. Reverend Armitage would marry both couples at the same service, and a grand party would be held at the house afterwards. And with the family lawyer now actually becoming part of the family, legal matters could be considered secure for the foreseeable future. After a joyous day, Arabella could not have been happier. She would now have two young women living with her and Justin in the house, and any future children they bore would add to the feeling of the house being alive again. After just three days, Percival had to leave his new bride to return to military duties in London, with Hope and Agatha introduced to the daily running of the house, and management of servants and staff.

As Justin grew in confidence with running the business, Arabella was pleased to resume a social life in the county, accompanied by the wives of the two men she regarded as both being her sons. Within the year, Agatha announced she was carrying a child, and the jealous Hope was praying for the same, with her prayers soon answered

After an examination by the town midwife, it was declared that Agatha was expecting twins. It seemed Percival had indeed done his conjugal duty before returning to military ones. A specialist doctor with a good reputation was summoned from Chelmsford, and his conclusion was the same. Percival was pleased at the news, but concerned for his wife’s safe confinement and delivery. Reverend Armitage came to the house to lead prayers for the unborn children, but Agatha was unconcerned. She announced that she would bear both children happily, with no fear of anything bad happening. As Agatha got close to her time, Hope also made her announcement.

Arabella was delighted.

With two midwives and the Chelmsford doctor in attendance, the twins were delivered during an unusually stormy night. A tiny girl appeared first, and Agatha named her Marjorie, after her late mother. A few minutes later, she delivered a much larger baby, a son she named Oscar Percival. Arabella sent a rider with the news to London, so that Percival would know of the birth the same day. Reverend Armitage was also informed, and arrived at the house by first light to bless the children. The household was excited by the news, and Arabella gave every member of staff two shillings to mark the event. When the rider returned with Percival’s message of delight, they also read that he was not able to get away to see his twins for at least a week.

The wet nurse who had been hired to feed the babies came to see Arabella on the second day. “‘Tis baby Marjorie, mistress. She cannot seem to feed, and she’s not thriving nor resting”. The town doctor examined the baby, and could find no immediate reason for her lack of interest in milk. He tried her with water, but she failed to keep that down too. “I fear a twisting of the stomach, dear lady. Her low weight and small stature seems to suggest a lack of nourishment in the womb too. All you can do is to keep trying”.
Try they did, but baby Marjorie did not last out the week.

Instead of coming home to celebrate the joy of the twin birth, Percival returned for the funeral of his daughter.

Although Goody Tuppy was departed, the town gossips still enjoyed talking about the notable family in the riverside house. More servants meant more sources of information, and Harker the coachman could easily have his tongue loosened by a flagon of cheap ale. The daily life of the Dakin family was known to all, supposedly even their few secrets behind closed doors. But as well as being known, it was also embellished, until the loyal Arabella became known as a dominant harridan, and Percival’s absences in the army were suspected of being a result of his not caring that much for his bride.

The accidental death of Josiah, followed by the passing of the twin Marjorie were greeted with nods and winks, with the older crones regailing new arrivals with the story that Isiah Dakin had fathered none of his children, before murdering his wife for her blatant infidelity.

They were silenced for a while by the arrival of Justin and Hope’s baby. A black-haired healthy boy, who was named James Justin. There were now two baby boys in the family, and the sadness over the loss of little Marjorie diminshed in the busy household. Percival visited his family, bringing news of the French defeat by Clive in India. This was welcome, as it meant his regiment would not be sent to support that war. Arabella enjoyed that busy weekend surrounded by those that she loved, and looked forward to quieter time, with the business continuing to prosper under Justin’s management.

Their home was further improved too, with the engagement of a notable landscape gardener to start to develop the surrounding land into a lovely park with follies and statuary. Justin was keen to create a pleasurable environment for the boys to grow up in, and a nice place for the ladies of the house to take their afternoon strolls. But after less than two years of that idyll, world events interrupted the peace of the land. With Percival now an army captain, all feared he might soon become involved.

Their fears were realised when Percival was granted leave to bid farewell to his family. He had expected to be sent to Europe, where the Prussian allies needed support to oppose the French coalition arranged against them. However, he brought the news that his regiment was setting sail for the Americas, to aid the militia fighting the French there. With his future uncertain, Percival convened a meeting with Justin and Arabella, asking the family’s lawyer to attend with his clerk.

It was his decision to divide the wealth of the family. In law, it was all his to do with as he wished, but he wanted to make sure that the family had no financial complications, should anything happen to him overseas. He instructed his father-in-law to draw up papers allocating half of all assests and land to Justin and his descendants. By doing so, he was assured that his wife and son would be cared for, and that Justin’s family would never be disinherited. After the clerk had finished writing the papers, and they were signed and sealed, the whole family gathered for an early dinner with the children.

The atmosphere at the table was one of enforced jollity. Agatha fought back tears as she realised that she might not see her husband again for years. Arabella kept the conversation flowing with dificulty, not wanting that last evening with Percival in the house to be a sad one.

With the winds against them, the voyage had taken almost twice as long as expected, and it was over sixty days before the vessels carrying Percival’s regiment reached port. He had suffered terribly from seasickness on the journey, and had to be carried off the ship on a litter by order of the surgeon. But there was little time allowed for recovery and recuperation, as the troops were ordered to French Acadia in Quebec, where they were to join a siege under the command of Colonel Monckton.

In early summer, during an assault on the French fort, Percival distinguished himself. During the action, he received a slight musket-ball wound to his forearm. He wrapped his neckerchief around it, and led his company back to safety with few casualties. By the time of the French surrender just two weeks later, his arm injury was festering, and he was running a high fever that gave him an insatiable thirst. One of the native guides was brought to inspect the wound, and applied a disgusting poultice to Pervival’s arm. Through an interpreter, he told the officer to leave it on for one week.

That night, the arm started to itch uncontrollably. Percival was unable to get to sleep in his tent, and could not scratch his arm through the thick bark-covered poultice. So he tore the thing off, and was relieved to be able to scratch at last. Flinging the smelly object outside his tent, he wrapped his arm in some muslin, and finally got to sleep.

By the end of the week, the fever had returned, and his arm was fire-red and grossly swollen. The wound itself had turned a bad colour, and the smell from it could not be covered up by cologne or pomade. He had no option but to visit the regimental surgeon, who reproached him at length for removing the poultice.

“There’s nothing else for it, Captain Dakin. The arm has to come off”.

Despite the involvement of Percival in what would later become known as The Seven Years War, the Dakin family enjoyed a business boom in his absence. War meant increased orders for leather goods, boots, and hats. Military contracts were sought after, bribed for, and secured. Justin took on more staff, and expanded the workshops at Hobbs in London. Arabella could not recall a time of such great prosperity, and she counselled her son to invest all that extra money carefully. Hope was happy to conceive again, and the news of her expectation brought her closer together with Agatha.

The long-awaited news from Percival was tinged with the sadness that he had lost an arm. But Agatha was so relieved that he had not died in combat, she stated she would be contented to have a one-armed husband, as long as he was alive. He reported that he was unable to travel home just yet, as the campaign continued apace, and ships could not be spared to carry home the wounded. The letter had taken months to arrive, and had been written not long after his surgery. Further cheer arrived with the birth of Justin and Hope’s second son, who was named Henry Justin.

Over in Canada, Percival’s recovery was slow, but successful. The surgeon had dosed him heavily with laudunum, before he had been held down by the assistants for the brief but excruciatingly painful removal of his arm above the elbow. Youth and fitness were on his side, and he survived the shock of the operation. But it seemed there could be little more he could do as a soldier, and leader of men. Talking with the Colonel, he sadly wondered if he would have to resign his commission. But the senior officer assured him that as long as he could sit on his horse, he could wave a sword with his good right arm, and inspire his men during battle.

As the army moved around engaging in more battles and skirmishes with the French, he remained in camp charged with overseeing the correct distribution of supplies and ammunition. After some years of this duty, with no sign of returning to England, he was summoned to join his regiment once again, as they headed for Quebec under command of General Wolfe. Percival was dismayed to learn this would mean once more taking ship, but slightly relieved to hear it would be along a river, not out at sea.

With the army closing on the French defences in and around Quebec City, the regiment was informed that it would be necessary to scale the Heights of Abraham, to surprise the enemy. Happy to be on dry land, even with no horse, Percival made the very difficult ascent up the cliff paths with the help of a strong sergeant-major. The next day, they took position on The Plains of Abraham to the left of the assembled army, and it was not long before they were engaged with French-Canadian militia volunteers in large numbers. Spurred on by their sword-waving captain, his company gave an excellent account of themselves, pouring volley after volley of musket fire into the attacking troops.

Sad news followed the battle. General Wolfe had been killed in action. And it was discovered that Montcalm lay mortally wounded in the French camp. But for Percival, it was a great success. He was mentioned in the regimental dispatches for his courage under fire, and told that he would be allowed home on the next ships returning to England before pack-ice stopped their progress along the river to the sea. Still wary of that long voyage to come, he was exceptionally pleased to be able to return to see his wife and son.

By the time they welcomed him back to the riverside house, his son Oscar was seven years old. He did not know his father at all, and he was shy around the one-armed stranger who he was told was his father. Agatha wept at the sight of her thin husband, trying not to look at the pinned sleeve on his uniform coat. Young James was less coy, happy to sit on the knee of the man he called uncle, and listen to stories of war in the far-off lands. Arabella was pleased to have the family all together again, and to hear the news that Percival was to be given a promotion to Major, and a safe job at the regimental headquarters in London.

At the end of the summer, it was announced that King George had died. He was to be succeeded by his grandson, who would be known as George III.

Approaching her sixty-fifth year, Arabella decided to leave the running of the household to one of the younger women, and the older Agatha asked for the role. She would henceforth be known as Mistress, and the servants would all report directly to her. With her husband mostly absent on military duties, she took to her role with gusto. Her first decision was to dismiss Harker. The coachman had said too much, to too many, and was frequently the worse for drink. Justin offered to speak to the man, but Agatha stood firm, and he was sent on his way without a reference.

She then personally undertook the hiring of his replacment, settling on a young Irishman, Fionn O’Hara. He had previously been employed by an aristocrat as a stable-lad, then promoted to assistant coachman.

His references from the Duke of Devonshire were impeccable

Justin was always keen to expand the business, and began to travel to nearby counties, buying up smaller businesses that had trades related to his company. Saddle and harness-makers were among his preferred purchases, along with various small hat-makers as far afield as Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Once he had control of all those, he started to centralise production by opening larger workshops in his home county, and employing and training many new workers as he did so. In no time he had a sizeable share of the market for such goods, and was in a position to dictate supply and prices over a large part of southern England.

Percival did his part too, suggesting that military contracts be given to the family firm, and using his position in the army to make the bribes and arrangements that delivered them. By the end of the year, Justin had been approached to stand for parliament, an offer he rejected out of hand. He knew all too well that association with one of the prominent political parties might well upset some of his customers, and was determined to keep the Dakin family neutral.

At the riverside house, Agatha busied herself with being in charge. Hope was happy to care for Oscar alongside her own children, and he would soon be leaving for school anyway. Arabella helped too of course, relishing her role as the grandmother figure to all. Young James was still insistent that he wanted a career in the military, and he was told that could be discussed once he had finished his schooling. Rather than employ tutors, it was agreed that both boys would attend the same boarding school, starting next term.

The presence of the genial new coachman had caused a stir with the household staff. Fionn flirted openly with the younger housemaids, and the scullery-girl was obsessed with him. But he avoided any real entanglements, as he did not want to lose the easy job as coachman to the Dakin family. In truth, he was little used. Master Justin travelled mostly by mail-coach, and Fionn’s duties were limited to taking the ladies of the house around the county to socialise with other wealthy families. And with her husband away most of the time in London, Agatha used the coach more than most.

It had not gone unnoticed that Agatha also used the family coach for pleasure trips in fine weather. That started with family picnics at the estuary coast, and later became rides on her own which she delighted in, saying the afternoon air was invigorating. Town gossips lapped up the sight of the mistress being driven around by the dark-haired, green-eyed coachman, and rumours were soon spreading that he was more than just a servant to Mistress Agatha.

They could not know that their suspicions were unfounded. Her move from being a lawyer’s daughter to mistress of a fine house, married to a very rich man, was not something she intended to jeopardise. She saw Fionn as nothing more than a servant, someone employed to do his duties as instructed. Against expectations, it was actually Hope that found herself tingling and blushing whenever the young Irishman helped her into the coach.

Once the older boys were away at school, young Henry received all the attention, becoming rather pampered and spoilt as a consequence. Without a son to visit, and a wife who was becoming bossy and above herself, Percival spent more and more time in London, eventually taking a mistress. She was given fine rooms in the city, and all of her expenses were paid by him too. By the end of that summer, they were seen around together at social functions, with all pretence abandoned. Lack of attention from her husband also guaranteed that Agatha had no more children, something else noticed by both the family, and the gossiping staff.

A letter was received from the school, regretting that they wished James to be removed from their charge. It seemed he was disruptive, badly-behaved, and a bully. That came as something of a shock to his parents, and it was decided that he should be allowed to go to military school in the south instead. By contrast, Oscar proved to be a dedicated scholar. He was fast to learn, and skilled in all subjects, especially mathematics.

Then Hope had her own news. With young Henry not yet five years old, she was expecting another baby. Justin was too busy to even think about the fact that he had not been around a great deal, and that his business trips now kept him away from home longer than ever before.

But Arabella was wiser, though she did not approach Hope on the matter. No good would come of accusations or suspicions. And an admission would only serve to shatter the peace of the family.

So she kept quiet, and gave Hope her congratulations.

When Hope’s new baby arrived, the family celebrated as normal. The boy was small but healthy, and he was named Abraham Justin. The mop of black curly hair and vivid green eyes were never mentioned, and Justin appeared to take to the new arrival without a second thought.

But Arabella and Agatha were watching Hope much more closely now.

Then when suspicion among the servants was at its height, Fionn asked permission to marry Molly, the scullery girl. As everyone assumed that the girl was with child, the marriage was allowed, and the happy couple moved into the coachman’s lodgings above the stable block. Arabella was relieved, but still uncertain whether or not the marriage was a contrivance to divert gossip and suspicion about the coachman and Hope Dakin.

Percival was rarely at home back then, but at least his son was still proving to be a reliable student. And James was flourishing well at the military school, with excellent reports arriving about him on a regular basis.

News from London was that Percival was still flaunting his mistress with abandon, and trying to get in with the social circle around the Royal Court. With the king being mocked, and accused of all sorts of eccentricity and madness, the power game behind the scenes was busier than ever.

That summer, Justin consolidated his business interests by investing in some new inventions that were changing the weaving industry. For the first time, the Dakin family became involved in the cotton trade, and Justin decided to travel to the West Indies and the American colonies, where he would invest in plantantions in an effort to control his supplies. After a long family discussion, it was agreed that Arabella and Agatha would oversee the business during his absence, assisted by the family lawyer and bankers.

With the leaves beginning to fall, Justin said his farewells, and took ship to America.

The Dakin family was now left with only women in charge. Percival still took no interest in commercial matters, and Agatha hardly heard from him bar an occasional letter asking after the health of everyone.

If Hope was missing her husband, it didn’t show. With a nurse caring for little Abraham, she resumed her round of social visiting, always using the coach and four driven by Fionn. When James returned from school for the holidays, she showed little interest in his tales of military life, and failed to notice that he and Oscar no longer seemed to get on. With the other women of the house occupied with business, the two boys spent most of the holiday apart. Oscar sat studying in his room, while James rode around the estate on a fine pony bought for him by Justin.

Life for the Dakins carried on much as it always had.

When news arrived from America, they discovered that Justin had been very ill with a fever. Doctors there had told him it was the ague, and might return. By the time the letters arrived, Justin had recovered, and sent news of the purchase of a huge plantation in the southern colonies. But he also told of trouble there, with many colonial settlers unhappy with taxation and trade laws coming from England. He predicted that there might even be civil unrest. But he had already bought substantial amounts of cotton that was being sent back by ship, and the thought of disturbances affecting production meant that it could be sold at huge profits once it arrived.

Arabella wrote the necessary letters to deal with the distribution of the cotton to the new mills part-owned by the family, and after meetings with the lawyers, the expected income was expected to be vast.

Unknown to the family in Essex, things were going awry with Percival. He had made bad choices of contacts, and his expected favour at court had not happened. Then his young mistress left for a new and more influential lover, resulting in Percival taking to drink. He was usually to be found the worse for brandy most days, and there was talk around the regiment that he would be asked to resign. When he was unable to stand to take parade one morning, the colonel wrote to him requesting his resignation.

Disgraced socially in London, Percival returned to the family home. Agatha was shocked at the appearance of her husband. Bloated, slurring his speech, and drinking brandy at breakfast, she was only too pleased that he never asked to come to her room any longer. Arabella tried to speak to him, but he became reclusive and stayed in his study at all times. The servants would find him slumped in the chair, not even having bothered to change his clothes, or retire to bed.

He was fast becoming an embarrassment to the family.

In the early Spring of the year seventeen seventy-five, life changed dramatically for the Dakin family, and their peace was shattered. At the end of a long and busy life, Arabella Dakin succumbed to old age, and was mourned by all. And after almost killing himself through strong drink, Percival saw the light, and slowly began to crawl out of his alcoholic haze. Long walks around the estate helped clear his head, and he sought the advice of Oscar to finally be able to assist him with the running of the family business in England.

Justin was planning his second trip to the Americas, where managers and overseers looked after the cotton plantation, and arranged for the raw material to be sent to England. He had never fully recovered from the fevers he had contracted there, but was reluctant to leave the booming trade in the hands of employees and agents. Following Arabella’s funeral, he left once again, despite rumours of serious trouble brewing in the colonies.

Then on an afternoon ride to see Miss Wiltshire at her home, Hope was bady injured when a broken wheel hub caused the coach to crash. Both her legs were broken just above the ankle, and Fionn carried her all the way back into the house before leaving again on horseback to summon the doctor.

James was by then an officer in the army, and he returned home briefly with news that his regiment was to be sent to the American colonies to deal with unrest. He said his farewells before reporting back to barracks, distressed to find his mother so gravely injured. With Henry due to join the army any day soon, and young Abraham away at school, the huge house felt strangely empty.

The local doctor sent for a surgeon from Colchester, and he brought an assistant to help try to set Hope’s broken legs. Even after copious doses of laudunum, the poor woman screamed loud enough to be heard throughout the house. Despite strong splints tied securely to both legs they could do little to alleviate her pain, and there was no chance of her being able to stand on them. With the coach undergoing repairs, Fionn was brought into the house to carry her around, and her maid had to see to her every need.

There was news from London of open warfare in the colonies, and the shock of a defeat by the colonials. Agatha was worried. Justin would have arrived not long before the fighting, and James was still on board ship on his way to what was fast becoming an all-out war. But within the week, things were happening at home that diverted their attention from colonial problems.

Hope’s legs had become infected, and when the doctor returned, he shook his head gravely. In his opinion, amputation was the only answer. Agatha sent for a specialist from London, regardless of the expense. That serious surgeon broke the bad news that the infection had already spread too far, and he feared amputation now would serve no purpose.

During the first week in May, Hope Dakin died in her bed. Percival decided not to try to send a letter informing Justin of his wife’s death. He had enough to worry about over there as it was.

For the family business, war was good in parts, bad in others. Military contracts helped sell more leather goods, and cotton production was increasing to meet demand too. But raw materials were not arriving, and there was no news from Justin. Oscar came back from a trip to London declaring that the finances of the Dakin family were stronger than ever. So Percival decided that the riverside house would be improved with the addition of a Palladian facade, and would henceforth be known as Dakin Hall. Since he had sworn off strong drink, he had immersed himself into the running of the estate, leaving most of the company concerns to his son Oscar.

As the year drew to its end, Agatha and her husband and son were now the only Dakins resident in the family home, with no news at all from the Americas.

The death of his sweetheart Hope left Fionn in a difficult situation. Her favours had guaranteed him an easy life, and secret gifts enabled him to live well. Now treated in every respect like any other servant, he took to stealing and pilfering whenever he got the chance. Anytime he was in the house he stole small ornaments, and extra food from the kitchens, which he sold in the town. The local gossips were active, and he knew it wouldn’t be too long before news reached the big house that he was known to be selling stolen goods.

Molly had no idea of her husband’s criminal activities. Although many had presumed she had been with child when she and Fionn married, she had not been. And even after the years of marriage, she had produced no children. Being the wife of the coachman suited her well, and she had been happy to leave her job in the scullery. But there was little to do as a wife, and she knew full well her husband was not romantically attached to her. Her life became one of boredom and routine.

So when Fionn disappeared one night, taking the mantel clock he had collected from repair, and a fine roan mare from the stables, she was not unhappy.

When Fionn was discovered to have made off with the horse and clock the constable was informed, though it was feared he would be well out of the county by now. By selling them in London, together with the expensive saddle, he could easily afford passage to Ireland and be left with a hefty sum to boot. Molly was questioned, and the lodgings searched. But they knew better than to blame the poor illiterate woman. Instead, they gave her a job attending to the many fires in Dakin Hall, and allowed her to share a room in the house with her replacement as scullery girl.

Agatha remarked that Molly seemed to be exceptionally happy once again.

When a letter finally arrived from Justin, Percival almost took to drink once again. News was that the colonies were in turmoil, with the British Army unable to keep order, or to win any significant battle against the growing colonial army. This was compounded by more news that the French were set to enter the war on the side of the colonists. That did not bode well for the cotton plantation, or the arrival of more raw materials for the cloth weaving factories. On top of that, Justin was ill, at least at the time of writing. The fevers had returned, and he had taken to his sick-bed.

Fortunately, Agatha managed to shake her husband from his gloom by suggesting he go to London and consult with his lawyer and bankers. The new coachman, William Frost, was instructed to take Percival the next morning, and to see to his transport needs whilst in the capital. The leather and hat businesses were managing well with reliable staff, and Oscar would stay behind to control the company affairs from the house.

There was still no news of James. His regiment would have arrived in the American Colonies by now, but they had to face the fact that any letter would take weeks to arrive, if not longer. By then the news it contained could be irrelevant. Henry had also joined his regiment, serving with the heavy cavalry. The family had paid for his mount and uniforms, as well as a fine sword and a brace of pistols. The strong young man cut a fine figure as a junior officer, and obviously loved the military life.

Following what was fast becoming a family tradition, Abraham returned from schoool on holiday, expressing a desire to also seek a career as a soldier, once his education was complete. Agatha agreed, but only if Oscar decided to marry, and hopefully carry on the name by fathering children. She said that they could not allow all the male members of the family to serve in the military, or the business would never flourish.

His choice of bride was rather surprising. Despite being the richest and most eligible bachelor in the county, Oscar chose to court the oldest daughter of John Marley, a seed merchant in the town. Marley offered a dowry as tradition dictated, but Oscar refused, claiming to be in love with the girl. Percival returned from London in time to raise objections, but Agatha supported her son. Prudence Marley might have been overly stout, with the complexion of a farm girl, but she was of solid county stock, and would make a loyal and obedient wife.

At her son’s request, the wedding was a quiet affair, with no huge function. Agatha welcomed her new daughter-in-law to Dakin Hall, and showed her the routines and duties required of her as a senior member of the household. Oscar had always been very serious and studious, as well as dull and scrupulous in business affairs. But the arrival of Prudence showed his lighter side, and the house felt happier than it had in a long time. Despite her humble background in trade, Prudence took to her wifely role with relish, making herself very popular with the servants and estate staff for her respectful attitude and fair dealings with them. She even declined the services of a personal maid, dressing herself each day, and tending to her own needs.

Following his discussions in London, Percival updated his wife and son. As the family fortune was divided equally between him and Justin, there would be a great problem should they need to realise assets, or sell off anything that was not profitable. All legal agreements required the signatures of both men, and Justin’s presence in the Carolinas was far from satisfactory. Oscar proposed they write to Justin, and ask for his signed power of attorney, enabling them to rightfully manage all affairs in his absence. That was agreed, and the letter carefully drafted.

Knowing it would take many months for any news to return, Percival continued overseeing the improvements to the house and grounds. When it was near completion, all the local gentry were invited to a grand ball, which Percival would use to show off the luxury of The Hall, and let everyone know just how established and wealthy the Dakin family were. That would guarantee the loyalty of his business contacts, and customers too.

On the night of the ball, a curly haired, green-eyed man boarded a French ship at Cherbourg, bound for the Caribbean.

Fionn had decided to try his luck in the Americas.

One morning at breakfast, Prudence announced she was with child, to the delight of the family. However, her thunder was stolen later that day, when a letter arrived for Percival. It was from the manager of the Carolina plantation, sent not long after the one from Justin. He regretted to inform them that Master Dakin had died of the ague, and had been buried in the grounds of the plantation house. He also asked for instruction about what he should do now that his employer was dead.

Although much saddened by Justin’s death, Oscar and Percival discussed the implications. The letter had been sent prior to the recent escalation of hostilities, so for all they knew their plantation may well have been abandoned, or captured by the Colonial Army by now. With the war hotting up there was no question of either man taking ship to America, so it was decided to send a letter to the manager telling him to do his best to keep things running. Given the delay before he received that, the future of their business in the colonies was uncertain, to say the least.

Prudence expressed satisfaction that the plantation might be no more. She hated the use of the African slaves as workers there, and was outspoken in her dislike of all slavery, which she claimed went against the will of God. Oscar shared her sympathies to some degree, but also knew that the investment had been huge, and any losses would be substantial. Secretly, he was relieved. The company was rich enough to take the loss, and the future of the cotton trade in America appeared to be doomed anyway. He would work on the basis that they would be unable to continue there, and concentrate on his profitable ventures in England.

There was no news of James until after the birth of a daughter to Prudence. She was named Charity Elizabeth Dakin, and was a bonny girl with fair hair. Prudence declined the attentions of both wet nurse or nanny, determined to be a mother in every respect. The letter from James was of course out of date, but he stated that he was fit and well, and stationed as part of the garrison at Boston. It was decided that the death of his father would be kept from him, rather than upset him when he was called upon to fight in a war. But during that summer, Boston was abandoned, and the colonists declared independence from Britain, with the French now openly supporting them with troops.

Such bad news for the country was nonetheless very good news for business.

The rest of that year was consumed with getting on with life as usual, and hearing nothing but bad news from America. The newspapers were reporting numerous defeats, and the expected victory against disorganised colonials had been anything but. At Christmas, Henry arrived home on leave, bringing the welcome news that his cavalry regiment would not be sent to America. Young Abraham was obsessed with his older brother, wanting to hear nothing but tales of the exciting life in the military. As he grew older, it was obvious to all but the blind that the youngest son bore no resemblance to his brothers. Although that fact did not go without remark among the gossips in the town, it was never even hinted at by anyone at Dakin Hall.

Early in the new year, Oscar agreed to buy the seed business from his father-in-law. This would enable Prudence’s parents to have a peaceful and early retirement to a cottage on the estuary. With both younger daughters now betrothed too, John Marley felt his years of hard work had earned him some peace. Now that the Dakin’s owned one of the largest seed merchants in the south, Oscar and Percival agreed to expand their business into buying up arable land. With Justin’s death, they no longer needed two signatures, and Percival sold off the cotton and weaving interests at a profit. Even taking into account the sum lost in the Carolinas, they were still an exceedingly wealthy family.

After a surprisingly easy voyage, Fionn had not tarried long in the West Indies before taking another French ship north. A fast sloop, able to avoid or outrun the British naval blockade, which in itself was being harrassed by French warships. Arriving in territory held by the Colonial Army, and his funds all but exhausted, he volunteered to serve with General Washington’s Continental forces against the British. Although the pay was low, and often scarce, he was able to get meals and clothing, as well as being supplied with a musket and ammunition. Having lied about being a soldier previously, he had to watch and learn from his new comrades in arms.

Rumour had it that they were marching to the siege of Boston.

By the time Fionn arrived in Boston, he was suffering from the cold weather, and his boots were worn out. Pleased to hear that the British had already withdrawn from the city, he made it his first task to slip away from his company to steal some new boots. Breaking down the flimsy shop door of a loyalist boot-maker, he threatened the terrified old man with his musket until he was provided with boots of a good fit. They were old ones, left for repair, but suited him well enough.

James was on a ship that had departed from the harbour at Boston. He was pleased to be leaving the place. The conditions during the recent siege had been bad, with fevers abundant, and lack of food. Overlooked by the Colonial Army, they had been subjected to occasional artillery bombardment as they manned the defences around the perimeter. They made a token defence until the ships could be loaded, and then they were told to board at the last minute, once the winds were suitable. The Colonel told him that they were heading for Canada, and there might still be sea-ice further north.

Oscar had a plan, and he outlined it to his father. He intended to buy up as much suitable arable land as he could find in the county, for the planting of wheat and barley, ready for the next year’s harvest. Rather than lease the land to tenant farmers, he would appoint managers to work for the Dakin family, so that the family received all of the profits.

The pair headed out in the coach with bags of coin, together with two well-built footmen armed with pistols, in case of highwaymen or robbers. William Frost was given a blunderbuss to keep next to his seat too. The care of the house was left to Agatha and Prudence, with the running of the business in the charge of their lawyer.

The sight of coin proved popular with landowners and struggling or elderly farmers around the county. Oscar had soon purchased many existing farms, small and large, as well as unused land suitable for crop cultivation. That would need work to clear it for planting, and contractors were also taken on. Deposits were given, with the promise of full pay on completion of the work. Attending to his contracts and paperwork whilst staying in an inn near the Suffolk border, Oscar told his father that he estimated the first profits to be realised within two years.

Back at Dakin Hall, Prudence could keep her secret no longer, and told Agatha she was with child again. Agatha smiled at the news. With little Charity still so small, Ocscar had not wasted any time.

After landing in Nova Scotia, James and his company were assigned to become part of General Howe’s advance on New York. Soon back on board ship, they set sail for Manhattan, where the campaign finally saw some success, as Washington had to withdraw his smaller army into prepared defences. Fionn had still never fired a shot in anger, though he talked a lot of bravado. Sensing panic in his colleagues when faced with the British force, he seriously considered deserting. But there was nowhere to go, so he stuck it out hoping the Colonial Army would retreat.

Buying up farms and land was not always so easy. Most had long-term tenant farmers. The news that they were no longer required by the Dakin family did not go down well. Almost all only had an agreement by either tradition or handshake, so Oscar and Percival were under no obligation to retain them, or to pay compensation. Such as it was, any notice given to those unfortunates was not compulsory, and they had few rights in law. Of course, none of that concerned either of the Dakin men. Their thoughts were only of business and profit.

Near the end of their trip around the county, they received a message from a landowner. He has sold them two small farms near Thaxted, and sent a letter to them at the nearby inn where they were staying. One of the tenants had been sucessfully evicted, but the second was refusing to go. He had threatened to spoil the land with tar, and was barricaded in his house along with his family. Oscar decided that it might be best to visit the troublesome farmer, and pay him off to avoid further bother.

The farmhouse looked like little more than a hovel, and the nearby barn was in a sad state of repair too. Oscar and Percival agreed that it should not take too much coin to pay this impoverished man to seek employment elsewhere. They left the coach, and walked up the rutted path, calling to the farmer to show himself. In reply, the furious man poked a double-barrelled fowling piece through the open shutter of a window, and discharged the weapon at them, firing high.

But not high enough.

Percival was closer, and received a charge of birdshot in his throat, directly under his chin. Oscar was also hit on the side of his face, but was able to keep upright. The footmen they had brought from Dakin Hall came rushing forward at the sound of the shot. They managed to burst in and disarm the man as he frantically tried to reload.

But it was too late for Percival, who lay dead on the filthy, straw-covered ground. And despite the coachman rushing Oscar to Thaxted to see a doctor, his right eye could not be saved.

The rest of the year passed with a solemn mood presiding in the Dakin household. Although Agatha was not unduly distressed by the death of her once wayward husband, Oscar’s mood had darkened after the loss of his eye. Though he still treated his family well, he became unduly harsh in his business dealings, and his desire to expand them knew no bounds. Wearing one or other of many eye-patches lovingly fashioned by his wife, his now fearsome visage sent chlls through anyone encountering him.

The footmen who had tackled the farmer were handsomely rewarded for their bravery. The man had never got to trial, after blows from the two men had broken his skull in many places. The largest and strongest of the pair, John Simpson, was given a new role as bodyguard to Oscar. His smart uniform was accompanied by a fine pistol, and a short cutlass. That man’s presence during any trade dealings was guaranteed to stop any potentially violent argument.

Oscar was mellowed slightly by the arival of his second child, a son. The boy was named Oliver Percival, in a break with Dakin tradition. Both mother and child were fine and healthy, but Oscar stayed at home for some time after the birth, leaving his ventures in the care of managers. Early the following year, Henry announced his intention to marry the daughter of his regimental colonel, young Esmerelda Pine. The spring wedding in London was a grand affair, and the match saw Henry soon promoted to Captain.

In spite of her protests, Esmerelda was brought to reside at Dakin Hall. She found the place too provincial after the social life of London, and made her displeasure known. Agatha took no time putting her in her place, but the resulting atmosphere cast its own shadow over life for the Dakins. That summer, Abraham finished his education, and entered the army as a junior officer. Using contacts as was their habit, Oscar managed to get him assigned to the prestigious Highland Division, and he left for Scotland to join his regiment.

Not long after that, there was news from james. The British had all but lost the war against the American colonies, and he was sure that he would be coming home soon. The letter was old news of course. The family was all-too aware that the war was dragging on.

By the time he finally arrived home, James was unrecognisable as the young officer that had left all those years earlier. Thin and pale, looking more than his age, and shocked at the news of what had ocurred during his absence. Despite being close in age to Oscar, he looked ten years older. After being granted some leave to recuperate, he went back to his regiment with the rank of Major. The loss of the colonies did not unduly affect the family business though. People still needed leather goods and hats, and the crops had done well too, after a slow start. Getting rid of the cotton interests had proved to be a wise move, and propserity was still the norm for them.

One balmy afternoon, Charity was playing with her younger brother by the new ornamental lake. Prudence was bored, listening to Esmerelda complain about the lack of fashionable clothes and hats in the town’s shops. She was asking whether she might be allowed to send a letter to her London hat-maker when a scream came from the side of them. Chasing a hoop rolled by Oliver, Charity had fallen backwards into the lake, and was nowhere to be seen. Oliver was screaming uncontrollably. Although unable to swim, Prudence did not hesitate to wade into the lake, shouting to Esmerelda to take charge of her son.

As the distraught woman waded deeper, reaching under the water to try to find her daughter, Esmerelda snatched up young Oliver and ran for the house to summon help, shouting as loud as she could once within sight of the main doors. Alerted by her cries, Oscar ran out with two footmen, William Frost the coachman, and his bodyguard Simpson, all sprinting for the lake. He ran straight into the water, followed by his retainers. Simpson reached down into the green water, and waved his hands around in circles, finally coming into contact with something. Helped by Frost, he hauled the lifeless body of Prudence Dakin up onto the bank, her heavy clothes sodden and wrapped around her. Oscar and one of the footmen were swimming further out, constantly bobbing under, trying to find little Charity.

It was almost sunset when they found the child, after over two hours of searching.

Oscar carried his daughter’s body up to the house. His eye patch had come off in the water, and his servants were shaken by the terrible expression on his face. She was taken into the morning room, where Prudence lay completely white, and still wet. Other servants had retrieved her body on a small hand-cart. With his voice calm, Oscar thanked the men involved in the attempted rescue, and promised them rewards.

Then he went up to his son’s room, and sat on the bed next to the sleeping boy.

By the time Fionn’s company got to the fight at Yorktown, it was all over. The British had surrendered, and Washington had won the war. He had managed to get through the whole war without once firing a shot in the direction of the British, and had emerged on the winning side. Robbing a few dead bodies along the way had provided him with some coin, and a couple of fine pocket-watches, but life in the new America, victorious or not, held little appeal for him.

He managed to slip away quietly, selling his booty to pay for passage on a French ship bound for Haiti. There was a good living to be made there, as a slave overseer on sugar plantations. He kept his musket, and a sword and pistol that he had looted from a dead officer.

They would come in useful down there, he was sure.

During the years following defeat in America, life carried on as normal for the Dakin family. Agatha did her best to try to make Esmerelda take some responsibilty around the house, but following the birth of her son Richard Henry, in 1780, she had taken to her bed claiming an attack of the vapours, and was rarely seen again downstairs. The infant was left in the care of a nurse, a kind lady who treated him as her own. With Oliver at school, the now sullen Oscar remained fixed on business, and refused to disuss the prospect of remarrying. Running the household fell completely to Agatha, who remained doughty, despite her advancing years.

New gossips in the fast-growing town still made much of the misfortunes that had befallen the richest family around, and one toothless widow spoke openly of The Dakin Curse, brought on by the unfaithful Clara, and her murder at the hands of her husband Isiah. But with the vast majority of the local people reliant on the Dakin businesses and custom for employment or trade, they never received any open criticism to their faces.

In the summer of 1789, James visited from London with shocking news. There had been an uprising in France, and the common folk had taken control of that country. Wealthy landowners and noblemen had been imprisoned, some even killed. Europe was in uproar, and there were rumours of war. Oscar liked the sound of that. War was good for business, even if it meant many of his own family might have to leave to fight in it. He began to make plans to increase leather production, and to buy more farmland for the food that would be needed. At the suggestion of one of his banker friends in London, he bought the controlling interest in a gunpowder works too.

Oscar Dakin would welcome war with relish.

News from the continent became increasingly worrying. The French Revolutionary Army was invading neighbouting countries, their King was said to be in custody, and many aristocrats were trying to flee across to England. This turmoil across The Channel was all music to Oscar’s ears, as he wisely invested in anything needed for the impending war effort. The mlitary men in the family were each recalled to duty. In Scotland, Abraham had secured a move to the Scots Greys as a junior offcer. He wrote asking for the funds to purchase his new unitfom, and a fine grey horse to fit in with the regimental tradition.

Life in Haiti had proved to be idyllic for Fionn. He had easily secured a job as an overseer, and showed a ready ruthlessness when dealing with the slaves under his control. Quick to use the whip, and also to avail himsself of the forced pleasures of young female slaves, he became hated by all, even by some of his colleagues. After an argument about a card game, he had killed the chief overseer in what was judged to be a fair fight. The plantation manager was happy to promote him immediately, and he moved into the comfortable bungalow with its own house slaves. He selected some of the youngest women to move in with him too, providing himself with a veritable harem.

Both the slaves and the manager began to call him Fionn le Roi, at least when he was out of earshot.

The expected war with the French began with a campaign in the Low Countries. James received orders to go with his regiment, but Henry and Abraham stayed in England. It was late in 1793 when news of a defeat by the French at Hondshcoote reached Dakin Hall. But as for what had happened to James, nobody seemed to know. As the family anxiously waited for news, the continuing war spread to the colonies, as each nation tried to protect and secure their wealthy assets abroad.

It was a cold February the following year when James returned. Shaken and exhausted, he had survived the battle, but his mind was elsewhere.

On a bitterly cold afternoon that December, Jarvis the butler heard the large bell ringing at the main door. He slipped on his formal frock coat, and went to open it. In front of him was a short girl, ginger curls bursting out from under her small bonnet, and a face white and frozen with the cold. She managed a cursory curtsey, and put down a cloth bundle as she handed him a letter. He saw it was addressed to Oscar Dakin, so showed the girl how to enter by the trades entrance at the back, telling her to wait in the kitchen.

Oscar read the letter twice, shaking his head. It was from Abraham, and introduced the girl as his wife, Aileen Mackenzie. She was the daughter of a tavern-keeper, and barely sixteen years old, almost half Abraham’s age. She was at least three months with child, his child, and Abraham had done the decent thing, with a hurried wedding in a parish church outside of Edinburgh. He had then sent the girl south by mail coach to London, and from there to Colchester, where he had told her to hire a carter to bring her to Dakin Hall. He pleaded with Oscar to care for her, and to welcome her into the family. She could read and write, he said, and would prove to be a loyal wife, he was sure.

Jarvis was told to bring the girl to the study, where she sat gazing in fear at Oscar’s eye patch, and disfigured face. He explained the domestic situation to her, and told her that Agatha and Esmerelda would have to take charge of her, to educate her in the ways of a lady of consequence. Not knowing what to say or do, and exhausted from her journey, Aileen showed Oscar the cheap wedding band on her finger, and thanked him for his kindness. As she was led away by Mrs Knight, the new housekeeper, Oscar called out that she should be fed, bathed, and given a change of clothing.

Fionn heard the news two days after the event. There had been trouble to the south. The slaves were in revolt, and white men were being killed. Houses and crops had burned, and rumour was that a substantial slave army was roaming the countryside almost unopposed. At the plantation where he worked, inland from Cap Haitien, the owners and managers were getting a militia together to defend their interests, as they themselves prepared to escape the island. All the slaves were now ordered to be shackled or tied together at all times, even when working in the fields. Any white man willing to fight for pay was being employed as extra guards, from the pickpockets of the coastal towns, down to released prisoners and local vagrants. Fionn was now in charge of a team of unsavoury characters, all well-armed, and edgy and nervous too.

Nobody was prepared for the sheer size of the slave army that quickly moved across the north of the island, killing and burning as they went. On Fionn’s plantation, they felt secure behind their well-constructed defences, but with some sixty white men available to fight, and most untested in battle of any kind, the news that almost one hundred thousand were against them left them in no doubt what to do. They chained the slaves together inside their huts, and ran for the coast. Fionn was hoping to get on a ship to anywhere, with enough plunder taken from the plantation house to pay his passage. But with an old winded horse, and the whole area in turmoil, he was forced to hide in some undergrowth, still a good distance from any port.

They found him still sleeping, but their shouts woke him up. He knew better than to try to buy them off, so made a fight of it as best as he could. The first three to appear through the thick leaves were shot down by his musket and pistols. But there was no time to reload, as the next dozen or more charged him. In moments, he was hacked to pieces, by ex-slaves using the very pangas they had once been given to cut the sugar cane.

They left his body where it was, took his weapons and horse, and moved on.

Agatha was bleeding again. As she woke up that morning, she could sense the sticky mess between her legs, and under her nightwear. What had started weeks earlier as an annoying occasional drip, was fast becoming a nightly flood. For days now, it had got so bad that she had instructed the maids to just burn the sheets, as they could no longer get them clean. Standing in front of her dressing mirror, she ran a hand around her gaunt face, feeling the hard jawbone stretching the skin. She could put it off no longer.

A message was sent to the surgeon in Colchester. He should attend at his earliest convenience.

The surgeon examined Agatha in the presence of her maid, to maintain decorum. He pronounced his diagnosis of a growth in her womb with a solemn expression. She had guessed as much already, given the unusual swelling of her lower belly, and the cramping pains that often preceded the loss of blood. There was little he could do, as he feared cutting her open would undoubtedly kill the poor lady. He left her a strong potion for the pain, and advised her to take a double dose when she was very uncomfortable.

Agatha had no intention of dulling her senses with the opium compound. Instead, she sent for notebooks, and set about writing down all she knew of the history of the Dakin family. Letters and journals stretching back to the time of Isiah Dakin had been discovered in a box in the attic during the last renovations, and she had kept them safe in her room, locked in a trunk. There was also an old family Bible, with notations of the births, marriages, and deaths that had preceded her arrival at the riverside house. Agatha added two loose pages to that, completing the family tree with what she knew up to that time.

Aileen proved to be a wonderful additon to the household. With Esmerelda as good as useless as lady of the house, the pregnant girl studied carefully under the instruction of Agatha. She took it upon herself to spend time with the cook and her assistants, to speak to Jarvis about his function, and to encourage the housemaids with her friendliness and down to earth manner. Despite her youth and condition, she fast became very popular, even with Oscar. The one stumbling block was her strong Scottish accent, which necessitated her having to constantly repeat herself when speaking. Agatha employed a tutor to travel daily from Colchester, so he could educate the girl in how to make herself better understood, and also give her some encouragement in reading so as to better herself. Her presence was just what Agatha needed to try to fight her terminal illness, and to hope to live long enough to see the Dakin family well settled.

Henry arrived home on leave, startled by the news that there was a new wife in the house, and a child soon to be born. But he was more concerned about the condition of James. The confusion in his mind had not healed, and he spent much of his time walking around the estate, as if in a dream. No less than three doctors had examined him carefully, and all agreed there was nothing to be done. He had been given his own rooms in the new East Wing, and a young man had been employed to stay with him at all times, lest he wander away and get lost. Henry was also appalled at the behaviour of his wife, Esmerelda. He went into her room and much shouting and reprimanding could clearly be heard, even from the floors below.

His scolding seemed to do some good, at least for a while. Esmerelda joined the family for dinner, though her tiny portions were laughable. She also sat with them in the late evening, as they discussed business and family matters. But she insisted on being close to the fire, and constantly complained of feeling cold. When he went back to his regiment, Esmerelda returned to her old ways. But it was not long before she discovered she was with child again.

Henry had obviously done more than just shout at her.

During the first week in May, Aileen delivered a healthy boy child, with the ease of a sheep lambing in a field. At the request of her absent husband, the boy was named Spencer Abraham, and his bright red hair matched that of his young mother. Not long after that, Richard returned from his education, now a strapping young man. He seemed somewhat embarrased to find his mother expecting again, and that may have encouraged him to discuss a career in the military, asking to follow in his father’s footsteps. He didn’t bother to consult his disinterested mother, so spoke about his desires with Oscar and Agatha. She was now confined to her sick-bed. Frail, and close to the end. She advised Oscar to let the boy do as he wished, adding that if it didn’t suit him, he could easily come back and study the family business.

On the day that Richard left for his training as an officer, Agatha died in her sleep that night.

Young Aileen had to step up immediately, becoming the lady of the house despite her age. Esmerelda had confined herself because of her expected baby, and was rarely out of her room. With baby Spencer cared for by a nurse during the day, Aileen took charge, putting into practice everything she had been taught by Agatha.

Though she added a few ideas of her own too.

Dakin Hall benefited greatly from Aileen becoming the mistress. The staff were given increases in pay, and allowed better food too. They were also called by their names, rather than the use of such terms as ‘Girl’, or ‘You’. Aileen also insisted that they accompany the famly to church on Sundays, and local carters were hired to save them the long walk. Everyone who worked in or around the house had never been more content, and jobs at The Hall became the most sought after in the county.

Aileen’s no nonsense atitude changed the atmosphere in the family too. She allowed Esmerlda to continue to do nothing, and left her to it without complaint or bitterness. James continued to be cared for, and his every need taken care of. Oscar was suitably impressed, and told Abraham what a wonderful job his young wife was doing. And Abraham’s all too brief visit that year left Aileen expecting another addition to the family too. Then Oliver returned from his education, set to study under his father with a view to taking over the business one day. With some of the Dakin men still serving in the military, his once professed desire to follow them was not allowed.

The young man was overwhelmed by Aileen, though she failed to notice his growing obsession with her.

The new mistress was just as popular around the town. Respectful greetings followed her every appearance, and she was always addressed as Mistress Dakin. Her polite manner impressed tradespeople and shopkeepers alike, yet all could see she was no fool, despite her youth. The polite society of the county was less enamoured, and social invitations faied to appear for the daughter of a tavern-keeper. But this was as nothing to Aileen, who was relieved not to have to suffer the boring tea parties and stuffy dances.

In the quiet of her own room, she kept up the journal that she had discovered. Her careful script continuing to relate the day to day life of the family, and the world events surrounding them too. And she was sure to set time aside for little Spencer, delighting in late afternoon play with her son.

That winter was harsh, and continued to be so as the year turned.

One snowy night, Esmerlda went into labour. No doctor or midwife could get up to The Hall in time, so Aileen tried her best with the delivery, helped by two maids, and the cook. But the child was not breathing when it appeared, and no amount of rocking it before the fire or slapping the infant would work. When the town doctor arrived just before dawn, he pronounced the baby dead, and turned his attention to Esmerelda.

She had continued to bleed following the delivery of her stillborn daughter. Years of eating little and taking no exercise had left her weak too, and with no hope of a surgeon arriving from Colchester, Esmerelda died just before midday.

Despite her exhausting night, Aileen immediately wrote letters to Henry and Richard, informing them of the terrible news. Both were unlikely to get leave, and the travel conditions were such that they would be unable to get home in time anyway. Esmerelda was interred in the family plot in the town churchyard the following afternoon. Her baby was named Florence, and buried in the coffin with her.

Ignoring the sadness affecting the family, Aileen determined to not only keep the household running as normal, but also to ensure that the poor people around the town did not suffer due to the continuing winter. She spoke to Oscar and Oliver about deferring some payments due from tenant farmers, and organised the distribution of bread and vegetables to those suffering hardship. By the time the thaw began, and Abraham was able to return home, he was delighted to see his young wife so well regarded by all.

She also remained unaware of the hidden affections of Oliver, and his jealousy at her carrying a child. The young man became withdrawn and churlish around her, causing her to wonder what offence she might have inadvertantly shown him. For his part, he took out his frustrations on the local wildlife, becoming a keen hunter. He also began to associate with some of the town girls, much to the disapproval of his father. Oscar seriously considered sending him off to the army after all, but needed to know he had someone capable of passing on the business to.

By the time Aileen successfully delivered a second son, Oliver hardly spoke to anyone, and spent much of his free time carousing around the town.

The new baby was named George Abraham, and his bright red hair was just like his mother’s.

The autumn of the year 1805 brought sad news from the town. Admiral Nelson had been killed during a great sea battle fought in Spanish waters near Cape Trafalgar. Even delight at the resounding victory was overshadowed by the national mourning at the loss of such a beloved warrior. There was a special church service in his memory, and all attended, packing the interior, with some having to stand outside.

Now almost twenty-seven years old, Aileen had not managed to bear more children. After numerous miscarriages, it had been confirmed that she was unlikely to have more success. So she kept her young sons close, with tutors employed to teach the boys at Dakin Hall. They were growing fast, and George proved to be the livelier, athletic one, with Spencer studious, and slightly withdrawn. When Oscar urged her to send them away to boarding school, she flatly refused to discuss it. Knowing that he relied on her to be the lady of the house now, Oscar gave up.

The last few years had seen Oliver become a man of two halves. He learned the ways of business from his father during the day, but most nights he would ride into town, where he kept bad company with young drunks, and girls of loose morals. Oscar had been forced to pay off the families of no less than three girls claiming to be bearing the children of his careless son. Still determined to have his heir carry on the business, he contantly forgave the defiant Oliver, and continued to fund his reckless lifestyle.

But one cold December afternoon, everything changed.

Aileen still loved to take time to play with her sons once their studies finished in the afternoon. Sencer now considered himself to be too old for such frivolity, but George loved to play. And his favourite game was hide and seek. Aileen had to count loudly to one hundred, as her son ran around trying to find a good place to conceal himself. They agreed that if he was not discovered in around thirty minutes, he would reveal himself, and claim to have won. With such a large house and grounds, he usually did win.

That particular afternoon, George had no taste for concealment in the cold outdoors, so found himself a corner in one of the old stables that was rarely used since the construction of a smart new stable block two years previously. By good fortune, Aileen had spotted him from a first floor window, given away by his flame-red hair. She smiled to herself, happy to have the luxury of knowing his whereabouts. To make it look more convincing, she waited fifteen minutes according to the mantel clock, before wrapping a shawl around against the cold, and heading out to pretend to have finally found her son.

But someone else had found him first.

Oliver had already been drinking, despite the time of day. She could hear it in his voice. He was holding a letter-opener, one that resembled a small dagger. George was smiling at first, thinking it was all part of the game. But his smile faded at the look of concern on his mother’s face as she saw Oliver point the blade in the direction of George’s neck. With his eyes wild, and his voice slurring from the brandy, Oliver told her to go into the next stall, where he intended to have his way with her. If she made no fuss, George would be safe, and nobody would know.

He hadn’t reckoned on her being both brave and resourceful. She was also very fast. Grabbing some old heavy harness draped around a stall, she whirled it once around her head, and flung it at Oliver. It struck him full in the face, causing him to rock backwards, and drop the sharp letter-opener. Screaming at George to run for the house, Aileen rushed forward and picked up the harness, lashing it at Oliver’s face time and again, until her strength failed her. Breathing hard, she looked down at Oliver sprawled on the wooden floor. His face was cut badly, and bleeding, and there were bruises already visible on his neck. But he was still breathing.

Still enraged, she began to kick him in the body, as hard as her small feet in buttoned boots would allow. She was still kicking him when Oscar arrived to pull her away.

A doctor was called, and a story concocted that Oliver had fallen from a horse whilst drunk. Whether that story was believed or not was neither here nor there, as the doctor was paid handsomely. With bandages applied, and a diagnosis of three broken ribs, the unapologetic Oliver was sent to his room to recover. He was forbidden to emerge, even for Christmas dinner, and his meals were served in his room.

Such an offence against the mistress of Dakin Hall could never be forgiven, Oscar knew that. Not long after the turn of the year. Oliver was sent away in disgrace, ordered to start a new life in the Australian colony, with sufficient funds to last him for one year.

Not one member of the family watched him leave.

The early spring of 1815 brought worrying news along with the emerging daffodils. Bonaparte had escaped from his island prison, and had landed in France. Joined by his former followers and army commanders, he looked set to resume his previous plans to conquer Europe. The preparations were in hand to send a vast army to defeat him. Aided by the Prussians, Russians, and the Austrians, they would do their best to defeat the hated republican, and his much feared Grand Army.

For the Dakin family, this was dire news indeed. Henry and Abraham were serving with cavalry regiments, and despite their ages, would of course be expected to go to the continent to fight. Richard, as a captain of infantry, had received orders to go. Only George was not yet serving, and despite his pleas, he was not allowed to enlist. Abraham was now a major in the Scots Greys, and Henry a regimental colonel in the heavy cavalry. There was no time for family farewells, as orders were given for the massive movement of troops by ship to the continent. The Duke of Wellington was to take command of the British forces, and that cheered the spirits of all involved.

Now almost twenty years old, Spencer had wasted no time getting to grips with the management of the estates, and family business. He had become Oscar’s right hand man in all things, and that had pleased the head of the family no end. Aileen still ran the household with complete precision, and care for the staff, and her economies had greatly pleased Oscar, who had come to love her as a sister.

On the eve of the seventeenth of June that year, all three members of the Dakin family still serving the colours found themselves in a rain-soaked camp in Belgium. It was around one mile from the village of Waterloo, and Wellington had decided that this was the place where he would stop the French advance. He had chosen the ground well, with the French disadvantaged by both terrain, and mud. The battle was expected to start soon after first light, and nobody was left in any doubt that it might well decide the fate of Europe for years to come.

Henry was aware of Abraham being nearby with the Scots Greys. But neither of them knew that Richard was also there with his regiment. When the French artillery began firing in the early afternoon, their attack delayed by sodden ground, they had no alternative but to sit and wait on their horses, on the flank of the main army. The Prussians had not arrived, and even the lowliest infantryman knew full well that they were outnumbered.

Richard and his company had been assigned to the defence of the fortified farm, known as Hougoumont. When the French artillery began its bombardment of the lines, it was all he could do to hold his water in his fear. Not long after, elite French infantry appeared, and the fight for the farm was on. Despite his terror, Richard fought fuelled by adrenaline. When he broke his sword against that of a French officer, he grabbed a fallen musket and skewered the man with its bayonet, screaming like a wild man from the hills. Then he took up the Frenchman’s sword, and rallied his company like a man posessed. The fight for the farm continued long after the sun began to set, with Frenchmen scaling the walls, and being shot down in scores when they reached the courtyard.

Richard finally got to slake his thirst, drinking the acrid water from the canteen of a dead sergeant. He was covered in the blood of his enemies, and that from many wounds on his own arms and face. But the regiment held the position, though suffering considerable losses. When no more Frenchmen appeared, he collapsed exhausted onto the damp earth. He had never felt so tired in his life, and his breathing was laboured by the smoke from the burning roof, and the gunpowder hanging over the battlefied like a fog.

When the Scots Greys were ordered foward against the French artillery, the middle-aged Abraham took part in the most exhilarating moment of his life. With infantry clutching their stirrups, they advanced in a famous and unstoppable charge. But Bonarparte had seen their courage, and sent his Polish Lancers aganst them, from the rear. Abraham didn’t even see the slim lance that entered his back, as he was so excited by the thrill of the attack he was engaged in.

The lancer skilfully withdrew his lance, and looked for another target, as Abraham Dakin slipped slowly from his saddle onto the churned-up mud of that Belgian field, He was dead before his body hit the ground, killed in his one and only battle.

Richard and Henry had fared better. They lived to celebrate the victory, and the end of Napoleon.

Richard and Henry managed to arrange for Abraham’s body to be returned to England by ship. It cost a pretty penny, but they did not want him buried in a Belgian field. The funeral at the local church was a quiet and sombre affair, though even dressed in mourning black, Aileen attracted a lot of attention. Desspite her genuine love for her deceased husband, she shed no tears in publlic, and retained the dignity expected of the mistress of Dakin Hall.

Oscar now turned his attention to finding a suitable wife for Spencer. With George now being allowed to follow his late father into military service, and the unmarried Oliver exiled to the colonies, Oscar was keen to ensure the Dakin name lived on through Spencer. On his twenty-first birthday, he was married by arrangement to the daughter of the head of one of the banks in Colchester, Penelope Harding. They had only met formally and briefly on two occasions, before the match was agreed by Oscar and Mortimer Harding.

The serious Spencer hardly looked at his fair-haired bride throughout the ceremony, and for her part, the nineteen year old seemed bored by it all. Physically, they were an odd pair. Penelope was actually much taller than her new husband, and her fine features were nothing like the ruddy, countryman’s face of the man she had no option but to marry. For Oscar and Mortimer, combining the county’s most prosperous business with one of its wealthiest banks was a perfect marriage indeed.

After standing as best man for his brother, an excited George left the next day to begin a career in the army.

Although Penelope’s arrival in the house was anticipated with some trepidation, she was kindness itself when the couple returned from a short honeymoon in Bath. Although she had lived well in her father’s fine town house in Colchester, the grandeur and opulence of Dakin hall was beyond her expectations as a bride, and the wealth of the family would provide her with security, as well as the latest fashions in dresses and hats. Ten days in the company of Spencer had also shown her that he could easily be manipulated, and was unlikely to bother her much above the obvious need to father some children.

Penelope was content, and showed respect to all around her, including Aileen.

Spencer took on much more of the business affairs following his wedding, but he still made time to father two children, in quick succession. Less than one year after the marriage, Arthur was born. He was given the middle name of Mortimer, as a nod to his wealthy grandfather. The following year, Millicent Alice was born, her red hair not unlike that of her grandmother’s. Penelope made little of both confinements, and both children came into the world with no fuss or bother for them or their mother. Aileen was happy to see her daughter in law was a kind and good mother, all of which boded well for her future as the mistress of the house one day.

But more sadness befell the family during that hot summer just after little Millicent was born. James was found dead in his rooms by his manservant. He had hung himself using the strong cords attached to the curtains, his mind presumably no longer able to cope with whatever distress had plagued him for so long. Oscar paid the doctor handomely to issue a death certificate of natural causes, so that James could receive a Christian burial, and nobody would talk of him as a suicide. There was not a single member of the family who did not consider it to be a blessed relief, both for James, and for all of them too.

Oliver Dakin had not made it to Australia. He met some men on board ship who were heading for the Cape Colony, at the tip of southern Africa. They spoke of cheap land, the possiblity of farms as big as English counties, and a temperate climate that would serve their endeavours well. Their eyes flashed greedily when they related tales of rich gold mines, and diamonds too. He threw in with them, and left the ship when it stopped in port to replenish supplies. The territory had been Dutch controlled, but the British had captured it during the wars with France. There was room enough for all in such a vast landscape. Oliver left his new companions soon after, allowing them to wallow in their dreams of gold and jewels.

He had his eyes on a more tangible prize. Cattle.

With land easy to acquire, and native labour cheap and plentiful, he soon established a large cattle farm. The growing colony needed beef, and he resolved to become the major supplier of that commodity. He had the drive to do it, and the necessary mean streak to make his business succeed. Putting his wild youth behind him, he decided that he would show his father just what he was made of.

After serving as the Regent for many years, Prince George became king upon the death of his father, early in the year 1820. Never a popular prince, he was equally unpopular as George IV, with his love of spending money and amusing himself seeming to take precedence over the serious matter of ruling his subjects fairly.

That same year, Penelope gave birth to her third child, a chubby boy they named Roderick Spencer. Oscar was all but in retirement now, spending much of his time alone in his study, though always available to offer advice and support to Spencer as he managed the family businesses. With Penelope’s help, Aileen kept the house running smoothly, and they now employed more servants than ever before, to ensure that everything was always just so.

Richard had been promoted after his brave fight at Waterloo, and was now one of the youngest Colonels in the Army. He decided to marry at long last, and was bethrothed to the daughter of a local landowner in Yorkshire, the rather plain Miss Cicely Knowles. Though twenty years his junior, anyone out of earshot would have probably added ten or more years to her, based on her rather old-fashioned appearance. The wedding was a rather hurried and small affair, unattended by any of the Dakin family. That gave rise to rumours of course, but they turned out to be unfounded.

In keeping with family tradition, Cicely was sent to live at Dakin Hall. Richard’s regiment remained in Yorkshire, so he would only get home to see his wife when time away from the army was possible. Coinciding with the arrival of the new bride, Henry also turned up, supposedly to greet his new daughter-in-law. But it soon materialised that he had another reason. His health was not good, and he had taken the advice of his doctors to resign his commission, and leave the military. Plagued with gout, and with his florid features betraying a lifelong romance with strong drink, he announced he had now retired to live at The Hall.

Although pleased to see his cousin, Oscar had not counted on him living out his years back home, and confided in Spencer that he wanted no interference from Henry in the running of the business, or the estate. He need not have worried, as Henry had no intention of exerting either mind or body, preferring to relax in his room between three large meals in the dining room, as well as high tea taken on the terrace in good weather. When the new Butler, Cork, advised Oscar that he was running low on stocks of Port Wine and Sherry, it was obvious to all that Henry was not about to curb his drinking any time soon.

As for Cicely, she made herself very useful. With a natural talent for embroidery and an eye for colour, she set about helping Aileen and Penelope with the extensive interior decorating that was in progress. Every room in the house was to be painted, and many new furnishings had been ordered to reflect the new fashions of the period. During this upheaval, Henry decided to move into the East Wing, taking the rooms once occupied by James.

After more than twelve years spent expanding his cattle empire, Oliver was living very comfortably indeed. He not only employed many Bantu tribesmen, but also had some Dutchmen as managers and foremen. There were few large employers who did not buy beef from him for their workers, and most butchers in the growing small towns had little alternative but to use him as a supplier too. The money that Oscar had given him had increased one hundred fold, and he lived in a comfortable house looked after by four servants. He was aware that Zulu tribesmen occasionally rustled some of his stock from the borders of his range, but knew enough about their fierce nature to leave them in peace.

Many times, he had thought about writing to his father, perhaps to boast of his good life in sunny climes. But even his obvious riches were nothing compared to the fortune held by the Dakin family in England. He would think about expansion the following year, and bide his time regarding his family.

Cicely was delighted when Richard was able to get home for one week in the Autumn. She had not seen him for some months following their wedding, and all agreed that she did indeed seem to be besotted by her much older husband. They spent a lot of time together during that week, and the house maids giggled to each other that they had also shared the same room every night.

So the announcement at Christmas that Cicely was expecting a child came as no surprise to anyone.

Richard was delighted when Cicely delivered him a fine son, and named the boy Edward Albert. He made the long trip from his barracks to visit his wife and new baby, remarking how nice it was to see Dakin Hall so full of life again, with Spencer’s three children running around, Henry appearing at the dinner table, and the ladies of the house all getting on so well. There was news of George too, with his regiment being posted to service in India. The situation there was mercifully quiet at the time, and all agreed that George would benefit from the travel and experience of that exotic land.

Spencer was becoming very interested in the application of steam power. Reports suggested it was more efficient that using horses, and could possibly enable work to be done on the company-owned farms in half the time. Although it was still untried, he decided to invest heavily in the plans of some companies to produce steam-powered equipment of all kinds. He mentioned this to Oscar, who showed little interest, happy to let him do as he wished. To balance his investment, Spencer sold off the shoe shops and hat making concerns in London. With most of the family interests now based in the county, there was little need to visit the capital.

With the house decorations nearing completion, it was decided to arrange a grand party for the local gentry. The affair would have a winter theme, and be held early in December. As Aileen was always concerned for the servants to be involved in some way, they would be allowed to have a similar party, to be held in the main stable block the following day. Extra staff would be hired to serve them, and entertainers employed to make music for dancing.

Both functions went off without a hitch, leaving the wealthier townsfolk and local landowners talking for weeks about the generosity of the Dakin family, and the magnificence of the Hall. Though Henry was taken much the worse for drink, and had to be carried to his bed by three footmen well before midnight.

Ocscar was well-pleased with the actions of Aileen and Spencer in arranging the party, which helped to cement all the good business contacts he had spent his life nuturing. The new year arrived, heralding yet more profits, and a continuing peaceful life for everyone living at Dakin Hall.

An unusually warm Spring found Henry in some difficulties. His legs had swollen badly, and he was short of breath after the least exertion. Doctors were consulted from as far away as London, but all came to the same conclusion. Henry’s age was against him, and his lifestyle would finish him very soon, unless he was prepared to make some radical changes involving drinking, eating, and exercising. Now over seventy himself, Oscar was also slowing down considerably, and had little time for Henry’s antics. He announced that Henry must either take the advice of the doctors, or be damned.

Around the same time, Aileen showed Cicely her secret trunk containing the journals recording the history of the family, including her own additions. She asked her to pledge to continue them, should anything happen to her. Cicely readily agreed, finding the records most fascinating. She spent much of that day reading them, acquainting herself with the complexities of the various members of the Dakin family over the decades.

During her detailed perusal, she came across a folded envelope. containing one piece of paper. The envelope was caught between two other sheets, apparently being used as a bookmark. It was fragile, and brown at the edges. Opening it carefully, she read the haphazard writing, which appeared to be in the hand of someone who had the most basic education. To her great surprise, it was a love letter, the envelope addressed to Clara Dakin.

Despite the clumsy prose, and abysmal spelling, it told of a great love for Clara, and the children they had created together. It spoke of regret that they could never be together, due to the acute differences in their social standing. As Cicely got to the end of the page, it ended with a fond farewell, and a wish for happiness and good fortune. The name at the bottom was written in simple capitals, and it was not one she had ever heard mentioned at Dakin Hall.

Simeon Rudd.

Cicely took the page and placed it back into the envelope. Then she folded it again, and took it to her room. Finding a crack between two floorboards, she jammed the letter in until no trace of it could be seen from above. Though reluctant to destroy it, she was in no doubt what its contents proved beyond doubt.

Not one of the Dakin children had ever descended from Isiah.

They had all originated from a working man of some kind, called Simeon Rudd. Although he would now be long dead, the news of this proof could never be allowed to surface.

It would ruin the reputation of the family irreparably.

Following her discovery in the family journals, Cicely suggested to Aileen that they should store the trunk elsewhere, in case it was found and the contents read by the servants. Disguised with brown paper and concealed in a larger travel trunk, it was arranged for it to be stored in the dry loft of the coach-house, where hardly any staff ever ventured. Before the footmen arrived to carry it away, Cicely made a discreet entry in the early journal of Clara, alluding to the love letter from Simeon Rudd, and where it was hidden in the floorboards. She could not shake the feeling that one day, it might be important.

By the autumn, Henry was becoming increasingly obstreperous. His behaviour was such that his meals were now served in his room, and his alcohol intake was severely rationed. But he colluded with Cork by paying him well to supply brandy and port wine in abundance, and in secret. When he ran out of available coin, he gave the butler a fine pocket watch, and on another occasion the sword he had carried at Waterloo. The servants charged with caring for Henry had all but given up on trying to undress him and put him to bed. Most nights they simply left him sleeping in his armchair by the fire, his bandaged legs propped up on an upholstered foot stool.

On one such night, with the rest of the household deeply asleep, and everywhere quiet, Henry awoke with a start, the pain from the gout in his legs causing him to flail out with both feet. His left leg struck the side table next to hm, on which a bottle of brandy was sat, three-quarters full. The bottle fell onto the hearth and smashed, with some of the contents splashing onto the glowing embers, and the rest running under Henry’s armchair.

The spirit ignited with a hiss and flash of flame, quickly setting the dry and dusty upholstery on fire too. As the still-dazed Henry struggled to pull himself from the chair, his ointment-soaked bandages also caught fire, and he fell onto his knees. Years of repeated varnishing had made the boards of the room ripe for ignition, and the thin woven rug served as tinder. Very soon, Henry was kneeling surrounded by flames, and fire that was burning through his bandages and clothes onto his legs and body. He tried shouting for help, but the smoke went into his mouth so quickly, all he could manage was a fit of coughing.

With Henry’s room, and Henry, consumed by fire, it was still some time before his personal servant in the room above was woken up by the smoke coming under the door of his room. He jumped from his bed, bewildered in the dark, and when he opened the door, he recoiled from the thick smoke in the stairwell, and the flames flickering below. With no escape in that direction, he went back into his room and jumped from the window onto the terrace below, breaking both legs in the fall. As he looked back at the East Wing behind him, it was clear that the flames had already spread into the roof space, and were crossing into the main house.

The screams of the maids in their rooms above woke Aileen from a heavy slumber. She could smell the smoke before her eyes opened, and began shouting before she got out of bed. Out in the hallway, she saw Spencer in his nightgown, heading for the rooms that the children slept in. Aileen turned to run to Cicely’s room and the nursery beyond, where baby Edward slept. But the ceiling above collapsed, filling the corridor with smoke and dust. As she flailed around in the darkness, she could hear the ominous crackle of the flames consuming rafters and floorboards above.

The distinctive voice of Penelope could be heard screaming for help from her room, then suddenly a pair of arms raised Aileen from her crouching position, and swept her back to the main staircase. She turned to see Oscar, his sparse hair wild, and his face black with soot. He nodded at the staircase, shouting for her to run. In the main entrance hall, Cork was on his knees, choking on the smoke he had inhaled upstairs. Outside in the dark, Aileen saw the flames rising above the roof, and the red glow beginning to illuminate the sky. She had to run from the front of the house, as roof tiles and pieces of heavy guttering were crashing to the ground like missiles.

Some grooms and the coachman had come running from the stable block, carrying heavy pails of water. But when they tried to enter the house to douse any flames, they were driven back by the choking smoke.The coachman ran back to Aileen, taking off his heavy leather jerkin to cover her as she knelt in horror at the sight before her.

Then the roof of the East Wing collapsed into the building, with a mighty roar.

Aileen watched as the flames appeared through the top windows, where the servant’s quarters were located. The screams of the maids had stopped now, and she knew that was not good. The coachman and grooms had put down their pails, knowing that those few buckets of water would have little effect on the conflagration before their eyes. One of the stable-lads had already left by horse to summon help from the town, but by the time anyone could make the journey north to Dakin Hall, it would be too late.

Then someone appeared through the smoke billowing out of the still open front doors. Oscar stumbled toward her, clutching something that looked like a bundle of rags. He thrust it into her arms, and by the light from the flames, she could tell it was baby Edward. She looked up at Oscar, his face completely black, and his hair singed. She asked if he had seen Spencer, but he shook his head and turned to go back inside. The coachman tried to restrain him, but when Oscar pushed away the hand on his shoulder, the man followed him back into the smoke-filled entrance.

A few minutes later, both of them emerged carrying a body with obvious difficulty. As they dropped it onto the grass, Oscar collapsed next to it, fighting for breath. It was Spencer, his hands and face terribly burned, and the nightshirt ripped and blackened. The coachman pressed an ear to his face, and confirmed that he was still breathing, then he sat Oscar up, and tried to give him sips of water from a leather cup. Seconds later, the huge chimney stack to the west of the building collapsed, showering the ground below with rubble.

By the time people began to arrive from the town in carts and on horseback, baby Edward was at least crying, as Aileen carefully washed his small smoke-blackened face with cold water. The Mayor had taken charge, and advised them to retire to a safer distance, as he was sure that the house could not be saved now. Young Doctor England told her that Spencer was still alive, but his prognosis was not good. As for Oscar, he was no longer breathing, and the doctor gave his condolences before instructing the grooms to remove his body to the stables for the time being.

Some of the townsfolk found Henry’s servant behind the house, and the doctor was asked to attend to his broken legs. They also found the bodies of two housemaids, killed by the fall after jumping from the window of their attic room. By first light, the main roof had collapsed, and the dust covered eveyone at the scene. Nobody else left the house alive, and Aileen felt her body convulse as the enormity finally hit her. Penelope and Cicely, both dead. All the children dead, other than Edward. Oscar and Henry dead, and Spencer grimly hanging on to what might be the last moments of his life.

Then there was the butler, the cook, the scullery girl, and all the housemaids. At least two footmen who lived inside, and if he did not survive two broken legs, Henry’s servant too. If there had ever been a blacker day for the Dakin family, she didn’t know of it. The Mayor arranged for some workmen to remain to wait until the fire burnt out, then to begin to clear the debris, saving what they could. The coachman and grooms would see to the horses, and secure any property recovered later that day. Meanwhile, the mayor offered his hospitality to Aileen, adding that he would arrange for a nurse to care for baby Edward.

Accompanying the Mayor back to his town house in his coach, she was greeted cordially by his wife, who arranged a bath for her, and a change of clothes. The kindly old nurse was already there, and she took baby Edward away to one of the rooms to see to him. After cleaning herself, Aileen was shown to a comfortable bed and told to rest. But she was unable to sleep.

She knew that she would have to write to Richard, and give him the awful news. Then to George in India, with the news that almost all of the family he knew had perished on that same terrible night. She sat up in the bed, overwhelmed with the realisation that everything concerning the Dakin family would now rest on her shoulders. She would have to contact family lawyers and bankers, begin the painful process of arranging burials, all the time having to concern herself with the day to day business that had consumed Spencer’s every waking moment. Then there were the relatives of the poor dead servants, Cicely’s father to inform, and the daily routine of running the rest of the estate.

So much to do. So many thoughts occupying her mind.

Then just as she thought it could not get any worse, Doctor England arrived at the Mayor’s house with the news that Spencer had died.

It was a cold Spring in London that year, and Aileen was glad of the fire she was sitting in front of as she opened her journal. Adding the date, she paused for thought. 1838 was fifteen years after the fire that had changed all their lives, and she would soon be sixty years old.

After spending a few days accepting the Mayor’s hospitality, Aileen insisted that she and baby Edward moved on. Following a brief discussion with the owner of The White Hart Inn, the most respected hostelry in town, she took all of the seven rooms for an unspecified time. He was also pleased to rent her the private dining room for her personal use during the same period, where she would take her meals with Edward and the nurse, as well as conducting business there during the day. The old nurse had been more than happy to accept the offer of full time employment, at least until Aileen decided on the future.

The funerals had to be staggered over the course of one week. Richard returned for the burials of his wife and children, his face gaunt and hollow. Except for two of the maids, Henry’s servant, and Oscar, Doctor England estimated the identity by the size of each charred corpse. He had been unable to save the man with two broken legs, due to excessive bleeding inside his thighs. Aileen bore the cost of every funeral from family funds, as well as sending a full year’s wages to the families of all the servants who had perished. Though the family lawyer had stated that Richard was now the rightful male heir to the family lands and fortune, he begged Aileen to continue to manage things while he returned to his life in the army. As for George, it would be some time before they received any reply.

Left to make decisions in the absence fo the Dakin men, she surprised everyone with her radical plans.

What was left of the house was demolished. The coachman was kept on, and the stables maintained until relocation was decided. The riverside house plot, and all its surrounding grounds were to be turned into a large sheep farm, run and managed by staff. Aileen employed a Mister Mackenzie, an experienced factor and estate manager. He would control all the family’s farming interests in two counties, and oversee the staff and tenants with help from two clerks. The other businesses would be sold. The leather works and seed and grain businesses were eagerly snapped up at fair prices, leaving Aileen with only the farming ventures to worry about, and managing the income from investments with the help of her bankers and lawyers.

After living at The White Hart for almost a year, she made the decision to move to London with Edward. The capital was booming, and despite her easy life at Dakin Hall, Aileen missed the bustle of a city. Her first sixteen years in Edinburgh had never left her mind or heart. But she was wise enough not to choose to live in the centre of the city, with its filth and crime. She chose a stylish house on the northern outskirts, in an area known as Hampstead Village. Despite the countryside appearance, it was but a short coach ride into the places she would need to frequent.

Both the nurse and the coachman declined to go with her. They were given three month’s pay, and good references. She employed a widower named Kennedy as her new coachman, a quiet and reliable looking man with an excellent work record. With Edward now at his toddling stage, a young woman named Nancy Priest was given the job of his nurse. Arrangements were made for any mail received for Dakin Hall to be sent on to their new home. The new house was big enough to accomodate many more than just her and a child, and there was adequate stabling for the four horses required too.

As they left the town behind, heading west to London, Aileen didn’t look back.

In Hampstead, life was more than bearable. Lacking the vast grounds that had surrounded the former grand house, there was a manageable garden at the rear, large enough to need the services of a gardner who lived out. As well as Nancy and Kennedy, two housemaids were employed, also a cook and a girl to help her. Then Aileen engaged a butler, a painfully thin man named Wilson who would be in charge of the day to day running of the house. Even with six staff in residence, there were still seven other bedrooms, with Kennedy comfortably set up in the large room over the coach-house.

Following meetings with bankers and lawyers in the city, Aileen was impressed to discover that Spencer’s interests in the steam companies had been prescient. They had diversified and evolved into the increasingly popular steam railways, and his investment was now worth twenty times what he had put in. Even without the farm crops and land rents, the Dakin fortune was as huge as ever.

George had finally replied. He sent his condolences, and added his intention to remain in the army in India. With Richard now colonel of his regiment in Yorkshire, and showing no interest in any business affairs, Aileen had sent Edward off to a good school, remaining at the Hampstead house alone until he returned.

As she closed her journal for the day, she rang the bell for one of the maids to come and add coal to the fire.

It seemed to her to be unseasonably cold.

The same summer that young Queen Victoria was crowned, Edward returned from his studies. He had excelled in Latin and sciences, and informed Aileen that he intended to become a doctor. A letter had been sent to Saint Bartholemew’s Hospital, along with a glowing recommendation from the Dean of his college. But he was concerned to see Aileen suffering from the cold in what was a warm enough summer, and to find her in front of a roaring fire, covered in a blanket. He chided Nancy for not summoning a doctor, waving away her excuses that Aileen would not allow it.

Edward had no memory of life at Dakin Hall, nor of any of the family save his father. He had only seen him on a few occasions, and their meetings had been formal, stilted, and awkward. Aileen was the closest he had ever known to a mother, and he called her ‘Dear Aunt’. He sent for a young doctor he had heard good things about. The man exuded professionalism and calm, and after the most cursory of examinations, he noticed the smallest of swellings at the base of her neck. His diagnosis was that the glands in her neck were not working properly, hence the fact that she always felt cold. He advised that she might have increased appetite, but the metabolic changes were such that she was unlikely to put on any weight. There was no treatment available, but he declared there was no reason why she should not live to old age.

Nancy Priest had not been called upon to perform any duties since Edward had gone away to school. But Aileen had kept her on, partly as a companion, but mainly because Nancy had nowhere else to go. Edward now treated her much like an older sister, referrring to her as ‘Dearest Nancy’. Over dinner on his second night at home, he told Aileen that he had no intention of managing the family business. Farming and Railways would never be of any interest to him, and she would do well to appoint people to run them for her. This would cost money of course, but then he could continue to train as a surgeon, and Aileen would have little to do except sign papers occasionally, and manage the day to day finances required to run the house. This was readily agreed, and a letter was sent to Richard in Yorkshire seeking his agreement.

That same week, on a different continent, far to the south, Oliver Dakin was riding home from a particularly acrimonious altercation with one of his tenant farmers. Now over sixty, and very portly, he had never married. He preferred to get his pleasures from the native girls in nearby villages, their favours purchased for as little as a couple of scrawny goats. He had no desire for children, and no need of a nagging wife. Besides, he still liked to ride around his vast cattle empire, and keep a close eye on his managers and overseers. He now had a fine black stallion as his mount, and had named it Hercules.

The argument had delayed him, and as he rode home, he could see the sun setting rapidly. Although he knew the land well, he had no desire to try to traverse the rough ground in the dark. Kicking the stirrups into the side of Hercules, he urged the horse into a gallop, and held onto his hat with one hand as the speed increased. Something spooked the horse though, and it stopped suddenly, tipping the surprised Oliver forward over its neck. As he lay dazed on the hard ground, the animal carried on galloping, ignoring Oliver’s shouts and whistles. Dusting himself down, Oliver stood up to discover he had turned an ankle. It was painful, but he knew it could have been much worse. He decided to rest for the night in the long grass, as it would be madness to attempt the long walk in the dark.

The sun woke him early, and he remembered that his water bottle and rifle had been slung on his saddle. He was out in the bush with no protection, and nothing to drink. His first thought was to wait, to see if Hercules returned. But it was winter season there, and he feared being caught in heavy rain. So he began to walk as best he could, trying not to work out how long it would take to walk what might take a couple of hours to ride.

He heard the lion before he saw it. A low burbling sound, ominous in the empty plains. Turning to his right, he spotted the huge male. Its dark mane was catching the breeze, and it stood stock still, gazing at him almost absent-mindedly from some distance. Oliver knew what they said to do. Stand firm, wave your arms, shout defiantly. But being told that, and having the courage to do it, are two different things once faced with the reality. As it was, there was no time to decide. He had not seen the lionesses in the long grass behind him, and the first one took him in the buttocks, dragging him flat to the ground. The second closed her jaws around his throat, crushing his windpipe.

By the time the third one began ripping the flesh from his thigh, it was a mercy that he was already dead.

Edward did exceptionally well in his first year studying at the hospital. But at the same time, Aileen noticed some tightness in her clothing, and obvious weight gain. It seemed the young doctor that had attended her didn’t know so much about his profession after all. Even reducing the amount she ate made little difference, so with her usual attitude, she accepted becoming fat late in life, and continued to enjoy her food.

One Sunday afternoon, Edward returned to the house accompanied by one of his colleagues, Nathaniel Hardwicke. Nathaniel also brought along his sister, and Edward announced they would be taking tea. Aileen made the effort to leave her heavy shawls behind for once, and made herself presentable to greet the guests. Verity Hardwick was older than Edward, by perhaps five years or more. An intelligent and strkingly attractive young woman, Aileen could tell immediately that Edward was besotted with her. And she appeared to return his admiration at the same level.

Aileen learned that the pair were orphans, living with an elderly bachelor uncle in Clerkenwell. After the smiles and constant glances, it came as no surprise when Edward suddenly blurted out that they would like to get married, and on his twentieth birthday the following year. Aileen replied that she would be delighted, but that Edward should by rights tell his father, and send him a letter at the earliest opportunity.

The Dakin family didn’t hear about what had happened to Oliver at the time. Nobody at the cattle farm had any idea about possible relatives in England, so when his remains were brought in, he was buried in a nondescript grave at the cemetery in the nearest town, and his affairs left in the hands of various lawyers who slowly stole all of his money and lands by fraudulent means. It was a long time later, when a disgruntled overseer wrote to bankers in London complaining about money owed, that Aileen dicovered the fate of her relative. She decided to say nothing, and placed the letter in the trunk containing the journals.

Verity arrived at the Hampstead house like a fresh breeze on a humid day. She quickly took charge of many mundane affairs, and started to oversee the running of the house, leaving Aileen to rest. The wedding had been a very quiet affair, and Richard had sent his apologies, claiming army business would keep him in Yorkshire. Edward went straight back to his studies at the hospital, leaving his new wife with Nancy and Aileen for company. That autumn, Verity announced she was expecting a baby, and Aileen was greatly cheered by how vibrant the house felt at long last. Into the fifth month of the pregnancy, Aileen showed Verity the trunk and the journals, making her pledge to keep them safe, and to continue them when she could no longer do so. The young woman replied that she would be delighted to do that, and considered it an honour to be asked.

With the family now set to grow and continue, Nancy approached Aileen with some concerns about her future. She had saved carefully from her salary, but when Aileen was gone, she would have nowhere to call home, and did not want to depend on the prospect of Verity and Edward retaining her. Aileen did not hesitate to help. She gave the woman suficient funds to purchase a small cottage in Essex for her eventual retirement, and calmed her fears by telling her she would be kept on to act as the nurse for the expected arrival.

The new baby was delivered at home without incident, and a delighted Edward rushed home from the hospital in time to be present at the birth. Aileen found this most unusual, and put his behaviour down to his medical leanings, and his youth. He named the healthy boy John Percival, and told all present that he would affectionally be known as Jack. Verity made a quick recovery, and it was soon apparent that she was a devoted and loving mother. Seeing no real place for herself any longer, Nancy asked Aileen for permission to return to Essex. And after a farewell dinner party, there were tearful goodbyes when she left in the family coach, with Kennedy tasked to take her to her new cottage.

The first year of John’s life saw a happy family at the Hampstead house. And news from the lawyers informed Aileen that the income from the railway companies was nothing short of astronomical. Even experienced bankers and investors could not recall such a boom in their lifetimes.

That made Aileen very content. The Dakin family future was secure.

In all the years that had passed since the birth of baby John, there had been no more children. Aileen suspected that was because Edward was spending too much time at the hospital, and not enough sleeping next to Verity. But it was never mentioned, so she didn’t ask about it. As she approached her eightieth birthday, she reflected on the events of the past twenty years, noting them in her journal in the spidery hand that had developed in her dotage.

Richard had died ten years earlier, still serving as a colonel in Yorkshire. He was taking the salute at morning parade, when he just keeled over on the parade ground. Edward hadn’t mourned a father he barely knew, but a funeral was arranged for interrment in the family plot in Essex, and he was buried in the presence of his remaining family, given full military honours for his long service.

Little John grew up preferring to be known by his familial name of Jack, and showed an interest in his father’s profession at an early age. He started to collect various specimens, which he stored in the summerhouse at the bottom of the garden. Delighting in telling Aileen, who he called grandmother, about the various dead birds, cats, and assorted wildlife that he dissected, and kept in jars of alcohol. She pretended interest, but it secretly gave her an uneasy feeling. The boy was growing up with no friends, and the day school he attended in London seemed to give him little outlet for his biological obsessions.

That same year, in June, news arrived from India of a terrible rebellion. Indian troops serving in the British Army there had rebelled against the British who ruled the country. The newspapers were full of lurid stories of betrayal and murder, and the white soldiers were under siege in many of the towns and cities. This worried Aileen, for George was still serving there, and he was close to sixty years old. Though they rarely heard from him, they knew he was a major in an infantry regiment, and based in a place called Lucknow.

It took until early the next year for the news to reach them that George had been killed there. His place of burial was unknown, and although Edward did not remember him, and Verity knew little of him, Aileen cried for the relative she also hardly knew. More than ever, she was aware that Edward and Jack were now all that remained of the Dakin family. Despite their wealth, the Dakins had been unable to escape the natural problems of life, and the effects of world events.

Jack’s marriage before Christmas was a hurried affair, and unexpected. Aileen lived long enough to meet his bride, the painfully thin and aloof Jemima Loe.

It was one of the two maids who found Aileen. Dead in her sleep, at the age of eighty, not far off her eighty-first birthday. Edward mourned her as if she had been his mother, and fulfilled her written instructions that she wished to be buried in Edinburgh. She had purchased a plot some years earlier, and mentioned her wishes to both Verity and Edward. So great was the esteem in which she was held, that the whole family took time to make the long and tiring trip to Scotland, accompanying her body.

For Verity, the loss of Aileen was significant. With George always at the hospital, and her son Jack following his father into medical studies, choosing The London Hospital in Whitechapel, she spent so much time alone, that she wondered what to do with herself. She had taken to gardening, and on the advice of the gardener, had ordered the building of two greenhouses in which to cultivate exotic species of plants. As the year turned, she sheltered inside from the cold, and thought about how she seemed to exist almost alone, save for the servants. Jack’s wife Jemima rarely appeared outside of her room, not even to take meals with the family.

When someone arrived from Saint Bartholemew’s, asking to see her, she was perplexed. She told the butler to tell him that her husband was not at home. He returned to say that it was her the man wanted to speak to, not Edward. So she reluctantly went down to the Morning Room. The man’s eyes were downcast, and he gripped his hat and shuffled his feet as he spoke. Edward Dakin had complained of a severe headache during surgery that morning, and had withdrawn from a delicate operation, leaving the rest to one of his juniors. He was found dead in his consulting room an hour later, and it was believed to have been a great brain seizure that had taken his life.

Verity thanked the man, and arranged for word to be sent to The London Hospital, to inform Jack of the news, and ask him to return home. She didn’t bother to disturb Jemima, as she had never liked the young woman anyway.

Retiring to her room that afternoon, Verity cried herself to sleep, wondering where her son was.

Life in Hampstead slowly became unbearable for Verity after Edward’s death. Immediately after the funeral, Jack took charge of the business interests as the sole heir, and arranged for the sale of all the farms and land in Essex. He used the fortune from those sales to reinvest heavily in railways, and although this proved to be a wise decision given the huge expansion of this fast-growing transport system, Verity was concerned that the Dakin family no longer owned any land, and every penny they had was tied up in speculative investments.

Jemima no longer stayed in her room, assuming the running of the house without so much as a word to her mother-in-law, and fully supported by Jack, who dismissed his mother’s worries and concerns angrily. He seemed to have no affection in his heart for either woman, wanting to be left alone to work at the hospital, and to continue his experiments in the laboratory he had built in the cellar. The staff were dismissed with scant notice, and Jack sold the coach and four horses, buying a smaller carriage pulled by one trotting horse. He also engaged a new coachman, a thuggish individual named Stubbins, who wore a foul-smelling oilskin coat in all weathers, and constantly picked at his fingernails with a pocket knife.

With no servants, Verity was forced to eat the tasteless food served up by Jemima, as they stared across the dining room table at each other in silence. When the younger woman did speak, her voice was harsh, and her vocabulary coarse. Jemima lacked culture and breeding, that was plain to see. The house also became filthy, leaving Verity to try her best to do some of the cleaning. But it was hard for a refined woman who had only ever known life with servants, and Jemima never helped with anything. After two years of this, and Jack ignoring her pleas to engage more servants, Verity made a decision.

Calling them both into her room one night, she showed them the trunk containing the journals and family letters and papers. Stressing the importance of keeping the detailed family history going, she asked Jemima to continue to record events in the latest journal. Then she told them that she would be leaving the following Satrday, to live with her widowed aunt in Northamptonshire. A coach would be sent for her and her belongings, as she did not want Stubbins to take her. If she had hoped this news might shake the pair into apology and a promise of changing their habits, she was sadly wrong.

When she left that day, Jack was occupied in the cellar, and Jemima did not appear from her room. Verity was sad to leave the house that had such good memories, but breathed a sigh of relief as the coach headed north across the heath. Three years later, on the death of her aunt, she married her second cousin, Algernon Farr. She didn’t bother to inform Jack.

Jack had never once mentioned how he had met Jemima. If questioned, he would say they had met by chance in the city, and struck up an acquaintance. He also never mentioned that they could not have children because his wife’s reproductive organs had been ruined by mistreatment and disease. And he definitely never revealed that he had met her in a filthy brothel above a pie shop in Spitalfields market, where he had gone to finally satisfy his lust, and had then changed his mind. Jemima had told him her story. Sold into prostitution at the age of just ten by a drunken mother, she had been sold and sold again by a succession of whores who had kept her a virtual prisoner in dank rooms to satisfy the darkest desires of wealthy men.

She had never forgotten the names of any of those women, but had been overwhelmed by the kindness of the man who had declined to have sex with her, placed her in a nice hotel in Bloomsbury away from the seedy streets of Whitechapel, then married her to secure her future. She didn’t love him, as she could never feel affection for a man, but she was devoted to him for his good deed. And she knew he didn’t love her. She was an experiment for him, to see if he could take a ragged whore, and make her into a respectable lady. Now with the departure of his mother, Jack arranged for tutors to attend Jemima, to teach her to read and write. He finally employed servants to clean the house, and see to the meals, and he made enough money available to his wife to dress well, and have all she needed.

By the time John Dakin had become a respected senior surgeon, and his neat and speedy surgery techniques the talk of the profession, he was ready to get revenge for Jemima.

With the names in a small notebook in his coat, and a simple medical bag between his knees, Jack told Stubbins to drive him to Whitechapel. As they entered the dark cramped streets of that east London district, he checked the names again. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes. They should be easy enough to find.

All of London was aghast at the series of murders that shocked the capital. Lurid descriptions filled the nespapers, and women were afraid to go out unaccompanied at night that September. When her husband returned home at dawn on those same nights, and went straight to the cellar, Jemima’s suspicions were raised. Then when she saw the names of the victims, she knew for sure that it was her Jack who was indeed the notorious ‘ripper’. But she wasn’t about to betray him. If anything, she admired him. For all of those years, he had never forgotten her story. Now he was dispensing his own form of justice for her past abuse.

Then October brought a new victim. A younger woman named Mary Kelly. Jemima had never met her, and she was too young to have been involved so long ago. When Jack sat at breakfast with his eyes in a strange demonic stare, she realised that it had been him. He had developed a taste for killing whores, and would continue. Jemima knew that would lead to his inevitable capture, shame on the Dakin name, and perhaps the loss of their fortune. As he slept that night, she crept into his room. Taking his razor from next to his shaving bowl on the washstand, she quickly drew it across his throat, making a deep cut. He jumped up with a strangled cry, but was dead before he could get across the room to where she stood.

Placing the razor in his right hand, she washed her hands carefully, and changed her nightdress. Then she summoned Stubbins and told him to go and fetch the police.

Her husband had committed suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed.

Colin Farr had wanted to get away from Kettering for most of hs life. He yearned for the bright lights of London. Trouble was, by the time the swinging sixties started, he was too old to be a swinger, and too young to settle down. Drama School gave him big ideas, but the half-empty houses in theatres when he was touring in dull plays, and dressing up as something stupid during pantomime season was hardly the fame he had imagined. So he had been forced to stay at home with his parents, as he never seemed to have enough money to do anything.

When they both died in the same year, he stayed in the family house, living off the small life insurance payout, and pestering his agent to try to get him a television role. With no luck. It seemed you had to either be young and handsome, or old and a ‘character’. A northern accent would help too, with the popularity of those new ‘kitchen sink’ films, but he had never been good at accents, and still spoke with the refined upper class accent his tutors had urged him to develop. As it got close to his fortieth birthday, Colin faced the harsh reality that he was going to have to get a normal job.

Unusually, the postman rang the bell. He had to sign for the letter, so it was not going to be a birthday card.

After reading the contents four times, Colin still found it hard to believe what was written there. A relative had died, someone he had never heard of. It had taken almost two years for the solicitor to find any living heir, and they had eventually concluded that he was it. He rang the number on the letterhead as requested, and asked to speak to a Mister Paul Shipley, the name typed below the illegible signature. Shipley confirmed that everything was true. He had inherited a house close to Hampstead Heath, and a substantial sum of money too.

He arranged to meet the solicitor at the house in Hampstead the following day, bringing proof of identity with his birth certificate and passport. He would have to sign lots of papers, and then the money would be transferred into his bank account, and the keys to the house handed over.

Dressed in his best ‘business look’, Colin got the early train to London, and then a taxi from St Pancras Station. When they stopped outside the open gates with a driveway leading up to what was a huge old house, he asked the cabby if he was sure it was the right address, and got a grunt in reply. Colin stood and took in the sight. The place must have at least six reception rooms, and maybe ten bedrooms. An old coach house stood to one side, and the windows above suggested that must have rooms too.

Shipley arrived late, with a string of excuses and apologies. He wasn’t what he had expected. Maybe seventy years old, his suit creased and worn, and a worried look that stayed on his face throughout. He produced some keys from a battered briefcase, and they went inside. Colin shook his head, and whistled. The place was grand alright, but in a shocking state. Shipley explained that nobody had lived in the house since before the First World War, and it had taken him a very long time to trace the heirs through the name of Dakin. Finding one Dakin who had remarried to someone called Farr, he had changed direction, and eventually found Colin. He agreed that the place was in a bad state, but he was also sure that the large amount of money would enable it to be fully restored.

Hampstead was fast becoming one of the trendiest places to live in London, but Colin had no intention of living in this old mansion alone. He immediately knew what to do. He would employ architects and builders to convert the house into six luxury flats, and have the coach-house turned into a two-bed mews house for himself. Selling the leases for the flats would bring in a huge amount of money, and he would live rent-free in the coach house, and still own the freehold. He would love to have met the distant relative he had never heard of, and give them a huge kiss. He looked at her name on the paperwork when he was on the train back to Kettering.

Jemima Dakin. He wondered what sort of woman she had been.

One of the builders contacted him to ask what was to be done with a lot of the personal possessions they were finding during the work. Colin told them to store them in the coach house, and he would be down at the weekend to look through them. Sorting through piles of medical books and specimen jars, Colin found a battered old trunk, covered in dust. Inside were lots of papers, a few letters, and many bound journals. They were pretty old, with one he noticed dated 1660. That was over three hundred years ago. He treated himself to a taxi ride all the way back to Kettering, so he could take the trunk with him.

After spending the whole of Sunday reading through everything, sorting it into date order, and laying it all out on the dining room table, Colin could hardly sleep that night.

Early the next morning, he rang his agent, and told Manny to be quiet until he had finished.

“Look, I have found a suitcase containing all of my family history, all the way back to the English Civil War. It’s fascinating stuff, Manny. Murders, executions, locations all over the world, like India and South Africa. It is like the best family saga you have never heard of, believe me. This would be a great book, and an even better telly series, I tell you. But here’s the best bit, Manny. It looks like one of my relatives was the real Jack The Ripper. Honestly, it’s true. I can hardly believe it myself. We need to work on a pitch for this, Manny, and you have to give me a whole afternoon of your time to see how good it is”.

There was a pause at the other end, then a sigh.
“Let me guess, Colin. You want to be cast as Jack”.

The End.

Home About Six: The Complete Story

This is all 25 parts of my recent fiction serial, in a complete story.
It is a long read, at 25,020 words.

Anita watched as he tightened his tie, then grabbed the suit jacket off the bed. Even after eight years, she still loved to look at him. The broad shoulders, thick dark hair always neatly trimmed, and just that much taller than her so they fitted together perfectly. His aftershave smelt strong first thing in the morning, but she loved the way it hung around the bedroom after he left for work.

The kiss was brief, but welcome. Toothpaste-fresh, reminding her she hadn’t brushed yet. He didn’t seem to care. Picking up the car keys from the dressing table, he turned with a broad smile. “Don’t go overdoing it today, Nita. I will see you later, love. Should be home about six”.

Stretching out her legs under the duvet, she rubbed her belly, and spoke to her unborn child through the considerable bump. “Daddy’s gone to work now. It’s just you and me until he gets home”.

Three months to go, give or take a few days. As they had discussed, Anita had given up work for now. She wanted to be around for the baby, at least until she started school. At first it had seemed like a holiday, but with Mike out at work all day, the hours started to drag. Sometimes she would drive over to see her older sister, Jill. But there were only so many times she could drink tea and eat cake whilst listening to her moan about the lack of activity in her bedroom, since the divorce. At one time, she had expected Mum to get a lot more involved and excited. But after Dad had died, there had been the dancing classes, Yoga for Oldies, and tennis club too. Now she was even going on dates arranged online.

There were times when Anita felt as if she was the old fuddy-duddy in her family.

Evenings in, sat on the sofa after dinner, cuddled up with Mike watching the latest thing on Netflix. That was her idea of heaven. And now the new baby girl would be the icing on the cake, making their small family complete. It was funny how they kept arguing about a name. Mike wanted something traditional, even Victorian. His current favourite was Eleanor. Anita fancied something short, snappy, and modern. She was hoping they would come to a compromise on Zoe, as Mike didn’t object too much when she suggested it.

After making some tea and toast, she took it back up to bed. Two hours before she had to think about getting ready for the doctor’s appointment. Just a routine checkup, and so far everything was going well. She sent a text to her best friend Claudia, the girl she had asked to be her birthing partner on the day. Claude liked to know she was fine every morning, especially as she had moved a long way away with a new job.

Showered and dressed, it was time to make a shopping list. Something nice for Mike this evening, she thought, regretting not being able to add a nice bottle of wine to the list, as she had sworn off the booze as soon as she had the test confirmed as positive. It always felt good driving the yellow mini-cooper, but it would have to go soon. No way was she going to fiddle around with a two-door car, baby seat, baby bag, and whatever else. Mike had a company car, so he said they could afford to change to something practical for her. They looked online, and Mike suggested a strange-looking thing with a siding door on one side. He had smiled when her eyebrows raised. “You are going to hate driving around in something like that, Nita, but you will thank me for it later, believe me”.

They were going to the dealer to look at one on Saturday morning. That sort of car made her feel very grown up.

In and out the doctor’s in record time, and straight onto a free checkout at Waitrose. Anita was beginning to think she must be doing something right. She had been careful with the shopping, even though Mike had told her not to worry. His team were doing great, and he was in line for a huge bonus as he was nationwide top salesman this year so far. She didn’t understand much about his job. Industrial glues and fixings were a mystery to her, and one that she had no desire to learn more about. Still, he earned twice as much as she used to at customer services for the gas supply company. And even though he had to drive all over the place to see clients, he always did his best to be back home by six.

With a low backache necessitating a rest on the sofa for a while, Anita finally got around to preparing the meal. One of Mike’s favourites, Chicken Kiev with dauphinoise potatoes, and green beans. She hadn’t had any particularly unusual cravings during her pregnancy, but her love for garlic seemed to have increased tenfold, so as well as the garlic butter in the chicken, she added more to the potatoes too. Mike wouldn’t mind. I was all soon ready to go into the oven, which she would do when he got home. After laying the table at the other end of the long living room, she sat back down on the sofa, and switched on the TV to watch the six-o-clock news.

He would be home soon, and she would see the headlights of his car as it pulled into the parking space next to hers outside.

The national news finished at 6:30, and the local news programme started. Anita checked her phone. No text message, no missed calls. He must be stuck on a road somewhere, unable to use his phone. But it was hands free, so surely he could call. When the second news finished at 7 pm, she started to be a little concerned.

This wasn’t like him at all.

By quarter past seven, Anita could wait no longer. She rang Mike’s mobile. There was no ringing tone, and no answerphone message. Just a long beeping sound. She tried again, then again. Scrolling down her contact list, she found ‘Office. Mike.’ After two rings, that went to answerphone, with a message about opening hours being from nine until five-thirty. She didn’t leave a message after the tone as the voice suggested.

She was getting hungry now, but couldn’t face cooking the meal she had prepared. She covered the dish with foil, and put it in the fridge. Then she ate two bananas and half a packet of chocolate biscuits, washed down with a cup of tea. Her mind was exploring possibilities.

Maybe the car had broken down?
Maybe he had dropped his phone and broken it?
Maybe he was held up with a client, and unable to make a call?

He had definitely said he would be home about six. If there had been a late meeting, he would have known. He always knew.

Maybe one of his parents had been taken ill?
Maybe he had to rush down to where they lived?

They lived over two hundred miles away, retired to the coast. He would have called her first, and told her he had to go.

It was after nine now, and she had a bad feeling.

Maybe he had been mugged, and was lying in a back alley somewhere?
Maybe there had been a terrible car crash, and they were fighting for his life in a hospital?

Anita rang the police non-emergency number. The young woman who answered sounded friendly.
“Hello, my name is Anita Hollis. My husband Michael hasn’t come home from work. He is three hours late, and I’m getting worried. He’s a salesman you see, drives long distances in a car. His phone is dead, and I’m worried he might have been in an accident”. Even as she spoke, she knew it sounded rather pathetic. So she added something. “And I’m six months pregnant, all alone”.

The woman was kind, but unimpressed. She went through a similar list of possibilities that had occurred to Anita, then suggested ringing Mike’s family and friends, then her own family and friends. If she got no joy with that, she could ring the hospitals to see if he had been admitted. There were only three emergency hospitals in almost a sixty mile radius, so it shouldn’t take long. She concluded with the obvious. “He might just have gone out for a drink or meal after work, Mrs Hollis. Perhaps he forgot the time because he is with colleagues or friends”.

That wasn’t working for Anita. “Sorry, but you don’t know him. He would never do that without telling me. He’s not that sort of bloke. He is always home for dinner, always. I think it best if you report him missing. Then you can look for his car, trace his phone, do whatever it is you do”. There was a stiffness in the police operator’s voice as she replied. “I’m afraid I cannot do that until he has been missing for twenty-four hours, Mrs Hollis. He is an adult, and free to come and go as he pleases, even if that is upsetting for you. If nobody sees him or contacts him until tomorrow night, and he fails to come home or turn up for work, then you can call us back and we will take an official missing persons report. That’s all I can advise you to do at the moment”.

As she hung up, Anita got a bad taste in her mouth. She dropped the phone and ran upstairs to the bathroom, vomiting onto the floor before she could get the toilet seat up.

The tears had started to flow by the time she got back into the living room. She switched the TV to a rolling news channel, in case there were reports of a big accident on a motorway somewhere. But it was all about a film star dying, and some big argument in parliament. Taking her i-pad from under a sofa cushion, she checked out the numbers of the hospitals that had been suggested, and started to call them.

Close to ten forty-five, all three hospitals had confirmed that no Michael Hollis had been admitted, and no unidentified man fitting his age and description was in their departments.

Perhaps she should ring his parents anyway. They might have spoken to him at some stage. But it was getting late. They might be in bed. A call like that would worry them, and Dorothy had a bad heart.

After five hours, Anita started to consider the thing that she hadn’t wanted to think about. Could Mike be with another woman? It didn’t seem possible. He had always been so loyal and loving. He never went out alone, not even for a drink with friends, or to the various birthday drinks or office parties at work. Since the day they had become engaged, she had never had a single reason not to trust him one hundred percent.

Even though it seemed hopeless, she carried on ringing his mobile. Time after time, she just got that continuous tone, until she could bear it no longer.

It was close to one in the morning when she started to actually hope that he was with someone else. Anything would be preferable to not knowing. They could have a huge bust-up, talk it through, and sort things out. That almost made her feel calm, to consider the fact that her husband might be having an affair.

In the kitchen, she moved a few pans in a cupboard, then reached into the back with some difficulty.

With the wine open, and a glass in her hand, she started to feel much better.

The wine bottle on the coffee table was empty when Anita finally woke up, still sprawled out on the sofa. Despite the pounding in her head, and a shiver running through her joints, she jumped up and ran upstairs. Mike would be there. He would be asleep in bed. She would shout at him in a rage, then fall into his arms and be so glad he was home.

Even as she pushed open the door, she knew that the bed would be empty. In the bathroom, she splashed water over her face, and drunk some straight from the tap. Time to make some calls.

Still nothing on Mike’s mobile. Next she tried his company. Sitting through the automated options, she hit nine, to talk to a member of staff. The receptionist sounded bored, but Anita woke her up with the urgency in her voice. “I need to talk to someone about Mike Hollis. He hasn’t come home all night, and I am worried about him. This is his wife Anita speaking, so please put me through to someone, his manager, or a person in charge”. The music played as she was put on hold.

“Mrs Hollis, Ian Winkowski here, sales manager. How can I help you?” The voice was guarded, businesslike. “Mike hasn’t been home all night, Ian. That’s not like him. I’m terrified something bad has happened. He’s not answering his mobile, in fact it sounds dead. Do you have any way of getting in touch with him? I am beside myself with worry. And you may know that I am six months pregnant too”. As she waited for him to reply, she unscrewed the cap on a bottle of water, and gulped down as much as she could in one breath.

“Mike didn’t come into work yesterday, Mrs Hollis. He rang in sick quite early, left a message on the reception phone. In fact I thought you were calling to let me now how he was. If he was out all day and last night too, perhaps you should contact the police. I would be grateful if you could let me know what you find out, as I will have to reschedule his business meetings, and get someone else to contact his clients”.

Anita was angry. All this guy cared about was that Mike wouldn’t be around to make it to his appointments. “So he wasn’t at work yesterday, Ian? He left at the usual time, and drove off in his car”. Businesslike again. “As I have just told you, he rang in sick. I’m sure reception will still have the message, they have to save them for the people in HR”. That was something. “Okay, Ian, please ask them to make sure to save that for the police, and can you send me the registration number of his car so I can give that to them too?” She gave him her email address, and waited until he read it back to her before hanging up.

As the kettle boiled for some tea, it occurred to her that the news from Ian changed everything. If Mike hadn’t gone to work, then surely he had been missing since just after seven yesterday. Plucking two paracetamol from a packet in the drawer, she put her mobile on charge, and went into the living room to get the house phone. This time, she rang the police emergency number, and it was answered immediately. The man at the other end took her seriously, and said he was making a missing persons report that Mike had been missing for more than twenty-four hours. Anita checked the email from Winkowski on her i-pad, and gave him the make and colour of the car, along with the registration number. When he had repeated all the names, checked the spelling, and confirmed the contact numbers, he asked her to write down a reference number that was unique to the case.

“Someone from missing persons will contact you later today, Mrs Hollis. Meanwhile, keep trying your friends and family, and please let us know if and when your husband turns up somewhere”.

Some food would be necessary before she starting making more calls, but she only managed half a bowl of muesli before her impatience got the better of her.

Mike’s Dad answered the phone. “Hi, Jim, it’s Anita. I hope I’m not disturbing you, but I wondered if you had spoken to Mike recently?” He was very jolly. “Hello, love. How’s my granddaughter? You both doing well? Mike? No, he hasn’t phoned. I think Dotty spoke to him last weekend, but not since. Hang on, I’ll go and ask her”. Dorothy came back on the phone. “What’s wrong, Anita? Why are you asking about Mike? She sounded worried, which was to be expected. “Well Dotty, he didn’t come home last night. I can’t get him on his phone, and his boss says he wasn’t at work yesterday. I got so worried, I have reported him missing with the police, and they said to call all the relatives and friends.

Her mother-in-law was angry now. “Why did you wait so long to let us know, Anita? For God’s sake, I know we are a long way away, but we should have been told. Anything could have happened to our only son, and you wait a whole day to tell us. What’s wrong with you?” Anita wanted to explain her reasons, but she didn’t get the chance as Dorothy rambled on. “We are coming down. As soon as I can pack some things and tell Jim what’s going on, we will drive down. It’s going to take almost four hours, so make sure you are around the house when we get there. I don’t want us to be stuck outside”. Without waiting for a reply, she hung up. Anita didn’t have time to think about her angry in-laws now.

She had more calls to make.

Dreading the arrival of her fussy mother-in-law, Anita rushed around to tidy up. Then she changed the bedclothes in the spare room, did some dusting and hoovering, and finished off with a quick rub around the bath, toilet, and sink. Housework could really wear you out when you were heavily pregnant, she had discovered. Time for a sit down, and a cup of tea. She would get to the rest of the phone calls after a break.

It took a while to realise she had been asleep. A combination of last night and the exertions of the morning had worn her out. On impulse, she walked to the window to see if Mike’s car was outside, already knowing it wouldn’t be. It had been well over four hours since she had spoken to Mike’s parents, and they hadn’t turned up yet. She called Claudia’s mobile, hoping for the opportunity for a chat before the fearsome Dorothy arrived. It went to answerphone, and she decided not to leave a message. Claude lived almost one hundred and eighty miles away now, and she didn’t want to get her in a panic about Mike.

Anita thought she should tell her Mum, and Jill too. It was unlikely they would have heard from Mike, but she should at least let them know. Mum’s phone went to answerphone, so she left a message. Same with Jill, who was probably still at work, and unable to answer. Hunger kicked in, and she made herself a sandwich after checking the meal she had prepared last night. It would be useful to serve to her in-laws later. She could spread it to three people easily, with some extra vegetables.

When the house phone rang, she presumed it would be Dotty, explaining why they were late. But it was the police. “Mrs Hollis? This is Jane Dawes here. I am a detective working in the missing persons department, and I would like to come and take some more details about Mike. Would six tonight be too late?” Anita didn’t want to put her off. “That’s fine. My in-laws might be here though. Just so you know, they haven’t heard from Mike either”. She waited as the policewoman typed on a keyboard. “Very well, Mrs Hollis, I will see you at six”.

By five-thirty, there was still no sign of Dotty and Jim. Anita started to hope that they had changed their minds about coming, but knew she should phone them to check. Their house phone went to answerphone, so she tried Dotty’s mobile, knowing Jim would be driving. The number was unobtainable, with no tone or message, just a short beep, then nothing. Dotty had probably forgotten to charge it, or top up her pay as you go credit. Mike was always teasing her about that.

Ten minutes later, Mum rang back on the mobile. “Sorry darling, I was at the gym. I had a gym-date, something new for the over sixties. A very nice man, and much younger than me too. He must have been impressed, as he asked me out for dinner this evening. I had to rush to the shops to find a nice new dress to wear”. Anita explained what was happening. Mike’s disappearance, the police involved, and Dotty and Jim on their way too. She knew her Mum couldn’t stand Dotty, and was not at all surprised by her response.

“I’m sure Mike will be in touch soon. It must be a work thing. He’s such a good man, so reliable. It won’t be anything bad, I’m sure. And at least you will have his parents there to look after you. I will call you in the morning and see what’s going on. I’ll be able to tell you all about my hot date”. Anita hung up, and shook her head in resignation. Mum hadn’t really listened to what she had told her. She had never been an affectionate mother, and the girls had grown up doing what they were told, soon realising that Mum was not only selfish, but didn’t seem to like Dad very much either. When he died unexpectedly from a brain haemorrhage, she had seemed completely relieved to be shot of him.

Detective Sergeant Dawes had been in the police for all of her working life. She was worn out, and felt tired all the time. The job had cost her two marriages, and then her only daughter had committed suicide whilst at university. That had almost broken her, and she took a lot of time off, before attending counselling. Her old boss had suggested a transfer from the Crime Squad to Missing Persons. A small department, regular hours, and less stress. She could do her last years there, and then take her pension. Sitting outside the neat-looking house with its well-painted exterior, gravel forecourt, and extension over the garage, she tried to imagine the people who lived there, and get some sort of feeling about them before she went inside.

Before leaving the police station, she had received some information about Michael Hollis. Also his car details, work address, and the fact that he had no criminal record. He had never even had so much as an unpaid parking ticket. As they said in the police, he was of ‘no interest’. She rang the doorbell at exactly six.

Anita opened the door with a stressed look on her face. She could feel the tightness around her jaw, and had a strange tingling sensation in her belly. “Come in, detective. Have you heard anything? Have you found Mike? Would you like a cup of tea? Maybe you prefer coffee?” She was babbling, and she knew it, but couldn’t stop herself. Jane smiled at her. “I’m fine, Mrs Hollis. Please call me Jane. Let’s just sit down and go through a few details, shall we?”

Looking across at the pregnant woman, Jane chose her words carefully.

“There has been some progress, and I have something to tell you”.

“What? What have you found out?” Anita was leaning across the coffee table, almost tipping it over with her knees. Sergeant Dawes consulted her notes. “Your husband’s car has been traced. It was towed away at lunchtime yesterday, illegally parked close to the ferry port terminal in Portsmouth. I contacted the Immigration Service there, and they tell me that nobody used Mike’s passport to board a ship. She assured me that she will examine all CCTV records to see if anyone matching his description can be seen, but a recent photograph would obviously be helpful”.

Anita stood up. “Passport? Mike wouldn’t have his passport. We keep them in the drawer here”. She knelt down on the floor in front of the huge flat-screen television. At the bottom of the unit supporting it, she slid out a narrow drawer, and stood up holding a leather folder that looked like a large wallet. “We keep them in here, so we always know where to find them”. Unzipping the folder, her face fell. “My one is here, but Mike’s has gone. I don’t know why he would take it. I have a photo on my phone that I took the other day. Tell me your number, and I will send it to you now”.

The house phone rang, making them both jump. It was Jill, responding to her sister’s message. Anita was rather abrupt. “Jill, Mike has gone missing. I have the police here now, can I call you back?” Her sister told her not to bother, she would come round in an hour.

They sorted out the photo, and Sergeant Dawes forwarded it to her contact at Ports Immigration, Cathy Cade. As she waited for it to send, she tried to reassure Anita. “I have some of my team on this. One of them is staying on late, checking all the hospitals in southern England, and waiting to hear back from the airports side of Immigration too. She’s young but keen, Constable Soni. If anyone will make sure to cover all the bases, it’s Richa”. Something seemed to dawn on her. “Didn’t you say your in-laws were coming down? Have they gone out? I would like to talk to them”. Anita shrugged. “They didn’t show up, and they are not answering their phones. Either they changed their minds, or left a lot later than expected”.

Sitting back down on the sofa, Anita spoke in a serious tone. “Jane, what can you tell me? Do you think something bad has happened? I can take the truth you know. I would sooner be told now, than find out later”. The detective leaned back in the armchair, feeling as if she could easily drop off to sleep. Closing her notebook, she clasped her hands together. “Anita, may I call you Anita?” A nod. “In all honesty, there is usually another woman involved. The man almost always comes back with his tail between his legs, and it’s panic over. But finding Mike’s car at Portsmouth has confused me, to be honest. Why there? And why dump it somewhere it will get towed away? There were no keys in it, and no personal effects. Did he usually have a laptop, as well as his phone?”

Nodding furiously, Anita replied. “Yeah, he had a work laptop, and a work i-pad. There’s another laptop in the bedroom that he used sometimes, his own one. I just have this”. She held up her i-pad. The sergeant opened her notebook again. “I would like to take his laptop, if that’s okay with you. We have requested his mobile phone records from the provider, and if you agree, we will get your home phone records too. I would also like to have a look through any recent paperwork, you know, bills, letters, anything that he might have left around”.

Anita stood up to go and get the laptop. “You can have anything you need, Jane, with my blessing. Anything that will help to find Mike, just let me know what you want”. When she came back down with the laptop and a small stack of papers, Jane took some plastic gloves from her shoulder bag and put them on before she took them from her. “I will be requesting information from Mike’s bank too. Use of credit cards, debit cards, cash machine transactions, the usual stuff. Do you two have a joint account?” Anita shook her head. “No, Mike deals with all the finances. When I was still working, I used to transfer a set amount each month into his account from mine. He does all his banking online, I’m sure.”

Jane Dawes stood up. “That’s about all we can do for now. Keep trying his friends and relatives, and yours. You never know who he might decide to ring. I checked with his employer today, and they say they have heard nothing, so I have to believe them for now. I will send you a receipt for this laptop, we will need it for a couple of days. Here is my card, feel free to call me on the mobile number, as well as the office one. If you have a light bulb moment, and think of something, let me know”. Anita saw her to the door, and thanked her.

Jill turned up twenty minutes later. Anita was pleased to see that she was clutching two bottles of Chablis. She had held them up as the front door opened. “One each, sis. Tell me all about it”. They sat drinking wine for an hour, as Jill was filled in on everything that was known so far. Only then did they both realise that they had hardly eaten anything. Jill offered to order a takeaway, using an app on her phone. Anita shook her head. “Leave that. I have a delicious meal in the fridge. It will only take twenty-five minutes to warm through”.

After they had tucked into the chicken kiev and vegetables, Jill opened the second bottle of wine. She hovered the neck of the bottle over Anita’s glass, suggesting a top-up. “Why the hell not” she grinned, lifting the glass. When the doorbell went at well after ten, Anita almost fell over in her urgency to get to the door. It was Jane, the police sergeant. She looked exhausted, and was wearing casual clothes under her coat. Her expression was grim.

“I have to come in, Anita. Something terrible has happened”.

Sergeant Dawes nodded to Jill as she walked into the living room. Anita was wide-eyed. “This is my sister Jill, Sergeant. Jill, this is Jane Dawes. Please sit down, Jane”.

Taking a deep breath, Jane began to tell them why she was there so late. “There’s no real way to break this to you gently, Anita. I received a message tonight from Lincolnshire Police. They were responding to my missing persons alert about Michael Hollis. There was an accident this afternoon, and the car registration came back to a James Hollis. They thought it might be connected, so let me know. Two people were found dead in the car, badly burned. It appears that it had somehow run off the road, overturned, and caught fire. No other vehicle is believed to have been involved. The bodies are unrecognisable, but are those of an elderly man and woman. Dental records will be used to confirm who they are, but it is almost certain that they are your in-laws”. Anita was just staring at her, saying nothing, so she continued.

“I thought you should know, before you saw it on the News, or heard it from anyone else. I’m so sorry to have to bring you this, on top of all your worries about Mike. I will of course let you know as soon as what we fear is confirmed, but as you had been expecting them to arrive here, I thought it was only fair to come and tell you in person”.

Anita finally cracked. A combination of stress, worry, hormones, and now this terrible news was just too much to cope with. The tears came first, running down her face and off of her jaw. That was followed by a crying sound that developed into body-shaking sobs. Her sister Jill wrapped her arms around her, and made soothing sounds. Jane sat awkwardly for a while, and then felt she should do something. Catching Jill’s eye, she spoke quietly. “I will make some tea, okay?”

It was almost twenty minutes before she had calmed down enough to talk. “Thanks for coming to let me know, Jane. I appreciate it is late for you, and you have had a long day. I don’t know what to do. Mike would have sorted all this out, funerals and stuff. What about their house? Can someone get a neighbour to check on it? They have a cat, Percy. Somebody must have a key so they can go in and feed it”. Jane was reassuring. “The local police will deal with all that, Anita. Let’s not worry about the details for now. I will speak to them in the morning. You should also know that Mike didn’t travel on any passenger plane, or pass through an airport. At least not using his own passport. My team are scouring the CCTV footage to try to track the movements of his car after he left home that morning”.

Sergeant Dawes stood up to leave. “I will come and see you again once there is any new information. I will have a list of all Mike’s contacts from his laptop and phone records tomorow, and I might want to go through those with you. Try to get some rest now”. She glanced at Jill, who nodded. “I will stay here tonight, and go into work late tomorrow”.

After her sister had left the following day, Anita knew that she had to try to get on with her routine. Showered, make-up applied, she poured the last of the wine down the sink, and started to go through their address book. It hadn’t dawned on her before how few friends they had now. Other than Claudia, she hadn’t kept in touch with anyone from school, and she had never bothered to get that close to her work colleagues over the years. Mike had always been adamant that he didn’t want to do what he called ‘the couples and barbecues thing’, and they had both happily drifted into a life that was all about them, with occasional contact with family members.

When she got to the page in the book for ‘S’, she glanced at the only name on it. Micky Steeden had been Mike’s best man at the wedding. His oldest friend, they were known as ‘the two Mikes’ at the time. But Micky had been offered a very good job in the Middle East years ago, and now lived in the Emirates somewhere. She picked up the house phone, and dialled the number on the page. Expecting to leave a message, she was surprised when Micky answered. “Michael Steeden here, how can I help you?” He obviously hadn’t recognised the number that had come up on his mobile.

Anita went over the events of the past couple of days, and included the news about Mike’s parents. “Micky, I was wondering if you had heard from Mike? If he was going to talk to anyone, it would be you”. He sounded distracted, but made the right noises when it came to being concerned about Mike, and was sympathetic about his parents too. “I haven’t spoken to Mike for months, Nita. I think the last time was on his birthday last year, and he was driving, so I kept it short. He told me about the baby though, seemed so excited that you were pregnant”. Micky had to go, something to do with work. He ended the conversation on a lighter note. “Listen, I’m sure he will turn up with some wacky explanation. You can trust Mike, you know that. He will find out about his parents, and sort that out too, I’m sure. Let me know when you hear from him, and tell him to give me a call”.

She hung up feeling strange about the call. Micky had said all the right things, but he hadn’t sounded surprised, or even genuinely concerned.

In the bedroom getting dressed to go out, she suddenly thought of something else. Claudia hadn’t phoned her yesterday, or the day before.

For the first time since she had told her best friend she was pregnant, there had been no daily call.

Anita decided to postpone the shopping trip, and try to get hold of Claudia. She rang the mobile, but it went to answerphone. This time, she left a message. “Hi Claude, don’t worry, I’m not having the baby, but some bad things have happened. Mike has gone missing, and his parents got killed in a car crash on their way to stay with me. The police are dealing with it all, but I could really do with a chat. I am going to ring your office number and see if I can catch you there. Ring me back if you get this, as I am holding fire on going to the shops until I know you are okay”.

The woman who answered Claude’s office number made it clear she wasn’t her. “Claudia Hyslop’s phone, Jennie speaking”. Anita didn’t mess around. “Can I possibly speak to Claudia, Jennie? I know she is probably in a meeting, but this is urgent. I’m her best friend, Anita Hollis, she will verify that if you ask her”. The woman sounded hesitant. “Hang on, I will put you through to the production manager”. After a series of beeps, a different voice came on. “Hi, Anita. My name is Lucinda Clarke, Claudia’s boss. I have heard her talk about you. Sorry to say that she is not in today. She took some time off, something about a domestic crisis with her partner. She hasn’t been in for a couple of days now, but she did promise to let me know as soon as she could come back to work. You will have to try her mobile, I’m afraid”. Anita thanked her, and hung up.

Shopping in the supermarket for some healthy food and bottled water, Anita was distracted by what she had heard earlier. Claude hadn’t let her know about any domestic issues, and it was unlike her not to reply to a text, or get back to an answerphone message. She had hung around at home for a good hour before deciding to drive to the shops.

Claudia was probably the best-looking girl at their school, but she made it very clear from a young age that she wasn’t interested in boys. Nor was she that interested in girls her own age, she had told Anita, just in case her friend was nervous around her. By the time they were both sixteen, Claude was calling herself a ‘lipstick lesbian’ to anyone that asked. So many boys around the town were disappointed, especially as she refused to fit into any of the stereotypes about gay women that they had in their minds.

When they left school at eighteen, Claude went on to university to study journalism, but Anita was happy to settle for a marketing job at the gas supply company. It was at a university function for the graduations that Claude had introduced her to Mike. He was studying engineering at a different part of the university, but they knew each other as they had once been neighbours as children, and the families had kept in touch. He asked Claudia for her phone number, and it had all developed from there.

The BBC had been the natural place for Claudia to apply for a job, and they were keen to have her. She worked her way up from production assistant on a news programme, and then was asked to move on a promotion to the new television complex at Salford, near Manchester. By then, she was living with her lover, a much older woman named Elizabeth Pike, who Claude affectionately called Betsy. She was already retired early from her job at the BBC in London, where they had met. Betsy didn’t hesitate to put her London house on the market, and the pair bought a luxury flat at the desirable address of Salford Quays, close to the BBC studios.

A more unlikely couple, Anita had never seen. But it worked so well. They were besotted with each other, and there was even talk of a wedding next year. When Claude had been her bridesmaid, many of the guests had thought that Betsy was her Mum, as she was around the same age, But Claude had eyes for nobody but her, and Anita was really pleased for them.

Only now she couldn’t get hold of her, and all she knew was some sort of domestic situation was keeping her incommunicado. She couldn’t imagine it was a break-up with Betsy. They had only recently bought a new car, and booked a holiday for the autumn. She kicked herself for never getting Betsy’s mobile number. At least she could have spoken to her, and found out what was going on. As she was wheeling the shopping trolley to the car, Anita’s phone began to ring in her shoulder bag. In her rush to get it out, she dropped the car keys. Bending down awkwardly to pick them up, the phone fell out of her bag and slid across under a car that was reversing out of a space.

Even as she walked over to get it, she knew it was unlikely that it would have survived being crunched under the huge tyres of the Toyota pickup truck that had just driven over it. And she was right. On top of everything else, she now had to go and get a new phone. At least she had insurance, and the phone shop was just across the shopping precinct from where she was parked.

Raising her face to the sky, she yelled out loud.

“What’s next? What else have you got in store for me?”

It only took around an hour to sort out a new phone, but there was no record of the missed call that was ringing at the time it fell from her bag. Anita was concerned, and knew it could have been the police, Claudia, her Mum or Jill, perhaps even Mike. She drove home and unpacked the shopping, then sat waiting with a cup of tea.

The house phone rang first. It was Sergeant Dawes. “Anita, I would like to come and see you tomorrow. The searches on Mike’s laptop history and phone usage have thrown up a lot of names. It would help if we could go through them, and you tell me what you know about them”. It was agreed that she would come round about ten the next morning. Still very peeved that she hadn’t heard from her Mum, Anita rang her mobile, intending to leave a message. When she answered, she sounded very distracted. “Can I call you back, dear? Only David is here at the moment, and we are rather busy, if you know what I mean”. Furious, Anita shouted. “My husband is missing, his parents have been killed in a car crash, I can’t get hold of my best friend, and I am six months pregnant. But as long as you get your shag with some random bloke, that’s okay then! Just forget it, Mum, I don’t know why I bother with you, I really don’t!”

She hung up before there was time for any reply.

When her Mum rang back immediately, she dismissed the call.

Over two hours later, Claudia finally rang her mobile. “I was worried, Nita. I rang you earlier, and your phone went dead. I tried loads of times after that, and got nothing. Anita was still very pissed off, and launched into a verbal assault about how her supposed best friend in the world had left her in the lurch. She went over everything that had happened, hardly pausing for breath, or to allow her friend to speak. Then she added about finding out she was off work due to some domestic crisis, and how she couldn’t believe Claudia hadn’t told her what was going on. When she heard crying at the other end, she stopped. “Claude, sorry Claude. I didn’t mean it. I’m just so wound up I feel I might explode”.

There was some sniffing at the other end of the line, and then Claudia came back on.

“Nita, it’s Betsy. She’s in a coma. She had a heart attack and then a stroke. I have been by her bedside since it happened, but they told me to come home and rest. They can’t say if she will ever wake up, Nita. I don’t know what to do. We should never have moved up here, everything was fine in London. I’m sure it was the stress of the move that caused this, I will never forgive myself, never.”

Anita took the phone away from her face. It was shocking news indeed, and terrible for both Betsy and Claude. But at least she knew where her other half was. Mike was missing, his parents dead, that had to be worse, surely? Reluctant to play some game of ‘My news is worse than yours’, she consoled her old friend as best as she could. Sounding positive, making the right noises, and offering to be a shoulder to cry on. But in the back of her mind, she had some thoughts that made her feel guilty.

At the time she needed Claude the most, she would be stuck in Manchester, dealing with her own shit. Her own Mum was selfish and useless, and though Jill was around, she really only wanted to get drunk and complain about how useless her ex was. Urging Claudia to ring anytime of the day and night if she needed to talk, she told her to get some rest, and hung up.

She was on her own.

That night, she had a nice chicken salad, then ate two oranges. It was time to concentrate on keeping her and the baby healthy, she decided. Too much stress and heartbreak in such a short time, who knows what that could do? If everything else failed, she would get through the pregnancy, and have a healthy baby to look after. Time enough to worry about all the rest later.

Using the notepad facility on the mobile phone, Anita started to jot down things to remember, including names and phone numbers. She had started to realise just how heavily she depended on Mike. She didn’t even know what day the bins had to be put out, and hadn’t a clue about the bills that might need paying, as Mike did all that online. She made a note to ask Jane Dawes about his laptop tomorrow, and ask how she could access those accounts. As she got ready for bed, she became increasingly annoyed with herself.

How had she let so much slide? Why had she just presumed it was alright for Mike to take care of everything from the broadband contract, to the mortgage and insurances? And she was going to have to forget about going to look at that new car next weekend. That would have to be put on hold for sure. Shaking her head, it dawned on her that she didn’t even know how to adjust the central heating controls. And she had worked for the gas company that supplied their gas. After brushing her teeth, she spoke to her own reflection in the mirror.

“Nita, girl, you’ve got to shape up!”

With no idea how long she had been asleep, Anita woke with a start to the house phone ringing. Reaching over to Mike’s side of the bed, she answered the call, her voice raspy from a dry throat. It occurred to her that she must have been snoring. The voice at the other end was female, and the accent wasn’t English.

“Hello. Hello, can you hear me? I need to speak to Mike Hollis please. It’s urgent”.

With her brain still fuddled by sleep, Anita bought some time to think. “Er, can I tell Mike who is calling? It’s the middle of the night here you know” There was hesitation at the other end. “Sorry, I forgot about the time difference. Mike doesn’t know me, I got his name and number from someone else. But I would like to speak to him, it’s not something that can wait. Tell him it is Shaily Agrawal. It won’t mean anything to him though”.

Anita flicked on her mobile, and added the name to her notes. She didn’t ask how it was spelt, but got it near enough to remember.

Wondering what to say next, and not wanting to give anything away, she waited a few more seconds before speaking again. “He says can you leave your contact number, and he will call you back when he is fully awake”. For a moment, it seemed as if the woman had hung up, then she spoke quickly. “Don’t worry, I will call back another time”. The line went dead.

It took a long time for Anita to get back to sleep. The voice had been well-spoken, the English perfect, but from the discernible accent, and the name, she concluded that the woman might be Indian. The mention of time difference seemed to confirm that she was calling from somewhere in the world that was a long way East too.

By the time Sergeant Dawes arrived that morning, Anita was showered and dressed. Jane was carrying Mike’s laptop, along with a thick folder of papers.

“We have finished with the laptop now, Anita, and I want to go through some of the contact names with you, see if anything rings a bell”. Anita told her about the phone call, and that she had made some notes on her phone. Taking out a small notebook, the detective wrote everything down. “I can try to trace the call that came into your house, and see if they have a record of the number. But my guess is that whoever it was blocked their number, or used a mobile that they got rid of. Her name was probably made up too. See if you can Google it on your i-pad”.

There were quite a few people on Google with that name. Most were in India, and a couple in Kenya. Two of them were in Britain. They all had some sort of online profile, mostly Twitter accounts, or Facebook pages. Just one had a website, and she was a writer, with a few novels for sale on Amazon. Jane thought for a moment. “Could you guess her rough age from the voice do you think?” Anita thought for a moment. “Not a teenager, I’m sure. Not an old woman either. I would say thirty to forty, perfect English, and not a very heavy accent”.

Jane leaned over and tapped the screen of the i-pad. “That one looks favourite to me”. She was indicating the profile of a journalist, a reporter on the New Delhi Times. They both looked at the photo, and agreed the age was about right. Jane made some notes in her book, and pulled a sheet of paper from the folder. “I will check out that reporter later, let’s start going through these names now”.

“Pete Springer?” Anita shook her head. “Never heard Mike mention him”. Jane moved her pen down the list. “We can’t find out that much about him online, but all six we found live in America. Has Mike ever been to America? Anita nodded. “He has been there on business trips a few times. And we had a two-week holiday in Florida, but he didn’t meet anyone while we were there”.

“What about a Lorraine Lewis? There are loads of those in the UK, and America too. Without a date of birth, we can’t get an exact match. A driving licence search returned more than fifty women of that name in England alone”. Anita shook her head. “Maybe she works at his company? Jane smiled.”That was the first thing we thought of. None of the names are of people employed at his company, or any of the international subsidiaries”. She carried on with the next name.

“Audrey Driscoll? Not so many people online with that name, but the only one with a website lives in Canada”. Anita shook her head, then had a thought. “Did you tie up any of those names from his laptop to calls on his phone?” Her face was serious when she replied. “That’s something unusual, I have to say. Those names came up on his contacts on the laptop, but none of them are in his phone contacts. However, he has a lot of numbers listed with the name of the contact in some sort of code. Letters and numbers, instead of a full name or nickname. Were you aware of that?”

Anita was shaking her head. “We never looked at each other’s phones. We trusted each other, Jane. We had personal space, you know, despite being so close and together as a couple”.

The next name on the list was Ian Hope. “I know an Ian that Mike works with, but his surname is Winkowski. A Polish name, I think, but he’s English”. Jane nodded. “No it’s not him using another name. We found someone in the north of England who looks likely, as there have been calls from his house to Mike’s mobile. I have sent a request to the local police to go and talk to him. I don’t want to ring him first and tip him off, just in case”. The pen moved down to the last name.

“This one is very interesting. Have you ever heard Mike talk about a Judith Harley?” Anita shook her head. “Never heard that name mentioned”. Jane leaned forward. “She is on his laptop, and her email address is current. I tried to find out some more about her on the police systems, and didn’t get anywhere before being blocked. I was referred to my lack of authority, and have no access to look up her file. That probably means she works for Special Branch, or the S.I.S”. Anita was looking perplexed, and rubbing her face. It was a lot to take in. “What’s S.I.S?”

Jane closed her notebook, and looked serious. “It stands for Secret Intelligence Service”. Anita was wide-eyed as Jane continued.

“I reckon she is something to do with MI6”.

Anita was confused. “MI6? What, you mean like spies and stuff, James Bond? That’s crazy. Mike is just a hard-working glue salesman. Why would he ever be mixed up in anything like that?” Jane Dawes thought about her words. “I’m not saying he is mixed up in anything, but not everyone has someone like Judith Harley in their contacts list, that’s for sure. And what about Susan Judd? Have you ever heard her name mentioned? She used her home phone to call his mobile. When I checked her out, she was definitely secret squirrel, and I am talking ‘no information disclosed’ here. I can see I am going to end up being called in over my search history at work, but I guarantee they will tell me sod-all”.

Shaking her head in disbelief, Anita started to get annoyed. “Jane, I have never heard of any Susan Judd either. This is all getting too silly for words. The point is, as I see it, that it isn’t helping us find out where Mike is. Shouldn’t you do a broadcast on the TV news or something? I could put an advert in the newspapers, or speak to journalists about all this. It’s a mystery I know, but it seems to be getting too convoluted. My husband is missing, and all I am hearing is lists of names”. Jane was sympathetic, but realised Anita wasn’t considering the implications of this news.

“It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. We have all the usual missing person stuff in place, but we can’t start mentioning those contact names, not when some of them might go underground as a result. I have Constable Soni going over everything to do with the names we can trace. She’s very good, and I’m sure she will dig deep. But we have no decent CCTV images of Mike anywhere. The last confirmed sighting of his car on CCTV was at a motorway services on the way to Portsmouth. He only stopped for petrol, then nothing. Where his car was found isn’t covered on camera, and the approaches into the city don’t show up his car at all. It’s as if it was taken there by helicopter or something, and dropped into the street. My best guess is that it was taken there inside a larger vehicle, and off-loaded in plain sight. I don’t actually think Mike went to that city at all”.

Jane packed her stuff away, and stood up. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you something more positive, Anita. It is still early days as far as missing persons go, and we are doing our best for you. But we have a backlog of other cases to work on too, and not that many staff. I will be sure to let you know as soon as I have anything new. Meanwhile, you have to try to take care of your health, for the sake of you and the baby”.

When the detective had left, Anita tried Claudia’s mobile. She was going to tell her all the crazy stuff about the secret service, and see if Claude could shed any light on it. After all, she had known him at university, and might remember a name or two from his past. “Nita, great news! Betsy is awake! She came round in the early hours. Not speaking yet, but she knows who I am, and smiled at me. I’m just having a coffee in the hospital canteen. Are you alright, love?” Given the good news, Anita didn’t want to go into all that other stuff now. Best to let Claude enjoy the moment. “That’s great news, Claude. I just rang to check how she was. Please give her my love”.

Something else had occurred to her, and she rang Mike’s boss, Ian Winkowski. “Mrs Hollis, how can I help you? Do you have news of Mike?” She had thought about what to say, and repeated it as if from a script. “No, nothing new at the moment. He is still listed as missing. The reason I am phoning is to ask about his pay. I don’t know how it works, you know, when someone is missing. Will he still get paid?” He had obviously been prepared for this to be asked.

“Well, he is absent, and since he rang in sick, we ar treating it as that for one week. After that, we would usually need a medical certificate. I appreciate that the circumstances are exceptional, but we cannot continue to pay someone indefinitely, when they are not here. I would say that I will allow him paid holiday leave. That is thirty days for the year, added to one week counted as being off sick. After that, I will keep his job open for three months, in the hope he returns. But after that thirty days, I am afraid he will no longer be paid”.

After thanking him, she hung up, her mind ticking over.

Something else suddenly popped into her brain. Even if Mike got that thirty days pay, she wouldn’t be able to access his bank account, to draw it out or transfer it to hers. She knew there were some savings, but not how much. And they were in accounts in Mike’s name too. Beginning to get really worried, she got her i-pad, and logged in to her own online banking. It was no surprise to discover that she only had just over four hundred in her account. Hopefully, Mike’s arrangements would continue to pay the regular bills, but she didn’t have a clue how much was in his main account.

Once her cash ran out, she would have to depend on her credit card.

As the water from the shower head cascaded over her face and body, Anita could hardly believe that a week had passed since Mike had gone missing. Last night had been bad. Restless with indigestion, and the baby seemed to have shifted onto her bladder, so she had been up a few times to pee. Twenty-eight weeks pregnant tomorrow, only twelve more to go to the due date. And so much to take in, as well as to deal with.

Her first stop that morning was at the bank. She asked to see someone privately, and had to sit waiting for almost an hour until an adviser was free. The young woman listened patiently as everything was explained. Husband missing, the money worries, what to do about bills, how to access cash. When she was sure that the customer had stopped talking, she nodded, deliberately placing a concerned look on her face.

“I do sympathise, Mrs Hollis. However, you do not have a joint bank account, and your husband has not given you power of attorney to access his. I’m sorry to tell you that I cannot discuss his banking or finances with you. It is simply not allowed. Not only is it against bank rules, it is contrary to the Financial Services Act, so technically illegal. But you are also a customer, and have been for some time. I am sure if you experience any financial problems, we will be happy to extend your overdraft, or perhaps you could apply for a loan? What do you earn at the moment?”

Anita pointed at the large bump on her abdomen. “I gave up work on Mike’s suggestion, when I got pregnant. I am not earning anything, and depended on him completely”. She could feel the tears forming, and fought against them. The woman was wearing a name badge, ‘Joan Hall’. Anita tried another approach. “Joan, you can see the situation I am in. Isn’t there someone who can transfer some money from Mike’s account to mine? You don’t have to tell me how much is in it, or anything about it. But I can prove we are married, and I will soon need extra money for the baby stuff”.

But her face was set. “I can only repeat what I have just told you. Perhaps family members could help you out with some cash? Or maybe you should consult a solicitor?” Angry now, but feeling deflated, Anita stood up. “Well thanks for nothing, Joan. A solicitor? How am I supposed to pay for that? So much for being a loyal customer of your bloody bank!” With that, she picked up her shoulder bag and stormed out. The tears came once she had got into her car, and she waited until they stopped before driving home.

Claudia rang in the afternoon, and told her that Betsy was much improved. “She is already having some physio, Nita. Her speech is slurred, but they are sure it will improve with therapy”. Although she didn’t want to burden her friend with her own troubles, Anita couldn’t stop herself telling her about the money, and the issues at the bank that morning. “Christ, Nita, you should have said something. Come on, I’m your best friend. Text me your sort code and account number, and I will transfer a thousand today. When that runs out let me know. We made a huge profit on the London house, and Betsy doesn’t even touch her pension at the moment. You must tell me whenever you need anything, promise me. And what that woman said about a solicitor made sense. Contact the guy who did the house sale, you must remember who it was. See what advice he can give you”.

Although she was feeling guilty now, Anita didn’t refuse the offer. She knew she would need it. “Thanks so much, Claude. What would I do without you? You will get it back once this mess is all sorted, I promise you. Give my love to Betsy when you see her”. It was only a temporary reprieve if Mike didn’t reappear, but a very welcome one.

The name of the solicitor was still on her contacts, so she rang the office and made an appointment for the next morning. Still suffering with indigestion, she knew she had to eat something, so made a big bowl of porridge with honey stirred into it. That was comforting, just what she needed after the stress of the day.

It seemed impossible not to think about all that was happening. She was missing Mike badly, even though her anger against him was building. One moment she was sure something terrible had happened, as he would never have left her in this awful situation. But then she started to imagine that he had just walked out on her for someone else. Uncaring, unconcerned, leaving without a thought for her, or their unborn baby. Still, the anger was actually a positive thing. It made her stronger. If she imagined that Mike was gone, and she was on her own now, it provided the incentive to get on with trying to sort her life out.

I was getting close to six, and she got ready to watch the evening news. You never knew if something might turn up, some report of a man found somewhere, having lost his memory. As she picked up the remote control, there was a loud knocking on the front door. They weren’t using the doorbell.

Three people were outside. One of them was a woman; middle-aged, short hair, and a stern expression. The other two were men, dressed in dark suits and looking blankly at her. The woman held up a sheet of paper, and spoke in a loud voice.

“Anita Hollis? We have a warrant to search this house. Please sit down, and do not touch anything”.

Anita let them in, and turned to the woman, who seemed to be in charge. “What are you searching for? You need to contact Sergeant Dawes, she’s dealing with this case. She has already looked at Mike’s laptop, taken some papers away, and checked his phone records. Do you want me to ring her?” The woman didn’t seem to be listening. “Please sit down, madam. This is nothing to do with the local police, or about the fact that your husband is missing. It is another matter entirely, and I am not at liberty to tell you what we are looking for. Just be calm. We won’t be long, and will try not to disrupt you unduly”.

That didn’t satisfy Anita. “What’s your name please? If you aren’t with missing persons, then what the hell is all this about?” As the two men rifled through units and drawers wearing plastic gloves, the woman turned. Her mouth twitched, in what appeared to be her idea of a reassuring smile. “My name is Susan Judd, Mrs Hollis. I am with the Security Service, nothing to do with the police. Please do as I ask, sit quietly, and do not use your phone”. Anita wanted to tell her that she had heard that name before, shout out something like ‘You called Mike’s phone, tell me why’. But a bad feeling made her keep silent. Besides, she didn’t want to get Jane into anymore trouble than she was in already.

Ten minutes later, one of the men came into the room carrying Mike’s laptop, still in the bag that Jane had returned it in. The other one was going through everything in the kitchen, making enough noise to wake the dead. The woman looked at the guy with the laptop and nodded. Turning back to Anita, she did her worrying smile again. “Do you have any outbuildings, Mrs Hollis? A garden shed, storage container, something similar? And we will need the key to the garage, as it appears to be locked”.

Anita didn’t feel very cooperative, but there was no point in lying. “There’s a plastic storage thing against the back fence. I don’t know what’s in it though. The key to the garage is on a hook in the hallway. It’s full of Mike’s junk though, as well as his tools, the lawn mower, and some of his work stuff”. The taller man put down the laptop and went into the hallway to get the key. There was the sound of the garage door creaking as it was opened. Then the other man came out from the kitchen, shook his head at the woman, then opened the French windows to go out into the garden. Moments later, he came back in holding a large can. It was a shiny metal, with a number or code of some sort stencilled on it. The woman seemed pleased. “Take that out to the car, get it bagged up”.

Sensing a change in mood, Anita tried her luck. “Isn’t there anything you can tell me about what’s going on? I’m so worried about my husband, as it’s been over a week now. And as you can see, I am heavily pregnant”. Before the woman could reply, the taller man came back in and said just one word. “Nothing”. The woman turned to face Anita. “We will be taking the container that you saw, as well as the laptop. My colleague will give you a receipt for both items. As I told you, this is nothing to do with your missing husband”. Anita scoffed. “Yeah right, like I believe that. Mike goes missing, and suddenly the house is full of spooks searching for stuff and I have no idea why. Please don’t insult my intelligence by telling me it is not related, I’m not just some stupid pregnant woman who can be fobbed off”.

The man handed the woman some paper, and she passed it to Anita. “Here is your receipt. I thank you for your cooperation. When we have finished with the laptop, it may be retained as evidence, same with the container. I cannot say at this time when or if they will be returned. I bid you good evening, Mrs Hollis”.

As soon as they had left, she was on the phone to Jane Dawes. She told her everything that had happened, and that one of them was the Susan Judd who had been mentioned. “I can tell you, Jane, she was a really cold fish, that one. Not a glimmer of concern for Mike, or for me”. There was a long pause before Jane replied. “They worked fast. I thought they might show up, but had no idea they would be so public about it, and arrive with an official warrant. My guess was that they would just break into the place while you were out and get what they wanted without leaving a trace of being there. They must have been desperate to show their hand like this, Anita”.

Worried now, Anita started to wonder if Jane knew more than she was saying. So far, she was the only person dealing with this, and the only one she thought she could trust. “But what did they want, Jane? You have already been over the laptop, and they took some weed-killer or something from Mike’s box in the garden. What the bloody hell could they want with that? What’s happening, Jane. What has all this got to do with Mike?”

Her voice sounded weary as she replied.

“In all honesty, Anita, I haven’t got a sodding clue”.

The solicitor seemed to be expecting her, as he didn’t ask her why she had made the appointment. Offering her a comfortable chair, and after she had declined tea or coffee, Mr Rossis tapped a file that was already on his desk. Anita had only met him briefly on two occasions, when he had dealt with the legal conveyancing during the house purchase, but she was hoping he could give her some general advice on her situation. Before she could say anything, he started talking.

“When your husband came in to see me that day, I must confess I found his request rather strange. But it is not up to me to question the intentions of my clients, especially when they appear to be in good faith”. She raised her hand. “I have to stop you there, Nicholas. I don’t have a clue what you are talking about. I came in to ask your advice about finances. Mike has gone missing, you see, and I have no access to any money”.

Opening the file, he nodded. “Exactly. A little over six months ago, Mike came in to see me. He asked me to transfer the deeds of your house into your name, changing it from the usual joint ownership. I witnessed the change, and you also signed it. Do you remember signing anything?” Anita shrugged. “I had just found out I was pregnant, so I don’t remember any specific occasion. Mike always got me to sign things to do with accounts, bills, or the house. I never asked him why. Does that make me sound stupid? I suppose it does”. He shook his head. “Ordinarily, I would counsel you against signing anything that you haven’t read, but in this case I am happy to tell you it was a good decision”. She was confused. “Please spell it out, I have no idea what’s going on”.

The file was pushed to one side. “He told me that he might have to suddenly disappear. You were going to have a baby, and if anything happened, he wanted to make sure that you were provided for. I have letters giving you power of attorney to draw on his bank account, as well as lists of all your current suppliers and their bills, along with the payment information. In addition, there is a savings account in your name at a different bank that I have all the paperwork for. It currently has something around forty thousand pounds in it. I know that is not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, but it will certainly tide you over for now. Bear in mind that with the house in your name now, you can always sell it if you need to, and release substantial equity if you downsize. House prices in this town have increased dramatically since you bought it”.

It was a lot to take in, and a huge shock. “So where is he? Why did he do all this? I can’t believe that he knew all about this and never told me, not even a hint. What more did he tell you?”

Nicholas leaned forward. “Please believe me, Mrs Hollis, that’s all I know. He didn’t tell me anymore, and it wasn’t my place to ask him. He paid me for a service, and I supplied it, simple as that. Oh, and there is also a life insurance policy, in addition to the one covering your mortgage. It is for five hundred thousand pounds, in the event of his death. I had wondered if that was the reason you were coming to see me today, that something bad had happened to him. But if he is just listed as missing, I do have to tell you that no insurance company will pay out for seven years, and then only once he has been declared dead, after missing for that long”.

Anita had a thought. “Surely he left a letter for me then? Something explaining why? He must have realised that I would need to know. The stuff about the house and money is all very well, and will obviously help when the baby comes. But I want to know where my husband is, and what has happened to him, Nicholas. He left the house as normal, and said he would be home about six. I don’t want to think that he knew he was never coming back that morning, and didn’t tell me. The police are dealing with this, and I am sure the sergeant will want to talk to you. I will have to give her your details”.

His tone was sympathetic. “I am more than happy to tell the police everything I have just told you. Mike told me that this might happen. He said that if his wife came to see me, I should tell her about the house, and the financial provision. Everything is completely legal, and will stand up to any scrutiny. By all means tell the sergeant to come and see me. Meanwhile, I will give you this file with copies of all the documents. In this time of trouble at least you can be reassured that you have a home, and are financially stable for now. Take the letter to the bank, and they will let you draw on his salary, as long as it is paid. Contact the companies on the list, and tell them too. They will change the name on the contracts so you can make the monthly payments. All the account numbers and contact details are on a sheet in the folder. If you need to talk to me, call anytime during business hours”.

Taking the file he held out, Anita thanked him, and walked out onto the street in a daze. So Mike knew he was going to disappear, and as long ago as the confirmation of the pregnancy?

She was too dizzy to walk across to the car, and supported herself on a lamp post.

Once she was back at home and fully recovered, Anita thought more about the implications of what Nick Rossis had told her. For Mike to have done all that, he must have known something bad might happen. It was also possible that nothing would happen, which was probably why he had said nothing. But what could it possibly be? How could she have lived with and loved someone for eight years and never had an inkling of anything so huge going on in his life? As she had said to the solicitor, she was beginning to feel very stupid for being so accepting of anything she had been told.

Leaving a message on Claudia’s phone, she transferred the money back to her friend. No point taking cash from her, when she could manage for now on what Mike had arranged. After a snack and a hot drink, she went back out to go to the bank, and show them the paperwork that would allow her to access Mike’s account. The larger amount in the separate savings account could be left alone for now. That would be needed later, if her worst fears turned out to be correct.

The dark blue van was distinctive. Definitely not a work vehicle, it had alloy wheels, and tinted side windows. She didn’t normally pay much attention to other traffic, but something about the van behind her car jogged her memory. It had been in the Market Place car park yesterday when she had come out of the solicitor’s office. And now it had appeared from a side turning close to her house, and was driving slowly behind her, keeping a reasonable distance. For all she knew, it might belong to someone living nearby, and they might just be going shopping.

Given what she had been told, the van made her nervous, so she didn’t go into the car park behind the bank as planned. Cancelling the indicator, she carried on around the one-way system, appearing to head back the way she had come. Sure enough, the van was still in her rear-view mirror, although it had dropped back two places in the town centre traffic. When she got back to the entrance to the car park, she accelerated without indicating, and turned suddenly. Checking the mirror, she watched the van go past at the end of the street.

This time, she got to see the manager of the bank, after a ten-minute wait. He looked at the paperwork, and told her it would all be in place by the end of the day’s trading. She asked him to transfer whatever was in Mike’s account to hers, and he also said he would arrange the changes for the payments to the various companies for her. Anita was wondering if the solicitor had spoken to him. But she didn’t ask.

Back at her car, she stopped dead as she opened the driver’s door. The blue van was there, only fifty feet away. Finding courage from her anger and curiosity, she closed the door and marched across to it. Taking out her phone, she intended to take a photo of the number plate, and anyone who might be sitting in it. As she raised the phone to look at the screen, the van’s engine started, and it began to drive out of the car park. She switched the camera to zoom, and left her finger on the button as it took at least a dozen shots. Scrolling through the results, there were at least three clear photos of the rear number plate. She rang Jane Dawes, and got her answerphone message.

“Hi Jane, it’s Anita Hollis. Can you possibly come and see me at my house later? There have been some strange developments, and I think I am being followed too”.

When her house phone rang, it wasn’t Jane. It was her Mum. “Anita darling, I have some exciting news. David has proposed to me. What do you think about that? I said yes of course. My head’s in a whirl, and I feel like a teenager again. We are not going to wait, and he is arranging the wedding at The Grange, you know, that gorgeous country club hotel. It is on Saturday week, at two in the afternoon. I have let Jill know, and will of course be expecting you too. Please try to find a nice dress to wear”. Anita shook her head. Her Mum’s degree of selfishness was almost inconceivable. But rather than get stressed out by telling her what she thought of her, she just hung up.

The afternoon dragged a little. The thing with the blue van had unnerved her, and she couldn’t stop herself from going to the window to see if the van was anywhere outside. For the first time, she was also beginning to wonder if the crash that had killed her in-laws was really an accident. Only able to face eating a toasted cheese sandwich, she sat down on the sofa and switched on the TV to watch the news. Flicking around all four news channels, there was nothing on any of them about a missing person being found. And nothing about finding a body either. As it finished, and the regular nighly chat show started, her doorbell rang.

Anita made Jane a cup of tea as she listened to her apologies about being busy, and not calling her back. Then she told her everything that had happened at the solicitor’s , and about the blue van. When she showed her the phone photos, Jane rang her office, and asked for a check on the number plate. She didn’t seem to be surprised by the result. “It’s Ian Hope’s van, Anita. He was one of the contacts I mentioned. The police in Yorkshire went to talk to him at my request, but there was nobody at home. If he is in town following you around, that explains why he wasn’t there”. Anita raised her eyebrows. “But why would he be following me, Jane? Should I be scared? What do you know about him?” Jane put her mug down on the coffee table.

“He is a private security consultant, a fancy name for what they used to call a private detective. He served in the SAS for twenty years, then started working for himself once he left the Army. I think I need to talk to him as a matter of urgency”.

Before her tea had even started to get cold, Jane had been on to the control room to get her colleagues organised in looking for Ian Hope’s van. She had asked for CCTV coverage of the car park and surrounding roads, and said she wanted the driver stopped and detained if found, with her to be notified immediately. Before returning to her lukewarm drink, she made the decision to tell Anita some things she had found out.

“Detective Soni has discovered something interesting. That Indian reporter, Shaily something, well she has disappeared now. Richa asked the editor what she was working on, but he claims not to know. She is an investigative journalist, and normally keeps her stories to herself, until she is ready to submit them. Now she has gone missing, along with her laptop, notebook, and camera. She tried to talk to Mike’s friend, Mick Steeden. After a lot of calls to Qatar, she discovered that he has quit his job, and gone back to his place in Australia. Richa sent a request to the New South Wales Police to call on him, and ask him to call the office to answer some questions. Guess what? His flat was empty, and nobody knows where he is”.

Anita shook her head in disbelief. “What do you think is going on, Jane? You can be honest with me”. Jane drained her tea, and put the mug down on the table. “In all honesty, I am at a loss, Anita. If you take it all as a whole, then something is definitely going on. But as well as Mike, it seems to involve this Ian Hope, Mike’s friend Steeden, and an Indian reporter too. Add the secret service into the mix, and it is getting way beyond the usual procedures of a missing persons inquiry. I think I am going to have to expand this whole investigation into something larger. But I fear if I do, then it will be taken off me, and quietly suppressed, For now, I am keeping it in my department, but I have no idea how much longer that will be possible”.

Jane was getting her stuff together to leave when her mobile rang. “Already? Oh, good. Okay, stay there, and I will come to you. Five minutes”. She smiled at Anita. “They just stopped his van and detained him. He was only two streets away from here. I am going to see what’s going on, and I will let you know as soon as I have spoken to him”.

Less than twenty minutes later, Jane was back at the door. She was accompanied by two uniformed police officers, and a rugged-looking man wearing a tracksuit. “Jane, this is Ian Hope. Can we come in?” The uniformed men stayed outside, and Jane was smiling as she walked into the living room. “Ian, this is Mike’s wife. Tell her what you just told me”. He spoke quietly, with a pronounced northern accent.

“Five months ago, a man came to see me at my house. I use it as my office too, you see. He gave me a photo of you, your home address, car details, and home and mobile phone numbers. He told me that something might happen that would mean he would have to disappear at short notice. Either that, or something bad might happen to him. He said his wife was pregnant, and he feared for her safety if he was no longer around. I couldn’t get anything specific from him about why, but he was sure that his family would be in danger, including his parents, and you. He paid me a retainer, and told me to wait for a text message. I asked him what I should do if he didn’t disappear, and he said that if I didn’t hear anything I could just forget I had ever met him. It was a strange job, but I am used to that sort of thing in my line of work”.

Anita asked him to sit down, and offered tea or coffee. He shook his head, and continued.

“He was a very genuine guy. I pride myself in knowing when someone might be pulling my chain, and he definitely wasn’t. He said that if I got the text message, I would also receive a transfer of a considerable amount of money to pay for my time, and to compensate abandoning any jobs that I had on. I was to drive down here, find somewhere to stay, and keep an eye on you. Check out anyone near your house, or who might be following you when you went out. If I saw anyone, I was to intervene”.

Anita raised a hand to stop him. “Intervene? What did he mean by that?”

Ian smiled. “Make them go away. Anyway, last week, I got the text message, from an unknown number. I tried to call it of course, but the line was already dead. Then I checked my business account, and the money had been transferred. So I packed a few things, and came down here. I have been watching out for you ever since. So far, your visitors have all been police or spooks, aside from your family. I know someone who checks the number plates for me, and they came back as government registered, or police vehicles” He paused, but when Anita had nothing to say, he carried on.

“I check on your house now and then during the night too, and I have not noted any suspicious activity. But my contact told me that your in-laws were killed in a car crash on a safe road, in good weather. I have to tell you that I am not happy about that. There is enough money to pay for my time until you have had the baby, and a few weeks after. If you want me to carry on with the job, I am happy to do so. This police sergeant has checked out my story, and she believes me. I showed her the contract, and all the stuff Mike left with me”.

Anita didn’t have to think about her reply.

“You are going to need a much less distinctive car. I will pay for you to hire one”.

After agreeing to hire a nondescript car, Ian was allowed to leave, and get back to his van. He had told them he would park it somewhere away from town for now, and get the car rental company to pick him up from a different location. Anita agreed with Jane that he seemed reliable, and looked pretty tough too. But it had amused her that he thought it was alright to use a van that was so easy to spot. Jane left shortly after, promising to keep her updated on any developments.

Settling on having a takeaway meal delivered, Anita sat eating her Pad Thai noodles, thinking about how Mike had managed all of this without so much as a hint of what was going on. Going over everything that had happened in the last six months, she had to admit to herself that she hadn’t had a clue that anything out of the ordinary was occurring. Either she needed to pay more attention to life, or Mike was a great actor. An early night wasn’t much help, as her mind wouldn’t stop whirring.

The next morning, she got a call from the Lincolnshire Police. They wanted her to contact an undertaker about what should be done with the bodies of her in-laws. Red-faced, she apologised. “I’m so sorry, there has been so much going on, I had completely forgotten about Jim and Dorothy. I will call that number now”.

Although it sounded awfully uncaring, she had no option but to tell the undertaker to go ahead with a double cremation, and that nobody would be attending any service. “I don’t want to travel that far, I am pregnant you see. And my husband is currently missing. As far as I know, there are no other relatives”. He sounded as if that was nothing unusual, so she agreed to pay the basic price for the funeral, and that the ashes would be sent to her later, delivered by a courier service. Any guilt she was feeling was assuaged by the fact that Mike had left her to sort everything out.

There was also the matter of any will they had left. There would surely be some inheritance, as well as their substantial house to be sold. She knew that Mike would be the only beneficiary, and decided to wait until she could be certain he was never coming home. The house would have to be left to the attentions of the neighbours in the meantime. The last thing she needed was to have to worry about their empty property.

In the afternoon, her Mum phoned. She saw who it was on the caller I.D. and rejected the call. All those years of indifference followed by the recent display of selfishness had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. As far as she was concerned, Mum could just do one, and clear off with the wonderful David. Claudia phoned with good news. Betsy was talking, and might be discharged next week. Claude was going back to work tomorrow, trying to get some normality back in her life. She said that Anita was more than welcome to come and stay for a while, if she wanted to get away. But they both knew she was never going to leave the house until she knew what was going on with Mike.

No sooner had Claude hung up, then Jane rang. “Hi, Anita. I have just had a meeting with Ian Hope. I went to meet him at the motorway services. He has rented a car, and wanted me to let you know that it’s a silver Ford Focus. Thousands of those around, but if you see one following you, or near your house, then it’s likely to be him. I have given him some of the names to look into. He has some good contacts, like ex-military Ministry of Defence people, and former SAS colleagues now working in the private sector. He can do some of the digging for me, so I can avoid the attention of my superiors. It’s not something I would usually ever do, but then again, this is not a usual case”.

Then Jill phoned, to talk about Mum getting married, and to ask what was happening regarding Mike. Anita was wondering if she was going to spend the whole day on the phone. “Jill, are you at work? I will call you at home this evening”. Jill told her she had taken a sick day. “I hit the voddy last night, Nita. Woke up with a mouth like a wrestler’s jockstrap. I’m a lot better now though. Shall I come round?” Anita lied. “I’m feeling really tired, Jilly, thought I might have a lie down. I will ring you after dinner, and talk about it all then. I’m not going to Mum’s wedding though, I tell you that now”.

After pretending to Jill that she was going to bed, it suddenly sounded like a good idea. But she had no sooner climbed under the duvet, than the house phone rang. Sitting up, she yelled out loud. “For Christ’s sake! What’s going on with that bloody phone!” But she answered it anyway, as there was always a chance it might be Mike. It was a man’s voice, but not Mike.

“Mrs Hollis, this is Ian Hope. Sorry to disturb you, but I have a few things I would like to talk to you about. And I have also found out some things that might interest you. Will it be alright if I come and see you early this evening, sometime after dark?” Anita was impressed, he was working fast now he was out in the open.

“That will be fine, Ian. Shall we say about six?”

Watching him as he set up, Anita couldn’t fail to be impressed by his ease of movement, and obvious confidence. Although he was perhaps fifteen years older than her, he had a presence that was undeniably attractive. In another life, she would definitely have fancied him, and wanted to get to know him. He had even brought a whiteboard. Just a small one, but still. That was unexpected. He had photos and documents too, paper printouts from websites or emails, by the look of them. Spreading those out on the coffee table, he started to write on the board with a marker pen.

“The names the sergeant gave me were interesting, Mrs Hollis. Let me show you what I have found out”. As he wrote each name, he turned and spoke about it. Anita felt as if she was in a company meeting, or back at school.

“Okay, Judith Harley. She comes up as someone important in SIS, but I have discovered that she quit her job almost nine months ago. She now works for a company called International Security Systems, based in Dublin. That’s merely a front though, and the company is almost certainly dabbling in something dark and secret.” He wrote another name.

“Pete Springer. He is recently retired from the US Air Force. He writes a blog about travelling, and flying his private plane. That’s irrelevant though, and almost certainly a diversion. I doubt he has actually retired from the Air Force. What is interesting to me is that he was a senior Colonel in charge of a base of Stealth bombers, new ones in development and testing. So new, they haven’t been made public yet”. He changed the colour of the marker from red to blue, and wrote a name on the right hand side of the board.

“Audrey Driscoll. She is a housewife in Canada. Her only claim to fame in this incident is that she is currently taking Air Canada to court over the loss of a relative in a plane crash four years ago. Then there is Lorraine Lewis. I narrowed that down to a definite connection, as she was on that same Air Canada flight, and survived the crash with life-changing injuries. Someone is trying to find out for me if they have had any email exchanges, but Mike obviously knew both of them”. He changed back to the red pen.

“Shaily Agrawal. The Indian reporter that has gone missing. My contact has found out that nobody is actually looking for her. There is no current police report active in India, and as far as we can tell, she has no relatives. The only person remotely worried about her is the editor of the New Delhi Times, and he’s not that concerned, as he suspects she is working undercover on a story”. After he had written the next name below Shaily’s, he turned with a wide smile on his face.

“This is definitely a lead worth following. Susan Judd works for the Ministry of Defence. She served in the Royal Air Force Police, then worked for the Counter Terrorism Command in the Metropolitan Police in London. For the last few years, she has been some sort of investigator with the MOD, working from the office of what is called Air Command”.

Anita sat back against the big cushion on the sofa. “You have really found out a lot, Ian. But none of it makes any sense to me. Other than the phone call I answered from that Indian reporter, I have never heard any of those names mentioned until Mike went missing. How did you manage to discover all this in such a short time?”

Sitting down opposite her, Ian looked serious. “Before I left the Army and went into business for myself, I made sure to build a network of contacts. I had served in pretty much every part of the world, either on missions, or on training exercises. I guessed it was going to be crucial to my new job to keep in touch with all of them. So far, I haven’t needed to call on many of them, but this case has proved my hunch right, as they have all delivered”.

Rubbing her face, Anita raised her legs onto the sofa. They felt heavy, and she was still tired from that earlier nap.

“Are you going to tell Jane about all this? And I am wondering why you never let me know that you were following me, keeping an eye on me. I was quite scared when I saw that blue van”. Ian shook his head.

“For now, I don’t want Jane to know much more than she already does. She is sure to write it all up on the case notes, and all sorts of people can access those. It will have to be between us, and I’m sorry if that adds more pressure to a difficult situation. As for not contacting you openly, Mike insisted that I didn’t do that. He said he didn’t want you to know that I was around. I presume that he had hoped to come back, and for you to be none the wiser about what had gone on. To be honest, I never thought you would make that connection with my van, but I see now that was a huge error on my part. Anyway, you are obviously tired, so I will make a move. I will be sure to let you know what else I find out”.

As she saw him to the door, Anita had one more question. “Tell me the truth, Ian. Do you have any idea where he is, or what has happened to him?”
He nodded, which surprised her.

“I do have one theory, but I am not going to say what that is until I have spoken to some more people”.

Jill didn’t ring that night, and Anita was pleased. Her sister was probably drinking heavily again, and she wasn’t in the mood to have a argument with her about Mum’s wedding. She checked her online banking on the i-pad, and was pleased to see that Mike’s money had been transferred as promised. After eating a decent meal, she was still hungry, so decided to have some rice pudding before bed.

As she was brushing her teeth the phone rang, and she answered it on the bedroom extension. It was Ian Hope. “Sorry it’s so late, Mrs Hollis. I have had some interesting communication about Shaily, the Indian reporter. And the same contact has found out something worth knowing about Mick Steeden too. But he needs five hundred dollars to pay an informant. Are you prepared to pay that? I cannot guarantee it will help find Mike, but it might expand a few leads”. Anita hesitated. Could Ian be trying to get money out of her? Did he know about the financial arrangements that were now in place?

“I was led to believe that Mike had paid you for your services in advance, Ian. How do I know that the money will go to your contact, let alone this mysterious informant?” He was honest with her. “You don’t know that, and neither do I. But if no real information is forthcoming, my contact knows me well enough to be aware that he will regret crossing me. As for the money Mike gave me in advance, that was for my time and expenses. I had no idea then that I might be having to pay for information as to his whereabouts”. That seemed reasonable.

“Very well, text me your account details, and I will transfer the money online tonight. It will be the British equivalent of the five hundred dollars though. I don’t want to mess around buying dollars to transfer”. Ian thanked her, and hung up.

It was the phone ringing that woke her up the next morning. Expecting it to be Jill, her hand hovered over the handset, reluctant to answer. When she did, it was Ian, sounding excited. “The time difference paid off, Mrs Hollis. I was able to speak to my contact a few times during the night, and have some really good stuff to tell you. But I am not going into details over the phone. I will come and see you later, same time as yesterday”. When she put the phone down, it suddenly occurred to Anita how her life had started to so heavily revolve around the time of six pm.

The next call was later. Jill was on her lunch break, and making apologies for not ringing last night. When she tried to get onto the subject of Mum’s wedding, Anita cut her dead. Jill tried another tactic. “Look, I will pick you up. Just come for the service, so it looks like she has some family there. Then you can say you don’t feel well, something with the baby or whatever. I will bring you back, and that way we both get out of having to wear fake smiles at the after-party”. There was no shifting Anita.

“Forget it, Jill. I’m not going, and that’s that”.

During the afternoon, Anita had to do some shopping, and also popped into the chemist to get some indigestion tablets. Eating so late at night wasn’t a good idea, it seemed. Even a short trip around town had made her back ache badly. Walking across to her car, she rubbed her back with her free hand, and smiled. It was such a cliché, a pregnant woman with backache. On the drive home, she was sure she spotted that silver Ford car. It was reassuring to think that Ian was watching out for her.

There was something inside, snagging as she tried to push the front door open. Anita was thinking that there must be a lot of post today. But it was just one large envelope, one of those long padded bags designed to just fit through a letter-box. After putting her shopping away, she sat on the sofa and looked at the package. Her name was written on the front, but there was no postage mark, and no address. It made her nervous, as it was so thick. Turning it over slowly, she was relieved to see a message on the back. ‘From Ian Hope’. She opened it by pulling the tab, and tipped the contents onto the coffee table.

As well as page after page of printouts, there were also photos. Most of it was taken from newspapers all around the world, but there were also some documents that looked very official. Anita went to get some fruit juice from the fridge, and then sat down to read. Forty-five minutes later she had some of the papers laid out in date order. The oldest one went back six years, and the latest was just over six months ago. She picked that one up again, then started to go back over the rest.

‘Tragic plane crash in India claims 240 lives’.
‘Three fatal airline crashes in 9 months cause concern in India’.
‘Emirates Airline grounds 43 aircraft after technical faults discovered’.
‘US Air Force denies fatal crash was pilot error’.
‘Second RAF air disaster in 3 months. MOD to investigate’.
‘Boeing denies responsibility after 8 fatal air crashes in one year’.
‘Kazakhstan air disaster blamed on technical fault. 108 killed’.
‘Air Canada crash. Survivors and relatives of victims to sue in class action’.

A creak from above made her drop the papers onto the sofa. Listening carefully, she heard it again. Anita grabbed her phone and walked hurriedly to the front door. Once outside, she walked away from the house, dialling Ian’s number on her mobile. He answered after three rings.

“Ian, can you come quickly please? There is someone in my house”.

When the silver car pulled up at the corner of the street, Anita handed Ian the door keys. “I closed the front door behind me, and the windows are all locked. Whoever it is should still be in there”. Ian was smiling, obviously enjoying the situation. “Leave it to me. You get in my car and lock the doors. Don’t open them for anyone except me. If I am not back in five minutes, drive to the police station and ask for Jane”.

She took the car key from him, and sat in the driver’s seat.

He was back a lot quicker than she expected, and beckoned her to get out of the car and follow him back to the house. “The place is empty, Mrs Hollis. The window lock on one of the bedroom windows has been forced. It still closes, but the lock will have to be replaced at some stage. My best guess is that they jumped down into the garden, then away over the back fence. No point me searching around, they will be long gone, and I have no idea who I am looking for”.

Inside, the house looked completely normal. Nothing was obviously disturbed, no drawers or cupboard doors open, and no sign of anything missing. Anita was puzzled. “What do you think they…”. Ian’s finger was over her lips, and he was shaking his head. He made a zip motion across his own mouth, and went back outside to his car. Moments later, he returned with something that looked like a portable radio with an extending aerial. Still motioning for her to be silent, he waved the aerial around for a few moments until a red light came on when he was close to the house phone. Reaching under the side table, he produced a small button-like device. It reminded her of the expensive hearing aid Mike’s Dad had bought a couple of years ago.

After sweeping the device around the living room and kitchen, Ian went upstairs. Shortly after, he returned, showing her three more identical devices in the palm of his hand. Unlocking the doors to the garden, he walked over to the stone bird-bath, and dropped all four into the murky water.

“One in the bedroom, under the phone extension. One in the room Mike used as an office, under the desk, and one in the toilet, behind the cistern. Whoever was in here wasn’t looking to take anything. They were planting listening devices”. Anita shook her head in amazement. “Why would they want to listen to me using the toilet?” That made Ian, chuckle, and Anita noticed that he looked very handsome when he was laughing. “When people think they might be bugged, and being overheard, they often go into the toilet and run taps or the shower, to muffle their voices. It’s not a place they ever expect to find a listening device, so it has become quite common for those in the know to start leaving one in there”.

Anita sat down on the sofa. She was still recovering from the trembling that had affected her when she heard the floor creaking. She indicated that Ian should sit. “Ian, won’t they realise that they have been found now? Surely dumping them in the bird-bath will make them stop working?” He nodded. “I want them to know. Besides, it would have made life very difficult for you, knowing someone was listening in. Your conversation wouldn’t have sounded natural, believe me”. Anita could see that he knew what he was talking about. “Won’t they just break in again though, put them somewhere else? And who do you think it was?” He was very certain of his answer. “No, once they realise that they were rumbled, there would be no point. As for who it was, it could be the Secret Service, or it might be the other interested group. They all want to try to find out where Mike is, and I’m betting that they think you know”.

Before she could ask any more questions, he nodded at the pile of papers that were still on the sofa and coffee table. “I hope some of that made sense to you?” Anita stood up. “I have no idea what it means. I will make us some tea, and you can tell me”.

By the time they had drunk their tea and Ian had finished talking, Anita had a headache. It was starting to make some sense though.

He had laid it all out for her, and although it was still mainly a theory needing to be proved, it was a good theory.

Some time ago, Mike’s company had come up with a new formula for an industrial glue. Thicker and longer lasting than even Super Glue, it was discovered to be able to bond anything together. Metals of all weights, plastics of any description, and one to the other if necessary. It also worked on wood, and even stone. More importantly, it could withstand extreme stress, and any temperatures, hot or cold. It was taken up by all the aircraft manufacturers, as they could save weight by replacing metal parts with glue. Then the military here and in the US became interested too.

Although it was bought by many companies and governments, the news of the invention was never made public. Nobody wanted to fly in a plane that they imagined might be glued together, even if it wasn’t used on huge areas like the wings and fuselage. However, they did use it in areas like landing wheels, crucial control levers, and some internal structures. Ian was adamant that all this was fact.

“As you can tell from the documents, Mrs Hollis, failure of the glue over time caused some terrible air crashes. At first, nobody associated it with the glue failing, but people at Mike’s company started to suspect it, as they knew who had bought it. When it was hushed up by the governments in various countries, Mike took it upon himself to become a whistle-blower and contacted some of the victims, as well as leaving a message for the reporter in India”. Still trying to take it all in, Anita was wondering where they would go from there. “So what do we do now, Ian? What’s our next step?” He smiled.

“We have to find Mike. And I think I know where he is”.

Ian was happy to see his comment had cheered Anita up, but felt he should add a note of caution. “Obviously I cannot be completely certain, but what I have found out is encouraging. Someone I know in Ireland looked into some things for me. He is sure that Mike arrived in Northern Ireland on a sea ferry. From there, he took a flight from Belfast to Amsterdam, then connected to a flight at Schipol leaving for Dubai. He was certainly using a fake passport, but one good enough not to attract attention. As for his car being found at Portsmouth, my guess is that someone else arranged that”.

Anita was looking confused. “Why would Mike go to Dubai? And who could have arranged the passport, and the car thing? I don’t get it”. Ian was still smiling. “Mick Steeden is my best guess. He still has contacts in the UK, and he was working for Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai. No doubt Mike warned him about the problems with the aircraft, which is why they were grounded. Mick is a senior engineer at that company, or at least he was, until he skipped to Australia. He worked for Qantas at one time, so kept his place on over there. My theory is that Mike met him in Dubai, and they travelled back to Australia together, but avoided going to Mick’s apartment. You told me he didn’t seem too concerned when you phoned him, remember?” Anita felt a lot happier.

“So you think Mike is alive, and hiding out somewhere with his best friend? I could ring Mick now, and tell him we have worked it all out”. Ian smiled at her use of ‘we’. “You mustn’t do that, Mrs Hollis. For all we know they have a trace on your mobile, and probably Steeden’s too. We will have to wait until someone contacts us, when they think it is safe. Meanwhile, you are still potentially in danger, if they think you know about the glue. But I doubt they will do anything for now, as they hope you will flush Mike out. That means I could be in danger too, as well as Mick Steeden. Let’s hope they don’t think you have told your Mum, your sister, or your friend Claudia. I am sure they caused the accident that killed your in-laws, but it was probably opportunistic, once they were on the way down here to see you”.

She finally asked the question Ian had been expecting. “Who are ‘they’, Ian? Who would go so far as to want Mike dead, and anyone he might have told?”

Looking a bit lost without his whiteboard, Ian jabbed fingers into the palm of his other hand instead. “One. Governments. Definitely the UK and US ones, and very possibly the Indian one too. Imagine if it got out that they were using military and civilian aircraft that they knew might be dangerous because of a failed glue? That would explain Pete Springer trying to contact Mike, as well as Susan Judd from Air Command becoming involved. It might also be the reason why the Indian reporter has gone missing, though my best guess is that she will eventually turn up in Australia”. He shifted his weight on the sofa, and leaned forward.

“Two. Aircraft manufacturers and Airlines. Just think about what it could cost them if their use of that glue became public knowledge. Nobody would buy their planes, or use their airlines. Compensation claims could run into the tens of millions or more, and then they would have to refund the purchase price of hundreds of aircraft. Share prices would crumble, and the whole aviation industry would start to collapse. Not only that, there would be criminal charges too; probably deliberate negligence, as well as the cover-ups”. Anita nodded. It was starting to sound completely plausible. Ian smiled again.

“And lets not forget the company Mike works for. It is only a UK subsidiary of a huge Japanese company with offices and plants all around the world. They have companies in the US, China, and also in South America. They would go bust overnight if the news got out. I imagine Mike went to Winkowski, expecting him to be shocked, and to agree to expose the scandal. But then that manager passed Mike’s information down the line, and your husband knew he was running out of time. After finding out about Judith Harley and her ISS being involved, I can only assume that she is working for the parent company, and trying to find out where Mike is. So, Mike has few friends, and at least three very large professional organisations trying to find him and silence him”.

After making them both a cup of tea, Anita had an idea. “Why don’t I go to the media? The newspapers and television would eat up a story like this. Once it was public, Mike could come out into the open, and come home. We have enough proof already, and the information from your contacts will all add to it”. Ian looked glum. “Sorry to tell you, but it will never be printed, or reported on TV. The governments will just shut it down, say it is a matter of national security. I’m guessing that Mike has already tried that, and that was what alerted everyone to him in the first place”. It seemed to her that every time she heard good news, the bad news cancelled it out.

“Then what do we do? What’s the point of even finding Mike, if all that will do is maybe draw them to him, and nothing will be published anyway?” Ian was smiling again.

“Never underestimate the power of social media, Mrs Hollis. We are about to unleash a Twitter and Facebook avalanche”.

At long last, Anita felt she had a real role to play, and was no longer a bystander. Always active on every social media platform imaginable, she had worked out a relevant message with Ian, and started to post it everywhere that morning, bumping it constantly, linking it to the names of everyone she had as contacts online, as well as names of bloggers, journalists, and websites that loved to write about conspiracies and government cover-ups. Her friendship with Claudia paid dividends, as Claude shared it with scores of people she knew from her job with the BBC.

Watching as the shares, views, and likes began to increase in number before her eyes, she could feel some movement from her baby inside. Although it seemed crazy, Anita convinced herself that the baby knew something positive was happening. She stroked the fast-growing bump and smiled. “I’m going to get your Daddy home, wait and see”.

Claudia phoned just after eleven. “I’m so sorry, Nita. What you must have been going through, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me everything. But I am with you one hundred percent, and Betsy is sharing with all of her contacts too. She says that some of the platforms might take down your posts once pressure is applied today, but it is already out there, and too late to suppress it completely. I have just created a blog for you. I have sent the blog name and account password by text, so get on that soon, and send a link to it to everyone you can think of. Is everything okay with the baby? Be careful, and try not to stress yourself out. If you need me down there, I can pay for a carer to look after Betsy and drive down, let me know”.

Feeling the best she had since all this had started, Anita made a nice lunch, and sat eating watching the shares as they added up to the thousands. The blog site that Claude had started for her was getting dozens of shares and loads of comments, and she realised that her afternoon was going to be very busy sorting out replies, and continuing to bump the tweets and posts. By the time she finished lunch and tidied away, the blog alone already had almost nine hundred followers. She sent Ian a text to his unregistered mobile, telling him how exciting it was, and thanking him for the suggestion.

The rest of the day went by in a blur. Her eyes were aching from looking at the i-pad and phone screens, but by early evening, the shares and messages were enormous. It was much more than she could ever hope to keep up with, so she stopped trying to. The house phone rang, and she didn’t recognise the voice, which was undoubtedly American. “Mrs Hollis? This is Lisa Howeler. You don’t know me, but I am a reporter with the New York Times. I wanted to interview you about what’s happening on social media. That’s one hell of a story. Do you have time to talk to me now?” Anita was happy to talk, even though she hadn’t confirmed who the woman was. After ten minutes, she had outlined everything, and received assurances that it would be on that newspaper’s website soon.

Almost as soon as she had hung up. it rang again. “This is Don Ostertag from the Chicago Tribune. Am I speaking with Mrs Hollis?” She readily gave him his requested telephone interview. Even though he sounded a lot more sceptical than the previous reporter, he promised that some people on his paper would start their own investigation into her allegations. Once the excitement of all this started to calm down, she then became worried. How had they got her number so easily? When it rang again, she was guarded. “Is that Anita Hollis? This is Jennie Fitzkee from The Boston Globe. I would like to talk to you about your blog, and the amazing story you are telling”. Anita decided to ask.

“How did you get my number, Jennie?I have had a series of reporters ringing from American newspapers in the last forty minutes, and I am starting to become suspicious, to be honest”. The woman was friendly. “Bless you, honey, it’s just the time difference. It is the morning here, that’s all. We are at work, and looking at all the trends on social media for story ideas. As for your phone number, we have lots of contacts in the UK who can get those for us. If you have already spoken to other US papers, I have lost my exclusive, but I would still like to hear what you have to say”. Anita told her everything, and she promised to do her best to get it on the front page tomorrow.

Nobody had telephoned from any British newspaper. No TV companies had come to her house to ask for interviews, and there had been nothing on the radio either. That hadn’t gone unnoticed by her, and Anita remembered what Ian had said about the story being pulled by the authorities. But the amount of views on all of her social media was by now unimaginable, and she was sure something had to break soon. Her mobile beeped. It was a text message from Claudia. ‘Just out of a meeting with the News production team. Watch the six pm bulletin. It might be featured’.

Just as the main headlines were announced by the presenter, the doorbell rang. It was Jane Dawes.

“Can I come in, Anita? I have something to tell you”. Anita was upbeat, sure it was to do with her story. She grinned. “What is it, Jane? Do you have good news for me? The policewoman’s expression didn’t look as if she did.

“Sorry, but I have some bad news. Ian Hope was found dead in his hotel room an hour ago”.

Even though she had hardly known Ian Hope, Anita felt the tears flowing down her face at Jane’s news. “How? I mean, why? Sorry. What happened?”

Jane pointed at the TV screen, and through the tears Anita could see a report about the news spread by her social media activity, now being headlined as ‘Aircraft Glue Scandal’. “That happened”, the sergeant replied, her tone cold, sounding frustrated. “What were you two thinking of, Anita? Okay, you got it on the news, and now the governments and the airlines are all red-faced and trying to make excuses. The downside is that it also meant they shut Ian up, and Mike is now in more danger than ever”.

“Wiping her face with some tissues, Anita sat up straight. “How was Ian killed, Jane?” Shaking her head, Jane still sounded pretty fed up. “The way I would have expected. No signs of forced entry, no weapon used. The Police Surgeon could only come up with natural causes so far, until the post-mortem. The best guess is that they used some drug that mimics a heart attack. If it hadn’t been for a maid going in to change the towels, the body wouldn’t have been discovered for some time, I suspect. The cheap hotel has no CCTV other than over the reception desk, and there is nobody on that except other paying guests who can be accounted for”.

Anita was still upset, but trying to keep it together. “So where do we go from here, Jane?” The policewoman raised her eyebrows, and also raised her voice.

“We? Well, ‘We’ don’t go anywhere, Anita! This is no longer a missing persons case, as according to you and Ian, Mike absconded with his secrets about the glue. He knew he was going, to the extent that he must have obtained false documents, and made provision for you financially, as well as getting Ian Hope to keep watch on you. So as far as the police is concerned, he is not missing, just gone into hiding. The case will be closed, and I will no longer be able to help you. Ian’s death will be investigated by the murder squad, and likely covered up, written off as heart trouble. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you are on your own now. Except for the press and TV news, who will soon be all over you”.

Although inside she had to admit that she hadn’t thought about that happening, Anita was determined to at least appear to be resolute. “Well if the press arrive at my door, that’s a good thing. I will give them statements, tell them the facts. Anything that helps Mike come home. I don’t think anyone is going to chance doing anything to me in the full spotlight of press interest, don’t you agree?” Jane just smiled, waiting until she had finished talking.

“It will be all over the papers and TV, I agree. But give it a few days, and you will see another story will suddenly appear. Something like a royal engagement, an unexpected fairytale love story involving one of the young Princes or Princesses. Perhaps a scandalous royal divorce? They have ways and means of getting hold of the front pages, Anita. Likely one of the senior royals will suddenly become gravely ill, the nation waiting with bated breath to hear if they live or die. That’s how it works, I’m afraid”. Anita set her face, defiantly.

“Then I had better work faster, Jane. Thanks for letting me know about Ian. I will see you out”.

The first task was to update the blog with news of Ian’s death, and her theory that he had been killed by either interested parties, or governments trying to silence him. As she typed, Anita suddenly realised that she didn’t even know if he had left a family behind. That was something she was going to have to try to find out about. Then the phone started to ring. Now, she was wary. Rather than speak to any other reporters on the phone, she told them she would be happy for them to call on her the next morning, when she was prepared to give a small press conference in her front room. She wanted witnesses, and didn’t intend to be alone in the house with anyone.

There wasn’t much in to make a meal with, so she had a strange dinner of toast and jam, followed by some cream crackers and Camembert cheese. The phone kept ringing, but she let it go to the answer machine. There were already two TV news companies and three reporters set to arrive tomorrow, and that would be enough for now. Upstairs later, she had just got undressed ready for a nice bath, followed by bed. When the doorbell sounded, she put on a dressing gown and walked to the window in the front bedroom. No way was she going to open the door without seeing who was there.

When she saw it was Claudia standing outside, her heart skipped a beat, and she walked quickly downstairs to let her best friend in. Claude wrapped her arms around her, and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “I had to come down, Nita. As soon as I read about Ian Hope on your blog, I just couldn’t leave you on your own. I got someone in to keep an eye on Betsy, and drove down as soon as I could”. She was carrying a small weekend bag, and lifted a bottle of wine in her other hand . “Let’s open this, and you can tell me what’s going on”.

After telling Claudia everything, and answering all her numerous questions, Anita was feeling very tired. But her friend was buzzing. “Let’s put the rolling news on, Nita. See if they are still talking about your story, and Mike”. She picked up the remote, and switched on the television.

Anita thought she would faint when she saw what was on the screen

He needed a shave, and his hair was untidy, but the man being interviewed was Mike.

Both women were squealing like excited schoolgirls at the sight of Mike on TV. They were making so much noise, neither heard any of the segment. “Look! It’s Mick too! Steeden’s with him, Nita!” Claudia was hugging her friend, and Anita was crying happy tears, as well as sounding like a playful piglet at the same time. The next report was about a politician who had resigned his seat after an allegation of sexual misconduct. Claudia grabbed her laptop from the weekend bag, connected to Anita’s wi-fi, and brought up the BBC News website.

Anita was rocking back and forth, fists bunched, and looking down at her baby bump. “He’s coming home, your Daddy is coming home!”

The report had come from Sydney, Australia. Although the video clip wasn’t up on the website yet, the story was marked as ‘Breaking News’. Claudia read it out loud.
“Man who leaked aircraft glue scandal comes out of hiding. Mike Hollis left Britain for Australia, terrified for the safety of his family if he stayed. Aircraft manufacturers and Airlines around the world are rushing to refute his leaks about the use of unsafe glue that has caused numerous crashes resulting in hundreds of fatalities. He now plans to return to Britain after his wife exposed the story online, also alleging that his parents and a private investigator he hired have all been killed as part of a conspiracy to try to silence him.”

With her friend still hardly able to take it in, Claudia shook her by the shoulder. “Nita, get your phone and try Mick Steeden’s number. If he’s with Mike, you can talk to him. I’m so excited, I’m going to ring Betsy and tell her, I don’t care how late it is”.

Mick’s phone rang out, with no answering message. Anita was disappointed, but not about to let anything get her down. They left the news on, hoping that the report would be shown again. But a discussion feature started, so Claudia went into the kitchen to make them both a cup of tea. Then they sat and worked out the time difference, with Anita checking on Google. “It says that if its almost one am here, then the time in Sydney is midday”. Claudia was about to bite into a chocolate biscuit. “So by the time we wake up tomorrow, it will almost be the day after down there, or close to it. That stuff does my head in, Nita. At work, we have like six time clocks on the wall, always checking on New York Time, Moscow Time, L A time, and China too. It’s a pity there couldn’t just be one time”.

As soon as she had said that, she realised how silly it sounded, and they both began to have a fit of the giggles.

Claudia went back to her laptop, and reloaded the BBC News website. “Look, Nita, there’s a clip now. See? That’s Mike’s face!” As she watched the short video of Mike talking to some reporters in Sydney, Anita felt more joyful tears running down her cheeks. She had instantly forgiven him for all the stresses and strains of the recent events, as she was so overwhelmed with relief that he was alive. When the clip ended, she played it again, and once more after that. Mike seemed so strong, despite his appearance. And what he was saying made her heart leap.

“I now just want to get home to my wife, and make sure she and our baby are well. If she is watching this, I love you Anita, and I am so sorry for what I had to put you through”. One of the reporters pushed a big microphone in his face, and asked a question that they couldn’t hear. Mike nodded. “Absolutely. I will be seeking justice for my parents, for everything that my family has suffered because of this, and I will also be urging the police to investigate Ian Hope’s death as a murder”. Mick Steeden leaned forward, and said something close to Mike’s ear. He turned back to the reporters. “Thank you ladies and gentlemen, but I have to go now. I have a plane to catch”.

She could hear Claudia snoring in the guest room, but Anita didn’t feel as if sleep was ever going to come that night. Her mood fluctuated between sheer joy at seeing Mike alive and well, and overwhelming sadness about Ian Hope, and Mike’s parents. It had all been so pointless, and she started to convince herself that nobody would ever be held to account for any of it. That thought made her angry, and she tried hard to calm down, not wanting to transfer any stress onto her unborn baby.

Positive thoughts made her feel better. A baby in a nursery, sleeping peacefully in a lovely crib, with her and Mike looking on from the doorway. Beautiful baby clothes, tiny, and so soft. A new life that they would love without hesitation, and protect until their dying day. Her first day at school, her first boyfriend. Teenage tantrums, then mother and daughter bonding when she got older.
A wedding perhaps, with her as Mother of The Bride, and Mike looking handsome as he walked his daughter down the aisle. Much better to think about all that, than the bad stuff that had been happening.

She woke up feeling the need to pee. It was still dark, with no morning light peeping through the curtains yet. Feeling sleepy still, Anita shifted in bed, and threw back the duvet. Her nightdress was wet, and she was annoyed with herself that she had already peed in her sleep. She would need to change, maybe put a towel over the mattress for now, so she switched on the bedside lamp.

The red stain sent shivers down her spine. It hadn’t been pee at all. It was blood.

Startled by Anita’s shouts for help, Claudia rushed into the bedroom in a complete daze, to find her friend white faced and trembling. “Claude, phone for an ambulance! Quick!”

Fifteen minutes later, a paramedic was attaching a drip bag to the needle he had placed in Anita’s arm. “The ambulance will be here soon. Don’t be too worried, it’s really not that much blood. Believe me, it looks worse than it is. Because you are close to seven months gone, they will take you straight to the Maternity Unit, and a doctor and midwife will be waiting”. Claudia had dressed hurriedly, and was now stuffing a change of clothes for Anita into a holdall to take with them. Her friend looked up at her from the bed.

“Sorry, Claude. You have just left Betsy recovering, and had to come down to all this. But I’m so glad you are here”. Claudia would hear none of it. “I’m glad I am here too, so don’t worry. Stop bothering about all that stuff, and think about yourself and the baby. Should I ring your Mum, or Jill? Even both of them?” Anita shook her head. “No, I don’t want to worry Jill just yet, and Mum will only be concerned about whether it might spoil her wedding arrangements”.

The staff at the hospital were surprisingly unconcerned. The midwife dealing with Anita told her not to worry. “Bleeding at this stage is normal for some women, believe me. And it seems to have stopped some time ago. We are going to keep an eye on the monitor for now, and you will see a doctor later this morning. They might send you for an ultrasound, but based on my experience, I reckon you will be home for lunch. Your observations are all completely normal, and baby’s heartbeat is fine too”.

Despite those reassuring words, Anita was still concerned. Claudia was cheerful now, but then she had never been pregnant. “Try to relax now, Nita. See if you can get some sleep”. Claudia sat in the hard armchair next to the bed, and checked her phone. “Shall I check your mobile, Nita? Just in case?” Anita had a thought. “What about the TV crews and reporters, Claude? They are going to be showing up at the house in a few hours”. Claudia shook her head. “Last thing you need to worry about, love. If you are not at home, I’m sure they will come back another time”.

There was no message on either phone, and despite the worry, Anita managed to settle down and sleep.

When she woke up later, Claudia wasn’t in the chair. But she came back soon after, holding two cups of coffee bought from the hospital cafe. “It’s not great, Nita, but at least it’s warm and wet”. An auxiliary came in and asked if she wanted breakfast, but she declined. Claudia was checking both phones, and looked up. “Still nothing, but at least no news is good news”. Anita was wondering when Claude had started to spout such old-fashioned sayings, when a breezy young female doctor came in to see her.

“Everything is fine, Mrs Hollis. According to what I have read from your observations, you have nothing to worry about. I’m just going to give you a quick internal examination to make completely certain, and then you will be able to go home”. She took some latex gloves from a box fixed to the wall. The friends shared a look, with Claudia screwing up her face in disgust, and looking away as the doctor started to move the bedclothes.

“As I thought, nothing to worry about. A nurse will be here soon to take down your drip, and you will be able to go home after that”. She dropped the gloves into a bin, operating the lid with a foot-pedal. The nurse arrived before they had finished their coffees. As she removed the needle in Anita’s arm, she chatted about baby names, and then asked “What about the Dad? Is he picking you up?” Anita shook her head, and Claudia spoke instead. “No, he’s working abroad at the moment, I will arrange for an Uber Cab now”.

On the way back in the taxi, Claudia used Anita’s phone to speak to the reporters who were supposed to be arriving at the house, and to cancel them. She managed to speak directly to two of them, and left messages for the others. “I hope they don’t just show up, Nita. You need to rest. Time enough to speak to reporters once Mike gets home”. Then she rang Betsy, and told her everything that had happened. “Betsy sends her love, Nita. She sounds really good, and said the lady that spent the night at our place was really caring and professional. One of her colleagues has just arrived to take over”.

When the taxi pulled up outside the house, there were no journalists to be seen. Claudia smiled. “Good news, Nita. They must have got the messages”.

But as she helped Anita to the front door, and the taxi drove off, a car stopped outside.

It was a marked police car.

Seeing the two police officers approaching, Anita stopped dead. “What is it? Do you have some news of my husband?” The female officer turned to her colleague, and he gestured for her to speak. “Can we all go inside, Mrs Hollis? We have something we would like to talk to you about”. Once in the living room, they didn’t keep her in suspense. “Jane Dawes asked us to come and see you, as a favour to her. She was worried about you, but I’m glad to see you have a friend with you”.

Turning to look at at Claudia, then back at the policewoman, Anita sounded confused. “Worried about me? Jane? Why?” The male officer stepped forward.
“I take it you haven’t seen or heard any news recently, madam?” Reaching forward instinctively for the remote control, Anita shook her head as she pushed the button to turn on the TV. “No, I have just come from the hospital. Why? What’s going on?” Before he could reply, the rolling news channel was on the screen.

A serious-faced female presenter was talking against the background of a live feed from Australia. The headline bar across the bottom read ‘Qantas plane crashes after taking off from Sydney. Casualties unconfirmed but first reports suggest there were no survivors’.

Anita sank to her knees on the carpet, and Claudia rushed to wrap her arms around her friend. The policewoman spoke quickly. “It happened a short time ago, and reports are coming in. Jane said to tell you that she has no idea if your husband was on the aircraft, but she knew you might fear the worst, and wanted us to come round to see if you were okay”. Claudia looked up at her. “But we saw Mike interviewed last night, and he said the that he had a plane to catch. He would have flown out much earlier than that one. “The man looked at them as if trying to decide whether or not to say something. Then he did. “Michael Steeden is listed as one of the passengers on the flight manifest. Jane thought that if you heard that, you might assume that Mike was with him”.

Still on her knees, Anita waved a hand at him. “Can you just go now, please. Tell Jane thanks for me, I have my best friend here now, and she will stay with me”. They looked relieved to be leaving, muttering sympathetic goodbyes as Claudia showed them out. When she walked back in, Anita was on her mobile, trying Mick Steeden’s number. She looked up at her friend, whose face was a mask of concern. “Nothing. The line is dead, Claude”. Helping her up to stretch out on the sofa, Claudia did her best. “Just because Mick was listed on the flight doesn’t mean he was on it. And it certainly doesn’t mean Mike was flying with him. I’m going to make us both a cup of tea. Actually, I’m going to make you a cup of tea. I need something stronger”.

It was a big enough story to keep the news focusing on it for now. The presenter kept giving updates, then chatted to someone from Australia via Skype. By the time Claudia got back with the tea, and a huge glass of wine for herself, the woman on television was setting her best face for bad news. “It is now confirmed that there are no survivors from the Qantas flight that crashed in open countryside in New South Wales not far from Dubbo, earlier today. The airline confirms that there were three hundred and three people on board, including the aircrew. The cause of the crash is so far unknown, and you can call the following number for more information”. As the news switched to a fatal shooting in Nottingham, Claudia was already dialling the number.

“It’s a recorded message, Nita. Says they are busy with calls and will update the message when they know more. They are giving out a phone number in Australia. Shall I ring that?” Anita looked overwhelmed by sadness. “Leave it, Claude. Wait until the fuss dies down, and try again later”. In an effort to break the mood, Claudia suggested making some lunch. “I can’t face food, Claude. I might just have a lie down upstairs. But you have something. You might have to drive to the supermarket though, I doubt I have got anything in worth eating”. Grabbing her car keys and Anita’s door key, Claudia picked up her bag. “I will get some more milk too. Something for tonight as well. Anything you fancy, love?” Anita looked completely disinterested. “Just get something to chuck in the microwave”.

As she was putting the shopping away an hour later, Claudia heard the house phone ringing. But before she could get to it, it was answered on the bedroom extension. The wail from upstairs made her run up to the bedroom as fast as she could. Tears were streaming down Anita’s face, but she was smiling. She turned to look at her friend. “It’s Mike. He’s on the phone. He’s alive. He wasn’t on that plane!” Claudia kissed the top of her head, and left the room. She wanted to give them some privacy to talk.

Fifteen minutes later, Anita came down, wiping her eyes and nose with some tissues. As she sat on the sofa, Claudia couldn’t stop herself. “Well? For Christ’s sake, Nita, tell me what he said”. Anita rubbed her face with the palms of both hands. “Mick Steeden was on the plane that crashed, as far as Mike knows. He was flying to Dubai, to get back to his job there. But Mike took a flight much earlier, using a different airline, and flying to Amsterdam. He’s there now, at the airport. He is boarding a flight to London soon. That Indian reporter met them in Sydney, and he told her the full story. She will get it out all over India and the Far East. Then Mike will contact people here”. Claudia wasn’t satisfied.

But what about him going missing? Ian the detective, the money, his car being in Portsmouth, all that other stuff? Does he know about his parents? Anita nodded. Yeah, he knows about that, and Ian too. He said he will tell me everything when he gets back. He was mainly worried about me and the baby, and the fact that he will have to find another job now” Claude thought for a moment. “Have you got his flight number? We could drive to the airport in my car, and meet him off the Amsterdam flight”. Anita smiled. “Thanks, Claude, but he says not to bother. He will get the train, and a taxi from the station”.

She looked down at the baby bump, and stroked it lovingly.
“He said he will be home about six”.

The End.

The River: The Complete Story

This is all 21 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 23,940 words.

We used to lay on the grass by the bank, the sun in our faces. Most of the time, the river flowed by fast. But on really hot days it seemed reluctant to move, like liquid chocolate, or molasses.

The dragonflies hovered over the water, and every so often, we heard the plopping sound as a fish took a bug off the surface.

Close to our favourite spot, it wasn’t deep enough for swimming. But a short walk along the bank led to a place where there was enough water for a shallow dive, and a welcome swim during the hottest summers. Whenever we got out of school, or during the holidays, you would be sure to find us there as long as the sun was out.

There were always at least three of us, sometimes four or five. At weekends, we would be joined by the girls, Melanie and Donna. They were the only two girls around who didn’t hang out with the older guys, the ones who were in the sports teams, or drove their own cars. In the company of other girls, they stood out as different. But with us they were accepted, and special.

Small town life back then could be oppressive, if you let it. It could also be very dull, if you didn’t make your own amusement. There were only so many times you could go to the cafe for a milk shake, or to the old cinema that showed the same film all week.

And we walked a lot, or rode our bikes. My parents were not about to run me around in the car, and the same went for my friends. We were not poor, not like some. But we certainly were not in the same group who drove out to the country club, or holidayed at the coast. We knew who we were, and where we stood, and didn’t ask for or expect much more.

Those summers seemed to last forever, and the long hot walks to and from the river became a ritual that I welcomed. Nobody bothered us, and in that spot, we felt secure. At home.

I didn’t really notice it much then, but we were getting older. We stopped talking about what car we would like to own, or which job we would do when we we left college, and started to talk about girls. Long discussions about what we liked about girls, and which girls we liked best. Their hair, their legs, their chests, even what they wore. It was all rather pointless of course, as we only knew two girls well enough to ever think about dating, and many of those we really liked wouldn’t have looked in our direction as they walked past.

But we carried on talking about them, never tiring of the same subject, every day.

When it was cold or wet, we walked further along the bank, then up the lane to Old Man Henderson’s barn. It wasn’t really a barn anymore, as the doors had fallen off, and the roof leaked in places. Nothing was stored in there since he had given up farming, and he never came by to check on the place. It gave us some shelter, and somewhere to meet up when it wasn’t hot enough to lounge around on the grass.

The retired farmer could often be seen fishing. He would stand in the water in his big waders, the fly-rod flicking back and forth as he concentrated. It was our tradition to wave to him as we passed. But he never acknowledged us, or waved back. Old Man Henderson was an unknown quantity. If you asked anyone around town about him, they would tell you a different story. He had come back from war a changed man. Or he had never gone to war. He had lost his wife and son in an accident. Or he had never been married.

One time, I asked my parents about him, hoping for the definitive answer. My mother shrugged, and glanced at Dad. He turned away from his newspaper, and looked serious. “Clay, you keep away from Henderson. He’s nothing but trouble”. He wouldn’t say any more than that, so naturally my curiosity was piqued even more.

What I still think of as ‘the last summer’ was hotter than ever. That Sunday is fixed in my memory, yet my memory of it is blurred. It feels like I am looking at it through water. The water in the river perhaps. It wobbles, skips by fast, and then slows down. I don’t search for that memory, believe me. But I will never be able to shake it.

There were five of us that morning, stretched out on the bank, chewing long stems of grass, and drinking cokes that Freddie had brought along in a six-pack. They had got warm too quickly, but we didn’t care. The girls arrived close to midday. They took off their dresses to reveal swimming costumes underneath. Placing towels on the ground, they sat on them, talking about going swimming later.

Eddy had been bitten all over by bugs, and was scratching his arms and legs. Duke was sullen, as he usually was around the girls. Awkward, unsure of himself. Donna was smiling at Tommy. We all knew she liked him, just as we all knew that Mel liked me. But we hadn’t quite got to the stage where we would give up on our friends to go off with a girl.

Though we were very close to it.

The afternoon got to that point where it was too hot. Eddy said he was going home, and Tommy suggested to Donna that it was time for a swim. She wouldn’t go unless Mel went with them, but I wasn’t in the mood to get wet. Duke and Freddie said they were going, and I watched them walk off along the bank, shielding my eyes from the sunlight.

That was the day everything changed. For all of us.

I guessed I had been asleep for some time. The sun was getting low to the West, and my eyes took some time to adjust. It was the sound of splashing that had woken me, getting louder as whoever was splashing got closer.

Tommy was wide-eyed and crazy looking. His legs were scratched and torn by thorns and branches, as were his arms and hands. He had no shoes on, and his swim shorts were still wet around the bottom. It seemed he was going to run right past me without stopping, so I sat up and called out to him. “What’s wrong, Tommy? Where’s everyone else?” He shook his head and sat down heavy in the shallow water. I walked to the edge of the bank, and watched as he dropped his head between his knees.

He was sobbing.

He crawled out of the river on all fours, and collapsed onto his chest. “Gone. They’ve gone. The girls have gone. Mel, Donna, gone”. I couldn’t get any sense out of him. He just kept repeating the same thing over and over, despite me yelling at him to tell me what had happened. So I left him where he was, and headed along the bank to the swimming place, sure I would find the others still there.

Nobody was there, and when I got back, Tommy had gone too. I got a really bad feeling, and started back to town. As the sun got even lower, I broke into a run.

The Sheriff’s Office was at one end of Main Street. It looked much like a shop front, but went back a long way, with a parking lot behind. I burst through the door panting, out of breath from the long run on a warm evening. Deputy Tyler was sitting in a chair at the front desk, and stared at me as I started to blurt out what I knew. “Trouble at the river, Mr Tyler. Missing girls. Tommy Clinton told me, but I don’t know where he’s gone”. Tyler looked unimpressed. “Now, Clayton, calm yourself down boy. Get your breath, and tell me properly, from the beginning. Missing girls you say? Which girls? What are their names?” He opened a notebook, and sat with his pen poised.

Five minutes later, I had told him all I knew, right from us walking to the river that morning, the girls turning up, and then everyone but me going swimming. He checked his notes, his mouth moving as he silently read them to himself. Then he picked up the phone, and called Sheriff DeWalt. While we waited for the Sheriff, he got me a drink of cold water from the cooler, and I noticed he was eyeing me up, unsure whether to believe what I had said, it seemed to me.

Vince DeWalt was a big man, in every sense. Years of super-size breakfasts and a fondness for Bourbon and Buttermilk had left him with a gut hanging over his gun-belt that looked like a sack of rice, straining the stud fastenings of his uniform shirt. He loomed over me, six feet four in his heeled boots. “I know you told Deputy Tyler, Clay, but tell me again”.

When I had finished the story, he sent Tyler out to go to the houses of both girls. Then he phoned the off-duty deputy, Hoogstraten, and told him to check out the houses of my friends, and bring them in if they were home. Last of all, he phoned Milly, the woman who answered the phones and operated the radio during the day. “Milly, I’m sorry to ask you honey, but I need you to come in. I’m guessing we are going to be busy tonight”.

Almost an hour later, the small office was crammed with people. My parents were there, along with Eddy and his Dad, Duke, Freddie and his Dad, and Mel’s parents. Donna’s family were not at home, and nobody could find any trace of Tommy, or his folks. Once the Sheriff was satisfied he had all the details down, he had to telephone County Police, in White Oaks. They notified the State Police in Renton, and by the time it was dark, the search was well and truly on. My Dad drove me crazy. He just kept saying “Tell the truth, Clay. Don’t you go lying now son”. He must have said that ten times, even though I swore to him that I had.

Big Vince pulled up to his full height, and stuck out his gut like it would intimidate us even more. Despite his bulk, he was as fit as a mule, and could move fast when he had to. Many of the local bad guys had good reason to regret having misjudged him on appearance. “Last chance, boys. They have everyone out looking for those girls, even the helicopter from up in Renton. If there is anything else you want to tell me, now’s the time. Best get it off your chests”. We shook our heads in turn, and Vince turned away, nodding sagely.

It was almost midnight when they found Donna. Well, Donna’s body. It was in the river, wedged up against the railroad bridge, almost five miles north. Two policeman from County came in, and whispered the news to the Sheriff. But it was too loud a whisper, and we all heard it. After that, they took our fingerprints, and scrapings from under our fingernails. Our parents were sent home to bring us fresh clothes and shoes because they were keeping the ones we were wearing, and one of the deputies had to go to Duke’s house to collect the same. His Mom hadn’t been able to come in, as she had recently had a new baby by her second husband.

There was no chance for us to speak to each other, so I cast around the room, looking for any trace of guilt on the faces of my friends. They just looked scared, like I probably did. After all, we were now the only suspects in what might turn out to be a murder.

We had to change our clothes in the locker room, watched by both deputies. They placed them into bags as we took them off, writing names and codes on labels at the top of the bags. When that was over, they took us out to get another talking to from Big Vince. “Now, I am letting you boys go home for now. You are not to talk to each other, is that clear? I am expecting your parents to take note of that, and to watch who you speak to on the phone, and to keep you home until you hear from me tomorrow. You will all be coming back in for questioning, make no mistake about that”.

As we drove home, my Dad started again. “Anything you want to tell me now there are no cops around, Clay? The truth now, this is serious”.

I shook my head at his eyes in the rear-view mirror.

“No Dad. I don’t know anything. Honest”.

They had caught up with Tommy and his parents forty miles north of Renton, at a roadblock set up to check for the missing girls, or suspects. He was wearing the same clothes, and obviously covered in scratches from the thorns. The very fact that they had run away didn’t sit well with the authorities, and attention began to focus on him.

But that didn’t stop them hauling us all in for the trip to the County seat, at White Oaks. Things had escalated overnight, and the small town Police Department led by Sheriff DeWalt was not considered to be up to the task of a double investigation. Dad took time off from work, and drove me to White Oaks to give my deposition. He had got me a lawyer, just in case, and that guy told me to say as little as possible, but to tell the truth.

I was upset by everyone telling me to tell the truth. As I told them, that was all I had been doing up to now.

With school still out for the summer, it was hard to have to stay around the house and not be able to see my friends. Mom rang in to where she worked part-time, and they understood her need to take personal time until things calmed down. She suggested a visit to Donna’s parents, but Dad was adamant that would be a bad thing. “They have enough to worry about, losing their girl. The last thing they need is us turning up. Besides, I doubt Sheriff DeWalt would be too pleased if we did that”.

And we had to deal with reporters and TV crews too. They came from as far away as Renton, trying to get me to say something. When they set up camp outside most of our houses, one of the deputies had to move them on, as far as the edges of the properties at least. Then the phone calls started. At first, they were mostly sympathetic. Friends and neighbours asking if I was alright, and trying not to pry too much. Later, there were the disturbing calls. Unknown voices screaming that I should tell the truth about what had happened. Threats about what was going to happen to all of us who were there that Sunday.
Even someone saying they would burn the house down.

Responding to the third call from my Dad, Vince DeWalt drove out to the house to talk to us. The best he could come up with was that Dad should contact the phone company, and change our number. Mom decided to leave it off the hook instead, hoping things would calm down soon.

The search for Melanie continued, with the State Police bringing in special dog teams. Meanwhile, more facts about Donna started to get leaked. After the newspapers had spent two days speculating, County Police released an official statement. The cause of her death was drowning. They classified it as a murder though, as she was found naked, and covered in bruises. The medical examiner had found signs of sexual assault too, so they were investigating known offenders and not ruling out anyone.

The fact it could no longer be called an accident set off a spark in town. Riverdale had a small population, and it wasn’t known for being easily riled. But small crowds began to appear outside the Sheriff’s Office, and at the Town Hall too. Mayor Jenkins seemed at a loss to be able to cope, and passed everyone on to the Sheriff. When Mom went to buy groceries, people looked at her funny, and she saw them whispering about us out of the corner of her eye. At the lumber yard, Dad’s workmates were happy to believe that I had nothing to do with it, at least to his face.

Eddy Silverman’s Dad owned a small watch repair and jewellery shop. He also sold gifts for special occasions, and did engraving on trophies. They were the only Jewish family in town, perhaps in the whole county, and nobody had ever troubled them about that before. But now nobody would go into the shop, even when it was reported that Eddy had left the river before anything happened. I found out just how soon people can turn nasty, when something unexpected happens.

They were hungry for an arrest, and didn’t seem to care who got arrested.

Dad came home from work that night and told us about Tommy. When he had got home, still acting crazy and unable to make any sense of what had happened, his parents had quickly arrived at the conclusion that he was somehow involved. In a moment of madness, they decided to try to run, and make it to Canada. They must have been insane to think that they could get across two-thirds of the country without being stopped, but they tried anyway. Tommy was now in the hospital at White Oaks, undergoing evaluation for mental illness. His worried parents got off with a warning, followed by a strict telling off from Vince DeWalt. After that, they shut themselves in the house, and wouldn’t speak to anyone.

As for Freddie and Duke, nobody had seen them since we had left the Sheriff’s Office that night. We had been made to give our statements at different times, so that there was no chance of us seeing each other. Frankie’s Dad, Mr Hayes, ran the car dealership on the road leading to the Interstate. He didn’t show up there, leaving his salesman Harley to cope with all the reporters, and riled-up townsfolk. When the reporters turned up at Duke’s place, his step-dad threatened them with a shotgun, and Deputy Tyler had to drive out and calm things down.

Things were getting real tense around the town, and there was a feeling that something had to give, and soon.

Then on the third day, they found Melanie.

The dogs had been searching the riverbank for evidence of anything, when one of them took off straight up the path to Old Man Henderson’s barn. It had already been searched the night everything happened, but not with dogs. When the Police Dog stood and barked next to some wood in the corner, the handler ordered a full search.

Under the planks they found some disturbed earth, and Mel’s naked body in a shallow grave.

The State Police turned up at Old Man Henderson’s place with a search warrant. It took us all a while to find out what had gone on, but Vince DeWalt had a quiet word with my Dad later that week. He said he wanted to lay it all to rest, so everyone in town could get on with their lives. He also mentioned that Melanie had not been molested, as he put it. Her cause of death was strangling, and by hands too. Dad was sworn to secrecy about that of course, but he didn’t reckon that meant me and Mom. Not after what we had already been through,.

Behind the old farmhouse, they found a rusty oil drum containing Donna’s swimsuit, and Mel’s too. They were just dumped in there, in plain sight. Henderson denied knowing anything of course, and said he had never seen the items of clothing before. But he had a poor alibi for that Sunday, as he claimed to have been fishing west of White Oaks, but didn’t have anyone to back up his story. Besides, that was on the same river, and only twenty miles or so from Riverdale.

When they took him in for questioning, they also dug up a juvenile record, in another state. Allegations of improper conduct with women when he was younger, a long time before he moved down here and bought the land. Even though he was sixty-six years old, not as old as I had expected him to be, he was judged to still be strong enough to overpower two girls easily, and became the main suspect.

That may have taken all the pressure off of us, but I let it be known that it didn’t sit well with me. It was glaringly obvious that nobody with half a mind would just leave the dead girls’ things where they could so easily be found. And what had actually happened that Sunday? We still didn’t know. There had been three boys and two girls at the swimming spot, so if Henderson was guilty, where had the boys got to? And how had Tommy ended up in that condition?

If I could ask myself all those questions, how come professional police officers were so ready to believe the worst of Henderson? The Sheriff told my Dad that they thought Tommy had witnessed something that had made him lose it. That might have been so, but what about Duke and Freddie?

The two-faced townspeople were happy to accept that the grumpy old farmer was in the wrong. He had never been popular, and the fact he never went to church and was so anti-social had been the cause of gossip long before things got so bad in the town. I couldn’t shake the idea that something was very wrong, and resolved to go and talk to Vince DeWalt. I didn’t mention anything to my parents, and walked into town alone.

He agreed to see me in his small office at the back, next to the three cells that he used to lock up drunks or troublemakers. I repeated the concerns that I had about how Henderson could have done all that with three boys around, and that as far as I knew, his name hadn’t been mentioned by any of us. Vince listened to me very carefully. He employed his wise nodding once again, something I was sure he did to cover up when he was wrong about something, but didn’t want to let on.

“Well Clayton, you are quite the detective, I see. When you finish college, you should come work for me. I thank you for coming to talk to me about this, but the State Police are in charge now, so I guess we just have to let them go about their business in their own way. As far as your friends’ stories go, well they are part of the evidence in these two cases, and I’m not about to discuss them with you. I know you were sweet on Melanie, but you have to let us do our jobs. Just be grateful the heat is off you boys now”.

As I walked home, I thought about going to see Duke or Freddie, but I knew their parents would make a fuss, and I couldn’t handle any trouble at home.

On the next Saturday evening, Reverend Powell held a special service for the girls, and the whole town turned out. The bodies couldn’t be released from the County Morgue until any trial, so with no funerals allowed, the Reverend thought some kind of memorial would be something to heal the wounds in the town. Still, it was suggested that none of us boys went along. Despite Henderson being held in custody at White Oaks, Powell thought it was for the good of the community that the three of us stayed home.

They charged Old Man Henderson the following Monday. Two counts of murder one, and no bail, as he was deemed to be a flight risk. According to those who had turned up in court to watch, his lawyer argued about the lack of any real evidence, and the fact that the police had stopped investigating anyone else for the crimes. It had all been too quick, in their rush to close the case, and get someone under arrest. The newspapers and TV news had a high old time of it. Interviewing people who had only bad things to say about Henderson, and hinting at the juvenile stuff about him showing himself to women in a public park when he was still a teenager.

By the time it came to the trial in Renton, he was as good as guilty, as far as everyone in town was concerned.

Everyone except me.

When we went back to school, we had already been cautioned not to discuss the case. Tommy was still in hospital, and nobody knew when he was being let out. Most of the other kids continued to ignore us. We were so far out of the social circle, that even though they were bursting to ask us about what had happened, they refused to lower themselves to be seen to talk to us.

I caught up with Duke at lunchtime, but he waved me away as soon as I started to talk to him, then turned his back on me. Eddy didn’t show up for school at all. Talk was that Mr Silverman had sent him to live with relatives in Florida, and he was never coming back. Freddie was friendlier, but also flatly refused to talk about what had happened to the girls. “Clay, they’ve got Old Man Henderson now. Just let it go. Nothing good can come from going over it”. I had known those boys since I could walk, and I just knew they were both keeping something from me.

When home time came, I wrote a note, and handed it to Freddie so nobody could overhear me if I spoke. What I wrote was clear enough.
‘Meet me at the river, Saturday morning. Usual spot. Bring Duke.’

I got there at nine, in case they were early.

When they hadn’t shown up by midday, I knew they weren’t coming.

There is something about boys, and friendship. Girls can have a falling-out, then make up by the weekend. They can say and do the most hateful things, which are then forgotten in a heartbeat. But I soon learned that this doesn’t happen with boys. Or men. Once something strains long term friendships, or an issue comes between a close-knit group, the damage is done, and can never be healed.

As the leaves began to turn, the heat came back. Not the good summer heat, with the clear air and blue skies, the oppressive heat. When it feels like a storm is coming, but never arrives. The flat sky has little colour, and a short walk has you sweating through your T-shirt until it clings to your chest. The weather reflected my mood as that year drew to a close, when breathing seemed to come harder, and the future was uncertain for all of us.

I could feel the change in me, just as I felt the change in the temperature. We had all grown up that last summer, and sleepless nights in the airless heat meant long hours of reflection about how things had turned out so differently to how I had expected.

I carried on going to the river, and that same spot where it all began. As the weather cooled, I watched the birds flying south overhead, and thought about how quickly friendships can vanish. Frankie had taken to nodding at me as I passed him in the corridor, and Duke spent as much time away sick from school as he did in it. The only news about Tommy was all bad. He was being kept in hospital now that the treatment hadn’t worked. People smiled grimly as they walked past his parents in town.

Nobody really knows what to say in situations like that.

One day I got caught in a heavy shower as I sat on the bank, and decided to take shelter in Old Man Henderson’s barn, just like we used to. I ducked under the crime scene tape, and stood looking at the spot where they had dug up Melanie. People said I was sweet on her, but they got that from her. It was the other way round. She had a thing about me since we were ten years old, and always just happened to be in the same places. “What ya doing, Clay? Where you heading to, Clay?” Mel was always there.

I liked her well enough. She was heavier than all the other girls, but I didn’t mind that at all. The weight on her face made her skin look good, and her smile was cute. And she developed faster, in those places where it mattered to boys. But I was never really sweet on her, not like everyone thought.

They hadn’t filled in the dirt, and as I stared into that small space, I wondered how it must have felt for her that Sunday.

Once it got cold enough to wear my padded coat, Old Man Henderson stood trial in Renton. People in town grabbed the papers every evening, keen to read what had happened in court that day. Against the advice of his lawyer, he took the stand to deny everything. But that left him open to some awkward questions about not having an alibi, and the judge ruled they could ask him about his juvenile record too. The prosecutor suggested he was exposing himself to the girls, and it had all gone wrong. It was claimed he killed both girls so they wouldn’t tell on him.

I was no expert, but I reckoned he was railroaded on flimsy evidence.
Still, when he got ninety-nine years with no parole, it certainly put an end to the matter as far as the people of Riverdale were concerned.
But not for me. I let everyone know I didn’t believe a word of it. Folks said he was lucky we no longer had the death penalty in the State, or he would have fried for sure. They told me to let it go, to stop talking about it. Then Dad got involved, ordering me to never mention it again, and told me I was upsetting Mel’s and Donna’s parents. So I did as I was told, and got on with my life.

They had both funerals in the church at the same time, and this time we were allowed to go. I went with Mom and Dad, and Frankie showed up with his family. But Duke was nowhere to be seen. People said he might still be sick.

Dad got me a weekend job at the lumber yard. He said if I saved some money, he would match that, and I could get a car. The thought of being able to drive started to occupy every waking minute. I had hardly ever been anywhere, and I imagined myself just driving in any direction, and never stopping. We had been to South Carolina to see Grandma, before she died. But I hardly remembered anything about that trip, as I was so young. I did remember it was hot, and there was a beach where I played. And there were fancy trees that my Dad told me were Palmetto trees. I couldn’t say the word properly, and Mom laughed. Maybe when I had that car, I could go back there.

But I never did.

Working with men at the yard was a new experience for me. They expected you to work hard, and not complain. And they talked about man stuff. How their wives were no longer attractive, and how their kids talked back to them. Football and baseball, drinking bourbon and beer, and sexy film stars. They didn’t include me, but didn’t exclude me either. And nobody ever talked about that Sunday when I was around. They knew my Dad worked there, but didn’t mind speaking about him to me, taking it for granted I would keep my mouth shut. The work mostly involved stacking the cut planks onto trucks. I had to buy some really heavy-duty gloves to protect my hands from the splinters, and at times the monotony drove me crazy. I had to switch my mind to other thoughts, and those thoughts were mostly about the happier times down by the river.

It was hot early that year, and Spring felt more like Summer. I got my licence, and Dad drove me up to White Oaks where he knew someone who was selling a reliable car. I would have liked something sportier, and something that wasn’t dark green. But Dad shook on the deal on my behalf, and handed over the cash. He handed me the keys with a grin. “Be careful now son. Take it easy at first, and try not to get yourself lost”.

I drove west, to the fishing lakes outside White Oaks, and sat in the car by the picnic tables.

I tried to imagine Old Man Henderson fishing there that Sunday, with no idea about what was going to happen to him.

Having the car was great at first. I spent all my spare cash on gas, and drove all over the state in my free time. Not that I had much free time, as I was still working at the lumber yard, and that took care of my weekends. I also discovered that driving alone is not that much fun. Going out with your friends in the car is what it’s all about, and as far as I could tell, I no longer had any friends. Duke came back to school looking thin and tired, and he still wasn’t interested in talking. Freddie started dating Sally O’Connor, which was a surprise. She was one of the popular girls. Always on the sports teams, and with a big group of friends, Freddie was the last guy I expected her to like.

Dad wanted to talk to me about college, and sat me down for one of his awkward man-to-man talks. I shocked him by saying I wanted to study law, at the nearby college in White Oaks. I could drive up there, and wouldn’t need to move out. He didn’t seem to know what to say, and when I asked him what he thought, he looked really uncomfortable. “I kinda thought you might consider joining the Army, son. It can be a good career for a young man”. I looked at him across the table, and realised he didn’t know me at all. His suggestion also made me wonder if him and Mom wanted me to move out, and have some time on their own.

I had taken it for granted that they would welcome my decision. Something else I got wrong.

College was like a breath of fresh air. I hardly knew anyone, except for some of the Riverdale girls who had never spoken to me anyway. Freddie and Duke had supposedly decided not to go to White Oaks, and it took me a while to discover that Freddie had decided to skip college completely, and work with his Dad at the car dealership. His time with Sally had been short-lived, when she had moved on to someone with better teeth, and better prospects. Duke had gone to live in Renton, to work in an engineering company there. His step-dad had fixed it up, and got him a room at a relative’s place too. I drove past Mr Hayes’ car place one morning, and saw Freddie standing there in a suit and tie that seemed too big on him. He was shaking the hand of an old guy I didn’t know, and I guessed they had just agreed a deal on the pickup truck next to them.

It would be a long time before I ever saw Duke again.

Although I was happy enough at college, I still didn’t make many friends. Mainly because I was driving home every evening, and never participated in any of the sports. I had only just got a good enough diploma to allow me in to study law, and the work was harder than I had expected. The department was small, and most of the students were male back then. Only two girls went to my class, and they were pretty snooty types. Everyone seemed to grasp it faster than me too. Sometimes, I got out of the house with my books, and went down to the river to study in the fresh air. But that was too distracting, as I would always start to think about what happened.

Working at the lumber yard every weekend didn’t help. I missed most of the social events around college, and always had to study late into the night during weekdays. One day in class, the teacher asked each of us to stand up and explain why we wanted to study law, and what we hoped to get out of it. Most talked about working as a Public Defender or Prosecutor, and a couple whose Dads were lawyers mentioned going into private practice. When It got to my turn, I said I wanted to become a Police Officer, maybe a Deputy Sheriff in Riverdale. I could hear them snickering behind me at that, and the teacher looked unimpressed.

Still, the next Spring, I got myself a girlfriend. Not one of the girls from College, none of them seemed interested. No, she was a waitress at a diner in White Oaks. I sometimes went in there for breakfast, to check over my work. She used to smile at me, and never minded that I didn’t leave her a big tip. One morning, she asked me if I had seen the film playing in town, and I shook my head. “Well I haven’t seen it either, so maybe we could go together?” It had never occurred to me that she was interested, and I blushed at being more or less asked out on a date by a girl. Of course I agreed, and arranged to pick her up. She wrote down her phone number and address on a napkin, and directions to her place too. I told her I worked at weekends, so we settled on Friday night.

So Lauren Ressink became my first date. Almost two years older than me, the same height, and a heavy build, I wondered if she reminded me of Mel, and that was why I had agreed. But she was very different to Melanie. Confident to the point of being a little bossy, she told me not to be late, and to be sure to bring her some candy. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not, but the prospect of having a real girlfriend overwhelmed any indecision on my part.

Mom told me I was wearing too much cologne, which made Dad laugh because I hardly needed to shave anyway. “The poor girl will need a gas mask, Clay. Go and wash some off”. I bought a nice box of mixed chocolates, and got to her street fifteen minutes early. I sat in the car and waited until I was just five minutes early. Dad had warned me not to appear to be too keen. “Act cool, son. Girls don’t like to have a doormat for a fella”. Lauren’s Dad answered the door, and he was a lot friendlier that I thought he might be. He shook my hand, and asked my name. “Clayton Farlowe, sir. From Riverdale. He smiled. “Riverdale eh, small town. Hmm. I understand you’re a college man? What are you planning to do with yourself, Clayton?” I felt awkward standing in the hallway clutching the box, and shuffled my feet. “Well sir, I am hoping to become a police officer”.

Before he could tell me what he thought of that, Lauren breezed down the stairs looking like a million dollars in a smart dress and heavy make-up. I thought she was done up pretty fancy for going to see a film, but wasn’t about to mention that. As we walked to the car, her Dad called from the front porch. “Make sure you have my girl back by midnight young man”.

I was left in no doubt that Lauren had dated other guys. She talked all the way to the movie house, as if it was required to tell me her life history in ten minutes. “You’re the first college man I ever dated, Clay. I’ve had enough of guys who want to take me to a bar and drink beer, and who work at the slaughterhouse or water pumping station. I may be just be a waitress, but I want something better out of life, and no mistake. I read books, and know something about the world. I don’t intend to get stuck in White Oaks for the rest of my life, I can tell you that”. As I parked the car, I couldn’t help but wonder what she would make of Riverdale. But it was only our first date, so I said nothing.

Lauren offered me a chocolate from the box, but I shook my head. “They’re for you”. She took me at my word, and ate them all before the film was halfway through. I didn’t really watch the film. Instead, I sat looking at the side of her body and her legs, occasionally illuminated by the light from the screen. I started to think about what she would look like without that dress on, and whether or not I should slip my arm around her and try to kiss her. I never did muster up the courage though, and to this day I still don’t recall a single thing about that film.

Back in the car, she checked the tiny watch she was wearing. “It’s early yet. Why don’t we go for a drive? I know somewhere quiet”. She gave me directions until we arrived at a picnic spot close to the river. It wasn’t that far from where I had sat in the car that day, thinking about Old Man Henderson. When I switched off the engine, she turned and grinned. “Let’s get in the back, more comfortable there”.

I would like to say that we made love on my back seat that night. But that would be a lie. She grabbed me and started kissing me, pressing me so close I could hardly breathe. To say she got me aroused with all the stroking and squeezing was an understatement. Then she whispered “You got a rubber, yes?” I had to admit I didn’t. The last thing I had expected on a first date was for the girl to be sprawled on the back seat of my car with her legs in the air, and her panties in her hand. I expected her to think I was a loser, and to be annoyed. But she seemed pleased. “Not done it before? That’s okay. It’s actually kinda cute. You got a handkerchief? ” I produced a clean handkerchief from my pocket, and she opened it around her hand. When she unzipped my fly and started to stoke me, it happened so fast she squealed excitedly. “Oh man, you really needed that”.

I dropped her off outside her house before eleven forty-five. She leaned over and kissed me goodbye, then whispered in my ear as I got out to open the door.

“Next time, Clay, bring some rubbers”.

Lauren and I became a habit. I suppose you could say she was my girl. Every Friday, and sometimes on a Sunday night, I would drive over to pick her up. If we didn’t go to a movie, there wasn’t much else to do. She never wanted to go for food or ice cream, because she worked in a diner all day. Inevitably, we would end up at the picnic grounds, making out in the back of my car. She had stopped talking about seeing the world, and started to talk a lot about what happened when I finished college. It had never occurred to me that she thought of us as a long-term thing, and came as something of a shock when she asked why I had never taken her to see my parents.

Meanwhile, I was doing better at my studies. It had started to fall into place for me, and although I still found some parts hard, I was getting a good enough average to graduate, if I kept on at that same level. As I had no intention of going on to do any further studies in law, it didn’t matter that I didn’t get any distinctions. I was happy to let the smart kids boast about their high grades.

As promised, I took Lauren to meet my folks one Friday evening. Mom was excited. “Well, it’s about time, after all these months”. Dad was suspicious, and took me to one side. “Tell me you haven’t got the girl in trouble son”. A big spread was laid on, and Lauren dressed up as if she was going to a fancy ball. She even brought flowers for Mom, and that went down well. Part of me hoped they wouldn’t like her. I had started to feel a little trapped in our relationship, as it always seemed she called the shots. But what young man is going to turn down an eager girl in the back of his car? Certainly not me.

Mom and Dad liked her right off. Mom stood behind her at the dinner table and gave me the thumbs up. And when Lauren insisted on helping Mom wash and dry the dishes, Dad leaned over to speak quietly in my ear. “She’s a keeper, Clay. I tell you, a good one”. They couldn’t have known then that their very approval was the last thing I wanted to hear. I liked her a lot, but I had no intention of her becoming my fiance, or wife. I left early to take her home, and she asked me to take her somewhere quiet. “You know, some nice place where we can celebrate”.

I knew what she meant by a quiet place, but her use of the word celebrate worried me a lot.

I drove off the road close to the river, and parked on some grass near our old spot. Instead of getting in the back as usual, I sat and told Lauren about what had happened that Sunday. She said she had heard about the case when Old Man Henderson stood trial, but had no idea I had been involved. “So you knew the girls, Clay? Everyone in the diner talked about that. It was horrible. That nasty old man”. I polished the story a little, making out that I was much closer to Melanie than I had been. And then I told her that I didn’t believe Henderson had anything to do with it. She shook her head. “No, Clay. They found the swimsuits at his place, and he was known for bothering girls and ladies. It was all in the papers”. I tried to explain that it had all been too easy, too obvious. But she argued against me, even though she had only heard gossip.

By the time we had finished talking, it was too late to get in the back, and she acted miffed all the way back to her place.

The following week, I didn’t go into the diner for breakfast. On Friday, I phoned and told her I was having trouble with the steering on my car, and wouldn’t be able to drive back later that night. She went and asked her Dad if he would bring her down to Riverdale instead, and I was relieved when he told her no. We talked on the phone for a while, and I promised I would get the car fixed over the weekend. When she phoned on the Sunday, I said it was too expensive to fix, and I didn’t have the money right now. I would have to get the bus into college, and that meant we would have to wait to see each other.

I left it five days before I phoned again. Her Dad answered, and said she had gone out with a friend from work. I never heard from Lauren again.

Despite thinking I had a lucky escape, I did miss her. Well, I suppose to be honest I only missed the sex. It wasn’t like we talked much. I carried on working at the lumber yard and studying hard. Mom and Dad guessed things hadn’t worked out, and to my great relief, they decided not to ask me about her. The rest of the year just slipped past, the way years tend to do when you are not really thinking about them.

At the end of Spring Break the following year, I went and sat by the river again. I watched the water bubbling around the rocks for a while, then something came over me. I pulled off my shoes and socks then rolled up my jeans. The cold water made me catch my breath as I waded in, but I soon got used to it. I walked up to the swimming place, with no real idea why. The deeper water there wet my jeans, but I carried on. I walked all the way to where the railroad bridge crossed over, and sat looking at the spot where they had found Donna. I tried to imagine her propped against the heavy wooden support. She would have been very white, and looked pretty skinny too, I reckoned. A goods train passed over the tracks above, shaking down dirt and dust. That snapped me out of my thoughts.

The next day after college, I drove over to the Sheriff’s Office and asked to see Vince DeWalt. Since the murders, the town had made more money available for policing, and there were two new deputies. One was Vince’s daughter, Olivia. She was a mean-looking woman, almost as big as her Dad. People knew she lived with Velma, a black girl who worked at the motel cleaning rooms. They said they were just room-mates, but nobody was fooled. Vince kept me waiting twenty minutes, then waved me into his office. “What can I do for you, Clay?”

I was up front. I told him I was studying law, and asked if he had a job for me when I graduated. When he hesitated, I reminded him. “Remember when I spoke to you about Old man Henderson? You said I should come work for you. So I am am taking you up on that offer, if the offer is still good”. He did that familiar nodding, as he thought about his reply. “Tell you what, Clay, you come see me after your graduation. If you still want the job, I will send you to Renton for training, and all being well, you can come work for me. But think about if you really want to. Don’t forget you know folks here. Being a cop in a small town is not for everyone, I tell you”.

I stood up, and extended a hand. He gave the handshake without standing up. As I left his office, I turned in the door.

“It’s what I want, Sheriff, I will be back after graduation”.

I worked my last shift at the lumber yard the week before graduation. The manager told me I could come back and work for him anytime. “You did well, Clay. You’re a good worker, and always welcome back here”. I thanked him, and didn’t bother to say I would never be coming back. I had saved a decent amount of money, and was thinking about getting myself a different car once I started work. Mom and Dad were none too enthusiastic about my choice of career. Mom thought it was a waste of my law studies, and Dad had the same worries as the Sheriff. “But Clay, you know so many people in town. If you want to be a cop so badly, why not join the State Police in Renton?” They didn’t understand that I wanted to stay close. I needed to.

My parents attended the graduation ceremony, and insisted on the usual photos in the gown and hat. Inside, they were proud of me, I knew that. But they had asked a lot of awkward questions about why I had so few friends, and why I never got another girlfriend after Lauren. I was evasive with my answers. I couldn’t very well say that I just didn’t need people around anymore. Those few years had made me happy enough in my own company. Involving others in my life just complicated things.

No time was wasted in going to see Vince. He congratulated me, and shook my hand. Then he handed me a stack of forms to fill out, and warned me that there would be a background check, and I had to have my fingerprints taken. “If everything checks out, I will arrange for you to go up to the training school in Renton. But you will have to buy your own uniform, and a gun too. Hoogstraten is coming up for retirement soon, so I will bring him into the office for his last year. You can take his place out on patrol”. I took the forms to fill out at home, and as I walked to my car I thought of the cost of all that uniform, and a handgun. Looked like I wouldn’t be getting that new car after all.

It took over a month to process my application, and I got a letter with a start date two weeks later. I would have to live in the dormitory at Renton, and be away for twelve weeks. The cost of the training would be paid for by the Sheriff’s Office in Riverdale, and as long as I passed with no problems, I would get a contract to sign.

After my home town, Renton seemed big and busy. It wasn’t of course, and even though it called itself a city, it was no bigger than most large towns in the state. I just wasn’t used to them. The training school taught the basic course, so there were new entrants from the State Police, County Police, and another couple of would-be Sheriff’s deputies like me. We were looked down upon, as if we were small-town hicks, but that didn’t bother me.

It was more boring than I had expected. Traffic laws, arrest procedures, warrants, and lots of paperwork. There was also some PT, as well as being taught self-defence, and how to take someone down who was resisting arrest. First Aid, and how to call for assistance or an ambulance was all covered in one short morning session.

The latter half of the course was more interesting. Giving evidence in court, some role play outside, and then we got to training with our nightsticks, pepper spray, and finally the shooting range. I was only an average shot, according to the instructor. That didn’t bother me, as I had no intention of ever firing my pistol anyway. Besides, there was a shotgun in the patrol car, and I reckoned I could hardly miss with that. We all passed, and there was a low-key parade, where we received our certificates. I didn’t tell my parents about that, as there was no need for them to go all that way to watch me take some paper from the hand of a guy I hardly knew.

The day after I got home, I took my certificate into Vince, and he gave me a big smile as he shook my hand. “Welcome to Riverdale Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Farlowe”. Then he gave me a contract to sign and a typed list of everything I had to buy before I could start. I whistled when I looked at it. Summer shirts and slacks, Winter pants and a heavy coat. Hats for both seasons, and regulation shoes and boots. Then there was the leather belt rig to hold all the equipment, and last but not least a pistol and holster. I was wondering if I still had enough cash for all that, when Vince started talking again. “It takes around two weeks for the stuff to come from the supplier. Meanwhile, read up on what you learned, and go buy yourself a handgun. I recommend one of these”. He pulled out his .45 automatic, and slapped it on the desk with a grin. “Nice and heavy, so you can use it like a club”.

Dad wanted to take me to the gun dealer, but I drove out there on my own. I was going to be a deputy, and look out for myself. The last thing I wanted was my Dad taking over things like he always did. I settled on a .38 revolver instead of an automatic. If I ever had to use it, I didn’t want it jamming on me. When I told the guy in the shop it was for police use, he gave me a discount, and let me have one hundred rounds of ammunition for the price of seventy. Then he sold me a holster with a leather safety strap that went over the hammer, so it wouldn’t fall out if I was running. When I got home, I looked at the pistol in its box for a while, then put it away until my uniform arrived.

Now it all felt very real.

With time to kill until my stuff arrived, I felt the river beckoning. Most days, I would take a sandwich and flask down there, and just sit, thinking.

When I got back from training, Dad had told me that Old Man Henderson’s appeal had been denied. It had been in the paper.

I watched a heron fly away from the bank, and guessed he would die in jail after all.

Trying on the uniform made me feel very grown up. Especially the hat. I bought myself some mirror-lens sunglasses too, to complete the look. Driving into work wearing the belt rig and the pistol in the holster felt strange that first day. Vince seemed amused to see me looking like that, and raised his hands. “Oh my Lord, look what we have here! Deputy Farlowe, all growed-up and looking for all the world like a real po-lice-man”. He opened a drawer and handed me two bright badges. One was to wear pinned to my shirt, the other to go on my hat. They looked just like the badges worn by Sheriffs or Marshals in western films, and I didn’t hesitate to get them fixed on.

I spent the morning with Hoogstraten. He showed me where all the forms and paperwork was kept, and how to lock somebody in one of the cells if I had to. He seemed pleased to be off patrol, and was exceptionally friendly. I had brought a sandwich for lunch, and Vince told me I would be riding with him that afternoon. “You can drive me around, Clay, get the feel of things. I reckon you should be good to go by next week, then you can try things on your own”.

Once we were out in the car, I saw the other side of Vince DeWalt. he talked a lot about taking no nonsense, and making sure people knew who was boss. “Anyone talks back to you, Clay, don’t be scared to give them a good whack with your stick. I’ll always back up your side of things”. He told me to drive out to the gas station on Forest Road. That was on the road to the Country Club, and he said if we sat in the car out back we would be sure to catch some speeders there, late afternoon. I asked if he kept the radar gun in the trunk, and he roared with laughter. “Radar gun, boy? We don’t need no radar gun. We say if someone was driving too fast, and that’s the end of it”. I could see that studying law had been superfluous. We operated by a different set of laws.

Vince DeWalt’s laws.

After ten minutes sitting supposedly out of sight, Vince sent me in for coffee and donuts. I poured two coffees into styrofoam cups, and went up to the counter. Bernice looked at me funny, and I realised she hadn’t recognised me. “And two donuts please, bear claws”. As she put them into a paper bag, Bernice grinned. “So it’s you, Clay. Didn’t know you were working with Big Vince now”. I offered some dollar bills in payment, and she put her hands on her hips. “Come now, you know you boys never pay”. I felt embarrassed, but had learned another lesson. Cops in Riverdale don’t pay for stuff. I hadn’t known that, but wasn’t about to argue the case with Bernice.

Forest Road was quiet, and I saw Vince check his watch a few times, shifting his weight in the seat. A convertible went past, music playing on the car radio, the driver with a big smile on his face, and a girl in the front passenger seat with her head thrown back, laughing at something the driver was saying perhaps. Vince slapped my thigh. “Get going, Clay. He’s your first speeding ticket”. The limit was forty, and I guessed the driver wasn’t doing a great deal over that. But I did as I was told, and pulled out behind the car, turning on the lights and siren. Expecting a chase, I got up a good speed, and felt the short thrill of going too fast on a road I knew well. I soon caught up to the convertible.

He stopped the car so quickly, I almost ran into the back of him. Following procedure, I called up on the radio, advising Milly I was stopping a car, and asking her to check the plates with County. She sounded surprised. “Are you still with Vince, Clay?”. I confirmed I was, and the Sheriff started to chuckle. “No need for all that, Clay. Just get up there and give him a ticket”. I put on my sunglasses, and approached the car with my hand close to my holster. We had been shown this many times during training, and it felt pretty cool to actually be doing it for real.

The guy driving the car was still smiling. He looked to be about thirty, though the girl with him was a lot younger. “Is there a problem, officer?” I stood up straight, and removed my notebook. ‘Licence and registration please, sir”. He handed them over without hesitation. I reckoned he was used to being stopped like this. “You were driving over the forty limit for this road, so I’m afraid I am going to have to give you a ticket for that”. He just shrugged.

After writing everything down, I filled out the speeding ticket, gave him a copy, then reeled off how he should pay, and how long he had to do so. The girl was staring at me as if I was something in a cage at the zoo but the guy didn’t seem at all bothered. Vince suddenly appeared at the passenger side. His booming voice made the girl jump out of he skin, and startled me too. “Out the car! Let’s see if you have been drinking. Get round the front”. The driver had stopped smiling now. From his address, and the shiny new convertible, I guessed he was pretty wealthy and had probably been at the Country Club earlier. He got out quickly, and walked to the front of the car to stand next to Vince.

What happened next was obviously for my benefit. The guy may have had a drink before, but he certainly wasn’t drunk, and didn’t even smell of alcohol. The Sheriff made him close his eyes, then touch his nose with one finger, then another. Then he made him stand on one leg, as he timed that with his wristwatch. The girl was starting to look scared now, probably wondering how she would get home if her date was arrested. Vince continued to speak loudly. “Now, walk that white line at the side of the road there. One foot in front of the other. Nice and slow now”. The driver did as he was told, and Vince walked behind, urging him on. “That’s the way, keep going just like that”. After ten paces or so, I saw the Sheriff’s cowboy boot extend, as he tripped the man. He fell to his left side, extending an arm to stop himself ending up in the scrub.

As he got up, rubbing his hands to shake off the road dirt, Vince was grinning at him. “I will put that down to you falling. I don’t reckon you’re drunk. But I don’t want to see you speeding in Riverdale again, you hear? Off you go now. Take your sweetheart straight home”. When we were back in the car, the Sheriff turned to me with a serious look on his face.

“Like I said, Clay. You have to show them who’s the boss”.

Sheriff DeWalt was true to his word, and sent me out on my own the second week. He kept me off night shift for a while though, until I was feeling confident enough. We used to operate two cars on days, one taking half of the town limits, north or south. Vince’s daughter Olivia was in the second car. Seemed she was going to run alongside the same shifts with me. Luckily, I didn’t have to see too much of her, except at changeover, when we picked up the patrol cars. I was still a bit afraid of her, mainly because I didn’t have the first idea what to say to the scary woman.

I chose the northern patrol, as it would keep me close to the river, and the Henderson farm. Driving around on a regular route only took around forty-five minutes, and I would be back where I started. Hoogstraten told me I could go up as far as the Country Club, and over onto the edge of the Interstate if I wanted. “Try not to get involved in anything outside of our jurisdiction though, Clay. It gets messy once you start dealing with County and the State Troopers”. Vince was supposedly available to back up me and Olivia, when he wasn’t getting a free breakfast from Betsy, or drinking bourbon and milk in Leroy’s Bar.

Obviously, not much happened. I had lived there all my life, so I already knew that. The murders at the river had been the most exciting thing in the history of the town. Riverdale Sheriff’s Office was mainly window-dressing, keeping people happy that they were protected, even though there was nothing to protect them from. I wrote some traffic tickets to make it look like I was earning my pay, and checked on some of the local shopkeepers to let them know I was around.

In my first month, the most exciting thing that happened was a burglary at Widow Claiborne’s place. I got the call on the radio, and rushed up there as if it was life and death. At least it was something to do. The old lady was more excited than scared. “I can’t believe I slept through it all, they broke a window and all. Will it be in the newspaper?” I took a report of what she claimed had been stolen, and looked around at the back of her house. I could see some good shoe-prints, and also fingerprints on the window glass they had smashed to get in. Before I left, she insisted I had some coffee and cake.

I went back to the office to file the report, and asked Milly to contact the County Forensic team. “There’s some good prints out there, and shoe prints too”. Milly smiled. “I will have to run that past the Sheriff, Clay. We get billed by County for all that stuff”. She took my report into Vince’s office, and he returned with her. “Good work, Clay. But that stuff she had stolen will be long gone by now. And even if we catch who did it, she won’t get it back. Likely it was kids anyway, not very professional, don’t you think? And Miss Claiborne wasn’t hurt, was she? Just file it for now, see if there are any other similar cases later on. If she has insurance, she can claim”.

No point kicking up a fuss. It was still Vince’s laws that applied there.

I started to spend more time at the river. Sitting in the patrol car by the old spot, or taking the dirt road on the other side of the bridge, to where the railroad bridge crossed. On my last day shift before Vince said I should try night duty, I saw my first official dead people.

There had been a bad crash at the junction with the Interstate. Olivia had taken the call, and asked for me to go and back her up. By the time I got there, the Fire Department had shown up with their ambulance. A small Volkswagen had been hit by a truck, as it turned onto the Interstate. There wasn’t that much left of the car, but the truck seemed to hardly be damaged. The truck driver looked shaky, but he was talking okay, and giving his version of what happened to Olivia. The bodies had been taken out the car, and were at the side of the road, covered up. I waved the traffic around for a bit, and then Olivia asked me to check the dead couple for any I.D. The man was messy, his head pretty smashed, and lots of blood all over. By contrast, the woman looked like she was asleep. One of the Fire Department guys shook his head. “Shame. Broken neck, I reckon”.

I checked her purse that had been taken from the car, then fished around inside the man’s jacket and found a wallet. They had the same name and address, probably a married couple. The address was out of state, and according to Olivia, that meant County would deal with it. She told the guys to take the bodies to the County Hospital at White Oaks, and she would go back and phone County to hand over the case. Young Clyde Morrison turned up with his Dad’s tow truck, and she told him to load the wreck, and take it back to his garage. “Who’s paying, Olivia?” She shrugged. “Better bill County, Clyde. It’s their case now”. Once the road was clear, I went back on patrol. I was starting to wonder if there was anything we did actually do. No wonder Vince hadn’t been considered capable of dealing with a double murder that day.

Night shift was a real drag. We only had the roadhouse out on Palmer Road and Leroy’s bar to worry about, and hardly anything happened in those places, except maybe at weekends. The motel was usually busy with people passing through, but we rarely got troubled with any calls to there. I checked the locks on the shops and businesses, and wrote that down on my paper log. Olivia was nowhere to be seen, and I guessed she was cuddled up at home with Velma, hardly bothering to drive around. I felt like I was the only one stupid enough to be doing my job. Tyler was supposed to be answering the phone and keeping an ear on the radio. But when I drove past the office, it was in darkness. He was probably asleep in one of the cells.

But I didn’t mind. It was easy money, and I would soon be established and accepted.

Once that happened, I could start to do what I had joined up for.

By the time Summer came around again, it felt like I had always been a deputy. I spoke to Mom and Dad about maybe getting a place closer to town later that year, and they agreed it was probably time for me to move out.The job was second nature by then, and I had slotted into the routine of the shifts. I had even made a couple of arrests. One was a drunk-driver, and the other a guy who beat someone badly in a bar fight at the Roadhouse. Then there were the regular drunks at weekends, but Vince normally let them go in the morning, once they had sobered up.

Everyone had got used to seeing me cruising around in the patrol car, and the local traders liked how I never took stuff for free, and always paid my way.

Then one hot August day, something happened in Riverdale.

I was parked out by the river, staring at the spot where I had seen Tommy sit down in the water, and suddenly Olivia’s voice came over the radio. I could tell from her tone that it was bad, and then Vince came on too, with an ‘all units’ order. Saying ‘all units’ in Riverdale was rather overstating the case. There was me and Olivia out there, and Vince as backup, with Hoogstraten as a last resort. That was it. For the Sheriff to sound so stressed, It had to be something out of the ordinary.

Someone was robbing the bank in town, and Margie had set off the alarm.

I drove faster than I ever had. The bank was a small affair, and barely managed to stay open. There was talk that the head office would close it soon, and folks would have to travel to White Oaks to do their banking. Only two tellers worked there, and they mostly operated with just one position open. Mr Lutz was the manager, an old guy who sat out back, and dealt with loans, foreclosures, and the good customers.

I stopped the car at an angle to block Main Street. Vince and Olivia had already done the same with their cars at the other end. They were both out and kneeling by the car doors, handguns ready. Vince waved me over, and I crouched next to him. My heart was racing, and I had a real tingle of excitement in my gut. Vince looked really calm, and winked at me. “We wait until he comes out, then drop him, okay?” I was wondering whether or not the Sheriff had ever dealt with anything like this before, when the door of the bank opened.

A skinny guy ran out, holding a sports bag. He looked around and didn’t seem to see the police cars, or the fact that there was nobody on the street. As he started to turn and run to his left, Vince and Olivia both started firing. The noise of the gunshots broke the silence, and made me jump out of my skin. I lost count of how many times they fired, but the robber was on the ground long before they stopped. Olivia ran across, covering him with her pistol, and Vince stood up with a big grin on his face.

It was only then that I realised my revolver was still in its holster.

People started to emerge from nearby shops, and peered along the street. Mr Lutz and Margie came out the door to the bank and Mr Lutz clapped Vince on the shoulder. Olivia called me over. “He’s dead, Clay. Check the bag”. I unzipped the bag and found a sawed-off shotgun inside. I cracked it to make it safe, and was surprised to discover it wasn’t loaded. I lifted it to show Olivia, but she shrugged. “Margie weren’t to know, was she? And neither were we”. She took the shotgun from me, as I searched the dead robber. He had nothing on him, and certainly didn’t look like a familiar face from around town.

I was expecting something to happen, but not sure what. An investigation, calling in County, maybe even the State Police. But Vince just handed the bag of money over to Mr Lutz, and smiled at Margie. “You okay honey? Not hurt or nothing?” Margie just grinned. “I’m fine thanks Sheriff”. Then she turned back to Mr Lutz. “We better get back to work”. So, no crime scene, no real investigation. The small truck came from the funeral parlor to take the body away, and the nearby shopkeepers brought out mops to clean up the sidewalk. Olivia found an unfamiliar car parked behind Leroy’s bar. That turned out to have been stolen in Renton two days earlier. Nobody took any photographs, and the only statement from a witness was given my Margie, when Olivia went to the bank close to closing time.

Vince was going back to the office to file a report to be sent to County, and the State Police. But not before he slipped into Leroy’s for a free bourbon and milk. He took the shotgun to be marked as evidence, then sat in the bar with it on the seat next to him. Even after such a startling event in quiet Riverdale, and a man gunned down on the street without so much as a shout of warning, life for Vince carried on as if nothing had happened.

Olivia walked over to where I was standing by my patrol car. “You best get back out on your route, Clay. And next time, at least draw your gun, even if you don’t want to fire it. Okay?”

After driving back across the bridge, I took the dirt road until the path to the Henderson barn. Even though it was still uncomfortably hot, I went into the barn and sat down at the back, thinking.

Things were going to have to change, whether Vince liked it or not.

On a day off, I decided to drive up to County Hospital. I wore my uniform to make it look official, and didn’t tell anyone I was going. Nobody seemed to ever talk about Tommy anymore, and I didn’t feel like bothering his parents. Even though I looked the part when I arrived at the Mental Ward, the staff were unimpressed. They made me fill out a form with my information and the reasons for my visit, and said I had to leave my pistol in a locker at the nurses’ desk. Then they kept me waiting for a long time before escorting me to a room where Tommy was sat in a chair, staring at the corner.

A big male attendant came inside with me, and stood with his arms folded, and his back to the door. I moved the only other chair in the room across next to Tommy, and sat close, speaking in a conversational tone. “Hi Tommy, it’s Clay. Look at me, I’m a deputy now, can you believe that? I work with Big Vince, and I’m still in Riverdale of course, living at my folks’ place. Been thinking about moving into town though, there’s a small apartment for rent over the hardware store, so I would be close to work”. Tommy continued to stare into the corner, not a flicker of recognition on his face.

“Tommy, did you hear they put away Old Man Henderson for Donna and Mel? Looks like the old guy will die in jail. What do you think about that?” Still nothing. I tried again. “It’s me, Clay. Why don’t you look at me, Tommy? You know me. I just wanted to talk to you about that day at the river, and to see how you are doing here. Why don’t you say something?” He suddenly stood up, and without giving me so much as a glance, walked over to the attendant. The big guy looked at me, and nodded. “Looks like your visit is over, deputy. Seems to me Tommy doesn’t want to talk to you”.

As I was waiting for the nurse to get my pistol for me, I called out to her from the small counter. “Tommy wouldn’t speak to me. Is that usual?” The woman came back and handed me the holster, her face was a picture of boredom and indifference. “Never says nothing, that boy. Never has, maybe never will”.

As I drove home, I thought about Tommy not speaking. Maybe that was a good thing for him, I couldn’t be sure. I diverted into town and went to see Mr Lucas. I said I would take the apartment over his shop, and paid a month in advance. He sure looked pleased when he handed me the papers. Having a cop living over your business was better than any insurance policy. The place was furnished, so all I needed was some bed linen, towels, and my clothes. When I told my Mom I was moving out the next day, she didn’t seem surprised.

There were times when I thought they didn’t really like me that much.

Late afternoon, still wearing my uniform, I drove out to Mr Hayes’ car dealership. Freddie was sitting in the office when I walked in, on the phone to a prospect. “I promise you sir, you won’t get a better deal than the one I offered you. Tell you what, you call around. Hell, drive up as far as Renton if you want. If you find the same car at a better price, then I will match that price. What do you say?” Whatever the customer said, Freddie hung up and turned to grin at me. “Clay, don’t tell me you’ve finally decided to get rid of that old man’s ride? Dark green? What were you thinking?”

“You got a Jeep Cherokee, third row back. The red one. Will you do me a deal on that, Freddie?” He seemed relieved that I was there to talk about cars. “Sure I will, Clay. Let’s go look at it”. He picked some keys from a rack at the back, and I followed him out to the car. I wanted something like that Jeep. Four by four, big engine, easy to fix, four doors, and plenty of room. Before Freddie could launch into his usual sales pitch, I put up my hand. “This is me, Freddie. Take my old car as the deposit, and I will fill out the papers for a loan on the rest. You know I’m good for it. And if the car is no good, I know where you are. We’re old friends, so I will trust you not to sell me a piece of junk. Besides, I’ve got a gun now.” I laughed at the way his face fell when I said that. “Come on, Freddie, can’t you take a joke anymore?”

In the office, I watched him as he did the paperwork, then made the phone call to get the loan approved. When he put the phone down, I spoke first. “Just been up to County Hospital, to see Tommy. Thinking of going to Renton soon, have me a good talk with Duke. We never did get to the bottom of what happened that Sunday, did we?” I had wrong-footed him, and it showed on his face. “Well Clay, you know the cops told us we couldn’t talk about the case. I mean, Old Man Henderson was guilty, and he’s in jail now. I don’t see what good can come of going over it again now. Things have changed, and we are all different now. Time to move on and forget that day, don’t you think?” He smiled weakly, sliding the papers across the desk. There was an ‘X’ marked where I should sign, in two places.

I signed, and handed over the keys and registration for my old car.

“No, Freddie. I don’t think that. Not at all. I will be around to see you again, you can count on it”. I grabbed the paperwork, and the two sets of keys for the Jeep, then walked out. As expected, he picked up the phone as soon as I closed the door.

I had a good idea who he was calling.

It was close to three weeks later when I got the chance to drive to Renton to talk to Duke. That wasn’t his real name of course, just something his real Dad called him. Paul Tyson was known to everybody as Duke, even the teachers at school. But when I called County to check on his address through his driver’s licence, I remembered to use Paul. I regretted not being able to get up there earlier, as I was sure Freddie had called him that day I bought the Jeep. I was worried that he had skipped town, and wouldn’t be around to talk to me.

Despite being on a busy street close to the centre of town, the house looked like some run-down shack in a country district. It was the home of Duke’s step-father’s brother, so I guess you could call him a step-uncle. I wasn’t wearing my uniform that afternoon, but I had my badge ready to flash if need be. It took a while for someone to answer my knock. The woman looked to be around fifty, and her clothes were stained. She was smoking a cigarette, and holding the pack and lighter in her hand, ready for the next one. I was very polite.

“Sorry to trouble you, ma’am. My name is Clayton Farlowe, and I’m an old friend of Duke’s from Riverdale. I was up in Renton for something, and hoped to be able to look him up. It’s been a long time since we got to have a good talk”. She didn’t reply, but turned in the doorway, yelling. “Woody! get out here! Someone to see Duke”. She stayed where she was, holding the door almost closed. I could actually smell the man before I saw him. Beer and sweat, overpowering. His clothes were stretched tight across his bulk, and his jowly face was red from the effort of walking from his armchair.

“What d’you want with Duke, boy? He owe you money or something?” I stayed polite. “No sir, nothing like that. We are old friends from school, down in Riverdale. I haven’t had much chance to see him since he moved here. Is he around? Still at work maybe?” The woman exchanged a look with Woody, as she lit a second cigarette from the stub of the previous one. She flicked the butt over my head into the front yard. Pulling up to his full height, the man shook his head. “Duke’s gone, boy. Job didn’t work out. Said something about going north, Chicago maybe. Pay’s better up there, so he said”. The woman turned and walked back inside. I heard the volume on a TV get louder.

“Would you have an address for him, sir? A phone number even?”. The fat man grinned. “Reckon if he wants to speak to you, he will call you”. He closed the door without another word.

When I got back to my apartment, I thought about my old friends. Tommy was not saying anything to anyone, and Duke was running, so he wouldn’t have to talk. I could apply some pressure on Freddie of course, but then I would never know for sure if he was telling the truth. I needed to get them all together, and thrash out the story. But that seemed unlikely to happen, anytime soon. Meanwhile, Mom told me Dad was ill. He was off work, and complaining about finding it hard to breathe. Stubborn as ever, he wouldn’t go see the doctor. I gave her some cash to make up for his lost pay, but couldn’t see any point in talking to him about it. As far as he was concerned, I would always be his kid, and someone like Dad took no advice from kids. Years of inhaling sawdust at the lumber yard, and a fondness for Chesterfields had taken their toll. He wasn’t that old, but he didn’t look too good.

I went back to my routine. For many it might have seemed boring, but it was fine for me.

The years passed. Olivia resigned as a deputy, and went into nursing. I got a new shift partner, Clyde. He looked up to me, though he was older. Vince started to slow down. I knew instinctively he didn’t have too long left in the job. so took my time until his inevitable demise. All those years of free food and bourbon had taken their toll, and I was happy to wait him out. Hoogstraten had taken his pension, and Tyler had no ambition. I was about all that was left, so I reckoned that if I stood for election for Sheriff, nobody would bother to oppose me.

My Dad died less than two years later. He ended up in County Hospital on a respirator, but he had left if too late. Died young, so everyone said. Mom sold up and went to Indiana, to be close to an elderly aunt. That pretty much convinced me she and Dad had never been that bothered about me.

I was left as the senior deputy after Vince. Tyler was looking to go when he could, and marking time. I began to canvass opinion about being elected to Sheriff, once Vince called it a day. The feedback was good, but I knew I had to wait for my time. When Vince had a mild stroke not long before my twenty-seventh birthday, I was confident of getting his job.

And I did.

Now I could start to delve into the available records.

******TWENTY FIVE YEARS LATER******

Not long after I became Sheriff, everything started to change. It was no longer viable for a small community like Riverdale to bear the whole cost of running the office. The town was growing, and there were more people to deal with. I had a meeting with the Mayor, and it was decided we would approach County in White Oaks, to talk about becoming part of the County Police. I was keen for that to happen, as it would give us access to all their facilities and resources. Everything we did would carry on as normal, and all that would really change would be that we worked for County, and would come under the authority of the Captain of County Police in White Oaks. We kept the name of Riverdale Sheriff’s Office, just so folks wouldn’t be alarmed by any drastic changes.

I called in my deputies, and gave them what I told them was good news. All the old faces had gone except Tyler, and he was happy at my suggestion that he took care of the office and radio, now that Milly was retiring. We never saw anything of Vince since his stroke, and people said he wasn’t able to leave the house without help. I didn’t think that much about him. He was well past his time, and had enjoyed a good run. He was drawing his pension, and one day his name would fade from memory.

I had spent a long time going through the few records Vince had bothered to keep, and was not at all surprised to discover that they contained only the flimsiest details of that Sunday at the river. So I requested copies of the statements taken by County in White Oaks at the time, and a transcript of the trial of Old Man Henderson. I stayed living above Lucas Hardware, as it suited me, so I laid out all the papers in time order, and spent my evenings poring over them until my eyes hurt.

After all that hard work, I didn’t find out that much. Duke claimed to have left the swimming spot while Freddie was still there, and the girls were still in the water. He didn’t mention me at all, except to say I had stayed at the bank further down. Freddie’s statement was that he had watched the girls swimming, but had decided not to join them. When he suggested moving on, he claimed they had decided to stay in the water, and said they might see him later. He made no mention of me at all. Eddy Silverman stuck to the fact he was suffering from the bug bites, and had gone home before anyone even got into the water. As for Tommy, he was interviewed by a State Psychiatrist, but she recorded that he had refused to say anything. Before the swimsuits were found at the Henderson farm, Tommy had been considered to be the main suspect.

Once the search at Henderson’s revealed the glaringly obvious evidence, everything else had just been filed. All the documents concentrated on the old man as the killer, and mentioned his historical sex offending. During his trial, there was little mention of the rest of us that day, and he continued to claim he was fishing at White Oaks, so knew nothing about what had happened. They used Freddie’s and Duke’s statements to allege that Donna and Mel were alone at the swimming place for an unknown time, and concluded that must have been when Henderson carried out the crime. He was wrapped up and ready for roasting, before he even stepped into the court.

What I read over those weeks was pretty much as I had expected. As soon as Henderson was charged, they had all but forgotten the rest of us were ever there.

It was all boxed up, and sent back to County. I had found out everything I could, and nobody was going to thank me for raking over it after all this time. Freddie and his Dad bought into a second dealership in Fairview, and Freddie left town to run things down there. So I got on with being one of the County Sheriffs, responsible for the same territory. I changed what I could. No more free meals, coffee, or anything else. My deputies had to pay for what they had, or there would be trouble. They also had to stick to procedure, rules of evidence, and reading anyone their rights. No more fake speeding stops, or using their nightsticks for no good reason. As Riverdale grew, I like to think our office grew with it, and finally had some real respect.

That Sunday at the river stayed in my mind as I got older, but work was busy now, with a new mall, and three fast-food joints built out on the road to the Interstate. They relocated the bank to an upgraded site on the strip mall, and the shops in town started to suffer a little. The cafe was struggling, but I always ate there, and paid of course. I didn’t like to see the centre of town looking run down, and unloved. It was still my town, to my way of thinking.

Then not long before my fifty-second birthday, I got a call from the State Police up in Renton. Some detective wanted to come and see me. He was interested in the murders at the river. He told me Old Man Henderson had died of cancer in prison, years earlier. He had lived to be ninety-one, and made a deathbed statement that he was completely innocent, and had been framed. It struck me that I had never been concerned to find out about Henderson in all that time. Nobody had even bothered to tell us he had died. His place was still shut up, and no relatives had ever appeared to claim it.

The detective’s name was Liam Doherty. He told me he specialised in old cases, and unsolved crimes. I told him the Henderson case was solved, and I didn’t see what he hoped to gain from talking to me. “I have gone over that case in detail, Sheriff Farlowe, and it doesn’t ring true to me. I understand you were unhappy about Mr Henderson being a suspect at the time, and I would like to come and talk to you about that Sunday”.

I couldn’t very well say no, so I arranged for him to come on the following Friday.

Liam Doherty had always wanted to be a cop. He joined the State Police as soon as he was old enough, and excelled in the Training School, getting the award for Outstanding Student. For a few years after that, he did the regular duties. Traffic patrol, searches, breaking up fights in Renton, and arresting people wanted on warrants. He played it by the book, and earned a reputation as a straight-up guy.

But there was something about him. He didn’t make friends at work, lived alone, and had an unhealthy obsession with small details. He was often described as ‘picky’, and didn’t hesitate to criticise a colleague if he thought they were doing wrong. After some solid work on a kidnapping case, he got approval to apply to be a detective, qualifying almost three years earlier than was usual. When he moved upstairs, the old hands avoided him, embarrassed by his efficiency and success rate. He couldn’t keep a partner for too long either, as he didn’t appear to work well as part of a team.

When he approached the Captain and asked if he could work on unsolved cases, it came as a relief to the rest of the squad. They gave him his own small office, and delivered stacks of case files that soon lined the walls.

When he solved a fifteen year-old abduction and murder of a teenage girl all by himself, the Captain started to wonder if he had done the right thing. A retired cop was disgraced because of it, and there was a lot of resentment from the others who had worked on that case, and were still around. It was something nobody in the department had ever dealt with before. A detective who was just too good. It didn’t seem natural.

But Liam was oblivious to all the whispering behind his back, as well as being completely unconcerned about his own popularity. Most days he was in the office for at least twelve hours, sometimes more. Or he would be out driving around examining former crime scenes, talking to witnesses who had all but forgotten what happened, and slowly piecing together those old cases like a simple jigsaw. His mind was beyond analytical, it was as if he could look back into the past, and actually see what had happened.

Then one day some of the other cops decided to play a prank on him. They waited until he was out, and delivered almost two hundred case files to his office, stacking them in piles on top of his desk and chair. None of those cases were unsolved, they were all closed and settled. When he asked why they had been allocated to him, Sergeant Rogers smiled. “Well it’s like this, Doherty. Those files are supposedly closed, cases solved. But most of them didn’t seem right to us, so we thought you might like to run your eye over them. No rush, let us know what you think”.

If they thought that was going to upset him, they were very wrong.

Those new cases were just the sort of thing that Liam liked to get his teeth into. To the dismay of the Captain, who hadn’t been in on the supposed joke, four of the first ten cases examined by Doherty had to be re-opened. He had found serious discrepancies, everything from no written record of someone reading a perp their rights, down to some tainted evidence that should never have been presented in court. The squad received a stern warning not to do anything similar again.

But Liam had already started looking at the eleventh file.

More than a quarter of a century after the murders in Riverdale, Liam had to catch his breath at how shoddy the investigation had been. With the first suspect being one of the boys, which from the description of his condition, and the fact that his parents had fled with him to Canada seemed likely. Then they had abandoned that idea after the supposedly incontrovertible evidence had been found at the Henderson house, and focused on the old man. As far as he was concerned, Liam could see no good reason why someone who had killed two girls, and had sexually molested one of them, would be so stupid as to carry their swimsuits back to the house, leaving them in plain sight to be discovered. Especially as he would have had time to dispose of them before the cops ever showed up.

If Henderson had still been alive, Liam would have been advising him to sue his incompetent trial lawyer. And he had also lost the appeal, mainly because everyone had been concentrating too much on that one incident of exposing himself some fifty years earlier. There had been no careful scrutiny of any fingerprints, and no conclusive examination of the bodies of the girls, other than to establish a cause of death. The boys involved had been brought in to give a short statement, then allowed home without being properly interrogated. No effort had been made to substantiate any of their accounts of what had happened that day, and as soon as Henderson was charged, the reports were filed away. Shaking his head, Liam started to make some notes. This was a travesty of justice, as far as he could tell.

More detailed reading late into the night revealed something that interested him a great deal. One of the boys involved had later become a deputy sheriff in the same town, Riverdale. Now he was the actual Sheriff, part of the expanded County Police. His name was Clayton Farlowe. It was easy to get the number, so Liam called him the next day, hoping he would have his own theories on what had happened to the girls. He would arrange to drive down and see him, stop over in a local hotel if necessary.

He expected Sheriff Farlowe to be excited to get the call. But he didn’t seem that interested. Then again, he could hardly refuse to meet with a State Police detective when asked to do so.

Liam was looking forward to next Friday.

I had guessed Doherty would be on time, and he was. He was like no detective I had ever seen before. Stick-thin, and dressed in a dark suit, he looked more like an undertaker than a cop. Cropped black hair, and pale skin that didn’t seem to have ever seen sunlight. He insisted on showing me his shield to identify himself, and refused my offer of coffee. “I don’t drink coffee, Sheriff”. I started to be concerned about him right off. Who doesn’t drink coffee?

He wasn’t a man for pleasantries either. No small talk, straight down to what he had come for.

“Sheriff, I will need to speak to various people around town, and also to Frederick Hayes, who I believe has moved south. I have already contacted County Hospital with a request to go and talk to Thomas Clinton. As for Edward Silverman, I have spoken to him on the telephone, and I am happy with what he told me. I just wanted you to know that I will be around, out of respect for your position here. However, I do not need you to accompany me. I will stay at the motel for now, as I would like to speak to you once I have made my investigations”.

There was something strange about the man. It was as if he wasn’t all there. I had let him ramble on without interruption, but it seemed to me he didn’t really know how things worked outside of Renton. “Detective Doherty, I am sure you will agree that it might be better if I went along with you? People don’t take kindly to strangers in towns like Riverdale, and me being there might make things easier for you”. He carried on staring straight into my eyes as he spoke. “I’m afraid that will not be possible. You were one of the boys at the river that day, and it would not be appropriate for you to listen to what anyone tells me”.

I knew I wasn’t going to like this man. Not one bit.

“Then you do what you have to do, detective, and good luck with that. It all happened a long time ago, and memories play tricks. Besides, you won’t get anything out of Tommy. He’s been on the Mental Ward since that Sunday, and has shut down completely. I tried to get Duke to talk to me, but nobody knows where he is. Last I heard, he had gone to Chicago”. Doherty opened a leather briefcase and removed a slim folder. “Paul Tyson is still in Renton, Sheriff. He works at an engineering company. I have already spoken to him”.

So the couple had lied to me that day. I should have known better than to believe them. I hadn’t bothered to check afterwards, and now this strange guy was making me look stupid.

Removing another folder from his case, Doherty carried on. “Milly Hooper. I understand she was working that night? I have an address for her here in Riverdale, but I have been unable to contact her”. I shrugged. “Milly’s long gone, detective. She seemed like an old lady when I was sixteen. She retired when I became a deputy, and died maybe ten years later. You will only find her in the cemetery”. I was sure he already knew that, and wondered why he had mentioned her. “Pretty much all of them have gone now, Doherty, so other than me and Freddie, I don’t really know who you expect to be able to speak to”.

Sliding his files back in the case, he stood up. “That’s all for now, Sheriff. I will call you in a couple of days to arrange to speak to you. Once I have done what I need to do around here”.
He didn’t offer his hand, so I kept mine in my pocket. I walked out behind him so I could see what car he was driving. The black four-door was a typical detective car, and would be easy to spot around town. I intended to keep an eye on this guy.

Liam drove out to the motel and booked a room for two nights. He had easily spotted the new Jeep Cherokee in his rear-view mirror. Dark Red, and hanging back just far enough not to seem too obvious. When he had turned into the driveway leading to the motel, it had carried on up the road at normal speed. In the room, he unpacked some clothes and hung them up in the wardrobe. But he wasn’t about to leave any personal stuff around. And his files and notebooks would all be locked in the trunk of his car. He knew enough about small town motels to know that the manager wouldn’t hesitate to let a deputy or the Sheriff into his room when he wasn’t there.

There was still plenty of time to drive down to Fairview. Liam called from a public phone rather than use the one in his room. Best if nobody knew who he was calling. He spoke to Hayes, and told him he was on his way. When he drove out onto the road from the motel, he soon noticed the Jeep again, parked to the left of the bridge. But this time, it didn’t follow him.

Freddie Hayes was a lot heavier than he had been in his youth. Marriage and good food had filled him out, and thickened him up. Since his Dad had died, he had expanded the dealership, and was doing real good, as far as he was concerned. The last thing he needed was some pencil-neck cop asking him all kinds of questions about that Sunday. But here he was, sitting across from him at the desk.

“Like I told you detective Doherty. When I got to the deep water, I didn’t really feel like swimming. The girls were in the water for so long I got bored. When I suggested we go into town for some ice cream, they said they wanted to stay in the water. Duke had already left. He was awkward around girls, you know? So I went home. It was awful hot that day, and I went up to my room and lay on my bed. My folks gave a statement that I was home, you must have read that?” Doherty didn’t answer that question, and asked more of his own instead. “What about your friend Tommy? What was he doing all this time?” Freddie smiled. “Well we all knew he was sweet on Donna, and supposed she liked him too. But when we got down there she kind of ignored him. She was chatting and laughing with me and Mel. Tommy got in a sulk, and stomped off into the bushes. I didn’t see him again that afternoon”.

Liam was writing in a notebook, and spoke again without looking up. “And Clayton Farlowe?” Freddie smiled again. “Hell, Clay’s the Sheriff up in Riverdale, you can ask him yourself. Far as I recall, he stayed on the bank at the usual spot. Said he didn’t want to come with us to go swimming”. Still writing, Liam pressed the point. “So you didn’t see him anywhere around the swimming place? According to Paul Tyson, he thinks he saw him heading there as he walked home”. Freddie shook his head. “Nah, Duke’s got that wrong. I was there for a good while. When I left, the girls were still in the water, and Clay wasn’t around. Besides, he was still at the same spot when Tommy showed up, all crazy and cut up. He was the one that went for help”.

The detective closed his notebook and stood up.

“Thanks for your time, Mr Hayes. Be aware I may need to talk to you again”.

Detective Doherty wasn’t fazed by the attitude of the staff at County Hospital. He handed over his service pistol as requested, and filled out the required form.

Tommy was sitting at a table in a small room, flanked by a burly attendant, and the lawyer that Doherty had insisted be present. He opened his notebook and clicked the pen, but before he could say anything, Tommy spoke. The attendant almost fell off his chair. He had worked there for sixteen years, and had never heard a word out of Tommy. The voice sounded much older than the fifty-two years of the man suddenly talking. “You State Police, right? Not Riverdale Sheriff’s Office?” Doherty nodded, and flashed the I.D. in its leather pouch. Tommy didn’t really look at it. “Okay then, but I won’t say anything with these two around”.

Liam was always a stickler for procedure. “I do believe it is in your best interests for you to have a lawyer present”. Tommy shook his head, and the attendant spoke up. “He cannot be alone with you. Don’t care if you’re police or what, he don’t get left unattended. They would have my job if they knew”. The lawyer needed no second bidding to depart, grabbing his bag and leaving the room without so much as a word. He would get paid, either way. Tommy turned to the attendant. “You could stand by the door though, will that work?” The big man shrugged. “Fine with me, long as I don’t leave the room”.

Once the man was over by the door, Tommy beckoned Doherty to lean across the table. He began to whisper, close to the detective’s ear. As he listened, Liam wrote hurriedly in the notebook, worried that the man might stop talking all of a sudden. After a couple of minutes, Tommy sat back, indicating the interview was over by staring vacantly at the opaque window and its white-painted bars. Liam stood up, and the attendant let him out.

By the time it got dark that night, Doherty had also taken statements from former deputy Hoogstraten, and Tyler too. Sitting on his bed at the motel, he reflected on a productive day. Then he phoned the motel desk to extend his stay, before calling in to Renton to advise the Captain he would be there the whole week.

I knew that Doherty would have noticed my Jeep, so the next time I followed him I used a rental car, and wore sunglasses. It didn’t take too long to work out he was heading for White Oaks, and when he took the road for the County Hospital, I knew for sure he was off to see Tommy. I stopped and turned around, heading back to Riverdale. The next time I spotted his car, it was outside Tyler’s house. That guy was sure making himself busy.

When Freddie answered my call the next morning, he didn’t seem too concerned by my question. “Yes, I had a visit from that creepy guy. He was asking what I remembered about that day, Clay. He’s a scary dude, for sure. But like I told him, it was just as we all said back then. None of us were anywhere near the girls, so it must have been Old Man Henderson”. I stayed friendly and cheerful. “If you see or hear from him again, Freddie you be sure to call me, you hear?”

Just before lunch, Doherty came into the office, and asked to see me. When he sat down across from me at the desk, he seemed more affable. “Sheriff Farlowe, I thought it only fair to apprise you of my investigations so far”. I spread my hands, and he opened his notebook. “I have just come from speaking to Mrs Riley, the mother of Paul Tyson. Her recollections of that Sunday are surprisingly clear. She has just told me that her son returned quite late that afternoon. She remembers her ex-husband arguing with him about chores that were not done, and that Paul went out again after the bust-up. He didn’t return home until shortly before a deputy came to collect him to bring him here that night. This doesn’t go with what he told me in Renton, so I wonder what your thoughts are?”

It was like having a conversation with a lizard. His face was expressionless, and his mood impossible to calculate. I wasn’t even that sure if he had actually seen Duke’s mom that morning, and I was beginning to wonder if he had ever spoken to Duke in Renton, as he had claimed to. I had got him wrong. The guy knew his stuff. “Duke was always awkward around girls, detective. He didn’t know what to say to them, or how to act with them. If they fooled with him, he would take it personal. Never saw the joke, you know? But I can’t imagine for a second he would ever have hurt Donna and Mel. I never saw him so much as squash a bug”. His face didn’t move, not a feature. I wasn’t sure the guy even blinked. Was that possible? A human who didn’t blink? Maybe Doherty was a new species. I was still staring at him when he spoke again.

“Sheriff, I think it would be most beneficial to get Paul Tyson down here. Along with you, and Frederick Hayes, we could go out to the river where it happened, and perhaps attempt some reconstruction of the movements of everyone that day. You wouldn’t have a problem with that, would you?” I shook my head. “Course not, but what would be the point? Henderson is dead, and memories can play tricks after so long. Besides, who’s to say whether Freddie or Duke have ever told the truth about that Sunday, and if what they say now is to be believed?” I was waiting for him to mention his visit to Tommy, but he said nothing about that.

Before he could reply, the phone on my desk rang. It was a cop from Indiana. My mom had died. Dropped dead in a line at the Post Office in the town where she lived. They found my contact details in her purse. They wanted me to fly up there and arrange her funeral. I hung up, and looked over at Doherty.

“It will have to wait. I’ve got to go to Indiana”.

After landing at Indianapolis, I rented a car for the short drive to Shelbyville, where I had booked a room at the Hampton Inn. It was late, but I called the number I had been given for mom’s lawyer, and arranged to meet him at his office the next morning, before going to the funeral home.

Mr Hendricks had taken over the office from his late father. A serious man in his thirties, he shook my hand with a firm grip, extending his condolences. After going through some paperwork, he told me that mom had inherited the house from her sister, and also had most of the money from selling up in Riverdale. I instructed him to sell the three bedroom home just outside Shelbyville, and agreed a commission percentage for his time and trouble. He seemed happy enough, and I liked his calm efficiency. “Once the documents are all signed and sealed, you should be receiving a substantial amount, Mr Farlowe”.

The Sexton funeral home was like any you might see in a small town. I wasn’t surprised to see a dignified elderly man greeting me, his face a practiced picture of solemnity. I explained that I didn’t have a lot of time, and as I was the only living relative, there seemed little point in arranging any kind of function. I chose a mid-range casket, and paid for a plot at the cemetery, with a simple headstone to follow. Mr Sexton was understanding. “It could be arranged to bury your mother close to her late sister, if you would like that”. I nodded. “That would be good. I doubt I will ever get back up here, so I would also like you to contract someone to take care of the grave”. He nodded. “You can leave all that with me, Mr Farlowe. I assure you of our best and most respectful service”. I gave him a check for the funeral costs, and signed some papers before leaving.

Mom always liked to go to to church, so I let Sexton arrange a minister for a quiet funeral service in two day’s time. It was pretty cold up there, so I bought a padded jacket in town as I hadn’t brought anything warm. Then I kicked around the hotel for a while, and drove out to the Blue River park, watching families with kids enjoying the open space.

To be honest, the funeral didn’t affect me at all. I was the only one in attendance, unless you counted the four men from Sexton’s who stayed in the chapel to make it look good. The minister said the usual stuff about mom being a good wife and mother, as well as being a devoted younger sister to my aunt. After some handshakes outside, I drove back to the Hampton and packed my stuff.

At the motel in Riverdale, Liam was going over all his notes, and making some phone calls. He was hoping that Farlowe would be back by the weekend, as it seemed that a Sunday might be appropriate for what he had in mind. Everything was coming together, but to his way of thinking, it was important for all those men to be together when he asked his questions. He wanted to see their interaction, so as to be certain of his theories. He spent an hour drawing out a careful chart, based on the time line of that Sunday when the murders happened. No matter how he traced it, it always came down to the same result. He was sure that his suspicions were correct.

When I got back from the airport, I didn’t contact Doherty straight away. I decided to drive straight the office, and see if there were any messages for me there. At the far end of Main Street, I stopped at a light. When I saw the man and woman crossing in front of my car, I knew immediately it was Duke. Even after all this time, he was unmistakable. His hair still dark and flopped over his eyes, and that awkward gait of someone who had never really got used to being tall. I pulled the car over into a spot when the light changed, and walked quickly back to where I had seen them.

“Hey, Duke. Long time no see”. I nodded to his mom. “Ma’am”. Duke didn’t seem surprised to see me. “Hi, Clay. I had to come down, got called by that State Police guy. He says I’m not to talk to you though. Told me you would likely find me and try to talk. Said I should say nothing”. His mom looked scared, but was glaring at me. She pulled at his arm. “C’mon Duke, let’s go home”. I smiled. “Just saying hello, Duke. That’s all. Good to see you again. The detective tells me you are doing okay up in Renton”. He turned and walked away without another word.

As expected, I did have a message from Doherty. It was written on a sheet of paper left on my desk. The handwriting was so neat, it looked as if it had been typed. ‘Sheriff, if you are back by the weekend, can you please meet me at that spot by the river at one in the afternoon on Sunday. I have arranged for everyone to be there. Please call the motel to confirm’. He hadn’t signed it, but had stapled his card to the paper. I knew he would have checked the airlines, to see when I got back. No point avoiding the guy. I called the cellphone number on his card, but there was no answer. I left a message.

“Detective Doherty, this is Clay Farlowe. I got your message, and I will be there on Sunday”.

The next day was Saturday, and I went into work to help out with a new deputy. Barbara Hill was from White Oaks, and had applied for a job in Riverdale because her fiance lived there. I let her drive me around, just like Vince had, on my first day. She was keen enough, but edgy and nervous. I told her not to worry, as not much happened in town, and she would be fine. We stopped at the gas station for coffee and donuts, and I gave her the money to pay for them. It was still a good spot for catching speeders, but I didn’t make her pull over anyone that morning.

It was close to two in the morning on Sunday, and I was sleeping when my phone rang.

There had been a shooting at the motel.

By the time I got into my uniform and out to the motel, two of my deputies had already sealed off the scene. Bill Phillips was a solid guy, ex-army, and very reliable. He had already called in for the forensic team, and advised the State Police too. He met me at my car. “Sheriff, it’s that cop from Renton. Seems like a burglary in his room went wrong. Shot with his own gun, by the look of it. The room’s trashed, and I can’t find any of his personal stuff. Someone has been in his car too, you can see the trunk is still open. Night manager claims to have heard nothing, and there are only two other guests. I have them all in the lobby, waiting to take statements”.

I thanked him for his efficiency, and followed him to the room, after slipping some plastic covers over my shoes. “We have all been using covers and gloves, Sheriff. Any prints or marks will not be any we have left”. Bill pushed the door open for me, and I looked in. Doherty was on the bed, wrapped up in the sheets and blanket, with two pillows to the side of his head. He was only wearing underwear, and all the blood was around his head and neck, with splatters up the wall. Bill spoke from behind me.

“One shot, I reckon. In the throat, and out the back of the neck. Looks like he was struggling with the perp on the bed, and the pillows might have deadened the noise some. Strange thing, one of the other guests only heard someone messing around with the car. He got up and checked, in case it was his car, and saw the door open to Doherty’s room. Then he went and got the night manager”. I turned and walked out. “So he was shot with his own gun, how do you come to that conclusion, Bill?” He pointed behind me. “It’s on the floor of the room, other side of the bed. A nine-millimeter automatic. I reckon if it had been the perp’s, he would have took it with him”.

I heard the sirens before I saw all the flashing lights. Three cars sped up the driveway, and two of them had State Police markings. A heavy man got out of the unmarked car, and looked around. “Where’s the Sheriff? I want to talk to him now”. It was Doherty’s Captain, from Renton. I guessed he would want to take over, and he did. I was happy to let him, and after Bill filled him in on what we knew so far, he stared at me, visibly shaken. “I haven’t lost a man from my squad in the eleven years I have been in charge. I want whoever did this, Sheriff, and I am counting on your full cooperation”.

Forensics showed up, and they set up floodlights, took lots of photographs, and did all the usual stuff those people do. The Captain told me that the Staties had roadblocks all over, and the helicopter was up too. “This time of night, can’t be that many cars driving around. I have issued orders to stop everything, wherever they see it”. He wasn’t too interested in my input, so I didn’t bother to suggest that whoever had done this might be on foot, perhaps even still hiding close by. The Captain was fixed on a car being used, so I let him get on with it. If any mistakes were going to be made, they wouldn’t be made by me or any of my guys.

Two hours later, and they had taken statements from the other guests, and the night manager. He confessed that he had been sleeping in the back, until he was woken up by the worried guest ringing the bell on the counter. More State cops had shown up from Renton, including some detectives from the same squad as Doherty. Some of them were grinning, and none seemed too bothered that their colleague was dead. A full search of the room showed that there was no wallet, no car keys, and most of his notebooks and files were gone too. The trunk of his car was empty, save for the spare wheel, and an empty gun safe. The Captain came to find me.

“Looks as if whoever did this just grabbed everything and left. The files and notes will be no use to him, so I reckon they might have been dumped. He’s sure to have blood on him, and if he was struggling with Liam, he may have injuries too. I would appreciate it if your deputies could start looking around for anything that was dumped by the roadside. I have someone checking the hospitals in case he tried to get treatment, but someone should check any doctors in Riverdale too, as well as any who have offices on the roads leading out of town, north and south”. I nodded, and instructed my guys to do as he had asked. As Bill walked to his car, I caught his arm. “Bill, get everyone in who is off duty. And get that new girl too, Barbara. I know she is green, but she can sit in the office and answer the phone”. He nodded. “Will do, Sheriff”.

It was getting light by the time the medical examiner allowed the men to take the body out of the room and put it into their small truck. The Captain looked exhausted. “We are taking Liam’s body back to Renton, Sheriff. I take it you won’t have a problem with that? Some of my men will be staying on to cover the crime scene, and I would be grateful if you and your guys helped them with whatever they need”. He extended his hand, and I shook it firmly. “Sorry to meet you in such circumstances, Captain. You can count on us to help all we can. Contact me anytime”.

I drove back to the office, where a very relieved Barbara was pleased to see me. I told her I was sorry, but she would have to stay on duty, and I walked to the back to make some calls.

Mrs Riley sounded sleepy when she answered. “Mrs Riley, it’s Clay, Sheriff Farlowe. Can you tell Duke that the afternoon meeting at the river is cancelled today please? The detective from Renton is no longer available”. I didn’t make any small talk, and hung up when I was sure she understood. Freddie answered his phone after just one ring. His voice sounded thick with sleep. “Freddie, it’s Clay. No need to show up at the river this afternoon, something has happened to that detective. I will call you tomorrow”.

Sitting back in my chair, I stretched hard. My bones felt weary.

I wasn’t going to get any rest today, that was for sure.

For the rest of that week, the State Police threw everything at the investigation. My deputies got no time off, and everyone started to get cranky and exhausted. Dozens of cars had been pulled over and searched, followed by a nationwide alert for the personal effects of Doherty turning up. His cellphone history and calls from the motel were looked into, and the Captain called me from Renton. “Sheriff, seems to me that Liam was arranging something for that Sunday. Do you know anything about that?” I told him about the reconstruction plans, and how everyone had agreed to meet him down at that spot on the riverbank. “Captain, I have no idea what he was hoping to achieve with that. Freddie and Duke already told him what they knew, as had I. Tommy is still on the Mental Ward ever since it happened, and Old Man Henderson is long dead. But I had agreed to go along with whatever detective Doherty wanted”.

He wasn’t amused to hear that. “You should have mentioned that, Sheriff. Now I have to consider Tyson and Hayes as possible suspects”. I was unapologetic. “Captain, I presumed your man had kept you up to date with his investigation here. Duke has gone back to Renton, and Freddie Hayes is down in Fairview, so it will be easy for you to talk to them. Let me know if I can be of any help”. When he hung up, it was clear to me that he had no idea what Doherty had been doing down here.

The shooting naturally attracted a lot of attention. I had given interviews to the newspapers, and to the local TV station out of White Oaks. Watching myself on the news was a strange experience. I looked old, but I came across as professional and efficient, so was happy with that. After ten days, and with no suspects or evidence to go on, I let my deputies get back to regular duties, and we began to get something of our routine back.

I drove out to a dealership the other side of White Oaks, and looked at some nice Winnebago motor homes. I had done over thirty years in the job now, and was thinking of taking my pension, and handing over to Bill. He would be a natural for the job, and could be sure of my recommendation. After spending all my life in one state, and not travelling much, I thought it might be nice to just hit the road, and see a lot more of the country. I could just pack my stuff into the RV, and go anywhere I wanted. The salesman said he would take my Cherokee in trade, and worked out some figures on a luxury model. I had plenty of money coming from my inheritance, and I wanted to make the break while I was still young enough to enjoy it. I told the guy I would be back in a few weeks. I think he was upset that I wouldn’t sign that day.

The next morning, one of the detective squad guys from Renton was waiting to see me at the office. He wanted to go over a few things, so he said.

When he had a big mug of coffee in front of him, Detective Kelly relaxed back in the chair and smiled at me. “Sheriff, the Captain asked me to come tell you what we know. Ask if you have any ideas. There was no forced entry at the motel. Seems like Doherty let in whoever shot him. The autopsy revealed he had a small skull fracture above his left ear, hit by a club or something. It would have been enough to knock him senseless, and probably before he was shot”. He opened a small notebook. “Those guys Hayes and Tyson both have pretty solid alibis provided by one guy’s mom, and the other’s wife and kids. As for Clinton, well he was under lock and key up in County Hospital. There has been no trace of Doherty’s phone, car keys, or wallet. As for the files and notebooks, same thing. We don’t have any fingerprints, shoe prints, and not one single decent suspect. You got any theory?”

“Well, Liam spoke to a lot of people around here, detective Kelly. and he wouldn’t tell me who, where, or when. Did it all in secret. Seems to me he might have upset a lot of people, raking up that old case. But as for a theory, I can only think of a burglar. If someone went out there intending to kill him, then why would they risk him jumping them, and not have their own weapon? Maybe it was just opportunist. He was a city guy, with a new car. Maybe they presumed he might have money, or something worth stealing in his car? If that’s the case, then it won’t be anyone around here. We don’t have burglars like those here in Riverdale. I would know. As for letting him into the room, I don’t see that. More likely he heard someone messing with his car, opened the door, and got jumped. The guy hit him with something so he is dazed, then searched the room for valuables. Liam comes round, grabs his service pistol, there’s a struggle, and he gets himself shot by accident. I doubt anyone went there intending to kill him”.

Kelly hadn’t bothered to take any notes. “Sheriff, between you and me, Doherty was a strange guy. Not popular on the squad, and couldn’t keep a partner. He was creepy, secretive, and not a team player. I always thought something like this would happen one day. He worked in secret, and rarely told anyone what he was up to, even the Captain. As far as I’m concerned he’s no great loss. But that said, he was one of us, like it or not, and I can’t see the Captain letting it go unsolved”. He stood up and reached into his jacket, handing me a card. “If you think of anything, give me a call. I’ve got stuck with putting it all together, and have to do a case report for the Captain”.

Six weeks later, I phoned the number on the card, and asked Kelly how he was getting on. “Thanks for your call, Sheriff. We still have nothing. Reckon the whole thing will soon be filed as unsolved, and I can get on with my normal job”.

My next call was to County, giving notice that I was taking retirement in three months. I recommended Bill as a replacement, and said I would urge him to apply for the job. Then I called the RV dealership and ordered the Winnebago.
I discussed the available options, and settled on a top of the range model.

Before leaving for the day, I contacted the supervisor at County Hospital, making arrangements to visit Tommy the next afternoon.

If I had thought Tommy wouldn’t be talking that day at the hospital, I was wrong. Although he made the attendant stand by the door, he spoke loud enough for us both to hear what he was saying.

When I got into the room he was smiling, animated, more like the old Tommy I remembered, and I had hardly sat down before he started to speak.

“So, that Renton cop finally got to you, Clay? You come to get me out of here? ‘Bout time”. I shook my head. “Don’t know what you’re going on about, Tommy. I’m just here to see how you are”.

He leaned forward in the chair, and I could see some uncertainty in his expression.

“But I told him. Told him I saw you. Told him it was you killed the girls, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Told him how you chased me through the brush, said you would kill me. Thought you’d be in jail by now”. The attendant was chuckling, as if Tommy had just told a good joke. “Me, Tommy? How do you figure that? All this time you have sat in here, never said nothing. Now you come up with the crazy idea it was me all along”. He sat back and folded his arms.

“I saw you, Clay. The girls were swimming. Donna had teased Duke, and he stomped off. Freddie tried to smooch with Donna after, and she told him to come back when he had growed up. He didn’t like that, said he was going home. I was upset the way Donna was acting, and walked over into the brush. Reckon those girls were growing up faster than us, and thought we were too young for them. That’s what I was thinking. Then you showed up. You must have crossed the river after we left, and walked along the bank on the Henderson side. Duke must have seen you, as he headed home that way.
You couldn’t see me, behind the bushes”.

The attendant was grinning now, and I grinned too.

“Tommy, I was at the usual spot. Remember you came back all crazy, and cut up by the thorns? You wouldn’t say what had happened, and I went for help”. Tommy raised his voice now, and the attendant took a step forward. “That just ain’t true, Clay, and you know it! You lay down on the bank with Donna, kissing and stuff. Mel was really pissed at you, I could tell. Then Donna pushed you away, and started shouting something. Next thing I know, you are holding her in the water, and she ain’t wearing no swimsuit. Mel screamed and ran off down the track to the barn. Then you turned and ran after her. Donna floated off down the river, and I followed you to the barn. I didn’t go inside, but when you came out all dirty and sweaty, that’s when you saw me hiding and came after me. I got all cut up running through the brush, but you didn’t catch me”.

I put a hand up to stop him talking.

“Then why didn’t you help them, Tommy? If what you say is true, you could have run back to the river to stop me hurting Donna, or gone after Mel and protected her. You were the same age and build as me back then, you could have stopped me. Why didn’t you?” He seemed to have no answer, and sat thinking a while. “Reckon I was too scared. Makes me ashamed to think about it. Then everyone thought it was me, including my folks. Nobody ever suspected you, good old Clay. Then once Henderson was arrested, my Dad told me to say nothing. That’s why I stayed here. Couldn’t face myself, ‘spose. But I told that detective, so now he knows and will get the evidence to arrest you. You better watch out, Clay”.

I leaned forward, my tone sympathetic. “That detective got himself shot dead in a robbery, Tommy. There’s not gonna be any arrests, no new evidence. Certainly not based on what you have to say after being in a Mental Ward for most of your life. You have to get over it, Tommy. It was Old Man Henderson. He got charged and convicted. I never thought he had done it, but if it wasn’t him, it must have been you. So I let it go, to protect you”. Tommy started crying, and I turned to the attendant. He raised his eyebrows at me and slowly shook his head. I waited for Tommy to get himself together.

“So you reckon I killed the girls, then took their swimsuits and left them in the old oil drum behind Henderson’s? What about Detective Doherty? I presume you think I killed him too? Maybe I knocked on his motel room door, cold-cocked him with a club, then shot him with his own gun? Then I drove home, had a shower, and went to sleep. Is that your idea too, Tommy? What else are you going to come up with, I wonder?” Tommy looked shaken. He hadn’t known about Doherty, obviously. With the detective gone, it was once again just the word of a crazy man who hadn’t spoken for decades until recently.

The attendant walked back to the table. “You want to go back to your room now, Tommy? You’re getting yourself all agitated, and we know that’s not good”. Tommy nodded, his body slumped, and his eyes looking at his shoes. The attendant turned to me. “Sorry about that, Sheriff. Since he started talking again, it’s mostly nonsense”. He opened the door for me, and I turned to Tommy as I left. “I’ll say goodbye then, Tommy. I’m retiring soon, moving away. You won’t see me again”.

Driving back to Riverdale, I wondered if plush had been the right choice for the upholstery in the Winnebago.

Corduroy would have been more hard-wearing.

The End.

Russian Sector: The Complete Story

This is all 27 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 35,000 words.

Berlin, 1945.

Inge was crying again. I knew she was hungry, so I tried to make her forget, by pulling a funny face. It wasn’t working this time, so I just hugged her instead. I didn’t know if it made her feel better, but it muffled the sound at least. I wondered how long it would be before Mummy got home. And I was hoping she would have managed to find something to eat. When my sister finally stopped sobbing, she looked up at me expectantly.
“Manfred, will Mummy be home soon? I’m starving”.

The Russians had got to our street two days after my tenth birthday. There had been no cake of course, but Mummy had given me a scarf, wrapped in newspaper, and she had found a tiny candle to put into the large potato she had baked in the wood oven owned by Frau Winter.
The day after that, Mummy came home and told us that the war was over.

We already knew we had lost.

People put white sheets out of the windows, so they wouldn’t fire their guns into the apartment blocks. But by then we were living in the basement room, and our only window looked over the yard. Besides, it had been a long time since we had any white sheets.

Father had died so long ago, Inge didn’t remember him at all. Mummy would show her the photo of him in uniform, so she knew who he was.
I remembered him well of course, or so I imagined.
A tall man with dark hair, always smiling. He had died in a place called Tobruk, Mummy had said. But we didn’t know where that was.

Before the war, life had been good. We lived in a three bedroom apartment in a nice avenue near the Tierpark. Daddy was a floor manager in a department store, and Mummy worked as a waitress before I was born. Then came the bombing, and when news of Daddy being killed in action arrived, we had to move into two rooms with Aunt Ilse, in the eastern suburbs.

But none of that was so bad, until Auntie’s house was destroyed when we were in the shelter. She had refused to come down with us, and Mummy told us she was dead. Frau Winter let us stay in her basement room across the street, and Mummy worried it was bad for little Inge. The damp would affect her chest, she was sure.

And we were hungry, always hungry. Mummy got work when she could, any job going. I had to stop attending school to look after my sister, and questions were asked. She told them I was ill, and hoped that would be the end of it. We had to keep as quiet as we could, and not draw any attention to ourselves. When Mummy was at home, I went out to look for wood. I walked for miles, searching out broken boxes, wrecked fences, parts of damaged carts. Anything that would burn.

When my shoes were worn out, we cut up old rugs and stuffed them inside. Frau Winter let us use her kitchen, so we could cook what we had, and wash clothes. I never complained, but as Inge got older, she didn’t understand. We slept together every night, on the one old bed. Wearing our clothes in the winter, and covered in anything we could pile on top of us. Most days, Mummy would be out from first light, queuing at shops for anything she could find, or working some job to get one day’s pay to spend on us.

She became thin, and lost her looks. We never mentioned it.

Inge had one old rag doll, and a leather toy camel that Daddy had sent her from Africa. I tried my best to make games up for her, but there was only so much I could do. She cried so much, all the time. A real Mummy’s girl. Most nights, we had only a thin soup to eat, and small squares of bread that tasted like wood shavings. Mummy would give most of it to us, and say she had already eaten upstairs with Frau Winter. I knew she was lying, but I was so hungry, I ate it anyway.

We knew things were getting worse when they came for the local boys. All of them over the age of twelve were taken for training. I was tall for my age, and it took a lot of screaming from Mummy to convince the soldiers that I was only nine. Klaus and Heinrich were both taken away. Heinrich cried a bit, but Klaus was almost fourteen, and declared he would kill some of the Ivans for me.

I never saw them again.

Inge had finally gone to sleep, so I reached under the bed to find my comics and magazines. I had read them so many times that I knew them off by heart. But anything was better than sitting staring into space.

I had dropped off when I was roused by the noise of Mummy returning. I was shocked to see her accompanied by a large man. Not just any man, a Russian soldier. I wondered what had happened. Were we to be arrested? Mummy smiled at me, and spoke formally. “Manfred, this is Gregory. He carried my shopping home for me, and he has brought us some wood too. He is an under-officer, and speaks little German. Stand up, and say hello”. I stood reluctantly, wary of the huge man. He grinned, and dropped the bundle of wood. Pointing at his chest, he spoke in a loud voice. “Me, Grigiry”. Before he could shake my hand, Inge woke up. Delighted to see Mummy, she didn’t even question the presence of the soldier.

Opening his coat, Grigiry produced a large loaf of black bread, and two fat sausages that reeked of garlic. As Inge cuddled Mummy, we watched with our mouths watering as he sliced chunks of sausage onto the pieces of bread. He passed them round, and I tried not to appear greedy as I started to eat. But it was all I could do not to cram the whole thing into my mouth at once. He ate his noisily, his mouth half-open, showing big yellow teeth. When he saw me looking at the huge pistol in a holster on his hip, he took it out and pointed it at me.

“Bang-Bang!” Then he roared with laughter, crumbs of bread falling from his mouth.

The sausages and black bread were all gone, and Mummy opened her bag to show us something. “Look what else he has given you, children”. It was a small tin of jam, and Inge squealed excitedly at the sight of it, jumping up and down, clapping her hands. Grigiry opened the tin with a small pocket-knife, and handed it back to Mummy, jerking his head to one side as he did so.

“Now you two, take this jam outside, and eat it sitting on the steps while I have a talk with Gregory, alright?”

I did as she asked, as I always did. But as I watched my sister sucking the jam from her sticky fingers, I was certain of one thing.

They were not talking.

Berlin, 1945.

I had spent most of the morning taking my life in my hands by trying to rip out some old floorboards from the shell of a bombed house. Every time I got one free, it felt as if the walls were trembling, and might well collapse in on me at any moment. Further down the street, a working party was loading rubble and bricks into carts, trying to clear the street. I had seen all sorts there, from elderly ladies, to small children. They were covered in dust, passing the individual bricks to each other in long lines. People said you got paid in food for such work, but I didn’t trust the Russians to give you enough for a whole day of labouring.

Around the back of the building, I snapped the four floorboards in half, propping them on what was left of a garden wall, then jumping on them to break them. When I had the eight fairly large pieces of wood balanced on my shoulder, I set off for home.

As I turned into our street, I saw a Russian Armoured Car parked outside the house. Frau Winter was standing at the top of the front steps, arms folded. She was glaring at the driver. When I got close, I could see he was one of those Mongolian-looking men. He gave me a big smile, and saluted me as if I was a soldier.

Frau Winter called them ‘Siberian Devils’. Her oldest son had been captured at Stalingrad, and taken to a prison camp. She had heard nothing of him since, so blamed every Russian for what had happened. She hated the Americans too, as her youngest son had been killed last year, fighting with the Hitler Jugend, in the 12th SS Panzer Division. She blamed the Americans, though he might just have well been against British or Canadian troops in Normandy. She called them ‘Yankee Child Killers’.

I guessed that meant Grigiry was in our room, and I was right. I dropped the wood onto the floor, and Mummy started to tell me off about the state of my clothes. There was a terrible smell in the room, and I asked her, “Mummy, what’s that stink?”. She looked embarrassed, and said, “Don’t be rude now, Manfred”. The soldier was sitting on our bed, and he had removed his jacket and boots. The smell was coming from his feet, and was bad enough to make me catch my breath. His long collarless shirt was filthy too, with dark yellow sweat stains under the arms. He spoke to me in his usual too-loud voice, and it seemed he had been practicing his German.

“Boy. Here. For you. From Grigiry”. He reached into his trouser pocket and removed a flick-knife, pushing the catch to make the blade spring open smoothly. It did look wonderful, with a smart wooden handle. It appeared to be brand new too. But I hesitated. “Good knife. Boy take. For you. Knife for Manfred”. I hated to hear him say my name, but then I spotted Mummy nodding at something on a cloth on the floor behind her. It was two loaves of bread, the black kind. On top of them was a big half-round of cheese, and next to them a jar of pickles. Then I followed her eyes to Inge. who was sitting on the floor playing with a toy horse.

I reached forward and took the knife, recoiling from being even closer to the smell of his feet. I stood up formally, and nodded. “Thank you, sir”. Clapping his hands against his thighs, he nodded in the direction of the food. “Now eat. We eat”. In case we didn’t understand his German, he raised a hand to his mouth and mimicked eating, then rubbed his belly. “Food. Good.”

I didn’t wait to be told to sit on the steps this time. With the tangy flavour of the pickles still on my taste-buds, I picked up Inge’s horse. “Come on, Inge, let’s go outside. I will make some jumps for your horse to jump over, with my new knife. How about that?”

In the alley by the side of the house, I placed flat stones in a circle, then cut tiny slivers of wood from a piece of floorboard with the flick knife. I laid them across each pair of stones, and turned to Inge. “Your horse has to jump each one, but must not knock the wooden bar off. Got that? Let’s see how you do”. As my sister began to make the toy horse jump, a shadow appeared from behind. Frau Winter, arms still folded, looming over me as I sat on the ground.

“So you have a new Papa now, a filthy Russian? What is your Mother thinking of, to take such a pig into her bed? Wait until my Mikkel comes home from Stalingrad. Then there will be trouble, I tell you. He will throw you out of my house, and give that Russian a good thrashing too, I have no doubt boy”. I didn’t know much at that age, but I knew enough to know that her son was unlikely to ever return from captivity in Russia. I chose to ignore her nasty remarks, and turned to Inge, encouraging her to play. But she carried on talking. “Your poor father would turn in his grave, I bet. I didn’t know him, but he was a brave man I’m sure, killed fighting with the boys of The Afrika Corps. What would he think of this? I ask you, what would he say, boy?”

When I still refused to answer, she turned and walked back to the steps, still muttering. As she drew level with the Armoured Car, the driver smiled at her, and saluted. It seemed that was all he knew how to do. She stopped and turned on him. “As for you, you yellow monkey, you Siberian hound. Get back to the shit-hole you crawled out of, you slant-eyed excuse for a human being.” He must have known she was insulting him, even though he didn’t understand a word of it. But he just carried on smiling at her, and she gave up, with a final “Bah!”

Inge had knocked off all the wooden slivers in her excitement, but when she triumphantly cried out, “All done, I jumped them all, Manfred”, I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.

I picked up her horse, and took her hand. “Let’s go to the end of the street by the main road, see if anything is happening”. I would have walked anywhere to get away from the shame of what was happening in our room. For a change, something was happening. A big convoy of Russian trucks was slowly moving down the street, the back of each one covered in hooped canvas.

I asked Inge what she thought was inside them. She pondered for a moment.
“Christmas Cakes, and new dolls for me”. I smiled. “Exactly right, dear Inge”.

When we got back, the Armoured Car was gone.

At least Grigiry had been quick this time.

Berlin, 1945.

Mummy sat me down one night when Inge was already asleep. “Do you remember Great Uncle Otto, Manfred?” In my mind, I saw an elderly man with a lidded pipe always in his mouth. He lived in a house, not an apartment, and had lots of books. And he wore colourful braces that held up his too-loose trousers. I nodded. “Yes, Mummy, I remember him”. She smiled, pleased at my recollection of an old man I hadn’t seen in years.

“Well, Manfred, he lived in Kreuzberg, and that was hit hard by the bombing. I haven’t been able to find out if he is alright. But if he is, I have an idea that he would let us go and live with him, if we can find a way. That area is in the American sector now, and we are not officially allowed to go there. But I am sure you could slip through, and try to find him. Do you think you could?”

I was a little confused. “Why don’t we just pack up and go to see him, Mummy?” She stroked my face. “We are in the Russian Sector, and the city is divided. People are not allowed to cross between sectors without authorisation, and the Russians will not allow us to just go and live there. Besides, I don’t even know if old Otto is alive.”

She took out some crumpled paper, and the stub of an old eyebrow pencil. It was part of a street map, torn from a bigger book. “I have written down his name and address, and I will mark on here where the street should be, if it is still standing. Most of the tram lines have been destroyed, so you will have to walk. I think it will take you more than an hour, perhaps two, with all the road closures. You will have to find a way through the guards too, and not allow yourself to be stopped by either the Russians or the Americans. Do you think you can do this for us? You are the man of the house now”.

I had never had occasion to use a map, but Mummy saying I was the man of the house overcame my fears, and imbued me with a new sense of responsibility. As well as that, I wanted to get my family out of the clutches of the Russian, Grigiry. Mummy still insisted on calling him Gregory, giving him the respect of using his name properly. But me and little Inge liked to say his name as he pronounced it, ‘Gri-gear-ree’. It was our small way of letting Mummy know we didn’t really want him around.

“I will go and find Uncle Otto, Mummy. I will leave tomorrow, at first light”.
She kissed my cheek. “You are a good boy”.

It was still dark when I got up and got dressed. I put the map page into my jacket pocket with my new knife, and started out in a south-easterly direction, toward an area I didn’t now at all. Some patrols were still around, and I hid from the soldiers behind the stacked rubble that was waiting to be removed by the work parties later. Once the sun was up, I became more confident, and was soon approaching the boundary of the district where we lived. I heard my name called from behind, and turned to see who it was.

I knew the two boys standing across the street. Rolf and Dieter were brothers, close in age, and both older than me. Rolf was rather slow. Backward, Mummy called him. Their mother had hidden them away during the last two years of the war, as she was afraid they would be taken into the army, despite their youth. I guessed that she had let them out of hiding, now it was all over. They sauntered over to talk to me. Well at least Dieter did, Rolf rarely said anything.

“Where you off to at this time of day, Kraus?” I could see no reason to lie. “I have to go through to the American sector, to visit my uncle”. Dieter looked at his brother, who shrugged. “Well then, we will come with you. Those Americans have chocolate, and cigarettes too. They might give us some”. I turned and continued walking, feeling rather glad to have the company. They were both well-built lads, and having them along made me feel protected. I took my hand away from the flick knife in my pocket, and let it swing at my side. If they knew I had such a nice knife on me, they would surely take it.

I was hot and bothered by the time we got to the sector border. Signs in many languages warned us not to leave the Russian sector. The main road was guarded by some soldiers standing around inside a wall of sandbags, but other than that we could see no physical barriers. Dieter asked to see my map again. Pointing to a road on the left, he said, “Down there, then turn right. Those Russkies won’t see us”.

Inside the American sector it seemed no different to where we had been before. If anything, the damage and desolation here was worse than where we had come from, and most of Kreuzberg appeared to have been flattened completely. Dieter spotted an old woman walking out of a shattered, roofless building. She had a bent back, and a thick scarf around her head, despite the sunshine. He ran across and spoke to her, showing her the paper.

“She couldn’t read it, bad eyes. But she told me where the street is. Follow me”.

They were on the lookout for American soldiers, bitterly disappointed that they hadn’t seen any. We almost missed the junction we needed, but the sight that greeted us was far from encouraging. I tried to remember the house I had been to when I was younger. To picture it standing on that street, next to rows of other identical well-kept houses leading to a factory at the end. But there was nothing there at all. Just an empty city block, the rubble cleared away already. And not a soul in sight to ask about Uncle Otto.

I decided to turn for home, but the brothers were not about to abandon their mission of searching for chocolate and cigarettes. They headed west, and waved as they walked off. Dieter called out to me through cupped hands. “Thanks for the wild goose-chase, Manfred”.

I retraced my steps, and all I could think about was how thirsty I was. But there were no people around to ask for a drink of water, and no house that looked as if anyone was living in it. I went through a broken door into the room beyond, nervously calling out “Hello, is anyone there? I just want a drink please”. At the back of the house, I found the remains of the kitchen, the heavy stone sink broken in pieces on the floor. Despite turning on the single tap to its full extent. all I could get was a slow drip.

I held my hands under it for a long time until I had enough to wet my mouth.

Tired and hungry when I got back to our room, I was upset to see the expectant smile on Mummy’s face. “Well, did you find him? Is the house still standing? Did you speak to him?” Inge was holding onto my leg. My little sister was also waiting to hear encouraging news. I shook my head, and mummy’s face fell.

“It was all gone, Mummy. Nothing there. Not a brick”.

Berlin, 1945.

Wood was getting harder to find, and I had to keep avoiding the work gangs too, as a strong young man like me would almost certainly find himself conscripted into one. At least the weather was still mild, so we only needed the fuel for cooking. But winter would be here soon, and there was little left to burn in the grate.

When I got home that afternoon, I was surprised to see a woman leaving our room. She was wearing a green overall, and it had a large badge on the front, not unlike one I had seen on Grigiry’s uniform. She ignored me as I walked past, slipping a large notebook into a leather satchel as she headed for the stairs to the first floor.

I could see Mummy had a bemused expression on her face, and wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Why was that woman here, Mummy? Are we in trouble of some kind?” She shook her head. “Far from it. She brought some good news. I had to register our names, and she told me we will get a food allocation, and a voucher to go and have a bath. School will start again soon, and she will let me know where you both have to go. I will have to work when you are at school, but that’s good”. Inge pulled at her dress. “Tell him the rest, Mummy, tell him”.

“She said that the three of us should not be crowded together in this room. We are to be given Frau Winter’s apartment upstairs, and she has to move down here today. I don’t know what she will make of that, I’m sure”. I grinned. “Now she will have to ask us to heat her water, or to use the wood oven to cook food. And we will have three rooms instead of one”. From the noise of the shouting coming from above, I guessed that the woman had just given Frau Winter the news.

Mummy was right, she wasn’t happy. “This is because of you whoring yourself out to that Russian, I know it!” She screamed at Mummy as we packed our few belongings. “The filthy pig got that Communist bitch to give you my lovely apartment, and after I had been so kind to you too. Mark my words, things will change when my Mikkel comes home. You wait and see”.

Nobody replied to her, and we walked slowly upstairs, hiding our smiles.

Now I had my own room again, and Inge could sleep with Mummy in a dry room, on a comfortable bed. I spent most of the evening sitting by the window. Although there was little to see, being able to look out onto the street felt like an unimaginable luxury.

On Sunday, Grigiry arrived early. He brought me a pair of new army boots, with single laces. They were at least two sizes too big, but Mummy stuffed some rags into the toes until they were comfortable. For Inge, he had found a small stuffed bear. It looked as if it had been washed one too many times, but she adored it, and said she would call it ‘Nikki’. Mummy had gifts too. He gave her a cardboard box containing some lip rouge, a pair of warm woolen stockings, and two tins of sardines.

He looked sad, despite our polite thanks for his gifts. Sitting on a wooden chair around the living-room table, he explained as best as he could, in as much German as he could manage.
“Me go. Grigiry go Leipzig. Go with soldiers. Have to go. Not want, have to”.
On his third attempt, we managed to work out that he was saying his unit was being transferred to the city of Leipzig, and we would not see him again.

Reaching into a pocket, he produced a folded, cracked photo. It showed a woman smiling in the sunshine, her arm around a girl aged seven or eight. They were surrounded by sunflowers in fields, more sunflowers than I had ever seen.

Mummy picked up the photo. “They look beautiful, Gregory. Your family?” Even though she knew that he barely understood her, she never made any allowances for that when talking to him. Pointing at the faces, he replied in a voice heavy with emotion. “Wife. Grigiry wife. Girl, my girl. Our girl. Wife, girl, both kaput. Nazis. Ukraine”. He started to cry openly, tears rolling down his cheeks. Mummy handed back the photo, and he kissed it before placing it carefully back in the pocket.

With that he stood up. “Now I go. Go Leipzig. I have say goodbye”. Mummy kissed him once on the cheek, and Inge started crying. I stood up and extended my hand. He ignored that, and wrapped his arms around me, hugging as strong as a bear. “Be good. Good children. Mummy very good lady. Best Mummy. Be good for her”. He turned quickly and left the room, almost running down the stairs. I watched him from the window as he walked away without looking back.

It was hard to admit it to myself, but we were all going to miss him.

Life started to get a little better after that. Mummy could go and queue for our food ration, and we all got something, even Inge. One day, we all walked to the old local Party Offices, where a mobile bath station had been set up. Mummy showed a lady our voucher, and she took us to a big room where lots of baths were full of steaming water, each one screened off from the next by canvas stretched over poles. She handed Mummy one large towel, and said that she should keep the voucher to use once a week. We all had to use the same water of course, and a big bar of greasy yellow soap. Inge was bathed first, then Mummy avoided her eyes when I got undressed and got in. She agreed that I was getting too old now, for her to see me naked. Then when it was her turn, I got dressed, and waited for her and Inge in the hallway.

The next Monday, we started school. It wasn’t in a school building, but in a temporary building like a warehouse. We were no longer separated between boys and girls, but divided into age groups. My class was introduced to a young woman who would be our teacher. She said her name was Fraulein Weiss, and that she had been in prison for objecting to the Nazis. I thought she was absolutely beautiful, and fell in love with her immediately. One of the boys whispered that she was a Communist, and should have been shot.
So I stamped on his foot to shut him up.

She told us that there were good Germans and bad ones too. All the good Germans now lived in the Russian Sector, so that included us. The bad Germans had stayed in the west, and we wanted nothing to do with them, as they were American lackeys. The Russian soldiers had saved us from the Nazis, and now the good Germans and their Russian friends would save us from the Americans too. When she finished talking, she ran her hands over the thick plait of hair resting on her shoulder, and smiled. I looked at her adoringly, and decided she was right.

I liked being a good German.

Berlin, 1946.

Christmas had been very quiet. Mummy explained that there would be no toys, as there was nothing to buy in the shops. She managed to get us both some knitted hats and mittens, which I suspected someone had knitted from old wool. Dinner on Christmas Eve was some roasted horse-meat and potatoes. It seemed like a banquet to us, even though there was nothing sweet later. We had started to get a coal allowance too, so we were warm at least.

Some of the soldiers had started to return. Mostly, they were the ones who had surrendered to the British and Americans. In many cases, they discovered that their wives and children had been killed, or that their former homes were no longer standing. There was little work for them to come home to, and most began to hang around on street corners. But not for long, as they were soon conscripted into labour gangs, or in some cases, allowed to join the police. On our street, many wives were upset when their men didn’t come home. Those who had been very keen Party members or had served in SS units had been detained longer, for questioning, or had already been jailed awaiting trial.

Mummy found out all this from working in her new job with the housing office. She had to help allocate accommodation to resettled families, once the availability of habitable homes had been checked by the workers in the green overalls. She would often come home very upset, because of all the arguments she had to have with people. Those who had once had some sort of power under the Nazis were now at the bottom of the pile. They could no longer continue as teachers, or government employees. Their homes were divided into rooms, and others allowed to go and live in them. There was a new scheme for training teachers who had never had experience before the war. Inge said Mummy should ask to become a teacher. “You could be my class teacher one day, Mummy, and be kind to me”.

I never knew whether or not she had thought about what Inge said, but she stayed with her job at the Housing Authority, and not long after was promoted to section manager. One day, I saw a new badge on her coat, and asked her what it meant. “I have joined the Socialist Unity Party, Manfred. They are going to be running things here now, and it will be good to get involved. It will also help with my job, and hopefully mean good things for us later as a family”.

Germany had already seen enough of what happened when political parties were running things, I thought. But I just nodded.

With the return of the soldiers, crime began to start up once more. During the war, the Black Market men had been arrested and executed, and once the Russians were patrolling, there was hardly ever any mention of crime. But now people were complaining of burglaries, theft of food, even women being grabbed on the street, and their shopping stolen. The Black Market gangs started up worse than before, with them controlling the supply of some medicines, and selling luxuries smuggled in from the American Sector. Mummy said that if I saw any of them, I was to tell her where they were, and she would inform the authorities. “When you are older, you should join the Police, Manfred. A good boy like you would make a fine policeman”.

I started to think about that a lot.

It had never occurred to me that anyone would not like Mummy because of her job, or because she hated the Black Market men. But they did. At school, older boys tried to bully me, saying that Mummy was a Communist, and working for the Russians. I got in so many fights that spring, Fraulein Weiss kept me behind one afternoon to tell me to be better behaved. “I expect more of you, Manfred. Your mother is such a good example. You should be more like her, stick to your studies, and ignore the ignorant boys”. I wanted her to like me. “I am going to join the Police, miss. As soon as I am old enough”. She nodded. “That’s an excellent idea. I will hold you to that, and remind you”.

Not long after my eleventh birthday, an idea started to grow in my head. I could keep an eye on those Black Market men. I knew where they operated, in the back alleys and ruins that I walked past on my way home from school with Inge. If I went there at the weekend, I could see what they were selling, and who was buying. Perhaps write down the names of those I knew from the neighbourhood. Mummy could pass on the information, and she would surely be pleased with me. And Fraulein Weiss would be happy too, that I was starting my job as a police detective already.

That Sunday morning, I got up early, and headed for a place where I had seen the gangsters hanging around. Many still wore their Army greatcoats, the only decent overcoats they had. But the bosses were in smart suits, and wearing wide-brimmed hats, looking like Americans. They had old suitcases open in front of them, and a long row of people stood examining the contents, often trying to exchange things for what they wanted. Money was almost useless now, and the old wartime money had no value at all. People used the Nazi notes to start fires in their houses. I sauntered past the rows of suitcases, trying to appear interested. One of them was full of chocolate bars, and in another there were bottles of spirit, maybe whisky.

“What you after, young man?” I turned to see who was talking to me. He looked almost foreign, with swarthy skin, and oily black hair. But his German was perfect, though there was a slight accent that I couldn’t place. I shrugged. “Got no money, or nothing to exchange”. He put his arm around me and I moved back, as I didn’t like that he smelled of perfume. He waved the hat he was holding, indicating the goods on display. “Why don’t you choose what you want, then I will tell you how you can work for me to pay for it? How about that? A good deal, yes?” I shrugged again, but he saw me eyeing the chocolate.

Grabbing a cardboard box, he put six bars into it, then threw in a packet I didn’t recognise. He gave me a wink. “Good quality Yankee chocolate, the best. Hershey. And a pair of the finest nylon stockings for your sister. You got a sister?” I grinned. “She’s not even seven years old yet”. He stroked the packet as if it was made of velvet. “Well, a sweetheart maybe? Or a mother? Have you still got a mother boy?” I had never seen Mummy wearing such stockings, but nodded. He reached behind and threw another pair on top. “Okay then, because I like you. Two pairs”.

Folding the flaps closed so nobody could see what was in the box, he touched the side of his nose. “Not a word about where they came from now. Come back this afternoon, same place. I will tell you what you have to do, what the work is. Others will show you. Alright?” I nodded solemnly. “And don’t think about cheating me either. I can easy find out where you live. You wouldn’t want me coming to your house to visit your mum and little sister now, would you?”

As I set off for home clutching the box, I was feeling exited, and had a tingling in my belly.

Now, I was a gangster.

Berlin, 1946.

It wasn’t easy to get the box in the house without Mummy seeing it, but I managed to do that, and hid it in my room under some books and magazines. I couldn’t let on about what I was up to until I had more information, and I guessed Mummy would be annoyed if she knew I had taken smuggled goods. I said I was going out to meet some school-friends to play football later, and I was told to be back in time for dinner.

There were two men waiting when I got back. One was young, maybe in his late teens, and the other older, certainly older than Mummy. “You the new kid?” He had an accent that was not from around there. I nodded. “Pablo says you should come with us, and we will teach you the ropes”. He turned and started walking. “I have to be back for dinner, how long will it take?” The younger one stopped and grinned. “Back with Mummy for din-dins? Ahh”. He waved his arm indicating I should follow, and we walked through some alleys clear of rubble, and clambered over piles of the stuff still blocking some streets.

Emerging into an open square, the older man walked up to a small truck parked there and opened the canvas screen covering the back. “In you go, boy”. I climbed in, followed by the young man, and we sat on piles of suitcases of all shapes and sizes. The older man got in the front, where someone else was waiting to start the engine, and drive off.

The young one told me his name was Spider, and the older man was called Leo. “What about you, what do you go by?” I didn’t think, and said my real name. “Manfred Kraus”. He rubbed his chin, then smiled. “You shall now be known as Curly. Never tell anyone your real name, got that?” I was not so happy with my new name. “But my hair is straight”. He shook his head. “That’s the point. A thin guy gets called Tubby, a fat guy is known as Slim, and a tall bloke is called Shorty. That’s why we have nicknames, to confuse people. Okay?”

We hadn’t been driving for long, when the truck stopped. I heard voices speaking in Russian, then laughter. One of the Russians was talking in German, and he spoke it well. “What you got for me, Leo? Something good in the back?” The canvas was pulled open, and I could see we were at a Russian road-block. Three soldiers with Tommy-guns were standing at the back. I didn’t know whether to put up my hands, or leap out and try to run for it. Spider just chuckled at them, and rummaged around in some of the suitcases. He produced three bottles of something, likely whisky, and a long box of American cigarettes. When he handed them over, one of the soldiers closed the canvas, and slapped his hand on the side of the truck.

So that was how they got through the patrols and checkpoints. It was as simple as bribery.

Less than ten minutes later, we pulled into a courtyard inside what would have once been a very nice apartment block complex. Most of the buildings were destroyed, but the truck reversed into a corner, and Spider jumped out. “Come on, Curly. Wait until you see this”. Leo walked around from the front, and approached a large trapdoor that looked like the entrance to a cellar. He banged on it with his foot, and moments later it opened a little, before flapping open with a loud bang. The head of the man I had spoken to earlier appeared. “So you turned up? Good lad”. Spider smiled at him. “His name is Curly now”.

I was told to help unload the truck. Leo didn’t seem to do anything except stand around and watch as Spider passed me the suitcases. They had to be stacked by the opening, and some were so heavy, I had to drag them. When they were all in a pile, we had to carry them down a wide wooden ladder into the basement. The place left me wide-eyed. It was huge down there, and well lit too. Metal racks were bulging with all sorts of goods and luxuries, and we stacked the suitcases at the bottom of the racks. It was tedious work, one case at a time, passed down the big ladder. Leo didn’t come down, and when the truck was empty, I heard it driving away.

Spider led me through the narrow gap between all the shelves, and the basement opened out into a huge bright cellar room. It resembled a luxury hotel room. Not that I had ever been in one, but I had seen pictures of them in magazines. The man called Pablo was sitting in a big old armchair next to a massive bed. He was smoking a cigarette in a fancy holder, and drinking some dark fluid from a tiny glass. “Did your mother like her stockings, Curly?” I wasn’t about to tell him I had hidden them, so just smiled. “Yes, she did, thank you”. He chuckled, and nodded at Spider. “It will be nice to have a well-spoken polite young man around, don’t you think?” Looking back at me, Pablo indicated that I should sit on a small side-table near his armchair.

“Very well, this is how it works. Every Saturday morning, you come here early, and help the guys load the truck. Then we go somewhere, somewhere different each week. While we are shifting the merchandise, you keep an eye out for the cops. Not the Russians, don’t worry about them. I mean the German cops. If you see any, you whistle. You can whistle, I take it?” He didn’t wait for my reply. “Later on. you help load the truck, come back here, and unload again. Same thing on Sundays, okay? Spider will be with you, but Leo is your boss now, so you do what he says. You will have to tell your mother that you got yourself a weekend job, but don’t mention anything about us, or any names. Clear?”

Pablo turned in the armchair and reached down low to his left. As his jacket fell open, I could see the grip of an automatic pistol that was tucked into his trousers. He dropped a canvas bag onto his lap, and rummaged through it. Taking some things out and putting them on the floor, he passed the bag over to me. “These are for you, your pay for today”. I pulled out a Leica camera, and two rolls of film. Pablo spoke in a cheery tone. “I know someone who will develop the photos for you, just bring me the rolls of film when you have used them”. The next item was a watch. It was working, and showing the proper time. Pablo leaned forward and tapped the watch. “That’s a great watch. It was owned by a brave Luftwaffe pilot of my acquaintance. Just wind it every night before you go to sleep, and it will not let you down. Then you won’t be late for work, or late home for dinner.”

Resting back in the chair, Pablo seemed to have lost interest. “Off you go now, you can take the bag. Spider will lead you back as far as a road you recognise”.

On the way back, I was told something about Pablo. Spider seemed to think he was wonderful, and was keen to tell me the story. “Pablo’s a great bloke, so many connections. He used to work at the Spanish Embassy you know. He still has a Diplomatic Passport, so can do whatever he likes. Speaks great German, doesn’t he? During the Spanish Civil War he was an interpreter for the Condor Legion. When they came home, he came to Berlin to work as a military adviser at the Embassy. I don’t think there is any bigwig he didn’t know. He still has a lot of powerful friends, believe me. You couldn’t have found a better guy to work for, Curly”.

He left me somewhere I knew, a good thirty minute walk from home. When he had disappeared back the way we came, I pulled out the watch and fastened the strap around my wrist, checking the time.

I would be home for dinner.

Berlin, 1946.

Lying to Mummy didn’t come naturally to me. I had always been a good boy, and now I was the man of the house too. I made up a story about the father of one of my school friends needing help with his deliveries, and he had asked me to help at weekends. I tried hard to think up a trade he might have, as Mummy pondered whether or not to give me permission. “You would have to do your school studies before any work, Manfred, so that will mean more effort on Fridays after school. But overall, I think it is good that you want to work. What does he do, this father?”

I thought it sounded lame at best, but she seemed to believe it. “Scrap metal, Mummy. He has returned from the war, and managed to rent a truck at weekends from an old comrade. He tours the streets looking for any metal scrap, and I suppose he gets paid for it at a metal works”. She examined her fingers. “And what will he pay you?”

I lifted my sleeve, and showed her the watch. “Not money, but things. He has given me his old Air Force watch, and a camera too, both for working today, and for next week. We could sell them, or exchange them for what we need”. I lifted the camera from the bag, and showed it to her with the rolls of film. She knew nothing about cameras, I was sure, but she appraised it is as if she was an expert. “A nice camera, and valuable too. I think you should keep the watch, but the camera should be donated to the school. They can take class photos with it, and sell copies to parents perhaps”. I nodded my agreement, thinking how pleased Fraulein Weiss would be with my gift.

After dinner, I went to my room, and made copious notes. I wrote down all the names I had heard, listing physical descriptions next to each one. Then I drew a rough map of where Pablo’s cellar was, and a list of most of the things I had seen stored down there. I had forgotten to get the number on the truck’s plate, and made a mental note to memorise that next weekend. When I had enough information, I would reveal my detective work to Mummy, and she could hand it all over to the Police. I wasn’t scared of Pablo’s threats, as they would all be in prison.

Fraulein Weiss was not as pleased about the camera as I had hoped. She eyed it suspiciously, turning it around in her hands. “So your mother suggested you donate this, Manfred? Tell me, how did you come by it?” I had no option but to lie again. After all, she knew the boy I was supposed to be working with had lost his father many years ago. He had been killed in Crete, serving with the paratroops.

“It was my father’s camera, miss. We have no developing equipment, and no money for more film, so we thought the school could make use of it”. I was trying to sound as casual as I could, but was never sure if she was convinced. She opened a drawer with a key, and placed the camera inside. As she locked it, she looked me in the eyes. “Very well. Thank your mother for me. I will give this over to the school headmaster, and he will decide how it is used”.

That afternoon as I walked home, I realised I had learned a lesson, and not one about the capital cities of Europe, or the Franco-Prussian War. I had a feeling inside, and one that proved to be right. The camera was never mentioned again, and never seen after that afternoon either. Fraulein Weiss had certainly not given it to the headmaster, I knew that in my gut. But she did come to school three days later wearing a new red overcoat.

After that, I was no longer in love with her, and started to notice someone else instead. A girl in my class, Helga. She was slightly older than most of us, but too young for the next class up. I liked her blonde hair, tied in bunches. And she blushed when I looked at her.

That night in bed, I started to wonder if Helga liked chocolate.

And how her legs might look in nylon stockings.

On Saturday morning, Spider and Leo were nowhere to be seen. I stamped on the trapdoor with my foot a few times, but it didn’t open. I then tried to lever it up with my fingers, but it didn’t budge. It was undoubtedly locked from the inside. I hung around for ages, wondering what I would tell Mummy. I concocted a story that my friend’s father could no longer get access to the truck, so my job was no more.

I had more or less decided to give up and go home, when Pablo appeared at the entrance to the courtyard. He was walking strangely, and kept stopping, as if to catch his breath. When he saw me standing by the trapdoor he seemed pleased, and beckoned me over. “Ah, Curly. I had all but forgotten you boy. Good lad for showing up. Now, help me get over to that door”. He placed his arm around my shoulders, and felt very heavy as he let me take his weight. I walked slowly over to the doorway he had shown me, barely able to stand myself.

Inside, he leaned against what was left of a wall, and fished in his pocket for a key. Pointing along the roofless hallway, he indicated a door at the end. “There. Open that padlock”. I ran down to the door, and slipped the key into the big black lock. It turned easily. Pablo was already behind me. “Now lock this behind me, and then go back to the trapdoor. I will open it from inside soon”. I did as he asked, watching him wince with pain as he descended some stone steps inside. It was a full five minutes before the trapdoor opened just enough for me to squeeze through the gap. Pablo stood at the bottom of the ladder. “The bolts, boy. Close both bolts”.

By the time I had shifted the stiff bolts into place and got back down the ladder, Pablo had taken off his overcoat, and was leaning on his side across the large bed. There was a hole in his jacket, near the pocket, and blood all over his shirt. He pointed across at a metal shelf. “The red box, the one there. And get some Vodka from the corridor. A big bottle, with a blue label, clear fluid inside”. I went to get the Vodka first. The writing was in Russian script, but I found the blue label and clear fluid. I picked up the red box, and took it over to him. “What happened, Pablo? How did you get hurt?” He waved me away, striking the neck of the bottle against the bed frame, to break off the top. “In a minute. You have to help me now”.

Pulling up his shirt, he poured some of the Vodka over his side, yelling loudly in pain as he did so. I could see a small hole at the front, and a larger one at the back. They were neat, and circular. When he had calmed down, he opened the box, and handed me a large packet. “It’s a field dressing, young Curly. Open it carefully, you have to put it on me”. He slowly removed his jacket, then his shirt. He wasn’t wearing a vest, and his chest was covered in dark hair. Around his neck he wore a gold cross on a chain. Leaning to one side, he nodded. “Wrap it round. Nice and tight now, not sloppy”. I did as he asked, and he watched carefully as I tied off the tapes. “Good job. Now pass me the Vodka”. I gave him the bottle, and he poured a lot into his mouth, taking care not to touch the jagged neck with his lips.

Smiling at my wide-eyed stare and bloodstained hands, he told me to sit on the side table. “It was another gang, Curly. That’s the problem with this job, always someone else trying to muscle in. Luckily, the bullet went straight through. I should be alright as long as it doesn’t get infected. I haven’t got a clue what happened to Leo and Spider though. I think Spider might have got off worse than me, as I saw him fall, and he didn’t get up. Reaching under his pillow, he produced a large revolver. “Here, take this. It is easy to use, just pull the trigger all the way back, and it fires. Keep it low mind, it has a tendency to lift. Now sit there and keep watch, in case they come. I have been up all night, and need rest”.

It wasn’t long before he was asleep on his back, snoring loudly. I sat looking at the heavy revolver in my lap, wondering what to do if anyone came.

It occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a gangster.

Berlin, 1946.

Watching Pablo sleep was so boring, I had a wander around his cellar to see what sort of things he had stashed away there. Every small sound from above made me jump in alarm, and I had visions of vicious gangsters about to smash their way in through the trapdoor. After what seemed like an eternity, I checked my watch for the hundredth time. I had been there for almost six hours, and would soon have to think about heading home. But that would mean leaving the trapdoor unlocked, and Pablo vulnerable on the bed.

I decided that I would have to wake him up.

No amount of shouting made him stir. I took to shaking his shoulder instead. He felt very hot, and though he was quite obviously still breathing, I could get no sense out of him, and his eyes remained closed. I went over to the wash-stand, and rinsed the blood off my hands with water from the jug. Then I took the revolver, and placed it in his hand, wrapping his fingers around it. At least he would have it to hand if anyone broke in. In case he could still hear me, I spoke to him, adopting a casual tone. “I have to go now. I hope you feel better soon. Sleep is obviously the best thing for you. I have left your pistol in your hand, and you have my word that I haven’t taken any of your things while you have been sleeping”.

At the top of the ladder, I opened the bolts, and peered through the trapdoor, open just enough for me to see out. There was nobody around, so I raised it higher, and slipped out. I left the courtyard hurriedly, relieved to be away from any further trouble. I also decided that I would stick with my earlier story, and tell Mummy that the job had gone because there was no truck.

No doubt about it, I was too young for a life of crime.

For the next few weeks, I was nervous. I expected Pablo or Leo to show up at our house, angry that I had left him, and annoyed that I hadn’t turned up on any other weekend. But my growing fondness for Helga took my mind off those worries. It turned out that she liked chocolate a great deal. But she refused my gift of the nylons. “Oh, Manfred, I am too young to wear those. My mother would think it scandalous”. But she blushed at the idea that I would like to see her in them. After the third bar of chocolate, she let me kiss her. Not on the lips, but on the side of her face, close to the edge of her mouth. And she held my hand as far as the corner of the street where she lived, letting go hurriedly as a neighbour passed by on the other side of the road.

There was no reason for me to go back to Pablo’s cellar, and I never heard from him or Leo again.

That was a good summer. Parts of the city began to return to normal, and there was news of new apartment blocks being built on the outskirts. People started to get regular work, and the Black Market gangs were not so evident on the streets. During the school holidays, I had to look after Inge while Mummy was at work. So I walked around with her, rather than be stuck in the apartment all day. I soon noticed that quite a lot of local people were no longer around. Familiar faces had gone, and this continued as the weather warmed up. One evening, I mentioned this to mummy, when Inge was asleep.

“Ah, you noticed, Manfred? Yes, talk is that many have left for the American and British sectors. Anyone who has relatives there has mostly gone. I think it’s a good thing. We don’t need those people in our new country. If they think life will be so much better there, let them go. They will soon find out that it is no easier over there”. I had a lot more questions, but I got the feeling that was the end of the conversation. At the end of the holidays, Mummy told us she had good news. “I am to be promoted again. I will become the head of my department. And we will soon have a better place to live. Next year, I will be eligible for one of the new apartments being built. Good news, eh children?” I smiled and nodded, but inside I knew I would miss our street, and knowing the local people.

In December, Mummy received a letter, and she waved it excitedly. “My sister is coming to visit for Christmas. Your auntie Greta is coming to stay. How about that?” Inge smiled. “I have never seen her, Mummy”. I could hardly remember her at all. I had seen photographs, and Mummy told me that she had seen me as a little boy. But she lived in Prague, married to a rich German businessman who had interests in that country. When we had taken over Czechoslovakia, he had done well, and soon became an important man. Mummy filled in more details. “Uncle Theodore has died, and as they had no children, Greta is at a loose end. The factory has been taken over by a committee, so she is thinking of coming back here to live. I will try to find her somewhere in the new year, but for now she will stay with us”.

Aunt Greta was a revelation. Although four years older than Mummy, she was so glamorous, like a film actress. She arrived in our small apartment like a perfume-scented whirlwind. Lifting Inge up, she showered her with kisses, leaving lipstick marks all over her face. Then she hugged me so tight, I could feel every curve of her body, and the soft lips planting kisses everywhere. I could tell from her expression that she was unimpressed with our accommodation, but she was too polite to say anything nasty. “Oh, little Inge, such a beauty. And Manfred, what a handsome young man you turned out to be, a real heart-breaker”. I confess that Inge and I had been expecting that she might bring us gifts. But nothing appeared. However, she did produce a lot of large sausages from her suitcase, as well as a jar of mustard, and two large tins of sauerkraut.

We ate very well that evening.

At times, it seemed to me that Mummy resented her sister. When she showed us jewels and brooches that she had kept, Mummy sniffed at her. “Nowhere to go dressed up like that, Greta. You would do better to exchange them for some sturdy shoes, and more food”. My auntie ignored her, and winked at me instead. She slept on the two armchairs, pushing them together at night. I offered her my bed, but she was adamant that she didn’t want to disturb us. Her free spirit fascinated me, and her habit of wandering around the apartment in her underwear made my eyes bulge at the sight of her.
Mummy didn’t seem to care. Maybe she was unaware that I was growing up, and noticing such things.

On Christmas Eve, we got small gifts. I received a fountain pen from Mummy, and for Inge there were new knitted gloves with small rabbits woven onto the backs. It seemed that we had nothing to give Aunt Greta, so I went into the bedroom and got the nylons. I knew Mummy would have something to say, but I resolved to present them to Greta anyway. She shrieked when I handed them over to her, quickly unwrapping one packet. Mummy gave me a quizzical look, and I hurriedly made up a story. “I found an old suitcase lying in an alley off the main square, auntie. All that was in it were those two pairs of nylons. I think a Black Market man must have run away from the police, and left them there. Mummy doesn’t wear such things, so I thought you would like them”.

Mummy walked over to the fireplace to put some more coal onto the fire. I sensed that she didn’t believe me, but wasn’t about to spoil the evening with an argument. Greta removed the wool stockings she had been wearing, and rolled the nylons up each leg in turn. When she had attached them, she lifted her dress and paraded around in circles, with Inge clapping delightedly. As I watched her, I started to feel uncomfortably hot.

And when she walked over and kissed me full on the lips, I thought I might pass out.

Berlin, 1947.

Aunt Greta stayed for a lot longer than Christmas. Mummy got her a job through one of her connections, and she became a book-keeper at the Office of Pensions. She went to work every day, and when she got back in the evenings, things cheered up a lot. She had stopped sleeping on the armchairs, when a work colleague had found her a small folding bed that she slept on in the living room. Every morning it was tidied up, and stored in my room until bed time. Other things started to appear too. A small radio came first, and then a reading lamp, given to me for my room. I suspected she was selling off her jewellery, but it was never mentioned.

My attraction to her grew out of all proportion, soon becoming an obsession.
I sat close to her whenever I could, and took every opportunity to gaze at her when I thought she wasn’t looking. I delighted in seeing her dancing around the apartment, or watching her wash at the sink. One day, she called me “My handsome shadow”, and kissed me on the lips. After that, Mummy must have said something, because she never appeared in her underwear again, and stopped lifting her dress when she was dancing. I was confused by Mummy’s attitude, and her seriousness sometimes put a damper on the evenings.
It wasn’t unknown for me to go into my room and have a sulk.

On one of those occasions, Mummy came in and sat on the edge of my bed. “Manfred, I am aware that you are growing up now. I think it is time that you stopped calling me Mummy. Mama would be better now, don’t you think? And you should call auntie Greta by her name, not just ‘dear auntie’. When she is washing, you should stay in here. You are too old to be looking at ladies in their underwear, son. Besides, I am sure we will be moving out soon, into our new place. So you will have to get used to her not being around”. I didn’t know what to say, so just nodded.

Because of the attention I had been giving Greta, I had all but forgotten about Helga. There was only one bar of chocolate left in my hiding place anyway, as I had been saving it to try to bribe her for a kiss. Then one afternoon after school, I saw her walking home with a boy called Rudi. He was fourteen, and had a bicycle. I was shocked to see him place an arm around her shoulders, and had to face the fact that I had lost her. Then later that week, Greta arrived home with a man. His name was Ernst, and he was the brother of one of her work colleagues. He was introduced to us all as her new ‘friend’, but I knew what that meant. I shook his hand, and then went into my room, fighting back tears.

It felt like my world had ended.

To ease my heavy heart, I threw myself into my studies. I continued to learn Russian, and started English classes too, staying on late after school finished. After Easter, we got a new teacher, Herr Obermann. He had a false leg that dragged when he walked, and a nasty scar down one side of his face. But he turned out to be a kind teacher, and very encouraging. When I told him of my intention to become a policeman, he agreed it was a worthwhile job. “But complete your studies first, Kraus. Then when you go into the police, you will be able to get promotion, and not just walk the streets in uniform”.
I thought about what he said, and decided it made sense.

That September, Greta moved out to live with Ernst. I was shocked to discover that they were not to get married, but nobody else seemed to care. Mama said that they would live in the northern suburbs, where Ernst had rooms. She could see that the news made me sad. “We can go and see them sometimes, and she will visit occasionally. She has to live her own life, Manfred. Ernst is a good man. He is a member of the Socialist Party, and has a good job. He will look after her”. She put her arm around me, and squeezed hard. It felt like the old days again.

Inge was growing up fast. I was surprised how tall she had become, and she excelled at sports. One afternoon, we went to see her in a gymnastics display at the school, and she got the second prize. Mama was very proud, and I felt good for my sister too. Not long after that, she stopped playing with dolls and toys, and spent most of her spare time with the sports coaches. As the year ended, it felt as if we were both putting our childhoods behind us. Inge also started to use the folding bed left behind by Greta, and no longer slept in bed with Mama. She walked to school with a group of her friends, and I was not asked to look after her anymore. I thought she was still very young to be so independent, but nobody asked my opinion.

Berlin, 1948.

The news really excited Mama. The allocation of our new apartment had come through. It was further east, but still within walking distance of school, though a long walk. We went to see it on that Saturday morning, when Mama was to be handed the key. A man from the newspaper was there, and he took photos of the first families to get the keys, as we lined up outside the building. It was on the top floor, the fourth floor. Lots of concrete steps led up to it, and it felt strange to be in a place that was so empty. It seemed huge inside. We each had a bedroom, though they were very small. There was an inside lavatory, with a shower fixed over it, and a wash-basin to one side. This was unimaginable luxury to me, after so long living at Frau Winter’s.

The living room and kitchen was combined, but it was big enough for a table and chairs, as well as our armchairs. It was heated by electricity, so we would no longer need wood or coal. Outside, there was a small communal grassed area, with swings and space to play football. It had a funny smell in the apartment though, and some of the doors didn’t seem to close properly.

The next weekend, a man came to our old apartment with a flat-back truck. He and his teenage son carried all our furniture down as Mama packed our clothes into two big suitcases. I was going to ask why we were allowed to take Frau Winter’s things, but thought better of it. Mama got in front with the man and I sat on the edge of the back of the truck with Inge and the teenager, as we drove to the new place.

Sadness overwhelmed me as we turned at the end of the street.

I was going to miss my neighbourhood.

Berlin, 1948.

For Christmas that year, Mama gave me six large journals, and some more ink for my pen. She said I could use them to take notes for my homework, but I decided to write down the story of my life so far instead.

That is how what you are now reading came to pass. If anyone should ever read it, of course. I have no way of knowing if that will happen.

Long hours in my room, or at the dining table, remembering the events at the end of the war, and what happened after that.

We got big news too. In the new year, Inge would depart for Russia, where she was to receive a scholarship to continue her schooling whilst perfecting her gymnastic skills with the best teachers in the world. Her new home would be in Moscow, where she would live with other students from around eastern Europe, all selected for their academic or sporting prowess. I felt sad to hear this, and was sure Mama would object. But she thought it was a wonderful thing, and so did Inge.

I seemed to be the only one who didn’t want my sister to go.

Berlin, 1949.

There was to be a small farewell party, before the chaperone arrived to escort Inge on the long train journey. Mama managed to get some tasty treats, and Greta arrived with Ernst. She brought Inge a vanity case, which seemed a silly present for such a young girl. I also received a gift. A metal ruler, and a set of hard pencils. Perhaps she thought I was studying Technical Drawing instead of Languages, I wasn’t sure. Ernst announced that they were moving to Dresden. The city was being slowly rebuilt after the wartime devastation, and they needed skilled draughtsmen like him. Greta would transfer with her job at the Office of Pensions. When I heard what he did for a living, I realised why I had been given such an inappropriate gift.

It was dark by the time the car arrived to take Inge. I expected tearful farewells, and her to change her mind at the last minute.

But I was the only one who cried. Alone in my room.

The apartment seemed very quiet without Inge, and I took to spending a lot of time alone in my room. One evening, Mama arrived home from work in a state of excitement, flinging open the door to my room. “Come outside and hear the news, Manfred. Quickly”. When I was sitting at the table, she reached over and grasped both my hands. “We are to be new country, officially. The German Democratic Republic will come into being this October. What do you think about that? No more Russian control, and our own country, governed by a German political party. The others will have their American puppet state in the west, controlled by the allies”. I thought for a moment. After all, Berlin would be deep inside this new territory, more than one hundred and fifty kilometres from what was to become the Federal Republic of Germany in the west.

“And what of Berlin, Mama. Will it be part of this new country?” She beamed. “Of course, it will be the capital city”. Her smile faded slightly. “But they have to let the British and Americans remain, the French too. So it will still be divided. That can’t last for long though, so let’s be positive. And to celebrate, the Socialist Party are arranging a summer camp for their loyal members. I am invited of course, so are you. We will have a holiday, Manfred. our first since you were a toddler”. I didn’t really remember that last holiday. I had only been three years old, so my only memory of it was of my father carrying me on his shoulders, on a hot day. Mama had told me the details, relishing every moment as if it had been the most fantastic holiday any family had ever taken.

Mama’s official job got her heavily involved in the preparations for the birth of our new Germany. She was on more committees than I could take in, everything from the flag-design committee, to the relocation of orphans organisation. That meant she was always home late, and sometimes stayed out overnight. I would be fourteen soon, so was expected to take care of myself. I heated up stew for my dinner, or ate bread and cheese when I couldn’t be bothered to cook. The radio broadcasts were more boring than ever, with constant interviews about how we would soon have our own powerful country, and take our rightful place on the world stage. That meant more time spent studying, and I became something of a swot.

Despite Mama’s enthusiasm, and all the excitement, I could see with my own eyes. The Russians were still everywhere, and at school we constantly learned about how they had saved us, even though we had been told this one hundred times before. By the time my birthday arrived, Mama looked exhausted with all the extra work. But she made sure to be home for dinner that night, and presented me with a book. “For your studies, darling Manfred”. My excitement at unwrapping it fell flat when I saw the title. It was a copy of ‘Das Kapital’, by Karl Marx, an edition printed in English. She looked so pleased, I tried to be enthusiastic, but I’m not at all sure I carried it off.

She had more news of the holiday to come. “It will be a camp near Altendorf, so not far. The Party has arranged coaches to take us, and we will stay in tents. It will be such fun, with organised events for both adults and children. Food is provided, and we will cook and eat communally. Open fires, singing, sports, and games. Even swimming in the lake. Perhaps you could learn to swim this year, son?” I did like the sound of getting away after so long stuck in the city. But I would have preferred to go back to the seaside; just me and Mama, with Inge too. I managed to look a little excited. “Sounds great, Mama”.

The reality of the holiday was very different from the picture painted by Mama’s words. It turned out to be full of children, most much younger than me. The adults like Mama were mainly there to supervise, and to do jobs like cooking, or organising sports. I had to share a big tent with five other boys, and I was the oldest. Washing was done in a communal tent, with boys and girls separated, naturally. The toilet facilities were horrible, just planks stretched across a big ditch inside a huge tent. All the boys had to use one, and the girls another at the other end of camp. But there was one thing that kept me from wanting to run screaming into the woods.

And her name was Hannelore.

On the second morning she came looking for me early, calling my name from the entrance to the tent. I pulled on my shorts and went through the flap, wondering who it was. It was a young woman, and I hadn’t noticed her the day before. The first day had been spent getting used to the place, and we had eaten late. I had to tell the young ones sharing my tent to stop giggling, so I could get to sleep. By the time I heard her calling my name, I wasn’t in the best of moods. But the sight of her wiped all that annoyance from my mind.

Perhaps four inches taller than me, with light brown hair tied in a pony-tail, I guessed she must be at least eighteen, maybe even twenty. She was wearing a tight white vest and equally tight shorts, both leaving little to the imagination. Her tone was businesslike. “I need you to help me organise some things for the little ones. I was supposed to have another helper, but she didn’t show up. You’re the oldest boy around, so you will have to do. You can forget messing around with the others, as you will be helping me every day, from breakfast to bedtime. Okay? My name is Hannelore. Get your shirt on and follow me”.

I would have followed her over the edge of a cliff.

Altendorf, 1949.

Hannelore was not that enthusiastic about her job at the camp. She got me to do a lot of the boring stuff, like rounding up the kids, and making them line up for the games. Whatever chance she got, she would sneak off into some trees to smoke cigarettes, something not approved of in a young woman. I was given a list of activities that the kids had to do in her absence, like passing a ball back down the line and then the last one running to the front. I had to decide which line had won, but I was constantly looking over my shoulder to see when she was coming back. That resulted in a lot of shouting from the actual winners, when I made the wrong decision.

When she was really bored, she would make them do things like frog-racing, where they had to run in a crouched position that made the majority of them fall over. That always made her laugh, and I concluded early on that she didn’t like the kids that much at all.

But she looked so lovely when she laughed.

One afternoon, a small girl fell down into the toilet ditch, slipping off the plank as she did her business. Hannelore was summoned by one of the adults, and told to deal with the screaming child. She took one look at the shit-covered kid, and smiled at me. “Your job, handsome”. I took the girl over to the female washing tent, and scrubbed her clean. Hannelore had called me ‘handsome’.
I would have shaved a tiger if she had asked me to.

When the young ones went in early to eat, we got some free time. I followed Hannelore into the woods, and watched her as she sat smoking. Her body fascinated me, but of even more fascination was the fact that she was so unashamedly hairy. She had as much hair on her legs as any adult man in the camp, and when she raised her arms, the hair in her armpits looked like two rabbits were living in them. I considered the fact that she was deliciously feminine, yet in some ways more masculine than me.

One light evening, we were sitting in the woods. I was being bothered by some sort of biting insects, as she was casually lying back on the grass blowing smoke up at the treetops. I couldn’t stop looking at her large breasts under the tight vest, unencumbered by a brassiere of any description. She caught me looking, and I quickly averted my eyes. Too late. “Like what you see, handsome? How old are you anyway?” I wasn’t about to state my real age, so gambled. “You tell me. How old do you think I am?” She ran her eyes up and down me for an uncomfortably long time. “Seventeen? No, sixteen. Sixteen I reckon”.

I smiled, wasting time as I decided what to say. “Almost sixteen”, I lied. She sat up and dug a small hole in the grass with her fingers, burying the cigarette end. The next look she gave me was one I had never seen before, but instinct told me it was a good look. “Old enough then. Come on, let’s go and eat”. On the way back through the woods, she suddenly stopped. “Hang on, I need to piss”. Before I could move, she pulled down her shorts and white panties and squatted just three feet in front of me, letting out a huge stream of urine that ran into the grass. I was transfixed by the sight of her naked behind, and not even remotely uncomfortable about this rather startling display of intimacy.

Still mesmerised, I hadn’t even noticed that she had pulled up her clothes and was standing again. “Come on, dreamer, I’m hungry. Haven’t you ever seen a girl piss before?”

The next day, there was to be a film show in the evening. Everyone was eating earlier so that the kids would be supervised as they watched it, sat in rows on the ground, shortest at the front. The Socialist Party had a film truck, and it had driven out from Berlin to set up for the camp. Some people erected a large screen in front of the truck, little more than a big white sheet supported on long poles. Then a lady stood at the front and announced that the sound was broken, but they would show the cartoons and a silent film anyway. The film about the forthcoming statehood celebrations was cancelled though.
Nobody minded that.

I saw Mama sitting at the end of the front row, her arm around a small girl. I thought she might be missing Inge, and guessed she had volunteered to sit with the young ones. Hannelore told me to sit with her, right at the back, away from the audience. After less than five minutes of the first ancient cartoon, she pushed my shoulder. “This is so lame. Come on, Freddie, I need a smoke”. I followed her into the woods, not minding that she called me Freddie, a shortening of my name I usually didn’t care for at all.

It was the start of sunset, and still quite light. Through the trees, we could see the flickering of the film projector, and hear the squealing of the children.

I was lying on my back watching her smoke, enjoying the fantasy that it was just us two, and she was my girlfriend. When she stubbed out the cigarette, the last thing I expected was for her to roll over and start to kiss me. But that’s exactly what she did. I felt her hand between my legs, and my tongue went suddenly dry. She spoke with her mouth so close to me, I could feel her lips touching mine, and the smell of tobacco on her breath. “Feels like you’re ready”. She stood up, and pulled her vest over her head, then started to unbutton her shorts. It seemed like a dream to me, and I was sure I would wake up. I watched as she slid her shorts and underwear down to her ankles, then pulled them off along with her canvas shoes. “Come on Freddie, you’ve still got your shorts on, get them off now”.

I couldn’t move, let alone manage buttons. Hannelore knelt down and undid them herself, dragging them and my underpants off over my leather sandals. Then she moved her left leg over me, straddling me with her arms supporting her on either side of my head, the heavy breasts bouncing close to my nose. As she lowered her body onto me I felt an amazing sensation, like nothing I had ever imagined. It seemed as if fireworks were going off behind my eyes, and I thought my heart would stop beating.

Ten seconds later, her voice brought me back to reality.

“Finished already? For God’s sake, was that your first time?” I was past lying now, and slowly nodded my head. When I replied, it sounded like the croak of a frog. “Sorry”. She seemed strangely pleased, not angry at all. Stroking my face fondly, she smiled sweetly too. “Doesn’t matter. We will just have to wait until you are ready again, won’t we?”

She didn’t have to wait long.

By the time we got back, the film show was coming to a close, and we managed to resume our places with nobody noticing we had been gone. I now considered myself to be an accomplished lover, and very much a man. She had been very kind, and as we got dressed, had complimented me. “Well, what you lack in technique, you make up for in enthusiasm. I hadn’t expected that third time”. I went to help her round up the kids, and get them to their tents. I gazed at her adoringly as she shouted at the children. I was totally besotted with her, and wondered if she would become my wife in time.

As things were packed away for the end of camp, I took the opportunity to talk to her alone. “Will we meet up back in Berlin, Hannelore? I can tell my mother that we are together as soon as I am old enough”. She grinned, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. “You’re a sweet boy, Freddie, but I start my training next month. I have applied to be a border guard. Got to be more exciting than working in a kindergarten”.

On the way home in the coach, Mama was chatting non-stop about how well the camp had gone. When she noticed me staring wistfully out of the window, she stroked my head. “Are you alright, Manfred? Did you have a nice time?” I nodded, and smiled at her.

“The best time ever, Mama”.

And I never did learn to swim.

Berlin, 1949.

It was all over. We now had a country that was no longer just Germany. Mama was ecstatic, and attended numerous celebrations. I found it all a bit much, and cited having to study as my reason for not accompanying her. No matter how many times she told me I would regret missing the parades and speeches, I remained unconvinced. Life was not that much easier than it had been last year, and shortages of everything was still the norm. We had issues with the new apartment too. Electrical problems, frequent power cuts, and those doors that I had suspected were hung wrong never did close properly. Mama said I shouldn’t complain. “Remember what it was like after forty-two, Manfred”.

She had a point. The last three years of the war had been horrible. At least there was no bombing, nobody was being killed, and the city was slowly returning to something like its old self. So what if some countries hated us?
We had our own allies now, and the strong backing of the Soviet Union. Mama was sure life would get much better, and I had to agree with her.

After my woodland liaison with Hannelore I calmed down a great deal, and stuck to my studies. I would be taking preliminary examinations next year, and hoped to do well enough to go to a good high school when I was sixteen. Inge was doing fine in Moscow, according to her letters, and she hoped to be able to visit us next year, when her gymnastics team was coming to do a big display. Mama was now home most evenings, and we settled down into an after-dinner routine where she would discuss things with me as an equal.

“When you are older, you should join the Party, Manfred. It will help you a lot in whatever career you decide to embark on. Of course, I have my contacts, but they only have so much influence”.

I supposed that the trauma of the war, losing her husband, and having to be used by a Russian soldier had all made her determined that such things should never happen again. She was putting her faith in this new order of things, and her trust in the Party to make life fair for all.

I wasn’t so sure. But I made the right noises, to keep her happy.

Berlin, 1951.

The year after I got back from summer camp passed by without too much change in our lives. Inge hadn’t been able to come home with the team, as she had some sort of contagious fever. Mama worried a lot of course, but one of her contacts spoke to one of his contacts, and assured her that Inge was just unwell, and receiving good treatment. He also made a vague promise about getting Mama a trip to Moscow some time soon.

Nothing came of that.

What nobody could fail to notice was that thousands of people had gone. Migration to the west was depleting the population rapidly. And the Socialist Party was losing face too, with some of the most important members expelled. Mama of course took the side of the hard-liners, and thought it had been good to inject some new blood into the membership. She was also very critical of those leaving, and one evening made a comment that I later had cause to remember very well. “They should be ashamed, Manfred. How are we to build a successful new country if so many want to go and live in the west? They should build a wall, or a high fence perhaps. Some sort of barrier. It will keep people safe here, and stop spies and suchlike”.

For someone who had spent her youth as a waitress, Mama had come on a long way indeed.

When my examination results were announced, I was very pleased. I had come in the top ten percent for English and Russian, and in History and German too. Only the science subjects let me down, but I had no intention of pursuing a career in that field. I put in my application to study languages at High School, and waited to hear if I was successful.

One afternoon when I got back from the library, there was a note pinned on the door. Mama had been taken ill at work, and was in hospital. I didn’t even delay to put my books inside, and left for the long walk to the clinic mentioned on the note. They made me wait on a chair outside the ward for almost two hours. When I was finally allowed in to see her, I was very shocked. Her face was as white as chalk, and her arm was connected by a tube to a big glass bottle containing what looked like blood. I kissed her cheek, and held her hand. “What is it, Mama? What has happened?”

She told me to sit on the small chair by the bed. “It is just a woman’s problems, Manfred. Don’t ask me too much now, as it is embarrassing to talk to you about it. Don’t fret now, I will be well very soon”. Ten minutes later, a stern-looking nurse arrived and told me I would have to leave. “They are all ladies here young man, and they don’t need you sitting here looking at them”. I wanted to say I hadn’t looked at anyone, but Mama patted my knee. “Go home now, son. There is a potato salad under a cover, and still some ham left on that joint. Come back tomorrow”. I kissed her cheek again, and left. I was already well-used to looking after myself.

She was in there for six days. When she came home, in a car provided by the Party, it took her a very long time to walk up all the stairs, even with me helping her. When I got her settled in bed, she was still reluctant to answer my questions, making what sounded like a short speech instead. “Now Manfred, you must be brave. I am still quite ill, and they cannot tell me if I will get better anytime soon. I am going to need your help more, and Marianne from downstairs has agreed to help out when she can. Leave me to rest now. By the way, I won’t be going back into work for a while, so don’t worry if I am not up early. And you must write a letter to Inge, tell her not to worry”.

With Mama almost an invalid, and in bed most of the time, life did change quite a lot. I had to ask Marianne for lots of favours, including buying our shopping, and doing some laundry. She was a good-hearted woman, but had her own life to worry about too. Mama gave her some money occasionally, and also arranged for her teenage son to get a job as a clerk in her department.

We muddled through, but she didn’t get better.

Berlin, 1953.

My mother died three weeks after my eighteenth birthday. She never heard about my final examination results, or that I had been accepted into university. She was only forty-two. Inge couldn’t get back for the funeral, which was arranged by Mama’s colleagues in the Party. I sent my sister a letter, pretending Mama had died in her sleep. I didn’t let on what the doctor had finally told me, which was that her cause of death was a tumour in her womb, and had been inoperable. I knew that she had been in terrible pain.

Less than ten days after her funeral, an official-looking lady came to the apartment. She informed me in a matter-of-fact way that I would have to move out, to make way for a family. “Your sister is resident in Moscow, I understand? A clever young man like you could easily find work, and a nice room with a good family. Or perhaps a bachelors’ hostel? And you are going to university soon are you not? Good. Then you can arrange accommodation there”.

That evening, I made up my mind.

I would abandon plans to continue my education, and join the Police instead.

Berlin, 1953.

I passed the physical and the compulsory written test, then got called in for a formal interview. I expected questions like “Why do you want to be a police officer?” But sat in the large room facing four very official-looking men, one in full uniform, it seemed that they mainly wanted to talk about my family.

“Your mother is a loyal Party member. Your sister is part of the gymnastics team. Your father was killed serving with the Afrika Corps, and neither of your parents ever joined the Nazi Party. Is that correct, Kraus?” I sat up straight as I replied. “All correct, sir”. The man tapped the paperwork containing my application form.”And you speak English and Russian, as well as being able to write in both too, yes?” I was glad that they had actually read it. “Yes, sir. Correct again”. He exchanged a look with the man in uniform, and they both nodded. “Thank you, please take a seat outside. We will be calling you back soon”.

All that build up, and just those few questions. I was sure they were going to reject me.

Almost one hour later, the door opened, and I was asked to go back in. Other than the man who had asked the questions, the people inside had changed. A stern-looking woman sat at one side of the desk, and a heavily-scarred man was in the central chair. As I sat down, he spoke to me without looking up from the paperwork in front of him. “Tell me, are you prepared to become a Party member?” I answered quickly, remembering what my mother had told me. “Yes sir, I am happy to do that”. He looked across at the woman, and she turned sideways, staring me straight in the eyes. “Tell us what you know of the State Security Service”.

I had heard talk of the Stasi, which had been founded a few years earlier. Mother spoke about them in glowing terms. “They will safeguard us against western spies, Manfred. Help root out the undesirables, and those who seek to undermine our new republic. They will also deal with those ex-Nazis who hope to take back power”. I repeated what she had told me, word-for-word, making it sound like my own conclusions. The woman nodded, and wrote down a lot of words in a large book on her lap. Then the man finally looked up at me. “How would you feel about being offered a job with us, instead of becoming a policeman?” It only took me seconds to realise that him and the woman were something to do with the Stasi, and only one more second to reply.

“I would be honoured to accept, sir”.

The woman nodded to the man, and he smiled. It was a rather scary smile, given that his face was covered in scars. “You are prepared to undertake investigations into people from all walks of life, some of whom you might know? To listen to taped recordings of conversations and telephone calls, and to translate them from other languages if necessary? You would agree to become part of an interrogation team, and participate in arrests of individuals when ordered to do so?” I gathered he had stopped talking, and was awaiting a reply.

“Of course, sir. Whatever duties were required of me”.

The woman closed the book on her lap. “Welcome to the State Security Service, Herr Kraus”.

The training was a lot more basic than I had expected. Based in an old army barracks outside of the city, it involved being taught to use a pistol and assault rifle. There was a bit of physical exercise too, but no marching or drilling. Most of the time was spent in a classroom, with the eleven others in my induction group. They ranged in age from eighteen to almost forty, and there was only one woman. Lots of lectures about borders, foreign spies and agitators, and working alongside the Russian military and MGB. We were told that this would soon be known as the KGB, and already had a vast network of agents and informers. It was going to be the model that the Stasi would base itself on.

I was surprised to hear how much information they already had about so many people still living in East Germany. They referred to them as ‘dissidents’, ‘trouble-makers’, sometimes even ‘Nazi-lovers’. I also learned about the everyday dilemma for ordinary people who had chosen to remain in our new country. If they had done that, why had they done that? They could have emigrated to the west, but chose to continue living in the east. That very loyalty made them suspect, and their motives questioned. Unless they were long-standing Socialist Party members, served in the current armed forces, or had joined the Stasi like me, it seemed everyone was to be considered ‘dubious’.

Early on, I realised that this was going to be a very busy job.

The suspicious nature that was the culture there extended to our colleagues, the other recruits. We ate together in large groups, up to sixty at a time. I found myself scanning the rows of diners, wondering ‘what’s her story?’ or ‘he doesn’t look the type for this job’. I shared a two-bunk room with three others. Other than our names and places of origin, we didn’t have a lot to say about our lives before joining up. After a relatively short time, paranoia had well and truly set in.

Upon completion of some practical assessments and written tests, I was interviewed to be told that I had passed the course, and was now a Stasi officer. In another part of the barracks, they kitted out those of us who had been successful. We got two suits, not new, but clean and serviceable. Two pairs of shoes, and shirts and ties too. Some also got uniforms, but I wasn’t told to go to that queue. The final issue was a lined raincoat, and a wide-brimmed trilby hat that made me feel very grown up when I put it on. There was also a suitcase to put the spare clothes in, but nobody got socks, or underwear. They were up to us to supply.

I was sent to wait outside an office with around a dozen others. One by one, we went in to sign a document that we would not divulge anything about our training or our job, and I was given a Walther PP .32 pistol in a small holster that fitted in the waistband of my trousers. I was told it was loaded, and more ammunition would be available wherever I was going. Then I got my identity documents and badge in a leather holder, and was advised to guard them with my life. Everyone had to go back to their rooms to wait for the postings notice to be put up in the canteen.

The rest would all be learned ‘on the job’.

Stendal, 1954.

I was left hanging around in the training school for the few weeks before the new year. Along with a few others, I did a bit more training on using radio receivers and tape recorders, and they kept us apart from other groups of trainees that arrived. Then my posting came through, and I was told to report to the office.

My destination was to the west, Stendal. That was much closer to the new border, and there was a lot of American activity less than sixty kilometres from there. The Russians had stationed almost a complete army group in the area, with a large presence at the old Stendal barracks. At the time, things were increasingly tense between the Soviets and the Allies, with the other side building up a large number of troops based around Hanover. My job was to work at one of the listening stations, and hope to pick up information from the Allies’ radio transmissions. I was to be taken there by coach with others being dropped off at their postings on the way.

Any excitement I was feeling at being let out to do my job was soon diminished when I arrived. We had a small Stasi office at the barracks, and I was told I would be sharing a room with another surveillance operative. The place was packed with Russian soldiers, many of whom were reminiscent of those I had seen around my old district in forty-five. Quite a few of their senior officers were openly drunk at all times of the day and night, and most were also convinced that the next war would be starting very soon.

That evening, I met Walter. He was to be my room-mate and mentor, the one I would sit next to, as he showed me the ropes. A serious man, perhaps forty years old or slightly less, he quickly told me a little of his background. A member of the Communist Party before the war, he had been arrested on trumped-up charges, and sent to a labour camp. He survived the rough treatment there, but when he returned home after liberation, there was no trace of his family. As he was fluent in English, he had applied to join the Security Service at the earliest opportunity, and applied himself to the job like a man with a mission.

After two shifts with Walter watching me, and pointing out small errors, I was incredibly bored. The equipment we were using was just not up to the job, and most of our time was spent listening to the stronger signals of the various Allies’ entertainment stations. When they interviewed soldiers sending messages home to loved ones, I diligently wrote down the names and ranks of those mentioned, which might at least give some idea of the troop deployments over the border. But if I had been expecting the frisson of discovering some great secret, I soon realised that nothing like that was going to happen.

After more than a month of this, I was seriously considering my future, and contemplating applying for a transfer. We were stuck on the Russian base with no time off, and the routine was mind-numbing. I hardly saw daylight, except when I sometimes wandered around the camp grounds, being eyed suspiciously by the Russian troops on guard duty.

Then something happened.

We were called in before our shift, and the whole group was crowded into a small meeting room. Major Becker looked flushed and excited as he addressed us.
“We have picked up a local signal, just outside Stendal. It appears that someone nearby is using a radio to communicate with some ex-Nazis in the west. This seems to be connected to the Werewolf guerrilla group that operated at the end of the war. Our best guess is that an ex-SS man is living under an assumed identity, and attempting to pass information about Soviet troop movements to his conspirators over the border. We have tracked the signal to an exact location, and will be mounting a raid tomorrow at first light”.

He went on to show us maps, and tell us how some of us would be in an arrest team, backed up by some Russian soldiers who would seal off the area. Then he read a list of the names of those who would be going. When I heard him say “Kraus”, I took a deep breath. Walter was not on the list, and when we talked about it later in the room, he seemed relieved. “My health is not so good, Manfred. I doubt I would have been accepted if not for my knowledge of English. Be careful tomorrow, and make sure the Russians don’t shoot you by mistake”. I hardly slept that night, and when someone banged on the door to tell me it was time, I was heavy-headed and sleepy-eyed.

Four of us were going in a car, with twelve Russian soldiers following in one of their trucks. Major Becker was in the front passenger seat. He turned to look at me. “I know it’s your first time, Kraus. Just stick behind me with your pistol ready, and whatever you do, don’t shoot me in the back”. The driver laughed, as it was supposed to be funny. But I wasn’t laughing.

The house stood on its own up a short driveway. The Russians deployed into the woodland area on both sides, with two remaining at the front. I followed the Major to the front door, and he nodded to the other two to check around the back. I was imagining that we would force the door, or perhaps even have some kind of device to use on the lock. So when the Major simply walked up and hammered on the door with his fist, it made me jump. “Open up! State Security Police! Open up!” A light showed inside, but nobody came to the door. Becker kicked it repeatedly. “Don’t make me have to break the door down, or it will be the worse for you!”

After that outburst, the door opened a crack, and the Major pushed on it, walking inside. A middle-aged woman stood there, wearing a nightgown with a shawl around her shoulders. She looked absolutely terrified. “Who else is in the house, lady? Come on, speak up!” Becker’s voice was loud and intimidating, and she seemed transfixed by him. “Kraus, check upstairs. Quickly now”. I pushed past them and went up the wide wooden stairs, pistol in hand, and safety catch off. The light on the landing showed four doors, all closed. I was shaking as I tried the first door handle, but it opened to an empty bathroom. I could hear the Major still shouting at the woman as he searched downstairs. As I tried the second door, there was the sound of a shot from outside, and some yelling in Russian.

The man had climbed out of a window, and made a run for it through the woods before my two colleagues had got around the back. He hadn’t counted on the soldiers being there, and was soon spotted. They had fired the warning shot, so they said, and he had stopped. I thought it more likely that they had been trying to hit him, and missed. But I kept that to myself. The Stasi officers appeared in the hallway with a tall man held tight between them. He was barefoot, and wearing only pyjamas. Despite his circumstances, the man looked remarkably calm. He stood erect, and his manner struck me as imperious. The Major smiled, and gave the woman a small push toward the door. “Take these two to the Russian truck and tell them to guard them while we search”.

When they came back, the four of us began a methodical search. Nothing was obvious of course, but a lot of stamping on the floor soon revealed a hollow sound, and a trapdoor concealed under a heavy sideboard. I was sent down to investigate, using my hand torch. In the small space below, I easily found a radio in an old suitcase, along with annotated maps, and some radio code books. A long wire aerial was concealed behind some pipes, and that led all the way up into the roof space. I passed everything up to the others, and emerged to find a delighted Becker with a beaming smile across his face.
“Good job, boys. Now, let’s get them back for questioning”.

On the way back to the base in the car, the Major turned to me.

“You did well, Kraus. It will not go unnoticed”.

Berlin, 1955.

Despite a glowing report from Major Becker, and his recommendation that I be transferred to a plain clothes active unit, the wheels turned slowly. I was stuck at Stendal for the rest of the year, still listening to poor quality radio messages, and watching Walter get excited about nothing. During that time, it became glaringly obvious that we were little more than a branch of the Russian KGB, and that they were ultimately in charge of most of our operations.

My only diversion came from being allowed to go on trips into Stendal with Erich, the car driver. I was rather taken with the daughter of one of the town’s bakers, but with no decent transport, it was pointless asking her out on a date. Erich took pity on me, and put my name forward for an official driving course. That took place on the base, and was an intensive course for six days. I was pleased to pass it, but by the time my licence and permission to drive our allocated car came through, my transfer had also arrived.

Back to Berlin, to work at Stasi headquarters. I wasn’t complaining.

I was no longer stuck on surveillance. They put me on one of the arrest teams, led by Captain Teller. He was the golden boy of the Stasi at the time, and he had served in the Wehrmacht, as an infantry officer. But he embraced the new regime immediately, and had an uncanny knack of sniffing out Black Market operations, and dissidents. My sergeant was called Gunther, and when he found out I could drive, he made me one of the team drivers.

This was more like it. I felt like a policeman, going out on raids and arrests, threatening bad guys with my pistol, and slapping on handcuffs. We were usually accompanied by some others in uniform, which made it seem very official. I heard about interrogations lasting days, and some of the team talked about being involved in beatings too. But for some reason, I wasn’t asked to do that. My job seemed to end once they were handed over, and taken to the cells.

Back in the capital, the benefits of my new job became very apparent. I was allocated a small apartment within walking distance of headquarters, and I didn’t have to share it. There was access to extra food, and decent clothes too.
I also earned enough to pay a woman to clean my place and do my washing and ironing. She always seemed afraid of me, despite my youth, and was almost reluctant to accept her small salary when I paid her. My identity card and badge could open any door without the slightest argument, and for the first time in years, I felt relaxed. Perhaps I had found my niche, after all.

When I turned up for work one morning, the sergeant told me we were off to arrest a woman for ‘seditious utterances’. A female uniformed officer would accompany us, and it should be an easy job, as the accused was quite elderly. He showed me the name and address on the paperwork. It was Frau Winter, still living at our old place. I thought it best to tell him I knew her, and suggested it might be better if he took someone else to drive him. He shook his head. “Less trouble if you know the old cow. You can get her out without too much drama”.

On the way, he told me that Frau Winter had been reported for complaining about the government. She repeatedly said that life had been better under the Nazis, and didn’t mind who heard her. I mentioned that she had lost both sons in the war, and had been forced to move into her own basement room. Gunther shrugged. “Not so bad. She should have tried surviving time in a labour camp for being a Communist”.

I was sent in, accompanied by the sour-faced woman in uniform. I showed Frau Winter my badge and the arrest warrant, and realised she didn’t recognise me. “It’s me, Manfred. I used to live here”. She shrugged. “I had to move down here because of you three, and when you went they put a rough family into my nice apartment. Now you are working for them. What would your mother think of you arresting a woman who was kind to you”. She shocked me by suddenly spitting at my feet. “My mother is dead, Frau Winter”. She shrugged again. “And so are my sons”. My uniformed colleague grabbed her arm, and led her to the door. There was no need for handcuffs. She stayed silent all the way back to headquarters, but as she was led off to the cells, she stopped and turned, snarling at me.

“Think you’re a big man now, Manfred Kraus. You are no better than the Gestapo, boy. Your time will come, mark my words”.

Later that evening, I thought about what she had said. She had a point.

Fortunately, life wasn’t only about work. I caught the eye of an attractive barmaid one night when I stopped for beer and sausage on the way home. I stayed for an extra beer, and asked her name. It was Mona. I remembered my training, and asked more questions. Her surname, age, and where she lived. I didn’t just rattle off a list, but slowly worked them into the conversation. As I left, I casually said, “Might see you again soon”. She smiled rather coyly. “That would be nice”.

The next day, I checked her out. Mona Friedrich. We had nothing on her, and she wasn’t on any of our lists. A general check showed that she had told me her correct age and address, where she was shown renting a room in a large old house. Next chance I got, I popped into the bar again, and there she was behind the counter. I chatted normally at first, steering the conversation round to her working hours. But before I could suggest a date, she asked me a question. “So what do you do for a living, Manfred?” It wasn’t so much that we were not allowed to tell people what we did, more that it was often the kiss of death when it came to dating and romance. I saw no point trying to deceive her, so showed her my badge. “I’m with the SSD”. She smiled. “That’s a good job to have these days”.

And that was how I got myself a girlfriend.

More good news arrived. Inge was coming home for a holiday, after all this time. I said she could stay at my place, and I would sleep on the floor. Captain Teller approved my request for time off, allowing me five full days to spend with my sister. On my first date with Mona, I told her about my Inge, and how she was a leading gymnast in the national team.

I was looking forward to them meeting.

Berlin, 1955.

On the day Inge arrived, I was at the main station before her train got in. I expected her to be tired after a long journey, but I had managed to get hold of some nice chocolates and a small bunch of flowers, as a welcome home gift. Surprisingly, not that many got off the train. Most were Russian of course, and many were in uniform. When there was no sign of my sister, I walked further along the platform, looking into the compartments. Almost at the last carriage, I suddenly heard a voice behind me. “Manfred”.

As I turned with a growing smile, it stopped dead on my face. I was unable to hide my shock. There was little Inge, now sixteen years old but not much bigger than when I had last seen her. Dark circles ran around both her eyes, and her skin was pasty-looking. Walking forward, I wrapped my arms around her, and kissed both her cheeks. I was alarmed to feel how tiny and frail she was, with her ribs obvious, even through her coat. I forced a happy face. “Shall we go and have some hot chocolate and cake, Inge? I know a good place that will have the best”. She shook her head, her expression joyless. “I am not hungry, Manfred. Can we just go back to your place, so I can rest?” I reached down and took her small suitcase. It was the same one she had left with, all those years ago.

The walk to my apartment wasn’t far, but Inge stopped numerous times on the way. After the fourth time, when she leaned on a lamp-post for support, I could hold my tongue no longer. “What’s going on, dear sister? Are you ill? You must tell me”. Taking a deep breath, she tried to smile, but failed. “It’s okay, Manfred. Let’s get to your place. We can talk later, when I am rested. It was such a long journey”. Inside my apartment, I took her coat, and caught my breath when I saw how thin she was. The small dress was so loose on her, it twisted around her body as she walked over to sit on my one armchair. Her wool stockings had fallen down around her shins, and she made no effort to pull them up. Her legs were so skinny, I could make out the bones of her knee joints quite clearly. She was far from being a healthy gymnast, that was for sure.

There was so much I wanted to ask, but I respected the fact that she was no longer a child. I had to give her the chance to speak when she was ready. As I made some coffee, she removed her shoes. “Can I go to bed, Manfred? I will feel better after a sleep”. I waited until she was settled in my bed, and quickly checked on her. But she was already asleep, still wearing her dress.

The plan for that evening had been to take her to the bar, to meet Mona. I thought we could have beer and sausages, and chat to my new girlfriend when she got a break between customers. But by the time it was dark, Inge was still asleep. I decided to wake her, and took a cup of coffee through. “Inge, wake up darling. I have brought you coffee. It even has sugar in it. Sit up, and drink it while it’s hot”. She was reluctant to stir, but eventually sat up. Trying to sound very cheerful, I stroked her lank hair. “How about we go and get some food? We can meet Mona at the bar, she is so looking forward to seeing you”. After one small sip of the coffee, she shook her head. “I’m not hungry, Manfred. You go, go and meet her. I will be alright here”.

Now I was losing my patience. “Nonsense. I haven’t seen you in all these years, and I am not about to just go out and leave you sleeping. Come on, get out of bed. You must eat something”. She swung her legs out of the covers so slowly, it reminded me of when my mother was desperately ill. “I will drink the coffee, Manfred, but I really don’t want to eat”. I decided to try to tempt her. “We don’t have to go out, Inge. I have your favourites, right here. Fresh bread, smoked cheese, even some delicious plum jam. You know how much you love plum jam”. There was no lightness in her voice. “Like the jam Grigiry used to bring? The Russian jam?”. I nodded. “That’s the one, the very same”. She shook her head. “Not for me, thank you”.

As she sat back in the armchair staring at her coffee, I made myself a snack with the cheese and bread. I was hungry, and it looked like the planned trip to the bar was not going to happen. Inge wasn’t saying anything. The visit I had anticipated with such delight was already turning into something that gave me grave concern. After almost an hour of silence, I just had to say something. “You are not well, I can see that. You are too thin, even for a gymnast. I am worried about you, have you seen a doctor? Don’t just sit silent, you have to talk to me. We only have each other, and I am not going to sit here like this for five days, until you go back to Moscow.”

When she replied, her voice sounded much older, as if there was something heavy in her throat. Still holding the cup with both hands, she turned her head to talk to me, and I saw something dark behind her eyes.

“I am no longer a gymnast, Manfred. I wasn’t good enough, never stayed in the top three. They said I was too tall, then I was too heavy. For the past year I have been helping the coaches, mainly arranging the kit for the travelling to events.
I don’t even get to share the dormitory with the young girls anymore. I sleep in a store-room at the training school, surrounded by floor mats and drying washing. They say I am too old now anyway. So that’s it. My so-called career is over. I am not on holiday, I have come home. I will need to find work, and I didn’t even finish my studies”.

The tears were forming in my eyes as I walked over and knelt on the floor in front of her. I took the cold coffee away, and wrapped my arms around her, kissing her head. She was trembling, but had no tears. I suspected she had cried them all out, long ago. After a long time sitting like that, she pulled away. “Manfred, there is more. I don’t know how to tell you, and I am ashamed to talk about it. But with Mummy gone, I have nobody else to tell. Auntie Greta is too far away, and I have no friends”. I stood up, and stroked her face. “You can tell me anything, Inge. You must know that”.

She swallowed hard, and began to talk.

Berlin, 1955.

The story that Inge related to me made me angry and desperately sad at the same time. At least when it was over, I was able to get her to eat something, and to drink some warm milk. But when she went back to bed that night, I couldn’t sleep, and sat for most of the night at the table, writing a report.

She told me that at first, the abuse had been verbal. Constantly being told she would never be good enough. Coaches screaming at her when she was still just a child, telling her she was too fat, and was eating too much. When she cried, they sat her facing the corner, leaving her there until she apologised. It wasn’t long before the physical abuse began. Slaps, pushes, being left in uncomfortable positions for long periods, and having her wrists twisted, or hair pulled. And it wasn’t the Russians doing this, but the East German coaches, and the chaperones that were supposed to be caring for her.

Eventually, lack of good food, nights without sleep, and constant humiliation broke her spirit. When they told Mama that she was too ill to come home for the contest, that was a lie. They left her there to punish her for her supposed lack of effort. Then when she was just eleven years old, the sexual abuse began. I was appalled at her revelations. The first to latch onto her was a woman, someone who was tasked with making her take extra practice in the evenings. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the woman used her for her own pleasure, and poor Inge was too depressed to care or complain. “Who would I have complained to, Manfred? It was common knowledge that many of the girls, and even some of the boys, were being targeted like me”. She tried to smuggle out a letter home, outlining what was happening, but it was discovered, and she was cruelly punished for that.

Later on, she was ‘noticed’ by the deputy head coach, and he decided to give her ‘special lessons’ to improve her skills. But most of those supposed lessons took place in his room. At first, he had to put his hand over her mouth, to suppress her cries and screams. But as time went on, she went to him willingly rather than face any other punishments, like being passed around to some of the Team Officials. But at the start of last year, he had got her pregnant, and an abortion had been arranged in Moscow. When she got back from the hospital, she was taken off the team, and told she was now helping with the kit and routine jobs around the gym. She slept in the store room, and nobody spoke to her unless they had to.

Three weeks ago, she was called into the team office, told she was being sent home to Berlin, and had been officially ‘retired’ from the team.

Of course, as well as the rage I was feeling, I felt I had let my little sister down, even though I had known nothing about what had been happening. I resolved to expose those criminals who were supposed to be nurturing sporting talent, and taking care of our child athletes. My poor sister was only sixteen, and her life had already been ruined.

I got into work early, despite officially being on leave. When Captain Teller arrived, I asked to see him. My handwritten report was perused for a while, and then he looked across his desk at me. “Just tell me, Kraus, I don’t have time to wade through all this”. I quickly summarised everything Inge had told me, adding the names of the people most responsible. When I had finished, I sat up and looked him in the eye. “I want them arrested, and brought back to face trial, Captain. As soon as it can be arranged”.

The Captain gave me a weary look. “Think about this as if it was not your sister. Take a step back, and consider it as a criminal case. Where is the evidence? It is just your sister’s accusations against people who will undoubtedly have solid alibis. Witnesses? Will any of the other supposed victims come forward to corroborate her story? Will they make statements, or appear in court? And this abortion business. Do you think there will be any record of that happening? You are young, but sensible. You know that will be denied. And what if there was evidence of the hospital treatment? Who’s to say who the father of the child was? They will probably say that your sister was promiscuous, and may even manage to get some young men to come forward, admitting they had sex with her. But if you think that any of the officials or team coaches will ever be implicated, then I am sorry to say you are deluded”.

Before I could say a word, he carried on.

“And you must think about your career. Not only that, but your sister’s future too. If you go ahead with this official complaint, nothing will come of it, but both of your lives will be ruined. You will be filing papers in the basement for the rest of your working life, and she will be lucky to get a job cleaning the toilets in a hotel. Believe me, Kraus, you are going to have to put this down to experience, and you will both just have to let it go. It is the way of things, like it or not. Perhaps your mother should not have been so keen to send her daughter away to Russia at such a young age? Either way, all you will do is stir up a hornets’ nest that will come back to sting you both”.

I stopped myself shouting, but my reply was bitter. “So is there to be no justice in our new Germany, Captain? Is life for victims of crime to be no better than it was before the war? If so, then what are we doing here? What is the Stasi for, if not to ensure equal treatment for all, and the rooting out of undesirable elements? What am I to tell Inge when I go home?” I was close to tears, but fought them back.

Interlacing his fingers, he considered his reply.

“You tell her that you will look after her. We will get her a decent job, somewhere to live, and access to good medical care if she needs it. Your position will guarantee her safety here in Germany, and I swear that nobody will ever touch her again, you have my word. You are a good officer, with a bright future. Throw that away, and you throw away Inge’s future too. In a short time, all that will be just a bad memory, I promise you. Now trust me, and forget this report, okay?”

I waited too long to reply, obviously. He put my file into a drawer, and looked away as he spoke to me.

“You are dismissed. Make the most of your time off”.

Berlin, 1956.

Captain Teller had been as good as his word. Inge was employed as a trainee teacher, without having to sit any tests or attend an interview. Mona had come up with a plan too. She would move in with me, and Inge could take over her room in the nice shared house. I was quite surprised at Mona’s modern attitude. When she said she would move into my apartment, I said, “Are we to marry then?” She had laughed. “Why? There is no need. We don’t have to be married, and it’s not as if we are intending on having children. We are both too young still”.

I went to see the man who owned the bar where Mona work